From Abjection to Natality

This essay was written by myself and Lisa Baraitser for an art catalogue ‘Private View: Public Birth’ on the occasion of an exhibition by the artist Helen Knowles September 2013 at GV Art in London.

I have been working with Helen and other artists connected with the birth rites collection since 2009, when I organised an interdisciplinary symposium ‘On Birth’ at Lancaster University. My interest in this field/ area of research, and my interest in working with artists in this area, is driven by a feminist, critical and political concern with rethinking “labour” and “capital” –but unusually in a way which insists we think “labour” in ways which think childbirth, mothering,  (the sexual politics of social reproduction) alongside more conventional notions of labour as paid work.

There is something fundamental about the social and cultural place of birth and the maternal which I would suggest needs restating, and reclaiming as a ground within all radical projects concerned with re-commoning the world (see also ‘Naked Protest’ in Revolting Subjects which develops these ideas through a critical engagement with Agamben).

From Abjection to Natality: Some Thoughts on artist Helen Knowles “Youtube Birth Series”

Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser

In the last three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in media representations of childbirth, notably within cinema, reality television and television drama, online video-sharing platforms, pornographic film, and in fine art practice. As yet, however, there is little scholarship on the implications of the new visual culture of childbirth and its relationship to earlier primarily feminist debates about ‘the taboo aesthetics of the birth scene’ (see Tyler & Clements 2009). Outside the important work of a small number of artists who opened up childbirth as a viable artistic subject during feminism’s second wave[1], and the medical, health and instructional contexts that have in effect ‘confined’ its visualization, childbirth has until recently remained ‘the great unseen’ of European culture. Furthermore, if, as a European philosophical and psychoanalytic tradition has variously argued, maternal origin – the fact of our birth – is the obscene ‘open secret’ which we must psychologically disavow in order to emerge as distinct and bounded subjects (Beauvoir, 1953; Arendt, 1958; Kristeva, 1986), then the new graphic visibility of birth within public culture is suggestive of a significant historical and psychosocial shift that bears closer examination.

It is not simply that representations of birth have multiplied and changed, but the fact that so many public kinds of representations of birth are now possible, with each representational form raising a series of social and political questions: What, for example, does it mean that women can now routinely watch home movies of themselves giving birth, and share those movies with a nebulous online ‘public’ around the world? What is the significance of the fact that a generation is now able to watch audio-visual footage of themselves being born? Given a philosophical history in which birth has been imagined as unrepresentable and unknowable, how might we understand the feminist politics of these public cultures of birth? And, in a more theoretical register, do theories of abjection, so prominent in feminist scholarly and aesthetic work during the 1980s and 1990s still offer helpful ways of understanding the simultaneity of over-exposure, and the selective sanitization and normalization that characterize many of the prevailing media depictions, and, in particular, televisual representations of childbirth? If not, then what alternative theoretical concepts might we turn to?

Engaging with Knowles’ ‘YouTube births’ series and moving away from the theories of abjection that were so prominent in feminist scholarly and aesthetic work through the last two decades, we briefly argue here for a renewed engagement with the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) concept of ‘natality’ as a way of understanding the new visual culture of birth.

The birthrites collection

The artist Helen Knowles is one of the originators of the UK birthrites collection, which she describes as ‘the first and only collection of contemporary artworks on the subject of childbirth’ in the contemporary art world (Knowles, 2010). The birthrites collection was established in 2009, following an initial birthrites exhibition which opened at the Glasgow Science Centre and toured to the Manchester Museum in 2008. The collection now includes: paintings and drawings by Matt Collier and Suzanne Holtom; photographic work by Hermione Wiltshire, Patrick Millard and Liv Pennington; ceramics and sculpture by Ping Qiu; wallpaper installation by Francesca Granato and Helen Knowles; artists’ books by Helen Knowles; and media installations and experimental films by Jaygo Bloom, Annabel Newfield and Andy Lawrence. In addition, it has recently received a donation of four works by Judy Chicago, from her birth project, ‘Through the Flower’ (made in collaboration with a number of textile workers between 1980-1985). The birthrites collection is currently housed in the UK, between the Midwifery Department at Salford University in Greater Manchester, and the Royal College of Gynaecology in London. A number of pieces in the collection were originally produced through collaborations between these artists, and birth practitioners such as independent midwives and gynaecologists who came together to consider the social, cultural and political implications of current birth practices. Indeed, it is clear that the collection is ‘at home’ within the medical institutional context of women’s reproductive health, and is regularly drawn on as an important resource by a number of different groups and organizations, researchers and practitioners for educational purposes around the complex, diverse and politically charged practices of childbirth. By situating itself within and in relation to the very institutions (those of midwifery and gynaecology) that have contributed to the current medicalized practices of birth, the birthrites collection has played an important function in allowing historical and prevailing understandings of birth to be opened up to reflection, critique and analysis. However, it appears that the collection has been less welcomed by major public art-spaces, by curators of art shows, or commentators on contemporary art practice. As Knowles noted in relation to the first birthrites exhibition, ‘we didn’t originally intend to show it in science venues. We intended it for art galleries. But what we’re finding is that there’s still a lot of fear around the subject matter’ (Knowles, 2010). It is this abject fear, and in particular the affective horror associated with birth, which, we want to suggest, is being transformed by the proliferation of new visual cultures of birth.

