Reimagining Australia: language, decolonisation, borderscapes, and belonging

December 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

This conference creates an important space for reflecting on key challenges in Australia today, and for thinking about alternatives. My notes are quite partial and rough, so I encourage you to look for more information on the speakers (and the panel sessions I couldn’t attend) on the conference website.

57d09b5469f52_getimagecontentuedfmbs8_1bt16p1-1bt16qkKim Scott spoke in ‘Circles and Sand and Sound’ about the growth in support for the Noongar language, which is reflected in breakout text in the InASA conference program and the names of conference rooms. Despite the hostility of settlers to language, Noongar place names and language continue to inform the vernacular of the southwest where we live. We can bring the language alive by making ourselves instruments for it. His plenary threaded through the history of settlement, and the histories of Noongar culture and community, survival and the resistance to the boundaries drawn in sand by colonisers. We need to recognise that this land which we are on is stolen country, and has been through a long period of an apartheid-like regime, and there are now spaces in which Noongar culture and language is being celebrated and cherished. There is a power in sharing language and culture, but we also need to understand Noongar (and other Indigenous) peoples’ reluctance to do so.

Decolonising Australia: Reimagining and Reinhabiting opened with Mike Heald discussing his poem, ‘Land Grab’, a reflection on colonisation (and decolonising):

2016 and here I stand, here my house stands,
and my son-grown-tall, in Ballarat, in the aftermath,
on the ground-almost-zero
of pre-colonized plenitude, the last stands
of Swamy Riparian, Herb-rich Foothill, and Plains Grassy
Woodlands huddled along rail tracks and roads,
or captive in the deserts of private property
with a knife at their throat.

Soenke Biermann followed with Decolonise Australia: Unwinding Settler Coloniality. Biermann’s teaching, research, and community praxis is concerned with how we unwind privilege. In Australia, there seems to be an absence of words to talk about race. It is hard to unsettle privilege, and hard to navigate white fragility – many white students lack resilience when it comes to managing their discomfort around discussions. It’s important to understand the link between whiteness and possessiveness in Australia, as well as the processes of racialisation and whiteness that have shaped migration to Australia. Coloniality is upheld by different structures, including systems of knowledge production: we need to think about how this works in academia, through our research and our teaching. How can we shift our teaching practices and set up safe spaces without reinscribing privilege? Encouraging students to reflect on their own experiences, and to link them to theoretical perspectives, can be helpful.

Finally, Samya Jabbour spoke in Decolonizing the multicultural landscape about connecting her sense of hurt at Israeli satellite ‘management’ of the land her father was forced to leave to her understanding of what ‘land management’ means in Australia. The myth of terra nullius that underpins settler-colonialism in both Israel and Australia supports ongoing violence, and means that land management is a practice of dispossession. Decolonization requires embodied, collaborative work. Jabbour’s work attempts to come into a respectful relationship with land and with Indigenous people. She has found it hard to navigate her role as a ‘non-indigenous’ Australia: much of the privilege of whiteness is conferred on her, but the legacies of settler-colonial violence and dispossession also shape her life. Many of us sit in this liminal space: outsiders-within. We inhabit interstitial sites that might allow new practices and alternatives to emerge. There is also a bravery and power involved in privileged members of settler societies confronting the violence done by their own families.

7590683Suvendrini Perera’s plenary Reimagining the Borderscape was anchored around seven key images that return us to the water. Drawing on John Bulunbulun and Zhou Xiaoping’s Dialogue, Perera talked about the ways in which borders have crossed and divided Indigenous people, and noted that the drawing of a border around ‘Australia’ forcible merged many different peoples into the grouping ‘Aboriginal’. Thinking about these histories and images allows us to understand the centrality of carceral islands to Australia.

Rather than operating as a singular and static line, the border is constituted through a multiplicity of shifting practices and institutions. In Australia, this creates a violent and unstable border zone, in which some geographical and temporal areas are excised and classed as ‘not Australia’ for migration purposes. At the same time, this zone becomes subject to increased surveillance and other forms of control in the name of protecting Australian sovereignty. The borderscape is a term that allows us to understand the various forms of direct and indirect control being exercised over the region.

The logic of deterrence, like the logic of excision, doubles back on itself. The development of an expansive and expensive model of deterrence actually supports the ‘people smugglers’ it is claimed to oppose. While deterrence is justified through claims that it will save people from deaths at sea, the lifejackets memorialised in Alex Seton’s someone died trying to have a life like mine remind us of deaths that were caused by active policy choices: members of Australia’s border force knew of and were monitoring the boat, and made the choice to let those on board die.

