December 2007

I go away for a few weeks, managing not even the lightest of light blogging as I had actually promised, and what happens? The rather lovely (yes, I’m easily persuaded by flattery, but that’s not all it is, I swear!) Joe Kugelmass listed me as up there with the intimidating likes of Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism as being amongst the best new blogs. Many congrats, hearty nods of agreement and suchlike to Mikhail, Paco, Lou, Shahar and Alexei; nice work, guys. This all weirds me out considerably—and not just because it kicks my stats into territory they’ve not known in a while—but because I definitely feel like a satellite to the main blogospherical carry-on (good carry-on, really! I loves you guys!). That’s not bad, mind you, it’s just… well. I am taken aback. “You love me, you really love me.” Heh. Always wondered if I’d have a chance to quote that line. But enough about me.

There were two conferences I was at down South (not that South, but Adelaide, South Australia) and they were almost polar opposites in my experience. The Cultural Studies Association of Australasia has never felt like the home I’ve assumed it ought to feel like; I always figured that since I come from one of the few cultural studies departments in Australia, it would be a good fit for me. Not so, as I’ve discovered year after year. It used to be that I was incredulous that the academics from my department tend to avoid it; now I think they’re very wise. I’ve presented theory at these conferences previously, and received stunned-mullet gazes in response. I’ve watched the presentation of work that seems less like work and more like straight-up description; x is like y theorising, if there’s any at all; people thrown by someone asking about the politics of the subculture they’re studing (!) and so on. This year was both better and worse. I weary of being told that science will save us all: I don’t doubt that it is, indeed, an incredible resource, and much of interest can be done with it; but calling it the new avant-garde forgets the massive machine of legitimacy it already functions within, and the thorough-going effects of injustice and essentialism it has and still tends to reproduce. I know that there is interesting stuff in science, and this is a very good thing, and can be an excellent part of good critique. But there’s also science—especially in its ‘practical’ form, medicine—which reproduces hierarchies, privilege, disadvantage. Donna Haraway was a scientist, for goodness’ sake; and she left to become a cultural critic because she could see how science concealed its own constructions and reconstructions of hegemony, and knew that the way to make science critical was to be critical of it. Do let’s try not to simply run wholehearted towards being swallowed by the science machine. I seem to recall Foucault telling Marxism off for wanting to become a science. I felt like we had gone back in time. Speaking of Marxism, apparently all you anti-capitalists out there need to get over it: the mining companies need you! need you! need you! Forget indigenous sovereignty, environmental degradation or whatever other foolish concerns you have… it’s the mining companies that need to be brought into the fold, being the backbone of the country as they are. [grizzles]

Now I’m sounding all anti-science-y: I’m not, truly. But the suggestion seemed to be that our critical impulses were getting in the way of engaging with the next big thing; and this is an old, tired refrain which is thoroughly depoliticising. Which, in fact, seems to be the drive of CSAA a lot of the time. There was some interesting stuff, I’ll own, and the occasional theoretically-engaged paper slipped in there. The opening keynote was given by Julian Agyeman, and was entitled ‘Toward ‘Just’ Sustainabilities’. This paper was pragmatic in orientation, but no less politically engaged for that: it functioned as a critique of the environmental sustainabilities movements which have so recently become mainstream concerns, arguing that often the focus on the environment means that there is little or no engagement with the results of environmental degradation for human communities. The argument was, effectively, that ‘the environment’ is often taken as being captured by a dreadfully old-fashioned conception of nature: wild, unblemished and separate from us. Instead, Julian (can I call you Julian? ;-)) argued that environment cannot be fully thought without some consideration of how we interact with it, and as such we don’t just need sustainability, we need just sustainability. Social justice doesn’t just go out the window because sustainability came in; indeed, when looking at the changes in the environment, it’s kinda important to mark that it’s regularly those who have suffered the most injustice who are going to suffer (again) the worst under environmental change/degradation. Climate change refugees were one example that kept coming up. I liked this paper; it also demonstrated to me that sophisticated engagement with politics is really what I miss at CSAA, not just theory…

I have to confess I played faster and looser with attendance this year than I have in previous years. The next plenary I attended was also great, but I had skipped quite a number (the days were incredibly full, and incredibly ‘all-stars’ focused: there were two keynotes every day, and the days went until 6.30 or 7 which is just too long for me. I need beer before that.) Steve Hemming and Daryle Rigney together gave a presentation called ‘Unsettling Sustainability: Ngarrindjeri political literacies, strategies of engagement and transformation.’ The Ngarrindjeri nation has country south of Adelaide, around the Murray ‘mouth’ and Lake Alexandrina (I can’t recall the Aboriginal words for these spots). This area is severely degraded: the mouth of the river is no longer open because of the lack of water flowing down the river (irrigation is the major culprit here). The two speakers sketched the variety of techniques that they have been developing for negotiating with and countering the obsessions of governmental policies in this area. It was fascinating stuff, involving both deeply local action and transnational allegiances.

