Mutable Matter

Open Letter Condemning the Purge of Academic Institutions in Turkey


This important petition just came through. The situation in Turkey is extremely disconcerting, and I am worried about my friends, colleagues and any other people who are negatively affected by the post-coup developments. If any other actions can be taken from outside Turkey, I will post these updates here.

Current petition text (you can sign the petition here):

As academics and administrators affiliated with colleges and universities around the world, we the undersigned strongly condemn the recent attacks on academic freedom by President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

On July 19, over 15,000 teachers and staff have been removed from their jobs, and Turkey’s Higher Education Board (YÖK) called upon the deans of all private and state universities to resign, in the wake of the attempted coup d’état on July 15 by a faction within the military. [Update: the government has instituted a travel ban on all academics (July 20)] The coup attempt is being cynically used to justify the appointment of party loyalists to those positions, which will politicize academic institutions and undermine both institutional independence and academic freedom throughout Turkey.

In solidarity with our colleagues in Turkey and in the defense of academic freedom, we therefore call upon President Erdoğan to reverse course and to respect the independence of academic institutions and the academic freedom of their faculty and students. We will support this call with the public and private means available to us.

Missing the point: On negotiating realities in (reviewing) ‘We need to talk about Kevin’


I am currently working off my ‘to watch’ list that has accumulated during term time. Once again, I am surprised by the kind of films that captivate me. They are often the once that are quite low on my list, either because of their subject matter or uninspiring trailers. ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is one of those films. It has been lurking on my list for many months and, suddenly, out of a whim, I decided to watch it – and was blown away. [caution: spoiler alert!]

‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is centred around a violent boy who ends up committing a massacre at his school. The film follows the boy’s mother, Eva (played by Tilda Swinton), through her present and past life, from just before Kevin’s birth until his move to an adult prison facility. The film can be described as a drama, psychological thriller, horror or even dark comedy. You can watch the trailer here.

Kevin is born – soon Eva will seek solace in building site noise

Already while watching the film, I started taking notes and searching for film reviews. I wanted to know if anyone else ‘got’ what I saw in the film. I was both shocked and affirmed in my suspicions that I could not find any discussion of ‘it’. In fact, the film was critiqued in many predictable ways for missing the point. Reviewers have criticised the film for lacking emotional depth, explanatory power, coherence and realism; for portraying Kevin as implausibly demonic; and for being a shallow product of upper middle-class imagination that is unable to deal with social complexities. Other targets include hatred of bohemian lifestyles, demonisation of motherhood and unnecessary abstraction. There is only one review (by Travis Wagner) that I found that came close to my own reading of the film. It focuses on the portrayal of violence in the film:

“In fact, one could make the argument that Ramsay’s film draws greater concern to the family structure of contemporary America as a place of latent violence. The silences and back room dealings that happen within even the seemingly happiest and well-to-do families only lays in wait for something tragic. Life, according to the world of We Need To Talk About Kevin, is usually shitty and there is no explanation as to why, yet it is pointless to dwell on the past no matter how dismal the present may be, simply put, there is no going back to a time before.”

Kevin’s parents waiting for his sister at hospital after household chemicals ‘accident’

I would like to take this argument a little further: the violence in the film results not just from life’s pointlessness and from a specifically American context, but from a jarring of realities. The problem with most of the reviews is that their writers critique the film from within their reality, what they believe to be ‘common sense’. For instance, they critique that the film fails to engage with the underlying causes of school shootings, which for one author are “the endless wars and talk of war, the social polarization, the worship of money, greed and selfishness, the brutalization and cheap misanthropy of popular culture and everyday life, the repudiation of the idea of social progress, the severe demoralization of a section of the youth, and all the rest”. This listing illustrates the writer’s assumption that if all of society’s problems were fixed, there is no reason or condition for violence.

This perspective remains completely oblivious to the possibility that, even if social inequality and greed are erased, human life might still seem unbearably absurd, if you have the curse or blessing of a slightly detached view. The film emphasises this possibility and the resulting jarring realities. It becomes gradually evident that the film is really told from Kevin’s perspective, not from Eva’s. What we see through Kevin’s eyes are freakish attempts at social formation, starting with the constant eliciting and measuring of achievements, and later expectations of etiquette and performance of prescribed relationships. Normal expectations become absurd: what and who do these demands serve?

The young Kevin refusing appropriate development

To Kevin, what other people consider normality not only feels numbing, but ridiculous. People feel unreal in how they act, in their struggle to uphold this normality. People think their life has a point, but it doesn’t. This realisation seems to be the main reason for Kevin’s disregard for life. Perhaps this is mixed with a resentment of being born, being thoughtlessly condemned to a pointless existence. In light of this interpretation, Kevin’s strange and shocking behaviour as a child and teenager can be read as instinctive attempts to force his mother into abandoning her reality, to see how he sees the world. We see how Eva struggles against this taunting reality and with his constant confrontation. Sometimes, this struggle takes on comical forms, the comedy emerging out of the oddity of ‘normality’ as much as out of encounters with Kevin’s ‘alternative reality’ – or even Eva’s imagined freedom of pre-Kevin reality.

The parallel realities are reflected in the film’s aesthetics and cuts. While many reviewers have critiqued the theatrical element, it precisely reflects Kevin’s view of the world. In a sense, Kevin creates an augmented reality in his deliberate play with what is ‘normal’. It is a performance within the performance of others that interferes with it, but also affirms it. Kevin knows how people are going to react, what people going to do – he confirms and plays a stereotype in their reality. A loner who takes revenge on the popular kids, who suffers from a refusal of white male entitlement, who strives for a ‘red carpet’ moment. In his reality, he ridicules theirs – the clinging to a comforting illusion, even when the most violent interruption cuts through it. Most people remain unaware of what and how they are performing, and if the do, they do not wish to be reminded of it. Kevin knows that this reality will stay intact as a system, but maybe not for everyone whom he affects with his actions.

Teenage Kevin surrenders to the police

For me, a key moment takes place when Eva spots the yellow locks on the gymnasium doors after arriving at the school. She had witnessed the arrival of the locks at her home, having taken on the delivery for her son. At this point she has confirmation that her son is not one of the potential victims, but the perpetrator: he is the one who is holding people hostage and killing them. With the fire brigade’s breaking of the main lock, Eva’s reality, too, is being broken, with the final rupture taking place after she returns home to find her husband and daughter in the garden, also murdered by her son. Perversely, from this moment onwards, she is forced to begin to see what he sees: to what lengths people will go to protect their reality and force others to participate in it: the necessity of a scapegoat, of clearly defined good and evil, of manicured appearances.

This gradual approaching of realities is hinted at during the final scene, where Eva visits her son in prison. The encounter takes place just before Kevin is to be ‘upgraded’ to the adult prison, after two years in a young offenders institution. After the usual awkward conversation, Eva finally confronts Kevin and asks him why he killed all these people. At first, Kevin graces her with his usual look – as if his mother would never understand him from the position of her reality. But then he seems to realise that she now lives in a different reality that is closer to his: for Eva, life around her has also become absurd and twisted. Kevin’s reality, too, is likely to have changed after being exposed to the alternate reality of the prison – a space that is often regarded as the dark condition for keeping ‘normality’ intact. This exposure beyond his experience of ‘normality’ might interfere with his ability to keep up his pattern. It could explain why Kevin, in the end, answers with something like: ‘I used to know why I did it, but now I’m not sure anymore.’ Before Eva leaves, Kevin gets up as if he opens himself for a hug – an unusual gesture that Eva responds to forcefully. Perhaps they can finally meet in the same reality.

The film ends with Eva walking towards the prison doors that open towards a white wall. On moving closer to the wall, the camera gives the impression of light. A pessimistic reading could view the light as an illusion of clarity – that the achievement of supposed clarity is just one further layer of illusion in a never-ending series of (self)deception. With a more positive inclination, this ending can be interpreted as an almost literal enlightenment – an invitation to finally begin a process of sense-making that is based on a clearer assessment of reality and a loss of fear from the horror of life. While the light may be brutal, at least it liberates from social prison.

