LUCKY Miles, Sicko and This is England. Three movies: my thoughts. Spoilers galore, sweet thangs, so if you’re planning to see any of them and are phobic like me, consider yourself warned.


They are coming!



Lucky Miles: When I saw the trailer for this movie, I was intrigued. An Australian movie that didn’t fall into the terrible and terribly depressing ‘comedy’ category, but without diving straight into the ‘so sober no one even laughs’ category; what an astonishingly unique concept! Given that I am in love with the Whedonesque style of humour-in-the-dark, it seemed promising. Not just that, but an Australian movie that wasn’t primarily about white people with brownish ones thrown in just for contrast. One which tangled with the dreaded ‘boat people’ without simply demonising them; a rare occurrence in the current climate. So yes, intrigued.

It’s the tale of a bunch of people, some Iraqi, some Cambodian, dumped on the West Australian coastline. Soon the Indonesian crew of the boat that delivered them to the middle of nowhere find themselves swimming for shore after their boat burns and sinks. Most of the Cambodian group are picked up in next to no time; ditto for the Iraqis. One of the Cambodians, Arun, one of the Iraqis, Youssif, and one of the Indonesian boat crew, Ramelan, find each other in the midst of the scrubby desert and together—with many squabbles and risky lack of water—aim for any kind of civilisation whatsoever.

Is it funny? Yes. There’s little doubt about that: it intends it, and sometimes it achieves it. There’s three Army reservists in the area, for example, who drive around randomly looking for the three asylum seekers, and their combination of semi-trained professional officiousness and matter-of-fact casualness made me smile. But there are a number of things which are depicted as humourous (at least if the audience I was watching with were any judges, and I suspect they were pretty close to the ‘ideal’ viewers the filmmakers envisaged) which I was really troubled by. I think the problem I had with the things that were made funny was that they seemed to depend upon covering-over the precarity of the position all of the asylum seekers were in: it’s not humour-in-the-dark so much as look-away-from-the-dark-and-this-situation-looks-hilarious! It might be vaguely amusing that when the Iraqis and Cambodians reach the top of the dune from the beach they were dumped on, the road the Indonesian captain promised would have a Perth-bound bus coming soon in fact doesn’t exist; or it could be a frightening depiction of the extraordinarily vulnerable position asylum seekers are placed in because they have to rely upon those who might not (be able to) really care about them so very much. The risk of not having enough water, for example, might have been continually raised as an issue, but the effects of dehydration were minimised so that it could be amusing that one character is reduced to using a plastic shopping bag as a water container. Or when Youssif’s desperation is articulated as eloquent and proud anger at Arun and Ramelan, it becomes amusing because it’s characterised as an over-reaction, relying, then, on obscuring the fact that they are actually incredibly vulnerable: out in the middle of nowhere, with little water and food and little possibility of a) getting out, b) being found and c) actually being granted asylum if/when they are.

It’s not that the precariousness of their position is altogether disappeared: peeling lips, exhaustion, the dangers of being shoeless and so on are kinda depicted. But none of these is permitted the weight of mortality which actually characterise it: Arun and Youssif come across Ramelan, who has collapsed from dehydration, but after a quick drink, he’s up and ready to ‘lead’ them to Perth. At one point Ramelan is attacked by a goanna, which leaps up onto his back; the shot is in silhouette against the top of a hill, and we see him jump around trying to shake it off, but that’s about it: there’s no consequence, except for his later (hi!lar!i!ous!) description of ‘the devil’ who attacked him to his companions—he’s not bitten or scratched, at least not that we see or that he complains of. I’m not even sure that goannas do such things, though this film is supposed to be based on true stories, so perhaps I’m just not knowledgeable enough. Perhaps even more oddly is that in all the trekking around that they do, they never encounter snakes, and none of them falls and badly hurts themselves. I mean, they’re pretty noisy so theoretically that might have scared snakes away, I guess, but Ramelan’s wearing thongs the whole time and there are moments when they’re scrambling down scree-y hillsides etc, so to me it felt like a fairly selective depiction of the risk of the Australian environment to those unaccustomed to negotiating it. Moments when Perth, as it turns out, is not just over the next hill slip by without much of a consideration of the fact that without a real sense of the distances they’re working with, they can’t even plan their water rationing properly. And all of this seemed to conceal their vulnerability—that these people are risking death to come to Australia—mostly to make it funny. For Australians. Hm. Ugh. Am I being too harsh?

More troubling than all this is that the movie ends when the three Army reservists find the three friends and the captain of the Indonesian boat who has caught up with the three. Arun, who has been trying desperately to get to Perth to find his father, has been avoiding the Army who rounded up the rest of the Cambodian group, yet he seems to have forgotten his concerns about that by this point; Youssif cites the relevant passages of the UN Convention on Refugees. The reservists are kind of bemusedly amiable about this (educated) claim to refugee status, but there’s certainly nothing which hints towards the fact that whilst the three may have escaped their vulnerability at the hands of an unfamiliar environment, they remain, in the end, probably equally albeit more predictably vulnerable at the hands of a fairly hostile government. Given the concern to actually depict the situation of asylum seekers, this absence feels significant: the vulnerability which leads to the humour is OK, it seems to suggest, because it arises from the ignorance and naivety of the three ‘foreigners’; this obscures both the fact that that vulnerability is also a product of a particularly stingy and problematic immigration policy, and that ‘the authorities’ and the policies surrounding the treatment of asylum seekers are such that ‘being found’ may also be a threat to them.

Interestingly on this point, the movie is set a while ago—1990. Is this an attempt to avoid having to depict the effects of the policy of mandatory detention, introduced in 1992? If so, then this functions in two ways: it both attempts to ‘humanise’ (ugh!) the usually (in our media) faceless ‘mass’ of refugees without appearing ‘political,’ (the accusation of which is of course a key technique for dismissing particular (read: non-right-wing) stories in the current Australian discursive space) perhaps thereby getting around this particular difficulty and encouraging sympathy in those who might not otherwise feel it—a position I disagree with, though also am sympathetic to. Yet this move also depoliticises the issue, enabling a distance between our three heroes and the current system, between refugees and the precarity they live with; and thus it fails to draw attention to the fact that the three heroes are both more vulnerable than they are depicted to be, and probably less vulnerable than current asylum seekers, not to mention the fact that under current circumstances the amiability of their interactions with the representatives of governmental authority—the Army reservists—is unlikely to still occur. To leave this out feels like the filmmakers not only pulled their own teeth to some extent, but may have produced the grounds by which the ‘stories’ may simply be dismissed as tales that matter not.

In the end, I was unhappy with it: however much I liked parts of the story, the covering-over of the vulnerability made me feel awkward about finding some stuff humourous (though I’m perfectly willing to accept that that may be partly white guilt; I do have a tendency to be uncertain about how happy I am to be amused about, say, stuff to do with race which I haven’t thought through the politics of… though that said, this isn’t always the case—I don’t have to agree with the politics of some stuff to find it funny, but if I find the politics offensively dodgy it gets in the way of me finding things amusing, and so I wonder if my instincts are actually reasonably political in this regard. Euh. Complex. In other words, perhaps it was just that this crossed a line into offensive for me, and my discomfit with it arose from that.) By the same token, my thoughts on it remain uncertain and unformed, so if you have a different response, tell me about it in comments: I think part of me wants to ‘rescue’ this film because it’s such a rare creature, being an Australian movie about refugees.

I AM half-tempted to offer apologies for the lack of posting this week, but I’m going to resist and just post instead. ‘I owe nothing!’ Hmm. Feeling as lazy as I am, I’m tempted to just stick up the promised conference paper about the body politic and bodily tolerances, but given that I tend to run to the incomprehensibly theoretically dense in papers (it’s not my fault; they’re too too short!!) I think that would be mean. So let’s see what happens if I stick bits of said paper in and occasionally comment on it. I actually was really unhappy with this paper, though I’m not entirely sure why. But let’s just say that having finally got around to reading s0metim3′s “Under the Beach, the Barbed Wire”. I think that you should all go spend your time reading that. Fly, my pretties, be free!

That said (to those of you who are left) I think that the ideas I’m about to outline to actually speak in interesting ways to “Under the Beach,” and not just because both papers draw on social contract theory (though mine with considerably more ignorance/borrowed knowledge). Rather the fundamental connection between the creation of the contract and the maintenance of the border comes to prominence in both as a way of getting at some of the ways racism occurs (taking the Cronulla riots as the example—if you don’t know what they were, check out the link above, because s0metim3s offers a good analysis of the horrible event itself).; my focus, however, is on the role that the body politic plays in the production of a particular kind of phenomenological experience which then contributes to the production and perpetuation of politics. Before we start, one small… point (not caveat, not addendum. Point). We’re accustomed to thinking that intent counts for a lot; this is unsurprising, because it’s a key part of the liberal humanist kinds of subjectivity we all (to differing degrees) embody. This is one of the difficulties that harrassment law circumvents by (well, theoretically, anyway) saying ‘what you intended doesn’t matter’ when a harrasser (harrassor? harrasserator?) claims that they ‘never intended to be sexist/racist/ableist/homophobic/pick your other form of discrimination and insert here’. In lots of ways I agree with this approach; this isn’t because intent doesn’t matter, but I honestly think that people are a lot less self-transparent than ‘intent’ talk tends to imply, and really it’s a key part of the way that privilege operates: privilege means never having to say you’re sorry, because you can’t see that you did anything wrong anyway, so therefore you didn’t. And as we saw in the Phenomenology of Racialisation post, this privilege doesn’t only articulate itself in the intention-ful acts one does. Rather, it comes out in the ‘preconscious’ (this is the term people tend to use to designate something that isn’t fully conscious (as in, you won’t think to yourself ‘I thought that’). As Alcoff told us earlier, “Our experience of habitual perceptions is so attenuated as to skip the stage of conscious interpretation and intent. Indeed, interpretation is the wrong word here: we are simply perceiving.” Same with behaviours; they’re habituated, not conscious. If we had to consciously think about all and everything we did, to consciously intend it, we’d never do anything. Except think. (Odd sci-fi world, that one). This does not, however, make the things that we do without intention all okay. Because I think that certain acts are attributed intent, whilst others… well, intent just doesn’t quite adhere to them precisely because of the way that privilege works. This is, I suppose, kind of like what feminist law reform tried to do to rape: make it understood not just as something that would always happen anyway, the wild male urge that ‘civilisation’ sometimes stood in the way of, or gave ‘proper’ outlets to, but as an intention-ful act. See how naturalisation and acts which are understood as unintentional intended dovetail? Don’t we make nature a lovely beast? More on that (sigh, this is becoming a refrain) later… But the point is, intent may be important in some ways, but it cannot be used to define absolutely and forever an act; and a lack of intent thus cannot be used to claim innocence. Acts have consequences, not all of which we can foresee, but we are, nonetheless, responsible for them (though this responsibility is not simple. See Levinas or Derrida for more on this).

So: to the paper (finally). To introduce:

Australia has seen frightening levels of intolerance on display of late, most recognisably, perhaps, in the riots at Cronulla, but more insidiously, as I’ll go on to suggest, in the deployment of a specific set of discourses which operate to delineate a white Australian-ness and its attendant white generosity. The interplay between the larger scale of politics and the minutiae of ‘individual’ – and the reason for the scare quotes will become clear as I go on’ – forms of embodiment has been tragically demonstrated. By drawing threads from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, as well as the work of Moira Gatens [Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality], Fiona Jenkins ["Gestures Beyond Tolerance: Generosity, Tolerance and the Fatality of the State" in Angelaki 2002 7(3)]and Linda Alcoff ["Towards a Phenomenology of Racialisation" in Bernasconi's edited book, Race, I will consider the production of white Australian embodiment through the imaginary body of the always invisibly white Australian body politic. My focus throughout this discussion will be on the way that ‘tolerance’ comes to operate, especially focusing on the relationship between what we might call political tolerance and the concept of the bodily tolerance in the work of French theorist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

I should mention here that Moira Gatens and Fiona Jenkins are Australian philosophers. Moira Gatens is one of the group of strong feminist philosophers Australia produced during the 80s and 90s which has produced some really rigorous and challenging theory. Me like. So in the paper I then explain syncretic sociability, about which you can find a post here. (I won't repeat it coz it's long and a bit involved). But in the end:

The child’s recognition of the other’s difference marks the differentiation between self and other that is the seed of subjectivity, and thus the subject remains indebted to the otherness of the other. Yet syncretic sociability, or the blurred boundaries between self and other, doesn’t disappear in this recognition; rather intercorporeality remains a key structure within the subject. It is in adoption and adaptation of the styles of being-in-the-world around me that I develop my own way of being-in-the-world, a unique amalgam of those styles around me. These styles or comportments, as we shall see, both shape and are shaped by epistemological, perceptual and discursive regimes, always already affected by the politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and so on.

Through repetition, these styles of being-in-the-world become sedimented or habituated, and acquire, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, ‘favoured status’ for us. Imagine that a particular style of being-in-the-world is water flowing across the ground; now imagine the flow repeated. Gradually a river with banks is formed and water tends to continue to flow along it. The banks of this river are what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘bodily tolerances,’ limitations placed on our ways of being-in-the-world which if transgressed can cause discomfit, disgust or sometimes (if radical enough) suffering.

For more detail on these, check out this post. (Is it bad form to link yourself so much? I do, however, seem to think rhizomatically at least some of the time, so tis unsurprising, I guess!)

Racialisation is part of ...[this comportment or] ‘attitude toward the world.’ Linda Alcoff describes the ways that the entirety of one’s comportment is revelatory of race and racial awareness [...]Thus racialisation imbues all that we do, and so the way that we recognise someone or ourselves as raced or white, usually doesn’t occur rationally, at the level of thought. Rather,

our experience of habitual perceptions is so attenuated as to skip the stage of conscious interpretation and intent. Indeed, interpretation is the wrong word here: we are simply perceiving… A modernist account… would explain… that for one to be racist one must be able to access in their consciousness some racist belief, and that if introspection fails to produce such a belief then one is simply not racist. [In contrast, this approach shows that a] fear of Africa-Americans or a condescension towards Latinos is seen as a simple perception of the real, justified by the nature of things in themselves without need of an interpretive intermediary of historico-cultural schemas of meaning.

