Half-life, bare life, para-life….

I’ve had an interesting month with large amounts of time spent watching voyager doing crochet, and even more amounts of time sitting in the garden on a beanbag on my laptop (like now) and then occasional days indoors on my laptop, and then occasional forays into the world.

the art group that I’m involved in is having an exhibition next week; it’s been organised by one of the pupils from our class inside MITA who is now living in Melbourne on a visa, and doing as much as she possibly can with so very little….. she is the main curator and has assembled a disparate amount of work from 20 artists into an amazing thematic exhibition….

Meanwhile I’m writing bits – getting bits published, and doing odd bits of teaching – most excitingly with the Melbourne Free University Asylum seekers project.

I had the compellingly intense contradiction of writing 2 lectures in the past month: one was a paid gig on looking at Georgio Agamben in articulating the liminal spaces of cities: camps, slums etc. I wanted to articulate the strange threaded connections between people in detention, and people in the community, and people who are in continuous contact with the internal spaces of exclusion within the city. I wanted to map the shifting spaces of the nation state as intimate, convoluted and porous. I raced through 70 slides in in 70 minutes and handed around my crochet rugs saying “freedom” in Tamil, Farsi and Arabic, as well as knitted bags made by women in detention – now in the community -and I really don’t know if any of it made any sense at all…

Agamben’s key arguments are pithily summarised in this video…. which is not that pithy since it goes for 8 minutes – but cartoons are always good. He uses Bataille’s ideas of ‘the accursed share’ or the excess – in regards to creating a specific category of excluded populations ‘homo sacer’ – on which the identity of the nation state depends. it’s a neat configuration of the arbitrariness of the “us” vs “not us” division on which any definition of “us” or any in-group depends.

Agamben mainly refers to Europe – writing about the Nazi Holocaust (based on exclusion zones) and its hauntology in contemporary exclusion zones and detention regimes for refugees/migrants/sans papiers in Europe…..  He argues that the main instrument for this border policing is the camp: a zone where those within (the homo-sacer) do not exist as citizens (or political subjects) but merely as biological units: bare life, who are entitled to material sustenance, but no recognition or their rights or agency as political or adult subjects.

In Australia, homo sacer and the camp have been an explicit aspect of the colonising state since it’s inception. It’s not only that the British sent their ‘surplus’ and excluded poor citizens in offshore penal colonies: even non-convict settlements like Melbourne quickly established camps of exclusion for indigenous inhabitants. The modern Australian state could only establish itself through the brutal physical incarceration of some inhabitants. Many other writers have written about this much more articulately than me, and I enjoyed the opportunity to create a mapping of Victoria and Melbourne which showed how camps emerged and proliferated and changed during colonisation.

Bare life in the 21st century Melbourne (and Australia) exists on two fronts: the first is the continuing incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – who are forty times more likely to end up in gaol (usually for for crimes of poverty) than non Aboriginal people. This is an implicit exclusion, structured into the invisible threads of overpolicing and over monitoring and structural poverty and exclusion. the second form is of course the detention centres for refugees: both the hard core gaol of Maribyrnong, and the softer tree-scaped camp of Broadmeadows.

Friends in detention speak of the frustration of camp life; not being able to shop, or cook, or walk around, or do anything without being observed…. this reduction to the status of small children; being offered minor rewards as inducements for compliance to a set of arbitrary-seeming goals, and the inducements to being  ‘a good prisoner’ –  make the experience of bare-life as a little more intensely bizarre than those who have never visited the camp could possibly imagine.

But what interests me aside from the camp are the spaces around it; the 24,000 people on bridging visas who cannot work or study, and if they have a mental breakdown or commit a small crime, end up back in detention. the constant appeals and negotiations with various case managers and lawyers, the endless anxiety; the inability to vote and the fear of engaging politically in case their name or photograph somewhere is cause for them to be deported.the terrible anxiety of fearing for family members and friends back home – or in detention – most often interstate – or offshore.

It interests me because there are around 400 asylum seekers in Melbourne who are experiencing ‘bare life’ in detention, however there are at least  6.000 people in Melbourne experiencing this other precarious life. and I’m trying to find a word for it…. trying to find a word for the threads of contact, movement, anxiety and worry….. trying to find words that articulate and liberate rather than separate, divide and conceal…

I look for words with my friends who speak other languages – who continually chafe against the limits of English as they grasp and move into it as a new language. this is one of the many reasons why I’m exhilarated after evenings at the Melbourne Free uni…..

so last month – I gave a brief course on political systems and political change. I tried to condense the elements of a wonderful course on policy run by the melifluously voiced Kate Driscoll at RMIT. One of the exercises included examining the different types of influences on policy; ‘agenda setters’ in political science language: lobbyists, experts, the media, campaigns etc. After explaining the voting system to people who cannot vote, we then examined if and how they can have an impact on these other agents of political influence…… and yes – it was here, in what could have been a dry exercise in political theory – that a group of students who know the taste of bare life, who live in the half life of myki cards, AMES, centrelink payments and RRT appeals were able to describe the tactics whereby they can assert their agency as political subjects, as far more than the bare life or bio-life that contemporary critical theory would confine them to.

This is what I have invested in the work of knoweldge creation. Where the subjects of political and critical theory articulate and challenge and contest the words wrapped around them and between them and us as circumscribed by the nation state and the mainstream media, and create something new and rich and full of hope. These are words that come from moving together, spending time in proximity and acknowledging that closeness and contact, and remapping the physical and psychic worlds of our common spaces as rich, contesting, motile and constantly open to change. Vernacular cosmopolitanism eat your heart out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s