YouTube Births

As well as working on developing the birthrites collection, Knowles has been sustained and prolific in her artistic engagement with the visual culture of birth. In the series of work ‘YouTube Births’, Knowles is engaged in what she terms ‘plundering’ cultural images of birth from YouTube videos.  In her forays into online birth videos, Knowles is seeking to capture those moments when birth occurs, producing large-scale screen-prints from screen-grabs ‘of women’s faces exhaling and reclining at the moment the baby crowns’ (Knowles, 2010). Knowles method, making screen prints from a digital projector, is an unusual one. The process involves finding and watching digital, audio-visual videos of childbirth, capturing still images from these films, projecting these images onto large pieces of hand-made Fabriano paper and transforming them into still art-objects:  aesthetic and material objects which attempt to ‘capture’ the act of crowning in its extremity and liminiality.  The first series of art-works produced as part of her Ecstatic Labour series, ‘Heads of Women in Labour’ (2011), consists of four large black and white screen prints of women’s faces at the point of crowning, captured from YouTube videos [see images at]. On the `Heads of Women in Labour’ series Knowles asks:

Why does the ecstatic image of a woman’s face […] become significant when you realise it is actually appropriated from YouTube, posted by the woman herself, as a record of her birth? The intimate narrative of birth played out on the internet is of course ‘family viewing’ and yet it opens up the taboo yet undeniable link between sex and birth challenging the separation between women as mothers and women as sexual entities’ (Knowles, 2010) .

Interestingly, childbirth reality television emerged out of a grassroots trend amongst parents to record childbirth on home video cameras. As digital video cameras have further ‘democratized’ film-making, the movement to film childbirth has grown. The emergence of online video-sharing platforms (such as YouTube) now means that millions of graphic and often unedited ‘home-made’ childbirth films can now be viewed online. The feminist geographer Robyn Longhurst (2009) undertook a small-scale, qualitative research project in 2008, which involved viewing and making notes on several hundred online videos of birth on YouTube and analysing the accompanying posts and commentaries about the videos. Longhurst also concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that while these films have the potential to open up new ways of perceiving birth they also typically privilege specific cultural – notably US – experiences of childbirth, and present a largely homogenous and medicalized perspective on birth practices.  However, in her engagement with YouTube birth films, Knowles transforms the normativity and banality of ‘disposable’ videos of childbirth, ordinarily consumed online in spaces of privacy, into screen captured art-works that evoke a ‘sacred’ aesthetic and become tangible material objects, to be contemplated and considered within the public space of the gallery.

The taboos that unfold from the consideration of the relationship between sex, sexuality and childbirth in this work, are relentlessly pursued by Knowles. For example, the provocatively titled ‘”Раждане с оргазъм” Birth with orgasm’ (2012)[2], is one of a series of large digital screen prints, in which the pixelated quality of the screen grabs is transformed in screen printing process into highly textured images of women’s ‘childbirth ecstasy’.

This work is about ecstasy in the etymological sense of what is means to be moved outside of oneself: Birthing is imagined here as an extreme and borderline event, but also paradoxically an ordinary and everyday experience of becoming more than one. As Knowles’ work suggests, this ecstasy is at once captured and uncapturable: in the case of the ‘YouTube series’ this uncapturability is communicated in her work by the way in which the image ‘dissolves’ into incomprehensible details of colour as the viewer approaches and gets close-up to the image  (figure 6). If, as the feminist philosopher Christine Battersby argues, ‘we are lacking models that explain how identity might be retained whilst impregnated with otherness, and whilst other selves are generated from within the embodied self’ (Battersby 1998, 18), then Knowles’ work attempts precisely to communicate the paradox of what is knowable about women’s experiences of birth at the material limits of self/other relationality.

What is perhaps most theoretically interesting about Knowles’ work on the ecstasies of birth is that it refuses an abject or monstrous paradigm, insisting instead on the experience of birth as a distinctly erotic and aesthetic experience of creation. An experience which, communicated in these art works, poses a feminist challenge to the mute passivity attributed to the birthing subject, and to the appropriation of birth as a metaphor for male artistic creation. This intervention is reminiscent of Sharon Old’s birth poem, ‘The Language of Brag’ (Olds, 1980), a feminist retort to the appropriation of birth in the gestating metaphors of male poets.

Reproaching the abject

Without denying that ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai 2005) such as disgust, revulsion, horror, or distaste may well circulate in relation to the visualization of childbirth, we want to start from a different perspective, deliberately distancing ourselves from a discourse that links birth and the maternal birthing body with the abject, even whilst we see that such a linkage is still at work in many aspects of contemporary culture. There is a problem with continuing to engage with abjection, even as an attempt to counter it, as the main theoretical concept for understanding the negative affect that clings to the maternal. As the psychoanalytic theorist Bracha Ettinger argues:

I am categorically opposed to the classical psychoanalytic claim recurrently emphasized by Lacan, Kristeva and others, […] making the womb that which must be rejected as the ultimate abject, and making this abject the necessary condition for the creation of the subject and the psychoanalytic process. It is precisely this mechanism that establishes the mother as an abject (Ettinger 2004, 76).

Similarly, Imogen Tyler (2009, 2013) has exposed the limits of Kristeva’s conceptualization of the maternal as abject and warned against the celebration of this account in Anglo-American feminist theoretical work.

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic account of the subject’s disavowal (abjection) of maternal origin relies upon her crafting of a deeply ambiguous conceptual status for the maternal which is founded in a distinction between the maternal as abstract thing and the maternal as lived and embodied modes of being. […] The appearance of the maternal as abject shapes the perception of maternal bodies and the experience of maternal subjects in the social world: it abjectifies women. Indeed, the break Kristeva posits between the maternal and maternal subjectivities enacts a classificatory violence which is lived (by all women) and is one which feminist politics must refuse by taking theory at its word (2013:112).

Following Ettinger and Tyler, we argue here that it is politically imperative that (both in theory and practice) we imagine the maternal in ways that resist the frame of abjection, which over and again relegate birth and maternal subjects to the status of ‘thing’.

We are all born. This alarmingly simple statement is derived from Hannah Arendt’s work on natality, and emphasises our condition as natals rather than mortals. Working against a long philosophical tradition that has given primacy to the shared horizon of death, in 1958 Arendt stated that ‘natality and not mortality, may be the central category of political thought’ (Arendt 1958, 9). When Arendt talks about politics, she is referring to the capacity to speak and act in the public sphere. Politics, for Arendt, occurs when people who are equals come together to discuss and debate their differences without aim, and without knowing what the outcome of such debate will be. In this sense, politics is, by definition, always a new beginning, a new attempt at moving into an unknown future, and is therefore linked with an originary beginning – that of birth itself. Without understanding birth as the ground of being (clearly distinguished from Dassein, the Heideggarian notion of being-towards-death), we cannot have politics. Arendt suggests that the absence of this primary fact from histories of thought represents a significant lacuna in political and philosophical traditions.  In defining the capacity to begin as specifically human, and unique to humans, Arendt follows Augustine: ‘That there be a beginning, man was created, before whom nobody was’, this being the foundational fact of all thought, all politics and all action. Humans, in other words, come into existence in order to inaugurate ‘beginning’, and it is this capacity to begin that is also potentially transformational – without some fundamental understanding of the place of beginning, there can be no freedom, no social change, and no human future. We are, of course, always born into specific historical and material conditions which we cannot simply alter at will. Our birth is utterly singular in this sense. But it is also fundamentally ‘common’ or shared. Arendt’s insistence on thinking natality as the basis for politics is radical in the context of a European tradition so overwhelming preoccupied with death, loss, terror and mourning, and at the same time this philosophical formulation provides an important counter-balance to understandings of birth that continue to link it to ‘ugly feelings’, whilst ignoring the potential for ‘birth’ to be understood as an ontological category – a category that brings ‘beginning’ into being.

There are obvious difficulties with Arendt’s account of natality in that childbirth (as opposed to the philosophical concept of natality) is an experience ’beyond speech’, and is therefore for Arendt ‘anti-political by definition’ (Arendt 1958, 63). The mother, as material fact, seems to disappear from Arendt’s account. Indeed for Arendt, the public sphere depends precisely on both the unpredictability of the future and the fact that ‘man does not know where he comes from’ (Arendt 1958, 63). So despite the radical break from tradition suggested by Arendt‘s concept of natality, her insistence on separating the concept of birth, (natality), from subjects who birth, (mothers), places her account within a familiar masculinist tradition in which birth only ever appears as ‘birth without women’. Yet a number of feminist philosophers including Adriana Cavarero (2000), Luce Irigaray (1985) and Christine Battersby (1998), and more latterly by Rachel Jones (2007), Alison Stone (2010), Lisa Guenther (2006) and Alison Martin (2002), have attempted to wrestle natality from Arendt and reemphasise the importance of the commonality of birth.


If in theorizing birth we always start with an abject body that must be continually resuscitated, we simply don’t get off the starting blocks. We must begin instead with the impossibility of abjection, precisely because we cannot get rid of our ‘common’ experience of beginning. Natality is richer theoretical frame for thinking birth, and women as birthing subjects. Natality is also suggestive of social and political struggles around birth, struggles which Knowles’ work, and the larger birthrites collection, by dint of its ambivalent positioning between the art world, the medical institutions and popular cultures of birth, poses. In engaging with Knowles’ ‘YouTube Series’, by positioning it in relation to broader changes in the visual culture of reproduction, and beginning to read it through what we have termed ‘natal politics’, what we hope to have begun is a shifting of critical commentary away from an abject paradigm, and towards creative practices of natality.

Works Cited

Arendt, H., 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Battersby, C., 1998. The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity. London; New York: Routledge.

Beauvoir, S. d., 1953. The Second Sex. London: Penquin.

Betterton, R., 2010. Maternal Embarrassment: Feminist Art and Maternal Affects. Studies in the Maternal, 1(1-2).

Cavarero, A., 2000. Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. London, New York: Routledge.

Ettinger, B., 2004. Weaving a Woman Artist with-in the Matrixial Encounter-Event. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(1), pp. 69-94.

Irigaray, L., 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman. New York: Cornell University Press.

Jones, R., 2007. The Relational Ontologies of Cavarero and Battersby: Natality, Time and the Self. In: The Other: Feminist Reflections in Ethics. London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 105-137.

Knowles, H., 2010. Interview (11 May 2010).

Kristeva, J., 1986. Stabat Mater. In: T. Moi, ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Colombia University Press.

Liss, A., 2009. Feminist Art and the Maternal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Longhurst, R., 2009. Youtube: A New Space for Birth?. Feminist Review, Volume 93, pp. 46-64.

Luxton, M., 2006. Feminist Political Economy in Canada and the Politics of Social Reproduction. In: Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-Liberalism. Quebec: McGill University Press, pp. 11-44.

Martin, A., 2002. Report on ‘Natality’ in Arendt, Cavarero and Irigaray. Paragraph, 25(1), pp. 32-54.

Ngai, S., 2005. Ugly Feelings: Literature, Affect, and Ideology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Olds, S., 1980. The Language of Brag. In: Satan Says: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Stone, A., 2010. Natality and mortality: rethinking death with Cavarero. Continental Philosophy Review, 43(4), pp. 353-372.

Tyler, I., 2009. Against Abjection. Feminist Theory, 10(1), pp. 77-98.

Tyler, I. 2013. Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London: Zed

Tyler, I. & Clements, J., 2009. The taboo aesthetics of the birth scene. Feminist Review, Volume 93, pp. 134-137.

[1] For significant examples of feminist art works on the maternal, see for example, Nancy Spero’s Female Bomb (1966); Monica Sjoo’s God Giving Birth (1968); Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-1985); Frida Kahlo’s My Birth (1932); Paula Rego’s Abortion Series Set of 8 Etchings Untitled IV (1999), and Louise Bourgeois’ The Birth (2007). For recent critical feminist writing on maternal art, see Betterton (2010) and Liss (2009).

[2] Раждане с оргазъм  is Bulgarian, and translates as `Birth with Orgasm’.

From ‘Chav’ to ‘Scrounger’ : Stigma and Social Class

Revised extract from ‘Britain and its Poor’ Revolting Subjects

The word ‘Chav’ is now so banal  – mouthed openly by primary school children (and sometimes by their teachers)-  it has been depleted as the de rigueur class pejorative amongst teenagers, university students, journalists and others concerned with “fashionable” practices of name-calling. In place of ‘chav’ we have a new vocabulary of class disgust for more austere hard times, a language characterised by barbed “nasty names” for those in receipt of state benefits: ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’……


Some might deny that labels such as ‘scrounging’ are ‘class names’ for the latest round of neoliberal disenfranchisement, but I want to argue that it is important to understand these naming practices as a class struggle.

It is worth remembering that when the term chav was first popularized, it was frequently denied by those who used it that it might be a pejorative ‘class name’. Indeed many political and expert social commentators still make this claim. For example, in May 2011 when Baroness Hussein-Ece, a Liberal Democrat Peer and a member of the coalition government’s Commission for Equality and Human Rights, tweeted, ‘Help. Trapped in a queue in chav-land! Woman behind me explaining latest EastEnders plot to mate, while eating largest bun I’ve ever seen’, journalists and political commentators were divided on what the tweeting of the word chav by a Government-appointed champion of equality and rights might have meant. The Baroness later attempted to defend herself by counter-tweeting that the word chav is ‘endearing in my part of town’. Other ‘evidence’ frequently cited in support of the claim that chav is not a pejorative word is the contention that working-class people use the term, and that it is frequently directed at rich celebrities (“the new planetary vulgate” via @tomslater42) as well as ‘poor people’. As the journalist Ed West wrote in The Telegraph in defence of Baroness Hussein-Ece:

The reason [chav spread with such speed] was because it so perfectly, and succinctly, described a type of person that almost everyone in Britain recognised […]. A type of person defined not just by their clothes, speech and mannerism but their lifestyle and attitude. […] Working-class people use it all the time, understand what it means and, if anything, dislike chavs more than anyone. Why? Because they have to live with them. Being a chav is not about being poor, or unskilled, or any of the traditional markers of the proletariat, but about attitude, and in particular one that lacks civic-mindedness and civility. That’s why it’s perfectly reasonable for people, of all classes, to mock them (West 2011).

For those on the left, however, the use of the term chav is indicative of ‘social racism’ (Burchill 2011) and ‘poisonous class bile’ (Toynbee 2011). As Toynbee writes on the Hussein-Ece affair:

She would presumably never say nigger or Paki, but chav is acceptable class abuse by people asserting superiority over those they despise. Poisonous class bile is so ordinary that our future king and his brother played at dressing up and talking funny at a chav party mocking their lower class subjects. Wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain’s great social fracture. Over the last 30 years the public monstering of a huge slice of the population by luckier, better-paid people has become commonplace. This is language from the Edwardian era of unbridled snobbery. […] The form and style may have changed – but the reality of extreme inequality and self-confident class contempt is back (Toynbee 2011).

As these two responses to Baroness Hussein-Ece’s tweet reveal, the chav has become a symbolic site of polarized struggles between left- and right-wing social commentators and experts. One of the things which characterizes this struggle is the way in which those who are most critical of this pejorative figuration of class disadvantage attempt to denaturalize the chav by positing an authentic and positive working class figure in its place. For example, in her article Toynbee invokes ‘the remarkably strong work ethic of those in jobs paying little more than benefits, the carers and cleaners doing essential work well, despite lack of money or respect’ (Toynbee, 2011).  This strategy of revitalizing working-class identities is also central to Owen Jones’s best-selling book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011). The positive critical reception to Jones’s book, and his subsequent media celebrity, has worked to stabilise the meaning of the term chav on the liberal-left as a pejorative name for the working class. This is a victory of sorts.

The creation of authentic working-class culture through the figure of the noble suffering worker has been a central strategy for post-war left politics since the second world-war (see Long 2008) and has a much longer history in, for example, 18th and 19th century workers’ struggles. The politicisation of class names is a critical counter-representational strategy that returns pejorative class names back to the elites who fabricated them. This is an important form of what feminist and post-colonial theorists term ‘strategic essentialism’ (see Spivak and also Irigaray) that enables the articulation of class solidarities. It is important to note that is also enables the often more problematic homogenisation and marketization of class differences as forms of popular entertainment.


While I am sympathetic with strategic essentialism as a political tactic, I also want to trouble the positing of authentic working-class identities as a ‘solution’ to the neoliberal political vilification of ‘Britain’s poor’ since, as Deranty notes, ‘[e]very time emancipatory political action attempts to ground itself in some essential property, it falls into contradictions and paradoxes that make it miss its self-given target [and] transform it into its opposite’ (Deranty 2010: p. 22).

In short, the ‘essentialist apriorism’ of ‘authentic class strategies’ risk reinforcing the forms of classificatory violence that they might ostensibly seek to contest (Laclau & Mouffe 2001: p. 177). For example, these strategies most often revolve around the axis of deserving/underserving poor and around particular notions of work, which excludes the gendered work of care and social reproduction (see Kathi Weeks  2012). As such, this ‘strategic essentialism’ often reinforces the same problematic opposition that Marx conjured up in the figure of the revolting feminized lumpen against which he crafted the gallant muscularity of the proletariat (see Revolting Subjects chapter six).

If we want to challenge the status quo, one of the things we need to unpick is the oppositional axis of deserving/underserving–and related to this  ‘the presupposition that work, or waged labor, is inherently a social and political good’ (Weeks 2012). We also need to address how figures such as  “the benefits scrounger” –whom is pitted against and constitutes the figure of “hard working families”–operate to sustain class hierarchies and values. How are these kinds of classed figures formed and materialised? What work do they do when activated in different mediums and contexts (ie. policy, popular culture)? and How might we resist the stigmatising effects of these figures on everyday understandings of inequality and disadvantage?

How to write a PhD (in three years)

How to write a PhD (in three years)

top twenty tips
from Dr Imogen Tyler (Doctoral Director, Lancaster University Sociology Department which is home to 85 PhDs and co-Director of the Centre for Gender & Women’s Studies where we are pioneering new forms of mutual writing support for MA, PhD students and staff at Lancaster.

  1. I (imogen) am writing a lecture called how to write a phd in 4 yrs – which is funny because I didn’t manage that myself – nevertheless 1/2
  2. I will tweet some top tips from myself and from Rowena Murray
    whose book — how to write a thesis- is my first top tip for phd students 2/2
  3. @cgwslancaster @PhDForum @SociologyLancs
    Imogen’s Top PhD writing tips
    Tip 1: buy yourself a copy of Rowena Murray “How to Write a Thesis”
  4. @cgwslancaster @SociologyLancs @PhDForum
    Tip 2
    Write every day. This might include
    Notes on readings
    Plans of work
  5. @SociologyLancs @PhDForum @cgwslancaster
    Tip 3
    You are a writer.
    Understand &. Visualise your PhD as “a long piece of writing” from outset
  6. @cgwslancaster
    Tip 4 Communicate with supervisor(s) ie. email them once a fortnight to say how you are getting on
  7. It is important to remember that you OWN the project. It is YOUR PhD. Your supervisor can advise you but you need to understand yourself as project manager, director, and worker.
  8. Tip 9
    Ownership. This is your project. Your supervisor can advise but you need to understand yourself as project manager & labourer.
  9. Tip 5
    Ask your supervisor(s) if you can a timetable meetings at the beginning of each time – this creates a writing structure for you
  10. Tip 6
    give your supervisors something to read for each meeting. It might only be a report but supervision often more productive with a focus
  11. Tip 7 have a 1)phd title 2) list of research questions & 3) working abstract. Regularly return to & revise these (& useful to do if “stuck”)
  12. Related to this tip, write an outline of the PhD structure –with key questions under chapter headings
    Rewrite this at regular intervals as the thesis develops.
    You supervisor might ask you for something like each once or twice or year or at panels, but surprisingly not all supervision processes involve this
    Lets look at some examples. of a working abstract, PhD outline and research questions. 
  13. Tip 8
    Writing is rewriting. Learning how to edit a major PhD skill. Reading passages of writing out loud can assist with editing process.
  14. Tip 9
    Organise your writing days & week ie. 2 x writing sessions of 2 hours each morning would be 20 writing hours a week.
  15. Tip 10
    a PhD is a project not a problem. You might encounter problems along the way but don’t turn the PhD itself into a problem “love it!”
  16. Tip 11 some premises
    1.Learning comes through writing
    2. Quality comes through revision
    3. Regular writing develops fluency (Murray p.18)
  17. Tip 12
    Fields & audience
    Which field(s) are you engaging with ( can be tricky if a few) helpful to imagine the ideal examiner to figure out
  18. it can be hard to define a field sometimes–you might work in the broad field of sociology, for example, but in a subfield of welfare studies, or critical race studies, or parenting studies–you need to be able to map this–and my students often actually do this in the form of a Venn style diagram (see slide)

  19. tip 13
    Be specific in writing goals ie. write 500 words about abjection this morning and NOT do some reading & make notes about abjection
  20. Tip 14
    Find 2 finished PhDs from lib in your field. Have a close read & use a supervision to discuss strengths, weaknesses– helps a lot
  21. Tip 15 if you isolated find a group of people online to work with-see @PhDForu— & create online writing groups – @_erica_lewis our expert
  22. Lets talk about writing groups…(see slides)
  23. Form a writing group with other PhD students. Use to read & comment on work, to practice talking about work & for moral support
  24. Lets look together at how you can organise your time into writing blocks in this timetable (see slides)
  25. tip 16
    Arrange your life to write. Timetable 2 hr writing sessions into diary & fit other work & social life around these blocks.
  26. Find a good place to write, warm and without distractions–could be at home or a library–could be a café full of people which puts you at ease.. Lets talk about where you write best….
  27. Tip 17
    Get “loved ones” on board. Explain why it is important to you (people think you are not really working when at home for example)
  28. Tip 19
    Don’t use Internet during your 2hr writing blocks & attempt to restrict social media use to #playtime (will try this myself!)
  29. Tip 20 & last tip for today
    Think about how good you will feel when you finish — visualise the end of chapters & submission celebrations

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The Economics of Illegality: Who Profits


Coffins in Lampedusa 2013

This post is “notes and data”, rather than a polished piece of writing , which I gathered together for a short talk at the Transeuropa festival in October. Thanks to Alina Muller for inviting me. I will not have time to write this up into a more formal academic paper for some time so decided to post the notes here for now.

This talk was motivated by the deaths at sea near Lampedusa in October 2013, and my intention was to reflect on the at European sea borders–something I have written about before—and connect this to my work on border controls and immigration detention in the UK.

We hear a lot about what migrants “cost us” and how they “cheat us” but conversely accounts which attempt to trouble this narrative of cheating often reinforce governmental categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrants-refugees versus economic migrants. I don’t want to debate questions of border controls per se in this paper, but rather ask the question from another perspective–the perspective of ‘who profits’. That is, Who profits from illegality? If you don’t want to read further the answer to this question is:

  • People smugglers
  • Corrupt police and state officials
  • Governments/states (and dictators and the elites of ‘democratic’ states)
  • NGO’s
  • Oil and Gas companies
  • Global Securities and “Services” companies (G4S, SERCO)
  • Shareholders in these companies, and their corporate advisors and board members (including ex government ministers like John Reed)

Notes for a talk given at Transeuropa Festival 2013 “Migrant Resistance: Protests, Art and Movements” 20th Oct. Somerset House, London

This talk is about Favor, a woman who made the journey across Africa, across the Mediterranean sea, across mainland Europe and the across the channel to Britain. The reason for telling Favour’s story at this transeuropa event, and in this way, is that we hear a lot about what migrants “cost us” and how they “cheat us” but conversely accounts of resistance can sometimes reinforce governmental categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrants- those feeling war and persecution, for example, are imagined as deserving refugees while those fleeing poverty, and/or a life unfulfilled are imagined as undeserving economic migrants.


