‘Blow up my town’ @ Market Gallery, Glasgow

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Image: Bhanu Kapil, Performance for Ban at Pratt Institute, New York, April, 2013

An interesting discussion is taking place in Glasgow on Sunday 22 January 2017. Entitled “Blow up my town: Perspectives on self-abolition, the body, and transgression”, it is a one-off “reading/group/discussion” that takes inspiration from artists and writers such as Chantal Akerman, Bhanu Kapil, Jack Halberstam, Nathaniel Mackey, Pipilotti Rist and Marina Vishmidt. They seem to be fully booked, but the website already has some interesting materials that may be interesting to readers. I’ve been told that the website will continue as a resource – and hopefully as a platform for future events!

RGS-IBG 2017 RACE Working Group Call for Sessions

The Race, Culture and Equality (RACE) Working Group would like to invite proposals for sessions to be sponsored by RACE at the RGS-IBG annual conference 2017 titled ‘Decolonizing geographical knowledges: opening up geography to the world’. A key objective of the RACE Working Group of the RGS-IBG is to promote scholarship on topics of racial inequality, colonization, decolonization and whiteness, and to encourage dialogue on race that advances academic knowledge and progressive practices. The RACE Working Group therefore welcomes proposals on these topics more generally, but we strongly encourage proposals that critically and creatively engage with these topics in relation to the conference theme specifically, for example; by exploring the limitations, contradictions and injustices of organising a conference on the topic of decolonization in western neoliberal academic settings; and/or by examining the contemporary co-option of decolonial thinking in a range of settings. We are also interested in sponsoring sessions and activities by activists and scholar-activists, as well as artists and scholar-artists, that propose and explore practical initiatives for dismantling colonial processes within the discipline, within the university system, and within the RGS-IBG.

Please email proposals to raceworkinggroup@gmail.com by 22 January 2017. Submissions should include a title, an abstract (max 250 words), the format of the session or activity, the number of timeslots requested (if applicable), and name(s) and affiliation(s) of the organizers. The guidelines for organising sessions can be found here http://tinyurl.com/pdrjfek. We will endeavor to respond to organizers by the end of January 2017.

  1. For more on decolonization, please see Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), p. 1-40.

Race and the Academy events at Warwick

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Image source: Warwick Anti-Racism Society

Two events coming up at Warwick (where I currently work) that may be of interest to readers. They are organised by the Warwick Anti-Racism Society.

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Antinormalisation: Academic Action in the Political Present

The Role of the Academic in the Current Political Context: Working Against Normalisation

University of Warwick OC1.01 The Oculus
5-7pm

Recent political events have taken a dangerous turn: white supremacist actors are taking up prominent positions within formal politics, while far-right groups in society are becoming increasingly emboldened, vocal, and violent.

Within academia itself, however, established technologies of exclusion — including Prevent, migration monitoring, and the exploitation of racialised labour — have already been normalised by our institutions. How might these existing structures articulate in oppressive ways with a broader renewed politics of exclusion?

In this critical context, this event draws together members of the Warwick community in order to discuss, and commit to, ways of counteracting the normalisation of white supremacist and fascist politics. We will use the session to work towards a collective statement of purpose setting out a series of common commitments to building solidarity with students and protecting our intellectual environment in the present context.

Gurminder K. Bhambra, Shirin Rai, Pablo Mukherjee, Goldie Osuri, Lara Choksey, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Kathryn Medien, Nicola Pratt, and other members of the Warwick community will make interventions in order to build the conversation.

There will be a planning meeting open to students and staff immediately following this event, from 7-8pm, in the same room (OC1.01). We’ll discuss the following:

1. A BME staff-student network
2. A Race Equality pressure group with staff from across the university
3. Responding to racist incidents on campus.

