Refugees, Ethics, Hospitality
Through the wire
one last time
I am sewing my lips together
that which you are denying us
we should never have
had to ask for.
© Mehmet al Assad 2002
Teenagers are believed to be among the dozens
of asylum seekers who have sewn their lips together as the hunger
strike at South Australia's Woomera Detention centre escalated yesterday.
An Immigration Department spokeswoman said she believed the number
of people who have sewn their lips together had risen from 58 to 70.
1. This essay is a meditation on violence. Inscribed in this enunciation
of the genre of the meditation, as that which will configure my
thoughts on violence, is something unsettling. The coupling of two
contradictory categories generates this unsettling quality: meditation,
as something constituted by calm, reasoned reflection, and violence,
as the unleashing of brutal force, are bound in a relation of antithetical
tension. Yet it is the tension that holds between these two categories
that compels me to think through their system of relation, even
as I remain troubled by the symbolic violence that is potentially
reproduced in attempting to contain physical violence in a reflective
genre. As I discuss in detail below, the conflict between two polarised
categories is fundamentally captured in the concept of "penal
asylum". This essay is an attempt to understand the logic that
produces penal asylum and the violent acts that it generates and
2. My meditation is not, however, concerned with a reflection on
violence as an abstract and disembodied concept. Rather, in this
meditation I'm concerned with the embodied and located sites of
violence within the corpus of the Australian nation. Specifically,
I want to reflect on the relation between the violence of the nation-state
upon the body of the asylum seeker and refugee and, in turn, the
violence exercised by the incarcerated refugees upon their own bodies.
In my attempt to examine the relations of power operative in what
I term the "national production of the refugee," I will
draw upon the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. As will become
clear below, Levinasian ethics offer a powerful means whereby to
place under critical focus the political framework deployed by the
Federal Government in its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
3. In the context of the current Australian policies of detention
and incarceration of refugees, Levinas' concept of ethics serves
to overturn commonsense understandings as to what is at stake in
this relation of violence. Fundamentally, Levinasian ethics serves
to "call into question" the very freedom we enjoy precisely
as we deny this freedom to refugees and asylum seekers (1969: 43).
Moreover, the ethical relation between what Levinas terms "the
Same and the Other" is not a private relation; on the contrary,
it unfolds within a socio-political arena; it is something that
"places itself in the full light of the public order":
"Everything that takes place 'between us' concerns everyone"
(1969: 212). I conclude this essay by arguing that the Levinasian
call for ethics must be understood as a priori encoding the
responsibility to offer hospitality to the refugee.
The Corpus of the Nation
4. The point of departure for this meditation on violence is a particular
newspaper report concerning the refugees illegally detained and
incarcerated in Australian prisons:
Julie Redmond from the SA Law Society said she believed "several
teenagers" were taking part in the action. "They are so
desperate at being in the worst detention centre in Australia,"
she said. (West 2002: 7)
5. The government, and elements of the media, reported these acts
of lip sewing with a sense of revulsion and horror: revulsion, because
the act was seen to incarnate the very barbarous nature of the asylum
seekers; horror, as the act of self-mutilation appeared to violate
all the protocols of rational and reasonable behaviour that are seen
to constitute the civil subject of the nation. The Minister for Immigration,
Philip Ruddock, whilst remarking that he "would not yield"
to this act of "blackmail", tersely summed up this position:
"Lip sewing is a practice unknown in our culture. It's something
that offends the sensitivities of Australians. The protesters believe
it might influence the way we might respond. It can't and it won't"
(qtd. in West 2002: 7). The occulting logic reproduced in Ruddock's
statement, whereby the perpetrator of violence becomes the victim,
will be discussed in detail below.
6. I want to examine the refugee's act of lip sewing as an act of
"self-mutilation" in the context of asymmetrical relations
of power. And I place the term "self-mutilation" under interrogation
marks as, in the process of my discussion, I want to question the
manner in which it homogenises and simplifies the complex significations
that are generated by this act and to suggest two lines of argument
in order to address what is at stake in this practice. While the act
of sewing one's lips together is, in one sense, about exercising a
degree of power, autonomy and control within the most desperately
disempowering of spaces, the prison, in another seemingly contradictory
sense, the act of sewing one's lips transcends the individual subject.
7. In order to understand its complex significations, I argue that
this practice must be located at the level of the corpus of the
nation: this individual act must also be read as an act that reflects
back to the nation the gestures of refusal and rejection that it violently
deploys in the detention, imprisonment and expulsion of refugees and
asylum seekers. This singular act of sewing the lips together, then,
is already double: it conjoins the anguished body of the individual
refugee to the larger corpus of the nation in a complex relation of
power and violence.
