Imani Jacqueline Brown & Kenneth Pietrobono

Between You and Me

Imani Jacqueline Brown & Kenneth Pietrobono

By Imani Jacqueline Brown, Kenneth Pietrobono July 24, 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.

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Imani Jacqueline Brown and Kenneth Pietrobono are members of Occupy Museums1 in addition to their individual artistic and activist practices. They have been collaborators and in dialogue with each other since 2012.

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) 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.”



April 19, 2018

To: Imani Jacqueline Brown
From: Kenneth Pietrobono

Imani!

Sincere thanks for this invitation. As usual, we pinball through so many ideas whenever we talk. I’m excited to have space to expand the conversation.

Something that has been on my mind, trying to grapple with the exasperation many of us keep circling around, is a phrase I recently wrote: “An Age of No Remedy.”2 Especially after the 2016 election, with our conditions so exposed, I can’t help but come to this feeling of remedy denied and remedy withheld. There is a term and field of study I have recently begun looking into, agnotology,3 which is the study of culturally induced ignorance. This is my take on it, but on one side, there is the maintained ignorance of populations. An example of this would be the 2010 Texas Board of Education approved curriculum which instructs public schools to teach “states’ rights” as the cause of the Civil War, creating a population with a certain knowledge set and conversely an active lack of knowledge (i.e. of slavery). The other side of agnotology is the maintained ignorance of systems themselves. An example of this would be keeping the tax code complicated. The resources exist to simplify the tax code, but keeping it complex keeps those with the knowledge and ability to manipulate it in an upperhand that is beyond regulation—beyond remedy.

I can’t help but feel that in this time of history, with the most amount of wealth and the most access to information ever, how is it that the ability to affect our world feels more and more removed? Is there an “ignorance of solutions” that is maintained? An age of no remedy? Even looking at the past ten years and the numerous “once in a lifetime” events we’ve experienced, each carrying some promise of “remedy” that didn’t deliver...

2008-2018:
The election of Barack Obama, the first Black president.
A Democratic supermajority of Congress.
A world-wide financial crash to force corrections.
Occupy Wall Street, a world-wide protest against wealth inequality and the power of the 1% (and the corrections that never happened).
Arab Spring.
Black Lives Matter.
The worst presidential candidate in recent memory.
The most money ever raised in a presidential election (in the BILLIONS with the majority in favor of Hillary Clinton).
Election of worst candidate in recent memory.
Literal white supremacy to mobilize against.
The largest single-day protest in American History (Women’s March).
The Resist Era.
#MeToo.
ALL IN THE PAST TEN YEARS!

... I constantly find myself pausing to wonder, what can we work towards that hasn’t been tried? I don’t want to brush aside the good work and results that have happened. Outcomes exist on multiple timescales and many arcs have yet to reveal themselves. But, I can’t help but see how much did not happen relative to the extremity of the times and how far reaching the movements were and are. It is not everyday you wake up and are able to actualize a global demonstration against the 1%. It leaves me unsure of what exactly there is to hope for and which direction to work in. More deeply, is the terrain of our efforts so pre-determined that “effect” simply can’t be realized?

I was recently in Palm Springs (during Modernism Week—its own anachronism but my queer heart loves it) and recently learned that half the land in Palm Springs is owned by the local Native American tribe, the Agua Caliente.4 The entire city is a checkerboard of square miles with alternating sections swapping between land available for private purchase and land owned by the Agua Caliente Indian tribe. If you own a home within one of the tribal-owned square miles, you only own the structure of your home and lease the land yearly from a member of the tribe. I’ve been interested in land rights recently, including a work I did in Vermont where the endpoint of the artwork became negotiating an easement to a piece of private property from the owners in exchange for the artwork, which ultimately only exists so long as the easement exists. So I was intrigued by this arrangement in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs Indian Lease Land and Fee Simple land map. Image sourced from Palm Springs Condos. Tan blocks are “fee simple” meaning they are privately owned. Green/magenta/yellow/cyan blocks belong to the tribe members with colors marking current status.

I did some brief research and found the following. This layout was developed in 1877. The other half of the square miles—now available as private property—was originally offered to and owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. A memo from the United States Department of the Interior explains the history of offering land to railroad companies in this way:

As the territory of the contiguous United States expanded through the early-to-mid-19th Century, the country sought a "fast and reliable way to transport people and property to those frontier lands" to encourage settlement and development. To fill this need, "beginning in 1850, Congress embarked on a policy of subsidizing railroad construction by lavish grants from the public domain." These efforts were bolstered by the Civil War, which "spurred the effort to develop a transcontinental railroad," as a means to '"furnish a cheap and expeditious mode for the transportation troops and supplies,' help develop 'the agricultural and mineral resources of this territory,' and foster settlement." While the exact form could vary from grant-to-grant, the "lavish grants from the public domain" during this period generally took the form of "rights of way through the public domain accompanied by outright grants of land along those rights of way," often conveyed in a "checkerboard blocks." This policy enabled railroad companies to "either develop their lots or sell them, to finance construction of rail lines and encourage the settlement of future customers."5

Lands Granted To The Southern Pacific Railroad Company Now Owned By Southern Pacific Land Company In California Sheet 3A, 1920. Map image courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps — www.RareMaps.com.

