Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist.

October 17, 2012 § 8 Comments

I was in Sydney for two weeks, which was nice, but nice doesn’t quite capture it. And what was nice about it? Being away from KL was nice. “I need a new city”, someone I follow once said on Twitter, and that seems to be the thing: I need a new city. I don’t think Sydney will be my city, although I loved it, and I loved spending time with my nephews while they were on their school break, I liked the idea of a wholesome PG-13 holiday and I liked being asked by the barista if I was enjoying the school break, being away from school must be fun and all, he said. And then I said no, I’m no longer in school, and then he was like, Oops and Are these your children, then? referring to my nephews, and I somehow went from high school kid to mum in like two seconds but look, if someone wants to think I’m still in high school I am going to silently, gratefully thank the universe. But why should I thank anyone or anything, fuck this ageist capitalist society, fuck it, yes, but I still live in it, so how to fuck it is the question. The barista was cute, and my sister watched me from afar, and then calmly informed my nephews that the barista was trying to flirt with Aunty Suba and then my nephews giggled and I stammered and blushed as much as I could blush with brown skin. And the one thing they don’t tell you about older sisters is that you might get older but you’ll always feel (be) 12 around them.

We went to Darling Harbour while I was there, and that’s the one part of the city I loathed because it was a nightmare concoction of what corporate city planners think is “wholesome family fun”, there are restaurants and malls and museums and an IMAX theater and carefully-planted trees and Disneylandesque stone paths and manufactured conviviality and it reminded me so much of Singapore’s Marina Bay, another place that makes you want to run away as you enter into its vicinity.


Uniformed white men on horses in Circular Quay. I think there were epic ceremonial rites taking place that we basically stumbled upon by chance. I mean, there were reporters and shit! And who can resist the uniformed white men on horses? Not us Malaysian tourists, that’s for sure.

While taking the train from the suburbs, where my brother’s family lives, to the city, I stared out of the windows and saw things — shops and places and people and the “Say no to burqas” graffiti next to the one proclaiming “Free speech”.

Things that stick in your mind.

The one place I can’t get out of my mind is Cockatoo Island, which was formerly a penal colony (in the mid to late 19th century), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourist spot (when we went it was a long weekend and families were coming in on the ferry to camp there for the weekend). While I really wanted to visit the place — absorb it, in a way — because of its history (that awful, almost unavoidable touristy need to cannibalise history and its affects), I also couldn’t shake off the wrongness of my presence, my out-of-placeness, or the out-of-placeness of all “visitors” in a place that was formerly a site of discipline, surveillance, and hard labour. “Foucault tourism” as Nicholas Mirzoeff writes, in a piece which you should read:

My British forebears did know how and where to build prisons, you have to give them that. The island is isolated in the middle of Sydney harbor, with the prison itself located on top of a steep cliff. Recent excavations have uncovered minute solitary confinement cells, which have a distinctly contemporary look in this Abu Ghraib era. The officials built themselves sandstone residences with a Georgian feel but placed at the highest point to give them a panoptic viewpoint. Grain silos dug into the rock still have chain rings, to which the excavating prisoners were linked while working. The prison was created right at the end of the transportation era in 1849–convicts were not sent to New South Wales after 1850, although they went to Western Australia as late as 1868.

Factory workhouse on Cockatoo Island

I stood inside the the military barracks/guard house, the place from which military supervisors of the penal colony monitored the prisoners, and took pictures of the panipticon while watching other tourists take pictures of the panopticon, all the while waiting for an answer from Foucault. Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist. What am I doing here?

Cockatoo Island’s military guardhouse i.e. panopticon


In 2000, a group of Aboriginal people occupied the island and claimed it as sovereign territory. You can still see their murals, using the Aboriginal flag as a motif. Using the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, Isabell Coe and others asserted that Britain had never formally claimed the island, a claim rejected by the courts as “inconceivable.” Really? A deserted island on the edge of the harbor? Regardless, Coe created a tent embassy on the island and asserted sovereignty. The occupation of occupied indigenous land and the counterclaim to sovereignty was a powerful performative act.

The art exhibition was over when I was there and so the island was populated by adults and surly teenagers and perplexed babies, looking at the air raid shelter and the powerhouse chimney and the sewerage treatment plant and perhaps recognising the ghosts among us. It’s a quiet, isolated place; perfect, in fact, for isolated disciplinary methods and punitive labour. Strong winds, the bright sun. “This place is fascinating,” said a mother to her two teenage sons, coming down the road just ahead of us. “It was the most boring experience of my life,” said the elder son, shoving his younger brother.


While I was in Sydney my review of Roshi Fernando’s Homesick went up on Pop Matters. I didn’t expect to like it for various reasons I talk about in the review, but it surprised me. You can read the review in full here but here’s an excerpt:

One of my favourite stories, “Sophocles’s Chorus”, gives us a youthful Preethi slowly blossoming into her sexual and intellectual powers: she kisses the most lusted-after boy in school, she reads Howard’s End and Antigone, she is the star in a school play, and her dreams and words and images slowly bleed into one another until fantasies and imagination hold the possibility of becoming real. But these moments of youthful potential and hope, moments that appear to be touched by a sort of otherworldly grace, sour pretty quickly, and the kiss becomes a shame that Preethi must endure under the watchful, cruel eyes of her peers.

What starts out as tragedy on the page, experienced from a distance as a reader of Sophocles, becomes the unwished-for reality: all that held the promise of something sweet becomes rank with wrong choices and misdeeds, and Preethi slashes her wrists in the bathtub. She survives this suicide attempt, of course, but the Preethi we meet later will always be raw and vulnerable, always approaching the edge of something, only to be pulled back by someone: a husband, a cousin. Families will consistently fuck you up, Fernando seems to say, but sometimes they also don’t let you die.



Also if I had to choose between watching a slice of dry toast sit on a plate and a Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance, I’d go with the former.


People tell me that JGL is Great and Hot but I think Toast is Better, Seriously. I know he was supposed to be really good in Brick, which I think I watched, although I can’t remember maybe I just ate some toast who knows, so maybe I should watch Brick and revisit my opinion of JGL.

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§ 8 Responses to Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist.

  • Umm a book with a supersad Preethi character? I must read this!

    Also, as I read about your barracks visit, I thought of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place– the first chapter, on what it means to be a tourist, but then I thought no, that is a manifesto for the unquestioning tourist. I wonder if the questioning tourist is packing an extra bag of questioning or taking home a metaphoric cheap souvenir of that which is questionable. I mean that from a personal perspective as someone who travels and tries to question and doesn’t really know what to do with it all once I’ve done both. It is also how I feel about museums. :/

    • Subashini says:

      If you do, let me know what you think! I feel like I may have been swayed by OH MY GOD SRI LANKAN CONNECTIONS *WEEP* but I don’t know? (More & more I think I should stop reviewing books because I read and read and I don’t know anything.)

      I haven’t read Kincaid’s A Small Place though I believe I have a copy of it. Story of my life. Your comment is really interesting, though, and I sort of want to read it right now. And I know exactly what you mean–I’m the person who will be in all the museums hating herself for being in all the museums; I’m not sure how this position helps me understand what I’m doing when I’m “visiting” places that are not Home.

  • blackshepherd says:

    JGL is hot and what? I had to scroll all the way back up to see…great…JGL is hot and great or great and hot…I wonder if the order of the adjectives matters? I think it does somehow…if I wasn’t so depressed maybe I could get to it…? But then it occured to me…toast is great and is hot too…how could one ever decide? How could you justify leaving one out while choosing the other when clearly they both have the same adjectives attached to them? It was at that moment that I realized that you would let me die so I killed myself…it’s not your fault…I’m saying “thank you” in my silly way….

