Category Archives: Uncategorized

From political economy to political ecology

After the stark utopia

talk by Brian Holmes at The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Utopia is an imaginary figure, an absent place, a vision or a model that can gather all the force of reality. It’s widely believed there are no more utopias, but that’s not the case. “No place” abounds in the twenty-first century. Its towers rise over Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Its freeways, airports and data centers proliferate. Its markets move into ever more complex virtual spaces. Its citizens, credit cards in hand, sustain an economy of continuous capital circulation. All this claims to be an absolute invention – a brave new world.

The contemporary utopia has its birthdates and its ghostly afterlives. Sometimes they coincide. In 1949, Friedrich von Hayek published an article in a University of Chicago journal calling for the rebirth of nineteenth-century liberalism. The past would become the future:

What we lack is a liberal utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.

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Region from Below: Southern Illinois Drift

strip mine entrance

Eagle River Coal LLC. Harrisburg IL

The Region from below is a concept we used earlier to expose and map a concealed landscape of energy extraction. Last March we explored this idea materially with a drift to Southern Illinois. The metaphor of a territory buried underneath, with perhaps insurgent potential, is fitting for how Southern Illinois is like Chicago’s back 40, not only at the ‘bottom’ of the state, but also layered in time, for much of the physical power and materials, particularly coal, that helped build Chicago into an economic powerhouse were pulled out of this ground. Southern Illinois has been serially plundered since the early 1800s, starting with salt, then oil, coal, oil and more oil and now gas through high pressure deep well hydrofracking.
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Between the Bottomlands and the World

Between the Bottomlands and the World is a video trilogy and book project that explores a rural mid-western town of 6000 people—a place of global exchange and international mobility, inscribed by post-NAFTA realities. Recent scholarship shows that immigrants are moving to rural communities in the Midwest at the same rate that they are moving to cities. Historically, Midwestern cities were home to industries that attracted immigrant workers, becoming hubs for those seeking work. Today, many remaining industries lie outside the city, in rural towns unencumbered by urban regulations. In the case of Beardstown, the major industry—a slaughterhouse—recruited new immigrants from the Texas border, Mexico, and later from Congo, Togo, Senegal, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean locales, to what was an all-white, “sundown” town.

As social struggles have been fought and won in this small town, its existence has consistently relied on one multinational corporate giant, which is currently Cargill. Hence, workers come and go, hogs are slaughtered and shipped out at the rate of 18,000 a day, grain travels from the fields to the Cargill loading docks on the Illinois River where they enter national and international markets. Between the Bottomlands… tells this story of global mobility in a rural, Heartland town, through looking at the trades of meat and grain as well as the stories of newcomers. One chapter (Submerging Land) looks at the engineering of contemporary agricultural land from a network of rivers and marshes that once surrounded the town, while a second (Granular Space)explores the vast transportation network connecting Beardstown to ports across the globe. A final, forthcoming, video (Moving Flesh) uses interviews with long-time residents and new-comers, from such disparate locales as Detroit, Mexico and Togo, and re-stages them through fictionalized and composite characters, relating the current effects of globalization on individuals and communities. This final video is subtitled in French and Spanish.

The first two videos are included in their entirety below, along a short introduction to Moving Flesh.

A book will accompany the videos, with an experimental glossary and an essay by Faranak Miraftab, an urban planner and principle researcher on this project. Between the Bottomlands and the World is a project by Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross.