Space, invaders, and somewhere else.

14 Aug

[First posted on my Tumblr on 8 August 2010, republished here with edits and additions.]

The Tomorrow, When the War Began series was a big part of my early adolescence, and I really appreciated those contemporary teenage voices — especially, perhaps, Lee’s character.

as much as I loved this series for giving me a young Asian-Australian who wasn’t ‘exotic,’ who was just struggling with stuff and living his life and having romantic teenage entanglements with people who weren’t Asian, I hated this series for giving me an agressor who fed into the Australian zeitgeist of imminent invasion by the yellow hordes to the North.

天高皇企鹅远: tomorrow, when the war began and the myth of the imminent invasion

But like Steph, I resent the series for reinforcing a popular (if implausible) invasion narrative. The fact that the invader is unspecified in the book doesn’t help much — though all descriptions are left ambiguous, they are marked as culturally and linguistically Other in ways that are associated with Asia and Yellow Peril (see Catriona Ross’ article referenced in Steph’s post).

In The outsiders within: telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian story, Peta Stephenson traces white Australia’s obsession with invasion narratives to its own colonial history. She quotes Meaghan Morris, who calls this anxiety that “something we did to others … could happen all over again” a chain of displacement.

We replay our genocidal past as our apocalyptic future.

The idea of a chain of displacement has great resonance in Australia, even among the left. It’s common to see pro-refugee slogans and imagery pointing out that the British First Fleet were the original boat people.

But the British weren’t refugees. And the elision of various arrivals, for disparate purposes, is dangerous and naive whether it comes from the left or the right. Colonisers aren’t refugees. Convicts aren’t migrants. Migrants aren’t refugees. In fact each category of arrival, at any point in time, is subject to its own specific conditions. And the colonisation of Indigenous people by the British can’t be replicated. Whether new arrivals are resisted or welcomed, the chain of displacement solidifies and legitimates white Australia as native, erasing Indigeneity and evading power. In Tomorrow When the War Began (p 170), Robyn says

We ‘ve got all this land and all these resources, and yet there’s countries a crow’s spit away that have people packed in like battery hens. You can’t blame them for resenting it, and we haven’t done much to reduce any imbalances, just sat on our fat backsides, enjoyed our money and felt smug.

but her shame about the unfair distribution of space only serves to make her possession of it more natural. She talks about it later as something to change, after the war (ie, social change as an act of altruistic service in the luxury of peacetime), as if her possession of land, space and wealth isn’t something that’s maintained through violence every day (which is particularly obvious in the novel, but just as evident in real life if you’re paying any attention at all.)

There’s been a lot of heat on refugees, immigration and population leading up to this election. I’m reluctant to detail either my post-national utopia or my desires for current federal policy. Suffice to say that the concept of sovereignty is complex and anti-intuitive for me, but not something I wish to disregard completely.

What I want to say here, now, is that Indigenous people in Australia fight to exist at all. And people of colour immigrants and refugees fight to exist here. Debates around population and environment can be disturbing for many reasons — there is just so much classism, racism and sexism at work, I don’t even know where to start — but I think its particularly irresponsible when people talk about population without acknowledging that some people are never asked to justify their existence, their presence, or their reproduction. The right to be here is something most Australian-born English-speaking white Australians just have. Inalienably. And you might be persecuted for a billion different things, but you’ll be persecuted here.

If you are a non-Indigenous person of colour, the onus of proof is enormous. You need to justify your presence by political necessity or economic value or whatever else. And things like permanent residency, like speaking English with an Australian accent, like citizenship, like being born here, even, only give you so much. Regardless of your legal rights, if you’re a person of colour and convicted of a crime, you can bet that the tabloid press will call for your deportation. (I have heard the Herald Sun call for a white immigrant to be deported, but ey was a NZ citizen and convicted of a crime. I regularly hear calls for people of colour to be deported, regardless of whether they are citizens or born in Australia.)

If you’re a non-Indigenous person of colour, here is this presumption that there is always somewhere else for you to go. Even if you’re a refugee and there’s far fewer places in the world that are safe for you than the millions of Australians who could travel freely, who could easily be somewhere else. We don’t have statistics on how many refugees are deported to their deaths. But many of the places refugees come from are probably safer for wealthy white Australians – nobody’s ever going to suggest an exchange program though. So when Lady Sovereign sings, “I’m English, try and deport me”, I want to sit her down and say, “No one is trying to, honey.”

I’m an Australian citizen, so personally my legal rights are fairly secure. And I’m a migrant, so the presumption that I have a “somewhere else” is correct, and in my case it’s somewhere I can plausibly be, quite safely. But even my friends of colour who are third or fourth generation Australian-born, whose only language is English, whose only English is Australian, whose only home is here, are asked to justify their presence all the time. Not legally, no. Not to any government department, not to anyone with concrete authority, perhaps. But to clerks and fellow commuters and strangers in the street and friends’ parents:

“Where are you from?”

My reaction shifts between anger, indifference, empathy and suspicion. I know it is sometimes innocuous, sometimes just phatic speech, a polite show of curiosity. I have heard many bitter jokes — to answer, “my mother’s cunt”, or that it means “Why aren’t you white?”

At the moment, for me this question usually means “Where can I put you?” And whether it’s a category in your mind or a country I don’t belong to, I’m sure it’s somewhere I don’t want to go.

Though it can be a powerful slogan and positioning tool, saying we are all boat people actually misses the point on both Indigenous sovereignty and immigration and refugee policy. It reinforces the fallacy that Indigenous people are asking white Australians to “go back to England”. It analogises racist rejection of refugees and immigrants with resistance to colonisation. It presumes that everyone has equal access to “somewhere else”. And it evades the question at the centre of it all: Who has the right to be here? Who decides? Who benefits?


Defining femme.

9 Aug

Essin’ Em at Femme’s Guide asked how we define femme, both our own femme and femme in general. It’s not easy. She locates the essence of femme in a certain kind of sass, saying

We give it out when we feel invisible, showing people that we have our own identity and please stop grouping me in with the other straight girls/women here, thank you very much.

Ulrika Dahl in Femmes of Power calls us “proud, fierce and intentional” (p 20), and that resonates with me. Though obviously it’s not exclusive to femme, I think intentionality is crucial.

Intent makes femme queer. And having sex with men, even cis men, can’t un-queer that: I am somewhat frustrated with queer femme identities being defined against heterosexuality. Invisibility sucks, but so does hating on straight women’s femininity, not to mention the implied biphobia and transphobia. If femme stands alone and doesn’t depend on a femme/butch opposition, femme writers need to stop centering our identities on our choices of partners. (I think oppositionality is hot, by the way, so long as the binary doesn’t pretend to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive.)

That said, femme is relational, if not oppositional. I’m not sure how to characterise the relationship of femme to either gender identity, presentation or position without limiting it in ways that exclude others, but I feel femme is oriented, in some way, towards femininity, whether it takes it apart, make it up, or fakes it real loud. And regardless of how much femme might reject traditional femininity (aesthetically, culturally and politically), I think for femme to be anything more than an overwrought but underthought excuse for my outfit despite my politics, femme has to be connected to femininity — to defend the feminine (1) in all its guises, even those that don’t appeal personally, rather than denying all association with whatever femininity isn’t queer, isn’t subversive, isn’t self-conscious (2).

If femme is conscious, that consciousness is rooted in the kind of feminism that questions the values of a masculinist culture, that asks us to rethink the worth of all that is called feminine and effeminate (3), and dismissed and diminished for it. Femme consciousness asks, why is architecture more serious than fashion, who decides what is public and what is private, and when will people stop asking me what I get paid for and let me tell them how I love?

