Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism and the Matter of Gender by Angela Last & Anja Kanngieser


Image: Sign at Vinyl Deptford by Friction Shifter, photographed at Electronik Netwerk.

I frequently get asked how, as someone whose theoretical interests originally emerged from physics, I came to write about race and gender. The answer is that, for me, race and gender are also material issues that not only manifest in material practices (e.g. gender performance, racism), but permeate all levels of matter from the molecular (e.g. what illnesses are being treated, how they get made sense of and come to matter as pathology, what chemicals different genders put out into the environment) to the global (geopolitical divisions, contribution to/ exposure to climate change). As variants of environmental determinism continue to appear in discussions around race and gender, it is more than ever important to look critically at the material claims that are being made. In this blog post, I am looking at this issue with Australian trans political geographer Anja Kanngieser.

This particular post is prompted by recent trans-phobic events at the London Anarchist Bookfair, which we did not personally attend, but which have been widely exposed and debated on social media. It is written while in Australia, LGBTQ people are having their right to marriage and the legal access it affords decided through national vote. It is also prompted by recent and very public verbal and physical attacks on transgender friends, whether this was by unknown people in the street or by their former partners. Such attacks are particularly infuriating when they come from people who claim to act against gendered oppression: radical feminists. So what problems could a feminist possibly have with transwomen and men, and with other non-heteronormative gender constructions? Here is an example of leaflets that were distributed and apparently put up in the toilets at the London Anarchist Bookfair:




Image sources: Luftmensch and Joff

What we have here is a perceived threat to both social/legal status and biology (which despite conservative arguments to the contrary, is itself a mutable and historical category). This is about the ‘protection’ of biological sex and homonormative sexuality. Such claims base themselves on the uniqueness of biological female experience and related literature (e.g. Luce Irigaray) and the exclusive role of women at the receiving end of male violence. As, according to this logic, biology determines and fixes oppression, there is no way out of oppression other than segregation. Men are essential perpetrators, women are essential victims, and the advocates of this position find ample support in gendered crime statistics. Following this argument, transwomen will by default import their oppressive tendencies, and transmen are simply traitors who have ‘gone over to the other side’ instead of fighting the patriarchy from the position of the oppressed. Thus it was suggested that the prevention of the distribution of these leaflets would in fact benefit men.

What is especially dangerous about the events that took place at the London Anarchist Bookfair is precisely the way in which such essentialist segregations stop the recognition of the violence faced by transwomen through hetero and homonormative practices. Transwomen, especially transwomen of colour (an intersection utterly ignored by the pamphlets and the later defence thereof), are especially vulnerable to gender based violence. The arguments used to ignite fear of transwomen miss the fact that transwomen are in no way exempt from the violence that ciswomen face (‘cis’ means when gender identity matches that assigned at birth), often compounded by the fact that they experience it in both mixed gender and womens spaces. Arguments made by trans exclusionary feminists that ‘pre-op’ transwomen have the biological capacity to rape or enact physical violence neglect that rape is not conditional on fleshy appendages. Transwomen do not inhabit the world as men, they are not afforded the safety of men any more than ciswomen are.

The arguments being made by trans exclusionary feminists are, as stated, ones of biological determinism. They are founded on claims that if we include transwomen into the category of woman then there is nothing left to distinguish women as a ‘class’ from men. Cis women, as the claim goes, due to their unique reproductive capacities, their unique physical matter (made up of hormones, sex organs and biological processes) have been interpellated by capital in specific ways, to perform very specific social, emotional, and physical functions, which enable a collective subjectivity (a subjectivity that is both critiqued and upheld). While some of these functions may have changed over time, this is still the fundamental work of woman. Where this leaves women who choose not to procreate, who choose to deviate from the domestic path, intersex peoples, transwomen, and women whose reproductive capacities have been curtailed or removed due to biology and illness, is unclear. It is also unclear how such positions take into account traditions and existences of sex and gender beyond the narrow, white, western lens, which recognises only male and female subjects in binary. The argument for woman as a child bearing biological subject forgets that the male/ female distinction is an imposed scientific one, one that is not in any way fixed or innate (outside of scientific rationalism) but rather lies on a spectrum.


Trans-activist Jake Graf speaking at “Invisible Outlaws: Lesbian, Bi and Trans Voices” at The Bedford, Balham. Left to right: Jake Graf, Stella Duffy, Sophia Blackwell, Joelle Taylor, Olumide Popoola. Image source: Laura Macdougall

This biological basis for subjectivity was picked up at a recent event called “Invisible Outlaws: Lesbian, Bi and Trans Voices”, organised by poet Sophia Blackwell to highlight the absence of LBT+ in discussions of LGBT+ issues (one could also have added intersex and other non-hetero/homo-normative identities). Trans-activist Jake Graf spoke about the difficulties that trans people face not just in heterosexual environments, but also in homosexual ones. Having started off in the lesbian scene, his transition to male prompted hostility and eventual exclusion. Although he also gave some positive examples of gays and lesbians ‘adopting’ trans people into their community, there was a strong sense that this was not a given. This comes as a particular shock, as one expects fellow non-heteronomative people to bond over mutual exclusion and not to further perpetuate it.

