Sunday, January 14, 2007

La Famiglia III


My brother, S, has recently launched a photography career, so he tends to carry some expensive equipment with him when he travels. He would never leave his camera equipment and laptop at home in Melbourne while he was away, and not simply because he always likes to be prepared to take advantage of any photo opportunities; he is concerned that someone might break into his home and steal the tools of his trade. At face value, I don’t think that’s a completely unreasonable concern: such equipment is expensive and portable, an ideal target for anyone who makes a living by breaking and entering. Still, while it would undoubtedly be distressing and inconvenient to have those things stolen, between insurance and taking the precaution of backing up files, it wouldn’t be an irredeemable loss.

After listening to him a bit more over the course of his recent visit, however, I said to him, amazed, ‘You live your life in constant fear. How can you stand it? It sounds exhausting.’ After a moment of reflection, he replied, ‘You’re right, you know?’ But whether that recognition lead to any epiphany that would lessen his constant vigilance, I don’t know.

I’m not even sure whether ‘vigilance’ is the right word to describe the starting point from which S and I. approach their daily lives. In a way not dissimilar to V’s fears about the potential for significant social strife, it borders on a kind of paranoia about what might happen, based on stereo-typed perceptions about various groups of people and the inhabitants of particular suburbs.

(Here, I have to pause and wonder as I recall Tim Sterne’s frustration with one of his relative's comments over Christmas about the ruin of Box Hill, because you don’t see any ‘Australians’, only Asians, there any more. The irony here, is that my brother is probably one of those apparently few ‘Australians’ Tim’s relative has sighted in that suburb. There he’d be, sitting, having dinner with his Chinese-Malaysian wife, hoeing into some kind of savoury pancake that he’s addicted to, oblivious to the ‘roon’ of Box Hill all around him.)

When S and I. were visiting over Christmas, they stayed with my mother who lives half-way between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. S expressed some concern about catching the train into Brisbane, where he wanted to take some photos of the cityscape. They would have had to travel through a number of suburbs that are always being mentioned in current affairs programmes as hotbeds of crime. Since it’s current affairs, the crimes are usually by groups of racialised youths, and I can only conclude that S imagined them boarding the train and breaking his very tight grip on his camera equipment. He said that Melbourne had ‘gangs’, and I asked, ‘What, like New York gangs?’

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this train of thought. I suppose I was struck by the extent to which scenarios were always being imagined where some threat to property needed to be guarded against. Another example is when both S and I. expressed horror that my mother hadn’t changed the locks on her house when she’d first bought it, because you never know what previous occupant might have kept a spare set of keys with the expressed intention of returning to steal from subsequent owners.

I’m trying to figure out whether I’m not treating these kind of fears with sufficient gravity. Is there an actual basis for these alarmist imaginings? I know that I am less concerned about threats to property—not really having any—but perhaps there are some parallels to the way I think about my personal safety (a topic on which I also received advice from my brother). I know that partly in response to an earlier series of posts I did, ‘The Public Transport Diaries’, Oanh from Halfway Between Ca Mau and Sai Gon noted the extent to which women, compared to men, took precautions against the possibility of assault. At the moment in Brisbane, this is not entirely in the realm of the imagination, the police are actively investigating a series of assaults against women that have occurred on bikeways and footpaths over the last eighteen months. Aside from the assumption that any attacker would likely be male, I haven’t identified any characteristics of that person/s much beyond that. I wouldn’t not catch a train on the basis that I might be attacked. I would catch the train and find the car with the security guards and sit there. When I alighted the train, or more likely a bus, I would look around me while walking and avoid any darkened areas. I have been known to walk in the middle of the road at night, so I’m not close to any darkened alleyways or alcoves. I’d rather be hit by a car than assaulted, but really, it’s not that difficult to get out of the way of an oncoming car and resuming your course after it’s gone.

I don’t know. It just seems to me to be such an exhausting way of being in the world, constantly attributing the rest of humanity with bad intentions, and letting that circumscribe your life. I wonder what would happen if we thought that people were basically good and that when an individual’s actions belied that it was an exception that proved the rule? That one action by one person did not condemn the whole social/ethnic/gender/age group he or she was from?

I don’t know.


Lucy said...

My mum lives very much in fear, too, and taught me to always be afraid of being mugged etc, even on the 5 minute walk home from the bus stop in our nice, peaceful suburb.
I noticed a huge difference in my attitude, living in the US, just because I haven't been told all the things I should fear here (I don't watch the news), I'm not bothered by walking home alone at night, even though crime is far more common here.

Galaxy said...

That's quite fascinating, Lucy. It must feel strangely liberating.

Galaxy said...

In an interesting aside, I found this call for papers in my inbox just now:

Australian Studies Project

Editors: Nathanael O'Reilly, Jean-François Vernay, Robyn Walton

Australian Studies project: A collection of international perspectives on fear and protection related topics within the scope of Australian Studies for an essay collection with the working title Protect Australia Fair: International Perspectives on Australian Culture.

Dear Australianists,

What are Australians afraid of?

Australia’s Great Ocean Road provides magnificent views of coastline and ocean. And all the way along it, an international visitor remarked the other day, are warning signs for motorists.

‘So there ought to be’, the Australian replies, ‘That’s a narrow, winding road with a long drop down onto rocks. We care about people’s safety and wellbeing. We’re a relatively happy, prosperous and healthy country with an amazing pluralist population and we want to stay that way.’

‘But it’s more than that,’ the visitor responds. ‘Why is fearfulness a theme in Australian culture? I see fear expressed through a whole lot of over-protective behaviours and laws. What’s wrong with you people? You’re protecting yourselves against things that don’t eventuate.’

Nathanael O'Reilly, Jean-François Vernay, and Robyn Walton are seeking international submissions on fear and protection related topics within the scope of Australian Studies. Contributors might wish to consider the following leads, which we’ve provisionally divided into three spatial zones of fearfulness, or explore challenging new ones.

National and International Fears
Pluralism and multiculturalism fears
Population and natural resources fears
Law and authority
The besieged complex
Civil unrest, violence, riots
Terrorism and counter-terrorism
Xenophobia, past and present
Invasion narratives
Immigration: refugees, asylum seekers, detention centres and fear
Science and technology fears
Complacency warnings versus ‘Relaxed and comfortable’ lifestyle

Culture, Local, Regional and State level Fears
Fear and spirituality
Fear and collective identity
Fear and indigenous issues
Fear and critical whiteness studies
Fear in city, inner-urban and suburban environments
Fear in regional and country Australia
Fear in and of the natural environment
Fear in cinema and literature: the thriller, the horror genre, disaster movies, speculative fiction, dystopias, post-nuclear and post-millennium themes
Fear and language, communications, media
Affluence, employment and fear of material loss
Fear and performance
Fear and fashion

Individual and Personal Space Fears
The threatened body
Selfhood, identity, representation
Fear and desire
Family and domestic fears
Homophobia in a heterocentric society
The paranoid mind
Psychoanalytic fears
Self-protectiveness, exposure anxiety

The suggested length for essays is 4,000 words. Essays should be suitable for an interdisciplinary and international readership. All submissions will be refereed by an international panel of distinguished scholars in the field.

Style guide: refer to the MLA sixth edition.

You may submit your enquiry, expression of interest or finished essay to the editors at the following address:

dogpossum said...

Homes, this post on the Troppo site might interest you.

I always feel safer on my bike than on foot. It's not really justified, as I'm not a fast rider, but... maybe it's because no one's told me I should be afraid of assault when I'm riding my bike?

I worry more about home invasion. Holy fuck, did you see that? "home invasion". I've never used that phrase before, but look at it - it stinks of rhetoric and ideological justifications for more police and less attention to preventing crime.


Lucy said...

It has been liberating.
StyleyGeek had a post on warning signs in Australia, too. I hadn't noticed that Australia was particularly fearful, though; maybe that's in comparison with the US.

Galaxy said...

Heh. I read StyleyGeek's post. Killer Kangaroos! Semi-tame ones! Oh no! What are the not-at-all tame ones like, do you think?