Abstract

Political shifts around the world are becoming increasingly indicative of the onset of a global fascist era. In the US, the election of Donald Trump has come to pass after a campaign period in which he referenced his own sexual violence, labelled Mexicans as ‘rapists’, and pledged to collate a register of, deny entry to, and deport Muslims on the basis of their faith. Prominent white supremacists have already been appointed to the White House, while far-right groups, fortified by their access to mainstream politics, have become more prominent and outspoken.
Meanwhile, the UK has witnessed the recent political murder of MP and anti-racist campaigner Jo Cox by a white supremacist connected to far-right networks, while the post-Brexit context has been marked by widespread racist and xenophobic violence and abuse brought to bear against persons racialised as ‘non-native’.
Further, regimes in Turkey, India, and the Philippines are intensifying racial, ethnic or religious forms of exclusion and increasingly using violence and other means of oppression against their own people.
In parallel to, and in support of, fascist politics at the formal level, neo-nazi (so-called ‘alt-right’) supremacist movements are gathering strength globally and becoming more active online, on our campuses, and in other social spaces.

As members of the Warwick community, we do not take these grave social and political changes lightly and we are particularly concerned about the impact of fascistic actions and discourses on our own students. This event is therefore intended to provide a platform for us to confront our own responsibilities, both as citizens and academics, in this political moment. It will also be an opportunity to consider the technologies of exclusion which have already been normalised in our institutions — from the Prevent strategy to the monitoring of migrants — and to consider how these might be further countered.

During this session we will address the following questions:

What is the role of the academic, and the university more broadly, in an age of resurgent white supremacy?
In what ways can we show support and solidarity to our students of colour, migrants, and other targeted minorities as racist discourses and actions become ever more prominent in the public domain?
How can we collectively stand together to reject the fascist, racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic politics and sentiment which is gathering pace?
What can we do to resist the normalisation of the politics of exclusion?
How can we reconsider concepts such as no-platforming, non-cooperation, anti-normalisation, academic freedom, and freedom of speech in the urgent context of the rise of deadly political ideologies?
How can we construct spaces of sanctuary within our own flawed institution for students who feel as though they are in danger?
How can we counter those technologies of exclusion which have already been normalised?

This event is organised by Lisa Tilley (PAIS)

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Racism on Campus: The BME Attainment Gap in Higher Education

The Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Attainment Gap in UK Higher Education: A Student-Staff Roundtable

Wednesday 18th January
OC1.06 (Oculus Building)
4-6pm

This event invites students and staff to participate in a roundtable on the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) attainment gap in UK Higher Education. National data suggests that BME students routinely get lower grades than their white peers even when they enter on the same grades. Why does this occur? What are the barriers that BME students face in attaining higher grades? What practices at universities could support a fair, equitable system? Is blind-marking an effective insurance against institutional bias? What are the processes available to students who experience institutional discrimination?

This event will provide a forum for students and staff to learn about the BME attainment gap and to discuss ways of addressing it.

With Robbie Shilliam (QMUL) and Paul Warmington (Warwick), chaired by Gurminder Bhambra (Warwick).

This is the second event in the ‘Racism on Campus’ roundtable series, and is co-hosted by Warwick Anti-Racism Society. All welcome.

“I don’t think they’re coming back”: Abandoning ‘reality’ in ‘Adore’

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A few months ago, I watched the film Adore (also known as Adoration, Two Mothers, Perfect Mothers etc – glad I’m not the only one struggling with titles!) by Anne Fontaine. The film is based on a story by Doris Lessing and was released in 2013. It had totally slipped under my radar, and I’m not even sure I would have sought it out at the cinema, but, like many accidental finds, it helped me to process some things for my writing, and I find myself going back to it again and again. What makes the film so compelling for me, most of all, is that it allows for so many different interpretations.

Reduced to its basic story line (spoiler alert!), the film is about two women, Roz and Lil, who have been close friends since they were children. They eventually got married and each had a son. Lil’s husband dies at the beginning of the film, when Ian is still a child. The film then zooms to the present where both women are still very close, so close that Roz’ husband Harold feels excluded from their relationship. When Harold is offered a great career opportunity in Sydney and wants to move, Roz refuses to come with him to stay with Lil and their more remote Australian seaside paradise. Lil’s son Ian ends up falling in love with Roz, and they end up sleeping together. They get found out by Roz’ son Tom, who immediately takes revenge by seducing Lil. Both couples end up forming loving relationships, and Roz eventually divorces her husband, without telling him about Ian. After a while, the men start university and jobs, and the women prepare themselves for being left by them. At the same time, they try to prepare the young men for finding a more normal life with younger women, despite the pain this will cause them. Reluctantly, the men end up doing so and even start families, but eventually (it’s more complicated than that), they end up back with the two older women.