I was quite taken with the panel ‘Message Me: Cultural Studies of Online Cultures and Communities’ where Jason Wilson, Melissa Gregg, Gerard Goggin and Jean Burgess each presented (fairly casually) and then were involved in conversation with each other and the audience. Mel Gregg demonstrated that the ‘innovative’ edges of online cultures doesn’t necessarily extend to its assumptions about gender, class and race. She was particularly interested in the temporalities the internet was engendering for the ways people live their lives, and the questions of how ethnography could work in this context. You can find more in this vein here. Jason Wilson discussed youdecide2007, which he was key in making happen, and the idea of citizen journalism. It was interesting, primarily because he demonstrated the way that assumptions about age (everyone’s a teenager on the internet) don’t actually play out a lot of the time. Jean Burgess took us to the web trend map, and discussed Youtube’s apparent inability to understand its own success (‘Come, Oprah, broadcast with us, lend us legitimacy!’). Gerard Goggin (I was wilting by this point, so if I’m absolutely off the mark, someone let me know, will ya?) suggested that online stuff still does need to be interrogated in terms of established concepts—cultures, bodies and power—even as we are aware that they pose a challenge to those theoretical structures. I wanted to hear a bit more about his work on disability, but that, my friends, is probably something *I* should run away and research. Later. Post-thesis. Sigh. An interesting panel, even if I felt a little like I’d been introduced to a range of stuff I’ll have to go off and read up on. Again. Later. 🙂 Afterwards I was thinking how hard it must be to present to an audience whose net literacy may be limited (and even if it’s not, there’s piles of stuff on the web map that I have never heard of… yes, I, participant in blogosphere!); that’s probably part of the cause of the introductory feel some of the papers had.

Cate Thill’s “Sustaining Indigenous Futures: Welfare Reform and Responsibility for the Other,” and Hannah Stark’s “‘But we always make love with worlds’: Deleuze (and Guattari) and love” gave me some of my theory fix. Cate discussed sustaining indigenous alterity, and the threat posed to it by protectionist, individualising legislation which puts in place the responsibility of welfare recipients (with, as she archly pointed out, absolutely no consideration of what characterises the ‘neglect’ of children that necessitates it being put in place, and its whiteness). Hannah’s paper bore with it the heady fervour that always attends Deleuze for me, but complete with girlish, rather than froggish, presentation, which gentled it a little. She argued that whilst desire has been the site taken up by theorists in the challenge to subjectivity by Deleuze, love may gesture towards a space in which guarantees and separates difference from difference, permitting the mutual expression of difference. Thus it may be considered to be an act of differentiation. I liked this paper… although I was a little thrown by Hannah’s apparent unwillingness to consider the critiques of becoming-woman in the context of love, not least because the labours of love (and thus a supposed love of labour) have, for a long time, fallen heavily on women.

Hamish Morgan gave a gorgeously evocative presentation, complete with an audio track that didn’t only give us only the interaction of the interview, but with the car, the ground, the openeing door, considering the event of community in the middle of Western Australia, threaded through with Nancy’s gently-worded theory. And Eva Lewkowicz and Georgina Isbister gave us analyses of the gender dynamics that inform two forms of pop culture: the Mexican telenovella, and the chick lit novel. Eva’s paper considered the configuration of femininity in and through the telenovella, demonstrating the strictures placed on it; this was given a creepy cast in the closing minutes with her reference to the extraordinary rates of murder of women in Mexico of late and questions of how viewers function as citizens. Georgina engaged critically with the postfeminist fairytale. I missed the horrors of Michelle Grobel’s “‘The Taming of the Screw’: Feminist research and practice and the interruption of postmodern theory to an exploratin of contemporary sex advice literature” which to all reports has decided that third wave feminism and queer theory is just far too detached from ordinary (read, straight, white) women’s sexuality and is thus to blame for women getting a rough deal sexually, and in sex education (understood, it seems, as those terrible sealed sections in women’s mags). I’m almost sorry I missed it, actually: a serious point of contention!

Elaine Kelly’s consideration of “Sovereignty and climate change: white discourses of environmental responsibility” offered a critical appropriation of Agamben’s homo sacer, theorised through the case study of the apparent irrelevance of indigenous rights and sovereignty to the opening of a mine in the Northern Territory (or was it Queensland?). Awesome theory bound to political, practical stuff. Breath of fresh air, really… Shannon Burns gave one of those enormously slippery, enormously evocative, heavily engaged literary papers which critiqued the tendency of sustainability talk (of all kinds, but particularly academic-self-protectionism) to occur through producing homogeneity: it is the perpetuation of what already exists that is of concern, rather than an openness towards otherness. This paper felt like an excellent critique of the whole conference (rather amusing, since Shannon was in hospital for most of it! Thanks for making it out to present, Shannon!) I was very sorry to have missed Charlotte Craw’s paper, “The Ecology of Emblem Eating: Environmentalism, Nationalism, and Kangaroo Consumption,” but she generously gave me a copy. Keep an eye out for her published papers, people: very nice work.

