‘If nobody else likes it, so what?’ Sewing as a queer lifeline


Image: Queer house music artist Kiddy Smile sewing (still from Facebook video)

Right at the beginning of the lockdown, I started sewing again. Before I became a geographer, I was a fashion student, and I still have all my sewing equipment in my room: a Singer machine, a pattern cutting ruler, assorted tape measures, scissors and metal tools, and several boxes filled with fabric, buttons, thread and needles. At the moment, I am not making clothes for myself – apart from my current quilting experiment – but rather face masks and scrubs, due to an utterly preventable shortage in the UK. Various groups have set up sewing hubs – either for ‘production line’ type sewing, for resource distribution (mostly fabrics or bedsheets) or for the distribution of the actual attire. I have always enjoyed sewing, however, talking to some of my female friends, it sounds like there is a clear divide: either, there is a total rejection of sewing as gendered oppression, or a total embrace as empowerment and liberation from the impositions of the fashion and home decoration industries. In terms of the NHS situation, it very much feels like gendered impositions: where male politicians fuck up, an army of mostly women with sewing machines has to come to the rescue. In the English language, even sewing related vocabulary feels gendered. At the same time, there is a pleasure in competence and creativity, which, although often exploited by people in power, cannot entirely be discredited. This made me think about why I started sewing, and why I kept persisting, although I was not actually that competent.

One reason was definitely an escape from the constraints of gender expectations. While I appreciated both extreme feminine and masculine styles (my childhood photos are rather trippy), clothes shopping became stressful when I had to negotiate concerns about adequate gender representation from parents and nervous shop assistants. This movement between clothes designated ‘male’ or ‘female’ still remains a problem, as many shops insist on separate changing rooms between rigidly gendered departments (for more reflection on unnecessarily gendered spaces, see geographer Petra Doan’s work). This is not helped by designers and companies that produce clothes for a narrow range of female stereotypes. I vividly remember not being able to find non-pink or purple indoor sports shoes for girls in my hometown even in the 2010s. There are some queer led companies now – US label Haute Butch being one example (some more labels discussed here) – that specialise in female masculinity or non-binary looks, but they sadly can’t be found on the high street, and they also do not cover the entire range of clothing needs.


Image: Two tomboys in female drag

My first attempt at rejecting ‘girl’ designated colours and patterns was through permanent markers and spray paints, received with thanks from my friend Nadine – via her dad who ran a Bosch garage. ‘Put edding on it’ became an in-joke as a solution for all sorts of social weirdnesses that presented themselves to us as teenagers. The logical progression then was to make my own clothes by sewing. Thankfully, my grandmother had won a near-indestructible sewing machine in the early 60s – she participated in every magazine and advertisement competition she could get her hands on – so I didn’t have to stitch everything by hand. First there were alterations, followed by things made from scraps and finally patterns and store-bought fabric. I remember the first big sewing project I attempted. I had found some ugly 80s white jersey with a black leopard pattern. For some reason, I thought this would make good shirt material, and decided to compliment this with black velvet cuffs and collar. Unsurprisingly, this was really hard to sew with a shirt pattern intended for a much lighter fabric and not jumper or coat fabric. Although the outcome was badly sewn and totally hideous, I wore it proudly, with a red beret and a wide black patent leather belt that my mother had lent me. Over the years, I tried my hand at overalls, sparkly blazers, brocade suits, bat costumes and musketeer shirts. Unsurprisingly, my friends and family made fun of me, but, despite everything, I really loved these home made clothes: I felt best, when I looked like an extra in an 80s B-movie.

When I finished school and a year’s job training as a secretary and translator, I decided to study fashion. It became impossible to get a job as a secretary anyway with my increasingly crazy hair. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in the fashion industry – I had undergone sufficient ‘reality shock’ through work placements at a local fashion factory and the local theatre’s costume department. However, I felt that fashion might be a space where I could be myself, meet other queer people and gradually shake off the mental prison that I could feel but not yet dismantle. I knew I had a lot of work to do against my imposed and internalised homophobia, which I would not have been able to put into words then – it was more intutitive. I also didn’t know about drag culture and the sewing practices that circulate in the queer community, and that even straight people are now familiar with through films, TV series and pop videos. Despite this lack of knowledge, in my teenage imagination, this mental work could not be completed in a regular job. While this now sounds totally naive, it actually worked – kind of. I feel that it was the moving to a different space – and growing older and more confident, being able to put things into words – that was helpful in the end, rather than fashion specifically.  Nevertheless, I still associate the building of my queer identity with sewing.


