The ABC series Cleverman is notable for the introduction of an Indigenous superhero, the Cleverman, and a race of superhumans, the Hairypeople. It also provides a commentary on the perception of natural differences in a near future Australia, which is presented through frequent references to evolutionary development and genetic exceptionalism. In a trope that readily invokes Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, the Hairypeople suffer discrimination due to their superhuman abilities (strength, speed, and longevity) in addition to their hirsute appearance. The series knowingly reflects on race and the politics of discrimination, but owing to this superhuman premise, it also introduces arguments on how physical differences can, or indeed should, be conceptualised socially, politically and scientifically. Unlike many superhero texts that celebrate the augmentation of the human body through non-natural means, most notably Iron Man and Wolverine, Cleverman valorises natural physical advantages and critiques technologies that seek to improve human bodies outside the natural course of evolution. This promotion of the natural vital body over the technologically augmented body revisits a longstanding debate in biology and philosophy between vitalism, a theory of life, and mechanism. This debate is also addressed in fictional works, and the best-known literary example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which examines how artificially produced life operates outside the family and consequently disrupts the natural order. Cleverman follows in this tradition by questioning artificial attempts to harness, control and reproduce natural abilities, as well as biological attempts to explain life or reduce it to the physical function of the human body. The series does not develop a coherent philosophy of vitalism or even a consistent vitalist aesthetic but, throughout both seasons, life retains a specificity that eludes science. Life is variously depicted as a vaporous spirit energy, a living force in the blood, and as an irreducible substance that animates the body or continues to live as a substance outside of it. This article will trace the vitalist themes in Cleverman, in particular the implicit critique of mechanistic biology and the sanctioning of a notion of life that functions in concordance with the natural vital body. It will also examine the degree to which the underlying vitalist premise is consistent with, or can be supported by, some of the broader narrative and social aims of the series.

Vitalism and the Critique of Biological Mechanism

Vitalism is a biological theory that was popular throughout the 19th century and continued to have many supporters in early part of the 20th century, but has largely been discredited since the discovery of DNA. It arose in response to a scientific and philosophical milieu that was increasingly beholden to mechanical principles in order to explain both organic and inorganic phenomena. Due to the widespread influence of Isaac Newton and mechanical laws of motion, scientists were emboldened to argue that biological processes, including the genesis and maintenance of organic life, could be explained in ways that did not give any special status to life itself. Basing many of its claims on evidence afforded by the microscope and the study of embryology, vitalism rejected what it saw as the overreach of materialism and mechanism.1 Vitalism encompasses a diverse range of ideas but the common theme is that life is not reducible to other non-living processes, and should be accorded its own status as an explanatory principle. It attempts to provide a concrete understanding of how life operates in a biological context which, in most cases, is characterised as a movement or force that animates every living organism in terms of growth, development and ageing.2 One of the key proponents in biology at the turn of the 20th century, Hans Driesch, argues that vitalism has four main tenets: 1. life processes can only be described accurately using non-scientific principles; 2. the organism is self-creative and autonomous; 3. the organism cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts; 4. causality in organic systems requires a final “unifying” or individualising cause.3 Any attempt to fully reduce the organism to a set of properties found in the cell, tissue, or the mechanical operation of molecules will not reveal the unity of life. Vitalism is not restricted to biology, for it can describe more broadly a certain attentiveness to life and the willingness to sympathise with the life of other organisms across a range of disciplines.4 In philosophy, this attention to life often takes the form of arguments about what it means to live in accordance with the life force, whereas in the arts, the emphasis is on how life reveals itself in aesthetic practice or representation.

Before we turn to some specific examples, it is important to first indicate why vitalism is a useful theory through which to examine a recent television program that largely focuses on social and political issues and is underpinned by a superhero premise. One of the main reasons is the consistent depiction of the irreducibility of life, often as an active life force, and the concomitant critique of Western biology. In the first series, Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard), the Cleverman, demonstrates a remarkable ability to regenerate, and when his blood is dripped onto the nulla nulla (a traditional hunting stick) in a genetics laboratory, the club is reanimated and able to repair itself. Likewise, the sap of a fig tree carries with it a type of living energy even after Koen’s brother, Waruu West (Rob Collins), has removed it from the tree. It self-organises to take on the form of a knife with which Waruu attempts to kill Koen – the living sap has the capacity to prevent Koen’s body from regenerating. With respect to vitalist biology, Driesch argues that one of the features of a living organism is a tendency towards wholeness found in ontogenesis and bodily regeneration, which can only be properly explained in terms of life as an active principle.5 In Cleverman, this depiction of the capacity of life to animate, generate and preserve the body is, in most cases, represented as a semi-physical force attendant on the body, and as such the series mainly operates within a vitalist logic. However, it is also given a transcendental explanation insofar as it is linked to the Dreaming or Dreamtimea mythical time of origin for a number of Australian Indigenous groups. Despite the fact that the Dreaming is composed of many origin stories, it is timeless and continues to act on the present and in Cleverman this is often represented in terms of the active presence of a life force.

This vitalist logic is also manifest in the negative representation of biological science and genetics as practices that usurp the natural and vital in their attempt to understand and enhance the human body. This negative characterisation of biology would be largely unnecessary if the series principally sought to explore the transcendental, for the main contrast would be between life on earth and life in the spirit world. The science fiction themes, in which bodies are refashioned according to biological and technological principles, often usurp the proper examination of Indigenous spirituality. The story of Kora (Alexis Lane), who is presented as one of the ancestors, is first presented as a laboratory subject who is being studied because she might offer valuable insights into improving human life. Rather than fully develop the spiritual themes, the narrative focuses on scientific research driven by self-interest and commercialisation. There are parallels to other contemporary drama series, such as the ABC’s Glitch, which, despite the supernatural premise of dead people coming back to life, places greater emphasis on biology’s hubris in trying to control or recreate life, which is, of course, a theme in Frankenstein. In the first series, the critique of the biological manipulation of life is mainly explored through the character Jarrod Slade (Iain Glenn), a media proprietor who also operates a clandestine genetic lab on the side. In this laboratory, Slade seeks to understand the biological principles underpinning the Hairypeople’s strength and longevity, and in a series of scientific experiments, succeeds in extracting a serum that is able to replicate these superhuman abilities in human subjects. A scientific explanation is given that links the efficacy of the serum to the mitochondrial function of the cell, but such explanations are never entirely consistent. The specification of the difference between Hairypeople and humans is attributed to a range of biological processes from genetics to the operation of the blood. As with many science fiction films and television series, it is not the veracity of the scientific processes that count, but how they can be represented visually. Images of cells attacking disease and the extraction of liquid substances from the body are easier to represent visually than variations in DNA.

The representation of accurate laboratory practices is less important than placing contemporary biology in opposition to the natural body, with its naturally acquired aptitudes and abilities. Biology is a science that treats the bodies it experiments on – the Hairies, the Cleverman and Kora – as a resource through which to create technological substances that could enhance human life. The philosopher Martin Heidegger would refer to this as “enframing,” in which instrumental and technological reason conceptualises nature as calculable and predictable, but, in so doing, ends up controlling humanity.6 In Cleverman this theme is played out through biological attempts to separate the essence of life from a body, and it is not surprising that Slade realises how to extract the mitochondria from the hairy cells after watching his wife Charlotte Cleary (Frances O’Connor) cut fat from bacon. Biological research is rendered malign due to the commercialisation and commodification of the body through the actions of large genetics corporations – a common theme in recent televisual dystopian narratives, including Kudos’ Utopia (2013-14) and Orphan Black (2013-17). In Cleverman, this is incorporated into a broader narrative about race for the Hairypeople are effectively farmed for what they can offer humans, in particular rich humans such as Jarrod Slade. The serum extracted from the Hairies is coloured phosphorescent green to indicate the unnaturalness of the process, and this can be contrasted with the warm red colour of blood and sap, which are exuded naturally. The unnaturalness of this green substance is presented in a number of ways. In the early laboratory experiments, it is shown to augment the speed and strength of a human subject only to cause death shortly afterward. In later experiments, when Slade uses the extract to extend and improve his own life, it only has a short-term effect. The lack of efficacy is linked to the unnaturalness of the process, which can be contrasted with the proper development of life from within.

In many of the philosophical forms of vitalism, there is a preference for those practices that adhere to life’s immanent tendencies, or the vital order, unlike modern biology that attempts to recreate and redevelop life according to its own mechanistic ends. For the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the vital order describes a general push or impetus of life (élan vital) that extends across evolution as a general willingness to live and create.7 To live to the fullest means to accept the evolutionary imperative, rather than to redesign life to suit artificial purposes and expectations. In many vitalist works, life is presented as a constant virile force that infuses bodies and drives them towards procreation and the constant renewal of life.8 In Cleverman, this lack of natural virility and a dependence on artificial augmentation is exemplified through Jarrod Slade and Charlotte Cleary’s incapacity to conceive naturally – a problem that is solved when Slade creates a bogus fertility clinic and surreptitiously encourages his wife to seek treatment there. The audience is led to believe that the baby is a hairy-human hybrid which grows at an abnormal rate and, therefore, operates outside of the realm of natural reproduction. Yes, new life will be created, but only through artificial means that operate against life’s will. In the first series, the susceptible or weak body is associated with scientific augmentation that operates against evolution and natural development. Science might succeed in capturing aspects of the living, but the application of its commercial and technical logic may actually work against life itself. It should be noted that this presentation of life’s unknowability sometimes touches on the transcendental – in particular when Koen invokes the Dreaming – but it most cases it is grounded in a moral argument that is very much terrestrial, in which it is claimed that any organism should live in alignment with its own natural predispositions.

Representing the Vital

The critique of biological intervention is a backdrop for the representation of natural differences as well as judgements on what it means to live a proper and natural life, of which there are significant differences in the representation of the Cleverman and the Hairypeople. Although the Cleverman has abilities associated with the earth – he holds his hands to the earth in order to invoke its power, he carves a nulla nulla from a fig tree, etc. – he is mostly distinguished by spiritual powers that are associated with the Dreaming and extend beyond an earthly, physical present. He is able to breathe and immobilise the spirit (muya) of others, see into the future and past, and transform into other living creatures. In contrast, the abilities of the Hairypeople are strongly grounded in the body and mainly represented in terms of physical vitality. In terms of a vitalist aesthetics, the behaviour of an organism should indicate life as an expressive force, which John Dewey describes as an “impulsion” or the general “movement outward and forward of the whole organism,” manifest in many types of activity from a general desire for food to the heliotropism of plants.9 The art theorist Herbert Read has argued these vitalist principles have appeared in many forms throughout the history of the visual arts. In some prehistoric art the intensity of life is indicated through the kinetic properties of bodies, in which the overarching principle is that “inward sensations” must be visible in the exterior form of the body, for example in forms of cave painting where the “running limbs are lengthened because in the act of running they feel long.”10 Television offers more ways to indicate the vitality of living creatures because the internal expressive movement can be linked to actual physical movement. In Cleverman, the vitality of the Hairypeople is presented through the types of physical actions they can excel in, such as fighting, hunting, and running – they are often depicted running through the city with a type of movement that resembles parkour – but also in terms of their general hairiness.

The Hairypeople are loosely based on Indigenous stories about a group called the Hairy Men, or Yowies, who, according to one of the show’s directors, Leah Purcell, lived in the mountains after being cast out for contravening “tribal law.” These Hairy Men developed distinctive abilities because they “evolved over years of time of living, trying to survive in the mountains with extra strength and more hair to survive the colder winters.”11 In Cleverman, hairiness is the basis for the Hairypeople’s alterity, for it readily distinguishes them from the “Skins” (i.e. humans), and the vehicle for a science fiction critique of racial tensions and differences. Eric Greene argues that science fiction is particularly well placed in this regard because it retains a metaphorical and allegorical distance from the social issues it interrogates. Many of the real world tensions are mitigated by their representation in a much safer fictional space and the creators are also afforded the opportunity to deny a strongly political motive.12 Hairiness reframes debates about racial differences without reference to skin colour and, therefore, without a direct reference to an existing race or culture. The audience is asked to confront the issue rather than the prejudice. This allegorical distancing can be used in films and TV shows to draw out ethical analogies about race: for example, the Planet of the Apes films explored key political struggles of the 1960s and ’70s through contrasting humans with apes, as well as drawing class distinctions between the different types of apes; and Star Trek often uses alien otherness to recast earthly racial debates. In Cleverman, hairiness is presented as a symbol of resistance that can be linked to the afro during the black power period in American history. When Djukara (Tysan Towney) is in prison, the guards shave him, which deprives him of his power and leaves him humiliated and less willing to challenge authority. Greene also states that science fiction narratives do not have to be intentional allegories, for their value and power comes from their capacity to draw upon a common “cultural memory” that is shared between audience and filmmakers.13 In the representation of the Hairies, the particular narrative about racial discrimination is supplemented by the various connotations and affects that accrue to hair, from aesthetic concerns about what constitutes a beautiful body to evolutionary arguments about the progression from animals to humans.

Critiques of racial discourse often expose how minor racial differences are falsely interpreted for social and political ends, which differs from a vitalist perspective which often celebrates natural differences. Of course, such differences can be construed for political ends in eugenicist arguments and forms of nationalism, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s conflation of the Aryan and Hellenic body in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.14 Hairiness, like skin colour, is external but where it differs is in its capacity to grow and regenerate, and that is hairiness can be used to symbolise the strength and vitality of the body. In Cleverman, hair is the expression of a life force that resists suppression, as is evinced in Waruu’s repeated attempts to contain his burgeoning hairiness by shaving his body before work. It is also posited as a resource with its own intrinsic power when a couple of yuppie hairdressers in the first series imprison and shave Latani (Rarriwuy Hick) so they can sell her hair online for a high price due to its supposed vital powers – a plot device reminiscent of the sale of blood in the series True Blood. The vitality of the hair is also indicated in a narrative of assimilation, where the Hairypeople are administered a drug by a government unit run by Waruu that removes their hair but also their identity and strength. The drug is dispensed in a room that resembles a chemotherapy ward, which is appropriate because chemotherapy kills off fast growing cells such as hair and is an artificial process that contains the natural expression of life. Boondee (Tony Briggs) is stripped of so much hair that he remains bald for the remainder of the second series, and in this state he is also stripped of the superhuman qualities that distinguish the Hairypeople. The use of hair as a symbol of a vital power can be linked to the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, although with some important points of distinction: cranial hair is associated with youth and vigour, whereas bodily hair can introduce notions of animality as well as referencing man’s evolutionary past.

The association of hairiness with vitality marks a significant contrast with the history of the nude in Western art and culture, particularly Hellenic sculpture and neo-Classicist art works, in which beautiful, and often vital bodies are shown to be hairless. Classical ideals of beauty, Apollonian male figures and Venusian female bodies, are a distinctive feature of Australian vitalist art in the first half of the twentieth century which sought to represent a “new Australian” body.15 The ideal figure in the work of a number of photographers, including Max Dupain, was depicted as a white Australian “honed through time spent lying in the sun and swimming in the ocean.”16 These athletic bodies were muscular and hairless, and there are many reasons for this. In addition to the obvious racial bias in which hairiness is linked to animality, it can also appear overtly sexual and hence the absence of pubic hair in most nudes in the history of Western art. On a purely aesthetic level, a hairless body better reveals the contours of the musculature, hence its popularity in contemporary gym culture. The smoothness of skin reveals the surface and line of the muscles, and a tanning indicates engagement with the vitality of the sun, which is most keenly expressed in Max Dupain’s photograph Sunbaker (1937).

