For people who liked the Terra Infirma workshop and/or the Geologic Turn symposium, here are two days of presentations and discussions at Lancaster University:
Political Geology: Stratigraphies of Power 21 June 2012, 11am – 5pm
(In)determinate Subjects: Indeterminacy & Justice 22 June 2012, 10am – 6pm
The events are described as follows:
Political Geology: Stratigraphies of Power
‘With what language can we describe the politics of the Earth? ‘Geopolitics’ should be the name of that language; yet the geopolitical lexicon is strangely lacking in any reference to the Earth System, to its structures and resistances, its deep time and its sudden upheavals. In recent decades, social and political theory has undertaken a number of biological turns, giving rise for example to political ecology, ecological economics and theories of biopolitics. But, despite Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of ‘geophilosophy’, there has been no comparable geological turn – no concerted inquiry into the ways that the geophysical, as much as the biological, conditions what politics is and can be. However, debates about the Anthropocene seem to mark a growing recognition of humankind as a geological force. At the same time, unregenerate seismic, volcanic, atmospheric and other geomorphological forces attest to the limits of the human, yet also propel and incite human agency.
This workshop will explore the possibilities for a political vocabulary that can articulate the geophysical dimensions of politics and the political dimensions of the geophysical.’
Speakers will include:
Nigel Clark (Open University), Deborah Dixon (Aberystwyth University), Stuart Elden (Durham University), Myra Hird (Queen’s University, Canada), Arun Saldanha (University of Minnesota), Bronislaw Szerszynski (Lancaster University) and Kathryn Yusoff (Lancaster University).
Cost for attending (including lunch): £20; £10 for students or Lancaster staff.
This workshop is organised by the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change and the Lancaster Environment Centre. To book a place, or for more information, go to
http://bit.ly/politicalgeology or contact Bronislaw Szerszynski (email@example.com).
(In)determinate Subjects: Indeterminacy & Justice
‘Increasing attention has been given to exploring how to account for entities that are both between time and between natures, such as subject/objects, forms of biotic, technoscientific and inhuman life. This conversation will ask: In what ways can indeterminate entities be observed within (and in excess of) the material/practical conditions of their emergence? How do these conditions create different kinds of responsibility(and new vocabularies which trouble and expand the contours of ‘responsibility’) which we may not have yet anticipated? How can we imagine alternative forms of accounting which apprehend ontological and temporal conditions of precarity and justice? By exploring these and further questions we hope the conversation will help us explore alternative forms of experimentality and human – inhuman configurations which may take new account of indeterminacy and move us towards a more enduring postrelational politics.’
Speakers include: Myra Hird (Queens), Rebecca Ellis (Lancaster University), Claire Waterton (Lancaster University), Nigel Clark (Open University), Natasha Myers (York University) Elizabeth Barron (Harvard University), Filippo Bertoni (University of Amsterdam), Hayder Al-Mohammad (University of Southampton), Arun Saldanha (University of Minnesota), Kathryn Yusoff (Lancaster University) with Celia Roberts (Lancaster University), Maureen McNeil (Lancaster University), and Lucy Suchman (Lancaster University).
To reserve a place contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Just went to see ‘Into Eternity’, Michael Madsen’s film about the Finnish nuclear waste repository ‘Onkalo’. I thought it was a great film that, for me, linked together a variety of things I had come across recently. Amongst other things these were: the Experimental Ruins workshop at UCL, Neal Stephenson’s book ‘Anathem’ that I finally finished reading, the Arts Catalysts’ ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue I came across, and the paper I’m currently writing about Mikhail Bakthin and his potential relevance to the debate around materiality in geography.
During the film, I had to think of a question someone asked during the last few minutes of the ‘Experimental Ruins’ workshop: can you have ‘future ruins’ – and what would they be? ‘Into Eternity’ seems to deal with exactly that. The film asks how we communicate the danger of the site to whoever comes across it between the time it is sealed until the time it is ‘safe’ – in approximately 100,000 years. The film’s strength, I find, lies in drawing out the clumsy ways in which this question is approached by the people in charge of the project: should art be used – and, if yes, what kind of art? Should warning markers with symbols be used or should the site be left to be forgotten so that no one will approach it in the future? How will future archaeologists deal with the ‘ruin’? Will there be archaeologists? Maybe another species will have evolved altogether? What level or kind of technology will they have? Will the dangerous waste perhaps be useful for them? As the main problem, it seems, emerges human curiosity – people may be particularly encouraged to ‘have a look’ if the site is marked as dangerous – similar to the explorers opening up the Egyptian tombs.
To me, the focus on human ‘cluelessness’ feels less like a statement that the project is in the wrong hands – that the authorities are rather naive about what could happen in 100,000. While this also plays a role, one gets the impression, that such questions would be (or are) equally clumsily approached by all of humanity. How are we dealing with a responsibility and other events stretched over such unimaginable timespans? This problem has also been pointed out by authors such as Barbara Adam (did Madsen read ‘Timescapes’ or ‘Future Matters’?), Nigel Clark (‘Inhuman Nature’) and Mikhail Bakthin (the ‘cosmic terror’ that humans experience from certain space-time scales and configurations). Like Adam, the film points to the enormous difficulties (impossibility?) of not only dealing with the spatialities, but especially the temporalities of our (less than?) sophisticated technological products and byproducts: the history of human civilisation only takes up a fraction of the time our dealings nuclear waste will demand of us. Throughout the film, the people working on the Onkalo project point out that they are placing the long-term danger in the care of the only example of such a long timespan they can relate to – the Finnish ‘bedrock’. Rock seems to undergo infinitesimal changes over thousands of years whereas the surface is permanently in flux – whether it is changes in climate, wars or the evolution of new species. The ‘universal scale’ waste is moved into a space that is operates differently and can ‘comprehend’ such scales. This is reflected in a joke the Onkalo officials share in front of the camera – that when they get to the bottom of the dig, they might find a copper barrel – left from a previous unknown civilisation.
Trailer for the book (!) ‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson
The film also made me think of Neal Stephenson’s science fiction epic (close to 1,000 pages!) ‘Anathem’. The novel is based on the ‘Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. In the world portrayed in most of the book, what we know as scientists and other academics (definitely philosophers – not sure if social scientists are allowed!), have been confined to monastery-like institutions where they are banned from undertaking empirical research. This way of life was imposed on them by the ‘saecular world’ after three occasions where research went horribly wrong on a large scale (the book suggests nanotechnology, genetic engineering and space-time manipulation). Some scholars, however, mastered the ability to move between worlds or parallel ‘narratives’ – and potentially even manipulate them. And this is how the civilisation in Stephenson’s book ends up dealing with nuclear waste: it is handed over to the scholars who are capable of switching to a narrative where physical damage from radiation does not exist. Translated into our current vocabulary: scientists/academics, ostracised from the rest of society, get to live on top of all sorts of hazardous leftovers of what previous generations of their kind conceived (there was actually an interesting review of ‘Anathem’ in the journal nature along this theme called ‘Imprisoned by Intelligence). Unlike in Onkalo, these hazards are kept in very primitive above ground facilities as their guardians do not need protection. In the story, most characters still understand what these hazards are, however, some hazards have morphed into legends such as a banned weapon merely known as the ‘Everything Killers’. One could argue that already now, in our world, we hardly know what exact hazards are being dealt with in our vicinity.
A theme that runs through ‘Into Eternity’ is the emphasis the ‘Onkalo’ officials place on protecting future beings that come across the site. In the Arts Catalyst’s ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue, the opposite theme is highlighted: As James Flint points out in the ‘Atomic’ catalogue, states withold information about certain kinds of hazards from not only their ‘enemies’, but also their citizens ‘even if their personal welfare was thereby put at risk’. While this statement alludes to the time of the Cold War, the more recent Arts Catalyst project Dark Places seems to continue this theme and raise the question what is currently concealed from us and why. Are we being endangered or protected or is there perhaps no such clear line? Again, the exploratory activities offered alongside the Dark Places exhibition seem to return to the theme of curiosity…
Excerpt from Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979)
One film that I would actually like to watch alongside ‘Into Eternity’ is ‘Stalker’, which got pointed out by a student in a recent group tutorial on science fiction portrayals of science. The film often seems to be portrayed as having predicted the desolation following events such as the Chernobyl disaster, thus inviting parallels between the mythic narrative of the film and the actual events. As artist-desiger John Coulthart goes as far as talking of the ‘Stalker meme’. One of his examples is the appropriating of the Stalker vocabulary and narrative: ‘scientists who study the forbidden region (and guides who take people there illegally) have referred to themselves as ‘stalkers”.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl computer game trailer
Further, a computer game based on the story imbues Chernobyl’s reactor hall (or an artifact within it) with the wish-granting abilities of the ‘Room’ – a central motif in ‘Stalker’. Further, a number of amateur short films based on the film as well as the computer game can be found on the net. On the basis on such examples, one could argue that Chernobyl is on its way to becoming one of the ‘temples’ mentioned in the Flint’s essay in ‘Atomic’… but not how it was intended by its builders.
I finally got hold of ‘Seeds – Time-capsules of Life’ (which conveniently happened to be at the Open University library) to see how ‘matter’ was talked about in terms of plant life. Despite my initial scepticism towards what seemed ‘just a coffee table book’, I found that while taking in this outcome of an artist/scientist collaboration, I had the feeling that never before I have enjoyed reading about plant biology so much and in so much detail since primary school! I now have a strange new feeling of interrelatedness with plants after reading that plants, too, had a ‘flower power revolution’ (slightly earlier than ours, about 140 million years ago in the late Jurassic), pack lunch packs for their children, set out for conquests and settlements in other places of the world, manipulate other organisms through ‘advertising’, set up beauty contests, have ‘retros’ in their society, follow a Kama Sutra of vegetable love-making and wage territorial war against each other. They even have navels and umbilical cords. How scary is that? (I’m only half-joking…)
What I like about this book is that two authors write very much from the perspective of the plant or ‘in the spirit’ of plant behaviour. For instance, both at the beginning and at the end of the book they state that this book is their extension of the ‘strategy of dispersal to new audiences’. This they hope to achieve by using similar strategies that plants employ. While they are thankfully not using scented pages, they ‘copy’ plants by adding colour to the (normally black and white) scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of ‘their’ seeds to ‘attract visitors’ to their ‘plants’ or subject/mission of plant conservation (after all, the book is published in collaboration with Kew Gardens. The authors hope that in addition to the breath-taking shapes and patterns evident in the seeds’ enlargements, the colour enhancement ‘lends the images a mysterious otherworldliness that transforms the spectator from one who just looks to one who sees and wants to know more’.
Indeed, mystery and magic are emphasized in the book, starting with how ‘tiny herbs and giant trees grow from seed’ to seeds not only travelling in space, but also in time. Examples are the so-called ‘mummy seeds’ that still sprout after 2,000 years. But we also learn some sobering facts such as our dependence on plant and plant variety (‘our entire civilisation is built on seeds’) or that the seeds of the noble vanilla plant are designed to ‘pass through the guts of the bats that are dispersing them’ – yum!
Another theme that comes up in the book is that of responsibility. The authors, especially the artist Rob Kesseler, ask whether responsibility for a subject should be left to ‘rational experts’. While this appears to go into the dangerous direction of the distinction between ‘rational experts’ and a ‘feeling public’, I feel that this is not what Kesseler has in mind. He asks in his essay ‘Phytopia – The difference between looking and seeing… an awesome clarity’ whether at the ‘current pace of life, speed of change and diversity of the objects and images that pass before our eyes… [we have] now become expert at recognition at the expense of a more perceptive understanding and appreciation that arises from a concentrated examination of any given subject.’ Through his work with the microscope, after which he returned to the plants from which the seeds had originated, he became ‘aware of the sophistication and power of our own in-built optical technologies’ which gave him insights in the difference between seeing and looking. This in return created the desire to ‘revive the spirit of looking’ in people and help them ‘see’ through a ‘total fusion of contemporary scientific and artistic practice’.
There currently seems to be a strong current of enthusiasm for the fusion of art and science. But where there are many proponents, there are also opponents who feel that this fusion is either ‘preaching to the converted’ or that science uses art to break down resistance to ‘rational’ ideas disseminated by science, especially with regard to new technologies. Seeds banks have also been part of this debate, because of the question of access and their connection with gene banks. ‘Seeds’ is obviously written in support of projects such as the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank (there is a brief chapter about it in the book), and it is persuasive. But my impression is that far from bringing people under an entrancing spell of art-science beauty, the book makes you think about the active workings of the world and your part in it. Let’s hope this ‘seed’ (despite its lack of financial accessibility for some) does manage to find its ways into new and challenging environments.