Thus the tolerances and intolerances produced by these habits of perception are “almost immune from critical reflection” precisely because, as Merleau-Ponty says, “…perception is, not presumed true, but defined as access to truth.” As a result, the (in)tolerances that white, habituated ways of being-in-the-world produce for white people remain predominantly pre-conscious, until they are challenged. The response to transgression of the bodily tolerances engendered by white embodiment is likely to be bodily, pre-conscious: discomfit of some kind, possibly followed by anger. This is particularly the case if the naming of such (in)tolerances appears a challenge to dearly held beliefs about ourselves or our nation. If we continue to think of racism as a belief discoverable in the depths of the psyche, the claim “I’m not racist but…” [which circulates with scary frequency in Australian discourse] remains possible. Unpacking the whiteness of the comportments that produce and perpetuate racist perceptions and thus the bodily tolerances they engender offers the possibility of addressing the locations of these bodily tolerances and what it is that allows their reproduction.

Okay, nothing new here, really.

I should note here that I’m definitely critical of the notion of tolerance – as Ghassan Hage amongst others has shown, patterns of privilege and disadvantage are already built into the concept. However, I want to suggest that individual white bodily (in)tolerances are engendered through a specific discourse about tolerance inherited from liberalism, and in Australia these ideas seem to be fundamentally linked to how we (as a nation) imagine multiculturalism.

What I’m trying to get at here is that whilst the very notion of tolerance is problematic and bound up with the sustaining of privilege, it nonetheless informs not only liberalism at the level of politics, but comes to inform embodiment. This is important to know if we are to problematise it at all. (It might be worth pointing out for my US readers that I am indeed critical of liberalism. No beating about the bush here; I hold the tenets of liberalism as deeply problematic. Hopefully this post might go some way to explaining why.)

As Fiona Jenkins points out [in liberalism],

the attitude of tolerance for others’ differences, is conjoined with a defence of people’s privacy, the right to follow one’s own conscience or conception of the good, in so far as this does not interfere with the equal freedom of others to do the same.

Thus the grounding of liberalism relies upon tolerance, which relies in turn upon an assumption of self-containment or what I’m going to call radical individuality. This is the idea, made much of in current party politics [in Oz anyway], if the appeal to interest rates at the last election is anything to judge by, that one subject will be necessarily and naturally detached from, isolated from others, and thus that each subject’s freedom to pursue whatever it is that they want is absolute to the extent that it remains private, to the extent that it does not affect others. We’ve already seen, via Merleau-Ponty and Alcoff, this fantasy of the radically individual subject with a life operating in parallel but never intersecting with others except in ways sanctioned by the state is deeply questionable, yet it remains an important part of how we imagine ourselves. As Gatens shows, the ways that we imagine bodies to work – bodies of knowledge, bodies politic and fleshly bodies – affect each other. They coalesce and circulate as what she calls ‘imaginary bodies.’ These imaginary bodies, with all their attendant assumptions circulate culturally through syncretic sociability (or intersubjectivity, if you prefer), and so part of what we end up embodying are precisely (our relationships to) these imaginary bodies.

When Gatens turns to a discussion of the body politic, then, we begin to see the ways that the imaginary body of the body politic relates to the bodies of those within (or, as we shall see, without) the nation. Gatens traces the history of these imaginings to the mid 17th century, when political theorists, for example, Hobbes, offered imagined histories for the origins of mankind – and it was mankind – and the social and political body men formed: the creation of “that great leviathan called a commonwealth or state… which is but an artificial man,” an image I would argue is still with us. Premised on a semi-divine, if implicit “let us make man,” this body politic is produced by the ‘pacts and covenants’ of the men within it, in their image.

This is a moment to dwell with (I couldn’t in the paper, but it’s actually kinda interesting). When I said that the body politic was made ‘in man’s image,’ for Hobbes, he envisages this quite literally:

“For by art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, to State, in Latin Civitas, which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates, and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment, by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty every joint and member is moved to perform his duty, are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the strength; salus populi, the people’s safety, its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were first made, set together, and unified, resemble that fiat, or the let us make man, pronounced by God in the creation. (Leviathan, p. 16)

Can anyone see what’s missing in this visioning of the body politic? It’s no mistake that he sees it as a ‘let us make man’.

For Gatens, the outcome of this is that women cannot be represented: their bodies are not represented in the metaphor of the body politic, and neither are they granted representation within it, except as insets – in add-on bits of legislation, and so on – to the main picture of the body politic.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the sexual specificity of the body politic, because I move pretty quickly on to the racial specificity, but I do just want to add this: Gatens suggests that these ‘added-on’ bits of legislation etc are like looking at an anatomy book: most anatomy books have one body – a male body – and then arranged around the edges of the image are insets depicting a womb, a breast, and so on. Women’s bodies occur as a kind of fragmented afterthought.

