Honorary Fellowship @ Warwick Sociology


Image: Susanna Castleden ‘Bermuda Sunset, Rottnest Sunrise’ (2014)

Today, I received the official letter that I am now Honorary Fellow in the Department of Sociology. Big thank you to Gurminder K. Bhambra and Claire Blencowe who organised this via the Warwick Social Theory Centre. I will be there for three years, working on my book and related activities, such as the BA/Leverhulme workshop. From today, I can be contacted at a.last@warwick.ac.uk as well as the mutablematter@gmail.com address.

 

British Academy/Leverhulme Grant for Mutable Matter Workshop


Image: David Alfaro Siqueiros ‘Cosmos and Disaster’ (circa 1936)

Mutable Matter will be hosting its first workshop this year, generously supported by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and Warwick Social Theory Centre. The workshop, entitled ‘Cosmos & Crisis: interdisciplinary conversations’ will be taking place in late Summer/early autumn. More details coming soon!

Mutable Matter on Curved Radio again


Image by fellow Curved Radio crew member Olivia Louvel

Curved Radio is back from their (Australian) summer break, and I’m going to be joining them next Sunday at 11pm – Monday 2am Sydney time (about 12-3pm Sunday UK time). Am doing a mini series around borders, starting with tunes by Latin American feminist musicians. For the moment, leaving you with this brilliant collaboration:

Open Call for ROYAL TRASH

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DEADLINE: SATURDAY 18 MARCH 2017
OPEN CALL FOR DEEP TRASH: ROYAL TRASH

More information here.

“We are now accepting proposals for a new episode of Deep Trash, the unique multi-disciplinary exhibition and performance club night in London.

Calling for performances, videos and artworks to be shown on Saturday 29 April 2017 at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London. We accept proposals by artists of any artistic background and nationality. We are also keen to hear from writers and academics responding to the call either in written form (theory and cross-genre) or through a performative lecture.

For the next 3 episodes of Deep Trash, we are delighted to have the support of the Department of Drama at Queen Mary University (London) – one of the leading research centres for performance and drama across the UK – who will host our symposium on Thursday 27 April 2017 entitled ‘Power, Subcultures & Queer Stages’ with a keynote talk by Dr. Shaun Cole, fashion historian, curator and writer. Our headline artist for the live art night will be the one and only “Un-Royal Variety” Star Jonny Woo.

This call mainly looks at the relations & tensions between subcultures & high society, state & monarchy, class & sexual expressions, empires and colonialism. We welcome proposals at the intersections of queer, feminist, postcolonial discourses or artistic frameworks.

This event’s applications may include, respond to, be affected by, but not restricted to:

– (Un)making the Empire: examining the social construction of Whiteness.
– A cabinet of curiosities: colonialist and patriarchal spectacles re-imagined.
– Contemporary takes on Victorian literature & class discourses.
– Kings and Queens: royalty and drag culture.
– Royal Scandals: revival and re-appropriation of Royal chronicles.
– Dancefloors, podiums & other queer stages: sub- and counter-cultures at the club.
– ‘Jubilee’: Punk & Anarchy as a resistance to monarchy.
– Aristocrazy: middle/upper class Bohemia and extravagance.
– Camp: style, subcultures and sexual politics.
– ‘I want a Dyke for President’: counter-actions, anti-heroes and alternative role models
– Rulers & Responsibility: eco-feminist critiques of Earth Crimes.
– The Golden Cage: female domesticity and oppression in the house, the castle or the Harem.
– Vajazzles, Golden Showers, Royal Albert and Pearl Necklaces: Royal Slang & Sexual PracticesOrientalism and Occidentalism: Art as social distortion.
– ‘Let them eat cake’: inequalities between the people and the monarchy.
– Waacking and Voguing: the relation of dance and dance spaces to the queer community.
– Oligarchy, kleptocracy and plutocracy: critiques of wealth and state corruption.
– Non-noble entities of wealth and power, such as mafia, “nouveau riches”, yuppies, socialites and media personalities.
– Sex and power in Dynasty and contemporary soap operas.
– An Un-Royal Variety: subverting the canon of mainstream culture.

