Alert But Not Alarmed

Spoiler Alert: If you’ve not read Shaun Tan’s Tales from Suburbia, then we recommend you do so before reading the following piece.

Shaun Tan’s short story ‘Alert but not Alarmed’ (found in his series of short stories Tales from Suburbia) elegantly identifies the capacity for the working class to subvert the function of the state in even the bleakest of conditions.

The somewhat dystopic narrative reflects upon a time where the housing of ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) in suburban backyards is so ubiquitous that no one really thinks about them.  The story outlines the seemingly logical rationale, which over time, led to the creeping militarisation of suburbia. A growing, foreign threat is the pretext for the proliferation of missiles requiring the citizenry to be drawn upon to store and maintain them.

Described as a “modest commitment”, the regular maintenance of ICBMs by citizens in their backyards, is couched as largely inoffensive, including the biennial arrival of state-supplied gunmetal grey paint. However, what emerges is that the suburban populace have begun interpreting the requirement to re-coat their missiles in a surprising way.

A lot of us, though, have started painting the missiles different colours, even decorating them with our own designs, like butterflies or stencilled flowers. They take up so much space in the backyard, they might as well look nice, and, the government leaflets don’t say that you have to use the paint they supply.

It is further explained that if one “unscrews the lower panel and take the wires and stuff out…” a whole range of possibilities emerge. From a humble store for garden tools to a pizza oven, suburbia has transformed the missiles to suit their variety of needs.

It is, of course, acknowledged, that all of the re-purposing of backyard ICBMs has probably rendered them inoperable, undoubtedly causing consternation for the government when it attempts to commission them.

Deep down, most of us feel its probably better this way. After all, if there are families in far away countries with their own backyard missiles, armed and pointed back at us, we would hope that they too have found a much better use for them.

In Tan’s seemingly dystopian parallel Australia, the people have subverted the state’s propagation of war to protect their own interests and the shared interests with those in the firing line of the missiles overseas. It is not through an overt or usual political spectacle that they achieved the incapacitating of total war, but rather through an organic response which reveals an innate desire amongst the working class to live in peace and freedom.

The creative display of re-use and re-appropriation from gun metal grey to whimsical colour and shape speaks volumes of the revolutionary potential that resides in the working class. Our experiences and interactions living and working in the suburbs of Western Sydney resonate with this and the parallel future presented in Shaun Tan’s tale. Ongoing wars shape our experiences, however, we observe moments of subversion routinely. Like those represented in the banner image we have chosen for our blog.

It is with this spirit that we present our Communiques from Suburbia.

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