privilege


I just finished reading Lisa Guenther’s really lovely article, “Shame and the temporality of social life” Conteingental Philosophy Review 2011. She explores the phenomenology of shame, starting with Sartre’s famous (and I like to think, true!) story about being caught peering into someone else’s room through a keyhole which grounds his account of shame as ontological, considering Levinas’ ethical account which situates shame as the pivotal moment that can enable murder or responsibility, then exploring Beauvoir’s account of gendered and colonialist shame as both oppressive and opening the way to solidarity. Given that my superpower is ambivalence, I love the way her account weaves together an image of the experience of shame as teetering, promising and refusing, offering and closing-down. I don’t want to discuss it in detail here, because it’s still marinating, but at the risk of spoiling you, I’ll just quote a paragraph or two from the end:

My aim in bringing these thinkers together has been to articulate the ontological, ethical and political ambivalence of shame as the feeling that most eloquently expresses our embodied entanglement with others, its its potential for both violence and solidarity, and to connect this ambivalent potential to the temporality of social life. In a world where social power is unevenly distributed along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and so many other ways of cutting up identity, there may be no social position free from the stickiness of shame. For manyo f us, these axes intersect in ways that privilege us in some respect and oppress us in others, entangling us in multiple and conflicting forms of shame. There may be no clean way to resolve teh ambivalent dynamics of shame, but this does not mean that we are doomed to remain stuck in the repetition of the same. Rather, it suggests that the politics of solidarity and collective responsibility is more than just our ethical and political obligation; it is our future. We only have a future, both personally and collectively, if we respond to the ontological, ethical and political provocations of shame in a way that shifts the focal point from preserving our own self-relation – our place in the world, what Levinas might call ‘ my place in the sun’ – towards a responsibility relation with others. This is not to say that everyone must advocate for everything at all times, but thereis not time – no future for the struggle against oppression – without an investment of our freedom and our vulnerability in collective responsibility and political solidarity with others.

The ambivalence of shame attests to the irreducibility of our exposure to others, both as the site of relationality and ethical responsibility, and as the site of its exploitation through oppression. The opening of ethics is not simple, but dangerous; the same exposure that makes responsibility possible also makes murder possible. But this also means that the impulse to murder and oppress – to deny the other an open future – remains bound to the very ethical command that it violates. I can murder the other, but I cannot silence the ethical command of the other; I can be complicit in the political exploitation of myself or others, but I cannot foreclose the possibility of solidarity. And as Beauvoir’s own political action shows, even when I do commit myself in solidarity to responsibility for others, I cannot guarantee that my own motives will be pure of self-interest. This ambivalence does not foreclose the provocations that open and re-open my own actions to critical interrogation; it presupposes them. Shame would not be possible if others did not matter to us; and because others matter, oppression is not the last word on shame but only one of its ambivalent possibilities. (np)

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I’ve been thinking a lot about disability of late, which won’t surprise those of you who have been sharing a particular corner of the blogosphere, in which awesome and fail appear to coexist in some kind of proportion in which the latter sadly sometimes seems to be winning out. In this analysis of the “Harmonisation of Disability Parking Permit Schemes in Australia”, I argue that the shift that is being proposed is from the social model of disability, to the medical model.

The medical model suggests that there is a way that the body ought to be, and any permanent ‘loss’ of such ‘normal’ capacities constitutes disability (and that this is a natural, neutral state of affairs that is no one’s fault—except the individual body, of course). This approach is the most mainstream, and it’s constitutive of much of the discrimination that disabled people (or people with disabilities, both terminologies having a different but important political point to make) experience.

The social model, which is offered as a counter to the medical model, suggests instead that the ‘loss’ of capacity occurs not because of the impairment itself, but because of the impairment in combination with a world built for the temporarily able-bodied. (And this doesn’t only refer to the built environment, of course: models of sociality, for example, are very strongly ableist).