The year prior to the Palm Springs land grant to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, 1876, the Agua Caliente tribe was given an allotted reservation in the Tahquitz Canyon, just west of modern-day Palm Springs—an area the train line would have to cross through if it were to be built. What is of interest to me is that the land was fractured and offered to the railroad company and the tribe in such a way that it would only be of benefit if it were developed. This was the actual and ultimate goal of the elected and business officials of California who designed the deal. The landscape was predetermined in such a way that all players were harmonized to benefit the economic interests of the state without room for alternative. Any use of their property rights stood to ultimately benefit those who set the terms of the arrangement. Just flip through this 273 page development plan from a single tribe-owned square mile released in 2014 to see the ongoing power of this directive. (And side note: In 1886, a decade after this land divide, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company won a Supreme Court case, which first established equal rights under law to corporations. Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 1944, over 50 years later, that Native Americans would be able to even use their land as a property system under the law, by which point the development of Palm Springs had been well under way without their input or involvement.)

Palm Springs City Council. "Tribe-owned square mile, Section 14, development opportunities and constraints," Section 14 Specific Plan (2014).

It is this kind of enclosure and entrapment of alternatives that I am curious about in this “age of no remedy.” This process of predetermination seems to be everywhere and I’m curious what you think about it. As you explained to me, a new measure in New Orleans is in proposals to require street-facing surveillance cameras outside of every vendor selling liquor, which would produce one of the largest citizen surveillance networks in the country. What I find so abhorrent about this (beside the obvious) is that it predetermines the space of crime as “the street” and the face of the criminal as the vagrant and the outsider (racialized most certainly). What about all the crimes of our government and financial elites that are committed inside? If the proposal moves forward, I would propose to the city that for every camera facing a street, there should be one facing police booking stations, sheriff’s desks, office water coolers, the mayor’s office, the governor’s conference room, and every private golf club in Louisiana, where I am sure more crimes affecting more people are committed than can ever be counted. These are the spaces conveniently overlooked from the gaze of “crime” in this proposed measure. A maintained ignorance, literally by looking the other way.

Kenneth Pietrobono. A Structural Crisis In An Emotional Landscape, 2017/2018. Courtesy of the Artist.

I wonder if there is a term for this predetermination or this control of the frame? Any thoughts? I’m actually working on a project about language, specifically the language we use that shortcuts deeper analysis. After the election of Orange Clown Shit (my pet name for Trump, usually just written in emoji), I made an archive of 300+ opinion pieces that try to explain his rise. I then pulled what, to me, were the thirty most used words to offer “explanation”—basically the point at which a writer stopped going further and rested on a term to do the work: globalization, neoliberalism, sexism, fascism, media, elite, etc. I’ve raised over five thousand dollars via Kickstarter to pay culture and news writers not to use these terms in three of their texts over one year. The whole thing is called A Structural Crisis in an Emotional Landscape, a phrase I wrote after the election as a container for the dynamics I see at play and hope to engage. I’ll explain more of the details in the next letter, but perhaps it's something we can consider for these exchanges. Each writer chooses three words to keep and signs a contract with me to clarify the agreement and compensation. Let me know if you’re up for the challenge!

Kenneth



May 6, 2018

From: Imani Jacqueline Brown
To: Kenneth Pietrobono

Dear Kenneth,

Thank you for writing to me and for offering the gift of agnotology to my lexicon! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how ignorance is cultivated in our society without having had the terminology to frame my thoughts, so this is a welcome branch to grasp. I’ve ordered the book, but not from Amazon (I’m trying to avoid contributing to Overlord Bezos’s slush fund) so who knows when it will arrive. In the meanwhile, I’m trying on the language here and find that it fits as gratingly snug as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper’s glasses in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), enabling me to see the world in shocking shades of clarity.

The world as seen through Roddy Piper’s truthsayer sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988).

In my corner of the world, willful ignorance absolutely abounds as New Orleans celebrates its “three hundredth anniversary.” People were here on this land for thousands of years prior to 1718…the Houma, Atakapa, Avoyel, Bayogoula, Bilouxi, Chatot, Chawasha, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Koasati, Koroa, Mugulasha, Muskogee, Natchez, Natchitoches, Olelousa, Opelousa, Pascagoula, Quapaw, Quinipissa, Souchitioni, Taensa, Tangipahoa, Tawasa, and the Washa. The region was so vibrant that in Mobilian, the pre-colonial regional trade language, the land was called Bulbancha, meaning “land of many languages” (thank you Monique Michelle Verdin for imparting this wisdom). So, three hundred years of what, exactly, are we celebrating?

