International Human Rights Day Protests

In the next couple of months, I will be involved in some fundraisers/events that friends are organising. They are in relation to the protest in Iran and China, and two of them will involve live music and DJs – info coming soon!

Tomorrow, it’s International Human Rights Day, and I want to draw attention to a couple of them, in case you happen to be in London:

Widening audiences of academic writing: we need to talk about referencing

So many things matter about writing, and we rarely talk about them. In my research communication classes I try to address some of them: how we generate different affects through varying levels of distancing; how we can mess with reader expectations through creative argumentation styles; how we can use aesthetics in the form of fonts or images as part of the message we try to convey; how to strategically select references; how we can bend academic styles to move beyond scholasticism. The latter is a legacy of my Open University training, which emphasised accessibility, but also a more general desire to write something that moves beyond an boring assemblage of information. There are many other academics who pursue this aim of writing accessibly and poetically, and there is evidence in the books and journals that circulate beyond academia that this approach pays off.

Academic publishers also increasingly declare on their websites that they want to move away from scholastic writing style and publish more essayistic work. I assume that this is to improve sales by enhancing the overall appeal of the book or article (‘more than just information’). This desire for public appeal has been part of the publishing industry pretty much since the (re)invention of print. For example, in the foreword to Bernhard Varenius‘ 1649 Descriptio regni Japoniae (Description of the Kingdom of Japan), the geographer Martin Schwind explains how the publishing demands of the time affected the presentation of the material. Drawing attention to the book’s odd structure and exclusion of relevant material, he concludes that the publisher (Elezvir) tried to attract a wider audience and demanded a splitting of the material into two publications: one that focused on religion (a hot topic at the time and likely to attract a more general readership) and another that focused on other aspects of geography, but with an orientation towards popular interest (‘odd things about Japan’). The author (Varenius) himself justifies his selection of information and his style of delivery by arguing that readers need more than just a description of an environment: yes, it is true that those who do not know the physical specificities and relations of a place cannot adequately understand or describe a place; but also, those who only know the physical geography, without any description of the lives of people, will have an incomplete knowledge. Worse, authors who privilege technicalities “will send their listeners or readers to sleep”.

While Varenius may have confused scholars but attracted other readers with the restructuring of his material, it could be argued that changes in material alone are not going to make a difference. There is also a question of presentation. To me, it feels counter-intuitive, for example, that, despite their aspirations to widening appeal, academic publishers are not necessarily adjusting their way of producing literature. By this I mean the maintenance of an academic appearance of the work: no adjustments are made to, for example, referencing. I have to confess that, during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I absolutely loved in-text citations such as those used by the Harvard System. You didn’t have to flick to the back of the book and make sense of whatever endnote system was in operation. Neither did you have to find a tiny footnote among many others at the bottom of the page. Your reading flow was not disrupted by this kind of desperate detective work. Since publishing more of my work as part of the geopoetics discourse, however, I have found myself arguing with editors about enabling text flow. As a consequence, I have developed an obsession with referencing styles and a with eliminating in-text citations in my work. Not only does this form of referencing immediately mark work as ‘academic’; it also seems to say that this is not meant to be read as anything but a work of reference. Moreover, publishing conventions sometimes took on bizarre forms, such as the demand to include in-text citations in poetry (creating poetry with in-text citations would be quite a neat project actually, but none that I wanted to pursue at the time).

To me, the problems of in-text citations result from history of this referencing style, which derives from the sciences. In her book Evidence Explained, the historian Elizabeth Shown Mills makes this form appear rather innocent and practical. She shows that this style was developed for texts that primarily draw on published work rather than complicated sources of evidence, such as those referenced by historians. Indeed, the majority of social science and humanities based writing draws on such sources. At the same time, Mills emphasises that other styles, such as those using footnotes, have been more prevalent in the humanities, because they don’t disrupt text flow, aesthetics or even logic (see the above in-text citations in poems). I would expect referencing styles to be a major debate at publishing house meetings, if academic work wanted to ‘go public’. However, it seems that most of the social science and humanities publishers, at least those that we use for human geography writing, continue to use scientfic notation style. Why? (This is a genuine question.)

As part of my arguments with editors (who have mostly been undestanding even if they could not accommodate demands) I have been looking at recent academic work that has enjoyed wider circulation. I have especially focused on looking up work that is known for its literary qualities as well as its content. For example, I was initially quite shocked to find that literary scholar Christina Sharpe‘s book In The Wake (published with Duke University Press) is using in-text citations. My initial pessimistic interpretation mourned the fact that Sharpe probably had to surrender her writing ethos to the house style of her publisher. However, given her deliberate play with stylistic form, I began to wonder whether she deliberately plays with the referencing method, for example to emphasise the violence of ‘knowledge making’ and institutional embeddedness, or to stress the voices that shape her own. This statement from her book In the Wake seems to hint at the performance of this struggle with on-going colonial impositions: “We have been reminded by [Saidiya] Hartman and many others that the repetition of the visual, discursive, state, and other quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people does not lead to a cessation of violence, nor does it, across or within communities, lead primarily to sympathy or something like empathy. Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kinds of ethical viewing and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?” It is perhaps interesting that much of Sharpe’s writing does not require referencing, because of the autobiographical elemements. Further, the many contestations of knowledge through deliberate disruptions, e.g. ‘blacking out’ words, draw attention to the problems of knowledge presentation. (Her method of ‘blacking out’ words also made me think of the German antifascist equivalent of erasing references to fascist authors when their work is being discussed.)

