wlettrine3.jpgELL, my supervisor has asked me to write an abstract of my thesis. Which makes me kinda breathless and not in a good way… but I thought I’d try writing some of it out here to see if anyone had any thoughts for lack of clarity, or similar, and because you know, I expect the world to be fascinated by my horribly dense work. Ah yes 😉 Actually, this isn’t going to be the final abstract, which apparently needs to be 300 words long. But it’s an attempt to lay out the argument of the thesis so that my supervisor can (ahem) find me examiners… Apologies for the weighty formal language—you can tell it means I’m anxious!

This thesis takes as its first provocation the centrality of the concept and the term ‘suffering’ in contemporary discourse, and most particularly in relation to technologies that are used to change the appearance or function of the body. Suffering has, in many ways, become a defining part of contemporary life. Political positions are regularly parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and it is used regularly to prompt ‘proper’ ethical engagement with difficulties faced by a particular group or individual. Liberalism deploys the term ‘harm’ to get at some sense of suffering that is to be avoided, whilst ‘exploitation’ is a favoured term of Marxists. When racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of exclusions are marked as problematic, it is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, one could be excused for thinking that injustice simply is equivalent to suffering, for this equation is regularly made, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, such that these two are intriguingly constructed together: suffering is taken to indicate an injustice, and injustice is to be avoided because it causes suffering. In the contemporary Western context, however, and there is a regime of power/knowledge deeply concerned with suffering, in ways that are, supposedly, not primarily about politics, or injustice, or even ethics (though this last is more swiftly brought into play in its defence). This regime is medicine.

The first chapter, then, unpicks the medical engagement with suffering. Medicine regularly takes its treatment of suffering as a justification of its existence and operation. Yet I argue that it also regularly naturalises suffering, equating it simply with pathology: if one is suffering, it is because there is something wrong with one’s body, a wrongness over which medicine claims expertise and control. I suggest that this naturalisation has numerous problematic effects. First, as Eric Cassell demonstrates, it means that clinical engagement with the suffering body tends to actually miss suffering altogether in reducing it to pathology, and thus never actually treats it. Second, the reduction to pathology means that medicine often cannot engage with the specificity of the suffering subject, and with the way that their suffering is unique. I argue that this uniqueness arises not from some essence, but rather from the unique situation of each subject. Third, the naturalisation of suffering precludes the space of denaturalisation, thereby concealing the role that suffering plays in the production and reproduction of normalisation. As such, it conceals the function of suffering in normalisation (by which I mean to include the depiction of ‘deviance’ as a source of suffering), and particularly its role in the construction of (normalised) embodied subjects in contemporary culture.

In the second chapter, then, I turn to Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological concerns have been taken up by feminists, critical race theorists and critical disability scholars. Their reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty helps us get at the production of embodied subjects in and through their context, and more particularly, through their adoption and adaptation of the styles of being in the world with which they are surrounded. Merleau-Ponty argues that it is through syncretic sociability—the intercorporeal intertwining of the subject’s embodiment and the embodiment of others—that the subject is produced. Through the work of Gail Weiss and Linda Alcoff, I argue the particular styles of being in the world carry tacit body knowledges given to them by the discursive, institutional, capitalist and embodied world around them. These tacit adoptions (and adaptations) of existing styles of being, I argue, produce, through sedimentation, what Rosalyn Diprose calls ‘bodily tolerances.’ In effect, the habituation of particular styles of being in the world produces bodily tolerances which, if transgressed, may result in the subject experiencing suffering.

The third chapter argues that normalcy has become a, or perhaps the, dominant logic embodied in this way. In this way, the subject comes to experience their ‘normalcy’ as their ‘essence’ or inner ‘truth’, and the body’s recalcitrance in ‘matching,’ or more accurately projecting this truth can thus become a source of suffering. I examine this dynamic in some detail, particularly demonstrating the effect that the possibility of normalisation (through surgery or through pharmaceutical use, for example) has on the constitution of an intolerance to the ab/normal, both a subject’s own abnormalcy and the abnormalcy of those thereby marked as other. I focus on the way that a world constructed in and through normalcy, as critical disability studies especially demonstrates, tends to reiterate and confirm the experience of marked corporeal difference as a source of suffering. The naturalness of the body marked as normal is thereby protected from critique. In this respect, then, I turn to a more thorough-going and reflexive question: what role does the concept of the norm play in the construction of embodiment, according to Merleau-Ponty? I argue that even when his work has been taken up with a cautionary eye for the constitution of difference, the notion of ‘sedimentation’ as a core structure of embodiment (even as the ‘content’ that is sedimented is acknowledged to vary and thus produce difference) thereby naturalises a particular construction of embodiment (and time). As a result, the role that the norm plays in the concept of ‘sedimentation’ is not interrogated. I argue that embodiment in the contemporary context may, to a large degree, be produced through sedimentation, but that acknowledging the contextual specificity of this production is significant because it allows recognition of when and how this it is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in chapter 5).

The fourth chapter explores the political significance of corporeal difference and the technologies related to their normalisation (or otherwise). It deploys Diprose’s concept of corporeal generosity, a critical appropriation of Derrida’s ‘gift,’ to demonstrate the asymmetries of ‘memorialisng’ and ‘forgetting’ of the gifts of others functions to reproduce privilege and disadvantage. It is through the generosity of various others that the embodied subject is formed, yet in the context of contemporary bodi I argue that in contemporary body projects, the body is constructed as a site of memorialising and forgetting. The embodied subject may be a produced as a palimpsest of gifts, yet only some of these are memorialised in their flesh. I argue that modifications of the body and embodiment gain their significance in this context, such that the normalisation of bodies marked as abnormal is a memorialising of the gifts of normal others—gifts which already work to inform the subject’s style of being in the world. Memorialising is thus always bound up with forgetting, such that the normalisation of the subject forgets, viscerally, the generosity of othered others. What becomes clear in such an analysis is the extent to which the embodiment of the individual subject is shaped and in turn shapes the political constitution of and engagement with corporeal generosity.

In the fifth chapter, I build on this analysis with a greater focus on what Derrida calls the impossibility of the gift, and the ethical (in contrast, though not necessarily opposition) to the political. The forgotten gift may be unrecognised, and thus not permitted to be part of the political domain, but it also escapes its ‘destruction,’ and more to the point, I argue that even in being forgotten, it still matters. Alcoff’s rearticulation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of embodiment, which suggests that there is a tacit level at which the gift may be acknowledged, or more precisely, testified to without being subject to the cognitive processes required for recognition. Styles of being in the world which are shaped by the tacit acknowledgement that they do not occur without others, are thus open to a similarly tacit acknowledgement of the gift of others in a way that permits their alteration. Indeed, such bodies are not bound by the sedimentation of the personal history of their being in the world; rather the other’s gift affects troubles the sedimentation and offers a responsible comportment a way to respond to the other as other. In this way, we can see that the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies through particular technologies as a resolution to suffering is fundamentally bound up with the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment. The ethics of bodily change thus demonstrate two (always intertwined) forms: modifications seek to memorialise the subject’s self-presence, and thematise the corporeality of the other; alterations, on the other hand, are changes made to bodily being in responding to the other qua other. Thus it becomes clear that the ethics of a particular change lies not naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in the challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing), as so many ethical frameworks of body modification have supposed; but rather in responsibility. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being in the world with others, sketched here, has political import; this lies not least in that corporeal generosity allows for ethics to be given corporeally, such that it resonates and amplifies through the incarnatory context and challenges the normative, sedimentary and normalised comportments through which power maintains the sovereign, self-present individual.

Apologies for the tail end of that one; it’s 3 am and at this time yesterday, I was drunk. Any suggestions for examiners gratefully received (we’re trying to formulate a list at the moment). I’m also trying to work out a title for this little baby; apparently I need to officially rename it well before I submit, which means I’m running out of time (for everything, really). I’m thinking perhaps Suffering Difference with the usual colon and explanatory phrase/list of three keywords to follow. Any thoughts much appreciated. I’d run a competition to win an island holiday or something for the title I wind up using, but I’m so pov I can’t even make it (sob!) to TransSomatechnics. So my undying gratitude is about the most I can afford, but hey, it’s something, right? ;-P


WHEN Bionic Woman was announced, I was kinda excited. I’m happy that the more… sci-fi-ish stuff is getting a better look-in these days. Makes me wonder whether Firefly could have had more of a chance now, a wondering that usually winds up in me being mildly depressed. So I grabbed myself a copy of the pilot, alongside The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Both were pretty good; they showed promise, I thought, even if they had their patchy patches. Then again, Katee Sackhoff gets to be all arch and knowing, not to mention smirky, and how could I possibly resist that?

But with Bionic Woman, one of the strongest parts, I thought, was that Jaime Sommers, aka the second bionic woman after Sackhoff’s Sarah Corvus, had a sister. Yeah, on the one hand it looked like an easy ‘things are gonna get tough coz she can’t tell and it eats her up inside’ line (currently playing out, for those not in the loop), but there was something different about this sister. She was Deaf. And totally sassy, which we love in a girl, but this was the bit that was really interesting.

It’s not just the depiction of disability on mainstream TV that I’m pushing for here. Sure, that’s important. But this was something more. The Bionic Woman has a Deaf sister; she’s enhanced whilst the sister is apparently ‘lacking’; Jaime is, in the rather uninspired discourse of the pop culture world, capable of so much more where ‘more’ is always understood as better, happier, more alive. This contrast, made explicit like this by setting the two characters side-by-side, offered a space for engaging with issues of how exactly disability comes to be disability. I dreamt, foolishly, of the way that the fights between the bionic women would enable the reconstruction of space and time. I mean, they move faster, further and can see and hear farther than anyone else. It reconfigures landscapes, secrecy, knowledge, absolutely and entirely: to hide, you need to be very far away—I think the deal is that they can see for 2 kilometres with the sharpness 20/20 vision allows for 200 metres—and extremely quiet. (Early on, Jaime’s boss gets the grumps because she overhears a conversation—he’s all about the concealing—and orders one of his underlings to sound proof the office). These responsive measures demonstrate the extent to which these ‘enhancements’ reconfigure our space. And with this challenge the bionic women pose to the particularity of the environment in which we live, it becomes clear that this world, apparently shaped entirely by the natural way of doing things, is entirely dependent upon a very specific sense of the norm. This in turn, I dreamt, would reveal that what is so easily labelled disability and so easily understood as a neutral, natural lack, is entirely reliant upon a world shaped around a restricted notion of those who are in it; around a ‘norm’ perpetually enforced on all fronts. In other words, once the bionic women showed us the extent to which our environment is shaped by our conception of the normal, Jaime’s sister’s ‘lack’ becomes understood as something not inherent but the result of the interaction between her ‘non-normal’ body (abnormal already understands it as lacking) and a specific environment. It’s not her body that gives out; it’s the context.

Why is this such a significant point? Well, for me, part of it is about the tendency to see these ‘non-normal’ bodies as inherently pathological, and that is, as the source of whatever sufferings those with disabilities may experience. I’m not at all denying that there are many extremely painful conditions that get grouped under the horribly homogenising title ‘disability,’ but I also think that much of the suffering that goes along with and often contributes to disability is, to use the loosest phrase, culturally constructed. Not untrue, not unreal, good god no, but constructed. Contingent. Fundamentally alterable; and alterable not by the usual supposition of ‘here’s a body with something wrong, make it better,’ which makes the suffering the responsibility of the sufferer(‘s body, to query the Cartesian-ness of all of this!), but by demonstrating that this alteration is more than an individual responsibility. It’s a communal one. (NB I tend towards critical engagements with ideas of community which suppose it to be about difference rather than sameness, whatever the current rhetoric.)

But beyond even these concerns is the looming question of biotech. The contrast between ‘therapeutic’ use of medical technologies and ‘enhancement’ is one that is mostly frantically maintained by bioethicists, ostensibly because to do otherwise would be to grant permission to all and sundry bodily alterations. (This is actually in the episode, discussed in rather pathetic terms by Jaime’s oh-so-bright academic boyfriend and the God/Frankenstein figure to her Eve/monster-fication.) Actually, my cynical heart can’t help but suggest, it’s because if the contingency of marking particular bodies as ‘disabled’ were actually made evident, the medical engagement with disability would be demonstrated to be pathologising, and thus playing a key role in the maintenance of the norm. They would become at least partially responsible. Those who support biotech advancement (those crazy kids, the transhumanists—I say this with a fair amount of fondness in amongst some serious questions) would also have their drive for more and better critiqued. Actually those who push for ‘higher IQs’ to be produced by genetic alteration or pharmaceutical intervention would be demonstrated to merely be pushing for a particular set of conceptual and (IQ tests are very odd) etiquette skills, those associated with whiteness, maleness and middle-classness. It raises questions about what we are striving for, and why, and to what extent these aims which shape so much of scientific endeavour are bound up with reiterating the privilege of that which already is privileged, and concealing it behind ‘common-sense’ naturalising (and pathologising) talk. (Memorialising, anyone?).

So then; the difference between the pilot and the first episode? The sweet punk of a Deaf sister was disappeared, and replaced with a doe-eyed young hacker (just wait for the ‘ahh, she hacked my bionics/sis saves the day because she counter-hacked them and helped Jaime survive’ storyline. It’s a-coming, I’ll betcha!) with perfect hearing and some conventional tendencies to TV non-sequiturs. I love the idea of the hacker, but I can’t help but be aware that in the contrast between the two characters, what we actually have is the assumption that disability is identity-defining. It wasn’t necessary to have an all-new sister to make her a hacker; in fact, I can’t help but notice that computer-based stuff is inordinately visual, and could have been an utterly utterly believeable part of a character who challenges authority at a whole series of turns. It also takes out at least part of the critique of the norm: the contrast between Deaf-normal-Bionic and hacker-normal-Bionic is palpable; the latter has no real engagement with the absolute contingency of the stratification evident in the first. Indeed, hacker+Bionic seems all about the better+better progress narrative our technologised context sells itself on. The critique gets removed because it’s too complicated, too much, too critically engaged with what the studio assumes we want to be able to continue to take for granted in order to be entertained. And sadly, this means that Bionic Woman loses much of its critical edge, the promise that makes me love sci-fi to pieces.

(Though not all of its edge, because Katee’s still sassy, strong and willing to kill, and who doesn’t like that in a girl? ;-))

tHE always-awesome Susan Stryker weighs into the ENDA ‘debate’. Personally, I’m just a wee bit taken with her refusal to bow to the ‘don’t use academic terms’ rule that seems to rule public debate these days:

Gender and sexuality are like two lines intersecting on a graph, and trying to make them parallel undoes the very notion of homo-, hetero- or bisexuality. Now here’s the rub — but it requires another of those fancy words my academic colleagues and I like to throw around: heteronormativity [<—–see? look! There it is!!], the idea that whatever straight people do is really what’s what, and that whatever anybody else does is deviant to some degree. To want to have sex with somebody of the same gender violates heteronormative expectations of gender behavior as much as it does heteronormative expectations of sexual behavior. Simply put: Real men don’t suck cock. Nor do they use the word “fabulous” when describing a pair of women’s shoes. Nor do they keep a picture of their husband pinned to the wall of their office cubicle. All of the above violates conventional or stereotypical expectations of proper masculine gender, and as Lambda Legal‘s preliminary analysis of ENDA makes clear, none would be protected under the rubric of sexual orientation alone. It’s OK to be gay, in other words, just so long as you don’t act like a fag.

I’m also impressed, counter to a whole lot of commenters, that she refused to ‘play nice.’ It would have been easy to write the nice, polite, reasonable defense but instead her response shows that the transphobia being articulated (by Aravois amongst others) is far from ‘nice’ and far from ‘reasonable, but can be figured as such because it’s so mainstream. Her delightfully sharp tone can only be configured as ‘snarkiness,’ whilst his is not, because the context is already transphobic.

… and all of that is quite aside from the headiness of reading her fierce, articulate and incisive defense of keeping the T in GLBT and refusing to cede ground to those who seek to slice and dice a movement that’s (perhaps not always, but often) been about protecting difference, on the grounds of them being just far too different. There’s something truly heinous about claiming similarity to and therefore legitimacy from the mainstream on the basis of not being as different (or abnormal, apparently, say some of the comments) as they are, because look at how weird and wacky they are. It’s the guilt and innocence logic at work again, this time to split a movement that never needed to be premised on sameness anyway. And it never ceases to horrify.

YES, I lied. This morning I got up and suddenly felt like going to the protest after all. The whole idea of being intimidated by the potential behaviour of other protesters as it was being exaggerated by the media and police and government was too much. I wanted some way of staying further away so I could have some space to assess, but once I got to Central, where I was meeting up with friends (we had been planning on going to the Greenpeace/NGO Media Centre), it seemed it wasn’t just me who had had a change of heart. So we just jumped on a train for one stop.

It started on the train. We jumped into a carriage with two police men, and three yoof activisty types who had two painted barrels with not much in them. Apparently the police felt that it was necessary to not just go through the barrels, but have one of the guys open out the banner that they had. Yes, kids, this is where bombs are hidden. The terrifying potency of words. (Or tomato sauce…)

It was extremely strange. We arrived, along with a fair number of other people, and headed up the stairs from Town Hall station, the ones that come out on the corner. Coming out, I was struck by, first, the row of police buses lined up on Park St to block off George St, the QVB and half of York St. Two helicopters overhead. There were a few people gathered near the statue of the Queen, apparently watching. The actual crowd of protesters were mostly out the front of the town hall, and around in the Square next to it. Bizarrely, along the edge of the pavement on Park St, a row of police officers stood, an arm’s length from each other. We were looking around, trying to decide where to head, when one of them suddenly said, “In or out. That’s it. In or out. Once you’re in, you can’t get out.” Belligerence embodied. Lovely.

So we headed into the crowd, bantering about the state of exclusion that was being produced by their line. Also, bizarrely, it struck me that the protesters were being marked as entirely distinct from the ‘spectators’ who were standing happily on the other side of Druitt/Park St. ‘Pick. Take on an identity we’ve already framed for you (as violent).’ It was the usual protest crowd, really, except for this barricade of police keeping everyone off Druitt/Park St. (This was particularly weird because the new and revised and police-OK’d route was along Park St.) We had lost one of our group, so we called, and he came up to the line of police officers, about to join us, when two of them slammed up their arms to stop him. We just stared at them, and they said, “You have to go down that way.” So he made his way four cops down the line, and then abruptly one of them said, “Alright, in you go,” and stepped out of his way. Completely random.

We decided that staying away from the unpredictable cops, especially given that they didn’t seem to be able to communicate like other people using voices, was probably a good plan—as one of our bunch said, “I’d rather be caught between protesters and protesters than protesters and police.” After a bit of hanging around the Queer Bloc, we all turned around and started making our way along what was now, of course, probably the shortest protest route known to humankind. We were nearish the front, and there was a whole lot of cheerful yelling of slogans, clapping and cheering. I have to say, though, that compared to some protests I’ve been at, it was a pretty subdued kind of affair. We made our way up Park St, battling various forms of media people, many carrying cameras which apparently license one to become the rock the river flows around. I’m pretty sure it was every cross street that was blocked off by the same huge police buses. At the corner of Park and Castlereagh, we sat down on the dampish ground for a while, still chanting various carefully broad slogans, giving everyone a chance to catch up. There was an Aboriginal man who sang and spoke to the crowd a bit about Jabiluka and about Howard’s plan to take his land. We jumped up again, and headed off. Then we reached Hyde Park pretty quickly, where the organisation was a little less fabulous than it could have been: the planned stage and PA system hadn’t arrived (I don’t think they’d been allowed to bring it into the Park earlier, or something). We hung around for quite a while, doing some petition-signing, hiding under umbrellas, dancing, chatting away, while more people poured into the park. Eventually, we decided to head up to the PA which had been set up near the fountain, but there still wasn’t a whole lot going on, and there was some keenness for food, so we decided to leave. This was when we became properly aware of the police presence.

We headed down towards Market St, since that was closest. We reached the roadside at Elizabeth St, and became aware that there were police—I’m not entirely sure how thorough the body armour has to be before it’s considered riot gear, but they were wearing protective gloves, leg and ankle protectors and carrying batons—and when I say there were police, I mean that they were lining the entire street. From somewhere up where St. James Road meets up with Elizabeth St, all the way down to where Park St meets Elizabeth, there was a police officer standing every meter. It looked like this (which I think is a photo taken from the other side of the road, but I can’t be positive), or, better, like this, or, alternatively, like this. There were more lining the other side of the street, more in clumps outside particular buildings. Performing, as we observed, security. However much the evident treatment of a bunch of peaceful protesters as a security threat might have been pretty annoying, everyone refused to be drawn. The overkill was amazing. I heard a figure of 2000 protesters. Terrifying, I’m sure. (ETA: Organisers are claiming 10,000. I have no idea.)

“What’s going on?” we asked someone on the side of the road.

“There’s something coming through. They’ll let us through in fifteen minutes.”

“Something? What something?”

“A motorcade.”

Huh. A motorcade. At the time it seemed like just another excuse, but Flickr comments seem to suggest it was for the protection of Helen Clark, the NZ PM. Yeah. We all threatened to move to New Zealand when John Howard was re-elected because she’s the worst ever. C’mon, I know she’s not the most fabulous, but do we even use the phrase ‘anti-NZ sentiment’?! One of the police told us that we could get out where the protest had come in, along Park St. So we wandered along the bizarre line of police. As we watched, two women in conservative dress and dragging rolling suitcases were permitted across the road. Apparently a suitcase is an indication of trust-worthiness! One of the cops was vaguely cheerful and friendly (even if in a kind of stupid way, joking that they were off to play hockey after they were done there) when we took a picture. He even seemed to be mildly amused at the ridiculousness of the situation, commenting on our hesitation at coming (too?) close to the line of police. Since the ludicrousness of the whole thing was what struck me, I wasn’t too irritable at this (though others, I don’t doubt, would have been). It did certainly demonstrate that the belligerence of every police officer we saw before and after was entirely unnecessary—obvious, yes. When we reached the corner of Park and Elizabeth, we found that actually, the rear of the march must have been rounded up by the police as they came into Hyde Park, because Park St was completely inaccessible. The line of police was even denser here, and half of them looked a bit anxious, not least because we weren’t the only ones saying things like, “So we can’t get through here?” The crowd that had gathered in the expectation of being able to leave was substantial.

“No, you have to go down there.”

“We just came from there, and they told us to come up here.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, I’m just standing here.”

I picked out the dude with the radio hanging off his chest and said, “So, can you find out for us where we can get out, then?”

“I told you, you need to go back that way-”

“We just came from there, and they said to come down here.”

“Go that way then,” he said.

Someone else said, “We just came from there, they told us to come here.”

“Well, that’s the way out.”

Patience. Deep breath. “Can you call someone else and find out where we can get out? We just came from there, and they sent us this way.”

Eventually another copper turned up, and said, “No, you have to go over that way,” pointing diagonally across the Park. After a bit we gave up trying to get anything more out of them, and made our way across the Park, down onto College St and then into the south, open section of Hyde Park. Big, totally unnecessary loop. The police presence keeping the protesters in was astonishing, even more marked when we were wandering through the Park looking back at the northern section, lined as it was by police. It was, as a friend remarked, an extremely effective way of being provocative, and I wouldn’t be that surprised if after we had left, people had gotten so frustrated about not being able to get out of the Park, they’d had an actual go at the police. It’s pretty annoying, especially if you need to use the loo!

Once your identity as a protester had been established, you were forced to permanently throw your lot in with the rest of the rally, with no option to leave. It’s an extremely effective technique, because it means that those who have absolutely no interest in participating in something violent would have had no way at all of disengaging had that been the direction in which it had turned. Worse, if such a situation had arisen, and you tried to leave, you would have had to take on the police lines in order to not take part, caught between the police and whatever violent moment had taken place. Movement is precisely what’s at stake.
Interestingly, of course, I saw absolutely no sign of violence at all. None. I wish I could contact the mainstream media just to say that, but sadly, it’s not really that newsworthy! More intriguing still was the leaflet I’d been handed while at Town Hall:

“Reclaim your city! If you want to join us to reclaim our city meet at the pink flag at Hyde Park after the rally. We will decide together if we have enough people to enter the excluded zone.”

It would seem that the organisers had found a perfect management technique, one as problematic as useful. I’m sure there’s more to be said about this…

The one (? maybe I’m being pessimistic) really actually hopeful moment in a day kinda marked by an atmosphere of resignation, happened near the beginning. We were coming up the stairs from under Town Hall. A drumming group were going at it near the top, and as we surfaced, we saw one cop’s legs. He was standing as part of the barricade line, and whilst the top half of his body betrayed no movement at all, his knees bent one at a time in time with the beat, hips swaying just slightly. It made me grin, and grin, and grin…

ONCE more, with feeling:


Something spoilery this way comes…


Back off, buddy, lest you learn that which you seek not.


This is England: so you probably know from the outset that a movie about how a kid gets caught up in a skinhead gang in England is probably not going to be the cheeriest of fil-ums! Surprisingly, then, there’s a real sense of humour about this movie, and because it pulls no punches, really, about the hideousness of what goes on, the humour feels sincere and adequate to the situation, rather than undermining it (yes, I’m referencing this). The movie is semi-autobiographical, based on director Shane Meadows’ teenage dalliance with skinheads. And it is this, I think, which enables the evocation of the extraordinary situatedness of his story, which is what makes the movie successful.

We start with 12 year old Shaun, who is being teased at school (it’s casual clothes day, that source of pain for all those poorer than their context, I think!) for wearing flares. It’s pretty solidly the eighties, and there’s many enjoyable moments just checking out the gear some of them get around in (I’m just a little too young to have participated!) He retorts, and the jibe’s good enough that his antagonist goes for the throat: his dad was killed in the Faulklands, and not so long ago. This is important, as it seems to be a source of loneliness and the ‘in’ for the racism. The day doesn’t get any better, and he’s heading home through an underpass looking mope-y when Woody and his mates say hello. They’re friendly to him, in a fairly believable way: vaguely condescending because they’re older, but sincere enough in their interest in him. Woody’s the head of this group of I think five, and there’s ‘Tubs,’ who is worried that little Shaun’s going to take his place in the gang, there’s Milky (Jamaican heritage which becomes important, obviously, later), ‘Pukey’ and another kid whose name I can’t quite remember… Gadget, maybe? Woody talks Shaun into sticking around, defends him against Tubs and they share a beer with him.

The scenes in which Meadows sets up the binding ties of these friendships are extraordinarily evocative, both wild-edged and tender. From rampaging through an empty set of flats destroying things to the group hug (complete with Woody’s “alright, whose hand was that on my arse?”), to setting him up with ‘Smell’, and of course the gradual, not straightforwardly friendly inclusion of him in the gang, signified in his looks: Shaun tries to get Docs (they’re too big for him), the girls shave his head, roll up his jeans and Woody gives him a Ben Sherman shirt and enviable red braces. And he’s part of the gang. It feels like it rings true, capturing the euphoria of belonging, and the sharp willfulness of Yoof.

It’s the arrival of Combo that throws this warm squabbly little space into chaos. It looks like Combo, sizeably older than the rest, took the fall for something Woody did once, and was sent to jail for three years. He’s just out, and he arrives spouting angry racism. He’s an aggressive man, and angry, though Meadows doesn’t go for the easy two dimensions here either, as he has moments of uncertainty and warmth in amongst the nutso aggression. He’s going to recruit from amongst Woody’s skinhead-more-in-looks-than-acts gang for his ‘troops.’ (There’s some interesting stuff about the history of skinheads that Meadows is trying to get across in demonstrating these two modes of skinheadedness, but I’ll leave you to read about that on the ‘this is england’ site.) When Woody refuses to go along with what Combo’s saying, Combo tries to make him out a hypocrite for not standing up for Milky when Combo was being racist. Woody apologises to Milky and they leave, along with Lolo (Woody’s girl, though this is a wee bit more complicated, as we’ll see). They try to take Shaun with them, but he’ll have none of it—Combo’s connected his father’s death with his racist politics, and Shaun believes that the way to avenge his dad is to join up. What follows involves graffiti, new clothes, new tatts, bullying and intimidating immigrants (kids and adults) with machetes, no less, and attending a National Front meeting (this is, I gather, about the point historically when they started recruiting from amongst skinhead gangs). Pukey gets chucked out for questioning Combo: ‘did you really believe all that shit?’ There’s a scene where Shaun goes into the local milk bar (is that too Victorian a phrase? I don’t know what the Brits call ’em: you know, the local store, the deli in Adelaidean, I think the corner store in Sydnish!) and demands from the Indian (?) owner cigarettes, booze and sweets, which of course he’s refused. Shaun refuses to leave, and the owner winds up trying to haul him out. Combo arrives and (my gut clenched horribly at this) pulls out a machete. He menaces the owner, they steal a whole load of stuff. It’s scary stuff. But in the midst of all this, while Combo’s underlying aggression comes through, so does his warmth to Shaun, who he sees as a younger version of himself. He promises to always be there for Shaun, and even (interestingly, given the hard-edged masculinity at stake here) promises to ‘cry’ with him, if he needs to… clearly heady stuff for a lonely kid without a dad!

The big moment in the film follows Combo’s unsuccessful attempt to get with Lolo, who he slept with in ‘the best night of my life’ whilst she, 16, was completely pissed. He tells her that he’s spent the three years in jail remembering that night; she says she’s spent that time trying to forget it. He’s angry, and goes off seeking Milky. When he finds him, though, he’s friendly, looking for weed. Milky gets some for him, and they all go back to Combo’s place, where there’s a rather endearing moment of them all getting cheerful and Shaun’s laughing his head off. At this point Combo asks Milky various questions about his background; his family and ‘their’ music. It seems friendly for a good long time, and then abruptly, with Milky (and us) reaching the sickening conclusion that he was lured here for precisely this reason, Combo uncoils and beats him up in a fairly brutal fashion. The rest run off, but Shaun hides in the bathroom, hearing Combo ‘come to himself’/realise what exactly he’s done, and sob and get angry again, and sob some more. Shaun’s loyalty forces him back into the room with Combo, who is both beside himself and trying to pull himself together for Shaun’s sake (after all, he’s just a lil kid!) and to get Milky to the hospital. The sweetness of the space is gone for Shaun, and in a (slightly kitschy but forgivable) symbolic moment, he throws the St George’s cross into the sea (which personally I want to know how he did because it’s damn hard to throw cloth anywhere!).

I’m sorry to recount the story like this, without much real consideration of the political issues at stake, but I actually think it’s a deeply political movie precisely because it is so engaged in evoking a particular time, place and social setting. I don’t think it falls for cliches of racism (though it might have been good to have spent a bit more time with Milky, for example, given that he’s really the only fully-developed character who is marked as raced), so that although Combo’s a bit of a monster, he’s not purely awful, and he’s clearly felt disenfranchised for much of his life. That said, the politics of the time (Thatcher’s) do clearly and often explicitly shape how they feel about the world. It does feel a little bit of a shame that there’s no explicit counter to Combo’s racism, especially given that between Woody standing up to a guy who he owes for taking the fall for him, and Pukey standing up to Combo once it’s clear the man is more than capable of violence a the drop of a hat, both would seem to have reasonably solid views about how and why Combo’s wrong (though perhaps Meadows felt it might have been too moralistic to do this, which it could have been…) Nonetheless, I think it’s interesting to see how deeply local, deeply specific this story is, even as, doubtless, stories like it occurred across the UK at about this time. The anger and distrust which seem to characterise many of these Yoof is beautifully set alongside their warmth and generosity to each other without it being ‘underlying heart-of-gold’-y. In the end, it testifies to a time, a place and a people, permitting the depiction of the politics to arise out of that rather than the other way around. So few movies manage to bind together specificity and national politics like this that I would recommend it for that alone…

RIGHT back to Brown:

“As a moral-political practice of governmentality, tolerance has significant cultural, social, and political effects that exceed its surface operations of reducing conflict or of protecting the weak or the minoritized, and that exceed its formal goals and self-representation. These include contributions to political and civic subject formation and to the articulation of the political, the social, citizenship, justice, the nation, and civilization. Tolerance can function as a substitute for or a supplement to formal liberal equality or liberty; it can also overtly block the pursuit of substantive equality and freedom. At times, tolerance shores up troubled orders of power, repairs state legitimacy, glosses troubled universalisms, and provides cover for imperialism… the concern of this study is to consider how, when and why these effects occur as part of the operation of tolerance, rather than to ignore them or treat them as ‘externalities’ vis-à-vis tolerance’s main project.” (p. 10)

Brown tracks some of the ways that tolerance houses and enables intolerance, then reminds us that, for all that tolerance is supposedly the motivating factor in many legal reforms, for example, tolerance itself remains something that is not legally binding. Here we see the tricky transition it allows from public to private and vice-versa:

“… [W]hile tolerance may be a state or civic principle, while it may figure prominently in the preambles of constitutions or policy documents and may conceptually undergird laws and judicial decisions concerned freedom of religion, speech, and association, tolerance as such is not legally or doctrinally codified. Nor can it be, both because the meaning and work of tolerance is bound to its very plasticity—to when, where, and how far it will stretch—and because its legitimating goodness is tied to virtue, not to injunction or legality. Virtue is exercised and emanates from within it cannot be organised as a right or rule, let alone commanded.” (pp. 11-12)

And here we see how and why tolerance is bound up with perpetuating a very peculiar kind of individualism, and why so many discussions about feminism, or racism, or homophobia, or transphobia, or discrimination against those with disabilities are continually reduced to the individual. “But I don’t do that!” cry men on feminist blogs (when ‘they’ aren’t threatening rape, murder and so on), and other forms of discrimination are responded to with “some of my bestest friends in the whole wide world are black/gay/disabled/trans/women.” And so on. In each case, the claim to the individual virtue of tolerance is taken to be a demonstration that, whatever the statistics say about prison populations, mortality rates, abuse rates, rape rates etc etc, public engagement with these issues is not merely unnecessary, but an attack on those who are tolerant.

