I’ve just been reading a paper called “The Problem of Suffering and the Sociological Task of Theodicy,” written by David Morgan and Iain Wilkinson, at the same time as re-reading Levinas’ “Useless Suffering“, mostly to find juicy quotes (Levinas has to be one of the least quotable philosophers I know of – well, that’ s not quite right. He’s very quotable, but only at length. It’s an issue). I guess I’m back to thinking about suffering. I suspect I’ll never escape it!

But the paper from Morgan and Wilkinson I found a bit troubling. First of all, there’s a bit of a lack of clarity in the way that they differentiate ‘theodicy’ and ‘sociodicy’ and ‘inverted sociodicies’ (?). They claim that the first is, as we might be familiar with already, the justification for the belief in god despite the existence of suffering. The second, they suggest, is kind of like the same, only it’s about the belief in, y’know, progress. As Levinas puts it in “Useless Suffering,” this is mostly about the faith in a ‘kingdom of transcendent ends’, which of course for me evokes the Nietzschean critique of the ‘two worlds’ in Platonic Christianity. And the final, ‘inverted sociodicies’, is “brings from obscurity the ‘hidden hurts, fears and desperate cravings’ without which the ‘real story’ of the twentieth century cannot be told (Graubard)”. (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 205). This would be the one that Morgan and Wilkinson see their own project as part of. I have a lot of sympathy with their position on this, really I do, although there’s a bit of carrying-on about how no one else (except a select inner circle) has been doing these ‘inverted sociodicies’ before which I think is indicative of a real failure to grasp what precisely is going on here. I am not convinced that no one else in academia has, at the centre of the drive for their work, a desire to name sufferings that have not been named, or a desire to alleviate those sufferings in some way. Maybe I’m just hopeful, but I honestly find it very difficult to believe. I think that one of the things that’s interesting about a lot of academic work is the various manifestations of that ethical impulse, and the ways that institutions so commonly fail to sustain it. Anyway.

What’s interesting to me, though, about their desire to participate in these ‘inverted sociodicies’ (which, to be upfront here, I’m going to argue are less ‘inverted’ as failing to grasp how thorough-going theodicy/sociodicy are in the commitment to the grand narratives) is that it hangs on a very particular conception of knowledge and language.

Despite numerous well-respected claims to the contrary – from Levinas, from Elaine Scarry, from Schopenhauer, amongst others – they argue that suffering can and should be articulated, be made meaningful, be made, specifically, the object of knowledge. Not knowledge of where and how suffering occurs, but knowledge of what suffering is like. The experience of it. In one of the bits that made me particularly indignant, they suggest first that suffering ‘lies in our “capacity for knowledge”, and then declare that “there is a paradox here, for whilst suffering appears to depend on the need to impose meaning on our lives, suffering is often at its most unbearable when meaning is the very thing it negates.’ (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 203).  They then refer to Levinas, whose description of the phenomenology of suffering contains this (as I’ll show) erroneous quote:  “Taken as an experienced content, the denial and refusal of meaning which is imposed as a sensible quality is the way in which the unbearable is precisely borne by consciosuness, the way this not-being-borne is, paradoxically, itself a sensation or a given.” In this quote, they leave out a key word: “the way in which the unbearable is precisely not borne.” This is not about stocism, and nor is it about an underlying subject who is capable of bearing the unbearable sensation, who will always persist. This is about the sensation of the complete decimation of the subject. This is, as I’ve described it elsewhere, about the breaking apart of a world (which is meaningful, though not in the way that Wilkinson and Morgan argue it is (rationalish) but in the way that Levinas describes – a world opened to the other).

But Levinas also makes a distinction between suffering-in-me-for-the-suffering-other (which has as its meaning compassion, according to him: ethics, in some sense), whilst the suffering other is an outrage, a useless, meaningless evil which cannot be given meaning without doing (more) violence.  But Wilkinson and Morgan go on to suggest that the problem is that we just haven’t yet come up with the proper, adequate language yet. And when we do, we will be able to really progress forward, according to them. This, I think, is a complete failure to grasp what’s going on, but more than this, it subjects suffering to precisely the same modernist endeavour that has shaped the ideals of progress that they are apparently so wary of. KNOW EVERYTHING.

Suffering hasn’t arisen as the dark-but-expungable underside of modernist progressive drives. In fact, most of those modernist progressive drives take as their justification the relief of suffering. Look at Lyotard’s two grand narratives: the March to Freedom (thanks Marx!) and the Progress of the Spirit (shout out to (not) my boy, Hegel!). These are not motivated by a selfish desire to ‘enhance’ the world, not really. They are motivated, at least in part, precisely by the desire to alleviate suffering. Let’s make no mistake: the reason that Nazism, source of such suffering, became comprehensible to everyday Germans wasn’t through simple irrationality, through a straightforward failure to be concerned with suffering. It was precisely because it was made rational. As Foucault put it, what we saw in the 19th and 20th centuries was the development of a very particular kind of racism, supported by the ‘avalanche of numbers’ (Hacking). This racism divided the world into the subracial and the superracial. We can see where this is going. But the point here is that the genocide of the subracial was precisely justified as a strengthening  of the population, as a future-focussed, utopian drive towards a world in which no one suffered, in which everyone was strong, and able-bodied, and strong of mind, and fertile, and strong. A world in which none would have to suffer, and indeed, in which one may be maximally free. Foucault has some really nice ways of describing it in Society Must Be Defended – something about how the ‘vital principle’ was sustained through the excision of the subracial. And these stories, which were never delimited to Nazi Germany anyway, Western Nurembergian protests notwithstanding,  go on and on and on, now! The story we tell now is that you wouldn’t suffer if you’d just be whiter, more masculine, more able-bodied, more neurotypical, more more more ideal, more normal.

The point here is that I really do sympathise with Morgan and Wilkinson’s attempt to try and shed some light on the mucky and often-obscured underside of the shiny story of progress. But to do this in the name of that progress, to claim that progress and suffering are here simply in “an irreconcilable and destabilizing tension between the civilizing ideals of reason and the record of exploitation, violence and suffering which has been inflicted upon nations, ethinic communities and globally vulnerable groups” (p. 210), well, that seems to me to be a complete failure to grasp precisely what is at stake here. This shiny story of progress is earned on the backs of that suffering, because the shiny story of progress has no time, nor space, for difference, as Lyotard was so at pains to point out. It plays a key role in producing, manifesting, concealing and, yes, justifying, that suffering.

I don’t have the answers here. These are not simple matters. Part of why they are not simple is because it is so very easy to get so caught up in the commitment to the ethical alleviation of suffering that one puts faith in whatever brings that alleviation closer quicker, without really engaging fully with the genealogy of the complex structures within which we’re operating.  But the seductive ease of the equation of knowing more with progress in negotiating suffering… we need, desparately, to remain critical about that. Because theodicy structures our cultural logics, promising utopias (if we could all just become one, become equal, become same) and sustaining anguish and suffering in the here and now…

OR those of you who have been readers of this blog for a while, you’ll know that vampires tend to crop up around me… well, in the pop culture I like to consume. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a big, long-standing favourite with me, for example. And I reviewed Elizabeth Knox’s Daylight a while back. And as I mentioned there (I think?), Sue Ellen Case grounds a lot of this fascination for me. In ‘Tracking the Vampire’ she argued (this was a while ago now) that vampires inhabit a liminal space, figured primarily as life and death. Given the tendency to homologise our binaries (oh yeah, baby, give me more, always more ;-P) this turned into a bigger ontological challenge, blurring the lines between a whole series of differences: between straight and gay, between male and female, between reproductive and non-reproductive and so on… and this, she argued, was precisely queer.

This is part of what fascinated me about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and part of why I think the stories about sexuality recounted in around and through BtVS are more complex than at least some people seem to think. I still remember a film student friend of mine gasping at all the symbolic significance of Spike (under the influence of the First Evil (caps necessary)) oh-so-sensually mouthing at a gash in Buffy’s arm. Mmm hmm. Kids’ TV? Nothin’ to see here, folks, move along. 😉

So a while back now, I saw the pilot for True Blood. Ooh! Alan Ball! All cool with the Six-Feet-Under-ness of him! Ooh! Anna Paquin! All dark eyes and kissable (or is it?) mouth! Ooh! Vampires! I decided that I would give into my trashy urges and try vampire fiction again. Who knew, maybe someone could do something with a slightly less puritannical heroine than Anita Blake (maybe she got better, but ugh, save me from a girl with too clear a sense of right and wrong!). So in quick succession (I can’t really imagine reading them any other way) I read the Sookie Stackhouse series. Or, as it’s also known, the Southern Vampire series, by Charlaine Harris. These are the books Alan Ball is basing this new TV series on.

