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Pushing Pixels


The scientific practices that provide us images of Martian landscapes also cast seeing itself in a new light

This spring, the Curiosity rover made headlines when scientists reported new evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. By measuring the temperature and relative humidity in a crater over the course of a Martian year, the researchers found that salts in the soil could pull water vapor out of the atmosphere and form a brine during the overnight hours, before the moisture would evaporate again at sunrise. “We don’t really see the water,” the study’s lead author acknowledged in an interview. But other instances of seeing, like the dark markings that show up in orbital images and that appear to be water flowing downhill, were what motivated this latest set of measurements in the first place. On Mars, what we can see shapes what we can know.

Vision is commonly taken to be the most direct way of perceiving the world around us. But since the 1970s, visuality has taken a drubbing in the human sciences as feminists and scholars of colonialism have linked the gaze to projects of domination. A prominent anthropologist called for a turn toward “sensuous scholarship,” which would foreground smell, taste, and texture instead of the bloodless rationalism of sight. Quietly, though, a revival of interest in vision has been gaining momentum, one that brings specific practices of seeing into focus while emphasizing their partiality, plasticity, and rootedness in the material world. Some of the most interesting contributions have examined the screen-based graphics and data visualizations that increasingly organize contemporary seeing, at least in the wired global North.

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Myth of the Garbage Patch


The massive plastic trash gyre isn’t an island, it’s the disaster of capital circling the globe on ocean currents

You are probably already aware of the mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean, commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Trash Vortex or Trash Gyre or some combination thereof. You are probably familiar with the description wherein this Garbage Patch/Vortex/Gyre is represented as an island of trash roughly twice the size of Texas floating somewhere in the vicinity of Hawai’i. You may have heard that 80% of the waste comprising the Garbage Patch is plastic and have probably seen images of dead albatrosses–dead, you will have been told, because of the whole plastic bottle caps and lighters it mistook for food–or dead jellyfish or seals or sea lions or sea turtles or whales. Somewhere in this mesh of information lies the first myth of the Garbage Patch.

Missing from that myth is a key series of related facts. That the debris breaks down into microscopic pieces. That the garbage actually constitutes more of a “plastic soup” than any kind of patch or island, and that its pollutants are, as a result, widely dispersed. That what breaks down doesn’t remain solely in the Garbage Patch; that anywhere ocean currents converge is this toxic soup. That this soup is suffused with Bisphenol A, pthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls, persistent organic pollutants, and other remainders from discarded commodities that contribute directly to the ocean acidification killing fragile ecosystems from the coral-based Great Barrier Reef off of Australia to Inuit territories in the Arctic. Far from a solid, particulate island, the Garbage Patch is, along with the rest of the ocean’s water, in constant motion. And it doesn’t necessarily stay at surface. In 2010 a team of ecologists, studying ocean garbage patches, observed that the plastic in them accounted for only a small portion of the plastic that has been produced since World War II. “[W]e don’t know what this plastic is doing,” said marine biologist Andres Cozar Cabañas, who worked on the team, adding only that it “is somewhere — in the ocean life, in the depths.”

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That Transformative Dark Thing


The practice of Black feminist breathing evokes a lineage of Black revolutionaries whose faith in freedom continues to inspire


“Black women are inherently valuable”:  Black feminist combat breathing

A few weeks ago, the Black feminist writer Alexis De Veaux told me, “The future is your next breath.” The next day, video was released of a police officer telling Eric Harris, “Fuck your breath,” as he died from gunshot wounds. What happens to your breathing when you read, hear or watch these news stories? How quick, how shallow, how deep, how possible is your breathing right now?

What do you believe in that keeps you breathing despite blatant violence and disrespect?  What do you believe in more than the evidence of injustice? I believe in the words and actions of Black women and queers across space and time.

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Demolition Party


China’s construction boom is driven by an equally booming wave of urban destruction.

In the past two decades China has systematically levelled and rebuilt a huge percentage of its housing stock. Some 129 million homes have been constructed across the country since 1995; 40 percent of all homes were built after 2000. Each year 2,000 sq km of floor space, nearly enough to cover Hong Kong twice, is being created in China. However, according to Gavekal Dragonomics, a Hong Kong-based financial research firm, this is still not enough: If China is to meet its urbanization goals it will need to have produced between 40 and 50 million more homes by 2020.

It’s not just old buildings in old cities that are meeting their end in China’s construction boom. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban–Rural Development, almost all buildings constructed before 1999—more than half the buildings currently standing—will be demolished and rebuilt in the next twenty years. Shoddy construction is one of the main reasons for this, as buildings that were constructed between 1949 and 1999 are generally considered to be of low quality, as most were thrown up fast and cheap as housing for work units. Gavekal Dragonomics estimates that between 2005 and 2010 China demolished 16 percent of its total housing stock, totalling 1.85 billion square metres, enough to completely blanket the Comoros Islands.

Qiu Baoxing, the vice minister of the Housing and Urban–Rural Development Ministry, proclaimed that the average building in China will only last between twenty-five and thirty years before needing to be torn down. While this estimation has been contested, there are few people who assume that the apartment blocks that are going up with lightning speed today will be standing in half a century. For a sense of scale, on average houses in Britain last for 132 years and those in the USA for 74 years.

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MoW Memorandum


To: The New Inquiry

From: C. Greig Crysler and Shiloh Krupar, co-curators

Date: April 6, 2015

Subject: Feasibility analysis: Museum of Waste (MoW)


This report discusses the feasibility of the Museum of Waste (MoW), a virtual museum that explores the residues, excesses, failures, and escalated emergencies of contemporary capitalism through case studies located within the US, but shaped by inextricably global processes. The Museum offers a way to understand the inescapability and non-exteriority of waste: a new horizon of toxic experience that conjoins the human and the non-human, nature and culture. Exhibitions in the MoW are organized around three major themes that rethink the present through waste processes: capital, ecology, and sovereignty. A concluding Zone of Recommendations provides an opportunity to reflect on the knowledge gained from the immersive experience of waste analytics.

The Museum is a work-in-progress. This version of the MoW responds to a new inquiry: the editors and readers of the New Inquiry. Past iterations have been presented to other noteworthy institutions, including The Society of the Anthropocene (2013), an intellectual sub-Congress of the Association of American Geographers; a Festschrift for an eminent global thinker (2013); and Princeton University (2015). A foundation plan for the Museum was first revealed in a largely vacant Las Vegas Convention Center in the wake of the 2008 credit crisis.

The MoW is not a Museum for Waste; the proposed Museum disavows the idea of the museum as a neutral container, and instead presents a critical architecture of waste. As facility designers and curators, we reclaim the role of the museum as a civic laboratory. However, our Museum departs from the format of the traditional encyclopedic museum. The latter was based on the selective representation of the past through progressive history: an idealized version of the future brought into the present through teleology. The Museum of Waste is instead organized around the temporality of uncertainty and risk. Our subject matter is the unintended consequences of progressive history.

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