An interview with Shiloh Krupar, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor and Field Chair of the Program in Culture and Politics in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, on her new book Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste, published by University of Minnesota Press. Shiloh has a personal webpage at shilohkrupar.com and many of her works are available at academia.edu.
Stuart Elden: This is one of the most original takes on politics, ecology, and geography in a long time. Part of this comes from the truly creative blend of social science writing, political commentary, art and satire. Can you say something about the choice of style and format?
Shiloh R Krupar: Hot Spotter’s Report is actually based on a series of solo performances, creative lectures, and theatrical scripts (an example can be found here). I had not initially imagined that it would be formalized according to the academic standard of the scholarly monograph. By taking the project in that direction, the question for me was actually: What can this body of work gain from the style and format of the academic book? I’ve been pleased with how commingling separate pieces into a book has contributed to the larger project: It helped me articulate the common threads among the cases and solidify a repertoire of techniques. The book format essentially allowed me to curate my work in a new way, adding another iteration of the same materials and establishing important continuities. Such connections were not always apparent or had been understated, given the sometimes very different genres and effects/affect of the separate pieces. I also found that working on a solo book could function as an extended “event” and better serve my collaborative endeavors. I realize that this doesn’t get at your question exactly, but the book format came as a later iteration of work that was neither linear nor delivered to wholly academic audiences from the start.
The question of form is high on my list of considerations for any project. I share concerns over the social practice of knowledge, and attempt to make the form and empirical content of my inquiries resonate with each other. I see this as a way to enact a more material and embodied model of the critic, and to address the open, messy outcomes where action and activism meet research. Hot Spotter’s Report certainly works in this mode, given that the book observes what I often refer to as “governing mess”: The governing of messy materials and subjects, such as cancer detection or nuclear waste management; and the frequent mess that is governance—failures and absurdities, uncertainties, unintended effects, uncontrollable responses of people, and the way material worlds (nature, the built environment, garbage/waste, the human body, etc.) always exceed the rationalities of governing. The book invites a materialist inquiry of governing, especially of materials and issues that trouble representation and put governing at risk. Various figures that stand for practices or logics observed during fieldwork and empirical research provide necessary cohesion in terms of overall form and style. These figures are sometimes direct references to actual organizations, or they are a composite of empirical conditions and operate in an allegorical fashion. As such, they help to organize the rhetorical and/or visual field of each chapter. Furthermore, these figures are purposely ambiguous and usually absurd. They traverse scales and seemingly disparate terrains—including bodies of land or animals, administrative bodies, human bodies, and so forth—to explore the materiality of human-environment-institutional connections. The book also plays with documentary modes and utilizes multiple forms of exposition, reporting, and storytelling tactics in an effort to foster conversation and controversy over material geographies of toxicity and exposure. I frequently use humor and modernist techniques of estrangement and amplification to undermine or supplement dominant representations by the military or ecology. My hope is that the performative aspects of the book—particularly the use of irreverence—offer different ways to access the materials and issues than that permitted by a traditional approach—even, perhaps, encouraging a more diverse and creative ecological politics and more rigorously messy theory.
SE: How did that help you make the argument, in a way that would have been difficult, or different, with a more standard linear textual design?
SRK: My response again starts from the other direction: Rather than developing strategies that would work against linear narrative, I began with a diverse set of concerns and ways of investigating the topic and then implemented a linear narrative to make the work more approachable to an academic audience. Compared to other iterations of the same work, Hot Spotter’s Report follows standard scholarly book protocols, in terms of publishing and citations, chapter layout, etc. It reads “strangely,” however, because it blends written and visual genres and uses performative strategies to develop an alternative set of images, figures, and storylines than that which dominates much environmental criticism. For example, I use satire to estrange journalistic tropes about nuclear sites and the tragic autobiographical mode that is expected of the nuclear memoir. The effort is not to replace such representations with more accurate or authentic ones but, rather, to enact other ways of practicing knowledge and relating to the issues. Hot Spotter’s Report also uses the popular presentation style and display conventions of government reports to experiment with the politics of documentary forms and the pedagogical and visual register of environmental governance and forensics. The book enacts a demand to work through some of the historical antagonisms and rhetorical investments of different positions inherited from the Cold War. The composite of social science writing, art, and political commentary attempts to show ways of critiquing—by participating in—the tremendous amount of representational remediation of the Cold War, whether the so-called “greening” of the military or the recent 2013 passage of a bill that would establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. In short, I can’t imagine tackling the Cold War legacy of toxicity—or environmental crisis and uncertainty more generally—without actively experimenting with form to some extent as part of the inquiry itself.
