On the 25th of May, Michael Holden – who has recently joined Royal Holloway to work on the AHRC-funded Music, Migration, and Mobility project – shared with us his recently completed PhD work that explored the ways in which authors and artists have responded to the legacy of the Holocaust through the use of cartography, both literally and metaphorically.
Setting the scene for his focus on contemporary Holocaust culture, Michael began by explaining to us the historical association between the Holocaust and mapping. Often underappreciated beyond the academic study of cartography is the ‘non-neutrality’ of maps, and in the context of Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, they were often utilised to maintain and expand the power of the Nazi state and the oppression of the continent’s Jewish population. They were used, for instance, to portray the (historically inaccurate) migration of Jews as an ‘infestation’ and report on the geographical distribution of their ‘extermination’ in ways that legitimised and emboldened their murderous racist ideology.
However, maps, in various forms, were – and continue to be – just as significant to the victims of the Holocaust. For those in the concentration camps, the process of mapping was often a matter of life or death, whether in relation to the micro-geographies of their position in the soup queue or the production of a sketch map, from memory, by escapees from Auschwitz. But since the end of the Second World War, the Holocaust has remained inextricable from the places in which it occurred. Playing a significant role in shaping this continual process of memorialisation are cultural works such as novels, comics and art that too have used such maps to guide the reader’s interpretation of space and consequentially, the broader narratives of the Holocaust that they create.
Often left unacknowledged, this was where Michael’s own research came in. Using the notion of maps and mapping to encapsulate both cartographic images as well as movements and itineraries, the framing of geographical knowledge, and the tracing of roots and landscapes, he has analysed a range of comics (or graphic novels), novels and artworks to shed light on the ways in which they are used to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust.
To illustrate some of the findings of his work, Michael took us through a number of examples. Focusing specifically on her 2013 graphic novel Letting it Go, he began with the drawings of Miriam Katin; a Hungarian-born American novelist and graphic artist who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the Hungarian countryside with her mother. In this work, maps were used by Miriam to reflect on her changing attitudes towards her son’s choice to apply for Hungarian citizenship and live in Berlin after the decision sparked an uncomfortable reckoning with the past. In the early stages of the text, the depiction of a map within her head symbolised the ways in which her anxiety towards Germany was fixed and frozen in memory. Later, she draws herself tracing the route that her son and his partner will take to work events in Slovakia from the perspective of her past and the places that hold so much of her trauma. But as the narrative progresses, and after she has taken trips to Berlin, maps are used to express a gradual thawing of her reluctance and the realisation that the Europe of today is no longer the Europe of the past.
In contrast, Michael also discussed Amy Kurzweil’s graphic memoir Flying Couch as an example of a piece written and illustrated by a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Here, he explained, cartography played two distinct roles in the story. Rooted in the present, they help to ‘navigate’ questions of identity and the relationship between the three women in her family; herself, her mother, and her grandmother, who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto. However, they also represented her grandmother’s testimonies and memories, but in a way that attempted to impart something of the affective and embodied spatiality of her experiences in the ghetto and her wanderings across Poland rather than the precise locations of such events.
To round up the discussion, the final case study touched on the linguistic use of maps as a ‘structuring device’ in the novels of W.G. Sebald. As Michael argued, Sebald’s texts – which explore the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust – are fundamentally map-like in character. At the heart of his narratives are a plethora of rural and coastal landscapes and urban environments which are tied to real places and through which his characters wander and depart upon their extended meditations on memory and history. As Michael concluded, Sebald – along with Katin and Kurtzweil – all demonstrate the fluidity and imagination in which maps are included in contemporary Holocaust culture. However, while they may have believed that were including them to authoritatively signal something about the spatiality of their narratives, they nevertheless inject a degree of subjectivity into their recreation.
We would like to thank Michael for sharing with us this fascinating, yet sobering, research, and we look forward to hearing more about his current work exploring the lives of migrant musicians from Nazi-occupied Europe in the future.
This lively, entertaining and extremely thought-provoking Landscape Surgery session was led by nnull (aka Toby), an artist, researcher and educator, who gave us all an introduction to their work via their latest short film, which was released in February 2021. This film is a documentation of change, particularly around the events they were going through in 2019 surrounding immigration and changing citizenship, and how these processes intersect with being a trans person. In particular, it explored how gender identity and transitioning affected their immigration process alongside their ability to voice these issues in a new country. The phrase ‘Monster Outside of Human Laws’ comes from Hannah Adrent’s work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The film “draws from the works of Hannah Arendt as a stateless person who contemplates on the bigger picture of personal events after gaining status.”
By way of introduction, nnull says: “A year ago I found myself at a difficult crossroad when their UK visa was due to expire. I had to choose between migrating economically and seeking asylum. Each route would ultimately determine the possession of extremely different rights. In this film I unpack the disparity in rights we possess and acquire through immigration and how this is ultimately tied to capital. I reflect on how my situation reveals contradictions in the narratives that surround the European Migration Crisis.”
Some of the key points within the film show that the struggle for freedom – earned through a visa or passport – to obtain an identity is always worth it. It discusses how diminished rights of any kind affects lives, especially where authorities question your ‘belonging’ and where a system ranks you or gives you rights according to your economic value to a country. Identity, citizenship and belonging are all addressed in this film. Nnull asks, when the voice of the immigrant is not to be trusted, who can speak for you? Most people have never had to assert their human rights or prove their value. Many assumptions are made about a person in the immigration process, creating ‘monsters’ who can’t speak for themselves. These processes force people to see each other in an unhelpful and unequal way.
Immigration and labour have long been tied to economic value, especially during the colonial period. Framing these issues using maps and mapping has been an ongoing project for Toby, who describes their work as nnull as like a form of journaling or “slightly autobiographical”. This ongoing project revolves around mapping their family history and the British Empire to create a story of immigration. Importantly, they also view these issues through the lens of the value placed on people.
Their family history investigation led to the discovery that their father had grown up in an internment camp in Malaysia, which their family had never discussed. A study of Malaysian maps led to investigating how they were used for military and political purposes to justify internment camps and counter-terrorism operations, and protect resources from a British standpoint.
Toby is descended from Chinese immigrants who originally worked in Malaysia as labourers in the mining industry. It was mainly people from the Chinese community who were placed in these internment camps. “In a way I was looking at how Malaysia was constructed through colonial hands and how its multiculturalism is a result of colonialism and indentured labour”. Maps are very revealing in showing what is chosen to be included as useful knowledge. One such map, produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, adapted and featured in the film, shows emigration occurring across the world and population flows. But this is only part of the picture as this map shows the emigration of essentially only ‘white colonists’ to British Empire colonies. People of colour are not counted as emigrants; they did not have ‘freedom of movement’ but were moved by authorities. Tellingly, the table alongside the map describes colonies in terms of their fiscal potential, e.g. fisheries, mining etc., advertising countries as part of a quest for “global extractivism”. It is, of course, always worth questioning for whom maps were produced, for as an audience, it is useful to know what their views and value systems were. A map such as this shows there were two types of immigration occurring at this time, one for the master and one for the slave. How we view, map and imagine the world and claim land and resources is important. This is the world viewed through the lens of resource extraction and domination, but also in terms of ‘the monster outside of human laws’, or the value assigned to people and power.
Toby finds the quantification of such power through giving people and objects value and the (game theory) logic used to justify conquest or cruelty of any kind fascinating. They discussed how game theory is used in many disciplines and in governing so much of our world, and how we behave to others “in a way that literally is the formula that rationalises cruelty”. Translating this back to maps, Toby described how it could reveal much about tensions over, for example, land ownership and Indigenous title claims in, for example, Australia. They ask us to think about the possibility of a world without “numbers or values, where something is just an expression of itself” and perhaps where land is viewed as an expression of the “different narratives of many generations”, and how a points-based system of value is something we should work against.
Toby then brought the discussion back to their own experience and the “battle” with the points-based system of value as an immigrant, where they inhabit an in-between imaginary space defined by paperwork and have been viewed as ‘the untrustworthy other’ who cannot speak for themselves. They say that much of the work they are doing now is around migrating and transitioning genders, re-describing their birth and the value placed upon them by pieces of paper. That is why they chose the pseudonym “nnull” to describe an origin point where something is not measured or yet had a value placed upon it. “If you are undescribed or undefined there is some freedom associated to it”. Ascribing values onto people can create inequality and injustice, and Toby sees their “mission” to re-evaluate identities and values.
A lively discussion by the group followed (which Toby’s dog also joined in!), with comments on how documents, maps and official processes can have geographical power or force, which came across in the film shown at the beginning of the session. The group explored how paperwork can box a person in to become a physical barrier that affects your identity. In Toby’s case, paperwork such as a birth certificate (which they described as ‘empty’), created a legal identity and existence that they knew was contradictory– assigning values onto people even as babies can be problematic. Nationality and gender are placed upon you at birth.
Migration and transition were discussed as journeys and passages of existence. For example, as members of states, everyone could be seen as property whether they like it or not. This brought up many questions about human rights and what defines them, and how different narratives about a person can be woven into a value being placed upon them. The discussion ended on thoughts from several people in the group and Toby about the dichotomy of ‘human’ and ‘monster’ and what it is to be human and have real rights.
At this week’s Landscape Surgery we were lucky enough to hear from Professor Jane Rendell, about her work, practice and current projects. We were also given the exciting opportunity to participate virtually in interactive site-writing activities. Jane Rendell is a Professor in Critical Spatial Practice for The Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. Jane’s research is transdisciplinary and since 1994 has focused on exploring the relationship between architecture and other disciplines such as feminist theory, architectural history, art and architecture, autobiographical writing, psychoanalysis and criticism – through individual and collaborative international research projects.
Jane began by explaining the concepts of site-writing, as a critical and ethical spatial practice that draws attention to the situatedness of criticality, as a way of performing criticism. It brings together history and theory, as writers reflect on their own subject positions in relation to their particular objects, fields of study and how audiences may engage with their sites of research. Jane first coined the term ‘critical spatial practice’ in 2003, to describe works that bridge both art and architecture and cross disciplinary boundaries to critique embedded power relations in sites. Through writing ‘about’ various art and architectural practices Jane became aware that criticism is itself a form of critical spatial practice, and in response she developed ‘site-writing’ as a form of situated criticism. Since 2001, Jane has used ‘site-writing’ as a pedagogic tool for specific site-writing courses at the Bartlett.
Jane’s recent work is concerned with the practice of ethics and she is developing a mode of critical spatial practice to critically engage with institutional structures which position writing subjects, from places of home to those of work, for example, the university itself. She explores using site-writing to weave together textual materials concerning university strikes and uses it to critically reflect on issues relating to pensions, as well as issues relating to funding from fossil fuel companies to fund university projects on sustainability. In this case, site-writing is being used to practice an institutional critique concerned with ethics, equity, labour, work, care and precarity.
Jane shares with us she is also particularly interested in transitional spaces, as site-writing provides the opportunity to explore these spaces. For example, she has created a series of blossom paintings, created at the start of the pandemic and annotated with the level of Covid-19 deaths at the time. She explains she wishes to explore the idea of the holding space, with the home becoming a transitional space of the holding. It becomes both a space of comfort, security and reassurance and paradoxically a space of restriction and entrapment in the pandemic.
Jane further outlines to us a project she worked on, a 40 book series, called Lost Rocks. The project was commissioned, curated and edited by ‘A Published Event’. Jane’s contribution was SILVER a fictionella which explores publishing as a form of art and the relation of ethics and poetics through her own auto-biographical writing. SILVER was a narrative drawn from visits to multiple sites connected to the Barrier Ranges of South Australia, where large amounts of silver were discovered in the late nineteenth century. In 2017 SILVER was reworked to include a site in West Tasmania, which was a mining town founded on silver. This added new multi-vocal narratives as layers to the fictionella.
