Mutable Matter will be hosting its first workshop this year, generously supported by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and Warwick Social Theory Centre. The workshop, entitled ‘Cosmos & Crisis: interdisciplinary conversations’ will be taking place in late Summer/early autumn. More details coming soon!
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the film Hidden Figures, after a friend (thanks, Donnamarie!) recommended it to me. As a black British woman, she was blown away by this piece of history – three African American women who contributed, as NASA employees, to putting an American into the Earth’s orbit. What we both liked about the film was not just the uncovering of the phenomenal achievements of these women against the obstacle of white supremacy and misogyny, but how much the story still relates to current times, both in terms of issues and the kind of rhetoric that is used.
For example, in the film, there is a scene at a barbecue where NASA employee Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monaé) talks to her husband about going to court for taking classes to become an engineer. Jackson is generally encouraged by her friends and the Jewish scientist she is working with, because her potential success might open up paths for future generations. Her husband, however, initially cautions her against entering a system that is effectively designed to take its fuel from her while burning her in the process. This tension is still very much present in contemporary debates, for instance, the one surrounding ‘why is my curriculum white?’: should we, as non-white students and academics, join the academy and attempt to make it less racist, or should we try and create something outside of a system that is racist in its foundation? This conflict has, for instance, been sharply dissected in the work of Kehinde Andrews.
A key moment in the film, for me, was the scene where the white boss of Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson), an incredibly talented black mathematician, asks: “why are we not as good as the Russians?”. While asking this question he is surrounded by all the talent that could help them achieve the same or better results, but is completely oblivious to it. Neither Goble nor the brilliant supervisor and programmer Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), nor Mary Jackson – or any of the other African American “computers” – are even recognised as humans. They are even denied access to the very means – programming books, computers, classes, scholarships and even toilets and coffee – that would enable them to contribute. Everything about that moments feels totally nonsensical: the space race feels like an idiotic alpha male competition that somehow made it to the international scale, the absurd extent of racism and the resources put behind it adds another layer of incomprehension, and, overall, the way the project is managed seems utterly in opposition to what is desired to be achieved. As another friend cynically put it: exploitation works best if everyone is exploited equally and made to want to be exploited.
Having recently done some work in relation to the Race Equality Charter Mark, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the current rhetoric of “excellence” in diversity committees. There, the argument that is often made is that diversity is needed to achieve excellence. At the same time, it is plainly obvious that while this rhetoric is rolled out at every opportunity, the most brilliant people are still being systematically pushed out, often by the same dynamics as shown in Hidden Figures (all-male panels and decision-making boards, moving the ‘finish line”, lack of support, ignorance towards other embodiments of excellence). What Hidden Figures highlights against this background is that real excellence is not actually desired, because it would mean disturbing the way things work and disturbing the narrow logic of competition to which we have become accultured. To me, it is no coincidence that nearly all of my living intellectual heroes are working outside of the academy, in sports stores, FE colleges, manual jobs, where they have no institutional support. The few who manage to remain in academia, often as tokens of ‘diversity’, often have to make do with insecure contracts, are pressured into leaving or are simply not promoted. Many are moving abroad, through the added injustices of Brexit and other destructive immigration regulations.
A recent article in the Timed Higher Education touched on this issue, sadly without getting to the bottom of it. The author lamented that “young academics’ research is elegant but not interesting”, because they are afraid to speak out and end up self-censoring. Instead, according to the author, it was the senior academics who seemed to present more daring arguments. What is missing from this analysis, again, are the ‘hidden figures’: the people whose work is too challenging for hiring panels, for funding bodies, or whose work is being appropriated by professors without credit. ‘Excellence’ is rarely found at academic conferences, but in the growing para-academic spaces that frequently overlap with activist and artist circles. As Jack Stilgoe put it in a related rant in The Guardian: ‘excellence tells us nothing about how important the science is and everything about who decides’ (for a more elaborate analysis, see this article by Moore et al).
The film also nicely showed how efforts to progress are being undermined by supposedly natural allies, in this case, white women. Not only did Kirsten Dunst’s supervisor character “Mrs Mitchell” participate in the oppression of her black co-workers, but she effectively sabotaged herself. Another layer of failed alliances was added through the reviews of the film where at least one woman performed the same move as the white female supervisor by devaluing the race dimension. And, like her, she would probably have to reacted to the criticism in a similar manner:
Mitchell: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.”
