Tag Archives: humanity

Acts of Recording (Part II)

I write/draw, therefore I am.

It takes a certain human madness to record events the way we do.

Whether events of the physical world or events of the internal mind (one has active effects on the other of course), we madly, compulsively seek ways to pin these all down in some form or another. Transcripts, minutes, words, video, every angle dreamt up by the spatial and dimension-aware mind, and it will be attempted. The nature of these documentations are as disparate as their outcomes: sometimes transient like graffiti and popular music; sometimes permanent like architecture and novels, sometimes humble and private, other times attention-seeking and explosive. Egoism of varying gradients also colour these intentions.

I suspect that part of this is born from a distrust of the human memory. Memory not only fails us at times where we most have need for lessons from the past, but it is also fickle, biased, transformative and tirelessly reflexive. You’d think that having a digital memory, a repository of permanent data, would make us happier beings. But no – ’tis not so.

As Malcolm Turnbull touchingly reflects:

For all of human history until today, the natural order of things has been to forget. We have had to make an effort to remember – whether it is painting on the walls of a cave, writing a diary, transcribing the proceedings of a parliament.

And when we remember things we often transform them. We push unhappy memories aside and remember the happy ones.

Lucy and I lived together in Oxford for nearly a year. I have no doubt the weather was as regularly grey and gloomy in 1980 as it usually is. But my memory of Oxford with Lucy is only full of sunshine. And not just the blissful sunshine of young love. Almost all of the photographs we took and dutifully pasted in our album were taken on one, the only one, blue skied, sunshining day. When I think of our time in Oxford the images that come to mind are that handful of snapshots.

So now as it is so cheap and effortless to remember and we live more and more of our lives online, how can we forget? For millions of years the frailty of human memory has deleted recollections, but the digital brain that is the Internet never forgets.

You had forgotten being drunk and stupid at a party at university – so had everyone else by the way. But someone took some pictures, put them on Facebook, tagged you and now years later they are turned up in a search by your would-be employer.

Millions of people today converse with their friends online, on Facebook or similar sites, by email, by text message. They are creating a transcript of their lives. So how can they forget the cruel slights of the year before last – the human brain defaults to delete, the digital brain defaults to remember, forever.

How can we forgive, if we cannot forget?

And also:

We document so as to carve out a source of existential comfort that lasts longer than our short-lived selves, and to share and expand the space that we occupy in the world. Andy Warhol was drawn to the TV medium because the wider the reach of your persona, the bigger the space you (metaphysically) inhabit becomes.

Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and least exclusively on television.

Is this documentation rational?

Meaning, does our recording of any and all events have any lasting use other than the immediate effect of existential and social gratification? As documentation-receivers simultaneously also, do we have the attention space to take in all of these multiplex, kaleidoscopic accounts of the here and now? What happens to the intensity and duration of attention given? What happens to the collective record of human history? Who gets to choose which voices get to be included, and is it possible to include all voices in this documentation? Does the maxim ‘history is written by the victors’ still hold? Who writes history?

This is the ultimate, humorous paradox of choice.

Other questions push their way forwards. Where will be future generations look to for comprehensive records of history? Newspapers, former journals of record do not tell the full tale of humanity, nor have they ever. But while the ability to record and document of ordinary citizens has always been, unlimited access to universal readership did not. We live in a time where everyone from a housewife in Japan to a teenager in rural Victoria to an unhappy businessman in the big city now has that.

So many questions will only come to be answered as the coming changes actually arrive. This will be organic; these changes will almost all be incidental and even accidental. For now though, I would suggest more concerted attempts to curate time-series summaries, reports, reviews, of the mediums on which we record and document on a daily basis. Mosaics combining photojournalism, tweets, moving coverage, static words on a page for a momentous, historical watershed event – such as for election day, natural disasters, bombings – or even a single day – are an ideal example.

If intentionally we undertake these for each humanity-changing event, it will not only make it easier for future generations to gain a holistic glimpse of any single event, but also gives us a chance, here and now, to be more inclusive of the sheer overwhelming diversity in human experiences than ever before.

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Australia’s District 9

Today I was doing some good old procrastination while studying for exams, so I decided to watch the movie District 9 from 2009. One of the many movies I remember wanting to go watch after seeing the trailer, only to forget about it completely or have my wallet say No.

Aliens, blood and a tearjerking story. What more could you possibly ask for in a movie? Of course, District 9 isn’t all about that. Its themes of humanity, xenophobia and social segregation easily call forth a number of humanitarian tragedies in history – colonisation, Auschwitz and the South-African apartheid leap out. A direct interpretation of the aliens, or derogatory term ‘prawns’, is made: “Substitute ‘black,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘Jew,’ or any number of different labels for the word ‘prawn’ in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue”.

And in light of the Labor government’s new bill to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone on Wednesday, I decided to take a step further and draw some parallels between District 9 and Australian immigration detention.

Aliens

District 9: The aliens aren’t just foreigners, they’re extraterrestrials from another planet. They come from another place offering no plausible reason for their arrival, subsequently taking up space in Johannesburg, and are a massive source of violence and crime among the existing community. As aliens, their physical appearances disgust us and make them hard to identify. As the command module to fly their mothership back to their home planet has been lost, it is impossible for them to leave.

