The Climatic Virus in an Age of Paralysis

Nikolaj Schultz  

The collective reaction following CoVid19 seems to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the state of exception continues to generate fear, panic, anxiety, in all of their respective differences. On the other hand, to more than a few people, the fear strangely enough seems to go hand in hand with a feeling of relief. If I am not wrong on this point, and even if the feeling of relief will pass as the crisis gets worse, then what are the origins of this dramatic, emotional division?

My hypothesis is that one can only explain this two-sided collective psychology if we understand the social reactions to the new coronavirus as related to the helplessness societies are experiencing in the face of another civilizational tragedy: climate change.


As already noted by many commentators, the enormous panic and action readiness that the virus has installed in both the public and the state make the political and social reactions to climate change look rather vague. Obviously, the paradox here is that despite the great tragedy that the virus is, the enormous consequences of climatic mutations will, in all probability, by far surpass those of the virus.

The actions taken against the virus are without a doubt necessary, but we are still experiencing a huge, paradoxical distance between consequences and action. Citizens and social scientists would perhaps explain this gap with an analysis underlining the relation between affect and abstraction. Here, the argument would be that climate change does not accumulate affect and action because it is abstract, while the danger of the virus is concrete, and thus affects people and provoke action. In other words, two different phenomena of different abstractions, and two different reactions, where only one of them creates the necessary affect and agency.

However, this alone cannot explain the panic, the action readiness, and the civil mobilization that the virus has accumulated. If we wish to understand the magnitude of this reaction, it is perhaps more plausible to imagine that the public and the state are indeed affected by the enormous, abstract climatic risk but that its affects, because of sheer helplessness, now is projected onto the concrete virus risk, which certainly is easier to grasp: “Finally – a tangible apocalypse.”

My point is not that the draconian interventions in the infrastructure of society are unreasonable or exaggerated. My point is simply that we do not understand the sudden panic, action readiness, or civil sacrifice in a hitherto paralyzed society if we do not – at least partly – see this reaction as result of a collective, psychic milieu that climate change has made neurotic. Two different phenomena but perhaps one and same reaction in the end.

At first glance, this analysis seems unrealistic; it is too speculative, too psychoanalytic, too hypothetical. However, what is really unrealistic is imagining that there are not mass psychological consequences when a civilization for fifty years consciously ignores the proof of the catastrophic consequences of their actions and moves forward unabatedly in the same direction.

How could it not create a collective-panic psychic environment, which can now finally be compensated for in facing the virus, when a civilization walks blindfolded beyond four out of nine planetary boundaries and continues directly into a sixth mass-extinction event?

Now, this is exactly why the panic goes hand in hand with the relief. Am I wrong to suspect that the virus has not only accumulated fear but also a certain peace of mind in at least some people? Does my intuition lead me astray, if I detect next to peoples’ anxiety almost a sense of balance? When we are not short of breath, these days, are we then not breathing even better than before?

As noted above, this doubleness seems difficult to explain. However, if we understand these affects as partly deriving from the climatic changes, then we find at least two reasons for it being a logical outcome: on the one hand, because the pandemic now allows for a concrete drain of the collective anxiety that the climate’s abstract risks accumulate; on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, because we are right now exactly seeing how all the social systems that we thought made the ecological transition impossible – production, consumption, mobility, etc. – are not chiseled in stone but that they are in fact changeable.

If we today are relieved about the world taking a break for a while, then it is not just due to the vulgar banality that “people do not want to go to work.” If we feel a certain balance in the pandemic’s dramatic reorganization and short circuit of society’s social and economic systems, then it is due to sensing that the “acceleration society”[i] can be stopped and that its unimaginable consequences after all might not be inevitable.

Thus, the point is not only, as Slavoj Žižek has argued, that the virus is a strike at the heart of capitalism. He is probably right that it is, but if this heart flicker leads to a collective feeling of relief, then it is because the lurking climatic catastrophe no longer appears as an absolute necessity. The relief emerges because the concrete crisis has shown us that the abstract crisis might not be unavoidable.

So, as Karl Polanyi would say, society can still defend itself[ii]. And not only are we watching social systems change, we are even discovering how social values are changing accordingly. Sure, some people are reinventing themselves as Ayn Randian, sovereign individuals by hoarding toilet paper, and a few of the ultra-rich escapists that Bruno Latour and I have previously discussed as a geosocial elite have fled to New Zealand where they are hiding from the virus in their climate secured bunkers[iii]. However, as Rune Lykkeberg notes, in general, the panic seem to have generated practices of solidarity that were impossible to even imagine a few weeks ago.

This only makes the relief even bigger. Both our material and social destiny are still negotiable. And if this is an important realization, it is of course because of the hope that we – when the time is right – will be able to take advantage of the current, collectivist momentum and its political energy to create a realistic connection between the direction of civilization and its earthly, material conditions of existence. However, the possibility of this is much greateer if we understand that it might already be the absence of such a connection that we are reacting to, in panic as well as with relief.

This relief might very well disappear from the horizon within a few days or weeks, when the virus crisis reaches its ultimate point. Fear will be all we have left and we will unequivocally wish ourselves back to the days where everything was as it used to be. However, this does not necessarily make its insights any less important or valid – perhaps even the contrary.

It will be a strange spring and perhaps even a strange summer. However, maybe the concrete threat has given us a number of cognitive and practical strategies to counter the more abstract crisis that we are facing with climatic mutations. Despite its tragedies, the virus might end up as an emancipatory tool in an age of paralysis.

21 March 2020

Nikolaj Schultz, sociologist, is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is currently a visiting scholar in Paris, where he is working with cosupervisor of his PhD thesis, Bruno Latour, on developing the concept of geosocial classes.

[i] Hartmut Rosa 2013: Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.

[ii] Karl Polanyi 1944: The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. See especially Part II, “Self-Protection of Society”, pp. 136-228.

[iii] See Rupert Neate 2020: : “Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak”, The Guardian, 11th March, Available at: and Edward Helmore 2020: ”Coronavirus lifestyles of the rich and famous: how the 1% are coping”, The Guardian, 13th March, Available at:


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Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?

Slavoj Žižek

These days I sometimes catch myself wishing to get the virus – in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over. . . A clear sign of how my anxiety is growing is how I relate to sleep. Till around a week ago I was eagerly awaiting the evening: finally, I can escape into sleep and forget about the fears of my daily life. . . Now it’s almost the opposite: I am afraid to fall asleep since nightmares haunt me in my dreams and awaken me in panic – nightmares about the reality that awaits me.


What reality? These days we often hear that radical social changes are needed if we really want to cope with the consequences of the ongoing epidemics (I myself am among those spreading this mantra) – but radical changes are already taking place. The coronavirus epidemics confronts us with something that we considered impossible; we couldn’t imagine something like this really happening in our daily lives – the world we knew has stopped turning around, whole countries are in a lockdown, many of us are confined to one’s apartment (but what about those who cannot afford even this minimal safety precaution?), facing an uncertain future in which, even if most of us will survive, an economic mega-crisis lies ahead. . . What this means is that our reaction to it should also be to do the impossible – what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing world order. The impossible happened, our world has stopped, AND impossible is what we have to do to avoid the worst, which is – what? (I owe this line of thought to Alenka Zupančič.)

I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc. (although, with the possible collapse of health care and some other public services, this is also quite possible). More than open barbarism, I fear barbarism with a human face – ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy but legitimized by expert opinions. A careful observer easily noticed the change in tone in how those in power address us: they are not just trying to project calm and confidence, they also regularly utter dire predictions – the pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course, and the virus will eventually infect 60-70 percent of the global population, with millions of dead. . . In short, their true message is that we’ll have to curtail the basic premise of our social ethics: the care for the old and weak. (Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about life and death will have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.) One should note how the acceptance of such a logic of the “survival of the fittest” violates even the basic principle of the military ethics that tells us that, after the battle, one should first take care of the heavily wounded even if the chance of saving them is minimal. (However, upon a closer look, this shouldn’t surprise us: hospitals are already doing the same thing with cancer patients.) To avoid a misunderstanding, I am an utter realist here – one should even plan  to enable a painless death of the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our priority should be, nonetheless, not to economize but to help unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.

So I respectfully disagree with Giorgio Agamben, who sees in the ongoing crisis a sign that “our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.” Things are much more ambiguous: it DOES also unite them – to maintain a corporeal distance is to show respect to the other because I also may be a virus bearer. My sons avoid me now because they are afraid that they will contaminate me (what is to them a passing illness can be deadly for me).

In the last days, we hear again and again that each of us is personally responsible and has to follow the new rules. The media is full of stories about people who misbehave and put themselves and others in danger (a guy entered a store and started to cough, etc.) – the problem is here the same as with ecology where media again and again emphasize our personal responsibility (did you recycle all used newspapers, etc.). Such a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system. The struggle against the coronavirus can only be fought together with the struggle against ideological mystifications, plus as part of a general ecological struggle. As Kate Jones put it, the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is “’a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.’”

So it is not enough to put together some kind of global healthcare for humans, nature should be included too – viruses also attack plants, which are the main sources of our food, like potato, wheat, and olives. We always have to bear in mind the global picture of the world we live in, with all the paradoxes this implies. For example, it is good to know that the lockdown in China saved more lives than the number of those killed by the virus (if one trusts official statistics of the dead):

Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air. “With this in mind,” he said, “a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.” “Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.” At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.

We are caught in a triple crisis: medical (the epidemic itself), economic (which will hit hard whatever the outcome of the epidemic), plus (not to underestimate) the mental health – the basic coordinates of the life-world of millions and millions are disintegrating, and the change will affect everything, from flying during holidays to everyday bodily contacts. We have to learn to think outside the coordinates of stock market and profit and simply find another way to produce and allocate the necessary resources. Say, when the authorities learn that a company is keeping millions of masks, waiting for the right moment to sell them, there should be no negotiations with the company – masks should be simply requisitioned.

The media has reported that Trump offered one billion dollars to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States.” The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said a takeover of CureVac by the Trump administration was “off the table”; CureVac would only develop vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries.” Here we have an exemplary case of the struggle between barbarism and civilization. But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies:

Trump announces proposal to take over private sector. The US president said he would invoke a federal provision allowing the government to marshal the private sector in response to the pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Trump said he would sign an act giving himself the authority to direct domestic industrial production “in case we need it.”

When I used the word communism a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now there is the headline “Trump announces proposal to take over private sector” – can one imagine such a headline even a week ago? And this is just the beginning – many more measures like this should follow, plus local self-organization of communities will be necessary if the state-run health system is under too much stress. It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for some of us to do this, basic public services have to function: electricity, food, and medical supplies. . . (We’ll soon need a list of those who recovered and are at least for some time immune, so that they can be mobilized for the urgent public work.) It is not a utopian communist vision, it is a communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called “war communism.”

As the saying goes, in a crisis we are all socialists – even Trump is considering a form of UBI – a check for a thousand dollars to every adult citizen. Trillions will be spent violating all the market rules – but how, where, for whom? Will this enforced socialism be the socialism for the rich (remember the bailing out of the bank in 2008 while millions of ordinary people lost their small savings)? Will the epidemics be reduced to another chapter in the long sad story of what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism,” or will a new (more modest, maybe, but also more balanced) world order emerge out of it?

18 March 2020

[CORRECTION. For clarification, the author has asked us to modify the following: “Italy already announced that, if things get worse, those over eighty or with other heavy diseases will be simply left to die” The sentence now reads: “Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about who gets to live may have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.” Furthermore, President Trump did not “invoke the Defense Production Act.” The sentence now reads: “But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies.”-Ed.]

Slavoj Žižek, dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst, is codirector at the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.He is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.


Filed under 2020 Pandemic

Recoding Relations: Dispatches from the Symposium for Indigenous New Media

David Gaertner and Melissa Haberl

In June 2018, scholars, developers, artists, and community members from over twenty institutions and three continents gathered on the ancestral and unceded territory of the WSÁNEĆ, Lkwungen, and Wyomilth peoples to participate in the inaugural Symposium for Indigenous New Media (SINM). As part of the University of Victoria’s annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), #SINM2018 sought to highlight Indigenous innovation with digital technology and new media and to create a space for relationshipbuilding between the digital humanities (DH) and Indigenous studies. Scholars from across the social sciences and the humanities presented research on topics ranging from Indigenous video games and virtual reality, to communications technology, language revitalization, and new media, to digital texts, social media analytics, and archival digitization. Our specific intent was to interrogate the critical relationship between DH and Indigenous studies, namely generating more robust ways to consider how key concepts in Indigenous studies—namely, land, language, sovereignty, and self-determination—translated (or failed to translate) into digital spaces and practices.


There is an urgent need to decolonize DH theory and practice. Many Indigenous scholars and community members resist the digital humanities because of concerns raised by their communities about the expropriation of data. These concerns are not unfounded. Indeed, just after our symposium ended, the translation company Lionbridge was accused of mining Facebook for access to Te reo Māori (the Māori language), which, in turn, they were mobilizing for profit: “Data sovereignty has become a real issue,” Peter-Lucas Jones (Te Aupōuri, Ngāi Takoto, Ngāti Kahu) told interviewers about this incident, “now we have a situation where there is economic gain for our reo and if there is economic gain, it should be for our own Māori people, not an American company.”[1] The Lionbridge incident illustrates how digital technologies reproduce and amplify ongoing histories of settler colonialism, which exploit Indigenous resources and knowledges for non-Indigenous cultural and financial gain. We argue that digital extraction is not simply symptomatic of settler colonialism, it is a constitutive piece of terra nullius: the erasure of Indigenous peoples as peoples, with inherent rights and millennia-long histories of research, science, and knowledge mobilization. If DH cannot, or will not recognize Indigenous data sovereignty—that is Indigenous peoples inherent right to steward and mobilize their own knowledges without interference—it will remain, even when mobilized with the best of intentions, part of the problem. If it is able to grapple with the legacies of colonialism embedded in technology and knowledge mobilization schematics, however, we argue that DH has the potential to meaningfully contribute to decolonization. This is the balance on which the symposium operated.

“Recoding Relations,” the title of this blog post and the podcast series that preceded it, means shifting our perspective on the objectives of DH: from data extraction to relationship building; from settler state-based perspectives to anticolonial methodologies; from saviour narratives to reciprocal knowledge exchanges. In other words, “recoding relations” is a call to be attentive to the “how” of DH or, more specifically, the relationality of DH as a practice. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes that “ultimately we access knowledge through the quality of our relationships and the personalized context we collectively create—the meaning comes from the context and the process, not the content.”[2] In this sense, “recoding relations,” as informed by Simpson, means being attentive to the relationships we cultivate in DH—not just those that are amplified through our projects and publications but also those that go unheard or are rendered unheard (intentionally or not) through our work. It means assessing the contexts through which we inherit DH (academia, settler colonialism, Western technology) and using those contexts to interpret the processes through which we enact digital research (data scraping, visualization, textual encoding, and others). It means putting people before platforms and consent before code.

SINM was informed by Indigenous interventions into technology. Our goal was to build technical and cultural capacity through the symposium and to articulate our conclusions via open access knowledge mobilization, in the form of blog posts, newspaper articles, and podcasts.[3] Our findings were broad in scope but address a number of key intersecting takeaways: (1) emphasize relationships over tools: that is, rather than  engaging DH as a means to collect, analyze, and visualize data, we argue for imagining it as a site of activation for community building and knowledge sharing. We look towards a DH that is willing to build meaningful relationships with community and individuals in ways that exceed the boundaries of what is typically understood as  the digital Emphasizing relationships also means overcoming the deficit model, which has historically framed Indigenous peoples as inherently lacking and therefore in need of (Euro-Christian) support. Building reciprocal relationships based in equality means reaching out to communities before, during, and after a project and lending support and resources, as well as providing training, so that they can continue to build digital projects without the P. I. or the initial research team; it means shifting the critical gaze away from Indigenous communities and towards the colonial systems that produce deficit (2) affirmed, ongoing consent: settler colonialism (colonialism, as seen in settler states such as Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, that is premised on the displacement and erasure of Indigenous people) is already built out of a nonconsensual relationship. We argue that DH can help to make nonconsent visible via big data and immersive, geospecific visualizations. We also argue that we must hold the DH community accountable to the highest standards of informed, ongoing, relational, and reciprocal consensual research. This includes, but is not limited to data sovereignty and the OCAP® principles.[4] (3) Include Indigenous thinkers, programmers in your syllabi: The settler colonial project functions, historically and presently, by simplifying Indigeneity and relegating it to the past. Foregrounding Western models of “progress” and technology fundamentally contributes to the erasure of Indigenous innovation. As such, we argue for DH research and pedagogy that holds up Indigenous technologies in the past, present, and future. A huge part of this means training the next generation of DH scholars, from all backgrounds, to read with Indigenous technologies and towards decolonial methodologies, as developed by Indigenous scholars and activists.

In what follows, we summarize the major themes of SINM as they arose out of presentations, workshops, and discussion groups as a means to build on the above three points. We’ve organized those themes into five categories: (1) (re)worlding through new media; (2) the digital divide and Indigenous technological tradition; (3) historicizing Indigenous new media; (4) challenges, relationships and suggested practices; and (5) decolonizing the digital humanities. Overall, we argue that Indigenous new media is not tangential to DH but that it is in fact foundational to how we understand digital scholarship as a community-oriented practice and relationship. It is our hope that the details shared in this blog post contribute to a deeper relational engagement with Indigenous studies in DH and leads to further work between and across the two fields. Working together, we are hopeful that DH and Indigenous studies can produce significant decolonial digital interventions at a moment when more of this work is desperately needed.[5]

(Re)Worlding through New Media

While barriers to Indigenous participation in DH persist, SINM participants spoke to the powerful ways in which Indigenous peoples are harnessing and repurposing digital technology as a means of self-representation and storytelling, decolonial education, and relationship building. They also attested to the power of digital technologies as potential tools for political mobilization and expressions of sovereignty. During a panel on gaming and animation, Mohawk Communications Studies MA candidate Maize Longboat shared his work on Indigenous video-game development. Longboat argued that video games offer “a narrative medium for Indigenous peoples to tell their stories in ways that other media simply can’t.”[6] His presentation focused on his experience developing his own video game (Terra Nova) as part of a research-creation project for his MA. He posed the question, “What makes Indigenous video games?” and noted that he is still exploring how his game will be informed by his experience as a Mohawk person.[7] Longboat explained that Indigenous video games have a unique narrative quality and are grounded in direct cultural connections to a territory’s original inhabitants. Yet at the same time, the development process and mechanics of the medium are traditionally Western. “How do we contend with that tension?” he asked, and, most importantly, “How do experiential forms of media expand our ways of knowing?” He positioned video games as a means to express long-standing Indigenous knowledges, identities, and cultures but also indicated that gaming offers a way to build on intellectual and cultural traditions by creating new stories and storytelling platforms for and by Indigenous peoples. “Ongoing systems of colonization,” explained Longboat, “seek to relegate Indigenous peoples and identity to a past time that is separate from our contemporary era of digital technology.” Longboat pushes back against that narrative by recognizing Indigenous peoples as “present and active participants in the technological world” and his work contributes to a growing movement of Indigenous developers who are world-making and decolonizing through video games.[8] Terra Nova, a two-player, cooperative puzzle platformer, illustrates how Indigenous epistemologies translate into game play and mechanics while holding up videogame development as an extension of Indigenous storytelling.

Virtual and augmented reality developers Caroline and Michael Running Wolf had a similar message about the power of Indigenous new media and its capacity to connect people across distance, language, and culture. Caroline, of the Crow Nation, and Michael, of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, hail from what is currently known as Montana. In 2016 they travelled to neighbouring North Dakota to join thousands of Indigenous and allied people gathered at Oceti Sakowin, commonly known as the Standing Rock water protector camp. The Running Wolfs created a virtual reality (VR) platform based on their experiences at the gathering and later brought it to a conference on language conservation in Hawai’i. There, they showed it to a Siberian grandmother who chose to watch the victory song that erupted after then President Obama announced that the US government would halt the North Dakota Access pipeline efforts for a time. As Michael explained,

she didn’t speak a lick of English, she didn’t speak any native language outside her home country, and yet she got it. She understood the power of this event that we had captured through technology and transported. So I think that’s the power of this technology — that we can take video from this alien place, North Dakota, and show it to someone from Siberia, in Hawai’i. And it transported her, and she just got it emotionally, what was going on [at] this event of joy.

