I am looking forward to the papers for our ‘Decolonising the Anthropocene’ session at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference. If you are in town (Exeter, that is), the session is on Wednesday morning at 11.10am in Peter Chalk room 2.4. Here are the abstract and talks:
We all may be a geophysical force, we may all be geology,
but we don’t matter, are matter and own matter equally.
Despite this realisation, we feel like we’ve been rendered geologically active,
but politically rather passive.
We pass through premature fossilisation in the face of nature’s agency
that we are suddenly able to perceive, apparently through Bruno Latour.
Shouting, flailing, we spew forth a deluge of cultural production
that portrays us as just that: already dead.
While the Anthropocene is embraced as an opportunity to reframe our engagement with the ‘geo’ in geography or even geopolitics, the on-going struggles against the dynamics that gave rise to the phenomenon of the Anthropocene are rarely mentioned. At best, the image of the Anthropocene serves to confirm the excesses of capitalism or is used to fantasise about a complicity of the Earth with socialist ideals of revolution. But mostly, discourse around the Anthropocene extends the experience economy into deep time and the earth’s core through affective engagements. The great Promethean realisation of the (M)anthropocene liberates us from paying attention to the everyday struggles against continued injustices against humans and nonhumans alike. In this session we would like to make present the not-so-present narratives of the Anthropocene in geographical discourse, especially around violence, inequality, white supremacy and on-going colonialism.
What does it mean, to use Aimé Césaire’s words, ‘to inhabit the face of a great disaster’, to witness and participate in its continued (re)production, both inside and outside of academia? What examples of contestation and intervention provoke re-inscription?
“Concrete Poetry”: Wilson Harris’s “The Eye of the Scarecrow”, Materiality, Language and Politics in the Caribbean Anthropocene
Patricia Noxolo (University of Birmingham, UK)
Racialised Bodies and the Vitality of the Sea: Experimental Interventions in Darwin, Australia
Michele Lobo (Deakin University, Australia)
Propositions for the Anthropocene
Nabil Ahmed (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK)
Anthropocene Discourse: Geopolitics After Environment
Simon Dalby (Balsillie School of International Affairs, Canada)
For those interested in contributing to decolonising practices of/in the academy, there is a Race, Culture and Equality Working Group meeting on the same day from 1.10-2.25pm in Forum Seminar Room 7.
Finally, here is the Book Bloc Syllabus (doc format). These books were requested as t-shirt prints for the Black Lives Matter/Why Is My Curriculum White related academic protest. Feel free to use and expand for teaching, research, further protest. The book bloc inspired a column by AAG president Mona Domosh. It can be read on the AAG conference blog here. We (Kathryn Yusoff, Anja Kanngieser and Angela Last) will also be discussing some of the on-going issues in our RGS-IBG session ‘Not Drowning But Fighting: Decolonising the Anthropocene’ (1-4 September in Exeter, UK).
The RGS-IBG is also supporting the founding of a RACE (Race, Culture and Equality) Working Group. If you are interested in joining the group, please get in touch with any of its current organisers: Richard Baxter, Caroline Bressey, Margaret Byron, Tariq Jazeel, Patricia Noxolo, Wendy Larner, Angela Last, Parvati Raghuram, Divya Tolia-Kelly and Kathryn Yusoff. We will be having our second meeting to discuss aims and formalities at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference (date/time TBC).
Lastly, I have joined the Global Social Theory website team as an associate editor. This website is an initiative and resource to diversify the university curriculum and to question the knowledge politics in general. Please help the website grow by submitting an entry for a theorist, concept or topic.
The Global Social Theory website is now live. The project seeks to broaden the university syllabus, which, even outside the US and Europe, can be very Euro-centric. As the website states, it was prompted by the critique of the initiative ‘Why is my curriculum white?‘
Edited by Gurminder Bhambra with Lisa Tilley and Lucy Mayblin (with web support from Pat Lockley), the site brings together theorists, concepts and key topics from across the world. Entries are submitted by various contributors and give concise summaries as well as further reading suggestions and useful questions for further discussion. I have contributed three entries so far, and am hoping to write more. If you think someone or something is missing, why not contribute as well?
At the moment, I mainly teach on the Research Masters at the University of Glasgow, which, of course, also involves teaching methods. I am very involved in debates around methods, both qualitative and quantitative, so I like to think that I’ve got quite a good overview. Last year, however, I was asked by a student how the content of my talk related to GIS. I hesistated for a moment – what did I actually know about GIS apart from having played around with Google Maps and read a few chapters here and there? Last week, I was given the opportunity to undertake five days of intensive GIS training with my colleagues Jane Drummond and Syed Ali Aqdus. The course included a mixture of lectures and practical exercises that, indeed, prompted a lot of interesting questions about geographical methods and the intersections of qualitative and quantitative methods. In addition, Jane gave a lot of mind-boggling examples that she had come across during her long and varied career, from cartography to programming.
Like geography as a whole, GIS has difficulties being recognised as a science of its own rather than just a weird composite. Having had a taste of this branch of geoinformatics, I can see why, as Jane mentioned, engineers and scientists tend to think that it is lacking rigour or a distinctive identity as a science. At the same time, like geography as a whole, its concern with synthesis to interact with the planet (and beyond) actually seems to be what makes it distinctive. These attempts at synthesis can take on some pretty curious forms that also include political decisions on how to map, some of which were relayed to us by Jane. For instance, latitude and longitude are not always fixed – they vary with the shape of the Earth (the Earth is not a perfect sphere). In addition, different countries use different shapes of the Earth for mapping purposes and even entire grid systems (the first thing we learned was how important it is to know what grid you are working in, since there is no universal one). A further level of distortion is added through the many different map projections, which give rise to entertaining cartoons such as this one that hangs in my office corridor:
At the beginning of the course, we were reminded of general mapping history and principles, such as sextant measurements. Geographical measurement is often associated with the military and especially imperialism. As Yves Lacoste put it in 1976: ‘La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre’ (‘Geography, first of all, serves warfare’). At the same time, geographical measurement can, of course, be used for more beneficial purposes, as many projects show that make democratisation (of GIS and with GIS) a focus of their practice. Here, Jane had an interesting example of an attempt to make mapping more accessible, with the explicit aim to help people without a standard address (about 4 billion people in the world do not have a standard postal address). What3Words‘ ‘mission to address the world’ divides the world into 3×3 square metres, with each square being assigned a three random words from a dictionary. This makes about 57 trillion squares! I found this project thought-provoking, because, on the one hand, it puts in question our ideas of ‘standard’ (who is included/excluded; to what standards should we aspire?), on the other hand, its search for a more democratic standard led it to an unusual solution, compared to the ‘accepted’ solutions we have seen so far. This is also highlighted by the geographer, Robert Barr, who speaks at the end of this video:
Other examples of useful ‘civilian applications’ included the Glasgow City Council’s facilities locator and LIDAR mapping for biomass monitoring purposes. Especially the data collection examples (‘on foot’, aerial photography, satellite, thermal, laser, sound etc) reminded us of the diversity and messiness of geographical information that all somehow had to be brought into relation. Not only is the data itself problematic – but how do we can we process it all together? How can we ask and solve our questions with the kind of data that we have? And, how often do we not think, as human geographers, about the processing history of a map or of data that we are given?
With my design background, I also found much of the problems encountered in image processing (e.g. through Illustrator and Photoshop) mirrored in GIS. Much of the GIS exercises (primarily conducted in Arc GIS‘s Arc Map and ArcScene), involved data conversions, e.g. from tables to points, layers, features, or from vector to raster. Some conversion even involved surprisingly manual processing, akin to the lasso technique or filters in Photoshop. Jane showed us how badly data can be degraded through processing, but also how such limitations can be taken into account. Particularly drastic examples of error came from a lack of consideration for scaling. In order to make maps more readable in smaller format, landscape features have to be smoothed or simplified, and lines have to be thickened in order to make features legible. This is called ‘generalisation‘, and people are still looking for better methods of performing it. Here, Jane noted how mappers are subjected to increasing and unrealistic pressures over the time frame in which this considerable problem can be solved.
Other points of error-related amusement came from misinterpretation of aerial data, resampling and interpolation hazards, lack of terrain knowledge, confusion of data quality and model quality, and misrecognition of building features by various programmes or processing methods. Many such errors especially came out during the 3D exercises, but also in humorous thought experiments such as a hypothetical search for sea monsters (which initially didn’t take the probability for finding sea monsters into consideration). We were also reminded how more mundane human factors play into the quality and accessibility of geographical data, especially the cost in hiring cartographers or data collectors: how much time and labour can be invested in a mapping project?
Another interesting problem was posed through colouring and other aesthetic choices. While there are attempts at standardising colours and symbols for maps, there is still a great degree of liberty that can be taken to make maps look ‘appealing’, as Jane put it. One of the first things we learned in ArcMap, after getting a grip on the basics, was how to change colours and what to consider when changing colours (e.g. what might the colours represent?). For instance, when representing slope, many cartographers use a scale that starts with green and ends with white (green valleys, white mountain tops). The defaults often seemed to follow a completely different logic, leading to some rather displeasing or psychedelic renderings, which in turn led to many GOMA and ‘more-than-50 Shades’ jokes, as well as uncomfortable 90s flashbacks (especially in the distance map department – I wish I’d taken more screenshots now!). When preparing the map for presentation in the layout view, we noticed how much you could potentially direct decision-making not only through data processing, but also through seemingly innocent aesthetic choices. Here Jane had more examples of how she had experienced such situations in real life.
What I appreciated about this course, in relation to my teaching, was that I now feel able to better look for resources, such as examples and reading suggestions, for my students. The problems raised by GIS are not only exclusive to GIS, so it is nice to be able to cross-reference issues. If any readers have any particular suggestions from their teaching or research experience, I would be grateful if you could put them in the comments!
My new article ‘Fruit of the cyclone: undoing geopolitics through geopoetics?’ has just come out in Geoforum. In this article, I am trying to bring together two different directions in critical geopolitics that have opposing positions towards materiality. I am trying to establish this dialogue via Daniel Maximin‘s Les fruits du cyclone: Une géopoétique de la Caraïbe (2006). For me, Maximin plays both advocate and devil’s advocate in relation to how materiality should be handled in geopolitics, and he is especially sensitive to the relation between materialist approaches and decolonisation, including the decolonisation of the white geographer.
The article can be downloaded for free for the next 50 days, and it is published Green Open Access thanks to my previous ESRC grant, during which I ran the workshop ‘Terra Infirma – Experimenting with geo-political practices‘. A big thank you to all the workshop participants and my co-organiser Gail Davies, as well as the organisers and participants of the RITA workshops on Caribbean Literature and Caribbean Future Spaces (organisers: Adunni Adams, James Owen Heath and Patricia Noxolo).
If you are interested in doing work around zoonoses (infectious diseases that can naturally be transmitted from animals to humans), please contact Professor Jo Sharp. More about the project can be found here. Deadline 30 June 2015.
Last week, I treated myself to a double cinema visit: George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande de Filles). Both films have caused quite a stir, both before and after their release. The Mad Max uproar was quite predictably about the ‘feminist message’ of the film – the scandal of women struggling against their object status. But there were also justified critiques of the overwhelming whiteness in the film – did non-white Australians once again manage to stay out of deranged neo-Viking society? Girlhood, on the other hand, was badly received by feminist critics who felt that life in the banlieue was portrayed in a stereotypical fashion and lacked controversy – reflected, for many, in its selection by a European Parliament jury. There is, however, one issue for me that seemed to get lost in the calamity over both films – to do with the plot rather than the production choices of the films (although the two are, of course, related): the question of what you can do when you face limited choices.
In Mad Max, people live in the aftermath of a nuclear war, in which livable places are not only few but shrinking. Apart from a few scattered bands in the desert and the mountains, most people seem to live in a place called the Citadel, which is controlled by a tyrant called Immortan Joe. The Immortan is powerful, because he controls access to water and has fashioned a powerful ideology that gives genetically and morally devastated humans a sense of purpose. While some people are part of the society by coercion (abduction, imprisonment), most people appear to be there by ‘choice’. The choice is between an unsupported and dangerous existence in a hostile environment, or an arguably equally dangerous ritualistic and hierarchical society (albeit one supportive of disabilities, according to Guardian writer Catherine Shoard – let’s hope we don’t need a nuclear apocalypse for a better appreciation of ‘disabled’ people).
In Girlhood, the main character, Marieme, has just been told that her grades are not good enough to go to high school, her only hope to escape a future of menial jobs. On top of that, she is terrorised by an overprotective brother who has put her on ‘slut watch’ (both the school selection and the ‘slut’ shaming are explained by the actresses in this interview). In her angry state, she is recruited by a girl gang who are ‘interested’ in her problems. Initially starting off as a shy person, Marieme gradually becomes more assertive under the tutelage of the gang’s leader, Lady. Rather than requesting obedience, Lady tells Marieme that she needs to do whatever she does for herself and gives her the name ‘Vic’ for Victory. Despite the supportive environment of the gang, Vic realises that society presents her with two main options: to become a disposable worker or to become a ‘no future’ stay-at-home delinquent. Later, a third option is presented to her – marriage – but she dismisses it as just another unacceptable dependency.
The dilemma that is being portrayed in both films reminded me of Victor Shklovsky’s book ‘Knight’s Move’. The ‘knight’s move’ takes place under very specific conditions: the existence of conventions, against which the move appears unconventional, and, more pessimistically, the unfreedom ‘to take the straight road’. In ‘Another Freedom‘, Svetlana Boym notes that Shklovsky once ‘wrote that the Soviet writer of the 1920s ha[d] two choices: to write for the desk drawer or to write on state demand. ‘There is no third alternative. Yet that is precisely the one that must be chosen.” In the context of the two films, the question that remains is: what is the third alternative and how do we find it in spite of the incredible forces of normativity? Here, both films suggest not just different pathways, but that any alternative pathway is an experiment.
In Mad Max, the initial choice that is presented is escape to a better place. Imperator Furiosa, a former sex-slave who fought her way up to warlord status after being found barren, makes off with the Immortan’s inner circle of ‘breeders’ – five ‘immaculate’ women whom he hopes will give him healthy offspring. Furiosa has already messed with her destined script once by becoming something other than an incubator or human junk (the people at the bottom of the food chain that are occasionally graced with a splash of water from above). A fearsome fighter with a shaved head and a mechanical arm, she is the pet warrior (and petrol looter) of the Immortan. But this achievement is only a means to another end: a better position for revenge. As for the women she abducts, it appears as if they willingly followed her (there are some painfully didactic slogans scrawled on the floor), although some of them begin to question their choice after being exposed to the harsh consequences it entails.
When the initial ‘better place’ turns out as a non-option, Furiosa is presented with two more alternatives: keep looking for this elusive place or go back and fight for changes in the existing place. Furiosa chooses the latter and, backed by an additional gang of women who don’t fit the present narrative (fierce old ladies on motorbikes) and by Max who once again unsuccessfully boycotts the hero narrative, she turns her desire for revenge to more broadly beneficial ends. Those women who do not die in the assault on the Citadel also end up exploring new pathways, such as becoming farmers or more generally agents for the restoration of more habitable environments. The viewer does not learn how these experiments develop, but there is a sense that a new narrative is wanted not only by the brutalised women, but also by many of the Citadel’s population.
Meanwhile, Girlhood’s Vic comes to an unusual conclusion. She secretly leaves home and the girl gang to become a drug dealer in a ‘proper’ gang. While everyone warns her that ‘there is only one job for women’ in male gangs (that of a prostitute), Vic insists that she can have a different role. The film shows her working as a drug courier, and a job which allows her to have her own money and place, and arguably better working conditions than your average shopping mall. It is interesting that crime is once again shown as a better pathway to autonomy than standard societal provision. However, Vic again hits social boundaries, both in the crime world and outside. For instance, for her job, she is seen shifting between masculine and feminine appearances, which disturbs her boyfriend. The gang leader also becomes dissatisfied with her lack of obedience and her lack of interest in him.
Vic comes across as having always been aware of this eventual limitation, but having nothing better to work with for the moment, she stays until the limitations start outweighing the benefits. At the point where she leaves the gang, she still does not seem to know what exactly is next for her. The last scene shifts from a moment of vulnerability and despair to a look of determinacy: she will continue looking for the ‘third’ path, no matter what obstacles are put in her way. In contrast with the movement in Mad Max – from lone attempt to public support – Vic seems to end up alone. She feels that she can neither turn to her family, nor to her former girl gang friends, nor to her boyfriend who tries to help her by offering marriage. This time, there is not even a life line such as those offered by the two gangs – she has to start again from a blank slate. While this may seem like a bleak ending, is not necessarily a negative one. An extraordinary path may be lonely at times and can easily lead to an even worse place than the one you were hoping to escape from, but it may also lead to the opposite: to your own, non-prescribed life. Read against Mad Max, Girlhood seems to ask: how much do you need the support of wider society to lead a different and/or more fulfilled life?
This opens up a whole lot of other questions about the necessity and absence of social infrastructures, from educational opportunities to the wider valuing of difference. At present, it seems as if, in the ‘real world’, more and more such infrastructures are being withdrawn despite abundant affirmations of support and despite more abundant resources. Girlhood (and the interviews with the actors and director about their choices) more than hints at the this issue. Girlhood shows that, when choices are taken away, other structures come into existence or play to fill this void. As mentioned earlier, these structures are not simply portrayed as bad (e.g. because they are criminalised), but as containing different possibilities – different freedoms of expression, room for experimentation, experience of structural independence. Of course, these ‘alternative spaces’ have their own limits, as clearly portrayed in the film (violence, imprisonment etc), but they also highlight the destructiveness of the ‘legal’ options. Maybe here it is time to go back to Shklovsky’s comment about the regulation of art. He writes: ‘we regulate art without knowing what it is’. One could say that Girlhood’s version would read: ‘we regulate life as without knowing what it is’. As odd as it sounds, both films ended up making me think about how thinking about life (or lives) does not take enough space in shaping contemporary choices… and what possibilities does ‘the third alternative’ hold?
Image: Our first print
This is a note for the participants (and anyone interested) in the t-shirt ‘book bloc’ protest at the AAG in Chicago. T-shirts can be picked up on Wednesday between 9.30am and 7pm at Michigan A, Hyatt, East Tower, Ped Path. Alternative deliveries can be arranged. You are free to also just stop by and browse the wearable library. We are currently at 35 t-shirts and a list of over 50 authors, which will be posted during or after the AAG. We printed only on second hand t-shirts (from charity shops, washed) and factory b-stock from street markets in the hope of making an additional contribution. Due to budget limitations, we could only do iron-on prints.
The protest brings together a wider concern with structural racism with a concern about institutional racism in academia. In a sense it is a combination of ‘Black Lives Matter‘ and ‘Why is my curriculum white?‘. So far, we have received enthusiastic responses as well as justified critique. The enthusiastic responses were echoing our frustration about the ubiquity of all white (and male) syllabi, the relegation of publications by black authors to postcolonial, black or race studies and the reinforcement of existing hierarchies through citation and hiring practices. The critical responses pointed out that movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ are not radical enough, because they are not demanding enough compared with earlier black movements. Further, the protest has to negotiate the problems around negotiating subject/object status of academics of colour. These have been evocatively discussed by Yasmin Gunaratnam in her blog post Presentation Fever and Podium Affects in terms of hermeneutical injustice and ‘performative love’. How to negotiate making fellow academics (white and non-white) the object/subject of protest/support? (I would be very grateful for further responses to this question.)
Our ‘mobile syllabus’ tried to respond to both sets of comments, by including the following groups of books/authors: – authors who have pointed our structural racism across time – books that appear to be missing on many syllabi – books that are making radical demands or are giving case studies of radical projects – books that have inspired a change of thinking in the t-shirt wearers – themed session books (e.g. for the feminist geophilosophy session) We hope that these books/t-shirts/syllabus will be provoking further debate at the AAG and beyond.
Image from our first print round
Here is the programme for the Feminist Geophilosophy sessions at the AAG (Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting) 2015 in Chicago. Two presenters sadly had to drop out, so this is the revised running order.
Big thank you to everyone who submitted an abstract in response to our call. Originally we were going to only have two panels, but we received enough abstracts to discuss geophilosophy for two days (!). In the end we went for four panels, so sincere apologies to anyone who could not be included this time.
All sessions are taking place in Michigan A, Hyatt, East Tower, Ped Path. We hope to see you there!
Session 1 (10:00 AM – 11:40 AM)
Chair: Angela Last, University of Glasgow
10:00 AM Author(s): *Kathryn Yusoff – Queen Mary University of London, *Mary E. Thomas – Ohio State University
Abstract Title: Shaft: the geophilosophies of extraction
10:10 AM Author(s): *Kai A. Bosworth – University of Minnesota – Minneapolis
10:30 AM Author(s): *Sarah De Leeuw – University of Northern British Columbia
Abstract Title: Eros and Geophilosophy: Some Poetic Reflections
10:50 AM Author(s): *Nigel Clark – Lancaster University
Abstract Title: Feminist Pyrotectonics
11:10 AM Author(s): *Bruce Braun – University of Minnesota, *Jessica Lehmann – University of Minnesota
Abstract Title: Extractive anxieties: sex panics and American energy production
Session 2 (1:20 PM – 3:00 PM)
Chair: Kathryn Yusoff, Queen Mary University of London
1:20 PM Author(s): *Anja Kanngieser – Goldsmiths College University of London
Abstract Title: Listening to the Anthropocene
1:40 PM Author(s):
*Angela Last – University of Glasgow
2:00 PM Author(s): *Myra J Hird (Oxford) – Queen’s University
Abstract Title: Subtending Relations: Bacteria, Geology, and the Possible
*Stephanie Clare – Syracuse University
2:20 PM Author(s): *Susan Ruddick – University of Toronto
2:40 PM Author(s):
*Arun Saldanha – University of Minnesota – Minneapolis
Session 3 (3:20 PM – 5:00 PM)
Chair: Jessica Lehman, University of Minnesota
3:20 PM Author(s): *Yvette Granata, Phd Student – SUNY Buffalo, Department of Media Study
3:40 PM Author(s): *Bogna M. Konior – Hong Kong Baptist University – Kowloon
Abstract Title: The necessity of redefining personhood: shamanic geophilosophies
4:00 PM Author(s): *Fuad Ali – University of Greenwich
4:20 PM Author(s): *Emma Gaalaas Mullaney – The Pennsylvania State University
4:40 PM Author(s): *Lauren A. Rickards – RMIT University
Abstract Title: Gendering the geo: who is speaking?
Session 4 (5:20 PM – 7:00 PM)
Chair: Rory Rowan, University of Zurich
5:20 PM Author(s): *Deborah Dixon – University of Glasgow
Abstract Title: Touching Earth: Of Landfill Futures and Melancholic Phenologies
Changed to: Skeleton Woman
5:40 PM Author(s): *Edia Connole –
Abstract Title: The Language of Flowers: Why the Anthropocene is a Bloody Mess
6:00 PM Author(s): *Christina L. McPhee – independent visual and media artist http://christinamcphee.net
Abstract Title: Seismic Shards
6:20 PM : Discussion
*Gill Park – University of Leeds Abstract title: I emerge untamed and shake myself free
‘Why are you going to an STS workshop? Haven’t you moved on to postcolonial studies?’ This question was posed to me by a colleague who seemed perplexed about my continued desire to participate in STS (science and technology studies) related events. By many academics, STS is increasingly seen as the antithesis of politics, and especially as a field that is unable to engage with matters of gender, race and general inequality. This frustration with apolitical appropriations is even voiced by STS scholars who wish to take these matters into account and who are experimenting with forms of political intervention. The workshop that I attended at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin, entitled ‘Dead Wasps Fly Further’, did not start off with a lack of confidence about its political content. Rather it showed how STS is ‘naturally’ political and postcolonial if you look at things properly.
The ‘Dead Wasps Fly Further’ workshop was centred around the exhibition of the same name, put together by sociologist Tahani Nadim and artist Åsa Sonjasdotter to invite a different kind of engagement with the museum’s collections. Casually breaking the ’15-seconds-or-less’ rule of visitor engagement with museum objects, ‘Dead Wasps Fly Further’ challenged the wide-spread ambition to meet expectations of this statistically determined visitor construct. The exhibition was composed of three parts which, according to the description, represented interventions that ‘assemble humorous, poetic and troubling stories about anthropocentric biodiversity, colonial cultivations and cosmic care. ’ In the first instance, display cases with controversial amounts of text narrated stories around three objects: a digger wasp, dust and the sisal agave. The dust section further contained a short film that portrayed dust as an object, but also as a key irritant in the museum environment – dusting taking up an incredible amount of invisible museum labour (about 30% if I heard correctly). Lastly, Tahani Nadim took us on a theatrical tour through the insect collection that destabilised the boundaries between natural/cultural history, subject/object, human/nonhuman. This tour involved her own transformation into a digger wasp, as well as readings and interactions with behind-the-scenes objects such as microscopes, nets and prepared insects.
