I’ve borrowed the title of Wendy Brown’s book, because of the news lately. Her chapter on images and representations of ‘awful truths’ (eg Catherine McKinnon’s descriptions of porn) actually perform and reiterate the violent discourses that they purport to condemn……
Looks like I’ve written this in academese, so I’ll rephrase….. you know those godawful eyeball hurting memes showing tortured animals that go around on Facebook? the ones that exhort you to click ‘share’, as if sharing the awful truth of some sadistic freaks maltreatment of a puppy/kitten/horse etc. is going to shame them into stopping. My icky stomach winces provoke feelings of distress in me, and outrage, but I suspect that they don’t change the perpetrators of animal cruelty. Firstly, as a crazy cat lady, it is unlikely that I know is a freaky animal sadist. Secondly, the images themselves are powerful and shocking, and as a powerful image, they link the pathetic evil of cruelty to a smaller being to a form of trangressive social power, and make it much bigger than it is.
This is the essence of Wendy Brown’s argument. I taught it in a tutorial around a decade ago, and of course some idiot student (who hadn’t done the reading) brought in images of Abu Ghraib – which precisely illustrated my and Wendy Brown’s point – but not in the way she intended. I call that stuff ‘Geno-porn’ – because its function is to excite (as shock), and mix excitement with disgust. It operates profoundly affectively to set up a circuit where the representation of violence separates the viewers from the subjects of that violence. I don’t want to go into what porn is, just yet, but hold onto a loose definition of it as representations that are intensely affectively charged, that provoke visceral reactions in us….. One example of geno-porn is the culty stuff around Cambodia’s Killing Fields in the late 1970s. In the late 1980s after seeing the movie, I succumbed to this, and became absorbed in a quasi teen-goth way with the horror of Democratic Kampuchea, and I spent a lot of time listening to this song by the Dead Kennedys. Hell, I even wore the t-shirt until my boyfriend of the time (a survivor of torture in Chile) claimed it as his own to wear during his PTSD post-punk phase.
This stuff only works to distance us: the viewer, the reader, etc. from the event that is being depicted. the violence and horror becomes reified and fetishized as having some remote horrible mystique about it. In reality, survivors of the killing fields run the local electrical shop (the nearest one to my house at least). Their daughter, Alice Pung, has written about her father’s survival of the Khmer Rouge years in a way that brings the horror into a tangible and intimate relationship to the present. It is a touching and elegant hauntology that evokes the bearing of witness in a far preferable way to conventional accounts.
Of course, Cambodia is on my mind because of the current extradition ‘deal’ between Australia and Cambodia, of which Andrew Steels exasperated vehemence is a pale shadow of my own… Cambodia’s civil war continued until 20 years ago, and people were fleeing by boat to come to Australia, and now boat people fleeing similar horror in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Burma etc will be extradited from Nauru to Cambodia in camps that our taxes pay and our superannuation companies invest in. this is the banal intimacy of evil and it is sickmaking. These photos of the protest on Nauru, the faces, clothes and bodies of asylum seekers suffering this horror, are striking because they don’t have the abject power of the images from Woomera in 2002. They are ordinary people; men, women and kids, in shorts, t-shirts and bright pink Hijab, amazed and appalled at the arbitrary stupidity of what is happening to them.
The other stuff in the news – is the current terror laws – because, a bunch of crazed beheading jihadists on the border zone of Syria and Iraq are targetting all of their rage on shopping malls in Adelaide, Wangaratta and Surfers Paradise. Or at least the Federal government is assuming that even though most Australians match their complete ignorance of the location of most ‘middle eastern’ nations to a conviction that people in such places have an intimate knowledge of and targetted desires towards our small, remote ex-British colony.
And if I read too much of the current news, about the policies of this government, then I want to cower in horror and disgust, because they were at a point of ungovernability because the public outrage was so strong against their budget and other appalling policies, and now they have a big red herring to wave around while they push through laws prohibiting protest and journalism, as well as defunding the ABC, selling off our national data management system to a US company and letting a bunch of maniacs frack Uluru. This is the time of doom. The fantasy doomsday scenario that Aamer Rahmen joked about. I laughed till I cried…. and now I just want to cry.
So on Facebook right now (or what’s left of it since the drag-name panic debacle of 2014), my newsfeed has become filled with a range of horror stories about Muslims being shot in police stations, women in hijab being punched, hit and pushed in the streets and on public transport and gangs of redneck freaks going on the rampage in Adelaide or the Gold Coast and god only knows what else. At the same time a really lovely group started called Non-Muslims Supporting Muslims where lots and lots of people post really nice supportive messages and its a bit of a love in. My kind of thing. Kind of.
I was enjoying the balance of nice hopeful caring posts on the NMSM page, but then other posts started popping up, where non Muslims wanted to wear Hijab ‘in empathy’ with Muslims women. And one man shared his proposal for wearing a Burqua for a day…… and then there was this article, about a white journalist donning a Niquab and Chador in Martin Place and Lakemba. As much as I love social experiments, something about this was a bit worrying…..
And I think that what it does, is that it creates more distance. It makes Muslims the objects of more representations which are completely controlled and framed by racially privileged (ie white, or white passing) non Muslims. It furthers an existing stereotype and belief that Muslim women are all in Hijab and are all silent and passive and can’t speak for themselves. Someone like me who is accustomed to being around brash mouthy young women in tutorials, trains and streets finds this completely absurd, but then I realise that for most of the readers of the newspaper where the article was published don’t know any Muslims, haven’t heard any women in Hijab speak, or dance, or laugh, or eat, and probably have an image of ‘the Muslim woman’ merging with some kind of Carmelite nun figure…. quaint and oppressed at best, or mysterious and dangerous (as if Semtex is best smuggled in concealed hair) at worst. Furthermore it fuels a very white cultural tradition of exotic dressups, which are not a two way street. Tourism works the same way. Lots of Australians travel to Bali, but Indonesian culture or people have almost no visibility in Australia.
So, while it is obvious to me that (if it wasn’t Murdoch owned swill) the Courier Mail could have and should have either asked a female journalist in Hijab to write the article, (or conduct the social experiment), or asked a range of Australian Muslim women to comment on their experiences, it is amazing that this is not obvious to ‘the public at large’. Despite the best efforts of SBS, the mainstream commercial media is dominated by very very white folk, and the proliferation of Australian Muslims in suburbs, shops, schools, trains, planes, universities and everywhere else is not reflected in the mainstream media.
It’s not that hard, and I wish like hell it could change. I’m buried deep in my academic writing at the moment (hence the absence of posts) or I’d do something myself; a joint article with friends or students, (through the avenues which I have access to but they don’t) just to add more representations and the everyday intimacy by which most Australians experience cross cultural and intersectional identities. I don’t want to give so much power to the representations of racist redneck outrages. I need to remind myself and others that most Australians are basically decent and respectful. That most of the Muslims I have met aren’t homophobic and respect my difference as much as I respect theirs, and this is the social contract on which we continue to engage and create a meaningful society.
On this note, it’s time to get out of bed….