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There Will Be Thinkpieces


One thing is very clear.

There will be many think pieces composed about the #ParisAttacks. They will be thoughtful, they will be polemic, and be jingoistic and angry. They will express love, hate, and fear. They will be weary and wary – they will be received wearily and warily. They may be all of these things and more all at once.

These articles, the books that will come of them, the policy changes and immigration debates and socio-cultural shifts that will arise alongside them will be about Daesh/ISIS and their goal of hell of earth.

They will be about French and European and American democracy (“civilization”) and Islam’s supposed incompatibility with those presumed ideals. They will be about Muslim condemnations of the attacks and about the predominately Muslim victims of other attacks.

They will be about the French bombing raid of Raqqa and the “colonial tax” that fourteen African nations pay to France that may well fund the onslaught besieged civilians in Raqqa now face.

Hollande, Credit EPA

They will be about locating the roots of contemporary terrorism within the frightening constellation of Western warmongering, bought dictators, and Wahhabism. They will be about Daesh’s indisputable origins in the Iraq War.

They will be about the Daesh bombings in Beirut, the rising death count in Egypt at the hands of Daesh, the Iraqis and Syrians who everyday fight to survive in nations torn apart by a Hydra of warfare. They will be about the impossibility of ending wars that grow twice larger for every one that is inadequately put out.

They will be about the 24-hour live feed news cycle and Facebook safety checks and the sudden ubiquity of the French Tricolore in response to devastation in Paris and the comparative silence on BeirutBaghdad or Mogadishu and Northern Nigeria.

They will be about lazy social media algorithms that resurrect old, underreported incidents of trauma and violence in Kenya and Yemen. They will include sloppy dismissals of places “over there” (like Africa and Asia?) that are “used to” such violence and therefore do not command our equal attention. They will be about France’s current state of emergency and its frightening origins in the Algerian War for Independence. They will be about the last massacre that took place in Paris: amassacre of Algerians in 1961 at the hands of French police.

They will be about anti-Muslim and anti-black and anti-brown violence on a global scale. They will be about the far-right and the disintegrating left. They will be about the discomfiting lyrics of La Marseillaise and those who sing it for comfort.

Some of these articles will also be about subverting Daesh and disrupting Islamophobic and xenophobic backlash. They will be about the beautiful game and Saint-Denis and how football unites and divides us.

They will be about the 11th arrondissement and the diverse, hopeful, too young people who have died and those who live.  They will be about Adel Termos, who wrapped his arms around a suicide bomber in Bourj al-Barajneh and died so countless others could live. They will be about Waleed Abdel-Razzak, critically injured by the blasts while he queued outside the Stade de France for tickets to the match – not an Egyptian terrorist but in fact a loving son, brother, and football fan.

There will be many pieces like these. There will be many more to come. We will mourn again. Some of us have been mourning already. Even more have never stopped mourning. Too many.

Daesh wants refugees to have no refuge. They want a global war. They want to expand the global war that the United States and other Western nations have been waging for over a decade. A lot of our heads of state want to give it to them. If there is a moral high ground, it is unclear who occupies it. If there is a moral high ground, it rests on the countless victims of our unending wars. One thing is very clear, however. There will be articles. There will be many more articles. And we must decide what we need from them. What we demand from them. Do we want to be a little more human, or a little less, as this rock we live on hurtles around the sun?

For me, a Muslim apostate, I hope it is more. More human. More humanity.


Media Matters


Silicon Valley’s rhetoric of magical innovation relies on a hidden abode of rare earth mining and hydro-cooled server farms

BEFORE you continue reading this review, sit for a minute. Take stock of the device you are using to read these words. Are you reading on a laptop, on a smartphone, or a tablet? How did this particular device arrive in your life? Can you visualize the supply chains that carried it along? Whose hands fashioned it before it arrived in yours? Do you know what chemicals, minerals, and raw materials were involved in making it? Can you imagine the ways that such a labor process lingers on in workers’ bodies and in the effects it has on environments? Our devices have become part and parcel of our everyday, intimate lives, and the more that they become data sensors for an increasingly hungry digital capitalism the more they know about us. Yet what do we know about the lives (and afterlives) of our devices?

These are the questions that media scholar Jussi Parikka would like you to ask while reading his new book, A Geology of Media. Parikka’s invaluable book will prompt a myriad of important conversations within his discipline over the nature of media and technology. But A Geology of Media should be read widely outside media studies as it speaks directly to the material conditions of contemporary life and to the current belief that digital technologies are somehow less encumbered by the weight of human labor. The book makes undeniably clear the deep implication of bodies, environments, and the earth itself in the production and consumption of precisely the kind of media that is often presumed to be “immaterial,” to be “cost-cutting,” “efficient,” “disruptive,” or even more “democratic,” “accessible” or “transparent” than existing social institutions.

Parikka’s work simply starts in a different place than most accounts of the social life of media: with the raw material components that make a specific technology possible. Here we find an interest in dirt and dust, in the very chemicals, minerals, and metals that each make a technological object, like a smartphone or laptop, possible. “Instead of networking,” he writes, “we need to remember the importance of copper or optical fiber for such forms of communication; instead of a blunt discussion of ‘the digital,’ we need to pick it apart and remember that also mineral durations are essential to it being such a crucial feature that penetrates our academic, social, and economic interests.”

In a time when we hear so much about the economic potential of “disruptive” technologies and media platforms—such as educational technologies that are going to bring “access” to the masses or platforms like Uber or Airbnb that claim to give customers greater power and convenience, Parikka’s book is a necessary reminder that there is no such thing as free, cheap, or easy media. While venture capital may seem to be the prime mover, technological innovations are dependent on raw materials, resource extraction, environmental exploitation, and often obscured forms of human labor.  Our “wireless” society is dependent on ocean cables. Google servers require chilled-water cooling coils. The smartphone that enables the notion of an “on-demand economy” is actually the end of a supply chain that has its roots in rare earth minerals. In A Geology of Media, Parikka pushes the notion of the supply chain even a step further—to supplies of energy. Minerals, chemical processes, and human labor are not only stops along the way in the chain, but they become, as they are assembled together, the fuel that gives life to their larger technological system. As he writes, “the microchipped world burns in intensity like millions of tiny suns.“ Whatever device you’re reading this on or calling your Uber from entails a whole universe—and Parikka’s analysis shows how that is not a glib overstatement.

While it is true that a digital capitalism is growing in and through the exploitation of human cognitive abilities and emotional and affective capacities, Parikka asks for a much broader view of what is fueling the developments of techno-capitalism. That view is both cosmological and geological, looking both to solar energies and to nonhuman materials and their temporalities of renewal and decay. Yet it is also a view fully shot through with human labor. This double movement is what makes A Geology of Media necessary reading beyond media studies, particularly for social scientists and humanities scholars. The book will encourage you to dismantle your devices to better understand their components, circuitry, and assemblage—and in the process, think broadly about those very real, material supply chains.

A Geology of Media also prompts a concept of labor that is open to a complex materiality. Machines, for example, according to Parikka are best thought of not as mere assemblages of raw materials, nor simply as human inventions, but rather “vectors across the geopolitics of labor, resources, planetary excavations, energy production, natural processes from photosynthesis to mineralization, and the aftereffects of electronic waste.” While Parikka refers to his perspective as “neo-materialist,” this is a fundamentally entangled perspective that begins from the geophysical and moves quickly between layers of earthly strata, elemental forces, nonhuman entities, and human actors.

While Parikka’s goal is not necessarily to develop a new theory of technology per se, he is adamant that we have overlooked the fundamental role that the geological plays in the very conception and production of technology. It matters where we begin in our theorization of technology, media, and data. Relocating media theory in the material and environments that come before media, Parikka puts the lie to any debased versions of “immaterial labor” that might be mobilized in the service of digital theorizing. While notions of data are currently threatening to upend almost every social institution (often with the explicit goal of “restructuring” labor processes in those institutions), for Parikka there is no easy conceptualization of data apart from the material conditions that make such data possible.

“Data demand their ecology,” he writes, “one that is not merely a metaphorical technoecology, but demonstrates dependence on climate, the ground, and the energies circulating in the environment. Data feeds off the environment both through geology and the energy-demand… Data mining is not only about the metaphorical big data repositories of social media.” Yet while the phrase “big data” seems to be capable of whirling research funds into being and setting institutional agendas, rarely are those funds or agendas linked to understanding the effects of server requirements on local lands, ecologies, or labor markets.

These concerns are secondary to the purportedly infinite potentials of the data set. Yet, data do not emerge out of thin air; rather, as Parikka puts it, “data need air.” This fundamental condition of dependence is a complex web of social relations, environmental conditions, and labor arrangements. That data emerge from both material and legal “territories” is largely (and conveniently) obscured, particularly in the gold rush to capitalize on the promise of free-flowing data. What might it mean for corporations to have to account for such territories before grabbing hold of data’s presumed value? For starters, I would suspect it would mean the end of the overblown language of disruption, but it would also force corporations to include the local environments, ecologies, and communities who they depend upon for their wealth in their balance sheets.

Parikka doesn’t quite push his analysis toward answering that question. Instead, the book offers a number of useful concepts. The first is a notion of “medianatures,” which draws from Donna Haraway’s concept of “naturecultures.” Here, Parikka intends to maintain Haraway’s commitment to nonbinary thinking and to working with entanglement, but he also wants to move us toward a theory of media that can account for nonhuman actors—chemicals, minerals, and micro-organisms. The notion of a medianature is meant to encourage us to not only think in terms of entanglement of the human and nonhuman, but to become very specific about what materials have been assembled and why.

For an example, we can look at aluminum dust, which is a byproduct of the process of polishing iPad cases. As Parikka writes, “the minuscule dust particles already carry with them a double danger: they are highly inflammable and, more importantly, they can cause a variety of lung diseases among workers. Here, dust entangles any sense of media not only in the process of labor, but in the very labor of the biological body to withstand or metabolize such a process.” Riffing on Franco Berardi’s work, Parikka rightfully asks if we “should we speak of the exploitation of the soul through the contamination of the lung.” Such a perspective brings a vital attention to the materiality of bodies that have been fundamental to the development of supposedly “cognitive” capitalism. What you experience as the glow of your screen is for the worker who assembled it a carcinogen that can cause leukemia or nerve damage.

Parikka’s medianature concept not only brings the human body into the theorization of media, but it also inserts geography and locality. Taking up the computation of data, Parikka writes that if data demand the “cool air” of the North to be computed, they also simultaneously demand the cheap, flexible, and nonunionized labors of the proverbial South to be brought into being. Additionally, his notion of the “underground” helps further articulate links between the geological, the geographic, the human, and the nonhuman. By working with this concept, which is both a space of hidden labor as well as a geological repository of potential energy and minerals, Parikka is able to bring us close to some of the hell that has been so far removed (both spatially and conceptually) from the development and analysis of a digital capitalism.

While much of the talk of techno-solutions and the abundance of data is often underwritten with the claim that such infrastructures will liberate us from the messiness of labor, A Geology of Media disabuses us of such notions. Any thought of a post-labor technotopia of on-demand and flexible services is willfully in denial of the hidden abodes of production required to even give life to the fantasy. For Parikka, there is something radically obscene about the time that we live in, in part because such fantasies of light-weight or ethereal media and technology rely on just such a denial. Coining the phrase the “anthrobscene,” Parikka links theories of the anthropocene with the obscenities of contemporary capitalism—the sulfuric hellishness of the underground environmental crisis and seeming economic and political inability to confront either in any meaningful way.

