Otto Freundlich “Cosmic Communism” @ Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Museum Ludwig, ML, Ausstellungsansichten Ot­to Fre­undlich - Kos­misch­er Kom­mu­nis­mus, Ausstellungszeitraum18. Fe­bruar – 14. Mai 2017, Köln

Museum Ludwig, ML, Ausstellungsansichten Ot­to Fre­undlich – Kos­misch­er Kom­mu­nis­mus, Ausstellungszeitraum18. Fe­bruar – 14. Mai 2017, Köln

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 As he saw it, every form of material perception was permeated with possessiveness and thus outdated: “The object as the antithesis to the individual will disappear, and with it the state of one person being an object for another.”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.

Otto Freundlich
Cosmic Communism
February 18–May 14, 2017
Opening: February 17, 7pmMuseum Ludwig, Cologne
Heinrich-Böll-Platz
50667 Cologne
Germanywww.museum-ludwig.de
Facebook / Instagram / Twitter / Vimeo

The turn to the right: Opposition on what terms?

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:

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-14-30-23

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’.

nationalism


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…

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-14-34-21

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?

whiteprivilege_cantfind

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…

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-14-29-52

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!

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-14-44-54

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.

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-14-47-05

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.

“I don’t think they’re coming back”: Abandoning ‘reality’ in ‘Adore’

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-19-55-38

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.

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-19-58-30
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.”

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-20-09-31
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.

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-20-13-38
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.

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-20-24-54
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.

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-20-35-06
Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet

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).

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-20-42-18
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.

New article in EPD on geography & matter


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.

Abstract

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.

‘Is it a race thing or a lady thing?’ – the new Ghostbusters and the Academy

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 00.26.26
Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap

When I first saw the announcement and trailer for the new Ghostbusters film, I thought I would hate it. Promoted as a film that would get girls interested in science, it seemed to reflect the usual blindness of institutional feminism to race and class. As the script itself puts it: ‘three scientists – plus Patty’. After the academic qualifications of Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) were written back out of the script of the 1984 film – no one knew he was actually a black superscientist – you would hope that the new film would be different, but it is not. On the other hand, it is not the trainwreck that I expected it to be – on the contrary.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.47.28
Image: ‘Guilty as charged!’

Many reviewers have complained that the ‘flipping’ of Ghostbusters is shallow and has failed to introduce a women’s perspective. I think the opposite is the case. In fact, the failure to recognise the female perspective is indicative of the ubiquitous white male blindness to processes of exclusion routinely faced by women and other ‘minorities’. Like the Ghostbusters’ assistant Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), white men are often oblivious to why the world works for them and why their gender or race isn’t an issue. This is especially obvious in this article in which a white male reviewer criticises the film for being apolitical and failing to produce an analysis of its time. In my view, the new Ghostbusters seems more political by going deeper into the mechanics and political embeddedness of academic exclusion than its predecessors.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.38.21
Image: ‘Let me in!’

As schemes from STEMnet science ambassadors to Athena Swan illustrate, there is a problem not only with recruiting women into science, but with retaining them. The higher you go up the career ladder, the fewer women you will encounter (in some science subjects, female students even outnumber male students, but this is not reflected in the faculty). It is the same story (but worse) for BME (black, minority ethnic) scholars, and there are also class and other biases. Even if you perform well in academia, the same factors that should have excluded you in the first instance, are likely to still work against you. This is brilliantly illustrated through the Ghostbusters characters.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.40.13
Image: Erin is denied tenure by the dean at Columbia

First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding. The film even shows how the refusal of other knowledges and experiences has shaped Erin’s private life. After her encounter with a ghost as a child, she was subjected to lengthy psychotherapy for rectification.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.45.28
Image: Patty tries to convince three white women that they have something in common

Patty (Leslie Jones) represents an extension of this theme by race and class. She is obviously very educated, but self-educated. US academia would have excluded her on the grounds of lack of funds and lack of appropriate background, most probably including schooling in non-prestigious institutions. If the film had been set in 1980s UK, she might have been an Open University student, but these sorts of opportunities have ceased to exist. Bored with her job and excited about expanding the boundaries of her knowledge, Patty decides to join the outcast women, with whom she feels a connection. The three white scientists at first do not feel or see a connection – Patty has to beg and bribe the group with her ‘benefits’ – but it gradually dawns on them that they have something in common. When she finally joins the team, Patty again takes to self-education. The scientists initially do not even consider that she might be interested in science – she is their equipment provider, ‘muscle’ and ‘native guide’ (not even historian) – but Patty observes, listens and starts to get active in the lab and in the field.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.43.56
Image: Abby has to realise that the margins are increasingly hard to find

