Curved Radio Shows on LGBTIQ+ and musician persecutions

The last two Curved Radio shows in which I appeared responded to recent attacks on LGBTIQ+ communities around the world. Examples from the last two weeks include: the forced closure of the Beijing LGBT+ Centre and the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023. At the moment there are few good news on the legal front globally, so I wanted to discuss how this queerphobia (I prefer the term queer, because it encompasses non-normative genders and sexualities) is also hitting heterosexual communities, and different sectors of society, including the economy. I also made a zine for people who want to support the community with the hopefully intriguing title ‘Straight People Are So Fucked Up’ (available at London LGBTQ+ centre zine library, happy to email copy). Here is a summary of the points I wanted to make in the shows:

The social and economic cost of criminalisation

  • What criminalisation of LGBTIQ+ people means for the community: no legal jobs, no legal housing, no legal medical care (also often done by homophobic churches), no protection against/after attacks, vulnerability to blackmail or betrayal
  • What criminalisation means for the wider society: everyone is under scrutiny – lots of energy wasted on warding off suspicion which filters into all relations, including within the family; drain of resources on irrational threat, general erosion of human rights. Even people who do not support this legislation are expected to be or are forced to act as informers. Note: every time someone says they do this to protect the children and heterosexual relations, they are taking the rights away of future and current generations.
  • What criminalisation means for the music and arts community: arts and music are natural havens for queer people who are struggling to fit with normative society. Queer people often function as drivers of innovation (see disco, techno, house music for example). Music is also regarded as erotic and leading to promiscuity, so is being seen as sinful, so enforcers of target music as an ‘entry drug’. E.g. in Uganda, the Nyege Nyege label and affiliates have been under attack on moral grounds.

Image: Authentically Plastic DJing at HÖR Berlin.

Problematic reporting on queerphobia, especially in relation to the ‘Global South’

  • Maps showing the state of LGBTIQ+ legislation around the world can be problematic. While the message has mostly arrived that they are not showing an ‘enlightened’ Global North vs an ‘unenlightened’ Global South, the new treatment of this data can also be problematic.
  • Many journalists correctly identify colonial anti-homosexuality and anti-matriarchy legislation as a culprit for hostility against queer communities. They call upon people not to continue to oppress themselves. This, however, assumes that people in these countries do not know their history – they do! The hatred is more complex. Some great texts here by authors such as Maria Lugones, or in the African context, Oyeronke Oyewumi, Sylvia Tamale, Stella Nyanzi (Uganda, exiled in Germany), Rahul Rao.
  • Some reasons that play into homophobia in the Global South: not wanting to go back to gender and sexual models because things have moved on; anger at United Nations and similar institutions for using LGBTIQ+ issues and feminism as reasons for on-going oppressions (while having shit legislation themselves!); aid and sexual health related politics; neoliberalism’s demand to break human ties and support networks; religious institutions wanting to consolidate power, perceived threat to population reproduction; scapegoating/distraction (queer people are best for paranoia, because anyone could be queer); generational issues.
  • A lot of the above reasons with economic and social justice, but they are also ultimately self-destructive. But you have self-destructiveness in Western countries as well, e.g. in the UK, where fantasies of empire led to Brexit, which basically amounts to self-destruction.
  • Some reasons for queerphobia also apply to the Global North (e.g. scapegoating, religious influence, perceived threat to reproduction, generational issues).

What ‘safety’ means

  • Questions of how to maintain community under surveillance and threat of death/imprisonment/torture.
  • The difficulties of finding a safe space elsewhere in a world with tougher and tougher borders. Especially refugees from the Global South having to prove queer identity, because they are often not considered ‘developed enough’.
  • The difficulties of living in exile, including negotiating ‘survivor’s guilt’ and privilege.
  • The drain on creativity when you have to deal with this mess. This will also affect artists in other countries who are supported by local cultural organisations and networks.

Image: Still from Denise Ho’s video for ‘Infatuation’ (with actress Shu Qi, left)

Queerness and spirituality

  • Lastly, some comments on the opposition of religion and queerness. (Some great work on queer spiritual practices by Peter Jones who is just finishing his excellent PhD on this topic.) Some queer musicians (e.g. Desire Marea, Kiddy Smile, Tarik Tesfu) have focused on the fact that queer people have been considered positively different in many cultures and ages, and often had spiritual functions.
  • Music and dancing can, in return, have a spiritual function for queer people (e.g. disco has often been described as ‘queer church’), perhaps closer to spiritual intent than organised religion. That itself might be frightening for religous and political leaders who are working closely with religious institutions.

Playlist 25 May 2023:

Ya Tosiba – Xudayar təsnifi

Afrorack – Cowbell

Denise Ho – 劳斯莱斯

Angèle – Ta Reine

Listen to the episode here.

Playlist 1 June 2023:

Authentically Plastic ‘Aesthetic Terrorism’

Katiiti – One Love

Keko – I am Ugandan

Desire Marea – Be Free

Kabeaushé – Arthmetical Error

Listen to the episode here.

Geopoetics Under Censorship (2): Typographic contestations

I’m on the Berlin study trip with my third year students again. Today was a free project day, so everyone could pursue their own interests. I ended up going to three exhibitions, although only two had been on my list. On the way to the Treptow Museum, I followed signs to a ‘Documentation Centre for National Socialist Forced Labour‘, taking a small detour. The centre turned out to be on the site of an actual labour camp, the exhibitions taking place in the former barracks. The camp had been modified and repurposed during GDR times as a vaccine research station, but it was pretty much preserved. As I found out, the site was under threat from housing developers, and one of the exhibits featured a public consultation.

The permanent collection displayed hundreds of photographs, index cards and items from the workers’ lives. I was particularly drawn to the many contrasting biographies in the middle part of the permanent exhibition. They made me think about the many different choices that people can and do make in extreme political circumstances. The connections of many established German companies to forced labour were also well documented. Amongst the archival material, I noticed a familiar place, the Otto Fuchs metal works where one of my uncles worked as a chemist until his early death from brain cancer (ironically, another uncle participated in a post-war film that criticised the collaboration of German industrialists with the Nazi regime – the story is narrated from the viewpoint of an industrial chemist at IG Farben). Many of the documents in the exhibition were produced by the workers themselves, such as photographs, diary entries, legal contestations, customised or sabotaged items. It worked really well to underscore the agency and humanity of the workers who were treated as subhuman by the Nazis. This theme was also continued in the next exhibition on the Berlin colonial exposition of 1896.

Treptow Museum had initially been on the list for my guided day, but I had managed to get the opening hours mixed up. Instead, we went to the excellent Trotz Allem/Despite Everything exhibition and to the the archive around anti-racist struggles in Berlin, both at Fhxb Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum (some great materials there to work through for the students!). The ‘Trotz Allem’ exhibition followed the lives of families that had migrated to Berlin during colonial times. It contested the view that migration into the city was just a recent phenomenon.

The Treptow exhibition, by contrast, looked at (mostly) temporary migration – for the purpose of participation in the colonial exhibition, as ‘exhibits’. ‘zurückgeschaut/looking back‘ was a collaboration between the museum and the civil society project ‘Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City’. A previous version was put together with the Initative of Black People in Germany (ISD) and Berlin Postkolonial. The exhibtion is to be continually updated and expanded through new findings – hopefully we can go on a guided tour (contact Miriam Fisshaye at Zwedi for tours). As in the previous exhibits, the method was to bring people closer to the viewer by telling their life stories. These stories named people, showed their motivations for participation, their negotiations about the work conditions, and also sometimes their prior life in Berlin, where they were involved in apprenticeships or ran their own businesses. What was special about this exhibition: individualising people visually, e.g. by showing individual portraits, removed from their background context and coloured in to bring them closer/closer in time. Another means was by challenging and creating not only alternative language but also visual performance of language. Specifically, the performed neutrality of language (in this case written language) was being contested:

The Treptow exhibition statement also reminded me of the much cited method by artist Jean-Michel Basqiat: ‘I cross out words so you will see them more. The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.’ Although the exhibition designers used a similar method, I did not feel that the crossing out drew more attention to offensive language. To me, the over-written parts felt very natural, as if they should always come in this form. They made the text feel more like an orchestral score where the elaborated bits became a musical score, a silent soundtrack, with the overwritten parts becoming noise or pauses – like thinking pauses that should have occurred to prevent colonial crimes. But now the crimes and the words and pictures are there. Indeed, not only was this method used with writing, but also with photographs and other visuals:

I had to think back to the Fhxb exhibition poster and its typography, but also typographical experiments at the German queer feminist Missy Magazine with regard to race, gender and ability. Having studied some graphic design as part of my fashion studies (I have a BA and MA in Fashion), I know how much typography is being obsessed with by designers, and for good reasons. It makes political statements. When the students walked to the Reichstag building, explained the debate about the font above its entrance (‘Dem Deutschen Volke’/To the German People). Politicians could not decide whether to go for a ‘Gothic’ font, symbolising German tribal connections, or whether to pick a ‘Roman’ font, echoing the empires of antiquity. What kind of history did these politicians want to write?

At Treptow Museum, the combination of ‘Shu-Mom‘ and Rammellzee suited the exhibition really well in terms of style and purpose. It also prepared be for my next exhibition visit, Malicious Mischief by the artist Martin Wong. Wong (1946-1999) was a gay Chinese-American painter and sculptor whose art worked with and against stereotypes around his multiple identities. The first thing I noticed was his writing style, which features prominently in his earlier work. Here is an example:

Image: Martin Wong, Psychic Bandits (1972)

Wong clearly experimented with Chinese-American aesthetics, not just in his paintings but also in his written pieces. The fusion of graffiti and Chinese script is even clearer on his CV:

I like how the font initially appears messy and difficult to read, but is actually easy to decipher. Despite its apparent messiness, it is aesthetically coherent and even pleasant. The resonances it carries are both overt and subversive. I had to think of questions such as: How much does typography influence perception? What amount of detail does our mind need to complete or question an aesthetic of cultural stereotype? Where are graphic boundaries/overlaps between writing systems? How much does our writing reflect individual or group/dominant identity? (Such questions may have featured in the associated conference On the Languages of Martin Wong.)

What both Wong’s typographic experiments and those of the ‘Trotz allem’ exhibition further made me think about is the aliveness of both spoken and written language. Even when transformations sometimes happen through violence, such as invasions, these seem to not only occur one-way. This has not prevented some people from trying to save ‘their’ language from ‘mutilation’, especially dismissing innovations that relate to new cultural influences (read: race, gender, ability…). However, looking at examples such as Chinese character development, more generally transformations in sounds, transcription or meaning, such arguments do not hold. I understand some of this desire, for example, I feel it when the German character “ß” is being progressively eliminated, or when I learn about the many languages and related world views (I need to write that ‘word views’ blog post that has been on my list for ages!) that are dying out right now. I think it depends what we feel attached to or nostalgic about and why. In my view, if we don’t ask about this ‘why’, then the prejudices embedded within land reproduced through language, have done their work. But if we do question our motivations, then the resistant elements that are also contained within, have done theirs. I am hopeful that the latter will continue to assert themselves in interesting ways and spaces, presenting openings even in situations where we suffer from an excess of control.

The queer case of ‘The Five Devils’: a rant

A few weeks ago, I watched The Five Devils in the cinema, and it’s been on my mind pretty much every day since. I keep telling people to watch it, too, but it’s not even in most cinemas any more. Neither did any of the film descriptions that are circulating on the press do the film any favour (I was the only one in Wimbledon Curzon until one other brave person arrived during the adverts). I understand that the film is difficult to describe if you don’t want to give spoilers (trying not to give them in this review), but I don’t get just how bad the descriptions and the reviews have been. After watching the film, I looked up some reviews to see what other people have been thinking. This search has mostly been anger inducing, apart from one stellar exception on Autostraddle, an explicitly queer site. A friend of mine jokingly suggested that the film probably is not understood ‘because its French’, but I feel that the reason is more symptomatic of the times.

In fact, I am afraid that I do get it – why the film is being reviewed in this way – and this is what upsets me: the search for a decent take on the film felt like a mirror of what’s currently happening in the ‘progressive’ press in terms of anti-queerness (not just down to heterosexuality – even some lesbians and gays have been rejecting queerness because of its associations with non-comformity). Given the amount of TERFy, and also racist and ableist, commentary in the liberal mainstream, the spectacularly ignorant treatment of the film should come as no surprise (as if for extra emphasis, the abysmal Tár got rave reviews). Although, at minimum, I was hoping that someone who is being paid to be a film critic should at least get a basic grip on things, which hasn’t remotely been the case.

So what are the reviews saying? Mostly they seem to be making a huge effort to avoid the queer theme of the film, and I don’t necessarily mean ‘queer’ in relation to sexuality. There are multiple aspects that grate against the (white) normative matrix such as intersections with gender, race and disability. What I love about Drew Burnett Gregory‘s review is that the author draws attention to normative vs queer timelines, and to the attempts of normative society to disrupt this queerness. It is so brilliantly set in scene, rich in avenues that the viewer can probe, without being too literal. Here is a quote from an interview with the director that supports this impression:

“That’s what I did, I left a lot of explanations in my script. And then when I went to shoot, I had it all. And then when we got to the editing stage, I tried to take things out as much as possible. Little bit like you do when you play Jenga when you have all those little bits and pieces and then you have to eliminate one at a time. But you’d need to do it in a very careful way so that the whole thing doesn’t come tumbling down. That’s the kind of work that we did in the editing stage. We tried to take out anything that was an explanation, making sure that the film held together all the same.”

The openess of this contruction is palpable, and also has the function, as the director puts it, to avoid having “a single rigid critical opinion”. The film was not supposed to be preachy, but an exploration that assumes that the viewer, even if prejudiced, is capable of creative thinking.

Meanwhile, mainstream critics proceed to not go down any avenues and instead end up making lots of problematic projections. Tara Brady from the Irish Times, for example, engages in casual drive-by racism by describing Moustapha Mbengue’s character Jimmy as an ‘absent father’, although it is clearly Adèle Exarchopoulos’s Joanne who appears distant (see image below). The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gets hung up on the superpower trope and feels that the daughter, portrayed by Sally Dramé, should have one and not two superpowers, although there are technically no actual superpowers in the film. This is mirrored in the attempts to sell the film as a ‘witchy’ horror, scifi or fantasy production. But if you see The Five Devils as just that, you will inevitably be disappointed. Perhaps ‘magical realism’ would have been a stronger selling point, since director Léa Mysius has emphasised that her attempts at capturing reality resulted in something that appears fantastical.

Image: IMDB.

This feeling of the fantastical, even horror, is very familiar to many queer, racialised and other supposedly ‘non-normative’ people: many of us have had that moment when a familiar friendly person suddenly comes out with something horrific. In the film, this turning feels quite visceral, for example, in the case of Joanne’s father. There are a lot of other ‘moments’ in the mix, not just of ‘turning’, but self-sabotage, disaffection (just started reading Xine Yao‘s book on the topic) and anxiety about choices not made (there is a painful karaoke scene in the film which functions as a kind of watershed moment for some of these feelings). Towards the end, the film gets a bit more explanatory, but not overly so (I liked the child’s questions to her mother). If I had sometime to criticise, I feel that the film could perhaps have been a bit more sensitive to the racialisation of witchcraft. The director explained that this theme partially came out of her own childhood experiences with her twin sister (I actually, too, tried to create weird potions or perfumes by burying water mixed with flower petals!). In the story, it seems to be used to connect gender, racialisation, sexuality, and one’s own participation in self-oppression. This is not an easy performance, and it feels like it walks on a knife’s edge between affirming and refuting stereotypes. Maybe this is also the point of the film: to not just perform ‘queerness’, but also alert us to our own ‘edgewalks’ that we are trying hard to suppress.

Geopoetics under censorship: Tom Zé’s ‘Todos Os Olhos’

In the run-up to the RGS session on Geopoetics under Censorship (with Aya Nassar), I am going to post a few examples that inspired the session, as I won’t be able to fit them all into the paper. I want to start with one that came up in conversation with friends last night: Tom Zé‘s notorious album cover for Todos Os Olhos. I saw Tom Zé many years ago in London after reading an article about his experiments with instrumentation. Zé is most known as an earlier contributer to the Brazilian Tropicália movement, a collective of artists that sought to cross boundaries between the everyday and the avantgarde. It was also a political movement that was banned by the government, but later became popularised around the world, especially through its musical output. While Tom Zé separated from the movement, some commentators feel that he encapsulates Tropicalia’s ethos of continuous experimentation.

The concert I attended took place in a rather sterile seated space, but Zé’s energy was palpable even in this kind of environment. The occasion of his visit was to present his new album and theatrical production, the ‘operetta’ Estudando o Pagode. The material for the operetta exemplifies the experimental and often satirical nature of Zé’s work. It uses mundane ‘instruments’ such as leaves and body parts, messes with an increasingly commodified samba genre (pagode), and somehow also centres on the history of women’s oppression as a sort of ‘advice column’ to men. Because of the varied connections of his work with politicial and social issues, Zé calls his style ‘sung journalism‘.

When I told my friends about the performance, they pointed me to his earlier work, and especially an album that was legendary for its ‘carnivalesque’ engagement with censorship. When I looked up the events surrounding the production of Todos Os Olhos, I realised that there was not just one ‘legend’ but several, which seemed to be typical for work produced under censorship, but also for Tom Zé’s jester-like personality. The core of these legends is that the album (lyrics and cover image) was supposed to be a critique of both the censorship under the Brazilian military dictatorship and of fellow political singer-songwriters who still manage to flourish under this regime. While the lyrics are pretty clear in terms of their references, opinions diverge on the function of the image, and especially on what the image actually shows. The first thing I heard was that the image was Tom Zé’s anus, holding a diamond, but looking like a sunset. The second thing I heard was that it was supposed to look like an eyeball, but it was a picture of his girlfriend’s anus with a marbel inserted. I later read that it was perhaps just a mouth holding a marble, but that Zé was told that it was an anus and he believed it. It is worth tracking some of these stories to take in all the bizarre detail.

Given the amount of ‘legends’ that surround the album cover, whether there is an actual anus in the picture or not does not really seem to matter. Whatever is on the cover, Todos Os Olhos represents, as a blurb on Tower Records puts it, “a little jab at the Brazilian dictatorship’s office of censorship, which apparently didn’t recognize a mirror when they saw one” (indeed, Todos Os Olhos translates as ‘all of the eyes’ or ‘all eyes’). There is immense satisfaction in the thought that an eye looking at a sunset is actually an arsehole shoved in the face of an ignorant censor. It sounds like a classic ‘low trumps high’ case: the uncensored cover of an an ‘anus eye’ not only signifies as a perfect inversion, but perhaps also an act of reclaiming freedom, joy and, as ironic as this may seem, dignity. Because of this, the image also works so well as a commentary on the image of the musician as hero, including as a potential critique of Zé himself.

There are other examples of multidimensional parody that came to my mind when looking at Todos Os Olhos. The first is an academic ‘legend’ surrounding Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin who wrote a parodic PhD thesis under Stalin. After nearly costing him his life, it later became the book Rabelais and His World. Ostensibly about medieval carnival and its inversion of the ‘high’ and the ‘low’, the work makes clear contributions to literary theory and medieval history, but it also comments on Stalinist dialectical materialist (‘diamat’) doctrine and related academic complicity. Bakhtin’s movement between Marxist materialism and banned Nietzschean philosophy feels like a cat and mouse game with the censors. There are paralles regarding ‘base’ body imagery, in Bakhtin’s case including shit, piss and arses whose presense is academically well justified, but also incredibly and subversively funny.

An author who pushed the genre even further, though (because?) under less deadly conditions, is George Bataille. In his essay The Solar Anus, he not only attempts to subvert Western ideas of rationality, by mocking both philosophers and their apparent antagonists, but also the concept of parody itself. There is a great article on this by one of Bataille’s translators, Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons, in which she explains the relation between Bataille’s first target (philosophy’s self-imposed limitations in explaining the individual in relation to the universe) and his ‘parody of parody’. As far as I understand it as a non-philosopher, Bataille sees no value in taking down these high minded ideas about the sun and its association with clarity, rationality, or hierarchy. Although he has engaged in a substantial amount of parody, for example, mocking materialism’s dislike for the mundane ‘base’ of life in his essay The Big Toe, or turning pretty much everything into porn, he feels that parody can merely stay within the boundaries of the existing order and not go beyond this system. In fact, as he writes, we already perform this system by turning our eyes equally away from the ‘high’ (e.g. the blinding sun) and the ‘low’ (e.g. sex, death, darkness).

Rather, parody, as Bataille argues, works like a mise-en-abîme: everything is a parody of another thing. It is even mirrored in the physical environment. Life is parodic by default, as its parody already exists in the world: “Everyone is aware that life is parodic and that it lacks an interpretation. Thus lead is the parody of gold. Air is the parody of water. The brain is the parody of the equator. Coitus is the parody of crime”. This might sound a bit far fetched, but Bataille has a point when it comes to difficulties of transcending an established system. Philosophers, poets, artists, all try or claim to transcend, but they may just be imitating or performing a different aspect of the same system. Does that mean that parody has no use politically or artistically? For Bataille, the reason for pursuing parody seems to be greater clarity about the system. As with Bakhtin, I like how “grotesque” geographical imagery becomes a reminder that so much is being ignored that would disturb the orderly system that we would like to impose. If you are not clear about what it is you are attacking or doing, you are probably more likely to participate in maintaining things as they are. Through this, the geophysical imagery performs a refusal. More so, it hints at a world in which things could make sense differently. Tom Zé might call this strategy ‘Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You‘ (a line from his song ).

To me, geographical and political context also matters. In Zé’s and Bakhtin’s environments, parody was a different performance, even a psychological necessity. Even if the two men did not design these parodies themselves (in fact, many of Bakhtin’s writings cannot attributed to him with certainty, since writers sometimes transferred authorship for safety reasons), or if they had different intentions, they became a base for ‘legends’ that continue to give sustenance to activists who edure similar conditions. The on-going mutations, as well as the geographical contexts in which these enduring ‘legends’ appear occupy me as much as the new things that keep appearing.

RGS-IBG 2023 Call For Papers: Geopoetics Under Censorship

Thai democracy protester and duck. Photograph: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

Organisers: Angela Last (Leicester), Aya Nassar (Warwick). We are aiming for a hybrid session to allow for anonymity of some of the speakers.

Sponsor: Political Geography Research Group

Deadline: 10 March 2023

Whichever form geopoetics take, they involve creative engagements with/against officially sanctioned relations with the natural or built environment (Hoover, 2021; Madge, 2014; Magrane et al, 2019), as such we propose they are inherently political (Last 2015, McKittrick 2020; Nassar, 2021; Noxolo and Preziuso, 2012). As recent protests around the world have shown, geographical imagery continues to be used as a means of subverting, confounding or revealing censorship. They have also shown that geopoetics are not limited to academic or literary endeavours and publications but there are very much a political practice of dissent and refusal. In this session we invite contributions that grabble with the (im)possibilities of geopoetic engagements under, against and beyond censorship, or what geographers might interpret as such.

The session recognises that subversions of censorship are not always intentionally constructed as geopoetics but might become interpreted as such by academics.  In this session therefore we hope to unpack some of the questions raised the potential ambiguities, opacities, potentials and problems of geopoetics. The many incomplete, un/intentional or mis/interpretations of geopoetics show that ambiguity can lead to subversive tools for different times and contexts. Yet there are some questions that emerge about decode-ability, especially across time and spaces (Liu and St André, 2018; Maximin, 2012). How much can be read and by whom? What happens when knowledge bases, political references and geographical meanings change? Further, the idea of ‘un-intentional’ geopoetics raise additional questions, not just about intention itself, but also about interpreter motivations: what is the purpose of this deliberate re-reading? Finally, is there perhaps something to be said about forms micro censorships, for example in relation to academic self/censorship, modes of writing or grammars of knowledge production?

We welcome academic, activist and experimental submissions. We invite contributions, academic or otherwise, that relate to –but not restricted to:

  • historical and contemporary examples of geopoetics produced under censorship
  • practising geopoetics under censorship
  • questioning the geographies of censorship
  • censorship vs self-censorship
  • geographical specificities of metaphor
  • accidental/intentional misreadings of subversive or censored work
  • legacies of misinterpretations
  • risks of producing/distributing subversive geopoetics

Please send abstracts, or descriptions of the interventions to Angela Last ( and Aya Nassar (

Works cited:

Hoover, E.M. (2021) Poetic Commoning in European Cities – Or on the Alchemy of Concrete. GeoHumanities 7(2), 464-47.

