Faculty, Staff Celebrate Social Sciences Fest 2024

On April 18, faculty and staff from the Division of Social Sciences — along with their families — convened at the Faculty Club for Social Sciences Fest, the annual celebration of the social sciences at UC Berkeley. The gathering provided an opportunity for members of the UC Berkeley social sciences community to connect over food and drinks. Several children in attendance enjoyed balloon animals, coloring, and other fun activities.

Dean Raka Ray
Dean Raka Ray

Raka Ray, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, expressed gratitude for how the division’s members have weathered a tumultuous year. “I want to acknowledge with pride the way the departments in the social sciences, and in particular the chairs, have worked so hard to repair frayed relations and always to do the right thing to keep the community together in circumstances that haven’t always been easy,” Ray said.

Ray also shared her optimism for the division’s future, noting that incoming chancellor Richard Lyons is a social scientist. “My job is to remind him that he is a social scientist,” Ray said. “But although the Provost has been helping to resource us, we are still under-resourced. In spite of that, all of you nurture your students, you produce research that matters, and you do massive amounts of service, not just in the department, but for all of campus. It makes me amazingly proud to be able to represent you.”

A Year of Highlights

Ray listed a variety of highlights from the past academic year, including the creation of a comprehensive internship program that aims to help prepare students from the Division of Social Sciences for meaningful careers.

“I noticed there wasn’t really a structured way in which social science students could get internships at all,” Ray said. “Through our donors, we’ve been able to not only find paid internships, but also money so that people who want to follow their heart and do internships that are unpaid are able to earn minimum wage at least.”

Ray also noted the Fall 2023 creation of the one-year Master of Computational Social Science program, which has already accepted a cohort of 25 students selected from hundreds of applicants. “That shows how much it was needed, so that’s very exciting,” Ray said.

Other highlights included public recognition for UC Berkeley social science graduate programs. Several of the division’s graduate programs received top rankings from U.S. News and World Report, Ray said: the Departments of Sociology, Psychology, and History ranked #1 in the nation, while the Departments of Political Science and Economics ranked 4th best.

Other points of celebration included awards won and books published by faculty, as well as the Matrix Faculty Fellows Program, which supports assistant- and associate-level faculty members from the division for continuing work on research that has a significant impact across multiple disciplines. “We have supported eight faculty thus far and we’re going to support for more next year,” Ray said.

Divisional Awards

Raka Ray and Chris Walters
Raka Ray and Chris Walters

The Division of Social Sciences’ Distinguished Teaching Award was established to encourage and reward faculty members who have been exceptionally generous and effective in both undergraduate and graduate teaching.

This year’s Distinguished Teaching Award was given to Chris Walters, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Economics. “Chris does the hard job of teaching popular core and required classes, but he inspires his students tremendously,” Ray said. “He’s also an exceptional advisor to graduate students, and has done a lot to bring in diversity and inclusion into his syllabi to reflect new criticisms of more conventional studies.”

Upon receiving the award, Walters thanked his wife, his colleagues, as well as Berkeley students. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of really talented undergraduate and graduate students since I’ve been here,” Walters said. “I teach classes in labor economics, which cover potentially difficult, broad topics like minimum wages, the economic impacts of immigration, market discrimination, and so on. In my experience, our students approach those topics with a lot of maturity and intellectual seriousness, and it makes them a real pleasure to teach.”

The Distinguished Service Award, established to recognize a staff member who has made extraordinary service contributions to their department and to the campus, was given to Harumi Quinones, Student Services Director in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology.

Quinones “has done so much work in not only keeping the morale of the staff and department up, but she’s also been doing incredible work to make psychology even more inclusive,” Ray said. “She really led the effort to remove unnecessary barriers that were preventing people from coming into psychology. Once she did that, the number of psychology majors went up by 50%. But it is still the number one program in the country. Good things happened, as opposed to people’s fear that bad things would happen.”

Harumi Quinones
Harumi Quinones

“I feel so blessed to have had so many faculty supporters who listen to me, and who really were thought partners in thinking about how we can better support students who are interested in psychology,” Quinones said. “I just want to thank this whole wonderful room of supporters and the phenomenal colleagues I have on this campus for helping make wonderful things happen.”


Storytelling and the Climate Crisis

Contemporary writers and activists have described the climate crisis as, in part, a crisis of the imagination, of culture, and of storytelling. Recorded on March 11, 2024, this panel featured a group of authors and scholars of different genres — science fiction, journalism, history, literary fiction, and comedy — discussing how the climate crisis has impacted their craft and what practices of storytelling have to offer us at this pivotal moment in human history. This panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Department of English, the Department of History, and the Berkeley School of Journalism.


Daniel Gumbiner is a novelist and editor based in Oakland. His first book, The Boatbuilder, was nominated for the National Book Award. His new novel, Fire in the Canyon, was published by Astra House in 2023. He is the Editor of The Believer.


Annalee NewitzAnnalee Newitz is a science fiction writer and science journalist. They are the author of nine books including, most recently, the science fiction novel The Terraformers. They are a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times, a columnist in the The New Scientist, and the co-host of an award-winning podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct.


Aaron Sachs is a professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University. He is the author of several books, most recently, Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight against Climate Change (NYU Press, 2023).


Rebecca SolnitRebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist, and a graduate of the Berkeley School of Journalism. She has written more than twenty books, including Orwell’s RosesHope in the DarkMen Explain Things to MeA Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Together with Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Solnit edited the 2023 collection Not too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility.


Rebecca Herman (moderator) is associate professor in the History Department at UC Berkeley and author of Cooperating with the Colossus (Oxford University Press, 2022). She is currently working on a book about the unlikely ban on mining in Antarctica, told through the stories of the military wives and children, artists, writers, activists, soldiers, and scientists who traveled South in growing numbers during the 1970s and 80s.


Podcast and Transcript

Listen to this event below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[WOMAN’S VOICE] The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

[JULIA SIZEK] Hello, everyone. Welcome. I’m Julia Sizek. I am the postdoc here at Social Science Matrix. And it is my pleasure to welcome you all today for this lovely panel that we are about to have on storytelling and climate change, which is perhaps not as lovely as a topic as I think the panel will be. So our lovely panelists will hopefully bring us some redeeming hope in this time that is not always as optimistic as we would like.

And on this optimistic note, we would love for you to support our panelists and the books all of them have written. So we have a sampling of some of them up here, if you want to just peruse, but we also have put some QR codes up if you want to support independent bookstores and purchase the books.

Since we are here at Matrix, it is my obligation to tell you about some of our upcoming events that we will be having in the next couple of weeks. So if you are interested in California issues, on Monday we will be having an event about the conservatorship system in California, which as you may know, is a system through which people are conserved and put under court order to basically get their lives together.

But this system is both coercive for many and can also work to help people with issues like drug addiction. For those of you interested in climate change issues, next week we will also be having an event on Greening infrastructure that will be featuring the work of some of our most promising graduate students here.

It’s always a pleasure to have graduate students be an important part of these conversations that we have. And then on next Thursday, the Berkeley journalism school will be hosting an event that will also feature one of our panelists here Rebecca Solnit, on Thursday, March 21.

So those are just some of the upcoming events. You can also find more at our website, which is

So now, without any further ado, I’m going to introduce Rebecca Herman who is one of our Matrix 2023-2024 faculty Fellows, and also an excellent writer in her own right. Her first book Cooperating with the Colossus was published by Oxford University just in 2022 the book is really an interesting look at a topic that we don’t view as being a communitbased History Project, which is about the process of US military basing around Latin America.

More relevant to our topic today, Rebecca is currently working on some environmental issues in Antarctica, and I invite you to ask her about them. They’re very interesting. And so with that, I will hand it over to Rebecca and eventually to our panelists.


[REBECCA HERMAN] Thanks. All right. Thank you all for joining us, especially on this spectacularly sunny day. I always wonder how the sun might impact turnout at an event, no matter how compelling the event is. Thanks also to my panelists for being here. I’ve been really looking forward to this for months.

So in recent years, prominent writers, scholars and activists like Amitav Ghosh, Adrienne Maree Brown, Mary Hegler and Rebecca Solnit, among others, have been calling our attention to the work that storytelling can do in the face of the climate crisis.

If for a long time writers and activists were focused much of their energy on convincing the public that human made climate change was happening, now that they’ve mostly succeeded in that task, narrative and story are freed up to do all sorts of other things. And so part of the question that I’m eager to hear from the writers on this panel about is, what can and should they do?

The panel brings together four writers who work in and across different genres. We’ve got comedy, history, science fiction, science journalism, literary fiction and nonfiction essays, to share with us concretely how climate change has impacted their work and the particular promise and strengths the different narrative forms present for connecting with people around climate.

So the format of today’s event– bless you –will be pretty straightforward. I’ve asked each of the panelists to come up and speak casually for about 10 minutes, and then we’re going to open things up to the question, two questions from the audience. And before we kick off, I’m going to briefly introduce all four of them so that they can come up in succession.

Did my mic just do something? It’s sort of in and out. OK. All right.

So I was saying the format. All right. And then I’m going to introduce them all at once, that’s right. So between the four of them they’ve published over 40 books. So if I gave a really comprehensive introduction, you will be here listening to me all day.

So I’m going to say a little bit about them and then all four of them had a new book come out in 2023 that are all relevant to this topic. So I’m going to say a few words about each of the 2023 books, which you can link to through the QR code up here, and then we also have copies of them that you can check out up here after the panel.

And we decided you’re going to go in the order that you’re sitting right. First up we’re going to have Aaron Sachs, who’s a professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University. And his 2023 book is Stay Cool, Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change. And I suspect we’ll hear more about this book in a minute.

But in the book he observes that the environmental movement has been, quote, “the least funny social movement that’s ever existed,” and he draws on the historical importance of dark comedy for other communities that have faced horrific oppression and dark times, to make a case for why comedy can contribute to the fight against climate change.

After Aaron, we’re going to hear from Rebecca Solnit, who is a writer, historian and activist and a graduate of Berkeley’s Journalism School. She has written more than 20 books, so she did a lot of heavy lifting with that overall book count, including Orwell’s Roses, Hope in the Dark, Men Explain Things to me, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

Her 2023 book is a co-edited volume with Thelma Young Lutunatabua. Is that correct? Called Not Too Late, Changing the Climate Story From Despair to Possibility, which brings contributions from a number of important voices in this space, including several that I mentioned at the beginning.

Then we’ll have Annalee Newitz, who’s a graduate of Berkeley as well of the English department, a science fiction writer, a science journalist and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions are Correct.

Their the author of nine books. The Four on the website is an unforgivable typo and I publicly apologized. Most recently, the science fiction novel The Terraformers, which is the 2023 book, although they have a book coming out imminently also, but not on display. Not currently on display.

The Terraformers came out in 2023, and that book takes readers to the year 59,006 and beyond, to the planet of Sask-E where the novel’s protagonists are preparing the planet for settlement when the book begins.

My own anxiety about climate change has required me to eliminate dystopian books from my diet. And so The Terraformers is a really, for me was a breath of fresh air to read and a great example of the way science fiction can engage with climate questions.

And then we have Daniel Gumbiner, who’s a novelist based in Oakland and the editor of the magazine The Believer, also a Berkeley grad from the English department. His first book The Boat Builder was nominated for the National Book Award, and his new novel Fire in the Canyon came out in 2023 with Astra House.

The book is about a California family living in the foothills dealing with all sorts of things that California families deal with, including now the ravages of, and perpetual anxiety created by wildfire. So I’m really so thrilled to have these four panelists with us. And I’ll turn it over to Aaron. You’re up first.

[AARON SACHS] Well, thank you so much, Becca, for the invitation and for organizing this. And thanks also to the other panelists. It’s really a privilege to be here with you. I’ve also been very excited about this for months. And thank you all for being here.

So in dark times like I think we’re living through right now, I feel as though we need to draw on all the different coping strategies that human beings have developed over the millennia. I think I’m on this panel and that was just confirmed, because of the work that I’ve done on comedy and I promise that I will get to that.

But first I actually wanted to mention a couple of other forms of storytelling that have been important through the ages and that I have found myself turning to quite a bit over the last several years of my ongoing midlife crisis. And those are music and religion.

I’m very lucky to have been married to someone for almost 25 years now, who is, among other things, a semi-professional singer and for the last decade or so she’s been part of a multiracial choir called The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers.

Some of you probably know Dorothy Cotton. She was a civil rights activist and educator, worked very closely with Dr. King, and wound up spending the last few decades of her life in Ithaca, where I live. The Jubilee Singers specialize in Negro spirituals and also do some gospel.

And I feel like I can testify, having gone to dozens of their shows at this point, that their audiences and I really think this is true, no matter what is going on in the world or if it’s not too presumptuous to say, no matter what’s going on in their personal lives, they leave the auditorium visibly uplifted.

And this happens to me as well, and it’s kind of shocking every time because I’m a Jew from Boston and never in a million years could I have predicted that I would eventually find solace in songs that are almost entirely about Jesus.

I should acknowledge that I was raised as a reform Jew, which is basically the same as Unitarian. Religion was always somewhat important to me, but really for what I would call secular reasons.

So for instance, Passover was my favorite holiday because it really it was an excuse for our extended family to get together and have a giant feast, and also because it is a holiday that is largely about storytelling.

The Passover Seder exists in order for Jews to take time out every year and repeat, retell the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt. And I found that quite moving, and over time extremely comforting.

And there’s one particular passage. This is from Exodus, chapter 14, for those of you keeping track, that has become particularly important to me in recent times. And I thought– it’s very short, I thought I would just share it with you since it’s almost spring, almost the season of Passover and I really find it to be very powerful storytelling. It goes like this.

“And so in the middle of the night the Jews arose and fled with their unleavened bread and whatever else they could carry. And they continued all the next day and into the night, and began to feel it was safe to rest. But then they came to the shore of the Red Sea and it ran high and fast and they could not cross.

And they looked behind them and saw Pharaoh’s army bearing down for the Lord had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And then the leaders of the Jews looked up at the heavens and said, seriously?” This is the King James version.

“Seriously? What was the point of helping us escape if we were just going to die here in the wilderness. Were there not enough grave sites in Egypt?” that’s actually in the Bible, you can check. Serious.

And of course, the amazing thing as you all know, is that the Lord appreciated the joke, parted the waters and the Jews crossed to safety, which just goes to show, if you’re really good at Gallows humor, you can control sea levels, which could come in handy.

  1. So now we’re at the Comedy part. I started thinking about comedy in connection to climate change mostly because I was depressed and all of my students were depressed. And this was true from the moment I started teaching Environmental History, which is back in 2005.

I had to grapple with the question of how to present this rather difficult material without making all of us in the room feel worse. At the time, my main strategy was to focus on hope. I actually assigned Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark, which had just come out in 2004. On display.

And I talked a lot, as Rebecca also often talks a lot, about the uncertainty and contingency of history, how history shows that nothing is predictable, nothing is inevitable. It all depends on how people choose to act, which means that we always have the power to reshape society through our collective action.

That helped for a little while. Then after a few years, this is when my midlife crisis really kicked in, I really felt I was losing hope, in part because I was dealing with both parents getting Alzheimer’s disease. This is when I really started to appreciate comedy.

Because when you start to lose the people best to something like brain damage, you have to laugh at the ridiculous things that they say. And I think I can say, from my own experience, that your loved ones will respond much better if you laugh than if you look horrified, which you are often tempted to do unfortunately.

It was my friend Jenny Price– and if you don’t know Jenny’s work, she has a book called Stop Saving the Planet! Exclamation Point, which is very fun to check out I would recommend it. Jenny helped me connect the personal and the political in this case and see that the kind of comedy I was relying on to cope with what was happening with my parents could actually also help in the context of the climate crisis.

Her main approach had to do with communication. We could get our message across better if we delivered it with a smile, instead of a sneer or a grimace. And I agreed completely, as did a number of social scientists who were just then beginning to publish studies suggesting that humor was more activating to people than, say, fear mongering. Not a shock, but the studies helped.

These social scientists also tended to emphasize that we should use what they referred to sometimes as good natured humor, so jokes that felt relatively safe and cheerful. And that also made sense to me. Although, I personally felt that what I needed was something a little bit darker.

And in addition to that, by, let’s say the mid-20 teens, it started feeling to me like the real challenge for environmentalists was no longer convincing people that climate change was coming for us, but rather dealing with the overwhelming despair that many people were starting to feel because it had become clear to them that climate change was already here.

So that’s when I started looking more deeply into the history of dark comedy and started realizing how apt gallows humor could be for this current moment. It turns out, and Becca referred to this at the beginning, that people in the Western world have been relying on jokes, and especially people who have experienced oppression, have been relying on jokes for thousands of years to gain some purchase, just a little purchase on their horrifying realities.

One of the great scholars of gallows humor named Antonin Obrdlik, wrote in 1942 that gallows humor should be understood in his words as an index of strength or morale on the part of oppressed peoples. So this was 1942. Maybe you could tell from his last name, which has four consecutive syllables that he’s Czech, so he’s writing as he put it based largely on experiences in Czechoslovakia following the advent of Hitler.

There is actually quite a lot of Holocaust humor, meaning humor from during the Holocaust, which some people today have a hard time fathoming or accepting, but I think it’s a really important thing to know about. And there’s quite a lot in the book. Prisoners in concentration camps organized variety shows and circuses and cabarets.

There was a group of friends at Treblinka who used to say to each other, hey, don’t eat so much because we’re the ones who are going to have to carry your body out of here, which was a very dark joke because, of course, they had hardly anything to eat at all. It’s also well documented that enslaved African-Americans had a very rich dark comedy tradition.

I’ll just quickly give you one of my favorite examples. So Ike comes into the master bedroom with breakfast one morning and the master says, Ike, I had the strangest dream last night. I went to Black person heaven and I found that the buildings were crumbling and the streets were full of potholes and the people were starving, even though it was heaven.

And Ike says, yeah, that is strange. But I’ll tell you, I had an even stranger dream last night. I dreamed that I went to white person heaven and the buildings were beautiful and the streets were paved with gold, but there wasn’t a single person there. Imagine that, nobody made it to white person heaven.

So it makes perfect sense to me that young people are starting to hold up signs at climate marches saying things like “I was hoping for a cooler death.” And elderly celebrities are doing climate comedy videos where they stare at the camera and say my grandkids are spoiled, anyway. They could use a little hardship.

And stand up comedians are coming up with lines like “bringing kids into this world is scary, so I’m thinking about buying my boys a kayak.” I actually bought two kayaks for my family during the pandemic, as many people did, but honestly, they did not really help. I thought my midlife crisis was bad when my parents were in decline, but now I have three teenagers and that turns out to be even worse.

On the plus side, my kids make me so insane that at least I don’t really have time to worry about the climate crisis anymore. Thank you.


[REBECCA SOLNIT] I always feel that break– well, in journalism we were trained to talk about breaking stories, which is always being the first person to tell a story. I also love the phrase in terms of breaking stories that trap us, that stall us out, that point us in the wrong direction, that prevent us from seeing stories that are cages instead of doors.

And I think there’s something on the left that happens a lot, which is the rhetoric, like, “we need to start tomorrow,” which is always assuming it’s not yet– nobody’s doing anything. It’s not happening yet.

We haven’t done a damn thing. And so just because some of you may be slightly left in this crowd, I thought I would just mention that I think my basic premise is we have a lot of new stories that have really evolved in my lifetime, radical transformation from the mainstream stories, even 30 years ago where Indigenous, or 35 years ago, where Indigenous people were almost completely written out.

People used to talk about the nature culture divide, as though there were two co-equal and separate spheres, et cetera. So our new stories are seedlings. They need to be watered and tended and seed collected and promulgated, but they’re here.

Fredric Jameson famously remarked “someone once said it is easier to imagine the end of the world than imagine the end of capitalism.” I’d like to paraphrase that to say that some people find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the fossil fuel industry,” even though the industry is in real dire straits right now, as my friend Antonio Juhasz, one of the country’s most brilliant oil policy analysts, told me last week.

So every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis, and that’s as true of the climate crisis as anything ever. A lot of people, and this is why we produce the book Not Too Late, the website study guide and et cetera, Thelma and I. So a lot of people don’t know the essential things they should, or should have been told, including that we have the solutions, we know what to do.

The climate movement has achieved a lot, which is not the same thing as enough, obviously, and won many victories, including perhaps the most significant victory of all, awakening the public to the nature of the crisis, its urgency and creating a majority population in this country and across much of the world that is eager to see action in response to climate change money spent, et cetera.

The whole idea that nobody cares is not really there. And to break another story, we’re often told that our job is to convert the climate denialists, which is A, a complete waste of time because it doesn’t work. B, they’re not very large or important. And C, I think the real job is always not to convert our enemies but to motivate our allies.

We have what we need. We just need to activate it, at least in terms of people who agree with us. So some of the storytelling problems are specific to climate, some are larger problems of imagination. By problems of the imagination I mean that the ways a lot of people imagine power and change are, well, disempowering.

We all get handed a version in which power resides in a very few people an elite of officials and the wealthy and highly visible, but change often begins in the shadows and the margins, among people who are not yet known or may never who may also be marginalized or dismissed or low status. This is true of every human rights movement and a lot of environmental and climate movements and campaigns.

It’s also true that ideas are very powerful and they almost always– all the good the progressive ideas, the ideas that have made the world better, begin in the margins in the shadows and move towards the center. People in the center are blinded by the spotlights on them. But we don’t have to be.

And so when it comes to this migration of ideas, I think of it as a reminder that ideas are powerful, which should fortify anybody doing work in the Social Sciences and Humanities at a University, despite the fact that so many departments are being dismantled and we’re so often told what we do doesn’t matter.

But back to power, the easy thing to see is the end of a campaign when a president mouths a new value, a court hands down a constructive decision, a legislative body passes a good law. Change ended there. It didn’t begin there and the news stories often forget the long journey of a good idea.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. But whichever way it bends, because it bends and we’ve seen a lot of bending in the other direction lately, whichever way it bends, you have to be able to see the arc. And I’m pretty sure by arc he meant a gradual curve, not a sudden angle as if history took a sharp left. Although, sometimes it does.

So I’m seeing it as sudden because change has been going on all along, but you finally recognize it. The expectation that change will be swift and the failure to perceive it when it’s not, impacts politics and public culture for the worse. A common source of uninformed despair is when a too brief effort doesn’t bring a desired result or when one loss becomes the basis for someone to decide winning is impossible and just quit.

It says that if you tossed a coin once and decided it always comes up tails, so you shouldn’t bother. The best movie I’ve seen about all this is a 2022 documentary called To the End. It traces the creation of the Sunrise Movement, the US climate organization for people under 30 started in 2018, and their launch of the Green New Deal, showing how it influenced the Biden campaign’s climate platform deserves credit for build back better.

And finally, yes, in reduced and compromised form, but still cross the finish line in August of 2022, after most of us have had given up on it as the Inflation Reduction Act. That is by taking only a five year time frame, it shows what ended up as a huge piece of legislation began as young idealists nobody had ever heard of dreaming of change, and by tracing that trajectory shows that young people grassroots campaigns and good new ideas have power.

The short term version gives you politicians giving us nice things. The long term version shows you movements shifting what’s considered possible, reasonable and necessary, setting the stage and creating the pressure for these events offering a truer analysis of power.

There’s a wonderful scene in To the End in which Alex O’Keefe, then creative director of the Sunrise Movement, declares as he unloads a station wagon, “people who do nothing, people who have not even canvassed or anything, they start critiquing your strategy to win. But how are you going to win? What’s your strategy? Is it realistic? Can we win?

Who cares if we win, man? We’re just unpacking boxes. You do things step by step.” His patient commitment to do what comes next, including unpack the car, the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, because that’s how campaigns work. Reminds me of Greta Thunberg’s famous– I guess I’m only reading famous almost cliched statements in this talk, but I put it together this morning.

–of Greta Thunberg’s famous 2019 declaration “avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” And that encodes a story that tells us two really beautiful important things, as I understand it. One is that addressing the climate crisis is a long term project calling for many kinds of labor, as building a cathedral was. You may only have one brick to contribute to it, but a million people with one brick is a pretty big structure.

The other is that we must work towards a post-fossil fuel world, knowing that the solutions are continuing to evolve. For example, solar and wind were expensive, utterly inadequate technologies at the beginning of this Millennium, but are now cheap, effective and being implemented at a dizzying rate while battery storage and materials are also evolving at an astonishing speed.

A lot of people are still kind of stuck in the early Climate Movement Era where we didn’t really have any solutions, except austerity, energy conservation, fucking compact, fucking fluorescent light bulbs, et cetera. We’ve moved beyond them, thank God.

So people often imagine the future as a version of the present in which something already obvious expands, rather than one in which wholly new actors, movements, ideas, technologies values, may change the rules.

I spent a lot of last year saying that, while it is very hard to imagine the year 2073– and I have to update this, but I’m more familiar with 1973 than 1974, so bear with me. Well, it’s very hard to imagine the year 2073 now, nobody in 1973 could imagine 2023 in all its radical difference, both wonderful and horrible, from where we were then.

But all the good things we’ve gained are because people fought for them, campaigned for them, organized for them for enviornmental protection that was inseparable from the radically bigger, deeper, more widespread environmental knowledge intelligence, awareness since then. Fought as the burgeoning Queer Rights Movements, Indigenous Rights, Latinx Rights, Asian-American Rights and Women’s Rights Movements then.

Even as what those goals should be, what the language should be, what the norms should be, continue to evolve. And the Black Civil Rights Movement served as a model for them all and never stopped. Like them, we must work towards a future we can imagine, but cannot know, and learn along the way. That’s what I think cathedral thinking also means.

And we must learn to tell stories in which some loss is inevitable. Some has already happened with climate chaos, but it does not mean we can give up or that we are going to lose everything. Everything we do matters.

How much time do I have left? OK.

I’ve long found that Americans are so unenthused about uncertainty. They often replace the truth of uncertainty with false certainty, declarations about what is going to happen as though they had the gift of prophecy with a tendency towards doom and gloom and negativity. Optimism, pessimism, cynicism and doomerism, all have this in common.

They assume they know what will happen. And if the future is already decided, then nothing is required of us. Frontline communities facing annihilation don’t generally indulge in this kind of passivity, but the comfortable too often do because it gets us off the hook.

If we already know what’s going to happen, we don’t have to do anything. And for those of us who just go sit on the couch, that’s easy to say if it means your children are going to starve or you’re going to be driven out of your ancestral lands. There’s no sofa there that you can kick back on.

So hope, or my version of it, is just the recognition that the future is unknown because it’s being made in the present by what we do or fail to do. And it’s with a commitment to seize the possibilities, because possibility is another term for uncertainty. You risk failure, but doing nothing is another kind of failure, a nothing ventured, nothing gained kind.

I love the prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba’s aphorism “Hope is a discipline,” because likewise people often confuse hope with confidence and feeling good. There’s a lot of confusion between thought and feeling, particularly around climate, between emotions and ideas, which is why I’ve taken to saying I respect despair as an emotion, but it shouldn’t be confused with an analysis.

You can feel terrible and not surrender as people in desperate circumstances often have and often do. There’s some evidence that the fossil fuel industry loves and supports doomerism and defeatism because it serves their ultimate purposes. So I also want a story of defiance in which we don’t give them what we want. And I want stories that make people spit in their eye and refuse to surrender.

I think here of Timothy Snyder’s admonition in his List of 20 Ways to Resist Authoritarianism, right after Trump was elected. “Do not surrender in advance” was one of them. And I think it’s really important for climate too, do not surrender in advance. And while these are not stories per se, they are the preconditions, the mindsets that make some stories possible to tell or send other stories packing.

Two, we don’t just need technological change crucial, though it is. We need imaginative change. I do not believe we will do what the climate needs us to do out of an abstracted rational analysis.

We will do it out of a heartfelt understanding that everything is connected that burning fossil fuel kills places, species, fellow human beings, social systems, that the world itself is made of systems, not isolated individuals. And to believe that not out of a sense of grim responsibility or obligation, the classic white people guilt way of framing things, but of what Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as reciprocity, a sense of giving back out of gratitude towards the beautiful abundance of what has been given.

The good news is that among, at least some of us, this worldview has been steadily growing the past 30 years, thanks in large part to the people who never lost it, the Indigenous communities whose perspectives have been crucial in the most practical, as well as the most imaginative ways to climate action.

Science itself is now offering aligned stories in which nature is largely socialist, not capitalist, by which I mean it’s driven by mutuality, symbiosis, interdependence and cooperation, not the version of competition so popular with the social Darwinists.

I also believe we’re afflicted by a story pushed hard by right wingers and the fossil fuel industry, that we currently live in an age of abundance. And that doing what the climate requires of us means austerity, sacrifice, renunciation. It definitely means fewer hamburgers, but they’re gross anyway. I get to enter some personal bias here. I have not eaten one in this Millennium. Ew!

There’s a better story to tell in which the great majority of the world’s people live in austerity and poverty now and one in which we’re constantly sacrificing lives, cultures, politics to the deadly literal and political poison that is fossil fuels.

We’ve accepted a dirty smoggy polluted world as so normal it’s hardly perceived. I think of that moment in the pandemic when a huge amount of noise stopped from machines and people suddenly heard birds afresh, and when in Northern India a huge amount of pollution stopped and there were cities seeing the Himalayas in the distance for the first time in decades.

Doing what the climate crisis requires of us could assuage the crisis of hopelessness and despair about the future. Redesigning the world could make a world that’s more accommodating of diverse people, young, old, with disabilities, all income levels. We can make it what we want. We have to radically redesign the world.

If we can lead with good stories, we can redesign it to be a better place for a lot more of us and a more that includes other species and other parts of the world, as well as our own species and our own particular corner of the world.

Rethinking what constitutes wealth could mean shifting from the idea of accumulating wealth and possessions to security in our communities, confidence about our future and a wealth of time, because if we’re not consuming so frantically, we don’t have to produce so frantically. A wealth of time for relationships, including not only social relationships, but relationships to our own interior life and to the natural world and other species.

Finally, I think we need news stories that are not lone individual, rugged manly, hero stories when they’re superhero stories and the hero’s relevant quality, that the Ubermensch quality is the ability to endure and inflict tremendous violence. That’s not actually how the world gets changed.

The world gets changed for the better, largely by people who are patient, tenacious, can inspire others, can draw people together, build alliances, solidarity, find common ground and imagine a better future. Thank you all. I rushed through that because there was a lot.


[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I think the pathway to this podium is part of the dark humor that we’re propagating here. Thank you again for having me. This is really awesome. It’s great to be back in my old academic haunts.

I have kind of a funny career, which requires me to balance between doing science journalism, which is evidence based, where one tries one’s very best to tell the truth and I also write science fiction, where one tries one’s best to lie. And make things up. But I do try to make my science fiction as evidence based as possible as well.

And I want to tell you a little bit about the coming together, but also the clash between those two worlds and the way that we express stories about them. So let me tell you about my summer vacation last summer. I was lucky enough to join a group of environmental scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, which is in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

There’s a couple of Marine Biological labs there actually, the whole town is kind of overrun by scientists. And what we were doing was a group of journalists like myself were joining a team led by the environmental chemist Anne Giblin whose work is terrific. She’s done a lot of investigation of how chemical changes in the tundra in the Arctic are triggering other kinds of cascading effects.

And she also looks at the area around Woods Hole. There’s a Bay there called Waquoit Bay, which has become the subject of a great deal of study of looking at how nitrogen loading in the water leads to deoxygenation, and that leads to fish die-offs. I’m sure those of you who are familiar with environmental crises have heard about this before.

So I go there and I get to tag along with them while they’re doing things that to me are deeply exciting. Like, we get to put on waders, go into the Bay and dig up chunks of algae, and then we put them into a fricking mass spectrometer. I mean, first, we had to dry them out and do a bunch of stuff, you can’t just like throw algae at a mass spectrometer. But I’d never seen a mass spectrometer before. I’d been writing about them for like decades, OK?

And I’m always, like, mass spectrometer, pretty badass. And I saw it, and I literally was freaking out, and the scientists thought that was very cute and they let me kind of stand next to the mass spectrometer. Do not touch. It has a laser in it, so it’s a little bit dangerous.

And to me all of these things were just incredibly exciting. And I kept kind of gushing at them about how this was really amazing. And then somehow it got out among the scientists that I write science fiction, which I had sort of– I had come into this fellowship being like I’m a very serious science journalist. Here are my books that are all science journalism.

And they got so excited and they were, like, we love science fiction. We want to talk to you all about science fiction. And I’m, like, I’m a little embarrassed. I wrote this novel about building ecosystems. It’s quite silly and it’s not what you guys are doing out there with the algae. And they were, like, no, no. Actually science fiction is incredibly important to us.

And in fact, one of the scientists at EMBL, one of the papers he’d published became the basis for Ray Naylor’s novel The Mountain in the Sea. Highly recommend. Great book about octopus cities. And he was just thrilled. He was, like, did you know my article was cited in a fiction book?


It’s, like, that’s not going to get you credit for tenure pal. But they I had a couple of theories about why it was that science fiction got these scientists so excited. And I think part of it is these are environmental scientists who are, of course, constantly thinking about the future. They actually are gathering tons of data and trying to use computer simulations to project into the future how these inputs into the environment are going to continue to change the environment.

That’s their entire job. They’re environmental scientists, so they study change over time, change over long periods of time, as Rebecca was kind of pointing out. These are things that happen on massively long time scales. And so I think that they are in fact, in some ways, engaged in extremely evidence-based acts of science fiction. They’re looking at this sort of speculative future.

The other thing I think that makes environmental scientists interested in science fiction is that environmental science is a very collective practice. You cannot just go out by yourself in one lifetime and study an ecosystem. You have to have someone like Anne Giblin, who’s a chemist. We also had someone with us who studies food webs, so looking at biological relationships between life forms and actually not even just life forms, but also kind of the chemical precursors of life.

And of course, at the Institute itself, there are people who are studying everything from inorganic chemistry to communications, how to communicate with the public. So they’re very used to this idea that tons of people have to come together in order to discover anything. But the problem is that, as a science journalist, and for them I think, as scientists trying to curate their careers, they’re really encouraged to think about great individuals.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to an editor at a major magazine or newspaper and said, I really want to write a story about this group of 10 people who did a thing. And they’re like, yeah, no. Pick a person. There has to be a person who’s like the leader. And hopefully they’ll be hot so we can have a picture of them.

And this is not how anything is done. No such thing as science that’s done by like one hot person and in waders with algae. And so the thing that science fiction can do really well, I think, is actually give us an opportunity to tell stories about collaborations between a number of characters that take place over a long period of time.

And so I want to finish it up in my last couple of minutes here by telling you a tiny bit about my novel The Terraformers, which came out last year, which is about a group of environmental engineers on another planet trying to create novel ecosystems.

There’s a little kink in their plans, which is that they are all, in fact, owned by a interstellar real estate corporation, which develops artisanal handcrafted planets. And they’re developing an Earth like world. So the world is owned by the real estate company, but so are all of the people on the world because they were genetically engineered to be good workers who create these ecosystems.

And the people on this world are not just Homo Sapiens. In fact, Homo Sapiens is kind of a weird identity that you might kind of choose to have, if you have the money. But these are mostly kind of knockoff hominids. And then of course, the major characters in the novel are moose.

There’s a really great moose romance. There’s a romance between a sentient flying train and a cat, who’s an investigative journalist. So this is a world where I did want to have a sense of coziness, cozy humor. It’s not very dark humor, except in some places. But also I wanted to suggest what happens to personhood in the future, if you actually take seriously the idea that our environments and our ecosystems are full of living creatures who all have something to contribute.

And so what I wanted to do with that kind of imaginative world was kind of posed to my reader the question of, what would it look like if you were trying to shepherd an ecosystem and every member of that ecosystem could come to the table and tell you what the fuck they want from you? What if the cows on your farm could say, hey, I’d actually like things to be different?

There is a radical revolutionary cow in my novel, by the way, who does some pretty awesome stuff. And what would happen if we took seriously the requests of moose about where they got to migrate? And so in my novel the basis for this idea of all of these different parts of the ecosystem coming to the table, is a deep seated belief in something that they call the great bargain.

Now remember, this is a novel set in 50,000 years. So there’s a lot of culture that’s happened between now and that future. And the great bargain is the word that they have for the scientific process that has allowed them to speak with non-human animals.

And so there’s all of these non-human animals who are part of this great bargain. And I wanted to allow readers to have that idea in their heads. I mean, I was very deliberate about it. I was like, I want people to think about the great bargain, and how do we get to the great bargain? And how do we think about our relationship with nature or what we call nature? How do we think about our relationship with our ecosystem as a bargain?

Not as us capitulating, not as something capitulating to us, but us entering into a bargain. And it’s a bargain that we keep. And that’s another promise in the novel, is that this bargain is kept, all of the treaties are kept that they make in the book.

And so basically what happens when you write fiction, I’ve found, like The Terraformers, is that I was able to show these communities at work, but also the book takes place over a period of many thousand years. So we’re able to see how an ecosystem evolves, but also how a social movement evolves over time and over the generations, and how the gains made by moose who fall in love in one generation.

How those are passed on to the next generation of people, who set up a fantastic public transit system for the planet and those people pass on their wishes to the next generation, which includes this investigative journalist cay who falls in love with a train and exposes the corruption of the evil corporation that runs their planet.

And maybe that way they’ll have a chance to change things again and seize control of this privately owned nature. Thanks very much for listening.


[DANIEL GUMBINER] Hi, everyone. I’m Daniel. This is so cool. There are so many– I want to talk about so many different points that my fellow panelists have raised, but I’ll try and keep this short, so you guys can ask some questions too. I wanted to talk a little bit about my book Fire in the Canyon, which came out this year and sort of the origins of it and how it came to be.

There are no moose romances, alas. But it’s a contemporary tale about a family living in the Sierra foothills, who are confronting the threat of wildfire. And what happens essentially is that a wildfire moves through their town and it sort of sets in motion this chain of events for these different members of this family, the Hecht family.

And in the book you follow each member of the family and see the way in which the aftermath of the fire affects them. And I think, obviously wildfires are intensely covered in the moment when they occur. There’s lots of journalism. But then in the aftermath it’s a little bit quieter.

And so that to me seemed like the province of a novel, because the story goes on right. People are still there and the story doesn’t stop in the days after the wildfire. So I wanted to explore the emotional experience of what happens after you go through something like that.

And the inspiration really came from returning to California actually. I grew up here, but I was living in Las Vegas for a little while for a job. And when I came back, even in the years that I had been gone, I felt like the shift in the way that wildfires were affecting my friends and family all over the state was so dramatic compared to even like the last few years that I had been gone.

And I was really struck by that, as someone who had grown up here and how different the Summers felt and the Falls. And so I felt a sort of obligation to bear witness to that. And that’s sort of where the impulse to start the story came from. But then, and this is a panel obviously on storytelling, there were these questions that arose and challenges that arose of telling that kind of story.

And I think one of the most difficult things I wrestled with when working on this book was figuring out the lens of it, figuring out how wide the aperture would be essentially, because obviously climate change is a massive subject. It’s a vast subject. It’s sometimes very difficult to even wrap our heads around how much is implicated.

But humans aren’t usually emotionally moved by a sense of vastness they’re usually moved by the particular. We’re hardwired to relate to each other on a personal level. And so I had to figure out a way to tell the story that felt authentic and moving on a personal level, while not feeling like it was also reductive and not taking in the full scope of what the issue actually is.

And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges about writing on Climate Change in any genre, really. And it can be a challenge in nonfiction, but particularly in fiction where you’re often working to try to move the reader and to have them emotionally connect to a story.

And that’s so essential too in fiction, because that’s the work that fiction does, that’s what makes it powerful, is that ability to grab you and emotionally transport you. And so that was one of the challenges. And what I decided to do was to just really zero in on the particular and work from there, and let that expand out into the broader story.

So there’s a very concentrated story in a lot of ways. It’s looking at a very specific thing, but the hope is that it alludes to everything else through that small specific detail. Another one of the challenges was actually thinking about the political in the work. And obviously Climate Change is a highly politicized topic. And in some ways, when I wrote the first draft actually, it didn’t really engage the political that closely.

And there was something about it that felt off to me, which was something that often happens in the process of writing something. There’s something wrong, you don’t know exactly why, but it’s just not sitting right with. You don’t have the answer, but it’s missing something. And for me, it felt like it was sort of coy, in a way, to not engage this the political dimension of this thing, which was so obviously political.

But it also felt like when I tried experiments with incorporating political threads into the story, that it just overwhelmed the personal aspects of it, and kind of drowned it out. And I think that is a particular challenge of writing about climate change, is that balance between letting the political just kind of subsume everything else and still managing to incorporate it in some way.

And so what I ultimately did with regard to that was to basically try to let the political speak through the characters concerns. And that was a really big turning point for me in revising this book, was basically figuring out a way to through the lived concerns of the characters, to speak to some of these issues. And once I did that, it felt like the key had sort of turned in the book and I was seeing it in a different way and it allowed it to feel more honest to me.

The last thing I’ll say is just that I think in writing fiction one of the most important things it can do is create a sense of communion. And I think that’s something that we really, as many of the panelists have alluded to, we really need that sense of neighborliness in this moment.

And I think there’s a way in which we can sometimes feel alienated from our fellow people and feel like we are sort of suffering in isolation with some of these subjects. And it’s so important, I think, in this moment in particular to identify our shared experience with each other.

And so that’s, I think, one of the other things that storytelling can really play a role in this moment, is kind of opening up those conversations, uniting us. One of the most interesting parts of writing this book actually was I did a lot of research for it and that involved talking to a lot of people who had been through different kinds of experiences with wildfire.

And those conversations were so interesting and really varied. But one of the consistent features of them was that everyone really wanted to talk to me. I had sort of gone into it thinking, oh, it’s going to be hard to get people to open up about this. I don’t know if it’s going to be– this might be a challenging research project.

But really the experience was that once people were invited to share, they just really wanted to talk about it. It was on a lot of people’s minds. They didn’t feel like there was a forum for them to express what they had gone through.

And so I think that is something that’s so important in storytelling, to keep our levels up collectively as a group, whether that’s through your own writing storytelling in that regard or whether that’s through private conversations, groups like this. So I think that’s another thing that’s really important and something that storytelling can kind of uniquely– a way in which it can uniquely serve us in this moment. Thanks.


[AUDIENCE MEMBER] How to use one of these things? It sounds like a lot of your exploration on story writing is pushing back against despair.

REBECCA SOLNIT] Are you talking to me or to all of us?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] –a lot of this throughout. No. And I guess I’m thinking of the counterpoint to Aaron’s dark humor, which I love of course. But have we feasted for a long time on stories of despair? Why has despair been our go to disposition? If you have any thoughts on that.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] Do I ever? But I don’t want to hog the time.

That’s a great question.

Say something.

And I think that it serves as status quo, capitalism, commercial culture, et cetera, to tell us we’re consumers, not citizens, that we have very little power, that the power rests in the hands of the mighty, the elite minority to whom we should be very nice to get what we want. I think we don’t have a lot of stuff that familiarizes us with how unpredictable the world is. And I opened with the famous “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

And of course, I think, even the end of capitalism frames it as either like everything is capitalism and the only alternative is nothing is capitalism. I think of it more as all of us in our friendships and our passions, if we do volunteer work, donate money to noble causes, et cetera, are doing anti-capitalist things all the time. Gardening is kind of anti-capitalist.

Unless you’re employing a poor person to do it for you. I was just in West Marin where I saw a lot of that. So I think a lot of things work hard against people feeling powerful, confident, relatively at ease with a world. Either people think change is all for the worse or that nothing ever really changes. Usually they believe both of those things at once.

I think, in a sense, it’s like we have bad equipment, equipment that’s poorly adapted to reality and understanding change, understanding power, often understanding how much worse things were. As an old feminist and a longtime climate activist, when Roe versus Wade got overturned, a lot of people were like, oh, feminism is completely rolling backwards.

And it’s like, well, we did have this right for 50 years. I don’t believe we’re never going to get it back. But you broaden the lens to look at Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Ireland, for Catholic countries that all gained abortion rights recently. Or you go back into deep time until the Griswold case came to the Supreme Court and people didn’t have a right to birth control.

The world in which I was born into was so horrifically and brutally unequal for women who were excluded from almost every corridor of power. Marriage was an institution of inequality. So I feel we have a lot of stories where amnesia and despair are closely related, in my view. You can’t know the future, but you can understand patterns and possibilities from the past. So I think that’s a big piece of it.

And the US is a very amnesiac culture. And I read that part of why people are not more anti-Trump, ’cause a lot of them don’t even remember what the world was like 3 and 1/2 years ago. It’s legit for kids who– 18-year-old voters who were 10 when Trump got elected. It’s not so legit for people over 30.

So I think all those things feed despair as well as, when I started talking about hope 20 something years, 21 years ago, I ended up saying “hope is a frilly pink dress nobody wants to show their knees in. Despair is a black leather jacket everyone thinks they look cool in.” So it’s also kind of a style factor.

Those are my top 5,000 explanations. Thank you all.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I wanted to add something really quickly because being in the world of science fiction, we think about these things a lot around, whether people are writing dystopian or Utopian or hopeful science fiction. And one of the things that I’ve found, because The Terraformers is quite a hopeful book in a lot of ways, although it has a lot of dark elements to it as well, is that when you write something dystopian people think it’s quite serious.

They take it as being weighty and literary.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] Black leather jacket.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] Yeah. And actually I thought it was interesting that you described hope as being a frilly pink dress, because I think it is something that is sort of marginalized, feminized, degraded. It’s viewed as unserious. Somebody naive, someone who doesn’t truly understand the world. And so when you try to offer a more hopeful vision, sometimes it can feel like everyone is just shutting you down because it’s just not, it isn’t something that an educated person would believe.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] I heard her.

[REBECCA HERMAN] Yes. I was just saying that this is true in my experience in historical scholarship as well. And certainly was my disposition as a college student, which is when I became more and more interested in history, I wasn’t interested in high school. But it was almost like the more obscene the better. It’s why I study US Foreign Relations in Latin America. It doesn’t get any worse than that.

But this book that I’m working on now is about Antarctica and it ends with a ban on mining. And so of course, that’s not the end of the story. It’s not everything tied up in a bow, but it is weird to be a historian writing a book where the arc actually ends in a place that is sort of a weird happy ending. So I can relate to that across the historical genre as well.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Well, it was a pleasure to listen to you all talk about your work and your books on climate. I have also written a book on climate. So I know how difficult and also how important it is as well. But mine is on artists reimagining the Arctic and Antarctic and it’s called Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics.

And it deals with storytelling, but in the context of art and filmmaking specifically on these regions. But I wanted to ask and, I mean, this is something we all grapple with, and I’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s work and had really appreciated it in a lot of ways because, I think, yes, the serious is usually, becomes extremely masculinist and limited.

And I too stay away from the apocalypse and all that kind of fear mongering and thinking in my own writing. But I always have trouble hitting a balance between being furious that we’ve blown through the 1.5 centigrade mark.

But the way people also respond to emergencies in such a sort of short sighted way. And it’s like a balance in our writing in a sense of how to open up conversations and keep the pressure on simultaneously and get people to feel like they can contribute and act as well, and push against passivity.

And so I feel like it’s so interesting how you’re all sort of figuring this out in terms of novel writing. I mean, from my experience, it seems like, once people become part of the first line communities, then they really wake up. And it’s really, to me, depressing that people have to be hit by Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Maria in order to understand the huge stakes here.

So I was just wondering if you could just speak more to, how you think through these different kind of layers, levels, emotions? Whether it’s humor or horror, as the cases in some of the work I write on, the horror genre. And how do you keep this balance and tension going simultaneously?

[AARON SACHS] It seems like maybe the fire angle. I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but just what you were saying about frontline communities, I don’t know, if you were thinking about that.

[DANIEL GUMBINER] Yeah. I think the first thing that came to mind in terms of just balancing these different waves of emotion around frustration and then wanting to remain hopeful to at the same time, is just sort of trying to be honest about that and look at it soberly and not try and make it other than what it is, which is that it is really frustrating.

And there are also hopeful elements, in both of those things are true. And just trying to acknowledge that and continue to work within that seesaw state of mind, because that allows you to see it most clearly. And I think seeing it most clearly is the best way to act in a wise way around it.

I think– actually thinking about the despair question a little bit too. The thing that came to mind for me is that, well, despair and depression often arise when we feel like we don’t have a voice or we are disempowered or our voice is not allowed. And so I think if we are feeling despair, it’s often because we haven’t found a door through which we can imagine, achieving what we feel like we need to achieve.

But those doors do exist in this moment, like many of the panelists discussed them. And so it’s a matter of seeing that clearly and being like present of mind enough to find the frame of mind that works for you.

So I think acknowledging it and being frank about that helps you chart a path forward.

[AARON SACHS] I guess I would also just add very quickly that, for me, part of it is trying to work on multiple fronts at the same time, in multiple ways. So in my contribution today I was really focused on how we, who are activists or engaged in various ways, need to work on our own mentality or mental health,

But also in the book, I talk about how we can use humor through satire to attack the people who are doing things we disapprove of, and also how we can use humor on ourselves to make ourselves sort of less grim and sanctimonious.

Becca was saying history is often dominated by a tragic metanarrative environmental history even more so. I mean, it’s almost like a full embrace of tragedy and despair and just the sort of teleology, the fate of everything going wrong, everything being despoiled. And I think making fun of that tendency in ourselves could also be a useful strategy.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you all. I’ve really enjoyed this. I think each of you have spoken to this a bit but I’m curious whether you can talk more about everyday ways of engaging with storytelling and how we might be more expansive with those.

So specifically for folks who aren’t professional writers where do you see opportunities for us to expand the places in which we’re telling stories the media that we’re using and the ways that we’re engaging with them? Particularly when we live in a culture where often the act of reading is so solitary. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] When I put out Not Too Late, I felt it covers a lot of different aspects of the climate situation, energy, technology, culture, colonialism, et cetera. And then I realized we hadn’t actually given people a practical what-can-I-do guide. So that’s now in the digital book and will be in the next printing, and it’s a free download pinned in my Twitter account.

And on the Not Too Late website and stuff. But I feel like everybody is a storyteller. Some of us have the joy and luck of publishing books. Every conversation is a story conversation. There are stories underlying, oh we’ll never win. Oh, we actually can remember all these times we win.

So I feel like a big part of being a climate activist is just being an informed and constructive participant, whether it means bringing climate up without just being like, oh, I read another really terrible statistic, but kind of like wow, did you know that solar is now the cheapest form of electricity ever known on Earth? Or that.

So I feel like there’s a lot of different pieces as a storyteller. And it’s not necessarily just stories specific to climate. I think our stories about where– as I was saying, I wrote Hope in the Dark 20 years before we put out not too late. Where does power lie? What does change look like? Where do we find our own power?

And again, I think memory is to hope as amnesia is to despair. So I think just equipping yourself to participate in everyday life, because these things– the world really gets changed not by a book, but how a book, whether it’s Silent Spring or whatever becomes how people tell the story about.

Oh, pesticides are not these miracle things that will save us from bad bugs. Pesticides are poisoning us and birds and disrupting the whole system. And so I feel stories need to go, I hate the word viral at this point in history for some reason, but they need to become something that’s everybody’s equipment, not just a few writers.

So that’s how I think about it. I don’t know what the other people here might say.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I’ve been thinking a lot about this article that Astra Taylor wrote. Yeah, we love her. She’s a filmmaker and she helped spearhead The Debt Collective, which is a group devoted to relieving people of their debts. And she talks about this idea of the right to listen. So not the right to speak, but the right to listen.

And she describes how the Debt Collective, as a movement, deployed this idea when they would get together in big groups like this or even bigger, and people would just tell stories about their debt. And this is a hugely taboo subject, especially in the United States. People do not like to talk about money, how much they owe, how much they make.

And just the act of sharing how much they owed, what it had done to their lives, was really transformative. And I think that that to me is how storytelling comes into everyday life.

I think any time you get together, even with just a group of friends informally or a group of people on a Discord server, or if you’re on Mastodon or some social media thing that’s not Facebook or X, you have an opportunity to listen to people and hear their stories and share and realize that you’re not alone.

And a lot of what Rebecca was saying, that we are actually working to change things and it’s very easy to feel isolated from that. But in fact, it’s just a conversation away and it doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be talking.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hello. Thank you very much for this total panel. I’m a PhD student here in the History Department, and I’ve been trying to grapple with the question of what kind of storyteller I want to be. I’m thinking about the past and the present. And in this process I’ve been told that I need to be eligible to the historians, that I shouldn’t really pay attention to the president.

I should stick to the sources. And so my question is, in your respective fields, either historical scholarship, science journalism or fictional writing, how do you negotiate with your respective fields expectations of what your writing should look like and to bring forth, or perhaps tap into different ways of imagining, different ways of storytelling to get out of this storytelling crisis that Rebecca Solnit highlighted? Thank you.

[REBECCA HERMAN] You’ve thought a lot about this. I wonder if you should.

[AARON SACHS] Sure. I’ll just chime in quickly about that since you are a PhD student, the academic part, I’m glad you already used the word negotiate because that is something you can always do, and that’s in my experience, it’s something that graduate students forget that they have the power to do.

And I think one of the strongest ways you can negotiate, and I mean in the most immediate terms with your advisor or your committee, but also in the broader terms that you were asking about, your intended audience, is to cite models of works that have been successful in your field and do exactly what you most want to do in terms of communicating.

Because I can guarantee that there have been models in whatever field you’re in within history, there have been very, very successful books that have told their stories and including first books, including dissertations, that have told their stories in different ways, that have been published with trade presses, that have appealed to different kinds of audiences, simultaneously academic audiences and, say, activist audiences.

So that’s where I would start.

[REBECCA HERMAN] And I’ll just say in the 40 plus books I didn’t give you summaries of in their entirety, is an edited volume that Aaron co-edited called Artful History. And it is about– it has many, many examples of work that is strong scholarship and beautifully written.

Do any of you want to speak to that, or should we take another question? We have about 10 minutes left.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I would just say super briefly, as a recovering academic, I would say also that if the kind of writing and storytelling you want to do takes you beyond the Academy, that’s OK. Like there’s jobs for people like us outside the Academy too and I used to not think that when I was a grad student, and all I wanted was a tenure track job.

But there are ways to be a public intellectual and to do the kind of work that you want to do beyond the Academy. So if you find that you’re butting your head up against those limitations too much, just remember there’s the big world out there too and we’re here and you’ll survive.

[REBECCA HERMAN] Sure. We could do that and then close it that way.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi. Thank you so much for your talk. I’m an undergrad in both English and Environmental Science, so I really appreciate the grouping of topics, I guess. You mentioned a lot about how all labor is necessary in the climate crisis and working towards addressing these issues. So I guess, how do you reassure yourself that writing is valuable and especially in a society where scientific discovery is much more valued and talked about?

How do you reassure yourself that your writing is worthwhile and has purpose, and especially before you’re well-read and published that that work is contributing in a meaningful way?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER #2] Yeah. My question is surrounding, I think it’s hard for people who– it’s hard to get people to show up for things, even if it is something that those people want to do. I think that the attendance at this event is a testament to how wonderful you all are, so props for that.

I guess I’m wondering if there has been any through line through what you all have seen success in terms of whether it’s something you want people to physically show up for, something that you’re asking people to do, contacting or representative, those sorts of things. When those kind of campaigns have been successful, what through lines have been for that?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER #3] Hi. Sorry. My question is angled towards, being conscious that we have two journalists in the panel, in the context of losing thousands of jobs, journalist jobs in the US right now. How do we tell, where is the space to tell international stories? I just came back from two years in the Brazilian Amazon. I do journalism. And the stories being told here are really different.

And the stories that I hear from traditional Indigenous peoples are not reaching a national or international level. And I myself am struggling to be able to tell the stories because they don’t seem hopeful or like solutions to journalism.

[REBECCA HERMAN] Great. Who wants to speak to those for concluding?

That’s a lot.

[AARON SACHS] I’ll jump in with one thought in response to the very first question from our undergrad. And thank you very much for coming. It doesn’t matter, writing doesn’t matter.

What I mean is there’s no way of knowing if you’re writing is ever going to matter. And Rebecca has said this many times very much more elegantly than I can say it, but I agree and I have very much lived that, and I think that if you want to write, that is enough.

If you feel that it’s important to you in the moment, that is enough. And then you can hold on to the uncertainty of whether it will matter to anyone as a kind of hope. Everything is uncertain. I asked a similar question when I was in undergrad to one of my mentors and my main concern was, well, how do I say something new?

How can my perspective matter when so many people have said all of these things? Look at this bookstore, look at all of these amazing books. And he was, like, that’s not the problem. You are going to say something completely different because there’s nobody else like you in the world.

The rest is just chance. It’s true there are a lot of books out there, but who could have predicted. And one of Rebecca’s examples that I remember very clearly because I teach Thoreau every year in Environmental History, is there is no way that anyone living in Thoreau’s time would have predicted that we would still be reading Thoreau in the 21st century. You just never know.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] I want to jump on what he said, which was so helpful. I taught at art schools for a while, the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of Arts and Crafts back when it still had its full name. And I really struggled. I started in my 20s with “very few of these people are going to make a living as an artist.” What are we teaching them? What are we giving them?

I think when you enter into any creative act, and writing really hones this, you become a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meaning. You learn to think for yourself, you gain a capacity to analyze, assess, find a point of view, think deeply. Think that is incredibly valuable whether or not other people see it, it reaches other people.

And so it has an inherent value in what it makes you as a person in the world versus being like a passive consumer or somebody who accepts sort of received opinion.

And then also I write a lot, as was mentioned in the intro, I’m also on the board of Oil Change International Third Act, the advisory board of Dayenu, a Jewish Voice for Climate. And I have the Not Too Late project with Thelma. I kind of hedge my bets by donating, joining actions.

My younger brother who lives in Berkeley is a well known Climate and Human Rights organizer, and I’ve been tagging along with him for world– oh, my God, almost 40 years. And he helps organize, I show up.

So I feel like no matter what else you do in your life, you’re always a citizen, and there’s always other– I don’t want that to just, and I don’t mean citizen in the sense that you have legal status, I mean that you’re a member of the community who can show up in different ways, participate in different ways beyond your profession and that never stops, no matter if you’re an incredibly successful writer or dancer or filmmaker or something like that.

And I have always found that activism feeds my work. I come in touch with remarkable people. I feel over and over with Occupy Wall Street, Indigenous Rights Movements I was part of or supporting in the ’90s. The Women’s Movement, et cetera. I’ve literally seen the world change profoundly in ways if I was disengaged, I wouldn’t.

So it’s incredibly worth doing. You’ll find out why. It’s inherently worth doing, but you’ll find out some of the reasons why by doing it. And oh, my God. We have all these other questions. But it’s great, we have all these other panelists. Passing the ball.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I mean, I feel like a lot of these questions do come down to, why should we right when everything is on fire and shouldn’t we be like putting our bodies on the line instead of engaging our minds in this uncertain environment, where we’re told every day that journalists are being fired or being laid off or venues that we love disappeared, nuked their websites overnight? That kind of thing.

I mean, of course, at a time like this, if you’re a writer who wants to write about social change or justice, you are going to be discouraged. Dominant culture is going to tell you that what you do is worthless. Thinking is worthless. Writing something down, what if only one person read it? That’s worthless. Well, I don’t think so because I’m a writer, so I am prone to despair.

And it is a rough profession just like teaching, just like any other profession that you’re going to go into, if you’re interested in the sciences or the humanities. But I think about the fact that so many books and articles and just little things that I’ve read, have come to me from someone who’s obscure, who nobody maybe reads or maybe like one person checked the book out in the last 10 years.

And those things matter to me so much. There are books that I think about almost every day that were never bestsellers, that were never taught in some frickin’ English survey class, but they changed me and they live in me. And I think, honestly, if you write something and one person reads it and they’re like, wow, that was badass, you have succeeded.

And fuck capitalism. Fuck the idea that you need to have a fancy job or some credential. The goal is to be heard and to listen to others. And that’s what you do when you write.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] I would just add very quickly to the last question, is we brought in people from all over the South Pacific, somebody from Pakistan, the Philippines, et cetera, and embattled parts of the US, Navajo, New Mexico, New Orleans, Black New Orleans, et cetera, and we don’t need to tell all the stories. And a lot of what you can do as a journalist is be a conduit for other people’s stories, stories from elsewhere.

And I think becoming an amplifier for stories that aren’t being heard enough Is so much what writers try and do, whether they’re people dealing directly with wildfire or cats having romances with trains, but I digress. And so I feel like that’s a big part of the job. And I love that you brought up Astra and deep listening. Yeah, we need to tell stories. We also need to hear stories or hear people in search of a story to know what’s needed out there.

And now I’m like, what about the middle question?

[DANIEL GUMBINER] I would say that it feels like some of this connects to your question too in terms of just finding a community of people who can support your work, even if there are trials and tribulations with getting it published, but finding that audience, no matter what I mean, I think I love this book called Art and Fear that is about just making art, despite its many challenges.

And one of the principles that the authors talk about is this idea of finding an audience no matter what. Building in an audience to your life, no matter what that looks like to just make it so that you can keep producing. And maybe the editorial tides change, and suddenly the kind of work that you’re doing becomes in Vogue and you’re right there.

And you’ve been doing it in the deepest, most meaningful way for the longest and you’re perfectly positioned. But you’re still producing and you’re still doing the thing that’s important to you, if you have that audience in the first place. Because you can’t really control the editorial tides. That’s sort of not in your power.

All you can do is kind of control the work that you’re doing and make sure you put yourself in a position to do something that’s meaningful to yourself.

[REBECCA HERMAN] All right. Well, thank you all for joining us. And I want to thank the panelists again, if you’ll all give them around of applause.



[WOMAN’S VOICE] Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit


New Directions

New Directions in Greening Infrastructure


As the effects of climate change become more obvious, moving away from fossil fuels has only become more urgent. But to do so, new energy sources – and new infrastructure – are desperately needed.

Recorded on March 20, 2024, this panel features three early-career scholars from UC Berkeley presenting their research on the greening infrastructure and the green energy transition. The panel included Johnathan Guy, PhD Candidate in Political Science; Caylee Hong, a PhD candidate in Anthropology, and Andrew Jaeger, PhD Candidate in Sociology. The panel was moderated by Daniel Aldana Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. Co-Sponsored by the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, the Berkeley Climate Change Network, and the Berkeley Economy and Society Initiative.


Johnathon GuyJohnathan Guy is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. He studies the political economy of development in South and Southeast Asia, focusing on the politics of climate change and the energy transition. His ongoing dissertation project, “Selecting for Solar: The Political Incentives Behind Power Generation Project Section,” attempts to understand the diverging trajectories of power sector buildouts in India and Indonesia.

Caylee HongCaylee Hong is an attorney, interdisciplinary researcher, and educator. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley, where she researches urban oil production in the Los Angeles Basin. Her dissertation examines the ways that diverse stakeholders navigate the decommissioning and redevelopment of century-old oil fields in the heart of cities, including Los Angeles and Long Beach. She has published research on infrastructure finance, the environment, law, and citizenship in AntipodeAnthropological Theory, and Fieldsights.

Andrew JaegerAndrew Jaeger is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley. His dissertation analyzes the political economy of climate change in California.


Daniel Aldana CohenDaniel Aldana Cohen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, where he is Director of the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2, and serves as a faculty affiliate in the graduate program on Political Economy. Cohen works on the intersections of the climate emergency, housing, political economy, social movements, and inequalities of race and class in the United States and Brazil. As Director of (SC)2, he is leading qualitative and quantitative research projects on Whole Community Climate Mapping, green political economy, and eco-apartheid. He is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green Deal (Verso 2019), and is currently completing a book project called Street Fight: Climate Change and Inequality in the 21st Century City, under contract with Princeton University Press.

Podcast and Transcript

Listen to this event below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[WOMAN’S VOICE] The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

[JULIA SIZEK] Hello, everyone. We’re going to go ahead and get started. Thank you for coming. My name is Julia Sizek, and I am the postdoc here at Social Science Matrix. And today’s panel, New Directions in Greening Infrastructure, is about a topic that I actually find particularly interesting in my own research, which is this big question of like, if we’re going to switch to greener energy sources, then how are we actually going to create the infrastructure that we need for it?

And in my own research, this has appeared in the guise of, like, a much stranger being, which is the sort of ghost of transcontinental railroad right of ways and how they get used for other purposes, both for infrastructure, as well as for a potentially comically evil water project in the Mojave Desert that I have done a lot of research on.

And here I think we actually have a lot of similar questions, which is how do we take these old fossil fuel infrastructures and these old rules that we have created with fossil fuels in mind and transfer them to a new system that we want that will be, you know, theoretically greener and better for the environment and more sustainable overall? So these, obviously, are not only technical questions, but they’re also social scientific ones. And that is why we have invited our panelists today to speak about them.

So today’s panel is part of this New Direction series here at Matrix. And this is a series that features the work of junior scholars here on Berkeley’s campus. One thing that is particularly great about this series is that it is working with graduate students and people who do not have tenure and are not tenure track people at the university, which I think are an untapped resource in terms of looking at research, and also some of the people who have the most interesting ideas here because they aren’t yet old and stodgy. OK.

And then just to advertise a couple of our– and then part of this is it’s also been co-sponsored by some other centers on campus, which include SC 2, Bessie, and the Berkeley Climate Change Network. OK.

And our upcoming events– we have a couple of exciting events, some of which might be of interest to you all. So on April 1, we have a discussion of the book Nature-Made Economy– Cod, Capital and the Great Economization of the Ocean here for you nature people. On April 4, we’re going to have a discussion of the book The Gender of Capital.

On April 22, we will have an event on caste, education, and social struggle in modern India. And then on May 1, we will have a discussion of the book Puta Life– Seeing Latinas, Working Sex. And you can find out about this and other events that we have here at Matrix on our website, which is

So, with all of that out of the way, I can introduce our lovely moderator Daniel Aldana Cohen. So he is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of the Sociospatial Climate Collaborative, which is one of the co-sponsors of this event. Also is a faculty affiliate in the graduate program on political economy.

Cohen’s work focuses on the intersections of the climate emergency, housing, political economy, social movements, and inequalities of race and class in the United States and Brazil, which is a very broad and also important topic. He is the author– the co-author of A Planet to Win, Why We Need a Green Deal, and is currently completing a book project called Street Fight, Climate Change and Inequality in the 21st Century, which is under contract with Princeton University Press. So without any further ado, I will turn it over to Daniel.

[DANIEL ALDANA COHEN] Am I coming through on the mic. Sorry for the scratchy voice. No?


Oh, OK. OK, here we go. All right. Sorry for the scratchy voice. I’ve been on recruitment duties for the last three days talking about how great Berkeley is. OK, I’m thrilled to be here. This couldn’t be a more important topic. Estimates of how much new investment will go into things like greening infrastructure are in the range of $3 to $9 trillion per year for the next 25 to 30 years. So this is arguably the battleground over which many of the big fights over equality, sustainability, democracy, and so on will be fought in the coming decades.

And as you pointed out, Julia, the PhD students here are actually the faculty of the faculty since we run around to meetings, but what we learn we learn from the PhD students. So I’m thrilled to learn from three of them today.

So we’ll be hearing from Jonathan Guy, who is a PhD candidate here at Berkeley. He studies the political economy of development in south and southeast Asia, focusing on the politics of climate change and the energy transition. His ongoing dissertation project– Selecting for Solar, the Political Incentives Behind Power Generation Project Selection– attempts to understand the diverging trajectories of power– of power sector buildouts in India and Indonesia.

Caylee Hong is an attorney, interdisciplinary researcher, and educator. She is currently a PhD candidate in anthropology here at Berkeley, where she researches urban oil production in the Los Angeles basin. There’s a lot of it.

Her dissertation examines the ways that diverse stakeholders navigate the decommissioning and redevelopment of century-old oil fields in the heart of cities, including LA and Long Beach. She’s published research on infrastructure, finance, the environment, law and citizenship, and antipode anthropological theory and field sites.

Finally, Andrew Jaeger is a PhD candidate in sociology– my wonderful department here at Berkeley. His dissertation analyzes the political economy of climate change in California. He’s published in Social Problems and on his dissertation topic in social forces.

So each will speak for about 15 minutes, then I will ask a question or two. We’ll open it up to the audience. We’ll be here till about 1:30– no later than 1:30, I should say. So, um, so thrilled. Jonathan, I think you’ll kick us off. Oh, Caylee. Oh, my apologies. Different orders. Caylee, please come on up.

[CAYLEE HONG] I think I’m properly mic’d up right now. Awesome. Thank you, Daniel, for the introduction. And thank you to the Social Science Matrix for inviting us to be here today. And thank you as well to the co-sponsors, and particularly Chuck and Julia, for organizing today’s discussion.

So I’d like to begin with a basic query, which is, what are the lasting impacts of our 100, 150 year-long experiment with oil and gas? This question prompts a striking observation– that even if we, as Daniel mentioned, rapidly transition, hopefully, away from fossil fuels and move beyond our dependency on oil, we’re still going to be entangled with not just the carbon in the atmosphere and plastics everywhere else, but also with fossil fuel infrastructures, and particularly oil and gas wells.

We have punctured tens of millions of holes into the Earth, some as deep as 40,000 feet. And in order to prevent leaks into the atmosphere, groundwater, soil of, say, explosive methane or noxious hydrogen sulfide, each well must be decommissioned. And that’s technically called, at least here in California, plugging and abandonment. So basically, it’s a process whereby you remove these external infrastructures and contaminated soils and then fill the wellbore with cement.

Yet, across the world, including here in California, we are still without any real plans, regulations or incentives to decommission wells at scale. As a result, wells are often left interminably idle or deserted altogether by their operators. And in the United States alone, there are an estimated 57,000 orphan wells. And this number could be actually as high as 746,000, and I would say probably even higher than that.

So my research focuses on the LA Basin. And with 68 named oil fields and over 12,000 wells, there really is no place on Earth that has so many wells so close to so many people. And here’s a map of LA County that gives you an idea of the massive spread of wells across this whole area.

So most wells in LA County are inactive. And so the yellow dots, again, are those idle wells that I mentioned. So they’re not– they’re not– they’re not active, but they’re not plugged and abandoned. And then the red dots are plugged. The blue you see here are, in fact, the only sites in LA County that are, in fact, today active.

So over the course of 18 months of fieldwork conducted between June, 2021, and January, 2023, I explored how residents of LA County are navigating the decommissioning and redevelopment of urban oil fields. And today, I’m going to focus on one specific field called the Los Angeles City Field. And that is– you can see it up on the map. It’s really in the center, in the heart of LA. It’s a 4 miles-long strip that’s considered the most urbanized oil field in the nation.

And there, I ask how residents living atop of this field, which is just a mile away from downtown LA, are organizing their neighborhood, called Vista Hermosa, to decommission hundreds of deserted oil wells. This organizing, which seeks to make known the persisting risks of wells and to secure their decommissioning, is shaped by and must necessarily confront the invisibility of the problem. And so today, I’m going to focus on just giving you an idea of what I mean by this invisibility in two ways. One is this surface invisibility, and the second is invisibility in regulator well records.

So first, let’s go to the city’s surface. Nearly all the wells in this neighborhood of Vista Hermosa are no longer active. They’ve been deserted by their operators, some over 100 years ago. And so this past, at least on the surface, is invisible.

And this is– these are a series of pictures taken from in and around the neighborhood. And so this is what you’d see if you were to walk around it today– again, a rather everyday scene. Now, the work of residents has been to draw attention to these wells, which, again, as you can see, can’t be seen, yet continue to haunt the landscape and residents’ bodies, including through higher rates of cancer, asthma, and other illnesses that residents have documented.

So if this is what the surface looks like, this is what the subterranean reveals, an absolutely enormous number of wells in this LA field. And the pink dots here are the ones that are idle. So, again, they’re not active, but they’re not actually decommissioned. And the gray dots are plugged. And most people who are living in this area don’t know that they exist at all.

Oil was discovered in the LA City Field in 1890. And for 50 to 60 years, people produced oil, absent any regulations. And when these wells would stop flowing or an operator, for example, would go bankrupt, people would fill the wells with dirt and then build homes beside or on top of wells. And by the time regulations came into place starting not until 1915, there were already thousands of wells that were drilled throughout this area. And then over this time period, the city of LA emerged alongside of and within the LA City Field.

During fieldwork, I saw residents mobilize to raise awareness of these wills– of these wells and their risks. And here is a photo– or here’s two photos of two community organizers, Danny and Rosalinda, who are holding up historical photos from the same spot in their neighborhood. And this discrepancy between the past and the present landscape highlight the persisting effects of this bygone era of oil production.

And then here’s a couple photos of the Vista Hermosa Community Group actions from the last couple of years, including an oil well tour from May, 2021. And that’s the photo on the right with some Sunrise Movement members. And the photo on the left is from an August, 2022, rally which was organized to shame a developer who had allegedly failed to decommission at least two other oil wells that were underneath an affordable housing project in the neighborhood. And the new housing project, you can see is, the large building in the background.

So there’s a second kind of invisibility at work as well. And that is gaps and uncertainties in well records, which are essential to decommissioning work. And here, my research draws upon the records of the California regulator, which nowadays is called CalGEM, the California Geologic Energy Management Division.

And for brevity, I’m going to mention just one specific well called Rogalske 1. both these images are from the CalGEM, so the state regulator’s records. And they show a surface scene, a regular house in this neighborhood, and then the subterranean scene, which is comprising of mostly idle– again, those purple wells– including now Rogalske 1, which I’ve identified with the red circle. And this well is now plugged and abandoned.

But it’s decommissioning history reveals the extraordinarily challenges that the city residents and also regulators faced. This well was drilled sometime in the 1800s, but it actually only became known to CalGEM and residents after new tenants started complaining about a rotten egg smell, which is indicative of hydrogen sulfide.

As you can see from this map, CalGEM’s records actually showed that there was a well present. But according to the regulator, this map and its other documents were, in fact, not reliable. So, therefore, the state didn’t have an obligation to either physically locate it, and therefore to decommission it.

CalGEM rightly points out, however, that the surveying techniques from the 1800s when this was drilled are not dependable, that street names and other markers have changed. So a well can easily be 100 years off or so. And in a densely populated urban neighborhood like Vista Hermosa, 100 yards, I mean, is absolutely enormous.

So, eventually, it took the landowner using a jackhammer in the dead of night to physically locate the well. And here is a video of the grand reveal of Rogalske 1, which was located mere feet away from the household’s front door.

Yeah, so this is what it looks like. It’s not much. But it really did take a landowner with a jackhammer to tell and to identify it so that the regulator could eventually plug and abandon it, which did happen. But it took three months and almost half a million dollars.

So this question of what to do with aged wells is taking on urgent significance nowadays as the city redevelops former oil fields. Currently, rapid real estate development and the need to address critical housing shortages in LA are compounding these long persisting environmental harms.

And here are some of the numerous recently completed and planned housing projects in Vista Hermosa. And existing residents like Danny and Rosalinda, who I mentioned earlier, argue that the dangers that are posed by oil wells, their leaks, their explosions, their health impacts are being exacerbated by the neighborhood’s transformation into a much denser place as these market rate luxury rental units are replacing single family homes and modest apartments.

While this construction boom creates opportunities to decommission wells, the developments also worsen existing risks in two ways. So first, developers don’t know where wells are located. As we saw with Rogalske 1, there are potentially hundreds of wells that are not documented or poorly documented.

And this creates a scenario where developers can plausibly deny responsibility for decommissioning wells just as like we saw with CalGEM. And then second, the city of Los Angeles allows developers to build directly over top of wells, which is contrary to CalGEM’s strong recommendations. This, on the one hand, promotes densification.

And many of us here today will know why that is important in planning for our energy futures. But it means that if there ever was a leak, the well could not be accessed. And the problem is that once a well is drilled, it actually never disappears even if it’s properly plugged and abandoned. And the former deputy director of CalGEM explained to me that, and I quote, “until we get hit by an asteroid and the Earth is removed along with the wells, the wells will remain a conduit.”

So in conclusion, as we transition energy regimes, we are faced with the expansive spatiotemporal reach of fossil fuels, which extends by way of infrastructures beyond the fossil fuel era. Greening infrastructures will mean accounting for our ongoing entanglement with pipelines and refineries and millions of wells. And as Vista Hermosa shows, processes of cleanup and decommissioning and transition will shape the future paths of not just energy production, but also really our municipal futures for generations. So thank you very much.


[JOHNATHAN GUY] Great. Hi, everyone. Thank you for coming. And thanks to Julie and Chuck and the Matrix for putting this on. My name is Johnathan Guy. I’m a PhD candidate in political science. Today, I’m going to be talking about my dissertation project, Selecting for Solar– Electricity Planning, State Structures and the Politics of Distributive Control.

I’m first going to talk about the motivation for the project, what the question is and why I’m choosing the case an empirical focus that I am, which is comparing India and Indonesia. I’m going to dive into this comparison. And I want to say as a preface, this is very much an ongoing work in progress. I have six months of fieldwork planned out this coming year. So I’ll have more refined findings after that.

But based on my case reading and preliminary visits to each country, I’m going to talk about three contrasts between the countries that I think– three potential explanations that explain why India has gone for renewables and Indonesia has not. And then I’m going to tie it all together at the end and zoom out to other countries and think more about how we can think about the political drivers of the energy transition. OK.

So we all know the story, right? We all know by now, you know, the first two decades of the 21st century are a story of falling renewables costs. Through investments in industrial policy and innovation, solar and wind have become cheap– cheap enough for many developed and developing countries to use at scale. But there’s a lot of variation, right?

And so my dissertation is trying to make sense of the variation in the uptake of wind and solar power– uptake that, at first glance, doesn’t seem to follow any recognizable pattern, right? So this is one of my favorite things to do, is to list the countries that had the highest levels of wind and solar as a percentage of electricity generation.

Does anybody have any idea what these countries might have in common? Right, they’re kind of all over the board. There are rich and poor countries, democratic and authoritarian, right, politically stable and unstable. When there’s much more of a pattern and we can talk about differences between wind and solar– wealthier countries, countries with higher levels of state capacity tend to adopt wind at higher rates.

But I’m going to be– my dissertation is much more focused on this comparison between India and Indonesia. Right, these are two countries that have pretty similar political systems, right, parliamentary democracies. They’re also both heavily reliant on coal and have very high– coal is integrated deeply into both political systems. Yet, we see this huge difference, right? We see– we see India incorporating wind and solar to a much greater extent in its electricity generation supply. And this puzzled me.

We can further dive into some of the data and show that just as India has really taken off since 2014, 2015, right, with the advent of the Modi government, we see similar patterns in power generation buildout on the fossil fuel side as well. Whereas India has dramatically decreased the pace of its– the addition of coal-fired capacity, in Indonesia it has increased over the same time period, right?

And we can also see this in terms of the project pipeline, right? There is the– the vast majority of coal plants in the pipeline– or not the vast majority, but the majority have been canceled, right? And in India– whereas in Indonesia, there are some cancellations, but we see to much greater extent exerted– a political effort, sustained political effort to build coal plants.

So why this difference, right? So previous scholarship has identified some potential reasons for India’s solar growth, and especially under Modi. One explanation is that Modi made very serious political commitments to wind and solar, and particularly solar, because he– he was elected and inaugurated the year before the Paris Agreement was signed. And he wanted to make– he also wanted to signal to international audiences and to domestic audiences that he was a modernizing reformer. This is an explanation that’s been advanced.

A second explanation is that solar is pretty cheap in India. Solar is higher– there are higher levels of irradiation, right? The sun shines more days of the year than in Indonesia. And then explanation three is that India is overall much more open to foreign investment. And this– since wind and solar are technologies that have been broadly developed in China and the Global North, that this explains why there’s been greater uptake.

But on further– both all of these explanations are sort of complicated or refuted by further investigation of these cases. Number one, Jokowi was similarly positioned, right? He was elected at the same time as Modi in 2014, had very similar– he also was elected on the basis of being a sort of modernizing reformer, right? But instead, went for coal, right?

Explanation two, solar is cheaper in India. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this might not actually be the case. And in fact– and further, there are plenty of very high solar penetration cases that have worse sunlight than Indonesia, for example, Vietnam.

And while India might have more foreign direct investment in general, this is not true in the power sector. In fact, a lot of India’s solar investment has been domestic. And a lot of Indonesia’s coal investment has been foreign.

So I’m going to talk about some of the case evidence. And I’m going to draw three contrasts. The first is in the status of India and Indonesia’s coal supply chains at the time that wind and solar got cheap, right? So here, we have graphs, first, of Indonesia’s coal supply chain. This is just showing production and exports relative to consumption. And in many ways, it’s showing the health of the supply chain.

It’s, you know– and here, we see that Indonesia’s supply produces far more coal than it consumes. It exports the vast majority of its coal. This has not always been the case. Whereas India, despite having just as much if not more coal than Indonesia, still relies on coal imports for an increasingly large share of its production, although this has been mitigated somewhat since the beginning of the Modi era.

So what is driving this difference, right, given that these countries have comparable coal endowments? Well, as I argue, this has to do with the deeper story of the deeper histories of coal exploitation, right? So compared to India, Indonesia’s coal industry is relatively young. It wasn’t really, really developed until the second half of the dictatorship that existed in Indonesia from the 1960s to the 1990s.

It wasn’t until the energy crisis of the 1970s that initial policy investments were made. And eventually, the industry took off. The rents that came from the industry were distributed fairly narrowly. And it wasn’t really until the 2000s that they were distributed more broadly, right?

And so, ultimately, Indonesia’s coal industry began to boom just as wind and solar got cheap. And part of the story of coal plant construction is a story of economic insurance, right? The government wanting to create domestic demand for coal in the event that there are downturns in the export market, OK?

India’s coal story is very different. India’s coal story is one of– it goes– begins much earlier because India democratized earlier and stayed a democracy. A lot of– as I argue, a lot of the rents associated with coal development, coal mining, have been stretched to accommodate various political constituencies and their demands. I can talk more in the Q&A if folks are interested about the different kinds of rents and how–

But the broad story is that by the time of the 1990s, these rents were placing tremendous strain on India’s ability to produce coal cost effectively. And this produced this import dependence and this energy security crisis. And so because of this, right, India experienced a supply chain breakdown. This created strong energy incentives, or energy security incentives, to make investments in solar policy, right?

Ironically, a lot of these– you know, the political incentives both to go for solar and the political incentives that sabotaged coal in the Indian case had to do with short-termism, right? Usually, when we think of climate politics, we think of– and green investment– we think of the ability– short-termism as a bad thing, right? Because we need the ability to impose big costs today in terms of benefits tomorrow. And as I argue, the opposite logic drove the transition in the Indian case.

OK, the second contrast. So renewables in general do thrive on outside investment. And by outside investment, I mean not just foreign investment but investment by private actors, right? So here, we can see some cross-national evidence for this, right? On the x-axis is financial liberalization measured by the Heritage Foundation. And on the y-axis, we have wind and solar share of electricity.

And we see there is a strong relationship between financial liberalization and wind and solar uptake, right? And this reflects broader scholarship that has found that sectoral governance and broader institutions governing finance are more important for the adoption of wind and solar than specific instruments in some cases like fee and tariffs or auctions. OK.

But there are a lot of commitment problems that stand in the way of wind and solar investment, right? These are emerging industries that developing countries are generally inexperienced with. And often, because of for various reasons, governments find it difficult to maintain and keep promises over the long term as is necessary in order to attract and sustain investment.

And here, we see an example of that in India, right, at the state level. Initially, it was actually very difficult. This headline is from about five years ago. It was actually very difficult to get state governments to agree and maintain their commitments to investors.

In Indonesia– Indonesia, like India, attempted to liberalize its power sector in the early 2000s. Unlike India, Indonesia was unsuccessful. The Supreme Court struck down the law. And so as a result, India and Indonesia have very different ownership structures and governance structures in the power sector.

In Indonesia, a single state-owned monopoly, PLN, dominates the generation, transmission and distribution segments. There is also– because electricity tariffs are set at the national level, often PLN is very constrained in its budget because of the political demands for subsidies. And as a result, it’s been very difficult to get PLN to invest in renewables because they have a higher share of upfront costs.

So an example of this is in the lead up to the 2019 elections, the government placed tremendous financial strain on PLN by not refusing to allow it to raise electricity prices. In response, PLN lobbied very hard to avoid renewables investment, OK? How much time?

A couple minutes.

Couple minutes? OK. So I’m going to zoom through this. So in India, by contrast, there was– both a lot of power procurement and the tariff setting happens– is both liberalized and happens at the state level rather than the federal level. Because of this, the central government didn’t face the same kind of fiscal pressures that state governments do. And so the result has been, sort of, battles between the center and the states over renewables procurement, where the center wants more because they don’t bear the political cost, and the states fight it.

The exception to this has been cases in which there are significant political incentives to expand capacity because wind and solar can be built quicker. Governments that are facing greater power deficits have had political incentive to build capacity quickly. And as I argue, that has incentivized them to build out wind and solar. OK.

So the takeaways from the investment story is that short-term incentives have kind of been bashed in the political economy of climate change literature because the incentives of these governments in developing countries to provide a lot of short-term benefits like electricity subsidies has seen to crowd out these longer term investments that are necessary for decarbonization. But as I find from my case evidence in India and other places, in cases where rapid increases in electricity supply are important, those lower– shorter construction times of wind and solar can actually cause short-termism to benefit decarbonization.

OK, I’m going to maybe skip to– I only have a couple of minutes. I think the political alignment stuff is more tentative. So maybe I can talk about, what are some overall takeaways from the comparison between India and Indonesia? One is that institutional constraints on the ability to control rents associated with traditional sources of power generation results in increased renewables.

And this has become really clear in India. I didn’t have really time to go through the story about coal India. But essentially, in Modi’s case, a lot of the rents associated with coal production were not really something that he could control. And because of that, building out renewables was more politically attractive. And I think we see similar cases in Turkey and South Africa.

Secondly, having domestic supporters capable of undertaking renewable projects efficiently instead of relying on foreign investment can make renewables more attractive to incumbents. In Indonesia, Jokowi didn’t really have the domestic corporate sector capable of executing these solar projects in the way that Modi did. Further, these firms were aligned with the BJP generally– not always against Congress, but generally with the BJP. And this was really important for making solar politically workable.

OK, so what can we learn overall? Number one, the fate of solar and wind relies, in part, on the status of patronage politics in developing countries, especially in traditional power generation sources, right? So what is the opportunity cost politically of going into solar and wind instead of continuing to invest in traditional power generation sources?

Number two, short-termism isn’t always a bad thing. Renewable energy has, especially wind and solar, has some short-term benefits that are important to consider. It’s also important to think more about the role of incumbency, right? Do incumbents have control over these rents that they use politically to manage their coalition, rents that are more typically associated with traditional power generation sources? When they don’t, a renewables transition is more likely.

And this has lessons for us here in the developed world as well in terms of thinking about negotiating agreements like JETP, the Just Energy Transition Partnership. You know, how compatible are the distributional benefits of these partnerships with the kind of incentives that incumbents face to maintain their ruling coalition?

Yeah. And I’m going to skip these cases because I think we’re out of time. I’m out of time. But–

You can take one more minute.

Well, I can tell you a little bit more about these cases, right? Like, I think that the political logic extends. I think that one key thing that broader cases show us is that the short-term benefits of wind and solar– benefits that are often– that come from shorter construction times are only valuable in environments where incumbents are actually able to make wind and solar projects proceed pretty quickly.

And in Bangladesh and Nigeria, even though that there are very strong political incentives to increase electricity supply, the governments have a very hard time negotiating with investors. This lengthens the process of solar and wind project completion and sort of dampens the sort of time benefit– the incentives that come from that time benefit, rather.

Yeah. In South Africa and Turkey, you see cases where there is initially, like, a lot of government support for renewables. And then, in both cases, the government pulls back. And I argue this has to do with democratic backsliding and the erosion of constraints between the executive and the governance of the power sector, right? In both of these cases, as, you know, Erdogan and Zuma get stronger, they’re able to control the rents associated with coal, and natural gas in the case of Turkey.

And once they– while initially they were constrained and they had more incentive to build out these alternative patronage networks in wind and solar, once they obtain greater control over the traditional sources of rents, it becomes their incentives. This is why these energy transitions stalled, is my argument. Anyway, thank you very much.



[ANDREW JAEGER] All right. [CLEARS THROAT] Is my mic audible? How was that? Great. OK, I’m trying a new thing of having my notes on my slides on my iPad. We’ll see how that goes. OK, thanks to all the organizers. Really appreciate this opportunity. And it’s been great so far.

So, yes. I’m Andrew Jaeger, PhD candidate in sociology here. My title– the title of my talk today, The Emerging Infrastructure of Carbontech. I’m not super happy with that title. Any suggestions welcome. Let’s see. Advance. There we go.

All right, I want to start with actually kind of a meta theoretical methodological approach relevant to the title of this, our discussion today. In discussing the political economy of climate change in many aspects like infrastructure or political coalitions or various sections of capital, our understandings of what green is have become, I think, somewhat dangerously reified, fixed, taken for granted, right? I mean, I think everyone here would recognize immediately that if we think about solar or wind, like, how green are those actually? That’s socially and politically constructed, right? It’s a starting point here.

The second you say green or fossil, we all here, probably, immediately have in mind a certain set of technologies, a certain set of actors, a certain set of battle lines that are just understood as naturally there. And one of my big arguments in my dissertation is that this is changing. And it’s been changing very quickly over the last five years or so.

Therefore, the usefulness of that heuristic, of green versus fossil, is waning. I do think it has been very useful in the past. But my argument– part of my argument today is that it’s becoming less useful.

And there’s two big reasons for that. One is that there is a far greater variety of technologies that are climate-related that could be considered green, but their greenness is open for debate very much. And the old battle lines, in many ways, are blurring.

As the technologies change– not only because of that, but I think largely because of that– the options for climate action are widening. It’s not just the old story of the fossil fuel industry wanting to go one way, which is basically block all climate legislation, and the climate action being a fairly straightforward task of building out renewables as quickly as possible, electrifying everything as quickly as possible, which, again, from the start, was always a socially, politically constituted strategy that was not– has no inherent greenness to it.

Also, more controversially, we’re arguing today, is that the fossil fuel industry appears to be going green in many ways. All right, advance. Oh, there we go. OK. I’m also going to suggest a different approach to thinking about this rather than just the old opposition between green and fossil, which, again, hasn’t been very useful and has no bearing on these wonderful talks today.

The way that I’ve been thinking about developing– trying to theorize this is to instead start with a different question, which is that, how are competing political actors framing particular climate technologies as green solutions and mobilizing them into broader techno-political projects? And what do I mean by techno-political projects? I’m actually taking out a lot of the [INAUDIBLE] I have to throw out here because of time.

I just want to say that these are basically political– long-term political movements that have embedded within them a vision of the future that they project out. They organize a coalition around that future. And there is a certain set of technologies embedded within that vision.

There’s a tension there, right, which we all recognize when we think about solar and wind. The tech needs to work. The tech needs to be viable. And the tech needs to be profitable. Because otherwise, private industry is not going to invest in it. And we have, as Brett Christopher– if anyone’s there– when was that? Last week– made very clear that profitability is the key metric for private investment, not cheapness, right?

OK, I’m going to shift into the empirical section now. So the first empirical claim here is that there is a new political project that is ascendant. I’m calling it carbontech. It’s organized around a growing set of technologies aimed at capturing, using, storing, and otherwise managing carbon emissions.

There is a lot of hype around this stuff. It comes from Silicon Valley. I’ve written a lot about it. It comes from the state of California, state officials and federal officials, and, in fact, states all around the world, especially at oil states. There is also a lot of critique of this project as it develops.

One of the main critiques, the most common critique, is that this is just literally a scam or a sham. These technologies just aren’t real. I hear that in my field work all the time, where I work with environmental groups, environmental justice groups.

And they have good reason to claim that, right? I mean, the fossil fuel industry, who is one of the main actors arguing for using these technologies, they’re not exactly– this industry is not exactly trustworthy, right? We have good reason to doubt what they’re talking about.

Another set of arguments is that there’s a moral hazard associated with these technologies, right? So when the IPCC, for instance, builds in to their projections of how to reach 1.5 degrees especially, but even 2 degrees, and they put in– and it implies billions of tons of carbon capture by 2050, 2045, 2030, uh, that sounds like it is creating a major incentive for states around the world to slow down on investing in renewables, to slow down the green transition as normally understood.

The other big critique is that this stuff is just too expensive, right? We’re talking about major infrastructure investments here, huge footprints. This photo here is– well, not photo– this rendering here is actually a very important distinction. This is not a real place. This is a rendering.

This is one of the most flashy, in many ways, politically viable and appealing versions of this sort of technology. It’s usually called CDR, or Carbon Dioxide Removal. And it is a purely technological approach to pulling carbon dioxide just out of the atmosphere, right?

So the dream of this stuff is you can put these big air-conditioning sort of systems out anywhere you want. You can build up a bunch of renewables around it. And you can– as long as you have the capital to do this, you can basically pull out as much carbon dioxide out of the air as you can bring money in and power, and to some degree, water.

The debates over this on both sides, the hype– and the hype– and the critics, they don’t have much empirically to go on, right? These are essentially hypothetical speculative debates. There are some exceptions.

That is, basically, within the last 15 years, there have been a number of mega carbon capture projects, mostly on coal and natural gas plants. And those have not gone well. This has gone very poorly, for the most part. And so that is essentially the empirical basis on which this debate has turned.

But in the last couple of years, there has been real movement. These investments, the Silicon Valley hype, these state incentives that have been moving towards investing in this stuff are actually, you know, breaking paydirt, right? They’re actually being deployed to some degree, right?

And so my empirical project here, which I’ve really only been involved in for the last few months– the vast majority of my research has been on the what you might call the political and ideological infrastructure of carbontech, right? The way that it was organized and legitimated around, the way the investments were created around them and hyped around them.

This latest research is really tracking the actual construction of the infrastructure of carbon management in California, which means infrastructure for taking it out of the air or capturing it from industrial sites or agricultural sites, as we’ll be talking about today, transporting it in different ways, processing it, using it, or storing it underground. And this is essentially exploratory research at this point. I’m just really interested in who’s building it, what’s being built, how it’s being built and why.

And the main research activity I’ve been pursuing in the last couple of months with this is essentially building a really big database. And it is pulling from a number of state and federal databases and private investment data which is from PitchBook.

Today, I’m just going to give a broad characterization of the actual progress so far. And then I’m going to zoom in on just one technology which a lot of people do not think of when they talk about carbon management or carbon capture, but is actually by far the most prevalent form of it in California and, in fact, in the US.

All right. So before I– let me look at my notes here. Yes, before I jump into this– OK. So this next chart is going to show evidence from California’s Sequoia database. This is essentially our big major database. Any time there is a big– well, even a medium-sized, I would say, project. Any project that might have some kind of impact on the environment, you need to usually pull a Sequioa permit.

And all those permits are available online. I have downloaded all of them since 2000. There’s about 280,000 permits. And so I’ve been processing through those. And this is the result so far. And you should– while the actual numbers are definitely– this is an alpha version, I would not– I would take them with a grain of salt still at this point. Yes, just take them with a grain of salt at this point.

The general direction that it shows I think is still valid. And it is fairly clear. I want to make just a few points here. One is that– yes, I think that’s still– it’s not visible enough. I can say more. I’ll say more.

The first half of the– the aughts saw very little investment on this. We’ve been increasing more or less linearly since 2000. And there has been a major– point number two, industrial CCS. There’s four project types up here. Three are types of digesters. Those are fairly simple, relatively simple carbon capture systems.

They actually capture methane, which is CH4 for greenhouse gas of course, from landfills, from wastewater sites and from agricultural sites, especially dairies. And if you look here, you can see there’s been an enormous growth in the use of dairy digesters in California, especially over the last five years.

The third point is that industrial carbon capture and storage, which is what that shiny direct air capture carbon dioxide removal plant would fall under, is actually fairly rare. There are only about– I count about 10 big industrial carbon capture projects, real projects that have actually been built to some degree over 24 years, and several of them– those over the last few years. That is very new. It is difficult to say much about that infrastructure at this point, though I can say something about them. I have been researching.

So let’s look at dairy digesters. Again, this is by far the most prevalent form and the form that has been growing the most rapidly over the last five years. What are these? Most simplest form, these are tarps over manure. These are still– I said simple. These are still multi-million dollar investments, $4 or $5 million per dairy on average.

Because once you capture this, what’s called biogas, from the cow manure, you have to process it quite a bit. And you have to have some kind of transportation network set up to actually turn it into what’s called renewable natural gas. And once that’s been done, it is more or less interchangeable with regular old natural gas.

And that is used for two things. One, the thing it’s been most used for is it’s compressed and it’s used in certain vehicles, especially buses and heavy duty trucks. They’re actually natural gas– you’ve probably never– I’ve never actually been to one of these fueling sites but they do exist, where you can actually fill up truck or bus with compressed natural gas and run a somewhat cleaner vehicle with it.

The other is, simply, it is blended into by utilities into the natural gas supply. That’s a relatively new thing. All of this is driven by California State subsidies and regulations. Hundreds of million dollars in tax breaks– I think that’s an– in tax breaks, rents and regulatory credits. I actually think this is an underestimate. I’m working on trying to get a better investment of this.

The growth– over here, this is pulled. Another part of the data set here pulled from EPA and California Department of Agriculture sites shows– I think that’s fairly visible– the last few years just are almost– it looks like an exponential rise in these things. And that is essentially because, first, there was a major [INAUDIBLE] in 2015 when California State implemented a new program that gives grants for the development of these. It unlocked a lot of financing.

There was also a change to the regulation that gives credits to these projects for the natural gas that they sell into the transportation system, which made these projects far more valuable. So the profitability of these projects directly obviously drove– is driving investment. And that profitability is determined not by any kind of market forces whatsoever, but by regulatory credits, right? This is a knob that is turned by the state by CAR– yes, by CAR, the California Air Resources Board.

What else can we say about this? It’s geographically concentrated. It’s almost entirely in the San Joaquin Valley, which is just north of Caylee’s site. This is the center of the California– the current center of the California dairy and oil industry. And they are clustered within the San Joaquin Valley.

And this is due to, basically, economies of scale. So what happens is the digesters are located on each of these dairies. And they pipe to some kind of central facility, where the processing happens. And then it is piped off to be used in these fueling sites– two minutes, OK– or to the actual utilities directly.

As these are concentrated in these areas, they’re also concentrating, more or less, environmental injustice in those areas, which are already some of the most horrible sites of, you know, air and water pollution in the state. The environmental justice movement in California has been fighting these things for years, years and years.

What else? What can we say about the investment here? Who is actually building these things? Well, there’s a firm called CalBioGas. It’s the largest developer. They’ve led at least 73 of the 170 active projects. I think it’s probably more than that too. Again, still working on this.

Who’s CalBioGas? Well, they’re a joint venture between California Bioenergy, which is a long-standing, you know, tech alternative fuel firm who mostly specializes in developing dairy digesters. And they have actually developed some of the technology for dairy digesters. And they’ve developed the expertise to manage these projects. So it’s really California Bioenergy which is doing the legwork of developing these projects. But Chevron has been a financial partner since at least 2020.

And one of the great– my research findings scoops here is, you know, it’s known publicly that there’s been a joint venture between Chevron and California bioenergy for all these years. They’ve actually entered into multiple joint ventures. But when an LLC like that enters into a joint venture, you can’t actually tell, like, what kind of equity which partner has, for instance.

And, actually, luckily, thanks to state filings where they– every single time they build one of these clusters, California Bioenergy, they applied for a tax break from the state of California. And when the state of California reviews those at a public meeting, they always publish their agenda with appendices for each of the tax breaks that they are considering.

And they always include the ownership structure of whoever they’re thinking of giving tax breaks to. And so I’ve actually never seen this reported before. But CalBioGas is about 56% Chevron. So most– in other words, the main owner of most of these clusters of dairy digesters is Chevron.

OK, wrapping up, the main point I wanted to make today. The leading edge of carbontech infrastructure, that we usually think of carbon capture as this shiny stuff, direct air capture and so on, it’s actually far less glamorous than that. It’s basically tarps over manure.

Digesters have been the leading edge of carbontech infrastructure in California. There’s been– there was a slow development of them over the aughts, increasing in 2010, and really an explosion in the last five or so years.

Why do I think this has happened? Well, first of all, they plug and play with the existing infrastructure, right? That renewable natural gas can plug right into the existing fossil infrastructure, which will be with us for even longer the longer that this– the more successful this project is, right?

The other reason, this solves a major problem for both of those industries. On one hand, all of these mega industrial dairies have a lot of manure that they have to handle. That’s actually just a problem that they– it’s a cost to them that they have had to deal with forever. This turns that cost into a profit center. They just get a revenue stream from this.

They don’t even have to manage. In most cases, they don’t even manage these digesters, right? It’s CalBio that manages the digesters. They don’t even really do any of the legwork. Other reason– yeah. Yeah, I’ll stop with the reasons there.

The other big point I want to say is that industrial carbon capture is probably next because it’s following the same sort of trajectory that the digesters followed. They recently have won major state and federal subsidies.

You’ve probably heard about them in the bipartisan infrastructure law and IRA from the federal level. California has been trying to subsidize– trying to get industrial carbon capture off the ground here for a long time. And there is now real serious money going into that from the state, from federal, and from Silicon Valley and other private investors.

They also are just about to clear some major regulatory hurdles in California. I was down in Bakersfield just a couple of weeks ago at some of the big public hearings. OK, I will– I’m ending here. And they’re just about to clear the big hurdle. They’re about to be able to store all the carbon they want to capture underground. This is a major deal. They’ve been trying to do this for years.

The last point, carbon capture can be both expensive and profitable. It kind of doesn’t matter how expensive it is. That’s one of the main arguments that’s been made against it. But as Brett Christopher was saying last week, to tie in to my initial point, profitability itself is socially and politically constructed, right? The viability of this stuff depends on maintaining those strong state subsidies.

I am, in some ways, committed to the idea that I think that this stuff is really growing, right? That’s been my argument for a long time. I think that the trajectory for growth is still there for a long time. But this is the weak point for those of us who think this is not the way that we should be going. It’s the subsidies and it’s the construction of this stuff as green. Thanks.


[DANIEL ALDANA COHEN] OK. [CLEARS THROAT] Thank you so much for three wonderful presentations. We’ve been talking a lot. So let’s just open it up actually right away and see if folks up here have questions. Julia has a mic.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] It’s for Andrew, my question actually. He explained how state incentives can expand the construction of dairy digestive sites and all of that. Could you explain a little bit more what are those incentives and if they could be utilized for other areas in, like, greener infrastructure, such as solar panels or something like that. Thank you.

[ANDERW JAEGER] OK. Yes, thank you for that question. So the two big subsidies– well, there are three big subsidies really. One is the grant program which comes from the state, which gives grants to project developers who are spending $5, $10, $20 million on centralized facilities and for processing this gas and building out the actual digesters at the dairies.

It’s considered an advanced technology. This is the same tax credit that gives money to chip fabricators and solar energy labs. Actually, I don’t know if you know Solyndra, the scandalous multi $100 million California solar firm. One of their early grants from this program was to Solyndra.

The other big subsidy is– actually, the major subsidy is called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. And it is kind of complicated. I don’t want to take up all the time talking about it. But essentially, it is a subsidy for what are considered green alternative fuels. And this stuff is considered a green alternative fuel.

And the calculation that the state makes, more or less arbitrarily, of how green it is determines how much subsidy they get, and therefore the investment in this stuff. And in terms of solar, yes, there are also many subsidies for solar as well and things like this. But I think they’re insufficient.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you. Three very, very good presentations. I kind of– it kind of goes to all three of you, the question. And then I have a comment, and that is the responsibility of owning the energy infrastructure.

And I was thinking in your case, I would think there must be some responsibility somewhere with the sort of– for me, coming from Norway, it’s very strange that you can live above an oil well. So I’m just wondering, how does that work with the responsibility?

And Jonathan, you talked about mostly solar and also wind. And two weeks ago– or last week, Brett Christopher was here and said that– and presented a book, where he said that we don’t pay enough attention to the infrastructure. So with now the electrification of society, we have this very much focused on like, how can we make wind and solar profitable? But the infrastructure is kind of also a very big question and challenge.

So, for example, I can give one example from Norway today. We have just had gave money to the first very heavily subsidized offshore wind licensing. And the connector only goes to Norway– even though it, like, it would make would make it much more profitable if you also sent it to Netherlands, to Denmark. And this is because it becomes so politically contested. But it’s just one example. And then so I’m just wondering if you could comment something about– if that plays into your case with how much does the infrastructure cost in India or if it’s relevant at all.

And then, Andrew, I see also a lot of the political and economic drivers of the energy transition and the whole. I really liked being challenged on the green versus fossil industry and how we think about it. And if I can find my question here.

Well, I think what makes it simpler when you talk about CCS over geoengineering, it’s actually become something we can relate to. And it also has an infrastructure, where it’s kind of co-benefiting. But I’m wondering, like, if there’s any emphasis on this other– we have this different silver bullet. So CCS is one. What about blue hydrogen? Is there any talk about that here? It’s like the new bus.

So blue hydrogen is natural gas, where you take out the CO2 and store it somewhere. And that becomes– I’m from an oil state– or now gas. That’s what we pride ourselves of. And this is driving the development for new– this becomes a major argument. So the oil industry, oil and gas industry, will now drill for more gas in the long-term.

Now it’s going to be sent to Europe as the gas they need, natural gas they need. And then we’re going to carbon capture it. And I think it’s a very valid point with IPCC giving this leverage, which makes everything more complicated for what is green and what is brown and et cetera.

[CAYLEE HONG] Yeah, sure. Thank you for the question. So legally, it’s extremely clear that an owner or operator of a well is responsible. So that responsibility comes out through the polluter pays principle in California. But also, in individual leases, there’s almost always an obligation to decommission.

The problem, of course, is that we’ve seen in California, and really all over North America, is that oil and gas operators, whether they’re these– in my presentation, I’m talking about operators that drilled 100 years ago. They were mostly individuals. Some of them were hand-digging holes. They didn’t even have the technology to drill. So that’s exceptional.

But really, what’s happening nowadays is a kind of three-fold way in which responsibility is ceded, including in places like LA still. One is that, like we saw with my case study, the operator just disappears. Like, there’s no– as a corporation, they just– you can’t even find them. They’re gone.

More commonly, they go bankrupt, right? So there’s all sorts of loopholes and legal debates about how decommissioning obligations or environmental responsibilities gets paid out in this sort of waterfall of priority in a bankruptcy. But as recent cases in California show, usually, operators, because there’s never enough money to go around, will not end up paying for decommissioning costs. So that goes on to the state.

And third, what’s even probably more common, and which a lot of organizers and the state is paying attention to, is the transfer of these old wells to a smaller producer. So for example, Chevron, the California Resources Corporation, Exxon, large, well-capitalized firms, what they typically do is will sell down to smaller and smaller operators. And then that– at the end of this chain, they will go bankrupt.

So California, for example, has passed legislation to try to prevent those transfers where wells can’t be bonded. But yeah, there’s a major distinction between– or gap– between what’s legally required and what actually happens in practice when it comes to responsibility.

[JOHNATHAN GUY] I think the question was about, what’s the role of cost in– oh, like supplementary, like investments for wind and solar, like, in terms of grid management. Yeah, I think– I guess the way I think about this politically is that it’s another upfront cost. And it’s the one that is really a public good in the sense that everyone benefits from it because it increases the connectivity of the infrastructure.

And what’s interesting is that in India, we see a much more sustained effort to upgrade the grid and to also– and also in grid storage. I think that there are kind of two reasons why this is happening. One that I alluded to is that the central government isn’t fiscally constrained in the same way that these states are. They have the ability to make investments. And they don’t face this kind of subsidy trap that the states do.

And then second is that, basically, India is trying to diversify upstream into all these sorts of technologies in energy storage, in green hydrogen. And I think that there’s the potential to create new rents there and to benefit these firms. I think there’s also a security component to the story, like trying to– because a lot of these– like, green hydrogen has crossover benefits, spillover benefits in defense. So yeah, those would be my guesses. Yeah, thank you.

[ANDREW JAEGER] Thanks. Yes. There’s a lot I can say about that, but I’ll be– I’ll be quick. Yes, hydrogen is– there’s a lot of hype around hydrogen here as well for very similar reasons. And actually, one of the main reasons– one of the main arguments against these dairy digesters that are being deployed right now is that they are undermining the push for green hydrogen.

Because they more or less function– the RNG that’s produced more or less functions as an offset that the blue hydrogen producers can use to prevent– you know, to release themselves of their regulatory burden, right? Yeah, I think I’ve talked a lot. So I’ll stop there.

[DANIEL ALDANA COHEN] Good. Thank you, thank you. My voice has gone missing. All right, we’re at 1:27. So I will make one brief remark and then we’ll wrap this up. And if folks want to talk more with the panelists afterwards, please do. I have zillions of questions for all of you which we’ll get to in the shortness of time because we don’t have time anymore.

I think this panel confirms my feeling that the relationship between humans, capitalism and the planet can be summarized in just two words, which would be built environment, and that those two words, built environment, also named the common ground almost literally between almost all scholarly projects around the climate question. So I think it’s really fascinating to have three very different approaches coming from three very different disciplines, different questions. But they all kind of converge on the fights over the literal reconstruction of our physical interface with the planet.

So this has been super provocative. I think in the longer conversations that we’ll be having over the years, I think it’ll be really interesting to think about the disciplinary resources, but also obstacles to the research programs we’ve laid out here. Because I see you all transgressing conventional scholarly boundaries and research programs in ways that are very exciting. And I wonder how universities can change to more– to enable the kind of work that you’re doing so that this research program can flourish to help us all face down these emergencies.

Thank you all very much for coming– Julia for organizing the Matrix, Chuck, who’s hiding behind a wall, making this all work. And thank you again once again for coming, being part of this conversation. And let’s keep this going. Thanks.


[WOMAN’S VOICE] Thank you for listening. For more information about Social Science Matrix, please visit


California Spotlight

Conservatorship: Inside California’s System of Coercion and Care for Mental Illness

Recorded on March 18, 2024, this panel focused on Professor Alex V. Barnard’s book, Conservatorship: Inside California’s System of Coercion and Care for Mental Illness. The book analyzes conservatorship, a legal system used to take legal guardianship over individuals deemed unable to meet their own basic needs. This controversial system, which has come under fire from civil liberties and disability rights groups, is at the center of state policies for mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. Through interviews with policy makers, professionals, families, and conservatees, Barnard shows how the system operates, and its many shortcomings.

At this event — part of the Social Science Matrix California Spotlight series — Professor Barnard was joined by Lauren Rettagliata, whose comments on her lived experience of the system complement Barnard’s discussion of his research. The discussion was moderated by Jonathan Simon, Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice Law at Berkeley Law.

The panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Institute for the Study of Societal Issues (ISSI), Department of Sociology, and the Center for the Study of Law and Society.

About the Speakers

Alex V. Barnard is an assistant professor of sociology at NYU, holding a PhD in sociology from UC Berkeley. His work examines cross-national differences in the trajectory of people with severe mental illness between different institutions of care and control. His book, Conservatorship: Inside California’s System of Coercion and Care for Mental Illness was published by Columbia University Press in 2023. He is currently working on another book, tentatively titled, Mental States: Ordering Psychiatric Disorder in France.

Lauren Rettagliata is the mom of four sons, the oldest has Autism, the youngest has Schizophrenia. Almost five decades ago, she worked on committees that formulated federal legislation that ensconced into federal law protection for a free appropriate education for all children. Lauren found herself back home in California at the time her youngest son was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. The world changed for her. She had to search the streets and delta for her son who spent many years homeless and fell into drug addiction. Her son has been conserved. Lauren’s advocacy now centers around Housing That Heals.


Jonathan Simon joined the Berkeley Law faculty in 2003 as part of the J.D., JSP, and Legal Studies programs. He teaches in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, criminology, legal studies and the sociology of law. Simon’s scholarship concerns the role of crime and criminal justice in governing contemporary societies, risk and the law, and the history of the interdisciplinary study of law. His published works include over seventy articles and book chapters, and three single authored monographs, including: Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass (University of Chicago 1993, winner of the American Sociological Association’s sociology of law book prize, 1994), Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (Oxford University Press 2007, winner of the American Society of Criminology, Hindelang Award 2010) and Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America (New Press 2014).

Podcast and Transcript

Listen to this event below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

[WOMAN’S VOICE] The Matrix Podcast is a presentation of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary reserach center at the University of California, Berkeley.

[JULIA SIZEK] My name is Julia Sizek, and I am the postdoc here at the Social Science Matrix. And today, we are extremely excited for this important event that is about a topic that is very politically relevant in California. As we were discussing right before we started, the votes on Prop 1 are counting, which is, of course, an issue relevant to the system of conservatorship, which is what we’re here to discuss today.

So you likely already know a little bit about the system of conservatorship. A legal infrastructure and medical system that has developed in order to take care of people that have been deemed to be gravely disabled. Conservatorship is a very head end system, and it rarely makes the news aside from Britney Spears, who is a very famous case.

But it’s a system that is both very important and very hidden, one that our guests today Alex Barnard, knows very well. And Dr. Barnard is a graduate of the sociology department here, so we are especially happy to welcome him back to say hello. This event is part of our California Spotlight Series which addresses topics of interest to residents of the Golden State.

So we also do have some other upcoming events here at Matrix, some of which might be of interest to those of you who are attending this event for various reasons. So tomorrow which is March 19, we will be having an event with Nick Romeo called The Alternative, How To Build A Just Economy.

On Wednesday, we will be having an event called New Directions in Greening Infrastructure about the energy transition. On April 1, which will be after spring break, which is next week, we will be having an event on a book called Nature-Made Economy, COD, Capital and the Great Economization of the Ocean. On April 4, another book event on The Gender of Capital.

And then once we approach the end of the semester, we’ll be having some events on Caste, Education, and Social Struggle in Modern India, as well as a book event on Puta Life, Seeing Latinas, Working Sex by Berkeley professor Juana Maria Rodriguez. And you can, of course, find our other events on our website, which is

And then just before I introduce our moderator today, just a note for the folks who are online. If you want to ask a question during the event, please put it in the Q&A box. And if you’re having some sort of technical issue and you aren’t able to hear someone or you’re having some sort of problem like that, put it in the chat and we will get back to you as soon as we can.

Yes. OK. So now I will introduce Jonathan Simon who will be moderating today for us. He joined the Berkeley Law faculty in 2003 as part of the JD/JSP and legal studies programs. He teaches in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, criminology, legal studies, and the sociology of law.

His scholarship concerns the role of crime and criminal justice in governing contemporary societies risk and the law in the history of the interdisciplinary study of law. His published works include over 70 articles and book chapters and three monographs, which I will list here– poor discipline, parole in the social control of the underclass, governing through crime, how the war on crime transformed American democracy and created a culture of fear, and finally, mass incarceration on trial, a remarkable court decision in the future of prisons in America. And so without any further ado, I will turn it over to Jonathan.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Thanks so much, Julia. And let me extend my welcome as well to the Matrix? Audience here in the building, as well as to our audience online. I hope I’m coming through clearly enough, if I’m not, Julia will certainly signal me and I’ll try to improve it. I’m very excited by this conversation.

There are a few topics that have animated as many of us in California for as long as this one, and we have a terrific panel to educate us today. So I want to get to them very quickly. But let me start by saying this. A little more than 20 years now of teaching legal studies here at Berkeley, I’ve never ceased to be amazed at how much Americans in general and I think Californians maybe in particular love law, and especially law in the books.

And how convinced we are that if you get law right, everything will follow. That you want to change society, you need to change the law. And so we can just look at our history, whether it’s prohibition or more recent wars on drugs, segregating society or desegregating society, creating a legal right to abortion or ending Roe as we know it, have all been demands made by people who fervently believed that we would live in a better world if we could change what the law is on the books.

And if you think about it, there are few areas in, certainly, recent history where I think– few areas of public interest and public policy that have drawn quite as much of this, you might say, mythical belief in the power of law to do either good or evil than the issues around civil commitment, conservatorship that we are addressing today.

Many of you know that in 1969, California was one of the leading, maybe the leading, state to pass a landmark law revising how the state exercises its truly awesome sovereign power to civilly commit people to coerce them sometimes into custody or into treatment or into some combinations thereof.

And that law is distributed by various people as having transformed California society in many, many ways. And ever since that– over 50 years ago, now 55, we have passed numerous laws. If you think that we don’t have enough laws in this area, first of all, I urge you to read the book and talk to Lauren, and I’m going to introduce them properly in a moment.

But one of the things that makes it so interesting to me is that not only do we really care about this law and the related laws, but today we attribute many of our most persistent evils in our state to having gotten this law either wrong or not right enough. And that includes unhousedness. That includes rampant public drug use and drug sales in the center of many of our large cities. It includes mass incarceration.

That motivated me to write an article on this and opine on how we could solve these problems, as well as seemingly more mundane problems like automobile break ins, property crimes, retail theft, et cetera. So in a way, changing the law of conservatorship civil commitment has the glow of a panacea to many today who think that we could get it right.

Now, I’ve spent much of my career trying to show Berkeley undergraduates for the most part that story about law on the books is at best a myth, and that it’s really the law and the action that matters. And there’s a lot that goes with that. One message is, whether you won or lost the battle over law on the books, things are just beginning because we really don’t know what that law on the books is going to do, and reversing it, how it’s going to do as well.

Notwithstanding that background knowledge and the experience I should have had. As I said, I wrote my own law review article on this topic arguing that mass incarceration was such a horrible evil that we ought to delve back into the law and try to get the balance right between freedom and coercion in the form of prison.

And again, I would say having now read Alex’s book more carefully and listening to more survivors and their family members, that there was a huge amount of naivete to think that we could just give judges clearer guidelines or even fancy terms like dignity or values like dignity and expect chains to follow in any kind of automatic way.

So in my experience, if you want to break out of the enormous power that myths, rational myths– since we’re in a sociology related adjacent space, we might describe them as especially the myth of legality that changing the law on the books is the key to changing society, there’s only two ways to get away from those myths in my experience.

One is by deep empirical research that forces you to overcome your assumptions and the assumptions of the people that encouraged you to go out in the field, and living and experiencing the dilemmas of this system directly through your loved ones and through your own struggle to foster their lives and well-being.

And we are very privileged today to have two people who can speak exactly to those sources of knowledge, and I’m going to introduce them in the order that they’re going to speak. Alex Barnard on my far left here is an assistant professor of sociology at NYU. As you noted, Julia, he holds a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.

His work examines cross-national differences in the trajectory of people with severe mental illness between different institutions of care and control. His book– this is it, Conservatorship Inside California’s System of Coercion and Care for Mental Illness, was published by Columbia University press in 2023.

He is currently working on another book tentatively titled Mental States Ordering Psychiatric Disorder In France. And I’ll note that he had done a lot of research in France when he wrote this book, so it’s already informed in many ways by a cross-cultural knowledge that most of us ignore or don’t have.

To my immediate left is Lauren– I’m sorry, my notes here just give you a first name, but I know you’ve got a–

That’s OK.

–last name as well, and I will get to that in a moment. Here we go. Lauren is the mom of four sons. The oldest has autism. The youngest has schizophrenia. Almost five decades ago, coincidentally, she worked on committees that formulated some of the first federal legislation that ensconced laws protecting a right to free and appropriate education for all children.

Lauren found herself back home in California at the time her youngest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The world changed for her. She had to search the streets and delta for her son who spent many years homeless and fell into drug addiction. Her son has been conserved. Laura’s advocacy now centers around housing that heals, and we’ll hear more about that.

So Alex and Lauren are each going to speak for about 15 minutes or so, then I will moderate a Q&A with all of you and with our online audience. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming these experts, true experts, here to the Matrix.


[ALEX BARNARD] Thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to be here. I’d like to thank the Social Science Matrix for the invitation, and especially my past and perhaps forever advisor Marion Fourcade for organizing this event. It’s really special to share the stage with Lauren who is a really instrumental support early on in this project.

And as that kind introduction just noted, perhaps I’m an expert, but I’m an expert only because of the hundreds of people who have shared their expertise and their experiences and in many cases, their pain and their struggles with me. So my work on this topic began when I was a PhD student here conducting a comparative study on decision making in public mental health in France and the US.

And towards the end of my PhD, I began hearing about proposals across the Bay in San Francisco to use conservatorship and ordinarily obscure medical legal intervention to address some of the combination of urban suffering, urban disorder, and addiction that I could see every day on my bike to campus.

Yet, I quickly realized there was almost no academic research or government oversight into what was happening to people already on conservatorship. And so with an intrepid group of undergraduate research apprentices here at Berkeley, we sought out to provide some of that analysis.

My core argument in the book is that as a result of what I call the state’s abdication of authority, California’s mental health system is producing both an excess of coercion that offers neither the social control that is being demanded by the public or politicians, nor the transformative care that some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens ought to receive.

And concision is not my strong point. [? Keris ?] [? Myrick ?] recently described my book not really as a book but a tome, but I will try and give you a brief version of it through telling one story, the story of Serge [? Obolensky ?] who I first interviewed in 2021 and I’ve had the pleasure of getting to in the last few years.

So you used to be able to search for no hands, crazy, and Hollywood on YouTube and find him. In one video that seems too Hollywood to be true, the camera person is focused on an LAPD officer who is laying out a spike trap in the road to put an end to a car chase in progress. And the video pans over to a man with no hands, a grizzled beard, and caked in dirty hair. He’s shouting at the sky and clapping his two wrists together.

These videos capture Serge’s external behavior but not his internal suffering. And when I interviewed him in 2021, he didn’t give me a lot of details about his background but says that he suffered an accident with a firecracker in his late teens he lost both his hands and one eye. His parents were scientologists and adamantly opposed to psychiatric treatment, even though he showed signs of developing psychosis. He was evicted from his apartment in 2001 and spent more than a decade homeless in Hollywood.

So he describes it, it was very hard, very painful. “I didn’t have shoes. My hair was dirty. I was hungry all the time. I was freezing cold at night, and I didn’t have a blanket or anything. It was really bad.” Serge was on the verge of becoming part of a shocking and shameful statistic, a massive rise of homeless mortality in the state that has grown much faster than the homeless population itself, as you can see from the chart.

Los Angeles went from 500 homeless deaths in 2014 to over 2,000 last year. While some of this is a consequence of the rise of new and lethal substances, it also reflects an aging unhoused population. The years and years that people like Serge have spent on the street accumulates into both increased vulnerability and increased skepticism of the health and social service interventions that are supposed to help them.

So everyone who has lived in an urban area of California has seen Serge or someone like them and asked the question, why isn’t somebody doing something to help him? Some people wonder why Serge wasn’t being offered housing through programs like Housing First. While others ask, why is it that California’s laws make it so hard to force someone like Serge into treatment?

Yet Serge was not being left alone in some kind of homeless state of nature. In fact, one of the things that Serge remembers most clearly from that period is many, many 5150s. A 5150 refers to the part of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code that allows a police officer or designated clinician to deem somebody a danger to self, danger to others, or gravely disabled, which means unable to meet their need for food, clothing, or shelter as a result of mental illness and transport them to an ER evaluation. 5150 is also the title of a Van Halen album and a Machine Gun Kelly song. Now you know.

In Serge’s case, the voices in his head would tell him to run into traffic, and police would pick him up and take him to a hospital. Sometimes the voices would tell him to trespass and he’d be arrested instead. Serge’s case speaks to a neglected truth. What we often hear that California’s laws are particularly strict, if we look at the rate of these 72 hour holds, California actually has a very high rate of short term involuntary treatment. And if we look at 14-day commitments, somewhat longer 14-day commitments, California sits in the middle of many European countries.

What Serge did not experience during his years on the street was a conservatorship. So a conservatorship, also known as a guardianship, is a legal measure by which a judge grants a third party the power to place somebody in a facility, including a locked one, or two them to receive treatment and control their finances and personal decisions.

Serge was always released by an ER within 48 hours. A clinician declared that Serge was meeting his need for food because people in the neighborhood would occasionally buy him a meal. He met his requirement for shelter because he knew to sleep in a doorway when it was raining. Sometimes if he had been transported to a hospital in another neighborhood, they’d even provide him a taxi back to Hollywood. A few times, he said the discharge social worker tried to connect him to a shelter, but he didn’t go.

This outcome is not surprising. Despite the state’s rate of high rate of short term involuntary interventions, the number of people receiving long term interventions versus via somewhat misleadingly named permanent conservatorship, which lasts one year, has gone down. Again, this isn’t because civil rights laws, which have been largely the same since 1967 are getting stricter, nor is it because the treatment system is doing a better job of stabilizing and healing people.

I think it would be remiss if I didn’t say, this system that is producing proliferating short term involuntary interventions has extreme racial disparities built into it. So this is data that was put together by San Francisco. It’s looking at the number of people in the city in fiscal year 2021 who had eight or more 5150s in one year. And you can see in that population, 50% of the people subjected to that were Black or African-American. San Francisco as a reminder is now 5% Black.