Jane then moves on to explain a different project, ‘Confessional Construction’, which consisted of photographic and written documentation of a text installation for the ‘BookArtBookShop’, London, 2002. Bridgid McLeer curated the installation and included 12 responses from different artists, displayed for a period of one month each. Jane’s installation is a physical construction of text, as a page on the wall. The text grappled with what it means to confess and how confessions are constructed, with three voices intermingled and a series of blockages disrupting the autobiographical confession. The footnotes read from bottom to top, to signify the building of a wall. Jane read out the text to us during the session, and the piece sounded beautifully disjointed with the ruptures in the language somehow making sense.
‘Alien Positions’ was the final project Jane shared with us; a text which was written to accompany an exhibition by artist Bik Van Der Pol called ‘Fly me to the Moon’ at the Rijksmuseum in 2006, where a fragment of moon rock was exhibited. The catalogue relates Jean Laplanche’s (1999) Essays on Otherness to the destabilising effects of envisioning the cosmos and the impact on the psyche, along with Freud’s theory of self-centring and the destabilised ego, for exploring the implications of the psyche going astray, and how this links to wandering stars. Jane links Laplanche’s explorations of the unconscious ‘alien inside me’ to the moon rock, to explore how theory can be brought into practice. She explained to us her theory of two alien positions using the moon rock example by asking a series of questions, such as: where did the fragment come and what is its history outside me? How does the fragment see me?
After having been introduced to this array of work, Jane then led us through an interactive writing exercise. As surgeons, we were encouraged to bring along a visual item relating to our site, such as a photo, drawing, audio recording, film, map or artefact, and we explored the possibilities of shifting our approach from ‘writing about’ to ‘writing as’ our sites. Encouraged to not overthink or over theorize. we were given 1 minute each for three exercises that involved 1) writing down your first initial responses to the item, 2) writing from a different angle or position and 3) finding a phrase or word we had repeated and change it, for instance in tense or positionality. For the final part of the session, Jane asked us to change our medium, whether that was a different writing style or the use of drawing, painting or other visual methods.
We would like to thank Jane for such an interesting and inspiring talk and site-writing session. It was really amazing to hear about all these exciting projects and even participate in our own site-writing. It was so great that Jane was able to get us into the creative zone, especially virtually in the pandemic, where sparking creativity is difficult. I think we have all come away with new ideas and possibilities for our own research and feeling a new surge of creative potential!
Written by: Rosie Knowles
Edited by: Will Barnes
Laplanche, J. 1999. Essays on Otherness. London: Routledge.
This week’s Landscape Surgery consisted of a fascinating presentation and discussion from the cultural geographer and documentary film maker Vickie Zhang. Vickie is a PhD student in the School of Geography, University of Melbourne, where she has just submitted her thesis. Vickie began the session with an insight into her research and practice, engaging with workers affected by coalmine closures in regional Australia and China. Vickie explores experiences of loss and embodied transitions after workplace closure.
For this session, Vickie focuses on her thesis ‘Sensing the intruder: the non-relationality of life after loss’, to outline what kind of relation is loss and how events of loss can inform us about the nature of relation. Vickie highlights the tensions and questions surrounding the potential nonrelation of a sudden absence, breaking relations and perhaps re-conceptualising thinking about loss as a relation to an enduring and lingering memory. The examples from Vickie’s doctoral research, in particular the story of coal miner Phil, enables these questions to come to the surface through tracking the abandonments and intrusions caused by job loss and the subsequent embodied experience and renewed sense of everyday life in the wake of loss. Vickie probes the limits of reality to ask: at what point does a relation meet its limit, falling into the limits of the non-relational? And, conversely, how might the impasse of a non-relation end, folding over to allow new relations to begin?
Here, the ‘intruder’, other or stranger, as a concept, is defined by the force of the impact on the self and the emotional and physical reaction it can cause – which can be likened to a physical illness. The intensity of an intolerable intrusion, such as a loss of a job or career through no fault of your own, can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Facing foreign, strange or intolerable forces can create different responses in different people – some repel, some adapt, some absorb. Meanwhile, facing new, unfamiliar territories within an unknown future alongside a loss of control can cause a sense of turbulence, disorientation and feeling out of place in your own body.
Discussions of relationality have long been central to human geography research, including actor network debates, sense of place literatures, and in connecting embodied everyday experience and non-representational theories into broader geographical thinking. Vickie draws upon the work of Paul Harrison (2007) to discuss the potential importance of acknowledging proximity of the nonrelational in defining the relational. Vickie outlines that exploring the nonrelational is important to situate the breaks, gaps, tears and ruptures which characterize loss and job loss. In particular, she is interested in how relation unfolds in feeling and emotion with the non-relational. Loss creates an absence which can in turn unfold an unknown future and present difficult transitions for people, this rupture of unpredictable unknown territory is arguably nonrelational. These losses may lie beyond the relations of the feeling self, leaving the body disconnected and unable to resonate.
Vickie relates what loss can encompass, including a loss of connection where proximity is not the same as connection, where there are multiple transistions of feeling, and the reaction to loss can be proportional to and based on past experiences. However, some had come to realise that life after loss is not a vacuum or an extension of the past. It is a reorientation.
Vickie gives us a useful insight into her research by showing videos of herself interviewing her participants as part of her ethnographic methodology. We are able to be visually transported to the moments of sharing these events of loss. Vickie uses the example of coal miner Phil to explore the tensions raised between stranger and self. The constant precarity of work and multiple job losses, causes a repeated form of abandonment of self and the continual decomposition of relations. Each new job creates new environments, skills, tasks and introduction of strangers. This search for work disrupts practices, rhythms and habits, and relies on the self to emerge again now in the company of new strangers, intruders and others. Vickie argues these cycles of precarious work owe themselves to some forms of relationality, but they are subsequently repeatedly ruptured and must be situated against these nonrelational tears and breaks. These nonrelational intrusions and losses vary in impact based on an individual’s tolerability and bodily capacities of rhythmic change. Vickie notes Phil and his wife were more resilient and used to these events, compared to others who were more vulnerable.
