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Kingdom of Nothingness

Guy Rundle

Listeners to the ABCs Late Night Live program were treated to an extraordinary radio event some weeks ago. With the release of ‘Sending Them Home’, the latest Quarterly Essay, which deals with mandatory detention, a debate was set up between the principal author Robert Manne and Liberal MHR Christopher Pyne, who has a fearsome reputation as the Coalition’s attack dog.

Those expecting a snarling defence of the indefinite detention of ‘queue jumpers’ etc. were initially not disappointed. However, as the encounter modulated to a simple consideration of the catalogue of cruelty and misery unleashed by the policy, Pyne adopted a tone somewhere between uncertain and contemplative, and admitted that were he faced with a situation such as those faced by the Afghan refugees he, too, would take his family on such a journey. The response struck everyone I have spoken to who heard it, but no-one could say quite what it was that was so strange. It seemed to be the voice of someone who was distant from himself — or from the persona he had displayed earlier in the piece — but not dissociated. It was a voice that seemed to be in the act of distancing itself from its own speaker.

Presumably Pyne has previously encountered the incidents of unnecessary human suffering collected and recounted in Manne’s piece, but perhaps their compression and collection in one place made the situation suddenly clearer, as a terrain will disclose its fundamental character given sufficient altitude. What is most striking when all these terrible stories are gathered together is the sheer variety of techniques that have been developed for creating suffering. Just as the mediaeval authorities developed techniques of torture which were elaborate and differentiated far beyond the requirements of actual confession, so the mandatory detention regime has created bureaucratic instruments of inhumanity far in excess of the most ruthless aims of deterrence. Mediaeval torture arose as much from a fascination with corporeality as it did with the needs of enforcement, and the mandatory detention regime demonstrates a similar fascination with the disclosure of certain aspects of humanity by their systematic denial of it to one group. Detention, temporary protection, familial separation, charging detainees for their own incarceration — all these add up to a sustained experiment in testing humanity to the point of its destruction. Physical torture sought to separate the body from the soul; the mandatory detention regime does so from the other direction, testing the degree to which the body can be fed and housed while the self is destroyed. In deliberate paradox, the duty towards other people is held to be discharged by the satisfaction of those needs which do not distinguish us from animals or vegetables — nutrition, warmth, shelter — thereby allowing for the systematic denial of any needs which are intrinsically human, such as connection, community, purpose, respect or security.

Much of our social and governmental apparatus — from healthcare to education — is based on the assumption that the failure to meet these needs will result in misery and the collapse of the self. Depression is seen as a widespread problem of modernity, and the role of powerlessness, purposelessness and disconnection in causing it is acknowledged. But that understanding is conceded only to citizens. The question of the psychological and existential needs of detainees is held to be a category error. It is not that these needs do not exist — they must exist so that they can be denied — but they cannot be considered because detainees are not citizens. The flow of knowledge is reversed and all the practices designed to buttress our complex humanity are turned towards denying it to others in an exacting and calibrated fashion. We experiment with forcing parents to choose between separation from their children and the latter’s continued detention behind razor wire; or choosing between reuniting with children in Indonesia who have lost one parent and keeping one’s protection status. We impose the nothingness and powerlessness of collective detention in Baxter, so that people can watch their loved ones go mad, and counterpose it to being a solitary detainee on Manus island starved of companionship.

One cannot help but suspect that the social purpose of this is not merely border ‘protection’ but catharsis, and that the imposition of psychological torture is designed to reassure a population that its legitimacy resides in what is not being done to those outside the wire. It is at least in part a response to the cultural anxiety created by the rise of indigenous claims to history and native title — an attempt, through the infliction of pain, to exorcise the haunting sense that we have no right (or Right) to be here.

In moral philosophy, the limits of utilitarian ways of thinking — that the good is the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain — are demonstrated by the application of what was once believed to be only a thought experiment: if the torture of a child would make a large number of people happy, would it then be moral? This is now both policy and practice. Both major parties have recently committed to the importance of early childhood development, based on the assumption that the development of persons capable of happy and meaningful lives is not accidental, and is fraught with threats. In that light, the mandatory detention of children is conscious and deliberate soul-murder.

Much of the calculated cruelty of the process of detention is that which is essential to modern incarceration — the absence of physical torture allows the prisoner time and repose to contemplate what is being irrevocably lost in the passing months and years of enforced disconnection from purposeful social existence. Imprisonment without physical punishment or labour was originally developed so that the prisoner would develop a relationship with God and thus become good again. In the bureaucratic wilderness of global modernity, only the strongest faith can retain such a relationship — overwhelmingly what detainees connect to is the nothingness of their own passing lives, and nothingness returns the favour. Detention in that sense is literally abysmal — it casts the detainee into the abyss of existence without status, role, purpose, safety, respect or the capacity to change their situation by their own actions. The supreme efficiency and cruelty of such a form of treatment is that it makes the prisoner’s own life the substance of their punishment. Whoever may be the agents of their imposition, fear, terror and loss are placed within the prisoner’s own existence. Life becomes all the sweeter for many outside the wire because those inside are so visibly denied it. This is a universal purpose of incarceration in modernity, especially when it is disconnected from any commensurate crime. The prison gulag in the US where a significant section of the black male population is held on decades-long sentences for crimes of drug possession and minor theft serves the same function.

That is not the only purpose of incarceration of course. Another of its functions is training in cruelty that must be applied outward as well as inward — in this case for the steely resolve required to continue and expand the war against the people of Iraq. For this, the abyss of incarceration must be put at the centre of social life.

But to thereby put the abyss at the centre of social and political life is to allow it to draw everything else in. To make someone else’s life nothing, to annihilate them, takes strength but of a negative kind — that of flesh turning to stone, of petrification. The mandatory detention regime is not the greatest amount of suffering that has ever been inflicted in the name of the Australian people but it is the most consciously malign, because the attentiveness required to design it is the same faculty that tells one of the suffering it is causing. It turns those who impose it into nothing, and that is perhaps what Christopher Pyne detected in his own position, which left him so profoundly shaken — that he was a voice without a person behind it, pure rhetoric. Ultimately, those who have imposed such a policy will not escape the effects of it. Even those who firmly support what the Howard Government has done are distanced from it, in the same manner as a village will feel that the butcher is both an essential figure and a separate one. Beyond government, the Liberal party will find that its commitment to this policy, and its inauguration of its most annihilating phase, has hollowed it out. But that is no comfort and shame is not confined to the guilty.

Guy Rundle