Refugees and the Discourse of Compassion

The image of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore has had a dramatic impact on the character of the refugee debate in Australia and elsewhere. Most responses from across the political spectrum have recognised the need for greater compassion in rethinking policy. Radical conservatives like Australian politician Cory Bernardi or media commentator Andrew Bolt have isolated themselves to a few limited talking points as I discuss below. What is clear is that the image of the little boy being picked up delicately by the soldier has managed to change the character of the debate so that instead of debating whether or not these people are ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ they have become subject to our compassion.

In media studies we call this a shift in the ‘discourse’, which means that there has been change in the normal social expectations that people have about what can and can not be said. Bernardi has clearly misunderstood the broader context of this shift and is still attempting to address a tiny minority of radical conservatives. The political talking points are now about the appropriate measure of response rather than whether or not those escaping trauma are refugees.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was attempting  to express his political party’s old policy position in terms of the new discourse as recently as four days ago. He stated that:

We are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other. We take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis, but obviously this is a very grave situation in the Middle East.

This is an attempt to frame the current policy in such a way that it responds to the overwhelming demand for compassion. The response to Abbott’s claim was swift. Refugee advocates had used legalistic mechanisms to try to force reluctant Australian governments to take more refugees. Abbott was responding to this version of the refugee discourse. Less than 1% of 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world are submitted for resettlement. Abbott had failed to respond to the new discourse of compassion, which was not couched in a legalistic discourse.

The Australian government has today responded to the current refugee crisis by increasing the intake of refugees and funding contributing to the overall global cause. Abbott has changed the way he talks about the refugees, he has shifted from a legalistic discourse to a discourse of compassion. Note the change in the way he talks about those working to escape trauma for example (from various reports):

This is a very significant increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake and it’s a generous response to the current emergency.

Our focus for these new 12,000 permanent resettlement places will be those people most in need of permanent protection – women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that there is an unprecedented crisis. It is, as he said earlier this afternoon, probably the most serious humanitarian crisis that we have seen, the greatest mass movement of people that we have seen since the end of the Second World War and the partition of India.

I can inform the House that it is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year. We will give people refuge; that is the firm intention of this government.

It is a response that is now framed in the discourse of compassion.

Media Events as Focusing Events

The power of a single image to cut through and develop into a much bigger media event was explored by McKenzie Wark in his book Virtual Geography (here is a super-condensed version). Wark develops a notion of weird global media events based on what he calls media vectors. Wark’s basic point is that as images circulate across media vectors they  develop into a media event. This is different to the other established definition of a media event organised around ‘mega-events’ that are produced and made for broadcast television (Dayan & Katz 1991). The vector-based media events are far more common now in our era of social media and the power of social media to draw our attention to sinsular images.

Aylan Kurdi’s image becoming a media event is an example of what John Kingdon calls a ‘focusing event’ in the terrain of public policy making. Focusing events are those experiences or occurences that force politicians to attend to them. Kingdon suggests there are two types of focusing events. The first is premised on personal experiences made by policy makers. The second is the impact of powerful symbols. In this case it is an example of both, as expressed by Liberal backbencher Ewen Jones:

You forget how light children are, you forget how small they actually are as they grow. And it’s one of those things that you just saw this poor, lifeless little – lifeless little tot and that really does chill you straight through.

From Borders to Traumas

A clear way the discourse of refugees has shifted is in the terms of the way the crisis is defined. The legalistic way to approach refugees is to define them in terms of national borders and whether or not refugees are fleeing a geopolitical conflict. Radical conservative Cory Bernardi does this, as does conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt. In a recent column, Bolt expresses this conservative talking point about borders in terms of the pursuit of dental health services:

So … what exactly was he “fleeing” when he paid a people smuggler thousands of dollars to bring his family — without safety vests — to Greece, to join that irresistible army of illegal immigrants now smashing through Europe’s borders?

Tima Kurdi explained… “The situation is that Abdullah does not have any teeth…

“So I been trying to help him fix his teeth. But is gonna cost me 14,000 and up to do it …

“Actually my dad, he come up with the idea, he said to me, ‘I think if they go to Europe for his case and for our future, I think he should do that, and then we’ll see if he can fix his teeth’.

“And that’s what I did three weeks ago.” She sent her brother the money for people smugglers.

Now, it is terrible to have no teeth. Awful to be poor. A misery to have your children denied chances.

But can the West really take in not just real refugees, but the Third World’s poor as well, including those in search of better dentistry?

Kurdi’s teeth were damaged because abuse and torture at the hands of both ‘sides’ of the Syrian conflict.

Originally born in Damascus, Mr Kurdi moved to the Kurdish city of Kobane after the uprising against President Bashar-al Assad began in 2011. He says he has suffered at the hands of every side in Syria’s brutal civil war. At the beginning of the anti-Assad revolution, he was tortured by Syrian state security services, while during the Islamic State takeover of Kobane, he was arrested by Isil fanatics and beaten again, this time losing eight of his teeth.

He said he then applied for asylum in Canada, where his sister Fatima lives, but had his case rejected. It was then that he decided to try to take the family to Europe. His attempt last week was his third, the first two having ended with the family being caught and turned back by coast guard vessels.

Radical conservatives are choosing to understand the tragedy of the Kurdi family in terms of the previous legalistic discourse of refugees fleeing across borders from a specific conflict in a geopolitical location. They are choosing to believe that the Kurdi family’s trauma somehow ended once they entered Turkey. The discourse of compassion is organised around the trauma of refugees, not their geopolitical location. The aim of refugee policy should be to reduce the terrible trauma that refugees experience, not perpetuate it.

The Aspirational as Affective Fact

So what is an affective fact? The mechanism is quite simple:
Threat triggers fear. The fear is of disruption. The fear is a disruption.

Brian Massumi’s concept of the “affective fact” was an attempt to come to terms with post-911 governance by George Bush Jr. The concept foregrounds the virtual in governance. In The Future Birth of the Affective Fact, Massumi writes:

The event’s consequences precede it, as if it had already occurred. It event remains virtual – future-past — but is real and present in its effects. The present reality of its effects mean that it can be responded to pragmatically all the while remaining virtual.

The discursive logic of narrative is peripheral to the tautological logic of effecting causes. Governance by affective fact works to produce indexical signs of a future event (fire) to cause an event in the present (smoke); Massumi describes this as a “semiotics of alarm”. He writes, the “affective fact induced by the indexical sign of alarm is that there was in effect a danger, as certainly as there was an alert”. Affect serves as a mechanism in the operational linkage between the possibility of danger and the undeniable factuality of the alarm.

In Australia, the state of affairs was somewhat different. The long decade of John Howard’s conservative coalition was premised on economic growth and even after the Bali terrorist attacks Australia did not invest in governmental modes of security as much as the US. One of the key qualities of Australian situation was the rise of what was called the “aspirational voter“:

upwardly mobile men and women on the make, buying their name-brand values off the self, devoid of any class or political loyalty, defined only by their purchasing power and their driving ambition to acquire the gadgets and graces of the middle class.

Instead of trying to fill the discursive position of the aspirational with an empirical account of those who roughly do (or do not) fulfil most of the requirements of being considered ‘aspirational’ as an identity category, I want to consider aspirationalism as indicating a series of affective facts. Aspirationalism is a movement or process with a number of qualities, here are two:

1. Becoming-majoritarian

The aspirational wants to be part of the ‘majority’. The ‘majority’ does not have to be counted as an actual majority, only represented as such. There is no conservative and progressive or right/left only majoritarianism and minoritarianism. The majoritarian are the ‘winners’ in a competition they create. The aspirational does not understand how this could ever be a criticism: it is natural to compete for scarce resources, therefore it makes perfect sense to barrack for the winning team.

2. Probe-heads of opportunity

If the paranoid governmental apparatus is characterised by an overemphasis on security concerns, then the aspirational governmental apparatus singularly attends to economic growth. The affective fact of aspirationalism is the ‘opportunity’.  An opportunity is a particular kind of configuration of social relations where someone benefits in the future based on present action. More importantly, however, is that an ‘opportunity’ in the current composition of governance serves as an invitation to become (more) majoritarian. This is now defined almost entirely on economic grounds. Importantly, this is experienced as a positive affect — in the Spinozist sense of increasing one’s capacity to act — even though it is an affection of one’s aspirational majoritarian peers.

The Map is the Territory

Mel has a very interesting work in progress paper up on her blog on “The territory of the post-professional“. We sometimes share very similar research interests. I’ve also looked at questions of territory and technological assemblages in my Communications Technologies & Change unit this semester.

In one week we looked at the relation between predictive algorithms and the individuation of subjectivity. Here is the entry for that week:

Buying Stuff Online and How Your Credit Card is You

Transformations of economy, emergence of global market. Globalisation. Function of credit cards as technology of communication/identity. eBay, Steam and online commerce. Amazon.com and the algorithmic production of surplus value.

Required reading Merskin, D. (1998). “The Show   for Those Who Owe: Normalization of Credit on Lifetime’s Debt.” Journal of   Communication Inquiry, 22(1), 10-26. [Particularly the section “A brief   history of credit”.]Merskin offers a critical reading of the reality TV show called Debt and the ways credit card and personal debt have become ‘normalised’ in US society. Read the section “A brief history of credit” (pages 11-16) for a quasi-genealogical account of the development of the credit card. What is the ‘credit card’ assemblage?
Recommended reading de Vries, K. (2010).   “Identity, profiling algorithms and a world of ambient   intelligence.” Ethics and Information Technology 12(1):   71-85.This is another tough reading, but useful for thinking about the way the everyday technological assemblages of communication contribute to or produce our identity. ‘Identity’ here is meant in a cultural sense. The classic example that de Vries explores to some length is the use of algorithms to predict consumer behaviour on shopping websites and suggest commodities we might be interested in purchasing through   online shop fronts like Amazon.com. The relevant section is “Identity in a world of   profiling algorithms and ambient intelligence” (pages 76-79), but it is   worth exploring at length to gain a critical understanding of the ways   complex internet-based commercial interactions can affect the production (and   prediction) of identity.

In the lecture I did a kind of archaeology of the credit card in terms of the shifting composition of socio-technological relations across the long histories of some of the elements that constitute the ‘credit card assemblage’. The required research for this, so as to do the lecture, was a bit crazy. I learnt a great deal! Then I shifted gears a bit to talk about the function of predictive algorithms that are part of online shopping platforms. The de Vries reading is very good on this (and also pretty tough for third year undergraduates). In the context of predictive algorithms and algorithmic-based platforms (that aren’t necessarily ‘predictive’) there are two points I want to make with regards to Mel’s paper, specifically the paragraph introducing ‘algorithmic living’.

Firstly, unlike previous forms of self-knowledge in familiar ‘quantifications of the self’ (Weight Watchers, etc.) determined by a medium/average (statistical sense) of rough (molar) demographic categories, algorithmic indicators are far more mobile and the level of quantification is determined by the ‘resolution’ of the algorithm. ‘Resolution’ in this sense pertains to the ‘machinic affects’ of the ‘counting assemblage’; what are the forms of machinic visbility afforded by the technological assemblage of which the algorithm is but one (protocol) level? What are the ‘actions’ or ‘gestures’ being indeed by the algorithm?

Secondly, the (algorithmic) map (of aggregate molecular ‘actions’ of user-mulitiplicities) has become the (existential) territory (for the individuating assemblage of an ‘app’ or ‘platform’ user). Yes, the map is the territory (I’m phrasing it like that just to fuck with the old school semioticians a little bit:). The classic examples of this are Amazon.com or Google. Amazon indexes various ‘actions’ by users and users this for the ‘suggestions’ section. The capacity to index such actions are one of the affordances (action possibilities) of the platform or what I would call the machinic affects of the algorithm. The machinic affects are determined by the resolution of the algorithm. What actual action does the algorithm index? Visits? Location of mouse pointer or scrolling behaviour? Maybe. Definitely (in the case of Amazon): purchases, wishlist contents, ‘Kindle’ sharing behaviour, and so on. The aggregate map is produced by a multiplicity of such actions, this map then serves as part of the ‘territory’ by which other users of the same platform are individuated (as ‘dividuals’, cf. Deleuze). ‘Territory’ in this context is derived from the later work of Guattari.

