Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Turbulence: Editorial

by Véra Ehrenstein and Lucy Bollington

Thomas wright

25 April 2020

 Thomas Wright, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750, Lithograph and photographic collage on paper. By permission of the British Library (49 E 15)


Violent and unsteady movement of fluids, conflict, confusion,[1] uproar, disturbance, crowd, mob,[2] agitated and disturbing,[3] stormy and unruly,[4] unstable matter, disorder, messiness.[5] Grappling with the slippery meaning of turbulence, our attention was drawn to a series of conversations between Michel Serres and Bruno Latour.[6] In these conversations, the term ‘turbulence’ comes up frequently as Serres comments in one of his books, recently translated in English under the title The Birth of Physics,[7] where he proposes a rereading of On the nature of things by Lucretius (c. 60 BCE). Serres identifies in the ancient scientific poem a proto-science of liquids that, for him, resonates with contemporary fluid dynamics. In discussion with Latour, Serres suggests that for Lucretius, ‘turbulence isn’t a system, because its constituents fluctuate, fluid and mobile. Rather, it is a sort of confluence, a form in which fluxes and fluctuation enter, dance, crisscross, making together the sum and the difference, the product and the bifurcation, traversing scales of dimension. It recruits at the very heart of chaos by ceaselessly inventing different relations; it returns to it as well.[8] We highlight this definition (of a sort) here for its evocative quality, to help us think about the many forms of turbulence explored in this issue, both physical and cultural turbulences, individual and collective, marking landscapes and moving bodies.

While we originally thought to order the issue to circulate smoothly from the natural world to politics and aesthetic, we eventually chose to really embrace the idea of turbulence. The dream (or fantasy) of linearity is thus abandoned for more irregular motions and possible countercurrents. We begin with Arthur Petersen, who introduces us to fluid dynamics, a scientific discipline whose purpose is to understand turbulent flows. In these flows, fluid particles move neither in an orderly fashion nor in straight lines. Instead, particles are mixed laterally, circular patterns appear, chaotic changes occur, as in the air turbulence familiar to every aeroplane passenger. Turbulent flows can be observed in many situations, at different scales, in natural or engineered processes. Some are planetary, like the phenomenon of atmospheric convection examined by Petersen; others more ordinary, like water whirling down a sink drain. These fluid motions elude full scientific mastery, which may be a reason for the sense of beauty to which they give rise among those who study them. As Alison Wright shows, this tension between technical control and awe can already be identified in the work of the prolific engineer and artist Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings of whirlpools and unleashed climatic show the force of ‘fortuna’ and present natural disasters as signs of political troubles. Da Vinci’s deluges are then put into conversation with Vivan Sundaram’s fires and charred landscapes. These landscapes are rendered through the very materials - charcoal and burned engine oil - capable of causing such devastation as combustible substances and resources over which wars are declared. Wright points out that, though they were produced in response to acts of human violence, Sundaram’s artworks take on new meanings in the Anthropocene, when, in part due to the burning of fossil fuels, the distinction between natural and manmade disasters has become harder than ever to recognize.

Grand physical phenomena give place to the power of everyday resistance in Katie Stone’s piece. Stone brings together the works of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin to foreground two female figures: Martha, a scrupulous writer chosen by God to help humankind out of its self-destructiveness, and Odo, a short, elderly philosopher and anarchist who started a revolution. Both are from the margins and come to be the ones through whom imperfect improvement is possible. Personal practices of political turbulence need not be dramatic or ‘big’ to be world-changing, an idea powerfully captured by Zanele Muholi’s lying Black and blackened naked body. Their dreaming echoes the story of Martha allowing people to seek personal satisfaction in their dreams so that when awake they can be wiser. By escaping the viewer’s gaze, the dreaming face resists control and the picture can also be read as a subversion of objectification. The trouble with deciding for others and doing good is further explored in Mohammed Rashed’s piece on psychiatry. Rashed argues that the willingness to help cannot be innocent. The psychiatric encounter is inherently turbulent as it imposes its framing of what normal behaviour ought to be upon a person who is considered to be deviating from it. The piece is a call for a better psychiatry, one that acknowledges (and maybe mitigates) its own violence and limits.

We then return to physical science, technological hubris and landscapes. Whereas Sundaram’s Black Gold provided a representation of flooded cities being tested by the intensification of extreme weathers, Polly Gould and Agnès Villette weave together fragments of history, conceptual thinking, and potent images, to take us on a journey across landscapes that might look more serene at first. With Gould we embark on an expedition to Antarctica, in the footsteps of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British explorers and scientists. In that unpopulated, apparently still and lifeless continent, the future of humanity is now at stake: its ice sheets’ rapid melting may greatly accelerate the rise of sea levels on our warming Earth, producing a tipping point for the climate. Environmental damage is also at the centre of Villette’s piece, which draws our attention to the great acceleration (post-1950 global changes) and the nuclear age in France. As we wander with her across the Norman Peninsula, empty roads, fences, pipes, a glimpse of a distant industrial facility, and a Geiger counter make us perceive the invisible but destructive work of radioactivity. Spent nuclear fuel is brought from across the world to this eerie, seemingly unspoilt landscape to be reprocessed, while radiotoxic isotopes move in the opposite direction, flowing away through the river’s water. This is low-key turbulence.

The issue ends with two pieces tackling pressing political questions. The conversation between Ama Budge and Xine Yao on trans inclusion puts the insightful work of Sci-fi/Speculative Fiction novelist Octavia Butler centre stage again. Budge and Yao raise a series of issues about reproduction, power, sex, race, and gender. Denoting fluidity, the blurring of boundaries, and the crossing of divides, the prefix ‘trans’ opens up new avenues for thinking about turbulence. The concluding piece by Maja Fowkes circles, or rather spirals, back to earthly matters. By focusing on Eastern European art, Fowkes alerts us to the close relationship between two emergencies: the climate emergency and the democratic emergency.[9] In both pieces, the political potency of art is called upon to make us feel the need to remain vigilant in these turbulent times, when taken-for-granted achievements are just not enough and can also rapidly be undone.

To end this editorial, Serres’s evocative style and ecological thinking can be helpful again, as when he suggests that ‘[w]e have become the tragic deciders of life or death, masters of the greatest aspects of our former dependence: Earth, life and matter, time and history, good and evil. […] We are now, admittedly, the masters of the Earth and of the world, but our very mastery seems to escape our mastery. We have all things in hand but we do not control our action. Everything happens as though our powers escape our powers.’[10] Using the indeterminate pronoun ‘we’ is always problematic; responsibilities for the current situation(s) are unequally distributed across the world and within societies.[11] Serres’s diagnosis is nevertheless a useful warning against the flawed idea(l) of linearity and control, a reminder that ‘projects, sometimes good and often intentional, can backfire or unwittingly cause evil.’[12] Acknowledging such turbulences is necessary; it requires for us, in academia, to be turbulent, and to ‘stand up, run, jump, move, dance! Like the body, the mind needs movement, especially subtle and complex movement.’[13] And this is precisely what this issue aims to do.

Postscript: We were finalizing this publication when all of sudden our daily routines, like those of billions other people across the world, were profoundly disrupted. Recruiting at the very heart of chaos, to paraphrase Serres, genetic mutations allowed a virus to jump from animal species to humans and thrive in its new hosts. The theme of turbulence could not be timelier as the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 unfolds, revealing what ‘life without the promise of stability’, as Tsing puts it,[14] feels like.

[1] Nouns used in the OED definition of Turbulence

[2] Turba (Latin)

[3] Turbare (Latin)

[4] Turbulentus (Latin)

[5] Our own interpretations

[6] Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on science, culture, and time (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995)

[7] Michel Serres, The birth of physics (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000)

[8] Serres and Latour, Conversations, p.107

[9] Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the new climatic regime (London: Polity Press, 2018)

[10] Serres and Latour, Conversations, p.171

[11] Kathryn YusoffA billion black Anthropocenes or none (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

[12] Serres and Latour, Conversations, p.171

[13] Serres and Latour, Conversations, p.107

[14] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 2

Véra Ehrenstein is a Junior Research Fellow at the IAS for 2018-2020, where she has been a co-organizer of the ‘Turbulence’ research thread.

In 2018–2019, Lucy Bollington was a Junior Research Fellow at the IAS, where she was a co-organizer of the ‘Turbulence’ research thread. She is now a Lecturer in Comparative Cultural Studies at UCL.

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