Image: ‘Remixed’ clothes from charity shop

In the present, I am reunited with my long suffering student machine, which has mostly been sitting idle, apart from the odd bit of mending and new human related presents. As soon as I dusted it off and started threading it up – with terracotta thread still from a charity shop in Wakefield where I lived as an undergrad – I felt a new relationship with my craft. I got out my scissors, my pattern cutting ruler, tracing paper, sellotape, pens, and started working, in a mode completely unknown to me: I suddenly knew what I was doing. I didn’t just feel unnaturally competent, even though my sewing/pattern cutting probably wasn’t that much better. I think I felt more in the moment, because I became aware of why I was doing what I was doing (Matrix moment alert!). On the one hand, I felt more connected to generations of women (and men) in my family who had sewn, woven and practiced other crafts; on the other, I felt connected to generations of queer people who had used sewing as a tool for identity finding and affirming, teaching and even grieving (my gay housemate immediately associates sewing with the AIDS Memorial Quilt). Technically, this should create considerable dissonance, given the fact that most people across my family history would not approve of my gender identity and sexuality. But somehow it doesn’t. Here is perhaps why:

In addition to the above, I feel a wider geographical connection through the ‘queer’ mix of people at my local sewing shop who represent a wide range of ethnicities, ages, (dis)abilities, gender, technical competence and purpose. These interactions have especially shaped my view of ‘craft’. Usually, craft is associated with necessity, enforced ‘tradition’, reproduction and lack of expressive and emotional power, in order to delineate it from art. By contrast, associate expressive and emotional power more with craft than with art. In fact, I associate art with a valuation as such from the outside. Although both art and craft are frequently practiced without the hope or desire for economic valuation, I feel that there is a different connection between valuation and how art and craft manifest in space, especially in terms of self-expression. For example, craft items tend to be things that one uses or looks at on a daily basis, and in many ways that one is judged by. It feels like the question: ‘is this art?’ is by-passed to go straight to questions such as ‘why does this guy have/make pastel pink bowls with penguins on them?’ This also allows for an interesting relationship with referencing, whether this involves geographical references, messing with gender stereotypes or juxtaposing time periods. While this sometimes leads to ethical issues with asymmetric cultural appropriation – for example, of Indigenous crafts – there is also an argument for a more hopeful kind of synergy.

Video: Many people agree that the quilts of the Gee’s Bend Collectiver are masterpieces. They are, in fact, now sold as works of art, although there is controversy around who actually profits from the sales (many thanks to Kirsten Barrett for the source!)

At my local sewing shop, and some offline and online sewing communities that I have visited, there is considerable sharing between people from different backgrounds, as well as considerable agreement on what constitutes great work (see video above). This could be seen as a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of environment where conversations can take place as long as you don’t perform your specific identity too much. However, it could also be seen as a nerdy focus to which other identities, at least temporarily, come second. By this I do not mean that the other identity does not matter or should be treated as less important. The focus on the craft obviously does not erase tensions – I have had and witnessed many difficult interactions in craft spaces – but it also potentially gives a way in through curiosity about how someone else does something. This may, over time, translate into curiosity about how someone else is something. I understand that, for some people, this may be too invasive and undesirable, but it can also be a way to understand more of yourself rather than (as much as? by way of?) helping others understand you. For some craftspeople this is a very deliberate move – to flaunt skill and claim a space – whereas for others this is is more of a quiet, accidental or even unintentional practice. Although one could argue that there is always (self)expressive intention in craft. As one of the women in the Gee’s Bend documentary says: “And, if nobody else likes it, so what? [The quilt] is going on my bed – because it’s mine.” This is an attitude and way of making space that, for me, epitomises craft, and this is pretty much exactly the point from which I started.

This post is dedicated to my late godmother Sieglinde Wenck who passed away on Easter Sunday & whose fabric scissors I’m still using. 

Covid-19, “European Science” and the Plague


Image: Plague doctor from Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste (1721) You can find out more about this ‘hazmat suit’ prototype here.

Note: this blog post has been republished over at Discover Society.

I am writing this post from my room in South London, where I am currently in self-isolation. I have to think about how, about a month earlier, I gave a lecture to our Geography first years about the plague. To a room full of novice human and physical geographers, I said: “I know I am always banging on about the plague, but plague outbreaks have been really important events in history that continue to have repercussions for many things today – from legal rights to the way we do science.” I usually get some weird looks, especially when I start talking about things such as Byzantine refugees, witches, and other perhaps unusual entities in Geography. It is very likely, however, that this lecture will resonate quite differently from next year onwards. It is not that Covid-19 is like the plague – the plague is not even a virus, it is caused by bacteria. However, comparative social measures were adopted, and reinforced during these earlier outbreaks. From the current situation, we can see what even a comparably small outbreak of an infectious disease can do to society at various scales. I want to put this less as a scholarly task than as a helpful resonance that may build an affective connection not just to the past, but across today’s geographical regions.

Although I’m not an expert on the plague, it is often mentioned in work relating to my lectures, whether it’s in discussion of climate data or of class struggle in Europe. For this reason, I have been reading about it from different perspectives. This weekend, I was delighted when a friend and science scholar (thanks, Uli!) recommended a podcast on German radio that featured a historian of infectious diseases, Katharina Wolff (she also participated in another useful broad/podcast). What I enjoyed in particular was how Wolff moved between the scale of society and that of the individual. In particular, she stressed that ‘an epidemic something that one does’ (‘Seuche ist etwas, das man tut’). We are not powerless during an epidemic, and there is quite a lot one can do – especially by not doing a lot of things. As my local MP, A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan, has also emphasised in her messages: anyone can take action, regardless of government inaction, and that action should primarily be to withdraw from physical social life as much as possible. Here is a great video by US doctor Emily Porter that explains why this is helpful:

At the same time, Wolff made an argument about the lasting social consequences of an epidemic. On one occasion, Wolff phrased this along the lines of (I put this as a summarised translation): ‘illnesses affect the individual, epidemics affect societies – every epidemic or pandemic leaves traces in social life, from legal changes to cultural practices’. As mentioned earlier, this does not only include laws that regulate behaviour during epidemics – it also includes gestures, new kinds of cultural events and forms of solidarity. I really liked Wolff’s building of resonances across time, especially through the reading of old decrees from a Munich municipal archive. Although written in the Middle Ages, such instructions sound surprisingly modern. Further, she explained how, in the Middle Ages, many cities were visited by the plague every 10-12 years. Because of this, legal and social measures had to be put in place that would help with the response at the onset of the next wave. Over time, these measures have, of course, eroded, so now we are lacking these habitual practices and are experiencing them as an exceptional intervention.

A large part of the podcast was about these measures, and how people should critically evaluate them. Since epidemics function as a catalyst, they can be a force of good or evil. We are seeing this right now in public discussions of mobile phone tracing or pub closures. People are asking: how long are we okay with such measures, and are the necessary at all? Another discussion that relates to the loss of habitual practices is the perception of many people in the West that epidemics are a problem for everyone else in the world, but not them. In the podcast, this “geographic exceptionalism” was particularly emphasised by cultural anthropologist Hansjörg Dilger. That large numbers of people are dying in Europe and America comes to many as a shock. Despite the lack of trust in struggling healthcare systems, people are expecting them to still cope with the latest biological mutations. Since they are not, people are looking for analogies that may them help with the sudden shift in world view. These include making links with a Europe (or places nearby) that experienced similar events in the past. Tellingly, books such as Pale Rider by Laura Spinney and The Plague by Albert Camus are sold out in many online bookshops (the #coronavirussyllabus project may be of additional help).

Image result for pale rider book

In my lecture last month, the focus on the plague and other epidemics allowed me to (I hope!) build exactly this connection to events that may seem distant, but have on-going repercussions. Now we find these analogies in the mainstream press. For example, the current re-evaluation of whose work is indispensable echoes post-plague advances in worker’s rights, even if these may have been only temporary. There are concerns about the effect on women, LGBTIQ+ people and minority groups given the experiences during the plague. Women and queer people may no longer be burnt as witches, and minorities such as Jews may no longer be officially persecuted, but different communities will be affected differently (see the violence against “Chinese looking” people, or special warnings going out to multi-generational Muslim households here in the UK). In some ways there are even direct parallels, in that queer people are still getting blamed and persecuted in some societies whenever there is a crisis, across the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world.

There are also parallels regarding from a physical geography perspective. As physical geographers are painfully aware, past large-scale losses of human life through epidemics (e.g. the Orbis spike) have resulted in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere. This is an argument that is currently, and very insensitively, advanced by some climate activists. A more benign version focuses on the lack of airplane, ground traffic and industry pollution. Further, climate fluctuations itself are linked to disease. For example, some scientists and historians have argued that the consequences of climatic events such as the Little Ice Age (brilliantly illustrated in the animation below) may have made people more susceptible to disease. In the present, environmental destruction, more than climate change, has been blamed for the outbreak of new epidemics. The climate is mainly seen as a compounding factor, especially when combined with environmental mismanagement, on-going consequences of colonialism and capitalism, and other natural and political disasters.

One thing that I especially emphasise is the loss of oral and written knowledge during the plague, which is perhaps more difficult to imagine today (unless we stop being able to maintain the internet or our libraries). Perhaps the experience of quarantine may help students understand – I hope in the most benign way – that people who had no internet or phones were somewhat more cut off from each other. Like today, cities tended to be the focus of both knowledge production and outbreaks – they are densely populated and experience a lot of through-traffic. During an upheaval such as an epidemic, intellectual life eventually gets put on hold. As a mild analogy, lecturers may still be giving online seminars this week, but when things get worse, they may be busy volunteering for food banks, hospitals, or neighbourhood organisations. The same goes for the students. Indeed, some university VCs have encouraged such pursuits for both staff and students. In the worst case scenario, people get sick to varying degrees. Now scale this up to imagine the conditions during the plague(s), not just with schools, monasteries and institutions closing, but also with the fragility of print media. The first major plague wave was before the advent of book printing, with select hand copied manuscripts that may also have had to serve as fuel during quarantines, or became destroyed in riots.

But it is also important to not just focus on the immediate disaster, but also the future that is simultaneously being ‘incubated’. Here, we may have some useful parallels again. Many authors in the UK media currently write hopeful pieces about the relaxation of both austerity measures and immigration rules. The NHS is deliberately underfunded to artificially prime it for privatisation – people are hopeful, that this changes, along with the punishing living and working conditions of precarious, but essential workers. In a related argument, migration scholars have called for a lifting of the ‘skilled worker’ earnings cap that ignores how much the current UK economy relies on ‘inferior’, so-called ‘unskilled’ work. Indeed, what eventually helped Europe recover was in part an influx of Byzantine refugees after the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople. While the emphasis here has been on the ‘skilled workers’, it is nevertheless an interesting analogy.

Byzantine refugees are credited for bringing some of the lost knowledge back, and not just ‘European’ knowledge (the Greeks and Romans were never just European anyway, given their geographical distribution), but also Middle Eastern and Indian texts (there is an interesting story map about this here). This event was key in reconnecting scholars geographically. A painting that illustrates this is The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-11). Although not every person in this painting has been clearly identified, there is certainty that it includes Muslim polymath Averroes/Ibn Rushd and Iranian spiritual leader Zoroaster. Likewise, Dante’s Divine Comedy also features three Muslim philosophers: Averroes, Avicenna and Saladin. An articled called The grandfather of the European Enlightenment was Muslim in fact argues that Averroes was a key influence not only on the European Renaissance, but also the European Enlightenment. There are many more sources that confirm that European intellectual movements were not just European, but influenced by cross-cultural developments (check out Jim Al-Khalili‘s Science and Islam on BBC Player). If we look at our basic scientific measuring devices such as the compass (Chinese), calendar (Egyptian), clock time (Babylonian) and our numeral system (Hindu-Arabic), this should be evident. “European science” is not an entity that can be so easily isolated.