The session then moved on to an interesting discussion involving the Landscape Surgery group. The discussion involved exploring the use of film as an ethnographic method for representing narratives and embodied experience. Vickie explained the methodological benefits and complexities, resulting from in-depth ethnographic work and the differences in the relationships she was able to build with different people. The notion of the intruder also applies to the research methods, as positionality is key in being aware of your own intrusion as a researcher in often sensitive issues integral to people’s lives. The videos enabled Vickie to re-live the experiences and write through the encounters, enabling her to gain further insights into people’s emotions, behaviour, body language, gestures, facial expressions and conversations after the event. This enabled her also to be more in the encounter at the time. The discussion ended with a final debate on the relational and the nonrelational as a concept, with some arguing everything in the world is inherently related. This brings to light the need for perhaps more relational toolkits in geography to theorise shifting relations, and how they are held towards one another, or if there are indeed more relations than non-relations. The discussion extended to explore relations between intruders and the self, as either part of the self, engulfed and internalised emotionally, or experienced on the surface of the skin (drawing upon the work of Sarah Ahmed (2001)). These different configurations of other, stranger and intruder can potentially be experienced either on the surface or at greater depth at different registers on or in the body. These different scales of register are interesting to think about in how loss and intrusion is experienced. We would like to thank Vickie for such a beautifully eloquent and fascinating account of all these conceptual complexities and tensions, drawing upon such interesting case study examples and creative methodologies.
Written by: Rosie Knowles
Edited by: Christina Hourigan
Ahmed, S. 2001. Thinking Through the Skin. London: Routledge.
Harrison, P. 2007. ‘How shall I say it . . . ?’ Relating the nonrelational. Environment and Planning. A, 39, 590–608.
On the 9th February, Jack Morton and I presented in a session chaired by Oli Mould on the topic of the global pandemic and its consequences for the precarity and wellbeing of creative freelancers.
The stranglehold that the coronavirus has had on the world over the last year has choked the creative industries, and its freelance workers – who account for nearly half of the workforce – have felt the squeeze the most. Although playing a crucial role in ‘stitching together’ the sector, Jack explained how their project-based work is exceedingly precarious, characterised by a lack of economic security, low levels of unionised representation and exploitation. Nevertheless, these precarious conditions have not impeded the attraction of such work. Many freelancers see these ‘risks’ as liberation from corporate control and enjoy the flexibility and autonomy of their jobs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had severe implications across the world for many forms of labour, but as Jack pointed out, “the precarious nature of freelancing … has left these workers at the mercy of the coronavirus impacts much more than others”. With many unable to enrol for Government support due to moving in and out of contracts, taking on unpaid roles and working concurrently in other sectors, borrowing money has become rife. The Government may have announced a £1.57 billion support package for the creative industries in July 2020, but it only contained a passing reference to freelancers. Not only have 50% of freelancers lost at least 60% of their income, but 50% are also considering leaving the industry for more secure work in a bid to ensure they can pay their bills, support their families and survive.
As a result of this, Jack raised serious concerns about the possibility of a labour crisis in the creative industries in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the shock the economy is experiencing. Labelled as a ‘cultural catastrophe’, the Creative Industries Federation are reporting that over 400,000 creative jobs – that’s 19% – could be lost; 290,000 of which are self-employed jobs. Referring to his own research he explained that, while freelance labour has been cut by firms in a hope to survive the impacts of COVID-19, their labour will be needed again as soon as restrictions are lifted and there are concerns that the labour pool will not be big enough to meet the needs of these firms and ensure their survival in the industry too.
Millions of pounds in bursaries and grants may have been made available by NGO’s, but are disproportionately spread across the creative industries, with the majority concentrated in the TV and film industry. Even though unions have been providing information and advice to the Treasury, the Government is yet to address the reality that the support packages fail to acknowledge and encompass the heterogeneity of freelance work, and the detrimental impact this could have on a flagship sector of the UK economy.
“They have fallen through the gaps in government support, and it is a scandal that they have been ignored by the government so far.”
Philippa Childs, Head of Bectu (Broadcasting Entertainment Communications and Theatre Union)
Placing more emphasis on their personal experiences, I took the opportunity to focus in on what all this has meant for the wellbeing of these creative freelancers. Prior to the pandemic, it was clear that there were benefits to being self-employed. Usually attributed to the greater autonomy and freedom they experience and the type and diversity of work they get to do, it is believed that the self-employed have a higher level of job and life satisfaction than employees. However, the precarity often experienced by these independent workers has been connected to work-life conflict issues and mental health problems in the form of nervousness, anxiety, depression and psychological distress.
Creative workers are often romanticised figures and are portrayed as being mentally and physically fulfilled by their work, but the validity of these narratives has also been called into question. While studies have found that those in more traditional art sectors experience higher levels of subjective wellbeing than those in non-creative jobs, the opposite is the case for those in ‘new creative economy’ sectors such as marketing, film and TV, and IT. Creative work does often enable self-expression and fulfilment, but this is often used as a reason to pay workers less for long hours and precarious working conditions which, along with a pressure to reach high standards and a lack of appropriation recognition, is the reason why they are three times more likely to suffer from greater mental health problems than the average person.
Back in March 2020 when the first national lockdown was called, many creative freelancers found themselves working from home for the first time. Since then, a significant number of them are likely to have experienced mental health problems as a result of the blurring of boundaries between their work and home lives, and poorer relationships at home if faced with inadequate workspaces. Childcare and the homeworking set up has been found to stifle the productivity and the sense of purpose of creative freelancers, and for those that have attempted to remedy this by working evenings, additional psychological stresses have come to a head.
Isolation and loneliness of freelancers and homeworkers were already a concern before restrictions on our everyday lives were put in place. Now with many confined to their homes and starved of any social interaction at coffee shops, co-working spaces, meetings and non-work social activities, the picture looks even bleaker. Studies of creative workers specifically have discovered loneliness to be the most widespread source of stress, and the social contact with colleagues and other professionals greatly missed.
“I am by nature, a hugely social musician. I get my wellbeing from meeting a lot of musicians and working with them and seeing something develop from stage A to stage B and feeling perhaps some responsibility for that process. And sitting in your study, looking at your text, doesn’t do that in quite the same way.”
But the main message of Jack and I’s presentations was that the precariousness of these creative freelancers is the biggest issue. A loss of work and income has led directly to financial difficulties and a decline in living standards with psychosocial, stress and anxiety related repercussions in tow. But a loss of work has also resulted in a loss of structure and the mental stability it brings, and a loss of enjoyment and meaning compounded only further, for some, by a potentially necessary change of career. As they see their community decline, they feel unsupported, forgotten, and a sense of despair at the impact the state of the arts sector will have on the rest of society.
This week’s Landscape Surgery was organised by Dr Thomas Dekeyser (British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow), who invited Professor Chris Philo of the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow to present his paper, ‘Authoritarianism, astrology and Adorno’s anti-fascist geography’.
For this session, Chris focused on a project that he will start in December 2021, titled ‘The Anti-fascist Geographical Imagination’, tasked with imagining anti-fascist thought geographically, and conversely, of imagining geography anti-fascistically. Chris shared his directions for the project, at the heart of which is the work Theodor Adorno, a leading figure of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.
The discussion began by looking at QAnon shaman Jake Angeli (Jacob Anthony Chansley), made infamous in the storming of the US Capitol on the 6th of January by Trump supporters challenging the outcome of the 2021 Electoral College vote. After discussing Angeli’s blend of Native American spiritualism, occultism and a belief in QAnon conspiracy theories, Chris drew parallels with Paul Routledge’s 2011 paper, ‘Sensuous Solidarities: Emotion, Politics and Performance in the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army’.1 In this paper, Routledge discusses affective politics and embodied possibilities of resistance, suggesting that pantomime can be used as a mechanism to speak truth back to power, and Chris questioned whether there are parallels with Jake Angeli’s actions at the Capitol.
Chris then introduced the 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality, and presented to us the qualities Adorno and his team had found to pre-dispose Americans towards authoritarianism and fascism.2 The authors combined survey data from seven thousand people with a smaller number of clinical interviews and numerical analyses to produce a series of propositions comprising their “F Scale” (or “fascist” scale) personality test. Chris discussed the array of propositions developed for the test, including beliefs in supernatural power, mystical determinism, astrology, conspiracy theories, stereotyping and a predisposition to think in rigid categories. Notably, the “F Scale” allows for inconsistencies in personalities; for example, there are those who waiver toward authoritarian submission while others are characterized by authoritarian aggression. As Chris points out, there are important parallels between Adorno’s surveys and contemporary American politics.
The discussion then turned to Adorno’s essay, “The Stars Down to Earth”, which features a detailed analysis of the contents of an astrology column produced by the LA Times’ Carroll Righter in the 1950s.3 Chris discussed his preliminary findings from Adorno’s essay and data, noting that Righter’s column encouraged readers to adopt a “bi-phasic” or “two-sphere” approach to organising their time, space, activities and relationships. For instance, readers were encouraged to divide their time between workdays and evenings and space between work and home, an approach that Adorno suggests masks the irrationality of labour in a capitalist economy. Chris proposed that Adorno’s work points to people’s acceptance of astrology or “big” authority rather than engagement in the complexities and irrationalities created by the systems they live, in this case, in America’s emerging capitalist mass society. To encourage an anti-fascist geographical imagination, Chris proposes that we build from Adorno’s conclusions and resist the reduction of the complex to the simple that is inherent to the mechanisms of fascism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
The paper’s final part explored Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life.4 In this book, Adorno builds on broader Marxist critiques on how intellectual life and science are perverted and subverted under capitalism. Referring back to Jake Angeli’s beliefs, Chris noted that Adorno’s work highlights a tendency for people to displace the difficulties of life onto the stars – that are not analysed critically or scientifically – to get advice on moving forward. The end of Adorno’s essay touches on a discussion of the irrational displacement of the here and now into another realm of being as a very problematic move, which connects to his prolonged debate with Hegel and Heidegger about the nature of being. Adorno’s concern is that theories of being contain irrationalism and mysticism that continually turn these issues into another set of problems that ultimately have no purchase on what is real. From this, Chris suggested that we might use Adorno’s critique of astrology’s relationship with authoritarianism to develop our own critique of phenomenological and existential geographies.
Chris’s paper drew attention to the relevance of Adorno’s work in the wake of the US Capitol insurrection on the 6th of January and raises questions about whether these protestors and rioters’ authoritarian beliefs arise as much from their own predispositions as it does from individual leaders. We want to thank Chris for a thought-provoking exploration of the continuing relevance of Adorno’s work, the forces that are driving historical events in US politics, and how we might learn from them to configure an anti-fascist geographical imagination.
Written by: Katie Vann
Edited by: Will Barnes
1 Routledge, P. (2012) ‘Sensuous solidarities: emotion, politics and performance in the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army’, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 44(2), pp. 428–452
2 Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J. and Nevitt Sanford, R. (2019). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Verso Books
3 Adorno, T. W. (2001) “The Stars Down to Earth” and Other Essays. Abingdon: Routledge & CRC Press
4 Adorno, T. W. (2005). Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life (Radical Thinkers): Reflections on a Damaged Life. New York: Verso Books
Landscape Surgery News Items:
On the 27th of January, the Department’s Angela Chan and Emily Hopkins spoke at the event, The CCIs: pathways beyond economic growth – webinar 4, organised by Pathways Beyond Economic Group. Find out more.
