Mutable Matter

Max Max, Girlhood & the Third Alternative

Image: The Girl Gang in ‘Girlhood': Karidja Touré as Marieme/Vic, Assa Sylla as Lady, Lindsay Karamoh as Adiatou and Mariétou Touré as Fily

Last week, I treated myself to a double cinema visit: George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande de Filles). Both films have caused quite a stir, both before and after their release. The Mad Max uproar was quite predictably about the ‘feminist message’ of the film – the scandal of women struggling against their object status. But there were also justified critiques of the overwhelming whiteness in the film – did non-white Australians once again manage to stay out of deranged neo-Viking society? Girlhood, on the other hand, was badly received by feminist critics who felt that life in the banlieue was portrayed in a stereotypical fashion and lacked controversy – reflected in its selection by a European Parliament jury. There is, however, one issue for me that seemed to get lost in the calamity over both films – to do with the plot rather than the production choices of the films (although the two are, of course, related): the question of what you can do when you face limited choices.

Image: Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max Fury Road

In Mad Max, people live in the aftermath of a nuclear war, in which livable places are not only few but shrinking. Apart from a few scattered bands in the desert and the mountains, most people seem to live in a place called the Citadel, which is controlled by a tyrant called Immortan Joe. The Immortan is powerful, because he controls access to water and has fashioned a powerful ideology that gives genetically and morally devastated humans a sense of purpose. While some people are part of the society by coercion (abduction, imprisonment), most people appear to be there by ‘choice’. The choice is between an unsupported and dangerous existence in a hostile environment, or an arguably equally dangerous ritualistic and hierarchical society (albeit one supportive of disabilities, according to Guardian writer Catherine Shoard – let’s hope we don’t need a nuclear apocalypse for a better appreciation of ‘disabled’ people).

In Girlhood, the main character, Marieme, has just been told that her grades are not good enough to go to high school, her only hope to escape a future of menial jobs. On top of that, she is terrorised by an overprotective brother who has put her on ‘slut watch’ (both the school selection and the ‘slut’ shaming are explained by the actresses in this interview). In her angry state, she is recruited by a girl gang who are ‘interested’ in her problems. Initially starting off as a shy person, Marieme gradually becomes more assertive under the tutelage of the gang’s leader, Lady. Rather than requesting obedience, Lady tells Marieme that she needs to do whatever she does for herself and gives her the name ‘Vic’ for Victory. Despite the supportive environment of the gang, Vic realises that society presents her with two main options: to become a disposable worker or to become a ‘no future’ stay-at-home delinquent. Later, a third option is presented to her – marriage – but she dismisses it as just another unacceptable dependency.

The dilemma that is being portrayed in both films reminded me of Victor Shklovsky’s book ‘Knight’s Move’. The ‘knight’s move’ takes place under very specific conditions: the existence of conventions, against which the move appears unconventional, and, more pessimistically, the unfreedom ‘to take the straight road’. In ‘Another Freedom‘, Svetlana Boym notes that Shklovsky once ‘wrote that the Soviet writer of the 1920s ha[d] two choices: to write for the desk drawer or to write on state demand. ‘There is no third alternative. Yet that is precisely the one that must be chosen.” In the context of the two films, the question that remains is: what is the third alternative and how do we find it in spite of the incredible forces of normativity? Here, both films suggest not just different pathways, but that any alternative pathway is an experiment.

Image: The unlikely ‘Breeders’ and Imperator Furiosa hit temporary obstacles

In Mad Max, the initial choice that is presented is escape to a better place. Imperator Furiosa, a former sex-slave who fought her way up to warlord status after being found barren, makes off with the Immortan’s inner circle of ‘breeders’ – five ‘immaculate’ women whom he hopes will give him healthy offspring. Furiosa has already messed with her destined script once by becoming something other than an incubator or human junk (the people at the bottom of the food chain that are occasionally graced with a splash of water from above). A fearsome fighter with a shaved head and a mechanical arm, she is the pet warrior (and petrol looter) of the Immortan. But this achievement is only a means to another end: a better position for revenge. As for the women she abducts, it appears as if they willingly followed her (there are some painfully didactic slogans scrawled on the floor), although some of them begin to question their choice after being exposed to the harsh consequences it entails.

