December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
Beyond 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.
Attending 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.
Sea 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.
December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
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.