Women’s labour is incorporated, swallowed into this male body politic, in ways that conceal the contribution this labour makes to the continuance of the body politic. [You need babies, right?] It is the preconscious but no less powerful ‘match’ between the maleness of the body politic and the maleness of their bodies that ensures that it is men’s concerns that are represented. Recall that this occurs not at the level of thought, much of the time, but at the level of embodied perception: thus housework and raising children remain unrecognised because it cannot seen as real work. But when it comes to the Australian body politic, not only is this body politic imagined male, it is also imagined white. Without wanting to elide the differences between the functions of race and gender, I want to suggest that, as Gatens demonstrates with women, the many and various contributions made to the Australian body politic by indigenous Australians, refugees, illegal (and some legal) immigrants, asylum-seekers and others are swallowed up within the state, placed under erasure. Those deemed not white are not represented in the metaphor of the body politic, and neither are they granted representation within it, except as insets – in add-on bits of legislation, and so on – to the main picture. It is the preconscious but not less powerful ‘match’ between the whiteness of the body politic and the whiteness of white bodies that ensures it is white concerns that are represented.

This white male body, if we listen to the talk of politicians who are one of the few sources of public discourse about the body politic, is one which is perpetually under threat. This is particularly clear in the kinds of discourse circulating around asylum seekers and refugees. Rather than turn to the contributions to this imagining made by John Howard, with their fairly obvious expressions of tolerance in its most limited and perhaps even contradictory sense ["We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come"], I want to draw on Jenkins’ discussion of a comment of Kim Beazley’s [then Opposition leader and about to lose an election], made during the Tampa crisis, because he attempts to imagine the body politic as generous, as more than merely tolerant – a description which looks progressive and positive. ‘“We are a generous nation,” [he said] His idea of generosity allowed him to specify a figure of some 2,000 people for whom Australia might reasonably assume responsibility without threatening its own well-being. This consideration of numbers, moreover, was couched in the rhetoric of concern for the asylum seekers themselves.’ (Jenkins, p. 119)

The form of tolerance that is being attributed to the Australian body politic in Kim Beazley’s characterisation is one with limits placed on it, limits which cannot and will not be transgressed. These limits are the ‘well-being’ of the country, and implicitly, as Jenkins argues, this characterisation allows only the gifting of what is already in excess, and reinforces the position of dominance of the Australian nation with respect to these desperate but foreign bodies. For Beazley, we can only give to the extent that we do not disturb our body politic’s habits of being-in-the-world; it can only tolerate so much giving. Yet this threat is posed because the bodies seeking entry do not ‘match’ the body politic, and its whiteness – race constitutes the supposed threat. Let’s not forget that those from countries who share a white body politic who overstay working holiday visas often remain unpursued.

In an important sense, then, what is being articulated in delimiting the extent to which we as a nation are willing to be generous, is actually a refusal to allow the white male body politic to be altered—[a refusal] to give such that it be made other than what it is by the difference of others. It is a refusal to allow the ‘pacts and covenants’ of raced bodies to contribute to the body politic, a refusal to allow other bodies to represent, be represented by and represented in the body politic. The declaration of generosity seeks to preserve the discreteness of the imaginary body, creating a bodily (in)tolerance to being altered. It is the body politic as it has supposedly always been imagined that is brought into question by the possibility of it being altered, made other to its imagined history, made other to those bodies whose privileged being-in-the-world is thus threatened. The difficulty is that these particular ways of thinking are not merely occurring in – let’s be generous – rational discussions in public between politicians, but in the way that especially [but not only] white Australians are embodied, in the ways that they perceive, behave, interact and react preconsciously. For those whose bodies are represented in and by this white body politic, those who ‘match,’ the embodied sense of privilege produces a particular bodily tolerance, an echo of the declaration of ‘generosity’, an echo which physically cannot tolerate the change produced in them by the transgression of bodies perceived other into that which is declared white space – be it the beach, Cronulla, Mosman or [not even just white] women’s bodies. The racist response is a bodily reaction, a sense of discomfit which all too readily is projected violently out.

What I’m trying to get at here is that the image of the body politic—the one held by the supposed alternative to the conservative Liberal Party in Australia—actually contributes to the production of a racist population. And this racist population isn’t necessarily one that would intend to be racist (though some do) but rather, one made up of bodies whose ways of being-in-the-world and their attendant (in)tolerances are at least partially defined by the image of the body politic.