The remaining panel proceeded to take on the question of essentialism, both in gender and sexual identity. What was fantastic about the discussion was the sense of gender and sexuality as a continuous unlearning process of engrained heteronormativity. Lesbian ‘cultural terrorist’ Joelle Taylor, in particular, spoke of her school outreach work as a mutual learning process: the young people she encountered had a different language, different identities that she didn’t experience as alienating, but hopeful. Stella Duffy spoke about discovering other gender possibilities through Pacific Islander culture in a rural, but multi-cultural New Zealand community. Nigerian-German writer Olumide Popoola contributed further thoughts on the intersection of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia with another form of essentialism: racism.

At the moment, this policing of essential materiality painfully intersects in current right wing movements, which in the past and present haven’t been the exclusive preserve of white heterosexuals but have been co-driven by xenophobic male and female homosexuals (and even people of colour), despite the hatred they face from fellow members. The overall message seems to be: ‘we want boundaries to stay in place’, and those boundaries, whether geographical or biological, and their social consequences, are again taken as given.

What needs to be emphasised here as well is that these kinds of arguments against the inclusion of trans peoples into political spaces – regardless of direction – are not new. Trans peoples have always struggled for their legitimacy in both straight and queer spaces. While supporters of the anti-trans pamphlet and its circulation argue that anarchism must support a diversity of positions, and that it is almost impossible to ensure that an event with the magnitude of the London Anarchist Bookfair remains inclusive, at the heart of this situation is the recognition of transwomen and men as valid, of their right to be safe as valid.

The 2017 UK Gender Recognition Act, trans exclusionary feminists argue, will let dangerous men pretend to be women, to enter women’s spaces and access hard won and precarious women’s services. This is a throwback to a feminist position that is as regressive as it is damaging. The decision and the necessity to transition, medically or not, is not an easy one. It is not simply deciding to be something else for a day; it is not a man donning a dress for fun, or a woman donning a tie to work. Trans people, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Colour) trans women and men, are not applauded or uplifted. Rather to the contrary, as this situation evidences, transness is conflated with strangeness and threat, which is why so many trans people are too afraid to come out, and end up living their lives away from the mainstream, or as happens with sickening frequency, take their own lives or are killed by others.

By framing transness as a biological anomaly, a fake or fiction, trans exclusionary feminism commits itself to reductive paradigms that not only repeat ideologies and fears that are categorically conservative and ultimately life threatening to trans people, but also perpetuate divisions between possible political allies. Given the determinist framing of the ‘feminist’ arguments against trans rights, such positions become virtually indistinguishable from fascist and hetero-patriarchal ones. The ‘feminist’ insistence on the superiority of female biology, combined with the essential social inferiority based on this fixed biology, places women exactly where they have been imagined to be (depending on where you live) for way too long.

Further, as illustrated in the previous post on the #metoo campaign, such attitudes prevent crucial alliances that could challenge heteronormative practices. For ciswomen to align with transwomen or men (and also gay men) is not going to further diminish their power, but increase attention to the seduction and social toxicity of normativity. We are all at the receiving end of gender-policing violence, including physical attacks, cuts to services and denial of self-determination. Regarding the events at the London Anarchist Bookfair, rather than merely giving lip service to trans inclusiveness while backhandedly supporting the isolation and exclusion of trans peoples from anarchist spaces in always evolving ways, this is something that intersectional anarchists need to address once and for all.

In other spaces, particularly those espousing well-intentioned affirmations of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’, this kind of work is also overdue. Too often, discussions of essentialism are sidestepped due to the topic’s ideological and political baggage, and, in many cases, essentialisms and related transphobia are simply wished away through denial. A first step might be to admit that it is hard for everyone to unlearn heteronormativity and essentialist thinking – after all, everything is set up to accommodate their performance, down to the philosophies of our languages. However, once we have arrived at this recognition, we need to commit to working towards undoing this ever-present form of violence. And this includes identifying old deceptions within our supposedly progressive politics.

 

 

 

 

 

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I/object: On the #metoo campaign

When the #metoo campaign started to spread all across Facebook, I was not going to participate. I empathise with the argument that there is only ever a massive outcry when violence happens to white women, plus I really don’t like taking on the victim role that women are raised to occupy. I could have written about things like homophobic violence, various incidents on night bus journeys, or having to go to the police station as a primary school kid to help identify a sex offender that I walked into on the way home from primary school. In the latter case, I remember being presented with a photo archive of male sex offenders so huge that it seemed like this was just a normal thing that men do.

I also did not write about this and other things, because I thought the scale of the problem was self-evident, not just related to the entertainment industry. Posting a personal story seemed like just another performance that did not really do anything besides creating a brief awkward moment for both writer and reader. The scale and tone of the negative male responses in my feed, however, persuaded me otherwise. Whether it was comments about women being part of the problem, men stating that women can also be abusers, men ranting against third wave feminism and leftie politics, I was quite blown away by the diminishment of women’s experience of male sexual violence. So instead of continuing last night’s unfriending spree, here is yet another woman’s story.

***

As a woman, you grow up with a seemingly contradictory set of instructions: one, you need to protect yourself – and need to be protected – from male sexual violence, and, two, you need to perform in ways appealing to men. Failure to comply with either would result in a messed up life. You have to beam at men’s compliments on your physical appearance or, if these are not forthcoming, work harder at feminising yourself, even if this renders you more vulnerable. The important thing is that you remain an OBJECT.

I always explain to my male musician friends how many rock concerts, ‘hang outs’ and even music rehearsals I had to miss, because I was female. While they were able to see  Sisters of Mercy and other acts when they were teenagers, I was not able to go. It was either “you will get raped” from both parents but especially my dad (who still uses this argument with me if I want to go out at night or cycle through less populated areas of my sleepy hometown), or “women are not serious enough about music” to warrant rehearsal space from male youth centre workers “and, besides, boys are our priority”.

The lesson: women may have increased economic resources, but are dissuaded from using them; boys cause trouble, but they are also more serious – so girls have to stay at home. In my case, growing up in the 1970s and 80s with a policeman father, this at one point involved drawing over a large stack of misprinted Red Army Faction terrorist hunt posters that he had brought home as ‘art materials’. Compared with the skewed gender balance of the sexual offenders archive, at least the leftist violence committed by both men and women seemed more equal opportunities.

There is not a single day in a woman’s life, where their gender is not policed in some way or another. Yes, I get that it is not only men who police women, and that men are policed, too, in how they have to perform – that is the insanity of heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy. There are two controversial films that illustrate this for me the mechanics of both really well, Sandstorm (2016) and Elle (2016). Elite Zexer’s Sandstorm made headlines for being an Israeli film about Muslim Berber culture, and for the Muslim actors refusing to share a stage with the Israeli minister of culture. I am aware of the problems with this film in terms of colonial dynamics, but one thing I thought the film did really well is to show how women’s oppression fucks up EVERYONE.

Sandstorm focuses on marriage and the problems that come with love, arranged marriages and polygamy. Despite the involvement of Berber women in the script writing, the film could easily be perceived as yet another finger pointing at backward Muslim traditions and further fuel for discriminating practices against Muslim women in supposedly enlightened places such as France or Canada. Yet the way the relations among women and between men and women were shown, also allows for a much more universal metaphor regarding gender relations (and, yes, gay relationships are not exempt from adhering to heteronormativity either).

The film is set in a poor Berber settlement in Israel. It opens with the dad, Suliman (Hitham Omari), teaching his teenage daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) how to drive while telling her off about her bad school performance: ‘what shall become of you?” Suliman comes across as a progressive dad who wants his daughters (he only has daughters) to do well and is happy to bend some conventions in a rather conservative environment, such as letting his younger daughters run around the settlement without headscarves for a little longer and letting the older one go to school for longer than ‘necessary’. Jalila (Ruba Blal), the mother, by contrast, comes across as more conservative, trying to aggressively prevent her daughter from seeing a guy at school that Layla is in love with. In protest, Layla turns to her dad whom she believes to be more understanding, but here it turns out that her judgment was wrong. After meeting her desired groom, Suliman consults with the other men and decides on a different husband that Layla is to marry immediately.


Image: Layla asking a very fundamental question about the appeal of heteronormativity

Now it is the mother who does unconventional things, by protesting against the marriage and accusing him of never asserting any agency in front of the other men, from his apparently ‘unwanted’ second wife’ to marrying off his daughter to a stranger: “you always say you have to do it”. Gendered oppression is being perpetuated by just following the script. As a consequence, Jalila is banished, loses custody of her daughters, and has to move back in with her parents. When Layla takes her dad’s car to get her mother back, her mother urges her to take the car and run away with the guy she likes: “go – there is nothing here for you”. After some hesitation, Layla drives the car to her boyfriend’s settlement, where she finds him hanging out with other guys, in very much the same scenario as her own environment.

Her dad, anticipating this development, is already coming for her, too. After some discussion during which Layla tells her dad that she does not trust him and his judgment any more, she agrees to marry a guy called Munir (Omar El Nasasreh) (whom people make fun of in her settlement). It feels like she partly agrees for her mother’s sake, and partly, because she perhaps realises that her life in the other settlement would probably not be much different or worse, as she would be cut off from any support if things do not work out. The film ends with her wedding night, where she snaps at her new husband off for choosing the wrong colour for their room, her little sister spying on them like she did at her dad’s wedding night with the second wife.


Image: Jalila ‘greets’ the second wife

What I liked about the film was how simply it portrayed the inescapability of a system that ingrains toxic gender relations. And it is not only women who suffer, although they bear the brunt of the oppression. Munir will probably never be able to get anything else than resentment or resignation from his wife, no matter how well he treats her. What the film also teases out is the refusals of solidarity among women. Whether it is Jalila’s mother telling her daughter to obey her husband, Suliman’s second wife complaining about Jalila’s lack of service to her, or Layla’s refusal of empathy with Suliman’s second wife who warns her not to run away with her boyfriend and ‘end up like her’ – a mere second wife. The film does not end with a naïve conclusion that love is the answer – it portrays love as very much part of the same problem. In fact, this aspect made me think about my neighbourhood, and how, thanks to the density of urban space, I can overhear the same arguments about gender roles between couples from the supposedly conservative Muslim family to the self-proclaimed progressive atheists.

The second film, Elle (2016) by Paul Verhoven, was widely criticised for its repeated portrayal of rape by a male director and male writers (both the script and the book it was based on). I did not want to see it at first, both because of the violence and the incredibly uninspiring trailer that looked liked just another ‘whodunnit’ story. As a fan of Isabelle Huppert, I ended up seeing it anyway. The film is set in the opposite social environment to Sandstorm, in a white wealthy Parisian neighbourhood. It opens with a rape and the subsequent clean-up of the scene by the victim, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), whose resuming of her normal life after such an assault seems perplexing if not disturbing. Gradually, the viewer learns that Michèle’s father was a mass murder who killed every person and animal in their housing block and involved his daughter in the clean-up. Since then, all her dealings with the police and prison system have been traumatic, so she avoids contact at all costs, even when she gets hurt in a car crash. As a consequence, she begins her own kind of investigation.

Throughout this search for the rapist, it becomes clear that Michèle is part of a number of dysfunctional relationships with men, including misogynist employees at her computer games company who make videos of her getting raped, her womanising ex-husband, her ultra naïve son who cannot seem to get his life together, and finally an affair with her best friend Anna’s callous husband Robert. After another rape attack in her home during which she manages to defend herself and unmask the attacker, she finds out that the perpetrator is her married ultra-Catholic neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) with whom she has been flirting at neighbourhood gatherings. After Michèle unmasks him, they have a weird sexual encounter that reads like a power struggle, as Michèle initiates it, but Patrick is unable to perform sexually with consenting partners.


Image: Michèle begins her experimentation with negotiating male violence

This seems to be the point, perhaps also caused by the death of both of her parents that tie her to a history of violence where Michèle starts to turn things around (her mother dies from a stroke and her dad from hanging himself in prison before Michèle can make the first visit to him since his trial that her mother had asked her to make). She becomes more assertive with men at her company, she tells her friend Anna about the affair, and she lets Patrick know that she is going to go to the police. When Patrick tries to rape her again, he is killed (in a rather comical way with a fireplace log) by Michèle’s son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who was staying over. When the mistrustful police arrives to interrogate Michèle and her son, she pretends that she had no idea that the attacker was her neighbour. From this moment onwards, Michèle not only gets along better with her son and his own dysfunctional family, but also with her friend Anna, who has kicked out her husband and offers Michèle to move in with her. Patrick’s wife moves out of the neighbourhood, confessing that she knew about her husband’s preferences and perversely thanking Michèle for satisfying what she could not.

The main accusation against this film was that the film affirmed the stereotype of the masochist woman who actually enjoys sexual violence. To me, the film was not about that, but about its opposite: assertion in the face of (deliberate and non-deliberate) male violence. There are a few other substories to the film (around the son, the mother, the ex-husband) that add substance to this narrative. Although Michèle seems accultured into accepting gender based violence and even playing along with it, she also experiments with how you can be as a woman in the world if you are seen as rapable, if you are constantly pathologised, objectified, challenged. By choosing a white wealthy middle class woman and head of a company as an example, the film shows this violence as irrespective of social standing – if not even someone like Michèle can rely on the ‘justice’ system, who is it for women with less social status?

Here, the film shows both failures and successes of Michèle’s experiment (e.g. in female solidarity, in self-administered justice, in playing with social expectations). It does not seek to garner empathy by making her likeable but by making her ambiguous through questionable and seemingly contradictory actions. For every woman, life is an experiment with negotiating objecthood, a status that seems impossible to overcome.


