New co-authored article: Anti‐Racist Learning and Teaching in British Geography

Area

The editorial by James Esson and myself for the special section on Race and Teaching in Area Journal is finally out. It is called Anti‐Racist Learning and Teaching in British Geography and is available for free reading. Next term, I will be teaching a module on Histories and Philosophies of Geography, where I will be experimenting with ways of representing both history and the theories underpinning Geography differently. It will be interesting how to present this in the mostly online medium, too, so I will be blogging about this in the near future. For now, here is the abstract to our article:

Abstract

This special section illustrates how learning and teaching in UK higher education reinforces, but can potentially also help to counteract, racism. This introduction provides some context for this intervention and provides an outline of key themes that emerge from the collection of papers. We use these themes to sketch out three guiding principles for the incorporation of explicitly anti‐racist praxis in our learning and teaching within British Geography 1) Recognise each other’s humanity 2) Say the unsayable 3) Experiment with (y)our history. We call for explicitly anti‐racist praxis while conscious of the ‘disciplinary fragility’ that moves to address racism might elicit. It is argued that an anti‐racist approach to learning and teaching in British Geography has the potential to equip staff and students with the tools to help make our discipline, and wider society, more equitable and just.

‘My Aunt Came Back’: Universities & the George Floyd Protests


Black Cultural Archives, Brixton, during lockdown

My friend Roshi’s son likes a song called ‘My Aunt Came Back‘. It is a call and response song that has a line in it that goes ‘oh, my aunt came back from Guadeloupe, and she brought with her a hula-hoop’. My friend had to laugh when I told her that I actually have an aunt from Guadeloupe, although she divorced my uncle around the time I was born. I did not know about my aunt until I mentioned to my parents that I was reading interesting environmental literature by authors from Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé and Daniel Maximin. They replied: ‘Oh, wow – what a coincidence! Your aunt Lili was from there, your uncle’s wife!’ I had grown up just knowing my uncle’s girlfriend, so this was news to me. It was also surprising, because one of my uncles is Thai, and to have two spouses from ethnic minorities in a White lower middle class family in rural Germany – marriages that took place in the late 1950s/early 1960s – is unusual. On the other hand, the more cosmopolitan port city of Hamburg was not far away, which is where my uncle and my aunt met their partners.

Over the last few years, my parents, and other family members have told me a few things about her, including the racism she faced from the family and other people, as well as her wit which enabled her to win over difficult family members. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which information is assumption, and which is reality. Prompted by my accidental connection to my aunt’s birth place, my dad has been looking for a photo of her. It turns out that no one in my rather large family even has the wedding photo (I did not want to ask my uncle, because I don’t feel that I have a right to this picture, or to information about his or her life). On the one hand, my mother’s family is not particularly well documented in photographs, on the other hand, there are photos of pretty much every other living family member. Again, I wondered how this came about, and, although this led to difficult conversations, I received some answers. In a way, these conversations did not just give me a personal connection to my research, but it also made me more conscious of the erasure of racialised authors in academic research.

In the present, the protests sparked by police violence in the United States have prompted people and institutions to respond. Or rather, they feel pressured to respond and to show solidarity and commitment to anti-racism. UK Universities have released statements that have received cynical and angry responses on social media. While universities, as Robbie Shilliam and other Black academics have pointed out, are keen to draw in a larger paying student body – mostly from Black British and British Asian backgrounds at the undergraduate level – they are also failing them on a number of accounts, including their response to experiences of racism, lack of acknowlegement of Black and Asian experiences and authorship in the curriculum, and even failure to account for economic pressures and inequalities that affect some Black, Asian and ‘ethnic minority’ students (exacerbated through lockdown – who has own computer, wifi, space to work? who can go on fieldtrips?). This year, A-level students will be entering universities with predicted grades that have been shown to be underpredicted for Black students in particular – how are universities accounting for that?

When it comes to research, universities, and the academics working for them, fare no better. The academic system encourages competition over ethics. In the last two weeks alone, I witnessed four instances of academic misconduct, one so severe that it was reported to the RGS-IBG Race, Culture & Equality (RACE) Working Group of which I am a member. Academic ambition encourages things for which we punish our students: plagiarism, racist attitude towards research participants, and the colonisation of research areas by systematic silencing of Black, Asian and other ‘ethnic minority’ colleagues. The staff and student experiences combined result is an uneven academic landscape, in which there are only a handful of Black professors. In addition, anyone who is not a White hetero cis-male is punished in the National Student Survey through a proven bias. As universities keep publishing statements, more and more examples Black student and Black staff experiences become revealed on social media and online newspaper comments sections. They include UCL being attacked for putting on eugenics focused conferences that have links to the neo-Nazi scene. The comments are hard to read, and they reveal a maze of punishing and ineffective administration of race issues. Even the RACE Working Group is in constant danger of becoming co-opted, and has been forced to work on documents to explain its purpose.

What universities need to be doing is to start looking at how their structures are enabling racism. This includes looking at its pet obsessions such as the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks (see RACE REF report here). It includes creating space for employees to engage with race issues, instead of doing anything in their power to make people more ‘productive’, competitive and insecure. Universities keep saying that there are ‘financial realities’, but many of them have embraced privatisation rather than fought it. It also means defending Black, Asian and ‘ethnic minority’ staff and students, rather than focusing on appeasing White middle-class entitlement. This especially means moving particularly Black, Asian and ‘ethnic minority’ staff from precarious contracts to permanent positions, and to work against a focus on only recruiting ‘international students’ from a global financial elite. At present, universities mainly serve to maintain an established elite, but sell upward social mobility by preying on people’s insecurities about the job market. This contradiction needs to be resolved. Such an opening would ideally lead to a further dismantling of the current purpose of the university. This may seem utopian under a capitalist system and defunding of universities, but at least this path is worth following, and, where there is no support, a path worth performing. Perhaps then we won’t see Black students just valued for advertising materials, but also for their entirety of their university career.

***

Here are some reports and resources upon which this blog post was based. Please add additional resources in the comments.

Nicola Rollock on Black Female Professors

Kalwant Bhopal on The Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics

Robbie Shilliam on Black Academia in Britain

Leah Cowan (gal-dem) on the impact of A-level cancellations on Black students

RGS-IBG Race, Culture & Equality Working Group on the Research Excellence Framework (link to pdf)

***

Reading list:

Ahmed, S. (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Akala (2018) Native: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Andrews, K. (2018) Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: Zed Books.

Area Journal Race & Teaching Special Issue (link to follow, some papers are in Early View)
Featuring Akile Ahmet, Amita Bhakta, Kehinde Andrews, Margaret Byron, James Esson, Global Social Theory team, Mark Hinton & Meleisa Ono-George, Jayaraj Sundaresan.

Bhambra, G.K., Nişancıoğlu, K., Gebrial, D. (eds) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto.

Bains, H. K. (20??) Experiences of South Asian Students in Higher Education. University of Sheffield (link to pdf)

Bryan, B., Dadzie, S., Scafe, S. (1985) Heart Of The Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. London: Virago.