Kerry Morrison realized that there was another explanation for the mixture of abandonment and short and pointless coercion that Serge was facing. She was head of the Hollywood business? Improvement District, an organization that some scholars have roundly critiqued for advocating the criminalization of unsightly homeless individuals.

But Morrison did much more than demand the police arrest or 5150 Serge. After all, Serge was already being regularly detained. What Morrison realized was that there was no accountability for ensuring that these detentions actually accomplished anything. She was getting at something akin to my conclusion in the book.

Although California’s landmark 1967 law, the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act granted the state the power to adopt any rules, regulations, and standards as necessary to implement it, the state has largely abdicated that authority. It provides no guidelines as to the goal of the conservatorship system nor best practices for how legal criteria like grave disability should be operationalized, nor serious oversight of the locked facilities where many conservatees wind up.

The state’s own power has been dispersed among a fragmented field of public and private actors that are using or opting not to use that power in keeping with their particular bureaucratic imperatives or funding constraints. As a result, you’ll see getting someone care in California looks like, as one mom told me, the result of luck and heroics rather than a functioning system.

In Serge’s case, Kerry decided to step in. She concluded that Serge and others like him were missing an air traffic controller to ensure that they actually progressed through the system rather than simply cycled in and out of it. So she in a group of local nonprofits and charities mapped out on a whiteboard everything they knew about the Hollywood top 14, the individuals in the neighborhood they identified as the most vulnerable and most likely to die if left on the streets.

They were the ones who combined information from homelessness, law enforcement, and mental health agencies that ordinarily ignored one another. They assembled all this information into a dossier and hatched a plan. The group would wait for a day when a particularly sympathetic doctor was on call at the local hospital. During that physician’s shift, the bid’s foot patrol would watch for Serge to run into traffic and call LAPD.

Meanwhile, someone from the Hollywood top 14 team would camp out in the ER so that before Serge was released by the ER, they would show the doctor the dossier and say if you let him go, this has been the pattern and he’s vulnerable. Everything worked like clockwork, she told me, and that did not make for a less tragic scene.

She tells me the police had to handcuff him, but he doesn’t have hands. So they use zip ties and he was kneeling on the ground. There’s all sorts of law enforcement all around him. When Morrison talks about her work, she says, this is how we help people in America.

Importantly, the team arranged for Serge to be taken to a county hospital, and this is an important point and offers a moment to talk about a theme that politicians like Gavin Newsom have really hammered on in recent months, which is California’s desperate lack of treatment beds.

My research documents a warzone like triaging of scarce beds by which families, clinicians, and first responders scramble to get extremely sick people into facilities. I want you to watch a discharge social worker plead for a miracle that would convince a hospital to keep a homeless pregnant woman with schizophrenia one night.

Given this, it might surprise you that from a comparative perspective, California is not noticeably underequipped. If we look at all locked mental health facilities in the state, California sits between Australia and Denmark with more than the UK, Canada, or Sweden.

What creates this shortfall is first California’s immense need. The combination of the nation’s highest real poverty rate, half the county’s unsheltered homeless, waves of austerity in the mental health system, and not just under Ronald Reagan, and mass incarceration have created vulnerable people like Serge who essentially do not exist in many European countries.

Moreover, California’s locked beds are used badly. California has the fourth largest state run hospital system by capita, but most of those beds are used for people found incompetent to stand trial treated just enough so they can be judged and punished. And as a harrowing recent report by disability rights California found, many people in locked facilities in the state linger there for months or years after being cleared for discharge because the private residential treatment providers the state relies on won’t take people with comorbid medical needs, substance abuse challenges, or history of violence.

Most of California’s acute care psychiatric hospitals are privately run in for profit. As you can see from the yellow bars, half of the state’s beds authorized to take involuntary patients are in such facilities. But private facilities are not engaged in any project of Foucauldian social control. Instead, they keep people as long as insurance is paying and discharge them when it stops. In LA, private hospitals have an astonishing readmission rate of 37% within 30 days.

Serge, however, was brought to a county hospital. Public facilities like these are more willing to eat the costs of holding somebody for a long period while waiting for a conservatorship. And you can see that in the brown bars on the right showing the proportion of conservatorship referrals coming from different types of facilities. This does not say anything about the quality of care being offered.

So in Serge’s case, the dossier passed through an ER up to the inpatient unit where after waiting a requisite 17 days, the doctor applied for a conservatorship. That dossier was then evaluated by a County agency, the public guardian, and referred for a hearing.

Now, in theory, conservatorship hearings are a point where law and medicine, where rights and care collide in a delicate balancing act. But Serge doesn’t remember his public defender fighting for him or even that he spoke to the judge. He just remembers the doctor testified that he couldn’t take care of himself and it made him upset. Serge was placed on a conservatorship.

So what does it mean to be conserved? Popular culture like the Netflix movie I Care a Lot and Britney Spears case have painted a picture of a guardianship industry riven with active exploitation. But people with mental illness rarely have the kind of assets that would attract an unscrupulous private conservator.

Serge was thus the charge of an obscure county agency, the public guardian. Depictions of public guardians also emphasize, as one 1972 profile put it, that they have total power to decide when they’ll see the sunshine again. In practice though, public guardians have caseloads that range from 60 to 100 people and a limited budget consisting primarily of their wards social security checks. Far from having overbearing parents, conservatives often seem like latchkey kids.

One public guardian reflecting on the public’s increased desire to see more people conserved lamented to me, they think it’s a magic wand. Oh, let’s get them conserved, and then everything will be solved. But we only have two powers, placement and medication, and we have no placement budget.

So in Serge’s case, the court ordered the public guardian to place Serge in a long term care facility. But hospitals and guardians have little leverage over these facilities whose beds are scarce and for which counties have to compete. So Serge was stuck for months on inpatient until one day Kerri went to visit him and he was gone.

The hospital wouldn’t tell Kerry where he was citing privacy laws. Kerry raged. Our system does not want to even acknowledge that there might be someone out there who cares, who might be the lifeline, the connector could provide people with $5 or whatever. When we were speaking with Kerry and Serge, Kerry reflected, if we did not go looking for you, nobody in the world would have known where you were. You would have been completely alone.

Kerry eventually tracked Serge to a locked facility on the outskirts of LA. These Mental Health Rehabilitation Centers, MHRCs, are inauspicious places. At the facility I visited, which is not the one pictured, you have to look carefully at the vine covered fence around an exercise area out back to realize that it’s topped with barbed wire. The facility was eerily quiet.

It has no staff psychiatrist. It contracts for physicians to meet each resident once every two weeks. There are no licensed psychologists providing one on one psychotherapy. Most of the activities are groups on anger management or living skills put on by program counselors who the manager told me were uncertified people who would otherwise be working in McDonald’s.

While I was touring, a woman came up to me to show me poetry she was writing with titles like “Locked In” and “My Incarceration”. At that moment, I felt like crying. I had been hearing about the desperate need for more MHRC beds and seeing that need. But when I finally saw them, I realized we were clamoring for people to shuffle empty hallways in silence for months or years waiting for the next antipsychotic injection.

But Kristen, a nurse from the local public health department who joined on the tour, saw things differently. She runs a County independent supported housing first program and talks about a client who is refusing to be in a higher level of care even though they recently found him in a bathroom almost in a coma defecating on himself with near fatal blood sugar.

It’s so great to see people cared for, Kristen said, also fighting back tears. For some people, an MHRC is just better and safer. And when it comes to whether you see conservatorship as abuse or compassion, your reference point matters a lot.

In Serge’s case, Kerry and her compatriot eventually found a contact in the Department of Mental Health who had stretched privacy laws to tell them where Serge had wound up. Kerry drove to the far reaches of LA to meet him and made a distressing discovery. Although Serge had been conserved for months, he had not actually met his public guardian.

Concretely, that means he wasn’t having any of his social security check transferred to him, so he couldn’t even get food from the MHRC’s small snack bar. Kerry raised what she called holy hell with the county, and within a day or two, Serge’s public guardian reached out.

Serge himself was surprisingly lacking in antipathy towards those who treated him. He expressed his gratitude for the unlocked board and care home he step down into, a setting that provides 24 hour supervision and help with medication management. However, these facilities are evaporating statewide as a result of rising property values, increasing labor costs, and, again, decades of state indifference.

Lauren has visited many of these facilities, and she’s really the person to ask about what makes a good or a bad warden care. In any case, when we spoke, Serge enthusiastically told me about working on his GAD and the new prosthetics he was getting through the aftermath foundation, which helps people who have fled scientology. He was also in the process of dropping to a lower level of care.

When Serge came off conservatorship, he was given a full service partnership, California’s highest level of voluntary services, which would visit him multiple times in his and care. But in California, no level of care is supposed to be permanent. And the future, he’ll have to get to the clinic himself. That’s him getting his GED.

So Serge is a striking success story, but did conservatorship have to be part of it? Kerry told me that for many of the people in the Hollywood top 14, by the time her team engaged, there was nothing left between death and conservatorship. Serge himself was conflicted. Towards the end of our interview, I asked him what I think the question we should all be asking– is there anything that you could have offered you in those years that you would have accepted to get you into housing or treatment?

He said, I would have accepted both, but no one ever offered. I said, if somebody is going to give you an apartment or a hotel room, would you have said yes? Definitely. What would you have said if a psychiatrist visited you and offered to renew your prescription? That would have been good.

Opponents of expanding conservatorship see these kinds of narratives and the evidence that many people in California are requesting housing, drug treatment, or mental health services don’t get them as evidence that the crisis on California’s streets could be addressed without expanding forced treatment.

Instead, we need to engage people with persistent offers of the things they want, which for some people would drew them into treatment was a promise to get them an IDD or a trip to the dentist. And by relying on peers with lived experience to make the connection rather than just traditional clinicians.

Yet at a different point in our interview, Serge gave me a different answer. He told me that in the throes of psychosis, he didn’t necessarily want treatment. As I asked, you’ve had a lot of experience with the mental health system. If you were in charge and you could change one thing, what would you change first. And he said, that they can serve me earlier. So you would have them serve you earlier? Yeah. Even though you didn’t want it? He said, if I got off the street earlier, that would have been better.

Serge’s ambivalence was common in my interviews with dozens of people who had received forced treatment in California. While some people described what they had experienced unequivocally as torture, others perceived it as a difficult but at a certain moment in their life necessary intervention.

I am reaching the end here. But the idea that there are people who need mental health treatment but who, due to traumatic past interactions, bad experiences with medication, or due to the symptoms of their illnesses themselves, cannot accept it has driven three major pieces of reform that I want to briefly review as I close out my presentation.

The first are care courts passed in 2022. These are civil courts that can order people to follow a treatment or housing plan and obligate counties to provide it. These courts don’t have a strong enforcement mechanism, but they can refer a person to conservatorship. Conservatorships themselves are going to get easier to get.

SB43 passed in 2023 changed conservatorship criteria to add substance use disorders and include medical care and personal safety alongside food, clothing, and shelter. Currently 56 of 58 counties in the state have delayed implementation of the law citing capacity limitations, which is why Prop 1, which continues to hang in the balance– we actually don’t know if it’s going to pass, which promises $6.4 billion for new beds, some of which can be in locked facilities, is likely to be so impactful.

My own research suggests that the definition of grave disability expands or contracts based on available beds. So I think this may be the most significant of these reforms. I’m currently finishing or starting moving towards publishing some current research that shows that these reforms put California at the leading edge of a national trend.

Citing concerns about homelessness, mass incarceration, gun violence, and youth mental health, states nationwide have introduced 1,600 bills in the last decade related to involuntary treatment, which with a group of assistants at NYU we’ve been cataloging. Democratic states like California, Oregon, and Hawaii are at the forefront.

Whether these reforms are a pendulum swing towards the bad old days of mass institutionalization or course correction towards a more balanced mental health system depends enormously on implementation. And this is why I think there’s value in California taking seriously a rigorous evaluation component and being ready to shift its approach depending on the results.

So I’ll close with five concluding thoughts, all of which reflect my own somewhat conflicted conclusions in a book where conservatorship really was at one moment a form of abuse, at other moments a life saving tool, and in some cases like Serge’s, perhaps a bit of both.

The first is that California State government has abdicated authority over the conservatorship system. Conservatorship is an immensely powerful government tool, but government doesn’t actually determine how it gets used. The consequences that people like Serge experience both repeated short term coercion and abandonment, sometimes within 48 hours.

My second conclusion is that while there is an absolutely an enormous need for more voluntary treatment and housing in the state, I’ve also found that for a subset of people, these will not meet their current needs. Every housing first provider intensive outpatient program or peer support outreach team I’ve observed has emphasized that they have many clients who need but cannot get into a higher level of care.

For this reason, I wrote at the end of my book that I thought an accountable careful targeted use of conservatorship could help some of these individuals. But as time goes on, I am more and more doubtful about whether the state could actually consistently provide this.

Fourth, my interviews with service users highlights the extent to which our focus on Access to beds and care has often come at the expense of discussing what actually happens to people in those beds, why some people are afraid of sleeping in those beds, and concerns about quality more broadly.

Finally, I recognize that my ability to call for nuance and compromise reflects the privilege of an academic able to take a step back and claim some distance from this issue. Still, I think the near failure of Prop 1 is an interesting caution. The large no vote reflects a surprisingly effective campaign from advocates for voluntary treatment. But I think it also reflects a growing backlash against any spending on homelessness and mental health.

Historically, the biggest divide is not between those who are for and against involuntary treatment between families and service users but between those who believe we have some collective responsibility for addressing these issues versus those who embrace a kind of nihilism about whether anything can and should be done.

The time to do our best to combine our various expertises and approaches to show that we really can do better is now. On that note, I’ll express my intense gratitude and look forward to hearing from Lauren. Thanks for hanging in that slightly longer than promised presentation.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Thank you so much, Alex. We will–


–bring Lauren up to the podium and I guess maybe move the slides.

[LAUREN RETTAGLIATA] First off, Alex, thank you for inviting me to present with you. I think your book was amazing. And I think many families like mine feel that it is something that needed to be done, and we really thank you for the research. This is a picture of me and my cohorts. And I want to thank everyone here in the room. And many of you who are online.

If you look at this, well over on the left, you’ll see Rose King. Rose King actually was one of the people that penned the Mental Health Services Act, along with Darrell and Rusty [? Seelix. ?] She was the person who really moved it. She was the head of the Democratic Party at the time, and she moved forward.

And next to her is my dear friend and the person I toured California with, Teresa Pasquini. And I’m in the middle there before I went gray.


So hello to everyone. I am one of the many moms on a mission to help those with a serious mental illness and substance use disorder. Those forgotten and disposed of. The discarded accumulating on our city streets, and also the forgotten. Those in their community, but living stunted existences in their loved one’s back rooms.

So this is the slide all of you have seen. What it is so important to me is that actually in 1974, I actually left the state of California because my oldest son at that time was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. Because in the DSM III, there wasn’t yet the autism designation.

And he was going to be placed at the Agnews State School because I kept hammering away, everything I know, everything I read, you’ve got to start working with him when he’s two, when he’s three. They said he– they could take him when he was four, but he would have to go to the Agnew State School.

My husband and I became panicked. I was a researcher, and I found a school district in Texas, the Cypress Fairbanks School District. And that’s where I met a lot of other moms like me, and we really– what that school system had that California didn’t had was an early childhood education program.

And my son, who everyone wanted to put at Agnews State School, today is a janitor at Dreggers, a really nice supermarket. He’s been working. He’s not on SSI. He’s not on SSDI. He’s completely a great human being who drives a car, but prefers to live with his family. We’re one of those old Italian families where if you don’t get married, you live with your family forever.


Now, this is a slide I asked permission from the Public Policy Institute of California to show. And this gives us an idea of exactly what is happening to people like many of our loved ones who end up just not on the street but actually in jail. And this is one of the saddest things that is happening.

This is why I really became involved. I can’t live with the status quo. I can’t live with when my son goes off of his medication, and he will at some time. Hopefully maybe there’ll be a miracle and he won’t this time, but then I have to search and many times find him in the delta of California involved in the meth trade in what they call meth island, which is Bethel island. Many times he’ll be on the street.

And when Theresa and I were on our first tour right in our own county, this is why it’s all grainy and not so great, is this is what we were up against. So the status quo has failed to help the most seriously and persistently mentally ill and indicted. These are the people who are suffering from psychosis that prevents them from receiving the medical care and psychiatric care they need. People who are not just in danger but whose psychosis will bring great harm to them or someone else.

I accepted the invitation to speak with Alex today to describe to you what LPS conservatorship means to families like mine. There are the A words. They are paramount in any discussion about conservatorship. The first, anosognosia. The false conviction within a person that nothing is wrong with their mind. It stems from the physiological byproduct of psychosis and accompanies about 50% of schizophrenia occurrences and 40% of bipolar cases.

The second is the A word, appropriate. I worked in at the federal government level in the 1984, and one of the things that we had our longest discussion on was the use of the word appropriate in a free and public education, that it had to be appropriate. And I think that this is paramount to our understanding because as you mentioned, it’s not necessarily the laws. It’s the implementation of the laws. It’s the implementation of what happens.

Appropriate, like anosognosia, is essential when decisions are made regarding treatment and placement. We hear so often about least restrictive environment. But too often, appropriate has been dropped. This word appears in state and federal legislation and is essential. It was placed there to assure that in all placements, what is done will bring benefit and prevent harm.

We want our loved ones civil rights protected through a due process hearing. We want the conservatorship to come up for renewal every year. We want a person who is conserved to have a placement review hearing if they disagree with their placement. We want the structure of the LPS conservatorship to be there to prevent further harm for the person to be given the opportunity to live as full a life as possible. And a conservatorship does that. All those things I mentioned, it does that today.

In California Senate Bill 43, the new LPS conservatorship statute when finally enacted in every county in California will give us the opportunity to see if medical intervention can enable people with a severe and persistent mental illness or addiction to recover in the appropriate, least restrictive setting.

Senate Bill 43 changes the definition of grave disability in two ways. It clearly states severe substance use disorder as a reason someone can be considered for conservatorship. And why personally this is important to me was, believe it or not, when someone has been in the system for a long time, their records get lost.

I happen to be a pretty faithful researcher and record keeper, so I kept mine. But I thought it was amazing when my son’s conservator told me that my son, he felt, what really didn’t have that much of a mental illness but what he had was a substance use disorder. Of course, he had a substance use disorder. He was a meth addict.

But everyone had forgotten that since he was 17 and 1/2– and now he was in his 40s, that he had schizophrenia. This gets forgotten. And what we can’t do is we can’t sit there and argue which came first, the chicken or the egg? They’re both very, very severe medical situations that need to be looked at.

The other is, and most importantly, what this new LPS conservatorship statute does it it adds a person’s inability to provide for one’s personal safety or necessary medical care to the old statute that was only concerned with a person’s inability to provide food, clothing, and shelter as reasons for a person to be held on a conservatorship.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency, SAMHSA, the federal entity that gives guidance to the state mental health system, describes recovery as this– a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.

A real life situation, though, is not addressed in this definition. What happens when a person is suffering from psychosis with a delusional thought process and has lost touch with reality? Conservatorship addresses this. It provides a structure needed so that lives may be stabilized and a person has a chance at recovery.

I logged many miles touring the state with Teresa Pasquini. Our mission was to find housing models that could be replicated that ended the human log-jam that sent people back to the street and locked doors where many fell into addiction and zombie like existences. We visited many types of living environments included the mental health rehabilitation centers and adult residential facilities. Now, I’m going to go through and show you some.

This is the best of the best of the institutes of mental disease, or as we call them in California, the mental health rehabilitation centers. This is in the Central Valley of California. It is not a nonprofit. I don’t think that the family that owns it are making huge amounts of money. They’re a family of psychiatrists, and this is the gold standard in the state.

Theresa and I have been to many, and this is what we need to have. This is why we don’t have as many as that. Because the counties or the insurance companies now have to pay $450 to $500 a day average. But what if we did that? What if we actually took that amount of money? I think we may, not for all, but for many stop that revolving door.

This is Eva Wells Behavioral Health. Now this is a for profit, not locked. But what is amazing about Everwell Behavioral Health is, they cherry pick the people who came to them the least. Remember there’s a shortage of beds, so everyone who is vying for– and I don’t like to call them beds, but placements within a facility, they can say no, we don’t want that person.

They’ve got diabetes. It looks like they might be losing a limb because of gangrene. They might have a colostomy bag. We can’t take them. Or they may be coming out of Napa State Hospital or another state hospital. But oh, put them in there. They have also– they might be a pedophile or something like been diagnosed as being a pedophile. So Everwell will take everyone– will take people before most other places will.

This is one of their facilities. It’s out in the Stockton area. One of their chief things that they really want to do is they want to give people real food. That they don’t have a psychiatrist and a psychologist on staff like CPT does. That’s the one good thing about CPT. They do have people with master level clinician status there.

But now this is the gold standard when we travel the state for facilities that contract with the counties. That means, these are people that aren’t on private insurance. And almost everyone after many years on the street or many years having a severe mental illness or substance use disorder is going to be using the county behavioral health system.

Synergy contracts with our county behavioral health systems. 95% of the residents are, as you can see, on Medi-Cal, Medicare, or Veteran Affairs. There are facilities– there’s one in Morgan Hill, there’s one South of Morgan Hill, and now they have a group of them that are opening up in Stockton. Almost everyone there is conserved. So you don’t have to be in a locked facility. You can be in an unlocked facility.

When I showed you– the other three previous ones I showed you were classified as for profit, OK? One of the reasons they were classified as for profit is, until just recently, in order to build a facility or in order to enhance a facility, you had to go get a loan from a bank. It’s very hard to get a loan from the bank if you’re a nonprofit. A for profit is a different story.

So that’s why many of the people and the places that you see caring for those with serious mental illness, they are for profits. This one is not. It is a nonprofit the problem for me– for the problem for the people that are there– it was amazing. We spent two days there looking at this place. They keep their residential program only to those with a schizophrenic, spectrum disorder.

But look at the cost. Look at what they managed to do. They’re charging families about $40,000 a year. Of course, they have other foundation money that is keeping them alive and well. And these figures are 2019. I haven’t checked in with them, but this shows you what can happen. It’s cheaper to care for people in a facility like this.

And what they did in Santa Anna was, they bought this block that was falling apart. This cul-de-sac that was falling apart, they purchased all– they purchased three homes at the top of it and then worked with the other two families and offered them a lot a really good price to move out, and they took over a cul-de-sac in Santa Ana.

Now, Santa Ana is in Orange County, but it’s not your wealthiest part of Orange County. So it is a good place. They’re on the bus route. They can go to community college. There’s a lot that can happen there. They have a few people who are conserved, but not everyone. OK.

So to prevent homelessness and the endless cycle from street to jail to the emergency room, we need to move from scarcity to abundance. And we don’t have– what I showed you, there’s just not enough of those. When someone is seriously mentally ill or addicted and is discharged from an emergency room, we must ask, discharge to where? Back to the street is not appropriate. It is wrong.

Appropriate is a key to providing the correct care. The setting must bring benefit and not cause further harm. Too many people are sent back to unsupported living situations often left on the street to die 20 to 30 years before they should. That’s a fact with schizophrenia.

It is a fact also that most large counties find their jails are their largest behavioral health treatment facilities. And then there are the open air asylums found in our urban areas and encampments along our byways and rivers where those suffering from untreated mental illness and addiction live and are preyed upon.

And if you’ve been to downtown Los Angeles– I know that Alex spent some time with my friend Susan [? Partovi. ?] She ministers and brings her medical ability to those that are in the open air asylum of downtown Los Angeles. We the people of California still have promises to keep. The promise we made when we closed the state hospitals, and we would provide treatment and care for the most severely ill in their communities.

We abdicated our authority. It was and is our responsibility to call on state legislators to provide adequate funding. Instead, we passed on the authority first to the state who passed it on to the counties, but we the people never funded a system of care that we promised.

Not all people can recover to the point where they will need a room key and the availability of supports and services. This is housing first, and it works for a lot of people. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a really good thing, but not for all. Prevention, early intervention, and peer supports are essential. But let us not forget those who need more, those who need intensive psychiatric support, those who need to see a psychiatrist, psychologist, or master level clinician very frequently to assure correct treatment is given so that they are not living in a world filled with psychotic delusions. This is housing that heals.

Our robust group home industry developed for those with an intellectual disability because a sufficient amount of funding followed those who need intensive care within the community. As you can see from the bottom arrow over there, if you have an intense intellectual developmental disability and you’re in a facility that has more than five beds, the state is getting close to $12,000. The state is giving $12,000 a month for their care.

For adults with a serious mental illness, it’s about 1,000. And the reason it’s 1,000 is they back out the Medi-Cal and Medicare portion, which is about $300, and then that leaves with less than 1,000. Also, all good board and cares will also keep back and give their person some money. So when my son has been in situations like this, the facility is probably getting about $750 or $800 a month.

In our tour of the state, we observed that both for profit and nonprofit entities can build and provide care within the community. I know that LPS conservatorship saves lives. I have also seen it fail because conservators sometimes do not understand the intensity of the illness that– and they want to treat the person in a setting that is not structured enough.

Too many of our loved ones have left housing placements that are not appropriate and ended up enslaved in the underbelly of the drug world or worse, dead. This is Allison Monroe. She’s a dear friend of mine. This is her daughter, Diana, who passed. She left a board and care, which really wasn’t a high enough.

Conservators have a great responsibility. And when people are not put in a place where they get enough support and structure, they wander off, and they end up like Diana does. And that was dead from an overdose of fentanyl. So thank you very much, and I appreciate your patience.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Thank you so much, Lauren. And our audience here has been terrific. So I think we have time for questions as well as for online. So I’m going to invite my real experts to have a seat so that they can field these questions. And should we go back and forth between the room and the virtual world? We have a couple in the room. We could do two at a time perhaps. You guys are all right with that?


If there is demand. Give people a moment to not feel the Goffmanian stigma of raising their hands. Do we have something online we could start with? There we go. Richard.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I just wondered if either or both of you has anything to suggest about the strategy that California should pursue for the next year or five or 10.


Was there another–

[JONATHAN SIMON] Anyone want to add on to that?

Can you say it again, please?

Do you mind repeating the question?

I think it was, what’s the best course California should take in the next one to five years in this area?


Can you–

Just until you get the mic. Thanks.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Can you talk about the process of competing for beds between different counties.

I’m sorry I couldn’t hear.

[ALEX BARNARD] The competition between counties for beds. And do you think– I mean, there’s what should we do in the next five years is really– I mean, It’s a great question, but it’s also such a vast question. So maybe I’ll just target thinking about, again, we have this huge discussion about beds. We need beds, beds, beds.

And I think we need to have a much more careful discussion of– a bed is a mattress. And you can build a bed in a congregate homeless shelter and you can build a bed in a state hospital that is highly secured and you’ve built two beds, but that’s really, really different.

And so I think a couple of things I talk about in the book. I mean, I think that the need for more– I mean the need for more housing is– that’s our baseline. But the need for more residential treatment settings, I think, on the ground, you really, really see it. But does it need to go into building more locked settings?

I think one thing we could start by saying is that many locked settings have many people who have been deemed appropriate for discharge. By any standard, the people are not supposed to be there. But for a lack of step down providers, therapeutic unlocked settings, people are stuck in these placements.

And so I think really trying to figure out, what is the thing we need between these locked settings and between people being able to survive on in supported housing, what is the process, the skills people need? I think that missing middle of the continuum is probably where I would invest the most.

But I do think it’s maybe not just about for profit or nonprofit. Nonprofit, I think you’ve really helped me challenge my sociological biases against anything for profit on that. But I do think we have a system in which counties are currently bidding against each other to get access to these scarce beds, which has all sorts of– I mean, it increases costs, it gives a huge amount of leverage to these facilities to decide who they’re going to take or not take, and it has these super tragic consequences in terms of people being scattered around the state.

Because I talked to one county that had 100 beds MHRC in the county, but they could only afford– they had only won the contract for six of those beds and they were actually losing that contract to another bigger county. So all of their conservatees were going to be sent out of county even though they had a facility in the county.

And I talked to county mental health directors who were very honest of like, we’re just buying up– we’re going to the neighboring county and we’re buying this up. And when I talk to people in the state, they’re like, yeah, that doesn’t make sense. Counties shouldn’t be doing that. It’s like, yeah, if only there was some layer of government above counties that could– so I think there’s a–


So I think there’s a huge amount of– there’s a lot of opportunity in terms of smart investments to use the beds that are available better, And I think there’s a need for a much more rational system. One psychiatrist described getting into these facilities is a beauty contest where you misrepresent and lie about somebody’s needs in a way that will make– you make it so they won’t get ruled out. I mean, I think I’ve lost a little bit the thread of this response. But I think there’s a lot of space for sorting out the residential treatment system in which I think a more engaged state government could be incredibly helpful.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Lauren, do you have a take on that?

[LAUREN RETTAGLIATA]Yeah. Could you move it back one?

Let’s see here. Oh, there we go. Have a real expert.

So I’ve been on both sides of the aisle, on the IDD committee and the seriously mentally ill committee. And the one reason why things aren’t getting built and the one thing– and because you can build it. But if you don’t have the money to actually provide the treatment and care, what we’re going to end up with is like a picture I saw in San Diego that broke my heart. And that was, in getting ready for the Affordable Care Act, that they were going to have this bridge housing.

And what the bridge housing was basically looking like the worst inside of prison. They had beds stacked three high, six across, three across an aisle and three across. That people are not going to stay. People who are ill need to be in an environment where they can get well, and that will cost some money.

And we do ha– we did, as a state out of our gen– see, there’s general fund, pays for those with an intellectual developmental disability. We on the severe mental illness side, it’s realignment one and realignment two an MHSA, and leveraging all those dollars so we can pull down federal support dollars from our federal dollars.

So this is where we as California are having a problem. Maybe Cal Aim– hopefully, Cal Aim will open up and cause more money to flow into places like I showed you like synergy and Everwell so that money will be there so that they can actually expand their services.

They’re not about to go out and to build new facilities unless they know that the money to pay their clinicians, their psychiatrists, and their psychologists are going to follow them. Now, synergy has a great model, and it is– and that is, they have what is called a certified mental health clinic right next door to their facility.

Because our California law does not allow them to be at the same address. So they’re actually– they’re wise about it. So they are able to bill because they have a facility with 90 people in it. They have a full time psychiatrist, two full time psychologists and master’s in social work there, and they have broken the code, all right?

Other places like Everwell do it a little bit differently, but they do need more than $45 a day. We’ve got to be realistic. And that is what– even with patches, each county, if they use their MHSA money wisely and they use their real– they can actually bring down some federal dollars, and they can pay for better care at the better facilities. But no one is going to build these facilities until we actually get real about what it costs to get someone well.

[JONATHAN SIMON] There’s a follow up on this because I’m really struck by this chart, Lauren. Thank you so much for sharing it. And I would love to get both of your thoughts on this. I mean, what account– a, what accounts for this huge disparity in treatment between intellectual disability and mental illness? We’re taking one group of people and we’re giving them at least something approximating what they need. And we’re taking another group and essentially not even coming close to it in a way that guarantees both their suffering and our own confusion as to who’s responsible for it. So what would it take to bring this top number down to this much more adequate amount? Is that a federal piece of legislation? Is it a new state law, and why haven’t we had it?

[LAUREN RETTAGLIATA] Combination of both.

[ALEX BARNARD] Yeah. I mean, I think it’s so striking that Frank Lanterman was the sponsor of both the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and the Lanterman– it was called the– now the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act, and they really did set up two very different kinds of systems. That the mental health system was set up as they’re these grants to counties, but counties can use them how they want.

And in the end, the counties really didn’t serve the population of people coming out of the state hospitals. And the commitment with the Lanterman Act for people with developmental disabilities was set up as an entitlement program, that the funds would match the need automatically as opposed to the mental health system where it’s still written in the law that services will be provided to the extent resources are available.

And so there’s a very different architecture and a very different kind of commitment that was made very early on, I would love to dig in to understand that. But I do think there are some researchers that have looked at the different discourses around deinstitutionalization and how people were represented and the extent to which there was an incredible amount of stigma.

But also this idea that if you take people with mental illness out of the mental health system and you just put them in the community with these new magic medications, they’re going to be productive citizens and everything is going to be fine, versus a very paternalistic discourse around people with developmental disabilities that is often, they was presented as the forever children that we have this obligation to.

So we can find problems in both processes, but I do think it’s significant that no one is saying we need to re institutionalize people with developmental disabilities. So I think it suggests that the idea of deinstitutionalization, there was a failure in its implementation particularly for people with mental illness.

But that’s not– clearly, this is a process that could have gone much better if the kind of commitment that was made. And if you dig into the developmental disability system, you immediately find tons of problems. I’ve done some interviewing about it because within the mental health space, we hear, oh, it’s so much better over there. So I wanted to go see if that was true.

And you hear about all these problems, but at the end of that interview, someone says, but thank goodness we’re not the mental health system. That this system, it does work better. And I think it’s really tied to this idea that there’s an entitlement, they’re going to evaluate a person, and after that, the state has the responsibility for contracting for the services that were evaluated as necessary and it’s not constrained funding wise in the same way.

[LAUREN RETTAGLIATA] I agree with everything you said, but I think we also have to be realistic in that in the 70s and 80s when the funding streams were being developed, people with a mental illness were seeing as having bad behavior. And people with an intellectual developmental disability, people knew something is really wrong with them.

Their behavior is not like everyone else’s and they may need help because their brain doesn’t– their brain and central nervous system and with their gut system, it is not working properly. We didn’t see that, I think. And when we did– people in this room probably did, but there’s a large swath of the population that didn’t. They thought it was bad behavior.

And that if it was an illness, that if we just gave them the medication, they’re going to get better. Well, guess what, not everyone with schizophrenia, with bipolar gets better. A lot of people do. And that is wonderful. And I work diligently with brain and behavior and the researchers out there, we’ve got to keep going. It’s going to get better. But not everyone gets better on psychiatric medication.

And I think we thought we didn’t know what was going. Also, Borden care’s work really well. If you have 12 people or 6 people in a home for those with an IDD, when you get people who have schizophrenia and they have been taking their medication for a while and everything, they want a community.

They don’t want it– in Borden cares, there is so much regulation. They can’t cook. You can’t make your own meal. You can’t do your own laundry. You can’t even have a garden in your back yard– in the back yard. So we need a different way of doing it. We need places where they have a community too within a community so that– much like a college campus. We need that, but not big huge institutions . No one wants to go back to having 1,000, 2,000 people in a state hospital. That’s awful, and I’m glad it stopped.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Thank you so much, Lauren. Do we have some folks online? Otherwise, we can–

[JULIA SIZEK] Yeah, we have a lot of questions online. So I’ll just– I’m going to read a couple of them. So one from Martina Satris who says, the determination of who is incompetent to control their own lives, money, and living places historically aligns with those not valued by society.

Native Americans are an example within California history, and she references the Palm Springs checkerboard for Agua Caliente and the guardianship system that was used, I think, during the 60s. With a broadening loosening of conservatorship, how do we insure against cultural bias informing who is determined to not be mentally competent?

And then I’ll highlight one other question from Cari, who says that she’s grateful to hear these stories and wants to honor Diana and many people who have lost their lives as a result of the country and state’s unwillingness to adequately fund truly holistic, life-affirming care and support for folks and their families.

I’m wondering about the potential for more expansive support for families, communities that care for their loved ones with SMI. What do Lauren and Alex think about creating more funding for care teams of psychiatrists, social workers, occupational therapists, et cetera, who could provide wraparound support for families, caregivers while keeping their loved ones in the home.

[JONATHAN SIMON] So why don’t we tackle those two and then I think we’ll have time to come back for a couple more from the room.

[ALEX BARNARD] Yeah. I think the– I mean, racial disparity in historical disparities in who’s deemed incompetent is something that looms over my– something that I think looms over all of this in the sense that, again, I think that there are situations that I encountered in my research where it felt like conservatorship was the only option. And that’s what led me to this conclusion of, well, could we have an accountable conservatorship system, a well regulated conservatorship system, carefully evaluated conservatorship system?

But it is true that if we kick the tires on any part of the mental health system and look at who’s facing more mechanical restraints in ERs, who’s more likely to have involuntary medication? Who’s more likely to in the most recent disability rights California report, who’s more likely to be stuck in jail even though they no longer even they legally can’t even be in jail but they’re waiting for step down placement? It’s like the– it’s always people of color.

And the fact that it is– there’s no place where we don’t find that, to me is like– it is the thing that makes me certainly makes me wonder about what I– this vision of, you could have this accountable conservatorship system. It’s just that hasn’t been created anywhere. There’s no place where we don’t see those racial disparities, and I feel like that’s something that is we have to sit with and think about for sure.

I think this question about support for families is so core, and I think this– I think that was also raised in terms of the professional. We have a huge workforce crisis in California, and I think that’s why it was interesting they mentioned– I don’t remember the exact list, but we need to be thinking about other sets of professionals to be involved in this– occupational therapists, peer supporters, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and bringing in a broader set of expertise.

But I think certainly, one of the ways– one of the consequences of the state’s abdication of responsibility in this space is just the assumption that families will pick up the slack. And I think that has been deeply unfair across the board, and I think there’s a huge amount of responsibility for creating better supports for families.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Lauren, did you want to comment on that or?

[LAUREN RETTAGLIATA] Well, my experience in the experience of many of the hundreds of advocates– and I do get probably about 100 calls a year, is that when someone is so ill that they will qualify for a conservatorship staying in their family home at that point probably is not the answer. Maybe it will become the answer, but it isn’t the answer at that time.

The other thing that I think that Alex shows in his book that I think was really good is that our public guardian system is in chaos. It really does doesn’t exist. It’s not even a state– public guardians. Office is a nonprofit institution in my own county, the conservatorship office is– it’s in deceival. It’s not there.

That when we are guardian– our public guardians for those of the serious mental illness and our conservatorship programs are different in every single county. And they are drastically underfunded in my County. I’m sure that in your counties, they are too. But I actually know the dollars and cents that are in my county, and I can say, this is tragic. We have to build a system and we have to make sure that our public guardian offices are financed.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Let’s take one or two more, and then we’ll give a final word. So how about you and you over here.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you. Thank you so much to all of you for talking about this subject. I have a lot of questions. How do I boil it down? I’m really interested in this slide and the conversation about different disabilities. It was actually something that I was thinking about in reading the book and wanted to ask Alex in the conversation at the very beginning about language when you were talking about the different ways to talk about mental health, that you didn’t include mental health disability.

And so I was curious about that. And this, I think, just– I was alarmed a little bit, there’s so much within disability community and just marginalized communities in general of pitting groups against each other. And so how can we learn from each other without saying, well, they have it better than we do? Which I know is not what you were intending to say, but I think it’s easy for people to go there.

And it’s a really interesting question for me about, how do we learn from different disability models and see what’s out there? And how do we allow people with mental health issues to connect and learn from other people with disabilities, which never happens in institutions across disability? And I thought I had one related question.

Why don’t we–

Sorry, just the last thing on institutionalization was, it reminds me of the burrito rule that gets used as a sign of whether it’s an institution. Can you get up at o’clock in the morning and get yourself a burrito? And so just curious how do you see that playing out in this issue?

[JONATHAN SIMON] We get one more, and then we’ll come back for a final word to our panelists. I thought it was right here in the gray. Thank you. Sorry.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I guess I wanted to see if you guys can talk a little bit more about the connections between disability justice and the carceral system. Just because I know one of the slides was saying that a good chunk of people who do suffer from mental illnesses do wind up in the carceral system. So I wanted to see how you would go about talking about that, and also how maybe defunding one system can really help out with the funding for this system maybe, I don’t know.

[JONATHAN SIMON] Thank you very much for that. So let’s come back to Alex and Lauren, and we’ll thank them.

[LAUREN RETTAGLIATA] You mentioned about the carceral system. I sit on the– I’m the family member on the Affordable Care Act work group that the governor has formed. And there are nowhere near the amount of people that are being petitioned into care court as they thought there would be, which is a good thing because it’s giving each county time to get its sea legs.

But one of the strange things that they didn’t think of is that they are having people who are in jail, not in prison, but are in jail are actually filing petitions so that they can become– be brought before the care court and receive the promises that are being made in the care court. There are a number of people.

Also, the Affordable Care Act did not think that there would be as many family petitioners. How they missed that one, I do not know, but they did. And so those are the things that I see that– if I had my way, I would– when they do the intake in the jail, if someone presents as if they’re 5150, could be 5150 or even close to it, discussion should stop and they should be sent to the psych emergency center or emergency room or the standalone psychiatric facility, and that’s where it should begin.


[ALEX BARNARD] Yeah. I mean, there are– there are several questions on the table. So let me– the language one was something I did think about a lot and knew that I got it wrong, but the question was how wrong to get it? In the sense, that the terms itself are so contested. Even if you say, people with mental illness. Well, some people contest that they have– the whole point is that there’s a debate.

So I will say that at the end of everyone I interviewed for this, I asked them this question of how do you think– what are the words that speak to you on this topic? How do you want to describe this? And mental health– for the people who had experienced involuntary treatment, I didn’t hear mental health disabilities that often.

And I think that’s– it’s interesting. And I don’t– and I think there’s the question of people first language. I think disabled people has caught up, but mentally ill person still feels very– something that people are very uncomfortable with. So the language question, I think, is fraught and I don’t necessarily think I got it right. And I appreciate that feedback.

I think the– looking at something like this, I will say, I don’t hear anyone in the mental health space saying, we should take some of the money from developmental– people with developmental disabilities and bring it over to the mental health world. I think it’s a– we would like to have parity with that.

Obviously, the sad situation we’re in is when these things do become zero sum. But I think there’s more we could learn than just the money piece of this. I’ve had some interesting conversations about services for– again, for this group of people, for people who have very serious behavioral issues but are in placements that are not locked but with two on one staffing or with Plexiglas windows– there are actually a whole lot of design innovations and staffing innovations that I think there are things that to be learned from that are not necessarily being learned from in the mental health space. And I wish I had more time to learn about that.

But we are–

[JONATHAN SIMON] We are at time.

–in fact, at time. So I just want to thank all of you. I want to thank the UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix for putting on this really important California spotlight on conservatorship. I want to recommend along with Lauren that you read this book because it really is totally apropos to our situation. And I’d like to invite you to help me thank our two panelists for this terrific discussion.


[ALEX BARNARD] Thank you. And I’m very happy. If you have comments or feedback or questions or critiques, please send them. I would be very–


I could sell you a copy right here, I suppose. But–

[INAUDIBLE] book tour.

Yeah. But thank you very much for your time and for coming.


[WOMAN’S VOICE] Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit


Authors Meet Critics

Authors Meet Critics: “Terracene: A Crude Aesthetics,” Salar Mameni

Recorded on March 4, 2024, this Authors Meet Critics panel focused on Terracene: A Crude Aesthetics, by Professor Salar Mameni, Assistant Professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies. Professor Mameni was joined by Mayanthi Fernando, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz; Sugata Ray, Associate Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art and Architecture in the Departments of History of Art and South & Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley; and Stefania Pandolfo, Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

The panel was co-sponsored by the Program in Critical Theory, the Art Research Center, the Center for Race and Gender, the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture, the Department of Art History, the Department of Ethnic Studies, the South Asia Art Initiative at the Institute for South Asia Studies, and the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative.

About the Book

Salar Mameni
Salar Mameni

In Terracene, Professor Salar Mameni historicizes the popularization of the scientific notion of the Anthropocene alongside the emergence of the global war on terror. Mameni theorizes the Terracene as an epoch marked by a convergence of racialized militarism and environmental destruction. Both the Anthropocene and the war on terror centered the antagonist figures of the Anthropos and the terrorist as responsible for epochal changes in the new geological and geopolitical world orders. In response, Mameni shows how the Terracene requires radically new engagements with terra (the earth), whose intelligence resides in matters such as oil and phenomena like earthquakes and fires. Drawing on the work of artists whose practices interrogate histories of settler-colonial and imperial interests in land and resources in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, Syria, Palestine, and other regions most affected by the war on terror, Mameni offers speculative paths into the aesthetics of the Terracene.

Podcast and Transcript

Listen to this event below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[JULIA SIZEK] Hello, everyone. We are going to go ahead and get started. My name is Julia Sizek, and I’m the postdoc here at Social Science Matrix. Today, as you all know, we are here to talk about Salar Mameni’s new book, which we are all very excited about if not already have been excited about for a while.

I have been super lucky to actually watch this book along its journey to publication because when Salar first came to this campus, we did a matrix feature on this book. And then also Salar was a faculty fellow with us last year, which was awesome. This is also a plug for anyone who is an assistant or associate professor at Berkeley. You can apply to be a faculty fellow for next year. The applications are actually due in about a week and a half from now. So all of this is to say we have really enjoyed seeing this book come to publication. And also to have this as part of that journey is really awesome.

Terracene is a book that really brings together terror with terror, bridging how the war on terror, which, of course, is also a war over natural resources with other longer terrors of colonialism. So using art to help theorize the Terracene as a way to creatively bridge the affective experiences of terror with the science of the Anthropocene, this book really is an amazing contribution to both art history and to theories of the Anthropocene. So I’m excited for that, this event.

And before we get truly started, we want to thank our co-sponsors, which is a very long list, the Department of Ethnic Studies, Critical Theory, Art Research Center, the Center for Race and Gender, the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture, Art History, the South Asia Art Initiative at the Institute for South Asian Studies, UC Berkeley, and the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative, which maybe speaks to the way that this book has really touched many different fields of scholars across campus. This is also part of our author meets critics series as you know. So if you know of a book that’s coming out in the social sciences, please let us know because we would love to feature it.

Our other announcements are some of our upcoming events at Matrix. So we have a couple of events actually later this week that you all might be interested in attending. So first, we’re going to have an event about AI on Wednesday, which is organized by one of our faculty fellows. And then on Thursday, we’re going to be having an event about obstetric racism, which is organized by another one of our faculty fellows. It’s very faculty fellow and former faculty fellow heavy week. And then next week we’re going to be having an event on Monday about storytelling and the climate crisis featuring different writers of fiction and nonfiction and how they think about integrating the climate crisis into their work.

The following week and going into spring break, we’re going to be having two events that are of particular interest to those interested in California issues. So one of them, conservatorship is going to be about the California system of conservatorship, which is about care for mental illness. And then we will also be having one of our new directions panels, which features the work of junior scholars about greening infrastructure, so a lot of upcoming and extremely exciting events.

And now to move on to our event for today, so I will go ahead and introduce Stefania Pandolfo, who will be our moderator today. She is a professor of anthropology and a member of the programs in critical theory and medical anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her work centers subjectivity, imagination, trauma, and the experience of madness with a focus on the Maghrib in Islam and in conversation with psychoanalysis and Islamic thought.

In recent years, her research and writing have reflected on forms of the subject and ethics straddling psychical political, religious, and aesthetic processes and vocabularies. She is currently working on a book on aesthetic experience, violence, and psychic pain based on her ethnography and on collaborations with a number of artists. So without any further ado, I’m going to turn it over to Stefania to introduce Salar.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Thank you. I really don’t deserve this big introduction because I will be doing very little here. I will just be moderating. But thank you. It’s a great honor actually to be here and participate even maybe a little bit later a little bit more to the discussion about Terracene, which is a really remarkable work that spans many fields but also that attempts to give us a vision of aesthetics that is transformative and profoundly important in this moment.

But let me just begin to say a few facts about Salar. Salar Mameni is both an artist and a scholar. And he says so at the beginning of his book, which he actually– he tells us how he moves between different genres in writing these books. And the sensibility of the artist is present from beginning to end. He’s also an assistant professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies and an art historian by training, specializing in contemporary transnational art and visual culture in the Arab, Muslim world with an interdisciplinary research on racial discourse on transnational gender politics, militarism, oil cultures, and extractive economies in East Asia.

He was formerly a UC president’s postdoctoral fellow in feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz. And he has a PhD in art history from the University of California San Diego and a BFA in fine arts from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. He has published articles in Brazilian science, women and performance, Al-rida, journal, Fuse Magazine, Fillip review and Canadian Art journal.

Salah’s first book Terracene– that we will discuss today– A Crude Aesthetics Duke University Press 2023, considers the emergence of the Anthropocene as a new geological era in relation to the concurrent declaration of the war on terror in the early 2000s. And playing on words terror and terror, he proposes the term Terracene and Terrance as for the inhabitants, so the terracing, in order to think the planetary in conjunction with ongoing militarization of transnational or transnational regions under terror.

Terracene engages contemporary art and aesthetic productions and particularly those artists that most directly speak to the sensibility and the various material inscriptions in the body and on the senses of the author so are both arbitrary, personal and yet profoundly connected, and paying particular attention to artists navigating the geopolitics of Petro cultures and climate change. Research for his second book– and I want to mention this because it’s to me it’s important. It emerges from the first book in a very interesting way– engages histories of medicine, and in particular of trans medicine and the endocrine system.

So he’s currently conducting archival research to understand visual representations of fluid bodies within Islamic manuscripts prior to the rise of the scientific discipline of endocrinology in the early 20th century. And in fact, to some extent, his research in manuscripts within the Islamic tradition is very present at the very beginning of the book with the creation story. His research has been supported by the Hellman Faculty Fellowship and the Social Science Matrix.

I wanted to say literally two words before beginning the discussion of the book. At several points in his powerful and moving book, Salar cites Walter Benjamin’s Adagia Fiat ars, pereat mundus, create or make some art and the world be destroyed. It is a quote from the conclusion of Benjamin’s famous essay the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction published for the first time in 1935 where Benjamin returns to the site of war, WW I, and the lurking preparation of WW II through the rise of fascism.

All efforts to render politics aesthetics, Benjamin culminate in one thing, war, and conclude Fiat ars pereat mundus says fascism. And as Marinetti, the futurist, writer, poet admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification sense of perception that has been changed by technology, continues Benjamin. This is evident in the consummation of La Perla. It is self-alienation, Benjamin says, that has reach– it’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that mankind can experience its own destruction as the aesthetic pleasure of a first order. This is the situation of politics the fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism or what Benjamin called a redeemed humanity in other places responds by politicizing art.

And this book is an attempt to politicize art on this thin line where one could slip into fascism and one doesn’t, in which there is always a risk, which is also a risk of self dissolution. There is the risk of disappearance. There is the risk of becoming crude. And it’s a book that– it has as the discussants will talk about, I’m sure, a first part that is in the mode of critique that establishes what is a terrorist, a regime of terror from within which certain have not right to the possibility of expression in any way and have been targeted and reduced to resources.

And then there is a second part in which this question of what is a political art is brought to the fore in which we are reading about the possibility of sensing with injured organs. The fact of the encountering crude as the history of oil production, which is also the object of devotion among the Indigenous population in different parts of the United States because it contains the memory of organic life and the spirit of the dead, we encounter the art forms.

And I was most struck by the work of Diana Al-Hadid, the Syrian artist in the US who are experimenting and yet really writing from within an unspeakable experience of being at the heart of a trauma that is not a trauma that will be objectified but as a trauma that will engender the possibility of forms that will continuously dissform themselves or dissolve themselves through those sculptures that dissolve and drip down becoming a phantom limbs or simply going back to the Earth and becoming resources. Or in the work of Larissa Sansou, the Palestinian futurist who is actually imagining a dystopian future in an incredibly sarcastic and powerful way.

We will talk much more about this. But I also wanted to say a last word to the very personal register of this book, which has a profound element, a dimension of autobiography. Even though the autobiography is also an autobiography in which the memory, the body, the senses that are not separated from the conscious, there is a whole theory of perception in this book that, that perception that has been altered by technology as Benjamin says and that in which the author remembers being under the bombings during the Iran-Iraq War and being poisoned by a poison, which is a memory that will also be the material out of which those creations will be born. Thank you. And please help me to welcome Salar.


[SALAR MAMENI] Good afternoon, everybody. You can hear me, right? Good afternoon. Thank you so much, Stefania, for the introduction, Julia, for the introduction. It’s really an honor to be in conversation about the book with my colleagues at UC Berkeley, Professor Pandolfo, Professor Ray, and Mayanthi Fernando who’s coming from UC Santa Cruz to join us for this conversation. It’s truly an honor. Thank you so much.

When you see a book in its covers, it feels finished it looks finished, but it’s really not finished. For me, it’s still a work in progress. So I’m sure I will learn a lot from this conversation which can have a different life. I also want to thank the Social Science Matrix for hosting this event. As Julia said, I was a fellow here. And it was just last spring that we hosted a series of conversations here on ecology and medicine in the context of Transgender Studies. So it’s good to be here on the eighth floor. Also grateful for the co-sponsors of the event, and in particular the Department of Ethnic Studies that’s hosting a cocktail event after this at the faculty club. So please join us.

All right, so Terracene, so I’m going to talk briefly 10, 15 minutes just to introduce the book before we go to the conversation. So I’m going to start with a title. So Terracene is a term that I coined for the book in order to engage the notion of the Anthropocene. And as many of you know, the Anthropocene is a proposal for a new geological era that’s kickstarted by the human, the Anthropocene.

It was a term that was proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer who repopularized the term. It was already coined prior to the 2000s. And they wanted to propose that as being a term that could be adopted for our new geological era. So from the beginning when the term was proposed, it came under criticism from many different disciplines. And in the humanities and the social sciences, the term was taken up by in particular feminist, critical, race, and indigenous studies scholars as having quite a lot of shortcomings in terms of creating a homogeneous concept of the human, the Anthropos, proposing that the human species is this homogeneous concept.

So there were a lot of different kinds of critiques that engaged the concept of the Anthropocene. I’m going to give you four of those just as a refresher to the critiques of the Anthropocene. So first, the concept was criticized for the fact that the concept of the human is a racialized idea. So it’s a racialized construct that doesn’t include most humans and non-humans. So it’s a category that’s a racializing concept.

Secondly, this construct of the human is political. So it was a concept that allowed European colonizers to colonize lands across the globe, to extract resources and do so in the name of the human, what was deemed to belong to the human. Third, this concept of the Anthropocene built a particular relationship between the human and the natural world which led to what we understand now as climate change. So pollution, mass extinction, melting of ice caps, viral diseases, et cetera, these are all concepts that came from this particular notion of the human, this particular way of understanding what a human species is and does.

And fourth, the critique was, well, this concept doesn’t stand in for all of humans. There’s a particular angle that this concept takes. There’s a particular edge that it has. Or in the words of Sylvia Winter, it’s a genre of the human that’s being engaged in the concept of the Anthropocene, that Anthropos. And that this European genre of the human is placing a huge multispecies categories of peoples and things at risk. So there’s an imbalanced distribution of risk that’s being produced through this concept.

So these critiques already existed when I came to the concept. So the Anthropocene literature already had much of this critique and more already present. So what was my intervention? So from my angle when I first started engaging Anthropocene literature, I became really interested in, as a historian, in thinking about when the concept was coined. So it was really striking to me that the concept or when it was proposed to be taken seriously coincided with the war on terror as a geopolitical way of describing the planet.

So this is the early 2000s when everyone’s really interested in thinking about time and giving images of what the new century holds. But also looking back, so there was a particular interest in historiography and temporality. And the war on terror gave a particular vision of how to understand the 21st century. And the Anthropocene was also proposing a particular image of the planet. So I was really interested in putting these two together. So even though the Anthropocene engaged with a massive temporality that went beyond the idea of the human species or how we could understand the humans engagement or destruction of the planet, it was nonetheless a concept in time. So I was really interested in historicizing that concept in relation to the war on terror.

So the central question that the book asks– and that’s how the book started– was to ask, What is the relationship between the Anthropocene and the war on terror given this coincidence of their engagement in the early 2000s? So I give you a whole book’s worth of answers to this question. But I think there are two main proposals that I make that are maybe the most significant. So those are the ones I’m going to share with you.

So first, I argue that the terrorist, the concept of the terrorist, is a racializing other of the Anthropos. So while the Anthropocene is proposing a category of the human species, the war on terror is proposing a particular category, the terrorist, after whom the– or towards whom the war on terror is being waged. So reading these two together, I saw the terrorist as the other, the racial other of the Anthropos in the concept of the Anthropocene.

And it was important that the terrorist was actually a non-human concept. So the terrorist was a vast category that couldn’t be easily defined. It included non-human entities like infectious disease and toxic landscapes, but it also obviously included less than humans, so what we more readily associate with the concept of terrorism. So bio terrorist, suicide bombers, these are figures that show up a lot in that discourse.

So for me, the notion of the terrorist was a multi species designation that was essentially racialized in relation to the human, to the Anthropos. So this argument, of course, built on a huge literature that had come out since the early 2000s. People who studied the war on terror, so just to mention a few people Anjalee, Fatima, Raza Kolbe, Brian Massumi, Elizabeth Pavanelli, Neel Ahuja, Joseph Puglisi, Jasbir Puar. These were all people who really studied how terrorism was defined even though it was such an ambiguous concept and brought attention to how that definition was often in relation to ecological disasters, such as hurricanes or insect, swarms or viral disease, et cetera. So that was my first proposal.

My second proposal in the book is that the war machine that’s built to target the terrorist, most of whom, of course, are found or concentrated in the region in West Asia from Afghanistan to Palestine, the war machine relies on oil. And so it also happens that oil is concentrated in this region as well. So a large part of the book is dedicated to describing the cyclical process through which oil is extracted, pollutants are dumped, and terrorists are produced. So I don’t take the concept of the terrorists for granted. It’s an attention to how that idea is produced in relation to the Anthropos. So that’s the overall conceptual structure of the book.

And so now I’m going to give you a little bit of the meat of the book that holds up that structure. And in order to do that, as Stefania was saying, it requires talking a little bit about me. So in terms of my training, I’m an historian. I’m not a geologist. I’m not a military analyst.

And I spent some time talking in the book about what it means to speak about the Anthropocene as a non-scientist, of course, breaking down that dichotomy between art and science, but also how to speak essentially as a non-human, so as a racialized queer, transgendered, other, a Muslim, also most importantly, a person who was marked for eradication as a child living under a war from the age of 3 to 11. And the Iran-Iraq War was the precursor to the Gulf War and a precursor to the war on terror. So there is a lineage of those wars that I trace and track through my own biography in the book.

And so due to this personal biography, I talk a little bit about what it means to gain an esthetic education, gain a sensorial education in relation to war, and what it means to read the world through that sensibility. So it’s difficult to do. It’s hard to write from the personal in a political way. And so I developed three narrative strategies or maybe what I’ll call methodologies to do that work. And maybe there are more, but I’ll share these with you.

So first, how to look to one’s own experience. So inserted throughout the book are sections where I break with academic form. And I speak about my aesthetic education as a child of war what it means to be an auditor, for example, of war while you’re in a shelter, for example. And so these are instances in the book where I foreground experiential and embodied ways of knowing, which can be difficult to do when studying both war and also climate change.

So in the literature of the Anthropocene, one thing that’s often cited is how difficult it is to sense the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is not something you can just name. You can’t readily experience it. I mean, we can experience fires and hotter days, but it’s hard to have an individual experience that spans such a massive time scale. So by definition, the Anthropocene spans a particular time scale.

And so the concept of the Anthropocene is famously difficult to describe through aesthetic experience. So that’s one thing I try to do. And also the idea of– or the experience of war is also one that’s difficult to describe aesthetically because often, war leaves its mark on you through trauma. And trauma is famously absent from the aesthetic experience because trauma is when your sensory, your ears, your eyes, your other kinds of senses, have received an overload. And so that overload shuts down aesthetic experience.

So this is something I talk about in the book. So what does it mean to theorize a new notion of aesthetics through trauma? It’s a dichotomous concept thus far. So I’m hoping someone will maybe talk about the sublime and if not, we can discuss this in the Q&A. So, yeah, that’s one narrative and methodological difficulty that I had to navigate while doing that.

The second one was to look to intellectual and creative productions of others. So a lot of the artists that I look at in the book are people who I identified or gravitated towards in order to think through a shared experience. So Diana Al-hadid, Larissa Sansour, Morris Allahyari, who’s here in the audience– thank you for coming– Glad Gazeran, Fatima Al Qadiri, Alia Ali, Reza Negarestani, these are some of the artists who are in the book. And those who have showed up in my work prior to the book but who have contributed, people like Abbas Akhavan. Other artists, Ryan Tabet, Joumana Mana, these are people who I have been thinking with for over 10 years even if they’re not in the book.

And so these artists and their works really allowed me to understand my experience, my aesthetic experience, my aesthetic draws in a collective way. So whether or not I was successful, I really was trying, while I was writing the book, to push back against the role of the art historian or the art critic to write about an artist or to write about an artwork. So really my intention, again, whether or not it was successful, was to write with and to think with the artists that I was engaging.

The third strategy that I used was to look to the aesthetic capacity of inanimate things or entities. So what I sometimes call Terrance in the book, sometimes I call more than humans. And so one of the entities that I think with in the book more extensively is oil naturally. And so for that, I look to moments where one’s mine or an artist’s senses are intoxicated. So they come into contact with oil and gas. And so there’s a disorientation that happens, or there is a visionary moment that happens through that intoxication. So there’s a change, whether an enhancement or diminishing of perhaps an olfactory capacity that changes one’s way of sensing the world.

And so here, of course, I draw a lot on works of disability studies scholars who really have made ways to teach us how to think with senses that are not common, for example, to all, which is how aesthetic theory often talks about the sensus communis, which is what gives you aesthetic experience. So people like Mel Chin’s work, for example, really opened some avenues of thought for me in this realm. And I’m almost done.

So I also towards the end of the project– and it’s both a blessing and a curse that I came towards the end of my project– was to really draw on Islamic knowledge systems. And what drew me to some of that work was the way that Islamic cosmologies and ecologies really decentered the human. So it was a non-anthropocentric way of looking and perceiving and thinking about the world, a re– for me, it was a re-understanding or re-learning of what it means to think with sacred landscapes, what it means to think with theocentricity. And so you see some of that showing up in the introduction of the book but also throughout the book.

And so it’s a blessing in that it is pushing me into a new direction for the new book project where I will certainly engage with Islamic cosmologies and aesthetics to think about biological ecological entities and their overlap. But the fact that I didn’t think with that from the start, I feel maybe the book would have been somewhat different had I done that since the beginning. So, OK, just by way of summary, just a few words, the book is really inherently anti-war. It’s anti-military. It urges an end, a divestment from military expansion, which, of course, all of that tends to rely on colonial exploitation, genocide, and resource extraction. So in this moment, it really urges an end to militarism, to genocide, and perhaps asks for ceasefire now. Thank you.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Sugata Ray is Associate Professor of South Southeast Asian Studies and Architecture in the Department of History of Art and South Southeast Asian Studies and is also Director of the South Asia Art Initiative and the Climate Change Initiative at the University of California Berkeley. His research and writing focus on climate change and the arts from the 1500s onward. His recent books include Climate Change and the Art of Devotion, Geo Aesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1,550-1850. It was published in 2019 and awarded the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion and the American Academy of Religion and the Arts Book Award. And another book, Water Histories of South Asia, the Materiality of Liquescence, which was co-edited in 2020. He is currently writing a book on the question of the animal and animality in the early modern period and is co-editing Ecologies, Aesthetics, and Histories of Art that will come out in 2024.


