Mutable Matter

Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the People category.

One In Other @ Anthropocene Feminism, UWM


This week, I attended the Anthropocene Feminism conference at the Center for 21st Century Studies in Milwaukee. There, I spoke as part of a hugely enjoyable all-female (!) geophilosophy panel with Jessi Lehman and Stephanie Wakefield (organised by Rory Rowan, Elizabeth Johnson and Harlan Morehouse). On this occasion, I decided not to put together a standard paper, but something that could be described as an experiment in lyrical prose. It discusses Simone Weil’s amor fati (love of the order of the world) and Hannah Arendt’s amor mundi (love of the world). I have uploaded it here. Comments appreciated!

I would also like to thank the conference organisers for facilitating conversations between academics from such a diverse range of subjects, and Lee Mackinnon (check out her blog ‘The Speculative Ceiling’ for Anthropocene themed short stories and poems) for invaluable comments on earlier drafts.



Post on WomanTheory blog

Image: Semiotext(e) Whitney Biennial pamphlets 2014

I’ve written a short post on Simone Weil for WomanTheory blog (if you haven’t already, please write one, too!). The theme of the post (published this morning) uncannily fitted in with the rest of the day, which ended with a powerful talk by Jennifer Doyle on ‘Campus Security’ (her invitation to the talk included the phrase ‘come and get ANRGY!’, to give you an idea). Doyle presented a very visceral account of the troubled relationship between students, academics and society through the increasing privatisation of the university, for many Americans epitomised by the infamous ‘pepper spray cop’ image and the reactions to it (which included the ridicule of students). It was interesting to hear more of the backstory to that image, especially about the silencing of the police officer in question who had initially proposed a much more sensible approach than university management. Post-talk discussions included university branding strategies past and present, UK vs US modes of securitisation and management, and possible ways for academics to affect university management (e.g. through committee work). Interestingly, Doyle’s talk was based on an essay for the Semiotext(e) contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which also features Simone Weil’s ‘Note on the Abolition of All Political Parties’. Can’t wait to re-read both Doyle and Weil!

400ppm commentaries at Society & Space


Over at the Society & Space blog, Kathryn Yusoff has just uploaded the forum on the 400ppm concentration. Entitled ‘Exit Holocene, Enter Anthropocene’, the forum brings together a set of eleven short commentaries on the latest atmospheric CO2 ‘milestone’. In my contribution to this forum, I grapple with the rather abstract figure of 400 parts per million in the form of a mini-review-dialogue with two ‘growth objectors’, Isabelle Stengers and François Roddier.

Doreen Massey conference/anthology/podcast


Spatial Politics: A Conversation

Friday, 8 March 2013, 11:00 – 17:00
Royal Geographical Society, London

‘Spatial Politics is a collaborative event has been organised by the Geography Departments of Durham and Glasgow, the Open University’s OpenSpace Research Centre together with the Royal Geographical Society. The event is intended to spark debate around the question of ‘Spatial Politics’ – the relationship between space and politics, broadly conceived. It has a particular focus on forging political alternatives in the current conjuncture, especially by considering translocal solidarities, opposition to austerity, emerging political cultures, and the like. The day long event is structured around plenaries and workshops, all designed to foster and further conversations about alternative futures, political spaces and spaces for politics. The event which is being timed to coincide with the publication of Spatial Politics: Essays for Doreen Massey (edited by David Featherstone and Joe Painter).’

Tickets: £5 Students, £20 everyone else.
For more information, please visit the Open Space website.


There is also a Social Science Bites podcast, ‘Doreen Massey On Space’, complete with downloadable transcript, to be found at this site.

How to be worldly? Margarethe von Trotta’s ‘Hannah Arendt’

I’ve just returned from watching Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt film. Rather than offer a general overview over Arendt’s life and oeuvre, the film focuses mostly on the scandal surrounding Arendt’s analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel. The main role is played by Barbara Sukowa, who also had the lead roles in von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg and Hildegard von Bingen films. Having seen Rosa Luxemburg a few weeks prior, it felt like witnessing an alternative biography of the revolutionary socialist (I guess that counts as a Brechtian defamiliarisation fail, but it made me want to write an Austin Powers/Jurassic Park crossover script about scientists cloning Rosa Luxemburg for our times).

The film begins with a snapshot of Arendt’s life in New York in 1960, during which her husband, Heinrich Blücher, and key friends such as Mary McCarthy and Hans Jonas are introduced. Hannah Arendt’s involvement in the trial begins with her discovery of Eichmann’s capture in Argentina and his transfer to Israel for the trial. Arendt volunteers to cover the event for The New Yorker in order to get a chance to experience a Nazi high-up up close. At the trial, shown as original footage, she is instantly stunned not only by what she perceives as a problematic staging, but also by Eichmann’s explanations of his behaviour. Arendt understands him as a ‘thoughtless nobody’, rather than a ‘Mephisto’. From there, she is seen building her concept of the ‘banality of evil’. It is not only this concept which proves unsavoury at the time, but especially her accusation that some Jewish leaders could have prevented some of the extent of the Shoah. Her stance leads her to loose some of her closest friends (Hans Jonas, Kurt Blumenfeld). The film ends with Hannah Arendt insisting on the importance of standing by one’s reading of what goes on in the world, even, or especially, if it runs counter to what the rest of the world thinks.

