Sunday, May 17, 2015

NYT: The Same-Sex Couple Who Got a Marriage License in 1971

Minneapolis couple Jack Baker and Michael McConnell were profiled on the front page of today's Sunday New York Times as the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license, in 1970. Read their fascinating story here.

The University of Minnesota Press will publish their memoir in January 2016.

MINNEAPOLIS — Long before the fight over same-sex marriage began in earnest, long before gay couples began lining up for marriage licenses, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell decided to wed.

The year was 1967. Homosexuality was still classified as a disorder, sodomy was illegal in nearly every state, and most gay men and lesbians lived in fearful secrecy.

But from the age of 14, eyeing young men in his father’s barbershop, Mr. McConnell dreamed of living “happily ever after” with a partner.

So when Mr. Baker proposed moving in together, Mr. McConnell challenged him. “If we’re going to do this,” he replied, “you have to find a way for us to get married.”

Mr. Baker remembers his initial reaction: “I had never heard of such a thing.”

He enrolled in law school to try to make it happen.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bruce H. Kramer on finding a place of balance and harmony while living with the "dis ease" of ALS.

Bruce H. Kramer, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2010, speaks with
Cathy Wurzer about the power of reaching out in a still from this video.

Bruce H. Kramer, a former dean at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in December 2010. Roughly four years and three months later, Kramer's journey with ALS ended and he passed away on March 23, 2015. During that period of time, Kramer documented his thoughts, musings, and experiences living with ALS in a blog, the Dis Ease Diary, that he started about three months into his diagnosis. Kramer also recorded an ongoing occasional series of honest and heartfelt segments about living with ALS with Minnesota Public Radio's Cathy Wurzer.

Wurzer and Kramer grew to develop a deep friendship through the course of their broadcast conversations. They also co-wrote a book, We Know How This Ends: Living while Dying, in which Kramer offers an unflinchingly honest account of his progression with the disease, and Wurzer frames his writing with observations of her own.

In this excerpt, Kramer reflects upon the persuasive power of photographs to knock one's consciousness into self-acceptance.


Excerpt from the chapter "The Widening Gyre" from We Know How This Ends by Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.

Almost to the day that I turned fifty, I experienced a phenomenon that many of my older and wiser friends easily recognized. I would get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and wonder, Who is that old man staring back at me? Or I would be walking by a bank of windows, and I would catch a glimpse of myself and not recognize the person looking back. As I have continued to age, this experience has only continued to heighten. You might interpret my nonrecognition as narcissistic, and I guess I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Yet I believe something instructive exists in whether we fully recognize our physical selves. I had this experience recently when I downloaded pictures from a small trip we made to Chicago. There was one picture in particular that when it came up on the computer, made me stop and wonder if that was really me.

We spent our first day at Millennium Park. Chicago has a well-developed park system along the lake, but when Millennium Park was built, it was highly controversial due to its cost and location—a park on some of the most valuable land in downtown Chicago. Now, nearly ten years after its opening, it is a place of energy and fun and wonderful amenities enjoyed by thousands of people every day, even in the winter. We spent almost two hours listening to the Grant Park Orchestra rehearsing an upcoming performance of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, enjoying the bizarre sculptures, and of course, no visit is complete without hanging around the great fountain that projects pictures of faces between its two monoliths—children and adults splashing in its puddles and standing under its bubbling waters. The whole park is meant to be interactive.

That day—lovely and sunny and cool for July—invited us to linger in the park, enjoying its beauty, recording the occasion with lots of pictures. Toward the entrance of the park, we stopped for a picture: Evelyn bending down to be at my height, me in the wheelchair, crooked, Buddha-bellied, hands tired from steering. I describe this in such terms because for the first time in a long time, I was surprised at my lack of recognition that it was me in the picture. Something about the picture projected what I think of as ALS posture—a picture that my subconscious has always seen in others but not in myself. It broke through my denial, spilling waves of cognitive dissonance between the body I have, the person I am, and the way I see myself. Suddenly, I saw myself with others’ eyes, and all of those old feelings about disability and deniability came rushing back as if I realized my disabled condition for the first time all over again.

I guess I really am a TAB (temporarily able-bodied person) at heart. I just can’t help it.

It was the circling gyre all over again—a point on the path of dis ease that I thought I had put behind me—only to spiral around to a deeper (or perhaps more superficial) interpretation of that same event. I thought that I had reached some semblance of acceptance—where this physical body is what it is, and my own self-worth is not a by-product of physical capacity’s superficial interpretation. You can imagine how surprised I was, not just by the picture but by my own over-the-top reaction of shock and denial.

Usually I have my head around these things, and I am able to live within my disability with a pretty healthy attitude, but seeing that picture put me right back into the denial I had experienced when my ALS first began. And associated with such denial is an unhealthy self-esteem tied up in physical projection. I questioned whether I deserved the love and attention of my family and my friends, because, after all, I was not whole, I was not well, I was ALS personified—scoliosis, gut protruding, wheelchair bound, muscles deteriorating. Not a pretty sight.

All of this from one picture? Eventually, I was able to find balance, harmony—a place where I could accept that it is just my body, and the space that I occupy is far greater than the capability and capacity my body projects.

In working on this book, the revision of various blog entries from nearly four years ago requires close consideration of my narrative in dis ease—trolling through earlier postings, journals, and even pictures. And this has not been easy. Sitting inside any former blog entry is grief for some hidden reference, some thing I was able to do then but cannot do now. Inside every picture is an image of my old normal, even when I thought it was the new normal. Inside this book is grief for the teaching I can no longer do. Dis ease has taught me that looking to the past brings grief, and that has been my experience, exponentially multiplied as I circled back into the writing, the imagery, the progression, the old me.

Circling back is not for the faint of heart. Circling back is complex. It is hard to look at images from the past, frozen in their time, stripped of their context and feeling, and not judge them too harshly with the sharpened understanding of focused hindsight. I was doing the best I could at the time. You would do the same.

I now recognize that circling back is not really what I have been doing. Instead I have been spiraling down, deepening the experience so that what was once old normal confidence is now vulnerability, what was once an equal partnership riding on the roads must now be even more intimate in how we look out for each other. And in the ultimate spiral, as I flip through images of the effects of dis ease on my family and friends—and especially my one true love, Ev—I must spiral into understanding that my fears were both well founded and inadequate in anticipation of what was to come.


Bruce H. Kramer (1956–2015) was former dean of the College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was the creator of The Dis Ease Diary (, a popular blog about life with ALS, and coauthor of Leading Ethically in Schools and Other Organizations, a realistic look at leadership ethics.

The host of Minnesota Public Radio’s flagship news program Morning Edition, Cathy Wurzer has been broadcasting conversations with Bruce H. Kramer about his ALS experiences since 2011. She is also the cohost of Almanac on Twin Cities Public Television, the longest-running weekly public affairs program in the nation.

"Security and immortality are both superstitions; the best we can do is make an adventure of our lives. In this exquisite book, Bruce H. Kramer finds adventure in the most unlikely of places: the death sentence that is ALS. We Know How This Ends is a moving tale that teaches us more about living well than any self-help book ever can."
—Dan Buettner, New York Times bestselling author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fractured Media Materialities: On Geology of Media

Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton

Fracking is a controversial process of forcing the ground open in order to extract gas and oil. The process has had its deserved amount of critique because of the environmental hazards it poses and how such rather desperate means of fossil energy extraction are continuing the wider CO2-heavy era of technological culture.

But what is virtual, or photographic, fracking? In Grayson Cooke’s art project, Cooke replicates the idea of using chemicals to fracture and stimulate the earth to open it up but with a focus on photographic materials. The chemistry of media he engages with uses hydrochloric acid, acetic acid, and sodium hydroxide to “frack” the images of Australian sandstone and shale rock. The image is not a representation, nor an allegory, so much as a doubling of the violent geological process.

Cooke’s project is a fantastic way to introduce the central idea behind A Geology of Media. The book argues that in order to understand the materiality of media in the age of advanced technologies, we need to also look beyond the actual media devices. On the one hand, this can mean to address the wider infrastructures in which apparatuses are functional – communication enabled by cables, masts, power plants and also the logistics that catalyse the delivery of our energy and materials. And on the other hand, indeed the materials that support the existence of media as media: rare earths and other materials used in casings, cables, wirings, motherboards, etc.

The book comes with a provocation: What if media history is not merely the couple of thousands of years of media devices and techniques for and by humans, or our use practices and political economy – but also conditioned by planetary durations? We nowadays speak increasingly of the massive scales of planetary design and ideas of planetary computation; this idea is bootstrapped by the fact that earth materialities enable the existence of media.

Massive operations of mining, energy extraction, and dubious labour practices are still too often behind many of our usual digital devices. What’s more is the aftereffect in terms of electronic waste. Just recently, a UN report revealed – again – the extent of this problem: electronic waste will reach the gigantic amount of 50 megatons by 2018 and in ways that are extremely unbalanced. Not merely media waste, but technological waste in general, such objects and components are mostly generated in European countries and the US even if at the same time countries like Nigeria and Ghana function as “e-waste graveyards,” putting a new twist to the term “dead media.”

Besides the crucial need for empirical and globally widespread research with innovative methods that can feed into more progressive policies and environmental actions, which can range from the local to the planetary, theoretical writing can speak to these themes, too. Contextualising its message in media theory, environmental humanities, and the work on cultural theory of materiality, A Geology of Media is the third part of a book trilogy on media ecologies, inspired originally by the work of Matthew Fuller, as well as German media theory; writings by Sean Cubitt and Jennifer Gabrys; and many other scholars. It continues the earlier books on viral, contagious digital culture (Digital Contagions, 2007) and media archaeology of animals (Insect Media, 2010), but with an even stronger environmental focus. The need to think of geology not merely as a conceptual shift in theoretical discussions, but also as something that touches on environmental themes is a necessity mobilized in this book.

“The Anthropocene” is only one recent term—an influential one for sure—that is an attempt to address the chemical-technological world of interlocked economic, ecological, political, and social forces. Hence, A Geology of Media is a way to understand this bind in media-specific terms, too, while acknowledging that the environment opens up to the discussions concerning our economic practices, works through neo-colonial ties between the Global North and the Global South, and is constantly distributed in most uneven ways.

Like the example we started with, Cooke’s art project, it is often in contemporary design and media arts that we find an audiovisual expression of this complex ecological situation. Contemporary art, from The Otolith Group to The Crystal World project (Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp, and Ryan Jordan), to the work of Katie Paterson, to Critical Infrastructure by Jamie Allen and David Gauthier, provides examples of art that is embedded in thinking about the geological. More recent projects, such as Abelardo G. Fournier’s Mineral Vision, have addressed the connection of materials like copper and digital computation and vision systems. Indeed, we need to be aware that design and art projects are well-positioned to articulate this situation; it’s a mode of knowledge that works in and through art methods as methods of ecology; of working in and with the materials that constitute the technological culture even if often in precarious, sometimes even toxic, ways.


Dr. Jussi Parikka is Professor in technological culture and aesthetics at University of Southampton, Winchester School of Art. He is also Docent in Digital Culture Theory at University of Turku, Finland and the author and editor of various books on media, arts and communication, including A Geology of Media. He blogs at Machinology.

Friday, April 24, 2015

25 years of Hubble images from space: strange, alien, phenomenal—and yet somehow, familiar.

This image created by the Hubble Space Telescope
is often referred to as the "Pillars of Creation." It has
been a common subject for painters such as Thomas Moran.

Stanford University

On April 24, 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into its orbit above Earth. During its 25 years in space, astronomers have used Hubble data to develop vividly colored, highly resolved, and carefully composed pictures of nebulae, galaxies, and star fields. These sublime pictures now define how we see and imagine the universe.

To celebrate Hubble’s years of observing the cosmos, NASA has added a new image to the telescope’s gallery. The picture centers on Westerlund 2, a giant star cluster located in the constellation Carina, and it exhibits many of the characteristics made familiar by earlier Hubble images. This is not a universe in stark black and white, but the heavens on display in a full spectrum of vibrant hues—blues, reds, and purples. The sharply resolved details of the nebula give a sense of mass and volume to the pillars of gas and dust that reach out of its curving form. In the foreground, the gaseous clouds are dark, but they brighten as they recede into the distance. The change in contrast gives the picture depth. It invites us to explore the vastness and complexity of the nebula, to travel through what NASA’s press release describes as “a fantasy landscape of pillars, ridges, and valleys.” As with many other Hubble images, it’s a picture that evokes an experience of awe and wonder.

Many of the best-known Hubble images encourage this kind of response through a resemblance to landscape paintings and photographs of the American West. For example, the Hubble’s famous picture of a small region of the Eagle Nebula, often called the “Pillars of Creation,” orients the scene so the towers reach toward the top of the frame. The dramatic light that shines from behind pulls our eyes upward, further emphasizing the verticality and monumentality of the forms. It brings to mind the rocky towers that are icons of the American West, and a common subject for painters and photographers such as Thomas Moran, William Henry Jackson, and Timothy O’Sullivan. The color scheme chosen by astronomers who crafted the image lend support to the analogy. The hues map the relative wavelengths as registered through different filters on the Hubble’s camera, but it also means that we see towers of yellow, red, and brown with a blue-green sky in the background. In sum, the astronomers who translated the Hubble data into a picture carefully balanced the need for a scientifically valid image with the desire for aesthetically compelling one.

The similarity to the American landscapes encourages a particular response. The images show us strange and alien scenes, and they remind us about the vast size and scale of the cosmos and the celestial objects within it. But they also look familiar. They look like places that we could imagine visiting.

Despite the invitation, the Eagle Nebula and Westerlund 2 are too far away for humans or even our space probes to reach. They depict a frontier that we can only cross in our imaginations, or in a figurative sense, as astronomers learn more about the physical process at work in the universe.

Most of the time, astronomers and image processors at NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (the research center charged with the management of the telescope) have left it to our imaginations to take us over that frontier. (Movie fan—whether science fiction buffs or IMAX enthusiasts—have experienced a few fly-throughs based on Hubble’s images of nebulae and galaxies.) But with the 25th anniversary, we don’t have to rely on our imaginations or wait for the movie version. In addition to the still image, NASA and STScI have also developed and released animations that begin with a view of the night sky as seen from earth, travel to the location of Westerlund 2 and its surrounding nebula, and then into its sweeping cloud formations. For just a few moments, we float above that fantasy landscape before looking up the tightly clustered stars that the press release likens to a fireworks display.

It’s the fulfillment of the invitation issued by older Hubble images. Instead of stopping at the frontier of the image, we cross over it and indulge our senses with the spectacular scenery. It’s a thrillingly perspective, and it’s only too tempting to forget that we only see like this courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope and those who translate its data into such sublime views.


Elizabeth A. Kessler is author of Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. She teaches at Stanford University. She has been awarded fellowships by the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum and Stanford University.

"A gorgeously-illustrated and thoughtful new academic book. An analysis of space pictures unlike anything you've ever read before." —io9

"Readers of this book will never view Hubble images the same way again." —Library Journal

Friday, April 10, 2015

Introducing "Verge: Studies in Global Asias"

The history of scholarship on Asian America, when juxtaposed with the fields
of Asian Studies, reminds us how much nations, national movements, and
other forms of national development continue to exert influence on the world
in which we live.
Image from Shutterstock.


Now, more than ever, the singularities of world history—whether imagined as a Hegelian “end of history” via the universalization of liberal democracy, a utopian fulfillment of the dream of total market capitalism, the consolidation of realpolitikal fault lines dividing economic orders or social regimes, or as the production of a single worldwide Weltanschauung via some combination of media consolidation and the internet, each of which has been called “globalization”—require us to understand the past, the present, and the futures of Asia. The immediate reasons for doing so are clear: the increasing influence, economic and political, of the new Asian superpowers, China and India; the alternative systems of human rights emerging from the “Asian values” debate; Asia’s role as the socio-cultural vanguard of global futures and global geographies, captured in the techno-Orientalist imaginaries of films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, and The Ghost in the Shell, or in scholarly analyses of the postmodern, cosmopolitan megacity; the possibility that among the first victims of global warming will be the Republic of Kiribati, two of whose islands disappeared underwater in 1999; the still-emerging political effects of powerful transnational communities of “flexible citizens” in Singapore, Taiwan, or India; and, finally, the growing global influence of diasporic communities of Asians abroad—in the United States, in Europe, in Africa, in Australia, and of course elsewhere in Asia itself.

And yet the belated “arrival” of Asia on the shores of the global present obscures, if we allow it, the fact that Asia has been present in the world-making project of history and human life from the very beginning. We may want to say that the “rise” of Europe made that longer history difficult to see, or attribute the epistemological limitations of twentieth-century historiography to an effect of power-knowledge structures that derive from critical kinds of conceptual divergence. Nonetheless, we must now recognize that the kinds of “world” historical claims made for the twentieth century (or even the sixteenth) relied for their force on a very particular theory of what made history “worldly.” Restoring a long view to the history of Asia’s place in and as the world in order to better understand and shape how we think about the present is one of the most pressing tasks for serious humanistic work about world-systems and the imaginative geographies they simultaneously enact and exemplify.

At the same time, we must recognize that the world built out of the putative European “divergence” from Asia can be characterized equally well by a series of subsequent convergences, a mixing together of ideas, people, and things that has left untouched no corner of the planet. “Globalization” is, in fact, one name for this converging impulse, which seems at times to emerge as much from universal history itself as from any personal impulse to connect, to transact, or to travel. To think globalization today is thus to think a pattern: divergence, then convergence … and then, beyond a certain limit … divergence again? No one knows. But it is our job to speculate, and to learn as much as we can from the example of the past, which has the advantage of being what we can know and the disadvantage of being always a bit, or more, unlike the presents and futures that face us.


Much of this work on transnationalism has, paradoxically, highlighted the continued relevance of the nation-state to the formation of culture, the practice of history, and to the realm of international affairs. There is no transnationalism without the nation. Here the history of scholarship on Asian America, when juxtaposed with the fields of Asian Studies, reminds us how much nations, national movements, and other forms of national development continue to exert powerful effects on the world in which we live. Such movements also remind us of the importance of inter-nationalism, of the kinds of networks that can spring up between states and which can work to disrupt the smooth passage of the planet into a utopian post-national future. We should make clear at this juncture that Asian American Studies stands in for a broader commitment to studying Asian influence—the migration of people, things, and ideas from the region we call “Asia” today, or recognized as Asian in any given historical context—as globally as possible. We conceive of its inclusion as a starting point for inclusiveness, rather than a limit to it. The growing interest in the global and the transnational across disciplines thus brings the various Asia-oriented fields and disciplines—history and literature, Asia and Asian America, East and South, modern and premodern—closer together. Verge aims to occupy and enlarge that proximity.

Verge’s project emphasizes doubly decentered scholarship and what emerges is a new kind of materialist history: a history that shows how the ideas at stake in traditionally centered forms of scholarship emerge through and shape the material activities that act as their ground. This decentered approach has made it possible today to imagine a journal that includes scholarship from scholars in both Asian and Asian American Studies. These two fields have traditionally defined themselves in opposition to one another, the former focused on an area-studies, nationally and politically oriented approach, the latter emphasizing epistemological categories, including ethnicity and citizenship, that draw mainly on the history of the United States. The past decade has seen a series of rapprochements in which, for instance, categories “belonging” to Asian American Studies (ethnicity, race, diaspora) have been applied with increasing success to studies of Asia. For example, Asian Studies has responded to the postnational turn in the humanities and social sciences by becoming increasingly open to rethinking its national and regional insularities, and to work that pushes, often literally, on the boundaries of Asia as both a place and a concept. At the same time, Asian American Studies has become increasingly aware of the ongoing importance of Asia to the Asian American experience, and thus more open to work that is transnational or multilingual, as well as to forms of scholarship that challenge the US-centrism of concepts governing the Asian diaspora.

More generally, one might say that the historically awkward split whereby the study of immigrants from Asia was relegated to a variety of national studies, most prominently Asian American, while the “home” countries of those same immigrants were studied under the area studies model, has produced a model of “uneven” or differential development, in which the conceptual categories used to study one group of people (such as ethnicity, citizenship, labor, in the case of Asian American Studies) have been quite different than those used to study the ancestors or relatives of that same group (community, urbanization, trade). Bringing the two disciplinary fields together thus allows us to cross-pollinate the categories of analysis, asking, for instance, how a concept like the nomad, so important in a variety of Asian Studies fields, might usefully be applied to Asian American populations, and to ask, in turn, if the evidence from the Asian American example can usefully shape the concept of the nomadic as an evolving mode of social being (in a radically different historical context).

Asia and its relationship to the world

The experiment here is therefore not to produce a superficial convergence of interest in Asia (or to ratify some ethnic commonality to a new version of “Asian” history). Verge responds, rather, to the enormous recent growth in scholarship that asks how Asian immigrants around the world have served as conduits for a variety of Asian concepts, objects, or forms of social life (perhaps most obviously in terms of food), and as vectors for economic and cultural transactions directed from their new homes back to their old ones, in ways that substantively affect the history of Asia—and vice versa. And we turn, via our observation of the effects of this historically local series of happenings on our own contemporary societies, to a variety of questions involving the production of the global, or of world-systems, that extend all the way back to the earliest moments of human history. “Asia” has been “global” since long before the diasporas of the nineteenth century; the question is how, and why, and what kinds of forms—social, cultural, and historical—have consolidated themselves around the various forms of locality and worldliness that characterize any dynamic culture.

We therefore invite work that showcases the intersection between Asia and the globe—these two concepts vibrating, to be sure, between their purely fictional meanings, and their most ordinary, commonsensical ones—that considers the interaction of cultures from the earliest beginnings of human civilization, and that remembers that if we consider plant or animal life, the transactions go back well beyond that blessed beginning. If we are to recognize the importance of flow and movement as factors in the production of world history, we cannot restrict the study of Asia to any fixed geographic region of the planet, any historical period, or even, if we take Naoki Sakai’s suggestion that “we should use the word Asian in such a way as to emphasize the fluidity of the very distinction between the West and Asia rather than its persistence” seriously, any specific cultural or biologically constituted population. “Asia” happens anytime, everywhere, and applies to everyone: Verge studies it as a global concept.


Tina Chen and Eric Hayot are editors of Verge: Studies in Global Asias, a journal that showcases scholarship on “Asian” topics from across the humanities and humanistic social sciences, while recognizing that the changing scope of “Asia” as a concept and method is today an object of vital critical concern.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On California's Water-Free Future

California's Mono Lake, pictured in August 2014.

Professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri

The solution to California’s drought is simple: stop shipping water to China. Farmers, who use 80% of the state’s water, ship crops containing “virtual water” (the water used to grow these crops) to places like China, Afghanistan, and Turkey. Stopping these exports would save six trillion gallons of water per day—enough to solve the problem in the short run. In fact, California could shut down farming altogether and still be fine, since agribusiness only supplies 2% of the state's GDP. But in the long run, as I told my mother, it is time to think about moving out of California. Luckily, my mom followed my advice, packed up her house in California, and moved to Seattle, where water is cheap and plentiful . . . at least until Californians come for it, which is everyone’s fear north of the border.

California is the world’s guinea pig, since it was the first in the world to construct massive concrete water transfer systems, beginning with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. These systems have a natural lifespan, yet California was built on the fallacy that indefinite, inexhaustible growth was possible by moving water around like so many chess pieces. Back then, the idea was that you could drain swamps, irrigate, and otherwise spread water evenly across California to create the Jeffersonian dream of small farmers. Today, California’s water politics are like a giant chess game in which everyone is losing—yet no one will stop playing because they’ve been playing so long.

I always tell people to watch California to see the consequences of modern water conveyance systems.  California destroyed 90% of its wetlands. Its dams silted up and are some are being taken down. The west side of Central Valley is becoming a salt-covered desert. (Just drive down “Alkali Street” at the Tachi-Yokut reservation, and you will see what I mean.) Two regions have become toxic dust bowls, and the state is frantically trying to figure out how to fix these problems. Today, I use California as an example of what not to do.

Throw climate change in the mix, and you have a major disaster. Currently, the Sierra Nevada mountains have only received 6% of their average snowpack, which has never happened before in recorded history. Governor Jerry Brown has mandated that urban users receive only 75% of their normal water supplies. The extra 69% will come from reservoir storage, groundwater pumping, and the Colorado River. Yet NASA scientists are saying California only has one year worth of stored water left. What will happen the following year? While people complain about being in a four-year drought, the truth is that they should be planning for a 20- or 30-year drought. As the planet heats up, weather patterns change, rocks warm, and snow melts.

Today, urban Californians complain (rightly so) that Brown did not cut water for farmers—most likely because they fund his campaigns. So farmers will keep getting their water, based on a complicated and arcane allotment system; many will use that water on wasteful flood irrigation. Others will pump groundwater, which is cracking housing foundations and causing wells to go dry. Californians should not have to suffer health consequences from a lack of running water so a neighboring farmer can sell pistachios to Afghanistan. This is an equity and human rights issue, and residents could actually sue the state thanks to a legally enforceable U.N. resolution stating that everyone has the right to an adequate supply of clean water. Some farmers are choosing to sell their water at astronomical prices ($700 to $1,800 an acre-foot) to urban areas, making larger profits than they would from farming. Water markets, which everyone promised would solve the problem, are instead allowing agribusiness to gouge urban consumers and dry up neighbors’ wells.

At the same time, the last thing California needs is a third toxic dust bowl in the Central Valley, so I am not actually advocating stopping farming. Instead, what California needs are simple regulations about how farmers can farm, such as:

1) Do not allow farming for export, which essentially exports California’s water.

2) Enforce laws stating that farms should be no more than 960 acres. Farmers have been finding loopholes around these laws since they were enacted. The initial proposal was that a family farm would be 160 acres, which later changed to 960 acres. How we got to 10,000-plus-acre farms is another story.

3) Provide incentives for growing drought-resistant crops and switching to organic, which uses less water and rebuilds soils to allow them to retain more moisture.

4) Provide incentives for permaculture, agroforestry, and agroecology techniques. The World Bank is already doing this in marginal lands around the world, knowing that these methods are less water intensive and rebuild the soil. Permaculture is being deployed in Australia to deal with its drought, and there are plenty of permaculture experts in California who could be enlisted to help.

5) Fertilize with biochar. Biochar is a charcoal-based soil additive used both to fertilize and combat climate change because it captures carbon in the soil.

Finally: plan for the worst. Even if we were to stop all carbon emissions today, the planet would still warm another 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (.8 C) as the ocean releases stored carbon. More importantly, climate change is happening now and no one really knows what “now” will look like anymore.


Karen Piper is author of The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming ChaosCartographic Fictions, and Left in the Dust, which the Los Angeles Times has called an “eco-thriller” that every “tap-turning American” should read. A regular contributor to Places magazine, Piper is also a winner of Sierra’s Nature Writing Award and has published in numerous academic journals. She is professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri.

"Tack-sharp reportage. Piper’s report makes for anxious yet informative reading." —Kirkus Reviews

"A deeply moving exposé of how ordinary people’s lives can be altered irrevocably by corporate greed." —New York Journal of Books

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Autism Awareness Day 2015: Adding "acceptance" and "alliance" into conversations about autism.

Simplican, pictured here with her brother, discusses
the range of diversity in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Postdoctoral fellow, Michigan State University

Today is World Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day. The organization Autism Speaks is promoting a “Light It Up Blue” campaign to encourage individuals and whole cities to go "blue" to raise awareness about autism. If you are reading this blog post a day late, don’t worry. All of April is dedicated to Autism Awareness and Acceptance, so you still have time to find that blue tie or scarf.

But beyond wearing blue, what should we do to commemorate this day and month for autism awareness and acceptance? That question has been heavy on my mind. I want to use my blog post to raise awareness about the spectrum of the autism community.

When I say spectrum, I’m not talking about diagnostic criteria—although these diagnostic categories are important. Briefly put, in 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders made a dramatic change in how autism is classified by uniting a whole range of “disorders” (including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified) into a unified category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

What this means is that there is huge diversity in people with ASD. Let me give you two quick examples. Last week I participated in a research colloquium on a study conducted using virtual reality technology with thirty adults with ASD. Many of the research participants were in the audience and they discussed their perceptions of the virtual reality experiences and potential future uses of the technology. The conversation was stimulating, funny, and—for the researchers—very rewarding. This is one point on the spectrum.

A few days later, I received an update about my adult brother with autism. My brother lives in a developmental center with about 100 other people with severe to profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. My brother has not said a word since he was two years old—now almost 30 years ago. I would love to give my brother a high-tech tablet so I can at least see him, since I can’t talk to him. But my brother has challenging behavior. A long trail of demolished televisions, DVD players, walls, toilets, light fixtures, door frames, and many other objects follow in his wake. He is another point on the spectrum.

But like I said, I want to raise awareness about the spectrum of the autism community. This spectrum explains why activists call this day either Autism Awareness or Autism Acceptance Day.

Autism Speaks is promoting World Autism Awareness Day, as it has done since 2008. Autism Speaks describes itself as “the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism.” Hence, Autism Speaks takes a medical model approach to autism. If we are raising this kind of awareness, then we will probably focus on finding medical interventions that can alleviate the symptoms of autism, or finding the genetic causes of autism in the hopes of eliminating future cases of autism.

Disability activists, however, have criticized the medical model approach to disability precisely because of its emphasis on rehabilitation and cure, rather than an emphasis on human rights and civic participation. This explains the acceptance part of the day. Autism Acceptance Day was started in 2011. This approach promotes accepting autism as a “natural part of the human experience,” promoting human rights of people with autism, and listening to the voices of people with autism.

Hence, just like autism is a spectrum, so too is the advocacy community. As a feminist theorist who works on issues of social justice, I appreciate the work of autism activists in shifting attention to acceptance rather than awareness. But I want to push back and ask: are there risks in acceptance?

The definition of acceptance is “the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.” To me, acceptance implies an end to struggle.

In contrast, in my qualitative research with the self-advocacy movement run by and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States, what I appreciated most was the struggle between self-advocates and nondisabled allies. I describe some of these struggles in my book The Capacity Contract where I focused on another a-word: alliance.

Building alliances in the disability communities that I observed meant a willingness to point out paternalistic behavior—even among well-seasoned activists. Alliance also meant a willingness to handle these missteps with a sense of humor—as laughter at our own mistakes is a kind of forgiveness we offer to one another—thus making our continued alliance possible.

I would like to celebrate World Autism Alliance Day. I would like to envision a world in which we are willing to form alliances with one another—amid misunderstandings, conflicting models, challenging behavior, painful histories, and deep differences. My brother needs an ally, and—on many of my recent days—so do I.

So let’s commemorate this day by forging a new alliance. Go find that blue tie or scarf before April passes you by and let’s not just wear it. Let’s tie it together.

Are you with me?


Stacy Clifford Simplican is author of The Capacity Contract: Intellectual Disability and the Question of Citizenship. She is a postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University and the DOCTRID Research Institute, which focuses on improving the quality of life of people with intellectual disabilities.

"The Capacity Contract brings much-needed insights to both political theory and disability studies. Its original analysis calls for the fuller recognition of the contributions of the intellectually disabled and their social inclusion as citizens."
—Kristin Bumiller, Amherst College

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Minnesota: Midwest or North? Karen Babine on why how we talk about place matters.

Tettegouche State Park in Minnesota on the North Shore of Lake Superior; photo taken from Palisade Head (foreground) looking NE to Shovel Point (midground) and Sawtooth Mountains (distant background).

Assistant professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota

When I lived in eastern Washington, I learned the place was called the Inland Northwest and it had a separate identity from the western side of the Cascades. In Nebraska, I learned what the Great Plains meant, that they were not exactly the Midwest. Minnesota: Midwest? North? How we come to talk about the places under our feet seems to be an integral part of how we understand who we are, by knowing where we are in a way that is nameable and identifiable.

I was living in Nebraska when it adopted the slogan Nebraska Nice, a move that elicited much eye-rolling from Minnesota. On one hand, I didn’t care too much, even as I wondered about Minnesota Nice™ as an ideal and identity. If we couldn’t lay claim to that phrase—what did we have left that was uniquely ours? Who were we, as a collective?

Most Minnesotans have a list of trivia at hand when anyone challenges the legitimacy—and awesomeness—of the state. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Minnesotan. I know that many of the important apples of the last several decades (Honeycrisp, SweeTango) have come out of the University of Minnesota Ag School. We have the Mayo Clinic, 3-M, Andersen Windows, Target, Best Buy. Books, music, movies, food, history—most of us have an arsenal of examples to argue that Minnesota is valuable, because it is also a state that’s easy to make fun of.

Perhaps this is where the current debate about branding ourselves the North, a separate place from the Midwest, came from. Our state’s motto is Star of the North, after all. I still miss the hockey team being the North Stars, even though I don’t watch hockey. For myself, I don’t think too much about breaking away from the Midwest and claiming ourselves as the North. I think the idea is much more complicated than simple marketing. The idea of the North, from explorers like Roald Amundsen, writers like Sigurd F. Olson and Paul Gruchow, and more, is more of an ideal than it is a place, and it can’t be invented by boosters.

Rhetoric is important—we know this. We talk about the rhetoric we used to turn the Great American Desert into the Breadbasket of the World, while still referring to it as Flyover Country, we acknowledge that we who live in the mid-section of the country are relying on outside voices to give us the geographical identity we feel we deserve. Naturally, we know that this place is important, even if Nobody Important thinks so. But this provokes a necessary question: who are we depending on to validate our geographical and state identity?

Kent C. Ryden, in "Writing the Midwest: History, Literature, and Regional Identity," considers that regional identity, as practiced by writers (though the idea is more widely applicable), is based in “[distilling] felt and known local experience into words in order to replace insignificance with significance, vagueness with precision and meaning” (512). Geographical identity, by its very nature, is arbitrary, without clear definitions. Except for, perhaps, the exception of the Mason-Dixon line, where one region bleeds into another is always unclear. I like it this way—it makes us think, asks us to actively consider why identity and place matter. If Minnesota doesn’t feel like the Midwest, what does that mean?

I tend to think that the idea of North almost by definition obscures, rather than clarifies—and I like that idea. In the introduction to the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s classic Narrow Road to the Deep North, his translator, Nobuyuki Yuasa, writes that “In the imagination of the people at least, the North was largely an unexplored territory, and it represented for Basho all the mystery there was in the universe.” Is the idea of the North a search for a place where mystery and wildness still exist? The idea is problematic under scrutiny, but I wonder if this is the root.

My grandparents’ cabin in Hubbard County is still too far out for cable—in 2015—and I can still drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior and marvel that not only do I lose cell coverage for a significant portion of the drive, but also that there are still places in this country to be considered so remote, so untamed, so much unknown. But I live on the Red River Valley and my sunsets light the prairies in a show of space so immense as to be equally unknowable.

Last weekend, I was in Park Rapids and among the essential updates on my home and friends, I got the information on the benefit pancake breakfast and silent auction for a high school friend who just had surgery, she who was my first friend when we moved to Nevis nearly thirty years ago. While we might like the unknowable mysteries from our landscapes, we seek the knowable from our communities. When we do not know the next step, when tomorrow is fogged to our view, we take care of what we can: we throw pancake breakfasts, we raise money for expenses, we organize meals and rides.

Whatever the North or the Midwest is—whatever Minnesota is—it is grounded in the realities of life and love that retains what it means to be wild.

Karen Babine is assistant professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Her essays have appeared in River Teeth, Sycamore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Ascent, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

"What is the effect of place on character?  Of our birth landscape on how we see the world?  This wonderful, meditative book asks all the right questions."—Will Weaver

Friday, February 27, 2015

How early aviation inspired American utopianism

Frank Paul, "Flying Man," on the cover of Amazing Stories 3, no. 5 (August 1928).

Associate professor of architecture and architectural history at the Catholic University of America

A hundred years have passed since the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service. In Florida, on January 1, 1914, a Benoist XIV airboat flew from St. Petersburg to Tampa with one paid passenger. The distance was a mere 23 miles across the bay, but it was an epoch-making event, ushering in the age of commercial flight.

Today, air travel has become so mundane a part of our lives that it is difficult to imagine just how extraordinary this experience was in the early twentieth century.

As much as human flight was about conquering gravity and going to distant places without the travails of earthbound journeys, it was also about seeing the world anew from a privileged position in the sky. To many early passengers, viewing the geographic composition of the Earth from an airplane was like being god. This peculiar hubris in many ways foreshadowed the omnipotence with which today’s drone warfare is carried out with surgical precision, or how a satellite’s panoptic surveillance of the Earth is used to create a vast body of data on an unwitting people.

As aviation matured, a hyped cultural consciousness came into focus in America after World War I. The rapid proliferation of aerial photography of cities and landscapes during the 1920s often fused the airplane view with a Promethean seer to whom the Earth promised full disclosure. The mobile “eye” of the airplane seemed to distinguish the twentieth century from earlier times by virtue of its promise to transform fragmentary earthbound experiences into the “mingling lines of Picasso,” as noted art collector Gertrude Stein recalled her first flight over America in the 1930s.

The captivating image of an airplane flying over the rising metropolis led many Americans to believe that a new civilization had dawned. Part popular fascination and part corporate promotion, the airplane was viewed as the harbinger of the “world of tomorrow,” and the aviator was its heroic builder. It was a time of spectacular faith in a shapeable future, when technology, as the American literary critic Leo Marx suggested, seemed to have replaced political will to bring about utopia.

In all of these exuberant visions of the future, aviation presented a peculiar American twist. A new, purported vertical frontier counterbalanced the mythology of the western frontier’s horizontality. It was not surprising that when the twenty-five-year-old former Minnesota farm boy Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic solo in his monoplane on May 21, 1927, many observers assumed that his heroic flight had rekindled the American mythos of the pioneer. “Lucky Lindy” was, as one author suggested in the wake of the sensational flight, “a Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett of the air,” a twentieth-century reincarnation of the frontiersman of the Wild West.

The cover of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Popular Aviation 3, no. 6 (December 1928).

As the American historian John Ward argued, the America of the 1920s—ambivalent about its national destiny—needed an occasion like Lindbergh’s to deliberate on what it meant to be an American. (This was, of course, before the aviator’s fall from grace due to his reactionary politics.) Aviation and the aviator seemed like an alluring new chapter on American exceptionalism.

In the 1930s, no other protagonist exemplified the populist anticipation of an ideal American character more poignantly than the pop superhero Superman, the human-shaped flying machine. Superman presented a masculine amalgamation of two Americas: The horizontal one was epitomized by the superhero’s Kansas upbringing, rooted in Jeffersonian pastoral sensibilities. The vertical one was exemplified by the rising urban theater called Metropolis, where he policed the boundaries of good and evil from the sky.

Superman may have been America’s most iconic global export, a Hollywood safe bet, a corporate brand name, and a T-shirt logo. But, at his core, he embodied how many Americans negotiated their impulse to create a suitable future. At the site of Superman’s public debut—the 1939 New York World’s Fair—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, triumphantly, during the fair’s inauguration speech that “the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.”

If early aviation prompted a culture of technological utopianism, it also presented a paradox. On the one hand, many thought that the solo aviator symbolized the power of the everyman; on the other hand, only a privileged few actually could get on an airplane. The corporate executives of General Motors understood this paradoxical elitist stratification of society and sought its inchoate reversal as a shrewd marketing tool. Visitors to Futurama, the auto giant’s most popular show at that same 1939 World’s Fair, sat in a virtual cockpit to embark on a simulated flight over a future America of 1960. The idea was that if the fairgoers saw the world of tomorrow from the same lofty perspective of corporate bigwigs, then they would be seduced to feel that they were co-builders of the shining world they had just witnessed below. In the end, though, their momentary feeling of empowerment was an illusion that served as a robust corporate advertisement.

Technology and utopianism have a long, shared history in America. From the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, the narrative has always transcended the physicality of technology to reveal a powerful nation-driving myth. That is, the idea of America has always been about the future. In The American Scene, Henry James wrote: “It’s all very well for you to look as if, since you’ve had no past, you’re going in, as the next best thing, for a magnificent contemporary future.”

Technology today seems to have embraced a new politics of mass mobilization. Yes, the cult of the likes of Gates, Jobs, Bezos, and Zuckerberg endures. But the global power of social media stems from the very participation of the masses for which these technologies were conceived. There is no Facebook without the people. There is no YouTube if people don’t upload their videos—some of which, indeed, can be life changing, resulting in fame or, at least, notoriety. The promise of individual empowerment by accessing the technologies of information dissemination has become a potent modern political driver. It seems that supermen of our times don’t have to be Superman at all.

Yet, as technology continues to evolve, its potential to create a more dehumanized future cannot be ignored. Is the tech-savvy global citizen with universal online access merely a reinvented consumer of free-market economy in the digital age? Or, will technology become a self-perpetuating end in itself, while human agency diminishes? How does technology’s democratizing power intersect with the specter of governmental online surveillance? All of these remain open questions.


Adnan Morshed is associate professor of architecture and architectural history at the Catholic University of America, and is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder.

"Impossible Heights is an original account of the American fascination with the skyscraper and the airplane and the enthusiasm for the new perspective on high from which people surveyed the city and landscape. Adnan Morshed examines the intersections between intellectual biography, visuality, and cultural history and brings together the ‘art of architecture’ with mass culture and spectatorship. In doing so, he illuminates ‘the aesthetics of ascension’ as a widely shared cultural phenomenon that characterized the interwar period." —Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York