There’s actually another step in this little spectrum, one which doesn’t get much screen time in activism (understandably, because it’s so far from the medical model, and such a challenge to it as to appear incomprehensible or nonsensical to those committed to the medical model). This suggests that even understanding particular bodies as impaired is the result of a presumption about the body. That is, it argues that disability begins at the moment when you understand some bodies as naturally unimpaired, and others as naturally impaired: the drawing of that line is not a neutral, naturally-given one, as we like to pretend. It is a political distinction that is, in itself, is invested with the ability system, which, as Lennard Davis argues, is what constitutes particular bodies as disabled, and thus as the problem. Davis recommends that whenever we see such a problem, we ought to ask how it is that this ‘problem’ is constituted as a problem, and be careful to observe the privilege that attends that which is not considered a problem. What makes disabled bodies into ‘those bodies with problems’? The presumption, essentially, that they ought to be otherwise: normal. And this in turn maintains the privilege of the able body.

The group who potentially loses out most dramatically in the proposed parking permit scheme is those with invisible disabilities, as Lauredhel demonstrates so clearly here. In response, I began thinking about what it meant to have an invisible disability. On the one hand, it might be that we could think of those with invisible disabilities as those who can ‘pass’ as able-bodied. And sometimes this is true, at least some of the time, and there’s little doubt that this ability to pass can lead to privilege as well as the problems associate with invisibility. For example, people approaching someone in a wheelchair will often talk to their assistant pushing the chair, as if the person with a disability is incapable of thought, conversation etc, and this kind of discrimination is something those who can walk are unlikely to confront. On the other hand, we can think more carefully, and see that those who have ‘invisible’ disabilities  are those whose differences simply don’t fit into someone’s expectation of what disability ought to be. And this means that legislation is likely to discriminate against those with ‘invisible’ disabilities because it is employing the medical model of disability. What does this mean? Well, hopefully this little story of mine might help.

Years ago, now, I was stepping out (sorry, I find that phrase hilarious and had to use it) with a young man who had a visual impairment. As he was doing a PhD, this meant that he couldn’t read at quite the rate he might have liked, and sometimes working on the computer was too much. I encouraged him to make use of whatever assistance the disability office at uni could offer him, even though I understood his fairly intense ambivalence about it. They were singularly unhelpful. He felt that they treated him as if he was ‘faking it’, on the one hand, and expecting too much of them on the other. The extension of his scholarship that he was hoping to get was, they told him, simply not going to be possible. I suggested that perhaps he should look to Centrelink’s Disability Allowance to help him fund the completion of his PhD. He picked up the forms, still unhappy about this prospect, even as he knew it was probably necessary, and brought them home.

I looked over his shoulder at the forms he was trying to fill out. He had ticked the box marked ‘visual impairment’, and been sent to another section. In this section, the form asked him for some proof from an opthalmologist. He hesitated. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve seen opthalmologists,” he explained. “But the issue isn’t in my eyes. It’s in my brain.”

His visual impairment, you see, wasn’t a loss of vision due to some problem in the eye, as the form assumed. He had been prone to migraines as a kid, and at some point (I think the age of 11, but this was a while ago), he had had an incredibly severe migraine. He recounted looking downwards, and having his entire left leg disappear in his blindspot. The auras had hung around—a permanent fixture, as it turned out. He saw multiple copies of everything, more or less depending on how good a day it was. Sometimes things looked like a badly tuned TV set, sometimes there were lines, sometimes… you get the idea. But although this interfered with his vision, it didn’t fit the form’s idea of what a visual impairment was. It didn’t seem to fit into any of the other categories either, as far as either of us could tell, although he might have argued a case under ‘having suffered a stroke’ except that that category seemed to think that difficulty speaking and walking would be the primary problems he’d have then. Frustrated and embarrassed, he stepped away from the idea, away from the forms. His impairment wasn’t real, couldn’t be argued for, proven, justified. Everyone would think he was faking it. I couldn’t think of what to say.

This is part of the problem with the medical model. It has a particular image of disability, generally involving the assumption of some level of dependence on others (because of course the temporarily able-bodied are so independent[snort!]), and it institutes this, medically, legislatively. And in so doing, it requires that people with disabilities be people with particular, recognisable kinds of disabilities. Instead of testing for how one is disabled by a particular thing—by inaccessible parking, by stairs, by having to stand to be served, by the university’s expectations of a student’s reading speed—that is, instead of testing for a real problem with the way the world works, it instead requires that you fit an existing imagining of disability. And this existing imagining of disability is very limited, and thoroughly bound up with able-bodied fantasies (nightmares) about disabled bodies: as people in wheelchairs, people who are blind, people who are deaf. And indeed, it assumes that it already knows the effects of each of these impairments, a point which the Deaf community knows and battles, arguing against the idea that Deafness is a lack, or a loss, or an impairment at all. The medical model homogenises disability unnecessarily, and more than this, it renders numerous disabilities invisible because they do not match up to this fantasy of what constitutes disability.

When we legislate according to the medical model, we legislate what disability ought to be, what disability ought to look like. We legislate the visibility of disability, and we do it by rendering a whole mass of heterogeneous bodies imperceptible, invisible, ignore their capacity to be disabled by an able-bodied world. We imagine visual impairments after a singular model where vision is only located in the eye. We imagine mobility restrictions only through difficulty with walking. We imagine that the solution to PWD (and it is a solution to, not a solution for) is compensating for their recalcitrant  body, a body we assume to know all about. We reject the idea that the world might need to be reworked, rethought, rebuilt, and instead maintain disability by maintaining the world as a place which expects certain ‘normal’ things of bodies, and which privileges those bodies which can live up to this ideal as a result. When we legislate according to the medial model of disability, we maintain the disabilities of those who don’t adhere to our nightmare visions of disability, because we’re busy pretending they don’t exist, erasing them from our construction of the world. We ensure that some people remain disabled because we don’t have the imagination to allow the category of ‘disability’ to be shaped by the heterogeneity of real bodies, the heterogeneity of real needs, the heterogeneity of the real ways that people live their lives. We refuse to produce legislation which tests not for ‘the impairment itself’, but for disability, because that might implicate the able-bodied, our standards of normalcy, might trouble the extraordinary privilege maintained only at the disadvantage of those who don’t live up to our standards. We render bodies which might trouble our limited imagining of difference invisible, and then shrug, and raise our hands in the air, and ask how we could possibly have known that such people even existed, and how we could possibly be expected to ‘cater to’ such exorbitant, excessive difference. The perceptibility of bodies is a key stake in the politics of disability, because disabilities aren’t invisible. They’re invisibilised.

P.S We’ve done a whole lot of the work of being active for you! Beppie, Lauredhel and I have given you some quick and easy ways to respond to the supposed “Harmonisation Scheme”: a form letter, and a letter encouraging organisations to submit a response.

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? ;-))

alettrine2.jpgND…. hiatus hereby ended! Well, fingers crossed. I’m about to hit a period of intensive writing. I can tell this because I really and truly have to. The whole annual review process is about to begin and [sigh] it always reminds me of just how far behind I am. I’ve decided that this is the perpetual condition of writing a PhD: you make plans, deadlines, knowing that they’re probably a little aspirational, but figuring it’s good to aim for something. And then the deadline passes, the chapter’s still not written, and then by the time it is the deadline for the next one is already passed and… so on, and so on, ad infinitum et nauseum et… I don’t know what ‘slow death by thesis’ is in Latin, but ad that too.

I’m conscious, too, that being outed has massively altered what I’m writing about, and in ways I dislike. So this is an attempt to get my thesis-y stuff up here again, hopefully without too many agonising caveats, addendums, apologia et… ugh! What is it about Latin infecting me today?

This post builds on others I’ve put up, and I’m sorry if this sends you on hyperlinked flight-lines throughout my blog; writing a thesis makes it incredibly difficult to contain… well, anything! So I’ve written a fair bit here about Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, particularly in relation to “The Child’s Relation with Others”, but also applying it to other things—race, for example. My work, actually, is primarily on technologies of bodily alteration, and concepts of normalcy. At this point, though, I want to introduce another element: that of the gift. The Australian philosopher Rosalyn Diprose and her book Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas has heavily influence my thinking here, although, as we’ll see, I have some concerns about it too.

In effect, what Diprose suggests is that the intertwining of self and other that Merleau-Ponty characterises as grounding subjectivity is in fact a process of corporeal generosity. The other gives me the ways of being which I adopt, adapt, recognise and misrecognise and embody. These gifts are never-ending; indeed, my being-in-the-world is perpetually in process, however much it might become sedimented through repetition. (I’m tempted to link to Fido the Yak here, in his semi-anxious musings on the impossibility of repetition and the resultant production of the absurd, but I fear I haven’t grasped it well enough to really engage it properly here. Nonetheless, the tango with the impossible sounds like a perfect way to spend an evening, and thus I can’t let the opportunity to point it all out to you pass by. I intend, Fido, to come back to these questions, if only because I can’t help but have misgivings about the dovetailing of Merleau-Ponty’s weighted term ‘sedimentation,’ and the difference-excising practice of recognising something as repetition. But to the gift.)

The generosity of these others is, importantly, not merely about giving me a pattern of behaviour to take on, but also a gift of difference. It is only in and through this gift of difference that I can come to recognise myself not only as a subject, but as a subject different from others. The corporeal generosity of others not only gives me ways of being-in-the-world (in echo of their comportments) but also gives me their difference, thus enabling my own, different ways of being-in-the-world. In this respect, Diprose argues, corporeal generosity is like differance (hm. If anyone knows how to acute ‘e’s in wordpress, please do let me know. I’ve been lazy up til now, but differance cries out for a touch of French figural difference!) It dwells between subject and other, providing their ‘spacing’: the space that both binds them together and separates them. Diprose’s version:

Contrary to Machan’s thesis, that only in a polity of sovereign property owners is generosity possible, Derrida’s analysis suggests that it is precisely this economy of contract and exchange between self-present individuals that makes generosity impossible. The gift is only possible if it goes unrecognised, if it is not commodified, if it is forgotten by the donor and the donee so that presence (the gift as (a) present and the presence of both the donor and donee) is deferred. (23-24)

This aporia of the gift would not matter much if it was not for the way Derrida, following Heidegger, ties the gift to the gift-event of Being: Being gives itself int he present on the condition that it is not (a) present (Derrida, 1990, 20, 27). In deference to this qualification read Derrida’s account of the gift as a version of his account of the constitution of self-identity and difference: like differance, generosity describes the operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists the full presence of meaning, identity, and Being, so that the self is dispersed into the other. Derrida defines difference as

the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive… production fothe intervals without which the ‘full’ terms would not signify, would not function. (Derrida 1981, 27)

Self-identity, a manner of being, cannot be constituted without a production of an interval or a difference between the self and the other. No self-present identity, no relation to Being, is generated without this relation to the other [for reasons I’ll go into soon, I’d like to note that I would have put ‘otherness’ here rather than the other…]. (Corporeal Generosity, pp. 6-7)

So we can see here that Diprose is emphasising Levinas over Heidegger here, in testifying to the primacy (or, better, the pre-originari-ness, or anarchic-ness) of the ethical relation (the one with the other). Okay, but here comes the edge by which Diprose will articulate her critique of Derrida:

As one’s identity and social values are produced through a differentiation between the self and the otehr then the idenitty of the self is dispersed into the other. Differance, like giving-itself, describes an operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists and disorganises the totalization or full presence of meaning, identity, or Being. It is the operation of differeance that insists on the gift: the ultimate dispersal of all identity within the event of its constitution. Giving is that which puts the circle of exchange in motion and that which exceeds and disrupts it (Derrida, 1992, 30). And this impossible structure of the gift is such that if self-present identity is claimed in being given to the other, a debt to the other is incurred. (Corp Gen, 7)

To mark my ‘debts’ here, I should point out to those who might recall it an exchange I had with FoucaultIsDead before he disappeared off the intertoobs (or into a new pseudonym, perhaps?). He suggested (if I recall correctly; I may not, so feel free, FiD, if you’re about, to correct me in comments/via the contact form), in response to my Private Law, that indebtedness is the key term by which our political and ethical investments occur. I responded that this wasn’t my understanding, and here I can finally say with sufficient context that the sense of indebtedness arises only in the recognition of the gift, and in the concommittant assertion of strict division between self and other. This is a hint towards a future post and the final discussion of my thesis, so I won’t go on about it now; I suspect that there are, actually ways of testifying to the gifts I have been given that don’t fall into the commodifying, individualising of traps of recognition. (Ms. Pepperell, this reminds me I really ought to address this with you! I have a sneaking suspicion that your distrust of Honneth and the rest of the recognition-obsessed crowd dovetails quite intriguingly with this point.)