In Germany, the film has had mixed receptions. About half the reviews criticise it for not pointing out that Arendt was mistaken in her characterisation of SS official Adolf Eichmann as a nobody who just followed orders. As the paper Die Zeit points out, Eichmann’s defense was carefully rehearsed to mask his anti-semitism and active role in exterminating Jews. Other reviews, in turn, criticise the ‘current fashion’ of pointing to Arendt’s mistakes. To their authors, it does not matter whether Eichmann was a bad example or whether Arendt was right or wrong about the actions of some of the Jewish leaders. What matters to them is the observation and analysis of ‘evil’ as a socially produced phenomenon – an end result of the actions of many people who each help the monstrous on the way.

The question that I took to the screening was: what kind of Hannah Arendt do we need for our times? In this respect I was pleased with the emphasis on Arendt’s questioning of the status quo, the accepted narrative. This was emphasised by the recurring theme of ‘thinking’. To me, Arendt’s interpretation of thinking was not ‘unthinkingly’ reproduced as a remedy to social ills, but contrasted with potential dangers and failures, for instance, through flashbacks to her tutelage by/love affair with philosopher and later Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. While both philosophers placed great importance on thinking – one remembers Heidegger’s assertion ‘The most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking’ - their actions and struggles clearly highlight limits. In a theatre play on this relationship, which continues to puzzle and disconcert, the actress Carly Wijs concludes ‘[y]ou are only as intelligent as your emotions allow you to be’. In a film review in Die Welt, the interpretation of Arendt’s thinking and action simultaneously suggest the fatalistic ‘if you think differently from everybody else, you remain alone and powerless’ as well as the optimistic belief in the difference an individual can make through thinking unlike everybody else. The film itself hints at the link between thinking and un/consciousness – both at the scale of the individual and the ‘masses’. Arendt views thinking as a discussion between ‘me and myself’ that functions as a form of warning system, of consciousness creation. Whether one agrees with the effectiveness or realisability of such an internal system, the problem of consciousness remains. In the course of the film, it becomes evident that the state of individual and mass unconsciousness regarding some of the mechanics of the war (or war in general, building the connection to our present), persists.

If the film wanted to make this statement about the conscious relation of the individual to their world, it somewhat suffered, from my first impression, from an omission of Arendt’s concept of ‘amor mundi’ (‘love of the world’). While perhaps being a bit of a woolly concept to grasp and communicate, at least as seen from an Earth hugging geographer’s perspective, the film almost came close to spelling it out when Sukowa’s Arendt mentions that she cannot identify with a specific people. In the film, she explains that she cares about her friends, which initially does not come across as a very convincing alternative. It could be argued, however, whether Arendt’s ‘love of the world’ needs to be spelled out in such obvious terms – here, Heidegger’s ‘meditative’ thinking (as opposed to result orientated calculative thinking) also springs to mind, and its emphasis on the relation between that which is close and  the care for the world . The immense task of making that conscious abstraction between oneself, that which is close and the care for the world is stressed in the film through various characters’ limitations, most prominently through the need to represent, perform and meet particular societal expectations (and one’s own expectations) of a Marxist/Jew/German/American/woman/veteran/immigrant/etc. How can one be in and of the world – ‘worldly’? In this sense, the film illustrates how the path to ‘worldliness’ and ‘amor mundi’ must start from the ‘I’ and the questioning of the relation with one’s immediate locatedness. And this question of our un/conscious participation in representation is as important today as it was then.

Other possible worlds – CFP on radical interwar geographies


A name that keeps popping up recently in unexpected places is that of French geographer Elisée Reclus (1830-1905). The inspiring talks during the first ‘Cage Rattling’ events at King’s Place represent one such example. Dedicated to the politics of and around John Cage and his music, the presentations ranged from examples of alternative forms of governance to the question of how geography could be used as a tool for positive change. In this context, Reclus was named as one of the trailblazers for the on-going wresting away of geography from its colonial past.

As for information on Reclus, videos or books in English appear to be pretty much non-existent (a few can be found in this online archive). For French speakers, a recent biography, published by neurobiologist Jean Didier Vincent, is probably a good place to start, if you don’t want to jump straight into Reclus’ original literature. Encyclopedic entries tell us that Reclus was anarchist (linked with Peter Kropotkin), vegetarian and anti-marriage, received the greatest honours for a geographer in France (the gold medal of the French geographical society) while being banned from the country and teaching in Belgium. He is also named as an inspiration for the social ecology movement.

The latest appearance of Reclus’ name came with a Call for Papers for this year’s RGS-IBG conference. Again, it is less Reclus’ work that is the focus, but neglected aspects of the history of geography – specifically the period between the two World Wars.


Currently, one of the most ‘radical’ people of the interwar period that I can think of is Simone Weil, who was not a geographer, although she engaged with issues such as colonialism, oppression and power. Sceptical of all existing and envisioned available political and social movements of her time after intensive/disastrous periods of ‘fieldwork’ in related environments – she worked in a factory, as an anarchist militia soldier and famously told Trotsky off when he was staying at her parents’ home – she experimented with alternatives, dying in the process. Here is a lecture by Wes Cecil on her work:

For anyone wishing to contribute to the (re)construction of radical interwar geography, please follow Alexander Vasudevan’s call:

Radical Geography in the Interwar Period: Disciplinary Trajectories and Hidden Histories

Sponsored by Historical Geography Research Group

Organiser: Dr. Alex Vasudevan

(School of Geography, University of Nottingham)

