How do we move from product to process as academic writers?

I’m teaching a thesis writing class this year. This time around, I’ve been documenting the warm up exercises and tools that I use in the class a bit better than I did last year and for some reason I thought it would be worth sharing this one. Just like today’s annoying cooking blogs, there is a preamble, which you can skip if you just want the recipe.

It’s a truism in the study of teaching writing that focusing on the product of writing does not help students become better writers – Donald Murray’s 1972 piece “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product” is (depressingly) still a good read. And there are a surprising number of productivity blog posts re-packaging “process not product” advice as though it’s brand new. Often the explanation for how to see writing as a process follows Murray’s lead, identifying “process” as including pre-writing as well as revision. Thus, we begin to see a much bigger field of activity beyond sitting down with cursor or pen as part of writing – reading, taking notes, reflecting, sharing work, talking about what we’re writing about, going back in and polishing it, and much more. This is really useful, but it’s insufficient especially for academic writers working on any longer sort of project like a thesis or dissertation. If we had some success making it through undergraduate paper writing, or even the sort of writing we do in grad classes, chances are good that we got habituated towards writing with a timeframe amenable to producing written chunks in the area of 25-30 pages, where we’d build for a term towards a final paper. Sometimes there’re “process” bits, like draft-writing or the option to revise short work into the longer final product. But it’s usually still possible to write and revise in intensive bursts, pushing through procrastination with a mix of adrenaline, guilt, terror, boredom, and fear to produce something that can be turned in.

For longer work, including the kind of work practice that can sustain us as writers over a lifetime, this approach isn’t good. In fact, it’s terrible and one of the reasons writing is an occasion for so much unnecessary suffering. This approach to writing is politically important, too, as it’s embedded in a metric-organized neoliberal system of measurable and rewardable production of content; perhaps it’s not explicitly meant to shut down odd, creative, twisty, unpredictable writing, but it does. And it does this disproportionally, so that the writers that we don’t ever get to read are racialized, working-class, and otherwise outside the academic mainstream.

The product-oriented writing approach is ripe for and maybe even produces perfectionism-procrastination and magical thinking; when we have something due at a particular time and we haven’t worked on it at all, we can slide into the pattern of thinking that somehow it’ll all just come together. Writing is often non-linear and moves at enormous speed, unpredictably, but I’ve observed that often grad students in particular take incompletes in classes in order to finish term papers, and then become hopelessly stuck.

And so the advice often is to pick a process, but I haven’t seen much explanation of how actually you do that. So here’re two “how” suggestions.

The recipe: Writing process two ways

1. Attend to yourself when you are writing – even when you’re writing in a product-oriented way, since that’s probably the main way you’re writing. Notice what you feel like, what feels good and what feels hard. Notice what music you like, who you’re with, whether you’re writing by hand or on the computer. Notice where you are, what you did to get there, what your entry sequence was. Notice your body, your breath, how you feel. Pick three of the things that, simply, feel like they’re working with some ease and try to do those things again this week. So, if you feel good in a cafe, with noise-cancelling headphones, using a website-blocking software that helps you not randomly scroll through the internet for a fixed amount of time, do that again. If you feel good in a library with silence and a particular friend, see if they will come to the library with you again. If you like writing in a bar in a paper notebook with eight books stacked around you and a particular hat on, try to do that again. See how that feels. If it feels good, do it again. In the second week, try to do that thing two or three times. For most of us, in our real worlds, two or three times of doing writing a week is going to be fabulous, amazing. Some of us have writing processes that allow us to touch in to writing daily or many times a week – also wonderful.

This approach is to set up times and places where you write and to trust that if you show up there and do some writing, you’ll have done some writing and eventually a product will emerge, particulate from a solution. This approach starts from the smallest and least outcome oriented approach you can find, and looks at what happens if you build on it. It’s iterative and completely content-free, and for that reason might sound good but not stick at all. So there’s also idea #2.

2. Think of a product you know you want to produce, and the date by which you need it. Then start inquiring further:
◆ How many words does this thing need to be?
◆ What are the different parts it will have? How many words are those parts, typically (in your own past writing, in the genre you’re writing in, in examples of papers or dissertations that have been successful)?
◆ How many writing sessions are realistically possible between now and the date the thing is due? How many units of writing will make up a session? (Where the most common units are pomdoros or 45-minute increments)
⁃ This should itself be a separate recipe. To determine a writing session, you need to also have a work week, which basically means having a day or two off which you take as entitlement not reward – a weekend. Then you have the work you need to do to sustain your life, like groceries exercise showers seeing friends. Then you perhaps have wage work. All of these things take reasonably fixed amounts of time, and the “writing sessions” that are possible are also units of time. I’ve observed that no academic writer I know can sustainably write more than three 45-minute units in any given work day, and usually we do much less – in my life being able to do between three and ten units a week is quite luxurious.
◆ How much do you write, un-edited, in a unit? How many of them will you need to make it to the product you have? Or conversely,
◆ How much will you need to write in each unit in order to make it to your product?
◆ How many other products are you supposed to produce in this time frame? Is it actually possible to do them? If it’s not, how are you going to manage that?
◆ Assign a number of sessions or units to any given week, and plug away through the words until you have a draft.

I’ve found it useful to think about the ways that products and processes are different. Notably, a process is a human experience, an activity, a thing we are doing. It has duration, material reality, an affect or a mood. It is something, by definition, that it is possible to do because it is fundamentally nothing other than a doing. A process is not a crisis, or an exception. A process is amenable to habit. We can make a process small enough that it doesn’t terrify us, small enough that we’re not able to fail at it. And this means we can make processes that allow us to write, and that is worth doing.

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Misogynist trans-hating: Neither radical nor feminist.

