Who Owns a Story?

What happens when the creator of a story you love disappoints you? When they do or say something that you find morally inadequate or reprehensible? What happens to your relationship with the story?

Another way to put this question is who owns a story. I don’t mean in terms of copyright, though that is important too. I mean the right to say what a story means, what a story can do in the world, what kind of interpretations a story is open to. And who gets to say what kind of moral and ethical claims a story supports or suggests?

Two writers of stories dear to me have recently disappointed me. First, I have been saddened by J.K. Rowling’s statements on trans rights. Rowling argues for the importance of a biological definition of sex, one that excludes trans women from the category ‘woman,’ and she criticizes the rising use of hormones in transitioning. Her comments have caused widespread pain and outrage among Harry Potter fans, in part because the books are beloved for the way in which they make difference a strength. Being different isn’t bad; it can be the portal into another world.

Second, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has faced a slew of allegations of professional misconduct from actors and writers. The allegations against Whedon are especially disappointing because publicly  he has styled himself and his work as a feminist. It seems that this has made little difference to his relationships with actual women. His feminism now seems more like a screen for his bad behavior, rather than a personal commitment.

So what should I do? Should I stop reading Harry Potter and watching Buffy and the other Whedon shows? The main reason I love Harry Potter, beside the fact that the characters are constantly eating, is that it depicts an enduring friendship. I have moved many times, and my closest friends live far from me. Being able to participate, through reading, in the friendship of Harry, Ron, and Hermione has been a source of comfort. The Buffy series has been particularly important to me as a help in figuring out what it means to be a woman who lives off of her nerdiness (Willow, not Buffy, being the main example of this in the series). Do I now have to do without Harry and Buffy?

In answering that question, I think the most important thing is not to insist too much on any answer. If you too have loved Harry Potter, but now the books represent for you a disavowal of who you are, no one should try to talk you into loving them again. But if that world remains important to you, no one should shame you for that either. Hannah McGregor, host of the Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please, writes “I think it’s a really interesting stance to say, ‘Actually, no, this is this is my world and I get to hold on to it and I get to fill it with characters and ideas that excite me, and Rowling doesn’t get to take that away from everybody.’”

Perhaps the best answer is to rephrase the question. Maybe it isn’t a question of ownership – no one really owns a story – but of relationships. Perhaps your relationship with a particular writer or creator has soured, and now you need to figure out if that is true of your relationship with their stories too. For some, the answer will be “yes,” for some the answer will be “somewhat,” and for others the answer will be “no.” It is not important that we all arrive at the same conclusion, but that we give each other space to love and interact with stories in different ways. There is no right answer to who owns a story, only many ways of reading and listening, interpreting and analyzing, loving and criticizing.

Race, Place, and Belonging – A Conversation with Willie Jennings

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

We live in the aftermath of colonialism, and colonialism, said Willie Jennings in his talk on March 11, has created a fundamental choice inside a terrible question: either you own it or I will own it. Given those options, the only choice is to say “I possess it.”

This choice extends to everything, but most particularly to land and bodies. The primary expression of the ownership of bodies is slavery and the primary expression of ownership of land is private property.

It may seem that the first of these, slavery, is now an irrelevance, but Jennings argued otherwise. The opposite of slavery, self-possession, is expressed through productivity and self-actualization. You become productive by making land productive, exactly what European colonialists claimed indigenous peoples all over the world failed to do. If you cannot make land productive, you have no claim to your own body or to nationhood. Productivity in this view became the measure of morality; to be moral is to produce. Though most of us are not farmers, we apply a similar logic to our bodies and ourselves. Just as we extract resources from the land, so we supposed to extract resources out of our own selves, in order to become fully actualized people. We must prove our worth by become our best selves.

Jennings argues for another way of seeing bodies and land, one that begins with belonging, with being possessed by rather than possessing of. In this way of living, self-actualization requires belonging. All learning – intellectual, spiritual, and moral – begins with belonging, with being part of a community. Jennings used Aretha Franklin as an example. When you hear her voice, you hear a whole community of black American music, stretching beyond and in front of her. You also hear her individual voice. But the individuality of her voice rests on and depends on her community. It is not in competition with it, nor does her belonging diminish her talent.

Community to Jennings does not only include humans, but extends to land, plants, and animals, an idea he drew from his family history and from indigenous authors. Rather than seeing the world as a collection of resources for extraction, we should aim to live in covenant with both humans and our places. Covenant with a place begins with the possibility that the world speaks to you and reaches out to you. The relationship is mutual, which does not preclude use (you can still eat the carrots you grow!), but changes the terms of use. Jennings talked about his memories of his parents gardening. Gardening had an economic aspect: Jennings was the youngest of eleven, in a network of large families, and gardening played an important role in feeding everyone. It also established an informal network of exchange between neighbors, everyone sharing and trading what they grew. Gardening was a form of community, of being taken care of by the land and of taking care of yourself and your neighbors.

Jennings said that he learned from an early age that the land gives you life even when you are surrounded by people who desire your death. This was true for him and his family beyond growing food. Jennings talked about the importance of touching the soil, of sitting and being with the plants in the cool of the evening. Sitting in their backyard was a therapeutic intervention, a way to remember who you were and to whom you belonged. This relationship to land escapes us, said Jennings, and our built environments often thwart it. But being able to be in relationship with the places we live is so important, argued Jennings, that to create built environments that deny these realities is immoral.

Jennings argued that one way to regain a sense of place is to become better storytellers about the places we inhabit. He pointed to the practice of land acknowledgement, in which one acknowledges whose land one is on. Durham, for example, is on Occaneechi land. On its own, this practice is insufficient, but if part of a larger pedagogy, of learning the history of our lands in a way that opens up possession, it can point us towards processes of reciprocity and respect that have not yet taken hold. It might teach us a way to live in continuity with the peoples who lived on these lands before us and continue to live here. It might teach us to notice the land calling out to us and learn ways to respond to that call. 

Join us on March 18, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.

Telling Time – A Conversation with Robert Macfarlane

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

Right before Covid hit, I went to visit a friend in Toronto. Recently, the friend texted a picture from the visit with the caption “a year ago today,” and then the question “Does this feel like a week ago or a decade?”

My first response was “a week,” and then “a decade.” Nothing has happened since that visit, I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything, so the intervening year feels like one long moment. But I also haven’t seen friend, gone to a restaurant, or been in a room with a crowd without feeling intense anxiety, and from that perspective, it feels like a decade. The changes brought by Covid have made time unfamiliar and unreliable. My way of keeping time is for another way of life than the one we have all been living this last year.

Robert Macfarlane’s talk on March 4th was about another way in which our relationship to time is inadequate to the present moment, to the Anthropocene and to the climate crisis. Macfarlane argued that we must relearn how to tell time. Most of the cycles that structure our lives are short. The tax year, news cycle, and terms of government; the longest of these is no more than four or five years long. These short units of time make us unfit for decisions that will affect people in generations to come. They also curtail our ability to integrate deep time into our life, to think “forwards into unknowable futures as well as backwards into unimaginable pasts.” Borrowing from indigenous writers and thinkers, Macfarlane suggested we should approach time and our actions in time with a specific question in mind: “Are we being good ancestors?”

To relearn how to tell time, Macfarlane looked to writers, poets, and artists. He used Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future to think about what consideration of future generations might look like if it was integrated into a government structure. He used Richard Powers’ The Overstory as an example of a novel that structures its narrative around the time of trees, rather than human lifespans.

But the examples Macfarlane spent most time on were drawn from visual art. His first example was Olafur Eliasson’s “Ice Watch”. Eliasson harvested icebergs that have melted off the Greenland ice shelf. He placed these icebergs in the formation of a clock face in locations of significant climate events and decision making. As the ice melted, Macfarlane argued, it made present a polytemporal world. Ancient ice melting in modern time, releasing ancient atmospheres from its pockets of air. It passed judgment on our climate decision making, but also caused wonder. The pictures of people interacting with the ice shows children in awe, a woman hugging the ice. The piece both makes present our indifference to times beyond our immediate present, but also draws out love and amazement for such times.

Macfarlane’s second example was a funeral plaque installed in Iceland for the Okjukull Glacier. The plaque reads: “A letter to the future: Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” The plaque evokes several kinds of time. First, it treats the glacier as a being with a lifespan, one that our actions have brought to an end. It names the death of Ok as the first of many possible deaths. It also makes an appeal to an imaginary figure in the future and asks us to consider what that future figure will make of us. Macfarlane calls this view from the future “future retrospect.” It is the tense of “will have been,” but without fatalism. The plaque acknowledges that there is still time to change the things that will come under the judgment of the future, and seeks to jolt us away from hopelessness, to offer a glimmer of hope.

Macfarlane contrasts these uses of deep time against a nihilistic one. Nihilistic appeals to deep time see everything as meaningless, because everything will eventually end. It doesn’t matter that we have caused the extinction in the wild of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino – the sun was going to swallow them one day anyway. Macfarlane argued that this nihilism has been on the rise during covid. He told of walking in a beech wood close to his house and noticing that someone had written in chalk on the trees along the path, one word per tree: “We are the virus, covid is the cure.” This use of deep time is profoundly irresponsible, said Macfarlane. It finds a fix in long time by overlooking the immense suffering that gets us there. Unlike “Ice Watch” and the Okjukull plague, both of which draws attention to our ability to act for the future, this appeal to deep time is an environmental alibi. It lets us off the hook and allows us to treat the suffering of others as irrelevant.  

The final question of the webinar asked Macfarlane to reflect on the limits and possibilities of writing and art for helping reimagining our relationship to landscapes and time. Macfarlane replied that he is weary of overconfidence, the idea that art can solve everything, but that he also believes art is more than window dressing. Cultural change, including meaningful ways of reimagining time, are often slow, and the changes we need to make in order to forestall the most catastrophic climate changes are urgent. And yet, cultural change does happen and art can be part of how it happens. Art on its own can’t solve the environmental problems we face, but together with other forms of actions, it is an important tool as we relearn how to tell time and train ourselves to become better ancestors.

Join us on March 11, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.

A Man Could Eat a Pancake

In Ford Maddox Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up-, set during World War I, several characters reflect on what peace means to them. To one man, peace means that “a man could stand hup on an ‘ill” (the title of Ford’s book rendered in Lincolnshire dialect). “You want to stand up!” he continues, “Take a look around…Like as if you wanted to breathe deep again after bein’ in a stoopin’ posture for a long time” (Ford, 616).

To the main character of the book, Christopher Tietjens, peace means being “being able to finish your talks.” He isn’t referring to just any conversations, but “intimate conversations that means the final communion of your souls,” conversations between life partners. “You have to wait together – for a week, for a year, for a lifetime, before the final intimate conversation may be attained…and exhausted.” These conversations aren’t just long, but require being able to put things off. After all, “You mayn’t be in the mood when she in the mood” (680).

In the first example, peace brings bodily freedom. No longer hunched over in trenches, a man can stand up on a hill without fear of being shot. Peace is felt in the body as a lack of caution, a lack of alarm. Tietjens’ vision of peace is focused on time. In the trench, he counts minutes till the next expected German barrage. “Forty-five minutes,“ “forty minutes,” “thirty-two minutes.” Like the Lincolnshire man’s sense of bodily confinement, Tietjens’ time is cramped and claustrophobic. But in peace time, you can wait till tomorrow to say what’s on your mind. You can wait till it suits the other person to start a conversation. You can wait until you are both in a similar frame of mind. That kind of patience isn’t possible if in twenty-six minutes you may be buried by a projectile.

Both men reflect on what is known as positive peace. Negative peace is, as the term suggests, defined negatively, that is, by the absence of armed conflict (the distinction between positive and negative peace is associated with the work of Johan Galtung, the father of Peace Studies). A ceasefire is an example of negative peace. Bombs and bullets aren’t flying, but to call the result peace, in its fullest meaning, would be to exaggerate.

Positive peace, on the other hand, is defined by what is, rather than what is lacking. Definitions of positive peace vary more than definitions of negative peace, because they depend on personal, cultural, and political ideas of what for a good, thriving society. Positive peace isn’t just conflict on hold, but an enduring, reliable state. During positive peace, you can stretch out, you can wait till tomorrow, because the state of peace is dependable. Soldiers won’t suddenly go back to shooting at each other.

Covid19 has made me think again of the distinction between positive and negative peace, terms I have ignored since my last political science class. In conversations with friends, we often talk about what it will be like when things go back to normal. But the longer this lasts, the less clear I feel about normal, about what it is I most want to go back to. There are multiple things involved in normal that feel more like negative than positive peace. Not wearing a mask at the grocery store. Waiting inside the doctor’s office instead of in my car. Going off hand sanitizer. These would all be nice, but they have little to do with what I most miss about the world before the virus. I don’t pine for my clinic’s waiting room.

