Saturday, May 9, 2015


Edward Burtynsky's paintings of quarries: 
images of anthroturbation or scarring of the earth

I went to the conference "Approaching the Anthropocene: Perspectives from the Humanities and Fine Arts" at UC Santa Barbara. We were artists, writers, scholars of art and literature, anthropologists, economists, activists, filmmakers, philosophers. We came to find out what sorts of things the others were saying about the end of the world. Here are some of those things:

very small

Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint lead workshops on fermentation as part of their Edible Ecologies project. Here is a world you can eat and it becomes you and you become it: a "collaborative hack," Nadir says, between fruits, vegetables, microbes, and humans.

very large
Mishka Henner works with satellite photos of industrial farms. He alters the colors for emphasis, but doesn't change anything else. The "waste lagoon" pictured here is not quite that green, but it is a waste lagoon. Henner's work was shown in Erin E. Wiegand's talk “Visualizing the Factory Farm: Undercover Video, Activist Drones, and Satellite Art.”

very invisible
The Invisible-5 project is an audio tour that uses oral histories to document the struggle for environmental justice along Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In her talk on the project, Sarah Jane Pinkerton explained that the downloadable audio tour might tell you, for example, that the fog you're driving through is made of pesticides.

The problem of invisibility came up in several talks, such as Erin Wiegand's, mentioned above, and Julie Koppel Maldonado's presentation "Resisting the Forces of the Anthropocene: The Transformation of Places, Communities, and Lifeways." Like the creators of Invisible-5, Maldonado collects oral histories, this time in tribal communities in coastal Louisiana whose land, once it's under water--that is, once it's invisible--becomes the property of the state.

very absent

Yukihisa Isobe has marked the old course of the Shinano River with yellow flags, showing how it's been altered by dams and other human interventions. This installation, called "Where Has the River Gone?", was discussed in Brad Monsma's talk "Distributed Agency and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale."

very slow

It's important to note that the principle behind the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is satoyama: humans are part of nature. The event offers an "absolutely inefficient" approach to art--works are spread out rather than centralized, and emphasize the relationship between humans and the landscape in deep time.

very absent and also present

Bryan Rasmussen's paper "Icons of Loss: Hiroshi Sugimoto's Art of the Anthropocene" discussed Sugimoto's arresting and eerie photographs of museum dioramas. How the colorful, fake, 3D diorama becomes at once more ghostly and more immediate when reproduced as a black-and-white photograph.

very dead and also alive

In her talk "Doing Philosophy: Art as Ethical Testing Ground for the Anthropocene," Kayla Anderson argued that while some artists express awareness of the Anthropocene with what she calls "destructive narratives," which simulate action, others adopt "constructive narratives," which stimulate thinking. Among the latter is Jae Rhim Lee, whose Mushroom Death Suit is pictured here. Anderson was on the same panel as Nadir and Peppermint, and the Mushroom Death Suit, like the Edible Ecologies project, could be called a collaborative hack between the human and the nonhuman. Basically, a death hack. There was a relaxed, chummy attitude toward death at this conference. "When you see solutions in our work, it's a poetic gesture," Nadir said. "We actually don't think we're going to survive."

There was also a lot of discussion about thinking and doing and what art is for. At one point Anderson used the term "thinktivist." The role of art in the Anthropocene, she said, is to conduct experiments, raise questions, and "provoke dark discussions" in order to enliven critical thinking. Leila Nadir quoted Ricardo Dominguez on the difference between activism and art: that activism tends to break the law, while art creates a disturbance in the law. It's the difference between the effective and the affective, Dominguez says in this completely amazing interview conducted by Nadir in 2012. 

I leave you with this still from Nadir and Peppermint's video project "Late Anthropocene." In their talk it had the subtitle "A Geologic Feeling." This describes our state when we left the conference--mine, anyway. Very geologic. Very feeling.

Monday, May 4, 2015

how not to be phony

I read this story in an essay by Andre Dubus ("A Hemingway Story," 1999) and I thought it was great. This happened in the sixties. Dubus was Vonnegut's neighbor, and one day Vonnegut was going to pick Ralph Ellison up at the airport and asked Dubus if he wanted to go along. Of course Dubus said yes. When he got in the car, he noticed a copy of Invisible Man lying on the front seat.

"Are you going to leave the book there?" he asked. And Vonnegut said: "I'm teaching it. I thought it'd be phony to take it out of the car."

I love that! The way Vonnegut is so sensitive to phoniness that he would rather look phony by leaving the book in the car than be phony by taking it out.

The whole story is interesting actually. They go to the airport, and they're wondering how they're going to recognize Ellison, when they realize he'll probably be the only black person on the plane. And he is. He couldn't be phony about that if he tried. And of course that's what Invisible Man is about--the hypervisibility of blackness, and how it acts as a screen, an erasure, totally phony.

Apparently Ellison's wife didn't like to fly. She came by train. So after hanging out and having a few drinks and quoting Hemingway, Vonnegut and Dubus settle Ellison in his room and get ready to pick up Mrs. Ellison. "How will we recognize her?" Vonnegut asks.

Ellison says his wife is wearing a gray dress and carrying a beige raincoat. And then he smiles and adds: "And she's colored."

Another example of how not to be phony.

(I still wonder how Fanny Ellison felt about the whole situation, and whether she thought these guys were phony or not.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

ex machina, pharmacopornographia

I'm reading Testo Junkie, an amazing theory book/diary by Beatriz Preciado (Paul B. Preciado). Have you seen Ex Machina? It is exactly about what Preciado calls the pharmacopornographic era, that is, the era we're living in. Look:

"In this period of the body's technomanagement, the pharmocopornographic industry synthesizes and defines a specific mode of production and consumption, a masturbatory temporization of life, a virtual and hallucinogenic aesthetic of the living object, an architecture that transforms inner space into exteriority and the city into interiority and 'junkspace' by means of mechanisms of immediate auto-surveillance and ultra rapid diffusion of information, a continuous mode of desiring and resisting, of consuming and destroying, of evolution and self-destruction."

This paragraph is a distillation of Ex Machina. Almost too perfect. Technomanagement of the body (downloads, upgrades). Pharmacopornography (the soft brain & soft body of Nathan's desire), masturbatory temporization of life (NATHAN'S ENTIRE EXISTENCE), virtual & hallucinogenic aesthetic of the living object (AVA), architecture (Nathan's house! inner space as workspace), the city as interiority (Ava's dream! her entire interiority is the city, for her to have an inner life is to stand on a street corner) (also JUNKSPACE, read the essay linked above, here is a line from it: "Junkspace features the office as the urban home, a meeting-boudoir: desks become sculptures, the workfloor is lit by intimate downlights," okay, if we remove the word urban this is a perfect description of Nathan's house). IMMEDIATE AUTO-SURVEILLANCE: Nathan's vids of himself with his dolls. Ultra rapid diffusion of information: the "blue book" search engine, also Ava's brain. Desiring, resisting, consuming, destroying, evolution, self-destruction: every moment of the film is at least one of these.

More Preciado that is also exactly Ex Machina:

"Pharmacopornographic capitalism is ushering in a new era in which the most interesting kind of commerce is the production of the species as species, the production of its mind and its body, its desires and its affects. Contemporary biocapitalism at the same time produces and destroys the species."

And also:

"Pharmacopornographic biocapitalism does not produce things. It produces movable ideas, living organs, symbols, desires, chemical reactions, and affects. In the fields of biotechnology and pornocommunication, there are no objects to produce; it's a matter of inventing a subject and producing it on a global scale."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

poetry is a way of life

Poetry is a way of life, not a career. A career means you solicit the powerful and the famous. A way of life means you live where you are with the people around you. A career means you become an authority. A way of life means you stay a student, even if you teach for a living. A career means your life increasingly comes from your art. A way of life means your art continues to arise from your life. Careerism feeds off of the theoretical, the fancified, the complicated, the coded, and the overwrought; all forms of psychological cowardice. A way of life is nourished by the practical, the unadorned, the complex, and a direct approach to the mysterious.

                                ~ Marvin Bell, "Homage to the Runner: Bloody Brain Work" (1993)

Monday, April 13, 2015


I've been reading Hélène Cixous' collection Coming to Writing and Other Essays & I'm sort of taken with the idea of "decanting" from the introduction by Susan Rubin Suleiman. Suleiman is discussing H.C.'s concerns (she calls her H.C.)--writing, exile, foreignness, loss, death, gender. And she says H.C. has been working on these ideas her whole life, "but they have become, over time, by dint of repetition and fidelity, reworked, refined, at once complicated and decanted--I would be tempted to say 'purified,' were that word not so heavily overlaid with spiritualist and antimaterialist connotations, many of which I do not accept."

"Decanted"--I love that.

The collection contains the great essay "The Last Painter," in which H.C. is amazed by painters, especially Monet with his repetitions. More than thirty paintings of Rouen Cathedral. And she quotes one of Monet's letters: "my sleep was filled with nightmares:  the cathedral fell down on top of me, it appeared either blue, pink or yellow."

She also refers to Genet's writings on Rembrandt and the idea of "gilding," which also involves burning, so another process from the chemistry lab, like decanting. "[T]he trajectory of Rembrandt's works began by gilding, by covering over with gold, and then by burning the gold, consuming it, to attain the gold-ash with which the last paintings are painted."

Do you repeat yourself? Obsess over certain subjects? Did you just paint the same cathedral 30 times? Maybe you're decanting, or burning off your gold.

"It is only at the end of a superhuman human-going-to-the-depths-of-the-fathoming-of-life-and-back that one will be able to cease gilding everything," writes H.C. "And then one can begin to adore."

She also quotes the painter Hokusai, who drew over 200 lions. "I continue to draw hoping for a peaceful day."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

i lost my

I lost my interest in clubs. I lost my desire to move with a pack. I lost my fake smile. I lost my "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours."

I lost my tolerance for writing that is almost good or might be good if you read it quickly or while listening to music. Sorry but I lost my ability to read this stupid book. I lost my willingness to waste another second.

I lost my patience. I lost the energy it takes to forge an identity out of the words I have. Just take what's here or go.

Some of these lost things will return in time. Others will not.

Remembering Said S. Samatar: Death Prevents You from Thinking

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


What can I say in addition to what I've already said? We clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.

A friend writes to me that Ben Okri's Guardian piece may have been "a cry for help." Yes, perhaps. A cry to be read otherwise, to become something other than artifact. Artifact, with its archaeological connotations: an object indicating a world that has disappeared. A thing that means "something is missing." Absence. Lack. I've said before that this is how African literature is received globally, as the literature of nothing. This process is not random. An artifact is "something created by humans for a practical purpose." The literature of nothing is created for the practical purpose of keeping black literature and thought in the realm of zero.

I think this has to be fought everywhere. Blogs, universities, magazines, your school, your street.

The literature of nothing is not created by writers. This zero of a literature arises when the work is read in a particular deadening way, when it's reduced to certain desired content (war, poverty, etc.) and kept strictly within that boundary. There is a reason that it is easy to read War and Peace and say well, yes, it's about war, but really it's about character! and not so easy to say the same thing about Half of a Yellow Sun, not easy to say this is a love story, this is a story about passion.

There are different ways of reading. We learn them, repeat them, pass them on. We learn to read Tolstoy for character. We learn to read Adichie for the history of the Biafran War.

Some people are mad at me for blaming readers. "How dare you!" But well, I do, I blame the professional readers most of all, the creators of study guides and reading group guides and guides for teachers, the summarizers, the marketers, the critics. I blame them, and I wish I could just stop, and say, who cares? After all, they touch so little. This subset of black and African literature we're arguing about--the literature of nothing--this literature that is nothing'd out of existence--it's only that tiny amount, that handful of books, that gets promoted to a wide, Western-dominated audience, that gets reviewed in places like the Guardian. Who cares?

But I do care, because to be made nothing in a global context, to be the nothing of the literary world: this is to be made less human.

It's when you're exhausted by these debates that you sense the bitter vitality of Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence (Le Devoir de violence), a book crammed with overwhelming subjects, conquest, slavery, mass murder, a book that, far from downplaying these subjects, rushes at them, seizes at them, devours them. How I hated this book the first time I read it! I thought it was horrible. Now I find it more alive than most other books--rich, confrontational, dazzling. It's a book without piety, a book that observes no niceties of any kind, a book that holds nothing back, that attacks, cheats, and steals. What is the future of such a book? Will it endure? And how? I think of Ouologuem's sneering send-up of the artifact-collecting anthropologist "Schrobenius," a figure of bumbling power, both duped and duping, and I think of the cover of the novel, in French and in English, yes, there it is, the artifact.