Monday, November 12, 2018

#UPWeek | #ReadUP | University Press Week: Adrienne Kennedy inducted into the 2018 Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement

People will be reading
Adrienne Kennedy's works
for centuries to come.

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Adrienne Kennedy has been a force in American theatre since the early 1960s, influencing generations of playwrights with her hauntingly fragmentary lyrical dramas. Kennedy is a three-time Obie-award winning American playwright whose works have been widely anthologized and performed around the world. Among her many honors are the Guggenheim fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters award. In 2018, The New York Times called her "one of the American theater’s greatest and least compromising experimentalists." In 1995, critic Michael Feingold of the Village Voice wrote, "with [Samuel] Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater." On this day, Adrienne Kennedy will be inducted into the 2018 Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City.

To mark this tremendous honor, we are posting here an excerpt from The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (2001), the first comprehensive collection of her most important works, including the Obie-winning Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964).


On the Writing of Funnyhouse of a Negro

Funnyhouse of a Negro was completed in Rome, Italy, the week before our second son Adam was born in Salvator Mundi hospital. I was twenty-nine. And I believed if I didn't complete this play before my child's birth and before my thirtieth birthday I would never finish it.

My son Joe Jr. and I lived in a beautiful tranquil apartment about fifteen minutes from Piazza di Spagna. Hall steps led to a miniature living room that opened onto a terrace that overlooked Rome. I sat at the dark desk in the cool miniature room with pages I had started in Ghana on the campus of Legon (Achimota Guest House). They seemed a disjointed raging mass of paragraphs typed on thin transparent typing paper I had bought at the campus of Legon's bookstore. The entire month of July each morning when my son Joe went to Fregene with a play group of children run by an American couple, I tried to put the pages in order. 

Ten months earlier at the end of September 1960 my husband Joe and I left New York on the Queen Elizabeth. It was my first sight of Europe and Africa. We stopped in London, Paris, Madrid, Casablanca and lived in Monrovia, Liberia before we settled in Accra, Ghana.

The imagery in Funnyhouse of a Negro was born by seeing those places: Queen Victoria, the statue in front of Buckingham Palace, Patrice Lumumba on posters and small cards all over Ghana, murdered just after we arrived in Ghana, fall 1960; the savannahs in Ghana, the white frankopenny trees; the birth of Ghana newly freed from England, scenes of Nkrumah on cloth murals and posters. And this was the first time in my life that it was impossible to keep my hair straightened. In Ghana and for the rest of the thirteen-month trip I stopped straightening my hair.

After Ghana in February 1961 I had chosen Rome to wait for my husband to finish his work in Nigeria. Rome was the land my high school Latin teacher had sung of: the Forum, the Tiber, the Palatine, Caesar. When my son Joe was at the Parioli Day School I walked in the Forum for hours that spring of 1961. I rode the bus on the Appian Way, the rhythms of my teacher speaking out loud in my mind. Wandering through Rome while Joe was at school I was more alone than I had ever been. At noon I returned to the Pensioni Sabrina for lunch, often a pasta soup made of star-shaped pasta, then went into our room while waiting for my son to return on the bus at the American Embassy and stared at the pages. There were paragraphs about Patrice Lumumba and Queen Victoria. I had always liked the Duchess of Hapsburg since I'd seen the Chapultapec Palace in Mexico. There were lines about her. But the main character talked in monologues about her hair and savannahs in Africa. At that moment Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers were all a part of one work. It wasn't until late July and the impetus of my son's impending birth tha tthe two works split apart and my character Sarah (with her selves Queen Victoria, Patrice Lumumba, Duchess of Hapsburg and Jesus) was born. 

In May, two months earlier, my mother had written me that my father had left Cleveland and returned to Georgia to live after thirty-five years. I cried when I read the letter, walking from American Express up the Piazza di Spagna steps. So Jesus (who I had always mixed with my social worker father) and the landscape and memories of Georgia and my grandparents became intertwined with the paragraphs on the Ghanian savannahs and Lumumba and his murder.

So trying (for the first time in my life) to comb my unstraightened hair, trying to out race the birth of my child, rereading the divorce news letters from my mother . . . in the July Italian summer mornings, alone in the miniature room, near the Roman Forum, I finished Funnyhouse of a Negro the last week of July 1961. Our son Adam was born August 1.


Also published by University of Minnesota Press:
In One Act by Adrienne Kennedy
Deadly Triplets by Adrienne Kennedy


The University Press Week blog tour begins today and continues throughout the week. Today, Duke University Press writes about its partnerships with museums. Athabasca University Press offers a playlist by author Mark A. McCutcheon. Rutgers University Press dedicates a post to Junctures in Women's Leadership: The Arts by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin. Over at Yale University Press, check out a post by author Dominic Bradbury about how immigrants enrich a country's art and architecture. Please enjoy all of these great #TurnItUP posts!

Happy #UPWeek and remember to #ReadUP.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sonic Science Fiction: Programming the Thought Synthesizer

University of Denver

One of the challenges I faced while researching and writing The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film concerned the terminology of the “new” and the role of “futurity.” Early drafts of the project emphasized thematic clusters that brought together films from very different eras in order to emphasize several tonal centers. I have been working now with these in more performative contexts to explore the ways in which individual films might constitute the components of a larger modular thought synthesizer. Could the disruptive cuts of Godard’s Alphaville (1965), for instance, function as a step-sequencing module to control the theremin-drenched soundscapes of Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950) in order to produce an acoustic ecology in which cosmic situations resonate with Cold War dread by offering a scalar attunement to an atomized post-linguistic? Or, can the cosmic engine of Sun Ra’s Moog outbursts in John Coney’s Space Is the Place (1974) introduce the blackness of the AfroStrange as a frequency modulator to attenuate the Wagnerian whiteness of Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? These are still open questions and experiments-in-progress as I regard my book less as the documentation of concluded research than a composition handbook, a score or schemata for new directions and, yes, sounds of things to come.

Conceiving of science fiction (SF) film history not as a timeline of works by composers, musicians, and technicians who build on each other’s work but rather as a proliferation of strategies for “making different,” this project has led me to reject the terminology of innovation and instead promote estrangements at once technical, material, narrative, cognitive, and speculative. The “audible history” that I have ended up with presents a chronology, with each chapter covering about a decade of SF film history from the early 1920s to the end of the 1980s. But I hope this chronology modulates itself over time by activating three compositional modes—the ambient glide, the shimmering fringe, and the xenomorphic—which repeatedly push time out of joint and liquefy historical reference points into a flux state. Not components of the book as modular thought synthesizer but rather techniques for assembling and methods of playing it, these three modes share a propensity toward sonic destabilization. That is, they both work against time and attenuate space while never disavowing the apparent inescapability, if not absolute necessity, of time and space as constituents of what we call sound. I will briefly consider each and how readers might expect them to resound with their experience of The Sound of Things to Come.

Ambient glide

SF sounds are ontologically unstable, neither here nor there but always shifting and drifting across categories of place. The ambient glide of sonic science fiction is initiated by the push-pull of the theremin’s siren call in Rocketship X-M. As the sound of Martian psychogeography, the destabilized tonalities of the theremin call the American expedition to Mars. The instrument is barely audible during liftoff but becomes increasingly loud in the score as the rocket is knocked off its original course to the Moon and tugged with increasing volume and volatility of wavering sound toward Mars. The theremin is recorded in an orchestral context, as part of the film’s non-diegetic score, but its unfixed and wobbling wolf tone not only unsettles the sounds of the strings with which it mixes, it contaminates them with its radiant waves. It also suggests diegetic sound. The theremin sonifies the Martian landscape in the same way that the film stock switches from black-and-white to sepia tints during the Mars sequences.

