Mutable Matter


Category Archive

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

Society & Space book review: Alondra Nelson’s ‘Body & Soul’

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Today, the Society & Space Open Site published my review of Alondra Nelson’sBody and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination’, which I highly recommend to any geographers working on health, racism, ‘active citizenship’ and political activism. I came across the book as part of my research on ‘parallel institutions’, which are alternative institutions founded by disenfranchised publics. I will be exploring the topic more in the future, also as part of my World Social Science Fellowship in global social governance.


The Everyday Battlefield: Hito Steyerl & Juliana Spahr

A few weeks ago, I went to see Hito Steyerl’s exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. Unfortunately, the exhibition has since ended, but Steyerl’s performances have stayed with me as some kind of lightbeam that flags up disturbing ‘facts of life’. The exhibition showed her films as well as her performance lectures, although the films seemed to take centre stage (they were displayed in a more cinema-like manner). While these films were already very interesting (especially the one about security in the gallery space, entitled ‘Guards’), I found her performance lectures even more striking – in the case of ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’, quite literally. The talk, screened back to back with ‘Guards’, traces the intimate connections between the art world and the military-industrial complex. Here is a version of it:

Is the Museum a Battlefield? by Hito Steyerl on Vimeo.

(This is a different version to the one at the gallery, which was a live recording from the 13th Istanbul Biennial whose theme was ‘Mom, am I a barbarian?’)

In the talk, Steyerl keeps on emphasising the mundaneness of atrocities: the battlefields that look unremarkable, the software that is used by weapons manufacturers as well as artists and designers, the military coups that open art and architecture markets, the arms money that circulates through public institutions, the mobile or internet communications of ordinary citizens that are routinely under surveillance. All around her, Steyerl discovers traces of bullets, highlighting their ubiquitous but obscured presences by holding up and even catching invisible ammunition. She finds that, when she shoots her videos, she inadvertently shoots people (including her friend Andrea Wolf), thanks to the technology’s implication in ‘toxic data clouds’ and common manufacturing processes. For Steyerl, bullets fly in circles: if you trace a piece of debris on the battlefield to its origin, you might end up with yourself, picking up said piece of debris. Her talk ends with the question: can we reverse or interrupt this cycle, to prevent more people from getting killed on this ever-present battlefield?

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Still from ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’ Source: e-flux

A few days after seeing Steyerl’s exhibition, I encountered the work of Juliana Spahr through a poetry reading and a conference talk in Milwaukee. At the conference, Spahr described her current project with fellow poet Joshua Clover as an attempt to bridge between two poetic trajectories that do not seem to speak one another: environmental and political poetry. This lack of dialogue, for me, also manifests itself in academia, between environmental or ‘new materialist’ theory and political or ‘historical materialist’ theory. In her talk, as well as her poetry, Spahr’s struggle to create bridges emerged as a productive one, through its density and its sense of the depths and levels of our current predicament. Moving between skin cells and war, kisses and labour movements, air composition and species extinction, she thoroughly stripped away barriers through her renderings of mechanisms and relations.

Juliana Spahr – Gender Abolition and Ecotone War

What she also very viscerally rendered present, for me, was the struggle with one’s own implication in both environmental and geopolitical destruction as an artist, academic and ‘ordinary person’. Given the magnitude of her question, I was rather saddened by some of the stereotypical academic responses to her talk, which tended to focus on trivial definitions or mockings of Marxism where, instead, some empathy or brainstorming support in terms of related strategies would have been more appropriate (although any response was arguably more productive than my silence).

Another remarkable thing is that Spahr reads without drama – the whole time that she is seemingly running through her poems, the drama (horror, exhilaration, lightbulb moments) unfolds relentlessly in the listener’s head. The effect, for me, is a sort of energising exhaustion. This tension between the casual, everyday and the drama and obscene violence of the geopolitical stage appears to be central to Juliana Spahr’s poetry in general. Whether she speaks about the Iraq war, the poetry scene, trade unions, bird species or the Anthropocene, Spahr’s emphasis lies on uncovering and grappling with mechanisms that tie us in our homes (or desks or beds) to very big and interconnected problems:

‘In bed, when I stroke down on yours cheeks, I stroke also the carrier battle group ships, the guided missile cruisers, and the guided missile destroyers’ (from This Connection of Everyone with Lungs p. 74).

If one were to generalise the essence of her question, it might run something like: what does it mean to be human and what can we do, as humans, to change our predicament?


Juliana Spahr reading the poem ‘Things’ (from Penn Sound Archive)

The connection between the two artists is their emphasis on the fact that – and how – any of us on this planet are permanently at war: not only are there wars around the world all of the time, but we are involved in them all in some way or another. Moreover, they both state that they are not satisfied with merely highlighting the problem. In their efforts to come up with possible modes of intervention, they do not only seem to address fellow artists, but ‘audiences’ (not just art audience, but especially those who do not see themselves as such). Steyerl is particularly cynical about the role of art as a carrier of resistance. As she put it in her essay ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, ‘[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?’ (The Wretched of the Screen p. 93) She acerbically diagnoses high art’s predicament as follows:

‘The Global Guggenheim is a cultural refinery for a set of post-democratic oligarchies, as are the countless international biennials tasked with upgrading and re-educating the surplus population. Art thus facilitates the development of a new multi-polar distribution of geopolitical power whose predatory economies are often fuelled by internal oppression, class war from above, and radical shock-and-awe policies. Contemporary art thus not only reflects, but actively intervenes in the transition toward a new post-Cold War world order.’ (p. 94)

According to Steyerl, art shies away from these connections and, instead, matches the ambitions and self-image of the harbingers of ’post-democratic hypercapitalism’ in its advocacy of opportunism, unpredictability, unaccountability, individualism, brilliance etc. Instead, she calls for the disenfranchised publics to reclaim art as a public good, using the repeated storming of the Louvre as an example.

Spahr also criticises the appropriation of ‘public art’. In her opinion, it is too frequently used by governments as a means to justify the continued perpetuation of a cycle of violence. For instance, the commission and display of monuments not only serves to superficially appease, but to actively naturalise violence:

‘At moments, once they [the writers/poets] got sufficiently theorised, they tried to think their way through this by thinking about Antigone and the public need to bury a body. But the minute they thought this, they then realised that Antigone was a figure of resistance against the state, not the state putting up one more piece of art to support its endless and unjustified killing of people of other places as well as its endless and unjust killing of a disproportionate number of its own people and of certain races and classes in the pursuit of endless and unjustified killings of people in other places.’ (from The Transformation, p. 162)

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September 11 memorial ‘Tribute in Light’

The key, for Spahr, despite its problems, seems to be to reappropriate the tools that were, in turn, appropriated in the service of destruction, in her own case language. Steyerl seems to second this strategy with her reappropriation of the audio-visual space.

Further, Spahr finds that artistic interventions frequently preach only to the converted and seems to echo Howard Zinn’s mantra ‘everyone must be involved – there are no experts’ (from ‘Artists in Times of War’, p. 11). By minutely detailing her own struggle as well as that of people around her, she almost creates a manual for possibilities of resistance. Yes, this manual also includes multiple failures and even humorous instances (both Spahr and Steyerl share a dark sense of humour, with Steyerl on the more satirical end), but it shows the struggle at a human scale and the need to recognise and make connections to related struggles.

Here, Spahr’s wrestling with the tension between treating humans as a species (‘this connection of everyone with lungs’) and humans as a society with antagonisms that lead to environmental and political problems adds another dimension to the ‘everyone’. Everyone is already involved through the physical processes that come with being alive, but not everyone is in an equal position in the social mechanisms. In her talk ‘Gender Abolition and Ecotone War’, Spahr extends this critique to authors who argue that all humans are equally affected by environmental changes. Emphasising that environmental changes cannot be seen independently of political changes, she reverses Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument that ‘unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged’ into ‘I don’t know where Chakrabarty’s been looking, but the rich are buying life boats right now’.

In grappling with the perceived abyss between the everyday and the geopolitical – the apparent isolation of events such as sleeping, celebrity weddings, sturgeon poaching and full-scale war – Steyerl and Spahr keep returning to the question of the agency of the individual. There is no shortage of desperation in their writing. In one of Spahr’s post September 11 poems, for example, she writes: ‘beloveds, we do not know how to live our lives with any agency outside of our bed’, and repeatedly attempts to tie this emotional and bodily agency to the scale of the planet. Steyerl echoes this loss of agency in her depressing vision destitute (art) labourers dancing to ‘viral Lady Gaga imitation videos’ rather than rousing protest music. Yet both artists stubbornly refuse to give up either the content or their medium of struggle. As Spahr asserts: ‘‘We want to get ourselves out of bed.’ Here are two quotes that, for me, sum up the refusal of the medium despite its obvious taint:

‘If politics is thought of as the Other, happening somewhere else, always belonging to disenfranchised communities in whose name no one can speak, we end up missing what makes art intrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labour, conflict, and.. fun – a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local.’ (Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen’ p. 98)

‘With grief, with worry, with desire, with attachment, with anything and everything, they began listing, inventorying, recognising in the hope that a catalogue of vulnerability could begin the process of claiming their being human, claiming the being human of their perverse third Sapphic point, claiming the being human of the space in the palm of their writing hand, in that space that their little and ring fingers made when they held a pen, the space that when they were learning to write in first grade they had been forced to fill with a small cool marble so as to learn the proper way to hold a pencil.’ (Juliana Spahr, The Transformation, p. 214)

At the same time, both artists/authors stress that art practice and poetry are not the only means, and that even armed resistance or defense may need to be considered, given the pervasiveness of militarisation. In this context, Spahr’s and Clover’s insistence on an Ecotone War serves both as a provocation to shock people out of their set ways of thinking about – and responding to – the current crisis (although Spahr also wonders about its usefulness and whether they should hold on to it). By contrast, Steyerl explicit terrorism references in films such as ‘November’ emphasise the question of what counts as terrorism and point to a dependence on circumstances and on who tells the story. Who is terrorising whom in the various ‘wars on terror’ around the world? Although she does not call for people to become terrorists (in her worldview they more or less already are), she seems to ask for a re-evaluation of terrorism and a potential rewriting of violent histories. She does not do this naively, showing the disturbing aspects of terrorism such as martyrisation and other forms of glorification of violence, and the loss of usefulness of violence.

November – Trailer by Hito Steyerl on Vimeo.

What I appreciate about both artists is their challenging provocations, both in the kinds of questions they ask and in the means they offer as pathways to action. In setting examples that clearly state the double-edgedness of all interventions, they leave us with uncomfortable tools, but with tools nonetheless.


One In Other @ Anthropocene Feminism, UWM

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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.

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Post on WomanTheory blog

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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 (alexander.vasudevan@nottingham.ac.uk ) by February 4th, 2013.

Sources:

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.


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