Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Unaustralia: Strangeness and Value1

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Unaustralia: Strangeness and Value1

Article excerpt

I begin with a story. This one happened to a friend of friends. Similar things are happening to friends of your friends, right across Australia.

A Sydney businessman-I'll call him K., but don't confuse him with the hero of a novel by Kafka or Coetzee, he's a real person-is defrauded by his accountant. The Federal Police are called in, and they in turn-presumably because the possibility of money-laundering is involved-call in ASIO. K. is told that if he is to recover his money he will have to sign a confidentiality agreement-something like the British Official secrets Act-which he does. At around this time he is approached by a man who says he too has been defrauded by the accountant. They talk about it, and K. arranges to meet him a second time. When he arrives the man is in police uniform and arrests him for having breached the confidentiality agreement by speaking to him. K. is taken to court; after three days of hearings the charge against him is dismissed on the grounds that he was not informed of his rights at the time he signed the agreement. ASIO then applies for a control order against him-the same order that was served on Jack Thomas after his acquittal on terrorism charges, and which confines him to his home between midnight and 5 am, requires him to seek written approval to make phone calls, and confiscates his passport. The evidence in the ASIO dossier all goes to the point of K.'s being politically 'connected'-that is, having made acquaintance in the course of his business with members of Amnesty, the ACTU, and the Labor Party. The dossier contains photographs of politicians and trade unionists leaving K.'s office, and extensive information about his past. His neighbours and friends are repeatedly photographed and their phones are tapped. K. is never informed of the grounds for the control order, other than his being politically 'connected'. At this point in time K. is waiting for the adjudication of the control order. His lawyer has been told that he too will be served with a control order, and assumes that unless he complies his other clients will be subject to investigation. K. says two things about this web of unexplained actions against him and his lawyer: 'they knew everything about me'; and 'it's enough to drive you mad'.

The story I have told is one that I cannot tell. In order to make it public I have to cast it in a form that makes it unrecognisable. I have altered some of the details of K.'s identity, and details of the story itself, in order to protect him from further charges of breach of the confidentiality agreement, and to protect myself from charges of breaching section 105.41 of the Anti-Terrorism Act by telling this story. I cannot go to the newspapers with it because they are prohibited from publicising details of control orders, and in any case publicity would further endanger K. In a very real sense, we are silenced.

Part of my concern in this lecture is a puzzle about what politics has become at a time when traditional concerns with open government and the rule of law have been devalued as, it seems, never before, and yet when this devaluation is conveyed in the very language of truth and justice which is denied at the level of actions. I call this politics 'postmodern', in the sense in which Bill Brown uses that word: to describe a post-Enlightenment and antipluralist politics, whether it be that of neoliberalism or of the new religious fundamentalisms, characterised by the invocation of a state of permanent exception and by the authoritarian consequences that flow from it.2 And I use the metaphor-one I take from the conference to which this talk is a coda-of a place called UnAustralia, not in order to describe a national ethos, nor to accuse others of breaching some putative core of national values, but rather as a way of describing the logic of negation by means of which this shadowy realm of counterterror, together with its corresponding politics, is conjured into being. …

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