Early in 2013, I was enormously privileged to attend a series of events dedicated to the legacies of Audre Lorde. Organized by the Community Arts Practice (CAP) Certificate Program and the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, in conjunction with Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, the series included a film screening, several lectures, and an exhibition of artwork and performance by members of CAP. The inaugural event was a lecture by Professor M. Jacqui Alexander of the Women & Gender Studies Institute at University of Toronto. Titled “Medicines for Our Survival: Indigenous Knowledge and the Sacred,” the lecture has resonated in my heart and mind throughout the year and has grounded me in a new understanding of my work.
Practically, Prof. Alexander inspired my increased involvement in political struggles for justice within my Faculty and University. From an institutional perspective, this has taken the ‘recognizable’ form of committee membership on our Faculty’s relatively new Equity Committee. More personally, it has involved learning from, struggling alongside, and sharing with colleagues and comrades – faculty, students, and staff – who are committed to social justice beyond the boilerplate languages of ‘equity and diversity’ and in opposition to the violences justified in the name of ‘inclusion.’ Many of these folks, including Prof. Honor Ford-Smith were directly involved in getting Prof. Alexander up to York for her rare public lecture. Many more, including Prof. Jin Haritaworn, have been deeply involved in struggles for justice both preceding and after their arrival to FES. I name Profs Ford-Smith and Haritaworn because I have personally witnessed their incredibly hard work to organize and support struggles for justice at the intersections of race, class, ability, sexuality, and gender. In short, they help make FES (and Toronto) a fabulous place to agitate for justice.
More directly related to Prof. Alexander’s words that March evening, her discussion prompted me to start the process of thinking about legacies of colonialism and racism as they relate to my own work on urban ecologies of gentrification. This has involved learning how to draw politically honest intersectional connections to both activist and scholarly work that heretofore were not a part of my intellectual or political practices. It has involved a lot of parallel reading of both scholarly work and blogs, online archives, and political texts that travel under headings of women of color feminisms, anti-colonial struggles, critical race studies, disability studies, and trans studies. Among my favorites this year were a text that should be considered a classic of queer ecologies, Eli Clare‘s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (2009 , South End Press; I highly recommend listening to the free MP3’s of Clare reading the text) and M. Jacqui Alexander’s own book, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (2005, Duke University Press), particularly the chapter called “Anatomies of Mobilization,” which tells the story of a struggle organized by a coalition of faculty, staff, and security guards at the New School in NYC. Their movement contested dominant oppressive frameworks of ‘diversity’ in a range of institutional practices including, notably and strikingly for this courageous chapter, the hiring of Prof. Alexander to a temporary position there.
The process of getting to know histories of struggle both within and beyond my immediate institutional and personal context has been necessarily slow for me. The temporality of this learning reflects the work it takes to listen and position myself as a white, queer, male-identified person who is routinely enabled and privileged by my institution. The ‘slowness’ of this work also reflects a resistance to the isolation and over-specialization that permeates the PhD journey; in my most grounded moments, I see this slowness as a refusal to work with the ‘speed’ and ‘efficiency’ required to become a
depoliticized competitive PhD-candidate. Using Alexander’s terms, I would say that the path of building ‘communities of difference’ and making ‘intelligible worlds’ is not paved in advance of our walking it, even if it is well worn by the many people who have traveled ahead of us.
As this work has unfolded, I have recalled and drawn strength from my earlier social justice organizing experiences. When I was living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens/Flatbush (Brooklyn, NY), I got involved with a group of community elders and long-time residents who were trying to rebuild the fledgling Neighborhood Association in a way that build on the long histories of social justice and civil rights organizing. My comrades in this struggle ranged from white women university professors (one of whom was involved in the New School struggle that Prof. Alexander writes about), young mixed-race hetero-families whose renovated apartments brought newcomers like me to the neighborhood, an elderly white man who moved into the neighborhood while it was still redlined and who was directly involved in the civil rights struggles for integration and reconciliation, an inspirational and brilliant queer woman of color pastor from the local church, as well as many renters, homeowners, business operators, and youth from the neighborhood. We struggled to create an organization invested as much in the ‘safety’ of the neighborhood as in contesting aggressively gentrifying development projects. We did not always agree, but we created an environment in which difference and dissent grounded our process. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about listening, respect for elders, and the complexities of negotiating different political struggles alongside knowledges and practices of the sacred.