What is interesting about Mel’s focus on ‘time’ and its management as a mode of self-governance is that by taking into account the above process of individuating there are two versions of temporality are in play: intensive and extensive. Management of time is traditionally ‘time’ as extension; there is  a range, which is divisible into ‘units’ of time. The individuation of a subject is an intensive process and operates at the level of ‘anticipation’ (relations of futurity) and ‘retention’ (relations of pastness). The ‘past’ in this context is literally and practically active; a multiplicity of ‘pasts’ from a multiplicity of users indexed according to their actions ‘feed’ (‘feed’ in the sense of both ‘appetite’ or ‘appetition’ (Whitehead) and ‘user feeds’ ie who you follow) into the pure present of algorithmic mapping and serve as a dynamic/selective virtual architecture that scaffolds the embodied process of the individuating subject who is actively anticipating his or her ‘next’ action. The ‘next’ action is the subject of such operations; this ‘next’ is an intensive temporal relation.

Management of time is only traditionally premised on the extensive dimension, as contemporary ‘social’ platform-based apps also include a valorising function which tempers time with a qualitiative experiential dimension. If you had a good time, then you’ll ‘like’ the shared photo. If you ‘like’ the book and ‘rate’ it on Amazon, then you bestow the assumed extensive time taken to read the book with a valorised experiential quality.

Contemporary Nihilism

“With the emergence of a privileged mediocrity, the innocent life became accessible to the masses.”

One of the more interesting essays in the Media Archive collection is on Contemporary Nihilism: Innocence Reorganised. I have elsewhere described a quality of this as ‘performative stupidity’. From ‘Contemporary Nihilism’:

The innocent thrive on everyday ritual; it’s what makes them happy. A failing washing machine suffices to drive one up the wall: The bloody thing simply must function. The plight of materiality is that it’s always breaking down, failing, malfunctioning and generally behaving in odd ways, and that it cannot be quietly replaced. Untrammeled consumption holds a promise that from now on, nothing will ever happen.

Foucault points out how the neoliberal mode of governance seeks to control events (plague, recession, etc.) more than it attempts to control a population. Contemporary anaesthetics sets up populations on autopilot (or perhaps alienpilot) so the aggregate system (and constituent distributions of greater access to opportunity for some over others) reproduces itself. ‘Innocence’ is this anaesthetic nexus; an assemblage of human and alien being.

[Desire] is tempted by the offer of a secure existence. By displaying good behaviour, one is assured that the ongoing changes in the vast world outside will not cause any catastrophes. Rebellion is punished and virtually pointless.

Rather than rebellion, my response is to always accelerate beyond the current implicit demands for productivity to the space of opportunity that exceeds the requirement to be functional: I’ll do my 8 hours of work in 6 hours, then do 4 hours of my ‘own’ work. I do this because I am a child of neoliberalism and because I can. It is all possible, if you are a freak (and childless, familiness and even friendless in extreme circumstances). There are other ways to accelerate beyond the structural demands of the system, however. For example, harness the surplus value of others to maximise the freedom from the burden of maximal-productive functionality. This is a neo-marxist rearticulation of the neoliberal discourse of ‘opportunity’ that properly locates entrepreneurial-nodes in their place. Hence, the ideological function of The Pursuit of Happyness. The maximising-functionality mode of anaesthetic control is failing however; as the modulating system of constraints continually accelerates and individuals and class cohorts reach to the future to free up time in the present with credit and so on, or despair.
As I’ve witnessed in various workplaces, those incapable of accelerating beyond the system of control, or keeping up with the increased demands for functionality, are therefore attacked on two fronts: 1. from within the system for “rocking the (anaesthetic) boat” and 2. by those that are capable of accelerating beyond the system of control. “Tolerance means envy of the other’s simplicity.” Is there a tactical anaesthetics? A return or reversal, to revel in the dynamic cell you’ve been given? Acceleration-beyond is too hard to maintain, it lapses into a resolute ironic accommodation and becomes absolutely cynical. The use of revolutionary soviet era motifs by creatives in the advertising industry is a deployment of irony so as to cope with one’s intimate implication in the anaesthetic mode of control. Witness Twitter.
Hence the travesty of contemporary journalism. Journalism is a profession organised around always-already reaching beyond the anaesthetic status quo. It needs to get the ‘story’. Yet, contemporary news-based media have very little interest in disrupting ‘innocence’. Scandal is a resource for reproducing the anaesthetic conditions that delivers an audience cohort for media to sell to advertisers as much as it delivers a voting-bloc of citizens to politicians.

The others are scrutinized distrustfully, in a form of surveillance which it is impossible to sanction since there no longer exists any common exchange to define a norm. Normality can no longer define any aberration. Only drug-related nuisance, streetwalkers’ districts, travelers’ sites and refugees’ centers may now temporarily unite citizens in mobs, for fear of declining property values.

The Alien and Its Media

When I teach journalism students how to do SEO (and the tensions around it etc) I begin with Google’s Adwords Keywords tool so they get a sense of how the ‘Google algorithm’ indexes (‘experiences’/’perceives’?) the language we use in keyword searches. I want the students to understand that when a journalist uses SEO they are basically making allowances for how a machine will ‘read’ their text. Of course, the ‘reading habits’ of the Google algorithm are assembled from aggregated user data, etc. so ‘read’ is the wrong word here, but it is a necessary word to bridge different comprehensions of how human text is perceived. As a sidenote, much of the research in contemporary newsrooms has found that most practicing journalists experience this as an unwelcome intervention in their journalistic practice. Experiencing the intervention of ‘Google’ as ‘alien’ (or similar to what I believe you call the ‘strange stranger’). [A good example of this is the SEO friendly insistence on the removal of ‘stop words’, which can radically change the meaning of a title or headline.]

Tim Morton left a few clarifying comments to my post about Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. Part of my response is above and it got me thinking about previous engagements between the ‘alien’ and media studies. It reminded me of the Autonomedia volume Media Archive and the short essay The Alien and Its Media by Adilkno. From Charlie Gere’s brief MetaMute review of Media Archive:

ADILKNO, an English rendering of the Dutch acronym BILWET, denotes the ‘Stichting ter Bevordering van de Illegale Wetenschap’, or ‘Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge’, a group of ‘non-academic theorists’ who came together out of the Dutch squatter and autonomous movements of the early 1980s.


I have the print version of Media Archive and it is a fantastic collection of polemical essays. The Alien and Its Media is a very brief essay and I want to suggest that the ‘alien’ of Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology is very similar to (if not the same as) Adilkno’s ‘alien’ albeit with different nuances. Adilkno’s ‘alien’ is derived from McLuhan’s early work on the ‘extension’ of the human into media as an alienation of the human (see the relevant sections in this essay on The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory). The ‘alien’ as it figures in The Alien and Its Media is a rearticulation of this processual relation of alienation, but where the ‘alien’ has its own agency.

Media as Hybrid of Alien and Human Being

The opening section of the essay characterises media as a “battle for significance” between and “unholy hybrid… sum” of “alien and human being”. The essay opens by identifying three strategies for the neutralisation of this battle, which I’ve summarised below with some quick examples:

1. Media is civilised. This is basically a kind of ‘(ex)communicative rationality’ response. It is a form of censorship whereby the alien is exiled, but returns with a catastrophic vengeance as a kind of Virilioian ‘integral accident’ (i.e. glitches, crashes), such as the fantastically imagined as the ‘millenium bug’. See Adilkno’s essay from Media Archive on Communication Catastrophe.