Gliding sonorous events like those of the theremin, Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities in Forbidden Planet (1956), or years later the long descending tones of Vangelis’s synthesizers and siren wails heard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), won’t stay in their place and open up strange new domains of diegetic experience. Much of my film sound analysis maps out a sub-diegetic dimension that plays out along an alien psychological substrata of cinematic phenomena that is also at the same time a techno-diegetic realm. Here, the technological apparatus of film sound carries on an almost independent transaction among machinic, electric and otherwise material speculations. These come together in the form of sonic psychotechnologies through which the SF film imbricates and entangles psychic and cosmic indices. In its gliding mode, this sonic psytech emphasizes mobility that makes thought travel but never arrives fully formed and is perpetually seeking its place.

Shimmering fringe

The shimmering fringe is first heard in Leith Steven’s score to George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950). A series of sustained overtones and polytonal harmonics orchestrally suspend time to lend depth to a brilliant star field. These sounds recede from audition, implying depth through a physiognomic imperceptibility. Likewise, in the same film, the use of an early effects processor known as the Sonovox technologically attenuates orchestral sounds as we observe a lunar panorama, a matte painting by the so-called father of modern space art, Chesley Bonestell. We can never hear the moon, but we can hear our devices hearing the moon, as it were. Sounds that blur or play around the edges of other sounds make peripheral spaces key to our experience of the SF film and are the basis for any understanding of sonic pyschotechnologies. Sonic psytech filters the sonorous event, objectifies it within discrete modular devices, but also gives the audible a withdrawn materiality that eludes comprehension and creates tonal apprehension (in both senses of the word).

In Blade Runner, the pitched shimmer of the ventilation units in Deckard (Harrison Ford)’s apartment or the steady buzz of the hovering police vehicles, spinners, above crowded street scenes, attain a fractal density that seeps away from the ear if we try to concentrate on it, like a star that is seen more brightly at the edges of perception but fades if we turn to view it directly. At the same time, such sounds reveal themselves as artificial sonic props for a manufactured reality and are meant to reinforce the programming of implanted memories. As an auditory fringe beyond the flat affective encounter with the SF landscape, the warbling destabilization of the Sonovox or synthesizer suggests that our encounters with the alien diegetic ambience are experiences with and at the very limits of our perceptual apparatuses and the technologies of sense. The fuzzy edges of synthetic tonalities, then, provide access points for an ambient attunement to an affective nonplace.

The xenomorphic

The xenomorphic mode is first encountered in electronic tonalities in Forbidden Planet. The Barrons would program sonic patch boards, burn them out by overdriving them as they recorded the sounds on magnetic tape, and then reanimate through a form of tape music that resembles nothing so much as an alien autopsy. This is not hyperbole. Consistently, the Barrons characterize their work as the torture of living sound circuits, a form of biomedia. In the film, these sound beings morph across diegetic layers to express the film’s narrative concern with alien psychotechnological events, an invisible but audible creature manifested from the Id of Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). The xenomorph invariably points to an extracinematic location, a zone of machinic materiality that is also transformed in the service of the speculative imagination in which an ethicoaesthetic dilemma transpires. In Forbidden Planet, this is initiated by the Barron’s abdication of any responsibility they might have to communicate with and nurture the alien biocomputers engineered in their little kitchen laboratory in Greenwich Village.

In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), the sonic xenomorph thrives on an expanded auditory terrain made possible by Dolby Surround Sound, manipulating the vast sonic field to amplify tensions around the unpredictability of emerging alien threats to the listening body. In these films, the unseen becomes emblematic of the sonic xenomorph and stages alien encounter as a form of sensory deficit paradoxically dependent on existential high fidelity. The Dolby System in fact always thrived on aggression toward the listener, originating in theaters with the debut of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). As Michael Geselowitz, senior director of the IEEE History Center has pointed out, most innovations in sound technology happen “while our backs are turned” (2016). As embodied experience of the non-local, these films map the primary body sounds of pumping blood, breathing, the high pitched whine of the nervous system, and even tinnitus. The xenomorphic sonorous hyperobject cannot be perceived as more than the traces of a thing, not the thing itself, that manifest as a byproduct of high fidelity auditory hallucination and uncanny precognitive paranoia.

The title of this project is not meant ironically even as it works around and against notions of newness and futurism to embrace instead estrangement and alterity. As I write in my introduction, I hope that readers will accept that by the book’s conclusion they know less than they did when starting out. This is not to empty out the book of meaning nor to make ineffectual the strategies, techniques and modalities that it encourages readers to adopt as ways of listening to the science fiction film as a sonic art form in its own right. Rather, this is because the work aims for an incommensurable “next thing,” an unavoidable other estrangement. This is the strangeness, for instance, of the widespread digitization of SF film sound in the 1990s, and the pursuit of broader frequency ranges and greater volumes of sound in the 21st century cinema. It also resonates toward different forms as sonic science fiction escapes film and ends up in the music videos of Björk, Grace Jones, and Janelle Monáe, for example, or in the live cinema projects of Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand, Android Jones, and NoiseFold. Whenever it may come from, the future of sonic science fiction is elsewhere, making the new strange again.


Trace Reddell is author of The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film and associate professor of emergent digital practices at the University of Denver.

"A lively, endlessly inventive exploration of the sonic worlds of science fiction cinema (beginning even before the advent of synchronized sound). The breadth and subtlety of Trace Reddell’s interdisciplinary scholarship is impressive, and his book is an ongoing homage to the valuable conceptual and cognitive challenges upon which effective science fiction depends."
—Scott Bukatman, Stanford University

"Building on the highly original concept of the sonic novum, Trace Reddell has written the first comprehensive theoretical approach to musical science fiction. The Sound of Things to Come is an alternative history of science fiction cinema, a handbook of sophisticated close analyses of many important films, and a re-envisioning of the role of sound technology in modernist aesthetics."
—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, author of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction Studies

Friday, November 2, 2018

On Jeff VanderMeer and material monsters: Did we ever know anything about the world at all?

University of Colorado Boulder

In None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, I focus on the fantastic materialities VanderMeer creates in his major fiction: the Veniss milieu, in which a good portion of his early fiction takes place; the city of Ambergris, which takes shape in City of Saints and Madmen (2001 – 04), Shriek: An Afterword (2006), and Finch (2009); Area X, the motivating force behind the Southern Reach trilogy (2014); and the Earth of Borne (2017) and The Strange Bird (2017). These materialities are impossible according to the norms we take for granted in our own world. In other words, they are fantastic, created, fictional. VanderMeer’s materialities can, of course, help us understand our own. They are products of a writer working in a specific place (the United States) at a specific moment (the early twenty-first century). Close attention to the historical situation in which these materialities emerge no doubt reveals something about that historical situation and the manner in which it determines what we think and how we act. For example, Area X can be productively read in the context of climate change and the Anthropocene. In such a reading, this alien place suggests a return of the repressed, the revenge of nature upon a humanity that has ignored and exploited it for far too long.