Vaughan: “I know you probably believe that.”
This line is brilliant, because it so poignantly summaries the kind of rationalising that people perform to justify violence. The allies who supported the women in the end were men – the women’s husbands, the Jewish scientist and the boss who desperately needed the black women’s skills (partly also in order not to lose his own job, or, as one reviewer put it, he is ‘too busy to hate‘).
What makes this film so successful (quite a few people I have spoken to since have reported standing ovations from black audiences), Donnamarie suggested, is the fact that is provides so many different angles on the subject. Everyone can find a way into discussing it, whether through race, gender, family and workplace dynamics, science etc. This certainly worked at the café where we talked, and there have, of course, been many articles in the media, from the NASA website to black community newspapers. While progress might not proceed in linear ways, a film like Hidden Figures illustrates that the lucky constellations that bring progress do not just depend on co-incidence, but also determination. The film’s clear parallels with today give a prompt to all possible audiences of this film to not repeat history, but continue the work of creating a better one. As “Mary Jackson” put it at the start of the film, when the three black women manage to turn a potentially dangerous traffic control by a white male police officer into a police escort to take them faster to work: “I’ll tell you where to begin”.
Image: “Abyss” by Alpha Coders
While working on my section for the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Interdisciplinary Methods, I stumbled upon an old essay on researching with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin. It is one of three essays that I wrote in 2005/2006 for the social theory module of my MSc in Human Geography Research Methods at the Open University. I had stopped being a Fashion student in 2003 and had worked on my own for two years to develop a theoretical project. At the same time, I was negotiating the future of my art practice and how it might sit within an academic framework as a “method”. The MSc, and especially this module, gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different theories and experiment with my writing. There are quite a few essays and working papers that I have never published, but am thinking of re-editing for teaching use. When I ran the Theory Surgery at the British Library café, the Serres/Bakhtin essay often came in handy as an example, and I was planning on publishing it, however I gradually became unsure about it, because I felt I had moved on in theoretical and stylistic terms. Looking at it now, I think it already shows some of my current themes, although I would probably turn to different philosophers now for the same questions due to the growing influence of feminist/queer/postcolonial critique on my work. Despite this shortcoming, I feel that it still offers some useful prompts, which is why I have decided to upload it after 12 years on my hard drive. Here, then, is some vintage Mutable Matter – even including adorable references to Open University ‘audio-cassettes’!
Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had –
Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (pdf)
What is it like to work with the ideas of Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin as a researcher, especially as an early career researcher? How might their ideas and experiments affect you at various stages of your research, from asking questions to writing for particular audiences? In this essay, I focus on themes in their work that resonate with my own project, which considers the relation between the human and nonhuman in method, and also incorporates sensory methods. The themes of communication, invention and responsibility are discussed through Serres’ and Bakhtin’s non-linear philosophies, represented through the gods Hermes and Janus respectively. After some more project focused discussions, I end on a set of general observations on the relationship between theory and method or ‘practice’.
I am currently working on my book on ‘Cosmic Materialism’, supported by Warwick Social Theory Centre. The book looks at the role of science and the parallel re-evaluation of alternative cosmologies/ontologies in the anti-colonial and anti-totalitarian movements of the interwar period. The artist statement in this exhibition (h/t Gesa Helms) is very exemplary of how the cosmic was envisioned as a provocation to contemporary politics:
“For him [Otto Freundlich], abstraction expressed a radical renewal that went far beyond art. For instance, the curved patches of color in his paintings reflect the concept of space in Einsteinian physics, with which he was familiar from an early age. Still, overcoming representationalism also had a social dimension for him. As he saw it, every form of material perception was permeated with possessiveness and thus outdated: “The object as the antithesis to the individual will disappear, and with it the state of one person being an object for another.” He always viewed the harmony of the colors in his paintings in the context of the greater whole. The notion of communism for which he fought sought to abolish all boundaries “between world and cosmos, between one person and another, between mine and yours, between all the things that we see”.”
Needless to say, this book (and this exhibition) isn’t sadly just about the past.
The present turn to the right is giving rise to a seemingly unceasing flow of disastrous policies and actions. Every few hours of so we receive another devastating piece of news, accompanied by an avalanche of online and print commentary. It is these responses that are almost as frightening as the shocks from the top. And I do not mean the comments from those who celebrate their own self-oppression, but by those who consider themselves in opposition. While it is understandable that people suffer from overload, this is not a good moment for clinging to straws offered by the very same people one is opposing. These false friends tend to manifest as follows:
1) ‘National values’. Whether it is appeals to ‘British values’ and ‘Americanness’, or concerns about embarrassing the Queen, emphasis on ‘national values’ as a counter-strategy is not only disturbing, but increasingly bordering on the bizarre. From reading the protest signs at the London march on Monday against the ‘Muslim ban’, one gets the impression that some people seriously think of the UK Government as being capable of decent actions. We are talking about the same government that ran racist Brexit and anti-immigration campaigns and is radically disenfranchising its own people. But, apparently, there is still hope that they’ll do super nice things, because of British values and all that truthful stuff that abject non-Brits have to learn about this country in the citizenship test.
But then you say: appealing to ‘national values’ helps me speak to the nationalist constituency and not just preach to the converted. Great move! But: while you have correctly identified that nationalists do not fully understand their own ‘values’, perhaps you as an Enlightened Being at least could be a bit more reflexive about what these might be. After all, such values have historically been used to devalue those of other people, specifically, as writers such as Hoda Katebi have pointed out, under colonialism and ‘development’. From this perspective, if there is something such as ‘British values’, it could be described as ‘killing with kindness’.
2) Nationalism. Some writers feel no need to bother with the lame illusion of ‘national values’ and go for straight, undiluted nationalism. This economic gesture is popular, because it neither requires much elaboration nor reflexivity: take back the nation, make it great again! Oh wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? In the past, nationalism has led to real revolutionary fervour that resulted in some brilliant dictatorships and mass deportations/executions, or, if you don’t want to go full drama, failed alliances (I’m not talking EU here) and some really sound delineations of who belongs. But for many people it means such beautiful things as re-nationalising the railways, keeping more of their money, preserving the fragile local ecology of non-standardised bathtub plugs, saving the health service from the likes of Richard Branson – or being saved by the almighty Nicola Sturgeon. Of course, nationalism is totally going to deliver on that, because there is going to be so much more accountability…
3) Who is this about? At the supposed anti-Muslim-ban march on Monday, most of the signs read something like ‘fuck this shit’, ‘fuck Trump’ and ‘grab him by the balls’, combined with some more polite British variations (see point 1). As some Muslim (and also non-Muslim) writers have pointed out, no white person actually gives a fuck about them. As a white non-Muslim, you might be hurt by bad man Trump, but, most likely, you are going to be able to carry on live as usual, even if you join the odd travel boycott. So, basically, you get to vent your frustrations at that whatsitorangefuckface, look great in front of your friends AND continue to enjoy your privileges – after all, even the most disenfranchised white person has greater freedom of movement – a brilliant win-win situation. Of course, it is totally okay to make this all about personal pain and not about your embeddedness in structural oppression (see points 4 & 5). After all, this is not making things worse for anyone else, is it?
4) Self-victimisation. A familiar face from anti-racism debates, white self-victimisation is a totally great way of ensuring that we can all be happily oppressed together without having to make special concessions for anyone. As they say, we’re all in this together. In fact, all the hard-done by white people that have suffered from the clout of the English upper class, evil Germans and so on, are much worse off than, for example, those dirty refugees that don’t even have a concept of the struggles in the countries they are rushing to for salvation. You seek salvation from us wretched white people? Sorry about those unfortunate bombings, but haven’t you looked at how much we are suffering ourselves? Some of the brilliant logic from this camp has even resulted in calls to support Trump, because Angela Merkel, the apparent source of all of this suffering, rejects him. The enemy of my enemy is my…
5) Externalising white supremacy. Congratulations – you have correctly identified sources of modern day Nazism: Trump, the KKK, the Christian right, Theresa May, Nigel Farage, the Sun, Steve Bannon, the BBC, and sometimes even Jeremy Corbin when he dabbles in half-hearted attempts at immigration policy. Down with them all, and the world will be a better place. Of course, as a white middle-class political commentator, it is sheer talent and ambition that has given you a position at a major news outlet, and it is sheer coincidence that pretty much all of your colleagues have the same background, too. You probably all love Hannah Arendt and her poignant analysis of totalitarianism. But you are really not sure what to make of that ‘banality of evil’ talk. Evil that can’t just be conveniently isolated in scapegoat-type effigies? Evil as a process that we may all be part of? But I’m such a good guy!