2. Defect to the alien. This is the OOO/’new aesthetic’ response. It is a “demand on modern media to become appallingly strange”. Or, as Bogost puts it in th context of the ‘new aesthetic’, it needs to get ‘weirder’. This is a kind of celebratory mode of engagement. “The sublimation of evil into the sublime intends to confine the alien’s dangerous unpredictability to the aesthetic experience of the uncodable, to be consumed within an institutional framework.”

3. Symbiotic/parasitic banalization of the alien into everyday life. This is the everyperson’s ‘coping mechanism’ response; I suspect this is what Morton was working to disrupt with his Nonhuman Turn plenary performance/paper. What Adilkno’s calls the “alien high” (experiences of ‘speed’ or the ‘void’ produced at the level of the ‘machinic’) is “treated as a spiritual initiation”. Think about the first time someone showed you how torrents worked. I’d suggest that the character of the banalization is situated in a specific cultural context. There is a whole genre of person-out-of-time/space films that works to explore this problematic. For example, the Back to the Future series of films are based on the premise of the main characters negotiating between the constraints of competing banalities. On banality see Greg Seigworth’s excellent essay (written as a response to Meaghan Morris’s warning to cultural studies)

Media as ‘Alienation’

“The new media launched by the alien will absorb so much enthusiasm that the bizarre alienating effects of the previous media’s terminal phase are promptly forgotten.”

Adilkno develops a quasi-Marxist/McLuhanist engagement with media, which is entirely absent from Bogost’s book and therefore it would not be fair to compare the two. Closer to Adilkno’s discussion of alienation is the work of Beller. There are various combinations of relations that produce viewership for coordinating the labor of looking. Beller on alienation (bold added):

Though today it may appear that images are the cause of “man’s intellectual confusion,” the alienation of our senses; they are really its consequence. Such is the reason, for example, that Americans do not know or did not see or did not feel the deaths of all those Iraqis, do not dwell on the poverty and prostitution of Asia, do not rise up to help ameliorate the disease and famine imposed upon Africa, do not reckon the consequences of their intervention in Latin America. Images are the alienated, objectified sensuality of humanity becoming conscious for itself through the organization of consciousness and sense. They are an intensification of separation, capital’s consciousness, that is, human consciousness (accumulated subjective practices) that now belongs to capital. Because our senses don’t belong to us, images are not conscious for us. Or rather, they are conscious “for us” in another sense, that is, they are conscious in place of us. As the prosthetic consciousness of the world system, these new sites of sensuous production serve someone or something else. […]
Thus, cinema is an alienation effect, a result of the increasing quantity of historically sedimented labor creating a shift in the quality of capital itself. Mediations which formerly appeared as ontological (seeing, desiring) now appear as technological (viewing, producing).

The Adilkno essay argues that the hybrid character of media is elided for as long as the focus is on the “human factor”. Similar to OOOers, the point is that they are emphasising the ontological dimension of what Beller is calling the ‘technological’.

Media Genealogy

“Media genealogy is to be interpreted as the chronicle of the coming-out of the alien.”

The neo-McLuhanist approach of Adilkno is fully apparent in their account of the manifestation of the ‘alien’ as a historical signature of media development. Awareness by producers and users of the hybridity of media prompts the development of new media. Aliens “arrive everyday at the push of button” and they “steer humanity toward new media techniques”. The media archaeology movement has a very thorough appreciation of this manifestation of the alien-as-agency that subsumes and coordinates human sensory apparatus. Traces of the alien are found in nineteenth century literature as the experience of a foreign body within the body: the “poetic mechanism is a vehicle for ‘outside powers’.” The alien taps into the human subconscious in the form of images of the supernatural. At stake is the erasure of the distance between the image and the experience, or the experience of the ‘image’ itself. “The alien follows its own trajectory.” This account of media archaeology is preoccupied with the alienation of human experience that transforms media into a conduit of dissassociated ‘(im)personal’ charisma. Manifestation of celebrity worship is not the dialectical subsumption of desire into the ego via the image, but the condition of possibility for belonging itself.