MAKING KIN WITH EARTHLINGS: An evening with the children of compost and Donna Haraway

On March 31st, I was fortunate to attend one of three events that Donna Haraway held at the BOZAR in Brussels. The themes of the events covered varied ground but were held together by Haraway’s work and interest in exploring the potential of living-with others. The first two events focussed on film. The first was a series of videos that were the result of the joyful interactions between documentary filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova and Donna Haraway. It included “animation shorts of militant cows, anti-globalization preaches, GoPro cameras strapped to aquatic animals, anti-Trump folk songs… as rituals of resistance and dance against the horror and stagnation”. The second was the presentation of film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival by Donna Haraway and Fabrizio Terranova. The film foregrounds Haraway’s unique intellect and warmth of character that has explored planetary life for over 40 years. The final event was Donna Haraway reading from her new book Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. The event was based around Haraway presenting her science-fiction short story The Camille Story, Children of Compost, an inter-species fable for making a liveable world for all. It is this final event that I attended and found extremely engaging, interesting, and informative for thinking through the potential of living differently with all sorts of beings on an equal footing.

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Image courtesy of BOZAR Brussels.

Haraway’s idea of living-with is a philosophical lineage that includes work by Jean-Luc Nancy and ideas about co-existence and being-with explored in Being Singular Plural and stretches towards Latourian Actor-Networks and Bergsonian-Spinozian explorations of affective potential. It also incorporates Feminist scholar’s attention to alternative political acts and interconnectivity of complex systems that Isabelle Stengers has explored via speculative philosophy. A further tradition that emanates from Haraway is American pragmatism. In de-centring the human as the main principle of action and foregrounding how to improve the future against what we’ve learnt in the past Haraway is continuing the work of William James and James Dewey. Keeping these ‘traditions’ in mind Haraway’s fable is as powerful as it is though provoking and opens up many avenues for urban scholars. I do not want to focus on the story but the sentiment. Haraway’s argument is that due to human influenced effects on the climate and how these are changing the planet “the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge”. The planet had afforded safe spaces to all sorts of species to hide and find refuge from natural disasters but these are no longer available.

 

The answer in The Camille Story, Children of Compost is to make kin by humans taking on the characteristics of an endangered species and even grafting some of their attributes. In this way, making kin is something more that ancestry or genealogy to unite beings. The results could seem an aberration but after time it will have proven itself equitable. The idea of ‘kin-making’ therefore is the notion of making persons not tied to being as humans or individuals. In a time when the notion of refugee is used as a political and social lightening rod to demarcate which section of our species is welcome in which manmade and enforced division of the planet, the answer is to be-with others as Haraway advocates. To live-with others is to reformulate the idea of refuges and refugees. To generate flexible biological-cultural-political-technological healing, rehabilitation, and remaking, some of which Haraway argued must include mourning irreversible losses but not raising the dead. As Haraway sums up in a recent commentary in Environmental Humanities “renewed generative flourishing cannot grow from myths of immortality or failure to become-with the dead and the extinct”.

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Boston Neorealism: Beantown in Film

I had the pleasure of visiting Boston for the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting (April 4-8) and found myself enchanted with ‘Beantown’s’ cultural milieu and contradictions. The juxtaposition of high-cultured ‘Brahmin’ Boston with an underlying soul of a working-class fishing town presents a deeply layered, contradictory tapestry: Harvard intellectualism alongside rabid sports fans; Cape Verdean immigrants alongside MIT engineers; buttoned-up Beacon Hill a few miles from rowdy, Irish-Catholic South Boston. With a (European) history nearly 400 years old, perhaps no other major American city features such an entrenched sense of local identity and a particular way of doing things (ok, a fair argument could be made for New Orleans).