We’re celebrating the city’s colonial conquest––the dawn of an extractive culture and economy legitimized through calculated and legally codified ignorance of the transmutability of the value of life. We’re celebrating an era that strove to hold humanism in balance with slavery and genocide; an era that cultivated scarcity; an era that called on humans to develop living land to death––an era of irreconcilable paradoxes. We are celebrating an Agnotological Era.

Blights Out. Look Me in the Eye, Blights Out for President, 2016. Courtesy of the Artists.

The City of New Orleans is presently infatuated with the notion of resilience, a concept dangled above the survivors of Hurricane Katrina to deflect from the City’s refusal to respond to the storm as a warning that we are out of balance and that we must make radical changes to our relationship with the land, with each other, with our values, with the State, with the petrochemical industry...

In 1988, the year I was born, Royal Dutch Shell admitted in a previously hidden internal report, titled The Greenhouse Effect, the impact of burning fossil fuels on future generations:

The changes in climate, being considered here, are at an unaccustomed distance in time for future planning, even beyond the lifetime of most of the present decision makers but not beyond intimate (family) association. The changes may be the greatest in recorded history. They could alter the environment in such a way that habitability would become more suitable in the one area and less suitable in the other area. Adaptation, migration, and replacement could be called for. All of these actions will be costly and uncertain, but could be made acceptable.

For thirty years, Shell lied to us about the devastation their activities were wreaking on the environment and on our communities. Now, in 2018, we're letting them claim that their artwashing, tax-deductible sponsorship of our New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is supporting a culture of “sustainability and resilience.” This, after Hurricane Katrina––a hurricane strengthened by warming seas and land-to-water turnover caused by Shell's refusal to close the 10,000 miles of canals they and others dredged through the wetlands––caused massive migration and gentrified replacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Last month, one week after I organized Fossil Free Fest, a festival exploring the ethics and complexities of funding art and education with fossil fuel money, there was an oil spill on the Mississippi River directly in front of the French Quarter Festival Presented by Chevron (I swear I was not at all grimly satisfied by the timing of this terrible event!). My City and the oil industry celebrate resilience as the defining characteristic of this region, meaning that the people who live on this land can survive anything. We gonna survive the land sinking into the sea, too?

Monique Michelle Verdin. Ghost Forest, 2009.

If we were honest with ourselves, we’d acknowledge that resilience is not distributed equally across the hyper-racialized geography of Southeast Louisiana. Ethnicity is complex and vibrant here; my own ancestry represents the melding that New Orleans is famous for––enslaved Fulani from West Africa, slave-owning mulatto Haitians, Indigenous Atakapa, Cajun French exiles, colonial Spanish, and the Irish, whose race shifted over time to “white.” But as with most things in the US, access, privilege, and survival are ultimately reduced to Black and white. So, for those categorized as “white”, resilience has meant maintaining dominance in the face of sustained resistance: dominating the Mississippi Delta, the most fecund and wild landscape in North America; pushing thousands-year-old Native communities to the southernmost wisps of land so that colonists could occupy and exploit the high grounds; enslaving Natives and then Africans as legal property, legal tender, and our nation’s first “illegal” persons; codifying a brand of white supremacy that could define, discern, and legislate between thirty-two degrees of negritude (quadroon, octaroon, hexadecaroon, dotriacontaroon, lawd those are mighty big words just to say “coon”...); putting down ever-resurging slave revolts (in 1811, Governor William C. C. Claiborne lined the Mighty Mississippi from Jackson Square to the city limits with the severed heads of enslaved men and women who fought for their freedom); calling in the White League militia to halt Reconstruction-era advances (1865-1877) in their tracks, laying the foundation of one hundred years of Jim Crow, and then erasing the taught history of Reconstruction; discovering oil to replace the lost plantation economy and then poisoning the descendants of enslaved people with polluting refineries; denying the Indigenous Houma sovereignty so that corporations could hoard mineral rights; keeping the emancipated Black population rootless through cunningly designed cycles of housing displacement, condemnation, and demolition throughout the 20th century; and maintaining white supremacy even after a hurricane left 80% of the city underwater. I mean, I’m impressed.

For people of color––Black folks, Native Americans, Vietnamese Americans and the rest of us––resilience means somehow surpassing all this shit. We built cultures that enabled us not only to survive, but to thrive. These were cultures of resistance, not resilience. Now, in the post-Katrina “New New Orleans”, these cultures have been commodified (gotta love the fungal resilience of Capitalism) along with our schools and housing and hospital and parks and festivals and utilities and…and…

And so…Katrina wasn’t actually a reinforcement of the narrative of resilience but rather a reminder that nature can’t and won’t be dominated––just angered––and the joke will be, eventually, on them…and on us. (After all, we’re all bound to this world, and in it we are bound to each other.) My City’s devotion to the fantasy of resilience in the face of climate change is classic agnotology. Our city isn’t resilient, the disease is just chronic. Agnotology is not ignorant, it is strategic. It is an agent of colonial domination.

