I was a Siamese Princess: reconstructing colonial (her)stories

“The tale of the Infinitely Great Grandmother is a shadow play where the screen has been stretched by my mother to accommodate many stories about our Eurasian origins. In-between people, we, like many Eurasians, were displaced and afraid of being shadows without any proper way of explaining our origins” - Simone Lazaroo
“History is about the choices people make, not the events that happened within the boundaries of a state” – Tan Liok Ee


Portrait of Martina Rozells (date and artist unknown) Source: http://gardeninfrance.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/martina-rozells.html

Portrait of Martina Rozells (date and artist unknown) Source: http://gardeninfrance.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/martina-rozells.html

Many women of history leave only traces, faint outlines in the shadow of the men who came before them. Seen only as a footnote and often through the gaze of men, these women continue to evade attempts to pin them down. They come into focus in fleeting moments, only to keep moving and disappear again. Sometimes, if they are lucky, if we are lucky, they’re recorded in official documents of memory: in archives, through letters, in official correspondence, in works of art. From this we can revive them through a careful and delicate process of writing them back into the story. But other times, they vanish from history with barely a trace. What is left is an outline, a form, an imprint of their presence. And sometimes, this is all we have to follow.

Ann Lanyon found this out when she began researching the story of Malinche, the Amerindian women who, in the 1500s, translated for and accompanied Spanish conquistador Cortez in his conquering of the Aztecs. History hasn’t treated Malinche kindly. Some cast her as an ambiguous figure, others call her a traitor. Yet as Lanyon discovered, a strong alternative folklore grew up and weaved itself around her, complicating dominant historical depictions: Malinche after all was also the mother of the ‘first Mexican’. Whole ancestries, stories, histories are traced back through her line.

Martina Rozells - a mysterious, elusive and yet central figure in the Penang Eurasian story - is another one of these women. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning. It begins with a Siamese Princess...


My great, great, great grandfather was the King of Siam. His daughter, a Siamese Princess, was my great, great grandmother. The story my mother told me when I was growing up, and the story she was told when she was growing up, was that my great, great, great grandfather was King Chulalongkorn, son of the famous Thai King Mongut. (Mongut was the King depicted by Hollywood in the musical The King and I and played by a mischievous Yul Brynner). The story goes that one of the daughters of the King secretly met, scandalously fell in love with and eventually eloped with a German or Dutch consular official stationed in Siam: a European and a commoner! The Princess’ royal family, both outraged and shamed, cut her off from the family royal ties and disowned her. This story entered our family folklore and I grew up proudly telling my friends of my ‘blue blood’ and Siamese royal heritage. My mother certainly grew up believing the story was true.

The historical King in question had 84 children, so it is possible, if not entirely plausible, that this story contains some grain of truth. But I wonder whether perhaps the genesis of the story lies in the re-imagining of my maternal grandmother’s mother and her story, which was also somewhat shrouded in scandal and mystery. She was a Eurasian, who grew up a D’Almeida – a Portuguese Eurasian name - but who was adopted and in fact was thought to be a Neubraunner, another Eurasian name of German or Dutch Colonial heritage found in parts of southern Thailand. Could this be some clue to the German-Dutch-Thai princess story?

Or perhaps the story was simply a template for many Eurasian families that embellished and romanticised the details of those early inter-cultural liaisons and intimate alliances between powerful European men and the local Malay women. It is perhaps a tale of the in-between children they produced. But in this story, the power balance is inverted and refracted to place the women at the centre: it is the women who hold the intrigue as much as they continue to elude.

I thought my family story was unique, or at least particular to our ancestral line. It was only when I heard a similar story from my mother’s extended family that I realised the princess might not have been a princess at all, if indeed there ever was one. My mother’s second cousin told me of the fanciful stories that she grew up with as part of her own family folklore. These, she now believed, were used to cover up the shame of illegitimacy and cultural displacement of those early Colonial years and the birth of the first generations of Eurasians: the adoptions; the abandoned children; and the Malay mothers who continued to live in the house as servants while their children were educated as Europeans, taught to speak English, and wear Western clothes. Secretly, the mothers would whisper to their children in their mother tongue.

What happens to history in the re-telling? What happens to the Eurasian ancestral origin story when it is reinvented and passed down the generations, when family stories merge with the historical narrative, absorbing new and embellished details each time they are told? Does the narrative messiness obscure or reveal something about the truth of history? A truth that can only be told when refashioned into story?

In another branch of my family tree, another family story, a French plantation owner in Sumatra met and married a woman from a Javanese aristocratic family. In a variation of the story, she was a dancer in the court of Jogjakarta whose family threatened to throw her off the balcony if she married the Frenchman. In a third rendition, the couple eloped and made their way to Penang where they were absorbed into the flourishing and dynamic Eurasian Catholic community. There may indeed be some truths in these tales, but more intriguing is they each evoke and perpetuate the dangerous and alluring myth of forbidden love, family shame and disapproval, cultural ambiguity and the archetype of intimate interactions and alliances between beautiful Asian women and powerful Western men.


Sometimes, strategic alliances were inferred in these stories, traces of which are evident in the power dynamics and flows between local ruling families and colonial interests in the negotiation over land, labour and trade. But they still remain mere shadows of what the real stories, the real, lived lives, must have been like. The slippages, contradictions and frustratingly absent details hidden in this Eurasian folklore are fresh ground for exploration and reinvention, a way of rewriting the mythology that perhaps began with that first Eurasian of Penang, Martina Rozells. Most Eurasian Penangites today would be able to trace at least one branch of their family tree back to Martina.

In many ways, Martina Rozells comes alive to us through the traces she has left behind. In others, it is the traces that erase her past. She is found in contemporary accounts of Colnel Francis Light and his claim to the island of Penang in 1786 on behalf of the British East India Company (the first truly global corporation). She is found by his side over the span of more than 20 years from Junk Ceylon (now Phuket) where they opened a trading post; to the Sultanate of Kedah on peninsula Malaysia, and finally settling in Penang. Whether they ‘co-habitated’, were ‘married’, were common law companions, or simply formed a practical and strategic ‘alliance’ as various accounts suggest, it cannot be denied that Martina was an important and influential figure in the 'founding' and 'settlement' of Penang. The 200 strong group of Portuguese Eurasian Catholics that came across with Light and Rozells established a strong Eurasian presence on the island, a presence that had been strong across the other Straits Settlements (Malacca and Singapore) since 1511.

From what we know, Martina herself was Eurasian, of Thai-Portuguese heritage. In one reference she is referred to as Martinha Thong Di but took her mother’s name of Rozells. She was almost certainly one hundreds of Portuguese Eurasian Catholics who, in two successive waves, fled religious persecution in southern Siam and to Kedah on the Malay Peninsula. There is much speculation and much embellishment about these early years, and little concrete to go on. Some writings suggest Martina had connections to the Kedah court.  Other contemporary accounts suggest that she was the daughter of the 19th Sultan of Kedah (Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Adilin II) by a lower-ranking wife of mixed Thai-Portuguese ancestry. Adopting Martina’s maternal name (Rozells) might have had the strategic advantage of highlighting her Catholic and European heritage. This resonates with the speculation that as a “maid of honour to the Sultan of Kedah’s wife”, Martina would have been of “high birth”, making her a prized possession and negotiating tool in dealings between the Sultan and Light over control of Penang Island. Other accounts wonder whether Martina was the ‘nonya’ sent to Light by the Sultan of Kedah in 1772 (the year that Light and Rozells were supposedly married in Siam), but there is no evidence that Rozells and the nonya were the same woman. Another account speculates the Sultan gave Light a “Princess of Kedah” as a reward, or part of the agreement in granting Light control over Penang in exchange for British protection from the Siamese. Other variations say that a Princess was sent to covet Light’s aid in Siam on behalf of the Sultan. And then there are those that refute the claim that she was in any way connected to the nobility precisely because of her mixed heritage. Whatever the intricacies of the story were, we can see the broad brushstrokes and perhaps the beginnings of the Siamese Princess story of my own family folklore.

Whatever the nature of their relationship, Martina continues to resist interpretation but tempts the writer to imagine her as a woman of considerable fortitude and ingenuity. Light and Rozells had five children. Their third son, William, was the first Surveyor-General of South Australia and went on to found the city of Adelaide. We can imagine Light treated her well. It is known he spoke both Malay and Thai and took effort to learn the local customs. He had been trading in Siam and Malaya for a decade before meeting Martina and was well respected by the locals. Some reports say they were married in Siam according to local customs. They lived together in Penang and were commonly regarded as man and wife, but as Light was Anglican and Rozells was Catholic, a marriage in the eyes of the British not a likely possibility. What we know for sure is Light left most of his personal fortune and estate to Martina, including the extravagant residence Suffolk House, although it is thought that others tried to swindle her out of this entitlement and she had to fight a long battle in the court system in which she had a clear disadvantage. She finally won the case but in a subsequent battle years later lost control of the estate to the British. The rumour was that to keep her quiet, Martina received a pension from the British East India Company. This is my favourite detail. If it is true, a record must exist buried somewhere deep in the bowels of the British Library and Archives. We know she continued to live a quiet life after Light’s death and eventually went on to marry another Englishman. She died in Penang in 1822.

And that’s all we really know or don’t know about Martina Rozells. Was she the Siamese Princess in my childhood stories?

My own fascination with Martina’s story and its refashioning over time is partly due to its fugitive nature, as well as her role as a cultural mediator. Perhaps this is what it is to be Eurasian: impossible to pin down, to tie to one particular meaning or history, but to be deeply rooted in the cultural consequences of Empire.  It is in these slippages and gaps, in the contradiction and confusion, in the contested and contentious nature of these Eurasian stories, this family folkore, at the centre of it is some kind of jewel.


The privilege, and privileging of, free speech

While freedom of speech is one of the underpinning ideals of any liberal democracy, it is also highly politically charged.  Questions around the limits of those freedoms have recently come under the spotlight in Australia in recent years.  There has been much debate around injurious speech, specifically with regard to free speech, racial vilification legislation and categories of offence prompted by proposed changes to sections of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act (1975) (the Act).  These debates have been further inflamed in public discourse through the attachment that certain categories of speech - and certain speech acts - have to particular affective economies of voice and circuits of power and influence. Proposed changes to the Act were first mooted shortly after the successful case brought to the Federal Court in 2011 against conservative print columnist Andrew Bolt on the grounds of racial vilification for a series of articles in which he called into question the ‘genuineness’ of a group of “fair skinned Aboriginal people” (Federal Court of Australia, 2011).  Section 18(C) of the Act provides legal remedy to the uneven distribution of power where certain speech acts can have serious and disproportionate negative impacts on minority groups or individuals based on reference to race, colour, religious or ethnic origin (Commonwealth of Australia, 1975).  Without going into the details of the case, and setting aside the parallel conversation about settler-indigenous and race relations the country, the case reignited public and political debate on the appropriate limits (if any) on free speech.

Contrary to the popular prevailing view that the Act makes it unlawful to offend someone on the basis of their race, ethnicity or religion, Section 18(D) provides a number of exemptions which makes some forms of speech legally permissible - including racial vilification - within certain limits.  The language used in this section of the Act specifically connects the category of speech to an affective register of voice in granting exemptions, including references to the terms ‘in good faith’, of ‘genuine belief’, ‘reasonably’ and in a ‘fair’ manner (Commonwealth of Australia, 1975: Section 18D).  Beyond a rights-based approach to the limits and freedoms of speech, the 18(D) exemption takes into consideration the tone and mode of address in determining whether a particular speech act is deemed unlawful.  The exemption recognises this affective nature of speech and the interrelationship between intention (of speech) and intensity (of affect) in constituting what speech means and what speech does through its affective flows.  These terms also connect the social nature of speech to the exercise of power.  Words have symbolic and signifying functions, but also circulate as social currency within a system of power relations where the struggle over the terms and limits of speech are continually negotiated.  Injurious speech (following Butler) frames speech in terms of its trajectory and effects on others:  it details a movement from the one who speaks towards the one who is injured, where words - with their embedded and implied intentions and cultural histories - circulate between social actors in different social positions of power.

Justin Clemens (2011: 22) has persuasively argued that the term itself has collapsed as a meaningful political category in Australia:

That Julian Assange and Andrew Bolt agree - or at least pay lip service to the same 'principles' - that is, absolute freedom of speech, open and vigorous debate, and the quest for truth, probably shows that these are now essentially theological terms from which noone is permitted publicly to demur.

Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange and conservative print columnist Andrew Bolt each vigorously support the principle of absolute freedom of speech, at the same time deploying it in radically different way and to different ends.  In defending Wikileaks publication of sensitive classified information, Assange often invokes press freedom and the people’s “right to know” (Flew and Liu, 2011).  This position puts him at odds with those who support the need for hate speech laws, for instance, as he equates any restrictions on free speech with censorship.  In this sense, Assange is somewhat uncomfortably aligned with federal Attorney General George Brandis’ controversial, but predictable, comments in the context of proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act: that “people do have the right to be bigots” (Rice, 2013).  Clemens suggests the most notable thing in the debate was that the utterances of these two “antithetical characters” have become indiscernible from each other.  However, while they are antithetical in many ways, both political liberalism (Bolt) and informational liberalism (Assange) reveal the tensions that arise when the category of speech that becomes attached to both ideas of liberty and the individual and - more recently - to forms of data or information. Rather than signifying a collapse in the meaning of free speech as Clemens suggests, the dissonance between Bolt and Assange instead reveals what is at stake in these contradictions over the meaning of ‘free speech’, going to the heart of tensions inherent within liberalism itself.

Another revealing aspect that emerged from the repercussions from the case is the way the ‘market of ideas’ came to support an economy of speech that makes no distinction between those in positions of power with those who hold less power.  The free market of ideas - a concept first developed by John Stuart Mill - is an analogy used to describe the way that, in a vibrant public domain where competing ideas are circulated, the truth will naturally emerge.  In a market of ideas that places high value on individual freedom of speech, all speech is said to circulate within a public domain where each idea is valued according to its merits.  According to this argument, bigoted remarks in the public domain are socially regulated through a process of free expression and debate.  Yet the presumption that all ideas are given equal consideration with the strongest ideas emerging does not fully account for the uneven structures of power that condition speech.  As Waleed Aly (2013) pointed out at the time, there is no such thing as ‘free’ speech; there are only different costs.  When speech is attached to this marketplace of ideas some modes of speech are made more valuable – and given more power - than others.  Aly also expressed concern over comments like Senator Brandis’ that appeared to give unconditional support to people’s right to offend, cautioning that “the social regulation of speech places the regulation of speech in the hands of the powerful”.

From this brief account of debates surrounding the extent to which free speech should be circumscribed by considerations of racial offence etc., the limits and contradictions within liberal and democratic traditions are thrown into stark relief.  This complicates any attempt to argue that increased opportunities to speak up and be heard is the defining shift in the post-convergent West.  There is more at stake.

References :

Aly, W. (2013) ‘Free Speech, Vilification and Power: the 2013 PEN Free Voices lecture’.

Public lecture. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from


Clemens, J. (2011) ‘Killer Drones, Dieback and Democracy’, Arena Magazine (115): 22.

Commonwealth of Australia. (1975) The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

Federal Court of Australia (2011) Eatock v Bolt [2011] FCA 1103. File number VID 770 of 2010, 28 September.

Flew, T. and B. R. Liu (2011) ‘Globally Networked Public Spheres? The Australian media reaction to Wikileaks’, Global Media Journal: Australian Edition 5(1): 1-13.

Rice, S. (2013) ‘Race Act Changes are what you get when you Champion Bigotry’, The Conversation, 26 March.

Skin in the Game: Adam Goodes, the dynamics of racism and acoustic violence

The Roar of the Crowd

"Anyone listening to those boos who is familiar with the dynamics of racism can hear it in the boos.  There's a certain quality to them.  There's something about it that sounds markedly different from the other boos that players get"  -Waleed Aly on ABC Radio National, 30June 2015

At the height of public debate last week about the sustained booing of Indigenous AFL footballer Adam Goodes, perhaps the most insightful comment came from Waleed Aly, who drew attention to what we might call the acoustic violence of racism.  While there was one brief mention in print about the fact that Goodes has played over 300 matches and has enough experience to read the mood - or tone - of the crowd, and therefore distinguish between standard rowdy behaviour and racially motivated verbal abuse, this aspect of racism - its particular sonic or acoustic quality, and the wounding that it causes - was largely absent from the debate. 

Some commentators, like former Victorian Premier and Hawthorn club president Jeff Kennett, initially defended the crowd's behaviour by making likening the footy field to a modern-day Roman Colosseum.  These attempts seemed, in part, to downplay the booing by highlighting the theatricality of booing one's opponent.  Setting aside the fact that these commentaries rarely acknowledged the subtle distinction on the dynamics of the crowd that Aly points to, there is something in the Colesseum analogy that is somewhat apt.  Let's not forget that in Roman times, when the Colesseum was used for Gladiatorial fights, the roar of the crowd was the barometer by which it was decided who would live and who would die.  This was not just sport.  It was blood sport.  And the stakes were very viscerally, and immediately, real.  

The Untrained Ear

How might we think about Aly's acoustic critique in the wake of this incident?  And how might this line of analysis push discussion about racialised violence beyond predictable liberal, rights-based arguments about the limits of free speech (or in this case, the freedom to 'boo'), the rights of minorities, or discourses of tolerance and diversity?  Clearly, Aly's analysis reveals that he himself has a keen awareness of the subtleties of acoustic violence, while conceding there is categorical difference between the booing targeted against Adam Goodes and the 'pantomime' of booing as part of the spectacle of sports (and he made reference to the recent Real Madrid soccer match in Melbourne to illustrate this point). But it is the distinction itself - in terms of a politics of listening - that has remained largely unexamined beyond pointing out that there's a difference in intention.  But intention doesn't fully capture what is going on here.  

It is the affective quality carried in the boos that reveal themselves as the acoustic artefacts of racialised violence.  These sounds, then, embody far more than what is at first apparent to the untrained ear.  Encoded into the cacophony and dissonance of the boos of the crowd are the echoes of a history of subtle and systemic forms of discrimination and racial abuse that continue to haunt inter-cultural relations in this country more broadly, and settler-Indigenous relations in particular.  These echoes have a sound.

Acoustic violence

On my reading, at the heart of Aly's analysis is the claim that those who are subject to systemic forms of racism are attuned precisely to those qualities that - to the untrained ear - are otherwise rendered silent.  What Aly seems to be getting at is that those who are subject to systematic forms of racism become experts in what Lawrence Abu Hamden might call "forensic listening".  To sections of the the population not exposed to regular sonic or acoustic violence, the boos heard in recent weeks whenever Goodes went near the ball on the field might seem to be no different than the boos of the crowd at any other game, or in any other sporting arena.  But the assault felt by Goodes, and other prominent members of the community who expressed solidarity with Goodes (such as Stan Grant in a deeply moving and personal account of his experience of systemic forms of racism) registers at a level that comes prior to words.  Which is why it cannot be defended by recourse to ideas of free speech alone.  

