My article “To risk the Earth: The Nonhuman and Nonhistory” is out in the new Feminist Review Environment Special Issue, edited by Carrie Hamilton and Yasmin Gunaratnam (free link from publisher here). The article was originally written for the : Decolonizing and Reinhabiting Broken Earth, curated by Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark. It was prompted by a string of peer reviews and conference papers which, in my view, followed a problematic and re-occurring pattern of inattention to colonial histories in public engagement with global environmental change. I feel that, no matter what discipline we inhabit, we have to remain aware that any landscape has a history, and that this history will be differently remembered by different people. The fact that some of these papers either ignored or tried to erase particular traumatic histories speaks of a privileged position that, in all cases, remained unacknowledged. This article is a plea to sensitise oneself to geography and geology not just aesthetically and experientally, but also historically. I am expressing this call through concepts developed by Suzanne Césaire and Edouard Glissant against the white privilege of selective environmental aestheticisation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Am reposting this excellent workshop call from CPD-BISA. The event is organised by Nivi Manchanda, Lisa Tilley (Warwick Politics and International Studies) and Kerem Nişancıoğlu (SOAS Politics and International Studies) and is taking place here at Warwick.
Call for interventions/workshop participants
Travel funding available
Colonial/ Postcolonial/ Decolonial Working Group Annual Workshop 2017:
Researching the Colonial International Across, Between, and Against Disciplines
With Goldie Osuri, Virinder Kalra, Rashmi Varma and Kojo Koram
University of Warwick, 22nd September 2017
“International Relations has often borrowed theories and methods from elsewhere to think beyond its own disciplinary limits. Similarly, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary scholarship has long been central to thinking about the colonial question. Indeed, a key insight of postcolonial scholarship is that disciplines are themselves products of colonial practices. At the same time, in the field of International Relations and beyond, the demands of publishing, researching, teaching and hiring continue to reproduce strict disciplinary boundaries. More positively, disciplines often offer a scholarly home, a shared language and common problems that help orient our work.
This workshop will examine how such tensions affect and direct how we think about the colonial/ postcolonial/ decolonial. Conversely it will also ask how the colonial question reconfigures how we think about our own disciplines. At its core, the event will encourage a range of scholars to engage with the colonial question from outside of – and perhaps against – their own disciplinary (disciplining) homes.
Places and travel funding are limited. Please indicate your interest in attending no later than June 24th to Kerem Nisancioglu – email@example.com
CPD-BISA workshops are not organized around “paper-giving”, but rather each session is introduced by a couple of five minute opening interventions. Therefore, if you are interested in attending please do also indicate whether you would like to provide one of these five-minute interventions, and if so, on what issue area.
We will calculate participation and funding with a sensitivity to career level (phd, postdoc, faculty etc) and job type (contract, permanent etc). Please do indicate your career and job attributes when you email.
Over the past four years, the CPD-BISA Working Group has become an established community of scholars drawn from within and beyond IR – this interdisciplinarity has enriched the work and activities of the community as a whole. Our annual workshop is our most important event and provides a vital space for early career scholars to connect with more established academics working through the colonial question in their research. As in previous years, this will be an innovative and participatory event with a range of heterodox sessions.”
The present turn to the right is giving rise to a seemingly unceasing flow of disastrous policies and actions. Every few hours of so we receive another devastating piece of news, accompanied by an avalanche of online and print commentary. It is these responses that are almost as frightening as the shocks from the top. And I do not mean the comments from those who celebrate their own self-oppression, but by those who consider themselves in opposition. While it is understandable that people suffer from overload, this is not a good moment for clinging to straws offered by the very same people one is opposing. These false friends tend to manifest as follows:
1) ‘National values’. Whether it is appeals to ‘British values’ and ‘Americanness’, or concerns about embarrassing the Queen, emphasis on ‘national values’ as a counter-strategy is not only disturbing, but increasingly bordering on the bizarre. From reading the protest signs at the London march on Monday against the ‘Muslim ban’, one gets the impression that some people seriously think of the UK Government as being capable of decent actions. We are talking about the same government that ran racist Brexit and anti-immigration campaigns and is radically disenfranchising its own people. But, apparently, there is still hope that they’ll do super nice things, because of British values and all that truthful stuff that abject non-Brits have to learn about this country in the citizenship test.
But then you say: appealing to ‘national values’ helps me speak to the nationalist constituency and not just preach to the converted. Great move! But: while you have correctly identified that nationalists do not fully understand their own ‘values’, perhaps you as an Enlightened Being at least could be a bit more reflexive about what these might be. After all, such values have historically been used to devalue those of other people, specifically, as writers such as Hoda Katebi have pointed out, under colonialism and ‘development’. From this perspective, if there is something such as ‘British values’, it could be described as ‘killing with kindness’.
2) Nationalism. Some writers feel no need to bother with the lame illusion of ‘national values’ and go for straight, undiluted nationalism. This economic gesture is popular, because it neither requires much elaboration nor reflexivity: take back the nation, make it great again! Oh wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? In the past, nationalism has led to real revolutionary fervour that resulted in some brilliant dictatorships and mass deportations/executions, or, if you don’t want to go full drama, failed alliances (I’m not talking EU here) and some really sound delineations of who belongs. But for many people it means such beautiful things as re-nationalising the railways, keeping more of their money, preserving the fragile local ecology of non-standardised bathtub plugs, saving the health service from the likes of Richard Branson – or being saved by the almighty Nicola Sturgeon. Of course, nationalism is totally going to deliver on that, because there is going to be so much more accountability…
3) Who is this about? At the supposed anti-Muslim-ban march on Monday, most of the signs read something like ‘fuck this shit’, ‘fuck Trump’ and ‘grab him by the balls’, combined with some more polite British variations (see point 1). As some Muslim (and also non-Muslim) writers have pointed out, no white person actually gives a fuck about them. As a white non-Muslim, you might be hurt by bad man Trump, but, most likely, you are going to be able to carry on live as usual, even if you join the odd travel boycott. So, basically, you get to vent your frustrations at that whatsitorangefuckface, look great in front of your friends AND continue to enjoy your privileges – after all, even the most disenfranchised white person has greater freedom of movement – a brilliant win-win situation. Of course, it is totally okay to make this all about personal pain and not about your embeddedness in structural oppression (see points 4 & 5). After all, this is not making things worse for anyone else, is it?
4) Self-victimisation. A familiar face from anti-racism debates, white self-victimisation is a totally great way of ensuring that we can all be happily oppressed together without having to make special concessions for anyone. As they say, we’re all in this together. In fact, all the hard-done by white people that have suffered from the clout of the English upper class, evil Germans and so on, are much worse off than, for example, those dirty refugees that don’t even have a concept of the struggles in the countries they are rushing to for salvation. You seek salvation from us wretched white people? Sorry about those unfortunate bombings, but haven’t you looked at how much we are suffering ourselves? Some of the brilliant logic from this camp has even resulted in calls to support Trump, because Angela Merkel, the apparent source of all of this suffering, rejects him. The enemy of my enemy is my…
5) Externalising white supremacy. Congratulations – you have correctly identified sources of modern day Nazism: Trump, the KKK, the Christian right, Theresa May, Nigel Farage, the Sun, Steve Bannon, the BBC, and sometimes even Jeremy Corbin when he dabbles in half-hearted attempts at immigration policy. Down with them all, and the world will be a better place. Of course, as a white middle-class political commentator, it is sheer talent and ambition that has given you a position at a major news outlet, and it is sheer coincidence that pretty much all of your colleagues have the same background, too. You probably all love Hannah Arendt and her poignant analysis of totalitarianism. But you are really not sure what to make of that ‘banality of evil’ talk. Evil that can’t just be conveniently isolated in scapegoat-type effigies? Evil as a process that we may all be part of? But I’m such a good guy!
6) Fantasies of violence. Along the same lines, a popular sport at the moment is virtual ‘Nazi bashing’. Devised as a critique of the wimpy left and its amnesia regarding bodies that could potentially be hurt, because it’s usually not theirs (and wasn’t there this Fanon guy, too?), some people haven’t quite got the irony and have discovered ‘Nazi bashing’ as an online spiritual relief that helps make the world a better place for others – a bit like Fight Club meets Live Aid. It’s so romantic to be a black clad street fighter, a hero fighting for… what was it again? And it’s unlike the less visible forms of violence that are so hard to make fashionable. Recommended watching: The Dreamers.