On the 27th of January, Dr Oli Mould joined CCIMSS for a discussion on the ills of self-interest and the merits of a collective common creativity in a talk organised by SOAS.
After a well-deserved break over Christmas and New Year, the SCHG’s Surgeons were back on the 12th January to catch up, chat about research and working during the pandemic, and offer each other advice on a range of things. Out of this discussion, a number of useful resources were shared, so we thought we’d share them here too…
The Forest App is a playful yet helpful way if you need to focus away from your phone.
To keep up to date with all things critical and radical geography, there is the Crit Geog Forum mailing list.
‘@PandemicPGRs’ is an account organising and advocating for Post Graduate Researchers during the pandemic.
Pulling upon and resonating with a lot of the work that has been done in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, The PhD Life Raft podcast hosted by Dr Emma Brodzinski discusses issues and provides strategies and support for those doing their PhD.
For a break away from the computer screen, ‘Moving on Fiction’ is an audio event happening on both the 17th and 24th January, 12-2pm in Hilly Fields and Hampstead Heath in London, but it is also available to those outside of London too.
If there are any other suggestions for this list, please do comment below!
For the last session before the respite of the Christmas break, the Surgeons were fortunate to hear from two of the Geography Department’s PhD students, Ed Brookes and Tess Pinto, who presented their work on the aesthetic politics of London’s post-war built environment. Focusing specifically on the home and using several examples between them, they painted a potted history of different attitudes and approaches, from the 60’s to the present day, that have shaped domestic architecture in the capital.
Tess began by discussing three different local authority responses to the perceived failures of modernist mass housing estates, which attempted to revive, redeploy and in some cases reimagine ‘the street’ within the new architectural urban schemes of the 70’s. Having been replaced by the largely ‘private’ aerial walkways of the city’s quarter of a million high rise flats, there were serious concerns about the loss of community life and spontaneous neighbourhood activity.
First stop, the three-story terraces of Camden; where the Council’s Architect’s Department had sought to reproduce the immediacy of contact with others in the neighbourhood and a connection to the existing fabric of the city through public and semi-private spaces and direct openings onto the public thoroughfare. As Tess explained, Alexandra Road Housing Estate was where this vision was best realised by the Labour Council and their architect, Neave Brown. However, an enquiry into the building design process by Camden’s new Chief of Housing in 1978 – Ken Livingstone – to find out why the project overran on both time and budget led the estate to be known as a wildly expensive disaster and become the focal point of a right wing attack on social housing.
Second stop, the dilapidated council houses of Central London; where under Horace Cutler’s homesteading scheme first time buyers could acquire a 100% mortgage to modernise and renovate these neglected properties. By returning to the low-density brick street, preserving the existing fabric of the city and providing the opportunity for ownership, this Conservative Greater London Council administration sought to maintain London as a federation of individual towns and smaller communities.
The third and final stop of Tess’ tour was Walters Way in Lewisham. Moving away from the terraced model, Walter Segal’s ‘self-build’ system was championed by the socialist councillor Nicholas Taylor and managed to create a ‘village feel’ in the South London Borough, with the serendipitous houses interspersed with trees and imbued with a peaceful atmosphere. Similar to homesteading, the owners had a role in the creation of their own homes, and the flexibility of the stilted timber constructions has allowed for continued adaptation and the accommodation of individual taste. The original residents who are still there today recall the camaraderie of the construction projects which laid the foundations for a tight knit community.
Although being the work of architects decades ago, Tess emphasised that all these attitudes and approaches to housing are not relics of the 70’s but continue to shape contemporary ideas and the designs of prominent architects engaged in social housing today, such as Peter Barber and his work on Ilchester Road in Barking.
The tour guide flag was then handed over to Ed who took us to the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, where only the East block temporarily remains as its redevelopment into the luxury flats of the Blackwall Reach estate has begun. Looking instead at the destruction of architecture, he navigated us through the aesthetic strategies that have been deployed to tarnish the old brutalist estate as ‘anti-beauty’ and a complete failure that can only be rectified by its demolition. Although there has been a counter-narrative that has sought to establish the estate as a modernist masterpiece that deserves preservation, it was denied national protection by English Heritage on the grounds of a lack of architectural significance. Three types of aesthetic strategies, Ed explained, played an important part in this decision.
To begin with, Ed took us through the aesthetics of brutalism. With its origin as an opposition to traditional ideas of the beautiful and a critique of the frivolous and bourgeois architectural movements of the time, this architectural style was vulnerable to being painted as ‘ugly’. Made only worse by the Council’s neglect of the estate which was in dire need of maintenance and investment, the ‘politics of ugliness’ was used to divert attention away from the social and economic needs of those that rely on the estate and justify the reuse of the land for more profitable ends.
Next, it was the aesthetics of disparagement, and the potent post-war cliché of modernist buildings as ‘concrete monstrosities’. Associated with anti-social behaviour and substandard living, this strategy has been used to suggest a failure on behalf of the architect to provide for the residents of the places they designed. Ed demonstrated this with a range of quotes, such as one from the Daily Mail in 2008 that read: “To those unlucky enough to live there, it is a grim, concrete monstrosity blighted by urine-soaked stairwells and marauding gangs of youths who lob rubbish – and worse – from its brutally modernist aerial walkways.”
Finally, Ed showed us the impact of the aesthetics of marketing used by the developers of Blackwall Reach. In order to sell the new estate to investors and buyers, their speculative images of how it will look and be used are highly idealised, sanitised and sterilised, and devoid of many familiar social activities. Most significantly though, Ed pointed out how, despite the ethnic diversity and prominent Bangladeshi population of the local area, it is only an affluent white community portrayed in these images, revealing their desired clientele.