Do not mistake, this sonic and acoustic violence performs a real wounding.  Sound waves physically come into contact with the objects and targets they hit - sometimes rebounding off them, sometimes penetrating them.  Let's not forget, we can be slapped in the face by a boo.  The sounds of racism - their particular tone, register, acoustic quality - exist prior to any kind of word or verbalised thought.  But they can have no less real - no less corporeal - and embodied effects that resonate long after the echoes have died down.

Forensic Listening

By thinking about how we listen, and what we hear, we might be able to develop a more complex and nuanced picture of the granular and permeating registers of racially motivated violence and abuse work.  How certain populations - exposed to sustained and targeted campaigns of discrimination that involve acoustic or sonic violence - develop a particular kind of skill for listening that equips them, as well as makes them vulnerable, to hear the signal hidden in the noise.   

I want to turn to a recent keynote address on the Politics of Listening given by artist and researcher Lawrence Abu Hamdan - who explores the relationship between politics, human rights, international law, and the act of listening - and think about how his work might also help us think through the acoustic violence directed against Adam Goodes.  

Abu Hamdan conducted an acoustic analysis of the sounds of gunfire unleashed by members of the Israeli police on a group of Palestinians, resulting in two fatalities.  He analysed recordings of gunfire shots fired into the crowd - both lethal and non-lethal - using spectrogram analysis, which visually represents different sound frequencies with bands of colour.  To the untrained ear, the lethal and non-lethal shots sound identical.  But spectrogram analysis revealed a distinct difference between the sound of live ammunition and live ammunition fired through a rubber bullet extension.     

Image credit (c) Abu Hamdan

Image credit (c) Abu Hamdan

When he synced up the sound of gunfire with visual news footage of the incidents, the Palestinian crowd instinctively reacted in dramatically different ways when a rubber bullet extension was used from when there was live ammunition.  Abu Hamdan persuasively argues that for these Palestinians, constantly exposed to this kind of sonic - and very real - threat of violence, they become 'expert listeners' able to distinguish between the sonic characteristics of live gunfire and gunfire masked with a rubber bullet extension to sound like a rubber bullet.  For this crowd, forensic listening is the difference between life and death.  Sorting the signal from the noise is what keeps them alive.  

Perhaps in similar ways to the Palestinians who develop skills as expert listeners, those populations subject to the sounds of racism and racialised violence become finely attuned to the difference between a boo and a 'boo'.  These are distinctions that we - as those who are lucky enough not to be made vulnerable to the damaging effects of the acoustic violence of racism - struggle to hear.

"It is the sound that needs to enter our acoustic consciousness, because in all cases across the world it is the sound where the tools of institutional violence cross the threshold into acts of wanton bloodshed" - Lawrence Abu Hamdan

The Signal and the Noise

Signal-to-noise ratio is a measure used in science, engineering and other fields of inquiry, including speech pathology.  Noise is the term for unwanted or background interference that negatively affects signal strength or clarity.  What I have attempted to unpack in this short essay is to think through the ways that racialised violence is not always self-evidently visible, or audible, to those who are not finely attuned to registering its wounding effects.  That sometimes the signal becomes lost in the noise; in the cacophony of boos  that were otherwise registered as harmless forms of jeering and theatrics.  

Adam Goodes' temporary withdrawal from the game last weekend - his retreat into momentary silence, his refusal to speak - was his strongest action against racism yet.  As Judith Butler (2005: 12) reminds us, the refusal to narrate, in some instances, can “call into question the legitimacy of the authority” by attempting to circumscribe a “domain of autonomy” for the subject.  What Goodes' silence in response to a sustained and repeated sonic attack drew attention to the need for an account of the violence of racism, in part, through a radical politics of listening that goes beyond simply "speaking up" and "being heard".  Goodes' temporary silence wasn't a silence against speech.  It was a call to hear the signal beneath the noise.

Radical Listening

What might a radical politics of listening sound like, when it comes to registering the acoustic violence of racism in this country?  I do not have the answer, but think it is an important provocation, and what I have attempted to do in this essay is to think through what is involved - and what's at stake - when we want to seriously address the dynamics of racism and and the many forms that racially-motivated violence can take.

Also posted on my blog http://www.difficultsubjects.org/

Photojournalism or ʻtechnostalgiaʼ? Hipster aesthetics and image ethics in the age of 'i-phoneography'

Figure 1: iAfghanistan (Ben Lowy)

Figure 1: iAfghanistan (Ben Lowy)

Picture this: in sun-drenched, saturated colour, a dozen Muslim men are shown, doubled over, heads to the ground in prayer, somewhere in the dust and dirt of Afghanistan. Cutting a diagonal line across the top third of the frame, their backs line up in differing shades of green; the dirt around them almost golden like some fantastical beach. In the lower third of the image, in spotlight, sits a single AK47, angled in careful symmetry towards the vanishing point that the line of men forms across the frame. The contrasting symbolism of devoted men in prayer with the iconic Kalashnikov; weapon of choice for freedom fighters and terrorists alike, seems an obvious if not a little heavy handed attempt to both critique and represent life of the contemporary, post-9/11 middle east.

As the late Susan Sontag reminded us in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, one of the distinguishing features of contemporary life is that it provides seemingly endless opportunities for regarding (at a distance, through the medium of photography) the horrors taking place throughout the world. Contemporary depictions of the human impact of conflict, disaster and violence hold the potential to awaken in us an ethical responsiveness to the things that are done in our name, but they also carry the potential to create a glamour of misery and spectacle of suffering which inures us to that suffering. Photojournalism, with its roots in a documentary tradition that comes with certain expectations about the depiction of ‘reality’, has always contended with the question of how to imagine, capture and represent the essence of a story in/through the power of the image. From the beginning, questions of technology were intrinsically interlinked with questions of ethics.
At first glance, it could be an image from the pages of National Geographic, not so much photojournalism as much as it is a depiction of exotic and romantic visual imagery from the globe’s furthest corners.

Figure 2: iAfghanistan (Ben Lowy)

Figure 2: iAfghanistan (Ben Lowy)

Or this: a woman stands front of frame, her arms folded across her front, her eyes slightly downcast looking to our right at something we cannot see. She is dressed in a simple black chador, her strong features framed by her headpiece. Behind her sit four women, faces covered, two wearing teal-blue burqas and a third with blue, brown and white. Her sandals stand out as a spot of red in the middle of the frame. As in the first image, this photograph consists of rich, saturated hues: the teal of the burquas and the green stone floor contrast with the cloudy white of the wall that serves as a backdrop behind them.

Again, this image could be from the pages of National Geographic. Or, given that it is a fairly intimate portrait of five women in a country which, in the eyes of the West, treat its women as second-class citizens, it could be conceivably be an image taken by an international NGO to raise awareness or funds for the plight of women in the middle east.

Are images showing the human face of life after wartime allowed to be so painfully beautiful?

Neither of these pictures are what they first seem to be: they were taken by World Press Photo award-winning photojournalist and iphoneographer Benjamin Lowy with nothing more than the camera on his smartphone and a handy little app called Hipstagram. A selection of photographs from Lowy’s iAfghanistan series were recently exhibited at the State Library of New South Wales as part of a citywide Head On festival of photography. The intimate and affecting images of daily life in Afghanistan were taken over a period of nine years that New York-based Lowy spent in the country following the 2003 US-led occupation. All the images exhibited a similar, unsettling mixture of sumptuous, saturated colours with an observational depiction of daily life in a country battered by poverty, conflict and occupation. Lowy’s images elicit a simultaneous affective and critical response, which pull strongly in opposing directions. There has always been a gap between the fallibility of the image in representing some intrinsic ‘truth’ and its reception by audiences as bearing some kind of authentic witness to real life events. But what is less clear is how these questions are complicated by new mobile camera technologies and smartphone apps.

Fields of vision: the continuing power of the image

"Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation." - Eddie Adams

Figure 4: Saigon, 1968 (Eddie Adams)

Figure 4: Saigon, 1968 (Eddie Adams)

The most memorable examples of photojournalism in conflict zones have always been the images that pull on the heartstrings. Two of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War - Eddie Adam’s Saigon, 1968 and Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl – illustrate, in different ways, the power of the still image in documentary photography to captivate, persuade and quicken the sentiments of millions of people; and in some cases, sway public opinion.

When World Press Photo and Picture of the Year International award-winning photograph The Crescent by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin was found to misrepresent the location and person depicted in his winning photograph (details that were integral to the veracity of the subject), this uncovered the unspoken pact between image-maker and audience in which the audience places trust in the image-maker to, if not depict the exact truth of a situation, then to convey a level of faithfulness to the subject matter.

Figure 3: Afghan Girl (Steve McCurry, 1984)

Figure 3: Afghan Girl (Steve McCurry, 1984)

Lowy’s images resonate historically with a humanitarian tradition that includes the iconic image of the young Afghan Girl that fronted cover of National Geographic in 1984 (still the magazine’s most recognizable image). Yet they prompt more complex questions beyond the use of carefully composed images to invite empathy and identification: they provoke us to think about the space between ethics and aesthetics that new technologies generate.


Anonymous, ubiquitous, intimate: the ethics of iPhone aesthetics

“What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

The use of cameraphones and smartphone apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram is changing the face of photojournalism and throws up new ethical questions around the politics of representation, the use of new technologies, and the responsibility of the image-maker to consider the broader cultural context in which his or her images are created. Lowy’s stated intentions in using Hipstamatic to “capture the zeitgeist” of Afghan society in a “technologically innovative way” have sparked online debate around the ethics and aesthetics of contemporary photojournalism in the age of the smartphone.

