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“From Little Things, Big Things Grow”: The Unfurling of Wild Policy


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There are many forms of everyday violence that, to even be identifiable, have to be constituted as a particular kind of thing. For casual forms of street harassment (the eye-follow, the jostle, the unfunny catcall) to emerge as something recognizably prosecutable, for instance, rare conditions must coalesce. Minimally, (a) something definably illegal happens, which (b) is credibly witnessed and (c) of a certain large scale, that (d) institutional moves to take the ordinary into a prosecutable event are authorized—all presuming that (e) the maddening upheavals involved still seem warranted. By the time ordinary violence conforms to these (infinitely violating) conditions, the state apparatus that ordains ordinary violence in the first place has been conserved. Here, drawing on a form of posthumous ethnography—that is, concerning an event that most would consider done and dusted—the inverse correlation is explored: how big events can act like the sneaky, hard to pinpoint micro-tactics of everyday violence in sweeping non-eventful details-that-nevertheless-matter to one side.

Starting with the big event of the Australian government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response of 2007, ostensibly targeted at child sex abuse within Aboriginal communities, together with a few cousin events such as the largest Indigenous public housing and infrastructure program ever conducted in regional and remote Australia, and a related tsunami of early construction failure, I consider the old-new forms of decomposition for Indigenous tenants left in the washout that have no particular character at all. These lesser forms of debris are everywhere, turning up in administrative mazes and rationing systems, as intensified landlord powers and tenancy humiliations, or the loosening of nuts and bolts in the innards of cost-compromised infrastructure. Understanding the feral unfurlings of bureaucratic ganglia, of what I prefer to call “wild policy,” means confronting a surfeit of documents that are designed not to be read—that are replete with such arcane and mind-numbing sentences, such excessive minutiae, that they actively repel close attention. Recoiled, analysis goes somewhere else, to the scoop, the event, the sublime instance of corruption or system failure, when a project manager gets the sack and a construction company gets replaced. This in its own way is how the “red tape” of such inarguable political denouncement grows into a social policy thicket that resists easy containment or description. Like water that leeches through structural cracks, such forces might lack the compulsory visibility and procedural legibility of an eventful wrongdoing, but are no less powerfully disassembling for being less dramatic. Finally, the essay considers what is it about dull administrative details and everyday wear and tear that casts such a pall over analysis; a question which helps situate the importance of Elizabeth Povinelli’s capture of what she calls “quasi-events” and “the conditions of the emergence and endurance of the otherwise”?

In Australia, images of ruined Indigenous housing frequently saturate the media, forming part of what one journalist involved calls “black war porn” reporting. Things came to a head in June 2007 when the Australian federal government, under then Prime Minister John Howard, used a report on the seemingly rampant child sexual abuse and “rivers of grog” flooding Aboriginal communities to unleash the Northern Territory Emergency Response—known more widely by its simpler shorthand, “the Intervention” (then as “Closing the Gap,” or its latest revamp, “Stronger Futures”). Processes of community consultation and Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act were both suspended to enable extraordinary powers of land tenure resumption, the sequestering of welfare income, a vastly increased police presence, expanded powers of household entry without warrant to non-police bodies, the installation of government business managers in targeted communities, compulsory health screenings for children with a view to surfacing the hidden signs of sexual abuse, tight restrictions on the availability of alcohol and pornography for Indigenous adults (including limits on general internet access), compulsory school attendance, and, for a brief time, deployment of the national army to build or refurbish infrastructure on an emergency-driven in and out basis.

The Northern Territory of Australia was the site for intervention in part because this environmentally challenging region was among the last to be colonized and so retains the largest proportional body of Indigenous people per capita in Australia—but mostly because, under the Australian Constitution, the Northern Territory is not a state with its own powers of regulation, but a territory of the federal administration. It is thus not simply a postcolonial liberal settler state, but a frontier outpost, whose policy apparatus (including its self-government status) can be usurped at any time by the higher legal authority of the Canberra-based federal government. In other words, the Intervention enabled the federal government to put in place social experiments that it admitted contemplating for other Indigenous communities in regional and remote Australia, but which it could enforce in the Northern Territory without constitutional encumbrance.

Read the full article here.