OLLOWING on from the last post, I wanted to expand a little on the phenomenological effects of the kinds of border politics and policing we in Australia live under. That paper was intended to primarily get at this point, but as ever, I had too much to discuss and could only really hint towards it. I never know how to tackle this issue for conference papers: I always want to give people the possibility of actually following my argument by giving them some detail, but this usually means I don’t get to dwell with the point I want to (it usually ends up only being made explicitly in the conclusion). Annoying, that! And, of course, it means that those who already share a common educative (is that educational? Hmm…) background tend to think I’m labouring the points I’m making. Actually, no one’s ever said that, I just assume. Which I guess is kinda telling (about me, that is!).
The embodied subject develops ways of being-in-the-world which become ‘sedimented’ and thus habituated. These ways of being-in-the-world develops forms of perception (which is understood in a pretty loose way to indicate not merely eyes coming to grips with world, but all the ways in which the subject experiences the world and others). What this means is that my being-in-the-world is a complex historicised tangle of stuff, repeated and reiterated over and over, and receiving confirmation (most of the time) from the world at large. So for example, we are not even aware of how important our eye sight is to the kinds of perceptual practices that we embody; writers like Rod Michalko and Georgina Kleege offer us a way of denaturalising these kinds of perceptual practices of which they are all too aware, being blind. And these perceptual practices are reinforced by the kinds of engagements we have with others and the world: the world is made—and I mean literally constructed—on the presumption of sight. In the same way, white people are often not even aware of how important race is to the kinds of perceptual and behavioural practices that we embody; the ‘presumption of superiority vis-a-vis the other,’ as Alcoff puts it, isn’t something that we’re necessarily aware of, even (even!) when we actively consider ourselves to not be racist. Or, for example,
In his article, ‘The universalization of whitness: racism and enlightenment,’ Warren Montag puzzles over an event that occurred in 1774 and which was subsequently recorded by Janet Schaw, a ‘Scottish “lady of quality”‘ (1997: 281) in her diary. Schaw, describing her arrival in Antigua, and the short journey on foot that followed from the ship to the hotel, writes that ‘a number of pigs ran out at a door and after them a parcel of monkeys. This not a little surprised me, but I found that what I took for monkeys were negro children, naked as they were born ‘ (cited in Montag 1997: 281)… Schaw’s (mis)interpretation is less a perceptual error, or a moment of perceptual confusion that is quickly rectified once she realises taht hte figures that crossed her path are really children, and more a mode of perception which (like all perceptions) is already imbued with historically and culturally specific values, fantasies, desires, aspirations, fear and so on. (Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, p. 75-6)
Here we get at the knottiness of the ‘intention’ issue: just as we do not ‘intend’ to see the world, we do not ‘intend’ to see it in a racist way. This doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t (though we’re not just hapless victims with no agency here either. Critical self-reflexivity (as I am always telling my students) is a good start, though.)
All of these habits in-form our ways of being-in-the-world, and these habits are both enabled by and produce bodily tolerances. These are limits produced by sedimentation which are not neutral, but they also help to explain a few things. They explain Schaw’s shock (a visceral reaction); they explain the my-gut-just-dropped-out-my-shoes feeling of being called out for racism; they explain the extraordinarily bodily sense of disgust—sometimes even nausea—that homophobes (apparently) feel when thinking on homosexuality. They even, I think, help to explain the visceral sense of superiority, invisible privilege, threat, anxiety, anger and fear of the white beach-goers at Cronulla. NB: explanation is in no way equal to justification or exoneration; but we cannot ignore the extent to which preconscious, non-intentional fundamentally bodily (though this is not opposed to ‘rational’ or ‘conscious’ and yes, there’s another post in the works about that) ways of being-in-the-world contributed to the incredible anger experienced. It didn’t just arise ex nihilio from wacky, monstrous individuals. What I wanted to show through this is that the bodily tolerances embodied by white ‘Australians’ and transgressed (and thus to some extent made visible) during the Cronulla riots are not merely individual matters: to hold only the individuals involved responsible ignores the context that produced such (in)tolerances in the first place, a context Howard would have us believe is anti-racist. Rather, I wanted to demonstrate that that context is a particular, peculiar configuration—imagining—of the body politic as made in the white man’s image by the covenants of the white man to represent the white man.
I actually think (as I hinted at in the last post) that this particular imagining of the body politic has been essential to Howard’s re-elections: he has contributed to the production of particular bodily and national tolerances which he then exploits. I suppose we can only hope that Rudd offers a counter-imagining that engages sufficiently with the habituated comportments of the majority of Australians without quite so harsh a sense of individuality and racism informing it. Honestly, though, I have my doubts; and even such a counter-imagining will remain mired in the same contractual, nationalised singular body politic. (Though having a deputy leader being a woman might help counter the manliness of the image. Maybe.) Hm. Well, that’s pessimistic. Or realistic, perhaps. Either way, somewhat depressing…