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CS @ USyd

The following post is an article I have written in response to this story published in the SMH early last week:

The SMH was not interested in publishing the response (nor were both The Australian and Crikey). The day following my correspondence with the SMH it published this follow-up story:

Overall a very disappointing week for ALIV, its volunteers and, ultimately, thousands of asylum seekers.


Last week the SMH published an article by Nick O’Malley titled “Volunteers at detention centres speak about Scientology influence”. Despite the title, the article’s impetus is the possible deregistration of Sydney charity Australian League of Immigration Volunteers (ALIV) by Fair Trading NSW for failure to provide financial statements. This matter provided O’Malley the opportunity to embark on a facile report of the charity’s supposed links to Scientology and its treatment of volunteers.

Following its publication, ALIV’s English and recreation programs at Christmas Island, Darwin and Villawood Detention centres have been discontinued by Serco, the company responsible for running these institutions. This is an understandable response from a company conscious of the effects of negative media coverage regarding their role in a contentious area of public policy. However, in canceling these programs Serco’s clients (or Australia’s detainees) have been deprived of opportunities that interrupt the otherwise monotonous and difficult experience of mandatory detention.

In his article, O’Malley quickly abandons his reporting of ALIV’s financial management. He then sources anonymous volunteer comments that he admits are speculative about supposed links between ALIV and Scientology. He also writes that Asylum Seeker Resource Centre coordinator Pamela Curr “fears” for the well-being of the detainees but fails to provide any evidence of such concerns.

Two opening caveats are required. First, I have volunteered in ALIV’s recreation programs because I believe that the charity’s contribution is valuable to the emotional health of asylum seekers in detention. Second, my volunteering for ALIV has not required any involvement with the charity’s financial administration. On this matter it is likely that the apparent lack of financial disclosure is an effect of an organisation concentrating primarily on the expansion of its services at the expense of thorough administrative management. It is unfortunate that administrative carelessness could ultimately undermine the contributions of volunteers and the provision of services to asylum seekers.

It is unclear why O’Malley represents Ms Curr as “[fearing] for the well-being of the vulnerable detainees”. However, Ms Curr expresses two legitimate concerns that deserve consideration. These relate to the possibility that ALIV’s programs have operated as a substitute for those Serco has a contractual obligation to provide and that asylum seekers might feel compelled to participate in ALIV’s recreation programs in order to obtain a visa. Regarding the latter point, ALIV volunteers do not promote this view, and are advised not to discuss visa applications since this is an immigration matter and lies beyond the expertise of the charity.

Regarding service provision, ALIV is responsible for the provision of its own programs within detention centres rather than for assessing Serco’s satisfaction of its contractual obligations. Instead of casting doubt on the quality of the programs provided by ALIV, O’Malley might have better used his report to examine the regime by which the Australian government assesses the performance of a private company to which it has hand-passed the responsibility of detaining asylum seekers. Responsibility for the proper care for individuals mandatorily detained ultimately rests with the State that has privatised this institution.

Secondly, it is disappointing that the comments of unnamed ALIV volunteers indicate unfulfilling experiences with the charity. However, these experiences are not typical. Regarding the strict confidentiality agreements volunteers are required to sign, these exist on behalf of the privacy of the clients that participate in ALIV’s programs. Signing is a necessary compromise to act as a volunteer inside detention centres. The cancellation of programs demonstrates the precarious nature of any charity’s access to Australian detention centres and the detrimental effects of reputational damage caused by negative media coverage.

O’Malley quotes anonymous past volunteers regarding the twelve hour workdays purportedly struggled through by ALIV’s volunteers in the Christmas Island program. In my experience there, where such days occurred these were for a maximum three days per week and included over three hours of meal breaks, two hours casual administration work, and generally conducting recreational programs within the centres. It is not factory labour. Volunteers are also made aware of the hours involved during the selection and training processes prior to departure. While refugees are not so lucky, no Australian has yet been coerced into the Christmas Island detention centre.

Group debriefing, which I initially thought unusual, is in that context effective and therapeutic. Detention centres can be confronting places. The group debrief – volunteers are also given the opportunity to debrief individually – allows volunteers to both articulate their own experiences and look out for their peers’ well-being. It is an effective, non-coercive team-building strategy that establishes an emotional support network. It is neither introduced nor undertaken as a tactic from the Scientology handbook.

Finally, it is interesting that O’Malley draws upon the symbolic authority of an anonymous priest, described as “concerned about [ALIV’s] restrictive regulations”, in order to criticise supposed links between the charity and Scientology. I have no investment in any institutional religion, nor any alternative spirituality. ALIV’s lack of political and religious affiliation attracted me originally. The charity’s volunteers include practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims, and non-religious individuals whose common ground is a basic humanism felt for people in detention. To suggest that ALIV is run according to the tenets of Scientology is simply untrue. It fails to give credit to the diverse religious and moral value systems that underpin the actions of the volunteers, which are, in the end, basic human interactions with vulnerable and traumatised individuals.

It is disappointing that O’Malley’s article appears to have contributed to the decision to cease ALIV’s provision of programs inside Australian detention centres. It is equally disappointing that this comes, in part, of poor administration by the charity. Ultimately, a vulnerable population for which Australia has a duty of care loses out. It is especially disappointing that this result might have been less likely were O’Malley’s article more coherently focused upon the major issue – Fair Trading NSW’s investigation into ALIV – and less interested in making false allusions to ALIV’s supposed connections to Scientology and in complaints from unrepresentative, anonymous volunteers. The cost of such reporting has in this case been high.

The first meeting of the ‘Sexuality and Space’ research group was a success: participants read two interesting articles and discussed many issues regarding the queer spaces in Sydney. But I left with some doubts and disappointments.

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Guest post by Sarah Cefai

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Hongwei. I think that the question of how to locate your work when you are speaking publicly is a really important one. You never know exactly what your audience knows. This is particularly so in an interdisciplinary learning environment, where the people in your audience have very different levels and kinds of knowledge.

As a speaker you have to presume a level of understanding, yet you only have a certain amount of choice over making this presumption for it already substantially inheres in the concepts and language that comprise your work. Something else to consider is that some types of research and styles of knowing are more accessible than others because of their cultural and political location; it would be paradoxical and impractical to place a demand for ‘accessibility’ on intellectual criticism. That said, I genuinely share in some of your frustration. As a Brit I’m sure I experience it in quite different terms: while I might not necessarily understand the disciplinary history of other peoples’ projects, the use of the English language, for example, is never something that registers as an impediment to understanding.

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Note from the author: This article was written as a provocative short piece to answer the call from Melissa to ‘boost’ the departmental ‘Thinking Culture’ blog. I regretted writing it as soon as I had finished it and sent it out to Sarah and Viv. But as Sarah and Viv have kindly agreed to write articles in response to it, and as we have reached understanding that this is an academic discussion instead of a personal attack, I post this article here to invite more comments and discussions from the departmental staff and student community (and those interested in the issue). Sarah’s and Viv’s responses are coming soon, and I expect that they are going to be very tough.

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GCS runs a public research seminar every fortnight during semester. The details for tomorrow's event are below.

James Donald, Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and Professor of Film Studies at UNSW

"The House I Live In: Paul Robeson’s formation in Harlem"

Abstract: Paul Robeson arrived in Harlem in the Red Summer of 1919, as the Negro Renaissance was getting underway. In the decade that followed, while Harlem was in vogue, Robeson achieved the status of both New Negro hero and black star. His attempts to negotiate the claims and expectations of the Renaissance, at the same time as establishing a career as a performer, while often trying to justify pragmatic career decisions in terms of Renaissance cultural politics, often made him a controversial figure. This paper looks at the difficulty of ‘being Paul Robeson’ in the 1920s, with special reference to his stage and screen roles and his music.

Julian Murphet, Professor of Modern Film and Literature at UNSW

"My mother is a Graphophone; or, Faulkner’s radio play for voices"

Abstract: In late 1929, when William Faulkner famously wrote his novel As I Lay Dying in a 47-day white heat next to a coal powerhouse dynamo, the commercial contest between the established phonograph industry and the nascent radio industry entered its decisive stage. The reproduced American “voice” was straddling the technical divide between grooves that stored sonic frequencies, and the “ether” in which radio waves vibrated; and large capitalist interests were demanding rapid fidelity-convergence on the one hand, and prohibiting the playing of phonographs on the air on the other. Never had the question of represented voice been so loaded with economic and medial determinations; which may help to explain the unprecedented atomizing of Faulkner’s narrative voice in his novel into 15 distinct ones. This paper explores the sonic background to Faulkner’s self-described “tour de force” in capitalist media history, and the enormous shifts in gendered psychoanalytic functions triggered by that history. It asks the big question: how can a dead mother speak?

Date: Friday, April 30, 2010
Time: 2:00pm - 4:00pm
Location: The Refectory, Main Quadrangle, University of Sydney (downstairs from the Faculty of Arts)
Chair: Mark Steven

All welcome. Drinks will follow at Manning Bar.


Welcome to the relaunched Thinking Culture blog. This space will feature writing from staff, students and friends of the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. It will be a place to share news and ideas, current research, matters of public debate, and experiences of studying and teaching culture.

Links on the side will take you to other blogs authored by staff and students in the Department. We'll also build a list of affiliate blogs over time, so if you like what you see here and want to share links, do get in touch. As the new web mistress (!) around here I'll be introducing some of the blog's authors over a series of posts. So stay tuned for that. And in the meantime, feel free to leave us a comment and tell us about the issues you think cultural studies could and should address.


Every year Cultural Studies at USyd is represented at the Cultural Studies Association of Australia Annual Conference by staff, postgrad and sometimes Honours researchers. This year it's being held in Canberra with the theme "UnAustralia". It's always fun and interesting, and always allows us a new way to get to know each other's research.

Our speakers this time around are as follows, for anyone interested in coming along or just knowing what we're doing:

  • Kath Albury, Curious Wives: Same-sex Attracted Women in Non-Gay-and-Lesbian Sex Cultures
  • Amy Bauder, Un-Australian Sex
  • Pru Black, The Detail: The Materiality of Time
  • Kate Crawford, Hard times at Krispy Kreme: The Mythology of the Generational Worker
  • Catherine Driscoll, The Subject of Consent
  • Michael Moller, Disciples of Discipline
  • Emilie Severino, The Literary Ordeal: Feminism, Fiction, and the Philosophy of ‘Syncope’
  • Will Tregoning, Business Management gets Utopic
  • And another participant on this blog is there too - Melissa Hardie (from English), Picnic at Hanging Rock: Folding Terror into the National Imaginary

If you want to read the abstracts for any of these papers, or find out where and when they're on, you can search for them here.


The University organises a group of functions within which "gifted students" visit the campus in order to see what they might study and learn and experience at university. These are senior students who are selected as particularly able to gain things from that experience. Departments are offered the opportunity to provide a demonstration or presentation of either the training they offer or the topics they address.

Our department has offered presentations in previous years on topics like "Gender in the Media". This year, we proposed a group effort - a mix of both Gender Studies and Cultural Studies perspectives on the contentious question of pornography - on some of the debates around what pornography is for and the kinds of problem it is often seen to be. Four of us agreed to present short pieces on different approaches to debates around pornography.

So far so good. Pornography is certainly one of the issues where both gender studies and cultural studies have a lot to say, and an issue that's clearly of general public interest as any survey of mainstream media indicates. But the organising body within the university came back to us with the decision that pornography was not an appropriate topic to offer to these students experiencing what university is like.

It's a strange decision, given that "current affairs" and "social issues" segments in newspapers and on television which these same students will be encouraged to consider as a valid field of public debate address similar questions. It would be a rare 17yr old who had no opinion on the various debates around pornography and those people could clearly choose not to select our session from among those available. It would, indeed, be a rare 17yr old who had never encountered a piece of pornography (although we were never intending to show any).

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Last week I went to Macquarie University to the Everyday Multiculturalism Conference [Day Two on Cronulla] to present a paper on the Cronulla Riots. My paper was on bonding processes for groups of young men and localism - a territorial process of surfing.

Key to the day was the involvement of community groups, as well as academics. In fact, the organisers copped a bit of flak for the language being used in the call for papers. It was suggested that the general public wouldn't be able to take part in the dialogue if the material to be presented wasn't made accessible enough.

On the day I found myself struggling with the abstraction that kept being put forward in the papers, and obtuse language being used to address the issues arising out of December 11, 2005 and its aftermath. While some papers, such as the opening address of Greg Noble, tried to make sure everyone would feel comfortable at the conference, many of the other papers didn't. There was repeated reference to dense academic theory and abstraction. Just backing, say the work of RW Connell or Emmanuel Levinas, up to the event and using it to explain what happened doesn't work. (In fact Connell is wrong about gender, but that's another post) Such a tactic distances us from what happened, the people involved and says: 'the evnt is interesting to my work and career'.

Theory IS important to analysis, and new langauge has to be used to unpack diffcuolt events. However, there is a time and place for it. Nothing was learnt by some speakers from the attack on the organisers [who tried to set up the community academic engagement from the outset]. I overheard a lot of comments asking what the hell the speaker meant and what planet they were from. Some people were polite about it, others were not. In the sessions, it often felt as if the speakers were talking 'about' Cronulla rather than engaging with it. Many papers felt very 'academic' and pretty far from what happened. All nice in theory, but so what? What were the speakers going to do with the material politically? How were their lives affected? What could be done on the ground?

In the afternoon there was a special session by community workers from Cronulla and other suburbs that were implicated. The speakers were very clear in the way they spoke - too many powerpoints but - yet simplified what were important areas, like racism etc. They also were pretty passive aggressive against the academics present, and some even challenged the academic analysis by refuting some of the confusing questions asked of them. I felt that the community workers still had the old 'ivory tower' opinion of academics.

What happened was that there was far too little to and froing in discussion as people had their guards up, so to speak.Future collaborative work was put in jeopardy.

We need to address the disjuncture between the theory we use as academics, the way we analyse things, and what the community wants , and quickly. I can't really blame the community and general public because they came along to the conference in the understanding that the talks would be in everyday langauge. But they weren't. Hence the frustration that bubbled along.

As academics we need to be situated in our talks, and work hard at translating the theoretical material so that others have access to it and the opportunity to debate it alongside us. It's not easy and can be very draining and expose us to critique more. Particularly when we are the work. We have to work twice as hard to make our work theoretically sound, but also very accessible. Our ocmmunity engagement needs to be very visible. Not to blow our own horn so to speak but to evidence our solidarity with community work and be seen to be 'putting ourselves politically on the line too' (in ways the public understand to be political). In this way we won't alienate the very people who would like to work alongside us and we would like to work with.

I know academics do community work all the time, but something was missing at the conference. Soething that demands us to revisit when we want to engage in very public debates and speak in ways that allow others into the work we do.

NB: Crossposted at blownglass


The Department of Gender & Cultural Studies is pleased to announce the next seminar in its fortnightly series;

Doing Commissioned Sex Research
Speakers: Dr Kane Race (UNSW): "Engaging in a Culture of Barebacking: Gay Men and the Risk of HIV Prevention"

Dr David McInnes (UWS): "Academic Sex Work: A musical"

The seminar will be held on Friday Sept 8 in the Refectory Room (downstairs in the main Quad, in the corner opposite the jacaranda tree) from 2pm-4pm.

All welcome.

Drinks afterwards in the Manning Bar


This is the blog of the Australian Research Council funded project:

The Well-Rounded Person: The Role of Sport in Shaping Physical, Emotional and Social Development.

The chief investigators are: Catharine Lumby; Elspeth Probyn; Jenny O'Dea; Kath Albury

The reason why I have started this blog is to provide a central hub for the project. As project manager it enables me to provide an online office for those involved. The chief investigators can know where the project is at, have easy access to the research and literature review, be informed about upcoming events, and provide feedback for one another. Often chief investigators and researchers are very busy with many projects, so it can be hard to get them together in a 'real' sense.

The blog also offers a central filing system and up-to-date database. Further to this, it's free and saves money for the project because we don't have to have a website built and a html-code expert to maintain it.

The user-friendly format and online aspect also makes the research available to other researchers, community groups and the media .The project is very public. Anyone can make use of the research as it happens and have a space to offer up-to-date suggestions and requests.

As a fan of cultural studies I like the way the blog offers up a way of doing cultural research that places it square in the public sphere for debate as it happens. The research is then with the public rather than about them. The blog opens up the research to as many voices as possible who may wish to debate the direction of the project, and the political, cultural and social issues that the research will bring up. By placing the research in the public sphere I hope it works to demand that the writing up of the research is as accessible and as practical as possible. .

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This is the new blog for talking about Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, hosted by the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies.

In this blog you'll find information about Cultural Studies research and teaching at USyd, but you'll also find staff and postgraduate researchers talking about topics of current interest to them, and to the contemporary discipline of Cultural Studies in Australia.

Reading Australian newspapers in the last year or so might lead us to believe that Cultural Studies is responsible for many things - the decline of education, the corruption of Literature, and the end of History. But those dismissals are often not very clear about what Cultural Studies might be, apart from a Bad Thing. We hope this blog will give a picture of what Cultural Studies in practice means for one small slice of the discipline in Australia.

Comments are always welcome.


For anyone who doesn't want to specify their own avatar for the blog, these are going to be the two default ones. Jane Simon made them for us for our publications. One for Gender Studies and one for Cultural Studies. When used as your avatar they'll be placed where my Dodgson photograph is. If you want one of these as your avatar just email me and say so.

In general I might not think this worth a post to the blog, as it's sort of internal business, but I wanted a chance to publicly thank Jane - one of our postgraduate researchers and teachers for anyone else reading - for making these available to us. When I have some time I may explore working one or both of them into a banner for the blog.

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About the Blog

This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.