‘Nothing to Lose’ – Judging My Book By Its Cover

My first book – The Biopolitics of Lifestyle: Foucault, Ethics and Health Choices – is being published this month. Perhaps not the most scholarly concern, especially as I had little to do with its creation, but I am particularly pleased with the cover.

Cover

Cover image: Toby Burrows (image) and Michael Cutrupi (dancer). From ‘nothing to Lose’ by Force Majeure. From The Biopolitics of Lifestyle, Routledge (2015).

 

I suggested the image after seeing Force Majeure‘s dance production ‘Nothing to Lose‘ at the 2015 Sydney Festival. This production was billed as exploring ‘fat’ – ‘the powerful little word, full of baggage and judgement’.

At the time I was finishing off the final draft of my book, which was also exploring aspects of this word and its medicalized cousin – obesity.

While I was not able to discuss ‘Nothing to Lose’ in my book, I remember that it reminded my of Chantal Mouffe’s remarks on public art as,

‘bringing to the fore the existence of alternatives to the current post-political order…[and] making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate’.

The production powerfully challenged the commonsense ways of seeing bodies and the ways that they are obscured. This was most clear in a performance where half a dozen dancers moved towards, and into, the audience while relentlessly repeating condescending cliches: “have you tried dieting?”, “such a pretty face”, “have you looked in the mirror?”, “have you considered some exercise?”, “do you really need that?” and on, and on.

The ‘Nothing to Lose’ dance performance is an important way of highlighting and confronting the social and political imperatives surrounding bodies, notions of health, and what types of bodies are allowed to be seen and under what conditions.

I hope that my book is able to live up to its cover and do something similar, even if in a more turgid form.

I would particularly like to thank Michael Cutrupi (dancer) and Toby Burrows (image) for giving their permission to use the image.

The Three Stages of Malcolm Turnbull’s Empathy

Mal Empathy

Stage One: Be Generous & Wear Other People’s Shoes

Monday 21st September, 730 Report:

So, the truth is, we don’t really deserve our good fortune. And that’s why, if you are – if you do well, you’ve got to give something back. That’s why I encourage people to be generous…

The important thing is to have the emotional – emotional intelligence and the empathy and the imagination that enables you to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to be able to sit down with them on a train or on a – in the street, hear their story and have the imagination to understand how they feel. Emotional intelligence is probably the most important asset for – certainly for anyone in my line of work.

Stage Two: You, Me, & Maybe Them Get “It” – But Gee Things are Tough

Wednesday (morning) 23rd September, Sky News:

I understand the issue. I have same concerns about it, about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru as you do, and as I would think almost all Australians – all Australians do. As the Minister Mr Dutton does. But what I’m not going to do is make changes to our border protection policy sitting here with you. Our policies will change, all policies change, but when we do make changes we will do so in a considered way.

Stage Three: Real Politik with a Merchant Banker’s Face

Wednesday (evening) 23rd September, RN Drive:

Patricia Karvelas: First, on border protection, you told Sky News earlier today you were concerned about the plight of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. What does that concern mean for what happens to the policy? Will we re-settle these people in Australia?

Malcolm Turnbull: No. That is absolutely clear that there will be no resettlement of the people in Manus and Nauru in Australia. They will never come to Australia. Now, I know that’s tough. We do have a tough border protection policy. You could say it is a harsh policy. But it has worked.

There is a protest at Sydney Town Hall on Sunday October 11, 2pm. “Stand Up For Refugees – End all detention

Ivan Illich and the Idol of Lifestyle

Ivan Illlich, the Austrian philosopher, Catholic priest and iconoclast, was asked to give a lecture to a group of American Lutheran pastors on the topic of life. Rather outlining a philosophy of life, Illich called life an idol.

Illich said the pastors were dismayed by his characterisation. After all Jesus is the ‘bread of life’, ‘the way, the truth and the life’, and promises abundant life.

"Ivan Illich" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

“Ivan Illich” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

What could it mean to call life an idol?

For Illich, life is an idol worshiped and used by marketers, theologians, politicians, scientists, journalists, and activist to motivate, reveal and hide all sorts of responses, actions and emotions. Yet, there is never any attempt to provide an adequate definition.