To describe what positive normal is to me, I need stories. What I miss are not little practical things, but a whole way of being in space and time. For example, a couple of weeks ago a friend asked if we wanted anything from the coffee truck in our neighborhood. I realized then that what I wanted wasn’t coffee, but a pre-pandemic version of that kind of interaction. Now, dropping off coffee is just dropping off coffee, an exchange across our garden gate. Short, to the point. Before the pandemic, he would have come inside. We would have pressed pancakes on him. He would have said he couldn’t stay, because he was bringing coffee and treats to his family, but he still would have stayed for 10 minutes or so, eaten a pancake, maybe some sausage, given our son a hug, petted our dog, examined the old Christmas cards on the fridge. Still an exchange of coffee, but also of so many other things, with no one concerned for droplets, aerosols, and crowds in confined, non-ventilated spaces. Freedom in body and in time. No hunching over, no counting down minutes.

Or, to put it another way, were I to write a Covid19 version of Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up-, I would call it A Man Could Eat A Pancake. It doesn’t have the serious ring of Ford’s title, but it captures what I want, the normal I miss. What sort of normal do you long for?

White Lies

In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Saidiya V. Hartman writes about empathy as modeled by the white abolitionist John Rankin. In an effort to convince his slaveholding brother of the horrors of slavery, Rankin describes imagining himself as a slave. “My flighty imagination added much to the tumult of passion by persuading me, for the moment, that I myself was a slave, and with my wife and children placed under the reign of terror” (Hartman, 18).

The problem with Rankin’s imagined scene, argues Hartman, is that “the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible” (Hartman, 19). Black suffering is so difficult a concept for white people that it can only be made plausible by saying “now imagine that the people beaten are white men, white women, and white children.” This kind of empathy, writes Hartman, is “related to both the devaluation and the valuation of black life” (Hartman, 21). Rankin’s aim is to create sympathy for slaves, but the only way he knows how to do that is by replacing black bodies with white ones.

I thought of this recently when I read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, the second line of which is “I wanted to write a lie” (Laymon, 1). Of the many lies Laymon considers and rejects, two relate to stories told side by side in the chapter “Train.” One: Layla, a fifteen-year-old girl, “had to go in Daryl’s room with all the big boys for fifteen minutes if she wanted to float in the deep end” (Laymon, 15). Two: Laymon’s babysitter undresses in front of him, undresses Laymon, and makes him touch her. (Laymon, 23).

Both stories are almost too painful to think about, and it is so tempting to evade them. Laymon makes you feel the full force of “I wanted to write a lie,” the urge to tell something other than the truth. Maybe Layla wasn’t raped. Maybe the “shallow grunts” coming from Daryl’s room mean something else (Laymon, 17). Laymon thought Renata was his girlfriend – maybe her assault wasn’t traumatic to Laymon. Laymon himself struggles to imagine Layla as someone to whom bad things can happen. “I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them” (Laymon, 16). White people are taught a similar lesson, that black people can stomach more pain, more poverty, more abuse than their white peers. Only this makes my desired reading of what Renata does to Laymon plausible in the least. Pre-teen boys do not come through sex with adult women unscathed.

Laymon’s book is not addressed to white people (he writes “to and for black Americans in the Deep South“[131]), and Laymon never says, “please don’t believe lies.” He speaks of his own desire to write a lie and of the desire of others to read lies. But as a white person reading his book, I do wonder about lies and about the connection between lies and the problem of empathy described by Hartman. Rankin has to imagine himself in the place of the slave in order to describe the slave’s pain. He acts out one particular understanding of empathy, that is, empathy as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is a kind of empathy that leaves the lie more or less intact. Instead of having to confront the lie that slaves don’t suffer, Rankin tells his brother what his brother already knows: Rankin and his family would suffer under the conditions endured by slaves.

Laymon’s book suggests to me that empathy can be something else. His refusal to write a lie is a refusal to ignore, disbelieve, and cover over his own pain and that of others. Or to speak only of acceptable pains, pains that come from outside the family, pains that bring a manageable load of shame. He isn’t trying to put himself in Layla’s shoes and he doesn’t ask us to put ourselves in his shoes. He does put us in a position where we have to choose whether we believe that these things happened and that that they hurt. As such, Laymon’s stories challenge me to believe the experience of others without being able to imagine them as happening to myself. They challenge me to believe and act on what others tell me, without having to understand, without feeling it in my bones. It is a form of empathy that is more about trust than about identifying with someone else. Because you say so, I believe you. Because you are in pain, I will act.

Imaginary Individualism

One of the things that surprised me about COVID and social isolation is the extent to which it made the world feel less real. Turns out that when I don’t see people outside my immediate family, my experiences begin to feel a bit gauzy. This effect is especially true of work. Working at home sounds nice – so much flexibility! – but it is challenging not to see colleagues, the people with whom I share tasks and projects. Maybe I made work up! Maybe the typing I do, the spreadsheets I fill out, the zoom meetings – maybe they are just a weird dream I keep having. Every day I convince myself to start working. When I had an office to go to, I didn’t have to do that. When I was at work, I’d work – no pep talk required. It turns out that all those interactions at work, the ones that might show up in an efficiency study as not quite necessary – good mornings in the coffee room, random conversations in the hallways, please watch this cat video – those make the shared project of work feel real. Real and meaningful. Not on their own, of course, but they are part of the important fabric by which we tell each other that the world is real, we are real in it, and the work we do matters.

This experience put flesh to research that was for me more theoretical than felt. Writing about how Melanesians understand individuals and relationships (Melanesia is a sub-region of Oceania, stretching from Papua New Guinea to Fiji and Tonga), anthropologist Marilyn Strathern writes that Melanesians understand relationships very differently from how most of us in the West do. She writes that “relationships do not link individuals” ⁠ (Strathern, 59). Instead, persons are made up of relationships. ⁠

Drawing on a term “fractal person,” coined by another anthropologist, Roy Wagner, Strathern writes that individuals cannot be “expressed in whole numbers.” (Strathern 59; Wagner 162). That is not to say that persons are less than whole, as if each person is a half or a third of something. Wagner uses the term “fractal person” as a way to get around an alternative we tend to take for granted, the alternative between “individual and group.” In Melanesian understandings, he argues, persons are “neither singular nor plural” (Wagner, 162). A person is not a single unit (an individual), which, if added to other single units, becomes a collective of related members (a group). Relationships do not flow between free-standing persons, who would exist in the absence of those relationships. Persons are made up of their relationships, relationships with kin, with land, with animals; take those relationships away, and the person “fades away” (see Descola, 25). Sociality and relationships are not things a person can engage or not engage in – relationships are not between persons. A person is someone who relates, and relationships make persons.

At a recent Virtues & Vocations webinar, Yuval Levin described how COVID-19 has made us realize the extent of our dependence on each other. “Our individualism is a luxury. It’s something we can imagine because other things are working really well in our society. When things aren’t really working well, you can’t take them for granted, you realize that you are not actually self-reliant.”

The work of Wagner and Strathern suggests that the problem with social isolation is not only that we are dependent on others in practical terms (we need grocery stores and garbage collection and health services), but that we rely on others to be full people, to be real. Seen through that lens, my feeling of unreality is not an illusion, but a clue to the vital importance of relationships for being and staying human. Levin first calls individualism a luxury, but his second description, that it is something “we…imagine,” is the truer one. We weren’t free-standing individuals before COVID hit, we just imagined we were

All these experiences make me work harder to maintain relationships during this time. I don’t mean I am throwing COVID-19 parties or the like. It is important that we maintain distance right now. But I try to aim for physical distance, rather than social distance. Conversations in my friends’ driveway, 6 feet apart and outside. Hikes in open spaces where we can spread out but still see each other without the means of a computer. Dinners in our yard. The latter leaves much to be desired in terms of hospitality. “Do you want to come over to our house? Please bring your own food, utensils, and maybe pee before you come?” It is not an invitation to make the heart sing. But it is a lot more than nothing. And it makes me and my world feel real. This sense of reality isn’t just good for me, but it motivates me to keep working and hoping for the real world to be better. If it is all a dream, why do anything? But if we are all real – and on days I see people, I am sure we are – then working together towards something better is meaningful, important, and joyful.

Descola, Phillipe. Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).

Strathern, Marilyn. “Partners and Consumers: Making Relations Visible,” in Readings in Indigenous Religions, edited by Graham Harvey (London; New York: Continuum, 2002 [originally published in 1991].

Wagner, Roy. “The Fractal Person,” in Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, edited by Maurice Godelier and Marylin Strathern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).