Mediating affect in John Pilger’s Utopia: ‘the good life’ as a structure of whiteness

Cefai, Sarah. 2018. Mediating affect in John Pilger’s Utopia: ‘the good life’ as a structure of whiteness. Cultural Studies, 32(1), pp. 126-148. ISSN 0950-2386 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This article proposes that whiteness should be thought of as an affective structure, theorizing whiteness in terms of optimism, possessive subjectivity and multiculturalism. The article shows how the optimism of ‘the good life’ [Berlant, L., 2011. Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press] is linked structurally to whiteness in the construction of the Australian nation-state. In this context, Utopia [2013. Film. Directed by John Pilger. Australia: Antidote Films] specifically identifies whiteness as an affective structure. The article develops by unpacking this claim. First, I consider how the affective structure of the Australian nation-state is encountered through the mutual mediation of ‘media’ and ‘place’. I focus on the example of the film's journey to Rottnest Island – formerly an island prison, now the destination of holiday makers – to highlight how the optimism of arrival links whiteness to the present. Second, I develop an analysis of the affective surfaces of whiteness by analyzing the film's encounter with ‘White Man faciality’ [Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F., 1987. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press] and Indigenous ‘slow death’ [Berlant, L., 2011. Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press]. Through producing a series of faces, Utopia portrays whiteness as a deflective surface that propagates the ‘onto-pathology’ of white Australia [Nicolacopoulos, T. and Vassilacopoulos, G., 2014. Indigenous sovereignty and the being of the occupier: manifesto for a white Australian philosophy of origins. Melbourne:]. Utopia also portrays whiteness as an absorptive surface in which Aboriginal self-possession – including, in the form of life – disappears. The film emphasizes the loss of Aboriginal life through illness and suicide linked to incarceration, overcrowding and state-induced impoverishment. The article concludes by locating media (including Utopia) within the tension between absorption and deflection as a tension between the different spatial actions of the affective relations that mediate whiteness.

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space, place, media, affect, whiteness

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


14 December 2017Published Online

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Date Deposited:

25 Jan 2019 10:02

Last Modified:

10 Jun 2021 09:50

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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