If Lowy is aiming to capture the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist appears to be the reproduction of a dreamy past. But this is a past not simply remembered, it is deliberately (re)created for a viewer. Lowy’s images provoke strong affective responses associated with the warm, fuzzy memories of the Super8 home movie and the Polaroid; infused with the hue of pre-digital family photographs you’d find kept in a shoebox by your grandparents. In Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson argued that in the postmodern age, nostalgia has replaced history as a way of responding to and understanding our individual and collective (national) past. Hiptsamatic’s motto, digital never looked so analogue, captures the cultural fashion of reviving, reinventing and reimagining practices from the past. Like its successful cousin Instagram, Hipstamatic is a photography application that provides a choice of pre-set filters and lenses to create vintage-inspired images at the click of a button.

Hipstamatic relies on cultural quotations from the era of the Super 8 home movie reel and the analogue camera movement (revived by hipsters through the worldwide lomography movement) to reimagine the present through the lens of what Pat Gill terms “technostalgia”. Gill argues that technostalgia “grants the reestablishment of homey virtues in a blighted world, sanguinely celebrating the force of the human spirit in increasingly mechanistic surroundings”; a nostalgic disavowal of potential future (or present) catastrophe. These images of iphoneography are doubly framed: they are framed in the traditional sense of what choices the photographer makes in constructing the image; and they are also framed in through the memory of our visual history. Of course, the argument against the digital colonisation of the analogue past and its cultural implications are not new (see Nathan Jurgensen’s essay on what he terms “faux-vintage photography” and its discontents) and perhaps I’m just suffering from “hipstamatic angst” or instagram anxiety”. But I would argue that it remains important to carefully consider whether these instances point to larger trends towards or away from something we might regard as important; particularly when their use is transposed from the context of social media sharing to its application to instances of war and conflict coverage. What are the implications when this social practice is reappropriated by photojournalists and contextualised not as the vernacular cultural production of social media self- display, but as representations of news, documentary and contemporary politics?

Figure 5: iAfghanistan (Ben Lowy)

Figure 5: iAfghanistan (Ben Lowy)

If we return to Jameson’s general point, we can ask: does the hyper-saturated aesthetic of Lowy’s dreamy images of ‘everyday’ Afghani street life rely on technostalgia to hollow out or disavow the history of the impact of US military occupation and Western presence in the Middle East? What are the ethical obligations, if any, to consider when working with a technology that has such strong cultural meaning and significance in this context? There are no straightforward answers, but it is important to ask the questions.

The politics of aesthetics: creativity in conflict

Creativity and documenting the social realities of human experience are not mutually exclusive. Aesthetic concerns have driven choices about how to frame the subject, what moments to chose, what to leave out of the frame etc since the invention of photographys. Some of the most lauded independent documentary makers such as Errol Morris play with the notions of the construction of reality through (re)staging and re-enactment, and use highly stylised images and emotive colour palates to convey their message. In 2010, the Australian War Memorial appointed video artist Sean Gladwell to travel to Afghanistan as an official war correspondent. Gladwell used his time with Australian troops to produce innovative video works that, in part, meditated “on the role of technology in modern war” (AWM), confounding traditional expectations around the role of the war correspondent and the type of works they produce. His poignant yet stark Mirror Sequence was a two-channel synchronised video depicting two soldiers in a Mad Max-like landscape circling around each other while filming each other with video cameras.  

Figure 6: Mirror Sequence (Tarin Kuat) (Sean Gladwell, 2010)

Figure 6: Mirror Sequence (Tarin Kuat) (Sean Gladwell, 2010)

Of course, innovation and creativity in the visual representation of war and conflict is not always unambiguously good. Propaganda also works with coded symbolism, aesthetic categories and affective resonances that are in part inspired and transformed by the technologies that they use. The technical lessons that Leni Riefenstahl learned during her filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which she used innovative low-angled shots to frame athletes from below as contemporary gods that towered over mortals, were later transposed to represent Adolf Hitler in a glowing light. Her 1934 documentary Triumph of the Will succeeds as both a technical masterpiece and as a piece of Nazi propaganda.

The new economy of photojournalism

What Jameson termed “convergence culture” more than a decade ago has seen a dramatic collapse in the binaries that separated producer from consumer, professional from amateur. In the area of photojournalism, convergence culture and global network technologies have reconfigured the boundaries around what ‘counts’ as ‘legitimate’ news images. Cameraphone footage of the 2007 London bombings, and more recently, the civilian protests across North Africa in the ‘Arab Spring’, have become the ‘breakthrough’ images in the new economy of citizen journalism. This changing landscape is exciting but also in a constant state of flux, emerging on the frontiers of image ethics in the digital age.

Lowy, of course, is not the only to jump on the technological bandwagon. He is but one of a small but growing cohort of documentary photographers using mobile camera technologies and smartphone apps to change the landscape and political economy of freelance photojournalism.

Figure 7: War in Hipstamatic (Balazs Gardi)

Figure 7: War in Hipstamatic (Balazs Gardi)

Balazs Gardi’s 2011 photoessay War in Hipstamatic was produced on an iPhone in Afghanistan and published in Foreign Policy Magazine. The de-saturated images pull out the blue and green tones of his subjects to create an aesthetic contrast to Lowy’s colour-drenched images. The de-saturation and edged border make them look ‘archival’; almost out-of-time.

Figure 8: Patrick Baz

Figure 8: Patrick Baz

French-Lebanese photographer Patrick Baz has been photographing war zones for over thirty years. When he decided to try out the Hipstamatic app on his iphone as a correspondant for AFP in Bagdhad, he found it allowed greater flexibility and discretion as it looked like he was just another tourist taking photos. But when he agency was considering whether to submit Baz’ photographs to AFP clients, the initial response was not so favourable: “our policy is clear and simple: using apps or filters that create artificial effects on the image are not consistent with our mandate of delivery of objective information ... the distortion of reality engendered by these filter applications introduces an element of subjectivity and takes us too far from the kind of journalism upon which our reputation is constructed”.

Despite this, images like Baz’s, Lowy’s and Gardi’s are increasingly making their way into traditional media and in the process reshaping our collective understanding and imagination of these all-too-foreign lands. And while there has never been a time in the history of photography that pure, unfiltered authenticity existed within the ‘field of vision’ that is the documentary image, we remain haunted by messy and shifting line between ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. When anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch coined the term cinema verite to describe his process of documenting the life and culture of others, he referred to a ‘cinematic truth’ rather than an absolute truth. Perhaps the same thing can be said about the tradition of documentary photography.

What is my point here? Ethic, aesthetics and politics in visual documentary forms of representation such as photojournalism are intrinsically intertwined and cannot be considered in isolation. There is no such thing as an objective, unadulterated image. This does not mean that the ideal of objectivity should be dissolved by postmodern deconstruction and intense subjectivity. Rather, it means that the position of objectivity that is created through a suite of choices, including technologically-driven choices that open up new frontiers of the depiction of human extremes. Creativity absolutely has a role to play; but so does responsibility and responsiveness to the humanity of the subjects we represent and depict.


Between over-consumption and self-regulation: narrative tensions in The Biggest Loser

“The distinctive feature of the stories told in our times is that they articulate individual lives in a way that excludes or suppresses (prevents from articulation) that possibility of tracking down the links concerning individual fate to the ways and means by which society as a whole operates”[1].

Ethical objections over the methods and motives of reality shows like The Biggest Loser are not new. Health and medical experts have regularly expressed their concerns in the popular media over the potential for harm that rapid weight loss, rigorous psychological abuse, public exposure to ridicule and fierce competition can have on the individuals who participate in the show*. My interest here is not in these critiques but in the neoliberal narratives of (over) consumption and (self) regulation these shows produce and that the contestants embody. Reality television shows such as The Biggest Loser thrive on this voyeuristic ‘democratization of pain’ where the entrepreneurial imperative is conceptually paired with the practice of emotional governance.

The contestants in The Biggest Loser are the discursive and affective embodiment of neoliberal culture[2]. Here, citizens are reconstructed as over-consumers whose bodies are out of control at the same time as they are buying in to the neoliberal solution that position them as responsible individuals that regulate that excess consumption. These consuming narratives deploy and privilege neoliberal discourses of individual risk, responsibility, self-regulation and continual self-surveillance in relation to excess consumption, self-optimization attached to moral values of self-worth.

Under the neoliberal logic of individual responsibilization, these shows often tend toward a certain “glamour of misery”[3] which both celebrates and commodifies the performance of identity through a therapeutic narrative of self-optimisation and self-regulation. Illouz contends that the rise of therapeutic culture in the last thirty years positions people who have “un-self-realised lives” in need of care or therapy, thus creating an “emotional hierarchy” of subjects which in turn justifies the “organization of difference” that institutions build themselves upon[4].   This, however, produces a paradox: a culture of therapeutic expression which gives narrative form to experiences of suffering and actions to over come it necessarily places that suffering at the center of self-identity.

Capitalist narratives of progress focused on optimizing productivity, efficiency and capacity are paradoxically sustained by an exposure to injury and vulnerability and the continual management of risk. Jasbir Puar argues that “neoliberal regimes of biocapital produce the body as never healthy enough, and thus always in a debilitated state in relation to what one’s bodily capacity is imagined to be”[5]. The continual state of being in pursuit of optimum health performs a double action: it not only forms and formulates the body as an endless potentiality for intervention and optimization, thus producing the temporal category of chronicity whereby everyone is subject to reinvention. Glavan traces the genealogy of chronic illness and disease over the last half of the 20th century to claim it has become a “political entity” that derives from and justifies surveillance[6]. Surveillance of the body is conducted not through direct forms of disciplinary power but by powers of control whereby individuals are encouraged (through the ‘positive’ language of individual freedom and choice) to police themselves for their own good.