My own paper? It was deeply ordinary, but I think I’ve succeeded in presenting a paper almost entirely stripped of references to theory (though of course driven by it). Interestingly, I had the same dissatisfaction afterwards that I usually attribute to having presented a paper few people have understood, but I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, so I think I’ll just not apologise for being theoretical from hereon out. It considered transhumanism and bioconservatism, and basically argued that, whilst the problems of bioconservatism are reasonably obvious (essentialism etc), the apparent progressiveness of the transhumanist position conceals the inequities that inform this envisaging of the future. Perhaps I’ll put it up here sometime soon…

And the overall vibe? CSAA feels very…. careerist, to me. I can’t tell if this is partly because of the … well, deeply ordinary postgrad development day that happened the day before and involved numerous CSAA presenters. But there’s a sense of needing to present gloss and shine and professionalism, and very little consideration of the political or the ethical, whatever we might take those to mean. (Hello! The fact you’re even at this conference is an indicator of your privilege; please demonstrate some vague awareness of it!) It wearies me. The priority seems to be on impressing certain people, and that I don’t like. It did feel very much like the All Stars of CSAA were being given their chance to shine, glitter and generally display themselves as stars; in order to make room for the two keynotes per day and the ‘plenary panel’, there were only two 1.5 hour sessions per day for general presentations. That meant that there were eight parallel sessions at any one time: EIGHT! If you’re wondering why I saw so little, that’s why. I had to give up going to other potentially interesting papers numerous times. EIGHT parallel sessions! CSAA! Not exactly the way to make your non-keynotes feel like they’re making a valuable contribution to the cultural studies community; I mean, I knew half the eight or nine people who came and saw my paper. Add to this the general sense of people being concerned to meet the right people, to network, network, network, and it becomes something of an unfriendly setting. Fortunately, there were those around who were sufficiently critically engaged, amusing and friendly that I wasn’t entirely disheartened. Thanks to those people: you know who you are! I’m very very glad to have met you! And later… the wonder that was ACRAWSA this year, complete with details of my latest academic crush… 😉

* This is vaguely tongue-in-cheek. Vaguely. There were, in fact, zombies and vampires present. I wanted Dex to make an appearance, but twas not to be….

BEING as behind as I am, I’d had the lovely Fido‘s posts sitting in my feed reader promising goodness that I held out for later, later, ever later. I suspect it’s because I’ve been thinking about habits, habituation and habitation quite a bit of late and didn’t want to be too terribly distracted. Fortunately (because I’m so very far behind and I hate clicking the ‘Mark as Read’ button) and unfortunately (because I actually love doing a long reading session of Fido’s posts, tracking threads of thoughts), all at once, Fido has been less like his enviable post-daily self of late (perhaps a counter to NaNoWriMo, which has had Nate writing practically a thesis-worth of words in a month!) But the richness of what he has put up…!: his post ‘Habitation in the Open,’ engaging with Nancy (I won’t excerpt it, because you should go and read it), recalled for me the key passage from a book I’m re-reading at the moment from the wonderful, rather intimidating Rosalyn Diprose. This excerpt, when I first read it, wove together disparate ideas I already had in a way that gave me that heady half-gasping moment of consolidation, perhaps even the moment of the sublime, where it feels like the world falls into abrupt immediacy, even as the impossibility of compassing its entirety strikes… and so I share it:

Even if we grant that ethics is about moral principles and moral judgement, it is also about location, position and place. It is about being positioned by, and taking up a position in relation to, others. Being positioned and locating others requires embodiment and some assumption about the nature of the place from which one moves towards others. It should not be surprising then that ‘ethics’ is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning character and dwelling, or habitat. Dwelling is both a noun (the place to which one returns) and a verb (the practice of dwelling) [Levinas so loves these nominal and verbal forms too…]; my dwelling is both my habitat and my habitual way of life. My habitual way of life, ethos or set of habits determines my character (my specificity or what is properly my own). These habits are not given: they are constituted through the repetition of bodily acts the character of which are governed by the habitat I occupy. From this understanding of ethos, ethics can be defined as the study and practice of that which constitutes one’s habitat, or as a problematic of the constitution of one’s embodied place in the world.

