Reflections on Annie Le Brun’s Sadean Materialism

I first came across the writer Annie Le Brun while looking for literature on Aimé Césaire. In her books Pour Aimé Césaire (1994) and Statue Cou Coupé (1996), she defends her fellow surrealist author’s work from being taken off the French core curriculum, to be replaced by créolité literature – a movement which criticises and tries to move beyond racial essentalism. Le Brun effectively dismisses this literary movement as postmodern levelling (she really does not like post structuralism), employed to disguise racism. The fact that she is a white woman intervening in a debate between ‘négre’ and ‘créole’ identifying writers leaves her in a difficult position, and often her accusations feel out of place, even when her observations are appropriate in places (some are definitely problematic). While I appreciate some of her provocations, including the insults hurled towards academics, I end up disagreeing with her on many points, including her disdain for identity politics, religion/spirituality, technology, or pretty much anything she considers post-modern. Although she would probably hate this comparison (as well as the medium of the internet-based blog), my experience of reading her is very much like reading Hannah Arendt: both authors share a hatred of anything ‘mass’, often resulting in a problematic ‘genius worship’, which often borders on elitism and disregards ordinary acts of resistance. Despite their drawbacks, in my view, I appreciate both writers for their sharp examinations of ideology, especially fascism.

So far, only two of Le Brun’s many books have been translated into English, ‘Reality Overload’ (a rather unimaginative critique of technology and gender relations) and ‘Sade – A Sudden Abyss’. I do recommend the book on D.A.F. de Sade as a useful set of provocations to well-meaning materialists, both of the historical/dialectical and the new materialist kind. In my reading on materialism, I keep coming across de Sade references, whether through the work of Georges Bataille or Maurice Blanchot. While most people primarily (and probably rightfully) associate de Sade with misogyny and authoritarianism (interestingly, Le Brun insists that de Sade celebrates the ‘futurity of the female form in characters such as Léonore and Justine’!), scatological obsession and bad taste, I also get the attraction to philosophers. However, approaching the original texts can take some effort, not even so much in terms of feminist and aesthetic sensibilities, but in terms of pure tediousness: they are literally a crap read. All of the sexual clichés are present, united in incredibly bad writing – although apparently not without deeper meaning. It feels a lot like slogging through François RabelaisGargantua and Pantagruel (the book that was brilliantly used against Stalin’s dialectical materialist doctrine by Mikhail Bakhtin). Annie Le Brun would probably say that postmodernism cynicism and relativism has robbed me of the ability to sense the genius of de Sade’s writing, although she herself admits about The 120 Days of Sodom (1785): “Here we have a book which begins with all the pomp of a historical novel, and which ends with the laconic formulas of simple subtraction.”

I guess, more so than de Sade’s work itself, what I do appreciate is the diverse ways in which writers and artists who have felt an affinity with de Sade have used his work.  In his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini stages de Sade’s casual and excessive abuse as a metaphor for capitalism. Georges Bataille, by contrast, draws on de Sade’s methods in his accusations against materialism: that no materialist has used materialism to its full potential. Maurice Blanchot sees in de Sade the simultaneous desire and impossibility to destroy nature – while God is easy to denounce – and even regards de Sade as the perfect writer, since his prolific output drowns out his overall message to such a degree that the reader primarily ends up experiencing the materiality of language. Blanchot considers this a liberation of thought from value. Amusingly, all of these people are dismissed throughout Le Brun’s book. I don’t think Le Brun even mentions Simone de Beauvoir who wrote the introduction to one of the editions to The 120 Days of Sodom – an author she already panned as a ‘feminist imposter’ in texts such as Lâchez tout. Le Brun basically ends up criticising other authors for not going far enough – or misunderstanding de Sade altogether. In her opinion, de Sade has been misjudged as an annoying, but provocative mad person, or as a simple attacker of sexual morals. She further finds that de Sade neither rages against nature, nor cares about ‘noble’ projects such as opposing capitalism. So what, according to Le Brun, is de Sade actually about?

The short answer: liberating nihilism (the title is a bit of a give-away). Le Brun and de Sade both deeply despise hypocrisy, especially from people who consider themselves virtuous. For them, this desire links to the projection of ideology onto the material world – whether these are fascist appeals to ‘natural law’, or religious ideas of the cosmos as a model for vice or virtue. Camille Naish, in the foreword to Sade – A Sudden Abyss, refers to this practice as ‘ideological ‘stripping’’. Indeed, Le Brun appreciates de Sade for taking both atheism and materialism to what she considers their only appropriate conclusions: as radical tools against ideology, including supposedly utopian socialist ideas (at some point, she calls this de Sade’s ‘atheist machine’). As de Sade himself puts it: “Nature, who is stranger than the moralists portray her, is constantly cascading through the dams their policies prescribe for her…” Le Brun even finds that,“from a strictly spectacular point of view, Sade’s humour corresponds to a theatrical depiction of the utter collapse of any form of representation.” This is interesting, as the collapse of representation or utter immediacy is often associated with totalitarian and, in particular, fascist ambitions, such as large scale mobilisations of affect or appeals to dumb forms of ‘natural law’. This is what the writer Bertolt Brecht tried to act against, yet Le Brun describes his attempts at “distancing” as “replacing one system of representation by another”. Here, Le Brun argues that fascists actually don’t do away with representation, but use it to run away from a reality they are not ready to face. This way, they always fail to adopt de Sade, despite his obvious appeal.

What is also not entirely clear is how de Sade makes nature both an object of intense rage and an almost non-existent object. On the one hand you have statement such as this one:

‘In all that we do, there are only offended idols and creatures, but Nature is not one of them, and Nature is the one I really want to outrage; I would like to upset its plans, to foil its proceedings, to stop the orbit of the stars, to disrupt the planets that float in space, to destroy all that serves it, to protect all that harms it, in a word, to insult the core of Nature; and I am incapable of this.’

But you also have statements such as the following one:

“Nothing is born, nothing essentially perishes, everything is but an action or reaction of matter; there are the waves of the sea which rise and fall within the mass of waters; there is perpetual motion, which has been and always will be, and whose principal agents we become, without ever suspecting it, by reason of our virtues and our vices. It is an infinite variety; thousands upon thousands of different bits of substances, appearing in all kinds of forms, annihilating themselves before becoming manifest in other forms, subsequently to dissolve and form again.”

Indeed, Le Brun starts off by pointing to de Sade’s obsession with nature as a ‘physical immensity’, while maintaining that he, in the end, ‘does not grant it any value whatsoever’. As she puts it: “the idea of nature is already neutralised before it has even been formulated, by the vigour of the motion which precedes and exceeds it.” This view maps onto both Le Brun and de Sade’s preoccupation with nothingness. In fact, the book ends with (apologies for spoilers!):

“Wandering about Paris, the whole day long, I experienced an intense feeling of having no more limits, of not being in this world, of actually being the world or rather, of sinking into everything that I was not.” (…) “How could I not be grateful to him for having shown me that within every forceful thought lies and intense way to be nothing?”

This seems to solve the odd connection between power and nothingness: one mode is the flip side of the other. Throughout the book, there are some fascinating passages which seem to prefigure, if I may draw the comparison, “new materialism”: “an ensemble where everything is representative, people and places alike, objects and words, even Aline’s little spaniel, Folichon…” (…) “the ‘assemblage of movements’ which constitute life, according to Sade.” Everything is united by the same matter-energy set-up.

To me, what is actually more interesting is the theme of “the banality of evil”. Almost sounding like Hannah Arendt again, Le Brun notes how the “continuing fascination exercised by Sade” lies in the location of his work in the “indeterminate region between monstrosity and banality.” To me, as a geographer, the arguments that Le Brun makes about this sound a lot like a critique of environmental determinism and related dodgy forms of organicism.

“It is certainly because he refuses, with all his might, the traditional allegiance of the organic and the spiritual that Sade simultaneously allows himself the redoubtable privilege of conceiving what goes on inside him in terms of earthquakes, the orbit of the sun, volcanic eruptions or continental drifts. Nothing could be more monstrous, since humanity is thereby confused with a possible form of energy, and since man becomes one mere probability of being, no better than another. But also, by the same token, nothing could be more banal: even if we have forgotten it, wasn’t everybody’s childhood haunted by a violent impression of physical dominion on a universal scale?”

This sentiment is also echoed in de Sade’s character Léonore’s exclamation: “Let us study nature; let us follow her to her furthermost boundaries; let us even work to place them further still; but never let us prescribe boundaries to nature.” In both quotations, the many claims to biological support for ideologies, most brilliantly analysed by Donna V. Jones in her book The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy, appear to be refuted by describing humans as unstable, inorganic matter-energy infrastructure. At the same time, such statements are not without problems. While such argumentation may work against dodgy vitalist claims, it also sets up a problematic mutual exclusion of the spiritual with materialism. As Erica Lagalisse writes in her new book on Occult Features of Anarchism, this apparent incommensurability is often used to relegate the spiritual outside of the “West” or “modernity” or usually both. And it is not just racialised but gendered. In fact, Le Brun makes many problematic claims about universality that would horrify postcolonial scholars (interestingly, as she writes in Statue Cou Coupé, Le Brun sees Sadean materialism embodied in the figure and actions of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture!).

Somewhat surprisingly, towards the end of the book, Le Brun suggests that de Sade, whom most people consider the absolute opposite of ethics, in fact puts forward an ‘ethics of perturbation’. By this, she means that de Sade, in his dissatisfaction with “discover[ing] man on the very brink of what negates him”. His characters “acquire, rather, a passion for momentum which suggests a perturbation of the subject, a perturbation on which the subject is actually based.” She further argues that “only perturbation permits transition to another speed. But which speed? The speed we never stop losing, the speed of the imagination, which gives man an accurate idea of time and space he has a right to claim for his desires. And that is the beginning of a moral.” Again, this may strike us as rather odd: self-assured assertion of time and space as an ethics. More modestly, she phrases it as “the relative degree of consciousness which allows one to join, or not join, in the workings of the world, and to participate in it.” She stresses that this is impossible without “some violence being done to the order of things, for only thus will we understand it”. So, how do we participate in the world with a ‘relative degree of consciousness’ without representation? And: isn’t this how we are participating in the world anyway?