Detention: In the real world, the term ‘alien’ has long been used by immigration departments to mean ‘a person who is not a citizen of the country’. That includes all recent immigrants, but especially refugees/ asylum seekers/boat people. The particular ‘aliens’ we are concerned with as a country right now are the sneaky immigrants who arrive without a visa: mostly of Middle Eastern and Southern Asian descent. We have to keep them in detention while we process them because they might be terrorists. Even the little kids. And even if they really did come to Australia out of fear for their lives, they’ll steal our jobs. Furthermore, if refugees are given adverse security assessments by ASIO they can be detained indefinitely, and such a security assessment also prevents other countries from taking them in.

The Government

District 9: The South-African government must respond to the people’s popular protests to remove the aliens from the city, and contracts Multinational United (MNU), a private military company, to carry out this process.

Detention: As of 2009, the Australian Immigration Department contracted Serco Australia Pty Ltd as the service-provider to people in immigration detention centres throughout Australia. Serco is a private government services company that also manages prisons in the UK and the only privately-run prison in Western Australia. Its Immigration Services page reassures you that it runs its immigration business in accordance with utmost professional and corporate standards.

Location

District 9: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. The alien district, District 9, turns into slums where aliens forage for food amongst rubbish dumps, and the shacks are underdeveloped, dirty and falling apart. Eventually the government intervenes to relocate the aliens to District 10, where they can live in new, white tents far away from the city and its people. District 10 is likened to a concentration camp.

Detention: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. As of 2011, there were 5733 people in immigration detention in Australia, 975 of whom were children and 97 of whom had been in detention for two years or longer. The average accommodation capacity of Australian detention facilities is in the 200-400 person range, with some immigration detention centres able to accommodate up to 1200 persons. Their forced detainment in places far removed from metropolitan society effectively fences them off from us – out of sight, out of mind.

Communication

District 9: The aliens speak in a garbled, techno-robotic voice that is largely unintelligible to the humans in South Africa. So we mostly don’t hear from the alien population, save some very spare language.

Detention: Not to mention that most refugees come to Australia speaking only their native languages, many don’t have a voice that can speak clearly and directly to the outside world from inside detention centres, like lawyers or social workers. There have been instances of asylum seekers sewing their lips together in protest over delays in processing their visa applications. 60 people did this in 2002, and last year three boys at the Victorian Broadmeadows Detention Centre did this as well. These acts of self-mutilation speak powerfully of desperation, emotional and psychological damage, even when detainees physically cannot.

State of Emergency

In a state of emergency, which is exactly what it is, the government suspends all normal behaviour – citizens are alerted to follow official instructions such as evacuation, and government agencies put into plan emergency preparations. Executive, legislative and judicial powers are usually heightened to allow the government to take whatever course of action it has to, based on emergency situations that were obviously unprecedented when drawing up the law. David Cameron effectively declared Britain to be in a state of emergency at the peak of the 2011 London riots, and the aftermath of 9/11 was certainly another, leading to increased state powers to crack down on terrorism. In fact, for 31 years Egypt was held under emergency laws that allowed authorities to detain people without charge and try them in emergency security courts.

District 9: The 20 years of the emergency of alien arrival is surely what political philosopher Carl Schmitt was considering as he first mused over the ‘state of exception’…haha. We see that the state of emergency in Johannesburg allows authorities to get away with some pretty fucked up things, like physical abuse of the aliens or just callous, inhumane references to them, such as when Wikus refers to the sound of alien eggs being destroyed as popping just like popcorn. It’s of course a little funny to speak of humanity in the dealings of very non-human extraterrestrials, but still humanity is a trait we should have, as humans. We should show humanity both to humans and to non-humans, like other animals, and especially to those weaker than us, or at our mercy. Humanity is something that describes us.

Detention: Since the first arrival of boat people in the 1980s, Australia has more or less been in a state of emergency, at least on the border security front. Politicians have been able to bank on this to pull sizeable support for their immigration policies for decades, thanks to ghostly vestiges of the White Australia policy. As a nation we aren’t decided on how to keep them away, but we are decided on keeping them away.

No matter how much they dominate our national conversation, refugees remain a stateless people, non-citizens who are outside of the legitimate political sphere. In physical incarceration, authorities have complete sovereignty over their bodies. There is no concept of personal liberty. In mainstream media, asylum seekers are more of a human rights issue than the real people who make up the issue. They are silent subjects – faceless, hopeless – and we reject the biopolitics of their lives. We reject them.

I only fear that it may not be long before we start thinking of them as aliens, and ‘unbelonging’ turns into subhuman. That’s certainly how the Holocaust and the Apartheid started out. Foucault said:

Modern man is an animal whose politics placed his existence as a living being into question.

We are all living beings. But are all living beings equal? If you say yes, we are all equal, then does that mean we all have equal human rights, including the right as a refugee to the protection of your new country? If your answer is still yes, then please, have a think about what we are doing as a country.

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