Photograph: Joanna Kidman.
Ka whawhai tonu mātou. Ake! Ake! Ake! [We will fight on forever and ever!]
— Spoken at the battle of Ōrākau, 1864.
This “we” that is in the margins, that “we” who inhabit marginal space that is not a site of domination but a place
of resistance. Enter that space.
— bell hooks, Marginality as a site of resistance, p.343.
It is two minutes to midnight in the Anthropocene. There is a man called Trump in the White House. Ice caps are melting, seas rising and lashing storms are hitting the coast. The doomsday clock is ticking.
How will we spend this late-night reckoning— this vigil before midnight? Some are passing it in a frenzy of denial— or one desperate last debauch. Others gather to salvage what they can from a tired old world. Speak truth to power. Take to the streets. Fight back.
And me? I am teaching sociology in the haunted spaces of a classroom.
Let me explain. Places of learning are supposed to be brightly lit— buzzing with technical wizardry and lots of power-point displays. Right? Everything is ‘student-centred’ and ‘web-based’ and ‘inquiry-driven’— all bathed in the crisp, clear empirical light of truth and knowledge. These things matter. They do matter. Even at two and a half minutes to midnight when the LED-lights flicker and dim.
And at times I teach the canon with a certain nostalgic fondness for some of those long-dead men and their book-lined rooms. I am not entirely immune to their cleverness or occasional biting wit. So much of sociology is learning to dance with ghosts.
At other times, those grand theories seem like just so much broken crockery. Every other journal article— a fawning eulogy to the sociological Pantheon. All those timid Marxists. This is where I part company from smiling weekend activists. Those slick academic operators who champion the class struggle in university committees but flinch and roll their eyes on questions of white privilege.
Oh yes, I have done my time in the back of police vans, broken bread with Trotskyists, marched in solidarity, nursed my cop-bruised limbs. I have done my time with bearded Bourdieusians who sternly shake their heads in the presence of an Angry-Native-Woman.
And I have done my time too talking with clever, earnest women over cups of peppermint tea about the sisterhood and intercultural/ intersectional/ inter-species coalitions— and then I’ve watched them fly off to Club Foucault for respite from the settler-colonial wars of the modern university. I am an Angry-Native-Woman. And I teach sociology, joyfully, from that place of rage.
Here is a piece I wrote for Meanjin, an Australian literary journal, in 2001. A PDF is here.
The Mariner’s Wife
Turn seaward from the land and hills.
Fix the ballast, raise the sails. Rhyme
mariner rhyme the body boned and fleshy
the throat held in the beak thrust from the salt
caul of the sea the heartbeat tattoo of rain
on the cabin and watching from the shore
the journeyman, the provost, the cruel widows
stern and silent under the winter awnings.
And water sailor water everywhere now
torn from the stained sheets the birth blood dry
on the bed linen and the woman hollow and howling
in the dry lungs of the desert. She is the sand, the dunes,
the beating of wings against the face. And the night.
This turbulent visitor carved from misfortune.
There is no wedding guest,
no land on the horizon. Merely water.
We learnt these stories on the mattress
in a darkened room as the wind sent the curtains
blowing from the window frames
with the braying laughter of men next door
and the faces peering from behind the screen—
the monstrous bird, the ill-fated journey, omens
and treachery, winged wraiths, battles and despair.
We heard the hero whining in the prolixity of sailor’s tales.
Here the turbulence of domestic seasons, the wide-gaited
march of trolleys down the supermarket aisle, the fulsome
music of shopping malls, the perfect symmetry of a coffee cup,
the mathematics of a table are each held in the curved claw
of suburban ventures— that is the household contract. But watch now—
the woman in her robe at the door with the caryatid’s smiling face
swoops across the Strait of Magellan breaking through the cloud,
making thunder and burning the breakfast.
— Joanna Kidman (2001). The Mariner’s Wife. Meanjin, 60(1), 66-67.
In the busy lecture theatre at the centre of campus— time does not ever seem to pass. It is always now. History slows. We are in White time. A temporal domain— calibrated and recalibrated over and over again. People hustle in and out the doors, preoccupied with the business of being human and being punctual. An exhausting state of affairs in an endless, unanchored present. Modern times.
A Māori woman at the back of the room raises her hand, asks, “What does it mean to be human?” A shuffling of feet, the glance at the watch, and a prim sigh of exasperation— the busy people stop and stare— and then walk on.
Autumn, 1864. Late afternoon. Ōrākau. Colonial troops on horseback with guns and sabres. An overwhelming, outnumbering 4:1 presence. And wave after wave of invasion has brought us to— now. We are here now. Listen! We. Are. Here. Now. When the British called on Māori to surrender that day— the message came back, “Ka whawhai tonu mātou. Ake! Ake! Ake!” [We will fight on forever and ever!] This is our legacy. The soldiers on horses hunted them down— ran them through with bayonets— shot them in the back. What does it mean to be human? The ancestors rustle and move. I am not alone.
At the centre of campus, we are constantly ‘re-written’ (hooks, 1990). We are the institutional decoration at the university pōwhiri, the nod to ‘diversity’, the rictus smile in the academic group-hug of racial harmony. But we have seen the shadows forming across the land— know, intimately, what auguries to look for— what devastation will come. We have lived on that page of the imperial calendar for quite some time now.
Am I a woman frozen in the past? Stuck in time? Perhaps. But not in White time. Not in imperial time. Not in “civilised” time. Well, not always. And not willingly. I’ll kick against the pricks.
At the outer edge of campus— another kind of teaching comes to pass. In the ticking dark— in a classroom seething with invisible presence (Gordon, 2008). It begins with a series of refusals. What does it mean to be human at the cusp of midnight?
If I have a manifesto, it is this. I teach sociology from a rage forged in old battles and the small, carcinogenic daily injuries that make up brown lives in the White time of here and now. We are here. Now. Pedagogy should be an act of refusal. On those days I cannot teach the canon— see it as a mild kind of intellectual mogodon. Mood music for sleep-walkers. I teach from darker places.
Being truly human is an unbecoming process— it is a process of unbecoming. An unravelling of the here and now. And if we must do it from the margins, then so be it. Off the main roads and under the radar— the margins are good enough places to build solidarity. To gather. To refuse. Ka whawhai tonu mātou. Ake! Ake! Ake!
It is two minutes to midnight. So this is the way the world ends. On the last day, I will close my books, pack my notes in my bag, turn off the lights— and walk into the gathering storm.
— August 2017
Gordon, A.F. (2008). Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
hooks, b. (1990). Marginality as a site of resistance. In R. Ferguson, M. Gever, T. T. Minh-ha, & C. West (Eds.). Out there: Marginalization and contemporary cultures (pp. 241-243). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kidman, J. (2001). The Mariner’s Wife. Meanjin, 60(1), 66-67.