“Conventionally, tolerance is adduced for beliefs or practices that may be morally, socially, or ideologically offensive but are not in direct conflict with the law. Thus, law constitutes one limit of the reach of tolerance, designating its purview as personal or private matters within the range of what is legal… [I]n each case, the negotiation is between what is deemed a private or individual choice appropriately beyond the reach of law (hence tolerable) and what is deemed a matter of the public interest (hence not a matter of tolerance)” (p.12)

It took a long long time for rape within marriage to be understood as something the law should step in to try to prevent. Interestingly, I think, domestic violence is a domain that retains its in-betweenness: the law officially stands against it, but it occurs in what is so strongly believed to be the private sphere that interventions into this space are perceived as problematic. This of course makes the issue difficult to negotiate.

Brown turns to the question of depolicisation next, by tackling the notion of a distinction between ‘tolerance’ (virtue/ethic) and ‘toleration’ (a practice). Both of these, I think, risk individualising again, but nonetheless.

“The distinction is between a personal ethic of tolerance, an ethic that issues from an individual commitment and has objects that are largely individualized, and a political discourse, regime, or governmentality of tolerance that involves a particular mode of depoliticising and organizing the social. A tolerant individual bearing, understood as a willingness to abide the offensive or disturbing predilections and tastes of others, is surely an inarguable good in many settings: a friend’s irritating laugh, a student’s distressing attire, a colleague’s religious zeal, the repellant smell of a stranger, a neighbour’s horrid taste in garden plants-these provocations do not invite my action, or even my comment, and the world is surely a more gracious and graceful place if I can be tolerant in the ace of them… But tolerance as a political discourse concerned with designated modalities of diversity, identity, justice, and civic cohabitation is another matter. It involves not simply the withholding of speech or action in response to contingent individual dislikes or violations of taste but the enactment of social, political, religious, and cultural norms; certain practices of licensing and regulation; the marking of subjects of tolerance as inferior, deviant or marginal vis-à-vis those practicing tolerance; and a justification for sometimes dire or even deadly action when the limits of tolerance are considered breached. Tolerance of this sort does not simply address identity but abets in its production; it also abets in the conflation of culture with ethnicity or race and the conflation of belief or consciousness with phenotype. And it naturalizes as it depoliticizes these processes to render identity itself an object of tolerance.” (pp. 13-14)

In other words, reducing tolerance to merely a personal ethic of ‘non-interference’ is deeply problematic. It covers over the productive and hierarchical operation of tolerance: that it tends to naturalise and/or essentialise identity, thus covering over the role that it plays in producing these identities (as tolerable, intolerable, or, most concealed of all, the tolerating). As can be seen by the slipperiness of ‘tolerance’ in the above, Brown is not suggesting that tolerance as an individual ethos is separable from the broader political forms of tolerance; indeed, the two are strongly related, and not least in the political marking of particular groups as bearing the privilege of being the tolerating.

“Almost all objects of tolerance are marked as deviant, marginal, or undesirable by virtue of being tolerated, and the action of tolerance inevitably affords some access to superiority, even as settings or dynamics of mutual tolerance may complicate renderings of superordination and superiority as matters of relatively fixed status.” (p. 14)

Brown then argues that “tolerance as such is not the problem,” a position that I am unconvinced by, but she suggests that actually it is the way that tolerance is called for, and its disavowal of its role in the production and management of identity that is a problem. I’m not sure about this, but that’s primarily because I’m unconvinced that ‘tolerance’ can be separated out from a particular mode of engaging with difference, which tends toward the binarised. Actually I’m unclear about how separate this is from her position, but she refers to the patterning of privilege that occurs through the work of ‘tolerance’ as a “buried order of politics,” and this to some extent feels to me like a big-T Truth-seeking exercise, as if True identities were those that occurred without the effect of political power. That’s too crude to characterise her argument, really, and I am in total agreement as to the problematic role of tolerance talk in concealing its own role in the production of identities, so perhaps my disagreement will turn out to be nothing at all.

“[I]… analyze tolerance, especially in its recently resurgent form, as a strand of depoliticization in liberal democracies. Depoliticzation involves construing inequality, subordination, marginalisation, and social conflict, which all require political analysis and political solutions, as personal and individual, on the one hand, or as natural, religious, or cultural on the other. Tolerance works along both vectors of depoliticization-it personalizes and its naturalizes or culturalizes-and sometimes it intertwines them.” (p. 15)

This I think it interesting, because it demonstrates that tolerance plays an important part in constructing differences between groups or people as sources of conflict-that is, as requiring the intervention of tolerance to manage. It doesn’t do this alone, of course (because wow! the list of factors contributing to this particular configuration of difference goes on and on, informing the vast moiety of our discursive world). Now that this is bound up with depoliticization is important; much ‘liberal’ discourse tends to reproduce this particular configuration of subjectivity, not least through the evocation of things like ‘false consciousness’ (that’s what you have, but I have something else entirely – Da Troof!). As Brown describes:

“No matter its particular form and mechanics, depoliticzation always eschews power and history in the representation of its subject. When these two constitutive sources of social relations and political conflict are elided, an ontological naturalness or essentialism almost inevitably takes up residence in our understandings and explanations. In the case at hand, an object of tolerance analytically divested of constitution by history and power is identified as naturally and essentially different from the tolerating subject; in this difference, it appears as a natural provocation to that which tolerates it. Moreover, not merely the parties to tolerance but the very scene of tolerance is naturalized, ontologized in its constitution as produced by the problems of difference itself. (pp. 15-16)

This is interesting, I think, because often those who declare themselves ‘anti-essentialist’ also perpetuate this depoliticization, as I described above in the case of ‘false consciousness’. So the argument will go ‘I’m not essentialist, there’s no essence to (say) woman,’ and therefore, ‘because I’m critically aware of this fact, I’ve managed to find a space ‘outside’ social relations, power and history, my ‘true’ self, from which I make ‘true’ choices, that is, choices that are pure of that ideology.’ The guiltlessness of the individual in this appears to me remarkable. Interestingly, I think, this anti-essentialism is sometimes also deployed as a “well, you could be otherwise, given that you have no essence, so why don’t you?” In other words, why don’t you be like us? This kind of argument is used all over: from the homophobic (and often ‘tolerant) response to gay men and lesbians (‘it’s so much easier to be straight’); to even being a reproach for those who are resisting the ‘bringing of Freedom’ in, say, Iraq; or closer to home and most horribly (it makes me feel sick to think on) the legislation making that today made its way through the Senate at the moment in Australia which will attempt to ensure that Indigenous people and particularly the ‘innocent children’ in whose name these horrors are being perpetuated, have ‘every opportunity’ to be otherwise than what they already are: to be more ‘normal,’ implicitly, ‘more white.’ I guess my point is that the naturalization of the white, Western, ‘free’ ‘individual’ enables him/her to be understood as history-and-thus-ideology-free, thus both naturalising the Other (naturally challenging to the hegemonic) and denaturalising him/her in the sense of suggesting that this difference cannot possibly be the ‘truth’ of that subject. Mmm.