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Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright)

After the film, I was curious what other reviewers thought of it. I expected there to be a lot of comments on the age and look of the lead actresses (Robin Wright and Naomi Watts): whether they were appropriately cast, how they looked for their age, and the usual ageism that women tend to face. Of course, I did not have to look far. Reviewers reduced the film to a story of ‘wish fulfilment’ of aging women, who apparently would never end up with such young lovers in real life, or at least would not be able to get away with that level of ease and glamour. As one reviewer stated:

“…let’s applaud these two insanely talented actresses for gamely lending real vulnerability to these broken, fantastical creatures — but it’s a catastrophic one, because it threatens to bring Adore into the real world, and that’s not a realm where this story can survive.”

In contrast with the reality strugglers, other reviewers struggled with bonding issues:

“However, for a story with so much feeling, there’s surprisingly little emotional resonance in “Adore.” There’s heat and passion enough to make the innocent blush. We were struck by the beauty, both of the setting as well as the characters (we would gladly trade Nicolas Winding Refn retiring from film in exchange for Wright’s beauty secrets), but we didn’t connect with the characters. We weren’t sure where this film—that at times feels like a classical tragedy—would ultimately take its characters, but we also didn’t really care. By treating its central issue as a relative non-issue, “Adore” works to distance itself from its audience. We wanted to care far more than we actually did.”

Predictably, many reviewers were upset about the lack of critical engagement with the potential surrogate lesbian/oedipal/etc relationship. The film was aestheticizing and apparently celebrating something that would normally be deemed an abusive or at least asymmetric relationship:

“It is worth noting that the same movie about a couple of dads sleeping with each other’s 20-year-old daughters would need, at a minimum, to confront the ickiness of the situation. Really, such a movie would be unlikely to make it into theaters, in spite of the commonness of real-life relationships between older men and younger women.”

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Ian (Xavier Samuel) flirts with Roz

What surprised me was the lack of references to films such as The Dreamers or Heavenly Creatures. While many reviewers diagnosed a life set in a ‘bubble’ or an unhealthily close relationship, no one cared to make links to these familiar film tropes, and how these were handled – and, one could argue, subverted in Adore.

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Scene from The Dreamers (Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel)

In The Dreamers, the three youngsters, too, create their own bubble that enables their incestuous and quasi-incestuous relations and revolutionary fantasies. When the bubble is literally burst by a brick being thrown through a window by student protesters, the dreamers join the protest, but, coming from a different reality, they engage in extreme behaviour that leads the protests to escalate. In Adore, the characters’ bubble has basically been classified as a privileged middle class paradise that enables the prolonged fulfilment of a transgressive sexual fantasy. Yet at the same time, the film’s unflattering portrayal of the alternative ‘normal life’ seems to ask: who is actually living in a bubble? The two women and their sons who are having an unconventional relationship, or everyone else who insists that the social norm of the nuclear family or of the couple with ‘appropriate’ age difference is desirable?

The ‘other bubble’ is obviously very powerful. Ian and Tom, the two sons, are pushed out of their paradise, half by the two women who don’t want their lovers to be socially disadvantaged, half by the force of social dynamics. Tom succumbs to the pressure first, after a woman (his future wife Mary) suggests that he might be gay. Yet he is also the first to break down and lead a double life with Lil. Ian continues to fight for Roz who wants to end the relationship both for his and Lil’s sake. When he has a one-night stand out of frustration and revenge (with his future wife Hannah), the unprotected sex results in pregnancy, also trapping him in the correct narrative. However, when he finds out that Tom is sleeping with Lil again, he immediately exits his prison, and confronts both wives with the truth. Horrified, the Mary and Hannah leave with the children for good, exorcised like a bad nightmare. While this behaviour may seem reckless on part of the men, their wives’ subservience to the normativity bubble, including their desire to keep their children firmly inside, feels equally disturbing, in fact, so disturbing, that one feels relieved when the two sons get back together with each other’s mothers.

