Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences

Fire-Escape: Mobilities, Gender and Genealogies of High-Rise Evacuation

Keynote Lecture by Peter Adey

When the conservative MP and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg complained on London’s LBC radio that the 72 victims of the 2017 Grenfell fire did not use common sense and simply leave the building (going against the ‘stay put’ instructions for many building types of that kind and the advice of firemen and emergency call operators), and that he could not understand how it had “anything to do with race of class”, he fell into a trap which is now at least 150 years old. This has seen the art and act of evacuating – especially tall buildings – blamed on the evacuees themselves. It is also duplicitous with an aesthetics of erasure which silences how certain subjects and bodies become deemed not only as victims, but culpable and less-than active agents in their own escape. The vertical evacuee has been considered too slow, too big, too indecisive, too passionate, too weak, too much – too inadequate, too together. In this paper, and in building on a wider politics of verticality and mobility, I pull on several threads of the geographies, narratives and architectures of evacuation and histories of high-rise calamities and forms and designs of vertical escape. The paper pays particular attention to the treatment and experience of young working-class women in the textile and garment industries, labor relations and emergency solidarities.

Peter Adey is a geographer and a scholar of mobilities. His work lies at the intersection between space, security and mobility, and the blurring boundaries between Cultural and Political Geography. He teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he leads an MSc programme in Geopolitics and Security. Much of his research has revolved around the so-called ‘new mobilities paradigm’, and he published his first book Mobility with Routledge in 2009. His co-edited Handbook of Mobilities came out with Routledge in 2014. He is also co-editor of the Changing Mobilities book series and of the journal Mobilities. His most direct research interests center on vertical and military geographies, emergencies and evacuation and the matter of air. He has published Aerial Life: mobilities, spaces, affects (2010, Wiley-Blackwell), Air (2014, Reaktion) and Levitation: the science, myth and magic of suspension (2017, Reaktion). He is currently working on a long-term book project based on his research on emergency and evacuations entitled The Way We Evacuate for Duke University Press.