And then Brown totally makes me a fan by actually talking about the role of suffering in this depoliticization. Is it narcissistic to dub those whose work dovetails with mine ‘totally rockin”? 😉

“In addition to depoliticizations as a mode of dispossessing the constitutive histories and powers organizing contemporary problems and contemporary political subjects-that is, depoliticization of sources of political problems-there is a second and related meaning of depoliticization with which this book is concerned: namely, that which substitutes emotional and personal vocabularies for political ones in formulating solutions to political problems. When the ideal or practice of tolerance is substituted for justice or equality, when sensitivity to or even respect for the other is substituted for justice for the other, when historically induced suffering is reduced to ‘difference’ or to a medium of ‘offense,’ when suffering as such is reduced to a problem of personal feeling, then the field of political battle and political transformation is replaced with an agenda of behavioural, attitudinal and emotional practices. While such practices often have their value, substituting a tolerant attitude or ethos for political redress of inequality or violent exclusions not only reifies politically produced differences but reduces political action and justice projects to sensitivity training, or what Richard Rorty has called ‘an improvement in manners.’ A justice project is replaced with a therapeutic or behavioural one.” (p. 16)

This happens a lot… a lot a lot! I’m just going to use the ‘physical difference’ thing to explore it for a moment. Now obviously I, and most people, think that the response to suffering is desperately important, but almost automatically these days, the response to such suffering is to resolve it here and now for this individual. And so we have cosmetic surgery which is supposed to (though often enough fails) cure suffering, up alongside human growth hormones and limb-lengthening surgery which deals with shortness, and intersex ‘corrective’ surgery for straightening-out the ‘ambiguously’ sexed. Yet in offering these kinds of therapeutic remedies for suffering (which I am not suggesting we should withhold), what is covered over is that this suffering is not caused by the physical ‘difference’ of this individual person, or not simply at any rate; it’s the result of a political construction of that body as deviant. Deviance (from norms and ideas of the normal) often (though trust me, by no means always!) seems to dovetail with suffering in ways that this ‘individualised’ model of ‘care/cure’ covers over. Worse, the therapeutic relief of suffering in this ‘normalising’ fashion reinforces the notion that normal=happy, thereby reiterating the very characterisation of difference which contributed to their suffering in the first place. My point in this is that the ‘simplest’ and ‘most ethical’ way of dealing with this suffering, understood as individual, emotional and personal, is to offer normalisation; this depoliticization ensures that there is never a point at which the political sphere needs to engage with this injustice (and those that result from it: the extraordinary exclusions of those with disabilities, for example). Often, worryingly, this characterisation of suffering as an individual responsibility is exacerbated by, say, a Little Person’s refusal to undergo limb-lengthening surgery: ‘well, you chose to be different,’ says the political and, also problematically, social world. Both the political and the individual realms, then, are made innocent of any role in suffering.

Much of the remainder of the chapter engages more specifically with the American tropes which contribute to the depoliticization which she’s marked tolerance as partially responsible for: liberalism (freedom shifts to ‘rights, equality to equal standing before the law), individualism (the right ‘tudes will produce justice), market rationality (all subjects made consumers with ‘naturally occurring’ desires), the culturalization of politics (where ethnicity, race, religion and culture are made interchangeable, permitting slides from, for example, ‘Islamic extremists’ to ‘racial and ethnic profiling’ as a threat-management technique). I’ve already talked about these throughout (given my apparent indignation with the cheerful assertion of the transparent goods of individualism and liberalism!) so I won’t repeat myself. I should mention, though, that towards the end of this chapter, Brown marks liberalism as kind of rescue-able. This may be convincing, or, better, desirable for some (especially for America, whose investment in liberal individualism seems quite substantial)-understanding liberalism not as acultural, but as the specific culture of the USA would certainly help!-I suspect that the shifts she suggests would happen by ‘culturalizing’ liberalism entail a substantial undermining of liberalism’s key terms.

“This book… contests the culturalization of politics that tolerance discourse draws from and promulgates, and contests as well the putatively a-cultural nature of liberalism. The normative premise animating this contestation is that a more democratic global future involves affirming rather than denying and disavowing liberalism’s cultural facets and its imprint by particular cultures. Such a affirmation would undermine liberalism’s claims to universalism and liberalism’s status as culturally neutral in brokering the tolerable. This erosion, in turn, would challenge the standing of liberal regimes as uniquely, let alone absolutely, tolerant, revealing them instead to be a self-affirming and Other-rejecting as many other regimes. It would also reveal liberalism’s proximity to and bouts of forthright engagement with fundamentalism.

The recognition of liberalism as cultural is more than a project of debunking its airs of superiority or humiliating its hubristic reach. Rather, insofar as it makes explicit the inherent hybridity or impurity of every instantiation of liberalism, it underscores the impossibility of any liberalism ever being ‘only liberalism’ and the extent to which both form and content are potted, historical, local, lived. It reveals liberalism as always already being the issue of miscegenation with its fundamental Other, as containing this Other within, and thus as having a certain potential for recognizing and connecting with this Other without. In this possibility may be contained liberalism’s prospects for renewal, even for redemption, or at the very least for more modest and peaceful practices.” (p. 24)

I suppose, in the end, my situatedness in this regard comes quite strongly into play here: my concern is much less with the stability of the political system, I guess, and more with ensuring justice. In this regard, this seeking of redemption for liberalism makes me scrunch up my nose—I guess in the end I’m not sure it’s worth saving (watch my intolerance!), though by the same token, making impure the forms of liberalism that already exist appeals to me not least for its potential effectiveness and my usual affection for deconstructive engagements. Okay, clearly I’m disagreeing with myself already, here, so I am not making any great claims. I am just not sure what a liberalism stripped of its universality, its rampant individualism, its market rationality and so on, would look like… would it look like liberalism?

I’m going to leave this post here: it’s already very long, and I have a billion and one other things to do. Nonetheless, there will be more!

So if you’ve actually stuck with reading your way through some of my posts, you’ll know that a reasonably major aspect of my concern is tolerance-more specifically, the capacity of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of bodily tolerances to help think through the intertwining of ethics and politics with phenomenological experience. In other words, MP’s approach allows one to demonstrate how and why it might be that visceral experiences of intolerance-often articulated as disgust, revulsion, stomach-turning, nauseating and so on-exist, and their dependence upon particular configurations of political, ethical and gift and/or exchange economies. Not only this, but I’m interested by the way that the word ‘tolerance’ functions politically to legitimate, reinforce and deem ‘rational’ certain forms of these visceral experiences, and on the other hand to reject, delegitimate, undermine and deem ‘irrational’ other of these experiences which may, for example, be otherwise understood as the visceral intolerance of injustice and the unethical, for example…

I’ve already posted a little about one way in which I think that these bodily tolerances are engendered and play out, in relation to race and politics in Australia. It’s as a kind of follow-up to think that I’m turning to Wendy Brown’s book, entitled Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. The first chapter has been available here [pdf] for some time, but I’m going to put up some notes on it here, in my usual quote+response style. I should mention here that whilst the concerns Brown covers (in the chapters I’ve read so far, anyway) aren’t entirely new-that is, I spend more of my time going ‘yes that’s right,’ rather than ‘oh my god! I’d never thought of that’-approaching questions of liberalism, imperialism, bigotry, racism, civilisation, barbarism, inclusion, exclusion, difference and identity (amongst other things) through a tracking of the conceptualisation of tolerance is quite telling, and does help to demonstrate the significant role it has come to play in the contemporary climate. One point which I have to say it’s kind of a relief to find an American actually exploring is the relation between tolerance, individualism and depoliticisation. While I am, clearly, interested in what some might call ‘personal experience,’ my interest is in its contingency, in why it functions the way it does and the degree to which that effects (no, goddammit, grammar checker, I mean ‘effects’!) particular political agendas. Sometimes I think that elements of the blogosphere (in a reflection of the rest of the ‘real’ world, of course!) are so keen to get to political action/activism of whatever kind that they not only don’t stop to think it through in sufficient detail, they actively reject the idea that such critical engagement might be important; and often this winds up in a kind of reification of ideas like ‘choice’, ‘individuality’ and ‘rationality’ in ways that suppose these things to be somehow beyond the function of politics, or, more clearly, beyond the effects of ‘repression’ or ‘oppression.’ I share the concern about needing to act (absolutely!!! and I do understand the worry about ‘theory’ being impractical) but at the same moment, I think we need to find ways of acting without giving up the perpetual critical engagement with the very terms by which we act. I have a number of reasons for this stance, but one of them is that one of the biggest problems with the way that politics is currently run is that the position taken today must be true forever and ever; it’s far too totalising, and resists critical engagement. So I think it’s a significant move for activism to resist this totalising tendency of politics more broadly; this is, of course, an extremely difficult line to maintain, especially in the current context. Nonetheless. My concerns still stand, even if I understand the position that motivates ‘strategic’ investments in, say, inadequate concepts like ‘human rights.’ Mmm. I’m resisting the temptation to go on and on in the usual style of the paranoid vaguely theoretical academic-y sort in order to express my sympathy with and investment in activist politics; but I think I’ll leave it stand for now!

Aaaanyway. Back to actual topic. So, given that this afternoon (wow, actually, it’s taken me a lil while to formulate this post, so it was a while ago, really!) I picked up the book after ordering it a few weeks ago, with no further ado, here are notes on chapter 1.

There’s an epigram here that I kinda like, even as I’m not sure it engages the detail of tolerance, it does at least shift the question of tolerance away from the rational:

“Tolerance is not a product of politics, religion or culture. Liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and atheists, whites, Latinos, Asians, and blacks… are equally capable of tolerance and intolerance… [T]olerance has much less to do with our opinions than with what we feel and how we live.” -Sarah Bullard, Teaching Tolerance.

I’m not really convinced that this is accurate, in the sense that tolerance as it is understood currently seems to rely upon very particular configurations of difference and identity, arising out of a white Western framework (which I actually think tends to produce a lack of tolerance, but we’ll get into that in a sec). At the same time, the constructionist/contextualist (Alcoff’s preferred term) streak in me tends to think that phrases like ‘equally capable’ wind up meaning very little-equally capable given what context? Is this some kind of attempt to counter the naturalisation of (especially current) Western attributions of differing tolerance capacities, often down race and political lines? I’m also unconvinced that political ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ doesn’t affect the capacity for tolerance (at least if ‘liberalism’ (my god it’s so American to set conservative vs liberal as the only real political distinction, and I’m not sure it’s quite so applicable in other contexts) is taken to mean left-leaning or progressive positions). Actually, I think what I mean is that liberal and conservative people may well come out equal in the tolerance stakes, I’m not convinced that there aren’t other political positions which enable other ways of thinking tolerance; perhaps even beyond the conservative tendencies of tolerance (my god; is it possible?!).

(Just as an aside, do you think it’s significant that every time I’ve gone to type ‘my god’ in the past few days I’ve typed ‘my dog’? I’d like to think it is, though why exactly I’m not sure.)

And Brown begins:

“How did tolerance become a beacon of multicultural justice and civic peace at the turn of the twenty-first century? A mere generation ago, tolerance was widely recognized in the United States as a code word for mannered racialism. Early in the civil rights era, many white northerners staked their superiority to their southern brethren on a contrast between northern tolerance and southern bigotry. But racial tolerance was soon exposed as a subtle form of Jim Crow, one that did not resort to routine violence, formal segregation, or other overt tactics of superordination but reproduced white supremacy all the same.” (p.1)

I can’t help it; I immediately begin to wonder about the way that radical individualism which seems to characterise so much of (particularly US) politicised discourse (see the Eugenics or choice? post) permitted the forgetting of this kind of awareness of racism as not merely government controlled. That is, I would tend to think that it is as individualism became more thoroughly entrenched that this awareness of collective, ‘mannered’ racism was lost. Individualism permits incredible levels of conservatism, really, and of course the concealment of such.

Anyway, so Brown suggests that it was as a result of this awareness of the perpetuation of white supremacy that

“[f]reedom and equality, rather than tolerance, became the watchwords of justice projects on behalf of the excluded, subordinated, or marginalised.” (p. 1-2)

Although at this point it would seem she suggests that these ‘justice projects’ premised on freedom and equality countered the concealed racism of ‘tolerance,’ she’s not naively assuming that freedom and equality remained pure of the problems of tolerance…

“Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been something of a global renaissance in tolerance talk. Tolerance surged back into use in the late twentieth century as multiculturalism became a central problematic of liberal democractic citizenship; as Third World immigration threatened the ethnicized identities of Europe, North America, and Australia; [woot! Check it out, we made the ‘West’ list. Am I alone in thinking that this is pretty rare in US books?] as indigenous peoples pursued claims of preparation, belonging and entitlement; as ethnically coded civil conflict became a critical site of international disorder; and as Islamic religious identity intensified and expanded into a transnational political force. Tolerance talk also became prominent as domestic norms of integration and assimilation gave way to concerns with identity and difference on the lefta nd as the rights claims of various minorities were spurned as ‘special’ rather than universal on the right.” (p. 2)

She then goes on to demonstrate the breadth of application of the word ‘tolerance,’ from the UN (practically everywhere) to European attempts to negotiate immigration, to US attempts to tackle racialised segregation and community violence, the premise of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ solution to homophobia in the military, and even the “rubric under which George W Bush, upon taking office in his first term, declared that appointees in his administration would not have their sexual orientations scrutinized… or revealed.” (p. 2) It’s also a defining feature of education, and religious and secular discourse. I find this interesting, that tolerance is the feature of education in the US. Friends of mine who did bachelors in Early Childhood Education (that’s from preschool/childcare all the way through to year 3 or 4 at school, I think) which, granted, is a fairly innovative degree, didn’t learn how to teach tolerance, but rather had a unit called ‘anti-bias,’ a configuration which wasn’t merely about non-discriminatory practice within educational institutions, but enabled considerations of teaching things like ‘critical literacy.’ (See, I always knew critical strategies weren’t dependent on second-year uni readings!) These friends make me hopeful for education!!

Ah, and here we come to the role tolerance plays in the crossover between conservatives and liberals:

“Moreover, even as certain contemporary conservatives identify tolerance as a codeword for endorsing homosexuality, tolerance knows no political party: it is what liberals and leftists reproach a religious, xenophobic, and homophobic right for lacking, but also what evangelical Christians claim that secular liberals refuse them and what conservative foreign policy ideologues claim America cherishes and ‘radical Islamicists’ abhor. Combined with this bewildering array of sites and calls for tolerance is an impressive range of potential objects of tolerance, including cultures, races, ethnicities, sexualities, ideologies, lifestyle and fashion choices, political positions, religions, and even regimes.” (p. 2-3)

I’d just like to point out that many of these objects of tolerance gain their weight through a claim to individualism. Interestingly, though, as she goes on to point out, each of these objects do not demand the same kinds of tolerance, but a whole range of ‘modalities’ of tolerance. Her examples here are intriguing:

“That is, modalities of tolerance talk that have issued from postcolonial encounters with indigenous peoples in settler colonies do not follow the same logics as those that have issued from European encounters with immigrants from its former colonies or those that are centred on patriarchal religious anxieties about insubordinate gender and sexual practices. Similarly, an Islamic state seeking to develop codes of tolerance inflects the term differently than does a Euro-Atlantic political imaginary within which the nation-states of the West are presumed always already tolerant.” (p. 3)

These distinctions are important to make, I do not doubt. Nonetheless, I do have a sneaking suspicion that part of the homogenisation of difference that seems to characterise the West is enabled through the refusal to accept that these modes of tolerance are different. That is, the usual traps associated with deploying ‘equality’ (that of the reduction to sameness) have come to shape tolerance practice as well, such that it becomes possible to talk about the claims of ‘minority groups’ (as they’re usually characterised, at least in Australia) to tolerance as equivalent claims, even where they are really very different (especially in practical terms). In the midst of the dominant logic of scarce resources, this means that each claim to tolerance is subject to the same kinds of distrust and suspicion, the same kinds of intolerance. Mmm. A kind of intolerance to tolerance. This reminds me of the issues of generosity raised here. And Brown seems to agree:

“Given this proliferation of and variation in agents, objects, and political cadences of tolerance, it may be tempting to conclude that it is too polymorphous and unstable to analyze as a political or moral discourse. I pursue another hypothesis here: that the semiotically polyvalent, politically promiscuous, and sometimes incoherent use of tolerance in contemporary American life, closely considered and critically theorized, can be made to reveal important features of our political time and condition. The central question of this study is… What kind of political discourse, with what social and political effects, is contemporary tolerance talk in the United States? What readings of the discourses of liberalism, colonialism, and imperialism circulating through Western democracies can analytical scrutiny of this talk provide? The following chapters aim to track the social and political work of tolerance discourse by comprehending how this discourse constructions and positions liberal and nonliberal subjects, cultures, and regimes; how it figures conflict, stratification, and difference; how it operate normatively; and how its normativity is rendered oblique almost to the point of invisibility.” (pp. 3-4)

This last bit, as you can imagine, kinda makes me cheer. A consideration of the normative configuration of difference through tolerance by Brown might let me get away without having to argue this at huge lengths in the thesis. It also is useful because all too often tolerance is deployed as responding to an ahistorical truth, and the political efficacy of it remains unconsidered: that is, tolerance itself does things to the political realm, affecting the operation and responses to difference. Because tolerance is treated as an ahistorical good, we miss this too often. (I use ‘we’ pretty loosely here, so don’t feel too interpellated!

