Jack Halberstam’s Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example one: Gordon Matta-Clark's Conical Intersect, 1975
Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example one: Conical Intersect by Gordon Matta-Clark
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975. Orginal artwork held by SFMOMA. Source of image: https://aestheticamagazine.com/gordon-matta-clark-anarchitecture/

Jack Halberstam’s keynote ‘Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse’ really was the absolute highlight of the Utopian Studies Society of Europe conference. But wait! You didn’t have to be there! A version of the lecture is available on YouTube so I wanted to share the details. It contains some real IDEAS about UTOPIA and I highly recommend checking it out.   

If you want to get to utopia, you can’t start from here

Halberstam opened with a huge challenge to the genre of utopia. We are limited in what we can imagine, he argued, bounded by what we know. Going forwards only carries over the problems of the present into the future. The necessary project, he suggested, is not worlding but unworlding.

The use value of utopia is often thought to be in prefiguring changes we would like to see in the real world. For Halberstam, this function is moot. There is no hope in bridging from here to the future. You must instead go back to dismantle the present.

Nothing matters

Halberstam used the art of Gordon Matta-Clark, shown above, to illustrate the creative potential of deconstruction. In carving a spiral through a building due to be demolished in Paris, Matta-Clark employed his architectural knowledge to create an absence of building. In this artwork, the artist’s material is nothing. It is art because of what has been taken away.

This work subverts the logic of capitalism, which demands things are made, possessed, consumed. As such, it also deconstructs the system we are caught in. Halberstam’s suggestion was this is a surer first step towards a new world than imagining a utopia.

Advocating for entropy

Moving ever further away from glossy utopian futures, Halberstam then set out his argument for embracing entropy. We will have to follow the logic of other lifeforms, he argued. Lifeforms that know what to do around ruination. Mushrooms, microbes, beetles all require decaying material as sustenance, and through processing what is rotten create the conditions for new life.

In discussing ruins and the marginalised lives that exist amongst, and may emerge from, them, he referenced the photography of Alvin Baltrop. Baltrop’s pictures captured the New York’s collapsing West Side Piers in the 1970s and 80s, and the gay men who cruised there.

Source of image: https://bronxmuseum.org/news/the-life-and-times-of-alvin-baltrop/

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding exampe two: pier photograph by Alvin Baltrop

Broken Earth

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example three: The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

Drawing his final example from literature rather than art, Halberstam went on to discuss N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. His analysis centred the faction within the novel who want to see the end of the world, not save it. These characters are some of those who have been marginalised and exploited by the prevailing society. Halberstam drew parallels with Afro-pessimism, asserting the only way out of white supremacy is to destroy the world it has built. By implication, a utopianism that aims to repair the existing system would be a neo-colonial project.

After attending the lecture, I re-read the last two novels of the Broken Earth trilogy. I was left wondering whether the ending of the trilogy sustains the Afro-pessimist reading.

— SPOILER ALERT — Skip this section if you haven’t read The Stone Sky in its entirety!

Nassun, who had wanted to all-out destroy the world, in the end executes her mother’s plan to fix it. In the aftermath it is acknowledged that, despite the fix, the current Season will continue for some time. While it is hoped node maintainers will no longer be required, just exactly how things will work out remains uncertain.

The result is certainly an undoing, yet it isn’t total destruction. Is this a large repair job or are things are sufficiently unwound to start again?

Watch online

You can find a version of Jack Halberstam’s lecture Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse online, see below.

& Utopia lecture series: David M. Bell review

Screenshot of David Bell &Utopia online lecture

David Bell’s &Utopia lecture ‘Utopia: Another End of the World is Possible’, recorded on 28 October 2021, is now available online. The lecture energises despite (or perhaps because of?) a focus on the apocalypse.

In this lecture Bell poses a great conversation starter, sure to bring out the existentialists in the room, when he suggests there are two types of people, those who believe the world is salvageable and those who don’t. So which kind are you, do you think the world is salvageable?

‘The world’ as Bell refers to it isn’t the physical world but our world, our civilisation. Or, as he defines it more finely, the ‘anti-black empire’ and ‘the science of the plantation writ large’. He keenly points out that utopia is borne of this modern, European ‘world’.

It’s nice to have your murky thoughts about utopia validated and be given the strength to pursue them further.

Bell’s view is that utopia will be transcended by a new social thought, appropriate to the end of this world and formation of another. The structure of this will necessarily be unimaginably different to the modern utopia. It may emerge in the moment rather than being designed, rather like free jazz. It may also be similarly unfathomable and even uncomfortable to the ears. It won’t be made for us.

When prompted on how this relates to utopia as a literary genre Bell suggests this is an open question, which is just as well as I’m planning to keep thinking about it.

Further reading

The &Utopia lecture series continues…

With several speakers yet to come and recordings of past lectures available, see the website andutopia.com/.

My hot pick is Françoise Vergès on 16 December 2021.