Monash University

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Paradoxical politics: suffering and protest in the space of detention

posted on 2017-02-24, 01:47 authored by Kneebone, Lucy Elizabeth
The history of Australian immigration detention includes various acts of resistance on the part of detainees. These acts indicate that political subjectivity has not been extinguished, despite the severe restrictions and enormous psychological pressure faced by detainees. Against this backdrop, this thesis seeks to understand the possibilities for politics in spaces of detention. It interrogates how entrenched conceptions of politics can narrow the scope for certain acts to be interpreted as political. I argue that various self-harming acts, including hunger strikes and lip-sewing, can be read as a political response to the biopolitical nature of power relations within detention. Further, I argue that these acts constitute a paradoxical politics of performance in which protesters display the abjection imposed on them whilst simultaneously revealing a subversive political agency. This thesis explores how the potential for understanding this multivalent, and often bleak, form of politics is narrowed by certain racialised and gendered assumptions. Further, it shows how rigid binary thinking can obscure the way in which political subjectivity and suffering can be deeply intertwined. In making these arguments, I address examples of protests that have occurred in Australian detention centres at Woomera, Christmas Island and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. I engage, firstly, with authors who have used Giorgio Agamben’s theories to conceptualise self-harm as a response to sovereign biopower’s decision on life and death. Secondly, I work both with and against Vanessa Pupavac and others, who have addressed the rise of the ‘psy disciplines’ in humanitarian discourse, in order to examine acts of self-harm as both expressions of suffering and of politics. Finally, I engage with the thought of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière to explore the complexities of political visibility and the possibilities for those in detention to bring about political transformation. The ongoing use of self-harming techniques in detention points to the high moral and political stakes of the questions addressed in this thesis. I suggest that by engaging detained protesters as both political subjects and people who suffer, we gain greater insight into the multivalent politics at stake and enable a more profound exchange between people in detention and those who witness their detention.


Principal supervisor

Anne McNevin

Additional supervisor 1

Paul Muldoon

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Social Sciences (Monash Australia)


Master of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts

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