It is the white liberal fantasy of radical individuality, rationality and tolerance that is shored up by the refusal to allow other ways of being to affect ‘our’ own. In addition to challenging policies which perpetuate racism, then, we need to find ways to testify to the fundamentally interdependent ways that we all come into being. It is only in and through others, and more specifically, in and through their being different to me that I – not to mention my community – can come to be. As Rosalyn Diprose argues, ‘it is because the body is constituted in relation to others that it is ambiguous, opened to the world and to others, and [it is only as a result of this that] we can act at all… I cannot exist otherwise than by risking my body integrity in all projects, and freedom is nothing more or less than this.’ [Erm... okay, so when I write papers I tend to stick any quotes I want in without references. Bear with me on this one. I'll find it! Oh, okay, Rosalyn Diprose Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas p. 90] Two points arise from this, with which I’ll conclude. First, my freedom resides in risking an alteration to my bodily integrity through my relation with others, so if the imaginary body politic my government is giving me makes me intolerant to this alteration, then the bodily being and projects – the freedom – of all Australians and those who come into contact with them is under threat. Second, and more hopefully, my style of being-in-the-world, with its attendant bodily tolerances, is continually in process, developing and changing, altered by the different, we might say, drawn on by alterity. Possibilities open up here: in spite of the limited and limiting ways that the white Australian imaginary body contributes to our embodiment, it is not all. New and critical habits are possible, and can be created even through simple awareness of the preconscious operation of our already-existing habits. And finally, in testifying to our intertwining with others, our dependence upon those who are different, we begin to shift our own embodiments, and tolerances. In so doing, we can also begin shift the body politic from being produced by the ‘pacts and covenants’ among white men, to being always already premised upon the generosity of othered others; another, no longer ‘tolerant’ but properly generous body politic.

I actually think (I didn’t have enough space to put this all in here) that part of what is required is, in fact, the ‘decapitation of the sovereign’ (That’s Foucault, can’t for the life of me remember where; if you need to know, I can try and find it. Use the hand Contact Form!). That is, I think that one of the major ways this body politic needs altering is in the presumption that it itself is discrete from the rest of the world; that is, not only do we need an acknowledgement of the gifts of ‘othered’ others within what’s recognised as the nation, but an acknowledgement of the gifts of ‘othered’ nations. Such a position would require that the envisaging of one nation as a body separate from all others is critically engaged with, and its dependence upon others for its existence begins to be acknowledge, and made part of how it works. I think this might be an important part of the revisioning of community beyond national borders that I hinted at in response to Catherine’s talk. Sorry if that’s a little oblique. I’ll try for something a tad more cogent later!

PS If anyone feels like helping a noob out, I’m still trying to get my head around the whole ‘trackback’ thing, and I have to say that the net at large, containing multitudes as it does, is tres bad at telling me what’s good and bad etiquette. Should one avoid them? Should one not avoid them? Should one only put them in if it’s a direct link to something someone else was talking about (like a comment that got too long) or is it okay to play linkety-link when things ‘speak well’ to each other? Please, make free and easy use of the ‘Contact’ page.

TONIGHT I attended a lecture at Sydney Uni by Catherine Waldby entitled “Biology and New Communities.” (It may, at some point, It’s just appeared as a podcast here, where there are already a couple of interesting-looking casts available). I already knew Catherine’s work (various conferences) which mainly has to do with the various ways that biotechnology and particularly the possibility of removing living tissue from the body and keeping it (the tissue, and sometimes the body) alive alter economies and communities. Her presentations always spark me off in a billion directions at once. And once those sparks went nowhere. Now I have a candle (aka da blog), and can actually justify (kinda) spending a little time thinking about her work in written form… or at least can write with a sharp retort to be able to offer my guilt-demon.

But first, I’ll give you a sense of what she talked about so I can frame my response to it in those terms. Tonight she organised her discussion of tissue economies in terms of community. She opened by suggesting that the alterations to ideas about community are incredibly clear when we think about kinship, marked (so she suggested) traditionally by the sharing of biological material (from gametes from mummies and daddies to breast-feeding etc). Clearly the increased use of reproductive technologies affects this particular notion of community.

But her first detailed example was actually blood donation. She began with a very brief history of blood donation in the West, starting with its use during the Spanish civil war, but really becoming entrenched during WWII. The nationalistic notion of belonging to a nation-state by blood (English blood, French blood etc) from the C19 became entrenched here not only through the concept of ‘shedding blood and shedding one’s own blood for one’s country’ but also through the encouragement of civilian blood donations as part of the ‘war effort’. We begin to see, then, the production of a nation-community as informing the approach to one’s own biological matter. From here, she sketched Richard Titmuss’ thesis in The Gift Relationship. Basically Titmuss, who was at the London School of Economics, was responding to economists at the same institution who argued that blood donation should be made a market economy (blah blah more efficient, same old story as always). His argument against them draws on Mauss on the gift economy to suggest that the gift of blood is significant in maintaining social ties through a sense of indebtedness and obligation that all hold to the community on the basis that there’s a blood bank all can draw on at need. This differs to contract because the gift exchange is never fully complete because the gift remains (in this case quite literally) kind of a part of the donor. The ‘imagined community’ (Benedict Anderson) that is thus produced is extremely, Titmuss argued, important to the maintenance of the (welfare) state.

