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Dossiers
Authors
  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan
  • Babak Afrassiabi
    • Babak Afrassiabi is an artist who works both in Iran and the Netherlands. Since 2004, he has collaborated with Nasrin Tabatabai on various joint projects and the publication of the bilingual magazine Pages (Farsi and English). Their work seeks to articulate the undecidable space between art and its historical conditions, including the recurring question of the place of the archive in defining the juncture between politics, history, and the practice of art. The artists’ work has been presented internationally in various solo and group exhibitions and they have been tutors at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2008–13), and Erg, école supérieure des arts, Brussels (2015–).
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      published contributions
  • S. Ayesha Hameed
    • Dr. S. Ayesha Hameed is a Lecturer in Visual Cultures and the Joint Programme Leader in Fine Art and History of Art Research Fellow in Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, London. She received her PhD in Social and Political Thought at York University, Canada in 2008
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      published contributions
  • Sammy Baloji
  • On Barak
    • On Barak is a social and cultural historian of science and technology in non-Western settings. He has been a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University since 2012. Prior to this, he was a member of the Princeton Society of Fellows. In 2009, Barak received a joint PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies from New York University. His most recent book is On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (University of California Press, 2013), and his current publication project, Coalonialism: Energy and Empire before the Age of Oil, is funded by a European Union Marie Curie Award and an Israel Science Foundation Grant.
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      published contributions
  • Anil Bawa-Cavia
    • Anil Bawa-Cavia is a computer scientist with a background in machine learning. He runs STDIO, a speculative software studio. His practice engages with algorithms, protocols, encodings, and other software artifacts and his doctoral research at the Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London was on complex networks in urbanism. He is a founding member of Call & Response, a sonic arts collective and gallery space in London, and a member of the New Centre for Research & Practice.
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      published contributions
  • Etienne Benson
  • Josh Berson
  • Jeremy Bolen
  • Axel Braun
    • Axel Braun studied photography at the Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, and fine arts at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. His artistic research deals with controversial infrastructure projects, tautology as an attempt to understand reality, and failed utopias in art and architecture. Currently, he is pursuing the long-term project Towards an Understanding of Anthropocene Landscapes. Recently exhibited works include Some Kind of Opposition (2016) at Galeria Centralis, Budapest, and Dragonflies drift downstream on a river (2015) at Kunstmuseum Bochum.
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      published contributions
  • Keith Breckenridge
  • François Bucher
    • s, focusing on ethical and aesthetic problems of cinema and television, and more recently on the image as an interdimensional field. His work has been exhibited at
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      published contributions
  • Lino Camprubí
  • Zachary Caple
  • Ele Carpenter
    • Dr. Ele Carpenter is a senior lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths, London. Her curatorial practice responds to interdisciplinary socio-political contexts such as the nuclear economy and the relationship between craft and code.
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      published contributions
  • Andrew Chubb
    • Andrew Chubb is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia conducting research on the relationship between Chinese public opinion and government policy in the South China Sea. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Contemporary China, Pacific Affairs, East Asia Forum, and Information, Communication & Society. His blog, South Sea Conversations (southseaconversations.wordpress.com), provides translations and analysis of Chinese discourse on the South and East China Sea issues.
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      published contributions
  • Louis Chude-Sokei
    • Louis Chude-Sokei is a writer and scholar currently teaching in the English Department at the University of Washington, Seattle. His academic interests range from West African, Caribbean, and American literary and cultural studies to a particular focus on sound, technology, and performance. His literary and public work focuses on immigration and black-on-black cultural contacts, conflicts, and exchanges. Chude-Sokei is the author of the award-winning book The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (2006) and The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics (2016).
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      published contributions
  • Claire Colebrook
    • Claire Colebrook is a professor of English at Penn State University. Her areas of specialization are contemporary literature, visual culture, and theory and cultural studies. She has written articles on poetry, literary theory, queer theory, and contemporary culture. Colebrook is the co-editor of the series Critical Climate Change, published by Open Humanities Press, and a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Critical Climate Change. She recently completed two books on extinction for Open Humanities Press, Death of the PostHuman and Sex after Life (both 2014), and with Tom Cohen and J. Hillis Miller co-authored Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (2016).
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      published contributions
  • Rana Dasgupta
  • Filip De Boeck
    • Filip De Boeck is actively involved in teaching, promoting, coordinating and supervising research in and on Africa at the Institute for Anthropological research in Africa at the U
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      published contributions
  • Seth Denizen
    • Seth Denizen is a researcher and design practitioner trained in landscape architecture and evolutionary biology. Since completing research on the sexual behavior and evolutionary ecology of small Trinidadian fish, his work has focused on the aesthetics of scientific representation, madness, and public parks, the design of t
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      published contributions
  • Jonathan Donges
    • Jonathan Donges is a postdoctoral researcher who holds a joint position at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (as Stordalen Scholar) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He studies planetary boundaries and social dynamics in the Earth system from a complex dynamical system perspective. At Potsdam, he is Co-head of the flagship COPAN (Coevolutionary Pathways) project (www.pik-potsdam.de/copan). His published research includes work on complex network theory, dynamical systems theory, and time series analysis, with a focus on their application to our understanding of past and present climate variability and its interactions with humankind on planet Earth.
