Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Spring abloom: Scouting for wildflowers in Minnesota's great outdoors

If you're scoping out Minnesota's woods, chances are good you'll run into
Dutchman's breeches this time of year. The flower gets its name because the
blossoms look like tiny breeches drying upside down on a line.

Our new book, Searching for Minnesota’s Native Wildflowers, is officially out this month—and we’ve already begun this year’s searching in the bursting springtime. Here are a few of the places we’ve already been and what we’ve seen there.


Suddenly, spring, and all sorts of native wildflowers seem to be rushing at once to make up for lost time. We love looking for them in the wilder places, but it’s also great to visit a place with easy paths among the trees and flowers with name tags to help us be sure, for instance, that the tricky anemone flowers we’re looking at are truly Eastern false rue anemone.

On a quick trip to Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum (“the Arb”) we headed for the bog boardwalk. On a log in a pond, five turtles, from largest to smallest soaked up the sun. A woodpecker hammered, birds called, and the trees were already tinged with the light green of new leaves. A glorious day to wander and search.

And searching was easy. Under the trees along the path, woodland flowers climbed the hillside while along the boardwalk marsh marigolds budded and small signs promised later blooms, including the lesser purple-fringed orchid we’ve been yearning to see. Over in the wildflower garden, many of the same woodland flowers were either abloom or in bud, and, like the turtles in the sun, we basked in their presence.

Here’s a list of the native wildflowers we saw blooming in one afternoon at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum:
Canadian wild ginger
Dutchman’s breeches
Skunk cabbage
Snow trillium
White trout lily
Eastern false rue anemone
Marsh marigold

And here are the ones that were almost in bloom:
Red columbine
Virginia bluebells
Large-flowered trillium
Nodding trillium
Dwarf trout lily

We love the wilder places, but we love, too, the wild native flowers wherever we find them. And we found them in abundance on an early May day at the Arb.


Bloodroot's white flowers open on sunny mornings
and close at evening, and on a cloudy day they might
not open at all.

Notes from early May: A Walk on the Wilder Side

With a whole Saturday ahead of us, we drove farther afield to see what other native wildflowers we might find. On a precipitous hillside in Hastings where we’ve only ever seen snow trilliums and hepatica in March or April, we now discovered a forest floor carpeted in green. Snow trilliums, taller now, still blossomed, but wild ginger with its dark red flowers hidden below velvety leaves also carpeted whole swaths of the floor along with Dutchman’s breeches where a fat bumblebee searched for nectar and pollen among arching stalks of white pantaloon-shaped flowers. A few large-flowered bellwort gracefully drooped soft yellow blossoms, and little star-shaped wood anemones bloomed in scattered places. Alone and in bunches, eight-petaled bloodroot blossoms looked like bright white flowers dropped from the sky. Same place, different time, a whole new world of flowers.

Our goal for the day was Frontenac State Park along the Mississippi River where we hoped to find rare squirrel corn, which looks much like Dutchman’s breeches but has a more rounded flower shape almost like butterfly wings. We haven’t seen squirrel corn yet, but we live in hope, and so we headed down the Lower Bluff Trail at the park into more Dutchman’s breeches than we’ve ever seen. We studied their flower shapes as we negotiated the steep, sometimes stairstepped, trail down and down and down toward the river, wondering at times if a slightly different flower silhouette signified squirrel corn. But all of the flowers we saw had the distinctive two petals spreading like the legs of a pair of pants.

What we did see:
Dutchman’s breeches, Dutchman’s breeches, and more Dutchman’s breeches
Large-flowered bellwort
Wood anemone

Of squirrel corn nary a blossom that we could discern, but oh, what a day of sunshine and springtime and flowers!


Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo spent ten years collaborating on Searching for Minnesota's Native Wildflowers: A Guide for Beginners, Botanists, and Everyone in Between. Root is author of more than forty books for children, including Plant a Pocket of Prairie and One North Star (both winners of the John Burroughs Riverby Award for excellent natural history books for young readers) and Big Belching Bog, all published by University of Minnesota Press. Povo, a professional photographer for thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. Her cards, gift books, and calendars have been sold internationally. She and Phyllis have collaborated on several books.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A look behind the challenging, provocative, fascinating history of the color grey.


I recall the day The Truth Is Always Grey was conceived. I was visiting the Alberto Giacometti retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Fall 2007—a huge exhibition in which Giacometti’s portraits, sculptures, and busts were placed in dialogue to shed new light on the oeuvre. As I walked from room to room, two things struck me. First, the uniformity of the figures—irrespective of the identity of the person in the portrait image, they were all the same figure—and second, every painted image was dominated by a grey palette. The array of greys was vast, and they were never monochrome, always shaded with pinks and purples, browns and greens. I had never seen a comprehensive retrospective of an artist’s work in which the entire oeuvre was painted grey. Moreover, Giacometti’s was an oeuvre in which the single color meant so many different things. Of course, Jasper Johns: Gray at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the same year was the breakthrough moment for the art world’s growing interest in grey. But, for me, the persistent repetition of grey, and its breadth and variety in Giacometti’s work, was the encounter that opened the door to my fascination with grey painting. I had seen smaller exhibitions of Gerhard Richter’s work over the years—Eight Grey at the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2002 for example—which I had found revelatory. This installation ended up taking a central place in my reading of Richter’s grey paintings in the book. In addition, when I started thinking about the many single works by Richter, Cy Twombly, Philip Guston, and the late Rothkos, the list of works in twentieth-century painting in a grey palette became endless. Grey was everywhere.

Ironically, although the Giacometti exhibition had been my inspiration, his works fell to the sidelines of my research as I continued the pursuit of grey. This had more to do with my ongoing interest in a certain kind of abstraction than it did with Giacometti’s portraits. Specifically, grey was repeatedly used to articulate the iconoclasm that dominated the postwar period, a time when abstract painting arguably reached its most intense moment. In postwar American art, everything we knew and assumed about painting was being challenged. When all distinction between figure and ground was removed from the canvas, and artists such as Rothko and Frank Stella, and later Johns, Twombly, and Rauschenberg were engaged in a process of reducing painting to its most fundamental aspects, they so often did this in grey. The connections between this “revolution” in painting and the exploration of grey that contributed to its execution became the centerpiece of The Truth Is Always Grey. Put differently, it was striking to see how many of the concerns of American abstract painting were shared by artists using grey through the centuries. Painting was engaged in exploring ideas of transience and ephemerality, the ambiguity of reality, the shifting identity of the medium, and the value of representation. In addition, these postwar American artists were often looking to other art forms as a way to define what painting was and was not. I discovered that their use of grey actually focused these searches because of the color’s ephemerality, its shifting identity, ambiguity and constant transformation.

Coming back to why Giacometti became less important to The Truth Is Always Grey: a lot of the grey painting in postwar Europe was concerned, broadly speaking, with mourning and healing following the devastation of World War II. Artists such as Jean Fautrier, Antoni T├ápies, Anselm Kiefer, and even more recent artists such as Luc Tuymans, who work in grey do so to explore questions of memory, the past, the social and political responsibility of representation. In the American postwar paintings discussed in the book, the figurative, thus arguably, much of painting’s relationship to the social world, is stripped away from the surface of the image. In turn, as I say, this reduction, or elevation, of grey to the entirety of the canvas enabled American artists to really focus on the material and aesthetic of painting. This, in turn, became my focus.

If this is what justifies the place of American postwar abstraction at the center of the book, what of grey? I discovered that not only was grey everywhere in the history of painting —all the way back to middle ages—but that it was under attended to by critics and art historians. For example, so much has always been made of Picasso’s blue and rose periods, but what about the grey? And when there was an exhibition of Picasso’s grey works, we were told they were black and white. Why is this, when very little of the work in that exhibition was painted in black and white? Why is it that grey is always so difficult to talk about? This raised another question of why art museums, historians and critics often struggle to name the color on the canvas when it is grey. For example, at the National Gallery in London’s recent Monochrome exhibition, there was an awkwardness around the description and discussion of grey. The exhibition was titled Monochrome, and yet, throughout, there seemed to be agreement that grey is never monochrome. Added to this, the subtitle of the exhibition, Black and White was misleading because only a few of the works in the exhibition were painted in black and white. Grey may fill the scale in between the two, but it is neither black nor white. Typically, when grey is discussed by exhibitions and critics, they tend to gloss over the complexity and full significance of the color.

Take for example, the discussion of Richter’s grey work; invariably, critics accept Richter’s claims in interviews at face value and argue that grey is nothing and has no meaning on his canvases. When in fact, in Richter’s paintings, grey has a formative role. For Richter, if grey is nothing and non-identity, as I argue in the book, it is an “element of nothing” a “non-entity” on the canvas that holds within it enormous possibilities for the development of painting as a medium. Indeed, his persistent return to grey across his fifty-year career, as well as his interrogation of painting through grey as a medium, are the basis for the book’s situation of Richter’s work in grey as an extension of the concerns of the postwar American painters. I should also say, it’s not all critics who can be accused of dismissing, ignoring or undervaluing grey. Nevertheless, when I started the book ten years ago, grey hadn’t attracted the attention I believe that it warranted.

My intention is for The Truth Is Always Grey to contribute to the current renaissance of appreciation for grey. I say "renaissance" because while we might think of grey as depressing, somber, the color of melancholia, there was a time when grey was seen as vibrant, as signifying richness and hope. The recent insistence on the influence and provocation of grey is also not new. In painting, while contemporary art critics often refer to grey as a non-color, as the place on a canvas where painting is negated or nothing happens, this has not always been the case. Alberti celebrated grey in his discussions of light, and Baudelaire applauded Delacroix’s use of grey for its intimate depiction of different intensities of light and mood. Moreover, irrespective of its mixed appeal for critics and the public, artists have always been fascinated by grey. Over the centuries grey has been chosen as the color of artistic experimentation, often at moments of transition and reflection in their careers. Alternatively, they have used grey as the color in which to explore their concerns without distraction, and as the medium in which they challenge the limits of painting. The recognition of the importance of the grey through exhibitions such as Jasper Johns: Gray at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, Picasso: Black and White at the Guggenheim, 2013, and Monochrome: Painting in Black and White at the National Gallery in London, 2017, thus comes as a renaissance of sorts.

If Giacometti’s portraits mark the conception of The Truth Is Always Grey, my thinking about grey painting continued to grow and transform with the writing of the book. Today, I understand grey as a way of seeing the world. Because the identity of grey is more fluid and transient than that of other colors, we have to approach what is painted in grey on its own terms, without preconception. Thus, before a painting in grey, we are asked to see the mutations, the ever-transforming nature of painting and its relationship to the world in any given moment. The viewer’s presence to the canvas that is demanded by grey is its unique lesson for seeing the world. Lastly, the title of the book captures this way of seeing the world through grey. The Truth is Always Grey comes from a quotation by Anselm Kiefer in which he talks about the in-conclusion and uncertainty of the truth of art and of its relationship to the world. Grey foregrounds uncertainty, and simultaneously, insists that abstract painting and the world are perhaps closer than we had ever anticipated.


Frances Guerin is senior lecturer in the School of Arts at the University of Kent. She is author of The Truth Is Always GreyThrough Amateur Eyes, and A Culture of Light, all from University of Minnesota Press.

"The Truth Is Always Grey is a work of exceptional erudition, breadth, and clarity."
—Brian Price, author of Neither God nor Master

"Frances Guerin has done a magisterial job in selecting and combining a variety of points of views on grey as a color of major significance, in its own right, throughout the history of art."
—Angela Dalle Vacche, Georgia Institute of Technology

"A well researched, vibrant, and thoroughly engaging reconsideration of that widely underestimated color."
—Anthea Callen, author of The Work of Art

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

From environmental impact to community saviors, here are seven things you might not know about one of the largest wildfires in Minnesota history.

Author of Gunflint Burning

Eleven years ago this month, the most destructive wildfire in modern Minnesota history at the time rallied more than one thousand firefighters, consumed 75,000 acres of forest, with firefighting costs around $11 million and structure losses estimated to top $100 million. Writing about the Ham Lake fire was no easy task, and here are some of the highlights that made the process most compelling.

1. Forests. Like many Minnesotans, I love forests. I was raised on the edge of woods, and have spent much of my life climbing, circling, and weaving through trees. Once on the Superior Hiking Trail, my father-in-law, Don, who was raised on the wide open plains of western Montana, said, “too many trees.” A lovely man, but I could not disagree more. For me, hiking a woodland path is a transformative experience. Forests have been so important to me, and I wanted to know more about the impact of fire on what I consider sacred country. Much of that impact is bad, but surprisingly, much of it is also good.