Campt, T. M. (2017) Listening to Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Chantiluke, R., Kwoba, B., Nkopo, A. (2018) Rhodes Must Fall Oxford. London: Zed Books.

Desai, V. (2017) Black and Minority Ethnic (BME ) student and staff in contemporary British Geography. Area 49 (3) (Decolonising Geographical Knowledge in a Colonised and Re-colonising Postcolonial World Special Issue), pp. 320-323

Dwyer, C., Bressey, C. (2008) New Geographies of Race and Racism. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Elliott-Cooper, A. (2017) ‘Free, decolonised education’: a lesson from the South African student struggle. Area 49 (3) (Decolonising Geographical Knowledge in a Colonised and Re-colonising Postcolonial World Special Issue), pp. 332-334.

Esson, J., Noxolo, P., Baxter, R., Daley, P., Byron, M. (2017) The 2017 RGS‐IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality? Area 49(3) pp.384-388

Esson, J. and Last, A. (2019) Learning and Teaching About Race and Racism in Geography. In: H Walkington, J Hill and S Dyer (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Gabriel, D., Tate, S. A. (2017) Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

Holmwood, J. (ed) (2011) A Manifesto for the Public University. London: Bloomsbury Press.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.

Jackson, P. (1989). Challenging racism through geography teaching. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 13(1), 5-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098268908709054

Mahtani, M. (2006). Challenging the ivory tower: proposing anti-racist geographies within the academy. Gender, Place & Culture, 13(1), 21-25.

Mirza, H. S., Meetoo, V. (2012) Respecting Difference: Race, Faith and Culture for Teacher Educators.
London: UCL Institute of Education.

Noxolo, P. (2020). Introduction: Towards a Black British Geography? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/TRAN.12377

Salt, K. N. (2019) Decolonising Everyday Practice. (Video Link)

Tate, S. A., & Page, D. (2018). Whiteliness and institutional racism: Hiding behind (un) conscious bias. Ethics and Education, 13(1), 141-155. https://doi.org/10.1080/17449642.2018.1428718

Tolia-Kelly, D. P. (2017) A day in the life of a Geographer: ‘lone’, black, female. Area 49(3) pp. 324-328.

‘If nobody else likes it, so what?’ Sewing as a queer lifeline


Image: Queer house music artist Kiddy Smile sewing (still from Facebook video)

Right at the beginning of the lockdown, I started sewing again. Before I became a geographer, I was a fashion student, and I still have all my sewing equipment in my room: a Singer machine, a pattern cutting ruler, assorted tape measures, scissors and metal tools, and several boxes filled with fabric, buttons, thread and needles. At the moment, I am not making clothes for myself – apart from my current quilting experiment – but rather face masks and scrubs, due to an utterly preventable shortage in the UK. Various groups have set up sewing hubs – either for ‘production line’ type sewing, for resource distribution (mostly fabrics or bedsheets) or for the distribution of the actual attire. I have always enjoyed sewing, however, talking to some of my female friends, it sounds like there is a clear divide: either, there is a total rejection of sewing as gendered oppression, or a total embrace as empowerment and liberation from the impositions of the fashion and home decoration industries. In terms of the NHS situation, it very much feels like gendered impositions: where male politicians fuck up, an army of mostly women with sewing machines has to come to the rescue. In the English language, even sewing related vocabulary feels gendered. At the same time, there is a pleasure in competence and creativity, which, although often exploited by people in power, cannot entirely be discredited. This made me think about why I started sewing, and why I kept persisting, although I was not actually that competent.

One reason was definitely an escape from the constraints of gender expectations. While I appreciated both extreme feminine and masculine styles (my childhood photos are rather trippy), clothes shopping became stressful when I had to negotiate concerns about adequate gender representation from parents and nervous shop assistants. This movement between clothes designated ‘male’ or ‘female’ still remains a problem, as many shops insist on separate changing rooms between rigidly gendered departments (for more reflection on unnecessarily gendered spaces, see geographer Petra Doan’s work). This is not helped by designers and companies that produce clothes for a narrow range of female stereotypes. I vividly remember not being able to find non-pink or purple indoor sports shoes for girls in my hometown even in the 2010s. There are some queer led companies now – US label Haute Butch being one example (some more labels discussed here) – that specialise in female masculinity or non-binary looks, but they sadly can’t be found on the high street, and they also do not cover the entire range of clothing needs.


Image: Two tomboys in female drag

My first attempt at rejecting ‘girl’ designated colours and patterns was through permanent markers and spray paints, received with thanks from my friend Nadine – via her dad who ran a Bosch garage. ‘Put edding on it’ became an in-joke as a solution for all sorts of social weirdnesses that presented themselves to us as teenagers. The logical progression then was to make my own clothes by sewing. Thankfully, my grandmother had won a near-indestructible sewing machine in the early 60s – she participated in every magazine and advertisement competition she could get her hands on – so I didn’t have to stitch everything by hand. First there were alterations, followed by things made from scraps and finally patterns and store-bought fabric. I remember the first big sewing project I attempted. I had found some ugly 80s white jersey with a black leopard pattern. For some reason, I thought this would make good shirt material, and decided to compliment this with black velvet cuffs and collar. Unsurprisingly, this was really hard to sew with a shirt pattern intended for a much lighter fabric and not jumper or coat fabric. Although the outcome was badly sewn and totally hideous, I wore it proudly, with a red beret and a wide black patent leather belt that my mother had lent me. Over the years, I tried my hand at overalls, sparkly blazers, brocade suits, bat costumes and musketeer shirts. Unsurprisingly, my friends and family made fun of me, but, despite everything, I really loved these home made clothes: I felt best, when I looked like an extra in an 80s B-movie.

When I finished school and a year’s job training as a secretary and translator, I decided to study fashion. It became impossible to get a job as a secretary anyway with my increasingly crazy hair. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in the fashion industry – I had undergone sufficient ‘reality shock’ through work placements at a local fashion factory and the local theatre’s costume department. However, I felt that fashion might be a space where I could be myself, meet other queer people and gradually shake off the mental prison that I could feel but not yet dismantle. I knew I had a lot of work to do against my imposed and internalised homophobia, which I would not have been able to put into words then – it was more intutitive. I also didn’t know about drag culture and the sewing practices that circulate in the queer community, and that even straight people are now familiar with through films, TV series and pop videos. Despite this lack of knowledge, in my teenage imagination, this mental work could not be completed in a regular job. While this now sounds totally naive, it actually worked – kind of. I feel that it was the moving to a different space – and growing older and more confident, being able to put things into words – that was helpful in the end, rather than fashion specifically.  Nevertheless, I still associate the building of my queer identity with sewing.


Image: ‘Remixed’ clothes from charity shop

In the present, I am reunited with my long suffering student machine, which has mostly been sitting idle, apart from the odd bit of mending and new human related presents. As soon as I dusted it off and started threading it up – with terracotta thread still from a charity shop in Wakefield where I lived as an undergrad – I felt a new relationship with my craft. I got out my scissors, my pattern cutting ruler, tracing paper, sellotape, pens, and started working, in a mode completely unknown to me: I suddenly knew what I was doing. I didn’t just feel unnaturally competent, even though my sewing/pattern cutting probably wasn’t that much better. I think I felt more in the moment, because I became aware of why I was doing what I was doing (Matrix moment alert!). On the one hand, I felt more connected to generations of women (and men) in my family who had sewn, woven and practiced other crafts; on the other, I felt connected to generations of queer people who had used sewing as a tool for identity finding and affirming, teaching and even grieving (my gay housemate immediately associates sewing with the AIDS Memorial Quilt). Technically, this should create considerable dissonance, given the fact that most people across my family history would not approve of my gender identity and sexuality. But somehow it doesn’t. Here is perhaps why:

In addition to the above, I feel a wider geographical connection through the ‘queer’ mix of people at my local sewing shop who represent a wide range of ethnicities, ages, (dis)abilities, gender, technical competence and purpose. These interactions have especially shaped my view of ‘craft’. Usually, craft is associated with necessity, enforced ‘tradition’, reproduction and lack of expressive and emotional power, in order to delineate it from art. By contrast, associate expressive and emotional power more with craft than with art. In fact, I associate art with a valuation as such from the outside. Although both art and craft are frequently practiced without the hope or desire for economic valuation, I feel that there is a different connection between valuation and how art and craft manifest in space, especially in terms of self-expression. For example, craft items tend to be things that one uses or looks at on a daily basis, and in many ways that one is judged by. It feels like the question: ‘is this art?’ is by-passed to go straight to questions such as ‘why does this guy have/make pastel pink bowls with penguins on them?’ This also allows for an interesting relationship with referencing, whether this involves geographical references, messing with gender stereotypes or juxtaposing time periods. While this sometimes leads to ethical issues with asymmetric cultural appropriation – for example, of Indigenous crafts – there is also an argument for a more hopeful kind of synergy.

Video: Many people agree that the quilts of the Gee’s Bend Collectiver are masterpieces. They are, in fact, now sold as works of art, although there is controversy around who actually profits from the sales (many thanks to Kirsten Barrett for the source!)

At my local sewing shop, and some offline and online sewing communities that I have visited, there is considerable sharing between people from different backgrounds, as well as considerable agreement on what constitutes great work (see video above). This could be seen as a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of environment where conversations can take place as long as you don’t perform your specific identity too much. However, it could also be seen as a nerdy focus to which other identities, at least temporarily, come second. By this I do not mean that the other identity does not matter or should be treated as less important. The focus on the craft obviously does not erase tensions – I have had and witnessed many difficult interactions in craft spaces – but it also potentially gives a way in through curiosity about how someone else does something. This may, over time, translate into curiosity about how someone else is something. I understand that, for some people, this may be too invasive and undesirable, but it can also be a way to understand more of yourself rather than (as much as? by way of?) helping others understand you. For some craftspeople this is a very deliberate move – to flaunt skill and claim a space – whereas for others this is is more of a quiet, accidental or even unintentional practice. Although one could argue that there is always (self)expressive intention in craft. As one of the women in the Gee’s Bend documentary says: “And, if nobody else likes it, so what? [The quilt] is going on my bed – because it’s mine.” This is an attitude and way of making space that, for me, epitomises craft, and this is pretty much exactly the point from which I started.

This post is dedicated to my late godmother Sieglinde Wenck who passed away on Easter Sunday & whose fabric scissors I’m still using. 

Covid-19, “European Science” and the Plague


Image: Plague doctor from Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste (1721) You can find out more about this ‘hazmat suit’ prototype here.

Note: this blog post has been republished over at Discover Society.

I am writing this post from my room in South London, where I am currently in self-isolation. I have to think about how, about a month earlier, I gave a lecture to our Geography first years about the plague. To a room full of novice human and physical geographers, I said: “I know I am always banging on about the plague, but plague outbreaks have been really important events in history that continue to have repercussions for many things today – from legal rights to the way we do science.” I usually get some weird looks, especially when I start talking about things such as Byzantine refugees, witches, and other perhaps unusual entities in Geography. It is very likely, however, that this lecture will resonate quite differently from next year onwards. It is not that Covid-19 is like the plague – the plague is not even a virus, it is caused by bacteria. However, comparative social measures were adopted, and reinforced during these earlier outbreaks. From the current situation, we can see what even a comparably small outbreak of an infectious disease can do to society at various scales. I want to put this less as a scholarly task than as a helpful resonance that may build an affective connection not just to the past, but across today’s geographical regions.

Although I’m not an expert on the plague, it is often mentioned in work relating to my lectures, whether it’s in discussion of climate data or of class struggle in Europe. For this reason, I have been reading about it from different perspectives. This weekend, I was delighted when a friend and science scholar (thanks, Uli!) recommended a podcast on German radio that featured a historian of infectious diseases, Katharina Wolff (she also participated in another useful broad/podcast). What I enjoyed in particular was how Wolff moved between the scale of society and that of the individual. In particular, she stressed that ‘an epidemic something that one does’ (‘Seuche ist etwas, das man tut’). We are not powerless during an epidemic, and there is quite a lot one can do – especially by not doing a lot of things. As my local MP, A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan, has also emphasised in her messages: anyone can take action, regardless of government inaction, and that action should primarily be to withdraw from physical social life as much as possible. Here is a great video by US doctor Emily Porter that explains why this is helpful:

At the same time, Wolff made an argument about the lasting social consequences of an epidemic. On one occasion, Wolff phrased this along the lines of (I put this as a summarised translation): ‘illnesses affect the individual, epidemics affect societies – every epidemic or pandemic leaves traces in social life, from legal changes to cultural practices’. As mentioned earlier, this does not only include laws that regulate behaviour during epidemics – it also includes gestures, new kinds of cultural events and forms of solidarity. I really liked Wolff’s building of resonances across time, especially through the reading of old decrees from a Munich municipal archive. Although written in the Middle Ages, such instructions sound surprisingly modern. Further, she explained how, in the Middle Ages, many cities were visited by the plague every 10-12 years. Because of this, legal and social measures had to be put in place that would help with the response at the onset of the next wave. Over time, these measures have, of course, eroded, so now we are lacking these habitual practices and are experiencing them as an exceptional intervention.

A large part of the podcast was about these measures, and how people should critically evaluate them. Since epidemics function as a catalyst, they can be a force of good or evil. We are seeing this right now in public discussions of mobile phone tracing or pub closures. People are asking: how long are we okay with such measures, and are the necessary at all? Another discussion that relates to the loss of habitual practices is the perception of many people in the West that epidemics are a problem for everyone else in the world, but not them. In the podcast, this “geographic exceptionalism” was particularly emphasised by cultural anthropologist Hansjörg Dilger. That large numbers of people are dying in Europe and America comes to many as a shock. Despite the lack of trust in struggling healthcare systems, people are expecting them to still cope with the latest biological mutations. Since they are not, people are looking for analogies that may them help with the sudden shift in world view. These include making links with a Europe (or places nearby) that experienced similar events in the past. Tellingly, books such as Pale Rider by Laura Spinney and The Plague by Albert Camus are sold out in many online bookshops (the #coronavirussyllabus project may be of additional help).

