cultural geographer

affect, mobilities, work
economic + affective transitions

IAG Film Shorts

New paper — “Embodying industrial transitions: Melancholy loss, interrupted habit and transitional memory after the end of a coal mine“

After finally finding some time to write between moving from Singapore to Bristol, I’ve recently had a paper published in Transactions drawing on my PhD research on two coal mine closures in Australia and China.

The overall project aimed to trace the gamut of ways in which workers responded to the unwilled changes presented by the mine closures, exploring how people embodied the closure’s afterlife through changing circumstances, intensities and evaluations.
This particular paper presents a slice of this project that focuses on the slower-paced bodiy transformations afoot in everyday life, and the non-linear intensities associated with these melancholy transitions. It’s an attempt to show (what might be called) ‘non-representational’ and ‘representational’ forces as always imbricated in embodied life, through the plural operation of memory in unfolding experience. I use the term ‘affective transition’ to denote this transformative process, but something about the term is still unsatisfactory to me insofar as it suggests clear boundaries for a timespaces whose fuzzy edges necessarily reach across unremembered pasts, unassimilated presents and unrealised futures (as I argue in the paper). So the paradoxes remain.

I first wrote up these ideas during my PhD, so as a piece of work it feels old despite being newly out. I did enjoy coming back to the vignettes and smoothing out the original argument, but I think I’ve had enough of this more didactic academic writing style for the next while. In this version, I ended up grounding the narrative in the idea of ‘memory’ because I felt it resonated more widely, but I do think ‘melancholy’ really is the driving void at the heart of this paper - it’s an affective condition that keeps calling to me, and no doubt I’ll continue to grapple with it in the future. 

Citation: Zhang, V. (2024). Embodying industrial transitions: Melancholy loss, interrupted habit and transitional memory after the end of a coal mine. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.
New paper — “What should we do with bad feelings? Negative affects, impotential responses”

Thomas Dekeyser, David Bissell and I have a new article out open access in Progress in Human Geography on the politics of ‘negative affects’. 

We explore the ethics of responding to bad feeling in human geography, identifying an ‘ethics of rehabilitation’ which recurs across the discipline, that seeks to repair bad feeling through attempts to work away negativity and activate latent potential.

Against this persistent desire to overcome negativity and seek potential, we ask why, and how, geographers might explicitly make space for impotentiality. We outline two forms of impotentiality — incapacities (when one is unable to act) and negative capacities (when one decides not to act) — and draw on these positions to put forward an ‘ethics of impotentiality’ that, we suggest, might sidestep some of the more troubling effects of the rehabilitative position, and acknowledge the validity not only of bad feelings, but also the impotence that one might experience in the face of those overwhelming feelings.

Despite the topic matter, writing with these with these two irrepressibly brilliant and kind people was only full of good feels, and I’m looking forward to working with them again. We would love to hear your thoughts on the article if you find time to read it.

Citation: Dekeyser, T., Zhang, V., & Bissell, D. (2023). What should we do with bad feelings? Negative affects, impotential responses. Progress in Human Geography.
Field trip — Hengyang, Hunan, China

It’s been a year for unexpected field trips — this time with second year undergraduates from Guangzhou University’s geography program during my extended visit to GZU’s Centre for Human Geography and Urban Development this autumn.

Together, we rode the old 绿皮车 ‘green-skin’ slow train; learned about the important work on intangible cultural heritage by geography colleagues at Hengyang Normal University; (futilely) attempted to disentangle the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian influences at the Great Temple of Nanyue; climbed (or rather strolled a paved road up) sacred Mount Heng, one of China’s Five Great Mountains; burned our mouths on the aromatic but **spicy** Hunan cuisine; and burned the midnight oil with students preparing for their research presentations on the final day.

Alongside our group activities, the students were tasked with undertaking a mini research project in three days, and they blew me away with their dedication, ingenuity, teamwork, persistence and style. 

I had a lot of fun exploring this new city, hearing about what excites and ails students today, and above all learning from the wonderful teaching crew — Yuan Zhenjie, Yang Rong, Teng Li & Chen Xiaoyue. I am so thankful that they allowed me join them. 

Video — “Never Lost: Journey Across Timor’s Mountains and Sea”

I had the great fortune and pleasure of joining this year’s East Timor Field Class this July, which has been led and run by Prof Lisa Palmer for students of the Geography program at the University of Melbourne for many years — and in collaboration with Timor’s Haburas Foundation in its last several iterations.

In light of the announcement of the 2023 Timor-Leste Tourism Short Film Awards, we decided to put together a short video about the field class, drawing on footage I filmed during this year’s 12-day trip. It’s a straight up promotional video — with requisite drone-shot vistas of sweeping landscapes — but it was a lot of fun to edit together with Lisa, and we hope it gives you a flavour of the field class, which is genuinely life-changing in its scope, sensitivity and intercultural-interspecies-morethanhuman-learnings and humblings. My life certainly feels changed after it. We were pleased to be shortlisted for the awards, with the short film screened at the "Explore the Undiscovered" Tourism Short Film Festival held at Fundação Oriente in Dili in October.

The music is by Haburas’ inimitable Reynato de Oliveira, who joined us for the trip with his guitar, and was recorded live and impromptu. My thanks go to Lisa, Susanna Barnes, Alex Cullen and the folks at Haburas — Pedrito, Jimy, Cancio, Aju, Rey — for the warmest welcome, the daily Tetum lessons, and my newfound obsession with Xina Timor (the 500+ year history of Chinese migration to Timor-Leste).

Tagline: Since 2015, Haburas Foundation have partnered with the University of Melbourne's Geography program to run life-changing study tours of Timor-Leste. In this film, join the 2023 class as they embark on an awe-inspiring journey across mountains and sea.