Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Sexlexia: Reading Sex Work and Genre


I have just returned from a lovely experience filming an interview segment for Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film (forthcoming 2018), which she has conceived as The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1995) for sex workers: primarily sex workers discussing tropes in representations of sex workers in Hollywood movies, independent cinema, television, and documentary. Although I made a deliberate choice to exclude purely fictional films from my book on sex workers as documentary subjects, Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary, and to mostly exclude the now vast number of international “sex trafficking” films that wrongly conflate sex work with trafficking and violence, I still feel it is urgent to address the effect of genre filmmaking on perceptions of sex workers. I am especially supportive of a sex worker-produced film with sex worker perspectives on the effects of cinematic representation.

It was also an important learning experience for me, as someone who has researched the interview as a genre for over a decade—specifically the negotiation of the interview situation by queer and other sexually marginalized subjects—to experience an on-camera interview, that artificial but significant form of discourse. Luckily, Juliana and I share distaste for confessional discourse around sex work, resulting in conversational rapport rather than interrogation. But I am inspired to continue the necessary task of interrogating fiction films: Why do audiences, both non-sex workers and sex workers, remain fascinated by sex workers as figures of both identification and desire?

Here, I will address three recent films that deploy visual elements of documentary film modes (like the fly-on-the-wall surveillance camera approach) but hybridize those techniques with conventions from other genres. First, I will discuss a potential reading of Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) as a science fiction allegory about a major contemporary discursive shift in the U.K. from criminalizing “the prostitute” to viewing her (always female) as a victim of “human trafficking.” Next I will address two films that celebrate the resilient sisterhood of trans women sex workers using both documentary techniques and the conventions of the Hollywood comedy and the music video: Tangerine (Sean S. Baker, 2015) and Mala Mala: A TransFormative Documentary (Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, 2014). I argue that the latter two help us reappraise debates over documentary ethics in Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), the first film discussed in Sexography.

I taught Under the Skin recently in a course on our tendency to read science fiction films allegorically for the way in which they reflect political and social anxieties. We examined the recent Jump Cut dossier on Under the Skin which offers a brilliant range of readings of the horror/science fiction/surveillance footage film, specifically Amy Herzog’s article, “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin” where she wonders about the oddly familiar yet strange labor of the main “alien” character (played by Scarlett Johansson) hunting for unattached men: Is she a sex worker? A commodity? A predator? (None seem to fit.) “Is this affective labor? The alien learns quickly how to survey her marks … but she lacks, at least at the beginning of the film, the faintest traces of empathy.” The contemporary discourse around “sex trafficking” is implicit in Herzog’s title and theoretical reading, but I think the real world political and legal context deserves to be made more legible.

Herzog is right to focus on empathy: the film’s plot takes a sharp turn once the predatory alien apparently starts to feel empathy, and once we feel empathy for her as we realize that she is apparently herself being controlled by a mysterious motorcycle-riding “pimp” alien. The major turning point is where we see the once-predatory Johansson character after she has temporarily “escaped” the city of Glasgow to the countryside and is asked by a kindly (but also sexually attracted) male bystander who sees her shivering alone on a public bus, “Do you need help?” Here I see an allegorical connection between the film’s dramatic shift and a major discursive shift from viewing the prostitute as a criminal to viewing her as a victim of human trafficking in need of rescue. I attribute this international shift, in part, to diplomatically powerful organizations pushing for the “Nordic model” like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women [CATW] and Polaris.

Thankfully, like all good science fiction, the film’s symbolism exceeds this reductive reading. But we can follow Herzog in examining the fraught symbolic connections between the body of the prostitute, the body of the actress, and money. The anxiety such connections provoke might help illuminate a recent event where a number of wealthy Hollywood actresses—some of whom have played sex worker parts in movies but also participate in antitrafficking missionary/charity campaigns—signed on to a letter advanced by the CATW condemning Amnesty International’s call for the decriminalization of adult consensual sex work (as the best, evidence-based means of protecting the human rights of sex workers). What if we were to read the Hollywood celebrities’ vehement objection as a means of distancing the long historical linkage between actresses and sex workers?

Similar ethical concerns about differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, and sexual stigma between filmmakers and subjects can be seen in the independent films Tangerine and Mala Mala addressing the real experiences of transgender women of color engaged in street-based sex work (in Los Angeles, California, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, respectively). The films were also made by cisgender men from outside of the subcultures they depict, a matter sometimes addressed in press for the films.

In a story titled “In Tangerine, Trans Cinema Takes a Major Leap Forward with Nothing But an iPhone,” Matt Barone investigates “how a New Yorker managed to shoot a wild comedy about transgender prostitutes in Hollywood with a cell phone.” The story’s framework echoes the long history of white “discovery” of urban underworlds (aka “slumming”): Donut Time on Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard is framed as “cinematically uncharted territory.” Sean Baker explains “I don’t know what it is about me, but I’m always drawn to the edgier parts of town … It was basically an unofficial Red Light District. I couldn’t understand why I’d never seen a story take place there. I knew we could find one there.” Barone explains how,

Acting on that hunch, Baker and frequent co-writer Chris Bergoch visited a nearby LGBT center and met an aspiring transgender actress named Mya Taylor, who quickly introduced them to her friend/roommate/fellow transgender woman Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Soon after, Taylor and Rodriguez told Baker and Bergoch a story they’d heard about a trans woman who found out her boyfriend had cheated on her with a biological woman and went on a warpath through Los Angeles to find both her heartbreaking lover and his “actual fish,” their term for a biological female. And with that anecdote, Baker and Bergoch had the central plot for what would become Tangerine. Eight months’ worth of research and interviews with Taylor and Rodriguez later, they were ready to rock.

Here we can see a common mixture of “knowingness” and “research” regarding sex worker and trans subcultures that speak to differences between insiders and outsiders. By knowingness I mean using terms like “hookers” and “pimps” already known to the worldly reader (knowingness, Eve Sedgwick reminds us, is about privilege, open secrets, and not necessarily the opposite of ignorance). Here stereotypical images get activated, what David Halperin calls “a message … waiting at the receiver’s end.” Research means understanding the language and world of the LGBT center’s inhabitants and the side of Los Angeles unrepresented in Hollywood films. But note that the LGBT center remains conspicuously off-camera in Tangerine as well, thus the conditions of researching the film are occluded in the final product. Taylor and Rodriguez are framed as native informants, clarifying specialized vocabulary (like “actual fish”).

Barone’s article underlines the significance of the film being a comedy rather than a documentary. Baker explains how Mya Taylor said, “I’ll make this film with you only if you promise me two things: one, that you’ll make this as realistic as possible and show the brutal reality of what these women have to go through on the street, and two, I want this to be a laugh riot.” He eventually agrees with Mya that a different approach—one that was more traditionally anthropological, observational, or tragic—might be more condescending, whereas, “if we’re laughing with our characters and participating in the chaos of that day, and not laughing at them, we’d make a film that the women who actually work in that area could enjoy.”

While I am critical of the “discovery” framework of the article, these last points actually align with the findings of Susan Dewey and Tiantian Zheng’s collection Ethical Research with Sex Workers: problematizing insider/outsider distinctions and centering the needs, interests, and desires of those being “researched.” Baker suggests that not everyone will like their feature film comedy—rather than documentary—approach to the subject, but “in the end the only people I’ve have to answer to are Mya and Kiki.”

Mindful of being both an insider and outsider as a cisgender female sex worker, Tits and Sass reviewer Lolo de Sucre incorporates quotes from transgender reviewer Mey in Autostraddle and another trans woman, the sex worker rights activist Morgan M. Page. She considers both transgender and sex worker versions of the “Bechdel test,” and contextualizes the film in relationship to Hollywood and “mainstream audiences” (usually presumed to be white and cisgender, and not sex workers). I am interested in how such reviews reckon with these questions of identification and sympathy, and the fact that Tangerine is a fictional comedy, not a documentary, although the plot was drawn from real stories and the film was promoted for its unique approach to on-the-fly realism shot with an iPhone camera. Tangerine also gained attention for being one of the few fiction films about transgender women to star transgender actresses (Mya Taylor was nominated for a best supporting actress role, a historical first with the exception of a write-in campaign for Holly Woodlawn in Trash [1970]).

In contrast with the Hollywood comedy genre aspirations of Tangerine, Mala Mala is a crowd-funded documentary about drag queens, trans women, and sex workers (as overlapping communities) in Puerto Rico, but it aspires to a more “glossy” music video-inspired aesthetic standard to “glorify” the women it documents. Comparing Mala Mala and Tangerine can help us further probe questions of cinematic realism, indie distribution and press coverage, and the ethical quandaries raised by “outsiders” documenting the complicated place of sex work within the transgender community and the movement for trans equality and representation.

These films also provide a new vantage point from which to revisit debates concerning similar issues in Jennie Livingston’s now iconic drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning, which featured the testimony of a young trans woman Venus Xtravaganza about her experience with sex work, but framed in terms of the tragic story of her murder. We must consider the considerably high stakes involved in Mala Mala and Tangerine’s deliberate departures from “tragic” narratives in favor of musical spectacle and comedy, even as they recognize the extreme level of violence directed toward transgender women of color and sex workers. Clearly, these are fictions and fantasies that matter, as Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film intends to demonstrate.


Nicholas de Villiers is associate professor of English and film at the University of North Florida. He is the author of Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary (Minnesota, 2017) and Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (Minnesota, 2012).

"de Villiers has sought to be, as he says, “a queer ally” to sex workers — meaning that he seeks to assist in the process of destigmatization and to problematize the discourse of sex worker as victim. In a world that is dominated by anti-sex work bias, such an analysis is sorely needed."
—Los Angeles Review of Books

Friday, August 4, 2017

Fun with Your Modern Head

Fritz Kahn, "Der Mensch als Industriepalast" (2d ed, ca. 1929).
Artist: Fritz Shüler. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart. National Library of Medicine.

Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala

In recent decades, scholars have begun to reckon with the visual turn in the popular science of the 18th and 19th centuries — the plates of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, the lantern-slide lectures and theatrical electricity and magnetism shows of the Victorian era — a reckoning that nowadays is sometimes paired with desperate calls for a renewed “public engagement with science” as a response to the displacement of the industrial economy by the information economy, and by the political rise of climate denial, intelligent design creationism, and alternative facts.

Less well-attended is the visual turn in popular science of the early 20th century, and the key role of the German-Jewish physician-author, Fritz Kahn (1888–1968). Kahn commanded a mass readership in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Even so, his enormous oeuvre of printed illustrations — several thousand — has been mostly overlooked. The small amount of scholarship on Kahn focuses on his most famous work, the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (“Man as Industrial Palace” or “Man as Industrial Factory”, with art by uncredited illustrator Fritz Shüler). That scholarship treats “Der Mensch” as a peculiarly Weimar cultural production. But “Der Mensch” had, in translation, a global impact. And more obscurely, direct American antecedents.

This blog (loosely based on the longer account in
Body Modern) tells the back story: the antecedents and origins of “Der Mensch”:

In the early decades of the twentieth century a modernizing imperative took hold. Suddenly it seemed that a new age was dawning — an era of new technologies, fashions, and political philosophies — modern times. In the aftermath of the mass carnage of the Great War (1914–18), and the overthrow of the German, Russian, and Hapsburg empires, it seemed especially important to rethink things — to strip off old-fashioned ideas and decorative motifs that choked the preceding era. The new era needed new designs and inventions, with design elements that emphasized industrial production, machine power, strong practical lines, bold colors, and smooth surfaces of metal, glass, concrete, and rubber.

"The headquarters," Wunder in Uns (1923), Plate XIII, part of a series of plates,
with fancy translucent overlay pages, that served as the inspiration for Fritz Kahn's
1926 poster "Der Mensch als Industriepalast." Artist: Paul Flanerky. National Library of Medicine.

Hanns Günther, Wunder in Uns (2nd ed., 1923).
Cover design: Walter Thamm. National Library of Medicine.

Wunder in Uns (The Wonder in Us) bears the marks of that moment. In 1921 Hanns Günther (pseudonym of the German popular science writer Walter de Haas, 1886–1969) compiled a book of twenty-eight essays on the human body “for everyone.” Furnished with a cover illustration that showed a boldly minimalist outline of a human heart, Wunder in Uns presented illustrated lessons on “recent developments” in medicine and “modern physiology” — and a chapter that compared the human body to an industrial machine. Central Europe was then greatly afflicted by political and economic turmoil. Everything was unsettled by the terrible destruction wrought by industrial warfare in the Great War. But even in troubled times Wunder in Uns attracted a wide readership and quickly sold out its first edition.

Part of the book’s appeal lay in its unusual color plates, which featured stylized cutaway diagrams of the interior of the human body. Although anatomical illustrations had long been a staple of popular medical books, they typically presented a view of static structures. In contrast, the striking illustrations in Wunder in Uns deployed images of industrial technology and process inside the human body as a way of visually explaining the body’s functions.

