My new article ‘We Are the World? Anthropocene Cultural Production between Geopoetics and Geopolitics‘ is now out in the ‘Geo-Social Formations and the Anthropocene’ Special Issue of Theory, Culture & Society. It was written two years ago, and should be read as the predecessor of the Geoforum article on geopoetics and geopolitics. Big thank you to Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark for inviting me to participate in this issue. Other authors include Myra J Hird and Simon Dalby.
The article is also the second in a series of three on interwar ‘cosmic’ materialisms and their implications for the present. The previous one, ‘Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality & the Instrumentalisation of Climate Change’ was also published by Theory, Culture & Society. The third one is currently under review at another journal.
The proposal of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a new geological epoch where humans represent the dominant natural force has renewed artistic interest in the ‘geopoetic’, which is mobilized by cultural producers to incite changes in personal and collective participation in planetary life and politics. This article draws attention to prior engagements with the geophysical and the political: the work of Simone Weil and of the editors of the Martinican cultural journal Tropiques, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire. Synthesizing the political and scientific shifts in human-world relationships of their time, both projects are set against oppressive or narcissistic materialisms and experiment with the image of the ‘cosmic’ to cultivate a preoccupation not (only) with a tangible materialism but with an intangible one that emphasizes process and connectivity across wide spatial and temporal scales. The writers’ movement between poetics and politics will be used to enquire what kind of socio-political work a contemporary geopoetic could potentially do.
Left to right: Margaret Byron (Acting Chair), Richard Baxter (Acting Secretary), Patricia Noxolo, Angela Last (Acting Treasurer)
Left to right: Margaret Byron, Divya Tolia-Kelly, Patricia Noxolo, Angela Last
We are currently recruiting staff and student members for a new RGS-IBG working group on race, culture and equality. The group welcomes people who want to work around issues of race, diversity and equality in the academy, and in geography as a discipline, and for people who work on race as a subject.
Key objectives include networking and sharing resources on issues such as diversifying the curriculum, improving mentoring and supporting BME people in universities (students, early career and established academics), and developing closer links and working with secondary and wider education.
Current members include Richard Baxter, Wendy Larner, Tariq Jazeel, Patricia Noxolo, Caroline Bressey, Kathryn Yusoff, Parvati Raghuram, Divya Tolia-Kelly, Margaret Byron, Kye Askins, Angela Last.
In order to join the group, you do not have to be a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers, and you can also belong to other research or working groups. However, to become established as a working group, we will need 20 RGS-IBG Fellows to undersign our proposal. We understand that many people who are involved in research or activism on race matters are also often not fellows, partly because of the society’s colonial connections, partly because of the cost involved in joining the scheme. We currently have a lot of support from the RGS-IBG to address these issues. If you are interested in joining the group, or have queries regarding the group or fellowship, please contact Richard Baxter (email@example.com).
As part of the many initiatives to show solidarity with refugees, there are various demonstrations around the UK and Europe this weekend.
London: Meeting point: 12pm, Marble Arch, for march to Westminster.
Glasgow: Meeting point: 2.30pm George Square for vigil.
Please check local forums for events and networks in your area.
From Robert Antelme ‘The Human Race’ (1957):
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?