Max Dupain’s 1937 photograph Sunbaker

In the Hairypeople, Cleverman critiques this Eurocentric notion that strength and vitality should be associated with the smoothly toned hairless body by indicating that the Western hairless body is sculpted for appearance and has only transitory power. This is most starkly presented in episode four of the first series, where a topless Caucasian man with a perfectly toned hairless body is injected with the hairy serum in a laboratory equipped with all the latest sports science devices – exercise bike, biometric data, etc. He is able to achieve quite remarkable speeds on the bike before he collapses and dies. His augmented body is unable to accommodate the natural power of the Hairypeople, whose natural bodies are adapted to their environment rather than sculpted for appearance. Indeed, the Hairies’ bodies, with their matted and diffuse contours, appear incongruous in the austere stainless steel, concrete and glass surfaces of the contemporary laboratory, gym and cityscape which, in part, explains the awkward appearance of the body design in the first series. It is only the second series, with the introduction of the story of the Bindawu people living in a bush environment, that these bodies appear congruous with their setting. The diffuse light reflected through the eucalypts, the irregularity of the scrub and grasses, the loose bark of the trees and clothes made from natural material actually complement the swathes of matted hair.

Publicity still depicting members of the Bindawu community in a bush setting.

The Unrealised Lifeforce

As a mythical group that live outside of contemporary society, the Hairypeople present an interesting take on the superhero figure. Their physical superiority and vitality is associated with their closeness to the earth and their evolutionary success. They are not simply faster and stronger than humans but actually another species with distinct DNA and a “totally different physiology” that could hunt down humanity and wipe them out. However, this alterity, a vital hairy vision of the world, is not properly examined. The series effaces their distinctiveness by incorporating them into a narrative of discrimination that has obvious parallels with the detention of asylum seekers in Australia and the victimisation of Indigenous Australians in the judicial system. The Hairypeople, along with their human supports and sympathisers, are isolated in a ghetto that has many of the features of the detention camps in Australia, from the misleading use of the images in a mediated political debate to the prohibition of journalists from entering the area. The oppression of the Hairies in prison can be linked to the scandal about the unfair treatment of Aboriginal youths in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.17 By beginning with this narrative of oppression, the audience is not presented with the key moment of conflict when the Hairypeople first encountered the Skins on Emergence Day, despite the fact the opening episode is titled “First Contact” – the first series is actually set six months after Emergence Day. With their knowledge, strength and speed, one would expect that the Hairies would respond with vigour to any attempt by the Skins to subdue them. The Emergence could have been the most significant moment in the series, for it would have depicted the two cultures first coming to terms with their otherness, which should have suited creator Ryan Griffen’s stated purpose to use the Hairypeople to “teach people about the other.”18 However, rather than really invoking the other, this ethical purpose only serves to flatten out natural differences. The audience is presented with a benign, peace loving people who have already been subjugated by the Containment Authority – indeed any minority group could fit the profile – rather than a mythological outcast people with extraordinary powers who are willing to confront their oppressor.

The Hairypeople, despite their physical exceptionalism and their outcast status in Indigenous mythology, are represented largely in terms of the conservative image of the family. This is most evident in a publicity still for the series, where Araluen and Boondee play the central role of matriarch and patriarch to what appears to be a typical nuclear family except for their hirsuteness.

The ideal hairy family (Jyra, Latani, Boondee, Araluen, Djukara).

The disruption to the family is also an arc narrative in which the family are broken apart early in the first series only to come back together, minus two members, at the end of the second series. The typical father-son relationship is played out in the first episode, when the family is confronted by enforcement officers from the Containment Authority: Djukara decides to attack and calls on members of his family to help, while his father Boondee seeks appeasement. In terms of the moral framework of the plot, Djukara’s actions are condemned because they lead to the death of his sister – his rashness is contrasted with his father’s reasonableness. More broadly, the principle of the greater social good is seen as a sufficient reason to suppress natural ability. With the significant differences in physiology, principally the ability to live four times longer than humans, why should the Hairypeople have a similar family life involving disputes between teenagers and adults? If the teenage years are such a small portion of an individual’s overall life, it is unlikely that the nuclear family would be the dominant unit of social organisation, and instead Hairy culture could be highly individualistic or even collective.

The Bindawu community of Hairypeople is also imagined through an ideal of human social organisation that bears a strong resemblance to 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s community of the noble savage. The second series of Cleverman introduces the Bindawu who live in a bush area that is proximate to Sydney, which is known because a member of this community, Jarli (Clarence Ryan), is often represented standing on a cliff top looking towards the city. The proximity is remarkable considering that the community has lived undetected throughout the whole of white settlement, but if this is put to one side, the purpose of the image is to juxtapose the artificiality of the city with a utopian image of the bush, and to contrast the vagaries of city life with a culture that is said to have existed for many thousands of years. This contrast readily invokes Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality (1755), in which the philosopher critiques the effect of civilisation on humanity by imagining what it means to live before the development of human culture, technology and language. It raises the issue of what form humanity would take without the “supernatural gifts” of God and the “artificial faculties” acquired over the long duration of human history.19 Rousseau imagines primitive humanity as nomadic, divested of culture but not animalistic, and living peacefully among themselves and with other creatures, in which the environment provides all that is required and removes any inclination towards conflict. Of the noble savage, Rousseau stated: “I see him satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed under the same tree which provided his meal; and, behold, his needs are furnished.”20 Uncivilised man is attuned to nature and bears little aggression or malice towards other human beings and animals, and fights only to defend himself and to satisfy his needs. By contrast, the body of the civilised man is weakened by the dependence on the technologies that have underpinned his advancement.21 Rousseau’s origin story and critique of civilisation maps quite neatly onto the story of the Hairies as presented in the second series, who apparently live a peaceful life nestled in the low mountains of the Australian bush. However, this Arcadian image does not sit easily with the notion that the Hairypeople are genetically and physically much more advanced than the Skins. Why would they have such physical attributes without some form of struggle with their environment or between themselves? In a vital and evolutionary schema, the body develops through, rather than in spite of, the environment. Like Rousseau, the peaceful and rather static image of the Hairypeople is imagined as an ideal that can be used to critique the moral degradation of the city but it does not truly explore the natural differences of a truly vital body.

How should the Hairies be depicted if the series is to remain true to some of its vitalist premises? One of the key premises is that the Hairy DNA has “extreme adaptive ability,” and from this, it could be assumed that they are progressing at a greater rate than the Skins in an evolutionary context. This natural adaptation is accorded greater value in Cleverman than any form of artificial or technological adaptation conjured up by Slade and his cronies. The exceptionalism of the Hairypeople could be reimagined through the vitalism of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that life can only find full expression in the overcoming of the species and the acceptance of constant change. To truly live vitally is to embrace an evolutionary impetus and to reject any moral code that seeks to retard this movement. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), the hermit Zarathustra exhorts all who will listen to him to overcome “man” by pushing forward and preparing the ground for the Superman.22 This does not occur through seeking transcendent Gods, but in returning to the movement of life as manifest in the earth and the constant struggle in nature to exceed itself: “I entreat you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestrial hopes! They are poisoners, whether they know it or not.”23 To raise the body and mind up to a new level involves going down and coinciding with life’s constant upsurge and evolutionary becoming. Consequently, Nietzsche rejoices in the “healthy body, perfect and square-built” that “speaks of the meaning of the earth” and rails against the “poisoners” who reject the earthly body by aspiring to the transcendental and conflating sin with the flesh.24 Life should be invested in the body and earth rather than in Christian values that reject the body’s immanent becoming by focusing on eventual transcendence.

In Cleverman, the Hairypeople with their exceptional physical abilities and capacity to adapt, could be represented as true superhumans. There are moments when it appears that they will reach their potential, such as when Jarli attacks the convoy, or when Araluen and Latani take revenge on their tormenters. There are even a few scenes in which the Hairies overcome their environment with parkour agility, or display great intellectual adaptability, such as Jarli’s experimentation with electronic equipment in a bush shelter. But such moments are always overshadowed by inexplicable scenes of weakness and vulnerability. The whole Hairy city clan living in an abandoned factory are killed by a couple of members of the security forces. Mungo (Kamil Ellis) is beaten to death by two men without showing any real ability to avoid or counter their attacks. The Hairies show little purpose during their confinement in The Zone, shuffling along at a human speed, even though they have the capacity to exceed it. The main reason they are depicted this way is because it fits the asylum seeker allegory rather than the superhuman premise. Why would the Hairies accept any of the principles of a world that is basically corrupt and contrary to how they live, or more importantly, desire to live? The true vitalist superhero would remain true to their own will and their relationship to a dynamic natural world rather than respect the artificiality of the human world, whether this is scientific practice, the surveillance state or principles of equality.


As a superhero narrative, Cleverman is certainly ambitious in combining Indigenous mythology with an examination of a number of social issues from contemporary Australian racism through to genetic experimentation. This ambition is certainly praiseworthy but the problem of incorporating a wide range of narrative threads is that they can often work against each other. One of the most interesting and recurring themes in Cleverman is the vitality of a natural life and body, which is often foregrounded through a critique of scientific attempts to augment or control life. The vital body is represented in terms of a capacity for regeneration and evolutionary development, which is contrasted with scientific attempts to extract and reduce life to its physical and mechanical properties. This narrative is most evident in the depiction of the Hairypeople, who are celebrated for their natural ability but are also subject to scientific experimentation and the eugenicist actions of the state. The problem in foregrounding natural ability and evolutionary advantage is that it does sit easily with the broader social narrative of social subjugation. The Hairypeople are not intellectually or physically vulnerable and, therefore, should be able to fight against the might of a technologically empowered state. Nor does the series properly address their alterity. In incorporating the Hairypeople into narratives about racial discrimination, the refugee crisis and ghettoisation, there is insufficient attention given to how they could live, think and act differently. This would be better served through the exploration of what it means to live according to principles of natural advantage, with bodies that are perfectly attuned to their environment. For example, their longer life span could give the Hairies a completely different perspective on death and the time of decision-making, but the young Hairies are shown to be rash when confronted with life-threatening situations. Cleverman’s social allegories often undermine a vitalist logic of evolutionary development and genetic advantage. The radical potential of the vital body that truly lives according to nature cannot be fully explored in the series because it is placed in a procrustean bed of modern state social value.


  1. Georges Rousseau, “The Perceptual Crises of Modernism and the Traditions of Enlightenment Vitalism: With a Note on Mikhail Bakhtin” in The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy, Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), p. 28.
  2. ibid, pp. 24–25.
  3. Hans Driesch, The History and Theory of Vitalism (London: Macmillan, 1914), pp. 1–7, 214–215.
  4. Georges Canguilhem, “Knowledge and the Living” in A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings, François Delaporte, ed. (New York: Zone, 1994), pp. 287–289.
  5. Hans Driesch, The Problem of Individuality (London: Macmillan, 1914), p. 3.
  6. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” in Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), 2nd ed., David Farrell Krell, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 32.
  7. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Random House, 1944), pp. 252–253.
  8. Deborah Edwards, ‘This Vital Flesh’: The Sculpture of Rayner Hoff and his School (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999), p. 34.
  9. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee, 2005), p. 60.
  10. Herbert Read, Icon and Idea: The Function of Art in the Development of Human Consciousness (London: Faber and Faber, 1955), p. 25.
  11. “The Moral Compass Cleverman Special,” Compass, ABC Television, 19 June 2016.
  12. Eric Greene, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), p. 18.
  13. ibid, p. 15.
  14. Isobel Crombie, Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture, 1919-39 (Mulgrave: Peleus Press, 2004), p. 73.
  15. ibid, p. 76.
  16. ibid, p. 65.
  17. Felicity Ford, “Screen Dreaming in Cleverman: Reimagining Indigenous Identities,” Screen Education 85 (June 2017): p. 34.
  18. Compass.
  19. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 81.
  20. ibid, p. 81.
  21. ibid, pp. 81–82.
  22. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (London: Penguin, 1969), p. 42.
  23. ibid, p. 42.
  24. ibid, p. 61.

About The Author

Dr Paul Atkinson teaches communications in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. His research is broadly informed by the work of Henri Bergson with particular emphasis on the relationship between immanent change and the extension of movement into space. Published articles explore a range of topics including Bergson’s vitalism, comic books after 9/11, time and recognition, the structure of movement in animation and comic books, affect theory and temporal aesthetics. He is currently working on a series of articles that explore the relationship between processual theories of time, aesthetics and narrative.

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