Further, the hint of Kevin’s fragility at the end of the film could be read as a realisation that Kevin’s choice of how to deal with what he perceived as a ‘fake reality’ is not the only possibility. Nor is the reality that he loathed the only one out there. Here, the film seems to suggest that it is perhaps an even scarier or daunting challenge to find an alternative way of contesting hegemonic realities. Such a search will inevitably lead to existential questions and demand seemingly impossible levels of imagination. Perhaps it is not surprising that people shy away and choose self-projection and violence instead. In this sense, the film is as much a metaphor as an analysis of mass violence.

New Materialism & Decoloniality Workshop, 7-8 July, Duisburg


Next week, I will hopefully be attending (and speaking) at the New Materialism & Decoloniality Workshop at Duisburg University. I have to say ‘hopefully’, because the Home Office has still not returned my passport and other documents that I had to send off a few weeks ago for the first part of my citizenship application (fingers crossed that I get them back in time – any advice about alternative travel documents appreciated).

Organised by Olivia Rutazibwa and Pol Bargués-Pedreny of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, the workshop seeks to bring the two theoretical directions into dialogue with one another. There will be three rounds of discussions in which two people present readings, followed by two discussants who engage with the presentations. The three themes are: 1) The Roots of the Argument. Deconstructions: Nature, Culture and Critique. 2) The Argument. Reconstructions: Infrastructures, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Cosmologies. 3) Thinking ahead with the Argument. Implementations and Implications: Ethics, Ecology and Geopolitics. The three sessions will be followed by a round table. Speakers include:  Anna Agathangelou, Kai Koddenbrock, Mark Jackson, Lisa Tilley, Jessica Schmidt, Vanessa Pupavac and Ovidiu Tichindeleanu.

The dialogues will be preceded by an evening of dialogues and performances on the topic “Climate on the Rise, People on the Move. Understanding Today’s Global Challenges Differently”. Here, Rolando Vazquez (Utrecht University) and Doerthe Rosenow (Oxford Brookes University) “will explore our relation to the earth, vulnerability and what it means to be human in an increasingly uncanny world”.

Attendance is welcome and free. Please e-mail .

Echoes of Cologne Forum Now Online

People from Syria hold placards reading 'We respect the values of German society' and 'We are all Cologne' during a rally outside the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, January 16, 2016, where the vast majority of dozens of New Year Eve assaults on women took place. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay - RTX22NN4

People from Syria hold placards reading ‘We respect the values of German society’ and ‘We are all Cologne’ during a rally outside the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, January 16, 2016, where the vast majority of dozens of New Year Eve assaults on women took place. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay – RTX22NN4

The forum on the Cologne sexual assaults that I curated has now been posted on the Society & Space website. It also carries a resonance with the UK’s EU referendum that saw some references to Cologne. The forum will be published as a series, with more contributions appearing in weekly instalments (new entries welcome!). Many thanks to all the contributors and to those who helped recruit them, especially during hectic term time.


Feminist Review CFP “Environment”



The following call might be of interest to readers:


Themed issue on ‘Environment’ 

Feminism has a long and complex relationship to ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’. From critiques of the gendered nature/ culture binary to ecofeminism, feminists have alternatively rejected and celebrated women’s supposedly closer relationship to the natural world. Feminism has also long engaged critically with conventional definitions of humanism and ‘the human’, especially as derived from the exclusionist and violent definitions of the European Enlightenment.

These activist and critical histories have been revised and revisited in recent years as part of a growing preoccupation in the social sciences and humanities with the environment as subject, as well as object, of study. Growing consciousness of human-induced climate change, with its vastly unequal impact on different human populations as well as the planet as a whole, adds special urgency to these concerns. Whether as part of the post-humanist critique of the humanities, the ‘animal turn’, or the ‘new materialism’, feminists and other scholar-activists are increasingly reconceptualising definitions of, and boundaries between, the human and other-than-human world.

