Mutable Matter


Towards A Global Social Theory

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The Global Social Theory website is now live. The project seeks to broaden the university syllabus, which, even outside the US and Europe, can be very Euro-centric. As the website states, it was prompted by the critique of the initiative ‘Why is my curriculum white?

Edited by Gurminder Bhambra with Lisa Tilley and Lucy Mayblin (with web support from Pat Lockley), the site brings together theorists, concepts and key topics from across the world. Entries are submitted by various contributors and give concise summaries as well as further reading suggestions and useful questions for further discussion. I have contributed three entries so far, and am hoping to write more. If you think someone or something is missing, why not contribute as well?


Notes on GIS & methods

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Image: The best part of GIS – flying through 3D models in ArcScene… (there is an actual bird cursor!)

At the moment, I mainly teach on the Research Masters at the University of Glasgow, which, of course, also involves teaching methods. I am very involved in debates around methods, both qualitative and quantitative, so I like to think that I’ve got quite a good overview. Last year, however, I was asked by a student how the content of my talk related to GIS. I hesistated for a moment – what did I actually know about GIS apart from having played around with Google Maps and read a few chapters here and there? Last week, I was given the opportunity to undertake five days of intensive GIS training with my colleagues Jane Drummond and Syed Ali Aqdus. The course included a mixture of lectures and practical exercises that, indeed, prompted a lot of interesting questions about geographical methods and the intersections of qualitative and quantitative methods. In addition, Jane gave a lot of mind-boggling examples that she had come across during her long and varied career, from cartography to programming.

Like geography as a whole, GIS has difficulties being recognised as a science of its own rather than just a weird composite. Having had a taste of this branch of geoinformatics, I can see why, as Jane mentioned, engineers and scientists tend to think that it is lacking rigour or a distinctive identity as a science. At the same time, like geography as a whole, its concern with synthesis to interact with the planet (and beyond) actually seems to be what makes it distinctive. These attempts at synthesis can take on some pretty curious forms that also include political decisions on how to map, some of which were relayed to us by Jane. For instance, latitude and longitude are not always fixed – they vary with the shape of the Earth (the Earth is not a perfect sphere). In addition, different countries use different shapes of the Earth for mapping purposes and even entire grid systems (the first thing we learned was how important it is to know what grid you are working in, since there is no universal one). A further level of distortion is added through the many different map projections, which give rise to entertaining cartoons such as this one that hangs in my office corridor:

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Image source: XKCD

At the beginning of the course, we were reminded of general mapping history and principles, such as sextant measurements. Geographical measurement is often associated with the military and especially imperialism. As Yves Lacoste put it in 1976: ‘La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre’ (‘Geography, first of all, serves warfare’). At the same time, geographical measurement can, of course, be used for more beneficial purposes, as many projects show that make democratisation (of GIS and with GIS) a focus of their practice. Here, Jane had an interesting example of an attempt to make mapping more accessible, with the explicit aim to help people without a standard address (about 4 billion people in the world do not have a standard postal address). What3Words‘ ‘mission to address the world’ divides the world into 3×3 square metres, with each square being assigned a three random words from a dictionary. This makes about 57 trillion squares! I found this project thought-provoking, because, on the one hand, it puts in question our ideas of ‘standard’ (who is included/excluded; to what standards should we aspire?), on the other hand, its search for a more democratic standard led it to an unusual solution, compared to the ‘accepted’ solutions we have seen so far. This is also highlighted by the geographer, Robert Barr, who speaks at the end of this video:

3 words to address the world from what3words on Vimeo.

Other examples of useful ‘civilian applications’ included the Glasgow City Council’s facilities locator and LIDAR mapping for biomass monitoring purposes. Especially the data collection examples (‘on foot’, aerial photography, satellite, thermal, laser, sound etc) reminded us of the diversity and messiness of geographical information that all somehow had to be brought into relation. Not only is the data itself problematic – but how do we can we process it all together? How can we ask and solve our questions with the kind of data that we have? And, how often do we not think, as human geographers, about the processing history of a map or of data that we are given?

With my design background, I also found much of the problems encountered in image processing (e.g. through Illustrator and Photoshop) mirrored in GIS. Much of the GIS exercises (primarily conducted in Arc GIS‘s Arc Map and ArcScene), involved data conversions, e.g. from tables to points, layers, features, or from vector to raster. Some conversion even involved surprisingly manual processing, akin to the lasso technique or filters in Photoshop. Jane showed us how badly data can be degraded through processing, but also how such limitations can be taken into account. Particularly drastic examples of error came from a lack of consideration for scaling. In order to make maps more readable in smaller format, landscape features have to be smoothed or simplified, and lines have to be thickened in order to make features legible. This is called ‘generalisation‘, and people are still looking for better methods of performing it. Here, Jane noted how mappers are subjected to increasing and unrealistic pressures over the time frame in which this considerable problem can be solved.

Other points of error-related amusement came from misinterpretation of aerial data, resampling and interpolation hazards, lack of terrain knowledge, confusion of data quality and model quality, and misrecognition of building features by various programmes or processing methods. Many such errors especially came out during the 3D exercises, but also in humorous thought experiments such as a hypothetical search for sea monsters (which initially didn’t take the probability for finding sea monsters into consideration). We were also reminded how more mundane human factors play into the quality and accessibility of geographical data, especially the cost in hiring cartographers or data collectors: how much time and labour can be invested in a mapping project?

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Image: Another way of using GIS to find sea monsters (Source: Mirror)

Another interesting problem was posed through colouring and other aesthetic choices. While there are attempts at standardising colours and symbols for maps, there is still a great degree of liberty that can be taken to make maps look ‘appealing’, as Jane put it. One of the first things we learned in ArcMap, after getting a grip on the basics, was how to change colours and what to consider when changing colours (e.g. what might the colours represent?). For instance, when representing slope, many cartographers use a scale that starts with green and ends with white (green valleys, white mountain tops). The defaults often seemed to follow a completely different logic, leading to some rather displeasing or psychedelic renderings, which in turn led to many GOMA and ‘more-than-50 Shades’ jokes, as well as uncomfortable 90s flashbacks (especially in the distance map department – I wish I’d taken more screenshots now!). When preparing the map for presentation in the layout view, we noticed how much you could potentially direct decision-making not only through data processing, but also through seemingly innocent aesthetic choices. Here Jane had more examples of how she had experienced such situations in real life.

What I appreciated about this course, in relation to my teaching, was that I now feel able to better look for resources, such as examples and reading suggestions, for my students. The problems raised by GIS are not only exclusive to GIS, so it is nice to be able to cross-reference issues. If any readers have any particular suggestions from their teaching or research experience, I would be grateful if you could put them in the comments!


New article ‘Fruit of the Cyclone: undoing geopolitics through geopoetics?’

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My new article ‘Fruit of the cyclone: undoing geopolitics through geopoetics?’ has just come out in Geoforum. In this article, I am trying to bring together two different directions in critical geopolitics that have opposing positions towards materiality. I am trying to establish this dialogue via Daniel Maximin‘s Les fruits du cyclone: Une géopoétique de la Caraïbe (2006). For me, Maximin plays both advocate and devil’s advocate in relation to how materiality should be handled in geopolitics, and he is especially sensitive to the relation between materialist approaches and decolonisation, including the decolonisation of the white geographer.

The article can be downloaded for free for the next 50 days, and it is published Green Open Access thanks to my previous ESRC grant, during which I ran the workshop ‘Terra Infirma – Experimenting with geo-political practices‘. A big thank you to all the workshop participants and my co-organiser Gail Davies, as well as the organisers and participants of the RITA workshops on Caribbean Literature and Caribbean Future Spaces (organisers: Adunni Adams, James Owen Heath and Patricia Noxolo).


PhD & Masters Studentship Opportunities at Glasgow

glasgowtrafficconedude Work with me! Or rather, with my lovely colleagues.

If you are interested in doing work around zoonoses (infectious diseases that can naturally be transmitted from animals to humans), please contact Professor Jo Sharp. More about the project can be found here. Deadline 30 June 2015.

If you are interested in doing a fully funded MRes in Human Geography, please contact Professor Hayden Lorimer. More information about the course can be found here. Deadline 26 June 2015.


Max Max, Girlhood & the Third Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image: The Vuvalini join the revolution with new members

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

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Image: Lady mentors Vic

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

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

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

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


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

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Image: Our first print

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

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

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

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Image from our first print round


Feminist Geophilosophy at AAG Chicago

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

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

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



Session 1 (10:00 AM – 11:40 AM)

Chair: Angela Last, University of Glasgow



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

Abstract Title: Shaft: the geophilosophies of extraction

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

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

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

Abstract Title: Eros and Geophilosophy: Some Poetic Reflections

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

Abstract Title: Feminist Pyrotectonics

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

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



Session 2 (1:20 PM – 3:00 PM)

Chair: Kathryn Yusoff, Queen Mary University of London


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

Abstract Title: Listening to the Anthropocene

1:40 PM   Author(s):

*Angela Last – University of Glasgow

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

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

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

*Stephanie Clare – Syracuse University

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

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

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

2:40 PM   Author(s):

*Arun Saldanha – University of Minnesota – Minneapolis

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



Session 3 (3:20 PM – 5:00 PM)

Chair: Jessica Lehman, University of Minnesota


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

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

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

Abstract Title: The necessity of redefining personhood: shamanic geophilosophies

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

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

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

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

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

Abstract Title: Gendering the geo: who is speaking?



Session 4 (5:20 PM – 7:00 PM)

Chair: Rory Rowan, University of Zurich


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

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

Changed to: Skeleton Woman

5:40 PM   Author(s): *Edia Connole –

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

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

Abstract Title: Seismic Shards

6:20 PM  : Discussion

*Gill Park – University of Leeds

Abstract title: I emerge untamed and shake myself free


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

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Message from Association of American Geographers president Mona Domosh:

Hi all,

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

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

With thanks,
Mona

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


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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to hearing from you!


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