I’m particularly curious to learn how the theorizers of agnotology locate the concept in time, because to me it would seem that the great eras of Agnotologism––the peak of the still-malignant Colonial era (16th century-present), the height of the five-decade Transatlantic Slave Trade (1440-1807), the codification of vacuum domicilium (ca. 1620), the emergence of Capitalism (16th-17th centuries), the arrival of the Nation State (1648)––coincide with the Age of Enlightenment (1620-1789). I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “Enlightenment” as weaponized ignorance.

John Winthrop, Ass Wipe.

Vacuum domicilium was the original legal justification for the systematic theft of Indigenous land. The term was coined by John Winthrop, Puritan election-rigger, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and father of the “City Upon a Hill” School of American Exceptionalism. Winthrop declared Indigenous land use to be valueless because it was regenerative rather than extractive; unowned and therefore open to European occupation: “empty.” So, when you write about the Agua Caliente, I understand their reality as yet another example of the American art of developing something––a place, a resource, a people––to death. That patchwork geography prevents the sovereignty, stability, and solidarity that comes from being grounded in place.6 As usual, Frantz Fanon said it best: “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” To develop means to divide and conquer. Development is another agent of colonial domination.

As vacuum domicilium was being codified, Enlightenment was gaining steam as European male elites gathered in coffeehouses to swap social, scientific, spiritual, and racial theories “proven” through their contact with places and peoples heretofore unknown to them (and never truly understood)––peoples who held their own special knowledge, experiences, and vistas on the world. Yet rather than fuse these new perspectives with their own, they wielded their ideas as weapons and set forth to eradicate (through both strategy and casualty) a great part of the world’s glorious bouquet of knowledge—all the while hoarding objects, animals, and people [See: Ota Benga or Saartjie Baartman] in cabinets of curiosity for contemplative study (and thus establishing the foundation of the modern museum). Enlightenment justified the supremacy of one fragment of knowledge just as it justified the supremacy of one group of people. Enlightenment justified and necessitated Agnotologism.

Speaking of coffeehouses, you probably know that the coffeehouse was critical in the inception of the modern, post-commons conception of public space7—in contrast to the voracious encroachment of private space—and social revolution, but did you ever really consider that these “revolutionary” social spaces had imperial foundations predicated on the consumption of luxury goods—coffee, tobacco, and tea—acquired and cultivated through colonial conquest? In the 18th and 19th centuries, coffeehouses sold coffee in the morning, alcohol at night, and enslaved people every day but Sunday. Learning this history really made the rose-colored romanticism that we often bandied about in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, bemoaning the loss of “café culture” as the key to the decline of the revolutionary American public sphere, sound sadly, sweetly, dangerously naive. The Enlightenment laid the geographic, theoretical, and social foundations for the liberal political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Our radical imaginary––our ideas of democracy, of revolution, of public space, of museums––are largely constrained therein.

Also on my mind these days is Antonin Artaud, the French dramaturge, mystic, schizophrenic, and visionary of the Theater of Cruelty who traveled to Mexico in 1936 to speak with students in the throes of revolution, warn them against seeking inspiration in 18th century European political revolution, and beg them to look to the history of their own people and land for a way forward.  He believed Mexico held the secret of “ancient vital relations of man with nature that were established by the old Toltecs, the old Mayas––in short all those races which down through the centuries created the grandeur of the Mexican soil.”8 “Modern Mexico,” he wrote, “which is aware of the defects of European civilization, owes it to herself to resist this superstition about progress. [...] What is required, in fact, is nothing less than breaking with the spirit of an entire world and substituting one civilization for another.” This, in 1936!...I myself would gladly raise my glass to the Mexicanization of the United States!

As such, when you suggest that we today possess “the most wealth and the most information ever,” I wonder how we could ever begin quantify that? How much knowledge, how much wisdom, do you think those Enlightened men squandered for all of humanity in their quest to justify conquest? Wealth and information used for what? First and foremost by the military, for further enriching the already wealthy, for enslaving the world, and for converting people into capital. What a waste. And, yes, elongating human life and exploring space and so many other wondrous things. Let me not be mistaken; I’m not pining for a “dark age”, merely longing for a prismatic one.

Imani Jacqueline Brown. Truth As Theatrical Fiction, 2017; a prismatic proposal.

