Striking – again. Or: why we need a research boycott

We’re still in the midst of a pandemic. My colleagues and I have been teaching for nearly three terms under these conditions. Most of us have not even met the first year students. No one has had a break since the beginning of March, and while people are grateful just to have a job at all during this time, it has been very exhausting, especially for those with caring responsibilities. The last two terms have been extremely tough for me, because I fell ill during the summer, thankfully not covid, but I continue to have some rather painful health problems. Zooming out to the national level, the government has not supported universities and, in fact, cut funding. As a response, many universities lured students back on campus and into student accommodation, in order to keep themselves afloat. The funding cuts, rather than giving academics respite from wasting time on grant applications, have introduced additional pressures to get money into departments and projects, pushing many colleagues and their international project partners over the edge. On top of all this, my university, alongside quite a few other universities, has announced compulsory redundancies.

Following the announcement, it has been rather disconcerting to watch back and forth between the union, university management and individual commentary. Ostensibly to save money and ‘shape’ the institution for research and teaching ‘excellence’, the cuts don’t add up, especially not in the long term. And it is not just academics who are at risk but also all of the people who have supported students and academics through the pandemic: librarians, security guards, IT staff, people at Leicester Learning Institute who retrained us for online teaching, and who continue to provide vital support.

Yes, we all know about the argument is that unprofitable departments or subject areas need to go, like they have done at many universities already. Arts, humanities and social science subject are the obvious targets, as most recently seen at London South Bank University, and so are library budgets (‘students don’t read any more’) et cetera. This type of reasoning (non-experimental science = dead weight) is brutal and unacceptable, but at least the motives are comparably transparent (though no one talks about excessive salary increases for university managers who then dish out huge consultancy fees for marketing etc). It turns out that, in many mass redundancy cases across the UK, decisions are not made by numbers, but by political motivation. Critical approaches to history, econonomics and environment are seen as a threat, even if this means letting go of high achieving academics, their international reputation and research income. Predictably, it is union leaders that are being targeted.

My own university has become an increasingly popularised example of this institutional hellscape. As already indicated, the University Leicester is not alone in pursuing such tactics, but it has certainly been one of the crassest examples of self-destructive reasoning. Years of spending money on unnecessary building projects are now apparently in the process solved by witch hunts against academics (particularly at the Business School) describing their approach as ‘critical analysis’. Even more worryingly, sham justficiations such as ‘decolonising the university’ by getting rid of ‘white’ subjects have been put forward, without any of the people involved having any investment in, and understanding of, such work. Ironically, many compulsory redundancy cases are made against REF stars and staff that are popular with students. The last time such measures were taken, the university sank both in research and teaching ratings. Obviously, this time, things are surely going to work out well.

Statement by Leicester UCU’s Deirdre O’Sullivan

One problem that academics are facing when arguing against the current measures is the difficulty to use reasoning against the twisted mind acrobatics of management. Yes, the bullshit justifications and re-branding campaigns can be pointed out on social media, in letters and in newspapers – after all, exposure is still a valid tactic that also provides therapeutic relief. At the same time, if deliberate misuse of reason is the goal, is this maybe not also a tactic to use ourselves?

So far, academics have been very good at giving in to the pressure of justifying their place withing the institution: not only have they dutifully obtained funding, but also turned themselves into a constant advertising channel for student recruitment – the twin band aids of the neoliberal university. It has become our job to plug financial holes at any cost, even if this means abandoning research or teaching. People are effectively advanced through the system by the amount of money they feed back into it – in many places you cannot be promoted without an active grant, a substantial cohort of PhD students, and a six figure minimum research income, even in the humanities.

However, as the current slashing of jobs and departments has vividly reinforced, it does not seem to matter whether you are an internationally famous professor and ‘REF star’ or not – you still just as easily end up as collateral. There is not point of exhausting yourself in trying to keep your department alive, or to justify your presence. The best you can do is to try and focus on what you actually want to do, even though that is difficult to achieve in the current environment. Perhaps even to explicitly go the opposite way and save vital energy for yourself and your colleagues by not applying for unnecessary funding, not publishing in REF-friendly venues, and pushing an agenda of critical and ethical (!) humanities research. This is especially important in a period of insane funding pressures where senior academics have been giving out grants to the same people all over.

What should really be done, rather than a teaching or admin boycott, is a research boykott. We don’t just need to get away from the expectation that we are there to plug impossibly large financial holes. We also need to get away from pressuring each other into performing this role, into ‘doing our bit’ to save the institution. This is not a new demand, but one that bears repeating. We can neither save the institution, nor our departments, nor ourselves this way. I know there is research that actually needs funding, and I don’t want to criticise anyone going for that. But, having worked as a grant reviewer, it is incredible to see the amount of nonsense that colleagues are forced to throw together just to save their jobs at their institutions. And then we all have to review these applications and waste more time and energy, and get more depressed over the state of the system, and eventually get fired even if we hit all the targets. How much more can we fuck ourselves up serving a system that rewards… nothing really? Is this how we want future generations of academics to work?