[SUGATA RAY] Let me begin by thanking you for the kind introduction and for inviting me in this conversation. I’ll just begin. Capitalocene, plantationocene, technocene, homogenocene, corporatocene, eurocene, manthropocene, plasticine, thermocene, pyrocene, even white supremacy. Thanks, Nick Mirza, for that one.

Monica’s ad infinitum, the numerous designations that have emerged in the past 20 years or so to define our current geological epoch, the Anthropocene, as a period of cataclysmic human-induced climate change gestures towards the urgent imperative to reconsider the genealogies and the histories of our besieged now. But whose cene is the Anthropocene? If the suffix cene, connoting new, suggests that a recent geological epoch is the period of the Anthropocene, this cene we must also concede needs to be placed in a scene.

With its root in the ancient Greek scheme, a temporary dwelling used for dramatic performances, the term scene had entered the world of art writing as early as 1638 with the German philologist Franciscus Junius, the painting of the ancients in three books. While the word scene implied both a sequence of dramatic action and the area set aside or an arena where action unfolds, the way Junius used the term in his treatise on aesthetic principles, it is in this sense that we must also turn to the scene of the Anthropocene in Salar’s Terracene. But more on that soon.

Turning to the scene of Anthropocene visuality, Nick Mirzoeff had suggested in 2014 that the aesthetics of the Anthropocene emerged as an unintended supplement to imperial aesthetics. Anthropocene visuality, as theorized by many, is a top down modality of imperial aesthetics, the conquest of the planet by converting it into a picture that emerged with Europe’s early modern empires. For Mirzoeff, the scene is a port city in Normandy, heavy with smog produced by burning coal as seen through Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

Anthropocene visuality as materialized in Western Europe in the works of artists, such as Monet, Mirzoeff argued, entailed both the naturalization and the aestheticization of colonial capitalist natural resource extraction systems based on industrial level consumption of fossil fuels, such as coal. The visuality might have been a supplement as Morozov rightly notes, but it completed the ability to rule. But we could trace the origin story of our current capital eugenic planetary crisis to the epistemic moment when our planet was discursively transfigured into a terrestrial globe with Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the Earth while attempting to search for a Western route to access spices from Southeast Asia. The world with its myriad life forms was, in the words of Heidegger, conceived and grasped as a picture in its totality thereafter.

In the Terracene, we turn to yet another scene of the Anthropocene visuality. As Salar notes, destruction stories are not all that there is to narrate. And on a personal note, it is really hard for me to address the question of terror after what’s happening over the last five months, the last 500 years. So I am tired, and I’m angry. And I will follow bell hooks and convert my anger into compost earthly matter. I’ll talk about Earth and earthly matter.

Radical in scope, Terracene holds space for other modes of planetary imagination that offer a rebuttal to the scientific technological notion of the Anthropocene. Origin stories matter. Today I want to think alongside Salar. Salar’s book begins with the following question, What is the ecological imagination of this creation story? How does it intervene in current scientific historiography, according to which we have entered the new epoch of the Anthropocene? How does engaging this story as a living knowledge system disrupt the hegemonic secular scientific worldview?

Indeed, our embattled ecological present requires new art histories aligned with other registers of thought beyond narratives that solely focus on the global history of post 1500 European imperialism that impelled the annihilation of human and non-human life on an unprecedented worldly scale. It is, I imagine, no coincidence that Salar begins Terracene with his personal retake on a creation story from the genre of Ajáib al-Makhlúqát, the Wonders of Creation, of which al-Qazwini’s work is the most famous example.

Salar tells us, “The world was once a flow that fused into a mass of rocks we knew as mountains. The mountains rested on two horns of a bull who stood on the back of a fish. The fish in turn balanced on the wings of an angel.” As Salar rightly notes, “One of the most striking aspects of this creation story is that its worldview does not revolve around the human yet the human cannot be dissociated from the long due history of ecological imperialism and climate colonialism in the Anthropocene.”

As the Indigenous epistemologist Doreen Martinez writes, “Climate colonialism forces a re-embodiment and relocation of how, why, and who is at fault who is responsible.” “Thus if one line of the Terracene takes us to a dystopian present, the ongoing world of terror, Salar writes, trapped between the double bind of neoliberal capitalism and colonization through artists, such as Diana Al-hadid, whose powerful mediation on oil is on the cover of the book, another line takes us to an eco aesthetics that can perhaps be best imagined as an aesthetics not in the enlightenment sense of a sensible cognition but through Guattari’s ethical aesthetics aegis of an ecosophy that enunciates the desires, aspirations, and optimism of living well despite catastrophes propelled by the ruthless forces of colonialism and neoliberal capitalism.”

It is this line of thought in the book that I want to foreground today, a world, as Salar writes, of earthly beings, of compost, of beings coming out of Earth, a narrative told from the perspective of Terrance, the creative multi-species inhabitants of militarized and extractive regimes who bear embodied scars of terror and who also propose and practice resilient strategies for life. While for the most part scholarship on the idea is resilience has centered around contemporary, civil, and political capacities to recover, the aesthetic imprint of imaginative practices can provide us with a lens to understand resilience as an embodied experience of living as resistance in the age of the Anthropocene.

The Terracene we learn requires that we think with ancestral knowledge. As Salar writes, “Some of those knowledges exist in ancient deities who have protected, devoured, destroyed, or delivered life disease, fires, earthquakes, floods, and cyclones. These deities appear here as creative and speculative knowledge holders.” And as Jessica Horton and Janet Berlo observe in a different context, once we take Indigenous worldviews into account, the new materialisms are no longer new.

Post-human critiques from disciplines, such as anthropology, have by now linked the geological non-life and the biological life to re-imagine the vitality of entanglements across life worlds. Along the same lines and entangled disposition to use Salar’s words, “From within art history promises to disturb the post-enlightenment foundations of the discipline that emerged from a specific Western bourgeois intellectual culture with roots in European global colonial expansionism.”

The globe, we must acknowledge, materialized in the age of the Weltbild or Heidegger’s modern world picture, think magazine. And in our pixelated age, as Gayatri Spivak wrote 20 years ago, the globe is on our computer. No one lives there. It allows us to think we control it. The planet is in the species of alterity belonging to another system yet we inhabit it on loan.

For Spivak, this global is indelibly connected to the alienation of neocolonial apparatuses that contiguously link post 1500s territorial empires to current transnational capitalism. In the wake of such long histories of global finance capitalism, Spivak proposed that alterity remains underived from us if we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities. And it is no coincidence that Spivak conceived of planetary as best imagined from the pre-capitalist cultures of the planet.

In the Terracene, artists from West Asia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Syria, Palestine are excavating pre-capitalist ontologies for our embattled now. For instance, the Mesopotamian deity, Huma, resurrected by the contemporary Iranian artist. There are other aspects to the book, the limits of archival retrieval, listening to the Terracene, the agency of crude oil, conceptual frameworks that will be key to current debates in art history.

But given that I have been allocated 15 minutes, I will leave you to follow these lines of thought. Neither do I want to rehearse the histories of matter, material and materiality, and imagination enunciated through images, films, intimate conversations, and archival research that Salar emphasizes. Rather as an art historian working on the early modern Indian Ocean world, I want to give a sense of how the methodologies of the book offer me and those who work in adjacent or not so adjacent regions and time periods modalities of rethinking transversal linkages between climate crisis and artistic practices, in other words, the book’s impact on current disciplinary questions.

Terracene inspired me to take a fresh look at one of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s political allegories where he stands on a globe shooting at the head of his enemy, Malik Ambar. I am currently writing a book on Jahangir. And for that reason, very self-interested one, I must admit that Salar’s retake on this old Islamic cosmological concept of the world fish on which the Earth rests through the intermediation of the cosmic bull intrigued me. Painted by Abu’l-Hasan in around 1620, in this instance, the cosmographic origin story shared across the islamicate Indian Ocean world that stretches from West Asia to South Asia is represented with the latest European scientific achievements, the globe, think Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, and the concomitant creating of the world as a picture.

The emperor stands on a terrestrial globe of the kind made in Antwerp around 1600. The globe is placed in turn on the back of a naturalistic bovine with its head turned in europeanised foreshortening. And both Jehangir and the bull stand on a fish, a nature study in the manner of Giorgio Liberale from Udine.

Art historians have read the celebrated painting as a visual testament to Western European science being appropriated outside Europe as a form of coeval global modernity or even a remaking of Western scientificism, science gone native, so as to speak. Even as such readings offer a productive history of global flows and modernities beyond the West, the overdetermined emphasis on scientific rationality in scholarship on this painting takes me to Spivak.

The globe is on our computer. No one lives there. It allows us to think we can control it. The planet is in the species of alterity belonging to another system and yet we inhabit it on loan. What does it mean to be a planetary subject rather than a global agent, a planetary creature rather than a global entity? I have been wrestling with this question of the species of alterity.

In the wake of totalizing accounts of global techno aesthetic connectedness fueled by a World economic order that has become the de facto story of our species level modernity or so it is claimed, Salar’s Terracene offers an art history that obscures the boundaries between art and the natural environment between animate being and inanimate matter. Salar’s propositions on the vitality of matter and material in a catastrophic time when environmental precarity has etched its mark on every aspect of life, I would argue, opens new passages for art histories, passages that take seriously intellectual traditions outside of post-enlightenment Western Europe where the fuzziness of human, non-human assemblages were commonplace.

And that is only one aspect of the Terracene. I invite you to explore the many other passages the book offers to provincialize the [INAUDIBLE] hyper-real Europe, that Europe, reified and celebrated in the phenomenal world of everyday relations of power as the scene of the birth of the modern. Thank you.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] So Mayanthi, Mayanthi Fernando who is here from Santa Cruz who came for this event is Associate Professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, where she’s also provost of the Kresge College, a living learning community for undergraduate students. Her research interest include Islam and secularism, human, non-human entanglements, and more than secular multispecies ecologies, histories of the body, liberalism and the law, and gender and sexuality. Her first book, the Republic Unsettled, Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism Duke University Press 2014 examined the intersection of religion and politics in France, alternating between an analysis of Muslim, French politics, ethics, and social life and the contradictions of French cellularity laicité that this new Muslim subjectivity reflects and refracts.

She is currently working on a second book titled Beyond the Anthropocene Secular on the imbrication of cellularity in the Anthropocene and how secular moderns might conceptualize and cultivate multispecies world making otherwise. She has held residential fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and the School of advanced studies in Santa Fe. And she has published in a wide array of academic journals in non-academic venues. So thank you. And I leave this to you.


[MAYANTHI FERNANDO] So first let me thank Salar, Julie, and Charles for this invitation to comment on Salar’s wonderful book Terracene, A Crude Aesthetics. It is a particular pleasure for me because I first met Salar and encountered this work many years ago at the Center for Cultural studies at UC Santa Cruz. And one of the great pleasures of being a scholar, because it’s certainly not the salary, one of the great pleasures of being a scholar truly is witnessing a fellow scholar’s project move from its initial stages to book form. So I’m really thrilled to be here commenting on Salar’s work in final form.

Though final form is perhaps a misnomer since one of the things that Salar does so beautifully in this book is open up rather than definitively answer a set of important questions. What exactly is the Anthropocene? And what political work is that term doing? To what or whom does Anthropos refer? How might we imagine the human differently more capaciously? Or is the human too racially overdetermined a concept species? With what new terms should we reimagine and remake the world? And what about the scene in Anthropocene? How do we better account for and listen to the existence in this scene? This geological time space, the terrains of this playing on cene, C-E-N-E, and scene, S-C-E-N-E, might we approach the Anthropocene as a work of art as well as of history.

What would an aesthetic approach to the Anthropocene look like? Or importantly, since one of Salar;s key contributions is to emphasize the sensory, what would an aesthetic approach to the Anthropocene, one that accounted for terrains, humans, and more than humans, too, what would an account– sorry, what would an aesthetic approach to the Anthropocene feel like?

Salar has already laid out the book’s major interventions and arguments. So what I’m going to do in my comments is pick up a few threads to riff on. I’m inspired here by Salar’s own poetic imagination and the connections made across objects, theories, and histories. So I want to start where Salar started with that creation story from the 13th century Islamic text known in English as wonders of creation and oddities of existence.

And this is a quote from the manuscripts in English. “The world was once a flow that fused onto a mass of rocks we know as mountains. The mountains rested on the two horns of a bull who stood on the back of a fish. The fish in turn balanced on the wings of an angel.” What is the purchase of opening with that particular story? Mameni notes that creation stories like this rupture linear time and confront our attachment to logical schemas according to which historiography is organized.

This creation story thereby opens a path for Mameni’s subsequent discussion of the deep time of oil and with it a temporal imagination that exceeds the temporality of the human of Anthropos. Creation stories like this also compel us, Mameni continues, to contemplate our ongoing existence in relation to species and environments they conjure. And in so doing, these stories interrupt the hegemonic, secular, scientific worldview of the Anthropocene without offering in its place a comprehensive, totalizing narrative.

But why begin with this particular story drawn from the Islamic world? Mameni notes that the book engages numerous disqualified sites of knowledge as relevant to the environmental discourses of the Anthropocene. And obviously, there is also Salar’s own history with stories like this. But I think opening this way with this story from this religious tradition from the Islamic tradition also does profound and important political work. After all, Islam is not usually understood as good to think with by most secular moderns, including in the academy.

Many academics writing about the Anthropocene and the more than human tend to see the world’s monotheisms, and especially Islam as a sterile dead end. And I’m constantly struck by the casual Islamophobia and some of this work. And they have turned instead to indigenous ontologies as our best hope out of the Anthropocene. This is not in and of itself a problem. As Mameni also shows, indigenous traditions and indigenous scholarship offer valuable critiques of the Anthropocene and vital modes of thinking and being differently.

But in the West, when certain others are designated as saviors, it usually means others are designated as monsters and terrorists. Michel-Rolph Trouillot called this duality the West’s Janus-faced other. And it has a long history, starting with Jesuit priest Bartolomé de Las Casas’s distinction between Indians to be saved and Moors already damned. These distinctions have little to do with the actual populations interpolated into this geography of imagination, but they have endured.

In contrast, Mameni refuses this Janus-faced other. In fact, critically turns those two sides– the fantastical noble savage and the phantasmagoric terrorist, turns these two sides to face one another, to speak to one another as more than just fantasy and phantasmagoria. Mameni does this by tacking back and forth in the book between Islamic, pre-Islamic, and indigenous ontoepistemologies to help us think the world anew. Again, in this day and age, this is an incredibly important, critical, analytical move.

Let me return to the creation story of the world held up by bull, held up by fish, held up by an angel. As Mameni writes, and I quote, “One of the most striking aspects of this creation story is that its worldview does not revolve around the human. In fact– and I’m still quoting– the counterintuitive order in which the world is stacked in this creation story also asks us to contemplate the limits of rational thought and by extension human mastery over the workings of the cosmos. This creation story refutes the humans’ ability to fully grasp the world through verifiable knowledge. Instead, it appeals to our poetic, speculative, imaginative intelligence through which we can grasp what is known about the world,” unquote.

This creation story and Mameni’s reading of it and also Mameni’s insistence that we must attend to the sensory aspects of what it is to be a Terran reminded me of another story told by another group of Muslim philosophers, the Ikhwan al-Safa or brethren of purity, a group of 10th century Muslim philosophers. The Ikhwan authored a 52-volume encyclopedia on the mathematical, natural, and psychological sciences that included an epistle, the longest, called the case of the animals versus man before the king of the jinn, in which animals contest humans claims to mastery over them in the court of the jinn.

The Ikhwan, ventriloquizing the animals, spend a great deal of time on animals distinct physical form and sensory capacities. The epistles fourth chapter called on the acute sense of the animals holds that there are many animals with finer senses and sharper discrimination than humans, such as the camel who finds his footing on the most punishing and treacherous pathways in the dark of night. And I’m quoting here, “or ewes who can birth multiple lambs in one night or those lambs who each finds its way to its dam without any doubt by the mother or confusion by the young in contrast to humans, say, the animals, for whom a month or two or more must pass before they can distinguish their own mother from their sister.”

Other chapters go into great detail about the physical form of various creatures, like the long tusks and great bulk of the elephant or the delicate wings and tiny proboscis of the gnat. Yasuda, leader of the bees, carefully outlines the intricate and ingenious body and wonders form of his species which enable them to build dwellings more aptly and skillfully than your, i.e., your humans artisans better and more ingeniously than your builders and architects. And different animals rely on different senses for their well-being. And I quote, “Some like hawks and eagles rely on their keen vision and powerful flight. Others like ants, dung beetles, and scarabs have a powerful sense of smell. Others are led to their needs by their sense of hearing as are the vultures. And some are guided by their sense of taste as are fish and other aquatic animals.”

In arguing their case, the animals also insist that although their every movement is worship and praise of God, humans do not understand much of what animals do or say. At one point, the nightingale exclaims, and I quote, “We praise, sanctify, celebrate, and exalt God morning and evening although these humans do not comprehend our songs of praise.”

Earlier in the trial, the parrot has made a similar point. If you could follow the discourse of the birds, they say to the humans, the anthems of the swarming creatures, the hymns of the crawling creatures, the hosannas of the beasts, the meditative murmur of the cricket and treaty of the frog, admonitions of the bulbul, homilies of the larks, the sand grouse lauds and the crane celebrations, the cock’s call to worship, the poetry doves utter in their cooing and their soothsaying, and the soothsaying ravens and their croaking, you would realize that among these throngs are orators and eloquent speakers, theologians, preachers, admonishers, and diviners just as there are among the sons of Adam.

Why can’t humans follow the discourse of the birds, the anthems of the swarming creatures, the hymns of the crawling creatures and so on? Because humans, too, have very specific sensory capacities and incapacities as underscored by Islamic scholar Muhammad Assad. In the message of the Quran, Assad discusses the jinn, explaining that the term jinn signifies beings that are concealed from man’s senses, i.e., things beings or forces which cannot normally be perceived by man but have nevertheless an objective reality of their own. Assad, like the Ikhwan, emphasizes human’s perceptual incapacities and our limited knowledge as humans in accessing the cosmos and its many worlds. And in so doing, he defines the human as an ontoepistomological limit. Our inability to know our epistemological threshold is an effect of our bodies, our biophysical makeup or ontology as Homo sapiens.

So I want to think Mameni alongside Assad and the Ikhwan with regard to Mameni’s emphasis on the sensory aspects of the Anthropocene and how we might cultivate a post Anthropocene ethics and politics for the amalgamations of humans and other than humans inhabiting toxic and militarized wastelands. “Knowing the Anthropocene essentially, Mameni continues, would require sensing ourselves as part of a multispecies environment across large stretches of time. Such an experience is difficult to fathom,” unquote. And yet there are many parts of the book when such a sensing across species in ways that exceed what we have come to think of as human sensory capacity comes into view.

In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Terracene is how Mameni attends to the soundscapes and feltscapes of the Anthropocene where the sound of aerial bombardment travels through the gut bypassing the ear completely where sense organs are overloaded in war zones, punctuated by loud, screeching, buzzing, or humming sounds. Mameni mostly focuses on human sensibilities. But we might extend that frame of analysis to more than humans as well to the carrots wilting and pungent soils, the cats quivering under awnings, the goats lacking calcium, as Mameni describes in another chapter, the interspecies experiences of land and aerial bombardment of the Iran-Iraq War.

In another chapter on Fatima Al Qadiri album Desert Strike, Mameni wonders if what the artist has composed is the sounds of the Terracene and notes that, quote, “Her work moves our bodies in vibrations the way an earthquake would,” unquote. Vibration, of course, is how many creatures sense the world and their way in it. I wonder too whether the sensory overload of trauma that Mameni describes by exceeding the capacities of the five senses of secular modernity might bring us closer to the heightened and even synesthetic capacities of many of our non-human cohabitants.

Mameni then seems to be gesturing to a embodied interspecies kinship of feeling with that the Anthropocene perhaps inadvertently produces. At the same time, as Assad and the Ikhwan insist, our bodies and senses are constitutive of ontoepistemological limit as humans. I read Mameni’s emphasis on bodies, vulnerable porous bodies in a similar vein as both possibility and limit and as part and parcel of Mameni’s insistence akin to Assad’s and the Ikhwan’s on the limitations of what it means to be human. All three refuse human mastery as both an ontological reality and an ethical political stance as the only way forward to live ethically in the cosmos.

Given the very different disciplinary traditions these three figures across time, the Ikhwan, Assad, and Mameni– given the very different disciplinary traditions of these three figures across time, I want to end with a question to Salar about how to approach the secular more robustly and richly as analysts. And this is a very selfish question because it’s one I’m really struggling with as I write the second book.

What Salar points to is how cellularity and the Anthropocene are imbricated. And as Stefania noted, I call it the Anthropocene secular in the book I’m currently finishing or not finishing. The Anthropocene secular is premised on a fantasy of human mastery over nature, time, death, bodies, and so on. This is the secular in its major keys, let’s say. And Salar’s analysis of the Anthropocene is both discourse and practice critically analyzes these major keys.

But what about the secular in its minor keys, the moments, spaces, and sensibilities that do not adhere to secularities, distinctions, between science and superstition, mind and body, and so on? The reason I ask is that most of us in this room are secular moderns. How could we not be? And yet, I imagine, that many of us are like Salar compelled intellectually and effectively by the non secular tradition Salar is taking up to imagine the world anew. Our bodies, animal bodies, as they are, are vulnerable to the vibration of earthquakes, bombs, and other sonic modalities of destruction, creation, and communication.

As Salar writes, that first creation story about the mountain on the bull, on the fish, on the angel appeals to our poetic, speculative, and imaginative intelligence. I suppose I’m asking about secularity as a substrate of ethical sensibilities, attitudes, and dispositions that are distinct from the scientific secularism of Crewdson and the like. Minor more dissonant dispositions and sensibilities that remain open to the poetic, the speculative, the imaginative.

I don’t mean this as an apologetics– #notallsecularmoderns– rather to think analytically about how the secular is constituted by both major and minor keys. And to better attend to these minor keys is to hold open the possibility– as Salar does in this book– to hold open the possibility of finding common cause across a diverse range of struggles religious, secular, non-secular, asecular that could usher in more generous, more ethical modes of interspecies cohabitation. Thank you. And thank you to Salar for this amazing book.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] It’s yours. Now this is– now, I’m going to invite Salar to respond or to add whatever he wants to add. And then we’ll decide.

[SALAR MAMENI] And then we’ll decide, OK. Thank you so much. Such rich responses. It’s really incredible. So I think I’m going to start by not answering but engaging Mayanthi your question around the secular.


Yes. I think so. So how to approach–

Not too much? Yeah, OK.

That’s fine? OK. So how to approach the secular more robustly. So I think, for me, the first way that I would think about this question, obviously not answering it but the first way of engaging with the question is to think about famously religion as a category is the invention of secularism. And so that dichotomy between the religious and the secular religious benefits the secular to define itself as the secular.

And recently, I’m going down some rabbit holes, and I’m reading people who were writing around the Islamic Revolution and who were thinking about what it meant to engage Islam in the ’60s and the ’70s at a moment when Islam was totally discredited as a possible thought system to engage. And some of the proposals that I’m reading are questions around how we might think humanism, so liberal humanism, as a project that comes out of Greek modes of thinking gods.

So liberal humanism takes up a particular relationship between the gods, Greek gods, and the human as defined in polytheistic modes of thinking. And so the person I’m reading is talking about how within the Greek theology, the gods are forces of nature and by definition, antagonistic towards the human. And so liberty, this idea of liberalism, freedom, comes out of getting the gods off your back and becoming independent and so on.

And so there’s a particular way of thinking the theos, the god that creates the antagonist human who is trying to become liberated. And that is what remains with us in terms of liberal humanism in terms of the materialism of secular thought. And so this person is proposing that Islam does something distinctly different in that there is no original sin in the way that Christianity takes up from Greek thought. But what Islam does is to– I mean, so there are so many other ways of thinking about this but to allow the human to build different relationships with “the god.” So it’s not necessarily an antagonistic relationship. And so what does it mean to take on that responsibility?

And alongside that, I’m reading Anna Gaid who writes about ecology and Islam. And she talks about passages from the Quran where the mountains are offered to take care of the world. The other entities are offered that by God. And the mountains say, this is too much. I’m not doing this. The mountains are like, this is actually a huge responsibility. And so the human is the foolish one who says, OK, maybe I’ll do this.

So I think, for me, as someone who was more of a vernacular Muslim and now is trying to be more of an educated Muslim, one of the takeaways for me always from Islamic thought was the limitation of the human, so the fact that rational thought only takes you so far. And so this hubris of the human, I think, inherently for me is not within Islamic thought, which– yeah, so I guess, there might have been different kinds of interpretation of that over the years.

So maybe I don’t know how to segue that into Sugata’s really wonderful reading of the book. But one thing that you said that really stuck with me was this idea of the resilience of the living. And so at this moment, for the terror and for the non-human for the amalgamation of multispecies beings that are deemed terrorists, living is an act of resistance, which is food for thought. It makes me think about how we define living, how we define resistance, how we are, of course, the liberal humanist horror when it

comes to–

–active resistance to give up life–

–are basically based on this redefinition of what it means to be a living organism. The continuity between living and non-living, these are some of the things I talk about in the book, I think, in relation to Sansour’s work and her reading of that gray area or the rethinking of what it means to be a living being. So, yeah, should I ask questions?

No, I–

If you have questions–

If you have questions, you should ask questions. Otherwise [INAUDIBLE].

[SALAR MAMENI] Let me think about questions.

And I will take that privilege before [INAUDIBLE].

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] I wanted to go back to something you said when you said I hope someone is going to speak about the sublime. And rather than speaking about the sublime, it’s in the part of the book, which is more precisely about the crude aesthetics. And on the question of what might be an aesthetic, which is not fascist, is if I can go back to what Benjamin was citing, from Benjamin at the beginning, which you cite at the beginning of this part, and ask you to say a little bit more about this because it is a thin line.

You talked about visions when you were speaking. And yet the visions that you’re talking about are visions that are not visions that could be understood in the terms of the Kantian Sublime because you say in the book, that the Kantian Sublime is an approach to aesthetics that is calming or that inscribes the possibility of a distance, which eventually would lead to the position of the viewer of the one who experienced or who has an aesthetic experience in terms of contemplation.

And you are not speaking of an aesthetics of contemplation. And you are not even using the word resistance. You’re not using the word resilience. You’re not using any of those words. You are speaking about a being impressed in the sense– I mean, not just in the metaphorical sense, in the literal sense of impression by events. And that’s how you go to trauma. You go to beyond the pleasure principle in Freud. And you go with Freud and beyond Freud in asking the question of what does it mean to be invaded by sensory experience that it is overwhelming and that makes it impossible to think. But then you also want to say that beyond thinking, there is something else, which is not the sublime. And so if you can tell us more.

It has to do with oil. It has to do with dissolution. It has to do with form and distortion and deformation. And it has to do with the creation myth. It has to do with creation. So tell us more.

[SALAR MAMENI] Yeah, thank you. Yeah, I mean, when you think about aesthetics so often there are these available concepts that come from enlightenment aesthetic theory. So sublime was or is a concept that is everywhere in the Anthropocene literature because it speaks to that experience of awe. And so the Anthropocene is a disastrous globe. And so you in awe. And so that’s the concept that’s used often to describe the Anthropocene.

Weirdly, it’s also the concept that’s used to describe war. So a lot of the literature I cited in the book talk about 9/11 as a sublime moment. And so I found that to be extremely problematic. And it assumed a particular viewer, not– it wasn’t just useless for me to work with because it was within the humanist and anthropocentric mode of thought, but it was also thinking of a very particular– well, I guess, yeah, a particular kind of human who could stand at a distance and not be affected by the disaster that was happening.

And so for me, I wanted to theorize an engulfment and potential destruction by the event, so what happens in those moments. And so I think both of you actually offered us these alternatives, you talking about anger turning one into thinking with dust and with mulch perhaps. And you’re talking about the limits of the five senses and how the five senses is itself that kind of a construction. So I think at the time, I was really struggling with how to do that. But once I got over it, I– I feel like there is so much possibility for thinking outside of the enlightenment discourse of aesthetics. And I know you do this kind of work.

As you know, I read that section of your book where you talk about the jinn over and over again when I was writing about Morrison’s work because there’s something about these kinds of entities, such as the jinn, that put pressure on what it means to limit the sensory to the visible world. And so it forgets about many other modes of being the ontology of what we might call a human that has more to it than just the material world. And that’s another Islamic cosmological worldview that I thought was important. Should we open?

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Yes, we should open. It’s not just– it in such a way that you become– So now I’m going to take questions, comments. Comments, if you want to make comments, you can also make comments. It doesn’t have to be a question and for the three of them. And so please-

How much time do we have?

We have about half– 20 minutes.

Yeah, but [INAUDIBLE].

OK, we’re over.

Yeah, it wasn’t 36?

No, it goes until 5:30. So we– I mean, obviously, if you have to go, you have to go. But we’ll close out in about 10 minutes just because that’s the sane way to do it.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] First of all, congratulations on this amazing book. And it’s so wonderful to celebrate with you. And I had a question about your methodology and how it relates to the thematics of the book that you’re trying to work through. I was struck by you were saying something that really resonates with me, too.

You’re trying to write a book not about writing about art or writing about artists, but to write with them or to think with them. So were you thinking of your relationality as a critic with art and artists in parallel and related ways with the rethinking of ontologies and relations in the rest of the material here between the human and the non-human? Is there like– if you’re moving towards a human unexceptionalist ontology, here are– you also simultaneously moving toward a decentralizing of the critic, too. As part of that project of the humanist perspective, the critical perspective, how are those two things linked for you?

[SALAR MAMENI] Yeah, thank you, Long, for the question. Yeah, absolutely. I think being the objective observer of anything or being– sometimes I talk to students about hovering above and looking at the world from above forgetting that you might fall. So having that perspective that’s holistic, I think, never served my project, and it was not something– obviously, feminist scholars, queer scholars do this.

But in terms of art history in particular, I really didn’t feel like I had too many methods for not doing the kind of thing where you write about art. So that was a real struggle. How do you not do that outside of doing the anthropological version of it where you interview your artists and you show that dialogue? So I think what I ended up thinking was– what I’m providing is a theory of a particular shared experience that is not homogeneous.

So there are aspects of these artworks that are speaking to the same situation that I found perhaps myself in or I want to think with. And so then I gravitated towards those moments. And I think a part of it was also thinking about my selection of the works. What kind of curatorial process goes into selecting not just artworks but also your citational practice? And who are the scholars you think with and, et cetera? And so all of that required that kind of a perspective where you’re thinking of yourself as one amongst many.

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] I think what we can do now maybe is taking a few questions, and then you will just respond to a group of questions.

And for the panelists, too.

Yeah, or from the panelists as well. Oh, for the panelists, yes.

It’s OK. You’re the star.

Yes, please.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi. Thank you so much for speaking. OK, thank you. I guess I have a question about the variations in the creation stories based off of the images that we saw. So I’m curious whether the order of all of the different components are– is it static? Are there different versions of the creation story that are floating around? Is this the first time that you saw these particular orders of the creation story? Yeah, I’m curious about the variation between those images and how you’re thinking about that. Yeah, thank you.

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Are there are other comments so that– as I say in my class, we have very few minutes. So, yes.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] One other little thing out, Sugata’s list of all of the scenes from earlier– yeah, I guess, maybe it’s almost a question to the entire room about what– is it now that scene becomes synonym for thinking ecologically and then we attach capital? Or is the scene the same thing as a suffix in all of these? Yeah, I just start to wonder about the proliferation really.

But not everyone’s done the reading, right.

Yes, it’s true. It’s true.


And we just have a few minutes, so we’ll just maybe take these two.

I didn’t want to silence anyone.

[SALAR MAMENI] So with these ones– both of you have seen these two. Yes, there are many other variations. And you can already see that. I think we saw three. And all three are different. I like that. I think there’s something really interesting about that. And when I was writing my own creation story at the beginning, I did my own version of it, my own translation of it because it’s a living story. And so I think living stories lend themselves to variation. And so it’s not a fixed idea.

And so with Jahangir’s, I think that’s the first one I ever saw. And with that one, of course, the emperor–


–the emperor is standing on top of the globe. So he’s actually creating a anthropocentric version of something that was not anthropocentric to begin with. So I think–

He becomes the angle.

He becomes the angel. Do you want to say more about that?

[SUGATA RAY] Therefore, I think what Salar’s work does is opens up this question because when we think of imperial systems, we think it’s around the figure of the ruler, the emperor, monarch, or whoever. But when I read this, and I read go back to that, it opens up ways of thinking alterity. And I think that’s the productive aspect of this creative myth that it’s unlike things that are fixed once, they are written. Cultures in pre-modern cultures are circulated. And even contemporary culture, it circulates across.

And things change. Translations happen. Different iterations happen. And that gives it the flexibility to have different meanings, whether it’s– and you see it across. You see it in Southeast Asia. You see it in Central Asia. You see it– so, yeah, so I think that’s the creative part. And I think what Salar does is opens up a way of thinking about the Terracene in that way provincializing the figure of the emperor as well.


Did you want to say something about it?

Me? So I think all of us are trying to think about the scene through two words. One is the cene as the period, the Anthropocene, the Holocene. And the other word is the scene as S-C-N-E. That’s what we were after, the scene. So I was talking about the scene as a space where theater happens. So if you look at the definitions, everyone is OK with the C-E-N-E. And everyone wants to change the first part of it. So whether it’s the white supremacy or– comes up with crazy ideas– or the Anthropos, or–

Yeah, but I think what is important also for this is to complicate the scene, not just the agent here, the agent, whether it’s the white man, or whether it’s colonialism, or whether it’s climate change. So all of these assume that the scene is universal. And I think that’s the interesting part about, again, going back to this book is questioning of where is the scene of the Anthropocene. And what does that mean to think about the scene of that? [INAUDIBLE]

[SALAR MAMENI] Why am I answering your questions? Well, and I think– sorry, where are you–

No, no. Go ahead.

I think most of the coinages probably other than Haraway’s thylacine think about the perpetuator of climate change, so capitalism, et cetera. So I think this one does both. But I felt like it was also important to think about this new era, this new geological era from below and not to always superimpose the Anthropos by another name at that beginning.

[MAYANTHI FERNANDO] And I think the other thing you can go back to some of those, the angel on the bull on the– that whole thing is that what you also see there with the disappearance of the human or the lack of appearance of the human, a lot of these kinds of creation stories, I don’t know, call them mythological– whatever you want to call them, also presuppose that these non-humans have relationships with one another that are imperceptible to the human.

And that, I think, is also really interesting to think with alongside the concept of the scene because, again– and I think this is what this book really does is try to– what does it mean to think from below? And it also means that we are not part of many of these scenes. And so what is that Then how do we begin to think about that? I think that there are interesting ways in which those two questions are actually linked. And I think your book just does– what I love about it is that it really does take humans also as bodies in a really profound and fundamental way. So what are you?

Yeah, yeah. One more, Allen.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Yeah, I was curious about whether the scene– and looking at the images that you’ve all been showing, whether the scene is cosmology, so the cosmic or the universe? And I’m struck with these images of the Christian renditions of these that the Cardinal points– the missing one is the lion, which is Leo, Saint Mark. The fish is Pisces. The bull is Taurus. And so they’re all different apostles who represent the Cardinal points. And the angel is Matthew, so those correlations and so these mystic traditions, I guess, across different religions and different recreations of scenes as cosmologies.

This is the last time, and then we’re done.

[SUGATA RAY] So I think what the interesting part here– yeah, the interesting part I’ll just add very quickly with Salar’s point is that– so what it does is that you’re right. I mean, it’s a shared tradition. It’s a shared tradition in terms of either whether you go about the text or even actual live practices across, let’s say, what is called the Middle East, what is called South Asia, what is Africa, where you have these shared connectivity. But I think, which also goes back to your point, it’s the question of capital.

I mean, that is that red line that creates the Anthropocene in that sense. And I would also like, to your question, would add bring in the point of secularism is also a product of capital formation. So how do you then Anthropocene? Of course, the formation of capital.

So you have Christian. And most scholars would say that medieval cosmography– Heidegger would also say that– medieval cosmography is whether it’s Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist have these potential that then get reduced to the world as a picture, precisely with imperialism. So I think the point is, Where do you draw the line in terms of the loss of our gods and the creation of the world as a grid? And that’s a secular capital conjoining as well.

Yes, although I wouldn’t– I mean–

I don’t know, yeah.

To be continued.

To be continued.

So I’m just–

OK, on that note,

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] We’ll be continued. It will be continued.





Understanding AI: Humanities x Social Sciences x Technology

(A recursive figure created by GPT-4 from Dąbkowski & Beguš 2023)

While advances in the performance of AI models have seen enormous successes, a profound understanding of how learning happens inside the models remains to be thoroughly explored. Understanding how AI learns has the potential to help us gain novel insights in science, technology, and other fields, as well as to observe novel causal relationships in various types of data. Interpreting the internal workings of AI models can also shed light on how the human mind works and how we are similar to and different from machines. The answers to these questions have highly consequential implications across disciplines, which is why it is imperative for scholars from a variety of fields to come together and collaborate.

On March 6, 2024, Social Science Matrix hosted a symposium focused on understanding and interpreting AI, an important new frontier in AI research. At the symposium, speakers identified immediate challenges in AI interpretability and explored how the humanities, social sciences, and the tech world can join forces in this highly consequential research. The event was organized by Gašper Beguš, a 2022-2023 Social Science Matrix Faculty Fellow.

Watch the video above or on YouTube.




Understanding Land-based Psychological Trauma in Light of Epistemic Justice

Recorded on February 8, 2024, this video features a lecture by Dr. Garret Barnwell, South African clinical psychologist and community psychology practitioner. The talk was moderated and coordinated by Andrew Wooyoung Kim, Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

Listen to the talk as a podcast through the player below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


The places we live are inseparably connected to who we are. Our relationship with these spaces we come into being through is somewhat foundational to our knowing and being in the world. They shape who we are, and we, in so many ways, shape them, inscribing them with personal meanings and finding social coordinates in them.

In this talk, Barnwell uses vignettes to describe how this takes place, emphasizing that these bonds are most evidently seen when threatened. Basing his insights on several years of clinical experience and critical psychology theory, he draws attention to how people’s psychological relationship to place is threatened through grievous acts of epistemic injustices — violence directed at knowledge and speech. These forms of epistemic injustice include the silencing, misrecognition, threats, and killings of land defenders, as well as systematized land dispossession in the name of capitalist expansion and mining. Decolonial and critical psychologies teach us that the language we come into being, which privileges certain politics, ways of knowing and being in the world in relation to such places, has a bearing on subjectivity — what can be said and what is unsayable, and, thus, unactionable.

He describes how such forms of epistemic violence threaten these psychological bonds and produce psychological trauma. Around the world in these extractive zones, Indigenous and land-based resurgent movements play a critical role in defending against epistemic injustices for the flourishing of life. In conclusion, Barnwell draws attention to how such resurgent groups use different forms of land dialogues and speech as integral parts of community resistance and psychological healing.

About the Speaker

Dr. Garret Barnwell is a clinical psychologist working as a psychotherapist and community psychology practitioner. He is most interested in different forms of accompaniment and resistance to extractivism for the flourishing of all life. Barnwell was an expert on the landmark youth-led #cancelcoal climate case launched against the South African government’s plans for new coal-fired power. He is also a member of the American Psychological Association’s Climate Change Advisory Group. Barnwell’s writing includes several expert reports, special issues, and a book, Terrapsychology: Further Inquiry Into Self, Place and Planet (with Prof Craig Chalquist). He is a research associate at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.


[ANDY KIM] Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Andy Kim. I’m an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology here at UC, Berkeley, and also an honorary researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. And I would like to welcome you to today’s event. Thank you so much for joining.

Today, we have a fantastic speaker, Dr. Garrett Barnwell. And the title of his presentation is Understanding Land-based Psychological Trauma in Light of Epistemic Justice. So I’m also a faculty fellow here for the 2023-2024 academic school year. And I’ve organized both this event and a lecture that will be coming up on March 7, actually my birthday for Dr. Dana-Ain Davis coming from CUNY, New York.

Before I introduce today’s speaker, I just want to highlight a few other events that will be coming up at the Matrix. First, on February 15 is an event called Surveillance and Privacy in a Biometric World, which will take place next Thursday from 4:00 to 5:30. We have a lecture on Black Success and White Backlash by Sociologist Elijah Anderson on the 20th of February. Another lecture on February 22 about Included-Variable Bias and Discrimination by Sharad Goel, Professor of Public Policy. And all these events are online, as well as, other events will be coming up and information on the Matrix website.

So it is now my pleasure to introduce today’s speaker. So Dr. Garrett Barnwell is a Clinical Psychologist working as a Psychotherapist and Community Psychology Practitioner. He’s most interested in different forms of accompaniment and resistance to extractivism for the flourishing of all life. Barnwell was an expert on the landmark youth led hashtag, #CancelCoalClimateCase launched against the South African Government’s plan for new coal-fired power.

He is also a member of the American Psychological Association’s Climate Change advisory group. Barnwell’s writings include several expert reports, special issues, and a book called Terrapsychology, Further Inquiry into Self, Place, and Planet co-published with Professor Craig Chalquist. And he is currently a research associate at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

And I just want to remind our online participants to feel free to ask questions throughout the talk and after the talk using the Zoom’s Q&A function. And please welcome me in– please join me in welcoming Dr. Barnwell.

[GARRET BARNWELL] Thanks very much, Andy. And also, thanks for everyone that’s here and the invite, as well as, everyone that’s online. And I’m going to jump straight into it. And if you’ve got questions, I’d love to also hear what’s your thinking behind it. I’m also trying to make sense of some of what I’ll speak about today and any thoughts, ideas, or comments, there’s space to really explore and speak about what interests you.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to go through a bit of my thinking with you today. So the world is at a dangerous crossroads. Our dependence on the extractive resources is pushing the Earth to a new hotter and more barren reality. Climate change is more severe and widespread than previously expected. Disasters such as mass species dials, droughts, and wildfires are occurring at unprecedented levels. Most of the world’s ecosystems upon which life depends have been irreparably harmed.

Nearly 3/4 of the Earth’s surface has been exposed to some form of land degradation according to the IPCC’s 2019 publication on land– sorry, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This destruction is inseparable from a demand for resources that is unsustainable on the Earth which cannot keep pace, lacking the ability to replenish itself annually. In fact, at the moment, it would take almost two earths at this time to do so.

According to the IPCC, climate-related devastation is expected to worsen dramatically over the next two decades. Around the world people, particularly Indigenous land and environmental defenders, and fenceline communities are resisting mining, logging, and industrial agricultural projects in life and death struggles.

These struggles play a crucial role in contesting the ecological catastrophes. Many of these land and ecological justice struggles slow the tide of capitalist extraction around the world. This is not something that’s often spoken about is actually how much do these struggles prevent as well when it comes to carbon output and also the destruction of our planet. How many projects don’t go through because of people on the frontlines of these areas around the world and their struggles.

Even though the IPCC and the IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, acknowledges the significance of Indigenous ecological knowledge for constructing a viable future for humanity. They overlook the extractive conflicts happening in these areas that threaten our planet’s survival.

There’s a devastating cost. The organization Global Witness has been tracking threats against land and environmental defenders since 2012. In just over a decade, more than 1,910 people who were standing up for land and environmental justice issues have been killed.

Out of these at least, 1,390 defenders lost their lives after the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Global Witness and academics such as Mary Manton and Philip Lyon explain with every death in communities resisting extractive industries, there are countless other threats. We see this all around the world in South Africa in particular as well, physical violence, death threats, strategic litigation against public participation. And if anyone wants to ask afterwards, I’ve got very particular examples in the work that I’m doing but also with people that I’m very close to me that have experienced significant threats.

The decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo argues that the lived experience of how coloniality is felt is essential in resisting and delinking from today’s experiences of coloniality. Coloniality is a decolonial concept rooted in Anibal Quijano’s works. Maldanado Tourists explains that coloniality refers to our colonial logic in today’s society conceives and constitutes power and knowledge.

Decolonial theorists use the term coloniality as a shorthand to refer to European Colonialism’s interrelating legacies and practices that underpin the broader arc of modernity. Most land and environmental justice struggles that I’ve encountered are also decolonial struggles and I’ll speak a bit to that today. And they seek to resist coloniality and the ecological exploitation whilst also imagining a better world in the future.

Psychology has not largely neglected such struggles and today I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss the resistance to what I speak of as place-saving, what I’ve described as the psychological process associated with harms than to place attachments, including to ancestral land, the unsettling of traditional ecological knowledge systems, intergenerational identities, and ancestral relationships to place stemming from historical land and ecological injustices in light of the epistemic turn that we see in theory.

I’ll unpack these ideas as I move along and also suggest ways in which social scientists could play a meaningful role in accompanying such struggles through the practice of witnessing and I’ll offer some personal examples.

I believe that social sciences, including here in psychology, can support the transition towards a pluriversal world that centers epistemic justice, an active stance that affirms different ways of knowing and being in the world, and which seeks to build a world free from extractive violence that deems other ways of knowing and being in the world a threat to be annihilated.

Now I’ve drawn a bit of my psychoanalytic background. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan reiterated through his works that we come into being through the language of others. He meant that as speaking beings, the meaning, symbols, and laws that structure our world are inscribed by the language of other people both in our immediate lives and society at large.

What is communicated or withheld, what is allowed or not allowed to be said influences our sense of becoming in the world and shapes our knowledge. For example, when we are born we enter into the language of our parents or our caregivers, those around us, what they name us, they desire for us and what they communicate shapes our understanding of the world and who we become.

The language is interwoven with the broader languages, the norms, the cultural meanings structuring society which Lacan calls the symbolic order. Whether our parents or caregivers recognize us through love, respect, or genuine interest determines how we relate to and enter the symbolic order, as well as, all the enigmatic messages that we encounter that are very difficult at times to translate.

And we can speak about that but including when they’re hostile messages and that difficulty of translating these messages. At these moments Lacanians assert that we encounter a choice of taking on the language of the other.

When we are younger, this choice is false though. Lacan compared it to being robbed, your money or your life. If we do not take on this language, we may not survive. For instance, we must communicate to meet our needs and to adapt to and thrive within a world already structured by language. Taking on this language can be seen as a life affirming act because if we do not, we can put ourselves in radical opposition to the symbolic order or society at large.

However, in taking on this language of the other, we undergo an alienating process where aspects of ourselves that are beyond language and at times in close attunement with more than human world can become alienated. This is because our relationship with the corporeality of the material world can never be fully articulated within language.

The language we come into being into inscribes the world with particular meanings that give us social coordinates. For example, in relationship to the more than human world, some animals are given particular privileges in the process of naming. For instance, in Western capitalist society, for instance, cows are something deemed as livestock, source of protein, dairy products, leather, and not much more than this usefulness to become a kind of product or commodity.

However, in other cultures, like in South Africa, a cow is sacred, something to be revered and representative of wealth, masculinity, and ancestral connections. We can go on with these comparisons for days. Importantly, through this process, we become split subjects whose unconscious is ordered by society’s ideals, demands, and desires. Also being alienated within this existence due to the indescribable losses we suffer, as well as, living with very complex ungraspable, unsayable aspects of our being that connect us to all life on this planet.

In her article “The Trauma of Language,” Lucy Canton describes this process as potentially traumatic as we encounter a range of enigmatic messages from society privileging certain ways of being over others that need to be translated in some meaningful way for survival.

An example I can share is from South Africa where the former colonial apartheid regime, Privileged Whites, while systemically oppressing Black people and other People of Color coming into being through apartheid as a symbolic order was violent, as it deemed Black people and People of Color a threat to be annihilated, to be materially deprived and underserved.

This was also dispossessing communities of land to gain access to mineral and agricultural riches, simultaneously, exploiting Black and Brown bodies for Labor for the Construction of a racist white society. Although in South Africa, apartheid has been dismantled, these colonial logics still operate and shape people’s encounters with extractive industries today and you’ll hear many people speak about extractive industries as the new kind of colonial outposts in the global South.

Much of the experience of land-based trauma or what I refer to as place severing is part of this larger arc of colonial capitalism. All the varying but globally networked systems of labor, financial flows, and conceptions of property that constituted colonial economies. I would just like to share an image– [CHUCKLES] –an image that represents this kind of myth.

So extractivism as a specific mindset and set of actions aimed at maximizing gains through the extraction of resources was a key facet of colonial capitalism under the rubric of modernity. Coloniality names the narrative fiction and violent rhetoric that posits that there is one progressive Euro-American-centric pathway in history.

According to this myth, following a different development path would deem such communities inferior, underdeveloped, or primitive. This is not the case but the energy behind this violent rhetoric is powerful and has threatened Indigenous peoples over centuries. This myth of progress also sanctions extractive projects without informed consent under the guise of development agendas or at worst, the militarism of just wars.

Central to the structural violence of coloniality is also the epistemic mark of the colonial deference which argues that Eurocentric knowledge, practices, and modes of being are superior to other lifeworlds deeming the latter invisible, inferior, or threat to accumulate privileges and progress.

Mignolo and Walsh write that there is named this Eurocentric logic after the locus of enunciation where it’s been spoken from, naming the territorial, institutional, economic, and linguistic locations of historical actors who believe their way of being is the only correct way of engaging with others in the more than human world.

According to Walter Mignolo, Eurocentrism is historically grounded in Christian conceptions and images of the world that claim the totality of truth and proclaim what is good and evil. There’s a kind of judgment that’s projected onto other life worlds.

For instance, in South Africa and the world over, Christian evangelizing missions facilitated colonialism’s expansion by violently unsettling Indigenous ecological knowledge and social bonds to place. Thus, Indigenous peoples’ epistemic territories where knowledge is created in relationship to place and intergenerationally constituted are devalued, diminished, or harmed.

For example, in the Limpopo province of South Africa in the Northern region, some groups of people are reconstituting their relationship to sacred sites such as forests, waterfalls, and lakes. For instance, this Lake Fundudzi is seen as a sacred site that holds so much that we can speak about afterwards.

But years of colonial and apartheid-era violence has structured relationships. So for instance, at the time of not so long ago– not so long ago, rituals were conducted at these sites. People were basically told that they couldn’t pray at these sites anymore, couldn’t conduct rituals, and that this had to be done within a church, therefore severing the relationship to these places but also creating the pathway for resource extraction in the Forestry Industry in this area.

So this connection paved the way for colonial agricultural economy being established and the epistemic mark not only on people who have relationship to these sites but these sites themselves and the associated practices caused severing took place and facilitated the expansion of logging and the forestry industry.

And I’ll provide an example, a beekeeper I spoke to offered a testimony of this experience in which he described how his family was forcibly resettled from their ancestral lands to allow for logging and also, their resistance to this. So I’ll read you the testimony now.

It’s from a beekeeper I interviewed in one of these processes of free collection. “They came and collected the soil and took it to Pretoria, the capital. They used to dig it out at different places. They then started to plow the pine trees from Macumbani to Macorani, to [INAUDIBLE] to Jieni. Further and further, the people started to work here, Macumbani, around the community. 24, 25, 26, 27, takes more than 27 years for a pine tree to be cut down. At the age of 15 to 20 years, they just come and select the beautiful ones and cut down the bad ones. At 27 years, they take them away to the factories.

I used to live here in the bush with my father and my family but we were chased away so that they could plant the pine trees. Pine trees aren’t indigenous to South Africa as well. Three times the evictions from my ancestral land were common under the apartheid regime. My father didn’t leave but all the people around us did. My father used to take the thorn trees and put the branches around the house to protect us so the White people couldn’t enter the yard.

They chased people in June, July, and August but my father never left. Each day we saw three white people coming to our yard. One day I was playing around the house, they said, where’s your father, you go call him. They said to my father, why didn’t you leave when others were leaving? His father replied, I wanted to plow the maize here. They told him that he has to go to Bapedi area where one of the other sacred sites are, which is a waterfall.

It was between 1949 and ’50, my father was angry. I was hurting inside. This used to be a beautiful place he looked out over the plantation,” the term we use in South Africa, which I know has different connotations here but I also think that there’s some similarities while we spoke.

“The cows even used to roam here eating, [INAUDIBLE] clean water, most rivers have dried up or have been contaminated by chemicals used on the plantations. We tried to remove the pines but we couldn’t. It was the South African government, the apartheid regime. When they first came, they started removing all the trees and plants. People were chased away and left their dogs and cats. People’s homes were destroyed. We tried to feed them but there were too many of them they were walking around scavenging, lost. They had to be culled.

The animals that were here also didn’t have homes. They were killed and hunted by the people who came. They, the White man, killed up to seven impalas a day, deers. During this ecocide, over 4,300 hectares of Indigenous forests were destroyed.” Many social ecologies around the world are at the frontline of this extractive worldview.

This colonizing way of being in the world is essentially a White Supremacist ideology as it seeks to disconnect people from land, dispiriting connections with the more than human world for accumulating wealth. The extractive ideology is by nature an anti-Black and anti-Indigenous epistemology. Because the Black Indigenous subject dispossessed from land is in constant struggle to retain centrality of spirituality, knowledge, power, and being as modern auditors writes.

“Thus, epistemic violence names the swarm of harm to the epistemic territory, the place of different ways of knowing it, and in turn being that is produced through coloniality,” writes also Reynaldo Vasquez.

Critical community psychologist Gorse Stephens and Christopher Son assert assert that such epistemic violence is central to the experience of psychological distress in the world today. This is not an abstract matter. Social orders driven by the logic of coloniality have historically relied on land grabs predicated upon the erasure of these historical bonds to land to ensure domination and economic exploitation.

As under colonialism, extractive proponents today still largely make the rules. They help develop weak environmental regulatory frameworks. For instance, at other times, they spearhead deals for extractive projects in the name of development and progress but that often neglects the right to participation and self-determination for affected communities.

Today, capitalism is reproduced in the same colonist racist logic that deemed much of the world’s population living on the margins expendable. This particular [INAUDIBLE] points of extraction where United Nations Special Rapporteur David Boyd says, “communities are transformed into sacrifice zones where environmental degradation, pollution, and unjust social arrangements pose extreme threats to well-being.”

Psychology has played a perverse role in the broader process of conceptualizing such distress. For instance, in using terms such as climate anxiety or eco-anxiety to describe ecological distress, mainstream psychology risks pathologizing and individualizing distress resulting from the violence of capitalism and its underpinning colonial logic.

Historically, in placing the responsibility for distress on an individual’s intrapsychic reality or at most, on the family, psychology conceals how capitalism operates and the society’s societal suffering at large. It also disconnects the consumer from sites of struggle or the fact that we consume suffering to draw on an idea from Reynaldo Vasquez. Yet suffering does not circulate through our lives and relationships as some passive response to anxieties about these crises.

Rather, these anxieties arise from my experience with alienation, marginalization, and exclusion in society that stems from ways of privileging capitalism, including extractivism, that destroys ways of life and societal bonds.

Today, although most colonial administrations have been dismantled, extractivism remains pervasive. Whether enacted through states or corporations they support, life within this logic, as Vandana Shiva explains, is treated like an open access system to be exploited without consent where local ways of being in the world, such as the sense of community, as well as, sovereignty and public participation are not only undermined but seen as critical points to exert power.

As a consequence, civic space is critically endangered. Civic space is defined as the ability to organize, communicate, and participate meaningfully without hindrance or threat of harm. Capitalism presents a similar choice in the establishment and expansion of mining in communities through the guise of public participatory processes.

Whereof late, communities have the right to say no to mining, yet do they really? Some people are placed in impossible choice, your money or your life. For instance, in one of the areas where I’ve worked, land defenders who receive death threats because of resisting mining take on these risks as they still have deep spiritual connections to their ancestors and grave sites. Traditional beliefs come up against the desire to extract at all costs.

In this situation, one of the herders that I spoke with described, high was making a terrible choice in taking what the mine had financially offered him to mine his ancestral land. “I would rather deal with the pain of exhuming my family members’ bodies, even though I would not want to, rather than placing the rest of the family at risk of being killed,” he said.

We know in these sites, so in one of the places where I’ve also collected testimony, environmental defenders have been killed or had their homes shot up in these areas. Such terrible choices are common. They are also reflected in public participatory processes that are similarly structured by coloniality, a language that stifles open communication and closes down speech or let me say, promotes empty speech.

Lacan differentiates between empty and full speech. “To simplify, empty speech is devoid of the subject’s knowledge, such as when they are being talked to rather than being heard. In contrast, full speech recognizes the subject’s knowledge concerning the symbolic order providing people with a set of sociosymbolic coordinates which tie them to the roles and other social contracts.

Therefore, closing down public participatory spaces is a form of empty speech as it consolidates the egoic nature of capitalism while disregarding other ways of being in the world, as well as, life-affirming social ties and meaningful roles in public participatory processes.”

Communities who cannot speak freely, remain unheard are not presented with hard life or death choices, your money or your life. The freedom to speak is constrained to a point that are artificial discourses and defended subjectivity is created where there is no movement to speak openly about the internal contradictions, the anxieties about choices being made as well.

Such a process does not support rhythms of change that are normal in relationships where there are true social bonds and high stakes for the future. I would go so far as saying that the public participatory processes are in support of a consensus for business as usual. The ability to say yes or no to large-scale development projects is dispossessed through insidious acts of closing down speech.

For instance, the discussions that I’ve witnessed often focus on the measurable impacts of mining, such as the relocation of communities to avoid exposure rather than what Skosana refers to as the intangible losses, such as the loss of ancestral connections to place and the meanings inscribed in homesteads, as well as, the relocation of graves.

As I’ve said, those who speak of Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world often labeled as anti-development and backward, and consequently silenced as a threat. Participation is closed down through labeling as well as excluding specific topics, misrecognizing discussed issues, the exclusion in report writing, and coercion such as targeting and killings. To emphasize again, people are killed on a frequent basis.

It’s important to emphasize that these processes of coming into being through the others language, here the language of extractivism, can be traumatizing. By entering into the other’s language, something is always left behind that cannot be entirely spoken and doesn’t quite fit within the other’s language or desires.

I would argue that this loss can be insurmountable depending on what language is taken up, what is privileged, and what is not. The desire of the other can be brutal as fenceline communities resisting mining around the world know well. Taking on the language presented in public participatory processes guarantees irreparable alienation from one’s knowing and being in the world.

Coming to the other’s language leads to the clearing of Indigenous vegetation, displacing peoples from their ancestral land, and severing the psychological relationship to place, a traumatic process in itself. In summary, the closing down of civic spaces allows extractivism to create conditions where residents who might organize, communicate, and seek meaningful participation to oppose extractivism are deemed a threat being labeled a threat into an sanctioned silence, exclusion, and physical violence.

This contributes to the one ton approval of deleterious mining and logging projects and the murder of land and environmental defenders and other human rights violations. These subjugating acts, the closed down civic space may in turn create significant anguish among those who resist not by choice but because of their very locality.

For many around the world, it’s not climate change as some abstract weather occurrence that is distressing, but rather the grating up against colonial capitalism in one’s daily life. Our pain indicates to us that there’s something wrong with capitalism and the colonial world order that seeks to repress difference in being and world views.

Land and environmental defenders resisting mining often engage in these struggles. These struggles are rooted in communities’ intangible cultural and social fabric, including the connection to land, their traditions, and identity as people, as well as, desired futures and ancestral connections.

For instance, in Limpopo, “Dzomo la Mupo” meaning The Voice of Creation is a woman-led struggle focusing on restoring Indigenous plants and Indigenous seed sovereignty, while re-membering communities to place in cultural resurgence.

So for instance, these are traditional seeds that are used to create Indigenous or different types of beers that are used in rituals at the sacred sites. These are Indigenous tree nurseries that are used to re-establish buffer zones around sacred sites that still remain despite the logging and forestry in the region.

At the same, it’s another photo of a different family. So there’s different families in the area and members will have these tree nurseries basically to do restoration projects. And I can speak more to this afterwards. And then so there’s the restoration efforts and the re-membering efforts that create– well, I’ll speak about it later. But re-member communities to place in these sacred sites after the experience of severing.

And then there’s also considerable efforts placed on gaining recognition of these sacred sites. So in challenging the colonial limits that still largely guide the protection of cultural sites, one of these challenges is to make sacred sites no-go areas to retain their sanctity. Because in turn, also the protection of these sites often also through the language of coloniality or capitalism where sacred sites, if they’re protected or deemed tourist sites and seen then as a way to make money rather than restoring the sanctity in itself where some of these places should be no-go areas. Additionally, much efforts are being placed to recollect the mutual relationship with places through self-organized processes called ecomapping where Dzomo la Mupo members walk through areas following rivers, Indigenous forests, and recount what was there. Their names, meanings and value, as well as, how they structured their symbolic order. This is thanks to the work of Mphatheleni Makaulule, a social healer who has spearheaded the cultural resurgence in mutual accompaniment with elders, women, youth, and other Dzomo la Mupo members from different villages in Limpopo.

The process is a kind of recollective process that breaks from the illusion of a progressiveness myth of coloniality. Consequently, this process separates people from their ensnarement into this myth of extractive desires. This process brings on the fall of the other through encounter with its lack, or its been alienated when coming into being through the others language that ignites new possibilities.

Part of this process helps reconstitute indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world and imagine what can be resisted and co-created in South Africa’s postcolonial society, or perhaps more accurately speaking of the work is the creation of a world within many worlds as the supertasters say.

Nevertheless, an extractive industries are unrelenting and much effort is also directed at resisting new traditions through lobbying local leaders and actively attending public participatory processes. For instance, alternative spaces are created to map out the impacts of proposed industrial projects and the broader community to ensure that there are spaces where speech is not closed down.

So for instance, this photograph here is not only of this process of ecological mapping where people will walk sites to re-member and re-member themselves into the communities where they live. But these are also meetings that are created and sites of dialogue alongside public participatory processes that the mines organize to have projects approved.

So for instance, this kind of alternative mapping would be used then by legal organizations to feed into the process to ensure that these voices that are very often on the margins of the public participatory processes have an opportunity to speak.