This session builds on a brief note published in the journal Area in 1975 by the geographer David Stoddart on the disciplinary origins of “relevant” geography. For Stoddart, a “tradition of social relevance” can, in fact, be traced back to the end of the 19th century and the work of Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin whose commitment to geographical knowledge was shaped by the radical political imperatives of anarchism (188). According to Stoddart, the emergence of a radical geography in the late 1960s represented, if anything, the latest moment in the history of a “socially relevant geography” and that the very idea of “relevance” should delineate a new field of historical enquiry (190). Geographical scholarship has undoubtedly examined, in this respect, the importance of anarchism to the development of the discipline (Springer et al., 2012; see also Breitbart, 1975, 1978; Peet, 1975; Springer, 2011). The significance of the late 1960s and early 1970s to the emergence of a genuinely critical geography has, in turn, been extensively mapped (for just a few examples, see Akatiff, 2012; Barnes and Heynen, 2011; Peet, 1978; Watts, 2001). And yet, at the same time, the history of radical geography remains underdeveloped especially in the period between the late 19th century and the 1960s. This session seeks to address this historical blind spot. It places specific emphasis on the interwar period (1919-1939) as a significant moment through which a radical geographical imagination was indeed produced and practiced across a range of sites and institutions.

This session invites papers that address the diverse forms of radical geographical thought and practice produced during the 1920s and 1930s. While the session engages with the development of geography as an academic discipline, it is also animated by a concern for the hidden histories through which radical political terrains and possibilities are opened up and actively assembled (see Featherstone, 2012). The session will thus focus on papers that explore:

- Academic geography, national traditions and radical politics

- Subaltern geographies and the production of transnational political cultures

- The making of radical geographical practices: from material culture to alternative mapping

- The geographies of solidarity from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War

- Alternative archives, ‘small stories’ and the doing of geography

- Radical infrastructures, spatial practices and ‘world-making’

Abstracts of no more than 250 words should be sent to Alexander Vasudevan ( ) by February 4th, 2013.


Akatiff, C. “’Then, like now…’ The Roots of Radical Geography, a Personal Account”

Barnes, T. and Heynen, N. “A Classic in Human Geography: William Bunge’s (1971) Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution.” Progress in Human Geography 35 (2011), pp. 712-715.

Breitbart, M. “Impressions of an Anarchist Landscape.” Antipode 7 (1975), pp. 44-49.

Breitbart, M. “Introduction.” Antipode 10 (1978), pp. 1-5.

Featherstone, D. Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism. London: Zed Books, 2012.

Peet, R. “For Kropotkin.” Antipode 7 (1975), pp. 42-43.

Peet, R. (ed). Radical Geography: Alternative Viewpoints on Contemporary Social Issues. London: Methuen & Co., 1978.

Springer, S. “Public Space as Emancipation: Meditations on Anarchism, Radical Democracy, Neoliberalism, and Violence.” Antipode 43: 525-562.

Springer, S. et al. “Reanimating Anarchist Geographies: A New Burst of Colour.” Antipode 44 (2012), pp. 1591-1604.

Stoddart, D. “Kropotkin, Reclus and ‘Relevant’ Geography.” Area 7 (1975), pp. 188-190.

Watts, M. “1968 and all that…” Progress in Human Geography 25 (2001), pp. 157-188.

Mutable Matter of the Week: Ethics-to-wear

I came across this ‘mutable jacket’ by accident today. It is from a project by designer Rohan Chhabra called ‘Embodying Ethics’. Chhabra describes his collection as ‘socially responsive design’, intended to ‘question ethics, create dilemma, provoke debate and raise awareness’. Other items in his collection are a pair of trousers which transform into a shape that would fit a cowleg, a sheepskin bag whose interior pockets resemble sheep organs, and a chair cover that turns into a tree-shaped ‘shadow’. Perfect clothing (and thinking) items for fellow (non-)human geographers…

A dot in the universe – Yayoi Kusama and the link between self and other

Image: the author in her natural environment

A few weeks ago, I went to the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Londoners are likely to remember her polka-dotted tree coverings along the Southbank, part of the artist’s contribution to the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Walking In My Mind’ exhibition. The Paris retrospective had a very different feel to the Southbank exhibits, even though the infamous ‘dots’ featured in both. I think I agree with the Laura Cumming’s review in the Guardian that the Hayward’s focus was more on ‘immersion’ in wacky metaphorical environments, whereas the Pompidou curators seemed interested in political significance. After all, as the Pompidou exhibition catalogue points out, Kusama and her dots regularly ended up attracting police attention (which was effectively diverted through the use of bribes).

Image source: Yayoi Kusama

I have to explain that I saw the Kusama retrospective in the middle of finishing an article on Bakhtin’s ‘cosmic terror’, preparing a lecture on materiality and space, and reading Simone Weil’s ‘Gravity and Grace’ alongside Žižek’s ‘Welcome to the desert of the real’, so, to me, the exhibition arrived as an amazing sensual illustration of this slightly peculiar mix of theorists. On the other hand, the mix is perhaps not so peculiar, when one considers the central question that is addressed by Bakhtin, Weil, Žižek and ‘theorists of matter’: how do or should you see yourself in relation to everything else – and why does it matter?