Last, A. (2015). Fruit of the cyclone: Undoing geopolitics through geopoetics. Geoforum64, 56-64.

Liu, L. H., St. André, J.(2018) The Battleground of Translation: Making Equal in a Global Structure of Inequality. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 38

Madge, C. (2014). On the creative (re)turn to geography: poetry, politics and passion. Area, 46(2), 178–185.

Magrane, E., Russo, L., de Leeuw, S., Santos Perez, C. (eds) (2019) Geopoetics in Practice. London & New York: Routledge.

Maximin, D. (2012) Introduction. In: Césaire, S. The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-45). Maximin, D. (ed). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

McKittrick, K. (2020). Dear science and other stories. Duke University Press.

Nassar, A. (2021) Geopoetics as Disruptive Aesthetics: Vignettes from Cairo, GeoHumanities, 7(2), 455-463.

Noxolo, P, Preziuso, M (2012) Moving Matter. Interventions 14(1), 120-13.

RGS-IBG 2023 Call for Papers: Legacies and Geographies of Left Environmental In/Determinisms

This is one of two sessions that I am co-organising this year. Please get in touch with myself ( or Elise (

Organisers: Angela Last (Leicester), Elise Lecomte (Leicester)

Session type: In-person

Sponsor: History and Philosophy of Geography Research Group (HPGRG website)

Deadline for submissions: 10 March 2023

The term ‘environmental determinism’ has primarily become associated with the far right of the political spectrum. It evokes concepts such as Friedrich Ratzel’s ‘Lebensraum’ or the disturbingly popular ‘new environmental determinisms’ such as those of Jared Diamond, Robert D. Kaplan and Tim Marshall. However, at the height of modern environmental determinism, the idea that humans are hardwired for aggressive competition and colonisation was countered by a multiplicity of left responses, which covered the spectrum from de-naturalisation (e.g. He-Yin Zhen) to alternative naturalisation of human behavioural patterns (e.g. Kropotkin, Reclus, Metchnikoff). In his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), for example, Kropotkin argued against right wing ideas of ‘natural competition’ by proposing that humans are rather biologically predisposed towards cooperation. While environmental determinism in any shape or form became shunned by the left after its devastating application by the National Socialists its fundamental relations between biology, geography and politics never entirely went away in either political direction, due to its close entanglement with modern identity (Adamczak, 2013).

In this session, we are interested in tracing some of the lineages of left environmental determinism. The reasons for examining these include 1) contemporary transitions of left intellectuals to the far right via questions that closely relate to environmental or biological determinisms such as gender, environment and indigeneity; 2) journeys of concepts such as ‘mutual aid’ from anarchism to neoliberalism; 3) ‘re-materialisations’ in new materialism that echo far right environmental determinism (e.g. Latour, 2022); 4) experiments to subvert far right determinisms by reinterpreting far right favourites such as ancient (climate) history, or proposing ‘environmental indeterminisms’ as alternative scientific models based on chance/indeterminacy (e.g. Monod, 1970; Barad, 2007; Ferreira da Silva, 2022).

In this session, we are looking for critical engagements with left environmental determinisms and their varied histories and legacies. These may include:

  • Historical re-readings and alternative genealogies of environmental in/determinism
  • Past/present culture wars and environmental in/determinism
  • Environmental in/determinisms and modernity
  • Non-European environmental in/determinisms
  • Historical changes of scientific bases
  • Environmental in/determinist currents in (new) materialism
  • Speculative fiction that critically engages with left environmental in/determinism


Adamczak, B. (2013) Gender and the new man: Emancipation and the Russian Revolution? Platypus Review 62. URL:

Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ferreira da Silva, D. (2022) Unpayable Debt. New York: Sternberg Press.

Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. URL:

Latour, B. (2022) Is Europe’s soil changing beneath our feet? Group d’études géopolitiques. Sep 2022, 92-97:

Monod, J. (1970) Chance and Necessity : An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology. London: Collins.

Zhen, He-Yin (1907) On the Question of Women’s Liberation. Natural Justice (天义).

International Human Rights Day Protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





SGGE Annual Geography Lecture: Nigel Clark

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

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

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

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

Matters of Concern: New Materialism & Environmental Determinism

Photograph: Andreas Arnold/AP. The Guardian.

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

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

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

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

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