This story elucidates the power of Indigenous VR to create spaces for understanding and decolonial education all rooted in an ethic of relationship building. The capacity of the app to connect someone from the other side of the world, with no knowledge of the language being spoken, to the people, struggles, and triumphs at Standing Rock is particularly significant in a colonial system designed to segregate and disassociate Indigenous peoples from settler society while alienating individual struggles as a means of control. The Standing Rock VR app, along with other VR and augmented reality (AR) projects developed by the Running Wolfs, works to not only hold up Indigenous experiences and resistance but to forge new social realities and decolonial futures by facilitating learning and building empathy and community through virtual worlds.[9]

Gaming and social media are two spaces in which we are witnessing Indigenous resurgence. According to Métis scholar Aubrey Hanson, “resurgence is an Indigenizing impulse; it acknowledges colonialism and domination through resistance but it does not focus solely on colonialism as the most important concern. Instead, resurgence insistently focuses on Indigenous communities as sites of power and regeneration.”[10] Social media, and in particular #NativeTwitter, represents a critical space where Indigenous resurgence is taking place. Understanding the labour that Indigenous peoples put into making Twitter an effective platform for anti-racist and anti-white supremacist work is key to unpacking and reconfiguring the DH/Indigenous studies relationship.[11]  During the SINM panel on digital ecologies, Nehiyaw (Cree) Applied Psychology scholar Jeffrey Ansloos presented on his current research with Twitter, where he uses social media analytics as a means of analyzing social and political dimensions of Indigenous mental health as they’re expressed online. In particular, his research aims to strengthen a qualitative understanding of decolonial efforts on Twitter and to “explicate the polity of cultural revitalization activities” happening on the site. He spoke about how #NativeTwitter is repurposing the platform to not only revitalize Indigenous cultures, but to mobilize politically and to assert sovereignty. His research into language revitalization on the site found that “the [Twitter] ecology is producing an opportunity where there is language learning, but not in the way we have understood it — not merely to indigenize, but also to speak politically . . . and to strategically engage systems of the settler state.” Ansloos argued that while cultural revitalization online can indeed support Indigenous mental health, this cannot be achieved through “a neoliberal framing of indigenization or cherry-picking culture.” Rather, he explained that the Indigenous community’s relationship with these social media projects is fundamentally “renegotiating Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty with the settler state.” Ansloos’s findings and political orientation push us to think beyond the sometimes-limited framework of cultural revitalization. Instead of “indigenizing,” his work highlights the necessity of decolonizing, and of productively engaging with the ways in which the Indigenous Twitter community is already doing this work. That is to say, in order to decolonize DH, it is not enough to simply invite more Indigenous peoples into the field. Rather, allied scholars must first work to make the field safe and viable for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledges. Ansloos’s research speaks to the richness of data in online environments like #NativeTwitter and how analyzing these ecologies can in turn inform and encourage resurgence in social policy and practice.

The Digital Divide and Indigenous Technological Tradition

More than presenting on the ways in which Indigenous communities are taking up technology, SINM participants also explained that Indigenous new media engagement is not novel but a continuation of a long history of Indigenous technological innovation. At the same time, the symposium grappled with how that history exists in tension with current realities of ongoing colonization, material inequality, and systemic barriers to information and communication technologies (ICTs). The historical and ongoing exclusion of Indigenous communities and reserves from these rapidly evolving industries and technologies presents a major problem, and as Jasmin Winters put it, “challenging the digital divide is no small feat.” Winters presented on her involvement with the First Nations Technology Council — an Indigenous-led organization in BC working to ensure that Indigenous peoples have “equal access to the tools, training, and support required to maximize the opportunities presented by technology and innovation.”[12] She explained that the council aims to address practical issues “like the actual building of digital infrastructure such as fibre optics, increasing supplies of hardware and software in communities, and creating more opportunities for careers in existing tech industries.” The council also does advocacy work around “the potential of digital tools for the pursuit of Indigenous rights to self-determination and sovereignty.” In this way, the Council fills a much-needed gap in respect to offering services and support that practically address the material impacts and injustices of the digital divide while providing infrastructural support that can be levied towards the proliferation of Indigenous resurgence.

Systems of oppression and digital inequality, however, must not belie the ways in which Indigenous peoples have technologically innovated since time immemorial. Winters noted that the Technology Council “first and foremost recognizes Indigenous peoples as always having been innovators in science and technology.” She stressed that we “need to position Indigenous peoples as the original innovators on these territories” and cited Cheryl L’Hirondelle, who writes “that to be truly free and self-governing, [Indigenous peoples] must also acknowledge and be aware of [their] pre-contact ingenuity as inventors and technologists — experts in new media and avatars of innovation.”[13] Sara Humphreys furthered this argument during her talk on the Cogewea Project.[14] According to Humphreys, “Indigenous ontology and epistemology expressed ideals of cyberspace before cyberspace was thought of as technology.” As evidence to this claim, she cited the centrality of interconnectedness within Indigenous worldviews, the storing of data via sign systems, and uses of multilayered, multimedia communication systems. In turn, Ashley Caranto Morford presented on one such example of precolonial Indigenous digital technology. Morford’s presentation built out of the foundational work of Cherokee scholar Angela Haas, who writes that the wampum belts made by Woodlands Indigenous peoples “extend human memory . . . via interconnected, nonlinear designs and associative message storage and retrieval methods” and have thereby functioned as hypertextual digital technology for over a thousand years — long before the invention of Western hypertext in the 20th century.[15] According to Morford, Haas “calls on us to rethink the digital” as not only that which involves computers and computer technology, but as that “which relies on the intricate work of the fingers, or digits, to create complex code.” Morford then turned to her own research on pre-colonial and ongoing Philippine tattooing practices: “These practices rely on the fingers to code significant aspects of our cultures through an intimate hand tapping technique that requires a bamboo stick and lemon tree thorn, water and soot,” and as such, are also “forms of decolonial digital technology.” In sum, Winters, Humphreys and Morford all demonstrated the long-standing genealogies of Indigenous technology while illustrating how those technologies translate into contemporary platforms and practices. At stake for all of these scholars were expressions of Indigenous technologies that informed and expanded contemporary definitions of the digital, namely through advanced cataloguing and representational techniques.

Considering these perspectives and traditions, we need to reject deficit- and damage-based approaches when moving towards the creation of a more just and equitable digital future. Deficit- and damage-based narratives look towards documenting exploitation and colonial oppression to elucidate the contemporary issues faced by Indigenous peoples and leverage redress. As Eve Tuck puts it, “common sense tells us this is a good thing, but the danger . . . is that it is a pathologizing approach in which the oppression singularly defines the community.”[16] Winters argues that “decolonizing the technology sector means first challenging deficit-based notions of the digital divide and understanding the impact and legacy of colonization on Indigenous knowledge,” as well as “challenging linear worldviews of development and innovation.” This is to say that beginning from the idea that DH or technology can “save” Indigenous peoples reproduces deficit-based narratives while eliding Indigenous innovation. In the Q&A for their panel, Mark Turin added that while Indigenous peoples have always engaged technology in deep and insightful ways, this does not mean that state structures have been supporting or facilitating that work. The DH and tech communities must hold up both of these realities by first recognizing the Indigenous histories at play, while also working to end digital inequality through strengths-based approaches, for instance supporting the work already being done by organizations like the First Nations Technology Council.

Historicizing Indigenous New Media

While histories of Indigenous creation with technology go back millennia, the now constantly evolving field of Indigenous new media developed more recently and specifically through the leadership of Indigenous women. During his symposium keynote, David Gaertner traced the emergence of the field to 1996 and to two key interventions: Loretta Todd’s essay critiquing the colonial underpinnings of the internet, “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace,” and Skawennati CyberPowWow, which Gaertner argues was “the first Indigenous territory in cyberspace.”[17] Gaertner explained that “it was no small feat” that these women made these interventions at a time and in an environment that was (and often still is) openly hostile towards women and Indigenous peoples. Since their emergence, online spaces have been, and continue to be, disproportionately violent toward black and Indigenous peoples, other people of color, as well as women, queer, trans and Two-Spirit individuals and communities. This is particularly true in respect to Indigenous women, who frequently face a combined force of racist, sexist, and colonial harassment and abuse online. Despite this, Gaertner noted, it also continues to be Indigenous women, like Anishinaabe video-game developer Elizabeth LaPensée, who “do the heavy lifting” in respect to confronting this behaviour and calling out violence, such as when LaPensée “intervened to stop the 2014 rerelease of the Atari platformer Custer’s Revenge — a game in which the objective is the rape of Pocahontas.” Indigenous women have in this way led the charge in building safer, more just and more equitable digital worlds, and their intellectual and creative contributions form the backbone of Indigenous new media and, in some ways new media itself. Indeed, some of the most cited new media and digital technology scholars at SINM were Todd, Skawennati, Angela Haas, and Marisa Duarte — all Indigenous women whose digital innovations and critical interventions have helped shape the field from the onset. Scholars and developers currently working in DH and new media need to hold up this labour and do far better in respect to supporting Indigenous women and addressing colonial and patriarchal violence when it occurs both online and offline.

Challenges, Relationships and Suggested Practices

Closing his talk during the SINM Indigitization workshop, Cultural Coordinator of Cowichan Tribes Chuck Seymour remarked that: “[Indigenous peoples] are the most studied people, but the least understood.” “Why are we not understood?” he asked. “You don’t speak our language.” Seymour was presenting on his work with the Cowichan Tribes Cultural Education Department and their process of digitizing cultural heritage materials so that their history and language can be kept alive and accessible for future generations. His words threw into sharp relief a larger truth that was discussed by other presenters at the symposium: that while non-Indigenous scholars continue to pursue research and projects in Indigenous contexts, there remains a significant gap in understanding and lived experience between these academics and the Indigenous communities they seek to work with. The material challenges and demands communities face as a result of ongoing settler colonial occupation are often missed or ignored by academics working in the digital humanities and the academy more broadly and thus the colonial dynamic to research goes largely unchanged. Addressing these gaps through ongoing relationship building, community-led research, and cultural sensitivity training, while not traditionally thought off as “digital” are thus key innovating ethical and meaningful relationships between DH and Indigenous studies.

Sarah Dupont, program manager at Indigitization — a collaborative initiative that works to support Indigenous communities and organizations with the conservation, digitization and management of community knowledge — dedicated most of her time at SINM to discussing issues of capacity for Indigenous digital initiatives. In particular, she outlined how Canadian government and industry demands on Indigenous nations, handed down in the form of thousands of annual referrals, often make doing archival digitization or other digital projects a difficult trade-off for communities.[18] Committing time and resources to this work is a substantial challenge in a colonial context where nations are constantly faced with proposals for natural resource development on their territories, or other threats to land, sovereignty, and culture. Dupont explained that nations are also often working with extremely limited resources, small staff numbers, and technical constraints, especially in more remote First Nations that may not have access to IT departments or up-to-date communications technology. Cultural heritage work, for instance, often operates on contingent funding, she explained, which leads to difficult cycles of “startup and collapse” for many communities. These are some of the challenges communities are facing, and Dupont argues that when academics make a commitment to work with a nation, they need to understand the resources and demands that community is dealing with and adjust their practice and objectives accordingly.

Settler students and scholars interested in or already working in Indigenous contexts also need to appreciate the living history of academic appropriation, misrepresentation, and exploitation. Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes that, “from the vantage point of the colonized, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism,” and the ways that academic research has been used to subjugate and dehumanize Indigenous peoples remains a “powerful remembered history for many of the worlds colonized peoples.”[19] Dupont explains that “colonial organizations have historically worked against Indigenous control of Indigenous information,” while Gaertner noted that universities have been complicit in the theft of Indigenous land and knowledge since the onset of colonization. These histories and their ongoing effects on Indigenous communities extend critical responsibilities. DH and new media scholars, and academics in general, need to recognize that they are working out of a space that is deeply implicated in colonial violence and in turn make visible and resist that legacy in the ways they carry out their work. As Gaertner argued in his keynote, “settler colonialism is already premised off a non-consensual relationship” and thus “we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard as DH researchers working in Indigenous studies.”

Bearing in mind the historical connection between research and colonization, several SINM participants also offered helpful guidelines for engaging Indigenous communities. The Running Wolfs suggested “6Rs” for nonexploitative data collection and research: respect, relevance, responsibility, reciprocity, relationality, and representation. They emphasized that research must be done with communities, which involves researchers building respectful and reciprocal relationships. Caroline explained that scholars need to ask themselves what and how they can give back to the communities they work with and that they also need to be aware of the forms of representation they create through their work. Drawing on the words of Deanna Reder, Gaertner offered similar suggestions and argued that researchers need to be better relations to Indigenous peoples. “Being a good relation,” he explained, involves forming “meaningful relationships with communities and individuals, which requires time and emotional labour.” Gaertner stressed the importance of free, prior, informed, and ongoing consent, and insisted that Indigenous buy-in cannot be an afterthought but must be secured before and throughout a project. “A yes at the beginning,” he said, “is not a yes at the middle, nor is it a yes at the end.” Citing the First Nations Principles of OCAP®, Gaertner also noted that scholars and developers in the digital humanities need to “take data sovereignty seriously” and that while it may be legal to use data in a certain way, Indigenous communities may have different rules for data stewardship that must be respected and followed.[20]

Decolonizing the Digital Humanities  

More than being good relations and ethical researchers, the digital humanities need to carve space for Indigenous knowledge, worldviews, and ways of being, and better attend to colonial legacies in the field. DH scholars need to recognize how mainstream ways of engaging with digital spaces, for instance with trends regarding open access and open education, often work against the values, concerns, and rights of Indigenous peoples. As Kimberly Christen explains, for the past two decades, demands for increased information freedom by the free and open source software community have combined with debates about open access, digital rights management, and intellectual property rights. Yet, those pushing to resist private control over digital spaces often do not consider—or actively deny—Indigenous rights to managing their information and knowledge online.[21] “The celebration of openness, something that began as a reaction to corporate greed and the legal straightjacketing of creative works,” writes Christen, “has resulted in a limited vocabulary with which to discuss the ethical and cultural parameters of information circulation and access in the digital realm.”[22] The open access and Creative Commons movements in this way fail to recognize or respond to culturally-specific contexts and social realities, such as the rights of Indigenous communities to uphold protocols for who, how, and when their digital heritage materials can be accessed, used, and disseminated. Morford in turn argued at SINM that “Creative Commons licensing and the public domain are not necessarily ethical, and often are a means of benefiting and protecting the colonialist and the colonial system.” She gave an example of historical photos of Philippine Indigenous peoples taken by early colonial zoologists and asked: “Did the ancestors whose photos were taken by white researchers with malicious colonial intents, and whose photos are now in the public domain, consent to have their images taken and used in such a way?” The DH community, and indeed all people involved in the broad scope of the open access movement, have a responsibility to address these concerns and to build space for discussing issues like Indigenous consent, protocol, and sovereignty within larger debates regarding open access.

The digital humanities and technology sectors also need to acknowledge the ways in which whiteness, colonialism, and harmful Western ideologies have shaped the internet. “Since its beginning,” explain Jason Lewis and Skawennati, “cyberspace has been imagined as a free and open space, much like the New World was imagined by the Europeans.”[23] Indeed, as Loretta Todd wrote in 1996, the internet was built as an extension of millenia of Western and colonial philosophy and “has in fact been under construction for at least the past two thousand years.”[24] Todd argues that “a fear of the body, aversion to nature, a desire for salvation and transcendence of the earthly plane created a need for cyberspace,” and that the “tension [in Western culture] between the need to know all . . . and the limitations of the body and the senses, of the physical world, [extended] a need for a new site for the ‘heart and mind’ of man.”[25] During her presentation in the symposium, Humphreys argued that “there are limits to knowledge” and that, despite its depiction in literature, “cyberspace is not limitless and utopic” and cannot be treated as such. We remain accountable to people and place when we contribute to and engage in the digital world, and Humphreys stressed that we must be responsible to the communities we represent when we use these spaces. Deciphering what this looks like is thus a key component of what decolonial DH is and should be.

Power is an essential consideration in a DH/Indigenous studies relationship. According to Treena Chambers, “too often we see the politics of the powerful as the norm” in the digital humanities. That is to say that technology, as a tool of power, carries with it particular sets of ideologies that are often elided via its application. Chambers notes that, in this sense, technology itself is political, speaking to the need to apply critical analysis to the tools we use, not just the results they produce. Other presenters stressed similar points and offered different perspectives on how to improve and decolonize DH. Symposium co-organizer and Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel further argued during his SINM keynote that “DH needs to be a space . . . with generative, porous borders” — that it needs to be an “interdisciplinary and intersectional” community that encourages work that can in turn “engender understanding across forms of difference.” Finally, more than address the realities of ongoing colonization and invite critical scholarship, Ansloos argued that the digital humanities must not simply seek to “indigenize” or treat Indigenous peoples as “sprinkles on the academic cupcake” but that the DH community needs to support decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty in practical, material ways, be that through funding opportunities, training, resourcing, reciprocal research, and/or MOUs.


Throughout the many presentations at SINM 2018 there lingered a constant notion that digital technologies themselves cannot achieve the goals of Indigenous communities or dismantle colonization. Participants noted that it is not technology alone but people and relationships that have the power to support Indigenous and decolonial futures, and while SINM was itself an important space for people to connect, share ideas, and discuss common challenges, there remains much work to be done in terms of community building and supporting the relationships necessary for decolonial digital innovation in DH. It is our hope that this blog post furthers those conversations and leads to continued capacity-building across DH and Indigenous studies.

For more on SINM, including audio excerpts from the above described presentations, please download our four-part podcast miniseries Recoding Relations, which you can find here:  

David Gaertner is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. He has published broadly on Indigenous literature, Indigenous new media, and the digital humanities. His articles have appeared in Canadian Literature, American Indian Cultural and Research Journal, and Bioethical Inquiry, amongst others. He is the editor of Sôhkêyihta: The Poetry of Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe and the co-editor of Read, Listen, Tell: Indigenous Stories from Turtle Island. His monograph, The Theatre of Regret: Objecting to Reconciliation with Indigenous Arts and Literatures is forthcoming from UBC Press.

Melissa Haberl  is a BA graduate of History and First Nations and Indienous Studies at the University of British Columbia and a creator of the 2018 Symposium for Indigenous New Media’s Recoding Relations podcast series. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

[1] “Indigenous Data Theft,” te hiku media, 10 Aug. 2018,

[2] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Bubbling Like a Beating Heart: Reflections on Nishnaabeg Poetic and Narrative Consciousness,” in Indigenous Poetics in Canada,  ed. Neal McLeod  (Ontario, 2014), p. 112.

[3] Aside from our four-part podcast miniseries, Symposium RA, Autumn Schnell, also produced the essay “It’s Time to Queer the Digital Humanities,” The Talon, 29 Jan. 2019,

[4] See Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda (2016), p. xxii. See also OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access, Permission),

[5] Miriam Posner writes that, “DH needs scholarly expertise in critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and other interrogations of structures of power in order to develop models of the world that have any relevance to people’s lived experience. Truly, it is the most complicated, challenging computing problem I can imagine, and DH hasn’t even begun yet to take it on” (Miriam Posner, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” Miriam Posner’s Blog, 27 July 2015, While this claim is five years old now, we believe that issues race, gender, and indigeneity are just as pressing now in 2020 as they were in 2015. DH still has an enormous amount of work to do.

[6] Maize Longboat, presentation, Symposium for Indigenous New Media, Victoria B.C., June 2018. Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent references to content from presentations, keynotes and related discussions are from the Symposium for Indigenous New Media held as part of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria on 10–11 June 2018.

[7] You can download and play Terra Nova at

[8] For other key projects, see the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTec) research-creation network,; Achimostawinan Games,; Skins 5.0,; and work by Skawennati, and Elizabeth LaPensée,

[9] For more virtual and augmented reality projects developed by the Running Wolfs, see Buffalo Tongue Inc.,, and Madison Buffalo Jump and others at

[10] Aubrey Hanson, “Reading for Reconciliation? Indigenous Literatures in a Post-TRC Canada,” ESC: English Studies in Canada 43, nos. 2-3 (2017): 74.

[11] Here, we bear in mind Lisa Nakamara’s work on social media labour; see Lisa Nakamara, “The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call out Culture As Venture Community Management.” new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics 86 (2016): 106–12.

[12] For more information on their objectives, projects, and current opportunities, see the First Nations Technology Council website,

[13] Cheryl L’Hirondelle,”Codetalkers Recounting Signals of Survival,” in Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, ed. Steven Loft and Kerry Swanson (Calgary, 2014), p. 147.

[14] To learn about the Cogewea Project, see

[15] Angela M. Haas, “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19, no. 4 (2008): 80–81.

[16] Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3 (2009): 413.

[17] Cyberpowwow was an Indigenous online gallery, live chat space and mixed-reality event active between 1997–2004. To learn more about the space, see CyberPowWow,

[18] Dupont explained during her presentation that “referral” is a generic term used by the Crown, First Nations, or both when referencing a potential statutory or policy decision that may adversely affect or impact the Aboriginal or treaty rights of a nation. Referrals typically relate to the land, water, and natural resources of a nation and typically include consultation requests from industries such as oil and gas, wind energy, hydro, forestry, and mining.

[19] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London, 2012), p. 1

[20] The First Nations Principles of OCAP® stand for ownership, control, access, and possession. To learn more about OCAP®, see the First Nations Information Governance Centre,

[21] Kimberly Christen, “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 2870.

[22] Ibid., p. 2874.

[23] Jason Lewis and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2005).

[24] Loretta Todd, “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” in Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, ed. Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), p. 155.

[25] Ibid


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Cosmology and Class: An Interview with Bruno Latour by Nikolaj Schultz

In this conversation with the sociologist Nikolaj Schultz, Bruno Latour elaborates his analysis of our new climatic regime and presents new ideas on its consequences for political and social theory. With the earth reacting to our actions, we face a cosmological shift that leaves us all divided and lost in space. The quintessential political question of our times is finding a place to land. Globalists continue to believe in the project of modernization, populists flee back to the land of the old while a few escapists simply try to take off to other planets. How to respond? According to Latour, the task becomes reinventing the old socialist tradition beyond the system of production, something we can only do if we retheorize the concept of social class to include a wider array of material conditions of existences than Marx’ definition of class alluded to.      



Cosmology and Division

Nikolaj Schultz (NS): In Facing Gaia you try to historically situate our present encounter with an earth suddenly reacting to our actions by comparing two different scientific discoveries.[1] In the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei raises his telescope to the moon and shortly after concludes that our earth is similar to all the other planets of the universe. Some 350 years later, James Lovelock instead concludes that our earth is dissimilar to all the other planets. What are the symmetries and asymmetries of these two discoveries and what do they tell us about where we are in history?

Bruno Latour (BL): Galileo and Lovelock both try to cope with moving earths but two different kinds. Galileo discovered that the earth was moving around the sun and disturbed everybody by saying so. First, there was the quarrel with the church and, secondly, there were the major consequences his discoveries had on social order. This is well-known from the history of science and because of Bertolt Brecht’s extraordinary play The Life of Galileo. People believed they were in one cosmos before suddenly learning that the earth was moving. They did not know where they were in space and they felt lost—even if the practical consequences of Galileo’s discovery for daily life was close to zero. So, at hand we have a famous discovery with major impacts for physics and astronomy that simultaneously disturbs the whole establishment of the church and the social world.

Now, I contrast this with Lovelock’s similar but different discovery of another kind of moving earth. What Lovelock and Lynn Margulis discover is not simply that the earth is moving but that earth is being moved, to use Michel Serres’s expression.[2] The earth is reacting to the actions of humans. This new sort of movement of the earth is immensely more important, not least in terms of consequences for the social order and thus also more disputed. So, with a gap of three hundred years, we have two discoveries of moving earths and what interests me is that they both bring along extraordinary changes in cosmology and in understanding of space. It is another powerful example of a question which has interested me for forty years, namely the link between science and society, between cosmology and social order. While Galileo’s discovery marked the beginning of modern cosmology, I see Lovelock’s and Margulis’s discoveries as marking the end of modern cosmology. Right now, when we here about their discovery that the earth is being moved, we find ourselves in the same shoes as the people who in 1610 were worried about Galileo messing up their cosmology by proving that the earth was moving. We are as lost as they were.

NS: So, to talk with Alexandre Koyré, if Galileo took us from the “Closed Cosmos to the Infinite Universe,” then Lovelock is bringing us back from the infinite universe to a closed cosmos on earth.[3] Why has the figure of this return to earth, Gaia, been so misunderstood?

BL: Most importantly because it was understood trough a wrong idea of space. Gaia was immediately associated with the idea of the globe and with the idea of the earth as an organism. This meant it was quickly used by biologists and New Age people to return to the old, Greek idea of earth considered as one big animal. But this was not what Lovelock was interested in. Instead, he was interested in how life forms—including bacteria, vegetation, insects, and others—had provided so many changes in the chemical circulation of the atmosphere that it became impossible to understand air, water, mountains, or plate tectonics without taking into consideration the dynamic agencies of these life forms. With the help of his instruments, Lovelock was studying pollution and had realized that pollutants were able to spread everywhere on Earth. This made him intuit that what modern industry was doing perhaps had been done for billions of years by all life forms on Earth. He meets Margulis who studied the consequences bacteria had on the atmosphere, climate, rivers, mountains, and together they arrive at this extraordinary entity called Gaia. An entity with nothing in common with the idea of the earth being alive as an organism. Instead, it is an argument about the ways life forms continue to transform their own conditions of existence to the point where they engineer the whole surface of the earth.

NS: So, the fundamental consequence of Gaia is that entities make up their own environments. This not only means that climate is the historical result of agencies, it also means that space itself is the offspring of time. With Gaia, space is not in the background, space is continuously constructed by dynamic life forms. Why is this difficult to understand cosmologically?

BL: Not least because of the cartographic tradition, invented at the time of Galileo. Cartography gave us a sort of taken-for-granted definition of space as a frame inside which objects and people reside. With this definition of space, you cannot see how space itself is constructed by the agencies of life forms. With this gaze, you miss how life forms are not in space but that they make space. One example is how bacteria produce the oxygen of the atmosphere that all life forms breathe. Bacteria are not in the frame, they make the frame. This you cannot see if you approach space cartographically. If you approach space from the view of the globe, or as a map, you remain stuck inside a frame, with difficulties understanding what life is. These difficulties have burdened biology and ecology since the seventeenth century.

With Gaia the situation is reversed. The trick of Lovelock and Margulis is to say, “If there is an earth, soil, and sea, it is because life forms are producing their own environment.” Life forms are not sitting in the environment, they produce the environment. In biology, Margulis’s ideas and her notion of holobionts are becoming mainstream now. Today, everybody knows that our bodies are made of microbes, for example. So, the idea that we are seized and maintained by the agencies of life forms is beginning to become common sense. The amusing thing is that this idea of space as the product of agencies is an old actor-network theory argument that we developed completely separately in sociology.

NS: What are the political consequences of this concept of space? Previously, you have conceptualized this spatial or cosmological shift with the notion of a new climatic regime.

BL: Like Galileo, Lovelock is not interesting for his politics. What I am nonetheless interested in is the political consequences of being lost in space after the discovery of Gaia. This is somehow what I try to map very grossly in Down to Earth.[4] My argument is that what we all have in common is no longer moving forward trough progress but that we are lost in space. What we all have in common is no longer having an exact idea of where we are in space or on what soil or land we reside. And I think this shows clearly in the political disputes of today.

First, by what is normally referred to as populist movements and their questions of “What are our borders and what are the people inside our borders?” Questions posed all over Europe and, of course, most vividly with Brexit. Secondly, it shows with those who say “Let’s go on,” “Business as usual,” “Let’s maintain the modernist tradition of progress.” The ideal of globalization, if you want. Both these positions are simply affects asking where we are, on what soil or land we reside. Now, the problem is that both these positions are too abstract in terms of material existence. The land the populists wants to go back to—The England of Johnson, The Italy of Salvini, The France of Front National—are not real countries. They are imaginary versions of what would have been the land years ago. But the land of the globalists is just as imaginary, as they imagine that the earth will accept infinite modernization. So, we are lost in space.

NS: So, politics is now ordered by the question of land, but we are all lost in space because none of the political territories that modernity offers us have any ecological or economical fundament.

BL: Exactly. Look at the example of Brexit, for me a great experimentation of territorial redescription. It started with an imaginary space based on ideas of identity and borders. Three years later it is a complete mess. The English learned day by day, bit by bit, what they were actually depending on as a territory—dependencies always transcending the nation state. If you leave the EU, you will be in trouble getting medicine, fresh food, then your labor force will have bad protection of rights and so on. So, one talks about identity and about walls, but slowly you realize that you do not only depend on identity but more importantly on a long list of other conditions of existences. Our ignorance about what makes our countries thrive is immense. This is what I try to allude to when I say that we are spatially lost.

NS: Yesterday in Paris, you attended the defense of French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier’s habilitation.[5] One of his arguments is that there is a disconnect between where the moderns think they live and the territory they actually live off. How is this connected to the current spatial confusion? Why the difficulty of understanding that to have politics you need to have a land and a people corresponding?

BL: Yes, there is a disconnect between the two sorts of land that we inhabit. On the one hand, there is the land from where we have our rights—the nation state—which is territory that we understand ourselves as living in. On the other hand, there is the land we live from, which is the territory where we get our resources. We sort of know these two territories are connected, but because of the material history of the Moderns—first the colonies, then the discovery of coal and later oil—they have divorced. So, if people have lost their sense of space, it is because of this divorce that has made it difficult for people to describe the world out of which they get their prosperity and the entities that allow them to subsist. And what Charbonnier investigates is simply how this disconnect becomes bigger and bigger ever since the “discovery” of America.

In one chapter, there is an interesting simile to understand the argument and its relevance for political ecology. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote a book answering to the English project of liberalism, arguing that in inventing the global world the English were completely hypocritical.[6] They pretended to be civilized and tolerant while simultaneously exploiting the whole planet. If Germany wanted to be tolerant, Fichte said, they would need to close down their borders, forbid commerce, and instead juxtapose the land out of which they lived with the land that gives rights to their citizens. Fichte probably did not imagine this to be possible even in the nineteenth century, but it is a fine description of a sort of utopia, where the legal country is reconciled with the material country.

I think this is a good way of grasping our current situation. Because, in fact, political ecology has nothing to do with green stuff or nature. It is about how the new, moving earth forces everybody to ask again the question of what to subsist on. This question of subsistence is a main feature of what I call the new climatic regime. Everyone is simply trying to find out which land to live off and live in. This is also why the Trumpists are climate deniers. You study that yourself, namely the question on how some are saying: “We don’t share the same earth as you.”[7] Something impossible to reconcile with modernism because modernism was supposed to be the progress of all—even if it really wasn’t.

NS: Yes. It is difficult to believe in modernism when you see a picture of Elon Musk’s Tesla sports car floating around in outer space. This did not look like the progress for all—this was progress or emancipation for the wealthy few. And when you look at how other Silicon Valley tech billionaires are trying colonize Mars, then it certainly does not look like modernism either, as the classic question “Is there life on Mars?” is rephrased from a civilizational question into a question for the one percent who try to escape Earth. This is the ideological essence of what you have previously called offshore politics or planet exit: the escapism of the earthly, material limits by the few.

BL: With a lot of money put into it . . .

NS: Lots of money and lots of technology. For these elites it is a case of deus ex machina, and as techsters they are God’s chosen few. It is definitely not a coincidence that the wildfires in California never reached Silicon Valley—and with the prospect of ecological, civilizational collapse they take off and go to Mars. The problem is that you rather quickly find out that Mars is uninhabitable. It is not a very nice up there. So, the tech billionaires shift from planet B to plan B and invest in luxury climate-secured escape bunkers in places like New Zealand, so they can escape civilizational collapse. It sounds anecdotal, but it has been studied in detail by investigative journalists.[8]

BL: So, they hedge their bets, one on Mars and one in New Zealand. How many people are we talking about?

