"Learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying together on a damaged earth will prove more conducive to the kind of thinking that would provide the means to building more liveable futures ... Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing point between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings."
Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016)
I'm currently on sabbatical and, after spending January marking work from the previous semester, I can turn back to research. I'm back working on archival documents this month and thinking through the stories told there and those that are not.
Sadiya Hartman's "Venus in Two Acts" (2008) is an excellent provocation to begin considering this double bind of the archive. Writing about the afterlives of slavery in the Atlantic world, Hartman describes the archive of slavery as:
"...a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhoea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history" (p. 2).
Hartman goes on to ask:
"[H]ow does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?" (p. 3).
The archives of early international health campaigns that I am reviewing are quite different from the archive of the slave ship and the plantation. But they too contain lacunae, found in the often-faceless documentation of technical projects, outreach activities, and calls for improvement. Hartman outlines the practice of "critical fabulation" to try and prise apart this tension that exists between experience and evidence. Here is Hartman again:
"By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done" (p. 11).
This involves an attentiveness to conjuring stories not told by the archive that "could have detailed the small memories banished from the ledger" (p. 8). Working through an archive requires stories to be told where the paperwork says nothing, where conjuring the spectral traces of lives lived is all that we have.
Yesterday, I stumbled across a reference to Simone de Beauvoir's funeral in April 1986. Film director Claude Lanzmann read the eulogy and opted to read a text from de Beauvoir's The Force of Circumstance (1963):
“I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing. They made no honey, those things, they can provide no one with any nourishment. At the most, if my books are still read, the reader will think: There wasn’t much she didn’t see! But that unique sum of things, the experience that I lived, with all its order and all its randomness – the Opera of Peking, the arena of Huelva, the candomblé in Bahia, the dunes of El-Oued, Wabansia Avenue, the dawns in Provence, Tiryns, Castro talking to five thousand Cubans, a sulphur sky over a sea of clouds, the purple holly, the white nights of Leningrad, the bells of the Liberation, an orange moon over Piraeus, a red sun rising over the desert, Torcello, Rome, all the things I’ve talked about, others I have left unspoken – there is no place where it will all live again.”
Joanna Biggs in a recent LRB piece describes this text as a celebration of a life lived without feeling the need to constantly worry about being an example to others, a "crashing together of moments." What do we live for and how does this manifest itself in our priorities?
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. Published by Penguin Classics, July 2017.
Perhaps of all the stories recounted by the war veterans, the following is the most startling. A Soviet partisan recounts the time that a German unit hunted their group. The radio operator had given birth and was carrying a poorly-fed and cranky baby while being on their verge of starvation herself. The baby starts to cry. A silent decision is made by the rest of the partisans. The mother takes note of the look of her comrades. “She lower[ed] the swaddled baby into the water and [held] it there for a long time . . . The baby [didn’t] cry any more.”
We see captured in this image the widely-held taboo that surrounds women in combat: that those who’d bring life into the world should not be tasked with taking life. Necessity in conflict has often undermined the luxury of such moral rectitude. During the Second World War, women served across the Soviet Union’s vast front. They washed clothes and drove trains, they dug tunnels and shot sniper rifles.
For all of their undoubted heroism, they became an embarrassment to the Soviet Union after victory was declared. A traumatised population turned on the women who reminded them of the scale and cost of conscription necessary to turn near annihilation into eventual conquest. The women became more and more reluctant to share their accounts in anything but the most official histories. But their stories have value precisely because they are so very different to those told by their male counterparts.
“We are all captive of ‘men’s’ notions and ‘men’s’ sense of war,” says Svetlana Alexievich in her haunting oral history of Soviet women at war. Alexievich emphasises the role of emotion in history: “Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas . . . whereas women are caught up with feelings.” Anger, anguish and exhilaration are frequent emotions communicated in these transcripts.
Alexievich won the Nobel prize for literature in 2015. The Unwomanly Face of War was her first book. Heavily censored by the Soviet authorities at the time of its original publication in 1985, one sees in these explosive oral histories the work - in Alexievich’s own labelling - of ‘a historian of the soul’.
Many of the women who shared their testimonies in later life were teenage caregivers, overwhelmed by the horrific aftermath of mechanised war, but others were doing the killing. Memories of sniper kills haunted one woman for the rest of her life: “Everything was black . . . Only the blood was red.” Some blamed their military service for unfortunate circumstances later in life, like a daughter born disabled.
The women were clearly courageous, not that we should be surprised, and exhibited strength and bravery similar to their male counterparts. Tiny women hauled wounded soldiers across the battlefield under fire or did heavy manual labour repairing vehicles or artillery. One patient saw a nurse’s femininity through the grime and gore of a military hospital, telling her “that my smile brought him back to life, from the other world, as they say . . . A woman’s smile.”
