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being ambivalent Arrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004


Being Ambivalent

Prem Kumar Rajaram
Central European University


1. Near the beginning of their book, J.V D’Cruz and William Steele write:

We are doing little more than holding up a mirror to the West, asking only that the West not blame Asians for what it needs to acknowledge is its own shadow. (In the Jungian sense, the shadow is not necessarily a bad thing; it is just that it tends to get suppressed out of shame for all or parts of it). (19)

2. D’Cruz and Steele point to an image or spectacle of rational liberal-democracy, one that must be rigorously performed (through censoriousness, for example) if it is not to give way. Tethered to this is an image, or shadow, of a forceful evacuation of the trace of others. Such evacuations do not occur without a built-in tendency to violence. Western ways of seeing have a tendency to clear the land; terra nullius was built on a wilful erasure of primitivised bodies. This is the shadow which D’Cruz and Steele want Australia to acknowledge; its constitution in light depends on a wilful concealment of darkness.

3. Alice Nah writes of the inheritance of postcolonial Malaysia:

the position of the postcolonial ‘Self’ in Malaysia is legitimised through inherited imperial mechanisms of power, a matter that is often repressed in discourses of the dominant … The very construction of ‘Self’ versus ‘Other(s)’ is deeply embedded in colonial constructions of identity, created through processes of Other-ing practised by British administrators of the past. (512)

4. Nah is writing specifically about how hegemonic ‘Malay’ identity is (at least in part) constituted through bureaucratic and discursive practices of control effected particularly upon aboriginal peoples in the Malay Peninsula. In appropriating the term ‘indigenous’, ‘Malays’ displace aboriginal ‘Orang Asli’. This was not a wholly ‘post-colonial’ encounter (if there is ever such a meeting - and a time for it), the process was put in place by the British who found it beneficial to consider and treat ‘Malays’ as indigenous peoples and aboriginal groups as a primitivised ‘Orang Asli’.

5. The difficulties of delineating a post-colonial time and attitude are well noted by D’Cruz and Steele. In the same rich paragraph, they write of ‘wildly postcolonial’ rhetoric, underpinned by ‘insidious forms of racism’. For Homi Bhabha the space of the West (and I would think the postcolony) is marked by perversion (Bhabha, 1994: 116). Distinct identities and spaces are difficult to delineate. Postcolonial identity, as Nah suggests, is shored up through strategies and techniques of control and disempowerment that are bestowed by former imperialists. They are also shored up through performative strategies that lead us to forget repression. The postcolonial/colonial distinction is difficult to maintain.

The representative figure of such a perversion … is the image of post-Enlightenment man tethered to, not confronted by, his dark reflection, the shadow of colonized man, that splits his presence, distorts his outline, breaches his boundaries, repeats his action at a distance, disturbs and divides the very time of his being (Bhabha, 1994: 116).

6. Images or performances of rational and self-contained civic identity and civic space are undermined by the abiding presence, in the shadows, of reminders of brutal dispossession upon which this identity and this space rests. The shadow is not only the repository of evacuated identities but also a space of other times, other ways of being. Occupying an ill-defined spatiality tethered to the norm, the shadow of evacuated identities breaches or breaks up the boundaries that enclose and define identity. Such boundaries cannot be clearly written; they cannot be represented linearly. The subversion of the shadow is precisely that in the ill-defined spatiality it occupies it reminds the norm of the difficulty of evacuating all traces of other identities and other times. Such identities and times break up the coherent space enabling particular forms of politicised life to exist and invite questions about what it would be like to think from the shadowy borderland.

7. D’Cruz and Steele write of the anxiety underpinning mainstream Australian political imagination, arguing that this imagination is centred on a ‘deep suspicion that the world’s most dispossessed people (invariably people of colour) whether refugees or Aborigines, are conspiring against them and their lifestyle.’ (D’Cruz and Steele, 279). Anxieties underpin the colonial state and those who have inherited it. Anxieties are creative. The representation and circulation of anxiety increases the capacity of those who have inherited the colonial state to maintain itself. Specifically, the circulation of anxiety allows for the state to make itself clear and tangible: to outline itself as a coherent body, one that is identifiable, justifiable and protective of ‘national identity’.

8. And yet the disruptive presence of the dispossessed results in a civic space that is not entirely rational, that is run through with unpredictability and the fear of re-possession. The trajectory of the post-colonial state thus tends towards ambivalence; it is unsure and wavering. Paradoxically, it is at the same time fiercely protective of its possession against real or imagined others who desire it.

Forms of social and psychic alienation and aggression – madness, self-hate, treason, violence – can never be acknowledged as determinate and constitutive conditions of civil authority, or as the ambivalent effects of the social instinct itself (Bhabha, 1994: 116).

9. The shadowy interstices of civil space give rise to ambivalent effects. Civil or political space is founded on exclusions and evacuations; the image of coherent, rational and egalitarian liberal democracy is undermined by the fragmentary image of its dispossessed shadow. D’Cruz and Steele list policies and practices of violence underpinning modern Western liberal-democracies. Their tactic here is to resist ‘Western’ ideology and its appropriation of what it means to govern and behave well. This, as I have suggested, is a spectacle or image that needs to be performed to resist the perversion that D’Cruz and Steele point at through a series of rhetorical questions:

Should Australian liberal democratic governments be emulated for the way they treat minorities, such as the Aborigines? Should the Australian Government’s detention of asylum seekers in remote parts of the country for years be emulated? Or should American democracy be emulated in a similar respect, that is, its unlawful detention of suspects in the ‘war against terrorism’, or followed in its practice of hanging wrongdoers? (D’Cruz and Steele, 2003: 111).

Abiding Ambivalence

10. Ambivalence is in-built: it is a consequence of the contradictions of social, political or national constitution. Ambivalence may be obstructive and obtuse, but it is a response to dissonance within. While obstructive and frustrating, the ambivalence that Australian policy has consistently shown towards ‘Asia’ indicates the difficulties of reconciling the many jagged edges of ‘Australia’.

11. Reconciliation in the sense of a less ambivalent position towards ‘Asia’ is, I would suggest, neither possible nor entirely desirable. The condition of ambivalence while obstructive is also a condition or vehicle of an engaged relation with ‘Asia’.

12. Ambivalence towards Asia, argue D’Cruz and Steele, is in part due to an unwillingness to ‘see the other as also within one’s self’ (D’Cruz & Steele, 2002). It is also a condition or result of the difficulties of reconciling identity before a perceived moment or space of difference. Both ‘Australia’ and ‘Asia’ are identities in flux; they resist stabilisation. The ambivalence of Australia’s policy towards Asia is a result precisely of the incapacity to fully reconcile or marginalise the traces or shadows of otherness within. Ambivalence is thus both a condition of a desire to differentiate and separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ and also a result of the incapacity to fully reconcile or achieve this desire.

13. The problem is then not reconciling ambivalence but in articulating the paradoxes, interconnections and contradictions that ambivalence suggests. This becomes, in my reading, the articulation of spaces and borderlands that, rather than acting as moments of separation and exclusion, invite paradox and contradiction (Rose, 1993). Inhabitants of paradoxical space are simultaneously marginal and central; though shunted to the margins of the nation they are central to the articulation of this nation. As a space of constitution and engagement, borderland spaces are neither inside nor outside, they are interstitial. They provide, at the very site where state power is being constituted, a brief and flitting sighting of the disorder, chaos and colourful multiplicity of identities at the edges of the norm.

14. In the following section I will briefly look at the Australian immigration detention camp as paradoxical and ambivalent borderland space. I do so in order to examine the nature of borderland spaces shadowing ‘Australia’ and in order to suggest that the diffuse nature of borderland spatiality allows one to think to and against the manicheanisms of political territoriality. In this endeavour, I share D’Cruz and Steele’s sense that acknowledgement of inchoate otherness within is an important precondition for thinking an ethical relationship with ‘Asia’.

The Detention Camp as Paradoxical Space

15. The detention camp is a paradoxical space, ostensibly isolated and yet central to ‘the state’. In what follows I attempt to trace some of the techniques of domination that lead to the embodiment of the state as a stable repository of power and national identity. I do so in order to point at the ambivalence underlying the political constitution of ‘Australia’, at once repulsing and embracing inchoate otherness. This constitution instrumentally conceives of a threat by unauthorised migrants in order to embody ‘the state’ and to maintain state power.

16. The contract between the Australian Commonwealth and GLS Solutions, the detention ‘services provider’, notes that,

The Government takes its responsibilities for the care of all people in immigration detention seriously and expects its Services Provider to do likewise… Emphasis is placed on the sensitive treatment of the detention population which may include torture and trauma sufferers, family groups, children and unaccompanied minors, the elderly, persons with a fear of authority and persons who are seeking to engage Australia’s protection obligations under the Refugee Convention (DIMIA, 2003: Part 1, Para. 6)

The incongruity of protecting individuals in and through an instrument of ostensible persecution may at least in part be attributed to the ambivalent constitution of ‘Australia’.

17. In a study of the psychological condition of inmates, a detainee (and physician), Aamer Sultan, and Kevin O’Sullivan find that ‘85% [of respondents] acknowledged chronic depressive symptoms, with 65% having pronounced suicidal ideation.’ (Sultan and O’Sullivan, 2001). Over half the respondents reported human rights abuse; 58% reported experience of physical torture and 30% reported the murder or disappearance of a family member. In a comment on the article, Derrick Silove and Zachary Steele write,

It is paradoxical and contradictory that we provide authorised refugees some of the best rehabilitative services in the world through our national network of services for survivors of torture and trauma, while at the same time creating conditions in detention centres that exacerbate the effects of past trauma in their compatriots (Silove & Steel, 2002: 86).

18. The then Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, responded to Sultan and O’Sullivan by addressing ‘several errors of fact and distortion’ (all of which were challenged in a rejoinder by Sultan and O’Sullivan, 2002). Ruddock did not address the substance of Sultan and O’Sullivan’s claims: that detention contributed to depression and emotional disturbances (Ruddock, 2002). Ruddock’s focus on factual errors over and above the substantial claims of the authors points to the suffocating logic of the camp. The merits or value of the camp itself cannot be put into question; it is rather the basis against which moral questions of maltreatment are assessed.

19. In another response, to the United Nations envoy Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati's criticism of the detention of children, Ruddock is quoted as having said,

I don't think it's a good thing that they've been submitted to dangerous sea voyages, as they were in a number of cases. I don't think it's a good thing that they've been probably taken away from situations in which they had access to schooling. (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 2002)

20. Ruddock suggests that the detention of minors is a consequence of irresponsible parenting. In response to Justice Bhagwati’s proposal that families be released from detention, Ruddock suggests that, ‘the obvious outcome of that is that people who want to achieve a migration outcome in Australia, if they were not lawfully entitled to one, would simply take the view that all you've got to do is bring children with you’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 2002). Ruddock’s principle justification for ongoing detention is simple: ‘Essentially our concern is that people would abscond.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 2002).

21. Ruddock plays on what Didier Bigo calls ‘a governmentality of unease’ (Bigo, 2002: 63). Detention is risk management, the protection of citizenry and community from refugees who might ‘abscond’. The protection of detainees must be considered secondary to the greater responsibility of protecting citizenry and community. The governmentality of unease is based on the identification of undesirable groups from whom we require protection. It is also premised on a reminder of anxiety. That which causes unease is never fully eradicated, it is only tenuously contained and may ‘abscond’ if we drop our vigilance. The representation and circulation of anxiety maintains ‘the state’; indeed it gives it life and form, it makes the state recognizable as that body which will protect and guarantee a particular form of identity under threat (Bigo, 2002: 65).

