The New Inquiry has made itself part of the bigger conversation by mixing political discussion, pop culture dissection, and a good dose of literary sensibilities. Read the articles, and consider becoming a member.
Locking up migrants fighting to stay in the United States is permissible, the Supreme Court reiterated in February. The Court’s ruling mocks justice, but isn’t a big surprise. The federal laws under the Court’s consideration breathe life into a mean-spirited immigration law enforcement regime that holds tightly to the misguided belief that migrants pose a threat that prisons are best suited to extinguish.
In Jennings v. Rodriguez, five justices overturned the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allowing migrants detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to request bail from an immigration judge. Under the Ninth Circuit’s procedure, immigration judges were free to deny bail to migrants deemed likely to abscond or endanger the public. After February’s Supreme Court decision, ICE agents are able to lock up migrants convicted of a range of crimes and keep them imprisoned while they fight their way through the notoriously backlogged immigration courts. There are currently almost 700,000 cases in the country’s immigration courts. Stretching back to the Obama era, ICE wants people convicted of a range of crimes—from the most serious on down to petty offenses like shoplifting—to sit in jail while the wheels of immigration-court justice turn ever so slowly. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer noted that, on average, the migrants involved in these cases spend one year in prison. Many others, he noted, are confined much longer. “The Government detained one noncitizen for nearly four years after he had finished serving a criminal sentence,” Breyer noted with evident shock.
Despite its substantial impact on migrants, the majority opinion tacks a narrow legal path. It focuses on a technical feature of legal doctrine about the proper method of interpreting the text of statutes enacted by Congress. It does not address constitutional concerns, such as due process, the ancient notion that everyone is entitled to a fair hearing before a neutral arbiter. Indeed, the lead attorney for the migrants quickly announced that he looks forward to returning to the lower courts to litigate the due process issues that prolonged confinement by ICE—the Homeland Security branch responsible for detaining migrants with immigration court cases—raises. We can expect those cases to begin appearing in federal courts within a few months.
As if anticipating that the next step for immigration detention is a full-blown constitutional battle, the three justices who dissented—Breyer and his colleagues Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor—provided a lengthy road map of due-process history and legal doctrine that they consider relevant. To them, the entire history of Anglo-American law stretching back to at least the 13th century demands access to bail and, by implication, a hearing at which a detained individual can request bail. Federal immigration law’s refusal to let many migrants ask a judge to release them from detention clashes with this long-standing practice, they claimed. Justice Kagan recused herself, presumably because she worked on this case prior to joining the Court. Her questions during oral argument suggest she is likely to side with the dissenters when the constitutional challenges bounce their way up the federal court system.
In discussing the rich history of procedural concerns embedded into the United States’ legal tradition, Breyer and the dissenters showed their hand. But they did so in a way that could spell trouble for migrants. Nowhere in their 33-page opinion do they reference the powerful words written by Robert Jackson, one of the towering figures of 20th century Western law. A member of the Supreme Court, Justice Jackson seared his name into the monuments of justice when he accepted President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointment to lead the victorious nation’s prosecutions of high-level Nazi officials at Nuremberg. With the world watching, Jackson took to heart the need to respect the accused despite accusations that they had led the worst type of atrocities known to humanity.
There he described the critical role that procedure plays in ensuring the legitimacy of legal proceedings. Jackson was remarkably attuned to the perils of brute force. It would have been easy for the United States and its allies to take the remaining Nazi leaders to the gallows. But, he wrote, giving them anything less than a “full and fair opportunity to defend themselves” would harm the Allies as much as the individual defendants. “To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task that this Trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity’s aspirations to do justice,” he wrote in his official report to the International Conference on Military Tribunals.
Back in the United States a few years later, these lessons were not lost on Justice Jackson. When federal officials relegated Ignatz Mezei—a longtime permanent resident, but not citizen, of the United States—to indefinite detention on Ellis Island, the majority of the Supreme Court called the tiny speck in New York Harbor Mezei’s “temporary refuge.” Jackson fired back memorably: “That might mean freedom, if only he were an amphibian!” He compared Mezei’s situation to the “protective custody” administered by Nazi officials prior to their killing untold numbers in concentration camps. Fearing the progression from U.S. immigration prisons to Nazi death mills, he worryingly asked whether the law had anything to say if federal officials chose to “effectuate his exclusion [by] eject[ing] him bodily into the sea.” Justice Breyer and his supportive colleagues seem to have missed this decades-old concern and the power of Jackson’s unparalleled perspective. Without acknowledging Jackson, pages into his dissent, Justice Breyer asks, “Would the Constitution leave the Government free to starve, beat, or lash those held within our boundaries?”
We might never find out, but will that be because that type of barbarity doesn’t occur or because it’s successfully concealed? In Jackson’s time, a migrant pushed offshore into the Atlantic was more likely to end up on the ocean floor than the front pages of the newspapers. So too, the migrants treated inhumanely today are more likely to be frightened and deported into silence than they are to submit a lawsuit in federal court for their right to adequate medical care or to be free of sexual assault. ICE might very well “starve, beat, or lash” imprisoned migrants without our knowing.
There is good reason to worry about conditions inside ICE’s prison network. Internal and external investigations reveal a prison system clouded in abuse and secrecy. People detained in its $2 billion network of 200 prisons are routinely denied needed medical care. Deaths are not uncommon. In the Bush years, enterprising journalists revealed glaring attempts to cover up deaths. Describing roadblocks she encountered investigating detention-center fatalities, the former New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein wrote, “In the realm of immigration detention, the role of [ICE] public affairs officers, I learned, was to help hide, manipulate, and airbrush reality.”
Now we learn that ICE’s contracting practices make internal oversight all but impossible. A week before the Supreme Court issued the Jennings opinion, the Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog released a scathing report of improper contracting that enriches private-prison corporation CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA). The contracting process ICE used to get its largest prison up and running “deliberately circumvented” the federal government’s procurement requirements, the Inspector General reported. Letting a small town in Arizona “act as a middleman, for which it collects about $438,000 in annual fees” was also wrong and went directly against the advice of ICE’s own lawyers. Worse, the contract means that “CCA’s performance is effectively insulated from government scrutiny.” Lacking enforcement powers, all the Inspector General can do is call out ICE. It’s up to Congress to care, and so far it hasn’t shown an appetite. It is a good time to be a private-prison corporation contracting with ICE, and a bad time to be a migrant surrounded by their barbed-wire fences.
In contrast to the dissenters, the three justices who wrote the Court’s lead opinion—Justices Alito and Kennedy, plus Chief Justice Roberts—kept their broader views off the pages of the Jennings decision. Just because they concluded that a law passed by Congress lets ICE detain migrants for months or years on end, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily decide at a later time, under a different set of legal questions, that the Constitution does too. But I don’t have high hopes about how they will vote when the constitutional due-process questions come directly before the Court. Justice Kennedy, for example, disagreed with a 2001 decision limiting detention after an immigration judge ordered removal, which the migrants’ attorneys hoped to build from, and sided with a 2003 decision barring some migrants from going before an immigration judge to request bail while awaiting an immigration judge’s decision. Neither Roberts nor Alito were on the Court at the time.
We will have to see how those constitutional challenges to prolonged confinement shake out, but it’s almost inevitable that the boundaries of the government’s imprisonment power will be tested once more. The Trump administration carries a noticeably heavy hand toward immigration-law enforcement. ICE reports that it detains, on average, 38,000 people every day. That’s a record, surpassing the previous high of 34,376 reached during the last full reporting year under President Obama. Despite imprisonment now being a central feature of immigration policing under Democratic and Republican administrations, ICE’s detention network remains problem plagued. Since October 1, at least four people have died inside an ICE facility.
There is a remarkable irony in this convergence of events. In the space of one week, ICE received the power to detain migrants for prolonged periods even while it was harshly criticized for violating its own rules and helping private-prison corporations avoid oversight. The people stripped of the opportunity to escape imprisonment—it is worth repeating that we are talking about the mere opportunity to ask for bail, not a guarantee that a judge will grant bail—must remain confined even as the government declares itself an illegal actor who has deliberately subverted the accountability of internal oversight. In the process, it is perhaps concealing more of the illegality that often occurs inside ICE prisons. Those of us on the outside may never know.
This single week in the life of immigration imprisonment teaches us that irony does not necessarily involve contradiction. There is a palpably perverse logic to these developments. Immigration prisoners have been marginalized to the point of erasure from law’s embrace. Law, the Supreme Court’s decision and Inspector General’s report illustrate, has no room for the migrant locked up for violating formal rules about cross-border mobility. Like prisoners everywhere, imprisoned migrants have been removed from the public sphere. They are shipped to remote facilities, surrounded by barbed wire, and isolated from supportive legal advocates or relatives. In the immigration court system, there is no right to a government-paid attorney. Too poor to hire one, 86 percent of ICE prisoners wage their final fight to remain in the United States on their own. Standing across the courtroom from a trained government prosecutor, they are effectively battling with their eyes blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs.
Courts and government officials insist that ICE doesn’t imprison. Its facilities are “detention centers” or “processing centers.” Anything but prisons. Yet most of their locations are county jails; ICE rents bed space from sheriffs. Most of the rest of the facilities are modeled on prisons and jails. Obama’s point person to reform the ICE detention system, Dora Schriro, wrote back in 2009 that “ICE relies primarily on correctional incarceration standards designed for pre-trial felons and on correctional principles of care, custody, and control.” The Supreme Court says the people forced to live there are not being punished. They are held, in Justice Alito’s words, to “give immigration officials time to determine the alien’s immigration status”—that is, to figure out whether they belong on this side or that side of the imaginary line called a border. To the people locked up, it is hard to believe that this distinction matters. “They call immigration detention civil confinement,” the former ICE detainee Malik Ndaula put it, “but prison is prison no matter what label you use, and prison breaks people’s souls.”
Paired with the Inspector General’s report, the Supreme Court’s decision in Jennings promises to continue pushing ICE’s prisoners into a legal invisibility. Do with them what you will, how you will, the pair of announcements suggest; neither judge nor government overseer will bother to intervene. Writing in Justice Jackson’s time, not our own, the exile-turned-piercing-analyst-of-Nazi-horror Hannah Arendt described law’s role in cheapening life to the point of disposability. In her towering Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt captured the most extreme example of law becoming subservient to politics. Instead of ensuring that politics remains measured, law became the vehicle for stripping people of recognition. Citizens who lost the protection of a nation-state became stateless individuals. Suddenly, they were the “scum of the earth,” subjected to arbitrary exercises of the state’s power “against which there are no lawyers and no appeals.” To the law, their voices ceased to ring. They might as well not complain, for a complaint only matters if it is heard. To the law, they became invisible, not because the law could not see the stateless but because the law did not care to do so. They continued to exist only as the dark to the light of juridical civilization.
The immigration prisoner of the 21st century United States has also been pushed beyond the law. While the prison’s physical architecture segregates and isolates, its legal architecture erases. Immigration prisoners can be confined without permission to appear before a judge to ask for release even while ICE deliberately runs around the government’s own policies and grants a protective shield to prison profiteers. It’s unclear who might intervene. Migrants will keep fighting. Lawyers will keep pushing. But their path becomes steadily steeper. The Trump administration is intent on expanding ICE’s detention capacity. Well before then, immigration detention was a machine seemingly capable of propelling itself. A former ICE acting director under Obama, John Sandweg, recently said that it “weighed heavily” on him to see so many people locked up. About 5,000 people, he added, should be confined; the rest should be watched through “safer, more humane” means. Instead, the agency detained upwards of 80 percent of the people it arrested while he was in a leadership position there.
Like Arendt’s analysis of early 20th century Europe, Sandweg’s comments reveal an important feature of immigration imprisonment overlooked in the modern fascination with Supreme Court machinations. Courts matter, but the fight over immigration imprisonment isn’t primarily about law; it’s about politics and the vision of morality that propels it. It is important to resist the immigration prison’s power to dehumanize migrants if only because migrants are, after all, people. At the same time, the power of immigration imprisonment isn’t only legal. It’s not, as the proponents of more policing claim, about protecting the rule of law. The law can’t rule what the law can’t see, and the Supreme Court’s decision and the Inspector General report remind us that the law has no interest in lifting the veil that covers immigration prisons.
If that is to change, it will have to be forced by a politics that upends laws that refuse to see the humanity of people pushed to the margins. Instead of arguing over who is so dangerous that the criminal-justice system needs a backup in the form of ICE imprisonment, we should ask about the harms of imprisonment and ills it supposedly cures. Instead of debating the number of people who can’t be trusted to show up for immigration court dates, we should ask what horrors occur if they don’t. Instead of presuming that the law, at its core, is right, we should ask why we in the United States fetishize prisons. Simply, it is time to take up the call to abolish immigration prisons not only because a world in which ICE locks up zero people every day is better than one in which it locks up 38,000 but also because the process of getting there from here promises a refreshing reckoning with law’s power to imprison swaths of humanity.
These are big questions that demand big answers. Asking them now won’t stop Trump before the November midterms or the 2020 presidential election. But refusing to take them up will mean that immigration imprisonment will continue to grow larger and harsher. Whether under a liberal Democrat or a neo-racist Republican, immigration imprisonment has shown its resilience. Arguing about how many people should be imprisoned and how they should be treated certainly matters. It would make a difference if Sandweg had overseen a prison population of 5,000 instead of 33,000, just like it would be significant if no one died inside ICE’s facilities. But arguing about immigration imprisonment’s contours has failed spectacularly to limit its growth or end its remarkable ability to worsen, even end, human life. While courtroom arguments focus on due process, conversations outside those ornate halls need to ask more fundamental questions about the role of the prison in regulating migrants’ lives.
would two anti-capitalist philosophers create a cryptocurrency? Erin Manning and Brian Massumi were given a challenge by the Economic Space Agency—a global collective working to create a network of noncapitalist, blockchain-based economies—to reconsider value in financial terms. Dismissing the prevailing free-market libertarian discourse, they identified the radical potential of the blockchain’s ledgering system for creating decentralized organizations built from a network of public, automated contracts. They’re working on reappropriating the technology to invent a cryptoeconomy that can create and sustain what they call “emergent collectivity”—the type of energy palpable in groups learning together, making art together, or building a political movement together.
Massumi is known for his translations of French post-structuralist classics like Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987); Manning is a prolific author whose last published book was The Minor Gesture (2016). They work together at the SenseLab in Montreal, a research laboratory Manning created to experiment with collective pedagogy. The lab provides a base for intellectual and creative activity that is intended to spin off into projects that grow or die according to their own momentum. The Three Ecologies Institute (3E) is one such offshoot.
Named after Guattari’s notion of the three interconnected “ecologies” of the mental, social, and environmental, the Institute’s project is to digitally codify offline qualities and affects so that they can then be tokenized as a unit of the cryptocurrency, and in turn exchanged for fiat money—generating cash from a reading group. Much of the platform has already been conceptualized, but the key obstacle remaining is to invent what they call an affect-o-meter: the specific computational mechanism that can turn a quality that hangs in the air into the binary quantities of machine code. I sat down with them to talk about what they have accomplished so far, and what work remains to be done.
MARC.— What is the concept of value underlying cryptocurrencies? How does it differ from value as conceived of within capitalism?
MASSUMI.— Cryptocurrency designers tend to take up the traditional definition of a medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account. That traditional market definition, however, doesn’t correspond to how money actually functions in the capitalist economy, because it understands money in terms of exchange and exchange in terms of equivalency. The capitalist economy actually runs on the production of surplus value, in other words on excess. The very definition of capital is the potential to generate more in the future from a given amount of money invested now. The libertarian market-fundamentalist ideology behind the design of Bitcoin and embraced by its early boosters simply disregarded the thing that is most characteristic of capitalism, which is, needless to say: capital itself. But capital caught up with Bitcoin. Its use as a speculative vehicle has led to a near-total collapse of its traditional money functions.
The economic ideas designed into Bitcoin hark back to very early ideologies of free-market liberal capitalism. They don’t correspond to how capital actually works, especially if you take into consideration the present-day dominance of financial capital. If the blockchain, or technologies developing out of the blockchain, are to lead to progressive social innovation, a much more complicated vision of the economy has to be factored in, and for that it is necessary to grapple with finance capital.