“We didn’t know how strong we were,” a young partisan reflected. There are stories of execution, torture and mutilation too. Female partisans were raped or subjected to the electric chair to brutalise and extract information. “They died in the basements of the Gestapo and their courage was known only to the walls,” a partisan told Alexievich in a particularly harrowing account of months lived in close proximity to the hangman’s noose.
Alexievich sets out her aims at the beginning of her account: “I would like to write a book about war that would make war sickening.” It is hard not to be sickened by the accounts, but there is also a sense of respect for those sharing these accounts. Perhaps it is writing these two sides of war on the same page that makes such an emotional history far more transformative than the celebratory accounts of manly success?
“There’s this looping back and forward that is very much part of human experience. There is psychic comfort in linearity; it makes us feel like we’ve harnessed the world, that we’ve got control over the world. Linearity makes it possible for one to get caught up in a sense of inevitable social, political progress. In the moment we are living in now, I think part of the trauma of living under the raw racism, misogyny, and xenophobia of the Trump era derives from feelings of stalled progress and doused expectations. From an overinvestment in a progress narrative—particularly with regards to racial politics, issues of gender equality and equity—without sufficient attention to the fact that there’s the falling backward as much as there are leaps forward, and understanding that that is an inevitable part of the social dynamic. The great mythos of American life is the idea that we’re always improving, always moving forward. And the great story of science and technology is that it is also always leaping forward to good ends. To my mind, this political moment should be one of humility, of paying attention to looping back, and of acknowledging that sometimes looping back means failure, means going back to the woodshed, means throwing out what we thought we knew and thinking again.”
- Alondra Nelson, in “An Interview with Alondra Nelson” at The Believer Magazine (January 2020). My highlight.
Now that the dust has settled after the start of the new semester, I'm happy to share that another output has been published. This reflects upon my recent research on polio eradication and begins to ask critical questions about how a world after polio is being conceptualised and brought into being. In short, the global health industry spends a lot of time guesstimating when polio will be eradicated but draws relatively little attention to what will happen to the assemblage of different polio actors, institutions and campaigns after the disease is eradicated. As I note, it is important to consider where current and future efforts to secure global health after polio are being prioritised.
The piece was something I was working on over my recent nine-month sabbatical, and was published in Health & Place in September. My experience with the journal was very positive and reviews were rapid and considered. The title and abstract are below; the full paper can be found here, with the usual time-limited free access.
After polio: imagining, planning and delivering a world beyond eradication.
As the world comes closer to the eradication of polio the question of preparing for life after this debilitating disease becomes increasingly pertinent. This paper focuses on on-going institutional attempts to conceptualise, plan, and deliver a world after polio. Drawing upon interviews with global health officials and ethnographic fieldwork with eradication initiatives in Nigeria and Pakistan, I explore how international donors are transitioning towards life after the disease and the curtailment of the substantial resources it has successfully mobilised. Focusing specifically on the wind-down of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, I critically examine key risks emerging from polio transition and highlight a series of spatial and political assumptions about the emergent post-polio contours of global health that have largely been obscured by attempts to render transition planning as little more than a technical exercise.
Les Back (2016) Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters (Goldsmiths Press)
I often flick onto academic Twitter at lunchtime to see the latest developments in higher education. In recent months, the stream of articles and hot takes seems to have grown increasingly dark: Job cuts, gaming TEF metrics, portability of REF outputs, grade inflation. It’s enough to make me log out of the twittersphere.
What a pleasure it was, then, to pick up this book from Goldsmith’s sociologist Les Back (@AcademicDiary). Back is, by common acclaim, a really nice guy; in fact, an excellent review of Academic Diary by Rosalind Gill is titled "What would Les Back do?" In this diary-like set of short essays – spanning the academic calendar from graduation to the summer examination boards – he deals with a variety of issues (Twitter, PhD supervision, colleagues) in a light, humorous and perceptive manner. Back’s heart for research, colleagues, the local community and his students is clear and I challenge anyone to not feel a little envy at his evident concern for those lucky enough to know him professionally or personally. There is, for instance, a wonderful letter that Back writes to a soon-to-be first-year undergraduate student giving some excellent advice on doing well at university (“listen but don’t be silent”). I also learnt much about the particular history and ethos of Goldsmiths, and I enjoyed the generous anecdotes about two of Back's intellectual heroes: Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart. And yet there is also challenge and critique here; increased student fees, the neoliberalisation of the university, and Prevent, are all confronted in separate entries. "Part of the point of academic metrics," Back writes in one particularly pithy section (173-4), "is to make us as employees feel like we are failing even when we are killing ourselves to succeed." A poisonous discourse is exposed.
I’d really recommend this book for anyone starting out in higher education or, for that matter, those falling out with the modern university too. It really is a breath of fresh air that has provided me with a lot to contemplate as I mull over the next steps in my academic career.
In other publishing news, I've had another research paper accepted and published in Area. This is a great little journal that publishes shorter pieces on research and conceptual interventions. This piece reflects on global mental health and I make the case that we need to broaden our perspectives of mental health to a series of spaces (largely in the Global South) that exist outside the mainstream perspectives of geographical theory to-date. The empirical work is drawn from some work conducted in 2014 with health practitioners from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I have subsequently been developing some further research on the geographies of global mental health with a PhD student and colleagues from the QMUL Wolfson Institute. The title and abstract are copied below and Wiley have very kindly made the piece open access (find the full paper here).
Making space for restoration: epistemological pluralism within mental health interventions in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Global health policymakers have recently begun to focus their attention on high levels of untreated mental illness in low- and middle-income countries. They have, in turn, initiated a series of interventions intended to reduce the global ‘treatment gap’ that has emerged between those requiring treatment and those able to access it. Yet critics have challenged the questionable epistemological assumptions embedded in these interventions and have decried the lack of attention given to the translation and implementation of such projects in resource-limited contexts. In this paper, I focus on ongoing attempts to diminish the mental health treatment gap in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo to illuminate how dominant thinking about ameliorating the global treatment gap remains rooted in a reductive biomedical paradigm. Drawing on interviews conducted with 16 psychiatrists in the city, I show how a series of epistemological assumptions about treatment have affected the success of treatment delivery in two donor-funded interventions. I then contrast the dominant biomedical approach with the perspectives of three younger voices in the city's psychiatric community. I reveal how an alternative epistemological framework, similar to that of the phenomenological tradition, informs their own successful treatment expansion efforts. This alternative perspective, I propose, challenges practitioners and geographers alike to cultivate new ways of approaching global mental health that acknowledge the value of patient experiences and make possible more responsive forms of treatment and care.
This morning I woke to the good news that I had a paper accepted for publication in Journal of Geography in Higher Education. It's a departure from the traditional journals that I target for my research, but this paper is something different: the manuscript is actually two PGCAP essays mashed together. For the uninitiated, PGCAP is a compulsory teaching qualification in higher education involving quite a few essay submissions. I finished the course last year and designed my assignments with publication in mind. The assignments looked at how module convenors can practically facilitate interdisciplinary learning in the classroom, and the paper mixes some conceptual work on communication with some reflections on how successful certain changes to module design were. The title and abstract are copied below and I'll add a link to the CV section when the publisher version is online.
To understand and be understood: facilitating interdisciplinary learning through the promotion of communicative competence
Whilst interdisciplinarity has become a central concern of research and learning in geography, few from the discipline have considered the practical facilitation of interdisciplinarity in the classroom. Module convenors, I argue, must pay greater attention to how learners engage and negotiate with peers and perspectives from other disciplines. In this paper, I focus on my own efforts in designing and teaching a second year undergraduate course on health, biomedicine, and society, to illuminate the opportunities and challenges facing teaching staff who seek to provide opportunities for interdisciplinary learning in the classroom. Drawing upon theories of communication, I demonstrate the significance of developing “communicative competence” as a pathway to successful interdisciplinary learning. Unless learners from one discipline can understand, and be understood by, peers from other disciplines, the accomplishment of interdisciplinary learning is undermined. Interdisciplinary modules should include learning outcomes that facilitate student development in this area. Approaching interdisciplinary learning through the lens of communicative competence casts critical attention upon the central abilities and cultural sensitivities that are the hallmarks of interdisciplinary collaboration – from negotiating meaning to critical disciplinary awareness – and highlights the lessons that interdisciplinarity poses for disciplines, such as geography, tasked with preparing students for interdisciplinary learning.
The publication of the Chilcot report earlier this week brought back lots of memories of the early 2000s. While there may have been none of the now daily political catastrophes that seem to be unfolding on my computer screen, these were dark days of political hubris, covert negotiations and war. This passage from the late literary critic Edward Said, in his LRB essay "The Academy of Lagado," cuts to the heart of the thinking of many at the time:
Like the pointless experiments conducted at Jonathan Swift's Academy, UK and US political and military planners saw Iraq as an lab-like space on which to foist the unchecked visions of a fundamentalist President, a teflon Prime Minister and a woefully misinformed public.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 160,000 Iraqi civilians have died.