The head was depicted as the most technologically modern part of the body, the “Headquarters”. The brain was figured as bundles of wires connected to telecommunication offices staffed by little switchboard operators, file clerks, and messengers, who sort and redirect sensory electrical messages received from the eyes, nose, mouth, and lower body. In contrast, Plate III’s lesson on the physiology of digestion shows foods tumbling off a conveyor belt down the esophageal chute into the stomach and intestines, a sweaty corporeal furnace room or mine, tended by manual laborers. The body then had a class production system, an industrial organizational structure — the “head office” directed the body factory.

Wunder in Uns (1923), Plate III, another plate redrawn from illustrations
that appeared in a 1917 edition of the encyclopedia Pictured Knowledge.
Artist: Paul Flanerky. National Library of Medicine.

And all of that was modern. In both form and content, the illustrations of Wunder in Uns signified their modernness, their adherence to new ways of thinking and doing. The mixture of text, drawings, and photographs was in the graphic style that had only recently been developed in American newspapers and magazines. The application of that style to visually explain the workings of the human body through industrial metaphor was a particularly clever innovation. And the way it was done was also new: each colored plate was dressed up with a tissue-paper overlay printed with captions, a slick modern packaging concept. The modern was a kind of performance that could be almost anything, so long as it was new, a novelty, the latest thing.

America was another signifier. Wunder in Uns tried to do things the modern industrialized American way. Its illustrations of the industrial body were borrowed from an article, “The Body We Live In,” written by Northwestern University physiologist-educator Winfield Scott Hall (perhaps in collaboration with his wife Jeannette Winter Hall), that first appeared in an American encyclopedia, Pictured Knowledge (Chicago, 1917).

"A look into headquarters," Pictured Knowledge, vol. I (2nd ed.: Chicago, 1917).
This version has one less worker than the redrawn colorized plate in Wunder in Uns.
Artist: Uncredited.

Fritz Kahn, Life Magazine 19 April 1943.
Photograph: James L. Hussey.

Later in the 1920s and 30s, Wunder in Uns essayist Fritz Kahn, then a very minor popular science writer, took the idea of visual explanation and built a career out of it. His most esteemed work was the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast.” But, in a succession of popular illustrated books and articles, and in collaboration with a cadre of commercial artists, Kahn developed many different strategies and genres of visual explanation. They amped up the modernness of the pictorial content and style every step of the way, and revolutionized — to a large degree invented — the entire genre of conceptual illustration.

And in the 1940s, in exile in New York as a refugee from the Nazis, Kahn returned conceptual illustration to America.

Kahn’s commitment to visual explanation was based on an underlying premise: the modern way to communicate and instruct, the modern way to move readers (“the masses”), is through pictures that entertain while they instruct and persuade. Words alone are inadequate. “The picture is worth a thousand words.” An advertisement for Kahn’s Das Leben des Menschen (The Life of Man) boasted that the five-volume set on the science of the human body had 1,200 images.

"Twelve of twelve hundred . . . illustrations from 'Das Leben des Menschen'" (ca. 1931).
Two-color promotional insert. Artist: Roman Rechn. Leo Baeck Institute,
New York. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart.

Pictures had powerful emotional and cognitive effects. They still do. The public thirsted for novel images, was addicted. It still is. And, using an array of media technologies, powerful industrial media machines churn them out. Today, in that proliferating picture and design environment, Kahn’s tropes and genres of visual explanation are our tropes and genres of visual explanation. Not just body factories, but body architectures, fantastic voyages inside the human body, aestheticized flow charts, dramatized statistics, mixed-media bodies, body dynamism, body abstraction, visual synopsis, and so forth. We see these visual tactics deployed so frequently in animated cartoons, instruction manuals, videos, websites, comic books, and magazine illustration, that they are nearly invisible to us, like the air we breathe. And we don’t imagine that they have a history, a history that lives on in us, in the present. Kahn’s prime directive — don’t just say it, show it — is the prime directive of civilization, our common sense, reproduced in every creative writing class and television show and video game and website. Kahn’s pictures showed the modern world in the human body and the human body in the modern world, using modernist aesthetics like surrealism, Jugendstil and Bauhaus functionalism. They were a striking part of the visual rhetoric of modernity. But his reliance on pictures in bulk also performed the modern, was part of a modern rhetoric of visuality that has only accelerated in 21st-century post-modernity. And that history is what Body Modern is all about.


Michael Sappol is fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. He is the author of Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Dream Anatomy, and the editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire and Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.

"The book is nicely illustrated and the history of our relationship between biology and mythology is brilliantly addressed." —The Daily Heller

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Remember Soup, Poop, and Climate Change: Veering with Game of Thrones

Image: HBO


Like the plot of Game of Thrones, memory resists standing still. And Game of Thrones is all about memory. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based major cultural, political, and scientific strides on the memory of an imagined, idyllic Middle Ages. One that moderns at times resisted as primitive and at others vaunted as desirable.

Memory persists.

The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medieval revival remains with us, and it has found a new and extremely popular form in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Like any popular medievalist narrative, GoT reflects the modern concerns of its writers and readers such as race, which I have written about here, and Helen Young has written about here. But in this post I want to take up another of the show’s major concerns: memory and how the show uses it to explore the idea that we live in an epoch characterized by human impact on the earth and its climate, otherwise known as the Anthropocene.

Image: HBO

Game of Thrones’ Westeros and Essos (the West and the East) are populated by characters who are motivated by memories—hazy memories of their families’ former rule and all-too-vivid memories of more recent injury, murder, and exile. Characters seek rule and revenge. They are also locked in a larger battle for control of the world between humans and the non-human White Walkers. The characters strive to perpetuate—or at least continue—the Anthropocene by keeping the White Walkers at bay. Clearer in A Song of Ice and Fire than in Game of Thrones is that remembering a loved one who has been killed by a White Walker is a deadly mistake. Their human victims are reanimated—literally re-membered—as wights, undead who attack and kill the living. Several characters make the mistake of bringing home the bodies of fallen fellow defenders of humanity only to have them rise and kill more fellow defenders. Memory is a dangerous game.

