Thursday, April 20, 2017

"Flying Funny": The unusual gravity-defying first act of improv theater's founding father, Dudley Riggs.


"Word Jazz."

"Instant Theater."

Now we know it as Improvisational Theater.

The father of improvisation and founder of the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis in 1958, Dudley Riggs grew up in the circus. His parents were circus performers and as a young boy, Dudley was thrown into the exciting, adrenaline-fueled world of performance. His younger years were spent mostly on the road until he reached college age, settling by chance in Minnesota and floating an idea he had held in his head for some time about applying the Freudian technique of "free association" to theatrical performance. A friend told him to lay off "improvisation"—that was the territory of jazz music.

This idea took on many iterations, all of which are detailed in Dudley's new memoir, Flying Funny: My Life without a Net, which includes a foreword by Al Franken. On Wednesday, April 19, the University of Minnesota Press and the Brave New Workshop hosted an evening to celebrate the book's publication and the wondrous early life Dudley lived that led to the Brave New Workshop's successful creation and evolution into the longest running satirical comedy theater in the United States.

While on tour in Italy with the circus, Dudley Riggs
purchased this espresso machine, which served as the
fuel for Riggs' Cafe Espresso, the birth place
of the Brave New Workshop.
The machine was so foreign to local licensing authorities
that they forced Riggs to get training as a boiler operator.

Brave New Introduction: University of Minnesota
Press director Doug Armato introduces Dudley Riggs
to the stage, apologizing for bringing a
scripted speech (gasp!) to an improvisational theater.

A circus-style juggling act before Dudley Riggs
takes the stage.

Riggs on stage with Brave New Workshop's co-owner
John Sweeney.

A full house.

After the Q&A with Sweeney, Brave New Workshop performers
improvised scenes inspired by chapter titles from Riggs' memoir:
"The Circus at War," "Clown Diplomacy," and "Never Let Them Know
You Can Drive a Semi."

A post-Q&A reception with classic slides from Riggs' career.

Autographing new books, hot off the presses.

207 East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis was the original
location Riggs selected for his theater.

The Brave New Workshop would go through a few more location changes,
including two locations in Uptown Minneapolis,
before arriving at its current location in downtown Minneapolis.

Check our website for more Flying Funny events.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"We're just Potato Famine Irish."


“We’re just Potato Famine Irish,” declared my grandfather when, as a child, I asked him about our family’s roots in Ireland. A Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, his word sank heavily into my heart and lodged there for decades. They didn’t resurface until decades later, when I began working at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

Surrounded by Native colleagues with visible roots that grounded them in this land, I learned that "Minnesota" is a Dakota word, that the cradleboard my friend was making for her grandson was just like the one her ancestors would have made. These lessons rekindled my curiosity about my family’s past. But I also began to feel a disturbing dis-ease—an intuitive sense that something was not right. It’s taken nearly twenty years to begin to understand this dis-ease. While reconnection and healing have begun, the work is ongoing. This journey is the subject of my new memoir, White Birch, Red Hawthorn.

The longer I worked in the Native community, the more I began to see two sources of the dis-ease in my heart. One source was the loss of connection to ancestral homelands. Though I’m not 100% Irish, three of my grandparents were Irish and it is the culture with which my family identifies the most.

Why didn’t my Grandfather Murphy know about his family’s Irish heritage? Why didn’t we know the names and birthplaces of our ancestors? Was it shameful to be “just Potato Famine Irish”? The erasure of our backstory left me feeling exiled, outside of the circle of belonging. My heart wanted in, not only for myself, but for my children.

Denial was a second source of my dis-ease—the denial of the harm that European American families like mine participated in and caused to our Native American hosts when they settled here. Since then the generational layers of denial, an inheritance passed along by pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps upward mobility, hardens the heart.

This hard heart numbs itself to the reality of past and present suffering in Native communities all across America. By not responding to this pain, I realized that I was negating the basic human instinct of compassion. The more I saw, the less comfortable I was with maintaining old shields of denial and the more human I wanted to become.

White Birch, Red Hawthorn names some of the pain that European immigrants like my family caused to the three main tribes in Minnesota—the Dakota, the Ojibwe, and the Ho-Chunk. It explores the worldview of dominion inherited in stories by American icons like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Paul Bunyan, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold. It suggests pathways for reconnection to Ireland.

Each step required lifting layers of lies and touching raw wounds trapped for generations. Only then could I begin to glimpse the possibility of healing. This possibility demanded that once I had a clearer view of the truth, I needed to look beyond facts and find a new way of living. This new way asks us to set down dominion and step back into the circle of humanity.

Above all, this journey toward healing is not over. Standing Rock is just one recent example of how our country continues to harm Native tribes and lands. Even so, I feel hopeful. Each one of us can play a part in lifting the dis-ease of denial and exile. We can examine the stories we’ve inherited, set down the conqueror’s tools, and begin to listen. It’s not easy, but every step counts.


Nora Murphy is author of White Birch, Red Hawthorn. She is a fifth-generation Irish Minnesotan. She was born and lives in Imniża Ska, the white cliffs overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers in St. Paul. She has worked and volunteered in the Native community since 1995 and has published five previous books—children’s histories, short stories, and a memoir about women’s textiles, Knitting the Threads of Time.

"Nora Murphy defines her work as cultural outsider: she listens, she doesn’t try to fix anything, and she resists the urge to dominate. She has accomplished the difficult task of writing from what she has learned of people unlike herself, not about them. Harder still, she has learned to love another culture and yet understand it does not belong to her."
Heid Erdrich, author of Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper

"White Birch, Red Hawthorn is not only educational, with the stories of the struggles that have been inflicted on American Indians, but also an inspirational story of Nora Murphy’s path to discover her Irish ancestry."
Mary LaGarde, Executive Director, Minneapolis American Indian

"Nora Murphy displays incredible bravery—she asks hard questions and points out the elephant in the room. She creates language to say the things left unsaid."
Wambdi Wapaha, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation

Monday, April 10, 2017

With NEA under threat, arguments across the aisle are united in surprising ways.

Assistant professor of art history at the University of Washington in Seattle

From an art historian’s perspective, one of the most fascinating elements of 2017’s American political landscape has been conservatives’ defense of the National Endowment for the Arts. These statements of defense have followed the Trump administration’s budget proposal, which as is now widely known, would eliminate the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Institute of Museum and Library Services in their entirety.

It is unsurprising to hear leftists point out how taxpayer-funded security for Trump Tower for a year costs more than the entire NEA budget, or to see the College Art Association registering its “complete and total opposition” to NEA and NEH elimination. Quite unanticipated, though, has been to read about Republicans not only saying they support the NEA, but also that they support it, as Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV) said in a recent statement, at “the present level of funding.”

Positions such as Amodei’s are a far cry from former Republican Senator Alphonse D’Amato’s denunciation of artist Andres Serrano on the floor of the Senate in May 1989. D’Amato branded Serrano’s 1987 photograph Piss Christ “trash,” and tore up an image of the work for performative emphasis. At that time, debates about the NEA centered on questions of art’s content, and on whether art with certain content was inappropriate for public support. Since those debates, the NEA has changed its practices, most notably by stopping direct grants to artists. It carefully distributes its grants across all 50 states, with sparsely populated states such as Vermont, Alaska, and Wyoming among the top beneficiaries in terms of per capita funding. Indeed, some important Republicans who vocally support the NEA hail from these states, such as Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Evident in current attitudes toward the endowment, however, is not just the impact of these pragmatic changes, but a new vocabulary for discussing the role of the endowment. That vocabulary centers on participation as opposed to on content. In this respect, the recent conversation demonstrates the centrality of participation to current understandings of art’s politics, and moreover, the way ideas about participation might serve as a common ground between people who agree on virtually nothing else concerning contemporary art.

We can see this rhetoric of participation at work in Mike Huckabee’s recent Washington Post op ed defending the NEA. Huckabee points out that “hateful high-dollar” (liberal) celebrities receive nothing from the NEA, and pivots quickly from dismissing them to focus on “the real recipients of endowment funds: the kids in poverty for whom NEA programs may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilize and humanize us all.” Huckabee points out that participation in the arts raises SAT scores and fosters creativity which “finds cures for diseases, creates companies such as Apple and Microsoft and, above all, makes our culture more livable.”

Few contemporary artists, museum professionals, or educators will identify with Huckabee’s understanding of creativity, nestled as it is between an evangelical worldview and unbridled enthusiasm for capitalist enterprise. But what is striking is that his emphasis on participation as central to understanding the role of art in contemporary culture finds parallels in leftist arts practice, pedagogy, and museum programming. We too are interested in activating our publics: the period since the Culture Wars has seen a huge expansion in the predominance in American art of practices which seek to engage broad audiences in diverse kinds of making, learning, and social interaction. Not only artists but also museums and galleries prioritize participation, deploying sophisticated strategies from digital engagement to on-the-ground interaction to help audience members be active producers of their own experiences. While Huckabee positions broad participation in the arts between God and Microsoft, leftist artists and art institutions also place value in participation’s ability to address both the ideal and the pragmatic. As I analyze in Asking the Audience, participation both captures the aspirations which animate socially engaged art, and brings attention to the concrete details of facilitating particular projects with specific audiences. My book demonstrates that in the US, the late 1980s was an essential moment for the development of this participatory paradigm, which responded to changes in the funding, audience demographics, and politics of contemporary art.

Arguably, participation as it operates in contemporary art has no content as such. Instead, it enables artists and museum professionals to create practices of engagement with particular publics to produce certain outcomes, while also letting that engagement remain dynamically animated by hopes, aims, and ideals that can’t be easily quantified.

As such, perhaps the fact that participation has eclipsed content as the central focus in public exchanges about federal arts funding means that certain liberals and conservatives will be able to find more common ground in terms of articulating what the role of the endowments should be. It will be interesting to see how this round of threats gets played out, whether in defunding the NEA, in reshaping it, or in a continuation of the status quo. Indeed, the differences between the current NEA and the form of the endowment before the Culture Wars are so great that we might well ask whether the NEA “survived” those debates at all. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of it as having been eliminated and then regenerated in a new form, namely with participation displacing freedom of expression as one of its structuring commitments. In any case, it’s clear that in the early 21st century, participation is central to debates about art’s politics both within the art world and beyond it. For the time being, it will remain essential to conversations among politicians, art professionals, and public about what art can and should do in this uncertain moment.


Adair Rounthwaite is author of Asking the Audience: Participatory Art in 1980s New York. She is assistant professor of art history at the University of Washington in Seattle, and has published essays on a range of topics in contemporary global art history in journals such as Representations, Camera Obscura, Art Journal, and Third Text.

"Asking the Audience provides an invaluable foundation for understanding the emergence of institutionalized social art practice over the past fifteen years. Adair Rounthwaite's detailed discussion of the role of pedagogy and education grounds these projects in broader intellectual trends during the 1980s and early 90s."
—Grant Kester, University of California, San Diego

Friday, April 7, 2017

Manifold Beta Now Available

Manifold is an intuitive, collaborative platform for scholarly publishing. With iterative texts, powerful annotation tools, rich media support, and robust community dialogue, Manifold transforms scholarly publications into living digital works.

The Manifold team is delighted to launch a public beta of its new publishing platform for interactive scholarly monographs:

Funded through the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Manifold is a collaboration between University of Minnesota Press, the GC Digital Scholarship Lab at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Cast Iron Coding.

We began work on the project two years ago, aiming to create a responsive platform for interactive books that would help university presses share long-form monographs through an appealing and elegant interface. After many meetings and planning discussions, and following 1300+ commits to our public code repository, the initial version of the platform is ready for review.

On the beta site, you will find a selection of projects from the University of Minnesota Press that may be read, annotated, highlighted, and shared through social media. These include two recently published full-length scholarly books, a selection from the Forerunners: Ideas First series, and four projects just beginning to take shape on the platform.

This post continues (and was originally published at) Click for a full list of projects currently taking shape on the platform.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lorna Landvik on returning to Patty Jane's world


One of my first editors was a woman named Leona Never, who while reading through slush pile submissions back in the ’50s came across a manuscript she insisted her boss not only read, but publish, pronto. It was Peyton Place.

Leona was old-school and managed to rise up in the sexist women-are-secretaries-men-are-bosses era to become a real force in the publishing world. I met her in 1996, when Ballantine was publishing the paperback of Patty Jane’s House of Curl. She had a whispery voice and in the years we worked together, she’d tell me, “You write a different book every time.” I took it as a compliment—I think she meant it as a compliment. While I think I have a certain voice, I never wanted to tell the same story over and over.

By the time I write The End, it usually is. I’ve resolved problems, tied up loose ends, and humbly thanked my characters for coming into my head and letting me tell their story. I feel both a sense of relief (whew—I did it!) and a zip of excitement, because finishing one novel means I can begin another, with a cast of characters (usually two or three) who’ve shown up and are impatiently chewing gum and practicing swings in my mental batter’s box, waiting for their turn to be called up and play.

