The coffin of Abul Jafari, drowned at sea on July 12th and carried from Christmas Island to burial in Melbourne, has been presented by The Australian newspaper (July 31) as “the defining image of the asylum-seeker debate in 2013”. After wide-spread lamenting of the baby’s death in the public sphere and a general insistence that those lost should be named, a human face is here given to tragedy. However, the meaning of this ‘humanity’ is assimilated by The Australian’s reporting and by both major political parties into telling a story of the ‘human cost’ of people-smuggling and is thus framed as exemplary of policy failures and demands (“Final journey for policy failure’s littlest victim” reads The Australian headline). The image functions in a context dominated by the idea that deterrence of ‘criminals’ is hereby proven necessary. When such images give a face to suffering only to secure the terms of reference in a toxic debate, how might this co-option of the range of potential political meanings be resisted? How do the politics of invoking humanity play out here? And is a different exercise of imagination called for in registering these events?
Fiona Jenkins is a senior lecturer in the School of Philosophy, RSSS, ANU and convenor of the ANU Gender Institute. She is currently writing a monograph titled: ‘Sensate Democracy: How Bodies Matter in a Common World’. Her work on gender includes research in feminist and queer theory, problems of violence, and on the status and contribution of women in academic disciplines. She teaches on contemporary French philosophy, on Nietzsche, on film, and on aspects of democratic theory.