Wednesday, June 21, 2017
BY VIDAR SUNDSTØL
In the old days in Norway—up until the end of the 19th century—the night between the 23rd and 24th of June was the night to harvest any kind of plants that were supposed to hold healing or magical powers. At the same time it was a dangerous night to be wandering around the woods and the fields, since the gateway to the other world was believed to be open, thus making us accessible to an army of unknown beings: some visible, some not.
This duality is perhaps what characterizes the Norwegian Midsummer night more than anything else. The promise of something wonderful, mixed with the threat of horrors unknown.
It was said that if a girl picked seven different kinds of wildflowers on this particular night, then went to bed with the flowers under her pillow, she would dream of her future husband. But then again, who could know whether the dream wasn't just a trick being played by a creature that had slipped through the gateway and now lusted for her?
These beings—imagined or not—were possibly transformed versions of gods and demonlike figures from the pre-Christian era, when the landscapes of Norway were home to a plethora of spiritual beings of whom we know very little today. It's the same hills, the same rivers, creeks, and boulders now as then, but it seems as if it has all stopped speaking to us the way it did to our ancestors.
But then again, perhaps it's all in the eye of the beholder. Or the ear of the listener. Perhaps the landscapes never stopped speaking, it's just that we can't hear them anymore. If that is the case, it means we could be surrounded by whispers and cries without even knowing it. Eyes may glare at us, but we are unable to look back at them. We are like a blind person walking through a room full of monsters, feeling completely safe.
It could be that this is the case. And it could be that Midsummer night is the night when we get our vision back. But we might not like what we see.
In the forthcoming (Fall 2017) The Devil's Wedding Ring, the protagonist—a Norwegian who returns to the old country after many years in the US—is unwillingly sucked into this old and half-forgotten world of superstition and folk beliefs. He realizes too late that these things are not to be trifled with.
The full power of Midsummer is unleashed deep in the ancient woodlands.
RELATED: This video was shot at Eidsborg stave church, where a substantial part of The Devil's Wedding Ring takes place. It shows a reenactment of the medieval ritual connected with the figure of St. Nicholas (locally known as Nikuls). This ritual was carried out every midsummer night for at least six hundred years, and is believed to have roots back to a much older pagan ritual that may have taken place on the same site.
St.Nikuls from Videoarkivet on Vimeo.
The Land of Dreams, the first volume of his acclaimed Minnesota trilogy, published in the United States by the University of Minnesota Press. The other two volumes are Only the Dead and The Ravens. Sundstøl has lived in the United States and Egypt, and now resides with his family in Telemark, the setting for The Devil’s Wedding Ring.
"An intelligent and thoughtful mystery about a man returning to his home country to learn the truth about a friend’s death, and in doing so, he must face ghosts of his own. This pitch-perfect elegy makes for compelling reading, the kind of work that must be savored."
—Allen Eskens, author of The Life We Bury
"Vidar Sundstøl's novels deserve all the praise they have garnered."
Thursday, June 15, 2017
It is not to be expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.
—Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending
BY JULIAN YATES
University of Delaware
Ending books (just like lives), good, bad, or indifferent, is difficult. Eschatology beckons. Come the end, at the moment of the letting go, there’s always an urge to keep writing and to promise more than you should. Surely all those words stacked up behind you mean something. What has all this been for? It’s a moment of pure ideology (which is to say it’s real or anticipates the reality that the words might make).
Different writers handle the problem in different ways. Some don’t handle it at all. One of my favorites is Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1966), whose opening sentence seeks to inoculate the book against the expectation that the words that follow will matter, which, of course, only makes them matter more. Critics are not poets. They don’t actually help. Or, better yet, they help sort out the help poets offer. I am not sure that Kermode or his slippery negative analogy really believes this. Critics may not make sense of lives or the world but the sense they attempt to make still constitutes a “feat” even if it is “lesser” than that to which poets are supposedly bound. The difference maintained here between poiesis (making) and critique (reading, receiving, responding, but only breaking when you have to) entails a sweet evasion to which, like Kermode, part of me tends to cling. What Kermode describes is really a circuit of making and unmaking, all part of the process of somehow making the sense you feel, feel adequate. Kermode’s lines are not immodest even if they play, in part, as a modesty topos, and, in fact, suggest that you may be forgiven for thinking critics poets and poets, critics. Best to be on your guard at endings and beginnings. Do your best to be skeptical and completely naïve—preferably in the same gesture.
In my case, come the end, I was haunted by a sentence that I wanted to write, indeed, I did write, several times, but then, in every iteration, immediately deleted. The cadence was wrong, the sentence at once too little and too much. I shall write that sentence one last time at the end of this post. Allow me to explain.
Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression is an attempt to craft scripts for humanities-based work (aka reading and writing) that simply take it as read that “what we call ‘humanity derives … from a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies.’” How do we read and write now if we just assume that all the texts, all the artifacts we study, come crowded with forms of writing or coding otherwise than human, traces that our own acts erase, obliterate, but also render sensible, knowable, by taking so many others as a substrate for our own acts of inscription. Throughout the book, I assume that our archives and stories are marked by animal, plant, fungal, microbial viral, mineral, or chemical actors. This fundamental shift in what counts as description and reading designates the stakes to the book’s subtitle—“a multispecies impression.” Human forms of writing or coding routinely cohabit with forms of writing and coding otherwise than human that contribute to, constrain, and interrupt the kinds of sense we make.
Methodologically, then, asserting the interspecies basis or multispecies dependency of our lives no longer counts as much of a revelation, output, or thesis. On the contrary, the multispecies basis to our lives functions as a straightforward given or input that requires us to re-describe our objects. I found, for example, that it frequently makes better sense to understand supposedly human conflicts as contests between rival multispecies groups of human, animal, and plant actors. Different kinds of “writing” or coding face off in order to build or occupy different kinds of worlds. And those worlds are built and maintained by differing configurations or matter-metaphors that undergird categories such as “human,” “plant,” “animal,” parceling out and strategically confusing them in the process. I organized the book with an eye to different scales of being or forms of finitude keyed to animal presences (sheep), plants (oranges), and fungi (yeast). But what took me by surprise was the way the categories blurred. Modeled as “stock” sheep morphed into plants and back. By their recruitment of animal actors as a dispersal strategy, oranges grew legs and beaks, hands and feet, went mobile. The airy bubble of yeast’s fermentation offered itself as an icon of what counts for us as the solidity or stability of an infrastructure. The story I was telling became a series of anthropo-zoo-geneses—the co-making of different beings. Problem was that this altered mode of description didn’t seem to offer much more. There did not seem anything particularly progressive or affirmative about a multispecies account or modeling—at least not as such. The scripts I was crafting were just that: scripts. At best, they were entirely neutral.
Come book’s end, the best I thought I could do was have the thing swallow its own tail. Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast begins with a chapter titled “Impression,” which establishes a mode of reading that subsequent chapters enlarge. As the chapters progress, I try to acknowledge the way the arrival of a new plant, animal, or fungal actor (who in truth was there all along) enables certain questions (inscribes) and disables others (erases). Best, then, not to end by kicking over the traces with a set of proclamations about the progressive cast to multispecies modeling. Best, instead, to own up to the neutrality of this word impression, and acknowledge the way impression cohabits with and comes funded by the erasure of other forms of writing and being, human and otherwise. Come the end of the book, all I had to offer was this sense of entanglement, of gain and loss. The book ends with the figure of “an empty page or the flicker of a blank screen,” the necessary fact of my words becoming a surface for someone or something else to “write” on or with. The book ends not with a promise but with an assertion that may or may not hold promise, that “the future, if there is to be one, requires us to imagine another order of world in common, a world that owns its existence as a series of competing, sometimes complementary, sometimes violent, sometimes sustaining multispecies impressions.” That’s the sense my ending sought to make. (I also refuse to show you a painting—but that’s a different story).
The sentence that came and went, went and came, and comes back now, one last time, was this: “Something like a politics might begin here.”
A friend tells me, blithely, in the way that friends can, that I meant “praxis.” I think she’s wrong. I think I just don’t quite know what this thing that is “like a politics” but which knows no polis is yet. Of course, perhaps, that’s what she means by "praxis."
Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression and Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance. Yates is professor of English and material culture studies at the University of Delaware.
"Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast promises—and delivers—everything. A microcosmos, it treats sheep, plants, microbes, and Benjamin Franklin’s bread rolls, ranging from pastoral poetry to Philip K. Dick. At every turn, Julian Yates surprised and delighted me. This volume's multimodal capaciousness, equally adept in historiographical, philosophical, biographical, and even genetic frameworks, should entice anyone feeling the slightest temptation towards posthuman and ecological cultural studies."—Karl Steel, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
BY SHIRI PASTERNAK
Assistant professor, School for the Study of Canada at Trent University
If Canadians want to understand why some First Nations are sitting out the Canada 150 celebrations, they need look no further than to fifteen community members who took an eight-hour drive from Barriere Lake in Quebec to Toronto on Thursday.
The Algonquins attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Copper One mining company to let them know there will be no mining on their territory. They have repeatedly, unequivocally, over the course of six years, notified Copper One that they intend to protect the headwaters of the powerful Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers and the affected lifeworlds of ecosystems and communities downstream.
They were not even permitted to read a statement at the AGM. They were bullied, assaulted, threatened with arrest by police, accused of trespassing, and met with a thick line of “legal counsel” and security blocking their entrance into the meeting. The wonder of it all was the spirit of determination that remained undiminished and even galvanized by Barriere Lake in the face of the junior mining company’s obviously threatened response.
Barriere Lake have witnessed the anguish of other communities whose lands have been affected by mining, including the Secwepemc since the Mount Polley disaster who witnessed the largest tailing pond spill in Canadian history poison hundreds of river systems in their interior BC territory a few years ago.
Prime Minister Trudeau rode a wave of Indigenous support into power, promising for one thing to implement the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Canada is a signatory. UNDRIP protects Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent. But these promises have unspooled in a familiar way.
Confederation was a non-event for Indigenous people. They were not in the room when it was signed and they were not invited into the discussion. They are only included in brief mention under the federal head of power in the jurisdictional divisions of power between the federal and provincial governments.
But Canada’s assertion of sovereignty did not extinguish Indigenous peoples’ responsibility to the lands they had been occupying for thousands of years, nor their structures of governance, nor their decision-making authority that did not derive from a foreign power, but from the responsibilities passed down for generations from their ancestors.
The Algonquins have an encyclopedic knowledge of their territory. Their forest management includes food, beverage, medicine, utility, craftwork, ritual, ceremony, and commercial uses, and involves the use of mammals, birds, insects, inanimate objects, fish, flora, and fauna. For example, they know which trees are good for snowshoes and baskets, which fish make the best glue, which insects indicate the best time to hunt sturgeon along the lakeshore. At least 104 plants have been used by the Algonquins for medicine that treats everything from kidney and urinary ailments, including medicines specifically for women to deal with menstruation and childbirth, as well as for treating cancer and diabetes. It is this knowledge, the Algonquins maintain, and their protection of it, that is the source of their jurisdiction.
In 1991, Barriere Lake signed an agreement with Canada and Quebec to co-manage resource use on their lands. Despite being lauded by the United Nations as a trailblazing achievement, both colonial governments failed to honour it. Modeled after a three-figure wampum exchanged between the Algonquins, the French, and the English around 1760, the Trilateral Agreement turned out to be another link in a chain of dishonoured agreements.
Barriere Lake’s vision of co-existence offers a solution to the problem of conflicting Indigenous and Canadian laws. But instead, the governments maligned the community and squirmed out of their obligations. The worst of this treatment involved the destruction of Barriere Lake’s customary governance system in 2010 by ministerial authority of an archaic clause of the Indian Act that had rarely been exercised in almost one hundred years.
On July 1, what will Canadians be celebrating? To live here proudly, we need to respect the Indigenous governance structures that are tied profoundly to the future viability of these lands.
This piece originally appeared on The Media Co-op.
Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake against the State. She is assistant professor in the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University. She has held postdoctoral fellowships at the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and at Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies.