Image: David Alfaro Siqueiros “Cosmos and Disaster” (c.1936)
If “we are to do anything about our individual and collective being today”, Ngugi argues, “then we have to coldly and consciously look at what imperialism has been doing to us and to our view of ourselves in the universe”.
In recent years, the cosmos has re-entered theory through concepts such as ‘cosmopolitics’, proposed by Isabelle Stengers as a reminder of what is excluded, but inevitably contained in politics. For Stengers, this sensitivity plays a significant role as a decolonial strategy and for STS as a potential decolonial project. During the anti-colonial and anti-totalitarian struggle in the first half of the twentieth century, the cosmic functioned as a tool to challenge hegemonic human-world relations. Not only because of its claim to a common, universal materiality, but because this materiality had just been rendered strange through new insights into the cosmos and microcosmos. Matter seemed to be pushing against European attempts at imposing order, whether through science or the ideologies of the time.
Brought to the attention of writers and artists both through religious writing and revolutionary scientific discoveries, the cosmic further signified the limit of understanding. The ‘universe’ stopped being the image of a particular kind of wholesome (and privileged) universality and, with it, nature stopped being a source of ‘natural laws’. Reality was open to questioning more than ever. The cosmic represented everything that humans sought to protect themselves from: instability, incalculability and incomprehensibility. The questioning of the world via matter also entailed a questioning of contemporary conceptualisations and applications of materialism. The project asks: What does it mean to look at our relationship with the universe in our times? After so much loss of religious and political authority, what could possibly endure as a challenge?
From Overactive Citizenship to Parallel institutions?
Across history, parallel institutions tend to have a bad image. Demonised as an undermining of existing government (and even NGO) services, they are often violently suppressed. Indeed, in their duplications of government services and institutions, right-wing movements such as the National Socialists in Germany have shown the effectiveness of replacing failing governmental and non-governmental institutions. While such duplications do not have the public good at the heart of the endeavour, there is a multitude of parallel institutions that do. These underreported efforts – in areas such as health, food, education, banking – happen and have happened globally under various umbrellas. Often, they challenge existing institutions by outperforming them on smaller budget, by enabling greater citizen involvement and control and by looking to the Global South and other marginal spaces for more desirable models. Despite their potential to demonstrate to a wider public the possibility of effective action, governments, especially those that lead a ‘war on public services’, meet this form of ‘active citizenship’ with a variety of obstacles. The ferocity with which some of these civic experiments are and have been met prompts the questions: what possibilities and imaginaries can these initiatives represent? What outcomes would they enable at the end of a trajectory free of opposition? And what about through a continually encountered state violence? Through studying successful examples of ‘over-active citizenship’ across the world and recent history, this project seeks to examine the emergent processes that could enable a new disillusioned public to grow into being that increasingly takes active political action, rewriting passive forms of political participation such as voting.