Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: December, 2019

New Year’s Eve Walk Around the Lake

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PC310658.JPGI was mentally and physically incapable of reading anything this morning. Mentally, I was exhausted; physically, I was not up to the work of reading. As I’ve discovered, sitting still for hours, reading and taking notes, is physical labour. When I was younger, it was easier. Now it makes my knees ache: the same feeling I get when I’m crammed into an economy-class seat on a transatlantic flight. Google tells me this condition is called chondromalacia, that it’s caused by the breakdown of cartilage under the kneecap. The point is that sitting for hours reading and writing hurts. And this morning I needed a day off. My goal was to reach 125 texts by Monday, when classes begin again. 130 would be even better: that would be 10 books or articles for each month I’ve been working at this project. But I might not get there. I need a rest.

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PC310675.JPGChristine and I left to walk around the lake about noon. We followed the path on the south side of the lake. We met a friendly man with an equally friendly silver Labrador retriever named Striker. We saw lots of people enjoying the sunshine and the mild temperatures. At this time of year, temperatures in the minus single digits is a gift, especially if the sun is out. There is an ice rink in a flooded parking lot, and it was pretty busy. There was a time when we could skate on the lake, but since the aeration equipment was installed to keep the lake from smelling like rotten eggs when the ice melts in the spring, it’s no longer safe. We stopped at the café where we always stop, the Naked Bean, for coffee and something to eat. Then Christine headed home, and I headed for the east side of the lake.

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Once you cross Broad Street, there are always fewer people in the park; all the action is on the west side. I saw a kid wearing a bright red MAGA hat cross-country skiing: perhaps a true believer, home from college in the States, hoping to scandalize people here with his support for the Impeached One? I saw runners and walkers. “You’ve got to get out in this weather while we’ve got it,” one woman told me. Oh, yes. The weather could turn any day now, leaving a balmy day like this one a memory. Remember, minus 30 would be a more seasonable temperature. I was surprised to see something new: the paved trail has been extended past the city’s one hill. How did I miss that? When did I last walk this way? Six months ago? The Provincial Capital Commission has been busy. I’m not a huge fan of paved trails, but it’s safer than walking on the narrow road, and that’s an improvement.

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The sky started to cloud over just as magic hour began. My back was starting to hurt from the exercise, another sign that I need to get away from my desk more often. I called Christine. “Want to meet at the pub for a New Year’s Eve drink?” I asked. She did. I left the park and walked up Albert Street. We met and toasted the end of 2019. Then we headed for home.

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Best wishes for a happy 2020 to everyone reading this. I hope next year brings you what you’re hoping for. It’s going to bring me a lot of work, but I’m pretty sure I’m up to the task–as long as my knees hold out.

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123. Nancy J. Blomberg, ed., Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art

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Nancy Blomberg’s edited collection Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art is another book lent to me by my supervisor, and therefore, of course, something I need to read. It’s an anthology of essays from a symposium held at the Denver Art Museum in 2008; the contributors are experts on performance art in general, and Indigenous performance art in particular. Blomberg’s introduction begins with the questions, “What is ‘performance art’? How do we define it? Discuss it? Critique it? Create it? And collect it?” (9). She notes that the Denver Art Museum’s “involvement with performance art has been limited,” and in fact it has been limited to Indigenous performance art (9). Residencies by Bently Spang in 2003 and Floyd Favel in 2007 were well-received by the gallery’s visitors, which led to “a more in-depth look at the greater world of Native American performance art and some of the issues important to its future” (9). Those issues include questions like “How do native artists use performance to analyze social conditions and offer solutions?”; “How can the artist use performance as a means of transmitting knowledge?”; How does the artist build communities among artists—and also between native and non-native populations and individuals?”; “What is the lifespan of a performance work? Does the camera merely document the moment, or does it create another artwork?”; and “What are the issues for iconic works like James Luna’s The Artifact Piece and the implications for restaging such works?” (9-10). The last questions are common, I think, to all forms of performance art, but the first three questions might be considered more specific to Indigenous performance art. Those three questions might not be the best questions to ask about any art practice. Does art really offer solutions to social problems? Does it build communities? Does it transmit knowledge? I’m not convinced. But those are the questions Blomberg and her colleagues considered important.

The book’s first essay is Rebecca Belmore’s “Making a Garden Out of a Wilderness.” It begins with an anecdote: during a residency at the Banff Centre, Belmore was asked to give a lecture on performance art. Thinking about this task, she stumbled across 1492 and All That: Making a Garden out of a Wilderness by historian Ramsay Cook. In that book, Cook retold a story that was given to a Baptist missionary by the Mi’kmaq people:

One of them, a Mi’kmaq man, was taken to France where he was placed in a wilderness garden with a deer. There, he was told he was to perform for an audience of nobility; he was expected to kill the deer with a bow and arrow, skin and dress the carcass, then cook and eat it. According to the Mi’kmaq, wrote the missionary, the man adhered to their instructions but took the liberty of expanding on their idea of his performance by “easing himself before them all.” I took this to mean that he shat upon the ground. (16)

Belmore saw herself in that man: Indigenous, in a park intended “to protect what remains of the ‘Canadian wilderness,’” like that man, “trapped in a ‘wild’ garden” (16). “A day before my scheduled lecture,” she continues, “I took a shit in the bushes behind the building that housed my studio” (17). Then she worked with a couple of Mohawk media artists to capture video of herself using “a gasoline-powered leaf blower to clear a path through the forest,” and running through the forest with her hands tied behind her back “and then falling, kicking, digging, barefoot into the earth” (17). On the day of her lecture, she collected her shit in a jar; she also collected elk shit and put it into an identical jar. “I place each jar into a plain brown paper bag,” she recalls. “The lecture begins. I arrive carrying the two bags. I stand at the lectern while the ‘leaf blowing machine imagery’ is projected onto a screen. When it is finished, I take the jars out of the paper bags and describe to the audience what I had read” (17). Then she leaves and flushes the shit from the jars down the toilet. She returns “to finish the lecture by projecting the imagery of me running with the hands bound, an escaped captive Indian” (17). “I consider this Mi’kmaq man to be one of the first performance artists of the Americas to work internationally—hundreds of years ago,” Belmore concludes (17).

The anthology’s second essay is art historian Marcia Crosby’s “A Disturbing Certainty: The Multimedia Work of Rebecca Belmore.” “Many of the works of Canadian multimedia artist Rebecca Belmore include disturbing representations of violence, which on one level are about the particular and are layered with encoded references to very specific individuals, acts, events, peoples, and spatially bounded locales,” Crosby begins. “Each of the empirical referents for these artworks has its own deep histories, embedded as they are in larger histories of cultural trauma, most of which have been obscured from public view. In performance, installation, photography, and video, Belmore refers to power imbalances between the state and individuals, between groups of peoples, or between individuals” (21). Belmore was inspired by the Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta, Crosby suggests, who also explored the theme of violence, particularly against women’s bodies (21). That violence raises the issue of trauma:

Trauma in aboriginal performance art can be linked to the performative dimensions of social and political “action art,” ritualized action, cleansing, mortification, and marking the body with various kinds of “wounds” (which is the literal translation of the Greek word “trauma”). The term has been used more recently in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to refer to a single event (sudden injury, death, natural disaster) or a prolonged injury caused by abuse over time, such as, I wold say, colonialism. As an art strategy, woundings have been used to address violence in the artists’ political and social worlds. Such actions make language for past and present trauma, and they can shock and unsettle (create uncertainty), reactivating old traumas that may be reinscribed in the body of the performer and/or audience. (21-22)

Even writing about such performances, Crosby continues, “may activate a process of both acting out and ‘working through’ an experience of personal trauma” (22).

Performance art, Crosby writes, as an art form that presents an activity or action before an audience, has historically been “a particular form of resistance which did not/does not lend itself to conventional containment within museums and did not easily enter the museum or the realm of art magazines” (22). Its ephemeral nature “does not lend itself to ‘telling’ specific historical narratives or producing meaning or explanations,” but “performance can disentangle histories in very particular ways”:

an artist at one level may refer to personal, local, cultural, or national narratives of prolonged abuse or trauma (as fiction or empirical fact); and the body, its gestures (and other media) may expose the imbalance of power relations of a personal trauma. In an aboriginal performance that is focused on trauma or violence, performer or spectator may gather any number of the narrative strings of colonization: lateral violence in the home or community, the dissolution of family, residential schooling, decimating diseases, diaspora, the emergence of fluid or unstable urban aboriginal communities—any events and/or conditions that make up the complexity of colonialism’s historical and ongoing woundings. That said, such narratives are a referent or perhaps only “one arrangement” of an oscillating constellation of other possible elements to the performance, which raise questions about power itself. (22-23)

Belmore doesn’t use performance art “as an attempt to make meaning or create closure in relation to the specific historic events she references,” Crosby continues. “She is well aware that in its capacity to elicit both a somatic response and to call up specific memories, the language of performance art is transient, it is gesture, trace remains of anecdotal evidence; it cannot be objectified and can hardly be explained, and it is viscous in its contradictions” (23). The duration of a performance work “draws a momentary horizon line, pointing both to what is known and that which is emergent and thus yet incoherent,” but Belmore’s use of images of violence, “held in tension with images of beauty, constitutes a strategy that adds to the disturbing or unsettling nature of the work—new meanings continually emerge, calling into question contemporary norms, images, sounds, words, gestures” (23).

“Themes of violence and the ephemeral nature of performance itself conspire to create uncertainty,” Crosby writes, and that uncertainty “resonates with the theories and methodologies employed by anthropologists and writers Michael Taussig and Arjun Appadurai” (23-24). Like Taussig and Appadurai, Belmore points “to the relationship between uncertainty and violence and to the ways in which uncertainty constitutes . . . one of the preconditions for violence” (24). Belmore’s work confronts issues of race and racism, Crosby suggests, which complicates any reading of her work (27). Her 2002 performance Vigil, for instance, “which was concerned with the local ‘disappearances’ and murders of women from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver,” many of whom were Indigenous, is at the same time “a collapse of the elements that make up an action” (27-28). “These elements include any or all of the following: the body (as an object that is both hers and not hers); any or all references to the murder[s] of the women; the performance site in the alley; and the audience,” Crosby continues.  Vigil “cannot be reduced to polemic, or a political protest based on aspects of Belmore’s ‘identity’—which is not to say that any audience member may participate in a performance, or see the video, in that way” (28). The purpose of the performance, and the subsequent video installation, The Named and the Unnamed, is to disturb viewers: Belmore shouted the names of the missing women, she tore roses with her teeth, and she nailed the red dress she was wearing to a telephone pole and ripped it away until it was in shreds. “Through this series of actions, she pointed the audience to traumatic violence and losses that were so deep that they could not be translated into something to be transcended or redeemed with meaning, or perhaps even spoken,” Crosby suggests (28).

Crosby cites historian Saul Friedlander’s suggestion that any attempt to make meaning out of violence (his example is the Holocaust) “is to presume that such violence and meaningless suffering can be redeemed with significance, can be given a moral dimension suggesting hope” (28-29). Rather, Friedlander suggests that such histories of violence sustain uncertainty and allow us to live “without understanding or redemption” (29). For Crosby, uncertainty is part of “the oscillating constellation of meanings” in Belmore’s performance work (29). “In many of Belmore’s works, ‘disappeared’ people, events, and histories are brought to the surface, emerge for a time, and then disappear from view,” she writes. “It is this emergence and disappearance, which circulates tenuously in public memory and in durational time, that makes the histories to which she refers ‘uncanny’ and disturbs the ground in which they have been buried” (29). Nor does Belmore limit herself to referring to colonialism in general terms; rather, “[h]er works are informed by the details of particular cases . . . and they refuse accepted ‘facile linear narratives’ about them” (29). “Performance, installation, and photograph work to disturb, but without excessive and self-reflexive references to historic trauma and violence as an end in itself,” Crosby contends (29).

Belmore’s White Thread, a staged photograph, “the model is bent over and wrapped in red fabric (with a line of white thread sewn on its edges) from face to ankles; her wrapped face faces her knees, and wrapped arms and legs are bound together from elbow to ankle” (30). She is posed in what “is clearly an untenable position against a white backdrop that also covers the small plinth on which she stands” (32). In 2003, when the work was made, Canada had just gone to war in Afghanistan, and Belmore was thinking about women and that war. While White Thread “may not reveal how ethnicity, race, and cultural politics have been constructed in the media since 9/11,” it is nevertheless “a red flag,” Crosby writes (32). Belmore’s 2007 photograph Fringe (first displayed on a billboard in Montreal) depicts a body that might seem to fit the idea of a martyr or sacrificial victim (32). The photograph shows “a brown-skinned woman lying in repose on a covered white platform, her back to the viewer, nude except for a sash of white cloth over her hips and a diagonal slash across her back, with red beads ‘embroidering’ the length of the wound and cascading onto the platform” (32). According to Crosby, “Fringe maps complicated intersections of mass-mediated images of violence, conflated populist and nationalist signs, and representations of the ‘other’ that resonate with those that circulate at global levels” (32-34). Brown skin and beads, in particular, suggest indigeneity (34). “The many slippages and possible referents for the disturbing and powerful image of the body in Fringe,” Crosby continues, “complicate any literal or narrative reading” (34):

The installation itself may seem, at first or second glance, to be reduced to the cut across the woman’s back—the vivisection, an assault on a woman and/or a visual assault on the viewer. But at second or third glance, the woman’s back provides the viewer with an equivalent, yet absent image. . . . first, a woman slashed and dripping blood; next, a woman with a wound that is beaded with a red fringe. As a kind of filmic frame, the suture as a focal point in Fringe also points to an inside and an outside: the viewer “outside” and the brown-skinned beaded Indian woman’s “inside.” By this I infer the part of her body that is hidden as an “inside,” inaccessible to an “outsider.” This inside image is equivalent to the outside vulnerable and violent one—or vice versa. (34)

Crosby suggests that Fringe, like performance art, “is not intended to create an articulate response” from its viewer (35). “This is also true of the paradoxical ways that Belmore combines certain themes and materials in other works: themes of motherhood and death and materials such as wine and milk,” she continues. “All of the various elements in Belmore’s work may raise questions for an audience, but they do not offer answers or resolution or any specific call to action—just a nervous uncertainty” (35).

The violence in Belmore’s work may shock and unsettle viewers. So is Belmore implicated in “constructions of violence that perpetuate more violence, or add to the degree to which audiences become inured to it due to overexposure?” (35-39). Crosby thinks that the answer to both questions is yes, since “any work about violence is necessarily complicated by the paradox of taking it as subject matter in the first place: we ‘re-present’ it, and representations of violence are always double-edged,” even those that set out to critique violence (39). Belmore’s works, and their use of violence, suggest that she “includes representations of violence with an understanding of how it is constructed and produced,” and Belmore herself seems “compelled to address the subject in ways that create a shift in consciousness” (39). But those “who are compelled to investigate violence” are prone to emotional effects, such as protective numbing; these are “the inherent contingencies and contradictions of both making and ‘reading’ such work” (39). 

“Trauma is marking,” Crosby concludes. “And since its mark is also visceral, somatic, and cellular, mental knowledge or consciousness doesn’t necessarily come into play” (39). For that reason, viewers “leave at the end of the performance, still in its middle, without the consolation of closure or meaning. Alive and undisturbed” (39).

The third essay, Polly Nordstrand’s “Evoking Heroism in Floyd Favel’s Snow Before the Sun,” begins with “[t]he disturbing photograph of Chief Big Foot’s body crumpled and frozen between a sitting and lying down position,” taken “in the wake of the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek” (47). “We are devastated by the images of the massacre, but at the time the victims were seen by the soldiers and settler community as little more than outlaws,” she notes (48). “Of course, not everyone then or today thinks of the Indians dead at wounded knee as ‘outlaws,’” Nordstrand continues, particularly Floyd Favel, who was “so deeply disturbed by the image of Big Foot’s frozen body at Wounded Knee and the details of the massacre that he was compelled to create an original performance” (49):

Rather than focus on the victimization of the people of the Plains, he melded the tragic event at Wounded Knee Creek and the beliefs of the Ghost Dance with the 1970s film icon Billy Jack to evoke the heroic nature of two men—one real, once fictional. The drama that unfolds is one of persecution and spiritual resistance. (49-50)

Nordstrand worked with Favel to present Snow Before the Sun in Denver after it had been workshopped at Regina’s Sâkêwêwak Story Telling Festival in March 2004. Favel was planning to study the Denver Art Museum’s collections to inform the performance, and then stage it in the museum. “Favel is an artist hungry for the understanding of history,” Nordstrand writes. “Themes of historic events frequently run through his writings and investigations. He conducts extensive research in order to understand not only the event, but the experiences of the people who lived it and the landscape where the event took place. He absorbs all of this information as part of his creative process” (51). He examined the winter count drawings at the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Those drawings and paintings “showed figures through time, in various periods of wellness and strife,” and Favel wondered how he could incorporate that imagery into his performance (51). But the photograph of Chief Big Foot’s body was the performance’s motivation. “Like many people, Favel was deeply affected by this image of death and brutality,” Nordstrand writes (52). 

But Favel also was drawn to the eponymous hero of the 1970s film Billy Jack. An ex-Green Beret and martial arts expert, Billy Jack’s “mixed heritage of white and Cherokee parents motivates him to ‘connect with his roots’ by going to live on an Indian reservation where he has taken up the role of protecting the wild mustangs from being hunted for dog food” (53-54). White Settler violence against students at a nearby school leads Billy to begin a vigilante’s revenge, and he uses his martial arts knowledge to protect the survivors. “As a young person, Favel had seen this film and rather than being disturbed by hot-tempered Billy Jack’s revengeful actions, he connected with the students in the film who suffered racial intolerance from the surrounding local white community,” Nordstrand writes. “Favel had witnessed this same intolerance on his reserve. Favel admired the way Billy Jack stood up to the racists in defense of the Native youth—something that he hadn’t seen in other films or his own community” (54-55). Billy Jack “informed Favel’s rethinking of the story of the Wounded Knee massacre” (55).

Nordstrand describes Favel’s performance at length. Favel is silent throughout, although there is a soundscape, composed by Dene musician Leela Gilday, which “includes sparse dialogue excerpts from the Billy Jack film, and in so doing reinforces the suggested plot” (57). “Favel is not reenacting the event at Wounded Knee, nor is he recreating the plot of the film that influenced him as a young person,” Nordstrand writes. Instead, “Favel compresses time and pieces together an dIndian narrative out of historical memory, fiction, and personal experience” (57). In the performance, “Favel takes the mythological from reality and the imagination to present a deeply moving story where we can find ourselves reflected in the actions” (57).

“Some artists try to create shock through performance; Floyd Favel instead deals with the shock of the images in the photographs as filtered through his performance in order for us to regain a sense of calm,” Nordstrand continues:

He does not respond with words, but instead with movement and sound. He moves through transformative experiences, creating new scenes that allow us to process the killings at Wounded Knee or even the hatred we might have experienced in our own lives. He presents the action and in this way does not implicate the audience, which is made up of people from all cultures, in the event—its racism and violence. (57-58)

“By means of this performance we are given an extended vision of the impact of events like the massacre at Wounded Knee,” she concludes. “We see the afterlife of the fallen victim. We also see the frustration of future generations, but we are presented with the opportunity to consider the demonstration of heroism within the tragedy” (59).

In “The Artifact Piece and Artifact Piece, Revisited,” Lara M. Evans writes about Erica Lord’s reenactment of James Luna’s The Artifact Piece, initially performed at the San Diego Museum of Man in 1987, in which Luna placed himself in a display case with some personal items. “The presence of a live Indian on display punctured the romantic fantasy of the vanishing race,” Evans states. “The Artifact Piece had such impact that it is now one of the most well-known and important performance artworks by a Native American artist” (63). It also helped to change museum display practices (63). The work was “part of a wave of indigenous peoples talking back to the institutions that have represented them to non-indigenous audiences,” showing “the subjects of anthropology” speaking back to “those academic disciplines, patriarchal institutions, and legislative bodies that circumscribe native sovereignty and operate in disregard of existing Native epistemologies” (63-65). 

Evans provides a lengthy description of The Artifact Piece, and notes that “[t]he artwork remained effective even without the bodily presence of the artist,” because Luna’s possessions on display functioned independently of his presence, “and the impression of Luna’s body in the sand” in the display case “was an indexical sign of his previous occupation of the space” (66). Erica Lord’s 2008 reenactment “brings the work out of the textual and photo-documentation realm of the recent past and back to the possibilities of the physically present moment” (67). Such reenactments are taking place throughout performance art; in 2005, for instance, Marina Abramovíc reperformed works by Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, and Valie Export, as part of a series entitled Seven Easy Pieces (68-69). (The seventh piece was Abramovíc’s own Lips of Thomas, originally performed in 1975.) Lord’s own art practice “is about issues of gender and hybridity, locale, and the transfer of traditions into new modes and new environments,” and she usually works with photography and multimedia installation (71). She sought Luna’s permission to reperform The Artifact Piece, which she had studied as an undergraduate; that permission was granted, and the work was presented, or re-presented, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. 

“In the months before the April 2008 performance, I was intrigued by the uncertainties I had about how audiences would react to the work,” Evans recalls. “Would issues of gender trump issues of race? Would criticisms of museum display practices get lost in the mix? Would issues of cultural patrimony and repatriation fall by the wayside compared to the objectification of a young female mixed-race body on display? Would Lord even be seen as Indian?” (71). “To my mind,” she continues, “it seemed clear that while the forms and actions of Lord’s Artifact Piece, Revisited would be very similar to Luna’s original work, Lord’s work could not carry precisely the same meanings because of differences in gender, age, and textual specificity” (72). Evans flew to New York to see Artifact Piece, Revisited. She describes Lord’s reenactment in detail. “Discussion of gender, masculinity, and manliness in relationship to Luna’s The Artifact Piece was nonexistent in the late 1980s,” she writes. “Substituting a female body creates a drastic shift in perception, however. A sense of sexualized voyeurism is inescapable” (81-82). The performance also reminded Evans of wakes and funerals (82). She suggests it reminds her issues of repatriation of human remains and cultural objects (84). “Luna’s original performances of The Artifact Piece humanized and individualized himself as an Indian while also critiquing museum display practices in regard to the ‘other,’” she concludes. “Lord does more than ‘revisit’ the piece; she brings hybridity, sexualized objectification, the trap of beauty, and tribal specificity to the work,” and her reenactment “brings out additional nuances: gender, regionalism, and the fluid interplay between American pop culture and contemporary Native youth culture” (85).

The anthology’s fifth text is James Luna’s “Four Ways: A Performance Script and the Process of Creating a Performance.” “I have maintained over the years that the best way to explain my work is to perform it,” Luna writes, but he hopes that the script of Four Ways will offer some insight “into the themes and the process of developing and performing a performance work” (89). “The beauty of performance art is that there is no wrong or right way to develop and present one’s work, which means the medium is wide open for exploration,” he continues. “I believe the medium of performance art avails itself to Native culture like no other medium, as one can add traditional forms such as storytelling, dance, singing, and certain ceremonial framework as part of the production. There are not rules but skills that artists need to develop, first and foremost of which is their relationship to their audience” (89).The script describes the work, although given the importance of Luna’s presence and the live movement that accompanied the performance, it gives only the bare bones of what took place on the stage. At the end of the text, Luna notes that his process for making art is writing: “not writing in a traditional sense but writing and accumulating short dated notes. Notes on visual ideas, concepts, and technical problems to be resolved for both performance and installation works. There does not seem to be a shortage of ideas but the trick is where to begin, as there is much to do” (100). He describes how Butoh performance has influenced his work, and notes that he looks forward to collaborating with other performers in works he will write and direct. “I now have the luxury of devoting more time to my artwork but sometimes I feel there are not enough hours in the day to get done all I need to do, as there are non-art-related projects to do as well,” Luna concludes. “Life is good” (101).

Tina Majkowski’s “Gypsies, Tramps, Half-Indian, All Queer, and Cher: Kent Monkman Defining Indigeneity Through Indian Simulation and Accumulation,” the anthology’s sixth essay, begins by suggesting that Monkman “appears tired of the overromanticization of the Canadian landscape in his most recent installations” (104). “By strategically redeploying canonical historical images that tell stories of European domination and slash-and-burn of North American indigenous cultures,” she writes, “Monkman works to critique these visual narratives, or, perhaps more so, he labours to question the veritable accuracy of these banal representations of  indigenous peoples as noble savages—as ultimately an already vanished, if not dying race” (104). By reinterpreting images of Indigeneity, she continues, “Monkman ultimately interrogates and gives voice to the impact of European colonization on indigenous forms of sexuality and the transmission of homophobia that originated from Christian European imperialism” (104). “[E]ven the seemingly fixed nature of history is always in process, subject to alternative and divergent readings and in need of constant critical vigilance and reinterpretation,” and in that way, “history and performance/art seem more alike than dissimilar given that both happen in space and time as a process, rely on spectatorial interaction, and are always open for reevaluation and revision” (104).

“Monkman is seriously invested in performance and art practices that lend themselves to the creation of a political inquiry into what constitutes ‘the Indian’ in the collective and various national contexts,” Majkowski continues:

On one hand this sort of reinvention is always part and parcel of the artistic process; however, as this theme develops as a prevalent artistic practice among indigenous artists, as a critical and caring audience we are faced with the question of why this inquiry is particularly urgent for the indigenous community and how artistic interventions into the popular visual conception and consumption of the ethnic label “Indian” promote active indigenous communities. (104-05)

“The relationship between political insistence and indigenous performance practices is part of the question of how performance art functions to build and sustain native communities,” Majkowski writes (105).

Monkman—a “queer person of mixed-blood heritage” (105)—faces questions of “messy fractions” and “how to articulate dual identity markers” (105). “For the sake of ideological clarity, where within the field of hybrid racial identity does ‘queer’ fit?” Majkowski asks:

Monkman’s artistic practice guides us in the pursuit of such an answer. . . . [M]aybe, as Monkman’s aesthetic insistence with the singer/actress Cher—his veritable interlocutor—of half-breedness instructs, half-breed is the demarcation of radical alterity that is unconcerned with knowable blood quantum and neat mathematical divisions that half-Cree, half-non-native, and all-queer earnestly defy. Yes, far from an anomaly in what might be a neat, manageable spatial logic of identity and subjectivity, this notion of the half-breed is indebted to the uneven nature of identity. The uneven crossroads of the half-breed is likewise this place of contact and confluence where meanings, identities, and so forth bump up against each other; they intersect and reverberate against and through each other. (106)

“Monkman’s work is ultimately pedagogical in showing us how tinkering with the landscape of the past, of painting Cher into that past—a fitting placement as she is decidedly ageless and timeless—highlights that among the many things that colonial contact altered was an indigenous understanding of gender and sexuality replete with two-spirits and shape-shifters,” Majkowski continues. “Painting such ideas back into the landscape is part of a longing, an anticipation, not for the past but for a radically new future in which Indianness can be seen and felt as a more expansive category of art and racial demarcation” (110). 

Majkowski discusses Monkman’s painting Artist and Model, which is “so idyllic and so impeccably painted that at first the audience” at an art exhibition in Brazil “did not register the utter strangeness of the content: an Indian attired in a headdress, pumps, and loincloth standing at an easel painting a white male figure who is tied to a tree, pants at his ankles, held still for the artist with a bevy of arrows” (111). Artist and Model reorients the moment of colonial contact, and his “biting critique” of nineteenth-century North American landscape painting “in regard to the ethnographic gaze upon the Native American is not done from outside the artistic practice of landscape portraiture but, conversely, from within this tradition,” a critique that “serves to sustain the form in an effort to reengage with the content,” offering a criticism “that advocates for working with a questionable object” rather than “a flat disavowal of that object” (112). Another of Monkman’s landscape paintings, Heaven and Earth, gestures “to the impact of colonization on indigenous notions of sexuality with a playful and willful reimagining of who got to top whom in the moment of colonization and conquest” (113). That painting insists on “an indigeneity that is always ripe with a queer potentiality” (113). So too does Portrait of the Artist as Hunter, in which a warrior on horseback is wearing “a red sash and high heels” (115). “This inclusion, or aesthetic accumulation, of the red sash ushers in another modality of Indian regalia instead of highlighting the potential oddity of a feminine male Indian warrior,” Majkowski continues. “Representations and tales of two-spirited native sexuality are not absent within some of our native cosmologies and traditions, but they are sparse on the level of Native American or First Nations landscape portraiture. While this alone would warrant critical attention, it is the particular fashioning of Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, on Cher that commands attention” (115-16).

Here Majkowski shifts to Monkman’s performance work, and she sees Cher as the key to it: “Monkman is invested in playing with the image of Indianness proffered up in relation to Cher’s ‘Half Breed’ persona,” and “he is trying to disrupt this image” (116-17). Monkman “really likes to depict Cher as already playing Indian, which highlights how simulation is used in htis work not as a mimicry of any indigenous realness but as a gesture to the always already simulated fact of Indianness” (117). “Monkman’s delicious rendering of Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle as a simulated scene of Indianness enforces his willful insistence on the legacy of two-spiritism within native cosmologies,” she continues (117). The “‘Half Breed’ persona” Majkowski refers to is related to Chef’s hit song “Half Breed,” which she performed on television wearing Indigenous regalia. Monkman is attracted to this persona in the creation of his performance alter ego, but Majkowski is less interested in why that’s the case than in “how Monkman’s work functions inside native communities and what his work essentially does within art markets” (120). 

Monkman’s performance in The Taxonomy of the European Male and its relationship to Cher’s “Half Breed” video “offers us an opportunity to witness the relationship between playing Indian and Native American performance; the relationship between the performance of Indianness, which most generally is the hyperbolic performance of the save or noble Indian à la cowboys and Indians, and the autonomous performance art made by Native Americans” (120-22). “Surely these reference vastly different modalities of performance that evoke different kinds of aesthetics and performance practices, but the dividing line is not as easily located as it might seem,” Majkowski writes. “Monkman’s tricky, evident love of Cher-turned-performance-of-Cher provides another way to think about this relationship” between “coercive mimeticism” in different kinds of performance. “If an identification of the simulacrum of Indianness is the improper identification, as opposed to the perhaps proper identification of traditional Cree or otherwise indigenous art, is Cher a deviant, impure (i.e., non-traditional) influence?” (122). Perhaps, is Majkowski’s answer: 

maybe there is an inherent danger in mistaking oneself for a popularly consumed simulation of such a self. Or, more likely, does this very question obscure the fact that one, who better than members of indigenous communities to know how their representation has failed them; and two, that turning away form these ill-fitting and often painful simulations does nothing to rid the native community—artist or otherwise—of them. Might we, then, read Monkman’s work as a biting repetition, indeed a deviant translation, of those often compassionless images of squaws, Land O’Lakes butter tub maidens, wooden cigar-store Indians, and the never-ending panoply of “Tontos” offered up to us in the genre of the western? Such a perspective would indicate how this Native American art practice defiantly translates and accumulates such images into a necessary reminder that they present the indigenous community with an uncanny image of itself. (122-23)

For Majkowski, “Monkman’s work explicates the ebb and flow, the relationship, the choreography if you will between the performative nature of Indianness and the work of Native American artists. I like to think of this choreographic event as something of an aesthetic waver” (123). “To waver is to oscillate, to shuttle between, to reverberate and often in the process to allow for something radically new and even perhaps unexpected,” she concludes. “The waver between Monkman’s alter ego Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle and Cher’s ‘Half Breed’ persona is ripe with the potential to make a space between the Indian-as-simulation and lived experience,” and “it might be in this vibration that a new Indianness emerges at the nexus of indigeneity and queerness,” or perhaps even “an Indianness that is always already queer; or more so a queer identity that weaves within and through histories of racial formation, colonialism, and nationalism, and as such is positioned as a queerness that is not only invested in dissident and non-normative sexualities but anti-normative formations in general” (123).

Greg A. Hill is a multidisciplinary artist and a curator. His “Performing as Someone Else and the Pied Piper Effect,” the anthology’s seventh text, discusses Hill’s recent art work. “I will look at several performances as examples of different ways the presence, deployment, documenting/archiving function, and autonomy of the camera affected the performance and/or the audience,” Hill writes (129-30). In performance art, Hill contends, “”[t]he ‘space’ of the performance is a creative zone that has fluid boundaries” that are “multilayered and overlapping, as they are defined by spatial, temporal, cultural, and personal norms” (130). Performing as someone else, as a character, he continues, involves “a release from the rules—through the character or anonymity of the assumed persona—or even freedom from personal inhibitions that constrain us in ways we may have learned to accommodate and also those we might not expect or that take us by surprise” (130). Adopting a persona, he writes, “enables me to explore the personality—real or imagined—of the character necessary to the performance” (130). The “Pied Piper Effect” he refers to in the title of his essay “is something that has occurred during several of my performances,” he writes, “where the spectacle of doing something odd—something outside of the expected norm, in public space—leads to people following you, curious to see what is going on. It is interesting to think about the desire: is it curiosity or spectacle that draws people, or something else?” (130). “The effect, however, is that an audience materializes where there was none,” he suggests, and the cameras ironically draw in the audience for the live event (130-31).

Is the camera merely a tool for documentation, or do artists perform for the camera? “A particular performance, or a performer’s entire practice, may in large part be about the performer’s relationship with the audience,” Hill writes. “How is this relationship impacted by the presence of cameras; and further, should or can the performer interact with one or the other or both? I think of the camera as another kind of spectator,” one that “represents all future viewers of the recorded live event. However, the camera is really a record of one viewer’s experience that is then shared with others” (131). Recording a performance with multiple cameras and editing the results together into a single record “would still be a mediated experience of the live performance. It would reflect the personal and professional choices of the camera operator(s) as well as those decisions made during the editing process” (131). For Hill, both the live and mediated audiences need to be considered: “How can the unpredictability of a public audience impact the performance? How does the presence of a camera affect the live audience, their relationship to the performer, and the performer’s interaction with them? What happens when the cameras documenting a performance become part of the performance?” (131). In addition, what happens when documentation becomes an art object?

In his 2005 performance Portaging Rideau, Paddling the Ottawa to Kanata, Hill writes, “the presence of the camera . . . was a major factor in the performance” (132). Multiple video crews and still photographers documented the performance. The objects in that performance came from a project “about making—or trying to make—‘traditional’ objects as an urban Kanyen’kehaka (Mohawk) person,” Hill continues (132). He used materials available to him in the city: cereal-box cardboard instead of birch bark, for instance. “The performance that day was about me meeting the challenge, the constant question that arises whenever the canoe is exhibited, about whether or not it actually floats,” he writes. “I had, at every occasion, strongly asserted its floatability and finally I wanted to put that question to rest” (132). “A canoe made out of a material such as cereal-box cardboard is a challenge to what is expected,” he continues. “The material is unproven and quickly dismissed as improbably, and it is reasonable to ask the question: is a canoe that does not float still a canoe?” (132).

Hill portaged the canoe from the Ottawa Art Gallery, where it was on exhibit, through the Rideau Centre and to the Ottawa River, where he got in and paddled around. During the portage, some 100 people followed Hill; he presumes that they might have figured out where he was going and what he was planning to do when they saw him carrying the canoe, but that more likely, the “multiple video crews and still photographers” tipped them off, thereby becoming “a major factor in the performance itself” (133). “In the different videos, the groups keep crossing into each other’s views,” he notes. “At times, you can see a fuzzy boom microphone in several of the shots” (133-34). No matter what clued his audience in to what was about to happen, Hill suggests that they were just waiting for him to sink: “Fortunately, it didn’t happen. I was able to paddle the canoe, that is until the cardboard started to get soggy. My foot made a hole and I ended up having to carry it to a point where I could cross the river over to ‘Victory’ Island where I planted a Kanata flag, ending the performance” (134). 

The Kanata flag to which Hill refers is a new flag he designed for Canada. “There were several performances based on this concept that took place at different times in different cities,” he recalls. “In one performance, Kanata Flag Day (Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 2001), I posed as a news reporter and showed visitors to Parliament Hill what I told them was a new flag design for ‘Canada’ to go along with a name change for our country from ‘Canada’ to ‘Kanata’” (134-35). He exhibited video, letters to and from the Prime Minister’s Office, and “a full range of Kanata products” several times over the following years (136). Another performance, Anything to Declare?, “operated from the premise that the two gallery spaces”—a space in the lobby of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, and another gallery at the University of Winnipeg—“constituted ‘micro-nations’” (136). “I conceived of these galleries as tiny countries, with all the heraldry and insignia befitting a modern nation-state,” Hill continues, and to enter them visitors “had to pass through Kanata Customs” (138). During the performances, Hill wore his father’s customs officer uniform and greeted each visitor in Kanyen’keha (Mohawk), English, and French (138).

Hill’s 2005 performance in Winnipeg, Kanata Day March, was a community march from the Urban Shaman gallery to the Forks. “We had a video crew and gallery staff documenting the march,” he remembers. “This created both a sense of spectacle and a set of protective eyes and ears for all the marchers. I was a little concerned that we would run into some overzealous Canada Day celebrants who might take issue with our non-Canadian celebration” (139). There was no tension until they reached the Forks, where they were asked what they were up to. “We continued through the Canada Day revelers to our destination at the center of the park where an Aboriginal-run celebration was taking place,” Hill continues. “There, we were able to set up flags and hand out Kanata items to an engaged audience and were even invited to join in the dances and activities underway” (139). According to Hill, the event “was a great deal of fun, and some of the participants got very into the performance. It was amazing to see their willingness to take on this kind of subversion of the official day of Canada. There were times I had denied the political nature of the work . . . but of course it is political when you take a national symbol like a flag and alter it” (139-41). “The television production spanned several performances to provide a larger context for the Kanata work,” Hill writes. “The television production created another level of documentation of my performance practice,” even as the cameras sometimes became part of the performance themselves (141). 

Hill’s 2001 performance Joe Scouting For Cigar Store Lasagna was documented by a live webcast, still photos, and video. In the performance, Hill took on the persona of Joseph Brant, a well-known Mohawk leader from the time of the American Revolution. Brant is “a contested figure from a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) perspective and therefore a rich persona to explore” (143). “The purpose of this performance was to rejoin the scout”—the statue of the Anishinaabe scout that had crouched below the statue of Samuel de Champlain in Ottawa until it was removed for political reasons—“to its original location at the base of the Champlain monument. The performance sought to address this erasure of historical and contemporary context and bring these issues back into the public eye” (143-44). The performance was documented by five cameras, and local media showed up, turning the documentation of the event into an event in its own right (144).

Finally, Hill’s 2001 performance Real Live Bronze Indian addressed the scout statue as well. He built a monument base from architectural stone and “re-created the rest of the monument through slides and a video projection” (144). For the performance, he writes, “I got on the platform and did this performance where I inhabited the persona of the Anishinabe scout. I was thinking about what it might be like to be a bronze statue—frozen in place and having people come and sit on me and post for their souvenir tourist photos. I thought of myself cemented in that position but having a voice” (144). He called on audience members to come and have their photographs taken with him. “The viewers became part of the performance; in particular, they were performing as tourists for the camera as they might do with an actual statue,” he recalls. “However, in this instance the agency resided in the statue. The statue’s desire for tourist photos—photos of tourists, that is—provided the ironic twist” (146).

Hill notes that cameras can play multiple roles in his performances. “Performance artists have different views on the evidentiary role of the camera,” he writes. “I consider documentation important. It is a necessary means of creating a record of the event as part of an ongoing art practice, but I believe it is also important to create these records and have them available so that they can contribute to a body of work that will (hopefully) become part of an Indigenous art history” (146). He feels a sense of responsibility “to place ideas, objects, and actions in the public domain,” and hopes that they “will become part of a vibrant and critical discourse on and within Indigenous art” (146). He also notes that cameras are now ubiquitous and people document their own lives constantly. “That the camera and performance art have a long and inextricable history is perhaps a moot point,” he concludes; “more vital is the intersection between the camera and Aboriginal performance art, where this relatively new, lens-based medium is enmeshed with a performance practice that has ancestral roots in ceremony and ritual” (146-47).

The book’s final text is Tavia Nyong’o’s lengthy essay, “Out of the Archive: Performing Minority Embodiment.” The adoption of performance art by Indigenous and minority artists, he writes, “carries with it a number of ironies” (149-50):

What difference is there between the unmarked status toward which live art aspires, according to Peggy Phelan’s influential claim that performance “becomes itself through disappearance,” and the fate of invisibility to which racial and indigenous populations are so often consigned? What “other histories” of “coerced mimesis” might be omitted from Eurocentric narratives of performance art that consider it to have arisen only in the wake of the 1960s, and only in response to specific pressures related to the development and criticism of modernism and postmodernism? And what of the enduring importance of cultural memory to the dispossessed and devastated, for whom the melancholic attachment of live performance to an evanescent present may only preempt opportunities for a more thoroughgoing mourning of the past or a more pertinent engagement with the politics of the present? (150)

“These questions reverberate in much contemporary minoritarian performance art,” he states, citing Mūmbi Kaigwa’s They Call Me Wanjiku  as an example (150). That work “touched upon the displacement of original language and culture buy the Christianizing and colonizing process in Africa and centered on a feminist meditation upon the loss and recovery of matrilineage as a dynamic cultural principle” (150). In They Call Me Wanjiku, “the registers of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ meet and overlap,” and “[i]t is perhaps because of this intertwining that, unlike the project of decolonizing minds (at the center of which is the reclamation of native languages for literatures), decolonizing the body lacks a defined process or direction” (150-51). “Performing identity in the flesh,” Nyong’o continues, “produces a different order of temporality than does the establishment of national or ethnic literatures. For this reason, it renders the ‘archive’ as a collective repository of knowledge less an automatic solution than a vexed question” (151). “How is the indigenous body to recover from acts of erasure, misunderstanding, and territorial dispersion of the body itself is not ever, except in fantasy, capable of the full and stable self-representation that the recording and preserving function of the archive expects of its privileged  objects?” he asks (151). Answering that question, he continues, might involve Michel Foucault’s “principle of enunciability, shaping what can be known, shown, thought, or said” (151).

“These questions,” Nyong’o writes, “should resonate within the field of Native American performance art and scholarship” (151). He suggests that race, sexuality, and gender should be considered as “unstable assemblages of revolving and devolving energies,” citing Jasbir Puar, rather than “intersectional coordinates” (qtd. 151). “There is a growing interest in investigating the categories of ‘woman,’ ‘native,’ and ‘other’ as precisely such unstable assemblages, and not essences, that operate unexpectedly to link and relay otherwise dispersed experiences,” he continues (151). The “instructive metaphor” in postcolonial space and time, he suggests, “is less convergence than it is justaposition,” and his focus in this essay, he states, is on “a complexly spatial and temporal predicament into which successive waves of conquest, empire, colonization, and now globalization have thrust racialized and nativized communities” (152-53). His hope is that this discussion will be useful “to the artists who struggle to embody and rearticulate those experiences against the amnesiac imperatives of much of contemporary society” (153).

Nyong’o suggests that juxtaposing They Call Me Wanjiku with James Luna’s The Artifact Piece “illuminates the drama of interpellation,” an Althusserian term which, for Nyong’o, appears to mean “the reclamation of names, cultures, and identities,” even though such reclamations “can no longer be a straightforward, singular event—much less a dramatic rupture with the institutional structures of empire” (154). “Between the kinship matrix and its postmodern rearticulation there emerges a kind of indwelling, immanent, and performed critique of the symbolic order that calls out o[u]r names and fixes us in our place,” he states (154). In The Artifact Place, “[t]he gap between what visitors initially took Luna to be and the breathing, listening ‘specimen’ they were confronted with was held open by the playful display cards they were invited to peer in to read” (154-55). He suggests that Rey Chow’s notion of “coercive mimeticism” helps us think about “the conditions placed upon native and black performance art” (157). “It also offers a small history of modernity, within which overlapping categories like native, primitive, and indigene figure as emblems of a project to interpellate and dominate the non-white world,” he writes (157). “Coercive mimeticism” is “an indispensable theoretical tool for fleshing out the complexities faced by performers engaged with embodying themselves, their names, and their histories in museums, galleries, and beyond” (157).

Although mimesis may be associated “with an outmoded approach to culture,” the “fraught terrain between ‘representation’ and ‘imitation’ that it so explicitly navigates remains at issue, often as the issue, for a range of aesthetic and political strategies of minority and indigenous artists” (158). “Performance art’s promise to deliver the presence of the body without the burdens of representation that bedevil prior art forms like painting, photography, and sculpture . . . has been less a point of departure for indigenous and racialized performance artists than a bone of contention,” Nyong’o writes. “Insofar as the body upon which art is performed, for these artists in particular, is interpellated in the social and symbolic order as a site of difference, otherness, and exotic expectation, it necessarily carries with it a history and, in a manner of speaking, an archive” (158). So, if performance wants “to abandon the admittedly crude concept of imitation for the subtler range of meaning conveyed by repetition, restoration, reenactment, even repertoire, that repressed term, ‘imitation,’ tends to return as a symptom in any discourse that adjudicates the ethical or political efficacy of ethnoracial and/or indigenous performance art” (158). 

The term “coercive mimeticism” helps to explain why “[w]ork that fails to meet those ethical or political standards can be cast off as ‘imitative’ of a (white) avant-garde or critical practice,” Nyong’o suggests. Chow sees mimesis in a three-part sequence. The first level, according to Nyong’o, is the simplest, “but also the level at which the colonizing and racializing project is exposed in its starkest form. At this level, the white male is the only true and original subject, and the Indian, native, or colonial other is always construed as attempting but failing to reproduce this image” (158-59). The second level of mimeticism, he continues, “retains this dualistic structure of colonizer and colonized,” but “shifts the focus to what the subject undergoes through her or his attempts at mimetic whiteness,” with failure “redefined as a productive ambiguity and uncertainty that ultimately reflects back on the supposedly stable subject of whiteness, distorted in the fracturing mirror of the ‘not quite white’” (160). A third development of mimeticism “in our present era of globalization characterized by an increasingly officious multiculturalism” is the level where “the ethnoracialized or indigenous subject is officially relieved of the burden of imitating whiteness, only to have the emphasis shift to the demand that he or she represent otherness. Be Asian! Be native! Be black! these are the commands that bind the subject coercively, not to what she is not, as was the case with colonial mimesis, but to what she is” (162). “The irony of coercive mimeticism is that to perform who you are, to represent the traditions, cultures, and language of one’s people, is to be everything that the avant-garde, cosmopolitan, iconoclastic performance artist is not,” Nyong’o writes. “It bifurcates the public’s understanding of native and minority performance into either authentic cultural performances or derivative imitations of a Eurocentric avant-garde,” a “direct mimetic imperative to represent otherness” that “endures despite repeated critiques” (162).

“Elaborating Chow’s account of coercive mimeticism across the terrain of contemporary performance art, we can see how it situates the indigenous and/or ethnoracialized artist in a double bind,” Nyong’o continues. “On the one hand, to accede to the command and to be what you already are—the authentic racial self uncolonized by the white world—is in effect to accede to the exoticist gaze of the tourist eager to consume the spectacle of otherness” (163). However, to refuse “any relation between identity and performance would be difficult for an artist in any medium,” but particularly hard for artists whose bodies “remain so defiantly, obstinately present” in their work (163). Chow’s historical approach situates coercive mimeticism “within an archive of embodied articulations and enunciations of subjectivity. If the tactic of so much minoritarian performance art is to somehow name and make visible this archive and thereby move the body outside or beyond it, then Chow’s concept of coercive mimeticism is useful for evaluating the efficacy of such tactics within the constantly shifting strategies of cultural dominance” (164-65). On the other hand, “an attention to the aesthetics and phenomenology of performance qualifies some of the more absolute characterizations of coercive mimeticism”: “the compulsion to perform the truth of your ethnic self . . . is not a self-evident reality but an ideal that . . . must be constantly and anxiously cited in order to maintain itself as a stabilizing fiction” (165).

Chow’s work doesn’t “deny the possibility of authentic difference within a global economy” (165). Rather, “it works to show how the possibility of difference transforms into an imperative, and with what consequences” (165). “In the fetishistic logic of coercive mimeticism, the ethnic other can never be different enough,” Nyong’o writes. “Or rather, since in fact even a relatively perfunctory display of otherness is sometimes acceptable to a distracted audience, its fetish is that there always be more difference to be revealed, displayed, and consumed” (165). For Nyong’o, two examples of this “mimetic imperative” are Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons (1982-1984) and The Golden Age (2008) by performance collective My Barbarian (165-66). “Visual art works together with performance to interrupt the logics of coercive mimeticism, leading many artists to work multidisciplinarily,” as in Erica Lord’s Tanning series, which uses “photographic, digital, physiological, and theatrical techniques of disguise and display to foil the taxonomic logic that seeks to fix the body as either/or” (166). This work exposes “the coercive nature of interpellation by imprinting it directly on the body. Such acts of ‘impression’ present the body as archive. From the neutral or descriptive to the pejorative, these photographs document less the ‘truth’ of the bodies captured by the camera than the ‘fictions’ that are lived as routine and unquestioned realities” (167). “In refusing to provide evidence to placate the voyeuristic hunger of coercive mimeticism,” Nyong’o writes, Lord’s series offers “a testimony that offers a way out of its archive” (167).

In his conclusion, Nyong’o turns to Foucault’s way of thinking about the archive as “‘the system of its enunciability’” (qtd. 167), as “both embodiment and the event,” even as performance (167). What does Foucault intend in locating the archive “not in institutions or documents, but at the root of statements and events and in the performances that embody them?” Nyong’o asks:

What he intends, I believe, is that we abandon the positivist distinction between what we can know and how we come to know it. That is to say, he proposes that we abandon the assumption that discourse is a transparent layer over reality and begin to confront its thickness, its layers and folds, its ruptures, and especially its frayed edges, that is to say, its silences. He invites us to imagine how discourse speaks the body in its division from the flesh. (167-70)

According to Nyong’o, Foucault’s approach to the archive “is the inverse of the normative imperative of the historical discipline, which is to use the former to reveal the latter ever more fully and legibly to us, to restore the past, in some manner, to itself” (170). In contrast, Foucault’s proposal for a genealogy of the body would “estrange the past from itself” (170). I don’t understand Nyong’o’s point, but it’s been ages since I attempted to read Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, which I’ve always found extraordinarily boring compared to his other work. In any case, Nyong’o continues:

After Foucault, we can no longer retreat to the quaint vision of the past as an exotic locale to which one might pay a visit. His work insists that encountering the past is not a beneficent cross-cultural exchange, but a disorienting confrontation with the historicity of categories we routinely experience as natural. It is an encounter that furthermore gives knowledge, not of an empirical other, but of a shifting discursive grid. (170)

The archive “tells us what we can no longer say,” he states, quoting Alex Scott (170).

“Performance studies has been among the fields that have taken up and creatively used Foucault’s reconceptualization of the archive as an active, ordering principle rather than a passive, empirical resource,” Nyong’o continues:

While it is common in performance circles to claim that the body takes over at the point discourse ends, I would suggest that the silence of discourse is not yet the perpetuation of performance. If performance remains in and through the body, it is a body that, as Foucault argued, is already “totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.” The image of history’s destruction of the body should not, however, be taken as justifying the disciplinary priority of history over performance. If we follow Foucault’s definition of the archive as a system of enunciability, of an ordering of the relation of the body to speech, then what the image returns us to is the life of the body in performance. If the process of the imprinting and destruction of the body is not taken as the melancholic victory of time over the body’s liveliness, but rather as witness to the constellation of forces brought to immense tension in the present, then it might provide a slant view upon a principle by which the archive is undone. (170-71)

Nyong’o suggests that two principles of the Foucauldian archive need “to be kept constantly in mind”: the archive is both “the law of what can be said and the principle that ensures that the accumulation of what is said can never order itself into an efficient or total system” (171):

That is, while it is certainly true that the archive operates as a principle of social authority, its power is not unidirectional, transparent, or stably reproducible over time. It does not even . . . stably reproduce the fiction of its stability over time. It has so frequently served as a site of tactical minoritarian intervention, for example in the interventions of the curator and artist Fred Wilson, because its official edifice so quickly crumbles when its elisions and contradictions are probed. By insisting upon a distribution of archival power across society, rather than restricting it to the specific institutions and objects that constitute what we ordinarily think of as the archive, Foucault both extends and qualifies its influence. (171)

“And by making it possible for what it actively produces, and not simply what it passively retains against the erosions of time,” Nyong’o writes, Foucault “helps articulate what is at stake for artists and scholars seeking its reformation” (171).

“The fragmentary, layered, and discontinuous nature of the archive poses a specific challenge and opportunity to the perpetuation of performance,” Nyong’o continues. Because the archive is unstable over time, “it undermines the oft-valorized evanescence of performance. If everything dissolves, especially immutable concepts, then what does the special disappearance of performance consist of?” he asks (171-72). Documenting or reenacting performance “presents as many problems as it solves if it does not confront the survival of positivist conceptions of the archive seeking to reclaim the terrain it prematurely abandoned to discourses of the live” (172). 

Nyong’o also suggests that Giorgio Agamben’s theory of testimony, developed in response to Foucault’s archive, might help to explain what it means to embody “culture’s vestibule,” an experience that “[r]acial, indigenous, and female subjects” know well (172). “If the archive is an historical repository of systems of enunciability,” Nyong’o writes,

then testimony, Agamben argues, acts as a witness to what cannot be said. It is to the unspeakable, rather than the speakable, in other words, that testimony must address itself. In so doing, it produces an outside to the archive, not in the realm of reality, but in potentiality. Testimony speaks, as the late African philosopher Emmanuel Eze puts it, to “this past [which] must address its future.” It does so not by supplying its evidences, not by restoring the past to itself, but by estranging the past from itself in positing a subject of enunciation suspended between life and the language, between body and the flesh. (172)

“For racialized and/or indigenous artists, the challenge posed by the archive is at least threefold,” Nyong’o continues:

First, there is the strongly articulated demand to counter the dominant narrative through the construction of stable institutions, artistic genealogies, and collections that define alternative histories “on our terms.” Second, there is the fraught question of how artists, individually or collectively, will respond to the governing statements of the majoritarian archive, through their own work. And third, there is the temptation to mark the archive as solely a site of trauma, loss, and melancholia. These three challenges serve to regulate a great deal of artistic production. But when embodied performance can testify to that which is not yet speakable, to a future grounded in an unrealized potential, then performing the archive need not be limited to the past as it was. It points to the performing body as a virtual archive of what might have been. (172-73)

At this point, Nyong’o suddenly shifts direction to discuss the work of Kalup Linzy. The connection between Linzy’s video, installation, and performance work, on the one hand, and embodied performance as testimony, is not clear. It’s almost as if a paragraph has been left out during the editing of Nyong’o’s essay. I recallibrate. I move on. Nyong’o suggests that Erica Lord’s Artifact Piece, Revisited witnesses a prior work by substituting her body for Luna’s. Artifact Piece, Revisited “neither documented nor preserved the original so much as it testified to the impossibility of doing better,” he suggests (174-75):

In the palimpsest of history that the now in-the-know visitor brings the the piece (unlike the original, the reenactment occurred in a dramatically lit setting in which it was unlikely that even the casual visitor could have stumbled upon the performance supposing it to be an ordinary ethnographic diorama), the particularity of the present is joined to the past in what Walter Benjamin called a dialectical image, bringing history as ordinarily perceived to a standstill. (175)

“To come out of the archive is to emerge into its antechamber, or vestibule,” Nyong’o writes, “which is a place ‘saturated with tensions’; that is to say, a place redoubled with the potentiality of the virtual” (176). 

“Performance art cannot of course unilaterally alter the conditions of coercive mimeticism,” Nyong’o concludes. “As a discourse, it conditions what can be said, shown, and performed of native and minoritarian lives, desires, and struggles” (176). The power of performance “lies at the boundary of our present language, in what cannot yet be spoken” (176). For Nyong’o, thinking of performance art in this way, “as condensing past and present into an explosive ‘now’ that presages a future that cannot yet be given words, is a much more promising method than the always burdensome expectation that artists preserve or transmit their culture against the ravages of time and the dilutions of cross-cultural contact” (176). “Even better,” he states, “it gives performance exciting new vocations within the political field, ones for which more collaborations and experiments are urgently needed” (176).

Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art is a useful discussion of contemporary Indigenous performance. It also fleshes out some of what I’ve read about performance art as part of this project. And Nyong’o’s essay encourages me to return to Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge and try to find something interesting there—as well as to read Giorgio Agamben, since the notion of testimony has been recurring throughout my reading over the past year, and it might be time to grapple with that term. I wonder if there’s a bluffer’s guide that might point to the parts of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge that would be useful? Or if I would have to make one for myself by generating another one of these summaries? I hope it’s the former; I fear it’s the latter.

Work Cited

Blomberg, Nancy J., ed. Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art, Denver Art Museum, 2010.

122. Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World

hogan dwellings

Writer and naturalist Trevor Herriot lent me his copy of Linda Hogan’s Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, a book of essays, and as I get close to the end of this project—or, at least, this phase of it—I thought I would turn to it, finally. Hogan is Chickasaw, and I wonder whether her sense of the living world might connect or relate to Bruno Latour’s sense of the world as made up of agents and actors rather than objects. Dwellings begins with a preface, in which Hogan explains the questions that motivated the writing of this book: 

As an Indian woman I question our responsibilities to the caretaking of the future and to the other species who share our journeys. These writings have grown out of those questions, out of wondering what makes us human, out of a lifelong love for the living world and all its inhabitants. They have grown, too, out of my native understanding that there is a terrestrial intelligence that lies beyond our human knowing and grasping. (11)

Hogan writes that her “lifelong work” has been “to seek an understanding of the two views of the world, one as seen by native people and the other as seen by those who are new and young on this continent” (11). “It is clear that we have strayed from the treaties we once had with the land and the animals,” she continues. “It is also clear, and heartening, that in our time there are many—Indian and non-Indian alike—who want to restore and honor these broken agreements” (11). It’s easy for a môniyâw like me to forget that First Nations peoples talk of their treaties with their animal relations and with the land. Their treaties with Settlers are just one part of the treaties they’ve made.

Hogan states that these essays are tempered by her work with animals, her love for earth, her “hunger to know what dwells beneath the surface of things,” and that “it also stretches te reflect the different histories of ways of thinking and being in the world” (11-12). The essays in this collection, she writes, “search out a world of different knowings, enter a doorway into the mythical world, a reality known by my ancestors, one that takes the daily into dimensions both sacred and present” (12). She is interested in exploring “the human place within this world,” but she also recognizes “that humankind is not separate from nature” (12). “Some of this work connects the small world of humans with the larger universe, containing us in the same way that native ceremonies do, showing us both our place and a way of seeing,” she writes (12). If only we recognized our connection with nature, and that our world is small compared to the universe; instead, we see ourselves at the centre of everything, as the only being that matters. Hogan concludes the preface by suggesting that these lessons have been learned from the land, and that the essays included in Dwellings are “both of and about this alive and conscious world. Its pages come from forests, its words spring from the giving earth” (12).

The first essay, “The Feathers,” begins with Hogan’s desire for an eagle feather: one from a living bird, because “[a] bird killed in the name of human power is in truth a loss of power from the world, not an addition to it” (15). Her first eagle feather was a gift from a traditional healer she had consulted when she was ill. He told her a story about how, after his childhood home burned down, the only things to survive the fire were eagle feathers. The feather he gave her was one of those survivors.

Hogan lives in a mountain canyon, she writes, and she often sees golden eagles there. One morning, after years of praying for an eagle feather, she dreamed of being inside a temple. The ceiling was “engraved with gold designs of leaves and branches” (16), and she told the others in the temple to look up at them. “I spoke these words out loud, and the sound of my own voice woke me up,” Hogan writes. “Waking, I obeyed my own words and looked up, seeing out the open window of my room. Just as I did, a large golden eagle flew toward the window, so close that I could see its dark eyes looking in at me for a moment before it lifted, caught a current of air, and flew over the roof of the house” (16). She ran outside. The eagle was gone, but a feather was lying in the road. She acknowledges the improbability of her story, that it takes a long time for falling feathers to reach the ground, and yet, she says, the feather was there. “I know there is a physics to this, a natural law about lightness and air. This event rubs the wrong way against logic,” she admits (16-17). How, then, can this incident be explained? “I can only think there is another force at work, deeper than physics and what we know of wind, something that comes from a world where lightning and thunder, sun and rain clouds live,” she writes. “Nor can I saw why it is so many of us have forgotten the mystery of nature and spirit, while for tens of thousands of years such things have happened and been spoken by our elders and our ancestors” (17).

Of course, there are physical explanations for lightning and thunder, for sun and rain, and coincidences exist. I have such trouble following people into spirituality. It’s not a place I can go. 

Next, Hogan tells the story of the birth of her granddaughter, and the way she kept and dried her granddaughter’s umbilical cord in a tall, black pot. A few months later, her parents visited, and during that visit, she discovered that the umbilical cord was missing from its pot. She searched the house for the cord, which she calls “the most valuable thing in our home” (17). She looked in the cedar box where she keeps her first eagle feather. It wasn’t there. While she was searching, a Blackfeet friend called from Montana to invite Hogan to a ceremony. She explained what was happening. Her friend told her about a ceremony that might work, and she went outside to make the offering. When she returned, she checked the cedar box again. This time, the feather was gone. It was lying under a chair, pointing at the umbilical cord, “so mysteriously on the floor I had already searched” (19). “It was the feather that took me to the baby’s umbilical cord,” she writes (19).

“Perhaps there are events and things that work as a doorway into the mythical world, the world of first people, all the way back to the creation of the universe and the small quickenings of earth, the first stirrings of human beings at the beginning of time,” Hogan writes. “Our elders believe this to be so, that it is possible to wind a way backward to the start of things, and in so doing find a form of sacred reason, different from ordinary reason, that is linked to forces of nature” (19). That “kind of mind,” like the feather, contains “the power of sky and thunder and sun, and many have had alliances and partnerships with it, a way of thought older than measured time, less primitive than the rational present” (19). Others have tried to use science to understand the world, but they have “not yet understood animals, finite earth, or even their own minds and behavior” (19). (Is that entirely true?) “The more they seek to learn the world, the closer they come to the spiritual, the magical origins of creation,” Hogan continues (19). 

“There is a still place, a gap between worlds, spoken by the tribal knowings of thousands of years,” Hogan writes. “In it are silent flyings that stand aside from human struggles and the designs of our own makings. At times, when we are silent enough, still enough, we take a step into such mystery, the place of spirit, and mystery, we must remember, by its very nature does not wish to be known” (20). The power of a feather, of something living within that feather, “is perhaps in its dream of sky, currents of air, and the silence of creation” (20). That feature “carries our needs and desires, the stories of our brokenness. It rises and falls down elemental space, one part of the elaborate world of life where fish swim against gravity, where eels turn silver as moon to breed” (20). Hogan’s prose turns poetic here, and she seems to be suggesting that there are relationships between human “needs and desires” and “the elaborate world of life” which includes weather, birds in flight, and fish beneath the water.

The essay ends with questions: “How did the feather arrive at the edge of the dirt road where I live? How did it fall across and through currents of air? How did the feathers survive fire?” (20). Hogan cannot answer these questions: “I know only that there are simple powers, strange and real,” she concludes (20).

The next essay, “The Bats,” begins with a memory of seeing mating bats in a zoo. A few years later, she found a bat in a park in Minneapolis on a cold spring day. She stopped to look at it: “At first I thought it was dead, but as I reached toward it, it turned its dark, furrowed face to me and bared its sharp teeth. A fierce little mammal, it looked surprisingly like an angry human being. I jumped back” (22). Then she found another bat lying on the ground. “[T]he recent warm spell had been broken open by the cold and the bats, shocked back into hibernation, had stopped dead in flight, rendered inactive by the quick drop in temperature,” she writes (23). She found a box and took both bats home. When she arrived and opened the box, the bats were mating. She left them in a warm corner outside, “nestled safe in dry leaves and straw,” and checked on them several times a day (23). The bats mated at least three more times. On the fourth day, the male, “thin and exhausted,” died, “and the female flew away with the new life inside her body” (24). She told the neighbourhood boys about the bats, and they stayed out of her yard; in that way, her house escaped being vandalized.

Hogan’s family lived in Germany when she was a child, and one day, while exploring a forest with a friend, they found a cave filled with bats. Later they were told that the cave had been used to store ammunition during the war, and that the American military had tried to use bats to carry bombs. The experiment failed, because the bats’ flights could not be predicted or controlled, and they “gave up on their strategy of using life to destroy life” (25). Recently, she visited a cave near San Antonio with another friend. Since people began visiting the cave, the bats had left, but it was still full of guano.

“Bats hear their way through the world,” Hogan writes. “They hear the sounds that exist at the edges of our lives. Leaping through blue twilight they cry out a thin language, then listen for its echo to return. It is a dusky world of songs a pitch above our own. For them, the world throws back a language, the empty space rising between hills speaks an open secret then lets the bats pass through, here or there, in the dark air” (25-26). Everything answers the bats; everything talks back to them. Their world is “alive in its whispering songs, the currents of air loud as waves of an ocean, a place rich with the music of trees and stones” (26). “It is no wonder that bats have been a key element in the medicine bundles of some southern tribes,” she continues. “Bats are people from the land of souls, land where moon dwells. They are listeners to our woes, hearers of changes in earth, predictors of earthquake and storm. They live with the goddess of night in the lusty mouth of earth” (26). The bones found in those medicine bundles come from bats that had been found dead, rather than bats that had been killed or trapped.

“I believe it is the world-place bats occupy that allows them to be of help to people, not just because they live inside the passageways between earth and sunlight, but because they live in double worlds of many kinds,” Hogan contends. “They are two animals merged into one, a milk-producing rodent that bears live young, and a flying bird. They are creatures of the dusk, which is the time between times, people of the threshold, dwelling at the open mouth of inner earth like guardians at the womb of creation” (27). Bats are holy, and “they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of life all around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing, and guidance through our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world” (27). 

Hogan sees bats at night, out of the corner of her eye. They are secret creatures. “What an enormous world,” she writes. “No wonder it holds our fears and desires. It is all so much larger than we are” (28). She sees them, but she cannot hear “the high-pitched language of their living”; she doesn’t know “if they have sorry or if they tell stories longer than a rainstorm’s journey” (28). How can humans get to the centre of the world, she wonders, “to the place where the universe carries down the song of night to our human lives” (28). “How do we learn to trust ourselves enough to hear the chanting of earth?” she asks. “To know what’s alive or absent around us, and penetrate the void behind our eyes, the old, slow pulse of things, until a wild flying wakes up in us, a new mercy climbs out and takes wing in the sky?” (28).

The third essay, “The Caves,” begins at a cave on a rainy evening. There is a creek flowing there; its water “smells of iron and tastes of earth’s blood” (29). Hogan notes that before caves and springs were privately owned, “they were places of healing for Indian people, places where conflict between tribes and people was left behind, neutral ground, a sanctuary outside the reign of human differences, law, and trouble” (29-30). Hogan enters the cave. She describes it as “a sacred place, one of land’s quiet temples where hot water journeys upward after years of travel through deep earth” (30). “Barefoot, naked, I go down the stone pathway and lowermyself into the hot water,” she writes. “Surrounded by stone, this body of mine is seen in the dim light for what it is, fragile and brief” (30). She writes that she loves “what will consume us all, the place where the tunneling worms and roots of plants dwell, where the slow deep centuries of earth are undoing and remaking themselves” (30).

Hogan recalls a family trip when they stopped near the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. Hogan went for a walk. She saw a cave in the rocks above her. An African lion was in the cave’s mouth. She told her father, and he went up to investigate. He looked inside and shook his head. No lion. “But he did not go in,” she states. “He didn’t enter the dark” (31). She smelled the lion on her father, and concludes that even if he didn’t see the lion, the lion saw him. “I must have known, even then, that caves are not the places for men,” she continues. “They are a feminine world, a womb of earth, a germinal place of brooding. In many creation stories, caves are the places that bring forth life” (31). Since then, she has dreamed about caves; in one dream, the cave’s mouth was guarded by a skull with light shining from its eyes, and inside the cave “was warm, steaming water and chambers where women were working, sewing together bodies, stitching legs and arms, making life” (32). In that dream, she was looking for her mothers: “the earth, my human mother, my own life as a women” (32). Hogan returns to the hot spring in the cave. She sees, or imagines, animals in the cave, as in a creation story: rabbits, deer, owls, a puma, eagles. “There are the fetal beginnings of life to come, of survival,” she writes. “I want this to be true” (33). She’s not the only one: another woman, real or imagined, “felt the earth’s heartbeat” and left offerings of sage and tobacco.

Next, Hogan considers the bombing of Hiroshima. The city was made of clay bricks; the clay came from nearby mountains. She tells a story of a woman who went to Hiroshima after the bombing looking for her daughter and son-in-law. When she saw the pain of the survivors, she went into the mountains and lived in a cave for a year. “She returned bony and wise,” Hogan writes. “From her eyes shone a light. She was the first woman to become a Shinto priest. What she knew she had learned from the cave, heard spoken by it, she had seen in the darkness” (33-34). She writes of a cave in Spain where burned offerings and paintings were found. The paintings depicted a man, and facing him, a lion. She remembers the day she saw a lion outside a cave. “There was something deeper than human that day, I think now, something of the world of myth,” she continues, and she believes that her father would now say that a lion lived in that cave (34).

Hogan returns to the hot spring one last time. Other women enter; some are Indigenous, others are Japanese tourists. One of the women begins to sing, “a long clear not that fills the whole tunnel” (34). From the men’s cave she hears “the howling of wolves” (35). “I think that these are the songs of lives struggling against extinction, even translated through human voices, they are here inside the earth, inside the human body, the captive, contained animals,” she writes (35). One of the Indigenous women talks about rediscovering “the medicine ways” (35). “I love this inner earth, its murmuring heartbeat, the language of what will consume us,” Hogan concludes. “Above is the beautiful earth that we have come from. Below is heat, stone, fire. I am within the healing of nature, held in earth’s hand” (35).

The fourth essay is called “All My Relations.” It begins in a kitchen, an Indigenous household where food is being prepared. “I am asked if I still read books and I admit that I do,” Hogan recalls. “Reading is not ‘traditional’ and education has long been suspect in communities that were broken, in part, by that system, but we laught at my confession because a television set plays in the next room” (36-37). There are beds in the living room for guests. She talks to the man who will “put together the ceremony” Hogan has “come to request” (37). She offers him tobacco and explains about the help she is seeking. Telling her story, she says, “is the first part of the ceremony, my part in it” (37). She is sent home to prepare: to make 50 tobacco ties, prayer ties, and to get wood and food. On the day of the ceremony, the man and his wife pick her up in town. He doesn’t speak: “He is moving between worlds, beginning already to step over the boundaries fo what we think, in daily and ordinary terms, is real and present. He is already feeling, hearing, knowing what else is there, that which is around us daily but too often unacknowledged, a larger life than our own” (38). They see an eagle and stop to watch it. They arrive at the place where the ceremony, a sweat lodge, will take place. The fire is already burning. Her tobacco ties are placed inside the lodge, on its cottonwood framework. The hot stones are brought into the lodge. Water is poured on them and steam rises. “In a sweat lodge ceremony, the entire world is brought inside the enclosure,” Hogan writes. “The soft odor of smoking cedar accompanies this arrival. It is all called in. The animals come from the warm and sunny distances. Water from dark lakes is there. Wind. Young, lithe willow branches bent overhead remember their lives rooted in ground, the sun their leaves took in” (39). The wind and sky arrive. “It is a place grown intense and holy,” Hogan continues. “It is a place of immense community and of humbled solitude; we sit together in our aloneness and speak, one at a time, our deepest language of need, hope, loss, and survival. We remember that all things are connected” (40).

Remembering that connection is the ceremony’s purpose: “It is part of healing and restoration. It is the mending of a broken connection between us and the rest. The participants in a ceremony say the words ‘All my relations’ before and after we pray; those words create a relationship with other people, with animals, with the land” (40). Ceremonies restructure the human mind; in ceremony, “we bring together the fragments of our lives in a sacred act of renewal, and we reestablish our connections with others. The ceremony is a point of return. It takes us toward the place of balance, our place in the community of all things. It is an event that sets us back upright” (40). But the real ceremony begins when “the formal one ends, when we take up a new way, our minds and hearts filled with the vision of earth that holds us within it, in compassionate relationship to and with the world” (40-41). 

During the ceremony, “the animals and ancestors move into the human body, into skin and blood. The land merges with us. The stones come to dwell inside the person” (41). “We who easily grow apart from the world are returned to the great store of life all around us, and there is the deepest sense of being at home here in this intimate kinship,” Hogan writes. “There is no real aloneness. There is solitude and the nurturing silence that is relationship with ourselves, but even then we are part of something larger” (41). After the ceremony, everyone goes home. The tobacco ties are placed in nearby trees. “Everything returns to ordinary use,” she concludes. “It’s evening. The crickets are singing. All my relations” (41).

“What Holds the Water, What Holds the Light” is Hogan’s fifth essay. It begins with the author climbing a damp hill in the hot sun. She is walking with a friend. On the way, they stopped to drink rain water collected in a bowl of stone. Hogan thinks about “how earth and sky are generous with their gifts, and how good it is to receive them” (43). She recalls how friends had once filled a Mexican clay jar with water for her. She thinks about the time when Mexico City was called Iztapalapa, about the invasion of that place by Cortez’s army, the destruction that followed. She thinks about De Soto’s murderous rage and his “relentless, ongoing war against land” (44). “Humans colonizing and conquering others have a propensity for this, for burning behind them what they cannot possess or control, as if their conflicts are not with themselves and their own way of being, but with the land itself,” she writes (44). She thinks about how looters stole artifacts from the Spiro burial mounds in Oklahoma during the 1930s; two men dynamited the mounds when they were forbidden to continue stealing. “It seems, looking back, that these invasions amounted to a hatred of life itself, of fertility and generation,” Hogan continues:

The conquerors and looters refused to participate in a reciprocal and balanced exchange with life. They were unable to receive the best gifts of land, not gold or pearls or ownership, but a welcome acceptance of what is offered. They did not understand that the earth is generous and that encounters with the land might have been sustaining, or that their meetings with other humans could have led to an enriched confluence of ways. (44)

But she sees a similar way of thinking and behaving when men from the Department of Fish and Wildlife stock the Colorado River with rainbow trout: rather than using nets, “they poured the fish into the bed of their truck, kicked them out and down the hill, and then into the water. The fish that survived were motionless, shocked, gill slits barely moving, skin hanging off the wounds” (45). Treating the lives of those fish “with dignity and respect” would have taken only a few minutes more (45). 

“These actions, all of them, must be what Bushman people mean when they say a person is far-hearted,” Hogan suggests. “This far-hearted kind of thinking is one we are especially prone to now, with our lives moving so quickly ahead, and it is one that sees life, other lives, as containers for our own uses and not as containers in a greater, holier sense” (45). “Even wilderness,” she continues,

is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. It is something beyond us, something that does nto need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. (45).

Our language of trade, “of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing,” is “a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power” (45-46). “The ears of this language,” Hogan writes,

do not often hear the songs of the white egrets, the rain falling into stone bowls. So we make our own songs to contain these things, make ceremonies and poems, searching for a new way to speak, to say we want a new way to live in the world, to say that wilderness and water, blue herons and orange newts are invaluable not just to us, but in themselves, in the workings of the natural world that rules us whether we acknowledge it or not. (46)

Hogan imagines that the Mexican clay jar “might have been made of the same earth that housed the birds of Iztapalapa,” that the trout might have lived in water it contained (46). It was not just “a bridge between the elements of earth, air, water, and fire,” but it was also “a bridge between people, a reservoir of love and friendship, the kind of care we need to offer back every day to the world as we begin to learn the land and its creatures, to know the world is the container for our lives, sometimes wild and untouched, sometimes moved by a caretakers hands” (46). Until we learn to be guests in the world, “the land will not support us, will not be hospitable, will turn on us” (46). That water jar reminds Hogan that “water and earth love each other,” “dissolving in each other, in the give and take that is where grace comes from” (46).

The sixth essay, “A Different Yield,” begins with listening. It starts with a woman’s description of a friend “as being such a keen listener that even the trees leaned toward her, as if they were peaking their innermost secrets into her listening ears” (47). Hogan remembers listening to the sounds of corn plants in the wind as a child. Pigs, too, could hear the corn: at the end of the season, when they were let into the field to eat any corn left behind, they would “make straight for any plant that still held an ear of corn, bypassing the others. They would listen, it seemed, to the denser song of corn where it still lived inside its dress of husk” (48). This memory leads to Barbara McClintock, a biologist who won the Nobel Prize for her work on corn genetics. “Her method was to listen to what corn had to say,” Hogan writes, “to translate what the plants spoke into a human tongue” (48). Hogan cites Evelyn Fox Keller’s book A Feeling for the Organism, which describes McClintock’s intimate knowledge of corn. “Her approach to her science was alive, intuitive, and humane,” Hogan states. “It was a whole approach, one that bridged the worlds of woman and plant, and crossed over the boundary lines between species” (48). McClintock’s “respect for life allowed for a vision expanded enough, and sharp enough, to see more deeply into the mysteries of matter than did other geneticists who were at work on the same problems. . . . She saw an alive world, a fire of life inside plants, even plants other than the corn” (48). In Adam’s Task, Vickie Hearne writes about the same kind of approach, only in relation to animals. In fact, Hogan writes, in recent years scientific research “is in search of a new vision, and of renewed intuitive processes of discovery that go beyond our previous assumptions about knowledge” (49).

Hogan recalls meeting a Jamaican artist, Everald Brown, who is “what Jamaicans call an ‘intuitive artist,’ though he himself says only that the doves have taught him his craft” (50). “Many creative people have called their inspiration ‘the muse,’” she notes. “Often they say their ideas come from a spirit world, from a life other than their own human life. Even the Bible is a work so described by its authors; it is the voice of God” (50). She cite’s Paul Klee’s suggestion “that we must return to the origins of things” (50). “This organic center, the center of creation, comes down to us through long traditions of learning the world’s own songs,” she writes. “In American Indian traditions, healers are often called interpreters because they are the ones who are able to hear the world and pass its wisdom along. They are the ones who return to the heart of creation” (50). But listening can also be found in Western traditions: Orpheus could communicate with animals, plants, water, and minerals; Psyche was given the solution to an impossible task by the ants and by the river reeds. Many traditions speak of stones that give guidance.

“In recent times, the term ‘myth’ has come to signify falsehood, but when we examine myths, we find that they are a high form of truth,” Hogan continues. “They are the deepest, innermost cultural stories of our human journeys toward spiritual and psychological growth” (51). Myth allows for a return to creation; it lets us “hear the world new again” (51). In mythic time, there was no gap between a word and the thing it represented, according to Octavio Paz. Now that connection has been broken, not only in language but in “our philosophies of life” (52). “There is a separation that has taken place between us and nature,” she writes. “Something has broken deep in the core of ourselves” (52). But, as we lose the planet’s wild spaces, that wilderness is entering our minds, resulting in “a spiritual fragmentation that has accompanied our ecological destruction” (52). But in a time of such destruction, our lives depend on listening to the earth; the world’s voices “infuse our every act,” and “give us back ourselves, point a direction for salvation” (52-53). Sometimes, she writes, those voices “even shake us down to the bedrock of our own human lives” (53). When chimpanzees were taught American Sign Language in the early 1970s, for instance, becoming fluent, our relationships as human beings to other creatures were revealed. “[I]f we are forced to accept that animals have intelligence, language, and sensitivity to pain, including psychological trauma, this acceptance has tremendous consequences for our own species and for our future actions,” she states (53). The unsettling results of those language experiments might suggest a potential liberation, “for not only the animals of the earth, but for our own selves, a freedom that could very well free us of stifling perceptions that have bound us tight and denied us the parts of ourselves that were not objective or otherwise scientifically respectable” (54). She notes that scientists who showed compassion for animals undergoing painful experiments are considered to lack objectivity: “We have arrived despairingly at a time when compassion and care are qualities that do no lend themselves to the world of intellectual thought” (55). “Not only have our actions revealed us to ourselves, and sometimes had dire results, but among many peoples educated in many European philosophical traditions, there has been an intense reaction to the bad news that cruelty is cruelty,” Hogan continues (55-56). It is simple to feed people, to work for peace, she writes, yet we are unable to do these things (56-57): “And even when animals learn to speak a language, and to communicate their misery, we still deny them the right to an existence free from suffering and pain” (57).

“I want to make two points here,” Hogan states. “One is about language and power. While we can’t say what language is much beyond saying that it is a set of signs and symbols and communicates meaning, we know it is the most highly regarded human facility” (57). But there are non-linguistic forms of communication: “We read one another via gesture, stance, facial expression, scent. And sometimes this communication is more honest, more comprehensible, than the words we utter” (57). These “inner forms of communication” might be “the strongest core of ourselves. We have feelings that can’t be spoken” (57). That speechlessness leads to poetry, painting, music, and to the “inner language that Barbara McClintock tapped for her research” (57). 

“Another point that needs to be made is that when issues become obscured by distorted values or abstract concepts, we lose a clarity that allows us to act even in our own best behalf, for survival not just of ourselves but of the homeland which is our life and our sustenance,” Hogan continues (58). We are searching for a language that heals our relationship with the natural order, “one that takes the side of the amazing and fragile life on our life-giving earth. A language that knows the corn, and the one that corn knows, a language that takes hold of the mystery of what’s around us and offers it back to us, full of awe and wonder” (59). This language “is a language of creation, of divine fire, a language that goes beyond the strict borders of scientific inquiry and right into the heart of the mystery itself” (59). “We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind,” she writes. “Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation” (60). We want a language that “returns us to our own sacredness, to a self-love and respect that will carry out to others” (60). She notes that Indigenous peoples sing to their growing corn, which they call their grandmother. She wears a bracelet made of 49 kernels of corn, and imagines that when she dies, that corn will germinate: “My life inside the green blades of corn, the stalks and tassels and flying pollen? That red corn, that corn will be this woman” (61). Perhaps a woman scientist will listen. “Cornmeal and pollen are offered to the sun at dawn,” Hogan continues. “The ears of the corn are listening and waiting. They want peace” (61-62). At night, “you hear the plants talking among themselves. The wind passes through. It’s all there, the languages, the voices of wind, dove, corn, stones. The language of life won’t be silenced” (62). “Do you remember the friend that the leaves talked to?” Hogan asks at the end of the essay. “We need to be that friend. Listen. The ears of the corn are singing. They are telling their stories and singing their songs. We knew that would be true” (62).

Hogan’s seventh essay, “Deify the Wolf,” begins in northeastern Minnesota in February. It’s wolf country, and Hogan is with a group of people searching for timber wolves, “those howling ones the Anishnabe people say human beings descended from long ago, back in the days when animals and people spoke the same tongue” (64). One member of the party wants to see the threatened animals before they are extinct; another is a trapper; a third, a woman, thinks seeing wolves “would be ‘like in the movies’” (64). “I can’t say why I am here, but I have followed a map in the blood, an instinct I don’t know,” Hogan writes (64). But everyone in the group is keen on seeing, or at least hearing, wolves.

“The land cries out the thefts that have taken place,” Hogan states: the forests cut down and shipped to Europe, the iron ore mined and smelted to become, among other things, bear traps (65-66). “A holdover from the iron mining days is ‘the dump pack,’ a group of wolves that grew accustomed to the presence of miners and were tame enough to accept balogna sandwiches from the men’s hands,” she continues. “Recently the lives of wolves and men have begun to cross in new ways. A group of wildlife biologists is here to conduct a study of wolf populations. The townspeople, uncertain about what the biologists are up to, worry that they are here to save the wolves” (66). They complain that environmentalists want to “‘Deify the wolf,’ to make it holier, they say, than the sacred cow of India, a perception both extreme and irrational” (66). It’s a long-term conflict, based on the belief that wolves and human cannot co-exist: 

The local sentiment ‘there is no wolf like a dead wolf’ does not seem likely to change, no matter what the researchers  find, and there is very little assurance that this last substantial population of timber wolves will survive. The leading cause of death for wolves is contact with the human world. Our presence means tragedy to them. They are shot by hunters, trapped, poisoned, and hit by logging trucks as they travel the human roles. (67)

Not long ago, wolves could be shot from aircraft, and trappers baited animal carcasses with strychnine, killing not only wolves but birds and other animals. Once a group of Nakota people in South Dakota, starving when food promised by treaty did not arrive, were poisoned after eating poisoned meat that had been set out for wolves. 

The biologists set traps for the wolves, to immobilize them so they can be studied. They try to make the traps safe, but there are sometimes casualties. Some wolves chew off their legs rather than remain trapped. “There is a mystique about these wolves that lose a leg,” Hogan suggests. “Because they fight for live, they are worthy of human respect. They are called ‘Ghost Leg’ and ‘Phantom’ and other names that give these wolves significance because they want to live and we can identify with that; these wounded wolves are like us, freedom and life mean something to them, something important, as it does to us” (68-69). The biologists take blood samples, and a radio telemetry collar is attached to the animal, which allows the biologists to track it. The wolves have learned to chew the collars off each other; one pack even taught another how this was done. “A few of us wonder if the interference of this study isn’t as bad for the wolves as the ongoing presence of hunters and trappers has been,” Hogan continues. “The biologists share that concern” (69). They know their activity is stressful for the wolves, but they hope that the outcome of their study will be the wolves’ long-term survival. Some of their findings have helped to dispel myths about wolves: the idea that wolves are responsible for declining deer populations, or that they kill domestic animals.

One of the biologists brings wolf carcasses from his truck for the group to look at. One had been hit by a truck after being caught in a trap—a fox trap, he lies. Hogan forgives the honesty: “His tact, his opinion on either side, is liable to have a serious effect on the wolves” (71). That’s because environmental research tends to generate a backlash from the local community:

This situation is especially fragile, complicated by the psychological fact that wolves carry much of the human shadow. They contain for us many of our own traits, ones we repress within ourselves. More than any other animal, they mirror back to us the predators we pretend not to be. In that way, we have assigned to them a special association with evil. (71)

Close up, the wolves are beautiful. Hogan recalls seeing a photo in a newspaper in Colorado—a woman walking a captive black wolf on a leash. It looked afraid. Passersby wanted to touch it. “What need we humans have, a species lonely and lacking in love,” she writes. “These are gestures reserved for animals because the distance between one human and another is often too great to bridge” (72). The biologists pose with the dead wolves for photographs, and Hogan sees “the wolf invaded even in death” (73). It reminds her of the way American soldiers treated the bodies of the Indigenous people they killed.

“I’ve worked with death and I respect it, so it is hard to understand these human beings, let alone come close to knowing the inner terrain of the wolf,” Hogan states. “I believe people fear their own deaths, so they must belittle it. There are lessons to be learned in our behaviour” (73). She realizes she won’t learn about the wolves: “They are too complex for that” (73). She returns to the way people want to touch wild animals. “Something wild must hold such sway over the imagination that we can’t tear ourselves away from any part of wilderness without in some way touching it,” she writes (73).

The next day, the group flies in a plane, hoping to spot wolves from the air. They see three: “They are curled up like dogs, sleeping beside the enormous moose they have killed” (74). The wolves ignore the plane: “They have forgotten, or they have given up” (74). For Hogan, “[f]lying above them this way is like being part of a destruction” (74). The airplane is part of what separates humans from animals and from each other. 

That evening, Hogan is still thinking about that separation: “This far into the animal we find the human, and this far into the human we find the animal. Thinking long and hard about wolves, I feel as if they have possessed me—taken me in. I feel lost, transported” (74). The group is outside in the cold darkness, listening to the sounds around them, walking the road near the dump. “I’m thinking of how the elaborate ritual of one wolf greeting another is called a ceremony,” she writes. “It’s ceremony we want a share of. We are walking here to speak with the wolves. That’s what we want. We want to reach out to them, to tell them we are here. We want them to answer, acknowledge us, maybe even to like us. We think they will see our souls” (75). She looks up and sees the northern lights: “Magic is above us. Underneath us, beneath these lakes and islands, is some of the oldest rock in the world, more than three billion years old” (75). The group hears one wolf howl. A man answers “[i]n a language he only pretends to know” (76). “We wait. We are waiting for the wolves to answer. We want a healing, I think, a cure for anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories,” Hogan writes. “If we could only hear them, the stars themselves are howling, but there is just the man’s voice, crying out, lonely. Not even those of us standing behind him answer. It is a silence we rarely feel, a vast and inner silence that goes deep, descends to the empty spaces between our cells” (76).

“We have followed the wolves and are trying to speak across the boundaries of ourselves,” Hogan concludes. “We are here, and if no wolf ever answers, or even if no wolves remained, we’d believe they are out there. And they are” (76).

At the start of the eighth essay, “Creations,” Hogan is travelling: “It is the day after spring equinox, and as we near the ocean, whiteness is the dominant feature. Salt beds stretch out at water’s edge. Beaches, made of sea-worn limestone and broken-down coral, are nearly blinding in the early spring light” (77-78). They are in the Yucatán, “a hungry place with dwindling resources” (78). With the end of the henequen industry, “a plant used to make hemp rope,” rope replaced with nylon and polypropylene, “the people have been relocated without consideration for what their presence would mean in this region, or how they would make a living out of the land” (78). 

Hogan shifts to the Mayan creation account. “In nearly all creation accounts,” she writes, “life was called into being through language, thought, dreaming, or singing, acts of interior consciousness” (80-81). For the Maya, time is alive and the world around them is sacred. Humans were first created from clay, which dissolved in the rain. Then, in the second creation, they were made from carved wood, but those people became hollow and, forgetting compassion, “transformed the world to fit their own needs,” leading the world to turn against them (81). Finally, the people were made from corn, “the substance of the gods,” and they saw what the gods saw; in order to make them more human, less god-like, “some of this vision was taken away so there might be mystery, and the mystery of creation and of death inspired deep respect and awe for all of creation” (82). Hogan suggests that the story of the hollow people “speaks against human estrangement from land” (82). “Emptiness and estrangement are deep wounds, strongly felt in the present time,” she writes:

We could have been split from what we could nurture, what could fill us. And we have been wounded by a dominating culture that has feared and hated the natural world, has not listened to the voice of the land, has not believed in the inner worlds of human dreaming and intuition, all things that have guided indigenous people since time stood up in the east and walked this world into existence, split from the connection between self and land. (82)

“Like the wooden people, many of us in this time have lost the inner substance of our lives and have forgotten to give praise and remember the sacredness of all life,” Hogan continues. “But in spit of this forgetting there is still a part of us that is deep and intimate with the world. We remember it by feel. We experience is as a murmur in the night, a longing and restlessness we can’t name, a yearning that tugs at us” (83). “For,” she writes, “it is only recently, in earth time, that the severing of the connections between people and land have taken place. Something in our human blood is still searching for it, still listening, still remembering” (83).

Hogan is in the Yucatan because of “this deep, unspoken remembering” (83). She is “searching out my own beginnings, the thread of connection between old Maya cultures and my own Chickasaw heritage” (83). Some oral traditions of the Chickasaw say that they originated in Mexico and paddled dugout canoes to Florida. “Here, there is a feel for the mystery in our being in all ways, in earth and water,” she writes. “It is a feel for the same mystery that sends scientists to search for the beginning of the universe. We seek our origins as much as we seek our destinies” (84). And, she continues, “we desire to see the world intact, to step outside our emptiness and remember the strong currents that pass between humans and the rest of nature, currents that are the felt voice of the land, heard in the cells of the body” (84). It’s “the same magnetic call” that brings sea turtles back to Yucatán’s beaches every year (84).

“In the traditional belief systems of native people, the terrestrial call is the voice of God, or of gods, the creative power that lives on earth, inside earth, in turtle, stone, and tree,” Hogan writes. “Knowledge comes from, and is shaped by, observations and knowledge of the natural world and natural cycles” (85). Beliefs like this are sometimes inventions of the mind; other times, Hogan contends, “they are inventions of the land” (85). “The Western belief that God lives apart from earth is one that has taken us toward collective destruction,” she continues. “It is a belief narrow enough to forget the value of matter, the very thing that soul inhabits. It has created a people who neglect to care for the land for the future generations” (85-86).

Not far from where Hogan is, Fray Diego de Landa tortured and killed Maya people and burned their libraries of knowledge: history, sacred stories, medical knowledge, mathematics, astronomy. Perhaps those books held a clue to our own survival. “This burned and broken history is part of the story of the land,” she notes. “It is the narrative of the past by which we still live. But the memory of an older way remains. It is stored in the hearts and blood of the people and in the land” (86-87).

Hogan now turns to the coast itself, the estuary and the wetlands and mangrove swamps, which they explore by boat. “This red estuary is alive and breathing, moving with embryonic clay and silt,” she says (87). She describes the mangroves and their importance to the ecosystem. A white egret steps along the edge of the water; on the other side of the water’s edge a solitary blue heron stands. Herons sometimes die of stress, like the Hmong men, “forced to leave their country and rootless in America” who “die of no apparent cause when they are sleeping” (89). “I understand the loss that leads to despair and to death,” Hogan writes. “It has happened to us and is happening to land, the breaking of the heart of creation” (89). Still, land is being returned to Indigenous peoples, and animal species are coming back: buffalo, flamingos. Then the group sees the flamingos, “red as volcanic fire breaking open from black rock” (90). The flock stretches for a mile along the shore. “We are drawn to these birds the way air is pulled into fire,” she says. “They are proof of how far blood will travel to seek its beginning” (90). 

The group sees a termite nest in a mangrove. The nest “is a contained intelligence, made up of lives that work together with the mind of a single organism” (91). The termites “break down wood, forming rich soil in a place that would otherwise be choked” (92). They step onto the shore to explore the mangrove swamp on foot, looking for a place where an underground river rises to the surface: 

here, where the underground river ends, other beginnings are fed, other species and creations. If it were time, instead of space, scholars would call it zero date, that place where, as for the Maya, the end of one world is the beginning of another. As they interpret the world, time is alive and travels in a circle. There were other creations and worlds before the one we now inhabit; the cosmos re-forms itself.

For those who know only this one universe, to think of its origins is an overwhelming task. It means to think before time, before space, all the way back to the void that existed before creation. And for people of science, as for those of religion, the universe in its cosmic birth originated from small and minute beginnings. There was nothing and then life came into existence. (93)

“If endings are foreshadowed by their beginnings,” Hogan continues, “it is important that we circle around and come back to look at our human myths and stories” (93). The Maya believed time was cyclical; “the Western tradition of beliefs within a straight line of history leads to an apocalyptic end. And stories of the end, like those of the beginning, tell something about the people who created them” (93). We can imagine endings, extinctions, but not continuations. “From this position, fear, bereavement, and denial keep us in the state of estrangement from our natural connection with land” (94). Not surprisingly, then, Hogan states, “[w]e need new stories, new terms and conditions that are relevant to the love of the land, a new narrative that would imagine another way, to learn the infinite mystery and movement at work in the world” (94). “Indian people must not be the only ones who remember the agreement with the land, the sacred pact to honor and care for the life that, in turn, provides for us,” she continues. “We need to reach a hand back through time and a hand forward, stand at the zero point of creation to be certain that we do not create the absence of life, of any species, no matter how inconsequential they might appear to be” (94-95).

For Hogan, the world is a mystery, and that’s important: “The immeasurable quality of this world has depth and breadth we can’t measure. Yet we know it’s there, and we believe in it, the whole of it has been revealed only a small piece at a time. Cosmologists now surmise there are other universes. Creation is still taking place. As the story becomes larger, we become smaller. Perhaps that is why we shape belief around mystery” (95). “We come from the land, sky, from love and the body. From matter and creation,” Hogan continues. “We are, life is, an equation we cannot form or shape, a mystery we can’t trace in spite of our attempts to follow it back to its origin” (95-96): 

We do not know the secrets of stars. We do not know the true history of water. We do not know ourselves. We have forgotten that this land and every life-form is a piece of god, a divine community, with the same forces in creation in plants as in people. All the lives around us are lives of gods. The long history of creation has shaped plankton, and shaped horseshoe crabs, has shaped our human being. Everything is Maker; mangroves, termites, all are sources of one creation or another. Without respect and reverence for it, there is an absence of holiness, of any God. (96)

“The face of the land is our face, and that of all its creatures,” she writes. “To see whole is to see all the parts of the puzzle, some of which have not even been found. . . . What grows here and what grows within us is the same” (97). “What does god look like?” Hogan asks at the essay’s conclusion. “These fish, this water, this land” (98).

In her ninth essay, “Stories of Water,” Hogan writes, “[e]arth is a water planet. It is a world of salt oceans, cloud forests, underground springs, and winding rivers” (99). Water has made caves and, in the form of glaciers, has remade landscapes. Water shapes the mountains where she lives. It carves canyons. It pushes stones out of the topsoil. “Everywhere water travels, life follows,” she states (100). Indigenous peoples “have ceremonies to bring rain clouds to arid lands,” she continues, and there are stories about water (100-01). She recalls a trip to the Caribbean—the journey to the Yucatán she writes about in the previous essay?—where, either snorkeling or scuba diving, she saw colourful fish, barracuda, jellyfish. “It was a world apart from our world,” she writes. “I was taken in by it, taken almost away, surfacing to find no sight of shore, no memory of how I had arrived in this suspension of life” (101). Hogan recalls how, when she was a girl, a creek she often visited flooded, and that afterwards the earth was changed: “We had no choice but to bend down before water’s will; it was stronger than ours” (102). 

A man recently told Hogan about a journey by canoe along a river to Hudson Bay. The travellers were tormented by clouds of mosquitoes; the days were hot; the nights were freezing. But they also saw freshwater beluga whales playing underneath their canoes. This story leads to a recollection of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, a story about a whaling boat sunk by a whale. Why do men take such risks? “Perhaps they knew that water would carry them full circle face-to-face with themselves, or maybe they searched for a light stronger than that produced by barrels of sperm whale oil,” Hogan writes. “The sea is a primal magnet, and maybe theirs were journeys into mystery and wilderness, a pull toward healing, toward a baptism in the enormous world of life, a coming together of land creatures with the holy waters of earth that carry not only ships and giant fish, but also our own hidden treasures” (104).

The previous summer, Hogan travelled across Lake Superior to Isle Royale, “an island most well known for its wolf and moose population” (104). The boatman told her a story about a luxury liner’s shipwreck. He and his father participated in the rescue efforts; witnessing the disaster caused him to lose his memory. “His first recollection, a few weeks later, was of a room in his home that was filled with sweet-smelling fruit,” Hogan writes. The ship “had carried a cargo of fresh fruits, and the water of Lake Superior was the precise temperature needed to preserve the fruit in the hull of the capsized boat” (104-05). For months after the wreck, divers brought fruit up from the depths, perfectly preserved.

“The last traces of older civilizations are beneath the water,” Hogan continues. She once found a tile on the beach which she imagined came from Atlantis. “But after all these stories, the most amazing tale of all belongs to water’s own voice, telling a story of it’s [sic] unbroken orbit from itself to itself” (105-06). The amount of water on the planet is always the same: “This is a story of circular infinity, of a planet birthing itself” (106). Someone told her a story about travelling the Amazon River and encountering a tree covered with what appeared to be pink blossoms but that turned out to be flamingos perched on the branches. Stories about the rainforest, she continues, seem supernatural, and those forests are endangered, even though they “are the place our air is born” (107). And as the forest is destroyed, the people who live in it die: “Since 1900, more than half of the tribal people of Brazil have become extinct” (107). “The journey of water is round, and its loss, too, moves in a circle, following us around the world as we lose something of such immense value that we do not yet even know its name,” she writes (107-08). Outside, the ice is melting on a spring day. Hogan thinks about the places that water has been. The water’s protean nature “reminds us that we are water people,” and that “everything [is] a round river, in a circle, alive and moving” (108).

Hogan’s tenth essay, “The Kill Hole,” begins with an ancient people who once lived in New Mexico, the Mimbres. “Like the Anasazi and other ancient nations, these were people of the mystery, having abandoned their place and vanished into a dimension that has remained unknown to those of us who have come later,” Hogan writes. “But before they disappeared into the secret, the Mimbres ‘killed’ their pots by breaking a hole in the center of each one. It is thought that the hole served to release the spirit of the pot from the clay, allowing it to travel with them over land and to join them in their burial grounds. It is called a ‘kill hole’” (109-10).

The third funeral Hogan attended made her think about the kill hole, “how life escapes the broken clay of ourselves, travels away from the center of our living” (100). The woman died in California, near the place “where Ishi, the last Yana Indian, was found in 1911” (110). The Yana had hidden themselves from Settlers, but as logging progressed, they were discovered, “finally, by surveyors who must have believed he was not a man in the way they were men, for they carried away his few possessions as souvenirs for their families” (110). For four years, Ishi was a living exhibit in a museum, studied by experts, until he died of tuberculosis, “one of the diseases of civilization” (111). Ishi’s story tells us about the flaws of civilization, the “loss and emptiness that will never again be filled, of whole cultures disappeared, of species made extinct, all of these losses falling as if through a hole, like a spirit leaving earth’s broken clay” (111). 

Hogan thinks (again) about how apes were taught sign language, creating “a dialogue that bridged the species barrier” (111). The animals “spoke a world of emotion, of feelings similar to our own,” until the project ended and they were “sold into scientific research” (112). “From these studies, we learned that primates have a capacity for love and resistance, that they not only have a rich emotional life, but that they are also able to express their pain and anguish,” Hogan writes. “This is an event whose repercussions astonish us with their meaning, whose presence throws us into an identity crisis equal to that in Galileo’s time when the fabric of belief was split wide open to reveal that Earth was not the center of the universe” (112). It speaks of “our responsibility to treat with care and tenderness all the other lives that share our small world” (112). Many scientists ignored the importance of the research, taking refuge in new definitions of intelligence that excluded apes. For Hogan, this “armor of defense” might come from “the downfall of our beliefs about who and what we are as human beings” (113). “One by one, in our lifetimes, our convictions about ourselves and our place within the world have been overturned,” she writes (113). Using tools, altruism, even art-making, have been discovered to be practiced by animals. Animals even have humour. “Still wanting a place of our own, a place set aside form the rest of creation, now it is being ventured that maybe our ability to make fire separates us, or perhaps the desire to seek revenge,” she continues. “But no matter what direction the quest for separation might take, there has been a narrowing down of the difference between species, and we are forced to ask ourselves once again: what is our rightful place in the world, our responsibility to the other lives on the planet?” (114). She acknowledges that this question, this time, is strange and confusing, but she is certain of something: “We are of the animal world. We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried to hard to see ourselves apart, and so often without a love for even our own biology, we are in relationship with the rest of the planet, and that connectedness tells us we must reconsider the way we see ourselves and the rest of nature” (115). 

“A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth,” Hogan writes:

Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away from the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)

Ishi is one of those losses, one of those holes. Hogan notes that “ishi” means “man” in the Yana language, that Ishi kept his real name to himself: “It was his only possession, all that remained for him of a lost way of life” (115). “The kill hole where everything falls out is not just found in earth’s or the body’s clay,” Hogan continues. “It is a dusky space between us and others, the place where our compassion has fallen away, our capacity for love failed” (115-16). “What we are,” she writes, “lives in that abyss” (116). Some of us, though, have taken steps to create “a bridge across that broken world,” like those who enabled communication between apes and humans (116). The essay concludes with the California condors and their return from the brink of extinction: “A mending is taking place, a life emerging like the thread out of a Navajo rug’s pattern of loss” (116).