Image: The School of Athens – Painting by Raphael (Wikipedia)

Knowledge contracts and expands throughout history, because of events such as epidemics, wars, and migration. This is easy enough to understand, but it usually feels a lot more abstract. While I was not hoping for a crisis to make this connection more real, we are currently in the midst of one, and this spatio-temporal resonance may actually become more and more needed. Not only do past events highlight the need for a different way of teaching European science and history, but studying connections can also provide emotional support. What we are dealing with right now is not (just) a scary state of exception, but something that keeps recurring – not just in ‘other’ parts of the world, but right here. As difficult as this may be, given the ubiquitous narrative about ‘Fortress Europe’ in more than one sense, I really hope that this connection rises to the surface not just in terms of disease control, but also in terms of shared knowledge and culture. This is something to which we can all contribute, in much the same way that we can contribute to keeping people physically healthy.

 

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 statements 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.

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:

Political Geology: Active Stratigraphies and the Making of Life

I have just received a hardcopy of the ‘Political Geology‘ collection, edited by Adam Bobbette and Amy Donovan. I have a chapter in it called ‘Against ‘Terrenism’: Léopold Sédar Senghor, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Fear of a De-spiritualised Earth’. The title of the book may seem confusing: when isn’t geology political? Aren’t we constantly fighting over resources or negotiating geologic sources of disaster? What the book is trying to do is to look at how geology can also move into politics in other ways, for instance, as a foundation for political philosophies or related intellectual challenges. My own chapter looks at the tension within organicist visions of the inorganic, and how they are politically utilised in problematic ways.

In 1961 Négritude poet and Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor organised a conference entitled ‘Construire la Terre’ (Building the Earth), which was inspired by the work of the French geologist, palaeontologist, philosopher and Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. What Senghor attempted in his speech could be described as an attempt at imagining African post-independence politics through geological dimensions. This chapter looks at the political issues with Senghor’s vision of planetary development, and compares it with today’s desires for ‘ancestral geographies’ across the political spectrum.

Two upcoming talks at Westminster and Birmingham on geopoetics

I am giving two talks this term on my current work on geopoetics. The talks are based on a chapter for a collection called ‘Geopoetics in Practice’ (Editors: Eric Magrane, Linda Russo, Sarah de Leeuw, Craig Santos Perez). The instructions for authors were to write a poetic piece and a commentary on their practice (or both combined). I submitted a piece entitled ‘Geopoetics, via Germany’, which also represents a critique of the geohumanities. It is an autobiographical piece which moves between family/local environmental history and German/geopolitical history. It was emotionally very hard to write, and it is even harder to read, but I think I have found a format in which I can present the work.

The first talk is at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster (32-38 Wells Street, London, W1T 3UW), Tuesday 25 September 2018, 4-5.30pm.

The second talk is at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham (Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT), Tuesday 13 November 2018, 1-2pm.

Both are departmental seminars, but should be open to visitors.

From Cosmic Terror to Cosmic Dissent @ The Library of Obscure Wonders


Image: Wassily Kandinsky “Yellow Circle”(1926)

Next Friday, I will be giving a talk entitled “From Cosmic Terror to Cosmic Dissent” at the Library of Obscure Wonders. The talk will be based on my book research on ‘cosmic materialism’, and accessible to a general audience. I will touch upon questions such as:

* what is ‘cosmic terror’ and why was it a thing?
* What were anti-colonial/anti-totalitarian activists doing with physics, theology, anthropology etc?
* Why did so many philosophers/politicians hang out in occult societies at the time?
* How did people try to perform alternative cosmologies?
* Why does a geographer look at this now?

I may also be drawing a map of questions and interconnections.

“The Library of Obscure Wonders collects, documents and archives the obscure, the odd and the wondrous within the everyday.”

Friday 27 July 2018
Doors: 7pm; talk 8pm
The Library of Obscure Wonders
2 Besant Court
Newington Green Road
London N1 4RE

https://obscurewonders.com/