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Marriage of Tom und Mary (Jessica Tovey)

It is also interesting how Adore handles the ‘scary intimacy between women’ trope. Heavenly Creatures is a key example of this genre. It shows how a close female relationship is pathologised, instead of the circumstances that give rise to the fantasy world that the girls create as a coping mechanism. Especially close female relationships have become pathologised in film, from predatory lesbians to the seemingly inevitable death of Thelma and Louise. While films such Heavenly Creatures usually show what gives rise to close relationships and the unhappy fate of the people involved in them, they also end up reinforcing the belief that great intimacy results in insanity, isolation and overall negativity. Intimacy is threatening through its self-sufficiency and refusal to submit to an outside.

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Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet

In Adore, Lil is pursued by a male colleague, and, to fend him off, Roz insinuates that they are a lesbian couple. The women know that this is the easiest explanation, because people have been wondering about their ‘unnatural’ closeness for a long time, and lesbianism is the most natural diffusion of this tension. People would continue to be disturbed by any alternative intimacy. It is rather amusing for the viewer that the women prefer to take on the stigma of homosexuality than to publicly admit to their actual heterosexual relationships or extremely close friendship. Again, the characters’ recognition of the different ‘bubbles’ plays into the handling of the situation: the outside bubble is kept intact to pass as ‘normal’ inside of it and to protect the alternative at the same time. This way, no harm is done either way. The women know too well how entrenched the other bubble is to attempt to engage with it – after all, their relationship has been under constant scrutiny, and it does not take much to extrapolate from it – and perhaps they also don’t care enough, since they have learnt to manage it well enough with little energy. (Here, the film does the exact opposite as ‘We need to talk about Kevin‘, which has a similar ‘bubble’ theme).

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Saul (Gary Sweet) asks Lil out while Roz watches on

One could argue that, because of such lack of confrontation, Adore is a very apolitical film. Despite major transgressions, no one attempts to change particular norms or make a critical standpoint. It’s basically four hot people with an age difference making out in a beautiful setting. On the other hand, the film’s strong aestheticisation precisely functions to create ambiguity and confronts the viewers with their own normativity. Is it okay that the two women sleep with each other’s sons, as everyone seems to enjoy it so much (including the viewer)? Is it responsible to enter normative relationships without being convinced by them and hurting others in the process? Like Roz and Lil, the viewers first have to acknowledge that they are shaped by the same norms as the ‘outside bubble’, and then have to ask themselves how far they are willing to move away from them, and how public they would be prepared to be about it. This does not have to be something as drastic as sleeping with your best friend’s kid, as already minor transgressions such as childlessness or older women’s sexual confidence are policed quite heavily. In this sense, if Adore is seen as a fantasy, then it is perhaps due to the viewers’ own limitation of their social imagination.

Post-Brexit immigration and EU privilege

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from the home office that my application for a permanent residence card – a now necessary pre-step to naturalisation, even for EU citizens – had been unsuccessful. My first reaction was actually a loud laugh at the absurdity of it all. Not only was this form unnecessary in the first place, because EU citizens already have the right of permanent residence, but the grounds on which the application had been rejected, especially after having lived and worked in the UK for more than 18 years, seemed utterly ridiculous.

Since Brexit, EU citizens have been complaining on and offline about the ‘abuse’ they are now suffering at the hands of the British government. It is not my intention to participate in this public display of self-pity and anxiety. In fact, I am rather appalled by it. While I don’t want to diminish the experience of individual discomfort, what EU citizens in the UK are experiencing is merely a soft taste of what other immigrants, especially if non-white/poor etc, have been facing over a much longer period. I am very aware that I was able to cynically laugh at this rejection letter because I know (or feel) I have the right to be in the UK – a ‘right’ that I gained essentially through exclusionary politics and dubious economic considerations.

Moreover, xenophobic immigration regulation is not a phenomenon that came out of nowhere and is limited to the UK – it just hasn’t happen to you yet. In a way, I am relieved that EU immigrants have finally been shaken out of their carefree state that has hindered us in taking initiative on immigration matters that concern ‘others’. Even if you think you have empathy with immigrants, have donated money/signed petitions, or have, like myself, experienced the deportation of friends and colleagues on mind-blowingly absurd evidence, it is a different matter to find yourself in a similar sort of situation, or at least the (real or imagined) prospect of it.

At present, there are a number of help pages that offer both practical advice and critique from a legal perspective such as this one. Universities, and other businesses, are have also become frustrated about the amount of visa and permanent residence rejections their staff are facing, and have started to assemble legal teams, to save costs and reputation. What I am hoping, however, is that the current responses will not just entail anxious searches for pricey legal assistance – basically, those amount to individualised band aid responses that still come out of a position of privilege and could even fuel the immigration industry, thus making things worse for others. What has been needed for a long time is co-organisation with other immigrants and UK citizens against UK (and hopefully not just UK – this is a wider pattern) immigration policies and other normalisations of (white) nationalism. (My white British housemate, coincidentally, has been threatened with redundancy after refusing to instill ‘British values’ – now apparently mandatory ‘to increase job prospects in the British economy’ – in his adult education centre oil painting classes.) Please post information on initiatives, events, commentaries etc in the comments section.

In the meantime, for fellow applicants who are seeking to apply for permanent residence/naturalisation, it may be important to know that much of the information the home office supplies you with in preparation of your application is simply false or misleading. Here are some examples:

  • On the website it says that your documents will be returned within 10 days. This is not true. It will take at least 6-8 months. Even if you ask for your passport to be returned, this will take at least two more weeks. Get a second passport or ID card, if you can. Try not to send in your driving licence either if you need it in the next few months.
  • You will not receive an acknowledgment of the receipt of your documents until about 2 months after you have submitted your application. The processing fee, however, will be immediately deducted upon the home office receiving your application. This is the only way you can tell that your documents are safe(ish).
  • In the guidance notes and in the email you will receive from the home office, it will tell you that, if they require any further information for your application, they will contact you. They will not. Instead, they reject your application straight away, if even a tiny piece of evidence is missing, no matter how long you have been living in the UK.
  • There will be many cases where you have the evidence, but you don’t want to supply it. This includes documents that are hard to get hold of or need to be translated against a hefty fee (hospital reports, evidence of comprehensive health insurance while studying). There are ways around it, especially if you have been in the UK for a long time, but these are also not clear. Seek legal advice at a free local service or through your employer. Don’t fuel the immigration industry with more money!
  • The evidence you need to submit is very unclear. For instance, they did not accept my work contract, which clearly states how much I will earn over the next three years, as evidence that I was in work. Apparently, there is an undisclosed list of documents that the ones you have submitted are checked against. Not even lawyers can make sense of this, so some have started calling upon the government to at least make things clearer.
  • You will be able to reapply. I didn’t have the time to figure out the appeal process (deadlines!), so this is what I will be doing at some point. Looking at the amount of work it takes you to fill in the form, but also the amount of work it takes the home office to process your form, this cannot be a money-making exercise (the fee is about £65). The process is more likely designed as a means of demoralisation. If you experience anxiety, speak to as many people as possible: friends, people at your local hangout (pub, café), your MP, pressure groups. This will help relieve pressure, make the issue more public, and hopefully lead to mobilisation. Of course, there is the danger that you also help spread anxiety, but not saying anything at all seems definitely worse. At the same time, please be sensitive to people who are in a less privileged position.

For reference, here is a partially anonymised scan of my rejection letter from the home office.

Please note that this blog post may be amended as more information comes in.

New article in EPD on geography & matter


Image: ‘Crowd, Isolated on White’ (Leontura/Getty Images)

This morning, my latest article on geography and matter was published by Environment & Planning D: Society and Space. There are two kinds of discomforts that I am processing in this article: the lack of dialogue on the role of matter between followers of historical and new materialism, and my conflicted relationship with the work of Hannah Arendt. I had the feeling that the two problems were related, so I went ahead to see where it took me, starting with channelling the many animated conversation that I have had with people at workshops and conferences. I ended up somewhere different than expected, but with one thing I was right: it had to do with the way we make cuts between the material and supposedly non-material world. The result is called ‘Re-reading Worldliness: Hannah Arendt and the Question of Matter‘. If you do not have access to the journal, please send me an email. It is also available for free on the journal website until 12 September.

