The symposium opened with a panel on Banal Precariousness.
Anne 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 addressed 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.
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.