And yet . . . I am surprised by random whispers I hear from characters in my past books. A song can come on the car radio and it reminds me of Slip; the looming height of a spruce tree can make me think of Fenny; a particularly starry night brings Fletcher to mind.

Throughout the years, characters in Patty Jane’s House of Curl would pop up in my head (and for a while I’d almost expect to see the fictitious beauty salon on the real street I set it on!), but several years ago, the occasional whispers grew into a yammering—that is, the characters yammering “We want more of our story told!”

And so, I dove back into their world to find out what’s what and who’s who and who’s doing what to whom. And why. And where. And how.

It was so fun. I knew fairly quickly the big life-changing event that Nora was going to experience, but I didn’t know I’d go to 1920s Norway to learn more about Ione. New characters appeared, demanding to be woven into the story, some playing big parts, some happy with walk-ons.

Welcome to the Once in a Blue Moon Lodge. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

A launch event is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18, in Excelsior, Minnesota (hosted by Excelsior Bay Books). Register here.

Lorna Landvik is the author of eleven novels including the best-selling Patty Jane's House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating BonBons, Oh My StarsBest to Laugh (Minnesota, 2014), and coming in April, Once in a Blue Moon Lodge. She has performed stand-up and improvisational comedy around the country and is also a public speaker, playwright, and actor who gets much pleasure from mixing up margaritas on stage in her one-woman all-improvised show, Party in the Rec Room.

"At long last! Patty Jane and her irresistible band of big-hearted merry-makers return to us. Lorna Landvik’s humor is wrapped around a core of love, common sense, and good cooking. Pull up an easy chair, pour a glass of wine, and enjoy this grand family reunion."
—Faith Sullivan, author of Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse

"Lorna Landvik creates characters and places so warm and real that reading Once in a Blue Moon Lodge feels like coming home (if you're lucky enough to be surrounded by people and places as weird and wonderful as Lorna's—I think I am)."
—Nora McInerny, author of It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)

"There is a charm and warmth to this hopeful tale in which love is the glue that holds people together. Landvik's love for her characters is evident."
—Kirkus Reviews

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"I was going to be one of *those* teachers: the natural and inspiring who wore stylish sport coats, whose classroom was a sacred space of literature, of rebellion, of learning. But nobody told me how hard it was going to be."

Yesterday, the Minneapolis City Pages went live with a front-page feature on Tom Rademacher, a middle-grade English teacher and Minnesota Teacher of the Year who has written a book about the messy, messy, messy business of teaching. Select excerpts from his book, It Won't Be Easy, bring to vivid life moments from his teaching career in which he decides to quit, decides not to quit, questions his decisions, and ultimately engages with kids who challenge him. We've since gotten comments from readers that range from "This is extraordinary" to "An amazing must-read" to "We'd love to have him come talk to our class." It's truly a piece that sticks with readers.

Here is a brief excerpt from the excerpt:

One year, my school went through renovations in the “looks like a nice hotel” range. We were very protective of our pretty new space, and there was no confusion that teachers were to be held personally (and spiritually) responsible for any stains that might develop in the course of housing hundreds of teenage bright ideas.

So it was that I reacted strongly to a student bringing (gasp!) and opening (gasp! gasp!) an energy drink (ick, but whatever!) in my class.


He was equal parts entirely unsurprised and furious and humiliated. Had I been seeing straight, I would have recognized that. But in that moment, and with that kid, and on that day, I made it all about me.

My half-yelling at a kid who wanted to punch me or cry or both started with my telling him all the ways that he was wrong. At some point, I’m pretty sure I pointed to a couch and said that it was worth $3,000, and pointed to myself and said, “It’s my job to make sure that couch is this nice next year and five years from now.” Right, because that’s my job.

I said the phrase, “We have a school to run here.” Jesus.

Read the full, fantastic feature here.


Tom Rademacher is author of It Won't Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching, which features a foreword by Dave Eggers. Rademacher is an English teacher in Minneapolis. His writing has appeared in EdPost, MinnPost, and on his blog, Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood, and he speaks about teaching at universities, conferences, and TEDx events. In 2014 he was honored as Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Playing Indian" and the US colonial imagination.


