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!


Lectureship @ Leicester

Today, I have started a lectureship at the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at the University of Leicester. It is a geohumanities themed post, so I am looking forward to more inter- and cross-disciplinary work!

My new contact details are:

Dr Angela Last
School of Geography, Geology and the Environment
Bennett Building
University of Leicester
University Road



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.


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’.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


“Postcards From The Zoo” and the Nonhuman/Inhuman Boundary

I am giving a talk at Aberystwyth University this week. The talk is about the many misappropriations of the “nonhuman” that I keep coming across in academic papers, artworks and articles. The central argument is that many of those authors who seek to renounce human privilege inadvertently end up reaffirming it, usually through the privilege of being able to ignore sites of colonial, sexual and other trauma in order to focus on the “nonhuman”.

The film Postcards from the Zoo (2012, original title Kebun Binatang) seems to offer another example of such experiments with blurring the boundaries of the human and nonhuman (warning: spoilers!). Shot primarily in Ragunan Zoo (Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta, Indonesia), a fanciful 150 year old colonial endeavour, the film initially feels like a documentary: the viewer gets to see all the different activities that the three groups inhabiting the landscape of the zoo – visitors, animals and a mixture of human residents – are practising. Whether it is watching, feeding or washing, selling souvenirs or fairground rides, or even performing and recording animal sounds for experimental electronic music, everything seems unnaturally beautiful in its harmony – far from the negative image of zoos as site of animal languishing.

Image: Jera, the empire-making giraffe and Lana, the human and sometimes also a giraffe

In the course of these scenic and rather comical meanderings, one is introduced to the main characters of the film: Lana, a young woman who was abandoned by her dad in the zoo as a young child, and Jera, the giraffe who, even after a decade or two of knowing her, does not allow Lana to stroke her belly. Lana, raised in the zoo by its motley crew of legal and illegal, human and nonhuman inhabitants, knows a lot about giraffes. To visitors, she demonstrates how they can manage to run exceptionally fast, and she is aware of her main carer’s story of how the acceptance or refusal of the prestigious gift of a giraffe has made or broken empires.

Image: The cowboy leads Lana out of paradise.

One day, Lana, like the animals in the zoo, gets ‘relocated’ through meeting a young man dressed as a cowboy. He performs magic tricks and sometimes sleeps in the zoo, and therefore not an abnormality, since everything is magical in the zoo. One night, like Alice, she follows him into the wonderland of the outside. The cowboy takes her to his squat, transforms her into his assistant (= she is there to look pretty and has to lug all his gear around) and takes her on a tour of the town performing magic tricks in front of different audiences. Dressed as a stereotypical Native American woman, Lana becomes part of a knife-throwing act, a fake magic potion sales enterprise and eventually a residency in a spa-cum-brothel that is run by a violent gangster who parades violated naked women in front of his men and guests. In order to diffuse one such situation, Lana performs a protective giraffe manoeuvre – the one that gets the duo hired.

Image: Lana becomes ‘the Indian’ to the Cowboy

The magician residency comes to an end through the disappearance of the cowboy during the rehearsal of a fire trick. On telling the owner of the spa, he promises to ‘take care’ of her, meaning she will join the ranks for the masseuses/prostitutes that Lana had repeatedly observed from the backstage area. In zoo terms, another screen informs us, she is ‘translocated’. She is trained, penned in with a few other ‘girls’ and, like all of her previous tasks, performs her ‘care’ of the guests – from washing to sexual ‘comforts’. One day, she spots a zoo van in front of the brothel and sneaks out to drive it to the cowboy’s squat. Finding it abandoned, she puts on one of the ‘magical’ dresses that she hadn’t been  allowed to touch. It is a transforming dress made up of layers that each make the wearer appear as if she had been given a new outfit. She keeps the last layer visible and proceeds to return to the zoo.

Image: “Strong and long enough” – like the tongue of a giraffe

During Lana’s absence, the zoo has been presented as progressively less magical. It is full of families whose dads may well also be visitors at the brothel, full of repetitive advertisements keep blaring out of cheap speakers, and full of restless confined animals – it is as if the outside world has finally filtered into the unreal idyll. On coming back, Lana heads straight for Jera, the giraffe. Here, the film finishes on its last magical moment: Jera allows Lana to touch her belly.

Image: Lana and the giraffe finally see eye-to-eye

After finishing the film, I wondered what was more disturbing: the actual film or its many blissful summaries that portray the film as an innocent love or ‘coming of age’ story. First up, the Mubi introduction to the film:

“Whimsical mythology turns to longing as a girl turns into an adult.” Turning into an adult = trafficked into a brothel – nice euphemism… I could see why my friend from whose Mubi account we had watched the film had repeatedly complained to the company for muting violence against women in their summaries. Bizarrely, other reviews were following the same pattern. Screen Daily, for instance, summarises the film as follows: “A Jakarta zoo is the setting for a slow and dreamy magical realist romance in Indonesian filmmaker Edwin’s follow-up to his well-received 2009 debut Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly. Sweet and playful as a baby monkey, but with the lumbering pace of a hippo, the film has shades of both Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang (particularly Monrak Transistor) and Japanese manga guru Hayao Miyazaki (particularly Spirited Away) – in fact it feels a little as if the former had adapted and directed a script by the latter.”

Cute baby monkeys and bobbing hippos, and not, as my friend put it: “a dudebro’s magical realist wank fantasy”. How can the theme of trafficking and sexual violence not only not figure but turned ‘whimsical’? Further, this interview with the director manages to completely omit prostitution, and another insists that it’s the forlorn male clients who are to be pitied. Even pro-prostitution activists would have something to say about gendered power relations at play, especially given the blatant use of violence against the women who step out of line.

One could perhaps blame the dreamy quality of magical realism that make the whole story appear unreal – how can such a story take place, how can any woman be so naive? The nonhuman element further adds to a de-emphasising of human drama: ‘oh, it must be a metaphor for animal trafficking – she is really a giraffe!’ One review in Slant Magazine actually picked up on the non/inhuman quality: they felt it was “as if, to Edwin, the whimsical invention of the moment was all that mattered, not the humanity”. The dimension of colonial trauma, too, is enacted in a playful way, through the human/nonhuman boundary figure and sexual obedience fantasy of the “squaw”. It hints at the popular idea among certain men that women who are ‘closer to nature’ don’t protest what men do to them – because misogyny is the natural way of things. One should also not forget that there continue to be justifications for human zoos.

Image: Lana, ‘thrown away‘ by her family.

Despite such disclaimers, it still remains a mystery why the topic of sexual/gendered violence remains absent from most descriptions of the film. Postcards from the Zoo references so many misogynist clichés that the topic seems pretty unavoidable, whether it’s the myth of women’s pleasure from abuse or the ‘character growth’ of women through sexual trauma. How come the giraffe magically accepts Lana after her stint as a sex slave? Reward, empathy? There is a possibility that the nonhuman element complicates the (in)human narrative: that animals and women are both victims of systemic (colonial, patriarchal, capitalist) violence – as ‘nonhuman’ symbols that enhance status. The belly-stroking moment of the film could be a mutual recognition of shared trauma where, before, Lana could not see it. She was trapped in the illusionary utopia of the zoo. At the same time, it did not feel as if Lana perceived the outside any differently – for her, it seemed to remain a place much like the wonderland of the zoo, only that the care more one-sided and administered to naked male humans. So, technically, Lana had not left the space of harmoniously blurred human-nonhuman boundaries.

Another interpretation might be that the film narrates the story from the perspective of a trauma victim who is unable to express the actual trauma. An example of such a creative choice is Pan’s Labyrinth, where the girl Ophelia narrates the fascist violence of Franco’s Spain and the death of her family through a fantastical story, rendering their deaths and her own one meaningful. If this is the case, then the ending transcends from the trope of another ‘character building rape’ to perhaps a possibility of empathy or alliances with other oppressed  entities. The examples of failed interhuman love are replaced by more meaningful nonhuman alliances. There is also an echo of The Act of Killing, and the reimagination of genocide atrocities through innocent cowboy fantasies.

Image: ‘Postcards from the Zoo’ director Edwin. Source: http://manual.co.id/article/interview-edwin/.

I was curious how the director himself talked about the film in that respect, and also whether it related in some ways to Indonesian history. Indeed, in the Indonesian journal Whiteboard, the director Edwin reveals not only his own heritage as Chinese-Indonesian (Chinese-Indonesians were the victims of the recent genocide), but also his interest in the themes of voyeurism and displacement. As he states: “When you think about our displacement, then people aren’t too different from the animals we find at the zoo.” This also implies a lack of choices where one ends up: “During the Soeharto-era we didn’t even have a freedom of choice – we could only follow orders.” No choice between living and dying, because of arbitrary (in)human decisions. Is this why Lana seems to sleepwalk from familial abandonment into prostitution via identification with animals?