Image: Director Paul Verhoven, with actress Isabelle Huppert on set

Although I was initially critical of the negative reviews of the film for caving in to the woman-as-victim on-and-off-screen narrative that they are apparently trying to argue against – after all, Isabelle Huppert herself initially wanted to direct this film and had a large part in shaping her role, and the film leaves none of the men with redeeming features – I also empathise with the many negative reviews and their fury against not just the portrayal of female violence on screen, but against the gender dynamics behind it. I get that women are angry with yet another guy filming a rape scene, and here it would interest me why the director was attracted to this material.

To come back to the #metoo campaign, there was an important segment on it on the independent US political programme Democracy Now!. The programme put the campaign in context and drew attention to the 10+year history of the campaign, originally started by black youth worker and Girls for Gender Equity director Tarana Burke. Burke, a victim of sexual assault herself, highlighted how someone saying ‘me, too’ completely changed her healing trajectory for the better. Journalist and director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project Soraya Chemaly, who was also on the show, stressed the importance of the campaign of adding pressure on institutions who continue to invalidate women’s experiences and withdraw resources. Especially during a time where a known serial sexual abuser such as Donald Trump is head of state, such struggle for resources and validation is crucial. So while the men in my Facebook feed may not be in positions to withdraw resources from women, they also reflect the continued invalidation of women’s experiences of sexual violence. Such attitudes perpetuate the myth of conspiracy and the myth of a ‘balance’ of sexual violence (as a geographer, I could bore you with maps upon maps and statistics showing not just graphic illustrations of women’s inequality but also the sex difference in violent crime).

Further, this is an issue that needs women and men to work together (and women and men amongst each other). If men do not even get that this is an issue and do not get how much women are sick of such invalidations, despite evidence from the mass disappearance of indigenous women in the Americas to, yes, women’s abuse in Hollywood and the BBC, then that is a problem. It is also a problem if men demand empathy from women for their suffering first, making it a conditional assistance. #metoo is not a competition either – it is not about demonstrating how one person has suffered more than another, but about attempting a snapshot of an everyday struggle that cannot get better if fundamental power differences and their history – not just based on gender, but also on race, religion, geographical location and economic status – are glossed over as meaningless. While I remain ambiguous about how the campaign is unfolding and thus can understand other people’s ambiguity, I insist that the basic problem needs to be taken seriously.

 

Political Geology Workshop @ Cambridge, 17 November 2017

Political Geology: Active Stratigraphies and the Making of Life
Friday 17 November 2017
University of Cambridge
Department of Geography
Seminar Room
10am – 5pm

What and where is the geos in geopolitics?

This workshop will consider the evolution of ideas around the geos, its politics, scientific histories, and practices. The goal is to bring scholars from a diversity of fields and disciplines together to rethink the relationship between politics and geology and the agency of the geos in shaping and transforming politics. Presentations will focus on the politics of geophysical scientific practices; counter-histories of geological science in the West; power, erosion and soil; culture and volatile geologies; the politics of deep-futures in the present; subsurface depth, hidden-volumes, and mediation; and amodern geological imaginaries.

Convenors: Amy Donovan (Cambridge) and Adam Bobbette (Cambridge)
Participants: Andrew Barry (UCL), Seth Denizen (Berkeley), Deborah Dixon (Glasgow), Joe Gerlach (Bristol), Karg Kama (Oxford), Simone Kotva (Cambridge), Angela Last (Leicester), Richard Powell (Cambridge), Jim Secord (Cambridge), Rachael Tily (Oxford)

This workshop is kindly supported by the Department of Geography; Natures, Cultures, Knowledges; and Cambridge Cultural and Historical Geography.

Schedule
10:30-Adam Bobbette & Amy Donovan: Where is the Geos in Geopolitics?
11:00-Rachael Tily: Genealogies of Geomorphological Techniques: An STS history

11:30-Jim Secord: Global Geology and the Tectonics of Empire
12:00-Andrew Barry: The Proximity of Things: Subterannean Geopolitics and the Construction of the Transadriatic Gas Pipeline

12:30-1:30-Lunch

1:30-Richard Powell: The Geo and its Discipline(s)
2:00-Philip Conway: The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics

2:30-Deborah Dixon: Mining Hashima: Geopower, Differentiated Vitalism and the Violence of Expropriation
3:00-Seth Denizen: Hollow Soil: The Politics of Infiltration in Iztapalapa

3:30-4:00-Tea & Coffee

4:00-Angela Last: Against ‘terrenism’: Léopold Sédar Senghor, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the fear of a de-spiritualised Earth
4:30-Simone Kotva: Attention in the Anthropocene

5:00 – 6:00 (discussion)

Mutable Matter turns 10!

Apologies for the long radio silence, but a lot has been happening behind the scenes. First of all: Mutable Matter is ten years old today! I started this blog on 24 September 2007 as part of my Open University PhD research and because I wanted to communicate with OU students and people beyond academia. I also wanted to experiment with writing and communication styles, and to show how our imagination of matter manifests in different spaces. Initially, the blog focused more on the material processes at ‘invisible’ scales such as the atomic and molecular scale, and how these affect the geographical imagination. Since then, the blog has kept morphing and moving across a diversity of on- and offline spaces, and has never been short of providing me with surprising encounters. An enormous thank you is due to all my readers and subscribers. Thank you also for all the feedback over the last ten years.

What is happening at the moment?

From January 2018, I will be starting a lectureship at the University of Leicester, in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment. The post has a focus on the geohumanities, and am looking forward to some exciting teaching, research and other creative experiments with colleagues from different disciplines. I am also working on two books, one on materialism and and another one on Mutable Matter. I am also in the process of assembling a printed zine that is based around both publications and tries to make the work that I do accessible to a wider audience. Some exciting events are also coming up: the Mutable Matter/Warwick Social Theory Centre workshop Cosmos & Crisis: Interdisciplinary Conversations (funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant) is happening this coming Wednesday and Thursday. It focuses on challenges to the Western worldview from different viewpoints. I have also been invited to present at two other events: the second part of the Political Geology workshop at Cambridge University on 17 November 2017, and at a workshop on experimentation at Oxford on 8 January 2018. And of course, there is Curved Radio, to which I keep contributing (many thanks to Gayle Austin for having me!).

Thank you again for staying tuned – here is to future blog mutations! I am going to eat some cake now… (not the one pictured above)

RACE Workshop: ‘Beyond the talk’ – Decolonising Teaching and Research in Geography

‘Beyond the talk’: Decolonising Teaching and Research in Geography – A RACE (Race, Culture & Equality Working Group) event

Date: Tuesday 29th August 2017

Time: 10.00 – 16.30

Location: Kings College London, Strand Campus

Room: King’s Building, K2.40

Social movements and intellectual interventions have, over the past five years, seen a resurgence of decolonial practice and thought within spaces of higher learning. International solidarity, anti-imperialism, black consciousness, black feminism, QPOC and LGBT struggles are some of the frames of analysis which activists, students and academic are using in their attempts to undo Empire and its legacies. A key catalyst for these movements and interventions is the realisation that despite the formal end of colonial rule, contemporary societal structures are steeped in coloniality, i.e. ‘long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations” (Maldonaldo-Torres 2007: 243). As noted by Ama Biney, the pernicious logic of coloniality is underpinned by asymmetrical power relations that reproduce a hetero-normative, racist, patriarchal, and hierarchical world order. Decolonial movements call for these power relations to be unveiled, confronted and dismantled. This event seeks to situate geography within this radical agenda.

We are aware that campaigns to decolonise the academy have called into question the legitimacy of academics and academic institutions in leading these discussions. Why? Because several disciplines with deep colonial roots, like Geography, have embraced decolonial thought and language without meaningful critical self-reflection. In the context of UK Geography, this is both evident and problematic for three key related reasons 1) There has been a failure to acknowledge and confront the pervasiveness of imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy (hooks 2004) within the discipline itself 2) The effects of coloniality are portrayed as afflicting ‘other’ places 3) UK geographers have framed coloniality as an epistemological problem primarily. A key outcome of these limitations is the concealment of oppressive structures within the discipline and academy that reproduce the above mentioned hetero-normative, racialized, patriarchal, and hierarchical world order within and beyond the global architecture of knowledge production. This meeting aims to challenge coloniality within geography and the academy by addressing the following questions; how are we as geographers part of coloniality and how do we decolonise our own practices? The event will aim to do so by examining everyday experiences and practices in the academy, and generating creative pedagogical and methodological responses to them in relation to three broad interrelated areas; Activism, Teaching and Research.

You can register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/beyond-the-talk-decolonising-teaching-and-research-in-geography-a-race-alternative-event-tickets-36435465458

We especially encourage participation from students and early career scholars. To ensure adequate refreshments please contact James Esson (Loughborough University) at j.esson@lboro.ac.uk if you would like to attend the event.

Imagining “World Music”

My spot on last week’s Curved Radio programme was on ‘world music’. Since the topic overlaps with my research, I thought I’d post a short summary. Basically, I played three tracks by French bands that are classified as ‘world music’ and have quite different relations with the ‘world making’ of ‘world music’.

‘World music’ has been a controversial term since its conception. Mainly used as a Western marketing term for non-Western ‘traditional’ music in the 80s, it has expanded to included almost anything that isn’t anglophone Western pop music (which, could be argued, isn’t just ‘Western’ in the first place). As South African trumpet player and composer Hugh Masekela, interviewed by Anya Wassenberg for the Huffington Post, describes it: “At one point, the term ‘world music’ was coined,” he remarked dryly. “I woke up one day and people told me I was playing world music.”

