UCL Institute of the Americas

This looks like a good event (many thanks to Patricia Noxolo for forwarding):

Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico’s Not-So-Natural Disaster

Start: Jan 25, 2018 06:00 PM

Location: UCL Institute of the Americas, 51 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PN

January 25 2018 | 18:00

On Wednesday 20 September 2017 the lives of Puerto Ricans on the island and abroad changed forever. Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico as a category four storm (sustained winds of 150mph), leaving the island in a state of emergency. Essential services such as power, potable water and communication services collapsed. Flooding did not discriminate between marginalized and affluent neighborhoods. But the natural disaster uncovered the soaring levels of inequality and the commodification of disaster-related recovery for Puerto Rican residents. Access to power, adequate food, potable water, among other aspects of life, were guaranteed to individuals with access to the market. The well-being of the rest of the population rested in the hands of the federal emergency management agencies, and local citizen-led initiatives. Moreover, austerity programmes, a long-term lack of investment in infrastructure and the lack of decision-making power from Puerto Rico´s elected officials magnified Hurricane Maria’s socio-economic impact.

The main purpose of this roundtable will be to address the disaster conditions, response and consequences of Puerto Rico’s Not-So-Natural Disaster. The conversation will start with a brief overview of the infrastructural collapse and the challenges to rebuilding and reconstructing society (e.g., rapid out-migration, mass unemployment). The discussion will address the following issues:

  • Community vs state efforts in the emergency response and reconstruction: To compensate or complement?
  • High-tech capitalist responses vs local community initiatives
  • International aid: Are we repeating the Haiti 2010 intervention model for Puerto Rico?
  • Who’s in charge?: ‘La Junta’ vs elected government of Puerto Rico
  • Impact of the 12 years economic crisis and bankruptcy in the recovery process
  • Consolidating the colony? Racial and class dynamics
  • Trump, media responses and the representation of the crisis
  • Uncontrolled capitalism: From an economy of production to a consumerist economy.

The four participants are Puerto Rican academics based in the UK.

Dr. Patria Roman. Currently a Senior Lecturer in Media & Creative Industries at Loughborough University, first arrived in the UK in 1992 to study at University of Leicester where she obtained her PhD in 1996. Her early childhood was marked by her experience of growing up between the rural town of Moca in Puerto Rico and the Latin neighbourhoods of NY, Chicago and Philadelphia. This experience has informed her research with Latin Americans in London and she has built on this to found and direct Latin Elephant, a charity working to increase participation of migrant and ethnic groups, in particular Latin Americans, in processes of urban change in London. She is the author of The Making of Latin London: Music, Place and Identity (1999) and of numerous articles about urban regeneration and Latin Americans in Elephant and Castle.

Dr. Melissa Fernández Arrigoitia, born and raised in San Juan Puerto Rico, is a Lecturer in Urban Futures at Lancaster University’s Sociology Department. Following her BA in Tufts University, she obtained an MSc in International Development and Gender and a PhD in Sociology from the LSE. In between, she worked in international human rights organisations in London, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Melissa’s doctoral research focused on the activism surrounding the demolition of one of the last high rise public housing projects in the financial district of Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. She has continued to pursue work on the ‘making and unmaking’ of homes in other international contexts, including Rio de Janeiro, London, and South Asia, which has led to a number of articles and the co-edited books Social Housing in Europe (Wiley, 2014) and Geographies of Forced Evictions (Palgrave, 2017).

Dr. Janialy Ortiz Camacho is a socio-cultural anthropologist with higher education studies and ethnographic experience in Puerto Rico, Canada and Spain. Her most recent research has focused on people’s responses to governmental community development projects, and the production of political subjectivities in Puerto Rico. She is also passionate about expanding fieldwork insights into a more public-democratic platform, using visual and creative writing forms. Janialy currently lives in Cambridge, UK.

Dr. Gibrán Cruz-Martínez is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Global Development and Planning, University of Agder (Norway). After finishing his undergraduate studies in his native Puerto Rico he moved to Madrid to pursue a Masters and PhD in Political Science at the Complutense University. His research focuses on the development of emerging welfare states in Latin America and the Caribbean, and its relationship to multidimensional poverty and inequality. Gibrán is also interested in the role of organised communities in Puerto Rico as alternative welfare providers. A book on the latter entitled Produciendo Bienestar was recently published in Spain (Dykinson, 2017).


Attendance to this event is free of charge but registration is required. IMPORTANT NOTE ON ACCESS TO 51 GORDON SQUARE: in order to ensure a smooth delivery of the lecture and for ease of logistics, access to the building may be restricted after the start of the event. We will endeavour to accommodate late arrivals within reason, but an early arrival is recommended to avoid disappointment. Thank you for your cooperation and understanding.

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A night at the local history museum


Image: Tiny Lüneburg on top of massive geological layers

I left my hometown in Northern Germany 20 years ago to live in the UK. It has been interesting to watch the changes in Lüneburg from afar – from the re-development of the small local university into Leuphana to the integration of the town into the nearby city of Hamburg’s transport system. Two building projects have recently been at the centre of attention: an extravagant and pricey central building for Leuphana University designed by US architect Daniel Libeskind, and a new museum of local history that brings together natural and human history. This year, I finally managed to visit both, and, a few weeks ago, I had the luxury of having the museum to myself for one whole afternoon, while people were out doing last minute Christmas preparations. I was curious how the museum connected the different aspects that made the town, and was not disappointed.


Image: Leuphana Audimax. Source: NDR.

Museum Lüneburg joins an existing landscape of museums in town that include the German Salt Museum (the town’s wealth was based on salt, an important food preservative in the Middle Ages), the Northern German Brewery Museum (did you know that sociologist Niklas Luhmann came from a family of local brewers and owned a pub?) and the controversially titled East Prussian National Museum (the town’s population doubled with refugees from this region after WW2, including some of my own family). It brings together the collection of the former local Natural History Museum and the Museum of the Principality of Lüneburg that were both previously combined in a ‘Knight’s Academy’ collection that was used to prepare young 18th and 19th century aristocrats for university. Conceived in 2007 to update the presentations of the museum contents, the new and rather beautiful museum was finally opened in 2015.