Image: The Vuvalini join the revolution with new members

When the initial ‘better place’ turns out as a non-option, Furiosa is presented with two more alternatives: keep looking for this elusive place or go back and fight for changes in the existing place. Furiosa chooses the latter and, backed by an additional gang of women who don’t fit the present narrative (fierce old ladies on motorbikes) and by Max who once again unsuccessfully boycotts the hero narrative, she turns her desire for revenge to more broadly beneficial ends. Those women who do not die in the assault on the Citadel also end up exploring new pathways, such as becoming farmers or more generally agents for the restoration of more habitable environments. The viewer does not learn how these experiments develop, but there is a sense that a new narrative is wanted not only by the brutalised women, but also by many of the Citadel’s population.

Image: Lady mentors Vic

Meanwhile, Girlhood’s Vic comes to an unusual conclusion. She secretly leaves home and the girl gang to become a drug dealer in a ‘proper’ gang. While everyone warns her that ‘there is only one job for women’ in male gangs (that of a prostitute), Vic insists that she can have a different role. The film shows her working as a drug courier, and a job which allows her to have her own money and place, and arguably better working conditions than your average shopping mall. It is interesting that crime is once again shown as a better pathway to autonomy than standard societal provision. However, Vic again hits social boundaries, both in the crime world and outside. For instance, for her job, she is seen shifting between masculine and feminine appearances, which disturbs her boyfriend. The gang leader also becomes dissatisfied with her lack of obedience and her lack of interest in him.

Image: Vic binding her breasts to not fit the female gang stereotype

Vic comes across as having always been aware of this eventual limitation, but having nothing better to work with for the moment, she stays until the limitations start outweighing the benefits. At the point where she leaves the gang, she still does not seem to know what exactly is next for her. The last scene shifts from a moment of vulnerability and despair to a look of determinacy: she will continue looking for the ‘third’ path, no matter what obstacles are put in her way. In contrast with the movement in Mad Max – from lone attempt to public support – Vic seems to end up alone. She feels that she can neither turn to her family, nor to her former girl gang friends, nor to her boyfriend who tries to help her by offering marriage. This time, there is not even a life line such as those offered by the two gangs – she has to start again from a blank slate. While this may seem like a bleak ending, is not necessarily a negative one. An extraordinary path may be lonely at times and can easily lead to an even worse place than the one you were hoping to escape from, but it may also lead to the opposite: to your own, non-prescribed life. Read against Mad Max, Girlhood seems to ask: how much do you need the support of wider society to lead a different and/or more fulfilled life?

This opens up a whole lot of other questions about the necessity and absence of social infrastructures, from educational opportunities to the wider valuing of difference. At present, it seems as if, in the ‘real world’, more and more such infrastructures are being withdrawn despite abundant affirmations of support and despite more abundant resources. Girlhood (and the interviews with the actors and director about their choices) more than hints at the this issue. Girlhood shows that, when choices are taken away, other structures come into existence or play to fill this void. As mentioned earlier, these structures are not simply portrayed as bad (e.g. because they are criminalised), but as containing different possibilities – different freedoms of expression, room for experimentation, experience of structural independence. Of course, these ‘alternative spaces’ have their own limits, as clearly portrayed in the film (violence, imprisonment etc), but they also highlight the destructiveness of the ‘legal’ options. Maybe here it is time to go back to Shklovsky’s comment about the regulation of art. He writes: ‘we regulate art without knowing what it is’. One could say that Girlhood’s version would read: ‘we regulate life as without knowing what it is’. As odd as it sounds, both films ended up making me think about how thinking about life (or lives) does not take enough space in shaping contemporary choices… and what possibilities does ‘the third alternative’ hold?

AAG 2015 Mobile Syllabus: Black Lives Matter meets Why is my curriculum white?


Image: Our first print

This is a note for the participants (and anyone interested) in the t-shirt ‘book bloc’ protest at the AAG in Chicago. T-shirts can be picked up on Wednesday between 9.30am and 7pm at Michigan A, Hyatt, East Tower, Ped Path. Alternative deliveries can be arranged. You are free to also just stop by and browse the wearable library. We are currently at 35 t-shirts and a list of over 50 authors, which will be posted during or after the AAG. We printed only on second hand t-shirts (from charity shops, washed) and factory b-stock from street markets in the hope of making an additional contribution. Due to budget limitations, we could only do iron-on prints.

The protest brings together a wider concern with structural racism with a concern about institutional racism in academia. In a sense it is a combination of ‘Black Lives Matter‘ and ‘Why is my curriculum white?‘. So far, we have received enthusiastic responses as well as justified critique. The enthusiastic responses were echoing our frustration about the ubiquity of all white (and male) syllabi, the relegation of publications by black authors to postcolonial, black or race studies and the reinforcement of existing hierarchies through citation and hiring practices. The critical responses pointed out that movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ are not radical enough, because they are not demanding enough compared with earlier black movements. Further, the protest has to negotiate the problems around negotiating subject/object status of academics of colour. These have been evocatively discussed by Yasmin Gunaratnam in her blog post Presentation Fever and Podium Affects in terms of hermeneutical injustice and ‘performative love’. How to negotiate making fellow academics (white and non-white) the object/subject of protest/support? (I would be very grateful for further responses to this question.)

Our ‘mobile syllabus’ tried to respond to both sets of comments, by including the following groups of books/authors: – authors who have pointed our structural racism across time – books that appear to be missing on many syllabi – books that are making radical demands or are giving case studies of radical projects – books that have inspired a change of thinking in the t-shirt wearers – themed session books (e.g. for the feminist geophilosophy session) We hope that these books/t-shirts/syllabus will be provoking further debate at the AAG and beyond.


Image from our first print round

Feminist Geophilosophy at AAG Chicago


Here is the programme for the Feminist Geophilosophy sessions at the AAG (Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting) 2015 in Chicago. Two presenters sadly had to drop out, so this is the revised running order.

Big thank you to everyone who submitted an abstract in response to our call. Originally we were going to only have two panels, but we received enough abstracts to discuss geophilosophy for two days (!). In the end we went for four panels, so sincere apologies to anyone who could not be included this time.

All sessions are taking place in Michigan A, Hyatt, East Tower, Ped Path. We hope to see you there!

Session 1 (10:00 AM – 11:40 AM)

Chair: Angela Last, University of Glasgow

10:00 AM   Author(s): *Kathryn Yusoff – Queen Mary University of London, *Mary E. Thomas – Ohio State University

Abstract Title: Shaft: the geophilosophies of extraction

10:10 AM   Author(s): *Kai A. Bosworth – University of Minnesota – Minneapolis

Abstract Title: Knowing porous matter: hydrogeology, extraction and the subterranean body politic

10:30 AM   Author(s): *Sarah De Leeuw – University of Northern British Columbia

Abstract Title: Eros and Geophilosophy: Some Poetic Reflections

10:50 AM   Author(s): *Nigel Clark – Lancaster University

Abstract Title: Feminist Pyrotectonics

11:10 AM   Author(s): *Bruce Braun – University of Minnesota, *Jessica Lehmann – University of Minnesota

Abstract Title: Extractive anxieties: sex panics and American energy production

Session 2 (1:20 PM – 3:00 PM)

Chair: Kathryn Yusoff, Queen Mary University of London

1:20 PM   Author(s): *Anja Kanngieser – Goldsmiths College University of London

Abstract Title: Listening to the Anthropocene

1:40 PM   Author(s):

*Angela Last – University of Glasgow

Abstract Title: Re-reading Worldliness: Hannah Arendt, Feminism & the Production of Matter

2:00 PM   Author(s): *Myra J Hird (Oxford) – Queen’s University

Abstract Title: Subtending Relations: Bacteria, Geology, and the Possible

*Stephanie Clare – Syracuse University

Abstract Title: Locating the Anthropocene: Earth System Science meets Feminist Philosophy

2:20 PM   Author(s): *Susan Ruddick – University of Toronto

Abstract Title: In Pursuit of the Common: Rethinking Biopotenza in the age of the Anthropocene

2:40 PM   Author(s):

*Arun Saldanha – University of Minnesota – Minneapolis

Abstract Title: a queerer universe: communism, speculative realism, and the end of man

Session 3 (3:20 PM – 5:00 PM)

Chair: Jessica Lehman, University of Minnesota

3:20 PM   Author(s): *Yvette Granata, Phd Student – SUNY Buffalo, Department of Media Study

Abstract Title: Disturbed Plant-Thinking: A Feminist Field Guide to Wild Urban Plant-Thought

3:40 PM   Author(s): *Bogna M. Konior – Hong Kong Baptist University – Kowloon

Abstract Title: The necessity of redefining personhood: shamanic geophilosophies

4:00 PM   Author(s): *Fuad Ali – University of Greenwich

Abstract Title: Decolonising Climate Change from afar: The Duriana Climate Summit Delegation

4:20 PM   Author(s): *Emma Gaalaas Mullaney – The Pennsylvania State University

Abstract Title: Maíz, Desmadre: Social Difference, Biodiversity, and the Creolization of the Anthropocene

4:40 PM   Author(s): *Lauren A. Rickards – RMIT University

Abstract Title: Gendering the geo: who is speaking?