So for me, femme is a collective cultural resistance; individually, something like risk-aware consensual gendering. And as Jeanette Winterson often says, “what you risk reveals what you value”. Femme is often framed in terms of what you put on (pearls and lipstick, heels and hose) but I think it’s more about what you take off — a certain kind of armour (4). Sass is not the same as bravado. It shares while it resists. Femme wears its heart on sleeve, and such gestures are not high maintenance, but often high risk: not only of invisibility, but also everything that femininity risks, whether or not it’s consensual, whether or not it’s intentional.(5)

I wish I could buy back the woman you stole

– Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Y Control”

I think femme is always extravagant, because femme is always expensive. Femme costs as much as I can afford, all the strength and flexibility I can afford, all the softness and forgiveness I can afford, but I’ll spend it. It’s worth it, and I want to be generous. I am trying to be generous. As generous as I’m greedy. This is femme for me.

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Housekeeping/I am elsewhere

12 Jul

Just some housekeeping:

  • I’m now also blogging at No New Year on adventures around consumer capitalism.
  • My last post, on nationality, class and linguistic privilege, has been re-published at The Scavenger.
  • I’ve changed the theme here again — still trying to work out some accessibility issues (and also trying to swallow my pedantry for a moment because as far as I can see, all the free WordPress themes render superscript with hideous extra leading, so I’ll have to use parentheses for my footnotes instead, gah) — so bear with me while things move and maybe get lost.
  • Building up my blogroll, slowly. If you know any blogs you think I’d like (especially your own), drop a link here.
  • This blog is shared with an Attribution/Non-Commercial/Share-Alike creative commons licence.

Thanks for all your support, lovelies.


On nationality, class and linguistic privilege.

21 Jun

I have substantial linguistic privilege. I moved to Australia at an early age, I’m good at learning from the kind of lessons that teachers are used to teaching, and I went to a very ritzy private school in Melbourne. Plus, I like language and it fascinates me so I put a lot of time and energy into it. Consequently, I read, write and speak in ways that our culture values highly. When I don’t sign my name or explicitly identify myself, I’m read as a upper-middle-class white man — meaning, my writing style has prestige and no marks of gender or race.

I try to be aware of this privilege, and to use language in ways that are clear, accessible, inclusive and appropriate. I won’t give up ‘jargon’ entirely, because I think there are concepts around oppression and injustice that ordinary vocabulary can’t adequately represent,1 but I’m always happy to explain or rephrase things. I’m not authoritarian about punctuation, spelling and grammar, and I am learning how differently people can express themselves, and how to understand that.2

These days, my speech sounds just like a native Australian English speaker. As a voracious reader and the eldest child (and for a decade, the only child) of for-the-most-part non-English-speaking parents, I learned a lot of words from written text, so until quite recently there was always a portion of my vocabulary I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Many of these words were fairly unnecessary anyhow (“clandestine”, “fecund”, “quixotic”) but also I had to think of coffee to remember that “cough” sounds like “coff” and not “cuff”. A much heightened version of this experience is common to many international3 speakers of English — being better at reading/writing than speaking/listening or having a lot of vocabulary but not knowing the pronunciation or even having Standard English in terms of grammar and vocabulary and everything but just having an accent.

When I was studying linguistics, I was pretty frustrated that descriptive and prescriptive understandings of language (describing ‘standard’ use – how a language is usually used – rather than prescribing ‘proper’ use – eg how grammar teachers think it should be used) just pitted class difference against national and ethnic difference. For example, “you’re a doctor, ain’t ya?” is considered Standard Australian English while “you doctor, isn’t it?” (common phrasing in Singapore and Malaysia) is not. As “ain’t” originated as a contraction for “am not”, technically the former is no more correct than the latter — ‘proper’ usage would demand “you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” — but the ungrammatical usage of native Australian English speakers is Standard, while that of others is not. Ethnic differences within a country could fall on either side, it seemed, but I quit before I found out.