In “Remember,” my chapter in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s forthcoming Veer Ecology (Minnesota 2017), I have written about remembering and wanting to return home. It is a common theme in medieval romance, modern novels, and even popular music, and it is usually motivated by love. Love is a dual-edged sword: “cancerous love consumes its subject until nothing remains. But love also gives life.” The vivifying and destructive natures of remembering and loving are inextricable: “love leads to grief and mourning only when it has been lost and is fondly remembered.” Major settings and characters in Chaucer’s works—the classical city of Thebes and Anelida, the jilted lover and queen of Armenia, for instance—live out the internal contradiction of intergenerational memory. They are “always dying but never dead.” Thebes is known in classical and medieval literature as a city founded on a cycle of death and rebirth. Anelida is known for a mourning so profound that she calls it “deadly adversity” and exclaims “I am so distraught that I die.” Each figure, and similarly fraught settings and characters, are deployed over and over again in literature. But what do these actual medieval stories teach us about how to understand the pseudo-medieval story in Game of Thrones?

Let’s take the Soup-Poop montage. It has quickly become one of the most discussed scenes in GoT’s Season 7, episode 1. Samwell “Sam” Tarly, a rather bumbling but sweet character who has a fascination with manuscripts befitting a scholar of medieval literature, has come to the Citadel in order to become the maester (think doctor, philosopher, and head librarian all rolled into one) at Castle Black. As with all scholarly orders, a trainee must start at the bottom. And so Sam does. He pours the soup into dining pots, and he empties the shit from chamberpots. Over and over, and over again. The scene’s tempo is out of step with the show’s usual pace. It speeds up to at least quadruple time as Samwell’s monotonous days of soup and poop are shown in time-lapse fashion. As Aaron Bady points out, if the maesters are going to do the slow scholarly work of inquiry, investigation, and book production then “someone has to live life in the sequence of increasingly short and fast cuts in which soup after soup becomes poop after poop.” Sam has to work in real-time, and against the background of the Citadel’s scholarly pace, real-time is fast-forward.

Sam lives out memory’s veering path: the same hands that bring life (soup) also take away death (poop). Even the soup-pots and the poop-pots look the same. (Let’s hope the Citadel has some system for keeping them separate.) The contrasting-yet-bound pair of Remember’s vivifying and destructive powers are on display in the scene.

Image: HBO

The life-and-death pairing are not confined to episode 1. In episode 2, the show offers it the other way around. While soup came before poop in the first installment, now deadly infection comes before soup. George R.R. Martin is obsessed with soup. Jorah Mormont, the Mother-of-Dragons Daenerys Targaryen’s loyal on-again off-again knight, suffers from a deadly disease known as greyscale. Once infected, stony grey scales spread across the sufferer’s skin, slowly turning the victim into stone. Jorah has come to the Citadel on his journey to find a cure. When Samwell confirms that a previous Archmaester had found a potential cure (before dying of the disease himself), he defies the current Archmaester and secretly begins to perform surgery on Jorah—reading the manual as he goes! First things first, he must cut off all the infected skin, which covers at least half of Jorah’s body. If the flaying is hard to watch—and it is—imagine how much harder it must be for Jorah, who has only a bottle of rum for anesthetic. Samwell cuts deep into the stony flesh until he reaches a layer of yellow-green pus that screams deadly infection. He digs his surgical instrument down into the gooey pathogen stew until what comes up is a spoon of creamy soup that goes directly into the mouth of one of the barons of King’s Landing.

We are reminded that one man’s death is another’s life, and that one man’s life is another’s death. It is a lesson the show offers, relentlessly. It is also a lesson that should be central to climate change. Well-to-do dwellers of wealthy nations that consume most of the world’s resources in order to maintain a high standard of living regularly thrust less wealthy humans into the throes of immediate climate disaster. One man’s rich soup, filled with processed dairy products and unsustainably farmed meat and delivered to the door of his highly air-conditioned home by a driver who was called by means of an app, is another man’s loss of home and livelihood by unexpected torrential rains or by war for control of the rare earth minerals that power smartphones. How is one to short-circuit the death-and-life, life-and-death cycle? By consuming less? By developing newer, greener technologies?

Maybe all it takes is a little remembering. Remembering bygone ways of doing things. Remembering how to use resources that have fallen out of fashion but remain plentiful. Remembering that overuse of anything: soup, chivalry, experimental surgeries, power—and even love—can become cancerous and lead to disastrous results.

In fact, remembering seems to be Season 7’s organizing ethos. Daenerys’s dragons have helped her conquer much of the world, as they did for her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, but by the end of episode 2 it appears that using the dragons to take King’s Landing would be overuse. At the same time, we have also learned that Daenerys’s home-castle Dragonstone sits atop a mountain of Dragonglass, the only known way to kill White Walkers. Remembering this forgotten resource will surely be beneficial in slowing or stopping the advance of the White Walkers and, with them, the wintry death that thinly veils our impending climate disaster.

Cord J. Whitaker teaches and researches on medieval literature and the development of racial ideology at Wellesley College. Whitaker’s work has appeared in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, the Yearbook of Langland Studies, and postmedieval, where his special issue “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages” has achieved critical acclaim. He blogs at,, and The Spoke: the blog of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley.

Whitaker is a contributor to Veer Ecology, coming in November 2017.

Monday, July 24, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Minnesota State Fair's tunnel of love.


When my friend and co-author Jack Koblas began doing research on F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1970s, quite a few of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul acquaintances were still alive. In response to Koblas’s inquiries about Fitzgerald, several of these friends replied that they couldn’t believe anyone wanted to do another book on Fitzgerald, implying that everything that could possibly be known had already been written. On the contrary, new information about the author of The Great Gatsby continues to be uncovered, and every year a few new books about Fitzgerald are released. In fact, between the publication of the 1996 F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota (by Koblas and myself) and my 2017 F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota, recently released diaries, better online research tools, and some old-fashioned sleuthing led to my discovery of several errors in the original manuscript. No doubt mistakes could be found in the latest text. While I hope none of these is due to poor scholarship, I welcome any new revelations about the time Fitzgerald spent in Minnesota, even if they lead to changes in interpretation or “fact.” Indeed, some additional information has already come to my attention that may or may not have made it into the book had I known about it before.

In addition, space considerations meant that some addresses and some anecdotes simply did not make the cut. The University of Minnesota Press and I have decided to publish some of those items here, and will update from time to time.

I welcome comments and suggestions at

Falcon Heights

Underwood Street, Ye Old Mill (1915)

The Kennan Family began to build the Minnesota State Fair’s tunnel of love in 1913 and opened it to the public in 1915. The original 1910, 40-horsepower electric motor still powers the paddlewheel that creates the current to propel the wood boats through the four-minute ride. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1928 Basil Duke Lee story, “A Night at the Fair,” Ye Old Mill plays a significant role. Basil and his friends go the state fair hoping to find female companionship. They meet up with a couple candidates, and the group heads off for “the Old Mill.” Basil, in his short pants, feels left out, and when the others decide to “go around again,” he demurs.

