How a Body Becomes a Boat: My PhD in 3 Minutes

#3MT – What is it?

This year, I participated in the 3 Minute Thesis competition at the Australian National University’s finals. The competition challenges PhD scholars to use only three minutes and one static slide to explain their research to a general audience in a way that shows the broader implications of the work, whilst remaining true to the research. Here is the video:

This post contains some thoughts about my experience of the 3MT competition and some general points that will be useful to anyone considering participating in future years. I will also do a longer post about this, addressing some of the common things I have heard from people skeptical about the competition (and which I thought as well).

How a Body Becomes a Boat

The crux of my argument is that law expands its ability to use force, detain and withhold access to law from people seeking asylum through turning people into boats. Humans are rather sticky things – the rule of law generally protects us (or it should) from arbitrary detention and the loss of our rights. Boats, however, are less sticky and can be framed as legal objects that can be moved anywhere without much of a right to speak and challenge that movement. Boats, after all, cannot speak. They are virtual objects of law – a combination of fears and a particular discourse about sovereignty and the border that casts the boat as a problem that must be removed.

Image Credit: Jane Duong

Image Credit: Jane Duong. 

 Body –> Boat: The Slide

I wanted to keep the focus on the main message of my talk, so I kept my slide simple. I think this is probably the best strategy because in the limited time frame, with the big ideas you are trying to convey, you really don’t want to be dividing the audience’s attention between a busy slide and your words.

My slide was a photoshop composite I had made, using elements of the Australian government’s No Way advertising campaign. Lines of waves and clouds are repeated and distortions used to emphasise the artificial and constructed nature of the image. Ironically, I had removed the figure of the boat from the image, participating in another act of erasure, but the new text represents the text of law and what it is doing. Peeling back the discourse that uses dramatic images and emotion to sway the public, I hoped to show what was really happening “on the water” when it came to the law.

poonj-3mt-bodyboat-slide

Source: DIPB. Adapted image using  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

These are not things that can be conveyed to the audience but I liked that they were there. That’s the thing about the 3MT – whilst there are general tips and methods for doing a successful one that apply to everyone, I needed to find my own take on it that I was comfortable with and happy to convey to the world.

Oh, and just to highlight how hilariously terrible the version of the slide that I went into the college round of the competition with, here is that slide, hastily compiled in 5 minutes:

bodies-to-boats

Don’t judge me. Let’s just call this a first draft concept and forget it ever happened.

Things I found valuable:

  • Getting to know the fantastic scholarship that is happening across the university.
  • Finding that my research spoke to quite a lot of people. It’s been really great being invited to speak to students afterwards and to see their curiosity and connection with the issues raised in my PhD. The 3 minutes was enough to get people aware of and interested in my research so that they wanted to hear more about it afterwards.
  • Crafting, editing and re-crafting the speech. It was actually quite hard work to condense the ideas of my thesis into 3 minutes and I went through a few existential crises along the way when I felt like the words weren’t keeping enough with the essence of the research. The skill was in balancing the need to structure a clear narrative, whilst maintaining and communicating the complexity of the issues. I’m really glad I got the chance to practice these skills and to get such great feedback along the way and after the competition from the audience.
  • Having A LOT of people view your research. Look, it’s safe to say that even at the most well-attended conference, you’re not going to get 800 people + 18000 on Facebook live watching you speak. It’s not just about the numbers of course (though the number still makes me dizzy). In times of funding cuts and the increasing gap between political and public understanding of the value of research, it’s more important than ever to engage with people about what we do. For my kind of legal theory research to have an impact, it needs to reach the broader community and the competition was a really useful way to start bridging that gap.
  • The people, of course! I have heard that in the past, the 3MT can be like the “academic hunger games”. I can say that this was not my experience and credit goes to the ANU Research Training team who organised the competition and my fellow competitors for that. I found a wonderful group of people, each so brilliant and intelligent in their own ways, who were supportive and collegial. This is what a university should feel like.
Image Credit: Jane Duong

Nerds with words. Image Credit: Jane Duong

Image Credit: Jane Duong

Getting into the vocal exercises. Image Credit: Jane Duong

A Scholar’s Archive: Kafka

This is the first post in a series documenting texts, images, cases and legislation that are important or influential on my research. Not limited to legal or theoretical text, but encompassing the broad and eclectic range of sources that a critical scholar may draw upon, I hope that this will serve as a partial archive of influences on my thinking throughout my research and writing. 