A few months ago, The Intercept published an eye-opening investigation into alleged war crimes perpetrated by the famed Navy SEAL Team 6, the elite military unit credited with killing Osama bin Laden. While the report highlights troublesome, often deranged, behavior of individual SEALs acting in accordance with a culture of contempt for Middle Easterners and South and Central Asians, some of the specific SEAL practices reveal disturbing connections between US settler colonization and foreign policy. Those connections have been evident for the duration of US history. We have yet another opportunity to identify and assess them.

The article’s author, Matthew Cole, describes in great detail a troubling culture of playing Indian. SEAL Team 6 is composed of four color-coded units. The Red Unit inevitably uses Indian symbology, with a mascot boasting the age-old visage of an Indian warrior in side profile, simultaneously fierce and stoic.

In its recent exploits in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the Red Unit played Indian with brutal consequences. Cole reports that in 2006 Red Unit leader Hugh Wyman Howard III ordered custom-made hatchets of the type used in films like The Last of the Mohicans. While the hatchets were billed as morale boosters, they “soon became more than symbolic as they were used at times to hack dead fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others used them to break doorknobs on raids or kill militants in hand-to-hand combat.”

Calling this sort of performance “playing Indian,” in the tradition of Philip Deloria, is not to implicate Native cultures in violence. Playing Indian refers to simulated imaginaries wherein the performer in some way acts out the exploits of a mythological Indian. Indigenous peoples are doubly erased in this project, though they are simultaneously vested in the public imagination and thus subject to perpetual reproduction of mascotry.

The use of bastardized Indian themes in US military adventurism is an old phenomenon. From referring to enemy territory as “Indian country” to the plethora of weapons and machinery named after tribal nations, the imagery of Natives as both eternal antagonists and mythical warriors has long been central to battlefield conduct and the moral framing of foreign invasion. That the Red Unit of SEAL Team 6 special-ordered kitsch art and then used it to commit war crimes is a form of appropriation, but it is simultaneously a reaffirmation of deeply-held settler narratives in the United States, in which the Native can survive only in caricature and which reifies playacting as an indispensable mode of state violence.

The hatchets also illuminate how the US colonial imagination affects its conduct in the world:

  • Performing these simulated rites of Indigeneity rationalizes a global military presence originating in the landscapes of North America. The hatchets are a branding mechanism normalizing the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan (as in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Standing Rock). Yet they also reinforce the primacy of conquest as an American birthright.
  • In American society, appropriation of Native imagery often positions Indigenous peoples as noble stewards of the environment or as timeless symbols of patience and reconciliation (which confines settler colonialism to the past while absolving its practitioners of cruelty). In military culture, however, that imagery emphasizes warlike qualities, an unsurprising move. Those qualities, though, aren’t paeans to a noble Indian character, but ideations of the optimal American warrior.
  • The imagery suggests that the violence of colonization was in response to the greater brutality of the adversary, that is, a byproduct of the need to subdue the savage Indians. If the American soldier is to emulate the guile and force of the Indian warrior, then we are made to understand that those qualities originate from the Native and not the settler.
  • Playacting as the Indian of settler lore implicitly justifies the brutality fundamental to the work of SEAL Team 6. Red Unit members confer moral responsibility for contemporaneous violence onto stylized antagonists of an unchangeable past.
  • The Indian logo on Red Unit uniforms is tactile while actually existing outside of the world the US endeavors to create through invasions of faraway countries. Or, put more simply, the US allows itself a history by preventing others from deciding a future. The fixed past of US colonization in fact exists in constant transit.

At first glance, some of these explanations seem incongruous, but they all illuminate a specific colonial logic. The most noteworthy feature of that logic is the permanence it ascribes to the conquest of North America. That conquest is enduring and unchangeable. It is, like the violent protection of democracy, a simple fact of history. At the same time, though, the colonial past cannot be discarded. It undergoes regular permutations that reveal themselves in imperialist policies, so that foreign policy conventions can remain steady in tumultuous conditions. These processes occur concurrently to repression of Native nationhood, a necessary subject of our attention.

Given the importance of the colonial past to the imperial present, we haven’t seen nearly enough analysis of the interplay between colonization and imperialism. Much of the work that does exist around military usage of Indian themes, including Cole’s article, treats it as appropriation rather than a foundational aspect of foreign policy. Just as conquest is the basis of US nationalism, so too is it the currency of American reinvention.

In Inter/Nationalism I draw from a wide range of work in Native and Indigenous Studies to advance a conversation about ongoing settler colonization in North America and its importance in apprehending the political landscapes of the world. Only after the book was published did the United States accomplish what many considered inconceivable with the election as president of a buffoonish celebrity animated by racial and sexual belligerence.

Understood from the perspective of colonialism, however, the emergence of Donald Trump wasn’t an aberration, but an inevitability. Slavery and settlement, atrophy and atrocity, displacement and dispossession. What kind of person oversees these traditions? Absent an engagement with Indigenous political and intellectual traditions, analyses of the US polity, sometimes limited to bickering about the ideals of the Enlightenment, will ultimately miss the point.

And what is the point? That we cannot redeem the United States without reproducing the brutalities of settler colonization. Imperialism is one of the most reliable outcomes of even the most earnest attempts at redemption. It’s crucial before setting out to question state violence inside and beyond the United States to scrub away the Indian decals emblazoned on our brains.


Steven Salaita is author of several books, including Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine; Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom; and Israel's Dead Soul.

"This is a powerful and moving analysis of what it means to decolonize settler societies through an unflinchingly ethical and incisively original notion of inter/nationalism. Steven Salaita is, as always, bold, brilliant, and visionary."
Sunaina Maira, University of California, Davis

"A welcome work of criticism and analysis from a truly transnational scholar of Indigenous politics and literature."
Audra Simpson, Columbia University

"Although often specific in its geographical articulation, settler-colonialism is a global phenomena that requires a truly global response. This is the message powerfully hammered home in Steve Salaita's crucially important Inter/Nationalism. Building on years of research and activism in support of Native American and Palestinian self-determination, Salaita advances a radically transnational view of decolonization grounded in a richly comparative account of Native American/Indigenous solidarity and our mutual struggles for land, freedom, and dignity."
Glen Coulthard, author of Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Health care and the right to be responsible.

Associate professor of sociology at Concordia University

“I really should be taking better care of myself.” Who hasn’t thought that at least once in the past year? (Month? Week?)

In Canada, where I live, government surveys have found in 2014, for example, that 72% of those responding thought there was something they should be doing to live more healthfully – an increase of 13.9% since 2001. Seventy-seven percent planned to do something to improve their health, such as reducing stress, changing their eating habits, or getting more sleep and exercise – another increase (9.5%) from 2001. Still, many of the survey respondents were doing more than just feeling guilty or thinking about living better; 59% of those responding to this 2014 survey had actually done something to improve their lifestyle, up from 54% in 2001. It is clear from these statistics that healthism, an elevated consciousness about health, lifestyle, and related practices of risk and disease prevention, is on the rise.

While on the surface this might seem like a positive development – who can argue with trying to be healthy? – healthism also has a tendency to locate responsibility for optimizing one’s well-being squarely on the shoulders of individuals. Or, to put it another way, it has a tendency to let the State off the hook for its part in looking after its citizenry. In fact, what we have been witnessing is a real shift in recent decades toward greater and greater individual “responsibilization,” where we – me, you, Grandma – are increasingly charged with looking after ourselves with less and less help or support from our governments.

As a Canadian, I enjoy the benefits of a socialized health care system, but even so, it is a society within which this imperative of individual responsibility to my fellow Canadians consistently figures in, say, health promotion and popular lifestyle rhetoric. For example, a recent health column in a popular women’s lifestyle magazine declared it possible to “retrain your brain,” claiming that unhealthy habits can be fixed simply by “changing your perspective.” If your bad habit is that you “often put off exercise,” you just need to “choose more positive online influences.” If your bad habit is an inability to “stick to ... healthful eating goals,” then you just need to “predict your feelings about food” before you begin eating. Exhorting individual readers to become entrepreneurial self-managers and take responsibility for the state of their lives, the column goes on to list a series of other personal weaknesses and their quick fixes, all of which boil down to the reader’s good and bad choices and her ability – read: obligation – to conduct herself, her life, more responsibly for the good of all of Canadian society.

And this is where biocitizenship comes in. “Biocitizenship,” a particular mode of living whereby one achieves belonging in society through accepting this kind of individual health responsibility, has emerged in these neoliberal times as a new way of enacting one’s good (and worthy) citizenship. That is, through engaging in normative practices of self-care – making the “right” kinds of lifestyle and medical choices – modern citizenship in the West has become a kind of biological project that depends upon individuals fulfilling their responsibility to the rest of society by accepting and carrying out the responsibility to care for the self. More and more, we find ourselves morally and socially obligated to be proactive about our health risks, whether it be eating right, exercising more, quitting smoking, or screening for genetic disease potential. In this context, responsible citizens engage in self-care, for the good of all. Good (bio)citizens are healthy citizens who do not use up too many health care dollars by having costly health problems they could have prevented if only they’d looked after themselves better. In some instances, would-be biocitizens might even seek legal recourse when they perceive that their right to be responsible has been denied.

As a fairly recent development since Thatcher and Reagan came to power (in 1979 and 1981, respectively), the neoliberal trend toward individual health responsibilization illuminates the need to understand how individual freedom figures in this milieu as a kind of “unfreedom,” by which I mean the capacity, or even the duty to act that, given its regulative moral undertones, is not really very free at all. And as the US stands at the precipice of repealing the Affordable Care Act, never before has this question of individual health responsibilization been more pressing.

On the surface it may seem a moot point in the context of a multi-payer privatized system such as that of the US, but the broader push toward responsibilization plays a key role in contemporary neoliberal governance and is critical for understanding the looming implications of Trump’s plan for American health care. His intentions and politics would appear to represent the end of neoliberalism as we know it, but if his reckless approach to immigration is any indication, it would also appear to be the beginning of something far worse, where for so many who stand to lose their coverage (if they even have any), the possibility of achieving citizenship – biological or otherwise – will prove impossible.


Shelley Z. Reuter is author of Testing Fate: Tay-Sachs Disease and the Right to be Responsible and Narrating Social Order: Agoraphobia and the Politics of Classification. She is associate professor of sociology at Concordia University.

"Testing Fate illustrates how diseases become racialized, how racializing them supports political projects, and how the medical profession has been instrumental in racial formation."
—Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention

"Shelley Z. Reuter offers a thoughtful, thorough, and sophisticated analysis of themes of modern biocitizenship and belonging refracted through a historical case study of Tay-Sachs disease."
—Jonathan Kahn, Hamline University

"As she tells the fascinating and important story of Tay-Sachs disease, Shelley Reuter skillfully reminds us of the tight links connecting our concepts of disease to visions of belonging and otherness, selfhood and social responsibility."
—Steven Epstein, author of Inclusion

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Art of Losing

Associate professor of cultural geography at the University of Exeter. She is currently a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in Olso, Norway.

‘The art of losing’s not too hard to master,’ wrote Elizabeth Bishop, ‘though it may look… like disaster’. Mastering the art of losing—now there’s a project for the 21st century. Last month, the National Park Service (NPS) made a small step toward spelling out what the art of losing might entail, in a new strategy addressing the fate of its cultural resources in a climate-changed future. ‘Preservation in perpetuity’ has always been the primary goal when it comes to the archaeological sites, cultural landscapes, museum collections, and historic structures that fall under NPS management. But there is a growing recognition that the changing climate will force reconsideration of this goal in certain cases. In 2014, then-NPS director Jonathan Jarvis wrote a policy memo to his staff which promised, ‘We will ensure that our management options recognize the potential for loss.’ This may seem like common sense, but it is a radical departure from policy as usual. Jarvis’s memo went on to suggest that ‘managers should consider choices such as documenting some resources and allowing them to fall into ruin rather than rebuilding after major storms.’

The strategy released in early January (two weeks before Donald Trump's inauguration) takes Jarvis’s guidance to heart, and suggests that while reasonable efforts will be made to protect resources and mitigate the effects of climate change, when this isn’t feasible managers may choose to document threatened features and prepare for their loss. Not everything can be saved, the strategy suggests, and sometimes it may be necessary to allow ‘environmental or other forces… to destroy or remove all or portions of the resource.’ In his 2014 memo, Jarvis justified this position by saying that ‘History will judge us for the choices we make, and we will take comfort in knowing that sometimes the hard choices are also the ones that are best for our resources, our parks, and our Nation.’ It’s not clear how this new approach is going to play out in practice. The strategy stresses that ‘decisions for loss must be made with appropriate consultation and compliance’—but there are as yet no clear guidelines for how to reconcile anticipated loss with the presumption of protection embedded in historic preservation legislation.

For a glimpse into how this policy might be implemented, one can look to New York Harbour, and the cluster of properties—many of them associated with military history and coastal defence—that make up the Gateway National Recreation Area. Gateway was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and in the wake of the storm the NPS carried out a vulnerability assessment which incorporated predictions of future sea-level rise and storm surge risk. A management plan based on the assessment offered three zoning options: preserve, stabilise, and ruin. In the ruins zone, historic structures and landscapes would be allowed to ‘decay naturally, returning to their component elements by the forces of nature.’ Although some measures are being taken to ensure public safety, otherwise ‘natural processes are allowed to occur unimpeded by management.’ (One chapter in my new book discusses a similar policy—dubbed ‘continued ruination’—at a site off the east coast of England.)

Deciding which resources to let go is not an easy process, however, and so far Gateway’s ruins zoning has been applied mostly to structures that are already in very poor condition. In this sense, the new ruins classification just formalises a policy of benign neglect that had been unofficial and unstated, by recommending that some of Gateway’s derelict gun batteries and military remnants be allowed to continue to decay. But the banding will be reviewed as conditions change, and as sea levels continue to rise future designation will likely take in other, more significant, structures.

One of the key messages in the new NPS cultural resources climate change strategy is about acknowledging the power of ‘climate stories’ to engage people in understanding change. When a decision has been made to recognise loss, interpretation of that change becomes critically important. In 2009—years before Sandy’s wakeup call—Gateway managers were already thinking about how they might stage an experiment in loss and storytelling at Battery Weed, a 19th-century fort guarding The Narrows at the entrance to New York Harbour. A report flagged up that the fortification was likely to face increasing inundation due to sea-level rise, and moving the structure to higher ground would be prohibitively expensive and logistically complicated. ‘Given the Battery’s sturdy construction,’ the report concluded, ‘it is also possible to leave it as is, and dedicate it as a monument to measure and teach sea level rise.’ Future visitors could view the fort from above, as the water rose within it, reflecting on a story of defence (from invading navies and sea water) and, eventually, graceful surrender.

‘Climate change is one of the great challenges of the 21st century,’ wrote Jarvis in his 2014 memo. ‘It is remaking our world and substantially influencing how we set priorities and make management decisions. The process of adaptation will not return us to the way things have been done before, but it will assist us in making choices in the face of uncertainty and change’. It is difficult to envisage a moment more racked by uncertainty and change than the current one, caught as we are in the political storm that began on January 20 and shows no sign of abating. It is probably safe to say that implementation of the new cultural resources climate change strategy is not high on the agenda for the new Republican administration. Jarvis retired as NPS director a few days before the strategy was published, and when President Trump gets around to appointing his successor he may well decide to punish the agency for its outspoken climate change advocacy and his lingering resentment over the inauguration crowd numbers squabble.

A new NPS director may decide to shelve the strategy altogether, but deciding not to recognise loss doesn’t mean that the loss won’t happen anyway—unrecognised and unplanned. The NPS has a deferred maintenance backlog of over $12 billion, the federal hiring freeze will hit already depleted staffing levels, and the prospect of promised tax cuts makes commitment of additional resources unlikely. The reality of pinched resources, compounded by Trump’s planned gutting of the regulatory framework, could create hundreds of new ruins zones for the wrong reasons, with loss happening not by intention but by attrition. For now, as the nation is held hostage to the ‘art of the deal’, it’s worth pausing to recognise the brave and hopeful move that the NPS has taken towards learning the art of losing—as a process of attentive and informed adaptation. As the strategy points out, ‘Climate change is the heritage of the future,’ and pretending it’s not happening misses an opportunity to tell a story that may help us face that future and learn to live with the changes it will bring.


Caitlin DeSilvey is author of Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving; coauthor of Visible Mending; and coeditor of Anticipatory History. She is associate professor of cultural geography at the University of Exeter. She is currently a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in Olso, Norway.

"Curated Decay offers a sophisticated and novel account of sites that challenge the current paradigm of conservation. It also proposes a wealth of concepts by which the curation of such sites may be rethought in terms of ecological culture. The writing is fresh, direct and exciting and carries the reader along effortlessly."
—Amanda Boetzkes, University of Guelph

"Curated Decay is wondrously marvelous—a brilliant and beautiful exploration of how we can and might engage with the ultimately evanescent companions (landscapes, buildings, objects) that accompany our own evanescent lives. Caitlin DeSilvey sets her deeply thoughtful meditations on our ambivalent interactions with the transient things we cherish in evocative discourses about a dozen hauntingly depicted diverse threatened and beleaguered locales, from Montana to Cornwall to Scotland and the Ruhr. These illustrative stories are couched in a narrative of personal travel and discovery that is a continual joy to read, fresh, witty, and jargon-free."
—David Lowenthal, University College London