Next is the title essay, “Dwellings,” a series of fragments about the places where beings live, particularly the places they construct for themselves. It begins with a meditation on an eroded hill where bees live. She discovered those bees one summer day. “Sitting in the hot sun, watching the small bees fly in and out around the hill, hearing the summer birds, the light breeze, I felt right in the world,” Hogan writes. “I belonged there. I thought of my own dwelling places, those real and those imagined” (118-19). She remembers living in a town called Manitou, where a hot mineral spring “gurgled beneath the streets and rose up into open wells” (119). “A few years after that, I wanted silence. My daydreams were full of places I longed to be, shelters and solitudes,” she continues. “And how often I’ve wanted to escape to a wilderness where a human hand has not been in everything. But those were only dreams of peace, of comfort, of a nest inside stone or woods, a sanctuary where a dream or life wouldn’t been invaded” (119).

Years before, a man lived in a cave in a nearby canyon, “like a troglodite” (119). He became lonely and found a wife, but she tired of living in the cave. First they installed a door, then heat, then air-conditioning, “and after that the earth wanted to go about life in its own way and it didn’t give in to the people” (120). Once houses were built from trees felled in one part of a forest so that “the house would hold together more harmoniously” (120). An Italian immigrant in Chicago built marvelous birdhouses like cathedrals. One afternoon, Hogan “waited for barn swallows to return from their daily work of food gathering” (120-21); she thinks about their nests, “perfect as a potter’s bowl” (121). Abandoned housed begin to sag without occupants. Hogan recalls raking the gravel floor of a flight cage at the raptor rehabilitation facility where she works and finding two fetal mice in a pile of bones. They were being bitten by ants, screaming, and Hogan tried to save them by drowning the ants: “I was trading one life for another, exchanging the lives of ants for those of mice, but I hated their suffering, and hated even more that they had not yet grown to a life, and already they inhabited the miserable world of pain” (122). There are other lives than the mice in those rooms—wasps, spiders, ants—but she thinks most of the mice and their nests. “The mice have adapted to live in the presence of their enemies, adapted to living in the thin wall between beak and beak, claw and claw,” she writes (123).

Hogan recalls how tourists at the corn dance at Zia Pueblo began picking up shards of the old pottery that had been made and broken there: “The residents of Zia know not to take the bowls and pots left behind by the older ones. They know that the fragments of those earlier lives need to be smoothed back to earth, but younger nations, travelers from continents across the world who have come to inhabit this land, have little of their own to grown on” (123). Those fragments of pottery, she continues, “provide the new people a lifeline to an unknown land, help them remember that they live in the old nest of earth” (123).

Hogan remembers a hike in February, during the mating season of great horned owls. She wanted to hear the owls, “the voices so tender, so deep, like a memory of comfort” (123). Halfway up the trail, she found a fallen nest: “Holding it in my hand in the rosy twilight, I noticed that a blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there” (123-24). It was from one of her skirts. She liked the way “that a thread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and new life,” and she took the nest home. There, studying it more closely, she found that it held “a gnarl” of her daughter’s hair (124). She didn’t know what kind of bird had made that nest:

It didn’t matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside of our wooden boundaries seemed so large. (124)

She lists the beings living outside: wild grapes, “burrowing ones,” horned owls, mice, skunks, fox, porcupine, bees (124). “The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us,” she concludes (124).

The twelfth essay begins with a memory of Hogan lying “on the moist spring earth” beside her mother, looking up at the night sky (125). “There seemed to be two kinds of people; earth people and those others, the sky people, who stumbled over pebbles while they walked around with their heads in clouds,” she writes:

Sky people loved different worlds than I loved; they looked at nests in treetops and followed the long white snake of vapor trails. But I was an earth person, and while I loved to gaze up at night and stars, I investigated the treasures at my feet, the veined wing of a dragonfly opening a delicate blue window to secrets of earth, a lusterless beetle that drank water thirstily from the tip of my finger and was transformed into sudden green and metallic brilliance. (125-26)

Years later, finding her way home on New Year’s Eve by following the North Star, Hogan thinks “that learning the sky might be a practical thing” (126). “But it was the image of earth from out in space that gave me upward-gazing eyes,” she continues. “To dream of the universe is to know that we are small and brief as insects, born in a flash of rain and gone a moment later. We are delicate and our world is fragile” (126). 

Hogan recalls the 1977 launch of the Voyager probes and the greetings to aliens they contained in different languages. “There is so much hope in those greetings, such sweetness,” she writes. “If found, these messages will play our world to a world that’s far away. They will sing out the strangely beautiful sounds of Earth, sounds that in all likelihood exist on no other planet in the universe” (127-28). When, if, those recordings are found, it’s probable that “the trumpeting bellows of elephants, the peaceful chirping of frogs and crickets, the wild dogs baying out from the golden needle and record, will be nothing more than a gone history of what once lived on this tiny planet in the curving tail of a spiral galaxy” (128). She thinks about the recorded sounds and images included with those spacecraft: “To think that the precious images of what lives on earth beside us, the lives we share with earth, some endangered, are now tumbling through time and space, more permanent than we are, and speaking the sacred language of life that we ourselves have only just begun to remember” (129). 

“There is so much hope there that it takes us away form the dark times of horror we live in,” she writes, considering the genocides we have perpetrated (130). “At second glance, this vision for a new civilization, by its very presence, shows us what is wrong with our world,” she continues. “The underside of our lives grows in proportion to what is denied. The darkness is made darker by the record of light” (130). For Hogan, “[t]he broken link between us and the rest of our world grows too large, and the material of nightmares grows deeper while the promises for peace and equality are empty, are merely dreams without reality” (130). 

Hogan considers a time when Catholic missions “were being erected in Indian country,” when a white woman showed paintings of Jesus and Mary to an Indigenous woman. When the white woman showed a picture of the crucifixion, however, “the Indian woman hurried away to warn others that these were dangerous people, people to fear, who did horrible things to each other” (131). Hogan notes that no images of the crucifixion are included with Voyager, “for fear we earth people would ‘look’ cruel” (131). “There are no political messages, no photographs of Hiroshima,” she writes. “This is to say that we know our own wrongdoings” (131).

She notes that pictures of a naked man and a naked pregnant woman were not included on Voyager because it was “‘smut,’” “as if our own origins, the divine flux of creation that passes between a man and a woman, are unacceptable, something to hide” (131). “[T]his embarrassment about our own carriage of life and act of creative generation nevertheless reveals our feelings of physical vulnerability and discomfort about our own life force,” she contends (132). “From an American Indian perspective, there are other problems here,” she continues: the selection process itself “bespeaks many of the failings of an entire system of thought and education. From this record, we learn about our relationships, not only with people, but with everything on earth” (132). “We inhabit only a small space in the house of life,” she writes (133). 

Will the “time capsule” aboard Voyager be found (133)? “We barely even know our human histories, so much having unraveled before our time, and while we know that our history creates us, we hope there is another place, another world we can fly to when ours is running out,” she writes. “We have come so far away from wisdom, a wisdom that is the heritage of all people, an old kind of knowing that respects a community of land, animals, plants, and other people as equal to ourselves. Where we know the meaning of relationship” (133). And yet, “[t]he people of earth are reaching out. We are having a collective vision. Like young women and men on a vision quest, we seek a way to live out the peace of the vision we have sent to the world of stars” (134). Hogan returns to the memory with which she began the essay: “That night we were small, my mother and I, and we were innocent. We were children of the universe. In the gas and dust of life, we are voyagers” (134).

The fourteenth essay is called “The Snake People.” “One green and humid summer, my father and I were driving through the hot Oklahoma countryside,” Hogan writes, when “something that looked like a long golden strand of light leapt up, twisted in the wavering air, and flew lightning fast across the road” (135). It was a golden racer snake. “That flying snake, that thin flash of light, brought back a store of memories,” she continues. “Our lives have been peopled with snakes and stories of snakes: there was my Chickasaw grandfather who, riding his stocky, thick-muscled horse, could smell the reptile odor from a distance,” and her Aunt Louise, who “had a reputation for swimming among water moccasins so smoothly that they did not take note of her” (135-36). Hogan and her father, while fishing for worms in an abandoned well, discovered a blue racer: “Quickly, my father caught it. He held it just behind the head for a while, then put it into my hands” (136). There are other stories, too, about rattlesnakes, and in most of those stories, the snakes ended up being killed, “with shovels, hoes, sticks, and sometimes with guns” (137). She thinks that the blue racer her father caught must have ended up being killed as well. “But its graceful life, not its death, is what has remained in my memory,” she writes. “And down through the years, I have come to love the snakes and their long, many-ribbed bodies” (137).

That love was strengthened by a dream “of a woman who placed a fantastic snake over her face” (137-38). The woman and the snake became one: “Her breath became the snake’s slow breathing, and they lived through one another, inhabiting a tropical world of wet leaves, vines, and heavy, perfumed flowers” (138). The woman began to dance and “other people emerged from the forest wearing feathers, deep blue and emerald green, like human birds” (138). Then the music and the people disappeared. “The woman removed the snake and placed it on a wall where it hung alive and beautiful, waiting for another ceremonial dance,” Hogan continues, and in the dream, the woman told Hogan that everyone has pieces of that snake’s skin, and if everyone saves those pieces, “it will remain alive” (138). At first, she thought the dream was about tradition and history, but since then she has expanded her vision: “Now, it seems that what needs to be saved, even in its broken pieces, is earth itself, the tradition of life, the beautiful blue-green world that lives in the coiling snake of the Milky Way” (138-39).

Hogan recalls walking along a road in spring and seeing a snake. “It moves off the road so carefully and mysteriously, an inch at a time, as though it is sliding off ice,” she remembers (139). A friend tells her that he once saw a black racer carried into the sky by a red-tailed hawk. The snake was still alive. Another hawk appeared and the two birds fought over the snake. During the fight, the snake was dropped. Hogan wonders if the snake survived its fall. Hogan herself once say an eagle carrying a snake through the sky to its nest. Another time, she saw a snake swallowing a bird.

When floods happen, snakes seek refuge from the water by moving uphill, wrapping themselves around branches to wait for the waters to recede. “Gold-eyed, they stretch across limbs, some looping down, some curled tight and nestlike between branch and trunk, their double tongues darting out like weather vanes,” Hogan writes. “They remind me of women who know they are beautiful” (140).

Human cultures once considered snakes to be symbols “of healing and wholeness,” but more recently, “the snake has symbolized our wrongs, our eating from the tree of knowledge, our search and desire for the dangerous revelations of life’s mystery” (140-41). We have been damned by “[k]nowledge without wisdom, compassion, or understanding” (141). Hogan writes of the Hope snake dance, which celebrates “the old ones, immortals who shed a milky skin to reveal the new and shining” (141). “[T]he image of snakes twined about a tree or one another looks surprisingly like the double, twisted helix of DNA,” she suggests (142). 

“I call them people. That’s what they are. They have been here inhabiting the same dens for tens of thousands of generations,” Hogan writes. “They love their freedom, their dwelling places, and often die of sadness when kept in captivity” (142).

Hogan recalls walking on a road and seeing a snake that has been hit by a car. It is dying. The snake’s belly has been cut open, and from the wound a baby snake that has been swallowed but is still alive escapes. “It leaves a winding, thin path in the road dust,” she concludes. “Maybe it is writing a story of survival there on the road, of what is left of wilderness, or of what has become of earth’s lesser gods as one by one they disappear” (143).

In the next essay, “Porcupine,” Hogan considers “the dark old porcupine” she sees walking on the edge of the road (144). “This one is torn and lame and her undignified quills are broken on one side, as if she has slept them tangled,” she writes. “She hobbles and limps away from her many batterings. She wears her history, dark and spiney, and there is a light in her, a fire around the dreary sharp halo of quills” (145). One evening Hogan finds the porcupine dead beside the road: “Her face is sweet and dark, her inner light replaced by the light of sky. The drifting clouds are in her eyes” (145). She offers sage to “this animal old woman who lived on earth, who breathed the same air that for years I have been breathing, and that breath prays for all creatures on earth” (145). The next morning, she notices that the porcupine’s body is being eaten by maggots which are turning into beetles and flies. “In that crossing over, that swallowing, the battle of life with life, the porcupine lives on,” she concludes. “In its transformation, life continues. My life too, which stopped only for a small moment in history, in that great turning over of the world” (146).

The fifteenth essay is “Waking Up the Rake.” Hogan remembers her grandmother’s hair. When she was a child, Hogan would sometimes brush her grandmother’s hair. “We were the old and the new, bound together in front of the snapping fire, woven like a lifetime’s tangled growth of hair,” she writes. “I saw my future in her body and face, and her past was alive in me” (147-48). Years later, when Hogan was sick, she went to a traditional healer. They prayed together at dawn for several days. A year later, she returned, and the healer told her, “‘Our work is our altar,’” words that have remained with her (148).

“Now I am a disciple of birds,” she writes, the birds whose cages she cleans at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Foundation (148). She considers the carcasses and skins she sees as she cleans those cages. “Over time, the narrow human perspective from which we view things expands,” she suggests. “A deer carcass begins to look beautiful and rich in its torn redness” (149). So too do the bone fragments in the cases she cleans. “This work is an apprenticeship, and the birds are the teachers,” she writes (150). “There is a silence needed here before a person enters the bordered world the birds in habit, so we stop and compose ourselves before entering their doors,” she continues. “The most difficult task the birds demand is that we learn to be equal to them, to feel our way into an intelligence that is different from our own” (150). The birds know “that as humans we have somehow fallen from our animal grace, and because of that we maintain a distance from them, though it is not always a distance of the heart” (150). Nearly all of the birds have been “injured in a clash with the human world”: shot, hit by cars, caught in traps, poisoned, ensnared by fences (150-51). “To ensure their survival, they must remember us as the enemies that we are,” she writes. “We are the embodiment of a paradox: we are the wounders and we are the healers” (151).

In cleaning the cages, Hogan begins “to see the larger order of things. In this place, there is a constant coming to terms with both the sacred place life occupies, and with death” (151). In death, life returns in the form of ants and maggots, which “are time’s best and closest companions” (151). “To sit with the eagles and their flutelike songs, listening to the longer flute of wind sweep through the lush grasslands, is to begin to know the natural laws that exist apart from our written ones,” she writes” (151). Intuition is one of those laws, she contends: “It’s a blood-written code that directs us through life” (151). 

There are rewards to her work: seeing snakes, turtles, reminders “of all the lives beyond these that occupy us” (152). “One green morning, an orphaned owl perches nervously above me while I clean,” she writes (152-53). It accidentally lands on the end of her rake before flying off to a safer perch. “The word rake means to gather or heap up, to smooth the broken ground,” Hogan continues. “That’s what this work is, all of it, the smoothing over of broken ground, the healing of the severed trust we humans hold with earth. We gather it back together again with great care, take the broken pieces and fragments and return them to the sky. It is work at the borderland between species, at the boundary between injury and healing” (153). Her work, her raking, “becomes a road to what is essential,” she writes. “Work is the country of hands, and they want to live there in the dailiness of it, the repitition [sic] that is time’s language of prayer, a common tongue. Everything is there, in that language, in the humblest of labor” (154). In that work, “all earth’s gods are reborn, and they dance and sing in the dusty air around us” (154).

The book’s last essay is entitled “Walking.” It begins with a plant growing on a hillside. “I saw it first in early summer,” Hogan writes. “It was a green and sleeping bud, raising itself toward the sun. Ants worked around the unopened bloom, gathering aphids and sap. A few days later, it was a tender young flower, soft and new, with a pale green center and a troop of silver-grey insects climbing up and down the stalk” (155-56). The sunflower “grew into a plant of incredible beauty” (156). As summer progressed, new insects visited that sunflower every day. Eventually “birds arrived to carry the new seeds to another future” (156). “In this one plant, in one summer season, a drama of need and survival took place,” Hogan continues. “Hungers were filled. Insects coupled. There was escape, exhaustion, and death. Lives touched down a moment and were gone” (156-57). Hogan acknowledges that she was an outsider, that she “never learned the sunflower’s golden language or the tongues of its citizens” (157). She understood little of the flower, the insects, and the birds, “[b]ut they knew what to do, how to live” (157).

Hogan notes that “[t]here are other summons and calls, some even more mysterious than those commandments to birds or those survival journeys of insects” (157). Once every hundred years, a certain species of bamboo flowers, no matter where it is, in Malaysia or in a Minnesota greenhouse. “Some current of an inner language passes among them, through space and separation, in ways we cannot explain in our language,” she writes. “They are all, somehow, one plant, each with a share of communal knowledge” (157). Sometimes Hogan hears that language: “The light of the sunflower was one language, but there are others more audible” (158). She recalls “a beat, something like a drum or heart coming from the ground and trees and wind” in a redwood forest, and the “booming voice of an ocean storm thundering from far out at sea” (158). 

“Tonight I walk,” Hogan writes. “I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watched the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and of immensity above them” (158). She can almost hear “the redwoods beating. And the oceans are above me here, rolling clouds, heavy and dark, considering snow” (158). She passes the place where that sunflower grew and wonders if it will return the next summer. It’s winter. “It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood,” she continues. “Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands” (158-59).

I began this summary wondering how Hogan’s version of the world might compare to Latour’s object-oriented ontology. I would have to reread both texts much more carefully, teasing out similarities and differences, but after quickly reading both texts, I think that their emphasis on the aliveness, or at least agency, of everything around us is a similarity between them. The difference, though, is in Hogan’s emphasis, her insistence, on the idea of relationships—both between humans and the world, and between everything in that world. Even to say “between humans and the world” is a mistake, the product of an epistemology and ontology that imagine, incorrectly, a separation between us and our surroundings. That’s what Hogan would say, I think, and I believe Latour would agree, perhaps. There is much to think about in these essays, and Hogan’s beautiful prose is certainly worth rereading. I hope I get a chance to return to this book.

Works Cited

Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, 1995, Norton, 2007.

Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter, Polity, 2018.

121. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime

bruno latour down to earth

I first heard about philosopher of science Bruno Latour at the Walking’s New Movements conference in Plymouth, England, where I gave a paper at the beginning of November. I thought I might read his book Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime eventually, but a friend raves about this book and tells me that it is directly connected to my project. So here I go.

Down to Earth is a book-length essay. It begins by explicitly addressing Trump’s election in order to bring together three phenomena whose connections have been missed. The first is the claim, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that history had ended. The second is the history that was happening, despite denials: a history defined by “an increasingly vertiginous explosion of inequalities” (1). Those two phenomena “coincided with a third that is less often stressed: the beginning of a systematic effort to deny the existence of climate change” (1). “This essay proposes to take these three phenomena as symptoms of a single historical situation: it is as though a significant segment of the ruling classes (known today rather too loosely as ‘the elites’) had concluded that the earth no longer had enough room for them and for everyone else,” Latour writes. “Consequently, they decided that it was pointless to act as though history were going to continue to move toward a common horizon, toward a world in which all humans could prosper equally. From the 1980s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began instead to shelter themselves from the world” (1-2). “The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy,” Latour continues (2).

Latour’s hypothesis is simple: 

we can understand nothing about the politics of the last 50 years if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and centre. Without the idea that we have entered into a New Climatic Regime, we cannot understand the explosion of inequalities, the scope of deregulation, the critique of globalization, or, most importantly, the panicky desire to return to the old protections of the nation-state—a desire that is identified, quite inaccurately, with the “rise of populism.” (2)

“To resist this loss of a common orientation,” Latour continues, “we shall have to land somewhere. So, we shall have to learn how to get our bearings, how to orient ourselves. And to do this we need something like a map of the positions imposed by the new landscape within which not only the affects of public life but also its stakes are being redefined” (2). The word “affects” is interesting, and Latour repeats it in the following paragraph when he suggests that his reflections “explore the possibility that certain political affects might be channeled toward new objectives” (2). Is Latour influenced by affect theory, another thing I learned about at Walking’s New Movements?

For Latour, the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord makes a statement that the U.S. no longer belongs to the same planet as everyone else. In other words, “no longer is there an ideal of a world common to what used to be called ‘the West’” (3). Brexit was the first historic event leading in this direction: it is a decision “to stop playing the game of globalization” (3)—or at least to play that game in a different way, one that does not require the free movement of immigrants from Europe. Trump’s election is a second historic event: 

The country that had violently imposed its own quite particular form of globalization on the world, the country that had defined itself by immigration while eliminating its first inhabitants, that very country has entrusted its fate to someone who promises to isolate it inside a fortress, to stop letting in refugees, to stop going to the aid of any cause that is not on its own soil, even as it continues to intervene everywhere in the world with its customary careless blundering. (4)

Both of these events confirm “the end of one concept of globalization” (3). Latour suggests that the third historic event is “the resumption, extension, and amplification of migrations,” caused by war, the failure of economic development, and climate change” (4). These three phenomena “are simply different aspects of one and the same metamorphosis: the very notion of soil is changing. The soil of globalization’s dreams is beginning to slip away” (4). And, he continues, “each of us is beginning to feel the ground slip away beneath our feet. We are discovering, more or less obscurely, that we are all in migration toward territories yet to be rediscovered and reoccupied” (5). This discovery is related to Latour’s fourth historic event: the Paris Climate Accord. This agreement is important because “all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one” (5). If the planet is destroyed, then “there is no longer an assured ‘homeland,’ as it were, for anyone” (5).

For that reason, each of us “faces the following question: Do we continue to nourish dreams of escaping, or do we start seeking a territory that we and our children can inhabit?” (5). That is our choice: “Either we deny the existence of the problem, or else we look for a place to land. From now on, this is what divides us all, much more than our positions on the right or the left side of the political spectrum” (5). “In other words,” Latour continues, “the migratory crisis has been generalized” (6). In addition to migrants leaving their countries to find new places to live, “we must from now on add the migrants from inside who, while remaining in place, are experiencing the drama of seeing themselves left behind by their own countries” (6). Both groups share a common ordeal: “finding oneself deprived of land” (6). “This ordeal accounts for the relative indifference to the urgency of the situation, and it explains why we are all climate quietists when we hope, while doing nothing about it, that ‘everything will be all right in the end,’” Latour writes. “It is hard not to wonder what effect the news we hear every day about the state of the planet has on our mental state. How can we not feel inwardly undone by the anxiety of not knowing how to respond?” (6). That’s a good question: the news over Christmas—especially of the fires in Australia—has reduced me to tears.

For Latour, “this unease, at once personal and collective,” gives Trump’s election “its full importance” (6). The United States had two options: to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the extent of its responsibility in causing it, thereby becoming “realistic” and leading “the ‘free world’ away from the abyss, or it could plunge further in denial” (6-7). “Those who conceal themselves behind Trump have decided to keep America floating in dreamland a few years longer, so as to postpone coming down to earth, while leading the rest of the world into the abyss—perhaps for good,” he states (7).

“The question of landing somewhere did not occur earlier to the peoples who had decided to ‘modernize’ the planet” (7)—the European colonizers of every other continent. “It arose—ever so painfully—only for those who for four centuries had been subjected to the impact of the ‘great discoveries,’ of empires, modernization, development, and finally globalization,” Latour writes. “They knew perfectly well what it meant to find oneself deprived of land. . . . They had no choice but to become experts on the question of how to survive conquest, extermination, land grabs” (7). The novelty of the current situation, for “the modernizing peoples,” “is that this territorial question is now addressed to them as well as to the others” (7). This new situation “adds an unexpected meaning to the term ‘postcolonial,’ as though there were a family resemblance between two feelings of loss” (7). “In other words, the sense of vertigo, almost of panic, that traverses all contemporary politics arises owing to the fact that the ground is giving way beneath everyone’s feet at once, as if we all felt attacked everywhere, in our habits and in our possessions,” Latour continues (8).

Here Latour arrives at a question that is central to his argument. “Have you noticed that the emotions involved are not the same when you’re asked to defend nature—you yawn, you’re bored—as when you’re asked to defend your territory—now you’re wide awake, suddenly mobilized?” he asks (8). What accounts for that difference? “If nature has become territory,” he writes,

it makes little sense to talk about an “ecological crisis,” “environmental problems,” or a “biosphere” to be rediscovered, spared, or protected. The challenge is much more vital, more existential than that—and also much more comprehensible, because it is much more direct. When the rug is pulled out from under your feet, you understand at once that you are going to have to be concerned with the floor. (8)

The uneasiness this situation causes for everyone, both colonizers and colonized alike, “gnaws at everyone equally” (8). “What is certain is that all find themselves facing a universal lack of shareable space and inhabitable land,” Latour contends (9). And this feeling of panic comes from “the same deep feeling of justice felt by those who found themselves deprived of their land at the time of the conquests, then during colonization, and finally during the era of ‘development’: a power from elsewhere comes to deprive you of your land and you have no purchase on that power” (9). “If this is globalization, then we understand retrospectively why the colonized have always been right to defend themselves,” he continues (9). This feeling, this realization, is the new human universality, “the only one available to us,” and it “consists in feeling that the ground is in the process of giving away” (9). This new universality “is our only way out: discovering in common what land is inhabitable and with whom to share it” (9). “The alternative is to act as though nothing were happening and to protect ourselves behind a wall while we prolong the waking dream of the ‘American way of life,’” Latour writes (9). 

“Migrations, explosions of inequality, and New Climatic Regime: these are one and the same threat,” Latour argues. “Most of our fellow citizens underestimate or deny what is happening to the earth, but they understand perfectly well that the question of migrants puts their dreams of a secure identity in danger” (9-10). The populist desire to put up borders against immigration cannot address the climate emergency, however, which “has been sweeping across all our borders for a long time, exposing us to all the winds, and no walls we can build will keep these invaders out” (10). To defend ourselves, we need to identify these formless migrations—“climate, erosion, pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction” (10)—for what they are. “The most basic right of all is to feel safe and protected, especially at a moment when the old protections are disappearing,” Latour suggests. “This is the meaning of the history that remains to be discovered: how can we reweave edges, envelopes, protections; how can we find new footing while simultaneously taking into account the end of globalization, the scope of migration, and also the limits placed on the sovereignty of nation-states that are henceforth confronted by climate change?” (11). And, above all, “how can we reassure those who see salvation only in the recollection of a national or ethnic identity, always freshly invented? And, in addition, how can we organize a collective life around the extraordinary challenge of accompanying millions of foreigners in their search for lasting ground?” (11). The “political question” is how to reassure and shelter everyone who is “obliged to take to the road, even while turning them away from the false protection of identities and rigid borders,” but to reassure them, “we would have to be able to succeed in carrying out two complementary movements that the ordeal of modernization has made contradictory: attaching oneself to a particular patch of soil on the one hand, having access to the global world on the other” (11-12). “Up to now, it is true, such an operation has been considered impossible,” Latour acknowledges: “between the two, it is said, one has to choose. It is this apparent contradiction that current history may be bringing to an end” (12).

Next, Latour asks what it means to talk about “the ravages of globalization” (12). Globalization, he argues, consists “in two opposing phenomena that have been systematically confused” (12). “Shifting from a local to a global viewpoint ought to mean multiplying viewpoints, registering a greater number of varieties, taking into account a larger number of beings, cultures, phenomena, organisms, and people,” he writes:

Yet it seems as though what is meant by globalization today is the exact opposite of such an increase. The term is used to mean that a single vision, entirely provincial, proposed by a few individuals, representing a very small number of interests, limited to a few measuring instruments, to a few standards and protocols, has been imposed on everyone and spread everywhere. (13)

For that reason, it’s not a surprise “that we don’t know whether to embrace globalization or, on the contrary, struggle against it” (13). The battle to multiply viewpoints in order “to complicate all ‘provincial’ or ‘closed’ views with new variants,” Latour argues, “is a fight that deserves to be fought” (13). But if it means the opposite, “a matter of decreasing the number of alternatives regarding the existence and the course of the world,” it needs to be resisted “with all our might” (13). Latour suggests that it’s necessary to “distinguish between globalization-plus and globalization-minus” (13).

Complicating “any project of landing someplace is that this definition of the inevitable globalization will lead, in a backlash, to the invention of the ‘reactionary’” (13). “The advocates of globalization-minus” have accused those “who resist its deployment” of being archaic and backward and defensive (13). “It is to stir up this backward-looking people that globalizers have subjected them to the great lever of modernization,” Latour writes. “For two centuries, the arrow of time has made it possible to locate on one side those who are moving forward—the modernizers, the progressives—and on the other those who remain behind” (14). Any resistance to globalization was thereby deemed illegitimate and irrational (14). “Advocacy of this type of modernization defines, by contrast, the taste for the local, the attachment to the land, the maintenance of traditions, the attention to the earth” as archaic and “‘obscurantist’” (14). “The call to globalization is so ambiguous that its pliancy contaminates what can be expected from the local,” Latour continues. “This is why, since the beginning of modernization, any attachment to any soil at all has been read as a sign of backwardness” (14). 

However, just as there are two ways to look at globalization, there are “at least two ways, equally contrasting, to define the attachment to the local” (14). The elites who have profited from globalization “have so much trouble understanding what upsets those who want to be held, protected, assured, reassured by their province, their tradition, their soil, or their identity,” and tend to label such resistance as “populist” (15). But “[t]o reject modernization is also to resist courageously by refusing to trade one’s own province for another . . . that is even narrower and above all infinitely remote, thus much more indifferent to local interests” (15). Such resistance is normal and just, Latour suggests, because it is a way to continue to register “more differences more viewpoints, and above all not to begin by reducing their number” (15). So, in the same way that there is a globalization-plus and a globalization-minus, Latour suggests that it’s necessary to distinguish “the local-minus from the local-plus” (15). “In the end, what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalization, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world,” he writes (15-16).

The point is that the modernization project has become impossible, “because there is no Earth capable of containing its ideal of progress, emancipation, and development. As a result, all forms of belonging are undergoing metamorphosis—belonging to the globe, to the world, to the provinces, to particular plots of ground, to the world market, to lands or to traditions” (16). “We must face up to what is literally a problem of dimension, scale, and lodging: the planet is much too narrow and limited for the globe of globalization,” Latour writes, while at the same time “it is too big, infinitely too large, too active, too complex, to remain within the narrow and limited borders of any locality whatsoever. We are all overwhelmed twice over: by what is too big, and by what is too small” (16). “And thus no one has the answer to the question ‘how can one find inhabitable land?’” Latour states. “We don’t know where to go, or how to live, or with whom to cohabit. What must we do to find a place? How are we to orient ourselves?” (16).

“Something must happened, some truly extraordinary event, for the ideal of globalization to have changed valence so quickly,” Latour writes (17). How did this happen? Latour suggests that an “avant-garde” of “activists, scientists, artists, economists, intellectuals, political parties” has “grasped the increasingly endangered status of the formerly more or less stable relations that the Earth maintained with humans,” beginning in the 1980s (17). The question of the limits to development was obvious, but the modernizers ignored it. Nevertheless, that question continued to resonate, and “we find that under the ground of private property, of land grabs, of the exploitation of territories, another ground, another earth, another soil has begun to stir, to quake, to be moved” (17). At this point, “the hypothesis of political fiction comes in,” Latour suggests:

Suppose that other elites, perhaps less enlightened, but with significant means and important interests, and above all with extreme attentiveness to the security of their immense fortunes and to the durability of their well-being, each and every one of them, heard this thread, this warning.

We have to assume that these elites understood perfectly well that the warning was accurate, but did not conclude from the evidence, which had become more and more indisputable over the years, that they were going to have to pay, and pay dearly, for the Earth’s turning back on itself. They would have been enlightened enough to register the warning, but not enlightened enough to share the results with the public. (17-18)

Rather than taking on their burden, however, those elites decided that others would have to pay, and that they would deny the existence of what Latour calls “the New Climatic Regime” (18). “These two decisions would make it possible to connect three phenomena,” Latour continues: deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state since the 1980s; climate change denial; and the “dizzying extension of inequalities” over the last 40 years (18). “If the hypothesis is correct, all this is part of a single phenomenon”: 

the elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there would be no future life for everyone that they have decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible—hence deregulation; they have decided that a sort of gilded fortress would have to be built for those (a small percentage) who would be able to make it through—hence the explosion of inequalities; and they have decided that, to conceal the crass selfishness of such a flight out of the shared world, they would have to reject absolutely the threat at the origin of this headlong flight—hence the denial of climate change. (18-19)

This description, or explanation, seems to fit the evidence: the extreme nihilism of the wealthy elites who support liars and climate-change deniers in return for tax cuts. For Latour, the wealthy have decided to reserve the Titanic’s lifeboats for themselves, and to let the rest of us drown.

Latour calls the wealthy “the obscurantist elites” and suggests that they “understood that, if they wanted to survive in comfort, they had to stop pretending, even in their dreams, to share the earth with the rest of the world” (19). This hypothesis explains, for Latour, “how globalization-plus has become globalization-minus” (19). Until the 1990s, he contends, it was possible to “associate the horizon of modernization with the notions of progress, emancipation, wealth, comfort, even luxury, and above all rationality” (19)—a claim that runs aground on the exploitation of people outside of the West, but never mind—but after that point, “the rage to deregulate, the explosion of inequalities, the abandonment of solidarities have gradually associated that horizon with the notion of an arbitrary decision out of nowhere in favor of the sole profit of the few. The best of worlds has become the worst” (19-20). The reaction to this betrayal by the elites is rage. “[O]ne can imagine that those left behind also understood very quickly that if globalization were tossed aside, then they too would need gated communities,” Latour writes. “The reactions on one side led to reactions on the other—both sides reacting to another much more radical reaction, that of the Earth, which had stopped absorbing blows and was striking back with increasing violence” (20). The origin of these overlapping reactions “must be sought in the Earth’s reaction to our enterprises,” he continues. “We are the ones who started it—we of the old West, and more specifically Europe. There are no two ways about it: we have to learn to live with the consequences of what we have unleashed” (20). The growth of inequalities, the “wave of populism,” and the “migration crisis,” he states, cannot be understood unless we grasp “that these are three different responses, basically comprehensible if not effective, to the powerful reaction of the earth to what globalization has done to it” (20-21). We have all, in different ways, decided to flee from this problem: into “the gilded exile of the 1%,” into the fantasy of “secure borders,” or, for “the most wretched of all,” exile (21). No wonder globalization—as globalization-minus, that is—has lost its “power of attraction” (21).

Latour admits that his hypothesis about the obscurantist elites “appears implausible”: “too much like a psychoanalytic interpretation, too much like a conspiracy theory” (21). “It is not impossible to document it, however, if we make the reasonable assumption that people are fairly quick to suspect what some are seeking to hide from them, and are prepared to act accordingly,” he writes (21-22). The effects his hypothesis explains are obvious, particularly “the epistemological delirium” that has taken hold since Trump’s election. Denial means lying, and lying means remembering one’s previous lies, and this is “draining,” Latour argues (22). Lying eventually drives liars crazy: they, and those who believe their lies, “become attached to ‘alternative facts’ to the point of forgetting all forms of rationality” (22). But it’s important to remember that the people who seem to have abandoned rationality (not the elites, but the people themselves) have been betrayed “by those who have given up the idea of actually pursuing the modernization of the planet with everyone, because they knew, before everyone else, that such modernization was impossible—precisely for want of a planet vast enough for their dreams of growth for all,” Latour writes (22-23). “Before accusing ‘the people’ of no longer believing in anything, one ought to measure the effect of that overwhelming betrayal on people’s level of trust,” he continues. “Trust has been abandoned along the wayside” (23). “Facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media,” Latour contends. The effect of the betrayal by the obscurantist elites has been the erosion of all of those things.

“But the epistemological disaster is just as great among those who are in charge of carrying out this extraordinary betrayal,” Latour states, suggesting that the chaos of the Trump White House as evidence. “How can one respect the best-established facts, when one has to deny the enormity of the threat and wage, without acknowledging it, a full-scale war against all the others?” he asks (23). Lying, “denegation,” “poisons those who practice it as well as those who are presumed to be duped by it,” he suggests (23). The difference is that the obscurantist elites have committed an unforgivable crime: “their obsessional denial of climate change” (24). “Because of this denial, ordinary people have had to cope within a fog of disinformation, without anyone ever telling them that the project of modernizing the planet was over and done with, and that a regime change was inevitable,” he writes (24). “[I]f there were to be any hope of dealing with this fact in time, ordinary people would have had to push politicians to act before it was too late,” he continues. “At a point when the public could have found an emergency exit, the climate skeptics stood in their way and denied them access” (24).

The denial of climate change “organizes all politics at the present time,” Latour argues (24). People know their leaders are lying, and as a result “they are suspicious of everything and don’t want to listen any more” (24-25). Meanwhile, the “rational thinkers” continue to believe that “facts stand up all by themselves, without a shared world, without institutions, without a public life”; they are “just as caught up as the others in the tangles of disinformation,” because they themselves “live in an alternative world, a world in which climate mutation occurs, while it does not in the world of their opponents” (25). “It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world, share the same culture, face up to the same stakes, perceive a landscape that can be explored in concert,” Latour continues. “Here we find the habitual vice of epistemology, which consists in attributing to intellectual deficits something that is quite simply a deficit in shared practice” (25).

“[T]he key to the current situation,” Latour writes, “has to be sought in the form of the world” (25). That’s the problem: “there are now several worlds, several territories, and they are mutually incompatible” (26). The movement into modernization was a movement away from the local and towards the Global; in fact, the Local was abandoned. “Once these two poles have been identified, we can trace a pioneering frontier of modernization,” he continues. “This is the line drawn by the injunction to modernize, an injunction that prepared us for every sacrifice: for leaving our native province, abandoning our traditions, breaking with our habits, if we wanted to ‘get ahead,’ to participate in the general movement of development, and, finally, to profit from the world” (27). People were torn between two opposing injunctions: to move “forward toward the ideal of progress,” or “backward toward the old certainties,” but “this hesitation, this tug-of-war, ultimately suited them pretty well” (27). They could determine where they were on the vector that runs between the Global and the Local. “There were of course protestors, but they were located on the other side of the modernization front,” Latour continues. “They were the (neo-)natives, the antiquated, the vanquished, the colonized, the subaltern, the excluded. . . . one could treat them unassailably as reactionaries, or at least as anti-moderns, as dregs, rejects” (27). “It was brutal, perhaps, but at last the world had a direction. The arrow of time was going somewhere,” Latour states (27). 

The vector from Local to Global was also where the Left/Right distinction was projected (27). On economic matters, the Right usually wanted to go further toward the Global, whereas on moral or sexual issues, the Left usually wanted to go in that direction. “[P]eople ended up finding common ground in spite of everything, for the good reason that all these positions continued to be situated along the same vector,” Latour writes. “Which made it possible to identify them the way one reads the temperature of a patient by following the gradations of a thermometer” (28). “Depending on the topics under dispute, the import of the positions could vary, but there was always a single direction that derived from the tension between the two poles of attraction, the Global and the Local” (28-29). However, “[w]hat happens to this system of coordinates if globalization-plus becomes globalization-minus?” Latour asks. “If what has been the pole of attraction drawing us with the force of self-evidence, pulling the whole world in its direction, becomes a counterforce that pushes us away, leaving us with the confused feeling that only a few will profit from it? Inevitably, the Local, too, in a counterreaction, will become attractive again” (30). But it is no longer the same Local; it is now the Local-minus (30). Neither is plausible; neither is livable (30). “Nevertheless, this second pole attracts as powerfully as the first, especially when things are going badly and the ideal of the Globe seems to be more and more remote,” Latour writes (31). In fact, “[t]he two poles of attraction have finally pulled so far apart that we no longer have the luxury of hesitating, as before, between the two. This is what the commentators call the brutalization of political discourse” (31). “Instead of tension, there is henceforth a yawning gap” (32). 

It is as if, “everywhere at once, a third pole of attraction has come in to turn aside, pump out, absorb all the objects of conflict, making any orientation along the old flight line impossible, Latour suggests (32). And this is where we are now: “Too disoriented to array the positions along the axis that went from the old to the new, from the Local to the Global, but still incapable of naming this third attractor, fixing its position, or even simply describing it” (32-33). “Everything has to be mapped out anew, at new costs,” he continues. “What is more, this is an urgent task that must be carried out before the sleepwalkers, in their blind headlong rush forward, have crushed what we care about” (33). 

It’s possible that the American decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord was caused by this “third attractor” (33). But for Latour, “[i]t is as though Trump had managed to identify a fourth attractor,” which Latour names “the Out-of-This-World,” “the horizon of people who no longer belong to the realities of an earth that would react to their actions. For the first time, climate change denial defines the orientation of the public life of a nation” (34-35). “It is unfair to the Fascists to compare the phenomenon of which Trump is the symptom to the movements of the 1930s,” he continues, since the Fascists existed along the old Local/Global vector, whereas “in the current innovation,” “the State is in disgrace, the individual is king, and the urgent governmental priority is to gain time by loosening all constraints, before the population at large notices that there is no world corresponding to the America depicted” (35). Latour contends that “Trump’s originality is to link, in a single gesture, first the headlong rush toward maximum profit while abandoning the rest of the world to its fate” to “the headlong rush backward of an entire people toward the return of national and ethnic categories” (35). Trump’s supporters behave as though these two movements—towards the Global, on the one hand, and towards the Local, on the other—“could be conflated. Such a fusion is obviously possible only if the very existence of the conflict between modernization, on the one hand, and the condition of being terrestrial, on the other, is denied” (35-36).

This denial demonstrates for Latour “the constitutive role of skepticism about climate science, which is otherwise incomprehensible” (36). “We can well understand why denial prevails: the total lack of realism of the combination—Wall Street pulling millions of members of the so-called middle classes toward a return to protection of the past!—is unmistakable,” Latour writes. “For the time being, the project depends entirely on the requirement of maintaining utter indifference to the New Climatic Regime while dissolving all forms of solidarity, both external (among nations) and internal (among classes)” (36). “For the first time, a large-scale movement no longer claims to address geopolitical realities seriously, but purports to put itself explicitly outside of all worldly constraints,” he continues. “What counts above all for the elites behind this movement is no longer having to share with the others a world that they know will never again be a common world” (36). Why wouldn’t this denial of reality coalesce around a failed businessman “who became famous by way of reality television, another form of unreality and escapism” (36)? “This movement defines the first government totally oriented toward the ecological question—but backwards, negatively, through rejection!” (37). The elites who support Trump have, for the past 40 years, understood that climate change would leave “no room for them and for the nine billion left behind”; they intend to make their money and say they will be dead before the disaster arrives (37). Trump is therefore playing the role of Bernie Madoff for the entire country (37).

What needs to be understood, Latour continues, is that the United States “had the most to lose from a return to reality. Its material infrastructures are the most difficult to reorient quickly, its responsibilities in the current climatic situation are the most crushing,” even though “it possesses all the scientific, technological, and organizational capabilities that could have led the ‘free world’ to take the turn toward the third attractor” (38). Trumpian politics is “a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit” (38). Faced with the obstacle of climate change, the United States has “simply refused to proceed—at least for the time being” (38). Given this situation, we can either wake up or “the whole business will end in a fiery deluge” (38). “Contrary to Marx’s dictum,” he writes, “history does not go simply from tragedy to farce, it can repeat itself one more time in a tragic farce” (38).

“It seems ridiculous to advance the claim that we have no more precise indications about the third attractor than the one offered by those in flight from it,” Latour writes (38-39). Yet that is the situation we face: “The terrifying impression that politics has been emptied of its substance, that it is not engaged with anything at all, that it no longer has any meaning for direction, that it has become literally powerless as well as senseless, has no cause other than this gradual revelation: neither the Global nor the Local has any lasting material existence” (39). The Global/Local vector now “resembles a freeway without any beginning or end,” and “we now find ourselves, in a 90º shift, suspended between the old vector and a new one, pushed ahead by two temporal arrows that are no longer going in the same direction” (39). For Latour, “[t]he main concern is to establish what makes up that third term. In what way can it become more attractive than the other two—and why does it appear so repellent to so many?” (39). What is that attractor called? Latour decides to name this “new political actor” “the Terrestrial” (40). “The massive event that we need to sum up and absorb in fact concerns the power to act of this Terrestrial, which is no longer the milieu or the background of human action,” he continues. “People generally talk about geopolitics as if the prefix ‘geo’ merely designated the framework in which political action occurs. Yet what is changing is that, henceforth, ‘geo’ designates an agent that participates fully in public life” (40-41). “The current disorientation derives entirely from the emergence of an actor that reacts and will continue to react to human actions and that bars the modernizers from knowing where they are, in what epoch, and especially what role they need to play from now,” he states (41).

It’s no longer possible to distinguish between physical and human geography, Latour suggests:

As long as the earth seemed stable, we could speak of space and locate ourselves within that space and on a portion of territory that we claimed to occupy. But how are we to act if the territory itself begins to participate in history, to fight back, in short, to concern itself with us—how do we occupy a land if it is this land itself that is occupying us? The expression “I belong to a territory” has changed meaning: it now designates the agency that possesses the possessor! (40-41)

“If the Terrestrial is no longer the framework for human action, it is because it participates in that action,” Latour continues. “Space has become an agitated history in which we are participants among others, reacting to other reactions. It seems that we are landing in the thick of geohistory” (42). The new attractor, the Terrestrial, “is at once known to everyone and completely foreign”; it is not “a res nullius, ready to be appropriated” (42). “On the contrary,” Latour writes,

the Moderns find themselves migrating toward an earth, a land, a country, a turf, whatever one wants to call it, that is already occupied, that has been populated from time immemorial and that has more recently undergone repopulation by the multitude of those who have felt, well ahead of the others, the extent to which it was necessary to flee posthaste from the injunction to modernize. In this world, all modern minds encounter a kind of exile. They are going to have to learn to cohabit with those whom they used to deem archaic, traditionalists, reactionaries, or simply “locals.” (42-43)

This space is new for everyone, Latour states, “since, according to the reports of climate specialists, there is quite simply no precedent for the current situation. Here it is, that ‘wicked universality,’ that universal lack of earth” (43).

Our civilization was founded on the relatively stable climate of the Holocene, but in the Anthropocene, “we are no longer dealing with small fluctuations in the climate, but rather with an upheaval that is mobilizing the earth system itself” (43). Humans are no longer the central figures in their drama: “Today, the decor, the wings, the background, the whole building have come on stage and are competing with the actors for the principal role. This changes all the scripts, suggests other endings” (43). The only certainty “is that we can no longer tell ourselves the same old stories. Suspense prevails on all fronts” (44). “We understand nothing about the vacuity of contemporary politics if we do not appreciate the stunning extent to which the situation is unprecedented,” Latour writes. “At least it is easy to understand the reaction of those who have decided to flee. How can anyone agree to turn voluntarily toward the third attractor when one was headed tranquilly toward the horizon of universal modernization?” (44). 

“If there is any subject that deserves lucid attention, it is that of the condition of ecology in the modern world,” Latour continues. “This territory, so ancient and so tragically new, this Terrestrial on which one would need to land, has already been crisscrossed in all directions and in all senses by what can be called the ‘ecological movements’” (45). For the Moderns, “time’s arrow pulled everything toward globalization,” but for political ecology—Green parties in Europe and elsewhere—the Local was the destination (45). “Ecology has . . . succeeded in running politics through its mill by introducing objects that had not previously belonged to the usual preoccupations of public life,” Latour writes:

It has successfully rescued politics from an overly restrictive definition of the social world. In this sense, political ecology has fully succeeded in changing what is at stake in the public sphere.

To modernize or to ecologize: this has become the crucial choice. Everyone agrees about this. And yet, ecology has failed. Everyone agrees about this too. (46)

Part of the problem is that ecologists have tried to avoid taking a position on the Right/Left political spectrum, although they have not been able “to get out of the trap set by the Moderns’ temporal arrow” (46). The only ways out of the Right/Left division are to “take a position in the middle between the two extremes by settling in along the traditional vector,” or to “redefine the vector by attaching oneself to the third attractor, which makes it necessary to redistribute the range of Left/Right positions according to another viewpoint” (47). Getting beyond the Left/Right division “is a matter of tilting the front line while modifying the content of the disputed objects that are at the origin of the Right/Left distinction—or rather of the various Rights and Lefts, so numerous today and so intermingled that not much remains, when these labels are used, of the ordering power allowed by this classic system of coordinates” (48). What is needed, it seems, is another vector.

Latour calls the Right/Left division a “mental hemicycle that sets up like a row of toy soldiers first the far left, then the left, the center, the right, and finally the far right” (48-49). “[H]owever rudimentary and contingent it may be, this gradation organizes every poll, every political proclamation, and every categorization; it is operative in every election as well as in every historical narrative, and it governs even our most visceral reactions,” Latour writes. “It is hard to see, at least for the moment, how to get along without such affect-laden terms. Public action must be oriented toward a recognizable goal” (49). Latour’s hypothesis—“that the needle has turned 90º and is now oriented toward the powerful attractor whose originality strikes us today,” an attractor that “has none of the same properties as the two others between which politics has been situated since the dawn of the so-called modern era”—suggests that:

[t]he rift introduced by the Terrestrial attractor makes it necessary to open the packaging and re-examine, piece by piece, what was expected of each component—which we are gradually going to learn to call “movement,” “advance,” or even “progression”—and what goes clearly in the other direction—which we shall have the right henceforth to call in fact “regression,” “abandonment,” “betrayal,” or “reaction.” (50)

“This move will perhaps complicate the political game,” Latour continues, “but it will also open up unforeseen margins for maneuvering” (50).

Two angles will “allow us to identify the delicate negotiations that will have to be undertaken in order to redirect the interests of those who continue to flee toward the Global and those who continue to take refuge in the Local, in order to interest them in feeling the weight of this new attractor,” the Terrestrial (51). This negotiation will lead to a definition of the new politics. “Allies have to be sought among people who, according to the old gradation, were clearly ‘reactionaries,’” Latour writes. “And, of course, alliances will have to be forged with people who, again according to the old reference points, were clearly ‘progressives’ and perhaps ‘liberals’ or even ‘neoliberals’” (51). How could such a miracle take place? “For a simple reason that is bound up with the very notion of orientation,” Latour answers. “Despite the appearances, what counts in politics are not attitudes, but the form and weight of the world to which these attitudes have the function of reacting” (52):

Politics has always been oriented toward objects, stakes, situations, material entities, bodies, landscapes, places. What are called the values to be defended are always responses to the challenges of a territory that it must be possible to describe. This is in effect the decisive discovery of political ecology: it is an object-oriented politics. Change the territories and you will also change the attitudes. (52)

For Latour, “[t]he only reassuring element in the current situation is that another vector is gradually gaining in realism,” which he identifies as “[t]he Modern/Terrestrial vector,” which “could become a credible, perceptible, palpable alternative to the Left/Right dichotomy that remains so acute” (52).

The antagonists in this political realignment would be those who continue to direct their attention towards the Local, the Global, and the Out-of-This World. “But these adversaries are also the only potential allies,” Latour contends. “Thus, they are the ones that will have to be persuaded and converted” (52-53). That would mean figuring out” how to address those who rightly feel abandoned by the historical betrayal fo the ruling classes and are clamoring for the security of a protected space” (53). Their energies would have to be shifted from the Local to the Terrestrial (53). Belonging to a particular place has only become “‘reactionary’ . . . by contrast with the headlong flight imposed by modernization. If we stop fleeing, what does the desire for attachment look like?” (53). But that recognition would have to take place without confusing belonging to the land with “what the Local has added to it: ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticity” (53). “On the contrary,” Latour continues, “there is nothing more innovative, nothing more present, subtle, technical, and artificial (in the positive sense fo the word), nothing less rustic and rural, nothing more creative, nothing more contemporary than to negotiate landing on some ground” (53). The distinction to be made between the Local and the Terrestrial is that “the Local is designed to differentiate itself  by closing itself off,” while “the Terrestrial is designed to differentiate itself by opening itself up” (54). 

It is here that “the other branch of negotiation comes in, the one addressed to those who are rushing full speed toward the Global” (54). Those who are “rushing toward globalization-minus will have to be shown how much that globalization differs from access to the Globe and the world,” Latour continues. “For the Terrestrial is bound to the earth and to land, but it is also a way of worlding, in that it aligns with no borders, transcends all identities” (54). According to Latour,

This is the sense in which it solves the problem of place we noted earlier: there is no Earth corresponding to the infinite horizon of the Global, but at the same time the Local is much too narrow, too shrunken, to accommodate the multiplicity of beings belonging to the terrestrial world. This is why the zoom lens that purported to align the Local and the Global as successive sightings along a single trajectory has never made any sense. (54)

In any case, the necessary alliances will never be achieved “as long as we continue to speak of political attitudes, affects, passions, and positions while the real world toward which those attitudes, affects, passions, and positions are directed has completely changed,” Latour continues. “In other words, we have fallen behind on revamping our political affects. This is why we need to restart the process and put the new magnetic mass in front of the traditional compass: to discover the direction it will indicate and see how our attitudes, affects, passions, and positions will turn out to be redistributed” (54-55). This process will be difficult. “The time lost in continuing to pace up and down along the old Right/Left vector has delayed the necessary mobilizations and negotiations,” Latour admits (55). “What is important is to be able to get out of the impasse by imagining a set of new alliances,” he continues—to shift the terms from Left or Right to Terrestrial or Modern (55-56). This shift has to happen “before the militants of the extreme Modern have totally devastated the stage” (56).

Political ecology has never been able “to mobilize on a scale adequate to the stakes,” Latour argues (56). “Having failed to figure out how to join forces effectively, socialism and ecology, each of which sought to alter the course of history, have only managed to slow it down,” he continues (56-57). The problem, according to Latour, is that they were defining their choices too narrowly, “when what was really at stake was a different and much more decisive choice having to do with two directions of politics: one that defines social questions in a restrictive manner, and another that defines the stakes of survival without introducing a priori differences between humans and non-humans” (57). “The choice to be made is between a narrow definition of the social ties making up a society”—by that I think Latour means the Local-minus—“and a wider definition of associations that make up what have been called collectives”—which I think refers to the Local-plus (57). “The question then becomes the following: why did the social movements not grasp the ecological stakes at the outset as if they were their own, which would have allowed them to avoid obsolescence and to lend their strength to a still-weak ecology? Or to turn the question around, why did political ecology fail to take up the baton from the social question and forge ahead?” Latour asks (57).

The revolts of socialism, ecology, and even feminism have not merged; instead, they have submitted, “in almost total impotence,” to what has been called the “Great Acceleration” of the past 70 years, which has led to “the triumph os globalization-minus, the sterilization of socialism,” and then the election of Donald Trump (58). “During all these events, we have been stuck with a scarcely attenuated opposition between ‘social’ conflicts and ‘ecological’ conflicts—as if we were dealing with two distinct entities between which, like Buridan’s legendary ass, we have to continue to hesitate while dying of hunger and thirst,” Latour states. “But nature is no more a sack of grain than society is a bucket of water. If there is no choice to be made, it is for the excellent reason that there are not naked humans on one side and nonhuman objects on the other” (58). Ecology, Latour states, is really “a call for a change of direction: ‘Toward the Terrestrial!’” (58).

What explains “this interruption in relaying a collective struggle”? Latour asks (58). Since the nineteenth century, politics has been organized around social classes, and “[d]espite all the efforts to attenuate class oppositions and even to claim that they no longer made any sense, politics was nevertheless organized around them” (59). “If these definitions have begun to spin their wheels in a vacuum, it is because the analysis in terms of social classes and the materialism underlying that analysis were clearly defined by the attractor called Global, above, in opposition with the Local,” Latour writes:

The great phenomena of industrialization, urbanization, and occupation of colonized territories defined a horizon—sinister or radiant, it hardly matters—that gave meaning and direction to progress. And for a good reason: that progress was pulling out of poverty, if not out of exploitation, hundreds of millions of human beings whose contrivances were supposed to lead toward an emancipation that seemed inevitable. (59-60)

Of course, at the same time, those phenomena were condemning hundreds of millions of others to poverty and exploitation; a nodding acquaintance with the work of Frantz Fanon, among others, would tell Latour that progress had two sides. Both the Left and the Right, he continues, were focused on modernization, on “which side would reach the Global world first,” and whether reform or revolution was necessary (60). “But they never took the time to explain to peoples undergoing modernization what precisely described world progress would end up putting them in,” he writes (60). Indeed, progress became “a mere horizon, a simple regulating idea, a sort of increasingly vague utopia, as the gradually evolving Earth would fail to give it substance” (60). The conclusion of the Paris Climate Accord “made it official . . . that there was no longer an Earth corresponding to the horizon of the Global” (60). The limitations of the Earth were ignored by twentieth-century political movements, a failing Latour finds hard to understand when those movements considered themselves to be materialist. What was their material? They paid little attention to it (60-61). “The question thus becomes how to define class struggles much more realistically by taking into account this new materiality, the new materialism imposed by the orientation toward the Terrestrial,” he writes (61).

Class struggles, Latour continues, “depend on a geo-logic” (62). The prefix “geo-” “obliges us to reopen the social question while intensifying it through the new geopolitics” (63). “The difficulty is that to find principles that will allow us to define these new classes”—the new classes of “geo-social loci”—“and trace the lines of conflict between their divergent interests, we shall have to learn to distrust definitions of matter, the systems of production and even the reference points in space and time that had served to define ecological struggles as well as social classes,” he writes. “In fact, one of the oddities of the modern period is that we have had a definition of matter that is hardly material, hardly terrestrial at all. The Moderns take pride in a realism that they have never been able to put to work” (63). How can people who are capable of allowing the temperature of the planet to rise by 3.5º, or allow a sixth extinction to take place, be called materialists (63-64)? Obviously, they can’t.

The reason socialism and ecology have not been able to amalgamate has to do with “the role that both groups have attributed to ‘nature,’” Latour writes:

A certain conception of “nature” has allowed the Moderns to occupy the Earth in such a way that it forbids others to occupy their own territories differently. For, in order to mold a politics, you need agents who bring together their interests and their capacities for action. But you cannot make alliances between political actors and objects that are external to society and deprived of the power to act. (64)

Nature, as it is typically understood, is such an object:

If we swallow the usual epistemology whole, we shall find ourselves again prisoners of a conception of “nature” that is impossible to politicize since it has been invented precisely to limit human action thanks to an appeal to the laws of objective nature that cannot be questioned. Freedom on one side, strict necessity on the other: this makes it possible to have it both ways. Every time we want to count on the power to act of other actors, we’re going to encounter the same objections: “Don’t even think about it, these are mere objects, they cannot react,” the way Descartes said of animals that they cannot suffer. (65)

However, he continues,

if we claim to be opposing “scientific rationality” by inventing a more intimate, more subjective, more rooted, more global—more “ecological,” as it were—way of capturing our ties to “nature,” we lose on both fronts: we will be left with the idea of “nature” borrowed from tradition while being deprived of the contribution of positive knowledge. (65)

“We need to be able to count on the full power of the sciences, but without the ideology of “nature” that has been attached to that power,” Latour writes. “We have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds” (65). 

“The difficulty is that the Terrestrial is not at all the Globe,” Latour continues. “One cannot be materialist and rational in the same way in these two sites” (65-66). Indeed, “it is clear that one cannot praise rationality without recognizing to what extent it has been abused by the quest for the Global” (66): he notes the failure of modernization to take into account the reaction of the planet to human activity, the failure of economic theories premised on inexhaustible resources, the failure of our civilization to avoid making “a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving an inhabited world to their children” (66). No wonder “rationality” has become a frightening word. “To restore a positive meaning to the words ‘realistic,’ ‘objective,’ ‘efficient,’ or ‘rational,’ we have to turn them away from the Global, where they have so clearly failed, and toward the Terrestrial,” he writes (66). The Globe, he notes, “grasps all things from far away, as if they were external to the social world and completely indifferent to human concerns,” whereas the Terrestrial “grasps the same structures from up close, as internal to the collectivities and sensitive to human actions, to which they react swiftly” (66-67). “The idea—the revolutionary idea—of grasping the earth as one planet among others . . . can be traced to the birth of the modern sciences,” he continues, including cartography and physics (67). Unfortunately, this idea “is also very easy to distort,” and “some thinkers go on to conclude that it is necessary to occupy, virtually, the vantage point of the universe to understand what is happening on this planet” (67). “Such a conclusion is in no way obligatory,” Latour contends. “No matter how far out they send their thoughts, researchers always have their feet firmly anchored in clay” (68). 

Looking at the Earth from the outside “has the disadvantage of limiting to just a few movements . . . the whole gamut of movements grasped by the positive sciences,” Latour writes. “Yet on the Earth seen from the inside, there are many other forms of movements that have become harder and harder to take into account. Little by little, it has become more cumbersome to gain objective knowledge about a whole range of transformations: genesis, birth, growth, life, death, decay, metamorphoses” (68). “The detour by way of the outside introduced into the notion of ‘nature’ a confusion from which we have still not been extricated,” Latour suggests. “[N]ow, the word ‘natural’ is increasingly reserved for what makes it possible to follow a single type of movement viewed from the outside. This is also the meaning that the word has taken on in the expression ‘the natural sciences’” (68-69). Many scientists have decided to distance themselves from a range of phenomena, “to discern in all these easily accessible movements only those that one could have seen from Sirius,” and “[a]ll other movements have become subject to suspicion. Considered from the inside, on the Earth, they could not be scientific; they could not be really naturalized” (69). “If the planet has ended up moving away from the Terrestrial,” Latour continues,

it is because everything has happened as though nature seen from the universe had begun to replace, bit by bit—to cover over, to chase away—nature seen from the Earth, the nature that grasped, that could have grasped, that should have continued to include, all the phenomena of genesis.

The grandiose Galilean invention has come to take up all the space by making people forget that seeing the earth from Sirius is only a tiny part—even if the infinite universe is involved—of what we have the right to know positively. (70)

“The inevitable consequence,” for Latour, is that “we have begun to see less and less of what is happening on Earth” (70).

“Such a bifurcation between the real—external, objective, and knowable—and the inside—unreal, subjective, and unknowable—would have intimidated no one, or would have been taken for a simple exaggeration on the part of savants not very well acquainted with the realities here below,” Latour writes, “had it not been superimposed on the notorious vector of modernization” (70-71). “It is on this point that the two meanings, positive and negative, of the word ‘Global’ turn out to diverse entirely,” he continues:

The subjective side begins to be associated with the archaic and the outdated; the objective side with the modern and the progressive. Seeing things from the inside comes to have no value other than being traditional, intimate, archaic. Seeing things from the outside, on the contrary, becomes the only way to grasp the reality that counts, and, above all, the only way to orient oneself toward the future. (71)

This “brutal division” made “the illusion of the Global as the horizon of modernity” consistent (71). “From this point on it was necessary, even if one stayed in place, to shift one’s position virtually, bag and baggage, away from subjective and sensitive positions toward exclusively objective positions, finally freed of all sensitivity—or rather of sentimentality,” Latour states. “This is where, by contrast with the Global, the necessarily reactive, reflexive, nostalgic figure of the Local comes in” (71). The only way “to gain access to nature as an infinite universe” was to lose “one’s sensitivity to nature as process”: “To progress in modernity was to tear oneself away from the primordial soil and set out for the Great Outside, to become if not natural, at least naturalist” (71).

“Either one speaks of ‘nature,’ but then one is far away; or else one is close by, but one expresses only feelings,” Latour writes:

Such is the result of the confusion between the planetary vision and the Terrestrial. It is about the planetary vision that one can say, considering things “from above,” that it has always varied and that it will outlast humans, making it possible to take the New Climatic Regime as an unimportant oscillation. The Terrestrial, for its part, does not allow this kind of detachment. (72)

The term “nature” also explains the failure of political ecology:

When the so-called “ecological” parties try to interest people in what is happening “to nature,” a nature that they claim to be “protecting,” if by the term “nature” is meant the nature-universe seen from nowhere that is supposed to stretch from the cells of our bodies to the most distant galaxies, the answer will be simply: “That’s too far away; it’s too vague; it doesn’t concern us; we couldn’t care less.” (73)

Those responses make sense, according to Latour:

No progress will be made toward a “politics of nature” as long as the same term is used to designate, for example, research into terrestrial magnetism, the classification of the 3,500 exoplanets that have been spotted to date, the detection of gravitational waves, the role of earthworms in soil aeration, the reaction of shepherds in the Pyrenees to the reintroduction of bears, or the reaction of bacterial in our intestines to our latest gastronomic overindulgence. That nature is a real catch-all. (73)

For Latour, “nature” is the reason “the slow pace of mobilizations in favor of nature-as-universe” (73). It is not a political idea: objects cannot mobilize us in geo-social conflicts. “In order to begin to describe objectively, rationally, effectively, in order to paint the terrestrial situation with some degree of realism, we need all the sciences, but positioned differently,” Latour writes. “In other words, to be knowledgeable in scientific terms. . . . [i]t is essential to acquire as much cold-blooded knowledge as possible about the heated activity of an Earth finally grasped from up close” (73-74).

But everything depends on what one means by “heated activity” (74). It’s easy, from the perspective of “the nature-universe,” to think of “the earth’s agency” as “a subjective illusion, like a simple projection of feelings onto an indifferent ‘nature’” (74). Thus nature became an externality in economics: whereas humans were agents in systems of economic production, anything deemed “natural” could not be an agent or an actor (74). “It was vaguely felt that everything else depended on them and that they were inevitably going to react, but—here’s the hitch—because nature-as-universe had so fully obscured nature-as-process, those who were seizing control of these resources, sometimes fearfully, were left devoid of words, concepts, and directions” (74-75). Any attitude, myth, or ritual that was not touched “by any notion of ‘resource’ or ‘production’” was taken as “mere vestiges of old forms of subjectivity, of archaic cultures irreversibly outstripped by the modernization front” (75). “It is only today that these practices have become precious models for learning how to survive in the future,” he writes (75).

“The relation to the sciences can change,” but only if the natural sciences “that focus on nature-as-process” are “carefully distinguished from those that focus on the universe” (75). “Whereas the latter start with the planet taken as a body among bodies, for the former the Earth appears wholly singular,” Latour writes, suggesting that a world “composed of agents” could be called “Lovelockian,” after James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia thesis (75). According to Latour, Lovelock’s point is that “it is necessary to consider, on Earth, living beings as agents participating fully in the processes of generating the chemical, and even in part the geological, conditions of the planet” (75). “If the composition of the air we breathe depends on living beings, the atmosphere is no longer the environment in which living beings are located and in which they involve,” Latour continues. Instead, that atmosphere “is, in part, a result of their actions. In other words, there are not organisms on one side and an environment on the other, but a coproduction of both. Agencies are redistributed” (76). Thinking of “the natural sciences as encompassing all the activities necessary to our existence” would make possible “political orientations” (76-77). Latour summarizes the conflict he is trying to describe:

there are those who continue to look at things from the vantage point of Sirius and simply do not see that the earth system reacts to human action, or do not believe it possible; they still hope that the Earth will mysteriously be beamed to Sirius and become one planet among others. Basically, they do not believe that there is life on Earth capable of suffering and reacting. And there are those who seek, while keeping a firm grip on the sciences, to understand what is meant by distributing action, animation, the power to act, all along the causal chains in which they find themselves entangled. (77)

“The former are climate skeptics,” Latour writes; “the latter consent to face up to an enigma concerning the number and nature of the agents at work” (77). Latour might be giving climate skeptics too much credit here: the ones I see on Facebook simply refuse to believe the evidence, preferring to believe fairy tales sponsored by oil companies instead.

We need science—science “extended to encompass all processes of genesis, in order to avoid imposing a priori restrictions on the agency of the beings with which we shall have to work”—“[y]et the empirical sciences must also be subjected to certain limits” (78). “In particular, it is important to try to single out the sciences that bear upon what some researchers call the Critical Zone(s),” Latour writes (78). “Seen from space, everything that has to do with knowledge of the third attractor, the Terrestrial, is in fact limited in a surprising way to a minuscule zone a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bedrock,” he continues. “A biofilm, a varnish, a skin, a few infinitely folded layers” (78). Everything that concerns us “resides in the minuscule Critical Zone. This is the point of departure and also the point of return for all the sciences that matter to us” (78). “This is why we need to circumscribe, among the fields of positive knowledge, those that have to do with the Critical Zone, so that we will not have to weigh ourselves down with the entire universe every time we talk about territorial conflicts,” he writes (78). The “sciences of nature-as-process that bear upon the Critical Zone” involve confronting “conflicts for each of the agents that populate the zone and that have neither the privilege nor the possibility of remaining uninterested” (79). Everyone has an interpretation of what happens within the Critical Zone. It is not a classroom: “the relationship between researchers and the public is anything but purely pedagogical” (79). 

“If we still had any doubts on this point, the pseudo-controversy over the climate suffices to dispel them,” Latour continues, noting that no corporation has spent anything to disprove the detection of the Higgs boson, “[b]ut denying the climatic mutation is another matter entirely: financing floods in. Ignorance on the part of the public is such a precious commodity that it justifies immense investments” (79-80). “In other words, the sciences of nature-as-process cannot have the same somewhat lofty and disinterested epistemology as that of the sciences of nature-as-universe,” he writes. “The philosophy that protected the latter will be of no help to the former. With no hope of escaping the controversies, the sciences of nature-as-process would do better to organize themselves in order to resist all those that do take an interest—a great interest—in them” (80). The point—the political point—“is that the Earth’s reaction to human action looks like an aberration in the eyes of those who believe in a terrestrial world made up of Galilean objects, and it appears self-evident to those who see it as a concatenation of Lovelockian agents” (80). Therefore, the Terrestrial has less to do with “nature”—“in the sense of nature-as-universe”—as people used to imagine (80):

It is through the Terrestrial that we must henceforth understand the conjoined action of the agents known through the sciences of the Critical Zone, which are struggling for legitimacy and autonomy against countless other concerned parties that have contradictory interests, and all of which possess other bodies of positive knowledge. The Terrestrial is literally drawing another world, as different from “nature” as from what used to be called the “human world” or “society.” The three are all political entities, but they do not lead to the same occupation of the soil, to the same “land-grabbing.” (80)

Discovering this new world “requires different psychological equipment” as well (81). “Innovating by breaking all limits and all codes is not the same as innovating by profiting from these limits,” Latour notes. “Celebrating the forward march of progress cannot have the same meaning when one is heading toward the Global as it does when one is heading toward ‘decisive advances’ in taking the Earth’s reactions to our actions into account” (81). 

“The period opening up before us is indeed a new epoch of ‘great discoveries,’ but these resemble neither the wholesale conquest of a New World emptied of its inhabitants, as before, nor the headlong flight into a form of hyper-neo-modernity,” Latour writes; “instead, they require digging deep down into the Earth with its thousand folds” (81). That Earth “is insinuating itself as a third party in all our actions,” he continues. “In both cases it is a matter—to hold onto one of the mainsprings of the modern tradition—of moving beyond, but buy violating different taboos, by passing through different Pillars of Hercules” (81-82).

For Latour, “[r]edirecting attention from ‘nature’ toward the Terrestrial might put an end to the disconnect that has frozen political positions since the appearance of the climate threat and has imperiled the linking of the so-called social struggles with those we call ecological” (82). “The new articulation between the two struggles correlates with a shift from an analysis focused on a system of production to an analysis focused on a system of engendering”: the difference between these analyses is in their principles (freedom for the first, and dependency for the second); in the role they give to humanity (central for the first, distributed for the second); and, finally, in the movements for which they take responsibility (mechanism for the first, genesis for the second) (82). The system of production was based on a materialist conception of nature and of the role of the sciences, and “it assigned a different function to politics and was rooted in a division between human actors and their resources” (82). “At bottom, there was the idea that human freedom would be deployed in a natural setting, where it would be possible to indicate the precise limits of each property,” Latour writes (82). In contrast,

[t]he system of engendering brings into confrontation agents, actors, animate beings that all have distinct capacities for reacting. It does not proceed from the same conception of materiality as the system of production, it does not have the same epistemology, and it does not lead to the same form of politics. It is not interested in producing goods, for humans, on the basis of resources, but in engendering terrestrials—not just humans, but all terrestrials. It is based on the idea of cultivating attachments, operations that are all the more difficult because animate beings are not limited by frontiers and are constantly overlapping, embedding themselves within one another. (82-83)

“If these two systems enter into conflict, it is because another authority has appeared, making it necessary to raise all the old questions again, no longer starting from the project of emancipation alone, but starting from the newly discovered value of dependency,” Latour suggests (83). Dependency limits, complicates, and then reconsiders “the project of emancipation, in order finally to amplify it” (83). This “new form of obligation” is emphasized “in the assertion that there is no planet (one should say Critical Zone) that can shelter the utopia of modernization or of globalization-minus” (83). “How can we deny that we find ourselves facing another power that imposes barriers different from the old so-called ‘natural limits’?” Latour asks (83). 

This is the conflict of authority that the obscurantist elites identified “when they decided no longer to share the planet with the rest of the nine billion good folks whose fate—at least so they claimed—had always been their chief concern” (83). The same conflict, or contradiction, broke out at the end of the negotiations for the Paris Climate Accord: “What power then secured the signature of those 175 states, if not a form of sovereignty to which they consented to bow down and that propelled them to reach agreement?” Latour asks. “If it is not a power that dominates the heads of state, and to which they grant a still-vague form of legitimacy, what should it be called?” (84). It is the same contradiction summed up by the term Anthropocene, which “is indeed the symptom of a repoliticization of all the planetary questions” (84). And this conflict was clarified when the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord: Trump’s statement “was a declaration of war authorizing the occupation of all the other countries, if not with troops, at least with CO2, which American retains the right to emit” (84). “Acknowledging that contradictions drive political history, we can see that what fuels the contradiction between the system of production and the system of engendering is dependence on this new form of authority, which is at once very old and freshly minted,” Latour writes (85).

“Another difference between the two types of systems is the role attributed to humanity, a direct consequence of this emerging principle of authority,” Latour continues. “People have been fighting for a century to determine whether questions about nature would make it necessary to exit from anthropocentrism or whether, on the contrary, humans should remain at the center—as if one had to choose between a more or less deep ecology and another more or less ‘humanistic’ version” (85). The question, though, according to Latour, “has always been about the form and the composition of this human” (85). “What the New Climatic Regime calls into question is not the central place of the human,” he writes; “it is its composition, its presence, its figuration, in a word, its destiny. Now if you modify these things, you also change the definition of human interests” (85). The Moderns found it impossible “to situate the human in a precise landscape. The term human referred either to a natural being like all the others (in the classical sense of nature-as-universe) or else to the being par excellence capable of extricating itself from nature (again conceived in the old way), thanks to its soul, its culture, or its intelligence” (85-86). No one has “ever managed to stabilize this oscillation by giving humanity a stable shape” (86). If that is changing now, “it is because the climate crisis has driven both sides off the rails: the notion of nature on the one hand, that of the human on the other” (86). The choice for or against anthropocentrism is implausible now because, Latour suggests, of “the assumption that there is a center, or rather two, man and nature, between which one has to choose. And even more bizarre is the idea that this circle has such well-defined boundaries that they would leave everything else outside. As if there were an outside!” (86). But climate change tells us that there is no circle: no inside, no outside. Instead of talking about humans, Latour suggests, we need to talk about terrestrials, the Earthbound, which “does not lead to the same politics as saying ‘We are humans in nature’” (86). We cannot continue to separate ourselves from the rest of the occupants of the Critical Zone.

The third difference between a system of production and a system of engendering “has to do with the possibility of multiplying the actors without at the same time naturalizing behaviors” (86-87). “To become materialists is no longer to reduce the world to objects, but to extend the list of movements that must be taken into account, precisely the movements of genesis that the view from Sirius did not allow us to follow closely,” Latour argues. “Terrestrials in fact have the very delicate problem of discovering how many other beings they need in order to subsist” (87). (It’s a long list and many of the beings on that list are endangered because of our activities.) Making that list would allow us to “sketch out their dwelling places”—Latour prefers that term to “territory” (87). “To track the terrestrials”—and, remember, these aren’t just humans—“is to add conflicts of interpretation regarding what a given actor is, wants, desires, or can do, to conflicts about what other actors are, want, desire, or can do—and this applies to workers as well as to birds in the sky, to Wall Street executives as well as to bacteria in the soil, to forests as well as to animals” (87). It’s not a question of living in harmony with these other creatures, Latour insists; it’s a question of “learning to be dependent on them” (87). “The list of actors simply grows longer,” he states; “the actors’ interests are encroaching on one another; all our powers of investigation are needed if we are to begin to find our place among these other actors” (87).

“In a system of engendering, all the agents, all the animated beings, raise questions about descendants and forebears: in short, the question of how to recognize and insert oneself within lineages that will manage to last,” Latour writes (87-88). This operation is counter-intuitive for the Moderns, who always felt it necessary to choose “between the old and the new,” with the past defined as “what was simply surpassed, outdated” (88). “The perversity of the modernization front was that, by ridiculing the notion of tradition as archaic, it precluded any form of transmission, inheritance, or revival, and thus of transformation—in short, of engendering,” he continues. “And this is true for the education of human offspring as well as for landscapes, animals, governments, or divinities” (88). (Divinities?) In the system of production, humans alone have the ability to revolt; in a system of engendering, “many other protesters can make themselves heard—before the catastrophe” (88). In a system of engendering, “not only points of view but also points of life proliferate” (88). Therefore, “[b]y shifting from a system of production to a system of engendering, we are going to be able to multiply the sources of revolt against injustice and, consequently, to increase considerably the gamut of potential allies in the struggles to come for the Terrestrial” (88). I find myself wondering, though, whether humans would accept those other sources of revolt—or whether they would just ignore them.

But Latour has anticipated my question. If it were only a philosophical decision, he states, the shift from a system of production to a system of engendering would have no strength: “Before the New Climatic Regime, it seemed . . . to be implausible, convoluted, apocalyptic” (88). But now, we will benefit “from help offered by unleashed agents that oblige us to revisit the definition of what it means to be a human, a territory, a politics, a civilization” (88-89). Our current situation is a contradiction between a system of production and a system of engendering: “It is not simply a matter of economics but rather of civilization itself” (89). Still, though, will farmers or politicians or bureaucrats listen to the bees dying because of neonicotinoids? Or will they continue to close their ears and endanger the food plants we rely upon? Neonicotinoids boost, temporarily, the GDP; short-term thinking triumphs over the long view. What Latour is saying makes sense, but how can we get out from under the tyranny of GDP, of economics, of growth?

“What has been the object from the beginning of this essay can now be named: the Terrestrial is not yet an institution, but it is an actor whose role is clearly different from the political role attributed to ‘nature’ by the Moderns,” Latour writes. “The new conflicts do not replace the old ones; they sharpen them, deploy them differently, and above all they finally make them identifiable. Fighting to join one or another utopia, the Global or the Local, does not have the same clarifying effects as fighting to land on Earth!” (89). Latour also suggests that the word “ecology” should be retired in favour of the word “political,” since “[t]here are only questions of dwelling places inhabited with or defended against other terrestrials that share the same stakes” (90). 

We are in a war, but it is “a conflict between modern humans who believe they are alone in the Holocene, in flight toward the Global or in exodus toward the Local, and the terrestrials who know they are in the Anthropocene and who seek to cohabit with other terrestrials under the authority of a power that as yet lacks any political institution” (90). And that way, “at once civic and oral, divides each of us from within” (90). So my questions about GDP and neonicotinoids are determined by the war against Modernists, against those “who believe they are alone in the Holocene.” 

Or is that all my questions amount to? “The Achilles’ heel of any text that purports to channel political affects toward new stakes is that the reader can justifiably ask, at the end: ‘All that is well and good. The hypothesis may be attractive, though it still waits to be proved, but what are we to do with it, practically speaking, and what does it change for me?’” (90). What should we then do? “The goal of this essay is certainly not to disappoint, but one cannot ask it to go faster than the history that is under way: the Terrestrial is known by all . . . and, at the same time, the New Climatic Regime has no institutional embodiment,” Latour writes. “It is in this in-between position, in this phony war, that we find ourselves, at once mobilized toward the front and demobilized toward the rear” (91). The situation is even more uncertain, because “the Terrestrial is at once empty and populated” (91). And “the third attractor doesn’t look very attractive. It requires too much care, too much attention, too much time, too much diplomacy” (91). The Global still seems shinier; it arouses more enthusiasm regarding our emancipation (91). “Only it does not exist,” Latour contends. “It is the Local that reassures, that calms, that offers an identity. But it does not exist either” (91-92). Still, Latour believes that the questions he began the essay with can now be answered: “How can the feeling of being protected be provided without an immediate return to identity and the defense of borders?” (92). The answer is: “By two complementary movements that modernization has made contradictory: attaching oneself to the soil on the one hand, becoming attached to the world on the other” (92). “The attractor designated as Terrestrial . . . brings together the opposing figures of the soil and the world,” he continues. “A soil that has nothing to do with the Local and a world that resembles neither globalization-minus nor a planetary vision” (92).

“From the soil,” Latour continues, the Terrestrial “inherits materiality, heterogeneity, thickness, dust, humus, the succession of layers, strata, the attentive care that it requires. Everything that cannot be seen from Sirius. Just the opposite of a plot of ground that a development or real estate project has just grabbed. The ground, the soil, in this sense, cannot be appropriated” (92). We belong to the Terrestrial; it belongs to no one. The Terrestrial also inherits from globalization-plus “the recording of forms of existence that forbid us to limit ourselves to a single location, preclude keeping ourselves inside whatever boundaries there may be” (92). “The soil allows us to attach ourselves,” he continues; “the world allows detachment. Attachment allows us to get away from the illusion of a Great Outside; detachment allows us to escape the illusion of borders. Such is the balancing act to be refined” (93).

“What brings us closer to the solution, fortunately, is one of the properties of this new agent of history proper to the New Climatic Regime”:

It makes no sense to force the beings animating the struggling territories that constitute the Terrestrial back inside national, regional, ethnic, or identitary boundaries; nor does it make sense to try to withdraw from these territorial struggles so as to “move to the global level” and grasp the Earth “as a whole.” The subversion of scales and of temporal and spatial frontiers defines the Terrestrial. This power acts everywhere at once, but it is not unifying. It is political, yes; but it is not statist. It is, literally, atmospheric. (93)

The Terrestrial reorganizes politics in a practical way: “Each of the beings that participate in the composition of a dwelling place has its own way of identifying what is local and what is global, and of defining its entanglements with others” (93). Different things are spatialized differently: CO2, aquifers, and antibiotics are not spatialized the same way as transit systems, bird flu, or terrorism (93). We need to understand this point.

Still, “[t]he Global and the Local alike afford us an inadequate purchase on the Terrestrial, which explains the current hopelessness: what can be done about problems at once so large and so small?” (94). Well, first, “generate alternative descriptions” by thinking about “the stuff that makes us the Earth for us” (94). “Any politics that failed to propose redescribing the dwelling places that have become invisible would be dishonest,” he states. “We cannot allow ourselves to skip the stage of description. No political lie is more brazen than proposing a program” (94). We must investigate, from the bottom up, our dwelling places, defining dwelling place as “that on which a terrestrial depends for its survival, while asking what other terrestrials also depend on it?” (95).  That territory will not likely “coincide with a classic legal, spatial, administrative, or geographic entity,” Latour suggests. “On the contrary, the configurations will traverse all scales of space and time” (95). This inventorying is difficult, particularly in a system of engendering, “because the agents, the animate beings, the actors that compose it all have their own trajectories and interests” (95). When we ask questions about the beings we depend on, that depend on us, that live with us, “we notice our own ignorance”: “Every time one begins such an investigation, one is surprised by the abstract nature of the responses. And yet questions about engendering turn up everywhere, along with those of gender, race, education, food, jobs, technological innovations, religion, or leisure” (96). In asking those questions, we discover the causes and effects of our own subjections, which have been hidden from us by globalization-minus (96).

“The question is whether the emergence and description of the Terrestrial attractor can give meaning and direction to political action—forestalling the catastrophe of a headlong flight toward the Local along with the undoing of what has been called the world order,” Latour writes. “For there to be a world order, there first needs to be a world made more or less shareable by this attempt to take stock” (98). Still, in 2018, as Latour is writing, “those who are somewhat sensitive to the situation” are asking themselves, “with unconcealed anguish,” whether “it will be possible to avert another August 1914, another suicide—this time worldwide and no longer just European—of nations, under which such a deep depression has been dug that they will all plunge headlong into it—with enthusiasm and delight” (99). And this time, the Americans won’t help (99).

Latour ends by taking stock of himself: who he is, his attachments, particularly his attachment to Europe, a place whose history of imperialism has delivered it from any sense of innocence, “from the idea that one could either make a new and different history by breaking with the past, or escape from history once and for all” (102). (The unspoken comparison is clearly to the United States.) He wonders how Europe can get out of globalization-minus (104), what knits it together (104-05), what it shall do now that the protection of the United States has been withdrawn (105). Latour is offering this exploration as an example of the kind of inventory he is proposing, and when he concludes, he writes: “Now, it’s your turn to present yourself, to tell us a little about where you would like to land and with whom you agree to share a dwelling place” (106). Surprisingly, that’s what my current project seeks to do.

What I take from Latour’s book—after this first, quick reading—is what he appears to be doing with affect theory and object-oriented ontology (two things I need to learn more about). I like the notion of the Terrestrial as a way of tying humans to their surroundings; it’s obvious—to me if not to others—that we depend on those surroundings, and that we (along with most of the creatures with which we share the Critical Zone) will die if we carry on the way we are going. We’re not separate from what we’ve been calling “nature”; we’re entangled in it, and we need it to survive. Still, I’m not sure how the notion of taking an inventory of our dwelling place will do much. Perhaps I’ve missed something important, but I still feel powerless. Perhaps I would feel differently if I tried to take an inventory of my dwelling place? It’s possible. I guess I’ll have to find out. But while I think Latour’s analysis makes a lot of sense, I’m not sure it necessarily opens a pathway to action, as he expects it to do.

Work Cited

Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter, Polity, 2018.

120. Rachel Adams, ed., Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys, 1967-2017

adams wanderlust.jpg

Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys, 1967-2017 is a big catalogue—no expense was spared in its publication, although it wasn’t copyedited very well—that documents a 50-year-survey exhibition on the theme of exploration “and how artists engage this theme in various ways including walking, performative actions, land use, endurance, and the consideration of public space” (4) that was presented at the University at Buffalo Art Galleries in 2017. It’s hard to tell how Adams is using the term “performative” here: does she mean “performative” in J.L. Austin’s sense of the word, as an utterance that causes something to happen, or does the term “performative actions” merely mean “performances”? The catalogue proper begins with an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. That quotation, which occurs early in Solnit’s book, describes walking on the coast of the Pacific Ocean near the Golden Gate Bridge, and it uses that experience to consider the cognitive and creative effects of walking on the walker:

thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It is best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing, it is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals. After all those years of walking to work out other things, it made sense to come back to work close to home, in Thoreau’s sense, and to think about walking.

Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts. . . . Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the minds [sic] is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete—for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can. Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and to think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known. Perhaps this is where walking’s peculiar utility for thinkers comes from. The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far. Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane. It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both mean and end, travel and destination. (qtd. 6-7)

I know that many practitioners of radical or artistic walking would find Solnit’s comments excessively Romantic, and therefore wrongheaded or merely out of fashion, and yet I would venture to guess that many of those same critics have had experiences like the ones Solnit describes here, in which walking has been an aid to thinking. Just because the connection between thinking and walking—or even creativity and walking—was recognized by Wordsworth doesn’t make it less true. The connection Solnit makes in this long quotation between walking and thinking is borne out by my own experiences of walking. More importantly, however, for this book and the exhibition it documents, Solnit’s thinking on walking establishes a context for the work included here and the exhibition’s curatorial approach to that work. After all, it wasn’t called Wanderlust for no reason. If Solnit’s take on walking is Romantic, I would expect the curatorial approach to the exhibition documented by this book to be Romantic as well.

Rachel Adams’s introduction begins with a visit to Walter de Maria’s sculpture The Lightning Field, 400 stainless steel poles installed in a grid covering half a square mile of New Mexico desert. She notes that The Lightning Field is intended to be walked as well as seen, and describes the effect the sculpture had on her as she journeyed through the sculpture:

my journey through the sculpture was calming, dramatic, poetic, and performative. At one point, I found myself ignoring the poles and skipping—my body floating above the earth for half seconds, and then flattening the rough desert vegetation as I landed. Another time, I found myself in line with my husband, who was walking two poles down from my location. We locked eyes and suddenly engaged in a non-verbal performance of walking the grid from pole to pole in step with each other. This lasted for several poles until we came to the outer edge of the sculpture and turned toward each other. However, the most vivid memory I have was the sunset. As the sun lowered in the west, brilliant color slowly crept all around us, engulfing the landscape until all 360 degrees were activated by its disappearance below the horizon. (11)

During Adams’s experience at The Lightning Field, she writes, “this exhibition solidified and the subtitle first entered my mind” (11). Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys 1967-2017 began with walking artists, but broadened to consider“the creative processes of artists who make work outside the confines of an indoor space” (11). The 41 artists included “departed from the studio, the stage, the gallery, the museum,” Adams continues. “They found themselves wandering, sometimes with a purpose, and at other times not. The exhibition presents a variety of performative artistic projects that have taken place over the past fifty years, and includes works that are narrative, conceptual, poetic, and political” (11). The photographs, videos, films, texts, sculptures, and installations presented in the exhibition “are documented actions, traces, and journeys” (13). Not just walking, then, but other forms of movement are included in this exhibition catalogue as well.

Adams historicizes the exhibition by suggesting that humans have an “innate need to walk, traverse, travel and experience newness,” and that “artists follow in the footsteps of our ancestors’ early quests as they circumnavigate the globe” (13). From those prehistoric journeys, she leaps ahead to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s claim that walking stimulated his thinking, and from there she moves to “[p]erformative action in contemporary artistic practice” which began to change art making in the 1950s (13). “The move from art object to art action led to the experimental artistic practices of the 1960s and ’70s,” Adams writes. “Crossing the boundaries of Conceptual, Performance, and Land art, the works in this exhibition focus on the radical reorientation of art practice, beginning specifically in 1967” (13). Adams notes the contributions of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and the members of the Lettrist International and Situationist International, but the most important text in establishing this shift from object to action, for her, was Allan Kaprow’s “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” an essay “which provided a theoretical springboard for future artistic practice—establishing the idea of the happening, and widening the scope of what was considered art” (13). Kaprow’s essay “became a call, an invitation for artists to abandon the object-based disciplines for the limitless investigation of relationships between ideas, acts, and everyday life” (13). At the same time that Kaprow was creating “happenings” and “activities,” “the Fluxus Movement came into focus, which included street theater, tours, and impromptu performances with artists such as George Maciunas, George Brecht, Yoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, and Nam June Paik. These practices and artists were the precursors to the beginning of this exhibition” (14).

The “ease and availability of photography and video” by the mid-1960s “allowed artists to capture their performances, interactions, and engagements, helping to create a documentary within performance” and generating the material that is included in this exhibition, which “serves as both a record of the performance and the object within the gallery” (14). The documentation of “these formative artworks,” which showcases “the body’s movement through urban and rural landscapes,” include “both the solitary action of the artist and the artist performing for and/or with an audience” (14). Adams includes Richard Long’s 1967 A Line Made By Walking in this category: Long flattened “the grass beneath his feet” and recorded “the remnant of the action” (14). “While we do not see the artist repeatedly walking to flatten the grass, the viewer comes to imagine the action through its documentation,” she writes (14). “In a similar bucolic environment in 1969, artist Nancy Holt traveled to England and made Trail Markers—a document of a walk she took through Dartmoor National Park,” Adams continues (14), Holt’s work consists of colour photographs of trail markers in the park: “Her interest in these markers made her both a tourist and an explorer” (14-17). In 1967, Arte Povera artist Michelangelo Pistoletto performed Walking Sculpture in Turin, Italy: “With his large papier-mache globe in tow, Pistoletto both strolled and drove from gallery to gallery, where he was watched and joined by passersby. This performance might be considered a precursor to what is not termed social practice” (17). The action was documented in black-and-white photographs which “reference film stills, and show Pistoletto’s body and the ball moving through an urban landscape” (17). Rosemarie Castoro (whom I haven’t heard of before) and Vito Acconci (who is often discussed in histories of walking art) “participated in the Street Works exhibitions in New York City that transpired throughout 1969) (17). Castoro rode her bike through the streets, “marking her path with white paint dripping from a can off the back fender” (17); she also “appeared to create a crack in the sidewalk using aluminum tape” and physically wrestled with “an industrial roll of aluminum. The documentation reveals the artist grappling on her own, surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers” (17). Acconci created nine separate works for Street Works, the most famous of which is Following Piece (17-19). Other artists whose work took place outside the studio included John Baldessari and the OHO Group in Slovenia.

“While these works act as starting points for the exhibition, there is a seamless transition to artworks over the next four decades,” Adams continues. “In the 1970s, the Israeli artist Efrat Natan walked through Tel Aviv with a T-shaped wooden box on her head, one of her better known ‘action sculptures’” (19). Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta created “intimate, personal earthworks by physically embedding her body into the land” in locations in the U.S. and Mexico (19). “In 1985, with her Doc Martens tied around her ankles, Mona Hatoum walked barefoot through the Brixton market,” Adams writes. “This performance was a response to racial conditions in the UK at the time, and specifically the market—a site of one of the race riots” (19). African-American artist David Hammons “kicked a metal bucket down the darkened streets of New York, creating value from a discarded object while employing a variety of meanings from the performance title—Phat Free” (19). Adams also cites Night Canoeing, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and Roberley Bell’s Still Visible, in which the artist tried to find 18 trees she had photographed previously in Istanbul “via her daily journeys and her memories” (19). All of these works and artists were included in the exhibition.

“Each artist included in this exhibition merges creative practice with elemental forces—either by chance or by instruction—and the varied documents of these movements remain,” Adams writes. “When venturing outdoors, these artists transcend the physical confines of the studio, finding inspiration in both the natural and urban landscapes” and employing “performative strategies that engage with the landscape” (20). The movement outside of the studio “fuses art with life, aestheticizing a space and an action rather than an object. With one foot out the door, artists’ actions, traces, and journeys continue to expand contemporary art practice, just as they did fifty years ago” (20).

All of the works represented in this book, which are organized in alphabetical order by the artists’ surnames rather than chronologically or thematically,  are accompanied by short essays. The first is Vito Acconci’s Following Piece, from 1969, which is discussed by Kate Green. Acconci began as a poet, but “he began stretching beyond the boundaries of his newly acquired discipline,” moving into conceptual art (24). Acconci’s Following Piece was a daily practice of following passersby until they entered somewhere he couldn’t go (a taxi, a private residence). Acconci kept a written log of these wanderings. Eventually, though, he realized that he would have to document these actions in photographs if he wanted them to reach the visual art world. “So an episode was re-enacted and captured in black-and-white photographs—shot by Betsy Jackson—that give drifting a psychological valence,” Green writes. “The photographs helped the circulation of the activity, as did Acconci’s decision to ‘dedicate’ episodes to dozens across the art world—Kaspar Koenig, Lucy Lippard, Seth Siegelaub—who received letters that further extended the reach” (24).

Next is the work of Janine Antoni, explored by Jason Foumberg. “Janine Antoni’s body parts are tools for her sculptures,” Foumberg writes. “She has made art with her hair, her back, he tongue, her teeth, so naturally her feet followed” (29). Her 2002 video installation Touch “demonstrates the practice of physical discipline in the shape of tightrope walking. Arms like a bird, Antoni baby-steps her way across the horizon line—the seascape of her childhood in the Bahamas—on a rope stretched where sky meets sea” (29). Walking a tightrope involves “a muscular sense of balance—that invisible organ,” Foumberg continues. “What do the toes know? Feet are an intelligent technology. Antoni learned tightrope waking so she could cultivate an innate skill that resides in her body’s midline, her posture, her gravity, her mass. The harmony of balance was already inside her, she just had to discover it” (29). Because of the location, and the camera angle, “the artist’s feet momentarily, illusionistically, walk on water, and it is so perfect that you can believe in it for a second” (29). “The audiences’ gasps keep a funambulist afloat,” Foumberg concludes. “It is a daring feat of buoyancy. Among this history of extremes, Antoni’s tightrope is more metaphor than measure. She is not high but she desires and cultivates the impossible, which tightrope mastery represents. The camera’s tight frame cuts off her context and she is not at peril, but she is balancing on the tightrope of believability” (29).

Kim Beck’s 2017 There Here billboard project, located in Buffalo, depicts “arrows rendered in the sky by a skywriting plane,” Toby Lawrence writes, drawing attention “to the physical and psychological space held by the border and relationships between the United States and Canada” (33). The arrows “also allude to the history of Buffalo as the traditional land of the Seneca people, as a migratory and economic gateway, and as a site of resistance and revolution through significant markers of history, such as the War of 1812 and the Underground Railroad” (33). The multiple billboards, scattered throughout Buffalo, are “highly visible markers” that “instill another layer of directionality, as they echo the large concrete arrows that accompanied beacons installed across the United States and utilized by the Air Mail Service in transcontinental navigation before the development of radar” (33-34). But unlike those concrete arrows, the arrows on Beck’s billboards are inversions that “hold the ability to influence the activity on the ground, in contrast to the arrows providing direction for those in the sky” (34). “This notion of directionality plays a key role in Beck’s work,” Lawrence concludes, “drawing the continually shifting human influence that overlays the urban and natural landscapes to direct and redirect history and movements” (34).

Rosemarie Castoro’s 1969 Gates of Troy (the work in which she wrestled with an industrial roll of aluminum) follows next. The title of the work, Andrew Barron points out, “alludes to the Homeric myth of Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector behind his chariot. Castoro assumed the role of an enraged Achilles and imbued the material with a corporeality at once mastered yet uncontained. As she wrestled with the object-as-body, Castoro continuously interrupted the urban landscape, interfering with oncoming traffic and pedestrians along the way” (38). Interference, as a theme, “animates Castoro’s decades-long practice,” Barron writes. “Most known for her connections to Minimalism and Conceptualism, she transgressed artistic boundaries and disrupted conventional notions of categorization” (38). As a student at the Pratt Institute, Castoro participated in Yvonne Ranier’s avant-garde dance performances, and that influence “informed her early paintings and drawings, which were preoccupied with structure and perception, examining the ways in which geometric edges intersect in and move through space” (38). “Castoro understood spatial limitations as instantiated power relations,” Barron continues, and by taking her work outside of the studio, “she challenged and remapped impositions forced upon the city and body alike, always attending to the constructed nature of those forms” (38). Castoro was one of the few women artists active in New York’s Minimalist art scene, and “despite leaving behind an oeuvre as formally advanced and conceptually rigorous as her male counterparts’, her status as a woman is why she remains vastly under-recognized in relation to her peers” (38). For Barron, “Gates of Troy is perhaps Rosemarie Castoro’s most emphatic protest” against the inequalities she experienced (38).

The art collective Fallen Fruit’s 2017 installation The Grass is Always Greener is a planting of fruit trees in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighbourhood. The collective, which works exclusively with fruit trees, has recast fruit and fruit trees as “noble and generous component[s] of a community’s eco-system” (45). They work with “governments, museums, and creative initiatives around the world to plant public fruit parks as part of the serial project The Endless Orchard,” Jamilee Lacy writes (46). They also create “social artworks, such as Public Fruit Jam, Neighborhood Infusions, and Lemonade Stand, wherein diverse publics come together to pick, harvest, and concoct edible art at free-form festivals celebrating the crop of their own communal labour” (46). As part of this exhibition, they presented “a new edition of an ongoing series of photo-collaged, fruit-patterned wallpaper” that they call “‘fruit portraits’” (46). “Designed using images of fruit and flora found in and around Buffalo, the latest wallpaper portrait cites a regionally specific narrative of fruit to symbolize the joy of abundant fruit in the modern world,” Lacy concludes (46).

Kenneth Josephson’s photographic series Images Within Images is discussed next. Josephson “is considered a pioneer in regard to conceptual photography,” Adams writes (50). His practice “combines humor with a visceral awareness, and his conceptual experiments are playful while exploring and questioning the medium of photography” (50). In Images Within Images, “the photographer’s hand juts into the frame, holding out a related image in the foreground with that in the background,” Adams continues, such as (in 1970’s New York State) a photograph of an ocean liner juxtaposed against the sea’s horizon (50). “This simple gesture is at once funny and poignant,” Adams writes. “The viewer can imagine that ocean liner actually chugging along on open water, yet Josephson compresses the three-dimensionality of the space he is in with the snap of the camera” (50). Josephson thereby allows audiences to laugh “while constructing visual puzzles that showcase how he encounters the world at large” (50).

The inclusion of Allan Kaprow’s 1989 Taking A Shoe For A Walk in Wanderlust links that exhibition to the beginnings of contemporary performance art in the 1950s. In her discussion of that work, Adams returns to Kaprow’s essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” and its call for artists to “‘put a bit of life in art’” (qtd. 54). She notes that after a decade of conducting happens, Kaprow adopted the term “activities” instead: “Less abstract, more personal and with smaller groups, activities became the forefront of Kaprow’s practice. He thought of these activities as a form of inspired play and even ventured to call himself an ‘un-artist’” (54-55). Activities often took place outside of galleries. For instance, his 1968 Round Trip “involved rolling a ball of paper garbage tied with string through city streets, collecting and adding more garbage to it until it became a huge ball, then gradually stripping the ball to nothing” (55)—an instance of walking art. “As an early proprietor of action outside of the studio”—surely Adams means “proponent,” not “proprietor”—Kaprow “was and continues to be extremely influential” (55). “In Taking A Shoe For A Walk, Kaprow returns to the street, eliciting humor and play once again,” she concludes (55). The score for the activity follows: it asks participants to pull a shoe on a string through the city, checking from time to time to see if it’s worn out (55). However, the relationship to Mona Hatoum’s work is not made explicit here for some reason; didn’t she drag boots behind her before Kaprow’s activity? Perhaps it’s rude to ask such questions of such an important figure, or perhaps originality isn’t the point, or perhaps the differences—Hatoum was barefoot, while Kaprow’s participants wear shoes—are important.

Mary Mattingly’s House and Universe (2012-2013) depicts “in poetic terms what Mattingly’s public interventions advocate for outside the studio,” writes Jennie Lamensdorf (61). Mattingly’s works “seek to raise awareness and actively contribute to social change,” and the photographs and sculptures included in House and Universe “are powerful demonstrations of over-consumption, waste, and the burden placed on the environment in the race to stay current among objects subject to planned obsolescence” (61). “In her series of bundles, Mattingly gathered up and bound together her life’s possessions,” Lamensdorf writes (61). “She then took the bundles to the street, moving them, with great effort, across public spaces in a gesture of cleansing self-flagellation. For example, the photograph Pull (2013) depicts Mattingly physically moving her personal baggage across the Bayonne Bridge to the Port of Newark” (61). That work was an elegy for the Bayonne Bridge, which was about to be replaced by a taller structure “that would allow larger container ships to bring more goods into New York City” (61-62). “In her work, Mattingly seeks to reconcile her own participation in the structures she critiques with the principles of her ambitious projects, Lamensdorf concludes. “Mattingly’s practice is a tool against apathy, seducing the viewer into considering the larger subjects at hand: over-consumption, food security, and land use” (62). Strangely, the connection between Mattingly’s work and Kaprow’s is not noted here: in the documentation of Pull that is included in the book, Mattingly is seen dragging a large ball of possessions tied with string along a sidewalk, a reference (I think) to Kaprow’s Round Trip (since those possessions appear to be mostly made of paper).

Landscape for Fire (1972) was one of Anthony McCall’s experiments with ephemeral activities, which were documented on film. Flammable materials were arranged in a grid in a field, and performers—members of the British artist collaboration Exit—“were instructed to torch and extinguish each fire according to a predetermined sequence” (66). “McCall—encouraged by the serial conceptualism of Sol Lewitt and Mel Bochner and the rise of live performance as a way to navigate sculptural concerns—attempted to impose the precision and controllable configurations of the modernist grid upon the indeterminate and capricious nature of fire, wind and outdoor space,” Holly Shen writes. “He created score-like drawings to dictate every detail, from the amount of petrol used to the walking speed of the performers” (66). However, because “McCall shrewdly understood the inability of the medium to transmute a live event beyond its durational form,” rather than documenting the event, “Landscape for Fire is formulated as a discrete film that adopts cinematic devices uncommon in other recordings of happenings and live events of the same era,” such as varying the speed of sequences and inverting the image (66). “McCall regarded these outdoor performances as a primary experience and the film as a secondary record,” Shen concludes, “a fact that ultimately led him to make Line Describing a Cone a year later, his now-iconic work in which the film is the event itself, as projected light slowly reveals a volumetric form” (66).

Teresa Murak’s 1974 Procession documents the artist wearing a plant, cardamine pratensis, also known as lady’s smock, as a shawl as she walked around Warsaw for several hours, including the city’s central square and the hallways of its art academy.“The aesthetic elements of lady’s smock, including its color and texture, are included in many of Murak’s photographs, films, and graphic works,” writes Hannah Cattarin (70). In Procession, Murak bumped into passersby, “at times evoking angry reactions from observers,” and for Catterin, even though Murak was weighed down by “the heavy layer of greenery,” the action “that now exists in photographs was a demonstration of freedom—a disruption of the public realm by a female body covered in nature that could not be ignored” (70). “In Procession, Murak brings the intimate ritual of cultivation and the beauty of growth to our attention asking that our relationship with nature be examined,” Cattarin concludes. “That question makes Murak’s ecologically engaged work as significant today as it was more than forty years ago” (70).

Wangechi Mutu’s 2004 video Cutting “invites viewers to consider the acts of cutting and collage as reparative gestures, a response to issues of representation of violence,” writes Allison Glenn (75). In the video, Mutu hacks at a log with a machete: “Each strike of the machete onto the surface of the wood creates a deep, resonant sound of metal striking metal, the high-pitched echo reverberating” (75). After her breathing reaches a crescendo, Mutu discards the machete and climbs a nearby hill. In interviews, Mutu connects the action to the mutilation of civilians by rebel fighters in places like Rwanda and Sierra Leone; she suggests that such violence led her to consider collages as “‘a formal solution for how I viewed the world’” (qtd. 75). “This unique moment in Mutu’s oeuvre is a combination of her own disdain with the political climate, and her resolution of this through the performance of a distinct collage aesthetic that will will appear time and again in her career,” Glenn writes (75).

In Efrat Natan’s 1973 Head Sculpture, the artist walks around Tel Aviv wearing a t-shaped box over her head. According to Lisa J. Sutcliffe, “Head Sculpture is now one of Natan’s best known works, epitomizing her pursuit of ‘action sculpture’ that made her one of Israel’s pioneers of conceptual art” (78). The shape of the box, Sutcliffe continues, “references multiple disparate subjects including a plus sign, an airplane, and the children’s house on a kibbutz,” as well as the Christian cross (78). “The act of photographing Natan’s Head Sculpture was carefully planned to provide a document for future publication, ultimately transforming the active event to a static relic,” Sutcliffe notes (78). The photographs are taken from above, and “[t]he flattened aerial perspective transforms the human form into a sculptural object and suggests modes of surveillance and mapping, which are emphasized by the function of the sculpture itself” (78). The box physically obscures Natan’s identity “and accentuates the power of the senses of sight and sound,” Sutcliffe concludes; “her performance suggests a framing and reduction of the senses and the ambiguity inherent in collecting a narrow field of vision and hearing” (78).

The OHO Group’s 1969 Summer Projects falls within “global conceptualism, touching upon several artistic principles found within Arte Povera, Land art, Process art, and performance,” writes Adams (82). The Summer Projects was a group of “experimental, small-scale ephemeral performances and sculptures” that were “created with simple, low-cost materials, including string, paper, mirrors, and plastic tubing” (82). Wanderlust included seven images from the Summer Projects series; they “document the artists claiming public space through playful actions, extending beyond traditional ideas of what art is and where it is located” (82).

Gabriel Orozco’s work was represented in Wanderlust through photographs of his 1992 Yielding Stone and his 1993 Island within an Island (Isla en La Isla). According to Jamie DiSarno, Orozco’s practice “involves an often mundane encounter with the geography of a locale while his photographic documents frequently offer up the residue of such meetings” (88). Island within an Island, for instance, is a photograph of “detritus found on location” with the New York skyline in the background (88). “The skyline accessible to us is that of debris—the other exists in a space of privilege,” DiSarno writes (88). In Yielding Stone, Orozco rolled 150 pounds of Plasticine clay through the streets of New York: “the weight of the material pressed itself into the spaces of the ground and picked up impressions from what the object happened upon. The city and the clay body become opposing weights, impaling each other by their respective heft” (88-89). For DiSarno, “[b]oth works speak to more than simply walking the city. They suggest how locales imprint themselves upon bodies through encounters, accesses, borders, blockages, and what threatens to slip through the cracks. They reference the city that continues to consume itself and spit back out the presumed useless” (89). “Our attention in the images is given not to places we might choose,” she concludes. “[R]ather, we are asked to consider what might otherwise be ignored, a reminder of what was, and in fact what might still be” (89).

In John Pfahl’s Altered Landscapes series, a pieces of string is stretched into a lightning bolt shape in a variety of different landscapes. “We follow this unnatural line as it zigzags over difficult terrain, the only clear sign of human presence in otherwise seemingly undeveloped and unwelcoming land,” Natalie Fleming writes. “Pfahl literally marks the territory where he has journeyed, with tape and string outlining his chosen symbol. We cannot ignore that he has been there, unlike those traveling photographers of the nineteenth century, who deliberately created landscapes to appear untouched for their metropolitan audiences” (92). Unlike other examples of land art, Pfahl’s intervention is temporary and sometimes almost hidden. “Although his designs ay not endure onsite, within his photographs, the lightning bolts will always stand in our way and interfere with our sense of depth in a medium that already makes such spatial evaluations difficult,” Fleming continues. “Pfahl reinforces our inability to enter the landscape by turning his lens to the ground to capture compositions in which the sky is either completely cut off or just a sliver in between tree branches and hills. This is not a landscape made available through Pfahl’s markings, but a wall of dirt and vegetation that denies our wanderlust any satisfaction” (92).

Adams discussed Michelangelo Pistoletto’s 1967 Walking Sculpture in some detail in the book’s introduction.In her brief essay on the work, Eve Schillo places Pistoletto’s work firmly within the Arte Povera movement. “Arte Povera artists created work from non-traditional, ‘impoverished’ materials, thus—in theory—freeing their work from the conventions of the art market and a perceived corporatization of art,” she writes (96). Pistoletto trained as a painter but soon decided to pursue “the breakdown of the hierarchies of everyday life object versus art objects” (96). Walking Sculpture is one example: Pistoletto uses a mass consumable (newspapers) to make a “singular, anti-commodity” object (96). “This work exists fully during its performance and then laterally, once documented photographically,” Schillo writes. “As a temporal piece, Walking Sculpture epitomizes the Arte Povera directive: of little value in materials; disavowing the singular maker; and requiring no exhibition space per se, just a foothold in the real world. Walking Sculpture comes into the ‘art world’ only after Pistoletto shares his snowball-like accumulations of newspapers with the street, initiating a walk” (96). Walking Sculpture combines elements: a universal shape (a ball), the assistance of passersby, and “the collective performance” (96). “Pistoletto used the terms ‘walking art,’ but also transportable art, street collective performance, and simply, a collective walk,” Schillo writes. “While mimicking the wave of radical political rallies and marches occurring worldwide at the time, there is also a reference to more traditional religious processions common in Europe. . . . Still an active sculpture to this day, we would now likely group this kind of art activity under a ‘social practice’ rubric” (96). According to Schillo, “Pistoletto’s legacy is in his embrace of the concept that art could indeed affect social change. In altering the forms art can take (a walk), he forces us to recalibrate our perceptions. In perfecting the communal performance that occurs each time Walking Sculpture comes into being, he allows us to witness society in unity, in collaboration and—most underrated—in play” (96).

Mary Ellen Strom’s 2013 Tree Lines creates a replica of the NTSC video colour bar spectrum from 22 portraits of pine trees in a Montana forest. The trunk of each tree has been painted: “Marked out from their sisters, these trees are either dying or ‘dead standing,’ the effects of the mountain pine beetle visible even though a thick layer of pigment,” Ariel Pittman writes. “Once considered part of natural conditions, changes to the global climate have resulted in a loss of homeostasis in these ecosystems and bark beetle infestations are decimating forests from Mexico to Canada” (101). By transforming the trees into a test pattern, Strom’s photographs “alert the viewer to the urgent need to adjust the human in puts that affect this forest, and the ever more fragile wild” (101). Strom’s other photographic and video work “memorialize the lost forest and project a vision of tender efforts towards remediation,” Pittman concludes. “Her exhortations are a nod to the consequences, both deleterious and healing, of human action” (101-02).

One of the text’s two critical essays appears at this point, disrupting the series of artists and works with historical analysis. In “Keep on Walking,” Lori Waxman discusses the walking art of the Dadaists and Surrealists as precursors to contemporary walking art. Her starting point is a 28-mile walk between the French towns of Blois and Romorantin, conducted by André Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Morise and Roger Vitrac in May 1924. “They’d picked the towns at random on a map and, beginning at Blois, continued haphazardly on foot for close to ten days, detouring only for the sake of eating and sleeping,” Waxman writes. “Wandering without a goal was their goal, and over the course of the journey they encountered a few phantoms, came close to fisticuffs, and eventually decided to cut the excursion short due to mounting hostility, fatigue, and disorientation” (107-08). Nonetheless, the trip was considered a success: “They had left the studio, the gallery, the theater; taken to the road; and discovered the marvelous in the places and actions of everyday life. They had not merely represented movement in poems or paintings, as did artists in the past, but had endured actual experiences in real space, using their own bodies in time” (108). When they returned to Paris, Breton wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism. 

Visual artists were late in discovering wandering or walking as a practice: “Ancient philosophers, medieval craftsmen and scholars, and Romantic poets all got going first” (108). Waxman notes that “it took the innovations of the twentieth century—the ready-made and found materials, the rapprochement of art and life, the rise of performance, the attention to process—for walking itself to become art” (108). The Surrealists, and before them, the Dadaists, were the first twentieth-century art walkers. “The Surrealists wanted a revolution, one that would provide access to the combination of dream and reality that the four friends had approached on their 1924 ramble,” Waxman writes. “Breton’s manifesto called for individual liberation from moralistic and capitalistic pressure, from the obligation to work, from relentless modernization and consumption and rationalization and common sense” (108). Resistance to these forces took many forms, “but walking was chief among the strategies that served them in their goal of transforming the human condition by tapping the unconscious. If it has remained a less visible part of the Surrealists’ historical production, walking for them was never akin to a final product, though it was often as not an essential part of the process” (108-09). Walking remains part of the process of many artists: “a means, not an end” (109). 

“So Breton kept on walking, and so too did his Surrealist colleagues,” Waxman writes (109). As well as walking as transportation, they walked, she continues, “in hopes of a chance encounter with the outmoded objects and places, the magnetic people, the uncanny situations that fill memoiristic books like Breton’s Nadja (1928) and L’Amour fou (1937), Aragon’s Paysan de Paris (1926), and Philippe Soupault’s Les Dernières nuits de Paris, as well as the photographs in Brassaï’s Paris de nuit (1933)” (109). There were principles behind this walking activity: “The more trivial and under-appreciated the locale, the greater the possibility of sudden revelation and re-enchantment. The ‘quotidian mystery’ of the night, as Soupault called it, made this all the more so: daylight was workaday, darkness the time of alternative economies, peripatetic and streetwise, shadowy and shimmery” (109). Two people walking together was better than one, and the Surrealists liked walking with women, whom they viewed as “mediums through which to tap the unconscious and even hysterical aspects of the city and oneself” (109). “The itineraries mapped by these Surrealist writers, though full of sometimes unbelievable coincidences, happenstance and strangeness, were inextricably tied with what happened to their bodies and minds in space,” Waxman continues (111). She suggests that Brassaï’s photographs capture “a fusion of revolution, nighttime journey, and the refusal to work: “Under his framing and lighting, prostitutes, scavengers and beggars do not disappear into the margins but rather glow at the center; a silent, sleeping Paris is yet full of living electric lights and strange industrial structures; a peculiar anthropomorphism haunts the city, come alive through the shadows of gates, trees and pillars” (111). Brassaï documented “the mystery he found, within the realm of everyday observation, on the streets of Paris while rambling” (111). 

In the 1950s, another group of young people “found themselves roaming the less popular districts and immigrant neighbourhoods of the city fo hours, days or even longer”: they called themselves the Lettrists and, later, the Situationist International (113). Their goal was to succeed where they believed Surrealism had failed: achieving a better life for everyone (113). According to Waxman, “they focused their activities on improving the quality of everyday mass existence: its stilted routines, its uninspiring architecture and urban planning, its limited situations” (113). The Situationists “left behind the Surrealist tactics of chance, the unconscious and the marvelous; did away with anything that could be commodified as an art object; preferred the collective to the individual,” she continues. “But they kept on walking” (113). Wandering around the city was a game for them, as well as “a form of study and a revolutionary device” (113). “Changing the world was only possible by being an active participant, and drifting was one of the most accessible means for doing so,” Waxman writes. “It provided a playful, passionate way to engage the urban landscape; a direct route for acquiring knowledge about it; and a rejection of the obligation to live a life limited by work, consumption, privatization and passivity” (113). They described their activity using a new word, la dérive, “and eventually distributed journals, political pamphlets, artist books and maps theorizing its practice and recording related findings” (113). 

“With the city as their theater and medium, the SI set about devising a series of playful yet constructive methods for reshaping its buildings, streets and the lives lived among them,” Waxman contends. “Walking provided a central tactic again and again” (114). The dérive had two overlapping purposes: “1) emotional disorientation achieved via ambulatory play, and 2) the study of a terrain in terms of its psychological influence, which they dubbed ‘psychogeography.’ It was tricky, but not impossible, to achieve both at once” (114). They were seriously playful and used a variety of games that would create disorientation during their drifts, such as using a map of one city to navigate another (114). The goal was the despectacularization of the city, making it “a place that could be actively and creatively explored” (114). However, not all of the Situationists could drift freely: its Moroccan and Algerian members, for instance, or the few women associated with the group. Abdelhafid Khatib’s psychogeographic study of Les Halles was interrupted because Khatib was arrested for breaking the curfew imposed on North Africans (114-16). Another tactic was the détournement, “a rerouting of pre-existing elements into a superior situation, many of them conducive to disorienting dérives” (116). The Situationists “published lists of suggestions for reclaiming Paris for a ludic and mobile citizenry” (116), all of which seem silly now (partly because of the liability issues their suggestions would create) and got  drunk or high before going on drifts (116). “For all that mischievious, even delinquent behavior, the dérive also had a more serious scientific side,” Waxman writes (120). They were serious about psychogeography as a way to study “the effect of the city on its inhabitants. . . . They believed that the moods and directions of pedestrians were influenced in a predictable and therefore observable manner” (120). They published reports that “indicated the psychogeographic contours of a city” and maps that “without conforming to any kind of official delimitations . . . constituted a cohesive and coherent place in terms of shared atmosphere” (120). “The SI believed that their methods portended a level of objectivity, but it is impossible to ignore the tension between the objective and the subjective parts of their practice,” Waxman notes. The paradox of psychogeography is that “it is both about the self and getting beyond it, to a consciousness of how the city or the world feels” (120-22). “But the only way to know how a place feels is through one’s own subjective, terrestrial experience of it,” she concludes. “These limitations nevertheless have a positive counterpart: they insist on the need for the rest of us, artists and non-artists alike, to go out and walk the streets and pay attention to how it affects us all” (122).

After Waxman’s essay, the text returns to an alphabetically organized discussion of artists included in the exhibition—but beginning at the start of the alphabet again, with Nevin Aladağ’s 2013 Session, a three-channel video installation that presents a musical portrait of Sharjah, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The work’s soundtrack “features a cast of diverse Arabic, African, and Indian percussion instruments that take us along a discordant symphonic journey, from the quiet desert to a cacophonous industrial district and old city center,” writes Katherine Finerty. “They move with adventurous power yet a vulnerable lack of control, beckoning us to question: what is playing? What is being played?” (129). The sounds break through hierarchies, generating a sense of freedom, while at the same time a “dissonant yet resonant composition emerges, narrating the borders and beats of the city in a symphony ultimately free from narration” (129). “Aladağ’s work explores the textures of socio-spatial environments and global cultural identity,” Finerty concludes. “In Session we are thus invited to become not only viewers and listeners, but also voyagers and cartographers, navigating the enigmatic edges of our surrounding environments through surfaces and socially active gestures” (129).

Francis Alÿs’s 1997 Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing is video documentation of an action: the artist moving a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City for nine hours. Alÿs’s work often features walking “as an essential component. It is here that we come to know the importance of the pedestrian’s sense of time, scale, and scope to the artist,” writes Sean Ripple (133). That rectangular block, which is “suggestive of the cube—a prevalent motif found throughout the history of minimalism—is, over the course of the day, reduced to little more than a small and shallow puddle of moisture,” Ripple continues. “By performing an action that brings to mind the punishment that King Sisyphus endured in the Greek myth, Alÿs equates the work an artist does with an exercise in futility. However, another reading suggests that the artist is wrestling with minimalism as a modernist high point” (133). As an act of erasure, Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing may untether both artist and viewers “from the constraints of art historical precedent, which often dominates our experience of art” (133).

John Baldessari’s 1969 California Map Project Part 1: California and 1973 Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) are works of conceptual photography. “Baldessari’s images still capture a distinct sense of place and time, driven by his desire to get out of the studio,” Joshua Fischer writes (138). The California Map Project was classified “as both an earthwork and ‘information’” (138). Baldessari’s ambition was to make each letter spelling CALIFORNIA using “found and ephemeral materials, such as a telephone pole and faked shadow to make an L” (138). The sequence of photographs also documents a road trip throughout California, and as the images change “from brown desert to green forestry,” they capture “the immense geographic variation of the state through modest, temporary gestures” (138). Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) is an experiment with change relationships and systems which the artist described as an “absurd exercise” that parodies “traditional photography’s relationship to the decisive moment when a photo might be valued for capturing something of great importance or gravity” (138). 

“Every summer, without a set plan or imposed pressure for results, Blue Republic sets out to the rocky shores of Lake Huron to perform what they refer to as ‘invisible gallery of drawings,’” writes Karen Patterson:

Archaeological records reveal an Aboriginal presence in this region dating back 11,000 years, and this backdrop—rife with power, history and change—becomes Blue Republic’s outdoor laboratory every summer. As the artists shift into a more meditative rhythm of the natural environment, they hone on to what is most important to them and to society: global warming, economic failure, and threats of terrorism begin to emerge in these water drawings. (143)

“In the ephemeral museum of the Canadian Shield, the scale of artwork is altered to be something more corporeal, theatrical, and less focused on the product and more on the process,” Patterson continues. “Blue Republic performs on this historic canvas, without rehearsal or expectation, transposing and layering ore histories, events and concerns onto this ever-changing landscape. The fact that the drawings disappear does not mean they do not exist” (143-44). (They are documented on video, like the work shown as part of Wanderlust.) “The issues rendered in the drawings—the corporate ladder, the stock exchange, clear-cutting of our forests, 9/11—are abstractions of pivotal moments in contemporary society, yet in this moment of ‘extreme present,’ these issues threaten to move from the forefront to the background of our collective memory,” Patterson concludes. “With these water drawings, Blue Republic communicates the importance of chaos, emotion, and loss. These interventions act as rebellions against the pursuit of perfection and quantification, and underscore the human equation in this digital age” (144).

Zoe Crosher’s series of photographs, LA-LIKE: Transgressing the Pacific (2008-2010), “investigates mysterious narratives of fictional deaths as portrayed in Hollywood films, alongside real-life disappearances,” Melanie Flood writes. “The portfolio of seven large-scale, square-format photographs invokes an eerie sense of nostalgia through depictions of desolate beaches, ominous pier sunsets, and jagged coves, while descriptive titles act as clues” (149). Crosher’s work depicts “the vastness of the unknown—tragic crimes without resolution” (149).

Richard Long’s 1967 A Line Made By Walking has been the subject of much critical work, including a book by Dieter Roelstraete. In her essay, Laura Burkhalter calls Long’s work “a poetic and communicative response to nature,” and suggest that it “continues a British tradition of artistic landscape explorers that goes back to Constable, Turner, and Wordsworth” (152). “Particularly concerned with movement—the changes in natural elements due to weather and time, as well as his own movement through the landscape—Long continues the aims of his forefathers, as well as those of his contemporaries in the land, conceptual, and performance art genres,” Burkhalter continues (152). Long’s photographs are records that capture “the ephemeral results of Long’s practice and presence,” and A Line Made By Walking “represents the artist’s first venture into this type of art, simply presenting a line made in a nondescript English meadow by Long’s repeated pacing” (152). Later works by Long exist only as text, “offering a few specifics on distance and sights seen, but focusing on action in the same direct language” as the text below Long’s 1967 photograph. “The exact conditions of those walks, as with the day referenced in A Line Made By Walking, are left to the viewer’s interpretation,” Burkhalter continues. “We are free to guess at the meadow’s sounds and weather, as well as the thoughts of a young artist deliberately retracing his own steps. Only the elegant geometry of this image remains” (152). Another work by Long, Coyote Stones (A Five Day Walk in the Sierra Nevadas) was included in the exhibition: “It features a circle of stone, which, like the line, has become a trademark form in the artist’s oeuvre. The photograph’s title offers the duration and location of Long’s walk, as well as a poetic moniker for the stones he chose and placed” (152). “Ingrained in visual culture from Ansel Adams photographs to Hollywood films, the Sierra Nevada mountains epitomize the ideal ‘Western’ vista, and the expanse of landscape captured in this image seems deliberately chosen to celebrate that mythology,” Burkhalter concludes (152).

Ana Mendieta’s 1977 Silueta Works in Mexico is a series of photographs documenting “interventions in the land” (158). According to Liz Munsell, “[t]he merger of the human figure and nature became the signature gesture of Mendieta’s intimate earth works, which she made in solitude while traveling in Mexico and exploring the landscapes of her adopted home state,” Iowa (158). “Mendieta’s sculptural interventions were as transient as she was; as a child her parents sent her to Iowa from Havana in the midst of revolutionary transitions in Cuba,” Munsell writes. “The jarring experience of separation from her family and culture would later serve as the primary impetus of her art made while wandering” (158). Her interest in Santeria informed Mendieta’s actions, “carried out for the Silueta series as physical exercises or rituals in which she becomes one with her materials” (158). The series “documents her own personal process of healing by inserting her image into the land through incisions, gun powder, and materials resembling blood—only then to have evidence of such rituals heal over and disappear back into the land” (158). “While the Silueta series was propelled by a personal experience of transiting of the earth, it came into being only as Mendieta paused to commune with a singular site,” Munsell concludes. “There, her body—that of the maker—and her drawn, dug, and explosive figures became embedded in the earth, rather than merely gliding upon its surface” (158).

In the series Roadstains, Michael x. Ryan’s process “materializes the dark matter of life observed in his daily treks through his studio-cum-home, the bustle of raising two kids, teaching young artists, and moving about as a body in the corporeal city of Chicago,” Ross Jordan writes. Roadstains, Jordan continues, “started in the streets and sidewalks of the city, early in the morning and late at night,” where Ryan “meticulously traced the discovered liquid contours of the small disappointments of a dropped coke or beer dripping from a block party’s key” (165). “Ryan transforms splats and splotches of these incidental moments into cataclysms of undetermined scale,” and “his rigorous attention to the impressions of life reveal an interest in capturing the energetic ghosts that are in constant contact. Ryan’s gesture embalms what are mistakenly thought of as limited and fleeting moments with a faithful and devoted power” (165).

Guido van der Werve’s 2011 Nummer dertien, effugio C: you’re always only half a day away, documents the artist’s running practice, which is “part of a long lineage of endurance art,” although it does more “than test the limits of his body,” according to Charlie Tatum (169). Van der Werve’s “performances and subsequent documentation reframe repetitive physical exercise as a meditative process—one that channels the simultaneous exhilaration, exhaustion, loneliness, and boredom of everyday life” (169). Nummer dertien, effugio C: you’re always only half a day away documents a 12-hour run around van der Werve’s residence in Finland, a distance of about 65 miles. “In the equally long video, the artist, clad in a black t-shirt and black athletic shorts, appears and disappears around the corners of an orange wooden house,” Tatum writes. “The clomps of van der Werve’s sneakers interrupt the quiet sounds of nature—trees rustling, birds chirping” (169). The action is futile: “It’s unclear why he’s running, what he’s running to or from. Who is only half a day away?” (165). “Here, the unknown intentionality of exercise creates a space for reflection, imagination, and desire—for van der Werve and for us,” Tatum concludes (165).

Jane McFadden’s essay, “Trips, Tours, Traces Trespassings (And Other Tropes for Wandering)” begins with van der Werve’s work. Each time the artist passes the “middle-class, middle-brow home in Finland,” the rotation “is a dance of expectation between the pass in front of the house, which we see, and the disappearance behind,” McFadden writes:

The result is monotonous and funny—the futility of contemporary life and its routines played against possible disruptions. Such possibility is shadowed in the sounds—at one time a seeming exotic menagerie of jungle noise displaces us from this flat nether land and brings the role of mediation into view. For not only in the art of wandering, but also in our contemporary lives, is it possible to comprehend anywhere, or elsewhere, distinct from mediation. Van der Werve’s sonic compositions across his practice speak to these constructions even as the temporal duration of his video itself, as a medium, begins to forge a new place of experience for the viewer to be locked into, if only momentarily. (173) 

For McFadden, van der Werve’s work recalls the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, “whose tragic wanderings are well known” (173). Ader’s documentation of falls suggest the way that both artists’ bodies “take on the domestic space as a material encounter—around, against, down, behind—while the site of a house/home becomes ground for futile action—a going nowhere. Each artist in turn matches such mundane experimentations against seemingly grander possibilities of elsewhere” (173).

Van der Werve’s video, McFadden continues, “is part of a series from 2010-2012 that includes a feature-length work representing an epic traversal of Europe and its histories,” and his Nummer negen, The day I didn’t turn with the world, from 2007, “similarly promises epic possibility in a twenty-four-hour stand by the artist against the turning of the globe” (173). “Filmed on the North Pole on April 28, 2007, when nothing happens, the world turns in its indifferent grandeur,” McFadden explains. “The record of this feat is accompanied by a piano composition played and recorded by the artist. At first a seeming soundtrack to make the artist’s stand heroic, it quickly becomes dissonant to the place—a marker of the history of Western civilization (its genres, its instruments) at odds with a site not yet civilized” (173-75). At the same time, McFadden continues, “it is impossible to see a sea of arctic ice without thinking of its tragic destruction at the hands of human-caused climate change, a harbinger of civilization’s possible end, against which we have little left to stand” (175). “Ader offered similar romantic explorations in his work,” McFadden continues (175). In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles), from 1973, documents a crossing of the city in the course of one evening; in the 1975 version of In Search of the Miraculous, Ader sailed off to his death (175). “The call of Wanderlust echoes here and along this spectrum—from the grounded mundane tasks of life, to the epic elsewheres of travel and its difficulties,” McFadden continues. “Neither cohesive nor collaborative, this exhibition presents a diaspora of wandering-physical, conceptual, visible, imaginary—in our global age” (175).

The second part of McFadden’s essay, “Tours,” begins with this statement: 

A sense of wanderlust evokes the possibility of vistas both literal and figurative, shifting perspectives and opening minds; yet we immediately recognize hindrances to such a view: the wanderings of this exhibition might most easily be anchored in those that marked the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—grand imperial and colonial adventures linked as well to the closed views and stifled movement of the slave hold, among other savagery. (175)

I was waiting for a recognition of the Romanticism inherent in Adams’s take on the exhibition, and perhaps in her curatorial approach as well, and here it is. For McFadden, exploring and exploiting were interconnected; that link “is obvious in retrospect and at Alexander von Humboldt’s legendary explorations during this period, especially those in South America, led to an original cohesive vision of world ecology succinctly illustrated in his stunning Naturgemälde of 1807. Rarely to we find such a singular visualization of a complex idea” (175-76).  But the journeys that enabled this vision “also offered views of morally corrupt and environmentally destructive aspects of colonial practices, including exploitation of labor, especially in mining industries, slavery for agriculture, and resource depletion of other sorts as well” (176). “Humboldt noted the effects of this exploitative human activity on the global ecology he was also documenting—an early voice recognizing impending climate change,” McFadden writes (176).

Two centuries later, McFadden continues, “we still struggle with how to accept and act within these interrelated circumstances of ecology and industry” (176). One example is the link Wangechi Mutu makes between collage and machetes used in genocide. Her 2004 video Cutting “restages her primary practice of collage—in which she cuts images from contemporary media and reworks them into complex images of gender, race, ecology, and violence—as a physical bodily act of hacking with a machete” (177). The violence of that gesture is echoed in the contemporary refugee crisis: “Indeed, if one were to consider the appropriate contemporary analogy for wanderlust, it might be the refugee—a brutal correction of the myth of the wandering body as enlightened ideal” (177). But one doesn’t have to be a refugee to face restrictions on movement. David Hammons’s Phat Free, from 1995, in which the artist kicks a bucket down the street, “conflates a certain idleness with death” through the expression “kicking the bucket,” “an understated metaphor for the volatile danger some may face, particularly black men in America, in heading out for a walk” (177). “Constraint resonates as well in Francis Alÿs’ trudging through the contemporary urban environment in Something Making Something Leads to Nothing, 1997,” McFadden continues. “Pushing a massive block of ice through Mexico City, the artist’s labor is materially futile, ephemeral, meaningless, while also difficult” (177). The same could be said of Mona Hatoum’s 1985 Roadworks, which “evoked the struggle of moving in this space in general,” and of Pope.L’s The Great White Way, “a tortuous journey down the historic grand avenue of Broadway in Manhattan” (177). Pope.L’s “slow crawl over many years questions the exchange between power, place and access: Who has the liberty to stroll where and how?” (177-79). “Embedded, restricted, and laborious, it is a symbolic journey betraying the weight some bear in order to move,” McFadden continues. “What in turn might it mean to view these struggles within a gallery space, to tour them ourselves with a liberated glance? Do we bridge one experience and another, or perhaps, more accurately, consider an unapproachable divide? Do we see in ourselves the role of perpetrator as Mutu’s [work] suggests, if we can see at all?” (179).

The essay’s third section, “Traces,” begins with Nancy Holt and her 1969 work Trail Markers, which explores, according to McFadden,“the limits of our seeing,” and the way “[t]he camera hides as much as it reveals” (179). Trail Markers’ images, “focused low as to avoid the perspective of a broad horizon, obscure any broad vision of this place,” and the orange trail markers “direct the viewer, yet provide no logic for the grand moor and its ancient histories” (179). In contrast, Zoe Crosher’s LA-LIKE: Transgressing the Pacific “uses the vagueness of photography to construct” by “[d]ocumenting supposed sites of disappearance from stories both actual and fictional” and thereby encouraging viewers ‘to build a narrative from such limited ground” (179). Crosher’s images “play with the meaning of place in real and imaginary narratives” (181), while Sophie Calle’s work “constructs narratives where one might not have been—targeting a stranger to become a protagonist in her work,” as in her 1980 Suite Vénitienne, in which “an unknown figure takes on the potential of a fictionalized thriller despite its mundane reality” (181). Calle’s work, McFadden suggests, “is a reversal of the uncomfortable gender roles in Vito Acconci’s earlier work Following Piece” (181). “Each work, in turn, is strangely intimate and deliberate in light of our contemporary realm, where an educated populace would expect at almost all times to be surveyed visually and digitally,” McFadden notes. “To follow someone no longer requires a wandering through space and time but the mere click of button to witness their own self-surveillance and construction” (181). “Within all this visibility of our contemporary world and an exhaustion of images, it is perhaps the invisible to which we should stay attuned,” McFadden writes (181). She suggests that Millie Chen’s 2014 Tour, where the artist travels to four locations in which horrific events have occurred—Murambi, Rwanda; Wounded Knee, South Dakota; Choeung Ek, Cambodia; and Treblinka, Poland—is one example of such attention. “This work is one in a careful dialogue regarding the necessity of representing the unrepresentable or making visible the invisible, and the perils of doing so, most clearly anchored in the philosophical devastation of the Holocaust” (181). “[A] recurring trope in Chen’s own video tour, which itself revisits the Holocaust as well in the site of Treblinka, is the use of grasses and reeds to obscure vision, blocking a horizon of escape,” she notes (181-84). 

The fourth section of the essay, “Trespassing,” links land art to the Western film and TV genre. McFadden cites Dave Hickey’s critique of land art as “an elaborate form of ‘trespassing’” (184). For Hickey, the media construction of the Western “was a key to works made of elsewheres” (187). Meanwhile, at about the same time, André Cadere, a Romanian artist working in France, “was constructing simple wooden rods, ‘barres de bois rond,’ that he would take to the street for ‘promenades’” (187). Sometimes Cadere “would stage exhibitions in various locations, and even assert his work in galleries and exhibitions, an act of occupation. Such tactics speak to the placelessness of his work against the more cogent strategies of the established art world—deliberately so” (187). Gabriel Orozco “stages the ephemerality of belonging often in his work, particularly in the famous Yielding Stone, 1992, which takes wandering as its principle,” McFadden continues. The Plasticine ball “serves as material and visual metaphor for the traveling artist himself (originally from Mexico, now a global citizen), as a physical manifestation of a complex web of negotiation, much less grounded” (187). Orozco’s “rolling mass” reminds McFadden of “Michelangelo Pistoletto’s earlier Walking Sculpture, 1969, a spherical volume of materials, a ‘minus object’ that he rolled through the streets” (188). And that work makes McFadden think of Rosemarie Castoro’s Gates of Troy. “Held in a liminal space, ‘at the gates’ of the art world, she, like Achilles, displays rage,” McFadden writes. “And why not? Decades later, Mary Mattingly again hauls sculpture through the street, accumulations of the soul-stuffed American Dream, and a later yet resonant image of a woman struggling against the waste and corruption of contemporary society” (189). “Is one logic of wanderlust, then, that of escaping the global traps of capital?” McFadden asks. “Here we could even return to Ader’s early fall and loss, as somehow inevitably grounded by the execution of his father at the hands of the Nazis for providing shelter for refugees?” (189). “A term that began with the promise of vision and seeking might end in shadow,” she concludes. “It is perhaps no surprise, in turn, that Janet Cardiff and Georges [sic] Miller’s Night Canoeing, 2004, which records a murky evening on the water, with vision blinded by fog and light, the rhythmic sounds of the oars only a reminder of our displacement, might become a guide to the whole endeavor” (189). For, McFadden writes, “the essential feature of human wanderlust is the embrace of the unknown, as alternative to what we already see” (189).

Now the text returns to the third group of artists included in Wanderlust, beginning with Bas Jan Ader’s 1975 In Search of the Miraculous. Ader, writes Lynnette Miranda, “investigates the limits of humanity through documented performance work that practices vulnerability and embraces the persistence of failure. In his endless search for the unknown, Ader’s work focuses on the psychological journey of the everyday by connecting body, mind, and site in each of his explorations” (192). In Search of the Miraculous was supposed to involve a solo voyage in a small sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean, from North America to Europe: “This voyage, a deliberate conceptual artwork, would lead to his disappearance, and eventually establish him as a cult figure in contemporary art” (192). The work was supposed to be in three parts: one walk across Los Angeles at night to the ocean; the voyage across the Atlantic; and a walk through Amsterdam. Photographs documenting the walk across Los Angeles, completed in 1973, were exhibited in 1975, before Ader set sail for Europe. Three weeks into his voyage he disappeared. In Search of the Miraculous, Miranda continues, “exists as physical remnants from this multipart project, but more importantly, the work itself is the enigmatic narrative around Ader and his true intentions behind the voyage. His disappearance becomes part of the work, serving as a poignant metaphor for our collective existential pursuit of the sublime” (192). Ader, a “tragic, yet romantic figure,” according to Miranda, “remains forever wandering in the contemporary art psyche, reminding us of the significance, beauty, and melancholy that is wrapped into the physical, mental, and emotional journey through daily life” (192).

According to Lexi Lee Sullivan, Roberley Bell’s work questions “our increasingly complicated relationship to the natural world” (197). The Wanderlust exhibition included photographs from Bell’s 2015 series of photographs, Still Visible, After Gezi. During a sojourn in Turkey in 2010, Bell began photographing “the city’s gnarled trees, knotted and stumped with time” (197). She returned five years later, hoping to find and document the trees she had photographed during her daily walks in 2010. “The series takes its name after Gezi Park in Istanbul, the site of demonstrations in 2013 when the government attempted to raze the park to construct a commercial mall—a protest that grew into a massive public sit-in against the prime minister in an appeal for civil rights,” Sullivan notes (197-98). It was harder than Bell had expected to find the trees, but the search “became a means for Bell to reconnect with her adopted community” (198). “It also acquired a political dimension as city residents lamented their growing frustration with urban planning and more expressly the Turkish government, a dark foreshadowing of the years of unrest and the failed governmental coup in 2016 to follow,” Sullivan concludes. “As such, Bell’s steps ultimately became part of a larger project, an experiential mapping of the city. In her hunt for these natural symbols of an idealized past, Bell assembles an allegory for Istanbul” (198).

Sophie Calle’s 1980 Suite Vénitienne has already been discussed by McFadden, but Lucy Ainsworth examines the work in more detail. Calle’s practice involves randomly selecting subjects to follow, “who unwittingly reveal snapshots of their lives to the artist as she photographs them and takes notes from afar,” Ainsworth writes:

In Suite Vénitienne (1980), Calle sets herself a new objective—to travel to Venice to follow a man she previously trailed and coincidentally met in Paris. Calle plays detective on a case with no clear directive. She is uncertain what it is she wants to discover yet is driven by a sense of lust and the journey of possibility. The outcome is a series of images with dialogue that piece together a deductive narrative about a man named Henri B. (202)

For Ainsworth, “Suite Vénitienne is the ultimate endurance work,” and “Calle gives herself entirely to the process, exploring all possible opportunities to discover more about her subject” (202). Calle also discovered how far she was prepared to go to make the work: “She dresses in disguises, performs stakeouts and draws unknowing assistants into her master plan. She is brave in pursuit, yet always remains fearful of being discovered” (202). The physical act of walking—of “roaming the streets, covertly observing Henri B.’s movements” (202)—is central to the project. Henri B.’s activities are mundane, yet “the viewer becomes engrossed and shares in Calle’s thrill of the chase” (202). “Like many of Calle’s works,” Ainsworth concludes, “Suite Vénitienne ultimately reflects on what it means to be human with all our idiosyncrasies” (202). And, I have to add, despite the different gender dynamics, Suite Vénitienne is just as creepy as Acconci’s Following Piece—at least Acconci’s documentation is a reconstruction of what happened, whereas Calle’s photographs appear to be images of her actual quarry.

In 2004’s Night Canoeing, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller “read three-dimensional space through observation and the character of heard sound,” writes Pamela Campanaro. “Their video and three-dimensional sound fields, known as ‘audio walks,’ explore how the spatial qualities of sound can elicit a physical presence and range of sensations that affect the perception of reality” (207). They use binaural audio recordings to reproduce sound the way we hear it, overloading the viewer’s (or auditor’s?) senses, “allowing them to escape or transcend their body or self” (207). Night Canoeing is an audio and video installation “that sculpts reality into cinematic fantasy during a middle-of-the-night canoe trip” in which Cardiff and Miller travel across a body of water “lit solely by a bright lamp that unsteadily illuminates floating lily pads and tree debris along the riverbank” (207). Their presence is recorded by ripples in the water and “the audible contact of the canoe paddle pulling through the water” (207). According to Campanaro, “[t]his soundtrack is flooded by a rhythmic tempo or cadence that punctuates the journey as they explore how sculpture can exist as a physical gesture or durational experience” (207).

Millie Chen’s 2014 video Tour, according to Anna Kaplan, “is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, mundane and extraordinary, simple and complex, exhilarating and numbing” (211). “The imagery is straightforward both in concept and execution—a narrow view of the ground over which the camerawoman (Chen herself) traverses at a moderate pace,” Kaplan continues. “The land is slightly overgrown, ignored, and unremarkable. The view through the lens of the handheld camera is shaky as it responds to Chen’s movements across the landscape,” a technique that “allows for a certain empathy with the person behind the camera; it is easy to imagine oneself in Chen’s place, walking the terrain” (211). But that terrain is the space of genocide: Murambi, Rwanda; Choeung Ek, Cambodia; Treblinka, Poland; and Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Chen describes these places using the term “lament geography” (qtd. 211). “While the film’s transitions are seamless, a brief text, identifying the exact place and dates that the atrocities occurred, alerts the viewer to the change in site,” Kaplan writes. “Vocalists respond without using words to traditional lullabies from the native languages of the four sights [sic], lulling the viewer into a mesmerized state of serious contemplation” (211). “Through Tour, we as viewers become witnesses to the process and therefore to the history of the land the artist wishes to reveal,” Kaplan concludes. “As witnesses, we cannot deny or ignore what has happened on this land, or we are doomed to be accomplices” (212).

David Hammons’s video documentation of his performance Phat Free, influenced by Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, and the ready-made, shows the artist kicking a bucket down a New York street at night. “The title of the video, Phat Free, is representative of how Hammons employs colloquialisms, idioms, and wordplay to elicit multiple readings of quotidian objects and actions,” Zoë Taleporos writes. “In this case, the artist is referencing processed diet foods that have become ubiquitous in American culture, while also indicating musical genres with African American origins. ‘Phat’ refers to slang incorporated in rap and hip-hop meaning ‘cool’ or ‘good,’ with ‘Free’ referring to the improvisational, unrestricted nature of jazz” (217). But the act of kicking the bucket also suggests death (through the phrase “kick the bucket”), which may, Taleporos suggests, allude to “a dismal fate often accompanying the black urban experience,” while at the same time the action refers to the children’s street game “kick the can” (217). For Taleporos, Hammons’s work creates “entertainment and value from discarded objects of the urban landscape” (217).

Mona Hatoum’s 1985 Roadworks is video documentation of a performance in south London, in which the artist walked barefoot “across rough pavement with Doc Martens bound to her ankles” (220). Conor Moynihan suggests that this work is important in both the history of performance and of feminist art: “Roadworks responds to very specific political and social conditions experienced in the United Kingdom—London in particular—during the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher’s stop-and-search police tactics, England’s 1981 race riots, and the racism of National Front skinheads” (220). “More broadly,” Moynihan continues, “Roadworks interrogates the politics and complexity of public space and the urban environment” (220). The performance took place in Brixton Market, one of the sites of the 1981 riots. It was “a working-class, vastly Afro-Caribbean neighbourhood struggling with unemployment, crime, and a lack of resources; a neighborhood pinned between Doc Martens-wearing skinheads and similarly clad police” (220). For Moynihan, “Hatoum’s feet become metaphoric: bare and unprotected, vulnerable to the hard press of the pavement beneath them” (220). Roadworks, he continues, “demonstrates attention to a more generalized human vulnerability and perseverance,” and from this perspective, it addresses the conditions of Britain in the middle of the 1980s “from the vantage of objects and motifs more universally accessible: in this case, the human feet and the act of walking” (220). “Through this joining of specificity and universalism—and despite significantly changing social and political contexts—her performance finds as many resonances today as it did in 1985,” Moynihan concludes, “demonstrating how Hatoum’s masterful use of ordinary objects and simple gestures can speak powerfully across temporal, spatial, and social lines of demarcation and separation” (220-21).

Nancy Holt’s 1969 Trail Markers photographs have been discussed at length by Adams and McFadden. Whitney Tassie notes that Holt is a land artist, one of the few women associated with that movement. Holt’s use of photography in Trail Markers “was integral to land art and Holt’s practice alike,” Tassie writes (224). Holt’s photographs of trail markers in Dartmoor National Park demonstrates “longstanding interest in human interventions in the landscape as well as her participation in the new conceptual photographic strategies of the time” (224). “For Holt, a pioneer of time-based media, the camera is crucial to her exploration of space, sculptural form, and subjective perspective,” Tassie continues. “Her photographs, films, site-specific installations, earthworks, public sculpture, and even her personal flashlight and audio tours transform our perception of place, space, and time. Focusing our vision and challenging our understanding of our environment, Holt’s work draws attention to the complexities of our relationship with the landscape we inhabit and act upon” (224).

“William Lamson is best known for his performances in the landscape, human-scale actions, and aesthetic gestures, all of which help categorize him as a performer with a filmmaking practice or, perhaps, a filmmaker with a performative practice,” writes Ian Cofre. “In Untitled (Infinity Camera), the distinction is stretched as he removes himself as an actor and relinquishes control of the camera” (229). In these photographs, Lamson repurposes “two halves of a canoe” to build “a mirrored, lens-based system to record this optical experiment” (229). “The imposed constraints interact with the physical forces of this estuary, its variance and monotony, impacting the film’s time dilations and reductions, whereby, as the artist proclaims, the ‘drama is the speed,’” Cofre continues. “The current helps to capture the natural border’s surroundings: urban space that includes buildings from different periods of history, bridges, passing cars, and pedestrians or joggers on their daily routes” (229-30). For Cofre, the result resembles a dérive, and “the work is the river’s own psychogeography, cataloging time through subtle and unexpected encounters with the terrain. In one frame, the device reflects and translates an image and object, which allows us to bear witness to the reverie of the rivery perspective” (230). Lamson’s project sounds interesting, but it’s hard to understand what the device he built to take the photographs actually looked like from Cofre’s description. I would have to do more research to understand exactly how these photographs were made.

Marie Lorenz’s 2017 Gyre is related to her practice of building and sailing hand-made boats. It presents casts of objects she has collected from the waterways she has sailed. According to Cattarin, Gyre “gives the viewer a chance to experience a part of her journeys, to feel like they’re floating along with her” (236). That’s a rather obtuse reading of a work that is clearly about the effect of plastic garbage on the environment, isn’t it? Or is plastic garbage in rivers and canals just taken for granted now?

Carmen Papalia’s 2017 Blind Field Shuttle is a “perceptual tour,” “a piece in which up to fifty people can accompany the artist on a walk with eyes closed through urban and rural spaces,” as Jamilee Lacy writes (241). Papalia is blind, and works like Blind Field Shuttle “dismantle the hierarchy of sensory perception to build trust and interpretive skills among audiences” (241). The work was commissioned for Wanderlust, and it was part of his Open Access project, which “positions the support-seeking individual as the expert who can define and author his or her own accessibility measures” (242). For Lacy, Blind Field Shuttle constructs “a new paradigm of disability and agency as experientially liberating, creative forces within the built and natural environment” (242).

In The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (Whitney Version #2), performance artist Pope.L, wearing a capeless Superman costume and with a skateboard tied to his back, “crawled, and sometimes wheeled, his way down Broadway—New York City’s longest street” (247). Pope.L’s installation that documents this action both uses and dismantles “new media conventions of display,” according to Andy Campbell (247). “The Great White Way is shown via a monitor resting on a hardened pool of black resin,” Campbell writes. “The installation’s materials compress time in the same way that the performance’s documentation must too, stringing together segments of a performance carried out over a period of nine years” (247). For Campbell, the installation addresses the problem of performance art’s liveness versus its documentation: “Brilliantly, Pope.L’s installation turns this on its head, suggesting that an aesthetic education (which Gayatri Spivak has defined as ‘training the imagination for epistemological performance’) can still be a rebuke from the ground” (247). The focus on the installation is interesting, but Campbell unfortunately says little about what it might mean for an African-American man wearing a Superman costume to crawl down Broadway.

Teri Rueb’s 2017 Times Beach is a response to “the varied history of the Times Beach Nature Preserve, located on the outer harbor just east of downtown Buffalo,” Adams writes. “The site was a vital resource for Native Americans who, for centuries, lived along Lake Erie and the Niagara River. As Buffalo grew into a mega city in the late 1800s through its massive industrial prowess, the site was transformed to an urban beach, but eventually closed due to contamination” (251-52). The site has been cleaned up and is now a nature preserve. Rueb’s sound walk “is designed to weave sonic traces of the site’s history as the participant walks through the preserve,” Adams continues. “Through a free downloadable app, the participant is invited to wander the site, allowing for an overlapping history of the site to come into focus” (252).

In his 2017 work U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Todd Shalom takes participants on an artist-led walk. He “structures walks, like poetry, around a planned route with an established concept and (sometimes narrative) arc,” writes Lamensdorf. “But, also like poetry, the walks encourage individual participants to have subjective experiences. The participatory walks are a framing system in which to explore and expand how people interact with and experience public space” (257). According to Lamensdorf, Shalom’s “practice of poetic decision-making” is foundational to his work, “and participants often experience and engage with this in the performative and improvisational aspects of a walk” (257). U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which was commissioned for Wanderlust, took participants over Buffalo’s west side and ended at the Peace Bridge, which crosses the Niagara River to Canada. “An artistic practice built on walking evokes the legacy of the Situationist International and Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive, which centred on drifting through urban spaces as an act of resistance to material and commercial culture,” Lamensdorf continues. “Shalom’s walks hinge on this tradition and incorporate the medium’s inclination towards physical exploration, immediate experience, and creating spaces for communal engagement and personal reflection. Yet, he furthers the work by structuring it enough to be repeated, while leaving it open to interpretation” (258). Shalom’s approach “expands on the idea of site-specific or site-responsive art practices, which are typically rooted in architecturally, culturally, and historically resonant facets specific to a stationary position,” Lamensdorf concludes. “Shalom’s walks incorporate the fluid ballet of everyday life, moving through neighbourhoods, changing environments, and incorporating chance into the work by inviting participants to actively make the work. There is no walk if Shalom has no one to prompt into movement” (258).

Greg Stimac’s 2009 Driving Photographs series captures and aestheticizes “the bug splatter he accumulates on his own travels” during long car trips (265). Natalie Fleming notes that Stimac’s works “are almost identical, constellations of tiny bodies broken on glass, distinct like the stars above that rotate as the earth moves” (265). His large photographs put “the human experience in perspective: a thousand lives lost for a road trip at night, a car rushing through the air, as others have done and will do, under an infinite sky” (265). As with Cattarin’s discussion of Lorenz’s Gyre, though, there’s something obtuse here: insect populations are in freefall due to human activity, (Carrington) and Stimac’s photographs arguably also document a small part of the ongoing ecocide. Is aestheticizing an ecocide an ethical activity? I’m not sure.

Wanderlust isn’t just about walking art, although there is enough walking art included in the book’s pages (and on the exhibition’s walls) to make reading it worthwhile. I wish I’d had a chance to see the show. As with other catalogues of exhibitions of walking art, I am struck by the array of practices that use or allude to walking in some way or another, although I think that most of what is included here belongs in the category of performance. The longer essays are useful for my project, particularly Waxman’s account of the proto-Surrealists’ walk between Blois and Romorantin, which I didn’t know about previously. One of my immediate responses to Wanderlust is to think about the importance of photography as a way of documenting walks, but also the importance of sound recording. Perhaps I could make use of both of those techniques. It’s worth considering.

Works Cited

Adams, Rachel, ed. Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys, 1967-2017, MIT Press, 2017.

Austin, J.L. How To Do Things With Words, Oxford University Press, 1962. https://pure.mpg.de/rest/items/item_2271128/component/file_2271430/content.

Carrington, Damien. “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature.’” The Guardian, 10 February 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

Roelstraete, Dieter. Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, Afterall, 2010.

119. Ben Anderson, “Preemption, Precaution, Preparedness: Anticipatory Action and Future Geographies”

ben anderson

I wanted to read Ben Anderson’s “Preemption, Precaution, Preparedness: Anticipatory Action and Future Geographies” because I discovered that the definition of futurity that Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández take from Andrew Baldwin’s “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda” is actually a quotation from Anderson’s essay. Baldwin’s essay is important, but if I’m going to come to a complete understanding of the idea of “futurity,” I’d better chase it back to its source. And, as it’s turned out, I did need to do this extra reading, either because I’m too dull-witted to grasp things quickly, or because others have a bad habit of not defining terms clearly.

As his title suggests, Anderson is interested in opening up “questions for research in human geography on preemption, preparedness and other forms of ‘anticipatory action’” (777). “I argue that anticipatory action matters because geographies are made and lived in the name of preempting, preparing for, or preventing threats to liberal-democratic life,” Anderson writes (777). Well, geographies would be made and lived in the name of preempting, preparing for, or preventing threats to all kinds of ways of living, but at least Anderson is making his politics clear at the outset. He notes that “[r]uined landscapes of damage and destruction” have been made in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of “preempting the threat of terror”; that western countries have culled bird populations in order to prepare for avian flue’ and that “[a] set of mitigation policies based on global carbon trading are being rolled out as precautionary measures to combat the threat of climate change” (777). On these issues, “acting in advance of the future is an integral, yet taken-for-granted, part of liberal-democratic life,” Anderson writes. In those examples, “bombs are dropped, birds are tracked, and carbon is traded on the basis of what has not and may never happen: the future” (777). 

Anderson’s question about activities based on the future is simple: how should geographers respond, “analytically, methodologically, politically,” to “the making of geographies through anticipatory action?” (777). “My starting point is that preemption, preparedness and precaution post a problem to some of human geography’s most ingrained habits and techniques of thinking,” he contends. “Anticipatory action perplexes us, or at least it should, because it invites us to think about how human geography engages with the taken-for-granted category of ‘the future.’ Common to all forms of anticipatory action is a seemingly paradoxical process whereby a future becomes cause and justification for some form of action in the here and now” (777-78). That process generates specific questions: “how is ‘the future’ being related to, how are futures known and rendered actionable to thereafter be acted upon, and what political and ethical consequences follow from acting in the present on the basis of the future?” (778). “Addressing these questions,” he continues “requires that we explicitly reconceptualize the relation between space-time and futurity” (778). However, while geographers have studied the past—and haunting, which is interesting for my research: Anderson’s bibliography may help with thinking about that phenomenon—they tend not to be directly engaged with the future. The risk of this lack of engagement with the future “is that we repeat a series of assumptions about linear temporality; specifically, that the future is a blank separate from the present or that the future is a telos towards which the present is heading” (778). “More specifically,” he continues, “to understand how anticipatory action functions we must understand the presence of the future, that is the ontological and epistemological status of ‘what has not and may never happen’” (Brian Massumi, qtd. 778). He notes the number of ways in which the future is present in the present: in futures contracts, in investments, in contracts, in clock time, in the prophecies of evangelical Christians and fortune-tellers, and in the imaginations of science-fiction writers (778).  

In this paper, Anderson intends to offer “a conceptual vocabulary” to address the task of understanding how geographies are made based on anticipatory action (778). This vocabulary, he writes, “sits in the juncture between a Foucaultian analytic of how futures are now governed and the emphasis in non-representational theories on the presence of the future” (778). Futures, he continues, “are anticipated and acted on through the assembling of” three phenomena (778). These include styles, which consist of “a series of statements through which ‘the future’ as an abstract category is disclosed and related to,” statements which “condition and limit how ‘the future’ can be intervened on” and which “function through a circularity, in that statements disclose a set of relations between past, present and future and self-authenticate those relations” (778-79); practices, which “give content to specific futures, including acts of performing, calculating and imagining” and make present the future “in affects, epistemic objects and materialities” (779); and logics “through which action in the present is enacted” (779). Anderson helpfully provides a definition of the term logics (which has been in so much of what I’ve read merely a buzzword of sorts): “A logic is a programmatic way of formalizing, justifying and deploying action in the here and now. Logics involve action that aims to prevent, mitigate, adapt to, prepare for or preempt specific futures” (779). This conceptual vocabulary, Anderson writes, “enables a mode of inquiry that aims to understand the multiform presence of the future in any and all geographies. By this I mean that inquiry would attend to how futures are: disclosed and related to through statements about the future; rendered present through materialities, epistemic objects and affects; and acted on through specific policies and programmes” (779). 

Next, Anderson turns to the types of anticipatory action he is interested in, which (as his introduction suggests) are related to terrorism, pandemics and biosecurity, and both “global warming and ozone depletion” (779). There are commonalities between the way these phenomena “have been enacted as threats”:

First, in comparison to systemic interruptions, ruptures and breakdowns, they are potentially catastrophic. That is, each threat may irreversible alter the conditions of life at both the microscopic and pandemic levels. Second, in each the “malicious demon” that is heralded as the source of disaster is a somewhat vague spectral presence that cannot easily be discerned. Third, in each the disaster is imminent. Not only is the present on the verge of disaster, but disaster is incubating within the present and can be discerned through “early warnings” of danger (whether through the “harbingers” of climate change or “radicalization” in anti-terror legislation). (779-80)

“Without some form of action, a threshold will be crossed and a disastrous future will come about,” Anderson continues, although because that future is “incubating within the present, life will remain tensed on the threshold of disaster even if an immediate threat is acted against,” which means that “[a]nticipatory action must . . . become a permanent part of liberal democracies if disaster is to be averted” (780). Again, I would think that other forms of government would also be concerned with forms of anticipatory action: what about the Soviet Union and its weapons stockpiles during the Cold War, or Turkey’s current incursion into Syria as a way to prevent future Kurdish political or military activity? 

The problem of anticipatory action, in any case, opens up the question of how the future relates to the past and the present (780). “Every attempt to stop or mitigate a threat holds certain assumptions about ‘the future,’” Anderson writes. “It is worth recalling just a few other ways of acting on the future in order to be specific about how ‘the future’ is related to in contemporary anticipatory action” (780). These include ideas of the future as apocalypse, indefinite progress, or utopia, each of which authorizes different forms of action in the present (780). One of the characteristics of contemporary anticipatory action, Anderson continues, is “the assumption . . . that the future will diverge from the past and present. It is neither a perpetuation of the present, nor an imminent-transcendent End outside of time. Instead, the future will radically differ from the here and now” (780). “On the one hand, the future will be uncertain in the sense that it will exceed present knowlege (or the capability to generate knowledge,” Anderson writes. “On the other hand, the future will be indeterminate in that perfect knowledge is impossible. The future is the realm of troubling and unforeseen novelty. It will be qualitatively different from the past and present and may bring forth bad surprises” (780). Acting in conditions of indeterminacy is not a new problem, but, Anderson writes “anticipatory action is now imbricated with the plurality of power relations that make up contemporary liberal democracies,” which means, for him, “that any type of anticipatory action will only provide relief, or promise to provide relief, to a valued life, not necessarily all of life. Certain lives may have to be abandoned, damaged or destroyed in order to protect, save or care for life” (780). 

In addition, “the proliferation of anticipatory action, and the emphasis on an open future, is inseparable from a spatial-temporal imaginary of life as contingency. Three elements in this imaginary are particularly important” (780-81). The first is the idea that “the life threatened is understood in terms of its irreducible complexity, complexity being a function of a globalized world of transnational flows and connections” (781). Terrorism, pandemics, and climate change have all been understood through “the problem of the relation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ circulations and connections” in this network (781). Therefore, “[t]he future is open, first, because threats emerge from a complex world of flows and connections” (781). Second, “the problem is the heterogenesis of the bad within the good. The future is open for a second reason: life is imagined as unpredictable, dynamic and non-linear. Change cannot be understood as the linear outcome of past conditions or present trends” (781). For terrorism, pandemics, and climate change, “events are themselves complex, singular, occurrences that are not necessarily temporally bound by a start, middle and end, or spatially bound in a given national territory” (781). For that reason, it is important “to act on catastrophic processes as or before they incubate, and certainly before they cross a threshold to become catastrophic events” (781). In addition, because “the causes of disaster are presumed to incubate within life,” they are not “mysterious, external, acts of God visited upon that life” (781). It is hard to care for life by anticipating disasters, however, when the causes of those disasters are difficult to identify (781). Third, “events are ‘de-bounding,’” a term which means “that their effects are not necessarily localized spatially or temporally” and will “extend in non-linear ways across space-times” (781). “[D]isasters are themselves emergent phenomena,” Anderson states, by which he means that “the effects or impacts of disaster change as they circulate” (781). 

Anderson suggests that it might be possible to identify the causes of this equation between life and contingency, but what he wants to emphasize “is more modest: anticipatory action has emerged in a situation where it is precisely the contingency of life that is the occasion of threat and opportunity, danger and profit. Preemption, preparedness and precaution are, therefore, caught in the productive/destructive relation with uncertainty that characterizes liberalism” (782). He cites Foucault on this point, suggesting that:

On the one hand, life must be constantly secured in relation to the dangers tha tlurk within it and loom over it. Life is tensed on verge of a catastrophe that may emerge in unexpected and unanticipated ways. On the other hand, the securing of life must not be antithetical to the positive development of a creative relation with uncertainty. Liberal life must be open to the unanticipated if freedoms of commerce and self-fashioning individuals are to be enabled. Uncertainty is both threat and promise: both that which must be secured against and that which must be enabled. (782)

Anderson is drawing on recently published lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France, and since I haven’t read that material, I can’t comment on his interpretation of it. However, his insistence on the connection between anticipatory action and liberal democracy clearly comes from those lectures. “In this context the pragmatic question for anticipatory action becomes: how to act in a way that protects and enhances some forms of valued life?” he continues. “The response has been to govern and secure on the basis of possible or potential futures that threaten some form of disruption to an existing social-spatial order” (782). In other words, anticipatory action “aims to ensure that no bad surprises happen,” and therefore “the here and now is continuously assayed for the futures that may be incubating within it and emerge out of it” (782). Citing Hacking, Anderson suggests that two links between “uncertainty and liberal rule are well known: first, styles of foresight based on good judgement as a means of acting against Fortuna; second, probabilistic prediction based on induction from the past distribution of events” (782). Those two styles of foresight are “in the midst of being supplemented by a third” through “the proliferation of possibilities about the occurrence and effects of events, alongside an attention to improbably but high-impact events” (782). Well, climate change (as we are learning very quickly) is not improbable, although terror attacks and pandemics might be. In any case, Anderson suggests that the indeterminism characteristic of this new style of foresight “is not only epistemic—that is, based on a restriction of knowledge that could in principle be overcome” but rather “an irreducible fact about a ‘pluri-potential’ world of complex interdependencies, circulations and events” (782). For Anderson, the best term for this emerging style is “premeditation”: it “names a set of statements that disclose and relate to ‘the future’ as a surprise” (782). Those statements shape how the future can be acted upon in two ways. First, “disclosing the future as a surprise means that one cannot then predetermine the form of the future by offering a deterministic prediction”; rather, “the future as surprise can only be rendered actionable by knowing a range of possible futures that may happen, including those that are improbable” (782). Second, “statements about the future as a surprise do not enable the future to be grasped and handled through a process of induction from the past distribution of events,” and instead “anticipatory action must be based on a constant readiness to identify another possible way in which a radically different future may play out” (782). Premeditation emphasizes knowing the future directly “because there could always be another radically different way in which events could evolve” (782-83). For Anderson, “[s]tatements about ‘the future’ as a surprise underpin preemption, preparedness and other forms of contemporary anticipatory action” (783). 

Next, Anderson turns to the ways that contemporary anticipatory action understands life as contingency. “To act before the disaster takes place, futures must somehow be known and made present,” he writes. “But relating to the future as a surprise that may being forth unforeseen novelty rather than, say, a perpetuation of the present, might initially seem to lead to an impasse”: how can one “render futures actionable when the future cannot be known through the past frequency and severity of events?” (783). To address that question, “a range of practices have been invented, formalized and deployed for knowing futures and therefore attempting to ensure that there are no ‘bad surprises’” (783). These include “the ubiquitous calculations that form a constant background to life” through such techniques as “threat-prints, data mining, impact assessments, trend analysis, and complexity modelling of various forms” (783-84). He hasn’t included algorithms, but perhaps because social media was less important when this article was published, the reliance of big corporations on the predictive power of algorithms was less understood. These diverse techniques, he continues, are about measuring the world, he writes, “by which I mean that statements about the indeterminacy of the future are combined with non-linear, or stochastic, calculations of relations, associations or links,” which make specific futures present through numbers, represented as charts, tables, or graphs (784). The insurance industry relies on such calculations to make the future actionable. Predicting various (and typically catastrophic, in Anderson’s argument) futures through such calculations, “a ‘bond of uniformity’ is imposed on the catastrophic event by drawing together a set of effects that vary spatially and temporally,” and “the future event is disentangled by sorting out and ranking the effects” of its different elements (784). 

Second, while “[c]alculation, whether through CAT models or other techniques, renders complex future geographies actionable through the numericalization of a reality to come—numbers that may thereafter circulate, be reflected on and take an affective charge,” another “way of making futures present is through practices based on acts of creative fabulation, including techniques such as visioning, future-basing, link analysis and scenario planning” (784-85). These techniques enable future events to be imagined as if they were real (785). Their outcomes “differ from forms of mechanical objectivity; they range from forms of visualization (such as images, symbols and metaphors) to forms of narrativization (such as stories). Making the future present becomes a question of creating affectively imbued representations that move and mobilize” (785). Such practices “make the future present in ways that are quite different from calculation” by using scenarios, case studies, and pictures rather than graphs and charts (785). They make the future actionable “through two effects” (785). First, “a horizon of expectation is created that is composed of a set of hypothetical possibilities that the scenarios refer to. The scenarios organize and categorize while affirming the openness of the future” (785). Second, “the scenarios evoke without predicting the suspension, and disruption, of life that may follow climate change,” to use one of Anderson’s examples (785). 

Finally, “[f]utures are also made present through practices that stage an interval between the here and now and a specific future through some form of acting, role play, gaming or pretending” (786). The inclusion of “pretending” in this technique suggests its connections to imagining, but they “use the creative capacities of embodiment more explicitly” (786). Various kinds of performance, including exercises, war games, and simulations, can generate knowledge of a future event even when historical evidence is absent (786). “Here the future is made present and rendered actionable in a third way: ‘as if’ futures are created through the ‘anticipatory experience’ generated through both the acts of performance or play and the material organization of particular stages or sites,” Anderson writes (786). These three “modes of practice,” he continues, “enable specific futures to be made present while remaining absent, whether through a graph of future losses, a story of a journey or a feeling of shock” (786-87). 

Anderson now turns to logics. “Styles and practices enable open futures to be rendered actionable,” he writes. “They are, therefore, a necessary component of anticipatory action” (787-88). But such action requires a logic: “a coherent way in which intervention in the here and now on the basis of the future is legitimized, guided and enacted” (788). He focuses on three of these logics—precaution, preemption, and preparedness—although he notes there are others. “The goal of each is to care for a valued life by neutralizing threats to that life,” he writes. (788). Critical engagement with these logics “must turn on questions of what life is to be protected or saved, by whom, and with what effects. And, conversely, what life has been abandoned or destroyed, by whom, and with what effects” (788). 

Precaution, he continues, “is perhaps the best known of the three logics, as it is formalized in the ‘precautionary principle,’” which emerged in European environmental law in the 1970s. Precaution, he writes, “can be understood as a preventative logic with two characteristics (788-89)”:

First, preventative action is separate from the processes it acts on. The object of precaution could develop a catastrophic outcome if the precautionary was was not to take place. Precaution begins once a determinate threat has been identified, even if that threat is scientifically uncertain. Second, precautionary logics act before the identified threat reaches a point of irreversibility. The key question thereafter concerns proportionality: is the response in proportion to the scope of the threat? There is a need, therefore, to constantly assess the balance between what the threat could become and the costs of (in)action in the present. (789)

Climate change is where calls for precautionary action have emerged: “Urgent action is called for because of, rather than despite, the uncertainty of the links between emission scenarios, temperature changes and impacts” (789). Today, of course, such expressions of uncertainty appear rather quaint, given the increasing effects of climate change on our world, but this essay was published 10 years ago, and perhaps the situation seemed more uncertain back then.

Preemption, Anderson’s second logic, is similar to precaution: both emphasize “action under conditions of uncertainty about a future event, a focus on emergent threat ina  world of interdependencies and circulations, and a generative role given to collective apprehension” (789-90). Their shared emphasis on “potential or actual threat means that both break with the logic of risk . . . as ‘calculable uncertainty’ based on the induction of frequency and harm from the past distribution of events” (790). Despite those similarities, there is “a difference in how each intervenes in life”: while precaution focuses on “the stopping or halting of something before it reaches a point of irreversibility,” preemption “acts over threats that have not yet emerged as determinate threats, and so does not only halt or stop from a position outside” but is “incitatory and . . . is justified on the basis of indeterminate potentiality” (790). Anderson’s example of preemption is the preemptive wars waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 (790). “In comparison with the emphasis on continuity that we find in precaution, preemption unashamedly makes and reshapes life,” he suggests, causing a range of unintended effects (790). Those effects are not mistakes, “because in a preemptive logic inaction is not an option so unintended effects are unavoidable”; in fact, “preemption is indifferent to those generative effects” because “the proliferating effects of preemption may generate something else: opportunities to be seized” (790). “Unlike precaution, which aims to preserve a valued life through prevention, preemptive logics work by proliferating effects and creating life, albeit in the case of the ‘war on terror’ lives that have been abandoned and dispossessed,” Anderson writes (790), a statement that is unfortunately confusing because (I think) the theoretical language demands that it be so.

Finally, Anderson turns to preparedness. “If preemption and precaution are based on action that aims to prevent the occurrence of a future,” preparedness “prepares for the aftermath of events” (790-91). It shares, with preemption and precaution, the same problem: “how to act on indeterminate/uncertain futures emergent form a complex set of flows and connections” (791). Preparedness responds differently, however: “Its sphere of operation is a series of events after a precipitating event” (791). Rather than trying to stop an event from happening, it “aims to stop the effects of an event disrupting the circulations and interdependencies that make up a valued life” (791). Preparedness is about building resiliency (in infrastructure, for instance) “as a way of preparing for the occurrence of unpredictable events” (791).

For Anderson, “[p]recaution, preemption and preparedness are all means of guiding action once the future has been problematized in a certain way—as a disruptive surprise—and each are deployed once specific futures have been made present through practices of calculation, performance or imagination” (791). They do something else as well: they redistribute “the relationship that lives within and outside liberal democracies have to disaster. To protect, save and care for certain forms of life is to potentially abandon, dispossess and destroy others” (791). This leads Anderson to a series of questions: “First, how are different forms of anticipatory action imbricated with sovereign actions, such as violent interventions, or the implantation of emergency measures?” (792). Second, “what form of life is valorized now and in the future?” (792). Third, “how is conduct conducted in relation to different types of anticipatory action, and the specific networks of governance through which precaution, preemption and preparedness are deployed?” (792). Answering such questions “demands detailed empirical work sensitive to the operation of anticipatory logics in relation to plural relations of power” (792). He suggests that “[a] logic does not have a primary actor, primary target or characteristic spatial form”; in a logic, those are simply contextual (792). Determining those contexts is clearly something Anderson thinks human geographers ought to be doing.

Finally, Anderson reaches his conclusion on the relationships between space and futurity—in other words, between geography as a discipline and futurity as he has been discussing it. What implications does a study of the styles, practices, and logics of anticipatory action have for human geography? “First, work could attend to the presence of the future in any and all geographies,” he writes (793). Second, “we should reflect on the assumptions about the future that are embedded in our extant habits and techniques of thinking” (793). First, “work could supplement how futures are made present by anticipating other desired futures through a range of utopic sensibilities, skills and techniques,” he suggests (793). Second, “word could aim to scramble attempts to create desired futures by welcoming the unanticipated and thereafter cultivating the irruption of virtual or to-come futures” (794). Experimenting with our relations to the future “is necessary because to fold alternative futures into the here and now is to open up the chance of new possibilities; just as recovering overlooked pasts has long been recognized as a means of disclosing new and different future geographies” (794).

I didn’t read this article because I’m interested in future research directions for human geography. I decided to read it because Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández cite quotations from it (through Andrew Baldwin) as the source for their use of the term “futurity” in the phrase “settler futurity” (80). They note that futurity suggests the ways in which the future is rendered knowable—or at least imaginable—through the anticipatory logics of precaution, preemption and preparedness (80). Their point is “to emphasize the ways in which replacement is entirely concerned with settler futurity, which always indivisibly means the continued and complete eradication of the original inhabitants of contested land” (80). Therefore, for Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández, as well as Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, settler futurity seems to be a synonym for the genocidal process that Patrick Wolfe describes as a logic of elimination, or the replacement of Indigenous peoples by Settlers. No wonder Tuck and Yang suggest that settler futurity is a bad thing. They describe incommensurability as “an acknowledgement that decolonization will require a change in the order of the world” (31), and suggest that “[t]o fully enact an ethic of incommensurability”—an ethic that is, they argue, central to decolonization—“means relinquishing settler futurity, abandoning the hope that settlers may one day be commensurable to Native peoples” (36). Commensurable, according to the O.E.D., means “measurable by the same standard or scale of values,” or “[p]roportionable in measure, size, amount, etc.; having a suitable proportion, proportionate to.” For Tuck and Yang, then, Settlers cannot be measured by the same standard or scale of values, because their futurity is based on the genocidal fantasy, or ambition, or replacing Indigenous peoples through the logic of elimination, whereas the futurity of Indigenous peoples is based on a resistance to the logic of elimination. Settler futurity, in this context, is thus a synonym for replacement or the logic of elimination. Perhaps I should’ve figured that out without having to read Anderson or Baldwin, or perhaps Tuck and Yang, or Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández, could have defined that term more clearly. At least I now know what they’re talking about. I’ll take that as a victory. But I think that if I’m ever tempted to use the term “settler futurity,” I’ll refer to Wolfe’s logic of elimination instead. It just seems simpler and clearer.

Works Cited

Anderson, Ben. “Preemption, Precaution, Preparedness: Anticipatory Action and Future Geographies.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 34, no. 6, 2010, pp. 777-98.

Baldwin, Andrew. “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 36, no. 2, 2012, pp. 172-87.

Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 72-89.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409.

118. Andrew Baldwin, “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda”

baldwin.jpg

Still on the trail of a decent explanation of the term “futurity,” your intrepid cub reporter turns to geographer Andrew Baldwin’s “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda,” which Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández cite as the source of their discussion of that term. Yes, I’m still avoiding studying for my Cree linguistics examination by doing other work. Yes, I know that’s a terrible idea. Yes, I promise to stop after I finish Baldwin’s essay.

Baldwin begins by stating his paper’s argument: “research on whiteness and geography is oriented almost exclusively around some notion of the past,” and that “privileging the past when researching geographies of whiteness risks overlooking the ways in which whiteness and hence various forms of racism are configured in relation to a different temporal horizon: the future” (172). By “analyzing discourses of ‘the future,’” geographers “can reveal important insights about the ways in which white geographies are configured that might otherwise be foreclosed if the past if privileged as the exclusive time-space through which such geographies are produced and maintained,” Baldwin writes. “As such, any politics seeking to challenge whitenesses and their hold on racist social imaginaries may benefit by analysing how the future is invoked and how such future-oriented articulations of all kinds” (173).

“By future I refer to an imagined time that is yet-to-come,” Baldwin continues. “The future can be understood to follow sequentially from a past-present trajectory, or it can be understood as a form of absent presence” (172). The future exerts a force on the present, as in religion (“moral judgements in the present are shaped by a concern for one’s safe passage into a future afterlife”) or finance (“the pricing of securities necessarily entails some calculation of future risk”) (173). Baldwin cites an article by Ben Anderson (the source of quotations Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández use in their essay): “His point is that the future is rendered knowable through specific practices (i.e. calculation, imagination and performance) and, in turn, intervenes on the present through three anticipatory logics (i.e. pre-caution, pre-emption and preparedness)” (173). Okay, so that’s the future. But futurity, Baldwin writes, is “an important feature of the affective dimensions of daily life” (173). His examples are fear and hope: “Both are simultaneously embodied experiences and atmospheric qualities animated by imagined futures: one fears the yet-to-come and the other hopes for better things to come. In both, the here-and-now of the psyche or of collective mood is shaped by the yet-to-come” (173). He cites Brian Massumi’s argument that “affect occurs precisely in the overlap between the actual and the virtual, which I take to mean an overlap between that which is and a very specific form of the virtual—the yet-to-come” (173). If the virtual is “things that are real but not actual,” then “the future is exemplary of the virtual,” he writes, citing Rob Shields (173). The future, he continues “can be known and hence real, as Anderson suggests, but because it can never be fully actualized as the future, the future remains a permanent virtuality” (173). By analyzing “atmospheres of fear and hope,” one might learn something “about the way politics takes shape through the conjugation of the actual and the virtual, or at the threshold of the future event” (173).

However, “the future as an object or orientation of inquiry is not limited to the affective, and nor is it confined to an actual-virtual binary,” Baldwin writes (173). “This essay argues for a research agenda that situates the future at the centre of analyses of white geographies,” he states. “It shows how the geographic literature on whiteness is past-oriented and suggests how this literature might benefit by attending to the ways in which white geographies are infused by notions of futurity”—that is, and this clarification is for me, not anyone reading this summary, notions of “embodies experiences and atmospheric qualities animated by imagined futures” (173). By whiteness, Baldwin is referring “to a racialized subject position that is remarkable for its seeming invisibility” (173). Whiteness is only partly about skin colour; more importantly, it “plays a foundational role in racist epistemology by serving as the norm against which others come to be viewed as different” (173). For that reason, Whiteness is “a set of ‘narrative structural positions, rhetorical tropes and habits of perception’ that stand in for the normal,” he writes (Richard Dyer, qtd. 173-74). He cites Dyer as arguing that “the power of whiteness lies in its capacity for almost infinite variability” and suggests that “the power of racisms rest in their capacity to normalize their corresponding whitenesses” (174).

Geographies of whiteness are simply geographies that “are assumed to be white or are in some way structured, though often implicitly, by some notion of whiteness” (174). Research on whiteness tends to be focused on the past, “as an expression of social relations that took shape in the past” (174). That work “is dominated by an orientation that looks to the past as the temporal horizon through which research and learning about past or present white racial identity occurs. . . . The racist past is . . . used to explain the racist present” (174). He cites Alastair Bonnett (a psychogeographer, among other things) and his argument that “whiteness ought to be understood as a function of historical geography” (174) (Hooray! An example! Actually, Baldwin furnishes a lot of examples to support his claims.) But Baldwin wonders “whether a past-oriented approach to the study of white geographies reproduces the teleological assumption that white racism can be modernized away,” an assumption that “privileges an ontology of linear causality in which the past is thought to act on the present and the present is said to be an effect of whatever came before” (174). (Any historian would assert the truth of that kind of ontology.) But, according to such a past-oriented temporality, “the future is the terrain upon or though which white racism will get resolved,” a perspective that “cleaves the future from the present and, thus, gives the future discrete ontological form” (174). “[T]his kind of temporality disregards the ways in which the future is very often already present in the present not as a discrete ontological time-space, but as an absent or virtual presence that constitutes the very meaning of the present,” Baldwin writes (174). Geographies of whiteness are, he argues, “not simply a function of the past but of the future as well” (174).

This statement leads Baldwin to several questions: “To what extent are geographies of whiteness a function not just of the past but of the future? How are white geographies maintained in relation to the future? In what ways is the future already present in various forms of whiteness?” (174). The “geographic literature on whiteness is silent on these questions,” because of its orientation towards the past (174). “[T]he task for a future-oriented geographic research on whiteness might be to understand how both contemporary and past forms of whiteness relate to the future, or how specific geographic expressions of whiteness are contingent on the future,” he states (175). For instance, how do “discourses of futurity shape various forms of white supremacy from right-wing xenophobias to left-nationalisms to practices of liberal humanitarianism, and how these shape, for instance, geographies of place, nature, space, mobility, bodies and so on” (175)? How are “discourses of white crisis” related to or shaped by “notions of futurity? They do relate to the future. The question is: how and to what effect?” (175). 

Baldwin cites three reasons why these questions are important. First, “the future is an important site through which individuals and societies are governed,” he writes, citing Anderson again. “A focus on whiteness and futurity provides scope for thinking about the way in which governing through the future might inaugurate new or reconfigure old forms of whiteness,” he continues, citing eugenics as one example, and “future-oriented technologies, like genetic screening and nanotechnology,” as another (175). Second, “understanding how white geographies articulate with discourses of futurity opens up new terrains for conceptualizing and challenging racism,” he states (175). “If white supremacy is, in part, reproduced through shared practices of futurity, what then are these practices?” he asks. “What kinds of futures do such practices seek to expunge or produce, and how can they be resisted?” (175). Third, “a focus on whiteness and futurity points to the idea that affect shapes white racial formation,” he writes. “For the future can never exist except as a form of virtual present, and affect can be understood, in part, as a generalized attitude towards the presencing of particular futures”—although he acknowledges that it can also involve an attitude towards the presenceing of the past as well (175). “Thus, we might ask: what futures infuse the affective logics of whiteness? How does this future presencing occur? And how, if at all, are these futures constitutive of specific white spatio-temporalities?” he wonders (175). “These reasons together provide a rationale for a research agenda concerned with understanding how the future works as a resource in the geographic expression of whitenesses” (175).

Baldwin looks at labour history, postcolonialism and identity, and critical whiteness and anti-racism as examples of phenomena understood through orientations towards the past but that could also benefit from “attention to futurity” (175-76). He begins with labour studies texts that “illustrate how white privilege operates as as form of economic currency, or ‘cash value’” (176). “[B]eing white has meant (and continues to mean) greater likelihood of employment, higher wages, access to finance capital and mobility,” he writes. “This line of research is further developed in work that recognizes a ‘possessive investment in whiteness,’ the idea that white people invest politically, economically, culturally and socially in a racialized value system that confers material advantage” (Lipsitz, qtd. 176). “Whiteness here operates as a form of property,” he continues, and in the U.S. “an identifiable system of legal and social norms has evolved” to ensure “that the asset value of whiteness is not undermined” (176). According to Baldwin, this work is important to his argument because it recognizes “that the economic value that attaches to whiteness is historically constituted and that confronting white racism in America necessarily entails exposing the historical production of whiteness as a form of economic value” (177). He cites many examples of geographical research that set out to expose that historical production of whiteness, particularly studies of white flight and white nostalgia (177). “How then might attending to the future shape the labour history of whiteness?” he asks. “What is missing from this approach such that it requires attention to discourses of futurity?” (177). The interests of the White workers benefitting from higher wages, for instance, “of which the future forms an indispensable part, are not objectively expressed in the wage but are indeterminate and worked out in struggles over the wage,” he states. “As such, the future, specifically how it might be configured, is an object of struggle in wage politics. But so is whiteness, if we follow the logic that whiteness is a form of economic value. Whiteness, in this sense, has a stake in the future, and hence wage politics, to the extent that white people seek to maintain the future value of whiteness” (177-78). 

Covenants intended to exclude African Americans from owning suburban houses is another example (although not specific to labour studies): “the covenant can be interpreted as a form of white asset protector that safeguards against the ever-present possibility but never materialized future of Black homeownership” (178).  “In this sense,” Baldwin continues, “the covenant is the political expression of an affective logic itself produced through the conjugation of an actual value of white home ownership and the virtuality of future Black homeownership” (178). Another geographic example (not connected to labour studies either) is the delinking of property taxes from the financing of municipal services, “which allowed suburban housing associations greater local control over zoning and thereby the capacity to insulate home values through exclusionary zoning,” and which meant that “affluent, white suburban homeowners no longer had to pay for the municipal services associated with low-income areas” (178). According to Baldwin, restrictive covenants and delinking taxes from services expressed “similar white anxieties about the virtual event of Blackness,” although “while the former was a defensive strategy that ‘priced’ the future into the economic value of whiteness through a restrictive policy, the later ‘priced’ the future into the economic value of whiteness by way of regressive taxation” (178). Both are “expressions of white anticipation where what is anticipated are the effects on the economic value of whiteness of an always present but never realized virtuality of Blackness,” and therefore “we might understand the economic value of whiteness not simply as the accrual of value over time, but as an anticipatory system of valuation in which the value of whiteness is preserved through the imagined effects and infinite deferral of undesirable Black futures” (178-79).

Next, Baldwin takes on poscolonialism and white identity. He begins by distinguishing between two forms of racism. One is biological, focused on innate racial difference, and is associated with eugenics and Naziism. The other is cultural, and it claims that differences between peoples is cultural; this version “finds expression in the denigration of cultural others, but also, paradoxically, through tropes of tolerance and accommodation (i.e. multiculturalism)” (179). Both forms of racism work together, but what is important about them is that, “through each, difference comes to be understood as a function of time”: biological racism understands difference as “a function of natural history,” whereas cultural racism sees it as “a function of cultural history” (179). “Moreover, each privileges a corresponding form of whiteness also expressed as a function of historical time,” Baldwin writes. “In this sense, white identity is either biologically or culturally prefigured, lived out temporally through either determinist or historicist teleology, respectively” (179). In that way, “white identity is said to be essentialist to the extent it accounts for its existence not through any constitutive relation with an Other, but through genetics, common ancestry and/or national history” (179). White essentialism is non-relational; its “epistemological system . . . presupposes its boundedness held together through a belief in shared origins” (179).

Another “route into the study of whiteness works against such non-relational epistemology, which, for better or worse, I refer to as postcolonialism and identity,” Baldwin continues (179). In this case, “the methodological orientation” isn’t towards whiteness as an economic value, but rather “more towards understanding the meaning of whiteness as a function of colonial otherness” (179). “In this line of thought, the various meanings of whiteness, alongside its various collateral concepts (i.e. European, Occidental, Eurowestern, colonial settler and white settler, to name only a few) are constructed through specific historical narratives in relation to an Other,” Baldwin writes (179). He cites the work of Edward Said and Judith Butler to suggest that “whiteness can be said to be performative”; that is, “whatever object white identities take as their foundational points of reference (i.e. history, language, ancestry and genetic lineage) are fully contingent on their ‘founding reputations’” (179-80). “Thus the story of whiteness is not internal to itself but forged in relation to that which has been excluded from it, for instance, blackness, indigeneity or all manner of ethnicities,” he continues. “Moreover, that the meaning of whiteness shifts and changes as a function of time and place further underscores the contingency of whiteness” (180). Postcolonial analyses are about exposing that contingency, “about showing how forms of identity that aspire to domination are constituted in relation to the perceived inferiority of others,” although they are also interested in demonstrating how “contingent forms of domination” endure even after “the period of formal colonialism came to a close” (180). In that way, postcolonial analyses are “another good example of a methodological orientation to the study of whiteness that is past-oriented” (180). He cites examples from feminist scholarship and from work on “postcolonial social formations in white settler societies” (180). 

However, Baldwin suggests that “[t]he geographic literature that examines whiteness from the vantage of postcolonial geography is surprisingly sparse” (180). Nevertheless, the work he has found “looks to past (colonial) signification to understand how white identities are constructed both historically and in the present in relation to Others,” and “[m]uch of it also seeks to foreground the contingency of whiteness in both the past and present” (181). He finds this ironic, “given how future-directed notions of progress, betterment and modernity have been and remain so foundation to colonial ontology” (181). “What, then, might be gained by examining constructions of postcolonial whiteness through futurity?” he asks. One possibility is “the issue of climate change and migration” (181). Climate change-induced migration (due to, for instance, rising sea levels) “is almost always configured as a future phenomenon,” as in the case of a Museum of London exhibit called London Futures, “a collection of magical realist photographs that depict London under conditions of climate change” which included a photo of Buckingham Palace surrounded by a shantytown (181). “[T]he image works, in part, as an affective technology by conjuring the white anxieties of postcolonial Britain in order to mobilize the environmental citizen to action,” Baldwin writes. “As such, the image tethers the politics of climate change and environmental citizenship to those of race and whiteness through an appeal to the future” (181). The image, “alongside the entire discourse of climate change and migration, offers a way of thinking about how whiteness is constituted through an imagined future, even if that future is itself a colonial artifact. What this suggests is that while postcolonial white identity in Britian is, indeed a contingent formation, it is contingent not solely on the events of an imperial past, but on some form of future other as well” (181). In that sense, Britain’s postcolonial identity “is forged as much through anticipation as melancholy, as much through a glance forward as a citation of past signification” (181-82).

Finally, Baldwin turns to critical whiteness and anti-racism scholarship, another route into whiteness studies that is oriented to the past. “One of the most important insights four in this work is the idea that the anti-racist white subject is a political impossibility,” he writes, citing an article by Sara Ahmed (182). “Although a potentially paralysing analysis for white people wishing to engage in anti-racist struggle, this work is important for showing how whiteness scholarship engages in a form of dis-affiliation,” he continues. “It argues that whiteness scholars gain distance from the violent legacies of white supremacy through the act of disrupting or historicizing the category of whiteness while simultaneously reproducing their white privilege” (182). This work’s orientation to the past “lies in its use of genealogy,” and therefore “this work is concerned less with the ways in which whiteness is socially or historically constructed than with the way in which whiteness scholars themselves obtain material and cultural benefit by analysing discourses of whiteness” (182). For Ahmed, for instance, “whiteness scholarship is replete with ‘declarations of whiteness’ that are non-performative. What she means is that declaring one’s whiteness or even one’s racism in critiques of whiteness is not a route to anti-racism, nor does it make one an anti-racist” (182). What such declarations do, rather, is “nothing more than position white subjectivity as a central agent in anti-racist politics where the declaration is figured not as something beyond race, but as a speech act that merely reconfigures the way in which the politics or race are spoken” (182). Whiteness studies, in this account, is “constructed as an object of analysis, the meanings fo which are themselves effects of past and contemporary racialization” (182). Such work “is deeply self-reflexive” but “has been taken up only sparingly in geography,” since it would, among other things, prevent “white people from retreating into a position thought to be anti-racist” (182). “Instead of allowing white people the comfortable experience of being anti-racist (as opposed to the discomforting experience of acknowledging one’s racism or being perceived to be racist), this body of scholarship asks that white people get used to the uncomfortable experience of being white,” Baldwin writes (182-83). He does not exempt his own writing on whiteness from this critique (183).

“Perhaps one of the important contributions critical whiteness scholarship makes to whiteness studies is to recognize the way in which the meaning of whiteness rests, in part, on the mobility of whiteness: whiteness moves,” Baldwin continues. “It disaffiliates from ‘old’ racisms” and “gains distance from racists” (183). Both “white anti-racists and the British National Party share in common the view that they are avowedly not racist,” he suggests (183) (of course, the BNP are either deluded or lying). Whitness also “gains distance from blackness” as well as “from whiteness itself” (183). “What might futurity mean to a critical whiteness approach to whiteness studies?” Baldwin asks (183). Answering such a question might begin with positioning futurity “at the centre of reflexive engagement on questions about whiteness by both people of colour and white people” (183). “Ahmed offers the beginnings of such an exercise,” Baldwin suggests, since she argues that “in asking ‘what can I do’ upon hearing about racism, white people shift the politics of racism from the present ‘what is’ to the future ‘what can be done’” (183). For Ahmed, that movement “blocks white people from hearing the message of racism. The fact of racism thus gets deferred into the future through the hope of its future reconciliation, abolition or even absolution” (183). “A reflexive engagement with futurity might therefore build on Ahmed’s insight by asking how whiteness studies rely on some notion of the future,” Baldwin states (183). Thinking carefully about how the future of whiteness “is integral to ways in which the meanings of whiteness scholarship shift and change” might “disrupt the power of whiteness,” he continues (183), a suggestion that grants far too much power to a relatively minor academic discipline in my opinion, although that overestimation of the efficacy of scholarship seems to be common in the work I’ve been reading for this project.

Baldwin’s conclusion summarizes his argument. “[A] past-oriented approach to accounting for geographies of whiteness often neglects to consider how various forms of whiteness are shaped by discourses of futurity,” he states (184). Focusing exclusively on the past “obscures the way the category of the future is invoked in the articulation of whiteness. As such, any analysis that seeks to understand how whitenesses of all kinds shape contemporary (and indeed past) racisms operates with only a partial understanding of the time-spaces of whiteness” (184). Baldwin’s argument, he continues, “is that we can learn much about whitenesses and their corresponding forms of racism by paying special attention to the ways in which such whitenesses are constituted by futurity” (184). What would be involved in such a project? “For one, geographers would do well to identity whether and how the practice of governing through the future inaugurates new and repeats old forms of whiteness,” he suggests:

It would also be worth comparing and contrasting how the future is made present in various dialectical accounts of whiteness. For instance, what becomes of whiteness when understood through the binary actual-possible as opposed to an actual-virtual binary, which has been my main concern? Alternatively, what becomes of the category of whiteness if it is shown to be constituted by a future that has no ontology except as a virtual presence? And, perhaps more pressing, how might whiteness be newly politicized? (184)

“Futurity provides a productive vocabulary for thinking about and challenging whiteness,” he continues. “It does not offer a means of overcoming white supremacy, nor does it provide white people with a normative prescription for living with their whiteness guilt- or worry-free. Futurity is, however, a lacuna in the study of whiteness both in geography and outside the discipline, and this alone suggests the need to take it seriously” (184). More urgent, however, “is the need to study whiteness and futurity given how central the future is to contemporary governance and politics” (184). “[H]ow people orient themselves towards the future is indelibly political,” he writes. “The future impels action” (184). “Attention to whiteness and futurity may at minimum enable us to see more clearly the extent to which the pull of whiteness into the future reconfigures what is to be valued in the decades ahead,” he concludes (184).

“Whiteness and Futurity” could end up being an important part of my exegisis—or at least an important point of entry into fields of scholarship that might be important when I come to write that thing. For the present, though, I like the way that Baldwin provides a clear definition of the term “futurity” as an affective anticipation, a simultaneously embodied experience and an atmospheric quality “animated by imagined futures,” the affective product of an overlap between the actual (what is) and the virtual (what is known and real but never fully actualized) (173). I don’t know if that’s the only definition, or even the best definition, but it’s one definition, and that will do for this afternoon. The connotations of the term “settler futurity,” though, given this definition, aren’t quite clear to me, particularly given the way that it tends to be used in settler colonial theory as something terrible that must be destroyed. Somebody somewhere must give a clear and useful definition of that term. I just haven’t found it quite yet.

Work Cited

Baldwin, Andrew. “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 36, no. 2, 2012, pp. 172-87.

Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 72-89.

117. Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity”

tuck and gaz first page.jpg

I decided to read “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity, by Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, because I keep running across the term “settler futurity” and I wanted to get a clearer idea of what it means. It’s obviously a bad thing from the way it’s used, which makes me curious: Settlers have no future? How can that be? What does it mean to tell a group of people they have no future? It turns out that the term “futurity” isn’t synonymous with “future,” although how the two differ is still unclear to me.

The authors begins with James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels and their protagonist, Natty Bumppo, a child of European Settlers who is raised by an Indigenous nation, but who “grows to disdain both the Natives who raise him, whom he sees as barbaric and uncivilized, as well as the European settlers, whom he sees as incapable of surviving with nature” (72). “Natty Bumppo grows to be the true enlightened subject, who can learn from the ways of the primitive without becoming them, who remains civilized without succumbing to nature, and who can travers the boundaries that separate different groups with his cosmopolitan orientation,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández write. “In Natty Bumppo, the future of the settler is ensured through the absorption of those aspects of Indigenous knowledge that ensure survival, only to justify erasure and subsequent replacement” (72-73). Figures like Natty Bumppo, who are neither Indigenous nor Settler, who are both civilized and “one with nature,” saturate “the U.S. cultural imaginary” (73). “Natty Bumppo also resurfaces within the contentions over colonization and race that mar the politics of progressive fields such as curriculum studies,” the authors continue. “Here, the future of the settler is ensured by the absorption of any and all critiques that pose a challenge to white supremacy, and the replacement of anyone who dares to speak against ongoing colonization” (73).

“This article does the simultaneously blunt and delicate work of exhuming the ways in which curriculum and its history in the United States has invested in settler colonialism, and the permanence of the settler-colonial nation state,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández state. “In particular, we will describe the settler colonial curricular project of replacement, which aims to vanish Indigenous peoples and replace them with settlers, who see themselves as rightful claimants to land, and indeed, as Indigenous” (73). Of course, that project goes far beyond educational curricula, and the focus on education seems strange to me—but then again, I’m not really interested in educational research or scholarship, which is probably going to be a barrier for me in reading this essay. The authors will use the figure of Natty Bumppo “as an extended allegory to understand the ways in which the field of curriculum has continued to absorb, silence, and replace the non-white other, perpetuating white supremacy and settlerhood,” primarily through “a rhetorical move against identity politics” (73). “White curriculum scholars re-occupy the ‘spaces’ opened by responses to racism and colonization in the curriculum, such as multiculturalism and critical race theory, absorbing the knowledge, but once again displacing the bodies out to the margins” (73). The “various interventions” that have “tried to dislodge the aims of replacement, including multiculturalism, critical race theory, and browning . . . have been sidelined and reappropriated in ways that reinscribe settler colonialism and settler futurity” (73)

The idea of replacement comes through the work of Patrick Wolfe and his argument that settler colonialism operates through a logic of elimination; I’ve written about the article to which Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández refer here. The violence of invasion “is reasserted each day of occupation,” because as Wolfe argues, invasion is a structure, not an event (73). “Thus, when we write about settler colonialism in this article, we are writing about it as both an historical and contemporary matrix of relations and conditions that define life in the settler colonial nation-state,” the authors state (73-74). “In North America, settler colonialism operates through a triad of relationships, between the (white [but not always]) settlers, the Indigenous inhabitants, and the chattel slaves who are removed from their homelands to work stolen land,” they continue (74). (If their intention is to write about contemporary life in settler colonial nation-states, shouldn’t they concede that slavery has been abolished in North America?) “Several belief systems need to be in place to justify the destruction of Indigenous life and the enslavement of life from other lands, in particular the continent of Africa,” including “19th century ‘manifest destiny,’” “heteropaternalism—the assumption that heteropatriarchial nuclear domestic arrangements are the building block of the state and institutions,” and white supremacy (74). (I suppose “heteropaternalism” is included because Indigenous nations had other models of “domestic arrangements.”) “Settler colonialism requires the construction of non-white peoples as less than or not-quite civilized, an earlier expression of human civilization, and makes whiteness and white subjectivity both superior and normal,” they continue, suggesting that this makes both whiteness and “settler status” invisible, “only seen when threatened” (74). “Settler colonialism is typified by its practiced epistemological refusal to recognize the latent relations of the settler colonial triad; the covering of its tracks,” particularly through “the circulation of its creation story” (74). Such stories “conceal the teleology of violence and domination that characterize white settlement,” such as “the ‘Fort on Frontier’ as a signifier for the myth of civilization and modernity in the creation story of the Canadian nation-state,” they write, citing Dwayne Donald (74). In the U.S., the parallel signifier is “the ‘jeremiad’ of colonial Puritans who sought to establish a utopian society” (75). (Why that mythology is a “jeremiad” needs to be explained here; otherwise a word with a specific meaning simply turns into a term of abuse or opprobrium.)

Next, Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández turn to education and, in particular, curriculum. I’m going to summarize this section very quickly. “[S]chooling has served the purpose of promoting and imperialist view of the world that justifies colonization premised on European epistemological supremacy,” they write (75). Schooling “has been a white supremacist project” that is “premised . . . on maintaining symbolic logics through which to justify the theft and occupation of Indigenous land” (75). Education and “the field of curriculum studies” have always “played a significant role in the maintenance of settler colonialism” by seeing themselves “through logics of replacement in which the settler ultimately comes to replace the Native” (76). Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández trace this role from the seventeenth century onwards (76-77). They cite Lorenzo Veracini’s observation that “within settler colonialism, settlers and the settler-state must continuously disavow the existence and presence of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous accounts and histories of land,” since 

[f]or the settler, the recalcitrant continued presence of Indigenous peoples and the descendants of chattel slaves is disturbing, is disrupting. The settler-state is always already in a precarious position because Indigenous peoples and descendants fo chattel slaves won’t do what they are supposed to do, fade away into history by either disappearing or becoming more like the settler, the true description of the human. If they/we won’t fade away into history, then the whole ugly business of the founding of the settler-state can’t be surpassed, can’t be forgotten. (77) 

Settler colonialism therefore hides the evidence of its activities in order “to achieve the settler’s ultimate aim, which is to resolve the uncomfortable and precarious dis-location as usurper, and replace the Indigenous people as the natural, historical, rightful and righteous owners of the land” (77). (I need to read Veracini’s book, which is by all accounts an important account of settler colonialism.)

Here Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández return to Natty Bumppo, noting that the Leatherstocking novels tapped into “settlers’ imaginations of the vanishing Indian, the innovative Frontiersman, and the ill-fated Negro, the very cast of characters which animate settler colonialism, and much of American literature” (78). The Leatherstocking novels ignore the reality of the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the resulting Trail of Tears (1831-1837) “while imagining the Indian as already vanished, as already dead” (78). For Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández, these stories, together constitute “an allegory for what we call the settler colonial curricular project of replacement, which is intent on relieving the inherent anxiety of settler dislocation from stolen land” (78). (Why limit that project to curriculum?) “The anchoring themes of hybridity, extinction, inheritance, and whiteness that is more Indian (i.e more deserving of the land) than Indians from Cooper’s tales are the vertebrae of the ideological justification for the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and Black and brown peoples: ignoring that they may have an a priori claim to land, or a claim derived from reparation,” they continue (78). (Wouldn’t land for reparations also be Indigenous land? Doesn’t that suggestion lead to a scenario where there would be competing claims to land? Wouldn’t that transfer of land from White ownership to Black people as reparations still be an example of settler colonialism?) According to Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández, “Natty Bumppo-as-curriculum” is an allegory that “highlights the distraction offered by the pursuit of replacement, away from settler complicity in the erasure of Indigenous people toward fantasies fo the extinct or becoming-extinct Indian as natural, foregone, inevitable, indeed, evolutionary” (78). They note that nineteenth- and early-twentiety-century writers on education believed in that evolutionary idea (78-79). “[S]ettler futurity is ensured through an understanding of Native-European relations as a thing of the past, and the inclusion of Native history [is] a past upon which a white future is ensured,” they continue (79). 

Moreover, “contemporary progressive and critical approaches to curriculum act through the same ‘Fort on Frontier’ mythology and the same ‘errand into the wilderness’ Puritan jeremiad that ensure replacement and settler futurity” (79). “[T]he contemporary field of curriculum studies has not escaped its preoccupation with replacement,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández write. “We see this manifested in how non-white, non-settler contributions to curriculum studies, along with the scholars that make those contributions, are frequently replaced, renewing settler interpretations as central to the field and the history of fantasies of replacement in its founding” (79). Scholars of colour “are sometimes dismissed as too focused on identity politics” by White scholars “who have moved on to a post-racial analysis,” and “[t]hose who challenge the appropriation of Brown, Black, and Indigenous ideas and the renewed installment of white bodies are dismissed as essentialists, as saying that race matters more than it really should, and are called the true racists” (79). (This argument would be stronger if the authors presented examples of such dismissals.) “Replacement is both a molar and molecular project,” they state, citing Deleuze and Guattari: 

The settler colonial curricular project of replacement seems to happen organically, without intent, even though Indigenous erasure is the arch aim of settler colonialism. It happens generally, through the commonplace tendency of appropriation and commercialization of Indigeneity, but also specifically, through the removal of Indigenous bodies and the occupation of tracts of land by settler bodies. (79)

White scholars who are identified as experts on “multiculturalism—now refracted as diversity” become “the expert ‘backwoodsman,’ the allegorical Natty Bumppo who has gained expertise from ‘diverse,’ ‘indigenous,’ decolonizing,’ or ‘brown’ others, not further replaced by the new ‘native,’ no longer accountable to those who have been historically underrepresented in the academy,” they continue (79-80)

Finally, Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández arrive at a brief (three paragraph) explanation of settler futurity: “The settler colonial curricular project of replacement is invested in settler futurity, or what Andrew Baldwin calls the ‘permanent virtuality’ of the settler on stolen land” (Baldwin, qtd. 80). (“Why “virtuality”? I don’t understand.) “When we locate the present of settler colonialism as only the production of the past, we overlook how settler colonialism is configured in relation to a different temporal horizon: the future,” they continue:

To say that something is invested in something else’s futurity is not the same as saying it is invested in something’s future, though the replacement is invested in both settler future and futurity. Futurity refers to the ways in which, “the future is rendered knowable through specific practices (i.e. calculation, imagination, and performance) and, in turn, intervenes upon the present through three anticipatory logics (i.e. pre-caution, pre-emption and preparedness).” (Baldwin, qtd. 80)

Maybe I’m just stupid, but I’m not sure I follow the distinction being made here between future and futurity. They seem entangled in such a way that they cannot be separated. I could read Baldwin’s essay—I’ve located a copy—but why does the definition of settler futurity provided here have to be unclear? Without a clear definition, that term risks being taken as meaningless—and I’ve seen it used in so many texts on settler colonialism that it must mean something. Given the importance of the term and its omnipresence in this essay, it needs a better explanation. “[R]eplacement is entirely concerned with settler futurity, which always indivisibly means the continued and complete eradication of the original inhabitants of contested land,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández continue. “Anything that seeks to recuperate and not interrupt settler colonialism, to reform the settlement and incorporate Indigenous peoples into the settler colonial nation state is fettered to settler futurity” (80). “To be clear, our commitments are to what might be called an Indigenous futurity, which does not foreclose the inhabitation of Indigenous land by non-Indigenous peoples, but does foreclose settler colonialism and settler epistemologies,” they write. “That is to say that Indigenous futurity does not require the erasure of now-settlers in the ways that settler futurity requires of Indigenous peoples” (80). So Settlers can remain on the land but without settler colonialism or settler epistemologies? Is that even possible? If so, how?

At this point, Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández turn to three attempts at intervening “upon the settler colonial curricular project of replacement”—“multiculturalism, critical race theory, and browning”—along with “another emergent attempt, rematriation” (80). Replacement, they contend, is “a function of whiteness and white ideology, because the interventions have been constructed as responses to structural racism; however, we maintain that white supremacy is supported and enacted through settler colonialism” (80). “[T]he settler colonial curricular project of replacement is relentless in its recuperation and absorption of such critiques—effectively replacing those who offered the critiques with (now) more informed white bodies,” they state (81). 

First, “[m]ulticulturalism is perhaps the most widespread response to white supremacy in the curriculum, and it has many manifestations and critiques, including how it operates to promote the narratives and the claims of descendants of slaves and setttlers of color at the expense of Indigenous people” (81). Multicultural curriculum is about inclusion; it grew out of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, which framed “inequity in relation to institutionalized racism and oppression,” and insisted “on the strengths and contributions of communities and families” (81). “As ‘tourist’ and other superficial approaches proliferated”—what do the authors mean by “tourist” in this context?—“educators of color grew disillusioned with multiculturalism” (81). Indigenous educators like Sandy Grande state that multiculturalism ignores “the significance of Indigenous (struggles for) sovereignty” and that inclusion “prevents Indigenous peoples from achieving decolonizing aims” (81). “When being inclusive, whitestream curriculum begins to absorb and contain, consuming and erasing the other, by always-already positioning the accumulated knowledge as other to, less refined, more subjective and less reliable than the whitestream,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández write:

The story is just a better story when there are more white people in it. Once the story is properly populated and the subaltern knowledge is absorbed, actual participation by Othered bodies is not necessary. Like Natty Bumppo, the whitestream can integrate what it needs—once the white settler learns to dance like the other, learns to eat like the other, learns to dress like the other, and to consume and even to make objects like the other, the other is no longer needed, discarded, replaced. (82)

“This is followed by a move away from the initial language of multiculturalism, to a language of diversity, which can more fully be reoccupied by white subjects,” they continues. “Under the banner of ‘we are all the same because we are different,’ the language of diversity completes the replacement, positioning white people as the tru diverse subjects, the new natives, and protectors of the value of human difference” (82).

Second, critical race theory, which “invites an analysis of how racism produces its own categories and institutional operations, such as the granting of citizenship and other legal rights,” “points to how forms of knowledge like literacy and numeracy are constituted as white property (property goes undetected as a settler construct), and the material benefits that this grants to those constituted as ‘white’” (82). (Is literacy really white property? How so?) “This analysis has led to an examination of how white supremacy produces an exalted category of whiteness, how certain groups vie for whiteness and gain ascendancy in the racial hierarchy on which colonization is premised,” the authors continue (82). This has led to the academic field of whiteness studies, which looks at white domination across society (82). However, “there has been a proliferation of far less considered approaches to whiteness studies, which do not address issues of privilege and power, often devolving into apologist accounts of the plight of white subjects” (82). Such accounts “serve only to bring whiteness to the center, giving space for white people to air their experiences of racialization, attempting to rescue themselves from the damages of racial thinking, and appropriating the language of critical race theory” (82-83). “In some circles, these white scholars are celebrated for their performances of critical reflexivity, but little else changes, and the cumulative effect is that white experience of the world resumes its place as the rightful and natural perspective,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández write. “Our allegorical Natty Bumppo carries on, fully vested in the glow of his own pride for having revealed that, after all, he is not quite white either and therefore not responsible—innocence retrieved” (83). (So white people should just shut up?) At the same time, scholars in curriculum studies “have waged complaints against the critical analysis of race, crying foul against the scholars of color who are cast as dupes for the mere act of invoking race itself” (83). (Again, this argument would be more persuasive if it provided examples.) “In the context of the academy’s competitive individualism, in which there is only one expert in a subject on a faculty”—that might be true in small faculties or institutions, but is it true in in larger ones?—“or only one chapter about a subject is needed in a volume or conference session, the bodies and works by scholars of color are frequently replaced by bodies and works of white scholars, reflecting a retrenchment of prior efforts to diversity, anemic as those efforts may have been” (83).

Finally, “browning” refers to deliberate efforts “to uncover and highlight the myriad of complicated ways in which white supremacy and colonization constantly manifest themselves in curriculum scholarship” (83). It critiques praise of “the ‘fathers’ of curriculum history without acknowledging their racist views” and the racism of citation practices that attribute ideas to white scholars (83). For instance, why do curriculum scholars “engaging with psychoanalysis know so little about Frantz Fanon and his analysis of subjecthood?” (83). (Again, examples please.) Browning, they write, interrupts “the dominant narrative by rudely inserting itself, reclaiming academic space, and calling the names of those who have been replaced and forgotten” (83). Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández suggest that browning the curriculum means 

to make it messy, to show how it is already dirty and stained, to refuse romanticized creation stories and fort pedagogies. Like pan-searing, browning brings out the flavor through charring. It can be experienced as an irreverent burn that dislodges the handle from the hand, it deliberately seeks to anger, to force the hidden hand of the racism that lurks at every turn of the curriculum studies discourse. Browning highlights the present absences and invokes the ghosts of curriculum’s past and futures, unsettling settler futurity. (83-84)

Some (presumably White) scholars have responded to browning’s disruption “by being positively unflappable” and by dismissing it “as a sideline—perhaps even a distraction, not central to the concerns of the field,” while others have responded with a “public cathexis of white guilt” which results in “a turn away from the relentlessness of browning toward the more flattering framing of diversity” (84). (The example given of the latter response is a rather inside baseball account of a town hall session at a conference.) 

Finally, Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández turn to “rematriation,” a term that “refers to the work of community members and scholars in curriculum studies who directly address the complicity of curriculum in the maintenance of settler colonialism” (84). Rematriation is not yet fully theorized, they acknowledge, but it intends “to undercut and undermine the legacy of settler colonialism in the curriculum” by not denying difference, seeking “to understand mutual implication,” putting “Indigenous epistemologies at the forefront,” and requiring “a more public form of memory” (84). Rematriation, they continue, “involves rethinking the aims of research in curriculum studies so that Indigenous communities and other over-researched but invisibilized communities can reject narratives and theories that have been used against us, and re-story knowledge and research to forward our own sovereignty and wellbeing” (85). Rematriation is premised on “the insistence that the academy does not need to know everything. Not everything, or even most things uncovered in a community-based inquiry processes need to be reported in academic journals or settings. There are some stories that the academy has not proved itself to be worthy of knowing” (85). The examples Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández provide show that rematriation is focused on Indigenous peoples: it is “a curricular project to be engaged by Indigenous peoples in participatory processes, the results of which may never feed back to the academy. It intends to break the loop of academic appropriation of Indigenous knowledge, and in doing so, challenges many of the assumptions about the inherent beneficence of the academic gaze” (85). “Though sometimes Indigenous scholars carefully articulate their frameworks so that they cannot be interpreted as separatist, there are no safeguards in place against this interpretation,” they write (85). (Are there any safeguards against misinterpretation anywhere?) However, rematriation therefore cannot “intervene upon the curricular project of replacement” (85). “As a framework invested in Indigenous futurity, and not in settler futurity, rematriation offers little in terms of lifeboats,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández write (85). (Why “lifeboats”? What ship is sinking? Settler futurity? How so? I don’t understand the metaphor.) “Instead, it insists that there are forms of knowledge that persist outside of the colonial territory, and says, no, you can’t have them,” they continue.Rematriation performs as a refusal in relation to the larger curriculum field” (85).

In their conclusion, entitled “Refusal,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández state,

One of the core reasons that each of the interventions we have described above has failed to interrupt settler colonialism and settler colonial replacement is that each has tried to make powerful shifts without alienating white settlers. In part, this is because of complaints by white settlers, such as “well, now what am I supposed to do?” and “how will I fit into this?” The expectation is that any viable alternative frame will account for the needs of the settler, address their anxieties, and assure them that nothing is going to require them to change or disrupt their lives. (85-86)

Does that conclusion follow from the examples of questions they present? Couldn’t “what am I supposed to do?” be a question about how Settlers need to change or “disrupt their lives”? How ought Settlers—or White people (the terms, as Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández acknowledge, are not synonymous) change? Isn’t that a relevant question? “Insofar as these and other interventions try to accommodate the affect of the settler, they cannot succeed in reshaping or reimagining curriculum studies” (86)—or any broader issues, I would suspect. “What is needed is a discourse of refusal, refusing to require that new works in curriculum studies soothe settler anxieties,” they continue:

There must be work inside curriculum studies that dis-invests in settler futurity, that refuses to intervene, that observes a writ of “do not resuscitate.” This refusal is not just a no, it is what is needed to generate work that is useful to us. But it is also not an invitation, it is an exaction. We exact expropriation; to speak without explication; to claim without settler colonial justification; to refuse any response or allegation. (86)

I’m not sure what it means to “exact expropriation,” but does “to refuse any response or allegation” mean refusing responses like this one, an honest attempt at understanding an essay, or does it mean to refuse to respond to questions? I don’t understand.

“Meanwhile, settlers in curriculum studies must hold one another accountable when they invade emergent work by requiring it to comfort their dis-ease,” Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández conclude. “That is as far we will go to provide instructions. There isn’t an easy ending. We anticipate that even with all of these refusals and exactions, this article is just as likely as any other to be incorporated and absorbed—our lines quoted, APA style, to either agree or dismiss, in some dusty footnote at the end of some argument about the proper way to do curriculum studies” (86). “The most cynical view,” they continue, “is that refusals will always be replaced as long as the vestiges of settler colonialism in curriculum studies go unobserved. Refusers will be erased, subtly written off the page as remnants of the past in a settler colonial future” (86).

That is the most cynical view, and I wonder whether some small sense of the limitations of any form of academic research in creating social change might not avoid the self-destructiveness of that cynicism. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that as far as an explanation of settler futurity goes, this essay was not that helpful. Nor do I see any opening here for ways in which Settlers and Indigenous people or former enslaved people might be able to live together. I suppose that to search for that would be to miss the point, to replace their refusals with incorporation or absorption. That’s how such a statement would likely be taken by Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández. But that’s not how it’s meant. The project of replacement has failed, even as Settler society tries new ways to enact it; meanwhile, Settlers (and their descendants) aren’t going anywhere. Most of us have nowhere else to go. So we will have to find some way of sharing this place. I know that goes against Tuck’s definition of decolonization as the return of all Indigenous land, even though in this paper she and Gaztambide-Fernández acknowledge that Indigenous futurity has a space for Settlers in it, but to acknowledge that fact seems necessary. In any case, I’m still confused by the term “settler futurity” and will have to look elsewhere for a clearer explanation of what it means. Perhaps in Veracini? Perhaps in Baldwin? Although his essay is about Whiteness and futurity, perhaps his explanation is clearer? Or is there some other place from which both Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández on one hand, and Baldwin on the other, have taken this term? Given the ubiquity of the term “settler futurity,” that’s probably the case. But what’s the source? Does anyone reading this know?

Works Cited

Baldwin, Andrew. “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 36, no. 6, 2012, pp. 172-87.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40.

Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 72-89.

Veracini, Lorenzo. Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409. DOI:10.1080/14623520601056240.

116. Kathleen E. Absolon (Minogiizhigokwe), Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know

absolon

One of my colleagues here raves about Minogiizhigokwe’s (or Kathleen E. Absolon’s) Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know. So I thought I had better read it. In the book’s preface, Absolon notes that it’s a published version of her PhD thesis, which she completed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. However, she doesn’t seem completely happy with the notion of publishing her work. “The scary thing is that how we come to know is living and fluid, not concrete and fixed like typeset words,” Absolon writes. “I trust that this book is part of a larger process where Indigenous searchers are articulating the spaces where voices and knowing reside but were never allowed to be heard. Until exposure to knowledge occurs, you don’t know what you don’t know” (10). However, she notes that this book is important, “because colonizing knowledges have attempted to silence Indigenous ways of coming to know and have fabricated false notions that Indigenous methodologies do not exist,” ideas she contests in this book (10). Kaandossiwin, she continues, “is an Anishinaabe word that describes a process of how we come to know, a process of acquiring knowledge. . . . This book is about kaandossiwin and speaks to journeys of learning, being and doing” (10). 

The first chapter, “Preparing to Search,” begins by stating that Indigenous research “is often guided by the knowledge found within. Aboriginal epistemology (the ways of knowing our reality) honours our inner being as the place where Spirit lives, our dreams reside and our heart beats” (12). This idea is “a key Indigenous methodological principle” (12). Despite the attempts by colonization to make Indigenous realities invisible, Absolon writes, “I do not need to make comparisons with eurowestern methods of searching. There is no need to. There are many pathways to knowledge” (12). Her hope is that “this book will contribute to establishing the visibility and knowledge of Indigenous methodologies in the search for knowledge in the academy and elsewhere” (12). She suggests that Indigenous epistemologies are often presented metaphorically: “the harvest of this search is wholistically presented as a petal flower with roots (worldview), centre flower (self), leaves (journey), stem (analytical backbone) and petals (methods). Petal flowers are as varied as Indigenous re-search methodologies; thus the type of flower is undefined” (12). Kaandossiwin is the result of a review of “eleven selected theses by Indigenous graduate re-searchers in adult education, social work, Indigenous studies and sociology; conversations with Indigenous re-searchers in the academy; and a learning circle of Indigenous re-searchers” (13). The book is not exhaustive, but it does provide “a general sense of Indigenous re-search methodologies used by graduate Indigenous re-searchers,” and the acceptance of these methodologies within the academy “establishes precedence of the application and legitimacy of Indigenous knowledge and methodologies” (13).

Before going any further, Absolon locates herself autobiographically, “because positionality, storying and re-storying ourselves come first”: who her family is and where she grew up (13-15). “I want my words to reflect my way of thinking, being and doing, and it’s difficult at times to balance what I think I’m supposed to write with my sense of self, so I get knotted up inside,” Absolon writes. “I began to connect my aching back with my own history and the reasons why this book feels important. Yes, there are bunched up knots in my personal and political history, and I thought about the years of suppression of my cultural identity and traditions. The body ache is connected to other aches that are exposed through this book” (15). Those aches include her separation from her community after her mother lost her status through marriage (15). She notes that her Anishinaabe grandfather told her, in a dream, to tune into her “own journey with the Spirits” (16), and her sense that her grandfather holds her when she feels “lonely and uncertain in this world” (16). She grew up in the bush, and she writes, “[w]hen I need to find ways to balance the demands of contemporary stressors, like work and more complex lifestyles, I return to the land” (17). Her doctoral research, she continues, was a means “to join other Indigenous voices and carry our knowledge forward” (17). This degree was not the beginning of her desire for learning, however; as a child, she was “thirsty . . . to learn about what happened to our people” (18). “It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I began to meet other Anishinaabe people who were involved in our cultural ways,” she continues. “It was only then that I slowly started to see what it was that my grandparents would have wanted me to know” (18). She also notes that growing up in the bush “was a gift”: “because of that strong foundation I resisted being fenced into eurowestern ways of knowing, being and doing” (18). 

Absolon’s lived experiences led her in writing this book. “Like all the re-searchers recognized in this project,” she writes, “the politics of decolonization and indigenizing is a conscious and necessary part of the journey” (19). “What I mean is that colonization has attempted to eradicate every aspect of who we are,” she continues. “Colonizing knowledge dominates, ignorance prevails, and we internalize how and who the colonizers want us to be” (19). Recovering from that colonization, she writes, “has involved rediscovering and nurturing my Anishinaabe Spirit, healing my Anishinaabe heart, decolonizing my mind and creating a critical action plan in my own life,” a process which has included learning her language (19). “At a personal level decolonization means examining the inherent conflicts within myself: I am Anishinaabe and english,” she writes, and “decolonizing in a colonial education system” means seeking “to advance Indigenous knowledge systems in a mainstream education system,” a process that is “met with antagonism and resistance by the gatekeepers of colonizing forms of knowledge production,” since “Indigenous methodologies are often not perceived as valid forms of knowledge production,” something that needs to change (19-20). As a community-based researcher, Absolon has experienced the suspicion and fear Indigenous people have about research, although she has also “seen community-based researchers embrace research as a community development tool once they learned about and saw the value of research for themselves” (20). Her aim, she writes, is to explore Indigenous “knowledge, epistemologies, paradigms, philosophies, practices and methods,” and “articulate how they may be developed and honoured in mainstream academic contexts” (20).

Absolon notes that she uses Anishinaabemowin because “this is my mother tongue” (21). “Sometimes I conjure up words and use english words in atypical ways,” she continues (21). For instance, she hyphenates the word research, for example, to give it a sense of “meaning to look again. To search again from our own location and to search again using our own ways as Anishinaabek is Indigenous re-search. It is the process of how we come to know” (21). Such research is “by nature related to Indigenous peoples’ contexts: historical, political, legal, economical, geographical, cultural, spiritual, environmental and experiential. Indigenist re-search promotes Indigenous knowledge and methods. As we re-search, we re-write and we re-story ourselves” (21). “Indigenous re-search methodologies,” she continues,

are those re-search methods, practices and approaches that are guided by Indigenous worldviews, beliefs, values, principles, processes and contexts. Indigenous methodologies are wholistic, relational, interrelational and interdependent with Indigenous philosophies, beliefs and ways of life. The methods are determined by understanding the nature of our existence, of how we come to know, of how knowledge is produced and of where knowledge comes from. Methods or ways of coming to know stem from understanding natural laws. Indigenous peoples still carry this knowledge close to the heart and Spirit. Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing are connected to the nature of our existence, just as eurowestern researchers are guided by colonialist beliefs and values, even though they claim, sometimes vehemently, that they are “value neutral”! (22)

I hope not all Settler researchers “are guided by colonialist beliefs and values,” although perhaps that hope is unfounded. Absolon states that this book “is not a formula or prescription for Indigenous methodologies,” nor does it attempt “a general representation of all Indigenous methodologies” (22). It does not address informal methodologies used outside the university. Rather, its aim “is to validate and make Indigenous methodologies a solid methodological choice” (22).

Absolon’s second chapter, “Indigenous Re-search,” begins by stating that “Indigenous peoples have always had means of seeking and accessing knowledge. “Yet, Indigenous searchers are usually caught in the context of colonial theories and methodologies” (23). For that reason, “[t]his book positions Indigenous knowledge up front and centre” (23). Traditionally, Indigenous research “has been conducted to seek, counsel and consult; to learn about medicines, plants and animals; to scout and scan the land; to educate and pass on knowledge; and to inquire into cosmology” (24).“Searching for knowledge was congruent with the principles, philosophies, customs, traditions, worldview and knowledge of a particular nation,” she continues. “Today, Indigenous researchers are committed to rediscovering that congruency between worldview and methodology” (24).

First, Absolon pays respect “to the oral traditions and knowledge that I was raised with and that guide Aboriginal methodologies of searching” (24). Beginning with one’s experiences “and cultural orientations,” she continues, “is seen as integral to the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge” (24). And so Absolon writes, “I return to the bush because that is where my first teachings about searching began. . . . Searching is so intrinsic to living in the bush that we can connect this tradition to our contemporary search for knowledge” (25). That search for knowledge is inherently ethical, she continues, because “we learned to give thanks and express our intentions, actions and feelings for what we needed and took from the earth” (25). In addition, “negotiating the bush requires an understanding of the laws of nature,” laws which “are non-negotiable, meaning we must be prepared” (25). Searching for spiritual knowledge also means following a process. “Searching the land, in sacred spaces or human spaces, is guided by the nature of how we exist,” she writes:

Preparation is essential to any search: bring semaa (tobacco), be of good heart and mind, think about your route, wear the proper clothing, father your tools, bring food and water and plan for the unexpected. Announce yourself and your intentions; share this with others. In our search for berries we started with our own knowledge. Know where to begin and how to find your path. Thus, in my search for principles of Indigenous methodologies, I begin with my own knowledge of searching in the bush. I was taught to attune to the land and what the animals were doing. Announcing my intentions to the land or warning the animals of my presence was a central philosophy that respected the animals and our relationship to Creation. I learned to offer a prayer with semaa to acknowledge the Spirits of the land. (25-26)

“Walking the land and negotiating the elements of the bush called for another principle: do not get lost,” Absolon continues. “Listening and walking carefully were other principles central to my search” (26). “In practicing these principles,” she writes, “I learnt about demonstrating respect for the land and its inhabitants” (26). In the bush, she also learned perseverance, gratitude, and “a sense of connection, understanding and knowing” (26).

“Indigenous cultural histories are rich and have been passed from one generation to the next since time immemorial,” Absolon writes. “Our lived experiences are records of these histories” (26). “Intertwined in histories were methodologies from which purpose and meaning were actualized,” she continues (26). “As Indigenous scholars, we are challenged to take back control and change the way research is is conducted within our communities, peoples, and cultures,” she writes, and acknowledging Indigenous research methods “is pivotal to this task. If we intend to theorize and research as Indigenous scholars, then we must identify what that means and how that happens” (27). This work also means acknowledging “the context of racism and colonialism” (27). “[M]easuring Aboriginal knowledges against western criteria,” she contends, “is academic racism and colonialism” (27). “The legacy of colonizing knowledge has created a disconnection of people from their traditional teachings, people, family, community, spiritual leaders, medicine people, land and so on,” she writes. “The oppressive silencing of Aboriginal knowledges has perpetrated oppression and threatens the ultimate extinction of cultures whose epistemologies, philosophies, worldviews and theories have sustained both the earth and its inhabitants for centuries” (27-28).

The chapter’s next section discusses Indigenous science and knowledge; I’m not sure whether Absolon means science as a particular or general term. She notes that “the waning of traditional science among Indigenous peoples” was the result of colonialism and its confiscation or destruction of “knowledge bundles and ceremonial objects” (28). “Traditional science was replaced with belief systems based on western scientific thought,” she writes, which explain truth within Eurocentric paradigms, as absolute truth (28-29). “[A]sserting that truth is a construction of those in positions of power over knowledge,” she continues, “makes a trail for Indigenous worldviews as another form of truth” (29). She cites Shawn Wilson’s suggestion that Indigenous research paradigms have developed in four stages—I really need to reread Wilson’s book—and notes that “Indigenous paradigms are increasingly receiving recognition and respect as Indigenous scholars re-search and teach from their distinct stance” and that “Indigenous critiques are vital to create space for Indigenous paradigms and methodologies in Indigenous searches to emerge (29). She notes the existence of allied methodologies—“emancipatory, liberatory, anticolonial and anti-racist” (29)—which “have introduced new and relevant theories and epistemologies of research to include socio-political and historically critical perspectives,” particularly “action-based research, participatory action research and community-based strategies” (29-30). She notes that using these forms of research isn’t the same as doing research “within an Indigenous worldview/paradigm,” but that “some qualitative research methodologies are compatible with Indigenous paradigms” (30). However, in order to reclaim Indigenous forms of knowledge production, she argues, “we need to look at our own understandings of existence and the nature of knowledge and ethics (ontology, epistemology, methodology and axiology) as a starting point,” because “Indigenous paradigms are fundamentally different”: they are based on the belief that knowledge is relational and shared with all of Creation (30). “The concept ‘we are all related’ informs the wholistic and relational nature of Indigenous methodologies,” Absolon writes. “Indigenous thought and knowledge guides how we search for knowledge—a search that considers reciprocity and interdependence” (30-31). Absolon stresses “the significance and extent of Indigenous knowledge within Indigenous re-searchers’ consciousness. Indigenous knowledge is knowledge that is wholistically derived from Spirit, heart, mind and body. Indigenous forms of knowledge production accept intuitive knowledge and metaphysical and unconscious realms as possible channels to knowing” (31). Indigenous knowledge “is cyclical and circular and follows the natural laws of Creation,” and it “occupies itself with the past, present and future” (31). “Thus, research that is derived from Indigenous knowledge certainly entails methodologies that demonstrate respect and reverence within these understandings. Indigenous re-search is about being human and calls all human beings to wake from the colonial trance and rejoin the web of life,” she writes (31).

Next, Absolon describes her own research methodology, which “involved a process of preparing, searching and making meaning” (32). Preparing, in this instance, meant identifying the purpose of her research: “to make what we know visible by identifying what Indigenous methodologies graduate Indigenous re-searchers are using and how they are employing those methodologies within the academy” (32). Her process for gathering material “was eclectic, flexible and organic”: it involved a literature review, individual conversations with Indigenous researchers, and “a group learning circle with Indigenous searchers” (32). Making meaning, or “the process of interpreting and finding meaning,” “known in its western form as data analysis,” involved reading the theses she had found, and “travelling over the land to meet people in spaces that we both agreed upon” (33). “Prayer and dreaming were sources of support, guidance and direction during the phase of analysis and making meaning of the conversations,” she continues (34). After a dream, she “fashioned a tapestry representation” of her research, which “removed me from cerebral analysis and brought me to another level, where I was able to wholistically conceptualize what I had gathered” (34). Then she proposed a learning circle for Indigenous researchers at a conference in Winnipeg (35). “At the time of the learning circle, I knew that my basket was full and that I did not need to gather anymore,” she writes. “Sharing what I was learning from my own search, as a way of giving back and reciprocating other searchers’ generosity, became my goal” (35). 

The third chapter, “Introducing the Re-Searchers and Their Searches,” summarizes the theses and dissertations Absolon read—a literature review, of a sort—and introduces the researchers she was able to meet with and talk to. (In some cases, she read the work of people she met.) 

Chapter 4, “Wholistic Worldviews and Methodologies,” begins with this statement: “We must stand on our merits and not countenance anything less than full acceptance in the academy. Compromising who we are, what we know and where we come from is unacceptable” (47). “We are not alternative,” Absolon continues. “Being othered or alternative depends on whose turf it is. If it’s not your turn then I guess you’re the other. We must own our own turf within Indigenous search agendas. If the methods are Indigenous, within an Indigenous context and for Indigenous purposes, then it is normal and the mainstay of knowledge collection” (47). “The sooner the academy recognizes the existence and validity of Indigenous methodologies, the closer the academy comes to creating a welcoming environment for Indigenous scholars, who can then focus their energy on all areas of Indigenous knowledge production,” she continues (47).

Her goal in this chapter “is to present the methodologies Indigenous graduate searchers employ and their experiences of conducting Indigenous re-search in the academy,” and she “presents the harvest” of her research “within the framework of a petal flower. Each element of the petal flower is connected and interrelated to the whole of the flower and ought not to be interpreted in absence of its wholistic context,” in the way that Indigenous worldviews and methodologies “are wholistic, relational and interdependent” (47-48). “The methodologies, ideas, concepts and issues that are discussed herein represent concrete, multi-layered, dynamic, multi-dimensional and wholistic ways of searching for knowledge,” she writes. “Many people are curious about Indigenous knowledge and ceremonies, but I am certain that it is Indigenous people that need to reclaim that pathway first” (48). She is writing for an Indigenous audience, “not to provide pathways to sacred knowledges, but to provide support and information from which Indigenous scholars will benefit” (48).

The idea of a “petal flower” came from a dream. “All elements of the petal flower are essential to crafting a wholistic framework for Indigenous methodologies,” she writes:

Roots represent worldviews, the centre is the self, the leaves are the journey, the stem is the backbone and the petals represent the diverse methodologies I was learning about. . . . I realized that my framework was congruent with an earth-centred worldview, and the petal flower became the wholistic representation of Indigenous methodologies. (48)

By “petal flower,” Absolon seems to be referring to what botanists call composites; her examples are “wild daisies, roses, strawberries and sunflowers” (48). Indigenous methodologies are similar to these flowers “in that they call for the recognition and understanding of the natural and spiritual laws that govern their existence and survival. The flower is rooted in the earth, yet is moved by the wind and rain. It is an exquisite example of how something so concrete can be flexible and fluid at the same time” (49). Such flowers are beautiful and also used for medicinal or culinary purposes (49). She notes that Leroy Little Bear “uses the metaphor of four flower petals to symbolize strength, sharing, honesty and kindness in kinship relations” (49). “In summary, the petal flower is significant in a number of ways,” Absolon writes:

    • all its components are interrelated and interdependent;
    • it is earth centred and harmoniously exists in relationship with Creation;
    • it is cyclical and changes from season to season; 
    • the environment it lives in impacts its life; and
    • it has a Spirit and a life. (49)

“The petal flower framework acknowledges and validates Indigenous leadership and scholarship displayed within a climate that is often foreign, alienating and marginalizing,” she states (49).

In the dissertations and conversations, Absolon “identified some common tendencies,” which are integrated in the metaphor or image of the “petal flower” (50). First, “[t]he roots are the grounding for Indigenous methods. Although they are not visible, the life and presence of the flower depends on the strength of its roots” (50). Second, “[t]he centre of the flower represents self and self in relation to the re-search. Indigenous methodologies are just as much about who is doing the searching as the how of the search” (50). According to Absolon, “[s]ituating self in the search seemed essential to the purpose and nature of the search and appeared to be directly related to improving social, environmental, political and educational conditions for Indigenous peoples,” and “Indigenous re-searchers recalled memories, motives, personal responsibility and their need for congruency in the search process” (50). Third, “[t]he leaves enable photosynthesis of knowledge: transformative journeys,” and they “embody the journey of the self through the research process” (50). Fourth, “[t]he stem represents the methodological backbone and connector between all parts of the whole’ (50). That backbone “comprises a critique of colonialism, imperialism and eurowestern research on Aboriginal peoples” (50). It holds the research process together (50). Fifth, “[t]he petals represent the diversity of Indigenous re-search methodologies”; the ones “that are operationalized and manifested are those that have been grounded in the roots and journeyed through the self, the research process and the academy to a methodological research enactment” (51). “Indigenous language, culture and traditions and the personal challenges were inherent in relearning and integrating our ways into our research,” Absolon writes. Sixth, “[t]he environmental context of the petal flower influences the life of Indigenous methodologies in the academy and affects Indigenous re-searchers who are trying to advance their theories and methods” (51). That context “affects the degree to which Indigenous re-searchers feel able to remain congruent in their searches” (51). “All these aspects are interrelated and interdependent,” Absolon continues. “The roots, for example, are aspects of the self, are linked to the re-search journey and determine our role as a searcher” (52). Each of the aspects Absolon has listed “is connected to the whole petal flower, which represents the essential wholism of Indigenous worldview, knowledge and methodologies. The wholistic nature of Indigenous methodologies is what distinguishes them from non-Indigenous methodologies. The whole package is necessary to understand each of their parts and their distinctness” (52).

The fifth chapter focuses on the roots in the flower metaphor. “The roots establish the foundation and support the methodological process of searching and gathering,” Absolon writes. “Although not usually visible, they are essential and are manifested in actions, behaviours, ethics and methods. We cannot talk about Indigenous methodologies without acknowledging the worldviews they come from and the paradigms and principles they rest on” (53). According to Absolon, “[p]aradigms are frameworks, perspectives or models from which we see, interpret and understand the world,” and they are “influenced by culture, socialization and experiences,” the way we understand “the nature of our existence and our reality,” and our personal “morals and ethics” (53). Rather than using words like ontology and epistemology and methodology, Absolon would prefer simpler language. “I wonder what words in Anishinaabe would mean our understanding of our existence and how we come to know about our reality and existence?” she asks. “Paradigms are the understandings that ground us in the world, and our knowing, being and doing are guided by these” (53). These understandings influence “how we search for knowledge, on our research, methodology, data analysis, dissemination of results and so on” (53). “Indigenous paradigms/ways of understanding our existence, how we come to know about that existence and what we think about our existence are the roots of Indigenous methodologies in re-search,” she writes (54).

Absolon cites Shawn Wilson’s suggestion that it is necessary to begin researching from an Indigenous paradigm (qtd. 54), and suggests that this “means more than just adding perspective. It is a grounding stance, rooted within an Indigenous understanding of the nature of our existence, how we know and how this understanding affects our realities and searches for knowledge” (55). Indigenous paradigms “are liberatory, emancipatory and critical,” and they involve “a historical, colonial and power analysis” which give it “critical contours” (55). “The past, present and future intersect, and much of our research is about searching for truth, freedom, emancipation and ultimately finding our way home,” Absolon writes. “Finding our way home means searching to return to our own roots and to find the dignity and humanity intended by the Creator” (55). A search for knowledge is a search for power: “We are already aware of difference, being othered, and with this awareness we weave our stories and identities into the research process to reclaim our power and knowledge” (55). Moreover, Indigenous worldviews are strongly connected to territory, nation, and community; they are “rooted in . . . ancestral land” (56). 

All of the researchers Absolon talked to agree “that Indigenous worldviews provide a foundation for Indigenous methodologies” (56). A worldview, she continues, “is an intimate belief system that connects Indigenous people to identity, knowledge and practices,” and these worldviews “are rooted in ancestral and sacred knowledges passed through oral traditions from one generation to the next” (56-57). These worldviews are the ways Indigenous people see the world (57). “[C]onscious Indigenous researchers acknowledge their worldview as being pivotal to their search for knowledge,” Absolon states (57). Worldviews affect methodology by influencing the self as a researcher, and the self within the research process (57). There are variations in the worldviews between members of different Indigenous nations, but there are commonalities as well: “our worldviews are earth-centred philosophies, express strong ties to the land and hold reverence for Spirit and ancestors” (57). “We view our position in Creation with humility and practise reverence to those elements of Creation that gave us life, such as the earth, sun, water and air,” Absolon continues, noting that this awareness of a relationship with the natural world “is integrated into our methodologies as we locate and story ourselves into our search processes” (58). Indigenous thought, she writes, “is wholistic in terms of looking to our past to understand our present and to have regard for the future. We acknowledge our relationship to all that is above, beneath and with us” (58). (In passing, Absolon notes that her spelling of “wholistic” is intended to distinguish it from “hole or holy” [59]). Colonization has “dismembered individuals, families, communities and nations,” and “[w]holistic approaches are inherently inclusive, which fosters and facilitates healing searches and healing relationships” (59).

Tobacco, Absolon writes, “is a sacred medicine and is used to recognize Spirit” (60). Spirit is central to Indigenous knowledge, which is “‘spiritually derived’” (Leanne Betamosake Simpson, qtd. 60). “Spiritually derived knowledge infers that knowledge also comes from dreams, visions, ceremonies and prayer,” Absolon continues. “Spiritually guided paradigms call attention to an existing relationship with the Spirit realm, Creation and those ‘power-helpers’ or Spirit helpers who walk with us” (60). “Spirituality is inherent in Indigenous epistemology, which sees everything in relation to Creation and recognizes that all life has Spirit and is sacred,” she continues (61). An Indigenous worldview must be lived “wholistically,” Absolon argues; such a worldview “is comprised of Spirit, heart, mind and body, and you have to understand the circle, you have to understand what that means and how you do things and how you more or less walk” (62). “Our roots as Indigenous people create a unique position from where we search,” she continues. “Being an Indigenous person in a search for knowledge situates me in a place that non-Indigenous people can never occupy. We have inner cultural knowledge and common experiences of colonization and its subsequent impacts on our families, communities and other relations in Creation” (63).

Next, Absolon discusses principles: “Indigenous methods that are rooted in Indigenous worldviews and philosophies promote Indigenous-based ethics and principles in the research process,” and those principles and ethics “set us apart from western researchers” (63). “Essentially, the worldviews and principles of Indigenous re-search are embedded in the methodologies themselves,” and those worldviews “are also made up of Indigenous principles, such as respect, sharing, balance, harmony, love, bravery and wisdom” (63). “All the re-searchers pursued their search with a goal of acting in accordance with the teachings of minobimaadiziwin—to live a good life, in balance and with respect for all of Creation,” Absolon writes (65). Respect is a core principle in Indigenous research, “a wholistic value [that] can be enacted at all levels of re-search” and “is interwoven throughout this entire work” (65). The teachings of minobimaadiziwin need to be applied now “to rebuild and recover from colonial trauma” (65). “Respectful research implies a search process with a goal toward creating and living a ‘good life,’” Absolon states (65-66). Also, “[t]he significance of ancestors cannot be ignored. Indigenous people know the ancestors are watching and waiting to share their knowledge” through sacred ceremonies, dreams, visions, prayer, and rituals (66). “The map to get to the ancestors’ knowledge is in Aboriginal protocols and ethics and more specifically within Aboriginal epistemology,” she writes (66).

Chapter Six, “The Flower Centre: Self as Central,” argues that “the re-searchers’s location, memory, motive and search for congruency” are central to Indigenous research (67). “What we see revealed through Indigenous re-search is the re-searcher, the self,” Absolon writes. “Within the self exists millennia of Indigenous ancestral knowledge, teachings and Spirit” (67). Researchers must “accept responsibility for our intentions, understandings and knowledge by writing self into our research” (68). Researchers themselves “are at the centre of their methodological process,” and “Indigenous worldviews and principles are actualized by Indigenous searchers who are consciously connected to their roots and who have supportive channels to actualize their worldviews” (68). “In many cases, the Indigenous searchers utilized a self-referential and experiential approach to gathering knowledge,” Absolon notes, acknowledging that her own research “is grounded within an Anishinaabe perspective and by an Anishnaabe kwe who loves the land and is also bi-cultural” (68-69). “Our searches become a portal or a doorway to learning about self and self in relation with Creation,” she continues. “The use of self in Indigenous methodologies may open doors that we never thought possible. It connects us to family, community and nation” (69). It “cultivates a healing movement of being reconnected and remembered from the dismemberment and disconnections created by colonial policy,” she continues (69).

“Many of our research processes are described as a personal process, and because of our situated-ness, as Indigenous people, our findings come from within,” Absolon writes (69). “[M]any searchers focus on their personal lessons and teachings about the world and their learning experiences,” she continues. “The self is woven throughout the process, linking self to methods” (70). For that reason, “[a] goal of Indigenous learning and searching is ultimately to learn more about our Indigenous self, history, worldview, culture and so on” (70). “With confidence, I assert that conscious Indigenous re-searchers are doing re-search with other Indigenous peoples, communities, cultures and lands and on issues important to Indigenous people,” she writes. “We want to make a contribution for the collective good of the community” (71).

“All of the re-searchers located themselves, which included things like identifying their nation, name, clan, family, territory and where they receive their teachings,” Absolon writes. “[S]earching for knowledge promotes an identification of location, which I think is distinctly Indigenous and goes directly against the positivist eurowestern research presumption that there is only one truth, that neutrality and objectivity are possible and that to safeguard against researcher bias, the researcher’s location doesn’t (and must not) matter” (71). That’s true, and it explains the use of passive voice in writing lab reports: it shouldn’t matter who conducted the experiment, because the results ought to be reproducible no matter who is involved. In contrast, “[i]n Indigenous contexts location does matter. People want to know who you are, what you are doing and why” (71). “Describing location, in Indigenous contexts, is part of ethical re-search,” she continues. “Because of the biased and obscured history of research on and about Indigenous peoples, visibly locating allows readers to make their own judgements about the research, knowing that there is no such thing as neutrality” (72). Location “reveals who we are in relation to the world, the earth, our nations, our clans, and so much more. Our location reveals a worldview and cultural orientation, which is central to what and how we search” (72). I’m certain that’s true of the kinds of research Absolon is discussing, but what about, say, cancer research? Would location matter in that case? 

“Location varies from person to person, depending on our context,” Absolon continues. “As we grow, change, learn and transform, how we locate changes” (73). “Location addresses issues of accountability, validity and reliability, meaning that when we say who we are, the readers can form their own judgements about our credibility and authority to search and write,” she contends (73). Absolon does not believe in objective research: 

Taking ourself out of the picture presents a misrepresentation that the author does not matter and that the researcher’s gender, race, class, sex, age or identity has no impact on the research. In reality it is people doing the research and people interpreting and making meaning; who they are does impact the interpretation and meaning and who they are does matter. Personally locating oneself, as an Indigenous principle and methodology, counters false notions of neutrality and objectivity. (73-74)

“Given the reciprocal nature of Indigenous communities, Indigenous re-searchers naturally identify their relations within a community and offer linkages between themselves and the research process,” Absolon continues, suggesting that this identification is part of the relationality “woven throughout Indigenous scholarship” and that “conveys an understanding that we are beings in relationship with all of Creation” (74). “The methodology is must as much about the person doing the searching as it is about the search,” Absolon writes (74). Personal connections to research are important, and all of the researchers she talked to agreed “that when we do re-search we are ultimately doing re-search about ourselves, families, communities, nations, histories, experiences, stories and cultures” (74). Because Indigenous researchers are subjective, they want their communities to benefit from their research (74). “[S]ituating self in Indigenous re-search is different from eurowestern research in that we acknowledge and include the relationships between self, Spirit, responsibility, knowledge and truth,” Absolon continues. “Situating self in Indigenous searches positions location, political climate, environment, history and cultural knowledge up front and centre” (76).

Absolon states that in her own work, “memory comes before motive” (76). She returns to her childhood in the bush and what she learned then (76-77). But memory is even more fundamental: “Indigenous scholars, through their research, reconnect to their ancestors, land, culture, traditions, language, history and knowledge,” and their research “becomes a catalyst to remembering who we are and what we know and to bringing those truths forward” (77). She acknowledges that she has used “remembering” in two different ways: one to refer to memories, and the other “related to reconnecting our ancestors” (77). But remembering also means “we bring our truth forward and tell the stories that we need to tell,” and that “we reconnect with our communities,” which have been “dismembered” through Canada’s colonial policies towards First Nations (77). “Remembering creates cultural mirrors that validate our life and experiences and those of other Indigenous peoples too,” Absolon writes. “The gift of our searches ends up being in the remembering of ancestral ties, their legacies and knowledge. . . . Remembering is giving back and contributing to the continuance of Indigenous peoples’ way of life and existence” (78).

In all of the discussions with Indigenous researchers, the importance of knowing the motives for the research was emphasized. Some motivations were related to family or community; others were more general. “One of our motives as Indigenous researchers must be to show that, despite the ignorance of the western world, our theories and methodologies are concrete and real,” Absolon writes. “They have governed our survival for millennia and will continue to do so for generations into the future” (78). Indigenous research, she continues, is “distinct because our methodologies contain an awareness of and integration of the ancestors and our families. It’s about survival” (78). Her own research “is about making sure that those methodological pathways survive,” but her research is intended to benefit Indigenous peoples rather than the academy (79). “It’s for the other students who are also searching for congruency,” she writes. “And it’s for our ancestors” (79). “Knowing our motives for our searches requires an awareness of our location and consciously situating ourself within our research context,” she continues (79). She lists motives articulated by Indigenous researchers:

    • to re-enact respectful research in our searches with our own people;
    • to empower and emancipate ourselves in order to regain our humanity, restore balance with Creation and ultimately live a good life;
    • to advance, support, strengthen, revitalize and restore Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing, which create Indigenous methodology choices for Indigenous re-searchers as viable in all re-search contexts; and
    • to fulfill family and community obligations when specific requests are presented; the search then becomes a way of giving back and making concrete contributions. (80)

All of the researchers said their motives are “connected to our personal stories and experiences” (80). “There are myriad possibilities for Indigenous peoples’ searches, but they are most often rooted in our Indigeneity,” she states (81).

“Searching for theories and methodologies that are congruent with Indigenous worldviews and philosophies preoccupies many Indigenous researchers,” Absolon writes, and “[h]ere the relationship between roots, self and methods becomes apparent” (81). Indigenous researchers are concerned with “methodological harmony” (81). That harmony, or congruency, between researchers’ methods and their Indigeneity “was instrumental,” Absolon continues:

Indigenous congruency, I believe, is essential to the research principles, methodology and ultimately the outcome. Because all of the research topics are explicitly focused on Indigenous experiences, realities, needs and histories, the researchers’ search for methodological congruency includes a consideration of factors such as cultural traditions, community, people, relationships, Spirit, ownership, oppression, empowerment, protocols and decolonizing. These factors became as much a part of the search as was the gathering of data. (82)

Earlier I asked a question about cancer research. It seems that kind of research is outside of Absolon’s consideration, since it wouldn’t be “explicitly focused on Indigenous experiences, realities, needs and histories.” Nevertheless, Absolon suggests that “[t]he search for congruency is about transcending contexts” (83). For her, research is like being on the land, looking for berries or hunting or gathering. That is the metaphor she uses to explain her research. “When I think about this search as a search for berries,” she writes, “I can find my way and feel myself as a researcher, knowing that I continue to do what my ancestors have done. Gather, hunt and search” (83). “Collecting the knowledge and experiences of Indigenous searchers and gatherers illustrates a powerful need to search for congruency,” she continues. “Indigenous methodological mirrors reinforce and validate a way of knowing, being and doing that makes sense when doing Indigenous re-search in an Indigenous way” (84). “The flower centre (the self) is acknowledged as integral to Indigenous methodologies in search for knowledge,” she writes. “Self as a methodological re-search tool inevitably implies a journey articulated in the leaves” (84).

Not surprisingly, the next chapter is entitled “The Leaves: The Methodological Journey.” A flower’s leaves, of course, produce energy for the plant through photosynthesis. For Absolon, “[t]he leaves of our flower represent the transformative and healing process and journey inherent within Indigenous methodologies” (85). Indigenous research is transformative (like photosynthesis). The essence of the methodologies she discussed with other researchers “is their process,” Absolon writes, and “[b]y process I mean their experiences, journey and transformation” (85). “Process involves a progression, a development, a series of steps toward achieving goals,” she continues. “Process can be either a planned or unplanned series of actions. It can be clearly defined and determined ahead of time or nebulous and emergent. Indigenous re-search methodologies cultivate organic processes, which are unplanned and unpredictable” (85). Indigenous research processes are open ended and indeterminate, requiring trust and faith for Indigenous researchers to “honour their process” (85). Community-driven research in particular requires that researchers “relinquish some power and control,” and Absolon believes “it calls for a degree of humility” (86). “Our worldview, including belief in Spirit and ancestors, is revealed in our ability to trust process,” she states (86). “Oral traditions are process oriented, and Indigenous searchers manifest orality in several ways,” she continues (87). Methodologies emerge organically “as we attune ourself to our search process,” Absolon contends. “When we listen to our inner knowing, our dreams, the signs around us and our intuition, we become attuned to possibilities that enable an organic process to emerge” (87). “[T]he process of attuning to protocols, ethics, and principles guide[s] the methodology,” she states (88).

“Process inevitably involves travelling,” Absolon states, although that travel seems to be metaphorical, given the way she describes what travels. Indeed, she is talking about the journey as a metaphor: “Indigenous methodologies include stories of who is doing the searching and their journey along the learning path” (89). However, she states that “Indigenous languages are descriptive and action or process oriented,” and “[t]he awareness of Indigenous languages and oral traditions causes a conscious searcher to attend to oral process” (90). Circular processes

can take a person on a transformative journey where engagement, involvement and presence are requisites. Humility in process reflects an inward journey and attunement to that journey within the collective circle. Consistently, Indigenous re-searchers strive to honour their journey by applying their own cultural protocols, such as offering tobacco, gift giving and, where comfortable, integrating ceremony. (90)

“Our journeys are also rich with cultural knowledge, people, sharing, learning and experiencing active processes,” Absolon writes. “We take many journeys: the journey of the thesis; the personal journey; the writing journey; the making meaning journey; the gathering journey of meeting people and having conversations; and the journey with our families along the way. . . . The motives, process, learning and meaning in the journey makes it worthwhile” (90).

“Undoubtedly, Indigenous processes are transformative and transforming,” Absolon continues. “The research journey was described by Indigenous re-searchers as transformative for people, and this transformation began within self. Indigenous-based knowledge quests can be life altering and unforgettable. When the Spirit is invited into the search, the essence of the search moves to another level of faith, trust and process” (91). The reference to Spirit is important, because “[i]n Indigenous cultural contexts, we are taught to search for knowledge in the Spirit realm. The process of learning how to do this requires personal commitment, sacrifice and a will to engage beyond the physical” (91). “This deep spiritual involvement and transformation is especially important and contradicts the logic and reason in hegemonic eurocentric academies,” she writes. It requires “resistance to being silenced and rendered invisible, insignificant, uncivilized, inhuman, non-existent and inconsequential” (91). “Not only do we transform ourselves through our research, we participate in transforming the academy” (91).

Some researchers argue that speaking an Indigenous language is essential, since the meaning of Indigenous concepts is lost when they are translated into English (91). “However, I believe that we must work with what we have and do the best we can without perpetuating guilt or shame for the loss of language among our peoples,” she continues (91-92). One way is by “[b]reaking the rules of language and creating a new language,” which “forges another level of resistance to colonialism” (92). (Absolon’s idiosyncratic English usages are examples of this process.) “Indigenous methodologies raise Indigenous voices out of suppression,” she states, and in that way, “the peoples’ stories are heard” (92). 

Some of the researchers Absolon talked to described their research journeys as healing. “I believe that healing is also implied through methodological concepts of reconnection, remembering, learning, recovering and reclaiming,” she states. “In a sense, healing is woven throughout the re-search process. Indigenous re-search becomes a healing journey when what we gather helps us to recover and heal a part of our self, life, family, community, knowledge, culture, language, and so on. Indigenous searching is healing as it invokes restoration, repatriation, reclaiming, recovering and relearning” (93). Indigenous research “is about healing wounded Spirits, hearts, minds and bodies,” and “Indigenous methodologies facilitate healing individuals, families, communities and nations” (93). “Indigenous knowledges and methodologies hold the key to our healing,” she continues, “particularly in spiritually based methodologies such as ceremony, prayer, healing lodges and sweats” (93). Indigenous research journeys are not only about knowledge; they are also “journeys home, to our communities, to our ancestors, to our territories, to other territories and to our families,” a return that can be healing (94). “Most re-searchers referred to their search as a journey or learning path, but mainly a journey that was challenging at the personal, emotional, spiritual and mental levels of being,” she writes. “These journeys evidence tenacity and backbone within Indigenous searchers” (95).

Chapter Eight, “The Stem: Backbone and Supports,” begins with Absolon’s realization “that the stems of plants are their backbone or spine. Strength resides in the stem, which supports the flower and provides the channel for the flow of nutrients to and from the roots, leaves, and flower centre and petals; it holds everything together” (96). According to Absolon, “[c]onscious Indigenous re-searchers enter the academy with a strong backbone,” which she considers “the critical and bi-cultural consciousness necessary to preserve and succeed in using Indigenous methodologies in the academy” (96). “The strengths Indigenous searchers draw on to develop this backbone include a critical consciousness, internal resources and community supports,” she writes. “These, I believe, are what enable Indigenous re-searchers to employ Indigenous methodologies in an academic context” (96). All of the researchers Absolon interviewed displayed a critical consciousness. “The academic and educational context plays a vigilant role in acculturating, assimilating and annihilating Indigenous culture, identity, traditions and wisdoms,” she writes. “Indigenous knowledge sets are perceived and received with antagonism” (96). The research projects she learned about “critique the failure of western methodologies to reflect the strengths of the community, culture and traditions of Indigenous peoples,” and all of them “insisted on the need to critically address eurowestern research theory, methodology and ethics” (97). “We need to ensure that our re-search methodologies include critical analysis of the histories of Indigenous-White relations, the construction of knowledge and power, and socio-historic truth,” Absolon continues. “A critical understanding unveils the oppressive nature and intent of research on Aboriginal peoples and critiques the old order of scientific empiricism, which squashed methodologies of acquiring knowledge through the senses, by experience and observation” (97). I wonder if that’s entirely true; isn’t empiricism about observation and experience? In any case, Absolon’s point is that Indigenous researchers are engaged in a critique of colonialism in the academy. “We can’t dismantle colonized forms of knowledge production using colonial methodologies; we need to both develop a critique and then turn our gaze toward Indigenous tools and knowledge,” she writes. “Critiques of colonialism in research, historically and currently, are paramount in contextualizing Indigenous re-search today. . . . How dare the academy force colonial methods on our searches” (98).

At the same time, Absolon acknowledges, “[b]y virtue of researching in academic corridors, we explicitly navigate two knowledge sets” (100). This leads to tensions. “Indigenizing your search is to move beyond the critiques and centre your search form who you are as an Indigenous person,” she continues. “Context is understanding the intertwining of being both cultural and colonial. Contextualization requires an integration of the critique of colonialism and the domination of our traditional research in the process of conceptualizing and mapping our our own research methodologies” (101). “As Indigenous searchers navigate dual agendas, the channels become narrower and more difficult to steer through,” she writes. “We not only have the responsibility to present our findings and knowledge in the most respectful and authentic manner possible, but we also have to establish our context, argue for our methodology, expect cynicism on its validity and then present it to both the academic and Indigenous audiences” (101). It’s important to note that Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on research differ on methodology and the purpose of research. “The efforts to create a discourse on the articulation of Indigenous methodologies challenge myths that Indigenous  methods are unsystematic and not concrete,” Absolon argues (102). “[W]hen we are searching within our own cultural paradigms, we need to follow our own cultural guidelines and experiences in our own social world,” she writes (102). That seems to answer my question about cancer research. 

And yet, Absolon suggests that “[c]onscious Indigenous re-searchers and re-search have a profound impact on the academy and are contributing to changes in curriculum, research methodology, programming, scholarship and faculty” (103). How so? She suggests that Indigenous scholars are accountable for their relationships 

with all of creation and to follow our original instructions as they were orally passed on. Today we are challenged to continually relearn ceremonies and languages and to regenerate mutual relationships by Indigenizing methodologies. Our awareness of our place in Creation is our responsibility. Indigenous frameworks are ethical and spiritual considerations, and the codes of conduct are those guidelines provided to us by the Creator. (103)

“In owning our knowledge, we must acknowledge the history and roots of our teachings, or the origins of our accumulated knowledge,” she continues (103). But to focus on one’s academic research, at the expense of working with communities, is a mistake, she suggests, since the purpose of Indigenous scholars in the academy is “to ensure that research methods create change which benefits communities” (105). 

Indigenous researchers realize that “[l]ong before we were in the academy, our ancestors were conducting research and relied on Indigenous methodologies as they sought out knowledge. Today, reclaiming Indigenous methods of searching for knowledge embodies our own learning and healing, and this knowledge is transferable” (105). Within universities, “the role of Indigenous re-searchers is to transform systems of knowledge production, to be congruent with Indigenous worldviews and to play a role in producing knowledge and information that is useful, beneficial and purposeful toward Indigenous emancipatory goals” (106). That means resisting academic acculturation (106). 

Absolon acknowledges that she “consciously selected critically conscious Indigenous [for her research] because of their roles as advocates, facilitators, coordinators, helpers, healers, educators and much more” (107-08). All of the researchers she talked to “contributed a critique of colonial research methods and strengthened the presence of Indigenous knowledge in the academy. Activating our roles and maintaining a strong backbone involves strengths and supports that accompany Indigenous re-searchers who enter the academy. We are not alone as we carry our supports with us” (108). Those strengths and supports include “personal strengths, cultural strengths and community supports” (108). Such support systems are necessary for surviving in the academy; that survival “requires a vision beyond the academy, a sense of purpose, a grounding in identity, external supports and internal allies” (108). “Within the academy we are, at times, navigating chilly, intolerant, hostile and assimilating channels,” Absolon writes. “We survive and get through because of a strength in knowing who we are and where our supports come from” (108). 

“Internal fences keep us boxed into particular ways of thinking, being and doing,” and “can confine and limit our perceptions, behaviours and actions” (109). Those fences are the result of colonialism, and “[c]onscious Indigenous searchers have worked to develop and heal their minds from internalized oppression and racism” (109). “Many of these researchers faced internal fences,” Absolon writes. “Their consciousness of these fences is a powerful tool in their searches” (109). She recalls her childhood experiences in the bush, finding her way around and through barriers there. “I believe Indigenous scholars are, at times, bush whacking it in the academy,” she suggests. “We are cutting trails and leaving clearer paths for others” (111). 

“All Indigenous re-searchers who maintain their identity within the academy are bi-cultural,” Absolon contends. “There is diversity within. We are skilled at carrying dual knowledge sets. This is an advantage. It enables us to move in and out of and between our worlds with relative ease. . . . We occupy complex spaces where contemporary, cultural and traditional realities intersect” (111). “Our resource lies in our ability to draw on these dualities and ironies when we engage in research as Indigenous peoples first and then as scholars,” she continues (112). Some of the researchers she spoke to experienced anxiety and panic during phases of their research. “Being connected to the land kept some Indigenous researchers from getting lost in the academy,” she writes. “Taking time to return to the land and feel the essence of the earth grounded their mind, body, heart and Spirit during uncertain and stressful moments” (113). Others turned to ceremonies such as fasting (113). “I simply do not have the words to describe the strength of Spirit of these researchers,” she continues (114). Spirit is, as before, not a metaphor for Absolon: “We are Spirit beings. We search for who we are. We identity and locate and connect ourselves to our nations, our Spirit names, our clans and our land bases, and we have many expressions of gratitude for such gifts” (114). The researchers she spoke with also focus on gratitude as an expression of the values of reciprocity, balance, and harmony (114). 

“Undoubtedly, Indigenous re-search methodologies are empowering to Indigenous peoples,” Absolon writes. “Our re-search is about us and it’s situated in our real experiences, it’s about empowering real people, and it’s about finding our way home” (114-15). One of her insights, she continues, is “that Indigenous researchers . . . are enjoying their search for knowledge when we employ Indigenous methodologies because our learning, recovering, reclaiming and re-asserting is relevant to our Indigeneity. It’s all very purposeful and connected to a greater intention” (115). Part of that connectedness lies in connections to community (115). “Many of the re-searchers talked about wanting to do the best they could for their community and that they persevered because of their community,” she writes (116). 

“The stem as a methodological backbone emanates from the researchers’ sense of self and identity,” Absolon concludes. “The backbone or force of Indigenous re-searchers and research is explicitly grounded in worldview, cultur[e] and tradition. Conscious Indigenous re-searchers are aware that our presence carries a role to resist the pressures to conform and this requires a strong backbone” (117). “Undoubtedly,” she continues, “the stem links the roots to the whole while lifting up the leaves, flower centre and petals. It is the backbone that supports Indigenous re-searchers to actualize their worldviews, histories, knowledge and experiences in their research methodologies within the academy” (117).

Chapter Nine turns to the diverse methodologies represented by the flower’s petals. These methodologies “include the Spirit, heart, mind and body because Indigenous methodologies are wholistic in nature and encompass the whole being,” Absolon writes. “Each petal represents tendencies of Indigenous re-searchers on their searchers. Petals that are hidden represent Indigenous methodologies yet to be articulated because there are many more potential methodologies” (118). Some petals overlap “because Indigenous methodologies are interdependent, relational and reciprocating” (118). “The petals also change from season to season,” she continues. “They are not stagnant for formulaic” (118). Moreover, “Indigenous methodologies are alive; they aren’t set forth in a research textbook” (118). The “gestures, ways of thinking, being and doing” of Indigenous researchers “enact an Indigenous methodology. . . . The Indigeneity of our re-search is held within our own Spirit as our search for knowledge is regarded as a sacred process” (118). “One thing for sure, Indigenous methodologies are concrete, complex and complete,” Absolon writes (118). However, in the university, there is a danger that these methodologies “will be seen as addendums to western methodologies, marginalized as alternative or othered” (118-19). Because they are holistic and cyclical, these methodologies are “pluralistic, eclectic and flexible,” reflecting “the many facets of our existence today, while reflecting the cultural integrity of our ancestors” (120).

Absolon divided the methodologies she encountered “using the elements of the four directions—Spirit, heart, mind and body—to assist in creating some clarity in articulating the methodologies. They are not mutually exclusive of one another, and overlapping concepts occur. The overlaps simply reflect the wholistic, inclusive, relational and interdependent nature of methodologies” (120). She begins with methodologies of the Spirit. “All of the Indigenous searchers talked about incorporating Spirit, prayer, ceremony, dreams and cultural protocols, and this essentially means to care about how we conduct ourselves,” Absolon writes (121). “Establishing respectful relationships with Spirit forms a basic methodological principle,” she continues (121). Researchers use sacred medicines (sage, cedar, sweetgrass, tobacco) in offerings, showing that “Spirit is treated with the utmost respect and reverence” (121). “The journey of our search is a spiritual process, a major methodological concept for Indigenous searchers,” she states. “It’s not something that comes from the mind. The spiritual depth is nurtured and encouraged within Indigenous culture. We are taught to honour our spirit. It’s not something we say we’ve learnt outside of ourselves. It’s a process that flows from within us, and that pathway is often identified as a sacred pathway, a pathway of the Spirit” (121). This understanding can be seen in Indigenous Creation stories, which suggest that “[e]very living thing has a Spirit and a purpose” (121-22). Intuitive knowledge is “connected to our ancestors, which is connected to the Spirit world and other realms. There are certain things that we understand and know because we’re Aboriginal, or Anishinaabek” (122). “The search for knowledge is also a spiritual relationship with learning and knowledge production,” she continues. “When we are searching for ancestral wisdoms or traditional knowledge, the search process must acknowledge Spirit” (122). “Prayers, ceremony and dreams are concrete manifestations of how Spirit has a presence in Indigenous searches,” Absolon states (122-23). Ceremony, she contends, “is an expression of one’s spirituality,” and “[c]eremonies and dreams assist in the synthesis and processing of our searches” (123). 

“Research with a consciousness of Spirit also implies an awareness and understanding of enacting research with heart,” Absolon writes (124). By “heart,” she seems to mean attending to relationships, creating positive research settings, and reciprocating “the sharing and witnessing” of research processes. “Creating positive research settings involves gatherings and meetings that reflect friendships, food, cultural/spiritual ceremonies and conversations about the future, families, communities and children,” she continues (124). In those gatherings or meetings, “people share stories, laugh and sometimes cry” (124). Such methods “require adaptability, flexibility and fluidity” (124). Most of the researchers she interviewed had existing relationships with their research participants, including Absolon herself: “relationships are recognized as an important strength and resource for Indigenous re-search, and we make new relationships through our re-search. We use our relationships to move forward. . . . Our relationships extend the boundaries of family, friendship, colleague, helper, teacher, advisor and so on” (124-25). These relationships “exist between the spiritual, physical and human realms,” but Absolon appears to focus primarily on human relationships, which call for “compassion, sensitivity and subjectivity” (125). Sharing circles are one relationship-based methodology; they provide “culturally congruent channels for sharing stories, cultures, experiences, histories, perspectives, lessons, mistakes, knowledge and wisdoms” (126). Another methodological tool is the “‘witnessing protocol,’” “in which four people simply witnessed and observed the talking circle” (126). Another methodology is dialogue or conversation, distinguished from interviews because it “involves more of an active engagement between people” (127). “Community relationships are another common strength of Indigenous methodologies,” Absolon continues, noting that the purpose of Indigenous research is to benefit the community involved (127). But a researcher may be part of a variety of different communities: Absolon is part of a community of Indigenous researchers, but she also has a “traditional community, geographic community and nation community,” “a clan family and a circle of people who I choose to be in relationship with and who lovingly support me” (128). “Community is determined and defined with respect to the searcher,” she continues; the point is that research does not take place in isolation (128). Working with Elders is often part of working with community (128-29). For Absolon, all of this is related to the heart: “Most of the searchers have a heart connection to their searches and passionate feelings about them. They enjoyed their searches and found them to be meaningful, purposeful and relevant” (129). She also suggests that collaborative dissertations should be considered as a way of “enacting relationship-based searches” (129).

Absolon’s next category, mind, is primarily about respect for Indigenous knowledge: “Enacting re-search that is respectful of Indigenous ways means that Indigenous re-searchers work to advance Indigenous perspectives, worldviews and methods in all areas of education, searching and scholarship” (129). “Indigenous scholars reference and privilege other Indigenous scholarship, knowledge and literature,” in order to “grow and develop and articulate Indigenous theories and methodologies’ (129-30). That is one way to respect Indigenous knowledge. Other ways Indigenous researchers can respect Indigenous knowledge include “asserting Indigenous knowledge and methods, acknowledging their genealogy of knowledge, advancing Indigenous perspectives, . . . making strategic decisions and negotiating academic gatekeepers” (130). Those gatekeepers are “the academics who guard the elitism, power and privilege of the academy . . . to maintain their control over knowledge production” (130). According to Absolon, “[e]nacting respectful re-search is imperative to the searchers, who have said that Indigenous knowledge inquiry is rigorous. It simply takes more time, energy and effort to search the ‘Indigenous way’” (131). Another “common tendency of Indigenous searchers” is “[a]cknowledging our teachers and where our knowledge comes from,” or “respecting the genealogy of knowledge” (131). One “aspect of recognizing how and where we learn is in creating space and visibility in our documents for the people who shared their wisdom and knowledge with us. Indigenous searchers discuss the desire to openly acknowledge who they spoke with and who was involved in their search process as an ethic of acknowledging the genealogy of our knowledge” (131). For Absolon, this acknowledgement is part of the oral tradition, and it “affirms our relationships and interdependence with others in our life. We live in relationship and learn from our relationships; this is the genealogy of how we learn and acquire knowledge” (131-32). Confidentiality is relative; there is a need both to honour and protect “those we have learned from,” so while confidentiality may be necessary sometimes, other times it “may not be appropriate” (132). 

“Physical and body work” are also Indigenous methodologies; they actualize “the Spirit, heart and mind of the search” (132). “Indigenous methodologies incorporate all aspects of our being and all connect to each other,” Absolon writes, so it’s not surprising that the body is engaged as well (132). “Doing and being creative are operative here,” she continues. “There comes a point in our process when we need to go beyond the writing and move from the cerebral, heart and Spirit into the doing and being. Words alone are not enough in a culture that is experiential, wholistic, land based and connected to all of Creation. Indigenous searchers have enacted a physical element in their searches” (132). Creativity, like Absolon’s tapestry, is one example of the body’s role in Indigenous research; another is physical activity, such as Brian Rice’s retracing of “the journey of the Peacemaker in the oral traditions of the Rotinonshonni” as a methodology when he was writing his PhD dissertation (133). (I’ve read Rice’s dissertation and the book that followed, and his walk is quite inspiring.) Other examples include canoe journeys, painting, and spending time on the land hunting and fishing and trapping (133-34). Sacred ceremonies—sweat lodges and shaking tent ceremonies—are also physical (134). So too is working with Elders (135). “The physical element is also about creating space, change and a supportive committee, being creative and undergoing methodological shapeshifting,” Absolon writes. “Indigenous scholars, without question, are pushing for methodological shifts and astutely assert a need for space” (135). Creating space means, metaphorically, finding different ways to present research; Absolon presents several examples (136-37), including storytelling (137-38). These are not that dissimilar from alternative methods of presenting qualitative research—a point where the two very different methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies, and axiologies may touch. 

In the next chapter, Absolon discusses how “[t]he environment of a petal flower affects its life” (139). “Indigenous re-searchers are affected by our environment in the academy,” she writes, noting that they often face “controversy and challenges” asserting their methodologies in what can be an unwelcome space (140). “As Indigenous re-searchers nudge their way toward empowering Indigenous theories and methodologies, ‘old order’ power holders of western forms of knowledge production may become aggravated, irritated, and annoyed,” she continues. Fences are erected, and gatekeepers vigilantly stand guard to maintain the power and privilege of who can know and how this knowledge comes to be” (140). Many researchers are first trained in standard research methodologies, and “[l]etting go of western methodologies opens doors to recognize that other real choices exist” (141). Using Indigenous methodologies “does not mean that we are not objective or rigorous about what we are doing,” Absolon contends (141), and “[d]oing Indigenous methodologies in the academy sometimes means taking the road less travelled and bush whacking it from time to time” (141). Many of the researchers Absolon talked to “expressed frustration and anguish” over their inability to fit their work into standard research frameworks, even though they found some aspects of feminism, phenomenology, critical theory, narrative inquiry and participatory action useful (142).

“Within the western academy, conscious Indigenous re-searchers require two knowledge sets,” Absolon writes. “One knowledge set is grounded in western knowledge paradigms, and the other is grounded in Indigenous cultures and systems of learning. Indigenous searchers constantly have to deal with criticisms about the rigour of Indigenous methodologies” (142). However, “Indigenous methodologies and knowledge are concrete and strong enough to be challenged because they are rigorous and methodical” (143). It is difficult to include Elders on supervisory committees (143). Their participation would be very helpful: 

Working with Indigenous methodologies carries substantial responsibility and obligation. Indigenous epistemologies, which are derived from natural and spiritual laws, instigate strong ethical practices in Indigenous knowledge production. The knowledge acquired in any search can be overwhelming and daunting, and Indigenous re-searchers shared their feelings about doing their best to be conscious of their own process, ethics and protocols. (144)

“The most notorious character at the fence is the non-Indigenous gatekeeper,” Absolon continues, who “block our gaining a place of legitimacy, recognition and power within the academy” (144). Their tactics are examples of “neo-colonialism” and the only response for Indigenous researchers is to “keep asserting, integrating and standing up for Indigenous knowledges and methodologies” (144). Dealing with gatekeepers “can be draining, demoralizing, offensive and disrespectful. Strategic researchers move past them, around them, over them and through them and are cautious of the trap they present” (144). “The dominance and authority wielded by non-Indigenous gatekeepers is problematic, and some Indigenous re-searchers have been forced to abandon their searches because of this abuse of power in the academy,” Absolon writes. “The university contradicts itself when it claims to be here to foster new learning and create new knowledge, and yet enforces conformity of approach” (145).

“Indigenous re-searchers . . . were frustrated when pushed by western academics to make their research comparative,” Absolon continues (145). That means being expected “to utilize western theories and then draw comparisons to Indigenous epistemologies, paradigms and methodologies” (145). For Absolon, this expectation is about meeting “the interests of western academics” (145). “To push Indigenous scholars to make comparisons is problematic on two fronts:

  1. the non-Indigenous gatekeepers don’t have the cultural competency of Indigenous worldviews and knowledge to understand what Indigenous scholars are articulating; and
  2. comparative analysis becomes a major distraction from the Indigenous intellectual and methodological advancements that are motivating Indigenous re-searchers. (146)

“When Indigenous re-searchers are working from an Indigenous theoretical and methodological standpoint, comparisons are unnecessary,” Absolon writes. “Comparing Indigenous approaches with dominant research approaches is not helpful in this project and can in fact undermine it” (146). In addition, while “[n]on-Indigenous gatekeepers try to steer us in research directions we don’t want to go because they don’t understand or see the significance of what we want to research,” and while these “gatekeepers may see our focus as ‘too personal,’ ‘too emotional’ or ‘too subjective,’” “Indigenous voices across the land are echoing that we must continue to assert our knowledge and power as Indigenous peoples by speaking in our own voices and providing a space for the voices of our people to come forward” (146). Besides, 

[n]on-Indigenous academics’ ignorance about Indigenous peoples’ histories, experiences, worldviews, theories and methods is quite restrictive. If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s difficult to recognize your own level of ignorance. Indigenous searchers are subjected to academics who are not competent on Indigenous matters, yet judge and measure us using western standards. (147)

“The limitations of the academy in these matters means that Indigenous scholars often are pressured to be both a learner and an educator of their supervisors,” Absolon continues (147).

Indigenous researchers “also have personal fences that exist because our lives are busy and full,” Absolon writes (147). They are “academic leaders, community leaders, educators, family members, spouses and parents and experience pressure in all these roles” (147). Research often gets pushed aside because of this pressure, and it therefore takes longer to complete. In addition, “[d]oing Indigenous re-search requires more time with process, relationships, community, reflection, Spirit and protocols. The academy has time limits, the community has time limits, natural and spiritual laws are time specific” (147). The effects of ongoing colonization are also stressful (147). “The journey from the head to the heart is said to be the longest journey a person might take,” Absolon states. “Searches for knowledge using Indigenous methodologies are often Spirit and heart driven. They are not easy journeys” (148). Because Indigenous methodologies “emerge organically as the search process unfolds,” the research process “can be fluid and difficult to articulate. This is not to say that our methodologies cannot be articulated, just that it is challenging” (148). 

“All of the re-searchers struggled with the dominant nature of western methodologies,” Absolon writes (148). Standard research methodologies “are after all still cloaked in colonialism—albeit softer forms of colonialism,” and “[f]ew Indigenous re-searchers began by asserting Indigenous methodology” (148). Absolon disagrees with the strategy of including non-Indigenous voices in order for research to be balanced. She writes, “the reverse is not true: euro-theorists have not recorded the need for balance by including the scholarship of Indigenous peoples. Such reasoning also insinuates that our scholarship is imbalanced if we choose not to include the work of euro-theorists” (149). “I consciously privilege Indigenous authors as a political and academic act of validation and goal to ‘lift up’ Indigenous knowledge,” she continues. “My aim is to position Indigenous scholars as voices of authority regarding Indigenous issues” (150).

Indigenous researchers need academic support, particularly from Indigenous faculty members, even from other institutions. “Few Indigenous re-searchers have yet had the benefit of an all-Indigenous committee, and so non-Indigenous allies within the academy play a paramount role,” Absolon states (150). Those non-Indigenous allies “can help keep colonizing methods out of our research,” and in some cases, their research “helps us to understand the institutions we must navigate” (150). In addition, “[c]ommittee members may have the authority to create ‘academic space’ for Indigenous processes and methodologies to emerge” (151). Having that space, she continues, “frees up spiritual, psychological, emotional and mental energy to grow and develop. If we are consumed with defending and arguing, then we are in basic survival mode and not able to grow” (151). Some of the researchers Absolon talked to went through many committee members before they were able to establish a committee that would support their work. On the other hand, “respectful and supportive committee members in positions of power are helpful in navigating the academy’s bureaucratic roadblocks” (151). 

According to Absolon, “[a]cademic writing presents challenges for Indigenous re-search contexts for reasons related to language and oral traditions” (152). She identifies four issues:

  1. academic writing and creating hybrid languages;
  2. what to include from oral traditions in written text;
  3. translation of knowledge, concepts and language; and 
  4. representation of knowledge. (152)

A fifth issue could also be added: completing a dissertation in an Indigenous language. “Gatekeepers uphold western forms of academic writing and often force Indigenous scholars to write in a particular manner for the academy, which is often a non-Indigenous audience,” Absolon argues (152). This creates pressure to change the tone of the writing by “‘white-washing’” findings or by fragmenting information “by creating themes and categories, thus forming a reduced and de-contextualized analysis, whereas Indigenous approaches would keep stories and voices within a wholistic context and let the readers make their own conclusions and interpretations” (152). Gatekeepers may also demand that the use of Indigenous methodologies be justified (152). 

Indigenous researchers “are careful to not remove certain knowledge and teachings from their context,” Absolon continues, for two reasons: “One is that non-Indigenous academics . . . are not familiar with certain phenomena. Second, non-Indigenous gatekeepers tend to take our critiques of colonialism personally and defensively and urge a rewording to soften the stance” (153-54). Absolon suggests that while her “worldview is Anishinaabe,” her “language is english,” which adds, for her, a layer of complication in articulating that worldview (154). The question of transforming oral culture into writing is another challenge. “Eurocentric thinking perpetuates the belief that something is not valid unless it’s written down,” she writes. “Yet, Indigenous values are reflected in Indigenous languages in oral contexts. The translation of language, content and concepts sometimes requires more explanation and description” (154-55). In addition, while “Indigenous languages are largely descriptive and verb based and reflect a particular worldview, English reflects a european worldview and, at times, is inadequate to articulate Indigenous methodologies, philosophies and concepts” (155). In addition, Absolon suggests, by “transcribing oral traditions into written text . . . living stories that were once heard take on the stillness of the written word” (155). She suggests that “‘bundle words’” need to be created in English that would attempt to carry the connotations of Indigenous words (155). That’s an interesting idea; the morphemes that make up Cree words, for instance, tend to carry meanings that are lost in translation. Nevertheless, the researchers Absolon talked to argue that it is inappropriate to use English to convey “Indigenous worldviews and contexts” (155). Hybrid forms of writing—“Indian english,” Absolon states—may be one way of addressing this challenge; another is to use multiple genres of writing (stories, poetry, personal narratives) (156). “Clearly, as we translate between languages and contexts, we are conscious not to compromise, sacrifice or lose significant knowledge, understandings and teachings,” Absolon continues (156). She notes that the audience of Indigenous research includes family, community, and nation: “We want our work to speak to Indigenous people, not just academics” (156). 

“Documenting a knowledge that is active, personal and creative becomes difficult when written text appropriates that voice and freezes that knowledge in a particular time and context,” Absolon writes. “We must be very careful with documenting traditional knowledge because it makes it more accessible to non-Aboriginal peoples for mis-use and mis-representation, which can be damaging to Indigenous peoples” (156-57). Indigenous researchers, then, need to consider what to exclude as well as what to include (157). There is also the issue of being considered an individual expert about knowledge that has been collectively developed by many people: “Many, many people contribute to someone’s knowledge and to cite only the person who wrote about it negates those Elders and teachers who contributed to the knowledge” (158). “A final irony is that we write in isolation about building community, reconnecting and collectively,” Absolon continues. “Writing a dissertation is a lonely exercise, and bringing other voices in helps to break our isolation and build collective consciousness. Integrating Indigenous peoples’ voices into my work was a commitment to acknowledging Indigenous traditions of orality, but in written text” (158-59). 

Finally, Absolon addresses what she calls “[t]horny prickly challenges”: “those bits and pieces that are difficult to grasp, need to be left alone, too tricky to touch and leave us feeling uncertain” (159). “Some of the challenges explored are negotiating our dualities, dealing with methodological traps and quantitative methodologies,” she writes (159). Using Indigenous methodologies within an environment that is “constrictive,” like the university, can leave Indigenous researchers “in agony and conflict” (159). “When we live in a world that rejects our humanity and identity, we end up doing odd forms of emotional and mental gymnastics to compensate and cope,” she writes (159). “Reconciling the dualities of our realities cultivates an ambidextrous consciousness, which means being able to productively negotiate two realities/abilities at once” (159-60). “Spirituality in the search process is a considerable challenge as is the question of what to write about when it comes to sacred knowledge,” Absolon continues:

We must be careful what sacred knowledge methods we bring into the academy. We have to be very careful about what we say or write about. There are sacred pathways that can’t be scrutinized by the academy. Indigenous re-searchers query whether or not to include certain Spirits and sacred knowledge because writing about such things can be controversial. Indigenous searchers respond to these issues by making strategic decisions with regard to what to omit and what to include in their descriptions of their research process, and they often exclude references to sacred beings and sacred knowledge of thee spiritual realm. Indigenous re-searchers continue to search for an ethical and strategic balance to acknowledge the Spirit of/in their work. Some check in with their Elders and traditional teachers to achieve this ethical balance. (160-61)

I would think addressing issues related to spirituality would itself be difficult, since universities tend to be resolutely secular and materialistic (in the philosophical sense) places. Perhaps that difficulty is covered in her discussion of non-Indigenous gatekeepers. “[T]here are more ways of knowing than can be categorized within the academy,” Absolon writes. “What we articulate within the academy is only a fraction of the knowledge that exists within Indigenous peoples’ cultures and traditions. Some things can lose their essence when they are documented and decontextualized” (161). Defining sacred knowledge may require assistance and guidance from knowledge keepers and Elders, and they should be consulted before such knowledge is included in an academic text (161).

Another prickly issue is knowledge extraction and appropriation. “For decades non-Indigenous people have done research on and about Indigenous peoples,” Absolon writes. “Today, we encourage collaboration, partnerships and protocol agreements between Indigenous and non-Indigenous re-searchers” (161). But “can only Indigenous people employ Indigenous methodologies? Are methodological groundings of Indigenous worldviews, paradigms, knowledge and experiences accessible only to Indigenous peoples?” (161). “I believe that anyone can employ a wholistic methodology,” Absolon writes. “I also see that specific to Indigenous methodologies are Indigenous peoples’ worldviews, lens, location and experiences” (161). This response is a nice way of saying “no,” I think, since holistic methodology isn’t necessarily synonymous with Indigenous methodology: although Indigenous methodologies are holistic, not all holistic methodologies are Indigenous? Absolon continues:

Indigenous methodologies require situational appropriateness, which means that they can only be actualized when the whole context is relevant. The whole petal flower and its environment create the context for Indigenous re-search methodologies. Non-Indigenous people can employ some shared elements, such as respect, community benefit, relationship building and so on, but might not locate form similar cultural, spiritual, historical, personal or political experiences as an Indigenous methodology would entail. Situational appropriateness then asks the questions: Do you have an Indigenous worldview, history and experiences? Can you position your process in an Indigenous worldview and framework? If you can answer yes to these questions, then perhaps there is situational appropriateness and it is okay to employ Indigenous methodologies. If the answers are no, then perhaps a more general wholistic methodology is in order. (162)

That response makes a lot of sense. I could not answer yes to those questions, so I should avoid pretending that Indigenous methodologies would be available to me. They wouldn’t be, in any case, because as a secular and materialist person, I can’t engage with methodologies that make claims about spirituality. That is just not where I am situated. For me, the notion of “spirit” is, at the most, a metaphor; I can’t accept it as any kind of reality. My religious upbringing has left me that way, and I’m fine with it.

Quantitative methodologies are another issue. They weren’t part of Absolon’s research, because everyone she spoke to was engaging in qualitative research (using Indigenous methodologies, of course). “The use of Indigenous methodologies in quantitative studies is an area for further thinking and discussion,” she writes. “Certainly, Indigenous searchers would benefit from learning about statistical research and its application to particular fields” (163). That’s refreshing; most of the qualitative researchers whose work I’ve read dismiss quantitative research out of hand as positivistic and therefore bad. She suggests that the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre in Saskatchewan is one place where issues of Indigenous quantitative research ethics are being discussed.

In her conclusion, Absolon states, “My hope is that this collective knowledge bundle inspires Indigenous re-searchers in their searches and fuels change within the academy and other arenas regarding the presence of Indigenous re-search methodologies” (164). “[T]he pathway to emancipation,” she continues, “is in reclaiming our own ways of knowing, being and doing and that we need to begin with who we are, what we know and where we come from. To get out of the consuming trap of being reactive to colonialism and dominance, Indigenous worldviews ought to be central in Indigenous search processes” (165). “Our emancipation won’t come if we use the colonizing tools of knowledge production,” she writes. “We make our knowledge and methodologies central to our searches and left them as valid choices” (165). The holistic methodologies represented by the metaphor of the flower, she suggests, “move theory into practice, rhetoric into action and visions into reality. They are examples of walking the talk” (166). “This examination of Indigenous search methodologies and experiences by Indigenous scholar provides a sample of realistic possibilities,” she continues. “We can meet both academic and community standards and do work which is relevant to our nations and peoples while making an academic contribution to the development of Indigenous knowledge libraries” (167). The next thing to challenge, she writes, is “the isolation factor of having to do our searches alone” (167). “[J]oint graduate searches would . . . aid in rebuilding communities where knowledge production is once again a collective process” (167). There have been joint PhD dissertations in the U.K., so it’s not impossible, although I don’t understand how collaborative dissertations would work in practice. “I wish to encourage others to join the circle of Indigenous scholars in actualizing and articulating Indigenous ways of knowing into Indigenous ways of searching for knowledge,” Absolon concludes:

Kaandossiwin, this is how we come to know: we prepare, we do ceremony, we journey, we search, we converse, we process, we gather, we harvest, we make meanings, we do, we create, we transform, and we share what we know. Our Spirit walks with us on these journeys. Our ancestors accompany us. Our communities support us and our families hold us up. Last, but definitely not least, we come to know because we have to survive in a world that erodes and encroaches upon us. (168)

“How we come to know is both simple and complex; it is both fluid and concrete; is is both subjective and objective; and it is both rigorous and adaptable,” she writes (168).

Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know is, for the most part, a useful book. It tends to be repetitive (as you may have noticed if you’ve made it all the way to the end of my summary), but that repetition might be connected to the governing metaphor of the circle and to the idea that ideas and practices are interconnected. While I appreciate the description of holistic methods of research, I also understand and agree with Absolon’s contention that since Indigenous methodologies are part and parcel of Indigenous worldviews and experiences. It’s all connected. I’m not a social scientist, and so I don’t have to be consumed with questions about methodology, but I would like to see whether holistic non-Indigenous methodologies exist—or whether they can be invented. And if there’s anything a môniyâw like me can learn from Indigenous methodologies, I would like to learn it. That might mean rereading Margaret Kovach’s book on the subject, or the anthology Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships, edited by Deborah McGregor, Jean-Paul Restoule, and Rochelle Johnston, which is sitting on our kitchen table, waiting for me to pick it up. But I’m not going to fool myself that Indigenous methodologies are free-floating and available to anyone; they’re not.

Work Cited

Absolon, Kathleen E. (Minogiizhigokwe). Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know, Fernwood, 2011.

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts, University of Toronto Press, 2010.

McGregor, Deborah, Jean-Paul Restoule, and Rochelle Johnston, eds. Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships, Canadian Scholars Press, 2018.

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, Fernwood, 2008.

115. Chris Mays, “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction”

Tired of reading about methodologies in the social sciences, I retreated to more familiar ground: the humanities in general, and Chris Mays’s “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction” in particular. Mays begins with a 30-year-old article on rhetoric by Jim W. Corder, in which Corder explains that “we all ‘creat[e] the narrative’ that is our lives” (qtd. 319). The hard part, according to Corder, is “accommodating the divergent narratives of others”—in other words, in coming to terms with difference (319). Sometimes we can, but other times we don’t: “We turn away, we ignore, ‘we go to war,’ or ‘sink into madness’” (qtd. 319). “This article is about these differences, and the problems that arise when the nuance of our written worldviews goes unexamined,” Mays writes. “Writing, itself, is the central focus here: It is the contention of this article that an examination of writing, and in particular its complex capacity to render worldviews, can help us better understand how differences arise, why they linger, and why they can seem intractable” (319-20). The key to all of this, Mays proposes, “is in understanding the complexity of writing itself” (320).

To contend that writing is complex is nothing new, Mays admits (320). But “writing’s complexity . . . gives it a significant power to interact with and shape out world” (320). In this sense, it is complex “both in its form and function, with subtle discursive constructions generating profound effects on the local reader and in the wider environment” (320). According to Mays, “the power exerted by writing often manifests in its ostensible simplicity. When at its most effective, writing can seem completely straightforward, and the truths it renders can seem obvious” (320). However, that simplicity is an illusion: “the primary source of writing’s power is not its simplicity, but its ability to disguise its own incredible complexity” (320). “To explain this idea,” Mays continues, “this article zeroes in on a controversy over ‘facts’ that exposes the problems that arise when writing’s complexity is overlooked” (321). His aim is “to explore the complex ways facts are made, rather than assuming them to be already finished building blocks of a universal and static reality” (321). He is particularly interested in “the debate over the fabrication of details” in creative nonfiction (321). “[G]iven the complexity of the questions and debates involving fact, fiction, and truth in nonfiction writing, exposing the complex functioning of writing specifically in this genre advances our understanding of how all writing works on audience sand how writing genres—and facts overall—are divergently perceived” (321).

Mays’s decision to focus on creative nonfiction is deliberate, since this form claims to be factual, despite the artistry involved in writing it (321). “However, despite this oft-acknowledged subtlety in the very conception of what a fact is, the actual shaping of facts as they are defined, deployed and debated in this kind of writing is something often glossed over by writers in creative nonfiction, happening beneath the surface of the genre as it does,” Mays writes. “In other words, while many acknowledge subjectivity, few authors in the genre embrace it” (321). Creative nonfiction is “uniquely complex in its constitution of meaning and of facts, as its authors typically work in the murky waters of subjective experience,” and as a result, this form of writing “is often a site of intense confrontation over the facts its authors represent” (321). Mays focuses on “the debate over fact and fabrication in the work of satirist David Sedaris” (321). I love Sedaris’s writing and had no idea such a debate has taken place. “This controversy illustrates writing’s mysterious power well—what seems like a simple debate over the truth of remembered details exposes the way that all writing is elaborately manufactured,” Mays writes. “The controversy also reveals that the seemingly straightforward genre categories we use to classify writing are, in fact, tools we use to pretend this complex manufacturing does not exist” (321-22). However, “[u]nderstanding how this manufacturing works is crucial if we are to have a more nuanced understanding of facts and if we are to sustain a means of engaging with others—and others’ writing—that is more informed, more productive, and more accommodating” (322).

Creative nonfiction “would seem a perfect venue for discussions exposing the complexity of writing and of the problems that arise when factual controversies arise” because “it is a genre that . . . proclaims its basis in fact despite the use of literary techniques to colorfully render that fact” (322). The debate over the James Frey scandal, and similar controversies, “illustrate the difficulty in drawing absolute conditions for the facticity of creative nonfiction” (323). These controversies might “have prompted the widespread adoption of a more fluid or subjective way of describing the genre, or indeed, of describing writing, accuracy, and facts themselves” (323). That’s not what happened. Many proponents of creative nonfiction “have remained steadfast in their insistence that the genre has clear boundaries” (323). “It is surely worthwhile to live by the maxim of not ‘making stuff up,’ and confronting ‘all of the facts’ seems on its face to be a workable goal for a genre that includes the word nonfiction in its name,” Mays continues. However, “the complex workings of writing often clash with the seemingly rigid genre expectations of creative nonfiction,” and that clash “lays bare what can be an important understanding of writing—one that does not take facts as absolute and, thus, one that foregrounds rather than minimizes a process in which creative is not so far away from invented as many would claim” (323-24).

Mays notes that “while rhetoric and composition scholars know well the decades of poststructuralist theory asserting the contingent nature of our claims to certainty, the claim that facts are important comes up again and again” in writing about creative nonfiction (324). “To expose the intricacies of writing’s complexity, though, is to complicate this straightforward idea that creative nonfiction deals in facts,” he continues (324). One way to reveal this complexity is through genre theory. On one hand, a genre provides us with “a regular set of cues that tells us how to understand the writing within it,” and those cues control “the meaning we make out of writing” (324). On the other hand, “genres are inherently unstable and so are always changing” (324). So, “because writing is complex . . . it is both generative of and structured by fluid and contingent genres that can be constituted differently by different audiences or in different contexts” (325). Facts, too, as “part of the meaning we create from writing, are thus themselves continually being made and remade in the ongoing, context-dependent process that is writing” (325). “[W]e understand facts differently in different situations and in different genres,” and so “facts emerge out of genres, and how the boundary lines of fact and fiction are drawn is dependent on the genres in which one is observing the facts” (325). 

Mays isn’t trying “to dismiss the value nor the existence of facts altogether” (325). “The explanation here goes in a different direction than notions of social constructivism that suggest facts, or any kinds of boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, are arbitrary or, perhaps, illusory,” he writes. “The account of writing presented here does not do away with stability, nor with facts, but rather exposes the complexity of their creation and argues that this complexity itself produces an illusion of stability and of simplicity” (325). Stability—including the stability of facts—is necessary for us to function (in writing and in life), individually and collectively (326). However, that recognition might 

gloss over the extent to which differences in assessments of what facts are go unnoticed and so can hide the negative consequences of these disparities. That is, those cogent arguments in nonfiction scholarship about the ethical and practical consequences of playing fast and loose with the facts in creative nonfiction, while important to consider, effectively shift the focus away from the complex mechanism by which all facts are created and maintained. (326)

“This divergence in facts is hidden by the very mechanism through which facts and meaning are constituted: genre,” Mays continues. “Genre looks stable to observers because it functions to provide stability—it organizes writing into recognizable forms” (326). But that stability is only temporary. “Using genre theory to better understand this complexity and contradiction can help us better navigate divergent and competing understandings of writing that produce drastically differing sets of facts simply by making us aware of the unstable process of these facts’ formation and maintenance,” Mays argues. “This awareness might also help us grasp how we might better recognize—and deal with productively and civilly—our tendency to perceive writing in ostensibly stable configurations and then argue over which configuration is more correct” (326-27).

Now Mays turns to the case of David Sedaris and the question of whether he had accurately recounted his experiences working in a mental institution when he was 13 years old. The response (mainly online) to the revelations made by writer Alex Heard, who fact-checked the story, illustrates “the way that, to most, the situation is black and white and, no matter the opinion, that dissent is largely inconceivable. Observers often just do not perceive that there are different ways of drawing genre boundaries and intensely defend the singularity of their views” (328). “This insularity exposes the problem with creative nonfiction specifically,” Mays continues. “More than other genres, creative nonfiction is a site of extreme nuance and complexity in the way facts are constituted” (328). The complexity of creative nonfiction are, for many observers, “hidden by seemingly straightforward genre rules” (329). “[I]f one perceives creative nonfiction as stable form one’s own vantage point, then the idea that there is disagreement about the meaning (and the facts and the rules) of the writing in this genre might seem so clearly misguided as to be infuriating,” Mays suggests, and “when we apprehend a genre in one particular way, we often fail to notice that it’s actually moving and that there are different ways it can be apprehended—ways that to other people are just as inarguable and obvious” (329). “Facts emerge from writing, but they can emerge quite differently, and the process that creates this divergence is often impossible to see,” he continues. “In this sense, fact and fabrication, highly complex concepts, are always on the move,” and “the very act of writing creates a contingent and unstable context, carved out of a reality that is always exceeding our capacity to fully know it or even to pin it down for too long” (329). “This hidden complexity of writing therefore leads to one of the central conflicts in our appraisals of it in creative nonfiction: There isn’t anything close to absolute consistency in the assessment of whether a work is fact or fiction,” Mays writes (329). 

How people perceive writing in a genre (like creative nonfiction) can “be influenced by conditions that exist in a particular community” (331). But even members of the same community—writers of creative nonfiction, for instance—can have difference perceptions. Mays compares the responses of Heard and of memoirist William Bradley, for instance. Those perceptions matter:

While many scholars of creative nonfiction make the argument that in all nonfiction writing gray areas exist between fact and fabrication, there is always some point for most readers (and critics) at which writing can become clearly dishonest—a point where the boundary between harmless embellishment and deleterious fabrication becomes, if not absolute, then at least clear. What is interesting, however, is that for different people, such a line is drawn very differently. Moreover, it is often difficult for individuals to reconcile their own boundaries with the divergent ones of others, and it often goes unnoticed that seemingly clear standards are often applied very differently in different situations. (332)

For Mays, the point is that “the very complexity of the act of writing hides the way that all writing is conflicted, as the variation of the boundary lines by which we classify writing means that the same writing might be turned into either fact or fabrication, either creative nonfiction or creative fiction” (332). Mays refers to complexity theory to suggest “that the boundaries of creative nonfiction will always seem apparent to the person who has drawn them, just as the delineation of facts or fabrications will seem clear. Despite this apparent clarity, however, the genre rules that govern the perception of fact and fabrications are in fact fluid and malleable, changing as contexts change” (332).

In practice, it is difficult to implement a workable view that, in creative nonfiction, facts are malleable, Mays continues (332):

The subjects of writing can be harmed, for instance, when lax standards for facts create an anything-goes environment, which can also degrade public discourse and allow pernicious ideas to go unchallenged, as when fringe political group representatives attempt to intentionally spread misinformation. (332)

However, 

[d]rawing strict boundaries for what is factual discourse ignores the problems entailed by the existence of differing genre configurations. As genre theory shows, genres organize our interpretations of writing in ways that shut out alternative organizing schemes, and so the production of facts in a genre will preclude the legitimacy of other ways of constituting the facts. In short, it is very difficult for a person to draw or demarcate facts in multiple ways, since the very acceptance of one set of facts reifies boundaries that are a product of one version of a genre instead of another. (333)

“Seeing through the lens of complexity and genre theory does allow us the better grasp the mechanisms of this exclusionary epistemic practice,” Mays continues. “Fact, by their very nature, seem to speak for themselves, but this becomes true only after they have been produced within a genre. To ignore the mechanisms of how this production works—and to ignore that genres, and facts, can vary—is to ignore a major complication of saying that facts simply speak for themselves” (333). Citing Jane Bennet, he suggests that “we need to at least recognize that these divergent configurations exist, even if we cannot perceive them,” and that imagining facts to be “absolute and undebatable” is misguided as well as harmful to others around us (333).

Another example of “[t]his actual messiness in our seemingly unambiguous appraisals of writerly fabrications” is the case of satirist Mike Daisey, whose solo show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was both a tremendous success and included “fabricated or embellished” details of Apple’s factories in China (333). Daisey defended his “‘combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license,’” although he did rework his show, “bending a bit to the standards of ‘journalism’” (334). As with Sedaris, some observers concluded that while details might have been wrong, the overall truth of Apple’s treatment of workers in China was “‘indisputable’” (Mays cites the New York Times), while others disagreed (334). “Both Daisey’s work and Sedaris’s work could be considered examples of creative nonfiction, even though there may be disagreements as to whether the work was closer to journalism or theater (for Daisey) or humor writing or autobiography (for Sedaris),” Mays writes (335). His point, however, is “to illustrate the fundamental paradox of writing: as authors, both Sedaris and Daisey wrote, and the moment they did, they created complexity. The boundaries drawn to make sense of this complexity, to make sense of their writing, were drawn out of contingently constituted genres with an apparently static—but actually unstable—network of rules” (335). An awareness of the ways that the “discernible categories of fact and fabrication” are in flux, even though they appear to be stable, “should inflect all our understandings of, and judgements about, both facts and writing” (335).

Mays argues that understanding “the complex processes through which genres are constituted shows them to be both unavoidably obfuscatory and powerfully divisive”:

while it is not necessarily harmful for authors to strive for accuracy and facticity, and there is ethical value in creative nonfiction authors’ attempts to recall details correctly, there is also ethical value in recognizing the quite variable processes by which details are crystallized into facts and in recognizing the processes by which facts are judged—differently—through the prism of different genres. (336-37)

In addition, “while there is merit in holding authors accountable for basic community standards for honesty or for fidelity to the subjects of their writing, it is also valuable to recognize that there can never be absolute accuracy in the complex world rendered by writing,” Mays states. “Indeed, the act of writing itself is the creation of an unstable and malleable context in which absolute accuracy is impossible, even though writing also, paradoxically, creates the conditions—genres—in which such an absolute can be ostensibly assessed” (337).

In his conclusion, Mays returns to James Corder’s call for us to accommodate those with different ideas about the world. “The unwritten difficulty here, though, is that the very process of creating our own narrative inhibits the creation of that commodious universe,” Mays writes. “The very existence of our narrative—and our facts—impedes our recognition and legitimization of the facts and narratives of others” (337). Of course, not all facts, or all stories, deserve to be legitimized: the “fact” that the earth is flat, for instance, or the story that the Holocaust never happened. I’m not sure that Mays, or Corder, is suggesting that we legitimize such stories or such “facts,” but on the other hand, I’m not sure they aren’t suggesting that, either. The criteria for fidelity to reality “is, ultimately, contextual,” Mays suggests, and failing to recognize that one’s standards are only one possibility “is to only see the obviousness of one’s own configuration” (337). We need “to attempt to presume the validity of both your own rules and those of someone else simultaneously” (338). And no text can tell the whole story: “Just as both rhetoric theory and genre theory explain, there is no way to present the entirety of a situation, nor to present a situation that is understood identically by every reader. Authorial choices, and the genre rules used, entail a specific view of reality that is always and unavoidably partial” (338). Overemphasizing “unimpeachable facts,” Mays writes, “elides this very important point and disguises the ways we make choices about our view of the world every minute of every day. It also can discredit writers engaged in the legitimate endeavor of writing about the world and so can distract us from the beneficial effects of these writers’ efforts” (338). Mays calls upon his readers to acknowledge the “rhetoricity” of facts, and he cites Kenneth Burke to make the point “that our perception of the world is always and necessarily a contingent selection among an infinite excess of possibilities” (338).

I’m not sure I agree with Mays’s conclusion, as I’ve tried to suggest. Some possibilities in that infinity of possibilities are going to be wrong, mistaken, or malevolent. But I feel at home in this writing, the way I felt like a stranger when I read (for example) Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, or Tony Adams and Stacy Holman Jones on autoethnography. Perhaps I ought to be considering my writing to be creative nonfiction rather than autoethnography. I will need to read more about both categories to be able to make a decision, but that’s a possibility I need to think about. And the nice thing about Mays’s essay is that his bibliography gives me a place to begin an exploration of creative nonfiction as a methodology. I won’t begin that exploration right away—I have other things to read first—but I’ll get there, eventually.

Work Cited

Mays, Chris. “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English, vol. 80, no. 4, 2018, pp. 319-41.