“For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas, We’ve Boundless Plains to Share”: Australia’s Representational Violence Against Asylum Seekers

In a Tortoiseshell

This is an excerpt from my final paper for ANT264: Violence. The prompt for this assignment was quite broad – we were simply asked to write an analytical paper exploring different theoretical and anthropological perspectives on violence that we had covered throughout the semester. I decided to write about Australia’s asylum seeker policy, or the “Pacific Solution,” a legislative framework designed to detain asylum seekers in Nauru, Christmas Island, and Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island before they are allowed to enter Australia. Drawing on the work of historian Achille Mmebme, anthropologist Michael Taussig, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and sociologist Loïc Wacquant, I contend that the Australian government is employing representational violence, a violence that emerges from the manipulation of narratives and knowledge on an oppressed subject, to mask and legitimize its acts of violence against asylum seekers. 

Excerpt / Laura Zhang

Representational Violence

Since 2001, Australia has implemented a policy of processing and resettling asylum seekers in offshore facilities. Despite these policies drawing international condemnation from bodies like the United Nations Committee against Torture, there is little domestic backlash on Australia’s continuous mistreatment of asylum seekers. Australia’s ability to generate indifference in its general public to irrefutable human rights violations is what I call representational violence, an analytical framework at the intersection of the concepts of necropolitics, epistemic murk, and symbolic violence. Necropolitics, as conceptualized by historian Achille Mbembe, is inspired by French philosopher Michael Foucault’s idea of biopower, the capacity for sovereign powers to exercise a legitimate “right to kill, or [refrain] from killing” its own citizens (Foucault, 2004, p. 79). Mbembe builds upon Foucault by highlighting how biopower depends on excluding certain groups within society and is thereby fundamentally tied to the idea of “race (or for that matter racism)” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 17). In sovereign states creating the concept of the Other, they lay claim to a right to kill racial groups that represent a “mortal threat or absolute danger” within society (18). 

By putting necropolitics in dialogue with anthropologist Michael Taussig’s idea of epistemic murk, I can develop an explanation of how Othering can be accomplished. Taussig highlights how, in the context of the Putumayo Rubber Boom, rubber station managers, concerned with ideas of Native American savagery, created “an uncertain reality out of fiction, a nightmarish reality in which the unstable interplay of truth and illusion becomes a social force of horrendous and phantasmic dimensions” (Taussig, 1984, p. 492). That is, the colonizers used techniques of storytelling, fictionalization, and narrative-making to create epistemic murk and construct the colonized in a false, illusory image of savagery and Otherness to justify their torture and abuse of Native Americans. 

By including sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and sociologist Loïc Wacquant’s symbolic violence in the conversation, I am further able to understand how social agents within society can internalize these narratives surrounding necropolitics. Symbolic violence is “the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2004, p. 272). Whilst Bourdieu and Wacquant specifically tie the concept to women in France internalizing patriarchal values to explain symbolic violence, symbolic violence can also be broadly applied to groups within society viewing systems of violence in the status quo as natural, and state violence as legitimate. In tandem with Mbembe and Taussig, symbolic violence allows me to define representational violence as the violence arising from sovereign powers controlling processes of storytelling and the public imaginings of a group resulting in its citizens internalizing and accepting its policies causing violence, exclusion, or death for that particular group. Processes of representational violence, in the context of Australia’s asylum seeker policy, can be divided into three main methods:

(1) Control of visibility 

By placing asylum seekers in offshore detention centers, the Australian government uses geographical distance to render them invisible in the public eye. In a 2012 speech, Senator Christine Milne pointed out that the Australian government has denied the idea of “out of sight, out of mind” about processing asylum seekers offshore (Milne, 2012). However, this is contradicted by the Australian government’s past actions, such as excising Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone (Coombs, 2003)– manipulating physical borders to metaphorically emphasize how asylum seekers do not belong within Australian shores. The control over borders is a form of “constructive blurring,” which, as architect Eyal Weizman articulates, is the manipulation of borders to “naturalize facts of domination” (Weizman, 2012, p. 8). This action also links to environmentalist Rob Nixon’s idea of slow violence, the violence that “occurs gradually and out of sight” (Nixon, 2011, p. 2), in highlighting how keeping asylum seekers in historically perceived “isolated, remote, and primitive” (Salyer et al., 2020) locations relegates asylum seekers into the peripheries of the general public’s collective visions and attention. 

Making asylum seekers invisible serves to mask the ecological and structural violence that Australia has enacted on asylum seekers and the Pacific Islands, thereby dismissing Australia’s responsibility in this issue. The Department Secretary Michael Pezzullo, during a 2015 Senate Inquiry, stated that “[t]he government of Nauru is ultimately responsible in the exercise of its jurisdiction,” representing Australia’s belief that they are not responsible for the conditions and treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention (The Senate, 2015). Shifting the accountability from the Australian government to foreign governments and detention centers makes it so that the narrative surrounding asylum seeker policies is aligned with “prevention through deterrence,” weaponizing the environment of detention centers and framing refugee death as an “unintended consequence” that Australia bares no responsibility for (León, 2015, p. 34-36). An example of this is the death of Hamid Khazaei, who died of medical neglect after presenting to Manus Island medical center with flu symptoms and a lesion on his leg. In this case study, Australia’s rhetoric veils the fact that Nauru’s harsh environment of extreme heat, drought, and poor health conditions– which resulted in Khazaei’s death– are all products of long legacies of colonial phosphate extraction and mining in the 1900s, forced occupation during both World Wars and impact by climate change–processes which Australia has been directly accountable for (Kanngieser, 2020). Hence, not only is Australia responsible for direct acts of violence perpetrated against individuals, it is also responsible for placing asylum seekers in hostile landscapes that it has shaped through decades of exploitation and ecocide. Australia’s representational violence, through narratives of invisibility and skewing migrant deaths as “acts of nature,” thereby obfuscates and masks Australian necropolitics. This leads to indifference in the general public on the asylum seeker issue, and ensures that the general public solely internalizes the hegemonic narrative that justifies the death, eradication, and abuse of asylum seekers. 