Feminist Review invites academic articles and creative interventions for a special issue on ‘Environment’. Possible topics of consideration include:

-genealogies of feminist environmentalism, within and beyond ecofeminism
-gender, race, class and ‘intersectional environmentalism’
-postcolonialism and environmental justice
-feminist contributions to debates and interventions around climate change
-gendered histories of the environment
-memory, mourning and environmental destruction
-queer ecologies
-religious and spiritual dimensions of feminist engagement with ecology
-post-humanist approaches to environmental studies
-gendering ecocriticism
-material feminisms
-kinship across species
-feminist, queer and anti-racist interventions in animal studies
-feminist perspectives on planetary futures

Issue editors: Yasmin Gunaratnam, Carrie Hamilton and Ioana Szeman

If you would like to discuss your ideas for this issue please contact the editors at, and

Full articles or Open Space pieces to be submitted by 2 January 2017.

Manuscripts should be submitted through Feminist Review’s online submission system and in FR house style. See http://

RACE Awards & Teaching Workshop now open for registration

Image: Ellen Gallagher IGBT (2008)

Two exciting things are happening at the RACE (Race, Culture & Equality) Working group.

1) Two of our members, Margaret Byron (our chair) and Parvati Raghuram (committee member) are receiving awards from the RGS-IBG on 6 June. Margaret is receiving the Taylor & Francis Award for the promotion of diversity in the teaching of human geography, and Parvati is receiving the Murchinson Award for furthering geographical understandings of mobility.

2) Our RACE teaching workshop has been confirmed by the RGS-IBG conference organisers. It will take place on the Tuesday of the conference and will be free to attend (no conference registration needed!). The workshop is divided into two themes: Race in the Curriculum and Challenging Exclusionary Spaces. We hope to see you there! You can register for the workshop on our Eventbrite page.

CFP ISA 2017 Material and the Colonial Question

The following call for papers for the International Studies Association 2017 conference might be of interest to readers:

“Please consider this call for papers on the theme of ‘Material and the Colonial Question’ for ISA 2017 (Feb 22-25) in Baltimore. The ISA deadline for submissions is June 1st, so please send expressions of interest as soon as possible and full 200 word abstracts by May 20th to Many thanks!

Lisa Tilley, Olivia Rutazibwa, and Ajay Parasram.

Material and the Colonial Question

Divided cities, degraded resource frontiers, poisoned urban water supplies, violent commodity routes, oil pipelines, concrete settlements on colonised lands, toxic air, and contaminated biospheres – all of these may be understood as material substantiations of historically determined power relations in the present. A methodological shift to place material at the centre of analysis reveals the ways in which matter is implicated in politics and also provides a new means of expanding our debates around the colonial question.

This panel draws together papers which centre on the material realities of unequal political environments and thus adjust and enhance theorising both of the material and the (post)colonial. Panel contributions variously consider how material arrangements constitute subject/object, human/thing colonial power relations. These will also uncover means of overcoming the separation between the material and the representational in decolonial and postcolonial work by tracing lineages of Indigenous thought, or by recovering material questions from the work of anticolonial thinkers including Frantz Fanon.

Papers included range from a reading of the sociogenic material of the (post)colonial city through the work of Fanon and Sylvia Wynter, to an examination of the materialities of Black Power.

Panel contributors may relate to one or more of the following research questions:

In what ways is material politically implicated in the colonial present?
How are colonial social relations materialised in physical space?
What are the possibilities for engagement between posthumanism and post-/de-colonial thought?
What are the political implications of physiological changes in relation to material environments?
How does matter mediate political life?
How are material exclusions from the figure of the human produced?
How are dehumanising spaces such as refugee camps and urban ‘slums’ produced politically?
How can existing postcolonial and decolonial theory enhance new materialisms theorising?

Abourahme, Nasser (2014) Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
Jackson, Mark (Ed.) (Forthcoming) Postcolonialism, Posthumanism, and Political Ontology. Routledge.
Mitchell, Timothy (2011) Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Verso.
Todd, Zoe (2016) An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is Just Another Word for Colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology.”

“Five Propositions” out on GeoCritique

Image source: GeoCritique

The newly redesigned GeoCritique has just published the five propositions that Anja Kanngieser and I delivered as a critique at the Anthropocene themed RGS-IBG 2015 conference in Exeter, UK. The propositions also represent an experiment in positioning ourselves not just in relation to Anthropocene discourse, but in terms of geography, race, gender etc. This is an on-going writing experiment, and we welcome critique.

Recalibrating rationality: Teaching research methods through Species of Spaces


At present, I am teaching some methods classes on the MRes in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow. It is for the session that challenges the quantitative-qualitative boundary that I decided to include the work of Georges Perec. The two pieces I assigned are called ‘Space’ and ‘Approaches to What?’ Perec is a French writer who is known for being a member of the writer’s collective Oulipo that pushed the creative boundaries of literature from the 1960s onwards. As a geographer, it is hard to miss that Perec’s work is all about space: how we create and how we make sense of it. His playful approach is intriguing as well as disorienting – which is why I find useful in teaching. I will attempt to explain this further.

From my own experience, I know that it can be quite hard to first encounter Perec’s writing: you think you know what he is getting at, but the writing itself appears like a rather tedious illustration. I get that the everyday matters, I get the concern about habit, but do I really have to read through hundreds of pages of this repetitive, abstract stuff? It is not until you have really allowed yourself to take in several of his pieces that the entirety of the work begins to make sense and the texts move from annoying to thrilling. And then things really begin to make sense, or rather, sense begins to make no sense. The reason why this movement interests me for methods teaching is that, in our lectures and seminars, we mostly show how to make sense, but we rarely question very deeply how sense itself is made.

A frequent way to explain sense-making in methods teaching is via truth claims: are you realist, idealist or instrumentalist? According to this distinction, realists tend to think of themselves and their methods as uncovering underlying, pre-existing mechanisms. Under a realist paradigm, methods describe reality. Instrumentalists, on the other hand, are not invested in describing reality. They are interested in how effectively a method can predict phenomena. In instrumentalist terms, causal relationships do not pre-exist to be discovered, but rather represent relationships that behave as if they were causal. Lastly, idealists even more strongly distrust human access to knowing physical reality and regard the world as something entirely constructed by the mind. According to the idealist paradigm, methods form part of the process of shaping reality. As a consequence, causal relationships reflect the researcher’s interpretation of a problem. In short, there is a difference to saying ‘this is how things are’ (realist) and ‘this is how things appear’ (instrumentalist/ idealist). It is a question of how I relate to the world, perhaps the most important question a researcher can ask herself.

In many ways, this is also the question that Georges Perec asks in his writing. In contrast with the majority of methods teaching, however, he seems less concerned with deciding how real something is than with showing how quickly any presently agreed definition of reality and rationality can change. It is likely that his personal history greatly contributed to his view of the world. The son of Polish Jews who grew up in the 1930s and 40s, he witnessed the obliteration of the known world leading up to WW2, during which he lost his father (in battle) and his mother (in Auschwitz). It is evident that Perec’s work not only pushes creative boundaries, but asks profound questions about human relations. How is it possible that, suddenly, the death and dehumanisation of large sections of the population is legal? How is it possible that a new, monstrous rationality becomes adopted across every sphere of human interaction? The violence of this instability of reality is most obvious in Perec’s essay ‘Space’, which includes a Nazi memo regarding a border of greenery around two concentration camp crematorium ovens that matter-of-factly lists the quantities and measurements of the plants required. It also shows in his review of Robert Antelme’s ‘The Human Race’, a book that documents the author’s concentration camp survival, in which Perec discusses how the apparently opposed worlds of atrocity and idyll co-exist, but are part of the same world: one is the consequence of the other and vice versa.

At first glance, however, much of Perec’s work appears humorous and quite innocent in its playfulness. Take, for example, his recollections of the beds that he has slept in, the absurd detail of his observations, the funny classifications, measurements and exercises he proposes, or simply the sheer volume of material and enthusiasm for the subject: it gives the indication that Perec sees himself as a jester who encourages other to follow his example of breaking established parameters of writing or even knowledge-making. This boundary making actually resonates with current work on so-called ‘creative methods’, where students (and staff) are encouraged to break out of present methodological conventions and ‘experiment’. One of Perec’s exercises to determine your position in space could be taken straight out of a creative methods workshop: use various kinds of reference points, including the equator, the sea level, the Greenwich Meridian or simply your address, and see where this leads you. Such creative ways of cataloguing or creatively intervening in everyday practices have even become supported by the major funding bodies.

