Asylum

My first home was Seacliff, a twenty minute drive from Dunedin. Seacliff is pretty much how it sounds: a small township on the edge of some towering cliffs, overlooking the sea. Few people stop for a visit; there is no shop, no sweet country café, it’s not even on the main road but instead hidden along the ‘scenic route’ to the city.

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View from Seacliff

Sometimes people know of Seacliff for what it used to be. Seacliff was the site of an early lunatic asylum which burnt down in 1942. It’s a bit of a famous asylum because it’s the one Janet Frame wrote about, the one that nearly removed her beautiful poet’s brain. The asylum sat just up from where the township is now. The old site was long ago made into a reserve, full of big walnut trees and sunny grassy spots, yet some of the chimneys from the asylum still stick out form under the greenery like bones breaking the skin.

My sisters and I played up at the reserve as kids, we asked about the chimney bones and about the plaque for Janet Frame. We came to know about darkness that happened to her and others at the asylum, and we felt it echo through the trees. Either Seacliff wasn’t free of the mad people, or it wasn’t free of the madness that was used to make them sane.

nurses on lawn
Seacliff lunatic asylum 1889

I’m thinking about Seacliff again because a few weeks ago there was a homicide there. “It is a weird place,” Mum and I agreed trying to make sense of the situation through some brief text messages.

But I’m also thinking about Seacliff because I’m hearing the word asylum all around me: the government should grant asylum, the government should protect asylum seekers, and so on. The media is interested now – in Syria, in refugees, in the politics of asylum.

The word asylum – like the word refugee – is about home, about safety, and about security. Our state, the New Zealand state, has had more than a few goes at providing asylum; the Seacliff lunatic asylum is but one example. I could speak of Child Youth and Family. I could speak of Aged Residential Care. I could speak of Housing New Zealand. And I think mostly I’d be speaking of darkness again and again. I am wary of the state’s ability to provide a home, to provide safety – I mean, it not so long ago removed parts of people’s brains in the very name of asylum.

I’ve been working with people who have been granted asylum in New Zealand for a little while now. And it has been pretty confronting. Once an Iraqi father, exasperated from a conversation with Housing New Zealand, yelled at me repetitively: “I’m just looking for my rights! I’m just trying to find my rights! Who’s going to give me my rights!?” I’m still not sure quite what he meant by that, and I don’t want to fill in his thoughts with my own crappy guesses. But I know that he was at least speaking of distress, of unmet promises.  These certainly weren’t the words of a man at home, feeling safe and secure.

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A block of Housing New Zealand flats in Wellington, pictured when they were first built in 1944. The small apartments are now home for some refugee families.

Some lefty friends say leaving the work of settling asylum seekers to community groups, instead of the government, is just playing into neoliberalism’s hand. My reply here is that leaving it to the government has sometimes resulted in disasters as dark as lobotomy. So I’d like to help out, actually. For now, I am attempting to provide a more genuine sense of home for former refugees through English Language Partners.

I want to welcome refugees into all that the word asylum promises, which raises some deeper questions: what is home, what is security, what does mean it to be safe, if the state can’t provide these things who can? For me, these can’t help but sound like religious questions; to think of home is to think of Jesus, likewise for the Iraqi father, mentioned above, for whom home is all about Allah.

To understand the government’s past attempts at protection is unsettling – where are we to turn? – yet, when we speak of asylum, I think we should try to bear in mind the words difficult history.

The sea does not meet the sky

The sea does not meet the sky. They kiss only

in our minds. They are priceless in that space

which recedes forever where we make them lovers

‘Those Others’ from Ian Wedde

For a little while now I have been trying to think about the gaps of life. Bit of a hard task, trying to think the negative. Like Ian Wedde implies, we tend to close in the gaps, we tend to talk as if they don’t exist – as if the sea and the sky really kiss. We even have a name for that imaginary meeting of sea and sky; we call it the horizon.

But we don’t have a name for the actually existing gap between the sea and sky; for what Wedde describes as “that space which recedes forever”. We have a name for the lie of their touch but not for the truth of their separation. Strange situation.

The gap I’ve been thinking about is the gap between problem and solution. If this gap has a name, perhaps it’s something like ‘waiting’ or ‘uncertainty’. Our problems come to us alone; we do not receive our problems with accompanying readymade solutions (if this is the case then we didn’t really have a problem to begin with). So all we can do is learn to sit in the problem before us, with the solution far off in the distance, unknown at that moment and, (only perhaps) received much later on. It doesn’t need to be a passive waiting, but some waiting has to take place.

Sometimes my peers studying politics hate me for living this way, telling me again, “do not go on critiquing unless you’re going to give me an answer”, or a little more ethically charged “while you sit here thinking another child in Syria dies”.

But there is no other way from problem to solution than through the gap in between. Life is not like the advert tries to make it: “do you have a problem? Well I have the solution for you!” Rather, the tight embrace of problem and solution – like sea and sky – is true only in our imaginations.

Quite disarming

More than a few times now someone has described me as ‘quite disarming’. As my husband recommends, I’ve been trying the compliment (or critique?) on for size; does this fit me? Which has lead me to ask a prior question, what exactly does ‘disarming’ mean?

Disarming no. 1

The dictionary talks about disarming as a way of removing feelings of distrust or hostility. It’s a war term apparently. It’s about getting rid of the other’s arms – their guns. This sounds like a fairly pleasant sort of conversation technique, ‘okay people let’s put our weapons – of aggression, of avoidance, of dishonesty – down and have nice a chat’.

But people don’t usually show up with weaponry – conversational or otherwise – unless they think they’re gonna get hurt. To disarm then is no pleasant task, in my experience it’s a bit more like this:

disarm one

If I am disarming in this sense, if I disarm by entering into a risky situation and saying ‘hey, you don’t need that weapon here, we’re safe’, then that’s great! It’s a tricky but lovely exercise to take up.

Disarming no.2

But, as the friend who I am teaching English to constantly reminds me, English words are rarely kind enough to have a single meaning. ‘Arms’, of course, has another meaning. I’m talking about those arms that grow out of my shoulders, carry my books, and embrace my friends. I need these arms, I don’t want these arms disarmed.

Which makes me wonder, can being disarming sometimes mean getting it wrong and taking someone’s necessary arms instead of their unnecessary weaponry? Am I sometimes stealing someone’s arms mid-way through a conversation a wandering off?

disarm two (2)

I think the compliment fits, but maybe it comes with a quiet warning: disarm, but make sure you get the right arms.

University: Mourning & melancholy

This is a re-worked version of an essay, written for my master’s program. It’s a critique of University (with some hopeful elements).

I can speak of two universities. I can understand the first the by returning to its founding document, the New Zealand government’s Tertiary Education Strategy. In conjunction with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Education writes up a document of “long-term strategic direction” for tertiary education. The language is unapologetically neoliberal, “this strategy has been designed to guide tertiary education and its users towards a more prominent contribution to a more productive and competitive New Zealand.” Users, productive, competitive. The strategy speaks of the university as an instrument for growing the national economy, reminding its readers that international education is the fifth largest – and growing – export industry for New Zealand. This tight embrace of university and economy births the situation in which I find myself. For example, the department I work out of, International Relations, was restructured in 2011 to focus on Asia and Strategic Studies; two thematic areas which closely align with New Zealand’s trade and foreign policy interests.  Similarly, in 2015 the department began offering 12 month masters programs, partially to attract more lucrative international students. While the economic imperative looms, the courses on offer are increasingly pragmatic – Non-Western Philosophy replaced by US Strategy towards Asia and the Middle East – class sizes bloom, and theory appears as irrelevant and cumbersome to the task of acquiring a degree which will ideally be exchanged for steady employment. This is the first university, with which I am well acquainted.

If the second university has a founding text it is perhaps something like Plato’s The Republic. However, I am not so mean as to compare the Tertiary Education Strategy with Plato! A more comparable text, with some of the spirit of The Republic intact, might be Section 162 of the Education Act (1989). In statute, New Zealand universities are held to be “primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence” and to “accept a role as critic and conscience of society.” Again, the language is revealing – intellectual, independence, conscience. Against this Act, we can make sense of popular images of what an academic is; as someone occupying a transcendent space set apart from culture, free for intellectual adventure, and as caught up in a project of social import. All three claims are far from unproblematic, and have been thoroughly problematized. And yet, insofar as they point back to some idea of intellectual pursuit, they remain deeply compelling. The attractiveness of this vision is especially so for outward projections of the university; for instance, Victoria University of Wellington’s advertising material. The dominant image is of a young woman, standing alone (independent), thinking (intellectual), against a backdrop of Wellington city (does she have a conscience for the polis?). My acquaintance with this second university has primarily taken place here, in the realm of representation.

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Image from Victoria University’s advertising campaign

What is it to find myself in the first university when I came looking for the second? Sometimes we are subjected to loss; we have loved a person, or an abstraction in the place of a person, which has left us, maybe through death, maybe through their own choice which we cannot control. Sometimes we are subjected to absence; we long for that which is not and has never been. The stakes for distinguishing between the two are high; we can misrecognise absence as loss and waste ourselves in pursuit of something which cannot be, or conversely, we can misrecognise loss as absence and accept contingent suffering as inescapable. In short, absence is simply a constitutive fact of life, while loss could have been otherwise.

So to which – loss or absence – does my experience of university belong? At first glance, perhaps it appears as one of absence; I have not had the second university, in order to be able to lose it. However, absence and loss rarely exist in tidy binaries. While I may not have walked the halls of the second university, I am acutely aware of its lack of presence, as I keep being brought into contact with it in through representations like the advert above. To find this difference between of outward representation and inward nature can be characterised in Freud’s language as the loss of an abstraction. I’m pretty sure this lost abstraction is shot through with unrealisable (yet marketable) desires for a utopian academy. And that this utopian content within my desired university belongs to absence, to that which cannot be. Yet I am deeply uncomfortable rendering all of the second university unrealisable; insofar as I can point to historical moments far closer to the sought after abstraction than the Tertiary Education Strategy and its manifestations, I can be sure that the second university is not wholly unrealisable here in the world. For the neoliberal university has not always been, and concrete traces of the academy’s other moments remain to remind us of this (Section 162 of the Education Act, for example). That’s why here I am speaking of neoliberal university education as loss rather than absence, though it’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion.

If I experience university as loss, what should I do with that sense of loss? Should I leave? Should I stay and be miserable? Loss prompts response. What responses for dealing with this loss are open to me and to other students who might feel the same?

A campaign of melancholic Wellbeing

One possible response is melancholia. Melancholia is loss turned inward. In Freud’s weird, yet helpful language, melancholia is a process of withdrawing libidinal energy is from the love object – from the university. In mourning, this energy would take up another love object. But in melancholia it is instead displaced on to the ego. Yet, one’s own ego cannot really serve as one’s love object, so the ego instead becomes an identification with the lost love object. Or, to move away from Freud’s language of libidinal economy, all of the pain caused by the loss is misinterpreted as being caused by the loss of one’s own self. Freud himself actually puts this quite plainly for us, writing that “in mourning, the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so.”

freud
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Why would I think that I am poor and empty rather than the university? Well, Freud blames ambiguous loss, especially the loss of abstractions, like the second university, rather than ‘real’ physical things, like a person. If I’m not quite sure what I’ve lost, I might just pin it on myself.  In the case of my loss, this ambiguity is greatly heightened by the university’s strategic disavowal of loss in its advertising, leaving me to question if any loss has really taken place at all. Ultimately, the likelihood of me being able to name precisely the spectre of loss I feel has been diminished.

Now, as well as the ambiguous nature of my loss, there are languages (or discourses) floating around the university which encourage this interpretation that I am the cause of my own sense of loss. One such language that I would like to draw attention to is the current Wellbeing campaign. I want to focus on this campaign because it’s one of the most accessible on languages on campus and one of the most problematic. In response to increasingly high numbers of students reporting ‘poor emotional well-being’ (approximately 46% of students), Victoria University launched their Wellbeing campaign. The image below is taken from the campaign’s pamphlet on money, one of several areas of student life addressed. The pamphlet encourages students’ to “find ways to improve your relationship money” listing four possible relationships, each with corresponding emoticons. The bottom relationship is clearly the preferred: “you know it’s important […] but it’s not so important to sacrifice your health or wellbeing for it”, yet “a competitive, ambitious” relationship is also endorsed as “great”.

money.png
VUW’s Wellbeing campaign pamphlet

To me, this approach feels like it’s missing the mark – there is no discussion of structural constraints which persist regardless of whether I have a ‘balanced’ approach to money or not (say gender). And weirdly, debt is only mentioned once as “a good investment”. In this way, the campaign’s attempt to improve student wellbeing works to reduce one of the most stressful aspects of student life – finances – to an attitudinal problem, to my relationship with it. I don’t buy this narrative; it simply doesn’t matter how much I pursue a balanced relationship with my student loan, it’s still not going to be enough to pay my rent. Yet this is the recurring message I receive from across the campaign’s thematic areas (health, identity, connection, and money): the difficulties I face are not difficulties ‘out there’ in the world, but rather in me, in my inward disposition toward them. In short, this is a melancholic response to my loss.

What would happen if I was to accept the Wellbeing campaigns narrative? Aside from me being miserable, what would the political implications of this response be? I think the answer here is quite simple; the political implications would be nothing, I’d be too busy trying to fix my inward disposition to worry about changing the world out there. This is why the melancholic subject is perfectly suited to the reproduction of the status quo: they can never turn from them self to examine and challenge the material conditions in which they are located. Rather, all of their suffering arrives with a readymade explanation that they themselves are the cause.

 

Mourning at The Other Arts Tutorial

So what else? If not melancholia, what? Again, I think Freud is helpful. His understanding is that mourning is the non-pathological, preferred reaction to the loss. In mourning, reality testing reveals that the love object is indeed lost and so the need arises to sever one’s bond to that object. Freud admits that this is no easy task; it requires a period of absorption, where the subject experiences the same “painful mood” and “loss of interest in the outside world” as in melancholia. However, the crucial difference is that the subject of mourning emerges from this without having displaced the loss onto her own ego.

Freud proposes economic language for clarity, yet it is not without problem. A big problem for me is that Freud assumes that something loved and lost should be given up on altogether and ‘substituted’ with another. In my case this would mean relinquishing my desire for the second university entirely. There is a conservatism in Freud’s thought which sits uncomfortably – can we not lose something but go on loving it, hoping for it?

A more contemporary theorist Seth Moglen is helpful here. Moglen advocates a process of mourning where longings are retained, while the reality of the loss is also contended with. In my case, this would mean acknowledging my current experience of neoliberal education as loss, fully mourning and letting go of this particular experience while retaining hope that an education more akin to the second university may be realisable in the future. This requires a certain flexibility; I must be flexible about the ways in which my hope might fulfilled, rather than seeing this particular loss as the loss of the abstraction in its entirety. This also requires that I situate my loss in time and space: the second university is lost here and now, not forever and always. Once loss is situated, the connection between mourning and politics opens up. If my loss is situated I can ask concrete questions about the conditions which facilitated my loss and begin to explore how those conditions might need to change in order to prevent future losses.

For me, the Anglican Chaplaincy at Victoria University exists as a space of this sort of mourning. A sort of mourning which is looking for a language different to that of the Wellbeing campaign. The process of finding an alternative language can be painful, partly because it usually involves having one’s accepted language challenged. This is the unsettling aspect of mourning – in mourning we are undone; we undergo a transformation for which the results cannot be known in advance. The Chaplaincy is involved in such a process of undoing, through challenging the way the university understands and speaks about itself. It does this is through hosting Short Course Intensives annually. These Intensives take the form of a weekend long conference, open to the public. They seek to contextualise the contemporary university, tracing its history and describing its other moments, with special attention given to questions of knowledge and ways in which the academy might be antagonistic towards the Christian tradition. The weekends often do not seek to provide a solution, but rather to sit in the undone space for a time, taking stock of the particular university context that we work within in. It is through these Intensives that my sense of loss has been situated and related to the prevailing conditions that have at other times between otherwise.

Situating loss is only part of the work of mourning. The difficult work of retaining hope remains. Within the Chaplaincy there are avenues open to students for exploring how truncated longings might begin to flourish. For example, the Chaplaincy runs The Other Arts Tutorial. The idea behind The Other Arts Tutorial is to provide what many students hoped a humanities tutorial would be, yet often struggle to find: a place for thoughtful discussion about things that matter. Through The Other Arts Tutorial, the Chaplaincy provides a space to work towards realising my desire for the second university it in another way. In Moglen’s terms, I have accepted the idea of flexibility; although my sense of loss is not rectified by substantial changes to the university, my longing is partially realised within a different institution in a way I could not have predicted.

OTA
Poster for the Other Arts tutorial

The combination of the Short Course Intensives and The Other Arts Tutorial – along with others events – provides a space where an alternative language to that of the Wellbeing campaign can be worked out; a language deeply engaged in historicising the moment in which I find myself attending university. The outward orientation of such an engagement holds melancholia at bay. If I understand the way the university changes, I can begin to assess what different periods excelled at and what they lacked, and what I like and what do not like – I can begin assessing how different universities might affect me, including the one that I am in. Furthermore, I can begin taking steps to bring about the sort university I desire. Importantly, in this language community the accent is no longer on my subjectivity, as in the Wellbeing campaign, rather it is on the objective conditions I am located within. In mourning, my loss can be a political resource.

It has not been my intention to convert my reader to Victoria’s Anglican Chaplaincy. There are likely other spaces of mourning, that I am unaware of, yet which are equally worthy of the lengthy treatment I have given the Chaplaincy. However, it has, in a sense, been my aim to convert the melancholic to a process of politically engaged mourning. Or, at the very least, to justify why and how my own conversion from melancholy to mourning has taken place. And it is my (ambitious) hope that some of this may help to shift our attention from a twisted inwardness to what’s going on all around us.