Planetary Portals (Geography, QMUL) – NOW FILLED

Contact: Kerry Holden


Department: Geography

Institution: Queen Mary, University of London

Project timeline: The research is ongoing and being developed as part of an international collaboration and large grant application. We would expect the research to be completed by the end of 2021 and we are flexible about the exact time-frame.

Project duration: 13 Weeks (starting October 2021 or earlier)

Closing date: 2nd August 2021

Expertise: Essential skills include historical and archival research skills, excellent critical and evaluative skills, knowledge of critical social theory and revisionist history. A preference will be given to students with expertise and experience of conducting research in African contexts and in African histories, with a regional preference for Southern Africa. A preference will also be given to students with experience of data management and storage.

Project description: Abstract to the Planetary Portals project that received seed funding for collaborative events and is currently being developed into a larger project the student will support. In a recent article in Nature, scientists claim we have passed a crucial tipping-point as the total mass of human-made matter for the first time outweighs the total biomass of the earth. The accumulation of more and more things on the surface, relies on burrowing further and further into the depths of the earth and desedimenting its stratal flows to release temporal mixing at material level (predominately as geochemical and heat exchanges). The Nature report raises alarm about the weight of the human ‘footprint’ on earth–the ‘heavy’ mammalian supremacy–as a planetary homogenizing condition, but is depicted as socially indifferent to the uneven geographies, racial inequalities and health disparities that situate the relations and exchanges between the underground and surface and between the surface and atmosphere. We invoke the portal as a disruptive method that pinches, pulls and rips the idea of the ‘planetary’ as an event surface and sets the conditions for imagining the transitory stages of anthropocenic planetary processes that are gathered under the rubric of ‘the Anthropocene’. We bring together geographical ideas of disruptive upside-down surfaces to collaborators in architecture, design and earth science in order to reimagine society and space as actively involved in the racialized geopolitics of ‘changing states’ through the proliferations of inversions, depletions and dispersals. Engaging the portal as method, we propose that the ‘planetary’ is spatially and temporally produced through geographic and racial inequalities that have their histories in colonialism, slavery, and neo-extractivism (see Yusoff 2018). For example, miners descend into the world’s deepest mines in South Africa to extract precious metals and stones that are sold on London and New York’s Stock Exchange, extending the legacies of Cecil Rhodes (in the vehicle of De Beers) and the affective architectures of British colonial occupation of South Africa. This ‘colonialism beyond colonialism’ hints at both the afterlife of migratory extraction forms (the plantation, the mine, the ‘racialized poor’) and the continued portals of transference of value to concentrated nodes of power. Who descends and what floats is an affectual racialized geography of depth and inversion that tells geostories about the historical exchanges of materialities of earth and capital in planetary transformation. The statues may be gone or coming down (#rhodesmustfall), but the racialized geophysics of extraction remains.

Description of work involved: The student will undertake archival research by first identifying key sources in libraries across the world concerning mining and physical infrastructure in the extractive histories of South Africa; the construction of the New York Subway; and the diamond and gold trade in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century. The student will collate, index and summarise key sources (where they can be obtained either by request or visitation to the library) The student will support the research team in undertaking a targeted archival analysis of specific collections such as the Rhodes collection at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (already begun by the team and requiring further support) The student will write annotated summaries of the archival materials gathered by the team. The student will assume responsibility for data management of archival materials ensuring that they are labelled correctly according to referencing information, indexed and filed securely in encrypted password protected folders. The student will have an opportunity to participate in the collaborative network. The archival research will directly support the development of an 2022 exhibition in collaboration with the Pratt School of Architecture, Urban Soils citizen science group based in NYC and Environmental Humanities South, University of Cape Town.

Student benefits: The student will acquire a range of skills in developing their archival and historical analysis skills. They will gain exposure to a range of key archival collections and learn to critically engage in the archive as a living space. The student will join a team of experienced researchers and learn from their skills in interpreting, analysing and writing with historical material in an interdisciplinary mode. The student will support the development of a major grant application, and learn about grant writing, research design and budget management, and contribute towards journal publications, written and artistic outputs, learning new skills in staging interdisciplinary research, developing public engagement pathways and impact strategies. In supporting this project, the student will learn new skills in professional and research skill development.