What I have taken away from this book so far is that it is a fascinating ‘devil’s advocate’ position that tries to push against exuberant, but empty revolutionary claims and dumb appeals to morals. By taking an extreme position, however, it not only risks using caricatures, but, worse, fails to remain sensitive to how certain ideologies such as secularity (see the work of Erica Lagalisse and Claire Blencowe) have become so naturalised that they become false ‘neutral’ foundations or extremes. As pointed out earlier, the book is full of contradictions, some of which temporarily become resolved, only to reassert themselves later. In some ways, I find these contradictions productive, even if I have to keep cringing (including over constant referring to ‘man’ instead of ‘human, thought this may be a translation issue). For example, take this quote: “By means of this passkey of commotion, Sade brings the different world into communication and returns us to the moment of the universe. At the same time, he suggests the one means of not letting ourselves not get carried away by it.” As de Sade’s character Léonore goes on to describe this ‘means’: “as long as we submit nature to our pretty views, as long as we chain her to our loathsome prejudices, confusing them with her own voice, we shall never learn to know her: who knows if we should not run ahead of her to hear what she is trying to say?”

To me this resonates with both problematic and positive connotations. Problematic, because implies that all forms of representation conceal some sort of natural ‘truth’, and positive, because it tries to move against moralising appeals to nature that keep getting hurled, for example, against ‘queer’ people all over the world. To appreciate some of these double edged ‘means’ does not mean that I agree with them or stop being critical of them or that I think that you always need to take ‘the good with the bad’. Rather, examples such as this book help me think about my own blindspots in my theorisations, especially when it comes to ‘solutions’ that initially seem like a good ‘antidote’ to something or other. In this sense, Le Brun’s ‘ideological stripping’ works: it does less so for the dismantling of an ideology to show how fake it is. Instead, it works as a reality check for their own ‘noble’ ideas.

It also works, in my opinion, to draw attention to the key issue within materialism: the fine line between deindividuation – the main strategy of materialism – and dehumanisation. As many critics, from Sylvia Wynter to Juanita Sundberg, have pointed out, both “old” and “new” materialisms often fail to remain sensitive to human inequality or needs in their quest for better models of society. The work of D.A.F. de Sade is perhaps the best illustration of radical materialism without attention to dehumanisation. Current experimentation with materialism and ‘inhumanism’ is exploring exactly this tension right now, and taking Le Brun’s ‘Sadean materialism’ less as a model, but as a problem could be useful in terms of evaluating our own provocations. Since many recent materialist experiments have been disconcertingly appreciated and attacked across the political/theoretical spectrum (see, for example, the Paul Kingsnorth/Arcadia controversy), it is important to develop a sensitivity to the many dimensions of our experimentation, and, especially, to how they might translate into material enactments down the line.

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DEEP TRASH Eco Trash 19 April 2019

This event – and others in this series – may be of interest to readers. Apologies for late posting! There are more events coming up as part of the Ecofutures Festival.


DEEP TRASH Eco Trash
Friday 19 April 2019
presented as part of Ecofutures Festival
at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club
£10/12/15
20:00-02:00 (last entry midnight)

TICKETS

The legendary East London exhibition-cum-performance club night Deep Trash is back! Teaming up with the 3-week festival EcoFutures, Deep Trash delves into our present day ecological dystopia to explore alternative futures for our planet and all the diverse creatures within it.

Expect to experience both present and future visions of our ecological landscapes in a variety of utopic possibilities and dystopic realities. Sticky encounters with hybrid creatures, antidotes to overconsumption in a technofuturist dimension and a unique living incarnation of Whitechapel’s ‘Fatberg’ will fill up the rooms of this immersive Eco Trash experience. You might also come across some mystic papayas, acts of shared ecolove and ecosex, BDSM technoshamanist rituals against the current ecocide, queer counteractions to the Anthropocene, Afrofuturistic sonic healing and the sacred cleansing of our inner (yoni) climate.

Dressing up (or undressing) is highly encouraged.

Deep Trash is a bi-annual, one-night-only event featuring live, uncensored and challenging performances, installations, one-to-one encounters, artworks, visuals and videos spread over 2 floors in 3 rooms by over 40 artists from all over the world all under the same roof in East London’s legendary Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club.

The venue will be open from 8pm, with a 1-hour curated screening on loop. The event will also include an exhibition, interactive and immersive installations and all-night performances that address sexuality, gender and race in relation to the environment and ecology.

DJ set by Moonbow (Siren collective) will fuse organic and sci fi sounds of cyberpunk films and anime. Followed by Karen Wilkins (Opulence), infecting the dancefloor withdeep, rhythmic, percussive techno grooves till the end of the night. In the basement, Smaragda will get you dancing to the latest pussytronic/queertonic dance beats around midnight.

