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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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CFP ISA 2017 Material and the Colonial Question

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 lisa.tilley@warwick.ac.uk. 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?

References:
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.”

Super-natural futures: One possible dialogue between Afrofuturism and the Anthropocene

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Image: Ellen Gallagher, ‘Abu Simbel’

Two types of invitations seem to be floating into my inbox with increasing frequency, for talks and exhibitions on the Anthropocene and Afrofuturism respectively. The latter was the subject of Union Black/The British Library’s Space Children, Kosmica’s ‘Astroculture’ event at the Arts Catalyst, Tate Modern’s Afrofuturism’s Others and the Photographers Gallery’s Afronauts by Cristina de Middel. Afrofuturism even cropped up at UCL’s interdisciplinary Cosmologies symposium as an example of a ‘dissident cosmology’. As discussed in a previous post, much Anthropocene themed art uses geology as a starting point to re-think the human as a geologic agent. Afrofuturism, by contrast, (re)imagines African (especially African diaspora) pasts and futures through flamboyant scifi and spiritual aesthetics. Canonical examples include the music Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Nona Hendryx and Drexciya, the writing of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and Samuel Delaney, and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee and Renée Cox.

Despite their apparently different aesthetics and citational practices, there seems to be a dialogue between the two genres that goes beyond mere navigation between far pasts and futures. Looking at the common reference of the cosmic and its role as both origin and culturally marked space, the first part of the dialogue could be summed up as: who (or what) makes the future? Is it geologic or cosmic forces? Is it humans? And, if it is humans, what sorts of humans? Poor, rich, Black, White, male, female, straight, gay? Scientists or politicians? None of these assumed polarities? Here, Afrofuturism does not provide an answer, but possibilities. First of all, it confronts us with our expectations of ‘race’. As Lisa Yaszek writes:

‘[f]rom the ongoing war on terror to Hurricane Katrina, it seems that we are trapped in an historical moment when we can think about the future only in terms of disaster — and that disaster is almost always associated with the racial other.’

Or, in Anthropocene terms: rich White people cause disaster, poor Black people are its victims. While people in the ‘global North’ indeed have a disproportional share in furthering climate change, such framings have led to warnings about a potential resurgence of ‘old… tropes of racial capability’, as issued, for instance, by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Nigel Clark. Rather than trying to silence the debate, they call for an exploration of ‘the ‘primitivism’ inscribed in our bodies, psyches and cultures’. It is such inscriptions of primitivism that Afrofuturism plays with, not only regarding African cultures, but all cultures. The play with Egyptian origins and aesthetics by Sun Ra and Ellen Gallagher exemplifies the historical struggle over cultural legacies and the construction of ‘high culture’ and primitivism.

Sun-Ra_Space_is_the_place_1974.avi
Image: Still from Sun Ra’s ‘Space is the Place’ film

Although often humorous in nature, the Egyptian imagery points to questions about whom this construction continues to serve and about how it can be rewritten. The origin of Afrofuturism in the ‘global North’ further contributes to the cultural challenge. As South African digital artist Tegan Bristow phrases it: ‘[u]nlike what it suggests, Afrofuturism has nothing to do with Africa, and everything to do with cyberculture in the West’. Seen from this angle, the origin as well as the necessity of the term ‘Afrofuturism’ underscore the fact that the ‘African’ and African diaspora have routinely been excluded from ‘modern’ and techno-futurist visions and set apart from the ‘mainstream’ (there is an excellent talk by Madhu Dubey on this topic here). Here I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s response (around 7 minutes in) to a White science fiction author who argued that there is no necessity for Black people to appear in their novels, because statements about the Other can be made through aliens. In an inversion of stereotypes, some Afrofuturist commentators highlight the ‘primitivism’ of a science that seeks to classify the ‘primitive’, pointing to mainstream science’s contribution to racism and genocide at various moments in history (examples can be found in Alondra Nelson’s book Body and Soul and in this catalogue on Ellen Gallagher).


Dipesh Chakrabarty on ‘History on an expanded canvas: The Anthropocene’s invitation’ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

Similarly, the Anthropocene discourse practices inversion as a strategy to unsettle visions of modernity and to search for new models of human agency. Although scientists have not been able to agree on a potential beginning for the proposed new era, the industrial revolution and its heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption remains a strong contender. When it comes to our (primitive?) dependency on these energy sources, scientists and social scientists have started to re-examine preconceived notions of cause and effect: are fossil fuels shaping human society and not the other way round? (Yusoff, Moore, Roddier) What kind of agency do humans have to affect social and environmental change? Are new strategies in order? Again, such debates, draw on arguments about our current interpretation of ‘modernity’: what kind of ‘rationality’ should modernity (and ‘modern science’) follow? Do ‘subaltern modernities’ reflect a more accurate vision of modernity? Can humans see themselves as a ‘species’?

AFROGALACTICA: A short history of the future from Kapwani Kiwanga on Vimeo.

Turning back to Afrofuturism, sociologist and writer Alondra Nelson suggests that it represents more than a critique of modernity – it is about ‘aspirations for modernity’. Rather than dwelling on the negative, it ‘enables thought about a lineage of work that propels future other work’ that co-shapes the future. It is occupied with the ‘living future’ (to use Barbara Adam & Chris Groves’s term), the potential for different futures inherent in the present. One trajectory that Afrofuturism pursues is a reshuffling of difference. According to Nelson, popular interest in genetics and the potential discovery of links to previously unknown, geographically distributed ancestors, is, despite its focus on physical difference, already unsettling and reshaping identities, both at the micro and macrolevel (audio here).

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Ellen Gallagher, ‘IGBT’

In this context, an important question was asked at the Tate Modern, in conjunction with artist Ellen Gallagher’s AxMe exhibition: who can be an Afrofuturist? Entitled, ‘Afrofuturism’s Others’, the organisers, panellists and audience explored whether Afrofuturists could be anything other than African American. In discussing the work of Kara Walker, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Larissa Sansour, Mehreen Murtaza, Jean Genet, Ellen Gallagher and others, the case was made that Afrofuturism contemplates an absence of racial and geographical boundaries. In particular, the speakers considered the problematic, but also potentially productive relation between racialization, as turning certain humans into part of the ‘productive landscape’, and ‘species being’, which is also a materialisation, but one that can go either way in terms of dealing with difference (the work of Sylvia Wynter was mentioned). The works discussed included examples of deliberate and accidental solidarities: art and music that referenced ‘Afrofuturists’ or became interpreted as ‘Afrofuturist’ on the basis of aesthetic (mis)interpretation (curator and co-organiser Zoe Whitley described a humorous encounter where she misread a painted black figure as signifying ‘Black’).

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Image: Mehreen Murtaza, ‘Divine Invasion’

Here, a second trajectory seems to emerge that asks not only ‘what is ‘afro’, but ‘what could the ‘afro’ be and do?’ This takes us to the ‘Africa is (not) a country’ awareness campaign (example blog here). As many African Americans point out, the slavery system often deprived them of more detailed knowledge about their ancestry other than ‘African’. At the same time, the ‘African’ has acquired meaning for the community and is increasingly also tied to particular political imaginations. During my visit to Detroit, I found that African American activists were talking about promoting an ‘African model’ of community and of reshaped institutions against the ‘White corporate’ model. At a film screening of Branwen Okpako’s ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, African visions of trajectories for modernity again came up, prompted by Auma Obama’s discussion (in the film) with Kenyan students about the kind of lifestyles they are hoping to pursue. Obama asked her students to consider what premise notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ are based on. Development of/towards what? Industrial farming, increased levels of consumption, loss of community? Why could certain ‘African’ models of living not hold the key to human development? Seen through the lens of Afrofuturism, one could say that if the ‘afro’ can be shaped into something coherent, this move does not necessarily imply a wish to do away with nuances and differences. Instead, it could be read as a productively employed and reframed cliché that critiques a privileged socio-economic model. Its future trajectory could indeed transcend its current context. The question here might be phrased as: can established categories be rejected by getting contemporary ‘non-Others’ to adopt the model that is normally deemed ‘other’?

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Image: from Cristina de Middel, ‘Afronauts’

The corresponding Anthropocene question might be put as ‘what could the ‘geo’’ be and do? The logic seems to be that if the human can be a geologic force, how else is human life geophysical – and how could this perspective lead to a more constructive reframing of politics and the social? Especially since, thanks to climate change, the stability of the ‘meteorological White middle class’ (as a recent German TV satire described Europe) might become seriously unsettled… So far, quite a few proposals have tried to put human politics into perspective: we might do all these politics for economic power – but at the end of the day, when oil is used up, the water is polluted and the temperature is up, our role as a geologic force might be unsatisfactorily short. Shouldn’t humans work more in cooperation in the face of geophysical processes that will carry on without consideration of human needs? It is interesting to note that some of the most interesting proposals have again been excluded from the ‘mainstream’ and have been consigned to the area of ‘post-colonial ecologies’. I am thinking here especially of French-Caribbean discussions of geopoetics (Maximin, Glissant, Condé etc). Conversely, scholars from post-colonial studies, such as DeLoughrey and Handley, have criticised that ‘Westerners’ are in search of ‘Other’ models to bring a much needed conceptual injection. This debate raises questions about the conditions under which dialogue should take place.

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Ellen Gallagher, Detail from ‘Afrylic’

For me, visiting Ellen Gallagher’s exhibition at the Tate Modern (on view until 1 September 2013) synthesized the dialogue between Anthropocene and Afrofuturism even more intensely (enter the ‘Afrocene’?). Walking through the different rooms, I was struck by what I experienced as a ‘hypermaterialisation’ of layers and layers of material and meaning. Many art critics have commented on her relationship with the material, for example, Gallagher’s wish to ‘maintain the ‘vulnerability’ of her materials and their forms’ (Shiff), her use of African American wigs as a conduit to the supernatural (de Zegher), but few manage to capture the intensity of an entire retrospective. Robin Kelly comes the closest: he describes his encounter with Ellen Gallagher’s work as ‘confounding’.

‘To confound is not simply to confuse, but to surprise or perplex by challenging received wisdom. It also means to mix up or fail to discern differences between things.’

I don’t think any term could be more accurate. To me, Gallagher’s shifts between meanings of medicine and wig adverts, ‘high’ and ‘low’ art/culture references, ‘nature’ (I especially loved the title ‘Double Natural’) and ‘blackness’, marine creatures, minstrel imagery, ambiguous organic shapes and political pamphlets rendered tangible the multiple ways in which people are being materialised and enlisted as part of social and economic production: overworked and stuck in a job you cannot get out of? Pop a pill. More ‘organic’ than society’s ideal? Neighbours throwing bombs into your house? Buy a wig. Keep calm and carry on. The sheer ridiculousness of the enterprise as well as our complicity in it becomes apparent. Does Gallagher suggest any way out? It seemed to me that she was perhaps implying that the path towards more productive forms of materialisation may lie not only in realising the ridiculousness, but to start from it. Geology and politics? Ridiculous! Africans in space? Ridiculous! A more equal global society? Ridiculous! Or is it?

‘In-the-Last-Humanity’: François Laruelle @ CSM

laruelle_principles

Just spotted this event on the staff mailing list.

Public Lecture

Professor François Laruelle

‘In-the-Last-Humanity: On the “Speculative” Ecology of Man, Animal and Plant’

June 3, 5pm, 2013

Central Saint Martins

Lecture Theatre E002, Granary Building, 1 Granary Square, London.

This is the 3rd in a series of lectures Professor François Laruelle is giving at the London Graduate School, London. This talk is presented with the support of the School of Art, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts.

Following the lecture there will be a reception and book launch for the translation of Laruelle’s Principles of Non-Philosophy, trans. Anthony Paul Smith and Nicola Rubczak (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Professor Laruelle has taught at both the University of Paris X and the Collège international de philosophie, and is a Visiting Professor at the London Graduate School, Kingston University, London. He is the author of over twenty books, including Philosophies of Difference (trans. 2010), Future Christ (trans. 2010), Principles of Non-Philosophy (trans. 2013), and, most recently, The Concept of Non-Photography (2011) and Anti-Badiou (2011, trans. 2013).

