This post builds on the research article “An Urban Frontier: Respatializing Government in Remote Northern Australia,” which was published in the February 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on humanitarian intervention and states of emergency, including Jarret Zigon's "Human Rights as Moral Progress? A Critique" (2013), Peter Redfield's "Doctors, Borders and Life in Crisis" (2005), and Didier Fassin's "Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France" (2005).
Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on urban governance and spatial politics, including Ursula Rao's "Tolerated Encroachment: Resettlement Policies and the Negotiation of the Licit/Illicit Divide in an Indian Metropolis" (2013), Jonathan Bach's "'They Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens': Urban Villages and the Making of Shenzen, China" (2010), and John Collins's "'But What If I Should Need to Defecate in Your Neighborhood, Madame?': Empire, Redemption, and the 'Tradition of the Oppressed' in a Brazilian World Heritage Site" (2008).
About the Author
Daniel Fisher is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His long-term research in Northern Australia focuses on two related projects, the first addressing aspects of Indigenous media production, with an emphasis on sound and music. This work has led to a series of publications about the mediatization of the voice, the relationship of sound to political praxis, and novel forms of Indigenous social organization built in and through media artifacts. A second and related field project focuses on Indigenous urbanization and town camping in the Northern Territory. This research began with an exploration of the sophisticated media activism of town campers and their advocates in the Northern Territory’s capital city, Darwin, and has expanded to consider the range of complications that such work, and the social relations it involves, entails for both campers and owners in urban space. This ongoing project engages with the heterogeneity of space in Darwin, and the uneven and consequential forms of narrative produced by mainstream media corporations in the Northern Territory.
Other Work by Daniel Fisher
2015. “Radio.” In Keywords in Sound, edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
2013. “Intimacy and Self-Abstraction: Radio as New Media in Aboriginal Australia.” In special issue, “The Newness of New Media,” edited by Ilana Gershon and Joshua Bell, Culture, Theory and Critique 54, no. 3: 372–93.
2013. “Becoming the State in Northern Australia: Urbanisation, Intra-Indigenous Relatedness, and the State Effect.” Oceania 83, no. 3: 238–58.
2013. “The Anthropology of Radio Fields,” with Lucas Bessire. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 363–78.
2012. “Running Amok or Just Sleeping Rough? Long-Grass Camping and the Politics of Care.” American Ethnologist 39, no. 1: 171–86.
2012. Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the 21st Century, co-edited with Lucas Bessire. New York: New York University Press.
2010. “On Gammon, Global Noise, and Indigenous Heterogeneity: Words as Things in Aboriginal Public Culture.” Critique of Anthropology 30, no. 3: 265–86.
2009. “Mediating Kinship: Country, Family, and Radio in Northern Australia." Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 2: 280–312.
Interview with Daniel Fisher
Sean Furmage: How did you come to do fieldwork in camps around Darwin?
Daniel Fisher: My first long-term fieldwork in Darwin focused on Indigenous media production and this took place in a very interesting moment for Indigenous politics in the city. Much of my research in this period looked at two media associations, radio stations, basically, that were also getting involved in music and video production. That research put me into conversation with several people who were also spending time in Darwin’s long-grass camps and communities, some who were actually camping there, and so were moving between the institutional world I’d entered and the camps themselves, and others who were spending time with long-grass campers as advocates. The latter were looking after people in some very fundamental ways, driving them around, making sure they had access to potable water, getting them to the doctor, to the Centrelink office, the grocery store, etc. I was working with community broadcasters and media makers and in that process I was getting to know about a number of people who identified with the country outside of Darwin. They spent much of their time in Darwin, often living in flats and houses, but also spending time with friends and family in the town communities and sleeping out in the long-grass camps that I discuss in the paper.
One of these people, who has since passed away, was a figurehead of sorts, the public face of the camps in a broader activist effort to reaffirm their significance as Indigenous homelands in the city. He was very active both in maintaining his authority and stature in camps to the North of the city, and also talking to the press and working with some people to make this broader issue of long-grass occupation something that might circulate in Darwin’s mainstream and Indigenous media. The second media organization with which I had much to do was the Larrakia radio station; Radio Larrakia. Through that work, I was drawn even further into long-grass social life through some Larrakia people who worked to advocate on behalf of campers and occasionally drew their radio programming into that work, bringing campers onto the air quite literally to talk about what they felt about the new policy focus on moving people on.
SF: What drew you to your focus on the “constant state of emergency”?
DF: The constant state of emergency is right there on the surface. It is something that characterizes public discourse about Aboriginal life in Australia, and it very powerfully characterizes policy formation. The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) in part seeks to direct our attention to this as crisis, to justify the shift in the character of the state’s intervention. So for me to figure this as a constant state of emergency is in part to say that the analytical map and the governmental territory are awfully close here, and as people have been writing for a while, this makes the durability of emergency or crisis itself the problem to understand.
Of course, I’m interested in asking further what is entailed, specifically, in this situation. What is at stake for my different Indigenous interlocutors in the ways that others figure their lives as constant crisis? How do they figure their experiences, what have been the practical engagements in the Northern Territory by Indigenous agencies? By campers? Some very basic questions—how is emergency lived? What is life under this kind of policing like?—led to some less easily figured entanglements of Indigenous and settler Australia, and those entanglements and their deep histories characterize much of my current work. In part, it is to see crisis in terms of the longue durée, not as an interruption of it but rather as the form it takes here.
This article approaches these questions as they meet the production of space, which is to say, I limit myself somewhat to consider the spatialization of emergency. That focus is perhaps itself overdetermined by the history of settler-colonial focus on space and Indigenous work to assert a particular firstness that has taken shape around what the anthropologist and linguist Francesca Merlan calls “landedness.” Under a regime that figured Indigenous government through the logic of recognition, landedness takes the shape of redress and a means towards autonomy. Under the rubric of humanitarian emergency and intervention, landedness comes to have a very different valence, in which rights can be figured as an obstacle to the remediation of crisis.
SF: Have you faced any challenges in your fieldwork, or in writing about your fieldwork?
DF: Perhaps the biggest challenge is figuring out how to write about violence and grog. For instance, although one can frame the NTER as a cynical political exercise, much of what drove that intervention and what informed a broader conversation around what the anthropologist Peter Sutton termed the “Politics of Suffering” was not cynical at all. People are deeply saddened and alarmed. Death, disease, physical violence, sexual violence, drug addiction, alcohol and its associated illnesses, these are all painfully at the foreground. Things are dire for many people. What I have sought to do here is to write about the consequences of narratives about this, the ways that stories about grog and violence and social pathology or disarray take on a life of their own in the context of a shifting government and woefully imprecise governmental policies. Indeed, we can say that stories such as these are at its very core. One way to tell the story of the recent intervention, I’ve tried to suggest, is to tell the story of telling stories, to chronicle the mediatization of social pathology as consequential for camps themselves. That leaves me to ask, where and how do I relate stories of the violence and illness and easy grog, as well as the double standard that calls grog illness when Aboriginal people drink and “mateship” when whitefellas do it? It’s this tangle of representational issues that I find at once vexing and interesting.
SF: How does this piece relate to your previous and future work?
DF: My work on mobility and urbanization in the Top End is ongoing. I see this article as an effort to chart some spatial entailments of crisis as it relates to the Intervention, and as such, it is part of a bigger effort to rethink how I write about media and about the mediatization of Aboriginal and settler lives in the Northern Territory.