In his acerbic style Illich says ‘when I used the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit”’.

For Illich, life becomes an idol because it is an empty signifier that can be filled with whatever meaning an authoritative and persuasive speaker gives. In his terms, life is an amoeba word. A word that when thrown into a conversation ‘makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely’.

Other amoeba words could be freedom, family, democracy, race, secular, or gender. Illich was not suggesting that the things these words signify or represent are necessarily unimportant or shit. Rather they tend to hide or assume what is at stake.

Amoeba words are imprecise yet produce deep cultural and emotional resonance. Perhaps the more important a topic is the more amoeba words appear.

The use of lifestyle is a case in point. Despite its banal appearance it is a divisive word. It divides lives as “in” and part of “us” from those that are “out” and part of “them”. Sure, lifestyle is used to market insurance or sell funeral packages, but it is also used to identify what is valued and can be disregarded.

The idol of lifestyle is used to justify the careful inclusion of some lives and in the same movement violent exclusion of others.

George H.W. Bush infamously told the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that the American way of life was not negotiable. The rest of the world may burn, but the American lifestyle has such a high value that it will not be compromised.

Tony Abbott’s recent comments about lifestyle choices and remote Aboriginal communities reveal the divisive nature of the term.

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”

There are lifestyles that ‘fully participate in the life of our country’ and there are lifestyles that are outside of “our country”. Being “inside” grants security, celebration and flourishing, while being “outside” leads to abandonment and exposure. Of course, to be outside is a choice and therefore removes responsibility for care from the “inside”.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 18.26.22

Like Illich’s observations, the idol of life and amoeba words continue to abound in political and popular discourse. Perhaps coughing or saying shit in their stead may interrupt the pronouncements of false prophets and disrupt the flow of worshiping these false gods.

See – Cayley, David. 1992. Ivan Illich in conversation. Concord, Ontario: House Of Anansi

Don’t be surprised by Abbott’s comments about ‘lifestyle choices’

By Christopher Mayes, University of Sydney and Jenny Kaldor, University of Sydney

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claim this week that people living in remote communities were making a “lifestyle choice” that taxpayers shouldn’t be obliged to fund was not just the result of an unguarded moment. Rather, the phrase reveals an underlying view that social circumstances are the responsibility of individuals, rather than societies.

Commentators as well as Abbott’s top advisers on Indigenous affairs were quick to criticise the characterisation. Others suggested it was just another prime ministerial gaffe that shouldn’t distract us from the real issues.

Abbott is infamous for his gaffes and “dad jokes”, but this was not one of those moments. A day after he made the remark, the prime minister defended his use of the phrase on the Alan Jones Show.

“Lifestyle choices” was not a gaffe but a neoliberal mechanism of government that adopts a consumer logic to: i) shift responsibility for ‘closing the gap’ on to individuals; ii) trivialise Aboriginal ontological connection to land; and iii) ignore the effects of colonization, while “continuing settler colonial ‘logic o elimination’“.*

Continue reading →

Depoliticising Indigenous Health via Consensus and Statistics

‘Politics’ has become a dirty word in Australia. To ‘politicise’ an issue is regarded as obfuscation. Good governments ‘govern’ and make ‘policies’. And good oppositions should work with governments to produce policies not debate endlessly, or so we’re told – usually by sitting governments.

While a lot of the ‘politics’ has devolved into oppositional tactics, political debate is essential for democracy.

At a minimum political debate should reveal the reasons and justifications for a particular policy. However, false consensus and the use of statistics are increasingly used to depoliticise debate of important issues. A recent example is Indigenous health.

Dangerous Consensus

indexIndigenous health is an area where “every opposition wants the government to succeed”. However, perhaps it is this consensus that has resulted in continual failure.

The 7th Closing the Gap report was presented in Parliament earlier this month. Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a sobering speech, noting that most targets were not on track “despite the concerted effort of successive governments since the first report”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, however, called on the Government to reverse the budget cuts to social services that disproportionately affect Indigenous populations and compound existing inequalities. Coalition MPs were unhappy with this suggestion. Some walked out and others said Shorten was playing political games on an important occasion.

The focus on consensus – that everyone wants to Close the Gap – has reduced Indigenous health and education to a national human interest story. It is bracketed from the realm of politics and serves either to inspire or a cathartic release. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that “human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote and scandal”.

In breaking with the ritual bipartisanship, where Opposition and Government solemnly agree that “more should be done but it is all so very difficult”, Bill Shorten re-politicised Indigenous health, if only briefly.

While liberal political philosophy values consensus established via publicly justifiable reasons, when consensus is assumed, publicly justifiable reasons become redundant. The presumption of consensus between the two major parties on indigenous health (and anti-terror legislation and asylum seeker policy) lowers the expectation of rigorous political arguments for or against certain positions.

Shorten broke with the consensus game and exposed the gap between Abbott’s rhetoric of “concerted efforts” and the first budget he delivered. Budgets are not simply economic documents, but reflect political and moral decisions about the lives that are valued.

Politics of Life Expectancy

Not unrelated, last month Treasure Joe Hockey attracted ridicule with his comment in a 3AW interview ‘that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable, that a child is being born that is going to live to a 150’.

Close-the-Gap

Hockey’s comment received some support from Professor Peter Smith who points to advances in medicine and public health as reasons to expect a continued increase in human life expectancy.

Professor John Quiggin however suggested that these claims are highly dubious and ignore the fact that the extension of life expectancy in the 20th Century ‘came from a reduction in death rates for the young.’

Will Cairns also pointed to the success of reducing death rates. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia that

our numbers plummet as we approach 100 years of age because all of these interventions [public health, disease treatment, nutrition] make no difference to the reality that we eventually wear out and die. Apart from the odd unverified outlier, only one person has ever been confirmed as living for more than 120 years.

Hiding Politics in the Statistics

Like the assumption of a consensus, Hockey’s use of life expectancy statistics to justify changes to the health system hides the political nature of these decisions.

Altering the financing of the health system through strategies such as co-payment schemes may appear reasonable. We are told Australia’s population is ageing and more people need to use the health system. However, what these statistics hide is the disparities of life expectancy in Australia.

While a child may be born today to live to 150 120, the latest ‘Closing the Gap‘ report reveals that Indigenous Australians born today can expect to live more than a decade less than non-Indigenous Australians.

The reality of significant gaps in life expectancy should be the cause for alarm and inspire the creation of a more equitable health system. Yet often population statistics hide the details. As Professor Mick Dobson notes, ‘Statistics of shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles and aunties who live diminished lives. We die silently under these statistics.’

Statistics: measuring and managing people

Vital statistics have been used to govern populations since the 17th century. But it’s important not slide over the word “statistics” too quickly as its literal meaning is hidden through repeated use.

Statistics is not simply about numbers but “state craft“. By knowing birth and death rates, and the incidence of disease it is possible to establish probabilities of epidemics, movement of people, and to order the State in a rational manner.

Vital statistics also enable the segmentation and division of populations. We see this all the time in professional sports. The explosion of statistics about batting averages, field goal percentage, or a players historical probability of kicking a goal from a certain angle against a certain team all help coaching staff to know who is performing and who is not.

Divisions in the details

Despite appearances, the use of statistics as political tool for governing a population is not neutral. Historian and philosopher Michel Foucault notes the way vital statistics introduce a power over life or biopolitics. The increased knowledge about nutrition, physiology and sexuality in the 19th century lead to the creation of norms from statistical averages that allowed political strategies to regulate human life. Close-the-Gap-005

Statistical analyses are used in public health to show the distribution of disease and enable interventions in populations. But as Foucault notes, these techniques also allow the identification of lives that are healthy and should be fostered and which lives are not performing and can be neglected.

A danger with the celebration of a statistically increasing life expectancy, is that it masks the very real health inequalities faced by many Australians. This is seen in a number of areas:

  • allow for certain health issues to be prioritised (e.g. ageing population), while others marginalised (e.g. health inequalities)
  • enable the allocation of funding towards some research (e.g. Medical Research Future Fund), while moving it away from other areas (e.g. preventive health)
  • suggest a particular financing models for the health system (e.g. co-payment), yet discount others (e.g. progressive taxation).

These are not simply economic decisions, but political and ethical decisions about which lives count. For too long the supposed neutrality of statistics and the assumption of consensus have allowed the political reality of Indigenous health inequalities to be hidden. To close the gap we need to recognise the historical and political processes that have made it and maintain it.

Morally Indigestible Listicles: Food, Experts, and the Burden of Choice

Never Eat

The Sydney Morning Herald (via the Telegraph, London) has published another “no-nonsense-straight-shooting-science-based” listicle of the foods YOU SHOULD NEVER EAT AGAIN! These lists seem to appear at least once every week on some form of news website.

This current list is prefaced with references to recent British Medical Journal studies that turned upside down “everything we thought we knew about eating and drinking healthily”. Instead of saturated fats being “the killer”, it turns out carbohydrates are!

Put down that bacon & egg roll and get yourself a KFC Double-Down sandwich!

Surprisingly the article doesn’t question why these new claims have a stronger knowledge base than previous claims or how we can be sure that in a week there won’t be another “nutritional revolution” that will turn this all on its head and finger protein as Grandpa’s real killer.

Leaving aside the science-base of these claims – not to imply this is unimportant – what is most disturbing about these articles (and this article in particular) is the emphasis on individual food choices as the determining factor of health. “Expert” claims that “every bacon sandwich you eat knocks half an hour off your life” reinforce ideas that my heart disease or your diabetes are reducible to that sandwich or chocolate bar eaten six years ago.

When these factoids are spoken by folks in white coats during times of austerity cuts to health services there is a real danger of compounding already existing public health policy problems by pretending that structural influences can be addressed via a nice social marketing campaign or a Jamie Oliver TV show that teaches people how to cook, garden and “never eat those foods again”.

In the UK (where this article originated) David Cameron recently flagged that sick benefits may be cut from people who are obese and do not lose weight. The rationale for this idea is that obese people can lose weight simply by making “correct” and “healthy” food choices. However, according to Cameron, they aren’t making these choices because life is too good on benefits. Hence, cut the benefits and healthy food choices will be made.

While these listicle articles may be dismissed as “not too serious” or “a bit of fun”, they depend on and reinforce a moralistic and biopolitical perspective on the relation between food, choice and health. This perspective is often used to justify budget cuts to health services due to the expectation that health is simply a matter of individuals making the right choices.

In an article for Public Health Ethics, my colleague Donald B. Thompson and I argue that this perspective is morally and scientifically unjustified. Below is the introduction. If you’d like read the whole thing but the pay wall gets in the way send me an email.

Continue reading →

Neoliberal Public Health and the Rhetoric of War

If we look beneath…the State and State apparatuses, beneath the laws and so on, will we hear and discover a sort of primitive and permanent war? (Foucault 2000, : 46-47)

At dawn, on 11 November 2008, Julien Coupat was seized by French police and ‘preventively arrested’. French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie regarded Coupat and his associates as ‘pre-terrorists’ part of an ‘anarcho-autonomist cell’ (Anonymous 2008; Nardi 2009). Prior to the raid and arrests of November 2008 Coupat and his eight friends were not ‘pre-terrorists’ but nine individuals seeking to establish an alternate form of life to the consumer-driven existence found in the affluent suburbs of Paris from which they came. Moving to the village of Tarnac the nine grew their own food and “reorganized the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly” {Toscano, 2009 #191}. According to the villagers they were charming ‘self-sufficient students’ (Anonymous 2008). However, when a nearby section of railway was sabotaged through a small explosion the farmhouse transformed into a cell, the individuals into ‘pre-terrorists’ and the friends became known as the Tarnac 9 an anti-capitalist anarchist group with global reach.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations. Photo: C. Mayes

The seizure of Coupat as a ‘pre-terrorist’ serves as an example of the political rationality influencing governmental strategies seeking to forecast and control not only threatening events, but pre-empt the very possibility of the events occurrence. The governmental drive to pre-empt, mobilizes the biopolitical seizure of life by taking control of individual bodies and regulating the life of the population. The imperative to target subjects that threaten the security of society produces a need to identify subjects prior to the actualisation of the subject as a threat. For Coupat, his irregular form of life attracted the gaze of the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI), provoking preventive intervention in order to secure the population from a possible terrorist threat. Thus the urgency to prevent a terrorist event provided the conditions in which the production and seizure of ‘pre-terrorist’ subjects is possible.

The identification of pre-terrorists in order to lead a preemptive battle in the war on terror is mirrored by features in the public health’s war on obesity that seeks to identify and target pre-obese bodies in a war on obesity.  Although some may object to the suggestion of parallels between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on obesity’, particularly the comparison between counter-terrorism and public health, however, it is important to note that these comparisons are not my novel creation or the cynical and hyperbolic imaginings of social theorists (Biltekoff 2007). Politicians, public health advocates, health policy makers and the media have drawn metaphorical and literal parallels between the threat to global and national security posed by terrorism and that posed by obesity.  Perhaps the most widely publicised comparison was made by the former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who described obesity in the US as ‘the terror within’ and that ‘[u]nless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9-11 or any other terrorist attempt’ (Carmona 2003). Public health advocates and the media in Australia have also drawn links between the threat of obesity and the threat of terrorism (Bartlett 2008; Gard 2007). These comparisons could be explained as merely misguided attempts to draw on the rhetorical force of the post-9/11 terrorism discourse in order to heighten the urgency for action on obesity. However, I contend that the appeal to war is not merely rhetorical, but indicative of the ambiguous relationship between neoliberal politics, public health and war in the West.

created by Brandon Knowlden, an art director from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com/#/obesity-is-suicide/

“Obesity is Suicide” by Brandon Knowlden from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com

The militarisation of public health discourse and policy serves as an example of Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s principle that “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” (Foucault 2004, p.48). The appeal to war enables the neoliberal state to justify intervention in the life of the population and individuals as matter of security. Rather than considering the ‘war on obesity’ as merely mirroring the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’, I contend that they share a political rationality that aims to secure the life of the population by pre-empting future threats through acting on subjects prior to their manifestation as an actual threat.

The suggestion that the ‘war on obesity’ and public health campaigns are manifestations of neoliberal political rationality could be seen to jar with critiques that such initiatives are examples of the Nanny or Welfare State. However, while the neoliberal state may withdraw from nationalized financial system, it does not abandon its monopoly on war and violence (Foucault 2004, p.48; Harvey 2009, p.82).

Of course the war waged against terrorism is of a different order to that waged against obesity. While the former requires an explicit appeal to the state’s monopoly on violence, the latter is a ‘peaceful’ continuation of war through a politics that is “perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language and even the bodies of individuals” (Foucault 2004, p.16). The continuation of war through politics “sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war” and instils this disequilibrium in the political institutions and the bodies of individuals.

In launching a ‘war on obesity’, the intervention in the life of the individual and population is framed by the Hobbesian mythos that the state provides security and protection. Considering obesity as threat to be secured and in employing the terms of war, the neoliberal state can justify intervention into the lives of the people. Against the background of the neoliberal monopoly of war the future is secured through the production and governance of subjects in the present. It is here that the wars on obesity, drugs, gangs, poverty and terrors begin to resemble each other.

References

Anonymous. 2008. “Cabbage-patch revolutionaries? The French ‘grocer terrorists’.” The Independent, December 18, 2008.

Bartlett, Lawrence. 2008. “Obesity more dangerous than terrorism: experts.” The Age, February 25, 2008.

Biltekoff, Charlotte 2007. “The Terror Within: Obesity in Post 9/11 U.S. Life.” American Studies no. 48 (3).

Carmona, Richard H. 2003. Remarks to the American Medical Association’s National Advocacy Conference. edited by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Foucault, Michel. 2000. “Society Must Be Defended.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin.

———. 2004. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76

. Translated by David Macey. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. London: Penguin.

Gard, Michael. 2007. “Is the War on Obesity Also a War on Children?” Childrenz Issues: Journal of the Children’s Issues Centre no. 11 (2):20-24.

Harvey, David. 2009. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nardi, Sarah. 2009. The Coming Insurrection. Adbusters, 14/07/2009.