woomera2002 : An Engagement with the Real:

dr.woooo writes "An Engagement with the Real:
a dialogue between ben and claire

We were encamped in an isolated location, like a bunch of contestants in a reality TV show, and in some way those parameters forced us to make contact with our material context. For those of us outside the concentration camp there was no escaping the fact that a bunch of people were locked up behind razor wire, very close. We had come to make contact and to contribute to the creation of freedom. Disengagement was not an option. Nobody could be a bystander.

This dialogue was born in various debriefing, late-night phone conversations between us that occurred after the Easter Woomera 2002 protests. We wanted to capture on paper our thoughts about the significance of the protests and what could be taken from them. We came to the Woomera protests from very different starting points. Claire had been involved in the "refugee campaign" for the past year with groups like the Refugee Action Collective and No One Is Illegal and had visited Woomera twice before. Ben felt like he'd just been "rent-a-crowd" at rallies. We felt, along with everyone else, that Woomera was very significant both personally and politically, but why? We also felt, like many people, that the Woomera protests should not be overly fetishised, but what would this mean exactly? This is by no means an attempt at a definitive piece. There are big black holes because maybe some of this stuff cannot be theorised outside of particular contexts. We wanted to throw out some ideas, ask some questions and perhaps begin a dialogue.

With our bodies against the camps

The mind is more apt to perceive many things adequately, the more its body has in common with other bodies.

- Spinoza, 'Ethics'

I think that true engagement, in which your practice is always in life-changing dialogue with your material conditions, is hard to do. Nobody really "knows" how. To do it properly, you have to give up a little of that idealist will-to-control that usually comes with political programmes, that comes with the painfully artificial separation between "politics" and "everyday life".

While on a recent community music exchange in London, Koori hip hop artist MC Wire was rapping about racism. He was challenged by some who questioned his need to rhyme about "politics". "There's no word for 'politics' in my traditional language," he replied. "This is my reality". Everyday life is where everything goes on. He may have been making just that point, but perhaps also for Wire, "politics" has largely abandoned this grounding. We have to overcome our predictable readings of people's contempt for "politics" as being a rejection of the possibility of social change. We're all familiar with the use of the word "politics" to mean Machiavellian power games ("office politics"), or participation in State officialdom ("a career in politics"). But we're less able to see how our programmes-of-worship, our empty and flattened slogans, are just as removed from reality as these more familiar bastardisations. Yes, we need plans and techniques beyond the immediate. But everyday life is the fire in which we forge them, from those little moments, and not the reverse.

Where do we go from here?

1. Why is the Left usually so unable to create situations that engage deeply with the world? Why does it always come off like a bunch of evangelical cults? This isn't the centrist's automatic equation of radical politics with "dogmatism". Rather, it's an observation that politics seems to be all about convincing people of various ideological Truths, converting them to your cause, wrapping the world in ideas from above, rather than generating useful concepts in interventions. And no, "politicising people through involving them in actions", contrary to its potential, usually means getting people to act on panicky autopilot in accordance with "our" wishes. No more angry zombies!

2. At an anti-borders forum held in Sydney a few months after Woomera, a comrade made the ambivalent observation that "Woomera happened by accident". What's actually going on in the spaces that the programmatic side of our brains describes as an "accident"? The wonderful kind of limited engagement that happened at Woomera was like a deus ex machina plot twist that happened at the beginning (rather than at the end) of the play that was our mutual action. God out of the machine. It seemed to just arrive. Hundreds of people, ready to do what it took to challenge the fences (and what they stood for), on both sides. A general and uncanny resolve. I'm not trying to mystify this by suggesting that it was inexplicable. And leave behind the religious connotations of the word "God" for a second, and focus on the concept. Out of the machine.

3. In the thought of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a machine is an assemblage of forces that produces desire. We need machines of struggle - or as Deleuze and Guattari call them, war machines - that can produce the revolutionary deus ex machina situations. These machines need a consistent social surface on which they can assemble themselves; Deleuze and Guattari call this (in post-psychoanalytic terms) the body without organs. How can we be a body without organs? A body without organs has a "plane of consistency" - it isn't "consistent" in a homogenous sense, but consistent in a way involving disparate elements that have a common intensity holding them together. That's what we have to do. Be disparate and together, and intense. How was Woomera like this?

4. Deleuze and Guattari note that you can build a body without organs with a programme - one that has a sensitivity to the moment. A chief example of theirs is S&M: a body opening itself up to a different kind of consensual training that steps beyond clich?s of pleasure and pain, or of (the authority of) "strength" and (the weakness of) "submission". Revolutionaries need to train in ways that go beyond clich?s of everyday life and politics, strength and submission, in ways that open them up in unexpected ways, not all of them "morally pleasant". How was Woomera like this?

5. At brief moments at Woomera2002, our bodies came together with a consistent intensity to form bodies without organs and machines of struggle. At those points, dead ideology ceased to matter. Concepts always matter, but the illusion that we were going to convince people of ideas first, which would then lead to homogenous action, was broken. The distinction between these things became untenable, and predictable rhetoric about "us" "locking up Ruddock" and "freeing the refugees" evaporated as we enacted concepts together. Concepts like freedom. Concepts that were uncoded by liberal, or social democratic, or socialist, or whatever ideology.

6. Most of "us", whether we're in the camps or outside them, don't agree about much ideologically. It's important for those of us outside the fences to stop fetishising those inside as somehow being the incarnation of certain ideological fantasies, especially since many of us who were there outside the detention centre have belonged to an assortment of radical organisations that, like any other, have serious disagreements with others. What matters is that we're actually trying - possibly against our "better judgement" - to effectively act together against capital's border control mechanisms. From that common action we can work with, contest and develop concrete concepts that may just render many of our disengaged, ideological fantasies irrelevant, like the useless slogans at Woomera.

7. Of course, the best way to do this is being contested all the time, and we have to create examples and grounds for the most effective kind of a common action. Talking about deus ex machina and assemblages of bodies doesn't mean waiting for shit to arrive from the heavens. It involves programmatic thought, but a different kind of programmatic thought. It involves work, but a different kind of work. And much of this work has to do with the invitation. Woomera2002 was a particularly good invitation. It was an engaging call to action. Did it have demands? No. Did it attempt to represent? Not really. Did it set a basis for how to come together? Yes.

The most effective way to stop machinery is to throw a wrench into it. Most of us can't afford wrenches, so we have to use our bodies instead.

- Howard Zinn

The whole idea of separation between 'politics' and everyday life brings to mind the criticism some have levelled at no-border politics as not being connected with people's reality or "where people are at". This raises the question of 'who' is being referred to when it is declared that this is outside people's reality? As MC Wire said - this isn't politics, this is my everyday life. Same goes for those interned inside Australia's concentration camps, those living in border camps on the Thai/Burma border, undocumented migrant workers and those living in Palestine where, as Alex Kouttab notes, the border literally shoots at you.

I am an avid consumer and intensely attracted to a political praxis that is creative, engaging and interesting. In recent times I have loved the emergence of big puppets, costumes and radical cheerleaders at several protests, Woomera included. Music has also been used effectively on and off during my protesting years. To dance and sing and act crazy at a rally always fills me with joy and lends to the event a spirit of revolution that I do not find at more traditional rallies where I am speechified at then led passively through the streets whilst being berated to join with the bland sloganeering emitting from the megaphones. Rallies are mostly boring, painful, disempowering events that I hate attending and yet occasionally feel compelled to as my 'duty'. What kind of politics is this? As Emma Goldman said: if I can't dance, it ain't my revolution. However clich?d that may sound, it acts as a powerful reminder that the project of radical social change needs to employ creativity and joy.

One of the other criticisms of a borderless world is that we will all look the same, eat McDonald's and be overwhelmed by a homogenous Americanised culture. One of the strongest arguments against this is the notion of human creativity. But how is it that we trust in this notion of human creativity and cultural resistance in envisioning a post-capitalist society and yet are so bad at actually employing or mobilising it in our struggles? This is not to dispute whether this creativity exists - I believe strongly that it does - but rather to point out that much of the *politics* that is in existence is not only disengaging, but also bland and intensely boring. When will we learn that to march people around the CBD to buildings that are protected by a line of blue is the antithesis to engaging politics? When will we take up concepts like empowerment and actually employ them in our protest strategies?

Decoding and recoding the camp

What was deflated at Woomera? Instrumentalism: the objectification and use of movement in the world for a fundamentalist and teleological Grand Plan. As an alternative to this, what happened at Woomera was a regrounding of "politics" as a series of collective, ethical interventions into the present, with those in the middle of those struggles creating spaces where new kinds of social relations can suggest themselves. A different "way forward".

Of course, it's possible to give all of this an ideological gloss, and there have been plenty of reinterpretations of the event - mostly as an underwriting of liberal humanist politics: that in the face of such an experience, what we could most clearly apprehend was "our common humanity with the refugees". While the sincere orientation of these kinds of declarations towards an attempt at solidarity cannot be doubted, there is no doubt in my mind that it is useless to appeal to or extend the kind of logical demarcations (of commonality and difference) that can underwrite nationalist exclusion in the first place.

Yes, there are things in common on both sides of the fence, but when the fence comes down the differences do not suddenly dissolve. Yes, against all the propaganda of the war on terror, the people in the camps really are men, women and children who are suffering from appalling punishment. Yes, the State's attempts at "dehumanisation", at erasing their desire, pain and anger, must be undone. But towards what? Surely we must escape the whole setup of homogenising logic. Surely solidarity means making contact with and standing together with people who are different? And whose differences are not reducible? Crying together, coming together in resistance is all about friction, exchange and mutation rather than a comfortable homecoming. Isn't this what a revelatory moment of understanding is all about? Yes, compassion must be an answer to all of this, but we must be sensitive to its different flavours in our current context, some of which may be highly recuperative.

Of course, all of this must be situated in a context. It's very different for someone subjected to the most appalling abuse to claim that they're not an animal, that they're human. To suggest this, as many asylum seekers do, is not a comfortable homecoming for them. But is it for local activists? Is it not a covert reinscription of our own nationalism to simply extend that border of "humanity", just as it is to speak with Statist authority that "refugees are welcome here" rather than question the position of that authority in the whole setup? Doesn't the fundamental aspect of that logic need to come tumbling down? The frictions that occurred over issues of indigenous power at Woomera2002 (and their attempted absorption via a practice of "respectful listening" that papered over real differences) only re-emphasises the fact that any feel-good investment in a "common humanity" is a lazy way of processing the decomposition of "Politics" that was actually occurring.

What was also deflated for me was the positioning of the protesters as "good white nationalists" at the centre of the imagined community of the white Australian nation. Not only was there a refusal to posit ourselves to speak with Statist authority on who is welcome but the notions of the nation-state were critiqued and attacked. The language utilised by some local activists in asserting that "refugees are welcome" here falls into the nationalist practices critiqued by Ghassan Hage in his book "White Nation" where he states:

"Like the 'evil nationalist' engaging in exclusion by categorizing the other as undesirable, the 'good, tolerant nationalist' engages in inclusion by categorizing the other, if not as 'desirable', at least as 'not that undesirable ... If racist violence is better understood as a nationalist practice of exclusion, 'tolerance', in much the same way, can be understood as a nationalist practice of inclusion. Both, however, are practices confirming an image of the White Australian as a manager of national space."

At the Woomera protests the chant "no borders, no nations, no deportations" was a chant regularly and refreshingly heard. To take up such adages as well as contending that 'we are all barbarians' goes some way towards questioning the logic of a 'politics' based on nationalism. We need to make it our project to reach what Ben refers to earlier as a coming together in resistance which may be uncomfortable, difficult and fractious but will ultimately be real.


Warning: don't take my critique as an advertisement for an adrenaline-pumping kind of negation that regards liberalism as "wussy". Because that's not why political liberalism is bad. Along with many of us (especially the prisoners) who were at Woomera2002, I cried during our contact at the fences. People on both sides of the fence were confronted with that which was almost indescribable. We were crying together. What we must do is feel and act our pain and sympathy in a manner that doesn't create narratives of sentimentality, of sainthood and martyrdom, or which reinforces our ability to patronise or condescend.

We need radical sympathy. An acting together. Here I want to draw on some of the other, non-sentimental meanings of "sympathy", some of which may be dodgy and New Age, but which I think are of conceptual use. First there is "sympathy pain", which you can experience if you're attuned to someone else's bodily state. Then there's "sympathetic magic", which you might experience, if you believe such things, when someone pushes pins into a voodoo doll that represents your body. But most of all, there's the physical phenomenon of "sympathetic vibration", which is what happens when you put two tuning forks close together - they both start humming, and louder, because each reinforces the other. So rather than a sentimental sympathy that reinforces liberal individualist statehood, I think what happened across the fences at Woomera was that people were vibrating in sympathy. Acting together. Resonating.

What does this mean for the hard work of building solidarity on a planetary scale? Given the global scale of Empire now, I guess all questions of race and class, while not able to be universalised, have a global significance that we can be attuned to, wherever we are. The fact that our global market depends on enslaved workers of colour who are often punished like dogs when they fight back, and the fact that this doesn't matter in the scheme of things because they're not white, is perhaps one of the most important things facing the planet today, and it can be felt everywhere.

I fully believe that engaging with the differences generated under globalisation also means tuning into those ripples of planetary significance. I'm tempted to say that the significance of the racist exploitation boiling underneath the "global market" can be "generalised", but that isn't exactly what I mean. Rather, we can tune into a significance which is neither particular nor general - the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls this "whatever", which he figures as the key to the impossible project of "community". That is where we must go.

Thus, we need to experiment with models of political affiliation that enable us to act together, engaged in the reality of our current circumstances. We need a practical and faithless process that sidesteps the increasingly meaningless idealism and programmatic posturings required of traditional political organising.

And so it's about a real movement. Not an ideological one. It's about working together to destabilise border control. "Refugees" and "citizens" alike. It's a real resistance to the enclosures of globalising capital. As always, we have to ask ourselves, what is the concrete political reality of the current situation? What are people actually doing to resist? The movement is to escape the enclosures. People are doing it. This is the politics we must grasp.

The idea of resonance for me encapsulates two important points - of thinking about how capitalism affects you and of solidarity. For me it is part of an instinctive reaction against the 'self-interest' type of politics which says we must show how you will benefit from the liberation of others because I hate the way this discounts the beautiful human ability to resonate, to emphasise, to radically sympathise. I don't think people were crying at the fences/border because they were intellectualizing that they had nothing to gain from the detention of those inside. I will never give up a politics which creates the space, or at least attempts to, for people to cry, get angry, outraged and upset, because this politics is real. It engages not only with our everyday lives but our humanity and our collectivity.

I went to Woomera because it felt like the right thing to do. Once I had decided to go I was questioned by someone who was (and is) intensely critical of the protests because he believed we would find ourselves in a situation where the detainees would escape with our assistance and we would be unprepared for this, therefore how could I be complicit in this? In the end the only answer I could come up with was that it felt like the right thing to do at the time. This kind of instinctive desire to do something when you find yourself in a situation which is almost too horrible to contemplate is not something that should be rationalised away. Sure I have a desire to educate myself further in political theory but I have absolutely no desire to lose the passionate side of my political nature which is necessary for me to resonate, intensely.