A Blog about Literature, Culture and the Environment

Review: Virtual Opening and Streaming Festival ‘Critical Zones’ (May 2020)


Image by USGS on Unsplash

Virtual Opening and Streaming Festival ‘Critical Zones’, 22 – 24 May 2020, ZKM Karlsruhe (Online)

The 22nd of May saw the launch of Critical Zones: Observatories for an Earthly Politics, a ‘thought exhibition’ at ZKM Karlsruhe. The exhibition – opening physically on the 24th of July, but currently available online – began with a streaming festival: three days of films, lectures, and panel discussions, mediated and moderated by Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel, Barbara Zoé Kiolbassa, Dominika Szope, and Annett Holzheid. The territory, literally and conceptually, was the Critical Zone – the “thin biofilm” of the earth’s near-surface, “from the tops of the trees to the bottom of the groundwater” – but the festival also raised relevant questions about critical practice, offering insights into academic and intellectual collaboration.

Most of the festival is still available to watch: particularly provoking, for me, were Jennifer Gabrys’s discussion of the politics and pragmatics of sensory technologies; Eyal Weizman’s thinking around breath, and his proposal of clouds as the limit condition of forensics; Dipesh Chakrabarty’s remarkable reflection on colonial and post-colonial world-making; and the conversation between Donna Haraway, Weibel and Latour that followed the screening of Haraway and Fabrizio Terranova’s Storytelling for Earthly Survival. Those who work around the intersection of ecology and theatre, as I do, would also have been interested by the tensions, similarities and distinctions between Latour’s 2018 Anthropocene Lecture at HKW, and his collaboration with Frédérique Aït-Touati on Moving Earths (recorded at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers in December 2019). The festival’s juxtaposition of the two – very similar in content, but clearly distinct in their performance practices and contexts – offers a sense of what Aït-Touati and Latour believe the theatre makes possible, or some of the things the medium can do.

During a panel discussion on Saturday the 23rd of May, Latour and Jérôme Gaillardet characterised the Critical Zone as a way of bringing together different disciplines within a common conceptual space, rather than as a unified concept in itself. The festival’s speakers’ approaches were, therefore, heterogeneous, but constellated around a number of preoccupations – most notably assembly, subjectivity, and entanglement. Latour’s desire to re-understand the political subject, for example, was picked up by Haraway in her proposals for intimacy, connectedness, and “response-ability”; Jennifer Gabrys, meanwhile, invoked Alfred North Whitehead, Lyn Margulis and Isabelle Stengers in arguing that the task now is less to sensitise the subject than it is to rethink it as “already entangled with so many other entities and entanglements”.[1] This position – familiar to those working in the field, although perhaps rather less so to those outside it – is at the heart of Latour’s concept of terrestrial subjectivity, as I understand it: an interspecies, multiscalar self-description that addresses the question of ‘where we are’ not in spatial terms, but in relation to the other entities that are making us subsist. It is this sense of terrestrial entanglement that Latour and Haraway argue must be practically enacted in new strategies and technologies of political assembly. To this end, Latour has urged Weibel to republish the catalogue of Making Things Public, a previous collaboration at ZKM.

It is a different approach to interdependence, however, that is perhaps the festival’s most relevant contribution to a blog that connects graduate students across the environmental humanities. As well as thematising entanglement, the weekend also bore witness to it as a practice: Dipesh Chakrabarty, in particular, offered valuable insight into the long-term mutualism of his intellectual engagement with Latour. As well as admiring Chakrabarty’s exemplary patience, curiosity, and thoughtfulness, I must confess that I found his description of this relationship acutely moving. It spoke to me of a critical practice characterised by sustained and simultaneous challenge and support: research not as a cantilever, but an arch.

Since I was quite young, I have studied and worked in the kind of context that gets described as ‘competitive’: St Paul’s School (a prominent private school in the UK), the University of Cambridge, the Royal College of Music, and a career as a freelance baritone. I have always nodded along with that description, and repeated it to others – and I have found myself doing so again in recent discussions around job cuts, hiring freezes, and precarious employment.

In the light of Chakrabarty’s comments, however, I can’t help feeling that this characterisation is inadequate, even ideological. It presents itself as a description of a situation – lots of people, all of them capable, not many jobs – but smuggles with it a prescription of how those people should frame, understand, and feel their response. Even without considering the unfairness of any such competition – particularly in and after a crisis that looks set to sharpen existent inequalities of race, class, and gender – the use of competitiveness as a descriptor naturalises a self-interested, zero-sum idea of academic work as a reaction to the scarcity and precarity of the jobs available. Within this model, co-operation and collaboration are framed as generous, instead of fundamental: an attitude completely at odds with what Chakrabarty is describing, as well as the actual practice of most academics – and the best academics – that I know.

This is fraught and difficult territory, especially for someone writing from a position of considerable privilege. It is one thing to point out the etymological polyvalence of ‘competition’ – competere, “striving after (something) in company or together” – and the subsequently pluralised sense of what it might mean to compete with someone; it is quite another to begin to address the precarity and inaccessibility of academic employment, and the complex politics implicit in credit and collaboration. But in a profession so committed to radical redescription and lexical precision, and in a field that tends towards a robust suspicion of individualism, there has to be a better way to name our experience; a better word to describe the worlds in which we are proposing to work, that might more thoughtfully represent a process of productive solidarity within structures that are beyond our control.

With this in mind, it is worth noting in closing that the festival’s speakers were accompanied, questioned, and challenged by a lively and engaging discussion group on Telegram. This group continues as an ongoing space for dialogue, running alongside ZKM’s programme of events (including their excellent Terrestrial University lecture series). It would be wishfully naïve to propose this discussion, and the exhibition more broadly, as a model for academic practice: they are obviously subject to different imperatives and exposed to different pressures. Critical Zones: Observatories for an Earthly Politics remains, however, not just a valuable resource and a fascinating body of work, but also a provocation to reflect on the nature and framing of contemporary professional research.

[1] Haraway and Latour, of course, are discussing questions raised throughout their work – notably in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), and Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2016).

Author: Milo Harries is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, writing on theatre and participation in the context of the climate crisis. Current research interests include: community theatre with/after Covid-19; local theatres, terrestriality and the Critical Zone; theatre ethics and aesthetics; theatre as denial; theatre for change; games and play. Milo is also an opera singer, holding an MPerf from the Royal College of Music, and most recently appearing in the role of Domenico in Silent City, part of Matera 2019.

Tagged , , , , ,