Some people want us to stop using the term “TERF” (“Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist”). I think there are indeed good options for replacing “TERF.” I suggest perhaps we should go with “Misogynist Trans-Hating Person” which we could shorten to “MTraHP” if we need to say it out loud. This solves a core problem in “TERF,” which is the idea that trans-hating is either radical or feminist.

I’ve been arguing with people who hate and distrust trans women for longer than the term “TERF” has existed. Many of those arguments were during the decade in which I was heavily involved with community radio, because I programmed women’s music shows and was part of a feminist radio collective that did interviews and news. That decade happened to coincide with some of the conflicts around whether the Michigan Women’s Music Festival should exclude trans women. If you cared about music, culture, and gender oppression, there was not a way to be present in those scenes and not participating in those conversations.

I came into feminism through radical feminism as it was articulated by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and there are still so many things I value about my foremothers’ insights. First, I value the understanding that people experience harm because we are socially organized into groups, or classes, in ways that have real material consequences; women are oppressed as a class, and men as a class benefit from gender oppression. Second, the insight that there is no such thing as an innate gender remains really vital to me – women are not more nurturing, delicate, kind, or whatever because of some internal or biological command. Third, I will always love and find inspiration in the insight that we can fundamentally transform social relations, that the world does not have to be this way.

I moved away from the kind of feminism espoused by MacKinnon beginning from learning more about her role in the anti-pornography case R. v. Butler, and its effects on lesbian and queer erotica. I spent a lot of time thinking about the definition there of pornography and its results, and then reflecting more deeply on the question of how sex and sexuality play out if we define masculinity as violating women and eroticizing it and femininity as being violable. The debates about excluding trans women from women’s spaces were clarifying, and I began to worry about the ways that people calling themselves feminists allied themselves with conservatives and the religious right. Directly allying with people who wanted to control women’s bodies and movement seemed to contradict the political force of what I understood as radical feminism. Now I have criticisms of the ways that those early feminist texts were extremely racist, and the ways that the politics have aligned to materially harm sex workers. Those are longer and more complex stories, though they’re connected.

The current manifestation of trans-hating billing itself as “radically feminist” is both evil and internally incoherent. It is internally incoherent because it simultaneously argues that there is no inherent femininity or masculinity and that the roots of male supremacy lay in biological sex. It argues that gender is imposed on us as a social relation with material realities and that biology determines our place in those social relations in ways that we can never transform. It argues that gender relations can and must change and that no one ever assigned “male” can be part of liberation. It is evil because hurts people as a necessary outgrowth of its view.

And this is how current manifestations of trans-hating are neither radical nor feminist. The notion of “radical” names the possibility that we can fundamentally transform the deepest structures and the most ordinary manifestations of oppression – we can go to the root. It’s not radical to drivel away about patriarchy, dominant ideologies, and systemic class oppression and then to pivot to examining my genitalia as a way to determine my reproductive capacity. That’s exactly what sexist conservative patriarchs do! And it’s not feminist to say that gender oppression is immutable and comes down to what genitals we have and how the people around us when we were little kids treated us. Indeed, that’s one beautiful thing about feminism. Feminism allows us to understand that no matter what people who hate us told us we could be, we can be so much more than they can ever imagine.

So, yeah. I’m totally happy to take back the “radical” and the “feminist” from people who ally themselves with conservative bathroom bill writers who were happy to prevent lesbian fiction crossing the Canadian border in the 90s. Maybe we can just call them what they are – misogynist trans-hating people. So much less confusing.

***I have edited this post to connect only Catharine MacKinnon to the Butler decision, after hearing a clarification about that from Andrea Dworkin’s life partner, John Stoltenberg. He also shared with me three articles which I found illuminating, in part because they show that anti-trans currents cannot legitimately claim that radical feminism implies being against trans women. I’m sharing them here.

These are a memoir-style reflection, “Andrea Was Not Transphobic,” and an essay opposing biological essentialism: “Biological Essentialism: Radical Feminism’s Most Diversionary and Counterrevolutionary Idea.”

And this is an interview with MacKinnon in which she clearly supports trans people. (This interview is, per MacKinnon’s view, strongly negative about sex work, so heads up on that content included in it.)

Advice for grad students writing SSHRC and OGS grant applications

Here are the notes and links to the recordings of an informal workshop on doing the initial writing for the SSHRC or OGS programs of study. It is specific to the Canadian context but may have something useful for folks elsewhere. Other caveat: This recording was made from Zoom for the participants beaming in remotely, so it’s a weird camera angle etc.

Audio versions are available through this link

Video versions:
1/3: https://youtu.be/RvxZJ9NtAA4
2/3: https://youtu.be/QqNllpaZLnE
3/3: https://youtu.be/hSXEXn7RNQU

Credit to Karen Kelsky, whose “Foolproof Grant Template” has been very useful to my thinking. I diverge from her in recommending that people do not think about things in terms of “a gap in the literature,” instead framing their work in terms of what we lose if this research is not done, what we gain if it can be accomplished. As I mention in the workshop, I had a dreadful experience working with Dr. Kelsky on one of my grant applications and thus never recommend her one-on-one, but heartily recommend her writing in many areas.

The anatomy of a SSHRC or OGS Program of Study

 Title:

 Context, Objectives, and Research Question:

  1. Statement that positions the reader with you, perceiving the widest possible relevance of the issue/problem you’re attending to.
  2. At least two and no more than three academic spaces in which this topic has been addressed.
  3. However, there has not been sufficient attention to/no one has yet examined/studied/etc … [what happens when we bring these together, attend to a specific area of the big context, etc]
  4. Why does is matter that this has not been addressed, or addressed in the way that you will do it? What bad thing happens? What good thing happens when we do address it? “Without x, we are left with inadequate Y to make important policy decisions…”
  5. I am applying for this grant to address this problem/contribute to the conversation in this way.
  6. “In my graduate work, I will examine X in order to …” “My dissertation asks, …”
  7. Specifics: more about what you will do, ask, investigate
  8. Disciplinary context – what is the conversation you’re participating in?

 Methodology:

  1. “In order to investigate [the question] I will…”; what do you need to do an how do you need to do it to answer your questions?
  2. Data analysis and processing
  3. How is this an excellent approach for your research?
  4. How is it reasonable and possible?
  5. How you’ll address any ethical concerns

 (your) Academic Background and present context: (How awesome are you! why is Carleton such a great place for you to do this work?)

Project Timeline:

Contributions/summing up:

 

Advice on planning to finish your dissertation this year

Here are the recordings, and below are the notes, from a workshop on planning to finish a dissertation in the next year. There are many things specific to Carleton, and I’m making these available especially for the folks who were not able to attend in person, but perhaps they will be useful. Other caveat: This recording was made from Zoom for the participants beaming in remotely, so it’s a weird camera angle etc.

The audio recordings of this workshop are available through this link.

And the video versions are here:
1/4: https://youtu.be/wLkH9kISiEE
2/4: https://youtu.be/SgOULmeZKiQ
3/4: https://youtu.be/RCw_xjbGbCg
4/4: https://youtu.be/baUXYSPCDgE

  1. Orienting yourself, your close ones, your supervisor and committee
    1. Yourself: what do you know about how you actually work? How are you doing? When are things reasonably possible, when are they very hard? Making the internal shift definitively.
    2. Close ones: recognize that “I will be a good parent/partner/friend/lover/etc after I’m done with this dissertation” is not a workable plan. What do the people supporting you need for basic care? How can giving them that also support your process?
    3. Supervisors and committee: how do yours actually work? What do you need to do to convince them that you’re finishing this year and they should sit up and take notice? Assessing how much they believe you about what you’re doing.
  2. Where are you at?
    1. Back-outlining what the dissertation is
    2. The title question
    3. Formatting
    4. Mapping the continuum from the “aspirational dissertation” to the “hang-my head dissertation”

 

  1. Getting a real view of the timelines

DD -6 months: Confirm with your supervisor and committee that you are planning to finish the dissertation within six months, and get a clear sense of what they think will be required to meet that plan

DD -3 months: Submit full draft of dissertation to committee (they may take as much as a month to return comments)

DD -10-12 weeks: Discuss with supervisor who to invite as the External and Internal External (they will approach these people to invite them to serve in these roles)

DD -8 weeks: Submit Submission of PhD Thesis for Defense form

DD -6 weeks: Upload final defense copy to Carleton Central (no further revisions possible)

Defense date

  1. The doing part: Planning activity rather than outcome, but checking on outcomes. Determine your metrics (words? Time? Anything other than “tired must stop”). Scheduling writing. Assuming that the worst happens, and the good-enough dissertation. If-then loops. Limiting work. Committing to breaks and play.
  2. At the end: “managing-up” the administrative apparatus gatekeeping finishing

 

 

Unclean eating for #settlervegans

I think of Brecht’s poem “To those who follow in our wake.” One stanza says:

They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad to be among the haves!
But how can I eat and drink
When I take what I eat from the starving
And those who thirst do not have my glass of water?
And yet I eat and drink.

Written in 1939, in exile from Germany, Brecht’s context is profoundly different than ours. And yet, when he writes: “I ate my food between slaughters/I laid down to sleep among murderers/I tended to love with abandon” I find that he speaks to questions that remain current. Brecht’s answer to the question But how can I eat and drink/ When I take what I eat from the starving/ And those who thirst do not have my glass of water?: Make trouble for the rulers. When you are betrayed to the slaughterer, hope that your death causes them to sit easier on their throne – which is to say, while we dwell in this life of eating and drinking although (and sometimes because) others starve and thirst, make rulers sit on that throne with less ease.

I think we can make trouble for our rulers through turning our attention to what it would take to answer the question how should we eat. This re-orientation starts with shifting to a relational understanding of consumption. I follow Lisa Heldke in this productive shift from substance ontologies to relational ontologies in thinking about food. She argues that many of our ethical decisions about food come down to what are in effect substance ontologies – that some particular thing is to be eaten, or not eaten, and the “eatability” quotient depends on the characteristics of the thing in question. As Heldke notes, substance ontologies give us a lot of traction on individual decision making – they can have a kind of clarity of classification, and their epistemic demands are fairly mild. So, if you have decided for reasons to not eat meat, all you need to know is if some given food contains it to decide whether or not you’ll eat it. In thinking about the specifically ethical and political dimensions of what to eat, Heldke notes that substance ontologies are less helpful. Asking why you eat or don’t eat meat opens the question of how to decide which animals suffer, why we attend primarily to mega-fauna, what considerations show up aiming to present further global warming, and how to assess the comparative needs to beings involved in food systems. Heldke also suggests that there is a kind of moral absolutism frequently bundled with substance ontologies that actively gets in the way of attending to the relations involved in making something food. As she writes:

Food, in particular, is deeply relational—by definition. To be food is to be (defined as) something that can be eaten by something else, and eating is, of course, a relationship. But the relational character of food extends far beyond the stage at which it is actually consumed. To become food—to be rendered edible, palatable, delicious—means that a living thing has been part of scores of relationships, both natural and cultural: with the soil in which a plant is grown and the sun and rain that enable its growth; with the factory workers who process a raw material for market; with the heat and the metal pan that turn an ingredient into a “dish” in someone’s home. In industrialized society, foods are the products of extremely long and complex sets of relationships (Heldke 83).

Thinking about all food choices as relational, as “with-y,” in Heldke and Raymond Boisvert’s terms, constellates them as congealed relations; this orientation opens ethical and political questions so that we can consider our responsibilities to a much broader and more complex web of interconnections.

