Author: Eve Vincent
Fieldsite: Sydney, Australia
I’m in isolation in Sydney, Australia, teaching my anthropology courses online and home-schooling two children. I offer here a set of personal observations from a vantage point never more limited in this anti-ethnographic moment. I begin in the home and radiate outwards to the suburb, its edges, and beyond—to the permeable border and the nation state’s next door.
The living-learning-working space decays
An estimated 15-30 per cent of Australians are or will soon be able to work from home in this time of social distancing; those who can work from home are earning around 24 per cent more than those who can’t.[i] Philosopher Fiona Jenkins describes the situation of those of us #WFH: “employers have requisitioned the home as a condition of continuing to work, and they have taken away the office as part of what was previously offered to enable people to work”.[ii]
This abrupt requisition raises the question of the gendered distribution of the labour involved in maintaining these “rather un-homely” homes, as Jenkins puts it. These are no longer places more or less emptied of human presence during the day and returned to each evening. The distribution question is important but what I’ve been struck by are the nature of the activities that constitute maintenance, amidst their intensification.
Joan Tronto and Bernice Fisher defined care as “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we might live in it as well as possible”.[iii] Indeed, my world barely encompasses more than the home. But repair suggests something torn that needs suturing. Instead, it seems a matter of entropy and restoration. The immediate living-learning-working space rapidly decays—grass blows across tiles, dust accretes, someone tore a mandarin skin into tiny pieces and piled it next to the compost bin. WHO ATE A BISCUIT IN THE BATH?
The effort of restoration is essentially repetitive. The accelerated life cycle of the dishwasher, for example: dirtying, packing, cleaning, unpacking, dirtying…. Repetition was always a theme in feminist accounts of house work—emphasis there on the labour involved. But contra to that literature, this work seems more visible in its constancy.
In response, perhaps, I’ve channelled my inner Mary Douglas, undertaking tasks such as sorting the bath towels from the beach towels, and even hiding the latter in a desperate attempt to arrest yet more mixing of the categories: there’s already so much bleed from week to weekend, pyjama pants to pants-pants, school to home.
The suburb and its edges
Beyond the home, the suburb. According to a podcast I listened to, all over the globe lively cosmopolitan city spaces are eerily quiet. Not so the western suburbs of Sydney, that vast, scorched “multicultural real”, as Ghassan Hage calls it.[iv] Here everyone seems determined to mow, leaf blow and whipper snip their way through the pandemic. There’s a preponderance of multi-generational households out west. And walking our suburb’s streets offers glimpses of other non-nuclear family arrangements: rows of paint-splattered work-boots on the porch suggest room sharing on the part of temporary migrant labourers. Our elderly Korean neighbours are confused, even alarmed, after we drop off a written message saying we are happy to help, but ultimately it leads to a faltering, smiling conversation over the fence (about where to get pasta).
On the edges of this suburb, there’s a kind of wild space: an overgrown corner of a cemetery, carpeted sometimes in wild freesias, and dotted with leaning, weathered gravestones. Crows steal the Easter eggs we hide in a stand of scented gums. I previously regarded this as a kind of secret place, a solitary place, but we’re sharing it now as many people, with their bikes and their dogs, seek out this urban edge.
Out walking with the kids, I read an inscription aloud. “In loving memory of Ellen Rogers 5 years, Percy Rogers 6 months, Sydney Rogers 3 months, Frank Rogers 18 months.” These were the children of Jemima and James Rogers who lived into their 60s and 70s, respectively, dying in the 1920s and 1930s. “Oh my god! I can’t cope,” I groan. My 12-yr-old son glances at the headstone, replying: “I am NOT affected by that.” Adept at deflecting his mother’s histrionics? Or are our comments best understood as directed elsewhere? I. Can’t. Cope. (“The parents are not all right,” reads another headline.[v]) And in isolation in Australia, where less than a hundred people have died, it’s hard to know how to be affected by waves of mediatised mass deaths remote in geographic space.
The border, other kinds of neighbours
Radiating outward again, and recalibrating the scale: to the malleable border. Officers working for Border Force Australia, a militarised outfit formed as part of Australia’s notoriously brutal border regime, checked the passports of Ruby Princess cruise ship passengers as they disembarked, without issuing further instructions. Meanwhile, 140 passengers on board isolated with health concerns, and cases associating with the Ruby Princess are. Yet asylum seekers with pre-existing health problems are held two to a room under surveillance, in places of alternative detention, such as hotels within but outside of the nation.[vi]
And, finally, nearby but not immediate: the ABC’s digital story team provides sumptuous coverage of Australia’s preparedness with a story featuring images of ventilators swathed in plastic. I am reassured, and thankful for universal health care. These feelings fade fast to unease. Things could soon be calamitous in Indonesia, if they are not so already– with limited testing capacity, dense cites and high smoking rates. There’s very little coverage of the nation state’s next door: Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are “our” nearest “neighbours”. I can’t hear the calls for “kindness” at the outer limits of this auto-ethnographic exercise.
[iii] Tronto, Joan and Bernice Fisher. 1990. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring.” In Circles of Care, edited by Emily Abel and Margaret Nelson, 36-54. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
[iv] Ghassan Hage. 1998 White Nation. Pluto Books: Sydney, NSW.