Anyway, to return to Diprose’s critique of Derrida. The traditional conception of generosity is what she’s using Derrida to critique here, but it’s also what prompts her concerns with his theory:

Understanding generosity in terms of Derrida’s analysis of the impossibility of the gift helps locate the parsimony endorsed by other accounts such as Machan’s. Machan’s claim that individual sovereignty and property ownership come before gnerosity overlooks the possibility that in claiming freedom and property as one’s own, soemthing has already been taken from other. The generosity of the individual property owner who gives his or her acquisitions, which is the only generosity that Machan recognises, is built on the generosity of others that Machan would rather forget… (Corp Gen, 8)

Here we see the element of economic critique that threads through Diprose’s concerns. It is, of course, the observation that in order for a profit to be made, workers need to be paid less than their work is actually worth. Here we can see an echo of Brown’s pointing out of the tolerance embodied by many of those disadvantaged, who, willingly or not, give stability to the economy through the gift of their tolerance of their own exploitation. Diprose puts it this way, though:

In suggesting that generosity is infected with a selective forgetting, I have already added to Derrida’s analyses of the impossibility of the gift, at least by insisting on a different emphasis. By tying the gift to its radical forgetting and its operation to the deferral of self-present identity, Derrida’s account may help expose the individualism and parsimony of Machan’s and One Nation’s [that’s a ultra-racist, ultra-right-wing party that has managed to do some pretty nasty stuff to the political spectrum in Australia, for those who don’t know] positions, but it also invites interpretations of his work that are no more concerned with social justice than Machan or One Nation seem to be. Critiques of individualism and the metaphysics of presence can and have lead [sic] to (postmodern [I want to add, in the pejorative sense, here, given that I have issues some ungenerous definitions of postmodern]) claims, although not by Derrida, of the death of individual sovereignty in faor of the dispersal of identity and meaning. Emphasising the way that the gift does its work only by being forgotten and then throught he dispersal of presence overlooks how, in practice, the generosity and the gifts of some (property owner, men, wage earners, whites) tend to be recognised and remembered more often than the generosity and gifts of others (the landless, women, the unemployed, indigenous peoples, and immigrants).It is the systematic, asymmetrical forgetting of the gift, where only the generosity of the privileged is memorialized, that social inequities and injustice are based. In attending to the connection between generosity and social justie, which is the aim of all the analyses in this book, it is necessary to shift the emphasis away from, while keeping in mind the aporia of the gift to… address the question of the systematic but asymmetrical forgetting of the gift that allows the generosity of the forgotten and the parsimony of the memorialized to constitute hierarchical relations of domination within economies of contract and exchange. (Corp Gen, 8-9)

Okay, so here we have a sense of what memorialising and forgetting are: they are the economic, social and political engagements with the gift, the ways of making present that which cannot be made present without being utterly changed. This is the point that Levinasians the world over continually struggle with: how do the ethical and the political interact? If ethics always comes before politics, does this mean that ethics can only shape politics (as Levinas claims it should) whilst politics can never shape ethics? Obviously, Diprose takes Derrida’s (and others’, such as Bernasconi’s) position with regard this matter, and in a convincing way. There are particular ethical relations and gifts that are continually recognised, continually marked as generous, and thus function as a key part of the privilege attached to the donor (generosity becomes a mark of privilege, here.) On the other hand, there are gifts that are rarely, if ever, recognised as gifts. This might leave them being gifts, but it also means, for example, that the gifts traditionally been given by women in (say) the sustenance of the body politic through the maintenance of the home and thus the well-being of the worker, and in the (re)production of new workers of course (raised with good, generous work ethics) remains unrecognised, irrelevant. Although this ensures that these gifts remain gifts, challenging (however quietly) the self-presence of identity, it also means that these gifts can never figure in the economic or political sphere, and thus the privilege of being recognised as generous is denied women; after all, this generosity is merely who they are, naturally. (I’m actually (not quite) resisting the urge to poke Sinthome at this point, given his recent post on properties, by-products, individuals, naturalisation and (is this unfair?) essences). On the other hand, privilege attaches to recognised generosity: the philanthropist (to pick a banal and obvious example) who gives money to an institution has his/her generosity recognised, and the gift becomes a kind of commodity, offered (however much they may not seek return) in exchange for the increase in his/her privilege. Which of course enables the recognition of them as generous personages, and thus enables the recognition of whatever else they (or, significantly, other subjects identified as ‘the same as’ them) ‘give’. This is how the ethical and the political are intertwined: only some gifts are recognised, and this recognition in turn enables some subjects as generous contributors to the being of others… and thus are injustices produced and reproduced…

To come in this series: the forgetting required in order to memorialise, memorialising and forgetting in the flesh, body modification, my concerns about the consequences of Diprose’s position, responsible comportments and, hopefully, eventually, some consideration of the significance of why tolerance of others is irresponsible, where the tolerance of otherness is key… tantalising? Well, it is for me 😉 Maybe, one day, I’ll actually be able to make the point that I want to ‘finish’ my thesis on…. hey, I can dream!

MICHELE Le Doeuff:

Discretion is obligatory when one slips into the room where a doctoral viva is being held. Indeed Sorbford University has inherited from its British past the conviction that such thing should not be public at all. Its French past, on the other hand, has instilled into it the certainty that only silent witnesses lacking the faculty of memory may legitimately be present at this delicate moment in someone’s life. Their role will be to give a friendly pat on the back afterwards to this small woman who is presently perched on a chair like a nervous bird and defending a thesis on Kant weighing several kilos. Opposite her on the platform is a long desk covered with a heavy-looking material, like brocade. Behind this desk sit five gentlemen all in a row; these are the panel of examiners. One of them is speaking at this moment and, indisputably, he can see her. Can she see him? Is she allowing herself to observe the shape of his chin, of his ears and hands? Has she even noticed the slightly odd tone of his voice, which is saying, ‘Madame, in your bibliography you have omitted to cite Nabert. How, Madame, could you have forgotten to cite Nabert? Nabert whose fine Kantian beard everyoen remembers. And when I speak of Nabert’s Kantian beard (pause), I do not mean ‘a fine beard like Kant’s’ (pause), for like everyone else I know that Kant was cleanshaven. I simply mean that all the great commentators on Kant have always worn fine patriarchal beards like Nabert’s.’

Addressed to all, this book is particularly dedicated to those young women preparing to enter a world where it will be held against them that they do not belong to the side of the Almighty, and thus that they believe and spread the belief that intelligence lies elsewhere. (Hipparchia’s Choice, xi)

I don’t doubt that this kind of insult is this unsubtle these days; nonetheless, the point, I think, stands, as Haslanger [pdf] reminds us. Actually, Le Doeuff’s humour and wit are a pleasure to come back to:

Since we are moving towards Europe in any case, intellectually as in other ways, it would be most unwise to leave our new-born community with nothing but godfathers who are more than happy to be all men together. Imagining what these heirs of Hegel (who describes women as the enemy within), of Tocqueville (who thinks it is not such a bad thing for them to be sad), of Vives (who approves of those who deprive women of shoes so that they have to stay at home) and of Samuel Johnson (who compares women who speak in public to dancing poodles) might be capable of doing with all of us, men and women, if we leave all the decision making to them is definitely a cause for serious anxiety. (xii)

and in the latter, ‘acknowledgement’-y part of her Preface she says:

As for those men and women whom I should like to thank, ‘there are so many of you that it is impossible to name you all individually, and it would be shameful to leave anyone out’, as Cicero said to those who brought him back from exile. I hope that in this book you will see the love of life with which you inspire me. A debt greater than words can say is sweet indeed. And then I could not write here what one so often reads elsewhere: ‘Lastly, I should like to thank my wife, who typed the seven successive versions of my manuscript; who so graciously agreed that I should spend a great deal fo my time abroad for my research; who helped me by reading a great number of general works for me, including some in the Bibliotheque Nationale; my dear wife, whose good humour has been my constant support; occasionally bringing me back to the level of daily life as not the least of her virtues and contributions to my work.’

As Virginia Woolf said, the truer the facts the better the fiction: I beg the reader to note that no similarity between the fruits of my imagination and real situations is accidental. (xiii)

Ah, razor sharp and generous… what more can I say? I love it!

FOR the course I’m tutoring this semester, we’re reading Bluff Rock: Autobiography of a Massacre by Katrina Schlunke. It’s an engagement with the stories woven around Bluff Rock, a big granite outcrop in the New England, an area of New South Wales where Schlunke grew up. At the heart is a concern with the engagement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people around and as part of ‘settlement,’ most particularly the massacre(s) of Aboriginal people that occurred as part of this process. It is, in the end, a thoroughly fictocritical account, a non-fiction novel. Christos Tsiolkas (who wrote Dead Europe and Loaded, later made into a movie called Head On) offers glowing praise:

Bluff Rock is analytical and wise, by which I mean the scholarship and research is rigorous but also committed to the historian’s task of making argument lucid and understandable. The book is also impassioned and honest, by which I mean it is driven by the ethical obligation to explore racist interpretations of the pas tin order to illuminate how racism functions in the words, actions and psyches of our present.

Katrina Schlunke’s book achieves what many of us hope from cultural theory, that through an investigation of language, words and culture, we come to a questioning of history, politics and the treacherous relationship between memory and myth. Her objective terrain is the contested arena of racist war in Australia, but her terrain is also how our ways of seeing race, colonialism, being white and being Aborigine have been formed by cultural forms and expressions that have made us repress signs of both violence and resistance in the landscape.

It’s an interesting book, a beautiful challenge to the deathly whiteness of Keith Windschuttle’s attempts at ‘Australian history,’ valuable also because it demonstrates that an awareness of one’s own whiteness permits a new and different way of doing history, one which need not conclude in guilty paralysis, nor reiterate innocence in the face of destruction.

An excerpt:

The saved child

Coming on them on the side of a deep precipice, the avenging party attacked them and wiped them out, with the exception of one small piccaninny. The little chap ran to Bill Bates and clung to his legs and was spared. William Bates kept and reared him (the boy). He was always grateful and useful to him in after years.

The Aborigines withdrew to higher ground until they found themselves between a precipice and their pursuers. The entire group, women and children were driven over the edge—with the exception of one small boy, the only survivor. This boy, incidentally, was brought up very successfully by one of the white men involved. They developed a strong feeling of devotion to each other.

This was also a story I was told in Tenterfield. The story was that the child grew up, and when dead, was buried at the foot of the Bluff. One might see the grave; I found nothing. William Bates’ son says nothing about having an adopted Aboriginal brother. Campbell (the author of the second quote above, which is from his thesis) acknowledges no source for his statement; it could well have been the collected oral histories from the Tenterfield Historical Society records (as in the first quote above). There is no supporting objective evidence in the shape of graves or in the shape of adults who have come forward to tell of their unusual upbringing, but the story keeps on being told and written. Campbell’s confident assertion—in a thesis, no less—even makes it official history. But if it is not true, why would people invent or believe such a tale? What does this story do?

First, it individualises morality. While a group was chasing and killing, when one child appealed to one of these killers, he ‘saved’ the child. This same man, we assume, could not and did not wish to stop killing all the others, but he did save one child. It wants to tell us that these men were not entirely monsters; that they also had a fundamental humanity. That close up, when appealed to directly, one man’s choice was to save a child. But could we call this ‘humanity’? Is this how the sensibility that led to the more systematic Stolen Generations began? When an Aboriginal child was told it was lucky to have been ‘saved’, stolen up from death, ‘rescued’ from ‘wild blacks’ to become ‘grateful’ and ‘useful’, ‘devoted’ and successfully ‘brought up‘? But if one child could be saved, why not all of the group? One can begin to see why the Romantic imagination strained within colonialism. The innocent child saved but the rest killed—why? The sentiment attached to children frayed and played itself out alongside the raw and unromantic slaughter.

Children were also involved in other massacres. About two hours from Bluff Rock is Myall Creek, where in 1838 (six years before Irby et al. carried out their ‘punishment’ [in the massacre described above]) Kilmeister et al. were slaughtering a group of children, women and men. Some of the perpetrators, all current or ex-convicts, were eventually hanged amongst general outrage that any white man should died for killing Indigenous Australians. They were not found guilty at their first trail, which was for killing an Aboriginal known as ‘Daddy’, but in their second trial they were found guilty on five counts of th e’murder of an Aboriginal Black Child who name was to the Attorney-General unknown.’ This child had been identified by its rib bones, a jaw bone and some teeth. In Tales of Old Times: Early Australian Incident and Adventure (1903), Chomley records Anderson (the hutkeeper) saying about the group on Myall Creek that:

There was a little child at the back of the hut when they were tying this party; and when the blacks and party were going away, this little child as I thought, was going to follow the party with its mother, but I took hold of it and put it into the hut and stopped it from going.

However, in his first sworn statement about the event, Anderson says the following:

All the black at the station were taken away except Davy and his brother Billy, two Black gins a pickininny [a little boy] and two little boys who saved themselves when the horsemen were coming up by jumping into the creek. The Men left a black Gin with me saying she was a good looking Gin. They gave another to Davy. The little child came from behind the hut when they were taking the blacks away as I thought to follow them. I put him into the hut and shut the door—they did not come back after him.

One of the reasons, then, that Anderson (and Davy) didn’t act to stop the larger slaughter was that they were given women to do with what they wished. It could also be said therefore that Kilmeister ‘saved’ two Aboriginal women—but they were saved only to be raped? used? by others. There was another woman ‘saved’ from this massacre by another man. She was the mother of Charly, a small boy (noted for his ‘familiar and friendly way’) whom Davy had tried to save—but ‘he would go along with mammy’. Charly was killed, but his mother, according to other evidence, was picked out by John Blake, who kept her, saved her, for ‘future use’. Like putting pennies in the bank—this woman was ‘saved’ as only the most brutal white economic metaphor can imply. The colonial rationality of economy. Did this lone woman, the mother of at least one of the suggested ten to twelve children killed, imagine that she was saved in any other sense? Was death by slaughter something worse in her psychology and cosmology than knowing all her group had been beheaded, stabbed, burnt? Would it have been better than being taken away from ehr country, used by Blake and perhaps others? Did she think she was saved? Might there also have been Aboriginal women taken from others of the massacres carried out around Tenterfield? And were children also used sexually and economically? What did Bates, of ‘The Bluff Rock Massacre’, intend for his ‘saved’ child? Was the child of Bluff Rock saved because a dead child had hanged the others who had massacred at Myall Creek? Had the word come back from the Sydney—not only don’t tell anyone about killing Aboriginal people, but particularly don’t tell of killing children?

The child of ‘The Bluff Rock Massacre’ had seen (we assume) his closest relations and friends ‘wiped out’, but he ran toward the legs of one of these shooters and was ‘spared’. This little boy ran across and made his physical presence felt to a man holding a gun. The little boy clung to the man’s legs and hte man couldn’t shoot. At that moment the man could have thrown the boy aside and shot him, but at that moemnt he didn’t. And so the story goes that this unnamed boy was always ‘grateful and useful’—he had been saved up for later, careful, use. He didn’t send those who massacred to be hanged.

In the early years of carrying to and from the coast the blacks would occasionally raid the teams. When Bates’ teams were threatened, this boy would help to defend them and would persuade the wild blacks not to attack, so that his [Bates’] loads were never raided.

And so the saved becomes the saviour on a regular basis. (pp. 104-108)

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

Warned.

They are coming!

Warned.

Warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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