In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.49.45
Image: Holtzmann: all bets (and safety lights) are off

Unlike Abby, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) seems more clued up about the constantly moving margins. She is very socially observant and knows where boundaries are, why they are there and why they need crossing. She appears to be in a constant state of adaptation, which includes making do with equipment pieced together from dumpsters and generally making full use of the freedom not to have to conform. While Holtzmann certainly delivers, her work would be considered too extreme in a university context, as it disregards protocols on any level from health and safety guidelines to outward representation. With an attitude like ‘we nearly got killed – it was awesome!’, any institution would be in constant fear of litigation and of threats to its reputation. Holtzmann is not a dutiful workaholic loner, but a fun-loving, thrill-seeking boundary-pusher. Like Abby and Erin, however, Holtzmann has a PhD, which means that, at one point, she must have managed to pass through the university system. We later meet her mentor, Dr Rebecca Gorin (Sigourney Weaver), of whom we don’t know if she was her formal or informal supervisor. This also mirrors a frequent academic pattern of how some mavericks – and black or female academics – survive. They have someone who ‘gets’ them and has their back.

ghostbusters-2016
Image: This is not the solution

Overall, the four women each have developed a different coping mechanism for being at odds with the system: self-education (Patty), self-experimentation (Holtzmann), refuge in margins (Abby) and self-censorship to fit into the mainstream (Erin). Their antagonist, Rowan (Neil Casey), has had similar experiences with the system, but his coping strategy is revenge. The women understand the source of his pain and madness, but they also understand that total obliteration is not benefitting anyone and even validates the authority and prestige of the system. While prestige through validation is seductive, one also ends up reproducing the problem instead of remaining open to alternatives, including more supportive forms of co-operation. Perhaps the Ghostbusters are also more used to facing default devaluation because of their gender, and have learnt not to individualise the issue. This awareness, of course, does not render them immune to the desire to be known. When Erin is about to make a deadly mistake solely to refute another white male expert who tries to discredit her, Abby sharply reminds her ‘who cares??’ Erin succumbs anyway, and almost ends up putting everyone in jail for an inexplicable murder – there is no win situation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 11.06.42
Image: Now on Amazon – ghostwritten

In a twisted way, the situation mirrors the title of Erin’s and Abby’s book: the four women continue to be haunted by the ghosts of white male supremacy and ‘official culture’ literally and figuratively, whether it’s male antagonists, debunkers, saboteurs, or supposed male allies like Kevin (the latter ending up bonding with ‘debunker’ Heist over his hat). This is rendered very literal in the film’s takedown of the freshly supercharged Rowan, when he resists the women’s efforts of putting him away into the netherworld by clinging onto two skyscrapers: ‘Let’s loosen his grip’ (on Abby’s command, the Ghostbusters open fire on his crotch, not his hands) Patty: ‘That’s where you wanted us to shoot, right?’.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.50.38
Image: Patriarchy comes to haunt the Ghostbusters wherever they go

In a less obvious manner, the film reflects arguments that have been made about the status of the margins made by people such as bell hooks and Moten & Harney. The latter offer an extensive manual for dealing with academia and wider power structures in their publication ‘the undercommons’ (link to pdf): how to use spaces where you are not supposed to be. As in ‘the undercommons’, the female Ghostbusters represent “the subversive intellectual [who] came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings”. Indeed, the film shows constant attempts at repressing the efforts of the Ghostbusters from official side, even though they show ‘results’ – better results. Yet solutions are not officially allowed to come out of the margins, as much as they are inofficially needed. The illusion that the current system works must be maintained at all costs: ‘the mayor thanks you, privately, but don’t tell anyone!’

