Finding the Past in Holes

New blog post for the Holes project by my Research Assistant Andrei Belibou. This one looks at archaeology and the time underneath our feet.

Source: Finding the Past in Holes


Particle ‘atmopolitics’

Just read a great article in the New Scientist on the geopolitics of air pollution. The article shows how microscopic small of airborne particles can cause a major and highly complex international health crisis.

 “22 per cent of air-pollution-related premature deaths in 2007 were associated with goods and services produced in one country and consumed in another… Emissions from east Asia can make their way across the Pacific Ocean on atmospheric currents… That’s the penalty of living in a world that shares air”

I have recently written a piece in Borderlands on China’s “War on the Air” (available as PDF from their website) in which I attempt to argue that the air is an actively political medium.

The paper argues that the [Chinese] state’s historical dependency on economic growth is propelling attempts to keep the air ‘breathable’ and the weather ‘controllable’ so as to maintain social stability. The air has subsequently started to function as a calculable extension of state interests. Climate change and particle pollution are not presented, framed or perceived as a problem of existing politics but rather as a challenge to it. This paper will especially look at the state’s infamous weather modification programme and the way it governs air pollution. I finish the paper by arguing for the possibility of thinking about a different politics of the air as a means to challenge ideas that accept the air as a passive medium of state interest.

Potholes in Art

A great first blog post by one of my students, Andrei Belibou, on our holes project. The objective of these posts is to cover a specific hole in every post (bullet holes, black holes, etc.). This post surveys, as Aya points out, “several art projects that encounter potholes and react creatively to the minor urban disruptions they enact in an urban ambition of smoothness and seamlessness.”

Losing Ground

Made by constant use and wear of roads. They break the flow of the road. They disrupt its transitional character create a local perturbation. Whereas most of us see ugly, hazardous hollows in the smoothness of the asphalt, some have seen potholes as possibilities. Davide Luciano, for instance, an NYC photographer, has created a series of photographs in which he plays with water and other substances, filling the potholes and creating familiar scenarios in the unfamiliar setting of the road. Jim Bachor fills the potholes, a contemporary problem, with the ancient, creating mosaics of food items, flowers, or messages in the streets of Chicago and in other parts of the world. Steve Wheen uses potholes in footpaths to interrupt the ‘greyness of London’ through creating little gardens within them, in what he calls acts of ‘guerrilla gardening’.

Steve Wheen A miniature recreation of an entry for the Chelsea Fringe gardening festival…

View original post 294 more words


I am working together with my friend and colleague Aya Nassar on a new project on ‘holes’. We have a blog, which you can visit here, and we are organising an academic workshop and an art exhibition with two very talented artists from the New School (NYC): Jenny Perlin and Heide Fasnacht. For the workshop, we are still looking for submissions (video, performance, photographs, papers etc.). I am pasting the call below, please feel free to disseminate to interested friends (and/ or enemies):

University of Warwick, Coventry (United Kingdom)

Friday, 19 May 2017

“ To dig, to drill , to burrow, to punch, to enlarge, to fill up, to fall in, to jump over, to look through, to hide in- all of these, and indeed many others, are things we do with, around, inside, and through holes.”

“A hole is there where something isn’t.”

 Casati and Varzi, Of Holes and Other Superficialities

What happens when ground gives way?

Sinkholes are constantly appearing. At least; there has been an increase in media attention over their globally growing number. Sinkholes describe geologically formed depressions or holes in the ground caused by either suffusion or karst processes leading to a collapse of the surface. They can appear naturally, but increasingly seem to be man-made as a result of more diversified subterranean uses. Their increasing number destabilizes urban, political and social infrastructure; it also raises profound metaphysical questions. In this workshop we attempt to look at sinkholes, as a lens through which we can ponder on situations of a vanishing of the ground beneath our feet. Holes can be seen as the absence of geographic materialities, loss, gaps, and collapse of meaning. Holes can also be interpreted as potential sites of openings, creativity, and reconstruction of new or recovered meaning.