The theme of watching throws up questions where the answer is even less certain. As Edwin explains: “The film is also about how people watch each other and how people would like to be seen by other people.” Is this why hurt and abuse remain absent? Clearly, the director has a sense of the boundlessness of the power of the viewpoint. Discussing his new project, a film on sex and (Indonesia’s Dutch) colonialism, Edwin tells us that, “[w]ith colonialism, I see a parallel with pornography in which there is an exploitation by the people with power. Pornography is a form of exploitation so for me, that can be the way to view colonialism.” One conclusion would be that if the sexual violence of the perpetrators is not shown, they might lose their power – they are deprived of witnesses to their power and therefore also of admirers. Yet the disappearing of such acts does not stop them from continuing – it normalises them, as seen with the recent exposures of abusive ‘old boys networks’ from the BBC to Hollywood.

So far, I feel that a generous reading of the film would laud it as an experiment with connections between human and nonhuman spaces of oppression. Lana, initially discarded as ‘nonhuman’, fully naturalises into nonhumanity both in the eyes of the oppressors (those who draft her into their services) and other oppressed (the animals), while constantly challenging the oppressors’ own humanity and lack of awareness of (common) nonhumanity. Her time in the outside world only finalises this process and allows for the magical world of the zoo and its outside to finally blend into each other. The gates to nonhumanity are opened for all, for better or worse (here a choice may be implied). A more pessimistic interpretation would read the final scene as an affirmation that this nonhumanity is really an inhumanity that constitutes our condition of existence. As this inhumanity is only bearable by submitting to a nonhuman identity, the zoo rightfully merges with the brothel, leaving Lana to enthusiastically wank off Jera the giraffe in a matching animal suit and retire to the floor of an overcrowded room.

Talk: The Other Nonhumans @ InterPol, Aberystwyth

Image: Mount Pelée volcano on Martinique

On 29 November, I will be giving a talk at the Environmental Politics Research Group | Grŵp Ymchwil Gwleidyddiaeth Amgylcheddol of the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth University | Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol, Prifysgol Aberystwyth.

I was asked to address current issues that occupy me in relation to new materialism and the environment. Here is the abstract in English and Welsh.

The other nonhumans – Environmental issues within the academy

There is a horror that keeps returning: that of environmental studies papers whose authors try to decentre the human while speaking from a privileged position. From affective engagements with geology that ignore sites of racial or sexual trauma to talks on extinction that disappear on-going sites of colonial violence, such attempts at privileging the nonhuman often end up affirming a privileged human position (e.g. white, middle class, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis). While authors sensitive to human inequality have asserted that nonhuman identities can become a means of countering normative or dominant states of the human, this is not what is performed in the majority of papers.

This recurring situation points to two fundamental underlying problems: 1) an unequal academy and related knowledge production and 2) theorisations of the environment, especially through the lens of materialism(s) in which crucial questions remain silent/silenced due to lack of reflexivity on the authors’ own positions. In exploring this intersection, this paper aims to draw out less prominent questions and provocations within new materialism that may help address this issue.

Wednesday 29th November, 5.30-7pm, Main Hall, Department of International Politics.

All welcome!

Mae yna erchyllbeth sy’n dychwelyd o hyd ac o hyd: sef papurau astudiaethau amgylcheddol lle mae’r awduron yn ceisio di-ganoli’r dynol a hwythau’n siarad o safle breintiedig. O ymdriniaethau o ddaeareg sy’n anwybyddu safleoedd o drawma hiliol neu rywiol i drafodaethau ar ddifodiant sy’n hepgor safleoedd lle mae trais gwladychol yn parhau, mae ymdrechion o’r fath i ddyrchafu’r byd nad yw’n ddynol yn aml yn cadarnhau safle dynol breintiedig (e.e. gwyn, dosbarth canol, gwryw, abl o gorff, heterorywiol, cisgender). Er bod awduron sy’n sensitif i anghydraddoldeb dynol wedi honni y gall hunaniaethau nad ydynt yn ddynol gynnig ffordd o wrthsefyll cyflyrau normadol neu ddominyddol y dynol, nid dyma a wneir yn y rhan fwyaf o bapurau.

Mae’r sefyllfa gyffredin hon yn amlygu dwy broblem sylfaenol: 1) academi anghyfartal a dulliau cysylltiedig o gynhyrchu gwybodaeth a 2) damcaniaethau am yr amgylchedd, yn enwedig trwy lens materoliaeth, lle mae cwestiynau hollbwysig yn ddistaw/cael eu distewi oherwydd diffyg atblygiadol o ran safbwyntiau’r awdur ei hun. Nod y papur hwn yw codi cwestiynau a syniadau llai amlwg o fewn materoliaeth newydd a allai helpu i fynd i’r afael â’r mater hwn.

Dydd Mercher 29 Tachwedd, 5.30-7yh, Prif Neuadd yr Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol. Croeso i bawb!

Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism and the Matter of Gender by Angela Last & Anja Kanngieser

Image: Sign at Vinyl Deptford by Friction Shifter, photographed at Electronik Netwerk.

I frequently get asked how, as someone whose theoretical interests originally emerged from physics, I came to write about race and gender. The answer is that, for me, race and gender are also material issues that not only manifest in material practices (e.g. gender performance, racism), but permeate all levels of matter from the molecular (e.g. what illnesses are being treated, how they get made sense of and come to matter as pathology, what chemicals different genders put out into the environment) to the global (geopolitical divisions, contribution to/ exposure to climate change). As variants of environmental determinism continue to appear in discussions around race and gender, it is more than ever important to look critically at the material claims that are being made. In this blog post, I am looking at this issue with Australian trans political geographer Anja Kanngieser.

This particular post is prompted by recent trans-phobic events at the London Anarchist Bookfair, which we did not personally attend, but which have been widely exposed and debated on social media. It is written while in Australia, LGBTQ people are having their right to marriage and the legal access it affords decided through national vote. It is also prompted by recent and very public verbal and physical attacks on transgender friends, whether this was by unknown people in the street or by their former partners. Such attacks are particularly infuriating when they come from people who claim to act against gendered oppression: radical feminists. So what problems could a feminist possibly have with transwomen and men, and with other non-heteronormative gender constructions? Here is an example of leaflets that were distributed and apparently put up in the toilets at the London Anarchist Bookfair:

Image sources: Luftmensch and Joff

What we have here is a perceived threat to both social/legal status and biology (which despite conservative arguments to the contrary, is itself a mutable and historical category). This is about the ‘protection’ of biological sex and homonormative sexuality. Such claims base themselves on the uniqueness of biological female experience and related literature (e.g. Luce Irigaray) and the exclusive role of women at the receiving end of male violence. As, according to this logic, biology determines and fixes oppression, there is no way out of oppression other than segregation. Men are essential perpetrators, women are essential victims, and the advocates of this position find ample support in gendered crime statistics. Following this argument, transwomen will by default import their oppressive tendencies, and transmen are simply traitors who have ‘gone over to the other side’ instead of fighting the patriarchy from the position of the oppressed. Thus it was suggested that the prevention of the distribution of these leaflets would in fact benefit men.

What is especially dangerous about the events that took place at the London Anarchist Bookfair is precisely the way in which such essentialist segregations stop the recognition of the violence faced by transwomen through hetero and homonormative practices. Transwomen, especially transwomen of colour (an intersection utterly ignored by the pamphlets and the later defence thereof), are especially vulnerable to gender based violence. The arguments used to ignite fear of transwomen miss the fact that transwomen are in no way exempt from the violence that ciswomen face (‘cis’ means when gender identity matches that assigned at birth), often compounded by the fact that they experience it in both mixed gender and womens spaces. Arguments made by trans exclusionary feminists that ‘pre-op’ transwomen have the biological capacity to rape or enact physical violence neglect that rape is not conditional on fleshy appendages. Transwomen do not inhabit the world as men, they are not afforded the safety of men any more than ciswomen are.

The arguments being made by trans exclusionary feminists are, as stated, ones of biological determinism. They are founded on claims that if we include transwomen into the category of woman then there is nothing left to distinguish women as a ‘class’ from men. Cis women, as the claim goes, due to their unique reproductive capacities, their unique physical matter (made up of hormones, sex organs and biological processes) have been interpellated by capital in specific ways, to perform very specific social, emotional, and physical functions, which enable a collective subjectivity (a subjectivity that is both critiqued and upheld). While some of these functions may have changed over time, this is still the fundamental work of woman. Where this leaves women who choose not to procreate, who choose to deviate from the domestic path, intersex peoples, transwomen, and women whose reproductive capacities have been curtailed or removed due to biology and illness, is unclear. It is also unclear how such positions take into account traditions and existences of sex and gender beyond the narrow, white, western lens, which recognises only male and female subjects in binary. The argument for woman as a child bearing biological subject forgets that the male/ female distinction is an imposed scientific one, one that is not in any way fixed or innate (outside of scientific rationalism) but rather lies on a spectrum.