Image: The Museum Lüneburg by day. Photo: Bernd Hiepe

From the UK, I was used to not paying for public museums, so I accidentally walked in without going to the information desk first. After being politely alerted to the entry fee, I purchased a ticket – and delighted the museum worker by telling her that I was from abroad (“this will look great in our statistics!”) – phew! The 8 Euros turned out to be rather good value for money, considering that I spent three hours trawling through two levels (thankfully, entry is free for under-18s and students, and there are a variety of discounts). I was actually surprised how long I spent there, considering that I was familiar with much of the material. I could easily have spent more time there, but the building was closing for the evening. So, what kept me fascinated for so long?


Image: One of the many (bilingual) museum panels

First of all, I really loved the combination of big and small narrative arches. To me, the museum managed to shuttle back and forth between natural and human history, and between references across time. I emerged from the tour with an uncanny sense that everything is now, rather than somewhere located in the past. The earth had shoved together this strange place, and we’re still (badly) managing what’s underneath and around us. It very much felt like walking through a local version of Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.


Image: Lüneburg on the move!

The exhibition began with geological history and especially drew attention to the formation of the salt domes that the town is famous for. I especially loved the 3-D model of the town with its geological layers underneath (photo at the beginning of this post) – a very humbling experience. I also liked the many framed cross-sections and ground formation models, some of which illustrated movement over time as well as the current state.


Image: One of those beautiful cross-sections

The following section introduced local wildlife and showed past and present occupations such as shepherding and river pearl harvesting. Due to the town’s dependency on the salt production, which required copious amounts of firewood, the surrounding forests were decimated so badly that an entirely new landscape developed – Lüneburg Heath. Add to this peat production from the local moors, and you might understand how, for centuries, the outskirts were shunned as a bleak desert. However, with the rise of Romanticism, the landscape became reinterpreted to such a degree that it started to give rise to a tourism industry. Many German Heimatfilme are set in the Heath and its sheep filled purple bloom, and there is also a new soap called ‘Rote Rosen’ (Red Roses) set in the town, so the tourists keep on coming.


Image: Recent touristic portrayal of the Totengrund (dead ground/grounds of the dead) on Lüneburg Heath.

The next section was dedicated to local power struggles and how these tied in to wider dynamics – struggles between centres and peripheries, nobles and burghers, Catholics and Protestants. Brutal changes marked local developments, including the destruction of the town of Bardowick – an extremely powerful place in the Middle Ages, but unwilling to cooperate with Henry the Lion who practically erased the place in response and granted the tiny village of Lüneburg town status instead. Local myths were folded in, too, such as folk heroes, a strange moon cult around the market place’s water feature, and the mysterious appearance of materials from the Middle East.


Image: Replica of the Ebstorf Map (original destroyed in WW2)

Education and knowledge was also a big topic, since the area was littered with monasteries, one of which was responsible for creating the 13th century Ebstorf Map. As in many other places at the time, a new relationship to the world was formed, which not only resulted in new maps, but in new scientific instrumentation and ordering systems.


Image: Wendland traditions, old and new…

The final section then brought together more recent history with everything else that had gone on before. Pottery and other artefacts from various ages and people gave the impression of an on-going familiar domesticity, not just across time, but also across different human species and other cultures. For instance, traditional headdresses from the Wendland area were juxtaposed with anti-nuclear protest versions of those hats (see image above), since the salt domes are now being used for nuclear waste storage. In the same section, the story of the Heath from desert to tourist destination was treated in more detail, but also the Nazi’s use of medieval and pagan traditions to forge local culture (such as a barrel race on horseback through the town). The heavy uptake of ‘pagan culture’ amongst neo-Nazis still makes celebrations such as winter or summer solstice celebrations problematic – celebrations that tend to have very positive connotations in the UK (when I tell my friends in Germany that I went to a UK friend’s solstice celebration, they look at me in shock).


Image: The synagoge of Lüneburg before its destruction. Source: Jüdische Gemeinden

The museum’s dealings with the local National Socialist past was particularly engaging, despite the comparatively small space dedicated to it. A 3-D town model built by a local Social Democrat politician and Nazi opponent was used to narrate the history of over 20 sites of Nazi crime. This included the destruction of the enormous local synagogue and the persecution of its congregation, the transformation of a progressive mental health clinic to a euthanasia programme, but also many small, insidious ways such as charity, local history and sports programmes, which helped Nazism gain such popular following. Remarkably, quite a few of the artefacts and description implicated existing local families, businesses and politicians, to show how horrific events from the time still benefit the perpetrators and the local population.


Image: Rewilding Exhibition poster

Following on, a temporary exhibition gave information on the rewilding debate – the reappearance of wolves and other previously disappeared animal species in the forests. In a mostly rural area such as that surrounding Lüneburg, the debate is almost bigger than the refugee debate, although themes tend to overlap: do wolves contribute to keeping the local deer and wild boar population in check that is spiralling out of control due to biofuel related monoculture? Or do wolves ‘not have a place in Europe anymore’ and ‘should stay in the East where there is more space, and they can do whatever they want’?


Image: Middle Eastern Buffet in Kaltenmoor, housed by the AWO (German Social Democrats affiliated charity). Source: AWO

Sadly, I did not have much time left for this exhibit, but I think that the museum did not seek to make the natural and human history connection here. This uncomfortable intersection, however, made me wonder whether the museum could highlight some of the international/cross-cultural connections of the town, in particular in connection with the refugees debate and the high occurrence of mostly Asian ‘mail order brides’ in rural areas. Are people, things and practices from other places really a new phenomenon (e.g. where do those “German potatoes” really come from?), or is Germany particularly good at erasing such influences? The manifold attempts at suppressing of Afro-Germans come to mind, but also early Middle Eastern influences. Coming from a family with a diverse ethnic background, and from an area of town with a high immigrant population (Kaltenmoor) that is frequently portrayed in the media as a ‘social problem area‘, some of the exhibits that implied outside influences made me wish to probe such connections more deeply.

On Materialism


Image: Adriana Varejão, Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992.

One of the most frequent questions that I get in relationship to the blog is: what kind of materialism are you talking about? Are you a new materialist or historical materialist – or neither? Some readers have also asked how I moved from writing about nanotechnology to writing about colonialism. The answer very much reflects the title of the blog.

I have had a peculiar relationship with matter for a long time. Sitting in physics class aged 13, I walked up to my teacher and proclaimed: ‘I don’t think the world is as straight-forward as our school books tell us’. He replied: ‘That is indeed correct, but you won’t find out just how weird the world and the universe are until Year 11’. As I was only in Year 7, I had to keep taking those physics classes until I graduated and all my suspicions were finally confirmed. This particular path would later lead me to what is currently called ‘new materialism’, via authors such as Karen Barad, Michel Serres, Isabelle Stengers and other philosophers of science. Thinking through matter from a physics point of view has also helped me understand the many strategies of how people keep trying manage this universal weirdness.


Image: DESY particle physics research centre in Hamburg. Source: dpa

Another path to materialism, via an extended detour, was the product of my geographical location. Growing up very close to the GDR border on the Western side, I could not help but pick up on East Germany’s reverence for Marx. At the end of the Cold War, when the world ceased to stop a few miles away from home, it was fascinating to explore a part of the same country that had undergone an alternative based on a different political theory. Visiting family east of the former border felt like a parallel universe – even the animal breeds were different. At the same time, this parallel universe was visibly and audibly contained by state violence – the same state that built monuments to historical materialists. Although I concluded that Marx or Engels could not be held responsible for the negative actions of the GDR governments towards its citizens, for a long time I remained unable to dissociate historical and dialectical materialism from the image of people being shot down by spring guns at giant fences – with no one being able to intervene.

Initially, this was one reason that attracted me to new materialism. It felt a long distance away from the violence, contradiction and futility I associated with historical materialism, and from the excruciating macho Marxism performed by activists and academics at demonstrations and conferences. Moreover, I felt that historical and dialectical materialism did not seem to be interested in matter at all. This image changed, and perhaps even reversed, for me through a variety of influences, including the work of feminist Marxists such as Silvia Federici and Doreen Massey, political dissatisfaction with new materialism and its ontological obsession, a deeper engagement with the insidious violence of the West, and the discovery of early historical materialist works that engaged with scientific and philosophical questions around matter. The most important influence, however, was the writing of theorists who were active during the interwar period and were looking for tools to counter the threats of fascism, Stalinism and colonialism – writers such as Suzanne Césaire, Aimé Césaire, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille and Mikhail Bakhtin. These authors started from a position that was critical but also appreciative of materialism, and tried to supplement it with what they thought was missing, including considerations of human psychology, racial relations and non-economic relations with the land.

For me, these (and related) writers map out an alternative materialist path that is both historical and new materialist, or neither. This is what I am currently exploring in my work, and particularly how the experiments of the interwar and WWII period continue to speak to the present situation, where we again experience the rise of fascism and (neo)colonialism. How can materialist thinking be shaped into a useful tool to address a political, social, environmental and economic crisis? Here, I am grateful for my formative encounters with matter and materialism, as they keep resurfacing as reminders of the troubling ways in which theory, politics and everyday practices can relate. Mutable matter, indeed!

Lectureship @ Leicester

Today, I have started a lectureship at the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at the University of Leicester. It is a geohumanities themed post, so I am looking forward to more inter- and cross-disciplinary work!

My new contact details are:

Dr Angela Last
School of Geography, Geology and the Environment
Bennett Building
University of Leicester
University Road
Leicester
LE1 7RH, UK

al418@leicester.ac.uk

 

Cosmos & Crisis Workshop Summary


Image: John Akomfrah ‘Purple’ (2017) Poster

At the end of September, the Cosmos & Crisis workshop was held through Warwick Social Theory Centre and with the support of a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant. The workshop had three intersecting aims: to interrogate current consideration of the cosmic in political work, to acknowledge the importance and conditions of para-academic inquiry in this area, and to bring people together from different disciplines, practices and research areas.

Why look at work on the cosmos? In times of crisis, the cosmos has frequently functioned as an imaginative resource for political and cultural renewal. From the space programmes of the Cold War period to the reassertion of indigenous cosmologies, the cosmic has served as a rallying point for a diversity of ideological directions. In such projects, the cosmic functions as a device to, on the one hand, propose different sorts of material, cultural and political divisions, hierarchies and commonalities, and, on the other hand, to address human fears and needs for stability. Sometimes, the outlandishness of the cosmic is used to highlight the absurdity of existing social, economic and geographical divisions and conventions.

The resulting imaginaries can have both positive and negative expressions: while zooming out to a larger scale or zooming in on existential questions can open up opportunities for building new relations that enable positive change, the same line of enquiry can also lead to attempts of aggressive restabilisation, for instance, by right wing ideologies and movements.

While academic analyses in the humanities and social sciences have often focused on the problematic use of the cosmic to support universalism, patriotism, imperialism and colonialism, considerations of the cosmos as a decolonial or deconstructive tool are comparatively rare. However, scholars across discourses such as Black Studies, Science and Technology Studies, and Philosophy have begun to re-evaluate the alternative possibilities of a turn to the cosmic by addressing questions from political ontologies to aesthetics.

The central question of the workshop could be framed as: why and how does thinking with the cosmos matter at this particular moment in time? We explored this question under four subthemes that seemed to encapsulate the content of the proposed contributions best: Spirituality, Materiality, Science and Practices. I will summarise the panels and their subsequent discussions separately, as many themes moved through all four discussion sections. A reading list will be published shortly.

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The idea behind the Spirituality panel – Goldie Osuri, Ashon Crawley, Robbie Shilliam, Martin Savransky, with Claire Blencowe as chair – was to explore post-secularity in the academy and beyond, including the question of what becomes excluded through a particular sense of secular modernity. At present, the debate around Muslim children in British schools seems to reflect the policing of a particular performance of modernity that is characterised by a huge blindspot towards parallel issues with white/Christian performances (e.g. see this article by John Holmwood).

Goldie Osuri looked at borders, both of those of the Kashmir conflict and those between the religious and the everyday. Using examples of how people in Kashmir are drawing on the supernatural to deal with the conflict, she explored alternative forms of sovereignty that would not be based on current conceptions of nationalism/internationalism, but on other bases such as climate change, human rights violations and gave a sense that we can never be masters of this world and the next”. In her search, she also looked at proposals of recent Native American writers to decolonise sovereignty, and at Judith Butler’s notion of vulnerability of resistance. Ashon Crawley read from his work-in-progress, an experimental epistolary in which he corresponds with a character called ‘Moth‘. In this work, he tries to explore other sorts of relations that are normally suppressed, misrepresented or marginalised, for instance, exuberance, fleshiness, excess (‘getting happy’). In this, he searched for ‘geo-spatial practices’ that are ‘resistant to centering’, against the practices of the ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (hooks) and its particular production of ‘man’. One of these practices that he presented was noise as world-making.


Video shown by Ashon Crawley as part of his presentation

Robbie Shilliam continued the call to become attentive to what becomes excluded under a particular European modernity. Through his examples of New Zealand commemorations of Parihaka and the work of assassinated Guyanese historical materialist Walter Rodney, he drew attention to the false choice of ‘either/or’ between modernity and what gets lumped together in categories such as ‘tradition’, ‘spirituality’, ‘indigenous practices’. Instead, he plead for a focus on the ‘and’: he warned that, as crisis (usually about Western civilisation) lead academics to flee to the cosmic, they also flee from what they should actually be critically engaging with: the fact that they perpetuate the crisis through a denial of spirituality co-existing with the modern. Martin Savransky continued the critique of the cosmos in Western philosophy by talking about the difficulty of letting go of the Kantian cosmos. In his reading, he pursued a notion of the cosmic ‘is on-going and unfinished’. He agreed with Robbie Shilliam that theorisation contributed to the on-doing devastation and, in a similar way to Ashon Crawley, sought to experiment with borders around accepted ways of communication, in his case by communicating through a ‘bestiary’ of myths, ‘fictions as real’.

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The central question of the Materialities panel – Patricia Noxolo, Maria Puig De La Bellacasa, Lee Mackinnon, Angela Last with chair Tahani Nadim – asked to what extent attention to the cosmic is about transforming a material relationship, and also materialist thinking.

The panel was kicked off by Patricia Noxolo and her reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘nonlinear’ novel ‘See Now Then’. Noxolo described the novel’s intermingling human history (family crisis, global history) and geological history as an experiment to subvert the ‘small-mindedness of the way in which we live now’. In particular, she focused on the absence of certain dimension from how we construct ourselves and our history, ‘how we use narration to create and how narration creates us’. Maria Puig de la Bellacasa also focused on this intermingled narration of human and cosmic history in her presentation on soil as ‘the cosmic compost pile’. In her discussion, she moved between the image of the cosmos as ‘the great unknown’ versus the cosmos as ‘order/the known and understood’. Showing examples from public engagement with soil, she argued that the desire to produce wonder, for instance, by making cosmic connections, also served as a distancing function. At the same time, she pointed to a wide-spread desire to ‘want the mystery back’, such as the mystery of vitalist force. In conclusion, she wondered whether the cosmic and more-than-human, despite the many attempts to appropriate it, resisted appropriation.


NASA image of Crab Nebula (from Lee Mackinnon’s presentation)

My own presentation was based on my book research and looked at experiments with matter and materialism during the interwar period by people in anti-fascist, anti-Stalinist and anti-colonial movements, and the underlying question of what an attention to the cosmic can do. In this, I looked at differences between uses of the cosmic on either side of the colonial divide in terms of how matter, science and spirituality were framed and used, and how those differences is mirrored by today’s differences e.g. between black and indigenous movements and left/anti-fascist movements. In this, I stressed the feedback relationship between accessible, everyday practices and theoretical developments. Lee Mackinnon continued this feedback loop by suggesting how scientific representations of space and its scales filter into the everyday in different ways, and how our difficulty to relate or even render such alien dimensions and phenomena creates tensions with our material habits/ideas of materiality: ‘what is actually the matter?’ By showing the many processes and considerations that go into NASA’s space image making, she illustrated the struggle between the phenomena’s indifference to human centredness and the clear human centredness of the images: ‘methodological explication is hampered by metaphysical obfuscation’. She ended on the question of how the seen might be enabled supported by the unseen. The discussion was started by Tahani Nadim’s provocation around the pressures of making something narratable in particular ways, which also tied into a theme from the first panel.

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The next day, we began with a panel on Science, which was made up of Tahani Nadim, Britt Rusert, Elizabeth Johnson, Leon Sealey-Huggins and chaired by myself (Angela Last). It, amongst other things, looked at the cosmos that is or isn’t represented in contemporary scientific approaches.

Tahani Nadim, who had recently completed a project on classification practices in the Natural History Museum in Berlin, presented on the cataloguing of space dust. For her, this process raised questions around the production cosmos and crisis as objects of knowledge, and around the production of norms/normality against which ‘crisis’ is set. Ending her presentation with an extract of her collaborative film ‘Staub’, which showed a cleaner’s handling of cosmically inflected earth dust, she stressed the cosmos as a common, while also drawing attention to our practices of boundary-making around knowledge of the cosmic. Britt Rusert also characterised her talk as ‘thoughts on science, crisis and the mundane’ and especially focused on the ‘crisis in discourse’. Narrating through a variety of seemingly disparate vignettes – including “dog memoirs”, African American newspaper production, cosmically inspired slave revolts, and the DIY production of solar eclipse watching equipment – Rusert showed each time how people negotiate the cosmic in the everyday and its liberatory potential in the face of its foreclosing capture by state power. Her question for science was: “Can we think about science as a resource for social movements, as science is normally used to shut them down?” Moreover, she asked whether the current anxieties around apocalypse were about a crisis in property and whiteness (and white property).


Image from ‘Staub’, shown as part of Tahani Nadim’s and Åsa Sonjasdotter’s exhibition ‘Tote Wespen Fliegen Länger/Dead Wasps fly further’ at the Natural History Museum in Berlin

Elizabeth Johnson then took towards the ocean and current scientific dealings with jellyfish. She showed how the creatures were studied both for their threat to biodiversity (‘jellyfish bloom’, ‘army under the sea’), and for their potential capacity for holding the key to prolonging human life. Drawing on the philosopher Fréderic Neyrat, she pointed out the irony of “becoming more aware of our own mortality, while continuing to act like immortals”. She also gave examples of oppositional work that tried to practice ‘minor science’ especially in the face of practices of racialization and other problematic ways of rendering ‘alien’. Through her example of the literary and scientific treatment of the vampire squid as a creature from another world, she called for a helpful kind of alienation that would get us out of “settler colonial mentality”: a rethinking of not just the ocean, but also the land as “alien to ourselves” – a home not designed “just for us” (“a project of giving up the Earth”). Leon Sealey-Huggins discussed the current hurricane crisis in the Caribbean and the way it was treated in the media. His own experience with talkhost Julia Hartley-Brewer served an reminder of how the media tries to blame environmental destruction on bad local governance, rather than on a toxic geopolitical and economic trajectory that started with colonialism and still maintains global inequality. To Sealey-Huggins, crisis worked as a means of opening a space to challenge such persistent narratives, and to remind how crises are experiences as everyday existence in many parts of the world.

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The final panel on practices brought together Christina McPhee, Phil Smith and Anja Kanngieser, with Lee Mackinnon as chair. It sought to discuss practices that address the relation between cosmos and crisis.

Phil Smith gave context to his practice of ‘zombie walking’. In negative terms, zombies bring together a variety of themes such as the alien (symbol of bond with planet broken), fossilised cosmos (obstacle to the walker) and the effects of capitalism on bodies (living/nonliving). More positively, they echo the reconnection of the body with dead stars, and highlight options with which we can ‘walk’: to embrace the strangeness within us (humans as ‘very old xenomorphs’) or to ‘nail up the windows and some more pictures of ourselves in a panic’. Christina McPhee showed examples from her visual work (painting, collage, audio-visual) that explored several questions around the intersection of science, psychology and geography. Her work around ‘seismic memory, for instance, brings together experiences of personal ‘shattering’ trauma and geologic rifts (including the use of open data on earthquakes). Discussing her experiments, such as making gigantic and highly detailed collages from Nature Climate Change articles, she described one of her key practices as ‘troubling the waters’ while/by exploring a generative way of displacing graphical scientific visualisation that allows for the provocation of a different mode of discovery and concern.

Video clip of Christina McPhee’s performance in Carbon Song Cycle (with Pamela Z)

Anja Kanngieser turned to the medium of sound and asked what sound might bring to questions of political ecology and connect/disconnect us from environments. Her work on the ‘most polluted places on Earth’ in the areas of nuclear testing in the Pacific seeks to bring attention to the uneven effects of climate change. She presented examples of how poets and sound artists who work on the same topic had tried to do this kind of work through a variety of formats – from catchy songs to sonic data visualisations of explosion histories.

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Discussion summary:

A discussion theme that ran through all of the four sessions was how to talk about the cosmic in an academic setting. The first question was how to talk about the cosmos without all the conceptual baggage that accompanies it, or how to make selections among this baggage. This question, it was argued, cannot be unlinked from questions of contemporary knowledge production and its inequalities: the crisis was also a crisis of representation.

Participants took issue with the processes of how knowledge was handled in academia, from a particular kind of abstraction that only a few get to claim and perform, to pressures to appropriate topics in problematic ways e.g. spirituality, black and indigenous cultures. The experiences of many participants both inside and outside of the academy, as well as ‘outside while inside’ led to intimate conversations of how people are dealing with this personally, including methods of protecting oneself and what/whom one is researching.

With regard to abstraction, it was argued that, ironically, claims to do away with abstraction through wonder/romanticism ended up creating distance as the kind of abstraction that seeks to ‘pull up the ladder’ to render its processes invisible. It was argued that while you may not be able to escape abstraction, there are ways of working with it. These included acknowledging how we are shaped by abstractions and vice versa, tracing who gets to claim abstraction and refusing certain kinds of abstractions while offering others. For many, this involved working with what becomes excluded or is rendered invisible – for example, the supernatural, the spiritual, unknowability and myth in science (or even in religion). The value of myth – or (science) fiction – was sometimes described as a form of narration that was trampled on in the context of Western knowledge, but that often communicated relations and values that are difficult to express otherwise, such as land relations. Although it was argued that Western modernity already and silently contained a lot of myths, also from other cultures (e.g. as evidenced in the appropriation of African art by European modernist artists), there were calls for a more upfront re-introduction that would bring, for instance, decolonial concerns to the surface, for instance, through the production of ‘counter-modern bestiaries’, ‘fictional obituaries’ for anticipated crises, and other contestations of patronising myth making. The questions coming out of this discussion could be summarised as follows: what kind of relations do we want to form and how do we best express them? How do we (need to) deal with the politics of narration from our respective positions? And what place does academia have in this – or, rather: what relations do we want to build from and beyond it?


“Keeping hold of the cosmos”

Another cross-cutting, related theme was that of aestheticisation. It was noted that aesthetics has different definitions – e.g. sensory perception, as form, as part of ethics, as spectacularity – and that there was perhaps a crisis of aesthetics, too. One of the reasons for putting the workshop together has been to examine recent interest in the cosmic in the arts, philosophy and in decolonial discourse, and responded to this by raising concerns about what was termed ‘beautiful bullshit’: the kind of aestheticisations that are hugely inaccurate or hide layers and layers of abstraction, but also hugely popular and effective. Often, form functions as content for political messages while denying any politics. Examples that were mentioned included a ‘chirpy black hole’ sonification, the Russian cosmism exhibition at the HKW in Berlin, earthquake and atomic bomb ‘experiences’ in museums and online videos, and NASA’s Mars imagery. How does such ‘beautiful bullshit’ travel between documentation and spectacle, between violence (e.g. blunt incitements to colonial appropriation) and humbling, joyful, spiritual or ‘weird’ experiences? It was suggested that form and content do not necessarily have a relation, which makes such judgments difficult. Further, it was noted that spectacularity or newness was also often a product of violent erasures (e.g. through slavery, indigenous genocide).

In particular, participants worried about lack of transparency regarding the inequality of representation, for instance the many layers of racialisation behind any data set and even sonification (whose notation system/aesthetics are being used?). Here, the discussion went back to different examples from the papers of counter-practices under colonialism and capitalism, e.g. creating/improvising under the impositions of particular sonic aesthetics from music to language (and the outcomes’ subsequent reappropriation by the dominant system) or creating work that avoids a single point of view. Some questions that emerged from this debate include: How to relate to the technological, especially when it comes to areas that are difficult to represent? What work can cosmic imagery do within a crisis, and what politics of representation does the cosmic demand?

It was further pointed out that few or no exhibitions, artworks, representations manage to represent crisis well, in particular the environmental crisis. Even if such representations were successful, how much could they do to change views and practices? It was criticised that the focus was often on end results and not causes, such as the denial of long-term participation in the making of a crisis. Crisis, it was noted, was further experienced unevenly, with many people living in a constant state of crisis, while others – those who normally don’t – claim a crisis, often a crisis of (their) property. Here, participants voiced concern about the norms against which crises are proclaimed, what/whom such proclamations serve (e.g. definition as disaster can function as ‘terrorism by proxy’), and how crises bring about category shifts (e.g. from the ‘human’ to the ‘nonhuman’).

What the discussions provoked for me was the question of how a cosmic, rather than a global dimension, might enable a different approach to crisis. Here, the different approaches to the cosmic seemed to overlap. For instance, whether one pursued to ‘carry the deadness of the universe inside themselves’ or related to the cosmos through joy (also: the two might not necessarily be exclusionary), there was a sense that the global or planetary was not enough, did not encapsulate the right connotations, did not sufficiently express where the problem or potential solutions were located. Perhaps it is time, as Elizabeth Johnson put it, to ‘give up the Earth’, or at least a particular view of it. What happens if you think of, for example, labour or the economy, in cosmic terms?

Attention to the cosmic further appears to reintroduce the question: ‘whose cosmos?’ – what other orders, priorities and relations are possible? This is something that the global or planetary does not necessarily evoke. As decolonial and STS theorists have pointed out, the cosmic dimension tends to be safely cordoned off and relegated to the ‘religious’ or the ‘scientific’. Or, if the question of ‘whose cosmos’ is raised in academia, it lacks sincerity. As Zoe Todd has pointed out, there is a lot of cosmological tokenism that does not make demands for serious alterations of academic, social, political and economic practices. If the current crisis is one of (Western) cosmos, one way that cosmic multiplicity needs to be taken into account is by not turning to practices that reaffirm an order that perpetuates or even thrives on crisis. As academia is quite central to affirming and contesting the current cosmos – and to policing who can be part of its practices – it seems important to carry out experiments around its boundaries, both discursively and institutionally. At the same time, it is important not to forget that there is an outside to academia, whose boundaries with academia appears to become both blurrier (in terms of labour practices, production and inclusion of knowledges) and sharper (in terms of exclusion of people and knowledges). As many participants hinted at the possibility that the cosmic dimension mattered, because it was difficult to grasp or appropriate, what these conversations seemed to do or provoke was to venture further into this outside, but also to carefully negotiate how and what we return.

***

Many thanks to Anja Kanngieser for recording the conversations and to Christina McPhee for sharing her notes. Many thanks to Adeola Enigbokan, Edia Connole and Claire Blencowe for getting the workshop off the ground, and many thanks to everyone who helped us along!

 

“Postcards From The Zoo” and the Nonhuman/Inhuman Boundary

I am giving a talk at Aberystwyth University this week. The talk is about the many misappropriations of the “nonhuman” that I keep coming across in academic papers, artworks and articles. The central argument is that many of those authors who seek to renounce human privilege inadvertently end up reaffirming it, usually through the privilege of being able to ignore sites of colonial, sexual and other trauma in order to focus on the “nonhuman”.

The film Postcards from the Zoo (2012, original title Kebun Binatang) seems to offer another example of such experiments with blurring the boundaries of the human and nonhuman (warning: spoilers!). Shot primarily in Ragunan Zoo (Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta, Indonesia), a fanciful 150 year old colonial endeavour, the film initially feels like a documentary: the viewer gets to see all the different activities that the three groups inhabiting the landscape of the zoo – visitors, animals and a mixture of human residents – are practising. Whether it is watching, feeding or washing, selling souvenirs or fairground rides, or even performing and recording animal sounds for experimental electronic music, everything seems unnaturally beautiful in its harmony – far from the negative image of zoos as site of animal languishing.


Image: Jera, the empire-making giraffe and Lana, the human and sometimes also a giraffe

In the course of these scenic and rather comical meanderings, one is introduced to the main characters of the film: Lana, a young woman who was abandoned by her dad in the zoo as a young child, and Jera, the giraffe who, even after a decade or two of knowing her, does not allow Lana to stroke her belly. Lana, raised in the zoo by its motley crew of legal and illegal, human and nonhuman inhabitants, knows a lot about giraffes. To visitors, she demonstrates how they can manage to run exceptionally fast, and she is aware of her main carer’s story of how the acceptance or refusal of the prestigious gift of a giraffe has made or broken empires.


Image: The cowboy leads Lana out of paradise.

One day, Lana, like the animals in the zoo, gets ‘relocated’ through meeting a young man dressed as a cowboy. He performs magic tricks and sometimes sleeps in the zoo, and therefore not an abnormality, since everything is magical in the zoo. One night, like Alice, she follows him into the wonderland of the outside. The cowboy takes her to his squat, transforms her into his assistant (= she is there to look pretty and has to lug all his gear around) and takes her on a tour of the town performing magic tricks in front of different audiences. Dressed as a stereotypical Native American woman, Lana becomes part of a knife-throwing act, a fake magic potion sales enterprise and eventually a residency in a spa-cum-brothel that is run by a violent gangster who parades violated naked women in front of his men and guests. In order to diffuse one such situation, Lana performs a protective giraffe manoeuvre – the one that gets the duo hired.


Image: Lana becomes ‘the Indian’ to the Cowboy

The magician residency comes to an end through the disappearance of the cowboy during the rehearsal of a fire trick. On telling the owner of the spa, he promises to ‘take care’ of her, meaning she will join the ranks for the masseuses/prostitutes that Lana had repeatedly observed from the backstage area. In zoo terms, another screen informs us, she is ‘translocated’. She is trained, penned in with a few other ‘girls’ and, like all of her previous tasks, performs her ‘care’ of the guests – from washing to sexual ‘comforts’. One day, she spots a zoo van in front of the brothel and sneaks out to drive it to the cowboy’s squat. Finding it abandoned, she puts on one of the ‘magical’ dresses that she hadn’t been  allowed to touch. It is a transforming dress made up of layers that each make the wearer appear as if she had been given a new outfit. She keeps the last layer visible and proceeds to return to the zoo.


Image: “Strong and long enough” – like the tongue of a giraffe

During Lana’s absence, the zoo has been presented as progressively less magical. It is full of families whose dads may well also be visitors at the brothel, full of repetitive advertisements keep blaring out of cheap speakers, and full of restless confined animals – it is as if the outside world has finally filtered into the unreal idyll. On coming back, Lana heads straight for Jera, the giraffe. Here, the film finishes on its last magical moment: Jera allows Lana to touch her belly.


Image: Lana and the giraffe finally see eye-to-eye

After finishing the film, I wondered what was more disturbing: the actual film or its many blissful summaries that portray the film as an innocent love or ‘coming of age’ story. First up, the Mubi introduction to the film:

“Whimsical mythology turns to longing as a girl turns into an adult.” Turning into an adult = trafficked into a brothel – nice euphemism… I could see why my friend from whose Mubi account we had watched the film had repeatedly complained to the company for muting violence against women in their summaries. Bizarrely, other reviews were following the same pattern. Screen Daily, for instance, summarises the film as follows: “A Jakarta zoo is the setting for a slow and dreamy magical realist romance in Indonesian filmmaker Edwin’s follow-up to his well-received 2009 debut Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly. Sweet and playful as a baby monkey, but with the lumbering pace of a hippo, the film has shades of both Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang (particularly Monrak Transistor) and Japanese manga guru Hayao Miyazaki (particularly Spirited Away) – in fact it feels a little as if the former had adapted and directed a script by the latter.”

Cute baby monkeys and bobbing hippos, and not, as my friend put it: “a dudebro’s magical realist wank fantasy”. How can the theme of trafficking and sexual violence not only not figure but turned ‘whimsical’? Further, this interview with the director manages to completely omit prostitution, and another insists that it’s the forlorn male clients who are to be pitied. Even pro-prostitution activists would have something to say about gendered power relations at play, especially given the blatant use of violence against the women who step out of line.

One could perhaps blame the dreamy quality of magical realism that make the whole story appear unreal – how can such a story take place, how can any woman be so naive? The nonhuman element further adds to a de-emphasising of human drama: ‘oh, it must be a metaphor for animal trafficking – she is really a giraffe!’ One review in Slant Magazine actually picked up on the non/inhuman quality: they felt it was “as if, to Edwin, the whimsical invention of the moment was all that mattered, not the humanity”. The dimension of colonial trauma, too, is enacted in a playful way, through the human/nonhuman boundary figure and sexual obedience fantasy of the “squaw”. It hints at the popular idea among certain men that women who are ‘closer to nature’ don’t protest what men do to them – because misogyny is the natural way of things. One should also not forget that there continue to be justifications for human zoos.


Image: Lana, ‘thrown away‘ by her family.

Despite such disclaimers, it still remains a mystery why the topic of sexual/gendered violence remains absent from most descriptions of the film. Postcards from the Zoo references so many misogynist clichés that the topic seems pretty unavoidable, whether it’s the myth of women’s pleasure from abuse or the ‘character growth’ of women through sexual trauma. How come the giraffe magically accepts Lana after her stint as a sex slave? Reward, empathy? There is a possibility that the nonhuman element complicates the (in)human narrative: that animals and women are both victims of systemic (colonial, patriarchal, capitalist) violence – as ‘nonhuman’ symbols that enhance status. The belly-stroking moment of the film could be a mutual recognition of shared trauma where, before, Lana could not see it. She was trapped in the illusionary utopia of the zoo. At the same time, it did not feel as if Lana perceived the outside any differently – for her, it seemed to remain a place much like the wonderland of the zoo, only that the care more one-sided and administered to naked male humans. So, technically, Lana had not left the space of harmoniously blurred human-nonhuman boundaries.

Another interpretation might be that the film narrates the story from the perspective of a trauma victim who is unable to express the actual trauma. An example of such a creative choice is Pan’s Labyrinth, where the girl Ophelia narrates the fascist violence of Franco’s Spain and the death of her family through a fantastical story, rendering their deaths and her own one meaningful. If this is the case, then the ending transcends from the trope of another ‘character building rape’ to perhaps a possibility of empathy or alliances with other oppressed  entities. The examples of failed interhuman love are replaced by more meaningful nonhuman alliances. There is also an echo of The Act of Killing, and the reimagination of genocide atrocities through innocent cowboy fantasies.


Image: ‘Postcards from the Zoo’ director Edwin. Source: http://manual.co.id/article/interview-edwin/.

I was curious how the director himself talked about the film in that respect, and also whether it related in some ways to Indonesian history. Indeed, in the Indonesian journal Whiteboard, the director Edwin reveals not only his own heritage as Chinese-Indonesian (Chinese-Indonesians were the victims of the recent genocide), but also his interest in the themes of voyeurism and displacement. As he states: “When you think about our displacement, then people aren’t too different from the animals we find at the zoo.” This also implies a lack of choices where one ends up: “During the Soeharto-era we didn’t even have a freedom of choice – we could only follow orders.” No choice between living and dying, because of arbitrary (in)human decisions. Is this why Lana seems to sleepwalk from familial abandonment into prostitution via identification with animals?

The theme of watching throws up questions where the answer is even less certain. As Edwin explains: “The film is also about how people watch each other and how people would like to be seen by other people.” Is this why hurt and abuse remain absent? Clearly, the director has a sense of the boundlessness of the power of the viewpoint. Discussing his new project, a film on sex and (Indonesia’s Dutch) colonialism, Edwin tells us that, “[w]ith colonialism, I see a parallel with pornography in which there is an exploitation by the people with power. Pornography is a form of exploitation so for me, that can be the way to view colonialism.” One conclusion would be that if the sexual violence of the perpetrators is not shown, they might lose their power – they are deprived of witnesses to their power and therefore also of admirers. Yet the disappearing of such acts does not stop them from continuing – it normalises them, as seen with the recent exposures of abusive ‘old boys networks’ from the BBC to Hollywood.

So far, I feel that a generous reading of the film would laud it as an experiment with connections between human and nonhuman spaces of oppression. Lana, initially discarded as ‘nonhuman’, fully naturalises into nonhumanity both in the eyes of the oppressors (those who draft her into their services) and other oppressed (the animals), while constantly challenging the oppressors’ own humanity and lack of awareness of (common) nonhumanity. Her time in the outside world only finalises this process and allows for the magical world of the zoo and its outside to finally blend into each other. The gates to nonhumanity are opened for all, for better or worse (here a choice may be implied). A more pessimistic interpretation would read the final scene as an affirmation that this nonhumanity is really an inhumanity that constitutes our condition of existence. As this inhumanity is only bearable by submitting to a nonhuman identity, the zoo rightfully merges with the brothel, leaving Lana to enthusiastically wank off Jera the giraffe in a matching animal suit and retire to the floor of an overcrowded room.

Talk: The Other Nonhumans @ InterPol, Aberystwyth


Image: Mount Pelée volcano on Martinique

On 29 November, I will be giving a talk at the Environmental Politics Research Group | Grŵp Ymchwil Gwleidyddiaeth Amgylcheddol of the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth University | Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol, Prifysgol Aberystwyth.

I was asked to address current issues that occupy me in relation to new materialism and the environment. Here is the abstract in English and Welsh.

The other nonhumans – Environmental issues within the academy

There is a horror that keeps returning: that of environmental studies papers whose authors try to decentre the human while speaking from a privileged position. From affective engagements with geology that ignore sites of racial or sexual trauma to talks on extinction that disappear on-going sites of colonial violence, such attempts at privileging the nonhuman often end up affirming a privileged human position (e.g. white, middle class, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis). While authors sensitive to human inequality have asserted that nonhuman identities can become a means of countering normative or dominant states of the human, this is not what is performed in the majority of papers.

This recurring situation points to two fundamental underlying problems: 1) an unequal academy and related knowledge production and 2) theorisations of the environment, especially through the lens of materialism(s) in which crucial questions remain silent/silenced due to lack of reflexivity on the authors’ own positions. In exploring this intersection, this paper aims to draw out less prominent questions and provocations within new materialism that may help address this issue.

Wednesday 29th November, 5.30-7pm, Main Hall, Department of International Politics.

All welcome!

Mae yna erchyllbeth sy’n dychwelyd o hyd ac o hyd: sef papurau astudiaethau amgylcheddol lle mae’r awduron yn ceisio di-ganoli’r dynol a hwythau’n siarad o safle breintiedig. O ymdriniaethau o ddaeareg sy’n anwybyddu safleoedd o drawma hiliol neu rywiol i drafodaethau ar ddifodiant sy’n hepgor safleoedd lle mae trais gwladychol yn parhau, mae ymdrechion o’r fath i ddyrchafu’r byd nad yw’n ddynol yn aml yn cadarnhau safle dynol breintiedig (e.e. gwyn, dosbarth canol, gwryw, abl o gorff, heterorywiol, cisgender). Er bod awduron sy’n sensitif i anghydraddoldeb dynol wedi honni y gall hunaniaethau nad ydynt yn ddynol gynnig ffordd o wrthsefyll cyflyrau normadol neu ddominyddol y dynol, nid dyma a wneir yn y rhan fwyaf o bapurau.

Mae’r sefyllfa gyffredin hon yn amlygu dwy broblem sylfaenol: 1) academi anghyfartal a dulliau cysylltiedig o gynhyrchu gwybodaeth a 2) damcaniaethau am yr amgylchedd, yn enwedig trwy lens materoliaeth, lle mae cwestiynau hollbwysig yn ddistaw/cael eu distewi oherwydd diffyg atblygiadol o ran safbwyntiau’r awdur ei hun. Nod y papur hwn yw codi cwestiynau a syniadau llai amlwg o fewn materoliaeth newydd a allai helpu i fynd i’r afael â’r mater hwn.

Dydd Mercher 29 Tachwedd, 5.30-7yh, Prif Neuadd yr Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol. Croeso i bawb!