Saturday, December 31, 2022

the hallway the broken plaster

Leave the truth out for everyone to see and no one will find it. The tragic desperation of the Ansonia is what draws the eye toward it, what compels and eventually exhausts it. You do not see the money that piles there, any more than you see the copper wires that run through its walls, the electrical conduits that connect the lights in its suites to its hallways and elevators, to its atrium and its restaurants and its fountain to its cavernous underground arcade and its steam room; you do not see the metal filaments of the electrical grid as they bend themselves to the curve the earth, beginning and ending and returning again from Bisbee and Morenci to New York, to Los Angeles, to Phoenix, to Cleveland and the Van Dorn Iron Works where the US would produce many of the tanks that would be sent to France during the War, to Meuse-Argonne, to secret telegraph machines in Baltimore; to Detroit and the Ford manufactory and the Model T and the headlight and a a new era of mobility in which the consumer had vanquished the night. The junkie the hallway the broken plaster. Capitalism offers abundance, yet its security apparatus plays off our finitude, our frailty, the fact that we are nothing more than primitive, limited beings. It enhances our awareness of that frailty, it forces us to look at the inevitability of our demise. It brings many of us to fetishize it; or, rather, to find comfort in the cave, or solace in the room, the steel, the boxcar, the resolute certainty of the perfectly laid track, the breakfast nook overlooking Broadway at dawn. Let the new year commence.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

yule wraps

I am writing this right before Christmas, Hanukkah is upon us, as the solstice descends and we prepare for the period in which, in the words of Tongva artist Mercedes Dorame, together we pull the sun back into the sky. This is the good news I bring. Against the monstropolous gloaming of our darkening skies, there is always a band of luminescence. It will not be extinguished, at least in our lives, or in the lives of anyone we love. No matter how mighty the institutions in which we find ourselves, no matter how intractable these structures might seem, we know that the only truths we have, as living beings who are also necessarily social beings, are change and chance. The architects who crown themselves lords and masters can still be taken by surprise; and as mercilessly repetitive as much of our everyday lives might feel, sometimes we are still capable of surprising even ourselves. This is, I believe, the weak messianic power of which Benjamin spoke, the one with which we are all equally endowed; and while this might be an odd or even awkward place to begin a talk on militarization and security, I leave it here now, as preface, to remind myself that, while Mother Night will eventually defeat us, until all the stars have exhausted themselves, some trace of the light will always remain. This is not to say that we wait for the miraculous; every party needs planning, and while not every surprise involves a conspiracy it is better not to leave all details to chance. But the log will get burned.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

the tangle of all my incommensurable pasts

The thing is, I am crazy. Healthy people do not think about these things. They do not worry over the war trauma suffered by their ancestors; they do not look for the patterns of that trauma as they weave through subsequent generations. Healthy people do not worry that everything had been ruined long before they had a chance to start. Healthy people do not generally accept the proposition that, because they will inevitably burn the toast, they should not buy the bread. During the worst period of my depression, a stretch that began around October 2019 but that had been plaguing me, on and off, with ever greater regularity, since at least January 2011, I became increasingly disinclined to leave the house. In Beirut, my flat was on the third floor of my building; my office was on the third floor of my building at the university. They were less than five city blocks apart, but many days I could not bear to make the trip; and, on either end, I could not abide the stairs. After the seizures began–the first one I can remember happened around July 2020–I was consumed by a near crippling sense of peril, the fear that I would pass out, or that the sense of vertigo I was increasingly prone to experience would translate into a slip, a fall, something broken, a new problem, a new opportunity for a punishingly long bout of something doctors call recovery. In the morning, I would get up from my bed, and would be overwhelmed by a lightheadedness so sudden and pronounced that I could not take the four steps across the hallway to the bathroom. Going as far as the kitchen was unheard of. From bed, I would order food. When it arrived, I would find it nearly impossible to answer the bell, much less wait by the front door. On at least two occasions, the delivery boy–in Beirut it was always a boy–would arrive to find me passed out on the floor, slightly bloodied, with a new gash on my face. All of this, of course, was exacerbated by Covid procedures, and the injunction to stay indoors lest one breath the wrong air, or pass on some pernicious viral agent. As time wore on, the symptoms of my depression became ever more somatized, routed through the network of nerves and joints and muscles, presenting themselves as random inflammation, headaches, joint pain. The traces of these remain with me, and have somehow become even worse even now that the worst of my depression has lifted. Plagued always by the awareness that my mental health is, at its best, unusually brittle, as well as the unavoidable truth that no one can wholly predict which directions illness might take, or how illness might manifest, I spend an inordinate amount of time examining affective states that may or may not be symptoms, or physical abnormalities that might signal the arrival of some unwanted arrivant. In itself, this is evidence of a slight mental irregularity, and it often leads to the dismissive, if not quite derisive, folk wisdom that responds to all evidence of mental dis-ease with the largely useless command that one should not “dwell on it.” If only you stopped thinking about these things, they would go away. So think about something else. Problem solved. Ipso facto done and dusted. How does one explain to those who do not suffer from manic depression or other, similar forms of mental distress, that, for many of us, “not thinking” is not really an option; that, for many of us, the thoughts come whether we want them to or not; that sometimes you cannot redirect your attention; that “thinking about something else” takes a considerable amount of energy and time, and that symptoms do not dissipate quite so quickly or easily? “Owing to suicidal ideation, retardation and stupor, food and drink refusal, or psychotic symptoms such as command hallucinations, people with severe depression are often at a very high risk of self-neglect or self-harm.” Only once or twice have I entertained an actively suicidal interest–in most cases my self-harm has been largely passive–but most of this lines up with the text of my experience, and it is extraordinarily difficult to convey just how unbearably real all this is, from moment to moment, in the moments when it has taken hold. In speaking with people who are not manic depressive about manic depression, this is really the trick. Many people believe they can understand clinical depression because, in general usage, in English, we use the words “depression” and “sadness” interchangeably, and most people–most healthy people–have at some time been sad. In these instances, it is difficult to explain differences of degree and duration, and the unbearable sense of depth, the unavoidable feeling that, to paraphrase Nietzsche, you are staring into an abyss that is staring back into you. “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.” But now is the time of monsters, and what if the monsters were waiting for you all along? No closet door is protection against the bogeyman just beyond the jamb; and there is no curtain that can save you from the gaze of the goat man. This is where the question of depression tips, for me, into the question of hypomania and mania, with the difference between the latter two states being, again, one of difference and degree. Depressive thoughts do not race as quickly as manic thoughts, but manic thoughts can–and often do–draw one ever closer to a depressive state. In most ways, it is far easier to explain chronic depression, even if certain lay understandings do not quite toggle faithfully with the truth of the condition. But if one is willing to understand the difference of degree between momentary sadness and existential annihilation, we have at least some ground upon which to approach the subject. But how, oh how, do you explain mania, especially when you cannot quite understand it yourself, or how to convey the difference between genuine enthusiasm or idle thought with the wild locomotion of manic episodes? How does one characterize the weird pleasure that accompanies a manic episode, a pleasure that is always tinged with a slight awareness that maybe things are going too far and you should probably take a step back and try to calm down but you cannot because you are just having far too much fun? How do you explain a screaming? How do you explain the curious prosody of pacing, of walking walking walking because the thoughts need somewhere to go and even though they will not tell you where they want to go, they have to go somewhere and they will let you know when they get there? In mania, there are so many things to do, and you need to do them all, and do them all at once. How do you explain walking on and on well after the point when one is no longer physically able to keep it up, especially when you probably haven’t eaten in hours if not days? The thoughts are coming so fast and they fold into each other and there are different languages and different words in different languages and isn’t it interesting that Arabic has no really good word for snow but at least three different letters for the sound that a ‘t’ or a ‘d’ might make and why isn’t the souffle rising and why did the motor on the hand mixer burn itself out before I was finished beating the egg whites and where oh where will I get it fixed and did I do something wrong? I probably did something wrong. I am usually doing something wrong but what was it? If only I could figure out what I did wrong I could probably fix it and what did I say to Phillip and why can’t I remember that one person’s name and why haven’t I showered yet? I should probably shower. But first, let me book my tickets to Egypt. I haven’t been there since I met Yussuf and it would be interesting to see if I got stopped at the border since as far as anyone knows he’s still wanted by someone somewhere for something. Also, if I cannot burn off this energy in Egypt, where else could I go? At least in Egypt there is koshary and that will slow me down. In France, leaving Beirut, going to America, the tangle of all my incommensurable pasts came up against the demand for some measure of legibility and I came undone. As at the port, something inside exploded; and, as with the port, the explosion was not purposeful but entirely a matter of negligence, a negligence abetted by a not inconsiderable dose of criminal liability. We are all telling ourselves lies about ourselves all the time. What happens when those lies become overtly malignant?'

Thursday, November 24, 2022

What if they never meant to leave directions

I’ve come to realize that pretty much everything I’ve written over the last twenty years, all the research I have pursued, all of the philosophical backwaters I have wandered, has been about trying to understand the history of our flight toward origins, and to understand that history as a kind of extensively elaborated practical joke. In large part, this is because I have come to believe that most of what Americans take for granted as history rests upon a similar structure, that the structure of a joke, a narrative figure that turns upon the physical immediacy of tension and release, is fundamentally the structure of our most preferred stories about ourselves; because the structure of tension and release is also the structure of our other favorite national story, which is the story of sin and redemption. We are drawn to the story of sin and redemption because we all know we are sinners and because we crave some absolution, in part because the promise of absolution means we can go on with our sinning, but because it affirms our conviction that there is an end to this road, and at the end of the road, we will finally be allowed to see the map. We like to believe that here is a destination and there is a path, and that there is someone ahead of us who knows the way, even if they have not been able to share all the turns we are going to have to take. This is the rousing fiction we all crave, the thing that, even if we can sense its logical inconsistency, allows us to get out of the bed in the morning and go about our business, to act as if we are participants in some greater design. This is why we enjoy conspiracies, it is why we enjoy ghost stories, this is why we call our prisons penitentiaries: we like the idea of a plot because it suggests that someone is in charge, that there is logic in play, and if we look hard enough to uncover it, we will have a blueprint for right and wrong that turns on the question of what is correct. And that what is correct will inevitably be good. The answer to the question “What is correct?” can of course only be answered provisionally, and therein lies the problem. This is particularly so in a society based upon multiple overlapping genocides, and these peculiar ways we have of talking about work and social belonging, these things we call race and gender and sexuality; a society in which security is established through and guaranteed by institutions whose complicity with power is tempered by the barest pretense of democratic engagements. There is no doubt an end, but presuming that someone made it there before us, what if they do not know how they got there either; what if they never meant to leave directions; what if they remain as confused as we are now, here, in this moment, even with the benefit of all that hindsight? One of the unlikely points of commonality between the United States and Lebanon is the propensity to establish claims of moral rectitude through recourse to religiously-sanctified notions of conspiracy and origins. This is perhaps not all that unusual, especially so in a world in which we have long concluded that the nation-state is somehow the most reasonable framework for the negotiation of social and political relations. Nonetheless, the enduring and conspicuous plurality of these nations, historically and presently, as well as their relative youth among the global community of nations, has all but ensured that, for Lebanon and the United States, the question of origins has been endowed with an inordinate degree of significance, and that it is pursued with all the vigor of a contact sport. Within modern Lebanon–the nation of Lebanon being a somewhat modern contrivance in itself–there remains an enduring fidelity to the mythos of the Phoenician past, and all the glorious achievements of the Phoenicians’ commercial empire, their skill as sea-borne navigators, their facility in business. In this inordinately contemporary mythos, the relative successes of people who might claim some diasporic relationship to Lebanon speaks to an innate, almost genetic disposition toward achievement; we are born this way. Conversely, those who have not achieved some reasonable measure of success have no one to blame but themselves and their ancestors. They were betrayed by the blood long before any of us who presently walk the earth had deigned to arrive. One of course cannot deny that certain cities in modern Lebanon can trace their histories through the history of Phoenicia’s Mediterranean empire. At the same time, certain inconvenient facts about the history of the Phoenician empire disappear in the present-day retelling, and one can never quite escape the feeling that contemporary obsessions with the Lebanese-Phoenician past accord, all too comfortably, with certain less than palatable strains of Lebanese Christian nationalism, strains that are right-wing, sectarian, and abiding in their exclusivity. Contemporary Phoenicianism is a way of imagining and ideally securing a national patrimony that is distinctively non-Arab and non-Muslim, a turning away from the East to the West, which of course is where the political entity we call Lebanon finds its actual origins–in the Sykes-Picot Accord, the Balfour Declaration, the Wilsonian pretense of the League of Nations, and the map of the world drawn by the imperialist powers in the years immediately following the first World War. Contemporary Phoenicianism is a way of turning toward the West, but also a means to circumvent the history of contemporary Lebanon’s imperialist origins by transforming the history of Phoenicia into a story about Europe, at large; about Phoenicia as giving birth to Europe, shifting narratives of European patrimonies away from Rome, or Constantinople, or the Battle of Hastings, or the Mongols or whatever, and rooting the geopolitical fictions of the present in the soil of the eastern Mediterranean, at Saida and Tyre, and the material histories of the Alexandrian conquest. As is often the case with American obsessions over origins, the unavoidable plurality of these historical precedents is not effaced so much as it is marshaled into service as evidence by which to dismiss any claim that the story itself bears certain marks of an exclusionary purpose; that is, that the story is only ever really about the ways in which we ratify certain types of social hierarchy in the present, and the symbolic methods by which class domination is secured, and exploitation is excused. The particular element of the American mythos of origins generally draws upon the history of the immigrant past as a means to negotiate the plurality we find in the present, to understand how so many different people find themselves together in a place none of them necessarily started out, and what might have become of the people that were already here to begin with. Of course, the facts of this history are generally molded to suit different political ends, in different moments, as we seek some kind of negotiation over the terms of our plurality, what it means, and how to live together when none of us really like each other, or bound to any sort of injunction that we must like one another. The idea of the immigrant history of the United States is not wholly incorrect, but more often than not, it has all too often served as a means of affirming, if implicitly, the settler colonial trope of a nation born of emptiness, a place that people have come to as a matter of choice, a place that has received far more than it has denied, a place that is perpetually in the business of its own renewal. On its face, this is not a wholly unpleasant story, but it is one that speaks more to the megalomaniacal egocentrism that haunts the national psyche than it does that it does the heartwarming generosity of a people disposed to suffer and to the suffering, a nation founded to alleviate the hunger of the huddled masses, to give them the room to take a breath. As with Lebanon, the inconvenient details of recent history only serve to expose the holes in the plot. The legacies of ethnic cleansing go missing; the theft of Indigenous land, cultures, strategies for survival, are forgotten; to say nothing of the offense done to the descendents those who were brought here in bondage, those whose bondage was conditioned by, and formative of, enduring notions of race and racial difference, of sexuality, labor, and the extraction of labor power. Slavery appears in this story as our great and foundational original sin, and Lincoln assumes the place of the Savior. Through his sacrifice, we attain absolution. We now live in a state of grace. Except of course we do not. All of this is insane. And yet somehow, I’m the one with the diagnosis. I’m the one who is crazy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The assembled guests chase down oblivion

I mean no disrespect. Being cracked myself, I tend to have an affection for those who are similarly afflicted. I also find much of the policing of language around the ways we talk about mental health more than a little bit tedious, and probably counterproductive. At this point, I prefer being called crazy to being called anything as lazy as bipolar. “Bipolar” suggests that the etiology of this condition, whatever is taking place in the relationship between my mind and my brain, my body and the society in which it has been placed, manic depression can be dignified by being understood as primarily organic, and that the organic is somehow more real than the affective. It is a somewhat clumsy way of ignoring the problem by making it into something that can be managed by the grand designs of pharmacology. It is also a particularly handy way of absolving manic depressives of blame: we did not do anything to deserve this, there is nothing we can do about it, just wait for the pill to kick in. It does not work like that. If it did, the crisis before us would not be so daunting. We did not do anything to deserve it or to cause it; this does not spare us the burden of it, or the inevitability that eventually we will have to work with it, and that maybe working with it, or trying to decipher it, is preferable to the alternative, which is the pretense that one can overcome it. Americans are big believers in “don’t dwell on it, move on,” a prescription that is itself suffused with the misplaced hopefulness of the settler and the frontier. Moreover, even as we claim not to, that the best solution is that we not dwell on “it”--whatever “it” may be–we dwell on “it” constantly, we talk about “it” constantly. Most of what we say is not particularly useful because it is designed for the confessional: we curate our sins so we might be absolved through the grace on offer from the other. But most of the time we usually tend to leave out the really juicy parts. This is one of the reasons I do not particularly like the word “trauma”. As it has come to be deployed in our post-Millennial cataclysm, the word has come to do entirely too much work, collapsing a wide range of emotionally peculiar or troubling circumstances into a single explanatory paradigm, often conflating the most banal forms of distress with the most terrible. From one angle, the fact of birth is traumatic; we call that trauma life, and it is the one thing we can never hope to recover from, the thing that sets us on the path to an impossible reparation, which is another word for desire. Grouping all difficult circumstances within a single descriptive frame does a disservice to the infinite variety of human experiences, overloading the sheer commonality of many of those experiences with undue liability for explanation or redress. With respect to wellness, whatever that is, saying “I have trauma,” or “I have been traumatized,” is about as useful as saying “I am bipolar”–it offers a most general description of a set of symptoms as if the description alone is curative, as if being aware of the symptoms is tantamount to recovery, as if there is nothing to be gained by an exploration of the symptoms or, as if there is someway all symptoms might be tallied. The actuarialism here is punishing. A therapist once asked me, “Have you ever asked yourself why you are depressed?” It was all I could do to restrain the acid rejoinder. “Do you really think I’ve gotten this far in life without wondering why I’m like this?” I wanted to say. “I’m a highly functioning, highly educated, manic depressive neurotic who displays certain minor symptoms of hysteria. Have I thought about why I am depressed? No, it never occurred to me to wonder. Does it not occur to you that the attempt at explaining myself to myself might in fact be part of the underlying problem?” All that being said, my great-grandfather was somebody who almost certainly came back from the war suffering the effects of war trauma. He was, of course, never diagnosed as such, and it does not seem that anyone around him really bothered to connect the dots. The only contemporary of my great-grandfather who left a written account of the man (outside of the obituary composed by his eldest son and namesake) describes Edward Grady as stern, unsmiling, and irascible, completely lacking in the buoyancy characteristic of his brothers and sisters. The Irish propensity for gallows humor, that occasionally remarked upon demonstration of a joyous fatalism, was completely absent in his person, and in his personal interactions. “From his childhood and on through the years, he made a great effort to isolate himself even from his own family….What unknown reasons were part of his decision to isolate himself, I do not know. His choices seemed to say, ‘Please leave me alone; I feel better within myself.’” This brief account of my great-grandfather and his personality was recorded by his nephew, Joseph L. Grady, who wrote a compendious history of the family stretching back to Clare Island, to County Mayo, to Kilgarvan, Kilitmagh, and Killarney. By and large, the Joseph Grady account does not dwell overlong on any single person or speculate on their motivations for the choices they made or how they did or did not choose to live their lives. Every life is singular, but in the written history of the family, pretty much everyone seemed to be cast from similar molds; where there was variability, it was not worth accounting for. Which makes Joe’s account of my great-grandfather all the more striking, as is the implicit denial that there might be anything behind Edward’s eccentricities. Ed was just like this, Joe tells his readers–most of whom would likely have been family members–no one knows why, it is just how he was. Joe does mention that Ed had a distinguished record of service in the war, but makes no gesture to connect his more inscrutable choices–his decision, in 1919, to become a homesteader on land that was long-settled and extensively developed, for instance–speaks to the ruination that stems from the silences, from a Catholic trust in the power of absolution as endlessly ameliorative. I have a modest proposal, or is it an addendum: Edward Grady was not well. One cannot know this for certain, and one cannot blame him for this if it is a reasonably correct assessment of his person. Indeed, it does not need to be correct; it needs to be truthful, which is a more precarious business, all around. In a nation that has never not been at war, somewhere, in some capacity, the fact that we have been able to evade the question for so long–What has all of this done to us? What is it doing to us?–is perhaps the clearest evidence we have of our boundless capacity for misrecognition, for the impossibility of self-recognition in the Socratic sense. Our culture was forged in war, and in the desire for redemption, to know that one is redeemed. Confronted with the injunction to know ourselves, most of us respond with Bartelby, the implacable emblem of the national soul: “I prefer not to.” As is generally the case, the silence that clusters around traumatic circumstances only serves to compound the original injury, as the person who has been traumatized seeks some form of redress by dividing up the circumstances of the injury and distributing them to those who are trapped in his orbit. Joe Grady’s account is marked by this unwelcome dispensation, and it carries it forward, neatly sidestepping the dangerous fact of Edward’s illness by taking refuge in the heartwarming trappings of late immigrant romance, of hearth and family and achievement, of celebrity and sport as synecdoches for working-class ambition, and substitutes for the achievements born through social solidarities. “Reaction among his family and friends to his announced intentions was just plain amazement. Why would he pursue this course when the times and change had made it unnecessary?” A reasonable question, one to which the author attempts no reasonable answer. Instead, what we get is this: “I have a memory of that woods,” Joe writes, “for it was there among those majestic oaks, ironwood, butternut and some poplars, that a large family picnic was held on July 4, 1919, the day that Jack Dempsey won the world’s heavyweight boxing title from Jess Willard….I remember well the sumptuous feast of homecooking that was in progress when someone arrived from town with the news of the outcome of the fight. It had just come over the wire to the Monona depot.” Close your eyes and think of Dempsey; let your misplaced pride be a salve. It bears mentioning that, in Joe’s account, the world goes missing yet again. The woods, the farm, the food: these constitute the physical shape of my great-grandfather’s silence, a silence that will haunt my grandfather and his siblings, my mother and hers, and–in some portion, in some way that I have only started to consider, myself, my sister, my cousins. I speak for none of these people except myself, and I can barely speak for myself, for some of the reasons I have already outlined. For now, let me point out, in this brief account of immigrants and the children of immigrants, the new home takes shape in the undignified quiet that is the lot of the old. Ireland disappears. Its recent history, its present history, the fields and the famine, the Easter and the uprising, the relationship of a place once so dearly held, so vibrant, so well cherished, is conveniently forgotten as, through food and fighting, the assembled guests chase down oblivion.

Monday, November 07, 2022

The histories of the worlds and the worlds they made

One of the reasons we Midwesterners do not like to think of ourselves as being in the world is that the world was already here long before we deigned to show up. Long before the French Creole trader and financier Auguste Chouteau ran aground near the site of what would become the city of St. Louis, the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers was the site of the ancient city of Cahokia, built and inhabited by Indigenous peoples known to historians only as the Mound Builders. At the height of its power, Cahokia commanded an immediate hinterland that extended fifty miles in all directions, and a population of some 40,000, but its trade networks penetrated far deeper into the continent. The mounds built at Cahokia were, well into the nineteenth century, some of the largest constructions in North America; the Mound Builders fashioned them in a ceremonial relationship with the skies, to celestial events, most conspicuously, to the movement of the sun. The people who once inhabited Cahokia had largely abandoned the city itself by the time Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the beaches of the island known to its Native inhabitants as Guanahani but that Europeans would later call the Bahamas–a word that might by derived from the Lucayan Taino language, but might also be a corruption of the Spanish word “bajamar,” meaning “shallow waters.” It is not entirely clear what drove the depopulation of Cahokia in the period before colonization–political conflicts, internal wars, over hunting and over farming are all possible explanations, as is the possibility of a mass death precipitated by viruses introduced by earlier waves of European explorers that had been less disposed to settlement–but it is generally believed that the people of Cahokia would go on to join older Indigenous nations both east and west of the city, or to form new communities from the remains of their old polity. These would be the nations that, from the early seventeenth century, Europeans would meet and come to rely upon as trading partners, confidents, and informants. If it is not already a truism that European settlers could not have survived in their New World without Native help, as well as the gift–and, later, outright theft–of Indigenous know-how, it should be. Native peoples sustained Europeans throughout the Americas–not because they were particularly altruistic, but because Europeans seemed to be interesting trading partners, people who dealt in unfamiliar goods that, if not immediately useful, were beautifully seductive. They also looked upon these raggedy newcomers with a certain degree of pity. For most reasonable people, it is hard to watch somebody starve; it is easier if you do not have to see them waste away. So, Native peoples helped to keep Europeans alive. Their generosity would not go unpunished. The worldliness of this encounter–the world-making violence of the encounter–would be quite deliberately dis-remembered. By the time my family showed up in Iowa, the ethnic cleansing of Native peoples was largely complete across the Midwest, while the regulation of Black people and Black mobility, the ability of freedpeople to move within and between states, was just getting underway. Many radical Abolitionists had hailed from Iowa–in 1859, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, US Congressman from Iowa’s fourth district, had sheltered John Brown after Brown’s attacks on pro-slavery forces in Kansas; after Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1860, the village of Winfield, Iowa changed its name to Harper’s Ferry, something that later generations would claim had nothing to do with Brown–but in the years following the Civil War the state legislature passed new law barring Black settlement within its borders, and attempted to limit the movement of freedpeople in the state. Both of these processes would prove to be to the advantage of later generations of European immigrants, particularly among the Irish immigrants who found a welcoming home among an earlier generation of French-American Catholics. A certain strand of my family history is woven through this larger tapestry, dependent upon, and contributing to, the reproduction of state counter-sovereignty and the jealously acquisitive logic of capital accumulation. The farm on which my mother grew up, on which her father had grown up, the farm his father had carved into forty acres of wooded land just a few miles west of the Mississippi in Monona Township, was once part of what was called “the Black Hawk Purchase.” Ceded to the US government under the terms of the treaty that ended the so-called Black Hawk War of 1832, the Black Hawk Purchase involved the sale of a strip of land on the western banks of the Mississippi, exacted as an indemnity for Sauk and Fox involvement in the conflict. Fifty miles at both ends, and forty at the middle, the strip extended from the northern border of Missouri–a border that remained in dispute until 1839, when the Supreme Court determined the border to be fixed at the site of Keokuk’s village on the Des Moines Rapids–to the mouth of the Upper Iowa River as it drains into the Mississippi. All told, the Black Hawk Purchase covered about six million acres of land, much of it in what geologists now call the Driftless Region, the topographical peculiarity that extends for maybe a hundred miles east and west of the Mississippi above the Missouri drainage, the only area in the Midwest that, because it was not leveled by glaciers during the last ice age, has hills, and forests, and is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety percent of the region’s naturally occurring water features–streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, limestone aquifers and underground springs. This land, in 1832, was held, in large part, by Indian nations who were not themselves party to the Black Hawk War or to the treaty that ended the war. It was not land the Sauk and the Fox had any compellingly exclusive claim over, much less a right to sell. This, of course, did not much matter to the architects of American empire. For what they stole, the US paid the Sauk and Fox a little less than a quarter million dollars; many of the regular soldiers who were witnesses and signatories to the treaty would go on to settle on the southern shores of Lake Michigan near the scraggly little settlement that would very quickly rise to become St. Louis’s most direct competitor in the region and the nation, the old French trading post at Chicago. By the time my great-grandfather bought the land that he would make into his farm, in 1919, the memory of Black Hawk and the Black Hawk Purchase had mostly passed from the land, and the dominance of Chicago over agricultural markets in what had become the West was a foregone conclusion. The arcane witchery of what would evolve into the Chicago futures exchange, of course, bedevils Midwestern farmers to this day. My great-grandfather was part of this chicanery, his labor helping to ensure that his efforts to eke a living from the soil would be forever undermined by the unknown presences that haunted the trading pits of a far distant city. One of many workers who would, over decades, essay forth the spellcraft by which a quasi-national rail infrastructure would come to participate in the transformation of agricultural commodities into troublesome financial instruments, my great-grandfather was incidentally adjacent this history, having spent some portion of his later twenties working on the electrification of the stretch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad that spanned Montana and Idaho. While the rail network linking Chicago to the Pacific had been completed decades earlier, the electric EF-1 and EF-2 locomotives pioneered by the American Locomotive Company and General Electric promised a reduction of costs through greater fuel efficiency and more consistency with respect to schedules, allowing for more efficient–or at least more convincing–means of assessing supply, demand, and value. The wages my great-grandfather drew from this employment were most likely the basis for the capital he used to purchase his land in Iowa; they were no doubt augmented by work on the Milwaukee Road ended in 1917, when he was drafted into the military and sent to France, where he was one of the 1.2 million American soldiers who fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Over a third of the soldiers who fought in the six week Meuse-Argonne campaign died on the battlefield. My great-grandfather did not. He survived the campaign and was mustered out of the service shortly after the Armistice. He came back to Iowa physically unharmed, but by most accounts, he came back from the war maybe just a little bit cracked. Seeing the world he was of may have broken him.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Capitalist Agriculture, Cuisine, and the History of Modern War

The politics of war and of presidential elections are perhaps the most conspicuous examples of the ways in which Iowa is in the world it so fervently denies; but, of course, Iowa has long been in the world long before Iowa was a place one could point to on a map, long before the contemporary borders of the state had been laid down; long before settlers arrived to carve their cruel grammar into the land. This particular piece of land was once fought over by far distant imperial powers, each seeking to leverage their position in the region to realize some kind of competitive advantage over the others. These late to arrive empires were never not in dialogue with the Indigenous nations who lived on this land, who stewarded the land over untold generations. Upon their arrival, the agents of foreign empires were quick to realize that one of the surest strategies for establishing and maintaining control of the land and its resources was to stoke the jealousies that obtained among Native peoples, to establish alliances between European and Indigenous nations that would encourage competition among disparate peoples over a necessarily finite and dwindling resource base, thus establishing commerce as a hedge against forms of alliance and confederation among Natives, or between Natives and settlers. The violence of this process was very much in the world, of the world, and it made the world anew, a new world of settler fantasies of mobility and desire, of wish-fulfillment as infinitely capacious, of never being denied that which one wants. From the first, these fantasies were tethered to an economy organized largely–though not exclusively–around agriculture. While the earliest settlers arrived as traders and trappers, part of the luxury economy built around the capture of game for the harvesting of furs, the growth of extractive industries and a corresponding market in land as property, encouraged the development of settler agriculture, particularly around grain and livestock. For settlers, as it concerned the business of sustaining life and expanding trade, domesticated farm animals were infinitely preferable to wild game animals, the populations of which, in addition to be mobile and thus notoriously unreliable as a source of food, were dwindling in the face of an increasing settler population, and the commercialization of the hunt among Native peoples. These processes were abetted, and new structures enforced, as a consequence of the regional lead industry, and the rising industrial production of munitions, small arms, and bullets. Rock Island, site of the primary village of the Sauk nation, was captured through a series of military engagements between 1831 and 1832, culminating in the so-called Black Hawk War. Fortified by the US military since 1816, in the 1880s, as the US was poised to enter into a new era of foreign conquest, Rock Island was converted into an armory and a weapons plant. As of 2022, the Rock Island Arsenal remains the single largest–as it is the only–federally-owned weapons manufactory in the United States. In Iowa, we prefer to think of agriculture as something quaint, if not antique; the image of farm and family provides agreeable cover for a whole lot of nefarious doings. The legal fiction of US sovereignty over this particular piece of the continent is invested with the affective power of this image, and we hold it dear. To think about the overlapping histories of violence by which this land was acquired, the histories of violence by which its peoples have been party, demands that we attend to a far more ugly history than the one we like to entertain, one whose complications cannot be easily accounted for, much less resolved. That the United States came to assume dominion over this piece of land because France was about to lose control of sugar production in the colony of Saint-Domingue, and the Mississippi River was less and less necessary to the provisioning of France’s territories in the Caribbean, presents us with a difficult truth. We did not do it on our own, we did not, and we never have. Settlers could flock to the banks of the river and make it over in the perverse image of their insatiable hungers only because a bunch of Black insurgents on an island two thousand miles away succeeded in liberating themselves from what was–at the time–the most powerful and strategically canny military force in the world. This fact does not sit well. Because we are a free people and we worked for what we had, it must not be true. It cannot be true, because it does not feel right. So we should ignore it, just as we should probably ignore the price Haiti paid for its freedom, the indemnity it was forced to pay to France as the cost of its freedom being perhaps the single most profound cause of the impoverishment of the island over the past two centuries, of the underdevelopment of its resources, and its peoples. That many of our relations showed up in this place because of the underdevelopment of another island nation, of a small place in the North Atlantic, by another imperial power should perhaps prompt some sense of kinship with the people of Haiti. It does not. This too is ironic, and another reason why we Midwesterners do not appreciate irony. The business of Midwestern agriculture–the expansion of agricultural production across the plains, the destruction of old growth forests and prairie lands, the emergence of markets and transportation infrastructures, was always about the world, about feeding the world. This seems like an eminently laudable goal until one begins to account for all that was destroyed, all the forms of life, respirant and inert, that were upended in service to the imperatives of capital, its accumulation and maldistribution. Zea mays, the grass plant Americans call “corn,” was engineered by Indigenous agriculturalists well over a thousand years ago; the multifarious varietals of corn are preserved, still, by Indigneous nations throughout the Americas. It fell to settlers to embark upon the commodification of maize through ever-expansive industrial scale agricultural practices, and the transformation of corn into a staple in the diets of humans and animals around the world. Processed as a sweetener, corn is an ingredient in virtually every food product humans consume. Those of us who eat meat or who are dependent upon infrastructures of electrification consume corn far less inconspicuously, inasmuch as corn provides fodder for livestock, or is processed for fuel as ethanol, or consumed in the form of methane derived from animal excrement. One of the single largest contributors to greenhouse gasses and planetary heating, cattle farming in the Midwest is presently as much about the production of manure as it is about the production of meat. The image of the farm as bucolic idyll is part of the stockpile of delusions by which we have come to ignore the ways in which the very practices of industrial scale agriculture undermine the very possibility of the family farm and its long-term survival, the practices that undermine the possibility of farming as an act of ecological stewardship. Capitalist agriculture was always about feeding the world, in making a new world for capitalism by sustaining the reproduction of workers, increasing the supply of available workers and sponsoring competition among them by rendering them disposable, thereby undermining wages and inhibiting the formation of class-based solidarities. Which is to say it capitalist agriculture was always about class domination and sex, about gender and sex as terrains of class warfare, and about war as a technology of population management and resource control. Provisioning the military, feeding the troops, has always been a notoriously fraught aspect of war, just as the waging of war, the distribution of troops across different zones of conflict, has of necessity allowed for exchanges among different food cultures, introducing soldiers to unfamiliar forms of food, uncommon cuisines, and unusual modes of food preparation. The history of conquest is written into the history of food culture. Corn, potatoes and tomatoes all became staples of European food cultures through the conquest of the Americas; forms of Mexican cuisine enter the American diet after the US-Mexico War of 1846-48. Cane sugar is, of course, a relic of a long and torturous history of colonial warfare throughout west Africa and the colonization Indigenous lands in the Caribbean. American GIs developed a taste for sushi during and after the US occupation of Japan. Sushi chefs in the US would later develop the California roll and the Philadelphia roll, which would be exported back to Japan during the US war in Vietnam. Those workers who built the infrastructures necessary to the production, circulation, and distribution of agricultural produce, those tens of thousands of immigrants from the Chinese province of Guangdong, adapted elements of Cantonese cuisine to the tastes of miners who flocked to the West in pursuit of mineral wealth. James Beard contended that it was amateur chefs among Chinese workers who first developed the Denver omelet, which was–he believed–a distant cousin to the St. Paul sandwich, a long-time staple of Chinese restaurants in St. Louis, composed of an egg foo young patty, served on two slices of white bread, slathered in mayonnaise, and garnished with lettuce, tomato and pickle. The entanglements of capitalist food cultures are expressions of what Lisa Lowe has referred to as the intimacies of four continents, the asymmetrical relationships that obtain between Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia, the forms of extraction and accumulation sustained by the military violence of imperial warfare. As a matter of military logistics, in the modern era–or, at least, since the Napoleonic wars–going to war and feeding an army has entailed certain innovations in food preparation, of the large scale processing of fruits and vegetables and meat, and the preservation of these staples through the introduction of the metal tins, the industrialization of canning and meat packing. Again, we are back in the Midwest. We are with Hormel in Austin, which is a city in Minnesota that is not named for Stephen Austin, the Virginian-cum-Kentuckian-cum-Missourian who would become “the father of Texas” but for another settler who conscended to bear the Austin family name. We are with Agriprocessors, and the Rubashkin family of deepest Brooklyn, with Guatemalan workers and the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate, with the producers and consumers of kosher meats. And somehow, magically, we are with energy markets. It starts with SPAM, it ends with Shabbat, and how we keep the lights on during the sabbath. And something somewhere is about inflation at the pump and who will win the election this year. This is a long and winding road, but we must drive it if we hope to figure out how to get to our destination. We do not yet know what that destination is, and how we will get to this place we do not yet know is really anyone's guess. Somewhere, we will get back to the question that set us going. Was Grandpa in the CIA?