just in time for summer reading – “ornamenting the unthinkable,” a new article from wendy kozol and yours truly

So excited to report that the article Wendy Kozol and I co-authored about the remarkable needlepoint work of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz has just appeared in WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly.  

In their introduction to the special issue, the editors–Taylor Black, Elena Glasberg, and Frances Bartkowski–frame survival as follows:

If survival has just one affective mode, it might be defiance—the feat and fate of living beings after injury, trauma, war, captivity, and natural disaster. It would also be the survival of words, signals, and germinal states of being in the world that we sometimes call natural, but that also encode the cultural landscape. A topography of ruins, trash, exhaustion, and depletion remains and reminds us of that which lives on after in a state of belatedness that is survival: the afterlife of what was not supposed to remain, that which was to have died, but did not, after all. Survival defies nostalgia, envy, and accusation. Survival in the realm of resources—whether human, animal, or mineral—gives the lie to a necropolitics, forcing the living, those living, and those living on to accede to a call from the future to turn away from that fallen angel of history (14).

WenWSQ coverdy and I analyze Krinitz’s work as a register of how the everyday process of surviving war lasts as long, or longer than the conflict itself, and consider how her art functions as a reparative practice that ameliorates the traumatic impacts of historical violence without ever succumbing to them.  We are drawn to Krinitz’s tapestries not only for their technical virtuosity and lush aesthetics (see the panels in person if you ever get the chance!) but for the way these dimensions stubbornly refuse to grant monstrosity authority over the beautiful.



… which is not to say that opacity is better …

Just published a short piece in The Conversation about transparency, spectatorship, and the detainee photos released by the DoD two weeks ago.


It’s a little uncomfortable to critique transparency, especially because I think the argument is so easily misread as a defense of secrecy or tacit endorsement of the conduct being pictured.  But part of the problem with the discourse of transparency is that it equates the act of exposure with the work of protest, so that arguments against exposure start to look like advocacy for what is being exposed.  From my perspective, the most urgent task is to find an alternate path toward accountability, one that detours widely around the question of what is happening ‘in our names.’  The difficulty of thinking about accountability in the absence of transparency reveals the extent to which the framework of transparency has itself become hegemonic.

in defense of talking about the weather

In “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes talks about the weather or, more precisely, talks about talking about the weather.  For farmers to talk about the weather, he says, is reasonable, because it bears directly on their actions and their labor.  His subsequent analysis implies that for the rest of us to talk about the weather is to partake of a bourgeois pseudo-physis, because for non-farmers, talk about the weather is merely descriptive speech without meaning or relevance.

Here I encounter a dilemma.  I’ve often had the feeling, particularly in my recent rereading of his gorgeous, gritty Mourning Diary, that Roland Barthes knows me better than I know myself.  But I kind of love talking about the weather, and so I’ve been trying to figure out the mechanics of that pleasure.

The big almost-story here on the East Coast this week was the possible approach of Hurricane Joaquin.  It turns out that if we had listened to the European meteorologists and their generally superior modeling systems, we would have known days ago that there was no reason to worry.  But even when the menacing forecasts are given with uncertainty and in the language of “low confidence,” they still have a power and a draw, compelling us to check the weather apps on our phones (I have four), to stay up later to watch television meteorologists prophesy on the news, and to even, occasionally, look up at the sky.

Of course, those of us—like me—who have the incredible privilege of living in sturdy houses and cities with solid infrastructures (by global comparison, even creaking, dilapidated Baltimore is more than adequate in this regard) thus have the privilege of speculating about severe weather without too much fear for life and property.

Those of us—like me—who do not encounter the natural world through our labor, for whom outdoors is primarily a site of voluntary recreation, who generally have the option to stay in if we prefer to, often see, rather than feel, the weather.

From space:
from space

In views that are abstracted and disproportionate:abstracted

And riotously colored:


The people who engineer those meteorological visualities for the public make them pleasurable.  They illustrate the weather lavishly for us.  Our access to these phenomena is intensely mediated, dependent; in this regard, Barthes’s description of our alienation from the natural world is astute.

But this mediation (I think) grounds us more firmly in the natural world, contextualizing us anew within it every time the map refreshes on the screen. To watch the weather is not so much to disconnect ourselves from the world but to access it through a different sensory register, the one we must shift into when we encounter phenomena beyond our reach, our ambit, our defiance.  Certainly, it is possible to talk about the weather idly or emptily.  But when we talk about the weather in anticipation of something extreme, it can also be (I think) a confession of our limited capacities—to know the natural world or to change it—and an invitation for others to keep our humble company in that elemental powerlessness.

Feeling good about feeling bad about Aylan Kurdi

aylan kurdi (cropped)

Everyone has been talking about the photos of Aylan Kurdi, and I have been wondering why that might be.  Considering the experience of looking at the photos, I suggest that these very difficult images actually make emotional and intellectual work of spectatorship relatively easy.  So I published this piece in Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture to think this through.