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.

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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/

Reflections on teaching about and in Berlin (Part 2/2)


Image: Group photo at Treptower Park’s Soviet War Memorial

Two months after the lecture on Berlin, we went to the city itself. The arrival day was marked by extremes. Having survived the bus journey to the hotel – our bus driver got a bad case of road rage over our flight delay – we were greeted by some exciting developments on the USS strike front. Later that night, our perhaps premature celebrations in a Vietnamese restaurant were uncomfortably interrupted by the close hovering of a drunk right wing guy who took a dislike to the composition of our staff table. Thankfully, the remainder of the trip proved less emotionally stressful.

It usually takes me a while to tune back into Germany, as the process is initially done with some reluctance. For the first few hours, I pick up all the wrong vibes and experience a tension between my expat self and the supposedly native environment. I speak the language clumsily and encounter fellow Germans with mixed feelings of rejection and curiosity. After a while, the tension mellows, and I cannot decide anymore whether I am opening myself to my obviously more welcoming surroundings, or whether I am blocking out the tension with an edited nostalgic imaginary. I decide that it’s a mixture of both and proceed to consume tons of local junk food: Berlin, here I am! The city is also becoming increasingly familiar since a few friends and family moved there over the last few years. This especially translated into vital recommendations for Italian gelato parlours.


Image: Acclimatisation via halloumi döner and ayran – with two fingers to the current German Minister of Interior (see this article).

The trip was preceded by an intense refamiliarisation with German history (see Part 1). In school, I was not keen on history lessons, but now the books I consulted spoke to me very differently. I had the feeling that I could finally make sense of my country and its place in the world, and also connect it to my family’s history. While my family is not from Berlin, it was affected by various historical events associated with the city including the division of Germany, the Third Reich and various migrations: I grew up in a divided Germany that, due to our close proximity to the border, also divided my family. In the Third Reich, my family encompassed the whole spectrum from SS officer to Jew and had to negotiate this in very particular ways. In addition, my German education – including the family stories told to me by my parents – prepared me to deal with the role of the perpetrator-educator and to illustrate the actions and fates of ordinary people. Having come from a town that doubled in size with refugees from East Prussia and related regions, I could also explain how such events in German history influence the current refugee debate. The stories of friends and family who play an active role in the debate, partly because they themselves have different migrantion backgrounds, helped illustrate further how ‘das Deutsche Volk’ currently tries to construct itself (I always struggle with the inscription ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ on the front of the Reichstag, as friends, family and many other people in German society remain excluded from this category).


Image: Inscription on the Reichstag. Source: Wikipedia.

To gain a fresh image of German history, I immersed myself in books and German newspaper articles. Here, I especially chose English language books – not only would this give me the correct English vocabulary for German events, but also an outside perspective. I tried to cover a range of positions and styles, including Neil MacGregor’s book and podcasts based around the exhibition that I had missed at the British Museum, and David Olusoga and Caspar W. Erichsen’s ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust’ on the German genocide in Namibia. I also consulted a few German books on colonialism to gain a sense of how the subject was treated in local discourse. The literature made me wish that more Germans, especially Germans in positions of power, read not just their Nazi history more critically. It is worrying that a generation that never experienced the empire and barely remembers the ‘Eastern territories’ seems to long for this past so much that they form alliances with right wing movements.

During this research, I not only found aforementioned German anti-racist and ‘postcolonial’ activist projects, but also some amazing video projects, including the Germania channel that shows song-length documentaries on musicians of different migration backgrounds. What I like about this project it that, through its choice of countries – such as the UK, Thailand, Turkey, Russia, Denmark, Sudan – it challenges who we understand as a ‘migrant’. Why are some people ‘migrants’ and others ‘expats’? I also revisited channels such as the Datteltäter (Dattel = date (fruit) and Täter = perpetrator), a German Muslim-run political comedy and slam poetry series, and the programme of the Maxim Gorki Theatre, a Berlin ‘institution’ that provides acerbic political commentary and is currently staffed not just by a majority ‘minority’ German cast, but also a separate refugee ensemble. Sadly, our delayed flight made me miss their ‘Gorki – Alternative für Deutschland‘ show, which explores the role of the theatre in countering the growth of right wing sentiment.


Image: Berlin’s ‘Datteltäter’. Source: Die Welt

Not having had the opportunity to do a ‘recce’ (a new word I learnt from my colleagues – I had no idea this use of military slang was more widespread!), the main promise I made about my theme day was: enough food and toilet opportunities. While I knew I could pull this off quite well, the rest of the day was a bit more nerve-wracking, because I was not sure what to expect at any of the sites. The first place we visited in person was the building site of Berlin Palace and the adjacent Humboldt Box, a temporary museum that gives a taste of the forthcoming Humboldt Forum and other aspects of the Palace. I expected the box to be tiny, but it turned out to be a huge complex of five floors, including a viewing terrace. Upon entering the space, we were given a spontaneous tour by one of the staff, Bernd Busse, who not only turned out to be from my father’s tiny hometown in rural Northern Germany, but also a former resident of Leicester. This made the tour a lot less dull, despite the group’s reservations about some of his explanations (my colleagues’ favourite: “this was the area before your grandparents bombed it to pieces”). It was interesting to hear ‘live’ how our guide justified the reconstruction: Berlin needed a centre that wasn’t a nondescript modern looking building such as the Palace of the Republic that could be from anywhere in the world. For the remainder of the tour, Busse detailed the painstaking reconstruction efforts. It was interesting to see that the gift shop contained a book on the Palace of the Republic and hadn’t been completely purged. We thanked our guide and moved on to inspect the Humboldt Forum related exhibitions.


Image: Berlin Palace donations represented in the form of stickers on an architectural model.

While the first floor mainly contained Prussian baroque architecture and sculpture models, the next two floors, to our surprise, contained mostly audio exhibits – presumably because these collections could most easily be moved and served to illustrate how the works and artefacts of other cultures would be engaged with. The exhibition encompassed both evolving recording technologies and the ‘negotiation’ of recordings from other cultures (see panel below). The sounds were experienced through headphones that changed songs in front of every exhibit. The students returned with mixed opinions and speculated on how the material could have been presented differently to better engage with the respective communities. They also wondered how the material related to their ‘container’ – the Palace. How do migrant community music projects (an example pictured below), for example, sit within a neo-Prussian imperial palace? The remaining floors contained the results of an architectural competition for a section in the Palace and a posh-looking café. The students noted that the competition featured many geographical themes (see third image below) such as exploration and colonial connections – sadly, some very interesting project descriptions were only available in German.

After our visit, we hopped on a train to Potsdam at Alexanderplatz for a comparison with another controversial building project. I was not aware of the reconstructed Potsdam City Palace at the time – the Potsdam equivalent of Berlin Palace – otherwise we probably would have visited that one, too. Instead we visited the Garnisionskirche (garrison church). This reconstruction project was the focus of a recent multi-page article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), a relatively conservative newpaper known for its investigative journalism. I wanted the students to see Potsdam to gain a sense of the German Empire in a more condensed form. The city (170,000 inhabitants), capital of the federal state of Brandenburg, was – and still is – something like an elite playground that also translates into the built environment. The residing aristocrats constructed whatever they fancied: baroque palaces, Russian houses, Dutch houses, Chinese pavilions, English and French gardens – it even has its own Brandenburg Gate. In 1911, the city even got its own airship port and film studios. Today, Potsdam’s villas mostly are populated by German ‘new aristocrats’: wealthy media and business personalities.


Image: Travel advertisement for Namibia, spotted in Postdam.

According to the article in the FAZ, which focused on the centrality of the church to royalists and (neo-)Nazis, and the suppression of a public vote around its reconstruction, the church was basically irredeemable. It was the place where Prussian soldiers had to swear their oath of loyalty, where the orchestrators of German colonisation and African genocide received their awards, where the royalists and fascists plotted against the Weimar Republic, and where the Nazis held their first parliament (‘Day of Potsdam‘) since they weren’t able to congregate in Berlin’s burnt out Reichstag. The church was to be reconstructed with its original decoration of weapons and war trophies, and much of the money was found to come from right wing and army sources, as had the money for the already restored bell tower that stands in a nearby park (and which had been inaugurated by a guy who had questioned the legitimacy of the current German-Polish border!). After protesters accused the church of not having a congregation, some district rigging managed to pull together roughly a dozen members. The most damming turn of events was a governmental intervention (a joint Christian and Social Democrat action) which forbade a public vote. A similar referendum had already prevented the reconstruction of a church in Magdeburg.

Even the BBC reported on the controversy.

I was not entirely sure what to expect. An ordinary building site? Swastika graffiti? Protesters? German-style left vs. right-wing street fighting? To me, the site felt rather odd in what it tried to perform. As we turned around the corner, the first thing we saw was a big wire cage containing reconstructions of the church’s weather vane ornaments. The box was located between the reconstructed belltower (that is apparently too small for the actual church) and the building site. It was quite funny how everyone was taken aback for a moment before letting out something like: ‘oh my God!’, ‘are they serious?!’ or ‘this is so ugly!’. I had to laugh: if this was a taste of what was to come, one would have to protest against aesthetic crimes alone – the pieces looked like a gigantic parody of Prussian clichés. The building site itself felt rather ordinary. The only sign of protest that we (or, rather, my colleague Gavin Brown) spotted, was a big sign in the window of the ‘de-GDR-ification’ endangered ‘Rechenzentrum’ (former GDR data centre, now artist studios) saying ‘Love thy neighbours’. There was also another red banner which we unfortunately could not decipher.

We also discovered not only an exhibition next to the building site, but also a provisional space of worship called the Nagelkreuzkapelle (Cross of Nails Chapel). The Community of the Cross of Nails is a network of churches that is invested in reconciliatory projects, having started as a project of Coventry Cathedral after its partial destruction during German bombing in WW2. To our surprise, we found that the church was networked with Coventry Cathedral and had official support from the Queen who had even donated to the project. The friendly staff inside the church talked about how the GDR government, like other communist governments, had persecuted Christians and destroyed a large number of churches (around 40) in 1968. For them, the project was part of a movement to reclaim sites of Christian worship and the church’s role in peace building. Indeed, many of the churches destroyed in WW2 and ‘finished off’ by the GDR government are currently being rebuilt despite lack of worshippers. While the exhibition itself was not that revealing (although it did feature an interesting GDR propaganda video about the church’s destruction), the space itself was interesting in its juggling of different aspirations and justifications.

We were also given some brochures in English that emphasised the role of the church as a ‘focal point of Prussian identity’ and a ‘positive symbol of Prussian values’ fused with Christian faith. To me, the church perfectly symbolised the tensions within Prussian culture across absolutism, militarism, conservatism, egalitarianism, enlightenment and faith. Against this background, it feels as if the church could continue on its path as a controversial symbol, but also that its reconstruction diminishes its symbolic power, making it just another ordinary place in provincial Germany. Perhaps this depends a lot on how the different people it will attract are being managed and on how Germany continues to deal with its identity.

In the remaining hours, we visited Sanssouci Palace, which, I had to realise, looked rather bleak in the winter. No wonder this was classed as a summer residence (Berlin Palace was the Hohenzollern‘s winter residence). It took us a while to work out that the odd grey boxes dotted around the park were in fact protections for the white marble statues. Alternative suggestions included bat boxes, puppet theatre stages, Christo-and-Jeanne-Claude-style public art, and idiosyncratic garden sheds. Although the splendour of the building was somewhat palpable, a couple of majestic looking Mandarin ducks clearly stole the show: animals not empire rule! On that note, we decided to end the day at a trashy fun fair on the way to the station, where we swapped Prussian imperial ambitions for a round of dodgems.

Overall, it was a rather interesting experience to talk about German culture and history as a German. I realised how much I took for granted and had to explain to students. It was good to have non-German colleagues with me who, in addition to the student queries, pointed towards some uniquely German issues and habits that I should elaborate further, including questions around German flag waving, public nudity and the influence of federal states. I left with a feeling that I wanted to spend more time in Berlin and with German history to be able to improve my theme day for the next trips (the other theme days so far include migration, urban nature and Cold War geopolitics). How could I teach better about colonial history and how it affects Germany? Should I take the students to the Natural History Museum instead of Potsdam to see how colonialism doesn’t just affect human affairs? Should I take them to the Afrikaviertel – and, if yes, how? Should I restart efforts to contact activists or academics? Or will the changing nature of the Humboldt Forum and Potsdam provide enough material? Planning for the next trip has already started, so this is something that I will have to think through now. Hopefully this will warrant another ‘recce’ to Berlin in the summer or winter.

‘Debriefing’ with my cousin after my theme day at his favourite gelato parlour, we both agreed how much more interesting history becomes when you are older and can see the weirdness of it, including the fact that things that took place thousands of years ago still shape today’s life. It fitted the weirdness of discussing our different experiences with “Germanness” over eating excellent gelato in a generic looking shopping centre next to the only surviving building from the WW2 air raids (a wine store that was especially sturdily built to carry the weight of all the alcohol!) and on the spot of the former Berlin Wall. Although I felt that the day could have been more lively, perhaps through more interaction with local people, I wondered whether I managed to convey at least a little bit of this intense co-shaping (co-weirding?) of geography and history. I hoped that the students, too, went away with a sense of the strangeness of identity and place-making, even if they might not yet know what to do with all the information they received on this trip.

***

Many thanks for advice on theme day planning (and local food options!) goes to: Sukit Manthachitra, Tahani Nadim, Regina Sarreiter, Uli Beisel, Sandra Imelmann, Brigitte and Friedhelm Last, and the whole field trip team.

 

 

 

Reflections on teaching about and in Berlin (Part 1/2)


Image: Protester in front of the Palace of the Republic “Why another palace?”