MANNING.— For our cryptoeconomic work, the 3E Process Seed Bank, we don’t begin our thinking of value around financial value in that archaic definition that Brian mentioned. We begin with the question of value more broadly: What is value, what are the conditions under which value expresses itself, how does it enter into relations of power, and can it be extracted from those relations of power? Our interest in financial value is in that wider range, because we realized that if we don’t grapple with forms of money beyond money as a medium of exchange—forms like derivatives, options, and futures—we could miss potential alter-economic strategies, or find the activist work we do undermined by not taking these economic realities into account.
MASSUMI.— Basically, we want to think about value qualitatively, rather than assuming that the only viable model of value is quantitative, as it is in the case of monetary value. There are certain points in the capitalist economy where the qualitative basis of value makes itself felt. But it is telling that when it does, it is in the form of what are called “externalities”: things that affect price but aren’t themselves quantifiable. The classic example is the way that perceptions of the quality of life in different neighborhoods affect real estate prices, whether it’s green spaces and good schools or the conviviality and cultural life of a neighborhood. These quality-of-life factors are reflected in the prices, but because they aren’t things that are quantifiable as such, this typically leads to distortions in the market, as can be seen in the insanely high prices in desirable inner cities, and in the onslaughts of gentrification. The monetary expression of value is just that: a numerical expression of something else. And that something else, being qualitative, always eludes capture. It distorts the market, or is distorted by it. So we wanted to ask, is there a way of putting a qualitative notion of value back at the center of economy?
MASSUMI.— This brings up a very difficult problem—the biggest problem we face, that has really pushed us to the limit of our imaginations. For something like our alter-economy to work, it has to somehow be registering qualities of interaction. It is with this in mind that we’re attempting to invent something we call the affect-o-meter. It’s a key to the alter-economy we’re envisioning. We literally want to invent an affective economy, an economy that runs on intensities of relations and values those, their process, more than any particular product. The affect-o-meter digitally performs a qualitative analysis of collaborative interactions, and we want to use that registering of creative activity to monetize our platform.
MANNING.— Before we go more into the economy, perhaps we should say what kind of activity we’re talking about?
MASSUMI.— The SenseLab is a laboratory for experimenting with forms of creative collaboration that foster qualitatively different experiences of collectivity in action—what we call surplus values of life. Their production is so integrally collective that it can’t be factored down into individual parts or inputs without losing a sense of the intensity of the experience. We refer to this as emergent collectivity. The process—emergent collectivity—is our product, and the dissemination of creative activity is our object. We’re thinking of the 3E Process Seed Bank as a creative process engine designed to help seed collective creative practices.
Most collective action is thought of as simply the sum of its individual parts. Everything revolves around individual input, and ultimately individual interest. The ethos of our project is to say that we can desire more than we know, and go beyond what we take to be our individual interests, into unknown intensities.
This is not just knowing different things, it’s knowing differently—inventing new modes of knowledge. This can only be done by leveraging collective energies into an emergence that no one individual, or simple aggregate of individuals, could have charted in advance. This requires constant attunement and care. Our conviction is that it has to be built into the programming as much as it’s built into how we interact with each other offline.
MARC.— Does the model you’re developing with the SenseLab translate into other forms of organization?
MANNING.— There are people all over the world we don’t know who are doing this kind of work, who are creating ways of working together, inventing new forms of collaboration, engaging with complex ecological models of encounter, who are inventing new forms of value. We never believe we are alone doing this work. The question we have isn’t the usual start-up question of how to scale up, it’s how do we create techniques for the registering of that which doesn’t register?
The 3E Process Seed Bank is deeply allied to the question of what else learning and living can be, having grown out of its sister project the Three Ecologies Institute. We actually began there, with the Three Ecologies Institute, working from Félix Guattari’s definition of the three ecologies as the conceptual (psychic, mental), the environmental, and the social. It was only two years ago that we realized that thinking value transversally across the three ecologies required us to also take financial value into account.
We see the 3E as a kind of intensifier of modes of thinking and living dedicated to inventing ways that we can continue to learn together, regardless of our age, background, or learning style. We don’t see it as an opposite to the university; we see it as a parasite. You could put the emphasis on the site: a para-site, a para-institution that maintains relations with the institution of the university but operates by a different logic.
It would be very naive of us to think you could just walk out of capitalism. We’re not that naive. Neoliberalism is our natural environment. We therefore operate with what we call strategic duplicity. This involves recognizing what works in the systems we work against. Which means: We don’t just oppose them head on. We work with them, strategically, while nurturing an alien logic that moves in very different directions. One of the things we know that the university does well is that it attracts really interesting people. The university can facilitate meetings that can change lives. But systemically, it fails. And the systemic failure is getting more and more acute. And so what we imagine is that the Institute, assisted by the 3E Process Seed Bank, will create a new space that might overlap with some of the things the university does well, without being a part of it (or being subsumed by its logic).
MASSUMI.— Going back to the question of value, we want to create an economy around the platform that does not follow any of the usual economic principles. There will be no individual ownership or shares. There will be no units of account, no currency or tokens used internally. The model of activity will not be transactional. Individual interest will not be used as an incentivizer. What there will be is a complex space of relation for people to create intensities of experience together, in emergent excess over what they could have created working separately, or in traditional teams. It’s meant to be self-organizing, with no separate administrative structure or hierarchy, and even no formal decision-making rules. It’s anarchistic in that sense, but through mobilizing a surplus of organizing potential, rather than lacking organization. You could also call it communistic, in the sense that there is no individual value holding. Everything is common.
MASSUMI.— Yes, undercommonly. The undercommons is Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s word for emergent collectivity, which is one of our inspirations. We want to foster emergence and process, but at the same time find ways of making it sustainable. That means that the strategic duplicity has to extend to the economy as we currently know it. We have to be parasitical to the capitalist economy, while operating according to a logic that is totally alien to it.
What we’re thinking of is making the collaborative process moving through the platform function according to the radically anti-capitalist principles we were just talking about, centering on the collective production of surplus values of life, and separating that from the dominant economy by a membrane. A membrane creates a separation, but at the same time allows for movements across. It has a certain porosity. The idea is that we would find ways, associated with the affect-o-meter we were describing earlier, to register qualitative shifts in the creative process as it moves over its formative thresholds, and moves back and forth between online operations and offline events. What would be registered is the affective intensity of the production of surplus value of life, its ebbs and flows. The membrane would consist in a translation of those qualitative flows into a numerical expression, which would feed into a cryptocurrency. Basically, we’d be mining crypto with collaborative creative energies—monetizing emergent collectivity. The currency would be “backed” by the confidence we could build in our ability to keep the creative process going and spin it off into other projects, as evidenced by the activities of the Three Ecologies Institute as an experiment in alter-education.
On the side of the membrane facing the monetary economy, we would be producing a recognizable, quantifiable movement of value. But the membrane would shelter the creative process going on inside the platform from being colonized by that logic. We’d try to have the best of both worlds. It would be essential that the currency not be just a speculative vehicle that joins the crowd of coins. Our economic space would have to inhabit an ecology of other economic spaces experimenting with adapting blockchain and post-blockchain autonomous organization to cooperative endeavors. The key, once again, is finding workable solutions to the problem of how to use qualitative analysis to register movements of creative intensity—how to coax numbers into an alliance with qualities of experience. There is a new concept being developed by Nora Bateson that she calls “warm data” that has a similar goal, in relation to basic science, that we’d like to hook into.
MARC.— You want to use blockchain to create a parasitic economy that reappropriates speculative finance to generate profit from collaborative events. You are working within the immaterial level that the movement to occupy public spaces only gestured at, and uses the collaborative spirit common to any movement. Do you consider yourself to be “occupying” the abstract?
MANNING.— If we’re “occupying an abstraction,” we’re doing it in a way that is extraterritorial. All of this is a thought experiment that we want to help sow, but needs to be continued by others, and with others. It will be interesting if it manages to produce process seeds that get away from us and end up going beyond anything that we could have imagined. I’m not sure what Brian would say, but my feeling is that if we’re occupying anything, it’s the imagination. The postcapitalist imagination.
MASSUMI.— Another way of saying it is that we are talking about creating what’s often been called a temporary autonomous zone, but recognizing that we’re all complicit with capital, and not pretending we can just step outside that and go our merry way. If you do that, you only end up carrying unexamined presuppositions with you, and everything breaks down. We want to work from and with that complicity, using strategic duplicity. That doesn’t mean being deceptive. It means working in two registers at once.
We want to create a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ), following anarcho-communist logic, while at the same time being able to articulate it to the existing neoliberal economy, because like it or not, those are the conditions under which we live, and its grip is so tentacular, reaching not only all around us but inside of us, that you have to work hard and with great technique to start loosening the grip. You have to find ways of inhabiting the present, while setting off sparks of futurity that prefigure a postcapitalist world to come. So it’s an occupation in the sense that it’s a cohabitation. The TAZ isn’t a world apart. It’s a pore in the world as it is, in which something else can grow. It’s a relational space that you can enter without the conceit that you’re leaving the existing world. It starts by supplementing, rather than purporting to replace right away. Hopefully that supplementation grows and takes more and more of our cohabitation in, to the point that it can rival the dominant economy.
The phrase “occupying an abstraction” comes from Occupy Wall Street. In a sense, that’s what we’re trying to do in a different way: occupy money, occupy finance, take back value. Wall Street and the world of finance are the dominant sector of the economy now. You can’t confront capitalism without grappling with them. The dominant financial instruments, like derivatives and credit default swaps, are highly, highly abstract. And they all run on surplus-value production in its capitalist form. They run on speculative energies oriented toward the more-than. If we want to occupy finance, it’s to take back those speculative energies, for creating new modes of living together. We want to occupy the imagination—but it has to be a collective imagination.
deadliest incident of violence in a United States prison in a quarter century took place at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina on April 15, 2018.
According to multiplereports, including SCDC Director Bryan Stirling’s own, prison guards and EMTs made no attempt to break things up or lend medical aid from the moment the fight commenced until hours after it was over, as imprisoned people were beaten and stabbed to death. Seven people were killed and dozens were injured, with at least twenty-two requiring hospitalization.
On April 22, I interviewed three individuals from various prisons inside the South Carolina Department of Corrections. One of the prisoners identified himself as a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of imprisoned human-rights advocates that has made national calls to action for a prisoner-led strike in response to the conditions they feel are truly responsible for the violence and hopelessness within prisons across the United States. The strike is expected to begin on August 21, 2018.
Throughout our conversation, these three individuals, who are identified only as D, S, and E to protect their identities and prevent retaliation by prison officials, highlight the impacts of policies pushed by President Bill Clinton’s administration and implemented by states across the country. They also point to the dehumanization of prisoners and challenge our conception of “gangs,” which does not take into account the ways in which incarcerated people are forced to create their own collective means for safety, survival, and camaraderie in a situation where hope is the scarcest commodity.
They also urge the public to reconsider the nature and source of violence within prisons and the absence of human dignity and a rehabilitative environment within our nation’s prisons. They present actionable solutions to mitigate some of the harm caused by prisons on our ultimate path toward shedding carceral responses to legitimate societal needs.
As I write this introduction on May 2, 2018, South Carolina prisoners have confirmed that all Level 2 and 3 facilities have remained on a statewide lockdown since April 15. This means people imprisoned in facilities have been denied any freedom of movement, regular access to showers, recreation, or meals outside the confines of their cells.
1. We grant permission for individuals and news organizations to republish this interview in its entirety for their audiences.
It is imperative that we deepen conversations around the causes of violence in prisons and the real impacts of incarceration on all people, inside and outside the walls.1
JARED.— There have been a lot of things that have gone down in South Carolina prisons over the last year or two, if you guys could lay down some of that context for people, because I think a lot of people don’t understand some of the things that prisoners throughout South Carolina have been dealing with and how those conditions might contribute to prisoners really feeling a sense of hopelessness?
2. Truth in Sentencing laws were part of a national movement in the midnineties to end parole and increase the length of prison sentences, as well as ensuring that offenders for certain offenses served at least 85 percent of their sentences. Although it was a national movement, here are some details about South Carolina’s laws.
D.— I’m going to take you back a little step here, to 1996 at least. I’ll cover it a little bit, and I’ll be as brief as possible. Prior to Bill Clinton’s Prison Litigation Reform Act, [the] anti-terrorism act, these acts that went into full effect in 1996, initiated what is known as the 85 percent or Truth in Sentencing2 throughout most of the states inside this nation today. It’s not just necessarily something that incubated inside South Carolina, it was actually national. There was a domino effect, okay? But in 1996, specifically, the reason why I’m pinpointing that is because at that particular point in the state of South Carolina, there was no such thing as a natural life sentence in the department of corrections. There was no such thing as a forever-type sentence, where individuals thought that they weren’t going to be able to get out.
3. According to Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, “state pay” was a system where the state paid every prisoner, for example, $5.45 [total, over a two week period]. It was enough to buy real hygiene products, a few snacks, and smokes. Prison officials took it away during the national changes that were rolled out in the midnineties.
Even if you had a violent offense, or a labeled-violent offense, you still had something known as a work release date. You still would have some type of eligibility to go to work release, and that also meant the eligibility to go to work at some place on the street, or go home even on the weekends in the state of South Carolina. They had opportunity to make state pay3 during that particular time period. Even when you [were] at what was known as the max yard. These yards [were] cleary open, everybody could roam and move around free.
But when 1996 set in, and you had this mindset that started to kick in, that was known, as Hillary Clinton called [it], as locking down these “superpredators.” They called it also the War on Drugs, which I call the war on the Black and Brown community. All these things is playing into effect at that particular time period, and that created the environment inside.
We found fences starting to be wrapped into the prisons, we found prisoners that was labeled as violent offenders, was sent into these fences, and caged into buildings all day. We found that the food started deteriorating, we saw the clothes removed, we saw the ways that [imprisoned people] could make money removed out of the system. There was no longer any type of state pay. Even though state pay was very minimal, it was still an opportunity to buy a bar of soap or a Honey Bun or something like that. We saw that visitation was being restricted.
It was just a host of things that started being incubated. And then the hopelessness set in. Because what happened then is we started having these life sentences coming through under 85 percent, where prisoners knew they were never going to see daylight again. We started having what we call “football numbers”: 80, 100, 150 years coming through 85 percent [time served, where prisoners knew they were] never going to see daylight again.
So this is where actually a lot of the problems started accumulating. And not only that, but actually education was removed by the prison system. Any type of Pell Grants, all that was gone. Education, technical colleges, everything was removed. So that’s a little bit of a picture of what kind of started to shape the environment back here.
JARED.— Thank you, so that changed obviously the overall conditions of how prisons across the country changed and sort of the hopelessness that set in. Can you talk to me a little bit though of some of the specific things that happened in South Carolina over the last couple of years?
D.— And this is when the most sadistic mindsets start to set in. Prisoncrats . . . And I’m going to [let] the brother answer that one.
S.— So for one, as the brother was just telling you with the “football numbers,” prisoners got a lot of time to serve, but actually with nothing to do. When they took away all the privileges, they took away a lot of the programs. Stuff like that, it leads to just standing around with nothing to do, except to indulge in negative behavior, and reactionary behavior, and just all different forms of escapism—whatever they can do to pass the time.
They drug test you so they can take away your privileges. Why do they need drug testing inside the prisons? People are already in here doing time, it’s irrelevant. I can see if somebody’s getting ready to go home for parole or something like that and you’re going to test them, but just to constantly test them, that’s kind of like a waste of money. They always waste their funds on things they don’t need to waste their funds on.
We have no means of supporting ourselves because there’s no state pay. Because we have no state pay, we have no way to eat. As the brother said, even though it was just a little bit of money, but it still was something. You still could buy some hygiene [products].
When they do lockdown, they’re supposed to give you showers Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, whatever the lockdown be for. But they don’t ever honor it. They want to do one cell at a time, and it’ll take you a whole week before you get a shower.
You have some prisons where the water system is messed up. Particularly at Lieber [Correctional Institution], their water system has been messed up forever. When you flush the toilet or pour your water, it smells like rotten eggs. They say it has sulfur in it or whatever, but it eats up the actual metal, and causes mold and stuff to be all over the prison. If they were to go do a tour through that prison right now, and they go all the way from the lockup to the yard, the ceiling is falling in, metal hanging down, it’s dripping all over the place, mold is all over the place, people who are in prison for 15 to 20 years are dying from cancer. But they don’t have no cigarettes inside, you feel me?
We’re confined to a cell a lot. They do a lot of counts and the counts always last for a long period of time. The purpose of counting is to make sure that we’re here. In all reality, they should just count us and then let us back out for recreation. If you count from the time you eat dinner on a Friday night to your next meal on a Saturday, it’s 17 to 18 hours before you get your next meal. And on the daily basis, you’re talking about 12 to 13 hours from when you get your first meal to your next meal, that’s almost like a half a day, that’s a long time.
So you eat up all your [food purchased from the] canteen, which forces you to go [to] the canteen and spend a lot of money on a bunch of a junk that they price gouge, that’s super high, but this money is coming from their family members who are out there working hard to help support you as well.
D.— One of the things that has not fully been addressed in South Carolina is the nature and culture of disrespect from the officers inside the South Carolina Department of Corrections, as well. They have completely in my eyes mastered the art of dehumanizing prisoners. Once again, we have to keep in mind they intentionally went into an overdrive of taking the prisoners clothes. Not only taking the prisoners clothes, cutting the prisoners hair the same way, had it to where you can’t have your money in your pocket, just a number of things to take away your individuality. And in the process of taking away your individuality, they begin to treat you as if you were garbage. What I mean by treat you as garbage, just by dehumanizing us it makes it easier for them to abuse us, and this abuse a lot of times takes place as physical abuse.
We had in the Supermax units out in Columbia, South Carolina, maybe about a year or two ago, guards bum-rush a prisoner inside his cell, stab him up. We’ve always had a number of incidents with regards to them cuffing prisoners, then cut prisoners up, slamming prisoners on their heads. In some cases we’ve had some mysterious deaths, some hangings that prisoners are clearly not comfortable with labeling them as hangings, in these maximum-security prisons.
We’ve also had incidents where prisoners, when he speaks of recreation, understand something about this recreation a lot of places and a lot of areas right now, prisoners are no longer getting rec at all. It’s like every blue moon before we even see any sunlight or daylight to be able to get rec. What we are finding is that, that itself is causing a lot of attitude problems. A lot of aggressiveness.
When we talk about the food, we don’t get any fruit, no real fruit anyway. At one time they actually had salad bars; they removed all of that over two decades ago. Now you get nothing. Some of the food is labeled “not for human consumption.” So these are normal things that we are actually dealing with inside the prison system.
For visitation, there’s no contact with your visitor, with your loved ones. One kiss in, one kiss out. Rather than a hug, sit down, embrace each other, be in the comfort of each other’s company. We’re finding that is moving further and further away, and I’m very fearful that we’re moving to the stage of video visits very soon, in the very near future.
JARED.— Talk a little bit about the angle of this around technology. Bryan Stirling has been for at least a year now, probably more, he’s been on this kick about getting cell phones out. You know there was this sort of fairly high-profile escape less than a year ago, and they blamed cell phones for that. And they’re also blaming this riot on cell phones. They’re talking about phone jammers. So just talk a little bit about cell phones in relation to the prisons and what they mean or provide to prisoners and how realistic some of these narratives or fears that are being stated by SCDC are.
S.— SCDC’s main reason for not wanting the phones inside the prison system is because the phones got camera access, video access, and the phones can expose the things that they do. When they’re using extreme force—the same way people are using cell phones out on the street when they’re catching certain things that cops aren’t supposed to be doing and stuff like that—see, they can be exposed, they can’t hide when we’ve got the phones.
The prisoners utilize the phones to communicate with their family members. The phone system that [SCDC has], the phone prices are entirely too high, nobody would use that. They get money off it, too, and everybody knows that. And prisoners use the [cell] phone as a means of staying connected to their families, fathers staying connected to their children. Some fathers back here are raising their children from prison by staying in contact with them.
So SCDC just wants the phones out of the prisons because they don’t want to be exposed. They don’t want the videos of the fights and stabbings to be shown. There’s other things prisoners are shooting videos of. They’re showing videos of the brown water, they show videos of the mold inside the buildings. They show videos of the prisoners who’ve been dead in the bed for two hours and the guard ain’t come and check on the man yet. So it’s a fly on the wall for them, that’s why they don’t want them in here.
D.— They have put in certain rooms in here, they’ve put these machines in called kiosks, they are getting no play. This is where you’re supposed to be able to send out literally something like text messages to your people. They thought this was going to be a booming industry, nobody is using it. This is a loss of revenue.
We have these same phone companies that are investing in the department of corrections, literally for free, giving them equipment to find cell phones. Giving them equipment to search our families at the front gate when they come in to visit us, giving them equipment to monitor the gate areas. So they’re giving them this. This wasn’t just a free handout, but this was because [they] need to make money, [they] need to get these phones out of the system. That has always been understood.
This is all about business, this is all about money. The minute they can wipe [us] out, it’s like using one stone to kill two birds at the same time. You kill that communication gap, that gap where they’ve been reporting on, because most of the time, when they come out with a lot of frivolous things, it’s immediately refuted by us, by some pictures or some videos or something. Saying, “No, this is what happened.” This is unusual. This is something that’s very revolutionary, [a] very new generation in the prison system. They are not used to that; they had all communications with media locked down.
Keep in mind, SCDC has a policy where we are not allowed to converse with the media unless it’s authorized by the South Carolina Department of Corrections. And I have a big beef with that.
JARED.— Absolutely. So let’s pivot a little bit because there’s a lot of talk right now about violence. So there’s a couple of questions I wanted to ask related to that. One is, what do you all see as the source of violence within prisons? And then the other one is about gangs and this idea—because I think that people don’t really think about this very thoroughly—about why someone might join a gang in prison and why they might be even more likely to join one in prison versus when they’re out on the outside?
E.— I would have to say dealing with the gangs . . . Well, I’m going to start first with what the brother asked about what stimulates the violence. Me personally, I feel that the violence is stimulated by the overt oppressive nature of the beast and what they’re doing. Like y’all already had mentioned, they’re constantly taking [things] away and keeping us confined to a box. And you take three or four different tribes, who normally may get along, or see eye to eye on a business level or whatever the terms may be, but you put them in a box and you don’t separate them or give them anything to be . . . So you may know that this area may be predominantly this culture, or that area may be predominantly that culture, but I’m going to take them all and mix them up, just so I can make it confusing. Because to me, it seems like they stir the violence up because that’s the type of media they need to put their spin on things.
Then it goes back to the [cell phones], and we come and tell the truth on the fact and that’s a problem for them, because they’re going to say [the violence] is because of a cell phone, or it’s because of this and that. They’re not going to sit there and tell you it’s because [they] keep oppressing us, and taking away from us, and not giving us any outlets to do and be about positive things.
Nowadays, you got the tribes, or the “gangs” as some may say, coming up with positive ideas to do and bring together and unify, despite what the police or the officers are doing. They’re [steadily] trying to take away all our hope, but we still got brothers and organizations coming together, still trying to rectify unity on a level where we don’t even have nothing to look forward to. So you can only imagine how discouraging it gets when it’s like we’re striving to do so much better and so much greater but we’re still getting a foot on our neck. Me personally, that can ignite [drama] any time, any place, on the street, in the penitentiary, wherever.
So I have to say, it’s incited by them, themselves. I feel like they feel like, if enough violence goes on, they can put their spin on it and they can basically—like my comrade said -— bring lockup to the yard. They keep us locked down for nothing. Every little thing, they blame it on [staff shortages]. They don’t give us showers, they blame it on [staff shortages].
If an incident goes on, there’s no officers there to protect anybody. That’s another thing about the gangs. Nowadays, you don’t know, these young brothers might need protection. They can’t look at the officers and say these officers are going to protect me and keep me safe. It ain’t no such thing as that. You gotta fend for yourself back here. So I look at that, that’s another reason why people are joining these gangs like that. Not everyone, but you can only imagine, you’ve got kids coming back here 16, 17, have nobody. You’re throwing them in here with [prisoners] in a maximum-security prison with a 100-year [sentence].
You might try to escape from being hurt, they’ll lock you on the wings and cause your death. That’s exactly why they’re trying to take these phones, because we’re the ones who are putting that out there and letting people know this is what they’re doing. This man’s life could’ve been saved, but the officers didn’t do their job.
S.— People aren’t born criminals. They are criminalized by the environments they are socialized within. United States Constitution’s 13th Amendment is proof alone that the mass amount of the warehousing of prisoners is not by accident. And even prisoners convicted of violent crime or who may be involved in violent activities, they may one day return to society still. People’s cases can be overturned, some of these guys got max-out dates, some may make parole. So wouldn’t it be wise for them to be implementing programs that would better the prisoners, not make them worse? They should want to heal anything that they consider to be sick or whatever.
Society itself promotes and produces violence. People ain’t getting like that in prison, they’re already like that out there. Television, movies, video games, comic books, novels, cartoons alone. They are indoctrinating this psychological behavior. They’re doing that out there in society.
Like the brother said, some of these guys that are locked up in here are juveniles. That’s a learned behavior, they weren’t born violent. And in regards to the survival thing, we create our own means of survival, because the state don’t provide us with adequate supplies of anything. They give us one roll of tissue a week. One roll a week, that’s it. It’s 15 to 18 hours between meals in here sometimes. That’s just reality.
Only prison-industries workers get paid for working. Everybody else’s work is free labor. But we’re looking at these other prisoners going to work, knowing that they’re getting a paycheck, they even file taxes. They can pay child support and provide for their families on it. All prisoners should get paid for all work, not just prison industries.
They’re making millions of dollars off federal prisoners and state prisoners across the country through prison industries. That’s facts.
D.— Very true. Most prisoners, when they come to prison, come with the mindset that they want to get themselves together, and I think a lot of people miss that right there. Even the ones that are labeled violent—and when I hear people say “violent,” we have to be careful with that term. Because a lot of times people are using this term “violent,” and we’re seeing politicians saying “well, we’re not going to be supporting violent offenders.” It’s a new theme now, where we just promote policies [that benefit] nonviolent offenders. And that kind of sickens me because, at the end of the day, who determines what’s violent? Who determines what’s a violent offender? To me, that’s a bunch of people making up these laws, and they determine what’s violent and what is not. And a lot of times people have nonviolent offenses and these are straight up violent offenses in my eyes. You know, so I’m very careful with that term nonviolent versus violent offenders.
The people that they want to categorize and label as violent offenders for the most part, these brothers and the women that come into prison, they come in with the mindset that they want to do the right thing. I think the minute they enter through those gates, and the minute they begin to observe their surroundings, they begin to recognize immediately, that any change they wanted to do, they don’t need to do it, because they’re going to be perceived a certain way and they’re going to be handled a certain way, you know, and it’s going to be a lose-lose situation for them. And people have to really understand that humans are entering through these gates and becoming prisoners, and in the process of that, the environment back here is making it worse. It is creating something in these..
1989, the Jewish painter R. B. Kitaj published his aesthetic philosophy in his book, First Diasporist Manifesto. In the manifesto, he describes “diasporism” as “an unsettled mode of art-life” rooted in the rootlessness of a diasporic artist. The diasporist’s experience of dislocation becomes a creative resource for an art form that embraces restlessness and dispersion, treating the diasporic condition not as a deficiency but as a realm of possibility. Diaspora is creatively generative; diasporist art—for Kitaj, both a way of painting and a way of living—is what it generates.
Bruno Schulz (trans. Madeline G. Levine), Collected Stories. Northwestern University Press, 2018. 288 pages.
More than two decades earlier, in 1967, Jacques Derrida, too, considered the aesthetic fecundity of diasporic Jewishness. In “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book,” Derrida links the figure of the Jew to the figure of the Poet and describes the Jewish relation to language as inherently diasporic. For Derrida, exile is the source of Jewish poetic creativity, which arises from a diasporic longing for a homeland that does not conclude in the attainment of a nation. Because this longing looks forward without the intent of culminating in the return to a homeland, it is inexhaustibly generative—an ever renewable “adventure” of continually deferred fulfillment.
Twenty-five years before the publication of Derrida’s inquiry into diasporic Jewish poetics and forty-seven years before the release of Kitaj’s diasporist manifesto, Bruno Schulz—a writer of the Jewish diaspora—was murdered by a Gestapo officer while carrying a loaf of bread to his home in Drohobycz, the small Polish town where he spent nearly his entire life. During his lifetime, he published two remarkable books of strange and stirring stories. He left behind another book of four longer stories and the manuscript of an unfinished novel titled The Messiah, entrusted to unknown persons he described only as “Catholics outside the ghetto.” All of this work has been lost.
Schulz’s literary legacy is fractured; absence lies at its heart. In Regions of the Great Heresy (first published in Polish in 1967), a collection of biographical and critical essays on Schulz, Jerzy Ficowski—a Polish poet who, after an early encounter with Schulz’s stories, became an expert on his life and a champion of his work—laments this situation. “Most likely,” he writes, “Schulz’s major work would have been the now lost novel Messiah, in which the myth of the messianic coming was to symbolize a return to the happiness of perfection that existed at the beginning of time.” But the incompletion of Schulz’s oeuvre has not undermined interest in it. Rather, it has fueled it. Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick, two of the major American Jewish writers of the 20th century, each penned novels that stem from Schulz’s murder and the loss of his work. Roth’s The Prague Orgy (1985) concerns Nathan Zuckerman’s journey to Prague in search of the manuscripts of a murdered writer based on Schulz, while Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm (1987)—dedicated to Roth—follows a Swedish man who believes himself to be Schulz’s son and who happens upon what might be the lost manuscript of The Messiah. The tragic truncation of Schulz’s life and the destruction of much of his work have given both his life and his work a diasporic incompletion that has proven aesthetically generative.
Most of Schulz’s extant work has been available in English since 1977, when Celina Wieniewska’s translation of his second book of stories, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, followed her translation of his first, published as The Street of Crocodiles in 1963. These translations introduced Schulz’s work to the English-speaking world, but they were always inadequate. In the introduction to her English translation of Ficowski’s Regions of the Great Heresy, Theodosia Robertson writes that Wieniewska’s translations, though “readable,” are insufficient. They succeeded in spreading familiarity with Schulz’s stories only at the cost of simplifying them. “It is time,” Robertson wrote in 2003, “for a more precise translation, one that does not simplify Schulz’s imagery or universalize his references.”
Collected Stories, a new translation of Schulz’s oeuvre by Madeline G. Levine, aims to be exactly this. In an introductory note, Levine praises Wieniewska’s translations, in which she herself first read Schulz, for their “undeniable magic.” But she also identifies the sacrifices Wieniewska made in the name of accessibility. Wieniewska’s translations “convey the visual images and often bizarre events that distinguish Schulz’s stories” while “taming his prose” and by more or less abandoning “the linguistic tics and mannerisms of Schulz’s style.” By naturalizing Schulz’s prose, Wieniewska aimed to ease the burden on English readers. But this choice risks obscuring what is distinctive in the work. By contrast, Levine’s renderings privilege fidelity. She aims to capture Schulz’s prose style by mimicking his frequent use of alliteration and repetition and “by stretching English syntax to make it accomodate the sinuosity of Schulz’s longer sentences rather than reining them in.”
While Wieniewska contorted Schulz to accommodate him to English, Levine deforms English to accommodate it to Schulz. Wieniewska made Schulz’s foreignness familiar in a way that forced his work to assimilate into English; Levine, by reproducing Schulz’s linguistic idiosyncrasies, attempts to preserve his outsider’s relationship to his own native tongue, which is tied to his diasporic Jewishness. (The Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig writes in The Star of Redemption that “the Jewish people never identifies itself entirely with the language it speaks,” which gives Jews in the diaspora unique vocabularies, syntaxes, and aesthetics.) And, in a seemingly simple move, Levine’s translation—which comprises Schulz’s two books of stories and four additional uncollected tales—restores to Schulz’s first book, until now published in English under the title The Street of Crocodiles, a direct translation of its original title: Cinnamon Shops. It is fitting, too, that the collection, which could easily have been called Complete Stories, instead bears the name Collected Stories. This choice gestures, however subtly, to the fundamental incompletion of Schulz’s work.
read Schulz’s Collected Stories is to immerse oneself in the Schulzian cosmos: a fictionalization, even mythologization, of Schulz’s hometown of Drohobycz. Like Schulz’s life, the stories take place almost entirely within the city limits. Nearly all of them are narrated by a young man named Józef, Schulz’s alter ego. They focus on Józef, his father Jakub—a fascinating, domineering figure whose life is split between his occupation as a merchant and his fantastical experiments—and the family’s servant girl, Adela. The tales, mostly short, take the form not of fully developed narratives but of brief glimpses of Drohobycz. They tend to center on some season, character, object, or area of the town and digress from there. Not a few of the tales end with ellipses; those that don’t feel as if they easily could.
Though Schulz’s setting and form are largely fixed, his imagination seems boundless. Levine’s rendering of Schulz’s prose captures its bewildering sensuality. Consider the second, single-sentence-long paragraph of “Autumn,” the first story in Cinnamon Shops:
Adela would come back on those luminous mornings like Pomona from the fire of the blazing day, pouring from her basket the colorful beauty of the sun—the glistening sweet cherries, full of water beneath their transparent skin; the mysterious dark sour cherries, whose aroma far exceeded their flavor; apricots whose golden flesh held the core of long afternoons; and next to this pure poetry of fruit she would unload racks of flesh with their keyboards of veal ribs, swollen with energy and nourishment; seaweeds of vegetables that resembled slaughtered cephalopods and jellyfish—the raw material of dinner with a taste as yet unformed and bland, the vegetative, telluric ingredients of dinner with a smell both wild and redolent of the field.
This blindingly vital vividness is characteristic of Schulz’s fecund style. All is alive, growing, and passing from one state to another. In “A Treatise on Mannequins; or, The Second Book of Genesis,” Józef’s father explains his theory of matter to Józef and Adela. “All matter,” he says, “flows from the infinite possibilities passing through it in faint shivers. Awaiting the life-giving breath of the spirit, it overflows endlessly within itself, tempts with a thousand sweet curves and the softness it hallucinates in its blind imaginings.” Józef’s father—and with him Schulz—embrace matter. They “love its discord, its resistance, its scruffy shapelessness.” Józef’s father explains that, while the “Demiurge was fond of refined, splendid, complex materials,” they instead “give pride of place to tawdry.”
Indeed, Schulz’s tales, uninterested in the synagogue, are enamored with the city streets. There a more pressing, heretical, and appealing divinity arises. Józef is at his happiest wandering those streets in an imitation of the productive purposelessness that Schulz, in the story “Spring,” describes as “the wandering, luminous ravings of matter.” Schulz’s diasporist vision counters the understanding of the diasporic Jew as a cursed exile longing for a return to a holy land overflowing with milk and honey; in Schulz’s stories, milk and honey abound in exile. Appropriately, for Schulz the mundane is redolent with the divine. In “The Book,” Józef discovers in a page of advertisements torn out of a local weekly “the Authentic, a holy original, even though in such a profound state of humiliation and degradation.” In “Spring,” he has an ecstatic experience with his friend’s stamp album, which reveals to him the extent of the world beyond the territory governed by Franz Joseph I. This “vision of the flaming beauty of the world” opens up “the infinite possibilities of being.” The multiplicity of nations reveals to Józef “the possibilities swarming within” God—a diasporist vision of the divine’s diffusion.
But Schulz’s work does not present an uncomplicatedly positive picture of diaspora’s generative beauty. Absence, brokenness, and aberration obsess Schulz. At times the representations of these themes are tragic and horrific. “Father’s Final Escape” finds Józef’s father slowly dying by fading away into a room until he suddenly transforms into “a crab or a large scorpion,” whom Józef’s mother boils and serves on a platter. He returns to life and wanders away, leaving behind a leg in tomato sauce.
In “Birds,” Józef’s father raises a horde of exotic birds that Adela inadvertently releases; in “The Night of the Great Season,” the final story in Cinnamon Shops, the descendants of those birds return, deformed—two-headed or one-winged or otherwise transformed. Józef likens the birds to an “exiled tribe” that has been beckoned back to its ancestral homeland. The citizens of the town—who, earlier in the story, are compared to the stiff-necked Israelites of the Hebrew Bible—cast stones at the birds until they’re reduced to “strange, fantastic carrion.”
This story has a neater, more parable-like structure than most of Schulz’s tales, and it’s tempting to try to extract from it a simple moral about exile and return by directing one’s sympathy toward either the physically deformed birds or the spiritually deformed townspeople who hastily strike them down. But Schulz’s celebration of transformation suggests that his own sympathies lie with Józef’s father, who, in his disquisition on the fecundity of matter, posits this heresy: “Every organization of matter is impermanent and unfixed, easily reversed and dissolved. There is no evil in the reduction of life to new and different forms. Murder is not a sin. Often, it is a necessary act of violence against unyielding, ossified forms of being that are no longer satisfying.” Schulz’s fictions seem to mimic this amoral position. The diasporism of Schulz’s stories is not some sentimental celebration of Jewish life in the diaspora but rather an interpretation of exilic existence as overflowing with life, beauty, tragedy, and decay—all interwoven and inextricable.
the final year of Schulz’s life, his beloved hometown of Drohobycz was transformed into a prison. In 1941, Drohobycz fell under Nazi occupation. Schulz, along with the rest of the Jewish population, was forced to don a yellow star and was forbidden from working. In addition to his writing, Schulz was an accomplished visual artist—he had made his living as an art teacher—and his artwork caught the interest of Felix Landau, the Gestapo officer assigned to manage Jewish affairs in the Drohobycz Ghetto. Landau began commissioning work from Schulz. This earned him the classification of a “necessary Jew,” a designation that protected him from deportation to the camps. But this relationship ultimately led to his death. On November 19, 1942—the very day Schulz, who had just received forged papers to facilitate his escape from Drohobycz, planned to depart—he was shot to death by a Gestapo officer named Karl Günther as part of a long-running feud between Günther and Landau, who had recently murdered a Jewish dentist whom Günther favored. Günther, when he next saw Landau, reportedly proclaimed: “You killed my Jew—I killed yours.”
Of all Schulz’s output that was lost during this period, the only work that has since been recovered emerged from his arrangement with Landau. In 2001, a documentary filmmaker discovered a series of murals Schulz painted, hidden beneath layers of paint in the home where Landau once lived. The murals, which depict fairy-tale scenes, decorated Landau’s child’s bedroom wall. With the aid of art historians and preservation specialists, the fragmentary remains of the murals were authenticated and, to some extent, restored.
But before there could be any serious discussion about where the works would be housed—in now Ukrainian Drohobycz, in Poland, or elsewhere—they were seized in secret by representatives of Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to victims of the Holocaust. A scandal erupted. What right did Yad Vashem have to unilaterally claim ownership of Schulz’s works? In Regions of the Great Heresy, Ficowski describes the argument made by Yad Vashem’s spokesperson, Iris Rosenberg, who insisted that “the paintings are better off in Jerusalem because their proper place is there.”
Yad Vashem’s claim to Schulz’s work over and above the claims of the town in which Schulz lived, worked, and died and of the nation whose language he spoke and wrote in suggests a rejection of Schulz’s diasporic Jewishness and of his work’s diasporism. If Schulz’s work is indeed most at home in Jerusalem, then neither Schulz nor his work were ever truly at home in the diaspora.
The logic that underpins Yad Vashem’s invalidation of Schulz’s diasporic Jewishness is as old as the ideology of Zionism. Indeed, the Zionist narrative denies the very possibility of authentic diasporic art. The rejection of any Jewish artistic flourishing in the diaspora recurs frequently in Zionist discourse, from the early Russian Labor Zionist A. D. Gordon to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, both of whom argued that the alienation of exile precluded the emergence of vibrant Jewish cultural life. The possibility of profound diasporist Jewish art such as Schulz’s poses a threat to the Zionist narrative, in which Jewish cultural, artistic, and imaginative flourishing is possible only in a Jewish state.
The transportation of Schulz’s murals from the city that was his home and muse—the city that Józef, in Schulz’s story “The Republic of Dreams,” describes as “this chosen region, this singular province, this city unique in all the world”—to the so-called eternal capital of the Jewish people is an attempt to complete Schulz’s work. But that work is essentially incomplete, and it refuses to understand incompletion as anything other than profoundly generative. Schulz the diasporist embraced the beauty in exile, dispersion, and decay. It is no one’s place to bring his fragmentary wanderings to an end. Better that we continue to wander beside him and, in his name, wander anew—awaiting the return of his Messiah, but content with the knowledge that it will likely never come.
picture is a secret about a secret.” Percival Everett’s latest novel, So Much Blue, begins with this epigraph from Diane Arbus. It’s a fitting aphorism for this elliptical novel about a painter trying to work through the secrets and lies in his past. The line could also apply to Jay-Z’s 4:44, which is not just a rap album but a multimedia project that includes images of blackness and masculinity in popular culture, all set against the revelations of his own infamous marital infidelities.
So Much Blue and 4:44 appeared within weeks of each other in the summer of 2017 as America came to terms with the political catastrophe of the 2016 election. I happened to read So Much Blue the day after 4:44 came out. Both of these are works by mature black male artists who have been in the game for years and are contemplating life on the other side of 40. Jay-Z is an ancient 48 in the youth-obsessed world of hip-hop. Everett is 61 in the slightly less youth-driven world of writing. Both projects deal with similar themes of maturity, fatherhood, deception, and the unruly, bewildering desires of the flesh. One of my favorite pieces from the 4:44 project is the video for the song “4:44” featuring scenes with dancers Storyboard P and Okwui Okpokwasili moving with and against each other, amid a fractured montage of Internet videos including fights, celebrity interviews, protests, improvised performances, and silly stunts. The only image of Jay-Z and Beyoncé in the video comes near the end, in what we assume must be a fan video of them performing “Drunk in Love.” It’s an inventive commentary on our mediated digital lives and how that media shapes our stories. In their works, both Jay-Z and Percival Everett try to make sense of who we are, and who we are becoming, in these amazing and disorienting times. Capitalism is another common thread in both works (as it is in everything Jay-Z does). So Much Blue and 4:44 are not just about men facing past transgressions and trying to live an authentic life; they’re also about how a media-driven market exploits and complicates that authenticity—for the artist, and for everyone else.
In Everett’s So Much Blue, Kevin Pace is an abstract painter who finds himself narrating his past experiences in order to face the secrets that he has carried around for many years. The novel begins with him contemplating his latest abstract masterpiece, a large painting composed of blue shades, completed in the shed where he works alone and studiously, keeping everyone else out. Though he knows that his paintings have deeper meaning, he is also cranky about the language of art criticism. He rejects the facile comparison between painting and storytelling when he says, “A painting has many surfaces. To say that a painting is a like a story is a pedestrian utterance, not altogether untrue, but uninspired.” But there’s a whiff of denial in his statement, and the story that he ends up telling about his life is one that explores this very relationship between the image-making he has done as an artist and the stories that he has told about himself.
In alternating chapters with the recurring titles “House,” “Paris,” and “1979,” the novel follows three different timelines in Kevin’s life. The contemporary narrative, “House,” takes place around 2011 and features Kevin at 56 years old, married to his wife, Linda, with their two teenage children, April and Will. Sixteen-year-old April has just revealed to Kevin that she is pregnant, but she makes him promise not to tell her mother until she can get an abortion. So Kevin is caught between keeping her secret and being honest with his wife. But in “Paris,” which takes place 10 years earlier, we find that he’s been dishonest before, having carried on a fling with a 22-year-old painter and art student named Victoire. The sections titled “1979” backtrack to the year when he traveled to El Salvador on the cusp of all-out civil war. He goes there with his old grad-school friend Richard, to help Richard find his missing brother Tad, who has a reputation for being an untrustworthy fuckup and a drug addict. The El Salvador parts are gripping and suspenseful, and feature one of Everett’s most vivid characters, a profanely bigoted American soldier turned mercenary who goes by the name The Bummer, and offers to help Richard find his brother in exchange for $1,000. As the novel unfolds, we see the logic in the truncated multi-narrative structure. Kevin has repressed the events in El Salvador, and that repression has shaped his art, contributed to his bouts with alcoholism, and influenced who he has become in other ways large and small.
Oh, and Kevin Pace is black. In typical Percival Everett style, that information is casually dropped into the narrative in a line about how he and Richard were grad-school housemates in Philadelphia in a neighborhood where Richard was the only white person on the block. Kevin’s race is legible and relevant throughout the narrative, but never overwrought. (His wife’s racial background is unclear, though Victoire, the Paris girlfriend, is mentioned to be white.) So Much Blue is indicative of the way that Everett has treated the subject of race throughout his career, making race politically tangible, while also, subversively, refusing to accept the truth value of the thing.
But this blasé attitude toward race is also a class indicator of his characters. In this case, Pace is a successful painter and college professor who now lives in Rhode Island, can afford to send his kids to private school, and flies to Paris for an anniversary vacation with his wife, a vacation that turns into an affair when she leaves to visit a friend in Bordeaux, and he meets a smart, sexy art student at a museum. The word cliché appears several times throughout So Much Blue. Percival Everett knows that he is engaging in a tired convention of literary fiction with this tale of an older married man cheating on his wife with a younger woman, and at various points Kevin acknowledges the terrible banality of his situation.
Jay-Z opens his 2001 MTV Unplugged album by making a crack about the intimate, acoustic setting of the show with The Roots band behind him. “Welcome to Jay-Z’s poetry reading,” he muses, inviting the audience to snap their fingers after offering a couple lines of improvised doggerel. On 4:44 he essentially becomes what he once mocked. That indestructible flow is still there, but there are places on this album when he drifts toward a spoken-word style one might hear at Nuyorican or Brooklyn Moon.
There’s something endearing about Jay-Z’s willingness to take off his cool and allow himself to be corny and earnest. In this land of disposable black life, it means something to watch the black artist grow and evolve, and keep working into maturity. Just a few weeks ago Chicago rapper Fredo Santana died at 27 from liver and kidney problems most likely brought on by sipping lean. Santana himself acknowledged that his drug use was a form of self-medication. “I was running from my old life tryna get high didn’t want to face them demons,” he wrote in a tweet after a previous seizure, just four months before he died. This is why it matters to see a rapper like Jay-Z still at the top of his game, in control of his craft, and reaping the profits from it. Grown folks hip-hop was bound to happen eventually, and this is what it sounds like.
4:44 has a blues aesthetic in its tales of melancholy, regret, pain, and loss, such as in the track “Adnis,” about the relationship with his estranged father, who died in 2003, shortly after they reconciled. The accompanying black-and-white video provides a visual representation of fatherhood, pugilism, fatigue, and futility, with the actor Mahershala Ali, shirtless and sweaty, boxing in a spare gym, with the ghostly presence of Danny Glover as the trainer / father figure behind the bag. The African-American musical tradition of the blues is also implicit in the title and subject matter of So Much Blue. In a Publishers Weekly interview Everett mentions that the title was inspired by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. In a New York Times review of the novel, critic Gerald Early suggests that alternate titles for the novel could have been “All Blues” (Miles Davis) or “Mood Indigo” (Duke Ellington).
Speaking of the blues, Jay-Z and Kanye have been known to tap into Nina Simone samples for their recordings, and she appears on this latest album as well. It’s just one example of how 4:44 is remarkably loaded with female creativity. The album is clearly a response to Beyoncé’s critically acclaimed multimedia album Lemonade. Producer No I.D. provides Jay-Z with a sonic palette full of women’s voices, from Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and “Baltimore,” to Sister Nancy’s timeless reggae classic “Bam Bam,” to a surprising sample on “4:44” from English band Hannah Williams & the Affirmations. And then there’s the revelatory track “Smile” that ends with his mother Gloria Carter’s poem about coming out as a lesbian.
But turning to women’s voices on such a confessional and therapeutic project also reinforces the gendered stereotype of women as inherently sensitive, nurturing, and maternal. This album is basically a longer version of the standard “as a father of daughters” responses to the #MeToo movement, whenever another horrid story of sexual abuse has emerged. Jay-Z says as much on the first track, “You had no father, you had the armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer.” This thinking essentially makes excuses for men, that they can’t learn to treat women decently without having them as offspring. It also ignores all the domestic violence and professional harassment that has made this moment of reckoning necessary in the first place. Time will tell if this project is just a one-off pandering to feminism or a true paradigm shift in his own body of work, let alone in the larger world of hip-hop. A more generous and hopeful reading of the album is that it represents a serious attempt to address the concerns of the black women artists and intellectuals who Beyoncé collaborated with on Lemonade, and who have engaged with her work.
With his mother’s coming out on “Smile,” with the track “Moonlight” titled after the award-winning black gay film, and with Frank Ocean’s appearance on “Caught Their Eyes,” this is one of the queerest mainstream rap albums by a straight male artist. That said, despite these indirect references, male homosexual desire is conspicuously absent and feels unthinkable in the album’s vernacular. And there’s also the heteronormativity of the whole confessional exercises in the 4:44 “Footnotes” videos—with clips from straight black performers like Jesse Williams, Anthony Anderson, Meek Mill, and others talking about their relationship failures and emotional struggles. In all those videos, queerness is the most obvious thing that is being elided; their emotional avoidances are about distancing themselves from any connotations of femininity or homosexuality. But I’m willing to lower the bar and put aside my misgivings to say there is something refreshing and meaningful in these influential straight black men speaking publicly about the limits of hypermasculinity. At least Jay-Z has turned away from the vicious homophobia that animated his Nas diss track “The Takeover” (and Nas’s “Ether”), not to mention all the other casual slurs on earlier albums.
From another direction this album is an intervention in an ongoing conversation with some of his harshest critics in the hip-hop world. To them, this whole exercise confirms everything they’ve suspected about his Illuminati ass. They believe he’s participating in a conspiracy to emasculate and undermine black manhood, that while a white-supremacist movement has captured the White House with the promise of giving white men their balls back after eight years of Negro Rule, here’s Jay-Z out here trying to get black men in touch with their motherfucking feelings. Whatever this is, it is astonishing to see one of the most powerful artists in the industry making a provocative and intensely personal album like this, publicly owning up to his moral failings, while amplifying the work of other black artists along the way.
obsession with artwork was the organizing principle in Magna Carta Holy Grail, and some of that also appears on 4:44. I don’t doubt that he has some genuine interest in visual art, but as a subject in his rhymes the painting is just another expensive object of conspicuous consumption along with the Bugattis and private jets. For Kevin Pace, painting is his creative medium, but there are no images in So Much Blue, so what we get is the visual artist telling a story. He’s forced to become a narrator in order to face the things that he’s been trying to avoid. Storytelling itself is an art form, and as such it is often full of exclusions and distortions. And yet, for all of us, story is a fundamental and universal tool for making meaning out of the confusing experience of existence.
As a professional artist Kevin is also in the business of selling his paintings in the marketplace, where the feeling he has put into the work is inherently commodified. 4:44 is a confessional work of art, and Jay-Z mentions being in therapy. The line “My therapist said I relapsed / I said pre-haps I Freudian slipped in European whips” is indicative of his own recognition of a relationship between this emotional exhibitionism and his perpetually market-driven worldview. After seeing all this content—the songs, the videos, the extended interviews—it’s apparent that this is part of the hustle, that he’s selling his personal revelations to boost his platform. But that’s an easy, simplistic critique. The more difficult recognition is that what he’s doing isn’t terribly different from what most artists do, mining their intimate experiences for public material. This commodified confessionalism is an essential part of our digital world now, where we’re all being encouraged to monetize our images, relationships, and life stories on digital platforms that rake in billions for a handful of tech bros in Silicon Valley.
Embedded in So Much Blue is a commentary on the crude amorality of capital. Among other things, it’s a novel about what it means to live in a world where an American can pay a mercenary $1,000 to lead him through the backwoods of El Salvador to find his dope addict brother. It’s about a sleazy white Dutch expat in El Salvador who calls himself Carlos and keeps a photo book of dead bodies, charging desperate people money to look through it in order to confirm whether their loved ones have been killed. As Carlos says to Kevin, “My boy, there is a nasty war going on in this little country. People go missing all the time. Loved ones worry, loved ones wonder. I address that need. And loved ones pay.” Though Everett keeps it mostly as subtext in the narrative, U. S. foreign policy is lurking behind these scenes in El Salvador. By setting the story in 1979, he gestures to America’s 20th century adventure in saving the world from communism.
Back on Watch the Throne Jay-Z rapped, “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / real niggas just multiply,” but he’s name-checking the same Fred Hampton who said, “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, we’re going to fight it with socialism.” Jay is surely a hypocrite, but his hypocrisy belongs to us all. On “Family Feud” he praises unfettered wealth accumulation (“What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially when they’re from the same hue as you.”), but then on “Caught Their Eyes” he’s the ethicist wagging his finger at Prince’s estate for selling tours of Paisley Park. “You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.” What he’s giving us is a valuable commentary on the conflicted ethics of capitalism. As Jay-Z has told us many times, he grew up in Marcy Projects surrounded by crack in the Reagan Eighties and hustled his way out, by crack, and then by music. He sells a different kind of dope now, but he’s still got a hustler’s spirit. “You can blame Shawn, but I ain’t invent the game / I just rolled the dice, trying to get some change,” he raps on the anthem “PSA.”
So Much Blue and 4:44 are both deployed as narratives of redemption and reconciliation. On the last track, “ManyFacedGod,” Jay-Z boasts of the Carters’ triumph in all this mess, that they’ve come out on the other side of the drama rich as ever with the family intact. By the end of So Much Blue Kevin Pace has found some measure of redemption too. He finally lets his wife into his secretive workspace and shows her his painting. It’s an intentionally heavy-handed metaphor for the pain and secrets that he has been hiding. He’s reached catharsis. And he’s also made another painting to sell.
I’m writing to express my staunch solidarity with, and support for, the striking graduate student instructors, teaching assistants, and research assistants at Columbia University. As a former member of Columbia’s distinguished faculty, I am quite frankly appalled by the administration’s refusal to negotiate with the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110. The explanation laid out in Provost John Coatsworth’s letter of April 18, 2018 is chock-full with anti-union clichés and tired scare tactics—unions threaten individual autonomy, exorbitant dues will be forced on those who did not choose union representation, contracts will place unnecessary constraints on academic units that do not conform to the traditional liberal arts classroom, the university already invests generously in each graduate student, ad infinitum. And then there is the administration’s mantra: “we believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the University as employees rather than students.” Why? Because treating grad students as workers deserving of fair wages and benefits, workplace protections, and dignity undermines the “special” (hierarchical) relationship between faculty and student.
Any reasonable person who has spent time in universities knows that what graduate teaching assistants and instructors do is paid labor. They organize their classrooms, interact with students in and out of class, grade papers, create assignments (in-class and out), spend hours on prep time that invariably has little or no relation to their actual primary research. The empirical evidence is beyond dispute. I was a member of New York University’s faculty when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under President Bill Clinton decided that our graduate students were, indeed, workers and had a right to unionize. When the NLRB reversed its decision under President George W. Bush, it was driven by an ideological opposition to unions and collective bargaining. This was no secret. That the NLRB sided with Columbia University students in 2016 should not surprise us, either, since the Obama administration recognized that workers’ right to organize had been protected at least since the New Deal, and graduate assistants were workers. But once again, the pendulum swings toward the Reagan-Thatcher vision of a world where there is “no such thing as society,” where solidarity undermines individual liberty, where “workers” are merely individual human capitals whose success depends on their competitive edge in a “free” and unregulated market. The Trump administration is transparent; it would prefer to eliminate the NLRB altogether.
This is why I find Columbia University spokesperson Caroline Adelman’s statement on behalf of the administration not only disingenuous but offensive: “we do not understand why the G.W.C.-U.A.W. prefers the pressure tactics and disruption of a strike to a definitive, nonpartisan resolution of that legal question in the federal courts.” The university has used its power and resources to resist unionization. University administrators have spent millions litigating these cases and fighting unionization—often the costs exceed what the union is asking for. The graduate workers must use their power and resources to fight for recognition and cannot rely on what will clearly be a partisan resolution in the courts. And the power they possess is no different than the power Columbia students possessed fifty years ago when it shut down the university in defense of neighboring black and brown communities facing dispossession, Southeast Asia facing brutal war, and students who faced violence and retaliation for their principled stance.
In addition to my years at NYU and Columbia, I’ve also had the pleasure of working at universities with strong graduate student unions—notably, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles, where I am currently on the faculty. I know from experience that a strong T. A. union actually improves teaching, faculty-graduate student interaction, and overall morale. Job security, health benefits, decent (though never great) wages, grievance procedures, anti-discrimination clauses, and clear guidelines as to workload and expectations, have ultimately led to a substantial improvement in teaching at the undergraduate level. These union-derived benefits have been instrumental for keeping more graduate students in their respective programs, thus contributing to the high completion rates at both institutions.
The long effort to organize graduate workers takes on a special urgency as academic labor becomes more and more precarious. These students are on the frontlines of a broader struggle against a new university order that entails the casualization of labor (teaching staff as well as the outsourcing of non-union labor in the realms of maintenance, food services, and security); rapidly increasing tuitions; investments in prisons, fossil fuel industries, and corporations whose business dealings buttress human rights violations; and the financialization of higher education resulting in unsustainable student debt and corporate profit. These students are fighting for a different future, a different university. And they are modeling that university even as they strike. They are working on their own time to make sure their students are prepared for finals and using the strike as a teachable moment to interrogate the relationship between universities and labor and pedagogy. Anyone who cares about the future of the university, let alone the country, ought to at least consider their vision of a university that cares about the well-being of everyone—students and staff. Their victory is essential if we are to begin to turn the tide.
The following is an excerpt from Anna Feigenbaum’s Tear Gas, the groundbreaking book-length history of the chemical weapon. This excerpt begins with a riot in the Bogside, a poor and historically oppressed Catholic neighborhood of Derry, Northern Ireland, in the summer of 1969. The events follow a year of escalating civil-rights marching and agitation in the city: Particularly fresh was the memory of Samuel Devenney, a middle-aged man beaten to death in his home by riot police despite having nothing to do with protests outside.
The Battle of the Bogside
Shortly after Devenney’s death came the controversial Apprentice Boys march, an annual commemorative march that carried the legacy of British force in Northern Ireland, complete with loyalist songs, “done with the utmost arrogance and bravado to show once again who won the battle many years ago.” The parade’s drum and fife bands celebrate Protestant settlers’ defeat of an Irish- and Scottish-led siege on the walled city in 1689.
In the lead-up to the march, a Derry Citizens’ Defence Association formed and met with senior figures of the Apprentice Boys to request the parade be rerouted. Their request was refused. Fearing the troubles to come, some older and younger residents sought refuge outside the Bogside. Barricades went up and calls went out for able-bodied men to come and defend the community. They wove piles of wood and wire modeled after the 1968 barricades of Paris’s boulevards. Young community leader and local MP Bernadette Devlin became a central strategist of the street, directing how to build and where to fortify structures.
On the day of the march, Derry was on edge. Loyalists rounded the city walls, taunting Bogsiders and throwing pennies as insulting symbols of poverty. The Bogsiders stood firm at their barricades. By afternoon, the taunting on both sides turned to stone throwing. As evening fell, the police pushed through the Rossville Street barricade trailed by loyalists, looking like the vanguard of the Protestant militants. Loyalists smashed up windows of the towering Rossville estate, breaching the borders of Free Derry. The Bogsiders shortly regained momentum and, in crowds of a thousand strong, drove the loyalists back to the edge of the neighborhood.
At 11:45 that night, Rossville Street became the first U.K. site of civilian CS gassing. On advice from the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) sought out CS supplies. “We originally had the CN variety,” explains RUC Deputy Inspector Shillington, “but we have been advised that CS is the more modern and humane type, which in fact is used by the services.” The RUC quickly telephoned the Minister for Home Affairs. While driving from Belfast the Minister approved the deployment. Supplies of CS were brought in from nearby military storage. According to the RUC, the police responsible for discharging CS in the Bogside had received some, “but not enough,” training. Officers were issued 1.5-inch Very pistols with a 70- to 80-yard range for “defense,” as well as canisters to use when withdrawing. All day August 13, they fired CS intermittently in attempts to disperse the crowds. The gas kept coming until 4:30 in the afternoon on August 14.
Throughout this bombardment, the Bogsiders retaliated with petrol bombs, stones, and, when available, returned CS cartridges. On the second day of fighting, a group of Bogsiders positioned themselves atop the Rossville Flats. “The high flats was wonderful,” a Bogsider recalls. “But they needed ammunition, so you had to climb eight stories with a bin bag full of stones.” With men and boys perched defensively on the rooftop, older residents gathered in their homes below, creating milk-bottle-bomb assembly lines, stuffing rags, sugar, flour, and wicks into bottles. The flat roof and periphery railing of the Rossville Flats provided an ideal tower-top defense in this otherwise sunken territory: From this perch, the elevated city walls that daily marked Bogsiders’ social and economic exclusions were for once on lower ground. But the Bogside’s depressed landscape also meant that the air could stagnate; CS hung in the area for hours. At other times the gas traveled, rolling with even the lightest breeze. It eased up into the broken windows of Bogside flats. Police also tried to launch CS atop the Rossville estate in efforts to quell the milk-bottle aerial attacks, but few, if any, of the cartridges made it up those 10 stories. Instead, they smashed through the windows of residents’ homes.
One of these windows led into the room where a 16-month-old infant, Martin, slept. Hearing his baby cry and cough, Martin’s father ran in. He found the room filled with gas. His son was gasping for breath, tears running down his cheeks. His face had gone pale. Martin’s father felt his child might die without attention.
Derry resident Dr. Raymond McClean found himself baffled by the gas’s effects: “Not only were their eyes inflamed and watery, but many of them weren’t able to breathe to such an extent that several were carried in. I didn’t know what we were dealing with.” People didn’t know how to respond. Were they better off opening windows and doors to clear it out, or should they shut them tighter to prevent another round getting in? As its inventors were well aware, gas causes as much psychological fear as it does physical pain . . .
As the gassing went on, coping tips began to trickle in. A U.S. Army veteran who happened to be in Derry at the time offered advice, typed up in a leaflet that circulated around the Bogside streets. French students in the area are also reported to have taught locals how to flush their eyes out with water and hold vinegar-soaked handkerchiefs to their faces. Devlin recalls, “The whole air was saturated . . . and we’d not a gas mask between us. . . . So we made do with wet blankets, with cotton wool steeped in vinegar, with handkerchiefs soaked in sodium bicarbonate.” One elderly resident stood out on her stoop with a bottle of brown vinegar. As Bogsiders passed by, she poured a drop onto their outstretched handkerchiefs —which in many cases were not handkerchiefs at all but scraps of fabric, and in one boy’s case an old pair of ladies’ underpants.
By the end of the 36 hours of CS gassing, a total of 14 50-gram grenades and 1,091 cartridges containing 12.5 grams of CS had blanketed the Bogside. This brought a flurry of media attention, with stories like baby Martin’s causing moral panic to ripple through the country. Facing a PR disaster, the Home Office had to act quickly, setting up yet another tribunal to look into Northern Ireland’s most recent disturbances and announcing that a full medical investigation would be conducted into the effects of CS gas in the Bogside.
The Chemical Defense Establishment
Sir Harold Himsworth, a physician in London, was appointed to lead the medical investigation. Himsworth, an advocate of fusing the skills of politicians and scientists, had served as secretary to the Medical Research Council and presided over the Section of Experimental Medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine. In 1952 he was knighted into the Order of Bath for his contributions to civil service. A 1958 New Scientist article profiling Himsworth’s accomplishments called him a man of undoubted authority, “receptive, courteous and decisive.”
On September 1, 1969, Himsworth and his team arrived in Belfast. Their first stop was the Ministry of Health, where they were briefed on events in Derry by a group of Belfast doctors and government officials. They headed to the GOC Army headquarters for an “off the record” interview with Sir Ian Freeland, director of operations in Northern Ireland, and a briefing on the situation from a brigade commander. This was followed by another press conference in which Himsworth insisted that “there was nothing sinister in the use of CS gas.” Himsworth was “kindly loaned” the Army’s public-relations officer, and by the end of the evening the team had additionally secured help from Colonel Millman, who “proffered any assistance within his power.”
On day two, Himsworth’s committee ventured into the Bogside. Picking their way over rubble and through the ruins of barricades, they were quickly surrounded by locals anxious to tell their stories. They questioned a girl clutching a teddy bear as her mother explained the persistence of her sore eyes and lips. Derry doctor Donal McDermott related that “scores of people had suffered from vomiting, diarrhea and nausea.” A 55-year-old resident reported that her pet budgie had died in its cage; others shared stories of how children’s suffering appeared more acute than adults’. Confused, scared youngsters often rubbed their eyes, worsening the effects. The committee canvassed the area, examining the Rossville Flats and CS cartridges saved by the Citizens’ Association. Himsworth expressed skepticism over media claims that there had been 60 to 100 cases of gastroenteritis and diarrhea. If this were true, he argued, it should have been officially classified as a major crisis; illness at this scale required government notification. What he didn’t see was that, in the middle of a riot, people’s fears of arrest and the frenzy of the commotion bar many from seeking hospital treatment. Even under normal conditions, people in impoverished areas are reluctant to go to hospitals or doctors for digestive problems, preferring to tough it out or use home remedies, but in a city divided along religious, political, and economic lines, seeking formal medical care was even more contentious. This city of two names was also a city of two hospitals: The nearest was staffed by Unionist doctors, and many Bogside residents avoided it, opting instead to cross the border into Ireland and receive treatment there. . . .
Amid these riotous conditions it is difficult to imagine how standard hospital notification procedures would be carried out. But Himsworth, a man of record, sought statistics. He was after authorized laboratory reports, not regular people’s tales of gassed babies or dead budgies. Throughout his diary of the visit, he records residents’ stories of their experiences and effects with suspicion and occasionally derision. For example, a physician at Altnagelvin Hospital reported the case of chronic asthmatic Charles Coyle, age 50. The committee recorded in their notes that the man:
had been getting steadily worse for some years. His story (typically Irish) was that on the night of 12 August he was on the city wall when CS gas was dropped some two or three hundred yards in front of him—he walked up to it and sniffed it. Feeling ill he went into the O’Range Hall where we stayed for a while. He then came out and got another whiff of the gas but walked half-a-mile home. For four days afterward he stayed at home, but didn’t see a doctor.
While it is unclear whether it was Himsworth, his secretary, or the doctor who found this case to be “typically Irish,” the comment’s documentation in a formal log signifies the disposition of the “independent” British investigation toward the civilians whose health and well-being they were documenting. . . .
Himsworth’s committee traveled directly from Northern Ireland to Porton Down, the MoD’s chemical testing facility. Nestled within 16 acres of countryside, Porton Down was a top-secret station for military research and weapons development, running throughout World War II and the Cold War period, and continues to be so in the present day. An estimated 20,000 military “volunteers” went through the facility, many as subjects in experiments on chemical agents. Told that the military was testing treatments for common colds, volunteers were guaranteed safety and given shillings for participation. As Rob Evans uncovered in researching his book Gassed, “They wanted to get away for any type of break, just anything. . . . But sadly very few actually knew what Porton Down was, or what they were letting themselves in for.”
Some of the chemical agents tested on these young men and women included the nerve agent sarin, different mustard gases, and lachrymators—tear gases—as well as other kinds of chemicals, like smoke bombs and dyes. There were skin tests, oral tests, tests of irritants on the eyes, behavioral tests, and gas-chamber tests, among others. “It was hideous,” according to retired officer Patrick Mercer, “a hutted camp, where it seemed to do nothing but rain. There were a series of bunkers to which you were thrust from time to time to be gassed with CS and to go through ghastly exercises underground wearing a gas mask.” Between 1941 and 1985, approximately 8,850 tear-gas tests, mostly of CN, CS, and CR agents, were conducted on more than 2,800 veterans. The development of CS as a riot-control agent began in the 1950s and increased in the 1960s as unrest in Northern Ireland grew.
. . . In 1969, when Himsworth visited, [this] had yet to be exposed [to the public]; the chemical testing facility was running business as usual, operating on what Grimley Evans describes as “wartime ethics.” In an atmosphere of perceived imminent attack, utility reigns supreme and military secrecy often overrides informed consent. On top of this, Porton Down was run by a mixed civilian and military staff. This created levels of secrecy and security clearance that made it difficult to practice any one protocol. It was hard to determine fault when things went wrong. Such claims to layers of organizational complexity tend to evaporate accountability in what Linsey McGoey has called “strategic ignorances.” The atrocity at Porton Down was not only the procedure but the value system. What—and who—made it an issue of scientific importance to directly apply known poisons to people’s skin, lungs, and eyeballs without consent?
The results of the Porton Down experiments played a key role in the Himsworth Committee’s report. Between October 1969 and March 1971, Sir Himsworth and his team held a series of meetings at Whitehall in which they shared scientific findings, correspondence with medical professionals, and laboratory evidence. Their priorities included finding evidence of CS’s effects on the young, the elderly, and pregnant women, as well as people with previous illness. Himsworth also asked the committee to investigate cases of chemical manufacturers repeatedly exposed to CS and to gather “full details of the Vietnam experience.”
Conspicuously absent from the agenda was any reference to the United States’ widespread use of CS and other tear gases to combat civil protests. Himsworth was silent on the crushed labor strikes, civil-rights struggles, and anti-war protests, and even the helicopters that sprayed CS over thousands on the Berkeley campus just four months before the team’s first meeting, all of which were heavily publicized in the United States and discussed at U.N. meetings on the Geneva Protocol.
Tear Gas as a Drug
Amid increasing counterinsurgency efforts in Northern Ireland and in light of these international debates, in February 1970 British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart drew on the Himsworth Committee’s interim report to announce a new stance: “CS smoke is considered to be not significantly harmful to man in other than wholly exceptional circumstances; and we regard CS and other such gases accordingly as being outside the scope of the Geneva Protocol.” This announcement led to uproar from members of Parliament, NGOs, anti-war groups, and U.N. delegates.
In June 1970 Sir Alec Douglas-Home took over as Foreign Secretary. While he had reservations over this policy change, the MoD was adamant that CS fell outside the Protocol’s restrictions, which deal with substances that were “significantly harmful or deleterious to man—an argument which it rejected.” In addition, if the government were to deem CS deplorable in war, it would be difficult to justify its domestic use as a means of crowd control. The MoD appealed to the “smoke’s” pacifying powers: “CS has saved innocent lives and gave the police and army a much more humane option than batons, bayonets and bullets or bombs.” This position would soon be validated by the Himsworth Committee, which posited that the effects of CS should be considered “from a standpoint more akin to that from which a drug is regarded than from that from which we regard a weapon.” This framing worked to partition the team’s enquiry from concurrent debates over international law happening in Parliament; it was crucial that the public not be led to translate the ethics of combat to the domestic “troubles” in Northern Ireland. These guidelines, given by the Home Office, delineated a particular relationship between humans and tear gas. It asked the scientists to find a way to calculate safety, to measure it in doses. With drug tests in mind, the Himsworth Committee proceeded to consider CS’s effects with the ultimate aim of authorizing its use.
In the final committee report, the team drew attention to some of the problems arising from their task: What did it in fact mean to consider a weapon as a drug? How could safety be measured medically? Investigating CS as a “druglike” substance required two key considerations. First, they had to determine what distinguished a safe dose from a dangerous dose, and to ask whether the difference was great enough that the drug could be certified as safe. Second, they had to examine the side effects. Were they great enough to outweigh the drug’s benefits? “CS is usually used not in relation to a particular single individual, but in relation to a population,” they noted; during a civil disturbance, it is not only “healthy young adults” who face gassing. CS can affect anyone in the vicinity, including “children, the old, pregnant women and the ill, who are exposed inadvertently.” Determining safety and risk in these circumstances, the committee pointed out, was both medical and political.
Unlike most drugs, CS is not administered in a controlled oral or topical dose. It is no antibiotic tablet or eczema cream. Deployed as a fog or smoke, CS consists of tiny droplets that are absorbed through the skin and inhaled through the lungs. Its effects vary with weather conditions, topology, spatial structures, preexisting medical conditions, and personal tolerance levels. These factors make it difficult to determine the exact level of a “dangerous dose.” But “by Command of her Majesty,” Himsworth and his team accomplished just this.
The Himsworth Report
The committee presented clinical, experimental, and observed evidence, doing their best to bracket off any “element of emotion” from their presentation of findings. Extrapolating from animal experiments, since human experience could not be trusted, the Himsworth Committee listed and refuted side effects, detailed dangerous doses, and offered operational guidance. In the end, CS got its clearance for use during civil disturbances. It was labeled safe for the young and old, as well as pregnant women; some warning was given that it should be used with strict guidance in enclosed locations.
. . . Sterilizing the enquiry process from emotion, politics, and personal experience helped Himsworth construct a tidy report, but the scientific method alone could not be trusted to sift through all the laboratory results. The team needed to make sure the press did not get hold of any unappealing experimental data before the publication of the report. During the committee’s eighth, ninth, and tenth meetings, a number of experiments arose showing more severe effects of CS. With mounting pressure to deliver the final report, the chairman had to decide how to handle these unpublished experiments, which became known as the Porton Papers. The committee agreed that the Porton Papers would not be sent out for publication in scientific journals until three to six months after the report was published, as the papers “could be used by hostile parties to confuse the lay public.”
Ultimately, the Himsworth Report trumpeted experimental results over medical observations and continually downplayed the significance of personal testimony. Personal details on patients were only included when it served to mitigate the ill effects of CS. Likewise, social scientists’ claims that CS effects must be considered in their economic and political context were bracketed at the very outset from debate. Suggestions that the psychological conditions of riot situations could have physiological impacts were brought up in the final report, only to be separated out from the “real effects” of CS. The report treated bodily reactions as side effects, as if they were the result of personal dysfunctions or rare allergies to an everyday product, rather than human bodies responding to poisoned air.
Domestically, the Himsworth Report’s stamp of approval freed Britain to further develop more deadly riot-control agents, counterterrorism technologies, and counterinsurgency tactics—using Northern Ireland as a testing ground. Throughout the 1970s, tensions between the military, police, loyalists, and Irish protesters escalated. CS gas became so commonplace that families lined their front doors with towels to stop it from seeping in. It was frequently fired at close range and into enclosed spaces. On one occasion police fired CS into a bus full of people. Political prisoners were frequently gassed, with rights groups claiming that the stronger lachrymatory agent CR was sprayed during the Long Kesh riots in 1974, causing lesions and permanent scarring. In many ways the birthplace of modern notions of “nonlethal” weapons, Northern Ireland was also home to the first use of rubber-coated metal bullets. The year 1978 brought the use of plastic baton rounds (also called plastic bullets), which were made available to police and soldiers. During the 1981 political prisoners’ hunger strike 29,601 rounds were fired at demonstrators, resulting in 7 deaths. Eight years later the official death toll from this “nonlethal” technology reached 17. Now deployed around the world, different kinds of impact munitions, commonly referred to as rubber bullets, are frequently fired through clouds of tear gas.
The Himsworth Report continues to be used by governments around the world to justify the use of tear gas. In 1989 the U.S. State Department invoked it to defend exporting $6.5 million worth of tear gas guns, grenades, launchers, and launching cartridges to Israel. This tear gas was thrown into Palestinian houses, clinics, schools, hospitals and mosques, often in residential areas, by IDF forces in the Occupied Territories. Human rights groups recorded up to 40 deaths resulting from tear gas, as well as thousands of cases of illness. The State Department, facing criticism, cited the Himsworth finding that “the margin of safety in the use of CS gas is wide” and concluded that suspending tear gas shipments “would be inconsistent with US efforts to encourage the use of restraint by Israel and could work to the disadvantage of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories.”
Despite a long trail of reports of CS harms that came throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was Himsworth’s report that remained the technical trump card. Every major inquest or “independent enquiry” conducted in the decades to follow reestablished its prominence through processes of expert testimony and citation. These official inquiries worked to maintain dominant structures of scientific knowledge production, affirming the central authority of military research centers and handpicked, government-approved scientific experts. In this system of scientific capital, researchers are encouraged to exchange stamps of safety for professional prestige. With government safety clearances in place, it was time to roll out tear gas in England.
a lot of black girls coming of age in the final years of the 20th century, I had an adolescent fascination with Prince. As an adult I recognize that this fascination was rooted in a certain kind of queerness that Prince embodied. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Prince’s sexuality—other than the fact that it was purple, and he wore it well—but I see now that my younger self recognized Prince wasn’t following the rules about gender that I was in the process of learning. I listened to the seven-plus minutes of “Erotic City” and marveled at what kind of place this might be, even if I didn’t really understand what erotic meant. I watched the sophistication of this petite, light-skinned man in his music videos strutting and spinning in block heels, bouncing pressed and curled black hair that boasted length and body, wearing lace and leather and silk and always, always purple. I didn’t identify with the svelte women in these videos who surrounded Prince, vying for his attention and receiving it coolly, but I did envy them. I don’t understand everything about Prince’s public reception or his gender and sexual identities. The special significance of Prince, for me, lay in recognizing that if he could take the trappings of femininity that seemed so familiar and wear them in a brand new way, then it was also possible for me to wear gender in more than one way. In other words, being femme could be an invention, not just a duty.
Omise′eke Natasha Tinsley, Ezili′s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders. Duke University Press, 2018. 264 pages.
When Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993, he did it knowing that its unpronounceability would present a problem for labels, distributors, and news media. The demand for legibility is about not just access but also control, and changing his moniker from a proper name to a new and unspeakable symbol allowed Prince (or The Artist) to create a way of being that exceeded the limitations he experienced as a black gender-creative figure in the U.S. music industry. Our language, even the technical language of queer studies and queer theory, doesn’t always fit the realities of queer lives in the African diaspora as they are lived and portrayed. But like the symbol used by Prince to reflect something else about himself as a performer and a person, there are other possible languages and other modes of address. By showing how available language doesn’t necessarily fit the realities of black queer lives, Prince was also making a statement about our shared epistemology—the ways that we are able to know and make sense of the world.
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s book Ezili’s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders (Duke University Press, 2018) is also interested in the way that black queer folks, particularly femmes, enact gender creatively through musical and theatrical performance, hair salons, and choreography. In the West, race is gendered and gender is raced, as black-feminist scholars across multiple disciplines—history, sociology, gender studies, literary study, and others—have emphasized. This has meant that the social and cultural roles allowed or imposed on black women have differed from those allowed for white women. Tinsley gives an example of this thought and practice by noting that in the 18th century, many Caribbean colonies had laws that prohibited black women from wearing shoes. This served to reinforce and reflect economic inequalities, of course, but also to crystallize the distinction between white “ladies” and black women. With recognition of this history of blackness occupying the abject and/or undesirable position in western gender systems, Ezili’s Mirrors works to trouble common-sense understandings of how race, gender, and personhood are linked.
In this vein, femme is developed in Ezili’s Mirrors as an expansive, queer gender identity that can both encompass and exceed what we typically understand as femininity. Femme allows space for the gender presentations and performances that might resonate with traditional femininity yet are articulated from queer positions. Another particularly femme method of creatively enacting gender is found through devotion to Iwa, divine forces in the Haitian religion of Vodou. The creativity depends in part on how one engages and/or challenges the available or dominant epistemological framework—in other words, one’s worldview. Just as we depend on mirrors to see ourselves, we depend on epistemologies to make things—concepts, histories, and patterns—visible. What we see in a mirror is delimited by its frame, and epistemological framings allow some things to be visible just as they make it difficult or impossible to perceive other things. Aside from the title, mirrors in this text are present as tools in the hands of performers, Vodou practitioners, or literary characters. However, the conceptual role of mirrors provides the basis for a key insight of this book: Mirroring provides ways of seeing iterations of the Iwa, the possibilities of gender and sexuality, and ultimately oneself multiply and creatively. For black people, particularly black queer femmes, the gendered, sexual, and racial realities revealed through worshipping Ezili present challenging alternatives to their positions suggested by Western epistemology.
Western epistemology is not a fully encompassing term but rather a shorthand for some of the common sense of life in Western modernity: Concepts like Cartesian dualism or the mind-body split and the predominance of sight as the sense through which truth is attained are examples of the philosophical precepts that form the basis of other assumptions about what constitutes knowledge in the West. Rather than taking these epistemologies for granted and assuming that they can adequately capture all experiences of the world, one of Tinsley’s projects, and a project of black-feminist writing more broadly, is to introduce other epistemologies to the reader’s framework.
One such epistemology Tinsley introduces is a spiritual epistemology. She encourages us to consider Haitian Vodou as one that offers more conceptual space, more ways of understanding gendered and sexual experiences, identities, performances, expression, and practices, than Western epistemologies traditionally have, at least for queer people in the African diaspora. Practitioners of Vodou are thus able to access and understand their own genders and sexualities, as well as those of others, in terms that exceed and perhaps fundamentally differ from those available in North American queer-studies circles. It’s significant that this epistemology is a spiritual one, particularly in an academic space that makes so little room for unquantifiable and nonrational ways of knowing. This practice of recognizing that there are not just other experiences but even other ways of making sense of the world, is for Tinsley a key practice of decolonization.
As the title suggests, the Iwa in focus in this book is the goddess Ezili. She has multiple iterations, or faces, and her pantheon represents “love, sexuality, prosperity, pleasure, maternity, creativity, and fertility.” Each chapter is organized around one such Ezili and highlights literary texts, historical narratives, performance art, and contemporary practitioners whose work reflects that Ezili’s face. One chapter centers Ezili Freda, the embodiment of the seemingly unattainable perfection of hyperfemininity: She is adorned in pink, pearls, and perfume. Tinsley reads Ezili Freda and her followers as devoted to reclaiming, by recreating, Western notions of femininity and womanhood that have historically excluded black femmes.
Tinsley illustrates this historical process of black-femme erasure through the narrative of Janet Collins, a New Orleans–born Creole dancer who became the first black prima ballerina in the United States. Collins’s career through the mid-20th century was marked by this accomplishment but also by various institutional attempts to manipulate her blackness in order to make her womanhood more legible. In Collins’ first role as prima ballerina, she played the title character in the opera Aida, an Ethiopian princess enslaved in Egypt. Tinsley points out two seemingly contradictory ways Collins’s blackness is visible in this production: The “African” setting naturalized Collins’s presence as a black dancer, yet the appearance of Collins’s blackness was visually downplayed. During the climactic scene, the entire cast of white dancers was painted with dark brown makeup. Tinsley suggests that the contrast of Collins as heroine—despite being the only black dancer—as the lightest figure on stage reinforced for white audiences the “natural” link between whiteness and femininity. Despite these kinds of manipulations, Collins used choreography, her art and profession, as a tool to create the kinds of womanhood onstage she saw as possible for herself and for other black femmes. Janet Collins is linked with Ezili Freda because both are made brilliant and awesome by their unlimited creativity. But just as Janet Collins’s creative potential was tempered by the realities of antiblack racism, Ezili Freda’s pursuit of perfection is always tempered by her confrontation with the limitations and injustice of the mortal world.
A similar structure characterizes the other three chapters of this book. Ezili Danto, the protective mother whose presence was said to initiate the Haitian revolution, is read with the queer and creative parenting of Angie Xtravaganza, famous in New York’s drag ballroom scene as the house mother of the House of Xtravaganza. We meet masisi—a Haitian Kreyòl term that captures “a spectrum of transfemininty”—devotees of Ezili Danto who make markets and hair salons their space for building gendered community. Another chapter is dedicated to Erzulie, the cosmic dominatrix who demands justice and obedience. This Ezili’s signature color, red, is visible in the figure of Domina Erzulie, a BDSM- and Vodou-practicing Montreal-based dominatrix who charges white men to draw their blood and drown them in golden showers. Erzulie’s penchant for domination as a way of extracting justice is historically mirrored by Mary Ellen Pleasant, a black 19th- and 20th-century San Francisco entrepreneur and abolitionist who built her business empire by serving the domestic needs and sating the sexual interests of San Francisco’s wealthy white elite.
Tinsley opens this book by asking her audience to read it like a song. Academic texts are known to make more or less sincere overtures towards democratizing their work, but this is a request Ezili’s Mirrors takes seriously. There are three alternating fonts, or voices, used throughout the book: academic knowledge, spirit knowledge, and black-feminist ancestral or historical knowledge. When introducing these alternating voices Tinsley asks us to hear them the way we might listen to a Destiny’s Child song: Even if the traditional theoretical tone is centered like Beyoncé, the voice of spirit-based knowledge is rich and powerful, like Kelly Rowland, and the voice of ancestral knowledge provides an underacknowledged balance, like Michelle Williams. The three voices are not always in perfect harmony. Sometimes it’s hard to know why this narrative is sung by this muse, and it isn’t always easy to visually distinguish between the three. However, if you focus less on trying to strictly categorize each voice or font, and instead lean into the surprises of what Tinsley terms the book’s “unresolved plurality,” it may be easier for you to tune in and let the song overtake you.
This book’s register invites an intimacy that comes from Tinsley’s choice of audience. She doesn’t dictate or restrict who can read her book, of course, but Ezili’s Mirrors is a song “dedicated to black queer femmes.” The directness of this address is part of what I found so compelling in reading this book: She’ll ask us, her chosen audience, to engage, to listen more closely, to be patient with sections ahead—and this directness works to collapse the gulf between writer and reader that is often characteristic of academic, theoretical writing. Tinsley takes a range of black queer femme figures—mortal and divine, Haitian and Dominican, contemporary and ancestral, cis and trans, famous and obscure—and invites us to listen and watch as she identifies the salient notes and features of the narratives of their lives. Some terminology notwithstanding, Ezili’s Mirrors is largely accessible for readers who are interested in the text not primarily as an academic project but rather as an exploration of narratives and perspectives that are too rarely made visible in mainstream academic and popular media spaces.
Committing to that intimacy and challenging the familiarity of the author-reader gap is an enactment of Tinsley’s black-feminist political and intellectual practice. Another black-feminist practice is Tinsley’s incorporation of her own sensuous, reflective memories as part of her narration and theorizing. For example, while considering the importance and radical possibility of queer parenting practices, we are invited to witness Tinsley’s narration of experiencing two miscarriages while writing. To render this generous and tender vulnerability requires skill and commitment from any writer, and particularly in a text published by one of the most theoretically minded university presses.
Tinsley describes her research and writing methods as not just interdisciplinary but a practice of theoretical polyamory. Just as in romantic polyamory, theoretical polyamory is not an invitation to sloppy, careless, or inattentive promiscuity. Instead, theoretical polyamory as it is enacted here shows an intentional practice of recognizing what each relationship is capable of providing and what commitments are necessary to maintain its health. Scholars of African-diaspora or black-Atlantic studies, Caribbean studies, gender studies, queer studies, literary criticism, media and pop culture studies, and scholars of religion, particularly scholars of Afro-descended religious traditions, will find a complex and multidisciplinary text that illuminates how each of these disciplines are made richer through Tinsley’s interweaving of their methods and questions.
If Ezili’s Mirrors is indeed a song, it is a song in harmony with a huge body of other black-feminist voices: ancestors, theorists, writers, and creators. Folks who are familiar with black-feminist academic work, black-feminist art, and black-feminist literature will all find familiar voices and figures in Tinsley’s writing. Whether they are explicitly cited—like M. Jacqui Alexander, Katherine McKittrick, Kara Keeling, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Patricia Hill Collins—or unnamed yet visible in words and small phrases—like M. Nourbese Philip, Dionne Brand, and Audre Lorde—black women’s creative works form one of the archives of Ezili’s Mirrors.
By seriously engaging positions rooted outside of Western epistemologies, Tinsley models a multiplicity of ways of knowing and approaching knowledge. More importantly, she takes these other ways of knowing seriously. Ezili’s Mirrors thoroughly and carefully mines the utility and uniqueness of multiple spiritual and thought traditions, aesthetics, and sources of knowledge. This engagement with other epistemologies is not solely accessible through Tinsley’s text or through academic epistemological critique more broadly. The speculative fiction of Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor, the practice of Haitian Vodou and other African-descended religious and spiritual traditions, and even the gender-creative performance of Prince all present ways of accessing nondominant ways of seeing and moving in the world. What makes Ezili’s Mirrors uniquely successful, though, is bringing these alternative images into conversation and articulating how we might already be seeing, engaging, and building our own alternative epistemologies.
Audre Lorde writes in the essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” that truly revolutionary political change depends on extracting “the piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and knows only the oppressor’s relationships, the oppressor’s tactics.” Lorde was suggesting what many of us know through experience: that identifying and committing to changing the foundational ways in which we understand the world is a daunting task, even for those elements—colonial or otherwise—that don’t necessarily help us be or live more freely. And yet, people throughout the African diaspora have always found ways to live and define themselves that challenge the singular and dominant framings imposed by colonialism.
Ezili’s Mirrors is important because through it Tinsley shows us ways that black femme life and black queer life exists and asserts itself as other than the abject, the undesirable, the inappropriate, and the excessive. The book illustrates how and why the figures of Ezili, only one goddess among a pantheon, serve as such an effective foundation on which alternate black narratives, representations, and ways of seeing have been built. Tinsley does not suggest that the task of decolonial epistemological critique is easy. The challenge of extracting the oppressor implied in Lorde’s quote is not dismissed. Instead, she proves that it is possible by illustrating how creating and embodying epistemological alternatives has already been and is currently being done across the black Atlantic. Ezili’s Mirrors shows its readers, whatever spiritual, critical, and intellectual traditions they hail from, that for those who walk with Ezili, other worlds than this one are always possible.
didn’t want a dog. My ex-boyfriend and I did occasionally dog-sit for Chloe, a cuddly, chubby, and apneic pug who belonged to our friend e.b., and for Max, a rickety Brussels Griffon, mean and delightful, who belonged to our friend Steve. I’d always liked animals, but I preferred them, like children, to belong to someone else. It was nice to hang out with a cute pet, but it was also nice to return to my own ordered, adult, and entirely human home. My family had only ever had cats when I was growing up—a successive pair of self-sufficient and barely domesticated creatures that spent the better part of their waking lives stalking birds and chipmunks in our big backyard and the woods behind our house. They felt less like companions than like friendly neighbors who occasionally popped in for a meal. Dogs were more effortful; they required care; they imposed.
But Steve, a born convincer, the kind of man who is always telling you to taste something, somehow got it in his head that we ought to adopt a dog of our own. And so it happened that he called my ex one day and said that we must, we had to get down to the Animal Rescue League, where a perfect little specimen of a Brussels Griffon was waiting for us to adopt it. It struck me immediately as a bad idea, but I was overly accommodating of my boyfriend at the time; his tastes and whims were like weather—you could complain all you wanted, but you couldn’t avoid them. I met him after work, and we went to look for a new friend.
This perfect little creature turned out to be sick, old, obviously dying, and while we wanted to be good, we were not, at the time, in any position to care for a terminally ill animal through its last sad, expensive months. But on our way out we saw in an open pen a slight little tricolor beagle with white legs and blue ticking on her neck and eyes that each seemed almost the size of her entire head. There are, I’ve learned, few things as cagey and surreptitious as the staffs of the Rescue Leagues and Humane Societies of the world; at the time, it didn’t even occur to me that they’d judged us with absolute precision and put exactly the dog that they knew we couldn’t resist in the path of our exit while we looked at another farther toward the back. Her name was Pippi. One zigzagging, anarchic attempt at a walk, a little paperwork, and $75 later, we took her home.
I should note that it was only a few months after Nathan, my younger brother, died. He was 26. We’d always been pretty close, even as kids, when a two-year gap in ages can be a kind of insurmountable void of obdurate animosity. But in adulthood our relationship transformed into a sort of friendship whose depth I only really grasped in retrospect. It was so comfortable and natural at the time; only in its irretrievable loss did I discover how profound it was to me. So it’s fair to say that despite not wanting a dog I desperately needed one. My ex and I had an unsettled life together, although that was something else I didn’t really see at the time. The dangerous currents were all underwater, but the surface was smooth. We were successful roommates and occasional lovers, but never precisely friends. In a curious way what we shared was neither passion nor affection but a certain aesthetic sensibility. I liked to cook elaborate dinners, and he liked to arrange flowers. We were popular hosts. He was supportive and kind after Nate died—for that, I have nothing but gratitude—but after the first terrible weeks when my heart broke and broke, after I fixed my face for going out in public again, after I went back to work, our home life returned to its old rhythms, and I felt, more than anything else, alone. A dog, at least, would liven things up.
Still, our first intention was to make Pippi into a kind of accessory to the one part of our relationship that was unquestionably excellent, which was our social life. Chloe the pug was the de facto mascot at e.b.’s women’s clothing store, lounging in the window displays and waddling about convincing ladies to buy a second pair of expensive jeans with her squished, expressive face. Max was both the soul and brand of Mendelson Gallery, a tiny ball of wiry fur in the crook of one of six-and-a-half-foot Steve’s long arms, ever prepared to nip at the fingers of anyone else’s hand. So I imagined Pippi, cocked head and wide eyes, narrow haunches, the picture of dainty canine aristocracy, as the perfect dinner-party companion. She could strut around the garden looking pretty while we all sipped the Spanish white wines that I was serving that summer. I could not quite imagine that while she stood like a ballerina, she would walk like a linebacker, head down and splayfooted. I couldn’t imagine her gargantuan shits. Where did a 17-pound animal store such huge, stinking turds? I couldn’t imagine how delighted she’d be to piss on every rug in the house.
When I think of these early days with Pippi, the placid unknowability that lurked behind her eager dark eyes, I think of an odd and wonderful poem by Delmore Schwartz, “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers.”
Dogs are Shakespearean, children are strangers.
Let Freud and Wordsworth discuss the child,
Angels and Platonists shall judge the dog,
The running dog, who paused, distending nostrils,
Then barked and wailed; the boy who pinched his sister,
The little girl who sang the song from Twelfth Night,
As if she understood the wind and rain,
The dog who moaned, hearing the violins in concert.
—O I am sad when I see dogs or children!
For they are strangers, they are Shakespearean.
It’s one of those precise and unexpected poetic sentiments that strikes you as weird before it strikes you as uncanny. Perhaps it helps that Pippi was a beagle, and like all beagles, Pippi wailed and moaned. Perhaps it helps that I play the violin—badly, and much to Pippi’s past displeasure. For all its strangeness, the poem is apt and exact. “The dog in humble inquiry along the ground,” Schwartz writes in the second stanza. Is there a better description of my pretty girl, nose in the dirt, sniffing around to find her own old poops to eat among the late tomatoes?
In fact, Shakespeare was not fond of dogs. Caroline Spurgeon notes in the wonderful book Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us that Shakespeare associated dogs almost uniformly with what he considered people’s most base characteristics:
In one play, Timon of Athens, in which Shakespeare expressed some of his profoundest as well as his most bitter thoughts, we find that the whole subject is just this particular one about which he felt so acutely—a man betrayed by false friends and flatterers.
What do we find is the central image, the picture constantly before Shakespeare’s eyes in this play? Dogs: dogs fawning and eating and lapping and licking, with “gluttonous maws” devouring their lord’s meat; hounds feasting on the blood of the animal they have killed; dogs being given food denied to men; dogs licking up remnants; dogs being stoned and spurned and kicked; a mangy dog, a sleeping dog, an unpeaceable dog, a beggar’s dog.
Elsewhere, Spurgeon points out, Shakespeare associates dogs with evil itself, “as when Hamlet pictures the king’s guilt ‘unkenneling’ itself as he watches the play, or when he sees John’s fears, following, as a dog, ‘the steps of wrong.’”
Shakespeare isn’t unusual in treating dogs as base and violent creatures. Of course, classical antiquity, from which he drew much of his material, had Argos as the exemplar of faith and friendship; Ulysses’s single tear on having to pass without acknowledging Argos, and Argos’s death upon seeing his master this one final time after twenty years’ absence, may be the most moving passage in all of Homer. But the Bible, which Shakespeare also drew from, is far less kind; dogs are forever devouring men and licking up blood. (There is a strange exception, repeated in Matthew and Mark, where a woman asks Jesus to cast the devil out of her daughter. He replies, rather cryptically, that it isn’t good to take children’s bread and “cast it unto the dogs.” She replies, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” “For this saying,” Jesus tells her, “go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.”)
Well, whatever Shakespeare thought of dogs, they are Shakespearean. What other animal, at least within the human domestic orbit, possesses “so enormously” the quality Keats called negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A dog is her own character, self-created in each moment without any obvious intention, at once reflective of her audience and entirely self-contained, clearly the product in some fashion of a human hand, and yet so seemingly without an authorial inventor.
In her wonderfully cruel and funny college and writing-workshop send-up Blue Angel, Francine Prose ends the very first paragraph with her sad-sack antihero Swenson musing aloud to his “appalled” students, “Is it my imagination, or have we been seeing an awful lot of stories about humans having sex with animals?” This question—literally true of his class and a recurring joke—eventually leads a friend and colleague to suggest he “check out Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Pass it on to your students. It’s the best thing ever written about having sex with a pet.”
I remembered this passage after adopting Pippi, and so I checked out Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. J. R. Ackerley does not actually have sex with his pet, although his memoir does contain many memorable scenes of herculean attempts to find Tulip an ideal mate and get her pregnant, including multiple failed attempts to manually insert a suppository into her vagina, which force the gay writer to return to the “lady vet,” Miss Canvey, and ask in desperation, “Miss Canvey, I’m awfully sorry to bother you again, but where exactly is the vagina?”
Tulip is a wonderful literary creation, but as well as Ackerley reflects her character on the page, he is also remarkably lucid on the essential impenetrability of these animals, the fact that they are, as Schwartz said, not only Shakespearean but also strangers. Considering dogs generally, Ackerley
saw how amiable and well-mannered they were, in a way how sad, above all how nervous with their air of surreptitious guilt, and meeting the mild, worried brown eyes that often studied me and my friendly hand with doubt, I realized clearly, perhaps for the first time, what strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they can never do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or “put to sleep” without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches?
This strikes me not only as very penetrating but as a neat, if unintentional, rejoinder to Shakespeare, a transformation of what the playwright considered essential flaws—false friends, flatterers—into tragic ones, the dog as a hero who risks betrayal and harm by her own nature.
Ackerley also lands on a more mundane truth of our relationships with our dogs. “Did they suffer from headaches?” They are stoical, and it is very hard to know when they’re in discomfort or pain. Pippi, I should mention, had had a relatively tragic life before we got her. She was, as far as we could gather, born in a breeding facility and forced to give birth to at least one litter before somehow ending up at the Rescue League, from which she was adopted not once but twice before we got her, returned each time by a family that found her somehow broken. She was shy of contact, easily spooked, and she did not chase sticks or play games. When she was older and becoming infirm, she learned to love napping with her human companions, but in her spryer years she was wary unless bribed by food. In any case, as she got older, as her health declined, as she injured her back and lost her teeth, I tried to learn to read the subtle signs of posture and comportment for clues to her inner suffering. I never fully succeeded.
Four years after I got her, and just as the pain of losing my brother had begun to transform from a crushing daily thrum to something more acute but intermittent, I had another lousy summer. I was out on my bike and was hit by a car. Or, technically, I hit the car when it swerved in front of me, but either way, beyond a lot of cuts and bruises, I pretty severely injured my right knee. This would eventually necessitate months of physical therapy, but in the weeks immediately afterward, when I was hobbling around the house in a brace and lying around with my leg elevated, my boyfriend broke up with me. It was long overdue; we both knew it. To his credit, he was just the one who worked himself up to saying it. To his discredit, he delivered the news when I was on my back, waiting to hear about a treatment plan and legitimately worried that I might never ride a bike or walk without a limp again. He left, but without the dog.
For animals whose physical suffering is so often obscure to us and who, as Ackerley says, apprehend our minds only “imperfectly,” it’s astonishing how attuned they are to our physical and emotional states, how they feel so precisely when we are sick and when we are sad, when we hurt. I liked Pippi very much up to that point. I enjoyed walking her and chasing her around the dog park by the river. It was pleasant to watch her tail go stiff and vertical and the prospect of a scrap of chicken from our human dinner. I only loved her, though, after we spent the rest of that summer and fall alone together, a time I remember as rainy, although I suspect that it was not. That was when she first allowed me to lay her beside me on the couch or bed, where I’d prop myself up to read while I elevated my painful leg on a stack of pillows. That was when she’d come and sit on the bathmat while I soaked my aching knee in the hottest bath I could bear.
There’s a painting by Pierre Bonnard in the Carnegie Museum of Art here in Pittsburgh, where I live, of the last of his nudes in bathtub, which he only managed to complete after his model, Marthe, who was also his lifelong companion, had died. It’s an alien, opalescent setting of a plain domestic scene—“exotic,” the museum’s narrative calls it. The woman is sunk in the tub up to her chin: beautiful, but melancholy. On the floor, their little dog lies curled on the mat. I used to find that painting a bit overwrought; now it’s one of my favorites in the collection. I can’t imagine there’s any other reason for my aesthetic change of heart than that I came to recognize the dog. It is absurd, logically considered, to propose that the mere presence of some mammal in a room can by itself make a person better, but that is what they do. A dog appears in at least one other Bonnard bathroom scene, but her presence in this particular painting, exactly in the center of the bottom third of the canvas, a dark space amid glowing pastels, seems to me now to also be a gesture toward the unwellness of the woman whom the woman in the bath became.
I met a new man. We fell in love. Around a year later, he moved in, bringing with him his immense, friendly cat, Napoleon—his size versus his name is a part of this cat’s particular charm. Napoleon was in some ways more doglike than Pippi: more readily handled, more solicitous of human attention. He was also able to catch and kill the birds and mice that Pippi only ever chased futilely. They became friends. Pippi followed Napoleon around the yard. Sometimes, when we’d come home, we’d find them curled up together in the same bed. Trevor taught Pippi how to give her paw in exchange for a treat. Napoleon developed an unusual affection for dog food. We were a foursome for four more years.
is it, a dog’s life? We tend to think of our relationships with them in parental terms—there is even a rather silly fad for calling ourselves dog moms and dog dads. I tend to think that they are closer to siblings, younger brothers and sisters caught up in an unshakeable infancy, idolatrous of us, overeager, annoying and solicitous, on our heels hoping we’ll notice them and decide to play. We think of them as stupidly happy, but I think Ackerley is closer to the truth: The profundity of their love for us makes them helplessly sorrowful, which is why even in her moments of the utmost, unmediated joy, a joy that our own nervous and overactive minds makes essentially impossible, a dog’s eyes remain achingly sad.
In the last year, Pippi’s health declined. She’d had persistent dental problems throughout her life. Then she’d injured her back running or jumping too enthusiastically, which caused a weakness in her hind legs from which she never really recovered. She still walked, but more slowly; played, but less readily. She still loved to eat. Then another dental surgery, in preparation for which we discovered a serious heart murmur. Then, so quickly we could hardly believe it, a terrible turn; she lost almost a quarter of her weight. She took to her bed and hardly moved. She barely ate. She stared at the wall. We took her to the vet. The murmur was worse. Her back legs were almost lame. The doctor found a tumor. “On her spleen, or on her liver. We could operate on the spleen, but it’s very unlikely to do any good. If it’s the liver, there’s really nothing we can do.”
My brother died of an opioid overdose, although we learned afterward, after the autopsy, that he also had a congenital defect in his heart that may have contributed. He was alone when he died. Is it absurd, an insult even, to compare that to losing a dog? Yes. Also, no. I got Pippi, that absurd, loud, dirty little animal as recompense for what I’d lost, as a small salve for the injury I suffered when Nathan left the living world. I came to believe her to be a person—not a human, but a person, a sibling substitute. “This which we live behind our unseen faces,” Schwartz wrote:
Is neither dream, nor childhood, neither
Myth, nor landscape, final, nor finished,
For we are incomplete and know no future,
And we are howling or dancing out our souls
In beating syllables before the curtain:
We are Shakespearean, we are strangers.
For more than eight years, I passed nearly every day under the same roof as her; except when I was out of town, I never spent a night not in the same house.
I lost her, too, to an overdose, albeit a deliberate one, one I chose for her as she watched me and heard me without understanding the sentence that I was morally obligated to pass in light of her plain suffering.
First, the doctor injects a painkiller into her hind leg and gives it ten minutes or so to start working. She goes immediately loopy, although it’s a few minutes before her rear legs begin to give out. Still, she waddles around, half-crouching, trying to keep her legs under her. Then two technicians come. They lay her on a blanket. They’re very kind. They shave a portion of her right front leg and set an IV. They flush it with saline as a test. The doctor comes back. There are two syringes to be administered through the IV. The first is a general anesthetic. Pippi’s eyes don’t close, but I see her fall asleep. Her head sinks. The second is the euthanasia solution, chemicals whose effect is to stop nerve transmission. I have one hand on her head and one on her tiny, swift, fluttering heart, which stops.
But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos’ eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away.
I ask for a moment alone with her. I murmur the Mourner’s Kaddish—not really appropriate without a minyan, or for a dog, but it is the only prayer I know for the dead. It praises the name of God “beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort.” Comfort might also be translated as consolation. Then I leave her body in the room and go out to the parking lot where the man I love, who taught her tricks and combed her for fleas and massaged her back when her legs went stiff, who had to leave the room because he could not bear to watch her die, was waiting to console me as far as consolation is possible on this earth, and to help me back to our diminished home.
hundred miles from the North Pole, I climbed a mountain flanked by two glaciers in a tank top. The sun shone on my shoulders and arms. In 2014, the polar vortex killed people in the American Midwest and overwhelmed parts of the South with snow. In 2015, subzero temperatures pummeled the United States in the so-called Arctic blast. 2016 saw epic floods in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi; a flooded Seine that put a halt to foot and road traffic, displacing houseless people and sending shipping debris across Paris; and exceptionally warm weather and severe storms, including an avalanche that killed one and injured nine more in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. June 2016 found me attending an artist residency in Svalbard; my goal was to consider the connections between these events—the ongoing effects of climate change—and marine pollution, which has long been the focus of my work. These connections, I’ve learned, are especially visible in the Arctic.
Svalbard, an archipelago located between 76 and 81 degrees north, is roughly equidistant from the northern shore of Norway and the North Pole and home to the world’s northernmost human settlement with over 1,000 inhabitants. Its capital, Longyearbyen, was founded for coal mining in 1906; today the small city is sustained by tourism marketing “untouched Arctic wilderness”: glaciers and as many polar bears as people. But this “wilderness” is threatened by melting sea ice. Thanks to polar amplification, the phenomenon that magnifies global temperature shifts at the poles, climate change is hitting Svalbard particularly hard. While land and sea temperatures are increasing steadily around the world, average temperatures in the Arctic have shot up by 2.3 degrees Celsius since 1970. It has been another record-low year for sea ice, and polar-bear populations—a keystone species in Arctic habitats—are rapidly shrinking as a result. Melting ice means that polar bears, who live primarily on seals, have fewer and fewer places to hunt.
The residency took place on a boat. For two weeks, we sailed around the Svalbard archipelago and north to the edge of the Arctic pack ice before circling back to land. At sea, we kept an eye out for polar bears. The single one we saw was walking along a coastline a few hundred kilometers south of the southernmost edge of what was once considered the permanent Arctic ice cap. Even without binoculars, you could see the bear was starving, and his (our guides deduced the sex from his body structure) pace looked determined, to say the least. Without ice from which to hunt, he was out of luck for finding a substantial meal for the next several months; when he took a detour up to the base of a cliff a handful of meters inland from the rocky shore, it was likely to look for birds’ eggs to eat. But it takes 2,000 eggs to equal the calories of one seal. After being yelled at by a blue fox—a high shriek loud enough to carry from the mountainside to our ship and then some—the bear returned to the coastline.
Melting ice is not the only threat this polar bear faced. Even where ice is plentiful, chemical contaminants and plastic marine debris threaten bears’ abilities to survive. Persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—used in coolants, carbonless copy paper, plasticizers in paint and cement, pesticide extenders, flame retardants, and more until they were banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001—leach into ocean water from plastic waste and enter the food web at the level of plankton. PCBs and other contaminants also bond to plastics and are ingested that way. As with climate change, these problems are amplified at the poles. Chemicals get concentrated in the Arctic through the grasshopper effect, a process in which contaminants leap through the atmosphere by evaporating in warmer areas and condensing in cooler ones. Plastic debris travels, too, arriving in the Arctic on marine currents. The West Spitsbergen Current carries warm, salty water across the Atlantic from the Gulf Stream to Svalbard, spitting whatever it’s brought with it out into the ocean north of the archipelago.
Each time we departed the boat for a brief foray on land, we observed these dynamics viscerally. On every beach we visited, we encountered debris from all over the world. Some of the articles were huge, like buoys and large ropes from the fishing industry. One of our guides found an orange plastic basket completely intact. A colleague collected a perfect tiny yellow fishing float and a matching yellow buoy the size of a bowling ball. Another picked up a toy doll’s arm. And then there were all the microplastics, pieces too small to pick up, many smaller than a fingernail. One day, on a beach in Sørvika, we collected 41 kilos of trash and left even more of it behind.
Because polar bears are high up in the food web and rely on fat-intensive diets, pollutants accumulate in especially high volumes in their blood. PCBs also raise their progesterone levels, acting as contraception. And though the effects are especially pronounced in polar bears, they show up throughout the food web. In Arctic birds such as the glaucous gull and fulmar, PCB syndromes include disorientation; weakened birds have been found crawling around with sores on the knuckles of their wings. PCBs have also been shown to reduce immune responses in Arctic char, a cold-water fish, and inhibit reproduction in Arctic foxes; they may explain population declines in orcas, the most highly polluted Arctic mammal.
This is all disastrous for people who live in the Arctic, especially the 10 percent who are indigenous. When seals and walruses die off from melting ice, a major source of physical and cultural sustenance is gone. While ice is still there, people are ingesting the chemicals that build up in the animals’ fatty tissues. Marine debris piled up on the beach acts as a vector for PCBs and other toxic compounds and, when small enough, enters drinking water, where humans ingest the fragments and whatever contaminants have bonded to them.
Put simply, you can’t separate the effects of melting ice, chemicals, and plastics on bears, gulls and people. After the residency concluded in Longyearbyen, I stayed for a few weeks and met with the ecotoxicologist Geir Wing Gabrielsen, coleader of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, which studies regional pollution and climate-change issues. Though Gabrielsen’s work focuses on marine contaminants’ effects on marine life, he began our meeting by asking how far north we had to sail to reach the pack ice. From there our conversation ranged from debris in Advent Fjord, on which Longyearbyen sits, to toxicity burdens in birds like guillemots to the way climate change forces Atlantic plankton north, displacing Arctic plankton, to similar shifts in local fish populations.
We weren’t rambling for nothing. This mode of inquiry, so mobile and dense with connections, is key to understanding how the Arctic is changing—and to analyzing the ways environmental damage compounds in oceans around the world. Climate change exacerbates the effects of marine pollution, not just through weather events but through slower changes like those in food web structures and reproduction patterns I have been describing. Simultaneously, marine debris deepens the effects of climate change through the grasshopper effect, polar amplification, ocean temperature changes, and limiting the ocean’s capacity to function as a carbon sink.
Rebecca Solnit writes that “climate change is itself violence.” I want to extend that formulation: Marine pollution, in the forms of plastics and the chemical contaminants that both leach from and bond to them, is a parallel form of violence. Within ecotoxicology circles, this idea is becoming a kind of common sense. Marte Haave, an ecotoxicologist I met at the University of Bergen in Norway, suggested when I interviewed her that plastics themselves should be labeled and regulated as persistent organic pollutants. Max Liboiron, assistant professor of geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has named pollution a form of colonialism.
It is important to be precise in naming the cause of the twin violences of climate change and pollution: capitalism, an extractive economic system built on oil, plastics, and, above all, expediency. Here again these things can’t be separated. Oil companies see plastics as part of their bottom line; plastics, in conjunction with resin products, generated $105 billion in revenue in the United States in 2014 alone. Profit margins also depend on a logistics industry that can ship these commodities around the world, and quickly, all the while burning more oil. At the heart of capitalism as we know it is an insistence on ease and speed, no matter how wasteful it might be.
As with so many issues of environmental justice, those who suffer the most are not the ones who created the conditions of their suffering. It’s not Gwich’in people who have chosen to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It’s not walruses who have opened up the Northwest Passage to shipping and tourism. It’s not glaucous gulls who have decided to aggressively market single-use plastic packaging that so often doesn’t make it to—or stay confined in—the landfill. And yet it is these humans and nonhumans who are urgently facing the impossibility of living in ecosystems flooded with petroleum products at all stages of their life cycles, from plastic zip ties to dioxin.
As capitalism renders this planet uninhabitable for so many people, animals, and plants, it’s too late to continue ignoring other possible ways of organizing production and distribution. We need alternatives. This requires thinking beyond borders and species. This begs us to address gendered and racialized injustice. This demands, most centrally, that we reimagine how we make sense of and live on this planet. In my conversation with Marte Haave, she reiterated that Arctic plastic pollution is the result of a system that pursues expediency above all else. If capitalist expediency is what ultimately threatens the oceans with temperature changes, pollution, and habitat loss, what might happen when we refuse it?
Read Full Article
Read for later
Articles marked as Favorite are saved for later viewing.
Scroll to Top
Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.