In this paper I speak to the interrelation of subjectivity and time, asking “what is the effect of the indefinite length of detention on how asylum seekers construct their identities in Australia?” Goffman describes the reduction of strategies of self-preservation available to the inmates of asylums such as mental institutions and prisons. The ways in which people on the ‘outside’ can offer subtle resistance to unpleasant tasks, by evincing sullenness of expression, muttered comments, and so on, reminiscent of the everyday forms of peasant resistance described by Scott (1987) is more closely monitored inside a total institution (Goffman 1961, p. 41). The importance of effecting small forms of resistance becomes magnified as a method of retaining some degree of autonomy. This analysis sheds light on the behaviour of one man I was visiting in detention. In order to effect the slight feeling of autonomy afforded by minor resistances, he no longer participated in what Goffman calls removal activities, activities such as excursions, field games and the like, which are intended to make the inmate oblivious for a time to the inexorable passage of institutional time. However Goffman’s comment on removal activities “if the ordinary activities in total institutions can be said to torture time, these activities mercifully kill it” (p. 67), relies on an assumption that the inmates know when they will be released. The sometimes hourly count of time until their release date is unavailable to asylum seekers in detention. This opens up to critical theorising the relation between subjectivity and time, through Grosz’s critical re-understandings of the relation between the two that show clearly that the two are bound up in each other (Grosz 2005).
Laurel Mackenzie is a PhD candidate writing on the question of how refugees and asylum seekers in Australia construct their identities, using a narrative research methodology that relies on an intersubjective approach to the hermeneutic phenomenological analysis of interviews with research participants. She currently works as an associate Lecturer in RMIT's School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, teaching an undergraduate course in social constructionism. Her research interests include Critical Theory, Gender Studies, Post colonialism, Phenomenology, and Language and Identity.
from our workshop on Power, Time and Agency held in Manchester, January 2013