8. The prison, as Michel Foucault has so graphically illustrated,
is one of the key sites through which the regime of governance of
the embodied subject is exercised. The prison is a site where the
discursive forces of the law and the government work hand-in-hand
in shaping the extradiscursive materiality of bricks and razor-wire
that constitute the architectonics of incarceration. In this penal
context, the violent apparatuses of the state produce the body of
the incarcerated asylum seeker. The penal exercise of state power
must be seen to produce a body that does not simply and self-identically
belong to the individual subject. The incarcerated body's range of
significations is shaped and invested by the very forces that detain
and imprison it and, simultaneously, by the government and media discourses
that represent it. The state overtly exercises a bio-political power
over the body of the imprisoned refugee. It also, however, participates
in a more discreet and covert exercise of power. Before I proceed
any further, I want to stage a critical differentiation between the
imprisonment of criminals and the incarceration of refugees.
I was carrying a mountain of burdens when I came seeking hope,
in Australia. My expectation was Australia would remove the burden
Unfortunately, upon my arrival, my burdens increased and my suffering
to a new state of madness in Australia.
'Amal'* (Samira* et al 2001: 1)
9. The distinguishing feature between the imprisonment of the criminal
and the refugee resides in the fact that the criminal is incarcerated
with the knowledge of the temporal limits of their period of incarceration.
In Australia, the refugee, in contrast, is incarcerated with no articulated
sentence marking the borders and limits of their confinement: "Approval
rates [for visa applications] have been slashed to one tenth of last
year's and asylum seekers, already in detention for months, now face
an indefinite period in the camps" (Wilkinson 2002: 1).
10. Their sentence is governed by a bipolar
spatio-temporal logic: on the one hand, the refugee is bounded and
contained by the spatial materiality of a razor-wire prison that
strictly delimits their freedom of movement and marks the material
borders of their existence; on the other hand, the refugee, because
of the indefinite nature of the detention, is sentenced to a temporal
openendedness that knows no limits. The incarcerated refugee, then,
is forced to experience the vertiginous violence of imprisonment-in-infinitude.
This, surely, is the locus of the madness and the despair that generates
the uprisings and revolts in the detention centres. It requires
the combined force of riot police and water-cannon to subdue and
control refugees living with the fear and despair of spatial confinement
without temporal limits.
11. Perversely, the remote geophysical location of centres such
as Woomera exacerbates this effect of imprisonment-in-infinitude:
the refugees stare between the gaps of the razor-wire fence that
vertically contains and spatially circumscribes them through to
a featureless horizon without borders or limits. This unbounded
space metaphorises the temporality of a sentence upon which there
has been imposed no limit. The tempo-spatial reality of the refugee
is constituted by this bipolar madness, with its constitutive contradictions,
prohibitions and punishments: you stare through the wire mesh into
a space that reflects back to you the brutal reality of a confinement
with no end in sight. Imprisonment-in-infinitude transcends reason;
it escapes reason's grasp as it imposes on the refugee, in Amal's*
words, "a new state of madness".
12. From the locus of this madness, with its regime of calculated
torsions and contradictions, the refugees fall back on the one resource
left to them, on their one point of anchorage in the midst of the
violence of indefinite incarceration: their bodies. Even as the
body is bounded and imprisoned, it can exercise a power that will
elude the mechanisms of repression and the desire for absolute control.
In the sewing of your lips, you exercise a degree of control over
your fate in the context of a space that has stripped you of any
autonomy. It is a tortured gesture of agency, and its pain resonates
across a number of levels of signification.
13. I reflexively switch to the second-person mode of address here
in order to attempt to disrupt a certain economy of communication.
If I use the personal pronoun "you," it is to disrupt
the neutral detachment of the third-person that can render you,
the refugee, as mere object of clinical inquiry. In the use of the
third-person mode of address, everything is (re)presented as though
it were merely telling itself, the speaker occluded behind the traces
of impersonal signs that, torturous logic, still insist on declaring
the investments of the effaced speaker. My use of the second-person
pronoun attempts to establish a line of communication between the
refugee and myself which, symbolically at least, overcomes the very
material barriers which preclude the possibility of a conversation
14. In invoking the relation of the face-to-face, I draw upon the
work of Levinas. In formulating the ethical relation as principally
founded in proximity with the Other's face, Levinas draws attention
to the irreplaceable alterity of the Other: every face is unique.
In insisting on the importance of the face in the ethical relation,
Levinas refuses to abstract and thereby disembody the relation between
Self and Other. Significantly, for Levinas "the whole human
body is in this sense more or less face" (1985: 97). The face,
moreover, is never decontextualised from socio-economic realities
and the ethics of hospitality: "No human or interhuman relationship
can be enacted outside of economy; no face can be approached with
empty hands and closed home" (1969: 172).
15. In choosing to deploy the second-person mode, I do not want
to suggest that it is a mode without its own risks or mediations.
On the contrary, it carries the danger of reproducing an inquisitorial
and interpellative tone: "You, there, account for yourself
. . .". And it may also function to compound the anonymity
of a subject who invariably is represented by the government and
media in terms of a nameless generic type: "the refugee".
There is, of course, no mode of address that can transcend the political
effects of its own rhetoricity. For tactical reasons, I will alternate
between the second- and third-person modes of address even as I
assume responsibility for their dangers.
Intextuating the Body of the Refugee
How can I describe this place?
It is a place where no human being can
ever forget. A place full of agony, deprivation, despair and sorrow.
that came to me at Port Hedland said I deserved to suffer because
Australia as a country of freedom to live. Australia for me is a
country of torture.
et al 2001: 3)
16. The fact that an act of self-inflicted wounding becomes one
of the few means by which the refugee can exercise a sense of agency
brings into sharp focus the understanding of Australia, in the words
of Mariam*, as "a country of torture". In the refugee
prisons, the institutional deployment of a repertoire of violent
acts guarantees anamnesis: "It is a place where no human being
can ever forget." This anamnesis will be provoked by the corporeal
and psychological wounds that mnemonically mark the corpus of the
refugee. The over-arching logic of the future anterior scripts this
regime of torture: in the future, the violence of this regime will
already have inscribed itself on your body; you will not forget
that you were tortured and punished for being a refugee; your scars
will attest to that brutal fact.
17. In the act of sewing your lips together, the literal and metaphorical
fuse in a process of violent intextuation. (I
draw on the etymological roots of this term, texere, where
the act of weaving is intertwined with the concept of writerly inscription.
Intextuation thus marks the metaphorics of producing the
body as textual signifier (de Certeau 1988: 140) and draws attention,
simultaneously, to the literality of using threads and needles in
the act of sewing.) By intextuating the organ of speech literally
with thread, you symbolically magnify the acts of censure and prohibition
that reduce you to silence. Your defiant act of silence incites
the politicians and shock-jocks to hystericised speech as they fail
to comprehend the passions that would drive you to a state of self-induced
aphasia. These are alien passions that, for some observers, defy
reasoned comprehension. Your sutured silence, in fact, exercises
a power that challenges the nation to the edge of reason and language,
where only guttural epithets can be uttered in order to make sense
of your act: "wretches", "repulsive people",
"terrorist motherfucker", "Muslim motherfucker"
(Senator Ross Lightfoot qtd. in Seccombe 2002: 28; Australian Correctional
Management guards qtd. in Debelle 2001: 32).
18. The passage from language to the silence of sutured lips reproduces
the movement from civilisation to barbarism. These epithets mark
the failure of reason in the face of your corporeal sacrifice, even
as they provide the rationale to continue the deployment of institutionalised
violence against you. The act of suturing your lips stages the graphic
disruption of the social contract as founded principally on an ethics
of speech and dialogue: in the face of a regime that pays no heed
to your pleas and petitions for refuge and asylum, that juridically
eviscerates your right to free speech, the withdrawal of language
signals despair at the very possibility of ethical dialogue. Your
sewn lips bear testimony to the failure of the nation to speak an
ethical language of hospitality and responsibility toward the traumatised
refugee seeking asylum. Your sutured lips open up the violent disjunction
between law and justice. Your silence signifies the inadequacy of
language to justice.
19. In the act of sewing your lips you also signal your refusal
of alimentation: in this context and on these terms, life is not
sustainable. The mouth becomes a wound that must be closed over.
The ligaturing of this life-giving seam seals and amortizes the
body. For you, the refugee, there is no other habitus left outside
of your own body: to alienate yourself from the external world is
to signal that there is available no refuge outside your own hermetically
20. In the very act of suturing your lips, you cleave the body from
the soul. The externality of the world, as a source of nourishment,
is sealed off, and you are left to survive on your own internal,
self-consuming resources: the interiority of your body is hollowed
out by your pangs of hunger for refuge and asylum. This act, as
a scission from your own body, your sole remaining habitus, is a
negation of your right to continue to occupy a place in the world,
corporeally and spatially. In the face of an externality characterised
by penal harassment and violence, this act marks the retreat to
the last possible place of refuge: the sanctuary within your body.
In the context of journeys of interminable displacement and homelessness,
this is the ultimate act of dislocation - a dislocation from your
corporeal self before the final arresting moment of death - which
transmutes the body into a last refuge and crypt.
21. The hunger strikes that the incarcerated refugees stage must
be read in the context of our failure to enact an ethics of hospitality.
In these prisons, there is no ethical gesture of extending nourishment
and refuge to the seekers of asylum. Rather, the disbursement of
essentials is structured in terms of services to be rendered, begrudgingly.
What must be relentlessly evaded is hospitality: don't expect refuge,
only shelter; don't expect nourishment, only food; don't expect
comfort, only harassment. All these practices position refugees
as interlopers parasiting the body of the nation. Any ethical gesture
of hospitality has to be extirpated in these prisons - for fear
that the parasitical refugee might actually become comfortable in
their new home. These refugee prisons daily remind their inmates
that they are barely tolerated guests in transit camps in which
they may remain imprisoned indefinitely.
Spectacle, Hyperbolic Violence and
the National Production of the Refugee
22. "No other western country," writes Christopher Sidoti,
Human Rights Commissioner, "permits incommunicado detention
of asylum-seekers" (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
1998: 224). As the refugees are not free to communicate with the
outside world that assembles at the perimeters of their prison,
they are compelled to communicate their denied right to speak through
the gesture of a muted, legally sutured, corporeality: threading
lip to lip, they articulate what remains unspeakable in every sense
of the word. This is a theatre of cruelty that has no space for
language. Everything here pivots on corporal sacrifice if the refugees
are to communicate to us: the leaping from the roof of the prison
onto razor-wire, the slashing of the wrists in the toilet blocks
and the sewing of the lips - all silently, corporeally ventriloquise
an anguish that defies the borders and limits of the prisons.
23. As a nation, we extort from you nothing less than a pound of
your flesh in order for you to participate in the mere act of communication.
In the face of extravagant lies and misrepresentations disseminated
about you by the government, your tortured body articulates the
veridical word of the injustices perpetrated against you. Each of
your corporeal sacrifices becomes a testimonial to a nation destitute
of justice, a nation that insists on exposing you to accusations,
grief and violence. Contra to the accusations of your barbarity,
your face with the sewn lips signifies a "breach made by humanness
in the barbarism of being" (Levinas 1998: 187). In the context
of that monstrous deformation, the penal asylum, your sewn
lips gesture toward a humanity that we have betrayed in the barbarism
of our being and that you uphold in an unbearable act of self-sacrifice.
24. Disenfranchised of basic human rights and destitute of the sort
of material wealth that could buy easy passage into the country,
the refugee's body remains their sole possession and resource. It
is here, however, that the refugee's body must also be seen to be
caught within relations of power that divest it of its own autonomy
and to a degree produce it - as the recalcitrant body of the refugee,
as the barbaric body with sewn lips or the self-mutilating body
with slashed wrists.
25. What I am arguing here will perhaps become more intelligible
if I frame it in the context of a Foucauldian question: What sort
of body of the refugee does the Australian nation-state need and
what apparatuses is it deploying in order to produce it?
26. In addressing this question, I want firstly to specify the particular
type of refugee that is incarcerated in prisons upon entering the
country. The refugee who is immediately imprisoned has come by boat,
fleeing persecution, poverty or war. They also all come from Third
World, non-western countries. Both these factors establish grounds
for discrimination on the basis of race and class in the processing
of claims for asylum and refugee status. (The
NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, has drawn
attention to the racialising dimensions of the Federal Government's
response to refugees by comparing it to the White Australia Policy
[see Jacobsen 2002: 9].) It is this discriminated group of
people that I refer to when talking of refugees and asylum seekers,
as it is this group that is targeted by a punitive federal legislation.
27. To return to my original question: What sort of body of the
refugee does the Australian nation-state demand and produce? A masochistic
body that indulges in acts of self-mutilation such as the slitting
of wrists and the dramatic lunging onto razor-wire fences. A riotous
body that unleashes havoc as it destroys taxpayers' property. A
self-cannabilising body that sews up its lips and then proceeds
to feed off its own corporeal reserves. Finally, a necrological
body that, in the context of the Woomera prison, digs its own grave
and then proceeds to bury itself:
Unrest has erupted at the Woomera detention centre again, with up
to 200 mainly Iraqi detainees beginning a new hunger strike yesterday.