However, I find that these materialities can do more than represent our world. They can intervene in it when we understand that they have a force of their own, a force particular to fiction. In my reading, Area X cannot stand in for climate change or the Anthropocene because these human terms suggest an attempt to draw a boundary around an object that cannot be delimited by human knowledge practices. Such practices seek to create an other opposed to the self, each bound to its opposite by way of a universalizing liberalism that guarantees that the unknown can be known, that the different can become the same. However, Area X escapes every attempt to draw it into human knowledge practices because it exists at scales that cannot be indexed to such practices. It is, in my terms, abdifferent—not a thing whose difference could give way to sameness, but a thing that flees from all difference and the knowledge practices that produce it. Area X suggests a reading practice appropriate for VanderMeer’s fantastic materialities. This reading practice does not require that every fiction reference our own world. It allows fictions to be fictions, the fantastic to be fantastic. To engage with such a practice, we do not need to stop caring about our own world. Rather we must understand how fictions participate in our world, that they can do more than simply reflect it back to us. As I write, this reading practice “involves imagining conditions that afford new ways of thinking and that do not assume a stable, grounding reality. To fantasize, or fictionalize, materiality does not mean to abandon oneself to fantasy but to abandon the fantasy that we always already are able to know and are able to question such knowing.”

VanderMeer's short story “This World is Full of Monsters” exhibits many of the concerns that VanderMeer’s readers will recognize from his previous fiction: the necessity of transformation, the relationship of writer to world, the end of human civilization, the failure of human knowledge techniques, and so on. However, more so than any of VanderMeer’s fiction to date, “This World is Full of Monsters” offers a materiality in which stories are more than stories, more than representations: they are living things, they are forces of transformation, they are monsters. Horror reveals to us how our knowledge of the world and the stories we tell ourselves about our places in the world will always fail because the world is not a story, because materiality is not amenable to our knowledge or narratives. To this end, horror deploys monsters that demonstrate (these two terms are etymologically related to one another). The monsters of traditional horror reveal to us what we don’t know despite all of our science, what we cannot know precisely because our science has limited the scope of knowing itself. Thus when the werewolf returns from our animal past, or the vampire appears as a reminder of a dead aristocracy that continues to threaten the bourgeois order, or zombies manifest out of the remnants of a failing consumer society no story about what they are or what they mean will save us. If our knowledge could not account for them before they (re)appeared, what chance does it have now?

Here we discover the limitations of such monstrosity. These monsters, despite their impossibility, each represent some aspect of the world as we know it. We know there are no werewolves, but we accept the presence of the werewolf in horror insofar as it might represent something about our own world to us, insofar as it suggests our relationship to a pre-modern past we might otherwise wish to forget. Is such a fiction the best vehicle for such a suggestion? Is such a fiction an adequate representation of this relationship? Is this relationship even real, or is it a function of the fiction itself? When we ask horror fictions, or any fictions, to refer to the world in a meaningful way, or when we ask monsters to show us how our world works, we quickly and invariably run into questions about whether we ever knew anything about the world at all, whether we ever knew it in and of itself or whether what we know of it only comes to us through our representations of it. This issue becomes all the more urgent in a moment when the greatest crisis facing humanity’s continued existence on this planet, the forces unleashed by the Anthropocene, escape our every effort to represent them to a human-scaled subject that takes itself as the measure of all things.

In contrast to the traditional monsters of horror, the story-creature at the center of “This World is Full of Monsters” does not represent anything. It is not “about” anything. Rather, it is an active force that drives the transformation of the narrator-writer and creates for him a position in a world where he no longer fits. “Monsters” begins when the story-creature appears on the doorstep of the narrator-writer: “The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.” If we understand that the story-creature does not represent anything, we can immediately grasp the strangeness of the first sentence. The rest of this passage makes clear that “story,” in this context, does not refer to a fictional representation of the real or even to the creation of a narrative. However, the first sentence is even more revealing when we understand that “meant” does not involve any latent content, any hidden message that must be interpreted to be revealed. “Meant” does not refer to the possibility of knowing something outside of what has been written here. Instead, it refers to what the story will cause, what the story will do.

The story invades the body and mind of the narrator-writer, eventually causing him to sleep for one hundred years. When he wakes up, he does so to a transformed world in which he no longer has a place. Without a place, without a meaning, he seeks to end his existence. “This World is Full of Monsters” becomes a meditation on the problem of memory, but not in any conventional sense. The problem of memory here has little to do with the adequacy of memory to actual events. Rather, it has to do with how memory prevents us from adjusting to new situations, how memory creates meanings at odds with material facts. Late in “Monsters,” the narrator-writer confronts a strange being in this transformed world: “He communicated to me that the world had been remade against my image and that my form, even much reduced, was the rebellion of the old world against the new, and that this made no sense because the new world embraced the old; that my very presence made the old world manifest, no matter the form, so why was the form important? Why did I hold onto the form?” In one sense, the narrator-writer clings to his embodied form and thus refuses a physical transformation that would better afford his continued existence in the new world, a world no longer amenable to human being or meaning. In another sense, however, the narrator-writer clings to the form known as story, the form through which human beings make meaning out of materiality by representing it this or that way—sometimes in ways that obscure the very materiality they seek to understand. If it appears that VanderMeer himself still clings to this form, to the story, such is only the case because we insist on reading “This World is Full of Monsters,” or any of his fictions, as attempts to adequately capture some aspect of our own materiality. Such is only the case because we fail to understand how these stories might instead have some material effect on the world itself.


Benjamin J. Robertson is assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder. Robertson is author of None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer and coeditor of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.

"None of This Is Normal is the first book-length study of the weird fiction of Jeff VanderMeer. Benjamin J. Robertson not only highlights the beauty and power of VanderMeer's fiction, but also shows how this writing is central to any attempt to think through the plight of humanity in what has come to be called the Anthropocene."
—Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism

"This spirited book disturbs the new normal of the Anthropocene by way of the ‘New Weird’ in Jeff VanderMeer's fiction. At once a meditation on fantastic materiality and a step toward life after aftermath, this first dedicated study of VanderMeer tells a new story about humans and nonhumans both."
—Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Quitting the environmental shame game.

California State University, Fullerton

Many of us have had that particular social media experience: we read a post railing against a behavior or taking a self-righteous stand on an issue and feel “called out.” Do I do that? Am I part of the problem? Are they talking about me?! I had this experience recently, when a colleague in my field of environmental humanities sent out a Tweet chastising academics who flaunt their conference jet-setting on social media, thereby stoking the desire for a fossil-fuel intensive lifestyle. I felt particularly shamed by this commentary since, at that very moment, I was headed from L.A. to the International Conference on Environmental Humanities in Alacalá, Spain. And, yes, I had also Tweeted about it.

I could have sputtered back defensively or picked apart my colleague’s logic, but I ultimately chose not to engage in an old and tired circuit of eliciting and shouldering shame—a circuit that, as I show in my new book from the University of Minnesota Press, a recent wave of environmental artists and activists are also rejecting. This book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, demonstrates how said artists and activists avoid, and even mock, the palette of affects historically associated with environmentalism: not only shame and guilt but also sanctimony, self-righteousness, “gloom and doom,” reverence, and sentimentality. Recognizing that these affective modes are limited and limiting, they instead embrace modes such as irony, irreverence, glee, absurdity, perversity, and playfulness.

As I establish in the book, many environmentalists are familiar with shame. We both feel it and inflict it. And our enemies attempt to stoke it as well. Recall, for example, how conservative critiques of the 2017 People’s Climate March seized upon the minimal trash produced by marchers, deploying it as evidence of their hypocrisy. And when I call this circuit of shame old and tired, I really do mean it: while my book focuses mainly on contemporary Anglophone media, we can trace the shaming of environmentalists back to at least the early 1800s, when a critic of Joseph Ritson, the British author of An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty, snarked that Ritson was a hypocrite because he “murder[ed] whole ecologies of microscopic organisms every time he washed his armpits” (as paraphrased in Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodness Revolution, 368).

Most of us (I hope) are guilty of washing our armpits. But do we need to feel guilty? As I argue in Bad Environmentalism, affects such as shame and guilt are stultifying, especially for budding activists. They feed into so-called “purity politics,” or the view of art and activism as zero-sum games in which any imperfection renders all other efforts moot. Since we can assume that anti-environmental forces will always manage to find problems with environmental movements, perfection is an impossible goal. Thus, I prefer the mindset that nature writer David Gessner, drawing on his friend Dan Driscoll, has proposed: “‘We are all hypocrites…But we need more hypocrites who fight’” (All the Wild That Remains, 165).

In my book’s fourth chapter, titled “Gas-Guzzling, Beer-Chugging Tree Huggers: Toward Trashy Environmentalisms,” I examine the works of some exemplary “hypocrites,” from Edward Abbey’s cult-classic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) to David Silverman’s animated The Simpsons Movie (2007) to Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ mountaintop removal documentary Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (2013). I show how these works deflect shame and accusations of hypocrisy, developing in the process a kind of “trashy environmentalism.” That term, of course, invokes lower-class designations such as “white trash” and “trailer trash”—which is no coincidence, as the texts in my chapter feature lower-class perspectives that have historically been shamed, and shunned, by mainstream culture at large: those of white populations known variously as “rednecks,” “bogans,” “crackers,” and “hillbillies.” As I discuss, mainstream environmentalism is associated primarily with the middle classes; the performance of voluntary restraint and refined consumerism defines both mainstream environmentalism and middle-class lifestyles. These artists and activists, instead, make “vulgar” excess—material, aesthetic, as well as affective—the very basis of their environmentalism.

For example, I highlight how Abbey’s radical, anticapitalist environmentalists, when they’re not busy
sabotaging development in the U.S. desert, spend their free time painting penises on Smokey Bear signs and making impulse purchases of beer coozies and harmonicas. These characters consistently refuse to get bogged down in guilt or otherwise relent in their activism, even when they do grasp their own shortcomings—which often makes for hilarious interludes. At one point, for instance, The Monkey Wrench Gang’s narrator focalizes through protagonist George Hayduke’s consciousness as he steers his Jeep, intoning, “Gotta remove that bridge. Soon. Them bridges. Soon. All of them. Soon. They’re driving their tin cars into the holy land. . . . There’s a law against it. A higher law. Well you’re doing it too, he reminded himself. Yeah, but I’m on important business. . . . Anyway, the road’s here now, might as well use it” (27).

Sprinkle and Stephens, the creators and protagonists of Goodbye Gauley Mountain, offer a queer, feminist twist on the masculinist hijinks of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Self-described “ecosexuals” who think of Earth as “our lover, not our Mother,” Sprinkle and Stephens spend a fair portion of their screen time writhing naked in creeks and rubbing themselves with mud, their ample, imperfect, middle-aged bodies on full display. The pair thereby enacts the kind of shamelessness and pleasure that, as I argue throughout Bad Environmentalism, has been so glaringly absent from mainstream environmentalist movements. Perhaps most importantly, as the pair clowns around at mountaintop removal protests and stages mock weddings to the mountains in Stephens’ native West Virginia, they enact a reversal of the classic dynamic in which the environmentalist is rigid, inflexible, and, therefore, the butt of the joke. Sprinkle and Stephens deliver the jokes, and they bring the joy rather than killing it.

I think we have much to learn from these fictional and real-life figures. As they pursue their environmentalist agendas, they eschew any attempt to be perfect, refined, tasteful, or classy, and instead revel gleefully in hypocrisy, impropriety, indecorum, vulgarity, excess, bawdiness, and the body itself. “Trashiness,” they suggest, is not just a class designation or a material description but a sensibility, a political attitude. We might take an even larger view here: ideals of perfection often function as a way of policing vulnerable bodies in a rigged system—as Black Lives Matter activists who critique “respectability politics” have shown us, and as many of us realized during the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings, when a theoretically “perfect victim” (white, educated, well-spoken, upper-middle-class, heterosexual) was cynically and cruelly ignored. As a political attitude, “trashiness” combats myths of meritocracy such as purity politics, respectability politics, and perfectionism.

This is not to say that we should, for instance, jet off every other week in the name of “trashy environmentalism.” But we might spend less time worrying what others think about us as we march, teach, write, think, connect, donate, and otherwise pursue change. We might also shift our targets. If, as a new report indicates, just 100 companies are responsible for the majority of global emissions —and if, as the most recent IPCC report shows, the climate change forecast is quite dire, then perhaps we could spend more time confronting the root causes of and the big contributors to environmental crisis. And less time Tweet-shaming each other.


Nicole Seymour is associate professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. She is author of Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age and Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination.

"As it turns out, climate change and the environment can be a laughing matter—at least, at an absurd or satirical level."
—Foreword Reviews

"Bad Environmentalism confronts serious environmental problems by way of ‘unserious’ texts. Nicole Seymour takes on complex ideas with lucidity, economy, and a witty sense of humor. Against the familiar affects that tend to characterize both environmentalism and environmental studies—such as awe, love, guilt, reverence, and earnestness—Bad Environmentalism pits less solemn alternatives, including playfulness, impropriety, irreverence, irony, frivolity, and glee. I am a convert. Bad environmentalists, unite!"
—Jennifer K. Ladino, author of Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature*

Thursday, October 18, 2018

#DeleteFacebook: Users always have the option of disconnecting—right?

Assistant professor, University of Toronto

Want to #DeleteFacebook? You can try.

Deleting Facebook is easier said than done.

These are examples of headlines written after the news about Cambridge Analytica harvesting the data of 50 million Facebook profiles. These suggestions do not speak of getting rid of Facebook, Inc. – the company and its business models – but rather they question the possibility for an individual decision to stop using Facebook’s services.

Yet at least implicitly, campaigns such as #DeleteFacebook also threaten the company. Regardless of users actually leaving the site, privacy scandals and threats like #DeleteFacebook reflect on the company’s stock price. In the aftermath of the news, Facebook was said to lose $60 billion in market capitalization and its stock faced the worst week since 2012. Mark Zuckerberg took actions posting an ad in several British and American newspapers explaining the reasons for the data breach and explaining how they would respond and change their practices. “I promise to do better for you,” Zuckerberg said.

In Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds I argue that the threat of users leaving the site gives us a needed opening to re-think how our relationships with Facebook are being designed. The current discussion of what would be better for Facebook users circulates around regulation of data and controlling the access to one’s data. But if we start from the difficulty to #DeleteFacebook, instead of the problems of data and privacy, we quickly see that our data is not Facebook’s product—our engagement is.

#DeleteFacebook as an expression of revolt against Facebook is not the first of its kind. Facebook has often received criticism when the users have felt they are no longer in control of their social media engagements and what takes place on the site. In 2010, a group of dissatisfied Facebook users organized a Quit Facebook Day. Out of 450 million Facebook users, thirty-one thousand users decided to leave the site that day.

The users potentially abandoning Facebook also became the target for other social media sites. Diaspora in 2011 and Ello in 2014 started marketing their services as an alternative to Facebook. “Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold,” Ello said, positioning its service against Facebook.

The suggestions to download one’s Facebook data in order to see what the site knows about you were also happening before the most recent data leak. In 2015 artist Liam Scully produced over 1,000 drawings on top of his downloaded Facebook data. The name of the exhibition: Digital Suicide.

For a decade, different artists and tactical media groups have been playing with the ideas of detox, digital suicide, and making the act of leaving Facebook a performance. gamified digital suicide giving users points based on how many of their friends followed their lead and deleted their Facebook account. Web 2.0 SuicideMachine removed users’ Facebook friends one by one, transformed her profile picture into a noose logo and changed the password making a return impossible.

If Facebook abstention demands measures comparable to taking one’s life, it is no wonder that its use has been described as an addiction. In 2017, Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, suggested that users should take a break from the site. Facebook is built to engage users in dopamine-driven feedback loops, he argued. “Quitting Facebook isn't easy. Facebook is engaging, enjoyable and quite frankly, addictive. Quitting something like Facebook is like quitting smoking,” the organizers of Quit Facebook Day had already declared.

But #DeleteFacebook does not only let us consider our relations with the platform. Quite on the contrary, the moments when users plan to leave Facebook are not only feared by the company but also anticipated in the designs of the platform. #DeleteFacebook as a threat, as a potential, shapes how the platform changes and evolves. If you try to deactivate your Facebook profile you see images of your friends “who will miss you.” At every moment, the platform pulls you back and engages you more.

If you want to know what user engagement really looks like you do not measure how many times people log in to their Facebook accounts, how many links they click, or what is the number of videos they create. User engagement is what you get at when "Nothing" is an answer to questions like what did you do when you heard that Facebook accounts of approximately 30 million users were hacked in September? or What did you do when you heard that sensitive personal information including a phone number, recent Facebook searches, and location history was leaked?

This notion of user engagement does not explain but needs to be explained. It is at the heart of Facebook’s business and it is shaped against projects like #DeleteFacebook. As illustrated in its Annual Report of 2015: “If we fail to retain existing users or add new users, or if our users decrease their level of engagement with our products, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed.” #DeleteFacebook for Facebook, then, is a known problem of how to keep users engaged, and its proposed solutions are intensification and expansion of relationships and services.

Digital suicide as a concept speaks volumes of how integrated Facebook has become to users' lives beyond data and its regulation. Research in the North American and European contexts show that to quit, one needs strong social networks outside social media; otherwise, one may become the outsider in their social circles and events. But it is also said that for the citizens in many other countries, Facebook is the main access point to the internet and the only means to communicate with friends from a distance. Facebook has become a lifeline.

“There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future,” Mark Zuckerberg noted in 2012. In 2012, the company was becoming publicly traded, and in 2017 it exceeded the $500 billion mark, becoming the fourth most-valued company in the tech business. The world disconnected from Facebook is and was a world not yet connected. Hence, Facebook is developing drones, satellites, and technologies that would help to anchor their services around the world not only as a website people use but also as an infrastructure used to access those sites. More engagement.

Expansion of user engagement, one of the mechanisms that both stops existing users from leaving and engages more users, has made Facebook a global player; it operates across and beyond national borders and so must the attempts to regulate it. Because not everyone can quit. And this is the new feature in the #DeleteFacebook discussion, a viewpoint that was lacking from the earlier critiques. Fear of missing out is no longer the reason that prevents digital suicides; Facebook has a much deeper role in how our societies are organized.

Being on Facebook is no longer only a lifestyle choice but also a question of politics. The Cambridge Analytica revelations imply that mundane actions such as Facebook Likes can be turned into politicized mechanisms used to influence decision making. But there is a political level at stake here that exceeds national elections and individual decisions. With 2 billion users, Facebook has become the medium of the masses and its users are no longer a community but a population without geographical limitations. How population remains under its control is the key question for Facebook’s survival. And to ask that question we need to move the focus from individual engagements and personal privacy to the biopolitical and geopolitical engagements of the 2 billion.


Tero Karppi is author of Disconnect: Facebook's Affective Bonds. Karppi is assistant professor at the University of Toronto and teaches in the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology and in the Faculty of Information.

"Through its clever structure, Disconnect affectively lures the reader as Tero Karppi tells a convincing story of how social media sets the tone, mood, and modality of our everyday existence. Compellingly written, this is a must-read modern tale of engagement and disconnection."
—Zizi Papacharissi, author of Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics

"Disconnect is a timely, theoretically rich assessment of Facebook as platform and assemblage."
—Amit Ray, Rochester Institute of Technology

"Disconnect could not have come at a more important time. Tero Karppi’s nuanced writing brings out the rich complexities of social media life and disconnection. This must-read book shows that walking away may not remove Facebook’s presence in our lives, but it reveals the limits of social media in our world and the business models that are built to keep us connected."
—Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World

Monday, October 8, 2018

Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world

University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

In the 1957 lectures he delivered in Freiburg under the title “Basic Principles of Thinking,” Martin Heidegger speculated that “dialectics today is, perhaps … the actuality of the world [Weltwirklichkeit]” (GA 79: 88). For all its hyperbolic thrust, one should not take his statement lightly, dismissing it as a dated intellectual artefact from the Cold War era, when antithetical political camps were locked in a life-and-death struggle on a world scale. Speaking against such an easy historicizing explanation is the fact that the insight cropped up as Heidegger reflected on nothing less than the very foundational principles of thinking. Another piece of evidence corroborating its seriousness is that the notion of the world, presumably actualized by dialectics in a “today” that is more than sixty years old now, is itself a cornerstone of Heidegger’s philosophy. So, what is going on here?

Heidegger’s point is that dialectics, whether of the Hegelian variety or the Marxist iteration of dialectical materialism, has long ceased being either an abstract idea or an applied political ideology intended to explain reality in the simplest terms imaginable. Dialectics actively determines, commands, and steers the course of the world, split into camps sharing the same general goal: to master, subdue, and appropriate the earth. Fractured and conflictual, the world’s dialectical actuality is rooted in a silent consensus of overtly opposing parties, namely that the true purpose of world domination is the seizure of the earth. Far from an opportunistic aberration, this goal inheres at the heart of Western thinking. The ideal capture and appropriation of the object are the means for, and the end of, the real imposition of the thinking will upon whatever and whomever it captures. Dialectics thus accomplishes the mission of thinking with unprecedented success.

Despite simmering new tensions between Russia, on the one hand, and the European Union and the United States, on the other, the Cold War is over. Heidegger’s “today” is no longer ours… And yet, it is utterly relevant. Dialectical actuality makes sense within the broader project of constructing a world (frameworks of meaning, extending all the way down to the meaning of meaning) deployed with the view to appropriating and dominating the earth (the ultimately meaningless source of meaning, that upon which life unfolds) in the shape of territories to conquer or natural resources to extract. The triple knot of phenomenology, ecology, and politics is as tight as ever: a network of lived meanings is subject to behind-the-scenes political integration, or disintegration, such that its elemental substratum is, at the same time, controlled and threatened, secured and rendered fragile, appropriated and pushed to the brink of non-being.

With that said, I would like to update (and so, in some sense, to actualize) Heidegger’s assertion for our “today” in the following way: Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world. Immediately, readers will retort that I am indulging in a hyperbole more blatant still than Heidegger’s take on Hegel. How can a one-time card-carrying member of the National Socialist party not only gain admission into the philosophical canon but also become pivotal in contemporary thought, not to mention in contemporary world?

As I argue in my book on the German philosopher, with reference to the contributions of his Russian translator Vladimir Bibikhin, it is a gross mistake to consider Heidegger’s thinking a piece of intellectual private property. In its enduring relevance, generativity, and receptivity, Heidegger’s thinking is not his own; it is the thinking of the world. Its lacunae and pernicious blind spots are, of course, the thinker’s responsibility, chief among them the unquestioned persistence of anti-Semitic prejudices in reflections on the agency and figures of uprooting, displacement, and what we now call globalization. But they are just that—lacunae of the unthought in the midst of the world thinking itself on the hither side of the modern distinction between subjects and objects, theory and practice.

Even then, I raise the stakes in my claim that Heidegger’s thinking is, perhaps, the possibility of the world today. In light of his fresh phenomenological approach to the possible disentangled from its deficient position in a strictly teleological order, existence understood existentially retains inexhaustible possibilities. For the finite world as the domain of existence to be, it must still be possible up to its demise. And, indeed, the possibility of the world as world is exposed the moment it is overshadowed by a grave danger, the moment its time is almost up and it may no longer be possible—say, after a nuclear Armageddon or as a result of catastrophic global climate change. By emphasizing the priority of possibility over actuality, Heidegger enables the creation of a living archive of what has not been, nor can ever be, accomplished in keeping with the domineering mission of thinking, an archive of another world not superimposed onto the tamed earth.

The essentially belated disclosure of possibilities at the end of “today’s” day is patently Hegelian. What is not at all dialectical is the mechanism that makes it happen: instead of relying on the retrospective standpoint of a mature concept, Heidegger urges thinking to unclench its grasp, reverting from the capture to the release of the world and of the earth alike. If there is still any hope left, it has to do with the world letting itself go and freeing the earth. Only in letting go of itself does the world remain possible.

Heidegger’s thinking release will not save us. Without it, however, we are more lost, more devastated and devastating than we are with it. This is the take-home message of my book.


Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He is author of twelve monographs, including Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics (Minnesota, 2018); Grafts: Writings on Plants, a Univocal book (Minnesota, 2016); and Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (2017).

"For many years, Michael Marder has been one of the most interesting philosophical interpreters of Heidegger. What he gives us to think here is really remarkable. The readers of his book on Heidegger will be inspired."
—Peter Trawny, editor of the collected works of Martin Heidegger

"Often indefensible, always indispensable: Heidegger, for all his errors, continues to provoke us as modernity draws nearer to a reckoning. In this thoughtful book, Michael Marder sifts through Heidegger’s texts in a search for an open yet finite dwelling, a home beyond parochialism and globalism."
—Richard Polt, Xavier University

"Deploying an exceptional familiarity with Heidegger scholarship, Michael Marder highlights how Heidegger’s thinking of the Thing offers a rich opening for ecological resistance to consumerist politics and economics."
—David Wood, author of Deep Time, Dark Times: On Being Geologically Human

Friday, September 28, 2018

You cannot have a just farm bill and eat it too.

Assistant professor of sociology at Colorado State University

Congress is in the midst of reconciling the House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. Time is short. On September 30, the current law expires. No matter what transpires it will still not be enough to fully regulate the food system.

The public debate has been framed around work requirements and cuts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the need to support farmers. These are historically interconnected given that the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the first farm bill, was a response to contradictions between widespread hunger, agricultural overproduction, and falling commodity prices. Given that a majority of hungry people live in cities and most farmers live in the country, urban and rural political interests have had to work together ever since to create farm bills that meet the needs of both constituents.

Not only have these contradictions never been fully resolved, they overdetermine the focus of food and farm policy in the United States. As a result, there is rarely an acknowledgement of the benefit of asking how the federal government might regulate the food system differently.

The farm bill is not enough

Missing from the feud between Republicans and Democrats is a larger and needed conversation. Is the Farm Bill the best policy tool to regulate the food system? There is reason to believe it is not.

The current debate again elides considering how to integrate food and farm policy in the United States with holistic policy tools that speak to the entrenched problems that farmers, eaters, and activists have been identifying for decades. Corporate power, widespread food insecurity, unhealthy food, environmental degradation, exploitation of food-chain workers, low prices for farmers, and food system vulnerability to economic and ecological shock are just a few pressing matters. Although the consistent stream of media, from Food, Inc. and the Netflix series Rotten to sharp blogs like Civil Eats, has elevated the significance of food systems in popular culture, the increased public consciousness has not translated into new policy tools.

The narrowness of the Farm Bill and the fact that it is an omnibus piece of legislation that Congress renews every five years or so suggests that most Americans are likely not often paying attention to food and farm policy. When they do, it is the public debate is dominated by a limited set of issues. This is especially problematic given that at least fifteen federal agencies are responsible for regulating the food system.

There are, however, alternatives to the Farm Bill. What if instead of letting a few issues stand in as the entirety of what is essentially an imagined food and farm policy, policymakers were guided by an approach to food system policy making that addressed some of the root problems?

Integrative policy alternatives

Before President Barak Obama’s State of the Union Speech in 2014, four prominent food writers and activists wrote an opinion in the Washington Post calling on him to address the need for a national food policy. As Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter note, “food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.” Although President Obama did not heed this opinion, this set in motion a national conversation among food activists about how they might push this agenda forward from the grassroots.

Integrative policy alternatives are already in place around the world at many governing scales. Cities have adopted comprehensive food plans to inform food system development. States like Minnesota and Michigan have adopted food charters to guide policy making at all governing levels within the state. Countries like Canada are leading the way with working toward holistic national food policies that cut across federal departments. Perhaps an alternative to the Farm Bill is not so implausible.

There is also political support for such an approach. Grassroots food activists have led the rapid spread of food policy councils over the last decade. There are at least 260 food policy councils in the United States, the main work of which is to engage and include many different food system stakeholders and create strategic and policy planning for food system development.

List of food policy councils in the United States and Canada.
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Additionally, the American public wants better food policy in a number of areas, including improving dietary health and food access, supporting food-chain workers, and promoting sustainable agriculture. In response, the food movement has worked to build political power across the diversity of food system issues with new organizations such as the HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Alliance and initiatives like the 50-State Food System Scorecard by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But what might be a strategic frame around which to solve many pressing food system problems with policy? The growing power of food justice suggests one promising path.

Food justice policy opportunity

I have been researching the rapid spread of the food justice movement for nearly a decade. Food justice is the fight for social justice throughout the entire food system. If we understand the food system to be a system of systems then this means it is a fight that extends into our economic, political, social, and ecological systems. By proxy, this suggests that much like there are many federal agencies that play a role in regulating the food system, food justice is an applicable framework across issues within the food system.

The question then becomes, how do we integrate a different set of values that mandates federal agencies to consider equity questions when deciding how to carry out their regulatory obligations? If we want to get to the root of many food system problems, this is a prerequisite for success.

Across the United States, food justice activists have elevated the focus on equity. National conferences like the much-loved Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative Gathering provide the opportunity to reflect on the values of the movement and debate the effectiveness of different initiatives and campaigns.

Food Justice.
A relief print by Meredith Stern.

The most comprehensive statement of purpose to come out of one of these convergences is the Principles of Food Justice, drafted at the Food + Justice = Democracy Conference. What is striking about this document is that it historically and sociologically positions the food system within its proper context. Colonialism, capitalism, institutional racism, and patriarchy are not just a backdrop to the story. They are the interrelated systems that have produced and continue to drive food system problems.

One initial step to intervene in these systems that lays the groundwork for a national food policy might be to create a national food strategy. To be effective, the strategy would have legally binding norms and goals that direct federal directives, plans, laws, and policies; require agencies to reform past policies; and receive adequate funding. As a reference point, the National Environmental Policy Act is a procedural law passed by Congress that mandates all federal agencies to submit environmental assessments and impact statements for all their proposed actions. A coordinated strategy centering food justice as the regulatory backbone informing food policy could operate similarly.

To operationalize the response to structural inequalities in the food system, several issue areas are of primary interest: land, labor, urban and rural community development, health, self-determination, and environmental sustainability. Mandating federal agencies to carry out food justice assessments and impact statements of their food system policies would go a long way toward integrating food policy in the United States around a new set of values.

The Farm Bill is not the best policy tool to regulate the food system or advance food justice across sectors. But maybe in the next five years, the food movement will continue to unite around the need for a national food policy and strategically come together around an equity framework for reconfiguring our food system.

Joshua Sbicca is assistant professor of sociology at Colorado State University. He is the author of the new book Food Justice Now!: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle.

"By highlighting sites where justice, rather than food, is the primary motivator of social action, Joshua Sbicca’s timely and important book takes the conversation about food justice exactly where it needs to go."
—Julie Guthman, co-editor of The New Food Activism: Opposition, Cooperation, and Collective Action

"Can a food justice dialectics with a ‘radical imagination’ and strategies for change ameliorate economic and ethnoracial inequities? Joshua Sbicca’s searching analysis broadens food politics to new terrains of social movement building and struggle essential given today’s revanchist politics."
—Julian Agyeman, Tufts University

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Life on the edge in northern Minnesota border country.


The title of this novel might sound like the answer to a trivia question—points for anyone who can draw the Laurentian Divide on a bar napkin, extra to mark where it meets the St. Lawrence in northern Minnesota. At this juncture, rivers flow in three directions: east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, north to Hudson Bay, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Known to Native Americans as the Hill of Three Waters, where the watersheds of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi River systems meet the Hudson Bay basin, this was an important tribal gathering place for early Dakota, and later Ojibwe.

The community of Hatchet Inlet is fictional but to me feels as real as the actual places that inspire it. Many characters are complex and often contrary: sometimes taciturn, sometimes generous, wary though often kind, typical traits in a place where cooperation can be a necessary survival skill. The geographical divide was a tempting metaphor for divisions within families, bickering communities, and cultures struggling to find common ground.

As a writer, I'm ultimately more interested in what unites us than what divides us, the notion of opposing forces meeting to form something "other" sometimes in unexpected or mysterious ways.

I'd like to meet with readers, writers, and librarians to talk about the quiet activism of stories and literature in an era of loud headlines. I look forward to taking this novel on the road to visit colleges, libraries, and bookstores across the state and beyond. Maybe we'll see each other on the road to Hatchet Inlet!


Events for Laurentian Divide are listed here.


Excerpt from Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich:

The topic over breakfast in Pavola's is death. Not the sort occurring weekly up at Senior Cedars, where grannies in mobility scooters and walkers thump along in their derby to the finish, and not the tragic sort that floored Hatchet Inlet last fall after Kelly Rantala and Jessica Wiirtinen were killed in a drunken swerve. The death patrons of the diner mull over this bracing May morning is theoretical, regarding the current status of Rauri Paar, who may be dead, or—not to split hairs—is maybe not alive.

Pete Lahti holds the little metal pitcher just so, watching half & half meet his black coffee in a tiny Hiroshima bloom. Indeed, if Rauri is dead—and this might be a rugged image for so early in the day—somebody'll have to go out there and peel him off his cabin floor or search is island for gnawed remains. Maybe drag the bay. Pete listens as the caffeine-fueled debate revs and idles across booths, down the straightaway of the counter. Sitting next to him, Pete's father, Alpo, only nods. Every morning since ice-out on the big lake there's been talk. Usually, ice-out this far north in Minnesota is in April—in a bad year like this, as late as May. As soon as ice on the big lake breaks up, Rauri's smaller lake follows suit. Once it's navigable, he straps on a harness like some husky and humps his Alumacraft up the corduroy portage. Beyond Rauri Lake (no one remembers its actual name), it's an easy enough slide down the south side of the Divide, which lands Rauri on the banks of the Majimanidoo, where snowmelt can roil it into a carnival ride. Dodging ice chunks the size of coolers is no easy feat in a twelve-foot fishing boat with only a 10-horse Evinrude. Rauri could be bobbing like a cork around the Laurentian Divide.

Pete's made the journey to Rauri's place a few times, once years back and again on his own last fall when he went out to put down Rauri's old spaniel, Scotty. It's no stroll.

The one thing everyone in the diner agrees on is that Rauri should have shown up by now. You can say "Spring is here," or you can say "Rauri's back." His arrival marks the start of the season, and when weather is slow to warm and cabin fever's not yet broke, you might hear someone mutter, Where in hell is Rauri Paar?" Some won't set seedlings in their windowsills until they've seen the whites of Rauri's eyes.

When he does show, it's first things first: he drops a toxic load of laundry at the Wash & Gogh, then it's straight to the barber for a haircut and hot lather shave. Once his bushman's eyebrows are trimmed and he's wearing a fumigated shirt, he'll beeline to the produce aisle at Putzl's and stand gawking as if at a centerfold, stuffing himself with fresh anything—gnawing parsley while juggling limes and tangelos into this cart.

Lastly, Rauri makes his way to Pavola's, where he takes center stool to enjoy his first fresh eggs since November. Regulars ignore the yolk on his chin and coax an account of his winter out of Rauri. No great storyteller but a wiz at figures and facts, he regales them with a litany of temperatures and wind speeds, snowfall totals, ice depths, pounds of propane used, boxes of Bisquick consumed, cords of birch burnt.

They prod for more. The core of their curiosity regards loneliness, but no one asks outright how he hacks it—every winter out there by himself. Instead, he offers a picture of his season like a paint-by-number of facts: biggest fish, wildlife visitations, vermin infestations, magazines read. Monochrome at best, the sections are slowly filled in with what DVDs got watched and how many times, what supplies were run out of—the previous year it had been cooking oil and Preparation H. Rauri might describe notable meals cooked: his personal best had been a haunch of wolf-killed doe with chanterelles glazed in a reduction of maple syrup and vodka, a side of fiddlehead ferns sauced with condensed milk and nutmeg. Worst was a stew of jerky shards and limp carrots in a base made from the last bouillon cube, garnished with moldy Parmesan and consumed sober.

If anyone had taken note of the Northern Lights over the winter, Rauri could remind them of the exact dates and times, and how many minutes or hours they had waltzed. No nuances from Rauri, barely an adjective, but if it's facts you're after, he's your man.

Pavola's patrons assume that Rauri is thrilled to be among them, and they unconsciously note who his gaze returns to, whose hand gets shaken most vigorously, whose back is slapped most mightily. Who had Rauri missed?


Sarah Stonich is the best-selling author of These Granite Islands (Minnesota, 2013), which has been translated into seven languages and shortlisted for France's Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle; the critically acclaimed novel The Ice Chorus; and a memoir, Shelter: Off the Grid in the Mostly Magnetic North (Minnesota, 2017). Her novel-in-stories, Vacationland (Minnesota, 2013), is the first volume in her Northern Trilogy, followed by Laurentian Divide.

Friday, September 21, 2018

“Wherever he is! Wherever he is!”: Jim Walsh on the world’s rediscovery of “The Gold Experience” and the funky powerhouse joy that is the New Power Generation


The New Power Generation was on the second encore of its first-ever appearance at First Avenue on September 14, when lead singer MacKenzie and rapper Tony Mosley (a.k.a. Tony M) implored the crowd to pay respects to their fallen leader, Prince. As the crowd and band cheered at the night’s first mention of Prince’s name, bassist Sonny Thompson (aka Sonny T), who began his live music career playing with The Sonny Thompson Band in the 7th Street Entry next door, gleefully shouted out, “Wherever he is! Wherever he is!”

Along with fellow original NPG members Mayte (Prince’s first wife), Morris Hayes (a.k.a. Mr. Hayes), Tommy Barbarella, and the NPG hornz, Prince’s spirit was alive and wild and in the house that hot Thursday night. The grief over Prince’s death has given way to acceptance and, this night, real joy—the kind of joy that’s driven by live music, not nostalgia or even reverence for its dearly departed creator. “The music,” is how Prince simply answered when I asked him what he wanted people to know about him, and it was the music this night that lifted most every soul in the joint, especially scintillating dance work-outs like “Sexy MF,” “Get Wild,” “Daddy Pop,” and “DMSR (Dance Music Sex Romance).”

Many of those old tunes are now finding new ears, which was part of the reason I was eager to publish Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ‘90s, my clip-by-clip account of arguably the most overlooked years of Prince’s prolific career. It’s also a thumbnail history of the New Power Generation, one of Prince’s all-time greatest bands (“I’m not a judge,” he told me once when I asked him what his favorite band to play with was in terms of generating live heat; “I don’t set foot on a stage unless it’s hot”). To be sure, I have a special place in my heart for the NPG and Prince’s great album “The Gold Experience.” I was passionately covering Prince and the NPG for the St. Paul Pioneer Press when he asked me to write the liner notes for “The Gold Experience,” released in 1995 and debuted at number 6 on the Billboard charts, and rarely heard of again, despite it featuring Prince’s last chart-topping single, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.”

These days, Prince’s first band The Revolution has been paying tribute to all His Royal Badness’s greatest music of the ‘80s, and the hole in everyone’s soul is starting to fill in and being replaced with wonder, amazement, and living in the now. We all pay tribute in our own way, and when Prince died I eulogized him here and here, and, to ensure that his work in the ‘90s was given its proper due, Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ‘90s via the University of Minnesota Press.

I was a champion of Prince then, and now, which is why I’m thrilled to know that more people than ever are hearing “The Gold Experience”—many for the first time, since to this day it still feels like an underground release. The good news is that last month, the Prince estate and Sony released 23 long unavailable albums digitally, including “The Gold Experience,” along with the compilation “Prince Anthology: 1995-2010.”

Though never afforded the mythological status of, say, “The Black Album,” “The Gold Experience” nonetheless carries with it a similar man-versus-machine storyline. His last record for Warner Bros. Records, “The Gold Experience” was made and released at the height of Prince’s war with the media giant, and therefore it received little promotional push. At the time, Prince was an early expert adapter of the digital music revolution that was fully underway, and a visionary who saw the future we’re now living out, embodied by artists like Chance The Rapper, a truly independent artist who sells out tours and wins Grammys with little help from the dinosaur that is the major label/media/music business.

Delicious irony, then, that “The Gold Experience” is today available all over the world—for FREE (cue Prince cackle here), via streaming sites such as SpotifyApple Music, YouTube, Pandora,  and, which concluded of “The Gold Experience”: “The album is considered by some fans to be the ‘Purple Rain’ of the 1990s.”

Noted Variety:

Curiously, the artist’s biggest hit from that period—‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,’ which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April of 1994—is not included, although it was part of the original tracklist for ‘The Gold Experience.’ Reps for the estate and Sony declined comment, but a source close to the situation tells Variety that the song is ‘on legal hold as a result of existing litigation.’ (The song was originally issued on the indie Delmark Records after Prince’s label at the time, Warner Bros., with whom he was publicly sparring, reportedly declined to release it; after its chart success, the song was included on Prince’s next album for Warner, ‘The Gold Experience.’) 
Assembled and curated under the auspices of the Prince estate, ‘Prince Anthology: 1995-2010’ opens with the title track from 1996’s ‘Emancipation’ (‘This is my most important record,’ Prince said of his first album released after he’d left his original label, Warner Bros. Records) and closing with the anthemic ‘We March’ from 1995’s ‘The Gold Experience’).”

Fresh and freaky to this day, “The Gold Experience” is a tour-de-force of funk, rock and soul, and captures the NPG at the height of its powers. As Mr. Hayes told Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current recently, “ 'The Gold Experience’ album was like this band had really just got into that crunched-down, super-tough, well-rehearsed band that was like a powerhouse band.”

Likewise, critics and fans are discovering or rediscovering the greatness of “The Gold Experience.” Last year, the Hello, My Treacherous Friends blog opened this reassessment with “It might be an unpopular opinion, but Prince’s criminally out-of-print ‘The Gold Experience’ is my favorite of all of his albums. Released 22 years ago today, ‘The Gold Experience’ saw Prince at his funkiest, raunchiest, slyest and sexiest while delivering a collection of songs that easily match previous high points like ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times.’”

Around the same time, careful listener and ever-reliable critic Keith Harris, music editor at City Pages in Minneapolis, ranked “The Gold Experience” #4 out of Prince’s 32 albums (his top five: 1. “Sign O’ The Times,” 2. “Dirty Mind,” 3. “Purple Rain,” 4. “The Gold Experience,” 5. “1999”), writing, “By 1994 ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’ was better known for not having a name and for accusing his label of reducing him to a ‘slave’ (as he had emblazoned on his cheek) than he was for making hits. It was a weird time to release a masterpiece, but damned if that’s not what ‘The Gold Experience’ is. The NPG’s attack is streamlined to a hard funk punch on the feminist celebration ‘Pussy Control’ and the hard-hitting ‘Endorphinmachine,’ and Prince even tacked on the lovely ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,’ the 1993 top 10 hit he didn’t yet know would be his last.”

So what are you waiting for? The time is right for all Prince fans to discover or rediscover the carnal funky joy of such would-be classics as “Pussy Control,” “Endorphinmachine,” “We March,” “319,” and “Billy Jack Bitch.” As Prince wrote to me after I wrote an open love letter to him as my time covering him wound down, “Go and get your gold experience/peace love march…”


Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer, journalist, columnist, and songwriter. His books include Gold Experience: Following Prince in the '90s; Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes; and The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History.

"Jim Walsh was front and center for one of the most prolific and controversial eras in Prince’s career, and Gold Experience offers an intimate, real-time account of this critical chapter in the evolution of a generation's greatest musician."
—Alan Light, music journalist and author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain