Long associated with steel, car culture, and the music of Motown, Detroit is also a site of struggle for racial and environmental justice, against depopulation and “ruin porn,” and for the preservation of artistic heritage.
Got that? This conference will discuss a “struggle for racial and environmental justice,” in opposition to “depopulation and ‘ruin porn'” in the context of “the preservation of artistic heritage” which is “steel, car culture, and the music of Motown.” Who could argue with all that. Powerful and important things, although that “environmental justice” is a loaded term. Does it mean: “justice for water weeds?” Does it mean: “justice for humans requiring a healthy urban environment and clean water, too?” “Does it mean something else?” Impossible to tell. So don’t trust the term, because it’s probably the most important one, and the one that is going to be discussed here. Good to know. Let’s carry on. Here the organizers talk about the venue, Detroit:
“A nexus of encounters between indigenous nations and the French fur trade, it became a locus of the Great Migration, “white flight,” and gentrification.”
That’s it? Language is getting away with itself here and could do with being reined in. It’s making a narrative based on its own grammar. These “encounters” between “indigenous nations” and “the French fur trade” are one of the 3 or 4 cores of European/Indigenous encounter on a vast continent, which is entwined heavily with the loss of water habitat through the destruction of beavers, the vast indigenous slave trade, the collision between the Spanish, the French and the Americans in the Missouri, the Apache slave raids on the “Great Migration”, the War of 1812, Cajun chicken, the politics of the dispossession of Canadians in the Pacific Northwest and the creation of the cultures of Ontario and British Columbia, the rebellion of Louis Riel, the anti-catholic religious porn of the early 19th century, and on and on and on. A vast environmental story, and not just “became the locus of the Great Migration,” “white flight,” and “gentrification.” That’s rhetoric, not history, and out of it can only come a contemporary history, with no roots in the past. Is that worthy of the name of the eco-criticism? Is the past and its lingering threads in the present, which are an expression of it working itself out in time and society, not an ecology with the potential of being vastly different than the narrative that sentence sets up, which makes the history (and the French and indigenous peoples, i.e. everyone before “Americans”) subordination to developing energy and the history of American post 1835? Or an environment? All it is is a place where the “nexus” took place. Well, that’s up to eco-critics to bring those discussions to the table. The organizers have a different idea, which goes like this:
“Water-rich on the strait between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, Detroit and its neighbors struggle against corroded infrastructure and government corruption. For all those reasons, Detroit is an ideal place to confer about rust, resistance, and recovery.”
Well, you get it, right? Water rusts iron, and this water-rich environment, confronting steel, has rusted it. But has it rusted the French Canadians? Has it rusted Indigenous peoples? Isn’t that insulting? Wouldn’t it be better to say that American migration and colonialism either absorbed, expelled, repressed or killed these peoples on an axis of race? It has less to do with water, doesn’t it, than greed and possessiveness and racial politics? Isn’t it a bit über-romantic to say that that is rust? It kind of begs the question: is the conference worth attending? But to open up that rust idea a little: one of those neighbours the organizers mention is a Canadian city, south of Detroit, called Windsor. Its version of the rust belt was created by a border, and a series of exploitations and compromises across it, which manipulated peoples far different, even apple-growing peoples in the West or wheat growing peoples in the Palouse. These exploitations and compromises, are called trade deals. Not only have they transferred control of a sovereign auto industry to a kind of branch plant industry of Detroit, bound up with NAFTA, which is currently under heavy political fire in the USA, but have transferred control of distant industries and ways of life and ecologies, with the rust of Detroit. Detroit, in other words, isn’t Detroit. It’s a way of concentrating the natural economy of a country into economic capital. This environment is politically charged, but takes place in a country in which class and Marxism and all of its tools are forbidden subjects, replaced by more social ones, such as race, which stand in for it, although loosely. What’s more, this environment crosses a border, and is a vital part of the War of 1812, living on today, and that war, what was it? Why, the first American Civil War, fought between Americans who chose to live under a king, largely because the Americans who didn’t ran roughshod over them, and Irish who fought for the Americans fighting Irish who were fighting for the British, all for the liberation of Ireland. It was also a war against indigenous people, and against the principle of indigenous identity. That’s the war: a series of proxy battles, fought on this soil for something that has nothing to do with this soil. That’s an environment, for sure: a historical, political, military and social environment. It has nothing to do with the land, which is also an ecology, so the story it presents is of an invasion of the land and its use as a proxy. The organizers leave room for such a discussion. Here’s their call:
They invite participants to interpret the conference theme [Rust] as broadly as possible and to imagine their work in terms of content and form.
Well, I would say, as a Canadian, living far to the West, within the country formed by those battles fought around Detroit (I don’t mean Canada; I mean the Pacific Northwest), rust, decay, the turning to oxygen, would, honourably, be the subversion of the aims of this conference, because it takes a broad series of vital historical and economic issues and squeezes them through a lens of approved and silently disapproved topics. That’s cultural, of course, but what’s the point? If the point is to get beyond contemporary categories, then this should be a marxist discussion, but that won’t fly. It just won’t. In its place, there are a vast number of disciplines of discourse, that sidestep these issues of class and capital, to get at them sideways. The result of this dance is to recreate the missing story in new terms, not to start with it and expand it. I can’t see that going anywhere, except where it already is: into spheres of comfort. But is this about comfort? I mean, if the theme is to be taken up “as broadly as possible” and if it is to discuss the full ecology of this place. Their solution is not so stark or dramatic. It is this:
We particularly encourage non-traditional modes of presentation, including hybrid, performative and collaborative works; panels that minimize formal presentation in favor of engaged emergent discussion; interdisciplinary approaches; environmentally inflected readings of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, film, theatre and other media; and proposals from outside the academic humanities, including submissions from artists, writers, teachers, practitioners, activists and colleagues in the social and natural sciences.
Note, they don’t encourage non-traditional modes of thought or identity, only of presentation. Is that useful? It’s worth asking. What they are saying is that the ecology of the place is going to be found through an ecology of approaches that is not limited to “formal presentation”, i.e., given the academic context of the conference, probably the reading of academic essays to a large (or small) listening crowd, without discussion. A kind of top down thing. Put ya to sleep. A good thing to move beyond. In its place, they want what I’d call a new art, a “hybrid” collection of “performative and collaborative works” and “engaged emergent discussion”: kind of like one of the masques Ben Jonson put on while Shakespeare was playing at being John Lennon. Hopefully, this called-for hybridity includes demolishing at least one abandoned house and building up at least one other one, and hopefully the conference will be held in an abandoned school, or panels will be held in vintage muscle cars from 1972, each with a driver, a host, and three passengers, switching every twenty blocks as they drive all night, or, perhaps, every conference participant will be taught to cut and weld iron, and will be given a ton of rusted metal, and asked to build an essay out of that. Because talk is talk and experience is experience. It just depends upon what your goal is. So what’s the goal? Unstated. Why? Don’t know. But I don’t trust that. As I see it, the subject of the conference is about obedience, and about bringing together disciplines of analysis into a cross-disciplinary experience, which is like saying: we know who we are and where we have come from; our task is to build a vision separate from those, but honouring them. That’s really great, but the question I am going to pose is this: do we know who we are and where we have come from? What if half of the discussion of racism in Detroit isn’t about race, but about capital? What if it were 20%? Or 70%? What if the abuse of the Northern border of the USA is the real issue here? What if the real issue is the individualism that makes America great in the first place? What if this is not a comedy? Setting aside these important questions for a moment, here we go:”Topics may include, but are certainly not limited to:” (please consider two things when scanning this long list: 1. the plethora of broken approaches, much like the tower of Babel, and 2. the vision of using “rust” as a metaphor for a new world that might otherwise be called dystopic, and 3. the issue of human identity as a series of topics of “resistance.” To what? Well, that’s another buzz word. Read on.