Session 4 (5:20 PM – 7:00 PM)

Chair: Rory Rowan, University of Zurich

5:20 PM   Author(s): *Deborah Dixon – University of Glasgow

Abstract Title: Touching Earth: Of Landfill Futures and Melancholic Phenologies

Changed to: Skeleton Woman

5:40 PM   Author(s): *Edia Connole –

Abstract Title: The Language of Flowers: Why the Anthropocene is a Bloody Mess

6:00 PM   Author(s): *Christina L. McPhee – independent visual and media artist

Abstract Title: Seismic Shards

6:20 PM  : Discussion

*Gill Park – University of Leeds

Abstract title: I emerge untamed and shake myself free

Call for submissions: Everyday racism/sexism/homophobia in Geography


Message from Association of American Geographers president Mona Domosh:

Hi all,

I’m asking for your help (again!) for my next Newsletter column. I want to call attention to the everyday ways that many of us experience sexism/racism/homophobia; the so-called ‘small’ ways that people treat us differently because of our perceived ‘otherness.’ These everyday racisms/sexisms/acts of homophobia (that include comments, looks, actions, etc.) are pervasive, insidious, and damaging, but are often overlooked as ‘official’ forms of discrimination and harassment. To call attention to them, I’m asking for fellow geographers to email brief descriptions (no names please, just what happened) of the incidents that they are experiencing over a three-week timeframe, from April 4-25. My plan for the column is to start with a brief introductory paragraph, and then simply include an annotated and anonymous list of ‘everyday’ isms that geographers have experienced over a set time period.

So, from April 4-25 (including the AAG conference if you are going), please keep track of these everyday incidents, and email a brief description to me at:<>.

With thanks,

Mona Domosh
Professor of Geography
The Joan P. and Edward J. Foley Jr. 1933 Chair
President, Association of American Geographers
Dartmouth College

AAG Subconference Call For Black Lives Matter ‘T-shirt Book Bloc’


Calling all AAG (Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting) attendees!

Some of us UK Subconference folks thought it would be nice to show our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign through making and wearing t-shirts to the AAG  in Chicago. These will have books on them by black authors, and authors of colour, whose writings engage with institutional racism and/or who have been absent from the mainstream geographical canon despite their contributions to geography (kind of like a t-shirt book bloc).

With this, we not only want to highlight systemic racism, but also want to highlight geography’s (and also academia’s and education’s) implication in this system through citational practices, teaching, recruitment, admissions et cetera.

You can bring and make your own, and we will also be making them in Chicago with iron-on patches. If you have any ideas for books, designs generally or want a tshirt, get in touch! Please e-mail Angela Last (

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Statement of Solidarity from University of Glasgow Geographies of Labour, Social Movements and Activism Group

Image: Chris Young for the Globe and Mail

As members of the University of Glasgow Geographies of Labour, Social Movements and Activism Group, we stand in support of the current labour actions taking place at the University of Toronto and York University. We are proud of their brave efforts to improve working conditions at a moment when corporate agendas are undermining public universities and intellectual integrity around the world.

We are concerned that precarious work conditions at these institutions are hindering contract instructor’s ability to engage in their own research and confidently invest their energies in the classroom. We respect the excellent contributions contract faculty make but it is unacceptable that it comes at such a significant cost. We are also distressed by the lack of sufficient funding available for PhD students at both universities. Funding packages that require students to subsist below the poverty line hinder new research and teaching.

It is deeply inspiring to see the variety of connections being made across occupational, socioeconomic and political lines in the course of this strike. These connections establish a precedent for relations of solidarity elsewhere, and produce critical insights that have value beyond the specific struggle from which they have arisen.

(Disclaimer, we write this in a personal capacity and do not represent the views of the University of Glasgow)

Heather McLean
Diarmid Kelliher
Laura Jane Nolan
David Featherstone
Peter Martin
Lazaros Karaliotas
Erin Despard
Kye Askins
Paul Griffin
Neil Gray
Peter Martin
Bridget Holtom
Angela Last

Dead Wasps Fly Further


This month, I will be participating in two events. ‘Geo-Studio’ (20 March), a geography-arts symposium at Northumbria University, and ‘Dead Wasps Fly Further‘ (Tote Wespen Fliegen Länger), a five-day workshop in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin (26-30 March). The latter is a semi-public event, so here is some more information about it, in case anyone happens to be in town. The exhibition runs from 3-29 March 2015.

‘Dead Wasps fly further’, organised by STS scholar Tahani Nadim and artist Åsa Sonjasdotter, will bring together scholars, artists, activists and curators to discuss and develop issues raised by the exhibition. The exhibition and the workshop attend to the ‘traffics and trajectories of museum objects and the troubles that become tangible by accounting for these movements’. I really loved the framing of the project:

“The exhibition will consist of 3 distinct interventions: a display and wall painting, theatrical tours into the non-public collections and a short film. These interventions assemble humorous, poetic and troubling stories about anthropocentric biodiversity, colonial cultivations and cosmic care. At the same time, they represent an experiment in engaging natural history and making research public.
We consider the workshop collective conclusions as a collaborative attempt to “stay with the troubles” (Donna Haraway) catalysed by objects and research at the museum.”

Questions to be tackled – through debate, performance and activities such as zine-making – include:

“How do we narrate routes and roots without reproducing the exclusions, inequalities or expectations of Eurocentric geographies? How do we insert the human into the narratives presented by the natural history museum? Or, how to de-naturalise the natural history museum? Should we consider the wishes and wants of the Moon, comets and other planets in our explorations of them? How can the museum and its collections help us learn from their troubles, account for other histories and figure a language to tell these?”

Participants were asked to engage with the museum’s collections in the kind of material and talks they bring to the workshop. I will talk about reappropriations of museum objects by anti-colonial activists such as the négritude writers who extensively re-read the findings of Leo Frobenius, a controversial German ethnologist and archaeologist specialising in African history and art.

There will be at least one public event (I definitely remember the 30 March Monday morning one!). I will be posting details here, as soon as they become available. The project is supported by the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes) and the Museum für Naturkunde.

Symposium: Frantz Fanon: Concerning the Psychoanalysis and Cosmopolitanism of Violence


[reblogged from Warwick Sociology; thanks to Uli Beisel for sending this to me]

Wednesday 18th March 2015, 1pm to 7pm
University of Warwick (A0.28, Millburn House)

Frantz Fanon, the son of Martinique who first fought for colonial France in World War Two and then against colonial France in Algeria, is taken as the preeminent thinker of decolonization. Although Fanon died in 1961, his work and life still stir debate and discussion today about the lived reality of racism and the nature of violence and revolution in the post-colonial world. This one-day symposium and screening of Göran Hugo Olsson’s documentary Concerning Violence is designed to engender critical and collaborative engagement between researchers, students, practitioners, and activists with an interest in Fanon’s work and its contemporary connotations. This symposium seeks to establish dialogue between different disciplinary perspectives, such as psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, and histories of globalization, on Fanon’s two major texts Black Skin, White Masks (1952), and The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and his lesser known works such as the essays contained within A Dying Colonialism (1959) and Towards the African Revolution (1964).

Paper Presentations

Dr. Robbie Shilliam (Queen Mary, University London)

Dr. Sheldon George (Simmons College, US)

Professor Kimberly Hutchings (Queen Mary, University London)

Film screening introduced by Mireille Fanon-Mendes:

Göran Hugo Olsson’s documentary Concerning Violence (2014).

Roundtable Discussion

Mireille Fanon-Mendes (Frantz Fanon Foundation)

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (Warwick University)

Dr. Julie Walsh (Warwick University)

Dr. Kehinde Andrews (Bimringham City University)

Dr. Peter Nevins (the Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis)

Chair: Dr. John Narayan (Warwick University)

It is not necessary to register for this event, but to help us get a sense of likely numbers we’d be grateful if you could email one of the organisers if you are planning to attend (either or ).

This event has been made possible through the financial support of The Global History and Culture Centre at the University of Warwick, University of Warwick Humanities Research Centre, The Leverhulme Trust and the British Sociological Association’s Race and Ethnicity Study Group. The event is also supported by the British Sociological Association’s Sociology, Psychoanalysis and the Psychosocial Study Group. The BSA exists to promote Sociology. The BSA is a Company Limited by Guarantee. Registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235.

Guest talk at the New Centre for Research & Practice


On Monday, I gave a virtual guest lecture at the New Centre for Research & Practice. It was the first instalment of a seminar on ‘Global Politics of the Anthropocene‘, organised and taught by Carlos Amador. You can still join the remainder of the discussion, either as a ‘student’ (which enables you to join the discussions) or as a silent listener (‘audit’ option). The upcoming Monday events (UK time: 11pm – 1:30 am) include speakers across disciplines, including fellow Scottish academic Zoe Todd (Anthropology, University of Aberdeen).

The paper I had prepared was on Daniel Maximin‘s geopoetics, which focus on undoing hegemonic geopolitical images by utilising the geophysical. The talk also drew attention to the violence of academic knowledge production, including citation practices. Both themes, for me, relate very strongly to Anthropocene discourse, where attention to the colonial/imperialist dimensions of geophysical phenomena, as well as of research practices themselves, has been lacking.

Image source: New Centre for Research & Practice


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