June 23rd, 2011 · · permalink
The history, it should go without saying, of “Indian Affairs” (as conceived by the US Government) in America is unconscionable to a degree almost impossible to overstate. One could expend a lot—or all— of one’s energy merely describing it without completely falling apart at the recognition of what’s happened, what’s not happened, what happens now. It gets visceral, and quick. Especially tempting, and, in some (not all!) cases and modes, especially important, is for people of Euro-American (i.e., white) ancestry to revel in the guilt of recognizing the systemic failure of their/our people to maintain some shred of dignified foresight, to have heard some lone, wild voice in there screaming—whispering, even—prevent, prevent this! But our challenge, our responsibility, today is different: no longer prevention, but reparation. However, we’ve got to confront the actual conditions of indigenous/non-indigenous relations in order to carve any justice out of the mess. This requires some really difficult questions about what, now, after the sickening procession of wanton genocidal colonialism, indigeneity really is. What Americanness is. Where do they intersect? Where do they depart from one another? The maintenance of the white guilt complex has lost its function: it was necessary for the development of the exigence, but now it’s stagnating. In The Rediscovery of America, a short book really worth picking up, Barry Lopez says this:
Looking back . . . we can take the measure of the horror and assert that we will not be bound by it. We can say, yes, this happened, and we are ashamed. We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else in the world.
How to “mean something else in the world” is the question. There are some new ripples in the stagnant pool, though, that give me hope. Among them are writers like David Treuer, whose novel The Translation of Dr Apelles appears in my dissertation, and a new movement called “Honor the Treaties” by Shepard Fairey (famous for the tri-color HOPE posters during the 2008 Obama campaign) and photographer Aaron Huey, who has spent a lot of time on the infamously impoverished Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Huey recently gave a TED speech that’s worth watching (notice how he, too, breaks down under the pain of recognition): Watch it→here. It really is remarkable.
I have a couple beeves, though, in this. One: Huey ends his speech with an impassioned plea to “Honor the treaties. Give back the Black Hills. It’s not your business what they do with them.” It’s that last part that gets me. I agree: the Black Hills should “belong” to the Lakota. But is it really “not ‘our’ business” what “they” do with them? It’s this kind of “give it back” mentality that’s sticky, as though some kind of repayment, like discrete funds transferred from one account to another, is going to accomplish the kind of work necessary for justice. In a sense, it is “our” business. But the “we” who owns that “our” needs to be more carefully defined, as does the “they” to whom the land is to belong. That’s the crux. In a way, it’s too late (it’s tragic, yes, it’s utterly, soul-crushingly, unbearably tragic) to swap material or land-ownership for national, ethical, moral failures of this scale. We have to change the structure of repayment.
Speaking of land and belonging, my second beef is with one of Fairey’s posters. The Honor the Treaties website brilliantly asks people to download high quality (and lovely) poster images by Fairey and post them in their town, on telephone poles, bulletin boards, buildings, etc. Get it going. But this one bugs me:
The text here draws from the spurious “speech” by Chief Seattle—who never said these words. Rather, they were written by a somewhat unwitting screenwriter in Texas, Ted Perry, in 1970, for a film on ecology commissioned by the Southern Baptist Film and Television Commission, and done up even fancier by children’s book author Susan Jeffers in Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. There is some great scholarship on the phenomenon, notably two articles in American Indian Quarterly by Denise Low and Crisca Bierwert, and Timothy Egan wrote a pretty good run-down in a 1992 issue of The New York Times.
These are the things we need to be more careful with if the exchange on which we all depend for going forward, for building a constantly new culture, is to be just. The use of Jeffers-qua-Seattle’s (or is it Seattle-qua-Jeffers’?) words on the poster only demonstrates how deep the mole has burrowed.
Yes, absolutely, we do belong to the land. The notion of property that the poster and Jeffers and whoever else reject by raising that rallying cry is fraught with a terrifying and destructive freight. That’s why we can’t simply “give it back” on the same terms. At this point, in this configuration, we all have to belong to the land.
June 19th, 2011 · · permalink
I was born in Forest City, Iowa. As my ecological consciousness has developed—beginning with my Uncle Pete’s introduction to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota in 2000—I’ve grown fond of that strange coincidence, that paradox: I love the ecology of the city; I love the ecology of the woods. All this to say that I’m jealous that Arcade Fire came up first with what would have been a great title for this blog: The Wilderness Downtown. And so this is an occasion (!) to share a website a friend on facebook turned me towards today: The Wilderness Downtown, a stunning immersive video/mapping project by Chris Milk and Google that sets the nostalgia of growing up “in place” in tension with the experience of expanding human habitation and the social and environmental alienation it can produce (arguably the theme, of course, of AF’s album The Suburbs, from which come the lyrics at hand).
Unfortunately (for me), I grew up in a dark place where google maps don’t go (but Winnebago RVs do). It’s worth your while, even if nostalgia is always a little (or a lot) dangerous: http://www.thewildernessdowntown.com/. Seems it’s best viewed with Chrome, but I haven’t tried other browsers.
This is what you get of my hometown:
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June 19th, 2011 · · permalink
There’s a hell (a Blakean hell?) of a lot on both the back & front burners at the moment. At this point (is it a point, really?) in my “career,” I feel like I live in a suffocating world of constant potential. That elusive feeling of kinesis—of motion, of doing something, not just reading it and writing it for that strange coterie (Whitman’s pissed already; he should be) of readers called the dissertation committee—remains, well, elusive. This is my fault, really. I could be “doing” a lot more. I could be. I could be. . .
In the offing, then, is my summer course at UW—an intermediate expository writing course I’ve entitled “The Environment of Democracy”—in which students will examine the relationship between political environments and physical ones, as well as those in which writing “happens”: cultural (?) environments. But then there’s also that pesky “THE” environment—the one we tend to mean to refer to that vast “place” our species shares with everything, everyone else. I’m planning (provided the administrative hoops aren’t too annoying) on having each of my students prepare a guest blog post here on the fledgling Occasions of Wildness. A fine occasion for a little wildness, I think. So look for those here.
The other thing is the upcoming ASLE conference in Bloomington, IN. I’ll be presenting a paper called “‘Might be going to have lived’: Radical Otherness in Le Guin’s Always Coming Home“. Always Coming Home, Le Guin’s only full-length experimental utopia (1985), is a curious text. Not a novel, or, even, a straight narrative, but a fictional anthropology, a sort of archaeology of the future, set in a post-cataclysmic Northern California (somewhereabouts present-day Napa valley: future-yuppie-hippies!). The place is populated by loosely anarchic bands of human people who, for the most part, live in what Lévi-Strauss called “cold” societies: low-tech, small-community, slow-ish pace of life. But these people abide severe genetic damage caused by the toxic residuum of our “military-industrial era”: the ground & groundwater, etc., are contaminated with heavy pollutants and the people have emerged out of an inexplicably history-less decimation of earth’s human population to inhabit the not-quite-wasted lands of the future. Meanwhile, computers (computers?) have grown their own, self-sufficient, self-replicating, self-evolving network that extends both across the planet (which we never see) and into inter-planetary and maybe inter-stellar space. It, “The City of Mind” (or Yaivkach in the Kesh language), exists only to continually amass “knowledge” of the cosmos. The people can interact with it, and they do, but “it” has no desire to control or interfere with their way of life; it merely expands its “knowledge” and self-directedly evolves its capacity to do so. For all this, she (or her future persona, Pandora) insists that the people, the Kesh, have managed (out of necessity) to forge a graceful, attentive, whole life-way, despite their genetic debilitations: a life-way, implicitly, that we ought to think about before we “have to.” But who, ultimately, are “we” in this? I want to explore a bunch of features of the text, oriented around Le Guin’s (dangerous) decision to place that future in the hands of what might be a new genetic sub-species, a new evolution of H. sapiens (evolution doesn’t always mean “getting better,” after all). What’s troubling is that, unlike most utopias of the kind (think Bellamy’s Looking Backward or Morris’s News from Nowhere), the utopian future isn’t inhabited by a new, socially improved version of “us,” but another incarnation of our species for which we’re precluded for taking responsibility—at least in that way. Or is it this one?
My friend Jonathan posed the suggestive point that the division between the “cold” society of the Kesh and the autonomous City of Mind—ne’er the twain shall interfere—raises some questions about the relationship between “culture” and “knowledge,” especially as the former is “felt,” perhaps, and the latter “scientific.” More to think about that.
I’m really looking forward to the conference, even while I carry around some peculiar suspicions of the almost-too-diverse set of interests ASLE represents.
June 15th, 2011 · · permalink
May as well start in the toilet. Here is the urinal at Rob Roy, downtown Seattle. That fruit, there, well, it ain’t synthetic, that’s nice. But could it feed somebody? Well, yes. But is it gonna? Probably not (it would likely garnish a drink). Instead, it’ll feed the aesthetic appetite of the cocktail-affluent. And if it doesn’t do that, it will cover the smell of their (my, your) wastewater.
June 8th, 2011 · · permalink
Despite my erstwhile desire to major in computer science in college (this was before I ever took a poetry course. Whoops!), I’ve never blogged. So here at the start—I hope—of something like a professorial career, in the context of a climatic shift in academic publishing, I’ll give it a go. Plus, I have a few things to say about the state, concerns, and direction of ecocriticism.
The blog is named, for now, after my dissertation, “Occasions of Wildness: Literature, Simultaneity, and Habitation.”
Begin, then, with this:
. . . for having been brought this far by nature I have been
brought out of nature
and nothing here shows me the image of myself:
~A. R. Ammons, “For Harold Bloom”