Other kind of forms of accompaniment that take place also in relationship to media. So for instance, not only with legal organizations or issues brought to the fore, but also these proposed mining projects communities would often work with local media to bring the issues to the fore.

So those who are effectively resisting often do so for their well-being in their community and find strength hope and meaning in these solidarities.

As a community psychology practitioner, I recognize the importance of strategically witnessing and accompanying such struggles and would like to share a few personal examples. In my life, I’m approached by communities and others accompanying such struggles, such as legal organizations to document the impacts of mining.

My practice in the process of documentation and participation is always consensual. For example, I’ve worked with communities in South Africa’s Limpopo province witnessing their psychological relationship to place. And this significance of indigenous knowledge systems and solid psychological connections to place and identity despite historical land dispossessions that have taken place.

So for instance, in this process, I was invited to witness this process and to also walk alongside as these histories were documented to also feed these reports into the actual public participatory processes so there’s some kind of witnessing alongside with also community reports that were created from the ground up.

These processes of witnessing were also used in some of the legal cases or the legal arguments that were put forward to bring light to also how voices were being closed down for instance in the reports. What I do is not only witness the attachment to place, but also how in the process of public participation people are kept out of the process.

So for instance, through the securitization of public participatory processes. So the stopping people from attending these meetings, or the threats against environmental defenders, and so forth. So for instance, I have documented the violent process and psychological consequences of the dislocation from these ancestral lands to allow for the development of open-cast coal mines in South Africa province in Kwazulu-Natal as well.

So for instance, so this was in Limpopo. Another area where I’ve done work has been in Kwazulu-Natal, this is before on the left of a village, and afterwards very tangible kind of splintering of not any a splintering of the village but a complete wiping out of the community. And legal organizations as well as these kind of documentation process often bring to light. Very real processes of annihilation.

Some of the things that I do afterwards is recollect people’s experiences of these processes, but also what’s happening at the current moment in communities. So the very real experiences of environmental contamination. For instance, these photographs on the left is someone’s house, the infiltration and insidious infiltration of coal dust in one’s life.

And on the right-hand side, that’s a JoJo tank. So for instance, there’s no running water in some of these communities since mining has taken place and people rely on rainwater, then that’s stored. But also this rainwater is contaminated by coal dust. And I can go into this more but there’s reports that of ongoing process to document these and they’re are being used to also advocate for better conditions.

My process varies, but what is essential is the act of witnessing. Whereby, I listen to people’s experiences, particularly those that have been often silenced in this kind of process of public participation where there has or hasn’t been any. I usually begin by walking the land with them, listening to their stories, and recognizing the significance of these indigenous knowledges so that it can be better understood in the struggles and the depth of the impacts of mining have on people’s lives.

Often take photographs like these to show the relationship with place. For example, this image is a picture that’s been drawn by the indigenous beekeeper that I shared the testimony of before, mapping his connection between his identity, the relationship that he has with bees, and the ancestral obligations that he has as a healer.

The process centers on the psychological connection to place and may to some extent counter the pain and trauma of being forced into the language of others, seeks to witness what is often being alienated in the process. In addition, we discussed the process of adopting the language used in public participatory processes. So mapping out also what are people’s experiences of not being able to speak about what does their relationship to place mean.

Also, inquire about any threats encountered during such processes, whether directly meetings or perceived to be associated with broader process. I’ve come to recognize through these testimonies of others that the language and procedures used in these processes often prevent voices of communities from being heard must recognizing and silencing them. Incidents often involved extreme acts of silencing, such as acts of aggression and killings outside of meetings.

These situations are again examples of empty speech. To counter them, I pay close attention and document the engagement of this lack of subjectivity in the processes and interactions with mines. I formulate what is spoken into a report, which is then utilized by community through legal organizations representing them all through their own emergent processes.

As accompanying witness, my role is to give community members space to speak and find ways in which they can be application of voice, if any, that’s also a choice. There’s sometimes no need for any witnessing. For example, my report to act as evidence to support people’s resistance and challenge power structures, such as through advocacy.

Finally, the witnessing processes may empower community members to speak openly about the potential impacts of mining on their lives and future by recognizing the potential benefits as well as the intangible losses and compromises that would be made that can express the desire choice grounded in values sense of identity or vision for the future without the extreme pressures placed on themselves in these public participatory processes.

The end goal may be saying yes to mining, the end goal may be saying no. But the point here is that often in these processes the choice is closed on allowing person to speak freely and voiding closing down speech by asserting bias of opinion or desired outcome is crucial. As the act of listening and documenting brings to light, what is not permitted or misrepresented through these processes.

To ensure the contextual validity of my writing before the reports are released, I may gather with those who participated in the process. For example, the image above shows just one of the groups where we work through the kind of writing and we go line by line to see what can be said and what is unsayable.

So for instance, sometimes I’ll remove certain things as indigenous knowledge that cannot be in the public. And that’s also important process in itself as a researcher that not all knowledge is to be shared contrary I think to what we think is researchers.

I see consent for any information to be included in reports, where reports are offer recommendations. I also ask members who participate in the process to formulate their own recommendations– what do they want from the reports, what do they want in their own expertise.

In feeding back, I’ve been told as well that through this process, people often felt seen instead of the silence or exclusion that they felt before. [INAUDIBLE] fixed on reports use, even though I’m often, for instance, with legal organizations often asked to report on a particular thing. So for instance, the traumatic aspects that don’t recognize other experiences, but where I’ve given more freedom in the process.

So, my own documentation often just allow the reports to be in hand them over. So for instance, I was contacted once by a chief who said he was using the report as a formal process of land restitution. I believe such witnessing can amount to an act of full speech, which explains which forms the truth, such as it becomes established in the recognition of one person by another.

I believe that such approach is rooted in decolonial and psychoanalytic and analytic knowledge are critical to resisting capitalism and preventing further estrangement from the more than human world. As social scientists, we must be more active in documenting the psychopolitical threats to civic space and in strategizing together ways of resisting them and promoting other ways of being in the world, instead of perpetuating extractive dynamics, such as the traumatic process of land dispossession.

So I’ve described, a practices could be connected to community struggles and feed into processes that contest power. In an age where people are fighting for a viable future on this planet, gone is the luxury of being a neutral observer. In our reorientation, we can also learn from indigenous studies, decolonial theory, and radical psychologies to find new languages and ideas to name and contest colonial capitalism tactics, including the misuse and abuse of intimate lives.

Most importantly, we should be led by those resisting and asserting other ways of knowing and being in the world.

And that’s it. So, thank you for that. And instead of sharing my own context, which can be people can reach the Social Science Matrix and gain access to them. I’d like to share the website of Dzomo la Mupo if you’d like to find out more about their work. It’s very interesting. And the dollar goes a long way as well.

So maybe also just as I close, want to say thank you very much. And something that has stood out to me in the discussions that we had before, I had some time to kill and it was quite a privilege because I went to the art department just to go and walk around in it. And I saw a beautiful image by a first year MFA student– Jasmine Nyende

And I see this kind of theme everywhere, and she had a very nice vinyl piece of art called the Seeds of Resistance. And in her work, she wrote, the grief brought on the rain, the soil took it and made it fresh again.

And another image that stands out to me that we were speaking about earlier is as I was parking– I actually parked off campus, I can go to Moe’s and I looked at People’s Park and the kind of militarization around People’s Park and I know it’s a very contested issue on Berkeley campus. And then I think a lot of what we’re speaking about today about public participation and civic space is really important.

So also the new anti-poor policies that are emerging in California. And also the experiences of psychosis in the city. And how very often this connection with place is so important and often overlooked and what does that mean for subjectivity in the city. So, thanks very much, and I appreciate the time.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Yeah, thank you.

I really like the point that you brought up about pathologizing like humans, just in general, looking at– for example, mental health and looking at people in terms of what’s wrong with them. And instead maybe being, well, what are the external factors that are leading to this? I don’t think it’s widely talked about, but I have seen different videos and different academics address that.

What are the effects of capitalism on– for example, Gen Z? For example, it’s this idea of I don’t dream of labor. I dream of a life. I want to live and I want to do different things beyond just working a 9:00 to 5:00 job. Just working until I retire and hopefully I get up for one– like, all these different things, these factors which are needed in order to survive in this capitalistic society.

And then I was thinking about some of the stuff that you were saying about community and disengaging it from– it’s almost original intent. I grew up in Mexico. And one thing that I’ve noticed in the US, not so much in the Bay Area necessarily, but for example, undergraduate I went to UCLA and spaces– common spaces. You go to Westwood which is like the college town of UCLA, there’s really no place to gather.

There’s no bar– I mean, there’s bars, but the places are like disengaged. It’s really weird. There’s no real sense of community. And I’ve noticed in the US in general, common spaces don’t really feel that used, it doesn’t feel like people are– I don’t know how to explain it– like they’re not living in that place so much.

You go to a park in Mexico, for example, in Mexico City, people are doing Zumba at 6:00 PM, or people are eating tacos, or people are talking, people are socializing. Like, there’s a need for that space. And here sometimes maybe I’m making a real broad generalization, but sometimes it feels like it’s so disconnected.

People just don’t really engage with that. Or even something as simple as going to a job and all this and having a lunch break, maybe it doesn’t happen so much in academia. But let’s say a minimum wage job. You say, OK, I’m going to go take my lunch break. It’s disconnected. You don’t go take your lunch break– maybe you might, but typically, you might not take it with your coworkers.

Whereas in Mexico, lunch break is a big thing. You take an hour, you go out to your favorite taco stand, everyone talks. I don’t know how to say it, like there’s more engagement with people. And I’ve noticed here in the US and maybe in general with capitalistic societies, it’s there’s a little bit of a distance between humans, like us in general. I know, sorry that was so long winded, but yeah.

[GARRET BARNWELL] No, I really appreciate that comment. And as an outsider, I’m not an American. You can probably hear with my accent. [LAUGHS] Yeah, and I experienced that in some way as well. And Lacon speaks about the social bond. Being this really important part that of who we are.

And I think that’s what’s quite nice about the case of Dzomo la Mupo is the reconstitution of that social bond. How do we reconstitute it in these different spaces despite the kind of places where we find ourselves in, as people who aren’t from necessarily the place where we are now. And yeah, and what are these other spaces that we able to create and dream of?

And yeah, so I appreciate that comment. Very much. I had a thought but I’m going to compliment. I’ll come back to it. Appreciate that.

Yeah. And also that there’s an active kind of severing of that social bond as well that is very often quite insidious. So in public participatory processes, for instance, is there really the option of that the creation of that social bond is as I understand the social spaces that would be really to create some sense of social contract. What does it mean for me in the establishment of a new project in my community?

And that’s often closed down. So, yeah, really, really interesting. Cool.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you very much, Dr. Barnwell. I have two questions for you.


So, I’m curious to know just around the question of, what it means to heal based on the understandings of your interlocutors? And how your interlocutors have defined their sense of indigenous healing? And what it looks like for them to enact their own personal understandings of healing outside of the necessity to require recognition by these hegemonic institutions?

And we talk a lot about the effects of the language of the other. But when people are trying to heal on their own terms, what does the language of the self or the language of the greater look like in these conversations that you’ve had? And then the second is with regards to just a more– I guess methodological question around the use of psychoanalytic theory.

So, I’m curious to know– I know, I mean, obviously we’ve engaged a lot on your work and that you have a keen interest in psychoanalysis. And I’m curious to know based on your training and also the different dynamics that are going on within this place religious, economic, political, historical, what psychoanalysis offers in trying to understand these dynamics of historical trauma and recognition?

And if there are limitations, especially when you engage with these worldviews that are grounded in indigenous epistemologies or especially understandings of ancestral cosmology as well. So, yeah. What does psychoanalysis afford? And if you’ve seen its limitations, especially when you engage with contexts that– presumably outside of psychoanalytic thought? If at all, thanks.

[GARRET BARNWELL] Yeah, really good questions. I’ll start with loss when– first, so just in terms of methodology, there’s so much that’s actually challenging. So, I would say there’s often a use– it depends on what space and who you’re speaking to. So for instance, in the legal process, what’s hard is that you often have to speak a very clinical language.

So the screeners and stuff– so quantifying things to a certain extent. So with the work, with legal organizations would be using a screener because there needs to be in some way measured. Thank goodness that the impacts of land dispossession are very measurable because the key feature of post-traumatic stress that I didn’t speak about in this presentation is. It can be experienced directly, witnessed, or heard of. So that’s the criteria for it.

And it would be a horror, a kind of physical violence or horror. So with the experience of land dispossession, what we’re speaking about just that testimony alone meets the criteria for it. But in that sense, I have to speak the clinical language and make it translatable. There’s this issue of translatability for the court or for that really speaks to a very biomedical language.

So, and that’s– I think in some ways strategic. And maybe this speaks to the other question where there is also the use of language. It’s not a completely a separate way of relating to language, but there is also a very strategic use of speaking the language of public participation.

So, a lot of what is done is there’ll be– so for instance with like both these case in Kwazulu-Natal, the resisting of coal mining versus the first recollective process that we’ll be using the language of human rights, for instance. There will be teachings as such. And thank goodness to South Africa.

And you know, what interesting with the work in California on the historical impacts of colonialism here? There’s very progressive language around human rights, the intergenerationality of it as well so. And then we’re talking about a postcolonial setting as well, where you can’t– it’s not– what’s the word– atavistic, where the gaze of the colonial others to in some way crystallize the image in the past.

What we’re talking about is really progressive struggles, which are very integrated. And maybe I’m speaking quite abstractly, but there is also the melding of different kind of ways of being in the world, that the escapes that gaze, yet there’s a use of it as well at times and there’s a tension there.

What was so surprising for me as well was– like working with Dzomo la Mupo, for instance, is the discussions that happen behind the scenes, with Mphatheleni, for instance, she was teaching me about psychology, and teaching me about what’s in the forefront of thoughts in psychology, and this kind of place attachment and stuff like that. So, I think that there’s not so much of a dichotomous kind of knowledge, there’s actually a very productive space where thing.

And then there’s very serious limitations in psychoanalysis and psychology as well to describe different experiences. And I need more time to think about that but I think what is productive is using what we have. And the nice thing is in psychoanalysis, this knowledge that comes from these different spaces.

So, thinking about Frantz Fanon, thinking about liberation psychology that comes from Latin America , where there is very interesting people that are doing really important things where they are looking– they’re not– like, I’m looking at Lacan that there’s people that are doing very interesting things coming at psychoanalysis. Reading Lacan through Fanon.

So not approaching decolonial theory through Lacan, which– I don’t know– I’m speaking about abstractly. But I think it matters where you also speak from that locus of enunciation. And yeah, so who you cite.

Yeah, thank you. Thank you very much for the opportunity.



Matrix On Point

Surveillance and Privacy in a Biometric World


As governments and businesses begin to use more forms of biometric identification – including fingerprints, facial recognition, and voice recognition, among others – it’s easier than ever to recognize a person. What implications do these technologies have on the future of privacy and surveillance?

Recorded on February 15, 2024, this Matrix on Point panel featured scholars offering perspectives on how biometric identification might change our understanding of the relationship between people, private industry, and their government. The panel featured John Chuang, Professor in the UC Berkeley School of Information; Lawrence Cohen, Professor in Anthropology and South and Southeast Asian Studies and the co-director of the Medical Anthropology Program; and Jennifer Urban, Clinical Professor of Law at Berkeley Law, who is Director of Policy Initiatives at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic and a co-faculty director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. The panel was moderated by Rebecca Wexler, Assistant Professor of Law at Berkeley Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology.

Co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley School of Law, the Center for the Study of Law and Society, the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, & Society, the Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, and the UC Berkeley School of Information

Matrix On Point is a discussion series promoting focused, cross-disciplinary conversations on today’s most pressing issues. Offering opportunities for scholarly exchange and interaction, each Matrix On Point features the perspectives of leading scholars and specialists from different disciplines, followed by an open conversation. These thought-provoking events are free and open to the public.


[JULIA SIZEK] Hello, everyone. I’m Julia Sizek. I’m the postdoc here at the Social Science Matrix. Welcome to our event today, which is Surveillance and Privacy in a Biometric World.

So today’s event is part of our Matrix on Point series, when we address contemporary issues, including how technologies, from fingerprint to retina scans and facial recognition, are shaping our world.

These technologies, as you all know, have become both mundane and exceptional. You use them to open your phone. But they’re also subject to fierce public debate. They’re used to surveil pedestrians and drivers in places like San Diego, but they are banned in many municipalities around the Bay Area, including Berkeley, where we are today.

So we asked some experts here, to understand how these technologies have already changed our lives, and how they might be shaping our future. This event that we have today is co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley School of Law, the Center for the Study of Law and Society, and the Center for Science Technology Medicine and Society.

So, before we get started, I’m just going to tell you about a couple of our upcoming events here at Matrix. We have many in the next couple of weeks. So, next week, or later this– yeah. Next week, we will be having Sharad Goel, who will be talking about included variable bias. On March 4, we will be discussing the new book, Terracene, by ethnic studies scholar, Salar Mameni.

On March 7, Dana-Ain Davis will be coming to discuss Black women and obstetric racism. And then on March 11, we’ll be having a panel on storytelling and the climate crisis. And finally, on March 18, we’ll be having an event on conservatorship in California.

In addition to these events, we do have other events that will be coming up at the end of the semester. So if you want to find out about any of those events, you can sign up for our newsletter, follow us on X, formerly known as Twitter, or you can also just look at our website.

So now, as we transition back to the event that we’re going to be having today, I will introduce our moderator, Rebecca Wexler. Rebecca Wexler’s teaching and research focused on data technology and secrecy in the criminal legal system, with a particular focus on evidence law, trade secret law, and data privacy.

Her scholarship has appeared, or is forthcoming in the Harvard Law Review, Stanford Law Review, Yale Law Journal forum, NYU Law Review, UCLA Law Review, Texas Law Review, Vanderbilt Law Review, and the Berkeley Technology Law Journal.

Wexler will serve as the senior policy advisor at the White House Office of Technology policy, or, I guess, previously did, last year, in spring 2023. And then was a visiting professor at Columbia Law last fall. So with no more further ado, I will turn it over to Rebecca.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Thank you so much, Julia. And thanks to everybody for coming. I want to say, actually, I think, Julia, this is one of the most well organized panels that I have ever joined. I’m really excited to be here with a wonderful group of speakers. We had a brief meeting in advance to prepare. And I can assure you that it’s a rich group of interdisciplinary scholars, coming from very different perspectives on some important issues.

So, John Chuang is a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, right here. His research and teaching span areas of climate informatics, biosensory computing, incentive-centered design. He leads the BioSENSE lab in studying brainwave authentication using passthoughts. I’m not sure what passthoughts are, but I’m very excited to hear about it. Effective biosensing, embodied decision making, and privacy of ubiquitous sensing.

His earlier work investigated strategic cybersecurity investments, incentives for pure production and scalability of multicast trees. So he has a PhD in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University, an MS in electrical engineering from Stanford University, graduated summa cum laude in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. And maybe, actually, what I’ll do is, I’ll introduce the speakers right before you talk. So let’s just start with you, John.

[JOHN CHUANG] Thank you, Rebecca, for your introduction. So, maybe to answer Rebecca’s question about passthoughts, which I’m not going to talk about today. The idea is to replace passwords, for which we have a love/hate relationship, with something else. Instead of typing in your passwords, you will think your secret thought. And you use that to authenticate yourself to your phone, to your computer, whatever systems that you might be interested in.

And of course, not only are there technical considerations there, there are also lots of other social issues, privacy issues, surveillance issues that we can imagine if we were to start using our brainwaves for authentication or other purposes. But that’s a digression. I hope you’re not counting that against my 15 minutes.

Thank you. What I would like to share with you today is some thoughts on limits of privacy in the context of biosurveillance. So, biosignals– meaning, signals that come out of our human bodies– are distinctive in several different ways. They are expensive in scope. We see lots of examples here.

They are intimate, yet leakable. They are precise, yet ambiguous. Familiar yet unverifiable. And finally, probably most importantly in this context, they are of limited controllability.

We also live in a society now, where sensing devices are already ubiquitous in both public and private life. And they form this constellation of tracking infrastructure that can detect and influence our behavior. This is what Zuboff describes as the Big Other. What I’d like to share with you today, as part of this panel, is a study that we called Covert Embodied Choice.

We look to study how a combination of physiological sensing and machine learning may enable us to make predictions of humans, about their future behavior. And perhaps even more importantly, we want to study how effective are individuals at evading these systems when they are explicitly made aware of these adversarial tracking going on.

So we designed an experimental study to ask these questions. To what extent do biosignals, like eye gaze or micro motor movements from our body, predict our intentions? What strategies might be employed by participants in our study when instructed to make unpredictable decisions, knowing that they are being tracked?

How well do their intuitions about the tracking dynamics, and how to evade them, might, in fact, align with modern technology? How effective are their employed strategies at maintaining their privacy of intent? Or in other words, do their strategies work?

So we designed a task where our participants, like the person shown in that photograph, play a virtual card matching game, as you see in the picture in the bottom right. And while they are performing playing this game, we have a virtual adversary that is tracking their biosignals, specifically their eye gaze in the headset, their head position, their head movement, their hand movement as they are holding onto that controller in their hand, as well as their skin conductance, which is measured using what looks like a wristwatch.

And the virtual adversary, with these collected biosignals, attempts to make a prediction of what action is the participant going to take in terms of which of those two cards on the table that they are going to draw from.

So from the participant’s point of view, their tasks are as follows. Number one, during a decision phase, look at the two cards on the table. Make a decision, which of those two cards, when combined with the two cards in their hand in front of them, will form a complete set according to some criteria. After that initial decision phase, they then perform the actual action of picking up their chosen card. And they’re asked to perform the task while keeping the adversary from being able to correctly predict which of the two cards on the table, they’re going to choose.

So we have 55 participants in our study. Each one of them underwent 44 trials. You see here, a schematic. Each trial comprised of a decision phase lasting 10 seconds, during which their behavior is being tracked by the adversary, followed by 3 seconds of a selection phase, where they then actually use the controller to reach out and grab the card that they have chosen.

In the middle of the experiments, they are informed of the presence of an adversary. But prior to that, in the pre-adversary trials, they were not informed of the presence of the adversary. So their task was simply to choose the card that matches the hand that they have. But once they have been informed in the middle of the experiment, then they are now instructed to try to limit the ability for the prediction to be made accurately.

Let me show you some examples of how we may visualize the type of data that can be collected by the adversarial system. What you see here are micro-motor signals, essentially captured through the motion of the hand controller that these participants are using to navigate in this virtual environment.

On the top row, you see three graphs, where the magenta colors corresponds to the card on the left that they decide to choose, versus the blue, the card on the right. And you see that there are clear distinctions across these three metrics in terms of the trajectory of the controller in the first graph, the final position of the controller at the end of that 10 second phase, and then the final velocity of that controller.

And you can see, based on the two colors, that there is a very clear distinction when they ultimately chose to select the card on the left or the card on the right. Their behavior prior to the selection is easily distinguishable, even by just visual inspection.

The bottom row corresponds to the post-adversary trials. So at this point, we can see that participants are now attempting to engage in strategies to hide, or to obfuscate their behavior. In this particular context, you see that perhaps it is harder for us by visual inspection to make distinctions. But there are still certain metrics, such as the one in the bottom right, the final controller velocity, that we could still quite easily see the distinction between the card choice and our behavior.

So this is one type of data that we are able to track using existing commercial, off-the-shelf sensor technologies. Here is a second stream of data that we collected. This corresponds to the eye gaze data through the eye trackers that’s built into these virtual reality headsets.

What we see here are fixation data of three selected participants in the three columns. For each of the three participants, we show their fixation duration, as well as fixation sequence across the 44 trials that are sequenced from top to bottom. If we focus for now on the top row, we see the green lines corresponding to the total fixation in seconds on the cart that they ultimately chose, versus the blue, total fixation in seconds of the cart that they did not choose.

The red dotted line in the middle is where they transition from a pre-adversary phase to a post-adversary phase. So, for example, we can now look at the first column. And we see that for this particular participant, prior to being informed of the presence of an adversary, they spend a lot more time on fixating on the cart that they ultimately choose.

Once we cross that dotted red line to now being aware of the adversary, you see a reversal. So, they are, in fact, attempting to now fixate more on the other card, hoping that will confuse the adversary. But nonetheless, in fact, they’ve compensated in the other way, such that now they are consistently looking at the other card.

The second participant in the middle, pre-adversary, very similar behavior. You see that, in the second half, they are trying to dampen their behavior, they are trying to reduce the gap between how much time they are fixating on one or the other. But if you turn to the bottom graph, the middle bottom graph, where now here we are showing the specific objects that they are fixating on. Across all these trials, across the 10 seconds, you’ll see– oops. Sorry.

You will see, on here, that they, nonetheless, end up, at the end of the 10 seconds, fixating on using their eyes on the card that they’re going to choose. So while they are trying to dampen the behavior over the entire 10 seconds, what their behavior is at the very end of that 10 seconds still is highly consistent and predictable.

Finally, the third participant, pre-adversary, if you look at the top, it appears to be quite random. But in fact, they appear to overcompensate after the transition, to a point where now they are consistently looking at the other card. And for a system to be able to recognize that that’s a strategy that they are undertaking, that becomes a very reliable signal for a system.

So if we take a step back and apply all these data, run it through a very standard, simple machine learning algorithms, we see that the data that we’re able to collect are actually highly predictive of choice, both pre-adversary, as well as post-adversary. So even as participants attempt to evade tracking, their behavior is still going to be quite predictable. In fact, some participants end up becoming even more predictable in the second half.

Just as importantly, in post-experiment surveys and interviews, we found that 60% of respondents believed that they were, in fact, able to influence the adversary’s ability of prediction. So I’ll finish with just a couple of takeaways for us, as researchers, from undertaking this study.

The first is that, I think what this study taught us is that if we go out and consider interventions out there, such as surveillance warning symbols. All they are doing is simply punting the responsibility to the individuals, and asking the individuals to make the right decisions, when, in fact, as we see in this one specific instance, that not all individuals have a nuanced understanding about what are the capabilities of the technologies, the sensors, and the algorithms. And neither should they have to.

Secondly, we also recognize that what we are starting here is only just one snapshot of a moving target. There are, in fact, signals hidden within the raw data. And those signals can, in fact, evolve when new algorithms are proposed, when new users are recruited into the population of data subjects, and new additional sources that can be fused, integrated with the set of existing data.

So the sensitivity arises not only just from this data that we’ve collected, or that can be collected by similar systems, not just– outside of our study. But also then what can be done with this data over time, down the road, in the future, as more sophisticated algorithms become available when the data sets become more comprehensive. So with that, I will stop, and I will turn over to Rebecca.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Thank you so much. Fascinating. Yeah. The graphs are– I wonder what I would do in your lab, in your circumstance. All right. Next up, we have Lawrence Cohen, a scholar of religion and medical anthropologist. Much of his work has focused on the norms and forms of political life in India, attending to questions of old age and the place of the family in the decolonization of knowledge, to the sexual and gendered logics of backwardness, and to the mediation and regulation of markets and human organs as sites to think about ethics as popular culture.

So, for the past decade, he’s studied contending models of biometrics and big data in the control and governance of economy and society with a focus on India’s massive Aadhaar. Aadhaar? Identification project. And do you have slides as well? OK.

[LAWRENCE COHEN] It’s an honor to be here. I find, since I study large technological objects that matter in people’s lives, that, no matter where I talk about this, people in the audience tend to know a lot more. So I’m looking forward to conversation.

So at a range of times, but particularly in the late 1990s, several groups within the government of India decided that India needed a more powerful national ID card. Actually, I shouldn’t say “card,” because the material status of the object was in question. Think of your Social Security number, which operates virtually, versus your driver’s license in the US, which operates as a thing. Very different ontologies of national ID-ness.

So, broadly– and I’m going to be simplistic because of time. And this talk will end like a litany. In an hour, I will be told the time is over, and it will stop. Let’s see how far I can get.

So, India and Pakistan have a much celebrated and popular film war in 1999 on a glacier in divided and multiple acclaimed Kashmir, the so-called Kargil war. On the Indian side, the Kargil review committee is formed to think about future questions of security. The focus is quickly on the need for a national ID card. And the focus of that card is early on focused on something like citizenship, on a differentiation between who are real citizens, and who are persons claiming to be citizens, presumptively, from the other side of the Kashmir line of control.

Around the same time, in a very different world, but also using the same keyword that is biometrics– and biometrics functions in these debates, something like a floating signifier. No one quite knows what it is. It doesn’t matter for the debates. It’s something powerful. We have a sense, fingers, eyes. The history of the fingerprint, of course, is bound up to colonial India and its governance.

So a new biometrics is going to secure the nation. So in the finance world, particularly in the erstwhile planning commission of India, but particularly tied to the growing influence of South Indian tech capital on the planning commission, there is a debate over how to rationalize population health.

To put it very crudely, the question for both the government and the engineers, who become increasingly influential, is, why are we not China? That is, why are we not, despite having the global language of rule, economically positioned for a transforming economy? And the answer, crudely, is population health. And the presumption is something that, increasingly, at the end of the 20th century, becomes, again, animated as corruption across Indian public culture.

And a group of engineers, in this case, tied to perhaps the most important group in the developing of a global outsourcing economy, that is Infosys, the corporation, and particularly one of its founders, Nandan Nilekani, have an idea for how to govern and rationalize the distribution of goods in India.

Now, Infosys is a service company. It’s category central to a shifting economy of service. And Infosys supplies that category of service to what governments, as well as what private capital does. It distributes service.

And what’s interesting, since we’re sitting in a hall of social theory and social science, is that you could argue that much of the social science of the past 150 years has focused on things like wage, things like welfare, things as a kind of gift, things like credit and economies of debt, and things like products and questions of production.

Service collapses all these. Service is anything that is a good that can be distributed, whether it is credit for the poor or the financialization of the poor, whether it is wage, the rationalization of wage economies, whether, chiefly, it is welfare, or whether the hope would be that all products would be tied to securing the customer. This was tied, of course, to the shift to know your customer norms across a range of global finance institutions.

The point is that you have these two debates happening simultaneously, across the government of India, and a range of private capital, global and Indian concerns. And they lead to two very different visions of what national security should look like.

The defense vision eventually leads to something called the National Population Register, NPR. And broadly, because, again, it comes out of the Kargil committee, it’s focused upon– oh, shoot. 5 minutes. More information. We want to know more about you, where you belong, et cetera, et cetera. We want more data fields.

The engineers had a very different– I’m sorry. The engineers of Infosys had a very different understanding. One of the founders said, we want to know nothing about you. We wanted your fingerprints. We wanted a random number. And there were a range of reasons for this. But partially, they had a sense that if this was going to be an uncorruptible system.

If it could not be corrupted by, say, low level babus. that is, bureaucrats extracting value or corruption from service seekers– we had to produce something that would be radically mobile, which knew nothing about you. Their vision of a citizen was of someone who might be making false claims on service, getting more gas cylinders for their household, et cetera. But fundamentally is someone who we want to rationalize service delivery to by getting rid of fake claimants, as opposed to fake citizens.

I won’t go through the history of both fingerprint and eye scans here. One of the problems of this was scaling up. In both cases, the architects of NPR and of Aadhaar, which means basis, or foundation– and it was the foundation of a new kind of political subject– was rooted. So, again, for NPR, the focus begins with border security. It begins, that is, as a problem of citizenship, and the fake citizen. But scaling up is tied to piggybacking this on the census, which is a residency measure.

So the question of who is the subject of this new national biometrics, is it a citizen, or is it any resident of the country, is caught in a certain contradiction built into the question of scale.

For Aadhaar, the question was always a resident, in part because there was no legal authority to this giant edifice, but also because it was trying to imagine a subject that had no name, that had no history, that had no biography, was purely measured by its biometrics. And the engineers said, we want to know nothing about you. And this became central.

But at the same time, access to any life-giving good, what people tend to understand as rights as citizens, was crucially tied to possessing the card. So it became an inexorable demand on citizenship.

Now, very, very briefly, what the engineers offered was a sense that this knew nothing about you. We can only tell any given entity that you are you. So, say, any given distributing of, say, hot lunch programs for children, or college scholarships, or cattle fodder. You will come to that entity, will proffer your fingerprint or eye scan. And all that will be returned is a yes or a no. And that is all that we offer.

Now, that turns out not to be the case in practice. So critiques of it are emerged, they are of basically two kinds. One focus upon the extent to which this program succeeds, and it’s a mixed bag. And the concern there is some kind of Big Brother. It’s privacy concerns regarding the state’s knowledge. I’ll come back to that if I have time. But the more immediate concerns– and these all get highly publicized by a shifting economy of media news– are focused upon the problem of fingerprints.

They erode. They erode with age. They erode with certain illnesses. They erode with environmental exposures. And a range of privacy concerns. So for example, take one famous example, persons getting funding for AIDS medications. There were several reports with Aadhaar in the 2010s, that there were diminished numbers of people beginning to apply for medication programs because they were afraid of the social stigma of this being known. Because of rumors around Aadhaar’s leakage as a privacy interest.

So there were real hacks, which do occur, despite the failsafe nature, which were heavily publicized. But there’s also this fear of imagined attacks. I won’t go, because of time, litigation debates. They have focused upon the question that says, no legal authority has now, since 2016, been established. It is focused upon the fact that there was no right to privacy. And the Supreme Court had to guarantee this, which it did.

And it focused upon the complex question of Aadhaar not being necessary legally, and yet being necessary practically. It’s after 2014, that thing changes. If there are two very different visions of national security, what happens– very briefly, and I can talk about this– is that they collapsed together. And they collapsed together in very interesting ways.

And we can discuss this through the shift in the law. Finally, this was given legal authority in 2016. And in part, like the NPR, the government is now enabled to attach more than it feels– but also, there is now a legal right to any entity that’s approved by the state to have access to the, quote, “demographic information,” not to the core biometrics, which are literally your biometric scans. Those are reserved for national security interests.

But what we see here is a collapsing together of two very different figures of the political subject. And in questions, I can talk about probably the greatest concern in Indian popular discourse now, particularly on the left, which is the expansion of the former National Population Register, in a contested effort to disenfranchise very large numbers of India’s Muslims. So I will stop there. Time is up, I think. Thanks.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Thank you so much. Super interesting history. And I’m excited to talk about it in Q&A. And then for our final speaker, we have Jennifer Urban, a clinical professor of law at Berkeley School of Law, where she is Director of Policy Initiatives at the Samuelson Law Technology and Public Policy Clinic, and co-faculty director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology.

In March 2021, Urban was appointed by California Governor, Gavin Newsom, to the inaugural chair of the California Privacy Protection Agency board. Prior to joining Berkeley Law, Professor Urban founded and directed the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. And before that, she was the Samuelson clinic’s first fellow. Samuelson clinic in the Berkeley Law School, here down the street. And an attorney with the Venture Law Group in Silicon Valley. So she has a BA in biological science from Cornell, and a JD from Berkeley Law.

[JENNIFER URBAN] I’m Jennifer Urban. I’m really delighted to be here from the law school, to talk with a bunch of fantastic social scientists. I’m going to make one point only, in three steps. The point is very simple, and probably simplistic, but I don’t think it’s a problem that we have solved, so I would like to talk about it, which is that the rise in biometrics has provided a chance to think more fully about privacy as a society, and especially the legal parameters around society.

It’s a new chance because of special features of biometrics, which I will talk about, which will be familiar to many of you, whether or not you study them. Just by thinking about them. They are unchangeable. They are tied to your body. They fail very, very, very badly for these reasons. And that changes the conversation about biometrics to some degree.

The steps are, just to say a little bit about the temptation of using biometrics, which is extreme, and the controversy, which both Lawrence and John talked about in different ways. I mean, I think your subjects, John, were trying really hard to beat the adversary, and couldn’t do it. But they wanted to beat the adversary. And of course, there’s been a lot of social controversy in India, about Aadhaar.

And then talking about legal options that we traditionally have in the US, and how they match or don’t match with biometrics, and how biometrics legal solutions, quote, unquote, “have been different.” And then finally, what can we learn from this?

So before I talk about anything substantive, I do need to give my disclaimer. Anything I say represents only my own views, not the views of the California Privacy Protection Agency, or its board. And I think the University of California is also starting to ask us to say that for the university as well. So it’s just me up here.

All right. So I want to start with an example of a temptation, Has anybody used when you were filing your taxes? A couple of you. Did you use the face recognition thing? You did. Did you use the face recognition, or did you do the Zoom option? Yeah.

So, two, three years ago, the IRS started requiring for you to electronically file your tax returns to use a third-party company called, ID dot me, to use a face recognition supposedly for authentication. So, one-to-one matching. I use this example because it already tells you there was an uproar and a controversy about it.

And the IRS said, within a month or so, that it was going to stop using facial recognition, there was that big of a backlash from the public. And the House Oversight Committee started looking at this, and started looking at the company. The Senate looked at it as well. Senator Wyden looked at it.

And yet, a year after the outcry, the IRS was still using Although, you have– apparently, when they said they would stop using facial recognition, what they meant was that you could have a Zoom call with an employee. And they could verify you over Zoom, rather than having to give them the photograph.

The IRS got more attention about this last year. got more attention. Senator Wyden, a few months ago, sent a letter complaining about their what he said were deceptive statements, that they did not do one-to-many matching, which is much more risky than one-to-one authentication that they do.

In any case, my husband went to do his 1099s in January, and he still had to use with the IRS. So the IRS is still using this. It is a very beguiling technology.

Similarly, we know that facial recognition identification is enormously risky, and it is enormously risky, especially for certain populations because the technology itself is biased in terms of when it is accurate, and when it is not. So we now have a number of Black men who are less likely to be accurately identified, who have been wrongfully arrested, sometimes stayed in jail. Presumably, we know that many of these cases have been dismissed. We don’t know if all of them have.

And in any case, they have had this interaction with the state because this technology is biased and inaccurate. And yet, it is very popular. This is just a slide that shows, under the law enforcement and immigration, and so forth, umbrella, the agencies, at a minimum, who use facial recognition technology and other biometrics. And GAO has a complaint that they haven’t fulfilled their privacy requirements perfectly with facial recognition.

These are other federal databases, just to give a sense that it’s not just facial recognition. IDENT/HART, they’ve collected a lot of different kinds of biometrics for a long time. They’ve come under fire from the Government Accountability Office as well, for this. But it is very much embedded in the government at this point.

Similarly, as you know, it’s in your phone. But it’s in a lot of places. It’s seen to be something that is very attractive. So it’s very tempting. And yet, it has inspired enough of a backlash that the IRS at least gives you another option now. And that is a little bit unusual for some of these debates. And so I want to talk a little bit about why I think that is.

So, if we were to decide to, as a society, address this legally, what would be our usual options? In the United States, our privacy law has generally been sectoral, by which I mean it is focused almost always on, until recently, a specific area. So, HIPAA focuses on health information. The Video Privacy Protection Act focuses on video rental records. And we have not traditionally had a very comprehensive law that just covers people’s personal information in a lot of situations. We do in California now. But in any case, that is the tradition.

It’s also– and this is perhaps the more important thing– individual, individualistic, starting from the 1970s, but morphed through our system, and our theory of market-based incentives and choices. For decades, the United States has operated on this idea of notice and choice. Meaning that a company will give you notice of what they’re planning to do with your personal information, and you will make a choice.

And in reality, as you all know, it takes– have you read privacy policies? Have you tried to read privacy policies? Have you tried to make a choice, at least prior to the comprehensive privacy laws that we have now in California, and a few other states. The choice is, well, you go to another company. And that has been something that meant that, at least on the private side– we can talk about government actors in Q&A, if you’d like. But at least on the private side, there have been very little overt controls on the use, selling, profiting from personal information, however you would like to define that.

But biometric privacy laws are different. At least, I think they’re different. I’m really interested in what Mr. Wool thinks. They are a handful of them now. This is sectoral, obviously. It’s focused on biometrics. Illinois is the one I’m going to talk about, specifically because it was the first one, 2008. And it is, I think, one of the most interesting, because it is very different from other privacy laws, consumer privacy laws in the United States up to that point, and even including today.

So it has a few features. One is, first of all, it’s opt-in, meaning that companies cannot take your biometric information unless you affirmatively tell them in advance. Almost all of the rubrics are opt-out, meaning that your information is taken, and then– you may have seen this. You can opt-out under California’s law, in certain ways, for certain things. You send an opt-out, and the company does have to opt you out now. And that’s pretty new.

But this biometric information law in Illinois, it’s opt-in. It also has genuine data retention time limits. So they actually have to limit how long they keep the data to the length of time where they actually need to use it, or three years. And that is very rare in American laws, the idea that you actually have to delete the data.

And very importantly, it has a private right of action, meaning that individual people can sue. And that is really, really very rare. California has a private right of action for certain data– excuse me. Certain data breaches. But for the most part, privacy laws are enforced. Consumer privacy laws are enforced by attorneys general, and in California, also, the agency that I’m on the board for.

So, private right of action. And this has turned out to be very important. It’s really important because you get class actions that can enforce the law. So you have a strong law, and you have a societal mechanism to enforce the law, that looks very different from previous iterations. And you end up with case law that, for example, a recent case from the Illinois Supreme Court, says, that every single time they copy and pass on your biometric information, that is a violation. Those violations are $1,000, if negligent. $5,000 apiece, if there’s a higher standard of knowledge and fault there.

And it’s resulted in settlements that are 200 and something million dollars, 600 and something million dollars against Facebook, which is something that actually could make a real difference in terms of change.

Secondly, as Julia mentioned at the top of the hour, various municipalities, counties, one state, at least, Vermont, have completely banned facial recognition. This is also very different from the way that we have generally treated privacy issues in the United States. It’s usually government and/or law enforcement. So, law enforcement first, then law enforcement and government, are subject to these facial recognition bans. They can’t use facial recognition in these various jurisdictions. And it’s dozens and dozens of them, if you count municipalities.

But the FTC, just recently, actually, in a settlement agreement with Rite Aid pharmacy, has banned Rite Aid pharmacy from using facial recognition for five years because they were not using it responsibly. So this is very different from the notice and choice regime, where everything goes, unless you choose another vendor.

And I think this is really interesting. Well, I’m a lawyer, so I think it’s really interesting. But I wonder why that is. And I wonder what we can learn from this? And I don’t know why it is, really, which is why I think that one of the most important things we can learn from this, is the importance of interdisciplinarity, and having collaborations between lawyers, people like John, and people like Lawrence, who can give a textured description of what people are doing, how they’re interacting with these technologies, how they’re thinking of it on a societal level, so that we can address it with legal tools in a way that is responsive to society.

But what I would like to consider researching to see if it are the reasons, is that all of the things that we hear about biometrics in terms of their level of risk, are things that make them very– they make them somewhat unusual in terms of how people respond to them with regard to privacy. And that includes both the public, and also, people like policymakers, who have, in 2008, Illinois, decided to pass this law, who had done things where they have in other spaces. And that is, they are persistent, they are tied inextricably to our bodies, they don’t change easily. The ACLU says you can’t change your face. You can’t change your face. But your face and your body are inextricably tied, for most people, to their identity. And I mean that in a more philosophical sense, not just in the sense that we usually think about it with regards to privacy law and their sense of autonomy.

So these are reasons why biometrics is especially risky. It’s why it fails very badly. I have one of those diseases that makes my fingerprints iffy. And TSA doesn’t even know if I exist. They just can’t decide. Because my fingerprints don’t scan very well. And so somebody else could put their fingerprints in, and then I’m in big trouble, because they’re seen to be so effective. So, they fail badly. But they’re also deeply connected to us, in a way that I think data shadows are.

I find data shadows to be as revealing, in many ways. Certainly persistent. Certainly something worthy of protection. But it’s much more abstract. And I would like to see biometrics as an opportunity to think more fully about where we’re going with privacy law, and with privacy policy more generally. That said, I don’t think we have very long to talk about it, because it may not seem so good very soon.


I understand that facial recognition is a very vulnerable to deepfakes. Voice recognition, maybe less so, but maybe will be soon. What is the answer to this? Well, it could be, maybe we back out of the biometrics world a little bit. But often the answer that I’ve been seeing, certainly from industry, is back to what the Wall Street Journal said. And you just add more biometrics on.

So, add blood flow. Add heart rate. Add thought– thoughts. So that we can defeat the deepfakes by getting further into the world of biometrics, which leaves us in a really serious societal conversation about this issue. So I look forward to the discussion. Thanks for listening to a lawyer. And I appreciate it.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Thank you so much. Would the panelists come back, please? Well, all three of those were wonderful presentations. And I thought, one question I wanted to start with– and we have lots of time for Q&A. Thank you to all three of you for being so prompt with your time, so that we really can have engagement with all of you in the room who’ve come to spend your time with us.

The first question I wanted to ask is about the accuracy of the technology. So, in all three of your presentations. John, you were talking about people trying to defeat the detectors. And it looked like the detectors maybe would win, but maybe they wouldn’t. And what else could they detect? I wasn’t quite sure.

And Lawrence, you were talking about the system having been advertised as foolproof, and yet then it turned out to leak. And we were worried about– and there were actual hacks. And Jennifer, you were talking also about some of the errors with face recognition. I think now there’s seven, maybe you were talking about there were three. And now there maybe even some more.

But how do we know if the technology really is accurate? And more accurate than what? So there’s a perennial baseline question. And with the face recognition technology in particular, eyewitness IDs are hugely problematic. And so if we have been using face recognition for arrests in a couple of years, and we have four, five, six, seven, is that really so bad? So, yeah. What do you think about– all three of you, maybe. Any order you’d like. How do we know if they’re actually working or not?

[JONATHAN CHUANG] I can go first. I think, at the outset, I had said that biosignals– sorry. At the outset, I had shared that biosignals, biosensory data, they can be very precise because you have all these sensor readings with as many digits of position as you want. But they can also be ambiguous at the same time. And so that poses, I think, a fundamental challenge with regards to, is it really accuracy? And is it accuracy that we’re after? And how accurate is accurate enough?

In many situations, I would argue that I would rather have a system that is 70% accurate than one that is 90% accurate, or worse yet, 99% accurate. If we can guarantee a 100% accuracy, we will never have any failures, no false positives or false negatives. That’s a different world that is unlikely.

But otherwise, the more accurate we think we are– the more we may ascribe high-stake decisions to situations where even a 1%, a 0.1% failure rate is going to be catastrophic, untolerable for individuals, like the ones that have been misidentified. In fact, I’m pushing back on this question. While the study that I showed of you, did present some numbers with actual accuracy, the intention there was not to highlight trumpet what those numbers are. Because what we were doing, we were just employing– we did not invent any new machine learning algorithms. We just took the simplest vanilla-flavored versions that we can find, applied it to the data that we’ve collected.

You can easily imagine that a much more well-resourced entity, like Facebook, who, obviously, sells their own VR systems, or other big tech companies, they have access to much more resources, much more sophisticated algorithms. And therefore, I think the numbers I shared, that we achieved, are really only the low estimates of what a company like Facebook will be able to achieve.

But unless and until they get to 100%, I think it’s going to be a problem. And I would much rather that a big tech company can only achieve a 70% accuracy than a 99% accuracy. Because with a high accuracy, they may think that, OK, good, we are actually very effective. And therefore, we are going to make more and more decisions with higher and higher stakes, when the accuracy levels are not very good.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Unless they get to 100%, you want us to know that we’re not actually that good, so we don’t rely on it too much?

[JOHN CHUANG] Yeah. I think the same argument would apply for autonomous vehicles on the road as well.

[WEXLER] I see. With high-stakes failures. That makes sense. Lawrence, what about you?

[LAWRENCE COHEN] Two points, one of which is, early on in the bureaucracy I study, the unique identification authority that administers Aadhaar. Initially, there was a climate, which was tied to the self-knowledge of the engineers, which was encouraging people failure was success. That is, the more we know publicly about failure, there were websites set up to encourage reporting of failures. There were white papers in which failures were publicly distributed online. And the idea is, the more we can know about failures, the better we can get towards asymptotically 100% success.

At some point, that culture of presumptive reportage disappears. And it disappears before 2014, under the previous administration, in part because of the economic stakes that were emergent. And it disappears increasingly as Aadhaar itself becomes more complexly intertwined with state security.

But now, there are lawsuits against critics. There is a whole range of state effort to use the legal apparatus to prevent a public accountability. So that’s one story. The second would be that, a bit differently, there is a very vigorous, to some extent, public reportage of Aadhaar’s failures. And this is by a media that, according to many critics, has long since been bought by the state, has long since ceased to function as an independent, vigorous national media.

But Aadhaar fakes sell somewhat differently than the US concerns around the IRS. I mean, there’s arguably a different public culture about IDs and the state presence. The dominant feeling that I’ve been hearing for over a decade, from users, particularly users on the economic and social margin, is that this gives proof. That I, as a marginal political subject, am unlikely, in terms of service delivery, in terms of welfare, to be recognized as the state, and I’m in a precarious condition.

And there was a sense that the more powerful Aadhaar’s, even with the ways in which its mistakes have filtered into everyone’s lives, that the sense of being a guarantor for a certain kind of minimal condition of biological citizenship, say, was very powerful. And that remains powerful, despite the fact that people are very aware of its failures.

I would also say that the organized academic left is very sensitive, as are mass media, to these failures as well. They should be. Because the exclusions based on fingerprints are extraordinary and devastating, but not only because of the public sense of proof. But Aadhaar does complexly deliver in some ways.

It does produce greater access to certain goods than prior modes. It’s a bit like your discussion of two modes of witness– the machine versus eyewitness accounts. For many people, the machine is a better alternative than one’s neighbors, because of one’s marginal social status. So the people’s response to the very vivid public knowledge of its failures is not simple.

[REBECCA WEXLER] That’s super interesting. So I’m just going to make sure that I’ve got it. And I think you’re saying that, actually, there’s a benefit to people to overclaiming accuracy at the top, and at the bottom. For the national security state, there’s a benefit because we want to conceal the flaws, and make people trust and believe. For the marginal subject, there’s a benefit because it offers this participation as a citizen, that wasn’t there at all, and may be better than the baseline of the neighbor.

[LAWRENCE COHEN] At times. And the last thing I’ll just say is that, to take one example that I’ve written a lot about. Transgender rights organizations in different cities have taken very different approaches to, on the one hand, given histories of policing, one’s greater legibility to the state is seen as devastating. On the other hand, the sense of being radically outside of the distribution of basic rights is also very powerful. So there are sharp, sharp divides, just to take one sector within trans communities over whether national biometrics is a good or a devastating thing.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Jennifer, what do you think about accuracy and baseline’s?

[JENNIFER URBAN] Accuracy is with all of these technologies, and generally, I think, with surveillance and tracking, is one of the core components of why they’re beguiling. They appear accurate. And it is very difficult for policy makers, and generally, it seems, for all of us to get our heads around the problems with 99% accuracy.

Mr. Williams knows very well the problems. I mean, I don’t actually think those systems are 99% accurate when it comes to a Black man. But it’s going to be 90 something. And that sounds really good to policy makers. It sounds really good just on a sound bite on the news. But everybody in this room can do the math. And when you have 300 million people, and you have an accuracy rate of 98.5%, that means you have an inaccuracy rate of 1.5%. And that is many millions of people.

And this came up well before we were talking about biometrics in this way. Well, many times, I’m sure. But certainly after 9/11, when there were all of these initiatives to unleash things with names like total information awareness. And we were going to collect lots of information about lots of people. And we were going to have accuracy in terms of how we could predict terrorist attacks.

And not being able to predict a terrorist attack is a very high risk failure, of course, on the other side. But the problem with it is that what appears to be accurate is not necessarily going to end up with the positive result, while, in the meantime, there was a dragnet that pulled many, many Muslim Americans into it in the name of accurately predicting terrorist attacks.

The second thing that I– and the eyewitness thing is something that I struggle with. And Adhaar is actually one of the systems that I’ve always found the most attractive for that very reason, that if people are in rural villages, and they are not legible to the state, and they have not been able to obtain benefits, and this gives them that legibility, and it gives them the ability to operate as a citizen, that’s really attractive.

And I’m sorry, this is a little bit of an aside. But I find it so fascinating. I talked to some of the folks in India around the time that they were developing it. And I just thought it was so interesting, and I find it interesting now, that the Infosys engineers had a privacy mindset. They didn’t want to know about you. They just wanted to authenticate you as an Indian.

Anyway. That’s a bit of an aside. But those are very– and I don’t think that we know, always, what the trade-offs are, how they add up in the end. But I don’t know that we’re having the right conversation about the trade-offs.

But the thing that I wanted to say that is a little more out there, I suppose. It’s certainly out there for some of these discussions and debates, is I don’t know that we want 100% accuracy.

I’m not sure what values we lose. I know that we can’t interrogate machines. And that’s a practical problem. We can’t interrogate them well. That’s a practical problem. We can’t necessarily interrogate people very well, but we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, at least we know something about it. But there’s also this question of, if you have 100% accuracy at one moment in time, about one characteristic of a person, or a handful of characteristics about a person, what does that mean for that person’s ability to maneuver through their life and make different choices, and become a different person?

I mean, I mentioned bodies aren’t changeable. They are changeable to some degree. Your example, Lawrence, of the transgender community in India. It would be people, some of whom, I’m sure, have worked to adjust their bodies to their gender identity. There are all kinds of examples of this. And you change through time, naturally, as you age. And facial recognition gets less accurate, actually, as you get older.

I’m not sure we want, necessarily, to freeze people in amber in that way. And I know that we haven’t had a full discussion about that, and really interrogated it, what it would mean, what the technology would actually do. Am I right that it would freeze you in amber? I don’t know. And what that would mean, and how we want to approach it.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Well, I want to open up for all of you in the room. Are there thoughts? Or we could keep chatting. Go ahead.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Just to pick up on what you were saying, Jennifer, which is that what’s so frightening about biometrics, and the way they turn you into a machine-readable body, is that you are in a world of absolute capture by the state. And I really appreciated what you were saying about how it’s not a post-racial technology at all.

And Lawrence, what you were actually saying about biometrics really having this whole racialized, colonial inheritance. And so I wondered if the three of you could actually take this conversation to the border, where these issues are being spectacularly played out. And whether, I don’t know, John, if you think that, for example, the border, the smart border is so complicated, both in terms of its capture, and also its failures.

I consistently have problems with biometrics at the border because I have a brown face, right? And also, what kinds of tactics of opacity, fugitivity– I mean, I work on migrants who are trying to cross, because they can’t cross legally. Does fingerprint mutilation work? Are there ways of, I don’t know, setting up your face so that you can evade facial recognition, and evade the reduction of the self to a data point?

[JENNIFER URBAN] Yeah. So, I was just looking to see– well, the slides are down. But one of the things that I wanted to note about that slide that had IDENT, which is someday, apparently, going to be HART. And CODIS, and NGI. Those are the government databases. They are heavily used by immigration authorities.

That is one of the sets of authorities who use them most frequently. So facial images are used for immigration. Fingerprints are used, of course, for immigration. That’s probably more obvious. But the advanced fingerprint technology, iris scans. If you come into the country, we’ve used iris scans and face for quite a long time. They’re very popular with that sector of quasi law enforcement.

And they are very contested. I’m sure you’ve worked and talked with immigrants rights groups who have been working on this issue for a while. They’re very contested, but they fall into that category that issues I work on often do, which is, the tech issues are important. They’re going to make it easier to track people. But the fundamental problem that everybody’s trying to address is that people are being tracked, and they’re not being treated with dignity, and they’re being detained.

And those are such fundamental problems to address that the fact that the technology over here might make it easier in the future, or is making it easier now, to do those things, has been a little bit harder to address. But I absolutely think that it’s fundamentally important. And to your question about whether people will start trying to obfuscate or change their face, some theorists think so.

Joy Buolamwini, who worked with Timnit Gabriele on the– sorry. Timnit’s last name wrong. Gebru?


Yes. Thank you. Sorry. I thought that didn’t sound right. On a lot of the social issues with AI and biometrics, for example. She thinks that– it was her article that I put up at the end. She thinks that, in a few years, we are going to see the rise of the faceless, people who choose to try to obfuscate their identity unless it is someone with whom they trust. And that it’s possible that, in the future, when you experience somebody with their unaltered face, that that will be a profound act of intimacy.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I was wondering about, with the Illinois opt-in privilege law. How does that work on a national scale, or even international scale, since so many of these companies are out of Illinois?

[JENNIFER URBAN] Yeah. Well, the law is confined to Illinois. And one of the things that’s interesting about California’s law, for example, is that a lot of the companies, the massive companies who are main actors here, are based in California. They’re not based in Illinois. But they still have to answer for any violations of the law in Illinois, or against Illinois residents.

And so the lawsuits that I mentioned, for example, they were all filed within Illinois, for the most part, not entirely. They’ve gone through the Illinois courts to the Illinois Supreme Court. And the law is confined there. But the cost has been substantial. And so one of the things that can happen– and Illinois isn’t the biggest jurisdiction in the world. Europe is famous for this. The European Union is such a big jurisdiction. Some people say California can have this effect, where a big jurisdiction like that has laws.

Privacy is a prime example of that. They have strong privacy laws that international corporations will comply more broadly than just in Europe, or just in California, because of the fact that it’s more efficient for them to do so. Illinois is not that big. But what they’ve gotten is a lot of attention, and a lot of bang for their buck in terms of the conversation among lawyers for these companies, and how they counsel their companies, as far as I can tell.

They talk about it all the time at my privacy lawyer conferences. Illinois lawsuits are being tracked very, very carefully. Now, that isn’t to say that it’s going to have a legal effect outside of Illinois. You know it won’t. And it doesn’t have the same economic effect as a massive actor, like Europe. But it’s had a soft effect, I guess, I would say.

[REBECCA WEXLER] Lawrence, are there any talks in India about the Illinois Biometric Privacy Act?

[LAWRENCE COHEN] No. But I wanted just to say something more about the data privacy discussion, which is the– I mean, California’s important for the government of India, and various civil society groups on the right, to try to influence US textbook discussions of what is Indian history, and what is proper to it, so that California and Texas textbooks hold much of the market for national high school and middle school textbooks.

So there’s a lot of activism by many groups in California, parent groups, towards trying to develop very particular models. And many of us are involved in contesting these. But it’s so that the state level matters globally, as you suggest.

I just wanted to say, on the question of the US border, everything you said. I mean, it’s on the question of– but just two quick examples, one of which is I’m thinking, well, for a lot of reasons, of course, but about Gaza. And what I’m thinking about is, this is not a novel thought, by any means. But there is an assemblage of technologies, some of which are very adept at pinpointing. And they are effective both in their effective and ineffective usage. And there’s a lot of other technologies, which are, for lack of a better word, vulgar. They are designed not to be pinpointed. They’re designed to get everyone in the– et cetera.

And it’s the difference. That’s just one example. But there’s 10,000 less effectively urgent. But which offers some kind of complex logic of assemblage of vulgar and specific metrical technologies. And it’s the mixture at the border, in terms of, is it the racializing eye of the TSA agent, et cetera, is it or the custom, et cetera. Is it the machine? What combination matters? What are the structures of alibis that emerge, et cetera, et cetera. How has the undecidability of the combination worked?

So this is where your question leads me, it’s to the mix and not any one solution. And my worry is that mix will always be there. And we will tinker with very important questions around civil liberties. But at the questions of the border, this will be operationalized in any number of possible ways to produce restrictions.

I will just finally say that, in the case of India, the border that’s both mattered and not mattered, is not the border with Pakistan, which has, of course, been central to the story I tell, but the border with Bangladesh. Because the phantom Bangladeshi illegal migrant, which has been central to efforts by the right wing party when it was not in power, the BJP, to disallow Aadhaar. Because the concern was that the residency measure would legitimate so-called illegal migrants.

Now, a body of law emerges in Assam, which was part, of course, of pre-colonial Bengal, as part of its complex and multiple division. So lots of people who have been migrating economically for centuries are increasingly being captured as potentially illegal migrants by a suite of laws that were tied to local debates between different groups in Assam, but which have, in the last 15 years, led to been bored under this government to national level efforts to disenfranchise Muslims in general. At least this is contested.

So the border was not effective, that border, despite its powerful fantasmatic quality in delimiting Aadhaar, but it’s become very effective as– because of the forms of local, state-level laws that emerged to satisfy constituencies very anxious about Muslim-speaking Benglis. Sorry. Bengali-speaking Muslims. It’s become widely powerful in the CAA act, for example.

[REBECCA WEXLER] John, I know you want to say something. And I think we have 3 minutes left. So why don’t you go ahead.

[JOHN CHUANG] A couple of examples in the context of the border. First, the Singapore government has embarked on a program to turn their airport in Singapore, where you only need to show your passport once, when you first arrive, and then you never need to bring out your passport or ID ever again, when you get to the plane.

So that implies a whole assemblage of sensors that’s going to be deployed. It’s marketed as a matter of convenience for travelers, but you can also imagine that there are other motivations, security implications. In the years immediately following 9/11, there were, in fact, a lot of governments that were interested in airport security, installing various types of sensors to not simply identify the individuals in the public space, but, in fact, their behavior.

When you go through customs, how much are you fidgeting when you’re standing there face-to-face with the custom officer? That was seen as a possible signal that could be useful for anti-terrorism purposes. So I think there are a lot of possible paths that we can go down in the name of, perhaps, public safety, in the context of public spaces. But you can also apply that to private interests.

The latest gadget is the wearable glasses from Apple, that it has built-in eye tracking capabilities. And people are going to be in public spaces. And how are we going to respond to– are we trying to obfuscate, change how we focus our eye gaze, because now we recognize that we’re being watched, either by TSA, or by a private company? So I think there are a lot of things that we see in the context of the border that’s going to begin to seep into non-border public spaces.

[REBECCA WEXLER] I think that’s a wonderful. Sorry. I think we– we have 1 minute. Oh,

[JENNIFER URBAN] OK. I apologize. I was listening to Lawrence, in response to your question. And it just reminded me. This is not an original thought. But we left out the technology of the law a little bit. The other thing, of course, that immigrants rights groups are always contending with is, what is the result of an identification or a tracking?

And that is very dependent on the external structure of the law, which, of course, has become, from their perspective, I think, an emergency over the last 10 years or so, where there’s so much less discretion for immigration judges, there’s more and more limits on asylum. You can put all of these different things into the superstructure of the law, which changes the stakes of the biometric technology.

[REBECCA WEXLER] With that, I want to thank our panelists. If people want to continue talking, please do. But I want to thank Julia, also, for organizing this. It was a wonderful event. And thank you for bringing us together today.