Sharpe’s focus on the Middle Passage made think about the work of Michel Serres whose work is inspired by the violence of Hiroshima. In his philosophical experiments, Serres attempts to counteract the horrors facilitated by science and ‘knowledge making’ in general. This focus has not only influenced Serres deliberately associative and ‘fertilely chaotic’ style, but also his attitude towards citation. For example, he largely refuses citation in his writing, because he associates it with a display of mastery (‘I have mastered those sources’). As he explains in an interview with Bruno Latour: “an authentically philosophical book is often distinguishable from a learned book. The latter, loaded with quotes and footnotes, struts its erudition; it flourishes its credentiais in the academic milieu, brandishes its armor and its lances before its adversaries. It is a social artifact. How many philosophies are dictated solely by the preoccupation with being invulnerable to criticism? They present themselves as fortresses, usually sheltering a lobbying support group. In the wide open spaces of fear only trepidation reigns. I have come to believe that a work achieves more excellence when it cites fewer proper names. It is naked, defenseless, not lacking knowledge but saturated with secondary naïveté; not intent on being right but ardently reaching toward new intuitions. A university thesis aims at the imitable; a plain and simple work seeks the inimitable.” At the same time, Serres’ method could be accused of hiding his sources and relying of people’s expert knowledge to ‘get’ the references, much like an film-maker whose references can only be decoded by film buffs. While you can enjoy a book or film without being able to trace these references (as Serres maintains), the people who are able to, will likely trace them to iconic authors, thus maintaining the established genealogy of philosophy.

I don’t think there can ever be a satisfying approach to referencing, given the actual travels of information. It is inspiring, however, to engage with different attempts to question practices of referencing, whether for academic or non-academic audiences. In my own publications, so far, I have experimented with referencing in a limited way. Recent examples were less inspired by the work of specific authors than by the demands of a particular piece of writing. The resulting negotiations with editors have been insightful, both in terms of the origins and ingrainedness of stylistic constraints, and the potential means of subverting conventions. In most cases, I was able to find a work around my referencing issues, but I also know that I will not always be able to. Perhaps, social or time constraints will lead me to not even question my own adoption of conventions enough (I need to think more about the way I use hyperlinks, for example). It remains important for me, though, to stay with this discomfort and to see what can be done in the future. I also hope that this is a debate that not just authors, but also publishers are having, because it might actually benefit both sides.

 

 

 

 

SGGE Annual Geography Lecture: Nigel Clark

Thursday 3 November 2022, School of Geography, Geology & the Environment, University of Leicester, Lecture Theatre 2, 5.30pm

This Thursday, Professor Nigel Clark will be giving a talk entitled “Touch and Go’: Climate Futures and the Deep History of Childcare’. It is a public lecture, so everyone is welcome. You can sign up for it here. For those who cannot make it in person, there will be a Teams transmission (Meeting ID: 392 466 041 466. Passcode: dEpEPG). Here is the abstract:

“Young activists are at the forefront of a climate politics that challenges us to think anew about the energy we use and what we use it for. In the bigger picture, this raises issues about how different generations relate to each other in the context of a planet that is going through rapid and profound changes. To approach this question, I set out from a project I’m involved in that looks at how people carry their small children. From there we turn to the long, deep, history of human childcare. I am interested in the argument made by evolutionary anthropologists that human infants have evolved to attract attention and seek care not just from their mothers or fathers but from multiple potential caregivers. From a geographical and geological perspective, I’m equally curious about the way that early human co-operative childcare seems to have emerged in the context of ongoing climatic instability – amidst the rugged but fertile landscapes of the East African Rift Valley. Picture a human or ‘hominin’ infant, a million years ago, strapped to its caregiver’s back, learning to read signals in the faces and gestures of others. But also imagine this child being carried through a complex, changeable 3-D landscape, replete with plants, animals, rivers, cliffs, fires, and volcanoes. How does thinking about the evolution of human love, care and curiosity in such a world cast light on the current climate crisis, I ask, and how might it help us dream up ways of living on a damaged planet that go beyond simply surviving at all costs?”

Nigel Clark spent most of his first four decades in Aotearoa New Zealand, before coming to the UK to teach Human Geography at the Open University. He is now Chair of Social Sustainability at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre. Nigel’s work revolves around questions of what it means to situate social life on a dynamic planet, and how to respond in caring and creative ways to the variability of the Earth. He is the author of the books Inhuman Nature (2011) and (with Bronislaw Szerszynski) Planetary Social Thought: The Anthropocene Challenge to the Social Sciences (2021), and also edited (with Kathryn Yusoff) a special issue of the journal Theory, Culture & Society on ‘Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene’ (2017).

Matters of Concern: New Materialism & Environmental Determinism

Photograph: Andreas Arnold/AP. The Guardian.

This term, I am teaching a module called Histories & Philosophies of Geography that introduces students to major debates in the discipline. In my lecture on materiality, I emphasise how science studies set out to dismantle problematic ideologies such as environmental determinism or the nature-culture separation, that we discuss earlier in the module. A quote that summarises this project for me can be found in Donna Haraway‘s 1989 book ‘Primate Visions‘ (p. 15): ‘I want the readers to find an ‘elsewhere’ from which to envision a different and less hostile order of relationships among people, animals, technologies and land.’ It is a beautiful vision that questions concepts that feel hard-wired into the Western imagination. not only seeks to communicate the author’s vision, but also open up other potential pathways for others to identify their own relations. Indeed, this vision continues to inform many related projects.

Putting together the Materiality lecture helped remind me of the origins of new materialism. However, with every year that I present it, I grow more sad and concerned about the direction in which this theoretical movement is going. What started off as an intellectually challenging project that moved beyond science and technology studies is increasingly sounding like the very things it ostensibly tries to subvert. In her more recent work, for example, Haraway playfully engages with the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and while she disavows the racist foundations of his work, she ends up, as geographer Sophie Lewis has pointed out, with an excessively White view of the world that it ends crossing into White supremacy. Similarly, Bruno Latour has progressively filtered authoritarian and fascist theorists into his work, such as Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes (some great analysis of this by Benjamin Noys and Graham Harman). His latest piece ‘Is Europe’s soil changing beneath our feet?‘ is based on the work of Charles Péguy who identified as a socialist while inspiring French fascists with his brand of spiritualist nationalism. In this article, Latour not only ends up with a similar rhetoric as Nazi ‘blood and soil’ advocates; he even reintroduces the term ‘Heimat, with all the difficulties’. The promotion of this term, which represents a very specific German history of place attachment, combined with his attention to soil, would firmly situate him in the far right camp. Like Haraway, Latour tries to intellectualise away the exclusionary resonances, but remains unconvincing. Much of his argument about the Ukraine conflict as an ecological war could have been made without recourse to fascist ideas. More so than with Latour’s love of far right concepts and his half-hearted justifications, I was disturbed by the academic reactions to this piece. People were celebrating his ‘rematerialisation of the nation’ and specifically his ‘rematerialisation of Europe’. It feels as if there is only one small step from this uncritical celebration (after all, Latour vocally condemned any critique save his own) to defending ‘Fortress Europe‘.

To me, these alarming materialisations just keep accumulating. Connected to the above example is the materialisation of ‘creativity’ that is often connected to attacks on ‘critique’. As authors such as Elizabeth Grosz argue, material basis for creativity is meant to be hopeful and supportive of equality. Materialised creativity ensures that even during times of immobilisation, for example through authoritarian regimes or everyday banality, there is still a way forward. Since matter is ‘naturally’ going to get us out of any bad situation, critique is not just unnecessary, but counter-productive, because it has nothing material to offer. Unsurprisingly, this kind of rhetoric usually comes from White academics. I have witnessed more than one debate between prominent White new materialists shut down Black critics with this sort of justification. Even in day-to-day academic work life, I have experienced the desire to banish critique, justified through Latour et al: we shouldn’t criticise university management and its neoliberal impositions, critique won’t get us anywhere, we need to generate projects instead. Things get even worse when the demonisation of critique is paired with the desire for a ‘flat ontology’. Obviously, the toxic hierarchies of the world shouldn’t be discussed but can just be wished away. While this may sound like an unfair caricature, it closely reflects the reality of the debates at some academic conferences.

One reason for this persistent deviation from the original project of materialism seems to be a combination of the aforementioned Whiteness of the discourse (also pointed out by geographers such as Juanita Sundberg), but also inheritance of the transition from Marx to Nietzsche. At the beginning of the twentieth centrury, many anti-fascist, anti-colonial and anti-Stalinist authors turned to Nietzsche, either as a satirical provocation (e.g. Aimé Césaire’s Black Übermensch, Bakhtin’s subversion of diamat doctrine, Bataille’s fascism inspired anti-fascism) or as a more general supplement to Marx, often combined with the work of psychoanalist Sigmund Freud (or Henri Bergson, as explained in this excellent book by Donna V. Jones). For many Marxists who turned to Nietzsche, there was a feeling that Marx worked with idealised human needs and desires, leading to an unrealistic map for socialism. While Nietzsche clearly bent materiality to suit his desire for a new aristocracy, his observations were deemed useful as a starting point. New materialism, by contrast, takes Nietzsche’s observation about the illusion of objectivity as a starting point.

Over time, Nietzsche’s ideas became filtered through theorists such as Deleuze or Derrida, a sequence that gradually depoliticised the philosopher. While materialised creativity was celebrated, for example, more unsavoury materialisations such as that of social class were ignored. In a similar manner, Nietzschean materialism gradually de-emphasised the economic critique of Marxism. As in Nietzsche’s work, this void was filled with problematic materialisations. To me, this problem is the most apparent in Haraway’s work where she tries to solve a lot of problems through the biological register that should actually be solved through the economic one. Against this background, I feel that there needs to be more clarification around the aims versus the theoretical inheritances of new materialisms. This is not so much a matter of not using Nietzsche, but of remaining aware the politics of his work. Too many new materialist text begin by excusing hugely problematic theorists, emphasising that they are not that bad after all. This is frankly offensive to the communities who have been at the receiving end of political violence. Until this is violence is brought to the surface and discussed more seriously, new materialism will continue to fail those it claims to support. I still think that it is extremely valuable to look at material processes that tend to be overlooked through the nature-culture separation, and to tie this to a challenge of the Western worldview. At the moment, however, it looks like the search for more ‘less hostile’ relationships is taking an increasingly wrong turn.

Anthropocenes Journal

When I first got asked if I wanted to join the editorial team of a journal, my first response was ‘hell, no!’ Not only are journals a lot of work, and academics already have very little time for even the most basic activities, but it would also mean asking people to review. From previous experience, the answer to this is mostly ‘no’, so you spend weeks trying to persuade equally stressed colleagues to undertake voluntary work. I was also not sure about the journal’s title ‘Anthropocenes‘, since I had voiced my discomfort with the term and how it has become used (apparently, this is why I was asked to join). What eventually persuaded me was the insistence of the postgraduates who are involved in the journal, and the possibility of expanding my geohumanities related work. While the journal is technically active already, it is formally being launched next spring.

Anthropocenes is an interdisciplinary open access journal that focuses less on governmental or scientific ways of addressing environmental problems, and more on the ideas, practices and relations that become sidelined during the present crisis. These tend to figure mostly as silent contributors to, or manifestations of, anthropogenic environmental change. At the same time, there is a concern, as the journal introduction puts it, about ‘aloof philosophical approaches’ that seem to jar with the seriousness of what is happening. This ethos is reflected in the type of publications that are being sought. While the journal publishes ‘classic’ academic pieces, it encourages to move beyond this format.

For me, the journal also relates quite closely to the excellent Materialisms reading group, run by David Chandler (also one of the journal editors, together with Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos) and Olivia Rutazibwa, which has given space to academic and non-academic theory nerds for over a decade. I appreciate this group, because it is marked by both generosity and critique – conflicts of opinion are appreciated, as is the care about authors who made a book-length argument. I am hoping that the journal will reflect this kind of conversation. I also hope that it will make some interesting and thoughtful interventions.

My identity is my job: Messing with geographies of sexuality in/outside the classroom

There are a few moments in the last academic year that keep on coming back to me, and they all relate to gender and sexuality. The first moment took place in a discussion about PhD supervision after Geographies of Sexualities professor Gavin Brown left the department in protest. I was asked to take over two candidates who worked on the topic, despite officially being hired as an environmental geographer. The conversation started off a bit awkward, so I half-jokingly said: ‘So, you’re putting me on these teams, because of what I do in my private life…’ I was not exactly uncomfortable with this, although I did worry that the students would prefer a subject specialist, and that me taking on this role might limit the chance of a suitable replacement being hired. The reason why I do not mind this conflation of private and professional identity is that I am aware of my capacity to hold or amplify a certain space, of function as a translator in a default heteronormative space. This is also reflected in my interactions with ‘questioning’ undergraduates for whom I sometimes as a ‘sounding board’. The reason that I can be quite a safe or at least easily identifiable sounding board is because I use my identity as part of my teaching performance. This does not just include my gender and sexuality, but also other aspects of my upbringing around class and ethnicity, which I try to use as a means to challenge assumptions.

This then relates to the next moment. I inherited a lecture on ‘feminist geography’ that I immediately turned into a lecture on ‘sex’ to include gender, sex, and sexuality. I really did not want to turn this into a ‘conversion’ type session, along the lines of ‘why we all should be feminists and LGBTIQ+ friendly’. For me, this does not work to draw in the people that I want to reach. So, I begin with what is perceived as ‘hard’ geography: economics, population, geopolitics: How is land distributed in the world? Who can inherit? Who can marry? Who can inherit/gain citizenship in which country? There are always quite a few students in the classroom who have struggled with these problems or have witnessed others going through them. Others even chose Geography as a subject explicitly to grapple with these issues – they just had not thought about them as an issue of gender and sexuality. Only after showing maps, tables, historical events, photographs of protests etc do I move on to the ways in which people have resisted these legal impositions – which then translate into things such as feminist and queer theory. To me, this performance is imporant as a queer person, because it makes ‘my’ problem everyone’s problem (I use the same approach for my lectures on race). Most people are fucked over by the current methods of wealth distribution, but don’t realise how the things that they have aspired to, or protested other people from obtaining (such as heterosexual marriage), leave them off worse. Which brings me to the next anecdote.

At the moment, we have an undergraduate student, a postgraduate student and a staff member struggling with visa issues. This is unfortunately normal, but also getting worse due to UK and European hostile environments. Because the situation is getting desperate for staff and students to carry out their work, everyone, including my undergraduates, have been talking about strategic marriage to obtain rights of residence. I have a few friends who have married other friends so that they can stay in the country, and it is also a relatively common practice in the LGBTIQ+ community for community safeguarding (prevent people from being deported to almost certain death, for example), so I was not shocked by the premise – just by the scale this year. I ended up reading a brilliant article by Canadian geographer Anne-Marie D’Aoust that acerbically comments on the current UK Home Office crackdown on visa marriages, in particular its tying of marriage to a Western notion of romance (email me or the author if you can’t access the article). The scary thing is not only how the UK Home Office tries to enshrine a particular form of romance to effectively commit racial injustice, but the level into which people, including protesters against these practices, have bought into the love-marriage connection. Historically, marriages in Europe have always been legal contracts for men to obtain women and dowry as property, and to ensure that they carry biological (male) heirs. To put this crudely: marriage is the legalisation of sexual slavery for property transmission. The rather tedius (because overly didactic) film ‘The Last Duel‘ brilliantly draws out this relation, especially the final third of the film.

Because of marriage was initally an aristocratic practice, or anyone who wanted/needed to pass on property, but then the Church and the idea of romantic love came into play. There have been arguments that romantic love gave women greater leverage, but only up to a point. With the creation of nation states and borders, the state started to control people’s sexuality for its war machine and narrative of ‘internal cohesion’ (I still need to read watch this interesting round table and read the associated book!). If you look at the gender roles within citizenship laws, the technical languague barely hides how women are mainly regarded as potential rape victims, men as potential rapists. whose enemy offspring needs to be dealt with. Coming from a rather internationally composed family, I can say that my aunts, uncles and cousins have not exactly been impressed with their assigned statuses. Which kind of takes me back to the beginning of this blog post about my private life and my job. I have quite a few colleagues who completely divorce their private life from their work in order to make a point that their gender or sexual identity is not all they are, and to keep their private lives private. In my case, I prefer not to keep the distance in respect to gender and sexuality in the classroom, because of the subjects I teach, and my experience that has taught me that my performance can sometimes literally save lives. More importantly, I feel that this is also something that I am not imposing, but that I am performing as a response to discussions that are already occurring. And the fact that they are occuring gives me hope for a kinder future where there is greater clarity on geographies of relations – economic and otherwise.

Cuts, Pauses and Swerves: Stealing time to hold a space

Caesura, fermata, clinamen. Cut, pause, swerve.

Another fragment. Research leave was turned down (still understaffed), so fragments remain the method.

In the last three months, several intense conversations about punctuation took me by surprise – punctuation in the widest sense (many thanks to Xin Pan and Lewis Hatt). As a musician, I experience punctuation as a rhythmical device that orders and performs thought. I often feel like adding musical notation, especially pauses. There are many symbols for ‘rests’ or ‘silences’ in music that would look great in texts, but the fermata (𝄐) get the most excited. Originally an indication of closure of a piece of music, it became a pause of indeterminate length. Musician Don Rath Jr. has a great way of describing the fermata:

“In essence, the fermata steals time. It does not alter the notation of the score, whether by changing the time signature or by adding notes or rests to the measure. In other words no additional notes or rests are placed on the staff to compensate for the added duration to them as caused by the use of the fermata.”

The fermata steals time. I love this super power. This is what I feel I need to do right now. To steal time, To hold a space for as long as I desire. To combat feelings of powerlessness.

At the same time, the duration of the fermata is bounded. Although it extends a note ‘beyond its natural duration’, it merely functions as an intersection. It does not visibly alter the score, and the note on which it is placed is mostly held for an ‘appropriate’ amount of time, depending on factors emerging from the specific performance. One could argue, however, that the fermata alters the piece every time, though not necessarily any more than any other performed notation. Still, I keep imagining the fermata in other spaces, from text messages to gestures, or as a metaphor in geographical theory. After all, the fermata has a location as well as a duration, and this location and the space it ‘creates’ matter.

Speaking of matter: the philosopher Michel Serres loved the ‘clinamen‘. A atomic swerve that occurs ‘at no fixed place or time’. He took it from the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius who speculated about the possibility of freedom and change. For Serres, the clinamen represented hope that something is always going to shift, perhaps not even through conscious human action.

The term has been applied to other forms of ‘swerving’, such as diverging from an original influence. As a space altering movement, it could also be imagined as punctuation. Especially since punctuation is not universal, both across space and time. There are abandoned forms of punctation, and those that may never become ‘official’. A Norwegian friend recently dedicated an album to the interrobang. Dissatisfied with the expressive limitation of conventional punctuation, the French writer Hervé Bazin experimented with alternative ortography and punctuation logic. More punctuation may need to be invented.

Source: Wikipedia

Am I swerving?

One of my undergraduate students brought up the term ‘caesura‘. He felt that this was what the geographer Doreen Massey was talking about when she wanted to look for, and expand, ‘cracks in the carapace’ of our current system. The caesura was also evoked by the French theorist Michel Foucault who used it in relation to racism – an interference in whose life was deemed living or inviolable. Sometimes such cuts or cracks are not hopeful at all.

I am not sure I underestand the literary form of the caesura. I looked it up, but I have not been able to establish a meaningful relation. In music, the caesura performs a similar function to that of the fermata – they are usually shorter and can even be paired with a fermata. They are symbolised by two short strokes, often compared to rail tracks. I think of them more as bird feet on an electricity wire. Birds pausing on a deadly current – they manage to turn it into something pleasurable. Why else would they return?

I re-read a recent commentary/experiment by geographer Aya Nassar on the function of geopoetics, because of its spatial imaginary:

“And, geopoetics, thus, might be a practice
that is attuned to the political act of destabilizing
rather than shoring off this self. By splintering and
rearranging the materiality of the world, word, or
this white page, we might come to play in an open
space of multi-vocal story that does not fail to throw
the sovereign ‘I’ off.”

To play in an open space. To destabilise.

To think of how punctuation might translate to other practices. To steal time, to hold a space. To steal time to hold a space. Sometimes, this seems impossible. Sometimes it requires a pause of indeterminate length.

𝄐

PhD Studentship: The New Environmental Determinism? Transitions to far right environmentalism

This project is affiliated with the new Institute for Environmental Futures. Supervisors: Bernhard Forchtner (Media Studies), Angela Last (Geography) and Martin Phillips (Geography).

Project Reference: RI-EF-Forchtner

The project seeks to investigate the increasing prevalence of nationalist, neo-colonial and racist narratives in environmental activism in the UK. In many cases, this rhetoric emerges from self-defined ‘left’ or mainstream environmentalists who show different levels of awareness of the political orientation of their statements. These include invocations of Indigenous concepts to argue for English Indigeneity, the blaming of a ‘transnational cosmopolitan class’ for the dearth of local counter-visions (Dark Mountain, 2009), and the ‘accidental’ references to Social Darwinism by Extinction Rebellion groups (Out of the Woods, 2019). Evidence of this transition can be found at different levels such as grassroots organisations (Extinction Rebellion), prominent authors and cultural figures (Paul Kingsnorth, Morrissey) and even policy (anti-protest legislation prompted by environmental movements in particular; ‘herd immunity’ approach to Covid-19). This issue is not limited to the UK context (e.g. German Greens leaving for AfD), but remains underexamined in this country. The project seeks to address this issue in two ways: 1) by mapping concepts, practices and trajectories (e,g. transitions via concepts such as belonging, purity, indigeneity, desired authoritarian responses to environmental issues) and 2) by proposing interventions.

Complete outline and more information here. Or email me!

Hiring in the Austerity University

I am on strike this week, like many of my colleagues around the country. We are striking because of the gross pension miscalculations, as well as the grotesque working conditions in (not just) the higher education sector. No pay for half a month, but at least a brief respite from the insanity that is work. I also feel that I am on strike for another reason that academics have been discussing on Twitter, and that I have experienced as well. With the current sexual and racial harrassment cases in academia, many academics have reflected on the practices and relations that actually enable academic success. In a piece by Sara Ahmed, entitled ‘How the Culture of the University Covers Up Abuse‘, she suggests that departments have a tendency to be composed of people who have some form of prior relation, not necessarily sexually intimate, but they may include friendship or people that are known through mutual acquaintances. It is through such networks that patterns become replicated, resulting in the current employment landscape, dominiated by White middle class academics. I have seen this process in action, for example, through ‘internal only’ hires that favour people who are already known, by removing external competition. This is usually justified through policies of ‘nurturing local talent’, supporting mothers in returning to work, or simply through economic rationales (we can hire them at a lower salary than competitive external candidates). The result, however, is still ‘more of the same’. Moreover, competence becomes irrelevant, because some postgrad, postdoc or junior colleague can probably step in if things become too problematic. When you call out this practice to your local Equality, Diversity and Inclusion department, the anwer is something along the lines of ‘the process must be correct, because the HoS attended EDI training.’ As a member of the RGS-IBG RACE Working Group, it is moments such as these that have started turning my university into my field of research, rather than merely my place of employment.

But intimacy this is not the whole story, I feel. After losing three members of the department, with at least another one leaving, most of our arguments for new hires have been met with ‘economic considerations’. These considerations not only delay hires (ironically forcing research active staff to only focus on covering teaching), but actively seek to determine the direction of our research (apparently there is more money in ‘health’ than anywhere else). Looking at what I have witnessed so far, I want to ask a perhaps different question in relation to academic White middle class replication: what happens when employment decisions are taken out of the department’s hands? When the committee has no apparent relation to the candidates and purely operates by ‘economic realities’? (Or, to rephrase this, what happens when managers at a cash-strapped university are forcing the hiring of ‘predicted better returns’ who the department has no interest, or little interest in hiring?)

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At first, going by purely economic criteria this may seem like a more equitable process: we are talking about ‘pure merit’, right? The reality, though, looks different. Participating for the first time in a supposedly ‘departmental’ hiring process, the experience has been shocking. At first, everything was as expected: selection criteria are established at a joint staff meeting, senior members of staff meet, look through applications, and make a decision on who to shortlist. Everyone receives a date for the presentation, including our PhD students. We all then watched the presentations (online) and asked candidates questions. The first thing that seemed weird was that undergraduates were ‘involved’ in the hiring process. After the presentations, they got to chat with the candidates – we are still not sure why they got involved, who decided this, as the teaching staff felt that it was unethical to use them as free labour. We then had a meeting as a department to shortlist the candidates. It was a lively discussion, full of enthusiasm. This felt like a special, a bonding moment after losing well loved colleagues/supervisors/tutors who had resigned in protest over forced, politically motivated, redundancies in the Business School and other departments (aka ‘union breaking’ by indirect means). In this meeting, we had to produce an order of hiring preference, and easily agreed on the order. At the end, we were confident that we had found a great colleague and teacher, and we would also be happy with some of the other candidates, if our choices turned us down. We also knew that there were interviews the next day that might change the situation.

The interviews were, like at most institutions, a more closed affair. At Leicester, however, as well as some other universities, they take place with increasing participation from central management. We found out that only one (!) professor could represent our interests. I wasn’t the only one who was confused. I was told, that, during past hires, central management had imposed candidates on the department – usually professors of whom management expected greater financial and REF return. Apparently, management found our choice(s) too ‘risky’. But no one would tell us who ‘they’ had chosen. I was furious: only a couple of weeks ago, I had been told to take students on an international field trip during a pandemic ‘because of the NSS scores’. But if NSS scores are so important, might hiring an inspiring lecturer not be a key strategy, rather than just looking at figures? Looking at the way we cobbled together the teaching for the spring term – because replacement staff did not get recruited in time, and PGRs could not, or did not want to, fill the resulting holes – the NSS score justification felt like a massive irony. Yes, the term may turn out okay in the end, but it is at constant danger of combusting, or rather, the overworked staff is (I started getting sick last week, and am still in bed with something that isn’t Covid-19).

Who the did we hire? We still don’t know after two weeks. We only know that ‘an offer was made’, likely to someone else, because why stay silent otherwise? Are they fearing protest? Also, why are we pessimistic? So far, all the ‘parachuted’ people have been White, and some have been totally absent, only existing as names on doors. Here the results of ‘intimacies’ perhaps emerge again: White people face the least discrimination when it comes to grant income, they can feed off the established networks and perceptions. This is why our School remains, apart from one soon-retiring staff member, entirely White. The department had academics of colour on top of the list twice, and both times they were turned down by central management because of ‘economic considerations’ despite stellar CVs (it’s not that academics don’t look at this – they know the score in the HE austerity landscape). The inequalities thus perpetuate under the guise of ‘best economic decisions’, even as students of colour complain about feeling uncomfortable in the Whiteness of the department (where are your NSS concerns now?). For the new staff member, this situation can’t be comfortable either, unless they plan to be absent anyway. (Actually, their empty offices remind me of the empty luxury flats in London that solely exist for investment purposes.)

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With every such ‘strategic’ intervention to produce ‘excellence’, it becomes more apparent how much my institution, and other universities, represent a microcosm of the disaster that is the quasi-privatised university under Brexit Britain. Seen against this background, these hiring practices make sense. The neoliberal university is responsible for managing its finances, and it has to do this in line with current government policies. (This includes border policies, in turn affecting international student recruitment, which is another interesting disaster happening at mine and other universities). Mirroring the current government strategy, not just desperate, but deliberately harmful measures are taken – shock doctrine style. There is money around, but it seems to go towards the wrong ends (e.g. marketing, prestige buildings, cosmetic student experience enhancements). The measures are also conveniently reproducing another aspect of government policy: like museums and arts institutions, universities become a site where culture wars are seeing direct socio-economic implementation. This includes the axing of ‘uneconomic’ departments and research strands, especially those that might produce ‘unproductive’ opposition to the current reforms. Instead of practices that might help build a healthy and collegial research and teaching environment, a wrecking ball approach is applied to futher turn universities into debt and anxiety machines. In this environment, academics who remain invested in a model that values teaching and knowledge, and opposed to a cut throat form of economics, become calculated collateral. Postgraduate students and undergraduate students, faced with lack of care for their studies and relations with mentors, are equally collateral. This is why we are not only losing staff, but PG and UG students, especially from ‘protected characteristics’ targeted in the culture wars.

This may sound like a defence of the ‘intimacy’ model, but it is not. I do see a problem where academic ideas of ‘trust’ (who can we trust to work with and with our students) and ‘merit’ become cronyism and discrimination. But trying to to ‘regulate’ this through blunt application of metrics is not a solution: it only disguises unequal structures, or supplants them with someone else’s networks. Moreover, it depresses departments to such a degree that everyone who can leave, will leave, adding more and more twists to the spiral. The HE move into the direction of government ideology is brutal: last week the Economics and Social Research Council, fraught from its inception, was pushed one step further towards becoming part of Dominic Cummings’s DARPA/ARIA fantasy. How will this affect CVs and hires? Writing this from the position of a German academic in particular, there is a pressing question of where academics and managers make a cut off point. How much is too much? I am haunted by echoes of a time where many academics did not manage to make this cut and chose to appease an ultimately genocidal regime. The current situation in the UK may feel less extreme, but I feel like we are already past the point of ‘too much’. If you follow the cumulative effect of ‘little things’ that are being set in motion, the picture that emerges is rather bleak, if it is not met with resistance.

On the new Marco Polo series, or: how I binge-watched my way to an economic geography lecture

This summer, I fell down a Marco Polo shaped hole. Initially, I had merely been curious how the new series compared to the one with which I had grown up in the 80s: how was this specific history of exploration portrayed on TV, now? As a first contrast, the new Marco Polo series had a predominately Asian cast, including some of my favourite actors, so I was hoping for a tempering of the 80s ‘European bringer of wisdom’ narrative. My expectations in this regard were surpassed in this respect: Marco Polo turned out to be the most boring of all the characters – in fact, I skipped over a lot of his scenes. Moreover, in the new series, there was a huge power gulf between Marco and Kublai Khan. In the 80s TV series, the two often acted as if they were on the same level, or as if Marco Polo brought unknown beneficial ideas to Mongolia. Compare this scene…

With this scene, for example:

I actually ended up watching more behind the scenes interviews with writers, historians and actors than the series itself (I easily get bored with things like battles and predictable dialogue, of which there was a lot). If I was to summarise the series, it’s about medieval Mongolian politics spiced up with Spartacus-style sex scenes to keep (the non-medieval mostly non-Mongolian) viewers interested. Many recent historical spectacles, it seems, are so formulaic in this respect that each episode has a pre-determined succession of dialogue, battle scene, dialogue scene, sex scene, landscape porn, etc. (It’s maybe more something to watch at the end of term where your brain has turned into a vegetable, rather than during the summer, but my brain was already a vegetable from chronic brain so I had the adequate bandwidth.) Critics have blamed the series Game of Thrones, which I still have not watched, for this development. Wherever it came from, it did not help the series.

Having said this, although the series’ components feel unimaginative (the Hollywood orientalist sex clichés are particularly annoying), considerable effort seems to have gone into making the series not a total stereotype. From the interviews, it seemed as if quite a lot of historical research went into the making of the series, and there were ‘cultural advisors’ (what a cool job!). As I cannot realluy judge the historical accuracy, I focused more on what the series emphasised: political power plays, and especially of people who do not occupy the most favourable positions, such as women, foreigners, illegitimate heirs. Of these, I found the female stories the most compelling, partly, because they charted quite a few different strategies and gender performances. Looking at some of the historical commentary, the actual figures were even queerer than in their 21st century TV interpretation. Partly, this was probably an entertainment industry choice, partly, this may have been due to the difficulties of finding reliable information: both actors and historians talked about the difficulties of doing research on these women, because some much of women’s history, like in Europe and other parts of the world, had actively been destroyed or distorted.

I haven’t answered yet why this guilty holiday binge was useful for my teaching. Basically, I ended looking up different versions of Marco Polo, and found the above clip of Marco Polo introducing idea of paper money to Europe. While Marco Polo may not even have been a real person, he embodied the world altering transfer of knowledge between Asia and Europe, and other global relations that occurred at the time. In Europe, traders found it harder and harder to lug around tons of precious metals to undertake business transactions. In addition, gold and silver dumping from the new colonies had brought down the price of these currencies. The Chinese concept of promissory or bank notes, paired with Islamic book keeping, revolutionised European trade. It was interesting to talk about the travels of the concept, within Asia and Europe, in relation to different religions and their ethical codes, and how it became our current financial system. The story of Luca Pacioli, for example, makes for a fascinating parallel with Martin Luther and his use of vernacular language to bring about a revolution – in Pacioli’s case, an economic one.

Pacioli.jpg
Back then, when accountants had queer bohemian groupies. (Attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari – Lauwers, Luc & Willekens, Marleen: Five Hundred Years of Bookkeeping: A Portrait of Luca Pacioli,
c. 1495–1500)

This then neatly led into further financial developments such as stock markets and monopolisation, which then helped explain how trade turned into the genocidal warfare of colonialism. However, paper money was not the only novelty that emerged from China and influenced the course of colonialism. Chinese gunpowder made a similarly extensive journey after initially being conceived as a life-extending (!) potion. Not only did it allow for the development of deadly long range military weapons, but also for civil engieering that included applications such as mining and infrastructure projects such as canals and tunnels. It helped economies scale up and speed up.

Having put this material together for teaching, I had to think of anthropologist Mario Blaser‘s critique of presenting modernity as either a project to which everyone in the world contributed, or as a ‘rupturist’ narrative that specifically resists this relation, instead, favouring a ‘pluriversal’ approach. It could be argued that I wasn’t only guilty of a Marco Polo binge watch, but also of painting an overly relational world that, together, created ‘modernity’. On the other hand, I tried to emphasise how different societies repeatedly rejected innovations such as money, although they had temporarily taken it up or even developed it. This often depended on political power plays, rebellions that followed economic breakdowns and corruption, but also on other factors such as impacts of natural disasters and epidemics. These rejections also resulted in geographical ruptures, and while this may not exactly be the rupturist story that Blaser has in mind, I think they make for thought provoking examples in terms of our (dis)connection.

Poster Turandot.jpg
Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot“, on 25 April 1926 (Image: Wikipedia). The opera’s concept was based on stories about the Mongol princess Khutulun.

Here, the changing entertainment-focused narratives are as interesting as their academic counterparts, because the shift to an entertainment-focused genre again highlights globalised economics. The recent ‘discovery’ of previously marginalised audiences and tastes by the entertainment industry (shocker: globalised societies may have globalised tastes/economies!) can pretty safely be blamed for the present shape of Marco Polo: the Asian cast, the complex female characters of varying ages, the queer content etc (commentary by a more qualified media theorist in this article). It’s interesting to go even further back and look at examples of how the Europe-China/Mongolia relationship has been portrayed in entertainment genres, for example, Giacomo Puccini’s operat ‘Turandot‘. So, even if Marco Polo could be considered mainstream ‘trash’, no matter in which iteration, it is still an educational mirror that reflects current power relations in a multitude of dimensions. (Did I just write an overly long binge-watching justification?!)