Image: ‘Crowd, Isolated on White’ (Leontura/Getty Images)
This morning, my latest article on geography and matter was published by Environment & Planning D: Society and Space. There are two kinds of discomforts that I am processing in this article: the lack of dialogue on the role of matter between followers of historical and new materialism, and my conflicted relationship with the work of Hannah Arendt. I had the feeling that the two problems were related, so I went ahead to see where it took me, starting with channelling the many animated conversation that I have had with people at workshops and conferences. I ended up somewhere different than expected, but with one thing I was right: it had to do with the way we make cuts between the material and supposedly non-material world. The result is called ‘Re-reading Worldliness: Hannah Arendt and the Question of Matter‘. If you do not have access to the journal, please send me an email. It is also available for free on the journal website until 12 September.
Both new and historical materialisms have attracted a reputation for leading to ‘bad politics’. Historical materialisms have been accused of reducing too much to material relations and their production, whereas new materialisms have been accused of avoiding politics completely. This article reads the critique directed at materialisms against Hannah Arendt’s exceptional distrust of matter. Focusing on her concept of ‘worldliness’, it grapples with the question ‘why do we need an attention to matter in the first place?’ The attempted re-reading takes place through a feminist and postcolonial lens that draws out the contributions and failures of Arendt’s (anti)materialist framework in its banishing of matter from politics. Arendt’s focus on the prevention of dehumanisation further serves as a means to discuss materialism’s risk in negotiating the tension between deindividuation and dehumanisation.
Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap
When I first saw the announcement and trailer for the new Ghostbusters film, I thought I would hate it. Promoted as a film that would get girls interested in science, it seemed to reflect the usual blindness of institutional feminism to race and class. As the script itself puts it: ‘three scientists – plus Patty’. After the academic qualifications of Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) were written back out of the script of the 1984 film – no one knew he was actually a black superscientist – you would hope that the new film would be different, but it is not. On the other hand, it is not the trainwreck that I expected it to be – on the contrary.
Image: ‘Guilty as charged!’
Many reviewers have complained that the ‘flipping’ of Ghostbusters is shallow and has failed to introduce a women’s perspective. I think the opposite is the case. In fact, the failure to recognise the female perspective is indicative of the ubiquitous white male blindness to processes of exclusion routinely faced by women and other ‘minorities’. Like the Ghostbusters’ assistant Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), white men are often oblivious to why the world works for them and why their gender or race isn’t an issue. This is especially obvious in this article in which a white male reviewer criticises the film for being apolitical and failing to produce an analysis of its time. In my view, the new Ghostbusters seems more political by going deeper into the mechanics and political embeddedness of academic exclusion than its predecessors.
Image: ‘Let me in!’
As schemes from STEMnet science ambassadors to Athena Swan illustrate, there is a problem not only with recruiting women into science, but with retaining them. The higher you go up the career ladder, the fewer women you will encounter (in some science subjects, female students even outnumber male students, but this is not reflected in the faculty). It is the same story (but worse) for BME (black, minority ethnic) scholars, and there are also class and other biases. Even if you perform well in academia, the same factors that should have excluded you in the first instance, are likely to still work against you. This is brilliantly illustrated through the Ghostbusters characters.
Image: Erin is denied tenure by the dean at Columbia
First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding. The film even shows how the refusal of other knowledges and experiences has shaped Erin’s private life. After her encounter with a ghost as a child, she was subjected to lengthy psychotherapy for rectification.
Image: Patty tries to convince three white women that they have something in common
Patty (Leslie Jones) represents an extension of this theme by race and class. She is obviously very educated, but self-educated. US academia would have excluded her on the grounds of lack of funds and lack of appropriate background, most probably including schooling in non-prestigious institutions. If the film had been set in 1980s UK, she might have been an Open University student, but these sorts of opportunities have ceased to exist. Bored with her job and excited about expanding the boundaries of her knowledge, Patty decides to join the outcast women, with whom she feels a connection. The three white scientists at first do not feel or see a connection – Patty has to beg and bribe the group with her ‘benefits’ – but it gradually dawns on them that they have something in common. When she finally joins the team, Patty again takes to self-education. The scientists initially do not even consider that she might be interested in science – she is their equipment provider, ‘muscle’ and ‘native guide’ (not even historian) – but Patty observes, listens and starts to get active in the lab and in the field.
Image: Abby has to realise that the margins are increasingly hard to find
In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.
Image: Holtzmann: all bets (and safety lights) are off
Unlike Abby, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) seems more clued up about the constantly moving margins. She is very socially observant and knows where boundaries are, why they are there and why they need crossing. She appears to be in a constant state of adaptation, which includes making do with equipment pieced together from dumpsters and generally making full use of the freedom not to have to conform. While Holtzmann certainly delivers, her work would be considered too extreme in a university context, as it disregards protocols on any level from health and safety guidelines to outward representation. With an attitude like ‘we nearly got killed – it was awesome!’, any institution would be in constant fear of litigation and of threats to its reputation. Holtzmann is not a dutiful workaholic loner, but a fun-loving, thrill-seeking boundary-pusher. Like Abby and Erin, however, Holtzmann has a PhD, which means that, at one point, she must have managed to pass through the university system. We later meet her mentor, Dr Rebecca Gorin (Sigourney Weaver), of whom we don’t know if she was her formal or informal supervisor. This also mirrors a frequent academic pattern of how some mavericks – and black or female academics – survive. They have someone who ‘gets’ them and has their back.
Image: This is not the solution
Overall, the four women each have developed a different coping mechanism for being at odds with the system: self-education (Patty), self-experimentation (Holtzmann), refuge in margins (Abby) and self-censorship to fit into the mainstream (Erin). Their antagonist, Rowan (Neil Casey), has had similar experiences with the system, but his coping strategy is revenge. The women understand the source of his pain and madness, but they also understand that total obliteration is not benefitting anyone and even validates the authority and prestige of the system. While prestige through validation is seductive, one also ends up reproducing the problem instead of remaining open to alternatives, including more supportive forms of co-operation. Perhaps the Ghostbusters are also more used to facing default devaluation because of their gender, and have learnt not to individualise the issue. This awareness, of course, does not render them immune to the desire to be known. When Erin is about to make a deadly mistake solely to refute another white male expert who tries to discredit her, Abby sharply reminds her ‘who cares??’ Erin succumbs anyway, and almost ends up putting everyone in jail for an inexplicable murder – there is no win situation.
Image: Now on Amazon – ghostwritten
In a twisted way, the situation mirrors the title of Erin’s and Abby’s book: the four women continue to be haunted by the ghosts of white male supremacy and ‘official culture’ literally and figuratively, whether it’s male antagonists, debunkers, saboteurs, or supposed male allies like Kevin (the latter ending up bonding with ‘debunker’ Heist over his hat). This is rendered very literal in the film’s takedown of the freshly supercharged Rowan, when he resists the women’s efforts of putting him away into the netherworld by clinging onto two skyscrapers: ‘Let’s loosen his grip’ (on Abby’s command, the Ghostbusters open fire on his crotch, not his hands) Patty: ‘That’s where you wanted us to shoot, right?’.
Image: Patriarchy comes to haunt the Ghostbusters wherever they go
In a less obvious manner, the film reflects arguments that have been made about the status of the margins made by people such as bell hooks and Moten & Harney. The latter offer an extensive manual for dealing with academia and wider power structures in their publication ‘the undercommons’ (link to pdf): how to use spaces where you are not supposed to be. As in ‘the undercommons’, the female Ghostbusters represent “the subversive intellectual [who] came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings”. Indeed, the film shows constant attempts at repressing the efforts of the Ghostbusters from official side, even though they show ‘results’ – better results. Yet solutions are not officially allowed to come out of the margins, as much as they are inofficially needed. The illusion that the current system works must be maintained at all costs: ‘the mayor thanks you, privately, but don’t tell anyone!’
Image: Another gatekeeper says no
In conclusion, you could say that Ghostbusters represents science accurately: not just in the ‘techno-babble’, but also in its institutional make-up. If the makers of the film think that it will attract more girls into science, they might be right. The female scientists are not only nerdy, but clever, funny and cool. Whether young women – or other ‘marginal’ thinkers – will be able to enter academia and advance within it, is a different story. Under current institutional conditions, present exclusions and hierarchies are sharpening rather than loosening up. The film seems to be aware that, for these women to succeed in mainstream science, conditions would need to be very different. Even when the Ghostbusters are finally acknowledged and generously rewarded, they choose to claim and maintain their own place. The message might be very much akin to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s strategy of the undercommons: if you do your research out of love, take what you can from the system and run.
This important petition just came through. The situation in Turkey is extremely disconcerting, and I am worried about my friends, colleagues and any other people who are negatively affected by the post-coup developments. If any other actions can be taken from outside Turkey, I will post these updates here.
Current petition text (you can sign the petition here):
As academics and administrators affiliated with colleges and universities around the world, we the undersigned strongly condemn the recent attacks on academic freedom by President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
On July 19, over 15,000 teachers and staff have been removed from their jobs, and Turkey’s Higher Education Board (YÖK) called upon the deans of all private and state universities to resign, in the wake of the attempted coup d’état on July 15 by a faction within the military. [Update: the government has instituted a travel ban on all academics (July 20)] The coup attempt is being cynically used to justify the appointment of party loyalists to those positions, which will politicize academic institutions and undermine both institutional independence and academic freedom throughout Turkey.
In solidarity with our colleagues in Turkey and in the defense of academic freedom, we therefore call upon President Erdoğan to reverse course and to respect the independence of academic institutions and the academic freedom of their faculty and students. We will support this call with the public and private means available to us.
Next week, I will hopefully be attending (and speaking) at the New Materialism & Decoloniality Workshop at Duisburg University. I have to say ‘hopefully’, because the Home Office has still not returned my passport and other documents that I had to send off a few weeks ago for the first part of my citizenship application (fingers crossed that I get them back in time – any advice about alternative travel documents appreciated).
Organised by Olivia Rutazibwa and Pol Bargués-Pedreny of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, the workshop seeks to bring the two theoretical directions into dialogue with one another. There will be three rounds of discussions in which two people present readings, followed by two discussants who engage with the presentations. The three themes are: 1) The Roots of the Argument. Deconstructions: Nature, Culture and Critique. 2) The Argument. Reconstructions: Infrastructures, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Cosmologies. 3) Thinking ahead with the Argument. Implementations and Implications: Ethics, Ecology and Geopolitics. The three sessions will be followed by a round table. Speakers include: Anna Agathangelou, Kai Koddenbrock, Mark Jackson, Lisa Tilley, Jessica Schmidt, Vanessa Pupavac and Ovidiu Tichindeleanu.
The dialogues will be preceded by an evening of dialogues and performances on the topic “Climate on the Rise, People on the Move. Understanding Today’s Global Challenges Differently”. Here, Rolando Vazquez (Utrecht University) and Doerthe Rosenow (Oxford Brookes University) “will explore our relation to the earth, vulnerability and what it means to be human in an increasingly uncanny world”.
Attendance is welcome and free. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
The forum on the Cologne sexual assaults that I curated has now been posted on the Society & Space website. It also carries a resonance with the UK’s EU referendum that saw some references to Cologne. The forum will be published as a series, with more contributions appearing in weekly instalments (new entries welcome!). Many thanks to all the contributors and to those who helped recruit them, especially during hectic term time.
The following call might be of interest to readers:
Themed issue on ‘Environment’
Feminism has a long and complex relationship to ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’. From critiques of the gendered nature/ culture binary to ecofeminism, feminists have alternatively rejected and celebrated women’s supposedly closer relationship to the natural world. Feminism has also long engaged critically with conventional definitions of humanism and ‘the human’, especially as derived from the exclusionist and violent definitions of the European Enlightenment.
These activist and critical histories have been revised and revisited in recent years as part of a growing preoccupation in the social sciences and humanities with the environment as subject, as well as object, of study. Growing consciousness of human-induced climate change, with its vastly unequal impact on different human populations as well as the planet as a whole, adds special urgency to these concerns. Whether as part of the post-humanist critique of the humanities, the ‘animal turn’, or the ‘new materialism’, feminists and other scholar-activists are increasingly reconceptualising definitions of, and boundaries between, the human and other-than-human world.
Feminist Review invites academic articles and creative interventions for a special issue on ‘Environment’. Possible topics of consideration include:
-genealogies of feminist environmentalism, within and beyond ecofeminism
-gender, race, class and ‘intersectional environmentalism’
-postcolonialism and environmental justice
-feminist contributions to debates and interventions around climate change
-gendered histories of the environment
-memory, mourning and environmental destruction
-religious and spiritual dimensions of feminist engagement with ecology
-post-humanist approaches to environmental studies
-kinship across species
-feminist, queer and anti-racist interventions in animal studies
-feminist perspectives on planetary futures
Issue editors: Yasmin Gunaratnam, Carrie Hamilton and Ioana Szeman
If you would like to discuss your ideas for this issue please contact the editors at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Full articles or Open Space pieces to be submitted by 2 January 2017.
Manuscripts should be submitted through Feminist Review’s online submission system and in FR house style. See http:// http://www.palgrave-journals.com/fr/author_instructions.html.
Image: Ellen Gallagher IGBT (2008)
Two exciting things are happening at the RACE (Race, Culture & Equality) Working group.
1) Two of our members, Margaret Byron (our chair) and Parvati Raghuram (committee member) are receiving awards from the RGS-IBG on 6 June. Margaret is receiving the Taylor & Francis Award for the promotion of diversity in the teaching of human geography, and Parvati is receiving the Murchinson Award for furthering geographical understandings of mobility.
2) Our RACE teaching workshop has been confirmed by the RGS-IBG conference organisers. It will take place on the Tuesday of the conference and will be free to attend (no conference registration needed!). The workshop is divided into two themes: Race in the Curriculum and Challenging Exclusionary Spaces. We hope to see you there! You can register for the workshop on our Eventbrite page.
The following call for papers for the International Studies Association 2017 conference might be of interest to readers:
“Please consider this call for papers on the theme of ‘Material and the Colonial Question’ for ISA 2017 (Feb 22-25) in Baltimore. The ISA deadline for submissions is June 1st, so please send expressions of interest as soon as possible and full 200 word abstracts by May 20th to firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks!
Lisa Tilley, Olivia Rutazibwa, and Ajay Parasram.
Material and the Colonial Question
Divided cities, degraded resource frontiers, poisoned urban water supplies, violent commodity routes, oil pipelines, concrete settlements on colonised lands, toxic air, and contaminated biospheres – all of these may be understood as material substantiations of historically determined power relations in the present. A methodological shift to place material at the centre of analysis reveals the ways in which matter is implicated in politics and also provides a new means of expanding our debates around the colonial question.
This panel draws together papers which centre on the material realities of unequal political environments and thus adjust and enhance theorising both of the material and the (post)colonial. Panel contributions variously consider how material arrangements constitute subject/object, human/thing colonial power relations. These will also uncover means of overcoming the separation between the material and the representational in decolonial and postcolonial work by tracing lineages of Indigenous thought, or by recovering material questions from the work of anticolonial thinkers including Frantz Fanon.
Papers included range from a reading of the sociogenic material of the (post)colonial city through the work of Fanon and Sylvia Wynter, to an examination of the materialities of Black Power.
Panel contributors may relate to one or more of the following research questions:
In what ways is material politically implicated in the colonial present?
How are colonial social relations materialised in physical space?
What are the possibilities for engagement between posthumanism and post-/de-colonial thought?
What are the political implications of physiological changes in relation to material environments?
How does matter mediate political life?
How are material exclusions from the figure of the human produced?
How are dehumanising spaces such as refugee camps and urban ‘slums’ produced politically?
How can existing postcolonial and decolonial theory enhance new materialisms theorising?
Abourahme, Nasser (2014) Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
Jackson, Mark (Ed.) (Forthcoming) Postcolonialism, Posthumanism, and Political Ontology. Routledge.
Mitchell, Timothy (2011) Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Verso.
Todd, Zoe (2016) An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is Just Another Word for Colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology.”
Image source: GeoCritique
The newly redesigned GeoCritique has just published the five propositions that Anja Kanngieser and I delivered as a critique at the Anthropocene themed RGS-IBG 2015 conference in Exeter, UK. The propositions also represent an experiment in positioning ourselves not just in relation to Anthropocene discourse, but in terms of geography, race, gender etc. This is an on-going writing experiment, and we welcome critique.