Deserving and Undeserving Migrant Lives

I want to trouble this moral binarism, by concentrating on the Economics of Illegality—and in particular, I want to focus on the multiple forms of profiteering–by people smugglers, by national governments, by dictators, by energy companies, by global securities companies, by passport forgers, and by employers, which shape migrant journeys.

Indeed, Favour’s story reveals that it is illegality –as a classificatory status—that allows migrants to be capitalised as commodities to be exchanged in neocolonial market/traffic in people. Those who control mobility traffickers, armed militia groups, unscrupulous employers, police and officials, profit from migrants by extorting money and labour on their journeys. This is also an even darker story about profiteering by NGOs, State Governments, European Union and Global Oil Companies. Favour’s resilience, ingenuity and persistence is also revealing of how migrants come to exercise agency under conditions of abjectification and profiteering and in doing resist this commodification—sometimes by telling stories to researchers like me–sometimes in more conventionally political ways–like the hundreds of Eritrean migrants in Italy who took to the streets to protest the fact they where banned from the state funerals of family and friends drowned in the med. and those  who protest unliveable lives “captured” in Italy  without status but unable to move (because of the Dublin convention agreement and fingerprinting at borders), unable to legally work, access proper education, decent housing or healthcare.

1. Profiteering by People Smugglers

Favor began her journey north from a sub-Saharan Africa Country about 4 years ago, she paid people smugglers to make the hazardous journey overland in a “pay-as-you-go” agreement–while her money was carefully sewn inside her clothes, threats of violence and cohersion along the route meant she eventually parted with almost three times what she expected. This first part of her journey cost Favour several hundred dollars.Each year, some 55,000 migrants are thought to be smuggled from East, North and West Africa into Europe, generating about $150 million in revenue [for smugglers]”.


Map by Hein de Haas

2. Profiteering by corrupt state officials

Hidden on the outskirts of Benghazi, Favor was under under constant threat of incarceration in one of Libya’s many notorious (often European funded) detention centres and she also feared deportation back across the desert where she would have to pay to begin her journey again. Many migrants make this journey to and fro Across the desert several times.

According to different estimates, between 65,000 and 120,000 sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya) yearly, of which 70 to 80 percent are believed to migrate through Libya and 20 to 30 percent through Algeria and Morocco. Several tens of thousands (not hundreds of thousands, as media coverage might suggest) of sub-Saharan Africans try to cross the Mediterranean each year (Hein de Haas, 2006).

Police officers in Libya are often in collaboration with the people smugglers and migrants often end up paying pay a fee to police to escape detention, or indeed are jailed and/or are employed as slave labour while they save up to pay for their own deportations. There is cash to be made from revealing to police where migrants are hiding. It is difficult to remember that migrants where once allowed to freely move through and within Libya.

Today, Libya is under such pressure to detain migrants, and because migrancy has become a formal business (with EU and Italian money invested in offshoring border controls) and an informal everyday money making enterprise (involving deals between police, security forces and smugglers, and the ingoing extraction of cash from migrants on the move). Libya has even turned its national zoo into a migrant processing centre. Here, disturbingly, migrant blood is tested and those found to be Hep or HIV positive are immediately deported to ‘special’ detention centres outside of Libya.

There are special detention centres for those with diseases while they await deportation. “If they are ill, they will be transferred outside Libya,” Alaha [Commander Said Gars Alaha head of illegal immigration at the Zoo] told the Libya Herald: “If there is no illness, and they have visas, they can stay here and work and pay taxes. (Libya Herald, 2013)

Thousands of sub-Saharan Africans pass through Libya’s immigrant prison complex and many are forcibly returned to countries of origin, including political refugees fleeing civil wars and ethnic conflict. Outside of the European Union, Libya is seemingly beyond the reach of international refugee and human rights law. How did this situation come about?

3. Profiteering by Oil Companies


In 2003 the Italian government (encouraged by Tony Blair) entered into a $3 billion agreement with Libya in which it provided boats, helicopters, arms, and cash to build and run detention centers, funding for additional army and border security personnel (and thousands of body-bags) to the Libyan government on the understanding that it become a ‘regional protection zone’ which would ostensibly work to limit the flow of sub-Saharan migrants into Europe and specifically from Libya to Italy. By 2009 Libya was holding migrants in 28 immigrant prisons—both regular prisons and the most notorious–remote purpose built camps in the desert. In the same year, according to an EU report, EU member states provided Libya with defence equipment worth €344 million—weapons which he began using on his own people in 2011.

Protesters chant anti-government slogans as they demonstrate in a square in Benghazi city

A demonstration in Benghazi 2011.

An EU arms embargo on Libya was lifted in return for this `favour` and a new Libyan-Italian business venture also saw the opening of a massive undersea pipeline (ironically named `Greenstream`) to transport gas into Italian homes. In short, Libya was symbolically charged with stopping the flow of African migrants reaching Europe across Mediterranean sea-routes whilst African gas flows freely beneath.


Since the overthrow of Gaddafi’s in 2011, petro-dollars have been pouring into Libya —yet the power is out in many Libyan homes for up to 16 hours a day, and ordinary people are without basic necessities. If things are tough for Libyan citizens, conditions for some migrants especially sub-Saharan are almost indescribable. Dark skinned migrants in particular are being scapegoated for Gaddafi’s alledged use of sub-Saharan refugees as conscripts in his war against his own people – a charge which feds long-standing xenophobia against darker skinned Africans from the south.

As this quote from a journalist witnessing events from over the border in Tunisia in 2011 details:

Among the reports of atrocities occurring in Libya are claims from African migrants that they were abducted and forced to fight with Gaddafi’s forces. Nearly all migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who arrive at the desert refugee camp in Tunisia, have fled in fear of violent reprisals by Libyans who accuse them of being mercenaries. The extent to which Gaddafi’s military has used foreign mercenaries, or press-ganged migrants into fighting, remains unclear ( Anna Braithwaite, Al Jazeera, 2011)

Gaddafi played on European fears of mass migration from Africa warning EU governments during the civil war that unless they supported him “You will have the immigration of thousands of people who will invade Europe from Libya, and there will be nobody to stop them.

The Libyan ambassador to Italy responded by accusing Gaddafi of wanting “to turn Lampedusa black with Africans”.

refugees libya

A refugee from Libya in a reception camp in Tunisia in 2011 [Anna Branthwaite/Al Jazeera]

Post-war many detention centres and camps are still run by militia (Katiba) outside of full government control. [A 2013 Amnesty report I am drawing on throughout this post, Scapegoats of Fear: Rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Abused in Libya, highlights the arbitrary arrests, torture, and slavery faced by those detained].

4. NGO profiteering through the externalisation of border controls

In May 2013, “the EU established a civilian technical mission in Libya aimed at building the capacity of the Libyan authorities to enhance ‘the security of Libya’s land, sea and air borders’”(Amnesty, June 2013). In the long term, the mission, which is part of a broader European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), aims to support the Libyan authorities in developing a broader “integrated border management” strategy. As Amnesty notes:

These projects pursue immigration control imperatives set by the EU and appear to disregard the human rights obligations of both Libya and the EU and its member states, including under refugee law and standards. Detention solely for the purposes of immigration control is only lawful when in strict compliance with relevant international human rights law and standards.

In 2013 International Organization for Migration revealed a new central role in border control in Libya:

As part of IOM’s efforts in Libya, the following projects are ongoing or planned with the support of the European Union (EU), Government of Italy, Government of the United States, and IOM internal funding. The portfolio of ongoing IOM activities in Libya has a total budget value of over €21 million. With 11 international and 54 national staff, IOM currently has two offices in Libya in the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi.

Amongst IOM’s new projects with Libyan authorities, is “Sahara-Med a project to support the Libyan police to build capacity to prevent and manage irregular migration flows from the Sahara to the Mediterranean Sea”.

5. Profiteering by sea-border people smugglers

Evading all of this NGO activity, and the multiple forms of detention and deportation in Libya pre and especially post-civil war, Favor made arrangements to undertake the perilous boat-crossing from a beach near Benghazi, to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Benghazi crossing is longer, but at the shortest point, this island is 70 miles north of mainland Africa. Her boat trip cost Favor 1000 dollars.

In October, at least 400 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean making a similar trip– European Governments (chastised ironically by the US press) are holding symbolic state-funerals for the dead –the hundreds of people who died off the coast of Lampedusa have been granted post mortem Italian citizenship–while public prosecutors bring criminal charges against survivors for ‘illegal migration’. As the journalist Pablo Ordaz commented ‘Only the Dead Can Stay’.

Like the survivors of these recent tragedies, Favor was interned at Lampedusa’s detention centre (renamed the Centre for Identification and Expulsion in 2009 and described by migrants and activists as “straight out of a circle of hell”). This centre has an operating capacity of a few hundred migrants frequently houses up to a thousand people—in its decade long history, the centre has seen hunger strikes, suicides and riots – including a mass breakout in 2009 and fire followed by breakout in 2011. Indeed, migrants in Lampedusa, including some of the 155 survivors of the most recent shipwrecks who are currently interned there, have consistently resisted and protested at the conditions

6. Profiteering by people smugglers – forged papers

Favor managed to avoid being fingerprinted in Italy, and managed to get out of the detention centre on Lamapudsa and travel across Europe, with forged papers including a student visa, before arriving in the UK. Favour paid £100 dollars for her forged papers.

7. Immigration detention is a “recession-proof” business (Feltz & Baksh, 2012, p. 143).

Favor was detained in a dawn-raid by British border officials at the hostel in which she lived. Her arrest was triggered when she applied for a casual cleaning job at a local hospital. Favor had been living in the UK for three years, working primarily as a cleaner, dog-walker and occasional child-minder in private family homes. On her arrest she was transported in a prison van by migrant ‘detainee escort services’, a job contracted by the British Government to the private company Reliance Security Group, to a temporary holding facility at a police station before being moved to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

From this moment in Favor’s story it is important to begin to note how her status as “illegal” enabled her to be systematically transformed into a commodity. For example, once migrants are caught in Britain’s detention estate, they are frequently moved in, out and between different places of incarceration — cycles of arrest and release which can last years. For companies like Reliance, mobility determines profit and the greater the number of migrant detainee movements within the immigration detention estate the more profit accrues to securities companies.

The management of irregular migrants captured within the detention estate is characterised by a complex and often seemingly random combination of forced movements and enforced periods of stillness (migrants are often compelled to stay in specific housing, in specifically designated towns and cities as well as being imprisoned in secure detention facilities). Despite the governmental rhetoric, these mobility controls are not designed to ‘seal the borders’ so much as to extract profit from border-creation. Indeed, in the space of a decade an unbelievably profitable detain and release network has emerged controlled by global securities companies. These controls form what Sandro Mezzadra describes as ‘a system of dams’ (Mezzadra, 2004) which enable the transformation of illegality from a status into a commodity which/who can be bought and sold in a global marketplace. As the investigative journalists, Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh argue detention is a “recession-proof” business (Feltz & Baksh, 2012, p. 143).

Yarl’s Wood is run under contact by the global securities company SERCO— The average daily overall cost to the British Government and its tax-payers of keeping a single person in detention per day is estimated to be £120 ($188 or E140) (Silverman et al 2012).

8. Multi-nationals Profiteering from precarious labour

Whilst detention is supposed to be a short-term solution, employed in the 48 hour window prior to deportation, Favor was still detained several weeks later. In order to continue to buy expensive top-up phone cards, to keep in touch with friends and family in the outside world, Favor took on a cleaning job in the detention centre.

Paradoxically, Favor had been detained because she was working, illegally, as a cleaner. She had been paid the minimum wage (currently £6/ $9 an hour) as an illegal worker. Ironically, once detained normal labour laws no do not apply to illegal migrants and SERCO paid Favor 50p ($.75) an hour (see also McVeigh 2011). A job description leaked by a migrant worker from inside SERCO reveals the post of ‘Laundry Assistant’ also at wages of 50p an hour . Exploited detainee labour reduces SERCO’s running costs and further increases the profit to be made from this growth market in ‘migrant illegality’. Serco’s Motto: ‘Bringing Services to Life’.


A photocopy of job description produced by Serco for Immigration Detainees, published online at ‘Yarl’s Wood echos H-Block and Attica’

Borders Kill

More than 30,000 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta in the first nine months of 2013 alone- nobody knows how many have died in the attempt-although some activists have attempted to count the dead. Whether fleeting conflict in Syria, forced conscription in Eretria, or poverty and diminished life chances—what we do know if that the reason people cross from Africa to Europe in such a perilous way, is that Spain and Italy introduced visa requirements for African nationals in the early 1990s which forced many people, who previously could freely cross into Europe, to cross borders irregularly.

It is hard to remember but before the 1990s, people could move back and forth from North Africa into Europe (Spain and Italy) much more freely to work and before Italy and the EU paid the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi to imprison migrants in return for gas dollars, and as part of a larger EU project outsourcing detention and border controls–conditions in Libya for sub-Saharan migrants where significantly better than they are today. Post-Gaddafi, border and visa controls have massively proliferated, in part in an attempt at ‘racist state-making’ through ‘xenophobic scapegoating’ in what is a precarious, fractured and weak state –a state which– as I have briefly detailed–is encircled by corporate oil vultures and profiteering NGOs.

Europe generates the demand cheap labour

Neoliberal economic policies such as privatization, deregulation, unrestricted foreign investment and the contracting out of state-run services are dependent upon the porosity of borders to flows of capital, including the availability of pools of precarious migrant labour. Thus there is a major discrepancy between policies seemingly aimed at curbing immigration and limiting movement, and the demand for cheap irregular migrant labour. It is in the context of this ‘double agenda’, between the imperatives of state formation and neoliberal economics, between the imperatives of securing the borders and opening the borders that irregular migrants are capitalised.

Favor’s case reveals the degree to which illegality makes her vulnerable to precarious working conditions, not only outside but within the detention estate. What this story also reveals is some of the ways in which Eurpean States and global securities companies are extracting profit from the market in human waste production. As more and more bureaucratic systems of determination, detention and deportation emerge so international global securities companies penetrate further into the fabric of the state in response to the ‘problem’ of migrant illegality. At the same time, while huge amounts of taxpayers’ money handed to multinationals to manage the borders, most irregular migrants determined to be illegal are not deported but remain in limbo ‘under excruciatingly vulnerable socio-political conditions’ (De Genova 2011).

And what happened to Favour…?

Favour was finally released from detention after twelve weeks, at which stage SERCO would have billed the British Government approximately £100,000 for her incarceration. Favor was unsure why she had been released. She had received no legal advice whilst detained. Favor absconded from the temporary bail address she was given and is currently working as a cleaner (cash in hand). She intends to move to another country and continue her migrant journey when she can afford to purchase a forged passport.

Teach It, And They Will Come

The Disorder Of Things

1960s Teach In

As another term approaches its zenith, we at The Disorder engage in a novel public service: making available a range of our module reading lists. Ready-made bibliographies, crib-sheets, self-help guides, or just objects of curiosity, to do with as you will. We have focused on our more specialised courses, on the assumption that there is a relative dearth of taught programmes on these issues, or taught from these perspectives. Most of the readings remain inaccessible online, although there are libraries still in existence where they may be found. You will also miss out on our great personal charms. Nevertheless, enjoy.

Just click on the titles for the full PDFs. May a thousand ideas bloom!

Joe (Lecturer in International Relations, City University)

Myths and Mysteries in World Politics (co-taught with Aggie Hirst and Amin Samman): This is a ten-week course that runs in the first term and is compulsory for all our…

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Capital lectures in Spring term at Goldsmiths starting January 14


Marx Capital lecture course at Goldsmiths ✪

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Lecture course on Marx’s “Capital” at Goldsmiths: everybody is welcome

Capitalism and Cultural Studies – Prof John Hutnyk:

tuesday evenings from january 14, 2014 – 5pm-8pm Goldsmiths Room RHB 309. Free – all welcome.

No fee (unless, sorry, you are doing this for award) – and that, friends, is Willetts’ fault – though the Labour Party have a share of the blame too).

This course involves a close reading of Karl Marx’s Capital (Volume One).
90 minute lectures, 60 minutes discussion
The connections between cultural studies and critiques of capitalism are considered in an interdisciplinary context (cinema studies, anthropology, musicology, international relations, and philosophy) which reaches from Marx through to Film Studies, from ethnographic approaches to Heidegger, from anarchism and surrealism to German critical theory and poststructuralism/post-colonialism/post-early-for-christmas. Topics covered include: alienation, commodification, production, technology, education, subsumption, anti-imperialism, anti-war movement and complicity. Using a series of…

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