“Boat People” Symposium

Saturday 15 October 1995
Murdoch University

Plenary Address—Morning

'Ethnic caging in a multicultural nation'

Dr Ghassan Hage
Director of Anthropology, University of Sydney

I have had no direct experience of the conditions in which "Boat People" and others find themselves in following their "capture" by the Australian State. Beside having met and spoken to some refugees who have now settled in Australia, like many people, my experience is primarily mediatic: I've seen it on the TV and read about in the paper. By the end of the day what remains most vividly present in my consciousness are intimations of caging practices: people behind fences, hands clutching wires, guards. I've seen the films and the photos, and listened to and read government officials justifying the way they "handle" the situation. Of course, in the well established traditional pattern of knowledge dissemination, "the point of view" of the caged, from the budgie to the prisoner, is never or seldom heard. I have recently learned that in fact the government categorises those who have attempted to illegally enter Australia's internationally recognised territories as "non-persons"

Like many others I find the images of these "ethnics behind cages" - for this is how they come across - shocking. Even if one is supportive of the practice and does not feel particular empathy towards the "caged", the practice still stands out as non-ordinary. Indeed, a nationalist register is sometimes evoked to call this "ethnic caging" un-Australian. It strikes many Australians as so shockingly "other" of the Australia they experience in their everyday life. It is certainly different from the Australia I experience on my way to work, for example. This is the kind of place where I can stop at my local Italian coffee shop and engage with the owner in a ritualistic ode to "market multiculturalism": the multiculturalism of consumption, especially the multiculturalism of ethnic food. The one that makes my macchiattos particularly enjoyable. Where those who are classy enough to appreciate it enjoy eating ethnics, and where ethnics, who are good enough to offer themselves for consumption, enjoy being eaten. Everybody's happy.

In such a multicultural context, the reason why the images of ethnic caging can shock is obvious enough. But it is worth making them explicit, if only as a refresher. At the most basic, ethnic caging appears as a negation of the historical direction Australia is pictured to have taken within multicultural discourse: multiculturalism as the historical rise of an ethic of goodwill towards ethnic otherness. If nothing else, multiculturalism encompasses a present struggle by the Australian state to appear to be "nice" to ethnic otherness in contrast to a past history constructed as a time when Australia was "not so nice": The White Australia Policy, Assimilation, etc. The "then we were nasty, now we are nice" polarity clearly structures the imaginary history of multiculturalism and underlies most of its conceptual apparatus. In this context, "ethnic caging" appears as a historico-ethical reversal. The slogan behind it is more like: "Then we were nice now we will be nasty". A slogan more popularly known as "no more Mr Nice Guy" which appears, let us again emphasise the word, as an oddity in a multicultural environment!

There is, however, a more recent comparative multicultural paradigm within which "ethnic caging" stands out as an equally shocking phenomenon. Here the comparison is international rather than historical. It has emerged in light of the atrocities associated with Eastern European nationalism, particularly the "ethnic cleansing" of the Bosnian wars. This comparison is structured around what is conceived as two radically different types of nationalism: a nationalism of extermination and a nationalism of tolerance. One "Eastern" nationalism which always aims to eradicate ethnic otherness. One "Western" nationalism which always aims towards the appreciation and the valuing, and therefore the protection, of this ethnic otherness. Clearly multicultural Australia here is perceived as very well entrenched in the "Western" camp, while the "Eastern" camp is constructed as totally other.

It is clear why "ethnic caging" shocks within the above dichotomy. The concentration camp-like images it fosters make "ethnic caging" appear closer to "ethnic cleansing" than to anything remotely linked to multicultural appreciation and tolerance. The lack of respect for the humanity of the people concerned, the caging bureaucracy set up to deals with the "non-people", accusations that institutional procedures are not being respected and that due process is not being followed in dealing with the "caged", all of this works to position these practices further into the domain of "Eastern otherness". Are Broome and Port Hedland really part of an Australia that wants itself to be so nicely multicultural? How can they be?

The government is clearly aware of this "image problem" and many of its pronouncements on the issue aim at distancing "the nature of Australian society" from "what is happening at Port Hedland". Port Hedland is "not-Australian-society" in the same way the refuge seekers are "non-persons". I must say that, at first sight, this idea of a non-social space inhabited by non-people does not strike me as a good way of dealing with an image problem! But the message the government intends to convey is implicitly quiet efficient and credible: Dealing with the illegal refuge seekers this way does not reflect in anyway the values Australians hold regarding how their society should be internally structured. The fact that Australians are committed to kill, if necessary, the soldiers of an invading army does not mean that Australian society values killing. If we are willing to be nasty in protecting our nice nation, it does not mean that we have stopped being a nice nation.

Thus, the issues raised by the illegal arrivals are shown - convincingly, one must add - to have nothing to do with how Australians live their lives inside Australia. They have to do with a different set of issue such as: Does Australia have a territorial integrity or doesn't it? Are we a nation capable of protecting our borders or aren't we? Are we capable of enforcing the international procedures set out for entering our nation, and that are followed by thousands of migrants, or are we going to allow people to jump "the queue"?

Although, like most people, I find the practice of ethnic caging morally abhorring, I believe that the government is quite right in stressing that illegal border crossings problematises the above-mentioned issues for the nation. What I would like to question, however, is the neat separation between the internal problems of a nation (social organisation, social values), and its external problems (defence of borders, sovereignty) that is implied by this mode of argument. Can "we" really be nice to ethnics in the internal organisation of the nation and cage them in its external organisation without there being any relation between the two? I am not saying that the way "we" treat illegal refuge seekers is bound to affect the way "we" end up treating ethnic otherness within the nation. Although for those who wish to be prescriptive this can certainly be an interesting argument to pursue. My critical intent is more analytical than prescriptive. I want to argue that the mode of categorising and dealing with national otherness in the process of defending the nation from external threats is intrinsically linked to the way national otherness is categorised and dealt with internally. Both emanate from the same structure of categorisation of national otherness but are different deployments of this structure different contexts. That is, as far as ethnic caging is concerned, the mode of categorising ethnic otherness implied by it in the context of perceiving it as an external threat to the nation is not at all unrelated to the way ethnicity is perceived internally within multiculturalism. In fact, I want to argue that ethnic caging is best understood in the same way a symptom is conceived in psychoanalysis: a phenomenon which expresses a repressed structure that constitutes and underlies all of the reality of which it is a part. In this sense, the categories of ethnic caging express a structure of perceiving ethnicity which constitutes and underlies all of Australian society rather than being external to it.

To argue my point, I want to slightly formalise the difference already perceived in government discourse between the external issues and the internal issues facing the nation. Without going too much into the finer details of an academic analysis of nation building, I want to stress the difference between two aspects of nation-building which understanding is necessary for our analysis: the building of the national will and the building of the national body. These are not always clearly differentiated when people talk about nation building, although they are very crucial to all such processes. This difference is touched upon in everyday nationalist parlance which clearly differentiate between two modes of relating to the nation. We say: "I belong to this nation". But we also say "This nation belongs to me". In the first, what is emphasised is the nation as a place of belonging, a place where one fits in. This is also referred to often as the "my home". The conception of the discourse as home is rich in organic metaphors where the nation as a place of fulfilment and solidarity is perceived in bodily term.

When we say "this is my nation" on the other hand, we are emphasising a certain power over the nation rather than a sense of belonging, although this power derives from a sense of belonging it nevertheless entails a different relation to it. It involves the positioning of oneself in a managerial role towards the nation. It is in this sense that it involves the stressing of a national will over the nation, capable of looking after it.

All nation-building practices operate on both levels in that they are always attempts at constituting the nation both as a national body and as a national will. The degree of emphasis on one or the other is contextual but the two are necessarily intertwined. This relation between body-building and will-building is the hardest to conceive. One can have a hint at what it entails by examining a similar relation in the process of the human body's fight against a disease. A process which can be conceived for our purposes as one of "body-building" in which a human bodily will is fighting for the control of the human body against an otherness invading it. The problem, of course, is that whatever we end up referring to as the human bodily will is not independent of the body. It refers to a capacity of the body to act on, organise and defend itself. The onset of a disease is the onset of matter coming together to form a will other than that of the body, a "counter-will" aiming to colonise it. The bodily will's aim is to eradicate any such a counter-will, an endless job. On the other hand, the more the disease invades of the body the more it weakens the bodily will/capacity to fight it that is inherent in the body. Thus, in the process of fighting against a disease one can move from a stage where the will of the body to fight otherness is present, to another stage where a further quantitative bodily loss to the disease leads to a qualitative loss of a bodily will. This is the stage where without the body actually dying it is no longer capable of offering any resistance; where the human body's will to fight the disease has ceased to exist. The body becomes controlled by the counter-will of the disease. That is, the counter will manages to successfully colonise the body and submit it to it own "order". In some tribal societies, humans who are still physically alive are pronounced dead precisely when there is no longer a hint of a will in the body. This is when disease or "death" take over. Thus for a wilful human body to exist, it is not enough for it to be "alive". It is very hard to understand what is this minimum necessary for the living body to continue to act as a bodily will but it is clear that there is a need for enough of the body to "come together" to order itself and to constitute itself as the ordering principle of the rest of the body for this wilful bodily existence to come into being. The exclamation "pull yourself together" is a brilliant capturing by popular consciousness of this process in situations where someone appears to be "all over the place" The exclamation is an exhortation of the will to take control of the body and order it such that it can stop disintegrating and regain its capacity to be "operational".

The point of all of the above, of course, is to emphasise that nations as well need "to pull themselves together" in order to exist and be recognised as nations by the international community. Just like with the human body, enough of the national body has to "come together" and order itself into a national will that can order and govern the rest of the nation as a minimum for a nation to be recognised as existing by the international community. This is what being recognised at the UN often entails. It is this national will which ends up governing the national body. If a national counter-will has emerged we can also see that the struggle against it by the governmental national will develops in ways similar to the struggle of the human body against disease. There is a point in the fight against a national otherness which has constituted itself into a nation-counter-will (referred to often as a national disease), where the fight is transformed from one where the national will is aiming to stay in control of the totality of the national body it used to govern to a fight for that minimum necessary for a national will to remain existing and without which the nation is declared dead. This is why, like with the human bodily will, this governmental national will is engaged in a constant struggle to eradicate not otherness as such but the capacity of any otherness to constitute itself into a national counter-will. In some ways we can say that struggles over the national body are struggles over the kind of life nationals can live, while struggles over the national will are struggles over life itself. One is a battle over the quality of life one is a battle over life and death. This is why the latter struggles where the national will is more at stake are often deadlier.

Let me exemplify this necessarily abstract, though simplified, analysis. When during the Bosnian war, the Bosnian Serbs become nasty, it's not because they are inherently different from us or from anybody else as nationals. It's because what is at stake here is the very formation of a Bosnian Serb national will. The Bosnian Serbs were not fighting over "Who was going to live in my nation?" They were fighting over "Will my Bosnian national will live and order the nation?". So here we have an example of nation building turning nasty and deadly precisely because what was at stake was not the health of the Bosnian national body but the life or death of Bosnian national will capable of governing this body. Nationalists in quest of a national will are not willing or capable of dealing and coping with other national wills. They must exterminate them.

When we have a situation where the issue of the national will has been reasonably settled, where the national will has achieved an enduring - though never final - capacity to keep otherness in check, and feels secure in its capacity to stop this otherness from forming a counter-national will, then national wills are more easy going with national otherness. This is when they tolerate/not tolerate, accept/not accept rather than merely exterminate. This is when we get a national managerial parlance "You come here, you go there. I don't mind you living here. We're better off if you live there". At the same time, however, while being more pleasant with national otherness, the national will is constantly aware of the danger of otherness constituting itself into a national will and has to ensure that this otherness does not do so and come to endanger the national will's existence as such. This is why national otherness even when it is tolerated has to always be under the threat of extermination to ensures it does not "take over".

So, if we take this very brief and quick differentiation to Australia and examine it, we find that the series of differentiating criteria that Australian multiculturalism operates with in terms of "nice"/"not so nice" national building, extermination/tolerance, Eastern/Western nationalism, are not as dramatically different as multiculturalist discourse would like them to be.

Australia has not of course always been tolerant, as the multiculturalists remind us. Well before the caging of illegal refuge seekers, there are many examples of other instances of caging in Australian history. The Australian colonising national will exterminated and caged literally and metaphorically Aboriginal people and in an exemplary fashion started valuing them when they no longer constituted a communal counter will in themselves, when they were no longer capable of endangering the British constituted colonising national will. More recently, we seem to forget that we have engaged in a massive exercise during World War II of caging and detaining "ethnics" who actually held Australian citizenship. Now, why were Italians and Germans who were "tolerated" in the 1930s and early 1940s detained and caged during the war? Because wars emphasise the problematic of the national will. Many things that are perceived as harmless in peace time become perceived by the dominating national will as dangerous for national survival in war time. This will cannot cope with the idea of others who might potentially subvert the national will by acting in the name of another national will (potential spies, the enemy within, etc.) to roam freely within the nation.

But does good old multicultural tolerance escape this logic of nation building? Certainly not. The multicultural national will, like all national wills tolerate national otherness, but only in so far as this national otherness is in no danger of constituting a counter-will. Indeed within multiculturalism we find many examples where when the national multicultural will is threatened, multiculturalism starts showing a rather nasty side.

To take an example from our everyday life today it is enough to examine the way the notion of the ethnic concentration is perceived and problematised by the committed multiculturalists themselves. Multiculturalism is of course always readily emitting statements such as: "We like diversity. We like ethnicity", but once it sees a concentration of ethnicity it is remarkable how it turns a bit on itself. Some even say, in a matter of fact manner, that the whole point of multiculturalism is to avoid ethnic concentrations, ethnic ghettos. Like in Sydney we have in Cabramatta what many otherwise loving multiculturalists perceive as "too many" Vietnamese together. What does "too many" mean? And why aren't too many Anglos living together a problem? Why is the concentration of ethnic otherness such a problem? Because, as Elias Canetti intimates in Crowds and Power, concentrations can produce collective will. For instance, what differentiates the concentration camp from the mere prison at the level of its communal effect is precisely that concentration camps by being "prisons of concentrations" imprison and break not just individual members of a community but the communal will itself. So, otherness scattered around the nation is fine. But once "they" start concentrating they might become an alternative will and the national will has to go into them and disperse them.

Indeed, the multicultural discourse that problematises the concentration always ends up problematising national control over it. Someone else, often dark criminal forces, disease, these are what control Cabramatta. So what is happening here? A typical national will perceiving in the concentration a potential counter-will and readying itself to exterminate it in order to transform it once again into a will-less ethnicity that can be once again appreciated and tolerated. All done lovingly from within multiculturalism.

It might have been a long way to it but I think that we are now in a position to deal more meaningfully with ethnic caging. Often, in the public discussion of illegally arriving refuge seekers, we hear things like: 'There's only sixty boat people, eighty boat people,' etc. And people rightly point out that in terms of numbers it's nothing. Australia has taken many more. So why all the fuss?

Indeed, if the question was about these ethnic others inhabiting the national home, the national body, it wouldn't have been a problem. But when we are talking about people "jumping the queue" we are not talking about people who are merely taking a position allotted to them in the national home. This "queue" is nothing other than the manifestation of the national will. It is the national order for entering the national body imposed by the national will. This is why it is not a matter of numbers, whether two or one hundred jump the queue what they have done is they have engaged the nation at the level of its national will. They have literally tried to subverts the national will. They have activated something no national will can perceive without it turning nasty: they are ethnic otherness who have exhibited a will of their own. That it is why they are so dangerous. The national will does not care about the reason why otherness hasn't followed the proper channels set out by it for entering the nation. What it cares about is that it is a national will and it must be capable of enforcing its proper channels, it queues, its order. Otherness must not be allowed under any circumstance to show this national will to be weak. You make it shaky and the national will will have to act accordingly. Ethnic Caging is not the caging of ethnic numbers it is the caging of ethnic wills. It is as the government itself argues an example for others: don't try to activate your own will. One will rules in Australia and this is how it is going to be.

As the man falling from the skyscraper, in the French film La Haine, says to himself, "so far so good". So far so good, because if Australia did not have a sizeable ethnic population, "ethnic caging" as a message for other external ethnic wills about the wish of the Australian national will to keep on ruling the nation is relatively unproblematic. It is unproblematic, that is, in a world where the very condition of existence of nations has to do with the capacity to enforce national procedures for entering borders. But because Australia is a multi-ethnic country this message is not as unproblematic as it might first appear. I don't think that these images of caged ethnics I have started by referring to have grabbed my attention a just as an academic. I think they affected me in part because I was watching them as an "ethnic". That is, because of the make up of Australian society, we cannot escape the fact that the message of ethnic caging, even if directed primarily at ethnic wills external to Australia, becomes also a message directed at the ethnic wills internal to Australia. In this process ethnic caging obtains an added significance which needs to be explored.

Caging is a very interesting phenomenon. For a number of years I have been actually studying the domestication of animals and its relevance for understanding the domestication of people within nations. That is why caging grabbed my attention almost immediately as an interesting mode of nation-building. So I would like to refer here to the work of the early French naturalist Geoffroy de St Hilaire who wrote in 1861 a book on the domestication of animals (I'm allowed to use him. I am sure he had nothing to do with the French decision to resume nuclear bombing this year!

de St Hilaire differentiates between three states to which humans can reduce animals to in the process of subordinating them to their needs. They can be captive, tame or domesticated. Captive animals are those who have to be caged in or physically restrained to remain subjected to humans. Without this physical restraint they would go back in the wild unaffected by their experience. That is, captive animals have not yet undergone any major transformation in their mode of conceiving how they should live. They still conceive of "the good life", if one might say so, in the same way as they did when they were first captured. Tame animals on the other hand have internalised their state of captivity such that the physical restrains are no longer needed as an instrument of subjugation. Their idea of the good life has changed and they are happy being around the humans who tamed them, caging is no longer necessary to retain them. The difference between tame and domesticated animals is even more important. For de St Hilaire, animals that are tame are always so as individuals of a specie. What differentiates the domesticated from the tame is precisely that domestication involves the reproduction of the specie in captivity. That is, the domesticated are subjugated as a self reproducing community of tame animals.

de St Hilaire's differentiation of the three states is exceptionally interesting in light of what we have been discussing so far. What is the significance of the difference between captive animals and tame animals as far as our present analysis is concerned? One is tempted to say quickly that captive animals are caged while tame and domesticated animals are not. There is an element of truth in this but it is not strictly true. Tame and domesticated animals are in fact often caged. They are not trusted to know that they are not supposed to go certain places and therefore might need to be fenced in. I think what is more important than the difference caged not caged is the difference in the function of caging. Caging for captive animals constitutes the main instrument of their subordination. Tame and domesticated animals have incorporated their state of subordination, cages are used to control their movement, to position them within domestic space, rather than as the main instrument of their subjugation. More importantly, however, what does it mean when we say above that captive animals have not changed their conception of the good life while tame and domesticated animals have. In our terms it simply means that captive animals still have a will independent of the human domesticator while for both the tame and the domesticated animals , this will has become subjugated to the will of the domesticator. Here is my point: if we can easily recognise in the wilful caged animal the wilful refuge seeker who has not submitted to the order of the national will, are we not also invited to recognise in ourselves, those ethnics who have "successfully settled in Australia", the tame and the domesticated animal whose will has been subjugated as the very condition of belonging to the domestic space of the Australian national will. That is, by virtue of the absence of a cage to subjugate us, are we not always post-caged? Mustn't we have undergone a real or metaphoric caging which has shaped our communal wills such that we no longer can constitute any possible counter will for the Australian governing national will as the very precondition of our becoming the subjects of tolerance rather than the subjects of extermination or caging? It is in this sense that Port Hedland works like a psychoanalytic symptom: what are these pictures of ethnic caging being offered to us but images of ourselves as domesticated Third-World-Looking Ethnics (TWLE as opposed to NESB) in multicultural Australia.


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