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.

Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two (2022): Utopian Studies Conference

Photograph of utopian studies conference venue at University of Brighton
Conference venue: University of Brighton

The thing that took me farthest out of my comfort zone in 2022 was attending the Utopian Studies Society conference. I thought it would be nice to have a few days away to discuss all things utopian but I was wrong. I stretched my elastic too far just to get there. It was my first time travelling on my own and travelling much at all since the pandemic and having a child (both things that have tied me to home over the past few years). Having to then leave my room and attend events was so hard. This is despite my room (in student halls) being unbearably hot and depressing.

Yes, this was another USS conference in a heatwave, like the previous one in Prato, Italy in 2019 where we discussed utopia, dystopia and climate change in 40 degree heat (Celcius, folks). Just the thing to make discussions feel urgent and hopeless at the same time.

Utopia and the Plantationocene

My talk was deliberately provocative, which is something I like to do. We’re all in a room together so let’s provoke a bit of conversation. I stood up and argued that the logic of utopia is the same as the logic of the plantation. I said:

  • The foundation story for Utopia (the place) in Thomas More’s Utopia (the genre-founding book of 1516) is settler-colonist fantasy. King Utopus conquered the land of Abraxa, named it after himself, and ‘brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind’
  • More was not only inspired by the colonisation of North America by his fellow Europeans but contributed to the ongoing settlement of the continent. In Karl Hardy’s words, ‘Utopia clearly articulates the settler colonial doctrines of terra nullius [no man’s land], vacuum domicilium [unoccupied home], and inane ac vacuum [idle and waste] which were used by European powers to establish legalistic grounds […] for expropriating the supposedly unhabited land’
  • Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing describe how the Plantationocene – the era of the plantation and its transformative effects upon our planet – started at the same point in history. Plantations were a new form of agriculture designed by Europeans specifically for slave labour in the New World
  • More’s Utopia reflects and expresses plantation logic, just as surely as it is inseparable from the colonisation of America. Utopia (the place, the book and the genre) is about establishing systems of control to obtain a perfect outcome. Further, it imagines the means of enforcing the ways of being required to perpetuate said perfect state. The logic of utopia is the logic of the plantation

And the response? No-one challenged me. No-one even batted an eyelid. They nodded, apparently agreed, and carried on with the utopian studies conference.

Decolonising Utopian Studies

The colonialism at the heart of utopia is an open secret in utopian studies. Some scholars do, however, address it directly. On a panel titled ‘The Past and Future of Utopian Studies’, Caroline Edwards spoke on ‘Decolonising Utopian Studies’. It was undoubtedly one of the most important contributions to the conference.

Dr Caroline Edwards presenting at the utopian studies conference

She started out with a list of sources, including:

She asked why these texts and authors are not being talked about in utopian studies. And why black speculative imaginaries are not coming to utopian studies. Why are we not citing them and why should they bother citing us?

Funding Utopia

I suspect this might come down to studying an essentially colonialist genre within a colonialist institution – the university. Why would anyone exploring anti-colonial ways of being want to come towards that? Later on the same panel, Adam Stock highlighted a key obstacle for going the other way: funding. Anyone working within utopian studies on this area is trying to get funding from the very institutions that the research will criticise.

As someone on the periphery of academia, the poolside if you will, this conference made me think twice about jumping back in. Especially when Caroline Edwards talked about how adrienne maree brown (idol) could not do what she does if she was working within academia. She could not do her critical writing and thinking alongside being a doula and a poet plus do teaching and research in the form that academia demands. It made me think about what the real, important work is and where it happens. And those thoughts are ongoing.

Badges badges badges badges

Just Utopias badges design
I’ve spent a fun evening designing and making badges to take with me to the Utopian Studies Society of Europe conference in Brighton in just over a week’s time.

I’m planning on handing them out willy-nilly at the conference. If, however, you’re a subscriber to the blog and you won’t be there, email me your address and I’ll post one to you. Don’t forget to tell me your colour preference!

Brighton build up – two weeks til the Utopian Studies conference!

