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There are no ruins without the triumph of vegetal life over that
which one day proudly rose over the earth. Clearly, everything that is
built on the earth in a certain way humiliates the earth. And so, it was
an ancient rite to make sacrifices to the gods of the place – each place
had an owner – in order to placate them so that they would permit the
rising of the fabric built by human hands. The act of setting up an
edifice shows the triumph of man over nature, as well as over history,
the historic work that would be so strange to a non-human beholder,
if there were one. And in the ruins, the human has been laid waste
but not erased. From that triumph – and all human triumph brings or
takes away pride–there remains something, which already entwines
with triumphant vegetal life, which freely runs, budding among the
broken columns and the torn-down walls. A fusion between nature
and history takes place; a pacification, a reconciliation that gives birth
to a special beauty that is dispensed by Greek Tragedy, brings with it
‘catharsis’. The contemplation of ruins cures, purifies, and expands
the spirit, making it approach the fluctuations of history, like an
immense tragedy without an author. Ruins are really a metaphor that
has reached the category of a Tragedy without an author. Its author is
simply time.
And tragedy springs from hope in an exaggerated fight with the
fatal limitations of destiny, of circumstances. Hope, the most human as
well as the most divine element in the life of man, remains free and
exposed, freed from its fights, in ruins. It is the pure transcendence of
hope.
To be sure, all ‘culture’ is the realisation of a dream–or rather
the attempt to realise it; one of those dreams that inexorably pursues
man and from which it is impossible to escape because it is born in the
indestructible depths of hope searching for its plot and at the same
time its realisation [la esperanza que busca su argumento, y al par su
realización]. Not all dreams ask to be realised, but there are some
that are so endowed with this request that they do not permit human
consciousness to rest, that they will throw man into any adventure.
Realisation is always a frustration. To that extent all history, even the
most splendid, is a failure. A failure that carries within also its triumph:
the incessant rebirth of human hope symbolised by ivy. Ivy is the
metaphor of a life that is born out of death, of the transcendence
that arrives each time something is finished [el trascender que sigue
a todo acabamiento]. It comes after the cessation of something that
went far on hope and into it [algo que fue lejos en la esperanza]. And if
Calderón exhorted us ‘to do good [obrar bien], because good is not lost
even in dreams’, it would be possible to understand this by thinking
that from all reality the only thing that may remain will be a dream.
To dream up the good [soñar bien] because good is not lost even in
death.
María Zambrano, “Ruins: A Metaphor for Hope” [trans. José Mª Rodríguez García]
Originally published in 1951, written by the author while she was living in Havana in exile from Spain.
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±

This is the only season I know at the moment.  It is neither festive nor cheerful.  It is full of americanos and sleeping too late and feeling guilty for sleeping too late.  It is full of counterbalancing narratives and tragic re-reading sessions and terrible realizations about the theoretical incompatibility of ideas.  It is also full of light (and life) at the other end.

Right now I am working on an essay for ‘Matters of Nature’ the course for which I read Kipfer (on Lefebvre) and Swyngedouw (on Rancière).  I am trying to consolidate and rework material that I had gathered for my MA.  I am also trying to use this paper as a stepping stone to my 2012 AAG (American Assoc. of Geographers) paper to be delivered on a ‘Plant Geographies’ panel.  The subject/object: New York’s High Line.

At the moment I am trying to consider the problem of agency.  There are multiple ways of thinking about how the High Line (HL) came to be.  I am interested in who and/or what enacted the transformation of the space over time.  I am also interested in whether or not it would have been possible to deal with the HL through a politics or a strategy of human inaction; what is the politics of ‘doing nothing’?

The HL was constructed between 1929 and 1934 as a public safety intervention to deal with deaths being caused by trains that had been crossing at ground level along the West Side of Manhattan.  It functioned for nearly five decades to deliver raw materials to the doorways of factories and firms through which the structure ran.  My scope is not so large; what I am interested in is the period beginning around roughly 1980 when the structure was no longer being used for rail traffic.  This is when it began to be inhabited by ‘vagabond plants’ – industrious species of grass and wildflower that wandered around New York and found themselves taking up residence on the rocky, seemingly inhospitable terrain of the HL.  There are multiple other accounts of what else might have been going on at that time in, on, and around the HL.  These include: Sex in the shadows beneath, raves up top, drugs on the top, drunken parade goers sneaking up top and getting stuck…not to mention the migration of SoHo galleries up to Chelsea, one of the neighborhoods through which the HL passes.

As in my previous research on the west side waterfront of Manhattan, I am interested in understanding that which or who becomes enfolded (enrolled) in the reinvention of  ‘derelict’ spaces.  In this case, it begins (at a minimum) with two gay men – Robert Hammond and Josh David, founders of Friends of the High Line (the organization that would eventually become responsible for converting the structure into a publicly accessible ‘park’) – and a landscape of plants which helped them to capture the imaginations and the contributions of New York’s fashion, political, and economic elite.

My essay begins with the images taken by landscape photographer Joel Sternfeld in order to explore the enfolding of ‘wildness’ in the city and the taming of the unwieldy politics of neighborhood transformation gentrification.  And since this is where my essay begins, it is where this post ends.  See you on the flip side, lovers.

From the series "Walking the High Line"

Joel Sternfeld's "A Railroad Artifact, 30th Street, May 2000"

Today was the third installment of the nature-culture reading group I’ve been attending at the Robarts Center for Canadian Studies, coordinated by the wildly entertaining and engaging Jody Berland.  We focused on the anthology Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire co-edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands (my PhD advisor, better known now as Cate Sandilands) and Bruce Erickson, a former student of Cate’s and Assistant Professor of Geography at York.  (Previous installments of the group have been centered around the work of Rod Giblett, with whom I remain unfamiliar, and Bruno Latour, whose sweeping gestures of erasure of seemingly all previous social theory continue to irk me, despite my generally ambivalent interest in actor-network theory.)

I was happy to have a chance to engage more deeply with this volume which came out while I was in the middle of my application process for PhD.  Today was also a bit of an ‘origin moment’ as Cate relayed a story regarding the 2005 piece “Unnatural Passions? Notes Toward a Queer Ecology” which was my first point of contact with her work.  (Apparently its recent translation into Portuguese has prompted a deluge of interest from Brazilian drag queens!)   In this piece, which was an early version of what would eventually become the introduction to the anthology, she discusses the ‘double movement’ whereby “Homosexuality was simultaneously naturalized and considered ‘unnatural,’ something deviant from a primary, normative heterosexuality” (n.p., digital edition).  This move is important for an understanding of queer ecologies as it shows that not only did the regulatory practices of scientific and medicalizing logics which shaped sexuality, but so too did heteronormativity shape science, particularly (or at least significantly) ecology.  She writes, “In the first place, then, we have a situation in which sexuality was biologized into naturalized normative categories, and in which developing evolutionary and ecological thinking was influenced by a strongly heterosexist paradigm” (n.p.).  Such a process turns out to be quite impactful for both “the politics of wilderness preservation and urban greening” (n.p.).  Can you see where this is going?

For me, what is particularly remarkable and challenging about this piece is Mortimer-Sandiland’s insistence on the fact that “The linkage of homosexuality and cities…was clearly a product of ideology, but that ideology has had an enormous material impact on both queers and natural spaces” (n.p.).  This obviously raises significant questions for my project of queer(ing) urban ecologies.  What does it mean for my project to foreground the urban?  Might this be what Butler calls a ‘constitutive exclusion’ of the rural?  How might I deal with what Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson, following Scott Herring, call ‘metronormativity’ (2010:28; see also Ch. 2 Judith Halberstam 2005)?

Firstly, it means that the urbanization of sexuality and the sexuality of urbanization must constantly be reworked to trouble the notion that it is only through the putatively ‘liberative’ spatialization of queerness that ‘community’ is formed.  (Gays as the vanguard of gentrification would suggest otherwise)  Restated: I’ve got to challenge the notion that the ‘visibility’ of queers (or, more likely of white, gay professionals) is somehow a sure sign of ‘progress’ with respect to either queer politics or environmental politics.  Since I am very interested in thinking the urban with Lefebvre, I have to consider that this also means that I must think of the aspects of urbanization as an historical mode of the production of space that may demand subjugation and continued violence against queers as a condition of its ‘success’.  The city, it appears, continues to intensify a commodification of queer identity and, relatedly, the spatial dominance of a commodified gay identity.  How might I think about queer approaches to a radically open and radically democratic process of urbanization which no longer takes for granted the affinity of the city and the queer?

Let queer urban ecologies be a moment to consider how projects of ‘urban greening’ might actually become occasions for a radical challenge to phallocentric, heteronormative, capitalistic forms of urban (public) green space.  Let it also be a call to consider, as Gordon Brent-Ingram does in the anthology, how the language and method of ecology might help to stage resistance to dominant forms of urbanization, which are broadly threatening to any forms of desire or non-reproductive erotic drive which do not match with the supposedly inherent (or at least apparently inherent to capitalism) accumulation strategies necessary to drive ‘sustainable growth’ (2010:254-282).

It’s a ramble, it’s a start.

Citations

Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgendered Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press.

Ingram, Gordon Brent. “Fragments, Edges, and Matricies: Re-theorizing the Formation of a So-called Gay Ghetto through Queering Landscape Ecology”.  Pp. 254-282 in Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, eds. 2010. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona and Bruce Erickson, eds. 2010. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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