So when native English speakers demand that I write less academically, especially when they have had a similar education but just prefer a more casual style, I flinch. I don’t think my English is harder to learn than yours. The dictionary meaning of specific words is much easier to look up than the implications of various idioms. I understand prestigious styles are intimidating in ways that non-prestigious styles are not, but within subcultures non-prestigious styles are privileged too, and no less inaccessible.4“Femme revo love FTW” is just as impenetrable as “intentionality is radical” to the uninitiated. (Perhaps.)

But more importantly, the circumstances under which I achieved my linguistic privilege make me fairly reluctant to relinquish it. I learned to talk like this by prioritising English over my first and second languages, in which I have no literacy and a very low level of comprehension. It’s not exactly true that I gave up one for the other, but I did learn English under pressure of assimilation and when people now tell me I can’t express myself how I like in English, it makes my sense of loss much more palpable. I can’t talk to my grandparents any more, and all I have to show for it is writing like an upper-middle-class white man. Language is steeped in love and pain, pride and anger.

I want to make a commitment to clarity and accessibility when I am writing for a broad audience, especially in work against oppression.5 But I want others to make the same commitment, and it means more than just cutting out academic language. It means writing across generations, across cultures and subcultures, and in ways that are easy to pick up, if not immediately obvious.

I’ll be talking more about inclusive language in upcoming posts, focusing on analogy and metaphor.


1. Julia Serano, discussing the term “cis”, says

it sounds like jargon simply because most people are unfamiliar with it. […] Our ideas/thoughts/concepts/beliefs are very much constrained by the words available to us. If we didn’t have the terms heterosexual, heterosexism and heterosexual privilege, those of us who are LGB wouldn’t have the language to describe (and thus challenge) the marginalization we face because of who we sleep with. If we all just spoke “plain English” circa the 1950’s, where do you think we’d be these days with regards to sexual orientation-based discrimination?

Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia also says: “‘Academic’ is a way of dismissing us for evolving a vocabulary of our own”.

2. Silentmiaow’s videos really changed how I thought about expression: ‘In my language‘ and ‘If you can do X, why can’t you do Y?

3. I say “international” rather than “English as a second language” (ESL) because English is a first language for some of these speakers; rather than “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) because I don’t like “diverse” as a euphemism for “other”; rather than “non-standard” because the ways of speaking I am referring to are standard in some countries. But “international” is inadequate too, as some Indigenous people who speak English as a second language might have the same experience, as well as other ethnic minorities who have been in a country for generations. It’s all a bit more complicated than I made it, but I do think “Standard Australian English” is tied up with ethnicity, race, nationality and the idea of who is “native” to a language, which is less simple than it might sound.

4. The idea of “inessential weirdnesses” as defined by Class Matters seems useful here. The article talks about how alternative cultures can be more baffling and alienating than mainstream cultures for someone who is outside of both (in this case, it’s alternative professional middle-class culture versus mainstream professional middle-class culture, but the same could be said for young anarcho punk slang English versus prestige English).

5. Dense academic text will still appear on this blog, because I post things that are written for elsewhere, and besides, according to WordPress statistics no one is reading this.

> Read earlier draft (without footnotes)

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On fuckability.

11 Mar

Revisiting my last post: Of course, the most obvious response is sexual refusal. And while those who have no other power exaggerate the value of their fuckability just as much as those who want to fuck them may feign powerlessness, the power of sexual refusal is grossly overestimated.1 I am so frustrated by young women who confuse femininity with fuckability, and fuckability with power — the exchange value is not so high as you might imagine, and the market is flooded.

But apart from it being a predictable strategy for any femme, I think it’s damaging and wasteful to withhold something you want, in order to punish someone else. Punishment may bring its own satisfaction, but it’s ineffective for the change I’m seeking, and I think you know how I feel about self-denial. But what compels change? Merely addressing something doesn’t alter it, and “calling out”, from what I’ve experienced even in relatively supportive communities, can be arduous, traumatic and futile.

1. I agree with Max Attitude that “someone always likes someone else more”, and in some situations that means the latter has a lot of power over the former — I think in other situations the latter is much more replaceable than either party might realise. Sometimes the power dynamic in a relationship is an exact inversion of each partner’s power in the wider world, and it’s their relative positions in the rest of society that enable the temporary and limited inversion in their relationship. For example, I think this is true for most cases of the “hen-pecked” husband or “pussy-whipped” boyfriend (it’d amuse me to analyse the difference, but it’s an unnecessary diversion) — and in the remainder of cases, probably the majority, the woman doesn’t even have more power in the relationship. In more casual encounters where the transaction is simpler, I think both the value of fuckability and the interchangeability of fuckable bodies is more evident.


I keep finding relevant links after writing a post. This one via Claire Arch-Nemesis.

> Jezebel: Three reasons why “Erotic Capital” is bullshit

On femme shame and feminist solidarity.

6 Feb

This has been my summer of femme: I’ve been fairly consistently made up, dressed up, and chatted up as a super girly supergirl. And I love that, I love playing princess and twirling my skirt and drinking tea with curled pinkie. I think I make it clear that it’s not all I do, but I do love it.

But I’ve met a fair few people through kink in the last several months, who’ve never known my history of more eclectic gender display, and with whom I haven’t really discussed politics at all — which might not sound so shocking but really it’d been years since I’d met any substantial number of people outside of activist circles, with whom I couldn’t readily assume certain values. Instead I’ve been trying to assume the best of people, and mostly I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

There have been instances where I’ve been uncomfortable, though, and realised that my arguments aren’t prepared for dominant culture, that I rely on the terrain of a particular discourse. When I launch my rhetoric leaps without this, they start shaky. Sometimes I don’t start at all — without a community to back up calling someone out, without recognising that as a specific cultural intervention and being able to call on all the strategies and wisdom that involves, it’s just too scary.

Being a young, thin, femme woman who fucks men means that men talk to you like you might agree with what they think of other women, who they think aren’t you but who you know may as well be you — who you will be, one day. It’s not enough to call yourself a feminist, to provide your alternative viewpoint somewhere further down the conversation. You can be horrified, but most likely your horror isn’t palpable, because that’s not what’s on his mind. You have to say it: This upsets me, this is unacceptable to me. But often I don’t.

It’s not just men, either — I’m no less devastated by women who deride all the ugly/old/fat/butch women on the scene. But either way it’s a feminist problem, because people rarely talk about men like their only worth is their fuckability. Not that men don’t have to grapple with that, but that there’s something outside it for them. And obviously (again again) I don’t have a problem with people having physical preferences, but there’s a difference between saying what you like and saying how you think other people should be.

[ Aside: I find it strange (and frankly, hilarious) that people assume that I’m only attracted to women who look like me, especially when those people are men trying to get into my bed. (If that theory holds, it won’t work for you, mister.) I have fucked people double my age, double my weight, a foot or more taller, and with hair in entirely different places. But also my femme identity depends on that being an option, not a requirement — if you take away the intentionality, you take away all my pleasure. ]

So maybe I should say here, because someone might read it: I will always, always take the side of the woman you scorn. I will always empathise with her, even if it seems we’re categorically different, because I know we’re serialised the same. Even if I’m silent, even if I sleep with you anyway, I will mourn the moment later, and feel ashamed.

Afterthought (10 April 2010)

I just read this interview with Jaclyn Friedman, ‘Fucking While Feminist’, which seems pertinent. She says some really transphobic things, but I do like the idea of the various tests, like applying the Bechdel test to internet profile interests.

On eating meat, and politics versus ethics.

27 Dec
Indirectly inspired by this (linked by Claire) and some thing Liz linked a while ago about vegetarianism and eating disorders.