From here she turned to the most recent enactment of this: the national biobank. These don’t exist yet in Australia (though there’s one planned for WA) but our population is probably a bit too big to be able to live up to the standards of Iceland’s standard-setting example. Iceland—Cathy didn’t talk about this tonight, but I’ve seen her speak about it elsewhere—became all too aware that its major export—fish—was an unsustainable industry. So they began looking for other ways to sustain their economy. And some bright spark came up with the notion of a national biobank: not only would it be good for public health management, but it’s the ultimate commodity for the burgeoning biotech economy. A biobank basically contains bodily tissue collected from citizen—usually blood (for DNA)—which is catalogued along with the medical histories of the citizen. Iceland, apparently, was particularly good for this because it has a manageable population size, and (I don’t know the details, but this is interesting nonetheless) a low immigration rate. This produces less variety in the samples and thus makes them easier to compare (I think that’s right.) In Iceland, there was much argument about how to create and regulate its use; originally, shifting away from compulsory enrolment, they chose an ‘opt-out’ mechanism. I can’t actually recall if that was sustainable or not, in the end, but I do know that it became part of the national sense of duty to contribute to this biobank which was going to ensure the nation had a huge commodity that would support the economy.

(Just on a side note, I find the Iceland example interesting; in the past, Cathy has spoken about it in terms of a social contract which you have an obligation to (that was the compulsory enrolment position). My response to that was to ask how abandoned tissue (if you have a biopsy or an operation, any tissue removed during is considered to be ‘abandoned’ and hospitals sell it on to pharmaceutical companies who then use it for their research) functioned differently: you can’t even opt out of that if you want medical care. Is this part of a sociomedical contract? Mmm. I liked this thought.)

But the sense of community in relation to blood donation turns out, by comparison with the biobank sense of community, to be immediate, and in the present or near future. A number of participants in the UK Biobank articulate their donation as towards a future community. This is primarily because, in contrast to a blood bank, we don’t really know what use a biobank is going to be; we just know it’ll be good for biotech research. But interestingly, from the civilian investment in the global power-based preeminence of the nation-state via blood donation, civilian investment in a biobank contributes to the future scientific preeminence of the nation-state as measured by its usefulness to big pharma.

From biobanks, she turned to gamete donation and the idea of distributed kinship. Sperm donation has long been anonymous. The introduction of laws which require that certain medical information be made available to children, as part, Catherine suggested, of the focus on the ‘rights of the child’, has actually meant a drastic drop in donors. What’s intriguing about this (for me, anyway) is the uncovering of these rights that occurs in and through the development of health and health education. I guess this isn’t that profound, but the rights of children are being invoked here makes me wonder about how many more ‘human rights’ are waiting to be found by biotech research and the concommitant capitalising on them by medical science. Anyway, back to sperm donors: in the US, the response to the inability to identify a sperm donor has been the development of the Donor Sibling Registry. Ah, biotech innovation combines with the development of internet cultures to produce what is a kind of ‘My Space’ where connection occurs through sharing biological kinship but not (up until this point) social kinship. Apparently parents take half-siblings on play-dates and adolescents create their own community. Kinship via distributed biological matter. I found this intriguing.

And finally, the big scary one: ova selling and global markets. Here I think it dovetails interestingly with this post from s0metim3s concerned with trafficking and the illegalisation of some forms of immigration; I’ll come back to this at the end of my description of Catherine’s lecture. Donating ova is a pretty onerous procedure: you undertake a month of heavy hormone treatment designed to make your body prep more than its usual one ova for release from the ovary, and then you have invasive surgery under a general to remove them. Aside from the risks of surgery, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome causes fatalities in between 1 and 4 % of the women undergoing this procedure. So most women who are using it are doing IVF, and these are, in most Western countries anyway, the ones who donate ova to other women.

But more and more people are undergoing IVF treatment, and more and more are requiring extra ova; not to mention the need for stem cells for research. Here we move more explicitly into the relation between the nation-state and the global market. In Europe, for example, the UK, Germany and Scandinavia have really strict regulation of ova donation, so less of it happens. In Spain, however, clinics can pay women to donate. Thus we have medical tourism or IVF holidays becoming available in countries where the regulation is really strict, often through partnership deals with fertility clinics in Spain. Some of the women who donate ova to these clinics are poor immigrant women. Many, however, are from former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe who are actively recruited to Spain for two reasons: they’re blond (which makes their genetic makeup attractive for what is predominantly white, Westernised IVF purposes) and they’re poor. They earn usually 300-600 pounds per procedure, which is about 3-4 months of income in their own countries. Some undergo this procedure five times a year—which is really risky—and will be offered more money if they take higher hormone doses which of course risks ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Interestingly, Catherine explained that many women combine a donation with work in the sex industry before returning home.

Such women, of course, are beyond the protection of national citizenship, which includes limitations on the ways that ova donation can occur, and are thus incredibly vulnerable. The merging of sex trafficking and ova donation trafficking in this regard only reinforces this vulnerability (Catherine’s applying for a grant to see if they can find links with organised crime here, which she strongly suspects). Both industries are, of course, the result of the huge wealth differentials between nation-states across the globe. Here Sharma’s comments cited by s0metim3s become increasingly important in thinking a response to this, especially given that the nation-state not only cannot protect women like these, but contributes to their vulnerability:

I argue that only by recognizing the agency, however constrained, of illegalized migrants can we come to understand how processes of capitalist globalization and the consequent effects of dislocation and dispersal shape the mobility of illegalized migrants. Within the current global circuits of capital, goods, and people, I argue that along with a call to end practices of displacement, a demand to eliminate immigration controls is necessary if feminists are to act in solidarity with the dispossessed in their search for new livelihoods and homes. (Nandita Sharma “Anti-Trafficking Rhetoric and the Making of a Global Apartheid” (NWSA Journal, 17.3, 2005))

Whilst Sharma is clearly referring specifically to asylum seekers here, I would suggest her position regarding the removal of immigration borders reinforces the suggestion that Catherine made at the end of her paper. She pointed out that the imagined community as bordered by the nation is no longer sufficient, a fact which is testified to by the vulnerability of ova donors, and that other ways of imagining communities which extend through and across borders become not just important but necessary in responding to the social justice questions that are raised by these kinds of tissue economies (and others, of course).

My question in response to these concerns is more, I suppose, theoretical than anything else, though with a strong practical concern. In the end, the communities that the West has thus far proven capable of imagining are fundamentally limited. Even heterogeneity within the nation is considered to be threatening in many cases, producing (as Nancy amongst others have argued) a community far too concerned with commonality; and we watch the dire consequences of the rejection of heterogeneity in what one might call (altogether problematically) the ‘global community’ everyday. In the end, for a suggestion like Catherine’s to be tenable, I think that what we need is not merely to ‘expand’ those who this community is thought to include, but expand the very notion of a community (though perhaps these two things inflect and necessitate each other). Otherwise, the very differentials that cause the vulnerabilities for which Cathy is concerned to ensure protection will merely end up playing through in those new communities, in those protections. That is, without a re-imagining of the ways that community can operate, the ‘imagined community’ expanded from the national becomes, I think, colonialist, imperialist. And such a re-imagining could, would and should affect the functioning of these tissue economies, not to mention the global biotech industry (or, you know, the whole global economy) in ways that we can’t even—and shouldn’t be able to—imagine.

*Post title comes from the name of Catherine Waldby’s and Robert Mitchell’s book. She also has one forthcoming entitled the Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (from Palgrave).

alettrine2T some point last year I spent a bit of time flicking through the health requirements placed on getting visas to Australia. It was in response to a student of mine, who told me in class that while she had been granted the temporary visa she needed to study, her doctor had told her that she wouldn’t be granted anything longer-term, because she was “too fat”. I was horrified that weight could be the basis for exclusion from consideration, so I looked up the forms that doctors had to fill out. As it turns out, doctors can only refuse entry on the basis of weight in the presence of other ‘obesity-caused’ health problems. That is, the document specifically excludes discrimination solely on the basis of weight.

Yet she had been told that it was because she was ‘too fat’ that she wouldn’t be permitted entry. On the one hand, I think that this reflects a tendency amongst doctors to attempt to enforce the medical norm at each and every turn. On the other hand, and perhaps more insidiously, this is a doctor enforcing the exclusions of the body politic on the basis of a medical norm, even where the application of that medical norm has been questioned.

As s0metim3s demonstrates in relation to the sudden panic about HIV+ immigrants (misleadingly described as primarily from Africa countries), these kinds of moves are all about the alleged need to maintain the biopolitical health (of the population) and thus maintain the health of the body politic especially when an election is in the offing. The borders of Australia become understood as the skin that marks the edge of the body politic, always and endlessly under threat of mutilation, invasion, abjection (in Kristeva’s sense). More on this when I have a bit more time: I might post some bits from a paper I wrote last year which looked at the imaginary body of the body politic specifically in relation to the politicised production of (racialised) bodily tolerances of those within it. And I would like the opportunity to think about the excision of certain parts of Australia (for the purposes of immigration) – namely, the sea and island – in relation to this imagining of the body politic: the sea marked as a ‘soft’ edge, perhaps even a mucosive border (vulnerable to HIV, of course; ah, and look, there’s Irigaray again!)


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