Trans-activist Jake Graf speaking at “Invisible Outlaws: Lesbian, Bi and Trans Voices” at The Bedford, Balham. Left to right: Jake Graf, Stella Duffy, Sophia Blackwell, Joelle Taylor, Olumide Popoola. Image source: Laura Macdougall

This biological basis for subjectivity was picked up at a recent event called “Invisible Outlaws: Lesbian, Bi and Trans Voices”, organised by poet Sophia Blackwell to highlight the absence of LBT+ in discussions of LGBT+ issues (one could also have added intersex and other non-hetero/homo-normative identities). Trans-activist Jake Graf spoke about the difficulties that trans people face not just in heterosexual environments, but also in homosexual ones. Having started off in the lesbian scene, his transition to male prompted hostility and eventual exclusion. Although he also gave some positive examples of gays and lesbians ‘adopting’ trans people into their community, there was a strong sense that this was not a given. This comes as a particular shock, as one expects fellow non-heteronomative people to bond over mutual exclusion and not to further perpetuate it.

The remaining panel proceeded to take on the question of essentialism, both in gender and sexual identity. What was fantastic about the discussion was the sense of gender and sexuality as a continuous unlearning process of engrained heteronormativity. Lesbian ‘cultural terrorist’ Joelle Taylor, in particular, spoke of her school outreach work as a mutual learning process: the young people she encountered had a different language, different identities that she didn’t experience as alienating, but hopeful. Stella Duffy spoke about discovering other gender possibilities through Pacific Islander culture in a rural, but multi-cultural New Zealand community. Nigerian-German writer Olumide Popoola contributed further thoughts on the intersection of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia with another form of essentialism: racism.

At the moment, this policing of essential materiality painfully intersects in current right wing movements, which in the past and present haven’t been the exclusive preserve of white heterosexuals but have been co-driven by xenophobic male and female homosexuals (and even people of colour), despite the hatred they face from fellow members. The overall message seems to be: ‘we want boundaries to stay in place’, and those boundaries, whether geographical or biological, and their social consequences, are again taken as given.

What needs to be emphasised here as well is that these kinds of arguments against the inclusion of trans peoples into political spaces – regardless of direction – are not new. Trans peoples have always struggled for their legitimacy in both straight and queer spaces. While supporters of the anti-trans pamphlet and its circulation argue that anarchism must support a diversity of positions, and that it is almost impossible to ensure that an event with the magnitude of the London Anarchist Bookfair remains inclusive, at the heart of this situation is the recognition of transwomen and men as valid, of their right to be safe as valid.

The 2017 UK Gender Recognition Act, trans exclusionary feminists argue, will let dangerous men pretend to be women, to enter women’s spaces and access hard won and precarious women’s services. This is a throwback to a feminist position that is as regressive as it is damaging. The decision and the necessity to transition, medically or not, is not an easy one. It is not simply deciding to be something else for a day; it is not a man donning a dress for fun, or a woman donning a tie to work. Trans people, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Colour) trans women and men, are not applauded or uplifted. Rather to the contrary, as this situation evidences, transness is conflated with strangeness and threat, which is why so many trans people are too afraid to come out, and end up living their lives away from the mainstream, or as happens with sickening frequency, take their own lives or are killed by others.

By framing transness as a biological anomaly, a fake or fiction, trans exclusionary feminism commits itself to reductive paradigms that not only repeat ideologies and fears that are categorically conservative and ultimately life threatening to trans people, but also perpetuate divisions between possible political allies. Given the determinist framing of the ‘feminist’ arguments against trans rights, such positions become virtually indistinguishable from fascist and hetero-patriarchal ones. The ‘feminist’ insistence on the superiority of female biology, combined with the essential social inferiority based on this fixed biology, places women exactly where they have been imagined to be (depending on where you live) for way too long.

Further, as illustrated in the previous post on the #metoo campaign, such attitudes prevent crucial alliances that could challenge heteronormative practices. For ciswomen to align with transwomen or men (and also gay men) is not going to further diminish their power, but increase attention to the seduction and social toxicity of normativity. We are all at the receiving end of gender-policing violence, including physical attacks, cuts to services and denial of self-determination. Regarding the events at the London Anarchist Bookfair, rather than merely giving lip service to trans inclusiveness while backhandedly supporting the isolation and exclusion of trans peoples from anarchist spaces in always evolving ways, this is something that intersectional anarchists need to address once and for all.

In other spaces, particularly those espousing well-intentioned affirmations of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’, this kind of work is also overdue. Too often, discussions of essentialism are sidestepped due to the topic’s ideological and political baggage, and, in many cases, essentialisms and related transphobia are simply wished away through denial. A first step might be to admit that it is hard for everyone to unlearn heteronormativity and essentialist thinking – after all, everything is set up to accommodate their performance, down to the philosophies of our languages. However, once we have arrived at this recognition, we need to commit to working towards undoing this ever-present form of violence. And this includes identifying old deceptions within our supposedly progressive politics.






I/object: On the #metoo campaign

When the #metoo campaign started to spread all across Facebook, I was not going to participate. I empathise with the argument that there is only ever a massive outcry when violence happens to white women, plus I really don’t like taking on the victim role that women are raised to occupy. I could have written about things like homophobic violence, various incidents on night bus journeys, or having to go to the police station as a primary school kid to help identify a sex offender that I walked into on the way home from primary school. In the latter case, I remember being presented with a photo archive of male sex offenders so huge that it seemed like this was just a normal thing that men do.

I also did not write about this and other things, because I thought the scale of the problem was self-evident, not just related to the entertainment industry. Posting a personal story seemed like just another performance that did not really do anything besides creating a brief awkward moment for both writer and reader. The scale and tone of the negative male responses in my feed, however, persuaded me otherwise. Whether it was comments about women being part of the problem, men stating that women can also be abusers, men ranting against third wave feminism and leftie politics, I was quite blown away by the diminishment of women’s experience of male sexual violence. So instead of continuing last night’s unfriending spree, here is yet another woman’s story.


As a woman, you grow up with a seemingly contradictory set of instructions: one, you need to protect yourself – and need to be protected – from male sexual violence, and, two, you need to perform in ways appealing to men. Failure to comply with either would result in a messed up life. You have to beam at men’s compliments on your physical appearance or, if these are not forthcoming, work harder at feminising yourself, even if this renders you more vulnerable. The important thing is that you remain an OBJECT.

I always explain to my male musician friends how many rock concerts, ‘hang outs’ and even music rehearsals I had to miss, because I was female. While they were able to see  Sisters of Mercy and other acts when they were teenagers, I was not able to go. It was either “you will get raped” from both parents but especially my dad (who still uses this argument with me if I want to go out at night or cycle through less populated areas of my sleepy hometown), or “women are not serious enough about music” to warrant rehearsal space from male youth centre workers “and, besides, boys are our priority”.

The lesson: women may have increased economic resources, but are dissuaded from using them; boys cause trouble, but they are also more serious – so girls have to stay at home. In my case, growing up in the 1970s and 80s with a policeman father, this at one point involved drawing over a large stack of misprinted Red Army Faction terrorist hunt posters that he had brought home as ‘art materials’. Compared with the skewed gender balance of the sexual offenders archive, at least the leftist violence committed by both men and women seemed more equal opportunities.

There is not a single day in a woman’s life, where their gender is not policed in some way or another. Yes, I get that it is not only men who police women, and that men are policed, too, in how they have to perform – that is the insanity of heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy. There are two controversial films that illustrate this for me the mechanics of both really well, Sandstorm (2016) and Elle (2016). Elite Zexer’s Sandstorm made headlines for being an Israeli film about Muslim Berber culture, and for the Muslim actors refusing to share a stage with the Israeli minister of culture. I am aware of the problems with this film in terms of colonial dynamics, but one thing I thought the film did really well is to show how women’s oppression fucks up EVERYONE.

Sandstorm focuses on marriage and the problems that come with love, arranged marriages and polygamy. Despite the involvement of Berber women in the script writing, the film could easily be perceived as yet another finger pointing at backward Muslim traditions and further fuel for discriminating practices against Muslim women in supposedly enlightened places such as France or Canada. Yet the way the relations among women and between men and women were shown, also allows for a much more universal metaphor regarding gender relations (and, yes, gay relationships are not exempt from adhering to heteronormativity either).

The film is set in a poor Berber settlement in Israel. It opens with the dad, Suliman (Hitham Omari), teaching his teenage daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) how to drive while telling her off about her bad school performance: ‘what shall become of you?” Suliman comes across as a progressive dad who wants his daughters (he only has daughters) to do well and is happy to bend some conventions in a rather conservative environment, such as letting his younger daughters run around the settlement without headscarves for a little longer and letting the older one go to school for longer than ‘necessary’. Jalila (Ruba Blal), the mother, by contrast, comes across as more conservative, trying to aggressively prevent her daughter from seeing a guy at school that Layla is in love with. In protest, Layla turns to her dad whom she believes to be more understanding, but here it turns out that her judgment was wrong. After meeting her desired groom, Suliman consults with the other men and decides on a different husband that Layla is to marry immediately.

Image: Layla asking a very fundamental question about the appeal of heteronormativity

Now it is the mother who does unconventional things, by protesting against the marriage and accusing him of never asserting any agency in front of the other men, from his apparently ‘unwanted’ second wife’ to marrying off his daughter to a stranger: “you always say you have to do it”. Gendered oppression is being perpetuated by just following the script. As a consequence, Jalila is banished, loses custody of her daughters, and has to move back in with her parents. When Layla takes her dad’s car to get her mother back, her mother urges her to take the car and run away with the guy she likes: “go – there is nothing here for you”. After some hesitation, Layla drives the car to her boyfriend’s settlement, where she finds him hanging out with other guys, in very much the same scenario as her own environment.

Her dad, anticipating this development, is already coming for her, too. After some discussion during which Layla tells her dad that she does not trust him and his judgment any more, she agrees to marry a guy called Munir (Omar El Nasasreh) (whom people make fun of in her settlement). It feels like she partly agrees for her mother’s sake, and partly, because she perhaps realises that her life in the other settlement would probably not be much different or worse, as she would be cut off from any support if things do not work out. The film ends with her wedding night, where she snaps at her new husband off for choosing the wrong colour for their room, her little sister spying on them like she did at her dad’s wedding night with the second wife.

Image: Jalila ‘greets’ the second wife

What I liked about the film was how simply it portrayed the inescapability of a system that ingrains toxic gender relations. And it is not only women who suffer, although they bear the brunt of the oppression. Munir will probably never be able to get anything else than resentment or resignation from his wife, no matter how well he treats her. What the film also teases out is the refusals of solidarity among women. Whether it is Jalila’s mother telling her daughter to obey her husband, Suliman’s second wife complaining about Jalila’s lack of service to her, or Layla’s refusal of empathy with Suliman’s second wife who warns her not to run away with her boyfriend and ‘end up like her’ – a mere second wife. The film does not end with a naïve conclusion that love is the answer – it portrays love as very much part of the same problem. In fact, this aspect made me think about my neighbourhood, and how, thanks to the density of urban space, I can overhear the same arguments about gender roles between couples from the supposedly conservative Muslim family to the self-proclaimed progressive atheists.

The second film, Elle (2016) by Paul Verhoven, was widely criticised for its repeated portrayal of rape by a male director and male writers (both the script and the book it was based on). I did not want to see it at first, both because of the violence and the incredibly uninspiring trailer that looked liked just another ‘whodunnit’ story. As a fan of Isabelle Huppert, I ended up seeing it anyway. The film is set in the opposite social environment to Sandstorm, in a white wealthy Parisian neighbourhood. It opens with a rape and the subsequent clean-up of the scene by the victim, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), whose resuming of her normal life after such an assault seems perplexing if not disturbing. Gradually, the viewer learns that Michèle’s father was a mass murder who killed every person and animal in their housing block and involved his daughter in the clean-up. Since then, all her dealings with the police and prison system have been traumatic, so she avoids contact at all costs, even when she gets hurt in a car crash. As a consequence, she begins her own kind of investigation.

Throughout this search for the rapist, it becomes clear that Michèle is part of a number of dysfunctional relationships with men, including misogynist employees at her computer games company who make videos of her getting raped, her womanising ex-husband, her ultra naïve son who cannot seem to get his life together, and finally an affair with her best friend Anna’s callous husband Robert. After another rape attack in her home during which she manages to defend herself and unmask the attacker, she finds out that the perpetrator is her married ultra-Catholic neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) with whom she has been flirting at neighbourhood gatherings. After Michèle unmasks him, they have a weird sexual encounter that reads like a power struggle, as Michèle initiates it, but Patrick is unable to perform sexually with consenting partners.

