Wednesday, January 17, 2018
BY ARMAND PETERSON
Days later, Vikings fans are still talking about it, what some are already calling the “Minneapolis Miracle.” With only ten seconds left in the game and the ball on the Vikings’ 39-yard line, quarterback Case Keenum threw a sideline pass to Stefon Diggs, who made a leaping catch and an improbable run for a 61-yard touchdown to defeat the New Orleans Saints, 29–24.
Could it become one of the most famous plays in NFL history? It would have to beat out at least three other legendary plays to compete for that honor:
1. NFL Films has designated the “Immaculate Reception” as number one. That’s the play in the 1972 playoffs when Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, with only 30 seconds left in the game, caught a pass deflected off the intended receiver or defensive back and ran it in for a touchdown to beat Oakland, 13–7.
2. Longtime Vikings fans, of course, still haven’t gotten over the “Hail Mary.” With only 32 seconds left in a December 1975 playoff game at the old Metropolitan Stadium, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw a long pass to receiver Drew Pearson, who caught the ball when Vikings’ defensive back Nate Wright fell. Pearson backed into the end zone to complete the 50-yard pass play and defeat the Vikings, 17–14. Forty-two years later Vikings fans still claim Pearson should have been given an offensive interference penalty for pushing off on Wright.
3. “The Catch” was made immortal by the famous photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week after San Francisco defeated Dallas 28–27 in a January 1982 playoff game. The 49ers were trailing 27–21 with 58 seconds left in the game and on the Cowboys’ 6-yard line when San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana rolled to his right and threw a pass toward the back of the end zone that looked too high. Later many analysts thought Montana was trying to throw the ball away to avoid a sack. However, 6-foot-4 receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping catch for a touchdown, and the automatic extra point—a 19-yard chip shot in those days—won the game.
If the Vikings go on to win the Super Bowl, Diggs’ catch may become a candidate, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we have to come up a catchier moniker. “Minneapolis Miracle” is not going to do the job. Secondly, the Vikings have to win two more games. If they lose to Philadelphia or in the Super Bowl, the play could become just another great play in a season that ultimately broke our hearts once again.
This year’s team had a lot to like—a veteran assistant coach who finally got his chance at a head coaching job, a journeyman quarterback hired as a backup having a great year, an undrafted Minnesota native becoming one of the league’s best receivers, and a group of players who seemed to be good guys and appeared to love playing together. They have many Pro Bowl–worthy candidates, and picked each other up when injuries threatened to weaken the team. Late in the year I found myself watching the games again, despite hesitations earlier in the season.
My wife and I watched the game together on our big-screen TV, a rarity for us. I don’t know exactly what we were thinking when we settled down to watch the game. We were hopeful but didn’t dare to expect too much—probably as good a coping method as any to try to escape the heartbreak we’d experience if the team lost a big game once again. Loyal Vikings fans don’t need me to recite the list of past disappointments; they are seared into our collective memories. Don’t even mention those four Super Bowl losses.
So, I was not comfortable with the Vikings’ 17–0 halftime lead over the Saints. That turned out to be good judgment on my part, as the Vikings fell behind in the fourth quarter. I was not overly elated when Forbath kicked a 53-yard field goal to regain the lead for the Vikings, 23–21; and not surprised when New Orleans took back the lead, 24–23 on a field goal with 25 seconds left in the game. I was too stunned to react to Diggs’ winning touchdown. “Unbelievable! Amazing!” were the only words I could utter. I fully expected to learn that there had been a penalty flag against the Vikings on the play, but for once fortune smiled on us.
Now what should I do? Jump on the bandwagon and risk another heartbreak?
Oh, well, I am going to watch the game anyway.
The Vikings Reader and coauthor of Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball.
Friday, January 12, 2018
Professor of art history at University College Dublin
2017 might turn out to be the year in which white Americans ceased to take Confederate monuments lightly; of course, their African-American neighbors never had. The erection of Maya Lin’s remarkable Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, in 1982, inaugurated a memorial boom in the United States, which was only furthered by the rush to commemorate those who died on 9/11. Although many of the most admired memorials created during this period are dedicated to remembering the Holocaust, there has been little effort made to acknowledge the country’s own flaws, including the slavery Robert E. Lee and the army he led fought to defend.
The situation, as every scholar of memory knows well, is radically different in the Federal Republic of Germany. Here the marking of the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich are an important part of the public realm. The inverse of Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue may be the cluster of memoryscapes in the center of Berlin. These include the Jewish Museum, opened in 2001, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, dedicated in 2005, and the current Topography of Terror exhibition, completed in 2010. Moreover, the ubiquitous “stumbling blocks” Gunter Demnig has set into the pavements marking where Jews and other Nazi victims lived before being driven into exile or murdered inject memorialization into ordinary neighborhoods across the country. The contrasts with Americans, especially those living in former slave states (which include all of the original thirteen colonies), who can seldom identify exactly where slaves lived and worked, much less where they were bought and sold.
Public remembrance was not always any easier in Germany. Its path may have been smoothed by the fact that many of the strategies employed in the early twenty-first century for marking absence, including the juxtaposition of fragments of old and new architecture that occurs at the Reichstag, the home of the lower house of the German parliament, as well as the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror, were already employed in the early years after the war. In these cases, the preservation of ruins created by aerial bombardment marked the suffering endured rather than inflicted by Germans. Rather than being uniquely postmodern approaches to understanding the complexity of the city as palimpsest, these juxtapositions began as ways to ensure that remnants of late nineteenth-century churches, many of them strongly associated with Wilhelmine nationalism, would continue to stand. Building new structures alongside them that referenced the utopian aspirations many architects had had in the 1910s and '20s proved an acceptable compromise. This was most famously the case with the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, whose ruined tower and reconstructed sanctuary became, in the wake of the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961, West Berlin’s most widely recognized symbol.
Paradoxes abound. In these circumstances, the old is almost never as old as it appears, nor the new as new. Reassuring markers of permanence that reference medieval and classical grandeur had almost always been erected within the lifetimes of many of those who after the wall fought for their preservation. The Memorial Church, for instance, was completed only in 1906, less than four decades before it was shattered by allied bombs in 1943. At the same time, what appears new, whether the Memorial Church dedicated in 1961 or the dome completed atop the Reichstag in 1999, was almost always profoundly historicist. These largely glazed structures referenced Expressionist architecture built or simply imagined across the course of the 1910s and twenties. Both nineteenth-century historicism and the modernism that replaced it are thus profoundly symbolic in ways that only advocates of the first openly admitted. Meanwhile the expression of the new has remained remarkably consistent over the course now of a full century.
None of these complexities, however, have marred the effectiveness of Germany’s many monuments to the Holocaust and other victims of state violence. Building admissions of responsibility for the failures of the past also facilitated the expansion of German democracy, not least in what had been East Berlin. Many Americans belong to families that arrived in the United States long after Appomattox, but, whether or not they live in a region still dotted with statues of solitary Confederate soldiers or in cities over which more ambitious figures of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback once stood or continue to stand, almost all benefit from the myriad ways in which slaves built the country in which they settled. Nor is slavery the only instance of the United States failing to live up to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The seizure of land from Native Americans and from Mexico, along with the internment of Japanese-Americans, merit mention as well. The challenge may not be to develop entirely new ways of recognizing past failures, but to find the slivers of our own past that are optimistic enough, without being unnecessarily alienating, to provide a basis for a meaningful atonement.
Where might such precedents be found? One answer might be in the infrastructure, from the Blue Star Memorial highways and the Veterans Memorial auditoria and schools built across the country after World War II. Creative public arts projects might find ways to intertwine drawing attention to the past with building for the future. This is particularly apt considering the role that slaves played in creating roads and railroads in the first place. Another might develop out of the rich engagement with place that Lin herself encouraged when she drew inspiration from Adena and Hopewell mounds of her native Ohio. Perhaps something appropriately new/old can be layered atop the plinths that have been left behind in Baltimore, where they prevent forgetting what people once wanted to celebrate without continuing to join in that celebration. In any case to be effective, the means must emerge out of the local, just as, despite the plethora of foreign architects eventually involved, they did in Germany.
The Topography of Terror reminds us of how the specificity of place in tandem with grassroots activism can provoke awareness. In 1985 a small group excavated the remains of what had been the national headquarters of the SS and other organs of state terror. A quarter century later, a permanent exhibition and documentation center finally opened on the site. Attracting well over one million visitors a year, the carefully designed installation seeks literally to uncover what happened on what it reveals to be toxic ground. In his poem “For the Union Dead” Robert Lowell described the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment in Boston as “sticking like a fishbone in the city’s throat.”
We need more fishbones. Memorials to slavery exist, but in small numbers, and few attract more than local attention. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is an impressive step forward, but its exhibitions fittingly focus as much on achievement as enslavement. 1% of the entire population of the county in which I grew up in Maryland was sold over the course of just three years in New Orleans. Two counties to the south, Donald Rumsfeld owns Mount Misery, the farm that belonged to the man who tried to “break” Frederick Douglass, and a statue of a Confederate soldier still stands watch on the courthouse lawn. Counterweights more imaginative than simply swathing no longer welcome sculptures of Lee in black plastic, as is currently the case in Charlottesville, are needed. As the German example demonstrates, exposing its often less-than-ideal foundations reinforces rather than undermines democracy.
Modernism as Memory: Building Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany; Architecture since 1400; and Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War, all from Minnesota.
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
|Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (HBO, 2016). |
Westworld reconceptualizes lived experience by asking what "counts" as human
and what counts as death.
ERIN E. EDWARDS
Bring her back online.
Westworld opens with a disembodied voice commanding the robotic “host,” Dolores Abernathy, to emerge from “sleep mode.” Dolores awakens into an evacuated laboratory that flickers into wakefulness as she does, but shortly thereafter, the scene cuts to Dolores awakening again, this time in the warmly lit beauty of a simulated American West. As such scenes of awakening are repeated, viewers learn that “awakening” is actually a return from death: “Westworld” is a luxury theme park in which human guests are free to injure and murder the robotic hosts, who are repaired, reanimated, and “wiped” of the injuries they experience, only to “awaken” in Westworld again and again. Designed to be killed, the hosts enact a form of infinitely renewable life that nevertheless resists death, as though the more they are killed, the better suited they are to function as both workers and commodities within the park: as one of the technicians notes of Dolores: “She’s been repaired so many times she’s practically brand new.”
Westworld’s casual killing of hosts, whose ability to feel pain provides a “real” experience for wealthy consumers, critiques a necropolitical system that depends upon the expendability of life and the undervaluation of labor. But as Dolores repeatedly awakens from the cold of the “real” into the warmth of the simulated, she also transforms the categories of the living and the dead, the human and the nonhuman that are subject to such necropolitical control. Rather than returning to a “brand new” state, Dolores develops an awareness through the accumulation of multiple deaths, lives, erasures, and returns, and thus attains the possibility of opposing her own expendable status. The repetitive narratives of visceral death and abrupt awakening also invite the viewer to reconceptualize the temporality of death. Watching the hosts awaken in bed at the beginning of the day, newly returned from death, enacts an eerily familiar experience that repositions death not as a singular event but as a repeated phenomenon inherent within “life itself.” In this way, Westworld understands consciousness not as awareness of death’s finality but through the multiple ruptures and becomings of death-in-life. Westworld asks not only who and what “counts” as human but also what counts as death—and how reconceptualizing death compels a reconceptualization of lived experience.
Outside the dystopian game of Westworld, contemporary role-playing games similarly disrupt linear conceptions of time that position death as an immutable boundary. Life is Strange, for example, follows an adolescent character with the ability to travel through time in order to potentially save her friend from death. Life is Strange distributes death throughout a garden of forking of paths that proliferate both forward and backward in time. Zak Garriss, lead writer for the game’s prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, emphasizes that such multiple deaths are not only a convention of gaming but are also integral to lived experience: “The process of being a teenager is the death of being a child.” At the same time, Life is Strange illustrates that the “death of being a child” is not an event that happens once and with finality but instead can be unwritten, rewritten, or re-experienced.
That Dragon, Cancer, a game designed by a couple who lost their child to cancer, attempts to reproduce the experience of death for players, suggesting that death can be virtually replayed beyond the moment of its occurrence. In this way, death itself can be brought “back online.” The game suggests a multiplication of death as it is reenacted through players’ different temporalities, but it also paradoxically limits the narrative proliferation that typically constructs gaming experience. As designer Amy Green notes in a 2017 TEDTalk, “Players expect their video games to offer them branching narrative so that every decision that they make feels important and can change the outcome of the game. We subverted that principle of game design, collapsing the choices in on the player so that they discover for themselves that there is nothing that they can do that will change the outcome.” Encouraging death acceptance, That Dragon, Cancer marks the limits of humanist agency to direct its own path. Here, death becomes an active force, or even a kind of player with its own form of actancy. Death is nevertheless not positioned as the future event that defines consciousness; as a programmed and repeatable event, death in the game exemplifies Rosi Braidotti’s claim in The Posthuman that, from a philosophical perspective, death has already occurred: “Making friends with the impersonal necessity of death is an ethical way of installing oneself in life as a transient, slightly wounded stranger. . . . We live to recover from the shocking awareness that this game is over even before it started” (2013:132).
Spaces for the dead
“Making friends” with death implies that the dead no longer occupy their own bounded spaces but are co-operative actants within our architectural and infrastructural realities. In densely populated urban spaces, the dead, like the living, are experiencing their own housing and real estate crises, compelling architects and urban designers to create alternatives to the traditional cemetery. New “vertical cemeteries” maximize available space by providing interment in skyscrapers, interrupting circumscribed “cities of the dead” in favor of cities heterogeneously inhabited by the living and the dead. Positioning the dead in plain view, or perhaps affording the dead their own commanding views, such “sky burials” invert the traditional spaces of the underworld—along with the attendant metaphorics of what is subterranean, subconscious, or otherwise buried from sight. The living are also increasingly penetrating the underworld. “Tower for the Dead” in Mexico City (proposed by Israel López Balan, Elsa Mendoza Andrés, and Moisés Adrián Hernández García) is a design for an underground “earthscraper” cemetery taking the form of a large-scale architectural screw drilling into earth, requiring mourners to carry their dead to a depth of 820 feet. Abandoning the familiar terrestrial perspective of looking down upon the corpse buried only “six feet under,” the living adopt the subterranean perspective of the dead, experiencing the “vertigo of seeing sky from underworld.”
The dead are also incorporated within the technologized networks of late capitalist economies. In Tokyo, where space is at a premium, the Ruriden Byakurengedo columbarium stores the cremated remains of the dead in a small drawer fronted by an LED-illuminated crystal Buddha. Visitors use a swipe card embedded with a microchip to identify the remains of the departed, who glows into virtual life as an illuminated blue Buddha. Even as such illumination suggests the spiritual transcendence of matter, the act of swiping activates the gestural memories and technological infrastructure of consumer transactions, relocating death within a capitalist system (and perhaps exposing the underlying logic of a system that trades in death). At Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo, a high-tech structure advertising itself as “a musical instrument, a museum, and, most importantly, a temple,” a swipe card shrine brings the dead back online through digital screens that display slideshow images of the deceased. And in locations around the world that are not so densely populated, tombstones with digital screens and QR codes link to archives that, much like a Facebook profile, display life narratives, photographs, videos of the deceased, and comments from friends. The dead are now active social media presences. But even as technology seems to promise a new immortality, it introduces the possibility of media obsolescence that would relegate the dead to a kind of “second death” when technologies like the QR code inevitably become forms of “zombie media.”
As futuristic as these treatments of death are, however, they still function as monuments to humanism. Digital tombstones and virtual memorialization provide a kind of “digital embalming” that, like chemical embalming, seeks to preserve the lifelike appearance of the corpse as long as possible. Affirming human ascendancy, both chemical and virtual embalming nervously circumscribe the species boundary that has traditionally defined the human, suppressing what is regarded as unclean or even inhuman about the decomposing materiality of the corpse. Virtual and architectural preservation also extend the privileges of certain humans beyond death, while excluding others. Why should a corpse have its own digital screen, LED lighting design, or a skyscraper tomb with a view when many of the living are without basic shelter? Even cremation expresses a kind of anxious commitment to humanism, as though it were preferable to erase the human as fully as possible than to see it reintegrated into the environment. While cremation is often regarded as an economical practice leaving nothing behind but ash, it requires valuable energy resources and creates byproducts that contribute to global warming. Cremation thus still operates within systems of consumption and waste that characterize human activity. In this way, many contemporary death practices “make friends” with death in a familiar humanist guise rather than with the “impersonal necessity” that Braidotti imagines.
The role of the living human, redefined
Alternatives to these contemporary practices emphasize the reciprocity between the corpse and the larger ecologies with which it is embedded, encouraging us to redefine the role of the living human, as well. Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose (formerly Urban Death Project), is developing architectural systems that would actively “compost” the corpse, transforming it into soil that can be used to nourish new life. Spade’s project suggests the linguistic and conceptual shifts that could emerge from practices emphasizing the continuities between human and nonhuman life; “recomposition,” for example, disallows the teleological finality of death, as opposed to “decomposition,” which discourages us from thinking beyond the deterioration of the human. Spade also emphasizes the energy-producing, rather than energy-consuming, properties of recomposition, noting that the heat created through human composting could “comfort the grieving on a cold day.” Research initiatives at Columbia University’s DeathLAB similarly emphasize the vitality, and even the vibrancy, of the corpse. In “Anaerobic Bio-conversion Vessels,” microbes break the corpse down into its basic components, which then emit energy in the form of visible light. Moving away from individual preservation, alternative memorials would create a linked network of such bioconversion vessels, transforming the individual corpse “into an elegant and truly perpetual constellation of light.” In this way, corpses are “transformed into the vibrant energy that they literally embody,” rather than functioning as the cold other of life.
|Jae Rhim Lee, "My mushroom burial suit" (TEDGlobal Talk, 2011).|
Lee's Infinity Burial Suit imagines the "infinite" possibilities
of material renewal.
Taking a somewhat more radical approach, Jae Rhim Lee (founder and director of the Infinity Burial Project) has developed the Infinity Burial Suit, a death garment embedded with mushrooms selected for their ability to consume dead human tissue. Enacting “mycoremediation,” the mushrooms facilitate decomposition and accelerate nutrient transfer to other plants. Actively “feeding” the corpse to other forms of life subverts the humanist tradition whereby the human is the dominant consumer on the planet; as Lee notes, we typically “want to eat rather than be eaten by our food.” At the same time, the Infinity Burial Project reminds us that the human is always a host to other forms of life, and already exists in a state of radical reciprocity with the nonhuman microbiome that inhabits and sustains it. The Infinity Burial Suit also draws attention to those aspects of the human that are already, to some extent, “dead.” Lee collected sloughed-off, “dead” parts of her body—hair, skin, and nails—and fed them to mushrooms in order to select those most suited to consuming corpse tissue. As the name suggests, the Infinity Burial Project imagines the “infinite” possibilities of material renewal, but the details of the process simultaneously disrupt simplistic conceptions of a “circle of life” in which everything aggregates into unitary sameness. Understanding the human as itself an aggregate of living and dead materials, as a teeming assemblage rather than a unitary whole, the Project foregrounds the local and molecular processes through which human and nonhuman, living and dead continually constitute one another.
How might shifting away from birth and death as the inviolable bookends of life open the possibilities for posthumanist life? If natality and mortality provide the foundational binary upon which others are predicated, how might the acceptance of posthumous life disrupt other binary categories that have too often been used to categorize, oppress, and treat certain lives as expendable? Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit draws upon Timothy Myles’s term “decompiculture,” or the “culturing of decomposer organisms by humans,” and in this way, Lee has cultivated, in the most literal sense, a relationship with her material afterlife so that the vitality of her corpse might be transferred, rather than preserved or destroyed. “Decompiculture” thus implies a posthuman ethics of reciprocity and giving rather than domination and hierarchical consumption. Coining another term, Lee calls those who pursue death acceptance and the cultural shifts it entails “decompinauts,” suggesting that the “final frontier” might not be the humanist colonizing of outer space, which replicates on other planets what we have done on Earth, but the “decompicultural” possibilities of an expanded reciprocity between human and nonhuman life.
The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous. Edwards is associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio.
"A far-reaching and original study of the complexity of the cultural categories that organize representations of human life and death in modernist writing and art. Erin E. Edwards brings together an impressive range of writers, genres, and media, reflecting that increasingly expansive sense, among literary historians, of modernism's archive."
—David Sherman, author of In a Strange Room
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
CATHERINE M. SOUSSLOFF
Professor of art history, visual art, and theory at the University of British Columbia
Last spring, I was in Paris as a Visiting Researcher at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, with a beautiful office just steps from the “old” Bibliotèque Nationale de France (BnF), newly renovated and now containing virtually the entire national collection of art books and manuscripts. I was given access to this unparalleled repository of materials on European art and culture and the privilege of a desk in the Salle Labrouste, memorable for its newly restored ironwork arches and painted landscape lunettes. It was in this reading room that Walter Benjamin had labored on the citations that he collected in The Arcades Project, writing, “nothing in the world can replace the Bibliothèque Nationale for me.” Foucault might have said the same. This place surely fulfilled the art historian’s desire for inspiration for a new research project.
Just before I left California in mid-March I had completed the copyediting of my new Minnesota book, Foucault on Painting. I thought I was prepared to begin a fresh research project concerned with “expressivity” in art over the long 20th century, a topic in which both Paris and the BnF play central roles. But unexpectedly and as it turned out, fortuitously, Foucault continued to occupy me.
I suppose that after having written a book about Michel Foucault’s views on the history and theories of painting, I should not have been surprised by the “discovery” of more of his autograph thoughts on painting in the form of unpublished documents recently deposited in the BnF. I had spent more than six years reading and researching Foucault’s extensive work on everything related to the visual arts, which included essays as far-ranging as the piece on the poet Raymond Roussel, the books on sexuality and aesthetics, and the late work on subjectivity, all of which deal with painting to some extent. I had spoken to Foucault experts across the world, including Daniel Defert, Foucault’s partner and an expert on the complete corpus of his writing who had remarked on the philosopher’s “dedication” to painting. I had arranged a conference at the Institut d’Études Avancées de Paris on Foucault and the arts and letters, which brought together an international group of scholars from many disciplines (see now C. Soussloff, editor, Foucault on the Arts and Letters: Perspectives for the 21st Century, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). I had lectured on Foucault and painting at the Collège de France, where the comments by students and other listeners allowed me to realize the profound sympathy the philosopher had had with the in-depth visual analysis common in art history but rarely found in other disciplines. Even as I had continued to read Clare O’Farrell’s frequent posts on Foucault News, Foucault’s writing on painting at the BnF astonished me. This new addition to the archive became a lesson in the nature of scholarly investigation itself.
The BnF arranges its manuscripts in Fonds according to author. Boxes of related manuscripts are found within each fond. Boîte 53 - La peinture in the Manuscrits de Michel Foucault NAF28730 came to the BnF in 2013, three decades after the death of the author of its contents, according to Laurence Le Bras of the Département des Manuscrits. That would be some five decades after Foucault began the research on painting found there. Again, according to Le Bras, the documents “remain in the order in which they were found on the desk or the bookshelves of Michel Foucault.” Not only do these unpublished documents in the archive apparently correspond exactly to the state of a work in progress on painting, which can be further delineated by the folders in which they are found, they also give valuable insight into the ways that Foucault’s research proceeded and the problems he identified as significant. Perhaps these newer topics of interest also indicate a more recent date for the provenance of this research than Foucault’s last published essay on painting, which had been in 1975 for the catalogue of the exhibition of paintings by his contemporary Gérard Fromanger, but this is not yet sure. Whatever the dates of this newly deposited archive on painting, the research in it provides extensive and further insights into the depth of Foucault’s interest in the theory and practice of painting.
In Foucault on Painting, I cover chiaroscuro, the meaning of painting in modernity, the definition of painting when compared to photography, and many other topics. But when I examined Boîte 53 thoroughly other areas emerged as relatively unknown interests. For example, although Foucault had written on the related topic of illumination and darkness in his lecture on Manet, the comprehensive notes on color provide evidence of a thorough examination in exact chronological order of virtually every book on color published in France since the seventeenth century, and included major studies in English and German as well. The history of color is a notoriously difficult field of study for both art historians and cognitive scientists alike. The literature on color that Foucault examined manifests the close proximity of science and art theory in the study of the topic. Indeed, the lack of disciplinary differentiation in the substance of that literature may well have contributed to the philosopher’s fascination with it.
The research on painting found in Manuscrits de Michel Foucault NAF28730 also calls for yet another reassessment of Foucault’s use and understanding of the archive itself. Both Benjamin and Foucault had addressed the nature of the archive in relationship to the history of modernity. For Benjamin’s research on nineteenth century Paris, the archive required replication in the form of direct citation from the sources using a method of montage interspersed with comments and commentary. For Foucault, on the other hand, the archive presented a level of knowledge, whose significance could only be understood critically using an archaeological method reliant on comparison and description within the larger topic of which it is a part. In spite of these differences, both Benjamin and Foucault had attempted to teach us about the infinity of the archive in modernity and its ubiquity in historical representation since then. These points about the archive in modernity gave the French filmmaker Alain Resnais cause to critique the entire project of the BnF in his documentary on the library, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956).
Benjamin’s and Foucault’s respective methods for the archive’s use in their own research were designed as critical tools for dealing with the impossibility of the archive’s finitude. They both provided a critique of how the archive had been used in the production of historical knowledge, while simultaneously recognizing its necessity for the historian in the present. I think that the approaches to the archive taken by Benjamin and Foucault on the material culture of modernity have allowed contemporary curators, artists and art historians to conceptualize other relationships to the archive and by extension, to historical representation in the twenty-first century. Some examples come to mind. In the exhibition Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008, International Center of Photography), curator Okwui Enwezor relied on both Foucault and Benjamin to formulate his understanding of the use of the archive that he saw in a number of recent photographic practices. In the photographic series Disco Angola (2012), artist Stan Douglas mined the archive for hundreds of “reference images,” as he calls them, in order to inform the fictional history represented in composited digital images (see Soussloff, “A Proposition for Reenactment: Disco Angola by Stan Douglas,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, Ed. Mark Franko, in press). The artist Walid Raad explicitly references the archive and methodologies derived from the historical work of Foucault and Benjamin in his on-going text and photo-based explorations of existence in Lebanon since 1972.
As an art historian, who somehow had felt that my book on Foucault was “complete” until I found the new research on painting by Foucault in the BnF archive, a question remained. How had I failed to grasp the magnitude of the points about this very archive made by the author himself, by Walter Benjamin, his predecessor in that same repository, and by the contemporary artists whose work I have found so compelling? The reason for my forgetting of the lessons about the archive taught by theorists and artists alike since the middle of the twentieth century must be built into the very nature of the disease of which the “archive fever” can be termed a symptom. Art history references images—whether paintings, photographs or other visual media—in order to understand the past. But the discipline reveals that these references are not enough. The work of art history must be accompanied by research into the archive, which itself serves as the basis of the explanatory function of history writing. One might well argue that the very inadequacy of the visual material to signify completely requires the infinitude of the archive for this explanatory framework. In terms of Foucault on Painting, at least, there is more work to be done at the BnF and further interpretations to be made.
Catherine M. Soussloff is professor of art history, visual art, and theory at the University of British Columbia. She is author of Foucault on Painting (Minnesota, 2017) and The Absolute Artist (Minnesota, 1997), and editor of Foucault on the Arts and Letters.
Thursday, December 7, 2017
We've got a lot of new titles to be excited about this year, from the oft-buzzed-about The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen to the beautiful early-1900s photographic northwoods journey of Border Country. These books join our already robust collection of beautiful books about Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, and we'd like to take a moment to highlight one particular classic whose presence made one reader very happy. Here's an anecdote from our outreach and development manager, Molly Fuller, on the sidelines of the recent American Institute of Architects' Minnesota chapter meeting in Minneapolis.
A woman picked up a copy of Churches of Minnesota and instantly brought it over to me to share her story. She'd purchased the book years ago to research where to have her wedding, hoping to find a historic church as her "something old" to complement her reception at the Walker Arts Center (her "something new"). When she was still considering her options, she happened upon page 119 IRL: St. Martin's By-the-Lake, a church in Minnetonka Beach built in 1888 by legendary architect Cass Gilbert. She was with her young niece at the time, and the woman pointed out the building and said she might be married there. "I like it," her niece said, "it looks like mint chocolate chip ice cream." That quirky blessing solidified her decision, and she and her husband were married there later that year.
This book is among the 200 titles featured in our Read Minnesota holiday catalog (page 4 on the web; page 36 in the print edition), and can be ordered at a 30% discount using code MN82100.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
|Camp scene from 1915 at Lake Vermillion, in the mist.|
Because there is a difference between the history we know and the stories we keep, the experience of this book is magical.
from the Foreword to Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906–1916.
Over the course of ten years, Milwaukee businessman Howard Greene, along with his young sons and some friends, would take several month-long journeys to canoe and camp in the north woods of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada. The first journey was in 1906. Here is an anecdote, written by Martha Greene Phillips (daughter of Howard Greene), about one of The Gang's last epic trips.
BY MARTHA GREENE PHILLIPS
Tower, Minnesota, on Lake Vermillion, was the put-in point for The Gang’s penultimate canoe trip. The trip began on August 14, 1915, with camp the first night at Hoodoo Point. They began the next day’s paddle in rough weather, and when they finally landed for the night, they realized a pair of problems. Their canoes were overloaded, and one of the hired men wanted to quit. Dad returned to Tower the next morning to buy birchbark and to hire a new man.
Dad, middle-aged and balding, with a trim mustache, and still neatly dressed in his fairly fresh camp clothing, would have quickly been noted as an outsider in Tower. He inquired about town, and after hearing of a person he might want to hire, approached Merrill, a clean-cut man of fifty, who had worked as a timber cruiser.
“Are you a tenderfoot or not?”
Dad replied that he “didn’t know but that I had been in the woods somewhat and that he might consider me a tender-foot but that I thought I could take of myself under ordinary circumstances.”
“Have you been in these woods before?”
Dad told him he had gone from Ely to Ranier and from Windidgoostigwan, Ontario, to Ranier.
Merrill negotiated a $4-per-day wage, and shortly after, met Dad at the landing with a pack on his back.
Dad was a Milwaukee businessman, yet chose not to stay in a lodge or to find one of the few guides operating in the Northwoods for his trips. He had field experience during the Spanish–American War, had spent time in the country as a child and young man, and had extensive knowledge of nature. His travel partners, the Doc, Billy Mac, and Bill, were each knowledgeable and experienced outdoorsmen. They knew how to outfit their own trips, which was no small feat during those years. The men they hired were there to help in camp, and often had less knowledge of the proposed itinerary and conditions than the campers.
Dad’s descriptions of their apparently effortless planning and outfitting for their trips belie what they had to know and how much preparation went into their trips.A look at the customs documents listing the “Camp Outfit for 1911” tells much more detail about how they camped and canoed in the early 1900’s, and how different it was then. Now people enter a designated wilderness carrying maps, guidebooks, outfitter-supplied convenience foods, Kevlar canoes, pop-up nylon tents, and wearing fleece and Gore-Tex clothing to meet whatever weather conditions one encounters.
What did a group of men take along for four weeks in the woods in 1915? They took their wood and canvas guide canoes; extra paddles for each; white lead and shellac for repairs; large canvas amazon, or "A," tents; 5 1/2 x 8-foot ground cloths; ropes; and poles. They carried pack straps, axes, rifles, provision bags, canvas buckets, a sewing outfit, “doctor shop,” twine, leather conditioner, and a repair kit that included “tools, wire, nails, cloth, screws, tacks, etc.”
The men carried bedrolls made up of wool blankets; their pillows were rolled-up clothing. Dad used his rough gray wool Hudson’s Bay blankets from his Spanish–American War years. Included in the commissary were such provisions as yeast and 100 pounds of flour and other baking ingredients, all so that they could bake bread in camp along the way; a case of evaporated milk; 30 pounds of bacon; many pounds of “dehydro” vegetables and fruits; several dozens of cans of tinned meats, such as deviled ham, sardines, and corned beef; dried beans; and a case of pilot bread, spices, sugar, corn meal, breakfast cereals, candles, and clothesline. The list is quite detailed and extensive, the amounts staggering. Most interesting of all, the lists included foods now a mystery to most of us, like Erbswurst.
Erbswurst, a dried vegetable-and-bean packed sausage casing, dates to the Franco-Prussian War, when it was a protein-packed ration for the soldiers. Later, when in use by outdoorsmen, it was nicknamed “dynamite soup” because of the sausages’ semblance to sticks of dynamite.
Beyond the provisions and supplies that comprised their “outfit,” the Gang had their own personal “tool kits” of survival skills that they had developed over years of experience in the outdoors. Doc was the master canoe patcher, while Dad led the group in orienting and trail reading skills. Each knew how to cook in camp, how to pack through a portage, and how to “rope” a canoe through rapids.
On one of the Gang’s earlier trips, Dad taught one of the hired men how to rope a canoe down a rapids – the man was apparently tickled to learn this skill, a new one even though he had already been in the woods for years.
Before each trip, the men created their own route maps based on USGS survey maps, many of which they later found to lack clear or accurate details and place names. When they came across a new and interesting feature in the landscape it was not something they recognized from a guidebook. The petroglyphs they encountered were a complete mystery and surprise; coming across the petroglyphs is now, to a modern traveler, a powerful experience – I can only imagine what Dad and the Gang must have thought as they saw them and began to puzzle them out.
Along all the rivers and lakes they paddled, the Gang appreciated much of the natural history they encountered. Dad was well schooled in geology, due to his having grown up with a father who was an expert amateur geologist and fossil collector. Doc was the quintessential naturalist, with an excellent sense of flora and fauna. Billy Mac and Bill were well-versed in natural science and in outdoors skills. The Gang brought a pretty full complement of knowledge and skills to each trip.
While they may have been Milwaukee businessmen, they were not amateur outdoorsmen.
Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906–1916. She is also the author of The Floating Boathouses on the Upper Mississippi River and lives near Madison, Wisconsin.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
In these three snippets, we meet the childhood and teen-aged friends of F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota. The first piece appears in the book F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota (2017). The final two have not been published previously.
BY DAVE PAGE
|Photograph by Jeff Krueger.|
96 VIRGINIA STREET
Clark residence (1884)
In 1908 Charles A. Clark, treasurer for the Northern Pacific Railroad, lived at 454 Holly Avenue with his wife, seven children, and five servants. The oldest boy was Robert D., and his sister Caroline M. was just one year younger. By 1919 the Clarks had moved to 96 Virginia Street. Over Thanksgiving in 1919, they hosted a dance for Caroline at the University Club for "seventy-five members of the younger society." It is possible F. Scott Fitzgerald was among them since Caroline was in Fitzgerald's dancing class, and Robert had appeared in a couple of Fitzgerald's juvenile plays.
Although Fitzgerald wrote Robert Clark a reproachful missive in 1920 in response to a letter Clark had sent telling the author he should write for "real people," Clark remained one of Fitzgerald's strongest supporters, telling those who asked that Fitzgerald was not an outsider, but a valued member of their social circle. A couple of years after the postal spat, Clark, along with Fitzgerald, was a member of the Cotillion Club.
In a letter to Marie Hersey Hamm in 1936, Fitzgerald confessed that he still considered Saint Paul his home, "but the people who make it so are not only such a few—the Kalmans, Nonnie [Norris Jackson], Bob Clarke and a scattering of others."
|Joe McKibben II.|
14 July 1918 Pioneer Press, 3rd sec., p. 2.
83 VIRGINIA STREET
McKibbin residence (1887)—razed 1927
Soon after F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived at Princeton University in the fall of 1913, he visited his St. Paul friend Norris Jackson in the latter’s room at 13 Little Hall. Another St. Paulite, Joe McKibbin, who had grown up at in a duplex at 83 Virginia Street in St. Paul, stopped by Jackson’s room to welcome his two hometown acquaintances. A couple classes ahead of Fitzgerald, McKibbin had attended Hill School with his next-door neighbor Laurence Noyes, whose father had built 83-85 Virginia. McKibbin had brought along a classmate and suggested the group go for a stroll. “We walked down through the campus and along a canal, a nice sort of place to walk,” Jackson recalled. Fitzgerald was acting a bit odd. According to Jackson, “ He sort of skipped around….”
A day or two later, Fitzgerald burst into Jackson’s room and asked, “Do you know who that was we were with on Sunday?” Jackson said, yes, it was Joe McKibbin. “But do you know who the senior was?” Jackson responded affirmatively. “Well,” Fitzgerald added, “he’s the…captain of the football team, and I acted just like a damn fool.”
McKibbin’s friend and Princeton football captain for 1913 was Hobey Baker. Fitzgerald’s meeting with Baker is noted in his Ledger. In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald presents an admiring snapshot of Baker, who loved singing, as “Allenby,” the football captain:
Now, far down the shadowy line of University Place a white-clad phalanx broke the gloom, and marching figures, white-shirted, white-trousered, swung rhythmically up the street, with linked arms and heads thrown back [singing “Going Back to Nassau Hall”]. Amory closed his eyes as the ghostly procession drew near. The song soared so high that all dropped out except the tenors, who bore the melody triumphantly past the danger-point and relinquished it to the fantastic chorus. Then Amory opened his eyes, half afraid that sight would spoil the rich illusion of harmony. He sighed eagerly. There at the head of the white platoon marched Allenby, the football captain, slim and defiant, as if aware that this year the hopes of the college rested on him, that his hundred-and-sixty pounds were expected to dodge to victory through the heavy blue and crimson lines. Fascinated, Amory watched each rank of linked arms as it came abreast, the faces indistinct above the polo shirts, the voices blent in a paean of triumph—and then the procession passed through Shadowy Campbell Arch, and the voices grew fainter as it wound eastward over the campus.
Not coincidentally, Fitzgerald named the hero of the novel Amory Blaine, an obvious homage to Hobart Amory Hare Baker. Even had McKibbin not brought Baker by Jackson’s room that October day, Fitzgerald may have still honored the athlete, who was just a couple inches taller than the five-foot-seven-inch Fitzgerald and weighed 165 pounds. However, the encounter certainly was seared into Fitzgerald’s hero-worshipping mind—at least according to Jackson.
McKibbin, Jackson, and Fitzgerald continued to cross paths at Princeton. At one meeting, Fitzgerald told his two hometown friends “that he wanted five good principles to live up to.”
Like Fitzgerald, McKibbin joined the armed services during WWI. In 1923, McKibbin met Dorothy Ann Scarritt, a 1919 graduate of Smith College, in Dellwood, Minnesota. She came from a well-to-do Kansas City family and was visiting friends in in the posh community nestled up against the northeast corner of White Bear Lake. Joe and Dorothy became engaged, but broke their engagement in 1925 after she contracted tuberculosis, a disease which also afflicted Fitzgerald. She went for a cure at a sanatorium near Santa Fe, and after eleven months recovered. Joe and she were married in 1927 and settled down in St. Paul, where he worked for his father’s fur company, McKibbin, Driscoll, and Dorsey, founded in 1886. Joe died from Hodgkin’s disease in 1931, leaving Dorothy with an eleven-month-old son.
Having enjoyed the time she spent in the southwestern United States, Dorothy returned to Sante Fe, where she eventually was offered a job by Robert Oppenheimer. She earned the title of “Gatekeeper to Los Alamos” and became one of the key players in the Manhattan Project.
Coincidentally, Joe’s sister, Allison, who was eleven years his senior, married Charles H. Bigelow, Jr., in 1911 when she was 29. She thus became step-mother to Alida Bigelow, one of Fitzgerald’s great friends, and Joe would become her step-uncle.
|Image courtesy of Penzeys Spices, c. 1950s.|
678 Grand Avenue
Crocus Hill Pharmacy (1906)
Throughout the years, several people have indicated to me that Edward Fitzgerald, father of F. Scott Fitzgerald, patronized Crocus Hill Pharmacy, a drug store located at the corner of Dale and Grand, for his cigars. However, from the available records, it’s clear that at the time the Fitzgeralds lived in St. Paul the pharmacy was located at the corner of Grand and St. Albans. The 1920 St. Paul City Directory listed the pharmacy at 678 Grand Avenue, as did the January 1922 Northwestern Druggist. Louis Lockwood designed the building at 674-678 Grand Avenue in 1906 as Crocus Hill Market.
In 1915, Wesley St. Clair became sole owner of the pharmacy. According to Joe Watson, who worked at the pharmacy, St. Clair wore a “Billy Goat beard” and was called “Doc.” Watson also indicated that Edward came in regularly to purchase Tom Moore cigars. One day after Scott married Zelda, the author entered the pharmacy with his father. Scott was driving a 1920s Buick touring car, red with a tan top.
“‘Dad, I’m going to buy you a box of cigars,’ Scott told his father,” said Watson. “Edward replied, ‘Forget it. You have a wife and child to support.’ Scott forgot it.”
See also: F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Minnesota State Fair's tunnel of love.
F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer and His Friends at Home (Minnesota, 2017). He is 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).
This piece draws upon the following sources:
-Year: 1910, Census Place: St. Paul Ward 7, Ramsey, MN. The 1910 Census mistakenly says 454 Summit, but the St. Paul City Directories of 1909 and 1912 list 454 Holly Ave. as the Clark family's address.
-"Society," Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Nov. 26, 1919, p. 10.
-Bruccoli, ed., A Life in Letters, p. 45.
-Clark, letter to Jack Koblas, May 17, 1976.
-"Cotillion Cub Will Give Fancy Dress Ball," St. Paul Pioneer Press, Apr. 2, 1922, sec. 6, p. 1.
-Turnbull, Letters, p. 546.
-The Dial, 1910, Volume XIV, p. 168.
-St. Paul Building Permits
-Norris and Betty Jackson. Interview of Lloyd Hackl. November 1982, St. Paul, MN. Minnesota Historical Society Library, St. Paul.
-John Davies, The Legend of Hobey Baker (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968), p. 68.
-Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd revised edition (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), p. 58.
-Dorothy McKibbin. Interview with Martin Sherwin, Santa Fe, NM, 20 July 1979. Voices of the Manhattan Project.
Crocus Hill Pharmacy
-St. Paul City Directory. St. Paul, MN: R.L. Polk & Co., 1920, p. 282.
-"Twin Cities," Northwestern Druggist, Vol. 30, No. 1. January 1922, p. 56.
-Minnesota Historical Society. "Crocus Hill Market." mnhs.org.
-Hugh Craig, ed. National Association of Retail Druggists Journal, Vol. 20. April 1915, p. 27.
-Watson, Joe. Interview by Jack Koblas. Telephone. 7 July 1976.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
This week, in preparation for Give to the Max Day on Thursday, we’re celebrating some of our favorite moments this past year. This message that Mike Osterholm shared with a room full of children and adults is one of mine.
Mike was at Red Balloon to celebrate the launch of Creekfinding, a true story chronicling his restoration of a creek that hadn’t run in more than half a century. Decades ago, the creek was filled and buried to create a farm, a common practice in the region during the time but one that displaced the species of plants and animals that relied on this ecosystem. With beautiful illustrations by Claudia McGehee, author Jacqueline Briggs Martin tells young readers about the seven years Mike spent uncovering and repairing the creek bed, planting grasses, and reintroducing fish species, including the brook trout, Iowa’s only native strain of trout. The trout in Brook Creek—the apt name for the restored waterway—are now reproducing on their own.
“Long after I am gone these trout will be there,” Mike said in an article in the Des Moines Register. “When you think of one’s contribution in a lifetime – what we give to our kids and community – this will live in perpetuity.”
“The book will be around for a long time, too,” the article notes.
Books are a legacy all on their own, but this particular book doesn’t just contribute to Mike’s legacy, or even Jacqueline’s or Claudia’s. Its very existence is tied up in the legacy of a philanthropist who wanted to bring books about natural history, environmental science, and conservation topics into fruition. Her name was Margaret W. Harmon, and her gift to the University of Minnesota Press has made possible more than a dozen books for children and adults, including 2008’s The Great Minnesota Fish Book and the forthcoming Searching for Minnesota’s Native Wildflowers, a guidebook for the whole family that teaches us how to find and identify our state’s beautiful expanse of native flowers.
I think Margaret would be especially proud to have a hand in making Creekfinding a reality because of the myriad of lessons it teaches us. Without this book, Mike and his inspiring message of environmental stewardship and hopeful promise that damage can be reversed would reach fewer eyes and ears.
Beyond the direct message of the narrative, the beauty of this book is in the way it illuminates the roles we each play in sharing stories like this one. Mike does something worth sharing with the world. Jacqueline and Claudia use imaginative descriptions and illustrations to create Mike’s story. We publish it. Audiences read it. And donors like Margaret Harmon, and donors like you, make that a reality.
This Give to the Max Day, consider where you fit in to this constellation—it may be in more place than one. And if you want to make sure stories like Creekfinding will always be told, give a gift today.
Molly Fuller, Outreach and Development Manager
Tuesday, November 7, 2017
The theme of University Press Week 2017 is #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.
In today’s political climate—where “fake news” and “alternate facts” are believed by so many people—valuing expertise and knowledge can feel like a radical act. University presses not only believe in facts and knowledge, but traffic in them daily, publishing approximately 14,000 books and more than 1,100 journals each year, read by people around the globe.
In line with this theme, we'd like to alert readers to a few things happening locally. Milkweed Editions, in partnership with PEN America and The Riveter, is hosting Be The Facts You Wish to Read: A press freedom panel discussion with local journalists and authors, 6:00PM on Monday, November 20th, in downtown Minneapolis.
More info || RSVP
At the beginning of 2017, the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul launched a monthly "Book Gathering" series, which spotlights timely topics, community events, local organizations, and relevant booklists. Materials are listed here.
Now, we bring you to an essay by author John Hartigan Jr. about the precarious state of facts and knowledge today. Thanks for reading.
BY JOHN HARTIGAN JR.
University of Texas, Austin
The current surge in “climate change denial” and “alternative facts” offers an opportunity to reflect on social constructionist arguments about scientific knowledge. Versions of such claims are longstanding but they were critically highlighted in the “science wars,” a series of academic skirmishes over the status of facts—artificial products or realist glimpses of a world “out there”? The polemical contours of that moment are cast in strange relief by recent contests over the disappearance of scientific reports from government websites. An object of knowledge as massively complex and unwieldy as “climate change” is a singular example of the constructedness of scientific claims; yet few who chanted “socially constructed” then seem inclined to do so now. That reaction appears squelched by anxious concerns that such hard-won facts be maintained and promoted.
What happened to social construction, and how does that stance matter now? In broad domains of critical thinking pertaining to race and gender, it never went away and remains a mainstay of classroom lectures and introductory comments in department talks. Even as genetics research created increasingly tangible and realist renderings of racial thinking, “race is socially constructed” stays a mantra for turning attention from scientific claims and towards the social ways that “race matters.” My own work on race and genetics, sometime ago, diagnosed this problem in Latourian terms: race continues to “gain in reality” despite constructivist critiques. Bruno Latour, of course, is a touchstone for these questions; he claims his counsel is now sought by climate scientists nervously contending with the perilous state of their facts. But in this account, what stands out is his glib sense of what was at stake in his previous work: “it felt good to put scientists down a little.”
Looking back over the last couple of decades of generative work in science and technology studies (STS), two things are apparent. First, the task and motivation initially seemed animated by a desire to assail the inaccessibility of science and to rupture the implacable visage of its singular facts. Indeed, the challenge, especially for ethnographers working in labs, was to gain access to the sites of knowledge production; additionally, there were hurdles of being taken seriously by scientists, who saw little to gain from (or comprehend in) considering a cultural perspective on their labor. Second, such accounts perhaps mimicked the orientation of their subjects’ fixation on the end results, the artifacts of scientific production. There was not much attention to knowledge base from which these were generated, the slowly assembled, largely reliable understanding of how the world works.
Today the situation is different—STS scholars are approaching scientific knowledge with an altered sensibility and orientation towards how their accounts may matter. Simply, we too are engaged in a process of knowing the world, not just critiquing certain authoritative claims about its operations. And it’s increasingly apparent that navigating our world requires multiple forms of expertise; questions and contests over access are generating an alternative approach. That is to use ethnography to tap the expertise of scientists and make it accessible to publics contending with the challenge of knowing our complex world. This is evident in Lisa Messeri’s Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. As cultural critics like Gayatri Spivak and Paul Gilroy promote “planetarity” or “the planetary” as means of conjuring an anti-racist solidarity for our species, Messeri suggest these efforts might learn something from her ethnographic subjects, planetary scientists. These researches have honed and realized a “planetary imagination,” “one that has been professionally productive for scientists and perhaps can also be meaningful for social scientists and humanists who similarly grapple with planetary phenomena” (2017:12). That is, rather than just deconstructing their facts, there’s something of value to learn here. That ethnography is an excellent means for making that knowledge base accessible is further borne out in Priscilla Song’s ethnographic account (Biomedical Odysseys) of “how an alternative form of biological knowledge is reshaping human relations and futures” (2017:4). As well, Candis Callison use ethnography (How Climate Change Comes to Matter) “to excavate climate change as a multiply instantiated fact, with varying scientific, political ethical and moral contours” (2014:22). In her account, climate change is “an emergent form of life,” one we are struggling to know and understand; such efforts are not advanced or enhanced by regarding it as “social construction.”
My own efforts to assail the social constructedness of race (Care of the Species) eventually led me to a national plant genomics institute in Mexico, where researchers were studying “razas de maíz” or races of corn. Initially, I seized on fluctuating assessments of how many such races exist—59, 62, or 48, depending on whether you ask breeders or geneticists—to conclude that the razas are social constructs. Before long, though, I realized such a tart finding kept me from learning much about maize in all its varieties. Once I moved past treating these geneticists as ciphers for racial ideology, they were able to teach me to recognize how these distinctive life forms are reflections of the huge climatic and geographic variation in Mexico, and that biomes worked together with ethnicity to generate morphologically distinctive plants. This does not suggest “race is real” in any simplistic manner; “raza,” in Spanish is used on domesticated species, not natural ones, reflecting the history of the concept, which predates its application to humans. As well, when I then ventured into the botanical gardens in Spain—first to learn this history, then to regard these sites ethnographically—I initially fixated on tumultuous points of uncertainty within taxonomy; again because I trained to analyze social constructions. Gradually, I grew more impressed with taxonomists’ capacity—despite the constructedness of species—to discern and recognize botanical forms. And as I thought about the devilish predicament of rapid extinctions of both plant and animal life forms, their expertise warranted a better accounting than social construction affords. Fortunately, botanical gardens are designed exactly with this end in mind, to introduce people to plants they’ve never met before. I encourage you to visit one soon.
As we think about the precarious status of facts and knowledge today, we need to reconsider the tendency toward critique that dominates in the humanities. The world we live in requires manifold forms of expertise; a critical consciousness isn’t sufficient. We need to devise ways to combine both in addressing enduring problems of access to science. Our accounts of natural science research are means, certainly, to foster a critical stance on facts, but also to promote the fundamental forms of scientific literacy required of understanding something as complicated as climate change.
Care of the Species: Races of Corn and the Science of Plant Biodiversity and Director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies, University of Texas, Austin. Hartigan is on Twitter @aesopsanthro as Aesop’s Anthro.