The concluding workshop promised to ‘stay with the troubles’ of the events and their setting (echoing Donna Haraway’s call), and this is very much what we did. After a day of exploring not only the exhibition and the tour, but also the museum and its wider context (number of specimen, research institutions, institutional affiliations, history, organisation structure, local cultural politics), our reflections first focused directly on what we had seen and experienced. This included discussions of colonial and on-going plant and animal trafficking (I’ll never look at nappies the same was again!), German colonial history, and the current negotiations of museums with their colonial roots and collections. We also shared very different impressions of the kinds of language that was used in her performance. For instance, the use of taxonomical language was perceived as both ridiculously abstract/inappropriate for the description of an organism, and as poetic and appropriately alien. The paper and film presentations that followed drew out and expanded on these themes, and I will try to give an insight into those in the remainder of the blog post. An understated but much appreciated part of the workshop was also an improvised ‘running library’ to which we were invited to contribute throughout the workshop (with hard copies or written suggestions on big paper sheets).
For me, it was particularly interesting to hear about the present engagements of German cultural institutions and of the German government with their colonial past. Walking through Berlin’s streets, I noticed adverts for a German chocolate brand, Rausch, that advertised ‘plantation chocolate’ packaged in ‘timeless colonial style’. The ubiquity of this brand and its advertising, and the lack of political awareness about colonialism was jarring, especially when I heard about other examples of this kind – an apparent resurge in ‘colonial style’ from architecture to product design. Why is the colonial aesthetic still so unproblematically accepted as opposed to, let’s say, the fascist aesthetic? Even today, many Germans seem totally oblivious about the fact that Germany did have colonies, under the German empire as well as the Prussian and Habsburg monarchies. The colonies most discussed in the workshop were German South West Africa (Namibia and small part of Botswana), German West Africa and German East Africa.
Despite the relative brevity and limited territorial reach of German colonisation, at least compared to other nations, its was absolutely devastating, amongst other things leading to the first genocide of the 20th century, that of the Herero and Namaqua people in 1904. To this day, the German government has difficulties admitting to the genocide, presumably in fear of having to pay reparations. Likewise, German cultural institutions are reluctant to engage with the colonial origins of their collections, in fear of having to return them.
A particularly disturbing example of how institutional practices are still linked to the 19th century (or earlier) was the contemporary plans for rebuilding the Berlin ‘Stadtschloß’ (a former imperial palace). Not only did a German aristocrat lobby manage to persuade politicians to reconstruct the palace, but there has been an initiative to rehouse the region’s ethnological collections in it. These plans have attracted protests not only against the scandalous relations between politicians and aristocrats (in fact, many German politicians are of aristocratic backgrounds), but against the inappropriate dealings with Germany’s colonial past. With Berlin being touted as the ‘centre for non-European cultures’, archives of colonial violence are being turned into a cultural resource: ‘but everyone can learn from us now’. This attitude reflected wider strategies adopted by cultural institutions, which also include having artist-in-residence schemes to legitimise collections (again, the Stadtschloß associated Humboldt Lab/Humboldt Forum was mentioned as an example).
While it always feels as if such plans cannot be stopped, they at least do not pass without resistance. The ‘Humboldt Forum’ initiative was, for instance, countered with a postcard protest, which used controversial quotes from meetings between protesters and officials, after negotiations were refused. Such examples formed the beginning of our engagement with the question: what do I do when I am confronted with a colonial story? Or, making use of our reference to Nikolai Chernyshevsky and his involvement in an infamous Russian literary debate (all added to the running library): what is to be done? How do I make it heard despite the infrastructures and power structures that persist in suppressing it? Does change makes different things legible or does making different things legible create change?
Regina Sarreiter and Matei Bellu’s project Unerhörter Bericht über die deutschen Verbrechen in den kolonisierten Gebieten und über das fortwährende Wirken der Gewalt bis in die Gegenwart (Unheard/outrageous report on the crimes of the Germans in the colonized regions and the ongoing effect of violence to the present day) represented one quite literal answer in their use of archival sound recordings of Herero and Namaqua people from the time of German colonisation (transcribed by Annette Hoffmann) to make voices heard. After their recording, the testimonies had neither been listened to again nor transcribed. By finally placing the voices of coloniser and colonised into dialogue in an exhibition, an alternative history became apparent. Two major problems with the recordings of colonised that the two researchers identified were that, in the first instance, political statements were never received as such, because the recordings were relegated straight to an ethnological collection: only about a century later were they were receiving attention. Further, there are issues with recording methods which affect representation and restitution. In an example shared by Tahani Nadim, songs were not even recognised anymore by today’s descendants, because of the peculiar recording methods of the time. For instance, people had to stick their head into a gramophone type contraption, and often people had to be made compliant with alcohol to overcome their fear.
Such problems highlighted the issues around restitution – of both physical objects and recordings. With regard to physical restitution, a variety of conventions and ceremonies have developed over the last decades. It was cynically remarked that ‘everything can be done or said in restitution ceremonies but an apology’. Regina Sarreiter presented to us a documentation of a German-Namibian skull restitution ceremony. In this ceremony, the skulls were displayed not only in coffin-like wooden boxes, but also in transparent cabinets, allowing the delegation to eventually see the scientific markings and cuttings on the skulls. This movement from burial object to scientific object back to burial object and back to scientific object again was so powerful that the atmosphere moved from a silent, emotional state to one of outrage and protest. In terms of digital restitution, the first question that surfaced was ‘what does digital restitution mean’? Again, the researchers hit the aforementioned problems of the inappropriate recording methods as well as issues around what to do with non-physical cultural heritage that was taken.
Film emerged as another means of giving voice to underrepresented people and positions. Again, we revisited the exhibition, and especially the filmic representation of dust. The representation of the labour of dusting (my favourite scene was the ‘dusting of the universe’ in the planetarium) is normally completely absent in museum documentaries and anything written about these institutions. Comparisons were made with the ‘museum porn’ of Das Grosse Museum (2014) and with the film Un Animal, Des Animaux (1995). Madeleine Bernstorff then reminded us that, while film is always presented as an accessible and powerful affective medium, it is also arguably the most policed (film as generating, but also disciplining audiences). In addition to introducing us to the creative cinematic history of human-insect encounters through La Peine du Tailon by Gaston Velle, Bernstorff put into sharp perspective the historical difficulty of engaging with colonialism. She evocatively portrayed the extreme problems that film-makers faced under stately and public censorship in the making of works such as René Vautier’s Le Glas (1964), Afrique 50, Afrique Sur Seine and Les Statues Meurent Aussi (extracts of which I had shown during my presentation but insufficiently contextualised). Here, she pointed to the often underplayed genealogy of cinematic counterhistories. As a spontaneous response, Bodil Furu’s Code Minier was screened on the final day as a recent experiment with self and counter representation, being shot with a script and performance by local actors. Code Minier traced the social and environmental impact of resource extraction in the Congo, again fighting with issues of access and censorship.
Les Statues Meurent Aussi/Statues Also Die (English Subtitles)
In my own talk, I also focused on colonial controversies, distilled in the figure of the German ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius. Although exiled from the academic establishment of his time, Frobenius is now a major figure within German academia, with research institutes and posts named after him. Frobenius was also a key figure for the négritude movement, inhabiting the odd position of a resource to reimagine black identity. However, despite his identification of the ‘barbaric Negro’ as a ‘European fiction’ and his attempt to move African art from the domain natural into cultural history, Frobenius was also an opportunist who appeared to look at the economic side of his endeavour more than anything else. This included his friendship with emperor Wilhelm II, colonial enthusiast and infamous for authorising the systematic massacre of the Herero and Namaqua. His exact biography is still under-researched, partly due to the wartime destruction of the German colonial archive. One of the underlying question of my talk, which for me also reflected the dilemmas of cultural production in general, was: could it be that Frobenius was both a figure of black empowerment and black genocide?
Workshop participants suggested that cultural institutions could take lessons from négritude movement and their grappling with the tension between negotiating cultural essentialisms and the need to acknowledge change. In some ways, participants saw the parallel also in the constant failures of museums versus these failures also carrying the seed for re-imaginations. Here participants suggested projects which included working with the absences of ‘museum objects’ in the countries where they are missing (e.g. Berlin’s and the world’s biggest mounted dinosaur skeleton being taken from Tanzania), or projects that highlighted unacknowledged colonial labour.
I also talked about the relevance of the cosmic in the négritude imagination, and the movement’s critique of science as following an interest in anything that divides, but not unites. This theme of ‘otherness-making’ being embedded in knowledge-making returned us to the subject of taxonomy and its function: what does taxonomy do? Do we interact with it as order or a semblance of order? For many participants, taxonomy functioned both as commons and as oppression. Again, there was a debate about relations – to other organisms, landscapes or power structures. Does it represent interwoven human/nonhuman biographies or does it keep the subject-object divide in place? How does it reflect knowledge and decision making? In this context, participants emphasised taxonomy as an ‘art of attending to details’ and determining what matters and what doesn’t. How are decisions related to what is visible and invisible? Can we live, think and make knowledge without ‘otherness’, and does taxonomy pose or prevent a step towards establishing different ontology? Would such ontologies be automatically devalued – like in the refusal of so many indigenous ontologies? Here, conversations kept going back to a moment in Nadim’s theatrical museum tour in which she says to the unclassifiable wasp ‘we had to develop a new language for you’ (the work of Evelyn Fox Keller on ‘feeling the organism’ was added to the library).