This event is open to members of the public (no reservation required, but come early to get a seat).

For further information, contact Prof John Mullarkey – j.mullarkey@kingston.ac.uk

Apparently, there is also at talk by Michael Marder on 8 May at UCL where he will be talking about his recent book Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. It hasn’t been advertised externally, so I don’t know whether it’s a public event. More information welcome!

Mutable Matter @ AAG 2013


Image source: Michael C.C. Lin from the forthcoming book Architecture in the Anthropocene: Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, edited by Etienne Turpin (Hong Kong: MAP Office/MAP Books Publishers, 2013)

Next year, I will be participating in an AAG session entitled ‘Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos” (session abstract posted below). The session is organised by  Harlan Morehouse (University of Minnesota) and Elizabeth Johnson (University of Wisconsin). Am very much looking forward to the discussions! Here is my presentation abstract:

We are the World: Ideologies and material representations

For the majority of social theorists, human relations with materiality, the world and the cosmos have been connected to fear and alienation, and to the instrumentalisation of these sentiments to gain political influence. At any moment in history, representations of materiality have been used politically to deny aspects of human/world relations and to undermine productive responses. Current examples include the denial of anthropogenic climate change and, conversely, calls for the abolition of democracy, deemed ‘unable to deal’ with the consequences of future planetary transformations, in favour of more authoritarian structures.
The work of authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil acknowledges the importance of thinking at and beyond the planetary scale to counter the instrumentalisation of alienation and the construction of ‘preferred realities’. For these authors, identification with the world and the cosmos has nothing to do with escapism or ‘materialising’ humans, but with warding oneself against being reduced to passive matter by ideologies that deny certain material relations through idealised constructions. For Weil, for instance, to identify with the universe means to cultivate a preoccupation not with tangible materialism, but with an intangible one, focused on thoughts and ‘the perpetual exchange of matter’, in which humans take part.
Bringing together past and present writing on materiality, this paper seeks to highlight the significance of representing human-world relations for constructions of political agency and to propose early and mid-twentieth century conceptualisations of ‘great reality’ as one potential pathway for thinking the human as a geological political agent.

Call for Papers: Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013)

Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos’

Organisers: Harlan Morehouse and Elizabeth Johnson.

In 2000, Crutzen and Stoermer gave name to a new geological epoch. The “Anthropocene” demarked a post-Holocene present and future in which human activity was understood to be the dominant agent of change in the global environment (2000). Understandably, such a sweeping claim has been viewed unfavorably within critical geographical and environmental scholarship, generating arguments that Crutzen and Stoermer’s concept only offers a new, albeit negative, story of human’s mastery of the earth’s processes. Nigel Clark (2011), for example, has suggested that the term neglects the presence – and force – of terrestrial processes that exist independently from human relationships. Similar criticisms have emerged from the substantial and diverse literature on more-than-human geographies, which aim to dislodge anthropocentrism by granting nonhuman actors and processes more prominent positions in everyday events as well as the meaning and experience of social, political, and historical change (cf. Latour 2004, Serres 2010, Bennett 2011, Badmington 2000, Braun and Whatmore 2010, Castree et al. 2004).

These perspectives have been instrumental in shaping critical responses to Crutzen and Stoermer’s hyperbolic claims. However, recent work in philosophy and the humanities invites an alternative reading of the “Anthropocene,” one that that is more sympathetic to these critiques and that does not elevate or reinscribe humanity as the principal agent of global environmental change, but rather situates it as one force in a field of material processes (Morton 2012). Further, such a reading would recognize unique states of affairs that signal the “collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” (Chakrabarty 2009) – a sentiment paralleling the suggestion that the Anthropocene announces a shift from the human as biological entity to that of humanity as a geological agent. In these sessions we wish to revisit the idea of the Anthropocene in order to work towards a politics capable of responding to the epistemological and ontological challenges posed by 21st century environmental uncertainty. In spite of its originary hyperbole, the idea of the Anthropocene nevertheless compels us to rethink life amongst the myriad and strange mixtures of social, natural, and socio-natural processes, and in doing so come to terms with materialities that far outstrip the relative inconsequentiality of a human experience of space and time. Or, to echo Morton, it inspires us to ‘think big, and maybe even bigger than that’ (2010). Framing questions include, but are not limited to:

• How does the introduction of global, geological humanity as a singular subject challenge, complement, and/or modify discourses of critical environmental thought?