Together, Tess and Ed gave us a glimpse into the complex aesthetic landscape of architectural change and development and the political forces behind its variation and fluctuation. We’d all like to thank Tess and Ed for an engaging and enlightening session that draws to a close a term at the end of a strange and challenging year.
Our Landscape Surgery session on 24th November was organised by Royal Holloway’s PhD student William Jamieson with invited guest, Professor Uma Kothari (University of Manchester). The session was called ‘Shifting Sandscapes’ and consisted of Uma sharing her recently published work on Shifting sands: The rhythms and temporalities of island sandscapes, followed by Will’s reading from his body of creative and scholarly writing on sand and land reclamation in Singapore. Both areas of research explore storytelling and creative methods, in their ability to narrate the precarious shifting of sands in differing landscapes, enacted by multiple human and non-human processes which contribute to the looming global sand crisis. For example, the UNDP state that sand is the most extracted material on earth, after water. The session culminated with a dynamic open discussion with the wider Landscape Surgery audience.
The session began with Uma’s fascinating account of her research into the shifting sandscapes within and surrounding a Maldivian island. Uma opened the discussion by asking ‘What is it about the idea that within its minuteness a grain of sand encapsulates greater things, that is a metaphor for a grander scale, that has a story to tell? (Welland, 2009: 2). The quote mapped out the direction of discussion, traversing the many temporalities and rhythms of the movement of sand around a small island in the Maldives and the human and non-human entanglements which affect this flow. Sand has remarkable characteristics. As well as existing in suspension both in the air and in water, it also forms the two fundamental materials of glass or cement, giving it unique significance to people. Its multifarious uses have led to increased competition and conflict over it, it has become a new tradable resource subjected to uncontrolled extraction and military ‘sand wars’ and its desirable aesthetic and sensory qualities are mobilised for tourism purposes. Sand is crucial to a sense of islandness, which Uma stresses is not bound to the borders of an island, often conceptualised as disconnected landscapes bound by water. Islands are in fact part of a broader picture of assemblages, their borders are permeable, undergoing a dynamic process and flux, connecting distant people and places.
Uma’s focus on the Maldivian island gives a rich insight into the temporalities and rhythms of everyday shifting sandscapes. The ceaseless movement of grains interconnects temporalities of place and can be influenced by people, weather and non-human agencies. Sand in these tropical ocean regions traverse 30 million years to come into being, bringing this sense of ‘deep time’ into present moments of short term morphological changes, such as beach erosion caused by human building, monsoons, climate change and rising sea levels. Sand is constantly moved and manipulated by the tourism industry and resorts, creating idealised environments for visitors. This intense management is hidden from tourists, involving beach sweeping and sand pumping. The tourist island imaginary encapsulates the myth of the unchanging culture of place. Uma’s research focuses on North Male Atoll, a 1km long island with a population of 1200 people. Interviews with residents were conducted in the form of a ‘sandscape walk’ around the periphery and interior of the island, to encounter place and the rhythms and movement of sand. The resulting narrative is composed of multiple stories and embodied experiences taken from these walking interviews, encouraging interviewees to take part in reflexive attunement with their environment.
The walking encounters opened discussions about island erosion and the fears of the ocean encroaching on residents homes, due to many combinations of human interventions and environmental climate change. The struggles between the human and non-human emerge, as people attempt to mitigate non-human processes by attempting to slow the sands progress along the coastline. The temporal speed and pace varies greatly across the island. The sandscape walks illuminated the emotional meanings attached to the movement of sand and the affective qualities of sand in creating a sense of place and how these are enacted daily. Sand is both cultural and material, differing in the range of emotional and sensory reactions, across temporalities. The performativity of sand means an island is constantly being made and unmade due to human and non-human processes, and is crucial in our understandings of islands in this era of environmental change. This situated narration of sand allows for an insight into its multifarious human and non-human relations.
Following Uma’s discussion, Will opened up an alternative narrative account of a differing sandscape, creatively illuminating the political and economic implications of shifting sandscapes in Singapore, as part of his wider PhD project entitled ‘Granular Geographies of Endless Growth: Singapore and the Spatial-Cognitive Fix’. Since Singapore’s independence, in the last five decades, it has continually been expanding geographically through land reclamation and importing sand to construct territory. The sand extraction has occurred informally, by networks of contractors and subcontractors, producing tensions in other areas of South East Asia. Sand commodity chains in Singapore are complex, and by taking a closer look at these networks it gives an insight into the multifarious political, environmental, economic and spatial implications of shifting sands in the region. Sand is the focus of many political tensions and conflicts at the scale of the nation state. Will presents interesting critical creative geo fiction insights at this nation state scale by sharing with us short stories, including the keynote address by Professor Soon, Emeritus of Construction and Engineering, to the Singapore Sand Committee at the first public ASEAN Conference of Transboundary Aggregate Regulation. Will notes, the talk was intended to centre on how to achieve proper regulation within the dredging industry, instead he begins to go off course, almost as if he himself is no longer speaking:
‘You see, it isn’t that there are transboundary issues regarding the construction aggregate market throughout Southeast Asia, problems of its extraction and regulation. It is that the sand itself is speaking to us through these transboundary issues, and it has selected Singapore as its representative, medium, shall we say. As we will see, Singapore is not haunted by sand in some metaphorical sense, but literally possessed by it. In the Sejarah Melayu, it is not the misidentified Singha, the mistaken lion of our nation’s mythical history, that Sri Tri Buana notices first, but the sand of the coast that is white like a piece of cloth, and thus decides to found Singapura within what was then known as Temasek, literally Sea Town in Javanese. Even from that mythical point in our prehistory, the sand was luring men to come here to found cities, against their better judgement, against the judgement of history. Even then the sand of the coast was a blank slate for the inscription of geohistory. Such is the treachery of geohistory, such is the vast conspiracy of sand that we all find ourselves planted firmly on. Sand is more and less than a geomorphological text. It is mediated by the flows of rivers and the pounding of coasts, wrenched from the face of a mountain range by glaciation: but in order to become a text it needs hundreds and even thousands of years of these phenomenon before we can even recognise it in its perplexing abundance. That is Geomorphology 101. Southeast Asia’s difficulties regarding transboundary construction aggregate management can be said to more or less start with this outsized city-state, whose own problems regarding this very issue we can more or less pinpoint to a precise year if not a precise month in time: 2007. That is the year that Indonesia stopped exporting sand to Singapore.’