The discrepancy between this approach to ethics and that based on universal principles is not simply a question of etymology. Related to this are different, and usually unacknowledged, understandings of the components which go to make up our spatio-temporal being-in-the-world. The difference pertains to whether we think our ‘being’ is composed primarily of mind or matter; to what we understand by the relation between mind and matter; and to whether we think the world we inhabit is homogenous or fragmented. Underlying all these questions is some assumption about the meaning of ‘in’. An ethics based on universal rational principles assumes that our being’ is a discrete entity separate from the ‘world’ such that we are ‘in’ the world after the advent of both. An ethics based on the problematic of place, on the other hand, claims that our ‘being’ and the ‘world’ are constituted by the relation ‘in’. In other words, the understanding of ethics I am evoking recognises a constitutive relation between one’s world (habitat) and one’s embodied character (ethos).

I have also suggested that, besides an understanding of the constitution of embodiment, it is also necessary to consider the effect our relation to another may have upon the constitution of our ethos (and vice versa). This is necessary because to belong to and project out from a ethos is to take p a position in relation to others. This invovles comparison, relation to what is different and to what passes before us. Taking up a position, presenting oneself, therefore requires a non-thematic awareness of temporality and location. And the intrinsic reference point for temporality, spatial orientation and therefore difference is one’s own body. Taking a position in relation to others again involves some reference to embodiment, the significance and specificity of which comes together with ethics by virtue of our spatio-temporal being-in-the-world. But if ethics is about taking a position in relation to others then it is also about the constitution of identity and difference.

(The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference. (also available as a Kindle book for you speedy tech uptake people) p. 18-19)

fOR conferences, that is. (Well, Christmas too, I guess, but I’ve still got a few weeks to do the whole purchasing of presents, which is good given I’m behind on absolutely everything…) I’m attending CSAA (the Cultural Studies Association of Australiasia, which I am often disappointed at) and ACRAWSA (the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, which I’ve only attended once before and found pretty interesting) in Adelaide, not least because I get free accommodation… aka mum and dad’s place. In a sneaky move, I’m sticking around in Adelaide until just after Christmas before flying back (on research funding, which I figure is okay, given the whole presenting-two-papers-in-a-week thing). This does, however, mean that blogging will be light… erm… lighter… potentially faded to a kind of spectral figure that never quite resolves… for the next few weeks. When I get back I’m going to be in hyperdrive thesis-freak-out mode (since I seem to be heading into that territory already, I hate to think what it’s going to be like when I’m in serious editing stage). I’m not going to jinx myself here by declaring a submission date, since every time I tell someone I feel slightly guilty because I’m almost sure I’m not going to make it. Seriously, I should be Catholic I’m so good at the guilt thing.

My two papers for the conferences, which I may or may not put bits of up here, are incredibly different (which always seems a good plan at the abstract stage, less and less as the conference gets closer and closer…). The first is on transhumanism and bioconservatism. I’m basically sketching out how and why transhumanism’s apparently radical challenge to the idea of the human is in no way profound enough, and in many ways sneaks bioconservatism’s essentialising tendencies in the back door. I like the idea of this paper, even if it’s broad brush strokes. I’m hoping it’ll be fun to listen to. I’m still kicking around the idea of including bits of Scott Westerfeld‘s awesome young adult ‘increasingly inaccurately named trilogy’ (in the vein of great sci-fi, so we forgive), Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, mostly because I like them a lot, even where I think he’s overly optimistic. (I guess we can’t entirely depress all the kiddies out there ;-)) I’ll post a critical review here sometime soon, but I want to re-read the early books again, since its been a little while.

The second paper develops out of the train of thought I posted here, and its interaction with this post of s0metim3s. Basically, I’m arguing that the medical conception of the human body informs the imago of the body politic of Australia, already, as Gatens has argued, a white male body. As a result, refugees are regularly conceived of as disease/d, penetrating (I’m trying to decide how much to draw through the heteronormativity of this body…) Indeed, over and over the anti-refugee parts of the community articulate a concern about the diseases these refugees bring with them: tuberculosis, HIV, and leprosy (apparently). In some cases, the very number of refugees living in Australia is articulated as a threat to the body politic.

The equation between the Australian body politic and the white male body means that these appeals already have the truth-effects of medical power/knowledge attached to them. Thus we have appeals to take ‘preventative’ measures such as the excision of Australia’s islands for the purposes of immigration—a kind of circumcision‚ as recommended in South Africa this year, which as s0metim3s pointed out, can also be construed as a kind of leprous breaking-down of the body. Obviously hovering in the background here is Derrida’s work on autoimmunity, but that’s probably where that theory will stay—in the background. Both these papers feel a little on the obvious side to me, but I’m hoping that that will just mean that they prove comparatively contained and a little less crazy-theoretical. I have a thesis to finish, after all! I hope everyone’s end-of-year guff is going alright out there…