Image source: Yayoi Kusama

A starting point for Kusama, Bakhtin, Weil and ‘matter theorist’ Karen Barad is to think about the limits of bodily boundaries. Interestingly, all of them end up making a connection to the cosmic. Karen Barad, for instance, talks about ‘meeting the universe half-way’: ‘We are of the universe – there is no inside, no outside. There is only intra-acting from within and as part of the world in its becoming.’ Basically, Karen Barad does not see bodies as defined or contained against an equally defined environment, but as intra-related with everything else (emphasis on everything). The boundaries, that seem so clearly to exist, are produced – not merely by the limited human sensory apparatus or understanding, but by matter itself. For her, this process, this generativity of matter which we are implicated in, is literally universal. To realise this intra-connectivity entails responsibility – and choices about what we do with it. As she writes:

‘Meeting each moment, being alive to the possibilities of becoming, is an ethical call, an invitation that is written into the very matter of all being and becoming.’

So, accepting oneself as part of the universe means rising to meet this ethical responsibility.

The artist in her studio (image: Shawn Mortensen)

For Bakhtin, it matters, too, how we see ourselves in relation to the universe and everything that it stands for. Most people, he suggests, are fearful of thinking of themselves as part of the universe, or even of their wider immediate environments. Rather, they choose to cling to what he terms ‘small reality’ – a false idyllic space where they are protected from the inhumanity of ‘great reality’: potential meaninglessness, sudden changes, terror, violence. In order to maintain this ‘small reality’, these people choose to cling to false promises – be they of a religious or political nature – which, in turn, empower the wrong kind of people. (Régis Debray wrote a cheeky book on this subject, whose title translates as ‘On the good use of catastrophes’.) Bakhtin suggests that, if people aim to ward themselves against the instrumentalisation of the terror of ‘great reality’, they need to find a way of coming to terms with it and to ‘humanise’ the potentially scary relations. For Bakhtin, the best way of negotiating ‘great reality’ is through our body: to realise its open-ness to the world. This strategy, however, is not only about the self, about one’s own protection: it is about being a part of humanity as a whole, about being willing to see the bigger picture against ‘small’ interests, and about being willing to sacrifice one’s stability and (physical) integrity for the greater humanity.

Image source: Yayoi Kusama

Simone Weil follows a very similar goal. She, too, tries to persuade us to ‘identify ourselves with the universe itself’. And, like Bakthin, she argues against the pursuit of a ‘small reality’ where we try to protect ourselves against arbitrary events. As she writes: ‘we must prefer hell to an imaginary paradise’ (returning to the ‘Matrix’ theme of the red and blue pill from the previous post…). For Weil, to feel the universe, the world, is important in at least two ways. The first resembles Bakhtin’s focus on protection: identifying with the universe has nothing to do with turning people into passive matter, but, on the contrary, with warding ourselves against being ‘reduced to matter’. The one thing we do not wish to become by what happens to us, according to Weil, is ‘mere matter’ – to not be interested in actively shaping one’s life, to be interested only in ‘means’ such as money or power. Weil thinks a lot in terms of good and evil, and, to identify with the universe is a form of protection from evil. Evil, in her view, can destroy only ‘tangible’ things. In order to maintain the ‘good’, she proposes to focus on intangible things, and to tie the ones we want to protect, such as our most precious thoughts, to the ‘perpetual exchange of matter’, and particularly to two things, which she believes cannot be taken away from any living human being: respiration and the perception of space. The second way, in which an identification with the universe is important, has to do with others: to understand others not as parts of the same universe but as another conception of the universe (or prisons surrounded by universes, but that’s another story), be they other people or nation states. If we see others as such, it makes it difficult to wish to become the ‘master’ of the one universe, to become involved in power struggles. But this vision is also about ethical relating: how do we interact with another conception of the universe? Could it be understood as the same, but different world? Would we take responsibility for destroying such a world? Wouldn’t we destroy ourselves – wholly?

Kusama’s dotted room under UV light

All of these positions were with me when I entered Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective. The exhibition started with a room of her early paintings, which already seemed to address ‘the dissolution of her own image and individuality in the infinity of a cosmic landscape’. We learn that Kusama’s work emanates from a child hood experience of ‘losing’ her body at the family’s kitchen table, when she felt her body and the whole room being invaded and ‘obliterated’ by the red flower pattern of the dinner table cloth. Having lost the boundaries with her environment in this way, Kusama proceeds to experiment with the limits of bodily boundaries. Her ‘Infinity Nets’, for instance, a series of paintings showing a seemingly infinite number or small loops, could be seen as a means to explore the human/machine boundary. Kusama herself describes these paintings as being ‘without beginning, end, or centre’. Sometimes stretching over several walls, these paintings have often been described as ‘inhuman’, in the sense that no one human could have produced them. Apparently, Kusama sometimes painted several days on end, at least once ending up in hospital from the consequences of her caffeine-fuelled sleeplessness (or paint-smell overdose?). At the same time, these paintings, this overabundance of loops or dots, can be experienced as very child-like. Yet child-like does not necessarily entail a ‘humanising’ of experience, at least not for adults. As Lynn Zelevansky points out, comparing Kusama’s work to that of Yoshitomo Nara, children can be perceived as living partly in another world, too. Like the Kusama-as-machine, they are ‘boundary creatures’. On the other hand, through combining the playful shapes with machine-like repetition, Kusama also seems to ask how we should envision infinity: as a pleasant ‘surpassing’ of time (to use Weil’s words) or as endless sterility?

Kusama and her penis-covered furniture

Either way, the subject of infinity addresses the limits of human experience. In his essay ‘dot, dot, dot.’, psychoanalyst Gérard Wajcman draws attention to two further boundaries in the work of Kusama: those of gender and the organic/inorganic. Pointing to the artist’s placement of dots, he proposes that not only do they cover men, women and objects equally, but also appear to multiply without touching. As he phrases it: ‘the dots don’t fuck’ – or don’t need to. Similarly, Kusama appears to contest the distinction between living and non-living by making inanimate objects sprout a ‘forest of penises’. Comparing her tactic with the case of Freud’s ‘little Hans’, who distinguishes between the living and non-living by means of their capacity for ‘making wee-wee’, Wajcman half-jokingly concludes that Kusama truly fails to make that cut. For him, she also addresses this particular cut when she ‘vaporises’ the body in works such as ‘Narcissus Garden’, a field of 1500 chromed plastic orbs, each reflecting the body of the person standing amongst them. More so, Kusama’s artworks seem to ask how the spectators view themselves not only within the artwork, but in relation to their environment: do they feel what it is like to be ‘a dot in the universe’ – vaporised into a infinite number of (meaningless?) particles or isolated planets, do they feel paranoid about being looked at from hundreds of mirrors – or do they bask in the feeling of being infinitely reflected and looked at? Here, Hegel’s term ‘bad infinity’ (used by Žižek) comes to mind as a perfect description, though not in the original meaning.

Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden

Different responses to infinity seem increasingly enabled in Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water Infinity Room. When stepping into this installation – comprised of a dark mirrored room, black floor covered in water, with a passageway in between, and a seemingly infinite number of little coloured lightbulbs – one really gets a sense of what it means to be a ‘dot in the universe’. I experienced a loss of gravity, as if I was hovering in and staring straight into the universe, like a suitless (boundary-less?) astronaut dumped out of a space vessel. How to make sense of such a human/universe encounter? And why might Kusama think it is important to have such experiences? Wajcman proposes that Kusama’s work is as much about others as it is about herself: that her works seek to create spaces where all of humanity could (or should?) live, to create spaces where, according to the artist herself, she is able to save people from their ‘sad, outcast’ existences. Wajcman suggests that by outcasts, Kusama thinks less of the mentally ill, homosexuals or other ‘social outcasts’ who are explicitly addressed or participate in her works, but a ‘humanity reduced to dots, to counters, to non-being’. As he concludes, for him, Kusama invents the world we are missing/the world we need.

Yayoi Kusama ‘Fireflies on the Water’ Infinity Room

Here, an interesting link ties ‘saving oneself’ with ‘saving humanity’ (self/other boundary): how does my view of myself in relation to my environment impact on greater society? This is the place, where, for me, Žižek comes in and his critique of mass individualism, particularly the individual’s excessive focus on the body. It relates to the tension between two opposite poles that, for me, is expressed in Kusama’s work. As Wajcman put it: is Kusama’s work the ultimate self-obsession – to see oneself at the centre of, and infinitely reflected in, the universe – or is it the ultimate selflessness – about becoming (part of) the universe by recognising the ‘pointlessness’ of a focus only on oneself? This opposition is also expressed by Simone Weil and Slavoj Zizek. To use Weil’s words:

‘Two tendencies with opposite extremes: to destroy the self for the sake of the universe, or to destroy the universe for the sake of the self. He who has not been able to become nothing runs the risk of reaching a moment when everything other than himself ceases to exist.’

What if, as Zizek asks, being ‘really alive’ entails addressing something bigger than our own ‘good time’? What if it means addressing the wider dimensions of life and of the world, and both being humbled by it and wishing to take up a greater cause?

Image source: Yayoi Kusama

Kusama’s work has been accused of being narcissistic rather than being about teaching others how to be a mere dot amongst others, particularly, because of its spectacular and at times pornographic nature. Not only do critics take into account the appearance of her work, but also Kusama’s knack for drawing media attention. Having been exposed to all the different aspects of her work (apart from her writing, which I have just started to delve into), I cannot but view it as an offer of choice – it is up to you how you want to take on her work. You can contemplate the universe or your own reflection in her work – or do both at the same time: to become lost in the dots while filming yourself in the process of it. Like most people, I left the exhibition in a state of extreme happiness. Unlike to be expected from photos of Kusama’s work, I did not feel that this was because of ‘intoxication’ from the bright colours and wacky shapes, but from having had the chance to experiment with being a dot in the universe.

Why this critique?

Tzvetan Todorov presenting at the RSA

Ok – haven’t been able to find the first part of this blogpost that I’d written into a notebook or onto some other pieces of paper. But here comes the second attempt… Bascially, during the last few weeks, I have ended up reading a number of authors who engage with the definition of ‘critique’ (and I have just realised that they all happen to be French!). The first one I read was Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘In Defence of Enlightenment’. Currently, the Enlightenment is being blamed or lauded for one thing or another, from disenchantment and the destruction of the environment to freedom of speech and critical thinking (an audio programme on the topic can be found on philosophy bites). Here, Todorov’s book presents, in accessible format, an interesting and thought-provoking position. Through re-engaging with key topics such as autonomy, progress and truth, Todorov seeks to unsettle our preconceived notions of Enlightenment thinking. Ultimately, Todorov seeks to further a more productive engagement with the project of the Enlightenment – and, by extension, our current political/intellectual situation – not necessarily by accepting his interpretations of works, correspondence and events surrounding the birth of the movement, but by inviting debate.

Debate is, for Todorov, what characterises Enlightenment thinking. In his opinion, the movement appears not as unified by ideas, but by method: question everything. As this method or ‘attitude towards the world’, as he puts it, is becoming more and more undermined – from interpretations of critique as inherently destructive and misguided, as furthering a detachment from the sensual reality of the world or as inhibiting care for one’s human or non-human surroundings – what is needed, according to Todorov, is a reminder of the dangers of abandoning certain Enlightenment premises, or rather, the danger of losing the subtleties of certain debates, the majority of which are still going on today. Rather than dismissing certain consequences of Enlightenment thinking as a failure of the whole project, he draws attention to the solidarity between positive and negative effects, as pointed out by thinkers such as Rousseau. As Todorov writes, we need to ‘re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination, lucidly assessing it in light of its wanted and unwanted consequences’.

A seemingly complete contrast to this argument is presented by Bruno Latour in his search for an alternative to critique. ‘Why do we need an alternative?’ one might ask. In his ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ he contrasts critique, which, to him, constitutes a barbaric, hurtful method aimed at the destruction of a ‘veil’, with ‘composition’, which represents a mending, caring approach and is ‘all about immanence’ rather than a world beyond. This statement may come as a shock to people who believe in the constructiveness of a lot of critical thinking. In fact, the manifesto’s lament that ‘there are enough ruins’ produced by critique has led to the joke that if Latour had been part of the Matrix trilogy, he would have taken the blue pill – or would be seen forcing others to take it (this take on Latour actually made me read Joshua Clover’s BFI series contribution on The Matrix – can recommend the comparison). Latour, however, insists that he is not trying to maintain an illusion, but that everyone else is: by insisting on a separation of society and ‘nature’. How is this an illusion? Here, the definition of the Enlightenment becomes a central element to Latour’s argument. According to his definition of it, the Enlightenment represents a consensus on the construction of a certain reality in which entities which belong to society (= humans) are allowed to speak, whereas entities which remain outside society – classified as ‘nature’ – are not. Through their position outside of society, anything other-than-human is made subject to domination by humans: human scientists not only speak for these entities, but also present their interpretations of them as ‘facts’. Against this division, Latour offers a vision of a world where the social is also made up of formerly natural entitities who contribute to the production of it – and ‘matters of concern’ – in many, often invisible, ways.

This new image of the world is not without its discontents and its discussion would exceed the purpose of this post (a useful read in this context is Graham Harman‘s ‘Prince of Networks’). A worry that has been expressed by Latour himself in ‘Why has critique run out of steam?’ is that his argument, that ‘facts’ or anything else are constructed, has been taken up by anyone from climate change deniers to students who do not want to engage with critical theory. Experiencing a sort of vertigo that the ‘sure ground’ has been taken away by the ‘worst possible fellows’, Latour tries to work against this (mis)appropriation (especially regarding the debate around scientific issues), by, as he admits himself, more or less performing the very method of critique he is uncomfortable with. Stating that ‘the question was never to get away from facts but closer to them’ he blames the misfiring of his proposal on the lack of criticality within criticality: that critical thinking does not recognise how it is constructed itself. The remedy he proposes appears to be a breaking with the destructive Enlightenment tradition and to ‘look forward’ and reconstruct a better world – as a ‘commons’ of humans and ‘non-humans’.

In addition, Latour believes that the ‘grand systems’ produced by Enlightenment-influenced thinking prevent us from being able to challenge them. Instead, they need to be broken down into relations between (human and nonhuman) actors, so that we can gain a better sense of how to dismantle potentially unhelpful systems. As he writes in ‘We have never been modern’ (thanks to Gail Davies for the quote):

‘Take some small business owner hesitatingly going after a few shares, some conqueror trembling with fever, some poor scientist tinkering in his lab, a lonely engineer piecing together a few more or less favourable relations of force, some stuttering and fearful politicians; turn the critics loose on them, and what do you get? Capitalism, imperialism, science, technology, and domination. In the first scenario, the actors were trembling; in the second they are not. The actors in the first scenario could be defeated; in the second they no longer can. In the first scenario, the actors were still quite close to the modest work of fragile and modifiable mediations; now they are purified, and they are all equally formidable’.

Another author who writes against the ‘Misadventures of Critical Thinking’ is Jacques Rancière. Like Latour, his ‘critique of critique’ is directed more against ‘melancholic’ writers such as Baudrillard, but is expressed in very different ways. For instance, in contrast to Latour, Rancière evokes the relation between critique and Enlightenment in exactly the opposite way. To Rancière, ‘critical procedures were supposed to be means of arousing awareness and energies for a process of emancipation’. In ‘Hatred of Democracy’, he jokingly sums up the majority of positions arguing against the Enlightenment or Modernism as ‘the Moderns cut off the heads of kings so they could fill up their shopping trolleys at leisure’. To him, the picture that is thus painted and is dangerous in at least two ways: 1) because nothing can apparently be done against both manipulation and the pleasure drive and 2) because the impotence it shows is portrayed as being caused by the failure of critique, thus paving the way for joyful embracings of non- (or post?) criticality. For Rancière, the image of the failure of critique also endangers the struggle for more democracy as a critical project.

Jacques Rancière at UBC

This connection – and rethinking of possibility and political agency – is ever more pertinent today. To come back to Todorov’s view of the Enlightenment, we are dealing with misappropriations or distortions of the Enlightenment ideas. According to him, a key aim of the movement was to ‘reduc[e] the distance between action and its end purpose’, i.e. not to work towards reward of afterlife, but to work for the benefit of humanity on Earth. Todorov critiques that, at this moment in time, we have arrived at the opposite: the ends have become abandoned over sacralised means such as capital. We would act true to the Enlightenment spirit, Todorov proposes, if we ask ourselves, whether we must accept this state. This is exactly the kind of debate that is taking place in all the occupied sites all over the world at the moment. As Open University geographer Doreen Massey, speaking at the Tent University of the London Stock Exchange occupation, put it: so much of what people fought for in the 60s – flexibility, flow, lack of boundaries – has been misappropriated by neo-liberalism. Instead of serving people and their struggle for more equality, it has led to more inequality and the commodification of people themselves e.g. by emphasising their need to be available wherever and whenever, if they want to remain part of the system. Again, Doreen Massey did not merely critique, but offer how we can participate in constructing alternatives: by continuing to look for alternative imaginations to the dominant narrative that is forced upon us (e.g. listeners were pointing to Iceland as a model) and by voicing and sharing them (‘We need an ideological crisis, not just an economic one.’). Thus, against the background of the many Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta masks in the St Paul’s encampment and in the videos from the world-wide occupations, I would like to conclude that, if critique gains critical mass, one does not have to resort to gunpowder to blow things up.

Abuses of enchantment – Notes on the ‘Unknown Fields’ public debate

Here we go: sometimes following this blog is like waiting for a bus: for a long-time it seems like nothing turns up, and then three posts come along at once! So here is the third post, on the ‘Unknown Fields’ public debate at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (commonly referred to as the ‘AA’). As far as I understood, the event was part of the activities surrounding a particular architectural studio within the AA, called ‘Unknown Fields’ (led by architects Kate Davies and Liam Young). Partly a critique of exploration fuelled by notions of progress, partly a venue for learning and thinking up interventions, the studio addresses interfaces between nature and technology through field trips to areas which are a mix of ‘iconic wilderness’ and site of technological intervention (e.g. mining, tourism). The following day, the studio was to embark on a new field trip which would lead students, mentors and invited guests to places such as Chernobyl and the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Unfortunately, the event was subject to a lot of rescheduling (speakers, rooms, times), which saw some of presentations being moved to the next day – to Kiev. On the positive side, the event had an exciting mixture of speakers which were available for discussion during breaks, as well as free food & drink. Also, the AA is known for its rather exciting bookshop (attention bargain hunters: relocation sale on 20 July 2011!). The main part of the day was held in a room which looked like a cross between a Finnish home sauna and an amphitheatre (size-wise closer to the former) and featured several monitors, for presentation slides as well as muted films relating to the event. I completely forgot to take photographs – which usually means I was too busy thinking and taking notes, so all in all an interesting event!

The first session focused on our society’s engagement with the ‘atomic’ and mostly encompassed work that engaged creatively and critically with issues around ‘the nuclear’ (I use the singular of ‘society’ on purpose as different societies show remarkably similar ways of engaging with nuclear power). For me, this session raised questions around our fascination with all things nuclear – from the fearful to the enthusiastic: What kind of active or creative engagement goes in the right direction? Can ‘enchantment’ be a hindrance or even be abused by those wishing to sustain the industry? This theme continued through the ‘cosmic session’ in the late afternoon.

Michael Madsen, director of ‘Into Eternity’ and participant in the field trip, talked about the inability of humankind to act responsibly with something that stays highly toxic for 100,000 years, especially as ‘there is always something new we are learning about this technology’. He proposed that working with nuclear power was like trying to manage a new fire we cannot put out. Currently, our attempts to manage it are clumsy and have no comparison: we have nothing that compares to it in our experience, not even human structures that have lasted this long. He argued that ‘if we had something comparable, we could talk about it’ (e.g. human structures that have lasted this long). Madsen sees his film as a prompt to address the future. A problem that current attempts to bury nuclear waste are running into, is not only the problem of human curiosity, but of the transformation of civilisations. Proposals to have adjoint manned archives to waste repositories could morph over time from mundane archives of knowledge to temples of a nuclear priesthood of ‘fire keepers’, which holds uninformed population at ransom.

That ‘nuclear temple’ already exists in our time has not only been noticed by computer game developers but by writer Will Wiles who talked about ruins of technological disasters as destinations for ‘toxic tourism’. To him, our facination with ruins (‘ruin lust’) has less to do with a romanticisation of the past than with these ‘failed spaces’ inspiring us to project ourselves into a future (near rather than far) and how it is to live in it, the ruin and its origins in an optimistic past highlighting its precariousness. This actually mirrors current debates in geography on how this ‘enchantment’ with ruins can active interventions in the future.

I was especially excited about the presence of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. I came across her work when still a fashion student, and I credit it/her for majorly contributing to my path from doing sustainable design research in fashion design to becoming a geographer doing art and design based interactions around ‘risk’. Only knowing her drawings and essays (by her as well as about her), it was very helpful to meet her in person to get a more complete sense of how she works. While, earlier in the day, Peter Wynne Kirby had been discussing the prevailing image of a ‘fear of mutation’ in Japanese pop culture , Cornelia Hesse-Honegger was bringing it much closer to home. At the heart of her presentation was the disparity between the ‘official line’ that artificial low radiation is safe and contrasting research that it is unsafe. She argued that many scientists abstain from researching this area, because of the danger of having funding (or their job) withdrawn. She uses her position as an artist, employing scientific method, to do research and publish both artwork and scientific studies that do not have to rely on the usual channels of science funding.

Image: Scentless plant bug from Würenlingen, Switzerland
Source: Website of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger

Here, Hesse-Honegger drew parallels between research that took place before the Vietnam war on ‘Agent Orange’ and other herbicides and defoliants used in warfare. These poisons were used despite experiments showing that these had mutagenic effects on organisms – with scientists claiming not to have anticipanted their consequences. She concluded her presentation by pointing out that similar silence is now surrounding mutations in children near uranium mines, battlefields littered with depleted uranium ammunition or in children of soldiers working with this kind of ammunition. Studies are suggesting that effects are psychological rather than physical while physical effects are clearly observable.
The absurdity of some of the activities surrounding nuclear power was brought out further by Oliver Goodhall’s work ‘Nuclear is good – what will it take to convince you?’, which compared (contrasted would be the wrong word here) his seemingly absurd proposals for managing nuclear threat with real life proposals follwing a very similar vein.

The ‘cosmic session’ had inofficially been started with references to space by other presenters, most notably Michael Madsen whose new project with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (motto: ‘Bringing the Benefits of Space to Earth’) revolves around mapping alien encounters. Officially, it started with comic artist Paul Duffield who presented his latest work ‘Signals’. Inspired by SETI and Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series, his graphic novel – or ‘visual poem’, as he called it – looks at space in terms of our desire for meaning. Rather than as seekers of knowledge, Duffield sees humans as seekers of meaning. He suggested that ‘engaging with the cosmic might engage us with the meaning of significance’. In this sense, ‘Signals’, represents an appeal to ‘always have in mind the cosmic scale and not just our next lunch’.

The question is whether a consideration of the cosmic would make us more liable to act irresponsibly (‘what does such a small act matter?’) or whether it would force us to act in more meaningful or meaning-making ways. A cynical comment on this could be this (and also applying to Will Wiles’ ‘toxic tourism’) would be this Douglas Adams quote which I found on the ‘Unknown Fields’ webpage:

‘The End of the Universe is very popular… People like to dress up for it… Gives it a sense of occasion’ (From: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

Hopefully, things look better than this!

Following on, writer Mark Pilkington illustrated how human fascination with the cosmic has (or is still being) abused as distraction. Calling it the ‘abuse of enchantment’, Pilkington used examples of the US government’s engineering of sites to would attract UFO enthusiasts in order to move citizen’s attention away from the truly sensitive sites to their use of superstition for the purpose of psychological warfare.

The question of what to do about all this misuse of technology or ‘enchantment’ with technology was at the center of Mario Petrucci’s presentation on ‘the artist and the self’ after Chernobyl (which could also have been called ‘Art is good – what will it take to convince you?’). While I could not really relate to his fish metaphor (and usually I can absolutely relate to fish metaphors, as many people know), he raised some interesting points (literally reciting several lists of points) about obstacles to counteracting the destructiveness of our society. Petrucci started by saying that we are caught up in patterns of destruction and inertia, which include a lack of willingness to break out of preframed thinking paths and concepts such as cost-benefit-analysis, near-term orientation, free markets and reducing all value to currency value. Instead, he proposed, that we need a ‘metaphoric economics’, based not on intellect alone but on imagination. And this is where art – any art: audio/visual, textual, sculptural – comes in for him as a combination of mid-wife, interface, vaccine and anti-dote.

To begin with, Petrucci conceded that art is not perfect: not only is there a lot of ‘bad art’ (war propaganda or art which is parasitic of spectacles, e.g. which would profit from a ‘Chernobyl industry’), but it also has a questionable reach. Quoting Woody Allen, he suggested that people are more likely to imitate ‘bad television’ than the visionary proposals of art. (A question discussed during the lunch break: does art merely reach the already converted?) Nevertheless, he maintained that ‘good art’ can do a number of useful things, if art : highlight problems, challenge or transform beliefs, assist in participation and render (itself? others?) proof against unhelpful ‘memes’ and perhaps ‘oust’ destructive imagination through offering more positive kinds of scenarios (‘art can put examples into people’s minds). How does art do it? According to Petrucci, it does so by ‘paying attention’, creating ”alertness nutrients’ for our world’, and by engaging the ‘entire self’.

Also important for Petrucci is that art puts disjunct pieces together into one ‘story of knowledge’. Somewhat counter to Donna Haraway’s ‘situated knowledges’, he refers to the creation of a story that encompasses all narratives, in order to show that ‘individuals, organisations, nations’ are all in this together. Another image Petrucci used in this context is Chernobyl as ‘not merely something that went wrong or that happened to us, but a material expression of the collective human self, of what makes us‘. He concluded his talk with an ‘action plan’ which, amongst other things, urged the audience to challenge ‘business as usual’ and voice a ‘yes’ to transformation and a better future, ‘even though we may not be sure yet what this ‘yes’ means’.  A move from a enchantment with technological disaster, leading to passivity, towards an enchantment with art, leading to activity? Following Petrucci’s argumentation, this is perhaps the only option we’ve got. After all, we are a ‘young, groping species’. The problem is that wreaking destruction is a form of groping as well. Let’s hope its benevolent form proves more popular in the long term… I’d certainly prefer to dress up for that!


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