LIVE:

Arise Amazons! / Danielle Imara / Eunjung Kim & Burong (曾不容) / Fallon Mayanja / intimate animals / Joseph Morgan Schofield / Miss HerNia / Niya B / Tom Coates / Veneration (Victoria W & Nicole B)

ART:

Adam Seid Tahir / Anna Nolda Nagele / Barbara Gamper / Cecilia Cavalieri / Craestor / Dakota Gearhart / Eliana Otta / Erik Thörnqvist / Francisco Navarrete Sitja / Helena Cardow / Intimate Jelly / Izzy Bravo / Jo Pester / Julia Oldham / Karl Munstedt / Karine Bonneval / Landon Newton / María Papi / Meghan Moe Beitiks / Nonhuman Nonsense / Nuoran Zhang / Romily Alice Walden / Shvemy Sewing Cooperative / Zaneta Zukalova

DJs:

Karen Wilkins (Opulence) / Moonbow (Siren/NTS Radio) / Smaragda

Event Information

Tickets: http://workersplaytime.net/TICKETS.htm
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/471231956747426/

General Information

Deep Trash: https://cuntemporary.org/category/projects/deep-trash/
Ecofutures Festival: https://cuntemporary.org/category/projects/ecofutures/
FB: https://www.facebook.com/DeepTrashClub
IG: https://www.instagram.com/deeptrashclub
#DeepTrash #EcoTrash

Press

CUNTemporary Press
Arts | Feminism | Queer
press@cuntemporary.org

Venue Information

Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club
42-44 Pollard Row, London, E2 6NB

Arts Council Logo

CFP: Political Ecologies of the Far Right, Lund University

Call for Contributions

Lund University, 15-17 November 2019

www.pefr.hek.lu.se

An interdisciplinary academic-activist conference organized by the Human Ecology Division at Lund University in collaboration with CEFORCED at Chalmers University

Far-right political parties, ideologies and social movements are increasingly exercising influence across the world. At the same time, ecological issues, such as climate change, deforestation, land use change, biodiversity loss, and toxic waste are intensifying in their urgency. What happens when the two phenomena meet? How, when and why do they intersect? How are party and non-party sectors of the far right mobilizing ecological issues and discourses to their advantage, whether through championing or rejecting environmentalist claims? What are the ecological underpinnings of far-right politics today? This understudied topic forms the basis of this interdisciplinary conference on the political ecologies of the far right.

From Trump and Bolsonaro to the Sweden Democrats and AfD, a radical anti-environmentalism is most often championed by the contemporary far right. This stance resonates with a conspiratorial suspicion of the state, science, elites, globalism, and supposed processes of moral, cultural and social decay. This is most clearly pronounced in climate change denialism and defense of fossil fuels, which have undergone a global resurgence in recent years. But the same position is also articulated in, for example, anti-vegetarianism or opposition to renewables. How can we understand the causes of far right rejection of environmentalism and environmental concerns where it occurs? What broader ideologies, interests, psychologies, histories, narratives and perceptions does it reflect? What might the implications be for ecological futures if far-right parties continue to amass power? How can the climate justice and other environmental movements and anti-racist, anti-fascist activism converge and collaborate?

On the other hand, it is an inconvenient truth that there is a long-standing shadowy legacy of genealogical connections between environmental concern and far-right thought, from links between conservation and eugenics in the early national parks movement in the US, to dark green currents within Nazism. Hostility to immigration informed by Malthusian thinking and regressive forms of patriotic localism have often surfaced in Western environmentalism. Today, the mainstream environmental movement is more usually aligned with leftist, progressive policies, yet the conservative streak that always lies dormant in overly romanticized conceptions of landscape and nature, or fears about over-population, lie ripe for mobilization in new unholy alliances between green and xenophobic, nativist ideologies. In what forms does this nexus appear around the world today and with what possible consequences? What frames, linkages and concerns are central to eco-right narratives? How can environmental thinking ward off the specter of green nationalism?

How to apply:

The conference aims to bring together not only scholars working at the interface of political ecology and far right studies but also activists from environmental, anti-fascist and anti-racist organizations and movements. We believe there is still much work to do to bring together these often separate strands of scholar and activist work together, and much opportunity for collaboration, mutual learning, and networking. This conference aims to hold a space for such engagement.

Scholars: We welcome contributions from all disciplines (geography, anthropology, sociology, history, literature, political science, cultural studies, sustainability studies, STS, philosophy, art history, media studies, communication studies, et cetera). Apart from individual papers, we also welcome suggestions for panels and workshops.

Activists: At least one day of the conference (Sunday – TBC) will focus on activist practices, with an emphasis on sharing and developing ideas and synergies between green and anti-fascist thinking and working, and on ways to collectively prevent a scenario of ‘ecological crisis meets fascist populism’. We invite activist groups and individuals to submit proposals for workshops, discussions, and presentations.

In line with recent calls for radical emissions reductions at Swedish universities, we encourage prospective participants to consider other travel options than aviation if possible. We are also open to presentations via video link.