2. Northeastern Minnesota. One of the things I love about northeastern Minnesota is wilderness. During Memorial Day weekend 2007, just days after the Ham Lake fire was extinguished, my wife and I drove 45 miles up the Gunflint Trail to hike the Magnetic Rock Trail. Parts of the area were still smoldering and a red fox trotted along a ditch with a recently dispatched woodchuck in its mouth. We hiked through burned-over country with green shoots already pushing up through the ash. At the time I did not think of writing about the fire, but the image of those fern fronds rising out of the blackened forest floor hung with me long after my return home.

3. Firefighting. While at the time the Ham Lake fire was the largest fire in Minnesota in nearly a century, it was not the largest fire in Minnesota history. Not by a long shot. The Ham Lake fire burned 75,000 acres. That sounds dramatic, but when placed in historical context the fire is number 12 on the list. The Hinckley fire of 1894 (No. 1; 350,000 acres) killed 418 people. The Baudette-Spooner fire of 1910 (No. 2; 300,000) killed 42 people. And the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire of 1918 (No. 4; 250,000) killed 452 people. So why cover a forest fire that ranks number 12 on the all-time Minnesota forest fire list?

Over the past century we have grown increasingly sophisticated in how we fight forest and structure fires. Currently, when fires break out, there are lots of resources from a variety of government and non-government organizations that are brought to bear on the flames. In part the comprehensive, complex approach to managing forests and fighting fires accounts for why – at least in Minnesota – we haven’t seen forest fires of the magnitude of the top 10 on the all-time Minnesota forest fire history list. In large part, Minnesota forest fire history is a key reason for how today’s firefighters attack a blaze.

4. Water. Fires in Northeastern Minnesota differ from wildfires in other parts of the country by having virtually unlimited access to one essential resource: water. During the Ham Lake fire a variety of aircraft were constantly scooping water from nearby lakes and keeping up a steady douse over the flames. Similarly, property owners employed sprinkler systems that tapped nearby water resources. In fact, all but one of the cabins running an operational sprinkler system survived the fire intact. Without access to the area’s incredible wealth of water resources, the damage wreaked from the flames would have been substantially worse.

5. Numbers. The Ham Lake fire burned 144 structures at an estimated cost of $100 million. The fire raged and was fought for 13 days. At one point there were more than 1,000 people on its front lines. The total firefighting costs were an estimated $11 million. The basic statistics of this fire begged the question: How do you organize, feed, equip, and deploy a force the size of a Roman legion who are battling one of nature’s most destructive events?

6. A match. All the other fires on the top 12 list were started by drought and/or lightning. There are one or two minor exceptions which were also manmade, but not in the same way as the Ham Lake fire, which was started by a match that kindled a campfire. At exactly the wrong time a camper walked away from the campfire, returning to his tent. It appears he believed the campfire had been sufficiently extinguished. By the time he returned, the flames were out of control. He struggled mightily to douse them, but the dry conditions, wind, abundant burnable fuel, and fire progress overpowered his efforts.

More than one year after the fire was extinguished the camper was charged with one felony and two misdemeanors. If he had been found guilty of the felony, under Minnesota law he would have been held responsible for paying damages caused by the fire. Perhaps more importantly, he had been visiting the BWCAW every spring at the same time for more than 25 years. It’s hard to imagine the depth of pain he felt about starting a fire that destroyed so much of a wilderness he loved.

7. People and community. Finally, last but definitely not least, if you are searching for examples of altruism, drive up the Gunflint Trail. This is a region of Minnesota and the country where people watch out for each other in ways we don’t always see. Fighting this fire involved professionals from the US Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, and other government organizations. But it also involved the assistance of seven Cook County volunteer fire departments. These volunteers were joined by many others contributing time, energy, equipment, and money to assist with the efforts required to fight fire, including (but not limited to) feeding and housing everyone who had anything to do with working in the area. These people made significant sacrifices in the pursuit of saving lives, limbs, and property.

The Ham Lake fire contains many of the elements of great drama: tragedy, heroism, triumph, rebirth. My hope is that Gunflint Burning at least in part conveys some of the blood, sweat and tears of the legions who came together to battle this blaze.


Cary J. Griffith is the author of five books: Gunflint Burning: Fire in the Boundary Waters; Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods; Opening Goliath, winner of the 2010 Minnesota Book Award; Wolves, winner of a Midwest Book Award; and Savage Minnesota, which was published serially in the Star Tribune. He lives in Rosemount, Minnesota.

"Cary Griffith has penned the consummate story of one of the great wildfire disasters in the history of Minnesota. Expertly reported and cleverly written, this account of the Ham Lake fire of 2007 reads like a thriller and an environmental treatise all in one. This is no coincidence, given Griffith’s bona fides. Gunflint Burning is one of those rare books for just about anyone."
—Peter Geye, author of Wintering

"Griffith's precise research and his clearheaded storytelling serve admirably to underscore the skill, selfless dedication, and love of place and community that sustained foresters, firefighters, outfitters, pilots, food suppliers, and residents through a truly heroic struggle."
—Cheri Register, author of The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Child at the Social Limit

Associate professor of English at the University of Toronto

From a podium in Central Park West, a student activist from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School declared: “The adults failed us and now seventeen people are dead.” During a day of nationwide actions, a coalition of youth would point to the “failure” of adults to protect children not only from school shootings at locations such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas (to name a few!), but from the everyday gun violence directed at children and youth in minority communities. “We share the stage today and always with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun,” Jaclyn Corin, a Stoneman Douglas student and one of the event’s organizers, told the crowd. And Edna Chavez, a South Los Angeles resident, asked those assembled to remember her brother, Ricardo, and chant his name. “This is normal—normal to the point that I’ve learned to duck from bullets before I learned how to read,” she said.

What many of these young activists point to in their anger and grief is a social failure, or a failure of the social, that only seems to draw successful attention to itself in isolated moments but which is surely calling out for a more meaningful response. How are we to respond when some of the “solutions” offered up conjure a feudal world (every school an armed citadel) or a state of nature in which all the “bad” guys and all the “good” guys are armed? And surely the point here is that our world is already, in some sense, this dystopian world, even if we can’t always see it.

A story in The Washington Post reports that every day, threats send classrooms into lockdowns and thousands of schools conduct active-shooter drills in which children as young as four hide in darkened closets and bathrooms from imaginary murderers. Another account in the media tells the story of teachers who opt to follow protocol during a school shooting, versus those who decide to break the rules; this scenario calls for a decision about shutting a classroom door once and for all, sealing it against a shooter but also against potential victims, as opposed to opting to open the door to let others in. While some teachers who opened their doors at Stoneman Douglas were considered heroes, others who opted to follow the directives of their training were severely criticized. What is most striking to me is not which choice any given individual made in this circumstance, but rather that the individuals in question were abandoned to such a choice. Decisions regarding the protection of children are in a sense like all decisions regarding sexual and social reproduction. They ask to be engaged on a scale that suspends and complicates the fantasy of individual responsible decision making. And to fail to engage them on such a scale is to lapse into a dangerously reductive morality (open or shut, good or bad). Here I think of philosophers who only appear to encounter the madness of decision making when they address the madness of the reproductive decision, as if any other decision might be made entirely rationally (e.g. L. A. Paul or David Benatar) or those whose philosophical accounts remind us of the inseparability of sexual and social reproduction (e.g. Hannah Arendt or Donna Haraway).

If it sometimes seems as if children are abandoned at the edges of the world, at other times it is as if too much is demanded of them. Such children may be “asked” to suture together the ragged edges that expose us to the traumatic real, or, to put it slightly differently, to be the “all” which fulfills an adult’s desire. Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel, 10:04, takes on questions of sexual reproduction, social reproduction and the reproduction of life itself in the Anthropocene. When the narrator is engaged in the highly unusual activity (for him) of preparing food for another (a protester camping out at Zucotti Park) he is suddenly struck by an overwhelming desire: “for the first time I could remember—I wanted a child, wanted one badly. Then I recoiled at the thought, wanted one not at all. So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto . . . ” In this hybrid of a text, what we might think of as the child figure in contemporary discourse is dispersed throughout the narrative, rather than intensified in a particular instance. The narrator consumes baby octopus at the beginning of the novel; he has a sense of himself as child-like and relays memories from his own childhood; there is also a plot line concerning Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), “fatherhood” (“I felt my presence flicker”), and the narrator’s good friend and the mother-to-be of a thus-far imaginary baby; and finally there is Roberto, an undocumented immigrant eight-year-old, whom the narrator tutors in an unofficial capacity (no social roles here are established or stable).

What the narrator and Roberto share most profoundly is a tendency to “figure the global apocalyptically.” The narrator (referred to once or twice as “Ben”—itself a kind of flickering) listens to Roberto’s extravagant and anxious tales, but, living in his world—which is also our world—the narrator can only provide the most minimal of reassurances to his young unofficial charge. We should probably read Lerner’s novel in dialogue with other fatherhood stories less marked by irony and more comfortable with grandiosity (McCarthy’s The Road or just about any “angry dad revenge drama”). When Ben temporarily loses Roberto in the dinosaur exhibit in The Natural History Museum, we encounter a deflated version of the man and boy negotiating post-apocalyptic terrain. Ben comments on his anxiety and helplessness: “I was no more a functional adult than Pluto was a planet.” In one of the novel’s culminating moments, and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Ben watches while Alex receives an ultrasound: “On the flat-screen hung high up on the wall, we see the image of the coming storm, its limbs moving in real time, the brain visible in its translucent skull . . . Confirming a heartbeat lowers the risk, although the chances the creature will never make landfall remain significant.’’ Here the tenuous being-coming-into-being is at once octopus, fetus (fetupus?) and storm, as Lerner figures new life as a kind of cataclysmic event. Which may be just another way to say that it is an “event”—a future that, while anxiously anticipated, is also sublimely unknown and unknowable.

Naomi Morgenstern is author of Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics. Morgenstern is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto.

"Your child isn’t civilized. Neither are you. Expect the child to be more productively destructive and survivalist than you imagined, showing us to be the techno-relational-vulnerable animals that we are, strange to the core in crisis and change. Also expect that you won’t find a smarter, more forthright, and beautifully nuanced guide to these thoughts than Naomi Morgenstern. Impressive and persuasive."
—Kathryn Bond Stockton, author of The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century


Emma Whitford, “’The Adults Failed Us’: More than 100,000 youth, parents, teachers, and Beatles march in New York to end gun violence,” The Village Voice, March 26, 2018. www.villagevoice.com/2018/03/26/the-adults-failed-us/.

Lois Beckett and Evelyn Hockstein, “’We share the stage: white suburban liberals and minority activists fight together for gun reform,” The Guardian, March 25, 2018. www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/25/march-for-our-lives-white-suburban-liberals-minority-activists-fight-together-for-gun-control.

German Lopez, “March for Our Lives’ Edna Chavez speaks for the kind of gun violence that doesn’t make front pages,” Vox, March 24, 2018. www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/24/17159698/march-for-our-lives-edna-chavez-gun-violence.

John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich, “Scarred by School Shootings: More than 187,000 students have been exposed to gun violence at school since Columbine, The Washington Post Found. Many are never the same,” The Washington Post, March 25, 2018. www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/us-school-shootings-history/?utm_term=.0c1f12ca5065.

Oliver Laughland and Eleanor Beckett in Parkland Florida, “Parkland teachers faced an impossible choice: ‘Do I hold the door open or close it?,’” The Guardian, March 23, 2018. www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/23/florida-school-shooting-parkland-teachers-impossible-choice.

L.A. Paul, “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting,” Res Philosophica 92.2 (2015): 149-170. Print.

David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Clarendon Press, 2006. Print.

Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education.” Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. Viking, 1961. 173-196. Print.

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016. Print.

Ben Lerner, 10:04, Penguin, 2014. Print.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Earth Day 2018: Facing the greatest human-rights challenge of our time.


The world has come to know the wildlife of the Arctic more than its people: The Inuit.

For two decades my life’s work, which includes elected positions with an international mandate to protect the rights and interests of our people of the circumpolar world, has been to work diligently to put a human face to the urgent environmental, health, and cultural issues affecting us all. Too often, the world still sees the issues of climate change through the lens of politics, economics, and science. For us it is about our children, our families, and our communities, which still rely on the well-being of our environment and climate to feed our families the nutritious bounty of the land and ice.

To me, and to all Indigenous Peoples, and to all those affected by the harmful impacts of climate change, the issues I speak to are all connected—our rights as indigenous peoples are one and the same as our environmental and cultural rights. Indeed, everything is connected.

As one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, the Arctic is undergoing an historic environmental and social change. For decades, the North and its peoples have been subjected to many historical traumas and the most dramatic environmental effects of globalization. Most recently, dramatic climate change caused by greenhouse gases has left virtually no feature of our landscape or our way of life untouched, and now threatens our very culture.

The latest reports of climate change coming in from all of our communities are starker than ever. Virtually every community across the North is now struggling to cope with extreme coastal erosion; melting permafrost; and rapid, destructive runoff that threatens to erode away whole towns especially in Alaska and the western part of our own country of Canada. Despite our last particularly cold winter, our sea ice remains in rapid decline. Glacial melt long relied on for drinking water is now unpredictable, and invasive species travel much further north than ever before. While the size and type of each change varies across the North, the trends are consistent. The change is not just coming. It is already here.

The past two decades, however, have seen more than just dramatic environmental change – they have also witnessed the start of an awakening of a global environmental consciousness, a realization that we are all connected by a common atmosphere and oceans. As Inuit we have been and remain a hunting people of the land, ice, and snow. The process of the hunt teaches our young people to be patient, courageous, bold under pressure, and reflective, and gives them a sense of identity and self worth. The international community has learned from us as well. International agencies, national governments, civil society, and media have begun to see that the Inuit hunter, falling through the melting ice, is connected to the cars we drive, the policies we create, and the disposable world we have become.

As this consciousness has emerged, so too have new and innovative partnerships and solutions to address these problems. Global environmental challenges have been successfully addressed when the international community has come together to acknowledge the connections between far-off sources of pollution and the local impacts on health, environment, and human rights.

While you would never know it today, the links between climate change and human rights were virtually unknown in the broader world just a few years ago before we submitted a climate change petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Inuit from Alaska and Canada, myself included. The purpose of the petition was to educate and encourage the United States to join the community of nations in a global campaign to combat climate change. This petition was a “gift” from Inuit hunters and elders to the world. It was an act of generosity from an ancient culture deeply tied to the natural environment and still in tune with its wisdom, to an urban, industrial, and “modern” culture that has largely lost its sense of place and position in the natural world.

We successfully translated the human rights dimensions of climate change and its impacts into legal arguments and brought our message to an international human rights tribunal. It was the first case in which the links between human rights and climate change were made clear, but not the last.

As elders, youth, scholars, policymakers, activists, and the general public, we must come together as a collective to address the greatest human rights challenge of our time. This understanding of our ‘collective and interconnectedness’ as a shared humanity is what is needed to spur decision-makers to act urgently and ambitiously to protect our right to a safe climate. My book, The Right To Be Cold, is a human story with the intention to bring a heartbeat to the issues for us to better feel that deep sense of connection to one another no matter where we live. Knowing just how potent that possibility is is what drives me to keep going.


Sheila Watt-Cloutier is author of The Right to Be Cold (Minnesota, 2018). She is one of four winners of the 2015 Right Livelihood Awards (also called the “alternative Nobels”) for her work on climate change in the Arctic. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy in showing the impact of global climate change on human rights. She has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Prize. She has received honorary doctorates from twenty universities for her pioneering work linking climate change to human rights. From 1995 to 2002, she served as the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and in 2002 she was elected its international chair. Under her leadership, the world’s first international legal action on climate change was launched with a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"No one writes about the Arctic with more authority than Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Part memoir and part call to arms, The Right to Be Cold is an essential addition to the literature of climate change."
—Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

"Reading this book—the story of a quiet young woman who rose to lead her people in a desperate battle—should give all of us the inspiration we need, whether it's to go to jail blocking pipelines or to run for Congress battling oil companies. We owe Sheila Watt-Cloutier an immense debt."
—Bill McKibben, from the Foreword

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The End of Man, One More Time.


The apocalypse is back—with a vengeance! Cue the visually intriguing Altered Carbon on Netflix, the conceptually teasing yet disappointingly humanist Humans on Channel 4 in the UK, and the just plain terrible Blade Runner 2049 (surely a crime against cinema, if not against humanity). But let me make what might seem like an odd link. The current return of the android, the robot, and the cyborg on the big and small screen, fueled by a renewed interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the part of Silicon Valley researchers and investors, looks to me like a response (although not necessarily a direct or even acknowledged one) to a number of planetary-scale issues. Among them are climate change, the depletion of the Earth’s resources, and the impending extinction of various species—including our own. In other words, I am making a connection here between the apocalyptic prophecies about AI replacing “us” with the dominant crisis narrative of our times: the Anthropocene.

My recently published short book, The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse, examines this existential anxiety about the future of our planet, and of ourselves as a species. But it also probes the gender aspect of the whole apocalyptic “end of man” scenario as it unfolds both in AI and the Anthropocene narratives. Offering an ironic take on various contemporary eco-political crises, from the climate catastrophe and the threats to the human species posed by AI through to the widespread rise of populist politics, it responds by outlining an alternative ethical vision. My aim is to figure out better ways of living in a high-tech-driven world—while also probing the very nature of this “better.” This is why for me AI stands not just for Artificial Intelligence but also for the Anthropocene Imperative: a call to humans to respond to the multiple crises of life while there is still time. But this call also involves challenging the supposed uniformity of this human as some kind of “eternal man” who has despoiled the planet—but who has it in “him” to repair it too.

There are other reasons why deciding what form such an ethical response to a planetary crisis should take is not easy. Even though it supposedly stretches back at least 250 years, to the early days of fossil fuel excavation and burning, the Anthropocene cannot actually be seen, and hence known, by us contemporary humans because of the vastness of the time period across which it has unfolded. It can only be envisaged. The photo-film Exit Man, included with the book and presented here, stages a visit to a “local museum of the Anthropocene” of my making, with a view to imagining a different future for humanity. It also offers a different mode of scholarly engagement with issues that challenge not just our thought processes and conceptual frameworks but also our very being in the world.

Exit Man from Joanna Zylinska on Vimeo.

Curiously, in the current Silicon Valley-fueled climate, the apocalyptic-sounding “end of man” is mainly presented as an upgrade: an evolution of the fleshy model that is quickly becoming obsolete. And so if the planet is proving to be more and more uninhabitable, the next logical step for the redeemers of today is to reach for what many venture capital-driven saviors are calling, without irony, a “technofix.” The 1980s cyborg figurations are thus returning under the umbrella of human enhancement research, gerontology, and indeed, AI. In this mode of thinking the Anthropos, or man himself, is seen as fully fixable, to the extent that death becomes rebranded as a “technical glitch.” But should man’s upgrade process fail or take too long, an alternative plan is currently under development: a literal escape to heaven, aka planetary relocation. (Thank you, Elon Musk!) It is important to note that such outsider solutions are not just being proposed by high tech entrepreneurs on their celestial missions. They are also part of our current political landscape, with its procession of strongmen that are promising us earthly redemption and perpetual abundance: making America, Britain, or Poland great again.

One way to start challenging this macho-techno-apocalypticism is precisely by envisaging something like a “feminist counterapocalypse”. Adopting precarity as the fundamental condition of living in the global post-industrial world, a feminist counterapocalypse would contest many of the technicist solutions that are currently being proposed—while not being anti-technological itself. It would also reposition the standalone subject of ethics and politics as always already multiple, strange, and strange-to-itself. Indeed, what the “end of man” prophecy actually signals is not so much the extinction of the human species but rather the expiration of the White Christian Man as the key subject of history. The feminist counterapocalyptic agenda thus promises liberation from that form of subjectivity that is pinned to a competitive, overachieving, and overreaching masculinity. It also opens up to the precarious lives and bodies of human and nonhuman others—including the male bodies and minds that have been discarded in the downsizing process of disruptive technocapitalism, or made redundant by AI. Because, under the current conditions, we all need to ask: If unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kinds of coexistences and collaborations do we want to create in its aftermath?


Joanna Zylinska is professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, author of seven books (including Nonhuman Photography and Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene), and a photomedia artist.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Uncovering the brave women behind mental-health reform in Minnesota.

Professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota

In the past two years, the Women's March and the #MeToo movement have given voice to demands for gender equality. These claims are part of a long history—from suffragists marching for the vote to the cry of feminists in the 1960s and 1970s for equal opportunity. While women have long fought for opportunity and recognition of their contributions, many of their stories have not been told.

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota's Mental Institutions 1946–1954 tells the story of a statewide social movement to reform the abject conditions for 15,000 Minnesotans in the seven mental hospitals and the school of the "feeble minded." When I began the research, I learned that in this little-remembered period of Minnesota history, Governor Luther Youngdahl, a Swedish Republican with a big heart, gets most of the credit (though a few accounts acknowledge the role of the Reverend Arthur Foote (my former father-in-law, who passed away in 1999) and Dr. Ralph Rosen).

As I dug deeper, I learned this was not the whole story. When I read Youngdahl's biography, a name caught my eye: Engla Schey. The biographer wrote that Schey "started it all." Nothing more about her. Who was she? I searched for clues in public records—census documents, local newspapers, city directories. She was a poor farmer's daughter, unmarried, with a long stint in Salvation Army, and on the roster of low-paid attendants at Anoka State Hospital in 1940. How did Schey start a social movement?

Through a wonderful stroke of luck, I located a descendant who had Schey's diaries and other writings. She sprang to life. In response to her own father's mental illness, she wanted to help the mentally ill. She "crashed the gates" at Anoka and was horrified at what she found. She tried to improve care from within, but was blocked at every turn. Despite disdain from professionals, she became a fearless crusader. At a fortuitous meeting of Unitarians interested in mental-health reform, she spoke up passionately, and the Unitarians took up the cause.

Our second important woman in the story is Genevieve Fallon Steefel. She and Schey met at the Unitarian conclave and corresponded during the reform effort. Unlike Schey, Steefel had status. She was a graduate of Radcliffe College, wife of a respected professor, and active in many social causes. Her public life was accessible because her husband had donated her papers to the Minnesota Historical Society after her death. But, once again mining public sources, I learned more about Steefel than her papers conveyed. She was the child of Irish immigrants in Boston, her father died when she was six, and she was raised in poverty by her grandmother. Where was her mother? She spent years in Worcester State Hospital. A brilliant student, Steefel's social worker found a way to get her to Radcliffe College. Steefel reinvented herself. Within five years, she graduated with honors, had a year on a fellowship in France, moved to Minnesota and married the professor. She buried her tragic past but carried forever deep in her heart a drive to help unfortunates, less from noblesse oblige than from an intimate knowledge of true misfortune.

Steefel became secretary to the Unitarian committee—a role often given to women who were expected only to take and transcribe notes. Steefel did much more. She wove detailed reports used at every stage of the reform effort. She consulted experts, organized meetings, prepared witnesses for hearings, and wrote testimony. She stepped out of the shadows to write several blistering editorials under her own byline. Arthur Foote was the important public face, but Steefel was the substance and discipline behind it.

Our third hero is Eva Jerome, a 70-year-old social worker. Jerome's family valued education, and she was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Minnesota in 1899. Her family belonged to First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, a hotbed of activist feminists involved in women's suffrage and birth control. Jerome was a practical woman. She saw a need and responded directly. She formed the Unitarian Visiting Committee and mobilized volunteers to work with patients. Over time, the cadre included many other church and service groups, and in one two-week period, more than 100 volunteers visited patients; organized parties, musical programs, and movies; and offered sewing, typing, and art classes for men and women. In addition, social workers in the congregation designed and taught formal training for volunteers. Jerome's daughter Ida Davies published Handbook for Volunteers in Mental Hospitals (University of Minnesota Press, 1950) to disseminate their findings that laypeople can positively affect patient outcomes.

Last but not least was Geri (Hoffner) Joseph. A young Jewish woman from St. Paul, Hoffner was the managing editor of the U's Minnesota Daily from 1945-46. She aspired to be a journalist and chose the Minneapolis Tribune when offered a chance to do in-depth stories. She had been at the paper little more than a year when Foote approached her with the idea of a story on the mental institutions. Hoffner's editor advised her to inform the governor of the plan. When Hoffner told him, Youngdahl bellowed: “If you try to do this, I will have your job!” (You will have to read the book to find out why Youngdahl, the reformer, threatened the reporter.) Her series, "Minnesota Bedlam," was a powerfully written 11-part series accompanied by heartbreaking photographs. The story mobilized the public, which was essential for Youngdahl's 1948 re-election, and strengthened his hand during the legislative session that made reform a reality.

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls was the work of many people, men and women. The contribution of these talented and committed women was pivotal to the reform's success. The research process revealed the challenges of documenting their women's contributions that were often unacknowledged at the time. Their legacy is an inspiration to all of us.


Susan Bartlett Foote is professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, where she was head of the Division of Health Policy and Management from 1999 to 2005. She is author of The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota's Mental Institutions 1946–1954 (Minnesota, 2018) and Managing the Medical Arms Race: Innovation and Public Policy in the Medical Device Industry.

"In a wondrous feat of research and storytelling, Susan Bartlett Foote has distilled personal accounts, public and institutional records, and newspaper coverage to dramatically detail Minnesota’s mental health reform of the last century. Her narrative is harrowing and inspiring—a tribute to the difficult work of countless people, many of them outraged ordinary folk, who challenged the horrors of a stubborn and intractable system."
—Jack El-Hai, author of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist and The Lobotomist

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Carving out the Commons: Fighting Displacement in the Capitalist City

Assistant professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia

On Christmas Eve 1977, the working-class residents of an apartment complex in Washington, D.C., all received eviction notices. They had 90 days to get out; the owner of the complex wanted to rip it down and replace it with luxury buildings. It was a propitious time for upscale development in the city: gentrification was sweeping through parts of D.C., and home prices were soaring. Evictions were rampant, often the result of condo conversions, in which owners of shabby rental buildings converted them into high-priced condos. Condo conversion struck fear into the hearts of low-income tenants. As one man, a long-time resident of the Adams Morgan neighborhood, told me of this time:

“For a long time, when it was really bad, and the [condominium] conversions were everywhere, it was just like an explosion of that, and everybody knew a lot of people who had gotten something saying, okay, 60 days. The building’s sold, in 60 days, you gotta get out. And you know, you’re renting, what can you do? You gotta get out, find something else. But at the same time that was happening, rents were going up, so getting out meant not just getting out of the building, it meant getting out of the neighborhood, it meant getting out of the city… And I think people were very afraid. People were just afraid! People didn’t have money. And they didn’t know where they could go, or what they could afford. People had children, the elderly people, it was disorienting to them — what, what is this about?”

Despite — or perhaps because of — this fear and anxiety, tenants all over Washington were getting organized, and were starting to fight back. The Washington Post called 1978 “the year of the renters’ revolt.” The city had just elected brand-new leadership, steeped in civil rights activism, and much of that leadership was ready to rumble with developers in protection of low-income Washingtonians. One of the many anti-displacement laws that was passed in the late 1970s and early '80s was a law that gives tenants the right to purchase their buildings if their landlords put them up for sale. Using this right, along with city financing, hundreds of low-income tenant associations bought their buildings and turned them into limited-equity cooperatives — homes essentially removed from market forces, and controlled by their member-owners. I theorize these co-ops as a form of the commons. My new book, Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C., tells their story.

Members of a limited-equity co-op in D.C.'s Columbia Heights
neighborhood gather on their front steps, 1980s.

The commons is a resource that’s marked by two key traits: it’s been de-commodified, at least mostly, and it’s collectively governed — perhaps also collectively owned. Its value is in how it’s used directly by people to support life, rather than its exchange value on the market. Crucially, the commons is not an inert resource: what’s important is how the resource is governed by the collectivity of people who use it. Perhaps more important than “the commons” is the act of “commoning,” which, as Peter Linebaugh writes, implies the labor and time necessary for seizing, holding onto, and expanding the resource of the commons.

I wanted to write about the commons because I was nagged by the celebratory nature of the writing on commons on the left. It seemed too general, too sweeping: if we could only just reclaim the commons, it would all be okay: capitalism would wane, people would have the resources they needed to live decently, justice would reign. There was little discussion of the actual practice of commoning: the hard work of it. But at the same time, I was convinced that commoning really could work, at least partially, even in the midst of the stranglehold of capitalism. I knew this because I’d spent several years talking to people who had seized their own commons in the form of their collective housing, and were making them work, even though the road was bumpy, and seemingly rife with inconsistencies.

Scholars who have studied the actual workings of commons — the fine-grained details of how people work collectively over time, how they set their rules for collective life and deal with rule-breakers, how they guard their resources against depletion — have mostly examined how people govern what are called “natural resources” in what are known as “less-developed” parts of the world. There are thousands of these studies. These studies tend to be managerially oriented, and devoid of politics. The political economist Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on commons governance schemes, refused to take a political stance on the commons. Her last public talk was at a London institute founded by devotees of free-market economist Frederik Hayek. The institute framed her work as a vindication of free-market economics: we don’t need the state to meddle in people’s affairs, the argument goes — they can take care of themselves, through the commons. A few scholars on the left have warned of the danger that the commons can become, as George Caffentzis puts it, capitalism’s back-up plan, a way for the state to absolve itself of responsibility towards its citizens. This tension between making demands on the state and engaging in collective self-care is one of the central tensions of the commons.

Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry helps celebrate
the grand opening of the Champlain Court Cooperative in D.C.'s
Adams Morgan neighborhood, 1980s.

Commoning is a back and forth process, a constant struggle — like life, like politics, there is never a clean resolution or a permanent victory, a sense that it’s all been finished and wrapped up neatly. The commons is an ongoing practice, and it never ends. The work of the commons is like housework, ongoing cyclical labors that, as Silvia Federici notes, are most heavily performed the world round by women. So why is it worth it, if the labor never ends? Well, it’s better than it was before. In the co-ops I studied, members told me over and over how much better their housing was once they owned it, had control over it. The refrigerator worked. The fear of eviction was muted. The cost of housing, while still susceptible to rise, was at least under the control of the members of the co-op. Compared to renting from a slumlord, the co-op is a vast improvement. And there’s something else: a sense of pride, of victory, of taking on capitalism and winning, of setting an example for your neighbors.

That complex where eviction notices were issued in 1977? The tenants were able to buy their buildings, and forty years later, it’s still a limited-equity co-op, made up of about sixty units, providing an oasis of affordability and stability in a city of recklessly high rents. They’ve achieved something remarkable: a commons in the midst of the capitalist city. But the next challenge is to think about how to expand these commons. How can we learn to common together, in the midst of multiple pressures? If we’re going to create just cities, we need to figure this out, together.


Amanda Huron is author of Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, DC. Huron is assistant professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia.

"An incisive book that speaks to a vital issue in contemporary politics and social theory."
—Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch

"Amanda Huron illuminates new ways of thinking what social justice in the city can look like."
—James Tracy, author of Dispatches Against Displacement

"This important book should be read by students of the city as well as those trying to make it more socially just."
—Nik Heynen, University of Georgia



Caffentzis, George. 2010. “The Future of 'The Commons': Neoliberalism's 'Plan B' or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital?” New Formations, 69, 23-41.

Federici, Silvia. 2012. “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.” In The Wealth of the Commons: a World Beyond Market and State, eds. David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, 45-54. Amherst, MA: Levellers Press.

Gately, Blair. 1978. “Tenant Rebellion Fueled by Increases in Rent, Evictions.” The Washington Post, December 21.

Huron, Amanda. 2018. Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Linebaugh, Peter. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2012. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On gaming, athletes, and individual glory . . . oh, Mercy!

Associate Professor, Seattle University

The core argument in my book is that video games are an actualized meritocracy, a realm in which the values of hard work and skill have been pushed to their extremes and the result is a toxic community that focuses more on the celebration of individual glory than on the good of the collective.

Meritocracy is tricky. For those of us in the west it feels ahistorical, even though it was a relatively recent invention. It seems like the best approach, the only way to do things, even though the writer that popularized the word regretted its mass adoption and despite the fact that the animating action of the book it was featured in was about the masses rising up to violently overthrow a meritocratic order.

Video games, through their design and narratives, make the abstract notion of meritocracy concrete. They are a space where difficulty is celebrated, with lists of the hardest games appearing again, and again, and again. A challenge is supposed to be the point, as overcoming a truly hard game is a measure of the player’s talent and effort, but focusing on these meritocratic elements makes the community around games limited, exclusive, and defined by a tendency to compete and work against opponents, rather than to work with others.

Meritocracy and the Winter Olympics

Meritocracy shows up in other places as well; one of the most prominent areas is in sports. However, in the case of sports, the language of meritocracy is often recast with other elements, like luck, serendipity, and rules that are designed to do something other than find the best athlete or team. In the case of the 2018 Winter Olympics, we had the return of the shirtless Tongan and a celebration at the end of the 15 km cross country skiing race, where the Mexican skier who finished last stopped near the end of the race to pick up a Mexican flag and was hailed by his fellow competitors.

However, the most polarizing athlete may have been Elizabeth Swaney, who competed in the women’s halfpipe and did no tricks in a sport designed to showcase eye-catching acrobatics. Swaney, who was born in the United States and originally competed for Venezuela before switching her allegiance to Hungary, was described as an affront to the notion that the Olympics are about elite athletes performing at the height of their powers. She was presented as a schemer, a jerk, had to defend herself against accusations that she scammed her way into the Olympics, and was the feature of multiple articles articulating how she had managed to qualify for the competition. In the end, Swaney argued that she could do tricks while water skiing, but had yet to land them on snow and stressed how she always tried her best.

Notably, the stories about the male athletes are celebrations, while Swaney’s motives are questioned. What is fascinating about her story though is how focused she was on getting into the Olympics. She flew around the world to compete in events where she could find fields that would let her get the number of top-30 finishes she needed to qualify for the Olympics. She found a sport and a set of rules that would enable her to chase a dream she held for years. In video game parlance, she found an exploit or a cheese, and this kind of design subverted meritocratic norms and led to a fascinating story. The Olympics may seem like they are about meritocracy, but there is so much more there.

Meritocracy and Mercy

However, the winning formula for appeal to core video game players, those who likely claim the label ‘gamer,’ is straightforward: offer them a game that conforms to the norms and systems that they have long accepted, like meritocratic game design. As Nathan Grayson writes about Kingdom Come, the game has become massively successful as “It’s different in some ways, but also familiar and easy to digest if you’ve been playing games for a long time. That, as it turns out, is the winning formula on Steam [a digital game distribution platform].” As Grayson details, players are praising the game because it has rich and deep game system built on a conservative political ideology. Appealing to mastery is a trademark of a meritocratic order that resounds with many.

On the other hand, mechanics that subvert traditional notions of skill, like Mercy in Overwatch, face a far more polarizing response. Overwatch is a first-person shooter and, although a healer role is well-established, Mercy’s original ultimate move resurrected defeated teammates. In announcing a change to her skills, the lead designer on the game stated that “it’s pretty disheartening to have Mercy just erase [a team wipe] with a full team res[urrection].” This framing celebrates the work of players to kill opponents, but not the talent of a healer in successfully executing a difficult move to bring their team back from the brink.

Mercy players face accusations of being ‘one-tricks,’ players who only play her character and not others. Mercy players are alleged to ruin the game, possess less skill that prevents them from playing other characters, and, in sum, Mercy players are hated more than other characters with similar roles. At least one professional player enjoys playing Mercy, but does so in spite of scorn from teammates.

Meritocracy and its foundation

Reaction to Mercy is so heated that perceptions about her character are broken down in a two-part essay titled “Why Does Everyone Hate Mercy?” Sexism and misogyny, particularly in the response to women who play Mercy, is an important part of the answer in the essay, but a key theme is that skill is perceived to be a vital part of video games, yet that only particular kinds of skill are celebrated. Within the context of a first-person shooter, Overwatch celebrates team kills and exciting battles and Mercy was originally designed in a manner to upend that. Run through misogyny and Mercy is a case study in how the kind of skill and work in video games is particular, specific, and prone to developing a toxic, spiteful community. Blizzard may be reducing toxicity in their Overwatch community, but it cannot be solved because the game is built on a rotten, meritocratic foundation. Efforts at fixing toxicity are also undercut by the player desire and developer interest in increasing the meritocratic ladders found in the game by adding more competitive modes. It is a half-step forward and several steps back.

Meritocracy is insidious because it seems like the only way to build things, but there are other options. Building games that prioritize elements other than skill and effort gives us all a chance to build a different kind of community around games, one that might work together to chart a path toward something more positive and cooperative. We can build games based on luck, contingency, and serendipity, similar to elements of the design of Mario Party or Mario Kart. We can build design games that are pay-to-win and emphasize the role of the wallet, like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, where players frequently work together in an effort to ‘defeat’ the developer. Moving away from merit allows communities to be developed on different terms, giving an opportunity to build something else, something new, something that has features other than the endemic toxicity that comes with meritocratic systems.


Christopher A. Paul is associate professor in the communication department at Seattle University. He is author of The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture is the Worst and Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play.

"Essential reading for researchers, industry professionals, and players trying to make sense of gaming's culture wars."
—Carly A. Kocurek, author of Coin-Operated Americans