While the entire book is worth reading, the fourth chapter, entitled “Dust and the Exhausted Life,” is an almost stand-alone chapter that could be taught in a wide range of classrooms or read in a range of contexts. Without falling into the trap of preciousness, Parikka writes “there is something poetic about dust.” Dust is serious business, particularly when we think of the dust of pollution, as chemical residue, or the “tons and tons of cosmic dust” that reminds us “we breathe in the otherworldly, the outer planetary.” Here, he makes clear how the physical body (of both human and animals), the geological, and labor are bound up together by a trace element.

While we might simply think of dust in terms of health risks, what Parikka points us towards transcends any sort of risk analysis. Dust is our kinship with both the cosmic and the earthly. What seems like something to be merely blown away could actually be a grounds from which to begin what Parikka calls a “trajectory for theory,” or a way to work with traces themselves. Faced with the obscene techno-­solutionist theories of data without its underground, of media without a sense of complex materiality or medianature, this other trajectory appeals because it would mean that theory would, from the start, imbricate us in labor, economies, and ecologies. It means we would learn to work with and through the traces that connect each of those elements.

Yet, it is also with such a trajectory that I would caution readers of A Geology of Media. As Parrika writes, “we need to be able to find concepts that help the nonhuman elements contributing to capital to become more visible, grasped and understood—as part of surplus creation as well as the related practices of exploitation.” I am simply not convinced that such visibility, grasping, or understanding leads us where we want to go.  Making visible is not the same as refusing to be absorbed into the surplus or exploited. While material and local analyses of labor are fundamental work that must be done, there is a sense in which A Geology of Media never quite affords the notion that some things (both human and nonhuman) may simply refuse or be outside mediation. Without that perspective, one must wonder where all our tracings will lead. Will we simply provide better maps for capital’s designs? If anything, neo-­materialist turns must ask what we are offering up our research to, our deep and slow tracings of hidden abodes. If we can’t answer, we’re going to have to go even slower, or maybe beyond our comfort zones of reading.

For a work that is interested in the deep strata of geological time and the ways in which temporalities animate media beyond death, A Geology of Media is a book that is a bit haunted by its own ancestors, or the work that has come before it. That work is feminist labor theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and eco-feminism—work that might be more comfortable with outright refusal or with a rejection of the idea that all can or should be absorbed into media. While the book does not aim to be a labor analysis, it leads us so closely to one and then refuses the specifics, often simply using the term “bodies.” Yet, as Parikka has so aptly told us, it does matter where you start and it does indeed matter to be specific, particularly about which bodies, and when and where and why. Here we have a book that leads us so close to the edge of asking these questions, but then shies away. Nonetheless, this is also the strength of the work, as it will inspire conversation, adaption, and a critical response. Read the book in tandem with everything else you are reading, including this essay, and let us begin to have a much more honest, transparent, and critical conversation about what the language of disruption really means. 


Evicted Utopias


Can art, so often used by developers to mask the violence of displacement, instead be used to resist gentrification?

“WHERE Apple stands orchards once grew,” Rebecca Solnit writes of Silicon Valley, evoking the history of one of the world’s largest fruit-growing regions displaced by a newer, colder industry. San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods, historically fertile ground for writers, artists, and radicals like Solnit, are being similarly uprooted by reputably antisocial 20-somethings who commute to the valley in private buses using public stops. They “seem like bees who belongs to a great hive, but that hive isn’t civil society or a city, it’s a corporation,” she writes, likening them to the 49ers and Dotcommers who arrived with a radically new vision of the region, a vision in which the livelihoods and struggles of Native Californians and farmworkers were irrelevant.

Her essay is an early chapter in Erick Lyle’s Streetopia, something between an exhibition catalog and a Crimethinc tract remembering the May and June 2012 art show of the same name. Centered around the Tenderloin district’s Luggage Store, and organized with the momentum of the Oakland Commune and a series of Bay Area general strikes and port shutdowns, Lyle and his co-curators called together an eclectic group of artists, activists, performers, poets, and street people for an “all volunteer challenge to the dominant culture in the poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods of a rapidly changing city with a budget of only around what Twitter spends each week on employee lunch.”

On any given day during the show’s five week run the space hosted free meals, health clinics, and drop-in times before a nightly lecture, walking tour, or party. In the first week Marshall Weber guided a 22-hour “poetry crawl” around San Francisco where guests were invited to recite the works of local writers. The next day, Act Up! alumnus Sarah Schulman gave a presentation on applying direct action tactics against gentrification. That weekend a homesteading skillshare was held at the Hayes Valley Farm, and urban silviculturist Joey Alone told guests about how to get free trees from the city. A week later, Streetopia hosted a “floating museum” and investigative journalist A.C. Thompson gave out tips on how to get dirt on development corporations in a presentation called “Muckraking for everyone.”

Lyle’s previous book, On the Lower Frequencies (2008), was a collection of essays from his punk zine Scam, an upbeat chronicle of guerrilla punk shows, squatting, train-hopping, and intoxicated mischief in the late 90s and early 00s. In the new decade he’s sobered up, ditched the “Iggy Scam” moniker, and seems less optimistic about the “What are we for, not what are we against” approach he professed in earlier issues. In the seventh issue of Scam, Miami, Lyle writes about his disheartening trip to Art Basel 2009, where he found little connection or sympathy from the art scene to its neighbors’ housing struggles. “I’d found that the city government was using an agenda of arts-related-development to redraw the landscape of Miami’s impoverished inner city,” he writes in Streetopia’s introduction, leading to the show’s conception as an anti-Art Basel, combining lectures, skill shares, a free café, and radical walking tours with exhibitions of photography and radical ephemera in a rejection of the mobilization of art against the poor.

In its lustrous pages dozens of works, performances, and actions are depicted in full color photos, transcribed lectures, historical essays, and reflections on the show and its impact. Chris Kraus, struck by Lyle’s recreation of his 1998 single-room-occupancy, Mark Ellinger’s photos taken from the window of his own SRO, and Barry McGee’s Safe Injection Site—a storefront that could be used to safely shoot-up designed with suggestions from drug users themselves—appreciated the show’s centering of a different urban subject. Vero Manejo hit a similar note in his performance “Remember Los Siete”—the famous case of six Latino organizers accused of killing a police officer—”I want this footage of Mission street to be included in San Francisco history / Like flowers on hippies from Haight Street”.

Along with the perspective shift are essays on different techniques of transforming social relations from the street level. An essay by Jesse Drew reviews an exhibition of the underground publications of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Diggers, Motherfuckers, and Kaliflower—radical mutual aid practitioners of their time that inspired the Streetopians. “While ‘we’ve got to back to the garden’ became a commonly held aspiration for movement activists in the 1960s, it is often forgotten that the point for many was not to abandon the city, but transform it.” Drew writes.

With these groups in mind, the vibe at the Luggage Store featured “A daily free café, medicine making workshops, and folks hanging out in the garden or chopping vegetables and doing dishes,” Ivy Jeane Mclelland writes, “not what one might normally see in an art gallery.”

The theoretical centerpiece of the book is Lyle’s 70 page essay on the competing utopian visions of Bay Area punks and radicals and the Tech giants. Drawing connections between Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he sees singularity-fetishist Google and Apple’s vision of the future a fascistic dystopia, while utopia for him is “a process or movement towards possibility… the ‘in-between’ place that the Tenderloin National Forest [a squatted guerilla garden and social space in a formerly trash-filled alley] represents, the ‘no place’ found in the literal meanings of the word.” Paying particular attention to day-to-days of homeless people, Lyle sees life on the street as indicative of this potential, and art as a way to transform the public sphere into a site of bottom-up struggle against those who would enclose it with cement domes in front of businesses to prevent sleeping on the sidewalk, evictions of affordable housing, and broken-windows policing. Artistic solutions to these problems reach towards a utopia in which public life is constantly defended and recreated from the streets to the skyscrapers.

Given the history of developers and politicians using art as a ploy to soften rezoning efforts, by curating art that is historical, political, practical, and critical, Lyle hopes Streetopia demonstrates “it is possible to use art as part of a grassroots effort to improve life for all without displacement.” Liberal mayors like Ed Lee and Bill de Blasio claim to share this “development without displacement” approach, which in New York at least seems as Sisyphean a task as controlling the rat population or extinguishing the city’s trademark rainy-day urine smell. Two years into his administration, de Blasio’s plan of anchoring affordable housing construction to luxury developments— an urbanized trickle-down economics scheme that is a boon for developers, many of whom supported his candidacy—is widely expected to fail.

The urbanization of capital is such a gigantic enemy that well-meaning politicians and radical visionaries like Lyle are practically reduced to the same slingshot-wielding rank. Tech and real estate have been given free reign to radically remap society, economy, and territory. Dissidents of gentrification will have to do the same without the venture capital resources, so Lyle finds some comfort in preferring a utopianism consistent with the spontaneous and fleeting historical moments of rebellion like the White Night riots and the Kronstadt rebellion. The latter was depicted in the 2009 film Maggots and Men, shown and discussed at Streetopia. The insurrectionary sailors were played by a queer and trans cast, partially a criticism of the radicalism of the White Night rioters’ slide into liberal gay politics and middle-class identity. It is not enough, radicals argue, to merely protest the injustices of heteronormative violence, bad court rulings, and shady landlords. We need to reorganize ourselves socially and theoretically, producing art and revolution simultaneously, never content with just one or the other.

Existing at the intersection of the run-down and the hip, defeatist nostalgia and utopian exuberance, leftist pragmatism and adventurist hail-maries, Streetopia could be as inspirational to artists and activists as the moment that got guerilla arborist Joey Alone into reforesting the Bay Area: “I saw a friend plant a redwood and I watched it grow to the size of thirty feet in five years, threatening a neighbor’s retaining wall…”


Can She Dig It


“Unearthing lost gems” often reinforces the gendered principles that have excluded women from cultural canons

No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed.
—Sara Teasdale

MY former saxophone teacher offered me three scraps of advice: Drugs don’t help, men make it worse, and music makes it better. I should try drugs, he said, but nothing injected, and they would never help me play better. Second, as a girl, I should be wary of male musicians trying to take advantage of me. Finally, if I wanted to play well, I should diligently study the masters, in true jazz fashion.

Heeding the last bit, I spent months working through Charlie Parker transcriptions, inhabiting the sneaky contours of his solos. Soon I found my way to Miles Davis, whom I preferred to imitate because his sparse, elegant phrases made space to climb inside. I bought all his records, even the weird ones—On the Corner, Agharta. When I learned that both Bird and Miles had been womanizing heroin users, I let it slide, allowing my teacher’s third tenet to trump the other two. 

I play jazz, in part, because my saxophone teacher introduced me to jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan. He claimed that male instrumentalists he knew imitated her exquisite sense of phrasing, which made perfect sense to me—who but her had ever moved so freely in time? In reality, most men overlook her, but my teacher exaggerated Vaughan’s influence for my benefit, concocting a canon with room for me. He knew that I had not yet gathered the tools to disregard male approval altogether.

Around that time, my real-life liaisons with a musician were meticulous and exhausting, with each of us pouring over into the other’s bumbling sense of self. I memorized every lyric he had ever written, I gleefully promoted his music in my zine, and I bought his band’s records with money I’d earned pulling espresso shots and cleaning toilets, and prized them. I was convinced we were soulmates, maybe even equals. As it turned out, to him I was a groupie, a flower, a toy. Only later did I realize that he never even asked me which instrument I play, let alone why I play it.


