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In mid-December a friend and I took a brief trip to London. During various activities we took in two very different events at two museums. On 11.12.14 we went to the Annual Science Lecture at the Natural History Museum. This was delivered by Sir Paul Nurse and was entitled “Science as Revolution”. In the hour or so that he spoke, he outlined various scientific advances that revolutionised how we understand the world – the discovery of a heliocentric world, the theory of evolution, the application of atomic energy, and others. Following his lecture there was a 45 minute question and answer section in which topics ranged from science specific issues on GM crops (his current research) to the existence of alien life, to the frustrations of science education in the UK.

However throughout he repeatedly used a taxonomy that was frustrating, uncritical and increasingly asinine. This was in regards to his use of categories, as though science, religion, politics and economy were singular, definable entities that exist a priori. Furthermore, science was to be protected – indeed, in responding to one of the questions he all but argued that it should be protected and not questioned or critiqued – from the interferences of the others as they were unmoveable bulwarks to progress, scientific discovery and revolution.

Throughout his lecture (and answers) religion was only every described as “religion” and when pushed for details he focused on those groups whom the media would describe as “fundamentalists”. There was no awareness, it seemed, that some scientists could have an agenda – and not necessarily a benign one at that, or even that some scientists are not exclusively non-religious or atheist. Politics was limited to the personal agendas of politicians or the militarisation of weapons. Science was equally poorly nuanced but was, unsurprisingly, seen as the only way forward, the only means of progress and revolution.

Yet the entirety of the lecture proved otherwise, as the scientific revolutions he lauded were abstracted from their context and thus stripped of their revolutionary potentiality. Revolutions are a confluence of events, never a singular happening (see for example Lenin’s four conditions for revolution in his The State and Revolution, London: Penguin, 2009 edition). Within any revolution there are scientific, religious, cultural, political, economic upheavals and advances (consider, for example, the importance of the French Revolution on science through the work of Jean-Baptise Lamarck and Georges Cuvier). There was no acknowledgement of other factors as leading motivators and flash points spurring a revolution in the lecture by Nurse, indeed if one was unfamiliar with European history one could get the impression that revolution depended upon science for cause, means and outcome.

Categories are slippery, hard to define and impossible to separate out. This is for a simple reason – they do not exist because they exist, they are not tangible coherent entities as Nurse wanted to present. Rather they are constructs that we create and use for various purposes. Like all constructs they are contingent upon their creators not for definition, but for existence. With their creators they share the qualities of being multi-faceted, duplicitous, and interdependent.

The second event we undertook was an exhibition entitled Disobedient Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was a visual display on how everyday objects have been used as objects of protest, civil disobedience and social change or revolution. There was quite a small array on display – most related to areas of extreme poverty or civil war. It was a fascinating exhibition (and one I highly recommend) and at times shocking. One particular object is being focused on here and this is the use of an art form known as arpilleras in Chile as a means for women to tell their own story. One caught my attention.

Deborah Stockdale, "Shannonwatch"

Deborah Stockdale, “Shannonwatch”

It was designed by Deborah Stockdale, an American textile artist living in Donegal in Ireland and was entitled “Shannonwatch”. It was accompanied by the following explanation:

“Donegal Ireland, 2011

The arpilleras made in Chile have inspired women around the world to use the technique to tell their own stories of survival and resistance. This recent arpilleras was made by an America textile artist living in Ireland. It depicts the activities of Shannonwatch, who are monitoring the use of Shannon Airport by the American military. The protestors wear white burkas in support of Afghani women caught up in the ‘War on Terror’. Deborah Stockdale”

Shannon Watch is a protest group, and their purpose is to stop or at least highlight the use of Shannon Airport by the US military (it is also worth noting that Shannon Airport – close to Limerick, is over 174 miles from Stockdale’s home in Donegal). However Stockdale has misused, in my opinion, their protest in her artwork. There is no record of any of the group having worn burqas of any colour or made any comment or protest about the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Their sole concern is the improper use of the airport by another military force. Therefore her artwork does not depict the actions of the protest group, instead she has hijacked them to make her own personal statement.

Shannon Watch are an important protest group and their cause a worthy one but they are not oppressed minorities – nor are they all, or even majority, women. Using this form of material and protest to highlight one’s own ideas demonstrates the solipsistic nature of categories. The protest at the airport is about the use of Irish airspace, not about the oppression of Afghani women. The presence of the burqa as the dominant image immediately brings it into the misinformed and heavily biased discussion of the burqa as a means of religious oppression of women (see, for example, here and here).

Furthermore, these forms of artwork are typically used by women in areas of oppression to express themselves when other means are not available to them. Stockdale can make no such claim, she is a citizen of one of the most powerful nations in the world today, she is able to make a living as an artist in the country she chooses to live in and her voice and ideas are heard in other countries. In other words, this relates to the question of ‘white privilege’ and indeed further feeds into that privilege because the voice of the dominant, normative, educated is being placed over the voices of those without said privilege. Stockdale is what Peggy McIntosh describes as “a participant, an unfairly advantaged person, in a damaged culture.” There are of course nuances needed within the ‘white privilege question’ as oppression is really more about intersectionality, as Gina Crosley-Corcoan notes. Often white privilege is gained, not through the colour of skin, but through education status, employment, economic stability, and familial circumstances. One form of oppression is no less important, or impacting, than the other

Choosing to have your work displayed alongside those who are oppressed and whose voice is not heard by the dominant, smothers or drowns what they are saying for the purposes of having someone else speak who already has a voice and a platform. These arpilleras, once a means for the subaltern to speak, have now become a means for them to be spoken over once again, and indeed to be spoken for. The subaltern has a voice, we need to stop speaking over them and instead listen.

Both Nurse and Stockdale have misused categories and have in different ways demonstrated the dominance of the religious – secular – political – Western categories still in existence and use. In so doing they have not only indicated how far we still have to travel but that oppression can still sink its teeth in when users refuse to acknowledge the slippery and solipsistic nature of these categories.