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.