Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


VIRTUAL EVENT: IAS Growth/Waste: The Dissimilar Architecture and Politics of Rot

07 October 2020, 5:00 pm–6:15 pm

new normal decay

A panel discussion with Brigitte Baptiste (EAN University), Mel Y. Chen (UC Berkeley) and Kyla Wazana Tompkins (Pomona College). The session will be chaired by Lo Marshall and Albert Brenchat-Aguilar.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Albert Brenchat-Aguilar
Our thanks to Xine Yao (UCL) for helping organising this discussion.

Please join here.

Dirt and waste have a clear political and spatial place: always excluded, outside the realms of the acceptable, conceivable or representable. As if it were a contagious disease, dealing with waste and being treated as waste seem quite closely connected. Positivist feminist positions have clearly emphasised a different take: decay is about togetherness, making kin, assuming the unavoidable extinction - individual or collective - that critters and us are part of. They ask us to become compostists instead of posthumanists, to make kin with the underworld. But does this interpretation of decay leave difference behind and is it adequate for the current circumstances?

This introductory panel to New (Normal) Materialist Decay Series (see below) aims to present two current works-in-progress discussing decay from intersectional theory, with a response from ecology. We are delighted to welcome Brigitte Baptiste, Mel Y. Chen and Kyla Wazana Tompkins for this discussion, whose works politicise new materialism from material micro-relations, linguistics and affect, amongst others. We suggest reading the works hyperlinked in their bios. The session will be chaired by Lo Marshall and Albert Brenchat-Aguilar.

  • Brigitte Baptiste is a biologist and PhD Honoris Causa in environmental management from the Instituto Universitario de la Paz, and an expert in environment and biodiversity. She was the Director of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute. She holds a degree from the Universidad Javeriana de Colombia and a master’s degree in preservation and tropical development from the University of Florida, as well as having studies on environmental sciences, environmental protection, topical ecology and survey of biodiversity. She is member of the scientific committee for the global programme ‘Ecosystem Change and Society’ and part of the Commission on Ecosystem Management of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. See Brigitte's column for La República where she discusses Covid, the climate and other topics.
  • Mel Y. Chen is Associate Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley and Director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Culture. Mel is also an affiliate of the Centre for Race and Gender, the Institute for Cognitive and Behavioral Science, the Centre for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society, and the Haas Disability Studies and LGBTQ Citizenship Research Clusters. Their research and teaching interests include queer and gender theory, animal studies, critical race theory and Asian American studies, disability studies, science studies and critical linguistics. Chen published Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Duke University Press, winner of Alan Bray Award from the Modern Language Association’s GL/Q Caucus) in 2012 and is preparing a book on the relationships among the conceptual territories of ‘toxicity’ and ‘intoxication’ and their involvement in histories of the shared interanimation of race and disability. They also co-edit a book series with Jasbir K. Puar on ‘Anima’. See their take on 'Agitation' as it responds to our current circumstances around BLM, disability studies, toxicity and others here.
  • Kyla Wazana Tompkins is an Associate Professor at Pomona College, jointly appointed to the Department of English and the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies where, in 2017, she completed a seven-year stint as chair of the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies. She is a former food writer and restaurant critic. Today, as a scholar of 19th-century US literature with a continuing interest in the relationship between food and culture, she writes about the connections between literature and a wide range of topics: food, eating, sexuality, race, culture, film and dance. Her 2012 book, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century, received the 2012 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize from the American Studies Association and tied for the Best Book in Food Studies Award, presented by the Association for the Study of Food and Society. Her upcoming book, So Moved: Ferment, Jelly, Intoxication, Rot, maps the recategorisation of microbiopolitical life, criminality and the citizenship form across two historical shifts in the United States: the history of Pasteurian science and the failure of Radical Reconstruction that led to the consequent rise of federal Progressivism. See a brief take of hers on New Materialism here.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay Series

Decaying matter is an essential component of our built environment. From compost in our gardens, to lichen and fungi in our brick and stone walls and tile roofs, to bacteria on our skin, our environment grows thanks to and along with non-human decay. However, we neglect these non-human agents and, now more than ever, we fear them as they also include viruses and the surfaces where viruses inhabit. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps, interact with the world through gloves, masks, scrubs, glasses and screens. We now sterilise our built environment more than ever, thus polluting it with toxic antibacterial matter. To ignore decaying matter and the waste of our new material mediations (as well as their destinies and trajectories) also means to neglect the human workforce that physically deals with decay and the organisms that support it.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay will showcase a series of conversations under a new materialist approach to the built environment. For this revised series, we want to question how the new normal challenges previous revolutionary approaches to decaying matter (compost, soil, bodies, food, weeds…) and question if it is still possible to shift thinking about them. Before COVID-19, one could have imagined a poetics of waste co-existing with the repurposing of waste so that it comes to signify as non-waste. But what can we do now?

This series of panel debates and conversations will involve academics, artists, gardeners, botanists, chemists and landscape architects. These conversations and their outcomes will be free and open to everyone. This series is partly funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and supported by UCL Urban Laboratory and the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL as part of their collaboration on the research theme of Waste. This series is part of a bigger project conceived by Sabina Andron (UCL, Ravensbourne) and Albert Brenchat (UCL, BBK, AA)

We propose 6 sessions:

  1. The Dissimilar Architecture and Politics of Rot - from Positivist Ecology to Intersectional Theory
  2. The Aesthetics and Care of the Soil in the Urban Environment
  3. Weedwork: The Problematic Parallelisms between Weeds and Humans, Plants and Nomads
  4. Skin
  5. Exhausted Matter
  6. Key Work and the Anxiety of Public Space

All welcome. Event link will be announced in this website - do not hesitate to contact us if you need assistance on the day. Please follow this FAQ link for more information and to read our virtual events code of conduct. All our events are free but you can support the IAS here.