22. The camp is a manifestation of a desire to create a politics of identity that justifies and embodies the state as repository of national identity and adjudicator of belonging and non-belonging. This logic imparts and justifies a moral hierarchy among different groups. D’Cruz and Steele take note of the fantasies and conjecture about people of colour emanating from a perspective based on ‘the superiority of being us’ (D’Cruz and Steele, 2003: 39-41). The protection of vulnerable groups within the detention camp must be thought against the presumption of their illegality. This allows for conjecture about their moral status (for example, the charge of irresponsible parenting).

23. The camp is animated by a sense of its necessity as a tool of migration management (of the management of the security threat posed by migration). The camp is thought of as a legitimate and stable expression of state power. This creates a ruse; the focus becomes not the genealogies, expressions, or epistemological bases of the state’s techniques of domination or suppression directed towards immigrants (Bigo, 2002: 68) but the camp itself as a stable body of power. The embodiment of state power in the camp gives the camp a transcendental, and teleological, meta-logic. The camp is its own justification. The necessity of the camp is inadequately questioned, for example, by those medical reports of psychological disturbance: they do not address how techniques of domination and suppression are rooted in an instrumental logic of anxiety circulation and risk management.

24. When the camp is reified into a stable body, the question or pathology thus becomes how the camp may be best administered, leaving aside the bases of the logic of anxiety that create the camp. The logic and exclusions underlying the camp are obscured or concealed. It does not matter very much that individuals are suffering within the camp; it does not detract from the need to contain them within the camp. One may try to be more humane by improving conditions (this is the gist of Ruddock’s response to Sultan and O’Sullivan) but one cannot consider abandoning the idea of the camp. By establishing the camp as a stable and necessary body, the Australian state becomes embodied, is manifested in the detention camp. Thus our attentions are de-centred. A governmentality of unease, together with the circulation of anxiety that comes with it, entrenches, embodies and stabilises the camp as the object of analysis. This detracts from the study of the underpinning ontological and epistemological hierarchies and exclusions that lead to the creation of the camp. It detracts attention, in sum, from the ambivalence at the heart of Australia and re-focuses on a stable Australian national identity guaranteed by the state.

25. The perception of the camp as an established body, an integral and discernible part of the state apparatus for dealing with the migration threat, leads to the technicalisation and professionalisation of the camp. The sense of the camp as a stable embodiment of power coincides with a stablisation of identity. The camp becomes the repository of identities excluded from the Australian norm. While I have tried, along with D’Cruz and Steele, to suggest that Australian identity is intertwined with those it excludes, the sense of the camp as a stable embodiment of the state detracts from this. In this view, the camp is not a zone transcending zones of inclusion and exclusion and blurring the divide between the two, but firmly outside. The professionalisation of the camp is both a manifestation of this desire to exclude inchoate otherness and also its realisation. Identities in the camp thus are made out to be bereft of those complications and inter-subjectivities; detainee identities are stabilised, individual and group politics and histories are rendered more or less unimportant, and a technical and faceless figure of the detainee becomes the object of professional management.

26. The meaning of the camp is dissected into bare technical elements in the contract between the government and the services provider:

Services to be provided at each of the facilities are wide-ranging and include, but are not limited to, security and safety, consumable items (such as food, bedding, linen, clothing, footwear, basic toiletries and products for the maintenance of personal hygiene and the hygiene of their possessions) and ancillary services (such as health, welfare, education, recreation, active and passive leisure activities and opportunities for religious observance). (DIMIA, 2003: schedule 2, para. 1.8)

27. The professionalisation of the management of the camp is again a means of detracting from a study of the basis of the camp. Hence Ruddock’s response to Sultan and O’Sullivan quoted above, where his focus is on challenging factual inaccuracies. The rhetoric of professionalisation is also a means of reassurance; it feeds into a complex faith in the rational capacity of the state to professionally or bureaucratically administer threat. In December 2004, in response to riots at Baxter detention camp, the Department of Immigration posted a news release on its website with the following comforting headline: ‘Professionals Dealing with Baxter Protests’. The first few lines of the media release read as follows:

Trained and experienced staff are dealing with protests by detainees at the Baxter Immigration Detention Facility, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) said today.

‘There is currently no need for further outside intervention in the situation as suggested in the media by some people,’ a DIMIA spokesperson said.

‘The department has the people and processes to deal with the situation.

‘Professional negotiators have been on site and have been speaking with detainees about their actions. That is continuing. (DIMIA, 2004).

28. The camp also manifests a rhetoric of protecting detainees from themselves or for their own good. Persecutory forms of protection are justified insofar as they prepare the detainee for entrance to the Australian community. The detention camp is conceptualised against a series of other spaces towards which the detainee may move. The protection and control of the detainee within the detention camp may, it is tantalisingly promised, be a means of creating a desirable individual who may move through the door of the camp, towards other spaces, culminating in entry into Australia. The techniques of control (and of protection) occurring within the camp may thus be seen as elements of a technical and creative care of the self. The camp is the cleansing, ablutionary space from which may arise an individual meriting entry into the Australian community. The camp as a space of containment and control allows for assessment of right of entry; the containment of the detainee thus is justified in terms of the necessity of undertaking such an assessment.

29. The above section has attempted to briefly study the detention camp in terms of its workings and logic and how these are run through with the articulation and circulation of anxiety or what Bigo calls the governmentality of unease. The anxiety manifests an ambivalent stance towards detainees: at once protective and persecutory, at once desiring their isolation and highlighting their centrality. The irony at the core of a governmentality of unease is that the condition of anxiety which is the justification for repression and exclusion cannot be ended. Anxiety about the threat posed by the unauthorised migrant serves as the justification for their detention. The logic requires this anxiety to be re-circulated unceasingly. This circulation of anxiety highlights the ambivalent constitution of Australia; more specifically it highlights the ambivalent constitution of the state. In its attempt to cohere itself into a body that may be seen to be representing and guaranteeing a sense of ‘national identity’, the state highlights also the ambivalences and paradoxes at its borders. The detention camp is both an operation that gives rise to this ambivalence and an attempt to restrict or conceal it. Ambivalence is thus both a condition of a desire to differentiate and separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ and also a result of the incapacity to fully reconcile or achieve this desire. By examining aspects of the logic of unease as evident in the way the detention camp operates it may be possible to remind of the ambivalent constitution of what appears to whole and integral national identity. It may enable us to refuse a focus on the territorial state as stable and embodied repository of national identity, and allow us to ask questions about the techniques and logics that create a sense of stable power through processes of exclusion and suppression.

Towards ‘Asia’

30. D’Cruz and Steele end their book with a call for an Australian Truth and Justice Commission premised on reminding Australians that they are not a people without a shadow. Such an engagement with shadowy selves cannot lead to an end to ambivalence. Ambivalence when associated with the acknowledgement of past and ongoing evacuations of other identities, times and solidarities, would suggest a nation foregoing the imperative of territorially centered reconciliation of identities and national trajectories. In other words, the reminder of a shadow tethered to the constitution of nationhood would lead to a reminder of the impossibility of forming reconciled positions towards ‘Asia’. The multiplicity of claims to Australia and the heterogeneity of spaces within Australia may preclude that.

31. The point then is, to acknowledge ambivalence as an effect of abiding difference. Such an acknowledgement may lead to a modest Australian stance towards Asia. It may lead to an acknowledgement of commonalties and differences, of the vibrant multiculturalities at the edges of both ‘Australia’ and ‘Asia’, and more to the point as D’Cruz and Steele point out, to a recognition of harmony in difference. This must be premised, as the authors suggest, on a wilful decanting of hegemonic cultural orientations, a reconciliation premised on the centring of the spatial and temporal fluidities, ambivalence and possibilities at the shadows of the nation.


Prem Kumar Rajaram works on issues of refugees and detention in Malaysia, Australia and the European Union. He is currently at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Central European University, Budapest and was previously in the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, from where much of his research on Australia was undertaken. Email:


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