Many have argued that it is practically meaningless, other than as a commercial, quasi-colonial construct. In a discussion on Reddit, contributor Scaredoftriangles comments: “World music has always been such a derogatory term to me…pan pipes, chimes, old men in non-ironic wolf shirts selling dreamcatchers.” Indeed, this sight can be experienced at many ‘world music’ events, and even bigger festivals such as Peter Gabriel et al’s Womad. One of the more famous rants against ‘world music’ is David Byrne‘s 1999 New York Times Commentary: ‘I Hate World Music’. In this article, he criticises both its absurdity as a category and its exoticisation. This exoticisation works down to the shape of award figurines given out for ‘world music’. For Wassenberg, the term ‘world music serves to ‘ghettoiz[e] great music’.

At the same time, there have been many defences of ‘world music’, even from people who are uncomfortable with the term. There appear to be two broad directions: the ‘conservation’ and the ‘decolonisation’. The ‘conservationists’ believe that ‘world music’ contributes to ‘discovering’, supporting and thus preserving types of music that would otherwise have gone out of fashion and thus cultural practice. From ‘ethnological’ recordings to Buena Vista Social Club, there is a huge spectrum of attempts to create ‘revivals’, some more successful than others. Advocates of this practice argue that the commercial appropriation, insufficient contextualisation and frequent dependence on Western valudation outweighs the benefits to the culture in question.

The ‘decolonial‘ direction is characterised by the impulse to use Western/non-Western cultural exchange to dislocate the West as a centre. This is also the direction that Curved Radio tries to follow. This direction more or less comfortably unites, for instance, people who have found their world expanded through hearing music from other places, and people who are struggling against losing further ground in the struggle over cultural hierarchies. Here, the entanglement of economic and cultural power are hotly debated, and the various means that could work toward subverting the worlds sonic hierarchies and towards creating a different one. Particularly here, the terms of presenting music from other cultures are constantly negotiated, although this impulse can also sometimes be found with the ‘conservationists’. I tried to illustrate some of these issues through three band that I encountered in France around the same time in the early 2000s: Edgar de L’est, Monkomarok and Lo’Jo.

Edgar de L’est (Isabelle Becker and Edgar Daguier), as the name already implies (a world play on ‘at Gare de L’Est’), hav a very tongue-in-cheek take on ‘world music’. If I remember correctly, I read in an interview that were founded on the idea to sonically imagine other places through music. To me, their chanson, folk and jazz inflected music reflects the German term Fernweh – a longing to be in a far-away place. With titles such as ‘Mon Cowboy’, ‘L’Orient’, ‘Slavinka’, they could easily be accused of exoticisation. At the same time, their music feels both innocent (like a child discovering the world, not being able to go anywhere and contextualise yet) and knowing (playing with Western/non-Western clichés through ‘trashy’ renditions). It is an approach that we have attempted with a song in my own band, now, where we took a ridiculous commercial jingle for Asian food and deconstructed it in a song called ‘Ethnik Snack‘. In the song ‘L’Orient’, Edgar de L’Est use a different method of subversion: they go through every imaginable orientalisation, but also give a look behind the scenes where the lonely, miserable narrator sits drunk in a bed in Paris, a city and sound fraught with its own struggle against commercial caricature. It’s about exoticisation as both a form of sad escapism and as an inevitable perpetuation of that which one is trying to escape from. (I did actually play ‘Slavinka’ on the programme, but now I think the ‘L’Orient’ song illustrates their method best – plus there is a video online!)

The second track that I played was from Toulousian experimental ‘world’ band Monkomarok (Alima Hamel, Laurent Rochelle, Sylvain Fournier, Loic Schild) – who were active from 2000-2008. Their first album blew my mind with its range of influences and its trippy sound. I still love how they worked with tension and energy, it felt like they were using acoustic music (although they sometimes also use synthesisers) to produce an electric surge. The sleeve notes to this 2002 album, entitled ‘Au plafond’, talk about the profundity of their own musical encounters and about creating an imaginary place within them. This is also reflected in the many thankyous to people they count as influences, supporters and collaborators. Their use of vocals is particularly interesting, with Alima Hamel (who is also a poet) singing in languages such as Algerian Arabic, French and German but also experimenting with sound textures. On ‘Au plafond’, she is doing a lot of impressive percussive work with her voice, as well ‘controlled chaos’ vocalisations which make her sound like a human randomizer. For me, this ‘what on Earth is this??’ reaction that the band often elicits, paired with their definite Western and non-Western influences, is an interesting musical provocation – to the imagined commercial ‘world music’ utopia but also to many music genres that appear to have ossified into particular forms such as ‘dance music’ or ‘jazz’. While I played the hypnotic ‘dance’ track ‘Le Sueur’ (Sweat), there is no online recording, so here, instead, is a rare live recording of ‘Au Plafond”s opening refusal, ‘Non Merci’.