The Multicultural Encounters through Memory, Storytelling and Art panel drew together literature, art, poetry, and theoretical reflections. Speakers in this panel made powerful connections that were difficult for me to capture, so please excuse these brief notes! Rashida Murphy spoke on her use of autoethnography and the ‘masking technique’ of a reading group to explore migrant women’s stories. Murphy ended her discussion of her writing process by reading from her book, The Historian’s Daughter. Nadia Niaz talked about her current project, tentatively titled My Australia, which reflects on migration to Australia, language, and belonging. Niaz spoke beautifully on some of the ways in which we construct belonging, including the necessity of forgetting in projects of nation-building (as we ‘forget’ inconvenient histories). Leonie Mansbridge spoke about Place Ma(t)ps, her art practice exploring mixed identity, space, and place. Burcu Simsek’s use of digital storytelling as a feminist method use voiceover and images to explore new sources of connection and belonging. Through workshops, Simsek has been providing opportunities for women from different generations and migration experiences to share their stories. Finally, Matt Roberts reflected on his family history as white English-speaking South Africans, who migrated to Australia in 1989. (Odd for me to listen to, with my white Afrikaans family history, from which I’ve been largely disconnected, with my family who moved to Australia around 1989.)

28. Zürcher Theater Spektakel 2007: 'Marrugeku' (Australien)The final plenary session of the day, Kimberley Cultural Renewal: Unsettling the Dynamic; Reimagining the Future, from the artistic directors of intercultural dance-theatre company Marrugeku, Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain, who were joined by writer Steve Kinnane. Pigram and Swain talked about using their art to address traumatic histories, with the challenges that come with navigating the politics of representation. In Broome, much of dance culture has been lost, but through respectful collaboration with elders Marrugeku choreographers learned movements that they could use. Pigram and Swain emphasised the need to understand the histories of suppression of dance practices in Australia, and to build dialogue in developing works. Now, through Cut the Sky, the company is exploring new ways of relating to country, regenerating, and healing.

Steve Kinnane talked about the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC Culture Camps), which aim to rejuvenate law, people, country and creativity. Kinnane noted that while there’s often a perceived divide between work to rejuvenate traditional knowledge and contemporary work like Marrugeku’s, in fact they overlap significantly: Aboriginal cultures are living, changing, creating cultures.


Precarious Times: Precarious Spaces

December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

92574855-cef3-43c7-baa7-12f938433f19-620x372Beyond the edges of the map: The ghost city of Ordos Kangbashi – Christina Lee, Senior Lecturer, Curtin University
The ghost city phenomenon in China first came to international attention in 2009 in an Al Jazeera report. A combination of different factors, including the ways in which state planning works and the global financial crisis, led to Ordos Kangbashi being ‘stillborn’ as a city. The international reporting on Ordos Kangbashi and other ‘ghost cities’, however, frequently fetishised these cities, with reporters and academics visiting them during the earlier phases of their construction and ignoring the people who actually live there. Lee talked about exploring Ordos Kangbashi, seeing people – and signs of people – who lived there, and were perhaps experiencing a very different temporality.

lps19-980x1470Attending to Spectral Traces and Wounded Places – Karen E. Till, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, Maynooth University, Ireland, with Gerry Kearns
Till’s work looks at ANU Productions‘ performance Laundry (2011), linked to one of the Magdalene Laundry sites. Women used to do sex work in the area, but moral crusaders and police undermined their attempts to survive this way, and many sex workers ended up in Magdalene Laundries. These laundries drew not only philanthropic donations, but also the unpaid labour of the inmates. The performance drew participants into women’s experiences of the site, including the humiliation, gruelling work, legal confinement, forced removal of babies, and loss of identity. It made visible the physical and psychological torture that women experienced, asking participants to remember Ireland’s haunted past. This production, and others that make the histories of particular places visible, help us come to terms with the need to recognise and mourn suffering that was previously deemed unmentionable.

setonSea Passages: Between trauma, reparation and recognition – Susannah Radstone, Professor of Cultural Theory, University of South Australia
Radstone discusses Alex Seton’s work at the 2014 Adelaide Biennial, someone died trying to have a life like mine, which consists of a series of lifejackets sculpted in white marble. This work opens up complex questions about how we witness trauma, and what that witnessing might achieve. Seton argues that the title of his work tries to create a bridge of empathy between the viewer and those who experience trauma. But drawing on Suvendi Perrera’s work, Radstone asks whether Seton’s piece does actually bind viewers together with asylum seekers, or whether it allows for a distancing and mastery over a tragedy only viewed from a distance. Radstone explores Seton’s work in the context of histories of art and media coverage – as well as processes of reparative healing – around shipwrecks and trauma.


Precarious Times: Banal Precarity

December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

The symposium opened with a panel on Banal Precariousness.

978-0-8223-5562-5_prAnne Allison, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University, spoke on “Cleaning up dead remains in times of living/dying all alone: social singlification in Japan”, building on her book, Precarious Japan. As demographic changes happen in Japan, many older people have become worried about dying alone rather than with their families, and about not being mourned. Companies have emerged that “help in your move to heaven” – wrapping up loose ends, disposing of (or ‘ordering’) deceased people’s belongings, and providing a sense of care and respect. The labour of this is both material and affective.

There’s a growing economic sector around ‘the business of the end’, catering for people who don’t have family, or feel their families would be burdened by caring for them and their possessions. This can also be seen as part of a neoliberal shift towards individualised responsibility: an expectation that the individual will take care of themselves, including in the moment of death. There’s a lot of reference made to ‘the stink of a bad death’ – a sense that individuals need to ensure that they don’t leave a mess (literally and morally) in dying. Companies manage ‘special cleanup’, burial, mourning, and in some cases are encouraging people to make ‘grave friends’ – people who they meet before death, who will be buried nearby, so that they won’t be lonely after death. Companies will perform mourning ceremonies for your possessions, too, while you’re still alive – Allison wonders if this allows people to grieve themselves by proxy, as even mourning becomes an individual responsibility.

Tanja Dreher, ARC Future Fellow at the University of Wollongong addreswhichlivesmattersed Precarious Attention. She opened by acknowledging that thinking about precariousness benefits from centring Indigenous experiences in settler-colonial states. Dreher’s research has been informed particularly by work by Indigenous women in Australia, including Amy McGuire, Marcia Langton, and Celeste Liddle.

There are key long-term concerns of media studies that underpin work on precarity that come in part out of Judith Butler’s work. Vulnerability, grief, and value are unevenly distributed. From Black Lives Matter to social media memes around terrorist attacks, there is a politics emerging around the grieving of particular lives (and the failure to grieve others). Some lives are produced as more grievable than others, which enables the ongoing prosecution of war. Media is a key factor in this process, and therefore also an important site of struggle.

Dreher notes that often understandings of uneven attention and concern are framed within visual metaphors. Auditory metaphors can also be useful, however. We can think about calls for attention to different tragedies, and calls for listening to different voices, including those of Indigenous women. It is a political act to struggle against the configuring of particular kinds of suffering – and the suffering of some groups – as banal and unworthy of comment or grieving.


Photo by Nagarajan Kanna

Finally, Susan Leong, Research Fellow at Curtin University, spoke on ‘Banal Precariousness: a Daily Prayer’. Much of our precariousness is related to work. Guy Standing talks about the growth of the ‘precariat’ as a new class in the making. ‘Precarious’ comes from the Latin root which means both a prayer and petition. Leong spoke about different metaphors of precariousness: rather than standing on a precipice, we might think about climbing constantly-shifting sand dunes in the wrong shoes and clothing, without hopes of being saved. It might be banal, if it weren’t so fundamental and essential to our experience.

In Australia, the Turnbull government is creating a situation of ‘churning innovation’, in which we are expected to be nimble, agile, and flexible. As many as 40% of Australian jobs could be replaced by automation over the next decade: in higher education, we see the shift to sessional employment, and shifts in teaching delivery like MOOCs. We need to understand the technologies that perpetuate and facilitate – and sometimes allow resistance to – banal precariousness. Ideas are fragile, according to Mary Douglas, and they require support to travel, grow, and rest. Leong notes the time it’s taken her to work through these ideas around banal precariousness, particularly as traversing the precarity of research within academia.


Intersectional feminism and online harassment

November 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Thinking Beyond ‘Free Speech’ in Responding to Online Harassment just came out in issue 10 of Ada: a journal of gender, new media, and technology.  This article is an attempt to consider what it might mean to take the possibilities and challenges of intersectionality seriously in our approaches to online harassment/abuse. In particular, I argue that it means being prepared to question whether ‘free speech’ should be the unquestioned basis of discussions about online safety.

Issue 10 of Ada also has a bunch of other great work, including articles on ‘revenge porn’, Black Lives Matter, the politics of Black visibility online, rap music, dating, university life, online dating, and superheroes. I’m looking forward to reading through it.

Overlapping edges

October 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking more about the idea of ‘belonging’ in academia, following on from my reflections post-AoIR. The converse of not having a single place that feels, unproblematically and fully, like my academic home, and the place where I belong, is that I get to have many spaces where I get energy and inspiration, where I connect well with a few people, and where I find ideas and frameworks that stretch me to think about my research in news ways.

I think about the activism and academia pre-AoIR satellite event, where people were crossing different approaches (the gaps between ‘activism’ and ‘civil society’; between anti-capitalist and more reformist perspectives; between different ways of seeing governance). About conversations I had this year at AoIR about content moderation, feminist research methods, teaching, and finding different ways to fit within academia. About the first time I went to AoIR, and my excitement at finding so much space for critical methodologies, and for women’s voices, and for connecting the personal and the political. About last year’s AoIR, and the attention paid there to how we engage with the broader politics of the world (also a theme this year).

Every conference and symposium I’ve been to has had these kinds of moments. Sometimes it’s only a few talks that shift my understanding in a key way, sometimes I meet people who are working on radically different areas but still offer me a new way to think about research, or about my negotiations with academia. Collaborations that help me link my work with others.

And then there  interviews and protests, where I get to learn more about how activism works in practice. Or workshops where my research intermingles with people’s daily experiences, and always changes. Talking at a huge event in Athens, and dancing with friends there afterwards, because that’s important too. Adacamp and Barcamp unconferences, World Social Forums, and other events. And threaded through them all, conversations with people who are changing the world in so many ways.

And, when I go home, my department, and my gradual exploration since returning to Perth of the other researchers at Curtin who are working on overlapping areas. Because Internet studies is a jumble of areas, I’m often working on very different issues to my colleagues, but I’m learning so much from starting to read more of their work. More importantly, it’s been a space within academia where I feel like I can be honest about who I am and what I care about, and where I can find support.

I may not have a clear academic home, but I’m grateful for all these overlapping spaces.

AoIR2016: on not finding home

October 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

A lot of people attending talk about having found their academic ‘home’, or about having found their ‘people’. This is understandable: AoIR is an eclectic space, full of amazing, interesting people who are tackling important new problems (and often having to create new methodologies in order to do so).

mosaic.jpgIt’s not my home, though. Except insofar, perhaps, as there’s often a significant gap between idealised images of home and many places in which I’ve actually lived. I’ve gone to quite a few different conferences, across a number of different fields, and I’ve never found ‘home’. I’ve always felt a little out of place, a little unsure about where my work fits in, a little like everyone else seems to know each other and I’m the one standing awkwardly at the edge of groups at social events wondering if I should just give up and go home.

Conferences are a challenge because of this, but still valuable. I’ve met a lot of good people, heard about interesting work that is mostly a few steps away from my own, and occasionally prodded other people’s ideas in the direction of new approaches that I think are important. I think a lot about cross-pollination.

AoIR felt especially hard this year. Part of that was the fact that I’m at a low ebb in terms of energy. In the last few months I’ve moved house, had a rather intense teaching semester, and had some health issues that left me feeling more exhausted than I can ever remember being before. The couple of years before that already depleted my reserves: they’ve been tremendously difficult on a personal level. But part of it was also the strangeness of feeling out of place amidst this narrative of AoIR as home, as ‘our people’. It’s especially jarring to feel my usual awkwardness as so many other people are talking about their sense of belonging.

And in academia, belonging is important. I’ve helped build some collaborations with other early-career scholars that I’ve found tremendously valuable, but I haven’t found mentors to help with some of the tougher aspects of navigating academia. I do okay at publishing, I think, but grants are hard to navigate when you don’t have more established scholars to include you on their projects so you can get your own track record.

I’ve had some very generous advice provided by older academics, but because they’re not quite in my area, it’s not always easy to implement: ‘Believe in your work!’ (I do!) ‘Try applying for grants x and y, they’re low-hanging fruit!’ (Their terms specifically prohibit the kind of research I’m most excited about.) I’m still trying to make these connections, but it’s hard to continually approach more senior academics with a lot of demands on their time and ask: can you help me?

glassI don’t know if there’s a place in academia that would fit me in the way that AoIR seems to fit others. Much of the work at AoIR is very close: there’s a significant concern with critiquing power structures and creating change in the world, albeit often coming with a different set of assumptions to my own. I met many wonderful people who I hope to stay in touch with, even if I often felt like I was getting in the way of them talking to people more important for their work. I also missed a few chances to meet and talk with others working in similar areas – perhaps in other, less exhausted years, I will be better at finding these connections.

