Mutable Matter turns 10!

Apologies for the long radio silence, but a lot has been happening behind the scenes. First of all: Mutable Matter is ten years old today! I started this blog on 24 September 2007 as part of my Open University PhD research and because I wanted to communicate with OU students and people beyond academia. I also wanted to experiment with writing and communication styles, and to show how our imagination of matter manifests in different spaces. Initially, the blog focused more on the material processes at ‘invisible’ scales such as the atomic and molecular scale, and how these affect the geographical imagination. Since then, the blog has kept morphing and moving across a diversity of on- and offline spaces, and has never been short of providing me with surprising encounters. An enormous thank you is due to all my readers and subscribers. Thank you also for all the feedback over the last ten years.

What is happening at the moment?

From January 2018, I will be starting a lectureship at the University of Leicester, in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment. The post has a focus on the geohumanities, and am looking forward to some exciting teaching, research and other creative experiments with colleagues from different disciplines. I am also working on two books, one on materialism and and another one on Mutable Matter. I am also in the process of assembling a printed zine that is based around both publications and tries to make the work that I do accessible to a wider audience. Some exciting events are also coming up: the Mutable Matter/Warwick Social Theory Centre workshop Cosmos & Crisis: Interdisciplinary Conversations (funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant) is happening this coming Wednesday and Thursday. It focuses on challenges to the Western worldview from different viewpoints. I have also been invited to present at two other events: the second part of the Political Geology workshop at Cambridge University on 17 November 2017, and at a workshop on experimentation at Oxford on 8 January 2018. And of course, there is Curved Radio, to which I keep contributing (many thanks to Gayle Austin for having me!).

Thank you again for staying tuned – here is to future blog mutations! I am going to eat some cake now… (not the one pictured above)

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RACE Workshop: ‘Beyond the talk’ – Decolonising Teaching and Research in Geography

‘Beyond the talk’: Decolonising Teaching and Research in Geography – A RACE (Race, Culture & Equality Working Group) event

Date: Tuesday 29th August 2017

Time: 10.00 – 16.30

Location: Kings College London, Strand Campus

Room: King’s Building, K2.40

Social movements and intellectual interventions have, over the past five years, seen a resurgence of decolonial practice and thought within spaces of higher learning. International solidarity, anti-imperialism, black consciousness, black feminism, QPOC and LGBT struggles are some of the frames of analysis which activists, students and academic are using in their attempts to undo Empire and its legacies. A key catalyst for these movements and interventions is the realisation that despite the formal end of colonial rule, contemporary societal structures are steeped in coloniality, i.e. ‘long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations” (Maldonaldo-Torres 2007: 243). As noted by Ama Biney, the pernicious logic of coloniality is underpinned by asymmetrical power relations that reproduce a hetero-normative, racist, patriarchal, and hierarchical world order. Decolonial movements call for these power relations to be unveiled, confronted and dismantled. This event seeks to situate geography within this radical agenda.

We are aware that campaigns to decolonise the academy have called into question the legitimacy of academics and academic institutions in leading these discussions. Why? Because several disciplines with deep colonial roots, like Geography, have embraced decolonial thought and language without meaningful critical self-reflection. In the context of UK Geography, this is both evident and problematic for three key related reasons 1) There has been a failure to acknowledge and confront the pervasiveness of imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy (hooks 2004) within the discipline itself 2) The effects of coloniality are portrayed as afflicting ‘other’ places 3) UK geographers have framed coloniality as an epistemological problem primarily. A key outcome of these limitations is the concealment of oppressive structures within the discipline and academy that reproduce the above mentioned hetero-normative, racialized, patriarchal, and hierarchical world order within and beyond the global architecture of knowledge production. This meeting aims to challenge coloniality within geography and the academy by addressing the following questions; how are we as geographers part of coloniality and how do we decolonise our own practices? The event will aim to do so by examining everyday experiences and practices in the academy, and generating creative pedagogical and methodological responses to them in relation to three broad interrelated areas; Activism, Teaching and Research.

You can register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/beyond-the-talk-decolonising-teaching-and-research-in-geography-a-race-alternative-event-tickets-36435465458

We especially encourage participation from students and early career scholars. To ensure adequate refreshments please contact James Esson (Loughborough University) at j.esson@lboro.ac.uk if you would like to attend the event.

Imagining “World Music”

My spot on last week’s Curved Radio programme was on ‘world music’. Since the topic overlaps with my research, I thought I’d post a short summary. Basically, I played three tracks by French bands that are classified as ‘world music’ and have quite different relations with the ‘world making’ of ‘world music’.

‘World music’ has been a controversial term since its conception. Mainly used as a Western marketing term for non-Western ‘traditional’ music in the 80s, it has expanded to included almost anything that isn’t anglophone Western pop music (which, could be argued, isn’t just ‘Western’ in the first place). As South African trumpet player and composer Hugh Masekela, interviewed by Anya Wassenberg for the Huffington Post, describes it: “At one point, the term ‘world music’ was coined,” he remarked dryly. “I woke up one day and people told me I was playing world music.”

Many have argued that it is practically meaningless, other than as a commercial, quasi-colonial construct. In a discussion on Reddit, contributor Scaredoftriangles comments: “World music has always been such a derogatory term to me…pan pipes, chimes, old men in non-ironic wolf shirts selling dreamcatchers.” Indeed, this sight can be experienced at many ‘world music’ events, and even bigger festivals such as Peter Gabriel et al’s Womad. One of the more famous rants against ‘world music’ is David Byrne‘s 1999 New York Times Commentary: ‘I Hate World Music’. In this article, he criticises both its absurdity as a category and its exoticisation. This exoticisation works down to the shape of award figurines given out for ‘world music’. For Wassenberg, the term ‘world music serves to ‘ghettoiz[e] great music’.

At the same time, there have been many defences of ‘world music’, even from people who are uncomfortable with the term. There appear to be two broad directions: the ‘conservation’ and the ‘decolonisation’. The ‘conservationists’ believe that ‘world music’ contributes to ‘discovering’, supporting and thus preserving types of music that would otherwise have gone out of fashion and thus cultural practice. From ‘ethnological’ recordings to Buena Vista Social Club, there is a huge spectrum of attempts to create ‘revivals’, some more successful than others. Advocates of this practice argue that the commercial appropriation, insufficient contextualisation and frequent dependence on Western valudation outweighs the benefits to the culture in question.

The ‘decolonial‘ direction is characterised by the impulse to use Western/non-Western cultural exchange to dislocate the West as a centre. This is also the direction that Curved Radio tries to follow. This direction more or less comfortably unites, for instance, people who have found their world expanded through hearing music from other places, and people who are struggling against losing further ground in the struggle over cultural hierarchies. Here, the entanglement of economic and cultural power are hotly debated, and the various means that could work toward subverting the worlds sonic hierarchies and towards creating a different one. Particularly here, the terms of presenting music from other cultures are constantly negotiated, although this impulse can also sometimes be found with the ‘conservationists’. I tried to illustrate some of these issues through three band that I encountered in France around the same time in the early 2000s: Edgar de L’est, Monkomarok and Lo’Jo.

Edgar de L’est (Isabelle Becker and Edgar Daguier), as the name already implies (a world play on ‘at Gare de L’Est’), hav a very tongue-in-cheek take on ‘world music’. If I remember correctly, I read in an interview that were founded on the idea to sonically imagine other places through music. To me, their chanson, folk and jazz inflected music reflects the German term Fernweh – a longing to be in a far-away place. With titles such as ‘Mon Cowboy’, ‘L’Orient’, ‘Slavinka’, they could easily be accused of exoticisation. At the same time, their music feels both innocent (like a child discovering the world, not being able to go anywhere and contextualise yet) and knowing (playing with Western/non-Western clichés through ‘trashy’ renditions). It is an approach that we have attempted with a song in my own band, now, where we took a ridiculous commercial jingle for Asian food and deconstructed it in a song called ‘Ethnik Snack‘. In the song ‘L’Orient’, Edgar de L’Est use a different method of subversion: they go through every imaginable orientalisation, but also give a look behind the scenes where the lonely, miserable narrator sits drunk in a bed in Paris, a city and sound fraught with its own struggle against commercial caricature. It’s about exoticisation as both a form of sad escapism and as an inevitable perpetuation of that which one is trying to escape from. (I did actually play ‘Slavinka’ on the programme, but now I think the ‘L’Orient’ song illustrates their method best – plus there is a video online!)