  • (uhm i JUST realised this is a post from 2012 but i just have to comment bc i just came back frm syd which i love-hate, love bc of the reasons you mentioned, hate bc of the reasons you mentioned hmm)

    hmm sydney was defo strange for me, i felt sorta at home (in the same way i did in hongkong), that is to say, i felt comfortable in the presence of these gigantic urban cities deliberately constructed to feel like home for the tourists bc they all look the same, feel the same, smell the same. i kept repeating to my friend (who’s msian-sri lankan) how much syd reminds me of singapore and hong kong and she agreed and we both said yeah it’s just weird really and sipped our organic coffee.

    i have to say tho haha we arrived at darling harbour at ard 5ish which means sunset orange glow on the beacons of citydom and cosmopolitian-ness and yeah try as i might we couldnt help but marvel at the beauty (yes i know @_@), even rave a little, laugh at our touristy moment (loads of them in this trip), a brown and yellow girl being in the joke bc we know tourists v well, haha but yes syd was strange. ahh really there’s many things to unpack after that brief trip. things like homeness (ppl i meet from home, ppl who don’t want to go home, ppl who can’t go home) and cities (melb vs syd????) and people (quote unquote the chineseness of syd) and straya in general and travelling and borders

    • Subashini says:

      Thanks for stopping by (I wonder if this is a strange thing to say but it’s certainly nice when people I follow on Tumblr show up on my WordPress blog because, well, it really feels like two different worlds a lot of the time).

      I think I know what you mean about the comforting familiarity–much as I deride it, or mock it, or am critical of it, the neoliberal landscape of uniform big cities is a comfort to me, as well. Like parts of Sydney that also remind me of KL, and sort of signal to you that you are indeed in the same place in a different country. I guess so much of this is achieved through how urban spaces are designed, and the ubiquitous brands. So yeah, definitely get what you say– and it’s inescapable, actually. (When I was watching Man of Steel recently I was thinking, in addition to the destruction of US cities on screen as a sort of cultural reenactment of 9/11 forever, as others have said, I wonder if part of the thrill people get from these movies is the idea of the destruction of the every-city, the spectacle of it. We’re comforted by how professional these cities are and yet so sick of it we want to see it burn to the ground.)

      “sunset orange glow on the beacons of citydom and cosmopolitian-ness”–right?! I have so many pictures of this, I don’t even know #touristyness

      • shaking my head and laughing and nodding and yes thank you for replying my ramblings! i find it strangeish to comment here but tumblr is a strange place to interlocute (not sure if theres such a word but lets just roll w it) beyond reblogging Things and More Things

        but hmm, yes. this neoliberal landscape, constant invocation of home, home is uniformity, home is homogeneity, home is sameness, its mundane, its familiar, and yes this construction of a homogenous event using these homogenous spaces we all share, destruction of said spaces as a way of remembrance, mourning perhaps? (i will insert a reference to freud’s M&M but alas i’m an eng major who didnt have much to do w these Great European Male Thinkers of our times)

        so yeah the destruction of these urban spaces, the familiarity of these spaces, the familiarity of the way these spaces are destroyed just unsettles me, some Impt Person said something abt farce and tragedy and repeating events and blah blah yeah hollywood’s defo taken it to a whole new level, i dont even watch any of these things (i get too overwhelmed by Explosions! Fire! Guns! Masculinity! The Occasional Mothers! Phalluses! and its just bad for my heart) but there is defo smth to be said about our consumption of such narratives, the readiness of our consumption, our gleefulness in discovering these narratives, our insatiable appetite for these narratives. resilience, overcoming, destruction, coming together, salvation, black screen.

      • Subashini says:

        No, thank you! Haha. We could go back and forth on this. All I do on Tumblr and Twitter these days is silently reblog and fav and like and it’s all so stealthy and odd, I don’t know why I feel “freer” to ramble here on WordPress (probably because I get the sense no one actually reads stuff here …)

        Ah yes, I’m an Eng major too, unfortunately–

        I should stop watching these things, these movies that I hate so much, but still I go, and I wonder if I and many others keep showing up at these Hollywood blockbusters in order to punish ourselves, like a form of collective self-abasement.

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