pondering photographs

A yummy day with a book delivery from Duke University Press. Seriously, by this point, I should have shares in the company; that’s how many books I buy from them. Today’s haul includes Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, all of which are destined for this fall’s iteration of the graduate feminist theory seminar. But it also included Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, an extended meditation on the counterstories that images of black diasporic subjects, ostensibly meant for surveillance purposes – identification cards, passports, etc – might tell. As she observes in the introduction, “identification photos are not produced at the desire of their sitters. They are images required of or imposed upon them by empire, science, or the state” (5). And because of the rigid rules that have often governed their production, such photos have rarely been studied in great detail. But by listening closely to them, different stories might emerge, stories that challenge the logics by which they were originally created.

In her book, Campt gets at the heart of my own archival discomforts in this project: how do I work with material designed expressly to dehumanize? And how can I read that material differently? But it also gets at another element of this project: the visual archives that remain of colonial lives and experiences. The online archives in the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio, for example, include many photos of the so-called Coolie Depot where all incoming indentured labourers were brought to be processed. The Flickr stream of the Surinaams Museum, meanwhile, offers photographs of plantation life. But most of these photos were taken not to support those who toiled on the plantations, or those who were brought – often under extreme duress – to Suriname, but rather, to document the activities of a colonial system. How, then, to read them differently?

I’ve written previously about ethnographic refusal, and Campt, too, draws on the notion of refusal. For Tuck and Wang, refusal is about an approach to research; it’s about methodology. For Campt, however, refusal lies in the photographed subjects themselves: what are they doing – in the way they sit for the camera, in the way they dress, in the very fact that they’ve had their photos taken – to resist the narratives that have been carved out for them.

It was just over ten years ago that I found a stack of old black and white photos in a used bookstore in London, Ontario. All neatly packaged in clear cellophane wrapping,, they were gathered together under a single heading: “Instant ancestors.” I was with my mom at the time. We poked through them, holding up particularly intriguing photos, and had a good laugh. But as I think back to this collection, it strikes me that the ‘family photo’ itself as a particular series of conventions attached to it, and it is these conventions that allow us to find the humour in the photos. These conventions made it possible for us to laugh.

But these photos were out of context. Completely divorced from their ‘real’ families, their stories are much more opaque. How can we read them? And what stories might they tell?

Photographs appear in the most random of places. As a first year university student in Victoria a few decades ago, I found a photograph of a toddler with round cheeks in the middle of a book that hadn’t been taken out in twenty years. More recently, I found another, in an interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto. They’d functioned as bookmarks, I imagine, and then the borrower had come up against a due date, stuffed the books into a bag, and completely forgotten about the photos.

Like the London photos and the discarded passport photos Campt analyzed, these photos were accidents, bits of stories that somehow got away, that ended up in completely different contexts.

Instant ancestors, indeed.

[and yes: p.s., I purposely chose not to include photos.]

References

Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke UP, 2017.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.

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watered

watered

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Amsterdam canal, 2016. photo: Sonja Boon

In a 2013 article, Astrida Neimanis proposes a “watered” form of feminist subjectivity, one that attends not only to human concerns, but also to ethical engagements with the nonhuman.

Extending feminist posthumanist conversations initiated by such thinkers as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, she observes that “In purely descriptive terms, we are bodies of water, but we also reside within and as part of a fragile global hydrocommons, where water – the lifeblood of humans and all other bodies on this planet – is increasingly contaminated, commodified and dangerously reorganized” (103).

What does it mean to imagine ourselves as water bodies? How might our approach to politics change if we think ourselves through our relationships with the nonhuman, rather than against them? What new possibilities might emerge?

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Shallow Bay, Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon

“We are all bodies of water,” Neimanis writes (2012; 2013). Imagining ourselves as watery bodies forces us to locate ourselves within rather than against the nonhuman world, and simultaneously, to acknowledge all watery bodies – both “human waters and ecological ones” (Neimanis 2013, 27) as having agency. This encounter paves the way for thinking through hydrologics; that is, the ways in which water organizes itself. Water, Neimanis writes, can be simultaneously imagined as conduit, memory, archive, facilitator, and gestational milieu. It is past and present. It is intimate and planetary.

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Kid the elder, North Sea, Scheveningen, The Netherlands, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

Water isn’t a new topic for this collaborative blog. I’ve written about it before, as have the graduate students – Lesley Butler and Daze Jefferies – associated with this project.

Among other things, we’ve explored oceans and rivers as sites of theory and in relation to mapping and questions of place. We’ve also looked at water as a site of story, myth, and history.

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campground. can’t remember where. Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon

I’ve long been fascinated by the liquid, the fluid, the stuff that resists borders, flows beyond them, and renders them obsolete.

And so it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m drawn to theorizing that begins with water. Some of my favourite theorists – the “friends” I made during my doctorate – draw on the fluid or the liquid. Hélène Cixous, for example, starts with the “white ink” of the lactating maternal body as a source for a utopian feminist imaginary, ideas which have been taken up, extended, expanded and explored by numerous other thinkers, among them Alison Bartlett, Fiona Giles, Robyn Longhurst, Rhonda Shaw, Margrit Shildrick, Iris Marion Young, and Quinn Eades. Indeed, Elizabeth Grosz, in her foundational Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, suggests that women’s embodiment has been constructed in a “mode of seepage.”

All of this thinking relies on boundary breaking, on reimagining social relations through a fundamentally different way of imagining bodies. No longer discrete entities, the bodies of feminist theorists are porous. They leak. They seep. They expel. This is theory founded on touch, on porosity, on connection.

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loo with a view, Bay Roberts Newfoundland, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

But the more recent work of thinkers like Neimanis and Karin Amimoto Ingersoll moves beyond the fluxes and flows of the human body. The fluid is not just about the human, they argue. We need to situate ourselves – our bodies and our knowledges – within a larger, nonhuman world.

What, then, are the implications, really, of that seemingly simple – almost facile – statement, “We are all bodies of water,” that underpins Neimanis’ work?

My older son, who is linearity and logic embodied in human form, would contest the very premises of the statement. “No,” he would say, “we’re not. We’re only 60% water. That statement is inaccurate.” Older son is very literal. The body of the ocean and the body of the human are not the same body. The water is not the same. And as such, there’s no more conversation to be had.

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Georgia Strait between the mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo: Búi Petersen

My younger son, much more given to flights of imaginative and conceptual fantasy, would start with the 60%, but he’d be much more amenable to thinking through relationships between watery worlds – the world of the ocean and the world of the human body. He’d start thinking through various possibilities (which would likely include Captain Underpantsy thoughts in some form or another, but would also become more philosophical). He’d start thinking about how the ocean sounds and feels. He’d think about swimming.

And he’d turn, too, to a piece his youth choir commissioned and performed just last month.

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Twillingate, Newfoundland. Kid the younger as cheeky monkey. Photo: Sonja Boon

They’d spent months rehearsing the program, and we’d hear updates after every session. “We’re singing this new piece about the ocean and it has 9 part harmony!” His face was luminous, his voice eager. He talked about the fun of learning it and about the colours and textures the music evoked. Every rehearsal was a new adventure, and for us, as parents, a thrill to experience vicariously.

The concert itself was breathtaking. Ocean was composed by Tim Baker. Now a member of one of Newfoundland’s best known musical exports, Hey Rosetta, he’s also former Shallaway chorister. Ocean, based on poetry by Sue Goyette, asks singers and audience to think with and through the sea. As Baker wrote in the program notes, “Not … the scientific sea, full of resources and ecosystems and carefully mapped tides and temperatures, but… the sea as it is when you sit with it.” As he read Goyette’s Ocean, he listened to the ocean, to its stories, to its histories, to its meanings, and he imagined himself and his forebears – all members of coastal communities – trying to understand it: “a mystery, sometimes dark and furious, sometimes gentle and glittering, and always shifting and always inscrutable.”

What emerged from these meditations is a hauntingly beautiful work that calls on us to think with and through the ocean: “How can we commune with the ocean to know it better? How can we tame it, so to be blessed with its bounty, and spared its fury? How do we ask it questions, and how do we listen when it responds?” he asks in the program notes.

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Middle Cove Beach. Photo: Sonja Boon

Ocean, in the end, is a series of questions, a longing, a keening, a wondering. It’s a love song and a lament. With its repeated refrain, “are we listening?” it asks us to think again about our relationship with the sea, and about the stories it might be trying to tell us.

…have we forgot how to see in the dark?

…have we forgot how to hear your tongue?

…are you talking to us? are you crying out?

…are you calling to us? are you trying now?

Similar questions lie at the heart of Neimanis’ theorizing about watery bodies. Who are we, watered? And why might this matter?

“As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation. The space between ourselves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin – the traces of those same oceanic beginnings still cycling through us, pausing as this bodily thing we call ‘mine.’ Water is between bodies, but of bodies, before us and beyond us, yet also very presently this body, too.” (Neimanis, “Hydrofeminism” 85)

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Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. Photo: Sonja Boon

In her recent book, Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology, Karin Amimoto Ingersoll draws on Indigenous Hawaiian ways of knowing that are premised on the ocean. This “seascape epistemology” is:

“an approach to knowing presumed on a knowledge of the sea, which tells one how to move through it, how to approach life and knowing through the movements of the world. It is an approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual, and embodied literacy of the ‘aina (land) and kai (sea): birds, the colors of the clouds, the flows of the currents, fish and seaweed the timing of ocean swells, depths, tides, and celestial bodies all circulating and flowing with rhythms and pulsations….” (5-6; see also 16)

For Amimoto Ingersoll, a seascape epistemology is a deeply embodied and profoundly holistic way of knowing; a knowledge gained only through deep and close encounters with the nonhuman world and the stories it has to tell.

As she writes:

“Finding the words to express the seascape as it wets my skeleton and salts my veins is a thirst that drives me. Interacting with this swirling life form taps me into unseen possibilities. Attempting to articulate our relationships with nature, with the ocean, is to be human. That is why humanity is found in the sea. I am the moonlight hat shines from the black heaven, dispersed through the watery prism of swells into another realm. The unseen can be seen in my imagination as a being both integrated and free. I can become my own process of becoming within this universe unto itself, with life, rhythms, colors, and sounds unique to this watery sphere. Inward I go.” (184)

These ideas echo, in some ways, those put forward Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker in their 2014 article, “Weathering.” In thinking through the politics of climate change, Neimanis and Loewen Walker propose a rethinking of the concept of home.

“Like other climate change theorists and activists, we propose to bridge the distance of abstraction by bringing climate change home,” they write (559). But the home they propose is not the “Western, urban, and domesticated home that more often than not seeks to extract itself from the weather-world” (559). Rather, they suggest something much broader: “we … invite our readers to be interpellated into the ecological spacetime of a much more expansive home, at once as distant as that melting icecap, and as close as our own skin” (559).

Weathering, for Neimanis and Loewen Walker, is a way of moving beyond the traditional nature/culture divide to acknowledging the ways that human and nonhuman are entangled with one another.

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Fort Amherst, Newfoundland, 2017. Photo: Sonja Boon

Drawing on Stacy Alaimo’s understanding of transcorporeality, they propose a theory of “weather bodies” shaped by and through the natural world, even as they also shape that world: “The ebb and flow of meteorological life transits through us, just as the actions, matters, and meanings of our own bodies return to the climate in myriad ways” (560).

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Commewijne River, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

Weathering in a Newfoundland context brings to mind the peeling paint on outport clapboard houses, the leathery skin of those who have made their livings on the oceans. Weathering is a landscape shaped by glaciers, waves, winds, and storms. It is the hunched tuckamore growing sideways along the coastline, the clothing dancing on a line in the middle of winter. Weathering is a whole family lost at sea; it is a crying ocean no longer filled with cod.

Weathering is a “worlding with [the earth]” (567).

“are we listening?”

 

baulinepossibly

References

Amimoto Ingersoll, Karin. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Duke UP, 2016.

Baker, Tim. “Program Notes” for Ocean, “Oh Canada: A Canadian Choral Celebration,” Shallaway Youth Choir, 8 April 2017.

Bartlett, A. Breastwork: Rethinking breastfeeding. University of New South Wales Press, 2005.

Bartlett, Alison. “Breastfeeding as headwork: Corporeal feminism and meanings for breastfeeding.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 25.3 (2002), pp. 373–382. doi:10.1016/S0277-5395(02)00260-1

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” French feminism reader, edited by Kelly Oliver. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, pp. 257-275.

Eades, Quinn. All the Beginnings: A Queer Autobiography of the Body. Tantanoola, 2015.

Giles, Fiona. “Fountains of love and loveliness: In praise of the dripping wet breast.” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 4.1 (2002), pp. 7–17.

Giles, Fiona. Fresh milk: The secret life of breasts. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile bodies: Towards a corporeal feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Longhurst, Robyn. Bodies: Exploring fluid boundaries. London, UK: Routledge, 2001.

Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker, “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia 29.3 (2014), pp. 558-575.

Neimanis, Astrida, “Feminist subjectivity, watered” Feminist Review 103 (2013), pp. 23-31.

Neimanis, Astrida. “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water.” Undutiful Daughters: New Directions in Feminist Thought and Practice, edited by H. Gunkel, C. Nigianni & F. Soderback. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 85-100.

Shaw, R. “Theorizing breastfeeding: Body ethics, maternal generosity, and the gift relation.” Body and Society, 9.2 (2003), pp. 55–73. doi:10.1177/1357034X030092003

Shildrick, M. (1997). Leaky bodies and boundaries: Feminism, post-modernism, and (bio)ethics. London, UK: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion. On female body experience: “Throwing like a girl” and other essays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.

(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2017.

with these hands we touch across ages

Victoria Day 2017 has been a research day spent in bed. I took two breaks to watch the new episodes of Twin Peaks and to do laundry. The latter is the inspiration for this blog post.

Studying folklore has taken me on all kinds of journeys. Somewhere along the way, I was introduced to http://www.folkstreams.net, an archive of documentary films exploring informal/expressive/material cultures as well as performance (and) traditions.

My favourite film from this archive is Clotheslines by Roberta Cantow (1981) which explores women’s relationships to laundry and ‘domestic’ labour, or body work at home. Among other things, the women in the film grapple with family dynamics, laundry and technological change, and the work of washing clothes by hand. Intimately, this documentary shows women reeling in a clothesline to collect and fold socks, shirts and dresses into a basket. Yet, I experience these women attach and reel emotions back out on that line, letting them get air for the first time. In doing so, they allow themselves to breathe, centered. Until this point, these women had never been asked to share their experiences and memories of doing body work at home. Like washing and drying, their emotions spin in patterns of two, frustration and pleasure.

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Still of women washing clothes in a stream, ‘Clotheslines’. 1981.

I enjoy doing laundry, although I’ve never washed clothes by hand. At the same time, I have shared many intimate moments with clothing through touch.

My first experience with fieldwork took place in my second semester of my undergrad when I did a study of thrift store cultures. While a significant portion of my analysis focused on economic relationships to used clothing, what fascinated me most were the stories that clothing can tell. As an avid thrifter since I was 15, I had never considered clothes as objects of memory and history. I had overlooked their ability to narrate their wornness.

After I had collected and analyzed the data from that study, I started to wonder where and who my clothes came from: who had touched them, had worn them, had made memories in them, and had grown out of them enough to give them away.

Somewhere amidst bins and racks and piles of used clothes, I realized that the stories told by the objects we wear are touchable. Over time, and with a giant and always shifting (archive?) closet, I have learned to pay attention to all the things said by every hitch, snag, hole, stain, smell, repair, and customization.

Smell is particularly capable of evoking significant and imaginative meanings/memories. While some thrift stores in St. John’s hang their donated goods for sale just the way they were donated – smelling like perfume, or cigarettes, or a complex blend of scents that cannot be described using words – other stores give them a good wash, and by the time they are touched by someone combing through a bin or rack, they smell only of detergent.

It isn’t always a bad thing. Certain detergents remind me of my childhood home: laundry washed, dried and folded by my mom, the special step perched on the patio so that she could reach the clothesline hanging way above her, the bright orange laundry basket she has had since before I was born.

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Still of drying garments, ‘Clotheslines’. 1981.

This evening I called home and asked her to share her own feelings about laundry. “It was a part of my daily routine,” she noted. “And it never bothered me because I just thought it was something I had to do as a mother.”

I asked if laundry ever frustrated her. She laughed and told me, “the only thing that frustrated me was when I folded it all up and put it on your bed, told you to pack it away, and you didn’t do it.”

Would the clothes on my bed have told me stories? Would I listen?

My own experience of laundry, or body work at home, is a pleasurable mix of touches, smells, and memories. With each encounter, I can never think about clothes the same. I am aware of their voices and histories.

Thank you, mom, for doing the critical work of cleaning.

Thank you for teaching me how to do that work myself.

Reference

Cantow, Roberta. Clotheslines. 16mm. Directed by Roberta Cantow. San Diego: Buffalo Rose Productions, 1981.

© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017.

push and pull of memories: the st. john’s premiere of rozalind macphail’s ‘from the river to the ocean’

On May 12, the St. John’s premiere of Rozalind MacPhail’s latest audio-visual project From the River to the Ocean took place at Suncor Energy Hall, MUN School of Music.

___________________________________________

When I arrive at the theatre I am prepared for an evening of savoury sights and sounds. Then I notice that on each chair lay a tiny surprise, a salt water taffy, courtesy of MacPhail’s husband, filmmaker Josh Caine, who flew to St. John’s from North Carolina for the premiere.

In From the River to the Ocean, Rozalind MacPhail takes the audience along with her on an “inspiring ride” through Wilmington, North Carolina while waves of sound and silent film wash against each other. At times, I can feel the waves brushing against my feet as percussion, guitar basslines, and flute trills boomerang around the theatre.

Like MacPhail’s previous audio-visual projects that are centered around particular places, From the River to the Ocean began as an effort to document, archive, and share her memories of traveling, living, and growing in Wilmington. MacPhail’s three-month-long artist residency at the Cucalorus Film Festival shaped the entire project, where she met the filmmakers whose works radiate beside her, including her husband.

Just before she begins to play her opening track ‘Overture for Pinkhouse’ she has one request of the audience: “Listen for the sounds of Wilmington.”

At just under three minutes long, Pinkhouse captivates me with its soundscape. Since it is the one song on From the River to the Ocean that isn’t complemented by visuals, I am free to imagine sights and sounds and colours as MacPhail’s flute melodies intermingle, rise and fall, twist and turn.

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Rozalind MacPhail performing ‘Overture for Pinkhouse’. May 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler.

As her setlist progresses, this process of blending and weaving becomes more playful as MacPhail builds layers of sweet and flavourful “flute loops” that sing with each other and tell their own stories of Wilmington.

MacPhail’s work grapples with the stories that places tell us as well as the ones we tell about them as we move/shift/travel throughout the world. An undulating narrative, the notion of traveling is integral to the flow of messages told in From the River to the Ocean. In a way, MacPhail’s complex blend of visuals, vocals, electronics, and flute loops encourage the audience to travel (back) to Wilmington with her. ‘Greenfield’ in particular has the power to momentarily transport an audience from St. John’s, with its stories and footage of turtles, white cranes and alligators.

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MacPhail performing ‘Greenfield’ along with footage by Josh Caine. May 2017. Photo: Daze Jefferies.

With each song and film, new ideas about Wilmington are formed, and meanings are made as experimental VHS footage, photography, and hand-processed Super 8 film dance betwixt the music.

When the performance is finished, MacPhail answers questions from the audience. Dr. Ellen Waterman, Professor of Music, asks about the significance of time in this project. MacPhail notes the significance of memory in all of her work, sharing that as she looks to the future and continues to age, From the River to the Ocean will allow her to revisit and remember. She captures this idea most exquisitely on ‘The Gaze’:

You’re looking back
at me from the screen

So deep,
so close,
so heroic

Separated by
half a century

Separated by
an ocean…

I gaze back…

From the River to the Ocean is a beautiful representation of documenting pleasures, pressing social issues, and personal experiences. It also represents the work we do for Saltwater Stories: weaving together creativity and critical interrogation.

Amidst the artisty of Rozalind MacPhail and filmmakers Josh Caine, Shona Thomson, Mariah Kramer, Mandi Edwards, Matt Molloy, and Matt Gossett, I am transported to a “time out of time” where the wondrous intermingling plays on between people and place, past and present, and the push and pull of memories.

The Atlantic

I have been thinking a lot more about the ocean recently. Maybe it’s because this Newfoundland spring has brought about a particularly striking seascape.

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View from Signal Hill, St. John’s. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler

Earlier in the season, harbors were packed with ice, and although visually it was quite beautiful, it certainly made it difficult (and sometimes, impossible) for boats to come and go.

 

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Pack ice in Torbay. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler.

And now, icebergs are ‘in season’. Those ‘bergy bits,’ which are the inspiration for this ‘Theory Thursday’ blog series, draw out locals and tourists alike. Those glacial giants are picture perfect, but of course there is more to them than meets the eye. Well, there is 90% that we don’t usually see, if we want to put a number on its underwater mass. But what about the rest of the iceberg’s story? What was its journey? How did the crashing of waves work to carve each berg’s unique shape? What of the glaciers from which they came?

What else can we learn when we think more about the water? About the movement, the current that brought these bergy bits to our harbors? How does the ocean influence the journey?

 

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Icebergs near the Quidi Vidi “Gut” a few years ago. April 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler.

While I touched on ideas of water briefly in my post on the movie Moonlight, I would like to open up the theoretical dimensions of the ocean a little bit more here.

Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds (2006) has been particularly eye opening for her take on the Atlantic Ocean through a black geographic perspective (thanks, Sonja, for the recommendation!).

Referring to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, McKittrick says:

 I want to read The Black Atlantic, and the black Atlantic, differently: as an ‘imbrication of material and metaphorical space,’ in part because the text is so noticeably underscored by a very important black geography, the Atlantic Ocean, through which the production of space can be imagined on diasporic terms …

I suggest that if The Black Atlantic is also read through the material sites that hold together and anchor the text – the middle passage, the Atlantic Ocean, black travelers in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, the slave ship, the plantation, shared outernational musics, fictional and autobiographical geographies, nationalisms – it clarifies that there are genealogical connections between dispossession, transparent space, and black subjectivities. Historical and contemporary black geographies surface and centralize the notion that black diaspora populations have told and are telling how their surroundings have shaped their lives (xxi).

So often, the “naturalization of identity and place” leaves experiences of diasporic populations out of geographic conversations. How then, can we change the conversation?

Ultimately, McKittrick aims to reaffirm that “black Atlantic cultures have always had an intimate relationship with geography” (xxi). She challenges the notion of the Atlantic Ocean purely as a metaphor for “placelessness” and “vanishing histories,” rendering black writers as “ungeographic.” Instead, she emphasizes the material significance of physical geographies on black lives (xxi).

McKittrick pushes our perceptions of space and place further. What happens when we bring an element of fluidity to our notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’? What if we really consider the physical of the so-called ‘placeless’, or if we actually apply geography to the so-called ‘ungeographic’? How might we see diasporic differences, differently? Can we somehow reconcile the metaphoric with the material?

When we look to the water, what else can we learn? Or better yet, how else can we learn?

Geographic solutions to difference and political crises (such as segregation, imprisonment, ghettoization, genocide, the sexual-racial division of labor, surveillance, as well as social theories that “add on” a subaltern body) are undermined when difference is taken seriously, when a sense of place does not neatly correspond with traditional geographies, when transparent, stable political categories are disrupted by places unbound, and all sorts of humans open up different, less familiar, alterable geographic stories (McKittrick 34-35).

 

Sources:

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

 

Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

hot commodities: thoughts on reproductive politics, enslaved women, and Maria Sybilla Merian’s peacock flower

Reproduction, it is said, has always been a matter of politics.

In England, Henry VIII divorced and then killed off his second wife, Anne Boleyn for her failure to beget a boy. A few hundred years later, a concerned mother wrote to a Swiss doctor, worried about her daughter’s forthcoming nuptials in the face of newly discovered knowledge about her soon to be son-in-law’s health and its possible implications for their reproductive lives. In Canada, many women have been forcibly sterilized, their reproductive autonomy erased because of their class, race, or presumed psychological fitness for reproduction. In India, a burgeoning international surrogacy industry contracts often impoverished women to rent out their uteri for wealthy North American or European couples. In Ireland, labouring women have been victim – with the blessing of the Catholic church – to the profoundly disabling and medically unnecessary practice of symphisiotomy. In the global South, women have been used as guinea pigs for contraceptive testing, often without their consent or even knowledge. American fetal personhood laws pit the rights of the fetus against those of the mother to be. It was only in April 2017 that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that “the sterilization requirement [for trans people] was a violation of Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights” ( see New York Times)

Perhaps nowhere were the politics of reproduction more overt than in the context of the dying days of plantation slavery in the Americas. Numerous historians have observed that slave owners’ perspectives on reproduction changed as the political mood shifted toward abolition (van Stipriaan, Turner, Paton). Before this, owners hadn’t paid much attention to reproduction; after all, a slave population could easily be renewed with the purchase of more slaves (see Newton 1788, for example). But abolitionist talk changed things. Perhaps plantation owners would not always be able to rely on new bodies to fulfil their needs. This became all the more acute after the British abolition of the slave trade. While illegal trading still continued after this point, most slave owners had to rely on their own enslaved women to renew their labour force. In this new political context, women’s uteri became hot commodities (Turner, Morgan, Paton).

As I look back at my family tree, I wonder how these shifting political landscapes shaped the reproductive experiences of my enslaved ancestors. How did they navigate all of this in their daily lives? What might reproduction have meant for them?

NG-2013-22-7

Gezicht op een plantage, waarschijnlijk plantage Jagtlust, vanaf de overkant van de Suriname rivier. NG-2013-22-7. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.538364

The Dutch historian Alex van Stipriaan observes that there were more children at cotton plantations than at coffee or sugar plantations (54). This could be because the work was much heavier at sugar plantations (Beeldsnijder 1997). It could also be that the cotton plantations, which emerged in Suriname only in the early nineteenth century and were located along what was known as the “Zeekust” along the western coastline of Suriname, were in a healthier region of the colony.

In a 2009 demographic study, van Stipriaan followed 204 enslaved women through the slave registers in the period between 1820 and 1863, the last forty years of slavery in Suriname, with the goal of tracing reproductive patterns. He focused on 6 sugar plantations, 6 coffee plantations, and 6 cotton plantations. He discovered that fully one quarter of the women (24%) did not have children at all (55). Those who did had an average of 4 children each. On average first time mothers were just over 20 years old and there were usually just over 3.5 years between births. He argues that this data suggests that enslaved women exercised a certain amount of authority over their reproduction; for example, it seemed that many women stopped having children once 2-4 reached the age of five. It’s also possible that non-reproductive enslaved women – that 24% who did not have children – were not necessarily unable to bear children, but actively choosing not to by either avoiding sexual relations, or more likely, by using commonly known abortifacients such as the peacock flower (which, according to one of our graduate students, is still used as an abortifacient today among some Indigenous communities in South America) (Schiebinger; for more of Merian’s drawings, see Heard).

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“Peacock Flower with Carolina Sphinx Moth,” by Maria Sybilla Merian. In Maria Merian’s Butterflies, Royal Collection Trust, 2016

All of this data is interesting, and it does indeed shed a light on plantation societies more broadly speaking, but it doesn’t help me to understand my own family histories.

The problem is that my family histories don’t fit these averages at all. Let’s look at my own demographic data.

I have a tiny sample of two, but both fit perfectly into van Stipriaan’s historical parameters. Eva Albertina and Frederica were both born in 1827 on Sarah plantation, one of the cotton plantations along Suriname’s west coast.

So far, so good.

But then, things diverge from van Stipriaan’s model.

Eva Albertina and Frederica had twelve children between them; Eva had five and Frederica had seven. But they lived remarkably parallel reproductive lives. Both had children well before they were twenty (the average age determined by van Stipriaan). Eva was seventeen when her first child was born; Frederica was eighteen. They both had their second children in 1847, their third in 1849 and their fourth in 1851, and their fifth in 1855. At this point, at the age of 28, Eva stopped having children, thus approximately following Stipriaan’s model. But Frederica had two more, in 1857 and finally, at the age of 35 (what we would, today, term a geriatric pregnancy), gave birth to her last child, Leander, in 1862, on the eve of emancipation.

My (albeit tiny) sample suggests that we need to move beyond the broad sweep of van Stipriaan’s model. Frederica and Eva Albertina were younger than the average, had more children than the average, and had them more frequently. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they were enslaved on a cotton plantation where working conditions were better. Perhaps the various owners and overseers of Sarah plantation, conscious of the need to ensure demographic growth, heeded calls to improve maternity care, hygiene, and working conditions for enslaved mothers.

NG-1064-9

Gezichten op een kamp van slaven bij een Surinaamse plantage. Onderdeel van het plaatwerk ‘Gezigten uit Neerland’s West-Indien’. NG-1064-9. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.516156

It’s also possible that one or more of these children were the result of coerced alliances with white or mixed overseers. Such alliances were undoubtedly accompanied by sexual and reproductive obligations on the part of the enslaved women. But they may also have bought Eva and Frederica better living conditions, and with this, better reproductive conditions. In addition to this, they may have offered the possibility of manumission, or freedom, for enslaved children.

Frederica’s first child, a daughter named Annette, was manumitted in the fall of 1862. Eva’s fourth child, a son named Marlon 2, was manumitted under the name Jacob Schove in 1851.

There weren’t a huge number of manumissions at Sarah plantation; thus, two manumissions in the same family stand out.

Women and children were much more likely to be manumitted than men; van Stipriaan observes that men constituted only 21% of the free black population (61). So, too, were children of mixed race much more likely to be manumitted – fully 85% of free black children were listed in the censuses as ‘kleurling,’ of mixed race.

Did Frederica and Eva bargain with the only thing they had available to them: their wombs? Were they able to use their reproductive capacities to try to shape some sort of  positive life for themselves and their offspring? What did reproduction mean for enslaved women on Surinamese plantations?

I only wish I could ask them.

Binnenplaats_op_plantage,_aquarel_-_20651520_-_RCE

Leasowes Plantation (next to Sarah plantation). Binnenplaats op plantage, aquarel, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

References

Beeldsnijder, Ruud. “Om werk van jullie te hebben”: Plantageslaven in Suriname, 1730-1750, 1997.

Heard, Kate, Maria Merian’s Butterflies. Royal Collection Trust, 2016.

Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. UPenn Press,2004

Newton, John. Thoughts upon the Slave Trade. 1788.

Paton, Diana. “Maternal struggles and the politics of childlessness under pronatalist Caribbean slaver.” Slavery & Abolition 2017, online in advance of print.

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Harvard UP, 2004.

Stipriaan, Alex van. “Welke de ware redden zijn, dat Plantaadje negers zoo weinig voortelen’: Demografische ontwikkelingen op Surinaams plantages gedurend de laatse eeuw van slaverij.” Kind aan de ketting: Opgroeien in slavernij toen en nu, edited by Aspha Bijnaar. KIT Publishers, 2009. 50-64.

Turner, Sasha. “Home-grown Slaves: Women, Reproduction, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Jamaica 1788-1807” Journal of Women’s History vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 39-62.

Four Women (Part 2)

In my last post, I explored the controversy of Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women,’ which was the inspiration for Julie Dash’s film of the same name. In ‘Part 2,’ I look more closely at Dash’s visual adaptation of the song.

Some of my initial questions when coming across this film were: Why, about a decade after it’s initial release, did Dash decide to resurrect Simone’s song? Why did she dedicate one of her first filmmaking projects to this re-presentation of ‘Four Women’?

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Colourful cinematography and kinetic editing.

In “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” bell hooks (1992) explores the issues of race in cinematic representations and looking relations. hooks discusses the problematic depictions of Black individuals in American cinema, saying “When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy” (hooks 117).

Because Black communities were either underrepresented, or misrepresented, in the media, the “oppositional black gaze” responded by developing a black independent cinema that worked to redirect the images on screens (hooks 117). In the 1970s, Julie Dash emerged as one of these independent filmmakers.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Linda Martina Young dancing within the confines of a veil.

In Four Women, Dash uses Simone’s controversial song as the driving force behind her short film (it can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/74869216). As her own creative contribution to Simone’s musical narrative, Dash’s opens the film with a sequence in which dancer Linda Martina Young is wrapped in fabric, body nearly indiscernible as she twists and turns to the sounds of chanting, whips lashing, and waves crashing. The soundscape is subtle, but incredibly poignant, alluding to America’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and ultimately situating the performance within that haunting historical context.

This filmic prologue to Simone’s searing ballad effectively prompts viewers to see how legacies of slavery are reflected in contemporary Black identities.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: dancer Linda Martina Young evokes the constraints of, and resistance to, legacies of slavery.

This opening scene explicitly situates Simone’s song within the historical context of America’s racial past – it let’s the audience know that Simone’s music is not just about ‘Four Women’. It is actually for women. For the African American women, like Simone, and like Dash, who recognize the racism present in America’s past, and present. The women who persevere, and pave the way for a future that reflects their individual, and collective, wants and needs.

“Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” (hooks 131).

In a way, Dash’s depiction of Simone’s four women through one body (the dancer, Linda Martina Young) may be interpreted as a reclamation of the stereotype that has overshadowed representations of Black female subjectivity throughout mass media.

Much like the effect of Simone singing all four verses, Dash’s film represents Black female subjectivity through the performance of the individual, allowing her to simultaneously critique the synecdochal operation of stereotypes. By re-presenting the images of Black femininity that have persisted over the years, Dash challenges the “burden of representation” by drawing attention to the political implications and the ontological limits of racial stereotyping.

In a similar sense, by pairing dance with Simone’s music, Dash’s experimental film also offers us new ways to think about black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship.

When thinking of films, it is all too easy to think of looking relations as one-directional: the subject is looked at by the spectator. However, when we speak of an oppositional gaze, hooks’ encourages us to explore the relationship between image and spectator even more closely (131). While the Black female spectator looks to the screen, how does the screen then look back upon the viewer? What kinds of representations exist for the Black female spectator?

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: offering new ways to approach critical ‘looking’.

In the case of Dash’s Four Women, we take these looking relations one step further. By having a dancer as the sole performer, Dash draws attention to the constructedness of the screen; in classic narrative film, it is all too easy to get swept away by the stories of other characters – for example, with Hollywood’s ‘seamless’ editing style – but through this experimental performance, we become more aware of the relationship between viewer and subject. The dancer performs on a stage, a place that exists for the purpose of performance. While there is no illusion of reality in Dash’s film, this, in a way, allows us to more effectively critique reality (in this case, the reality and politics of racial representation).

We as viewers are forced to recognize that we are watching a performance; we are forced to consider more closely our role as spectator and thus, interpreter of images of Black femininity.

As the four women ponder at the end of their respective verses, “What do they call me?” we, as spectators/listeners, are asked to consider our own relationship to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Though each woman speaks for herself, we see how their perceptions of self are intertwined with how other people see them. In a way, the viewer/spectator becomes implicated in the process of stereotyping, and are called to question their own role in racial representation through critical looking relations.

Dash, like Simone, does not wish to ignore stereotypes, nor does she expect to easily eliminate them. Rather, she directly approaches them, interrogates them and re-presents them in a way that can help us to further understand the historical roots of these persistent, and indeed problematic, racial stereotypes.

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: challenging the cinematic gaze.

I think it only fitting to leave this post with Thulani Davis’s (2003) beautiful reflection on Nina Simone’s music:

“But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:

My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/ My life has been rough/I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves (‘Four Women’)” (Davis n.p.).

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina       Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,           http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700. Accessed 6 March 2017.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Between the Lines, 1992.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,   https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.