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Films are often how we come to understand a place, through stories and themes represented in a certain way. There are many American cities that are brought to life by films that, in some way, bring out their character, their quirks, their beauty, their darkness, their madness. New York has been the stage for countless love stories; dramas; comedies; disasters. San Francisco has been torn apart by Godzilla; ripped apart by earthquakes; and burned to the ground in a ‘Towering Inferno’. Los Angeles has been conjured into a dream and nightmare; Seattle has been ‘Sleepless’, and ‘Fargo’ has been the stage for a great, gothic story of murder and deception. New Orleans seems to lend itself to ‘Vampires’ and ghosts; Washington DC, unsurprisingly, to tales of political intrigue, corruption, and the art of the deal.

I realized that I know Boston more from the way it has been represented through film than I do as a visitor, having spent limited time on brief visits to friends and family over the years. The stories that emerge on the silver screen about Boston seem to coalesce around particularly dark, and indeed, real themes: Boston is rarely the stage for comedies, love stories or frivolous disaster flicks. When the aliens descend on ‘Independence Day’, the death-beam destruction of Boston was not included in the plot.

Rather, Boston as a setting and muse for films has given rise to its own micro-genre, which I am calling Boston Neorealism, in the tradition of ‘Cinema Veritas’, or the cinema of truth. Boston films do not ‘filter’ its often-gray skies; they play up, rather than down, its inherent grittiness; class tensions and social ruptures are brought to the surface, not buried; and human suffering and the oppressive nature of the everyday are brought into sharp focus. Boston films are where dirty laundry is aired, where skeletons in the closet are found.

I think of the great era of neorealist films, in the years and decades after World War Two: Italian Neorealism perhaps being the best example, with its no-holds barred focus on poverty, suffering and misfortune in films like ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and  ‘Rome, Open City’. Through these narratives, the story does not necessarily end with a happy twist; lives are not spared; bruises are not covered. In Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, humor and love are woven together through visceral scenes of life under fascism. Scenes of laughter-filled feasts stick with me, as does the scene of one of Mussolini’s agents pouring hot oil down the throat of a suspected enemy of the state.

On the airplane back to the West Coast from Boston I watched ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016), and the themes and motifs of Boston neorealism emerged that seem to punctuate so many of the films set in, or around Boston. Gray skies and the relentless cold of New England winter, for one. In a gothic twist, the ground is too frozen to bury the dead – and the character Patrick must wait until Spring to bury his father, who spends the winter in a refrigerator. As if William Faulkner himself emerged to write this part of the script.

hero_Manchester-by-the-Sea-2016Fishing boats. Fishing boats seem to always feature in Boston stories, and a boat is one of the main characters in ‘Manchester’. In ‘The Perfect Storm’, a boat disappears in a great Atlantic storm, killing all aboard.

Irish Catholicism: no Boston film is without it, in varying shades. (In ‘Manchester’, Irish Catholicism was not a major plot feature, but still permeated the story).  However, in ‘Mystic River’ and more recently, ‘Spotlight’ – the Catholic Church and its history of sexual abuse are portrayed as anchors of Boston’s fabric. Working-class Irish-Catholic culture also plays a central role in ‘The Departed’, Martin Scorsese’s exploration of mobster / gangster culture in South Boston. South-Boston Irish identity also forms an important core of the character development in ‘Good Will Hunting’, a story about a boy from ‘Southie’ with serious math skills. In one of the most poignant scenes from the film, class struggle is on display when Will (Matt Damon) accepts a challenge from a braggart Harvard student at a bar in Cambridge – and ends up the intellectual winner. ‘How bout them Apples?’ (says Will), remains one of the most memorable lines from the film, and a metaphor for a smack in the face to Boston’s intellectual snobbery. These themes (as well as a winter backdrop) also appear in ‘With Honors’, where a homeless man engages with, and bemuses, a group of competitive Harvard students.

apples_featurePuritanism, morality, and discipline. In contrast to Irish-Catholic culture, Boston’s puritan heritage and its associated set of strict morals have given rise to a sub-genre of films which look at both history and the present day. ‘The Witch’ (2016) was a terrifying peek into the torment of a Puritan settler family in the New England woods (not far from present-day Boston) and the tension between religion, morality, and the temptation of evil. Salem (now a suburb of Boston) is the setting for ‘The Crucible’, based on the Arthur Miller play about paranoia in politics which was as relevant during the McCarthy hearings (around when it was released) as it is now. Ok, and ‘Hocus Pocus’, the witch-themed Halloween comedy. The straightlaced world of the New England boarding school have set the stage in ‘A Separate Peace’; in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and others – often featuring tortured adolescent men grappling with big questions of expectations, morals, personal autonomy, discipline, punishment, and resistance.

