Author: Camille Wright

Camille Wright was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is currently the Books Publicity Assistant at Duke University Press, where she started as a journals marketing intern in May 2017, and CEO and founder of Merch by Millie, a handmade apparel and accessories shop. Other organizations Wright is involved with include Believe Ticket Project, where she creates email campaigns, graphic content, fact sheets and ask letters, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and Girl Scouts of America.

Q&A with Gökçe Günel, Author of Spaceship in the Desert

GOKCE_PORTREGökçe Günel is Assistant Professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona and the author of the new book Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi. In Spaceship in the Desert, Günel examines the development and construction of Masdar City, a zero-carbon city built by Abu Dhabi that houses a research institute for renewable energy which implemented a series of green technologies and infrastructures as a way to deal with climate change and prepare for a post-oil future.

How did this project start? What brought you to the Spaceship in the Desert?

I visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time in 2008, hoping to learn more about the planned city projects burgeoning in the region. But after the economic crisis of 2008, many of these projects were on the verge of collapse. Masdar City was an exception in that it continued to exist beyond the economic crisis. In addition to offering insights about large-scale real estate development projects, this zero-carbon city proposed innovative ways of imagining energy and climate futures. To gain access to the project, I contacted faculty members at Masdar Institute— the energy-focused research center that was set up inside Masdar City by MIT’s Technology and Development Program. Between January 2010 and June 2011, I conducted most of the fieldwork for Spaceship in the Desert, focusing on the design and construction of Masdar City, while interrogating how oil-rich economies, like the UAE, prepare for a time with less oil.

What is Masdar City and what are the “technical adjustments” that it and similar projects generate?

Masdar (meaning “source” in Arabic) is a multifaceted renewable energy and clean technology company sponsored by the Abu Dhabi government. It is most widely known for Masdar City, a futuristic eco-city that was designed by the London-based architecture office Foster + Partners to rely entirely on renewable energies. According to initial plans, Masdar City would house fifty thousand residents and forty thousand commuters on a 600-hectare area. Masdar Institute, the energy-focused research center that was set up and supervised by MIT’s Technology and Development Program, started offering graduate degrees inside the eco-city in September 2010.

However, the Masdar City master plan was soon cancelled, along with many other innovative projects taking place on the Masdar City grounds. Today Masdar City is more or less a special economic zone for renewable energy and clean technology companies.

While the eco-city was central to Masdar’s development, Masdar also invested in renewable energy through its other operations—Masdar Power, Masdar Carbon, and Masdar Capital—in an attempt to ensure Abu Dhabi will remain a significant player in the energy industry, well after its oil reserves run dry.

In the book, I propose the idea of “technical adjustments” as a way of thinking more holistically about the business models, design solutions and technological fixes, which address climate change and energy scarcity. Broadly speaking, I understand technical adjustments as imaginative and wide-ranging responses to global climate change and energy scarcity, which open up certain interventions (such as extending technological complexity) while foreclosing others (such as asking larger-scale moral, ethical, and political questions regarding how to live). While producing innovative and at times fun artifacts, technical adjustments obfuscate the simple realization that humans cannot continue to live and consume as they do.

The adjustments I observed at Masdar City involved market-oriented technical fixes—such as green buildings, research into renewable energy and clean technology, novel ways of imagining exchange, innovative designs for vehicles, and new global governance mechanisms—that promote a belief in the possibility of sustaining the status quo and even improving life for certain segments of society. The book’s chapters look into these projects in detail.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that these strategies are not unique to Masdar City – we see them all over the world. Electric cars, biodegradable plastic bags, and energy-efficient light bulbs provide the piecemeal means through which humans seek to extend their lifestyles into the future while tackling climate change and preserving the status quo. These adjustments guide living arrangements and shape social possibilities in technocratic, typically anthropocentric, ways, along lines drawn by affluent nations. The future becomes a thinly veiled version of the present.

You have focused several of your chapters around metaphors and metonymy that people at Masdar used to describe Masdar City: “a technocratic dictatorship,” “an expensive toy,” and “spaceship and the desert.” What do these concepts mean in your work and how did “spaceship in the desert” become the metaphor that represents your project as a whole?