“We live in strange times,” filmmaker Adam Curtis muses, “and no one has any idea of a different, or better, kind of future.”9 Perhaps our contemporary ignorance of where to go from here is the natural end of such a legacy. Between reading articles suggesting we come to terms with climate change as one would accept a leukemia diagnosis to reading Kanye and his deepening soul-sickness as the End Game of American Agnotology, I’m oscillating in and out of waves of despair. We surgically removed a bunch of organs without knowing their function; now we realize they were vital. I wonder if our ancestors’ extirpated knowledge lingers within us, transferred genetically alongside our inherited trauma. I’m looking for a way out of despair, and my first step has been to admit that I don’t have the answers. I gave up having answers for the New Year.

On the other hand, that nearly one hundred-year-old Artaud essay seems to shed light on what we lack:

I came to Mexico in search of politicians, not artists. / And here is why: / Until now I have been an artist, which means that I have been a man without power. For there is no doubt that from a social point of view artists are slaves. / Well, I say that this must change. / There was a time when the artist was a sage, that is a cultivated man who was also a thaumaturge, a magus, a therapeutist, and even a gymnasiarch—that combination of which in carnival language is called a “one-man band” or “Protean man”. The artist united in his person all the faculties and all the sciences. Then came the age of specialization, which was also the age of decadence. One cannot deny it: a society which turns science into an infinite number of sciences is a society which is degrading.

How do we repair the rifts within the self, between culture and civics, between human and nature? I fundamentally believe that we cannot move forward until we find balance––until racial, economic, and ecological reparations are made. But what is the first step to reparations? My answer is that we need to ask more questions. Which brings me to your final question, the challenge you’ve issued regarding your project, A Structural Crisis in an Emotional Landscape.

I love the project and feel that it’s kindred to a project I launched while on a residency at the Center for Contemporary Art Zamek Ujazdowski in Warsaw, Poland, last November called Truth as Theatrical Fiction, an exploration of the meaning of truth in an era of “personal truths” and “alternative facts.” I posited that the rise of global fascism is indicative of our refusal to question the a priori “truths” that we hold dear––truths about ourselves, our origins, our nations, our beliefs––truths that we have come to wield as weapons. Artaud wrote of the danger of dualism in Western culture a hundred years ago. Today, truth has become hyperpolarized, reduced to “left” vs. “right,” “liberal” v. “conservative,” “us” v. “them” with little to no depth and nuance. And yet, clearly “we” on the “left” don’t have all the answers because if we did, we would be “winning.” Increasingly, the “left” has learned that we don’t even know who “we” are. Over the course of my residency, I hosted kaleidoscope conversations––conversations of questions without answers––for an hour a week for one month. I recorded hundreds of questions and over the summer will be working to map them to see if they shed light on our collective state of unknowing.

Imani Jacqueline Brown. Them. Warsaw, Poland, 11 November 2017., 2017.

Radical means to get to the root. We spend so much time trying to explain them, but who are we? What are our values? In your letter, you’ve wondered whether our paths are predetermined. You can call me a believer in some kinds of Determinism, like Capitalist Determinism or White Supremacist Determinism, because I do think that whatever our individual, communal, and global paths of possibility, the destiny of this nation was carved out and walled up by its forefathers. This American Agnotological Era has reached its climax in Trump and in climate change, and it will end. It has to. What do we do until then? Decide what we want the next era to look like, I guess. Decide who we want to be in the next era. Coin the concepts that will build the lingual lattices of our fantasies. We have much to learn from those cultures that Capitalism attempted to relegate to history and we need to uplift those cultures that have sprouted in Capitalism’s cracks. So, yes, let’s use these letters as an opportunity to get to the core of what we mean, to uncover realities that lie under the cover of buzzwords, to deny ourselves the easy way out.

Til soon,

Xo

Imani



May 19, 2018

From: Kenneth Pietrobono
To: Imani Jacqueline Brown

Imani,

I just have to give a toast for prismatic ages and resolutions to not have the answers. I think if there was ever a time to be radically unsure, it's now.

So glad you’re up for the word project! I’ll start applying it in letters as well. What three words will you keep? Any of the words jump out to you as problematic in general? (“Problematic,” a word for another removal list.) It was really difficult landing on a final list of thirty. I’m not necessarily saying the terms are false, I just think they oversimplify incredibly complex concepts and don’t give us much room for structural action, including dialogue among dissimilar people—a deeply lost necessity of statecraft (a clunky word substitution, but let’s go with it). I hope this isn’t too biting, but I wrote a set of definitions of what I mean by the phrase A Structural Crisis in an Emotional Landscape and the dynamics I’m hoping to address:

  1. A state in which logic is separate and distinct from emotional reality;
  2. A condition in which the structural needs of a time or group are out of sync with the emotional responses that inform its dialogue and material responses to those needs;
  3. A system in which structural remedies are withheld and emotional responses of individuals are manipulated to restrict the group from achieving structural change; an age of no remedy;
  4. A crisis in which the primacy of the individual centers the emotional needs of a single life span as equivalent to the arc of time in which structures function;
  5. A belief system which falsely equates emotional response with long-lasting, meaningful effect on embedded structures and conversely holds that structural logic will have bearing on emotional reality;
  6. A phrase and artwork by Kenneth Pietrobono.

