Official invitation: Internal Launch: The Future of Critique: Critical Social Science in an Era of ‘Planetary Emergencies’

Internal Launch Event
21 October 2016
Leeuwenborch C63

Acknowledgement of the enormity of the many socio-environmental, agricultural, food, health and related ‘planetary emergencies’ confronting us today has provoked a growing chorus of calls for urgent action.In the face of such urgency, it seems that there is less and less (obvious) time for pause and reflection. Moreover, both from within and directed at the social sciences, there are many who argue that it is time to dispense with or move beyond critique. From Latour’s 2004 question ‘has critique run out of steam?’ to more recent commentary, it may seem that the value of critique and critical thinking is no longer obvious, even in many social sciences. Instead, we are told, we must focus our attention on identifying and formulating constructive alternatives and/or solutions to the planetary emergencies currently haunting us.

This is a trend with major consequences. It goes against many centuries of academic tradition, and occurs in a political economic context where it seems that critique is more important than ever. Wageningen University has not been immune to this trend. To the contrary: several researchers in Wageningen quite explicitly say that it is the task of academics to be ‘constructive’ rather than critical. At the same time, many are critical of the trend to discard with critique. In the face of calls to move beyond they have suggested that the demand for ’constructive alternatives’ can itself be a coercive means of stifling dissent, as can assertions that urgency demands immediate action.

A critical debate on the role of critique is therefore of the utmost importance, especially in Wageningen University. This internal launch of the Wageningen Centre for Space, Place and Society (CSPS) aims to kick-start this debate. It will be open to all employees and students of Wageningen University and Research, and invites them to debate, among others, the following questions: How do we understand ‘critique’ and what have been some major trends in the thinking about critique within the social and the life sciences?How do these understandings of critique link to the current construction of ‘planetary emergencies’? And how might a renewed appreciation for critique be reconciled with growing demands for constructive engagement with the urgent?

The internal launch of the CSPS will include two keynote lecturers by eminent critical scholars, Prof. Anna Tsing (University of California at Santa Cruz) and Prof. Scott Prudham (University of Toronto and first CSPS visiting professor), as well as shorter presentations by CSPS researchers.You are very welcome – please RSVP:


Seminar Schedule:

9:30: Coffee

9:45-10:00: Welcome

10:00-11:00: Keynote Address: Anna Tsing, University of California at Santa Cruz and Aarhus University, Denmark: “Golden Snail Opera: The more-than-human performance of friendly farming on Taiwan’s Lanyang Plain”

11:00-11:15: Coffee Break

11:15-13:00: Plenary Session: CSPS Central Themes

13:00-14:15: Lunch; breakout sessions for theme meetings

14:15-15:45: Research Panel Presentations

Parallel session 1

Parallel session 2

Parallel session 3

Monique Nuijten

Paul Hebinck

Clemens Driessen

Nikolas Studemann Henriquez

Ana Aceska

Robert Coates

Anke de Vrieze & Dirk Roep

Bram Jansen

Bram Büscher & Robert Fletcher

Han van Dijk

Pieter de Vries

Bettina Bock

15:45-16:00: Coffee Break

16:00-17:00: Keynote Address: Scott Prudham, University of Toronto, Canada: “Circumstances Not of Our Choosing: Critique as and in Context”

17:00: Drinks!

Presentation abstracts


The danger of a single story: The role of ethnography in the people-place dilemmas

Ana Aceska (GEO)

The meaning of “our” place, the place we call home or the place to which we belong is a subject that appears over and over again in the scholarship, as much as in people’s lives. For decades scholars are trying to understand how certain places are enshrine d as our home in the globalized world and how people can belong to a place – even if that place is as large as a state – when there is so much movement and exchange of ideas and goods around. Based on my long-term research in Bosnia- Herzegovina, in this talk I will discuss the need to go to the beginning of the dilemmas about the link between people and places and ask the leading question again: what is it that really ties people to places? I will argue that the ethnographic analyses of place -making show us many different possibilities to understand this dilemma outside the common frames of thinking: it might be that the link between people and places should be searched outside the common frames of thinking linked to neighborhood, gentrification or globalization, or outside the even more common once such as class or ethnic belonging. I will discuss the ways ethnography as a method and a way of thinking can be a critique not only of way we define the link between people and places today, but also of the ways w e plan our cities and landscapes.

Emptiness and space: On population decline and quality of life

Bettina Bock (RSO)

In debates about population decline and quality of life emphasis is put on ‘emptiness’, such as the loss of public services and the problems of vacant buildings. However, population decline can also be viewed as creating space; space for innovation and change. In this contribution two perspectives will be discussed: the link between social and spatial inequality and the importance of increased mobility. How is population decline in particular regions part and parcel of a process of growing spatial inequalities? And how can new and temporary dwellers contribute to quality of life by providing access to external resources and networks? This also requires a better understanding of the initiatives taken by citizen, local business, third sector organisations and the government to assure the quality of life.

Towards Convivial Conservation: Radical ideas for saving nature in the Anthropocene

Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher (SDC)

In the Anthropocene – our alleged new phase of world history in which humans dominate the earth – system and the concept of ‘nature’ has become obsolete – the question of how to pursue conservation has become acute. Saving nature has, of course, never been an easy or straightforward proposition. But the alleged arrival of the Anthropocene seems to have upped the ante dramatically; the choices facing the conservation community have now become particularly stark. It is no surprise, therefore, that we have recently seen several dramatic proposals for reforming conservation and the rise of heated debates among them. One ‘radical’ proposal is ‘new’ or ‘Anthropocene’ conservation, which asserts that humans must take their Anthropocenic domination of nonhuman processes seriously and manage them to maximize both long-term sustainability and economic profits. This

position has in turn been met by a radical resurgence of neoprotectionism. Proponents of the latter view call (again) for a drastic expansion of strictly enforced protected areas, which many now believe should cover ‘at least’ half the earth’s surface. In this presentation, we reflect on and evaluate these radical conservation proposals in relation to contemporary ‘mainstream’ conservation and propose an alternative fourth position, which we call ‘convivial conservation’. Convivial conservation, we will argue, is the only radical conservation proposal that starts from a political ecological position centred on a critique of contemporary capitalism and concomitant ideas about (saving) nature. We therefore conclude that of the four major proposals discussed, it is the only realistic and positive way forward for conservation.

Reflections on active research into landslide and flood hazards in urban Brazil

Robert Coates (SDC)

In an era where many social disciplines eschew in-depth fieldwork in favour of desk-based production of critical theory, it is perhaps ever more pertinent to reassert the importance of ‘real world’ study and the role of critical researchers as active agents of the cases and issues they wish to critique or de/construct. This presentation reflects on fieldwork in Brazil, which drew the researcher into both vulnerable and formal governmental spaces, and placed him as a part of the hazardous urban ecology he was trying to understand. In the context of both increasing casualties from these annual rainy-season ‘emergencies’ and ongoing contentious infrastructural works in pursuit of urban resilience, gaining an understanding of the framing of hazards and disaster by both state and vulnerable actors was paramount. If risk management had failed for almost two centuries, what hope should there be for successful interventions today? In this sense, critique opera ted at the intersection of an acceptance of ongoing disaster and the imagination of possible alternatives. An active research process entailed reflection, dialogue, and learning between researcher and researched, and where the researcher’s pursuit of critical knowledge also occasioned being called upon as a conduit for information between different actors.

Critique as a joke: On embracing the ridiculous in the face of planetary emergency

Clemens Driessen (GEO)

This brief presentation hopes to launch a conversation on the critical nature of attempts at academically informed humour. Besides common challenges associated with jokes –most poignantly them being just not funny– the role of the ridiculous is not obvious as a form of engaging with serious issues. Can work that starts from the experience of the utterly weird (rather than solely evil) character of our socioecotechnopolitical predicament be considered critique? Is there space for affective registers besides anger, despair, and cool analysis when dealing with injustice and suffering associated with environmental destruction? Is it only wry humour and dark jokes that come up, or can we produce playful processes of shared inquiry that are also propelled by fascination and wonder? I will talk about some examples from my own work where I tried to be funny, involving Nazi cows, playing with pigs, and boats for toads. Of course animals are easy to make fun of. But hopefully they allow me to make the wider claim that sometimes academic engagement with environmental and other concerns may afford us to be both ridiculous and critical, constructive and subversive, serious and funny.

Landscapes and Lawscapes: Institutional proliferation and the limits of legal pluralism

Han van Dijk (SDC)

The landscape approach is increasingly taken as a new approach to look at complex situations of natural resource management. Landscapes are composed of different vegetation units that provide different resources and socio-ecological niches for different users of natural resources. At the same time these landscapes are imbued with power relations, for example manifested in the rules, institutions and regulations providing access to these resources and niches. Over time, colonial laws, land reforms, administrative decentralization policies and development efforts, conflict and displacement have added new layers of rules and institutions over these landscapes, a situation denoted with the term legal pluralism Despite the fact that many of these polices were meant to improve access to land for the vulnerable and tenure security, in many cases the opposite has happened. The proliferation of institutions and the lack of clarity about their scope and authority has led to increasing confusion and conflict. It opened new possibilities for powerful outsiders, such as the state and (international) business to get control over resources formerly owned and managed by rural populations. This will be illustrated with case -studies from Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan. It will be concluded that reform of resource management regimes is increasingly leading to power- based solutions rather than rule-based solutions as resource governance regimes are increasingly under pressure because of contesting claims and powerful outsiders. Legal pluralism, which was regarded as a situation that provided flexibility to resource governance regimes has become a problem rather than a solution.

The drifter: Mapping the r/urban landscape of post-Apartheid South Africa in the quest for secure livelihoods, better lives and a clear identity

Paul Hebinck (SDC)

In this paper we seek to develop an argument indicating the importance of the notion of the ‘drifter’, which refers to those who are shifting, physically and/or mentally, between rural and urban domains, as part of an identity which is no longer outright agrarian nor wholly urbanite. The term drifter gives necessary emphasis to the agency of individuals and the social constellations they are part of, to explain how the dichotomy of rural and urban regions has become more and more problematic. These drifters play on hybrid thinking, derived from concomitant attachments to both rural and urban sites through an array of interrelating social, economic and cultural fields, to pursue their livelihoods and chase ambitions towards achieving certain identities. This results in heterogeneous attachments to both the rural and urban, with traditional cultural overtones such as the need to be ‘home’ in the village for rituals like the coming of age for young men mixing in happily with in tensive use of social media, that provide new income opportunities, global connections, and the means to organize their degree of mobility. Translocalism provides a useful theoretical lense to examine the fluidity of urban and rural as distinct categories. Empirically our focus is on South Africa, more particularly on actors deriving from the villages of Guquka and Koloni, two Xhosa villages located in the central Eastern Cape.

New words for the permanently temporary: language and theory for the routinization of humanitarian governance in situations of contested mobility

Bram Jansen (SDC)


Global refugee and migration movements are reportedly at an all -time high and of increasing duration. As a result, refugees and migrants, their settlements, and the interventions aimed at governing them,are increasingly permanent parts of“normal”socio-political orders.The result is a routinization of emergency governance to govern undesirable, irregular or illegal forms of migration in specific socio-spatial arrangements. Emblematic for this are protracted “city-camps” (Agier 2011) in places such as Thailand, Jordan, and Kenya, but also increasingly in more informal settlements in and around Europe as a result of the recent “refugee/migration crisis”. As a re sult, a new language and conceptual understanding emerges that seeks to come to terms with “permanently temporary” dislocations and its socio-spatial manifestations and effects. Minca (2015) notes the “normalisation” of the geography of the camp, to which others attribute concepts as “campscapes”(Martin2015), or“campzenship”(Sigona2015)in recognition of particular socio-political processes and organisation that moves beyond emergency epistemes and humanitarian and normative discourses. These notions contribute to a de-exceptionalization of migration crises and responses, and highlight the emergence of new conceptual and theoretical approaches to come to terms with long(er)-term humanitarian governance and its effects in sites of contested mobility. This paper traces this new vocabulary and its effects on refugee and migration theory.

Difference and Solidarity within the PAH (Platform of Mortgage Victims) in Spain

Monique Nuijten (SDC)

This presentation discusses feelings and practices of politics and solidarity within the PAH (Platform of Mortgage Victims) in Spain. The PAH was established in 2009, shortly after the economic crisis when it became impossible for many Spanish citizens to comply with their monthly mortgage obligations. After a steep increase of house evictions and suicides, the PAH emerged in Barcelona and soon spread out all over the country. The PAH supports afectados (mortgage victims) by informing them about the rules concerning mortgages and guiding them in their negotiations with the banks. The PAH also denounced many illegal practices by the Spanish banks and managed to make the banks revise their policies with respect to mortgage victims. The PAH soon turned into a powerful national movement. In the PAH different classes of people meet. However, more vulnerable classes, such as low-income families and migrants are hit hardest by the mortgage crisis. Although an important message of the PAH is that people empower themselves and learn from each other’s experiences, during the activities one can clearly distinguish between the activists (the most active and leading participants) and the afectados (mortgage victims who come for help) within the PAH. Some afectados (have) become leaders in the movement later on. Hence, within the PAH people from different background are joined in a common project of economic and political justice. This presentation discusses how people i n the PAH (activists as well as afectados) see themselves as political agent in the current situation. People in the PAH convey much anger with the present political system and express a strong need for justice and solidarity. The focus is on the way the people themselves talk about this and the vocabulary they use for it.

The Museum of Cañete as a cultural platform for indigenous political disagreement: Mapuche performances towards a critique of the neoliberal order, and the influences of the agroforestry in Arauco Province, Chile

Nikolas Studemann Henriquez (SDC)

This presentation addresses the case of the Mapuche Museum of Cañete, which, through participatory processes, has established a new cultural platform for the indigenous communities of Arauco Province. While being engaged in a political conflict with the state and agroforestry interests,the Mapuche are using this infrastructure and public spaces to express their political dissent, confronting the neoliberal – multicultural logic proposed by the state to categorize them. From here, I analyse the construction of a new space, as a window for the Mapuche political disagreement, in a social/political context where they have no place, as subjects historically marginalized by the dominant order. Specifically, I focus on cultural/political performances by the Mapuche, which are related with main socio-environmental problems derived from the Chilean neoliberal control of the land; represented the latter (from the Mapuche view), through the agroforestry us ing their ancestral territories. I argue that, nowadays, these acts are relevant as political critiques/alternatives/proposals, which confronts this neoliberal logic of controlling the land.

Corruption, Left castration and the decay of an urban popular movement in Brazil: A melancholy story

Pieter de Vries (SDC)

This presentation reflects on the current situation of disarray within the Left, what I call Left melancholy, or castration, by analysing first the discourse of corruption in Brazil and second the history of the decay of a popular urban social movement in Recife. The analysis rests on two arguments. First, Left melancholy is a narcissistic sentiment resulting from a feeling of loss the subject experiences when compromising her desire. The loss of the object of desire (that of radical transformation) generates feelings of guilt and disorientation that are sublimated by a never-ending drive to get things done, as manifested in the enjoyment of corruption and engagement in a multitude of dispersed and fragmented developmental activities without a clear goal. In theoretical terms this is a shift from desire to drive: while in desire the object of desire is (originally) lost, in drive loss itself becomes the object. My second argument is that the disavowal of Left desire — or Left castration — in Brazil expresses itself in a defined biopolitics that emerges as a byproduct of the clash between popular participation and neoliberal market forces. The result of this (failed) encounter is the hollowing out of popular sovereignty. This biopolitics, I contend,has the structure of drive. I end the presentation by reflecting on the potentiality of drive to reconstitute a Leftist structure of desire.

Exploring the transformative capacity of sustainable place-shaping practices

Anke de Vrieze and Dirk Roep (RSO)

This is a presentation about SUSPLACE, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network funded by the European Commission coordinated by the Rural Sociology Group. SUSPLACE will train 15 Early Stage Researchers in innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to study and further enhance sustainable place-shaping practices. The project runs four years from October, 1 2015 until September 30, 2019. Sustainable placeshaping is framed within a relational approach to place. Places are seen as the in time and space differentiated outcomes, shaped at the intersection of unbound ecological,political-economic and socio-cultural ordering processes. Places are mutually shaped and reshaped and interconnected by these (trans)formation processes. Although places do have some endurance, they are dynamic and always under construction. Transformation processes have so far provoked many unsustainabilities in and across places, such as inequalities, exclusion, poverty, economic shrinkage, resource depletion, ecological hazards and food insecurity.Nowadays we witness a wide array of citizens’ initiatives developing sustainable practices and building the capacities to transform their place according to their ideas, needs and demands. This transformative capacity of sustainable place-shaping practices entails a well-balanced:
•socio-cultural re-appreciation of respective places;
•ecological re-grounding of practices in place-specific assets and resources;
•political-economic re-positioning towards dominant markets, technology and policies.
The SUSPLACE programme will explore the potential of the transformative capacity in a selection of initiatives in 15 research projects under the heading of five interrelated themes: Inclusive Places, Resilient Places, Connected Places, Greening Economies and Pathways to Sustainability.

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