The lyrics of this song are remarkable, too, especially through the play on the double meaning of the French word for ‘everyone’: ‘tout le monde’. For the current world to work, everyone is supposed to hide their anger – the machine must run smoothly – but she is celebrating refusal.

Je suis toujours en colère
Ca ne se voit pas
C’est parce que je m’applique
Je fais comme tout le monde
Je trompe mon monde
Je fais semblant

Ani kolwun mkelba
Ndil kime koul ness
Nralat lribed
Ndil bel reni

Ma colère?
Je l’ai soingneusement cousu contre mon sein
Les mains plenes contre mon coeur
Qu’est ce que je deviendrai sans ma colère?
Un pantin raide couleur glaise.
Une machine à fabriquer des ronds.
Une chose parfaite qui ne dit jamais non.
Un indigne mouton borgne sans rêves.
Non merci, sans façon…
Je fais l’apologie du refus.
Je fais l’éloge du pas d’accord
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka

The final track of the show was from Lo’Jo, who are much more well-known in the offical ‘world music’ circuit due to their participation in WOMAD and collaborations with groups such as Tinariwen and Gangbe Brass Band. They initially started out in the early 1980s as a duo or trio (Denis Péan, Richard Bourreau), which seemed to grow into a community that combined music with street theatre, acrobatics, dance, film. The group did not become a more fixed formation and did not record albums until the mid-1990s. The sound of Lo’Jo is frequently described as ‘Gypsy’, tribal, nomadic (initially they were even called Lo’Jo Triban) or even shamanic, as they combine folk music from North and West Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and the Caribbean. I have also seen the term ‘global fusion’ applied to them, and one album review (for ‘Au Cabaret Sauvage’, 2002) reads “Tom Waits meets the Touaregs. Very tasty.”

What drew me to them were their epic, ecstatic sound, that is produced by a super-tight arrangement of string instruments (khora, violin, bass), percussion and vocal harmonies (amazing singers Yamina and Nadia Nid el Mourid, supported by Kham Meslien and Baptiste Brondy on bass and drums). John Lusk from the BBC argues that despite their many influences, they have a distinctive local sound: “As the barriers around ‘fortress Europe’ get ever higher, Lo’Jo’s open-minded and outward-looking approach to music seems to make them more and more identifiably French.” Lusk is quick to point out that around 56% of the French population identify as being of ‘foreign’ background, and that the band’s local support and ties very much contribute to the development of their sound:

“The group’s core still live and work collectively in a farmhouse given them by the mayor of Angers in return for providing local children with musical education. Another municipally inspired boost for the unlikely idealists came with twinning of their hometown with the Malian capital of Bamako.”

In many ways, Lo’Jo personify the utopian and problematic tropes of works music, and I cannot help thinking about them when listening to their undoubtedly beautiful music. The band describe themselves as ‘plantetary troubadours’ who maintain an ‘anarchic garden’ of ‘world rhythms and universal harmonies’, which may raise alarm bells with cultural and especially decolonial critics. At the same time, Lo’Jo emphasise and try to practice cultural exchange on equal terms. In and outside their music campaign for a multicultural French national ideintity (e.g. their song “La Marseillaise en Creole“), and in an interview in the New York Times, where Denis Péan explains: “The name Lojo means nothing. It is just a sound. Basically, Lojo is a school. Everybody learns. Everybody teaches.” For me, the sound and journey(s) of Lo’Jo exemplify that, especially for white ‘Westerners’, different forms of cultural exchange need to be attempted despite the many problems on the way. We all shape world music and the economy and relations it is embedded in, and music is a place as good as any other to start experimenting.

Wellcome Exhibition review in Science as Culture


Electric Eel film (1954) from ‘Electricity: The Spark of Life’ Wellcome exhibition

Another review is out! Originally, this was going to be a blog post, but Les Levidow from Science as Culture invited it as a review article (many thanks to him for his comments). The result is called ‘Making Nature, Making Energy, Making Humans: Two Exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection’ and can be downloaded here. I am reviewing Making Nature: How We See Animals and Electricity: The Spark of Life. There were quite a few exhibits that stuck with me in both exhibitions, in particular this one by by Allora & Calzadilla & Ted Chiang called ‘The Great Silence’, because it relates closely to the upcoming Mutable Matter workshop. It was a multi-screen exhibit in the Making Nature exhibition, but you can see a single screen version and read the text on vimeo and e-flux.

Allora & Calzadilla (in collaboration with Ted Chiang), The Great Silence from Artribune Tv on Vimeo.

The Wellcome Collection has now opened its follow-up exhibition to Making Nature. It is entitled A Museum of Modern Nature and is on until 8 October 2017.