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      published contributions
  • Keller Easterling
  • David Edgerton
    • David Edgerton is Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and a professor of modern British history at King’s College London. After teaching at the University of Manchester, he became the founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London (1993–2003), and moved along with the centre to King’s College London in August 2013. He is the author of many works, including The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (2007), which argues for and exemplifies new ways of thinking about the material constitution of modernity.
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      published contributions
  • Technosphere Editorial
  • Sasha Engelmann
  • Jennifer Gabrys
    • Jennifer Gabrys is Reader in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Principal Investigator on the ERC-funded project, "Citizen Sense." Her publications include Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (University of Michigan Press, 2011); and Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).
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      published contributions
  • Oliver Gantner
  • Florian Goldmann
    • Florian Goldmann is a Berlin-based artist and a PhD candidate at the DFG Research Training Center Visibility and Visualisation – Hybrid Forms of Pictorial Knowledge as well as at the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies, both Potsdam University. His research focus is the utilization of models as a means of both commemorating and predicting catastrophe. In 2015, he took part in the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. Goldmann is one of the founders of the research collective STRATAGRIDS and the author of Flexible Signposts to Coded Territories (2012), an analysis of football hooligan graffiti in Athens as a system of fluid signage.
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      published contributions
  • Johan Gärdebo
    • Johan Gärdebo is a PhD candidate at the Royal Institute of Technology affiliated to the Environmental Humanities Laboratory (EHL). H
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Orit Halpern
    • Orit Halpern is a Strategic Hire in Interactive Design and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal. Her work bridges the histories of science, computing, and cybernetics with design and art practice. She is also a co-director of the Speculative Life Research Cluster, Montreal, a laboratory situated at the intersection of art and life sciences, architecture and design, and computational media (www.speculativelife.com). Her recent monograph, Beautiful Data (2015), is a history of interactivity, data visualization, and ubiquitous computing. www.orithalpern.net
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      published contributions
  • Carola Hein
    • Carola Hein is a professor of the history of architecture and urban planning in the Architecture Department at Delft University of Technology. She has published widely on topics in contemporary and historical architectural and urban planning, notably that of Europe and Japan. Her current research interests include transmission of architectural and urban ideas along international networks, focusing specifically on port cities, and the global architecture of oil. Her books include Port Cities: Dynamic Landscapes and Global Networks (2011), Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan (2006), and The Capital of Europe: Architecture and Urban Planning for the European Union (2004).
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      published contributions
  • Julian Henriques
    • Julian Henriques is the convener of the MA in Script Writing and Director of the Topology Research Unit in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Prior to this, he ran the film and television department at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica. His credits as a writer and director include the reggae musical feature film Babymother (1998) and as a sound artist, Knots & Donuts, exhibited at Tate Modern in 2011. Henriques researches street cultures and technologies and his publications include Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation, and Subjectivity (1998), Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (2011), and Sonic Media (forthcoming).
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      published contributions
  • Hanna Husberg
    • Hanna Husberg is a Stockholm-based artist. She graduated from ENSB-A in Paris in 2007 and is currently a PhD in Practice candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
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      published contributions
  • Erich Hörl
  • Timothy Johnson
  • Peter K. Haff
  • Laleh Khalili
  • Alexander Klose
    • Dr. Alexander Klose studied History, Law, Philosophy, Art, and Cultural Studies. From 2005-07 he held a scholarship at Bauhaus Universität Weimar for his PhD project on standardized containers used in transport as one of the leading material media in the 20th century. Between 2009 and 2014 he worked as a research associate and programme developer at Kulturstiftung des Bundes. In 2015 in the forefront of COP 21, he co-curated Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge No. 18 – On Becoming Earthlings: 150 dialogues and exercises in shrinking and expanding the Human at Musée de l'Homme, Paris. His latest publication is: The Container Principle. How a box changes the way we think (2015).
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      published contributions
  • Karin Knorr Cetina
    • Rico, in the 1960s. She finished her education in Paris and London. Knorr has taught, exhibited, and lectured internationally, including at Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the University of Westminster, and Goldsmiths in London, as well as Harvard Univ
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      published contributions
  • Scott Knowles
  • Nile Koetting
  • Nicole Koltick
    • Nicole Koltick is an assistant professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University, Philadelphia. She is Founding Director of the Design Futures Lab at Westphal College, which is currently pursuing design research to stimulate debate on the potential implications of emerging technological and scientific developments within society. Koltick’s practice spans art, science, technology, design, and philosophy, and current work focuses on the philosophical, material, and relational implications of aesthetics as they intersect with emerging developments in computational creativity, artificially intelligent autonomous systems, robotics, and synthetic biological hybrids.
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      published contributions
  • Nik Kosmas
  • Matthijs Kouw
    • Matthijs Kouw joined the Rathenau Instituut, The Hague, in March 2016. He holds an MA in Philosophy and an MSc in Science and Technology Studies from the University of Amsterdam as well as a PhD from Maastricht University. In his PhD thesis, Kouw describes how and to what extent reliance on models can introduce vulnerabilities through the assumptions, uncertainties, and blind spots concomitant with modeling practice. He was employed as a postdoctoral researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), during which time he acted as a member of the Dutch delegation for plenary sessions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
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      published contributions
  • Lars Kulik
    • Lars Kulik studied biology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He received his doctorate on the development of social behavior of rhesus monkeys at the University of Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He lives with his family in Berlin.
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      published contributions
  • Richard L. Hindle
    • Richard L. Hindle is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley. His current research focuses on patent innovation in landscape related technologies, from large-scale mappings of riverine and coastal systems to detailed historical studies on the antecedents of vegetated architecture. His work explores the potential of new technological narratives and material processes to reframe theory, practice, and the production of landscape. Recent works include the articles “Levees That Might Have Been” (2015), and “Infrastructures of Innovation” in Scaling Infrastructure (MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism, 2016), and the exhibition Geographies of Innovation at UC Berkeley (2015).
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      published contributions
  • Brian Larkin
  • John Law
    • hn Law was a professor of sociology at Keele University, Lancaster, and the Open University, Milton Keynes, and a co-director of the Economic and Social Researc
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      published contributions
  • S. Løchlann Jain
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • Laura McLean
    • Laura McLean is a curator, artist, and writer based in London. She is a graduate of Goldsmiths College and Sydney College of the Arts, where she later lectured. She has also studied at Alberta College of Art and Design, and the Universität der Künste Berlin.
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      published contributions
  • Eden Medina
    • Eden Medina is an associate professor of informatics and computing, affiliated associate professor of law, and adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research and teaching address the social, historical, and legal dimensions of our increasingly data-driven world, including the relationship of technology to human rights and free expression, the relationship between political innovation and technological innovation, and the ways that human and political values shape technological design. Medina’s writings also use science and technology as a way to broaden understandings of Latin American history and the geography of innovation. She is the author of Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile (2011) and the co-editor of Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America (2014).
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      published contributions
  • Anne-Sophie Milon
    • Anne-Sophie Milon is an artist and a freelance illustrator and animator working and living in Bristol, UK. After completing two Masters in Art, she has recently concluded the program of experimentation in Art and Politics at SciencesPo (SPEAP) in Paris.
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      published contributions
  • Gerald Nestler
    • Gerald Nestler is an artist and writer who combines theory and post-disciplinary conversation with video, installation, performance, text, code, graphics, sound, and speech. He explores what he calls the derivative condition of contemporary social relations and its paradigmatic financial models, operations, processes, narratives, and fictions. He is currently working on an “aesthetics of resolution” that maps counterfictions and counterimaginations for “renegade activism,” which revolves around the demonstration as a combined artistic, technological, social, and political practice. Nestler holds a practice-based PhD from the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.
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      published contributions
  • James P. M. Syvitski
    • James P. M. Syvitski is Executive Director of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System (CSDMS) at the University of Colorado Boulder. From 2011 to 2016, he chaired the International Council for Science’s International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), which provides essential scientific leadership and knowledge of the Earth system to help guide society toward a sustainable pathway during rapid global change. His specialty is the global flux of water and sediment (river and ocean borne) and its trends in the Anthropocene. He works at the forefront of computational geosciences, including sediment transport, land-ocean interactions, and Earth-surface dynamics.
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      published contributions
  • Luciana Parisi
    • Luciana Parisi is Reader in Cultural Theory, Chair of the PhD program in Cultural Studies, and Co-director of the Digital Culture Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research focuses on cybernetics, information theory and computation, complexity and evolutionary theories, and the technocapitalist investment in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. Her books include Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology and the Mutations of Desire (2004) and Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space (2013). She is currently researching the history of automation and the philosophical consequences of logical thinking in machines.
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      published contributions
  • Lisa Parks
  • Matteo Pasquinelli
  • Arno Rosemarin
  • Dorion Sagan
  • Birgit Schneider
  • Lizzie Stark
    • Lizzie Stark is an author, journalist, and experience designer. She is the author of two books, Pandora’s DNA (2014), exploring so-called ‘breast cancer genes’ and her first book, Leaving Mundania (2012), which investigates the subculture of live action role play, or larp. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, the Daily Beast, The Today Show Website, io9, Fusion, the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. She holds an MS from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has organized numerous conventions and experiences across the US. Her most recent work is as a programming coordinator for Living Games Austin, and as co-editor and contributor for the #Feminism anthology, which collects 34 nano-games written by feminists from eleven countries.
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      published contributions
  • Lucy Suchman
    • ology of Science and Technology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lancaster, UK. Her research interests within the field of feminist science and technology studies are focused on technological imaginaries and material practices
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      published contributions
  • Jenna Sutela
    • Jenna Sutela’s installations, texts, and sound performances seek to identify and react to precarious social and material moments, often in relation to technology. Most recently, she has been exploring exceedingly complex biological and computational systems, ultimately unknowable and always becoming something new. Her work has been presented, among other places, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and her writing has been published by Fiktion, Harvard Design Magazine, and Sternberg Press.