The books are, in themselves, that kind of easy-to-read, fun, never-going-to-be-high-lit-thank-fuck stories which made me dream of lazy holidays. They play on the down-home-ness of the American South, as well as the violence and racism of it. But they draw out some interesting things about the figure of the vampire in contemporary pop culture, and that’s one of the things I want to talk about.

It’s not unusual to see BtVS critiqued (and totally fairly) for its whiteness. There’s a particular line of argument which suggests that vampires and demons are taken as representatives of racialised others, the otherness which is consistently situated as threatening and (at least by Buffy) threatened by our heroes. I’m never entirely sure about this slippage between other-worldly and race, not least because I think that vampires manage to encapsulate, to different degrees in different spaces, a variety of forms of difference. They shape shift according to the work they’re being made to do.

But in Charlaine Harris’ books, the parallel is explicit. The setting of the American South is, I think, no accident. But it’s not just race. Vampires have recently ‘come out of the coffin’ (aheh aheh) and are now lobbying to have the same rights as humans (through the passing of the Vampire Rights Act). What precipitated this coming out? The development of artificial blood by a Japanese pharmaceutical company. Our brand spanking new blond heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, has numerous arguments with lots of different people about not being prejudiced against vampires. In the extra-long opening credits, which involve images of sex and death and Southernness (rivers and road kill and crocodiles and white trash sexy-dancing, and kids in KKK hoods and gospel-singing black people and mostly-naked girls, bar brawls and baptisms) set all in amongst each other to the tune of Jace Everett’s ‘Bad Things’, there’s a shot of a backlit sign that says ‘God Hates Fangs.’ Hilariously, and this really did make me laugh out loud, we catch a glimpse in episode two of a newspaper bearing the headline ‘Angelina adopts vampire baby.’ In fact, I can’t remember if it’s in the book, but in the series, she responds to her (Black) friend Tara warning her that all a vampire wants is to suck your blood by saying ‘Yes, and all Blacks are lazy and Jews all have horns.’ Except that as she’s reminded, drinking artificial blood is probably comparable to living on SlimFast… Sookie’s defence of vampire rights seems to be at least partly premised on a denial of this particular threat, especially when she’s defending her decisions to others: she argues that they can, will and should assimilate… while drinking lots of fake blood and having small kitchens (coz they don’t need to cook). But this isn’t the whole story: she also wants, and I mean wants, the vampire of her small town of Bon Temps. His name, my friends, is Bill. [giggle]

She’s drawn to him. Part of this plays out through another supernatural phenomenon: our friend Sookie is not only a waitress, she’s a telepath. Makes dating, amongst numerous other things, a bit of a bitch. (‘Is she a natural blond, nothing worse than a big black bush,’ ‘Maybe she’ll stop me dreaming about Matt Damon,’ ‘Wow, never thought those thighs would be quite that size,’ or ‘Wow, I wish she’d stop talking, she’s really annoying,’ or ‘I just want sex right now’ etc; though they stick with the earlier two, coz they’re funnier… (and maybe less critical of conventional masculinity?)). Vampires, though, don’t send out brain waves, so it’s kinda peaceful for our Sook, being around them. In some sense, it’s an unusual take on thinking about relationships in contemporary culture, which is usually ‘communicate every fucking little thing’…

But she is drawn to him. Scott Winant’s direction of this relies on long close-up shots of Anna Paquin looking wide-eyed, mostly, and lots of pregnant silences. Oh, and Stephen Moyer, playing Bill, looking mysterious, a bit pale, and mostly up from under his eyebrows. Hey, if an evil sexy look works, I say work it. In a moment that recalls the scene from BtVS described above, though, Bill offers Sookie his blood when she is mortally injured. She at first rejects it, not wanting to become a vampire, but once he reassures her this won’t happen, she suckles on down on his wrist. And wow… if my old friend Katy thought Spike’s lipping of Buffy’s wound evoked cunnilingus, I wonder what she thought of this: the moment is Loooong, and despite Sookie’s battered state, both her hands wrap around Bill’s wrist, capturing, drawing him closer, stroking, while her mouth does some serious work. They’re both half-frowning. There’s no missing the significance (well, okay, maybe I’m just dirty-minded or have read too much psychoanalysis, but c’mon!).