Institute of the Cosmos (IOTC) Call For Papers

This e-flux call may be of interest to readers:

Cosmic Bulletin 2021
Call for papers 
The Institute of the Cosmos announces a call for papers for publication in the 2021 edition of the Cosmic Bulletin: an online journal influenced by the philosophy of Russian cosmism and its historical and contemporary manifestations. The Cosmic Bulletin seeks to propagate a series of radical imaginaries informed by a multitude of knowledge systems and sustained by collective experimentation.The 2021 edition takes as its starting point Aleksander Svyatogor’s anarchist affirmation against localism: “If death (a restriction in time) is the primary root of evil in the life of the individual and society, then its secondary root is caused by a restriction in space, which is to say, the primary position accorded by one’s home, hometown, native land or state, and race. At the end of the day, even internationalism could be construed merely as a limitation in terms of the universe.”In a 1918 pan-anarchist manifesto, brothers Abba and Wolf Gordin charged five societal institutions with humanity’s oppression: capitalism, the state, colonialism, the family unit, and the school. The remedies for this suffering, as well as for Svyatogor’s conception of internationalism, are inherently cosmist. A politics of interplanetarism would necessitate the abolition of the infrastructures that perpetuate statist violence and carceral logics.To this end, our inquiries are ever-expanding:What does total liberation look like beyond the confines of space and time? How might we transcend socialization that privileges authoritarianism, tribalism, and gender binaries? Where is the boundary between the safe haven of interplanetarism and the fantasy of escapism? How might a radical politics of care redefine the science and technology of utopian world-building? What exactly does emancipation demand? And to what extent can we apply these urgent intellectual investigations to the present?We welcome all scholars, artists, activists, and autodidacts in all fields to contribute original studies, critical essays, theory and fiction pieces, and other cross-genre forms of experimental writing. We look forward to traveling together through spatio-temporal wormholes, loopholes, and rabbit holes.The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2021. Please email text as a Microsoft Word document to cosmos@e-flux.comCosmic Bulletin 2021 is co-edited by Anton Vidokle and Hallie Ayres.
The Institute of the Cosmos is a collective research project initiated by Arseny Zhilyaev and Anton Vidokle. The Cosmic Bulletin is the publishing platform of the Institute. The inaugural 2020 edition of the Bulletin, edited by Marina Simakova, can be found here.Want to learn more? Ongoing timeline of cosmism here, and e-flux journal on Russian cosmism here.

Image taken from the film Aelita, Queen of Mars, 1924.

Geopoetics in Practice book launch


The Geopoetics in Practice book was virtually launched this Monday. Many thanks to the editors, organisers, co-authors and readers/listeners! You can listen to the recording here. Here is a copy of my contribution.

The border is surrounded by a strip of grass.
Although we can hear shots, the grass tells us
That there is an ordinary place
Behind the fence.

This is how my chapter starts. I was actually at this very place two Sundays ago. I hadn’t planned on going there – my parents just wanted to go for a walk, and I joined them. The strip is still there, and so are the watchtowers. It is a popular walking route – people drive there from the surrounding area. While people walk, they talk about the border, and how it affected not just humans, but also plants, animals and the river. They also eat a lot of cake, served, in our case, with a quote by Alexander von Humboldt: ‘the most dangerous world view is that of people who have not seen the world’. The waitress apologises for the corniness and gives us a track and trace form. We smile, fill in the form and drive back home.

In the map collection at my university, there is a drawer labelled ‘universe’. I used to see it every day, since it was temporarily moved to our staff room. When you opened the drawer, it contained maps of Europe: ‘Europe from Space’, ‘Who runs the European community?’ and even an oil rig chart with two bold prints across that read ‘anchoring prohibited’. According to our cartographers, this drawer probably once contained star charts, but, in the process of several relocations, these have ended up elsewhere.

When I first opened the drawer, its contents were so disappointing that I did not bother with it for a while. In times of Brexit, who wants to see outdated maps of Europe? On a second attempt, however, I found the drawer more intriguing and its symbolism appropriate: after all, Europe likes to think of itself as ‘universal’. Even the ‘anchoring prohibited’ signs suddenly made sense, in light of the constant reinforcements of ‘Fortress Europe’, across the Mediterranean and beyond. What might we want to put in this drawer instead?

I write when I am confused, disturbed or angry. A lot of my writing begins as poetry and then turns into prose. I keep the poetry when I feel that it does the better job – that of amplifying questions. The chapter that I wrote began with the question of why I get angry at certain representations of landscapes: as an antidote to modern society, an apparently stable referent that one that can unlock simply through contemplation.

But there are always multiple landscapes within, with different sorts of connections. I am thinking of Primo Levi’s story ‘Carbon’ that charts the journey of an atom. I am thinking of Ingrid Pollard’s photographs of herself sitting in the Lake District wearing silver shoes, and which reminds me of a family photo. I am also thinking of my own silver shoes with whom I walked through the national park in which I grew up, an area of outstanding beauty, simultaneously the site of massive deforestation and overgrazing.

It was the first nature reserve in Germany, founded by a metropolitan writer and poet who saw in this landscape an ideal, against the city’s cosmopolitanism which he so hated. He started a movement that turned hunters into rangers, turning killing into conservation. A nationalist and anti-Semite, his books were mandatory reading for Hitler Youth and inspired policies of ‘blood and soil’. There are still 200 memorials to his name, across Europe. To me they embody the fact that I am hearing the same kind of poetry again.

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


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:


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.

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.

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 is 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 and 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!