I started being vegetarian, ostensibly for environmental reasons.0 I’m not vegetarian any more. I avoid meat, like I avoid buying things with excess packaging or riding around in cars – that is, I still partake in it fairly often. I certainly don’t worry about gelatine or rennet. Seeing people count calories and carbs every day has made me never want to read the back of a label again. I’m sure it’s fine for some people, and the motivation makes all the difference — whether it’s ethics, religion, allergies, weight loss or other reasons. But even though it was based on ethics, I found my vegetarianism embodied the same values and practices that I associate with eating disorders: Purity. Discipline. Guilt. Bargaining: Drinking soy milk for a week will make up for noodles with fish stock. Counting: It’s been two months since that beef pho.

It’s been over ten years since my last confession. And maybe I could do with more discipline, more purity. Maybe I’ve revelled in chaos, dirt and sin a little too much since I stopped being Catholic. Perhaps it’s my attitude to anxiety that’s the problem, and I should appreciate being stopped in my tracks before a potentially important decision. I know sometimes I deserve to feel bad.

But I’ve also stopped believing that everything matters. Sure, the personal is political. That doesn’t make everything revolutionary. It definitely shouldn’t make it publicly accountable. (It’s a topic for another discussion, but I hate how radical politics can shrink your sovereignty1 to your physical skin. I need more space than that and I can’t negotiate bodily agency without that space, maybe not a room of my own but at least a minute to myself and a fistful of secrets.)

Sometimes, every little bit counts. Certainly, the body count. Maybe every styrofoam cup, every minute of a coal power station’s operation. Maybe not. For me this is the difference between the spiritual, the ethical, and the political. They often overlap but they’re not collapsible.

Spiritually, every instance matters. Every sin is on that scale, in your unbeating heart, hoping to float so the feather will be heavier. Maybe there’s atonement, redemption, forgiveness. But nothing is subtracted. The fall is constant and cumulative.2 Obviously this makes sense for meat-is-murder vegetarianism, but it’s compatible with any practice that includes dimensions of sacred and sinful – whether it’s using “womyn” and not “bitch”, or buying fair-trade and boycotting Coca-Cola.

Ethics is in the middle. Maybe you bargain with yourself. If you have a utilitarian approach, maybe you do some more maths. And your criteria will change. But things are still basically ethical or unethical.

In politics, majorities matter. Having a critical mass matters. And it’s possible for a difference to be negligible. We’re talking about seismic structural shifts. Entire societies and cultures. The mathematics is at its core — naively, people * power * desire + x = change, with x being some combination of creativity, timeliness, strategy, system-vulnerability-scouting-skill, etc. Everything you do contributes, perhaps, but it’s not cumulative. Things reverse. Or stand still. It doesn’t matter, politically, whether you’re a customer of Safeway, Starbucks or Microsoft as long as they’re turning a growing profit.

I used to think ethics and politics were more or less the same thing — politics as collectivised ethics. But collectivising something changes its nature entirely. And for a long time I had so many conversations trying to convince people that they were already political that I just kept broadening the term. Now I’m pretty sick of the proliferation and profanation of politics, seeping into every thought, practice and field. I’ve been rethinking a lot of my behaviours as ethically rather than politically motivated, and enjoying their spiritual value. When I want to eat meat, and don’t, I feel pained, pure, hungry, potent, and foolish. Heady with the moral high that’s always accentuated by a bit of masochism and denial. And that exquisite feeling, that tenderness, of not getting what I want.

0. Really it was social and practical.
1. Maybe by sovereignty I mean privacy.
2. Okay, that last bit was too specifically Christian, and where there’s reincarnation it’s a bit different, but I think the distinction holds that spiritually everything you do matters.

On affinity.

2 Dec

I don’t enjoy being fetishised for my race. I generally don’t enjoy being racialised at all. But I get it if you like straight black hair and smooth bodies — that’s alright, I have certain preferences around physical attributes too; probably everyone does to some extent.

I’m much more put off by those who fetishise “Asian culture” and assume that will connect with me. I’ve lived in Melbourne since I was four. My intellectual inheritance is very much Western. I’m not westernised. Culture is never native, but Australian culture (including Asian Australian culture) is naturalised to me. My aesthetic, moral, political and intellectual values, as some kind of critical theory grrrl punk or whatever, spring from and struggle within a Western genealogy. Not that there’s nothing similar within various Asian cultures, or that similar strands there are necessarily imported. But when I say counter-culture, it’s counter to the dominant culture in my life.

My family has been through the Cultural Revolution followed by transnational migration, so I’m pretty aware that even the cultural practices I think of as Chinese are often unique to my family. Migrants from any country adapt their traditions to their new context. Besides which, culture is rapidly evolving in China itself too, as it is everywhere in the world.

When I first started identifying as a person of colour, I was so struck by the depth of my affinity with my new-found peers, I forgot for a moment how that affinity was constructed — as a very specific, strategic, deliberate political project. As Iris Marion Young might put it, we were a group that arose through a common intention in relation to our serialised condition – but the series itself is not already a group.

I’ve had friends and lovers from different backgrounds, and there’s no rule for what makes a strong connection. Two people may have “a lot in common” in terms of experiences, but it’s how we understand and respond to those experiences that creates affinity. Some of the most extreme instances of cultural dissonance I’ve experienced have been with people who have a very similar background. The fissure between our identities and thoughts was so much more dramatic from having been produced out of such like experiences, the same trajectory suddenly diverged. And there are people I’m really close to because we’ve been through a lot of the same shit. We have this camaraderie which is so precious to me. It’s precious because it’s rare, and it’s rare because it’s a potent mix of similarity and solidarity — of experience and desire. The intersection of culture and subculture, seriality and intentionality is what positions me as a queer POC feminist, rather than a pansexual Asian woman, or a radical democrat.

For others, overlaying culture/subculture on seriality/intentionality won’t be appropriate. Many subcultures are founded around aesthetics, and people won’t consider their moral and political desires as situated in or in any way related to their subculture. While I can identify the former independently of the latter, and certainly it’s refreshing to speak to those with similar values who are outside these subcultures, my own subculture is very much a community of political intentionality, and I think locating my values within it helps keep them fresh and fighting. I’ve been grappling with a lot of subcultural resentment lately, but I have a lot of appreciation too. Behind the bandannas, black jeans, faux-hawks and glitter, sometimes there is some real serious support and solidarity.

Reclaim the Night & Post-Activism

29 Oct

So I was thinking about why I’m not going to Reclaim the Night tonight.

And there’s a bunch of fairly decent reasons: I’ve never been clear on the purpose of the event, more so than for other actions because there’s no policy goal. If the goal is to raise awareness of violence against women, I think it achieves that — within a small community perhaps, but deeply if temporarily. If the goal is to lessen such violence, the impact would be indirect and impossible to measure. If the goal is to strengthen women and feminist sisterhood, I think it succeeds there also. And maybe the answer is all those things, but I’m frustrated with purposes that allow no measure of failure or success.

I would like to know what I’m asking for, and from whom. I would like to imagine and articulate how feminism could engage with known perpetrators of violence, and I’d like to acknowledge that we all have the capacity for violence, while remaining conscious of its gendered dynamics.

I think the name “Reclaim the Night” recalls a tradition I want to respect and uphold on one hand (just because feminist history is precious to me) and radically renew on the other. Here I share a friend’s anxiety at whether it’s ever appropriate for non-Aboriginal Australians to claim space in this manner. I remembering hearing a young non-Indigenous activist calmly disregard an Indigenous activist’s dissent at an RTS during G20 2006 and continue ‘reclaiming’ the streets.

Reclaim the Night has also been anti-trans, and anti-sex worker, in a violent manner. Also I think the name places improper emphasis on violence in the streets, reinforcing the myth that women are most at risk in public space with mysterious strangers, not in their homes, or on the streets but at the hands of police, or in a detention centre, or a psychiatry ward …

I wonder if focusing on sexual violence helps to reveal the gendered aspects, or individualises experiences of violence and obscures intersections. Current definitions of intimate partner violence now incorporate many forms of abuse beside the physical and sexual, such as financial abuse — would broadening the understanding of violence complicate the issues in a way that is necessary or unproductive? If a definition of violence becomes so general as to refer simply to domination, does that just collapse the conversation? Or is consideration of a wider context of power relations inevitable, and integral to a better understanding of what sustains violence?