Metaphors help people see things in new ways. By tracing the kinds of metaphors people used to describe Masdar, I was able to observe how the producers of Masdar made sense of their worlds. What were some of the qualities they noticed about the project, but did not explicitly put into words? Some of these descriptions were forms of criticism directed towards the project (such as “technocratic dictatorship” and “expensive toy”), while others (such as “spaceship in the desert”) perhaps constituted praise.

Spaceship in the Desert became the overarching metaphor for the book, because it encapsulates many aspects of Masdar City, and many aspects of climate change mitigation today. As I say in the book, the spaceship signifies enclosure, archiving, selection, hierarchy, movement, and—most importantly—the maintenance of strict boundaries between interior and exterior spaces. It promotes a technocratic and exclusive universalism, a kind of Noah’s ark that will help save a select few, and produces the outside as a vacuum that should not be inhabited. In this context, the desert becomes the ultimate empty space upon which new ideas can be imposed (though as we all know it is not empty). Many colonialist and settler colonialist projects have framed the desert as this blank or ruined space, which can be fixed with the help of technology and proper governance. And if you think about space movies, you will see that many of them employ desert terrains. Just yesterday, I was reading about how in the movie Star Wars: Episode IV— A New Hope, the Tunisian desert doubled as the landscape of a distant planet called Tatooine. In such spacefaring movies, characters often plot out scenarios that prioritize enclosure for some over collective survival. In this imagination of the future, what happens to those who are left outside the spaceship? By unpacking the metaphor of a spaceship in the desert, I show what kinds of perceptions this praise inheres and renders invisible. Broadly speaking, by thinking through the idea of spaceship in the desert, I’m trying to interrogate why, how and if humans have abandoned the possibility of collective survival at a time of climate change and energy scarcity.

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Spaceship in the Desert contains many interesting moments of irony and contradiction. For example, in your introduction you mention that this book project on renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures is in large part built on ethnographic research conducted inside SUVs driving the highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. What is your favorite contradiction that emerged in the course of researching or writing this book?

When the Masdar City project was publicized, many thought it was ironic that an oil-rich state was venturing into renewable energy and clean technology initiatives. But for decision-makers in Abu Dhabi, this made sense. They were embedded in energy sector networks; all they had to do was to retool these networks to employ them for these new purposes. It wasn’t necessarily paradoxical. I’m sharing this, mainly because it was the original irony of the project, but for people in Abu Dhabi, it wasn’t a contradiction. I think this realization alone made me understand how renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures were ways of maintaining the status quo, especially for those who imagined the status quo as a best-case scenario. For some people, today is a utopia, which needs to be stretched further into the future with the help of technical adjustments.

You describe a focus on the future, rather than the present, in the technology, strategies, and appearance of Masdar City. What were the consequences of this focus for Masdar City?

Many of the people I met at Masdar City enjoyed contextualizing their projects in multiple scales at once – say, the immediate space of Masdar City in conjunction with the space of the planet or the universe. They went back and forth between these scales, and this spatial imagination also had temporal equivalents. They could talk about the future, which comprised an undefined stretch of time, the same way they talked about the universe.

But it wasn’t only the people at Masdar City who had this fascination with the future. Renewable energy and clean technology companies everywhere share this disposition. In one part of the book, I discuss how renewable energy and clean technology companies embody a messianic promise, seeking to liberate humanity from its guilt-ridden consciousness of the twentieth century. Perhaps the twentieth century was a time of decadent pleasures, but the future would be characterized by responsible consumption of resources (under the tutelage of these companies).

In this framework, the present mattered for its perpetual potential, prompting renewable energy and clean technology companies to refer to the abstract planetary-scale transformations they could one day trigger and implement. In the book, I explore how people at Masdar City experienced this potential. How exactly do people feel potential, and feel that they can rely and act upon technical adjustments to confront climate change and energy scarcity? How is potential negotiated, realized, limited, or changed? I demonstrate that switching scales and talking about the universe and the future are methods for ensuring such potentiality.

Did your views on climate change, and the strategies for addressing it, shift in the course of completing Spaceship in the Desert? In what way?