The central conflict in the story, Basil’s lack of long pants, was naturally a topic of concern to the young Fitzgerald, who was very careful about his clothes, according to many of his friends.

In this story, Fitzgerald’s nemesis Reuben Warner is tangentially represented by Speed Paxton, who is at the fair in his Blatz Wildcat, an obvious reference to the Stutz Bearcat, which made its first appearance in 1912. According to Richard Washington, Fitzgerald’s friend and neighbor, Reuben Warner drove a Stutz.

Although the climactic “Battle of Gettysburg” in the story made its last appearance at the fair in 1909, “A Night at the Fair” provides a vivid glimpse into the world of the Minnesota State Fair almost exactly a century ago.


F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar and historian Dave Page has been writing about Fitzgerald for years, focusing on his youth and early career in St. Paul. He is author of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer and His Friends at Home; he is also coauthor of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit and coeditor of The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, both of which were nominated for Minnesota Book Awards. He is editor of The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Minnesota, 2013).


Recent press: City Pages  |  Star Tribune

Monday, July 17, 2017

"In the United States . . . where such events are always now."

An excerpt from Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent by Thomas Glave (2005).
Chapter: "(Re-)Recalling Essex Hemphill: Words to Our Now."

It has been said, and we recall: we were never meant to survive. Not here. No, not then or now. Not in the gorge of a grasping empire poisoned by the recurring venoms of its own antihumanity. Here, now, we can never forget that, as you did not survive, others still are falling. Falling beneath the policeman's baton, or raped by it; expiring in the electric chair, decaying along lonely roads after the body has been chained behind a truck and dragged—the body historically and contemporarily fetishized, sodomized, demonized . . . Such horrors should occur only in the "inner city," someone will say, has said. Not "here." Not in this now.

"But we're in the United States," you doubtless would have said; your seer's most mordant irony confronting misconception, sweeping aside revisionist muddyings of present and past. "In the United States, where these sorts of things always happen. But yes, believe it," you surely would have said, "they always happen here.

"In the United States," you might have said, "where such events are always now. Yes. And always here."


Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Book of the Dead: Longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award in Prose

The first complete English translation of Orikuchi Shinobu’s masterwork, The Book of the Dead is a sweeping historical romance telling a gothic tale of love between a noblewoman and a ghost in eighth-century Japan. Orikuchi is often considered one of the fathers of Japanese folklore studies, and this is the most important novel of his career—and it is a book like no other. We are honored that The Book of the Dead, translated by Jeffrey Angles, appears on the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award in Prose.

An excerpt follows below.


In the shade of the hills to the north of the temple of Manhōzō-in was a hutlike hermitage that had been there for a long time—or at least that is what all of the people in the village believed. Several times it had fallen into ruin, and several times the villagers had fixed it up. There, inside the uninhabited hermitage, stood a statue of Kujaku Myōō. There were villagers in Tagima who occasionally identified the building as Yamadadera, “the temple of mountains and fields.” According to them, it was the oldest of the temple buildings, and early on, when it fell into disrepair, a
high-ranking prince had ordered Manhōzō-in to take over the site, and thus the grand monastery was constructed. Some said the order came from the palace in Asuka, whereas others said that the prince had made the decision on his own accord. In any case, the old, dilapidated building was relocated to the northern corner of the temple complex, where it was rebuilt on a smaller scale.

There was a belief among the yamabushi of Yoshino and Katsuragi that the hermitage was the place where Enokimi Ozunu had founded mountain Buddhism. Whether that is true or not, after the grand monastery of Manhōzō-in burned, the wild, overgrown place was used for religious practice over the next century until the monastery was rebuilt. It was amazing that such an ancient building remained right there in front of everyone’s noses.

The night had already grown deep. The vigorous splashing of the stream in the valley had grown loud in the silence. The water flowed down from between the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami.

It was dark inside the hermitage. In that area, it was uncommon for people to burn wood in a hearth, so when night fell, the local farmers would sleep or stay up and sit in pitch-blackness. But there was a deity housed in the hermitage. Lamps were lit in front of the statue throughout the night to keep the darkness at bay.

Still, the light that glimmered off the statue of Kujaku Myōō was so faint that it was hard to tell if the statue was even there.

A maiden was seated there as if she had forgotten all about sleep.

The high-ranking abbots of Manhōzō-in thought the first order of business was to send a messenger to the city of Nara. They were worried about what her father, Fujiwara no Toyonari, and his family must be feeling. Next, they had to atone for the sin that the young noblewoman had committed by entering the monastery grounds. Women were strictly prohibited from entering, and she had broken that cardinal rule. The temple had been reconstructed only recently, and so not long before, there were so many monks there that the whole place appeared to turn bluish black with the pates of their freshly shaven heads. It was natural for men to be there, but a woman should not be trespassing on purified ground. A simple donation of wealth or property couldn’t possibly atone for her actions. The abbots came to the conclusion that she would have to stay nearby and do quiet penance for an extended period of time. That very day, during the midday hours, the abbots had ordered a messenger to rush to Nara and deliver the news that the young woman had suddenly shown up and violated the sanctity of the monastic grounds.

Meanwhile, the maiden was told to stay in the hermitage. She was told that even if someone came from the capital to get her, she would have to stay there for days while she atoned for breaking the prohibition.

The floor was near the ground, but at least there was one—it wasn’t just dirt. On the other hand, the roof was extremely high and made of simple, ragged thatching. On one side where the wind had torn away the edge of the roof, the sky was visible, offering a view of the stars above. No sooner had she thought the wind had stopped than another gust blew in from the hole in the roof. Something fell, scattering around her—probably accumulated soot spilling from the thatching. For a brief moment, the light in front of the Buddhist statue burned more brightly.

The miserably unkempt space where she was seated was not the only thing the light illuminated. Two mats of woven rice straw were layered on the floor of rough-hewn boards—those mats were for her—but sitting across from her on the wooden floor against the far wall was an old woman.

Calling it a “wall” is perhaps less accurate than identifying it as what it really was—a hanging partition. Someone had hung an odd assortment of multiple layers of rice-straw matting from the rafters, and somehow they managed to block most of the wind. The old woman sat against the hanging partition as if affixed to it. For some time, she had been completely quiet. Not even a single cough left her lips.

