Reimagining Policy in Wild Times

Jamie Wang reflects on the launch of Wild Policy: Indigeneity and the Unruly Logics of Intervention, by Tess Lea.

Termite mound at dawn (Nasutitermes triodae), Kakadu National Park, Australia. Photo via Shutterstock, ID: 785608114.

Wild. Uncontrolled. Mystified. These are some of the words that are rarely associated with discussions of policy. Yet in Tess Lea’s Wild Policy, they are the central tenets of a new mode of approaching, interrogating and destabilising the putatively rational realm of policy. “Can there be good Indigenous social policy under late liberal settler occupation?” Lea asks, a question that lies at the heart of her new book. With this provocation, Lea takes us into a world of policy that is at the nexus of the entanglement of the past, the present and the future, inhabited by human and more-than-human communities.

As I take Lea’s thinking into my own work, it illuminates the paradoxes and often “unintended consequences” of policies that I have been grappling with. How has the seemingly sustainable transportation policy in some cities instigated heated debates over its environmental consequences? In what way does the policy aiming towards a sustainable future seem to largely sustain business as usual? Why does some dominant narrative of climate change policy increasingly centre on further intensification and industrialisation as a way to tame perceived unstable environment, rather than changing modes of lifestyles that contribute to it? Wild Policy enables us to see policy anew. Policy is, as Lea describes, a “shape-shifting trickster”. It is wild. It lives, breathes, inhabits and haunts. Policy is a kind of world-making.

“Policy is, as Lea describes, a “shape-shifting trickster”. It is wild. It lives, breathes, inhabits and haunts. Policy is a kind of world-making.”

In this light, what kind of realities does policy produce and reproduce? What animates policy? What does policy animate? With these questions in mind, I immersed myself in a wild policy ride at the book launch, with Lea, the panellists and some 200 participants in a virtual Zoom room. Responding to Wild Policy, panellist Ghassan Hage alerts us that policy is “a particular form of inheritance. Reality itself inherits various policies”. In modern times, across the world, policy seems to also inherit land and bodies as it takes away other kinds of inheritance: from the clearance of the forest and villages to the disappearance of songlines.

In a most recent violent development, this manifests in Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge Cave in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The departure of three senior executives of Rio Tinto may offer some anger relief to investors. Yet the absence of the 46,000-year-old rock shelters has created a void in the landscape and holes in the bodies of Indigenous communities. Of course, this type of events is hardly singular. Lea traces back to merely a few years ago and reveals that the failure of policy has seen the Aboriginal sacred site “Two Women Sitting Down” being destroyed by the mining company OM (Manganese) Ltd. As the work of inheritance and dispossession through policies performs in tandem, it haunts the future to come, the present and the past.

Across the panel, there is a deep admiration and excitement for Lea’s multivalent, brave and careful approach to conceptualising policy. To panellist Heidi Norman, Lea’s effort of being ‘disruptive’ teaches her a new methodology to rethink policy. In Jakelin Troy’s words, a Ngarigu woman from the Snowy Mountains in south-eastern Australia, “there is a myth-making around policy”. In many ways, this mythification of policy is premised on its ongoing demystifying other modes of seeing and living and the active erasure of environment while it inserts its own authority and logic through normalisation and uniformity. As Jakelin Troy tells us, or more accurately, through the words of her mother:

“We never use to have organisations, incorporated bodies. Now it takes, to even begin to engage with the policies in Australia as an Aboriginal person, you got to be incorporated, an incorporated body. It’s not good enough just to be an Aboriginal body, a Ngarigu body.”

Here, bodies are inscribed, becoming the policy body. How has deep-rooted injustice been repackaged into various kinds of policies under the guise of policy rationality? How does social policy, a key apparatus of the state, open up, close down, or restructure possibilities? In Lea’s account, her diverse field exposures are not meant to be positioned as a multi-sited methodology. Rather, these rich ethnographic work is a deliberate effort and labour of fragmentation and defamiliarisation that subverts a particular orderly and linearity of policy narrative. As a result, Wild Policy tells thick and fleshy stories of policy, from their embedded ecological environment, the spatial and temporal entanglement, and to their acts of violence.

Wild Policy demonstrates and argues for the necessity of a contextual and relational policy that is anchored in connectivity. The panel highlights that Lea rejects the tendency of thinking Indigenous issues in isolation. Rather her analyses position social policy at the centre of geopolitics, and in the context of complex social, cultural and political issues and pressing global debates, for example, climate change. Meanwhile, there is a poetics in Lea’s anthologising of policies, one that is profoundly moored in land and relations. The efficacy and power of Lea’s work, be destabilising or advocating, lies in their specific and relational mode of engagement with human and more-than-human worlds. At the same time, Lea makes visible the profound lack of situated and careful attendance to land and Indigenous communities in policy and its consequences.

“There is a poetics in Lea’s anthologising of policies, one that is profoundly moored in land and relations […] Lea makes visible the profound lack of situated and careful attendance to land and Indigenous communities in policy and its consequences.”

At the conclusion of the book, Lea rejects a reduced notion of ‘good’ policy. Indeed, the singular visioning of ‘better policy’, or the popularising ideas of ‘liveable’ and ‘sustainable’ in other kinds of policy are themselves deeply problematic. Then is it possible to have good policy or to reclaim the space of policy? Lea’s affirmative answer is illuminating as she calls to “stay with the state”. My understanding is that this also means to stay with the complexities. In my fieldwork in Singapore, I learned from local environmentalists the necessity of staying with government policymakers in efforts to moving things to a more ecological direction. These often involve compromises and deep frustration. Perhaps Lea would call them as “killjoys”, a term that she (borrowed from Sarah Ahmed) uses to describe the ones that dig out potential benefits within the policy while continuing to trouble the taken-for-granted logic and practices of policy.

As Hage movingly points out, the courage and beauty of Wild Policy is that it inhabits a troubled and flawed world. Yet it is also one that Lea refuses to be transcended. In the time of climate change, growing uncertainty of geopolitics and a strong pursuit of a particular kind of sustainable future underpinned by all sorts of unsustainable policies and practices, it is essential to acknowledge and prepare for conflicts and difficulties while seeking more good within policies.

In David Ritter’s account, there is a non-romantic and hopeful sentiment in Wild Policy. Equally, during the book launch, hope echoes in the digital room of Zoom. There was a strong feeling of solidarity between participants. In a time when our faces are masked, policies are masked and consequences are masked, experiencing and witnessing a real desire and a ‘wild’ approach to open up possibilities is electrifying and humbling. I left the book launch filled with hope. It is also a kind of contingent hope that relies on the becoming of oneself. Might existing policies, ghost policies, future policies learn to attend to the poetics of landscape and honour the embedded bodies? Might it be part of the launch, read Wild Policy, circulate its mode of enquiry and practise its methods in everyday life be a kind of important and ethical inheritance work that we continue to do?

Wild Policy: Indigeneity and the Unruly Logics of Intervention is available here.

Jamie Wang is a writer, poet, and PhD candidate in Environmental Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research explores sustainability practices and technological sustainable solutions in the context of urban greenery, housing development projects, transportation, water infrastructure, and urban agriculture. She has recently finished her dissertation “Reimagining the more-than-human City”.

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