Tag Archives: philosophy

Violence, Coercion and Struggle in Mills’ Racial Contract

Charles Mills the Racial ContractA final post on Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (here you can find posts one and two, though I warn you they are hell of long). Because a third strand of my work on race and space is also on violence and hegemony’s uneasy balance between coercion and consent, I was pretty enthusiastic about these sections. Mills doesn’t really use the language of Gramsci, but he explores this area with great insight that parallels one of my favourite thinkers:

In seeking first to establish and later to reproduce itself, the racial state employs the two traditional weapons of coercion: physical violence and ideological conditioning. (83)

You wield these weapons in the context of white supremacy, and of course you get a prominence of domination against nonwhites:

The coercive arms of the state, then–the police, the penal system, the army–need to be seen as in part the enforcers of the Racial Contract, working both to keep the peace and prevent crime among the white citizens, and to maintain the racial order and detect and destroy challenges to it, so that across the white settler states nonwhites are incarcerated at differential rates and for longer terms. (84)

Of course this is part of the consent-building process of whites. Thus (many, but not all) whites (because here is where class really becomes a bitch) see police as their protectors, but for others?

There is a well-known perception in the black community that the police–particularly in the jim crow days of segregation and largely white police forces–were basically an “army of occupation.” (85)

This may have been more prevalent back in the day, but you will hear it plenty now, and you can see it too. But violence never was restricted to the police, and it never occurred to me to trace white mob violence, vigilante violence all the way back this, but it makes sense…

But official state violence is not the only sanction of the Racial Contract. In the Lockean state of nature, in the absence of a constituted juridical and penal authority, natural law permits individuals themselves to punish wrongdoers. (86)

That feels so innately American somehow, this tangled question of justice the subject of 90 percent of the Westerns I’ve ever seen. Maybe deep down they weren’t about cattle rustling at all, but lynching. I loved this sentence:

Patterns of systematic massacres when there have been shakes to the system of white supremacy, causing an ontological shudder, calling forth white terror… (86)

Thinking of the massacres, especially that red summer of 1919 and those pictures of whites smiling over tortured bodies of black men still smoking. Unrecognizable. This terror combined with a sliver of carrot, in a system that

Attempts not just to shape the ‘white citizen’ but also, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘only the Negro they wished to see.” (88)

There is a world of tragedy in the ways that even for nonwhites, this system can be internalised, come to be seen as ‘consensual’.

It is a powerful system of collective consent, one that works to maintain privilege through a particular exercise of morality. Mills describes how

the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology. Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally. In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behaviour patterns as racist… the Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance. (93)

This explains so much, why it just keeps going on and on…This explains, but is miles away from excusing, the absence of rigour in interrogating the dominant social and political systems.

By their failure to denounce the great crimes inseparable from the European conquest, or by the halfheartedness of their condemnation, or by the actual endorsement of it in some cases, most of the leading European ethical theorists reveal their complicity in the Racial Contract. (94)

He also talks about the ways that this continues to deform theory, particularly any with pretence to liberation if they don’t root out these structures from the beginning:

The actual details of the basic values of the particular normative theory (property rights, personhood and respect, welfare) are not important, since all theories can be appropriately adjusted internally to bring about the desired outcome: what is crucial is the theorist’s adherence to the Racial Contract.  (96)

Yep. I won’t go into Kant again, but damn. So ultimately this system has shaped the broad white experience in incredibly damaging ways. It has ensured that they:

a) take for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race… and later the appropriateness of concepts that derace the polity, denying its actual racial structuring.

b) Because of the reciprocally dependent definitions of superior whiteness and inferior nonwhiteness, whites may consciously or unconsciously assess how they’re doing by a scale that depends in part on how nonwhites are doing

c) because the Racial Contract requires the exploitation of nonwhites, it requires in whites the cultivation of patterns of affect and empathy that are only weakly, if at all, influenced by nonwhite suffering.  (95)

It is this that I find hardest to understand, the white inability to see anything but thugs when the pictures of children shot by police or vigilantes are set in front of them. I can’t understand their inability to mourn these deaths, demand change. But, like Wendell Berry’s writing I think, this helps explain just how the mind and heart could become so twisted. Mills writes of  ‘partitioned moral concern’, and ‘moralities of exclusion’. Segregation lies at the heart of empathy and rationality, not just between homes and lived realities. But to believe yourself moral, while at the same time living a life that is deeply unjust because of its structural  foundations, well, that takes some work.

Evasion and self-deception thus become the epistemic norm. (97)

Just to deal with the horrors of conquest, slavery, ongoing massacres, the white life has to be placed higher and the nonwhite life devalued. So what is left as a way forward? First and foremost:

There is a choice for whites — to speak out and to struggle with its terms…

Second, understanding the importance of positionality:

The term “standpoint theory” is now routinely used to signify the notion that in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be be accurate than one from the top down. What is involved here, then, is a “racial” version … a perspectival cognitive advantage (109)

Third? Embracing this, furthering our understanding of this so that it can be dismantled. To speak in cliche, becoming part of the solution.

There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate. So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.

By its crucial silence on race and the corresponding capacities of its conventional conceptual array, the raceless social contracts and the raceless world of contemporary moral and political theory render mysterious the actual political issues and concerns that have historically preoccupied a large section of the world’s population. (124)

We have a choice.

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Charles Mills: The Racial Contract

Charles Mills - the Racial ContractYears ago my friend Ryan told me to read Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract, and it feels of central importance in my thinking now. Yet I bought it, and started it and put it down and did not pick it up again until recently. Too dry, too difficult, and contract law?

What an idiot I was.

This is a brilliant book, and perhaps my experience is testament to just how much reading philosophy and theory becomes easier with practice, but also, what an idiot. This would have been so useful for my thesis. But it is never too late. Going back over it, I kept thinking this nails it, this nails all of it. It is hardly a surprise that Charles Mills should be from Jamaica and have studied there, before moving to teach in the US (at present in NY at CUNY). This book is amazing, and my reflections in trying to write my way into grasping its essentials fill at least three posts, starting with the big picture.