The maiden, who was from a noble family, was accustomed to silence; she could go an entire day without speaking and still not feel lonely. Even if she had to stay there in the tiny hermitage in the shadow of the mountains, she could handle it—she wouldn’t let out even a single sigh. When she had been sent there to stay earlier in the day, she knew the old lady had followed her. Still, the old lady had been so quiet that the maiden had forgotten she was there. Right then, when the light flared up, it illuminated the old lady in the same color as the lamplight, and the maiden took in her appearance in a single glance, everything from her body to her face. The maiden had the feeling that she had seen her somewhere before. In fact, she felt warm, sociable feelings well up inside her. She had not met a single other woman since leaving home the previous night. It wasn’t impossible that at some point somewhere she had encountered the old lady seated in front of her. Still, the hunch that she had seen her before wasn’t the only reason the maiden was drawn to her.

——My lady.

When the old lady finally broke the silence, her voice wasn’t what the maiden had expected. It sounded sad and hoarse.

——My lady, you probably don’t know me. Still, would you like to hear what I have to say? I could tell you about things that happened before you were ever born. I’m an old lady, and I know such things.

Once the old lady had opened her mouth, she started speaking as if she might go on forever. It began to dawn on the maiden why she felt she might have seen the old lady before. There were always old women, around the same age as the one seated there, who came and went from her home—the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara clan. There was one, the old woman Nakatomi no Shii, who had come to the ladies’ room where the maiden lived; she entered the room unceremoniously and proceeded without any hesitation to regale them with old stories. The old lady seated there with her had the same countenance. It all made sense. The old woman Shii was one of the clan storytellers in charge of remembering and reciting history, one of only a small handful of storytellers left. Perhaps she was a storyteller for the Fujiwara clan or maybe for the descendants of Tagima no Mahito in the neighboring village of Tagima.

——The Fujiwara clan is now divided into four branches. But that was not the case back in the days of Kamatari. Even during the era of his son Fuhito, the clan was still unified. It was not long afterward that the clan separated from the Nakatomis. Members of the Nakatomi clan were still honored in the Fujiwara villages, but part of the family began to identify with the Fujiwara name.

——Over time, the Fujiwara lineage became involved with the court nobles and the regency. The Nakatomi lineage became associated with Shintō rites. For generations, they have been entrusted with protecting and maintaining shrines. But now is now; back then was back then. I want to tell you the story of a distant ancestor of the Fujiwaras, namely Ame no Oshikumone—the clan god of the Nakatomi family.

——Now the Child of the Sun is in the palace in Nara. Before that, the Child of the Sun was in the palace in Fujiwara, and before that in the palaces in Asuka. (*) Generations of rulers moved the palace within the province of Yamato, deciding upon a new location each time. Long ago, a miracle took place. It involved the Nakatomi clan god and his support, which has benefited generations and generations of rulers. Now, my lady, listen to what I have to say.

——This story took place ages ago in a generation far removed from us. Now, pay attention. As I said, Oshikumone was the distant ancestor of both the Nakatomi and Fujiwara clans. He searched throughout the entire province of Yamato, leaving no stone unturned in his search for the best water to prepare food, rice, and sake for the Child of the Sun. Back in those days, the water throughout the province smelled of minerals and was clouded with dirt, so it wasn’t worthy of being used in the sovereign’s food. Oshikumone prayed to the ancestral gods in the heavens above to teach him where he could find fresh water, but the province lay far below, and the gods couldn’t hear his prayers. Even the mountains were too far below the heavens for the gods to hear. But in the Aogaki Mountains, which border the province of Yamato, there stand the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami. Oshikumone climbed the mountain and stood on top among the clouds—a passageway into the heavens—and prayed. In response, the ancestral gods in the heavens above showed him eight places where the Water of Heaven flows out of Mt. Futakami. Ever since then, the Nakatomis have been coming here for years and years, generation upon generation, to gather the water that has been used to prepare the sovereign’s food. Now, listen carefully . . . .

This tale was part of the history of Tagima no Mahito’s clan. The storyteller spoke as if she were engaged in an ordinary conversation, but when she reached the part of the story about the miracle involving the ancestral god, she stopped abruptly.

The gurgling of the river outside seemed to have grown louder. Most likely, that was the sound of the distant ancestor of the Nakatomis and Fujiwaras as he gathered the water from the eight wells high on the mountain and sent it flowing down the slopes, crashing, swelling, and cascading over rocks. The maiden turned in the direction of the gurgling river and placed her palms together in prayer.

A few moments later, she turned back around. The old woman had drawn closer. When the maiden saw her in the dim light, she was filled with a fear that left her speechless. At the same moment, she also felt a special urgency, thinking the woman was pressing her for something.

A certain look had appeared on the old woman’s face—it was the same look that the old woman Nakatomi no Shii would get as she was about to launch into one of her tales. A spirit seemed to have possessed the elderly storyteller from Tagima, and she began to tremble slightly.

——Up high                       On the twin peaks
I climb                               And look
There is Asuka                   Where birds fly**
Sacred hills                        Where home lies
So many homes                  In sight
Rich roofs                          And gardens
And behold                        In the cluster of homes
The lodgings                      Of the Fujiwara minister

                   What I see                          So far in the distance
                   What I await                      With so much anticipation

Is it the virgin                      Who comes and goes?
Can I make                          Her noble ears hear me?
Mimimo no Toji                  With her bluish horse

                   I call to her                          And her younger sisters
                   So that just one                    Of her children
                   Her children’s children        Just one maiden
                   Will come                            To be my wife

Up high                                On the twin peaks
In the shaded fields               Of Futakami
Where the plants grow          The thickets flower
Child scented                        Of ashibi

                   I cannot                                Quite grasp you

Stomping my feet                  Of ashibi***

                   I yearn for you                      Oh, Fujiwara maiden

When the old woman finished singing, she took a deep breath and slumped over as if exhausted. For some time, the only sounds came from the rustling trees and gurgling river.



* “Child of the Sun” (hi no miko) is an old-fashioned honorific phrase indicating the emperor. Before the imperial family established the capital in the city of Nara, in the year 710, the imperial family had moved its residence multiple times following the death of an emperor. It was believed that the death of an important figure brought about ritual impurities in a place, and continuing to reside in the place where a previous emperor had lived and died would result in an inauspicious reign.

** The name Asuka can be written with the characters meaning “flying bird”; hence the poetic description “Asuka, where birds fly.”

*** The first two syllables of the plant name ashibi (Pieris japonica) are a homonym for the word meaning “feet”; hence the association between feet and this shrub, which produces small white flowers in the spring.


Excerpt from The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu, translated by Jeffrey Angles.

Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953) was a Japanese ethnologist, linguist, folklorist, novelist, and poet. As one of the foremost early twentieth-century experts on Japanese folklore and Shinto, he has vast influence over modern intellectual discourse and many of his novels and collections of poetry are classics of Japanese literature.

Jeffrey Angles is professor of Japanese and translation at Western Michigan University. He is author of Writing the Love of Boys (Minnesota, 2011) and is an award-winning translator of dozens of Japan’s most important writers.

"Jeffrey Angles has given us a smooth, supple translation of this remarkable book, and thanks to him, Orikuchi's glorious evocation of the distant past will live on in our contemporary world. The sounds of the ancient Japanese language may have disappeared, but in this translation, the text has been reborn with all the strength and grandeur of ancient societies everywhere."—Hiromi Ito, author of Killing Kanoko and Wild Grass on the Riverbank

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Midsummer Eve: A gateway to another, sometimes dangerous, world.


In the old days in Norway—up until the end of the 19th century—the night between the 23rd and 24th of June was the night to harvest any kind of plants that were supposed to hold healing or magical powers. At the same time it was a dangerous night to be wandering around the woods and the fields, since the gateway to the other world was believed to be open, thus making us accessible to an army of unknown beings: some visible, some not.

This duality is perhaps what characterizes the Norwegian Midsummer night more than anything else. The promise of something wonderful, mixed with the threat of horrors unknown.

It was said that if a girl picked seven different kinds of wildflowers on this particular night, then went to bed with the flowers under her pillow, she would dream of her future husband. But then again, who could know whether the dream wasn't just a trick being played by a creature that had slipped through the gateway and now lusted for her?

These beings—imagined or not—were possibly transformed versions of gods and demonlike figures from the pre-Christian era, when the landscapes of Norway were home to a plethora of spiritual beings of whom we know very little today. It's the same hills, the same rivers, creeks, and boulders now as then, but it seems as if it has all stopped speaking to us the way it did to our ancestors.

But then again, perhaps it's all in the eye of the beholder. Or the ear of the listener. Perhaps the landscapes never stopped speaking, it's just that we can't hear them anymore. If that is the case, it means we could be surrounded by whispers and cries without even knowing it. Eyes may glare at us, but we are unable to look back at them. We are like a blind person walking through a room full of monsters, feeling completely safe.

It could be that this is the case. And it could be that Midsummer night is the night when we get our vision back. But we might not like what we see.

In the forthcoming (Fall 2017) The Devil's Wedding Ring, the protagonist—a Norwegian who returns to the old country after many years in the US—is unwillingly sucked into this old and half-forgotten world of superstition and folk beliefs. He realizes too late that these things are not to be trifled with.

The full power of Midsummer is unleashed deep in the ancient woodlands.


RELATED: This video was shot at Eidsborg stave church, where a substantial part of The Devil's Wedding Ring takes place. It shows a reenactment of the medieval ritual connected with the figure of St. Nicholas (locally known as Nikuls). This ritual was carried out every midsummer night for at least six hundred years, and is believed to have roots back to a much older pagan ritual that may have taken place on the same site.

St.Nikuls from Videoarkivet on Vimeo.


Vidar Sundstøl won the prestigious Riverton Prize for the Best Norwegian Crime Novel for The Land of Dreams, the first volume of his acclaimed Minnesota trilogy, published in the United States by the University of Minnesota Press. The other two volumes are Only the Dead and The Ravens. Sundstøl has lived in the United States and Egypt, and now resides with his family in Telemark, the setting for The Devil’s Wedding Ring.

"An intelligent and thoughtful mystery about a man returning to his home country to learn the truth about a friend’s death, and in doing so, he must face ghosts of his own. This pitch-perfect elegy makes for compelling reading, the kind of work that must be savored."
—Allen Eskens, author of The Life We Bury

"Vidar Sundstøl's novels deserve all the praise they have garnered."
—Johan Theorin

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Ends: On writing, being, and sensing an ending.

It is not to be expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.
—Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending


University of Delaware

Ending books (just like lives), good, bad, or indifferent, is difficult. Eschatology beckons. Come the end, at the moment of the letting go, there’s always an urge to keep writing and to promise more than you should. Surely all those words stacked up behind you mean something. What has all this been for? It’s a moment of pure ideology (which is to say it’s real or anticipates the reality that the words might make).

Different writers handle the problem in different ways. Some don’t handle it at all. One of my favorites is Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1966), whose opening sentence seeks to inoculate the book against the expectation that the words that follow will matter, which, of course, only makes them matter more. Critics are not poets. They don’t actually help. Or, better yet, they help sort out the help poets offer. I am not sure that Kermode or his slippery negative analogy really believes this. Critics may not make sense of lives or the world but the sense they attempt to make still constitutes a “feat” even if it is “lesser” than that to which poets are supposedly bound. The difference maintained here between poiesis (making) and critique (reading, receiving, responding, but only breaking when you have to) entails a sweet evasion to which, like Kermode, part of me tends to cling. What Kermode describes is really a circuit of making and unmaking, all part of the process of somehow making the sense you feel, feel adequate. Kermode’s lines are not immodest even if they play, in part, as a modesty topos, and, in fact, suggest that you may be forgiven for thinking critics poets and poets, critics. Best to be on your guard at endings and beginnings. Do your best to be skeptical and completely naïve—preferably in the same gesture.

In my case, come the end, I was haunted by a sentence that I wanted to write, indeed, I did write, several times, but then, in every iteration, immediately deleted. The cadence was wrong, the sentence at once too little and too much. I shall write that sentence one last time at the end of this post. Allow me to explain.

Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression is an attempt to craft scripts for humanities-based work (aka reading and writing) that simply take it as read that “what we call ‘humanity derives … from a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies.’” How do we read and write now if we just assume that all the texts, all the artifacts we study, come crowded with forms of writing or coding otherwise than human, traces that our own acts erase, obliterate, but also render sensible, knowable, by taking so many others as a substrate for our own acts of inscription. Throughout the book, I assume that our archives and stories are marked by animal, plant, fungal, microbial viral, mineral, or chemical actors. This fundamental shift in what counts as description and reading designates the stakes to the book’s subtitle—“a multispecies impression.” Human forms of writing or coding routinely cohabit with forms of writing and coding otherwise than human that contribute to, constrain, and interrupt the kinds of sense we make.

Methodologically, then, asserting the interspecies basis or multispecies dependency of our lives no longer counts as much of a revelation, output, or thesis. On the contrary, the multispecies basis to our lives functions as a straightforward given or input that requires us to re-describe our objects. I found, for example, that it frequently makes better sense to understand supposedly human conflicts as contests between rival multispecies groups of human, animal, and plant actors. Different kinds of “writing” or coding face off in order to build or occupy different kinds of worlds. And those worlds are built and maintained by differing configurations or matter-metaphors that undergird categories such as “human,” “plant,” “animal,” parceling out and strategically confusing them in the process. I organized the book with an eye to different scales of being or forms of finitude keyed to animal presences (sheep), plants (oranges), and fungi (yeast). But what took me by surprise was the way the categories blurred. Modeled as “stock” sheep morphed into plants and back. By their recruitment of animal actors as a dispersal strategy, oranges grew legs and beaks, hands and feet, went mobile. The airy bubble of yeast’s fermentation offered itself as an icon of what counts for us as the solidity or stability of an infrastructure. The story I was telling became a series of anthropo-zoo-geneses—the co-making of different beings. Problem was that this altered mode of description didn’t seem to offer much more. There did not seem anything particularly progressive or affirmative about a multispecies account or modeling—at least not as such. The scripts I was crafting were just that: scripts. At best, they were entirely neutral.

Come book’s end, the best I thought I could do was have the thing swallow its own tail. Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast begins with a chapter titled “Impression,” which establishes a mode of reading that subsequent chapters enlarge. As the chapters progress, I try to acknowledge the way the arrival of a new plant, animal, or fungal actor (who in truth was there all along) enables certain questions (inscribes) and disables others (erases). Best, then, not to end by kicking over the traces with a set of proclamations about the progressive cast to multispecies modeling. Best, instead, to own up to the neutrality of this word impression, and acknowledge the way impression cohabits with and comes funded by the erasure of other forms of writing and being, human and otherwise. Come the end of the book, all I had to offer was this sense of entanglement, of gain and loss. The book ends with the figure of “an empty page or the flicker of a blank screen,” the necessary fact of my words becoming a surface for someone or something else to “write” on or with. The book ends not with a promise but with an assertion that may or may not hold promise, that “the future, if there is to be one, requires us to imagine another order of world in common, a world that owns its existence as a series of competing, sometimes complementary, sometimes violent, sometimes sustaining multispecies impressions.” That’s the sense my ending sought to make. (I also refuse to show you a painting—but that’s a different story).

The sentence that came and went, went and came, and comes back now, one last time, was this: “Something like a politics might begin here.”

A friend tells me, blithely, in the way that friends can, that I meant “praxis.” I think she’s wrong. I think I just don’t quite know what this thing that is “like a politics” but which knows no polis is yet. Of course, perhaps, that’s what she means by "praxis."


Julian Yates is author of Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression and Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance. Yates is professor of English and material culture studies at the University of Delaware.

"Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast promises—and delivers—everything. A microcosmos, it treats sheep, plants, microbes, and Benjamin Franklin’s bread rolls, ranging from pastoral poetry to Philip K. Dick. At every turn, Julian Yates surprised and delighted me. This volume's multimodal capaciousness, equally adept in historiographical, philosophical, biographical, and even genetic frameworks, should entice anyone feeling the slightest temptation towards posthuman and ecological cultural studies."—Karl Steel, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Algonquins' struggle for land, coexistence builds as Canada's 150th approaches.

Assistant professor, School for the Study of Canada at Trent University

If Canadians want to understand why some First Nations are sitting out the Canada 150 celebrations, they need look no further than to fifteen community members who took an eight-hour drive from Barriere Lake in Quebec to Toronto on Thursday.

The Algonquins attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Copper One mining company to let them know there will be no mining on their territory. They have repeatedly, unequivocally, over the course of six years, notified Copper One that they intend to protect the headwaters of the powerful Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers and the affected lifeworlds of ecosystems and communities downstream.

They were not even permitted to read a statement at the AGM. They were bullied, assaulted, threatened with arrest by police, accused of trespassing, and met with a thick line of “legal counsel” and security blocking their entrance into the meeting. The wonder of it all was the spirit of determination that remained undiminished and even galvanized by Barriere Lake in the face of the junior mining company’s obviously threatened response.

Barriere Lake have witnessed the anguish of other communities whose lands have been affected by mining, including the Secwepemc since the Mount Polley disaster who witnessed the largest tailing pond spill in Canadian history poison hundreds of river systems in their interior BC territory a few years ago.

Prime Minister Trudeau rode a wave of Indigenous support into power, promising for one thing to implement the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Canada is a signatory. UNDRIP protects Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent. But these promises have unspooled in a familiar way.

Confederation was a non-event for Indigenous people. They were not in the room when it was signed and they were not invited into the discussion. They are only included in brief mention under the federal head of power in the jurisdictional divisions of power between the federal and provincial governments.

But Canada’s assertion of sovereignty did not extinguish Indigenous peoples’ responsibility to the lands they had been occupying for thousands of years, nor their structures of governance, nor their decision-making authority that did not derive from a foreign power, but from the responsibilities passed down for generations from their ancestors.

The Algonquins have an encyclopedic knowledge of their territory. Their forest management includes food, beverage, medicine, utility, craftwork, ritual, ceremony, and commercial uses, and involves the use of mammals, birds, insects, inanimate objects, fish, flora, and fauna. For example, they know which trees are good for snowshoes and baskets, which fish make the best glue, which insects indicate the best time to hunt sturgeon along the lakeshore. At least 104 plants have been used by the Algonquins for medicine that treats everything from kidney and urinary ailments, including medicines specifically for women to deal with menstruation and childbirth, as well as for treating cancer and diabetes. It is this knowledge, the Algonquins maintain, and their protection of it, that is the source of their jurisdiction.

In 1991, Barriere Lake signed an agreement with Canada and Quebec to co-manage resource use on their lands. Despite being lauded by the United Nations as a trailblazing achievement, both colonial governments failed to honour it. Modeled after a three-figure wampum exchanged between the Algonquins, the French, and the English around 1760, the Trilateral Agreement turned out to be another link in a chain of dishonoured agreements.

Barriere Lake’s vision of co-existence offers a solution to the problem of conflicting Indigenous and Canadian laws. But instead, the governments maligned the community and squirmed out of their obligations. The worst of this treatment involved the destruction of Barriere Lake’s customary governance system in 2010 by ministerial authority of an archaic clause of the Indian Act that had rarely been exercised in almost one hundred years.

On July 1, what will Canadians be celebrating? To live here proudly, we need to respect the Indigenous governance structures that are tied profoundly to the future viability of these lands.

This piece originally appeared on The Media Co-op.

Shiri Pasternak is author of Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake against the State. She is assistant professor in the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University. She has held postdoctoral fellowships at the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and at Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies.