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).