6) Fantasies of violence. Along the same lines, a popular sport at the moment is virtual ‘Nazi bashing’. Devised as a critique of the wimpy left and its amnesia regarding bodies that could potentially be hurt, because it’s usually not theirs (and wasn’t there this Fanon guy, too?), some people haven’t quite got the irony and have discovered ‘Nazi bashing’ as an online spiritual relief that helps make the world a better place for others – a bit like Fight Club meets Live Aid. It’s so romantic to be a black clad street fighter, a hero fighting for… what was it again? And it’s unlike the less visible forms of violence that are so hard to make fashionable. Recommended watching: The Dreamers.
7) Bad shit from nowhere. OMG – where did all this suddenly come from?? We’ve never seen such racism, sexism, homophobia, etc before! What has gotten into people? I’m afraid, you are so right! This is a total anomaly, probably having to do with a bad constellation of planets or something. I’m sure I read some of this my horoscope: people will turn really fucking scary from 2016 onwards. Of course, this has nothing to do with present economic and political systems which reward a dismantling of public services or just the public in general. It also has nothing to do with any sort of racist, sanctimonious rhetoric from the top, used to cover up self-enrichment and nepotism. So what are we supposed to do?? We can’t really think of anything, because we really don’t understand why people act like this!!
Ongoing Reading List (recommendations welcome!)
Demir, Ipek (2017) “Brexit as Backlash Against Loss of Privilege and Multiculturalism” Discover Society
Goodfellow, Maya (2017) “Theresa, Trump and a Culture of Demonisation” Media Diversified
Katebi, Hoda (2017) “Please keep your American flags off my hijab” JooJoo Azad
Ko, Lisa (2017) “20 Lessons on How to be American” The Offing
Holloway, Lester (2016) “White tribalism was not made by Trump. It already existed in America as it does in Britain” Media Diversified
Weber, Cynthia (2016) “Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response” The Disorder of Things
Wolfe, Ross (2017) ““Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno” The Charnel House
Yerbamala Collective (2017) “Our vendetta: Witches vs Fascists”
Big thank you to Gesa Helms and Anja Kanngieser for comments. All mistakes remain my own.
A few months ago, I watched the film Adore (also known as Adoration, Two Mothers, Perfect Mothers etc – glad I’m not the only one struggling with titles!) by Anne Fontaine. The film is based on a story by Doris Lessing and was released in 2013. It had totally slipped under my radar, and I’m not even sure I would have sought it out at the cinema, but, like many accidental finds, it helped me to process some things for my writing, and I find myself going back to it again and again. What makes the film so compelling for me, most of all, is that it allows for so many different interpretations.
Reduced to its basic story line (spoiler alert!), the film is about two women, Roz and Lil, who have been close friends since they were children. They eventually got married and each had a son. Lil’s husband dies at the beginning of the film, when Ian is still a child. The film then zooms to the present where both women are still very close, so close that Roz’ husband Harold feels excluded from their relationship. When Harold is offered a great career opportunity in Sydney and wants to move, Roz refuses to come with him to stay with Lil and their more remote Australian seaside paradise. Lil’s son Ian ends up falling in love with Roz, and they end up sleeping together. They get found out by Roz’ son Tom, who immediately takes revenge by seducing Lil. Both couples end up forming loving relationships, and Roz eventually divorces her husband, without telling him about Ian. After a while, the men start university and jobs, and the women prepare themselves for being left by them. At the same time, they try to prepare the young men for finding a more normal life with younger women, despite the pain this will cause them. Reluctantly, the men end up doing so and even start families, but eventually (it’s more complicated than that), they end up back with the two older women.
Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright)
After the film, I was curious what other reviewers thought of it. I expected there to be a lot of comments on the age and look of the lead actresses (Robin Wright and Naomi Watts): whether they were appropriately cast, how they looked for their age, and the usual ageism that women tend to face. Of course, I did not have to look far. Reviewers reduced the film to a story of ‘wish fulfilment’ of aging women, who apparently would never end up with such young lovers in real life, or at least would not be able to get away with that level of ease and glamour. As one reviewer stated:
“…let’s applaud these two insanely talented actresses for gamely lending real vulnerability to these broken, fantastical creatures — but it’s a catastrophic one, because it threatens to bring Adore into the real world, and that’s not a realm where this story can survive.”
In contrast with the reality strugglers, other reviewers struggled with bonding issues:
“However, for a story with so much feeling, there’s surprisingly little emotional resonance in “Adore.” There’s heat and passion enough to make the innocent blush. We were struck by the beauty, both of the setting as well as the characters (we would gladly trade Nicolas Winding Refn retiring from film in exchange for Wright’s beauty secrets), but we didn’t connect with the characters. We weren’t sure where this film—that at times feels like a classical tragedy—would ultimately take its characters, but we also didn’t really care. By treating its central issue as a relative non-issue, “Adore” works to distance itself from its audience. We wanted to care far more than we actually did.”
Predictably, many reviewers were upset about the lack of critical engagement with the potential surrogate lesbian/oedipal/etc relationship. The film was aestheticizing and apparently celebrating something that would normally be deemed an abusive or at least asymmetric relationship:
“It is worth noting that the same movie about a couple of dads sleeping with each other’s 20-year-old daughters would need, at a minimum, to confront the ickiness of the situation. Really, such a movie would be unlikely to make it into theaters, in spite of the commonness of real-life relationships between older men and younger women.”
Ian (Xavier Samuel) flirts with Roz
What surprised me was the lack of references to films such as The Dreamers or Heavenly Creatures. While many reviewers diagnosed a life set in a ‘bubble’ or an unhealthily close relationship, no one cared to make links to these familiar film tropes, and how these were handled – and, one could argue, subverted in Adore.
Scene from The Dreamers (Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel)
In The Dreamers, the three youngsters, too, create their own bubble that enables their incestuous and quasi-incestuous relations and revolutionary fantasies. When the bubble is literally burst by a brick being thrown through a window by student protesters, the dreamers join the protest, but, coming from a different reality, they engage in extreme behaviour that leads the protests to escalate. In Adore, the characters’ bubble has basically been classified as a privileged middle class paradise that enables the prolonged fulfilment of a transgressive sexual fantasy. Yet at the same time, the film’s unflattering portrayal of the alternative ‘normal life’ seems to ask: who is actually living in a bubble? The two women and their sons who are having an unconventional relationship, or everyone else who insists that the social norm of the nuclear family or of the couple with ‘appropriate’ age difference is desirable?
The ‘other bubble’ is obviously very powerful. Ian and Tom, the two sons, are pushed out of their paradise, half by the two women who don’t want their lovers to be socially disadvantaged, half by the force of social dynamics. Tom succumbs to the pressure first, after a woman (his future wife Mary) suggests that he might be gay. Yet he is also the first to break down and lead a double life with Lil. Ian continues to fight for Roz who wants to end the relationship both for his and Lil’s sake. When he has a one-night stand out of frustration and revenge (with his future wife Hannah), the unprotected sex results in pregnancy, also trapping him in the correct narrative. However, when he finds out that Tom is sleeping with Lil again, he immediately exits his prison, and confronts both wives with the truth. Horrified, the Mary and Hannah leave with the children for good, exorcised like a bad nightmare. While this behaviour may seem reckless on part of the men, their wives’ subservience to the normativity bubble, including their desire to keep their children firmly inside, feels equally disturbing, in fact, so disturbing, that one feels relieved when the two sons get back together with each other’s mothers.
Marriage of Tom und Mary (Jessica Tovey)
It is also interesting how Adore handles the ‘scary intimacy between women’ trope. Heavenly Creatures is a key example of this genre. It shows how a close female relationship is pathologised, instead of the circumstances that give rise to the fantasy world that the girls create as a coping mechanism. Especially close female relationships have become pathologised in film, from predatory lesbians to the seemingly inevitable death of Thelma and Louise. While films such Heavenly Creatures usually show what gives rise to close relationships and the unhappy fate of the people involved in them, they also end up reinforcing the belief that great intimacy results in insanity, isolation and overall negativity. Intimacy is threatening through its self-sufficiency and refusal to submit to an outside.
Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet as Juliet Hulme
In Adore, Lil is pursued by a male colleague, and, to fend him off, Roz insinuates that they are a lesbian couple. The women know that this is the easiest explanation, because people have been wondering about their ‘unnatural’ closeness for a long time, and lesbianism is the most natural diffusion of this tension. People would continue to be disturbed by any alternative intimacy. It is rather amusing for the viewer that the women prefer to take on the stigma of homosexuality than to publicly admit to their actual heterosexual relationships or extremely close friendship. Again, the characters’ recognition of the different ‘bubbles’ plays into the handling of the situation: the outside bubble is kept intact to pass as ‘normal’ inside of it and to protect the alternative at the same time. This way, no harm is done either way. The women know too well how entrenched the other bubble is to attempt to engage with it – after all, their relationship has been under constant scrutiny, and it does not take much to extrapolate from it – and perhaps they also don’t care enough, since they have learnt to manage it well enough with little energy. (Here, the film does the exact opposite as ‘We need to talk about Kevin‘, which has a similar ‘bubble’ theme).
Saul (Gary Sweet) asks Lil out while Roz watches on
One could argue that, because of such lack of confrontation, Adore is a very apolitical film. Despite major transgressions, no one attempts to change particular norms or make a critical standpoint. It’s basically four hot people with an age difference making out in a beautiful setting. On the other hand, the film’s strong aestheticisation precisely functions to create ambiguity and confronts the viewers with their own normativity. Is it okay that the two women sleep with each other’s sons, as everyone seems to enjoy it so much (including the viewer)? Is it responsible to enter normative relationships without being convinced by them and hurting others in the process? Like Roz and Lil, the viewers first have to acknowledge that they are shaped by the same norms as the ‘outside bubble’, and then have to ask themselves how far they are willing to move away from them, and how public they would be prepared to be about it. This does not have to be something as drastic as sleeping with your best friend’s kid, as already minor transgressions such as childlessness or older women’s sexual confidence are policed quite heavily. In this sense, if Adore is seen as a fantasy, then it is perhaps due to the viewers’ own limitation of their social imagination.
Image: ‘Crowd, Isolated on White’ (Leontura/Getty Images)
This morning, my latest article on geography and matter was published by Environment & Planning D: Society and Space. There are two kinds of discomforts that I am processing in this article: the lack of dialogue on the role of matter between followers of historical and new materialism, and my conflicted relationship with the work of Hannah Arendt. I had the feeling that the two problems were related, so I went ahead to see where it took me, starting with channelling the many animated conversation that I have had with people at workshops and conferences. I ended up somewhere different than expected, but with one thing I was right: it had to do with the way we make cuts between the material and supposedly non-material world. The result is called ‘Re-reading Worldliness: Hannah Arendt and the Question of Matter‘. If you do not have access to the journal, please send me an email. It is also available for free on the journal website until 12 September.
Both new and historical materialisms have attracted a reputation for leading to ‘bad politics’. Historical materialisms have been accused of reducing too much to material relations and their production, whereas new materialisms have been accused of avoiding politics completely. This article reads the critique directed at materialisms against Hannah Arendt’s exceptional distrust of matter. Focusing on her concept of ‘worldliness’, it grapples with the question ‘why do we need an attention to matter in the first place?’ The attempted re-reading takes place through a feminist and postcolonial lens that draws out the contributions and failures of Arendt’s (anti)materialist framework in its banishing of matter from politics. Arendt’s focus on the prevention of dehumanisation further serves as a means to discuss materialism’s risk in negotiating the tension between deindividuation and dehumanisation.