Brighton build up: fan art from the Broken Earth trilogy showing a hovering obelisk

The Brighton build up has begun! It should have begun a bit earlier if I’m honest… Two weeks to go and my paper is definitely in progress but not exactly ready as yet…

The final schedule is appearing on the conference website. This is the time when I get my virtual pencil out to circle the papers I don’t want to miss. And realise that half of them clash with each other. Or if not with each other, then with my panel. I also sneak a look at who I’m up against and assess whether anyone will come and see me… Basically, it’s like a music festival but nerdier (and wordier).

I’m trying out a new approach to writing my paper this time. It’s kind of a devised theatre-style method. Instead of sitting down with pen and paper, I’m standing up with a stopwatch and talking to myself. Starting off with a bit of improv, then refining it from waffle into hopefully a series of concise, connected points. My aim is to end up with a presentation I can stand up and give from cue cards rather than having to write the whole thing out. While keeping to twenty minutes and not losing the thread or drying up completely. Wish me luck!

My Brighton paper on ‘New Forms of Hope’

My Brighton paper is entitled ‘New Forms of Hope: Environmental Literary Utopias in the 21st Century’. This is what I promised to talk about when I wrote my abstract… (I think we’re on track for this, but probably via the Plantationocene rather than Val Plumwood):

The ecological crises of the twenty-first century arguably originated in the sixteenth century, around the time that Thomas More wrote his genre-founding Utopia. More’s Utopia of 1516 in many ways typifies the Western European worldview of its time, which saw other lands and peoples as raw materials from which to shape the perfect civilisation.

Imbued within this worldview is a series of dualisms, to use Val Plumwood’s term: human/nature, culture/nature, master/slave and so on. These pairings have a hierarchical relationship, whereby the first-named is considered superior to the second. The ideological separation of (white, male) humans from the rest of nature has for centuries allowed Western culture to ignore ecological limits to devastating effect for human and non-human others globally.

It is becoming ever clearer even in the Western world that we need to think differently in order to tackle the climate crisis and climate injustice, where those historically ‘othered’ continue to suffer the most. As utopian studies scholars, we might hope the practice of utopia can help us imagine alternative and better ways of being. But how can utopia contribute to promoting climate justice when it is founded on a system of thought that is antithetical to this goal?

In this paper I will look at how contemporary writers N.K. Jemisin, Nisi Shawl and Rivers Solomon are innovating within the genre of utopia and how their formal adaptations are evolving the literary utopia towards addressing issues of climate justice.

I’m also working on the visuals for my presentation. As a final sneak peak at my paper check out the gallery below. (It looks a bit like the picture round in a pub quiz, but I’ve given away the answers in the captions.)

Utopian Studies Society of Europe coming to Brighton!

Brighton beach on a slightly overcast day
The beach at Brighton, location for Utopian Studies Society conference 2022, on a slightly cloudy day showing Brighton Pier, striped deck chairs and sea gulls.

I’m very excited that this year’s conference of the Utopian Studies Society of Europe is being held in Brighton, UK!

I’ve been to previous conferences of the USS in Lisbon (2016) and Prato (2019). Lisbon was my first academic conference and it set the bar high! The Prato conference was also important for me as it was on a pressing topic: utopia, dystopia and climate change. It coincided with a heat wave in Europe with temperatures around 40°C (104°F), which really brought home the theme of the conference. As a result, I decided with a heavy heart that I would no longer fly to academic conferences. So I am beyond thrilled that the next USS conference is in my home country.

I expect I’ll go to the conference whether or not I give a paper. There are lots of reasons why I want to go. Firstly, I’d like to catch up with people I’ve met at previous conferences. And I want to visit Brighton, I’ve never been before, but I think I’ll love it. They have a Green MP, lots of independent shops, a big veggie and vegan food scene, and it’s by the sea! Sounds great.

Then there’s the content of the conference itself of course! This year’s conference is going to centre around the theme of hope and new directions in utopian studies. The call for papers is published on the USS website.

I’m excited to see that the programme is set to include events with local activists in Brighton. I like to explore and be active when visiting somewhere for a conference. I’m working on having a more physical aspect to my eco-utopian practice rather than getting stuck in the abstract and theoretical.

Let’s all submit proposals for the conference and then maybe I’ll see you there!