Image: Michèle begins her experimentation with negotiating male violence

This seems to be the point, perhaps also caused by the death of both of her parents that tie her to a history of violence where Michèle starts to turn things around (her mother dies from a stroke and her dad from hanging himself in prison before Michèle can make the first visit to him since his trial that her mother had asked her to make). She becomes more assertive with men at her company, she tells her friend Anna about the affair, and she lets Patrick know that she is going to go to the police. When Patrick tries to rape her again, he is killed (in a rather comical way with a fireplace log) by Michèle’s son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who was staying over. When the mistrustful police arrives to interrogate Michèle and her son, she pretends that she had no idea that the attacker was her neighbour. From this moment onwards, Michèle not only gets along better with her son and his own dysfunctional family, but also with her friend Anna, who has kicked out her husband and offers Michèle to move in with her. Patrick’s wife moves out of the neighbourhood, confessing that she knew about her husband’s preferences and perversely thanking Michèle for satisfying what she could not.

The main accusation against this film was that the film affirmed the stereotype of the masochist woman who actually enjoys sexual violence. To me, the film was not about that, but about its opposite: assertion in the face of (deliberate and non-deliberate) male violence. There are a few other substories to the film (around the son, the mother, the ex-husband) that add substance to this narrative. Although Michèle seems accultured into accepting gender based violence and even playing along with it, she also experiments with how you can be as a woman in the world if you are seen as rapable, if you are constantly pathologised, objectified, challenged. By choosing a white wealthy middle class woman and head of a company as an example, the film shows this violence as irrespective of social standing – if not even someone like Michèle can rely on the ‘justice’ system, who is it for women with less social status?

Here, the film shows both failures and successes of Michèle’s experiment (e.g. in female solidarity, in self-administered justice, in playing with social expectations). It does not seek to garner empathy by making her likeable but by making her ambiguous through questionable and seemingly contradictory actions. For every woman, life is an experiment with negotiating objecthood, a status that seems impossible to overcome.

Image: Director Paul Verhoven, with actress Isabelle Huppert on set

Although I was initially critical of the negative reviews of the film for caving in to the woman-as-victim on-and-off-screen narrative that they are apparently trying to argue against – after all, Isabelle Huppert herself initially wanted to direct this film and had a large part in shaping her role, and the film leaves none of the men with redeeming features – I also empathise with the many negative reviews and their fury against not just the portrayal of female violence on screen, but against the gender dynamics behind it. I get that women are angry with yet another guy filming a rape scene, and here it would interest me why the director was attracted to this material.

To come back to the #metoo campaign, there was an important segment on it on the independent US political programme Democracy Now!. The programme put the campaign in context and drew attention to the 10+year history of the campaign, originally started by black youth worker and Girls for Gender Equity director Tarana Burke. Burke, a victim of sexual assault herself, highlighted how someone saying ‘me, too’ completely changed her healing trajectory for the better. Journalist and director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project Soraya Chemaly, who was also on the show, stressed the importance of the campaign of adding pressure on institutions who continue to invalidate women’s experiences and withdraw resources. Especially during a time where a known serial sexual abuser such as Donald Trump is head of state, such struggle for resources and validation is crucial. So while the men in my Facebook feed may not be in positions to withdraw resources from women, they also reflect the continued invalidation of women’s experiences of sexual violence. Such attitudes perpetuate the myth of conspiracy and the myth of a ‘balance’ of sexual violence (as a geographer, I could bore you with maps upon maps and statistics showing not just graphic illustrations of women’s inequality but also the sex difference in violent crime).

Further, this is an issue that needs women and men to work together (and women and men amongst each other). If men do not even get that this is an issue and do not get how much women are sick of such invalidations, despite evidence from the mass disappearance of indigenous women in the Americas to, yes, women’s abuse in Hollywood and the BBC, then that is a problem. It is also a problem if men demand empathy from women for their suffering first, making it a conditional assistance. #metoo is not a competition either – it is not about demonstrating how one person has suffered more than another, but about attempting a snapshot of an everyday struggle that cannot get better if fundamental power differences and their history – not just based on gender, but also on race, religion, geographical location and economic status – are glossed over as meaningless. While I remain ambiguous about how the campaign is unfolding and thus can understand other people’s ambiguity, I insist that the basic problem needs to be taken seriously.