The accounts given by contestants in The Biggest Loser are produced and respond to the ongoing tension between excess consumption and self-regulation within a neoliberal schema of intelligibility that accords recognition in terms of ‘positive’ practices of individual empowerment, participation, responsibility and choice. At the same time, the show’s format produces narratives of exceptionalism where voices that conform to and perform inspirational stories of self-reinvention, enterprise and control are rewarded and given recognition; and where their obesity is understood as an individual moral failing largely disconnected from social or structural conditions of inequality.

TBL illustrates that persuasive cultural narratives are produced through a coalescing of the modern individual, therapeutic culture and market imperatives to form new modes of speech and a narrative grammar that are given legitimacy through a neoliberal mode of recognition. Contestants on the show have invariably internalized institutional narratives of risk, responsibility and regulation in relation to their own obesity and the show is premised on the celebration of these privileged narrative tropes. At once taking control of their lives via the opportunity to both give account of and enact these narratives of self-transformation, the contestants on The Biggest Loser can also be understood as consuming a rationality that obscures structural health inequalities in order to privilege the individual story. This ambiguous position is, in part, a strategy of survival, whereby these people consume a particular neoliberal narrative that equates obesity (somewhat paradoxicaly) with over consumption and under regulation in order to find a socially acceptable way to narrate and perform that very same consuming narrative. Inspirational stories of survival and empowerment are celebrated and vital to the show’s affective resonance with the audience; at the same time, these narratives are made intelligible through a “liberal eugenics of lifestyle programming”[7] that limits recognition to individual identification with a neoliberal framing of obesity that understands it as a problem of a lack of individual self-control. The therapeutic narrative of finding one’s “authentic voice” (your true self) through a transformative process of endless self-optimisation becomes more than a personal project of self-discovery: it becomes a biopolitical act of self-craft. Contestants who participate in the ‘right way’ are given space to ‘tell their story’, but the discursive tools of feminism which were used to critique power are instead incorporated into neoliberal narratives of self-regulation and enterprise.


[1]Zygmunt Bauman, The individualized society (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Polity Press 2001). 9.

[2]Guthman, Julie, and Melanie DuPuis. “Embodying neoliberalism: economy, culture, and the politics of fat.” Environment and planning D 24.3 (2006))

[3]Eva Illouz, Oprah Winfrey and the glamour of misery: An essay on popular culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

[4]———, Cold intimacies : the making of emotional capitalism (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007). 49.

[5]Puar, “Prognosis time: Towards a geopolitics of affect, debility and capacity,” 167.


[6]R. Galvin, “Disturbing notions of chronic illness and individual responsibility: Towards a genealogy of morals,” Health: 6, no. 2 (2002): 114.

[7]Jasbir K Puar, “Coda: The Cost of Getting Better Suicide, Sensation, Switchpoints,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 18, no. 1 (2012): 153.

Bodies on fire, bodies at sea: on the “fear of small numbers” and the limits of empathy

How to speak about the body?

“To have a body is to learn to be affected:  meaning ‘effectuated’, moved, put into motion by other entities, humans or non-humans.  If you are not engaged in this learning you become insensitive, dumb, you drop dead.”[1]

Recent critical debate around the shifting and contentious politics of asylum seekers in Australia and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the plight of garment factory workers in Bangladesh, poses vital questions around how we (dis)regard and respond to the bodies of others; and around our ethical relation and responsibility to people unlike ourselves.  I want to approach these questions via a politics of the body (and the body politic) as a way of re-sensitizing ourselves to lives of others.

Human civilisation has always valued some bodies and exploited others.  Capitalism and market rationality are sustained and strengthened on the uneven circulation and exchange between bodies that matter and bodies that don’t.  Cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai writes about the complex connections between globalisation and political violence in a post-9/11 world.  He argues the “speed and intensity with which both material and ideological elements now circulate across national boundaries have created a new order of uncertainty in social life”[2].  This, in part, has given rise to what he calls a “fear of small numbers”:  a resurgent violence against minorities who become objects of our fear and rage[3].  Both asylum seekers and garment workers are caught in global flows of bodies, goods and information that perform a double action: they simultaneously sustain and potentially threaten our security and way of life.  Within neoliberal globalisation, transnational production circuits support and maintain the unequal flow of capital (including biocapital) between developing and developed nations, further complicated by the market-driven preference for outsourcing, deregulation and privatization.  The body of the asylum seeker (in their irregular border crossings) and the garment worker (in their embodied reproduction of slavery) are politically positioned as “wicked problems”:  problems as dense in their complexity as they are seemingly resistant to resolution.

When Judith Butler, in her seminal book Bodies that Matter, posed the question how do bodies matter (and not matter), she used the word in its dual sense, where “to matter” means at once “to materialize” and “to mean”[4].  How, then, can these transgressive and disruptive bodies be made to mean?  How can we recognise their corporeality?  How do we learn to be affected?

1.    Transgressive bodies

In her compassionate and thoughtful Quarterly Essay Us and Them, Anna Krien considers the moral contradictions and inconsistencies of how humans relate to animals.  She presents complex, emotive moral questions in a thoughtful and involved way, with a delicate balance of passion and measure.  Part of the strength of the essay is that she identifies and locates her approach at the beginning: it is not a question of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (because the answer will always be ‘us’) but rather a question of ‘what makes it possible for us to treat animals in these ways?’ and how much can we accept.  This opens up a space for examination of the context around which certain practices of animal mistreatment happen.  As part of her investigations, she travelled to Indonesia to understand the slaughtering practices that led to the banning of live exports to the region.  Krien is equally compassionate towards animals and the so-called perpetrators of their perceived mistreatment.  She approached these people with a genuine willingness to understand.  Is this simply the requirements of good journalism, or is it more fundamental: the requirements of engaging in an ethical life?

Krien contrased the stark difference in public reaction to live cattle exports following the graphic Four Corners footage of cattle being killed in Indonesian slaughterhouses with the comparative silence over the Australia “people swap” deal with Malaysia in which 800 asylum seekers would be swapped for 4000 refugees under the “Malaysia Solution” being formulated at the same time.  In her essay, Krien writes:

“During the outcry over the cattle trade, one bewildered human rights campaigner said to me, “What about the people coming the other way?” and wryly mused about “ships passing in the night” filled with Australian cattle and asylum seekers”[5].

This apparent moral inconsistency arose in part from the way that the Four Corners footage transformed the bodies of cattle into more than just cuts of meat:  they became bloodied, bellowing animals; living bodies writhing in pain as they were being killed, skidding across the slaughterhouse floor.  For Krien, this provided a crucial insight:

“…the cattle slaughtered in Indonesia are, to all intents and purposes, objects. ‘Things’ that suddenly became subjects in the glare of a video camera. And to what end? For killing standards to be raised to Western-approved levels so that cattle can safely become objects once more?”[6].

Krien wonders whether our gut reaction to suspend the trade until Western-approved standards and practices were introduced (even though the problem was not just one of equipment, but that Australian cattle don’t behave like Indonesian cattle, posing further problems beyond regulatory solutions), was more about us finding a way to comfortably put cows back into being objects again.   To put them in their place.  Krien’s point here is not one about how we let humans be treated like animals (for she illustrates that we treat animals with inconsistent degrees of empathy), but a broader one around how our proximity to or distance from other creatures (humans and non-humans) determine whether we position them as subjects (like ‘us’) or objects (not ‘us’) and accord them moral status in congruence with these positions.

The transgressive body of the asylum seeker poses a similar dilemma.  They make material the differing value we accord to bodies in flight from persecution, from countries that are not like our own.  Literally they arrive from foreign lands.  They are ‘put into motion’ by the unstable nation states from which they have fled.  They pose a threat to our cultural boundaries as well as our geographic ones because these bodies have ruptured the accepted ordered process set up by the UNHCR for the processing and resettlement of refugees.  Yet these mechanisms have proved inadequate to meet the growing need with bodies piling onto leaky boats to take the treacherous journey to Australia.

The punitive opposition policy of turning the boats back is a murky proposition done in the name of compassion – we don’t want more lives lost at sea – but which in practice serves to punish the bodies that wash up on our shores or drown in our seas.  But unlike the visceral media representations of Indonesian cattle slaughter and Bangladeshi garment workers, media footage that shows the scared, the screaming, the drowning and the floating bodies at sea remain largely out of sight.

But the debate cannot be argued on the ‘facts’, it needs to be reframed around the perceptions that make these policies acceptable to us and I suspect that some of this is based on the proximity to and distance from ‘us’ that these bodies occupy.  There is an irrefutability and self-evidence to certain truth claims used in to justify policy positions in the name of compassion.  The rhetoric of ‘people smugglers’ is very persuasive:  the flows that support these ‘black market jobs’ should be curtailed through the twin approach of making Australia an undesirable destination for asylum seekers and hence drying up the people smugglers’ main source of income; and by redirecting boats back to their ports of origin, primarily Indonesia.  Asylum seekers themselves become an abstract in this equation.  These ‘foreign’ bodies go unrecognised by the perceptions of ordinary people who feel threatened.

They are not people like us. These are literally bodies we don’t recognize.

Is the issue a question of state security and border control, or is it primarily a humanitarian one?  Depending on the position, the transgressive body is treated in different ways.  The first position seems based on the hermetically sealed idea of the nation state with rigid boundaries that are controlled and maintained by us.  The other position is based on a cosmopolitan porousness, an embrace of the fact of inevitable diversity and continual flows of people across the globe.  Transgression in each of these cases poses a different level of threat and poses different challenges.

If the figure of the refugee is a “constant threat to the image of order, signalling the horrifying impossibility of occupying one pure and distinct position”[7] then the asylum seeker embodies a more fugitive and ambivalent state: they are our haunting. The bodies that keep arriving on our shores embody disorder, chaos, irregularity, otherness, vulnerability and need.  They mediate a tension between the ideal of cultural organisation and the organizing principle for how we regulate (which bodies) the processes and procedures by which we allow our cultural boundaries to be shaped.  It is a body that ruptures any clear notion that we can remain unchanged and unmoved by the geopolitics of the conflicts that are carried out in our name. For the large part, they also remain unidentified:  the come undocumented without papers verifying their status and they come stripped of their identity and history.  We cannot decide whether these bodies are sacred (homo sacer), and thus accorded special needs to we are obliged to respond as fellow humans; or if they, like their human handlers, are instead tricksters, criminals, people here to exploit our generosity and ways of life.

A recent newspaper article reflected this unsettling feeling these foreign, transgressive bodies pose for us.  One migrant who had come to the country over thirty years ago felt that asylum seekers represented people who jumped the queue:  unlike them, he had migrated to the country in the ‘right’ way.  Another young man who had recently lost his job felt that asylum seekers were “taking the jobs” of Australians, his response informed by his own experience.  Neither of these perceptions can be argued against with the facts.  The more interesting question is: how do these perceptions emerge?  What’s the cultural context that makes them possible?  Part of the answer might be found in the idea of cultural boundarywork and cultural maintenance that the current rhetoric contributes to while appearing to be in the name of protecting lives at sea.

Along with the transgressive body of the asylum seeker, the body of the ‘people smuggler’ has also been a site of contestation and complaint, entering the public debate through a political rhetoric that shifts our ‘obligation to need’ of asylum seekers to one of shutting down the “black market jobs” that emerge in a black market economy which traffics in human cargo.  The body of the people smuggler becomes the apparent target; the asylum seeker now a victim twice over.  While there is certainly corruption, profiteering and opportunism amongst those who take money from the vulnerable for the voyage in hope of safety (including officials), many of these men themselves live in poverty and are doing what they can to make a living.  In the daily reality of these people’s lives, the black and white moral distinctions we make between ‘good’ bodies and ‘bad’ ones, bodies like us and bodies that are Other, disintegrates.  In the “black economy” that the ‘people smugglers’ inhabit, asylum seekers become new forms of currency, circulating within a system of transactions in the hope of a route to a new life.

Yet for the large part these bodies remain objects: both those seeking asylum and those who provide passage for a price.  We do not ask how we can find alternative income sources for the people smugglers if we close the gap on their livelihoods.  And equally we do not ask how we can provide safe passage that meets the needs of the growing numbers of bodies arriving on our shores.

They are not bodies that matter; they remain no-bodies, never truly alive to us.

How then, do we learn to be affected?

2.    Labouring bodies

A few months ago, another of Sarah Ferguson’s Four Corners investigative reports Fashion Victims had a similar effect on the public debate about what we allow and don’t allow in our name.  This was another example of a rupture in our collective desensitization; an explosion of objecthood into subjecthood; a surplus of affect and an outpouring of empathy.  But our empathy was too soon exhausted.

Ferguson travelled to Bangladesh to meet survivors of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse and previous factory fires to connect two ends of a chain of circulation that remain deliberately distanced:  the invisible, labouring bodies of low-paid, exploited garment factory workers; and us, the bodies of the developed economies that are clothed at their expense.  Women and children are the most vulnerable to exploitation.  The media report linked Australian brands directly with the voices of the workers in the factories that took their orders:  connecting two ends of the chain.  Until the most recent building collapse, the Bangladeshi body was largely silent and invisible as it made the garments that dressed our bodies as consumers around the globe.  What we valued was cheap goods.  The silent, invisible body was easy to ignore and become desensitized to in this process.  The alienating effect of the outsourcing of labour to the developed world allowed us to regard these bodies as objects, not subjects.  Ferguson’s report ruptured our affective disjuncture: our disaffection was suddenly reignited as we saw these moving, breathing, injured and maimed bodies.  We saw the drape-covered dead.  We became implicated in their death and debility.

Both in the case of both the cattle export story and the Bangladeshi garment workers story, the remediation of bodies on our television screens worked to break through to the public’s imagination.  The content of the stories themselves were not new:  they were clearly known and in the case of the garment workers, widely documented.  The Four Corners program presented these bodies – the survivors and the dead – as people like us:  people who cry, who work hard, who have families, whose corporeal bodies can be burned, crushed and maimed.  The report was confronting because it was moving, and in being moved we became implicated as consumers of cheap goods.  But to be moved puts a halt to some of the ways that our society can rely on the exploitation of other bodies, once they become visible to us.  What to do then?

The insatiable desire for cheap goods initiates a spiral to the bottom:  the driving down of prices leads to uncompliant factories to take on orders in substandard working conditions.  Corporations place further pressure on these factory owners by squeezing them on price. These flows make material the differing and irregular systems of value between the bodies of sweatshop labour, the corporate bodies that demand more for less, and the bodies of the garment-draped consumer at the other end of the global supply chain.  The value we place on these labouring bodies reflects the price we are willing to pay both in human and financial terms.  In this neoliberal society that places everything with a potential market, the value of commodities are determined with little regard for the bodies that labour.

But how long will our outrage last?

If we remain sensitized to these other bodies – if we are moved by them, if they mean something to us – how to we continue to participate in a regime that exploits them at the same time as trying to make them matter?  To consider this question seriously necessarily requires a transformation in the current ethics of capitalist circulation, yet capitalism itself is a tricky beast, resilient to these shocks. When the factory workers ‘migrate’ in our political conscience to occupy the state of citizens with rights, we leave it to legal and regulatory regimes to put our minds at ease.  But these solutions are reincorporated into the existing chain of consumption:  they structure in our ambivalence so that we can ‘buy in’ to the idea of ethical capitalism.  We incorporate safer working practices, develop new certification processes, increase wages, and introduce regulation and oversight; each one a market-in-waiting.  We manage our moral concerns by turning them into a market, ‘buying in’ to the ethical consumerism that supports the fair trade and sustainability movements.  These give us a clear conscience: we’ve done our bit while continuing to engage in the cycle of consumption that sustains the structures of the system.  We become dis-affected again as these bodies slowly recede back into objecthood:  safe as we are in the knowledge that corporate social responsibility, ethical and fair trade practices, new regulation and certification schemes are taking care of these bodies for us.  Over the long term, our moral relationship with these bodies – ones we no longer have to feel complicit in de-valuing for our desire for cheap clothes, chocolate or coffee – can go back to where they were.  But in the longer term, there is a flow on effect to consumers:  an increase in the financial cost.

How much do these bodies really matter to us?

Learning to be affected

The power of human beings to affect one another in ways beyond reason and beyond merit has offended rationalists and moralists since the dawn of thought, but it is partly what yields to us that sense of human individuality which we express when we say that human beings are unique and irreplaceable. Such attachments, and the joy and the grief which they may cause, condition our sense of the preciousness of human beings[8]

Our immediate outpouring of emotion, our discomfort and disturbance at these bodies shifting from objecthood to subjecthood, from things to people, soon becomes too overwhelming to bear.  Our heightened sensitivity to others can also produce a “moral paralysis” that propels us back into inaction; a state as unhelpful as being desensitized into apathy.  A surplus of affect can get in the way of action as we become paralysed by our sensitization to others.  There are limits to empathy here.  How then do we hold these tensions in balance?  How do we maintain to give value to these bodies?  This cannot be done without re-setting the boundaries between ourselves and others; to yield part of ourselves to our own humanity.  To do so we must seriously question the values that underpin these current routes of circulation and currency (capitalism and conflict); this interlinked geopolitics and biopolitics; and our own complicity in governing the lives of others.

What does it mean then, to learn to be affected?  What might an ethics of bodies that matter mean?

[1] B. Latour, “How to talk about the body? The normative dimension of science studies,” Body & Society 10, no. 2-3 (2004): 2.

[2] Arjun Appadurai, Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger  (Duke University Press, 2006), 5.

[3] Ibid., 49.

[4] Judith Butler, Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”  (London: Routledge, 1993), 32.

[5] Anna Krien, Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals  (Black Inc., 2012), 26.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Bülent Diken, “From refugee camps to gated communities: biopolitics and the end of the city,” Citizenship studies 8, no. 1 (2004): 83.

[8] Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity:  thinking about love and truth and justice  (Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 2000).

Self-tracking and body hacking: the biopolitics of the Quantified Self in the age of neoliberalism

“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]

Data or debris?

Benjamin’s vision of the Angel of History is often invoked to capture the inherent ambivalence in the idea of ‘progress’, of the promise and catastrophe that new technology brings, and the impossibility of resisting the storm of the oncoming future.  We live in a cultural moment where this image is brought into stark relief with the convergence of smartphone technologies, the primacy of the individual, the rise of ‘big data’ and a set of neoliberal values that has given rise to a strange and contradictory beast:  the notion of the Quantified Self. Self-knowledge through numbers is how the movement describes itself, and it happens through the use of self-tracking applications to gather biodata (both in the sense of biological and biographical) about the self.  But it is not just self-identified members of this intriguing movement who participate in this social practice: it has become increasingly easy, if not commonplace, for any of us to use social media and mobile technologies to capture, store and manipulate data about ourselves; as well as to exchange, represent and interpret that data in a variety of ways for multiple uses at the touch of a (virtual) button.

Figure 1: personal biodata is tracked and monitored with enhancement technologies of self-quantification

Figure 1: personal biodata is tracked and monitored with enhancement technologies of self-quantification

You can track almost anything:  heart rate, menstrual cycle, body fat percentage, mood, steps walked, miles run, calories eaten, pain levels, glucose levels, happiness levels… the list goes on.  There are apps like fitbit, digifit, runkeeper, heartrate calculator, moodpanda, sleep cycle, genomera (helps people use personal data tracking, science, and collaboration to understand how their body works and make healthier choices), imapmyrun, imapmywalk, momento (mobile journal writing app), bodymedia, 80 bites (healthy eating), Lose it!,  caloriecounter, Stress check, iperiod menstrual tracker, daytum, Islet diabetes, leanscale (tracks and graphs weight and body fat percentage).  You can even track and monitor your online presence with klout.  The possibilities for self-optimization are seemingly endless.

The Neoliberal Quantified Self

Nikolas Rose asserts that in advanced liberal democracies, “individuals are enjoined to think of themselves as actively shaping their life course through acts of choice in the name of a better future”[2].   This seems so self-evident in our contemporary context that we almost forget that this excessive individualism is not a ‘natural’ or de-politicized state but rather a formation that arises in the context of power and social value.  Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman, ethnographers interested in the social dynamics and practices of the Quantified Self movement, argue that “the relentless focus on the self, we suspect, does have cultural roots in neoliberalism and the practices of responsibilization Giddens identified so long ago, but it also does important cultural work in the context of big data”[3].  I will return to their point about big data later in this post, but to pick up on their first point, the convergence of neoliberal values, new technologies the ever-expanding domain of biopower is, in some ways, the perfect storm for the Quantified Self to emerge.  This intense focus on the “informed body”[4] is both symptomatic of postmodernity’s “inwardly directed gaze”[5] and neoliberalism’s celebration of the individual as centre of society; at the same time as it is a new form of social practice in the spectre of big data and the burgeoning e-health industry.

On one level, the Quantified Self conforms to the ideal neoliberal citizen:  the self-optimizing individual who voluntarily monitors, measures, regulates and collects biometric data on their own health, wellbeing and fitness; taking control of their own bodies on a minute and detailed level, making choices about what and how they use, share and represent themselves through that information.   But the intricate linking of the self and subjectivity to acts of individual choice and freedom – mediated by a proliferation of technologically-enabled knowledges about our biological selves – alters the way that we understand and represent who we really are.

This aligns with neoliberal discourses of self-government and entrepreneurship, couched in softer terms of enabling increased self-knowledge and autonomy over one’s quality of life, at the same time increasing the our freedom to choose (or at least have a technological hand in) our own fate.  Applications of the Quantified Self take this one step further.  Lupton contends that these technologies “promote techno-utopian, enhancement and health discourses”[6].  These discourses do more than promote an image of the self as endlessly improvable and malleable, they create an expectation of such, and in doing so they also open the possibility of the opposite:  a vision of the self as narcissus forever gazing at his own reflection.

The biopolitics of self-measurement

Figure 2: Screenshot of the mappiness app

Figure 2: Screenshot of the mappiness app

So the Quantified Self is as ambiguous as it is contradictory.  One example of this tension is an app called Mappiness.  Mappiness is a free iPhone app, part of a research project at the London School of Economics. According to the LSE, the app “prompts you a few times a day to ask how you are feeling, who you are with, where you are, and what you are doing”[7]. The data is anonymously collected by the LSE who then analyse the data to determine the effect of local environment (including sensory data) on people’s mood. Oh, and of course, “users can view their own happiness history directly in the app”[8].  This brief example throws up a range of ethical and philosophical questions for me:  Does the deliberate act of recording how you are feeling at several points in the day change the nature of that experience?  And in what way?  How does the knowledge that the data is used by a research project alter how people rate their happiness?  How does the use of crowdsourcing and the generation of big data through these forms of self-tracking reshape our boundaries around ‘happiness’ and wellbeing?  Could the obsessive recording of a person’s happiness levels get in the way of happiness itself?  These are questions I don’t have answers to.  But it is important to ask the questions.  Milan Kundera, writing on a particular novelists treatment of new technologies (the motor car at the time), notes that “the existential import of a social phenomenon is most sharply perceptible not as it expands, but when it is just beginning, incomparably fainter than it will soon become”[9].

But the use of these technologies in the “health and wellness” domain has implications beyond whether we know how many miles we ran today, or what our changing body mass index is.  Mobile and web applications that enable the Quantified Self give rise to a new level of what Rose calls “vital politics”, a politics concerned with our “growing capacities to control, manage, engineer, reshape, and modulate the very vital capacities of human beings as living creatures”[10].  The enthusiastic uptake of self-tracking apps has implications for how we understand and relate to ourselves as technologically mediated “biological citizens”, a form of citizenship has emerged in “the age of biomedicine, biotechnologies and genomics[11].  Potentially, it also gives rise to new forms of subjectivity and embodiment that are further complicated by the drive to neoliberalism with its emphasis on individual responsibility and the privatization of care.  How does the Quantified Self in this context reshape our expectations around how much we can know, control and modify about ourselves?

New vantage points: the spectre of Benjamin’s Angel

As I have argued, self-tracking mobile apps, along with social media platforms like twitter and facebook, reconfigure the relationship between ourselves, others and the minutiae of our everyday experience – we know what our friends are eating, wearing, etc. in a way that collapses public-private boundaries, making the frontier of what constitutes our sense of ourselves not just permeable, but malleable.  It is not the question of whether technology, as a knowledge-producing social innovation (which stretches back to our discovery of how to use wood and stone to produce fire), leads to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ formations; whether it is used to further or hinder ourselves socially, morally, materially.  It is rather what this malleability does to our “vital” selves (to use Rose’s term) and what happens when we view ourselves from new vantage points.  Are we fundamentally transfigured?

Figure 3: The Chronica iPhone app

Figure 3: The Chronica iPhone app

The Chronica app for iPhone is one of many self-management tools for chronic pain, with its tagline “take control” offering a promise of self-empowerment and agency.  The application enables a person to log and track data about pain levels, pain locations on the body, medications, treatments, as well as make notes and customize additional fields that could include mood, sleeping patterns and other relevant information.  An optional reminder function can be used to send you pop up notifications for when to take your medications, when your appointments are scheduled, even to record regular data about yourself, if you wish.  You can view a log of all (or a selected range) of your entries, visually compare entries over time mapped on a graph, and generate reports to export by email to take to your GP or keep as an personal archive.  When I first discovered this app, I was desperate to find ways to actively “take control” of my pain by trying to identify all the elements in my life that might contribute to or reduce my stability and function, and in turn, better manage my pain. 

As well as the Chronica app, I used Sleep Cycle which uses the iPhone accelerometer to sense your movements as you sleep to monitor signals from your body and wake you in your optimal sleep state.  As someone whose sleep has been, at best, patchy over the years, I thought this addition would be a great compliment to the pain management app. Sleep Cycle also records statistics on time of going to bed, time in bed, sleep quality, average hours of sleep and produces impressive visual data which maps the patterns of awake-sleep-deep sleep during the night.

I felt good about taking back control over my body by learning about the variables that affected my pain levels.  I enjoyed studying the multi-coloured graphs that my pain mapping spat out at me.  I kept meticulous records, like I had done with pen and paper in the past.  I saw myself in refracted and fragmented splendour.  I could quickly look at variables I’d entered at any given day or time and compare them – looking for an explanation for the ‘bad pain day’ that leapt up otherwise unexpectedly.  With dedicated use of these two apps over a period of about six months, I amassed an avalanche of data.  Like an amateur data analyst or human geographer, I looked for correlations, causations, patterns and anomalies.  But the more data I collected, and the more variables I added, the more confounding the data became and the less clear its meaning.   What had appeared as causations on one day did not correlate on another day.  The spectre of Benjamin’s Angel of History began to haunt me; my own biodata threatened to consume me in a spiralling sense of dread and panic.

The panopticon, internalized

What are the repercussions of constantly measuring the self?   Are there downsides to this new form of amateur cultural production and citizen empowerment? Does it enable self-improvement or lead to ‘cyberchondria’ and an unwitting compliance with the interests of those who control big data?  Has Bentham’s panopticon been cannibalized and digested by individuals obsessed with their own self-surveillance?  Authority and influence are no longer garnered upon direct control or discipline, but as I have shown through mobilizing a discourse of individual choice and freedom.  That “rhetoric of choice” clearly resonates with the “ethic of autonomy at the heart of advanced liberal modes of subjectification”[12] but it has been further complicated by new digital technologies such as the ones I’m talking about here.  These self-tracking apps devolve an increasingly intricate and detailed level of responsibility for one’s health status and sense of wellbeing onto the individual who, in turn, eagerly monitors herself; reflected in that tiny, shiny screen.  That screen promises self-knowledge but obscures the fact of our own self-surveillance.

No one needs to watch us.  We are too busy watching ourselves.


[1] Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts  (Harper Perennial, 2007).

[2] N. Rose, The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century  (Princeton University Press, 2007), 26.

[3] Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman, “The Quantified Self Movement is not a Kleenex,”  http://blog.castac.org/2013/03/the-quantified-self-movement-is-not-a-kleenex/.

[4] Marc Chrysanthou, “Transparency and selfhood:: Utopia and the informed body,” Social Science & Medicine 54, no. 3 (2002): 473.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Deborah Lupton, “Quantifying the body: monitoring and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies,” Critical Public Health (2013): 1.

[7] London School of Economics, “Mapiness,”  http://www.mappiness.org.uk/.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts: 121.

[10] Rose, The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century: 3.

[11] Carols Novas and Nicolas Rose, “Biological citizenship,” in Global assemblages: Technology, politics, and ethics as anthropological problems, ed. Aihwa   Ong and Stephen Collier (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).

[12] Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, “Biopower Today,” BioSocieties 1, no. 2 (2006): 208.

Against the Therapeutic Self: the politics of Self-craft, Emotional Governance and the Engineering of Affect in alternative and holistic therapies and discourse

“Human beings, as a rule, adapt to fit social norms, and patients adapt to medical standards… diseases do not exist outside of diagnoses…and science does not exist outside of culture… every culture holds bodies; bodies adapt and respond with the appropriate symptoms”[1]

The targeting of physical, bodily, affective and psychic wellbeing has become a key strategy of governance within a therpeutic culture permeated by the orthodoxy of neoliberalism.  Alternative and complimentary therapies, self help strategies (including the proliferation of self-help books and illness memoirs) and avenues for self-actualization through the practice of ‘wellness’ which works to uncover the ‘true self’ are proliferating as the current wellness and health industries[2] get on board.

These modalities (everything from yoga and pilates to psychotherapy and personal training to creative self-expression in five rhythms and the mainstreaming of positive psychology etc) take ‘techniques of the self’ to a whole new level:  these new spiritual and emotional ‘holistic’ approaches to wellness are headed by emotional and creative guides, advisors and mentors to help you attain the best version of yourself.

But in favouring this narrative arc, these also create particular categories and norms of behaviours and ways of being which, as Foucault uncovered, also operate as dividing and exclusionary practices between what is normal/abnormal, healthy/unhealthy etc and constructs and projects and ‘ideal’ self which is shaped by a rationality that tells us we can all be the person we aspire to be.  In his book Powers of Freedom, Nikolas Rose draws attention to this exclusionary practice through what he calls a “therapeutic version of subjectivity” in which:

“… health depends upon the discovery, acceptance and assertion by oneself of who one really is, upon bonding with those who are really the same, upon the claim that one has the natural right to be recognized individually and collectively in the name of one’s truth”. (p196)

While it is true that through this practice, communities emerge, they do so around particular biosocialities that are often contingent upon a whole range of practices and forces which define waht the terms of those communities are.  At the same time, this orthodoxy ignores the complex social and structural constraints that lie outside and external to individual control.  It also disregards the consequences when it turns out that actually, we can’t be the person we aspire to be.  But these ‘positive’ practices operate on the neoliberal logic of self-governance (through individual responsibility and management of risk) and encourage instead individuals to adapt to their environment and cultivate a self equipped to thrive within the current system, rather than turning the gaze outwards to the social practices which constitute and construct much of these existential dilemmas and doubts.

This ‘emotional governance’ is also seen in the talking (or ‘psy’) therapies of psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatry and, to a lesser extent, counselling, but the way into these emotions are increasingly through neuroscience-based paradigms of the biophysiology of the brain and correlated affective states.  And while the body, brain and emotions are intricately enmeshed and intertwined, we still do not fully understand the complexity of how this actually is.  Or indeed whether there is such a thing as the body, brain and mind:  perhaps they are merely artefacts of language and our own limits in fully comprehending the nature and mystery of consciousness?

Emotional governance can be thought of in another way:  through the “political engineering of affect”.  Human geographer Nigel Thrift cites an extreme example of this form of emotional governance in soldiers who are trained to modulate and dampen their affective responses (fear etc) so as to produce better (more efficient) killers on the battlefield[3].  As in Thrift’s example, the recipients of this emotional governance (the soldiers) are positioned as allies with their governors (the military machine).  This contingent relationship is no less true of the ‘psy’ and ‘wellness’ professions, albeit perhaps a crude comparison.  My point here is that these ‘doctors of the psyche’ or ‘healers of the soul’ occupy positions of authority and awe (they possess the aura of the healer as Taussig would say).  As such, they can shape and influence, through careful therapeutic discourse and practice with the client, the terms of the relationship and the relevant emotions and affects to be brought under control.  It is the professionals who drive the question: what levels and in what ways the Self is best (and most productively) able to ‘function’ (even though it may feel like these questions are driven by the client).  As such, they contribute to a political economy of the ‘therapeutic self’[4]; a self very much at home in this post-secular culture which has shifted from a culture of confession to a culture of expression.  Here therapy comes in all sorts of guises and there are a proliferation of therapeutic experts here to help.

A Foucauldian approach to this subject of inquiry pays particular attention to the assumptions and values which are embedded within normative frameworks and practices as well as what constitutes our contemporary beliefs and attitudes about what is normal and what is pathological etc.  It also orients us toward the relations between forms of power, bodies of knowledge and the shaping of subjectivities.

Here, I must declare my deep and passionate ambivalence.

I myself am implicated and participate in this political economy, yet at the same time struggle against the impossibility of critiquing the system using the tools and language of the system:  am I just creating another ‘alternative’ narrative to choose from?  In other words:  is de-institutionalisation possible?  I also have friends and family who I hold close and dear who have gained benefit, meaning and solace from engaging with this system (to differing extents and in different ways).

For while people are no more passive receivers of the knowledge and wisdom of others or unthinkingly inhabit systems of oppression or constraint [5], my concern is whether this culture of therapy perpetuates the myth that there is some kind of psychological, if not moral, essence of the self at stake here (and associated negative judgement towards perceived moral or social deficits):  an essence that is increasingly coming under the expanded terrain of the alternative, holistic and wellness industries.  These spread beyond the ‘psy’ professions to include all sorts of therapists and health practitioners.  As new and more expanded understandings of mental and emotional ‘illnesses’, ‘disorders’, ‘syndromes’ are discovered (that is, socially created) by the ‘psy’ establishment, a whole new species of experts emerge, and other experts (experts in mindfulness, yoga, relaxation and other therapeutic endeavours etc) rise like phoenixes to the challenge; equipped to address the exact and specific imbalance, disruption, mis-alignment that you have – whether its assumed location is in ‘spirit’ or ‘matter’[6].

Cultures have always sought out the moral meaning and significance of illness, disease and dis-ease within their populations, and in the past (amongst traditional cultures studied by anthropologists, for example) the signs and symptoms of such things were not separate from an understanding of the human relations and social organization which they embodied.  But the moral question is a big one, and it often gets lost in the muddle.  Moral disorder does not the political hierarchy like.

Perhaps one of the distinctions between these contemporary healers and those of the past is that advanced liberalism combined with post-secularism has shifted the moral questions of society and culture onto individuals.  The questions once answered by religion and then by medicine and science, have become privatized, individualized and resuscitated by what Sontag might call a “sublimated spiritualism”[7].  And this is where the therapeutic self and the aura of the healer come in.  By this secular but quasi-spiritual mythology, the individual holds deep within herself the answer to the mysteries and confusions that life throws her; and, if she can gain mastery over these, she will have some of the tools needed to support her own growth and journey into wellness.  To re-balance and re-align.  My concern, exacerbated by the orthodoxy of neoliberal forms of social organisation, particularly late-modern individualism, is that rather than look at the genealogy of our values and norms within our communities, we follow the neoliberal path which devolves responsibility for public health onto individuated selves who become experts in their own self-craft.

As with western biomedicine, holistic and alternative approaches have their limits, particularly when transplanted into a social and cultural context that places individuals over society.  But of course it is not a one-way street and these relationships are dynamic.  The therapeutic self and its therapeutic allies all participate in a complex system of power and labour relations which determine and legitimate the limits and excesses of therapeutic (self) governance.  ‘Holistic’ approaches and emotional therapists have done great things in bringing in the ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ from the biomedical cold, as it were, but in order for them to gain a foothold, have had to lean back on neuroscience and discuss their craft in terms of the ‘biological mind’ which, as the ghost of Descartes hovers above, is ‘located’ (conceptually at least) in the brain.  The mythology and discourse of ‘mind-over-matter’[8] remains a common mantra.

Be it talking it out or dancing it out, creative expression has also been pulled into the therapeutic vortex.  Never mind the revolution and revolt on the other side of the world, at least you can bring yourself into some sort of order.  The irony here is that it has been argued that it is precisely the values and priorities of neoliberalism (including excessive individualism and market competition which has spread to all aspects of social life) that has led to both a decline in happiness and wellbeing and in an increased inequality between the haves and the have notes.  No wonder we’re in a state of shock and confuscion.

LET THEM EAT CAKE!  Wake the f*** up!

[1] Asti Hustvedt, Medical muses: Hysteria in nineteenth-century Paris  (Bloomsbury UK, 2012), 140.

[2] I use the term ‘industry’ to suggest a certain dynamic (or political economy) of production, consumption and exchange that occurs in the enterprise of self-expression and self-discovery, for I’m pretty convinced that the forces shaping the enterprise of wellness (psychological, spiritual, emotional, social etc) are no less present in the fields of alternative, integrated and holistic self-craft than they are in traditional biomedical models of care.

[3] Nigel Thrift, Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect  (Routledge, 2007).

[4] In the 1960s and 70s, the anti-psychiatry movement (exemplified in medicine by the contentious work of psychiatrist Thomas Szasz; and within critical theory by Michel Foucault, among others) repudiated what they saw as an ideology of the Theraputic State.  Other scholars have written around ideas of  the ‘therapeutic self’ and the ‘therapeutic state’.

[5] I will not go into the intricacies of debates over power-freedom, structure-agency here, for there are whole disciplines within the social sciences that do this and I am not versed in the ins and outs.  What I will concede though is that individuals actively navigate these tensions and are not entirely without agency.  But agency is constrained by and contingent upon a whole range of forces external to and beyond the individual’s control.

[6] These discursive dualisms of (im)balance, (dis)order, (mis)alignment etc must not be unthinkingly taken in the literal sense, for they are also figurative, standing in as metaphors for the way we conceptualise and make sense of a certain natural order of things.

[7] Susan Sontag, Illness as metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors  (Picador, 2001), 56.

[8] …and legitimated by fancy fMRI scans and studies (which for example might show how the same areas of the brain light up when playing the piano and thinking about playing the piano) which seem to illustrate simple causation but really only show cool correlations, the full extent of which are not fully understood.