NS: Exactly. Crushed under the weight of the new moving earth, they choose to escape and leave the rest of us behind. They do not live in the Anthropocene they live in the Misanthropocene. Steve Hoffman, the billionaire founder of Reddit, estimates that around fifty percent of the Silicon Valley tech elites have bought escape property around the world. Escape bunker property for the ultrarich has become a billion dollar business.[9] The interesting thing is that it is not even secret, even if it sounds like a neo-Balzacian conspiracy theory when one says that the rich are escaping the planet during nighttime. They actually say so themselves. Yet, it is not an unproblematic move for the rich. A lot of things could go wrong: How do you make sure that your security guards do not turn their weapons against you? Are you supposed to bring the family of the pilot of your private jet when you escape? A lot of questions arise, but it is still better than “staying with the trouble,” as your friend Donna Haraway would say.[10]

BL: But they are not climate skeptics; they are deniers, right? They recognize that there is a planetary danger?

NS: Yes, that is exactly why they take off. Again, climate denial arises not despite the fact that the climatic mutations are real, it arises because the climatic mutations are real and because the price of solidarity is too high to pay. It is the same with Trumpism. These are just the people that take the extreme consequences and choose to leave.

BL: But how do they cope with the fact of being alone and not following the old logic of modernism? How do they cope morally with leaving behind the rest of us? They must sort of reinvent themselves as atomized agents.

NS: That is what should to be studied now. If we could describe the material conditions of existence and the moral economies of these exiters and compare them with those who are stuck behind deprived of habitable territory, we would probably have a better grasp on tomorrow’s class struggle, a struggle over territory and not over the means of production.

BL: When Musk sent his Tesla into space, he said that it was “silly but fun.” The space adventures of the twentieth century were certainly not silly and fun, they were  part of a progressive modernity. Seeing space adventure becoming a caricature for just a few people is very shocking. So, at this moment, I think we are exactly at a place where we are literally living on different planets. One of these is the modernist, globalist planet; the other one is the identity, localist planet; and the third is the escapist or exit planet that you study. We are completely divided about which planet or which land on which we live. This is what I try to show in Down to Earth.

NS: Yes, when Musk said that it was “silly but fun” it was good proof that modernity was dead. But we only capture the dividedness you speak about if we remember that these people are very serious about escaping. They put billions of dollars into it. And, somehow, this move of escapist ideology was not a big surprise. Only a few months before, Donald Trump took America out of the COP21 Agreement. What did he do just after? He announced that he was going to “Make America Great again . . . on Mars.”

Class and Description

BL: The question is how to respond to this division of space. Here, I want to go back to what we spoke about before. As Charbonnier shows, the question is now about how to restart the socialist tradition. A tradition that was in fact always interested in the question of the divide between the land, the industry, and the legal framework in which people live. One can even say that socialism was about this disconnect. Yet, it is also true that socialism never succeeded in connecting with ecology. For this reason, Charbonnier’s hero is the same as mine. Karl Polanyi was one of the few in the socialist tradition who articulated the the idea that both the labor force and the land resists production. In The Great Transformation he maintains that it is not a question of production but of what I call a processes of engendering, the ways in which things are brought to the world.[11]

This is the connection I am interested in. Can we, within the socialist tradition, rearticulate the questions concerning ecology as questions of existence, of survival, of generation, of reproducing, of giving birth and of losing territory? As a philosopher, I see the first contours of what we have been calling geosocial classes, a notion that would perhaps allow us to redo for the present situation what the socialist did fairly well until the 1950s and the beginning of The Great Acceleration. This would allow us to reconnect the land that we live in and the land we live from, as well as to connect ecology with socialism within the framework of politics as usual. But I gave you the task of finding these classes. How would you approach the question? What would be a good definition of geosocial classes?

NS: I think your intuition in Down to Earth is correct. These are not classes defined by their position in the production system; they are classes defined by their territorial conditions of survival, their material conditions of existence or reproduction. Defining geosocial classes means taking the cosmology of our new moving earth serious when approaching the social question and use it to redescribe social classes in a way that extends their Marxist definition. While social classes were defined by their ownership over the means of production, geosocial classes are defined by their dependence on a wider array of material conditions of existence that allows social groups to survive or thrive. If we had such a definition of classes, we could delineate a people corresponding to the new climatic question of the twenty-first century, and to geohistory, in the same way Marx made a people correspond to the social question of the nineteenth century and to social history.[12]

The terribly difficult question is how to map this empirically. First, it would be necessary to define the territory on which different collectives live, by describing what entities or actors different social collectives depend on to reproduce. If we did this, we would first see that the networks of existences that allow different social groups to survive and reproduce would look very heterogeneous. But what would also be clear is how some social groups would share means of reproduction with some more than others—similarities and dissimilarities that would allow us to reclassify social groups on the basis of material conditions of existence. Perhaps this would even allow us to redefine exploitation as the surplus of existence that some social groups profit from, by describing how the livelihoods of some collectives prevents the access to a habitable territory for others. I think that the Yellow Vests in France perhaps showed us the urgency of the geosocial question. Would you agree?

BL: I think the Yellow Vest affairs started with an interesting moment of geosocial inquiry, as it was a matter of salary, taxation, gas, landscape, and social justice. So you are right; initially, the connection was made. But you cannot have a political position if you cannot describe your own territory. So nothing came out of it precisely because they did not have the vocabulary, tools, or political movement to help them articulate this link. We are extraordinarily bad at describing what allows people to subsist. We talk a lot about identity, we have a lot of discussions about values, but please describe to me the territory in which you survive, in which you invest, and might want to defend. I think the lack of such descriptions is what renders the political scene so interesting but also so violent today. We begin to realize that this is the real question, but we do not know how to answer it. This is also why I am interested in the episode of the Cahiers de Doleances, because it was exactly an initiative directed towards territorial descriptions and questions of social justice in one and same breath. The Yellow Vests did not manage to maintain this link.

So if the question of geosocial classes is difficult to answer, it is because we all have very little idea about where we get our subsistence from. We have simply lost the habit of describing what we are attached to, what we are connected to, and what allows us to survive. In a way, Marxism used to be a vocabulary that allowed such descriptions of our conditions of subsistence, which we could use to locate ourselves inside the system of production. Can we do the same thing today with what I call the processes of engendering? From Proudhon to Marx, socialism described the practical and material realities of industrial society. They described where people within this society got their subsistence from, which allowed people to position themselves in the system of production. But today, we live in a different world. Today, if one would have to describe the practical, material world in which one lives it would not only be about industry, we would furthermore have to add entities like the climate, carbon dioxide, water, bugs, earth worms, soil, and others—the wider array of material conditions of existences that you spoke about before. And this is what ecologists never managed to bring to the attention of socialists. It is still the question of inequality, of justice, and of the material world out of which we get our subsistence; it is simply that the world has changed form.

NS: Yes. The interesting thing is that in the first period of the Yellow Vests, when there was a moment of geosocial description, they actually enjoyed support and were able to mobilize affects internally and externally. When they lost their territorial descriptions, it turned violent. It seems that in some situations, violence does not occur when indignation reaches a certain level; it occurs when you are no longer able to describe who you are, what you are attached to, and with whom you fight.

BL: Yes, they lost completely their territorial descriptions, and instead went on to ask for the head of the president. . . . Macron then offered them a grand debate, but we learned nothing from it because people simply gave their opinions. But the opinions of people who have no land nor a world to describe is useless. A million and a half answers to the debate and not one single description of where we reside and with whom. Values? Yes. Identity? Yes. But no territories. If you have lost the ability of describing the land or the territory on which you reside—understood in the etiological sense as the lists of entities you rely on to subsists—then you simply cannot do politics. If you have no territory, you have no politics.

NS: So to restart politics, we need to redescribe our territories, our lands, and our people. How come we lost the ability of doing so? Were we atomized by neoliberalism, which is  fundamentally an ideology and politics of disattachments?

BL: Of course, this is one of the reasons. But you can simply also just loose the habit and culture of doing politics, if it is not constantly maintained. Redescription is a general rule of the social sciences, but today I would say that this is the political question. Let us not forget that ecological mutations are unprecedented. We have never before had a moment where we had to reengineer the whole system of reproduction piece by piece, house by house, mobility by mobility, food by food. We have the experience of production and modernization, but we do not have any experience of reproduction and remodernization. Eight billion people and every single material entity that binds their societies together and make them live are controversial. Meat is controversial, clothes are controversial, transport is controversial. In this situation, we cannot skip the phase of description of territory, unless you want to end up in an abstract world of identity or values. This is what happened in England. If we do not do the work of description, we cannot go forward.

NS: This leads me to my next question. Forty years ago, you started your career by following natural scientists in the laboratory. Now, you are interested in a new sort of science and a new sort of scientist. In Down to Earth you dedicate a chapter to critical zone’ and critical-zone scientists, and you are currently doing an exhibition on the topic. Why are you interested in these topics and how are they related to the task of description?

BL: First, critical zones and critical-zone scientists are words used in geoscience, hydrology, geomorphology, geochemistry, and in soil sciences to denote the thin crust or skin of the Earth and the scientists that are studying it. And, yes, when I have been following and studying these scientists for five years now, it is exactly because I think they help with the redescription of territories in a very practical way. First, because they are not global. They are not working with the Earth as the globe. Rather, it is the Earth as a thin skin. Everything on which life forms live exists only here, on a few kilometers thick pellicule of the earth, reaching from the atmosphere and a few kilometers down in the rocks. So, what they study is comparable to Lovelock’s discoveries. It is another tool to get away from the idea of nature, which is simply too big, abstract, and imprecise. When you study critical zones, you study a series of things or connections on the crust of the Earth, so it has a modest reach. It is about very limited entities; it is not the whole cosmos. The second interesting thing about these sciences is that they explicitly study the differences between what they see in the laboratory and what they see in the field. Again, there is this modesty, it is a boots-on-the-ground type of science—a bit like natural history or like Alexander von Humboldt’s natural science.

NS: It is another epistemology.

BL: Yes. Epistemologically, they are far from the other sciences that I have been following for many years. And since they underline the discrepancies between their observations and the chemical reactions, it means that they are redescribing and rematerializing the question of territory, which we simultaneously try to redescribe and rematerialize in political and social theory. This is also where there is a link between Lovelock’s discovery, the political question of geosocial classes and critical zones. This is why I am interested in them and why I am also doing an exhibition on the topic.

NS: Why an exhibition? What are the role of the artists in it?

