If we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present—that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day, such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.
—Charles Darwin, letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, 1871.
Interaction assumes that there are individual independently existing entities or agents that preexist their acting upon one another. By contrast, the notion of “intra-action” queers the familiar sense of causality…, and more generally unsettles the metaphysics of individualism (the belief that there are individually constituted agents or entities, as well as times and places). According to my…ethico-onto-epistemology (an entanglement of what is usually taken to be the separate considerations of ethics, ontology, and epistemology), “individuals” do not preexist as such but rather materialize in intra-action.
– Interview with Karen Barad by Adam Kleinman, “Intra-actions,” Mousse34, Summer 2012, 77.
What counts as history? How are we to recount history? Who will count?
Which of you will repeat words told to you from on high? Which of you will keep the smaller fires burning?
Why were they so quick to be on the side of the victors, those carrying the sticks, hiding the risks and perpetuating tragedy? Why have the victors been numb to others’ suffering?
When will the wave hit you against the side of the head?
Between the time it takes for the wave to crest and the time it takes to crash, a door yawns open and you fall into oblivion. Truncated lives enfold themselves into sundry accretions, lively matter turning over into primordial matter, becoming humus, gradually reconstituting in dispersed form into foreign bodies, here and there reborn as lively matter, as simple or complex forms, then disintegrating again, and on and on, all matter interpenetrating, an animate compost, all emerging from what has passed before, all adapting to changing conditions.
The trick is to read what has been preserved against the grain, to look deep into the gaps, to channel the ghosts lurking within closets, cabinets, caskets, museums, and archives. The trick is to put your ear to the ground, to listen for the undead, for the burbling of the unconscious, normally muffled by the constant din, and the detritus dispersed throughout. We are morally bound to being attentive to what is latent and silenced.
In one of Goya’s Black Paintings, Fight to the Death with Clubs, twin fighters face off, each brandishing a club, not conscious of the earthly foundation that serves as their historical stage. They don’t notice that they are sinking in a quagmire or quicksand.
With every move they make, a slimy hole swallows them up, so that they are gradually burying themselves together.… The more heated the struggle, the more violent their movements become and the faster they sink in.… A ren’t we forgetting the world of things themselves, the sand, the water, the mud, the reeds of the marsh? In what quicksands are we, active adversaries and sick voyeurs, floundering side by side?1
A few territorial animals are anatomically prone to getting tangled up while fighting one another, unable to release themselves from one another. They find themselves perpetually caught between violent struggle and unwitting embrace. Rival deer lock antlers, fastened henceforth forever. Eagles’ talons can hook together in mid-air; they struggle to extricate themselves to the point of exhaustion, and then cascade to their deaths. Mute swans’ exquisite beauty hides yet another design flaw: their feet, wings and necks can get inextricably entangled while fighting. More a consequence of urban concentration, as many as thirty-two rats have been known to have their tails knot together, stuck in a centrifugal tug-of-war of no return. These rats’ uncanny formation came to be categorized as cryptid in the 1500s, dubbed rat king, their appearance interpreted as an omen.
Life comes to be experienced as a biological trap.
Art history tends to begin its narrative with Paleolithic cave painting, representations of megafaunal herds galloping across cave walls. One might understand these images to be instances of animal worship, or one might view these beasts as fleeing human predators. Either way, their existence is credited to human attempts to communicate with divine forces to ensure future success in hunting quarry. It is likely many of these animals were going extinct at the time (mammoths come to mind). Ursula Le Guin writes that such persistent narratives exude patriarchal and heroic hubris, sacralizing hunting culture over gathering culture. More space need be made to celebrate the carrier bag way of life, not the killing spear:
If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark, or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container….2
Ancient graves have been unearthed to reveal collections of ‘precious objects’ alongside the skeletal remains of loved ones. Piles of semi-precious stones, ochre pigment, shells, and ivory and basalt beads are found buried with the dead. Collecting/gathering appears foundational to the artistic impulse.
Being made of perishable material, the collecting bag would not have been preserved over several millennia. It has unfortunately been forgotten that, more than large animals, one would have survived with little effort on gathered “seeds, roots, sprouts, shoots, leaves, nuts, berries, fruits, and grains,…bugs and mollusks” as well as trapped “birds, fish, rats, rabbits, and other tuskless small fry…. The average prehistoric person could make a nice living in about a fifteen-hour work week.”3 The carrier bag disintegrated, as did any memory of a less aggressive sourcing of nourishment.
Sedentism was not, as popularly believed, the effect of any superior way of life created by agriculture and animal domestication, but rather from learning to live seasonally with the rhythms of fertile wetlands. Floodplains carried nutrient rich silt, giving rise to an abundance of plants, which in turn attracted a great variety of birds, fish, shellfish, and small mammals. For hunter-gatherers wetland abundance would have been part of a much vaster supply of resources accessible to nomads living from a mixed subsistence economy that the earth supplied in abundance, all contingent on fluctuating climactic conditions. Humans had entered the ultimate Goldilocks zone, a time during which humans relied on a fusion of wild and domestic subsistence economies, combining hunter-gatherer ways of life with the first grain crops.
Having learned from the natural rhythms of seasonal floods, humans came upon the idea to exploit the land more intentionally as population density grew. Over time the ease of wetland existence became habitual, leading to more long-term settlement.
Civilizing arid lands means irrigating them; civilizing swamps means draining them; the goal in each case is making arable grain lands, turning ungovernable wetlands into taxable grain fields by reengineering the landscape.4
Canalization was invented in order to bypass unpredictable seasonal conditions, but was also required to replenish former wetlands that had been depleted due to human exploitation. The disruption of the alluvium’s natural rhythms in turn depleted and drove away the birds, fish, shellfish, and small mammals. The building of canal systems was the foundation to Empire building. Eventually usurping factions came to see an opportunity for a new class to rise above the fray. This alluvial abundance enhanced by rerouted water systems “represented a unique new concentration of manpower, arable land, and nutrition that, if captured…could be made into a powerful node of political power and privilege.”5
The earliest settlements had an oral culture and built homes with impermanent materials such as reeds, sedges, bamboo, and wood. Without any written documents, no knowledge of the success of alluvial settlements was passed down into history. By contrast, the usurupation of such concentrated settlements by a new opportunistic class meant the need for indentured labour and a monocultural agrilogistics in order to stockpile grains to sustain a population, as well as accumulate capital (e.g., land taxation)—the foundation necessary for the formation of “early states.”6 Stone and fired brick came to replace plant-based building materials. Walls would have been built around these settlements to keep out the “barbarians”—those humans still subsisting on a hunter-gatherer way of life.
But how could these early states have had such a hold on its people, who could easily have fled to their former nomadic existence?
One convincing explanation for how this cultivating population might have been assembled as state subjects is climate change.… 3,500 to 2,500 BCE was marked by a steep decline in sea level and a decline in the water volume in the Euphrates. Increasing aridity meant that the rivers shrank back to their main channels and the population increasingly huddled around the remaining watercourses, while soil salinization of water-deprived areas sharply reduced the amount of arable land. In the process, the population became strikingly more concentrated, more “urban.” Irrigation became both more important and more labor intensive—it now often required lifting water—and access to dug canals became vital. City states (for example, Umma and Lagash) fought over arable land and access to the water that could irrigate it. Over time a more reticulated canal system dug with corvée or slave labor developed.… The shortage of irrigation water confined the population increasingly to well-watered places and eliminated or diminished many of the alternative form of subsistence, such as foraging and hunting.7
In the wake of aqueducts and qanats, ramparts, monuments, and towers were built as exultant expressions of stalwart reigning power—symbols of an imposed state identity. More democratic was the presence of public fountains where water could be sourced freely by the town’s population for drinking, bathing and washing. In ancient Sumeria, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Crete, daily life would have gravitated around public fountains, people coming-and-going with their water jugs, loitering, and exchanging stories and knowledge that flowed effervescently between them. Fountains were not just the culmination of life’s wellspring; they were a foundation for the commons.
Only later were fountains constructed more intentionally in public space to express the wealth of those in power, no longer simply a necessary element of survival but an object of pleasure. Fountains evolved sculpturally to display grotesque ornament and frolicking chimerical creatures, literalizing the lively magical quality that continued, however unconsciously, to be attributed to these water-bearing fixtures. The abundant aqueous flow from a hidden faraway source was no less than a gift of the gods.
The Banū Mūsābrothers were three ninth-century scholars and inventors of Persian descent who lived and worked in Baghdad: Abū Jaʿfar, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir; Abū al‐Qāsim, Aḥmad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir; and Al-Hasan ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir. Among their many accomplishments working under the Abbasid Caliphate (during the decline of the Roman Empire) was the salvaging/collecting of Hellenistic texts, retrieved from monasteries and scholars’ homes. Inspired by these texts, which they translated from Greek into Arabic, the brothers left behind a detailed record of the one hundred mechanical devices and automata they had invented and amended. Their Book of Ingenious Devices(850 CE) explained how to make and use these inventions, revealing an obsession with automatic controls, self-operating valves, timing devices, and delay systems, using pneumatic, aerostatic and hydrostatic pressure systems. Among their many mechanical marvels were sculpted figures that discharged cold and hot water from open mouths, fountainheads that ejected water at varying intervals in different shapes (jet, shield, lily-of-the-valley), and automated musical instruments, like the perpetual flute. The Banū Mūsābrothers also invented the early gas mask to protect workers whose job it was to clean out polluted wells. Three centuries on, Mesopotamian polymath Badīʿaz-Zaman Abū l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī continued the tradition of these mechanical inventions, recording them in a similarly titled book, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices(1206). He served as chief mechanical engineer to the Artuqid kings of Diyarbakir.One extravagant device described in this book is a peacock fountain with automated servants:
Pulling a plug on the peacock’s tail releases water out of the beak; as the dirty water from the basin fills the hollow base a float rises and actuates a linkage which makes a servant figure appear from behind a door under the peacock and offer soap. When more water is used, a second float at a higher level trips and causes the appearance of a second servant figure—with a towel!8
Contrast this to the paranoia of our present-day public lavatories, replete with automated faucets, soap and paper towel dispensers, and toilet flushers (why go to the trouble of cleaning one’s hands only to have them soiled with others’ germs and excretions after turning the water faucet off?).
Sir John Harington invented the first mechanical flush toilet in 1596, the year of Descartes birth, installing one at Richmond Palace for Queen Elizabeth I. It was Descartes who popularized the belief that, in the great pull-chain of being, animals were little more than automata. This was in turn ‘proven’ in 1739 when Jacques de Vaucanson invented the Digesting Duck: a duck was given a kernel of corn, then appeared to metabolize it when, after a few minutes passed, it defecated. While the public presentation itself was pure quackery, one has to wonder at the hours of ingenuity spent demonstrating such a theory, with the aim of anaestheticizing human minds to animal exploitation, suffering, and consumption. And while we’re on the subject of water birds and scatology, in the great pull-chain of symbolism, why has the white swan come to represent cleanliness and purity, its brand image somehow psychologically civilizing what is otherwise disgusting about bodily functions (elimination of filth and waste in the bathroom)?
Rising jets, downward falls, combinations, an oddly issuing spray, divert attention from the great constant impersonal desires so that we may notice and enjoy the supple nap and receptivity of human thought. Light and gaiety and movement stimulate our civic thirsts. Since generally indoors we are quarrelsome and demanding, we wish for an air of fête and refreshment in the streets and squares.9
There is a condo complex that is situated between stal̕əw̓ (the Fraser River) and a congested network of train tracks. It is one of those condominiums built in the 1980s, a sure sign of degraded quality ejected from a newly deregulated economy, fly-by-night development devised to steal the people blind—a leaky condo. Within two decades, the complex was draped in tarpaulin and scaffolding for a full year, undergoing millions of dollars work of repairs. On one side, industry can be heard chugging up and down the tributary; the smokestacks lining it fill the air with billowing effluvia. On the other side, trains can be heard screeching, metal on metal, day and night. A fountain, fed by the river, found at the centre of the condo complex’s courtyard, has proven useful. The sound of gushing water has a calming effect, providing a kind of respite—a perpetual white noise that drowns out the sonic acceleration followed by the application of emergency breaks.
Moving upriver from the condo in qiqéyt10 (New Westminster), past c̓əwχeləməɬ off Mitchell Island, c̓əsnaʔəm,past kilometers of well-watered golf courses, the Musqueam Indian Reserve #2, xʷəyeyət (Iona Beach), then out into the Salish Sea, following the peninsula north past q̓ələχən (UBC/Point Grey), then westward past pəqʷə́cən (Spanish Banks), into the Burrard Inlet, past skʷəyəws (Kitsilano Beach), then southwest of English Bay, past Granville Island, we suddenly find ourselves at a dead-end.
Buried beneath the streets of Vancouver are multiple creeks and streams which once emptied into Snauq,11 which, after European invasion, was dredged and drained to become False Creek. Once upon a time these waterways were teaming with salmon: “…China Creek, Brewery Creek, Bridge Street Creek, Mackie Creek — their ghosts still persist in the storm drains.”12 The streams and creeks are now diverted into sewage pipes topped by asphalt, driven over by countless cars, their passengers spiritually, emotionally and physically cut off from the land and its history. During the first half of the twentieth century pulp mills spewed out waste directly into False Creek, cut off from any naturally flowing creek, the fish now obsolete.
We have largely lost the sense of wonder associated with our life-giving water sources, sacrificing alluvial and riparian wilderness habitats in the name of urban development, industrial agriculture, hydroelectric power, and the ridiculous marketing scheme of redirecting mountain glacier waters into plastic water bottles. It is no accident that the tragic success of the bottled-water industry coincided with the deregulation of markets and privatization of social services by neo-liberal boosterism, leading to the pollution of our most prized natural resources. Who will foot the bill? While plastics take thousands of years to break down, petro-capitalism will simply dissolve, ushering in disaster capitalism. Yes, of course, the people will pay.
So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted, any particular share in it.13
Growing up under the pall of capitalism, we haven’t had much of a choice; we have either been complicit with or victims to the technological descendants of “long, hard objects.” Whatever gains made through resistance have been undone, appropriated, ridiculed, romanticized, ostracized, recycled, drowned out, censored, lost, or buried in archives. It is time we dedicated our energies to the “carrier bag,” that which promotes attentiveness and care for the land, and serves to preserve knowledge.
The ouroboros bites its own tail, a locked-in cycle in the great web of life, which includes natural and synthetic materials, the persistence of plastics and the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There is a contemporary irony to this head-biting-tail phenomenon. The use of toxic materials has come full circle to bite all life forms by the tail—including chemicals from plastics, detergents, electronics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and crop fertilizer, which simulate the effects of female sex hormones, estrogens, that have leeched into our water systems. Add to this synthetic and natural estrogens from livestock, including dairy cowsto increase milk production, and of course human birth control pills. All of this excess estrogen flushed down drainpipes, and seeping into ground water and estuaries, has been known not only to make life forms sterile but also to trigger the formation of female sex characteristics. If one were at all prone to karmic belief, one could interpret this phenomenon as a built-in retaliatory measure Nature has developed to curb the humancentric, individualistic, patriarchal (“sticking, bashing and killing”) violence aimed at the biosphere.
1 Michel Serres, The Natural Contract,trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 1–2.
2 Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literacy Ecology, ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996),151–152.
3 Le Guin, 149.
4 James Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2017), 61.
6 Scott, 104.
7 Scott, 107–108.
8 Mark E.Rosheim, Robot Evolution: The Development of Anthrobotics, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994), 9.
9 Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture, (Astoria, Oregon: Clear Cut Press, 2003), 54–55.
10 All Musqueam place names found here: http://old.musqueam.bc.ca/applications/map/index.html
11 The Coast Salish Village that existed at the mouth of the inlet, also called Snauq, meaning sandbar. “Snauq is in Musqueam territory across the inlet from T’sleil Waututh, but the Squamish were the only ones to occupy it year round, some say as early as 1821… Before that, it was a common garden shared by all the friendly tribes in the area. The fish swam there, taking a breather from their ocean playgrounds, ducks gathered, women cultivated camas fields and berries abounded.” Lee Maracle, First Wives Club: Coast Salish Style, Penticton BC: Theytus Books, 2010, 16.
12 Terry Glavin, “Rivers run beneath us,” Georgia Straight, July 21, 2005, https://www.straight.com/article/rivers-run-beneath-us
13 Le Guin, 151.