Will’s rich account of geo fiction narrative, gives a full picture of the overall affective experience of the address. The sites for Will’s project are in fact impossible to visit, as the construction sites do not permit visitors, therefore these geo fiction creative methods are crucial insights into the conceptualisation of sand in Singapore. Will’s exploration of critical creative methods, provide us with an in-depth insight into the multifarious politics, tensions and power agencies surrounding the shifting sandscapes of Singapore, shaping place and space. Will and Uma’s fascinating sandscape accounts, led to an open discussion on the multifarious implications of the cultural, economic and political manifestations of sand in increasingly precarious and changing environments. We discussed the contrasting creative methods of storytelling, narratives and walking. Acknowledging Uma’s walking methods, as a physical engagement with sand, differed to Will’s geo fiction accounts, which allowed for an imaginative insight into sandscapes impossible to physically encounter. Uma’s use of the mundane, habitual process of walking enabled islanders to be attuned to the distinct qualities of the landscape. It enabled connections and relationships to be formed between the rhythm and pace of islanders, sand and landscape. The open discussion then moved to consider where these differing sand discussions sit in relation to emerging geographies of ‘wet ontologies’, bridging the ontological gap between the land and the sea. Although, we discussed the potential for ‘more-than-wet’ ontologies to include these ‘inbetween’ sandscapes, or thinking beyond terracentric ontologies, to include perspectives from the sea.
Both Uma and Will’s projects, drew on the themes of sand and time, commenting that the forensic scrutiny of sand can reveal the memories it holds, connecting distant people and places. We discussed how sand remembers recent history, holding the rhythms of the sea. This is linked to the innate connection people feel to sand through their own memories and identity, connecting them to place, for example, Maldivian residents always remembering specific shapes and forms of islands. These circulations of memories and affective experience in sandscapes, shape place as a dynamic process of becoming, sand is a meeting point of conversations, both human and non-human. These sandscapes are not only governed by national politics, and economic motives, but non-human processes and emotional affective experiences, everyday interactions at the local scale, and notions of identity, shaping place and space. These differ greatly across nation state scales and at the scale of the body, as depicted by these diverse Maldivian and Singaporean examples. The ever-changing dynamic interaction of these processes, makes up this unique flow of landscape and meaning, shaping and altering our relationships with sandscapes and the materiality of them in the context of environmental change. These accounts perhaps highlight the need for questioning our relations with sand globally, raising important environmental concerns.
Welland, M.2009. Sand: A Journey Through Science and the Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
On the 5th May 2020 Landscape Surgery held its first virtual session, in response to the Covid19 pandemic and subsequent closure of all but essential services in the UK— and elsewhere across the globe. Sasha Englemann valiantly led the way to the Surgery’s first foray into the digital— hosting us from a various locations via Zoom. I joined from my living room (a name which has growing pertinence) in Plymouth.
“For Brazil is a country of cultural contrasts and of a strong spatial dynamism.”
Roberto Lobato Corrêa & Zeny Rosendahl (2004)
The session introduced us to two visiting scholars: André Reyes Novaes and Mariana Lamego. Based in Brazil at Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, André and Mariana were visiting the UK and spoke to us from their temporary base in Angel, London.
The title of their presentation was “Historical and Cultural Geography in Brazil: Institutions, Practices and Subjects,” and was an overview of doctoral research in Geography in Brazil. André and Mariana discuss the importance of Maurice Abreu to Brazilian geography —noting that he is the only South American geographer who’s obituary has been published in JHG (Journal of Historical Geography). However, they stress that this does not represent the consolidation of historical geography as a sub-field of geography in the country, and its recognition as a field of geography at all is a relatively recent one. They argue that part of the reason for this is how little international work is translated and published in Portuguese to make it accessible to scholars in Brazil.
In the 1990s there was a new turn toward cultural geography, which was indeed aided in no small part by translation. Since it first began publishing in 1995, the journal Espaço e Cultara, has focused on disseminating research on the spatial dimensions of culture, and contributing to the expanded field of cultural and human geography— in the Portuguese language. Likewise a series of books called Geografia Cultural aimed to contribute to a solid theoretical base from which Brazilian cultural geography can thrive from. These translations included the work of Landscape Surgery’s own Denis Cosgrove.
The feeling is that there is more to be done. In an article shared ahead of the session Roberto Lobato Correa and Zeny Rosendahl state:
Brazilian cultural heterogeneity has spawned, on the one hand, a rich literature of an urban and regional nature, and, on the other, a rich geographical output. The dialogue between both, as suggested by Brosseau (1996) is only just beginning in Brazil.
Roberto Lobato Corrêa & Zeny Rosendahl (2004)
André and Mariana share an excellent film of their students discussing their research which we have the pleasure of sharing here. The students discuss the challenges of undertaking doctoral research in Brazil, including precarious funding conditions and marginalisation of social research more generally.
Overall, the session gave us a great insight into realm of human geography in Brazil. It reminds us too that academia is not a level playing field, exemplified here by the domination of the English language in social research, and on another level by place-based structural challenges in Brazil.
Special thanks to Sasha Englemann for organising and hosting LS’s very first virtual session, to André and Mariana for joining us, sharing their work and that of their students— and to all who made it on the 5th May 2020.
Roberto Lobato Corrêa & Zeny Rosendahl (2004) Brazilian studies in cultural geography*, Social & Cultural Geography, 5:4, 651-662, DOI: 10.1080/1464936042000317758