Imani Jacqueline Brown & Kenneth Pietrobono (Part 3 of 3)

Between You and Me

Imani Jacqueline Brown & Kenneth Pietrobono (Part 3 of 3)

By Imani Jacqueline Brown, Kenneth Pietrobono July 26, 2018

Between You and Me is a series of dialogic exchanges between artists and their collaborators and peers to materialize the countless conversations, musings, and debates that are often invisible, yet play a significant role in the generative space of art-making.


This column is funded by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by championing and sustaining the arts, promoting early childhood literacy, and supporting research to cure chronic disease.

________

Portions of this text are part of an artwork, A Structural Crisis in an Emotional Landscape (2017/2018) by Kenneth Pietrobono, in which its author(s) Imani Jacqueline Brown and Pietrobono agreed, for compensation, to refrain from using the following words: Capital / Capitalist / Capitalism, Fascist / Fascism, Neoliberal / Neoliberalism, Populist / Populism, Political / Politics, Divide / Division / Divisive, Establishment, Global / Globalizing / Globalization, Nation / National / Nationalism, Media, Government, Conservative / Conservatism, Liberal / Liberalism, Party / Partisan / Partisanship, Country / Countries, Right, Left / Leftist, Progressive, -phobic, Republican/Republic, Democrat / Democratic / Democracy, America / American, Elite / Elitism, Sexist, White, Black, Resist / Resistance. At the discretion of the author(s), the quotes of others are not affected by removal but strikethrough. Additional exceptions and variations have been negotiated by Brown for the use of “White” and “Black.”

Continued from Part 2.



May 28, 2018

From: Kenneth Pietrobono
To: Imani Jacqueline Brown

Dear Imani,

As usual, this requires more coffee! Is there a stimulant that doesn’t have an extractive and world dominating history? Hilariously, I made mugs as a way to fundraise for the project so if anyone wants to enjoy their coffee with this phrase staring at them, grab here and fund a text!

Kenneth Pietrobono. A STRUCTURAL CRISIS IN AN EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE (Mug), 2017; custom ceramic mug. Courtesy of the Artist.

Regarding your take on the word project, I’m glad to have rebel pushback. Truth be told, I struggled terribly with four words in particular: White, Black, Sexist, Racist. I know how loaded these terms are and perhaps even suggesting their removal is, as you say, a luxury; a false simplicity. I don’t deny that at all. For me, it was just impossible to make a project about the frequent explanations for Trump and not include those four. There are simply hundreds of opinion pieces that use these four words as the way to explain Trump and the reactionary era he signifies. I don’t find them incorrect, but just too simplistic as a stopping point, especially when struggling to figure what to do about it. I know my project does not do the work of unpacking the networks that exist behind these terms. My hope is to entrust writers, such as you are doing, to engage and respond to the worlds that exist within and beyond these terms, including their binds. I’ll explain this anxiety about further inquiry (and its lack) down the line, but I just want to give a shoutout to a dear friend and interlocutor who really helped when I was crafting this project, especially with this arena in particular. Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson has been incredibly generous in helping me map out thinking, even when I still end up infuriating him. He has a text coming out this year that I’m really looking forward to—After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life.

It’s funny you mention the race for the Amazon headquarters where 238 cities across the continent made bids for a potential $5 billion development deal. Back to this notion of an “age of no remedy”—how is it the resources and juridical will exists for 238 municipalities to literally gear up for a Hunger Games-style battle to offer up themselves for this level of development while we can’t pay our teachers or fund schools, get clean water in Flint, or build a new power grid in Puerto Rico? Even with that last example in Puerto Rico, as we enter another hurricane season, for all the business startups around renewable energy, angel investors, “green” financials, entrepreneurs, magazines, books, conferences, and rhetoric around sustainability...literally nothing is happening? This is where I strap on my tinfoil hat and can’t help but wonder why there isn’t more explanation and more demand for it—AG*NO*TOL*O*GY.

