Trans~Waters~ Coalitional Thinking on Art + Environment by Adela C. Licona and Eva S. Hayward
As the fifth in a series of cross-posts with the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment’s Proximities, Terrain.org features a conversation between the University of Arizona’s Adela C. Licona and Eva S. Hayward.
Licona and Hayward’s collaborative photo essay—written in a form they present as a type of experimental “coalitional thinking”—gets at links between environmental degradation and issues of social justice, between climate change and racism, between dead fish and desolation, between personal loss and liminal thinking and seeing, and between multi-species solidarities and decomposition.
This piece takes place in two (physical and web) locations: Guaymas, Sonora here in Terrain.org, and the Salton Sea in Proximities (also now included below).
Trans~ as Coalitional
What follows is a gathering of notes, incomplete journal entries, photographs, and stories that illustrate how coalitional thinking might begin. A thought here, then a reflection, perhaps a question that prompts another story, and some illustrations help get at shared insights, and probably a walk full of pointing and talking: coalition is a trans~ knowledge. Translation, transfiguration, transformation, trans-differentiation, and transcription: the prefix trans~ promises movements across, but never without holding tightly to the locations that it is moving from. Trans~ is a prefix that is prepositional—it is a crossing of spacetime, a movement within relationship. As such, trans~ materializes the process of movements; trans~ marks the where-ness of with-ness. We might say trans~ is moving-mattering, foregrounding political lines and possibilities, and refusing to dissolve difference in favor of recognizing coalitional modes of emergence as possibilities.
Trans~Waters~ marks, here, are shared commitments to the environment, anti-racism, and trans~ knowledges. We mean this work to be a glimpse into a rather preliminary exchange between colleagues and friends who are getting to know one another and recognizing affinities. We are deeply troubled by environmental injustices that play themselves out always unevenly in bodies of water, bodies of knowledges and histories, our human and more-than-human bodies, and the Earth. How do we understand the mutual natures of ecological violences and modes of racism? Can a trans~ heuristic (a way of knowing through trans~) provide insights into environmental injustice? How are our differently marked bodies and histories entry points into understanding and acting on ecological problems? As such, this composition should be read as a transaction. A start. A possibility.
The Salton Sea
From the neritic to the oceanic pelagic and their subtending benthic zones, most of blue planet’s life resides therein. The vast majority of its biomass is composed of organisms too infinitesimal for our primate eyes to see: generally zooplankton and phytoplankton, specifically diatoms, dinoflagellates, radiolarians, and other minute biota. Seawater is replete with micro-viruses, bacteria, and endless cycles of decay and regeneration. The ocean’s fathoms are a rich proto-plasma, a life~death~life soup; the water formed nearly three billion years ago is still with us. These briny waters are pungent layers of time, pulsing temporalities that gather deep, deep histories, histories of ongoing ex-, intra-, and interchange.
It was an accident. Like me. Only she told me—again and again—that I was not an accident but, rather, a surprise. The accident of the Salton Sea another contradiction. It was intended to feed – quench the thirst of the farming areas around it. Instead, they fed it. Poison. Pesticides. I close my eyes. Recall Heroes and Saints[i]. I inhale the salt. Feel it on my skin. Too much. I imagine the ghosts as dancing souls.[ii] Doing the undoing dance. Desolation. The haunted poetics and performances of and beyond the Imperial Valley. The undoing of false promises. Evidence in the stench of environmental degradation. It stinks. Dispossessions. Dislocations. Disease. Greed. Racism. The always-limited, limiting promise of prosperity. I stand on covered-over histories and the creation of an underground community of past peoples suffocated in too much water and salt. Water and food injustice. Invisible. Peoples still here. Invisible. Dead fish. Infected birds. Abundant flies. Evaporites. Silence. Except for the buzz.
Racism is an environmental catastrophe. Is climate change. Racisms are the toxic by-product of the industry called racial thinking and un-thinking. If some of the effects of race—the fantasy attached to what race is thought to be—works at the level of melancholia, then racism might be also understood as a deadly ambivalence or refusal to see how race is at work in our lives.[iii] In 2015, it is already redundant to use the phrase “environmental racism” because ecological crises are so often the end result of genealogies of racism, and are unequally experienced across racialized demographics. The disproportionate impact of environmental pollution in Arizona, for instance, is felt most by the poor, by Chican@s/Latin@s, by migrants, and by Native populations. The injustices associated with chemical runoff, clean water access, waste disposal, and resource development/use have turned questions about the environment into racial politics. Why are so many environmental groups not talking about the racialization of ecological crises? The inability to address racism parallels our inability to attend to climate change—the effect of this inability for some, an ambivalence or refusal by some to pay attention has become unlivable for the majority on this planet. Perhaps instead of thinking of the Earth as only our mother, those with the means might do better to see that they/we have treated the Earth as an unwelcomed guest, alienated. They/we have built a policed border between “us” and the Earth, turning the Earth into alienated labor that makes everything possible without planetary accountability. The we that has benefited the most from Earth-alienating power might do well to see ourselves (non-ambivalently) as hostile to our host and inhospitable to fellow earthlings.
Flies flew into and out of my mouth, ears, eyes. It took hours to get them out of the car. The stench. The horrible, terrible beauty. The teeming bird life. The unseen botulism. Avian botulism. Hidden. Deep. The horror driven into the bloodstreams of the birds. Like the plastics now swimming through us that she has taught me about. Penetrating. I am walking on scales. Scales of injustice as evidence of the uneven burdens and atrocities of abundance. Beautiful stinking death. I lick my lips and taste salt. Too much salt. Imagine eating salted flies.
These skeletal remains, this salty decay, remind me of the film titled Salt of the Earth (1954). A New Mexico town, Zinc Town (known before this Anglo-fied name as San Marcos) is exposed as yet another place of economic inequality and racism. Miners resist their exploitation in revealing what forces compose these mines. Which bodies are denied their full humanity so that they may be abused, capitalized upon, and killed. In 1954, in the Southwest, we already knew that humanness was not yet available to all humans. What a strange symptom of racism (more evidence of its melancholic state?) that we talk about post-humanism in 2014. It is not that we have made humanness a more available category in sixty years, but that those whose humanness was already certain (say, white, able-bodied, men) are in the luxurious position of sloughing off their humanity. Too harsh? To me, to my AIDS body that is a hostel for ongoing, temporally stable, and the effects of opportunistic infections causes by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, post-humanism is the state of illness, is the consequence of institutionalized violence against trans~ women, and not a new interpretive that holds promise. Post-humanism implies a privilege of having been human; implies a racing, sexing, and classing ethos that cannot see itself as such. Post-humanism is a pretense of not already understanding humanness as a trans-, re-, and decomposing.
I am here to bear witness to the desolation. To experience the barren place others’ photos have made manifest for me. An inland sea. An Imperial Sea. Empire. Meant to mirror Palm Beach. I am looking for a dry seabed of my imagination with an old chair situated where water used to be with seaweed wrapped around its legs. Instead I see seawater stretching to the horizon. Sun touched. Glistening. Rather beautiful. But where sandy beaches should be, I stand only on dead fish. No sand. It was the Salton Sink. Stink. Now the Salton Sea. And it is eerie. I am moved to a closer look. And I’m horrified. Disgusted and drawn in. At once. How to see differently? Underneath. A Nation? Submerged under too much salt? Another accident of colonialism. Settler colonialism. Ongoing. I read that Tilapia might survive here. But only maybe. Tilapia. Birds. Botulism. Salt and pesticides. Toxic soup. For the birds. The poor. The first peoples below. The water carrying these toxic histories. Bountiful, beautiful bacteria and algae blooms as noxious adornments. So pretty. Earthquakes and toxins. More profound permeations into the earth with each tectonic shift. Mutations. It was supposed to be a playground for the wealthy. But only those who could not get away remain. The fish and the birds. And the flies and the algae. And the changing water. Kissing the gleaming horizon. Dead fish smells. Rotting fish. And flies. And flying birds. And ghosts. And some people I don’t see in what’s left of a resort that never was. She would tell me it was never meant to be. And still, like me, and like her, it is. In us. All of us. Unequally so.
To see environmental crisis as racism is not to foreclose the voices of other species. That human-ness has never been certain (even for those who have been sure theirs was) underscores sites of solidarity (I love that solidarity carries solid-ness) across (trans-) rather than after (post-) species. Solidarity does not require identification (as is part of melancholia), but a willful act of alliance. Let us put aside post-humanism and its tools of “becoming animal,” as effects of power writing about itself, and re-orient the critique of humanism toward multispecies solid-arities, trans-differentiations, and de-composings. Too often toward materiality (as seen in New Materialism), to the bumptious liveliness of matter are efforts to deracinate life, to depoliticize worldliness. What would an ardently materialist eco-critical race politics look like?
Shortly after my mother died, friends suggested my partner and I drive to their home in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico to get away from Tucson for a while. They were well aware of the emotional and physical toll we had experienced as a result of the year-long daily care we had given my mother at the end of her life’s journey. My mother had lived with us for many years. In her final year, we had in-home hospice support but we accepted primary responsibility for her daily care and almost never left her side; certainly not together. My sister and her husband would travel to Tucson to be with us from time to time, and I thought to invite them to San Carlos so that they, too, might experience this bit of reprieve our friends were so generously offering.
Hospice is fecund with patterns of involvement: to host, to be hospitable. To host a guest is an ethics of care, a willingness to remain open to a guest without anticipation or expectation. But even here, to host (however Holy) carries both hostel and hostile. For those of us who have been hospitalized for complications associated with AIDS, we know the electrifying force of these resonances: my body is a host to infection; the hospital treats my unwanted guest; the doctors are hostile to me (the host) and my infection (hostile guest). Anti-virals do not get rid of HIV—the virus digs deep into bones, brain, and nerve—but they alter the equation of hostile to hostel. Is this what is meant by hospitality?
Once in San Carlos, we mostly sat. By the water. We did, however, occasion a day trip to Guaymas to see the Port City and to find fresh shrimp. I recollected a memory. I remembered my father had traveled to Guaymas for business in my childhood. I imagined him here. The city is industrial and gritty the way I like a place. Evidence of labor, of things falling apart, and of things coming back together. Urban artscapes at work. Still-public spaces. Wealth and poverty comingling openly and as a disavowal of other cities’ efforts to hide the parts that remind us of the cost of uneven and inequitable development and exploitation. Not hidden or hiding behind walls or gates. So many expressed contradictions. The angry and productive underbelly. Real and raw. All of it more honest. Like my mother. She held disdain for pretense and the erasures it performed. While she knew the comforts of particular class positionings, she knew poverty too. She understood class locations to be never about merit.
As my partner and I, together with my sister and her husband, meandered through the city streets in search of shrimp and of nothing in particular, we stopped here and there so that I could take photographs, a practice I had come to during the last year of my mother’s life. Photography stilled me. It quieted me. And it moved me. To deep contemplation. Closer looks. New ways of seeing. I had spent the last year exploring the world around me through a macro lens. Focusing. Searching? Being house-bound, often my subjects were the cacti in the garden around our home. Their imperfect and unlikely contradictions—grotesqueness and splendor, death and life, delicacy and treachery, softness and sting—captivated my attention and offered me new lessons in loving the dry and the desiccate. It all made sense to me, especially as I witnessed the disintegration of my mother’s body together with an almost imperceptible reintegration of her parts back into our spaces and structures and beings… I recalled her mobile of mirrors reflecting the morning sun, refracting her degeneration. Parts of her dispersed into the universe beyond our family of five, made up of three generations of women. Transgenerational. Regenerations. I got closer and closer to the intricacies of the cacti especially in their lived liminalities between de-composings and re-composings.
One of the things I love about prefixes like de-, re-, trans-, and un- are their liminality. Hear the liquid constants in “liminal”? How the mouth juices around those sounds? I love how those airy modulations become soupy. When my mouth was full of KS lesions, my tongue would lick and worry their thick-warty shape. The words leaving my mouth were wet from my tongue’s curiosity. What can feel more liminal than when your T-cells drop below 10, face covered with empurpled cancers, and every conversation has you spilling your mouthy broth? Liminal is a threshold without a value, a doorway without assurance.
There had been a hard winter freeze and I was fascinated by the exposure of the insides of the cacti and by the ways parts of their outsides were ceasing to be while simultaneously beginning again… I would frequently return with my camera in hand to bear witness to some new growth that came together with the deformations and disfigurements accomplished by the freeze. The seeming monotony undone by the tiny glory of subtle change. These details and their relational contradictions and expressed ambiguities called and captivated me. Were meaningful to me. The world around me was animating the false divide between life and death. The fluttering veil. La Muerte at play. I focused my attentions for one year on a life~death~life continuum and on different prefixial composings as always-simultaneous processes.
The verb “to decompose” is to decay, to rot; what is composed is undone with that reversing prefix de-. Decomposing marks the loss of composure, of control. And yet, as has always been true, this loss of composure is exactly what exposes the composite shape of life. There is no absolute divide between composed and decomposed, the prefixial work of de- is a marking, a watermark for the relationships already underway in compose. In a way, de- reminds us of our indebtedness to the relationships that make us up in the flesh. Decomposing is a reminder of our obligations to the world, a retelling that we are not simply in the world, but are of the world. This is not to glorify decomposition—for too many of us the verb “to decompose” seems an imperative of late capitalism—but to remember (even this word, re-member, tells the same story) that composure is predicated on the material conditions of many others. Said differently, to de-compose is the promise we must keep.
When I cut my mother’s hair, I was aware of that the part of her living self that fell to the floor got swept up with the dog and cat hair, and found its way to the bird nest that was visible just outside her window. I imagined myself breathing in her breath and tried to visualize the parts of her being that were spinning off in tiny sometimes-imperceptible bits filling my lungs. I thought of her lungs. I saw our lungs in the exposed skeletal and lace-like interiors of the cacti on their way to un/becoming something else. Other.
Consider how loss shapes our relationship to the living. We may mourn a loved one, feeling the world has become poor and empty through their death. But, in the psychic calculus of melancholy, what is lost can become what is preserved as part of the self. Unavailable to consciousness, melancholia marks this ambivalence of loss and remembering. Perhaps melancholia also describes loss of loved ecosystems. If our sense of self is composed in relationship to an environment, then as that environment sickens and dies we harbor the loss. Might this be why our response to environmental catastrophe seems waylaid or insufficient? Or, perhaps more painfully, even the gift of ambivalence (after all, the self aims toward composure, however ambivalent) is no longer possible in the face of ecological un-livability. The loss of plants and landscapes is an effect of our human doing—what we loved we must have also hated to have treated it with such disregard. This is an unbearable equation, and the consequence has become un-inhabitable for many already. Catastrophe is not awaiting us in some future; we are already living in catastrophe. These pronouncements of hope and of salvation seem to only come from those whose privilege has kept them sheltered for (and from) the moment. Be clear: most of the world is already living in the end times.
Photographing the inside structures of cacti that had fallen to the ground after that winter’s freeze, I imagined my mother’s capillary assemblies, recognized her now-fragile dermis, blackened and worn down lungs, and new mole growths. My mother recomposing the world. I was learning a new grammar of animacy. I made my way to San Carlos with this sense of the world, of life-death-life, and of radical de-, re-, and interconnections. I turned my camera lens to the water in the Sea of Cortez fascinated by the realization that I could never take the same photograph of the seawater twice. Constant recomposings.
On the roads through Guaymas, I asked my brother-in-law to circle back to an inlet in the road where I saw gigantic paper-mâché sea creatures on floats. Disintegrating. It was evidence of a carnival gone by and in its present undoing. Like me. Like my mother. Like my memories. And hers. Imaginary sea creatures in their slow undoing. Coming undone. The gift of a slow departure. Allowing me to recollect. Re-member. Their presence, like that of the world I had been attentive to for the last year, was evidence of something that had come before. And, somehow, the (false) promise of it coming again. It brought back childhood memories of excess and delight, freaks, fright, and exploitations. Too much sugar. Surprise. And disappointment. Larger than life. Grotesque. Alluring. Captivating. Calling. Their juxtaposition in this contradictory scape of sea, desert, and mountains—surreal.
Sea creatures drying to pieces in the desert: a seahorse—the figure of sexual ambiguity with the male giving birth—is stationary to the left of the image. Surrealists appreciated the seahorse as a figure of surreal in the real, a living condensation and displacement of what people imagined as real. For this papery seahorse, its constructed stage is falling apart (so too are the world’s oceans), having washed inland to desiccate. The pealing green of a mer-creature in the middle of a noiseless tune is another reminder of the burning heat of the land, of loss, and the yearning to remember. In the flaking decomposition of this watery scene we encounter the collapse of opposites: ocean/desert, noise/silence, promise/loss, living/nonliving, human/animal. There is a gorgeous sadness to these decaying opposites. We recognize how little is needed to prompt the imagination: paint, wheels, and wood. And just as quickly as these incite fantasy, they fall into dilapidated memory. Half remembered, half forgotten, left in the desert of rarely seen again. It is the witnessing of this loss that stages its allure: what falls apart lays bare the ribs of its making.
I read somewhere that Guaymas was the city of carnival. Carne. Feasting before the fast. Cuaresma. Tied to Lent and to Fat Tuesday and to excess and extremes before the imposition of religious restrictions. Again, the contradictions. People masqued and made un/real. A play with notions of authenticity. Ambiguity. Queered recomposings. Originally intended for the upper classes, carnival has become an event for the masses. La gente. La raza. Brown bodies in the street. Newly surveilled. And newly contained. But not here. Now. In its undoing. Uncarnival. Scattered, scattering life. Parts dispersed into the desert. The mountains. The sea. I found and ate shrimp. Sea creatures of this desert ocean. The carnival is in me. And I am reconfigured. Recomposed. Unreal. Queer. She, too, makes me so.
Neither fish nor woman, neither seaworthy nor desert survivor, this mermaid resting against faux red coral is a testament to pleasure. This mer-creature that has only pulsed with imagination, and the labor in making her, will crumble to ruins. She is queer, she is trans~: she is a border figure. These are not utopic locations, they also mark her stranded-ness; she is caught in a drying wound that weeps dust and debris. She is a forgotten monument to thousands of women working the maquiladoras. Their labor is hidden and yet everywhere and in everything. Too often we think of the border as site of crossing (of trans~ and queer), but more often than not the border (take for instance the US/Mexico or land/ocean borders) is a space about who and what cannot move, of who and what falls apart, or of who and what is lost. US/Mexico border is an infected wound, oozing militarization, racism, and transnational exploitation. This mermaid cannot swim all these divides, even as she is signifier of that possibility. Her body, like so many who bleed, will not survive border crossings even as she must try.
[toggler title=”Endnotes and Reference” ][i] Moraga, Cherrie. Heroes and Saints and Other Plays. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1994. [ii] Yamauchi, Wakako. “And the Soul Shall Dance.” Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. 214. [iii] Cheng, Anne Anling. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Adela C. Licona is Associate Professor & Director, UA Graduate Program in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English and affiliated faculty in Gender & Women’s Studies, Family Studies & Human Development, Institute of the Environment, and Mexican American Studies. She serves on the Faculty Advisory Committee for the Institute for LGBT Studies. Licona co-edited Feminist Pedagogy: Looking Back to Move Forward (JHUP 2009) and authored Zines In Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric (SUNY Press 2012). She is co-director of Crossroads Collaborative and co-founder of Feminist Action Research in Rhetoric (FARR). She serves on the board for Women’s Studies in Communication, QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, and Orion magazine. Eva S. Hayward is an assistant professor in Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. Hayward was hired as part of the Transgender Studies initiative underway at the university. Her research focuses on aesthetics, environmental and science studies, and transgender theory. She has recently published articles in Cultural Anthropology, differences, Parallax, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Women and Performance. Her book, SymbioSeas, on underwater representations and trans-species “mediations,” is forthcoming from Penn State University Press.
The authors want to thank Francisco Galarte for providing editorial insights and encouragement and Jamie A. Lee for generously reading early drafts of this essay.
Header photo, “Uncarnival in Guaymas: Encountering the Unexpected, #5”, by Adela C. Licona.