At the same time, there seems to be a difference in emphasis in social scientific contestations of methods that often has to do with what this kind of expansion or innovation is for. In creative methods workshops, for instance, the emphasis is frequently on participation, on gaining a different understanding of or relationship with others (including inanimate objects), and allowing for different, often affective experiences. By contrast, Perec’s methods firstly seem to be about a very cerebral form of self-knowledge. Questioning the self becomes a necessary part of questioning reality. In fact, Perec is suspicious of what he terms a ‘proliferation of the world’ that is in constant danger of avoiding the world through a refusal of sense-making:

“We are invited on all sides to have a sense of mystery, of the inexplicable. The inexpressible is a value. The unsayable is dogma. No sooner are everyday gestures described that they become lies. Words are traitors. Between the lines we are invited to read that inaccessible end towards which every genuine writer owes it to himself to tend: silence. No one seeks to disentangle reality, to advance, be it only step by step, to understand. The proliferation of the world is a trap in which we allow ourselves to be snared.”

How does this exercise in self-knowledge work? This may best be illustrated through Perec’s ‘Two hundred and forty-three postcards in real colour’ (1978). In this text, Perec seems to mock the repetitiveness of holiday greetings, not matter from where they are sent. “We’re camping near Ajaccio. Lovely weather. We eat well. I’ve got sunburnt. Fondest love.” “We’re at the Hôtel Alcazar. Getting a tan. Really nice! We’ve made loads of friends. Back on the 7th.” And so on. At the same time as highlighting a certain geographical relativity or habituated writing styles, this exercise also prompts questions about the intersection of geographical specificity and relations with ‘back home’. It reflects on the registers through which (geographical, individual) specificity emerges as seemingly standardised and as a reflection of habitual practices. Why are we processing impressions in this way? Is it the adaptation of the geographic location to tourist tastes? Is it the inability to escape our habitually engrained frame of mind or our unwillingness to engage with difference on its own terms? Is it, because the everyday is everywhere, and we cannot step outside it wherever we go? Do we need this way of communicating as a translation, reassurance or show of affection? Because of its lack of obvious explanation, the piece remains ambiguous, but also becomes endless in its depth. It is you who has to decide how far you want to go in your investigation, and the way you engage with this text will enable you to experiment with what you think about the world and your place in it.

In ‘Approaches to What?’, Perec more explicitly links self-knowledge and self-awareness to an exploration of habit:

‘To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Were is our space?’

In the remainder of the essay, Perec clarifies how this exploration of habit and the self by extension is not a solipsistic endeavour, but a sensitisation to structural issues that permeate everywhere.

‘In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year’.

Only with this kind of awareness of the everyday can we approach ‘the world’, as it enables us to see how our methodological tools are made as well as the system they are embedded in.

On one level, then, Perec’s work alerts us to the illusion of rationality and its claim to be neutral and value free. Our methods or even ethics policies are no external constraints that can be relied on as markers for appropriate conduct. Whenever we count, classify or analyse, we need to make decisions about what we measure, where we measure (including our own locatedness) and why we measure. If we are not aware of the consequences and connotations of our measurements, this can create significant issues for the populations or environments that we are working with. This has been shown by researchers such as Gwendolyn Warren and William Bunge in their demonstration of violent mapping and data collection practices that continue to have fatal consequences for black Americans. Other examples have been described in publications such as ‘Decolonising Methodologies’ by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘Research, Red Skins and Reality’ by Vine Deloria Jr or ‘I am not your data’ by Abhay Flavian Xaxa (thanks to Lisa Tilley for this reference). This literature, too, is awash with reproductions of seemingly rational memos that we now recognise as genocidal. While many students might never end up in a situation where they can cause such harm, it is important that this sensitisation is part of their training, also because it is a skill that is applicable and useful beyond research. Habits and bureaucracy are everywhere, and often it helps to understand these systems properly to not become their victim. Such analysis can literally become a life saver. For example, in a recent blog post, an activist explained how the recognition that benefits sanctions do not make sense helped them overcome depression and campaign for a change of policies.