Abstract

Both new and historical materialisms have attracted a reputation for leading to ‘bad politics’. Historical materialisms have been accused of reducing too much to material relations and their production, whereas new materialisms have been accused of avoiding politics completely. This article reads the critique directed at materialisms against Hannah Arendt’s exceptional distrust of matter. Focusing on her concept of ‘worldliness’, it grapples with the question ‘why do we need an attention to matter in the first place?’ The attempted re-reading takes place through a feminist and postcolonial lens that draws out the contributions and failures of Arendt’s (anti)materialist framework in its banishing of matter from politics. Arendt’s focus on the prevention of dehumanisation further serves as a means to discuss materialism’s risk in negotiating the tension between deindividuation and dehumanisation.

‘Is it a race thing or a lady thing?’ – the new Ghostbusters and the Academy

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Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap

When I first saw the announcement and trailer for the new Ghostbusters film, I thought I would hate it. Promoted as a film that would get girls interested in science, it seemed to reflect the usual blindness of institutional feminism to race and class. As the script itself puts it: ‘three scientists – plus Patty’. After the academic qualifications of Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) were written back out of the script of the 1984 film – no one knew he was actually a black superscientist – you would hope that the new film would be different, but it is not. On the other hand, it is not the trainwreck that I expected it to be – on the contrary.

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Image: ‘Guilty as charged!’

Many reviewers have complained that the ‘flipping’ of Ghostbusters is shallow and has failed to introduce a women’s perspective. I think the opposite is the case. In fact, the failure to recognise the female perspective is indicative of the ubiquitous white male blindness to processes of exclusion routinely faced by women and other ‘minorities’. Like the Ghostbusters’ assistant Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), white men are often oblivious to why the world works for them and why their gender or race isn’t an issue. This is especially obvious in this article in which a white male reviewer criticises the film for being apolitical and failing to produce an analysis of its time. In my view, the new Ghostbusters seems more political by going deeper into the mechanics and political embeddedness of academic exclusion than its predecessors.

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Image: ‘Let me in!’

As schemes from STEMnet science ambassadors to Athena Swan illustrate, there is a problem not only with recruiting women into science, but with retaining them. The higher you go up the career ladder, the fewer women you will encounter (in some science subjects, female students even outnumber male students, but this is not reflected in the faculty). It is the same story (but worse) for BME (black, minority ethnic) scholars, and there are also class and other biases. Even if you perform well in academia, the same factors that should have excluded you in the first instance, are likely to still work against you. This is brilliantly illustrated through the Ghostbusters characters.

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Image: Erin is denied tenure by the dean at Columbia

First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding. The film even shows how the refusal of other knowledges and experiences has shaped Erin’s private life. After her encounter with a ghost as a child, she was subjected to lengthy psychotherapy for rectification.

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Image: Patty tries to convince three white women that they have something in common

Patty (Leslie Jones) represents an extension of this theme by race and class. She is obviously very educated, but self-educated. US academia would have excluded her on the grounds of lack of funds and lack of appropriate background, most probably including schooling in non-prestigious institutions. If the film had been set in 1980s UK, she might have been an Open University student, but these sorts of opportunities have ceased to exist. Bored with her job and excited about expanding the boundaries of her knowledge, Patty decides to join the outcast women, with whom she feels a connection. The three white scientists at first do not feel or see a connection – Patty has to beg and bribe the group with her ‘benefits’ – but it gradually dawns on them that they have something in common. When she finally joins the team, Patty again takes to self-education. The scientists initially do not even consider that she might be interested in science – she is their equipment provider, ‘muscle’ and ‘native guide’ (not even historian) – but Patty observes, listens and starts to get active in the lab and in the field.

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Image: Abby has to realise that the margins are increasingly hard to find

In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.

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Image: Holtzmann: all bets (and safety lights) are off

Unlike Abby, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) seems more clued up about the constantly moving margins. She is very socially observant and knows where boundaries are, why they are there and why they need crossing. She appears to be in a constant state of adaptation, which includes making do with equipment pieced together from dumpsters and generally making full use of the freedom not to have to conform. While Holtzmann certainly delivers, her work would be considered too extreme in a university context, as it disregards protocols on any level from health and safety guidelines to outward representation. With an attitude like ‘we nearly got killed – it was awesome!’, any institution would be in constant fear of litigation and of threats to its reputation. Holtzmann is not a dutiful workaholic loner, but a fun-loving, thrill-seeking boundary-pusher. Like Abby and Erin, however, Holtzmann has a PhD, which means that, at one point, she must have managed to pass through the university system. We later meet her mentor, Dr Rebecca Gorin (Sigourney Weaver), of whom we don’t know if she was her formal or informal supervisor. This also mirrors a frequent academic pattern of how some mavericks – and black or female academics – survive. They have someone who ‘gets’ them and has their back.

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Image: This is not the solution

Overall, the four women each have developed a different coping mechanism for being at odds with the system: self-education (Patty), self-experimentation (Holtzmann), refuge in margins (Abby) and self-censorship to fit into the mainstream (Erin). Their antagonist, Rowan (Neil Casey), has had similar experiences with the system, but his coping strategy is revenge. The women understand the source of his pain and madness, but they also understand that total obliteration is not benefitting anyone and even validates the authority and prestige of the system. While prestige through validation is seductive, one also ends up reproducing the problem instead of remaining open to alternatives, including more supportive forms of co-operation. Perhaps the Ghostbusters are also more used to facing default devaluation because of their gender, and have learnt not to individualise the issue. This awareness, of course, does not render them immune to the desire to be known. When Erin is about to make a deadly mistake solely to refute another white male expert who tries to discredit her, Abby sharply reminds her ‘who cares??’ Erin succumbs anyway, and almost ends up putting everyone in jail for an inexplicable murder – there is no win situation.

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Image: Now on Amazon – ghostwritten

In a twisted way, the situation mirrors the title of Erin’s and Abby’s book: the four women continue to be haunted by the ghosts of white male supremacy and ‘official culture’ literally and figuratively, whether it’s male antagonists, debunkers, saboteurs, or supposed male allies like Kevin (the latter ending up bonding with ‘debunker’ Heist over his hat). This is rendered very literal in the film’s takedown of the freshly supercharged Rowan, when he resists the women’s efforts of putting him away into the netherworld by clinging onto two skyscrapers: ‘Let’s loosen his grip’ (on Abby’s command, the Ghostbusters open fire on his crotch, not his hands) Patty: ‘That’s where you wanted us to shoot, right?’.

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Image: Patriarchy comes to haunt the Ghostbusters wherever they go

In a less obvious manner, the film reflects arguments that have been made about the status of the margins made by people such as bell hooks and Moten & Harney. The latter offer an extensive manual for dealing with academia and wider power structures in their publication ‘the undercommons’ (link to pdf): how to use spaces where you are not supposed to be. As in ‘the undercommons’, the female Ghostbusters represent “the subversive intellectual [who] came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings”. Indeed, the film shows constant attempts at repressing the efforts of the Ghostbusters from official side, even though they show ‘results’ – better results. Yet solutions are not officially allowed to come out of the margins, as much as they are inofficially needed. The illusion that the current system works must be maintained at all costs: ‘the mayor thanks you, privately, but don’t tell anyone!’

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Image: Another gatekeeper says no

In conclusion, you could say that Ghostbusters represents science accurately: not just in the ‘techno-babble’, but also in its institutional make-up. If the makers of the film think that it will attract more girls into science, they might be right. The female scientists are not only nerdy, but clever, funny and cool. Whether young women – or other ‘marginal’ thinkers – will be able to enter academia and advance within it, is a different story. Under current institutional conditions, present exclusions and hierarchies are sharpening rather than loosening up. The film seems to be aware that, for these women to succeed in mainstream science, conditions would need to be very different. Even when the Ghostbusters are finally acknowledged and generously rewarded, they choose to claim and maintain their own place. The message might be very much akin to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s strategy of the undercommons: if you do your research out of love, take what you can from the system and run.