Submission of abstracts: Please send abstracts (max. 350 words) to pefr@hek.lu.se by Thursday 16th May. There are a limited number of travel bursaries available (we will prefer non-aviation means where possible) for those who are most in need of support. Please indicate in your application whether you would like to be considered.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • climate denialism/climate change, fossil fuels and the far right
  • anti-environmentalism of far right
  • linking environmental, anti-fascist, anti-racist activism and social movements
  • ‘cultural marxism’, conspiracy theories and the environment
  • gender, sexuality, the far right and environment (eco, hegemonic or industrial masculinities, anti-feminism, normative heterosexuality, patriarchy)
  • renewable energy, vegan/vegetarianism, animal rights, agriculture, toxic waste, land use change, biodiversity extinction, pollution etc and the far right
  • environmental science, epistemology and the far right
  • racism, xenophobia, nature, conservation, ecology, wilderness and far right
  • whiteness as/and ‘endangered’ species
  • scenarios of a far-right ecological future
  • religion, ecology and the far right
  • populism, authoritarianism, neoliberalism, alt-right, far right
  • greenwashing, industry links, capital and funding for the far right and links with environmental issues
  • far right narratives on development, progress, and futures and their ecological conceptualization
  • environmental history of green ideas in far right politics
  • dark green histories and genealogies of environmentalism
  • infiltrations of and unhappy alliances between the contemporary far right and environmentalists
  • ecofascism, bio-nazism, green nationalism
  • psychologies, affects, emotions, private lives of the ecologies of the far right
  • historical legacies of ecologically unequal exchange and racial capitalism

Upcoming Conferences: PressEd & BSA Theory Workshop

This April, I will be participating in two conferences. The first one is a twitter conference on blogging called PressEd (18 April 2019), co-organised by Pat Lockley from the Global Social Theory team. I am rather excited about participating in this unusual format, as I teach a module on research communication at Leicester Geography. One of the options for students is to write a twitter thread, and indeed the papers for this conference are written as a series of 15 tweets – even the abstract was submitted as a single tweet. As I keep telling my students, a good twitter thread is harder to write than they think, as they tend to very quickly find out. This also means that I need to stick to my own teachings, as my students will be keeping me on my toes…

Here is the abstract, helpfully condensed by the conference organisers into the title ‘A useful ‘waste of time’ – blogging and the pursuit of ‘excellence’: “Academics keep saying that blogs are ‘an amazing resource’ for research & teaching, but also ‘a waste of time’ as they don’t count as impact or REF publication. This way, they embody tensions of the neoliberal university, but can they do more?” I will live tweet this paper on 18 April from 20:50. Obviously it will be there from then onwards. You can check out the full schedule here, and also tailor it to your respective time zone.


This explains any strange tweets…

The second conference is the British Sociological Association (BSA) Conference (24-26 April 2019, Glasgow Caledonian University). I have never been, but since it’s in Glasgow and has a theory workshop, I couldn’t say no. I am hoping to co-organise a workshop on the theory and race for the RACE Working Group, so this will be an invaluable experience. Also, due to the support of academics such as Gurminder Bhambra and Claire Blencowe, I am (literally) a card carrying honorary sociologist, so I would like to get a better sense of similarities and differences. The workshop, organised by Gurminder Bhambra, asks “how could we do theory differently and what sort of different theory would we need to participate effectively in the conversations around decolonising knowledge?” Participants include Nasar Meer, James Trafford, Sarah Victoria Burton and Lisa Kalayji. I will be presenting on “Teaching anti-racist materialisms”, an issue that again relates to my teaching practice, but is also based on material from the theory book that I’m currently writing. Here is the abstract:

“This paper asks what it means to teach an anti-racist materialism. The paper will look at both historical/dialectical materialism and new materialism. Due to its ‘levelling’ movement, materialism is generally associated with anti-elitism and anti-anthropocentrism. However, materialist history is also entangled with racist scientific and even occult histories, as, for instance, authors such as Donna V. Jones have argued. In this paper, I would like to take a closer look at the materialist histories that do not tend to get taught, and how not teaching them leaves many of our supposedly progressive theorisations with tacit racist elements. The paper argues that, instead of singling out racist theorists such as Heidegger etc and distancing us from them, we should look at all theory as having a racist heritage that still remains underexamined.”

 

Sensing M_hrenstraße

On our last day of the Berlin field trip, I found myself on the underground line U2, returning from buying presents for the organising team back in Leicester. There were no empty seats, so I remained standing and, slightly bored, I looked around the carriage at the mix of people – and four legged passengers – around me. I was just about to check for the time – I had to be back at the hotel soon – when the electronic voice announced the stop ‘Mohrenstraße‘.

The vocalisation comes like a shock. Although I knew about this street and the affiliated station – I had even included it in my theme day lecture on imperial and colonial legacies of Berlin – it is a very different experience hearing it mechanically blasted out of a speaker. I uncomfortably look at my fellow passengers again. Are they feeling the same? I could not detect anything. There was a Black woman wearing headphones – probably this wasn’t a deliberate reaction, but it felt like an apt metaphor. Imagine having to pass through this place for your daily commute? Apparently this stop was temporarily announced by German comedian Dieter Hallervorden at a time where he was performing a piece in blackface – until it was removed due to popular protest. The electronic voice is as offensive in its normalised structural racism.