The second track that I played was from Toulousian experimental ‘world’ band Monkomarok (Alima Hamel, Laurent Rochelle, Sylvain Fournier, Loic Schild) – who were active from 2000-2008. Their first album blew my mind with its range of influences and its trippy sound. I still love how they worked with tension and energy, it felt like they were using acoustic music (although they sometimes also use synthesisers) to produce an electric surge. The sleeve notes to this 2002 album, entitled ‘Au plafond’, talk about the profundity of their own musical encounters and about creating an imaginary place within them. This is also reflected in the many thankyous to people they count as influences, supporters and collaborators. Their use of vocals is particularly interesting, with Alima Hamel (who is also a poet) singing in languages such as Algerian Arabic, French and German but also experimenting with sound textures. On ‘Au plafond’, she is doing a lot of impressive percussive work with her voice, as well ‘controlled chaos’ vocalisations which make her sound like a human randomizer. For me, this ‘what on Earth is this??’ reaction that the band often elicits, paired with their definite Western and non-Western influences, is an interesting musical provocation – to the imagined commercial ‘world music’ utopia but also to many music genres that appear to have ossified into particular forms such as ‘dance music’ or ‘jazz’. While I played the hypnotic ‘dance’ track ‘Le Sueur’ (Sweat), there is no online recording, so here, instead, is a rare live recording of ‘Au Plafond”s opening refusal, ‘Non Merci’.

The lyrics of this song are remarkable, too, especially through the play on the double meaning of the French word for ‘everyone’: ‘tout le monde’. For the current world to work, everyone is supposed to hide their anger – the machine must run smoothly – but she is celebrating refusal.

Je suis toujours en colère
Ca ne se voit pas
C’est parce que je m’applique
Je fais comme tout le monde
Je trompe mon monde
Je fais semblant

Ani kolwun mkelba
Ndil kime koul ness
Nralat lribed
Ndil bel reni

Ma colère?
Je l’ai soingneusement cousu contre mon sein
Les mains plenes contre mon coeur
Qu’est ce que je deviendrai sans ma colère?
Un pantin raide couleur glaise.
Une machine à fabriquer des ronds.
Une chose parfaite qui ne dit jamais non.
Un indigne mouton borgne sans rêves.
Non merci, sans façon…
Je fais l’apologie du refus.
Je fais l’éloge du pas d’accord
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka

The final track of the show was from Lo’Jo, who are much more well-known in the offical ‘world music’ circuit due to their participation in WOMAD and collaborations with groups such as Tinariwen and Gangbe Brass Band. They initially started out in the early 1980s as a duo or trio (Denis Péan, Richard Bourreau), which seemed to grow into a community that combined music with street theatre, acrobatics, dance, film. The group did not become a more fixed formation and did not record albums until the mid-1990s. The sound of Lo’Jo is frequently described as ‘Gypsy’, tribal, nomadic (initially they were even called Lo’Jo Triban) or even shamanic, as they combine folk music from North and West Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and the Caribbean. I have also seen the term ‘global fusion’ applied to them, and one album review (for ‘Au Cabaret Sauvage’, 2002) reads “Tom Waits meets the Touaregs. Very tasty.”

What drew me to them were their epic, ecstatic sound, that is produced by a super-tight arrangement of string instruments (khora, violin, bass), percussion and vocal harmonies (amazing singers Yamina and Nadia Nid el Mourid, supported by Kham Meslien and Baptiste Brondy on bass and drums). John Lusk from the BBC argues that despite their many influences, they have a distinctive local sound: “As the barriers around ‘fortress Europe’ get ever higher, Lo’Jo’s open-minded and outward-looking approach to music seems to make them more and more identifiably French.” Lusk is quick to point out that around 56% of the French population identify as being of ‘foreign’ background, and that the band’s local support and ties very much contribute to the development of their sound:

“The group’s core still live and work collectively in a farmhouse given them by the mayor of Angers in return for providing local children with musical education. Another municipally inspired boost for the unlikely idealists came with twinning of their hometown with the Malian capital of Bamako.”

In many ways, Lo’Jo personify the utopian and problematic tropes of works music, and I cannot help thinking about them when listening to their undoubtedly beautiful music. The band describe themselves as ‘plantetary troubadours’ who maintain an ‘anarchic garden’ of ‘world rhythms and universal harmonies’, which may raise alarm bells with cultural and especially decolonial critics. At the same time, Lo’Jo emphasise and try to practice cultural exchange on equal terms. In and outside their music campaign for a multicultural French national ideintity (e.g. their song “La Marseillaise en Creole“), and in an interview in the New York Times, where Denis Péan explains: “The name Lojo means nothing. It is just a sound. Basically, Lojo is a school. Everybody learns. Everybody teaches.” For me, the sound and journey(s) of Lo’Jo exemplify that, especially for white ‘Westerners’, different forms of cultural exchange need to be attempted despite the many problems on the way. We all shape world music and the economy and relations it is embedded in, and music is a place as good as any other to start experimenting.

Wellcome Exhibition review in Science as Culture


Electric Eel film (1954) from ‘Electricity: The Spark of Life’ Wellcome exhibition

Another review is out! Originally, this was going to be a blog post, but Les Levidow from Science as Culture invited it as a review article (many thanks to him for his comments). The result is called ‘Making Nature, Making Energy, Making Humans: Two Exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection’ and can be downloaded here. I am reviewing Making Nature: How We See Animals and Electricity: The Spark of Life. There were quite a few exhibits that stuck with me in both exhibitions, in particular this one by by Allora & Calzadilla & Ted Chiang called ‘The Great Silence’, because it relates closely to the upcoming Mutable Matter workshop. It was a multi-screen exhibit in the Making Nature exhibition, but you can see a single screen version and read the text on vimeo and e-flux.

Allora & Calzadilla (in collaboration with Ted Chiang), The Great Silence from Artribune Tv on Vimeo.

The Wellcome Collection has now opened its follow-up exhibition to Making Nature. It is entitled A Museum of Modern Nature and is on until 8 October 2017.

RITA fundraiser ‘Black South: A Political Journey’

The amazing RITA (Race in the Americas) team, composed of Adunni Adams and James Heath, are doing a fundraiser for their project Black South: A Political Journey. Adunni and James are independent scholars who have been putting on events across academia and activist spaces for more than 5 years. They have mainly been doing this from their personal funds and the occasional opportunity to tap into small funding pots. An event that I attended was the excellent Caribbean Future Spaces symposium at the University of Birmingham. Many other academics and independent scholars have been benefitting from their hard work and enthusiasm for their research, so it would be great if we could give some support back. This is the film that they are trying to finish and distribute:

“Black South is a documentary project that analyses African American experiences in the states of the Deep South. In paying particular attention to how the Deep South as a region may have shaped perspectives, lifestyles and interactions, the film looks at the theme of political representation, and at how America’s two-party system has shaped black political identities and activism in the region.”

You can read more about their amazing project and other research on the RITA and  Indigogo pages.

“In Catastrophic Times” review for Cultural Geographies

After temporarily getting lost, my book review of Isabelle Stengers’ “In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism” is finally out in Cultural Geographies. It can be accessed here (if you don’t have access, email me). It is one of those books that helps me think about the problem of how to affect change from the particular position that you inevitably occupy. The English version of the book is available at open access publisher Open Humanities press and can be read or downloaded here.

Woke Pedagogies in Dangerous Times @ Warwick

“Woke Pedagogies in Dangerous Times”
Workshop with Akwugo Emejulu, Ajay Parasram and Adam Elliott-Cooper

20 June, Tuesday 2.30-4.30pm
OC1.04 The Oculus, University of Warwick

“Back in the 1990s, bell hooks called for “renewal and rejuvenation in our teaching practices […] so that we can create new visions, [through] a movement which makes education the practice of freedom” (1994: 12, emphasis added). This workshop revisits this compelling call by means of a re-engagement with critical pedagogical theory and practice. However, it makes this re-engagement firmly in the present and in direct relation to the political context of increasingly widespread fascist resurgence.
The event itself brings prominent theorists/practitioners of engaged pedagogy to Warwick to share reflections on teaching in and against the times by means of building critical awareness and engagement in the classroom space.


During the workshop we will reflect on whether the classroom can still be considered “the most radical space of possibility in the academy”, as bell hooks described it. Or whether the classroom as a space of possibility has been dangerously diminished by policy and politics, as much as by neoliberal University management.
We will also reflect on the importance of the classroom space, not only within the institutional life of the University, but also within broader political life and wider society. Finally, ample time will be dedicated to the sharing of pedagogical tools and tactics geared towards returning our teaching to the practice of freedom.

Akwugo Emejulu (Warwick), Ajay Parasram (Dalhousie, Canada) and Adam Elliott-Cooper (King’s College London) will join us to talk about teaching in dangerous times and generate a broader critical reflection on pedagogy in the present.”