Some dug graves and lay in them in a symbolic gesture, signalling
a choice between freedom and death (Debelle and Clennell 2002: 5).
28. How does Australian legislation produce the very violence and
barbarism it proclaims to abhor? The very legislative acts and practices
that incarcerate the refugee and asylum seeker produce a violation
of the very essence of the refugee and asylum seeker: no refuge
or asylum for you who flee trauma, war and hostile lands. Rather,
legislatively and juridically, what will now constitute your essence
and your identity, in violation of your plea or claim for refuge
and asylum, is a new order of violence that operates on multiple
29. This violence is exercised and deployed
beyond the borders of your razor-wire compounds. It is a violence
that is at once physical and symbolic. The symbolic violence that
is unleashed against you is a hyperbolic violence that desecrates
and kills what you most cherish and desire to save: your children.
The Minister for Defence tells us that you throw your children overboard
in order to blackmail the nation into accepting you as refugees
(even as he doctors the photographs released to the media, deleting
the crucial fact that your boat was sinking [Seccombe and Grattan
2002: 1]). Alternatively, the Minister for Immigration tells us
that you manipulate your children as pawns, capitalising on their
mental illness, as in the case of the six-year-old Shayan Badraie,
in order to secure an exit from the hell-hole of enforced incarceration
(Four Corners 2001). The hyperbolic violence that you are allegedly
culpable of is in keeping with the demands of the theatre of cruelty
in which you are compelled to participate.
30. In drawing on Antonin Artaud's phrase, "theatre of cruelty,"
I want to bring into focus the manner in which refugees must be
located within national economies of representation that demand
the production of exemplarity and spectacle. The trauma and violence
that is daily visited upon the body of the refugee will serve, in
an exemplary manner, to dissuade prospective refugees from seeking
asylum in this country. In the context of the Federal Government's
policy of deterrence, the body of the refugee is instrumentalised
in terms of an exemplary weapon to ward off other prospective asylum
seekers. The body of the refugee is here, in this demand for deterrence
and exemplarity, also caught within an implacable circuit that demands
the ongoing reproduction of violence. One exemplum is never enough.
The very logic of the exemplum is constituted by the demand for
its seriality: every unique act of violence that is perpetrated
upon the body of the refugee must be re-iterated if it is to assume
an instructive role in turning away all other prospective boat people.
The unique act, after all, cannot stand as an exemplum. Its power
resides in its capacity to be repeated upon the unique bodies of
so many other individuals.
31. The seriality of this violence is graphically encapsulated in
the assigning of serial numbers, in place of names, to the incarcerated
refugees: "The guards call them by their numbers"; "four
musters a day to check on numbers" (Debelle 2001: 32; McDonald
2002: 1). In this process of serialisation, the unique identities
of the refugees are transmuted into so many anonymous bodies that
must forget their cultural nomenclature and assume the status of
barcodes in a penal series.
32. This serialisation resonates at another level: nightly, the
serial drama of the incarcerated refugees unfolds on our TV screens,
unfolding riotous and barbaric instalments of hyperbolic violence.
The demand by the nation-state to produce the refugee as exemplum
is also underpinned by this desire to generate spectacle - spectacle
not so much as pure entertainment but as theatre of abjection, revulsion
and horror. Spectacle, in other words, that violates at every turn
the Prime Minister's gauge as to what constitutes the essence of
the human: "decency".
33. There is something indecent and obscene
in suturing your lips: it is an affront to our common humanity:
"It's something that offends the sensitivities of Australians"
(qtd. in West 2002: 7). It hurts us more than it can hurt you to
have to witness the abject spectacle of a series of refugees who
sew their lips together. In this practice, you other yourself beyond
redemption and thereby expiate our culpability in the production
of your suffering. In this sense, we cannot consume enough of
your barbarity: we desire it and we produce it as so much spectacle
that challenges our concept of decent behaviour.
34. Your acts of violence achieve their hyperbolic status in the
light of our reserve force of decency. Our decency is our trump
card. Your barbarism is predicated on it. Your acts of hyperbolic
violence feed off a "public that images itself . . . as a reservoir
of ever-violable innocence" (Sedgwick with Moon 1993: 227).
This reservoir of ever-violable innocence establishes the possibility
of disowning our complicity in the production of such violence,
even as it enables the sense of shock and revulsion that accompanies
its consumption. There is also a comfort in consuming this spectacle
of violence contained within the parameters of your prisons: every
act of transgression confirms the need to continue to deploy violence
35. In our culture, the production of violence as spectacle appears
to know no limits. It arcs the full spectrum from the brutality
of literal violence to glamourised forms of symbolic violence. For
example, a recent issue of the glossy fashion magazine, Australian
Style, is devoted to the topic of Australia's treatment of refugees
and asylum seekers. Under the banner headline "Liberty and
Compassion: 12 of local fashion's biggest names speak out in support
of asylum", the Editorial introduces the topic in the following
We expect many of our readers and the public
at large will be puzzled by the focus placed on asylum seekers in
this issue. Simon Lock, the director of Mercedes Australian Fashion
Week, answers [sic] those questions best when we asked him for his
view on the issue: ". . . and how does this all relate to Australian
fashion? Australian fashion designers draw their inspiration from
our social, cultural and environmental diversity. These are the
influences that define Australian style. A style that is as eclectic
as the designers themselves. Asylum seekers and immigrants can form
an important part of that inspiration, adding to the cultural diversity
of this great nation" (Australian Style 2002: 8).
36. Inscribed in this position on refugees is a sleight-of-hand
that neutralises, even as it evades, the issue of violence against
refugees. By assimilating them into the category of "cultural
diversity", refugees are represented as though they were just
one more exotic marker of cultural difference in the liberal pluralist
landscape of multicultural Australia. As suppliers of "cultural
diversity", refugees are already allocated, from their penal
locations no less, a role in "inspiring" the nation's
fashion designers; they are thereby bestowed a productive place
in the nation's economy. As bearers of "cultural diversity",
the refugees with sewn lips serve as an "inspiration"
for a fashion spread on the plight of refugees in Australia: "In
this issue we have stitched the faces of some very beautiful Australians
to show that being silent about things can also be brutal"
(Editorial 2002: 8). Even as the Editorial and the list of famous
fashion designers avowedly adopt a pro-refugee stance, I want to
examine the unintended effects of symbolic violence that are reproduced
by this fashion spread.
37. The faces of the "very beautiful Australians" that
grace the pages of Australian Style have not, in fact, been
"stitched up". The faces of the young models are decorated
with cosmetic stitches, in the same mould as such fashion accesssories
as clip-on nose-rings, water-soluble tattoos or wigs. The sutured
lips of the refugees are here transposed to the level of commodity
aesthetics, where, on the face of the beautiful, "multicultural"
models, the stick-on stitches assume the role of fashion accessory
and body ornament that complements a range of stylish clothes. Anchoring
the visuals of young models, with "stitched up lips" and
dressed in the lastest fashion, is the following written text informing
the consumer of the particular fashion labels that are being modelled:
"AKUAL Akira jacket and vintage Adidas shorts; TAMARA G Ken
Done grey dress by Michael Azzolini; AU vintage net shirt; CRYSTAL
Nicola Finetti top and Choo FH brooch; CRYSTAL Tigerlily jacket
and Vanessa Coyle flag shirt; AKUAL Third Millenium skirt worn as
dress; JAMES Bonds customised singlet and vintage Adidas shorts"
(Australian Style 2002: 80).
38. In the pages of Australian Style, the refugee with sutured
lips becomes the "inspiration" for a new trend: refugee
chic. Without exception, all the models with "sewn lips"
in the fashion spread are adolescents. They appeal to a particular
demographic within which their "sewn lips," as another
form of ornament, become culturally intelligible in terms of the
current adolescent fashion of "body piercing". The anguished
literality of sewn lips here is neutralised in the form of cosmetic
suture-as-fashion-graft. The sutured lips of the refugees become,
in this economy, just another commodity fetish.
39. In the context of the fashion industry,
the sutured lips of refugees are located within the seriality of
commodities ordered by the rubric "cosmetic prosthetics".
This transposition from the physicality of sewn lips to simulated
sutures-as-fashion-accessory vitiates the originary violence of
the very act it appropriates, even as it reproduces a second-order
symbolic violence. In keeping with the logic of the commodity fetish,
this act of appropriation disavows the physicality of the violence
that inscribes the refugee's act, even as it is dependent on it.
The transposition of the refugee's act into the realm of fashion
accessory is enabled by what Guy Debord terms the "society
of spectacle," of image as spectacle, where the "spectacle
is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image"
Hostage Nation: Ethics Before Morals
40. At this point, I want to return to the Minister for Immigration's
assertion that "Lip sewing is a practice unknown in our culture",
in order to examine the manner in which this assertions function
to elide our responsibility in the production of such violence.
These acts of despair and self-harm cannot be extradited to some
other nation. They cannot be delegated to some Pacific gulag or
excised from Australian soil. On the contrary, these acts are generated
out of Australian soil. Lip sewing is a product of "our"
culture: we produce it legislatively, juridically and penally.
The apparatuses of government and law, in their treatment of refugees,
extort violence and barbarism from the body of the refugee.
41. Simultaneously, these very
apparatuses work in concert in order to produce the structural prohibition
of owning our responsibility in the production of this violence.
Everything is mobilised in order to represent the violence that
is inflicted and extorted from the bodies of refugees as self-generated.
It is this structural interdiction and strategic displacement that
allows the government to occupy that position of moral superiority
from which it can continue to judge and condemn the violence of
the incarcerated refugees.
42. After the violent spectacle of every act that confirms your
savagery, we can lapse into the complacency of knowing that you
have justified our fears and legitimated the punitive laws we deploy
against you. Our punitive laws push you to the limits of human endurance;
but if you were really decent, you would accept your newly imposed
regime of trauma and violence with the gratitude and equanimity
of a guest who has escaped the storm and has finally found refuge
in a sanctuary of isolation, razor-wire, serial numbers, riot police
and water-cannon. As you have little or nothing with which to repay
our hospitality, we extort from you all manner of barbarous behaviour
as a spectacular form of recompense: it is our due.
43. It is this demand for a due, for a payment of the debt incurred
by refugees in seeking asylum, that violates the ethics of hospitality
- as a relation founded upon a gratuitous offering of refuge with
no demand or desire for reciprocity (Levinas 1988: 165; Derrida
2000: 25 and 2001: 16). And I use the term "ethics" here
in the Levinasian sense of the word, as a first philosophy, prior
to all ontological claims: before the refugee, I am faced with a
"nontransferable responsibility" (2000: 111) to offer
hospitality and refuge (a nontransferable responsibility that is
in fact already encoded in our signature on the United Nations 1951
Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees).
Yet, in the dispersal of refugees to various camps throughout the
Pacific, the government has attempted to transfer and delegate this
very (legal and ethical) responsibility. In the incarceration of
refugees is inscribed and reproduced the negation and rejection
of this responsibility.
44. In arguing for the priority of ethics in relation to the request
for asylum from refugees, I want to break with the Government's
attempts to ground this issue in the context of morality and morals.
The radical disjunction between morality and ethics can perhaps
be best illustrated by this example: in their utter destitution
and in their naked acts of despair, the refugees are seen to perpetrate
indecent, obscene and immoral acts. What the refugees don't betray
in these acts, however, is ethics: specifically, the ethical relation
of the refugee to the host nation, a relation structured by the
supplicant's call for refuge in the midst of persecution and violence.
In this context, our national context, the refugees might be represented
as immoral and indecent, but they are not unethical in their call
for asylum. The category of the unethical here is wholly ours. Indeed,
in the symbolic graves that the refugees have dug, we have, as a
nation, buried the ethicity of hospitality.
45. Morality and morals, what Nietzsche (1969: 59) sardonically
terms the "morality of mores", are doxic, regulatory categories
that lend themselves to political expediency and manipulation. As
such, they have nothing to do with ethics; rather, they betray ethics.
This is graphically illustrated by the deceitful and slanderous
government claims that refugees had thrown their children overboard
(when in fact they had jumped into the sea because their ship was
sinking on the previous day to that claimed by the Prime Minister
and the Minister for Defence, Peter Reith): "Howard described
the incident as a stunt and 'an attempt to morally blackmail Australia'"
46. Morality here is about claim and counter-claim; it is a fraudulent
political category that operates on the assumption that the players
are all operating on a level playing field, where a Prime Minister
occupies the same position of power as a shipwrecked refugee in
the Indian Ocean. What in fact marks the relation between the Prime
Minister, as the symbolic head of the nation, and the shipwrecked
refugee is an asymmetry of power. On a political level, the refugee
and the Prime Minister are separated by an abyssal inequality of
power. Yet, inscribed in this asymmetry is the ethical relation,
as the relation that overturns and transcends moral, moralistic
and moralising claims and that marks something that is irreducibly
prior: the most destitute and disenfranchised of human subjects
exercise a power, in their plea for refuge, that "besieges
me to the point where [s/he] puts into question my for-me,"
"to the point where [s/he] makes me a hostage" (Levinas
47. It is this scandalous inversion of power that so perturbs the
Australian nation. The fear and anxiety generated by the incursion
of the refugee into the nation springs from this power to put into
question this "my for-me": this is our land, our home,
our wealth, our relaxed and comfortable place in the sun - and yet
you stand there, in your indecent state of utter destitution, and
proceed to call into question our mode of existence. In your call
for asylum, you also bring into focus non-Indigenous Australia's
unresolved colonial history of usurpation. Wadjularbinna, Gungalidda
Elder, marks this colonial history and then proceeds immediately
to extend an Indigenous welcome to the refugee and to own the ethical
responsibility toward the other: "This is a spiritual country
and we are a spiritual people, we are ready to embrace other people
in their need. . . . We can't separate ourselves from other human
beings - it's a duty" ( Wadjularbinna 2001).
48. The ethical duty toward the other is here articulated not as
chore or as a service that has to be begrudgingly rendered, but
as an embrace - an enfolding of one body by another, a corporeal
act of refuge in the face of hostility and suffering. The embrace
is the ultimate incarnation of generosity: when one has little else
to offer in the face of one's own poverty and destitution, there
is always the transcendent act of the embrace - transcendent as
it conjoins two subjects in an act of affirmation without obliterating
difference. Wadjularbinna elaborates her welcome to the refugee
in the context of this embrace: "The first thing we have to
stand by is our belief of caring for each other. People can come
here, if they respect our land. . . . and if they respect our differences"
49. Suvendrini Perera situates Wadjularbinna's ethical acknowledgement
of Indigenous responsibility toward the refugee, and the need to
respect differences, in the context of contemporary Australian cultural
politics. Perera observes how Wadjularbinna's acknowledgement of
"responsibility as an Indigenous Australian for the treatment
of guests in her country" functions to establish "an inescapable
link between the politics of Indigenous rights and migrant and refugee
rights" (2002: 14). This Indigenous acknowledgement of responsibility
and differences, Perera argues, must also be seen as a rejection
of "the repressive tolerance of official multiculturalism",
precisely because it "affirms the differences that have always
existed in 'an Aboriginal world'" (2002: 14).
50. In the concluding section of her essay, Perera cites the Prime
Minister's assertion that, as a nation, "we will not be held
hostage to our own decency" and satirically remarks that the
nation is here being held hostage by a "few unarmed asylum
seekers tricked out as the 'enemy'" (2002: 18). What is at
stake in the most powerful figure in the nation declaring that he
will be neither "morally blackmailed" nor held "hostage"
by refugees, the most disenfranchised and disempowered of all peoples?
In the ethical relation of one human being toward another, Levinas
argues, the one is always already positioned as hostage to the other,
without choice, "preoriginarily tied to another":
The other is oppressed - as for 'me,' I
can only be obligated! Before the pair freedom/nonfreedom, a vocation
is set up that goes beyond the limited and egoistic designs of the
one who is only for-himself and who washes his hands of the misfortune
and offenses that did not begin in his present time (Levinas 2000:
51. How this passage resonates with another Prime Ministerial pronouncement
on the refusal to own any responsibility for the Stolen Generations
of Aboriginal peoples in this country, as something disingenuously
located by the Prime Minister to a "before my time". In
the current context, the invalidation of the pair "freedom/unfreedom"
undoes spurious claims about a being morally blackmailed by refugees.
52. This invalidation is instantiated by the
priority of an ethical relation that, preoriginarily, comes before
morals or morality. In the face of the pain and persecution of the
refugee, I become hostage to their plea for refuge: the locus of
my self becomes subject to the subjection of the asylum seeker.
Inscribed in the Prime Minister's fear and anxiety (in having his
moral freedom hijacked and blackmailed by the indecent and immoral
acts of refugees) is the intolerable knowledge that he is already
hostage, ipso facto, to an ethical relation that he may disavow
and disown but that he cannot overcome or sever.
53. Prior to any moral claims and counter-claims, in advance of
any attempt to secure the moral high-ground on the back of shipwrecked
and destitute asylum seekers (precisely in order to score a political
victory), the refugees articulate a powerful plea. This plea binds
us to offering ethos: fundamentally, an ethical place founded
on an hospitality that offers asylum from persecution and violence.
As a nation, we are already hostage to this ethical relation and
no national disavowal of this relation can silence the call for
ethics from the sutured mouths of refugees.
Dr Joseph Pugliese is an Australian cultural theorist. He is currently
lecturer in the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies, Macquarie
University, Sydney. Email: Joseph.Pugliese@mq.edu.au
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