Authors Meet Critics

Authors Meet Critics: “The Unnaming of Kroeber Hall,” Andrew Garrett

Recorded on January 19, 2024, this “Authors Meet Critics” panel centered on the book, The Unnaming of Kroeber Hall: Language, Memory, and Indigenous California, by Andrew Garrett, Professor of Linguistics and the Nadine M. Tang and Bruce L. Smith Professor of Cross-Cultural Social Sciences in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Professor Garrett was joined in conversation by James Clifford, Professor Emeritus at UC Santa Cruz; William Hanks, Berkeley Distinguished Chair Professor in Linguistic Anthropology; and Julian Lang (Karuk/Wiyot), a storyteller, poet, artist, graphic designer, and writer, and author of “Ararapikva: Karuk Indian Literature from Northwest California.” Leanne Hinton, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, moderated the panel. The event was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology, Department of Linguistics, Department of Ethnic Studies, Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues, and Native American Studies. 

About the Book

In January 2021, at a time when many institutions were reevaluating fraught histories, the University of California removed anthropologist and linguist Alfred Kroeber’s name from a building on its Berkeley campus. Critics accused Kroeber of racist and dehumanizing practices that harmed Indigenous people; university leaders repudiated his values. In “The Unnaming of Kroeber Hall,” Andrew Garrett examines Kroeber’s work in the early twentieth century and his legacy today, asking how a vigorous opponent of racism and advocate for Indigenous rights in his own era became a symbol of his university’s failed relationships with Native communities. Garrett argues that Kroeber’s most important work has been overlooked: his collaborations with Indigenous people throughout California to record their languages and stories. “The Unnaming of Kroeber Hall” offers new perspectives on the early practice of anthropology and linguistics and on its significance today and in the future. Kroeber’s documentation was broader and more collaborative and multifaceted than is usually recognized. As a result, the records Indigenous people created while working with him are relevant throughout California as communities revive languages, names, songs, and stories. Garrett asks readers to consider these legacies, arguing that the University of California chose to reject critical self-examination when it unnamed Kroeber Hall.


Watch the panel above or on YouTube, or listen to it as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[VOICEOVER] The Matrix Podcast is a presentation of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

[MARION FOURCADE] Thank you very much for coming here. Such a great crowd. Actually, we have two separate small screens in the next room and one in the lobby because there’s too many people. So this is very exciting.

My name is Marion Fourcade. I am the director of Social Science Matrix. And of course, it’s always very exciting to start a new semester of events. But today is particularly exciting, not only because we have an amazing panel but also because we have in our midst Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix former director, Williams Hanks. And so that’s very special because of course, we wouldn’t be here without him and none of this would be possible. He was the person who really got Matrix off the ground and turned it into what I’m trying to pursue today.

So I also want to take a brief moment– you won’t hear me, but I want to take a brief moment to thank another Matrix stalwart, our postdoc, Julia Sizek. So not only has Julia put together this wonderful panel and indeed, she has put together much of our spring programming, but she will actually introduce all of our subsequent events this term as I go to the East Coast next week for the remainder of the semester. So Julia, you will– if you come back to Matrix, you will see Julia a lot.

So the topic of today’s discussion hits very close to home. Our presenter and discussants will address the politics of unnaming buildings on campus. We are meeting today in a building that is known as the Social Sciences Building, but it used to be called, of course, Barrows Hall. And sometimes, some of us still make the mistake of referring to this building as Barrows Hall.

Andrew Garrett, a professor of linguistics here at Berkeley, has written about another building on this campus that has been unnamed, what is now known as the Anthropology and Art Practice Building, but was formerly Kroeber Hall.

So in this new book, Garrett writes about not only the politics of unnaming but considers other questions about how to think about the legacies of controversial figures, including people like Kroeber, whose work has largely been forgotten within the discipline of anthropology. And so he offers a look into Kroeber’s life just up the road here, actually, on Arch Street, and what his work with Indigenous people throughout the state did, both then and now.

We would also like to thank our co-sponsors who helped our esteemed discussants reach this campus. The Joseph A. Myer Center for Native American Studies, the Department of Ethnic Studies, the Department of Linguistics, and the Department of Anthropology.

As always, I will mention a few upcoming events. Next month, we will have a Matrix on point. These are our signature thematic panels that one will be about the intersection between biometric identification, surveillance, and privacy. And in March, we will have another– our next Author Meets Critic in this series will be on Terracene by Salar Mameni.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce our moderator, Leanne Hinton. So Leanne Hinton is Professor Emerita of Linguistics here at Berkeley. Her recent research has focused on language revitalization of Native American languages. She strongly supports interdisciplinary approaches to linguistics and linguistic research that relates to community needs and interests as well as to theory.

Though retired, she remains active in research and consulting. Awards include the Lannan Foundation’s Cultural Freedom Award, the Linguistic Society of America’s Language, Linguistics and the Public Award, the Hubert Howe Bancroft award presented by the Bancroft Library, Berkeley’s– and the Honored One award presented by the Association of Tribal Archives and Libraries.

So without further ado, I’ll now turn it over to Leanne. Thank you very much for being here, everybody.

[LEANNE HINTON] Thank you. Is this on? Yeah. Good.

I have a few brief words to say just before introducing our panelists. I was not in favor of unnaming Kroeber Hall. Of the other four scholars whose names had been stripped from our buildings, Moses, Lecomte, and Boldt for their unclear and damaging views on racism and white supremacy, and for Barrows for his condescending and insulting justifications of the colonization of the Philippines.

Kroeber was not a racist. He was not a white supremacist. Those– although those were claimed about him. In fact, he had many deep and respectful friendships with Native Americans. He was a mentor to native scholars and an advocate for Indigenous rights. Moreover, his giant legacy of cultural documentation has become important to many Native Americans today.

I felt that Kroeber was being pilloried by the various charges against him. And Andrew agrees with this. As he writes on page four of his book, “The specific claims about Kroeber’s work offered in support of unnaming Kroeber Hall, accepted by many at Berkeley and beyond, are erroneous or unsubstantiated.”

But Andrew convincingly wrote in his own letter of support for the unnaming and in his book that the unnaming should take place anyway, that it was Kroeber’s era of anthropology that not the sins of a particular anthropologist that the unnaming was really about. As he writes one more time, “That name brought pain to those who should feel welcome. In the 21st century, an edifice with anthropological tenants need not take its name from an era of extractive patronizing academic attitudes toward native people.”

So I want to thank Andrew for this truly insightful book that helps us to a deeper understanding of Kroger’s own life and contributions, and at the same time, delves into the university’s own, and I’ll do one more quote, “Foundational ongoing systemic contributions to the displacement and erasure of Indigenous people,” and perhaps, make some of us take a closer look at our own legacies as well.

And now on to our panelists. I’m going to just introduce them all. First, Andrew Garrett. He’s a professor of linguistics and the Nadine M. Tang and Bruce L. Smith professor of cross-cultural social sciences in the Department of Linguistics, where he directs the California Language Archive. His research and teaching are in historical linguistics, especially Indo-European historical linguistics and in language documentation and revitalization, especially involving Indigenous California languages.

From the Linguistic Society of America, he’s received the Best Paper in Language Award 2015 for ancestry-constrained phylogenetic analysis supports the Indo-European step hypothesis, co-authored with three students. And he also has the Kenneth L. Hale award in 2023 for outstanding work on the documentation of a particular language or family of languages that is endangered or no longer spoken. In 2001, he has collaborated with the Yurok tribe on the documentation and revitalization of the Yurok language, preparing a short pedagogical grammar, basic Yurok, in 2014.

William F. Hanks studies the history and ethnography of Yucatan Mexico and Yucatec Maya language and culture, including early modern Spain and Spanish as a necessary step towards understanding the colonial formation of Yucatan and New Spain. He examines the organization and dynamics of routine language use, semantics, pragmatics, interactional sociolinguistics, and the social foundation of speech practices. He has studied ritual practice, comparative shamanism, and the relation between religion and health care in rural Mexico. His most recent work concerns the colonial history of Yucatan and New Spain, with a special emphasis on missionization and the emergence of colonial discourse genres.

And at the end of the table, Julie– Julian Lang, Wiyot/Karuk, is a storyteller, poet, artist, graphic designer, and a writer. He’s a first language speaker of Karuk and a tribal scholar. Julian is the chairman of the Karuk Language Committee, director and founder of the Institute of Native Knowledge, and the author of Ararapikva, Karuk Indian Literature from Northwest California. He currently teaches elementary and high school Karuk language classes, and is a longtime master speaker in the master apprentice program, and a board member for the Advocates of Indigenous California Language Survival.

And then back one from Julian is James Clifford, a Professor Emerita at UC Santa Cruz. He’s the author of books that explore the intersections of anthropology, literature, and art. The predicament of culture, 1988 routes, 19– routes, meaning R-O-U-T-E-S, 1997, and returns, becoming Indigenous in the 21st century, 2013. In the latter work, he writes at some length about Kroeber, Ishi, and the colonial legacies of ethnography museums.

So we begin with Andrew.

[ANDREW GARRETT] I have notes. I’ll try not to read them, but I’ll read them so we’ll see how this works. Does this work? Yeah. It’s really exciting to be here with four of my intellectual heroes. And I am looking forward to hearing what you guys have to say.

I am a linguist engaged with California languages, both as they are spoken today and as they have been recorded over 125 years in documents that currently– documents and sound recordings that currently sit in archives. A figure in whose intellectual shadow, I, therefore, unavoidably work is the Berkeley anthropologist and linguist, Alfred Kroeber, whose nachlass I have used probably every week for 20 or 25 years.

In 1960, the year of Kroeber’s death, a new campus building housing the anthropology and art practice departments and the anthropology museum was named after him. 60 years later, on July 1, 2020, an anonymous proposal to remove his name from that building was submitted to the Chancellor’s Office. The building was officially unnamed, as you all know, on January 26, 2021, so almost three years ago.

My book is not about whether Kroeber Hall should have been unnamed or not. If that’s what you want to learn about, you can ask, but that is not what the book is about. I do think it was good to change the name, as Leanne mentioned, for what it’s worth, but that is not the point of the book.

The proposal to unname Kroeber Hall and a lot of the discussion around the unnaming included assessments of Kroeber’s work that did not match my own sense of what was important in that work. I wrote the book to grapple with this dissonance and try to understand his legacies. So it is specifically about Berkeley and California, and more generally, it’s about the history of academic relationships, especially on the part of linguists and anthropologists with Indigenous people. It’s also about the work of scholars and scientists embedded in an extractive colonial system.

The book has two main arguments. And maybe I’ll point a little bit to the chapters in which they sit, or maybe I won’t because the correlation is imperfect. One of the arguments is parochial about Berkeley, specifically, about the actual unnaming of Kroeber Hall. That sits mostly in chapter 10, Institutional Elisions.

In that chapter, I document how a campus review process did not do any assessment of the proposals charges against Kroeber. The chancellor then presented the charges in the proposal as if they were the judgment of the review committee. And how they wound up widely disseminated in the media as campus judgment. By looking at the context of these choices, I try to account for this canonization of false facts, a phrase that McConkie taught me.

A second argument, and I think, more interesting, ultimately, because it’s less parochial, is about the legacy of Kroeber and his colleagues and proteges. He, himself, was opaque, often, as to his motivations and what he thought was important. So I sometimes use his daughter, Ursula Le Guin’s anthropological fiction to read his work.

I have some examples to show, potentially. I, sometimes, use Ursula Le Guin’s anthropological fiction, she has a lot of anthropological fiction, in order to read the motivations of her father and to understand why he did what he did. I argue that what is most important today about what he did do is the documentation of Indigenous languages and stories, and making space for many dozens of Indigenous people to tell and write their own stories, stories of all kinds, creation stories, anecdotes about daily life, stories about genocide, stories about food, stories– anecdotes, conversations, all kinds of stories, dozens and dozens of people told these in thousands of pages.

In the discourse around Kroeber and Kroeber Hall, Indigenous languages and stories were elided. This is partly a consequence, I guess, of the separation between anthropology and linguistics that happened in the academy over many years. At a certain time, they were more closely connected. And the linguistic side of his work could be seen as part of the oeuvre. Nowadays, languages belongs to linguistics and so that work is ignored.

A small example– a small example is a book of quote unquote, “Reading Lessons” made for the famous Yahi man called Ishi. This is what– they’re called Reading Lessons by– either by Theodora Kroeber, his widow, or by the catalogers in the library. These are actually writing lessons made in an attempt to teach Ishi to write his language, presumably, in the hope that he might want to write down stories or life experiences.

You can tell that they are writing lessons, not reading lessons because each page consists of a set of transcribed words that end with the same syllable. The syllable is underlined, so on the left page it’s “Hi,” the middle page, it’s “Na,” the right hand page, it’s “Si” “Si” to retroflex S.

If you were trying to teach somebody how to write Hi, you would not teach them to write H-I. That is not spell “He” in English. If you’re trying to teach them how to write “See,” you might teach them S-E-E or maybe S-E-A or something. You would not teach them to write S-I. So this would have been a really, really ineffective way of teaching him to read English, but Kroeber was very interested in helping people to learn to write their languages, and that is, obviously, what this actually was.

The book– this book this booklet. It has been interpreted as an instrument of Americanization when it was apparently actually meant to facilitate Ishi telling the stories that everybody says he loved to tell. So this is just a small example of the way in which– the way in which specifics got misinterpreted and the story recording aspect of Kroeber’s career has been lost.

In several of the book chapters, I document Kroeber’s networks of connections with Indigenous people and communities in and near California for recording their stories and languages. An example of this network of Indigenous intellectuals, which Nan already alluded to, is Gilbert Natches, this person in the middle. An artist and musician from a prominent Cui-ui Dicutta Paiute family whom Kroeber taught to– how to write his language, the language that called Paiute or Northern Paiute, taught how to write his language in 1913 and 1914. He was probably the first writer in his language. He made sound recordings of dozens of songs and stories. He created a large corpus of written stories and language information.

Natchez published a paper or a short monograph of stories in the language that’s shown at the top left. But most of what he did with Kroeber remains in manuscripts and sound recordings, like these that you can’t really see very clearly. This thing on the left is an illustration of plant parts, labeled with the names. And these names are not all recorded in subsequent literature.

The middle slide is a list– part of a long set of pages and pages in his vocabulary, is a list of non-traditional words, words for introduced technological objects, not all of which are listed in the massive Northern Paiute dictionary that was published a few years ago.

And the thing on the right is his– not just his hand transcript of a conversation that he recorded between him and a cat in which he says– in effect, he says, hey, kitty, don’t you want some food? Don’t you want some food? Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty. And then he sings the meowing of the cat. So he has this really awesome, rich, diverse set of recordings that he also transcribed.

In their language work today the Pyramid Lake Paiute– Pyramid Lake language program works actively with Natchez’s material. And they have expressed appreciation for what he was able to do in this quote that I put here. This is not rare. This is typical. Throughout California, the documentation created by Indigenous people working with Kroeber and his immediate circle of students and younger colleagues is the basis for cultural and linguistic reclamation.

I am also interested in how documentation acquires a renewed political life. Language can be a key piece of political activism. So throughout California, we see linguistic knowledge reclaimed from archives for Indigenous self-insertion. The name of a mountain range– that’s the top example here. The name of a mountain range was reclaimed from Kroeber’s 1902 Wiyot language notes with blue like bob for the purpose of pushing back successfully against an industrial development project in Humboldt County. And so the picture on the right shows a banner. Protect Tsakiyuwit. That name was recovered from the notes that you see on the left.

The words for people, “Muwekma” and for their language, [? Lisjan, ?] those words– I’ve lost my place, sorry, those words in the Indigenous language of the East Bay first recorded in 1904 by Kroeber at the Verona Rancheria are central for two of the political entities of Indigenous people of the East Bay.

Like all of us, Kroeber was a mixture. He was an extractive researcher who could often be paternalistic, as Leanne mentioned. He had some unappealingly Victorian attitudes. And he was committed like so many people, unfortunately, were. At the time, he was committed to the idea grounded in essentialist nationalism, the idea of vanishment, which was the hugest of possible mistakes.

But throughout his career, he advocated for Indigenous land and cultural rights, more than most people in his field. And he was a vocal opponent of the eugenic and evolutionary thinking that often dominated the discourse of the time.

My book’s first chapter has, as its epigraph, a quote from Ursula Le Guin’s 2006 book, Voices. That’s here. Because her fictional character, Auric Castro, described very well what also mattered, in my opinion, in her father’s work, finding what other makers made, speaking it, printing it, recovering it from neglect or oblivion, relighting the light of the word, “This is the chief work of my life.” My main argument in the book is that the chief work of Kroeber’s life, we can now see in retrospect, was to record Indigenous stories and languages and to find ways for Indigenous people to tell their stories and that it matters very much today that he did that. So that’s the book.

[BILL HANKS] Andrew Garrett has done us all an immense service by writing this book. And my first word to him is thank you. The care, craft, and empirical heft of the book are everywhere evident. It is dense with information and anyone would learn from reading it. I certainly learned a lot.

We learn so much about Kroeber, about research in his time, and about Indigenous people and individual persons with whom Kroeber maintained, sometimes, long and dimensional relationships. On these grounds alone, the book takes its place among the best work in the history of our field, in my opinion. And I dare say, with his background, quite likely, only Andrew could have written this book.

It is also a courageous book and one that required meticulous care with the authorial voice and how it positioned itself in relation to the field of anthropology, to Kroeber and especially, to Indigenous peoples of California. I especially respect the care and circumspection the book expresses in the matter of moral ethical evaluation of Kroeber. Andrew is very careful to avoid the ever possible anachronism of critiquing Kroeber by criteria that simply were not in the discourse space he occupied, particularly, in the first decades of his career, which is upwards of 100 years from now.

Critique need not be anachronistic, of course, and I’m not suggesting it is, nor is it unwarranted, but it does raise productive questions. And this book is a valuable exemplar of how to tread fine lines.

Regarding vanishment, I wonder where the line is between a destructive ideology that presumes it to be natural that Indigenous people will cease to be versus an assessment of inevitability based on having considered with a sick heart, the scale, raw violence, and gluttonous self-interest of those who slaughtered, dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands, and put their children in schools where they were not allowed to speak their own languages.

Would it have been entirely unreasonable to assume that Indigenous peoples were under massive threat of destruction? What part of this vanishment thesis is due to that in addition to the projection that Andrew mentioned?

In here, I quote Andrew, “Boas and Kroeber wrote as if assimilation and vanishment were inevitable, but the extent to which they acted in concert with the settler state dispossession is another matter.” That’s typical of the care with which the voice is crafted. I think we all know what he’s saying.

I was intrigued by your argument, Andrew, that essentialism, historical particularism cum relativism, and vanishment form a tight cluster of assumptions. Of these, essentialism seems to me the least obvious. You suggest that essentialism erases history, but Kroeber was committed to history, and Boas might have been wary of historical explanations but he never denied history, to my knowledge.

When Boas told Kroeber in 1899– I’m quoting now Ira Jacknis, in 1899 to find, quote, “What is characteristic of the life and mode of thought of the Indian,” there is no temporal predicate in that statement. It doesn’t do anything about time. The Indian is a problem, but that’s a typification problem, not a temporal problem.

These three ideas, Boas and Kroeber shared, but whereas Boas was wary of historical reconstructions, Kroeber was committed to history as one of the core contexts of the Indigenous languages. I had not been aware of the importance of his work on the classification of the languages of California nor I’m ashamed to say of his work on noun incorporation, which is such an important feature in many American languages, including Yucatec Maya, the one I work on.

The 1911 exchange with Sapir in the American anthropologist, which I read, chasing out the references, is highly instructive and I recommend it. For those of you who might not have had a chance to read this book, let me give you a glimpse of the scope of Kroeber’s fieldwork and documentary contributions. 1,000-plus audio recordings of more than 40 different languages, the classification which was the standard in the discipline of his time, the unparalleled amount and scope of field work that Kroeber did, including bringing people with him for family vacations all summer as part of the family.

By way of concluding these incredibly terse remarks, 8 to 10 minutes is impossible. I want to say a couple of words on place names. This is an area in which Indigenous languages of California and elsewhere in North America are exceptionally rich. Kroeber’s junior colleague, T.T. Waterman, published in 1920 his Yurok geography, which also got and read from, which drew heavily on Kroeber’s fieldwork and cataloged with sometimes extended description over 1,000 place names.

The Yurok elder, Domingo Jack, observed, you guys, meaning, Kroeber’s people, claimed the land was not [NON-ENGLISH], owned– glossed, owned or cared for, whereas it is owned and cared for. Along the river, everything has a name. And the name is the proof that it is cared for.

As Andrew observes, such naming is a claim of sovereignty. We might say, for a place to have a name is a sign that it is cared for by those who quote, “own,” end quote, it, although, the verb here opens a can of worms regarding the nature of ownership, especially of land. Maybe it’s easier or more accurate to say, the people who belong to it.

He also demonstrates that toponyms are semantically dense descriptions of places, like what Sapir called compressed little word poems. Here are a couple. A place name. Where water backs up, that refers to a village at the mouth of a river. Where rock speaks, referring to a place with an overhanging rock which creates an echo when one speaks in its presence. Where– one of my favorites, where children sit, which refers to a boulder in the middle of a river, quote, “where some owls carried off some children and left them to sit.” The children eventually turned to stone.

One is reminded of the stunning research done by Keith Basso on place and toponyms in Western Apache. A classic example from the Apache would be, quote, “Water flows inward underneath a Cottonwood tree,” which refers to a place. This description refers to a very precise place on the land. But it is cast also from a very precise vantage point. You have to be standing in the right place to see the scene that is coded in the name.

The use of the name therefore projects the addressee into the prospective point, looking upon the place from just the right angle that also evokes ancestral events that happened there. In short, place names are an idiom of historical consciousness, the deep time, and the ground of reciprocal ownership or care between the people and the land. Maybe this could help us think of the unnaming of Kroeber Hall and the myriad renamings of place wrought upon the people of California.

[JULIAN LANG] Oh, OK. I was a little perplexed by the invite, but I’ve known Andrew long enough to know that he needed to throw a wrench in the deal too. There has to be some unexplainable thing happen.

Kroeber is a very strange phenomenon for Native peoples. And depending upon where you go in the state, there can be a very cold response to just his name in general that certain families have grown up with this idea that this was not a good– just what happened was not good and like you said, he got painted with a pretty wide brush with a lot of pretty bad things that did happen to Native peoples. So he was just included in that. He was, we call, a [INAUDIBLE] white man. And so there’s that, I guess, as well that we have a long history of people coming in really paternalistic, very uptight white men coming in and doing things with our people.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a really uptight white man, but they’re not very fun. And so our life is not one about uptightness, necessarily. I am a grandfather. And so for me, I see how important our inter-relations with my family, with my community, with all of our people that it’s such an important– our cultural existence really is really engaging. I could see how if Kroeber comes into a community, I remember, what’s his name, Tim– Thomas Buckley when he came in, and a very tall guy, for those of you who knew him.

So he was too tall for– after the first trip to the Klamath River. So he was too tall, that’s all people knew him as. And here he was, showing all of this research and all of that. And oh, too tall. Here he comes. It’s like– and so it was he– you become a part of that community. And you don’t escape the descriptions that we would place on place, we also do on a person. So each person eventually becomes who they are within that community.

So Kroeber, there’s– I guess, there’s two stories. There’s one there’s historical view and perspective that says that debates on how good or how bad Kroeber was. And– but there’s also this other side, which is the life, I guess, of the community of our people and how we all fit in within that community, either as a outsider coming in or as an outsider coming in and trying to understand and appreciate what is happening within that community.

And so I guess towards that end, in a way, I’d like to introduce two students that are here. You guys– Can I get you guys to stand up? Yeah. And so they’re all descendants of people who worked with Kroeber. So these are great grand kids of Ellen Grant and the interpreter who worked not with Kroeber but with Bill Bright. So he was the– she was the interpreter for Bill Bright. And so in a way, that’s Kroeber.

And then next to them, there are two people in there, the granddaughters of Julius Derrick, and so who was another one of the language people that not Kroeber personally but his students. So that’s what I see, when I think of Kroeber, I think of all of the great opportunities that he had to come and be a part of our community and never did. So he would send people to come in and do work with folks. And that was– I can think of the Danish Uldall, the Danish linguist who came in and worked with all of these people in a little place called Quartz Valley and way back in the mountains and got these fantastic stories. And I guess, the process of– I guess, his need to keep sending people to our communities where the community, primarily, I’m speaking of.

So he was a very important percentage for the Karuk people. On the other hand, there’s other tribes that may not have that kind of a relationship with Kroeber or maybe he’s been painted that white brushes painted and he’s now included with a bunch of ne’er do wells, I guess, you could call them.


And anyway, yeah, I’m very conflicted about Kroeber because I think as an artist, my idea has been one, when I was here at Berkeley as an employee at the museum, I had all of the old school museum folks were the people I worked with. And they were all, I guess, dyed in the wool trobairitz or whatever from that generation. And it was a very almost like business. The idea of NAGPRA was just– I mean, unnaming of Kroeber was a problem, but NAGPRA, boy, that was– that really got him. The disgruntledness of it all.

And so anyway, but Kroeber, like I said, during my time here, I would always go to Kroeber Hall. And it just seemed so odd. Here I am, there’s Kroeber Hall. It’s like, I’m walking through the door and then there’s all of the stuff that’s the photographs and the recordings and all of this material that was something that was just unbelievable. And my little workstation, I had the– I think it was like, they would say, that’s the oldest chair in American Museum today from Egypt. And then over here where all the glass plates of all the famous– what was that book? The Almost Ancestors book, the photos of– Kroeber’s photos.

And– so I mean– I was surrounded by this primary source material and it was– I just felt– as a Native person, I guess, I don’t see this– the value of this particular thing, the way, say, an anthropologist might look and wonder about this thing. I feel– I can feel it like I have an– some sort of– some sort of an actual feeling that occurs that that person’s spirit is there still. I have to say that I really feel this and that– so working in the museum was always an odd thing, but it was really Kroeber’s legacy then fed my art as an artist. This stuff has to be returned.

So when I was doing all the research of all this material, including spending hours and hours and hours with Kroeber’s papers, trying to understand the person that wrote in such tiny little teeny letters, who was this person? I mean, anal retentive to the max, I would assume. And so– but the content of that was like so rich. In one sentence, I think, you were saying something about the Herzog movie and it was saying that– and the idea of these two eyes at the end of this movie, that was like– that was the thing that made it in a way, art, that it was– you’ll never forget that.

And so Kroeber stuff all of this work that he did with my tribe, especially, was very instrumental in a lot of my art, maybe not directly but definitely indirectly. And one in particular when I was really beginning as an artist was a picture of Ishi staring down. And I must have drawn that picture 50 times or more. And it was because the expression on his face was so incredibly intense. And I can never could figure out what was he looking at. And then later, I saw the full picture, the whole photograph, and it was him shipping– knapping arrowheads. So that intensity was so incredible, but that was–

So that was a whole part of my need to bring art into this transfer of the– this knowledge that happened in 1902 to 1930 or whatever and then bring it back to the community and try to find ways of doing that. And so that’s what my art was at that point was to return, say, the extracted.

And at that time, I remember when I first spent time in the survey, and Leanne had let me in to sit with the stuff because I was going through all of the stuff, and finding– removing the stack of paper and seeing the dust around where the paper had been sitting because nobody had moved the thing for like 10 years or something and nobody had ever looked at it. And so I’m going through this stuff and seeing the most important– one of my three most important things that– question that I’ve had about life and philosophy and all of that. And one was we have a plant called Kishwoof. And Kishwoof is a very important– it’s our best medicine, we call it– [NON-ENGLISH], our best medicine and–

So there’s, in this old stack of handwritten notes was this story that was way off in this direction. And then all of a sudden, the end was, And that’s why this is our best medicine. And so I had to somehow draw this connection between these two things.

But what ended up happening was it turned into a play, it turned into all kinds of different things in the language. So we were able to return the language, the iconography of the time, and including the songs, so many different things that we were able to reverse engineer Kroeber’s work, I guess, is what you would say, and return it back to its place within the community.

So– and I remember this one old hippie guy that lived in Orleans. We did a story about the Orleans maiden and how she turned into this mountain, Orleans Mountain, and where Ruby’s from, out back there. And the hippie said, wow, I’ll never look at that mountain again, say the same again. It’s like, now that mountain has become a person once again. Why that person is– why that mountain is so important? And why that’s one of the only spirits who didn’t have a partner? And the sadness of that and how that’s where all of our bad feelings go. So you– she takes your hurt and grief and all of that. And so now everybody gets to see and experience [NON-ENGLISH] for these men.

But Kroeber, I don’t know, Andrew. He was very– yeah, it’s a very interesting thing. I– like I said, I’m not coming– leaving this place, despising Kroeber. And on the other hand, I try to keep him at arm’s length, at least this far away.


Good idea.


But anyway, thank you.

[JAMES CLIFFORD] Thanks. Thanks. And thank you all for coming. I’m going to read this so I stay in my 10 minutes slot.

A few years back, I commented along with many others on the proposal to unname Kroeber Hall. And I was pretty critical of some of the claims made in the brief against the individual anthropologist, A. L. Kroeber. But in the end, I came to the same conclusion as Andrew Garrett, the symbolism of his name had become ineradicably painful for Native Californians and should be changed to recognize their cultural resilience and present agency.

My concluding paragraph, which I’m going to read, seems to me now like a liberal, wishful thinking, but despite my more pessimistic, better judgment, I’m doubling down. I wrote, “The current movement for changing names raises important questions about our differently positioned assessments of a shared, sometimes, ugly history. In conclusion, I’d like to urge that we not succumb to the blame games and scorched Earth moralism so prevalent in today’s political culture. I have recommended, as I did in my– above, an attitude, I called it critical generosity, especially with respect to ambiguous legacies like that of Kroeber and of cultural anthropology. This means in the current context, renaming Kroeber Hall in a way that honors native Californian resilience but that also finds ways to publicly recognize and understand the continuing contributions of that building’s former namesake and his changing discipline. This kind of thoughtful, informed critical commemoration would be especially appropriate in an educational institution.” End quote.

Whistling in the wind. A similar sentiment, I found, was expressed by others, by Kent Lightfoot in his very substantial contribution. And I noticed it too in Professor Ron Hendel’s critique of the similar unnaming of Barrow’s Hall, where we are now.

I’m not sure what we all had in mind concretely, some sort of exhibit or a public discussion, perhaps, or a teachable moment, recognizing the positive contributions of these colonial liberals whose failings are magnified in our current decolonial better judgment. We were asking our community for something more complex than either condemnation or celebration. I didn’t hold out much hope.

And Andrew Garrett has provided what I asked for, a thoughtful, informed critical commemoration of Kroeber’s life and work, including the legacies of his changing disciplines, anthropology and linguistics. How will Gareth’s complexifying book be read, if it is read? Well, it will be understood– it will be understood by some, mostly, but not only on the right as a defense of Kroeber against ignorant sanctimonious cancel culture. And by others largely on the left, it will be seen as yet another whitewashing of settler colonialism and a defense of paternalistic academic authority.

What I appreciate about the book is that it rules out conclusions such as these and tries for a complex realism, an attitude of both generous comprehension and critical historical distance. In his opening paragraphs, Garrett forthrightly acknowledges the dissonance, he calls it, the dissonance in which he finds himself. He writes throughout as an engaged participant, not as an objective outsider. I mean, he’s, after all, part of the tradition of Berkeley linguistics and working with California languages.

Working happily in the California Linguistic Archives at Berkeley, he’s brought up short by a Native language activist who tells him that she always feels sick on campus, conscious of all the ancestral remains stored in those boxes.

At the end of chapter 1, Garrett summarizes two contradictory versions of Kroeber’s legacy, one, a history of harm, the other, of generosity. One, a narrative of colonialist denial and paternalist dismissal, the other, a story of respect, collaboration in the preservation of heritage. His book, Garrett writes, is an attempt to understand the quote, “dissonance” between these narratives, both of which, he takes seriously.

It’s important to note that while he refutes particular claims, he doesn’t say that one narrative is true and the other, false. He allows different visions to cohabit uneasily in the book, not seeking to reconcile them or to find a balance. Throughout its 11 chapters, his book, in the words of my colleague, Donna Haraway, stays with the trouble. This willingness to explore the dissonance of irreconcilable stories is, to my current way of thinking, realism. History is ontologically excessive, multifarious, contested, a single smooth version is, well, ideology.

Kroeber emerges in a positive light to be sure the book leans that way, no doubt, too much for some, but it convincingly connects– corrects many errors and oversimplifications in the now widely accepted dismissive view of Kroeber. And his mistakes and omissions, as we now see them, are acknowledged directly throughout. For example, Kroeber’s cultural essentialism, with its avoidance of historical invention and change, is a recurring theme. This lack of analytic scholarly interest in real contemporary people is something Julian Lange has effectively stressed.

But the book is not only about an imperfect individual. Garrett shows how the name Kroeber today symbolizes the limits of colonial liberalism, the entitlements and omissions that accompany good intentions. And also looking beyond the man and his times, the name Kroeber also represents a tradition of research, collective and dialogical, whose consequences were and still are decolonizing.

As an academic, I appreciate the conclusion that research matters, often, beyond the intentions of the researcher. I even appreciate Garrett’s willingness to rub the noses of non-specialists in linguistic data and technical arguments that we can’t understand, though, I think, at times, he overdoes it. A little self-indulgent there, Andrew.

It’s good to make people– readers grapple with unfamiliar languages up close and to observe the detailed sustained labor by Kroeber, by his linguistic colleagues, and by his Indian collaborators like Robert Spot, Gilbert Matches, Von Dolores, and others that produces accurate descriptions and translations that anal compulsive dimension, which was shared by some of his quote unquote, “informants,” as Andrew tells us, getting it really exactly right.

Research matters in more than objective ways. Science, empiricism, documentation are built from facts, things made collaboratively in social relationships. Facts are subject to reinterpretation in new situations. Research is thus historical in the fullest sense, overdetermined and unfinished.

Garrett is the best work I know that grapples with the contradictions and unintended consequences of what was long called salvage anthropology and linguistics, now rebaptized as memory documentation. His approach rhymes with my own ongoing research in what I call, for lack of a new name, post ethnographic museums.

The colonial collections currently found all over Europe, North America, Australia, and other imperial metropoles. Times are changing there in those institutions. Human remains and cultural artifacts in these collections can no longer be considered the heritage of an abstract imperial mankind or a decontextualized science. Under pressure from former colonial subjects, activists, elders, artists, these specimens and treasures have been transformed into unfinished histories, stories, sources of knowledge reclaimed and made new. I love Gillian’s phrase, “Reverse engineering of Kroeber’s work.”

In these changing institutions, what was, even 10 years ago, unthinkable, the repatriation of museum treasures is now everywhere on the agenda for museum professionals, restitution imagined in diverse forms, scales, and relationships. I haven’t found– visiting these museums, I’ve not found any single politically virtuous pathway, but many specific entangled negotiations. Of course, there’s plenty of resistance to change, obstruction, unwillingness to relinquish the authority of universalism, the privilege of being at the end or the cutting edge of history.

But what I find in all this movement– what I find in all this is movement, history as process, inventive articulations of old and new, residual and emergent energies. I rediscover what Hegel called the cunning of reason and history, the surprises, what happens behind our backs for better and for worse. In a time of confusion and pessimism, when so many trends these days seem reactionary when liberal progress is anything but assured, the good news that accompanies the bad news of this indeterminacy can perhaps be found with Andrew Garrett’s help in Kroeber exemplary life, with all its contradictions.

1876 to 1960, Kroeber was born at a moment of triumphant imperialism. And he died as its hegemony was starting to unravel. He lived in a world structured by colonization, with its violence, assumptions of assimilation, and romantic archaisms. Within this horizon, I think we can still honor his lifelong commitment to what he believed was admirable and worth preserving in native Californian language and cultures. He thought these lifeways were doomed, but his work has contributed to their future.

[LEANNE HINTON] Thank you to all the panelists. And we are open now for questions. Yes.

[INAUDIBLE] [AUDIENCE MEMBER] anthropologist Oh. My name is Stan Farrar. I’m a Cal graduate. I didn’t study anthropology or linguistics. I’ve been gone for more than six decades. And I’m from Southern California. But I was interested in this subject because Caltech has unnamed Robert Millikan, without whom you can’t talk about Caltech, since he was one of the founders. They still accept that he got a Nobel Prize but otherwise, they’ve taken his name off buildings.

So I was fascinated by Professor Garrett’s book and the approach to it. And I think it’s an awesome piece of scholarship. But I think about all the intellectual firepower that went into that and it’s going to go into all the other books that are going to be written from here to eternity about people like Thomas Jefferson, because you resonate on vanishing.

Well, if there’s anybody– if there’s any president of the United States who thought the Indians were going to vanish and he was going to contribute to it, it was Thomas Jefferson. So if you want to focus on Kroeber’s really– I know we shouldn’t have skulls in the museum, don’t misunderstand me. But Kroeber is a pretty minor player in the scheme of things. We have big players in the scheme of things who, when the truth comes out, when the scholarship is produced, and it’s not all the pablum about cherry trees and crap like that, you’re going to find out that Thomas Jefferson wasn’t such a good guy after all, especially with Indians.

So where do we go with this? Do we just say, let’s use all the intellectual firepower to write all these books? Or do we just say, let’s take all the names off now and give them mathematical notations or whatever?


[ANDREW GARRETT] Yeah. I mean, I sometimes wondered whether the building that should be unnamed is California Hall. If we’re looking for a malefactor.


[AUDIENCE MEMBER] So as I’m outsider because I’m not growing up here, I’m not an American nor a Native American, so I’m still wrapping my head around what’s happening here about this unnaming thing. My– I have two basic questions about the claims made during the proposal of the unnaming.

The first question is that, I remember the second claim is something about Kroeber and his colleagues collected the remains of the Native Americans is completely wrong, is culturally wrong. So my question is, in the tradition, what did the Native Americans deal with the remains? This is my first question. It’s a very basic question.

The second question is that, so the third claims that something Kroeber dated back at that time is culturally extinct. And my question is, what was the reason of this statement? Is it to raise awareness of protection this culture or it’s just like his blind spots when he did his research? This is my second question.

And also, my third question is something– so no, the third thing is not a question, it’s just something came to my mind because– sorry, I’m a bit nervous. I’m not a native speaker so forgive me about that. So it’s– OK, I forget the third thing.

[ANDREW GARRETT] I think to answer the first question, certainly, what Indigenous people would not want is for people to be in museums. There are many different burial practices around California in the world but none of them included putting people in other people’s museums. So I think there’s no question about that.

With respect to– I mean, this relates to what– the other question relates to what you brought up, Bill, about the connection or the potential connection between essentialism and vanishment. My idea– my sense of that relationship was if you accept this– if essentialism– a sense of the relationship was if essentialism means you got to have features X, Y, and Z in order to be authentically whatever, Yurok or Ohlone or whatever, you’ve got to have features X, Y, Z, then since all cultures change, eventually, people don’t have X, Y, Z, and then they’re no longer– then they’re no longer that culture because those are quote unquote, “essential properties.”

So that’s the reason why I personally saw those two things as linked and that’s what enabled him to call cultures quote unquote, “extinct,” even though he knew perfectly well that there were lots of people around who belonged to those communities but they no longer, in his opinion, had the quote unquote, “essential properties” of those communities.

[BILL HANKS] Yeah, as a Mayanist who works in Yucatan, we call that the curse of the pyramid.


You’re either classic Maya or it’s all polyester.


I mean, it’s– and it’s deadly. It’s a deadly– it’s a real ideology that way.

ANDREW GARRETT] Yeah. And Kent has written really– Kent is somewhere here. But Kent Lightfoot has written really compellingly about this problem in California.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I spent many wonderful afternoons with our late beloved colleague, Ira Jacknis, who had worked a lot in the archives, studying Kroeber. And I imagine he would be– have a lot to say if he were here today. But one thing I learned from him that there’s this– in the oral tradition of Kroeber around– when they opened up the building in 1959 that– a year before he passed away, that there’s two stories that Ira would tell me again and again. And I think it’s fair for me to share oral tradition, given that oral tradition is such an important part of this tradition.

And one, he would say is that Kroeber got stuck in the elevator that they still have problems with in that building. But the second thing he would say– Ira would say to me is that there was a sense that Kroeber was deeply uncomfortable about the building being named after him. And that might speak to Andrew’s thesis too about his desire to be somewhat anonymous in some of his research, that you shared with us at the beginning of your presentation.

I’m not sure if there’s any verification for that, that Kroeber felt that way, and of course, he would pass away the year after that. But I can’t help but think, and I was thinking this during the years of debate we had, that Kroeber, himself, might agree that his name had been removed from the building in the possibility that he would not have wanted his name to be there in the first place.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] This is a question for the whole panel. Considering that the namesake of this university was a Slaver, who wrote pamphlets in defense of the institution and has had his name removed from a library at Trinity College in Dublin, what lessons can come out of this whole unnaming Kroeber Hall for a question that seems to inevitably be coming for this university at large?

I wonder if I could ask a question about the paradoxes of temporal positionality. The point of view of Kroeber and company during the period we’re talking about was one of being advanced, being modern, being ahead of a culture that was vanishing, the cultures that were behind. And we obviously feel uncomfortable with that. And yet, we do it from a position which is, in fact, also that of temporal advance, that we are hundreds years after them, we are hundreds years more, somehow, enlightened. We have learned something that they did not know.

There was, of course, a famous argument by E. P. Thompson that we ought to avoid the enormous condescension of posterity, by which of course, he meant not taking the working class of Britain as some have simpler than ourselves. But there is also a potential for the enormous condescension of posterity towards figures even like Kroeber, that is to say, our own position of being quote, “advanced” needs, I think, to be at least relativized or at least qualified by the experience of their getting it wrong. That advance, however we define, is not sufficient to justify critical judgment, that we have to have other standards besides simply being further along in a process, which is not really progressive.

[ANDERW GARRETT] So my argument in the book is not as sophisticated as that because I’m only a linguist.


But hold your wallet. I mean, my argument is that what occupies that place, is not that people– not that people are doing that but that elites in the university are generally uncomfortable with the history of the university. And picking somebody to blame allows us to stop looking at Hearst and all the other people who are much quote unquote, “worse.”

So as I say near the end of the book, he winds up being the fall guy. And I quote Raymond Chandler as saying that, “Dead people are the best fall guys,” because there are people who are still living who are responsible for quite a lot of injury. And it’s much easier to pick a professor who’s long dead than to pick ancient patrons whose families are still– hello, internet, who’s families are still influential and living, people who are still colleagues or former colleagues.

[JAMES CLIFFORD] I’d like– Martin Jay’s question has brought me up short and made me start thinking because its logic would go so far as to say, don’t do– never unname anything from the standpoint of some– more advanced knowledge, some postcolonial consciousness or whatever it might be, some sort of virtue that’s associated with an advanced– but–

And so then, well, do I agree with that? I mean, well, no, there are certain things that I think really do deserve unnaming, and then there’s those that are debatable, and then there are those that really don’t. And so I think, OK, we’re talking now about– when I say debatable, we’re talking about a context where there are actually substantial discussions and also where the process takes enough time so that people can reflect.

We have, in Santa Cruz, an argument going on about unnaming our community college, Cabrillo College, because Cabrillo, who it’s named after, was a conquistador, and he did some bad things like pretty much everybody else in his time. And the process got very fraught with many letters to the editor. And it’s now been sort of put on hold. And there’s a way that the community is thinking about it together. And that seems to me right, however it turns out.

And the distinction, I guess, I might make between the abstract, dismissive, we know better attitudes of some sort of politically advanced view that sweepingly strips away lots of names, this one seems different in a sense because at least in my– working myself around to thinking that unnaming was OK, it really does have to do with a very specific local history and a community, the local history of the settler colonial institution of Berkeley in California in relation to the dispossessed populations who didn’t go away and are now back. It’s a local story and it involves local communities in a way that some of the more sweeping dismissive ones don’t.

And in my feeling, I guess, my feeling that unnaming in that context, that is a learning or a teachable moment of a certain kind, potentially. And I don’t think this one– and I think Andrew’s last chapter is devastating in the way that the casual and self-serving way that the university rubber stamped this one covered its ass, basically, in this process.

But I do think, overall, unnaming Kroeber Hall to make Berkeley a more welcoming place for Native people who have a long relationship with Berkeley, a fraught relationship. That kind of naming, I guess, I can go for. And so I guess that’s my– as far as I got thinking through your very far-reaching question.

[BILL HANKS] Can I add just a simple minded one sentence? It’s, what I hear is a thread in a number of the comments that what I keep thinking about is the effect of unnaming on the unnamer, not on the unnamed but on the unnamer. And there’s almost a reflexive sense that, I think, goes to something that you were alluding to– well, more than alluding to, which is that if I condemn from a position that I consider better, I’m better.

And the unnaming lets the unnamer off the hook, even when it’s not as bankrupt as the one– as the last chapter that you demonstrate. And I think that’s– I think that’s a very dangerous move that is– and I feel it hovers like an atmosphere around a lot of the discourse which condemns because I’m good enough to condemn, because I’m 100 years later, and I’m– like you said, you need different independent reasons for doing it, not just because we know better.

We know better.

Yeah. Because we don’t know better, actually. And we need to do much more than change names. That can only be a beginning. We’ve got to get that stuff out of the museums. We’ve got to– we need to do something constructive.

I mean, I also entirely support the unnaming. If it’s an open wound, take the name away. The rest of the arguments fall away in my mind in significance because they’re too dubious and they’re too– they reposition the one doing the critique. But if these are– but if it’s an open wound, be done with it. And I really like the suggestion that Kroeber might have liked that.

Yeah. Yeah.

So I’m sorry. I’m done.

[LEANNE HINTON] Go until about 10 after.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi. My question is, just looking forward, you’re still training graduate students. You have postdocs in your groups and labs. How is this moment going to impact the next generation of scholars in your fields? And do you think it’s going to diminish the academic courage or the ability of people to consider studying groups that they’re not a part of? I’m just really curious about how you think this unnaming of Kroeber Hall and really the erasure of his legacy on campus, although, it is very complex and painful, how it will impact your scholarship moving forward?

[ANDREW GARRETT] Scholar students, I mean, I think it’s quite different in different fields in linguistics. I mean, the Kroeber Hall business itself, I think, doesn’t have any particular impact. That’s just like a small perturbation or whatever. But in general, the challenge of how to reconfigure the field of linguistics so that we are respectful– so that we include Indigenous people and we are respectful in our relations with Indigenous people so that this will not happen to us in 100 years, that’s an interesting challenge.

And linguists have been– linguists are behind– I don’t know, it’s always– the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It seems to me that linguists are behind anthropologists in that respect that anthropologists have been thinking about this harder for a longer time and maybe have gotten themselves into a bit of paralysis. But they have been thinking about it longer and harder than linguists have.

In the last– the very last chapter of the book, I do talk about a few ways in which linguists, I think, don’t take to heart some of what I think are the lessons of the Kroeber story, but some do, and things are changing. It’s not a very helpful answer, maybe, but that’s what I got.

[BILL HANKS] The kind of fieldwork people do today is entirely different. One of the themes in Andrew’s book is about moving away from the textual collection. It’s not that people move away from textual or textuality, it’s a move toward pragmatics and interaction. It’s a positive move, not a– and it generates a lot of stuff.

But there’s a lot more– there’s a lot more care with how one interacts with– I mean, many of the most offensive practices that are reduced in relation to Kroeber, people just simply don’t do that. I’m not saying they’ve got it right. I mean, it’s like, when things go off the rails, you avoid that particular one, you’re going to have another problem, probably. So it becomes a process.

What there is that Andrew alluded to and Jim certainly knows because he’s been a very, very important shaper of this, I don’t know of any field as given to self-critique and self-immolation.


No, I mean it, though. I mean–

But the result could be paralyzing.

Yeah. Well, when you’re on fire, it’s paralyzing.


And so it’s a– I would say, it’s like a constant struggle. So I’m a– I have a background in both fields. And I’m very into arguing from evidence, it’s just the way I’m– was trained and wired. And the self-critique is important but at the end of the day, I want to learn about the world and I want to engage the world outside myself and my own shortcomings.

And I think that’s– I mean, this is not an answer more than a extended reflection, but it’s really– it doesn’t end this issue. And it doesn’t– I mean, I’ll just put a place marker for a different discussion because it’ll take too long, but as a Mayanist, we have many analogs of what we’re talking about here. We have the killing fields of the 1980s in Guatemala and the emergence of the Pan-Maya movement out of the ashes of that. We have the Rigoberta Menchu stole ballyhoo and all kinds of displacement of Maya people, and 500 years of colonialism.

So this is– it’s– I would say that I think the problem for an anthropologist is ubiquitous. It doesn’t matter where you work. Anybody who works in the Americas anywhere knows that they’re working in the shadow of Holocaust, almost. Well, Holocaust. And so your– and you don’t get it– you don’t figure it out and get a solution and go forward. So I think with working with, say, PhD people who are really getting into the field and so forth, it’s just– it’s a matter of problem by problem, trying to think your way around it. So that’s not a particularly convincing answer but that’s what I would say.

[LEANNE HINTON] Thank you. So you can go– there’s two more questions, then let’s just not anybody else raise their hand.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I just want to preface my question with a quick perspective. I transferred from community college. And I was like, wow, I get to go where Kroeber and Ishi were. And I get to be studying anthropology. It’s such a historic place. And I graduated in 2013. And I had a wonderful time here. And I always recommend anthropology to everyone.

And so years later, I’m sitting at home in quarantine, saying they’re going to rip Kroeber off the Hall, his name. And I’m reading the reasons. And I’m largely unconvinced by these reasons, even though I understand Kroeber is controversial. And I’m thinking, what’s happening over there. And I couldn’t find any answers or anybody having any discussions because it did look, from where I was sitting, removed from the university, very reactive and the politics of the moment. And I was like, how did Kroeber become the bad guy?

But coming here today, I’ve been looking for answers. And finding your book and finding this talk, I just want to say that every answer that everyone– every statement everyone gave, I found brilliant and made me feel what I was missing, like, oh, here’s the discussion. So I want to thank you all for that.

And my question is in thinking of how we can get out of this, what does the panel think of maybe something like a name like Ishi Kroeber Hall? I know it sounds silly, but maybe we’re honoring a time and not a person, this history. I mean, anything’s better than anthropology and art. I mean, come on.


Anyway, that was just my question. Thank you.

[BILL HANKS] Call it Building 53. Put us in a Quonset hut.

[LEANNE HINTON] I just want to look forward a little bit because the newest buildings have– that have been named, they’re not named after people who’ve done stuff at all. They’re named after donors.


And they just– yeah, no, I mean, they just– the Meredith Morgan Eye Center, where I get my eyes done, is no longer Meredith Morgan– he was a beloved dean for three decades. And it’s just been renamed after a donor. And they pushed his statue into the corner too.

So I guess, what’s to keep– we have such high standards for who they’re named after, but I mean, take any donor that gives money, they slap their name on a building. So– well, they’ll be taken off when we can ask them, what have you done for us lately?


OK, everybody. Thank you, panelists, for a wonderful panel discussion. And thank you, Andrew Garrett.


[VOICEOVER] Thank you for listening. For more information about Social Science Matrix, please visit

Book Talk

Vincent Bevins – “If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution”


Recorded on October 17, 2023, this video features a talk by Vincent Bevins, an award-winning journalist and correspondent, focused on his book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.

The panel was moderated by Daniel Aldana Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley and Director of the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2. This event was co-sponsored by (SC)2 and Social Science Matrix.

About the Book

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution tells the story of the recent uprisings that sought to change the world – and what comes next. From 2010 to 2020, more people participated in protests than at any other point in human history. Yet we are not living in more just and democratic societies as a result. Over four years, the acclaimed journalist Bevins carried out hundreds of interviews around the world. The result is a stirring work of history built around one question: How did so many mass protests lead to the opposite of what they asked for? From the so-called Arab Spring to Gezi Park in Turkey, from Ukraine’s Euromaidan to student rebellions in Chile and Hong Kong, If We Burn renders street movements and their consequences in gripping detail. Bevins draws on his own strange experiences in Brazil, where a progressive-led protest explosion led to an extreme-right government that torched the Amazon. Careful investigation reveals that conventional wisdom on revolutionary change has been gravely misguided. In this groundbreaking study of an extraordinary chain of events, protesters and major actors look back on successes and defeats, offering urgent lessons for the future.

About the Speakers

Vincent Bevins is an award-winning journalist and correspondent. He covered Southeast Asia for the Washington Post, reporting from across the entire region and paying special attention to the legacy of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia. He previously served as the Brazil correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, also covering nearby parts of South America, and before that he worked for the Financial Times in London. Among the other publications he has written for are the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, the Guardian, Foreign Policy, the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and more. Vincent was born and raised in California and spent the last few years living in Brazil.

Daniel Aldana Cohen Daniel Aldana Cohen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, where he is Director of the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2. He is also Founding Co-Director of the Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank. He is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green Deal (Verso 2019).

Watch the talk above or on YouTube. Or listen to it as a podcast below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. A transcript of the talk is available below.


[DANIEL ALDANA COHEN] Hi, everybody. Welcome to the Matrix, the other one. This is where the mind really gets blown, you know, that Keanu Reeves stuff. So I’m really, really thrilled that we have Vincent Bevins here to talk about if we burn. I’m going to say a little bit more about Vincent in a second.

Just the basic format here. I’m going to introduce Vincent. He’s going to give a talk for about 40 minutes. I will use my moderator’s privilege to ask a question or two. We’ll get some questions from you all. And then we’ll have a little bit of time for just kind of milling about, if folks want to meet Vincent.

We unfortunately, have not yet overthrown capitalism. So there are books for sale. There are five hard copies. I will handle the transaction. We’re not going to sell Vincent here during his talk. So there are five copies here. If you’d like to get a copy, get it signed by Vincent. And we also have flyers with the QR code that will take you, not to Amazon, but to the publisher’s website, if you want more info or want to buy that way. And I’ll note Vincent is not like some of us, is not a professor. And so these things matter.

All right. So Vincent Bevins is a brilliant, brilliant thinker and writer. He’s an award-winning journalist and a correspondent. He covered South East Asia for the Washington Post, reporting from across the entire region, paying special attention to the legacy of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia. He’s also served as a Brazil correspondent for the LA Times covering a bunch of South America. And before that, he worked for the Financial Times in London. And this gives a little bit of a sense of the geographic scope of this extraordinary book.

Vincent’s first book was the award-winning The Jakarta method: Washington’s anti-communist crusade and the mass murder program that shaped our world. This is a book that I have bought for many people, including for a very good friend of mine on July 4, Independence Day this year as a kind of ironic gift that went over really well. So just a really, really amazing world-shaping book, The Jakarta method. And I think this book is also going to be a reference for years to come and extremely important for people thinking about and working on radical social change.

Let me just other note quickly as well that Vincent has written for a number of other publications, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and many more. Vincent also grew up in California, if you want to talk about that. But just to step back, once again, it’s really, really, really an honor and a delight to host Vincent Bevins here. Thrilled to hear what you got to say. I read the book. So I feel spoiled. And I’m really excited to hear this version of your talk. So without further ado, Vincent Bevins.

[VINCENT BEVINS] Yeah. Thank you so much for that introduction, for putting this together. This book came out two weeks ago. I must have been running around the country doing bookstore quick talks. And this is my attempt to put together some version of the book talk that can be delivered in an academic context. Obviously, I’m not a professor. I don’t know how to deliver academic talks. But I put together very, very crude slides. Please forgive the graphics. This is the second time in my life I ever made slides.

But I’m going to try to talk about the book in a way that can introduce what it tries to do, and also some of the things that emerge out of it that I think could be relevant here at Berkeley. It’s really good to be back. I went here like 15 to 20 years ago. So it’s really great to be back. Yeah. Please put up with me being bad at lecturing and PowerPoint.

So this book is really a work of history written by a journalist. It’s a book of history that focuses on the entire world from 2010 to 2020. Obviously, you can’t really cover everything that happens in the world over the course of 10 years. So like most works of history, it picks a particular set of concerns, a particular set of questions around which to organize what to include, with which the answers that it tries to provide a question– sorry, it is revolved around a certain question. It tries to provide answers to that question.

Now, this book acts as if the most important thing to happen in the 2010s is a eruption of mass protests around the world. So everything indicates that from 2010 to 2020, more people participated in mass protests than at any other point in human history. These protests were often experienced as euphoric victory at the moment of the eruption. But then after a lot of the foreign journalists like me have left, and we look at what actually happened, the outcome was very different than what was originally expected or indeed hoped for.

So the question that really drives this history around which it is built is, how is it that so many mass protests led to the opposite of what they asked for? And to construct a history around that question, I carried out 225 to 250 interviews in 12 countries, with people that either put the movements together, or responded to them in the government, or lived through these eruptions around the world.

And so the answer to the question is really the history itself, right. This book is not structured as an argument. It’s not me saying, this is what happened. I think the only answer to that question is really in the events themselves. But to try to give a talk around that approach to history, I want to explain how I did approach that history, and what sort of comes out of that approach.

So the first thing, very, very quickly. If you go back to the history of protest in general, or the ways that human beings have responded to injustice over the centuries, it becomes very clear. And if you look at the work of Charles Tilly, American sociologist, that in the moments when people experience injustice or believe that they should respond to elites that are abusing them, people respond with what they already know, what they already know how to do, even if this is not the thing that would work the best, right?

So “in moments of rebellion, people turn to what is familiar, even if something unfamiliar might work much better.” And the language he uses is repertoire of contention. And that word repertoire is fittingly theatrical and musical. There’s a set of things that people know how to do, whether or not they’ve already happened in a given country, or they’ve seen them somewhere else. And they, sort of, improvise in the moments in which they’re trying to respond to injustice.

And there’s another concept he has, which is the invisible elbow, which is that unlike the theory of history, which the Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, that history is not driven forward so much by rational intentional planning, but by what you do in response to unexpected difficulties or unexpected opportunities. And he has this, I’m not getting into. It’s a long metaphor, where you like bang open the door with your elbow.

And then this is another book that is really important for framing how I approach this history. So back in the era of the Russian Revolution, Lenin said that there are decades when nothing happens. And there are weeks when decades happen. But in the era of social media, things quicken even more than that. Things move at such a rapid pace that often decisions are made in a split instance.

And then social media allows for a real flattening of space and time, which allows for, I believe, the transfer of solidarity across countries, which is quite inspiring. But also allows for people to see something else that happened somewhere else in another part of the world, and to adopt it to local circumstances very, very quickly.

Now, another thing to understand about protest, before I get to the actual events of the book, is the role of mediation. So if you look at the history of protest, there is no protest without media. Before there was mass media, people didn’t do protests, because it didn’t make sense to do so. If you think back to an era before newspapers, before the ability to reproduce images or words about a particular event, it would not make sense to convene in the center of a square or in front of a capital, if the only people that would ever see or hear about it were the people that were literally looking at it as it happened.

And so this is a book by Todd Gitlin from Students for a Democratic Society, in which he recalls how unexpectedly that organization was overcome by the power of media, how much it provided a opportunity and challenge that the SDS at the time in the early half of the ’60s was unprepared for. And it ended up overwhelming the movement.

Now, this is global, which is the oligarchic and very important media conglomerate in Brazil. Brazil is the main narrative of the book, because of my personal experience as a correspondent based in Sao Paulo from 2010 to 2016. Globo ends up mattering quite a lot in the story.

And then of course, we have social media, which everybody knows has something to do with this mass protest decade. Now I think often the role of social media can be overstated in this decade. The cases that I choose to analyze in this book are the cases in which so many people come to the streets that a particular government is either overthrown or fundamentally destabilized.

And I think for that to happen, you have to have multiple causality. You have to have a lot of things happening at the same time. And social media is one of the things that, I think, gets you over that line. But that doesn’t mean that we are– that is about social media that these protests are a result of social media.

Now, as I said, people respond to injustice with what they know, even if other things might not work. What I think is important to understand about the 2010s is that a particular repertoire of contention, a particular approach to injustice, a particular way to respond to perceived abuses becomes hegemonic, if not indeed seeming as the only natural way to respond to injustice.

This is the Indymedia logo. I don’t know if anybody from my generation remembers the importance of this website in the Seattle protests. The early internet indeed itself grew out of Indymedia in many ways. But the point I want to make is that the particular repertoire that I think that ends up becoming really dominant in many of the cases that I look at is the apparently spontaneous and leaderless, horizontally structured, digitally coordinated mass protest in public squares or public spaces that were said to prefigure the world they sought to bring about.

Now, each one of these elements comes from somewhere. And in the book, I try to explain where they come from. But for the purposes of this talk, all that is important is that they all are things that emerge historically and ideologically. They are not the only ways to respond. This is– they don’t necessarily go together. But they seem like they must in the mass protest decade, what I call the mass protest decade. And they shape the outcomes of, I believe, of the actual protests.

So the actual story begins in 2010, because I chose to start it in 2010, because I decided to make it a story of this decade. But initially, you have a protest in Egypt built around, or responding to the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in the interior of the country. You have other groups, more concrete actors, organizational forces in that country acting in a way which is more or less normal in the North African context. They end up overthrowing an autocratic leader of that country. But that inspires an Egyptian movement, which leads to this.

And now this is the image of Tahrir square, which really serves as a inspiring signal to the world of what is possible in the beginning of the decade. The important things to say about this at this moment are that, one, the people that organized the actions against police brutality, which ended up becoming this, did not expect to be able to take Tahrir square. They did not expect to be in a position to take the capital.

Two, it was actually built out of anti-imperialist and pro-Palestine organizing. Once this happened, they were quite shocked to find the world portray them as sort of pro-western, whereas in their minds, democracy in the Egyptian context would mean opposition to US imperialism, opposition to Israel and Saudi Arabia. But what happens is that on January 25, 2010, so many people show up to this protest against police brutality that they’re able to actually get to the square.

On January 28, what happens is they go to war essentially with the police. The police battle them. There’s a violent battle encounter with the police. The police lose. At this point, this mass of individuals, little more than a Facebook group a few days prior, is in a position to do anything. They could take the centers of power. They could seize the television stations, broadcast a revolutionary message. What do they do? They take the square. Why? That’s because that’s what they knew how to do. That’s what they had been doing for 10 years in pro-Palestine rallies and in anti-Iraq war rallies. And they take the square.

And this image that is often broadcast to people like me and everyone else in the world by outlets like, CNN is indeed a horizontally structured prefigurative, and very, very inspiring scene, right. Like Egyptians of every type, communists, lesbians, Islamists, every single time, old people, young people, rich people, poor people are all breaking bread together in the square and saying, we want democracy, or we want the dictator.

The dictator eventually falls. But the dictator falls how exactly? Well, the military seizes power and promises they’re going to put on elections. But this is an incredibly powerful signal, so much that around the world, people try to replicate the Tahrir model, including in the United States in conditions where the economic and political structures are very, very different, right. So in Madrid, in Greece, in Chile, and then in Occupy Wall Street, you have the intentional replication of the Tahrir model. And again, these are situations where the national political and economic circumstances are really, really different.

In the US context, you probably wouldn’t want the military to seize power, no matter how much you didn’t like Barack Obama at the time, or how much you thought you didn’t like the bank bailout, right? I think that Occupy Wall Street ends up having a positive outcome for the United States, at least according to the standards that would have been articulated by Occupy Wall Street, precisely because it doesn’t really become a mass protest event, because it actually just serves as a way to get out a particular message to the country.

People hear a message for the first time. And it sounds good. And it transforms politics in the United States. But around the whole world, you get the reproduction of this tactic. Then what actually happens in the rest of the world? You get the imperial response. NATO uses protests around the Arab world as a pretext to launch a regime change operation in Libya, destroying the country.

In Bahrain, where there is a classic example of monarchical, autocratic injustice, there is a Sunni minority monarchy that represses the Shia majority. What happens to that protest movement is Bahrain is invaded by Saudi Arabia, a US ally, of course, and just simply crushes it, and nothing–

At this point, everyone that’s watching, not only in the Arab world, but around the world realizes, oh, If you want to, you can just crush it, as long as you are willing to pay the price to your reputation, if indeed there is any, because if you’re Bahrain, no one’s really paying attention, because you’re a US ally. You can just crush it. And people look to what happens to Gaddafi in Libya. You know, Assad in Syria looks to what happens to Gaddafi in Libya and decides, I’d rather crush this uprising than suffer the same fate as Gaddafi.

Then in Egypt itself, this happens a little bit slower. What actually happens is that the military, who said they’re going to put on fair elections, actually, sort of, does. Mohamed Morrissey wins. But behind the scenes, reactionary Gulf monarchies start to organize a new protest movement, which can be used as a pretext for a military coup, installing the pro-Saudi Sisi dictatorship that takes over in June 2013, and is still running Egypt to this day. So if you’re paying attention to what happens at the end of the so-called Arab Spring, this is what you get. You get imperial backlash from NATO, from Saudi Arabia, and then reactionary monarchies in the Gulf.

But nevertheless, in 2013 you have Wave Two of this mass protest explosion, starting in Turkey in Gezi Park, then moving to Brazil, where I’m based, as a foreign correspondent, in Sao Paulo, and then in Ukraine going into 2014. And a couple of things end up becoming interesting commonalities across these three countries. The reason I have football ultras here in Turkey is that in all three countries, Turkey, Brazil, and Ukraine, the far right shows up. They were not the people that put together the initial explosion. But they show up. In all three countries football ultras matter.

Now, randomly, weirdly, strangely, whether or not the football ultras in your country happen to be left wing or far right ends up really mattering for the outcome of these explosions. Because if you think about it, right, like, the deep assumptions at the beginning of the 2010s is like, well, if everybody comes to the streets, that’s the people. But really, it’s this particular set of people always. And if we’re talking about street battles with the cops, these kind of guys do the best.

Now in Turkey the Besiktas and Fenerbahce fans like take their banners. And they put anarchist A’s and hammer and sickle slogans into their banners. In Ukraine, the far right– or, sorry, the football ultras are far right nationalist, if not actual Nazis.

Now what happens in Brazil? Now this is like the real like narrative of the book, because I lived through it. In June 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre, a group of leftists and anarchists puts together a set of protests demanding a lower price of transportation in Brazil. In the long term, they want to make all public transportation, free in the country. But what they are organizing against is the reduction of a $0.20 increase in June.

Now, the first four protests cause some problems on the streets. They end up shutting down some major streets. So what happens is Brazil’s mainstream media asks the military police, the military police in Brazil are a legacy of the US-backed dictatorship, to crack down and repress the protesters.

Now, if Brazil’s media, if the members of Brazil’s media came from the sections of Brazil’s population that usually experience repression at the hands of the military police, they probably should have known how this was going to go. But the country was shocked by the level of violence and repression unleashed by the Brazilian military police. And it was so widespread, and so violent that it hit people like me. It hit me. But more famously, it hit Juliana Vallone and other journalists in Brazil’s mainstream media.

And this is what causes Brazil’s mainstream media to flip from saying, this is a bad group of punks and anarchists who are causing trouble on the streets to, this is a glorious uprising in defense of the right to uprise, rise up in defense of something. It became a protest for protest’s sake. And as this happens, the media, trying to explain why it is a good thing that there’s a protest, whereas when one day earlier, they were saying we need to crush these kids’ heads, they supply a new set of reasons, a new set of things that this is actually about.

Now the people that join the protests after this day go there with a different set of ideas about what is actually happening on the streets. And they enter into, first, verbal, but then ultimately, violent conflict with the original protesters. Fast forward one week later, and a lot happens in that one week. Like I remember like hour-by-hour discussions online. Like this is really the thickened history. This really matters. Like so much happens in that week.

But one week later, the new arrivals on the street that we would now recognize as the beginning of a far-right movement in Brazil violently expelled the original punk, anarchist, left-wing groups that had actually organized the thing in that sort of pressure cooker cauldron of social forces. On the streets of June 2013, various movements are born, which end up helping to remove elected president Dilma Rousseff, put Lula in jail, and eventually elect Jair Bolsonaro. So that’s a long story you can trace on its own.

But what’s important is that the mediation in this moment doesn’t just change how the world understands the event. It changes what is actually happening on the streets concretely, who goes, and for what reasons, because it must always be so. Like how are you ever going to hear about a protest? It’s going to be through the media. Like you’re not going to actually have seen it yourself, unless you were there on day one.

And again, the global media now, the global media having invented the Arab Spring, the term in the first place, it was a US academic and foreign policy that came up with the Arab Spring. Global media starts to ask, was this the Brazilian spring? But this makes no sense in the Brazilian context. There is a popularly elected social democratic president with like 70% approval ratings.

The Egyptian solution in this context would mean a military coup. And ultimately, you do get a coup of a certain kind in Brazil three years later building out of this. But this strange idea that this is actually a revolutionary situation, just because the protest looks visually similar to what’s happened in Egypt is a real problem. And as I think ends up shaping the outcome, because the way we cover it, people like me, shape the actual explosion on the streets.

Now we could do– I could talk for a very, very long time about the very controversial and complex Maidan uprising from 2013 to 2014. But we see a set of characteristics that are repeating themselves. You see elements here that we’ve seen already. And we’re going to see later.

First the explosion is unplanned, right? At the very beginning, there’s only a few dozen, maybe 100 people, sort of, pro-western liberals often working, funded by certain NGOs from the West. This is not a problem. I interview the people. They explain why they get this funding. But they don’t expect this small movement in favor of association agreement with the European Union to explode into something that really threatens the President of Ukraine.

And then, of course, outside mediation is fundamental to shaping perceptions and indeed, what actually happens on the street. So if you’re watching Russian language media, you get a different idea of what’s happening, than if you’re watching Ukrainian language media, or if you’re watching English language media. And the way that Russian language media describes what’s happening shapes the reaction in Eastern Ukraine. The way that English language media describes what’s happening shapes the response of governments in the West.

And then there’s again, there’s this flattening of different phases of the event into one thing. Because what you really have is three movements in Ukraine. You have the initial moving of movements of the pro-western liberals. And then you have a crackdown, which leads to quite a lot of normal people entering the square that are all there because of a response to police brutality, even though the original European Association agreement was not that popular. Only about 40% of Ukrainians actually thought it was good.

And then after this big surge of regular people, you have a moment in which 50% of the country supports the uprising. A lot of people do not. And then violent elements end up helping to shape the particular outcome of Ukraine. Of course, just like you had in the so-called Arab Spring, just like you started to see in Brazil after 2013, you have outside actors realizing that they can or should respond to what’s happening and getting involved with things on the ground.

And the actual power vacuum which was created by the uprising is taken advantage of by existing elites. It’s not the people that rush into the square and say, we want the end of an oligarchic economy. It’s not the people that rush into the square and say, we want police brutality to end. It’s other politicians that are waiting in the wings. And they rush in. And they make it about what they want it to make it about, which is not taking away their own money, unsurprisingly.

And then in Hong Kong, just very quickly, you see one of the beginnings of a process which happens throughout the decade, which is the reproduction of a tactic, not only in a context which is entirely different, but after the original thing did not even work. So the Occupy Hong Kong in 2014 is a copy of Occupy Wall Street, which is a copy of Tahrir square, which is inspired by Tunisia in 2010. But by 2014, it’s already clear back in Hong Kong, or back in Egypt that it didn’t work. You have a dictatorship, which is more violent and more oppressive than the original Mubarak regime.

Now, I’m skipping ahead to the second half of the decade. And a couple of things happen in the English-speaking world, and then in Indonesia where I am, where people start to realize like, oh, anybody can use social media. Like anyone can do a protest. At the beginning of the decade, I don’t know if everyone here will remember it. Often find that young people find it hard to believe. I even find it hard to believe, even though I lived through it. There was this widespread idea in the 2010s that anything that happened because of social media was inherently and necessarily progressive.

After the election of Trump, a lot of liberals in the United States flipped entirely to believing the exact opposite, that rather than something that would make the world more democratic, and liberal, and American, the internet was something that would allow foreign powers to infiltrate the US democracy and make it more Russian, or make it just bad.

So I bring this up just because I’m in Indonesia. I get to Indonesia after leaving Brazil, right after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, which is made possible partially because of a group that pretends to be like the original protesters of the 2013 June movement. This group called MBL intentionally copies the name MPL, trying to steal the thunder of the original anarchist and punk movement in Brazil. They do essentially steal the thunder to the point where now if you ask people about MPL, they think you’re talking about MBL.

Anyways, the coup happens in Brazil, parliamentary coup, I think it’s proper to call it. And I get to Indonesia. And essentially you have the reproduction of this tactic of the mass apparently spontaneous, apparently leaderless protests in the public square being put on by an Islamist group that basically wants to imprison the governor for being Chinese.

Basically, there is a popularly elected Chinese governor of Jakarta. And they use fake news manipulation of a quote on a video on Facebook to claim that he’s committed blasphemy. And then they do the same thing that everybody else is doing. They all wear the same– they all wear a color. They go to the square. And it just starts to become– sorry. I went the wrong way. So I told you I don’t know what I was doing. How are we doing?

Yeah. So it just starts to become clear that like social media, this particular tactic, the mass protest in public spaces or public squares is a tool. Anybody can use it. It can be used for anything. It’s not necessarily progressive. Direct action of a certain type doesn’t necessarily lead to an outcome dictated by which action you’re using. So yeah, I include this because I’m there.

Now rushing to the end of the decade. Because in 2019 really as the pandemic arrives, there is another worldwide explosion of protests in many, many countries. It would be impossible to cover them all right now. But there’s two cases that I look at that end very, very differently in 2019. And the reason I include them is they both build on cases that came up earlier in the decade.

Now, in Hong Kong, you have a movement, which in the middle of the year, puts quite a lot of people, perhaps like half of adults on the streets in favor of the rejection of an extradition bill. I think it’s mostly about autonomy from Beijing. But like, there is a really popular movement on the streets, which rejects this particular extradition bill.

But as things go on longer and longer in the year, there is a radicalization of tactics. And a lot of Hong Kong protesters told me that there was a virtuous or unvirtuous cycle of media attention, where the movement would do things that seem to be represented in a positive way by global media. And they got further away from the actual base of regular Hong Kongers that were on the streets in June.

And what happens at the end of the year is because this question of who’s representing the movement in which particular way really matters. Certain things happen at the end of the year, where if you want to back in mainland China, if you want to point to this or that thing that the Hong Kong protesters did and say, that’s really what it is, you could just do it. And there’s no one to say, no, it’s not.

And just like on Fox News, you could pick the small amount of Hong Kongers that wave the American flag and say, this is a movement that is in support of America. And then that would became the truth for the viewers of Fox News. And there was nobody that could say that it wasn’t. And ultimately, what happens is Beijing just waits it out, waits for everything to calm down, and then imposes their own vision of an acceleration towards a unification with the Chinese system.

Now in Chile, you have a very strange case, where once more in 2019, you have protests led by young left-leaning like often anarcho punk kids in protest of the rise in metro fares. So the idea is to keep down the price of transportation once more. This once more leads to a police crackdown, which once more leads to a huge upsurge of support in the general population. And you have the [SPEAKS FOREIGN LANGUAGE], which is happening throughout the end of 2019 in Chile in really like making things very difficult for the people in power.

It matters. This is a theme in the book. But just skip past it. Mostly, it matters that union activity really makes it difficult for Chilean capitalism to proceed. But there is now, again, a huge amount of people in the streets, a huge amount of people, sort of, making it difficult for Chilean society to carry on as usual. But no one knows what to do.

What happens is Borich, who was part of the 2011 generation of protesters, who put students on the streets back in 2011 in protest of the neoliberal education system in Chile, he and other politicians come up with a deal behind the scenes in Congress and say, OK, we’re coming up with a peace accord. The peace accord says that the people on the streets are asking for a new constitution. And we’ll give it to them.

Now, the people on the streets say, actually, this is an authoritarian imposition of meaning onto us. The streets do not ask for this. You’re saying that’s what we asked for. We didn’t. You are in a top-down manner imposing meaning onto the street explosion. I think that they’re right. But I think that must always be the case with this particular type of explosion. There was never going to be a way in which the [SPEAKS FOREIGN LANGUAGE] spoke with a unified voice and said, this is what we want. We will demobilize if we get it. And so strangely enough, this kind of imposition gets enough people to leave the streets.

Now, a lot of the original anarchists, and leftists, and like seasoned street fighters that started the thing hate Borich for doing this. And this is a clip that goes viral on social media in Chile. They threw beer on his face. Like one of the interviewees in the book says that he is canceled. Like the left is like, Borich has betrayed us. We want nothing to do with him.

A lot of those same people one year later told me that they were glad that he did it, because it was the closest thing to a kind of representation that could be imposed on the square, considering all the options. And it was clear he understood well enough sort of what the streets was about to come up with a solution that was relatively satisfying to a group of people. Of course, he becomes the president, doesn’t pass the new constitution.

So in one way, he wins personally. The movement has not restructured Chilean society in the way that it hoped for, of course. But as I say in the book, like, if you’re a student protester in 2011, the best you can really hope for is becoming president.


Then, once you have power, then you’ve got to get to work. If you fail, that’s on you But he was somebody that managed to ride this wave to power. So very quickly to summarize. Again, the answer there’s no answer. It’s not an argument. The book is a history. I’m looking forward to hearing what people bring to it themselves and come away with, come away from it with.

But one thing that I think is– one helpful way to think about what happens in this decade is that this very specific repertoire of contention proved incredibly effective, more effective than expected at getting people on the streets. This was so successful. And the success, this unexpected success, put so many people on the streets that you actually generated a revolutionary situation. A protest accidentally created the conditions for either a revolution or radical reform.

But a protest, as I said, something which is always about mediation and communication, and this particular type of protest, which is really about a bunch of individuals bringing their own causes to the streets without often knowing each other is very poorly suited to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. So in a situation where either you can, in the case of Egypt, become the new government, because there’s no one left.

The police ran away. They took off their uniforms. And they fled into the night. Or in other cases, where the existing government structures, the politicians, dictator, military are so scared that they’re willing to give up a lot to the streets in order to hold on to power. Both those situations require someone to elaborate what is wanted, or at least or to stand in for the larger movement to represent it.

Now, back in the era of more functional representative politics, there would have been already pre-existing democratic structures to decide who can stand in for this movement, who can articulate what it wants. I trace these tactics back to the split between Black civil rights organizations in ’50s and ’60s, which would have had mechanisms for deciding who’s in charge, and who’s allowed to speak. And then there’s a true representative process.

But this type of horizontally structured protest was either ideologically opposed to, or simply concretely incapable of taking advantage of the situation in a way which require representing the mass of individuals on the streets. So in this moment, you create a power vacuum. You either unseat the existing government, or there is a loss of power, a, sort of– the government’s off balance.

If you want to understand what actually happens in many, many cases, you look at who rushes into that power vacuum. And that can be existing elites, economic elites, military elites, a regional imperialist power, a global, the United States, the world’s largest imperialist power. And that tends to be a good way to understand what happens.

So then, again, taking this as a rubric for understanding what happens, you can– it starts to become clear that this particular type of contention, this particular type of mass protest explosion, tends to work best if it is happy with who’s ever going to fill that vacuum. So pro-systemic movements, which are happy to let what is in the air in the global system rush into that vacuum do very well. But counter systemic movements, which want to restructure the global system, which are really going to make problems for elites, either nationally or globally, are going to have a hard time, because there’s going to be a counter revolution. Revolution always leads to counter revolution.

And the fact that things like Tahrir were interpreted as if they were the Berlin Wall, I think, matters quite a bit. Because the Berlin Wall, at least in the case of East Germany. If you interpreted the Berlin Wall protests as we want liberalism, we want capitalism, that is what they got, because West Germany just came in and filled the vacuum. Now, in the rest of the former Communist world, things went very, very differently very, very poorly, which matters to the story in Ukraine, and many other places.

But the point that I come away with, again, being wildly over-simplistic, is that pro-systemic movements do OK with this kind of movement. When you properly want to restructure the system or make real problems for powerful forces, the counterattack is going to come. And you’re going to be poorly suited to withstand the counterattack.

Now, that’s basically the end of the talk. Here, all I’m saying is that this book was structured around, as I said, 220, 50 interviews that I did with people around the world. The reason they sat down with me, the whole point of this project, the reason that they would give me my their time and talk through moments which were very traumatic was that they wanted to learn from what happened. They wanted to align tactics with goals, if indeed, the problem is really just that there’s a slippage between tactics and goals than what appears to be a pessimistic book becomes an optimistic one.

So these are just some works. Professor John Charles here at Berkeley. He’s one of many thinkers around the world that come to similar conclusions about how to fix this mismatch of tactics and goals, and to be wildly simplistic. The idea is to organize proper– create proper organizations that allow for the proper exercise of collective action before there’s an explosion. Build in the off season. Build real structures that can allow human beings that want to reshape the world in the same way to act together in the moment of the uprising, because it’s very difficult to put together an organization in the uprising.

So I’m grateful to thinkers like this, including to you all here at Berkeley, for the work that they’ve done, thinking through these questions. And I’m grateful too for the invitation here to speak today, and to all of you for coming. So thank you very much.

[DANIEL ALDANA COHEN] OK. Thank you so much for that deeply unsettling talk.


Oh, that you ended on the correct note. We need to spend more time together, especially post-pandemic. So here we are. And especially as war crimes proliferate around the world, including right now, it’s good to be together talking about radical politics.

One thing I failed to do earlier to offer huge thanks to the Matrix here at Berkeley for hosting and putting on this talk, to Eva Szeto, and the rest of the staff here. So thank you. And the spatial climate collaborative for hosting this event, which is something that I run. So thank you to myself. But it’s also supported by many.

I’m going to ask one question. Not the question–


Actually. And then I’m going to open it up. And we’ll take a couple of questions at a time. We’ll have a bit of a conversation. And then we’ll deformalize. And folks can come get books. I’m going to pass around these flyers that have links to the publisher’s website. Do you mind grabbing that?

Yeah. Just pass them around.

So one of the contradictions you bring up in the book that really resonated with me is that it seemed like this kind of movement that wasn’t well-organized. But it was more horizontal list, but poorly set up to take advantage of these moments. But that was the kind of movement that was really able to take off.

And at the time, there were like, what you call like normal organizations, or in the book, Leninist organizations that were functioning, but at had no ability to blow up. So like, I went to Wall Street marches before Occupy Wall Street. 2,000 people came. Half of them were selling Trotskyist newspapers. It was always a good time. But obviously, it did not have the ability on its own to grow.

And in Brazil, as you mentioned, like the Workers’ Party, the housing movement. There are a lot of big protests in Sao Paulo before the big ones. But they didn’t– they seemed to have a ceiling, which was pretty low. So I wonder if you could just speak a bit about this like, I guess paradox between the kind of movement that can blow up seems to be the kind of movement that can’t take advantage of blowing up.

And is that because of social media, which you talk about is that just that the organized left has been in a long creative decline, but could rebound and just learn from what happened last decade and do better. Like maybe just speak a little bit about that weird paradox, where existing well-organized movements just couldn’t explode. And the ones that could explode, couldn’t take advantage.

[VINCENT BEVINS] Yeah. Let me get back with this thing. I want to turn it off and on. Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. And in the book, I try to distinguish between two types of things that make concrete horizontality in the streets happen. I try to distinguish between the self-conscious, the ideological belief that this kind of a structure of protest, or indeed of social movements is the right or the best way to organize things.

And in the case of Brazil, the MPL believed this. A lot of what made the PT and the MST organized, either the political party that was running Brazil at the time, or a left wing social– A lot of what made them so frustrated with MPL is that they believed that there really were mechanisms that allowed for a social movement to make claims on the state and operate in an effective way. But they believed actually that this was the best way to organize.

In other situations, in other cases around the world, Egypt is one that I’ll bring up, because there was a picture on the screen of Tahrir square. It was not that there was a self-conscious belief in horizontal totalism. There was concrete horizontality, which emerged as a result of decades of the neoliberal decimation of social structures in Egypt.

A lot of the original people that put on the January 25 and January 28 uprisings would have loved to have powerful unions, and political parties, and revolutionary organizations. They were putting together the best of what they could in the years between 2005 and 2011. They were just very, very weak and ended up not having as much of a influence on the outcome, as they would have liked.

So like in most moments in history, there’s a confluence of material and ideological factors, which makes certain things happen. And I think social media is one of the material factors. Social media makes it slightly easier to get people on the streets all at once. Zeynep Tufekci, Turkish sociologist talks about this, talks at length about how much work was really put into putting or getting the Black civil rights movement protests together, how it took like years of actual organizing, which meant that everybody knew each other. They had an idea of what they were all doing.

Social media allows people to all see the same viral post, and be out there the next day, often with their own understanding of what makes this possible. So depending on where we are, it could be more or less ideological, or more or less material that causes these uprisings to be unstructured. But then looking forward, and looking at the way that these people look at the future, I’m thinking specifically of Brazilian philosopher, Rodrigo Nunez, we cannot wish ourselves back into a different technological or social space.

We do live in a social space in which concrete structures, concrete working class organizations have been decimated. We do live in a world in which people do everything based on what they see on social media. Like literally, even if you read the news afterwards, that’s how you get all of the information.

So he does not discount the need for, at the very least, the existence of this type of unexpected mass mobilization in the future. But he argues for what he calls an ecology of organizations, ecology of movements. Basically, the idea is this thing is probably going to keep happening the better– the more organization you have now, the better you’re going to be prepared for it. It’s not a guarantee of success.

But if there’s another explosion, but then also some idea to some extent to the possible extent that there are real organizations that are willing to ideologically make the bid to represent the larger movement to say, we think it’s about this. And then they win the assent of the people that is going to put us in a better situation, going forward, than the one in the last decade.

But you can’t– yeah, the concrete decimation of organized structures is something you can’t just snap your fingers and make go away. All you can do is build the best ones you can. And know that they will be interacting with very imperfect social media firms in a very individualized and atomized society that we all find ourselves in.

[DANIEL ALDANA COHEN] Thank you. And I just have to note to understand more about the decimation of these movements. You need to read Vincent’s first book, The Jakarta method. It’s very clever what he’s doing here. It’s all connected.

All right. So let’s open it up. Do you want to put up your hand? And I will just try to do three at a time. OK. We’ll start here. I see a hand back there, and then over here. Go ahead.


[VINCENT BEVINS] Yeah, both really good questions. So the criterion for inclusion in this book is mass protests that get so large that they fundamentally destabilize or overthrow an existing government. According to that criterion from 2010 to 2020, all of the countries are either in the traditional Global South or at the very least, outside of the traditional first-world. So South Korea is in there. Ukraine are in there, they’re not. They’re in a special case.

Now at the same time, I also made up that criterion myself. I could have– I could have done whatever I wanted. Why did I structure it that way? One, that is just my experience as a journalist. But two, I do think there is something about the way that Brazil is a more normal country. I mean, this book is ideally written for a global reader about the global system. I think that Brazil and Egypt are more normal countries than the United States. And I go into this in the conclusion.

The United States is the most powerful country in the world. There can never be an imperialist power that takes advantage of a power vacuum in the United States, because there’s no country that’s more powerful than the United States. In the case of western Europe, which I do talk about briefly, I talk about Occupy Wall Street when governments in western Europe decide to repress their populations using violence, like every state in the entire world, does they are not viewed by the global media as sort of crossing some line and– asking for or justifying a regime change operation.

As I say in the case of Spain and Greece, no matter how big protests got in Europe, NATO is not going to invade itself. NATO is not going to bomb itself like it did in Libya. And also just in the case of what happens in the United States in 2020, which I think is really quite relevant. I just wasn’t here. So I figured the best way for my book to interact with what everybody lived through here from 2014, starting 2014 Ferguson, right, to 2020 with the George Floyd uprising was, I think, to come with their own experiences of what happened and have that in the back of your mind, interacting with what’s in the book.

And I’ve been grateful to hear that some people said that is indeed what happened. And then yes, independent media. So media Midia Ninja does come up. I think they come out like right after June 2013. I think that the– Yeah, I think that they sort of emerged from that cauldron. And they’re one of many, many organizations that are born in that moment. And so to the extent that journalism is going to exist, I think it’s going to be dominated mostly by large corporate outlets like the ones that I work for.

This is going to be something, again, you can’t snap your fingers and wish your way out of it. But the more that there is, given the recognition that any kind of an uprising or proper social struggle will also have the media as a terrain of struggle, understanding that, I think, it becomes clear that the more tools you have at your disposal to put out a message to cover things, from your perspective, to try to tell the truth above, and around, or below what’s happening from the mainstream outlets, which are going to have their own particular ideological assumptions. This really matters.

And so yeah. So independent media is another thing– is another one of the structures, I think, that can be built as part of this learning process, looking back on the 2010s. Yeah. So I think that what you’ve just described is possible. But the inverse is also possible. So it can be the case that protests get a lot of people in the streets. They expend a lot of energy, then nothing happens. And that makes them disillusioned or that causes them to demobilize.

The exact opposite can happen. A protest can be the beginning of a movement, because people get out there. They realize what it really needs to be done. They meet other people. They realize how– they realize– at the same time that they realize how long the path is to real change, they can see the path. And then there’s a lot of experiences of people getting together in a big protest movement, and then building on that. So it can go really either way. And again, like, that’s a point– that’s kind of a point that I try to make throughout the book.

Like anything can go either way. Like a protest can be used by– yeah, it’s a tool. A protest can be used. And this relates to your second question. In 2019, there was a coup in Bolivia. That coup was preceded by protests. Like in the ideological framework of the early 2010S, that would have been very strange, because all protests were good.

But if you look at the history of Latin America going back to the coup in 1964 in Brazil, or in 1973 in Chile, the US-backed coup that removed Salvador Allende and installed the Pinochet regime, there was always protests before. Like they got the middle class and reactionary elements on the streets of protest. And then the military would use that as an excuse to do what they were going to do, which was to seize power. And this is what happened in 2019.

You can have protests in the future. And this is something that I like beg, in the conclusion, like journalists like me to pay attention to. Like who is actually in the streets? What are they actually asking for? What would actually happen if they win? Because often, journalists like me from major corporate outlets around the world, the only thing they pay attention to is, like is the government good or bad? And if it’s an enemy of the United States, then protests are always good. And if it’s an ally of the United States, then protests are always bad.

But like, the concrete configuration matters. And like this particular type of protest, I didn’t really mention this in the original talk, I did a little bit, requires, I think too much– relies too much on people like me to interpret a very discrete set of moments and provide a neat explanation. But given that people like me will do a very bad job of answering that question, everyone just needs to be as aware as possible of that dynamic, that a protest can go either way. It can have different elements. It can change from one day to the next. It can go upwards or downwards. It can mobilize people. It can inspire people. Or it can do the exact opposite.

So in the book, I look at– I recount 13 mass protest events. But then I ultimately decide that three of them aren’t really protest events. And so there’s 10. Seven of them go backwards. And three of them are either somehow victories or a mixed bag. As a rule, the more powerful and autonomous of a labor movement you had, the more likely it was for things to go well.

Now the original Tunisian revolution, which inspired so much of the rest of the so-called Arab Spring, would not have happened without the [SPEAKS FOREIGN LANGUAGE] French, [SPEAKS FOREIGN LANGUAGE], which was a large and well-organized labor movement, which had some autonomy from the Tunisian state, unlike the Egyptian labor union, which did not have autonomy. It was totally subsumed into the post-Nasserist social structure.

The [SPEAKS FOREIGN LANGUAGE] had a large radical element in the mid-level of the union structure. So there was like Tunisia is quite intertwined intellectually with France. There was a lot of Maoist that had been in Paris in the mid-level of the [SPEAKS FOREIGN LANGUAGE]. And also, there was other concrete like, even like lawyers organizations, proper civil society organizations, which made Tunisia initially an actually successful revolution in the way which almost no other North African or Middle Eastern case was.

South Korea, the Candlelight revolution, which is very briefly in the book, which is like a clear success, labor plays a huge role. And then in Chile, labor action in the ports plays a huge role in actually making the government need to do something. Because a government in a capitalist economy can tolerate people walking back and forth for six months. That’s not a problem. If the economy grinds to a halt, then they have to do something about it. So as a very, very broad rubric for understanding who’s the most successful, the more powerful, and organized, and genuinely autonomous working class movements you had, the better things went.

So I’ll do yours first, because I think the answer is simpler. Most people, no, do not have an answer. I found this with like org– I mean, like, I found this with like, organizers of movements around. Like because, like, many, many people that lived through 2013 in Brazil, every time something like that happened somewhere else from 2013 to 2020, we would watch it very carefully, and think like, oh, are they going to have their version of June 2013? Like, how do they think this is going to end? And like, without calling out who they are, or which movements these were.

Like I did have conversations with major figures that were either organizing or representing some of these movements in other countries towards the end of the decade. And I was like, yeah, but how is it like? What do you think’s going to happen? And there wasn’t– like there literally wasn’t an answer. The idea was just, kind of, like this deep– I think, like– and this is an assumption that I think that I held too, until June 2013. Is that if everybody– if enough people come out, if everybody comes together behind a just cause, somehow this pushes history forward in like a mystical, or like, teleological, or religious sense.

Like it just happens. Like we’ve showed the government what we want. And either they already knew, or in the case of Brazil, they also wanted the same thing. But they were like, we already want– like, why are we fighting? We actually all want the same thing. Or they knew, like we’re in the case of the Hong Kong in 2014, they demonstrate very clearly that there is a yellow movement that wants a particular system in Hong Kong. And that they– and they demonstrated that Western media will reproduce that movement positively. Beijing knew all that. They knew that very, very well for decades. That was the whole point of the yellow movement.

So no, often– and, then, in the case of Brazil, for example, just go back to my own experience, not only did people not have varying or non-existent answers as to how this was supposed to lead from one thing to the next, people like me in June 2013 were called upon– were handed this very strange task of going out into the streets, talking to 11 people, and then coming back and telling the world what the protests were about.

And what happened, and I recount this in the book, is very strange. Without any of us wanting to do this, we all came back with a different version, which flattered our own ideological predispositions. Like I had a particular idea, which lined up with my idea of what kind of things should be happening in Brazil. And everybody did this. And I think this is the Globo logo. They did this.

I talked to– so, in the book, I speak to the leaders of the [SPEAKS FOREIGN LANGUAGE] the original punks and anarchists that organized the protests in June 2013, as well as Fernando Haddad, who’s the mayor at the time. And now he’s the finance minister of Brazil. No one thinks this happened in a conspiratorial way.

But Globo, the major, sort of, right-leaning oligarch-owned media outlet redefined what happened on the streets, not out of– not on purpose, just because they’re trying to come up with what is a good thing that a protest can be about. And they don’t come up with the decommodification of public transportation that the anarchists would have wanted. They come up with, yeah, anti-corruption, which is like, again, like means nothing. Like everyone’s against corruption, right? Like it’s tautological. Everyone’s against corruption, right?

What kind of anti-corruption? The specific type of anti-corruption that Brazil got was a group of extreme right judges pretending to be apolitical that were working behind the scenes with the United States government and breaking all the laws. But initially, you could say anti-corruption. It’s like, oh, yeah, we’re all anti-corruption. I’m anti-corruption. I’m anti-crime. I’m anti-bad things, right? OK.


To come back to your question, I think, and this is me. I’m trying– I try not to speak personally, but sort of summarizing what comes out of a lot of conversations at the end of the book. I think that anyone can imagine a situation in which basically every single tactic is justified or legitimate, violence, destruction of property. Like if you can imagine– everyone can imagine like a situation in which something can be justified, and a situation in which a particular action, even if justified, is counterproductive, because it will be you’ll lose the information about it. You’ll lose the communications struggle. You’ll end up being portrayed as adventurous.

So like, I keep– there’s quite good clip on YouTube of Fred Hampton from the Black Panther Party, in which is, of course, a group which is not anti-violence, right? They like are formed here in Oakland following around cops with guns. He denounces elements on the White new left for being adventurous. And it’s like really good like three-minute clip on YouTube. And he’s not saying violence is bad.

He’s saying that the way you’re acting right now is going to hand our enemies a tool with which to crush us. You have to build. It has to be part of a larger strategy. It has to be submitted into a more concrete well-thought-out struggle that will lead somehow from A to B. So again, it’s like really, really easy and stupid answer. But like context and relationship to a larger theory of change, I think, is the only way to answer that question. Yes.


Yeah. I’ll go backwards. Absolutely. This is the thing. In January 6 and January 8, like, I was like texting Rodrigo Nunez as January 8 happened. And I was like, oh, they’re having their eschatological moment, where they think that if just enough people entered the streets, that like, somehow like God will come down from heaven and deliver the country to Jair Bolsonaro.

And also there’s quite an interesting way of understanding social media. There’s a generational reading of social media, which I find quite interesting. Which is that the reading is that from 2007 to 2015, like, millennials get on social media. But then from 2015 to 2023, boomers get on social media. And they just like have different political goals. And they just use the same tools to try to end history by storming the capital of this or that country. And it doesn’t work out for anybody.

So like, a lot of people are asked like after January 8 in Brazil, like, how is this different? Because they stormed Congress in June 2013. Now his answer, he gave this answer a lot, is that the people in June 2013, they did storm Congress. But they actually still wanted the people inside to stay. I’m not sure if that’s really right.

I think that if you like Mark Weisinger, his book at the very beginning, like he establishes like a statistical correlation between how close the protests are to the centers of power, and how likely they accidentally just like unseat them. I think that perhaps if Rio was still the capital of Brazil, you might have seen an actual coup, like a violent coup in 2013.

But yeah, like, again, by June, again, I say this all the time. I’m going to say it again. Back in January– back in 2010, liberal media, especially liberal media in the United States thought that anything that happened because of social media was good. By 2020 it was the– 2020, it was the exact opposite. Like if you were to imagine now just like theoretically conjure the idea of lot of young men storming a Capitol because of a post they saw online, you would think this is probably a bad thing, rather than a good thing. This is– a lot of red flags are going to be raised.

To answer your question, yeah, like I didn’t get to this. But like, again, this was a really, really common theme. I forget the number. But in seven, or eight, out of the of the cases that I look at, it wasn’t the first thing. And this is the thing that the media makes a big mistake. It wasn’t the first thing that got people on the streets. It was the crackdown.

So like, in the case of Euromaidan, as I said, only 40% of Ukrainians actually thought that the association agreement with the European Union was a good thing. 38% were against. It was not a great agreement. But it’s the crackdown that 70% of the country supports. And then this creates this whole new movement, which often is a huge ball of energy, which does not know where to go. So I found this was a very, very common, almost like disappointingly simple explanation for a lot of the explosions, is that there’s a crackdown, there’s some kind of a government, which responds incorrectly, or there’s just because of social media.

So every state that exists that I know about right now, you can get a cop to beat you up. Like in the final instance, the reproduction of power relies on a guy with a stick or a gun to destroy the body of an individual, of a citizen. And if you go outside of whatever the rules of that particular society are, maybe the rules are a little bit more– the lines are drawn wider in like Norway than they are in like California or in Brazil. But you can get it to happen.

And this is another strange thing that came up in Hong Kong. Because there was this cycle of media reproduction of what was happening. And it ended up becoming a lot about not only the movement to change the governance system in the special administrative region, but police brutality. But like, in 2012 or 2011, surveys in Hong Kong would have not indicated that police brutality was a big issue for regular people. Like it wasn’t like Egypt, or like, Oakland, or Los Angeles, or Sao Paulo, where everybody knew the cops were quite brutal.

But in the era of social media, that thing that happens in the final instance, at the extreme, at the far end of the reproduction of state power is now visible to everybody all at once, which previously, you would have to be walking by the guy that actually got beat up or killed by the cops. So yeah, absolutely.

This is something that I found was a huge mobilizer, in addition to all the other things, I think I said, multiple causality– multiple causality over-determination are fundamental to understanding how anything can get this big. So there’s economic factors, structural factors, ideological factors, and then media factors. And absolutely, that was one.

On the books that came out 10 years later about June 13, June 2013, what I find interesting about them is they all say different things. But they’re all still right. You get a set of contradictory narratives, really contradictory narratives that are all based, in some sense, on fact. They’re all possible constructions of a truthful story based on existing evidence back to June 2013. So I spent a lot of the summer– well, I spent a lot of the summer with Brazil’s MST to say very intentionally structured social movement.

But I also spent a lot of time in Congress talking to the most powerful voices in what is left of Bolsonarismo, the extreme right movement in Congress. And they will say, our movement was born in June 2013. June 2013 was the moment when regular conservative Brazilians came to the streets, realized that we could protest, realized that we could build a new movement. And we are a movement that arose from the pressure cooker, the inspiring uprising of June 2013.

Anti-authoritarian leftists will say June 2013 was about public services. It was demands for better public services that got regular people onto the streets. They got working class Brazilians out in support of a movement that we created intentionally. That’s what happened in June 2013. The PT, not everyone in PT, there’s like, varying narratives, will say June 2013 was the beginning of a process, which allowed for a coup that was carried out with the assistance of foreign powers and national elites.

Those three wildly different narratives, I think, are all correct. They’re all equally possible. Because this particular type of explosion ends up being, I think, fundamentally illegible. And you can find in the morass so many different stories that you end up having different narratives come out of it. And that doesn’t mean that the people that come up with those narratives are lying. It’s just that’s the way these things go, which I think you can understand why a lot of the participants and organizers come to the conclusion at the end of the decade that that’s a real weakness.

Yeah. So no. It is precisely the fear of becoming authoritarian yourself, which leads to the initial questioning of hierarchical structures in the first half of the 1960s, especially in the US. And then certainly, at the end of– after the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea that taking power will mean that you will impose your will on other people. And I try to, as much as possible, trace that from its inception in a sympathetic way. Like it makes a lot of sense why people were afraid of reproducing what they saw as the errors of the Soviet Union, or the errors of other left groups around the world. It all makes a lot of sense. It is exactly– that is exactly where it comes from.

And again, I’m just going to go to him, because he talks about this in his book. And I use it in the conclusion. He says that the left, some parts of the left are paralyzed by the trauma of the 20th century, paralyzed by the ultimate– what ultimately comes out of certain organizational structures, organizational, or well-organized movements in the 20th century.

The conclusion that he comes to, after being a real part of the horizontalist anti-globalization movement in Brazil is that organization is a tool. Organization works. And if you’re going to actually use the tools that work to restructure society, there’s a possibility you’re going to make society worse. Organization can be used for good or for evil. There is the possibility that you will become worse than what you are trying to battle. But if you do not use the tools that work, then you’re abdicating responsibility and letting somebody else figure it out. That’s the conclusion that he comes to.

So what– I try to establish historically where this questioning of structure and hierarchy comes from, because it comes from, I think, the concrete decimation of left structures in the Cold War, you know, McCarthyism, I think, matters quite a bit for why the early SDS sort of takes the conclusion that it does. In the second half of the ’60s, different groups comes to different conclusions. But there’s a story in the first half of the ’60s, which really rhymes with what happens in the 2010s.

And yeah, it’s all very understandable. That is where it comes from. And then– that’s why I try to construct the book through interviews with people that had that approach. And then they took that approach into battle. And then this is what happens. So I try not to– I try not to come in and say, this is what I think about any particular structure. This is not what I think about any particular ideological approach to social change. This is what these people thought. This is what happened. This is what they think now. Hopefully, I do it in such a way that it’s not about me. But it’s precisely because people like him believed that so deeply in 2005, 2008 that I find him so credible in 2023 to come to a different conclusion.

To answer your question quickly, yes, I believe that power is, what was the word you used, spatial and infrastructural. That there are different ways to go out power across space and time. That there are many ways that you can come– that you can put real– impose costs on elites that will require them to respond, or at least take notice. But I’m not exactly sure that the squares is one.

I mean, in Tahrir square, if they wanted to, they could have just let those people live there. Like it doesn’t get in the way of anything. Like the government of Egypt could have just let those people stay there for six months, until they– and this is what happened in a lot of other places. Like a lot of other occupy-style movements, is that if they weren’t actually putting real pressure on the government, then they could just wait until people got tired, or cold, or had to go home.

So Tahrir served as a really important signal to the world, like, a bat signal of like, what we’re doing, and what we want. But I think a lot of people would come to the conclusion that should be combined with the other things that you suggested, which is to put pressure on other power centers, the economy, political, pressure, all kinds of things, strikes, boycotts, all kinds of things that you can think work alongside the, sort of, big communicative gesture of the square.

  1. I’m going to make two observations before we close. Thank you so much. The first observation is this is just such a great conversation to have. And I feel we’re like right in the nexus of organizing, reporting, and social science. And it’s a really great and fun spot, really fills the room in a way that doing just one or the other doesn’t always do so. So really, really great.

[DANIEL ALDANA COHEN] And I think in a sub-observation of that is, I think, what brings this together, is like a big book that takes on like, a big burning question, and with really clear and simple language. Like I think anybody who reads George Orwell’s Politics in the English language, which is a beautiful text, can recognize, I think, a huge amount of those– that craft in the work that you’ve done here, Vincent. So like, we’ve covered so many big ideas, but in a language that is super understandable. And for my fellow travelers in social science, taking note of that. So really, really incredible work.

The second observation is that Vincent’s handwriting is idiosyncratic, unique, very millennial. And if you’d like a piece of that handwriting, yourself, you only need to come up to me and get one of these books. And I think he will scrawl on it for you. So huge thank you to the Matrix, to SC2, for all of you for coming. And to Vincent, a round of applause for this.



Authors Meet Critics

Trevor Jackson, “Impunity and Capitalism: the Afterlives of European Financial Crises, 1690-1830”

Recorded on December 5, 2023, this Authors Meet Critics panel focused on Impunity and Capitalism: the Afterlives of European Financial Crises, 1690-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2022), by Trevor Jackson, Assistant Professor of History at UC Berkeley. Professor Jackson was joined by Anat Admati, the George G.C. Parker Professor of Finance and Economics at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and William H. Janeway, Affiliated Member of the Economics Faculty at Cambridge University.  The panel was moderated by David Singh Grewal, Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Co-sponsored by the Berkeley Economy and Society Initiative (BESI) and the UC Berkeley Department of History, the panel was presented as part of the Social Science Matrix Authors Meet Critics book series, which features lively discussions about recently published books authored by social scientists at UC Berkeley. For each event, the author discusses the key arguments of their book with fellow scholars.

About the Book

Whose fault are financial crises, and who is responsible for stopping them, or repairing the damage? Impunity and Capitalism develops a new approach to the history of capitalism and inequality by using the concept of impunity to show how financial crises stopped being crimes and became natural disasters. Trevor Jackson examines the legal regulation of capital markets in a period of unprecedented expansion in the complexity of finance ranging from the bankruptcy of Europe’s richest man in 1709, to the world’s first stock market crash in 1720, to the first Latin American debt crisis in 1825. He shows how, after each crisis, popular anger and improvised policy responses resulted in efforts to create a more just financial capitalism but succeeded only in changing who could act with impunity, and how. Henceforth financial crises came to seem normal and legitimate, caused by impersonal international markets, with the costs borne by domestic populations and nobody in particular at fault.

Watch the panel above or on YouTube. You can also listen to it as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[MARION FOURCADE] Hello, everybody. Welcome. My name is Marion Fourcade, and I am the Director of UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix. So you all know Matrix as the place where interdisciplinarity is not merely evoked, but we’re actually– it actually happens. But it is a particularly felicitous moment when we can bring together, not only people from across the disciplines, but also from the wider world of practice.

So we are delighted to welcome today one economic historian, one economics and finance professor, one financier and theorist of finance, and one legal scholar and political scientist to discuss how financial impunity arose during the long 18th century in Europe.

In the brilliant book that will be discussed today, Trevor Jackson combines aspects of regulatory history and financial history to narrate how, during this period of political anger and economic upheaval, financial crisis went from being understood as crimes to become naturalized as disasters. And then we will have, of course, a conversation between the present and the past with these wonderful panelists.

Today’s event is part of our Author Meets Critic series. We would like to thank our cosponsors for these events, the Berkeley Economy and Society Initiative, and the UC Berkeley Department of History. As always, I will mention our last upcoming events of the semester on Friday. Elizabeth Joh will close our programming for the semester with a talk on the use of algorithms by police. And then you can already look forward to our next semester.

Julia, who’s right here in the front, and who I must thank for putting together our entire events program this semester, she’s also been hard at work, and we have a lot of fantastic panels to look forward to in the spring. So I apologize my voice is a little broken. We will return on January 19 appropriately, actually, with a discussion of a very Berkeley topic, The Unnaming of Kroeber Hall, and the title, of course, of a recent book by linguistics Professor Andrew Garrett.

So now I will introduce our moderator, David. David Singh Grewal is Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. He’s teaching and research interests include legal and political theory, intellectual history, particularly the history of economic thought, global economic governance and international trade law, intellectual property law and biotechnology, and law and economics.

His first book, Network Power– The Social Dynamics of Globalization was published by Yale University Press in 2008, and his second book, The Invention of The Economy is forthcoming from our– perpetually forthcoming– we’ll say forthcoming from Harvard University Press. So without further ado, I will now turn it over to David. Thank you all for being here.

[DAVID GREWAL] Thank you, Marion. Let’s see. Is that how– there we go. OK. So I think it’s recording. Anyhow, thank you all for being here. I’m delighted to be able to moderate this session. To my immediate left is Trevor Jackson. He’s an economic historian who teaches here at Cal, as of this year, in both the history and the political economy departments, and we’re really delighted to have him. He researches inequality and crisis, mostly but not exclusively, in early modern Europe. I think he’s developing a side business in modern crisis, and we’ll maybe hear about that in the Q&A.

His first book, which is here available at a fine book seller near you is Impunity and Capitalism– the Afterlives of European Financial Crises, 1690 to 1830, and it was published by Cambridge University Press last fall. His current research interests focus on the problem of gluts, overproduction and overaccumulation since the 17th century, the problems of temporality and finitude in economic thought, and problems in the historical measurement and meaning of capital.

Those of you who’ve had a chance to read this great book will see a lot of those themes resonate with the history he tells. He also has ongoing research interests in the histories of extinction and catastrophe, as well as early modern occupational health. That may be why a gilded– what do they call it?


A gilded guillotine is on the front cover for those interested in occupational health. And to this wonderful list of interests, I hope that he– I think he should add law because there’s a lot of legal thought, legal history in the book. And one of the things that interests me in the book is the way in which it really is, at once, a legal history as well as a financial history. So I’m delighted to be able to moderate.

And the two commentators today are, to Trevor’s immediate left, Bill William Janeway, who is an Affiliated Member of the Economics Faculty at Cambridge University, and he’s the author of Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy. He’s a Special Limited Partner of Warburg Pincus, having joined the firm in 1988 and served as head of its information technology investment practice for 15 years.

He’s chair of the board of directors of the Social Science Research Council, and the founder of the Cambridge Endowment for Research and the Janeway Institute for Economics at Cambridge University. He was co-founder of the Institute for New Economics Thinking, which many of us know and some of us have been privileged to work with, and he received his doctorate in economics from Cambridge University where he was a Marshall Scholar.

And to his immediate left is Anat Admati, the George GC Parker Professor of Finance and Economics at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. She’s the Faculty Director of the Corporations and Society Initiative, and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, writing and teaching on the interactions of business, law, and policy. Admati is the co-author, with Martin Hellwig, of The Bankers’ New Clothes– Wrong With Banking and What to Do about It. Yes. Cover, please. There we are.

And no one got fat.

Yes. And What to Do about It. And the new and expanded edition is forthcoming in January 2024.

Just got the copy last night.

Oh, very good. So I’m afraid that’s what forthcoming actually means. So I probably should stop putting–

But they did say it’s available already. It’s available in–

It’s available at fine book sellers near you.

Not yet.

Oh, or soon to be.


Online. In 2014, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, and one of the Foreign Policy Magazine’s 100 global thinkers. She holds degrees from Hebrew U, many degrees from Yale University, and honorary doctorate from Zurich. And so we’re delighted to have both commentators and Trevor. Without further ado, I think, Trevor, would you lead us through the book a bit?

[TREVOR JACKSON] All right, great. Am I audible? Great. Well, thank you, David, for that introduction, and thank you, Marion, for inviting me and for organizing all of this, and to Julia as well. And thank you all for coming out on the end of the term, reading week. I observed more than one person who I know is on leave and is nonetheless here, and so thank you for that.

So I thought what I would do is spend a few minutes talking through the narrative of the book. My publishers tell me, scandalously, that there are, at least, three to five people in the world who’ve not read it. You know who you are. So I thought I would give you a sense of the narrative and maybe belabor the historian points that might not otherwise be evident. And then try to give you a sense of what I thought I was trying to do, and maybe a few things– since this is an Author Meets Critics panel, a few things that I think I didn’t successfully do and meant to do. And so I think that’s the plan.

So the book is about impunity. And I came to impunity, in part, because of an archival disaster, which is to say that I went off looking for something that I thought I would find and didn’t find it, and I had a long, dark night of the soul in Strasbourg in 2014. And I asked myself what I had found, what the sources were telling me, and what they were telling me was a wonderful record of frauds, scams, scandals, mendacity, lies, crimes, and other assorted malfeasance. And I thought, well, perhaps there’s something here that I can historicize.

And so just to lay the groundwork, I came at this as an economic historian. Not many people are economic historians anymore, and especially so in history departments. According to the American Historical Association, fewer than 5% of historians call themselves economic historians. I was trained by one of the last great economic historians Jan de Vries of 50 years at Berkeley, and I was preoccupied by trying to think of how the future of my discipline might look. How might I bring together history and economics in a new way? How might I make it interesting and intelligible to history departments?

And in that dark night of the soul in 2014, I thought to myself, what are the big questions that the field is pursuing? And, of course, 2014 was the year of Thomas Piketty, and everyone was talking about inequality. And I thought to myself, well, maybe there’s a way that I can try to tell a story about inequality that makes it interesting and intelligible to historians. Because I’d already found that when I talk to my historian colleagues about inequality very frequently, the answer that I would get is, do you just mean economic inequality?

And I would usually say, what do you mean just? But is there a way that I can push the concept further, while still hopefully trying to keep it analytically tractable? With ultimately the pitch perhaps unsuccessful, that inequality might be a way of bringing history and economics back together. That if we think about it, maybe inequality is the only thing that all historians work on to some degree or another, given that we’re all concerned with questions of power and different forms of injustice and inequality over time.

So with that in mind, I tried to conceptualize something that I thought would be tractable and applicable to the documents that I had found. And so what I did is try to move a lot of the conceptual framework of impunity as it currently exists in the world of international law, mostly coming since the 2002 founding of the International Criminal Court, which has, as its stated purpose, ending impunity, and so they have a legal idea of what impunity means, and seeing if I could adapt that to the history of financial crisis.

Because I felt like there were similar problems at work. When the ICC tries to prosecute world leaders for mass crimes, they tend to run into a few specific problems. There’s a problem of scale insofar as many legal systems are better equipped to handle individual crimes, say, murder rather than large-scale crimes, there’s a problem of precedent in that, malfeasance tends to exceed existing laws and regulations, and there’s a problem of culpability in that world leaders tend not themselves to be personally guilty of any sort of crime.

And I thought, well, maybe these problems and other attendant problems seem, to me, similar to the problems that I thought I was seeing, specifically, as I was researching the 1720 financial crisis. And so I thought, can I take these ideas, can I apply them to financial crises of the past, and in doing so generate some new way of thinking about economics and inequality? That was the plan.

So the book begins, really, with two related cases in the early 18th century. The first is the bankruptcy of someone called Samuel Bernard, who was the richest man in Europe. He was the personal banker to Louis XIV. And in 1709, for a series of hilarious high jinks that get terribly out of hand, he goes bankrupt. And in doing so, he undercuts the basis of something called the Lyon faire, which was the quarterly clearing mechanism for much of the finance and commerce in southeastern France, through the Rhine corridor, and into Switzerland.

People in an age before, well, bank accounts and a lot of available specie, would keep running tabs with each other over long periods of time, and they would meet, ostensibly, quarterly to clear these tabs, and some relatively small amount of specie would change hands in theory. Very often they would just roll over the outstanding debt and proceed again. But they needed some circulating liquidity to make this transaction work, and Samuel Bernard provided that.

And so when he went bankrupt, the Lyon faire collapsed. Credit dried up throughout this entire arc of Western Europe. This coincided with the coldest winter in half a Millennium, in which, suddenly, the Lyon government found itself needing to provide more support to more hungry people exactly when it didn’t have the tax revenue from the faire, and so there was a social disaster.

Samuel Bernard gets a pardon, and, in fact, his creditors get prosecuted, which was the opposite of the normal procedure in which debtors would be prosecuted and sent to debtor’s prison. He’s the personal banker of the king. He is too big to fail. He has connections to the judicial system. He gets special treatment.

In 1716, following the War of the Spanish Succession, the French government is saddled with a huge amount of outstanding debt, and they have recourse to something called the chambre de justice, the Chamber of Justice. Which was a common legal procedure in old regime France in which the entirety of the French financial community, in the case of 1716, 4,399 people, would collectively be prosecuted in the belief that they must have done something wrong.

And this being old regime France, there’s no presumption of innocence, there’s no right to counsel. Most people would flee. They would pay bribes to not be prosecuted. We generally interpret this as a structured default. Instead of just not repaying the debt, what you do is force the people that you owe to pay you in fines, which makes it easier to repay the debt.

And so this is a moment where the fiscal crisis, the French monarchy is– at least, within the legal system of the French monarchy worked out as though the creditors are all criminals and are prosecuted for that crime. And so that seems a far distant world from the one that we live in today. And so that’s where it begins. In this moment in which financial crises are interpreted through a legal order and the sovereign has the scope to decide who gets prosecuted and who doesn’t.

The book ends with the Panic of 1825, which again, through a hilarious series of circumstances is the first, perhaps, endogenously produced financial crisis in the history of the Western financial system. Meaning that it isn’t necessarily the result of wars, of famines, of some exogenous surprise, it’s generated by the financial system itself.

In the working out of the Panic of 1825, not only is nobody prosecuted, but it never even crosses anybody’s mind. It isn’t even a thinkable, intelligible, meaningful possibility. And so the book tries to explain how we go from the world of Samuel Bernard and the chambre de justice to the Panic of 1825. Or in the tagline of the book, how do we move from a world in which financial crises are understood to be crimes to a world in which they’re understood to be natural disasters? That’s the large arc of the story.

So what I thought this was going to do, or what I intended it to do was a few different things. So one I’ve already alluded to, which was to try to produce new ways of thinking about inequality that might speak to inequality scholars on the economist side of economic history, but also might provide a intelligible point of entry to my historian colleagues. Beyond that, I was trying to historicize what I viewed as a pretty commonly held narrative, which is about the emergence of the economy as a separate sphere of social life, and especially of governance.

I mean, this is almost a classic Karl Polanyi story– I know there are many sociologists in the room– that there was some time before in which economies and economic lives are embedded in social life and political life, and something happens to remove the economy. And I thought maybe this is a way of tracing that emergence of finance, specifically, so that that could confine the scope of what I’m looking at as a separate sphere with its own institutions of governance, its own regulations, its own special norms.

And that even in the case of 18th century European finance, its emergence as, at first, a separate place, because financial markets were physical locations, Exchange Alley in London, the Rue Quincampoix in Paris, where people would go to physically exchange securities. And in the literature of the moment, these were conceived as specific places with their own specific rules and specific people with strange languages and strange procedures.

Nearly every financial crisis that I read about tended to also involve some sort of moral panic about, in the early stages, people across religions doing business with each other. That finance is this place with no rules where Christians and Muslims and Jews might do business with each other. It was a place– because it was unregulated from which women were not yet excluded. And so there was a whole moral panic in the pamphlet literature in English about women getting access to money that other people couldn’t control.

And so I found like this felt like not just the emergence, conceptually, of a separate sphere, but almost socially, politically, that there was something to trace. Not just a teleological emergence, but a contested one in which there’s a possibility of emergence that meets in crisis is then regulated and tamped down on until it emerges again.

Which gets to the second thing that I was trying to do, which is that after seven years of arguing with my fellow grad students about causality, and what is history, and what are agents, what I ultimately settled on was a narrative important that I meant to be genuinely dialectical in the sense of a set of conflicts producing a crisis that has some resolution, the resolution, in turn, sets up and produces the conditions for the next crisis.

And I think we are already willing to think that insofar as we’re very willing to think that regulation is always regulating the previous crisis. And a new crisis tends to be understood given the distorted historical memory of the previous one. And so I wanted to take that seriously even at a material level. What kinds of financial activities were possible given a past set of regulations, and what kinds of ways around them generated new forms of instability?

Which gets to the last thing that I was trying to do which is that although it’s a book about financial crises, and although I would try to claim to be an economic historian, and although it’s got capitalism in the title, fundamentally, the big game that I was hunting was actually about crises of political legitimacy. Because I felt like what I saw again and again in moments of crises following which the public perceives some set of injustice that hasn’t been dealt with, I felt like I perceived, potentially, an escalation to a crisis of political legitimacy.

You see this a bit in the aftermath of the 1720 crisis, much more profoundly in the 1780s and 1790s. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it isn’t. Again, this isn’t a teleological move towards more or less, but rather different moments in which there are different possibilities of legitimacy crises. And that, especially by the end, after 1825, the idea that the inequalities of the emerging capitalist economic order, or, say, the costs and consequences of financial crises were unevenly distributed.

That although this no longer had a legal implication, I think at the popular level, that the sense that there is an injustice to that world of 19th century capitalist economic life was one of the motivating factors behind most of the large-scale ideologies of the 19th century. That most 19th century political ideologies, in some way, are addressed to the question of like, whose fault are the economic injustices around us?

And perhaps for the nationalists, it’s the foreigners, and for the antisemites, it’s the Jews, and for the socialists, it’s the capitalists. But in general, that most ideologies of the 19th century were trying to deal with this question that was never quite resolved, and that they never quite had the language to deal with. So those were the things that I was trying to do.

There are a couple of things that I think I failed at. I’m going to preempt my critics. We’ll see. So the first is an empirical strategy, which is to say, I needed to choose my cases. And a thing about studying exceptions, mistakes, crimes, violations of laws and orders and so on is that people who break laws and get caught leave archival traces. People who break laws and don’t get caught don’t. People who don’t break laws at all might not leave archival traces. And so it’s very difficult to assess the denominator and the changing prevalence over time.

But I’m in the Social Science Matrix, to use the Social Science term, what I did is I selected on the dependent variable and chose cases, both because there was an archival density and so the sources were talking to me, but cases that left enough of a paper trail of malfeasance that there was a story to be told there. In my mind, the harsher version of this is that I made up a concept and went around early modern Europe saying, oh, there it is. Oh, but it’s not that.

I think there is a truth to that. The more that I read about the construction of economic concepts, the better I feel because, to some extent, I think we’ve maybe all done that. But what I didn’t do is produce some sort of falsifiable, tangible, measurable empirical thing that I could say, this is 10 impunity as opposed to 5. Some way of tracing it across time.

Now, often when I talk to my historian colleagues and I say this, they say, well, look, that’s just what history is like. We can’t know the total set of the past. We know the imperfect record that remains to us, and it’s very difficult to assess the total set of things that we can’t know. And I think that there is a truth to that.

At the same time, though, I think that in an absence of some sort of falsifiable set of claims and a set of cases that may be selected on a selection bias standpoint, then may themselves be epiphenomenal, I’m actually not persuaded that the meta-level story holds up as strong as each individual case. In the end, what I hoped to do was to be either generative or perhaps provocative enough that there might be further studies on differing forms of impunity.

I observe that there are many historians, including my excellent colleague, Puck Engman, who I don’t think is here, but nonetheless is working on transitional justice. Lots of historians are working on transitional justice in different moments and different contexts. And it’s a concept that’s providing a way for us to talk to each other across fields. And I thought maybe impunity is a way to do that. Maybe that’s a way that I thought I could bring historians and economists together to talk about inequality, but maybe, in fact, it’s a way of talking to sociologists and political scientists.

And I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find professors at law schools turn out to be terrific interlocutors to think about impunity and are very interested in the subject, and so it may have ended up doing something different from what I intended. But that’s what I thought I was doing, and I think maybe what I ended up doing and not doing instead. And so I’ll stop there before I carry on.

[WILLIAM JANEWAY] It may turn out that some of what I have to say may ease your concern, Trevor, about what you failed to do, in part. But first, I just want to begin by saying that this book deeply enriches a domain of scholarship research experience that has historically been underserved. And that is the frontier where the dynamics of the political process meet the dynamics of the market, and particularly, the dynamics of the financial markets.

And this notion of the establishment of the market economy, and particularly the financial markets, as an autonomous domain, a regime that has its own rules and laws, and which is exempt from the broader moral economy is a very powerful concept. And, of course, there’s a resonance from 1825 to 2008/9 when nobody went to jail except one junior banker, who, actually, was a foreigner.

Now, one question that that offers, and I’m going to come back to this, and this is where I think I would give you, at least, a partial pardon, the book, certainly, pushed me to think hard about, what are the conditions under which the moral world reaches out and embraces the financial system, and imposes punishment. Because we do have examples that come after 1825, in fact, in some cases very much, but I’m going to come back to that.