Yes, definitely. The project showed me how climate change requires humans to go beyond piecemeal solutions, such as the technical adjustments of Masdar City. These piecemeal solutions are crafted with the goal of ensuring economic growth. Given current climate change scenarios, we need to reevaluate these expectations, and imagine a future that does not prioritize growth. Humans need to drastically reduce their production and consumption, and think about altering the status quo, not preserving it.

What future do you see for renewable energy and green living projects based on your research? What lessons or reflections do you hope readers will draw from Spaceship in the Desert?

In some ways, I would like readers to have a sense of the wide-range of innovations that respond to energy scarcity and global climate change, such as building an eco-city, replacing national currencies with energy-based currencies, or implementing personal rapid transit. It is great to see so many smart people working on significant environmental issues, especially in a context that is not known for breakthroughs in science and technology. But at the same time, I would like readers to be aware that while these innovations are important, they are not necessarily solutions for the climate crisis. The only way human can mitigate that problem is by rethinking the main tenets of capitalism.

Pick up your paperback copy of Spaceship in the Desert for 30% off using coupon code E19GUNEL on our website.

Celebrating International Women’s Day

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Today is International Women’s Day, a day to recognize the achievements of women globally. This year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter: building a more gender-balanced world. We’re excited to share recent books and journals from Duke University Press that align with this mission and celebrate women around the world and throughout history.

Black Feminism Reimagined

In Black Feminism Reimagined Jennifer C. Nash reframes black feminism’s engagement with intersectionality, contending that black feminists should let go of their possession and policing of the concept in order to better unleash black feminist theory’s visionary and world-making possibilities.

The contributors to Seeking Rights from the Left, edited by Elisabeth Jay Friedman, evaluate the impact of the Latin American “Pink Tide” of left-leaning governments (2000-2015) on feminist, women’s, and LGBT movements and issues.

Second World, Second SexKristen Ghodsee recuperates the lost history of feminist activism in Second World, Second Sex by showing how women from state socialist Bulgaria and socialist-leaning Zambia created networks and alliances that challenged American women’s leadership of the global women’s movement.

A Primer for Teaching Women, Gender, and Sexuality in World History by Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks and Urmi Engineer Willoughby is a guide for college and high school teachers who are teaching women, gender, and sexuality history for the first time, for experienced teachers who want to reinvigorate their courses, for those who are training future teachers to prepare their own syllabi, and for teachers who want to incorporate the subject into their world history classes.

The contributors to Spirit on the Move, edited by Judith Casselberry and Elizabeth A. Pritchard, examine Pentecostalism’s appeal to black women worldwide and the ways it provides them with a source of community, access to power, and way to challenge social inequalities. Spirit on the Move will be out in April.

Vexy ThingIn Vexy Thing Imani Perry recenters patriarchy to contemporary discussions of feminism through a social and literary analysis of cultural artifacts—ranging from nineteenth-century slavery court cases and historical vignettes to literature and contemporary art—from the Enlightenment to the present.

Drawing on numerous examples from popular culture, Sarah Banet-Weiser examines the relationship between popular feminism and popular misogyny in her book, Empowered, as it plays out in advertising, online and multi-media platforms, and nonprofit and commercial campaigns, showing how feminism is often met with a backlash of harassment, assault, and institutional neglect.

You may also be interested in these journals in feminist and women’s studies:

MER_17_2_coverimageMeridians, an interdisciplinary feminist journal, features scholarship and creative work by and about women of color in U.S. and international contexts. It engages the complexity of debates around feminism, race, and transnationalism in a dialogue across ethnic, national, and disciplinary boundaries.

differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies highlights interdisciplinary, theoretical debates that address the ways concepts and categories of difference—notably but not exclusively gender—operate within culture. It first appeared in 1989 at the moment of a critical encounter—a head-on collision, one might say—of theories of difference (primarily Continental) and the politics of diversity (primarily American).

MEW_15_1_coverimageThe Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies advances the fields of Middle East gender, sexuality, and women’s studies through the contributions of academics, artists, and activists from around the globe working in the interpretive social sciences and humanities.

Camera Obscura provides a forum for scholarship and debate on feminism, culture, and media studies. It explores areas such as the conjunctions of gender, race, class, and sexuality with audiovisual culture; new histories and theories of film, television, video, and digital media; and politically engaged approaches to a range of media practices.

 

Black History Month Reads

To celebrate Black History Month, we are featuring some of our recent books and journals that explore Black and African-American history, issues, and culture.

978-1-4780-0089-1Bloodflowers by W. Ian Bourland examines the photography of Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955–1989). Fani-Kayode’s art is a touchstone for cultural debates surrounding questions of gender and queerness, race and diaspora, aesthetics and politics, and the enduring legacy of slavery and colonialism.

In Black Feminism Reimagined, Jennifer C. Nash reframes black feminism’s engagement with intersectionality, contending that black feminists should let go of their possession and policing of the concept in order to better unleash black feminist theory’s visionary and world-making possibilities.

Drawing on writing by medieval thinkers and travelers, Enlightenment theories of race, the commodification of women’s bodies under slavery, and the work of Tyler Perry and Bishop T. D. Jakes, in Jezebel UnhingedTamura Lomax shows how black women are written into religious and cultural history as sites of sexual deviation. Lomax traces the historical and contemporary use of the jezebel trope in the black church and in black popular culture, showing how it disciplines black women and girls and preserves gender hierarchy, black patriarchy, and heteronormativity in black families, communities, cultures, and institutions.

ZaborowskaMagdalena J. Zaborowska uses James Baldwin’s house in the south of France as a lens through which to reconstruct his biography for her book Me and My House. She explores the politics and poetics of blackness, queerness, and domesticity in his complex and underappreciated later works.

In None Like Us Stephen Best offers a bold reappraisal of the critical assumptions that undergird black studies’ use of the slave past as an explanatory prism for understanding the black political present, thereby opening the circuits between past and present and charting a queer future for black study.

In her book, Vexy Thing, Imani Perry recenters patriarchy to contemporary discussions of feminism through a social and literary analysis of cultural artifacts—ranging from nineteenth-century slavery court cases and historical vignettes to literature and contemporary art—from the Enlightenment to the present.

Black feminist critic Ann duCille combines cultural critique with personal reflections on growing up with TV as a child in the Boston suburbs in Technicolored to examine how televisual representations of African Americans—ranging from I Love Lucy to How to Get Away with Murder—have changed over the last sixty years.

In Murder on Shades Mountain, Melanie S. Morrison tells the tragic story of the murder and attempted murder of three young women in 1930s Birmingham, Alabama, and the aftermath, which saw a reign of terror unleashed on the town’s black community, the wrongful conviction and death sentencing of Willie Peterson, and a black-led effort to free Peterson.

MahlerFrom the Tricontinental to the Global South by Anne Garland Mahler traces the history and intellectual legacy of the understudied global justice movement called the Tricontinental and calls for a revival of the Tricontinental’s politics as a means to strengthen racial justice and anti-neoliberal struggles in the twenty-first-century.

In Fugitive Modernities, Jessica A. Krug traces the history and meaning of Kisama—a seventeenth-century fugitive slave community located in present-day Angola—by showing how it operated as a inspirational global symbol of resistance for fugitives on both sides of the Atlantic.

As the contributors to “African Feminisms,” a special issue of Meridians, show, African feminisms not only vary widely in form but also maintain vibrant and sometimes tense relations with one another around topics such as sexuality, national policies, and transnational solidarity. Read the issue, freely available through March 5.

Global Black Consciousness,” a special issue of Nka, aims to open up and complicate the key paradigms that have shaped the vibrant work on theories and cultural productions of the African diaspora. Contributors offer a critical and nuanced analysis of global black consciousness as both a citing of diasporic flows and a grounded site of decolonizing movement.

American Historical Association, 2019

We had a great time selling books, meeting customers and authors, and celebrating award winners at the 2019 American Historical Association annual meeting last week in Chicago. Thank you to everyone who came by our booth to browse our stock or say hello.

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Mikael Wolfe, author of Watering the Revolution,  Elinor K. Melville Prize winner

Congratulations to the award winners! Check out some of the other authors and editors who stopped by.

If you were unable to make it out to AHA, or didn’t have enough room in your luggage to pack all the books you wanted, don’t worry—you can still take advantage of the conference discount by using coupon code AHA19 at dukeupress.edu.