Perhaps the last point – a politics which does not shy away from the sacred – grounds what I found so profound about Prof. Alexander’s lecture that night. Prof. Alexander opened her talk with gestures of sacred ritual and with an acknowledgment of the land claims to the territory on which we were located. She then took us on a journey that called all of us to a specific awareness of our work. Cultivating an enraptured audience, Prof. Alexander drew our attention to what we need most and want least: the truth, which she said there is often ‘an allergy’ to in the academy. Honoring Audre Lorde, she spoke of the uses of the erotic as power and reminded us that sharing in the same life force is not about sameness. It is very difficult to capture the energy of the room, which, among other reasons, is perhaps why Prof. Alexander asked that nobody use a recording device other than a pen and paper to document her lecture.
Among the many memorable moments of testimony, storytelling, and analysis that comprised “Medicines for our Survival,” one has become an important part of my own survival throughout the perilous process of PhD professionalization. At a certain point, Prof. Alexander told us, quite simply, that she was present in the room doing her work. She followed this profoundly simple statement of purpose by saying, “And I am here to ask you: Are you doing yours?” To answer this question, she told us, we would need to know who we are and why we came. We would need to summon the courage to stand up to our academic peers, advisory committees, department heads, and Deans when they imposed upon us a vision of what ‘our work’ should be. We would need, most of all, to ‘sacrifice speed for scrutiny.’
From here, Prof. Alexander told us a bit about the methods and pedagogy she uses in her courses. In one of her courses, she explained, she asks students to connect with a medicinal plant, to make the plant a subject of their work, to explore how and why the plant has chosen them. Having only recently come to consciousness about my desire to write with and through plants, this moment deepened the impact of Prof. Alexander’s already moving lecture beyond what I could have expected. She called us to ‘think, learn, love, grow, and possess ourselves.’ This call – and the context and work that went into opening the space for it – has nourished my purpose and process more than I could have imagined.
Over the last 9 months, I have brought myself back to Prof. Alexander’s lecture many times. As I have written with and about Tree of Heaven, I have had to wonder how and why this particular plant found me. I have had to wonder how to honor the moment of truth in which I was encouraged to follow a surprising intellectual and political path lined with its newly sprouting saplings. What will I find there? What have I found without looking? What has this plant revealed about my own ignorances? My own history?
I have had to wonder how to continue to follow this path despite the reality that it has demanded a far more rigorous practice of truth-seeking and truth-saying than I could have imagined as part of this process called ‘doing a PhD.’ In fact, as Prof. Alexander so powerfully attests to in her work, academic spaces are often hostile to just such practices.
The work of making an alliance with Tree of Heaven has been both a literal and metaphoric opportunity for me to nourish and ground my participation in struggles for justice both in and as ‘my work.’ When it comes to discovering and understanding the surprise of ‘my work,’ I can’t think of a more important moment from this (or any) year than Prof. Alexander’s lecture. An indisputable moment of truth, “Medicines for our Survival,” has led me well beyond the requirements of completing my program to struggles for justice, intelligibility, and recognition. The ground on which these struggles unfold – one might say the nature of these struggles – long predates my arrival. So far, the partisans and proliferators of these struggles have been beyond generous in welcoming me, in challenging the terms of my arrival, and in leaving space for my clumsy process of coming to full awareness of oppression. My work, then, begins by accepting the invitation to rigorous self-inquiry and by taking responsibility for the state in which I accepted it.
In place of the Germanic ordered forest that [James C.] Scott uses as a potent metaphor for the start of the modern imposition of bureaucratic order upon populations, we might go with the thicket of subjugated knowledge that sprouts like weeds among the disciplinary forms of knowledge, threatening always to overwhelm the cultivation and pruning of the intellectual with mad plant life.
Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, “Introduction: Low Theory,” p. 9 (Duke University Press 2011)
The work that occupied the last years of Jed Martin’s life can thus be seen – and this is the first interpretation that springs to mind – as a nostalgic meditation on the end of the Industrial Age in Europe, and, more generally, on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry. This interpretation is, however, inadequate when one tries to make sense of the unease that grips us on seeing those pathetic Playmobil-type little figurines, lost in the middle of an abstract and immense futurist city, a city which itself crumbles and falls apart, then seems gradually to be scattered across the immense vegetation extending to infinity. That feeling of desolation, too, that takes hold of us as the portraits of the human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fall apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.
Final paragraph of Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and The Territory, p. 269. First Vintage International Edition, November 2012. Trans. Gavin Bowd.
“…Anyway, the press is unbearably stupid and conformist, don’t you find?” he insisted.
“I don’t know, really, I don’t read it.”
“You’ve never opened a newspaper?”
“Yes, probably,” Jed said good-naturedly, but in fact he had no memory of ever doing so. He managed to visualize piles of Le Figaro Magazine on a coffee table, in his dentist’s waiting room; but his dental problems had been solved a long time ago. In any case, he never _felt the need_ to buy a newspaper. In Paris the atmosphere is saturated with information. Whether you like it or not, you see the headlines in the kiosks, you hear conversations in the supermarket lines. When he went up to Creuse for his grandmother’s funeral, he’d realized that the atmosphere density of information diminished considerably the farther you got away from the capital; and that, more generally, human affairs lost their importance and gradually everything disappeared, except plants.
From Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, pp. 89-90
In my ongoing search for the best information on ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven (TOH), I came across Vadim Tiganas’ and Stefan Tiron’s ghettopalm.tumblr.com. This discovery is incredibly exciting beacuse Tiganas and Tiron write beautifully and powerfully about ailanthopolitics. It is also a little sad because I won’t have the joy of writing this story myself. But I will happily borrow and pervert this page with queer theory to see what it can tell us about resisting homonormativity, gentrification, and homogeneity.
[ALSO, technical aside, I am apparently too old for the internet. I don’t know how to contact someone directly through tumblr. I gather that it isn’t possible — I am not apparently a longtime fan of the site, so I can’t send ‘fanmail’. Can anyone help decode this mystery? Or is anyone better at finding Tiganas’ e-mail online so I can contact them? Comment or contact please!]
Here is a golden paragraph on TOH from the Ghetto Palm project. Savor.
TOH was a colonial exotic introduction from China at first, brought in by horticulturalist passions, botanist curiosity and dutifully planted as a decorative tree on the street sides at the end of the 19th century. They had to look more exotic, more cosmopolitan, sampling the resplendent jungles of the colonies and newly accessible territories for the best they had to offer in botanic terms. We slowly realized that the mercantile and cleptocratic mores of the Western society during the 18th and 19 century has a lot to do with the current situation of escaped ornamentals in modern cities. Cities have grown and prospered under the heavy imports of foreign crops, plants and biological specimens in the wake of a huge uncontrolled experiment, smuggling in and trading in live species from one corner of the world to the other. The age of discovery was also an age o acclimatisation. European familiars such as the rabbit or foxes were introduced with disastrous results to other bioregions of the world. The other side of the coin was the age of unbridled biological espionage practiced under the benediction of governments and company’s by Europeans and Americans in search of economic or aesthetic fortune. Plant hunters, famous naturalist, botanic aficionados or forgotten horticulture second hand collectors were in a race. It was a biological and natural history race to gather and get access to potentially rewarding specimens that had to be safely brought home, reproduced under care and transplanted into towns as part of the new biological common wealth of the west. This sort of makes our Ailanthus altissima story, a sort of “gremlin” narrative, were u get innocent-looking plants to nurseries back home, were they cannot obviously be properly contained. Ailanthus altissima has spread with the ebb and flow rythms of megacity sprawl or shrinking city. This is not the late neozoon or neobiota piggybacking we get when unwanted biological passengers hop on board and wreak havoc were they land. Ailanthus altissima is one of those introduced species looking like a good catch for the colonial capitalist entrepreneurship back home. It first looked to untrained but voracious eyes rather like another more valuable-looking or more economically-attractive species such as the varnish tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), also originating in China. As other former Chinese prize crops or valuable ornamentals made their made to the West starting with the soy bean to the Chrysanthemum or tree peony, some like the Ailanthus altissima, slowly fell from favor but gained habitat. It is now perfectly adapted to our worldwide urban ecology, considered nothing more than noxious weed, busy destroying our pavement and crumbling our concrete monoliths, making our cities more like a sort of urban war zone were human-made biological wars are going on. But these are the green revolts that are happening around us continuously, when man-made ‘nature’ didn’t comply, didn’t do our bidding, didn’t follow the good behavioral lines or didn’t satisfy our aesthetic ideal anymore.