I want to think outside feminist tradition to explore whether different forms of violence can be thought of together, fought together, or if we need to suffer again through being torn apart. But I don’t want to abstract concepts beyond what is possible either — even if I have already. It does matter that I want what is immediately enact-able, even if I dream on.


But really I’m not sure why I feel compelled to defend my absence, especially given that I think it would be more a show for my friends and “community” than anything with wider impact. More than anything else my absence is because I’m lazy, and because I’m in imminent-academic-doom mode, where I can’t seem to do anything except sitting around in my pyjamas worrying about overdue essays, least of all write them.

Loki reminded me that I’m not an activist anymore, and haven’t been for a while. I seem to have trouble letting go of the label, as much as I started to hate it as soon as I won it. There’s just nothing to replace it though, nothing that says “these things concern me”, without the awful arrogance of -conscious or -aware. But I’m really not an activist, now, certainly not as an occupation, not even as an identity if it means sustaining genuine hope in the future. It didn’t used to matter, really, to fail. Now I’m not sure it matters to try. Burn-out is a kinder term for it, but really it’s just faithlessness, a lack of stamina coupled with the most caustic pessimism, parading as apathy. Between drinks, these things still concern me. But I can’t separate this anxiety from a more general one, and I can’t have my politics pathologised. They’re still precious, I guess. But maybe something like a memory.

Right to choose, part two.

3 Nov

I thought of a hypothetical that either supports or complicates my earlier contention, that a woman decides if her pregnancy constitutes new human life, with its attendant rights, or something lesser.

A couple of weeks ago I was on a tram when I saw a man pushing a double pram, with twin toddlers inside. My immediate response was "oh god, imagine having twins". Then I wondered why the idea of aborting one of two twin foetuses (foeti?) seemed unnerving to me, even abhorrent. Upon quizzing several (pro-choice) friends I found most people had a similar response. Even though we could think of a number of reasons why a woman might not want twins, consistent with reasons why someone would not want a child at all (such as feeling mentally, physically or financially incapable), there was just something squicky about it, even when I specified that it wasn’t about choosing one foetus over another, that the hypothetical abortion would be random and was to be performed on identical twins with no differences as yet discernable. So while connotations with genetic engineering might contribute to the discomfort people felt, it couldn’t be the sole reason.

One friend suggested that perhaps abortion was justified as a choice between either having children, or not, while in this hypothetical case it was turned into a choice between two equally viable pregnancies, even if that wasn’t the woman’s motivation. Yet, in many cases the decision to continue a pregnancy is one between two children, albeit deferred and distanced in time — the decision to have an abortion is not about not having children but not having children here and now. Many women who have abortions go on to have children, or have had children previously, and if a woman plans to have a family of a certain size, in some way that makes the decision to continue a pregnancy a choice between one foetus and another, even if the other exists only as a concept, a possibility. If you only want one child, and feel overwhelmed and terrified at the thought of two, then why does aborting both foetuses and having (presumably) a single child later seem more acceptable than aborting one?

I think at least partly it’s to do with the idea that a woman either decides that her pregnancy constitutes life, or not. It’s silly to assume that a pregnant woman who intends to take the pregnancy to term sees the foetus as a human child, not simply the possibility of one, the promise of one, but it seems like a common view. And if the foetus is a person, it’s absolutely a person, because in most systems of morality, personhood is sacred, absolute, and powerful. Utilitarianism is frightening to theists and humanists alike because it challenges that belief, substitutes sacred life and absolute rights with negotiable and calculable preferences and needs. It can’t be one of two. It’s all or nothing.