When I started my new job I was neither expecting to be on strike and ‘action short of a strike’ for months (we’re apparently off strike now, so Mutable Matter is back!), nor was I expecting that my first lecture would be on imperial Germany. Leicester Geography has a third year geopolitics themed field trip to Berlin, and I was going to be teaching on it. I was free to decide on a topic that would be translated into an introductory lecture as well as a theme day with visits to related sites. Since most non-German people think of the Cold War or Nazi Germany when they think of Berlin, I chose to focus on a more obvious choice for Germans: Prussia, the German Empire, and German colonial history. For many Germans, Berlin remains synonymous with Prussia, and also with Potsdam, Berlin’s ‘sister city’, and I wanted to show why this is so. For me, a focus on imperialism was more important than ever, since imperial nostalgia appears to be on the rise again – and with it, temporarily suppressed territorial and cultural claims. Due to significant support among the government and Germany’s old and new aristocracy (they are joined by other wealthy elites such as media personalities), the built environment is rapidly changing. In particular, I wanted to highlight the controveries surrounding the reconstruction of Prussian buildings and the continuing removal of “ugly” GDR (East German architecture. Why do people want to resuscitate Prussian Berlin after Reunification?

For the lecture and the field trip, I chose to illustrate these conflicts over German history through the ‘Stadtschloß’ debate: the reconstruction of Berlin Palace. Built and modified from the 15th century onwards, it was home to the Hohenzollern dynasty that governed the area for over 500 years across changing geopolitical boundaries and entities: Brandenburg, Prussia and Germany. The palace, and specifically its Baroque redesign, is associated with key moments in German history, including the March and November Revolutions, and thus attracts both nostalgia for empire and anger at feudalist oppression. Not long after Reunification, a lobby led by East Prussian born West German aristocrat and amateur historian Wilhelm von Boddien succeeded in raising funds and getting permission for the demolition of the communist palace and the rebuilding of the imperial one. Despite the majority of East Germans and many West Germans opposing the decision, the Palace of the Republic was razed due to ‘asbestos contamination’ and the recovered steel was shipped to Dubai for the construction of the Burj Khalifa. Its estimated completion is late 2018.


Image: Wilhelm von Boddien (third from left) and Neil MacGregor (fourth from left) at Berlin Palace building site. Source: Berliner Zeitung

Aggravating the controversy around Berlin Palace is the proposal of the Humboldt Forum, a permanent exhibition of “non-European” art and artefacts, the majority of which are of colonial origin (current founding director: former British Museum director Neil MacGregor). As the new Berlin Palace nears completion, the public and academic debate rages on, recently re-fuelled by art historian Bénédicte Savoy’s comparison of the Humboldt Forum with the radioactive waste containment in Chernobyl. Some argue that the debate has sparked an interest in German colonialism whose extent, until recently, was deemed too insignificant for the attention of historians. In turn, this interest has led to a much feared discussion of earlier genocides, future reparations and the on-going legacy of racism. But many find its politics and its celebration of the German empire inexcusable. The latest controversy surrounding the Palace is its association with Christian Democrat German Minister of Interior and champion of the newly founded (and so far entirely white male) ‘Heimatministerium’, Horst Seehofer (Bavarian Christian Democrats CSU), who recently proclaimed that ‘Islam does not belong to Germany’ .

The key thing I tried to get across in my teaching was that ‘Germany’ is an extremely amorphous entity. Over the last millennia, its territory and idea has been shaped by struggles between multiple tribes, religions, languages, aristocratic families, ideologies and  ideas of belonging (I have never used so many maps in a single lecture!). Even Germany’s flag existed as an idea way before Germany existed as a unified geopolitical entity. To spare the students total confusion by going further back in history, I decided to begin the lecture with the last days of the Holy Roman Empire and the division and rise of the Hohenzollern dynasty – basically to tell Berlin and German history through the history of Berlin Palace. I am currently wondering whether to go further back into history for next year’s general introductory lecture to Berlin, as some of the tribal and mythology stuff  also keeps coming up in recent debates on German identity (sadly usually appropriated by neo-Nazis and not multi-culturalists). This time, the lecture ended up something like this:

The first version of Berlin Palace came into existence in the 1440s as a castle of the Hohenzollerns. Originally a Swabian aristocratic family, the Hohenzollerns split in two, eventually taking over the Margraviate of Brandenburg and its capital of Berlin-Cölln (Berlin started off as a fusion of two settlements, Berlin and Cölln – its Slavic name refers to its swampy foundations). After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Berlin proceeded to become the capital of Prussia, an entity that again moved across different geographical boundaries, due to numerous wars. I showed a few Prussian icons that Germans associate with (late) Prussia, such as the ‘Pickelhaube’ and the ‘Iron Cross’, and how they represented conflicting ideals, perhaps best summed up in the words ‘absolutist Enlightenment’. The (in)famous ‘Prussian virtues’ combine militarism, conservatism and total discipline with cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism and intellectual curiosity. Potsdam, for instance, became home to the first German Muslim places of worship (in the 1730s), because the king promised anyone who joined his ‘Potsdam Giants‘ (special regiment) to be granted a place of worship. The iron cross, and the Prussian aristocrats’ swapping of expensive jewellery for iron, symbolised both war effort and egalitarianism.


Image: Germany’s united future under Prussian domination, as predicted by Austrian satire magazine Kikeriki in 1870 (German unification took place in 1871). Source: Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg.

The students were surprised to hear that the official Prussian language was originally French, since German was seen as the primitive tongue of peasants. Even after Martin Luther’s construction of a German language from a fusion of high and low German, it still took a long time until the influence of trade (e.g. the Hanseatic League), and the development of a ‘trendy’ German high culture in cities now outside of Germany (Prague, home of Kafka; Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, home of Kant) led to the adoption of German as an official language. The prevalence of French, however, benefited Huguenot refugees who emigrated from France to Prussia after the Thirty Years War (the latter had killed around a third of the local population!). Berlin Palace and much of Potsdam’s pomp, including the baroque version of Berlin Palace that is currently being rebuilt – could not have been built without this influx of Huguenot labour.

My colleague Margaret Byron created a more complex picture of German migrations in the following lecture, in which she traced different migrations in both directions, including Russian migration, US migration, Turkish migration and the current ‘Flüchtlingswelle’ (wave of refugees). Margaret highlighted many paradoxes of German migration law that acknowledge certain migrants as Germans who had been living and intermingled outside of Germany for hundreds of years, but refused ‘Germanness’ to people who had been living in Germany for decades and sometimes generations. It also explained well where Germans and their language and culture had ended up, and how Germany had been shaped by a multiplicity of ‘outside’ influences. As German poets Goethe and Schiller once commented on the various attempts to contain ‘Germany’:

“Deutschland? Aber wo liegt es?
Ich weiß das Land nicht zu finden”

[Germany? But where is it?
I don’t know how to find the country.]

(Goethe & Schiller, 1796)

Next, I talked about the German revolutions, which further explain the problematic making of a German identity. In both the March and November revolutions, Berlin Palace figures as an embattled entity. The German revolutions of 1848-1849, during which many workers were killed by the Prussian military in front of Berlin Palace, followed on from other European revolutions that challenged the rule and cultural and geographic divisions of the aristocracy. The working and bourgeois classes were tenuously united by being fed up with the territorial squabbles of the noble houses. However, they were fed up for different reasons. The bourgeois disliked that the aristocracy stood in the way of economic progress and their own financial growth; the working classes were troubled by hunger, overpopulation and terrible working conditions (many emigrated to America), and their protests were aggressively put down by the elites. Although the revolutions started with the two parties more or less unified against the nobility, the competing ideas of social progress within different classes led to the eventual failure of the uprisings. Paintings of this event show people waving the German flag, although no Germany existed as yet. The flag had developed from republican student movements around the turn of the 18th/19th century, and later became the flag of the German Confederation. During the March Revolution, protesters waved the flag, especially a vertical version (echoing the French tricolore), in protest at the corruption of the republican ideal by the aristocracy.


Image: Illustration showing the difference between monarchist (horizonal stripes) and republican (vertical stripes) flags. Source: Wikipedia

When Germany, after another war with France and lengthy squabbles among the aristocratic families about its final boundaries (“Großdeutschland” versus “Kleindeutschland” – with or without Austria), finally became unified in 1871, it was felt to be a severe corruption of the desired ‘Germania’ of the Romantics and more radical political groups. In addition, the orchestrator of the unification, the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, managed to decrease the allure of revolutionary social movements by founding a German welfare state. It was during this time that Germany joined the colonial rush, despite Bismarck’s initial conviction that colonialisation wasn’t worth the economic expense. Persuaded by the plans of German merchants, the chancellor eventually helped create an overseas empire that included present countries such as Namibia, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. In Namibia, Germans committed a particularly systematic genocide of the Herero, Nama and San people that saw the creation of the country’s first death camps. Still today, wealthy white elites remain in positions of power in this country that did not gain independence (from South Africa) until 1990 (some parts not until 1994). You can read an article on memorials celebrating the genocide here.


Image: Genocide memorial in the Namibian capital Windhoek. Source: New York Times.

Germany lost its colonies at the end of World War I – a war that was proclaimed from Berlin Palace. The Palace, and Germany as a whole, then became the site of the November Revolution (1918-1919), which resulted in the foundation of the Weimar Republic. Since Berlin street fighting was too intense for politicians to meet (there was even fighting inside the Palace), the government moved to a theatre in the ‘German Enlightenment capital’ of Weimar. Another German utopian project, the Weimar Republic was sadly short lived and ended with the National Socialist (Nazi) takeover of the country. During their reign, the Nazis did not really know what to do with Berlin Palace and mainly used it for their flag displays. Partially destroyed during World War II and located on the Eastern side of Berlin, the GDR government decided to blow up the palace – save for the balcony from which the Free Socialist Republic was allegedly declared – and to replace it with a new communist monument: the Palace of the Republic. This new palace functioned both as seat of the East German government, but also as cultural space with a large entertainment complex. Like its predecessor, it became associated with key historical events, including the agreement on German reunification.


Image: Palast der Republik in 1996. Image: Icon Magazine.

Today’s reconstruction efforts of the Palace strongly reference the Prussian Enlightenment, and specifically the ideas associated with the Humboldt brothers. Alexander von Humboldt, more known outside of Germany, was a geographer, naturalist and explorer. His brother Wilhelm, a linguist, philosopher and Prussian politician, became the founder of Berlin’s Humboldt University. In Germany, the Humboldt brothers tend to be wheeled out every time someone tries to sell an elite version of cosmopolitanism. As German political scientist and cultural critic Kien Nghi Ha put it his critical evaluation of the Humboldt worship, ‘Imperfect Steal‘ (he outs Alexander as a skull thief and colonial accomplice): “The Humboldts function as a collective projection screen and cultural-political invention of something that Germany never was in its entire history.”

In the case of the Humboldt Forum that is the idea that housing non-European collections curated by White Germans inside a reconstructed imperial palace ‘named after a skull robber’ (Mnyaka Sururu Mboro of Berlin Postkolonial) is a symbol of ‘cultural dialogue’. As Lilia Youssefi, also a German political scientist and cultural critic, asks in her brilliant essay on remembering and ‘de-membering’: “Whose voices and perspectives are really being made visible in this project?’ There is growing activism not just against the HuFo (Humboldt Forum), but against other sites that show evidence of German colonialism such as the African Quarter in Wedding (part of Berlin) whose streets are named after German colonisers and colonial towns. (Another example that I already discussed on this blog – and also introduced as part of the lecture – is Tahani Nadim’s work on the collections of the Natural History Museum in Berlin.) Groups such as No Humboldt 21, Berlin Postkolonial and AfricAvenir campaign for the renaming of places and especially the integration of Germans of colour in decision making processes on ‘post’-colonial matters.


Image: An information point about the history of Berlin’s African Quarter put up in collaboration with anti-colonial activists (credits enlarged below).

I ended the lecture with an overview of similar reconstruction projects including the Garnisionskirche in Potsdam – a Prussian military church with strong far right and royalist associations (next year, this will feature Potsdam City Palace, the ‘little sister’ of Berlin Palace). On the final slide, I compared such efforts with another project of German identity building: the Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg – a ‘hall of fame’ that showcases famous people that shaped German cultural, political and intellectual life. Incidentally initiated by the same guy who founded the Oktoberfest (the future king Ludwig I of Bavaria), it houses a very uneven mixture of famous Germans – some Germans remained excluded for their gender, religion or controversial views (apparently, Ludwig greatly ‘appreciated’ women, so there are a few more women in there than usual…). In fact, the memorial remains so unrepresentative for many Germans that few even know about it, despite its monumental size and project. What this and many current projects express, however, are power struggles over national representation. Thus, the lecture ended on questions around identity building, and the effects of such apparently innocent questions not just on the built environment, but not on on the economic and legal conditions of people from different migration and social backgrounds living in Germany.


Image: Aerial view of the Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg. Source: Wikipedia.

The question that remained after the lecture was how to translate this into a successful theme day. For my first attempt, see part 2.

A night at the local history museum


Image: Tiny Lüneburg on top of massive geological layers

I left my hometown in Northern Germany 20 years ago to live in the UK. It has been interesting to watch the changes in Lüneburg from afar – from the re-development of the small local university into Leuphana to the integration of the town into the nearby city of Hamburg’s transport system. Two building projects have recently been at the centre of attention: an extravagant and pricey central building for Leuphana University designed by US architect Daniel Libeskind, and a new museum of local history that brings together natural and human history. This year, I finally managed to visit both, and, a few weeks ago, I had the luxury of having the museum to myself for one whole afternoon, while people were out doing last minute Christmas preparations. I was curious how the museum connected the different aspects that made the town, and was not disappointed.


Image: Leuphana Audimax. Source: NDR.