From the on-going repercussions of past colonialism, our attention turned to neo-colonialism in all its shapes and forms, though mostly relating to agriculture and biodiversity. Sarah Lewison presented several examples from her work, which included performative strategies such as organising alternative courts hearings against Monsanto (another set of voices that is currently not heard) and creating awareness of environmental racism in the US and beyond. Lewison’s first example of the North American Cahokia civilisation, which flourished and appears to have perished due to corn monoculture, and Monsanto’s headquarters in the same place, was absolutely striking and underlined the urgency of her work: are these two monoculture empires not only overlapping geographically but also in terms of their historical trajectories? Lewison’s projects involved, as she put it, ‘experimentation with educating ourselves and other white people about on-going colonial histories’. Again and again, participants pointed out the total lack of understanding they encountered from other white Europeans and Americans regarding the on-going mentally and physically toxic practices of colonialism (here, the work of Vanessa Agard-Jones on the toxic legacies of Martinican plantations was added to the library). Speaking of the ‘privatisation of goodness’ by multinationals and other entities, Lewison also implicated academics in this process, through their similar and questionable knowledge-making practices, appropriating language, ideas and concepts.
Discussions of attempts to change narratives continued until the final day. (As an aside: we learned that the biggest storytellers were also the biggest killers of butterflies: Vladimir Nabokov and Walter Benjamin!) Endre Dányi’s presentation prompted a discussion around who or what can tell a story. How can we, for instance, manage the stories and histories of nonhuman public figures in spaces such as that of a Natural History Museum? And how far is this decision-making affected by those we are trying to engage? Animals also surfaced in Filippo Bertoni’s talk. After discussing his experiments with postcards to resituate explorer narratives of Svalbard (here Georges Perec’s 243 Postcards, Allen C. Shelton’s ‘Where the North Sea Touches Alabama’ and Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’ were added to the library as feminist narrative strategies), he offered an alternative narrative of heroic war history through focusing on an inventor’s dog (Umberto Nobile’s dog). Other participants subsequently added related examples of polar hero narratives versus Sami narratives, the latter being about Sami guides and their animals taking the so-called explorers to the pole.
Elaine Gan offered more provocative reversals, in her case in relation to the ‘invisible modern revolutions’ of agriculture. First making us wish that things were run after a fungal clock, so we can avoid the summertime change that we were uncomfortably subjected to during the workshop, she proceeded with making us wonder whether landscape is a backup for humans and their technology, and not the other way round. Her study of permafrost and rice seed banks, in fact, raised multiple backup issues. Firstly, the surrounding area of the famous Svalbard seed vault was shown to be insufficiently cold to serve as a backup in case of power failure. Here, parallels were drawn between temperature as structuring time in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (another library addition!) and seed banks. Both relate disturbingly classed and enforced temperature ecologies (can we leave the magic mountain?).
Secondly, the severe punishment of public attempts to maintain biodiversity – as a commons or otherwise – seemingly contrasted with the gigantic efforts to conserve biodiversity in increasingly ridiculous conditions (including ‘seed repatriation’ issues in warzones). For instance, while a diagram of the current rice varieties appeared like an ‘aristocratic family tree where everyone gets uglier and uglier due to inbreeding’, farmers and gardeners were being subjected to ‘seed razzias’ which took away alternative varieties. NGO involvement appeared to make the situation worse rather than better, due to their links with corporations. How is this selective weaponising and policing of seeds to be countered? Again, participants shared examples of people using animals and plants rather than farmers as their strategies and resistance allies. Especially US farmers were being seen as mainly interested in ‘fast farming’ and competitively maintaining ‘clean fields’. By contrast, animals and plants not only had similar interests in maintaining biodiversity, but could also function as seed smugglers (animals being fed seeds etc) or carriers of resistance to ‘modern’ pest control methods (companies having to ‘go back’ to a more diverse stock). The amusing but thought-provoking term ‘non-consensual eco-sex’ also entered this debate as a figure of reversal with humans involuntarily playing host to reproducing organisms.
Video: Elaine Gan ‘Rice Child’ (2011)
Fittingly, our last discussion revolved around the figure of the ‘citizen science’ (and the ‘active citizen’). This figure represented a position that was increasingly difficult to maintain, due to governments increasingly regarding assertive citizens as threats to the status quo. However, it also presented troubles with the figures themselves: who is the citizen here? What image of the citizen do we work with? After all, the citizen is a product of a particular ideology. In German, citizen science translates as ‘Bürgerwissenschaften’, which has strong bourgeois connotations. But there are other troubles: in Germany, as in other countries, the figure has infamously been used to combat what is being perceived as a ‘defiant German population’ in the face of ‘scientific truth’. Many German citizen science schemes have tried to wear down criticism of science, seemingly not understanding that citizen resistance is about a critique of power relations, not science (parallels were drawn with the difficulties of cultural institutions in negotiating cultural divides was also linked to their lack of embeddedness in particular communities and a lack (or refusal) of understanding what is at stake).
In the face of such responses, what is to be done, indeed? A lot, we concluded. Throughout the workshop, we were once again reminded of how representation and power interplay extends across all that is material or even immaterial, and across all scales of existence – from the smallest particle to the cosmic. This is, of course, reflected in the contemporary challenges for changing knowledge making and knowledge dissemination practices. This blog post tried to illustrate some of the avenues that researchers and artists explored to address the different levels of attention. The most important thing that I took home from the workshop was that it is not just important to realise that something needs to be done – or even what needs to be done – but to persist in doing.