SE: That’s a really interesting response and clearly shows the complicated interrelation of the topic and the different formats. Yet, like other academics you need to produce work that is recognised by your peers, by publishers and by university administrators. Society and Space readers already know the original versions of two of the pieces here [“Alien still life: distilling the toxic logics of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge” (requires subscription) and “Where eagles dare: an ethno-fable with personal landfill” (open access)], albeit in much earlier and shorter arrangements. In the book you generously thank past and present editors of the journal for their recognition of the merit and scholarly value of the work. Was it difficult to get that appreciation elsewhere? What kinds of challenges were there in presenting this work, in these different and disruptive forms, to academic audiences?
SRK: I’ve been strategic about where I’ve sent this type of work—to journals and presses with editors and editorial boards that I felt were open to different forms of writing and critique. One of the greatest obstacles to experimentation in academic production is the treadmill of publication. While some peer reviewers have relished the opportunity to engage with a creative format on its own terms, other reviewers don’t have the time to confront unfamiliar formats. People also have assumptions about what scholarly work should look like and can find it off-putting when a manuscript doesn’t adhere to these visual norms. In response, I now try to balance different types of prose within the same manuscript and/or give instructions to the reader about how to approach the piece; I also work on different iterations and expressions of the same material for different audiences. However, the pressure to publish often means that I don’t have time to take on projects that involve formal or social experimentation. It is faster for me to work in the mode of explanation and/or opposition. This is not to say that more conventional analysis is “easy”; rather, adopting routines of communication and analysis from the outset is, for me, an effective risk and time management strategy. Yet the uncertainty and discovery process is precisely what’s valuable about playing with form as part of one’s inquiry or project: The potential to (re)organize and convey an issue or problem in new ways and the relationships that one fosters along the way.
Publishing academic work with an unconventional format can involve unique challenges in a more technical sense. For example, the University of Minnesota Press and I had to invent a procedure for the book’s assembly as we went. We had to consider how exactly I should submit the various elements comprising the chapters of Hot Spotter’s Report—and, more importantly, how I would communicate how the pieces should be put together. It was a very positive and collaborative experience. On the other side of things, an article of mine with extensive visuals made it through peer review successfully only to get stymied at the proof-generating stage because there was no graphic designer dedicated to the journal. The person in charge of layout was not familiar with Photoshop, which made our collaboration on the proofs nearly impossible. Because many journals no longer offer design services, I’ve had to acquire a range of design skills and familiarity with publishing and design software in order to get my work to appear even close to the ways that I envisioned it. This is not that surprising given the trend of the DIY academic-entrepreneur and the outsourcing of key institutional functions to the individual.
Beyond issues related to publishing, I’ve found that some topics are so entrenched in certain genres of writing, narrative tropes, and modes of activism that to approach them in any other way can elicit vehement reactions by other academics. This was the case with a project on breast cancer (Ehlers and Krupar 2012; Krupar 2012). In spite of its central focus on governance and representation with respect to cancer, the topic, combined with playful format, relegates the project to the periphery of scholarly attention and merit review. Some presentation venues have also posed exceptional challenges. An arena where I have undoubtedly encountered resistance to experiments with form and affect is the job talk. The job talk is a difficult venue for any amount of play, no matter how serious you are about it; irreverence is particularly off-putting to academics in this setting, regardless of any rationales that you provide.
One of the principle reasons the job talk is a difficult venue is something I previously mentioned: Assumptions about the role of the critic. A privileged mode of critique is that of locating resistance, defining and supporting opposition, and redeeming the suffering of others. Based on this model of the critic, some academics find it difficult to read or hear me discuss the plight of sick nuclear workers with any amount of humor, even if it is directed at bureaucracy or the failings of compensation legislation. By contrast, audiences of former nuclear workers have responded favourably to the satire and absurdism that I employ in such accounts. Hot Spotter’s Report and many of my other projects seek a mode of criticism that is more playful, irreverent, and intimate with geographies of power, such as militarism. I talk about this in a very personal way in an interview (self-conducted) about the influences of absurdist theatre on my work [“The fictional world of absurdist drama according to its influence on me” (open access)]. In that piece I refer to it as a political and ethical commitment to “the slippages generated by strange laughter.”
SE: Was the reaction from artists and activists, both of whom you draw upon and discuss in this work, different?