Museum Lüneburg joins an existing landscape of museums in town that include the German Salt Museum (the town’s wealth was based on salt, an important food preservative in the Middle Ages), the Northern German Brewery Museum (did you know that sociologist Niklas Luhmann came from a family of local brewers and owned a pub?) and the controversially titled East Prussian National Museum (the town’s population doubled with refugees from this region after WW2, including some of my own family). It brings together the collection of the former local Natural History Museum and the Museum of the Principality of Lüneburg that were both previously combined in a ‘Knight’s Academy’ collection that was used to prepare young 18th and 19th century aristocrats for university. Conceived in 2007 to update the presentations of the museum contents, the new and rather beautiful museum was finally opened in 2015.


Image: The Museum Lüneburg by day. Photo: Bernd Hiepe

From the UK, I was used to not paying for public museums, so I accidentally walked in without going to the information desk first. After being politely alerted to the entry fee, I purchased a ticket – and delighted the museum worker by telling her that I was from abroad (“this will look great in our statistics!”) – phew! The 8 Euros turned out to be rather good value for money, considering that I spent three hours trawling through two levels (thankfully, entry is free for under-18s and students, and there are a variety of discounts). I was actually surprised how long I spent there, considering that I was familiar with much of the material. I could easily have spent more time there, but the building was closing for the evening. So, what kept me fascinated for so long?


Image: One of the many (bilingual) museum panels

First of all, I really loved the combination of big and small narrative arches. To me, the museum managed to shuttle back and forth between natural and human history, and between references across time. I emerged from the tour with an uncanny sense that everything is now, rather than somewhere located in the past. The earth had shoved together this strange place, and we’re still (badly) managing what’s underneath and around us. It very much felt like walking through a local version of Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.


Image: Lüneburg on the move!

The exhibition began with geological history and especially drew attention to the formation of the salt domes that the town is famous for. I especially loved the 3-D model of the town with its geological layers underneath (photo at the beginning of this post) – a very humbling experience. I also liked the many framed cross-sections and ground formation models, some of which illustrated movement over time as well as the current state.


Image: One of those beautiful cross-sections

The following section introduced local wildlife and showed past and present occupations such as shepherding and river pearl harvesting. Due to the town’s dependency on the salt production, which required copious amounts of firewood, the surrounding forests were decimated so badly that an entirely new landscape developed – Lüneburg Heath. Add to this peat production from the local moors, and you might understand how, for centuries, the outskirts were shunned as a bleak desert. However, with the rise of Romanticism, the landscape became reinterpreted to such a degree that it started to give rise to a tourism industry. Many German Heimatfilme are set in the Heath and its sheep filled purple bloom, and there is also a new soap opera called ‘Rote Rosen’ (Red Roses) set in the town, so the tourists keep on coming.


Image: Recent touristic portrayal of the Totengrund (dead ground/grounds of the dead) on Lüneburg Heath.

The next section was dedicated to local power struggles and how these tied in to wider dynamics – struggles between centres and peripheries, nobles and burghers, Catholics and Protestants. Brutal changes marked local developments, including the destruction of the town of Bardowick – an extremely powerful place in the Middle Ages, but unwilling to cooperate with Henry the Lion who practically erased the place in response and granted the tiny village of Lüneburg town status instead. Local myths were folded in, too, such as folk heroes, a strange moon cult around the market place’s water feature, and the mysterious appearance of materials from the Middle East.


Image: Replica of the Ebstorf Map (original destroyed in WW2)

Education and knowledge was also a big topic, since the area was littered with monasteries, one of which was responsible for creating the 13th century Ebstorf Map. As in many other places at the time, a new relationship to the world was formed, which not only resulted in new maps, but in new scientific instrumentation and ordering systems.


Image: Wendland traditions, old and new…

The final section then brought together more recent history with everything else that had gone on before. Pottery and other artefacts from various ages and people gave the impression of an on-going familiar domesticity, not just across time, but also across different human species and other cultures. For instance, traditional headdresses from the Wendland area were juxtaposed with anti-nuclear protest versions of those hats (see image above), since the salt domes are now being used for nuclear waste storage. In the same section, the story of the Heath from desert to tourist destination was treated in more detail, but also the Nazi’s use of medieval and pagan traditions to forge local culture (such as a barrel race on horseback through the town). The heavy uptake of ‘pagan culture’ amongst neo-Nazis still makes celebrations such as winter or summer solstice celebrations problematic – celebrations that tend to have very positive connotations in the UK (when I tell my friends in Germany that I went to a UK friend’s solstice celebration, they look at me in shock).


Image: The synagoge of Lüneburg before its destruction. Source: Jüdische Gemeinden

The museum’s dealings with the local National Socialist past was particularly engaging, despite the comparatively small space dedicated to it. A 3-D town model built by a local Social Democrat politician and Nazi opponent was used to narrate the history of over 20 sites of Nazi crime. This included the destruction of the enormous local synagogue and the persecution of its congregation, the transformation of a progressive mental health clinic to a euthanasia programme, but also many small, insidious ways such as charity, local history and sports programmes, which helped Nazism gain such popular following. Remarkably, quite a few of the artefacts and description implicated existing local families, businesses and politicians, to show how horrific events from the time still benefit the perpetrators and the local population.


Image: Rewilding Exhibition poster

Following on, a temporary exhibition gave information on the rewilding debate – the reappearance of wolves and other previously disappeared animal species in the forests. In a mostly rural area such as that surrounding Lüneburg, the debate is almost bigger than the refugee debate, although themes tend to overlap: do wolves contribute to keeping the local deer and wild boar population in check that is spiralling out of control due to biofuel related monoculture? Or do wolves ‘not have a place in Europe anymore’ and ‘should stay in the East where there is more space, and they can do whatever they want’?


Image: Middle Eastern Buffet in Kaltenmoor, housed by the AWO (German Social Democrats affiliated charity). Source: AWO

Sadly, I did not have much time left for this exhibit, but I think that the museum did not seek to make the natural and human history connection here. This uncomfortable intersection, however, made me wonder whether the museum could highlight some of the international/cross-cultural connections of the town, in particular in connection with the refugees debate and the high occurrence of mostly Asian ‘mail order brides’ in rural areas. Are people, things and practices from other places really a new phenomenon (e.g. where do those “German potatoes” really come from?), or is Germany particularly good at erasing such influences? The manifold attempts across German history at suppressing Afro-Germans come to mind, but also early Middle Eastern influences. Coming from a family with a diverse ethnic background, and from an area of town with a high immigrant population (Kaltenmoor) that is frequently portrayed in the media as a ‘social problem area‘, some of the exhibits that implied outside influences made me wish to probe such connections more deeply.

On Materialism


Image: Adriana Varejão, Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992.

One of the most frequent questions that I get in relationship to the blog is: what kind of materialism are you talking about? Are you a new materialist or historical materialist – or neither? Some readers have also asked how I moved from writing about nanotechnology to writing about colonialism. The answer very much reflects the title of the blog.

I have had a peculiar relationship with matter for a long time. Sitting in physics class aged 13, I walked up to my teacher and proclaimed: ‘I don’t think the world is as straight-forward as our school books tell us’. He replied: ‘That is indeed correct, but you won’t find out just how weird the world and the universe are until Year 11’. As I was only in Year 7, I had to keep taking those physics classes until I graduated and all my suspicions were finally confirmed. This particular path would later lead me to what is currently called ‘new materialism’, via authors such as Karen Barad, Michel Serres, Isabelle Stengers and other philosophers of science. Thinking through matter from a physics point of view has also helped me understand the many strategies of how people keep trying manage this universal weirdness.


Image: DESY particle physics research centre in Hamburg. Source: dpa

Another path to materialism, via an extended detour, was the product of my geographical location. Growing up very close to the GDR border on the Western side, I could not help but pick up on East Germany’s reverence for Marx. At the end of the Cold War, when the world ceased to stop a few miles away from home, it was fascinating to explore a part of the same country that had undergone an alternative based on a different political theory. Visiting family east of the former border felt like a parallel universe – even the animal breeds were different. At the same time, this parallel universe was visibly and audibly contained by state violence – the same state that built monuments to historical materialists. Although I concluded that Marx or Engels could not be held responsible for the negative actions of the GDR governments towards its citizens, for a long time I remained unable to dissociate historical and dialectical materialism from the image of people being shot down by spring guns at giant fences – with no one being able to intervene.

Initially, this was one reason that attracted me to new materialism. It felt a long distance away from the violence, contradiction and futility I associated with historical materialism, and from the excruciating macho Marxism performed by activists and academics at demonstrations and conferences. Moreover, I felt that historical and dialectical materialism did not seem to be interested in matter at all. This image changed, and perhaps even reversed, for me through a variety of influences, including the work of feminist Marxists such as Silvia Federici and Doreen Massey, political dissatisfaction with new materialism and its ontological obsession, a deeper engagement with the insidious violence of the West, and the discovery of early historical materialist works that engaged with scientific and philosophical questions around matter. The most important influence, however, was the writing of theorists who were active during the interwar period and were looking for tools to counter the threats of fascism, Stalinism and colonialism – writers such as Suzanne Césaire, Aimé Césaire, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille and Mikhail Bakhtin. These authors started from a position that was critical but also appreciative of materialism, and tried to supplement it with what they thought was missing, including considerations of human psychology, racial relations and non-economic relations with the land.

For me, these (and related) writers map out an alternative materialist path that is both historical and new materialist, or neither. This is what I am currently exploring in my work, and particularly how the experiments of the interwar and WWII period continue to speak to the present situation, where we again experience the rise of fascism and (neo)colonialism. How can materialist thinking be shaped into a useful tool to address a political, social, environmental and economic crisis? Here, I am grateful for my formative encounters with matter and materialism, as they keep resurfacing as reminders of the troubling ways in which theory, politics and everyday practices can relate. Mutable matter, indeed!

Cosmos & Crisis Workshop Summary


Image: John Akomfrah ‘Purple’ (2017) Poster

At the end of September, the Cosmos & Crisis workshop was held through Warwick Social Theory Centre and with the support of a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant. The workshop had three intersecting aims: to interrogate current consideration of the cosmic in political work, to acknowledge the importance and conditions of para-academic inquiry in this area, and to bring people together from different disciplines, practices and research areas.

Why look at work on the cosmos? In times of crisis, the cosmos has frequently functioned as an imaginative resource for political and cultural renewal. From the space programmes of the Cold War period to the reassertion of indigenous cosmologies, the cosmic has served as a rallying point for a diversity of ideological directions. In such projects, the cosmic functions as a device to, on the one hand, propose different sorts of material, cultural and political divisions, hierarchies and commonalities, and, on the other hand, to address human fears and needs for stability. Sometimes, the outlandishness of the cosmic is used to highlight the absurdity of existing social, economic and geographical divisions and conventions.

The resulting imaginaries can have both positive and negative expressions: while zooming out to a larger scale or zooming in on existential questions can open up opportunities for building new relations that enable positive change, the same line of enquiry can also lead to attempts of aggressive restabilisation, for instance, by right wing ideologies and movements.

While academic analyses in the humanities and social sciences have often focused on the problematic use of the cosmic to support universalism, patriotism, imperialism and colonialism, considerations of the cosmos as a decolonial or deconstructive tool are comparatively rare. However, scholars across discourses such as Black Studies, Science and Technology Studies, and Philosophy have begun to re-evaluate the alternative possibilities of a turn to the cosmic by addressing questions from political ontologies to aesthetics.

The central question of the workshop could be framed as: why and how does thinking with the cosmos matter at this particular moment in time? We explored this question under four subthemes that seemed to encapsulate the content of the proposed contributions best: Spirituality, Materiality, Science and Practices. I will summarise the panels and their subsequent discussions separately, as many themes moved through all four discussion sections. A reading list will be published shortly.

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The idea behind the Spirituality panel – Goldie Osuri, Ashon Crawley, Robbie Shilliam, Martin Savransky, with Claire Blencowe as chair – was to explore post-secularity in the academy and beyond, including the question of what becomes excluded through a particular sense of secular modernity. At present, the debate around Muslim children in British schools seems to reflect the policing of a particular performance of modernity that is characterised by a huge blindspot towards parallel issues with white/Christian performances (e.g. see this article by John Holmwood).

Goldie Osuri looked at borders, both of those of the Kashmir conflict and those between the religious and the everyday. Using examples of how people in Kashmir are drawing on the supernatural to deal with the conflict, she explored alternative forms of sovereignty that would not be based on current conceptions of nationalism/internationalism, but on other bases such as climate change, human rights violations and gave a sense that we can never be masters of this world and the next”. In her search, she also looked at proposals of recent Native American writers to decolonise sovereignty, and at Judith Butler’s notion of vulnerability of resistance. Ashon Crawley read from his work-in-progress, an experimental epistolary in which he corresponds with a character called ‘Moth‘. In this work, he tries to explore other sorts of relations that are normally suppressed, misrepresented or marginalised, for instance, exuberance, fleshiness, excess (‘getting happy’). In this, he searched for ‘geo-spatial practices’ that are ‘resistant to centering’, against the practices of the ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (hooks) and its particular production of ‘man’. One of these practices that he presented was noise as world-making.


Video shown by Ashon Crawley as part of his presentation

Robbie Shilliam continued the call to become attentive to what becomes excluded under a particular European modernity. Through his examples of New Zealand commemorations of Parihaka and the work of assassinated Guyanese historical materialist Walter Rodney, he drew attention to the false choice of ‘either/or’ between modernity and what gets lumped together in categories such as ‘tradition’, ‘spirituality’, ‘indigenous practices’. Instead, he plead for a focus on the ‘and’: he warned that, as crisis (usually about Western civilisation) lead academics to flee to the cosmic, they also flee from what they should actually be critically engaging with: the fact that they perpetuate the crisis through a denial of spirituality co-existing with the modern. Martin Savransky continued the critique of the cosmos in Western philosophy by talking about the difficulty of letting go of the Kantian cosmos. In his reading, he pursued a notion of the cosmic ‘is on-going and unfinished’. He agreed with Robbie Shilliam that theorisation contributed to the on-doing devastation and, in a similar way to Ashon Crawley, sought to experiment with borders around accepted ways of communication, in his case by communicating through a ‘bestiary’ of myths, ‘fictions as real’.

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The central question of the Materialities panel – Patricia Noxolo, Maria Puig De La Bellacasa, Lee Mackinnon, Angela Last with chair Tahani Nadim – asked to what extent attention to the cosmic is about transforming a material relationship, and also materialist thinking.

The panel was kicked off by Patricia Noxolo and her reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘nonlinear’ novel ‘See Now Then’. Noxolo described the novel’s intermingling human history (family crisis, global history) and geological history as an experiment to subvert the ‘small-mindedness of the way in which we live now’. In particular, she focused on the absence of certain dimension from how we construct ourselves and our history, ‘how we use narration to create and how narration creates us’. Maria Puig de la Bellacasa also focused on this intermingled narration of human and cosmic history in her presentation on soil as ‘the cosmic compost pile’. In her discussion, she moved between the image of the cosmos as ‘the great unknown’ versus the cosmos as ‘order/the known and understood’. Showing examples from public engagement with soil, she argued that the desire to produce wonder, for instance, by making cosmic connections, also served as a distancing function. At the same time, she pointed to a wide-spread desire to ‘want the mystery back’, such as the mystery of vitalist force. In conclusion, she wondered whether the cosmic and more-than-human, despite the many attempts to appropriate it, resisted appropriation.


NASA image of Crab Nebula (from Lee Mackinnon’s presentation)

My own presentation was based on my book research and looked at experiments with matter and materialism during the interwar period by people in anti-fascist, anti-Stalinist and anti-colonial movements, and the underlying question of what an attention to the cosmic can do. In this, I looked at differences between uses of the cosmic on either side of the colonial divide in terms of how matter, science and spirituality were framed and used, and how those differences is mirrored by today’s differences e.g. between black and indigenous movements and left/anti-fascist movements. In this, I stressed the feedback relationship between accessible, everyday practices and theoretical developments. Lee Mackinnon continued this feedback loop by suggesting how scientific representations of space and its scales filter into the everyday in different ways, and how our difficulty to relate or even render such alien dimensions and phenomena creates tensions with our material habits/ideas of materiality: ‘what is actually the matter?’ By showing the many processes and considerations that go into NASA’s space image making, she illustrated the struggle between the phenomena’s indifference to human centredness and the clear human centredness of the images: ‘methodological explication is hampered by metaphysical obfuscation’. She ended on the question of how the seen might be enabled supported by the unseen. The discussion was started by Tahani Nadim’s provocation around the pressures of making something narratable in particular ways, which also tied into a theme from the first panel.

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The next day, we began with a panel on Science, which was made up of Tahani Nadim, Britt Rusert, Elizabeth Johnson, Leon Sealey-Huggins and chaired by myself (Angela Last). It, amongst other things, looked at the cosmos that is or isn’t represented in contemporary scientific approaches.

Tahani Nadim, who had recently completed a project on classification practices in the Natural History Museum in Berlin, presented on the cataloguing of space dust. For her, this process raised questions around the production cosmos and crisis as objects of knowledge, and around the production of norms/normality against which ‘crisis’ is set. Ending her presentation with an extract of her collaborative film ‘Staub’, which showed a cleaner’s handling of cosmically inflected earth dust, she stressed the cosmos as a common, while also drawing attention to our practices of boundary-making around knowledge of the cosmic. Britt Rusert also characterised her talk as ‘thoughts on science, crisis and the mundane’ and especially focused on the ‘crisis in discourse’. Narrating through a variety of seemingly disparate vignettes – including “dog memoirs”, African American newspaper production, cosmically inspired slave revolts, and the DIY production of solar eclipse watching equipment – Rusert showed each time how people negotiate the cosmic in the everyday and its liberatory potential in the face of its foreclosing capture by state power. Her question for science was: “Can we think about science as a resource for social movements, as science is normally used to shut them down?” Moreover, she asked whether the current anxieties around apocalypse were about a crisis in property and whiteness (and white property).


Image from ‘Staub’, shown as part of Tahani Nadim’s and Åsa Sonjasdotter’s exhibition ‘Tote Wespen Fliegen Länger/Dead Wasps fly further’ at the Natural History Museum in Berlin

Elizabeth Johnson then took towards the ocean and current scientific dealings with jellyfish. She showed how the creatures were studied both for their threat to biodiversity (‘jellyfish bloom’, ‘army under the sea’), and for their potential capacity for holding the key to prolonging human life. Drawing on the philosopher Fréderic Neyrat, she pointed out the irony of “becoming more aware of our own mortality, while continuing to act like immortals”. She also gave examples of oppositional work that tried to practice ‘minor science’ especially in the face of practices of racialization and other problematic ways of rendering ‘alien’. Through her example of the literary and scientific treatment of the vampire squid as a creature from another world, she called for a helpful kind of alienation that would get us out of “settler colonial mentality”: a rethinking of not just the ocean, but also the land as “alien to ourselves” – a home not designed “just for us” (“a project of giving up the Earth”). Leon Sealey-Huggins discussed the current hurricane crisis in the Caribbean and the way it was treated in the media. His own experience with talkhost Julia Hartley-Brewer served an reminder of how the media tries to blame environmental destruction on bad local governance, rather than on a toxic geopolitical and economic trajectory that started with colonialism and still maintains global inequality. To Sealey-Huggins, crisis worked as a means of opening a space to challenge such persistent narratives, and to remind how crises are experiences as everyday existence in many parts of the world.

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The final panel on practices brought together Christina McPhee, Phil Smith and Anja Kanngieser, with Lee Mackinnon as chair. It sought to discuss practices that address the relation between cosmos and crisis.

Phil Smith gave context to his practice of ‘zombie walking’. In negative terms, zombies bring together a variety of themes such as the alien (symbol of bond with planet broken), fossilised cosmos (obstacle to the walker) and the effects of capitalism on bodies (living/nonliving). More positively, they echo the reconnection of the body with dead stars, and highlight options with which we can ‘walk’: to embrace the strangeness within us (humans as ‘very old xenomorphs’) or to ‘nail up the windows and some more pictures of ourselves in a panic’. Christina McPhee showed examples from her visual work (painting, collage, audio-visual) that explored several questions around the intersection of science, psychology and geography. Her work around ‘seismic memory, for instance, brings together experiences of personal ‘shattering’ trauma and geologic rifts (including the use of open data on earthquakes). Discussing her experiments, such as making gigantic and highly detailed collages from Nature Climate Change articles, she described one of her key practices as ‘troubling the waters’ while/by exploring a generative way of displacing graphical scientific visualisation that allows for the provocation of a different mode of discovery and concern.

Video clip of Christina McPhee’s performance in Carbon Song Cycle (with Pamela Z)

Anja Kanngieser turned to the medium of sound and asked what sound might bring to questions of political ecology and connect/disconnect us from environments. Her work on the ‘most polluted places on Earth’ in the areas of nuclear testing in the Pacific seeks to bring attention to the uneven effects of climate change. She presented examples of how poets and sound artists who work on the same topic had tried to do this kind of work through a variety of formats – from catchy songs to sonic data visualisations of explosion histories.

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Discussion summary:

A discussion theme that ran through all of the four sessions was how to talk about the cosmic in an academic setting. The first question was how to talk about the cosmos without all the conceptual baggage that accompanies it, or how to make selections among this baggage. This question, it was argued, cannot be unlinked from questions of contemporary knowledge production and its inequalities: the crisis was also a crisis of representation.

Participants took issue with the processes of how knowledge was handled in academia, from a particular kind of abstraction that only a few get to claim and perform, to pressures to appropriate topics in problematic ways e.g. spirituality, black and indigenous cultures. The experiences of many participants both inside and outside of the academy, as well as ‘outside while inside’ led to intimate conversations of how people are dealing with this personally, including methods of protecting oneself and what/whom one is researching.

With regard to abstraction, it was argued that, ironically, claims to do away with abstraction through wonder/romanticism ended up creating distance as the kind of abstraction that seeks to ‘pull up the ladder’ to render its processes invisible. It was argued that while you may not be able to escape abstraction, there are ways of working with it. These included acknowledging how we are shaped by abstractions and vice versa, tracing who gets to claim abstraction and refusing certain kinds of abstractions while offering others. For many, this involved working with what becomes excluded or is rendered invisible – for example, the supernatural, the spiritual, unknowability and myth in science (or even in religion). The value of myth – or (science) fiction – was sometimes described as a form of narration that was trampled on in the context of Western knowledge, but that often communicated relations and values that are difficult to express otherwise, such as land relations. Although it was argued that Western modernity already and silently contained a lot of myths, also from other cultures (e.g. as evidenced in the appropriation of African art by European modernist artists), there were calls for a more upfront re-introduction that would bring, for instance, decolonial concerns to the surface, for instance, through the production of ‘counter-modern bestiaries’, ‘fictional obituaries’ for anticipated crises, and other contestations of patronising myth making. The questions coming out of this discussion could be summarised as follows: what kind of relations do we want to form and how do we best express them? How do we (need to) deal with the politics of narration from our respective positions? And what place does academia have in this – or, rather: what relations do we want to build from and beyond it?


“Keeping hold of the cosmos”

Another cross-cutting, related theme was that of aestheticisation. It was noted that aesthetics has different definitions – e.g. sensory perception, as form, as part of ethics, as spectacularity – and that there was perhaps a crisis of aesthetics, too. One of the reasons for putting the workshop together has been to examine recent interest in the cosmic in the arts, philosophy and in decolonial discourse, and responded to this by raising concerns about what was termed ‘beautiful bullshit’: the kind of aestheticisations that are hugely inaccurate or hide layers and layers of abstraction, but also hugely popular and effective. Often, form functions as content for political messages while denying any politics. Examples that were mentioned included a ‘chirpy black hole’ sonification, the Russian cosmism exhibition at the HKW in Berlin, earthquake and atomic bomb ‘experiences’ in museums and online videos, and NASA’s Mars imagery. How does such ‘beautiful bullshit’ travel between documentation and spectacle, between violence (e.g. blunt incitements to colonial appropriation) and humbling, joyful, spiritual or ‘weird’ experiences? It was suggested that form and content do not necessarily have a relation, which makes such judgments difficult. Further, it was noted that spectacularity or newness was also often a product of violent erasures (e.g. through slavery, indigenous genocide).

In particular, participants worried about lack of transparency regarding the inequality of representation, for instance the many layers of racialisation behind any data set and even sonification (whose notation system/aesthetics are being used?). Here, the discussion went back to different examples from the papers of counter-practices under colonialism and capitalism, e.g. creating/improvising under the impositions of particular sonic aesthetics from music to language (and the outcomes’ subsequent reappropriation by the dominant system) or creating work that avoids a single point of view. Some questions that emerged from this debate include: How to relate to the technological, especially when it comes to areas that are difficult to represent? What work can cosmic imagery do within a crisis, and what politics of representation does the cosmic demand?

It was further pointed out that few or no exhibitions, artworks, representations manage to represent crisis well, in particular the environmental crisis. Even if such representations were successful, how much could they do to change views and practices? It was criticised that the focus was often on end results and not causes, such as the denial of long-term participation in the making of a crisis. Crisis, it was noted, was further experienced unevenly, with many people living in a constant state of crisis, while others – those who normally don’t – claim a crisis, often a crisis of (their) property. Here, participants voiced concern about the norms against which crises are proclaimed, what/whom such proclamations serve (e.g. definition as disaster can function as ‘terrorism by proxy’), and how crises bring about category shifts (e.g. from the ‘human’ to the ‘nonhuman’).

What the discussions provoked for me was the question of how a cosmic, rather than a global dimension, might enable a different approach to crisis. Here, the different approaches to the cosmic seemed to overlap. For instance, whether one pursued to ‘carry the deadness of the universe inside themselves’ or related to the cosmos through joy (also: the two might not necessarily be exclusionary), there was a sense that the global or planetary was not enough, did not encapsulate the right connotations, did not sufficiently express where the problem or potential solutions were located. Perhaps it is time, as Elizabeth Johnson put it, to ‘give up the Earth’, or at least a particular view of it. What happens if you think of, for example, labour or the economy, in cosmic terms?

Attention to the cosmic further appears to reintroduce the question: ‘whose cosmos?’ – what other orders, priorities and relations are possible? This is something that the global or planetary does not necessarily evoke. As decolonial and STS theorists have pointed out, the cosmic dimension tends to be safely cordoned off and relegated to the ‘religious’ or the ‘scientific’. Or, if the question of ‘whose cosmos’ is raised in academia, it lacks sincerity. As Zoe Todd has pointed out, there is a lot of cosmological tokenism that does not make demands for serious alterations of academic, social, political and economic practices. If the current crisis is one of (Western) cosmos, one way that cosmic multiplicity needs to be taken into account is by not turning to practices that reaffirm an order that perpetuates or even thrives on crisis. As academia is quite central to affirming and contesting the current cosmos – and to policing who can be part of its practices – it seems important to carry out experiments around its boundaries, both discursively and institutionally. At the same time, it is important not to forget that there is an outside to academia, whose boundaries with academia appears to become both blurrier (in terms of labour practices, production and inclusion of knowledges) and sharper (in terms of exclusion of people and knowledges). As many participants hinted at the possibility that the cosmic dimension mattered, because it was difficult to grasp or appropriate, what these conversations seemed to do or provoke was to venture further into this outside, but also to carefully negotiate how and what we return.

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Many thanks to Anja Kanngieser for recording the conversations and to Christina McPhee for sharing her notes. Many thanks to Adeola Enigbokan, Edia Connole and Claire Blencowe for getting the workshop off the ground, and many thanks to everyone who helped us along!