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- Dear, dear Katherine. Your book is heavy. Even though I read it as a .pdf, when it I received the actual book in the mail, I was surprised by how heavy it is. It weighs a lot. I was so surprised—the design, the paper, the presentation. And it’s made, as Deb Cowen suggests, not only of those materials, and your thoughts and hard-won-words, but also of infrastructures. Infrastructures of feeling, infrastructures that underlie our methodologies, such that we can do the work of selecting and re-selecting our ancestors, whether they’re in the watery deep or somewhere else.
- This book is a model. It’s not a script. It’s not to recite from—though re-citing its many beauties, especially sparklingly shouting, is a good thing to do. When I say the book is a model, I mean that shows how to crack open time and space, and both revel in and reflect on the narrative ordering of time and the geometric ordering of space. These orders, that constantly change without rushing to any particular conclusion, though interrupted by plenty of conclusions sought or imposed, compel us to think harder about the terms and expectations that shape perception, ambition, assertion, effort, consciousness.
- I’m reminded reading Dear Science, that in the world of teaching I’ve inhabited and made most of my living from for three decades, the kinds of students I prefer to teach above all have been artists, athletes, and engineers. The first two—artists and athletes—understand that practice makes different. They understand that repetition is differentiation. They understand, they understand, they understand. And the third group—engineers—aren’t perplexed but rather energized by thinking the interrelations of system and structure in multiple convolutions and extensions, whatever the scale may be.
- So this book, Dear Science and Other Stories, is a model because it insists on plasticity, making disciplines work together into fresh combinations, undoing and redoing rather than insisting on a search for form that is always weighted in a rock, waiting to be revealed (even though there might be some forms waiting in some rocks).
- As a model, Dear Science shows us life in rehearsal—which is to say abolition unfolding. Being in the world and worlding ourselves. It is a book about, and showing, becoming in and as context. The dialectics of becoming make the book heavy, invite our socially imaginative creative impulses, themed generally thus: All subjectivity is becoming. All objectivity is constraint. That said, there’s always livingness thickening possibility even when suffering the sharp edges of disappointment and defeat.
- A group of young Afro-descended people in Lisbon, Portugal who have all kinds of day jobs, express their artistic and political practice in, among other forms, a small, very intense, acting community. That group’s name is Black Skins, Black Masks. Their practice, in resonance with Dear Science, puts me in mind of the 1972 book by the late, great George Kent, who taught most of his career at the University of Chicago. I knew him when I was a little girl, and he was starting his teaching career at Quinnipiac College, a small institution near New Haven, possibly now best-known for its political polling. One Sunday evening he stood over my tiny desk while everyone else was downstairs fighting about politics or outside laughing. Under relentless orders from my father—a tool-and-die maker union-organizer ever alert to combination, detail and finish—I was grumpily copying over my fifth-grade homework, secretly blurring my vision to get pleasurably lost in the peacock blue ink flowing from my fountain pen. Dr Kent watched for a while, for so long in fact that I cringed expecting to be told to do it again, again. Instead, in the gathering twilight, he kindly said that wonders waited on the far side of misery, some that he could tell me about but most that he’d never imagine but I might eventually come to know. To hear such assurance, in 1960: There will be wonders. Dr Kent’s 1972 book, Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture was almost a dream of Dear Science—not in look or sound or structure, but rather as feeling. Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture refreshed our capacity, again or for the first time, to notice slipstreams through what he perfectly named “the imprisoning blandishments of a neurotic culture” (Kent, 1972: 95). Dear Science also refreshes our capacity to travel those streams—of consciousness, catastrophe, citation, conviviality, care.
- In other words, one of the wonders of Dear Science is the relentless work it does over and over to rescue geography and black studies from their proponents—which is to say from dutiful no less than exuberant, practice-makes-different, practitioners. In addition, as I imagine Hazel Carby might have pointed out—Dear Science also models rescuing a model of cultural studies from the sticky recitations as well as cascading rehearsals that have, for good or ill, fractured a practical program of poaching. The kind of cultural studies I mean—shorthand Birmingham although energized through many enclosures—is a diligent and detailed practice of thinking across time, space, and method; or across theory, object, and method; or across subject object method. This cultural studies, too, was quite astonishingly important in my own formation.
- Thirty years ago, I titled my very first course “The Contemporary Black Intellectual as Cultural Worker and Activist.” The assigned readings included many of the people whom Katherine cites and references in her beautiful book. I was an adjunct in Afro-American Studies. There at UCLA, a generation earlier and one building away, CONTELPRO murdered two students—Bunchy Carter and John Huggins—because of their formidable activity in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They died in ambush outside a meeting of students who were trying to sort out what black studies should be—which is to say John and Bunchy had been debating curriculum: theories objects methods; subjects objects methods.
- Conversations with Katherine over the years mostly find their shape through stories. We communicate almost exclusively in writing. In the peculiar mode of social media messaging, we tell relatively condensed stories that are attached to or interrupted from one another by, “NO!” “OMG!” “WTF!” “LOL!” and also strewn with emojis, often of the tearful kind.
- A story I told Katherine recently was about my cousin John, Panther, martyr. Before he went to UCLA, his first post-Navy, post-Vietnam, GI Bill-funded program was Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania. Lincoln is one of the USA’s oldest historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). He came home to New Haven one weekend eager to learn to draw nasturtiums, in order to impress a beautiful girl he had met, an artist called Ericka J. He hoped she might notice him, see him differently to how she had been seeing him, if he could show her by drawing the flower how and what he saw. We sat side by side in his mother’s kitchen one sunny autumn afternoon—probably in 1967—drawing and drawing and drawing nasturtium after nasturtium after nasturtium. We didn’t know anything about botany, although my teenage job was as a lab drudge for a researcher who studied bioluminescent phytoplankton. We had a picture of the flower, perhaps from an encyclopedia, perhaps from a book belonging to his avid gardener father, who, I imagined, longed for the flowered and fragrant Nevis home he’d left in boyhood to join that great migration of the many great migrations that constantly connect the planet. I’d never seen a nasturtium in real life, though Johnny might have done in his Navy days. War makes many travelers. I used to be amazed soldiers took cameras, because being able to take pictures seemed frivolous or demonic in the solemn context of organized killing.
- Seeing: the problem.
- By the end of the day, we have specified many times the conflictual and convivial co-constitutive interdependencies of race and space and culture—forever commingled by terror and love. The wide and unsteady temporalities through which, for example, making music or other art—sonic or otherwise—demand so much noticing, such attention, that resists reciting catastrophe or epigram as though some facts or phrases were the way out. And yet, lively imprecisions—abolition is life in rehearsal—can gather a tricky solidity, made of dust. The imprecisions of race, space, and culture become so still and quiet sometimes that they seem again to consist of nothing but congealed, undifferentiated difference—stony, perpetual. In the gap at dusk or dawn, these categories—race, black, blackness, geography, culture—appear to be other than social, something before and therefore to be warred over. This reminds me of a peculiar quality of nasturtiums.
- Hazel spoke of the encyclopedic know-ability that colonial and imperial powers set loose upon the planet’s surface, even as they stole land and stole people and instituted plantations. Perhaps the most famous of all of the encyclopedists of the natural world was Linnaeus, whose classification endures.
- At the beginning of the 1760s, Linnaeus and his daughter sat in their Uppsala Sweden garden at dusk where samples of flora from distant fields had been cultivated into a botanical record of systematic relatedness. The father named the plant for something it brought to his mind’s eye: Tropaeolum—the trophy pole of ancient Mediterranean war practice, adorned with the shields (leaves) and bloody helmets (flowers) of the vanquished. Lisa Stina noticed something that many others had remarked, which is that at dusk nasturtiums seem to flash. They seem to emit a light. They seem to generate light. Lisa Stina wrote a scientific paper published in 1762, at about the exact same time the plantation images that Hazel showed us an hour ago came into view as record and justification of colonial conquest and limitless extractions. The younger von Linné hypothesized that the light might be phosphorescence or some kind of electrical capacity inherent in the flower.
- About a century and a half later, on the eve of the first world war cracking the integuments of modernity’s periodically reconfigured colonial collosoi, while shaking capitalism to the root, a German researcher came up with an explanation of the nasturtium’s uncanny power (Thomas, 1914). As it turns out, there is a perceptual gap that those of us who can use our eyes and can see at dusk experience. And an object like a nasturtium, which has such intense color in that shifting light, confuses our eyes—the rods and the cones—so the cones can see the red and the rods lose it. And in the movement or gap between the rod and the cone we perceive the appearance of light. The appearance of light. But what’s actually happening is that our eyes betray their own weaknesses and strengths all at once. For we who can use our eyes, as I said, the perceptual gap between rods and cones makes the nasturtiums appear to give off light. They don’t. We see it anyway. Which means the light is not not real.
- 16. Katherine’s voice, Katherine’s writing, Katherine’s impatient affection keeps us in motion. When I look at this screen tonight, I see the world as it is made and remade with the materials and infrastructures to hand—making an abolition geography, if only provisionally. I see all of you, I see light, I see Bolivia and lithium, I see the D.R.C. and cobalt and Chile’s new constitution arising on the verge of the planet’s largest copper mine, I see the ships full of sand in Suez or the South China Sea moving so that we can have our screens, I see labor joined across time-space. I feel the Amazon breathing. I see us. I worry and I also see wonders. Thank you, Katherine.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore is Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences and American Studies, and the director of the Centre for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York. She authored Golden Gulag: Prison, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition, and co-edited, with Paul Gilroy, Selected Writings on Race and Difference.