7) Bad shit from nowhere. OMG – where did all this suddenly come from?? We’ve never seen such racism, sexism, homophobia, etc before! What has gotten into people? I’m afraid, you are so right! This is a total anomaly, probably having to do with a bad constellation of planets or something. I’m sure I read some of this my horoscope: people will turn really fucking scary from 2016 onwards. Of course, this has nothing to do with present economic and political systems which reward a dismantling of public services or just the public in general. It also has nothing to do with any sort of racist, sanctimonious rhetoric from the top, used to cover up self-enrichment and nepotism. So what are we supposed to do?? We can’t really think of anything, because we really don’t understand why people act like this!!
Ongoing Reading List (recommendations welcome!)
Demir, Ipek (2017) “Brexit as Backlash Against Loss of Privilege and Multiculturalism” Discover Society
Goodfellow, Maya (2017) “Theresa, Trump and a Culture of Demonisation” Media Diversified
Katebi, Hoda (2017) “Please keep your American flags off my hijab” JooJoo Azad
Ko, Lisa (2017) “20 Lessons on How to be American” The Offing
Holloway, Lester (2016) “White tribalism was not made by Trump. It already existed in America as it does in Britain” Media Diversified
Weber, Cynthia (2016) “Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response” The Disorder of Things
Wolfe, Ross (2017) ““Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno” The Charnel House
Yerbamala Collective (2017) “Our vendetta: Witches vs Fascists”
Big thank you to Gesa Helms and Anja Kanngieser for comments. All mistakes remain my own.
The forum on the Cologne sexual assaults that I curated has now been posted on the Society & Space website. It also carries a resonance with the UK’s EU referendum that saw some references to Cologne. The forum will be published as a series, with more contributions appearing in weekly instalments (new entries welcome!). Many thanks to all the contributors and to those who helped recruit them, especially during hectic term time.
The following call for papers for the International Studies Association 2017 conference might be of interest to readers:
“Please consider this call for papers on the theme of ‘Material and the Colonial Question’ for ISA 2017 (Feb 22-25) in Baltimore. The ISA deadline for submissions is June 1st, so please send expressions of interest as soon as possible and full 200 word abstracts by May 20th to firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks!
Lisa Tilley, Olivia Rutazibwa, and Ajay Parasram.
Material and the Colonial Question
Divided cities, degraded resource frontiers, poisoned urban water supplies, violent commodity routes, oil pipelines, concrete settlements on colonised lands, toxic air, and contaminated biospheres – all of these may be understood as material substantiations of historically determined power relations in the present. A methodological shift to place material at the centre of analysis reveals the ways in which matter is implicated in politics and also provides a new means of expanding our debates around the colonial question.
This panel draws together papers which centre on the material realities of unequal political environments and thus adjust and enhance theorising both of the material and the (post)colonial. Panel contributions variously consider how material arrangements constitute subject/object, human/thing colonial power relations. These will also uncover means of overcoming the separation between the material and the representational in decolonial and postcolonial work by tracing lineages of Indigenous thought, or by recovering material questions from the work of anticolonial thinkers including Frantz Fanon.
Papers included range from a reading of the sociogenic material of the (post)colonial city through the work of Fanon and Sylvia Wynter, to an examination of the materialities of Black Power.
Panel contributors may relate to one or more of the following research questions:
In what ways is material politically implicated in the colonial present?
How are colonial social relations materialised in physical space?
What are the possibilities for engagement between posthumanism and post-/de-colonial thought?
What are the political implications of physiological changes in relation to material environments?
How does matter mediate political life?
How are material exclusions from the figure of the human produced?
How are dehumanising spaces such as refugee camps and urban ‘slums’ produced politically?
How can existing postcolonial and decolonial theory enhance new materialisms theorising?
Abourahme, Nasser (2014) Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
Jackson, Mark (Ed.) (Forthcoming) Postcolonialism, Posthumanism, and Political Ontology. Routledge.
Mitchell, Timothy (2011) Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Verso.
Todd, Zoe (2016) An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is Just Another Word for Colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology.”
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.