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      published contributions
  • Bronislaw Szerszynski
    • Bronislaw Szerszynski is a Reader in Sociology at Lancaster University in the UK. Szerszynski’s work has developed across several themes, including the role of Western religious history in shaping contemporary understandings of technology and the environment—typified by his book Nature, Technology and the Sacred (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).
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      published contributions
  • Elisa T. Bertuzzo
    • Elisa T. Bertuzzo studied comparative literature, sociology, communication, and media studies and holds a PhD in urban studies. She was a curator and project leader with Habitat Forum Berlin, including for the project Paradigmising Karail Basti (2010–16). Bridging discourses from the fields of cultural and urban studies, her research focuses on the everyday life facets of urbanization and settlement in South Asia. On that topic, she published Fragmented Dhaka: Analysing Everyday Life with Henri Lefebvre’s Theory of Production of Space (2009) and runs her multimedia project Archives of Movement (since 2012), which deals with the everyday life of temporary labor migrants in Bangladesh and India.
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      published contributions
  • Gregory T. Cushman
    • Gregory T. Cushman is Associate Professor of International Environmental History at the University of Kansas.
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Nasrin Tabatabai
    • Nasrin Tabatabai is an artist who works both in Iran and the Netherlands. Since 2004, she has collaborated with Babak Afrassiabi on various joint projects and the publication of the bilingual magazine Pages (Farsi and English). Their work seeks to articulate the undecidable space between art and its historical conditions, including the recurring question of the place of the archive in defining the juncture between politics, history, and the practice of art. The artists’ work has been presented internationally in various solo and group exhibitions and they have been tutors at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2008–13), and Erg, école supérieure des arts, Brussels (2015–).
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Katerina Teaiwa
    • Dr. Katerina Teaiwa is Associate Professor at the Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History & Language and the president of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies. Her main area of research looks at the histories of phosphate mining in the central Pacific. Her work does not only span academic research, publications, and lectures, but also manifests itself in other formats within the arts and popular culture. Her work has inspired a permanent exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells the story of Pacific phosphate mining through Banaban dance. In 2015, she published „Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba“, Indiana University Press. She is currently working with visual artist Yuki Kihara on a multimedia exhibition for Carriageworks in Sydney.
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      published contributions
  • Jol Thomson
  • Claire Tolan
  • John Tresch
  • Etienne Turpin
    • Etienne Turpin is a philosopher, Founding Director of anexact office, and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, where he coordinates the Humanitarian Infrastructures Group and co-directs the PetaBencana.id disaster mapping project for the Urban Risk Lab. He is the editor of Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Tim
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      published contributions
  • Asonseh Ukah
    • Asonzeh Ukah is a sociologist and historian of religion. He joined the University of Cape Town in 2013 and previously taught at the University of Bayreuth (2005–13), where he also earned a doctorate and habilitation in history of religions. His research interests include religious urbanism, the sociology of Pentecostalism, and religion and media. He is Director of the Research Institute on Christianity and Society in Africa (RICSA), University of Cape Town, and Affiliated Senior Fellow of Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth. He is the author of A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power (2008) and Bourdieu in Africa (edited with Magnus Echtler, 2016).
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      published contributions
  • Underworlds
  • Sebastian Vehlken
    • Sebastian Vehlken is a media theorist and cultural historian at Leuphana University Lüneburg and Permanent Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation (MECS). From 2013 to 2017, he worked as MECS Junior Director, and in 2015–16, he was a visiting professor at Humboldt-Universität Berlin, the University of Vienna, and Leuphana. His areas of interest include the theory and history of computer simulation and digital media, the media history of swarm intelligence, and the epistemology of think tanks. His current research project, Plutonium Worlds, explores the application of computer simulations in West German fast breeder reactor programs.
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      published contributions
  • Vladimir Vernadsky
  • Davor Vidas
    • Davor Vidas is a research professor in international law and Director of the Law of the Sea Programme at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Lysaker, Norway. He is Chair of the Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise and a member of the Anthropocene Working Group. Vidas has been involved in international law research for over thirty years, focusing since 2009 on implications of the Anthropocene for the development of international law. Among his books are The World Ocean in Globalisation (2011) and Law, Technology and Science for Oceans in Globalisation (2010). He is the editor-in-chief of the book series Anthropocene (Skolska knjiga, Zagreb), launched in 2017.
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      published contributions
  • Hannes Wiedemann
    • Hannes Wiedemann is a Berlin-based photographer. He studied at the Ostkreuz School of Photography, Berlin. For his project Grinders (2015–16), he followed the American bodyhacking community, a small group of people across the United States working out of garages and basements to become real cyborgs. Recent exhibitions include NEW PHOTOGRAPHY II (2017) at Gallery ALAN, Istanbul, and HUMAN UPGRADE, with Susanna Hertrich (2016), at Schader-Stiftung Gallery, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. www.hanneswiedemann.com
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      published contributions
  • Cary Wolfe
    • Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English and Founding Director of 3CT: Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University, Houston. He is the author of What Is Posthumanism? (2010), a book that weaves together principal concerns of his work: animal studies, system theory, pragmatism, and post-structuralism. It is part of the series Posthumanities, for which he serves as Founding Editor at the University of Minnesota Press. His most recent publication is Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in Biopolitical Frame (2013) and earlier books and edited collections include Animal Rites: American Culture, The Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003) and Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003).