We invite contributions that engage with the question of holes; a question, we believe, that can only be thought of through a multidisciplinary lens. We look for a conversation among artists, philosophers, geographers, academics in Sociology, Politics, Literature and Theatre and Performance Studies. The workshop will be held in parallel with an art exhibition at  Warwick University, Coventry Arts. The exhibition will feature segments of Heide Fasnacht’s Suspect Terrain and Jenny Perlin’s One Hundred Sinkholes, and is part of a larger effort to make holes relevant as a subject and site of learning and research.

We invite interested contributors to send a 300 word (or shorter) abstract, and a brief biographical note to Marijn Nieuwenhuis ( and Aya Nassar ( March 20, 2017. Besides paper presentations;  alternative contributions such as performance, videos, drawings, pictures (etc.) are warmly welcomed.

The workshop and the exhibition are funded by the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), University of Warwick, and a PTF Professional Development Fund from The New School.


Interesting article from Sam Leith, the author of You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, in today’s Guardian on the politics of Trump’s distinctive language. “How does Trump’s language work? On a purely linguistic level, three things seem striking.”

  1. Trump uses a pretty small working vocabulary
  2. His syntax, spelling and punctuation are – in conventional terms – a catastrophe
  3. The workhorses of his rhetoric are charged but empty adjectives and adverbs

These observations seem very close to those of my own. Leith writes: “To many of us, that looks like a failing. But to some, we might have to accept that it’s a selling point: he doesn’t sound like a normal president, and that’s why people like him.” This preference for Trump’s language is interesting because it reflects a particular kind of political aesthetics. Obama’s overcompensating articulacy, which surely helped him win the elections, contrasts sharply with inarticulacy. They seem to be polar opposites.

Leith thinks that the popularity of Trump’s Inarticulacy has to do with an “electorate so used to politicians being equivocal, and so enraged by it, that the bounce Trump gets from not sounding like that is much bigger than the demerit he incurs for being a clouds-of-smoke-billowing-from-his-pants liar.” I am not so sure this is the case as I can’t remember a time when politicians were unequivocal. The distorting or, at best, blurring of truths with fictions has historically been the cornerstone of liberal democracies anywhere. A recent article in Jacobin magazine features a similar critique. Trump’s language should perhaps not be seen so much as an oddity or a rupture, but rather more like a continuation of liberal political language.

I am in disagreement with Leith’s observation because I think that he sounds exactly like a President. The reason is that the language of a President is not a given or historically stable category. To sound “presidential” is not a fixed reality but contingent on the basis of what a President is expected to sound like in order to become and be a President. Remember that before Obama’s election, one had to be white to be President. One of the “problems” haunting  Clinton was that she was considered “female” (ie. not “masculine” enough). Just like race and gender, language is a contingent and political category. It changes with and on the basis of a political context.

Trump’s lack of structured language is the symptom of stupidity. It is a mode of expression that nakedly exposes liberalism’s absolute disdain for truth and reason. It is the celebration of pure stupidity, understood as a categorical refusal to think. It is true that everyone is stupid sometimes, we all sometimes forget to think, but Trump’s language celebrates stupidity as if liberated from the chains of syntax, spelling etc. Trump’s language tests the very boundaries of signifier and signified. It is just as disconnected from reality as his politics are. But this is not to say that Trump is something novel or unique in this regard. Liberal politics is largely premised on stupidity. No thinking person would voluntarily surrender their freedom to an elected official or freely yield their labour to a capitalist. Surrendering to stupidity is key to the workings of liberalism. It would not work without it. Liberalism suspends thinking which is exactly why it is capable of such violence. It “says it as it is”, without trying or pretending to be interested in what the “is” is. Trump’s alienated and alienating language is the outcome, but perhaps not the definite one, of the cultural expression of liberalism.

Image result for ceci n'est pas trump

Boomerang effect

And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. People are surprised, they become indignant.

They say: “How strange! But never mind-it’s Nazism, it will pass! And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them

– Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, on the ‘boomerang effect’ [Choc en Retour] of colonialism

The Gas Chamber during Colonialism

For some time already, I have been interested in the invention and concept of the gas chamber. I am particularly troubled by the idea that this was exclusively a German invention. The argument in the conventional academic literature is that the gassing of air unfolded as a result of the thriving of chemical industry in early 20th century Germany. Huge companies such as BASF, Bayer among others took on a large industrial role in the state-led economic development of pre-WWI Germany. Key here, of course, is the tragic figure of Fritz Haber. Haber, who was of Jewish descent, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber-Bosch process and played a pivotal role in the development of chemical warfare.

This mode of narration, although insightful to some degree, misses a more thorough mode of historicization of the development of chemistry in 19th century Europe. Why is this relevant? I deem it relevant for multiple reasons, some of which I am currently working on in several publications. The first and the one I will write about in this post revolves around the use of chemical warfare in Europe’s colonial setting. It is often forgotten, I would argue for convenient political reasons, that European colonizers engaged in atmospheric violence in territories far away from their own soil.

British troops used gassing, for instance, as a means to discipline populations in India and Palestine. Italy’s colonial violence in Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War was especially brutal (see video below). These atrocities were only brought to light in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethiopia had to wait until as late as 1997 for an Italian apology from then-president Scalfaro. I am currently most interested in the experiences of France, which already at the time of the French Revolution entertained the idea of a gaseous cleansing the Vendees region. The Vendees at the time performed as a testing ground for France’s later colonial wars. About a decade or so ago the French Historian Claude Ribbe wrote a book entitled Napoleon’s Crimes: A Blueprint for Hitler (in French less polemical: Le Crime de Napoléon) which posits the controversial argument that gas chambers were used as a means to exterminate the rebellious black slaves from the French colonies of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Ribbe’s conclusion created (and continues to create) a great stir in France’s political establishment and academic circles. The historic claims have been disputed and politicians have been quick to condemn the book’s argument.

I am not interested in scrutinizing the facts of the work as such, and I see no point in comparing one genocide with another. I find myself largely in agreement with the position that there is strong evidence to suggest that such techniques were used. In fact, I feel quite confident that these were not the only gas chamber experiences at the time. The asphyxiation of Algerians in the French-Algerian colonial war is another example of an early gas chamber. This part of history is completely ignored in French history books. The French Governor-General of Algeria at the time [1845] ]argued that the so-called Enfumades, which imposed “cruel extremity”, were necessary to set a “horrifying example” that could “strike terror among these turbulent and fanatical montagnards” (Bugeaud in Brower 2009: 23).

What I find most interesting, or what I would argue is the idea that Germany’s extermination programme finds its roots in the particularities of Europe’s history. This is perhaps a controversial thing to say, but I think that the gas chamber cannot be said to have been an exclusively German experience because that would ignore the wider historical context in which this metaphysical horror could occur. Why is this important? I am not sure yet of all the possible political ramnifications of this reconsideration or re-narration of history. However, considering the backlash that Ribbe’s publication caused, they could potentially be huge. An inconvenient truth seems to be simmering underneath. Everyone familiar with Europe’s post-WII history, its philosophy and current status in the world knows how important the experience of the gas chamber is. One of the possible consequences, one which is certainly significant, but not the whole story, is the possibility of rethinking German guilt and the enabling of a move towards a reflection on Europe’s own implication in the emergence of the industrial extermination camp.

What for me is at stake is less explicitly political. I am interested in the breath. How it is possible that the practice of gassing was regulated in the West (culminating in the Hague treaties of 1899 and 1907) but deployed as a means to discipline and exterminate bodies in the rest of the world? The fact that some breaths are considered to be more worthy of legal protection than others remains a truth accepted by anyone familiar with more contemporary forms of police tactics.