Author Commentary / Laura Zhang 

When I started brainstorming what my motive was for this assignment, I decided to research reactions to Australia’s asylum seeker policy. I found a large number of articles from international human rights organizations condemning this policy. However, I struggled to find critical reports from domestic organizations or Australian media sources. Such a discrepancy suggested a tension between international and domestic perspectives on offshore processing. This allowed me to figure out that my motive was to investigate why there was so little domestic backlash on Australia’s continuous mistreatment of asylum seekers. After deciding this, I needed to figure out my thesis. I had vague ideas about the link between asylum seekers and ideas about internal and external sovereignty, myths of terror, and the normalization of state violence. However, addressing all these concepts in one essay seemed quite messy. 

Upon going through the entire syllabus and highlighting relevant theoretical concepts, I then knew I needed to engage the authors into a scholarly conversation so that I could combine these concepts together. Drawing on what I learned from my R2 in my freshman writing seminar, I sketched out the ways in which the authors interacted. I eventually came to the realization that I could synthesize all these authors’ perspectives into a new form of violence, which I called ‘representational violence.’ I was afraid of the challenges of defining this new concept, and applying this concept to Australia’s asylum seeker policies. However, when writing my essay, I found that it was quite a natural process – I simply kept on adding the contributions of authors on top of others’ to create my definition of representational violence. 

In terms of my evidence and analysis, I found it difficult to talk about the specific details of the policies. Instead, I found myself reading and listening to transcripts of Australian politicians’ speeches regarding the asylum seeker policies. Although a form of evidence that I had not yet interacted with at Princeton, analyzing rhetoric was a crucial part of explaining representational violence. I also read anthropological articles that connected Australia’s asylum seeker policy to other theories of violence. Doing this was a helpful way to understand how I could use representational violence as a theoretical framework to analyze these policies. Whilst creating my own concept was difficult and novel, it was also incredibly rewarding. Challenging myself to defend my argument with my own theoretical perspective was such an interesting method to approach an essay – and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the future!

Editor Commentary / Natalia Espinosa Dice  

When students graduate from Writing Seminar, they likely wonder if they will ever need to use motive again. How could such a Writing Seminar-specific lexicon term possibly translate beyond the structured prompts of the R1, R2 and R3? Zhang’s exceptional excerpt demonstrates not only why we need to use motive, but also why we may even want to. 

Zhang situates three distinct scholarly conversations in context with each other. In doing so, she not only actively engages with four scholars at once – a feat in itself – but also traverses three disciplines: anthropology, philosophy and sociology. By finding the space between and intersections of these three scholarly conversations, she lays the groundwork for her own concept of representational violence. 

What I love most about Zhang’s writing is that she is explicit about why she includes each scholar along the way, making her framework accessible to unfamiliar readers even despite its complexity. However, Zhang does not stop thinking about motive once she establishes her framework. Instead, she deftly weaves motive into her evidence and analysis. Throughout our revision process, I encouraged Zhang to push this even further, simply because after all her work in developing an excellent motive, I wanted her to continue to make it explicit throughout her paper. Her revised excerpt delivers exceptionally in this regard, as Zhang meticulously defines her position in relation to other scholars throughout her section entitled “Control of Visibility.” 

Zhang’s approach to evidence is equally remarkable. In her reflection, she elaborates on her writing process, which notably begins with finding her motive: to investigate the tension between Australia’s actual mistreatment of asylum seekers and the lack of domestic backlash. When she begins gathering evidence, her decision to focus on transcripts of speeches and anthropological articles reflects this same tension, as she utilizes rhetorical analysis in conjunction with an anthropological approach that examines behavior within the context of culture and broader systems. Methodology is often an ambiguous concept for Writing Seminar students. In Zhang’s case, beginning with motive enables her to develop a methodology that helps resolve precisely the tension she identifies. Furthermore, combining a theoretical framework with anthropological evidence and rhetorical analysis makes her essay well-balanced. By anchoring every theoretical concept of her framework in tangible evidence and contextualizing every empirical claim within her theoretical framework, she convinces us that her argument is both credible and complete.  

Perhaps Zhang did not have to construct such a complex motive. Indeed, as Zhang puts it, “…addressing all these concepts in one essay seemed quite messy.” Yet, by dedicating time to finding an intriguing tension, engaging with existing scholarly conversation and crafting a coherent framework that synthesizes all these complex concepts, Zhang accomplishes precisely what she set out to do, and perhaps even more. Her use of motive, along with her writing process itself, sets an example not just for Writing Seminar students but for all of us. 

The author

Laura Zhang

Laura Zhang ‘26 is a sophomore from Sydney, Australia. She is planning on majoring in Public Policy and International Affairs with minors in Humanistic Studies and European Cultural Studies. Laura writes for the Undergraduate Admissions Blog, the Prospect section of the Daily Princetonian, and the Princeton Legal Journal. In her free time, she loves to draw, cook, and sing karaoke. Laura wrote this essay as a sophomore.

Natalia Espinosa Dice ‘26 is a sophomore from Verona, New Jersey. She is majoring in Computer Science with plans to minor in History. In addition to working as a Fellow at the Writing Center, she rides for the Princeton Equestrian Team and is an Outdoor Action Leader Trainer. In her free time, she loves running, hiking and spending time with friends.