I look forward to the next Boston story, no doubt featuring winter, fishing boats, the Irish, and the tension between intellectualism / snobbery and working-class pragmatism. Neorealism – and truth in film – are powerful reflections of turbulent times, and at a time such as this, all catharsis is welcome. *

Call for Papers: WOUNDED GALAXIES / 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach

WOUNDED GALAXIES / 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach

Festival + Symposium 

Feb 8-10, 2018

Indiana University

Call for Papers

The Sixties were a turbulent period, characterized by major revolutions in scholarship, politics, culture and the arts.  Indiana University, in conjunction with The Burroughs Century, plans an academic symposium welcoming scholars, archivists, filmmakers, and others interested in exploring the intellectual and aesthetic legacy of 1968, during its 50th anniversary year.  The conference will be held on the beautiful Bloomington, Indiana campus and will be hosted by Indiana University’s Media School; the Indiana University Libraries (including the Lilly Library and the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive); and Indiana University Cinema, which has earned an international reputation for the high quality of its facilities and programming.

Accompanying the symposium will be a series of films and an exhibition featuring rare and unique items from the IU Library collection. Renowned scholars such as Greil Marcus McKenzie Wark, and, possibly, Penelope Rosemont are expected to give talks, introduce films, and appear in Q&A sessions following screenings.

In addition, we are planning an art exhibit, as well as series of experimental music performances and spoken word presentations, in keeping with the larger theme of radical aesthetics.  We plan to publish the conference proceedings.

Interested participants are invited to submit paper proposals on any aspect of the international history and cultural legacy of 1968.  Papers need not be limited to any particular critical, theoretical, historical, or political subject or method. We hope to receive proposals that deal with previously unexplored issues, but we are also interested in proposals that offer fresh approaches to much-discussed work.  As the symposium title suggests, we are using the Situationists as a point of departure and particularly welcome presentations that consider the revolutionary potential of the Everyday—in both historical and contemporary situations.

But we are happy to consider any proposals that address the historical legacy of 1968, and welcome submissions that attempt to trace the legacy of 68 in contemporary art and culture.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

history and historiography of 1968; the post-1968 generation and terrorism; post ’68 science fiction; anthropology and the Situationists; architecture after ’68; counter/sub-cultures after ’68; literature and literary theory; The Annales school and radical shifts in historiography; Marshall McLuhan and the electronic revolution; The history and legacy of the Black Panther Party; Chicago 1968; The International Student Movement(s); Revolution and the University;Prague Spring – experimental & avant-garde art, film, literature & music made during this period of freedom; the avant-garde going underground during Normalization; lingering impacts of Prague Spring on experimental & avant-garde art/music/lit/etc.; Surrealisms outside France – the internationalization of surrealism that happened in the late-60s onward (U.S., African surrealisms, Poland’s “Orange Alternative”, etc.); Neo-Dada and Fluxus; French New Wave cinema and its response to the events of Mai; Third Cinema(s); East vs. West perspectives: pro-socialist avant-gardes in the West Europe versus anti-socialist avant-gardes in East Europe

Proposals should be limited to 300 words in length and consist of a brief description of the paper’s theme or focus, plus a one-page vita. Proposals may be submitted for individual papers or for sessions featuring two or three panelists. Proposals for panels should be submitted as a group by the organizer, along with a short explanation of the unifying theme. In addition, each panel proposal should consist of individual paper descriptions (limited to 300 words in length), names of panelists and their vitae.

Please email your proposals to Joan Hawkins jchawkin@indiana.edu, by July 1, 2017. The Symposium Program Committee will evaluate all submissions and notify all candidates of the results by Aug 1, 2017. We look forward to your proposals, and to celebrating/reevaluating the legacy of international political and aesthetic upheaval.