BL: Exhibitions allow you to do a thought experiment in a limited space that cannot be done in any other way. Every time I have done an exhibition, the question at hand was completely impossible to raise in a book but possible to raise in a space. Why? Because you are able to submit people to an experiment. This is what I mean by thought exhibitions. It is a way to use limited space, art, and artists to bombard visitors with expressions and then see what happens with them. The last one I did in 2016 Reset Modernity,[13] bombarded visitors with objects, asking if they could reset their vision of modernity.[14] The current exhibition—simply called Critical Zones: Landing on Earth—is somehow easier. It basically offers a lot of scientific facts and arts from which the visitors can learn to redescribe and revisualize the Earth’s surface in which they live but which they are not conscious about, in large part because of the cartographic imaginary we spoke about before. The problem remains the same. We always think of the Earth, seen from the outside. If you say “Earth,” what typicaly comes to peoples’ mind is the globe. But despite all the talk  about the Blue Planet, only the people who are out of space, out in space, experience the Earth like that. We are not out in space; we are inside critical zones. And this is what we need to visualize. Here, the importance of artists is that they help us multiply the visions of the Earth, viewed from the inside and not from the outside. It sounds simple, but it is absolutely crucial not to imagine the planet as the globe if we want to land on Earth. The globe is too big and too abstract. So, what we simply try to do is to invent with scientists and artists a vocabulary for this landing. In a way, it is surprising that we even have to do so. Why should we have to land? Are we not on Earth? In a way no, because Moderns took off on an interesting and somehow beautiful journey, as visualized by Musk and his Tesla, but now we realize that we have to land again without crashing. As I say in Facing Gaia (2017), we are exactly in the same position as when we “discovered” the New World and when the cartographers had to redraw their maps. Four centuries later, we discover a new, moving earth. Not in extensity but in intensity, an earth which is reacting to our actions. For that you need new descriptions, and you need new visualizations.



This conversation between Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz took place at The Queens Hall, Royal Danish Library on 29 May 2019. It has since been edited and substantially revised. Selections of the conversation were first published as an audio file by the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information for their podcast series “European Ideas.”


Nikolaj Schultz, sociologist, is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is currently a visiting scholar in Paris, where he is working with cosupervisor of his PhD thesis, Bruno Latour, on developing the concept of geosocial classes. Bruno Latour, sociologist and philosopher, is Professor Emeritus at Sciences Po, Paris. He is currently preparing the Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics exhibition, cocurated with Martin Guinard, Peter Weibel, and Bettina Korintenberg, set to open 8 May 2020 at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe.                                                                

[1] See Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (London, 2017).

[2] See Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1995), p. 86.

[3] See Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed Cosmos to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore, 1957).

[4] See Latour, Down To Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (London, 2017).

[5] See Pierre Charbonnier,. Abondance et liberté. De la revolution industrielle au changement climatique (Habilitation thesis, L’École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 2019).

[6] See Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Closed Commercial State, trans. Anthony Curtis Adler (New York, 2012).

[7] See Nikolaj Schultz, “Life as Exodus,” in Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics, ed. Latour (forthcoming).

[8] See Evan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” New Yorker, 22 Jan. 2017,

[9] See Julie Turkewitz, “A Boom Time for the Bunker Business and Doomsday Capitalists,” The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2019,

[10] See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C., 2016).

[11] See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, 2001).

[12] See Schultz, “Geo-Social Classes: Stratifications in the System of Engendering,” in Critical Zones.

[13] See Latour, Reset Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

[14] See Latour,  Reset Modernity.

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Tales of the 1940s: A Conversation between Werner Sollors and Françoise Meltzer

Coeditor Françoise Meltzer and Werner Sollors discuss Sollors’s The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s (2014). Read Sollors’s “‘Better to Die by Them than for Them'”: Carl Schmitt Reads ‘Benito Cereno'” in the Winter 2020 issue of Critical Inquiry.

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ON OKWUI ENWEZOR (1963-2019)


Terry Smith

I first met Okwui Enwezor in 1997, at Bard College in upstate New York, when the curatorial team for the Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s was assembled by the project organizers: the artist Luis Camnitzer, the scholar Rachel Weiss, and the curator Jane Farver. The exhibition opened at the Queens Museum, New York, in April 1999, and traveled elsewhere in the US. The aim was to show New Yorkers and other Americans that conceptualist practices from elsewhere were not pale imitations of European and US models. Instead, they had originated throughout the world in response to local conditions; and were usually more political in intention and effect. At the Bard workshop, each curator was challenged to prove that “our” artists—the artists from the region we represented—met these criteria. Okwui and I were provoked by this: me to show that, in Australia and New Zealand, there were both imitators and originators, but more importantly to demonstrate that conceptualism was more an “art in transit” than an art locked into local settings. Okwui’s answer was better. Fresh from curating the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial, he boomed “Of course, there are some artists who are clearly international conceptualists, yet work in unique ways.” He showed South African Willem Boshoff’s braille text pieces. “But,” he continued, “the point is that, as Yoruba knowledge tells us, in Africa, artists emerge from a long tradition of ideas, language, and performance.” Thus, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. African art, he was saying, has always been conceptual and political—on a broader scale, and in deeper, more embedded ways than anything you can imagine.


Global Conceptualism was reviled at the time; it is now regarded as a landmark exhibition, a harbinger of the “global exhibitions” to come, that are now almost a norm for exhibitions that aim to be seriously consequential. Okwui was not only a pioneer of this form, he quickly became its leading exponent. What drove him to take on such ambitious projects? What enabled him to succeed, so often, over more than two decades?

His personal qualities were evident to all who knew him. A love of life. A large laugh. A generosity of spirit. High intelligence. A constant quest for more knowledge; an incessant self-education. A gift for friendship. He was a demanding companion and a challenging colleague. Of course, he had unlimited ambition—for himself and for his projects. His natural inclination to leadership was tempered by an instinct towards collective action. True grit. Unbending integrity. Impatience with stupidity; hatred of cupidity. An instinctive educator; a great teacher (he was much loved at the University of Pittsburgh, where I brought him to teach, straight after Documenta 11). He was an inspiring, indefatigable collaborator, as I found out when he and Nancy Condee and I worked together in Pittsburgh to stage the conference that led to Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Duke, 2008). Above all, he was a visionary, a dreamer.

He possessed a love of art that encompassed continents and centuries, thus making a random stroll through the Metropolitan Museum, New York, his greatest happiness as a private visitor to an art gallery. It is one of the world’s losses that we never got to see Okwui in the role as director of that museum, or an equivalent institution. While the United States, to its great credit, was able to elect, and reelect, a black president (for whom we both voted), black directors of major museums are few and far between. The situation in Europe is no better. We talked about this structural exclusion, which he felt keenly. The world’s geopolitical turning would, we dared to hope, eventually lead to change, despite the current reactionary regressions. It is a matter of deep regret that his life cut short—he died in Munich on 15 March 2019—means that we will never see him break through that wall, as he did so many others.

But Okwui Enwezor amounted to much more than the sum of his personal qualities, and a lot more than the list of his formal identities. This became truly clear when I visited Documenta 11, the fifth platform of which was at Kassel in June 2002. For me, a defining moment occurred in the Documenta Halle, in the installation From/To by Fareed Armaly and Rashid Masharawi. Armaly, an artist of Lebanese-Palestinian descent, born in the US and resident in Stuttgart, designed a floor grid of orientations based on territories claimed by Palestine. Masharawi, a Palestinian filmmaker, born in the Shati refugee camp and resident of Ramallah, presented an engrossing program of Palestinian film. The projection space included an illuminated wall map showing the actual locations of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It became obvious at a glance that Israel was establishing “facts on the ground” that would make the two-state solution supposedly desired by all parties a practical impossibility.

An informed, free press would have made this known to all, but these were the months after 9/11. The War on Terror had been declared by the oligarchs who were then, as now, in command of nations. Information inimical to their interests was systematically eclipsed, even in “free” societies. In the United States, where we were living, opposition was rare, and when exceptional intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag raised their voices against the tide of misinformation, mindless patriotism, and fearful retreat from critique, they were pilloried. Okwui and his team, and the artists in the exhibition, did not fear such criticism. They had a larger duty: to show the world to us as it was, and to imagine the world as it might be, after the legacies of colonialism are finally overcome.

Okwui called this: opening “The Black Box.” Not just creating spaces for photography, video, and documentary, but also exposing the world’s unconscious, its centuries of repression. Under his guidance, the exhibition became a space of liberation.

A certain trajectory emerges in the series of his exhibitions that began at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1996, with In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, and continued with Trade Routes: History and Geography, 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1977); Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (2001-2002); Documenta 11 (2002); and then through several others, up to and including his recent major achievements. It was no accident that he located the continuous reading of undervalued yet essential texts at the core of most of his exhibitions. Nor that, at Venice in 2015, it was Karl Marx’s Capital. Thomas Pikkety’s globalized version, Capital for the Twenty-first Century, had been published the year before. Okwui wanted us to remember the real thing, to help us imagine All the World’s Futures more clearly.

No curator working today matches the scope of Okwui’s vision. I see him as the Karl Marx of contemporary curating. I say this with full awareness that each of us is a clutch of contradictions, as was Marx himself. Okwui’s deep understanding of the kinds of work that art does in the world parallels Marx’s grasp of the importance of modes of production, and how when they change, the world changes. These are not abstractions. They are insights into how things are, and how they might get worse, or better, or both. Compare any of his exhibitions, with their world-historical sweep, to the mainstream surveys of contemporary art, vaguely shaped according to a generalizing, pluralistic theme—for example, most editions of the Venice Biennale. In contrast, Okwui became the master of what we might call the contemporary, historical, and critical exhibition. Magnificent Scale was a great title for the El Anatsui exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Munich: it describes Okwui’s achievements equally well.

In a conversation that we had in Munich in 2013, that was published two years later in my book Talking Contemporary Curating, he said this:

To me the fundamental challenges that a curator faces today are how to provoke an engaged confrontation with works of art, how to make that experience legible, and how to use it to open up forms of engagement with the world. Exhibitions, in this sense, open up the surplus value of art. They create value of many kinds, simply because each time artworks are exhibited they accrue new meaning, new force, and open out new possibilities, while not necessarily changing their shape. In turn, art changes the perceptions of those it engages—so, to make an exhibition is to theorize the place of art not only in institutions, but also in public spaces, and, if you will, in the world.

To truly value the surplus value of art, and to never use it for its exchange value—that was what Okwui believed that contemporary curating should do.

In the week before he died, on 15 March 12019, I spent many hours each day by his hospital bed in Munich, as the vast complexities of his life converged upon us. It was a privilege to be there with him then, as it had been, so often but never often enough, since 1997.


TERRY SMITH is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. In 2010, he became Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate and the received the Franklin Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association (USA). Books include What is Contemporary Art? (2009), Contemporary Art: World Currents (2011), Thinking Contemporary Curating (2012), Talking Contemporary Curating (2015), The Contemporary Composition (2016), One and Five Ideas: On Conceptual Art and Conceptualism (2107), and Art to Come: Histories of Contemporary Art (2019). See

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Talking about the Rule of Law with Robert Mueller and E. P. Thompson

Aziz Z. Huq


“What is remarkable (we are reminded) is not that the laws were bent but the fact that there was, anywhere in the eighteenth century, a Rule of Law at all.”[1]


Predictably and painfully, the public exorcism of the Mueller investigation came to an ashen close this week. Its climax—or perhaps more accurately, bathetic anticlimax?—took the form of a pair of congressional hearings where the Special Counsel along with an assistant testified. These were a peculiar blend of ghostly whispers conjuring evasions and circumlocutions, a surfeit of the usual theatrical bluster and malarkey—thank you, Jim Jordan—and the occasional huffs of exasperation by Mueller himself. The latter were not, though, evinced by any pained splinter of concern at the documented fact of presidential criminality. Rather, the special counsel showed the most energy when his rock-ribbed prosecutorial reputation seemed under interrogation. In contrast, the sedulous documentation in volume 2 of the Mueller report, which persuasively adumbrates almost a dozen discrete instances of presidential obstruction of justice, has vanished into little or nothing. At the hearing, their echo yielded nothing but “euphoria” from the White House.[2] The reason is easy enough to see: no reality-show producer is rushing to book Mueller on the strength of his ethereal performance.[3] But absent of some histrionic moment, like something out of A Few Good Men (1992), it is hard to see how the hearing could have made much impact in the first instance.

These events would be no surprise to readers of E. P. Thompson’s masterful history Whigs and Hunters. Its first 250-odd pages, after all, are a powerful, even unforgettable testimonial to the potency of “bad law, drawn by bad legislators, and enlarged by the interpretations of bad judges” (WH, p. 267). Those pages sketch indelibly the Black Act of 1723, a cruel enclosure of land and customary rights as an incident of class war, one that extended the death penalty to deer stealing, tree cutting, and burning. In the body of Thompson’s account, law is a tyranny, as red in tooth and claw as the rapacious English land-owning class that wielded it without compunction or hesitation.

Yet, in a passage that has puzzled many of his admirers and ideological fellow travelers, Thompson ends his account with a paean to the rule of law. Despite everything in Whigs and Hunters, he nonetheless praises the “remarkable” virtue of law. This adheres in its “principles of equity and universality which, perforce, has to be extended to all sorts and degrees of men” (WH, p. 259). This quality of generality is common to many leading definitions of the otherwise protean rule of law, from Joseph Raz’s to Lon Fuller’s.[4] Hardly a panacea—remember Anatole France’s pungent line about the law’s “majestic equality”—law still seemed to hold for Thompson the promise of some vestigial constraint on the wielding of state power against the vulnerable.[5]

One hears something of an echo of Thompson’s sentiment, I think, in calls from the left for the machinery of criminal justice—responsible for the evil of mass African-American incarcerations, the horrors of the war on drugs, and far more—to crank into action against Trump. There has been an idea on the left that prosecutors will come swinging to the rescue, ending the moral catastrophes of the Trump presidency, without reckoning with its structural causes or institutional continuities.

The hope was always an unlikely one, quite apart from its selective and culpable omissions about American criminal justice’s longer historical record. At the Mueller hearings, the hope plainly flared and died. The documented instances of serious criminality—witness tampering of the sort that gives drug dealers a bad name—are simply ignored, drowned out with cries of “no collusion.”

I think this is an opportune moment for thinking about the role that law plays in constraining power, and state power in particular, in a putatively liberal and democratic context. In particular, this is an opportunity to think about the circumstances in which that constraining role can be anticipated, and when it is likely to fail. When, that is, should we anticipate the cooperation of law with “tyranny,” and when should we anticipate the vindication of “principles of equity and universality”?

Something of an answer to this question germinates within the text of Whigs and Hunters itself. For Thompson, the “essential precondition for the effectiveness of law, in its function as ideology, is that it shall display an independence from gross manipulation and shall seem to be just” (WH, p. 263). That is, to function effectively as ideology, the law cannot be wholly supervened by the naked policy preferences of a hegemonic class. It can’t be too ruthless or zealous in its pursuit of dominion. The civilizing force of the law’s touch thus depends on the political implausibility of (too much) hypocrisy. Appearances, or the compulsion to keep them up, turns out to matter. This sort of mechanism contrasts with the notion, associated most recently with Frederick Schauer, that law constrains only when it can credibly threaten coercion or force.[6]

Once one focuses on the legitimacy of law as a normative system independent of “gross manipulation” as the effective vector of law’s constraint, the failure of the Mueller report to generate consequences commensurate with its accusatory force becomes clearer. For three related structural reasons, the current occupant of the White House has no need even to gesture or perform fealty to the rule of law in terms of his personal conduct. Both for him and for members of his political coalition—both legislators who ignore his criminality and judges who ignore his nakedly unconstitutional animus—the civilizing bent of law’s generality no longer has a gravitational pull. These reasons, to be clear, aren’t general in scope. They are local to a particular historical moment. They may be, therefore, exemplary rather than exhaustive of the conditions in which Thompson’s aspiration founders.

To begin with: there is simply no partisan political logic to law’s restraint, even where what is at issue are serious violations of the criminal law. In a separation-of-powers system, just as in a parliamentary system, a president in large measure stays afloat through his or her ability to influence legislators. Republican legislators in safe seats—whether because of the “big sort”[7] or just gerrymandering[8]—have to worry not about the general election but the primary. Unless Republican primary voters are motivated to care about legality, Republican legislators are not likely to be moved by allegations of law violation. That is, they have to worry about the slice of the population that is probably most likely to approve of Trump, and perhaps most likely to be enraptured by his venal and venial sins. But Trump commands an approval ratingconsistently greater than 80 percent among Republican voters.[9] That approval may be correlated with a distaste for certain elements of liberal constitutionalism.[10] Tellingly, it peaked after his recent racist attacks in four women legislators of color.[11] This means that Trump has nothing to fear from copartisan legislators; they, in contrast, have everything to fear from his ability to provoke a primary challenge.

Second, the American public sphere is organized around media that are structurally oriented toward the dilution and distortion of information harmful to Trump, and the elevation of information (true or not) that helps him. This is not the internet, but the pro-Trump cable news shows that populate much of the public imaginary. In a brilliant dissection of political misinformation during the 2016 election, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts have shown that misinformation’s diffusion is not the result of Putin’s troll farms or Cambridge Analytica, but rather the decision of cable news hosts, acting as trusted intermediaries, to push out Pizzagate or deep state conspiracies.[12] Benkler et al.’s compelling empirical analysis decisively undermines the canard that social media or Facebook alone has critically undermined the possibility of a shared public sphere by enabling the spread of disinformation.[13] Given the structural alignment between the Trump presidency and Fox News in particular, it was never likely that any wrongdoing (barring perhaps the infamous possibility of murder in cold daylight) would move the needle.

Finally, there is the content of the law itself. To an extent that nonlawyers perhaps do not appreciate, the law’s substance is not predetermined by the text of, say, a criminal statute or the Constitution. The questions whether the president can obstruct justice, or whether he or she can be indicted as a result, are not resolved by Article II of the Constitution or the obstruction statute directly. Rather, they are interpretations of the law. Interpretations depend on the institutional context in which they are manufactured. Law’s penumbra, as Thompson appreciated, is a function therefore of its institutional conditions.

The law of criminal penalties is in the first instance the work of prosecutors, who must interpret vague or general statutes before applying them. The only formal legal authority on whether a president can be indicted is, therefore, controlledby the Department of Justice, a body that reports to the president.[14] Even before one gets to the stacking of the federal bench with former prosecutors and White House lawyers, or starts to dabble in the airy suppositions of “unitary executive” theory, there was a (yet again structural) bias against the kind of generality that Thompson savored—at least when it comes to the president. The point here is absolutely not that the president is “above” or “beyond” the law: the relationship between law and the presidency is far too complex,[15] far too mutually constitutive, to support that sort of broad and inchoate a claim.[16] Rather, the specific forms of legality that the president can invoke, or that can be invoked against him or her, are a function of institutional context, and in the context of the criminal law there is a profound inconsistency between the aspiration of “principles of equity and universality” and the brute fact of institutional motivation.

On the same day as the Mueller hearing, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. upheld a Trump rule that would bar almost all asylum claimants because they had moved through a third country without first seeking asylum there, a rule that even the neoliberal Economist decried.[17]  Law, in at least one of the forms that Thompson recognized and documented in Whigs and Hunters, remains alive and well in America. Where and how it grips is a function, though, and should be the focus of careful and situated analysis—and not a matter of aspiration or hope alone.

[1] E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (London, 1975), p. 259; hereafter abbreviated WH.

[2] Eliana Johnson and Melanie Zanona, “’Euphoria’: White House, GOP exult after a flat Mueller performance,” Politico, 24 July 2019,

[3] Peter Baker, “The Blockbuster That Wasn’t: Mueller Disappoints the Democrats,” New York Times, 24 July 2019,

[4] See Joseph Raz, “The Law’s Own Virtue,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies39, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 1-15; and Lon L. Fuller, The Morality of Law (New Haven, Conn., 1969).

[5] Anatole France, Le Lys Rouge(Paris, 1960).

[6] See Frederick Schauer, The Force of Law (Cambridge, Mass., 2015).

[7] Richard Florida, “America’s ‘Big Sort’ Is Only Getting Bigger,” CityLab, 25 Oct. 2016,

[8] See Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” American Journal of Political Science53, no. 3 (July 2009): 666-680.

[9] “Trump approval ratings,” FiveThirtyEight, 30 July 2019,

[10] Aziz Z. Huq, “The People Against the Constitution” University of Michigan Law Review116, no. 6 (2018): 1123.

[11] “Republican Support for Trump Rises After Racially Charged Tweets,”, 17 July 2019,

[12] Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York, 2018).

[13] The post-2016 criticism of social media, in any case, was always at odds with the known demography of the Trump coalition. More recent studiesshowing widespread distrust of social media on the right and left only undermine it further; see Katerina Eva Matsa and Elisa Shearer, “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018,”, 10 Sep. 2018,

[14] See “A Sitting President’s Amenability to Indictment and Criminal Prosecution,” The United States Department of Justice, 10 Dec. 2018,’s-amenability-indictment-and-criminal-prosecution

[15] Aziz Z. Huq, “Binding the Executive (by Law or by Politics),” University of Chicago Law Review 79 (May 2012): 777.

[16] “While You Were Tweeting,” The Economist, Jul. 20, 2019,

[17] See Spencer S. Hsu, “Federal judge allows Trump administration rule restricting asylum access to continue,” Washington Post, 24 July 2019,; and “The White House ditches half a century of immigration law,” The Economist, 20 July 2019,

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