Unnatural Futures Conference
Dates: 3 & 4 July, 2014
Venue: Centre for the Arts, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.
From genetically modified foods to zombie apocalypse, concerns about the future
are increasingly reflected in contemporary media, policy and culture. An
“unnatural future” is being shaped by rapidly escalating anxieties about the
social, cultural, environmental and technological risks that now pervade
everyday life. This climate of fear and uncertainty about the future requires
careful consideration around how best to respond and intervene in debates,
discussion and media representations around our “unnatural future”.
This conference brings together researchers from a range of academic
disciplines, including those from the social sciences, humanities, and
agricultural and environmental studies, to address the following questions: how
do we imagine the future? What are the methodologies or theories that may help
navigate these potential futures? The intention is to share and explore views
of the possible natural and unnatural futures that loom large on the horizon.
We welcome papers that focus on (but are not limited to):
* Environmental disaster and crime
* Apocalypse, utopia and dystopia
* Food security, climate change, genetic technologies
* Science fiction and horror
* Artificial or virtual bodies and spaces
* Technology and human development, the posthuman and nonhuman
* Industry and corporate interventions in social and environmental
* Activism, resistance, protest
* Experiencing the anthropocene
* Speculative fiction, science, research and theory
* Inhabiting or representing unnatural futures
Professor Nigel Clark (Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University)
Professor Lesley Head (The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental
Research; University of Wollongong)
Applications and abstracts: 31 January 2014
Notification of acceptance: 28 February 2014
Submission of abstracts or panel proposals: E-mail the conference contact
the following information:
A 250-word abstract in MS Word (doc or docx) format
Your full name as you would like it to appear in the conference booklet
Contact information (email)
A short biography including academic affiliation
Craig Norris – Journalism, Media & Communications, University of Tasmania
Michelle Phillipov – Journalism, Media & Communications, University of
Felicity Picken – AHURI Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Tasmania
Yvette Watt – Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania
The SCHOOL OF GEOGRAPHICAL AND EARTH SCIENCES at the UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW welcomes applications for ESRC PhD studentships for 2014/15.
As part of the Human Geography Pathway of the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SAS), the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences (GES), University of Glasgow, invites applications for the following studentship awards:
‘Pathway’ studentships – the Pathway has SIX studentships to award (Deadline for applications to Glasgow: Thursday 6th February 2014; selected applicants to be registered with SAS by 21st February; interviews on 25th March, all those shortlisted must attend interview). Studentships are available as ’1+3′ and ‘+3′ awards.
‘Open’ studentships – up to TEN studentships available in SGS. Any applicant who is unsuccessful in the ‘Pathway’ studentships competition, but who passes a quality threshold, will be entered into the Open competition. Studentships are available as ’1+3′ and ‘+3′ awards.
‘Collaborative’ studentships – up to NINE studentships available in SGS. Projects to be developed with an academic at Glasgow, and a partner in the private, public or third sector (Deadline: 10th February).
*We also encourage applications to interdisciplinary pathways in the SGS:
Families, Relationships and Demographic Change; Environment, Climate Change and Energy; Health; and Advanced Quantitative Methods.
In particular, GES welcome applications in the following research areas:
• Geographic Thought and Practice
• Experimental Methodologies and Geographies
• Political Geographies and Militarism
• Political Cultures of Internationalism
• Historical Geographies of Labour and Resistance
• Translocal Movements
• Critical (Subaltern and Feminist) Geopolitics
• Urban Neoliberalism and its Contestations
• Global Urbanism in Comparative Perspective
• Emotional and Embodied Geographies
• Mental Health and Illness
• Environmental Health and Development
• Environmental Change and Climate Justice
• Social Geographies of the Natural Sciences
• Geographies of Children and Childhoods
• Historical-Cultural Geographies of Landscape
• Animal Geographies and More-than-Human Geographies
• Questioning Scottish Heritage
Specific details of research in the School of GES are available at:
Any initial inquiries should be addressed to: Professor Deborah Dixon (Pathway Representative) Deborah.Dixon@glasgow.ac.uk
For further information and details of application process: http://www.socsciscotland.ac.uk/
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan offers three fellowships in the areas of architectural research and instruction. Each of the fellowships includes teaching related to the candidate’s area of interest, resources for the development of work, possibilities to interface with scholars and researchers in the wider university context, and the opportunity to share the outcome of the fellowship with the College. Fellows spend one year in residence and teach three classes in addition to pursuing their fellowship interests. Applications are due by January 7, 2014 with interviews planned for February 2014.
Design / Muschenheim Fellowship
The Muschenheim Fellowship offers design instructors early in their career the opportunity to develop a body of work in the context of teaching. Muschenheim fellows play a significant role in the definition of studio culture while pursuing their own creative endeavors. Proposals for the Muschenheim Fellowship focus upon the development of a specific project individually or with students, outside of teaching or center upon a particular set of pedagogical themes to be engaged in the studio context.
Muschenheim Digital Archive at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
Project / Oberdick Fellowship
The Oberdick Project Fellowship facilitates the development and realization of a significant exploration into some aspect of architectural speculation and production. Fellows are provided with resources for the execution of a project that may take the form of an exhibit, publication, installation, or any other material construction. Projects may range from the exploration of emergent building, fabrication, and environmental technologies to the realization of architectural works and endeavors typically unsupported within conventional models of practice.
Research / Sanders Fellowship
The Sanders Fellowship supports individuals with significant, compelling and timely research dealing with architectural issues. Research could dwell within architectural, urban, landscape, or cultural history or theory; architectural or environmental technology; or design studies. These agendas could emerge from recently-completed doctoral dissertations or other intense and rigorous research format. The fellowship will support both research and the development of research-related curriculum.
Applicants should send a letter explaining their interest in the position, curriculum vitae, portfolio and the names and contact information for three references. Send materials indicating desired position on the envelope to: Chair, Architecture Fellowship Search, University of Michigan, Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning, 2000 Bonisteel Boulevard, Ann Arbor, MI 48109. If you wish materials returned, please enclose postage paid return packaging. The University of Michigan is a nondiscriminatory, affirmative action employer.
Taubman College Metropolitan Detroit Fellows
Academic Year Fellowship 2013-2014
Each year Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (Taubman) selects 4-6 recent alumni of its Architecture Program to conduct research on metropolitan Detroit and post-industrial issues affecting the city and its region; and to participate as instructional faculty in a program that offers instruction in architecture and design to high school sophomores and juniors in the Detroit metropolitan area.
Each Fellow has a one-year appointment as Metropolitan Detroit Fellow in Taubman College and a one-year appointment as a Taubman Architecture High School Fellow in the Taubman Architecture High School Dual Enrollment Program. This appointment is not tenure-track. The current annual stipend is $32,000. Fellows are eligible for participation in the University health , dental and life insurance programs. Each fellow is expected to teach the equivalent of one academic year, i.e., a total of two terms during the period of the fellowship. Any subsequent appointment of a Fellow to a position at the University of Michigan would be subject to the rules governing new appointments.
Publications / Written Reports
Fellows are asked to cite their affiliation with the Taubman Fellows program in any publications that result from work done during their tenure and to provide Taubman College with copies of such published work. At the end of each fellowship year, Fellows are asked to submit a written report on their activities and accomplishments during the year.
Postgraduate Fellows share their work in progress. Fellows are expected to participate in colloquia, attend dinners, and to engage in conversation with other members about their intellectual interests. They may be selected to participate in the annual evaluation of new applicants for the Fellowship.
Application Deadline: The application deadline is Friday, August 16, 2013, 3:00PM EDT
Milton S. F. Curry, Associate Dean
Angela Lee, Program Administrator
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
2000 Bonisteel Blvd.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2069
For more information, please visit this page.
PhD Studentships in Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Glasgow, 2014-15
The School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow is pleased to invite applications for +3 PhD studentships, through its involvement in the recently announced AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Scotland (involving the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, St. Andrews, Strathclyde, Stirling, Aberdeen and Glasgow School of Art).
The School Geographical and Earth Sciences (GES) welcomes student proposals which relate to existing research strengths in the following areas:
· Cultural geography
· Historical geography
· Landscape studies
· Historical geographies of science
· Historical geographies of resistance and labour
· Art-Science collaborations
· Arts, health and well-being
· Performance and ecology
Applications encompassing an interdisciplinary aspect are particularly welcomed.
Studentships are available to applicants living in the UK and the European Union. For full details on eligibility, please visit: http://www.sgsah.ac.uk
Applicants with a Masters degree (or currently studying for a Masters qualification) will be prioritised. To be considered for an award, candidates must also have applied to study at the University of Glasgow and have provided two academic references through the university’s application system. Further details, guidance notes and the application form can be found at: http://www.gla.ac.uk/colleges/arts/graduateschool/fundingopportunities/
The deadline for all scholarship applications is: Monday 13 January 2014.
Within the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, prospective applicants with enquiries should contact Deborah Dixon, Head of Graduate Studies (Deborah.Dixon@glasgow.ac.uk<mailto:Deborah.Dixon@glasgow.ac.uk>) or Hayden Lorimer, Human Geography Research Group (Hayden.Lorimer@Glasgow.ac.uk<mailto:Hayden.Lorimer@Glasgow.ac.uk>).
Details of research in the School of GES are available at:
During the student protests in 2010 several blogs and articles diagnosed an absence on cultural output accompanying today’s political activism. Pop music? Only a career option for the privately educated. Folk music? The preserve of a few preachy lefties. Visual art? Students are now being educated to produce saleable art, not social commentary. While some articles suggested that there are people making ‘protest art’ and ‘protest music’ (there was even a conference on it recently), the majority argued that the media and cultural industry was too complicit through sponsorship deals to give voice to such sentiments.
More so than music and art journalists, artists, musicians and curators themselves are asking questions about their possibilities to aid the struggle against ‘the war against citizens’ and imperialist practices. Last year, I witnessed London Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Vladimir Jurowski address the audience about his unusual choice of emphasising themes of human suffering and perseverance across musical periods (e.g. bringing together Schoenberg, Nono and Beethoven) to address on-going global violence. As part of his talk, he gave examples from performances around the world where the underlying political resonances of classical and contemporary classical music were picked up more sharply under conditions of censorship, on-going bombings or recent liberation from dictatorship.
While Jurowski comes across as rather confident about the impact of politically and sonically timely programming (and the ‘human spirit’), many composers across genres are struggling with the question of what to create for our times. As musician Laetitia Sadier put it at a recent concert at the Union Chapel in Islingtion: ‘I just don’t know how to respond anymore.’ The fact that she did play some songs with overtly political lyrics – and also asked the audience whether anyone had suggestions for potential responses – made the statement appear not as resignation, but rather as a call for debate, experiments, contributions. (Here are also some interesting interviews with her in The Quietus, Westword and about.com .)
and the G20′s
but who are these people
and why on earth do we care about their opinion?
what do we care about their self-proclaimed authority?
and the G20′s
were not elected by the people
in the name of what are we letting them govern our lives?
they are politically illegitimate
enough already with the dictatorship, tyranny of money
we want a real, a real democracy
(Laetitia Sadier – Auscultation to the Nation )
At the time, she did not receive any answers, but, at least in my case, the question stayed with me, so here is a brief attempt at one possible answer. Shortly after her gig, I read Judith Butler’s ‘Frames of War’ (on the portrayal of war and terrorism in the media) and the following passage took me back to the Union Chapel:
‘The public sphere is constituted in part by what can appear, and the regulation of the sphere of appearance is one way to establish what will count as reality, and what will not.’
What are viable ways of contesting more powerfully supported appearances? Butler herself seems to suggest that acts of resisting through cultural practices may seem quite weak in comparison with e.g. ‘the military power of the state’, but still present an ideological obstacle. As she writes about a recent publication of Guantanamo prisoners’ poems:
‘The poems communicate another sense of solidarity, of interconnected lives that carry on each others’ words, suffer each others’ tears, and form networks that pose an incendiary risk not only to national security, but to the form of global sovereignty championed by the US. To say that the poems resist that sovereignty is not to say that they will alter the course of war or will ultimately prove more powerful than the military power of the state. But the poems clearly have political consequences – emerging from scenes of extraordinary subjugation, they remain proof of stubborn life, vulnerable, overwhelmed, their own and not their own, dispossessed, enraged, and perspicacious. As a network of transitive affects, the poems – their writing and their dissemination – are critical acts of resistance, insurgent interpretations, incendiary acts that somehow, incredibly, live through the violence they oppose, even if we do not yet know in what ways such lives will survive.’
(From Judith Butler, Frames of War, p. 62).
This ‘transmission of the effort’, as Rancière (following Deleuze) calls it, or one’s willingness and ability to respond, seems almost as vital, if not more, than the form of the response. Of course, form matters in terms of anything from how far (and where to) a song can travel (geographically, economically) to the kind of work it can potentially do (make people dance, function as demonstration anthem, render people silent or attentive), but then the question might be: what can you do? Here, the emphasis is placed alternately on ‘can’ and ‘you’ – ‘can’ referring to technical/temporal/social (etc) limitations and ‘you’ pointing to one’s unique set of experiences and influences that inevitably shape one’s response (there is also a vital element of unpredictability in this).
This does not mean that one can or should avoid questions of ‘travelling’ – on the contrary: the fact that one has a unique ability to respond creatively should extend this creativity to thinking about where a potential experiment might go. (Example: if I write a song and release it through a big label, the song might get more widely distributed and reach less radical people, but also enter into a certain relationship with commerce and maybe face censorship or rejections from people with certain politics.) Further, it might help to assume that one has fellow travellers, which can help in two ways: first, that one does not have to confront things alone, and also that one does not necessarily have to explain and change a situation, but rather affirm a certain stance and offer oneself as a ‘node’ or companion. In a system that promotes isolation, this can be a first step towards solidarity and change.
As a musician whose music has ended up in unexpected places (at one point my pretty unknown band received an e-mail from a group of students in Chile who, to our surprise, stated that one of our early instrumental songs accompanied their protests), I can second the conclusion of composer/writer Sam Richards’ book ‘Sonic Harvest’ (an interesting account of a search for relationship between music and democracy): ‘I no longer believe in an ‘ideal’ situation. Any situation is ideal for making music’. Taken into the ‘protest music’ context, the question of how to respond should perhaps not be seen as the search for an ‘ideal’ way of responding to disastrous politics, but as a prompt to explore and push the modes and limits of the contribution one can make – and to signal one’s readiness to travel (with): have sounds, can travel!
Call for submissions
“Coined by Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen at the inception of the 21st Century, the concept of the anthropocene postulates a new geological epoch defined by overwhelming human influence upon the earth beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. The concept has since been picked up and expanded by other scientists, chiefly but not exclusively geologists and planetary ecologists. More recently the anthropocene has caught the imagination of humanists, artists, and social scientists for whom it has provided a powerful framework through which to account for and depict the impact of climate change in a variety of media forms and practices.
In many ways, however, the anthropocene is a strikingly resonant iteration of the problematic forcefully articulated in Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” which sees the human, nonhuman, culture, and nature as inextricably entangled, and warns that the consequences of attempts to dominate human and nonhuman nature can be at once devastatingly successful and productively perverse. Indeed, the concept of the anthropocene has arguably been implicit in feminism, critical theory, and queer theory for decades, a genealogy that is largely ignored, or worse, erased, by the masculine authority of science.
By the same token, while feminists have long argued that humans are dominating and destroying the earth, turning it into standing reserve, capital, or resource to devastating ends, it is also the case that this recent articulation of the anthropocene, even as it affirms those arguments in many ways, deprives feminism of some of the normative ground upon which such indictments are based. This tension has been anticipated in ecofeminism and feminist science studies, but now, in the 21st century, the articulation of a post-natural condition in the form of a new geological age demands rigorous and sustained attention to global, ahuman forces of ecological change as well as to local spaces of vulnerability and resistance.
To this end, C21’s conference on Anthropocene Feminism will consider the ways in which feminism has long been concerned with the anthropocene, and what current interest in the anthropocene might mean for feminism, in its evolving histories, theories, and practices. More to the point, the conference seeks to highlight both why we need an anthropocene feminism and why thinking the anthropocene must come from feminism. We begin with two sets of questions.
First, how has feminism anticipated the concept of the anthropocene, and what might it yet have to offer: how can feminism help us to historicize, challenge, or refine the concept of the anthropocene? What do new materialist feminism or ecofeminism (to name just two) add to (or detract from) current humanistic understandings of the anthropocene? What does feminism have to say to the claim that humans now act as a geological force in ways that are independent of or indifferent to social, cultural, or political will or intent?
Second, and equally important, is there (or should there be) an anthropocene feminism? Put differently, does the claim that we have entered a new epoch in which humans are a major geological force on the planet call for a reconceptualization of feminism? Does feminism require a new formulation specific to the age of the anthropocene, a new historical or period designation? How should feminism in an anthropogenic age take up an altered relation to—an increased attention to or concern for—the nonhuman world?
We seek proposals for critical, historical, and theoretical papers or creative presentations that address the questions posed by the concept of “anthropocene feminism.” We encourage participants to investigate and analyze the anticipation of this concept in feminism and other related theoretical paradigms and, in turn, to speculate upon its implications. We are also interested in work that pays attention to the place of the nonhuman in feminist theory and practice, in order to offer some suggestions about how the humanities, arts, and social sciences might best treat the anthropocene as we move forward in the 21st century.
Topics we imagine proposals pursuing include but are not limited to:
- feminist genealogies of the anthropocene
- queer nature, queer ecologies, queer anthropocene
- new materialism
- quantum entanglements and agential realism
- feminism and dark ecologies
- environmental racism and transnational feminist approaches
- the anthropocene and the commons
- feminist science and science studies in the anthropocene
- anthropocene feminism after capitalism
- feminist reflections on environmental ethics and aesthetics in the anthropocene
- cyborg futures, geo-engineering, speculative ecologies
- feminism after the non-human turn
- feminist epistemologies
- feminism and climate, geo- and environmental sciences
- anthropocene utopianism/dystopianism and their antecedents
We invite contributions from theorists and practitioners of humanities, arts, and the social and natural sciences, or any others interested in the relation between feminism and the anthropocene.
Please send your abstract (up to 250 words) and a brief (1-page) CV by Friday, December 6 to Richard Grusin, Director, Center for 21st Century Studies, firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Apologies for the long break. I have just started a post(doc) at the University of Glasgow to work on feminist geopolitics. The Geography department is organising a big conference on the topic next year, so you will be able to join the debate. In case you wondered, the conference will feature lots of discussions around materiality – I will be posting the CFP in the next few weeks.
Further, I have been blogging ‘abroad’ again – most recently, on the blog of the Historical Geography Reading Group at Glasgow, where you can see a summary of our last reading meeting on Foucault and the Black Panthers. On that note I have to mention Angela Y. Davis’ talk at London’s Southbank Centre this Sunday (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 6.30-7.30 pm), which she will give as part of the 1960s weekend.
She also gave a lecture this Friday (free to attend, but booked up very quickly), entitled ‘Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Closures and Continuities’, at the Birkbeck Law School (moved to the Institute of Education). Respondent was lawyer and activist Michael Mansfield. The video of the talk will be posted on the Birkbeck website soon – audio is already up!
Also, I have written a review of Monique Allewaert’s book Ariel’s Ecology for Society & Space (the Environment & Planning D blog). It will shortly be followed with a short interview. In this context, I will be speaking at the Caribbean Literature and Space seminar in Sheffield on 8 November.
Yesterday, I went to see a performance of Aimé Césaire’s ‘A season in the Congo’. The production at the Young Vic stands out for its inventiveness and connection to (still, sadly) contemporary events. As director Joe Wright writes:
This play is not about race, it is not about racism or even colonialism as we imagine it, something of the past dressed in white linen; it’s about how the injustices of the past have shaped the injustices of the present, how economic colonialism is still being perpetrated today by a different cast of politicians, nations and corporations. The DRC’s curse is not its poverty but its wealth.
The performance makes clear that this is not only Congo’s problem, with strong resonance to events in Afghanistan, Iraq, but also within ‘Western’ countries.
Sadly, there are only four performances left: Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, and Saturday afternoon. Despite its extended run, the play quickly sold out. However, you can queue for returns (the chances are quite good if you arrive early).
After coming across some great scifi short films recently, I thought they might also be useful in geography teaching – both at university and in schools. Unlike full-length films, they could be used to introduce topics at the beginning of a course, to break up really long lectures or to serve as quick discussion hooks.
Jonah seems ideal for stimulating discussions about tourism, globalisation and economic trajectories. Can there ever be a benign tourism? And, if yes, under what conditions? What role does tourism play in development and what are potential alternatives?
FUTURESTATES is a series by independent channel ITVS. It can sometimes be a bit too didactic, but provides a great selection of topics and questions. The above film imagines one potential trajectory for gated communities where parents genetically engineer their children to fit into their conservative society. ‘White’ is another good one that discusses climate change and race in a new light: dark skin (melanin) has become a sought after commodity.
In ‘Payload’, Australia has become a smuggler haven. Despite its brevity, the film covers a staggering number of issues including class, gender, poverty, human and organ trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, (food) security, education and corruption.
The treatment of piracy in Somalia in the form of a commercial (for Turkish appliance company Vestel) should make some disturbing or at least curious watching for post-colonial and geopolitics researchers.
Beautifully shot, Pumzi touches on a variety of themes, including future water and energy shortage, climate change, related wars, surveillance societies, politics of scientific research, ‘green’ approaches and the unequal (media) representation of world views.
The predecessor to District 9, this short comments on xenophobia, racism, speciesism, inhumanity and related infrastructure.
This is obviously just a small selection. If you have any other recommendations, feel free to post them below.
Image: Ellen Gallagher, ‘Abu Simbel’
Two types of invitations seem to be floating into my inbox with increasing frequency, for talks and exhibitions on the Anthropocene and Afrofuturism respectively. The latter was the subject of Union Black/The British Library’s Space Children, Kosmica’s ‘Astroculture’ event at the Arts Catalyst, Tate Modern’s Afrofuturism’s Others and the Photographers Gallery’s Afronauts by Cristina de Middel. Afrofuturism even cropped up at UCL’s interdisciplinary Cosmologies symposium as an example of a ‘dissident cosmology’. As discussed in a previous post, much Anthropocene themed art uses geology as a starting point to re-think the human as a geologic agent. Afrofuturism, by contrast, (re)imagines African (especially African diaspora) pasts and futures through flamboyant scifi and spiritual aesthetics. Canonical examples include the music Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Nona Hendryx and Drexciya, the writing of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and Samuel Delaney, and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee and Renée Cox.
Despite their apparent aesthetic differences and citational practices, there seems to be a dialogue between the two genres that goes beyond mere navigation between far pasts and futures. Looking at the common reference of the cosmic and its role as both origin and culturally marked space, the first part of the dialogue could be summed up as: who (or what) makes the future? Is it geologic or cosmic forces? Is it humans? And, if it is humans, what sorts of humans? Poor, rich, Black, White, male, female, straight, gay? Scientists or politicians? None of these assumed polarities? Here, Afrofuturism does not provide an answer, but possibilities. First of all, it confronts us with our expectations of ‘race’. As Lisa Yaszek writes:
‘[f]rom the ongoing war on terror to Hurricane Katrina, it seems that we are trapped in an historical moment when we can think about the future only in terms of disaster — and that disaster is almost always associated with the racial other.’
Or, in Anthropocene terms: rich White people cause disaster, poor Black people are its victims. While people in the ‘global North’ indeed have a disproportional share in furthering climate change, such framings have led to warnings about a potential resurgence of ‘old… tropes of racial capability’, as issued, for instance, by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Nigel Clark. Rather than trying to silence the debate, they call for an exploration of ‘the ‘primitivism’ inscribed in our bodies, psyches and cultures’. It is such inscriptions of primitivism that Afrofuturism plays with, not only regarding African cultures, but all cultures. The play with Egyptian origins and aesthetics by Sun Ra and Ellen Gallagher exemplifies the historical struggle over cultural legacies and the construction of ‘high culture’ and primitivism.