Image result for pale rider book

In my lecture last month, the focus on the plague and other epidemics allowed me to (I hope!) build exactly this connection to events that may seem distant, but have on-going repercussions. Now we find these analogies in the mainstream press. For example, the current re-evaluation of whose work is indispensable echoes post-plague advances in worker’s rights, even if these may have been only temporary. There are concerns about the effect on women, LGBTIQ+ people and minority groups given the experiences during the plague. Women and queer people may no longer be burnt as witches, and minorities such as Jews may no longer be officially persecuted, but different communities will be affected differently (see the violence against “Chinese looking” people, or special warnings going out to multi-generational Muslim households here in the UK). In some ways there are even direct parallels, in that queer people are still getting blamed and persecuted in some societies whenever there is a crisis, across the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world.

There are also parallels regarding from a physical geography perspective. As physical geographers are painfully aware, past large-scale losses of human life through epidemics (e.g. the Orbis spike) have resulted in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere. This is an argument that is currently, and very insensitively, advanced by some climate activists. A more benign version focuses on the lack of airplane, ground traffic and industry pollution. Further, climate fluctuations itself are linked to disease. For example, some scientists and historians have argued that the consequences of climatic events such as the Little Ice Age (brilliantly illustrated in the animation below) may have made people more susceptible to disease. In the present, environmental destruction, more than climate change, has been blamed for the outbreak of new epidemics. The climate is mainly seen as a compounding factor, especially when combined with environmental mismanagement, on-going consequences of colonialism and capitalism, and other natural and political disasters.

One thing that I especially emphasise is the loss of oral and written knowledge during the plague, which is perhaps more difficult to imagine today (unless we stop being able to maintain the internet or our libraries). Perhaps the experience of quarantine may help students understand – I hope in the most benign way – that people who had no internet or phones were somewhat more cut off from each other. Like today, cities tended to be the focus of both knowledge production and outbreaks – they are densely populated and experience a lot of through-traffic. During an upheaval such as an epidemic, intellectual life eventually gets put on hold. As a mild analogy, lecturers may still be giving online seminars this week, but when things get worse, they may be busy volunteering for food banks, hospitals, or neighbourhood organisations. The same goes for the students. Indeed, some university VCs have encouraged such pursuits for both staff and students. In the worst case scenario, people get sick to varying degrees. Now scale this up to imagine the conditions during the plague(s), not just with schools, monasteries and institutions closing, but also with the fragility of print media. The first major plague wave was before the advent of book printing, with select hand copied manuscripts that may also have had to serve as fuel during quarantines, or became destroyed in riots.

But it is also important to not just focus on the immediate disaster, but also the future that is simultaneously being ‘incubated’. Here, we may have some useful parallels again. Many authors in the UK media currently write hopeful pieces about the relaxation of both austerity measures and immigration rules. The NHS is deliberately underfunded to artificially prime it for privatisation – people are hopeful, that this changes, along with the punishing living and working conditions of precarious, but essential workers. In a related argument, migration scholars have called for a lifting of the ‘skilled worker’ earnings cap that ignores how much the current UK economy relies on ‘inferior’, so-called ‘unskilled’ work. Indeed, what eventually helped Europe recover was in part an influx of Byzantine refugees after the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople. While the emphasis here has been on the ‘skilled workers’, it is nevertheless an interesting analogy.

Byzantine refugees are credited for bringing some of the lost knowledge back, and not just ‘European’ knowledge (the Greeks and Romans were never just European anyway, given their geographical distribution), but also Middle Eastern and Indian texts (there is an interesting story map about this here). This event was key in reconnecting scholars geographically. A painting that illustrates this is The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-11). Although not every person in this painting has been clearly identified, there is certainty that it includes Muslim polymath Averroes/Ibn Rushd and Iranian spiritual leader Zoroaster. Likewise, Dante’s Divine Comedy also features three Muslim philosophers: Averroes, Avicenna and Saladin. An articled called The grandfather of the European Enlightenment was Muslim in fact argues that Averroes was a key influence not only on the European Renaissance, but also the European Enlightenment. There are many more sources that confirm that European intellectual movements were not just European, but influenced by cross-cultural developments (check out Jim Al-Khalili‘s Science and Islam on BBC Player). If we look at our basic scientific measuring devices such as the compass (Chinese), calendar (Egyptian), clock time (Babylonian) and our numeral system (Hindu-Arabic), this should be evident. “European science” is not an entity that can be so easily isolated.


Image: The School of Athens – Painting by Raphael (Wikipedia)

Knowledge contracts and expands throughout history, because of events such as epidemics, wars, and migration. This is easy enough to understand, but it usually feels a lot more abstract. While I was not hoping for a crisis to make this connection more real, we are currently in the midst of one, and this spatio-temporal resonance may actually become more and more needed. Not only do past events highlight the need for a different way of teaching European science and history, but studying connections can also provide emotional support. What we are dealing with right now is not (just) a scary state of exception, but something that keeps recurring – not just in ‘other’ parts of the world, but right here. As difficult as this may be, given the ubiquitous narrative about ‘Fortress Europe’ in more than one sense, I really hope that this connection rises to the surface not just in terms of disease control, but also in terms of shared knowledge and culture. This is something to which we can all contribute, in much the same way that we can contribute to keeping people physically healthy.

 

CFP: Cosmo-Morphology

Cosmo-Morphology: On the Order and Ordering of Nature

The unfolding ecological catastrophe everywhere produces a crisis of order. Cataclysmic planetary events are mirrored by the continued imposition of renewed logics of dispossession, domination and exclusion across biological, political and social dimensions of being. The ordering of nature by economic, scientific and technological practices seeks to condition the possibilities for future thought and praxis. Against this determination, we ask: how can the cosmos be constructed otherwise?

“Cosmo-morphology” is a provocation to consider how the order and ordering of nature set the conditions of our cosmological adventure. Borrowing the term “morphology” from the earth sciences—which names the study of the origins and evolution of geographic forms and structures—“Cosmo-morphology” asks how a critique of the order of nature might produce new terms for the construction of the cosmos. To begin to ask what tools are needed for such speculation requires analysis of the social practices and conceptual structures that order nature and recursively instate their own epistemic conditions, from the bureaucratic, colonial, and economic to the scientific, technological, and philosophical.

This one-day symposium aims to initiate discussion covering the cultural, theoretical, political and aesthetic dimensions of the order and ordering of nature and the cosmos. It seeks to explore speculative and transversal epistemologies and cultures that cleave open the potentials for cosmologies and fracture dominant modes of order.

We invite prospective participants to submit a 350-word abstract proposal for a 20-minute paper. Papers on the following topics would be particularly welcome:

  • Heretical Cosmologies
  • Geoengineering and Infrastructure
  • Sci-Fi and Speculative Fiction
  • General Ecology
  • Decolonial Logics
  • Cosmotechnics
  • Naturphilosophie

Presentation deadline: 24th April, 2020 (350w abstract + 150w bio)
Notification of Acceptance: 1st May, 2020

Please email abstracts to Conrad Moriarty-Cole and James Phillips: CCRL [at] PROTONMAIL [dot] COM

#UCUstrike zine 2019

I’m one and a half years into my first lectureship, and already on my second UCU strike. Towards the end of the last strike, we talked about making a student facing strike zine, so I’ve set out to make one. Hopefully there will be more to follow. Many thanks to my colleagues and students for edits, and many thanks to Gail Davies for additional resource links. You can download the zine here.

More soon! x

 

 

Notes from the “Political Ecologies of the Far Right” Conference

This weekend, I attended the “Political Ecologies of the Far Right” conference at Lund University. I was very excited to be in Sweden for the first time (I visited both Lund and Malmö), and to meet people who were working on the increasingly explicit fascist tendencies all over the world. One of my reasons for attending was a concern about the increasing normalisation of far right narratives in the UK, especially in creative circles that considered themselves on the left. Ecology features largely in many creative projects, and with the current environmental and political crisis, people have turned to some quite disconcerting ideas. This is also evident in conversations with colleagues and PhD student who I have met at conferences, and who seem not to notice that some of the materials which they are enthusiastically embracing, contain some rather problematic statements and theoretical lineages. This was also what I presented on.

Given my concern, the conference was interesting in its occasional replication of this pattern. Teaching on a module on histories and philosophies of Geography especially (with my colleague Matt Tillotson), it was in fact quite worrying how many speakers seemed to divorce their topic from their theory. By this I mean: 1) basing their analyses on theories that are normally associated with environmental determinism and fascism (e.g. Heidegger, Conrad, Schmitt, Malthus, Parenti), without commenting on this type of theory as a basis, and 2) grotesquely emptying out concepts such as intersectionality of their political remit (e.g. by ignoring race, gender etc). This could not be put down to the lack of experience of the speakers – they were relatively senior academics. Colleagues who attended other sessions also reported on the replication of issues such as male presenters’ longing for a heteronormative fantasy land (along the lines of “women – be nicer to men, or else men will turn to fascism”).

Overall, the conference was quite an interesting mix. It was very obviously lovingly organised by a committee made up of different groups. We were warned that things might not run as smoothly, because they did not expect this many people to work on the topic, and to be able to come. Although there were some organisational hiccups, I did not experience these as unpleasant. The conference dinner and after-party at Smälands, the ‘misfit’ fraternity of Lund University was a great way of getting a sense of the local university and activist landscape. We admired that they even had their own branded beer! There was also a permanent Antifa stall that had free stickers, Swedish confectionery and, most importantly, Club Mate bottles. One thing I am not so sure about is the integration of a large number of Skype presentations. More than half of the Skype speakers did not show up, so entire sessions had to be cancelled or moved, and sometimes there was just one in-person speaker on the panel, making conversation between panellists impossible. I know that many speakers chose Skype presentations due to environmental impact, but it did severely hinder communication. Having said that, I really enjoyed a virtual performance lecture by Jade Montserrat on Blackness and British rural spaces.


Image: still from Jade Montserrat’s performance lecture “Hyper-belongings: A sense of place”

There were several parallel streams outside of the keynotes. This makes it difficult to describe an overall picture of the discourse, as I can only report back on the sessions that I attended. What I took away from the conference was, first of all, a great diversity of approaches and opinions, in terms of what people understand as anti-fascism (people were much clearer on what constitutes fascism). People had clashing opinions on race and environmentalism; on how some seemingly disparate groups overlap, and over which concerns; or on who should do what kind of labour and with whom. I have tried to summaries these issues at the end of the post.


Mathias Wåg presenting on the Swedish far right

Despite the disagreements – at least in most cases – quite a few presenters and audience members continued discussions afterwards – sometimes the next day or the day after, after some thinking and cooling off. It felt like people learned a lot from each other, including myself: about their blind spots, about something they had not been familiar with, or about other peoples distress that they had not taken into consideration. In fact, there were many moments were people discovered shocking facts about institutions, people, theories or businesses they had come to perceive as neutral or beneficial.


“I cover up Nazi propaganda”

I will now try to pull together some themes that I picked up at the conference. You may also want to check out the #pefr2019 hashtag on Twitter for spontaneous reflections and a greater diversity of voices.

1) Appropriations of left and even decolonial terminology by the far right. Not only does environmentalism have both left and right wing roots, but its present is also shaped by these influences. There are neo-Nazi organic farmers, vegans and conservation activists, as well as anti-capitalism activists. Journalist and activist Mathias Wåg specifically singled out the appropriation of the term ‘activist’ by the far right. In a different presentation, Kai Bosworth argued that left and right are united by a ‘Romantic anti-capitalism’. In addition, the far right continues to make claims to White indigeneity, and even makes alliances with some indigenous leaders – or at least communicates with them about tactics. Here also a special note to senior (male and female) academics: do not use arguments about the ‘coloniality’ or ‘heteronormativity’ of gender and sexual relations to hit on precariously employed or unemployed junior academics/PhD students.

2) Anti-fascism, environmentalism and race: Following on from the point above, presenters pointed out how far right environmentalism isn’t an aberration, but continues existing White environmentalist ideals. This was especially apparent in former colonies such as NZ and the US where progressive interventions were resisted that would have endangered the colonial feel (e.g. through vegetation) of a place, or would have opened environmentalism to people of colour. There was heated debate around extinction rebellion: do accusations of Whiteness help UK environmentalism do some much needed work, or do these accusations obscure the work of environmentalists of colour?

3) The normalisation of fascism: This was a very significant concern. From many presentation it was evident how far right thinking is evident in anything from corporate social responsibility to UN Sustainable Development Goals. Presenters marked on its uncanny relationship with neoliberalism and its language. As much as public institutions were seen as under attack, they were often also seen as key culprits of using and communication far right ideas (e.g. hostile environment, Prevent in the UK; banning of protests or anti-fascist organisations in US). In addition, there were concerns about creatives and academics and their lack of criticality regarding fascist and colonial rhethoric (the Dark Mountain manifesto was named as an example several times, as were recent films such as Arcadia).

4) Fascism and capitalism intersections: In addition to the above issues around state institutions, the reliance of capitalism on the nation state was also noted, and the use of myth to keep up with treats to both the nation and capitalism. The ideology of capitalism itself was linked to fascist Social Darwinist ideas, including the reliance on war and inequality as a means to strengthen its hold. Again, due to capitalism’s normalisation and pervasiveness, it is difficult to attack. Further, several presenters showed financial links between fascist groups, and wealthy individual and corporate donors. Another thing that was mentioned was the fact that fascism can be both capitalist and anti-capitalist at the same time, whether genuinely or disingenuously so.

5) The Global nature of fascism: people presented case studies from all over the world, whether it was the UK, Brazil, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Germany, India, Pakistan, US, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia China etc. Everywhere, the far right is growing stronger. While presenters also gave hopeful examples or counter-action, the sheer statistics felt rather apocalyptic. Again, links to capitalism were made, and its ways of protecting itself. People also wondered how fascists were interlinked internationally.

6) How to organise: here, it was important that there was a large contingent of activists present, including break out meetings with activist groups. The obvious resources were labour activism (even the UCU strikes were mentioned), but other resources, especially directed at academics, were mentioned. Anti-fascist activist and journalist Mathias Wåg, for example, called for academics to work more closely with journalists – sharing data as well as ways to communicate better to a larger audience.

Apparently, there will be a follow-up conference in about two years time. Keep an eye out for updates!

“Decolonise STEM” symposium notes (also: please don’t deport my colleague!)

A few weeks ago, I attended a Decolonise STEM symposium at UCL (videos available on their website soon, minus the Q&As). It was a great event, passionately and sensitively put together by a collective of concerned undergraduate and postgraduate scientists. It was useful both in terms of practical guidance, but also in terms of understanding the political and philosophical issues that continue to lead to problems in science teaching and research. The impact of these issues was made painfully apparent by the threat of deportation that one of the speakers, Furaha Asani (University of Leicester), received a couple of days after her presentation. Since then, she has made a video about her situation, has also spoken to the press, and has protested the framing of her situation by the press. She is currently looked after by the UCU and some legal support.

There are a number of interrelated issues that participants brought up in their presentations. (Unfortunately, I have lost my notes, but I will try to reconstruct the debates from memory, and rectify errors once the talks are up on the website.) The biggest issue was the self-professed objectivity of science that does not allow any space for racism, sexism, ableism etc. This strongly contrasted with the speakers’ data – Nuzhat Tabassum offered some depressing statistics about the non-existent “pipeline” from student to staff – as well as their experiences of both overt racism and microaggressions, whether it was BME researchers being asked what they were doing in the sciences, or BME researchers being excluded from teams (much of science is team based work). Most of the speakers were women who were struggling with a double penalty in the supposedly neutral science world. Sometimes class and disability added to the representational burden. Archaeologist Alex Fitzpatrick, for example, was told that she would normally be a research object – why would she want to do archaeology?

The perception of neutrality became replicated with field sites. Whether these were outer space or on-goingly colonised territories, field sites were regarded as neutral and naturally open to White scientists’ research. At least two of the speakers also commented on the naming of sites and objects, whether these were indigenous Australian lands or objects in space such as the hugely inappropriate Ultima Thule (see presentation by Divya M. Persaud). Scientists who used the indigenous names or critiqued racist descriptions were either ‘corrected’ or regarded as unnecessarily difficult. The violence done through both racist naming and indigenous erasure was regarded as ‘non-rational’ and emotional.

Further, speakers and participants felt that science lecturers regarded science as a European rather than a global project, with ran across fields from computer science through to archaeology. White people go out and do stuff/teach to others, while the rest of the world receives. No mention, for example, of the Middle East effectively saving Europe’s ass after the disastrous Middle Ages. No mention of Black scientists whose work was taken over but not recognised by others, or who were barred from obtaining university degrees. The fact that racialised people are seen as receivers was further emphasised by Arianne Shahvisi who pointed to the intensely racist landscape of the NHS, both in terms of staff and patient treatment under an on-going ‘hostile environment’ – which, for her, is as old as the NHS in 1948.


Image: Slides from Furaha Asani’s presentation at Decolonise STEM

A key question was also how to do science with ‘decolonial’ ethics in mind. After all, as Christine Yao emphasised in her keynote (citing Tuck and Yang), decolonisation should not just remain a metaphor. Andrea Jimenez, for example, lamented that it is really difficult to do ethical research in a university landscape that demands certain kinds of ‘products’ from the researcher. Furaha Asani provided practical guidance on how to be a good ally (as audience, support, as aggressor willing to unlearn) and how to check your privilege and responsibility. Syed Mustafa Ali provided some very detailed guidance for “decolonial computing”. He, first of all, discussed the coloniality of computing, both in terms of its history and  present power inequalities (you can find his presentation here). He pointed to the impulses that led to the creation of computing, e.g. it was tied up with war efforts while many countries were still fighting to decolonise. He showed how computing is still used for surveillance of racialised Others, how developing countries may be forced to host more data centres, and how programming languages are shaped by racism (and sexism). Decolonial computing, for him, would be computing from the margin, that does not just accept/use existing ways of programming, but contests it. In addition, Ali recommended the following:

“Practitioners and researchers adopting a decolonial computing perspective are required, at a minimum, to do the following: Firstly, consider their geo-political and body-political orientation when designing, building, researching or theorizing about computing phenomena; and secondly, embrace the ‘decolonial option’ as an ethics, attempting to think through what it might mean to design and build computing systems with and for those situated at the peripheries of the world system, informed by the epistemologies located at such sites, with a view to undermining the asymmetry of local-global power relationships and effecting the ‘decentering’ of Eurocentric / West-centric universals.” (Ali, 2016)

What can geographers (human AND physical) take away from this? Some recommendations:

  • Don’t pretend nothing is happening. Science has never been neutral.
  • Historically and geographically contextualise your subject, especially when it includes history of science. For example, I include an overview of European science in relation to science around the world (e.g. the Renaissance-Middle East relation, BBC Science and Islam as an example).
  • Don’t use the argument that ‘science has always been international’ as an excuse to not make changes to your teaching and teaching materials
  • Cite beyond the people you know, and look at what’s going on in your field as much as you can
  • Educate yourself about the struggles your colleagues and students might be going through, and support them in non-patronising ways.
  • Question scientific framing and related history/geography e.g. taxonomy, naming, purpose, competition
  • Question privileges of access, whether this is in terms of field sites, jobs or funding
  • Look at the ethics of research and relations with research partners: what are the power inequalities in this project? Can you do something to change this (change funder, change your research partner’s status/deal)
  • Look at publishing ethics: is the author hierarchy fair? How can colleagues from less well resourced countries be supported in an unequal publishing world?
  • Most importantly: do listen and unlearn as much as you can from how you were taught, but don’t demand intellectual and emotional labour from others to make your curriculum less White-centric. Go to relevant events – they are taking place all over the country. It’s literally your job!

More points to follow. There will also be at least one “Decolonise STEM” themed session on physical geography at the next RGS-IBG conference in London. The conference theme is “borders”, and it is led by Professor Uma Kothari. Stay tuned!

Open Letter: Urgent Call to Action to Help Tashpolat Tiyip


Image source: Living Otherwise

Many thanks to Mahmood N. Khan for posting this urgent request. There is more information on this campaign on the Amnesty International site, also about other persecuted Uyghurs in China. This is the open letter from the Association of American Geographers (AAG) – please sign. I hope there will be a similar statement by the RGS-IBG soon.

Urgent Call to Action to Help Tashpolat Tiyip

The AAG calls upon the scientific community to show support for Dr. Tashpolat Tiyip. Dr. Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University and geography professor, is suspected to be at risk of execution in China as time runs out on the two-year reprieve of his death sentence.

Please read our letter below detailing Dr. Tiyip’s circumstances and requested intervention, and consider adding your signature in support. Also, we ask you to share the sign-on letter widely with your colleagues to strengthen the voice of the scientific community in speaking up for academic freedom and human rights.

It is of utmost importance for us to reach out by October 19th.

To see the most current letter with the list of signatories, visit bit.ly/TashpolatTiyip. The list will be updated daily. For questions, contact onlinepetition@aag.org.

Tashpolat Tiyip online letter

Reflections on Annie Le Brun’s Sadean Materialism

I first came across the writer Annie Le Brun while looking for literature on Aimé Césaire. In her books Pour Aimé Césaire (1994) and Statue Cou Coupé (1996), she defends her fellow surrealist author’s work from being taken off the French core curriculum, to be replaced by créolité literature – a movement which criticises and tries to move beyond racial essentalism. Le Brun effectively dismisses this literary movement as postmodern levelling (she really does not like post structuralism), employed to disguise racism. The fact that she is a white woman intervening in a debate between ‘négre’ and ‘créole’ identifying writers leaves her in a difficult position, and often her accusations feel out of place, even when her observations are appropriate in places (some are definitely problematic). While I appreciate some of her provocations, including the insults hurled towards academics, I end up disagreeing with her on many points, including her disdain for identity politics, religion/spirituality, technology, or pretty much anything she considers post-modern. Although she would probably hate this comparison (as well as the medium of the internet-based blog), my experience of reading her is very much like reading Hannah Arendt: both authors share a hatred of anything ‘mass’, often resulting in a problematic ‘genius worship’, which often borders on elitism and disregards ordinary acts of resistance. Despite their drawbacks, in my view, I appreciate both writers for their sharp examinations of ideology, especially fascism.

So far, only two of Le Brun’s many books have been translated into English, ‘Reality Overload’ (a rather unimaginative critique of technology and gender relations) and ‘Sade – A Sudden Abyss’. I do recommend the book on D.A.F. de Sade as a useful set of provocations to well-meaning materialists, both of the historical/dialectical and the new materialist kind. In my reading on materialism, I keep coming across de Sade references, whether through the work of Georges Bataille or Maurice Blanchot. While most people primarily (and probably rightfully) associate de Sade with misogyny and authoritarianism (interestingly, Le Brun insists that de Sade celebrates the ‘futurity of the female form in characters such as Léonore and Justine’!), scatological obsession and bad taste, I also get the attraction to philosophers. However, approaching the original texts can take some effort, not even so much in terms of feminist and aesthetic sensibilities, but in terms of pure tediousness: they are literally a crap read. All of the sexual clichés are present, united in incredibly bad writing – although apparently not without deeper meaning. It feels a lot like slogging through François RabelaisGargantua and Pantagruel (the book that was brilliantly used against Stalin’s dialectical materialist doctrine by Mikhail Bakhtin). Annie Le Brun would probably say that postmodernism cynicism and relativism has robbed me of the ability to sense the genius of de Sade’s writing, although she herself admits about The 120 Days of Sodom (1785): “Here we have a book which begins with all the pomp of a historical novel, and which ends with the laconic formulas of simple subtraction.”

I guess, more so than de Sade’s work itself, what I do appreciate is the diverse ways in which writers and artists who have felt an affinity with de Sade have used his work.  In his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini stages de Sade’s casual and excessive abuse as a metaphor for capitalism. Georges Bataille, by contrast, draws on de Sade’s methods in his accusations against materialism: that no materialist has used materialism to its full potential. Maurice Blanchot sees in de Sade the simultaneous desire and impossibility to destroy nature – while God is easy to denounce – and even regards de Sade as the perfect writer, since his prolific output drowns out his overall message to such a degree that the reader primarily ends up experiencing the materiality of language. Blanchot considers this a liberation of thought from value. Amusingly, all of these people are dismissed throughout Le Brun’s book. I don’t think Le Brun even mentions Simone de Beauvoir who wrote the introduction to one of the editions to The 120 Days of Sodom – an author she already panned as a ‘feminist imposter’ in texts such as Lâchez tout. Le Brun basically ends up criticising other authors for not going far enough – or misunderstanding de Sade altogether. In her opinion, de Sade has been misjudged as an annoying, but provocative mad person, or as a simple attacker of sexual morals. She further finds that de Sade neither rages against nature, nor cares about ‘noble’ projects such as opposing capitalism. So what, according to Le Brun, is de Sade actually about?

The short answer: liberating nihilism (the title is a bit of a give-away). Le Brun and de Sade both deeply despise hypocrisy, especially from people who consider themselves virtuous. For them, this desire links to the projection of ideology onto the material world – whether these are fascist appeals to ‘natural law’, or religious ideas of the cosmos as a model for vice or virtue. Camille Naish, in the foreword to Sade – A Sudden Abyss, refers to this practice as ‘ideological ‘stripping’’. Indeed, Le Brun appreciates de Sade for taking both atheism and materialism to what she considers their only appropriate conclusions: as radical tools against ideology, including supposedly utopian socialist ideas (at some point, she calls this de Sade’s ‘atheist machine’). As de Sade himself puts it: “Nature, who is stranger than the moralists portray her, is constantly cascading through the dams their policies prescribe for her…” Le Brun even finds that,“from a strictly spectacular point of view, Sade’s humour corresponds to a theatrical depiction of the utter collapse of any form of representation.” This is interesting, as the collapse of representation or utter immediacy is often associated with totalitarian and, in particular, fascist ambitions, such as large scale mobilisations of affect or appeals to dumb forms of ‘natural law’. This is what the writer Bertolt Brecht tried to act against, yet Le Brun describes his attempts at “distancing” as “replacing one system of representation by another”. Here, Le Brun argues that fascists actually don’t do away with representation, but use it to run away from a reality they are not ready to face. This way, they always fail to adopt de Sade, despite his obvious appeal.

What is also not entirely clear is how de Sade makes nature both an object of intense rage and an almost non-existent object. On the one hand you have statements such as this one:

‘In all that we do, there are only offended idols and creatures, but Nature is not one of them, and Nature is the one I really want to outrage; I would like to upset its plans, to foil its proceedings, to stop the orbit of the stars, to disrupt the planets that float in space, to destroy all that serves it, to protect all that harms it, in a word, to insult the core of Nature; and I am incapable of this.’

But you also have statements such as the following one:

“Nothing is born, nothing essentially perishes, everything is but an action or reaction of matter; there are the waves of the sea which rise and fall within the mass of waters; there is perpetual motion, which has been and always will be, and whose principal agents we become, without ever suspecting it, by reason of our virtues and our vices. It is an infinite variety; thousands upon thousands of different bits of substances, appearing in all kinds of forms, annihilating themselves before becoming manifest in other forms, subsequently to dissolve and form again.”

Indeed, Le Brun starts off by pointing to de Sade’s obsession with nature as a ‘physical immensity’, while maintaining that he, in the end, ‘does not grant it any value whatsoever’. As she puts it: “the idea of nature is already neutralised before it has even been formulated, by the vigour of the motion which precedes and exceeds it.” This view maps onto both Le Brun and de Sade’s preoccupation with nothingness. In fact, the book ends with (apologies for spoilers!):

“Wandering about Paris, the whole day long, I experienced an intense feeling of having no more limits, of not being in this world, of actually being the world or rather, of sinking into everything that I was not.” (…) “How could I not be grateful to him for having shown me that within every forceful thought lies and intense way to be nothing?”

This seems to solve the odd connection between power and nothingness: one mode is the flip side of the other. Throughout the book, there are some fascinating passages which seem to prefigure, if I may draw the comparison, “new materialism”: “an ensemble where everything is representative, people and places alike, objects and words, even Aline’s little spaniel, Folichon…” (…) “the ‘assemblage of movements’ which constitute life, according to Sade.” Everything is united by the same matter-energy set-up.

To me, what is actually more interesting is the theme of “the banality of evil”. Almost sounding like Hannah Arendt again, Le Brun notes how the “continuing fascination exercised by Sade” lies in the location of his work in the “indeterminate region between monstrosity and banality.” To me, as a geographer, the arguments that Le Brun makes about this sound a lot like a critique of environmental determinism and related dodgy forms of organicism.

“It is certainly because he refuses, with all his might, the traditional allegiance of the organic and the spiritual that Sade simultaneously allows himself the redoubtable privilege of conceiving what goes on inside him in terms of earthquakes, the orbit of the sun, volcanic eruptions or continental drifts. Nothing could be more monstrous, since humanity is thereby confused with a possible form of energy, and since man becomes one mere probability of being, no better than another. But also, by the same token, nothing could be more banal: even if we have forgotten it, wasn’t everybody’s childhood haunted by a violent impression of physical dominion on a universal scale?”

This sentiment is also echoed in de Sade’s character Léonore’s exclamation: “Let us study nature; let us follow her to her furthermost boundaries; let us even work to place them further still; but never let us prescribe boundaries to nature.” In both quotations, the many claims to biological support for ideologies, most brilliantly analysed by Donna V. Jones in her book The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy, appear to be refuted by describing humans as unstable, inorganic matter-energy infrastructure. At the same time, such statements are not without problems. While such argumentation may work against dodgy vitalist claims, it also sets up a problematic mutual exclusion of the spiritual with materialism. As Erica Lagalisse writes in her new book on Occult Features of Anarchism, this apparent incommensurability is often used to relegate the spiritual outside of the “West” or “modernity” or usually both. And it is not just racialised but gendered. In fact, Le Brun makes many problematic claims about universality that would horrify postcolonial scholars (interestingly, as she writes in Statue Cou Coupé, Le Brun sees Sadean materialism embodied in the figure and actions of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture!).

Somewhat surprisingly, towards the end of the book, Le Brun suggests that de Sade, whom most people consider the absolute opposite of ethics, in fact puts forward an ‘ethics of perturbation’. By this, she means that de Sade, in his dissatisfaction with “discover[ing] man on the very brink of what negates him”. His characters “acquire, rather, a passion for momentum which suggests a perturbation of the subject, a perturbation on which the subject is actually based.” She further argues that “only perturbation permits transition to another speed. But which speed? The speed we never stop losing, the speed of the imagination, which gives man an accurate idea of time and space he has a right to claim for his desires. And that is the beginning of a moral.” Again, this may strike us as rather odd: self-assured assertion of time and space as an ethics. More modestly, she phrases it as “the relative degree of consciousness which allows one to join, or not join, in the workings of the world, and to participate in it.” She stresses that this is impossible without “some violence being done to the order of things, for only thus will we understand it”. So, how do we participate in the world with a ‘relative degree of consciousness’ without representation? And: isn’t this how we are participating in the world anyway?

What I have taken away from this book so far is that it is a fascinating ‘devil’s advocate’ position that tries to push against exuberant, but empty revolutionary claims and dumb appeals to morals. By taking an extreme position, however, it not only risks using caricatures, but, worse, fails to remain sensitive to how certain ideologies such as secularity (see the work of Erica Lagalisse and Claire Blencowe) have become so naturalised that they become false ‘neutral’ foundations or extremes. As pointed out earlier, the book is full of contradictions, some of which temporarily become resolved, only to reassert themselves later. In some ways, I find these contradictions productive, even if I have to keep cringing (including over constant referring to ‘man’ instead of ‘human, thought this may be a translation issue). For example, take this quote: “By means of this passkey of commotion, Sade brings the different world into communication and returns us to the moment of the universe. At the same time, he suggests the one means of not letting ourselves not get carried away by it.” As de Sade’s character Léonore goes on to describe this ‘means’: “as long as we submit nature to our pretty views, as long as we chain her to our loathsome prejudices, confusing them with her own voice, we shall never learn to know her: who knows if we should not run ahead of her to hear what she is trying to say?”

To me this resonates with both problematic and positive connotations. Problematic, because implies that all forms of representation conceal some sort of natural ‘truth’, and positive, because it tries to move against moralising appeals to nature that keep getting hurled, for example, against ‘queer’ people all over the world. To appreciate some of these double edged ‘means’ does not mean that I agree with them or stop being critical of them or that I think that you always need to take ‘the good with the bad’. Rather, examples such as this book help me think about my own blindspots in my theorisations, especially when it comes to ‘solutions’ that initially seem like a good ‘antidote’ to something or other. In this sense, Le Brun’s ‘ideological stripping’ works: it does less so for the dismantling of an ideology to show how fake it is. Instead, it works as a reality check for their own ‘noble’ ideas.

It also works, in my opinion, to draw attention to the key issue within materialism: the fine line between deindividuation – the main strategy of materialism – and dehumanisation. As many critics, from Sylvia Wynter to Juanita Sundberg, have pointed out, both “old” and “new” materialisms often fail to remain sensitive to human inequality or needs in their quest for better models of society. The work of D.A.F. de Sade is perhaps the best illustration of radical materialism without attention to dehumanisation. Current experimentation with materialism and ‘inhumanism’ is exploring exactly this tension right now, and taking Le Brun’s ‘Sadean materialism’ less as a model, but as a problem could be useful in terms of evaluating our own provocations. Since many recent materialist experiments have been disconcertingly appreciated and attacked across the political/theoretical spectrum (see, for example, the Paul Kingsnorth/Arcadia controversy), it is important to develop a sensitivity to the many dimensions of our experimentation, and, especially, to how they might translate into material enactments down the line.