Immediately, a relational ontology unsticks previously frozen decision making; instead of judging the ethical and political relationships of consumption based on the substances being consumed, we can ask about the relationships congealed or enacted in the consumption. We’re not eating things, we’re participating in relationships, and how responsibility to those relationships unfolds is contextual. The context and meaning-making of consumption is situated in relation not only to the distribution of power, harm, benefit, and more as it’s practiced in the present; that context is also a trace of the history that shapes the material conditions of eating, drinking, and so on.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s short story “Circles Upon Circles” describes a Nishnaabeg mom, who has been out gathering wild rice with her family; as they put the canoe on the car and start to leave her settler partner gets into a discussion with some fellow settlers who would prefer to have a beach on the lake, rather than the shallow waters that wild rice plants need to grow. The narrator reflects:

They want a beach. We want the rice beds. You can’t have both. They want to win. We need to win. They’ll still be white people if they don’t have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won’t be Missisaugua if they can’t ever do a single Missisaugua thing. (Simpson 78)

Substance ontologies focus on the rice; is it good or bad to eat local, wild-harvested rice? Relational ontologies look at the context in which rice is tended, harvested, related with, and the web of historical and present relationships that make up what we are. And these relational ontologies are not fixed by, for example, categories like “Indigenous” and “settler,” nor do Indigenous practices of relationality with hunted animals translate to settler practices of eating factory-farmed meat. As Margaret Robinson has argued about veganism and Mi’Kmaq legends, there are specific contexts in which animals are understood as offering themselves as a sacrifice so that others can live. As she says,

The values obtained from an ecofeminist exegesis of Mi’kmaq stories can serve as a starting point for an Indigenous veganism. The personhood of animals, their self-determination, and our regret at their death, all show that choosing not to ask for their sacrifice is a legitimately Aboriginal option. (193)

She continues:

Because Aboriginal people are the targets of genocide, the cultural practices we adopt or reject are vitally important…Some may argue that the embodiment of Mi’kmaq values into new practices, such as veganism, is not a legitimate development, and may even threaten the ways our treaty rights are assessed by others. Yet those who value only the preservation of an unchanging tradition join with the colonial powers in seeing no place for contemporary Indigeneity. There is more to our culture and to our relationship with the land, particularly as women, than hunting and killing animals (193).

Robinson compellingly shows that relationships – to culture, oral history, land, animal relations, and more – are both situated in relation to their history and malleable, undetermined. Conceptions of relational ontologies may help settlers understand both that it is possible to be in relations of consumption without purity and that no relation is transferable. Instead, relationships are situated and personal, collectively shaped and intimate. Taking a relational ontology approach changes the conversation we’re having about what we should eat; it invites us to clarify the stakes and reasons we’re making one decision and not another.

At a stroke, white settler vegans can stop asking whether Indigenous people should eat that seal meat, let them tend their own relations, and turn instead to asking what relations we are placed within when we make food choices. And at the same stroke, white settler omnivores can stop talking about Indigenous people thanking the deer for offering his life to the hunter as they bite into a fish burger made from tilapia imported from China.

This turn from substance to relational ontologies intensifies rather than resolves the contradictions and imperfections associated with consumption. Or, perhaps it is better to say that it refuses the lie that there is any way to eat or drink that is free from suffering. In practice, I would say that few vegans actually believe that eating vegan frees them completely from implication in relations of suffering. There are, though, the self-righteous few, such as a colleague who eats vegan and believes that everyone should adopt it as a lifestyle, advocating for example for a departmental policy that all food served at colloquia will be vegan and critiquing people who eat animal products or wear leather or wool. This colleague feeds her many cats chicken, which is completely appropriate and necessary to being a good nurturer of obligate carnivore animal companions. So in practice, although she is avowing a substance ontology, she is enacting a relational ontology, in which she holds her own behavior to one standard but respects the boundaries of her companion animals’ needs. I believe being honest about these kinds of relational decisions liberates us from hypocrisy and a particular form of performative virtue signaling; it may also be a kinder way to get on together.

A relational ontology of eating invites us to perceive the act of eating as only one nodal point in a distributed web of connection and co-constitution, consumption and waste management. Instead of taking the boundaries of our bodies or of the substances we take in as the source of the answer for how we should eat, we can turn outward to look at the conditions of the production of food – what relations are nourished in the soil when things are grown in one way or another? Whose hands tend the plants, and what are the conditions of their lives? Who processes the substances that become food? How is the waste generated by that processing handled? Where does the water that nourishes the animals and plants in their growing process come from? Where does it go? What microbes are encouraged to proliferate by which practices of using low-dose antibiotics in feed of various sorts? What are the practices of sewage management that handle the material afterlife of our eating – do we shit into drinking water that then needs to be treated? What are the carbon costs of consuming food that is shipped long distances versus eating foods grown in heated or cooled greenhouses nearby?

Frequently we won’t know the answers to these questions. But if we learn a little about the conditions of food production at industrial scales we might make policies that look like substance decisions, but which actually track our best approximation of holding relations in view. So we can do an analysis of what the costs and effects of one eating decision or another are, and use particular agential cuts as our guides. “Eating local” might be a synonym for “I try not to eat food grown in drought-ridden areas stealing water from diminishing aquifers and processed by people living in conditions of agricultural slavery.” But, of course, local food wherever we are is frequently tended by people who are precarious workers experiencing tremendous harm in their work. As with any cut, this will be a limited and impure decision. Oddly, holding a relational ontology in view as one of our guidelines for asking how we should eat allows us to recognize that there is only, ever, unclean eating. We cannot get it right, we will always cause other beings to suffer and die in order for us to live, and we cannot individually solve the scale of problems given us simply by living on this earth, nourishing our bodies and excreting waste.

Claiming Bad Kin

This is the first part of a talk I’m offering today at McMaster – access copy here.

Many white people I know have been sparked to reflection in the wake of the “not guilty” verdicts in the Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier murder cases. Some have been moved to ask what it means to be a white settler in this place currently called Canada, confronting the murders of Coulton Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and so many others. When we understand what is happening, wherever we notice it, many of us respond by wanting to distance ourselves from harm, or by denying that it’s really so bad, or by attempting to be firmly on the side of the angels. In particular, those of us who benefit from harm and wrong-doing may want to take the side of the oppressed, the murdered, the wounded. We may respond by disavowing our connection to the people killing the earth and its people, critters, and ecosystems. In some real way I love this response, this rejection of being complicit with harm. I think it signals a lively and laudable rejection of wrongdoing that we can all get behind, and a desire to transform or end the social relations that produce suffering. But precisely because the complicity-denial impulse expresses a wish to end suffering we ought to assess whether denying complicity is an effective political stance.

In this talk I’ll be primarily focusing on whiteness in its articulation with the past and present of colonialism, Black enslavement, and border militarism. But it is vital to mark that all of this takes place and is complexly entangled with environmental devastation, global warming, and the spread of industrial toxicants alongside everyday vitalized materials that capitalism renders pollutants. And all of this rests on a eugenic logic that dictates who deserves to live and who to die and that threads disability-hating throughout its narrative of fitness of species. People who benefit from social relations of harm frequently try to claim kin relations with the people who are targeted by racism or to reject kin connections with wrongdoers. Many white settlers respond to histories of colonization by claiming Indigenous ancestry, or to histories of enslavement by claiming abolitionist ancestry or by remaining ignorant of enslavers in the family tree, or we respond to histories of border militarism by naturalizing or celebrating contemporary state formations. Many white settlers mobilize individualizing and neoliberal logics, that is, to deny complicity with or benefit from ongoing social relations of harm that result from colonization, chattel slavery, and militarized borders.

Christina Sharpe’s piece “Lose Your Kin” came out shortly after the US election of Donald Trump. The article begins with a quote from Saidiya Hartman’s book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Trade Route: “Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship.” Hartman’s project in Lose Your Mother is to trace what happens when someone cannot find the traces, the names, the histories of history they know is present and shapes their lives. Sharpe’s project in “Lose Your Kin” is to invite white people to refuse white kinship and to recognize that, as she writes, “One must be willing to say this is abhorrent. One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. Once must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin” (Sharpe 2016, para 10). She is right, I think, to argue that “Kinship relations structure the nation. Capitulation to their current configurations is the continued enfleshment of that ghost [of slavery]” (para 11). In this inquiry into what it means to resist the continued enfleshment of the ghosts and present hauntings of slavery, eugenic projects, the violence of borders, and colonialism, I pivot to ask if refusing to capitulate to current configurations might require acknowledging our social and political entanglement with them.

I am interested in what it could mean for white people and settlers more generally who benefit from historical and current effects of enslavement, colonialism, border militarism, racial distributions of environmental devastation, and capitalism to claim kin with the people producing these effects. If we are complicit in the pain of this suffering world, how might we take responsibility for our bad kin? I started thinking about this question in part through listening to conversations over the past several years about people who claim various sorts of Indigenous identities without being able to trace their family history to the lived, community experience of indigeneity. One articulation of why this move doesn’t work came from Kim Tallbear’s important work on why DNA tests cannot confirm or deny Indigenous identity. She says, “We construct belonging and citizenship in ways that do not consider these genetic ancestry tests. So it’s not just a matter of what you claim, but it’s a matter of who claims you” (“Sorry, That DNA Test Doesn’t Make You Indigenous” 2017). Audra Simpson, speaking of the case of author Joseph Boyden, wrote:

this conversation has never been about Indian status, or blood quantum, it is simply a matter of kin. Do settlers understand what it means to be a relation to each other? And the crucial relationship of this relatedness to one’s society, to politics, to land? The settler state does, that’s why it took our children from us and dismantled our kinship systems with the Indian Act in 1876. So we hold on to our kin relations where we can and we reclaim them as we can. We understand kin very well indeed. .. It is not shameful to ask who you belong to. It is not “lateral violence” or a lynch mob to ask who your relations are. It is the beginning of a conversation that unlocks who you are and how you shall proceed with each other.” (“Eksá:’a Onekwenhtara on Twitter: ‘Mic. DROP. All Hail the IroQueen. Https://T.Co/QedwCGBSAq’” 2017).

It seems to me clear that, indeed, it does not only matter what we claim about who we are; it matters who claims us as kin.

White nationalists claim me, as a white person, as kin. Though they may not know me personally and though they would likely despair of my politics, they are working for a world in which I and white people like me hold citizenship, reproduce “the white race,” and are safe and flourishing. Listening to Tallbear and Simpson, and reflecting on Sharpe’s work, I started to wonder what would happen if I claimed them back.

My argument here has three parts. First, I argue that Indigenous practices of relationality cannot be taken up by settlers, and that instead we must craft new practices of being in relation that can destroy settler colonialism and its articulation with anti-Black racism and border militarism. Second, I forward a conception of situatedness as arising from both the histories we inherit and the webs of connection that shape the social relations within which we exist; differential inheritance produces differential responsibilities. Third, I argue for a specific form of responding to whiteness that involves white settlers claiming rather than disavowing our connection to white supremacist people and social relations. I explore the potential of the roles of friends and comrades working as race traitors against whiteness and gesture towards the importance of directly confronting white supremacists.

Water and Ocean

I was glad to have the chance to review Elspeth Probyn’s 2016 book, Eating the Ocean, alongside Astrida Neimanis’s 2017, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. This review just came out in Cultural Studies Review, and I’m pasting the text below, too.

I was born in Arapahoe and Ute territory, in the arid foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Growing up, the only oysters I had any practical knowledge of were the battered and fried bull-calf testicles called ‘prairie oysters.’ At fourteen, my family moved to the peninsula of K’jipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia), nearly an island. When my dad told me that we would eat nothing but seafood there, I cried. Teenage me would have had so much to learn from Elspeth Probyn and Astrida Neimanis about the entanglement of water with my body in that high desert, varieties of oysters, the feeling of the ocean, and the colonial politics of immigration and thirst! As I write, I’m living in a small town in Dena’ina Athabascan territory, Alaska, that is organised around fishing. The local bumpersticker reads, Homer, AK: A Quaint Drinking Village With A Fishing Problem. Half the people I know here are getting ready to spend the summer commercial fishing for salmon, and most of the rest are getting ready to host tourists who come to town for recreational fishing. The house I’m in has no running water, so we get drinking water from a spigot in town and use it sparingly. Water and the ocean are on my mind here, and increasingly I am convinced that they ought to be on all of our minds.

These books certainly help us turn our attention water-ward. Eating the Ocean is Probyn’s fifth sole-authored book. Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology is Neimanis’s first. Both writers teach at the University of Sydney, both are generous academic interlocutors and editors of other books, both attend to ubiquitous, suffusive, hard-to-grasp subject matter. These books pair beautifully—I can wholeheartedly recommend both, and in particular recommend reading them together. While they complement one another, these texts also stretch their matters of concern and methods in usefully different directions. And both contribute to growing academic interest in the vast parts of our shared world that is smaller or bigger or more complex than a human frame of reference easily perceives—microbiota, plant and forest sensoria, ecosystems, waterways, oceans and other more-than-humanness.

Eating the Ocean begins with a masterful summation of the stakes and openings of taking the ocean as a starting point in understanding the contemporary politics of food. Probyn has been working on iterations of this project for many years. Her 2000 book Carnal Appetites; Foodsexidentities set a direction for cultural studies of food as a useful conceptual technology, as a way ‘in’ to the ethics of eating and being eaten. Eating the Ocean is anchored in the ‘specificity of how, where, and by whom food was produced, and with what effects’. (6) This book takes fish as its lens, asking how a politics of food organised by material entanglements unthinkable from the point of view of terrestrial food production and consumption shifts our understanding of an ethics sufficient to the real complexity of our eating practices.

Probyn situates the question of how to eat the ocean in the broad context of care. She argues for a ‘de-simplified’ ocean—materially, conceptually, affectively—‘if we want to generate care for the ocean and for her inhabitants, we need to work with the deep entanglement that fish, fishers, and ocean have forged over the millennia’. (43) Her first chapter compellingly examines a wide range of ways such care doesn’t happen—imagining that we could go on fishing the ocean as we have been forever, that we can feed the nine billion people soon to be living and dying on the earth using current forms of land-based agriculture, that ‘eating local’ or ‘eating sustainably’ can save us from the complexity of oceanic food politics.

Turning away from simplistic moralism, Probyn turns to ocean critters and their people. Chapter two rhapsodises about oysters—eating them, growing them—as a good site for heightening our felt attention to relatedness with the ocean. Probyn grounds an account of oysters as a keystone species, rooted in their milieu and revelatory of the social relations that constitute their place. One eats an oyster alive, and with it the place it grew, the people who fed it, and the entire context of its production. Probyn’s treatment of this node of relations unfurls the specificity of global capital’s enactment in a small loch in Scotland, where a foreign oyster feeds the livelihoods (and tastes) of people there and abroad. This is a beautiful treatment of a humble but mattering bivalve, attached to its place in the ocean until it is moved into exchange relations and, eventually, cracked open to spill out its particular ‘merrior’; the taste of its being from its place. Probyn shifts from these small filter-feeders to globe-trotting megafauna: southern bluefin tuna. Charismatic, valuable, wild-but-domesticated, bluefin tuna offer a perfect case study in how the fishing industry has transformed in the last forty years. Bluefin tuna have gone from being an abundant pet-food-fish to a super-valuable endangered-species commodity, from the essence of wildness to being sea-farmed in fattening pens. This chapter compellingly argues that we cannot go on organising human–fish relations along the lines of internationally traded quotas for fish at the top of the trophic pyramid held by a select few men.

The fourth chapter tracks back in time to reflect on smaller fish, the herring—notable more for their place in the history of the Atlantic fishery as an abundant schooling fish than for the kind of individual gravitas that bluefin tuna hold—and cod. Looking at the history of women’s place in the fisheries of the past, Probyn deepens her consideration of how gender is entangled in fish–human relations. Alongside interesting ethnographic encounters, this chapter shows how in these fisheries ‘gender is not a thing and certainly not one thing. It is a constant force in bringing into being other worlds, and other ways of being-with.’ (126) I left this part of the book convinced that a gendered approach to fishing, and especially an approach that listened to the insights of women who processed the bounty of the sea, would co-produce an ocean with more possibility for going on. Chapter five returns to a love of the small and the humble, this time oily schooling fish: sardines, anchovies, menhaden. This chapter resists fixed moralising in favour of ‘scalar intricacy and metabolic intimacies’. (130) Prime among its suggestions is the possibility that we could directly eat small fish, instead of rendering them down into fish meal to feed other, larger fish across the globe. Probyn persuasively argues for cultivating new tastes and finer scales of attention.

Probyn is without question complexifying how one might think about eating bivalves or fish, ranging from the tiny to the large, from the ocean. There are several questions that emerge from this fascinating book. The first is, where is the ocean? Probyn repeatedly references integrated marine trophic aquaculture (IMTA) as possibly a better way to eat with the ocean. Cultivated ocean polycultures of this sort are definitely promising, and may have much less harm than fish farming as it has been practiced, which spreads disease and produces what are in effect toxins through over-feeding and medicating farmed fish. But the details matter: some IMTA is in the ocean, some is on land. The ocean is all connected, so IMTA that happens in pens, bays and coves is by necessity not fulfilling its purpose of capturing the waste products of one ocean critter or plant as food for another. Land-based maricultures are more efficient and more fully meet the promise of ITMA, but they carry different problems. Is the ocean in tanks in Chile still the ocean? I would have loved to see Probyn bring similar attention to her suggested solutions that she brings to the complex cases of tuna, oysters and anchovies.

Second, I yearned for Probyn to articulate her ethical stance more. Much of this stance organises itself against the view, which she often characterises as simplistic, that we’ll find an ethical way through the problems the ocean offers us by deciding what we will or won’t eat. As Probyn says in the introduction: ‘I argue strongly against the hubris that passes for a politics of fork waving. The idea that you can resolves such intricate and complicated human-fish relations by voting with your fork is deluded narcissism.’ (10) Part of this point comes down to an unconvincing irritation with veganism. To be clear, I’m convinced by the irritation. I eat vegan and I write about the problems of a politics based on purity at least in part because I have had more arguments than I can count with self-righteous and wrong-headed vegans who think they are not implicated in suffering. I hate PETA’s racist, anti-Indigenous, ableist politics with the heat of a thousand suns. So I share the critique Probyn expresses when she writes: As with the condescending attitude toward those who don’t choose to eat better, increasingly the choice to proclaim oneself vegan often seems to act as an opting out of the structural complexities of food provisioning, production, and consumption. (3) It is of course ridiculous for anyone who eats to think that they are not implicated in complexity—if we refrain from eating megafauna, we are certainly participating in killing bugs; if we think bugs matter because they are alive and avoid death, then shouldn’t we also worry about microbes? If we make an ethical bright line around a nervous system, how should we respond to the good data coming out now that plants know when they are being eaten and try to avoid it? Probyn’s poster-children for wrong-headed, too-simplistic food politics are vegans and it is surely easy to find lots of easy-target cases of activists who think they are solving suffering by putting themselves naked and bloody in a cage and going to a community rib-fest. But what about eaters like me, who look at the complexity and insolvability of the eaten world and draw a line at a place different from ‘small fish good’? Since we can’t opt out of structural complexity, what is the normative advice for where to stand in relation to this?

Confusingly, Probyn both repudiates the politics of what’s on our plate and returns to it. The last sentences of the book seem certainly to say that voting with our fork matters. She writes: The more-than-human, if it is to be meaningful as a perspective, makes us confront again and again the relatedness of all entities. And while some may say that the best way of honoring that relatedness is not to eat fish, as I’ve argued, this is not a solution. I won’t force-feed people sardines or anchovies or oysters – what a waste that would be. But keep in mind the pressures of a growing population; be aware of the state of land-based agriculture; be informed of the advances in sustainable systems such as integrated marine trophic aquaculture; be mindful of the millions who work with the sea. This is why this book focuses on noticing detail, relating stories, histories, environments, and tastes. Try to eat the ocean better. Try to eat with the ocean. (163) This invocation, if it is to have teeth, needs, I think, to move beyond the scope of food politics. This may be an unfair critique of a book about food politics and the question of what humans as the top of earth’s trophic system ought to eat. It may reflect my own obsession with the broader scope of embodiment that makes me think about all the other oceans capitalism is currently ravaging than the eaten oceans, and all the other politics than food politics entangled in those oceans. Many of these concerns pop up in Eating the Ocean without being taken up more sustainedly: microplastics, enslavement and indentured servitude on fishing boats (two ‘smiling Filipinos’ show up in one sentence in chapter 4), ocean acidification, the cesium-134 pouring out of the Fukushima reactor, the islands going underwater as the planet warms, the floating plastic trash gyre in the Pacific, the oil bubbling up from breached undersea drilling platforms, the fence that goes out into the ocean between the United States and Mexico, the desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the ocean blockade of Palestine, Australia’s off-shore migrant holding facilities, and so on. Thinking about politics with the ocean is so much denser than what we eat from it. How might some of these politics be served by the instruction to try to eat the ocean better? Try to eat with the ocean? It is clear to me that if eating is one of the main things we do with the ocean it is perhaps the least of the things we do to it. I raise these questions here because I can’t think of a thinker I would rather have address them. Every reader of Eating the Ocean will leave it with a felt sense of the impossible complexity that we confront in taking still-necessary actions. Probyn’s invitation to start and start again in meeting that complexity will, I hope, move us all toward unpredictable attentions and actions.

Those who care about what critical theory can offer political work aren’t typically looking for simplification, which is good since Astrida Neimanis’s book doesn’t simplify anything. Where Probyn starts with the oyster-eating human, Neimanis starts with the figuration that we are bodies of water, arguing that the ‘meaningful mattering of our bodies is also an urgent question of worldly survival’. (14) Understanding our bodies as watery implies an understanding of ourselves as part of what Neimanis calls a hydrocommons. Conceiving of our bodies as connected to other bodies of water—lakes, rivers, oceans, other bodies, the beings our bodies host—offers a conception of distributed but intimately significant material connections with political and ethical effects. Neimanis attends throughout the book to how such a figuration can challenge ‘humanist understandings of corporeality: discrete individualism, anthropocentrism, and phallogocentrism’. (16) In quicksilver prose that is technically suited to the task, we are called to reconfigure both our understandings (and perhaps practices) of embodiment as well as our thinking about water—what it is, why it matters, how we should hold it.

Bodies of Water contributes to the phenomenological tradition, aiming to bring phenomenological approaches into conversation with posthuman feminism. This will feel audacious to many readers coming from any of these three directions since phenomenology has so often been understood as happening at the scale of and in reference to the human; posthumanism has quite often been rejected as eliding or ignoring intersectional feminist achievements, and feminisms of various sorts have often been seen as too-committed to thinking about the specificities of gendered experience to participate in phenomenological or posthuman departures from our socially situated embodied being. Neimanis does not shy away from these tensions, instead she weaves them together into a soft toolkit made up of otherwise distinct archives. This aspect of the book will, I believe, productively tempt thinkers attached to their particular oyster bays into tasting the waters and histories of other lineages and trajectories.

The first chapter begins with Adrienne Rich’s work on the politics of location, and especially her provocation for us to think about what it means to be, as she put it, ‘of woman born’. Human milk has for a long time been a significant political symbol in relation to nuclear body-burdens transmitted between parent and child and a way to trace the bio-markers of toxicity that concentrate themselves in milk of all kinds. The transcorporeal embodiments signalled by milk production and consumption reveal how we are ‘caught up in one another’s currents’. (49) In this chapter, I wondered how Neimanis’s account of milky transcorporeality would extend beyond human amphimixic transfer points into thinking about, for example, cow, goat, or sheep milk production. Why is human breast milk the main site for thinking about entangled materialisations and the kind of feminist phenomenology that might help us confront our watery problems? Listening to nursing friends talk about their experience of lactation, I suspect that breast-feeding is one way to access what Neimanis calls ‘experiences that are below or beyond human-scaled perception’; that it offers a kind of phenomenological access to the watery transfer points that are hard to name elsewise. This chapter grapples with the difficulty of offering any sensory apparatus and object of perception as a keystone in descriptions that start from bodies in all their particularity.

The second chapter is in conversation with Luce Irigaray about the possibility of ‘posthuman gestationality’. Attending to Irigaray’s engagement with Nietzsche, Neimanis offers the best attempt I’ve seen to focus on the gestationality without reproducing the sex-fixity that so often comes along with thinking of amniotic fluid. Similarly, she avoids the tradition that reads Irigaray’s work as presupposing heteronormative, binary and essential sexual difference. Neimanis writes that ‘this gestationality need not take the form of a human reprosexaul womb: we may be gestational as love, as neighbor, as accidental stranger’. (79) This is hopeful, and connects with Neimanis’s earlier thinking on the idea of a ‘gestational mileu’. For readers already inclined toward Irigaray and toward thinking about the maternal as a key site for feminist philosophy, this chapter will be a delight. Those not so inclined may find it a stretch to resituate Irigaray and her gestational way of thought. I found myself wishing for more of Neimanis’s own thinking on fluidity, gender and gestation, in order to be convinced about the potential to ‘untie waters from a limited biological/symbolic feminine’. (95) In particular, I wanted to hear more specifics about her conception of ‘transcorporeal interpermeation’ as a kind of gestationality and more practical examples of what she calls an ‘onto-logic of amniotics’ (105) as a way of thinking about membranes, connections, and what we pass on and offer to others.

In the third chapter, Neimanis turns towards the question of significant storytelling about wateriness as a part of our evolutionary unfolding, opening a non-linear, surprisingly exuberant approach to how we come to be connected with water as part of our being. This chapter offers origin stories and ongoingness stories that usefully connect kinship practices with waters. This is a paradigm-shifting accomplishment that helps us think about our being as oceanic wherever we are—and helps us perceive the watery adaptations of many different critters who seem to be landlocked. Aquatic environments, Neimanis shows, on land and off it, infuse and shape beings, and provide a material connection to ‘watery pasts’. (143) The final chapter turns from watery pasts to the watery present and the uneven distribution of watery harms to Indigenous people—toxins, poisons, bad water—in the Canadian context. Here Neimanis attends to renowned Anishnaabekwe Rebecca Belmore’s artistic engagement with water. Neimanis elucidates Belmore’s evocative and politically nuanced work so as to reveal how water can be central to redressing historic and ongoing harms, and how current colonial politics of water materialise the importance of thinking better about water. Neimanis takes up the challenging call for decolonial work in specific contexts, starting from the figuration ‘kwe’. I have lived in unceded Anishinaabe places for years and in that context am familiar with the use of ‘kwe’ as both a modifier that signals ‘Anishinaabe woman’ and as an opening toward broader politics of water, femaleness, femininity and care for the world. In a series of footnotes signalling some trepidation about ‘using “Kwe” to name an orientation to the world that [Belmore’s] work offers’ (211), Neimanis writes that she recognises that her ‘use of this word “Kwe” here is suspect’ but that she wants nonetheless to ‘accept the consequences of taking this risk’. (212) As a white settler woman, immigrant to Canada, reading another white settler woman, immigrant to Australia, Neimanis’s hesitation around this use of ‘kwe’ resonates with me. However, I am less sure about her decision to situate that hesitation in the footnotes to her book, rather than as a central problematic to investigate. Haudenosaunee (Kanienkehaka) scholar Laura Hall has pointed out, for instance, that not all Indigenous women are Anishinaabeg. Métis scholar Zoe Todd, who I am lucky to have as a colleague, has elsewhere argued that the figuration of ‘the Anthropocene’ is itself a flattening concept that evacuates the political responsibility for settlers harming the world, imagining that we’re all in this together. How might the specific histories, ontologies, ways of making sense of the world and ways of being in the world matter to our watery beings? There may be a ‘kwe’ worldview, but there isn’t an Indigenous worldview. Neimanis knows this well. She writes in another footnote that ‘working in the sweaty and impossible space of the cultural interface is necessary despite its inevitable failure’. (212) I agree with her—we settlers inevitably get it wrong but that doesn’t mean that we oughtn’t try to be in relation. Coming to the end of her book, Neimanis writes that the ‘answer will always be a question’ and that the central question might well be ‘What is water?’ (189) I finished this book wondering what it would mean for us settlers to ask that question not taking a ‘kwe’ or other Indigenous worldview, but standing in relation to it carrying all our colonising buckets of history, all the burdens of unjust deaths dealt, all the responsibility for poisoning the waters that we inherit and must meet. What would a settler orientation towards decolonising water politics, ethics and knowing be? I would encourage Neimanis to bring that trepidation out of the footnotes and into the body text of her writing.

Both these books make generative openings for future thinking about watery sites of complicity and implication. I look forward to the continuing conversations they invite.