At this point, she explicitly refuses to understand tolerance as ahistorical and universal, and introduces governmentality as key (and here I kinda wish I’d read this before my very first article (about to be released… or… are articles released? published? whatever) was due) aspect of the function of tolerance, saying:

“As a consortium of para-legal and para-statist practices in modern constitutional liberalism-practices that are associated with the liberal state and liberal legalism but are not precisely codified by it-tolerance is exemplary of Foucault’s account of governmentality as that which organizes ‘the conduct of conduct’ at a variety of sites and through rationalities not limited to those formally countenanced as political. Absent the precise dictates, articulations, and prohibitions associated with the force of law, tolerance nevertheless produces and positions subjects, orchestrates meanings and practices of identity, marks bodies, and conditions political subjectivities. This production, positioning, orchestration, and conditioning is achieved not through a rule or a concentration of power, but rather through the dissemination of tolerance discourse across state institutions; civic venues such as schools, churches, and neighborhood associations; ad hoc social groups and political events; and international institutions or forums.” (p. 4)

I can’t help feeling like Brown is conscious of needing to address political theorists here, ones who might be less than open to her arguments about say the historicity of notions of tolerance. It is around this point that I want (her!) to evoke Alcoff and Merleau-Ponty, to demonstrate that tolerance also conditions bodies phenomenologically to reflect a particular set of inclusions and exclusions. In the end, I would suggest, the ‘rationalities not limited to those formally countenanced as political’ is really important to pay attention to, because I think that the characterisation of particular ways of being in the world (and attendant tolerances, of course) as rational is part of the function of the discursive construction of tolerance (this is a fairly obvious Foucauldian point, but one that I think is forgotten, sometimes!) What I mean is that I don’t really think that rationality exists ahistorically, aculturally; rather, rationality demonstrates which forms of being are to be considered as cultured (rather than (brute-ishly) natural), as cognitive (rather than bodily/emotional) and justifiable (rather than incoherent and nutty). This is a bit of a complex point, I guess, but the point I’m trying to make is that I tend towards a thoroughly anti-Cartesian conception of subjectivity, but with an awareness that the attributions of particular experiences to the ‘mind’ and the ‘body’ has important political weight. This is a feminist observation as well, because as Genevieve Lloyd has observed, rationality has tended to the codification of the ways that men have tended to think. In relation to tolerance, what I think this allows us to understand is that some forms of intolerance are marked as irrational, and others as rational; yet such distinctions lie not in how ‘cognitive’ some intolerance is, as if the irrationally intolerant were just permitting their emotional/bodily reactions to ‘rule’ them. Rather, the rationality of an in/tolerance is actually about how much that in/tolerance falls in with existing truth-discourses. Bleah. I’m not sure how significant that point was, now that I’ve worked so hard to make it articulate! Sorry about that!

Brown then observes that tolerance has shifted from a means of protection from persecution to a way of conceiving of a good society. This I think is interesting, given her earlier point about ‘freedom and equality’ being the response to the mannered racialism of tolerance in the 70s. In this respect, it’s been increasingly taken up across the political spectrum, to defend extremely different positions. The logic of ‘white liberal decline,’ (eep! whose concept is this again? I’ll try to find it!) or the ‘we are victims too, even though we’re white etc’ position both suppose that white values are under attack and at risk of being completely undermined by various, usually racialised groups, regularly deploys the need to make these others ‘tolerate’ white ‘values’ (what others would call ‘intolerance’). As Brown describes,

“the enemy of tolerance is now the weaponized radical Islamicist state or terror cell rather than the neighborhood bigot… While some of these changes [in the deployment of ‘tolerance’ talk] have simply brought to the surface long-present subterranean norms in liberal tolerance discourse, others have articulated tolerance for genuinely new purposes. These include the legitimation of a new form of imperial state action in the twenty-first century, a legitimation tethered to a constructed opposition between a cosmopolitan West and its putatively fundamentalist Other. Tolerance thus emerges as part of a civilizational discourse that identifies both tolerance and the tolerable with the West, marking nonliberal societies and practices as candidates for a intolerable barbarism that is itself signalled by the putative intolerance ruling these societies. In the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, the West imagines itself as standing for civilization against primitivism, an din the cold war years for freedom against tyranny; now these two recent histories are merged in the warring figures of the free, the tolerant and the civilised on one said, and the fundamentalist, the intolerant, and the barbaric on the other… ” (p. 6)

She then turns to acknowledging the racial specificity of this question:

“If tolerance is a political principle used to mark an opposition between liberal and fundamentalist order, how might liberal tolerance discourse function not only to anoint Western superiority but also to legitimate a Western cultural and political imperialism? That is, how might this discourse actually promote Western supremacy and aggression even as it veils them in the modest dress of tolerance? How might tolerance, the very virtue that Samuel Huntington advocates for pre-empting a worldwide clash of civilizations, operate as a key element in a civilizational discourse that codifies the superiority and legimitates the superordination of the West? What is the work of tolerance idscourse in a contemporary imperial liberal governmentality? What kind of subject is thought to be capable of tolerance? What sort of rationality and sociality is tolerance imagined to require and what sorts are thought to inhibit it-in order words, what anthropological presuppositions does liberal tolerance entail and circulate?” (pp. 6-7)

“The conceit of secularism undergirding the promulgation of tolerance within multicultural liberal democracies not only legitimates their intolerance of and aggression toward non-liberal states or transnational formations but also glosses the ways in which certain cultures and religious are marked in advance as ineligible for tolerance while others are so hegemonic as to not even register as cultures or religious; they are instead labelled ‘mainstream’ or simply ‘American… [Tolerance[ operates from a conceit of neutrality that is actually thick with bourgeois Protestant norms.'” (p. 7)

If these hegemonic ‘cultures’ labelled at all; in fact, I think probably the most hegemonic position is that which doesn’t even need to be modified by an adjective like this. And as Brown points out, the distinction between the public and private spheres is key here in delineating the tolerable and the intolerable, and in enabling a kind of moralism to attend both individual behaviour and the reflection of it in the global political sphere.

“…[T]olerance as a mode of late modern governmentality that iterates the normalcy of the powerful and the deviance of the marginal responds to, links, and tames both unruly domestic identities or affinities and nonliberal transnational forces that tacitly or explicitly challenge the universal standing of liberal precepts. Tolerance regulates the presence of the Other both inside and outside the liberal democratic nation-state, and often it forms a circuit between them that legitimates the most illiberal actions of the state by means of a term consummately associated with liberalism.” (p. 8 )

One of the clearest domains in which this ‘circuiting’ of domestic and global politics occurs is that of immigration. The suspicion towards asylum seekers is both produced by and productive of a particular, imperialist mode of engaging in global politics. In Australia, this ‘circuiting’ lies even in the ways that certain groups are described: somehow particular groups of kids are labelled ‘Lebanese gangs,’ and the ‘of Middle-Eastern appearance’ epithet so regularly a part of designating suspects in the media. It ensures that all the weight of suspicion that already is cast over the Middle East comes to enforce particular ways of negotiating domestic politics; and, I think, it also shapes the social. The locking-together of these ‘levels’ via the concept of tolerance means that each is extraordinarily powerful. The ‘Children Overboard’ incident, for example, in which John Howard lied and claimed that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard, enabled him to claim that his domestic ‘border security’ policy was clearly what was required, because ‘those people’ had values ‘obviously’ had values so different from ours that ‘we’ wouldn’t want them here anyway. This evocation of differing cultural values drew upon the racism and xenophobia that already characterised the post-911 Western international politics, in order to reinforce domestic policy. The fact that Howard was re-elected pretty much off the back of this travesty demonstrates that individual Australians were solidly invested in this particular construction of selves, domestic and international politics. (Again, this post tracks some of this kind of logic.) Let’s not forget, in amongst all this, that the universal doctrine of human rights focused fairly squarely on enabling and producing tolerance, so it’s a term with strong history and investment (Brown goes further in this respect, but I’ll get to that later…)

More to follow soon!

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