• If we identify the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene with something as ‘massively distributed in space and time’ (Morton 2010), what limitations do we (as individuals) experience? And what are the implications for considering issues of environmental ethics, responsibility, and politics?

• In what ways does the meaning of “human” change in the movement between biological and geological agency?

• How might critical environmental thought acknowledge the crucial role independent terrestrial processes play in the constitution and experience of material realities while acknowledging humanity’s capacity to shape the earth at multiple scales and in numerous ways?

In light of the above, the organizers of this session welcome novel socio-ecological perspectives that critically reflect on the idea of the Anthropocene, examining its impacts on 21st century environmental thought and politics. Please send inquiries / abstracts of no more than 250 words to Harlan Morehouse (more0206@umn.edu) and Elizabeth Johnson (erjohnson9@wisc.edu) by October 5th 2012.

References:
Badmington, N. (2000). Posthumanism. New York, Palgrave.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Braun, B. and S. Whatmore (2010). “The Stuff of Politics: An Introduction.” Political Matter. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press.
Castree, N., C. Nash, et al. (2004). “Mapping posthumanism: an exchange.” Environment and Planning A 36: 1341-1363.
Chakrabarty, D. (2009). “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35(Winter): 197-222.
Clark, N. (2011). Inhuman nature : sociable life on a dynamic planet. Los Angeles ; London, SAGE.
Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000). “The Anthropocene.” IGBP Newsletter 41(17): 17- 18.
Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morton, T. (2012). “On Entering the Anthropocene.” A lecture at the Environmental Humanities Symposium, University of New South Wales, August 23, 2012. Available at http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2012/08/on-entering-anthropocene-mp3.html
Morton, T. (2010). The ecological thought. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Serres, M. (2010). Biogea. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Press.

Workshop: Material Studies @ SoundFjord


Image source: Soundfjord


Am currently working on some radio programmes and sound workshops for my new project. Here is a workshop at the SoundFjord Gallery that sounds rather exciting. Would definitely attend it if I wasn’t making sounds somewhere else at that time. In case you are able to go, here are the details from their website:

Material Studies is a monthly improvisation workshop lead by Matthisa Kispert, Blanca Regina and Andrew Riley, and on occasion a special guest – past guests have included Ryan Jordan, Iris Garrelfs – first initiated at SOUND//SPACE held at V22 Summer Club from May to July 2012.

Philosophy: “Material Studies is an open-to-all, playful collective exploration of the sounds within matter.

Avant-garde art, be it musically, visually or performance based often appears as somewhat elitist, with a defined hierarchy between those who create the work (the artists) and those experience it (the audience). To people who have not had the fortune of being taught all the codes of the artform, the pieces and the settings in which these are shown can be uncomfortable and alienating.” – The Material Studies Group

The Material Studies project seeks to open these experimental artforms to anyone who wishes to participate in the collective, improvised sonic exploration of various materials and objects, whether by actively working with the objects, passively absorbing the interactions of others or by expressing a response to the sonic exploration through visual or written acts.

The use of traditional instruments, terminology and tools of manipulation will be avoided. Participants will together develop an improvisational language based solely on the sounds that can be teased out of various everyday objects, with each session being themed around a particular material or object.

No expertise or previous experience is required, instead the sessions focus on the communicative potential of collective improvisation, where every participant needs to listen and react to everything that is happening around, where every gesture has an influence on everything else.

The underlying principle of the project is to promote a corrosion of the space between the artist-performer and the contemplator-audience and to promote the idea that we are all valuable as artists regardless of education or class.

Next workshops: SATURDAY 13 October 2012 | SATURDAY 03 November 2012 | 2.30 – 6 pm

£5/£4 concs per workshop
It is essential to RSVP [helen_at_soundfjord.org.uk] | Pay on the door

An example from Material Studies:

Material Studies – Introduction session- from whiteemotion on Vimeo.