Re-Imagining Borders Technologies

Miriam Ticktin

Last week, Professor Miriam Ticktin (Anthropology, New School), shared new research to a packed room as part of the Roots and Routes Series. In her talk, “Re-Imagining Borders Technologies: Designing New Political Forms”, Ticktin shared work from a current collaboration on how reimagining borders enables a new politics.  Her argument highlights the symbolic role of borders, arguing that border walls not only defend but define territories altering categories of natural and human kinds. Describing borders and border walls as technologies of containment, Ticktin illuminated how borders do more than regulate human—they alter our sense of ourselves and of the commons. In contrast to the perspective of borders as either open or closed, working with designers and architects, Ticktin argues for a specultative politics that moves beyond these dichotomies and conceives of borders as permeable, temporary and multilayered. Revisioning borders as welcome lounges or flyaways is an ethical challenge to current conceptions that determine who is allowed to move and who is not.

Next in the Roots and Routes Series is award winning author Valeria Luiselli who will speak about US migration on January 18 at 7pm at the Durham Arts Council. (link)

The Ethics of Now: Novelist Marlon James in Conversation

The Kenan Institute for Ethics kicks off its 2018 discussion series, “The Ethics of Now,” with a dialogue between renowned contemporary novelist Marlon James and Duke professor of history Adriane Lentz-Smith.

**This talk is free and open to the public.
**Use Uber code edz9m1r and get a ride to and from the talk! (Limit $10/ride.)

Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings received the 2015 Man Booker Prize, making him the first Jamaican author to win the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. The novel also received the 2015 American Book Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a New York Times Notable Book, and was named a “best book of the year” by the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Newsweek, Time and numerous other publications.

As described by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, A Brief History of Seven Killings “launched Marlon James into the world of literary stardom, drawing comparisons to William Faulkner by way of Tarantino.”

Marlon James is also the author of The Book of Night Women, a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, as well as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. In 2018, James received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.

“With powerful writerly vision and genius for creating voices that speak to the painful intensity of human experience, James crafts worlds that illuminate the brutal beauty of past and present,” says Lentz-Smith.

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970. He graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in language and literature, and from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania in 2006 with an MA in creative writing. Since 2007, he has been teaching English and creative writing at Macalester College; he divides his time between Minnesota and New York.

In his presentations, James addresses topics related to writing and the writing process, as well as issues pertaining to the history of the Caribbean, race and gender in the U.S. and U.K., and youth subcultures as expressed in literature and music such as hip-hop and reggae.

His book Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first novel in his fantasy Dark Star Trilogy series, will be published in February 2019.

Commitment Among the Living—To Conversation

“The way in which we choose those who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living.”

(Justice William J. Brennan)

Today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and classes have ended for Duke undergraduates; I’m reading over my notes on the death penalty.

Earlier this week, scholars and practitioners—both local and non—gathered for the last Conversation in Human Rights for this academic year, “The Death Penalty in N.C. and the U.S.” The panel consisted of two law professors, a political scientist-economist, a historian, and a practitioner. The discussion was lively and embodied; Corinna Lain and James Gibson, both from the University of Richmond School of Law, spoke animatedly about their co-authored paper, “Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace”; Seth Kotch, from UNC-CH’s Department of American Studies, rapidly talked us through his research on the case study of Alvin Mansel, an African-American man from Western North Carolina who sat on death row but was eventually commuted and given parole. Isaac Unah, from Political Science at UNC, and Gretchen Engel, who heads up the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, honed the local focus with an overview of recent death penalty cases in North Carolina.

On a general level, I was struck, as I am often in academic panels—or any panel for that matter—by the rapid-fire, real-time bringing together of different types and snippets of knowledge (each panelist was given a total of six minutes to present his or her thesis and ideas). Ideally, in such a scenario, each panelist brings to the table a distinct disciplinary perspective; also ideally, such perspectives can mesh together so that the panel becomes or at least feels to the audience like a conversation, rather than an abstract issuing-forth. And this Conversation indeed felt like a conversation; the panelists were engaging, they played well together, and they played well with the audience. All this despite, or perhaps in light of, the subject matter, which has felt unavoidable in the local and national news lately. And, probably, it should feel that way; comments were made more than once during the discussion that alluded to how little Americans know about the death penalty—we make up part of the remaining 18% of U.N. member countries that still allow it; we source drugs for lethal injections from European pharmaceutical companies, while the EU restricts the death penalty—regardless of whether they choose to support it or not.

To behold a somewhat cheery, dynamic conversation about these issues is disorienting, but moreso compelling, given the manner in which issues surrounding the death penalty are taken up in the national, public sphere: in conjunction with high-profile cases, such as the Boston Marathon bombing—first, the facts, then reportage on the emotional response. There was something powerful in Monday’s conversation in the admission of this action happening, it’s inherent to our national and local landscape, and it can be approached in these various ways. Those who research and advocate for issues relating to the death penalty (and/or its abolition in the U.S.) know about things like the Innocence Project, about its mission to a) exonerate and b) reform the system—a proactive effort, and a public-facing and publicly inclusive one at that. Being privy to this week’s conversation made me wonder to what degree these multi-faceted, emphasis-on-knowledge-production-and-question-generation conversations are happening with regard to the issue of the death penalty, and to what extent they increase the accessibility of the issue in the first place. I’d err on the side of to a large extent—that is, when they happen in the first place.


Story and Sound

Over the holidays I parsed through a lot of film lists—particularly those incorporating the terms “best,” “film,” and “music,”—and film synopses. I was looking for the perfect fit (the perfect picture, you could say) to round out this year’s Ethics Film Series. The title, “Sound Beliefs: Music, Ethics, Identity,” plays with the idea that music can act as a space and as an action at and through which identity is contested, exchanged, and upheld.

But let me back up: One night recently, I found myself watching Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. I’ve been aware of the film for many years now, and aware that I’ve wanted to see it for just about as long. It took scrolling through a Criterion Collection thematic list—“Great Soundtracks”—to bring the film back into my consciousness. And now that it’s there, I can’t remove it—a thumping inkblot, raw and terrifying in its prescience. Lee’s neighborhood street in Bed-Stuy feels microcosmic: a full-spectrum look at the issues that recur for us 25 years later: racism, ignorance, gentrification, violence, competition, pride. (If you’ve seen the film and can identify the climax, you know exactly what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, there’s a particular sequence of scenes involving police brutality and a community response that mirrors events of late, and for which “intense” and “uncanny” feel like trite comparative classifiers). Something similar can be said, I think, about the image we glean of Olympia, Washington and the Pacific Northwest through Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, which profiles the musician Kathleen Hanna and her band, Bikini Kill. In Olympia in 1990 Hanna and her bandmates were working on a zine, also called Bikini Kill, about feminism and punk rock; at their shows Hanna would exclaim, “girls to the front!” as an affront to male-dominated music culture. 24 years later, some things have changed, some more ostensibly than others. Watching Lee’s and Anderson’s films felt at times like a punch in the gut and a call to call out the broken-record tendencies of our present times.

Bikini Kill posters. Image courtesy of MTV.com/VFiles.

I wanted to talk and show films about music this year in part because I wanted to piggyback on last year’s theme, “The South,” by choosing a topic that feels—to me, at least—both tactile and deeply complex. I make this statement as someone with no formal training in music, but as someone who has approached music more or less formally, at different times, through literary study, arts journalism, and dance. And I make it as someone who often feels most present when immersed in live art. Throughout the almost six years that I’ve inhabited Duke and Durham, I’ve found safe and elated spaces in live music events, somewhere in the feedback loop between performer and audience, and increasingly in the space where that distinction is tested and blurred. (See a post I wrote around this time last year about another music-related film, Inside Llewyn Davis). I’ve also been in musical spaces where I feel uncomfortable, as a woman; others where I notice, and then can’t stop noticing, that most people in the audience share my skin color. These are not, at least at face-value, condemnations, but they are realizations that happened because I was there in the first place. And I was there presumably because I liked, or thought I’d like, the music.

And yet I frequently find myself in musical spaces where I’m unfamiliar with the language in which the lyrics are voiced, or unfamiliar with the musical language itself, and find myself moving and compelled nonetheless. I use the phrase “find myself” here intentionally because I think the physical response is subterranean and visceral. I start to envision a feedback loop between emotional affect and the structure of sound: it’s fuzzy, and almost wacky, but there’s a pulse there.

I imbue art, and in this case music, with a hopefulness for a better world, and that hopefulness probably looks like a fusion of Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language and Radio Raheem’s iconic Love/Hate speech in Do the Right Thing. In other words, like music and like art, it’s not static; it’s nuanced, and tends toward the full-spectrum, so it’s not often easily digestible.

In a similar way, selecting the “perfect picture” or the perfect film series isn’t possible, exactly, but I’ve chosen four films that look to complicate these themes, to place us in, at once, the collective and the individual and idiosyncratic. I hope they offer a spectrum of sound and stories.


Holiday Behavior

Remember the “Pocahotness” frat party email back in December of 2011? I do. Not because I received it while a student at Duke, but because I saw Nicole Daniels’s Chronicle editorial, replete with the predictable slew of inflammatory comments, the next day. The party in question, she explains, was held by the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity; its theme, which Daniels’s friend “nonchalantly texted her,” was “Pilgrims and Indians.” Daniels goes on to say how she found the theme appalling in its racial insensitivity but decided to go nonetheless, in order to evaluate the event herself. She places herself among her peers, astonished at their willing participation in the theme. She closes with a collective moral indictment: “Everyone who attended this party should feel ashamed. We are students at a prestigious university, and we should know better.”

Image from the “Appropriate? Or Appropriation” event.

It’s roughly Halloween as I write this, which made me mis-remember the piece, and the party, as a Halloween event. It was not. It was a pre-Thanksgiving shindig, “intended to celebrate Thanksgiving,” as the Pi Kappa Phi apology letter stated. While I’m not someone who moved through Duke tending to conceive of holidays like Thanksgiving as cause for a rager, I acknowledge that there are, plausibly, student groups that did. And I don’t have a moral indictment for that urge, so long as that urge is pursued conscientiously—and, in the case of this party, I believe it was not. The fraternity’s response letter said as much. The letter is actually remarkable in its defenselessness; the brothers acknowledge that the party offended, and they apologize for that offense. They even went a step further, organizing an event called “Culture Clash,” co-hosted by Pi Kapp and the Native American Student Association. I didn’t attend, but I’m curious about how that went.

I’m curious, especially in these days surrounding and following Halloween, about how we behave on days surrounding and following holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. There are obvious performative differences between the two: one is a one-off involving costumes, transforming into someone else—or at least the outward appearance of someone else—for a night; the other brings friends and family together for gratitude and a shared meal. I say “performative” to call attention to our actions within the 24 hours (and then some) during which we’re called to celebrate. History is complicated; sustaining meaningful dialogue about the ethics of holiday behavior during said holiday (or party) gets in the way of action, especially action involving costume and debauchery. Thus, perhaps, our tendency to do stupid things like throw a party with a racist (or sexist, classist, heterosexist, etc.) theme. Talking about the big stuff is hard. Why not just barely dip into it, with a hastily thrown-together costume, in the name of fun?

There are so many articles and essays that treat the question of “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” (I’m borrowing this phrasing from an upcoming event hosted by Team Kenan and the Forum for Scholars and Publics). One I read recently is from the Walker Art Center’s teen-oriented blog. On dress-up holidays like Halloween, Mason Santos writes, “we get caught up in our own freedom, which unfortunately creates the belief that we are entitled to do what we want…‘I can wear what I want,’ and, ‘I can choose to represent another culture the way I want’ are often phrases that come up when a person is trying to defend their choice of wearing an offensive costume. Rather than thinking about another person’s right to feeling comfortable in their community, we think about our own right to do what we desire.”

Following this line, holidays like Halloween suddenly seem less communal and more liminal. We walk around as half-selves, Picasso-painting-faced, one limb invoking ‘normal’ us, the other invoking Andy Warhol, or a zombie, or Nicki Minaj, or “Pocahotness.” Halloween makes people gravitate together, creating an implausible collection of characters, real and imagined, from different time periods, social spaces, and communities. The oddity of this shared space becomes a given, which makes it difficult to interrogate why we do it in the first place—and thus even more difficult to interrogate the perceived ease of opting into others’ realities via a one-night costume.

In this way I appreciate the “Culture Clash” event, even if I didn’t go, and I appreciate the upcoming “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel. I appreciate, primarily, that these events exist, and that they exist in order to give space to party participants—like me, like you—to appear, sans-costumery, and think about the fictions we adopt on a daily basis. I appreciate that these events exist to propose that these fictions, while sustainable for some, are not sustainable, but rather demeaning and detrimental, for others. I appreciate that this is uncomfortable, even scary, to reckon with. ‘Tis the season for Halloween horror, right?


“I, too, dislike it”: On Immunity

Eula Biss dedicates her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays to “[her] baby, who doesn’t have a name yet”; she dedicates 2014’s On Immunity: An Inoculation to “other mothers, with gratitude to mine.”  Here I mean to draw attention to an idea that we all already know: that dedications are acknowledgments of the other, before the book—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whathaveyou—runs it course. They read like declarations of being for, and that implies something quite meaningful, I think: that one person’s labor and artistry can exist for others, and thus that this work exists in a continuum with life, with other people.Appropriate-Appropriation-400

“There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.” This is Biss writing early in On Immunity about herd immunity, which essentially equates to the vaccination of a majority in protection of a minority—“the minority of the population that is particularly vulnerable to a given disease.” In all the press about Biss’s book—just Google “Eula Biss On Immunity”— there’s much said about how the book originated from Biss’s own pregnancy and deciding whether or not to immunize her son. This is also, often, how I begin to relate the “story” of On Immunity to friends and family.

But there is something deeper at work in Biss’s narrative, which she uses to unravel the cultural history of immunity through her own experiences and through the words of pediatricians, disease scientists, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson (among others). Biss writes with a singular persistence from, at, around, and through her status as a well-educated, financially stable white woman and mother. “People like me” isn’t a droll invocation of empathy, of generalization; it’s Biss’s extreme precision in placing herself, and those who share her demographic characteristics, on a continuum with those who do not. It’s not even so much a placing as it is a recognizing, and abiding-by: we are human, we all contain sickness and health, we share airplanes and blood drive queues. One of my favorite passages of Biss’s book takes place in one of these queues; Biss is giving blood “to repay the loan [she] was given,” upon her giving birth, “by some other anonymous donor.” She writes:

“I try to imagine that donor now as I look at the people in the chairs across from me—a muscular man studying flash cards and a middle-aged woman reading a novel and a man in a business suit looking at his phone. They are the same people I might see waiting for the train, but here they are bathed in an aura of altruism.”

It may be that circumstances like giving blood—or receiving yearly vaccinations— illuminate why we do so in the first place. We give, and receive, in order to become part of a majority in protection of a minority, and how conveniently visceral this experience is:

“When the needles are inserted into the people across from me, I notice each of their faces twist, for just an instant, into a grimace. I dread giving blood, and because I have been sitting here imagining these others are more willing to give than myself, it is surprising to see this look flash across their faces. As the nurse pushes the needles into my arm, I feel my face make the same expression. I, too, dislike it.”

I think, here, about the Terence quotation, which was brought up at the “Apartness” poetry event last week: I am human: nothing human is alien to me. I think, as a writer, about the commonly held notion that writing is birthed from alienation, from a need to reconcile the self with that which feels un-self-like. I think of a recent tweet from a conference on women writers in New York, in which The Empathy Exams author Leslie Jamison is quoted as saying, “All writing is about empathy.”

These may feel like grand-gesture ideas; even, perhaps, like didactic throughlines. Besides, my body is separate from your body, and I am too busy trying to figure out how to avoid your cough so that you do not infect me.

Yet we play host for weakened disease so that we may not catch it in full; we give blood, literally indebted to those who did the same for us. Eula Biss: “Our bodies are not war machines that attack everything foreign and unfamiliar…but gardens where, under the right conditions, we live in balance with many other organisms. In the garden of the body, we look inward and find not self, but other.”

Next month, Eula Biss visits Duke as part of the inaugural Kenan-Center for Documentary Studies Visiting Writers Series in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art. In the spring, Leslie Jamison visits.

As it happens, Jamison has that same Terence quotation tattooed across her arm. She wrote a short piece about it in The New York Times. “It hurt just enough to make me feel like something was happening,” she says about the tattooing process. “There was a sense of deserving—that I’d earned this by hurting for it. It was an old logic I hadn’t felt in a while: Pain justifies ownership.” Perhaps, also, it reinstates collectivity; it brings us into one body; it molds our faces into the same contorted expressions; it makes us visible to one another as we board the trains together.