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      published contributions
  • Andrew Yang
  • Jan Zalasiewicz
    • Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz is Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester and Chair of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. A field geologist, paleontologist, and stratigrapher, he teaches and publishes on geology and earth history, in particular on fossil ecosystems and environments that span over half a billion years of geological time.
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Anna Zett
  • Liv Østmo
    • Liv Østmo is one of the founders and current Dean of the Sámi University of Applied Sciences, Kautokeino, Norway, where she researches and lectures on the subject of multicultural understanding. For the last eight years, Østmo has worked with traditional Sámi knowledge and she is currently working on putting the finishing touches on a methodology book about the documentation of this knowledge.
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1. The Phosphorus Apparatus

Phosphorus is the fifteenth element of the periodic table of elements, and was the thirteenth to be discovered by science. Like the oxygen in the air we breathe and the water we drink, phosphorus makes us up in the flesh. Without it, all living things would perish. Unlike oxygen, however, phosphorus is relatively rare within our everyday environments. This makes phosphorus life-limiting and arguably the most precious of all mineral resources.
Phosphorus is a key constituent of the technosphere—the human mobilization of materials, energy, and environments into technological systems of planetary scale and impact. As an irreplaceable ingredient in chemical fertilizers, as well as a host of other synthetic compounds from plastics to pesticides, phosphorus also embodies industrial society and makes possible its seemingly endless supply of cheap food and consumables.
Whatever and wherever phosphorus is, it is not just a molecular building block. In the twenty-first century, phosphorus has a shape-shifting identity as it travels an engineered life course from mined rock, to bagged fertilizer, to crop biomass, to supermarket commodity, to human body, to blooms of toxic algae, to Anthropocenic sediments on the bottom of the sea. Its circulation is omnipresent yet invisible—an essential operational element of our modern, industrial creative apparatus.
“And the Lord God formed man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah) and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and adam became a living being. . . . And the Lord God took adam and put him into the garden he had planted at the confluence of rivers in the eastern lowlands to work it and take care of it. . . . And then the Creator of Creators blessed them, man and woman, and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28, 2:7, 15)
In the creation myths of the Abrahamic religions, human flesh and bone originate from the earth itself, and to dust we all return. According to one version, the Creator of Creators Elohim gave humanity the mission to subdue the planet. In another, the Lord God of Israel Yahweh gave earth-man the duty to care for a garden growing out of the stuff of his own creation.
From this ontological perspective, humanity is made of earth, but was given two contradictory duties toward it: to care for it, or to conquer it. Phosphorus, from the moment of its naming by the German alchemist Henning Brandt in 1669, also embodied this contradiction. In its Greek form phosphoros, it was “the light giver,” the morning star, son of the goddess of dawn and herald of the promise brought by each new day. In its Latin form Lucifer, the element is the Tempter responsible for humanity’s downfall, the brilliant being who almost convinced the Son of God to sin by turning desert rocks into bread.
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The First Temptation of Christ, illuminated Psalter, around 1222, Source: Copenhagen Det kongelige Bibliotek
The world economy and the planet’s entire food system depend on a widely unappreciated resource: phosphorus. Forged by an improbable sequence of nuclear reactions in exploding stars, phosphorus is the most cosmically rare of the six elements needed in large quantities to produce life on earth.
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Much ink has been spilled within the humanities and social sciences on the question of power and its origins, yet very little work has been done on the nature of fertility. The invention of agriculture at the dawn of the Holocene, 12,500 years ago, involved, among other things, a revolution in the relationship between soil phosphorus and human fertility.
In Mesopotamia and other hearths of civilization, early horticulturalists were able to concentrate phosphorus into their bodies and societies by farming in the fertile silts of river floodplains. Pastoralists concentrated phosphorus with the help of livestock that roved the wilderness converting indigestible grasses and leaves into milk and meat. Armies of women, pounding and peeling, kneading and mashing, turned this bounty into edible form around the world’s hearths.
Human populations prospered and expanded. By learning to engineer phosphorus hotspots into the landscape, our agricultural ancestors created surpluses—in the form of grain, roots, and livestock, serfs, slaves, and soldiers—that gave life to the agrarian state and fed cults to Mother Earth and the Creator of Creators.


Fast forward to the Green Revolution of the twentieth century. The cult of fertility has taken new form. Lithospheric, rather than biospheric, phosphorus is captured from the bowels of the earth at an increasing pace. The Great Acceleration is on. Human populations soar. In US-styled suburbia, the cult of the nuclear family and microwave dinner proliferates as supermarkets become an everyday technology of phosphorus distribution.
In this revolutionary epoch, phosphorus has become a fetish of the capitalist sciences: how to find, mine, and refine it; how to ship it, mix it, spread it; how to price it; how to market it; and—lest we forget—how to flush it. From the Neolithic to the Anthropocene, human excrement has always been one of the richest sources of phosphorus. But now, through agricultural runoff and sewage discharges, we are abandoning most of it to vast societies of microbes. Fed by this earthly treasure, massive algal blooms are transforming marine and freshwater environments, starving water bodies of oxygen, creating environmental toxins, and upending ecosystem relations.
Yet, the crisis of eutrophication—like the looming crisis of phosphate rock scarcity that could overturn our whole industrial system—is barely on our political radar. Will our modern quest to create a planetary empire and the sin of turning stones into bread end up laying waste to the garden that feeds us?

In this investigation of the modern phosphorus apparatus, we excavate the ontologies and ethics of phosphorus within the technosphere of late-industrial food systems. To do so, we have braided together stories, videos, images, and diagrams that track the becoming of phosphorus and its social worlds through commodity chains stretching from mine to field to fork and beyond.
Along with carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur, phosphorus is essential to the biochemistry of living beings. It is found in bone, teeth, DNA, RNA, cell membranes, and the energy transfer molecule ATP.
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Phosphorus and the Opening of the Anthropocene

Phosphorus was the first element to be discovered during the modern era, by a German alchemist experimenting with urine in 1669. The element’s name refers to its tendency to spontaneously give off light, or phosphoresce, in its unstable “white” elemental form. In everyday use, phosphorus is probably most familiar as the striking surface on match heads, where it has been used since the 1830s. For a gripping popular history of “the devil’s element,” see John Emsley, The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus (New York: Wiley, 2002). Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 7th ed. (2014) dedicates five chapters to phosphorus and phosphate compounds.
The industrial uses of phosphorus have a notorious environmental history. The London matchgirls' strike of 1888 helped bring public attention to the disfiguring occupational illness known colloquially as “phossy jaw” caused by repeated exposure to white phosphorus. The subsequent movement to substitute less volatile red phosphorus for white phosphorus in match heads resulted in an early international environmental agreement: the 1906 Berne Convention.
Phosphorus compounds have also been weaponized, first as incendiary bombs during World War I, later as “nerve gas” in the wake of experiments by German insecticide researchers just before World War II. After the widespread banning of persistent pesticides like DDT in the 1970s, organophosphate insecticides such as malathion have come into widespread use for control of mosquitos and agricultural pests, even in household “flea bombs.” Although they break down quickly and do not bioaccumulate, organophophate pesticides are far more immediately toxic to humans. Like their close relative sarin gas, they are potent neurotransmitter disruptors, and have been strongly implicated in causing multiple chemical sensitivity, a debilitating environmental illness that makes sufferers sensitive to a wide range of otherwise benign substances encountered in everyday life. Jill Neimark, “Extreme Chemical Sensitivity Makes Sufferers Allergic to Life,” Discover Magazine, Nov. 2013; Claudia S. Miller, “Multiple Chemical Intolerance,” in Handbook of Olfaction and Gustation, ed. Richard L. Doty.
Other prominent industrial uses of phosphorus compounds include: as a detergent and degreasing agent (e.g., trisodium phosphate), as a water softener that enhances detergent activity in hard water (e.g., sodium triphosphate), as a flame retardant used in everything from children’s pajamas to sofa cushions (e.g., tris(2,3-dibromopropyl)phosphate), and as a fuel additive (e.g., tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate).
These uses have all been negatively implicated in the severe pollution of waterways and human health concerns.Terence Kehoe, “Merchants of Pollution?: The Soap and Detergent Industry and the Fight to Restore Great Lakes Water Quality, 1965-1972”: Environmental History Review 16, no. 3; Clyde Haberman, “A Flame Retardant That Came With Its Own Threat to Health,” New York Times, 3 May 2015; Spencer David Segalla, “The 1959 Moroccan Oil Poisoning and US Cold War Disaster Diplomacy,” Journal of North African Studies 17, no. 2.
The broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine)—better known as Roundup—has played a notorious role in the controversy over genetically engineered “Roundup-Ready” soybeans, maize, cotton, canola, and cotton. Glyphospate use has been implicated in the decline of monarch butterflies, and despite its reputation for low toxicity, has been recently categorized by WHO cancer researchers as a probable carcinogen and blamed as a catalyst for an epidemic of chronic kidney disease in Central America and Sri Lanka. John M. Pleasants and Karen S. Oberhauser, “Milkweed Loss in Agricultural Fields Because of Herbicide Use: Effect on the Monarch Butterfly Population,” Insect Conservation and Diversity 6, no. 2; David Cressey, “Widely Used Herbicide Linked to Cancer,” Nature, 24 Mar. 2015; Namini Wijedasa, “It’s Official: Glyphosate Import is Banned,” The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 14 June 2015.
Phosphorus is an irreplaceable element in agricultural fertilizers and a range of industrial chemicals and consumer products, from match heads to detergents to pesticides and fertilizers. Modern life depends on its circulation.
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Nevertheless, it is highly deceptive to think of phosphorus as an inherently diabolical element. Phosphorus is potentially dangerous because it is absolutely necessary to life. This is especially true of the highly reactive molecular form combining one phosphorus and three oxygen atoms known as phosphate (PO34-).
The phosphate ion is a key structural component of nucleic acids, our genetic code. Phospholipids form the semipermeable bilayer that makes up cell membranes, while adenosine triphosphate (ATP) acts as the basic source of energy exchange in cell metabolism.
Phosphates are also a key structural component of bones and teeth. In fact, they are so prominent in human urine and other organic debris produced by our everyday activities, and so lasting in the local environment once they are released, that soil phosphate analysis has become a standard method for identifying and mapping archaeological sites—dating all the way back to the beginnings of human settlement. V. T. Holliday and W. G. Gartner, “Methods of Soil P Analysis in Archaeology,” Journal of Archaeological Science 34 (2007).
Phosphate is so indispensable that its scarcity will place a fundamental limitation on organic growth within an ecosystem. It is fundamental to what every one of us eats and what we excrete. It is a finite resource with no possible substitute. For a more detailed introduction to human-phosphorus relationships, with a focus on modern food regimes, see Vaclav Smil, “Phosphorus in the Environment: Natural Flows and Human Interferences,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 25 (2000); Dana Cordell, Jan-Olof Drangert, and Stuart White, “The Story of Phosphorus: Global Food Security and Food for Thought,” Global Environmental Change 18 (2009).
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, widespread experimentation with bone, urine, excrement, and other organic materials for agricultural and industrial purposes inspired an ever-expanding search for phosphate-rich substances for investigation. John Bennett Lawes (1814-1900) and Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) became demigods within the histories of science, technology, and agriculture thanks to their role in the initiation of research into the phosphorus cycle and encouragement of use of phosphate fertilizers in high-intensity farming.
Large-scale exploitation of marine bird excrement (or guano) as a commodity of international trade between 1840 and 1880 played a pivotal role in generating transnational interest in new fertilizers. The widening search around the globe for sources of phosphate supply during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was marked, in turn, by a gradual transition from relatively limited supplies of recent, biological origin (such as bones and guano) to much larger and far more ancient supplies of geological origin (such as coprolites and rock phosphate).
Meanwhile, the geography and geopolitics of these interventions into the biosphere and lithosphere remind us I trace this story in Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Recent book-length histories of phosphate also include Shepherd W. McKinley, Stinking Stones and Rocks of Gold: Phosphate, Fertilizer, and Industrialization in Postbellum South Carolina (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014); and Katerina Martina Teaiwa, Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
that industrialization has been fundamentally based on the predatory colonization of distant environments and peoples and mainly accrued to the benefit of a modest number of northerners and European-derived southerners.
The world’s smallest republic, the island of Nauru, is located in Micronesia in the South Pacific. The story of the island is a true and forgotten tale of capitalism: A former Prussian colony in the Pacific that became one of the richest nations in the world due to its high-quality phosphate, produced by the faeces of migrating sea birds, followed by the container ships of the 20th century international chemical industry.
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These trends are of fundamental importance for modern history because they have enabled dramatic increases in agricultural productivity and the growth of human numbers, but they also played a pivotal role in a much broader transition in the basic ecology of industrial civilization. The Second Industrial Revolution dating from circa 1850 to World War I is best known for its path-breaking innovations in use of materials, chemicals, transportation, and energy resources that rapidly expanded the reach of industrialization beyond its earliest centers in Western Europe and the United States.
But the Second Industrial Revolution also had a potent ecological dimension involving a switchover from reliance on potentially renewable or biologically based fuels, chemicals, building materials, and modes of transport, to those fundamentally derived from mineralogical sources. This switchover also involved the partial abandonment of ecological relations reliant on the biosphere and premised on recycling, and the embrace of those reliant on the lithosphere and premised on extractive mining, throughput, and waste.
These lithospheric interventions played an important role in connecting industrialization to colonized regions, but their significance transcends their significance for human history alone. Both in kind and in scale, these lithospheric interventions are also hallmarks of the opening of a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—when industrial societies have attained unprecedented influence as geological agents, and when human activities have emerged as the dominant force of planetary environmental change.
Nauru, the phosphate rock island, boasted the highest per-capita income (and Diabetes-II rate) enjoyed by any sovereign state in the world during the late 1960s until the phosphate reserves were exhausted and, after becoming home to numerous off-shore banks in the 1990ies, it was defined as a so-called ‘rogue state’, being discussed as a site for Australian nuclear waste dumps.
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By quantifying regional and global patterns of extraction and use of phosphorus, we can identify exactly when this transition from biospheric to lithospheric interventions occurred for this vital element within industrial societies—and when the planet began to enter the Anthropocene.
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Availability of New Phosphate Resources in Great Britain, 1810-1891 (thousand metric tons of P2O5)
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The Table traces the advent of new phosphate resources available to British agriculture and industry during the nineteenth century. The initiation of large-scale manufacture of breakage-resistant “bone china” by the Spode Company in the mid 1790s, which was keyed on the transformation of ground bone using high heat to create ultra-strong tricalcium phosphate bonds within the porcelain, provided an important stimulus for the commodification of ground bone in England, some of which was diverted to agricultural experimentation. Before this, recycled urine, feces, and plant matter had been the almost exclusive suppliers of phosphate to British industry and agriculture.
The initiation of guano exports almost doubled the availability of phosphate above that provided by domestic and imported bone during the 1840s and 1850s. Rapidly increasing bone imports from the Continent, Russia, the South American Pampas, and other distant locales after 1859 would have made bone the most important phosphate source for the next period, if not for booming production of mineral phosphorite from so-called coprolites mined along the southeastern coast of England in order to manufacture superphosphate fertilizer.
The abrupt end of the Peruvian guano trade after the outbreak of the War of the Pacific in South America in 1879 and parallel onset of a decades-long agricultural depression in the UK entailed the reduction of phosphate consumption from biospheric sources of all kinds, including bone and livestock manure.
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Global production of phosphate derived from guano and rock, 1840-1880

Driven by British demand, global phosphate rock production came to far outpace Peruvian guano production during the 1870s, when phosphate mining began to rival ground bone as the number one source of phosphorus within input-intensive agriculture and industry in North America and Europe. (Guano production from other worldwide locales was only a fraction of Peruvian production).
In 2001 the Australian government opened the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, a detention camp for refugees as part of the ‘Pacific Solution’, a large-scale Australian effort to redirect maritime migration away from its borders.
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Circa 1880, phosphate contained in green, animal, and human manures used by farmers around the globe probably still outranked lithospheric supplies by an order of magnitude. But the use of traditional manures involved a distinctly different relationship with the phosphorus cycle. It is vital to recognize that the use of traditional manures typically involved the recycling of nutrients on a highly localized scale, while the use of bone, guano, and rock involved resources extracted from ever more distant environments.
Through their embrace of bone and guano imports during the nineteenth century, northern farmers began to adopt the input-intensive practices typical of modern industrial agriculture. In switching from bones and guano to mineralogical sources of phosphate, northern agriculture and industry moved from exploiting some of the earth’s remotest locales to the exploitation of distant eons of planetary time.
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Estimation of global production and use of phosphate resources

My estimation of global production and use of phosphate resources results in humanity’s overall reliance on lithospheric phosphate in farming and industry almost certainly came to outrank biospheric resources sometime between 1949 and 1961, at the very beginning of what Anthropocene researchers call “the Great Acceleration.” The tremendous scale of increase after the Second World War should not blind us to the scale and importance of earlier growth, however.
If we look more closely at the seemingly uneventful tail of the exponential curve of phosphate rock production between 1850 and 1940, we find that the industrial development of phosphorus production from lithospheric sources actually had its first, most rapid, and sustained period of growth during the six decades leading up to 1913. From 1881 to 1913, phosphate rock production grew by more than an order of magnitude. When available phosphorus from basic slag (a phosphorus-rich byproduct of steel smelting first marketed in 1886) and phosphate rock are combined, global lithospheric extraction increased by more than an order of magnitude, from 30,000 metric tons in 1863 to 3.032 million metric tons of phosphate on the eve of the First World War. In 1913, production of concentrated phosphate fertilizer from bone, guano, and other organic sources only amounted to 4.3 percent of production from minerals.
Lithospherically sourced phosphates were also fast approaching the quantities contributed by animal manure recycling on a global basis, which would have amounted to substantially less than the eight to twelve million tons of phosphate in the world’s livestock manure forty years after this. For world locales integrated into these new networks of supply, these new lithospheric sources completely shattered bottlenecks of phosphorus supply that had previously limited agricultural intensification and industrial development. By 1913, phosphate run-off also must have begun to fundamentally alter the nutrient ecology of waterways wherever it was used.
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Global supply of phosphate used in concentrated fertilizer manufacture, 1850-1940

It is possible to draw similar diagrams for world production of nitrogen fertilizer and explosives, coal and iron, rail and steamship transport, the growth of large cities, and other key measures of the growth of industrial civilization, international trade, and lithospheric extraction during the period from 1830 to 1913.
By these critical measures of our species’ changed relationship with the minerals that constitute the earth, I propose that industrial civilization’s unprecedented exploitation of the lithosphere in the decades leading up to 1913 as part of the Second Industrial Revolution should become our primary marker for the onset of the Anthropocene—at least from the perspective of what we can find in the documentary strata accumulated in the world’s libraries and archives, and by seeking to identify the historical origins of the new human behaviors that are responsible for our transformative impact on planetary processes.
The methodology leading to such a conclusion is actually little different from that used by Anthropocene researchers favoring 1945 as a starting point, who seem unduly influenced by the advent of nuclear weapons and energy, which are insignificant to global environmental change when compared to the phosphorus cycle.

The historical development of the modern “phosphorus apparatus” and material flows that underlies so many of these transformations will be the subject of a forthcoming volume in the Rachel Carson Center Perspectives series, edited by Gregory T. Cushman and Zachary Caple.
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