Even more importantly, Perec’s work is an important tool for recalibration. Through its profoundly destabilising effect, it forces readers to struggle for a new base line, a check point that sensitises to reality shifts and limits of violence. This point is something that we need to set for ourselves as a ward against co-optation along the lines of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. How far am I willing to go? Where is my cut off point? Here, Perec suggests a variety of exercises that can aid in setting this point. For him, it is the transformative effect that literature can have in creating a gradual awareness of the world beyond the apparent chaos and contradiction. (For others, it has been experiments with the non-textual, such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Georges Bataille’s experiments with ‘base’ or ‘gay’ matter, or Antonin Artaud’s utilisation of affect and bodily projection to subvert logic.) In reading Perec and perhaps undertaking his proposed exercises, we are given the opportunity to reflect upon these things, be disturbed, be amused, be encouraged to look beyond our methods books into ourselves. Even if not understood immediately – and here I have noticed a significant difference between young and more mature students – Perec’s work has a tendency to stick and to remain around as an invitation: to be willing to engage in methodological experimentation as self-experimentation in order to always remain suspicious of ‘what makes sense’ at any given point.

RGS-IBG 2016 CFP: Parallel Institutions: models and realities, strategies and tactics, islands and archipelagos


Parallel Institutions: models and realities, strategies and tactics, islands and archipelagos

Session Convenors:
Angela Last (University of Glasgow)
Mireille Roddier (University of Michigan)

Existing and historical examples of parallel institutions represent a wide scope of intentions, scales, and formal organizations, from local commoning practices to the strategically planned duplication of state institutions in sight of a governmental overthrow (Roggero, 2010; Arendt, 1973) What they all share is a dissatisfaction with state institutions’ disenfranchisement of entire sections of population who fall outside of their stewardships. The origins of such alternative models of organization are thereby rooted in either the need to complement or to contest hegemonic institutions, particularly those delegating public services. More than self-help however, parallel institutions are also devised as alternatives, enabling new forms of commoning and experimentation with new imaginaries.

Parallel institutions can serve as means to diverging ends. On one end, they can be devised for eventual incorporation into the dominant system, bearing the risks of paving grounds for developments that will be subsequently recuperated. On the other, they are often inspired by emancipatory perspectives that could lead to autonomous forms of self-governance (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, Nelson, 2013). Accordingly, their relationship to the state varies from subservient and heteronomous to independent or even contentious, as do the responses of the state to such institutions—from embrace to outright violence, affecting the status of their legitimacy.

This session seeks to discuss parallel institutions that reclaim a radical spirit of experimentation in the service of alleviating dependence upon the state—not in the ideological pursuit of less governance, but in order to forestall the normalization of austerity measures. We are interested in both theoretical models and case studies that can expand our public imaginary. We specifically are looking to probe such topics as:

– the temporal evolutionary patterns of parallel institutions, from origin stories to institutionalization or extinction;
– the instrumental use of institutions towards emancipatory autonomy (Castoriadis);
– the spatial reification of parallel institutions, and their relationship to territory, global patterns of enclaves and archipelagos (Davis, 2008; Aureli, 2011), states of imagination (Newman and Clarke), as well as the exclusionary effects of communautarism (Harvey, 97);
– the specificity and influence of scale upon theoretical models, from community to society;
– the use of parallel institutions in political strategy versus as bottom-up tactic;
– the roles of cultural and academic institutions, as well as of artists and academics, in fostering counter-hegemonic activism from within a privileged, most institutionalized position (Mouffe, 2010);
– specific typology studies —both organizationally and spatially— such as the emergence of new schools, health institutions, taken factories, urban communes and rural hackerlands, etc.


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973)

Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011)

Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press, 1998)

Mike Davis, Daniel Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (The New Press, 2008)

Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (Penn State University Press, 2014)

David Harvey, “The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap,” Harvard Design Magazine (winter / spring 97)

Chantal Mouffe, “The Museum Revisited,” Art Forum (Summer 2010)

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Janet Newman and John Clarke, “States of Imagination,” Soundings (Summer 2014)

Gigi Roggero, “Five Theses on the Common,” Rethinking Marx: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society (August 2010)

Anne Mariel Zimmermann, “State as Chimera Aid, Parallel Institutions, and State Power,” Comparative Politics (April 2013)

Instructions for Authors:
Please submit a paper proposal (250-300 words) along with a short biography to and by February 14th.

Call For Papers Deadline


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