AFTER one too many jam sessions at which I was regarded either as an ornament or a nuisance, I accepted that I would never cut it as a jazz saxophonist. I developed a coping mechanism in response. If I cannot create, I thought, then I will curate: I will construct canons myself.

The “jazz tradition,” though still appealing, seemed in need of serious revision. Digging through archives, I learned that jazz history is replete with gendered inequalities. In college, my friends worshipped Sun Ra, the psychedelic jazz musician who purported to be from Saturn. Sun Ra’s quirky space humor has helped entice one generation of hipster listeners after another, but I was hung up on something I’d read in historian Valerie Wilmer’s book As Serious as Your Life: Sun Ra had excluded Carla Bley, a pianist and composer in his circle, from his Jazz Composer’s Guild—a society Bley helped found. Citing sailor lore, Sun Ra claimed it was bad luck to bring a woman aboard the ship. Bley, meanwhile, had to beg Sun Ra’s label to record her.

Sun Ra is admired because he fabricates his cosmic origins with such conviction. By contrast, Bley’s origins are without myth; they are all too real. Born in Oakland, California, she moved to New York City and worked as a cigarette girl at the Blue Note, serving jazz musicians whom she tried, for years, to persuade to play her compositions. Eventually, she was recognized within the city’s avant-garde scene, collaborating with such musicians as Steve Lacy, Jack Bruce, and Charlie Haden and co-leading the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. In 1971, she released her eclectic jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill.

The further I delved into jazz history, the more it became clear how thoroughly women have been written out of its dominant narrative. Their absence tends to be taken for granted, as in the way historians have interpreted the career of Billy Tipton, a swing-era musician and bandleader. Upon his death in 1992, it was discovered that Tipton was female-bodied, despite performing as a man. As Judith/Jack Halberstam notes in In a Queer Time and Place, Tipton’s choice to present as a man has often been characterized as a coping strategy to deal with female musicians’ lack of involvement in swing music. But as historian Sherrie Tucker has recently demonstrated, hundreds of all-women big bands were active in the 1930s and 1940s, hiding in plain sight. Assumptions made about Tipton’s inner life—the truth of which remains unknown to us—have worsened historical erasures rather than resolving them.

Whether joining dominant narratives or confounding them, musicians and historians alike have grappled with gendered injustice and amnesia by whatever means necessary. Guitarist Annie Clark, performing as St. Vincent, sometimes covers the Beatles’ song “Dig a Pony.” She turns Lennon’s cryptic, evasive lyrics back on themselves. “We can celebrate everything we see,” she sings, transforming the imperative pronoun you of the original lines into the inclusive we. Time and time again, Clark’s intervention is to expand our archives, making room for everyone—even those who have routinely effaced her.


FOR many listeners, jazz is synonymous with innovation. But the originality essential to the musical style is circumscribed by the rigid reproduction of jazz lore: familiar memories, stories, and standards of appreciation passed down like fossils. As a result of this emphasis on inheritance, critics have often used the fact that women and transgender musicians are missing from the historical record as proof of their supposed inability to properly understand the music.

When historical accounts don’t overlook women’s participation entirely, they frequently marginalize or minimize it, producing a feedback loop of invisibility and disregard. For example, in 1956, André Hodeir wrote in Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, “To be understood, jazz seems to require a fresh, still unsatisfied sensibility, a kind of person who is overflowing with energy and searching for an outlet. …There is nothing surprising in the fact that young people of both sexes—but particularly boys rather than girls—have in a way made jazz their own.”

Participation, exactly what jazz history has made difficult for women, is often understood as a prerequisite for the truest type of jazz appreciation. “Digging isn’t just liking, it’s about getting involved,” writes Phil Ford in his erudite history Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture. He chronicles the emergence of digging as a practice of insider appreciation, stressing the importance of intimate engagement. But while women writers and musicians were abundantly present in the New York City jazz circles Ford traces, they are buried deep in his narrative’s endnotes.

Record collecting, as the foremost practice through which relics of jazz history circulate and accrue value, reinforces in material culture the gender-based misrepresentations of the culture at large. “I’ve been to record fairs where I’ve been the only woman in the room, which is a strange feeling,” said Rebecca Birmingham, one of few female collectors featured on the blog Dust and Grooves: Vinyl Music Culture. Though women have collected vinyl since the inception of the medium, female collectors, like the women musicians being collected, often lack representation in public space that is commensurate with their actual involvement.

Crate digging, through the thrifty celebration of happenstance, has the potential to undo such woeful neglect, allowing music lovers to stumble upon hidden luminaries they otherwise might have missed. A copy of Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, long omitted from “best-of” lists, might appear by chance in the discount box of a stoop sale; its cover, glistening in the sun, suddenly warrants being dug through sheer coincidence of place.

Some music hunters make such corrective collecting a deliberate goal. As collector Rich Medina said in Eilon Paz’s book of interviews Dust and Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, “I guess filling holes always comes before anything else when I see a large stash of records. There’s something fulfilling about walking away from a long digging session with missing pieces of catalogs or genres.” This practice might seem to elevate historically marginalized musicians and connoisseurs alike, but obscurity itself remains defined within masculinized domains.

What constitutes a hole is already a gendered delineation. In the words of Will Straw, “To collect is to valorize the obscure, and yet such valorization increasingly stands revealed as dependent on the homosocial world of young men.” As Straw and many others have suggested, acquiring collections can be a way for men to harness power. The standards of connoisseurship, however accepting of the rare and hidden, cannot be separated from these gendered power relations.

The possibility of a full, attractive record shelf—the lure of a tidy whole—is premised upon the fiction of a stable canon in the first place. When collecting is seen as filling gaps, it equates completion with appreciation. Musical canons, in this milieu, are less meaningful sets of objects of aural delight than satisfying puzzles to be solved. To admit that there is no ideal discography and never was would threaten to leave the crate digger aimless, forced to concede that his hunt is not a matter of the objective historical archive but a kind of luxury consumption, which he uses to legitimize his pretenses to authority.

And yet, digging of both kinds—whether appreciating jazz or searching for jazz records—has always been enabled by the very gaps it claims to fill. Only by confining his collection within limits can the collector achieve the mastery he seeks. Logistical constraints, necessarily producing exclusions, make the collector’s mission possible. More often than not, these necessary omissions are rationalized and rendered acceptable through recourse to tacitly gendered norms.

Collector Sheila Burgel, featured in Dust and Grooves, elucidates these norms, characterizing record collecting as a boys’ club. “Quantity matters. So does rarity. And your knowledge about what you collect,” she said. She continued to collect on her own terms, resisting these norms: “What girl wants to bother with being held to such silly standards when we’re already judged on just about everything else in our lives?”

Women collectors who tend record shops have noted that men regularly challenge their knowledge of historical minutia, doubting a woman’s ability to appreciate appropriately. In August, when music critic Jessica Hopper invited women to share stories of marginalization within the music industry on Twitter, hundreds of female connoisseurs weighed in. One responder, @samorama, expressed what seems to be a common experience: “Working at a record store men ignore me & seek out other men to answer questions. Then they’re referred back to me.” Discussing an attempt to enter a music venue, @GIRLEMPOWER pointed out the dangers of restrictive borders of musical taste: “Was hassled/not allowed in until I ‘proved’ my knowledge of the scene/bands. Occasionally assaulted/groped once ‘allowed’ inside.”

Disparaged for lacking expertise that turns out to be a moot point, women interested in digging music often encounter this double bind. Women are pressured to inhabit male practices of appreciation, only to regularly be doubted and shamed for trying to impress men. Exemplifying such contradictory demands, another responder, @rebecca_faith, wrote, “If I said I liked certain bands, I wouldn’t be believed and I was apparently pretending to like the band for male attention.” Damned for what she does and doesn’t know, the female record collector embodies our struggle to possess knowledge, even as we are possessed by it.


DURING bouts of feminist ennui, I’ve considered burning all men’s work in a heap to the ground, destroying every folder, fragment, and file in retribution. Destroy all trace of him, I think on occasion, ejecting men and their impulse toward mastery. In the 1940s, they melted vinyl records down to puddles to gather shellac for the war. Just last month I fleetingly considered smashing my computer, mining my hard drive for its mineral contents, scraping the tantalum and coltan into vials with which to poison every man who has ever made me compromise.

In this spirit of dismissal, when my hard drive crashed last year, I didn’t mourn the loss of every MP3; I was grateful for the clean slate. These days, I build canons that aspire not to completion, nor thoroughness, nor exhaustion of any kind. Instead, I practice a mode of appreciation that eschews mastery and exclusive expertise, in favor of a collection that is expansive, anyway—one that moves freely in time, untethered to myths masquerading as authoritative fact.

When I lost my music, there were a few men I missed: Elliott Smith, his poetry praising our maker with the pronoun she. And Kind of Blue, which I wish I could carry with me wherever I go. Mostly for Cannonball Adderley’s saxophone solo on “All Blues,” which must be accessed regularly and felt in real time. Me, finding my own joy in his singing without a voice. If only I could keep them and not the rest.

My mother, an accountant, taught me material and emotional thrift—techniques of digging through bins and racks for latent treasures, hiding good deals at the bottom of the pile and returning for them later. When my investment in searching exceeded my returns, she taught me ways of saying goodbye too. “Time to let go,” she would say, of shoes, lovers, and false notions. Holding objects lightly, we welcome more.


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As Palestinian history is erased, its archive becomes a nomadic war machine

PERHAPS the central paradox of the archive is that archival material gets in the way of the archive itself. Acquiring masses of paper ephemera, taming them, creating a legible narrative, digitizing the whole collection: these are the tasks of the contemporary archivist. Buried beneath material. The clutter itself poses a problem.

State-run archives are overburdened by material; as the process of whittling down is always unseen, what is actually a curatorial narration of the past appears neutral, a mere coincidence of the right documents interacting with one another in time and space to tell the story we already knew. Palestinian archival work poses a much different set of questions. The state archive—more or less inaccessible, its mechanisms rendered invisible and steeped in age and history—sees its foil in The Incidental Insurgents, an ongoing multimedia installation by the Palestinian artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme.

The Incidental Insurgents—both the product of the artists’ archival research and an archive in and of itself—complicates spectatorial notions of what an archive is, how it should look and feel, the material it should contain. More importantly, though, Basel and Ruanne treat the materiality of the archive centrally, rather than as an impediment or an afterthought. The Incidental Insurgents resembles a cluttered workspace with no intention of becoming one day more organized. The installation spills: across time frames, across mediums, over walls and chairs and tables. Records are left spinning or they lie dormant, waiting for a passing visitor to activate the sound.

In a weekend-long publishing workshop run by Basel and Ruanne earlier this year, I was taken with the newness of their archive, especially compared to some of the material they encountered in their research. That weekend, we handled 18th century Islamic manuscripts and 20th century leftist pamphlets with the utmost care: more or less falling apart, the texts teetered between the workshop participants as we cringed to leaf through them. A few rooms over in the gallery space where The Incidental Insurgents was displayed, however, I rifled eagerly through the writings of Roberto Bolaño and Victor Serge; printouts of film stills from Godard and from the artists’ own video work; and pictures of historical Arab “bandit” figures, like the outlaw Abu Jildeh. My fascination with the exhibition was not so much with the notion of touching it in the first place—tactile engagement alone can’t dismantle institutions like perhaps we thought it could—but with the feeling of the paper itself. I recognized it. It was the feeling of paper freshly run through an inkjet printer. It was new.

Basel and Ruanne’s physical archive, smooth to the touch, resists the illusion of history. It’s an artistic refusal that foregrounds the sociopolitical reality of violence and erasure: how does one mine an archive already hollowed out by war and occupation? What happens when the colonial archive, with its deletions and partial erasures, tells a story that clashes so intensely with lived history? When the archive actually obfuscates the past instead of elucidating it (a fantasy we entertain of the recording of history), newness becomes a political strategy. Basel and Ruanne’s freshly printed archive is as much an act of creation in the face of a legacy of destruction as it is a reminder of that history.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari understand areas of smoothness as spaces in which nomads—who move through space independently of the state—­operate. (Two particularly striking examples of organisms that move through space nomadically are rats and ­viruses.) Marked by the sporadic and “free” movement of nomads rather than a rational system of organization, this smooth space is “a space of affects, more than one of properties.” Alternately the bandit, a figure central to Basel and Ruanne’s work, becomes legible as such precisely because their actions are outlawed; their antagonistic relationship to laws and conventions—rather than their existing outside them—puts bandits in dialogue with the state. Basel and Ruanne seem to posit a coming-together of these two figures, a nomadic bandit whose strategies borrow from the legacies of both.

The materials within Basel and Ruanne’s installation are literally smooth to the touch, but the installation itself is a space that’s both smooth and striated, both of the state and apart from it. The Incidental Insurgents is not beholden to the organizational systems of the state archive, but its meaning may be fixed and frozen anyway by its position within the art institution and the museum’s tendency toward distillation (through wall text, through press summaries, through lectures, etc.). It’s an installation that resides in a single institution for several months, but also circulates globally without a permanent home.

It makes sense, then, that the materiality of The Incidental Insurgents encourages movement and even lines of flight. Basel and Ruanne’s avoidance of archival paper and deckled edges in their documents foregrounds not only smoothness but newness; one does not handle their archive with gloves. The thinness and casually composed nature of Basel and Ruanne’s inkjet-printed archive calls to mind paper material deployed in public space, like those of IDF leaflet campaigns warning Gazans of impending bombardment.

But where Israel drops leaflets in anticipation of state violence, Basel and Ruanne weaponize their paper ephemera against the state. Their installation is merely a materialization of an entire digital archive: it appears precarious, but is actually comprised of PDFs sturdier than a centuries-old document. The Incidental Insurgents seems to anticipate its imminent destruction, the material as easily disposable as IDF leaflets—the Palestinian print-on-demand archive may endlessly regenerate. The romance of history and one-of-a-kindness is reserved for the colonial archive, whose security concerns are distant and hypothetical. While the colonial archive in its physical form now faces the vast labor of digitization; the digital Palestinian archive is deployed physically at will. Its materialization serves as a warning signal.

Yet The Incidental Insurgents is not assembled with recorded history as its central organizing principle. Rather, it is an archive organized affectively: characters and narratives meet thanks to a shared spirit. Grounded in the figure of the bandit, Basel and Ruanne have created a conceptual archive in which excerpts from The Savage Detectives mingle with newspaper clippings, Godardian film stills, and slogans from the memoir of Victor Serge. In our workshop, Basel cited the “identical feelings” between revolutionaries in Paris in 1910 and Palestine in 2011. Is this the new archive: one that feels? The Incidental Insurgents is an archive whose materials swirl around a nucleus: not an event, a nation, a religion, or a language, but a strategy of resistance.

In this space, unlikely characters interact. In Part Two of the installation, The Part About the Bandits, what begins as a narrative of the outlaw Abu Jildeh’s capture is interrupted by the fictive outsider-poets of The Savage Detectives. “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists,” the text—in side-by-side English and Arabic—reads. “I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.” This foregrounding of fiction in the archive actively pushes against the notion of a monolithic history that is objectively recordable. The documents constantly toggle between pronouns. As a methodology, it reinscribes and reaffirms the personal narrative as a document worthy of inhabiting an archive.

The archive that intermingles the fictive with the “real” also recalls Golda Meir’s famous assertion—repeated before and since in so many different ways—that Palestine does not exist. It seems that these Palestinian artists, instead of taking an oppositional stance to the sentiment, actually agree with Meir. Her statement is an utter negation of a state and a people, but Basel and Ruanne’s relationship to that erasure is generative. Instead of linking Palestinianness essentially to statehood, Basel and Ruanne assemble an imaginative archive in which Palestine is understood through actions and emotions rather than citizenship or lack thereof. Palestine has been denied the right to exist, its paperwork destroyed, so a Palestinian archive may as well include the account of an anarchist in Paris in the early 20th century, or of fictional poets in Mexico City. Why not?

A line from Part Two of The Incidental Insurgents reads, “Unwilling to be MASTERS or SLAVES, they became bandits.” For Basel and Ruanne, banditry arises from the limitations of this binary. It seems the only way to opt out is to intentionally exist on the margins. In their installation, Basel and Ruanne bring together bandits who often worked autonomously—Victor Serge, Abu Jildeh, the Visceral Realists—under the sign of a Palestinian archive. It’s a recontextualization of these various figures as having pertinence to the Palestinian narrative, but perhaps more significantly, it underscores the shifting coordinates of Palestinian national identity itself.

In organizing an archive around the figure of the nomad-bandit as one that elucidates Palestinian history, The Incidental Insurgents maps the figure of the nomad onto Palestinianness itself. Stateless by definition, the nomad migrates through smooth space in spontaneous and unplanned ways. Palestinians, as opposed to Deleuze and Guattari’s theoretical nomad, are strictly policed and surveilled by the state whose tactical-military arm infamously looks to weaponize the very same theories. However, we might understand the Palestinian archive as one that migrates, a deterritorialized collection of affinitive bodies that exists outside highly rational systems of organization.


AS Palestinian artists, Basel and Ruanne are also confronted with binary systems that allow them to speak and be heard only in certain ways, just like the bandits they highlight. Western media, which traffics alternately in disaster pornography and anti-Palestinian fearmongering, knows these binaries well. As consumers of these images, the Western audience is familiar with images of Palestinians accompanied by the endless material of their landscape. Visual representations of Palestine are dominated by detritus, material, rubble. A quick Google search of “Gaza” yields images only of destruction, the endless gray-brown of ruin and the Palestinians trapped beneath it, running from it, screaming at it. In this demolished landscape, Palestinians are portrayed either as helpless victims buried in debris or suicide bombers, perpetrators of the kind of violence that forces others to dig themselves out of the ruins.

This visual tradition can be found not only where we expect it—Western media sources—but also in mainstream films made by Palestinian writers and directors. Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, perhaps the most internationally popular Palestinian film of the 21st century, chronicles the daily lives of two suicide bombers preparing to self-detonate in Tel Aviv. Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of This Sea, on the other hand, features young Palestinians trapped in Ramallah, burdened by the physical artifacts of a pre-1948 Palestine, objects imbued with so much political and nostalgic significance they threaten to halt forward momentum entirely.

The demands of neoliberal spectatorship require the Palestinian artist to perform the roles of creator and translator both, all with a measured cadence, composure, and a neatly packaged politics that neither sympathizes with Israel nor makes frightening interventions in western liberal ideology. Tone exists at the heart of this issue; the protagonist of Salt of This Sea was lambasted in an NPR review as being “little more than a mouthpiece for history lessons on the injustices perpetrated on the Palestinian people.” Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, equally forthright about the necessity of violent resistance, nonetheless enjoyed more nuanced critique from Western spectators because of its art-house aesthetic and almost nonexistent dialogue. It’s a matter of what kind of didacticism is appropriate, when it is warranted, and what kinds of resistance prove too difficult for the western audience to fully embrace.

Basel and Ruanne seem to share more in common with Suleiman than they do with Jacir; as multimedia artists who translate their work in anticipation of Western spectatorship and who challenge the status quo without uprooting it, Basel and Ruanne do not pose a threat to their spectator. Furthermore, The Incidental Insurgents is neither static, nor is it merely an archive; it is an installation, and circulates as such in the international art market. There are different expectations of an installation like The Incidental Insurgents than of a state archive, and its relationship to capital also differs greatly: Basel and Ruanne won both the 2015 Sharjah Biennial Prize and the 2016 Abraaj Group Art Prize, a $100,000 award. (This kind of reception from the Gulf states is significant: it’s not just the western world that is taken with Basel and Ruanne’s not-explicitly-confrontational approach to art and archival work.)

Circulation both local and global is significant for an installation of this kind, which issues forth from a nation whose archives are widely scattered. Many historic Palestinian documents are housed in the British and Israeli national archives, hopelessly inaccessible to Palestinian citizens. An archive created and curated by Palestinians is a new phenomenon in a landscape dominated by state-run colonial archives on the one hand and small, individual collections of paper ephemera on the other. In its ability to move and rematerialize as a work of art, The Incidental Insurgents might be far more accessible than any centralized database.

Moreover, Basel and Ruanne’s detournement of the archive, which remixes history and collapses boundaries of real and fictitious, represents a paradigm shift not only in archival practices, but also in the Palestinian relationship to paper ephemera. It seems the Palestinian is always either buried or burying, destroying or destroyed. The Incidental Insurgents finds no comfortable home within these binaries that dominate visual representations of Palestinianness. The materiality of the installation becomes an all-important subject of its own, the sheets of paper themselves rewriting a history of Palestine just as much as the tales of Abu Jildeh’s exploits. The Incidental Insurgents not only accepts but embraces piles of clutter and sprawl; likewise, its material newness complicates its relationship to more traditional archives, which are generally only curated, not created anew.

Within this visual tradition of the buried or burying Palestinian, Basel and Ruanne, unwilling to align unproblematically with either creation or destruction, instead enact a banditry of their own. Their sampling of material from various cultural instances of banditry is a piece-by-piece method of understanding Palestinian identity; these various sources, linked by a revolutionary spirit, interact in the archive to iterate the slipperiness of Palestinian nationality in the face of statelessness and occupation.


IN The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño poses a question, iterated three times: What’s outside the window? This is how his novel ends, with three questions and three small pictographs alongside the text, simple rectangles. They could be windows, but they also look like sheets of paper aligned horizontally. The border of the third rectangle is a dotted line. Each time I look at it, I’m tempted to cut out the shape. My copy of The Savage Detectives is warped from an afternoon spent outdoors in a rainstorm, its pages like dead leaves, and I imagine the sound the final page would make if confronted with a pair of scissors.

Bolaño’s question—which both literalizes and abstracts the window—is a question central to Palestinian visual and cultural production. One recalls Vivian Sobchack’s theory of cinema as serving the function alternately of a window, frame, or mirror. This tripartite model has a stranglehold on othered artists; they’re forced to play the role of tour guide, or to up the relatability factor in their work for western audiences. Basel and Ruanne’s refusal to engage with that violent form of spectatorship involves not smashing the window but covering it up with something just the right shape and size: a piece of paper.

There are times when the corpus of the archive converses with the human body in ways that are almost sublime. Ruanne recalls that at some point in their research for The Incidental Insurgents, the two ended up searching for the bandit Abu Jildeh’s grave: “We learned that Abu Jildeh’s grave was unmarked. He was buried in an unmarked grave. His family members told us his body had been moved at some point…I was shocked and said, ‘If anyone comes searching for AJ, they won’t be able to find his grave.’” She then recalls, “When we came back 10 days later, they had made a proper grave for AJ, with his name and an inscription.” In Basel and Ruanne’s workshop, the artists shared pictures they’d taken of that second visit as they bore witness to the official recognition of Abu Jildeh’s buried body. All that digging had led them there, to an unassuming, sloping backyard in a Palestinian village. Perhaps they felt a momentary weightlessness.