I’ve noticed a change in the way that lists work on traditional media like television and newspapers (including their web form) and on mediums that have always existed on the Internet. Although not prescriptive or universally applicable, traditional media tends to employ the list as a countdown – here is a list of the 100 Greatest Books or films or albums, starting with numbers 90 to 100 and the next ten will be published every day until we get to number one – whilst websites such as Buzzfeed will say 27 Times Cats Owned the Internet, in no particular order.

All of which is to say that this being a blog, and the time I have to edit my own work rather limited in between PhD, work and starting a business, it is going to take on the Here is a List of Things in No Particular Order form. Or perhaps, In the Order of Where My Brain Has Landed. So, please don’t take this as me advocating for China Miéville over Kafka or for Judith Butler over Michel Foucault. It is an atemporal and a-hierarchical archive.

So, Kafka is first, because of course we are drawn to our nightmares first.

Fateless Fate and Bureaucracy

Kafka’s characters are on a conveyor belt – from the first sentence, their last is decided.

Gregor Samsa will remain the monstrous, scuttling beast, whose form demands that he slip into the dark spaces under furniture. We hate insects because they live in the dark where we cannot see them, waiting to brush a furry, ticklish feeler across our skin, but insects live in the dark because we hate them. Josef K starts The Trial already accused. He will not escape the sentence. Neither will the administrator In the Penal Colony, whose machine at once creates the crime and punishes the crime and whose subjection to the machine he speaks so lovingly of seems inevitable.

However, the conveyor belt of narrative motion is not the arc of fate, where each thing that happens to a protagonist is designed to prepare them for their destiny. It matters little what they do. Once the first sentence is over, the machine is rolling and they will meet their fateless ends.

The first sentence of the story can be compared with the sentence of law – but the judgement itself appears to have taken place off-page. The authority of advocates/lawyers in The Trial is unquestionable but their character, and the character of the judges, the court and the agents of the law appear morally poisoned. And yet, Josef K keeps getting told he has no choice but to go along with the process.

It is the bureaucracy of outcomes and pre-determined conclusions that surrounds Kafka’s characters. The stories induce a feeling of nausea from being shown a series of grotesque people, situations and feelings whilst being carried along the juddering bureaucratic machine. The nausea is also the result of an uncanniness – the characters look human (even poor Gregor still sounds human in his thoughts) but they behave as though acting out tableaus from a tradition that neither we, nor the main characters, are a part of and so have no hope of deciphering. There’s a sense of some code or puppet strings determining the action, but it is behind the stage, and someone has confused the role we should be playing but there is nothing to be done.

It is this sense of systems that are both opaque and inevitable at the same time that has led so many scholars to finding Kafka vividly articulating experiences of legal systems and of modernity.

postscript

The joys of research are not straightforward – it is like uncovering a writhing mess of knots that first overwhelms you and then knowing you’ll never untangle it all, you start working one a small bit and then another and become better and better at grasping knots.

All that this is

Writer’s block: academic, creative, poetic. It is not so much an accurate description of a state of affairs – words are still being written but the joy of effortless labour signalling a flow of thinking is absent. Words feel misshapen, but still we labour.

I think once again about my relationship with grief, which is not a feeling to do only with death, but simultaneous loss and desire in general, which I think is also an accurate description of creativity. Creative labour is also a form of reaching into a space behind the mind and a reconfiguring of what exists into something new, no matter how small or fleeting. Doomed to failure, because the vision is lost in translation, the documentation of the reaching has nonetheless been a sufficient art. The effort of translation resonates with most people.

This process of reaching and loss also has resonances with academic work. There are days when the threads drawn from that space behind the mind, where the things we have read and learned settle into the raw material from which ideas are made, plait together into a strong cable that can more or less survive the translation into words, and other days when the threads feel tenuous and weak and by the time they land on paper, you see only a frayed resemblance with what compelled you to pull it out in the first place.

And then there are days and days like this across all the labours of the mind and it begins to make you feel subsequently less solid as a result.

But, like grief, it is hard to grasp anything when in the midst of the experience. Writing about grief is already the afterimage of grief. Even in practical terms, it is hard to hold a pen or to type when your muscles and nerves are involuntarily concentrated on the task of feeling around what is missing.

So perhaps, hopefully, all that the present malaise is the part of the work that is collecting, feeling and being swept over by ideas and experiences. When it settles, one can tackle these things with a more analytical frame of mind, and a better eye for the appropriate images that will express what was found in the space just behind the mind.

A legal researcher’s perspective on words and violence

I am late to the party, but such is the way with slow thinking (surely, one is fashionably late to any good party?).

Jeff Sparrow’s Overland response to the broadly left-wing demand for an apology from Peter Dutton over his recent comments on refugees added another facet to the increasingly apparent split in progressive politics between those who maintain that language matters, and that there should be some sort of social accountability for language that marginalises and dehumanises particular groups, and those who argue that such focus on language distracts from the goal of setting an alternative agenda whereby the material conditions of marginalisation and dehumanisation are eliminated. Whilst it is a commonplace in university cultural studies that language does violence because of the primary role that language plays in shaping our experiences and perceptions, the latter group argues that language itself is not the violence, or at the very least, that demanding language change without making demands on material conditions is doomed to fail as another exercise in mere symbolism.

Sparrow’s argument that an apology wouldn’t actually do anything to help the asylum seekers Australia has locked up indefinitely or kept in deliberately precarious situations, even within the country is a sensible point. We need more than nice language. Imagine, instead, if Dutton had praised the contributions of refugees to Australia, but went on to maintain that the only way to ensure that this could continue would be to keep the current “zero-tolerance” policies of offshore detention, boat turnbacks, keeping a militarised border protection civil service etc etc. This is, and has been for a while, the main rhetorical stance taken by the Liberal National Coalition and the Labor Party – that being tough is the real compassion and we can’t listen too closely to any pesky human rights commissioners and international human rights monitors about the well-documented harms to asylum seekers, or indeed any contortions of the law done for the sake of absolute border security. This supposedly more acceptable language that has been sanitised and distanced from the effects of its argument is precisely what has been used to construct the acceptable face of Australian refugee policy.

However, whilst I agree with Jeff Sparrow in dismaying the continual wearing away of the institutions that engendered solidarity and were able to successfully fight for improvements to collective conditions, I think the line between language and materiality is actually very blurry in this instance, particularly when we consider the impact of language on law, which does create, shape, and order material experiences. He is probably right that a demand for an apology is a demand for nothing – if it did eventuate, any potential salve the words would offer could be easily undercut by insincerity, and what would an insincere mumble do to redress the harm caused? However, even if the action demanded is flawed, the instinct to criticise the language does correctly identify Dutton’s words as not mere words, but a material attack on a vulnerable class of refugees, whilst also dragging in other migrants. Language matters in being one of the conditions as to what material consequences happen in politics and law.

In the legal realm, language is material, metaphors become real and the construction of subjects and objects in language create the entities that law then plays with. Language matters because it simultaneously conveys an understanding of what the conditions of the world are and creates that world. To dwell on symbolism, representation and the crimes of language to the exclusion of other outrages against the material conditions of life may be counterproductive in other areas of activism, but in legal analysis, it is vital to understanding the full extent of law’s domain, and how it is that things are ordered within that domain.

It can be death by a thousand definitions when those with the power choose to dehumanise, devalue and cast suspicion on you. What matters isn’t even whether most people believe the politicians when they say that “x-people will steal your jobs and are illiterate and criminal and etc”, but that they are creating and broadcasting particular assumptions about the world, which they can then use to justify policy and legal change consistent with that world view. That the material life of policies is to cause immense harm to people who fall under them is of secondary concern.

In filmmaking, we ideally keep only that which conveys the themes of the story in the frame, and we leave out everything else – we’ll follow the hero’s journey and that of their immediate circle but ignore all the other extras that die or the disturbing implications of the hero’s triumph in the end. One materiality is prioritised over others in the language of film – it matters *more* what happens to the hero than to anyone else. In refugee law, humanitarian concerns are framed out by political language and compassion is framed as wrong-headed weakness. Border control and economics are framed as the only relevant and sensible concerns. (On sensibility – what is sensible is what can be perceived and language often frames what is sensible).

An apology mightn’t do much good in the circumstances, but that is because the harm extends beyond what can be rectified in words and the harm began long before this specific set of words. A way of judging the value of human beings is revealed. These values are what has been setting the direction of our laws.

to do evil

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

 

of cold hands

A small haptic ritual between my grandmother and I was that she would tell me how her hands were cold and demonstrate by holding them out for me to see. I would hold her cool hands in mine, passing back my warmth. Shuut-gum-doong, cold as ice, she would say, and in what turned out to be her final months, she wore the possum fur and merino gloves we had gotten when on our long-promised trip to New Zealand’s South Island. When I was hotheaded or exhausted, I often sat next to her as she watched TV and held her knuckles up to my cheek for comfort.

I associated gran’s coolness with bone and the sense of her diminishing flesh being replaced with the pure coldness of deep, subterranean rivers slowly and eternally moving with every drop of water added filtered through countless layers of sediment above. The body’s irresistible drag towards death is unstoppable. The blood sinks first and suddenly there’s a lot less of it circulating around. Then the bones hollow out. There are successively less physiological reasons for the heart to continue, although the emotional ones remain. Finally the breath gives. But before the final exhalation, this increasing submersion into timelessness seems also to give a determination that makes up for some of the deteriorations of age. She never stopped walking up the hill behind our house; she only did it slower. She never gave up on the morning rituals of waking, putting water on the shrine and drinking tea with the cockatoos just after sunrise. Her pace was slow but steady and unfaltering. Her tiny silhouette in the distance in her beanie, black coat and pants and redundant walking stick was unmistakable, and it was a joy to walk out to meet her and hold her arm as we continued walking where she was going each time, my natural frantic gait slowed down to my grandmother’s patient pace. I think this is why sometimes people get caught out in disbelief when their elders finally give out. Their arrival always seemed so inevitable that when they stop coming, it feels like a law of nature has been upended.

As gran shrank and took up less space, time became more of a concern: how to pass it, how to remember the past and her one link to the future was to wonder about what would happen to me. Then, there was the sense of waiting. There was a point at which she stopped talking about going back to Hong Kong or my offer to have her move in with me. She counted her children and her grandchildren and her great grandchildren. 7, with 1 deceased in infancy and 2 from cancer later. 12. 6. She counted the years of her marriage and the years apart from them. She recounted grudges and her proud anger against those who would treat her as though she were unloved against the evidence that her grandchildren would defend and look after her until death even if some of her children refused. I am sad, in hindsight, to see that these grudges turned to melancholy just before the end that the family who callously disregarded her dignity in petty and unintentional (but thoughtless) ways would never change, or perhaps that she would not be around to benefit from their change.

One thing to learn: we are only angry at people as long as we hold the hope that things could be different and it is the mismatch between the reality and the hope that grieves us.

One thing still to learn: how to balance the necessity of hope against how people and yourself are inevitably disappointing?

Time works strangely in my dreams of her. She tells me that she is now vegetarian 49 days out of every month. We are ostensibly about to travel but it is not a dream of the past because I also always know that she is dead. Something always goes wrong in the travel and I will miss the plane or end up somewhere else.

My grief settles its shape into other feelings. I am relieved to still think of her and to recall the feeling of her cold hands, but I worry about forgetting, and about how these sense memories are unrecordable. Time may heap its sediment slowly over these as well, reducing their vividness until they lie under layers of new memories and life, and eventually drip into that unreachable subterranean flow.