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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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!