So if you have any thoughts on it, I am happy to answer and will offer some more musings as we go. Now, to reflect on your amazing network of thoughts and add to the dialogue...

I’m glad agnotology resonates, and thanks for the reminder of They Live. It's been a minute since I’ve thought of those glasses and a simpler time when dystopia was so campy! I have to give a shoutout to Danya Glabau who introduced me to agnotology. She was my instructor for a Michel Foucault course I took with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Ever since that class—and introduction to the study of willful ignorance—I feel like endless light bulbs are flashing in my mind, but the ones that blind you after each surge. Also, I must confess I am abhorrently contributing money to the Bezos slush fund (to name myself in this cycle of willful ignorance). So out of curiosity, where did you order the book?

Three hundred years of “New Orleans.” I’m really glad you brought this up because more and more I think control of time is a key dynamic of maintained ignorance. I have no proof of this so it is just wild thinking or perhaps my own ignorance. I’ll try to explain what I mean by “control of time” with an example. Seigniorage first came into my world via David Graeber. On one overly simplified hand, it is the literal profit a sovereign makes when they print money. When the Fed prints a dollar, and it costs 2¢ to produce the dollar, the newly added 98¢ in the ledgers is the “seigniorage.” On the other hand, it is the power and advantage to even do this. Seigniorage names this privilege of the sovereign to both decide what currency is and most importantly, set the terms of that currency. This is what gives the sovereign power to suspend its own rules for a specific time and purpose (i.e. to bailout banks or take on more debt, set states of exception, etc.) while simultaneously reinforcing those rules at the citizen level with no exception. In this 1797 satirical illustration—a little over 100 years after the creation of the Bank of England and the year of the Bank Restriction Act which removed the obligation of the Bank of England to offer gold for banknotes—Midas sits on the Bank of England and “transmutes” gold into banknotes and coinage; effectively turning gold into debt and futures. The lock around his neck reads: “Power of Securing Public Credit” and the key reads: “Key of Public Property.” A portion of the inscription at the bottom reads: “The great Midas, having dedicated himself to Bacchus, obtained from that Deity, the Power of changing all he Touched…”

James Gillray. Midas, transmuting all, into paper, 1797; hand-colored etching. Courtesy of the British Museum. Special thanks to William Stewart for bringing this to my attention.

We see this power to “change all that [is] touched” in the way colonization and particularly land ownership is articulated and exerted. Controlling options to predetermine outcomes (the land in Palm Springs as example), being able to set the time frames of those options, when and who they apply to, becomes an exponential “home court advantage”—delaying the Agua Caliente tribe’s claims for 50 years as a clear illustration. By the time their claims were enforced, the contours of development were already set and controlled by elected officials and the railroad companies. I bring all this up because the ability to control the conceptual frame and its time-frame, like the three hundred year timeline of “New Orleans,” deciding what is past and present and future becomes its own power similar to seigniorage where all slopes are bent in favor of those making the rules.

Kenneth Pietrobono. Institutions Series: Untitled (Smithsonian Museum of American History, Information Desk), 2015; Chromogenic print; 20 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Vacuum domicilium, as you bring up, and the argument that certain uses of land justify ownership is a perfect example where concept and time control plays a key role. An early law of the United States codifies a settler regulation from 1662 establishing that all citizens purchasing land must do so through the state and cannot purchase land directly from Native Americans. In a well-cited case, Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823), two citizens claim to own the same piece of land; one originating from the state, the other originating from a purchase from the Piankeshaw tribe. In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans do not have authority of the land, including the ability to sell it. Now for some degrading excerpts of “enlightenment” thinking (colonial domination in full gear):

“It is unnecessary to show, that they are not citizens in the ordinary sense of that term, since they are destitute of the most essential rights which belong to that character. They are of that class who are said by jurists not to be citizens, but perpetual inhabitants with diminutive rights. The statutes of Virginia, and of all the other colonies, and of the United States, treat them as an inferior race of people, without the privileges of citizens...”

(i.e. Native Americans are not citizens because they are inferior.)

“The measure of property acquired by occupancy is determined, according to the law of nature, by the extent of men’s wants, and their capacity of using it to supply them. It is a violation of the rights of others to exclude them from the use of what we do not want, and they have occasion for. Upon this principle the North American Indians could have acquired no proprietary interest in the vast tracts of territory which they wandered over; and their right to the lands on which they hunted, could not be considered as superior to that which as acquired to the sea by fishing in it.”

(i.e. We want to extract all value from the land and have the ambition to do so. It is immoral to deny someone their wants if you are not using what they want and if you really owned the land you’d be using it this way too. This is total Winthrop territory as you mention in your letter.)

“According to every theory of property, the Indians had no individual rights to land; nor had they any collectively, or in their national capacity; for the lands occupied by each tribe were not used by them in such a manner as to prevent their being appropriated by a people of cultivators. All the proprietary rights of civilized nations on this continent are founded on this principle. The right derived from discovery and conquest, can rest on no other basis; and all existing titles depend on the fundamental title of the crown by discovery.”

(i.e. We are cultivators and you are not. You didn’t stop us. If this was in fact your land, you would have stopped us. Everything we know rests on this idea, and it is too late. The time to alter the course of events has closed.)

It is important to note that later interpretations of this case actually supported the argument for tribal land protections for Native Americans. But, to mirror your sentiment—I’m impressed. The self-reinforcing arguments and circular rhetoric—it's amazing how much language and maintenance it takes to be “rational” about genocide, dehumanization and theft. (Reading through the article you linked for “thirty-two degrees of negritude” and just now taking note that the court case it first references, a woman identifying as white seeking to remove “colored” from her birth certificate, was only thirty-three years ago!) Granted, we can quote just about anything and be revolted (I can open the newspaper for that), but what I find so interesting in these statements is the way concepts like “discovery,” “sovereign,” “powers,” and “property” become very slippery, moving from describing claim over a place to describing the place itself. In this lens, a place becomes illegible unless someone owns it—absence of this kind of ownership before is what makes it “discoverable.” To use your words, “empty and therefore open to European occupation.” What we see in the court case language is the process of emptying out what existed prior, nullifying its claims and exerting a (as you frame it) willful ignorance as “agent of colonial domination.” Interestingly, the phrase vacuum domicilium is an invented legal term—a developed tool—simply Latin for “empty dwelling” or “empty place of residence.” A shout out to William Stewart, a colleague I’ve been working with on some parallel research who shared with me this excerpt from historian Paul Corcoran:

The origins of vacuum domicilium have been sweepingly attributed to ancient Roman law, Justinian’s Digest and Corpus juris civilis, Grotius and the Natural Law school, and even to Thomas More’s Utopia. Published in 1516, Utopia is variously invoked as if it is a treatise extending Roman law into international law; an influential text either tracing or driving English imperial policy or, bizarrely, a proposed model for British colonialism. Far from being a work of satire and a scathing critique of European monarchy, law, and culture, it is proposed as evidence of More’s advocacy of “the justice of expansion.” Yet vacuum domicilium does not appear in any of these Latin sources, either in their Latin originals or common English translations. Nor can the term be found in legal dictionaries.”10

While the invented legal concept is imagined as a noun—empty dwelling—it would be more accurate as a verb, a passive past participle in which an action is exerted on a passive subject—emptied dwelling—a conceptual tool clearing the claims of others by the sheer craft of who is able to conceive of it, exert it and when.11

We see this in the New Orleans tricentennial. New Orleans is a real place, in geologic time, beyond human use and certainly beyond its “founding” in 1718. “Three hundred years” is not the marking of the “place,” but marks the exertion of dominion over it expressed in this incredibly narrow way, legible and legitimating to a very specific power structure that gets to choose at which point claims begin and claims end. So when I hear the word “resilience” I share your unease. I hear resilience applied not to the survival of a physical place and its inhabitants but only to the dominion of a physical place and those who hold it—a much smaller group of interests who have every advantage and resource in their favor to maintain that dominance. But, as you correctly question, dominance over what? Once the seas rise and extraction is simply unprofitable and simply too deadly, what is there? This is where your distinction of “culture of resistance” as opposed to resilience really helps us understand the need to call back knowledge sets that are outside of this dominion (made so either by force, by choice, by necessity, by conquer, by death, by erasure, by the tools of domination, etc.) and strive for alternatives that aren’t propping up what we have now but offer alternatives that help us program and prioritize reparation; alternatives that depower the active “emptying” function of ownership and build systems where previous claims and obligations can be restored and facilitated. Some brief poking around the internet and there are already conferences and think tanks trying to expand our laws, concepts of property, risk and liability to OUTER SPACE, so I’m both eager to mobilize new structures but also cynically identify with the likelihood of forced acceptance of what already feels too metastasized to undo—”the star of empire” indeed, to reference that painful painting of the railroad moving west and bringing with it control and ownership of the future. Once articulated, can we go back? How do we account for all the erasure enmeshed in the conception and maintenance of property?

Kenneth Pietrobono. Easement (Vermont 1), 2016; relationship. Courtesy of the Artist.

You ask how agnotology is rooted in time and link it to past era’s of enlightenment, imperialism, and our present time. I would only add that it extends into the future. Your quote from Adam Curtis sums this up (and thanks for the reminder to revisit HyperNormalisation)—“no one has any idea of a different, or better, kind of future.” I would argue that this ‘not knowing’ is maintained; another form of dominance that keeps us from remedy. I’m reading a book, Left-Wing Melancholia by Enzo Traverso, and he works with a quote from the Mexican Zapatistas:

As the Mexican Zapatistas say, they walk ‘putting one foot in the past and the other in the future’ (poniendo un pié en el pasado y otro en el futuro). This is an interesting attempt to preserve—through memory—a hope in the future without falling into the fatal illusions of teleology.12

The book is in fact a complete engagement with this feeling that all our feet are tied and I definitely recommend it. He argues that the failures of revolution and experiments of the 19th and 20th centuries have constrained us, without viable “utopic imagination,” to orient solely around memory, loss and victimhood—all feet in the past. “The obsession with the past that is shaping our time results from this eclipse of utopias: a world without utopias inevitably looks back.” I can’t help but identify with this and re-reading, I wonder if this risk of falling into “fatal illusions of teleology” is connected to this word removal experiment. Teleology13—another one of the those terms I have to look up several times and still only have moments of understanding—perhaps gives us too much belief in finality, that we know the function and dynamics of the world as if they were unbending natural laws. The words listed for removal certainly reinforce this conviction of certainty and that is exactly what I am hoping to deprogram. What if our use of these words actually reifies the very things we are most desperate to change? I’m actually becoming convinced that things like “the public” and “profit” actually don’t exist, at least in our conception of them (a whole other set of letters to discuss that). So I join you in this call for radical uncertainty.  

Funnily, Traverso actually discusses “Bohemia” and café culture and I just have to share since you bring up Occupy Wall Street days:

If the Bohemian looks for the crowd, it is not in order to be absorbed by it, but to hide in it, to inhabit it as a protective cover, to be inspired by it, to ‘use’ it as a source of aesthetic experience...Bohemia is experienced by its followers as a space of freedom wrenched from the much more prosaic surrounding reality and as an anticipation of the liberation to come. It is a place haunted by hope, where plans for the future are being constantly worked out (literarily, artisically, and politcally). Its members display an irreducible dissatisfaction toward the present, totally lacking possibilities of compromise.

And Marx has some words on the naïveté and “utopian impatience” of Bohemia in the essay Les conspirateurs:

It need scarcely be added that these conspirators do not confine themselves to the general organising of the revolutionary proletariat. It is precisely their business to anticipate the process of revolutionary development, to bring it artificially to crisis-point, to launch a revolution on the spur of the moment, without the conditions for a revolution. For them the only condition for revolution is the adequate preparation of their conspiracy. They are the alchemists of the revolution and are characterised by exactly the same chaotic thinking and blinkered obsessions as the alchemists of old. (emphasis added)

(And I thought I was judgy!) I think we need to disidentify from the essentialism here but just to note this struggle to articulate and make space for the future is not new and perhaps exhaustingly keeps our feet tied. I think it's important to distinguish between the performance of revolution and Revolution, but how do you know which is which? Don’t you need the prior to get to the latter? I’m up for these questions, but...let me get some popcorn first.

Despite the cynicism and moments of jest, I join you in every question you’ve listed in your letter and the call to know ourselves to the root. I’m reading Fanon for the first time now (shout out to my Abrons Book Club cohorts—we have read 24 books in 4 years!) and will add Artaud to my list. I unfortunately have deep fears about this age of Orange Clown Shit and how close (or not close) to its end we are. Even bigger fears for banks and high finance and remaining oil and fangs in the throat of the future, but I’ll save that for anon. Looking forward to your next letter and let’s be sure to meet up at a coffee shop next time we see each other and really unpack the prototype of post-commons aesthetics!

With a hug to you and your brilliance,

Kenneth

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Notes

  1. Occupy Museums was formed during the Occupy Wall Street Movement in New York City and currently consists of Tal Beery, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Noah Fischer, Kenneth Pietrobono, and Arthur Polendo in addition to multiple collaborators and affinity groups from 2011 to the present.
  2. An Age of No Remedy. An artwork in process by Kenneth Pietrobono, 2018.
  3. Agnotology first entered terminology in 1995 by Robert N. Proctor and Iain Boal using the Greek term for “not knowing”—agnosis.
  4. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians who have occupied the Tahquitz Canyon for 5,000 years. The Cahuilla Indian name for the area was “Sec-he” (boiling water). Spanish colonists named the area “Agua Caliente.”
  5. United States Department of the Interior, Memorandum Sept. 1, 2017, “Withdrawal of Solicitor's Opinion M-37025 issued on November 4, 2011, and Partial Withdrawal of Solicitor's Opinion M-36964 issued on January 5, 1989.”
  6. David Theo Goldberg, “Polluting the Body Politic: Race and Urban Location,” Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (1993).
  7. Jürgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989).
  8. Antonin Artaud, "What I Came to Mexico to Do," Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings (1976), 372.
  9. HyperNormalisation. Adam Curtis. BBC, 2016. Digital film.

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