But for others who might have felt the same way as I did at AoIR, worried that we weren’t belonging in the ways that others seem to, I wanted to write this. To remind myself, too, that it’s okay if there isn’t already a perfect home for me in academia. To remind myself that it’s okay to be at the margins. That sometimes even though it would be good to have a place already waiting to accept me, I just have to keep working at building communities where I can fit. Finding people, stitching networks, helping others who also feel out of place, questioning the assumptions that other people are working within. Sometimes, perhaps even often, remaining awkward, and doing my best to make the most of that space on the edge.

AoIR2016: Bending

October 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

This was a fascinating session run by The Fourchettes collective, with a focus on un-block-boxing, thinking about it through axes of power, and by recognising spaces of invisibility (and the importance of preparing them). It was facilitated by Alison Harvey (University of Leicester, United Kingdom), Mary Elizabeth Luka (York University, Canada), Jessalynn Keller (University of Calgary, Canada), Tamara Shepherd (University of Calgary, Canada), and Mélanie Millette (Université de Québec à Montréal, Canada).

I’m afraid my notes are rather partial here, as I’m not always good at balancing participation with note-taking in the enlarged-fishbowl-more-of-a-pond format.

Tamara Shepherd’s introduction was very effective in setting the context for the discussion, noting the need for critical approaches to methodology, and the complications and ambiguities in developing those approaches.

forkMary Elizabeth Luka talking about some of the ways in which an ethics of care is useful for thinking more deeply about methods. The ethics of care approach allows us to think about how ethics protocols obfuscate and manage different bodies of research. Building communities and networks is important, but this is often actually used with reference to ‘impact’ (in the ways it’s measured for academic work).

Mélanie Millette spoke on the paradoxes of balancing her personal experiences of research and the limitations of the formal ethics approach.

Jessalynn Keller talked about research pollination. Her research looks as how girls and women use digital technologies to challenge rape culture online, including their experiences and feelings around this kind of practice. This involves collecting a wide variety of materials across platforms. In constructing an archive of this material, it’s challenging to balance different priorities (including requirements as a junior researcher, and the desire to centre young women’s voices).

Alison Harvey talked about the obsession that develops in academia with typologies, and the benefits of taking individual words and thinking more deeply about them. Words that are very normalised in everyday practice, like, ‘data’ are beginning to feel uncomfortable. Her participants are experts sharing their stories, and talking to them doesn’t feel like, ‘data collection’. But we can’t just change these words, because we’re working within particular contexts. We also need to remember that no methodology is necessarily feminist. Feminist research approaches need to engage critically with the epistemological underpinnings of the process of research.

To give a very rough overview of some of the discussions that came up (perhaps more as a reminder to myself than anything else), with apologies for not being able to keep track of speakers:

  • Citation practices: who do we cite? Do we try to take texts that aren’t overtly feminist and try to read them against themselves? When we’re citing important contributions, including conference papers, how do we also protect people who may have been obfuscating their arguments for reasons like safety?
  • How do we support alternate citing practices as journal reviewers?
  • How do we find sources beyond the cannon? Especially when most of the tools we use (like Google Scholar and our internal library research) embed the existing status quo?
  • Open Humanities Press is a useful place to look for resources, in particular Photomediations.
  • How do we escape marginal spaces within academia? (For example, not getting stuck within ‘work on queer issues’, ‘work on country x’.) How do we as readers help in this (remembering that an article or conference presentation on India or Poland may still be relevant)?
  • Emma Lawson? ‘Publish and perish’ talks about the challenges of making research more open.
  • We need to think about how industries surrounding academia (like publishing) can also be engaged in this work.
  • How do we use our privilege, including our privilege as researchers, to create change?
  • When we think about what communities we work with want, we need to keep asking what will be useful. The answers are surprising: sometimes it is to publish academic articles. How do we ask what communities want at scale? Or when we’re bringing communities into being through our research?
  • When we’re working with ‘unlikeable’ movements, often we don’t want to point the ethics of care in their direction: we might be researching movements that we know don’t want to be researched, but their desires aren’t the most ethically pressing.
  • How do we use a feminist ethics of care when doing larger-scale research?
  • How do we use teaching to create change? Whose texts do we foreground? How do we make students pay attention to the authors of texts (many students assume that authors are white men)? What teaching practices create change?