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.42.26
Image: Another gatekeeper says no

In conclusion, you could say that Ghostbusters represents science accurately: not just in the ‘techno-babble’, but also in its institutional make-up. If the makers of the film think that it will attract more girls into science, they might be right. The female scientists are not only nerdy, but clever, funny and cool. Whether young women – or other ‘marginal’ thinkers – will be able to enter academia and advance within it, is a different story. Under current institutional conditions, present exclusions and hierarchies are sharpening rather than loosening up. The film seems to be aware that, for these women to succeed in mainstream science, conditions would need to be very different. Even when the Ghostbusters are finally acknowledged and generously rewarded, they choose to claim and maintain their own place. The message might be very much akin to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s strategy of the undercommons: if you do your research out of love, take what you can from the system and run.

Missing the point: On negotiating realities in (reviewing) ‘We need to talk about Kevin’

kevin_peeking

I am currently working off my ‘to watch’ list that has accumulated during term time. Once again, I am surprised by the kind of films that captivate me. They are often the once that are quite low on my list, either because of their subject matter or uninspiring trailers. ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is one of those films. It has been lurking on my list for many months and, suddenly, out of a whim, I decided to watch it – and was blown away. [caution: spoiler alert!]

‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is centred around a violent boy who ends up committing a massacre at his school. The film follows the boy’s mother, Eva (played by Tilda Swinton), through her present and past life, from just before Kevin’s birth until his move to an adult prison facility. The film can be described as a drama, psychological thriller, horror or even dark comedy. You can watch the trailer here.

kevin_birth
Kevin is born – soon Eva will seek solace in building site noise

Already while watching the film, I started taking notes and searching for film reviews. I wanted to know if anyone else ‘got’ what I saw in the film. I was both shocked and affirmed in my suspicions that I could not find any discussion of ‘it’. In fact, the film was critiqued in many predictable ways for missing the point. Reviewers have criticised the film for lacking emotional depth, explanatory power, coherence and realism; for portraying Kevin as implausibly demonic; and for being a shallow product of upper middle-class imagination that is unable to deal with social complexities. Other targets include hatred of bohemian lifestyles, demonisation of motherhood and unnecessary abstraction. There is only one review (by Travis Wagner) that I found that came close to my own reading of the film. It focuses on the portrayal of violence in the film:

“In fact, one could make the argument that Ramsay’s film draws greater concern to the family structure of contemporary America as a place of latent violence. The silences and back room dealings that happen within even the seemingly happiest and well-to-do families only lays in wait for something tragic. Life, according to the world of We Need To Talk About Kevin, is usually shitty and there is no explanation as to why, yet it is pointless to dwell on the past no matter how dismal the present may be, simply put, there is no going back to a time before.”

kevin_hospitalparty
Kevin’s parents waiting for his sister at hospital after household chemicals ‘accident’

I would like to take this argument a little further: the violence in the film results not just from life’s pointlessness and from a specifically American context, but from a jarring of realities. The problem with most of the reviews is that their writers critique the film from within their reality, what they believe to be ‘common sense’. For instance, they critique that the film fails to engage with the underlying causes of school shootings, which for one author are “the endless wars and talk of war, the social polarization, the worship of money, greed and selfishness, the brutalization and cheap misanthropy of popular culture and everyday life, the repudiation of the idea of social progress, the severe demoralization of a section of the youth, and all the rest”. This listing illustrates the writer’s assumption that if all of society’s problems were fixed, there is no reason or condition for violence.

This perspective remains completely oblivious to the possibility that, even if social inequality and greed are erased, human life might still seem unbearably absurd, if you have the curse or blessing of a slightly detached view. The film emphasises this possibility and the resulting jarring realities. It becomes gradually evident that the film is really told from Kevin’s perspective, not from Eva’s. What we see through Kevin’s eyes are freakish attempts at social formation, starting with the constant eliciting and measuring of achievements, and later expectations of etiquette and performance of prescribed relationships. Normal expectations become absurd: what and who do these demands serve?

kevin_developmentrefusal
The young Kevin refusing appropriate development

To Kevin, what other people consider normality not only feels numbing, but ridiculous. People feel unreal in how they act, in their struggle to uphold this normality. People think their life has a point, but it doesn’t. This realisation seems to be the main reason for Kevin’s disregard for life. Perhaps this is mixed with a resentment of being born, being thoughtlessly condemned to a pointless existence. In light of this interpretation, Kevin’s strange and shocking behaviour as a child and teenager can be read as instinctive attempts to force his mother into abandoning her reality, to see how he sees the world. We see how Eva struggles against this taunting reality and with his constant confrontation. Sometimes, this struggle takes on comical forms, the comedy emerging out of the oddity of ‘normality’ as much as out of encounters with Kevin’s ‘alternative reality’ – or even Eva’s imagined freedom of pre-Kevin reality.

The parallel realities are reflected in the film’s aesthetics and cuts. While many reviewers have critiqued the theatrical element, it precisely reflects Kevin’s view of the world. In a sense, Kevin creates an augmented reality in his deliberate play with what is ‘normal’. It is a performance within the performance of others that interferes with it, but also affirms it. Kevin knows how people are going to react, what people going to do – he confirms and plays a stereotype in their reality. A loner who takes revenge on the popular kids, who suffers from a refusal of white male entitlement, who strives for a ‘red carpet’ moment. In his reality, he ridicules theirs – the clinging to a comforting illusion, even when the most violent interruption cuts through it. Most people remain unaware of what and how they are performing, and if the do, they do not wish to be reminded of it. Kevin knows that this reality will stay intact as a system, but maybe not for everyone whom he affects with his actions.

kevin_surrender
Teenage Kevin surrenders to the police

For me, a key moment takes place when Eva spots the yellow locks on the gymnasium doors after arriving at the school. She had witnessed the arrival of the locks at her home, having taken on the delivery for her son. At this point she has confirmation that her son is not one of the potential victims, but the perpetrator: he is the one who is holding people hostage and killing them. With the fire brigade’s breaking of the main lock, Eva’s reality, too, is being broken, with the final rupture taking place after she returns home to find her husband and daughter in the garden, also murdered by her son. Perversely, from this moment onwards, she is forced to begin to see what he sees: to what lengths people will go to protect their reality and force others to participate in it: the necessity of a scapegoat, of clearly defined good and evil, of manicured appearances.

This gradual approaching of realities is hinted at during the final scene, where Eva visits her son in prison. The encounter takes place just before Kevin is to be ‘upgraded’ to the adult prison, after two years in a young offenders institution. After the usual awkward conversation, Eva finally confronts Kevin and asks him why he killed all these people. At first, Kevin graces her with his usual look – as if his mother would never understand him from the position of her reality. But then he seems to realise that she now lives in a different reality that is closer to his: for Eva, life around her has also become absurd and twisted. Kevin’s reality, too, is likely to have changed after being exposed to the alternate reality of the prison – a space that is often regarded as the dark condition for keeping ‘normality’ intact. This exposure beyond his experience of ‘normality’ might interfere with his ability to keep up his pattern. It could explain why Kevin, in the end, answers with something like: ‘I used to know why I did it, but now I’m not sure anymore.’ Before Eva leaves, Kevin gets up as if he opens himself for a hug – an unusual gesture that Eva responds to forcefully. Perhaps they can finally meet in the same reality.

The film ends with Eva walking towards the prison doors that open towards a white wall. On moving closer to the wall, the camera gives the impression of light. A pessimistic reading could view the light as an illusion of clarity – that the achievement of supposed clarity is just one further layer of illusion in a never-ending series of (self)deception. With a more positive inclination, this ending can be interpreted as an almost literal enlightenment – an invitation to finally begin a process of sense-making that is based on a clearer assessment of reality and a loss of fear from the horror of life. While the light may be brutal, at least it liberates from social prison.

Further, the hint of Kevin’s fragility at the end of the film could be read as a realisation that Kevin’s choice of how to deal with what he perceived as a ‘fake reality’ is not the only possibility. Nor is the reality that he loathed the only one out there. Here, the film seems to suggest that it is perhaps an even scarier or daunting challenge to find an alternative way of contesting hegemonic realities. Such a search will inevitably lead to existential questions and demand seemingly impossible levels of imagination. Perhaps it is not surprising that people shy away and choose self-projection and violence instead. In this sense, the film is as much a metaphor as an analysis of mass violence.

“Five Propositions” out on GeoCritique

drop-1040x692
Image source: GeoCritique

The newly redesigned GeoCritique has just published the five propositions that Anja Kanngieser and I delivered as a critique at the Anthropocene themed RGS-IBG 2015 conference in Exeter, UK. The propositions also represent an experiment in positioning ourselves not just in relation to Anthropocene discourse, but in terms of geography, race, gender etc. This is an on-going writing experiment, and we welcome critique.