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Lessons of Engagement

Cosmology and ethics in Etel Adnan’s poetry

In 1966, the American writer Stewart Brand petitioned NASA to release a then-rumored image it had photographed of the whole earth. He printed the question “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole earth yet?” on a series of buttons and pamphlets and distributed them around the country with the help of Buckminster Fuller. The campaign took off—and, in 1968, it led Stewart to start the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural journal that focused on space, ecology, and art and writing related to the environmental movement. NASA released the image and, for the first time, humanity had a full portrait of Spaceship Earth. Brand believed that the photograph would provide a universal image that might unify the world in efforts toward peace and environmental consciousness. (It is often remarked that Earth Day began only a few years after the release of the image.)

The image of the whole earth provided a counterpoint to the mushroom cloud, which had become “a symbol for the collapse of Western civilization,” as Anselm Franke points out in his essay for The Whole Earth, a recent exhibition inspired by Brand. Franke writes,

The blue planet, on the other hand, exhibits a completely different tendency for bringing about the end of history. It appears to transcend all frames, borders, and preconfigured notions of order, dissolving them into oceanic vertigo: the astronaut Russell Schweickart gave the title “No Frames, No Boundaries” to his memories of seeing the earth from space. Here, all antagonisms, borders, and conflicts “down below” fade into the background, and with them history with its contradictions and struggles.

Of course, the image’s appearance failed to bring about the end of history—or an end to conflicts “down below.” Rather, it presaged the globalist movement, which saw, in the smallness of the whole earth, a whole market, interconnected and easily reached. While the photo of the earth energized the nascent green movement, the blue planet—later downsized by Carl Sagan to a “pale blue dot”—remained mired in its countless contradictions and struggles.

As the 1966 campaign for an image of the whole earth began in the United States, the Lebanese poet, painter, journalist, and novelist Etel Adnan published her first book, Moonshots. In his introduction to Adnan’s newest collection, To look at the sea is to become what one is, Ammiel Alcalay writes that the moon was crucial to Adnan’s early work, particularly for its “virginity”—its remove from the human-caused death and disaster that marked the worldwide 1960s. Cold, beautiful, and lifeless, the moon is a specter that preemptively rhymes with those desolate places effaced by war and colonialism so familiar to Adnan. The moon offers an image of a possible earthly future where competitive forces of violence, particularly the U.S. and Soviet Union arms race, obliterate life on the planet. The moon is both an escape from and a realization of war and desolation, which were Adnan’s primary subjects throughout the 1960s and 1970s, from the Lebanese Civil War to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the war in Vietnam. Paraphrasing the title of Adnan’s collection, “to look at the whole earth is to become what one is,” means to become big enough to understand one’s smallness, and the precarity of the ecological and political situation that characterizes life on Earth.

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Black Life, Annotated

Alice Goffman’s critically acclaimed ethnography On the Run is another story about a white lady come to study young black men. Who thought this was a good idea?

Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American Cityis the latest installment in a sociological tradition that subjects black life to scholarly scrutiny. An “urban” ethnography of a mixed-income, black neighborhood in West Philadelphia in the early 2000s that Goffman calls 6th Street, On the Run is “an account of the prison boom and its more hidden practices of policing and surveillance as young people living in one relatively poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia experience and understand them.” To produce this “on-the-ground account” of a “community on the run,” Goffman took on the role of participant observer.

Mentioned alongside Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim CrowOn the Run’s many admirers say it not only reveals things that “we” do not know about what is being done to a portion of the population, it centers that population’s negotiations of an unlivability produced by policing and all-too-often drowned out by the (right, liberal, and left) white noise of calls for increased ”security.” Goffman’s admirers believe that she has provided “extraordinary” new insight into how and why black life is lived under and against occupation. They anticipate that On the Run’s reach will extend far beyond the US academy and that it will shift and extend conversations and public policy about policing. They expect, too, that it will illuminate, for those who have been able to remain blind to it, the scope and devastating impacts of the carceral state on the lives of (poor) black men and women.

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A Reformist in Hell

Law professor Robert A. Ferguson’s critique of the U.S. prison system misses the point that its purpose is not rehabilitation but civic death

In 2011, intense overcrowding in a California prison resulted in at least one person’s death, which went unnoticed among guards for hours. Inmates were stacked on top of each other in bunk beds filling makeshift spaces, even gyms. Disease and fetid odors proliferated in these cramped quarters, which are well documented in photographs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of California had violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. California prisons were ruled in contempt for severely mishandling inmates’ medical and mental illnesses. As a result, California was ordered to reduce its prison population by 137.5%—about 110,000 people—by the end of 2013. The Brown v. Plata ruling was a milestone for those at the mercy of a violent criminal justice system, surviving prison conditions compared to those of a concentration camp.

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Further Reading

To Supplement Dr. Christina Sharpe’s essay, Black Life, Annotated, TNI asked Sharpe to create a syllabus for further reading on the subject and she graciously obliged, with help from Mariame Kaba and Dr. Tamara Nopper.

Introduction to The Prison Industrial Complex

I recommend everything on the blog Prison Culture “How the PIC Structures Our World…”

The Black Youth Project

Young People Continue To Talk About the Cops

Louder Than A Bomb 2014: Chicago Youth Have Their Say 

Nicholas K. Peart, “Why Is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?

C Angel Torres and Naima Paz, Young Women’s Empowerment Project’s Bad Encounter Line zine

Rose Brewer and Nancy Heitzeg, The Racialization of Crime and Punishment: Criminal Justice, Color-Blind Racism, and the Political Economy of the Prison Industrial Complex

Sylvia Wynter, “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues

On Fugitivity and Captivity

Slave narratives, from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl: Written by Herself, to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave: Written by Himself, to David Walker’s Appeal, to Ida B. Well’s The Red Record

Keguro Macharia, fugitivity

Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study

Tavia Nyong’o, Black Survival in the Uchromatic Dark

A struggling Korean baseball team have invented a novel way to improve atmosphere at their matches – by bringing in a crowd of robot fans.

Hanwha Eagles supporters not able to get to the stadium can control the robot over the internet.

The bots can cheer, chant and perform a Mexican wave – but presumably not invade the pitch.


&, Meanwhile: “New York City officers have kept mum”

Nine days after a Staten Island police officer placed Eric Garner into a fatal choke hold, angry New York City residents took to the streets in Harlem. “As long as [the police] think they can get away with anything no matter what,” Reverend Al Sharpton shouted out to the rally that assembled outside Manhattan’s House of Justice, “they’re going to keep doing it.”

Now some current and former cops are starting to speak up for themselves. Earlier this week, a retired Jersey City police captain named Robert Cubby posted a blog entry on titled “United We Stand for NYPD.” The post declares that the law enforcement community should come together to support the officers that were involved in Garner’s death, which has been deemed a homicide.

“The career of those involved from the NYPD dangles by a slender thread,” Cubby writes. “The officers face the worst possible nightmare; loss of their career and being thrown in jail for a good portion of the rest of their lives.”

In the latest twist, to show solidarity, officers (and their friends) are being asked to change their Facebook profile picture to an upside-down and backward NYPD flag—a flag that was first introduced to the department in 1919. An upside-down flag is a signal of distress.

Read More | “NYPD Cops Launch Choke Hold Protest on Facebook” | Eric Markowitz | Vocativ

The Art of the Interview: Harun Farocki

Randall Halle: Now of course you recently finished a film precisely on the conditions in Eastern Europe. The first section of your film Videogramme of a Revolution utilized images of the Romanian revolution captured on video by nonprofessionals. The commentator of the film draws our attention to the style and position of the camera. These cameras seem to mark the beginning of the breakdown of a system of censorship. In your estimation do they signify openings or do they actually create a free flow of information?

Harun Farocki: A film linguist–in case that exists or should ever exist–should make a comparison of the TV during the Ceausescu era with the revolutionary TV of Studio 4. During the Ceausescu period, just like in the courtly theater, there were minutely determined positions for the ruler and all camera operations were used to reinforce the established order. Also the next in rank had a position and the main purpose of TV was to present this image of hierarchy again and again. Along those lines–I recall that the major network news programs in the US also have an established idiom and also a fixed camera rhetoric, whenever the anchor person turns it over to the reporter on the scene, and when they take it back again. Is this also about reinforcing authority in the presentation of the news?

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Dead Can Dance

Why do we care about the dead? And what does this care keep alive in us? University of California,  Berkeley, historian Thomas Laqueur is working through these questions, focusing on the history of European death cultures. Sprawling and ambitious in scope, his forthcoming book traces the different ways that the dead are put to work to help structure living societies.

The Work of the Dead tells the story of how Europe’s deceased traveled from the churchyard to the out-of-town cemetery via images of colonial power and national unity, and the new uses they were put to in the process. The project gathers a vast quantity of material on the praxis of death, from archaeological evidence of prehistoric burial rites to the modern practice of cremation. This wealth of detail evokes not only the specific individual necessity of mourning—of figuring out what we have lost when we lose someone important to us and how this importance can persist without the presence of its object—but the larger social task of creating histories, genealogies, and stories that organize our relations to one another. In Laqueur’s account, the social as such starts to look like a vast work of mourning. Or maybe it’s better to say that mourning looks like the starting point of the social. Animals know death too, but they don’t make such a habit of it.

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Volume 31 Editor’s Note: Mourning


At the height of the northern summer, with the days only just starting to contract toward winter, the theme of death seems a little unseasonal. If there is “a time to die,” it should be, say, December, when the cold does its deathly work on nature. But of course, death comes whenever, always in season and always out of season.

Death can be styled as grand and gothic, but its human avatars are more prosaic: fresh-faced Israeli soldiers, for example, sleek with health and rights, proclaiming their triumph over mutilated bodies. That has been the image-track to this summer, so far: the wide eyes of childhood set above mangled limbs. These deaths are not ours, but they seem to belong to us in another way, while we live in the country that paid for the weapons that dealt these deaths. We give ourselves the task of witnessing the deaths we can’t live, without always knowing what this witnessing is for.

There is no more tired or absolute epistemological limit than that on the knowledge of death. We only ever encounter death’s secondary effects: its disruptions of life, its deprivations, or its wakes.

From inside the charmed circle of white bourgeois America, where some of us have sometimes lived, and where death can be staved off until old age, it’s easy to mistake death for something absolutely other, to be marvelled at or longed for.



1. “In the Middle Ages, Jews were stigmatised as non-believers by having to wear a pointed yellow hat. This stigma prevented unprejudiced exchange between Jews and Christians.”

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Wifey Status →

To claim wifey status, you need not be a wife by ring or by ceremony. Devotion, it seems, is the key element. If the wifey is not Lana she is at least a Lana song. She is the sum of Kanye’s illogical equation: one good girl is worth a thousand bitches.