I love the image you shared of the oil access canals in Louisiana and the “wants” that are creating our new era of Anthropocene—this threshold where human life on earth is literally reorienting the surface of the planet and its materials. As I was reading through your excerpts and comments on Jefferson and Franklin (I should know better than to be surprised, but I had a serious WTF moment reading all that), I couldn’t help but add to the mix of Anthropocene, Enlightenment, racism science, land and ownership theory...how does finance and speculation fit into this? Since we both mention David Graeber, I wanted to pull his excerpt from Debt: The First 5,000 Years which also appears in the novel Noah Fischer suggested to both of us, Neptune’s Brood:

And what of the Grail, that mysterious object that all the knights errant were ultimately seeking? Oddly enough, Richard Wagner, composer of the opera Parzifal, first suggested that the Grail was a symbol inspired by the new forms of finance. Where earlier epic heroes sought after, and fought over, piles of real, concrete gold and silver the Nibelung's hoard-these new ones, born of the new commercial economy, pursued purely abstract forms of value. No one, after all, knew precisely what the Grail was. Even the epics disagree: sometimes it's a plate, sometimes a cup, sometimes a stone. (Wolfram von Eschenbach imagined it to be a jewel knocked from Lucifer's helmet in a battle at the dawn of time.) In a way it doesn't matter. The point is that it's invisible, intangible, but at the same time of infinite, inexhaustible value, containing everything, capable of making the wasteland flower, feeding the world, providing spiritual sustenance, and healing wounded bodies. Marc Shell even suggested that it would best be conceived as a blank check, the ultimate financial abstraction.

I bring this in because when we discuss the “wants” that Winthrop and other European property theorists are throwing around at this time and parallel within the expansion of the slave trade, new methods of insurance and financing are actually propping up what is in fact an incredibly expensive and volatile venture. It is at this time that we first see the ability to insure an investment, an enslaved person, not for the amount paid, but for the estimated future yield of their labor over a lifetime.1 This shift, creating a way to lay a claim on a “futures market,” is fundamental to the theory that “productive use” of land is the foundation of ownership and the “true” expression of dominion—the ability to conceive of and speculate its future production. I really think it is this effort to extract value out of anything, build wealth from nothing, and who has the power to do so, that drives so much, perhaps even the Enlightenment at large. (More wild thinking. Please join me me in a tinfoil hat session!)

To make a connection to our current moment, when I was making the word project, it was the beginning of the Russian “media” story, which keeps resurfacing whenever convenient. (That “media” word drives me nuts!) I spent some time just digging around on Russia and what could potentially be at stake. Things popped up I was shocked were nowhere in the narrative. Look at this headline just from last year!

'History is repeating itself': Russia is making its biggest push into the Arctic since the Soviet Union fell  Business Insider, Jan. 2017

"Russia's Militarization of the Arctic," Business Insider (2017).

Turns out, 30% of the planet’s remaining natural gas and 13% of the planet’s remaining oil is in the Arctic—estimated at $35 TRILLION in value. Russia controls the vast majority of Arctic seaspace and is making the most concentrated military pushes in the North Pole which is allegedly unclaimed and mutually protected as such, but the race is on. Rex Tillerson as CEO of ExxonMobil in 2012 invested $500 BILLION in Russian oil fields to then become the Secretary of State dealing with Putin directly in an official capacity as a head of state, a state which can facilitate the deregulation of the Arctic. How is none of this part of the narrative we hear on why there is election interference?

The financiers of the world are actually banking on the melting of the Arctic. Part of the plan is to create new shipping routes from Asia, and just like the development in Palm Springs, the real jump is setting the terms of this space and its assets before it is ever in the sphere of public oversight, regulation or claim. Just look at this timeline I’ve thrown together:

2012 - ExxonMobil agrees to invest $500 billion in developing Russian offshore reserves with Rosneft (Russian oil company).
2013 - Putin signs "Russian Antarctic Strategy: 2020," a plan for the federation's economic growth connected to Arctic development. Includes a plan for 2015-2020 to use its space technology to develop long range communication and navigation systems in the Arctic.
2013 - US Coast Guard releases report of which sovereigns have "ice-breakers"—ships capable of breaking through Arctic ice. Russia has the most with 37. The US has 5 and China is building 2 ready for 2017.
2014/15 - China begins making bids for leases in the Arctic ring and bids to join the Arctic Council—chaired by the US and consisting of sovereigns that share borders with the Arctic.
2015 - Russia expands militarizing endeavors along the Arctic.
2015 - Obama is first president to visit Arctic.
2015 - Obama cancels US plans to drill in Arctic and cancels plans for new US leases to develop the area.
2017 - Possibly the first time the Arctic circle will be free of sea-ice in 100,000 years.
2017 - Development leases the US agreed to with Shell and other companies to explore the region expire (at a loss of billions by private industries).
2017 - Russia accelerates its military presence in the region.
May 2017 - NATO builds first permanent military presence in Arctic to oversee Russian activity
May 2017 - Trump bullies NATO and scolds them over "defense spending," using it as grounds to diminish US commitment to NATO.
May 2017 - Trump publicly casts doubt over the US commitment to the Paris Accord—THE SAME WEEK AN ARCTIC COUNCIL MEETING WAS TO TAKE PLACE.
May 2017 - The United States ENDS its chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
June 2017 - Trump formally announces plans to remove US from the Paris Accord.
June 2017 - Arctic sea ice is lowest ever on record.

"A Shortcut Across the Top of the World," The Russian Arctic Strategy 2020, Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United States of America, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Presentation.

So every time I hear the Russian hacking story, I just cringe to think of how lazy our reporting is or the control over which narratives get circulated. How do we get out from this blindness? Can we?

Not to associate blindness with an artist whose work I deeply love and respect, but we see this obscuring function in much social practice and institutional critique work. While Andrea Fraser’s essay introducing 2016: in Museums, Money and Politics is spot on and brilliant, the project and its associative claims leave me hopeless. A buried detail that will surely not be noted in the outrage economy is that 57% of the donations accounted for went to “Democratic and/or liberal candidates.” Not exactly the smoking gun it is billed to be. Further, even the MIT Press description connects the project to the historic election of 2016 as “the most expensive election in American history,” with $6.4 billion raised for presidential and congressional races combined. The research, however, accounts for only $212,405,877 in donations—just 3.3% of that $6.4 billion figure. Does 3.3% really help us account for the functions of a system at this scale? How does this help us understand the political world we really live in? It is as if we are building Rowdy Roddy Piper’s glasses but to see less.

With blindness in mind and since I promised some Trump porn, did you know that he registered the phrase “Make America Great Again” in 2012, five days after Obama’s second-term win? What fascinates me about it in addition to the shear plotting of it all is that he was allowed to exert ownership over what is clearly a regurgitation of Reagan’s 1980s campaign slogan (“Let’s Make America Great Again”) simply because Reagan never formally registered it with the USPTO. So even though “Make America Great Again” is a clear attachment to the racism and class war of Reagan (evidenced in the images below, complete with Trump memorabilia in the style of Reagan-era campaign logos), for the law, the history of this phrase begins and ends with Trump simply because he registered it first.

For law to positively affirm ownership to an individual or group, it must simultaneously negate and vacate the claims of others as we’ve discussed throughout our letters. By placing counter-narratives and counter-claims outside of the juridical lens and strategically choosing when to institute new rules (and who they apply to), parallel claims and histories simply become illegible and inconsequential. So in the total twist, it is my belief that Trump was elected not to be the president of the United States but to be the president of the space beyond our current sovereigns, where TRILLIONS in futures markets are the true deciders of what our lives will look like and the checks and balances we have are too slow and limited to regulate. This is why “collusion,” “obstruction,” and “malfeasance” do nothing to him. He is not of our legal system. By the time those systems catch up with the speed of this kind of wealth, it is too late. The terms have been set, the landscape predetermined. Derivatives and Forex markets are twenty times larger than the entire GDP of the planet! Perhaps this is all just too big for any of us to conceive of and communicate, let alone find footing to mobilize within. And yet...we must. My total terror, what history teaches us and I think you are already building up to, is that the fallout of these systems is deeply racialized, displacing vulnerability, risk and the outcomes of volatility on falsely constructed, systemically maintained, non-white and economically weakened populations. Even with my own family fleeing Chile in 1971 with the dismantling of the publicly elected Allende government for the military coup of Pinochet completed in 1973—the stadium where the dictatorship’s murders took place still standing in downtown Santiago—my jaw drops every time I read about Milton Friedman’s “The Miracle of Chile” and the “success” of Chile’s economic growth beginning in 1975. Just throw in some United States intervention, dismantling of representational sovereignty, manufactured economic crisis, a decade of violence, seventeen years of dictatorship, generations of displacement and—poof—you have the conditions for a miracle. Poverty moving from 50% to 11%...sounds like a sweet deal, but I have more questions. Beyond the “knee-jerk” reactive questions, one pops up in particular: Are populations aware of these costs and simply okay with the deal? Perhaps these “costs” are so abstract it is impossible to register them in the immediate single-life time span? Again, questions for another set of letters.

Global GDP compared to Derivatives and Forex markets, Der Spiegel, 2011.

On a more quotidian note, it was strange compiling all of this and and full-on crying as I watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last week. So ridiculous, I know and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit but, I’m human...sometimes. Did you watch it? I wasn’t prepared to see it all through the eyes of Meghan Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland. I can’t even imagine, ending up in that room, in that moment, lineages and histories colliding, which I’m sure has all happened in variations before but still overwhelming. I’d like to believe the symbolism of it leads somewhere but my cynicism rises again. What to do with these “hyperobjects” of race and wealth and ideologies that are just too buttressed to augment? These “growths” that require such human cost. I wish I had something light and airy to exit on but...fuck. Maybe I’ve just got to get out to the Cahokia Mounds you describe and commune with some geologic time. Meanwhile, the financial industry is convinced its time frame is the only one that exists if you take this ad from BNY Mellon at face value… “Every wealth strategy needs an end goal. Like never-ending wealth.” Holy grail as blank check indeed. And funnily, I just read an article about the built environment and the directives embedded within it that guide engagement in predictive and harmonized ways. The term coined by perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson to name the range of possible actions and limits within a built environment and its actors (brace yourself): affordance.

2018 Ad from BNY Mellon Wealth Management on my sheets.

The work continues.

A hug from here,

Kenneth



June 3, 2018

To: Kenneth Pietrobono
From: Imani Jacqueline Brown

Kenneth,

Get this:

It’s June 3, 1975 and New York City is on the verge of collapse. The City’s elected officials have taken out more and more debt to finance endless growth. White flight has drained the city of upper middle class families and their tax revenue, leading the City to take out even more loans to kick the can into the hole. The banks are growing fretful about the possibility of default and decide to teach the City a lesson: they stop operating. On this day, New York City held their regular meeting at 11:00 a.m. to issue bonds in exchange for loans, but the banks never arrived. They rescheduled for 2:00 p.m.; the banks promised they would be present. They ghosted; no call, no show. According to filmmaker Adam Curtis, “What happened that day in New York marked a radical shift in power. The banks insisted that in order to protect their loans, they should be able to take control of the city.”2

A coup d’état. In reading your letter of May 28, I was reminded of Adam Curtis’s eerie film, HyperNormalisation (2016) and have sat down to watch it again today. It’s just simply kismet that today is June 3. Happy Bank Sovereignty Day! [*sips from her A Structural Crisis in an Emotional Landscape mug.*]

Screenshots from HyperNormalisation.

Going back to your quote, “I really think it is this effort to extract value out of anything, build wealth from nothing, and who has the power to do so, that drives so much, perhaps even the Enlightenment at large,” I’d like to tweak your sentiment just a tad and posit that what we’re witnessing here is the honing of the power to turn something or someone with inherent value and life of its own into nothing. After all, we know that there is no such thing as nothing. Even the former “nothing” of space is now being conceived of as “dark matter”. Consider the simplicity of the base ten compared to the complexity of zero in Mandarin Chinese characters:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 = 一二三四五六七八九十
0 = 零


Like copyright law, the staking of a flag is the archetypal example of a constituting power that crosses freely between the realms of the symbolic and the real, everything and nothing. In an era when our President declares that colonial _______ns “tamed a continent,” it’s important to remember that the Iroquois Federation’s Constitution was an inspiration behind the best elements of the _______n Constitution. In 1988, the 100th Congress of the United States  passed House Concurrent Resolution 331, acknowledging said inspiration, but does that acknowledgment come close to balancing out the erasure of the Iroquois’s Federation by our own?

You’ve speculated (without money down, silly boy) on deep-space and deep-sea extraction and for good reason: Despite our promise of chaste intentions for interstellar exploration prior to landing in 1969, the moon has been penetrated by six US flags; one day, they must have reasoned, this preemptive territoriality will pay off as we learn how to exploit the dusty barren orb’s mineral resources. Gratefully, in an inspired burst of galactic irony or cosmic comedy, scientists believe it likely that exposure to dark matter has bleached the flags to the nothing-white of a tabula rasa or the everything-white of the international symbol of peace.

Powerful men learned that the dehumanization of a human being into an Invisible Man is a condition quite real and actually worse than nothing. It is a complicated procedure, requiring waxing legal doctrines like Johnson v. M’Intosh that can efficiently strip inherent value and life from non-citizens (read: all that is not white and male) and assert some vampiric privilege to drain said life in order to achieve the citizen’s own immortality. If the Holy Grail is indeed financial abstraction, then those who possess it would surely want boundless youth in which to spend their riches. It’s no wonder then that some historians connect the origins of the mythologies of the Grail and the Fountain of Youth. And, whaddaya know—Peter Thiel, founder of digital creditor PayPal and big data harvester Palantir Technologies, thinks he’s discovered the Fountain of Youth in the motherfucking blood of children. But even if they aren’t drinking—whoops, I mean just draining—the blood of desperate millenials, the super rich—those 400 humans who, according to Poor People’s Campaign Co-Chair Rev. William J. Barber II, make an average of $97,000 an hour while denying others $15 and a union—live an average of 15 years longer than the rest of us. For now.

House Concurrent Resolution 331, 100th Congress of the United States, 1988.

According to Giorgio Agamben,

The metaphor of the political body appears […] as the absolute and inhuman character of sovereignty. [...] With the concept of “le roi muerte jamais”, or “the king never dies”, a Christian political theology was, by means of analogy with Christ’s mystic body, directed solely toward the task of establishing the continuity of the state’s corpus morale et politicum.3

Super Rich CEOs certainly seem to be aspiring to sovereignty—unmitigated wealth and power, immortality, and zero accountability. Why would Jeff Bezos pay tribute—I mean, taxes—to the IRS any more than Theresa May or Vladimir Putin would? He does not live under the US’s jurisdiction. Stepping back for a moment, let’s consider the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which was signed in Montevideo, Uruguay, on December 26, 1933, and which entrenches the corporate personhood of the State into international law:

Article 1: The state as a person of international law shall possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states

Article 2: The federal state shall constitute a sole person in the eyes of international law.

Article 6: The recognition of a state merely signifies that the state which recognizes it accepts the personality of the other…

Europe’s Peace of Westphalia (1648) had previously declared the modern “nation-state” with defined borders as the “natural” and sole legitimate sovereign territorial and juridical body. As of 1933, the establishing characteristic of a state is further defined by its “personhood.” And since corporations, too, are graced (by who? god as well?) with personhood and the legal privileges of citizens, are they by extension also states with a permanent population (shareholders as citizens with voting power), defined territory (both physical in their real estate and virtual in the stock market), government (the Board, with the CEO as head-of-state), and capacity to enter into relations with the other states (both corporate partnerships and state contracts)? If states are seen by some as overly large and inefficient corporations, aren’t these lean, muscular corporations—BlackRock, Inc., PayPal, Facebook, and Amazon—the ideal states and the (rather sallow and spindly) men atop their mountains—Larry Fink, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos—their ideal Statesmen?

Your research on the subsurface information beneath Russiagate and the “plot twist” you describe—that SURPRISE! Trump is the president of the space that exists beyond State sovereignty—the space of corporate sovereignty—are serious doozies, but the thinking is no more tinfoily than is Adam Curtis’s. He argues that the world no longer has a need for traditional Statesmen:

For many [the collapse of the Soviet Union] symbolized the final failure of the dream that politics could be used to build a new kind of world. What was going to emerge instead was a new system that had nothing to do with politics. A system whose aim was not to try and change things, but rather to manage a post-political world. [...According to Ulrich Beck,] any politician who believed that they could take control of society and drive it forward to build a better future was now seen as dangerous. In the past, politicians might have been able to do this, but now they were faced with what he called a runaway world where things were so complex and interconnected and modern technologies so potentially dangerous that it was impossible to predict the outcome of anything you did. The catalogue of environmental disasters proved this. Politicians would have to give up any idea of trying to change the world. Instead, their new aim would be to try to predict the dangers in the future and then find ways to avoid those risks. Although Beck came from the political Left, the world he saw coming was deeply conservative.4

And the replacement for yesterday’s Statesmen? You already know...

[...] But a system that could anticipate the future and keep society stable was already being built. Pieced together from all kinds of different and sometimes surprising sources, all of them outside politics. One part of it [...] was a giant computer whose job was to make the future predictable. The man building it was a banker called Larry Fink. [...] Fink started a company called BlackRock and built a computer he called ‘Aladdin’. It is housed in a series of large sheds in the apple orchards outside Wenatchee. Fink’s aim was to use the computer to predict with certainty what the risk of any deal or investment was going to be. The computer constantly monitors the world. And it takes things that it sees happening and then compares them to events in the past. It can do this because it has in its memory a vast history of the past 50 years—not just financial but all kinds of events. After the millions and millions of correlations, the computer then spots possible disasters, possible dangers lying in the future and moves the investments to avoid any radical change and keeps the system stable.5

Occupy Museums. Debtfair, Whitney Biennial 2017; 30 artists in 3 "bundles": “Puerto Rico Bundle,” “Navient Bundle,” “JPMorgan Chase Bundle” all with debts connected to BlackRock with quote by Larry Fink.

If these CEOs are the true sovereigns, then who is Trump? Some sort of ambassador to their realm? A king among emperors? A court jester? I believe you said to me once that Trump’s volatility is not an aberration––it’s the point. Derivative markets produce wealth from volatility between markets affected by policy. His CEO sovereigns have Aladdin’s magic to foresee and adjust to any risk sown by his catastrophic policies, which are perhaps not as short-sighted as they seem to us. Trump may not be the president we need for the Anthropocene, but he is certainly the Anthropocene’s President. You also said previously that the denial of climate change is not agnotology. I have to agree; agnotology is only for we masses (and to be honest, even those petty bureaucrats who are leading New Orleans to its end amount to “the masses” in the grand scheme of things) who, as you point out, are far too overwhelmed by this information to communicate it, let alone act on it. (Maybe that's why the Koch Bros and their ilk are so interested in charterizing our public schools.) No, the Super Rich have calculated the risk of the coming apocalypse and they plan to manage it by building bunkers, bunkers galore!

Business has doubled in the past year at Ultimate Bunker, which just built a $10 million complex on a 700-acre property a few hours north of Minneapolis for a client ‘known for television, who has his own show,’ says Peters. Two 1,000-square-foot bunkers (one for storage) are connected by 300 feet of tunnels to the main 6,800-square-foot home as well as three guesthouses that each boast a $200,000 bunker ‘to take care of his family and friends,’ says Peters. ‘It's like an underground mansion with more mansions on top of it.’6

Selections from Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, 1975.

World’s Finest Hidden Passageways!
Know the Truth!
The Backup Plan for Humanity!


Whereas Cold War shelters, by design, were near the home and easy to get to, a handful of bunker companies are building entire survival communities in remote locations. Some of them share literal foundations with Cold War buildings: One project, Vivos XPoint, involves refurbishing 575 munitions-storage bunkers in South Dakota; Vivos Europa One, in Germany, is a Soviet armory turned luxury community with a subterranean swimming pool.7

Some customers appear to be motivated by old anxieties, recently revived—the threat of nuclear war, or a national-debt default that leads to unrest. Others have newer fears: climate change, pandemics, terrorism, far-left and far-right extremism. The presidential election has brought new faces into the fold, namely liberals (who also contributed to a record number of background checks—an indicator of gun purchases—on Black Friday). “Typically our sales are going to conservatives, but now liberals are purchasing.”8

The Super Rich are building a world from a foundation of anxiety, fear, greed, and risk analysis of the worst annals of history. What are we building from?

I had a profound and uncharacteristically spiritually optimistic moment last month in St. Louis, MO, that I would love to share with you. A man of the Sikh faith and I got to talking at a restaurant after he inquired after my headwrap. I explained that it was a tignon, a traditional New Orleans headdress that was once required clothing for women of color during the Spanish colonial period because our hair was seen as overtly sexual and therefore an attractor to white men and a threat to white women. Women of color reappropriated, embellished, and twisted with lavish shapes this marker of shame into a symbol of beauty and pride. We spoke for over an hour about so much—from his inability to travel due to _______’s refusal to recognize his faith’s mandate to wear a ceremonial knife (all other States honor this tradition for traveling Sikhs) to Bitcoin to patriarchy to Occulus Rift. I asked many questions about his faith and he told me his people’s belief as to why there is so much hatred and greed in the world today:

Sikhism, he told me, emerged and was formalized between the 15th and 17th centuries. Sikhs believe that there are four eras or yug(a) that humanity cycles through in each great cycle, and that our era, the era Sikhism was born into, is the fourth and final era known as Kalyug or Kali Yuga (Kali’s era). Apparently, the names of the four yugas of time—Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali—are named for dice throws from a game popular during the Vedic period. Their temporal order falls according to the favorability of each throw, and Kali is considered the worst throw. Fancy that. Our age is the age of Downfall. The age of the demon Kali (not to be confused with the badass goddess Kālī), who sows "strife," "discord," "quarrel," and "contention."

_______n Christian Creationists (40% of the US population—yikes!) believe that the Earth is six to ten thousand years old. Hinduism, the religion of a much older civilization, tells its followers that each of the four ages that make up just one great cycle will last 432,000 years for a total of 1.7 million years per cycle. Sikhism, a middle ground between Dharmic (such as Hindu and Buddhist) and Abrahamic (such as Christian, Islamic, and Judaic) religions, says that we cannot locate ourselves in time. Sikhs say that the length of each age is incalculable and variable. They are inconsistent. In some places, even in some moments, we may find ourselves in another era.

When I hear swatches of time of this enormity, I can’t help but think of those eras that we can predict the end of, but which we, the human race, and even the Earth may not be around to see. Uranium-235 has a half-life of 703.8 million years; it will take 1.4 billion years for the nuclear materials from Little Boy, which was dropped on Hiroshima, to fully decay. Plutonium-239, on the other hand, has a half life of a “mere” 24,000 years; it will take 48,000 years for the material from Fat Man, which was dropped on Nagasaki, to fully decay. And that brings me back to St. Louis, where three eras—the Anthropocene, the Era of Corporate Sovereignty, and the Atomic Age—are threatening to come to a bizarre head in the not-so-distant future: a subterranean fire in a City landfill is slowly or not so slowly approaching an adjacent landfill full of radioactive waste from Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’ production of fissile material for the Manhattan Project. Overlooking it all (completely unironically) is the Boenker Hill Vineyard and Winery. Who needs a bunker when you can have your apocalypse with a glass of wine and a pastoral view?

This yug sucks, I told the Sikh. When does it end? It has ended now, he told me. You and I—two people from very different backgrounds—have found ourselves drawn to sit together. Our foreheads—meaning the energetic spaces between our eyes—have touched, and in this moment, we have overcome and ended Kalyug. The only way to end this era is to connect with other human beings. And to meditate; to ground yourself in yourself, in the eternality of each moment, and in the presence of god. For Sikhs, god is a creative force incapable of taking human form, so...that’s a plus.

They’re building climate change bunkers out of Cold War bunkers; we’re growing 2-acre urban farms on top of old military warehouses. They have predictions and risk analysis; we have vision. We have to keep reminding ourselves of this distinction to avoid miring in despair. But where does our vision lead? Will it lead us to examine our history and see climate change as an opportunity to repair the wounds of the past? There are other views of the future that we can hold in our sights if we choose to see beyond the wall of apocalyptic, agnotologic, anthropocentric thought. Let’s remind ourselves that the cracks in the wall smile with life, fecund and verdant, and that the cosmos laugh through them. And, finally, let’s remember that white Supremacists think that skin color is caused by secretion. They are basic AF, but the cosmos only laugh at all or none of us.

Notes

  1. Ian Baucom. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance, Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History (Duke University Press: 2004)
  2. Adam Curtis. HyperNormalisation (BBC: 2016).
  3. Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), 92.
  4. Curtis, 2016.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ingrid Schmidt. “Panic, Anxiety Spark Rush to Build Luxury Bunkers for L.A.'s Superrich,” Hollywood Reporter, September 28, 2016.
  7. Ben Rowen. “A Resort for the Apocalypse,” The Atlantic, March 2017.
  8. Ibid.

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