Woomera 2002 Festival of Freedoms: Experiencing Community in Tragic Recognition of the Other

By Monson, David | Journal of Australian Studies, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Woomera 2002 Festival of Freedoms: Experiencing Community in Tragic Recognition of the Other


Monson, David, Journal of Australian Studies


   The protesters who 'liberated' the Woomera detainees preach freedom
   and tolerance but practise violence and mayhem ... until more
   people ... fight this [culture], street gangs of greenshirts and
   their allies will increasingly threaten our democracy and our
   freedoms. (Andrew Bolt, Sunday Mail, 8 April 2002) (1)

   Anarchy--Show me a greater crime in all the earth!
   She, she destroys cities, rips up houses,
   Breaks the ranks of spearmen into headlong rout.
   But the ones who last it out, the great mass of them
   Owe their lives to discipline. Therefore
   We must defend the men who live by the law,
   Never let some women triumph over us.
   Better to fall from power, if we must,
   At the hands of a man--never be rated inferior to a woman, never,
   (Creon in Sophocles's Antigone) (2)

The events that unfolded in the three days of the Easter Woomera protest were seemingly 'messy' and confused, and easily dismissed by defensive statements such as the one above made by Andrew Bolt shortly after the event. The protests' 'messiness', I assert, occurred through the interplay between extremes of freedom and control. There are few twentieth-century academics who have surpassed Michel Foucault in bringing to scholarly attention the constitution of the modern self in relation to extremes of control and freedom. (3) Kevin Hetherington asserts that Foucault's concept of heterotopia can be understood as either a space of excessive social control--such as prisons or detention centres--or as a space of extreme freedom--such as De Sade's castle or the carnival. In these latter spaces the individual also becomes subject to control by the gratification of increasingly depraved and amoral acts of freedom. (4) The 'messiness' of the Woomera protest was due to the interplay between the two: the protest being not only a heterotopia of extreme control (the detention centre), but also a heterotopia of freedom (the protest camp). This paradoxical interaction constitutes the heterotopia complex.

As a means to 'setting the scene' for the heterotopia, I first draw creatively on the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone is chosen as a hermeneutic device because it explores the relationship between freedom and control, but also because it has an overwhelming heteronomic undercurrent. This means that the central protagonists of the play are dealing with the complex issues of an obligatory response to the call of another who is experiencing misfortune or suffering. In this use of heteronomy I follow Jean Francois Lyotard who sees heteronomic obligation as a 'scandal'. (5) To be obligated to the call of someone else is to diminish the 'free' use of oneself. (6) To John Caputo it means to stay up at night worried about one's place in the world because of someone else's suffering. (7) I am interested in how easily Sophoclean heteronomic tragedy can be fitted to the Woomera protests. Even a partial fit suggests the protesters' intent to inflame the scandal of punitive detention, not only due to heteronomic obligation, but also to the 'disaster' of punitive detention that drives the heteronomy. A strong congruency, I assert, constitutes the protest camp as a distinctive Australian heterotopia: a space that becomes metonymic of and speaks to all other spaces in Australia, a space of heteronomic crises.

The consequence of 'disaster' is that the self cannot rest; it must be moved to the call of the other in distress--to the space of heteronomic crises. Disasters and the suffering they cause come in many shapes and forms, the diversity of which Auschwitz, Apartheid South Africa or contemporary Palestine are emblematic. However, they should not just be seen as the 'big D' Disaster of an Evil, but rather as (d)isasters in the lower case. (8) In this sense, Caputo supports Lyotard's les juifs: 'everyone nomadic or homeless or uprooted, everyone whose mind or body, dignity or identity has been damaged or even shattered'.

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