The holidays came and went, the calendar turned over, and I missed all my (very) self-imposed deadlines for sharing some reflections on 2023. The last few months have been full of difficult witnessing—of brutal settler colonial and neo-imperial violence, of right-wing attacks on cultural and academic institutions, of climate thresholds passed, of water tables drawn down. In 2024, I recommit to struggle for justice in all these dimensions, in the streets as much as from the studio.
My Electric Genealogy:
Final Performances and Video
I closed out the 2022-2023 tour of “My Electric Genealogy” at MIT in mid-November in a performance in the Cube at the Art, Culture, Technology program, co-sponsored by History of Architecture. It was the first time that my partner Nick or my daughter Genesee had seen the final product of years of research, writing, performance study and media-making, and they did so under nearly ideal conditions: an enthusiastic packed house and first-rate tech. MIT livestreamed the show, with the archived video available on YouTube.
I can’t think of any project that has functioned as an organizing principle of my life for as long as this one. Wrapping it up feels necessary, but it’s also bittersweet. The other fall performances were all beautiful opportunities to connect with old friends and seed new ones. I’m currently working on getting the script published and hope to have more to announce on that soon.
Over the Levee, Under the Plow
Over the Levee, Under the Plow, a collection of artist’s publications and prompt cards I co-organized with Ryan Griffis, appeared in two iterations of the exhibition Insurgent Ecologies, curated by Imani Jacqueline Brown and Shana Griffin at Antenna in New Orleans and Tia-Simone Gardner at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. This project will also be published, with a short essay I wrote on using it in the classroom, in The Existential Toolkit for Climate Justice Educators: How To Teach in a Burning World, edited by Jennifer Atkinson and Sarah Jaquette Ray.
Melanie Armstrong’s chapter in the recently published book Resisting the Nuclear: Art and Activism Across the Pacific includes The National Toxic Land/Labor Conservation Service and A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado.
Rebecca Zorach’s new book Temporary Monuments: Art, Land, and America’s Racial Enterprise comes out in March and includes a discussion and documentation of my 2012 film Around Crab Orchard.
The Long Read: Reckoning with Reckonings
People often characterize My Electric Genealogy as a “reckoning”, and for a long time I agreed. I even called it that in my last newsletter. I began working on the project contemporaneously with the global surge in Indigenous resistance to resource extraction that began with the Idle No More movement in Canada in 2012, the rise of Black Lives Matter in the United States in 2013, and international resistance to colonial monuments that rose to prominence with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa in 2015. This moment of reckoning arguably reached its zenith with the great global conjuncture of 2020. Pandemic lockdowns allowed millions around the world to take to the streets to protest the police murder of George Floyd while normalizing ideas about progressive social infrastructures like guaranteed income, a moratorium on evictions, and the elevation of public health over policing. Four years later, the backlash is stunning to behold: a global rise in far-right politics; a return to the punitive policing of addiction and homelessness; a new generation of “anti-woke” demagogues; and U.S climate policies that have largely abandoned provisions for mass social infrastructure in favor of subsidizing individual green(er) consumption to enable the ways of life of settler liberalism to continue just a bit longer. All this has left me more than a little suspicious about whether “reckoning work” is actually, well, working, and whether I want to characterize my project in those terms.
The inability of a global moment of historical reckoning to generate a sustained commitment to imagining and enacting new and markedly different futures was arguably latent in the word reckoning itself.
The inability of a global moment of historical reckoning to generate a sustained commitment to imagining and enacting new and markedly different futures was arguably latent in the word reckoning itself. The term derives from verbs in multiple early Germanic languages associated with the accounting of money, property, and debt, often after an individual’s death, as well as testimony and storytelling. These include the Old Frisian rekenia (to calculate, to distribute, to say); the Middle Dutch rēkenen, reeckenen (to set right, put in order, to settle accounts, to include); the Middle Low German rēkenen, reknen, rēken, recken (to count, to assess, evaluate, to think, to judge); the Old and Middle High German rehhanōn, rehhenōn or rechenen (to arrange, prepare or to count). The concept’s scope broadened to assume a moral and political valence; the same word lies at the root of the modern English right and German recht, with their associations of both correctness and citizenship. The day of reckoning is core to millenarian Christianity, given as a synonym for “doomsday” and the final judgement of God, after which the world will be instantly transformed by divine action, not over time with earthly effort. The etymology reveals reckoning to be construed as a largely individual affair: a final “account” in both the narrative and financial sense, told to God or inventoried for one’s heirs, the summation of a human life. Reckonings are therefore, intrinsically paradoxical but also reductive. Simultaneously intergenerational and end-of-days, reckonings look mostly backward. Their futurity imagines only one or two thin, reproductive generations, or else no future at all.
Two of the texts I returned to again and again while working on “My Electric Genealogy” suggest a different way to think about responsibilities of ancestry and attachment than a term tethered to money and millenarianism. In 2018, Neshnabe philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte called for White “allies to be critical about their environmental realities—and about the purpose of their environmentalism. To do this, allies must realize they are living in the environmental fantasies of their settler ancestors.” The following year, settler Canadian philosopher Alexis Shotwell speculated, “What could it mean for those who benefit from oppression—white people, and settlers more generally—to claim kin with oppressors? If we are complicit in the pain of this suffering world, how might we take responsibility for our bad kin?” The forms of recognition and responsibility invoked separately by Whyte and Shotwell are more diffuse and open-ended than the summative approach embedded in the concept of reckoning. They invoke a longer (albeit still human) timeline and a potentially more expansive and tenuous network of kinship than that suggested by “heir” or even “descendent.” Whyte and Shotwell suggest that there is no outside position, at least for settlers, from which to assess, evaluate, think, and judge. Any such “account” must also include the one doing the counting, as well as how we learned to tally value, and to what end. It is therefore intimately tied up with selfhood as fashioned by settler liberalism, as well as subjectivity as a dimension by which it might be challenged and changed.
If “My Electric Genealogy” is a reckoning, it’s also a reckoning with reckonings, an act of generational and spatial transmission that, like electricity itself, moves in all directions simultaneously. At the final performance, I was asked if the coda – in which activists from DinéCARE and Tó Nizhóní Ání propose to use the high-voltage transmission lines my grandfather built to carry Navajo-generated solar power to Los Angeles, with just compensation – gave me “a chance to love my grandfather again.” I think I replied that I was much more invested in collective than individual relationship repair, but the question has stuck with me. Hope and love after all, are not the opposite of critique but, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick taught us long ago, the affects that allow it to evolve toward reparation. “Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.”
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “reckon, v., Etymology”, September 2023.
Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, 146.
Shotwell, Alexis. “Claiming Bad Kin: Solidarity from Complicit Locations.” Bearing 3 (March 2019), 8.
Whyte, Kyle Powys. “White Allies, Let’s Be Honest about Decolonization.” Yes Magazine April 3, 2018.