Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: December, 2018

6. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque

the fold

I decided to read Deleuze’s book on Leibniz, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, to answer a question that came out of my reading of Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s essay on data in qualitative social-science research: is artistic research, or walking-as-art, in the fold? What is the importance of Deleuze’s image of the fold, which is central to St. Pierre’s understanding of what she calls “transgressive data”? That question remained with me after reading St. Pierre’s essay, because I didn’t quite understand quite why she found that image so compelling. The thing to do, I decided, was to read the source where St. Pierre found that image–or at least one of them. Perhaps I’ll find the answer to my questions there.

After finishing The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, I’m still not sure I understand why the image of the fold is so compelling for St. Pierre. In part, that’s because Deleuze’s book is a gloss on or reading of the work of the seventeenth-century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—a “dazzling reading,” according to translator Tom Conley (xi)—and I’m not sure it’s possible to follow Deleuze’s serpentine argument without being familiar with Leibniz’s writing, and all I know about Leibniz is that Voltaire mocked him in his satire about the problem of suffering, Candide, as the idiotic Pangloss, who taught “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” and “proved incontestably that there is no effect without a cause,” and that in this best of all possible worlds, “everything is made for the best purpose”:

Observe: our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them. Stones were meant for carving and for building houses, and that is why my lord has a most beautiful house; for the greatest baron in Westphalia ought to have the noblest residence. And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round. It follows that those who maintain that all is right talk nonsense; they ought to say all is for the best. (Voltaire 20)

Pangloss’s doctrine that what we understand as evil will, if considered properly, be seen as part of the general good, is, according to translator John Butt, “a perversion of Leibniz’s teaching, and perhaps Voltaire knew it” (Voltaire 8), but still, Voltaire’s mockery is so powerful that I have never been tempted to read Leibniz. For that reason, I am not prepared in any way to confront Deleuze’s exploration of Leibniz’s thought. Besides, as Conley’s foreword suggests, Leibniz’s philosophy—and therefore Deleuze’s reading of it—are extraordinarily complex, touching on atomic theory, differential calculus, grammar, visual art, and the history of logic. The breadth of references is stunning, but it’s also a problem. What do I know about calculus or logic? Nothing. When I encounter equations in Deleuze’s text–and they are everywhere in some of the chapters–I cannot understand them. I just don’t have the background. Nevertheless, my questions still persist—why is the fold so important? is walking-as-art within the fold?—and the only way to answer them, or to try to answer them, is to try to read Deleuze. And so that’s what I did.

For Deleuze, Leibniz is the philosopher of the Baroque, but the Baroque isn’t simply a historical period. Rather, Conley suggests, it is a trope, an “intense taste for life that grows and pullulates,” a fascination with “a fragility of infinitely varied patterns of movement” (x). Deleuze begins his discussion by claiming that the Baroque is not an essence but “an operative function” that “endlessly produces folds” (3). These folds are characteristic of Baroque visual art, but for Deleuze they are more than that: “the Baroque trait twists and turns its folds, pushing them to infinity, fold over fold, one upon the other. The Baroque fold unfurls all the way to infinity” (3). Leibniz apparently imagines a house with two levels, one upper and one lower, which correspond to soul and matter, but those levels are connected by folds and pleats, like veins in a marble tile: 

Sometimes the veins are the pleats of matter that surround living beings held in the mass, such that the marble tile represents a rippling lake that teems with fish. Sometimes the veins are innate ideas in the soul, like twisted figures or powerful statues caught in the block of marble. (4)

These folds are curved, fluid, elastic; they divide endlessly, forming “little vortices in a maelstrom, and in these are found even more vortices, even smaller, and even more are spinning in the concave intervals of the whirls that touch one another” (5). The folds are thus “caverns endlessly contained in other caverns,” and “each body contains a world pierced with irregular passages” (5). All of these folds can be understood as “a continuous labyrinth” or “a sheet of paper divided into infinite folds or separated into bending movements” (6). “A fold is always folded within a fold, like a cavern in a cavern,” Deleuze writes. “The unit of matter, the smallest element of the labyrinth, is the fold, not the point which is never a part, but a simple extremity of the line. That is why parts of matter are masses or aggregates, as a correlative to elastic compressive force. Unfolding is thus not the contrary of folding, but follows the fold up to the following fold” (6). It’s pretty clear that Deleuze, or Leibniz, is not thinking about folds in a Baroque painting, but something else, something much more fundamental: a way of understanding the complexity of the world: “an organism is enveloped by organisms, one within another (interlocking of germinal matter), like Russian dolls” (8). Moreover, nothing travels in a straight line; everything moves in a curvilinear fashion, an arch. And, just to complicate matters, there are folds, but there is also the Fold, which might be a principle of folding rather than an example of that principle: “It is because the Fold is always between two folds, and because the between-two-folds seems to move about everywhere” (13). So not only are the folds infinitely complex; they are also in motion, or seem to be in motion. How can we possibly grasp any of this complexity? And yet we do, partially, incompletely, and no doubt incorrectly. (That’s how I feel about the process of reading this text, in fact.)

Soul and body are folded together as well, according to Deleuze (or Leibniz—one of the recurring challenges of The Fold is determining where Leibniz ends and Deleuze begins). In the second chapter, “The Folds in the Soul,” Deleuze describes inflection as “the ideal genetic element of the variable curve or fold” (14), a definition that also complicates the image of the fold. Inflection moves through three transformations: it is vectoral, projective, and it cannot be separated “from an infinite variation or an infinitely variable curve” (15-16). Inflection becomes fluctuation: “there will always be an inflection that makes a fold form variation, and that brings the fold or the variation to infinity” (18). The object therefore becomes an event, and the subject comes to represent a point of view, a perspective (19-20). The object, an “ambiguous sign,” according to Leibniz, which is “effectively enveloped in variation, just as variation is enveloped in point of view. It does not exist outside of variation, just as variation does not exist outside of point of view” (21). The law enveloped by a variation is called “involution” (21), which appears to be a technical term. In fact, the second chapter’s use of calculus makes it difficult to follow, but its references to Henry James, which suggest that point of view is akin to focus, cryptography, the secret of things, or even “the determination of the indeterminate by means of ambiguous signs” (22) is a little clearer—not that clarity is ever one of Deleuze’s concerns. The point, it seems, is that things are folded in order “to be enveloped, wrapped, put into something else” (22), and the soul itself “is what has folds and is full of folds” (22). “But this is no less true for the world,” Deleuze writes: “the whole world is only a virtuality that currently exists only in the folds of the soul which convey it, the soul implementing inner pleats through which it endows itself with a representation of the enclosed world” (23). Why “currently,” though? And is it true that the world only exists in the soul which conveys its folds? Does the world really have no existence outside of our perception—is that where this argument is going? Wasn’t there a world before humans evolved, and won’t there still be something here after we are gone? “The world is an infinite series of curvatures or inflections,” Deleuze contends, “and the entire world is enclosed in the soul from one point of view” (24)—from one perspective, one optical position, that is (I think). How can the soul—one particular soul, or soul in general?—envelop the whole world? Isn’t each point of view or perspective going to be incomplete and particular? I don’t understand. Indeed, he continues, “The world is the infinite curve that touches at an infinity of points an infinity of curves, the curve with a unique variable, the convergent series of all series” (24). Fair enough: the world is infinitely complex. How, then, can it be enclosed in the soul? But this is one of the claims Deleuze (or Leibniz) makes: that the individual unit—the monad, in Leibniz’s terminology—includes the whole series: “hence it conveys the entire world, but does not express it without expressing more clearly a small region of the world, a ‘subdivision,’ a borough of the city, a finite sequence” (25). Moreover, because the soul is filled with folds stretching to infinity, it “can always unfold a limited number of them inside itself, those that make up its subdivision or its borough” (25). But we can’t get at the infinity inside ourself: “Closure is the condition of being for the world,” although “[t]he condition of closure holds for the infinite opening of the finite: it ‘finitely represents infinity’” (26). How does the finite represent infinity? Through “the torsion that constitutes the fold of the world and of the soul. And it is what gives to expression its fundamental character: the soul is the expression of the world (actuality), but because the world is what the soul expresses (virtuality)” (26). The folds of matter seem to reduplicate the folds in the soul, which is no wonder, because in Leibniz’s formulation, matter and soul are infinitely folded together.

There are other figures in The Fold, most importantly the monad, but my focus—my point of view, perhaps—on this text (the complexity of which may be a figure for the infinite folding and unfolding it describes) was the fold. (If I tried to think through or write about all the other lines of argument or all the other figures or images here, I might never stop writing.) Many other themes and figures and notions are introduced in this difficult text, but let me range through my 30 pages of notes to find more descriptions of the fold. Here’s one: “The ‘duplicity’ of the fold has to be reproduced from the two sides that it distinguishes, but it relates one to the other by distinguishing them: a severing by which each term casts the other forward, a tension by which each fold is pulled into the other” (30). So the two sides of the fold are related, but also separate, and this contradiction produces a kind of movement outward and inward. The fold—in Baroque painting, at least-is “the infinite work or process” (34); it is the inside and the outside, the high and the low, folding and unfolding (35-36). It is simultaneously one thing and its opposite, and it “appears only with infinity, in what is incommensurable and in excess, when the variable curve supersedes the circle” (38). Knowledge is only known where it is folded, according to Deleuze: “Ideas are so folded in the soul that we can’t always unfold or develop them, just as things themselves are inextricably wrapped up in nature” (49). The fold is related to the other central figure in Leibniz, the monad: “It is as if the depths of every monad were made from an infinity of tiny folds (inflections) endlessly furling and unfurling in every direction, so that the monad’s spontaneity resembles that of agitated sleepers who twist and turn on their mattresses” (86). Our perceptions, or perhaps the perceptions of the monads,“are these little folds that unravel in every direction, folds in folds, over folds, following folds” (86). Those are “microperceptions” (86), but there are also “macroperceptions,” which take in “great composite folds” (87). “Folds over folds: such is the status of the two modes of perception, or of microscopic and macroscopic processes,” Deleuze writes: 

That is why the unfolded surface is never the opposite of the fold, but rather the movement that goes from some to the others. Unfolding sometimes means that I am developing—that I am undoing—infinite tiny folds that are forever agitating in the background, with the goal of drawing a great fold on the side whence forms appear. . . . At other times, on the contrary, I undo the folds of consciousness that pass through every one of my thresholds . . . in order to unveil in a single movement this unfathomable depth of tiny and moving folds that waft me along at excessive speeds in the operation of vertigo. (93)

No wonder Deleuze goes on to claim that “Every perception is hallucinatory because perception has no object” (93). How could it have an object, given the infinite, mobile complexity of consciousness, perception, and the world itself?

In the second-to-last chapter of the book, Deleuze asks, “Where is the fold moving?” His response tells us something more about the fold, or perhaps the process of folding:

As we have seen, it moves not only between essences and existences. It surely billows between the body and the soul, but already between the inorganic and the organic in the sense of bodies, and still between the ‘species’ of monads in the sense of souls. It is an extremely sinuous fold, a zigzag, a primal tie that cannot be located. (119-20)

The distinction in Deleuze, or Leibniz, between the inorganic and the organic reminds me of the distinction between inanimate and animate nouns in Cree. It seems, though, that as the fold moves, it crosses the boundary between inorganic and inanimate, along with other boundaries, including time and space, the finite and the infinite, and world and soul. The folds produce a kind of harmony, however, Deleuze contends in the last chapter: “The text is folded according to the accords, and harmony is what envelops the text. The same expressive problem will animate music endlessly, form Wagner to Debussy and now up to Cage, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio” (136). That endlessness is expressed at the very end of Deleuze’s text, where he writes, “We are discovering new ways of folding, akin to new envelopments, but we all remain Leibnizian because what always matters is folding, unfolding, folding” (137). Not only is Leibniz, according to Deleuze, the most important philosopher for the postmodern era—how else is one to understand the claim that “we all remain Leibnizian”?—but the series begun by “folding, unfolding, folding” apparently continues infinitely. Why wouldn’t it? That’s been Deleuze’s claim throughout, that the fold, or the process of folding and unfolding, moves infinitely in two directions, outwards and inwards. Everything is folded together. Everything is related through the figure of the fold.

So, does any of this answer the questions that came out of my reading of Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s essay? I’m not sure. Her take on the fold is, compared to Deleuze’s, finite: her research is in the fold because it generated three different types of transgressive data, and perhaps her claim is that those data are folds in what she describes as “the ruthlessly linear nature of the narrative of knowledge production in research methodology” (179). How so? Her shift from ethnography to autoethnography through her incorporation of emotional, dream, and sensual data arguably represents a fold or an enfolding between self and other: the two polarities touch through the process of folding. Is that true of artistic research as well? How could it not be? Doesn’t art, at least potentially, accept such enfoldings and refoldings? I don’t mean simply in a visual sense, although Deleuze is eloquent in his discussions of drapery and fabric in Baroque painting in sculpture. Is art in a more fundamental manner a way to grasp, briefly and incompletely, the infinity of foldings and unfoldings of both the world and the soul—and the infinity of foldings and unfoldings between those polarities? Yes, I want to say–yes. Isn’t that the purpose of art–in theory, if not always in practice?

I’m still not sure what that answer means for my own project, and I’m also not convinced that The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque is the best place to find answers to my questions. After all, most of St. Pierre’s discussion of the fold comes from Deleuze’s book on Foucault, and from Alain Badiou’s essay on Deleuze’s discussion of Leibniz. Maybe that’s because they provide a clearer definition or description of the figure of the fold—although it’s important to restate the fact that clarity is not a value in contemporary French philosophy. Indeed, Deleuze’s book on the fold reinscribes that image in its prose. Nevertheless, my next step will be to take a look at those additional sources. That’s how scholarship works, isn’t it? You start somewhere, and then follow the path as it unfolds—an unfolding that is, of course, potentially infinite, because there’s no end of connections and relationships and things to learn. I did my best with The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, although I am aware that I’ve only begun to follow its sinuous foldings and unfoldings. I would have to take up the challenge Deleuze offers his readers, and read Leibniz and the other texts that lie behind his argument. I don’t have time to do that—I need to remember what I’m trying to accomplish by reading for my comprehensive examinations—but maybe by reading Deleuze’s book on Foucault, or Badiou’s essay, I’ll find answers to the question that brought me here.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. “Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque.Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy, edited by Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski, Routledge, 1994, pp. 51-69.

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault, translated by Seán Hand, U of Minnesota P, 1988.

——-. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, translated by Tom Conley, U of Minnesota P, 1993.

St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “Methodology in the Fold and the Irruption of Transgressive Data.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 10, no. 2, 1997, pp. 175-89.

Voltaire. Candide or Optimism, translated by John Butt, Penguin, 1947.

5. Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, “Methodology in the Fold and the Irruption of Transgressive Data”

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I read Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s “Methodology in the Fold” during my MFA work, and I wanted to return to it, because I’ve been wondering if my research can be described using Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the fold. St. Pierre, who teaches in the College of Education at the University of Georgia, clearly states the purpose of her essay near the outset:

This essay represents an attempt to think differently about one word commonly used in research, data. By employing Deleuze’s image of the fold to trouble the received meaning of data . . . I have been able to shift my understanding of the research process to some extent and thus to think about different kinds of data that might produce different knowledge in qualitative research in education. (177)

St. Pierre is thinking about a particular research project—her PhD research, I believe: an ethnographic study of older, white, southern women in the town where St. Pierre grew up. She found herself working with data that escaped language, that could not be textualized, that “were uncodable, excessive, out-of-control, out-of-category” (179). These “non-traditional kinds of data”—non-traditional in the context of qualitative social science research, and therefore “transgressive” (180)—included emotional data, dream data, and sensual data, as well as another form of data she named “response data,” which she believes “has been folded into our research projects all along under other signifiers such as member checks and peer debriefing” (179). “I am sure there are still other unidentified, unnamed data working in my study,” she continues (179). 

The emotional data St. Pierre collected during her research was “almost overwhelming at times” (180). She writes, “I found, indeed, that it was impossible for me to ignore the emotions that sometimes threatened to shut down my study” (180). If those emotions are data, she wonders what method produces them. She writes: 

I came to believe that my emotions were most often produced when, in a search for some kind of scandalous, rhizomatic validity, I forced myself to theorize my own identity as I theorized my participants’. . . . It was during this very emotional process of deconstruction that I found myself working much harder to understand my participants, to respect their lives, to examine my relationship with them, and to question my interpretations. The examination of one’s own frailty surely makes one more careful about the inscription of others’. (181)

As a result of these data, St. Pierre came to understand that to make her study valid, she needed to consider both the construction of her own subjectivity as well as that of her participants’. “I also believe,” she continues, “that it was this search for validity within self-formation that produced corrosive, painful emotional data. I therefore name the ‘desire for validity’ a method of data collection in my research project” (181). 

St. Pierre dreamed about her research, even interviewing her participants in dreams, and although she says she never deliberately analyzed those dreams, “it seems appropriate and even necessary to adopt the view that dreaming is a process of inquiry” (182-83). Her dreams added a layer of complexity to her research, drew attention to problems, reconstructed and reproduced the data she was collecting in representations that helped her think about that data differently (183). “Dreams refuse closure; they keep interpretation in play,” St. Pierre writes. “I slipped into that dream world night after winter night, often desperate for meaning that eluded me, and sometimes for refuge from the demand for clarity” (183). Those dreams were never officially accounted for in her work, she continues, but “the dreams remembered and those deferred linger in some dislocated space of my text, producing dissonance, alterity, and confusion. My dreams enabled and legitimized a complexity of meaning that science prohibits” (183).

The sensual data in St. Pierre’s research was “produced by the very physical act of having lived in the community I studied when I was a child and a young woman,” she writes (183). “If our understanding of the world has been and is influenced by the earth itself,” she asks, “then my question is whether we can ignore those effects on our bodies and, in turn, on our mental mappings?” (183). St. Pierre doesn’t think we should ignore those effects, but, she asks,

how do we account for the sensual effects of our responses, for example, to the soft rolling fertility of the stream-laded Piedmont, to a field of tobacco turning golden in hot September afternoons, to the sharp and musty scent of pines and azaleas growing in shady red clay, to a fitting angle of the sun to which our bodies happily turn, to the rhythm of southern September days so very different from the same days in Yankee country, to a bone-deep attachment to one landscape in particular, a “sweet spot” which is the literal ground of our knowing? (183)

The knowledge these responses produce is an embodied knowledge, according to St. Pierre: “Our bodies’ peculiar angles of repose have much to do with what and how we know, and the knowing that is mapped beyond the mind/body trap produces lines of flight that remain uncoded” (183). This embodied knowledge, which exceeds or escapes standard qualitative social-science research methodologies, adds “folds of situated richness” to the research (184).

“My understanding of emotional data, dream data, and sensual data seems to have emerged from a close analysis of barely intelligible transgressive data produced by my own subjectivity,” St. Pierre writes, “yet I hardly ever worked in isolation during my study” (184). She worked and consulted with others in order to avoid making mistakes, and she comes to call the data that working with others produced response data. Traditional social-science methodologies produce that kind of data through such methods as peer debriefing and member checks, but they only bring the outside—the views of other people—into the research in a limited way (184). “Yet our members and peers do provide us with data that are often critical and that may even prompt us to significantly reconstruct our interpretation as we proceed,” St. Pierre writes. “These data surely influence the production of knowledge, yet we hardly ever acknowledge them. How might our sense of inquiry shift if we began to focus on mapping responses and examining how they enable our mapping of the world?” (184). In her own research, she collected response data from “an official peer debriefer,” her committee, members of writing groups at two universities, her mentor, her mother, her aunt, her cousin, friends who aren’t academics, an informant “who is a dear friend and almost-participant,” members of seminar and conference presentation audiences, participants, non-participants living in the community she studied who could’ve been participants, “the women of my dreams,” the authors of books she read, journal editors and referees, among others (184-85). “All these others move me out of the self-evidence of my work and into its absences and give me the gift of different language and practice with which to trouble my commonsense understanding of the world,” St. Pierre writes. “They help me move toward the unthought” (185). St. Pierre’s hope is that by naming this process—one that is completely familiar to anyone who has conducted academic or artistic research of any kind—other researches will begin to think about “this disruptive, unplanned, uncontrollable, yet fruitful fold in their work so that we can begin to collect data about response data and study the transgressions they enable” (185). Moreover, for St. Pierre, thinking about the relationship between researcher and those who respond to the research “has foregrounded an ethical relation . . . that generally escapes scrutiny” (185).

Those non-traditional data presented St. Pierre with her first problem. Her second problem is “the ruthlessly linear nature of the narrative of knowledge production” in qualitative social-science research:

first, we employ methods, such as interviewing and participant-observation, which produce data; then we code, categorize, analyze, and interpret those data; finally, from that analysis and interpretation, we develop theories of knowledge. (179-80)

“What happens, however, when this linear process is interrupted because the researcher enters this narrative in the middle?” she asks (180). In other words, what happens when an ethnographic study veers into autoethnography? Why would this have happened during her research? St. Pierre was both an insider and an outsider in her research project: she grew up in the town where her research participants lived, and had known many of them since childhood, but she was also an outsider, because she left the community 20 years before (177). “Since my study focuses on the construction of the subjectivities of these others,” St. Pierre writes, “it necessarily examines the construction of my own subjectivity that was folded into theirs in particularly fruitful and disturbing ways” (177). St. Pierre is using the word “folded” deliberately, in a Deleuzian sense, because she believes that her similarity to and difference from her research participants deconstructs the binary oppositions of standard or traditional qualitative social-science research: “I was both identity and difference, self and other, knower and known, researcher and researched. Foregrounding this doubling of subjectivity became crucial to my theorizing and my methodological practices. . . . I determined to pay attention to what this folded subjectivity might enable as I practiced qualitative research in a postmodern world” (178).

Deleuze’s image of the fold is obviously central to St. Pierre’s reflections on her research. That image, she writes, “enabled me to make intelligible the imbrication between the inside and outside of the research process” (177). According to St. Pierre, “Deleuze writes that the fold disrupts our notion of interiority”; it defines the inside as an operation of the outside, and it avoids distinctions, oppositions, and binaries. Therefore, she continues, “it breaks apart humanist dualisms like inside/outside, self/other, identify/difference, and presence/absence” (178). “I believed, since I had such difficulty separating myself from my participants, that I was working within a fold,” St. Pierre continues, “and that that fold was constructing a subjectivity, my own, that enabled me to think differently. Like a fold, my subjectivity had no outside or inside; the boundary, the division, the violent binary partition was not there” (178). The “shiftiness” of being in the fold led St. Pierre to her interconnected problems “with the signifier data as it is used in traditional qualitative research methodology” (179).

I’m an artist, or maybe a writer, and definitely not a qualitative social scientist, so the forms of data that are, in St. Pierre’s research context, “transgressive” are a normal part of what I do. Of course walking and thinking about those walks involves my senses and my emotions. That activity could also involve my dreams, although I rarely remember those. I also rely on the responses of others to my work, whether they are members of my committee or faculty members or Elders or other artists or just people I meet when I’m walking somewhere. So when I read this essay during my MFA work, and when I reread it yesterday, I found myself wondering whether artistic research can be described using Deleuze’s image of the fold. After all, my planned walk in Treaty Four territory may put me both inside and outside the subject position of settler, and that slippage or complexity or potential denial of my own colonialist position (although anyone who, as I do, understands that he or she lives on unceded or unsurrendered Indigenous Territory must therefore also understand his or her participation in colonialism) has some people in my faculty asking questions about cultural appropriation. However, despite St. Pierre’s attempts at explaining what Deleuze means by “the fold,” I still don’t understand exactly why she finds that idea so powerful. The scholarly thing to do, therefore, is to turn to the primary source, to Deleuze’s writing itself: first, his book on Leibniz, entitled The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, and second, his book on Foucault, since St. Pierre suggests that’s where Deleuze got this idea from in the first place (178). I will also have to read Alain Badiou’s 1994 essay, “Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque,” because I don’t know anything about Leibniz, calculus, or the other topics that Deleuze’s translator, Tom Conley, says Deleuze’s readers are expected to be familiar with (Deleuze, “The Fold” xi). In such situations, a bluffer’s guide (and I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that Badiou’s essay is one of those) is often necessary for readers who cannot spend months or years engaged in a study of the references made by an author in a difficult text. In any case, my attempt at reading Deleuze’s The Fold will be the subject of my next post.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, translated by Tom Conley, U of Minnesota P, 1993.

St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “Methodology in the Fold and the Irruption of Transgressive Data.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 10, no. 2, 1997, pp. 175-89.

 

Walking to the MacKenzie

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Christine pulled me away from my reading this afternoon. “We were supposed to go to the MacKenzie, to see the Punk Orientalism show,” she said. That’s true; we were. So we laced up our boots and went for a walk. It’s overcast and snowing a little, but we enjoyed the soft grey light and the frost gathering on the branches.

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The Punk Orientalism show is very good, although I have to admit that I don’t know enough about that part of the world to get the references. I did like the video about the donkey that cites Robert Bresson’s Au hazard, Balthasar, though, and the other video about the tightrope walker ferrying works of art between two countries.

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The café at the MacKenzie is closed for the holidays, so we walked over to a coffee place on Hill Street. I had my new camera with me and kept stopping to take pictures. While we were drinking our coffee, I figured out how to get my camera to connect wirelessly to my phone and posted a photo on Facebook–a minor accomplishment. Then we walked home: seven kilometres altogether. My sore foot hurts, but it was good to get outside for a change. Now, back to work.

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4. Sheldon Krasowski, No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous

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Last summer, I took a course on treaties in Canada with Jim Daschuk, the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life. I read 16 books about treaties—about the relationship between settlers and Indigenous Peoples in Canada, in other words—and one point kept jumping out at me: there was no surrender of land. A careful reading of the primary written document about the numbered treaties in western Canada, treaty commissioner Alexander Morris’s first-hand account, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, Including the Negotiations on Which They Were Based, and Other Information Relating Thereto, shows that at no time during the negotiations of any of the treaties did Morris discuss the significance of the surrender clause in the prepared written text. Work by Indigenous writers, and Indigenous oral histories, are emphatic that there was no surrender of land. In her book on Treaty One, for example, Anishinaabe legal scholar Aimée Craft argues that “[t]he Anishinabe did not surrender their land in the Treaty One negotiations. It was not in their power to do so, as they did not own it. In their eyes, they were in a sacred relationship with the land, endorsed by the Creator” (99). The Crown negotiators, however “viewed the treaty as a transfer of land” (99). These mutually exclusive ideas continue to inform the differing perspectives on the treaty (103). Cree writer Harold Johnson states emphatically that Elders who are familiar with the oral histories “dispute the written record of the treaties. . . . When the written record is compared with the oral history, it is clear that much of what my family members said to the commissioner has been omitted, and that which has been recorded has been perverted” (43). And the Treaty Elders interviewed by Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt are shocked to learn of the clause in the written treaty documents that extinguish Indigenous rights and privileges regarding the land. Cardinal and Hildebrandt write:

At the focus sessions, when the “extinguishment clauses” of the written treaty texts were read, translated, and explained, the Elders reacted with incredulity and disbelief. They found it hard to believe that anyone, much less the Crown, could seriously believe that First Nations would ever have agreed to “extinguish” their God-given rights. (58)

I was surprised to learn that the government’s basic understanding of the numbered treaties—the notion that the Indigenous Peoples who participated in the negotiations surrendered their ownership of their land—was incorrect. That surrender seems to have been the Crown negotiators’ primary goal, but by remaining silent on the surrender clause during the negotiations, they lied by omission, which brings the validity of the surrender clauses in the treaties into question and the honour of the Crown into disrepute. In the essay I wrote as part of the course, I focused on the notion that the land had not been surrendered. When I met with Jim to discuss the paper after the course was finished, he had noted every time I stated that the land hadn’t been surrendered in the numbered treaties. “There’s a book forthcoming from University of Regina Press about this point,” he said, “and you need to read it.” I added the title to my comprehensive exam reading list. Then, just before the university closed for Christmas, I found a copy in my mailbox: Jim had just received his copy of Sheldon Krasowski’s No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, and he was loaning it to me. 

Krasowski, a historian at Athabasca University, begins by stating his disagreement with the so-called “cultural misunderstanding” thesis, which has shaped scholarship on the numbered treaties. That argument suggests that because of the differences in language and culture between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown negotiators, there was no way they could have understood each other, and that since the numbered treaties were the product of this mutual incomprehension, they are not important. In his thesis statement, Krasowski is clear about his methodology and what he learned through his research:

By analyzing Treaties One through Seven as an interconnected whole, and arguing against the cultural misunderstanding thesis, I demonstrate that Indigenous Peoples did not surrender their land through the treaty process. Indigenous Chiefs agreed to share their land with settlers in exchange for treaty benefits offered by the Canadian government, including annuity payments, reserved lands, education, and assistance with the transition to agriculture. But they certainly did not surrender the land. It was to remain Indigenous. (2)

The treaty commissioners, Krasowski continues, had a common negotiating strategy: they discussed only the benefits of the treaty and ignored the downsides, including the surrender clause (2-3). “Most importantly,” he writes, “Canada followed Indigenous Protocols for Treaties One through Seven, and the ceremonies led by Elders established a spiritual bond between Euro-Canadian and Indigenous Peoples that continues to exist as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the rivers flow” (3).

Krasowski comes to this conclusion through research into all of the written documents about the treaties—not just the official texts, or Morris’s version of events, or official reports and dispatches, but also eyewitness accounts by journalists, missionaries, North-West Mounted Police officers, settlers, and others present at the negotiations. Some of those documents are public, while others are public, but taken together, they give a much fuller account of what happened at the negotiations of the numbered treaties (4-5). Krasowski also takes oral histories into account, but he points out that it’s essential to understand those accounts within their spiritual and ceremonial contexts (5). It’s important to look at both documentary and oral histories, he argues: “the oral histories fill in many of the gaps in the written records, and the written documents can add to the oral histories” (5-6). He also consults the original handwritten treaty texts, which reveal details that the published versions omit (9). “The texts of the treaties can help to explain Canada’s goals in the treaty process,” Krasowski writes, “but they must be analyzed within the contexts of the eyewitness accounts and Indigenous oral histories” (9). 

I’m mostly interested in Treaty Four—that’s where I live, and the subject of my own research—so although Krasowski argues that the treaties need to be understood together, I’m going to jump ahead to his discussion of the Treaty Four negotiations. How does that discussion suggest that there was no surrender of land during those negotiations? The Treaty Four negotiations were unusual, compared to the other treaty negotiations, for several reasons. Many historians, following Morris, suggest that there was animosity between the Cree and Saulteaux Chiefs during the negotiations, but Krasowski argues that the animosity that existed was actually between the Chiefs and the Hudson’s Bay Company, tensions that “were exacerbated by the treaty commissioners” (148) because of their failure to pay attention to what the Chiefs were telling them, and because by holding the negotiations close to the Hudson’s Bay Company facility at Fort Qu’Appelle, they were aligning themselves with the Company. The Chiefs were angry because the Company had sold their land to the Dominion of Canada as part of the sale of Rupert’s Land, and that anger was part of the reason that the first three days of negotiations were unproductive. Chief Pasqua, for example, told the treaty commissioners that the £300,000 the Hudson’s Bay Company had received for the sale rightly belonged to Indigenous Peoples (140). Only on the fourth day of the negotiations, after Morris agreed to the Cree and Saulteaux Chiefs united request to meet away from the Hudson’s Bay Company fort, did the negotiations begin in earnest (150). But after Morris repeated the terms of the treaty—omitting the surrender clause, of course—the Chiefs refused to reply. The Gambler, a Saulteaux headman who spoke for Wa-wa-se-capow, the Head Chief of the Saulteaux at Fort Ellice, stressed that the Métis needed to be included in the treaty, and that the association of the treaty commissioners with the Hudson’s Bay Company was blocking the negotiations. The Gambler was also angry that the Company had been surveying land outside its forts—land which belonged to the Cree and Saulteaux peoples. Morris’s response—that The Gambler had been listening to bad voices—offended The Gambler, who accused the Company of stealing Indigenous land (150-51). Morris’s response, according to the official record, was that the Great Spirit made the land “for all his children to use, and it is not stealing to use the gifts of the Great Spirit” (151). Journalist F.L. Hunt, who was covering the negotiations for The Manitoban and was married to a Nakoda woman, recorded the response of Pah-tah-kay-we-nin, one of the Chief’s speakers: “True, even I, a child, know that God gives us land in different places and when we meet together as friends, we ask from each other and do not quarrel as we do so” (151-52). For Krasowski, that response “represented the essence of the treaty relationship: the Cree and Saulteaux had their lands, and the Europeans had their lands, and the negotiations should be based on sharing and mutual respect” (152). He believes that Hunt understood this: he described Pah-tah-kay-we-nin’s response as “a grand act simply and perfectly well done” (152).

After The Gambler agreed to set aside the issue of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sale of Rupert’s Land, the negotiations continued. At this point, Krasowski notes that according to oral histories, part of the delay in beginning the negotiations was the fact that the Cree and Saulteaux needed time to prepare themselves, and that those preparations included Sacred Pipe Ceremonies, which protected the foundation of the treaty relationship: peace and harmony (154). Unlike the other numbered treaties, there was no Sacred Pipe Ceremony between the Indigenous negotiators and the treaty commissioners—something Morris complains about in his account—and for that reason, some First Nations people believe that Treaty Four is incomplete, because “the bond of the treaty was not formed until the ceremony took place” (155). 

“The most controversial difference between the Treaty Four oral and written accounts is the surrender clause,” Krasowski writes (157). The oral histories say there was no surrender, just an agreement to share the land to the depth of a plow—about six inches (158). The written sources, on the other hand, “show that Morris and the treaty commissioners utilized two main strategies when dealing with the cession of land” (158). The first was to discuss only the benefits of the treaty and ignore the drawbacks. There is no evidence, for example, that the surrender clause was mentioned, according to Krasowski; nor was there any acknowledgement that the written text of the treaty indicated that hunting and fishing rights could be regulated by the government (158-59). The second strategy had to do with the reading of the written treaty text at the end of the negotiations. At the end of Treaty Four, Morris asked interpreter Charles Pratt to interpret the written text of the treaty into Cree and Saulteaux. Pratt’s surprised response, recorded by eyewitnesses, suggests that he was not prepared to do this. “Pratt was known as an exemplary interpreter,” Krasowski writes, but the surrender clause, and much of the text of the written treaty, “would have been difficult to translate because of the legalistic language” (160). According to Treaty Elders, the surrender clause would have been impossible to translate (160). As an interpreter for missionaries, Pratt often “changed elements of the Christian teachings to soften their Eurocentric edges and avoid critiques of Indigenous traditions,” Krasowski contends, and “[h]e likely applied the same technique to his interpretation of the treaty text” (159-60), and so “Pratt could have explained the land cession clause ‘in his own terms,’ which would have been more appealing to the audience, or he could have avoided it altogether” (160). Of course, this argument is conjecture; nobody knows exactly what Pratt said, because his Cree and Saulteaux translation was not recorded by eyewitnesses, but given the response of Treaty Elders to the surrender clause, Krasowski’s interpretation seems more than possible.

Hunt, the journalist, noted that there was shrewd bargaining and a sense of equity between both sides during the negotiations (161). However, it appears that the Chiefs believed that the 1874 negotiations were merely preliminary—without a Sacred Pipe Ceremony, they could not have been finalized, according to Cree and Saulteaux spiritual and legal traditions—and the following year they attempted to increase the annuities and gifts the treaty provided, and also to get additional tools and training to make the transition to farming. “Most of these demands were reasonable and showed a willingness to farm,” Krasowski writes, “but the Canadian government chose not to grant the requests even though many of the farming implements were included in Treaty Six two years later” (164). The Chiefs were given additional ammunition and twine for fishing nets only. When their demands were not met, many Chiefs abandoned their reserves and returned to the Cypress Hills to hunt; they were not going to take up farming until forced to do so by the extirpation of the bison (164). It is also possible that, as Indigenous legal scholars like Craft and John Borrows suggest, according to Indigenous law a treaty is an ongoing relationship that needs to be developed through continuing discussions and negotiations, and that would also explain the attempt by the Chiefs to continue the negotiations.

So, does Krasowski’s account of Treaty Four support his contention that the land was not surrendered? I think it does. Morris’s account of the negotiations, the only primary text I have read as yet, discusses the treaty terms in detail, but never mentions the surrender clause, and since that omission was repeated in the negotiations of the other numbered treaties, it seems likely that it was part of a strategy. His discussion of Pratt’s translation is conjecture, it is true, but Pratt wanted the treaty negotiations to be successful—he was concerned about what would happen if the bison disappeared from the prairies (160)—so aside from the difficulty of translating the legalistic language of the surrender clause, and the cultural obstacles to that translation, maybe he would have been motivated to skip over that part of the text. The negotiations were difficult, after all, and it is possible that the suggestion that by entering into treaty the Chiefs would be surrendering their peoples’ lands would have scuttled the negotiations entirely. That is Aimée Craft’s argument about Treaty One: if the surrender clause had been explained clearly, those negotiations would have collapsed (64). No doubt the same is true of Treaty Four.

If the treaty commissioners were silent about the surrender clause, they were lying by omission, and what does that mean about the treaty they negotiated? “At least,” Krasowski writes, “the absence of the surrender clause during the discussions casts doubt on the validity of the complete surrender of Indigenous Lands” (272). “The primary documents analyzed in this book describe a treaty relationship central to the relationship between settlers and Indigenous Peoples,” Krasowski concludes. “The latter agreed to share the land so that settlers could make a living by farming. Through the negotiation of the numbered treaties, Euro-Canadians received access to the land and the security of peaceful relations with First Nations. Euro-Canadians were also required to act as stewards of the land in partnership with Indigenous Peoples” (276-77). Moreover, the treaty relationship and the model of governance it established were “an equal partnership of Indigenous Peoples and Euro-Canadians” (277). For Krasowski, “Indigenous Peoples and Euro-Canadians have different cultures and traditions, but both can understand the shared rights and responsibilities under the treaty relationship” (278). Of course, neither the federal government, nor our provincial governments, understand the numbered treaties in this way. If, for example, the treaties are an agreement to share the land for agricultural purposes only, then mineral rights ought to remain with Indigenous Peoples. If there was no surrender of land, then the government had no right to survey and sell all the land outside of the reserves First Nations peoples chose. Moreover, if there was no surrender of land, then the notion of Crown land is completely wrong-headed: that land would belong to First Nations, and not the Crown. Krasowski’s argument, if it is true—and from my reading of other texts about the treaties, I think it is—has profound implications for our understanding of the relationship between settlers and First Nations peoples. I hope we have it in us to accept the truth—that there was no surrender of land—and then to begin to change the way we understand that relationship.

Oh, and thanks to Jim Daschuk for the loan of the book.

Works Cited

Borrows, John. “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government.” Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality, and Respect for Difference, edited by Michael Asch, U of British Columbia P, 1997, pp. 155-72.

Craft, Aimée. Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One. Purich, 2013.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. U of Regina P, 2019.

Morris, Alexander. The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, Including the Negotiations on Which They Were Based, and Other Information Relating Thereto. 1880. Coles Canadiana, 1971.

3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)

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In my Group Studio review, one other critique was that walking and taking photographs is a version of Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball.” I couldn’t answer that critique, because I hadn’t read Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where he briefly discusses this notion. Now that I’ve read that essay, though, I can respond. This is a long post, partly because Emerson’s essay is long and I wanted to present an immanent reading of it, and partly because I’ve tried to take that critique seriously by thinking my way through the ways that walking and taking photographs might, or might not, be totalizing (and colonizing) attempts at seeing everything while denying the connection between human beings and the natural world. That seems to be the import of the critique, and after reading Emerson’s essay, I’m not sure that critique has any validity. 

Early in Emerson’s essay, he describes his response to walking in Massachusetts in the 1830s as the “perfect exhilaration” he has experienced through walking in nature—or at least in the mixture of forests and fields Emerson would have encountered:

In the woods, we return to reason we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (3)

The “transparent eye-ball” that Emerson becomes sees everything. That, I think, is the root of the critique of walking I received: for a settler descendant to become a “transparent eye-ball,” to see everything, is a colonialist position. But it seems to me that there is more in Emerson’s description of this moment of self-effacement, this moment of connection to “the Universal Being,” than such a critique would admit. For one thing, the powerful experience Emerson describes is a spiritual one, beyond history: a “return to reason and faith” that unites him with God. Moreover, in this moment, nature acknowledges Emerson, and the emotional effect of that acknowledgement is similar to what he feels when he decides he “was thinking justly or doing right” (4). At the same time, he acknowledges that such emotions are a projection by the viewer. 

I would never claim that my own walking allows me to see everything; while there are times I feel momentarily lifted out of myself, I would never claim to be able to “see all.” For one thing, as scientists have recently discovered, there are creatures living beneath the soil, out of reach of our vision, that constitute a fifth kingdom of life. The claim that an experience of nature would lead one to “see all” is, with apologies to Emerson, absurd. We can never see everything: it is simply not within our power.

Besides, in this account Emerson is clearly out for a walk. “The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms,” Emerson writes. “Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape” (3). How would Emerson encounter this landscape except by walking (or perhaps riding a horse)? And walking—or riding—is an embodied experience: one is not simply a “transparent eye-ball” if one is out for a walk. No: one is a body struggling up and down hills, slipping on the muddy ground, a body that breathes, keeps its balance, exerts itself, closes its eyes for a short rest. I’m not convinced that Emerson’s account of the “transparent eye-ball” adequately conveys his own embodied experience of moving through the land.

That landscape presents to a sensitive observer much more than the 20 or 30 farms Emerson says he encountered. “There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet,” Emerson writes. “This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give no title” (3). The visual perception of the land—and perhaps the phenomenological experience of it as well—is something that goes beyond ownership, and that perception or experience is, for Emerson, located in the horizon. The photographs I presented at the review were all photographs of the horizon, which perhaps opened up the door to this particular line of thinking, but photography itself isn’t evidence that the photographer has become a “transparent eye-ball.” Photography is, by its very nature, optical; light enters a lens and strikes a light-sensitive surface, but that doesn’t mean that the photographer is only an eye and nothing else. After all, since I don’t use a tripod when I’m walking, the camera is held in my hands, and what I photograph is evidence of where my body was at a particular moment.

So I don’t agree with the suggestion that walking and taking photographs necessarily means one is engaged in the totalizing visual ambition Emerson is describing—and I’m not sure his description fits the experience of walking, either.  Nevertheless, vision and eyes are central to Emerson’s argument in “Nature.” He begins by calling for Americans to respond to nature’s “floods of life” and “the powers they supply” rather than groping among “the dry bones of the past” (1). “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship,” he writes, and his essay is an attempt at making those demands (1). Moreover, Emerson’s intention is to find “a true theory” that will “be its own evidence” and “explain all phenomena” (2). He then explores four classes that make up “the final cause of the world”: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. Commodity has to do with things that are useful, including “the useful arts” of technology. Beauty, in contrast, serves a “nobler want of man”: the “primary forms” of nature, Emerson writes, “give us delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping” (5). That delight is at least partly the creation of our eye, “the best of artists” (5), but also partly due to light itself: “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful” (6). This “medicinal” (6) visual experience, however, is the least important aspect of beauty. More important are the presence of “the spiritual element” in natural beauty (7), which leads to a contemplation of virtue, and the way beauty “becomes an object of the intellect” with “a relation to thought” (9). By thought, Emerson is referring to the way that an experience of natural beauty enables the intellect to search out “the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God” (9). Like a good Romantic, Emerson claims that “[t]ruth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same,” and our access to the first two seems to come through our apprehension of the third.

Like the beauty of nature, language is important because words, as signs of particular natural facts, become symbols of particular spiritual facts. For Emerson, everything stands in for something else, and that chain of signification eventually arrives at the spiritual level, which is what interests him the most. Such analogies between the physical and the spiritual “are constant, and pervade nature” (11), and therefore all natural facts are only important as they create analogies for human life, particularly our relation to the spiritual level. Finally, because “[t]he world is emblematic,” “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (13). “A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue” Emerson writes, “will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause” (14). As with the “transparent eye-ball,” language leads to an understanding of all of nature, but in a spiritual rather than a physical sense—that’s the point of his reference to “its hidden life and final cause.” 

Discipline, for Emerson, has to do with the way that nature teaches lessons to human beings. It’s clear that he sees our species as the centre of the world, rather than just one species among others. “Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited,” he writes:

They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding—its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility. The understanding adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds everlasting nutriment and room for its activity in this worthy scene. Meantime, Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind. (15)

Nature teaches us “intellectual truths” (15), and even though it is unlikely that our search for the laws of nature will be “soon exhausted” (16), we may eventually come to understand those laws. The function of nature, Emerson writes, is “to serve”:

It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mould into what is useful. Man is never weary of working it up. He forges the subtile and delicate air into wise and melodious words, and gives them wing as angels of persuasion and command. More and more, with every thought, does his kingdom stretch over things, until the world becomes, at least, only a realized will—the double of man. (16)

Perhaps this totalizing ambition and sense of human centrality are the logical extension of the “transparent eye-ball” and its drive to see everything. Nevertheless, when I walked to Wood Mountain, I was not placing myself—or any human being—in a position of dominion over nature. Rather, I was subject to it: to its scale, to its weather, to a wearying plod through it. I would never claim to be at its centre; that claim might have made sense to Emerson, but it makes no sense to me.

The second point Emerson makes about discipline is that the objects in the world “conform to the premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience” (16). In other words, “All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature,” and all aspects of nature “shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments,” making nature “always the ally of Religion” (16-17). Everything, for Emerson, has a spiritual pedagogy built into it, including the classes of the uses of nature he has been discussing—commodity, beauty, language, and discipline itself. Everything in nature teaches us moral truths.That is why Emerson believes it is so important to comprehend “the Unity of Nature”:

a rule of one art, or a law of one organization, holds true throughout nature. So intimate is this Unity, that, it is easily seen, it lies under the undermost garment of nature, and betrays its source in universal Spirit. For, it pervades Thought also. Every universal truth which we express in words, implies or supposes every other truth. (18)

Because of this unity, “A right action seems to fill the eye, and to be related to all nature” (19). At this point, Emerson makes a surprising statement: the eye itself is the mind, or at least its equivalent. The “transparent eye-ball” isn’t just an ambitious (or totalizing) kind of seeing the world, then; it is also an ambitious (or totalizing) way of understanding it as well.

This discussion of unity leads to Emerson’s chapter on Idealism. Because of the unity inherent in all parts of nature, Emerson wonders “whether nature outwardly exists,” because “that Appearance we call the world” is used by God to 

teach a human mind, and so makes use of a certain number of congruent sensations, which we call sun and moon, man and woman, house and trade. In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul? The relations of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and the world revolve and intermingle without number or end—deep yawning under deep, and galaxy balancing galaxy, throughout absolute space, or, whether, without relations of time and space, the same appearances are inscribed in the constant faith of man. Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses. (19-20)

Because Emerson cannot test whether the sensory information he receives is correct or not—and vision is again the sense he privileges here—then it doesn’t matter whether nature has a concrete reality or whether it is merely an ideal apprehended in an intellectual or spiritual way. 

It’s clear that Emerson prefers to think of nature as an ideal, rather than a concrete reality experienced through the senses. He writes of “this despotism of the senses,” which is relaxed by “[t]he first effort of thought”: 

Until this higher agency intervened, the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects. If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best, the happiest moments in life, are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God. (20-21)

The actual physical or “animal” eye is less important than the internal “eye of Reason,” which enables the viewer—or thinker—to see through natural objects to their “causes and spirits.” Moreover, perceptions of the ideal are actually perceptions of the real, because the ideal is the only reality: “The perception of real affinities between events, (that is to say, of ideal affinities, for those only are real,) enables the poet thus to make free with the most imposing forms and phenomena of the world, and to assert the predominance of the soul” (23). That is the function of the poet—and possibly, by extension, the artist: to communicate the ideal, rather than the actual. It is also the work of the scientist, who eschews observation in favour of a spiritual form of analysis: “even in physics, the material is degraded before the spiritual. The astronomer, the geometer, rely on their irrefragable analysis, and disdain the results of observation,” so that nature is transferred from the world into the mind, and matter is left “like an outcast corpse” (23-24). (It would be interesting to explore Emerson’s use of the figure of the corpse.) By discovering scientific laws, we come to know “that these are the thoughts of the Supreme Being” (24), and “no man touches these divine natures, without becoming, in some degree, himself divine” (24). The ideal, clearly, is of far more importance to Emerson than the actual—compare the “outcast corpse” of matter to “the thoughts of the Supreme Being.” Moreover, both religion and ethics, because of their participation in the ideal, show how nature is dependent on spirit, and “put nature under foot” (24)—an image of total domination.

At this point, Emerson recognizes that his version of the ideal is a theory, but that theory has an advantage over “the popular faith” in the reality of matter and nature: “it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind” (25):

Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul. Therefore the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet. It respects the end too much, to immerse itself in the means. (25)

Idealism escapes from history and sees everything as designed by God for the soul’s contemplation, and for that reason it is far more important than studying the “trivial” details of nature. Again, this might be the ultimate outcome of the “transparent eye-ball”: a shift from the actual to the ideal. How else can the ability of the “transparent eye-ball” to see everything be understood?

The last section of “Nature” explores spirit: “all the uses of nature admit of being summed in one, which yields the activity of man an infinite scope. . . . It always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect” (26). The only way to answer the questions Emerson sees as essential—what is matter? where does it come from? and what is its purpose?—can ironically be through the spirit. The idealist hypothesis denies the existence of matter, by doing so, it “makes nature foreign to me, and does not account for that cosanguinity which we acknowledge to it” (27). It is better, Emerson continues, to focus on the spirit:

We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man, that the dread universal essence, which is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or power, but all in one, and each entirely, is that for which all things exist, and that by which they are; that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present, that spirit is one and not compound; that spirit does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves. (27)

That spirit is “the Supreme Being,” and it “does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old” (27). That simile might seem to suggest that we are part of nature, but that interpretation would be a misreading: 

As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God: he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inspire the infinite, by being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. (27)

Again, this assertion of the power humans derive from their spiritual relationship to God might be the logical outcome of the “transparent eye-ball.” To suggest that walking in the land, or photographing it, is a way of “being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth” would be to make a claim that, while it was clearly possible in Emerson’s day, is impossible in our own. What, after all, is the absolute nature of justice or truth? Do any of us know? Aren’t those terms hotly debated? In any case, I would never suggest that walking and photographing can yield that kind of result—and I didn’t make such a claim in any way about walking to Wood Mountain, in any of the ways I responded to that experience. Frankly, I am not interested in Emerson’s elevation of the spiritual, or in his suggestion that we “are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God” (28)—in the separation of human beings from the natural world. I’ve never made that kind of claim, and I can’t imagine being the kind of person who would make it. We are part of the natural world, I would argue; we are not separate from it. So I am left speechless by the suggestion that my work somehow makes the kinds of claims Emerson puts forward in this essay. I just don’t see how Emerson’s belief that we are spiritual rather than material beings could be squared with the activity of walking, or with the photographs I presented at my review.

Emerson’s final chapter is titled “Prospects.” In this chapter, the focus on the spiritual continues to be developed, and he returns to the figure of himself looking at a landscape:

When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata, than to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense of unity. I cannot greatly honor minuteness in details, so long as there is no hint to explain the relation between things and thoughts; no ray upon the metaphysics of conchology, of botany, of the arts, to show the relation of the forms of flowers, shells, animals, architecture, to the mind, and build science upon ideas. (28)

Knowing what one is looking at is not important for Emerson; perceiving the “tranquil sense of unity,” “the relation between things and thoughts,” is what he believes to be central to the experience of looking at a landscape. The “wonderful congruity which subsists between man and the world” is what one must apprehend (29). But that congruity does not suggest that humans are part of the natural world, one species among others: no, “man . . . is lord, not because he is the most subtile inhabitant, but because he is its head and heart, and finds something of himself in every great and small thing” (29). We are the centre of the world, in other words, and the point of the natural world is to reflect our characteristics back to ourselves. And yet, “The foundations of man are not in matter, but in spirit” (30), and it’s important for us to understand that essential feature of what we are, according to Emerson; otherwise, we apply only half our force to nature by working on the world with our understanding alone, attempting to master it “by a penny-wisdom” that leaves us little more than “a selfish savage” (31). It would be much better, Emerson continues, to act upon nature with our entire force, “with reason as well as understanding”—in other words, with an apprehension of both the spiritual and the material (31). Emerson’s examples of the “gleams of a better light” that acting upon nature in this way produce include miracles, the life of Jesus, political and religious revolutions, prayer, eloquence, the wisdom of children, and “Animal Magnetism” (31). For Emerson, “These are examples of Reason’s momentary grasp of the sceptre; the exertions of a power which exists not in time or space, but an instantaneous in-streaming causing power” (31). 

As Emerson’s essay reaches its conclusion, he suddenly suggests that the world needs to be restored to its “original and eternal beauty,” and that this can only happen through “the redemption of the soul” (31):

The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. (31-32)

This is another surprise, after the earlier evocation of the “transparent eye-ball,” but it’s clear that Emerson believes that what is required is a bringing together of the spiritual and the material. A focus on the material—the focus characteristic of the naturalist—is not enough: 

when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation. (32)

“The inevitable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common,” Emerson claims. There is something powerful in this argument; the suggestion that an appreciation of nature other than a focus on details suggests the need to see the whole as well as the parts simultaneously. However, I can’t accept the notion that by doing so, the material world becomes transparent and reveals its true beauty. For me, nature is already perfect. There is nothing better hiding behind it. The world is not a ruin, except where human activity—the ecological exploitation characteristic of capitalism and colonialism—has destroyed. The “disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies” which Emerson claims will “vanish” along with the “sordor and filths of nature” after the revolution caused by the  “influx of the spirit” into our apprehension are neither sordid or filthy—at least, not the things that are part of the natural world. Spiders, snakes, and “pests” are necessary parts of the ecosystems in which they can be found. They are very different from the mad-houses, prisons, and conflict between people that are characteristic of human activity. Emerson’s eschatological vision—the perfection of the world when material and spiritual apprehensions unite—confuses these very different things. Perhaps more attention to the workings of the natural world—the attention Emerson dismisses as the province of the naturalist—would help untangle that confusion. For me, spiritual apprehension of the world—that powerful, emotional response to the land one sometimes experiences—is one thing; but just as important is understanding the details of how things work and how everything, even spiders and snakes, are part of the whole. In this, I suppose I agree with Emerson, although I do think less spiritual apprehension would help him understand that everything has its place.

Emerson’s final sentence brings us back to vision—or its absence: “The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation—a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God—he shall enter without more perfect wonder than the blind man who is gradually restored to perfect sight” (33). Again, the notion of human dominion over nature bothers me; we are part of the natural world, rather than lords over it, and the possibility of further domination over nature is not something to celebrate. I also wonder whether the “transparent eye-ball” is related in any way to the “perfect sight” which will be restored through spiritual understanding or apprehension of the world. Is the “transparent eye-ball” that spiritual apprehension in miniature? Is that why that “transparent eye-ball” enables the viewer to see everything? I don’t know. After reading the essay, and thinking and writing about it, I’m left wondering about that connection. One thing I am sure of, though: I never set out to try to see everything, or to claim to be the “transparent eye-ball” in action, by walking through the land and taking photographs of what I saw. I had no such ambitions. That comment, or critique, makes me wonder whether any response to the land by a settler-descendant would be described in a similar way—whether any landscape painter or photographer or writer would be accused of trying to see or know everything, or whether there is something particular to my project which generates this objection. My attempt at understanding Emerson’s essay hasn’t helped me come up with an answer to that question.

Work Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature (1836),” Nature and Other Essays, edited by Lisa Perniciaro, Dover, 2009, pp. 1-33.

2. Dylan A.T. Miner, Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island

creating aztlan

This past semester, I took a graduate-level visual arts course called Group Studio. That course ended last week with a critique by the faculty in the Department of Visual Arts of my photographs of and text work about my walk to Wood Mountain. One faculty member suggested that when a settler walks, he or she is inevitably claiming territory that is rightly Indigenous. The argument, as I understand it, is that because walking is a way of moving slowly across the land, it is therefore equivalent to lowriding—either with lowrider cars or bicycles—which is, according to Dylan Miner, a way for Indigenous people to claim (or possibly reclaim) territory. For that reason, I decided I would take a look at Miner’s 2014 book Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island to make sense of that critique and possibly formulate a response.

I must admit, I didn’t read Miner’s book carefully. Instead, I did what my PhD supervisors have suggested, and I “gutted” it: I read the introduction and conclusion, took a look at a review, skimmed the chapters, and looked up every mention of the word “lowriding” in the index. Nevertheless, I got a clear sense of how Miner uses that term. He equates migration, lowriding, and moving slowly across the landscape, and he argues that all of these are inherently Indigenous and central to his own methodology in the account of Chicano art as Indigenous sovereignty:

For many participants in lowrider culture, the process of lowriding engages traditional migration patterns, yet employs late-capitalist machinery to traverse colonized landscapes. While our ancestors moved slowly from one place to another, establishing deep roots along the way, contemporaneity and coloniality presuppose that we must hurriedly rush from place to place. Instead of hastening from one place to another, lowriding, as an Indigenous ontology, actively engages the process of slow-movement. Through this intentional slowness, lowriding seamlessly repositions us between various temporalities, moving among multiple spaces in and out of disparate social structures. Lowriding becomes methodology and framework as we investigate Aztlán and Chicano art, as well as migrate across Turtle Island or the Americas. (3)

Miner’s interest is primarily in his socially engaged art practice of building lowrider bicycles with Indigenous youth (the MacKenzie Art Gallery brought Miner to Regina for one of these projects in 2016). Those projects, he writes, constitute a collective confrontation with colonial power structures: by building lower bicycles with Indigenous youth, “we upheld Indigenous sovereignty in a profound way: we worked collectively and, in turn, built community” (5). These bikes, he continues, “materialized Indigenous knowledge in the present,” by combining “ancestral knowledge with contemporary technologies, concretizing Indigenous culture in the guise of lowrider bicycles” (6). 

Miner mentions lowrider cars only a couple of times in the book. But lowriding functions metaphorically in Creating Aztlán, I think, through the creation of the nexus of lowriding/migration/slowness as an Indigenous ontology and methodology. “Although created sometime in the late twentieth century, decades after lowrider cars,” Miner writes,

lowrider bicycles are the epitome of contemporary Indigenous movement. They are simple machines with two wheels. The wheels must be kept moving if the bike is to remain upright. Constant rotations of the wheels keep the rider in a stable and mobile position. When the wheels stop rotating, the bike becomes static and the rider will eventually fall to the ground. This could be read as an Indigenous story about the need to maintain equilibrium in the world. Unlike the desire of a traditional cyclist, whose hope it is to move as quickly as possible, the lowrider’s only goal is to move as slowly and as intentionally as viable. Lowriding is about moving through space, while being cognizant of the journey and migration itself. (23-24)

I’m not sure how his description of how a lowrider bicycle remains upright differs fundamentally from the way an ordinary bicycle works, except that the goal with a lowrider bicycle is apparently “to move as slowly and as intentionally” as possible—an intentionality that is apparently self-reflexive and that conflates the specific journey with the broader experience of migration. Such journeys or migrations are apparently circular, in both time and space, and related to story as a way for Indigenous peoples to “slowly and intimately relate to one another” (88). Later, Miner writes, “lowriding is about slow movement, in which the lowriders themselves get to know the space and move through it in intentional ways” (115); here, slowness is an essential part of coming to know the space through which the rider is moving. 

Lowriding, as Miner defines it, and walking clearly share a similar velocity: both are ways of moving through a space (whether urban or rural) slowly. However, I don’t see anywhere in Miner’s book where moving through territory is defined as claiming or reclaiming territory. Maybe I missed it. If I didn’t, then I’m not sure a critique of my walk to Wood Mountain as a colonial claiming of territory works if it is based in Miner’s literal or metaphorical discussions of lowriding, since that idea doesn’t appear to be in Miner’s book. It might appear in something else he’s written, but if it does, I can’t find it.

Lowriding (on bicycles or in cars) obviously shares a certain slowness with walking, but there are significant differences between those practices. Although Miner says he first encountered lowrider bicycles in rural Michigan when he was a child (5), I would think that as a mode of transportation lowrider bikes are primarily an urban phenomenon—at least in this province. Can one move through space slowly if one is travelling the kinds of distances between communities that exist in a place like Saskatchewan? Are the youth who built lowrider bicycles with Miner here in Regina really riding them outside of the city? Maybe they are. Nevertheless, on my walk to Wood Mountain I encountered only one cyclist, and he was riding a mountain bike (which is a practical way of dealing with the drifts of gravel one finds on grid roads).

Moreover, the bikes Miner built at with his participants in this city were meant to be looked at; they were colourful and incorporated Indigenous design elements, patterns, and references (photographs of those bicycles are available here). They are both a mode of transportation, a form of display, and an assertion of Indigeneity on multiple levels. Is that true of walking? It could be, if the walker, like the runner Brad “Caribou Legs” Firth, wore traditional regalia, but I would never do such a thing (it would be an obvious act of cultural appropriation). In fact, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to look at the dull-coloured, dirty walking clothes and Tilley hat I wear when I am walking. Everything about the walks I make is pragmatic and functional (the clothes I wear, the pack I carry); walking long distances in this place is impractical enough. In other words, when I walk there is no attempt at becoming visual spectacle, even though my presence surprises passing motorists. Besides, walking and cycling—even cycling on a lowrider bike—are distinctly different activities. Cycling—even on a lowrider bike—involves a degree of technological intervention that isn’t present in walking. (After all, people walked long before bicycles were invented.) 

It is true that part of the reason I choose to walk is as a way of getting to know the land, the space through which I am moving, but is that necessarily an assertion of sovereignty over that land? I don’t think so. I happened to have lunch with an Elder last week and I talked a little bit about walking to Wood Mountain and the notion that by walking I’m claiming ownership of the land. “No,” she replied, “the land is teaching you when you walk.” Besides, she continued, nobody ought to be claiming territory: the earth owns us, and we don’t own it. I do learn from the land when I walk: it teaches me about scale, about flat plains and hills, about wind and rain, about heat and cold and thirst. I met Dylan Miner when he was here, and I told him about the project I was then getting ready for: my walk in the Haldimand Tract. He thought it was a good idea, something that I should do. He didn’t accuse me of trying to claim that territory. I’m grateful for that response, which demonstrated an understanding of what I was trying to do in that project. I was deliberately not claiming territory: I was acknowledging the thefts of land that my settler predecessors had committed in that place. My PhD research has a similar motivation.

Miner’s use of lowriding as a conceptual framework in his book is interesting as a metaphor, and the equation he makes between slowness, migration, and coming to know the land is thought-provoking; although not all forms of slow movement are necessarily migration, slow movement is definitely one way of coming to understand the land. But I’m not sure one can use his writing as a way to critique walking. Walking and lowriding share a similar velocity, but there are significant differences between those practices, and ignoring those differences is, in my opinion, a mistake. And it leads to a larger question: is any engagement with land by a settler descendant—landscape painting or photography, sculptures about forests, writing about grasslands—necessarily a way to claim territory? If not, what is it about walking in particular that generates this political critique? That question remains unanswered; all I can say is, that critique isn’t articulated in Miner’s book.

Work Cited

Miner, Dylan A.T. Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island, U of Arizona P, 2014.