Speaker Spotlight: Mimi Sheller by Megan Fountain

On Tuesday, 26 September, at 330pm, Professor Mimi Sheller of Drexel University will give the annual Robert G. Mead Lecture on the theme “Caribbean Futures: Surviving the Anthropocene” http://dailydigest.uconn.edu/publicEmailSingleStoryView.php?id=85861&cid=24&iid=2752

First-year El Instituto student Megan Fountain offers a survey of Professor Sheller’s work and a glimpse of what she’ll cover in this talk.


As our society is increasingly shaped by the mobility of people, goods, ideas and capital around the globe, the inequalities in our society are increasingly shaped by “uneven mobilities.” In the case of travel and migration, for example, some people are more mobile than ever, while others are immobilized by militarized borders, and still others are displaced by forced migrations. These uneven mobilities have changed over time, and they are in no way permanent or inevitable. It is this fascination with past and future mobilities that drives the scholarship of Mimi Sheller, Professor of Sociology and Founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University.

Sheller began her career studying the “public sphere,” democracy formation, and civic participation, so it is not surprising that today she is a scholar who is deeply engaged in public policy debates. Sheller earned her PhD in history and sociology at the New School for Social Research. Her dissertation and first book, Democracy after Slavery: Black Publics and Peasant Radicalism in Haiti and Jamaica (2000), examined how “black publics” in post-emancipation Haiti and Jamaica labored to build radical democratic societies before they were ultimately stunted by liberal and then authoritarian governments.  Mining the archives of peasant organizations and popular religious organizations, including meeting minutes, mass petitions, and newspapers, Sheller studied how these black publics organized collectively and demanded land reform and political rights not only by reimagining liberal, European ideas of citizenship but also by drawing on transnational black abolitionist thought and critiquing white domination and planter oligarchy. Sheller’s future scholarship would continue to probe this question of how “publics” form and how they participate politically.

When Sheller joined the Sociology Department at Lancaster University in England, she began a collaboration with sociologist John Urry that would last nearly two decades until Urry’s untimely death in 2017.  In their first of many co-authored articles, “The City and the Car” (2000), they examined how the automobile was changing public space, public life, and democratic participation. Government projects of urban and suburban planning together with fossil fuel interests had created a “car culture” and car landscape that gave automobile owners access to a public sphere, while marginalizing pedestrians and public transit users and excluding them from civic life.

Sheller continued to examine public life in an article about “Mobile Publics” in 2004. While neoliberalism was extinguishing public goods and public spaces, and traditional modes of public debate such as newspapers were dying out, Sheller argued that other forms of public debate, democratic participation, and connectivity were emerging thanks to the increased mobility of information and people. Still, Sheller did not see these “mobile publics” as “some kind of democratic cybertopia.” Who was included in these new mobile publics? Who was excluded, and how could those exclusions be corrected?

In the coming years, Sheller and Urry would bring together a vast number of scholars across numerous disciplines to explore these questions together under the banner of “mobility studies.” In 2003, Sheller and Urry established the Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster University, and soon after, they convened the first Alternative Mobility Futures Conference and inaugurated the Mobilities journal. This “mobilities paradigm” was necessary, they insisted, because it was impossible to understand social inequalities without considering the uneven distribution of mobilities. “Mobilities are tracked, controlled, governed, under surveillance and unequal,” wrote Sheller, inviting scholars to play a role in creating “mobility justice.”

In her second book, Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (2003), Sheller began to explore the problem of mobilities and immobilities in the Caribbean. In a sweeping indictment of the ways that the Global North has consumed Caribbean land, sugar and bodies from the colonial era to the present, Sheller also pointed to the free mobility of white tourists, contrasted with the immobility of black laborers trapped in the Caribbean.

Several years later, in the article “Virtual Islands,” Sheller revisited this problem in a case study of the Turks and Caicos Islands. She examined how cruise ships, tourist resorts, off-shore tax havens, and free trade zones were “part and parcel of the same process of spatial restructuring that is simultaneously producing enclaves of intense violence, withdrawal of governance, and collapse of civic life.”  The same forces that were connecting global travelers to the islands were also disconnecting island residents from each other.

In 2010, Sheller again analyzed uneven Caribbean mobilities in the article “Air Mobilities on the U.S.–Caribbean Border: Open Skies and Closed Gates.” Here she argued that tourist rhetoric about Caribbean “open skies” and political rhetoric about free trade “claim to increase mobility, but are in fact associated with material practices of border securitization and increased immobility, including refugee interception, migrant detention, and the militarization of air space.”

In 2012, Sheller again examined the nineteenth century history of Caribbean public life and civic participation in her book Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom.  Here Sheller examined the ways that the post-slavery state tried to “control and discipline sexuality, fertility, and labor relations,’’ while at the same time black women and men resisted that control in a variety of ways. Such resistance is not necessarily found in the written archive, but it can be found in “embodied” practices. For example, the withdrawal of women from field labor was an act of resistance to exert control over their time and their reproductive lives.

Sheller’s latest book, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity (2015), looks at environmental history in the Caribbean. Part one, “The Bright Side,” tells how architects, advertisers, and mining companies helped us imagine aluminum as an environmentally-friendly, “light” metal, that would increase our mobility and allow us to travel at high speed. In part two, “The Dark Side,” we learn how bauxite mining and aluminum refining have strip mined Caribbean lands into toxic sludge and further disrupted Caribbean communities with hydroelectric projects, all backed by military force.

Since moving back to her native Philadelphia to found the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel, Sheller has convened social science researchers with diverse actors including engineers, artists, designers, governments, and non-governmental organizations to co-create alternative mobility futures.

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Sheller began facilitating “participatory engineering” projects in Haiti to make infrastructure projects more responsive to local voices and local needs for water and sanitation. In 2015, she interviewed Haitian and Dominican farmers, fishers, and other community members about the impacts of flooding due to climate change and sea level rise. In both projects, she paid close attention to uneven mobilities, and she presented the findings and recommendations to government and civil society organizations.

In 2011, Sheller joined the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute to evaluate post-earthquake efforts in Japan, and she used the findings to produce guidelines for the World Bank about disaster preparedness.

Through the Center for Mobilities Research, Sheller also fosters efforts to study and transform US cities, such as the creation of “Smart Cities” and “eco-cities” that use technologies such as “embedded sensors, open data systems and more community participation in planning and policy.”

In 2012, Sheller and colleagues from the Center co-curated LA Re.Play, an exhibit of “mobile art” in Los Angeles. The many participating artists used video, audio and other media to make visible social structures, histories, and injustices that typically remain invisible in the Los Angeles landscape. As viewers walked through the city following a digital map, they accessed the art through their smart phones.

It is hard to imagine another scholar who has crossed so many disciplinary boundaries and collaborated with such a wide range of practitioners in the public sphere, from creative artists to engineers. While Sheller’s work travels across hundreds of years and multiple continents, she seems to return again and again to the same question of uneven mobilities in the Caribbean, each time refining, deepening, and expanding her analysis. As climate change continues to intensify hurricanes in the Caribbean and no-so-natural inequalities continue to intensify natural disasters, there is no doubt that Sheller’s work is more relevant than ever.