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.

Conversation Survival Strategies

The ‘conversation survival guide’ is topical at this time of year as many people mix with family and associates that do not hold congruent political and social values. Here are three:

1. How to survive your conservative relatives this Christmas

The piece I wrote last year for SBS: It’s that time of year again: when extended family comes together to laugh, love, and vehemently disagree on political issues. But what to do if you’re progessive, outnumbered and outgunned?

2. BBQ Ammo – How to Handle the Anti-Cyclist

You’re at a BBQ or a dinner party or some kind of social gathering. Conversation turns to you and the fact you like to ride. Quite a bit. Someone hears this and starts giving their two bob’s worth about how cyclists should be charged registration. Cyclists think they can totally disregard road rules. Cyclists shouldn’t be allowed on major roads. In short – let’s ban cyclists from our roads!

3. 12 ways to deal with a climate change denier – the BBQ guide

[It] probably means we’ll be subjected to at least one ranting, fact-free sermon by a Typical Climate Change Denier (TCCD). You know the drill. Make an offhand remark about unusual weather, and five seconds later someone’s mouthing off about how the internet says that climate change is a bunch of rubbish.

So, when you’ve been cornered by your TCCD, what do you do?


The USA government has an official web page for New Year’s Resolutions: “Here’s information that can help you achieve your goals in 2014”. Unfortunately, it is not a ‘how to’ guide for preparing an existential trajectory, but a way of organising the existing web-based assets for regular government services, such as seeking employment or furthering one’s education. It synchronises the governance of one’s self with the governance of a population.

The wikipedia entry for New Year’s Resolutions is more about being less of a horrible person by way of setting goals, “a person makes a promise to do an act of self-improvement or something slightly nice, such as opening doors for people beginning from New Year’s Day”. Glance at the etymology of ‘resolution’ and you see that it is not so much about setting goals, however.

late 14c., “a breaking into parts,” from Old French resolution (14c.) or directly from Latin resolutionem (nominative resolutio) “process of reducing things into simpler forms,” from past participle stem of resolvere “loosen” (see resolve). Sense of “a solving” (as of mathematical problems) first recorded 1540s, as is that of “power of holding firmly” (cf. resolute). Sense of “decision or expression of a meeting” is from c.1600. New Year’s resolutions in reference to a specific intention to better oneself is at least from 1780s, and through 19c. generally of a pious nature.

Hence the shared history with the word ‘solution’ and ‘solve’. The meaning of the word evolved to have a critical approach to problem solving, evident in the etymology of the word ‘resolute’:

The notion is of “breaking (something) into parts” as the way to arrive at the truth of it and thus make the final determination (cf. resolution). Related: Resolutely; resoluteness.

This is to think two scales of problems: the New Year’s Resolution scale of problem that may very well take an entire year to ‘solve’ and the smaller scale of problem arrived at once the larger problem is broken down into its constitute parts. Being able to isolate such problems and move between different scales of a singular problem is a critical thinking skill.

Why don’t people who make New Year’s Resolution set the goal of being more resolute — not only in the partially sense of “holding firm” but also in the sense of “breaking something into its constitute parts”?

No Shared Identity?

Mark Fisher‘s recent piece on “Exiting the Vampire Castle” earned a response (“B-Grade Politics“) from Angela Mitropoulos.

EDIT 27/11/13: See comments below. I am accused of individualising critique on the grounds it is ‘personal’.

I’ve removed the section that placed Angela’s comments in the context of her other recent online postings where she is critical of what I guess you could call ‘Leninist-brocialism‘. I have expanded the below to clarify my point (considering two people with PhDs do not understand it). Now I have structured this post as 1. very simple rearticulation of the two pieces and 2. an expansion of my point.

Put very simply: Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces approach the question of engaged political critique from different positions. From Mark’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to overcome the individualising mechanisms of capitalism. From Angela’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to extrapolate from the ways we are exploited at a personal level to find the broader political dimensions. So far, not insurmountable differences.

The differences become insurmountable at the next level: For Mark, what he calls identitarianism is a kind of white-anting within progressive political movements, exacerbated by the way we are encouraged to project a version of the self through social media. For Angela, any move to elide difference is to betray a commitment to anti-racism and/or anti-sexism and to base critical engagement on a political subject that according to this logic is defined as straight, white and male.

Rather than finding some way to overcome these differences, the final level turns them against each other: Mark draws on Nietzschean notions of bad conscience, describing those who subscribe to Angela’s position as the ‘moralising left’. Angela suggests that by ignoring race and sex, Mark is ignoring how capitalist exploitation is actually played out, and maybe ironically (but unlikely) Angela suggests Mark’s post was about his own enjoyment. For Angela, because Mark is relying on a notion of class, he is basically reinscribing the identity-based politics that he is allegedly critiquing.

Good? I hope that is an adequate summary and that I have represented the different positions fairly. I had assumed readers of my original post had read both Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, and had a relatively sophisticated understanding of these issues.

My interest in this the relation between experience, identity and what Spinoza calls a ‘common notion’. Do we have a ‘common notion’ of living in capitalism? I believe Mark was trying to address this.

Of course, my understanding of ‘common notion’ is via Deleuze.

[Spinoza] always defines a common notion like this: it’s the idea of something which is common to all bodies or to several bodies—at least two—and which is common to the whole and to the part. Therefore there surely are common notions which are common to all minds, but they’re common to all minds only to the extent that they are first the idea of something which is common to all bodies. Therefore these are not at all abstract notions. What is common to all bodies? For example, being in movement or at rest. Movement and rest will be objects of notions said to be common to all bodies. Therefore there are common notions which designate something common to all bodies. There are also common notions which designate something common to two bodies or to two souls, for example, someone I love. Once again the common notion is not abstract, it has nothing to do with species or genera, it’s actually the statement [ÈnoncÈ] of what is common to several bodies or to all bodies; or, since there’s no single body which is not itself made up of several, one can say that there are common things or common notions in each body.

I read this in a number of ways. Following Massumi’s notion of “becoming-together”. Following Guattari and Negri’s notion of “new alliances” (PDF). Massumi is useful because he frames this ‘political economy of belonging’ in terms of the experiences shared by those who ‘become-together’. Experience for Massumi may very well be subjectively felt, but it is not ‘subjective’; it is pre-personal and through which the individual is individuated. Guattari and Negri’s notion is useful because it posits a ‘common consciousness’ apprehended by a ‘revolutionary imagination’ that serves as the ‘basis of the constitution of a future movement’.

Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s ‘common notion’ is framed in terms of sadness and joy. Sad affects are when bodies are acted upon in conditions that ‘do not agree’ with it, and ‘nothing in sadness can induce you to form a common notion’. On the other hand, joy is the condition of a ‘common notion’ (from Deleuze’s lecture):

One never makes progress on a homogeneous line, something here makes us make progress down there, as if a small joy here had released a trigger. Anew, the necessity of a map: what happened there that unblocked this here? A small joy precipitates us into a world of concrete ideas which sweeps out the sad affects or which is in the process of struggling, all of this makes up part of the continuous variation. But at the same time, this joy propels us somehow beyond the continuous variation, it makes us acquire at least the potentiality of a common notion.

I’ve written a great deal about how affective-complexes involving ‘joy’ and their relation to localised fields of knowledge are played out as ‘enthusiasm’ in working class subcultures.

Returning to the distinction between Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, I read both as suggesting that there cannot be a ‘common notion’, but for different reasons. Angela is arguing that racialised and sexed bodies are exploited more than straight, white and male bodies in the current composition of capitalist relations, and that there cannot be a ‘common notion’ across these differences if difference is elided; she writes:

That is, unless ‘success’ has been practically and more or less consciously defined as the recruitment of people who do not want to talk critically about race or gender politics, will not overly criticise those (white men) who present themselves as their ‘leaders,’ and who will actively curtail any committment to anti-racism or anti-sexism in the name of a ‘class unity’ magically redefined as essentially white and male.

Mark, on the other hand, is advocating what is common:

A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed.

Mark is using the word ‘class’ here in a specific way; class is necessarily based on the shared experience of living in a capitalist composition of social relations (“frames and shapes all experience”). This is an experience of exploitation in different ways depending on one’s particular position we occupy in the class structure. Already his piece is at odds with an approach which seeks to reduce individuals to their individualising identity. An appeal to a shared experience is problematic for those who believe that they do not share any experience. Class consciousness is a knowledge of this experience and a knowledge of our relational positioning in this shared experience. (At a very simplistic level: most of the commentary about Mark’s piece I have encountered online and offline begins by identifying and agreeing with his experience of ‘snarky social media’ .) Does a ‘brosocialist’ have anything in common with those who identify as queer and/or coloured? Is there a ‘common notion’?

Mark, secondly, is suggesting that the current compositions of capitalist relations encourage the circulation of sad affects and the erasure of what is common; enter his notion of the ‘Vampires’ Castle’:

the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

The ‘Vampires’ Castle’ is both structure and ephemera; it is an ‘assemblage’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense.  The ephemeral character of structure is really very difficult to even describe, let alone talk about. Deleuze discussed it in “What is structuralism?” and instead turned to the terminology of the ‘machinic’, etc.

My overall point, can we have positive identities or a positive sense of identity that is shared? Yes, of course. Mark is describing a situation where we are encouraged to misrecognise this shared dimension. Importantly, to return to Angela’s second point above, she pours scorn on ‘recruitment’. Clearly, she frames her identity in terms of the capacity to talk critically about race or gender politics. It would be interesting to know if Angela thinks she shares any dimension of experience at all and, if so, how does she police the boundaries of how this shared dimension is defined.

As a final additional point, it is amusing that Deleuze frames the development of adequate ideas (adequate ideas are when you appreciate the relations of causality in the balance between positive and negative affects) from common notions in terms of ageing:

Knowing how to age is arriving at the moment when the common notions must make you comprehend in what way things and other bodies disagree with your own.

Drones in the Cloud: Attending to Snapchat

I don’t know enough about you
To be kind, to be kind to you
Don’t you even think about me
Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The Cymbals’ electro-pop lament of unrequited attention (‘love’) has the same furtively repetitive energetics of yearning through ‘refresh’. Refresh the inbox, refresh the stream, refresh the wall. Repeat. Has the person responded? “Here is my attention; take it.” The “I” of the song is a single contact in a series of contacts presented as the natural world (or ‘milieu’) belong to the song’s second-person “you”.[1. As this reviewer on Pitchfork described the track, it is a “witty, sweat-salty pop song about the peculiarities of media-drenched modern life”.]

The expectation of being attended to is held by the “you” but it is also shared by the “I”. Obviously, the expectation is not held in the same way. Two perspectives on the same expectation indicates a certain kind of power relation. Teachers and students are meant to share expectations of what will happen in a classroom, but they will have radically different perspectives. The flip-side to the alleged passivity of narcissism consists of the capacity to excite or agitate the world. ‘Agitate’ not in the sense of arguing — there is that too, however — but more in the sense of an ‘agitator’ sometimes used as part of the viticulture process in great wine baths to ensure that the elements in solution continue mixing (and fermenting and so on). What does this mean?

There is a labour of sharing that requires an intensive strategic infrastructure to distribute collective expectations in asymmetric relations of attending and being attended to. The technology is part of this; ‘living with notifications’ in the same way you’d say living with some potentially painful but treatable condition. Snapchat operates purely in this realm. It is not what is shared so much as the anticipation of sharing. The just-in-time sociality of online relations often encourages a temporality not unlike the rhythm of waves, in the silent way the tide draws out the body of water — gathering in the potentiality of repetitive anticipation. Like the way a comedian waits for the audience to ‘get it’ (hoping beyond hope that their gag is, indeed, gettable).[2. I often feel very awkward around people when it is apparent they are not ‘getting it’, but that is something else…]

You decide what you want from me
We can hear the passing of time
And the sound that is in your mind
— Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The second-person “you” has a spectral composition, distributed across her agitations. (Obviously I am using ‘her’ when it very well might be a ‘him’; I know I present such a persona online sometimes.[4. EDIT a few hours later: For ironic emphasis I posted this image to Instagram and to Snapchat today with different text components. Not sure if anyone got the irony in the context of this blog post. A few people got extra annoyed at me thinking I was sexting them. I guess an ironic sext (not that it is a sext as such), is still a sext.]) Being attended to can therefore be experienced as endured, where the causal relation begins elsewhere; essentially, a passive relation to the actions of others. This is an abdication of responsibility, however. Participation in the anticipatory economy of sharing attentions is at the same time an impersonal cultivation of personal relations. This is a kind of existential wriggle. Impersonal because “you” engage with the cloud, which is nevertheless populated by (im)personal intentionalities.

Does the cloud have a face? What is the faciality of the cloud? I am tempted to suggest it is the drone: a being of pure intentionality — always a mission, always a target, its cybernetic perspective is pure HUD, baby — but one that is remote-controlled. Control is displaced across space for drone pilots; for the Cymbals’ “you” it is displaced across time in the anticipatory economy of sharing. The moral crisis of drone warfare is repeated online in the ethics of being attended to. The question of agency is therefore very tricky in such a scenario as it implies a degree of responsibility. What happens when the drones come home to roost? Can you be seduced by a drone?


A further, more pressing question presents itself: What if, instead of two people, the Cymbals’ track describes a process belonging to a single person?

That is, the agitations in question do not belong to some other (online) realm or ‘world’, but constitute that through which one’s subjectivity is individuated. I don’t know enough about myself to know if my own remote-controlled agitations are returning, repeating their anticipations. This would be the McLuhanist point (the way media technology “massages” the “human”): am I drone of my own affectations, a being of pure HUD intentionality, perpetually remote-controlled by a future version of myself (assembled by expectation and gathered through anticipation)?[4. Is this a mechanism to produce the absence of immediacy, most acutely experienced as the immediacy of personal responsibility?]