Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rounding up “our” bodies – does the gender of the border collie matter?

Foucault* said something like “all law eventually becomes administration”; i.e. the law degrades (from most perspectives other than administrators’, anyway).  I say “all philosophy eventually becomes grammar”.  More particularly, too much current human thought hinges on a plural we/us/ours/them etc that is ultimately a mirage. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “there is only the singular” – or at least where there is a choice, the singular should be used instead of the plural. 
The opposing proposition – that the plural can be invoked conveniently, promiscuously and never problematically –  has a common flaw: who exactly are the members of the club?  While, say, “women” and “men” are relatively closed categories, there is still always a perimeter that must be fenced. Or, as I prefer to think, an initially amorphous herd that must be run rings around, in order to congeal as a herd.  Who does this rounding up would seem to be an issue of no small importance, but the modern default setting seems to be that the herd is self-herding; no border collie required. Or if one is acknowledged, it is a benign force – of, by and for the group (to use a more neutral word than “herd”), yet somehow external to the group also.

Post-1960s feminism’s genius has been to make the border collie simultaneously pervasive and invisible (but unquestionably female, in case you were wondering).  This is a big call, so I’ll promptly qualify it by saying that the gendering of “our bodies” is actually our (i.e. every human’s) problem.  In case you are confused here, I’m taking it as a given that “our bodies” is (hugely) disproportionately invoked to describe the collective of female bodies, vs the more-or-less equivalent and opposed collective of male bodies.  Also, I’m taking it that “our bodies” can be used unproblematically in only one way – by a human talking about human bodies.  Of course, any club etc with a defined membership can also accurately refer to “our” anything, but as I’ve said, while one’s gender, or “membership” of male/female is generally clear, invoking the inclusivist plural is the privilege of that gender’s border collie/s alone – only s/he who patrols the perimeter can actually speak for the herd.

To get more contentious (and specific) still, feminism’s problematic catch-cry of “our bodies” has been central to one of last century’s true triumphs of marketing over substance – the selling of abortion as a women’s right, as opposed to a woman’s right.
I'll also back-pedal a bit here, to say that this post is not really about abortion, if you know what I mean – i.e. that I write this as a man talking about a woman’s business (again, note the singular), with no real agenda other that querying false inclusivist plurals in general.   That is, the querying of “our bodies” in the context of the abortion debate may seem provocative, or worse, but I’m using it as a concrete example of what is ultimately (to remind you) an issue of grammar.

But since I may nonetheless have opened a hornets’ nest here, FWIW I’ll opine that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is emphatically one for the putative mother primarily, and the putative father secondarily.  If the putative mother also wants or needs outside counsel, then expressly seeking it from an/other woman/women (rather than man/men) is probably preferable also.  But it is a big step – and a move completely unwarranted, IMO – to base, as it appears to me, a categorical sisterhood (i.e. post-1960s feminism) on that half-hour (or whatever) of female-to-female pre-termination counsel that many pregnant women may have. 

I’ll also pointedly acknowledge the shocking historical baggage here; i.e. that until quite recently, abortion has been largely a matter of men controlling women’s bodies.  Note my happy, correct, and double use of the plural here – when the border collies are herding the sheep, one’s membership of one or the other group is clear-cut, hopefully. (If you are a border collie- or sheep behaviour-expert reading this, please note that I am even less qualified to write on sheep/goat etc, separations than I am on abortion).  But I’m not sure that this shocking, recent history of male oppression of women justifies the grammar-defying “spin” inherent within post-1960s feminism – and if it does, then this surely needs express acknowledgment. 

Moving on (I hope), one possible solution appears either for men to step up and actively reclaim “our” currently unoccupied half of the “our bodies” continent. Re the “our”, I'm certainly not volunteering to be the border collie here, but I'm also equally unwilling to be one of the herded.  More generally, the “men’s rights” type approach has all sorts of problems, of course, many of which are canvassed here.  But the biggest problem here for me (as you may have guessed) is that it would, if taken seriously (no small ask), merely perpetuate/double-up a falsely inclusivist category – and there is also a numerically small, but very real, border-zone of bodies that would not be included in this neat binary “our”.

A better solution would be for contemporary feminism to renounce its “our bodies” founding myth – that is, to simply let every woman have her body, and (as currently appears the case, anyway) every man, his.

* I’m not quite sure whether it was indeed Foucault, but for moments like this there should be an aphorism that “If you can remember the particulars of 1980s deconstructionist theory, then you weren’t really there.”  

Monday, August 06, 2012

The invisible vitrine – mid-20thC Central Australian child pornography

Currently engrossed in a research project/article on the Indigenous-white frontier in Central Australia in the mid-20th century, I am digressing to ponder a curious, common sideline to books published about remote Australian Aborigines in the 1950s and 60s – a photograph or two of naked Indigenous children, usually as “colour” only; i.e. apropos of nothing in the narrative.

It is problematic, in several ways, to unpick these images from their face up, art-critic style – unlike, say, nude images of adults from my own time and culture.  So, contra to this post’s title, I have a somewhat open mind as to whether these images should/could be considered child pornography.  Most have an initial winsomeness, a la Anne Geddes but with older children, although the five photos of just-pubescent Indigenous girls in Charles Duguid’s No Dying Race (1963) would, on the Bill Henson test-barometer, almost certainly would be considered child pornography today.

Duguid’s repetition – or gratuitousness – is also a factor here.  Although the five photos from 1963 pale against contemporary reports of child-pornography arrests/convictions that always seem to feature thousands of offending items, it is the collector or assemblage factor that perhaps best indicates the photographer’s/collector’s intent for the image – the more, the pervier, you might say.

My own rule of thumb is that to be considered prima facie “innocent”, images of naked children should be created by, and only circulated among, persons who are related to, or at least know on a prior and ongoing basis, the child-subject.  Images of naked, outback Indigenous children, taken by non-Indigenous photographers for mass/urban non-Indigenous circulation, are therefore intrinsically troubling. 

A corollary here is that Otherness in naked children is too easily used as a shield by the accommodating assumptions of what I’ll term Tourist Art, as opposed to high art.  The 2008 Bill Henson controversy hinged largely on the dividing line between child pornography and high art, but the questionable images I am concerned about actually find apparent refuge at the other end of the spectrum, in the artless family or holiday snapshot.  There is no doubt that comparable images, if of naked white children, would never have been published in such a genre and medium.   Otherness, and perhaps also higher production value, thus takes these Indigenous child-subjects out of the “aw-cute!” everyday, and puts them inside a vitrine – and so potentially, a collection.

The 2007 Northern Territory Intervention explicitly started as anti-child abuse measure; it now seems high time, given its lukewarm results at-best to date, to turn the blowtorch on white Australians by doing a historical audit/round-up of questionable images held for and in our own domain.  Some of the child-subjects (who are almost never named) would still be alive, and even if they aren’t, their descendants and other relatives may well be doubly haunted by these decades-old images of the dead, that are, ironically or not, possibly banned from their own communities under the “No Pornography” rule of the Intervention, but are freely available elsewhere, for a few dollars in a second-hand bookshop.

At the time these images usually were taken (pre-1964), the Northern Territory* child-subjects were wards of wards of the state.  That is, their parents did not have the usual legal rights (or responsibilities) of adults, and in particular, lacked the power to negotiate contracts other than for everyday items (or necessaries).  The Commonwealth government therefore must be presumed to have given its consent to the production and dissemination of these images – the same entity that in 2007 sent in the troops to cleanse the dysfunction out of remote Australia, but still seems blithe to its own role of arguably sowing the seeds for some of this dysfunction in the relatively recent past.

* Presumptive wardship for all “full blood” Northern Territory Aborigines was abolished in 1964.  Some of the questionable images would have been taken in South Australia and Western Australia, where wardship was abolished at different times.  The latter two jurisdictions also had sole control of their Indigenous populations. 

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