Thursday, December 11, 2014

First Homeplace Workshop

On Tuesday afternoon we held our first expressive art workshop in preparation for the exhibition, “Righteous Dopefiend: Addiction, Poverty and Homelessness in Urban America”, a traveling show from the Penn Museum, based on the ethnographic work of Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg.  The workshop, organized by expressive art therapist Nan Doolitle and undergraduate intern Maggie Bauermeister, was hosted by Gallery One in downtown Ellensburg.  Dinner for participants was kindly provided by Grace Episcopal Church.  Members of the homeless community were invited to participate, as well as those who have direct experience with addiction and substance abuse.

We met in the Gallery One ceramics studio, where Nan and Maggie had set up a great variety of art materials. The workshop, they explained, was organized around the theme of “Homeplace;” participants were invited to create artistic renderings of dwellings or temporary shelters in which they had lived, or to envision an ideal home in which they might want to reside someday.

One participant, a skilled artist who is currently homeless, produced a beautiful drawing of a grand castle of unimaginably large proportions, to which were loosely tethered entire planets, including a planet with Saturn-like rings, all floating above a lovely cloud-covered landscape beneath a brilliant multi-hued sky.  (Thinking about the work afterwards, I wondered if the various floating planets might for the artist be associated with the multiple places he has been staying, loosely, even tenuously, connected to one another. Or would he dismiss any direct link between this evocative fantasy image and his own present condition? I hope to talk to him about this next time we see one another.)

Another participant, who has close experience with the impact of chemical dependencies, created a striking series of sculptural pieces out of cardboard on the theme of walls. In one work, a large, high wall wall encircled several figures, made out of pipe-cleaners. Each figure within the large wall in turn was encircled by low walls.  The artist explained that the low walls signify for her the barriers that addiction erects around a person; drug use, she notes, allows a person a way of maintaining distance from others who might seek to know them too closely. At the same time, these walls are to her mind pretty permeable, since users can at times easily step over them to deal with other users. The large encircling wall, she explains, represents the collective (and to her mind rather protective) barrier that drug usage creates around the community of users. Those users who endure challenges together, on the street or elsewhere, are bound together in a way outsiders can’t quite understand; hence she located several figures outside the great wall, unaware of what was happening within. (Thinking about the piece later, I find myself speculating that in a curious way the large walled space recalls the Biblical Garden of Eden, which was also walled. Might drug use in any sense for the artist be equivalent to the prohibited Tree of Knowledge at the garden’s center? Once again, I’ll need to ask the artist at some point.)

"Home is where the heart hides" (Anonymous)

The same artist made another work, entitled “Home is where the heart hides.”  She created a building with many scored, cracks on it (equivalent, I believe she told us to scars on a person); two of the cracks open up to be like windows. Inside, barely discernible to a viewer, she has placed a heart shape, made out of a pipe cleaner. A person who suffers, she explains, erects many barriers to others, and only allows them, at most,  a glimpse of her inmost feelings and longings. In front of the building she created a small assemblage of heart shapes. The entire piece, she emphasized, is made to be accessible to low vision and no vision visitors, who can experience it in tactile fashion.  The front hearts are open, like that the exposed emotions of a young child; later on in life, a person has learned to hide her emotions behind a thick layer of scar tissue.

Nan and Maggie urged me to try my hand at making my own imagined “homeplace.”  I found myself creating a kind of bird’s nest, complete with plastic eggs, out of which a small, sheltering tree sprouted. Having recently taught Claude Levi-Strauss’ classic essay, “The Science of the Concrete” , I found myself thinking about the ways in which our ancestors, observing bird nests, may have been inspired to think about their own dwelling places.   Humans are characterized, after all, by the extremely long period our offspring need to be sheltered; in that sense we are different from most of our fellow mammals, who can turn their offspring loose within a year or two. Our homes in a sense must maintain our children in metaphorical egg states, until they are ready to be “hatched” out into the world in adult or quasi-adult status. I called the piece, “First Home: Nest Eggs.”  Reflecting on this piece, I now find myself re-thinking the first artist’s drawing of the castle with the tethered, floating planets; might for him those planets, bound by umbilical-like cords to the great castle, be like children tethered to a parental figure?  Is the homeplace he depicted a remembered scene of early parent-child connection?

"First Home: Nest Eggs" (Mark Auslander)
The historian of the family John Giliis writes that all of us have to two families; the family we live by, and the family we live with. In other words, we carry with us the image of an idealized family as well as the challenging reality of the family configuration, present or absent, we currently experience. This dichotomy  between the ideal and the real may be especially true, even painfully so , for those on the street or struggling with chemical dependencies. It is noteworthy, however, that the second artist spoke of those figures within the great, encircling wall spoke of those bound together by common addiction as “family members.” Fellow users can be experienced as “our real family.”

These complex dynamics are certainly consistent with the lifeworlds on the street explored by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg in “Righteous Dopefiend” , which we’ll start hosting next month. I’m grateful to Nan and Maggie for their creative vision, which has allowed us to start reflecting on these themes in anticipation of the show itself.

During the workshop, we talked about how these art works and others by students and local community members might be incorporated into the upcoming exhibition, "Righteous Dopefiend. " Perhaps we might attach small shelves to the lobby wall and place the art on these, along with commentary by the artists, whom we expect in most cases will choose to be anonymous.

Nan and Maggie will hold another expressive art workshop on the theme of “Homeplace” in  the Museum's lobby on Saturday, January 10 from 11;00 am-2:00 pm. This will be open to everyone, and we are eager to see what new visions of homes, present and absent, will emerge.  Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Shonberg will be on campus on January 29, and we hope we’ll have many such visions, by community members and students, to share with them.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Symbolic Reclassification and Transport Vehicles

I have been reading with great fascination the newly published volume, “Vehicles: Cars, Canoes and other Metaphors of Moral Imagination” (edited by David Lipset and Richard Handler, Beghahn, 2014).

 I have an essay in the volume on African American automotive symbolism, concentrating on the Lincoln Town car used on and off since 2005 in an annual lynching reenactment at Moore’s Ford, Georgia.  Other chapters explore Melanesian canoes, reconstructed vintage military aircraft, modern American traffic rules,  East Asian automotive symbolism, Mexican-American low-riders, and so forth.

 A broad argument running through the various essays is that physical vehicles (cars, ships, airplanes, etc.) often function as sign vehicles that are particularly good to think with about the enigmatic moral journeys of persons and communities.  In the volume’s introduction David Lipset suggests that metaphors in general, and metaphors of geospatial movement in particular, often emerge out of lacunae, gulfs, or crises in our moral imagination, generated by ethical or cultural conundrums that do not lend themselves to easy formulations in conventional linguistic terms.  To use a geospatial image, metaphorically-rich vehicles, in effect, help actors “bridge” different levels of domains of experience, including distinct spatio-temporal zones or contrasting moral viewpoints.

The argument could be cast in term of Victor Turner’s well-known framework in his “Planes of Classification in a Ritual of Life and Death” essay (The Ritual Process, 1969).  Highly charged symbolic forms are deployed initially to dramatize the various contradictory poles of the Ndembu social world (most notably the central tension between matrilineal descent and viirlocal residence) and then move participants towards shared images of unification, transcending or redressing (at least within the ritual arena) those pervasive social structural tensions  Perhaps because vehicles so often function as prosthetic extensions of human bodies, and afford so many of the symbolic dichotomies associated with bodily experience (energized/depleted, proceeding/reversing, mobile/immobile, forward/back, inside/outside, above/below, etc.) they often encapsulate, dramatize, or illuminate a great range of human ethical puzzles encountered in our singular and collective “movement” through life and through history.

One such “bridging” process often enabled by vehicles is the moral journey from particularistic to universalizing orientations.  In my essay in the volume, I concentrate on a 1977 Lincoln Town car, repeatedly used by African American reenactors to represent a much older sedan used in a 1946 mass lynching.  The car’s interstitial status, being “old” but not yet entirely antique, is salient to the overall ethical impulse of the reenactment, which highlights the reenactors’ point that racial violence was not limited to the era of  de jure Jim Crow but remains an ever-present threat to persons of color, who are still at times transported to scenes of death or torture in cars or unfairly pulled over for “driving while black.”  Nightmarish scenarios of racialized subjection associated with automobiles were once again highlighted on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown’s death was immediately preceded by his encounter with a police officer behind the wheel of a cruiser. 

In the modern Moore’s Ford lynching reenactment, the notorious mechanical unreliability of the Town Car helps to evoke broader themes of precarity and unpredictability in the lives of African Americans in the rural South. More broadly, the car (not insignificantly ambushed on a bridge crossing the river along which the occupants were brutally murdered by the Klan) comes, over the course of the reenactment, to signify much more general human predicaments, by no means limited to African Americans, of grief and solace, loss and redemption, complicity and the promise of forgiveness, and difference and unity.

Lipset notes in his introduction the extraordinary symbolic density of train cars in representations of the Holocaust. (This motif is brilliantly explored, I might note, by Oren Baruch Stier., in his “Different Trains: Holocaust Artifacts and the Ideologies of Remembrance. “Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 19, no. 1 (2005): 81-106.)   In this light, it occurs to me that the capacity of a vehicle to foreground the ethical movement from particularism to universalism is highlighted in one of the most famous poetic meditations on the Holocaust, authored by my late cousin Dan Pagis. Entitled  “Lines written in pencil within a sealed railroad car,” the short poem appears to be inspired by Dan’s own experience, when he, his grandparents, and fellow Jews from Radautz, Bukovina, were transported in October 1941 in sealed railroad cars to the killing fields of Transnistria:

Here in this box car
I, Eve
mother of Abel
If you see my other son Cain
son of Adam
Tell him that I

The singular box car, within which Dan and his grandparents were imprisoned and transported, comes in the course of the text to signify all the trains in which the Jewish multitudes were transported to the camps. Beyond that, the poem is structured so as to metamorphose the train car into a universal arena of human betrayal, loss, and grief. The fatally enclosed car, inhabited by the Mother of us all, presents in microcosm the universal and foundational scenario of fratricide, east of Eden, staining the First Family and all its descendants.  The phrase through which Cain is referred to,  ben Adam, “Son of Adam,” refers not only to the specific child of the First Man, but to all of humanity. The text simultaneously is painfully truncated (the final word “I” can be read as the final word written by the dying mother)) and circular (the “I” can be read as the start of next iteration of the poem, going back to the beginning, in an eternal cycle).  This poetic circularity perhaps evokes the circular motion and rhythm of train wheels, bearing us all inexorably towards our fate.  WIthin the train that is the eternal tomb (as well, perhaps, an eternal womb), the voice of the Dead is both singular (the solitary mother “Eva”) and multitudinous, speaking for all, from Abel onwards, who died unjustly and unwitnessed. 

As Oren Stier notes in his essay, it is a striking irony that Pagis’ universalizing poem of human cruelty and loss has been re-appropriated into a particularist, nationalist framework at Yad Vashem, where it has become attached to the Moshe Safdie Transport Memorial, consisting of an actual Holocaust-era railcar, positioned on a replicated half-exploded bridge The Safdie installation is usually taken to imply that the necessary telos of Jewish suffering and history is the modern nation-state of Israel.  Thus, the poetic train created by Pagis, a co-founder of Peace Now who was committed to peaceful coexistence among Jews and Palestinians, is transmogrified into a nationalist vehicle in which the terminus of Jewish history is the establishment of a Jewish state. 

This process of ideological repositioning alerts us to another striking aspect of the symbolic work to which transport vehicles may be put: they can be both illuminating and repressive of human memory, in the service of varied political agendas.  In the Vehicles volume, Kent Wayland notes that in lovingly refurbishing vintage World War II combat airplanes (“warbirds”), figured as female objects of desire, airplane restorers are able in most instances to disavow the histories of mass violence and terror in which these vehicles were implicated.  Something comparable seems to be going on in the case analyzed in the volume by Marko Zivkovic, unpacking the modern Serbian nostalgia for the  little Yugoslav Fica car.  As he carefully demonstrates  the constant jury-rigging of these mechanically fickle automobiles, a practice that demands ingenious improvisation and neighborly collaboration, evokes for Serbian raconteurs the lost moral economy of pre-breakup Yugoslavia.  To work or gaze upon a Fica brings a lump in the throat, a longing for a former, idealized “state” of being. In this sense, each act restoring an individual Fica car is generalized, for modern Serbians, to a collective restoration of  shared moral “innocence.”  Although I am not sure if Marko would agree with this line of interpretation, it seems to me that  the Fica could be read as implicated in widespread Serbian glossing over of genocidal violence of the early 1990s. The “little vehicle that makes us cry” in this sense might be seen as a sign-vehicle that displaces or represses full affective responses to Serbian complicity in the war crimes and ethnic cleansing that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

In her essay on cars and corruption in contemporary China, Beth Notar unpacks another process of ideological repositioning through transport vehicles. Upwardly mobile Chinese young men at times will playfully refer to driving expensive cars through the phrase, “Let’s go be corrupt.” At one level, the phrase is resonant with the widespread association in contemporary China between cars and the pervasive corruption of the Chinese elite.  At the same time, Notar suggests, the phrase may tend to dilute popular critique of official kleptocracy, implying in effect a common humanity between the upper crust and the aspirant middle class. The road, while a highly marked arena of class differentiation in practice, in such linguistic usages is partially recast as a ludic space of fantasized commonality and shared acquisitiveness.

Several essays in the volume call our attention to the gender politics embedded in transport vehicles, which become ‘good to think’ with about gender-based hierarchies and injustice, from multiple, often opposed, perspectives.  Wayland, for example,  situates his readings of eroticized nose cone art on restored military aircraft in terms of present-day gendered contests in American society, all the more so given that the maintenance hanger is nearly always constituted as a homosocial “retreat from women” by the male restorers.  Technological mastery over the restored airplane is part and parcel, Wayland argues, of the male restorers’ hopes and fantasies of a dominant and partially autonomous male sphere of social action. 

In turn, in his overview of gender metaphors and cognitive schemas in contemporary Japanese driving practices,  Joshua Hotaka Roth argues that the structural opposition between male-coded sports cars and female-coded small “K cars” both reinforces conventional gender hierarchies while opening up possible avenues for implicitly critiquing and subverting male ideological dominance.

In light of Wayland and Roth’s pieces, I found myself wondering about the gender politics embedded in the Murik (Papua New Guinea) canoes analyzed by David Lipset in the book’s opening chapter.  Canoes and their symbolic transformations, Lipset demonstrates, are for male Murik deeply embedded in struggles for social and moral mastery over potential human enemies and over other more intangible loci of vulnerability. I would be most interested to learn if Murik women, who evidently also use canoes extensively, experience alternate gendered schemata in these symbolically-elaborate aquatic vehicles. Do they, for example, sense in canoes generative images of generalized reciprocity rather than assertive mastery? Do they ever ridicule male commitments to their canoes?

Richard Handler’s chapter on modern traffic rules calls our attention to the highly political dimensions of seemingly neutral and rationalist modern “rules of the road.”  He concludes the essay with a discussion of the imposition of modern Anglo models of the road in colonial New Guinea, which effectively constituted increasingly segmented social groups arrayed alongside roads through which government cars and commercial vehicles could pass without the mediation of indigenous networks of alliance and kin-based exchange transactions. Most of the essay is devoted to excavating the history of U.S. traffic rules, including the rising hegemony of automobiles over pedestrians within a free market cultural model of the roadway.  Handler notes that the formal co-equality of all motorized vehicles within this system is largely negated or belied  by economic imperatives, in which, among other things, passenger vehicles are nearly always, in practice, subordinated to commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailers. 

Reading Handler’s essay in conjunction with Ben Chappell’s chapter on the political aesthetics of Mexican American low rider cars, I found myself wondering about the racialized history of North American rules of the road. Chappell argues that the lowrider aesthetic often highlights ambivalence towards mainstream (Anglo-dominated) public space centered on road networks, to which drivers from the urban barrio make claims to, even as they assertively differentiate themselves from a normative middle class Anglo motorized presentation of self. In a similar vein, I note in my chapter that roadways are prime sites of ethical double consciousness for persons of color in the U.S;  roads and motor vehicles have long figured prominently in African American moral imaginations as sites of liberation and terror, celebrated for enabling creative self-refashioning and feared for potential violence at the hands of white authorities and vigilantes in cars or at roadblocks.  As James Loewen exhaustively documents in his book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” (New Press, 2005) well into the 1960s, the roadside frontiers of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of  American towns were marked by signs warning African American motorists not to enter after dark.

Once again, the tragic recent events in Ferguson, Missouri highlight a broader, contested ideological and racialized history swirling around persons, roads and motor vehicles. For all the debated aspects of the narrative, all agree that the white police officer in his cruiser initially ordered the two young African American men off of the street on which they had been walking, that the officer shot Michael Brown repeatedly on the roadway, and that Brown’s bleeding body was left in public view on the road for a considerable period of time. Significantly, mass public protests centered on pedestrians reclaiming the streets of Ferguson (refusing to confine themselves to sidewalks) in the face of militarized police motor vehicles seeking to control the same road surfaces.   Wherever one stands on the specific details of just what happened on this patch of roadway, all seem to find in the shooting and subsequent protests a highly-resonant morality tale of race, power and justice in American society. Once again, a specific transport vehicle and transport zone  (in this instance, the police cruiser driven by the white officer and an associated short stretch of road) have been generalized to macrocosmic dimensions, evoking a collective crisis that haunts our moral imaginations.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Improving the Eco-Connectivity Exhibition

On Thursday, we had a delightful opening of our new exhibition, “How did the Cougar cross the Road: Restoring wildlife passage at Snoqualmie Pass,” followed by our very busy Earth Day family festival on Saturday; on Friday, about fifty fourth graders came through on  Saturday about three hundred people, including many children, visited the gallery so we are now beginning to get a sense of areas in which the show might be improved.

The exhibition explores the Snoqualmie East I-90 project, being constructed in the Cascade mountain range by the Washington State Department of Transportation for approximately $600 million. We concentrate on the project components concerned with restoring wildlife passage under and over the highway, especially the planned Price-Noble wildlife bridge over the interstate. 

We would like some sort of literary frame for the exhibition,perhaps alluding to the image of the cougar. I am wondering if we might draw on a passage from Wallace Stegner’s classic  1984, “Memo to a Mountain Lion. penned to convince  the California Legislature to ban the hunting of mountain lions. For example,

“Once, in every corner of this continent, your passing could prickle the stillness and bring every living thing to the alert. But even then you were more felt than seen. You were an imminence, a presence, a crying in the night, pug tracks in the dust of a trail. Solitary and shy, you lived beyond, always beyond. Your comings and goings defined the boundaries of the unpeopled.”

We have a wagon wheel borrowed from Olmstead Place State Park that we are preparing; as soon as it is ready, we’ll install that in the front “Feet, Hooves and Wheels” small section on transportation across the past. We will work in the wonderful 1882 Yakima Wagon company toll tickets lent to us by Cathy Hash into that section.   It does seem to me that the section on indigenous perspectives on Snoqualmie Pass is underdeveloped; and we’ll need to give it some thought.

We’ve already made one correction. At the start of the steep slope from the wildlife bridge platform, we’ve put in two yellow signs, warning “Caution. Steep Wildlife Climb” showing the outline of a bear descending a hill.  Our plan is to screw in climbing holds on the upward path up the slope, so that children will be able to emulate climbing on a manageable climbing wall.

We’re still trying to figure out the most effective way to use the “Willdlife Passage Puppet Theater,” which is at the top of the wildlife bridge platform.  Children have clearly enjoyed making puppets out of paper bags with all the colored paper components that Sarah assembled.  We’ve  also seen that, if prompted by an adult, children enjoy using the provided plush puppets (of a lynx, bear, snail and pika) but that they do need a fair amount of prompting from adults to have brief exchanges among the animals;  I was pleased to see that the fourth graders seated in the gathering space on the floor in front of the puppet theater raised their hands to ask questions of the puppets, about how much liked the bridge and so forth. But they don’t put on puppet performances on their own without being told to do so.

 College student interns probably need to model performances first.   I’ve suggested a small skit at:

The most complex challenge in terms of scientific education is figuring out a way to communicate the relevance of increasing genetic connectivity for extended the gene pool. To some of the young people we’ve talked to it doesn’t seem all that intuitive that increasing relatedness between long-separated populations will lead to greater genetic diversity, and thus greater chances of resilience in the event of environmental challenges.  Several colleagues have suggested there might be a way to use bags of different colored marbles (or jelly beans?) to illustrate some basic statistical principles, about the likelihood of dangerous alleles being reduced in a larger, more diverse population.  I’m not sure if there is any possible way to integrate that with a puppet show, or if that would be a stand-alone demonstration.

We’ve certainly seen that children love to run around the ramp, following the cougar and elk tracks, n climbing down the steep slope, pushing toy trucks through the tunnels as they crawl through them, and making wild animal paper bag puppets.

We’re glad that they are thinking of the Museum as a fun place to visit, but of course we’d like them to learn something about nature and environmental processes while they are there.  We’re not sure yet precisely how the puppet-making, puppet-theater and the three dimensional aspects of the space can best be integrated in an effective educational manner.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Campus Art Tour Update

During Winter Quarter 2014, we have continued to developed our experimental mobile phone art and landscape tour of the Central campus,  housed on the Guide by Cell platform.  Students in my "Museum Exhibition Design" class and Prof. Ellen Avitts' "American Art and Architecture" course partnered to create eleven segments on the tour, concentrating on works of outdoor and indoor art on campus, as well as Barge and Shaw-Smyser halls.

This time around, students did more work researching the art works, in some cases interviewing the artists and eliciting commentaries by students and faculty who regularly come into contact with the works. Their mission was to create audio segments that, while art historically informed, would hold the attention of college students. Most tried for a dialogic and informal style, rather than the kind of didactic curatorial monologues heard in most art museum audio tours.

To hear the new selections, please dial  (509) 350-5040  and enter the designated three digit code (e.g. 202) followed by the # sign.


200.  First art classroom, Barge Hall, c. 1898. Photographer Unknown.  Image courtesy of Brooks Library Archives and Special Collection.
201. Barge Hall.  (first building constructed at Washington State Normal School)  
202. Shaw Smyer building. (Originally "Library" and "Classroom Building")
203.  "Affection" sculpture (artist:  William Zorach, 1933) dedicated to the memory of Clara Meisner, in the foyer of Hebbler Hall.

204.  "The Raft" sculpture (also known as "Little Dragon")  in front of Boullon Hall (artist: Howard Ballis)


205.   "The Discoverer" sculpture (artist Brad Rude, 1988, Art in Public Spaces Program, Washington State Art Commission) in the foyer of Black Hall  

206.     'Jerry  Brown" photograph (Photographer: Kurt Fishback, New Photographics Collection)
 in Randall Hall's first floor corridor.

207.    Totem Pole in the Brooks library, near the circulation desk   (Gift of the Kwakiutl people, in honor of the Yakama Nation)


209.   Photograph of Clara Meisnner with her dancing students, Washington State Normal School, near Edison Hall, c. 1917 (photographer unknown) displayed in Barge Hall,  4th floor, Board of Trustees Boardroom,  Image courtesy of Brooks Library Archives and Special Collection.


210. "Kinetic Spatial Structure" sculpture (Artist: Gary Galbraith, 1986) above the stairwell landing in Bouillon Hall, between the first and second floor.


211.  "Crossing Surfaces"  sculpture   (Minoru Kurasawa, donated 1996) outdoor, between Black Hall and Bouillon Hall

212.  Elephant Desk sculpture (artist: Chris Schambacher)  on second floor, Science Building

Reminder: To hear the audio segments, please dial  (509) 350-5040  and enter the designated three digit code (e.g. 202) followed by the # sign.
Earlier audio segments on campus art by students and faculty 

John Hoover, Man who married an eagle. 1971.   (Dean Hall lobby)

100. Description of the work
101. Commentary on the work (Mark Auslander)


106.  Cascade Cradle,  ( Artist: Gary Bates, 1991)  metal sculpture on central campus lawn, east of Dean Hall,
south of the irrigation trench.  (Commentary: Liz Seelye '14)


113.   Wickiup.  Debora Butterfield, sculpture located between Barge Hall and Hebbler Hall.
(Commentary: Mark Auslander)


126. Wickiup.  Debora Butterfield, sculpture located between Barge Hall and Hebbler Hall.
 (Student  co-authored poem by Gail Wynn and Leah Wassil '14) 

111.  Gesture for Planetary Alignment, Luke Blackstone,  2012, kinetic sculpture located near Hogue Hall.
 (Commentary: Mark Auslander)


114.    Untitled.  (Darwin Davis, 1972) Outdoor, in front of Language and Literature building.  (Commentary: Mark Auslander)


118.  Umtanum Ridge, painting, Cindy Krieble, located in Brooks Library Atrium (Commentary: Mark Auslander)


Reminder: To hear the audio segments, please dial  (509) 350-5040  and enter the designated three digit code (e.g. 202) followed by the # sign.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cultural Intimacy in Shell Game

At Cascadia Chronicle we are asking contributors to submit commentaries on Lou Karsen's remarkable short film "Shell Game" (2013), in which Washington state 2012-14 Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken meditates upon the legacies of the Hanford plutonium production site in eastern Washington, where she grew up.  You may view the six minute film at:

Please submit your reflections on the film to the journal at our submission portal:

To start things off, here is my short commentary on the film:

Cultural Intimacy and The Nuclear Family
Mark Auslander on “Shell Game”

Having just finished Kate Brown’s magnificent book,”Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,”  I’m struck by how skillfully poet Kathleen Flenniken and director Lou Karsen evoke the in-between states of knowing and unknowing that characterized life in the shadow of  Cold War Hanford. 
Brown emphasizes that Richland in its plutonium-producing heyday marketed itself as a utopian space  for aspirant middle class families, and her subtitle cleverly plays on the multiple meanings of “nuclear”: these were simultaneously subsidized modern bourgeois family units freed of the constraints of traditional extended kinship, yet they were also family units stealthily irradiated by the by-products of plutonium production.

“Shell Game” nicely highlights the intertwined seductions and betrayals of this familial imagery.  All families are to some extent built on secrecy, and none more so than the extended Richland family, which leached an ever growing body of secrets into its spreading, subterranean “plume.”   Anthropologist Michael Herzfeld suggests that most social units are not held together by their shared, publicly voiced values, but rather by their sordid, dirty little secrets, that are at best only partially acknowledged among its members, sometimes with only the subtlest of meaningful, exchanged glances.  Herzfeld introduces the term ‘Cultural Intimacy” to characterize  this unspoken, shared terrain of tacit difficulty knowledge.  

“Shell Game” may be read as a particularly evocative visual and spoken exploration of the enigmatic familial geography of "cultural intimacy."  We begin with the poet’s childhood memories: she recalls the big word “Atomic”, without having heard the completed phrase, “Atomic Bomb.”  In her mind’s eye, hoisted atop her father’s shoulders, gazing out at the New Frontier’s “sea of white,” she longs for approval from the national Father Figure, in the form of the soon-to-be-apotheosized JFK.  And yet, hovering behind each uncompleted sentence, each ominous warning sign, and each patriotic exultation, lies all that can never be said, here visually captured by the ominous ascent to the darkened national attic, the wooden floor being quietly swept.
Sweeping scene. Shell Game (2013)

Here is foreshadowed the narrator’s epiphany, when she learns of the radiation-induced illness of her close friend Caroline's father: the intimate fabric of the family, which she and her peers had imagined Hanford to exemplify and to protect, is ripped away.  For all the boxes she might build in her mind, for all the attempts to wall out the full import of the death, intimate truths begin to seep in.

It is striking though that Flenniken, while fully articulate in her critique of national security state deceptions, works through her poetry to honor the texture of that early and enduring state of cultural intimacy. Perhaps to the frustration of her more activist Tri-Cities friends and peers, she does not fully repudiate the utopian vision of her childhood but rather chooses, as her closing line has it, to live within the" in-between" state that poetry makes possible. For that is what it is to be, in her terms, “All-American,” simultaneously to believe and to disbelieve, to accommodate and resist, and to know one another through the half-acknowledged secrets that constitute our collective, buried lives.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Closing Frames in Shell Game

At Cascadia Chronicle we are asking contributors to submit commentaries on Lou Karsen's remarkable short film "Shell Game" (2013), in which Washington state Poet Laureate Emerita Kathleen Flenniken meditates upon the legacies of the Hanford plutonium production site in eastern Washington, where she grew up.  You may view the six minute film at:

Please submit your reflections on the film to the journal at our submission portal:

To start things off, here is my short commentary on the film (NOTE: The director just removed the final section of the film, so the following commentary is no longer really relevant.)

Opening and Closing

A commentary on  Shell Game
A closing frame: Shall Game, dir, Lou Karsen (2013)

I am drawn again and again to the opening and closing frames of Lou Karsen’s film. We open to a five second shot of Kathleen Flenniken outdoors in her coat, shot from below, her smile enigmatic, framed against a blue sky, looking off in the distance as her voiceover begins. “I liked that we were a scientific community, I felt that that made us better.”  We next see her repeatedly indoors, facing us directly, head shot against a studio wall, as we venture, step by step, deeper into her story of gradual disenchantment with the reigning Hanford mythos. And then, just after the credits have rolled and the musical chord progression in elegiac minor key has ceased, at 5:38 we are back in the opening outdoor scene. The front page of the Seattle Times fills the screen for a moment: to the left we see a green lawn, a white house and bare trees in the background. And then the camera lifts:  we see Kathleen once more above us, wearing the same coat as in the opening shot, framed against that same blue sky, silently holding the newspaper with that same enigmatic half-smile. And the scene fades to black

What are we to make of this? We briefly glimpse, upon repeated viewings, the newspaper date: March 3, 2013. I am unsure of the precise reference. Seventy years earlier that week, on March 9, 1943, the residents of Hanford Reach received the infamous eviction notices, giving them thirty days to leave their homes, so that (although they did not know it at the time) construction of the Hanford Engineering Works might begin tater that summer.  There was considerable hoopla in Richland this past Fall as the city’s leaders celebrated Hanford’s seventieth anniversary, with the issue of festive “Plutonium Passports” and a Cold War James Bond-styled gala.  None of that here: just the silent poet, holding a newspaper with a date that quietly witnesses the passing of the seventieth anniversary.

I can’t help but think of a kidnapping victim, forced to hold the day’s newspaper as she faces into the camera, proving that she is still alive.  Is the poet here held hostage to History, even as she awakes, with us, from the dreamworld of Hanford? Here, we are suspended with her between the moment of origin and the present day, between the child’s longing for the approval of the national Father Figure and the adult’s sober reflection on seven decades of deception, cancer, and an ever advancing plume. Here, in the final frames, we glimpse our Poet Laureate somewhere between mourning and wry humor, in the “in between state” -- the very state within which, as she reminds us in her closing line, poetry allows her to reside.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hazards and the Work of Culture: New Worlds from Fragments?

Taylor Bridge Fire, 2012, Steve Bisig.
We are delighted at Cascadia Chronicle that our new series “Ring of Fire,” exploring literary and analytic work on natural hazards in Cascadia and the broader Pacific region, is supported by a grant from the newly-established Cascadia Hazards Institute  at Central Washington University.  As a sociocultural anthropologist I’d like to offer a few reflections on the relationship between “hazards” and human culture. This is a puzzle we have been pondering at the Museum of Culture and Environment as we have mounted our current exhibition on wildland fire, organized by my colleague Hope Amason, and as we look forward to developing exhibitions on seismology: if “culture” ordinarily pertains to that which is known, created, and controlled by humans, in what senses may natural hazards, be they forest fires or earthquakes, be said to be cultural phenomena?

It is helpful to begin with etymology. The word “hazard,” dictionaries inform us, comes into English from Old French “hasart,” a game of chance, perhaps derived from an Arabic term for dice.  Only in mid 16th century English did hazards shift from the the sense of chances in gambling (as in “games of hazard”) to broader chances of loss, risk or harm throughout life.  Certainly, the sensibility and aesthetics of gambling and throwing the dice continues to inform much of our rhetoric about geophysical hazards, as we ponder the risk at any given moment of a “five hundred year” earthquake or a “thousand year” tsunami event.  A “hazard” is not quite synonymous with a “danger”; “hazard” implies a particularly intensive zone of possibility, hovering between the determinate and the indeterminate, the knowable and the unknowable.  All gamblers know they are playing the odds, and some are highly skilled at statistical calculations of probability, but committed gamblers usually are drawn to something beyond rationalist assessment, to intuitions, hunches, or enigmatic signifiers from beyond the conventional material world of cause and effect.

Indeed, for millennia diverse human spiritual traditions have emphasized intimate relationships between gambling and divination.  Consider the divinatory practices of Ifá among the Yoruba, bone throwing in southern Africa or the hexagramic I-Ching in China:  to render oneself susceptible to a ‘hazard” in this older sense is to open oneself up to the mysterious forces of the universe, to alternate planes of power and reality that may radically transform consciousness or the life course.   Perhaps the modern word “hazard” still caries a subtle sense of the miraculous, the numinous, of the not quite of this world.  Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and conflagrations so often conjure up the language of the sacred and of the awesome (in the classical sense of being filled with awe).  To contemplate these large scale hazards is to stand on a kind of phenomenological precipice, to be made suddenly aware of the infinitely branching possible trajectories that coexist alongside our seemingly stable, predictable everyday lives on what we had thought, erroneously, to be terra firma. 

What might all of this, born of the fact that we reside upon a periodically restless and turbulent earth, have to do with the long evolutionary history of human culture?  Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins famously defines culture as a “meaningful order of persons and things.” Landscape forms are clearly objects of culture: they are things that we render meaningful through narrative, through habitual styles of perception, and through labor.   Mountains, waterfalls, canyons and other landscape features have long functioned as repositories of cultural knowledge, through which philosophies and worldviews have been re-accessed, contemplated and transmitted across the generations. As linguistic anthropologist Keith  Basso was told by his Western Apache consultants, “wisdom sits in places.”  Such is the case as well for the natural products of these generative landscapes: Chinese scholar stones, shaped by eons of geophysical forces, are understood as miniature landscapes compressing the great forces of the cosmos, and have thus been contemplated for philosophical and poetic insight across the millennia.

Yet what kind of wisdom or cultural knowledge is embedded in the tumultuous contortions of these landscape features, in earthquakes, eruptions, tsunami, rockslides, avalanches or wildland fires?  In some instances, conventional cultural models are summoned up to impose a degree of intelligibility upon crises that seem to defy all logic and order. For example, in a forthcoming article in Cascadia Chronicle  Jack Nisbet cites a Spokane Salish woman describing the 1872 earthquake centered near Chelan, Washington as if the earth was boiling and bubbling like “gravy”-- a simile drawn from the conventional practices of food preparation. It is a poignant image: precisely at the moment when all the most fundamental coordinates of conventional experience are disrupted, we turn to the most familiar and domestic of imagery, cooking itself, the archetypal process through which we transform nature into culture, the raw into the cooked.  This is the work of culture in its most fundamental sense, to render the unfamiliar into the familiar, to impose a framework of meaning upon that which manifestly defies our direct control.  Like all gamblers, when playing the game of hazard that is life we seek a reassuring, interpretive trope that is controllable, regular, and knowable.

Yet there is another way of thinking about the relationship between hazards and culture. Culture is not simply the pre-existing lens through which we understand external phenomenon, nor is it solely the matrix that governs our response to disaster. Culture itself is often the long-term product of natural (and social) hazards, repeatedly experienced and contemplated. The first great human cultural achievement,  the mastery and domestication of fire, was presumably brought about through our ancestors’ repeated observation of fires sparked by lightning strikes or volcanic action.  Many Japanese cultural theorists have argued that the Japanese cultural valuation of impermanence and fluidity is a function of the archipelago’s position in the Ring of Fire. Frequent exposure to volcanic eruptions, pyroclastic flows, tsunami, and tremors over the millennia tends, the argument goes, to contribute to a cultural aesthetic centered on mutability. Thus, the central ritual process of Imperial Shinto, the continuous deconstruction and reconstruction of Ise Shrine over a twenty year cycle.  The basic form is maintained in a supreme act of cultural reproduction even as no physical structure lasts longer than a human biological generation.

Mythologies the world over, to be sure, are inspired by seismic events, which are often reckoned in reference to generational relations between divine and human entities. The ancient Greeks understood the continuous rumbling around Mt. Olympus as signifying the mythic clash between generations of divinities: the enraged Titans, confined to subterranean Tarturus by their rebellious Olympian children, shake the walls of the underground prison.  Sigmund Freud, in formulating the modern mythos of the turbulent human psyche, drew inspiration from this ancient greek mytheme when he characterized the human mind as a volatile Mount Olympus: the Unconscious, though repressed by the Ego, reverberates like the enraged Titans with the “Immortal Wishes” born out of our thwarted early childhood desires.  In turn, my wife, anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider, drew upon Freud’s image in her analysis of the sacred Japanese volcano, Akakura, in her appropriately titled book, “Immortal Wishes.”   In the periodic eruptions and tremors of Mount Akakura, she demonstrates, the worshippers who perform ascetic discipline upon its craggy and dangerous slopes find tangible resonances with their own intergenerational struggles and internal psychic challenges.

Closer to our Cascadian home, we might consider what sort of cultural sensibilities have been generated through the region’s volatile landscapes and seascapes. Indigenous creation stories often emphasize the violent agitations of sacred beings, such as Raven, Beaver, or Orca in the making prominent landscape features.  Generative creative destruction is reenacted in ritual and ceremonial cycles that endure through time.  Sacred beings in the form of animals periodically sacrifice their flesh and meat to human hunters, to sustain their mortal cousins, who in turn reproduce and re-animate the domain of the sacred through masked performances of dance and song.  Such a ritual aesthetic may be in part inspired by a landscape shaped by tumultuous geophysical forces.  Here in Central Washington, for example, Yakima elders emphasize that indigenous narratives of inundation resonate with geological evidence of periodic ice age floods.  To tell a sacred story is to bind oneself to vast cycles of destruction and creativity. Indeed, Franz Boas famously detected in Pacific Northwest mythology a particular propensity for creative destruction, endlessly breaking down sacred stories into their constituent parts to be recombined in novel sequences linked together through distant family resemblances: "It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments."   

How, in turn, are we to understand the dynamic relationship between hazards and culture in the context of industrial and post-industrial civilization in Cascadia?  Many geoscientists decry a pervasive “culture of denial” in the region, a seemingly willful ignorance on the part of policymakers of the long term risks of seismic disturbance. They point to the hubristic siting of population centers in the historically tsunami-prone Puget Sound, or the long term storage of radioactive waste in the geological unstable zone of the Hanford Reach. Has the age-old intimate connection between human culture and geophysical hazards, in which human beings were necessarily attuned to a turbulent earth, been ruptured by the illusory security of hyper-urbanity?

Yet, at another level, it is striking that modern urban dwellers, regardless of what faultline or wildfire-prone zone they locate their homes upon, are deeply drawn to mass media apocalyptic extravaganzas, of asteroids, mega-eruptions, and other spectacular hazards, not to mention the hybrid human-natural fantastical hazards of bio-engineered plagues and zombies.  Part of the appeal seems to be the promised resurrection of intimate communal bonds which is promised amidst the horror of the cataclysm---the sociological territory explored by Rebecca Solnit in her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.”  (The enigmatic appeal of sporadically emergent community in Zombie Walks is analyzed by my former student Bryce Peake in a recent essay.)  Modern urban and suburban lives, it is often noted, tend to be deracinated and alienated, and thus we strangely long for the intimate bonds of social connectedness and re-emplacement that are promised, paradoxically, by dreadful hazards.   Suggestively, many urban dwellers in Cascadia refer to Nature as their “real home,” as the one place within which they can find restoration and rediscover their true being.  We are drawn to our region’s glorious coastlines, escarpments, basalt columns, peaks and valleys--which offer the romantic sensibility an encounter with the Sublime, a glimpse, however fleeting, of the face of the Eternal. These, are of course, the very landscape features that have been shaped across the age by the most tumultuous of hazards, by earthquakes and tsunami, by eruptions and lava flows, and the relentless action of glaciers, rockslides, and avalanches.

The work of culture, then, is never done, for culture itself is always being generated and transmuted out of tension and contradictions within our experiences as social beings, suspended as we are between the world as we wish it to be and the world that we practically experience. It would appear that even amidst our willful denial of geophysical risks of living atop subduction zones, we are still deeply drawn to the sties forged by the convulsions of the hazards that lurk beneath.  It is the upthrusts and chasms that we sense, if only dimly, connections the very heart of things, that we apprehend a promised return to a deep, abiding sense of awe and to the deeply spiritual sense of human community.  Hence, an enduring paradox that may well bind us to our ancient ancestors;  we ponder the essence of Life most fully, at the moments of hazard, of  intensive chance and fear, the very moments that threaten to dislodge life as we know it.