Here I mean those elements of us called the body or, better, our corporeal being: a complex mix of thought, emotion and physicality. In this mix lies culture, conversation and conflict, and an ever-changing response to the conditions of our lives.
We speak. Is it with forked tongue? A sugar-coated smile? Or under our breath.
I am not being literal here but you will understand what I say. And I am in a way being absolutely literal.
We see. Do we look out of the corner of our eye, around corners or with eyes in the back of our head?
Do you remember the goose pimples of peering out from your hidey-hole, huddled together with that teenage cousin on whom you have had a crush since the day you were born, and wishing but not wishing to be found?
We move. Gliding, shuffling, mired. Phantom limbs. Walking on air. Fluid.
The splashing of arms and legs in dam, lake, river, sea and imagination.
Such everyday language tells us of the many ways in which our parts act on the world and on ourselves.
This essay is the beginnings of an exploration of body parts and how they can be agents of change.
In early 2002, in the remote reaches of a red Australian desert at the height of its summer, a group of people sewed shut their mouths. This group numbered between 50 and 70 and were, from reports, all adult males.
The location was Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Detention Centre, a now closed site for illegal immigrants in the far north-western corner of the State of South Australia and a place with a long military history.
The men were mostly Afghans and had arrived in Australia on overcrowded boats commanded by profiteers.
Their act, whilst not the first instance of mouth-sewing by asylum seekers, drew world-wide attention.
Reports quickly emerged of a protest against living conditions and, more fundamentally, against the lengthy limbo period experienced by the men and their fellow detainees. Of the uncertainties of visa protection, permanent residency and the future. In short, a survey of the reasons for this collective action.
Underlying this was a palpable response to the act itself. A visceral shudder at the idea of taking needle and thread to one’s own flesh, especially the mouth.
And it was this individual act, and that it was undertaken by so many, I argue, that delivered the full political punch to the Australian Government and the Australian populace.
The mouth is the vessel of breath and word; it expresses through these the presence of thinking human life. The mouth concentrates emotion: the scream, the hiss, the smile.
The mouth allows difference—to open it up while eating, and to slurp and even burp, is a sign of enjoyment in Chinese culture and bad table manners to the English. Similarly, as the vessel for spittle, the mouth may provoke a fight to the death or simply direct the passage of saliva from inside to out in one quick ejection.
The mouth is the suckle of a baby and, for some cultures, a sexual clinch. It’s the conduit for food and water—and offers an exit from the body of whatever is making it sick. It is soft and supple, giving and receiving, open to the world.
In sewing up their mouths, the Woomera men shocked the world by the physical brutality of their protest. Found materials, dusty surrounds, makeshift methods—this was an act in extremis.
There are religious and other traditions that include piercings of the flesh—the Calvary of the Cross, for example, in some cultures offers, or once did, actual nailing to a couple of boards made into a rough cross. There are numerous instances in art, a well-known Australian example being the Suspensions series of performance artist Stelarc. And of course, we all know of wartime atrocities and other acts of human violence where the victim is denigrated by the insertion of objects into flesh, before or after death—the story of Nazi lampshades comes unwillingly to mind.
The reasons for such piercings are many and varied, yet all differentiated from the act that took place on that day in January 2002.
By the act of sewing shut, and thus denying any of the possibilities of the mouth, the asylum seekers made manifest their perception of their status as non-persons in Australia. A declaration of and from the mouth: we are being silenced, we are being fed lies, we are being refused justice, we are being de-humanised.
The men’s action affirmed their very refusal to be treated as such.
Since 2002 there have been other instances, individual and collective, of mouth-sewing as a political act in Australia (and elsewhere) by asylum seekers. While specific circumstances attend each case, the same twofold response is evident in public commentary: cool analysis and unspoken horror.
The Woomera men spoke loudly from their sewn-up muted mouths.
The body expresses cultural difference in manifold ways. A direct gaze, for instance, is an expression of honesty in Australian culture and in Iran, may be a mark of disrespect. Similarly, wearing shoes indoors is not encouraged in Japan whereas Afghans believe uncovered feet, or more particularly, the bare soles facing towards another person, an offensive act.
Yet body parts, or how they are inhabited beyond the physiological, can stretch their definitions across cultures—there is an intercultural understanding.
At the Australian Reconciliation Convention of May 1997, the then Prime Minister John Howard addressed an audience made up in large part of Indigenous Australians. Elders, activists and other key figures of Black Australia.
The convention, held in Melbourne, was one in a series of scheduled events grappling with the issue of Aboriginal status in contemporary Australia (an issue that is still ongoing and painfully so). At that point Howard and his Conservative government had been in power since 1996 but the rise of the Right was presaged long before then. The ‘history wars’, a debate around the course of race relations since the British ‘arrived’ in 1788, were raging and native title post – Mabo2 a fiercely contested arena.
As Howard addressed the audience on this issue of title, he lost his composure and repeatedly thumped the lectern in front of him. His voice became stentorian and his words hectoring.
In response, many audience members rose to their feet and turned their backs to the Prime Minister. Quietly they stood—this action of turning away from Howard and presenting to him their backs was, it seemed, sufficient as a response.
Without claiming knowledge of Indigenous customs, I assert that the meaning of this action was shared at that moment. By presenting their backs to the Prime Minister, the audience members were refusing Howard’s words, his tone and his political intent.
The action suggested that there had been insult by the audience’s exclusion of the face—that most expressive feature of human agency—and the absence of open hand, outstretched arm and potential embrace.
The surface of the back. A carapace, an exoskeleton, the broadest expanse of bone and flesh in the human body. An unyielding mass. A barrier, a blockade, the foreclosure of dialogue.
We often see Hollywood starlets posing with backs to camera, faces looking over shoulders and a visible expanse of flesh. Here the tension is between what is offered and what is withheld. It’s a form of peekaboo. The backs of the Convention audience (an action that has been repeated across the years) allowed no space for ambiguity.
I think too of Kafka’s Gregor in ‘Metamorphosis’, a man become beetle reduced to lying on his back, that most helpless of positions and a literal metaphor for Gregor’s existence in a totalitarian world of desks, files and interminably meaningless tasks.
In these disparate instances, the power of the back is assumed, as it was with the Convention audience. There is a shared knowledge that to turn one’s back may mean to reject, remove or cover oneself from what is present.
To say no.
The Black Power movement of 1960s USA had a moment at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, and it was one that featured an Australian sprinter.
The moment was on the medal winners’ dais for the 200-metre sprint. It was there that African-Americans Tommie Smith (Gold) and John Carlos (Bronze) each raised a black-gloved fist in acknowledgement of the fight for equal rights back in their homeland.
With them stood Australian Peter Norman (Silver), with upright body and direct gaze. A 26-year-old Physical Education teacher and Salvation Army Officer.
On his green tracksuit, with small gold stripes as edging, he wore a badge that read ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’. This referred to an American organisation that had been set up the year before to oppose racial segregation in sport. Smith and Carlos also wore the badge.
Norman had told the other two athletes: “I will stand with you.”
I am referring to the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Of race riots and massive civil dissent in the then undisputed ‘Leader of the Free World’. Of an Australia disturbed by its involvement in the Vietnam War, only recently recognising Indigenous Australians as citizens, confronted by the changing media landscape, and exposed to a questioning of the status quo similar to the USA.
The repercussions of a political act in the purportedly neutral space of the Olympics were swift.
All three athletes immediately lost their sporting futures.
For Norman, the additional cost was ongoing antagonism, and ostracism, from many back home.
Whilst it was Smith and Carlos who raised their arms and made a fist, Norman was central to the action. When Carlos realised, for example, that he had had left his gloves back in the Olympic living quarters, it was Norman who suggested he borrow the other of Smith’s pair—and hence, the photographic evidence reveals a right (Smith) and left (Carlos) fist raised in salute to the fight for racial freedom.
The potency of Norman’s physical stance was not lost on others.
It was clear, from his presence, the badge and the suggestion of the glove that Norman was standing in support of his colleagues. His arm was not raised, nor his fist clenched, but in this absence was the presence of both arm and fist.
How do we understand the arm and the fist in Australian culture?
The arm—the immediacy of embrace and intimacy but also a call to an action.
The fist—a curl of the hand into a gesture simultaneously aggressive and defensive. A punctuation point. The reshaping of the handshake or the wave into a full stop.
To hold the arm upright, fist in black glove at end, was to declare power.
(The Nazis, to mention them again, also understood the potency of this gesture.)
Norman stood and stared forward—his invisible upraised arm, with fist, apparent but impossible because he was not Black.
Norman suffered for his act but, it’s reported, didn’t regret it. Smith and Carlos have paid homage to him across the years in many ways.
It was a politician who started it but a performer who put it up front and personal.
In February 2003, MP Kirstie Marshall breastfed her daughter in the Legislative Assembly of the State of Victoria. She was evicted from the chamber—under the provision that parliamentarians were prohibited from bringing ‘strangers’ onto the floor.
In September of the same year, in another Melbourne setting, regular guest and occasional co-host Kate Langbroek fed her infant son whilst on the TV show The Panel. The show was broadcast on a commercial station and went live to air on a Wednesday night. The public response was immediate and divided.
Self-identified pundits shouted about Langbroek’s “offensive” behaviour. The Australian Medical Association welcomed her public stance on a “medical” issue—to breastfeed or not to breastfeed. Headlines gathered, phone lines melted, emails proliferated; there was much ado.
Acknowledged in the public debate was a discomfort in Australian culture with this part of the human anatomy. Specifically, when attached to female identity.
The breast: signifier of maternal nurture but also a site of sexual arousal. And in fact suggesting the latter in the uninhibited pleasure of both mother and child (all other things being right) in this one on one relationship.
The baby suckles, the mother gives and receives; the sensation of a small set of lips pulling at the nipple in a rhythmic fashion.
There is a fine line here between sensuality and sexuality. A confusing muddying of definitions. A difficulty.
In Australia, at any rate—but we are not alone.
The discomfort expressed in so many ways by the general public was implicit—and at times overt—recognition of this difficulty. It derives from that hoary old chestnut: the Western historical reluctance to link motherhood and sexuality (the Virgin and the Whore raise their heads yet again and mutually sigh). And there was an obvious struggle with the boundary between public and private acts.3
The female breast has incited wars and provoked poems, made cultures swoon or shy away.
It’s also been removed to make the waging of war easier—the Amazon women of Greek mythology, high on their horses, drawing back their bows across the cavity of absence—and augmented. Witness the contemporary crowded field of cosmetic surgery, most evidently in the States and other Western countries but also in locations such as Brazil and Mexico (although the last may reflect medical tourism).
This little bit of muscle and flesh has killed many women across the world.
In the context I’m discussing here, the primary conflict for those drawn into the public discussion (willy-nilly perhaps) was between the breast as milking vessel and as erogenous zone.
The breast, in short, as refusing one clear cultural meaning—and the women involved resisting the need to define.
Kirstie Marshall and Kate Langbroek were not the first women to nurse their babies in public. But nor are they emblematic of a debate that has long been resolved.
It took, for instance, until June 2017 for the Australian Federal Parliament to witness the first parliamentarian to breastfeed in chambers (Senator Larissa Waters) and it was only one year before that a bill was passed that allowed this act.
There are many more stories to explore regarding those bits of us that I am calling body parts.
The man standing in front of a tank during student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989—head up, street clothes, plastic bags filled with groceries in both hands—comes to mind.
The crown of the head.
So too Noongar man Nicky Winmar pulling up his jersey and pointing at his torso in response to racial slurs during a 1993 AFL4 game in Melbourne.
Finger and torso.
The stillness of Rosa Parks on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama as she refused segregation and a different seat.
Buttocks. Shoulders. Feet.
The woman waving her hijab on the end of a stick in Tehran just last month.
Even the then South Australian Premier Don Dunstan’s very short very pink shorts on the steps of the SA Parliament House in 1972 as he embodied what was then called sexual liberation.
What seems evident to me is that body parts are often the means of acts of revolution, opposition or refusal. Sometimes the act is calculated or rehearsed; at other times it’s an intuitive response to a situation.
And the smallest of gestures can inform the bigger world.
Individually and culturally variable, occasionally misleading or treacherous, pervasive and present, body parts tell a corporeal history of the world.
And they are us.
With thanks for their suggestions of case studies to Lydia May Rose Holt, Stephanie Holt, Chris McAuliffe and Philipa Rothfield.
1 I note here permutations, such as sexuality and dis/ability, which respond to and resist and step outside of the dominant conversation—this invites another essay.
2 Mabo and others v Queensland (No 2) (1992), known as “The Mabo Case”, concerned the question of land rights. The High Court, hearing the case, found in favour of the plaintiffs, i.e., the Court recognised the Meriam people as the traditional owners of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait.
3 It also suggests a cultural struggle with notions of “dirty” and clean”, as outlined by British anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose writings were introduced to me by the late Geoff Sharp at the University of Melbourne.
4 Australian Football League.