It opens:

White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. … But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination… It is just taken for granted; it is the background against which other systems, which we are to see as political, are highlighted. (1-2)

Really that’s it in a nutshell, right? There is an under-representation of people of colour in philosophy and women, though the number of women has been increasing and have done more work to reconceptualise the field. Still, it remains very white and male, both cause and effect of the system we live within.

A word here at the beginning about how race is socially constructed, and the way that Mills avoids essentialising whiteness — any race could have done this.

Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations. (127)

To explore this system of white supremacy, Mills uses the lens of the social contract — ubiquitous in explanations of our government and society just as the names of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and America’s founding fathers are — but correcting for the fact that:

in its obfuscation of the ugly realities of group power and domination, it is, if unsupplemented, a profoundly misleading account of the way the modern world actually is and came to be. (3)

Mills hopes — and I echo that hope — that the racial contract as a lens can serve to bridge two segregated areas — mainstream ethics and political philosophy with the world of Native American, African American, and Third and Fourth world political thought and their focus on colonialism, imperialism, white settlement and etc. I am consistently frustrated with the way work becomes siloed, insights in one valuable arena of struggle and scholarship are lost, reinvented in another. But that’s another matter.

The Racial Contract is inspired by Carol Pateman’s feminist work The Sexual Contract. Have to read that. Both, go back to the ‘classic contractarians’: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant. Names I heard in high school, read in college. Haven’t really thought too much about since then.

Charles Mills is making three simple claims:

the existential claim — white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years; the conceptual claim — white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system; the methodological claim — as a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorized as based on a “contract” between whites, a Racial Contract. (7)

They sound simple, but let me tell you, it’s a crazy racial rollercoaster from here with loads of ah-ha moments. So. Overview. At least, I do my best.

The racial contract is political, moral, and epistemological. (9)

Big words. I always forget what epistemological means, maybe one day I will remember. I need to start using it daily in sentences, which will make me so popular.

The racial contract sets up a moral hierarchy:

the general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it. (11)

That’s the key difference there — all whites benefit, even though all whites do not agree with its provisions or help with its maintenance. So we best be working to destroy it.

Never forget that the power in this contract sits all in one place:

It is a contract between those categorized as white over the nonwhites, who are thus the objects rather than the subjects of the agreement. (12)

And this racial contract establishes a racial state:

where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state, by contrast with the neutral state of classic contractarianism, is, inter alia, specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order… Correspondingly, the “consent” expected of white citizens is in part conceptualized as a consent, whether explicit or tacit, to the racial order, to white supremacy, what could be called Whiteness… From the inception, then, race is in no way an “afterthought,” a “deviation” from ostensibly raceless Western ideals, but rather a central shaping constituent of those ideals. (14)

Yes, hell yes. It is so frustrating to find race over and over again treated as something separate and incidental rather than a fundamental structuring reality. It is brilliant to find clarity in how this racial hierarchy sets the parameters for discussion as a whole. Thus disputes between Locke and Kant are still disputes that sit comfortably within and remain limited by this framework.

So it is fairly astonishing — until you think about it I suppose — that this framework is consistently ignored by whites. ‘[O]ne has an agreement to misinterpret the world’ writes Charles Mills.

Thus, in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made. … Whiteness…is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities. (18)

I think under Trump we are reaping the rewards of this epistemology of ignorance with a vengeance. Sad.

In classic contractarian thought or Rawls-inspired contracts or even Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract, the focus is on the ideal. Mills argues that the Racial Contract, on the other hand, is an historical actuality. It is a global reality created over five hundred years of European domination and active consolidation of white supremacy. What always shocks me — it doesn’t matter how many times I read it — is the openness with which those in power once discussed their moral, political and economic rights as white European Christians over the rest of the world. The openness with which a battery of arguments was used to prove nonwhites less than human.

This must always be remembered. These things happened at the same time, these philosophies and these conquests, often by the same people. So we also must remember:

European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human. (27)

You have to remember that George Washington was known to the Senecas as “Town Destroyer” (28).

You have to remember that white settler states — US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa — were all founded on extermination, displacement and the forcing of indigenous populations onto reservations. Pierre van den Berghe coined the term Herrenvolk democracies to characterise them and the many traits that they share. This was cited, and supported, in The Global Colour Line as well… still, I’ve been meaning to read den Berghe for ages.

Yet none of this has been seen as an appropriate subject for political philosophy?

The fact that this racial structure, clearly political in character, and the struggle against it, equally so, have not for the most part been deemed appropriate subject matter for mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy and the fact that the very concepts hegemonic in the discipline are refractory to an understanding of these realities, reveal at best, a disturbing provincialism and an ahistoricity profoundly at odds with the radically foundational questioning on which philosophy prides itself and, at worst, a complicity with the terms of the Racial Contract itself. (31)

The classic social contract is primarily social/political, but also economic — Locke is all about private property and its protection, right? But it is the economic aspect that is most ‘salient’ in the Racial Contract as it is

calculatedly aimed at economic exploitation…. There are other benefits accruing from the Racial Contract– far greater political influence, cultural hegemony, the psychic payoff that comes from knowing one is a member of the Herrenvolk (what W.E.B. Du Bois once called “the wages of whiteness”)–but the bottom line is material advantage. (32-33)

At the same time whites across the spectrum have steadfastly ignored or played down the role of colonial conquest and African slavery in Europe’s development. Mills describes many who have challenged this view like Walter Rodney, writing about the ways in which Europe’s development is built upon the underdevelopment of its colonies. But the mainstream academy has relegated them to the margins, just as it has relegated an understanding of  ‘the centrality of racial exploitation to US economy and the size of its payoff…’ Mills continued:

this very centrality, these very dimensions render the topic taboo, virtually undiscussed in the debates on justice of most white political theory. (39)

Where are we now? A stag described by Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Manning Marable and others. One where ‘colourblind’ is the watchword because it is claimed that we are all now equal since the death of a Jim Crow supported by law:

Whereas before it was denied that nonwhites were equal persons, it is now pretended that nonwhite are equal abstract persons who can be fully included in the polity merely by extending the scope of the moral operator, without any fundamental change in the arrangements that have resulted from the previous system of explicit de jure racial privilege. (75)

But all of this is only possible in a world where white supremacy reigns.

But in a racially structure polity, the only people who can find it psychologically possible to deny the centrality of race are those who are racially privileged, for whom race is invisible precisely because the world is structured around them, whiteness as the ground against which the figures of other races–those who, unlike us, are raced–appear. (76)

To finish this post, I end with a starting look at what might be required to move forward — I like that this is incorporated, and it resonated strongly with some of Gilroy’s work.

A genuine transcendence of its terms would require, as a preliminary, the acknowledgment of its past and present existence and the social, political, economic, psychological, and moral implications it has had both for its contractors and its victims. (77)

[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]

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Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects, Climate Change (and Trump)

hyperobjects-timothy-mortonI found Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects fairly incomprehensible — I know next to nothing of OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology — but find the concept of the hyperobject compelling and incredibly useful in thinking about the world. I thank Mark, and Karolina and Anya giving us our time in Poland for bringing it to my attention…

Climate change is the hyperobject under discussion

massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (1).

it is bigger than we can comprehend but is also something caused by us. It is out there impacting in multiple different ways across the world and yet it is also the heat wave and the hurricane we experience directly against our skin. It started long ago yet it defines our future and thus squeezes upon our present. As Morton writes,

The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun. (177)

Because of all this, hyperobjects are reflected in our thought art action, conscious and unconscious. Capitalism is another hyperobject, and to me this opens up so many avenues of thought.

I’ve been trying to deal with the desolation and fear I have been flooded with since Trump’s election yesterday — a day in which I could not work, just restlessly do nothing much at all. In trying to understand this terrible thing, I think a lot can be argued for this idea of climate change as a  hyperobject. I think ultimately Trump rode to power on the fear of the immensity and unknowability of climate change and these crisis days of capitalism. This terrifying future that people can feel approaching, the knowledge that everything is shrinking and everything is changing and resources do not exist to sustain America’s current way of life — or ever bring back the days when a high school diploma and a manufacturing job could get you a house and a decent life. The fear this inspires, even when not acknowledged or outright denied.

So the scramble for resources has begun I think, they will be saved for the few, the ‘deserving’, and Trump has made clear who those few are — based on the historic divisions emerging from Native American genocide, slavery, class warfare, and of course our current wars that are all about oil resources. So white folks earning over $50,000 a year voted Trump in through the electoral college once again — he lost the popular vote. Even among, especially among, the climate change deniers there is a bunkering down without any sense of irony. There will be a gathering of resources behind high walls and ever deeper divisions between ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other. A growing violence and ruthlessness towards ‘them’ in the name of survival — and god knows it has been terrible enough already. My mother will be one of ‘them’, most of my friends and all of those I stand with in solidarity. People of colour, muslims, the poor, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, the disabled. It is like my dad’s old pistol-packing coworker who he helped move a truckload of canned peaches into her bunker for the end of days. A kind of insanity that is based on the philosophy of getting mine, and fuck everyone else.

I sit here, sick with worry. Even more helpless given my distance. So Morton’s abstractions and rhetoric seem a little too abstract — as they did before the election to be honest. But I shall give you a large taste — the opacity of the language may or may not hide something deeper that I am missing. I’m honestly not sure. I think this is a valuable concept to examine today’s world but this is quite a pick’n mix approach to the book that will probably horrify philosophers. I apologise in advance.

Morton’s summation of hyperobjects:

They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. … Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge…  Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. (1-2)

They are so big they impact everything, and we don’t have to be aware of it to be true. Which is what I find fascinating about this idea:

No longer are my intimate impressions “personal” in the sense that they are “merely mine” or “subjective only”: they are footprints of hyperobjects… (5)

The world has already ended, Morton argues. The first time in April 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine. The second in Trinity, NM in 1945, the first atom bomb test. I feel like it has ended a third time in a way. But I mostly hate this rhetoric because while Morton argues this liberates us, I think it does the opposite.

I do however, like to recognise how small we are made by what we face:

For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance. (7)

An aside on OOO to place it within philosophy’s canon — this is part of

speculative realism is the umbrella terms for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillasoux, Patrica Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier and an emerging host fo others… to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects” … The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door? (9)

 

Part 1 What Are Hyperobjects?

The awful shadow of some unseen power
— Percy Shelley

This book draws on two things I enjoy, SF and quantum physics — all the things I struggled to come to terms with in Green and Hawking’s work (and failed, significantly in grasping really). Things like tiny forks vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously — visible to the human eye. I wish my own eye could see such a thing.

Nonlocality

Hyperobjects are touching us, making our hair fall out, our skin blister, yet they are nonlocal — we are not the centre of the universe nor are we privileged actors. He writes:

Locality is an abstraction…Heavy rain is simply a local manifestation of some vast entity that I’m unable directly to see. (47-48)

In grasping at the local, the individual, we destroy the sense of the larger whole:

Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you won’t see it. Stand under a rain cloud and it’s not global warming you’ll feel. Cut your throat into a thousand pieces — you won’t find capital in there. Now try pointing to the unconscious. Did you catch it? Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way round. … Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events…will you find global warming. But global warming is as real as this sentence. (48)

It touches all of us.

In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays… We are poems about the hyperobject Earth. (51)

Yet this does not negate the specificity of things themselves.

When I think nonlocality in this way, I am not negating the specificity of things, evaporating them into the abstract mist of the general, the larger or the less local. Nonlocality is far weirder than that. When it comes to hyperobjects, nonloocality means that the general itself is compromised by the particular. When I look for the hyperobject oil, I don’t find it. Oil just is droplets, flows, rivers, and slicks of oil. I do not find the object by looking sub specie aeternitatis, but by seeing things sub specie majoris, sub specie inhumanae. (54)

He looks at Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia, suffused with oil — I struggled my way through this book when I first came to London. It is rather weird and wonderful.

Because we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny. (55)

It is interesting to think that a bounded object we cannot see the limits of should seem greater than infinity, but I think he’s right:

There is a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of “forever” than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything. (60)

Two asides (for me) on Einstein’s physics and things I don’t understand but rather enjoy grappling with:

…the pencil you are holding in your fingers is only a rigid extended body on account of a false immediacy. Nothing in the universe apprehends the pencil like that, really. Not even the pencil apprehends itself like that. (62)

Spacetime turns from a grid-like box into what Einstein fantastically calls a “reference-mollusk.” Reference-mollusks exist precisely because of hyperobjects that emanate gravitational fields. In these fields geometry is not Euclidean.  (63)

There is quite a lot about space in here, theorised in opposition to Newton rather than sociology, which is more familiar to me. So Morton writes

To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. (63)

and then this, which I thought Lefebvre and other had ended decades ago, but I suppose not in physics:

Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers that entities sit in. (65)

Phasing

Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.

We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. (70)

I struggle with how this is different from non-locality

As it is, I only see brief patches of this gigantic object as it intersects with my world. The brief patch I call a hurricane destroys the infrastructure of New Orleans… (71)

Also with how this is not quite another argument for networks, for connection the way permaculturists would see things, or Capra — but Morton is fairly dismissive of emergence.

Hyperobjects don’t inhabit some conceptual beyond in our heads or out there. They are real objects that affect other objects. Indeed the philosophical view behind thinking that objects are one thing and relations (which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about math or transcendence) are another positively inhibits our transition to an ecological age, even as it poses sophisticated theories of emergence or process. (73)

I need to think more about objects and relations maybe. This too I find rather difficult to get my head around:

The abyss does not underlie things, but rather allows things to coexist: it is the nonspatial “betweeness” of things. Whenever I put my hand into the toaster oven I am thrusting part of my body into an abyss. (79)

Interobjectivity

The abyss in front of things is interobjective. It floats among objects, “between” them… On this view, what is called intersubjectivity— a shared space in which human meaning resonates–is a small region of a much larger interobjective configuration space. Hyperobjects disclose interobjectivity. The phenomenon we call intersubjectivity is just a local, anthropocentric instance of a much more widespread phenomenon… (81)

Stop privileging the human, the anthropocentric. There are many indigenous systems that do this, to all my relations is this same idea, no? Easier to understand, easier to incorporate into a better way of life. But I continue the struggle with these words, where everything is connected interobjectively through what he calls the mesh, and goes on to write things I am not entirely sure I find useful or not:

Hyperobjects simply enable us to see what is generally the case:

  1. Protagoras notwithstanding, objects are not made-to-measure for humans.

  2. Objects do not occur “in” time and space, but rather emit spacetime.

  3. Causality does not churn underneath objects like a machine in the basement, but rather floats in front of them.

  4. The causal dimension, in which things like explosions are taken to happen, is also the aesthetic dimension, in which things like Nude Descending a Staircase are taken to happen. (89-90)

There is some interesting stuff about cities I shall collect together at the end, but a final thought:

The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. (93)

PART II: The Time of Hyperobjects

A hyperobject has ruined the weather conversations, which functions as part of a neutral screen that enables us to have human drama in the foreground. In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on background and foregrounds. (99)

Ah, the end of the world! I still can’t quite grasp this, but unlike some of the other concepts to be found here, I rather want to. This too:

Lifeworld was just a story we were telling ourselves on the inside of a vast, massively distributed hyperobject called climate… (103)

On sustainability — a major development engine and fundraising mechanism these days, making perfect sense of this:

The common name for managing and regulating flows is sustainability. But what exactly is being sustained? “Sustained capitalism” might be one of those contradictions in terms along the lines of “military intelligence.” (111)

I like, too, the insight that given the way capital operates and how it is based on raw materials –

Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. (112)

This is one of the lies our world is built on that is crumbling at the approach of climate change as hyperobject.

I rather like this sentence, what does it mean? I don’t know.

Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t’ see how a hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied-out space of capitalism. (115)

So to come to the end, to look at the city metaphor he uses for the hyperobject — I am actually fascinated that we should have built something so legible, so mappable, that yet could serve as a hyperobject. That is rather fascinating. Morton writes:

The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. Form is memory. …

Appearance is the past. Essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility–it’s the future, somehow beamed into the “present.”(91)

Later in the book he returns to this:

A hyperobject is like a city — indeed a city like London could provide a good example of a hyperobject. Cities and hyperobjects are full of strange streets, abandoned entrances, cul-de-sacs, and hidden interstitial regions. (120)

I’m playing with that idea more. But a final glimpse at Morton’s own descriptions of hyperobjects

What best explains ecological awareness is a sense of intimacy, not a sense of belonging to something bigger: a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under one’s skin. Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with out own death (because they are toxic), with others (because everyone is affected by them), and with the future (because they are massively distributed in time.) (139)

[Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.]

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Masanobu Fukuoka: One-Straw Revolution

Masanobu Fukuoka - The One-Straw RevolutionThis is a book that is a lot about food, food chains and agriculture, but more about how we live on the earth and the nature of knowledge. It owes much to Buddhism, here is the moment of Masanobu Fukuoka’s initial enlightenment:

One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of  a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. I can still remember that it was the morning of the 15th of May. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light, seeing the sunrise and yet somehow not seeing it. As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of mu confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all….” I felt that I understood nothing. (8)

Nothing as a positive thing. The thing you reach when you realise how insufficient intellectual knowledge is, and struggle to see everything for what it, learn again. This moment so prized in so many cultures apart from the western, European one — and even then it is well know to some of the meditative strands of Christianity.

He left home to further this insight, share it.

At one stop, I saw a small sign which read, “Utopia.” I got off the bus and set out in search of it. …. (12)

Even in Utopia no one would listen to his ideas of nothingness, so he returned to his father’s farm to practice them. I remember reading about this book many years ago when I was in LA, trying to get it, not being able to afford it given its rarity. It’s affordable now, and quite awesome.

Over thirty years he has worked immensely hard to perfect a system that works with nature to grow as much food as any other farm with immensely less effort.

I fucking love that. You still work dann hard because it’s a farm of course, but the goal is always to work less, to have leisure, to enjoy life and live well and to leave the earth you farm better than when you started.

Masanobu Fukuoka notes that in the traditional farming year, the New Year’s holiday was three months long (though did women ever experience such a thing I wonder?).  He talks about the village shrine, and the many faded haiku villagers had composed and offered. Because they had some leisure. Over time and ‘improvements’ the holiday became two months, and then two days. Poetry is no longer written.

Modernised agriculture has always taken a different route, an arrogant route that demands ever longer hours of work for those who can still make a living through farming, and in solving one problem caused a cascading set of others. And now?

The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them. (15)

Ivan Illich could have written some of what follows, both books contain the same insight that beyond a certain point there are limits on how technology and specialist knowledge can improve our lives, and many points at which it can become damaging. Modern agricultural methods of mass production, mechanization, monoculture and chemicals must be among the best examples:

The path I have followed, this natural way of farming…was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing…is trying to show that humanity knows nothing.

During the past few years the number of people interested in natural farming has grown considerably. It seems that the limit of scientific development has even reached, misgivings have begun to be felt, and the time for reappraisal has arrived. (19)

For those of who who research and write, we know that this should always be true and rarely is:

Before researchers becomes researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. (74)

He writes too:

I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence. (25)

In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge; in the East the philosophy of yin-yang and of the I-Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure. (125)

The argument is not that we should stop trying to understand it or work with it, more that we respect its intricacies, approach learning from it with humility, never assume we can untangle all of the symbiotic relationships developed over millenia, and so tread lightly.

An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

The difference in the results of respecting, observing and working with nature, and not:

Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see Insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced ricefield ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this region and leave the crops in my fields unaffected.

And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The earth has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields…wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields—which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years—have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation. (33)

It is the same picture as that laid out by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire and his other works, by permaculture and organic farming experts. It’s crazy and the toll on the earth, the agricultural workers and those who consume this produce is still not fully known. Except that it is deadly, especially for workers, the soil and the multiple layers of life that once abounded here — those things least valued by capital.

The Four Principles of Natural Farming:

  1. No Cultivation — no plowing, or turning over of the soil.
  2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
  3. No weeding by tillage or herbicides
  4. No dependence on chemicals (33-34)

A rhythm of growing and planting that allows desired crops to establish themselves without need for weeding, grown amongst cycles of clover or other such plants grown to keep down weeds and the use of the straw after the harvest to build the soil and protect the new crop. Companion planting. Allowing monsoon rains to sit for just over a week to kill unwanted weeds, weaken the clover, strengthen the rice. The use of hardy plants without fertilizer other than compost (or ducks loose and nibbling the fields) to grow strong and compact and thus resistant to pests. Allowing the natural ecosystem to flourish that ensures where pests exist their predators do also. Careful attention to weather and soil and plants native to the site. Trial and error.

Instead we kill the earth and everything in it dead, and pour chemicals into it. We eat them on our food, lacking in flavour and vitality, often dyed and waxed and grown only for perfection of form. Its medicinal power is completely lost. The chemicals run off into our waterways and oceans causing blooms of algea, doing god knows what else. Compare these two ways and you wonder what the fuck we were thinking.

Not that Masanobu Fukuoka’s system to grow food with little effort has come easily — like all good things it has taken a long time:

It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me over thirty years to reach this simplicity. (45)

And of course, he understands that all of this challenges power and wealth. He describes going to conferences and speaking about it and always and immediately being shut down – ‘To do away with machinery and chemicals would bring about a complete change in the economic and social structures.’ (81)

A problem cannot be solved by people who are concerned with only one or another of its parts.

To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease. (82)

Much of the philosophy comes at the end, along with some of the most powerful statements. My favourite was: ‘they trapped themselves in the endless hell of the intellect.” (165).

All too familiar, and funny for that reason. The other two are just true and deep:

If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire. (104)

It is said that there is no creature as wise as the human being. By applying this wisdom, people have become the only animals capable of nuclear war. (156)

Depressing. So I will end with an offhand report of a true wonder:

In southern Shikoku there was a kind of chicken that would eat worms and insects on the vegetables without scratching the roots or damaging the plants. (65)

I once accidentally let two chickens in our vegetable garden and they had destroyed the whole of it in about 2 minutes, so this seems to me a most mythical creature.

For more about no-dig agriculture, food chains and permaculture…

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Baudelaire, Benjamin, Gramsci

Who among us has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose? It would have to be musical enough to adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness. This ideal, which can turn into an idee fixe, will grip especially those who are at home in the giant cities and the web of their numberless interconneting relationships.
–Baudelaire, quoted in Walter Benjamin “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”

I’ve been thinking about dreams, prose, cities…

Benjamin collected quotations, in the sense of the ‘true’ collector, which is just one of the reasons I love him.

He was also haunted by “The Little Hunchback”

When I come into my room,
My little bed to make,
A little hunchback is in there,
With laughter does he shake.

And I wonder at the coincidence of myself reading Gramsci at the same time, himself a little hunchback, a man of action not reflection (though prison changed that), a man who would never have yearned for a kept life where he could wander aimlessly, collect books he valued more for never wanting to read, but who instead starved and sacrificed himself remorselessly to finish his studies and change Italy…both variations of Marxist, and both dearly loved by me. I was originally struck by how they were opposite, but as I think about it, they approach one another…

The politics of my street

I walked down my street today, past the thick smoke of Bernie’s, fragrant with teriyaki chicken, past the house slowly collapsing on itself (its porch the latest casualty of neglect, and boasting a new chain link fence compliments of the city, a stopgap measure to deal with a 10 foot retaining wall straining to comply with gravity). The owner of the Korean store was outside, smoking on the corner.

Diamond Street has tagged up many of the walls, con safos, I live within territorial boundaries and contested terrain. Physically I am here, they are here, but our worlds don’t overlap except in the pounding of their subwoofers at random times of day and night. Their peeling out of tires. You take these things for granted. But today I wondered at these small wars, fought entirely by youth of a certain age. For corners. For drug sales. For machismo. For friendship and family. And it builds fear in everyone, but if you are not young and from the hood, it is simply of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I live in the zone, yet it has nothing to do with me unless I make it my business. Modern warfare, an attempt to hustle money and respect from these streets. To be big here and fuck everywhere else. Everywhere else doesn’t exist, it is nothing more than an ill-defined fog of a world that hates, rejects, exploits, locks up.

I think about the shooting that just happened on my street, violence seems impossible on a day like today. The birds are singing for fuck’s sake. And the flowers fill well kept gardens with gorgeous color, in front of well-loved houses full of kids. And here are generations defined by race and geography who simultaneously believe that they are invincible, and that they will be dead by 25. They make me angry for the absence of critical thought, but nothing compares to the rage against the system.

I sat at the bus stop and watched one of them (pelon, huge white T-shirt, baggy jean shorts, white tube socks pulled up to his knees) crossing and re-crossing Temple just below the ridge of the hill on an electric scooter. High. Or just feeling the need to defy death. Or waiting for someone and bored. I don’t know. Families walked past me, pushing strollers. A father and his beautiful daughter eating cheetos, flaming hot for him, regular for her. Some old pilipinos were playing tennis across the street. The sun shone through the marine layer, I wondered what the haze was until I suddenly remembered that LA is actually on the ocean. It is so easy to forget, because without a car? You almost can’t get there from here, it is a trip of hours. The paletero walked past ringing his bells and I wanted an ice cream, but then the bus came.

This is my world. I love it and hate it, some days it is enough. Some days though, some days this is just the reflection. Some days hadas laugh around the edges of my vision, and the world of my imagination takes the fore. My street takes on a spanglish personality and rhythm in her fall down the hill; the collapsing house hides an interior full of strange creeping life eating dust and tendriling up walls with lazy sentience. Some days history walks, ghosts whisper from the shadows and lurk in old doorways or peer from dirty windows. Some days words turn upon themselves and writhe and wriggle into new configurations, channeling  along the lines of the cracked walls in spraypaint and reflected heat. But always con safos. Some days the dogs forget to bark at me, and I wonder why. Some days I think thoughts I have never thought before and I see things I have never imagined. The street is my inspiration.

And the world of my imagination is part of my neighborhood, part of its richness.  I ride the bus away into other L.A. places farther removed from this street than my imagination could ever be. And they are removed on purpose. By plan. They are walled and made safe by cops, not terrorized by them. My imagination could never come up with that. The way we treat each other. Some days just going from street to street is a struggle.

El Salvador and such…

It’s early but feels late…a great dinner with old friends from Carecen days, veggie sausages and Belgian beer and amazing fries and good conversation, everything you could ask for from a Wednesday evening really.

Dan was down in El Salvador for the elections, and I was rather jealous…I was invited and considered it for a hot minute and then just didn’t bother to put it together…I did have a lot of deadlines, and vanquished them all to be fair. Had everything not been crumbling I would have felt on top of the world. El Salvador puts South Central into perspective though, and I know millions before me have loved and lost, tried and failed. Somewhere we are winning, and that’s what matters.

God damn, but it was 10 years ago now I was down there. With Don White, who just died. And I fucking miss him. The crazy thing about the elections this year…Dan was saying that TPS was almost a defining issue…Temporary Protected Status, it’s a temporary work permit that allows Salvadorans to stay in the US legally and work. Americans have no idea what it is of course, but it is everything to the immigrant community. I remember those applications, and the charlas for a hundred people at a time, and the lines of folks waiting at Carecen’s doors. And apparently the night Dan went down a couple of the hard right-wing people in the congress and the house stated that the FMLN were known terrorist collaborators and that if they won, it would put TPS at risk. And something that wasn’t even news here, well, it was front page headlines down there. And Arena milked it for all it was worth, saying that if Funes won, then everyone in the US would lose their status, the remittances would stop. And it closed up the difference and instead of winning in a landslide Funes won by a couple of percent. Arena owns the media of course. And the tragedy that losing TPS would cause…well, it gave a lot of people pause. And many voted against their consciences.

And Arena still didn’t win. I was there in ’99 for the presidential elections, and monitoring the elections in La Libertad. And there was this one guy in Arena colors, I still remember him sitting at a table, staring at me, hating me. I took his picture, my way of refusing fear. It wasn’t very brave of course, I knew he couldn’t touch me.

The thing is, I carry people’s stories inside of me. When people tell me things it lives in me, I know it has none of the crippling strength as it does for those who lived it. But I am still afraid of helicopters. I am still afraid of anyone in a uniform. I hold memories of rape and torture, and they are dear to me now, as were the people I knew who had suffered these things, who survived these things, who taught me what strength really is.  I remembered Raul, who only a few years before had been forced to flee for his life. From Arena. They burned down his house, assassinated someone they believed to be him, threatened his family and anyone who spoke to him. And this was years after the peace accords. I knew fear while he watched me, I can still feel it wriggling in my stomach though as a white American I knew damn well that in that time and place I was perfectly safe.

Arena won that election. We were staying in the local school, and that night we were kept awake by Arena’s supporters who ran in a large crowd around and around the town, setting anything that said FMLN on fire and waving it in the darkness, clapping and yelling.

And I knew fear then too, peering between the crack in the large wooden doors that separated the school’s courtyard from the street.

I remembered Arcatao in Chalatenango, a center for the FMLN and one of the places hardest hit by right wing forces during the war. The beauty of the church there, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, both for the scenery and the people who lived there, though everyone and everything carried the mark of war.

and they honored those who were murdered thus, a church lined with crosses

There the stations of the cross are represented by the stations of a people in struggle, few things have moved me like that place.

And there is also the memorial of Monsenor Oscar Romero in San Salvador, with drawings on the wall of torture and death, a memorial of all who fought for something better, and whose lives were taken.

I have not believed in organized religion for a very long time, but I could pray in a church like this. And I did. Romero once said that a priest’s place was with his people. And if the people were living in poverty, were fighting for justice, were being killed, then the priests should also be facing death by their sides. And so they killed him. He is one of the people I have been thinking about in my own little crisis of faith. It is tiny. It is a tempest in a tea cup. I am getting over it.

So I cried when Funes won, for someone who doesn’t really believe in elections, I have been doing a lot of crying I must say! But after years of civil war and torture and disappearances and an intense war of the people against the oligarchs, well. For everyone I know who had been raped, tortured, had family murdered…I cried when the FMLN took power. And I am thankful that a few nut jobs in the senate and a media that made them seem far more important than they were weren’t enough to change that. And now I sit with the same feelings I have about Obama, thinking things will get better. But probably not much. But it was a symbolic change and that carries its importance. And god knows we need to celebrate any victory that comes along, we just can’t think that’s anything but the start of a new struggle.

So…I dunno. I dunno where I’m at as I sit crouched in the echoing space that used to be filled with things I believed in. I’m getting used to that. I biked home rather tipsy, my favourite sweater streamed behind me in the darkness and my shadow rode before me in the street lights like a crow, a harbinger of things to come. I looked cloaked and daggered, something from times long past or times to come, I’ve been feeling like that. I’ve been living in the moment and living well and loving every minute of it until I am alone, and then I am outside of time somehow, poised on the edge of something. I’ll find out what it is I suppose.

And my packet arrived today from LSE so it all feels truly official and done and dusted and I’m in and I’m moving to London, and life really feels pretty good. It doesn’t really matter that everything else has crumbled into dust, because where else do amazing beginnings start from? A big packet in the mail gives such happiness.

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Good Omens

I’ve always really liked lying on the floor when I need to think things through. It helps me…think things through. I see everything from an entirely new perspective. I’m comfortable, but not too comfortable. And when I’m wearing blue, I’m camouflaged nicely to blend in with the carpet in case of possible attack. Zombies, horseshoe crabs…you never know who or what is out there. Apart from the truth, but the truth is pretty damn slap-happy, so I’m content to curl up and blend.

You also can’t get any lower than the floor, and so I have spent a lot of time there this year through this long and constant process of great humbling, the loss of one happiness after the other, the reduction of my ideals and years of love and work to specks in time and space that could not and did not last. I know history, why did I think it would turn out differently? And people? I utterly misjudged them. And myself. I’d like to think it stops now and I’ve figured people (and myself) out, but in my new humility I doubt it, though I won’t say I haven’t learned a thing or two! I haven’t many illusions about LSE, though I am still happy about that! And moving to London makes me want to sing (and I do). I definitely feel finished and done with LA.

I read Good Omens last night and this morning, and it restored my ability to laugh and love the world and even the people in it, and the only downside was the sadness that arose from the knowledge that I will never have a job interview like this one:

“Mr. Shadwell’s  accent was unplaceable. It careered around Britain like a milk race….” (This is just to set the stage. Here are the interview questions for the ancient, yet current, position of witchfinder.)

“Have ye all your own teeth?”
Check.

“Are ye fit?”
Check.

“How many nipples?”
Two (check).

“Have ye got your ane scissors?”
Yes!

And I’m hired! It would be almost as good as ornamental hermit…I’d read papers all day looking for

1. Witches.
2. Unexplainable Phenomenons. Phenomenatrices. Phenomenice. Things, ye ken what I mean.

I think even if I hadn’t just hit a rock bottom of sorts last night, that this would have brought me extreme joy!

The gaps

I discovered a small truth today. Or a big Truth. You could write reams about the meaning of truth and that’s not at all what I want to do. To me, there are simply those moments when you realize something and it’s like a glorious golden tone, a sense of rightness where everything moves slightly, settles into comfortable place.

It has been inspired vaguely by the last two books I’ve read. China Mieville’s The City & The City…soon available to those less lucky than I, this is a book I truly love. And Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, which I really liked, and is a good read. The City is all about interstices, visibility and invisibility, cities lying both beside and inside of each other. And it gave me chills because these are things I mull over all the time in many different ways. And yet this book created a world that I have never yet come even close to imagining and that is an incredible gift. This is my first reading of course, it is the kind of book that will yield up additional meanings as I reread it I know. It inspired a sideline of my own thought, and Chabon cemented it though the cementing was a tiny sideline of his work as well.

There are no margins. When I get these golden moments and write them down, they always appear absurdly simple, hardly worthy of mention. And they are so often things I have been thinking for a long time, and never found words for, so they remained fuzzy and ill-defined. Margins, the marginalized … these are words used all the time, especially in social theory, the world of urban planning. I have used them myself. And I am sure my little truth is not new, so I apologize to others ignored in the flush of my discovery… a discovery for myself, not for the world. And I’m still exploring it, savouring it like a bar of dark chocolate, so forgive that to.

Margins only exist from the perspective of one seated firmly and comfortably in the center of their own world. These people look out and see from great distance others behaving in ways they don’t understand, and usually do not condone. In the worst case scenario they see their margins as something to be fixed or eradicated. And they always look at it with varying shades of wonder, jealousy, disdain, voyeuristic interest, judgment. And the rest of us buy into it almost without thinking. I’ve been imagining that instead of a dominant world, the earth is peopled with many such worlds, like spheres, they pile up and jostle one another, their thin membranes can overlap others sometimes, they exist in permutations of inside and outside and crosshatched shades (crosshatch comes from China, it has made me extraordinarily happy).

Some people, many people, are lucky enough to navigate worlds from early ages, but these worlds are afforded different values. Marginalization is entirely in the mind, and entirely political. For most the margins mean the underworld, the underbelly, the world of the poor, the criminal. In the States it is the spaces inhabited by people of color, the poor, immigrants, strange languages, smells, foods. The reality is that these are their own worlds of equal value if not economic or political strength. The reality I think, is that to those inside of them, their codes and beliefs and comfort levels are just as much defined for them by their surroundings as for anyone else, and their own margins just as real within them. South Central, like South Tucson, is actually a vibrant and beautiful place of incredible culture and history, though with codes and violence shaped by years of poverty, racism and eploitation. The worlds of my UCLA professors who theorized on improving the inner city, and the women I worked with who spent hours on a bus to go and clean their houses…to move back and forth between them was like a jolt, an existential disconnection. Neither understood the other, both saw completely different sides. To stand outside both but with a foot in each yielded entirely new facets again.

There are even worlds that people choose to belong to, that become as bounded as anything else. To me much of the Bay Area, for example, has always been too uniform for comfort in its own comfortable counterculture-ness, and unspoken standards of politics, behaviour, shopping, and intellectualized relationships. They seem as much wrapped inside their own place as the girls I used to know who would never have dreamed of moving more than a few miles from their mothers, being unmarried beyond 25, living a life untethered to church, hometown, family.

None of this thinking about margins is new really, the whole point of nationalistic and identity movements, the best of postmodernism, have all had the aim of rejecting the term marginal, establishing an identity and a value that is separate and different from that which dominates, yet equal to it. Ha! Never thought I’d ever use separate but equal in a positive light. In a sense it is, but in many ways it is not. The feeling of belonging, however much I long for an idealized version of it on days when I am lonely and sad, always implies the existence of those who do not belong. At its best it coexists happily and does not judge, but even then it seems to carry within it the seeds of judgment, of believing everyone else incapable of knowing, understanding, partaking. And intellectuals always seem to push it, hone it, create walls that cannot be bridged. Regular folks I know who never stay up nights thinking about these things seem much more able to cross boundaries, build friendships, find humor in misunderstandings and cultural miscommunication. It’s what I loved most about Tucson’s southwest side, and gives me faith.

There are no margins, but there are people between worlds. One of my favourite books is called La Maravilla by Alfredo Vea Jr., I read it many years ago and have reread it many times. It is what first started me thinking about these things. It is the story of a boy living in Buckeye, a tiny world of squatters and outcasts outside of Phoenix. He is being raised by his Grandparents, an old Yaqui indian and a curandera from Spain, in uneasy and strained relationship with her Catholic beliefs. The grandfather takes his grandson into the mountains with some of his friends for a peyote ceremony, and he explains to him that all of the best people, the ones most worth knowing, are found within the gaps. They belong nowhere and that gives them immense freedom to create, to love, to understand, to be. And they are of every race, nation, culture, belief … anyone is capable of stepping into the gaps.

And I have always found it to be true, much as I love so many I know who are comfortable within the confines of their own worlds. It is a lonely place many times, true. But I think it allows the space to grow into the full measure of your own humanity, to explore worlds on their own terms, to dream of a world that doesn’t yet exist. Many are born into it, but spend their lives trying to belong to one place or another, to define themselves by geography or race or class or sexuality or intellect. And that is complicated by the fact that the dominant culture has for centuries defined people as it wishes, and used that as a whip to tear down, enslave, destroy. The dominant world in this country of a white middle America is very much a myth I think, but I don’t forget for an instant that the power of media, government and corporations are propping it up with brutal force and great power.

But there is such strength in stepping into the gap, embracing it, exploring it as something not simply thrust upon you. So I reject margins and believe in these gaps, crosshatchings, borderlands, wild spaces. And exult in them.

Sonoran Desert in the Springtime

This year there are no carpets of golden poppies or sunflowers, there are no giant swaths of color splashed across the Tucson desert, and part of me is disappointed of course. I love glorious abandon.

This is one of the years that requires a closer eye, a delight in the subtle, the ground-hugging, the tiny. I love that too. The desert is still full of flowers, they riot across the stones in perfect blooms the size of a fingernail.

Eriastrim Diffusum or Miniature Woolystar

Monoptilon bellioides, also known as Mojave Desert Star. I think. There’s something about seeing what is usually unseen. there were a couple of phacelias, though I remember years when they have filled the grasses alongside the washes in deep gorgeous blues unfurling.

The flowers have definitely seen better years, and the same goes for the prickly pear. While you’re looking for what is always missed, seeking out the small beauties and the things that are hidden, you also find these guys

The only thing that seemed to be blooming as normal were the mallows.

And when you look up the desert is still wide open, beautiful

You can’t even tell that tiny flowers blanket the hills, and that lizards crouch frozen in the mottled shade of bushes.

Dad and I found this off the beaten trail, beneath a mesquite tree where a small arroyo split into two

It could be a shrine, a joke, a memory. Plastic flowers in the desert almost always commemorate death, marking graves or the sites of accidents where flesh failed and souls left bodies. In the desert death is as present as life, they twine around each other, you see it and traces of it everywhere. Scattered bones, skin, remnants of bodies.

I love life even more beside death. Beauty hidden in an arid landscape and draped around cacti skeletons, or exploding after a good winter of rain in a riotous celebration of color. High arching skies and heat. The smell of creosote and dust. This I understand. I love. I leave it for the world of people and there is so much I don’t understand, though I love there too. I walk through the desert in sandals fearlessly, it is my place. It is a beautiful dangerous place, but I know where the danger lies. The human world? I walk through that in sandals too, but never fearlessly. It hurts much more.

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