Originally part of the Wilhelmstraße district, the equivalent of the UK’s ‘Whitehall’, the M_hrenstraße has had a long history of renaming. After coming into being as ‘Kaiserhof’ (imperial court), it was renamed several times due to changing infrastructures and politics. As part of the GDR government’s anti-Nazi, anti-imperialist purge that flattened most of the government buildings in the area, it obtained the name of the GDR politician Otto Grotewohl in the early 60s. Shortly after reunification, in 1991, it became subject to another controversial purge – of streets named after GDR politicians. It was then that it became named after the nearby M_hrenstraße, which was in turn named after Black Berliners during colonial times.

Today’s Black Berliners, their organisations, and many other residents have taken on the city government over a renaming of the station, the street and other infrastructure with on-going racist legacies. While there is a general consensus that the word ‘Mohr’ is racist, Berlin’s Christian Democrat politicians and a handful of historians argue that the word is ‘value free’ and a renaming ‘nonsensical’. Another counter argument has been the historic significance of the street: Karl Marx resided here as a student, and a famous German chocolate brand  – infamous for their racist ‘Sarotti Mohr‘ logo (akin to the French Banania controversy) – originated here. Predictably, the street name is supposed to ‘keep generating debate about racism’. What about ‘keeping on generating racism’?

The train stops. I feel the need to get off. I had passed this place before and even taken pictures, but this time, it felt even more viscerally offensive. I needed to see it properly, and especially any evidence of intervention. Perhaps I needed to see a space that gives people a chance to make a physical mark over the imposed one; perhaps it was an escapism from having to vocalise a counter commentary (would I be shouting at a speaker or talking to people?) or feeling the continued absence of one.

M_hrenstraße: the station entrance is often guarded by police, because people keep adding dots above the “o”: Möhrenstraße – carrot street. These dots are also added on correspondence with people and companies residing on this street. The postal staff know, and post thus addressed usually arrives. It almost seems too simple, too fun to be a protest. There are an incredible number of M_hrenstraße signs on this station. The posh looking ones on the red marble, on the other side of the tracks, are too difficult to reach, but there are three lit signs on the platform itself. Before continuing my journey, I closely inspect the Os on each of them:

Exit through the gift shop: curating the German perpetrator/victim double bind


Image: Baltic amber. Source: East Prussian Regional Museum.

I am currently working off a backlog of blog posts. I am beginning to settle into my new job role, but there are still lots of lectures to write and piles of student work to mark. Apologies for the enormous gaps between posts. The most immediately relevant post for me concerns my visit to the “East Prussian Regional Museum” (Ostpreußisches Landesmuseum) in my hometown of Lüneburg. Partly, I have been putting it off, because it is not easy to write about it. As we are taking students on an annual geopolitics-themed field trip to Berlin, I have to teach a general introduction to German history as well as theme material on German imperialism and colonialism. Over the Christmas holidays, I took the opportunity to visit the recently re-designed museum, which has had a controversial status amongst the town’s residents and beyond due to its essential celebration of life in what could be described as Germany’s East-European colonies. How does one even name the places without evoking German claims on them?

To understand the museum, one has to know that, after World War 2, Lüneburg almost doubled in size with refugees from Germany’s former ‘Eastern Territories‘ (Ostgebiete). In the wider district, two thirds of the population were refugees, giving the area the name ‘Little East Prussia on the Heath‘. Street names still give clues as to where these refugees came from: Königsberg/Kaliningrad, Gumbinnen/Gusev, Breslau/Wrocław, Memel/Klaipėdos Apskritis and so on. Usually these street names are clustered in particular districts where refugees, such as one of my uncles, settled. Undoubtedly, the experiences of these refugees were traumatic beyond the loss of their homes. This is the impulse out of which the museum came into existence: many of these refugees wanted their memories, culture and hardship documented. Still today, the museum receives 2-3 phone calls daily from people who would like to donate their personal objects or collections.


Image: population growth for entire district, county and town. Colour legend: percentage of established population (white), East Prussian refugees (light blue), refugees from Eastern territories (dark blue) and displaced persons, including former forced labourers and refugees from the bombed out cities (green). Source: East Prussian Regional Museum.

At the same time, the local refugees felt like there was a ‘taboo’ in post-war German society to speak about these experiences. Not only were the territories in which they had lived the product of imperialism, but Germans (or Prussians) had committed unspeakable atrocities in the East not just during the war, but for centuries. One of my grandfathers, who was from what was then called Pomerania, wrote in his last letter during the war about the ‘bad ways in which German men treat the Russian women’ with whom they were lodging, and he promised my grandmother to treat the women well. The letter was probably carefully phrased to make it through censorship, and there is ample evidence of the deeds that German soldiers committed abroad. One of the reasons so many people fled was that, like my grandmother, they exactly knew what their countrymen had been doing abroad, and they rightly feared revenge. East Prussia also played a role in the continued fund-raising for the war, in which postcards of bombed out East Prussian places were used as emotional blackmail.

The premise of the museum is a difficult one: to give voice to the German refugees while also acknowledging them as perpetrators. When the museum opened, many local residents, including my parents, dismissed it as a combination right-wing politics and imperial nostalgia. I have only vague memories of visiting it in primary school – I mostly remember a giant stuffed elk, East Prussia’s heraldic animal. The latest version of the museum has received more mixed reviews: the museum promised ‘no nostalgia‘, there was an exchange programme with curators from Eastern Europe, a connection to modern refugee experiences, documentation of the protests against the museum from the 1980s onwards – even noted peace activists were giving talks on its premises. At the same time, the museum and its contents keep being claimed by right wing leaders and organisations such as the AfD. The museum states that there is nothing they can do about this, as they are a publicly funded institution: anyone should be able to access it. With this information, I entered the museum this December, somewhat hesitantly handing over my money to the receptionist.


Old Prussian Statue. Source: East Prussian Regional Museum.

If my memory works correctly, the first exhibit that greeted me was on the Old Prussians (Prußen), a Western Baltic tribe. It explained how the Old Prussians were made up of several pagan peoples who were at war with both “German” (Germany as such didn’t exist in the Middle Ages) and Polish Christian crusaders. The exhibit detailed the brutal conquest of these peoples, and the adoption of their name by the victors – the Prussians. It also explained how some of the Old Prussians survived through integration, while many were killed as a consequence of refusing conversion. The next section explored the natural history: the aforementioned elk, organisms trapped in Baltic amber, bisons, lynx and Trakehner horses.

A sculpture of Napoleon and the Prussian Queen Louise flanked the way to the ‘East Prussian Life’ section. The story of Louise, and how she was sent to negotiate the reparations treaty after Prussia lost the war – a war that her husband and the all male cabinet had started – strongly reminded me of the post-Brexit referendum events. In a formidable moment of historical auto-satire, Louise had to do the job, “because her husband wouldn’t have been taken seriously as a negotiation partner”. Yet, apparently, her husband jealously interrupted the conversation with Napoleon before she could get the negotiations to a close. Despite the failure of the negotiations (and the royal family’s subsequent exile in the former capital of Prussia, Königsberg/Kaliningrad), she became a Prussian and later German icon, and was later appropriated by both by a women’s pro-monarchy league during the Weimar Republik and by Nazi propagandists.


Image: Kant’s tea cup and saucer, a present from his publisher. The inscription reads: “Before the goddess of knowledge, only Kant can persist”. Source: East Prussian Regional Museum.

The East Prussian Life section itself included a mixture of ordinary and famous people’s lives. It also featured a section on Jewish life. Famous ‘East Prussians’ are often claimed both by Germany and other nations as, for example, in the case of Nicolaus Copernicus, who is claimed by both Poland and Germany. Other ‘celebrities’ included Immanuel Kant, Hannah Arendt (born in Hanover, but raised in Königsberg, as the local Jewish community was more liberal), Käthe Kollwitz, E.T.A. Hoffmann, David Hilbert, and many other German writers, actors, musicians and scientists. At present, the museum is receiving further funds to expand this section, especially for Kant related objects acquired from a foundation in Duisburg. This section also emphasised the impact of Enlightenment thinking on political life in Prussia, including the abolition of serfdom, which was instated despite widespread protest among the nobility. A few side rooms showed paintings by East Prussian artists and even a collection of church bells from East Prussian Churches that visitors could play.

A similar section could be found further up, which illustrated the life of ‘Baltic Germans‘ (from Estonia and Latvia) more generally. The tour continued with the documentation of attempts to build a unified East Prussian culture through national dress, symbolism and music, especially under Nazi Germany. However, earlier nationalistic movements were mentioned in context, such as the role of controversial student associations (Burschenschaften) which had emerged from the struggle for German unification and gradually descended into nationalism, antisemitism and anti-republicanism.

The most difficult section was the one about refugee experiences. Here, you could listen to a number of testimonies – as podcasts, videos and even holograms. The holograms appeared next to a typical refugee cart (there was also a giant sledge in the exhibition) – many refugees had to flee over an only partially frozen lagoon that swallowed people, horses and possessions. The harrowing accounts were sometimes read by other people, as the refugees found it difficult to talk about rape, mutilation, abandonment, growing up feral, and other trauma (some of it detailed in this Guardian article). In one exhibit, these accounts were juxtaposed by the story of a local refugee from Sudan. This section most clearly illustrated the problematic narration of victimhood, especially as the stories were coming from one direction only. We learned about the atrocities committed against East Prussians, but not by East Prussians. Instead, a link was made to the present refugee crisis. While this sort of move might contribute to the acceptance of contemporary refugees – and indeed, despite widespread Islamophobia, you hear some of the old people say ‘they can’t tell us we can’t deal with 2 million refugees – we were so many more!’ – it also feels like it merely serves to stress the Germans’ victim status.

The exhibition continued with Lüneburg’s connection with East Prussia through its many refugees. A mixture of war and post-war facts and figures, documentation of life in refugee camps and outside of them (foraging manuals!) and attempts to memorialise East Prussian culture brought the exhibition to a close. How problematic this memorialisation is became  especially evident in the gift shop, which featured many items that could be considered politically problematic. Many of the items reflected East Prussian/Imperial nostalgia in the form of East Prussian branded alcohol (Bärenfang, Danziger Goldwasser, Trakehner Blut, Alter Weißer: Der Redliche Preuße und Deutsche, Lorbass etc – now produced near Lüneburg) key rings, maps bearing the German names of now Polish or Russian places, and Prussian army music. The distillery in particular has connections with the relaunched East Prussian/Prussian newspaper, formerly for former East Prussians, now a platform for many right-wing authors. The question is: who are these items aimed at? People wishing to commemorate the visit? Who have family connections to East Prussia? Who might find the tackiness of these products entertaining? Given the right-wing connotations of this sort of merchandise, why is it for sale? Has it become acceptable? Also: what sort of merchandise would be an alternative – is any merchandise even appropriate?

Looking back, the museum still feels me with unease. Throughout the exhibition, visitors seemed to look at each other seemingly embarrassed, as if either asking ‘why are you here?’ or wishing to explain their presence. At the same time, from overheard conversations – there were not that many people around on a dark rainy evening after Christmas – I gained a bit of a sense as to why other people were here: they explained family history to their children. My reason, too, was not just finding out about the curation of this topic, but trying to understand parts of my family, my neighbourhoods in Lüneburg and London (where many Polish people live and work), and odd connections between my hometown and places like Estonia. Especially at the moment, were many German celebrities and politicians basically support a reclaiming of Prussia, both in architecture  and as a ‘flourishing’ German culture, it is important to not just recognise and display these desires, but to remain critical of them. After all, they are not just tied to personal and generational trauma, but to on-going territorial claims. The fact that the East of Germany in particular is being re-populated with neo-Prussian buildings is worrying, and if we should take anything away from the German refugee experience, it is how several attempts to construct “Germany” ended in toxic imperialism and colonialism, and that the current ‘refugee wave’ is an continued consequence of this and other European imperialisms.

CFP: Resistance in the Master’s House: Researching race in troubling times

Reposted from the Race, Culture & Equality Working Group list. This is a very important call for researchers in any field:

Call for Papers for Session at RGS-IBG Conference, London, 27th-30th August 2019

Resistance in the Master’s House: Researching race in troubling times

Session Convenors: Shereen Fernandez (QMUL) & Azeezat Johnson (QMUL)

Sponsored by: Race, Culture and Equality Working Group (RACE)

The proposed session works from Audre Lorde’s (1984) warning against using the Master’s tools to dismantle the Master’s house (i.e. the evolving implicit and explicit logics of white supremacy). This is an opportunity for us to confront our role as academics in the reproduction of white supremacy: how does anti-racist scholarship and activism occur alongside and/or in spite of the white supremacist logics that sustains the Master’s house? This is particularly important to address at the RGS-IBG conference given the expense of participating in these spaces of knowledge dissemination, thus controlling who can (literally) afford to participate in the development of academic scholarship. We explore these questions in light of our neo- and re-colonising contexts (Esson et al. 2017), as well as the intertwined histories of coloniality, white supremacy and the discipline of Geography (McKittrick 2006; Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge 2008; Yusoff 2018). This interrogation of our role in academia is used to re-imagine racial justice in these troubling and uncertain times.

Please send abstracts (max. 300 words) to Shereen Fernandez (s.fernandez@qmul.ac.uk) and Azeezat Johnson (a.johnson@qmul.ac.uk) by Monday 4th February.

We invite abstracts that relate (but are not limited to) the following questions:

  • How do we move beyond self-flagellating statements about reflexivity and positionality, and towards challenging power structures and racial inequality within and beyond the academy?
  • How do we organise effectively as academics given the urgency of these systems of oppression? What are some practical methods of activism that we as academics can take up across different local, national and regional contexts?
  • How do we resist the depoliticization of tools that critique the functioning of white supremacy? What can be done to re-engage with the explicitly political rationale of decolonisation, postcolonialism and intersectionality?
  • Where does/can racial justice take place? How do we account for shifting constructions of race across different temporal and regional contexts?
  • What are the benefits and limitations of social media and ‘private’ communication for activists and scholars working on racial justice?
  • How do we perpetuate legislation and border controls within the academy (e.g. through the Prevent Duty or immigration checks), and how does this impact work on racial justice?

We are particularly keen to engage with scholars located outside of the “Global North” and under-represented groups within the “Global North”. We encourage scholars within and beyond Geography to apply.

References

Esson, James, Patricia Noxolo, Richard Baxter, Patricia Daley, and Margaret Byron. 2017. ‘The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality?’, Area, 49: 384-88.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: essays and speeches (The Crossing Press: California).

McKittrick, Katherine. 2006. Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis).

Noxolo, Patricia, Parvati Raghuram, and Clare Madge. 2008. ‘‘Geography is Pregnant’ and ‘Geography’s Milk is Flowing’: Metaphors for a Postcolonial Discipline?’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 26: 146-68.

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota).

 

Please also take a look at this related publication: The Fire Now: anti-racist scholarship in times of explicit racial violence