Image: Still from Sun Ra’s ‘Space is the Place’ film
Although often humorous in nature, the Egyptian imagery points to questions about whom this construction continues to serve and about how it can be rewritten. The origin of Afrofuturism in the ‘global North’ further contributes to the cultural challenge. As South African digital artist Tegan Bristow phrases it: ‘[u]nlike what it suggests, Afrofuturism has nothing to do with Africa, and everything to do with cyberculture in the West’. Seen from this angle, the origin as well as the necessity of the term ‘Afrofuturism’ underscore the fact that the ‘African’ and African diaspora have routinely been excluded from ‘modern’ and techno-futurist visions and set apart from the ‘mainstream’ (there is an excellent talk by Madhu Dubey on this topic here). Here I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s response (around 7 minutes in) to a White science fiction author who argued that there is no necessity for Black people to appear in their novels, because statements about the Other can be made through aliens. In an inversion of stereotypes, some Afrofuturist commentators highlight the ‘primitivism’ of a science that seeks to classify the ‘primitive’, pointing to mainstream science’s contribution to racism and genocide at various moments in history (examples can be found in Alondra Nelson’s book Body and Soul and in this catalogue on Ellen Gallagher).
Similarly, the Anthropocene discourse practices inversion as a strategy to unsettle visions of modernity and to search for new models of human agency. Although scientists have not been able to agree on a potential beginning for the proposed new era, the industrial revolution and its heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption remains a strong contender. When it comes to our (primitive?) dependency on these energy sources, scientists and social scientists have started to re-examine preconceived notions of cause and effect: are fossil fuels shaping human society and not the other way round? (Yusoff, Moore, Roddier) What kind of agency do humans have to affect social and environmental change? Are new strategies in order? Again, such debates, draw on arguments about our current interpretation of ‘modernity’: what kind of ‘rationality’ should modernity (and ‘modern science’) follow? Do ‘subaltern modernities’ reflect a more accurate vision of modernity? Can humans see themselves as a ‘species’?
Turning back to Afrofuturism, sociologist and writer Alondra Nelson suggests that it represents more than a critique of modernity – it is about ‘aspirations for modernity’. Rather than dwelling on the negative, it ‘enables thought about a lineage of work that propels future other work’ that co-shapes the future. It is occupied with the ‘living future’ (to use Barbara Adam & Chris Groves’s term), the potential for different futures inherent in the present. One trajectory that Afrofuturism pursues is a reshuffling of difference. According to Nelson, popular interest in genetics and the potential discovery of links to previously unknown, geographically distributed ancestors, is, despite its focus on physical difference, already unsettling and reshaping identities, both at the micro and macrolevel (audio here).
Ellen Gallagher, ‘IGBT’
In this context, an important question was asked at the Tate Modern, in conjunction with artist Ellen Gallagher’s AxMe exhibition: who can be an Afrofuturist? Entitled, ‘Afrofuturism’s Others’, the organisers, panellists and audience explored whether Afrofuturists could be anything other than African American. In discussing the work of Kara Walker, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Larissa Sansour, Mehreen Murtaza, Jean Genet, Ellen Gallagher and others, the case was made that Afrofuturism contemplates an absence of racial and geographical boundaries. In particular, the speakers considered the problematic, but also potentially productive relation between racialization, as turning certain humans into part of the ‘productive landscape’, and ‘species being’, which is also a materialisation, but one that can go either way in terms of dealing with difference (the work of Sylvia Wynter was mentioned). The works discussed included examples of deliberate and accidental solidarities: art and music that referenced ‘Afrofuturists’ or became interpreted as ‘Afrofuturist’ on the basis of aesthetic (mis)interpretation (curator and co-organiser Zoe Whitley described a humorous encounter where she misread a painted black figure as signifying ‘Black’).
Image: Mehreen Murtaza, ‘Divine Invasion’
Here, a second trajectory seems to emerge that asks not only ‘what is ‘afro’, but ‘what could the ‘afro’ be and do?’ This takes us to the ‘Africa is (not) a country’ awareness campaign (example blog here). As many African Americans point out, the slavery system often deprived them of more detailed knowledge about their ancestry other than ‘African’. At the same time, the ‘African’ has acquired meaning for the community and is increasingly also tied to particular political imaginations. During my visit to Detroit, I found that African American activists were talking about promoting an ‘African model’ of community and of reshaped institutions against the ‘White corporate’ model. At a film screening of Branwen Okpako’s ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, African visions of trajectories for modernity again came up, prompted by Auma Obama’s discussion (in the film) with Kenyan students about the kind of lifestyles they are hoping to pursue. Obama asked her students to consider what premise notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ are based on. Development of/towards what? Industrial farming, increased levels of consumption, loss of community? Why could certain ‘African’ models of living not hold the key to human development? Seen through the lens of Afrofuturism, one could say that if the ‘afro’ can be shaped into something coherent, this move does not necessarily imply a wish to do away with nuances and differences. Instead, it could be read as a productively employed and reframed cliché that critiques a privileged socio-economic model. Its future trajectory could indeed transcend its current context. The question here might be phrased as: can established categories be rejected by getting contemporary ‘non-Others’ to adopt the model that is normally deemed ‘other’?
Image: from Cristina de Middel, ‘Afronauts’
The corresponding Anthropocene question might be put as ‘what could the ‘geo’’ be and do? The logic seems to be that if the human can be a geologic force, how else is human life geophysical – and how could this perspective lead to a more constructive reframing of politics and the social? Especially since, thanks to climate change, the stability of the ‘meteorological white middle class’ (as a recent German TV satire described Europe) might become seriously unsettled… So far, quite a few proposals have tried to put human politics into perspective: we might do all these politics for economic power – but at the end of the day, when oil is used up, the water is polluted and the temperature is up, our role as a geologic force might be unsatisfactorily short. Shouldn’t humans work more in cooperation in the face of geophysical processes that will carry on without consideration of human needs? It is interesting to note that some of the most interesting proposals have again been excluded from the ‘mainstream’ and have been consigned to the area of ‘post-colonial ecologies’. I am thinking here especially of French-Caribbean discussions of geopoetics (Maximin, Glissant, Condé etc). Conversely, scholars from post-colonial studies, such as DeLoughrey and Handley, have criticised that ‘Westerners’ are in search of ‘Other’ models to bring a much needed conceptual injection. This debate raises questions about the conditions under which dialogue should take place.
For me, visiting Ellen Gallagher’s exhibition at the Tate Modern (on view until 1 September 2013) synthesized the dialogue between Anthropocene and Afrofuturism even more intensely (enter the ‘Afrocene’?). Walking through the different rooms, I was struck by what I experienced as a ‘hypermaterialisation’ of layers and layers of material and meaning. Many art critics have commented on her relationship with the material, for example, Gallagher’s wish to ‘maintain the ‘vulnerability’ of her materials and their forms’ (Shiff), her use of African American wigs as a conduit to the supernatural (de Zegher), but few manage to capture the intensity of an entire retrospective. Robin Kelly comes the closest: he describes his encounter with Ellen Gallagher’s work as ‘confounding’.
‘To confound is not simply to confuse, but to surprise or perplex by challenging received wisdom. It also means to mix up or fail to discern differences between things.’
I don’t think any term could be more accurate. To me, Gallagher’s shifts between meanings of medicine and wig adverts, ‘high’ and ‘low’ art/culture references, ‘nature’ (I especially loved the title ‘Double Natural’) and ‘blackness’, marine creatures, minstrel imagery, ambiguous organic shapes and political pamphlets rendered tangible the multiple ways in which people are being materialised and enlisted as part of social and economic production: overworked and stuck in a job you cannot get out of? Pop a pill. More ‘organic’ than society’s ideal? Neighbours throwing bombs into your house? Buy a wig. Keep calm and carry on. The sheer ridiculousness of the enterprise as well as our complicity in it becomes apparent. Does Gallagher suggest any way out? It seemed to me that she was perhaps implying that the path towards more productive forms of materialisation may lie not only in realising the ridiculousness, but to start from it. Geology and politics? Ridiculous! Africans in space? Ridiculous! A more equal global society? Ridiculous! Or is it?