Of course, what’s particularly interesting about this is that it inverts the usual ‘first taste’ story—and there’s a Fiona Apple nod later in the episode, albeit evoking Sookie’s desire for sex/vampire suckage. But at least in this case, this isn’t about sweet virginal Sookie getting penetrated and made into a bad, evil, undead thing. Instead, she drinks deep. Bill’s maleness becomes complicated by a site that penetrates the supposedly inviolate male body (and there’s something intriguing, I think, about the fact that he bites himself so that she can drink). The sexualising of this shifts away from simple reproductive het sex, and into something queerer (as Sue Ellen Case would suggest).

But what’s also interesting is the effects of this queer exchange (and yes, he ‘cleans her up’, licking away the blood that covers her face (apart from, in a shot I suspect was not intended this way, but which I found cool and amusing anyway, a moustachioed crusting of dried blood)). As Bill explains to her later on, not only does this let her heal, but it heightens her senses and her – cue his cute Southern embarrassment – libido. In the book, it enhances her attractiveness, making her skin glow, her hair lighter, her eyes brighter… but I guess Anna Paquin doesn’t get much better? 😉 But intriguingly here, we have something other than assimilation happening: we have the blond white mortal girl altered by her interaction with the vampire. She’s made other than what she was. And in turn, he is altered by her blood: he knows where she is, and how she’s feeling. There’s a blurring, then, of the lines between Sookie and Bill, between their different ‘races’, between their self-contained identities. She shares in some of his sense of the world as her senses sharpen. He shares in her emotional state. As she says to him, “You were just licking blood out of my head. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.” (And Bill’s thinking “You ain’t see nothin’ yet, honey,” I’m sure. Lucky about that non-telepathic with vampires thing, huh?)

This will get more complicated as the series progresses: there are more vampires, there’s more blood-sucking, and some other fun stuff (shape shifters! werewolves! fairies (both magical and queer!)! maenads! dwarves! and so on). Sookie meets more vampires, shares her blood with them, and has some of their blood too. (Bill’s not going to be all that forever). Each of these is significant. She gets a decent amount of sexin’ from various males of various speices round about the place, and each of these ties bind, in different ways and to different extents.There’s more evocation of the ties between folks through the sharing of blood or magic. For example, Sookie’s brother, Jason, winds up bitten by a werepanther (thereby producing not a genuine shape-shifter, but a half-man, half-panther combo) because this werepanther wants the girl (also a werepanther) that Jason is sleeping with; Jason is preferable because he comes from outside their shared  community of shapeshifters, which has become so inbred many are permanently caught as half-panther beings. So the werepanther seeks to bind Jason into the community and thereby make him less attractive to the girl werepanther so that Jason won’t be the better choice anymore. (Confusing, huh?).

And I suppose in the end, this is what is intriguing to me: the supernatural, and particularly horror-focused evocations of it, seems to focus so clearly on undermining the self-containment of the liberal humanist individual. It makes the intercorporeal literal in the sharing of blood, and in the consequences of that sharing. This is, of course, Kristeva’s point, when she talks about how the abject functions: it dwells in the space between subject and object: both me and not-me, testifying to the incompleteness, the necessary permeability of my boundaries. For her, the edges of the body represent the containment and delineation of the subject. Thus the abject is both the condition for the possibility of my being an individual, and testimony to its impossibility too. And the powers of horror, as the essay is titled, lie in this dual function: the loss of self and the origination of it, the powerful seductiveness of losing the sense of the edges of the self, and the terror of precisely that. The queering of identity is often enacted through the vampire, through the werewolf, through the individual-becoming-other-through-the-other’s-gift. These are the stories that draw me to them. And it’s only partly about the sex. I think. 😉

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)

HOW much would he hate that, huh?? Well, no, not really, but I think the idea of applying a vaguely Derridean concept to the Grond Moister of Genealogy might be somewhat insulting. Still… if Hacking’s happy to do it, then me too! me too! (not that I claim any originality in this move.)

I’m in the midst of writing a paper, and this is bad procrastination before I get back into it. Nonetheless, I feel badly for a) no posting and b) no posting of anything actually… actual. You kids deserve more that frou-frouha. And thus: some of my minor conclusions for this paper. Nothing new, really, if you know my work, but nonetheless, I figure most of you don’t (what with my… what’s the opposite of stellar?… extraordinarily earthy publications record!).

Between biopolitics and anatamopolitics (the management of the population and the disciplining of individual bodies), Foucault’s biopower provides a rich analytical framework for denaturalising the function of medicine and locating its role in the political sphere of a normalising society. Yet for all of his understanding of how bodies are disciplined, he fails to interrogate in any detail the political and fundamentally normalising structure of contemporary phenomenological experience. Alcoff’s work has permitted us an understanding of the way that racism—so key to contemporary power/knowledge (I’ve discussed this earlier; Foucault positions racism as a technique for fragmenting the population into superrace and subrace, and thus as not simply attaching to what we might otherwise, in more everyday use, call ‘race’ but I think to a range of other ‘attributes’ including homosexuality and disability)—functions not only at the level of institutions, managing a fragmented population, or the attempt to discipline bodies to the sustaining of the ‘supperace’ and through the whittling away of (sometimes the attributes of) the ‘subrace’. It occurs and is reiterated through racialised ways of being in the world, which shape not only the interraction between people, but embodied perceptions which gain their veracity by appearing to be neutral observations of what really is.

These perceptions, then, are actually whole body experiences of the world, making it clear that the bodily reactions that may accompany racist (in Foucault’s broad sense) ‘observations’, on the part of those (un)marked as ‘super-racial’ (read white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, male)—reactions which may include anxiety, nausea, fear and anger—are not reactions that ‘come after’ the perception, but are bound up with and constitutive of it. This demonstrates that phenomenological experience, however slippery and uncertain it is, provides a rich source for analysis of the function of power. Given the centrality of suffering to medicine’s legitimacy and function in our normalising society, the place of this phenomenological experience within the techniques of biopower needs to be considered.

Actually this isn’t the conclusion so much as the argument that gets us to considering suffering as (deep breath, potential further loss of anonymity) a somatechnic—a technique of biopower that invests embodied experience (which, no, I don’t take as separate from ‘cognitive’ experience*) alongside the well-established techniques of population-management and individual bodily discipline. If you’re all very good (or careful, or good at it) I might post some of my stuff trying to explicate the role of suffering in the circulation of power and the normalising of the ‘subracial’.

PS Do any of my (critical race, especially) readers have a response to Foucault’s configuration of racism as something that attaches more generally to the fragmenting of the population (into, I think, the normal ‘superrace’ and the abnormal ‘subrace’)? I don’t think he’s claiming that these all function in the same way, and thus that he’s trying to ‘flatten-out’ different forms of discrimination, and besides, I think there’s something significant to the fact that Nazism (which he takes as an example) wasn’t just about positioning Jews as ‘subrace’ but a whole range of other forms of ‘difference,’ including other minority races, those with disabilities and homosexuals, a configuration I think we continue to live with. I also think that characterising the fragmentation of the population that biopower enacts as racism helps us to see that race (in the narrower, more contemporary-usage sense) isn’t a neutral and naturally occurring ‘observation of the fact’. Nonetheless, I occasionally have anxieties that I’m reproducing a problematic conflation… thoughts?

*actually I suspect that I should write something soon on why I think the distinction between ‘cognitive’ or ‘rational’ or ‘conscious’ and ‘bodily’ is, well, a problematic, Cartesian-left-over piece o’ crap (which, I should add with a nod to NP, doesn’t make it any less efficacious in contemporary self-perception (and beyond.))

READ it. Where lies the guilt again, and how does it adhere? How to compass this kind of taking advantage of the APEC laws…?

Forgive brevity/superficiality. Mind-grapples wearied by teaching and slow-burned horror (these domestic ones, and the wondrously rendered brutal ones of Dead Europe.) I hope for sharpness again soon.

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…