SRK: Yes and no. Among the artists and activists with whom I’ve worked and/or exchanged and presented information, there’s been tremendous openness to different ways of presenting research and arguments, and support for experimenting with pedagogy, education, and outreach as part of the work. Where this has stumbled can largely be attributed to longstanding antagonisms between oppositional social movements—for example, between labor and environmentalists—and ongoing investments in militaristic discourse across the political spectrum. Nuclear issues and sites also attract an array of people and often remarkable responses, which has meant that my work does not register as all that weird in terms of public culture. The satirical PowerPoint in Hot Spotter’s Report that caricaturizes the US Department of Energy’s approach to the cleanup of Rocky Flats offers a sober scholarly account compared to other treatments of the site, for example a novel about a DOE investigation into an outbreak of nymphomania among guards at the former plutonium processing plant—reputedly a book that had to be declassified by the DOE before its release (Avecedo 2006).
Many of the artists and activists I discuss in the book engage in a range of practices and are often very scholarly and/or are academics. In particular, my interactions with one artist, who explores similar issues with respect to the conversion of former military sites into nature refuges, has led to a very rewarding collaboration. With Sarah Kanouse, an artist and assistant professor of Intermedia at the University of Iowa, I have initiated a project entitled “The National Toxic Land/Labor Conservation Service” or “National TLC Service.” The collaboration has enabled me to put a key idea discussed in my book—transnatural ethics—into imaginative administrative action. Using the language and aesthetics of government, Kanouse and I established a fictional U.S. federal agency dedicated to investigating the toxic effects of the Cold War. The National TLC Service brokers public policy, existing grassroots efforts, and the arts to critique inadequate government responses to contamination resulting from the Cold War, and to model more responsible/accountable governing strategies.
Ironically, then, an ongoing hurdle in the academic reception of my work arises from the increased cross-disciplinary interests of geography in art practice at the institutional level. Because I am within/of the discipline of geography, I am not perceived to be an outsider with an inherently novel perspective. Innovation is perceived to be exogenous, which makes it more difficult for someone within the discipline to be perceived as an innovator.
SE: That position in relation to Geography is something that I want to pursue a little. You’re described as ‘a geographer’ on the book, and were advised by Allan Pred as a doctoral student. Many of those you thank and reference are geographers. Yet you teach as a professor of culture and politics. The geographical training and sensibility comes through strongly in the book. How do you find being a geographer outside of Geography?
SRK: My position is housed in the School of Foreign Service. Although there are few geographers, it is a multi-disciplinary work environment that affords me opportunities to explore and apply the interdisciplinarity of Geography. Due to the combination of research-focused faculty, liberal arts undergraduate curriculum, and professional school programs, the School supports a range of outputs, collaborative practices, and public engagement—perhaps more so than a traditional disciplinary academic home. Furthermore, the institutional location yields interesting reflections on practices of critique, such as the often surprising similarities between the culture of writing white papers in the policy world and the logocentric practice of theory production in academia. I am also constantly made aware of issues of sponsorship, patronage, funding, and backing.
The School of Foreign Service’s interest in service and public intellectual work also intersects with longstanding efforts to extend popular education in Geography. One future I can envision based on my current position would be to launch a new kind of folklore institute within the School of Foreign Service, one that would draw on the richness of the location on so many levels to produce historical geographies of the present. Given my interest in bureaucracy and militarism, I’ve already proposed one possible genre to be included within this speculative institute: the FOB, or “folklore of operational banality.” The recent U.S. federal government shutdown offers another, more urgent, arena for intervention by folklorists and geographers alike—perhaps a satirical remote sensing study or folksonomy of government presence (“Don’t Know Where Government’s At (Till It’s Turned Off)).”
In short, my work environment and position motivate me and inspire creative geographical thinking in a variety of ways. I am also fortunate to stay connected to geographers and Geography through several collaborative projects and due to the fact that Geography is so interdisciplinary and that geographers can be found in so many academic and professional contexts.
SE: How do you think your work, on natural and unnatural processes, relates to the recent turn towards geopower and what has been called ‘political geology’? I’m thinking of work by people like Nigel Clark, Kathryn Yusoff, and Arun Saldanha, inspired by Elizabeth Grosz and others. The other people that immediately came to mind were Rachel Woodward, especially the book Military Geographies, and the work of Trevor Paglen who also uses art, writing and a geographical training to expose US military secrecy. Could you say something of how your work connects to these, or other creative, innovative geographers?
SRK: Hot Spotter’s Report is broadly interested in addressing militarism and unequal distributions of health and possibilities for life. The book proposes and explores transnatural ethical practices that would cultivate new/different relations with waste. Where it can be seen to intersect with recent work on geopower is in terms of the vitality of matter, specifically the points where I discuss how select artists and activists engage with the vitality of waste. However, the book does not seek to theorize pre-discursive affect or post-relational earth processes. In general, my work is politically committed to exploring the regulatory functions of governing; thus, the book investigates how governing logics seek to harness the vitality of waste and develop relations and technologies of “sense” that augment pre-existing arrangements of power. The book looks at the way nonhuman processes are represented and governed within social systems and organizing logics—and, conversely, the inherent crises of governing related to the vitality of nonhuman matter. I’m fascinated with the idea of “political geology” and really appreciate the efforts of geographer colleagues to propose what such a field/practice might look like. I take this up in a forthcoming chapter on industrial land remediation for the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, but, again, my discussion moves in a different direction. The piece discusses the edaphological geopolitics of the mega-event conditioned by new soil standard legislation, soil bureaucracy and survey technologies, and brownfield redevelopment in China. I propose the interdisciplinary practice of “soil hermeneutics” as a way to examine the power relations involved in governing soil contamination and the grounds for deracinated crowd control.
Rachel Woodward’s Military Geographies encouraged me to pursue the often subtle influences of the military on the environment, understandings of place, the organization of the landscape, and so forth. The book boldly challenges the field of military geography and sets a new agenda to study geographies of militarism—not only formal military control over space but the more pervasive, extensive, often invisible power relations of militarized social organization. Hot Spotter’s Report draws on Woodward in broadly conceptualizing the conditions of/for “green war” in the so-called post-Cold War era. My book doesn’t deal with secrecy directly, as per the influential work of Trevor Paglen, but shares a commitment to examining the obfuscating technologies and politics of governing. My critique of bureaucratization and government subcontracting, for example, addresses how certain things are made visible or invisible, and touches on the production of obscurantism as a governing strategy. Paglen and I were both trained under Allan Pred and influenced by his deeply geographical sensibilities about the world and interest in certain political urgencies and issues. I think Trevor’s work and capacity for interdisciplinary scholarship are amazing; he’s the kind of artist and thinker that can take on specialized fields of knowledge, such as astronomy and astrophysics, for his own projects to such a degree that he can even publish work in those arenas. In the fourth chapter of Hot Spotter’s Report, I explore the possibilities for more arts and sciences connections by focusing on a nuclear waste sculptor who was largely based in Richland, Washington, near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The artist, James Acord, is known as the only private individual in the world to have earned a license to own and handle radioactive materials, such as nuclear fuel rods containing depleted uranium, which he endeavored to use as artistic materials. In that chapter, I advocate for a reconfigured, more materials-oriented arts and sciences that engages with the vitality of nonhuman matter. What Paglen and other artists who work in radically transdisciplinary ways demonstrate—by example—is that it’s not enough to say that we need to move beyond current divisions of knowledge and disciplinary arrangements in order to challenge the state or the status quo and to tackle 21st-century problems, we need to actually do it. As Pred (1995) would often begin his creative geographies by reciting Walter Benjamin: “I have nothing to say—only to show.”
SE: With discussions ongoing about possible US strikes on Syria as a response to the ‘red line’ of chemical weapons, I wonder what you think your work adds to these debates, in terms of the US’s own legacy in the use and production of non-conventional weapons.
SRK: My work analyzes absurdist tactics of governing, and the “red line” of chemical weapons is an example of that. The red line is an effort to institute a rationalism on war: It appears to be a “Western” rational approach when it’s actually arbitrary and a line that is always already crossed by the US. The book leads to a certain kind of investigation of the crisis: How the selective use of rationalism of the West is linked to governing in the global arena and the way it obfuscates what’s going on within the US’s own borders. It raises questions about the “unconventional” nature of chemical warfare, particularly in the US context, where chemicals are regularly leveraged on lawns, bugs, bodies, cancerous cells, etc. The categorization of “unconventional” denies our own use of chemicals and how they are embedded in our daily lives. More implicitly, my work challenges the fantasy of precision of advanced US weaponry and the “weaponization” of Western rationalism—i.e., the ways that the condemnation of chemical weapons (for being irrational and imprecise) geopolitically positions “the other,” in this case Syria, as irrational and out of control, and asserts the accuracy and effectiveness of Western strikes to re-establish world order. The myth of precision also suggests that war is a contained event. My work directly refutes this claim, by focusing on the messy domestic remains of war within the US—the drift of waste, ruinous landscape, abandoned bodies, etc. The book, in particular, takes on assertions about the “greenness” and “sustainability” of US weaponry, i.e., the progress of more technologically advanced “green war.” Overall, my approach asks what we are defining as war anymore, in light of the absurd rationalities through which war is made acceptable. The rendering of the “red line” establishes the terms of the West as rational, and positions the US as the ultimate rationalist sovereign state—in the same moment that the US calls for war, for chaos to institute order, for killing to punish killing.
SE: This is ‘A Quadrant Book’, and the backcover describes this as “a joint initiative of the University of Minnesota Press and the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, [that] provides support for interdisciplinary scholarship within a new, more collaborative model of research and publication”. There are several remarkable books already published in this series. Can you say more about the scheme and how you came to be involved in it?
SRK: I was attracted to the Quadrant program because it represented a unique initiative to build institutional connections between the university and scholarly press, and to create a collaborative environment for developing interdisciplinary book manuscripts. The Quadrant program really challenged me to reconsider the possibilities of the monograph by providing an exceptionally interdisciplinary infrastructure within which to “practice” my book as a collaborative institutional endeavor. During my residency at the University of Minnesota, I was able to interface regularly with the press and to workshop ideas and works-in-progress with Quadrant fellows and other faculty in the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). The Quadrant program immersed me in the energy, inquiries, and research interests of scholars on the University of Minnesota campus—particularly the university’s and press’s strengths in geography and critical theory. The commitment of the press, faculty, and IAS to organizing concrete practices of interdisciplinarity, such as research collaboratives, meant that Quadrant fellows could participate in experimental scholarly arrangements that drew on different disciplinary and area studies expertise, without directing such conversations to any particular end-product. Having the time and infrastructure in place to engage in experimental scholarly communications and innovative questions deeply enriched my project and my thinking about publishing and collaboration.
SE: This has been a fascinating interview, so thank you very much. What’s next for you in your writing and performance?
SRK: Thank you! I have enjoyed the conversation and appreciate the opportunity to discuss the book. This journal continues to be an important scholarly community for me, and I find these interviews to be very rewarding.
I am currently working on one solo project and three collaborative ones. My interest in biomedical issues, which emerged from my attention to nuclear worker compensation, and my ongoing focus on geographies of waste have combined to form a new research trajectory on medical waste commodification and conversion in the context of the global biopolitics of biohazardous remains. I’m not sure yet what outputs I will pursue, but one iteration is likely to be a book that traces out the globalization of a new logic of medical waste predicated on the integration of human bodies in an economy beyond death (such as medical waste-to-energy reprocessing facilities and carbon-neutral cremation). I’ve also been researching the practice of medical hot spotting and racial governing in the US for a collaborative book project with Nadine Ehlers (University of Wollongong) on the “politics of life” under neoliberal biomedicine. Ehlers and I focus on the development and deployment of several “soft” biomedical technologies, such as hope and customized care, which intensify an imperative to live as an individual’s responsibility in the context of welfare-state decline. The book advances analysis of subtle power relations that operate in/through biomedical spaces and govern a range of bodies—bodies with cancer, racially marked bodies, bodies at either end of life (birth/death), affected/emotive bodies, and body matter that can be re-arranged and re-purposed.
Another collaborative project that I’ve already mentioned—the National TLC Service, with Sarah Kanouse (University of Iowa)—involves long-term programming that extends to 2020. In spite of the US federal government shutdown, the National TLC Service remains dedicated to practicing a more sustainable governing relation than supposedly existing government. Kanouse and I, as interim co-directors, will be organizing and administering public design charrettes for a hypothetical National Cold War Monuments and Environmental Heritage Trail. These gatherings carry out participatory research and outreach through the collaborative mapping of atomic geographies and designing of speculative monuments. The National TLC Service will be conducting its first charrette this October 2013 in downtown Champaign, IL, in affiliation with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The agency is also a Finalist in the Committee for Tacit History’s “Monument to Cold War Victory” competition and will have a monument design included in an internationally touring exhibition in 2014-15.
Last but not least, I am a co-founder, with C. Greig Crysler (University of California-Berkeley), of the Museum of Waste, a project that employs the techniques of an imaginary interactive museum and elaborate plumbing system to offer a new approach to critical theory of neoliberal disasters, urban governance, and sustainability. After assessing the feasibility of/necessity for such a museum, we have developed case studies and empirical displays of several underrepresented cities in relation to the credit crisis of 2008, Gulf Coast oil spill of 2010, and the ongoing transformation of rights/citizenship taking place through the contraction of US public education and other austerity measures. Crysler and I are currently writing and organizing a creative Museum of Waste monograph, travelling exhibition, and phone app that offer integrated and novel categories—and interactive/collaborative plumbing infrastructure—to help viewers render the interconnections and complexities of contemporary crisis.
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