Grappling with the trouble & in the wake

In March, we took the ferry from Bellingham, Washington, to Haines, Alaska. Getting to Haines was the last link in a chain of intense, nourishing, lovely time with friends – a wonderful and a sad thing about this driving trip that we’ve been on from Ottawa looping around the continent is seeing the distribution of friends across the continent. Wonderful to see people, tragic to only have hours with people it would be nice to live near for years. The friends we stayed with in Bellingham talked about the ferry ride as being like a spaceship from the continental US to Alaska, and it is like that – a strange capsule that was supposed to retire twenty years ago but is still doing this long run up the coast, domestic animals unhappily in the hold with the cars, people in various stages of boredom in the main decks. Because it was early March, it was still very wintry and most of the people on the boat were not tourists – they were moving to Alaska, or going home, or going to visit people. I wondered how many of them were taking the ferry because they needed to have a car and had DUIs barring them from driving through Canada.

It was cold on the deck of the ferry, and there was no internet, and so I sat in the observation lounge mostly and book-glutted myself, reading one a day. I read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure, and Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. This was tremendously nourishing time; I felt as though I was growing new dendrites and new heart muscles. I spent a lot of time staring out the window, watching the water and the snow and the mountains pass by and trying to open myself to insights that felt – feel – beyond the near edge of my capacity to grasp them. I know that all of them will continue to feel that way for me for a long while. I’m on sabbatical right now, and just starting to come out of a kind of long tiredness at the end of nine years of teaching full time capped by writing a book while also trying to do a separate research project. I spent the early part of the winter as a research associate at UCSC, which mostly meant that I had an excuse to hang around and listen to smart people talk about things, and also that I spent a lot of time driving between Berkeley, where I was mostly living, and Santa Cruz, in heavy rain. It’s been a drought in California roughly since I left after grad school, and this winter was the rainiest it’s been in years. The soil was unused to taking in water, couldn’t do it quickly, and there kept being mudslides and floods. I felt a bit like northern California after years of drought, reading these books.

They each feel almost overwhelmingly generous, complex, unstinting, clear-eyed, warm, unflinching. They follow things through to their ends and don’t take excuses, but they are also somehow very forgiving and they hold space for fucking up and still carrying on. They are each intimate, personal books that are somehow not at all self-involved. This isn’t a book review, but there is something I want to say about reading these three books together.

Sharpe’s book starts with deaths, close family members dying in quick succession (sitting at a wake); it begins with racism, institutional racism and slavery and forced movement (the wake of a slave ship); it begins with consciousness, and getting woke. It approaches the “unfinished project of emancipation” (5). Sharpe says

In this work, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, I want to think “the wake” as a problem of and for thought. I want to think “care” as a problem for thought. I want to think care in the wake as a problem for thinking and of and for Black non/being in the world. Put another way, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is a work that insists and performs that thinking needs care (“all thought is Black thought”) and that thinking and care need to stay in the wake. (5)

This idea that all thought is Black thought is a reference to Jared Sexton refracting Lewis Gordon’s provocation about what good critical thought might be.

Sharpe says

I’ve been trying to articulate a method of encountering a past that is not past. A method along the lines of a sitting with, a gathering, and a tracking of phenomena that disproportionately and devastatingly affect Black peoples any and everywhere we are. I’ve been thinking of this gathering, this collecting and reading toward a new analytic, as the wake and wake work, and I am interested in plotting, mapping, and collecting the archives of the everyday of Black immanent and imminent death, and in tracking the ways we resist, rupture, and disrupt that immanence and imminence aesthetically and materially. (13)

Recognizing that gathering and archiving, viewing and witnessing, that repeating the “quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people” (116-117) doesn’t slow the violence down, doesn’t stop it, what can be enacted otherwise? “Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kinds of ethical viewings and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?” (117)

This book made me think about so many things. The most self-involved is related to my current scholarly obsession, which is about the specificity of the production of whiteness in a context of white supremacism: that specificity is the co-production of the material specificities of many forms of racialization. Critical whiteness theory requires reckoning with histories & presences of attempted Indigenous genocide, anti-Blackness and the inheritances of chattel slavery, and the continuing death-drive of forced migration, all entangled with the productions of disability, sexuality, and capitalism.

I haven’t said anything about its substantive, its substance, which includes poetic method, grief work, witnessing, critical film readings, cultural analysis, political economic readings of supposedly humanitarian interventions, and much more. It is a model and a provocation for what it means to care, in the midst of harm and risk.

Care so often articulates with cure, but Sharpe is not looking for a cure for the past that is not past. She is certainly thinking toward what it would mean to transform the harm of that past and this present. Eli Clare works through some of this in his long-awaited meditation on the politics of cure. He says:

As an ideology seeped into every corner of white Western thought and culture, cure rides on the back of normal and abnormal. Insidious and pervasive, it impacts most of us. In response, we need neither a whole-hearted acceptance nor an outright rejection of cure, but rather a broad-based grappling. (14)

“Cure” is at the centre of a whole lot of what’s wrong and murderous about conventional approaches to disability. Clare’s book – like Sharpe’s – examines the police murders of Black people, looking at how that violence is entangled with ableism, fortifying “white supremacy by leveraging ableism” (25). Grappling with various desires for cure calls on us to confront the ways that “as a widespread ideology centered on eradication, cure always operates in relationship to violence” (28). As Clare unfolds it, recognizing this relationship doesn’t mean that we never pursue cure, that we never aim for less pain in our daily life – it means that we grapple with what’s really involved, refusing the route that reprises the narrative that disability is always bad and must be done away with.

Clare lucidly addresses what it means to oppose environmental destruction without leveraging disability-hating tropes. He asks, “[H]ow do we witness, name, and resist the injustices that reshape and damage all kinds of body-minds — plant and animal, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human — while not equating disability with injustice?” (56). This is such a good question, one I want all of us thinking about so much more.

I was especially captivated by Clare’s depiction of “the trouble”. He writes:

“cure always revolves around the perception of a disease, infection, virus, chronic illness, dysfunction, disorder, defect, abnormality, or body-mind difference. For now, let me name this pivot “the trouble.”

At its most fundamental, the ideology of cure aims to eliminate the trouble from either a single body-mind or the world at large. This eradication can be as present-day and individual as removing an infected appendix or as future-focused and collective as research targeted at ending breast cancer. The goal is to ultimately ensure that the trouble no longer exists as if it had never existed in the first place. (70)

“The trouble” individualizes social relations, encourages us to take up the imperative to cure, to transform, to fix ourselves. And just as the medical-industrial complex can give us, sometimes, “comfort and connection” (183) – we can’t simply reject the trouble that “cure” brings us. We can say “no” to many, many of the worlds cure holds out for us, boxes us into. Always, I love Eli Clare’s evocation of worlds-to-come:

I catch glimpses of a world where many kinds of body-mind difference will be valued and no one eradicated; where comfort, pain, well-being, birth, and death all exist. Cure promises us so much, but it will never give us justice. In this world reconfigured, cure may not exist, but if it does, it will be only one tool among many. In this world, our body-mind desires will spread through us, as vibrant and varied as a tallgrass prairie in midsummer. (184)

Clare’s pivot of “the trouble” pivots again into Haraway’s book Staying With the Trouble. I’m supposed to be writing a book review of this book right now, clearly an impossible task, and all I’ve been able to do is think about its refraction patterns among these three books together. The book begins:

Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We – of us on Terra — live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy — with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with a necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die will with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, or stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings. (1)

…and I should go write that actual book review that is due soon.

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