To apply please follow the link: http://www.cuntemporary.org/open-call-deep-trash-royal-trash

The programme is supported using public funding by Arts Council England.”

For further information:
CUNTemporary
Arts | Feminism | Queer
email: info@cuntemporary.org
web: http://www.cuntemporary.org

Mutable Matter 10th anniversary celebration

Mutable Matter

I first posted on Mutable Matter on 24 September 2007. Since then, the blog has moved from its original purpose to build a dialogue with Open University students and other interested publics about methods to explore “invisible risk” to a more general focus on matter and materiality. My writing has hopefully improved over the last 324 posts, too!

I am extremely grateful for all the experiences and connections that writing Mutable Matter has enabled and continues to enable, and I would like to use the blog’s 10th anniversary to say thank you to all the readers and subscribers. I am currently working on a free book publication which will feature a selection of essays from the book, and also some contributions from readers. There will also be a little celebration this summer, probably around the time of the RGS-IBG 2017 (end of August/beginning of September). If there is anything that you would like to see, happen or contribute, please get in touch!

With love,

Angela

“Hidden Figures” and the pursuit of excellence through diversity

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A couple of weeks ago, I watched the film Hidden Figures, after a friend (thanks, Donnamarie!) recommended it to me. As a black British woman, she was blown away by this piece of history – three African American women who contributed, as NASA employees, to putting an American into the Earth’s orbit. What we both liked about the film was not just the uncovering of the phenomenal achievements of these women against the obstacle of white supremacy and misogyny, but how much the story still relates to current times, both in terms of issues and the kind of rhetoric that is used.

For example, in the film, there is a scene at a barbecue where NASA employee Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monaé) talks to her husband about going to court for taking classes to become an engineer. Jackson is generally encouraged by her friends and the Jewish scientist she is working with, because her potential success might open up paths for future generations. Her husband, however, initially cautions her against entering a system that is effectively designed to take its fuel from her while burning her in the process. This tension is still very much present in contemporary debates, for instance, the one surrounding ‘why is my curriculum white?’: should we, as non-white students and academics, join the academy and attempt to make it less racist, or should we try and create something outside of a system that is racist in its foundation? This conflict has, for instance, been sharply dissected in the work of Kehinde Andrews.

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A key moment in the film, for me, was the scene where the white boss of Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson), an incredibly talented black mathematician, asks: “why are we not as good as the Russians?”. While asking this question he is surrounded by all the talent that could help them achieve the same or better results, but is completely oblivious to it. Neither Goble nor the brilliant supervisor and programmer Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), nor Mary Jackson – or any of the other African American “computers” – are even recognised as humans. They are even denied access to the very means – programming books, computers, classes, scholarships and even toilets and coffee – that would enable them to contribute. Everything about that moments feels totally nonsensical: the space race feels like an idiotic alpha male competition that somehow made it to the international scale, the absurd extent of racism and the resources put behind it adds another layer of incomprehension, and, overall, the way the project is managed seems utterly in opposition to what is desired to be achieved. As another friend cynically put it: exploitation works best if everyone is exploited equally and made to want to be exploited.

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Having recently done some work in relation to the Race Equality Charter Mark, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the current rhetoric of “excellence” in diversity committees. There, the argument that is often made is that diversity is needed to achieve excellence. At the same time, it is plainly obvious that while this rhetoric is rolled out at every opportunity, the most brilliant people are still being systematically pushed out, often by the same dynamics as shown in Hidden Figures (all-male panels and decision-making boards, moving the ‘finish line”, lack of support, ignorance towards other embodiments of excellence). What Hidden Figures highlights against this background is that real excellence is not actually desired, because it would mean disturbing the way things work and disturbing the narrow logic of competition to which we have become accultured. To me, it is no coincidence that nearly all of my living intellectual heroes are working outside of the academy, in sports stores, FE colleges, manual jobs, where they have no institutional support. The few who manage to remain in academia, often as tokens of ‘diversity’, often have to make do with insecure contracts, are pressured into leaving or are simply not promoted. Many are moving abroad, through the added injustices of Brexit and other destructive immigration regulations.

A recent article in the Timed Higher Education touched on this issue, sadly without getting to the bottom of it. The author lamented that “young academics’ research is elegant but not interesting”, because they are afraid to speak out and end up self-censoring. Instead, according to the author, it was the senior academics who seemed to present more daring arguments. What is missing from this analysis, again, are the ‘hidden figures’: the people whose work is too challenging for hiring panels, for funding bodies, or whose work is being appropriated by professors without credit. ‘Excellence’ is rarely found at academic conferences, but in the growing para-academic spaces that frequently overlap with activist and artist circles. As Jack Stilgoe put it in a related rant in The Guardian: ‘excellence tells us nothing about how important the science is and everything about who decides’ (for a more elaborate analysis, see this article by Moore et al).

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The film also nicely showed how efforts to progress are being undermined by supposedly natural allies, in this case, white women. Not only did Kirsten Dunst’s supervisor character “Mrs Mitchell” participate in the oppression of her black co-workers, but she effectively sabotaged herself. Another layer of failed alliances was added through the reviews of the film where at least one woman performed the same move as the white female supervisor by devaluing the race dimension. And, like her, she would probably have to reacted to the criticism in a similar manner:

Mitchell: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.”
Vaughan: “I know you probably believe that.”

This line is brilliant, because it so poignantly summaries the kind of rationalising that people perform to justify violence. The allies who supported the women in the end were men – the women’s husbands, the Jewish scientist and the boss who desperately needed the black women’s skills (partly also in order not to lose his own job, or, as one reviewer put it, he is ‘too busy to hate‘).

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What makes this film so successful (quite a few people I have spoken to since have reported standing ovations from black audiences), Donnamarie suggested, is the fact that is provides so many different angles on the subject. Everyone can find a way into discussing it, whether through race, gender, family and workplace dynamics, science etc. This certainly worked at the café where we talked, and there have, of course, been many articles in the media, from the NASA website to black community newspapers. While progress might not proceed in linear ways, a film like Hidden Figures illustrates that the lucky constellations that bring progress do not just depend on co-incidence, but also determination. The film’s clear parallels with today give a prompt to all possible audiences of this film to not repeat history, but continue the work of creating a better one. As “Mary Jackson” put it at the start of the film, when the three black women manage to turn a potentially dangerous traffic control by a white male police officer into a police escort to take them faster to work: “I’ll tell you where to begin”.

“Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had” – Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (2005)

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Image: “Abyss” by Alpha Coders

While working on my section for the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Interdisciplinary Methods, I stumbled upon an old essay on researching with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin. It is one of three essays that I wrote in 2005/2006 for the social theory module of my MSc in Human Geography Research Methods at the Open University. I had stopped being a Fashion student in 2003 and had worked on my own for two years to develop a theoretical project. At the same time, I was negotiating the future of my art practice and how it might sit within an academic framework as a “method”. The MSc, and especially this module, gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different theories and experiment with my writing. There are quite a few essays and working papers that I have never published, but am thinking of re-editing for teaching use. When I ran the Theory Surgery at the British Library café, the Serres/Bakhtin essay often came in handy as an example, and I was planning on publishing it, however I gradually became unsure about it, because I felt I had moved on in theoretical and stylistic terms. Looking at it now, I think it already shows some of my current themes, although I would probably turn to different philosophers now for the same questions due to the growing influence of feminist/queer/postcolonial critique on my work. Despite this shortcoming, I feel that it still offers some useful prompts, which is why I have decided to upload it after 12 years on my hard drive. Here, then, is some vintage Mutable Matter – even including adorable references to Open University ‘audio-cassettes’!

Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had –
Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (pdf)

Abstract

What is it like to work with the ideas of Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin as a researcher, especially as an early career researcher? How might their ideas and experiments affect you at various stages of your research, from asking questions to writing for particular audiences? In this essay, I  focus on themes in their work that resonate with my own project, which considers the relation between the human and nonhuman in method, and also incorporates sensory methods. The themes of communication, invention and responsibility are discussed through Serres’ and Bakhtin’s non-linear philosophies, represented through the gods Hermes and Janus respectively. After some more project focused discussions, I end on a set of general observations on the relationship between theory and method or ‘practice’.