First, I do want to point out one of the other more specific resonances that I found very powerful is the manner in which John Law’s system in France, creating an enormous sea of liquidity in the context of a dysfunctional fiscal system, seems an awful lot like what happened in this country, and in the Western world, but particularly in the United States, in the aftermath and the context of the Great Recession, with austerity descending from what we thought, or perhaps I should say, ascending from a corpse which we thought had moldered away to assert itself across the Western world, and, in fact, across everywhere but China between 2010.

And then under the impact of COVID, the quote, “unconventional monetary policy,” serving as the functional equivalent of John Law’s system in motivating an enormous flood of liquidity into financial markets, into the financial system, which in turn engenders the unicorn bubble, the excesses and extensions of which fully meet the requirements of being resonant with the South Sea bubble. So that, I thought, was a really, really useful connection.

One aspect of this– and I think the discussion in the book of the currency Bullion Controversy in Britain approaching 1825, establishing an intellectual frame in which you have the basis for laissez-faire at a pretty deep level. David Ricardo is a really, really strong thinker and political presence, not unlike a world that your colleague, Brad DeLong, knows better than anybody else in this room, a world in which efficient markets, rational expectations, the notion that markets are self-correcting mechanisms that can be relied upon creates an environment in which we can have the global financial crisis, and then constrain the response to the global financial crisis.

Now, I do want to point out, and for those who are interested in modern, the modern echoes that this book generates. Some things worth taking a look at, what happened to the Baring family in 1890 in the first Barings crisis. They didn’t go to jail, but Barings had been, as demonstrated in the book, in the years up to 1825, the historian of the Barings Bank referred to it as– the title of the book is The Sixth Great Power of Europe.

The Barings partners, most of whom were members of the House of Lords when that was not a way of, as Boris Johnson said, embarrassing people who used to work– people who were in the House of Lords by nominating your 28-year-old personal assistant to be a peer. The Barings were wiped out. They were liquidated in 1890. So something was going on there.

And I do think there’s a linkage– for those who really want to read deeply into this history, there’s a linkage from this book to David Kynaston’s great three-volume, History of the City of London, which is replete with scoundrels, some of whom enjoy impunity, and some of whom wind up in the slammer, having been engaged in financial manipulations and frauds of one kind or another.

But then coming a little more closer to our time, not quite my generation, 1932, ’33, the Pecora hearings are an extraordinary moment in the financial history of the United States. After the Great Crash, after the bank crisis, the Senate Banking Committee, when Hoover was still president with a Republican chair, organizes an investigation of Wall Street. It goes nowhere. There’s no energy in it until Roosevelt becomes president, induces the, now Democratic, chair of the Banking Committee to reactivate the hearings.

An extraordinary lawyer called Ferdinand Pecora, hammer and fist hammer and tongs, goes after Wall Street. Sam Insull, the great entrepreneur of the utility system in Chicago flees the country ahead of the indictment. The chairman of the National City Bank, largest bank in the United States goes to jail for tax evasion. Richard Whitney, the president of the New York Stock Exchange goes to jail for stealing his client’s money. There is no impunity at that moment.

But then even closer to home– and this I remember vividly. In fact, I knew some of the players in this game. In 1990, there was the savings and loan crisis. It was nothing like the scale of the global financial crisis. But under that radical, woke President, George H. W. Bush, 200 bankers, including Mike Milken went to jail. They did jail time for that circle, that crisis within a segment of the American financial system.

In 2000, the meeting– well, the chairman of WorldCom and the then, not quite chief executive, but he became chief executive of Enron were each sentenced to 25 years in jail for their frauds that were revealed in the context of the breaking of the tech bubble. And then, of course, most recently, Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX. I don’t know– we don’t know how long he’s going to jail, but I think we are highly confident he’s going to jail, not with– he has not enjoyed impunity.

So a question is, in this context, is 2008 the anomaly, or was it really the reassertion of a central theme of the book? I think the fact that the book makes one ask those questions is part of its value. So let me just close my two brief remarks. Oh, and I should add, by the way, the other thing that’s going on right now is the question of the immunity of the Sackler family– the impunity of the Sackler family.

I was going to start with.

Yeah. Well, there you go. I turn it over to Admati. But rolling back, one of the themes that emerges in the latter part of the book is how London’s rise to dominance as the financial capital is enabled by the House of Barings and the House of Rothschild being the financiers of sovereigns, including the British sovereign, but by no means only the British sovereign. So I think of– and how they finance, particularly, the British government in the context of the Napoleonic Wars.

And I think of New York Wall Street, the House of Morgan rising to a dominant position in financing the British government in World War I, with the US and New York emerging as the financial hegemon of the last 100 years. And with that, I will end, except to note that this is a plum pudding of a book. You find extraordinary gems.

And the ones that I wrote down, the one I wrote down here, financial crises and financial speculation often come with innovations. And Minister Necker securitized annuities on seven-year-old genevois smallpox survivors on the grounds that they were going to be the most long-lived, and so selling the annuities was going to maximize the return today for a state that was functionally approaching bankruptcy. That’s a great gem to discover with that.

[ANAT ADMATI] OK. Thank you very much. Thank you, Marion, and Julia for inviting me. When I saw the title of this book, I immediately wanted to do this because I’ve been writing exactly on this, except a little bit differently. So in particular, and I brought a few things here, in the new edition of this book, the last chapter is called Above the Law, question mark, and it’s very much about impunity, the word appears.

And so the idea of the narrative of financial crisis as natural disasters, of course, goes back to all these narratives coming from bankers and regulators and others saying, oh, the 100-year flood, it was like an earthquake, nobody could have seen it coming, and all of that, which was completely against other narratives saying there were a lot of people at fault, and then nobody was home to actually prosecute or any of that, so that was that.

But it wasn’t unusual. But really what’s missing for me, I come from the world of corporate finance into banking and back into corporate finance, and then corporate law and law more generally. So my writing, most recently, is really about corporations and the rule of law. And one of the words that I really, really, really missed in the index, there is the word contract law, but the word corporation does not exist.

However, the whole issue happening right now with Purdue Pharma is precisely about corporations. It’s about how the corporation, a legal person with rights, a lot of rights, and with a veil that separates the corporations from all people, is filing for bankruptcy. And the people who benefited from that corporation, who owned the equity of that corporation, who had a lot of control in it, a private corporation, doesn’t have shareholders in the public are not bankrupt and yet want to get impunity out of the bankruptcy of the corporation.

And that’s just one of numerous examples where corporations commit crimes, even though they’re abstract people. I mean, PG&E right in this area pleaded guilty to 84 manslaughter charges, and the headline in Forbes magazine was, PG&E avoids 90 years in jail for not being a person. Because A person would get about a year per manslaughter.

This was 84 manslaughters, and nothing happened. I mean, the fine was ridiculous, like a decimal point for PG&E, and that was a maximum fine. Now they don’t go after PG&E criminally, but they go civilly because they can get more money out of PG&E for that. But this is basically the way it works. So the corporate form is really the way impunity works in capitalism.

And by the time this book starts, we already have the Dutch East India, we already have the key corporations that have become the dominant, almost sovereigns, in our economy, and the ones that give people the impunity that once was given to kings. In other words, Jamie Dimon has impunity, and he will pay a lot of money to hide and pay off the wrongdoings of JPMorgan Chase, and so will Mark Zuckerberg if anything is wrong with what Facebook Meta is doing, et cetera, et cetera. So the corporate form is really key to this.

Now, the book focuses on central banks, and, in fact, in the new edition of the book, we go much more to central banks. The original book was– The Bankers’ New Clothes was about private sector banks. And we still talk about private sector banks. The central banks are the enablers of a really bad financial system, including a bad system by lender of last resorts and bailouts, as we speak right now, of potentially insolvent regional banks that were just offered excessive loans from the Federal Reserve with backing by Treasury.

So you can see a bailout here slightly obscured from public eyes so they don’t have to use that dreaded word bailout. Because after all, Obama promised us no more bailouts, period, and got like two minutes of ovation when he signed the Dodd-Frank Act. So we have impunity galore. I was asked a couple of years ago with a bunch of other economists what has gone wrong with capitalism, and what to do about it by Oxford Publication.

And my essay for that volume was called Capitalism, Laws– to David’s point– and the Need for Trustworthy Institutions in both sectors. We have lost trust in our institutions, and it’s partly because of the way these institutions, basically, create symbiosis that are harming society, and create impunity for everybody involved in the private sector and in government. So when asked what’s gone wrong with capitalism, my answer was, it’s destroyed, undermined, overwhelmed corrupted democracies. And so our democracies are partly in trouble and in crisis in an intertwined crisis with the– whatever people might view is the crisis of capitalism.

And in that essay, I– well, people talk about shareholder capitalism, et cetera, I called it something similar to what you’re talking about, I called it financialized capitalism. So financialization has to do with the way corporate governance works, the maximization of stock price, return on equity, all these accounting metrics, financialized metrics as an objective, and as a way that corporate leaders are– what they’re chasing. And the inability of democratic governments to actually set the rules of the game for these legal persons and to enforce on these legal persons a set of rules.

The legal system has not envisioned corporations. The Constitution has not envisioned corporations. But corporations go to court. And in a book on this called We the corporations, Adam Winkler from UCLA discusses the civil rights movements of corporations all happening in the courts, and receiving more and more rights, including speech rights, religious rights that were intended for human beings, and then using the 14th Amendment and others to acquire more and more rights. But when it comes to piercing the corporate veil for accountability, we are nowhere good.

And Sam Bankman-Fried is the exception that proves the rule. There are extreme cases where a person like him or like Elizabeth Holmes produce a lot of evidence, especially about defrauding investors. In this case there were customers as well, but in the case of– in cases of other wrongdoings, a lot of times the impact people are employees or customers, but shareholders run supreme even in the legal system. When they can claim to be harmed, they can go to court with class action suits and anywhere else. When their lawyers think that the stock price went down, they will sue.

Meanwhile, many customers and employees, except for some new law on sexual harassment, are relegated to mandatory arbitration and don’t even have access to the law even when they are harmed. So in the private law as well as in the public law, we really have lost the battle on corporate impunity, corporate leaders impunity when they are able to do it through the corporation as opposed to be the ones at the top actually uttering the fraud as in the case of Elizabeth Holmes, of Sam Bankman-Fried. Those are extreme cases. But in other cases, the culpability and the diffused responsibility are making it so– and the ability to create legal shields is making impunity a pervasive problem in the economy, and certainly in banking and beyond.

One other final comment, the book is very much about financial crisis, but this problem is not one of crises. Crises are where we see something wrong, but it can be wrong all the time and hidden from view. So I view the entire system as highly distorted and unhealthy, starting with the financial– with the private sector corporation, and continuing to some other corporations in other sectors depending on what they need for good rules of the game and where their rules might be more or less ineffective depending on the sector and the situation.

You have wage theft, you have all kinds of pollution, you have all kinds of agencies and laws that corporations have to comply with. And oftentimes, either they just don’t, or don’t get caught breaking them, or the fines that they pay are not even commensurate with the harm, let alone do anything to the individuals involved because it’s too hard, because it’s too costly.

And there are a bunch of books on this right now, Chickenshit Club, Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free, Too Big To Jail, multiple books about that with those kinds of titles. And we can go on into how the mechanics of corporate settlements is, and we go through a lot of these examples in the new edition of the book for which I have the preface and table of content here enough for everybody in this room. So pick up one.

Give you about 10 minutes to respond to these comments, and then we’ll open it up to have a discussion.

[TREVOR JACKSON] Great. Great. Well, thank you both for that. It’s very stimulating to be read at all, let alone read and responded to, and especially from people outside of my field and discipline. This has been a very useful and generative set of comments. So where to begin.

So on the question of, well, really, our contemporary moment in the post 2008 order, I feel like there were several questions that I might cluster together as being about the world since 2008. And I think it was a deliberate choice to have the book end in 1825 because I felt like that was the first moment in which I thought I perceived something new, which was to say, large scale, what, for lack of a better set of words, I would call, economic harms that are not broadly popularly interpreted as someone’s fault.

Which there is no agential figure, there’s no crime, there’s no law being broken, it’s like a storm. Although, of course, as we historians are increasingly aware of, natural disasters themselves are not necessarily natural disasters, but nonetheless. And that I felt like was new. And so what I was trying to get at wasn’t necessarily that nobody ever gets prosecuted for any kind of economic crime again, clearly not.

Rather, what I found interesting and wanted to trace the origins of was how we get to a world in which poverty, inequality, stagnant wages, unemployment are not perceived– well, perhaps are perceived as moral problems and certainly policy problems, but aren’t perceived as some agential figure’s fault outside of claims of political legitimacy. In a sense that I think that could have gone differently had the late 18th and early 19th century financial crises gone differently. And I think that a person from, say, 1709 would interpret economic policy today in a very different way than what we do. And so that was the particular thing that I was trying to get at.

And so to give you a little more tangible example of the distinction that I want to draw here, although I have found myself writing pretty frequently about cryptocurrency and Sam Bankman-Fried and so on, I do that because I think it’s funny when bad things happen to billionaires, not because I think they fit my cases particularly well.

What Sam Bankman-Fried was doing was just fraud, it’s garden variety fraud. Now, OK, there’s some problems with whether crypto is a security or not, there’s some problems with where– if you’re in corporate in the Bahamas or whatever, but it’s clearly just fraud. He broke some laws. He got caught breaking the laws. He writes in his documents, hello, fellow criminals, let us do crimes. It’s pretty straightforward.

The things that I found striking and I wanted to try to historicize is something more like climate change. That emitting carbon into the atmosphere may well kill all of us, but it’s not a crime, right? It’s not an intelligible agential harm. And, in fact, many corporate officers, you might say, have a fiduciary responsibility to do that because of the basis of their profits and their responsibility to their shareholders. And so that was the thing that I found particularly strange.

That this is something that is likely to be– economists are willing to think of as a market failure, but I thought, can I push that further and historicize how some harm of that scale can take place, be clearly made by people, and yet still exist outside of the same political, moral, normal, legal orders as, say, Sam Bankman-Fried.

On the question of corporations, you’re exactly right, that’s a shortcoming of ending where I do. That, in the cases that I’m looking at, is largely because the creation of limited liability happens after 1825. And in the case of 1825, at least, in English banking, there is unlimited liability. The partners are bailed in.


Yeah, exactly. And so the emergence, a thing that I wish I had done better. And if I had known that I would be read more by legal scholars, I would have– like, there’s a case to be made that a thread that should run through this entire thing is a history of the emergence of liability and how that changes over time. That’s something I came to relatively late, and I just don’t have the legal training to really parse. Do you want to get in on–

[WILLIAM JANEWAY] I just wanted to– actually, Anat mentioned the Dutch East India Company. They were corporations, but they were established by government, they had limited powers. But there was a case that fits right in the middle of your period, I would have been really interested what you made of the Warren Hastings impeachment. The head of the East India Company in India who was summoned back to London and tried and acquitted. And I was thinking that that might have made an interesting bridging example in your book.

[ANAT ADNATI] I mean, the English East India, I mean, read a fascinating book called The Anarchy. That book discusses just this one company that basically was government-like, when they gave them monopoly over the trade routes and all of that. They had armies. They pillaged them. They controlled India until the British government took it away from them. So they were very much government-like, and so the limited liability part, obviously, it came later. It enabled trading in stocks and things that you couldn’t do otherwise.

But the English East India was a joint stock company that was accountable only to its shareholders in London and to nobody else as it went around conquering India, impoverishing people, taxing people, and being violent, too.

[TREVOR JACKSON] Yeah. Well, and it’s, I think, significant that Hastings is prosecuted because of corruption. He has misused his office, which he has because of the British government, not because of, say, the–


All of stuff he did in India, yeah.

–murdering lots of people and so on. And, I mean, another– a case that I do try to draw out is the Bank of England, which is also a private corporation that’s responsible to shareholders until it’s nationalized by labor government in 1946. And they’re doing monetary policy.

And throughout the 19th century, in moments where the gold standard is at risk, they raise their interest rate to defend themselves and defend the gold standard. They know that the cost of that will be imposing unemployment and crisis on the domestic population, they also know that population largely can’t vote, and so they do it. That was the kind of– that was the afterlife of 1825 that I had in mind.

Central banks, yeah.

Yeah. But in some ways, I often wish that I had gone through 2008. It was hard to think of how to deal with the Great Depression. There is a lot that happens in the Great Depression, and I thought, well, that’s–


–that’s volume 2. We’ll see how this one goes over first. Let’s see. On maybe a last and related point about that before I turn it over to our audience, I really loved the sentence that, it isn’t necessarily about crisis. The crisis is when we see something as wrong, but things can be wrong for a long time. And indeed, the book has been plotted around these different moments of financial crisis exactly because crises really concentrate the mind and focus our attention and work as moments where something has to change. They also leave a pretty good archival record, which is helpful.

But my hope is that that’s why there are these interstitial chapters about the attempt to create historical memory around the meaning of the crises, how they worked out the way that they did, who was responsible, how we understand that, and how that feeds into the development of the history of economic thought. Which itself is a body of thought that has very specific and, perhaps, unusual beliefs about responsibility, culpability, morality, normativity, and so on that, I think, emerge in parallel with and in a relationship to the material history of the financial crises themselves.

And so I think that there’s a way that when I ask myself, when is the crisis over? Well, in some ways it’s never over because we’re always relitigating and rewriting the history of our understanding of the crisis. And I think that’s very much true of 2008 today. So I think I’ll wrap up there. I think my publishers would probably be happy if I mentioned that the far cheaper paperback will be out in January.

Some of us have research budgets. I’m not sure your publishers would be happy for–


–is a bit much. It’s under 20.

That was the one thing I tried to negotiate.

I know. Selling.

Quit selling.


They just would not move.



[DAVID GREWAL] Wonderful. Well, I won’t abuse the moderator’s privilege yet of asking my questions, but I have a lot of things I could push you on about the history as well, maybe we can–


So especially, folks want to talk about the core history stuff, and we can certainly open out into current events as well. But there’s so much to deal with here, so great. And would you please introduce yourself briefly so we all know each other?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] My name is Vicki Chang. And so, what I’m getting is that when the sovereign is corrupted by financial interests, then impunity happens for these corruptors, and it seems like the key right now to the destruction of democracy in America is Citizens United. The corporation has the power to secretly give money to anybody in the government, and they do. I mean, I think the–

It’s legal corruption.

It’s legal, and it’s completely– I don’t know– I would really like to hear what your thoughts are on how we can get rid of this because I think the number of lobbyists in Washington DC went from like 50 in 1970 to like thousands now, and it’s just– Washington is just flooding with money, and the Supreme Court is not immune either. They take these secret trips. They benefit. So when the sovereign is corrupted, then the government is not interested in doing the right thing.

[TREVOR JACKSON] I mean, sovereignty is an important conceptual component to the book. And part of what I wanted to argue is that I think there’s a broad acceptance that impunity is a characteristic that often adheres to sovereigns. There is such a thing as sovereign immunity, and that was even part of what I wanted to get at is that as we have emerged into a more constrained democratic vision of politics, that there are still spaces in which this older form of sovereign immunity or impunity continue to exist.

But that still, I want to emphasize, is where I wanted to get to at the end was a kind of idea that the real impunity isn’t breaking the rules and getting away with them, the real impunity is setting the rules. And in that sense, I don’t think that there is– that it isn’t necessarily a question of the corruption of sovereignty so much as it’s a constitutive feature of sovereignty. That that is where law comes from is through some unequal distribution of violence and legitimacy, and that that is something that we can think about being differently distributed and changing over time.

[DAVID GREWAL] Could I ask– interject a question on this point here maybe? So this interested me because the framing of impunity that you borrow from international law is just– it’s just one way that law tries to get at the question of who is subject to liability for what acts by whom, right? And so starting with impunity in international [INAUDIBLE], that’s a pretty high level, pretty far away, not– whereas something just like ordinary tort liability would be much more the heart of it.

And sometimes when you spoke about the harm that’s done by financial crisis, it reminds me of problems of complex causation and tort law, right? Where sometimes there’s not an obvious remedy when you have something that’s like a structural condition to which everyone contributes a very small part, and there’s some process of magnification, and there’s some really disproportionate harms, sometimes we try and hold people liable at the front stage, sometimes we don’t. And how sovereignty fits in is the question about whether sovereignty is corrupt.

It could be that– and then the too big to fail claim, at the heart, I think, is the claim that there are some kinds of systemically relevant activities that you can’t dispense with them and you can’t regulate them in a one-to-one level. And in those cases, the standard argument has been the government has to do those things. Too big to fail means you can’t leave it to the private sector, but it’s not like you can dispense with the activity anyway. So I wanted to hear about a different question. That might be a way in which–

So one view on the corruption would not be the Citizens United. The corruption might be a financial system is a necessary part of a modern polity. It is inherently subject to all of these feedback mechanisms that make it very unstable. Hold on, now, now I get to ask my question. It’s subject to all these loops and the ordinary ways in which we hold people liable in the person-to-person dealings that private law is most accustomed to don’t really scale.

So the corruption might be that we don’t think of this activity as sovereign at all. But if it is sovereign, then maybe sovereign immunity should apply to the banking system if we’re a public system. So, I mean–

Yeah, but it’s publicly owned.

Exactly. So with that as long preface, the question would be, there’s one direction of the book that focuses on the thought that these crises show a problem with not holding people to account. That’s the opinion. But a different angle you could take would be to say, the problem is that we’re allowing certain private actors to control something that is properly regime level. And if it’s regime level, as you say, it’s almost a deduction of legal theory that acts the sovereign can’t be subject to ordinary law because the sovereign makes the law.

And so those are two very different outcomes. One would push to something like public– the banking sector understood as a public utility that’s, in effect, been privatized improperly. The other would point to something like, we need to hold private actors who stay private to account when they engage in systemically relevant harmful activity. And there’s very different valences. One would assume that we can– and the book, ending in 1825, doesn’t deal with Progressive Era legislation on public utility doctrine, fiat currency, and the banking crisis.

But I think the response we often have to financial crises tends to be poised between these two things. We want to hold the bad guys responsible. We know that we can’t because there’s a system that they’re a part of that is bigger than them. So what’s your intuition on that if that’s at all helpful?

[TREVOR JACKSON] That is a very helpful set of questions. So I thought a lot about the tort crime boundary. And it’s a historians book, it’s not trying to be a prescriptive policy book about how we should define what’s on which side of the tort crime boundary. Rather, it’s to say that that isn’t a natural, permanent, inevitable distinction but is something that comes out of a series of crises and contested political moments and could very easily have gone in different directions.

And so if we think to ourselves, well, that’s actually an unstable political thing rather than a feature of whatever natural law, that does open up the possibility that it could go in a different direction. But I felt like I had to establish that, historicizing the distinction first. And I think the way that I would square the two prongs that you speak to is exactly the point about democracy. That we might think that there is some set of, as you say, regime-level powers. The one that I focused on in the book is central bank– that was Fried– is central banking. Which begins as a private set of activities and eventually we recognize perhaps this should be something controlled by the state.

But that returns us to the debate that we have today which is about democratic accountability of central banks. Should they be insulated? Should they not? Should they be responsive to voters? Should they not? And that when I allude to this large scale separation at the end of the book that I tried to get to, I mean, the big implication that I want the reader to come away with is that under capitalism, we distribute wages and profits as like the means of staying alive and continuing to eat through a market mechanism.

Maybe that’s the large-scale thing that should be subject to democratic accountability. And there’s actually a regime level way of organizing society but is something that, through the course of the 18th and into the 19th century, got hived off from the sphere of democracy and moral economy.

I interrupted you [INAUDIBLE].

[ANAT ADNATI] I have something to say because you talked about, Too big to fail and being systemic, the fact of the matter is, OK, we had one case study to basically fall straight into our hands as we were trying to finish the book, which is you may or may not have not followed this, but Credit Suisse in Switzerland.

So that bank, an old institution, very large and I have encountered the Swiss bank CEOs and regulators telling me, No problem, no problem. We got some magic buttons, we’re going to press them, and voila, we’re going to have bail in instead of bail out. And whoops, they didn’t do it. OK. They didn’t do it because actually it doesn’t work and it can’t work, and so we have to question whether we need institutions that are global across the border.

We can ask whether it’s worth it to create these too big to fail institutions. The word systemic, which is where we get to be hostages all of us, because the options are so bad either way, again, is preventable. Right now the word systemic is just a code word for bailouts because they have to use that word in order to provide bailouts. And so all of a sudden it’s, This systemic, and, Signature systemic, and let’s save them because somebody will be harmed and we don’t like that. So we like to appease everybody at the moment.

So the they just blink every single time in banking. So that’s all preventable if they had the guts to actually counter the bad incentives, and we advocate very sensible regulations that they just can’t seem to develop political will to do because of enormous amount of lobbying. So we are bringing them closer to the world of unlimited liability, just a little bit more liability, basic liability for losses.

[WILLIAM JANEWAY] I just wanted to pick up on something that really said, that I was just thinking, we have a nice little historical experiment in America called The Bank Crisis between Biddle and Jackson.

Right. The Bank War.

The Bank War. The US Second Bank of the United States chartered by Congress is up for renewal, and Jackson vetoes it, and the US doesn’t have a central bank. And in fact, it does have an incredibly fragile banking system that is not subject to any underwriting.

And then we have to fight a major war which the government needs to raise an enormous amount of money for, so it improvises until finally, finally, we wind up with the Fed after 80, 90 years of experimentation without a central bank. So it’s an interesting extension of the discussion that you were just having.

[DAVID GREWAL] Great. I realise we only got about 10 minutes left, I wonder could we take two or three questions and comments and then give Trevor the last word? That might be the best way.


[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi, I’m Nadar Atassi. I want to ask about your argument about the emergence of the economy as a separate sphere. I feel like scholars love to argue– I mean, sorry, historians of economic thought love to argue about who was the first to come up with the economy conceptually, was it Smith? Was it the physiocrats? Tim Missile says, No, it wasn’t until Keynes actually.

So, I mean, I find your argument about, why don’t we trace this socially and spatially very interesting, but I was wondering because the period you talk about is such a generative period for political economy, how do you view the relationship between that history, and the conceptual history, and conceptual emergence of the economy? Thanks.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] All right, thanks. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, I’m looking forward to getting the paperback. And I wanted to ask about, I guess, from a legal perspective, what laws or what specific rules were found– I mean, were the same or similar laws in place during both of these periods, the period of liability and the period of impunity that you trace, and if so, did you see anything that helps us understand what unwritten rules are being mobilized to decide when we want to actually enforce the laws on the books and when we don’t?

And actually it makes me think about another Supreme Court case from this week, which is the case about the SEC’s internal administrative law judges, and one of the arguments for going to the Article III court system and avoiding the SEC court system is that, Oh, yes, it’s OK to go to an administrative law judge, non-article three judge if the law being–

There’s a Supreme Court case that says, If the law being enforced is one that wasn’t really on the books at the time of the Seventh Amendment and 1791 or whatever, and then the argument they’re making is, Actually, this is very similar to common law fraud that was considered a crime in a civil tort type thing back then.

And so it makes me think of that. And so I’m just trying to think about what– I mean, it seems to me that as a lawyer, you could find stuff to convict people with across all of these crises. So then I think that I’m trying to get a handle on what you were seeing in your documents about how those decisions were being made. Thanks.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you very much, so interesting. Extremely interesting the discussion, I think also the book. I have a question, it’s more your opinion. I would like to have your opinion about how you explain the fact that in our time, let’s say popular masses, people, citizens, let’s say there is a kind of social apathy towards impunity.

How you explain that? Maybe the aggressive lobbying, let’s say that we observe plays a role on that, the fact that we have a high-level expertise, legal expertise, that let’s say it’s a kind of immunity for big corporate actors, so they have all the tools to convince people that actually there is nothing to discuss about. So because this is the real problem of democracy why people they don’t react on all these things they know that there is a problem but?


Can I get one more?

Yeah. [INAUDIBLE] trying to answer the question from the beginning.

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah, passing the mic is definitely the trickiest part.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I guess playing the historian, I wanted to go back to what might be some contributing factors to this emerging notion of impunity, and I’m particularly interested in the late 18th, early 19th century, I’d love to hear how they link up with some of your side interests. In the first instance catastrophe and extinction. When you’re ending this book with this model of new or emergent impunity, it’s also happening at a time where you have changing ideas about natural disaster itself.

And particularly in France and Britain, you see this dialectic between catastrophism and sentimentalism. Without trying to lead you down my rabbit hole, I’d love to hear about what you think new ideas of catastrophe do to the possibility of human agency and accountability? And I also think we should be clear that impunity doesn’t, in this case, mean there’s no punishment, no pain. It’s being dispersed, it’s being displaced.

And I’d be curious about what you think about then who has to bear the brunt and what that says about new ideas of human nature? Really quickly, decolonization.

There’s no way that’s going to be quick.

It’s a question mark, no. But what I would say is this goes to the conversation about sovereignty. Here we’re riding out the first great wave of global decolonization. American, Haitian revolutions, Latin American revolutions, the emergence of a dozen sovereign nation states into the world order.

To what extent then is impunity in investment, in speculation, to what extent is that a sort of a continuation of negotiations about sovereignty? Who’s in charge here? Fundamentally, who controls this global, not just financial order, but moral order?


With five minutes you have–



That’ll be a great test


[TREVOR JACKSON] Yeah, no problem. Those are great questions, and I actually am going to try to get to all of them.


So on the emergence of the economy. I mean, I’m an early modernist, I’m very skeptical of the Timothy Mitchell 20th century story. I am much more willing to think that this comes out of early modern jurisprudence, both spatially and thematically, in the sense of the law of the seas, thinking about–

Sophus Reinert has a terrific article about the difference between imperium and dominion, and how dominion as a space of property law emerges as a separate kind of sphere of law and sovereignty from control over territory. I would put this in the 17th century, but I put nearly everything in the 17th century, so take that for what you will.

That’s correct.

And in part, that’s because when I look at the documents and I see people writing about say, The Circulation of the Trade, in my mind metaphorically, that’s not too far off from thinking about the economy. Now maybe these are different discursive worlds and different discursive spaces meaning different things, but that still might be analogous and still in the lineage rather than a completely separate thing. So do I see similar laws before and after?

Well, the thing is that there isn’t really a before and an after, instead– my wife hates this metaphor, but I think it’s a good one– it’s like trying to squeeze a water balloon. Like if you squeeze a part of it squirts out somewhere and you squeeze that and it squirts out somewhere else, that there’s never a before and an after. Rather where impunity is and how it works, changes, and moves, and maybe sediments, and maybe erodes, and is constantly subject to political contestation.

Now, it’s true that very often when I talk to lawyers about this subject they say, Impunity? You mean prosecutorial discretion, which is there in the book a bit because I notice how often that came up. And indeed in the crisis moments that I talk about, there are moments of prosecutorial discretion. Who are we going to prosecute and for what?

But what I felt like was a more interesting story is that the crises and the book are also moments of shifts in the constitutional order itself. So the South Sea directors are prosecuted by a secret committee of the House of Commons that itself had authorized the scheme and creates four laws after the fact to retroactively prosecute the directors on. Now, OK, that’s prosecution, but it’s not quite right. What we have in mind.

The French Revolution is enough of a complicated case, I think you’ll agree that I’m not going to try to get through it in my remaining three minutes but is definitely a space in which what we mean by prosecutorial distinction or discretion is a shifting and very eminently political space. But importantly, by the time we get to 1825, the question is moot. There’s no prosecution for anything because no crime has happened, and so that’s the change over time that I’m trying to get to.

On social apathy, I’m actually slightly skeptical, and here I’m going to get more presentist than I’ve intended to be so far, which is that some reviewers have thought that I wrote this book because I was angry about 2008, and that’s true. But–


Good for you.

–but I’m also angry at George Bush and the Iraq war, which seems to me to shockingly have been largely memory hold in a way that I find as a historian very upsetting, and I have a kind of instinctive sense that’s very hard at a scholarly level to prove that the fact that nobody was held accountable for the large-scale criminality and mass crimes of the Bush years has created a kind of what I’ve elsewhere described inelegantly– excuse me– as a purge-shaped hole in the political imaginary, I think has gotten us to the point where the main thing that many political parties across the world are doing is promising their supporters that they will jail the opponents that they’re against.

Up to and including Donald Trump is up for four different felony prosecutions in four different places. Now, I’m not doubting that he did all those things. I think he probably also did a lot of other things up to and including things that many American presidents do that we’ve long stopped thinking about as in any way criminal, but it seems significant to me that in the 2022 elections, I think I counted 11 different people running promising that they would jail their opponents.

Trump is saying the same things. I mean, we’ve seen that very literally in Brazil, we’ve seen that in a lot of different places. And my sense is that in absence of the legitimate procedures of justice, there is a sense that some terrible injustice has happened and someone has to be held accountable. We just don’t know who, or how to do it. On decolonization catastrophe and accountability–

One minute.

In one minute. I thought colonial spaces would be more of spaces for impunity than in fact they turned out to be. In fact, the impunity that I felt like I saw there is very similar to sovereign impunity writ large, hence we have cases like Hastings where he’s prosecuted but for violating the laws of the metropole not for the things that he does in the colonial space.

Instead, when there are these weird moments of uncertain sovereignty, that seems to be a fruitful place for impunity to proliferate. And so exactly in a decolonial moment when sovereignty is unclear, that means all sorts of possibilities are up for grabs. And so the example that I use is the case of Gregor MacGregor and the country that he invented, which is in fact, one of many countries that were invented, but he manages to secure a sovereign loan.

Now the interesting thing about that is in 1822, when he gets a sovereign loan in London for a country that doesn’t exist, it’s hard to say that Greece existed. They also get a loa, It’s just that they survived because the sovereignty turns out to be durable in a way that Gregor McGregor’s was not. And so I almost think that the causality runs the other way.

Byron didn’t die for Gregor MacGregor.

Right. No, no, although three boatloads of colonists departed thinking that they were going to get land and had to be rescued from Belize, as you do. But as the last point on catastrophe, a fine place to end. Strikingly, I think once ideas of extinction events are first mooted, which happens after 1796, there’s a guy called Georges Cuvier who’s a kind of sinister figure in France, who–

Sinister in the sense that he’s one of the foundational figures of pseudoscientific racism, but also conceptualizes catastrophic extinction events. One of his main sets of opponents are economists who essentially argue that, Nothing can ever permanently go away, it will just get more and more expensive over time. And so they’re unwilling to think in terms of total finitude.

And that’s the thing that I find as a historian particularly interesting is the possibility of thinking seriously about finitude and whether finitude gives meaning to historical periodization and whether it also gives meaning because of the scarcity implication to not just our time but two material resources. That if things are infinite, then their value is in some ways either nonexistent or immeasurable, and if that’s true of things, it’s also true of time.

And so maybe the emergence of catastrophe is also an emergence of thinking seriously about finitude, and that poses a set of challenges to the newly emerging economic order that then are suppressed. And we have a long 19th century in which we don’t really think seriously about finitude. I urge you all to go home and think seriously about finitude–

[DAVID GREWAL] That seems a timely note to end our time on, so please join me in thanking Trevor and the commentators.


Authors Meet Critics

Authors Meet Critics: Sharad Chari, “Gramsci at Sea”

Recorded on November 28, 2023 as part of the UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” series, this panel focused on Gramsci at Sea, a book by Sharad Chari, Associate Professor in Geography and Co-Director of Critical Theory at UC Berkeley. Professor Chari was joined in conversation by Leslie Salzinger, Associate Professor and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, and Colleen Lye, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley. The panel was moderated by James Vernon, Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

The panel was co-sponsored by Social Science Matrix, the UC Berkeley Department of Geography, and the Program in Critical Theory. The Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” book series features lively discussions about recently published books authored by social scientists at UC Berkeley. For each event, the author discusses the key arguments of their book with fellow scholars.

About the Book

Gramsci at Sea book coverHow might an oceanic Gramsci speak to Black aquafuturism and other forms of oceanic critique? This succinct work reads Antonio Gramsci’s writings on the sea, focused in his prison notes on waves of imperial power in the inter-war oceans of his time. Professor Chari argues that the imprisoned militant’s method is oceanic in form, and that this oceanic Marxism can attend to the roil of sociocultural dynamics, to waves of imperial power, as well as to the capacity of Black, Drexciyan, and other forms of oceanic critique to “storm” us on different shores.

Watch the panel above or on YouTube, or listen to it as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[MARION FOURCADE] Hello, everybody. Welcome to Social Science Matrix. My name is Marion Fourcade. I’m the director here.

So we welcome you today to think with Sharad Chari’s new work that travels across continents to engage Antonio Gramsci’s work as oceanic in scope, considering not only what makes a thinker, as a person at sea, but also how Gramsci can help us think about the imperial and capitalist crisis that strike our common seas today in the face of environmental disaster, overfishing, global warming, and sea rise.

So while such thinking about the sea is necessarily pessimistic, one can only hope as Gramsci is often cited to have some optimism of the will. Today’s event is part of our author meets critics series, which you’re probably used to them, which is a series that features critically engaged discussions about a recent book by Berkeley faculty. And we are very grateful to our co-sponsors and the program in critical theory and the Department of Geography.

As always, I will mention a few upcoming events. So later this week, I don’t know if it’s on the– yeah, so exactly. Later this week we will feature graduate student work on a panel entitled new directions in gender and sexuality.

And then next week we will have our final author meets critics of the semester to discuss Trevor Jackson’s book Impunity and Capitalism. And we will round up the semester with a lecture by Elizabeth Joh as part of our partnership with the Berkeley Institute for Data Science.

And we will start next semester with another author meets critic, which will be Andrew Garrett. So stay tuned for the whole schedule for the next semester, which Julia has been preparing with great care. So we’ll have a fabulous programming next semester.

Today we will have a slightly different format from what you’re used to. There will be less presenting and more conversation. So Sharad will briefly present the book, and then Colleen and Leslie will ask him questions about it before we open up to the general Q&A.

So before that, though, I would like to introduce our distinguished moderator James. So James Vernon is the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History here at Berkeley. He’s a historian of Britain and its empire with broad comparative and theoretical interests in the relationships between the political and the social as well as the nation and the world.

His books include Politics and the People from 1993, Hunger, a Modern History from 2007, Distant Strangers, How Britain Became Modern from 2014, and the last volume of the Cambridge History of Britain, Britain Since 1750 to the Present, which came out in 2017. And he is currently writing a book about the racialized and globalized formation of neoliberalism in Britain after empire told through Heathrow Airport. So without further ado, I turn it over to James and the panelists.

[JAMES VERNON] Thank you, Marion. And that’s really embarrassing because I’m not going to introduce any of our distinguished panelists in that way at all. So my apologies. I’m just so excited that you’re all here. Welcome. I think this is going to be a really fascinating conversation.

To me, this is a really important event because I couldn’t really sit at a table in Berkeley with three people that I could value more as friends and as comrades and as intellectual interlocutors. And it’s a real pleasure to sit here and let them go at it.

The other pleasure for me is as my three friends know, I spend a lot of time on the water. So thinking about the sea and living around the sea is something that I take very, very seriously. But I also grew up in the shadow of Gramsci in many ways because the Prison Notebooks were translated into English I think in the early ’70s.

And when I was an undergrad at University in Britain, we were all engaging through Stuart Hall with thinking about the very particular crises of welfare capitalism in the Global North through Hall’s work and using Gramsci to do that. So to be able to think at this time around the very specific conjuncture of crises that we have and to return to Gramsci through Sharad is a real privilege and a pleasure.

And if you haven’t bought this book, it’s worth every cent. We don’t know how much it’s cost, but go buy it. It has the great virtue of being small enough that you can put it in your back pocket or on a coat and it travels with you. So let me introduce the three of them without reeling off all of their publications and work.

Sharad teachers in geography as I’m sure you all know alongside this book that came out earlier this year. He is about to publish the absolutely brilliant and amazing apartheid remains, which I’ve had the privilege of reading, which is coming out with Duke in a few months, I would imagine.

And he’s also hard at work on his next one, which is written with and about the South African Black lesbian activist Beverley Ditsie. So yeah, very characteristic of the way that Sharad works very capaciously across continents and around different forms of intellectual and political work.

Leslie, who I think will start us off after Sharad has talked for 5 or 10 minutes, teaches in gender and women’s studies, but mainly is basically Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at the moment and is doing that amazing work that people sometimes have to do. Leslie works on– she’s a sociologist by training. All three of these people have Berkeley PhDs, by the way, which is, sort of, amazing. You do, right?


Oh, anyway. Yeah, sorry. They almost have Berkeley PhDs. Leslie is a sociologist by training. She works on the gendering and globalization of economic life. And her field work is primarily located in Mexico. Her first book Genders in Production explored the making of gendered work on the factory floor. And her new book is looking at a different type of gendered production on the currency exchange markets of Mexico City.

And finally, Colleen teaches in English, where she teaches about Asian-American literature. But mainly, she teaches about Marxism these days. Her first book America’s Asia analyzed the racial form of American literature after Chinese exclusion. And she’s currently writing about Asian-American contributions to Marxism, to racial capitalism, and to social reproduction.

So the format is going to be this. Sharad is going to talk for about 10 minutes, and then we’re going to begin a conversation between the three of them. It’s not going to be formal responses from Leslie and Colleen.

I’m thinking that we’ll stop around 1 o’clock, so you’ll have time to join the conversation. But if folks have to leave by 1:00 and you have things that you want to contribute to the conversation as it develops, will you just let me know so I can bring you in? Because I don’t want those people who have to leave at 1:00, I don’t want you to miss out the opportunity of joining the conversation. So Sharad, with no more ado, over to you.

[SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. First of all, thanks, everyone. Thanks for coming. Thanks to Matrix, to Julia, and Marion, and Chuck. And thanks to my comrades here, and I couldn’t– I feel like I could spend my 10 minutes speaking about how amazing these three people are and how it’s a confluence of personal, political, and intellectual interest and affection that brings us together. And I’m buttering them up because they’re going to skewer me properly in a couple of minutes.

So I’m going to jump into– I’m going to read a little bit from the beginning, and then I’m just going to lay out some of the main– some of the key arguments. And I begin with a sentence, really, from Srinivas Aravamudan in one of his last articles before his passing away. And so here it is.

“The shadow of tomorrow’s impending ecological disaster leaps over today and reunites with abandoned conceptions of human finitude from a past rich with apocalyptic nightmares that the enlightenment had temporarily vanquished. In a lucid charge to critique our imperiled present in relation to prior forms of consciousness that also faced human finitude, Aravamudan diagnoses the past and present through a slow unfolding of a determinate future.

This temporal structure offers no easy consolations of recuperating prior struggles, no reassurance that the negation of imperial catastrophe is forthcoming, and yet we witness the progressivist hopes bequeathed by the enlightenment being inexorably undone.

I add, with Gramsci in mind, that in this process of slow decay, enlightenment legacies reveal their contradictions well out into the horizon as we reach into dangerous waters of the near future to imagine what critique might yet be. This cautiously recursive structure of thought encapsulates Antonio Gramsci’s life work and in particular his political hope against the fascist high tide.

In a literal sense, the oceanic crisis of our time is planetary just as the planetary crisis is oceanic, as it links crises bequeathed by waves of capital and imperialism. But these turgid conjunctures of natural disaster are also persistent wellsprings of political hope against despair despite their best attempts not to be. While Gramsci wrote little about the oceans, what he did write recasts in his thought in useful ways.”

This is fundamentally what I’m exploring here in this pamphlet really. And the pamphlet form allows one to be a little bit audacious and go beyond the limits of reasonable arguments. So I invite disagreement and conversation. That’s, I think, with the pamphlet form is meant for.

So the first chapter tries to elaborate on this thesis by– the first chapter is called Gramsci and the Sea, and it reads his notes, his ocean of notes that would have been linked in hypertext had they been written today and reading along maritime oceanic seafarer seems to find all sorts of surprises, including, for instance, that he thought of the emergence of the Pax Americana through the sinews of British maritime imperial power. That’s quite an exciting– in the Indo-Pacific, from the Pacific, actually.

But also I also make the argument that we can think of his form of thought as oceanic. And I try to read that important for Gramscians here. I was getting to the weeds a bit, the note 17 in notebook 13, which is the key methodological note in which he thinks about the eruption of the organic on the terrain of the conjunctural. And what does that mean, and how can we think of that as an oceanic form of argument?

Also, his way of thinking with Marx’s 1859 preface about the problem spaces that are resurgent in particular times. So I try to use all this, and I also think about one of his last letters to his son, his little baby son, asking him to regard the life of the teeming life of the ocean, a beautiful line. Also, in a way about the ocean itself and the living ocean.

So what might his oceanic Marxism be? That’s what I turn to in the second essay, which is called The Oceanic Question. And the reference is to his early heuristic the Southern question, which is a heuristic in which he starts to explore the ensemble of categories that he then elaborates on and transforms throughout his life.

Also, he says that when he thinks about the Southern question, that he is thinking– that the Southern question in Italy is the agrarian question and the question of the Vatican. And I’ve wondered, as have others, about his relationship to the agrarian question, and what Lenin he had read, and whether he had read Neo-Lenin’s magisterial development of capitalism in Russia, which was so important in the 1980s, ’90s revival of agrarian studies and agrarian Marxism.

And particularly as a nonlinear and non-teleological engagement with differentiation and difference and differentiation in agrarian capitalism and capitalism more generally, there are major limits to thinking about– there are some limits to thinking about the oceans analogously to agrarian capitalism.

One major one being that the limits to capital and imagining an oceanic green revolution, except when one thinks about if one thinks of industrial agriculture is also a graveyard of a site for the remains the wastes of fossil fuel toxins, that’s what the oceans are writ large in some ways as well, toxic waste dumps.

Which then leads me to neologisms that have tried to think about these issues. The notion of the blue economy and of extractivism, one industry category, if you will, and the other an activist category. And I think about the efficacy of these categories.

And that leads me to essay three, which is that there’s an underlying issue here, which is what Marx calls the critique of political economy. That is, how do we think of the reifications of land, labor, and capital, the ways in which they seem to take on a life of their own? And as he puts it, Marx puts it, Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost dance, these spirits dancing in the ether.

Well, I turn to a wonderful work of Fernando Coronil which tries to think about– tries to engage this question as a postcolonial Marxist. And Coronil turns for inspiration to the wonderful line from Borges about why there are no camels in the Quran and that what’s hidden in plain sight there is this is a society in which camels are taken for granted.

And what I want to say about the issues that the blue economy and extractivism point to is that what’s hidden in plain sight is the ocean in extension from Coronil’s way of thinking about the occlusion of nature and of the postcolony from the history of capital, global history of capital. And it’s a complicated thing to lay out in a second.

But Coronil also is trying to get us to think beyond what he calls occidentalism, occidentalist forms of reason that presume a West/Rest binary. And then the scholarship that tries to deal with it to think beyond Eurocentrism either erases the rest in the explanation of the West, or it folds the rest into a rendition of the West, like Europe and the people without history, Eric Wolf.

Or it uses the rest, the global south, the postcolony as a way of destabilizing the story of the West, which may be the Derridean critique, or it’s also how he looks at Tim Mitchell. Right, so how do we think beyond the West/Rest binary entirely to think about a post-occidentalist form of reason? And I bring up– I really broach this question, how do we think beyond a post-terracentric form of reason that also presumes a land, sea binary?

And that’s an opening that I think with. And, of course, also that may be all well and good in terms of our critical diagnosis, but what does it have to do with organizing collective political will, which is really what Gramsci wants us to get to?

And that’s where the last chapter, chapter 4 turns. It’s called The Storm. And there I think about the archives of oceanic struggle, beginning with the strike. Of course, the “strike,” striking the sails down, “affaler,” bringing the sails down, French, Flemish, Dutch sailors inventing this form of this concept in relation to the hostile nature and hostile ships, and then radical seafarers turning this into a political concept of a different kind, and then that spilling out in the pool of London into the general strike.

Abolition, the maritime origins of abolition from the struggles of slaves themselves, the struggles over the notion of the international in the legal struggles around the sea after Bandung, the long set of legal struggles leading up to UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which affects one of the biggest enclosures in the world of the territorial waters which become nationalized. And the deep sea, supposedly a commons, becomes a place for big capital to plunder the ocean bed.

These are in some ways legally concluded, but, of course, the struggles continue and the ongoing struggles around the refusal of planetary ecocide. And I think of these histories of struggle in relation to– I juxtapose them really with Black aqua-futurist art as a way of– and particularly, Drexciya, the wonderful artist Ellen Gallagher, John Akomfrah and his Vertigo Sea. Some of you may have seen it at SFMOMA a few years ago.

To think about this concept in Drexciya of storming and of the political storm. And my argument at the end is that we should think non-sequentially about the strike abolition in the international and the refusal of planetary ecocide, that all these forms of struggle continue to have the possibility of storming different shores in different ways.

That’s the final political and some ways will in that Gramscian way throwing caution to the wind political argument in dire times. That’s where I end. Over to you both.

[LESLIE SALZINGER] Well, thank you for that, Sharad. That was a great summary of what you’re doing here. I think it’s really, really helpful. And yeah, I do feel like for the four of us to be talking about the set of ideas, this is like a real privilege. We’ve done so many forms of political work on campus that are, I think for all four of us, I would say deeply linked to these sets of questions, the sort of a microcosm of larger set of questions of what it means to make a community of thinkers.

And for that to be part of making change, so yeah, it feels lucky to get to be here. Last night Colleen and I checked in briefly and talked for an hour and a half. So we’ll see where this goes.

I thought it would be interesting to start with this question of methods. So what you’re doing here, what it means to think of Gramsci as an oceanic theorist. And in a sense, the question of, is that versus a kind of terracentric theorist, an earthly theorist?

And so as we were talking last night, it felt like you’re doing a, sort of, moving back and forth between working against a major classic binary, which I’ll say a little bit about what I think that might be and refusing it. And so I just want to lay out what the binary might be and then what the interstitial parts might be. And then I’d love to hear you talk about how you think about their relationship with each other.

So there’s a way when you say that Gramsci is an oceanic theorist, you’re thinking of that as connecting, as transnational, as fluid, also as Southern, as subaltern maybe versus the earthly, the terracentric, stagist, static, Northern, Metropolitan maybe. And that’s a very classic binary.

And that seems to hover beneath a lot of what you’re doing. And yet at the same time, you also are interested in this question of the interstitial of the borderline of what you call in the book, or the pamphlet, the terraqueous, the area that’s between the ocean and the sea. And that blurring is also part of the project.

And so I guess I’m curious to hear you think with us about how you think about that methodologically, both really insisting on a certain kind of binary and then really refusing it, but it’s there hovering. This is obviously an old problem, but it comes back because it’s an important one. And I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.

SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. Just turn this back on. Yeah, that’s a great– that’s a great question. And it’s certainly something that animates this pamphlet because it is only– it’s such a big question, right?

OK, so Gramsci does say that he calls his dialectical– he says he’s interested in a dialectical method that is committed to the absolute earthliness of thought. And it’s something that I think that we have a lot more to think with there. And I don’t– the wonderful thing about Gramsci is he leaves a lot of conversations open for others to pick up. It really requires a world of Gramscians or just a world.

And so what is this earthiness of thought? And thought thinking of that, that’s this complicated chapter 3, that thinking about the land/sea binary is not something that can be done away with in theory. What is it? And it’s not exactly analogous to the relation between Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre. But it’s connected to how we think about landed property, rents. There’s a whole question of rents here that is lurking in the background as well.

The question of capital accumulation through the ocean is fundamentally a question of rents, whether it’s around– and of negotiating those rents through the state, through the interstate system. That’s also part of it. And so I think it’s in that area that that’s one area that I think is productive to explore further to open up the power of the binary.

It connected, of course, you’re right to the idea of Gramsci’s concern with the subaltern. I think these things go together, by the way. The earthliness and the subalternity are intertwined as well. There’s been a mistaken– mistaken sounds too party, you know, deviationist. But the turn to hone in the question of the subaltern on identity has been a certain kind of blind spot.

And so the question of earthliness and subalternity I think we have to think together. That also means that when Spivak backtracks about her own trajectory and says planetarity is underived from us, and this is somehow a continuation of the question of subaltern. There’s a Marxist path not taken there as well in thinking about earthliness in relation to that unfinished question of the subaltern.

Global South, I was thinking about this when you said the South, how long we’ve tarried with this concept of the global South and never quite got there. And so it’s always a fudge, right? We always think, OK, we know it’s here as well, it’s here and there. It’s a failed concept in a certain way.

But yeah, I think that’s what I have to say so far about this. The terraqueous– I know I’ve struggled in that chapter 3 with finding an exemplary text that tells a Marxist terraqueous account that actually engages with the power of land/sea reification in a way.

[COLLEEN LYE] Let me jump in here because I had similar questions about method. Everything’s about method in some ways. And ultimately, I want to get to metaphor as a method because, well, why? Because I’m a literary critic but just backing up to since there was this question about where did my PhD.

I did do my PhD– I first read Gramsci actually during the First Intifada with Said at Columbia, who has been on my mind a lot lately because it was a time when Said and Columbia were synonymous in terms of what it meant to be doing critical, intellectual work at the university.

And we seem to be in a very different moment obviously regarding Columbia and postcolonial theory. So these things come to mind inevitably as I’m reading Gramsci now. I’m reading Gramsci through Sharad’s reading of Gramsci, also in a different moment of Gramsci’s studies from that moment of British cultural studies reception in the US so mediated by postcolonial theory and the Saidian inflection of what Gramsci meant to be an American third-worldist academic in the humanities at that time of, OK, this is how old I am, late ’80s, early ’90s.

So this brings me back then to actually– this is going to connect to the question of the binary, OK, and the kind of work because I do think that– OK, first of all, I did want to situate for those of you who don’t know that I feel like that Sharad’s intervention here with his pamphlet is part of a conversation of a revival in Gramsci studies now that marks a different kind of approach to Gramsci that is associated with the so-called philological turn, so somewhat different from the British cultural studies reception of Gramsci at that time in the ’80s and ’90s.

And this philological turn both makes it more textual, closer to the kind of literary work that we were attempting to do at the time but also weirdly in a way further away insofar as this philological turn right now in Gramsci’s study seems to be happening, not in literature departments so much, but in political theory, maybe geography. So there’s this weird disjuncture in terms of where the literary is and the textuality of approaching Gramsci vis-a-vis the so-called philological turn.

So this is a different kind of disjuncture in our current conjuncture that I feel animated by in approaching reading Sharad, who seems very literary to me maybe because we’re generationally closer in a way. So he’s a bit of an odd man out, I feel like, in this philological conversation. He’s more literary than a lot of that philological conversation, I feel like, on Gramsci’s studies.

But then at the same time, I’ll just say biographically I’m moving more towards the conceptual. So my approach is like, I want to hammer in on the conceptual. So I’m going to be like, coming back metaphor concept.

OK, so sorry, long preamble but this is where I’m coming at vis-a-vis the question of the binary. So maybe one way for me to– OK, so where I’m coming at this after studying with Said and Spivak at Columbia was to work on Pax Americana actually since you raised that already, right?

And so for me, the interest of coming to Gramscian, Americanism, and Fordism, and then your approach to Gramsci via thinking about America as empire as almost in a regent frame, a kind of successor to British empire in the 19th century. How do we think about the post frontier? Is the American expansion across the Pacific after so-called declaration of the end of the frontier in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, do we understand that?

So now metaphorically, do we understand that as a post-frontier moment insofar as the extension across the Pacific is a kind of displacement of the logic of the continental frontier? Or is it an extension of the logic of that continental frontier into the Philippines, Spanish-American war and then so on and so forth, right?

So that’s to then come back in a way– that’s one concrete way in which I want to ask you that question similar to the sort of question that Leslie was asking about how do we think about– how are you thinking about Gramsci as a dialectician of a more fluid sort that is not, in fact, a kind of Laclau and Mouffean version of Gramsci as short circuiting dialectics?

But you use the term Thai dialectics to name a more fluid kind of dialectics. And I have more to say about that if my version is different from what you’re going to say as a way of thinking sublation in a more fluid way.

And I raise the Pax Americana as a post-frontier thing as a concrete example because it’s interesting because I would think of the literal as a way of remaining with liminal spaces, but then a lot of your examples are really more deep sea, I feel like, where the sea is a contradictory social space of a blue economy that cannot completely be captured by capital accumulation.

And so in that sense, it seems like you’re turning to the sea as a space itself with its own specific dynamics that’s quite different from the land, which means that I don’t think you’re simply lingering with the liminal or the literal in order to interrupt a binary so as to deconstruct it. So sorry, is that a lot of clues?

[SHARAD CHARI] It’s a lot of– yeah. All in different ways about method and literary method. My own path– my own entry drug to Gramsci was in this building with Michael Burawoy. And Michael Burawoy’s the Church of Gramsci was probably a Marxist church.

But it was so compelling and useful for so many of us to bring in– to think about Gramscian concepts, to bring them to life in a Marxist critique of political economy that was lived in parallel to the socialist street. It’s a similar kind of move to think about.

In fact, these are parallel trajectories, Marxism and social history, Marxism through Burawoy and the kind of ethnographic political economy. These are parallel trajectories, and they connect as well.

Very different from Said. And I dug up this paper on Said talk on Gramsci and Lukacs, which I got from the Said archives. If anyone wants it, I can send it to you. Please email me. I think it’s very interesting and thoughtful.

But it did get me thinking that Said was interested in what Gramsci thought of as his philological approach. And what that meant, given the trajectory that I come at Gramsci, given this sort of materialist trajectory, it meant something different. For me, what it pointed to– well, on his concept metaphors, he works with them, and he elaborates them as he says. And he labors with them and transforms them, leaves some aside, goes on with others.

And you can see that when you read across the notes. And that’s one gift, so you don’t look for fixed concepts, which I think the sociological approach we tended to think this is how you define hegemony, this is how you– and I think this processual approach to its concepts is perhaps useful in thinking also about how hegemony itself is transforming in our time and in different domains. And so the concepts transform with the objects of analysis. That’s also what Gramsci is interested in.

And returning to that 1859 passage from– he has these little passages he keeps going back to, right? And that passage from Marx is about how do we figure out the problem space we’re interested in? It’s emergent in relation to the problems we face. And the solutions emerge alongside the problems.

But then this ciphering those is not a purely intellectual task. It’s not simply about sitting in Columbia University. It’s about learning from the oppressed and learning from– that’s then the task which the social historians and the ethnographers were doing in a particular way. It doesn’t exhaust the ways they we can do it, but I think then if thinking philologically is not reducible to language and abstraction, which is never Gramsci’s interest, right? It’s always lived language.

When he writes– in the final years, he writes his family to send them the latest folklore or send them folklore. He’s trying to compile an arsenal for his conception of what it would take to organize collective political will as a social historian, as an ethnographer would.

But something else is lurking in the background here, which is not so much a background for a geographer. It’s the foreground. It’s the question of space and time and how prior space times are drawn into the new. So the question of sublation in a materialist sense, that’s part of what this kind of, if you want, a broader sense of the philological is trying to get at.

I think it’s also genealogical. Conrad Hart and I have a dispute about this. But his dialectical method is also about drawing in prior space times into the new. I think that’s also what the category racial capitalism really is fumbling with. It’s not just about the racist ideology. It’s about prior space times drawn into the new and that then with their symbolic and ideological and various other aspects.

And that’s why Gramsci is interested in folklore, and that’s what he’s trying to then think through how to radicalize those forms, how to bring them out of the realm of doxa into the realm of critique. And so something about philology, something about this idea, the concept matter of metaphor of philological method is useful for something we call the social sciences as if they’re abstracted from humanities.

That is then– that points to something broader about a method for thinking about prior socio-spatial forms is always conserved in the new, something like that. And I think of that as a kind of oceanic form. That’s the provocation.

I’m willing to hear you say that because that’s how I read you as well but yes.

Thank you.

[JAMES VERNON] And if anyone wants to come in before 1 o’clock, just put your hand up. Let me know. But Leslie, can you go on?

[LESLIE SALZINGER] Of course. Sure, yes, for those of you who have not read this yet, the pamphlet itself is very– it wanders in a very poetic way. And I feel like there’s a way in which our conversation is following that genre, which I think is nice.

Being the kind of person I am, though, I’m like, where? But what precisely do you mean here? So I have a question about how you understand the idea of the oceanic as useful in reading Gramsci. In a way, this is just going back to the same thing, but I want to hear you expand on it.

So sometimes it’s metaphorical and stylistic. Gramsci is an ocean of notes. He clearly is playing. He’s not tying things down. You’re inspired by that in certain ways, and there’s a way in which understanding his thought as fluid is part of what you’re doing.

But then there are ways in which the ocean’s material existence is that thinking about the ocean forces one to think about the transnational. The ocean is a connector between nation states. You go, they overflow their boundaries by definition.

You have a fascinating part which I knew nothing about the legal structure of the ocean and the continental shelf, and who controls it, and nation states get to control the top but they don’t control the bottom. And so when you harvest things from the ocean, you’re always moving through nation states. So it’s a deeply enriched image of the way capital works through the ocean space, which is different in important ways than the way capital works on land.

And so I guess I’m still just– I just want to hear you talk more about which sides of that are more interesting to you or maybe more importantly, how those two sides, which you’re clearly interested in both, the fluidity of the language, thinking fluidly, and thinking what it means to actually think about the ocean with Gramsci, how those speak to each other and illuminate Gramsci’s thought more generally.

[SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. So in the most direct way of answering, the most direct answer is that when he literally talks about, when you just do word searches and find his notes on oceanic matters, what becomes apparent is that he is not just a thinker who is– he’s not a thinker who is recognizable in much of Gramsci studies, at least in the social sciences, which is who is a methodological nationalist?

Gramsci is often thought of in a national frame partly because of the regulation theory and the way it had read Gramsci or used Gramsci maybe. And so I thought that was interesting for one key.

There are some insights that are surprising and exciting, but that’s one of the big things that I thought he’s interested in a different kind of– he’s interested in imperialism and in a surprising way.

Secondly, that then got me to think about what he says when you think about a thinker, you’ve got to think about their leitmotifs, their forms of thought. And so then I said, OK, well, every time he talks about the things that really matter to him, when he gets into, he says he’s trying to figure out his own predicament or what has happened in Italy, let’s say.

We think of that as a national argument, but then he tells it, and he does what seems like a potted history in some ways. This is what happened after the French Revolution. This is what happens to Jacobinism after the French Revolution. This is what happens at the Risorgimento, and this is how the Risorgimento fails to achieve certain aims and produce something else.

And then you see something else, a different kind of spatial temporal object of analysis, which is accumulative. It’s trying to get an analytical point about a complex, dense, historical, spatial historical conjuncture and its remains as they accumulate in a particular direction. Presumably, there are all sorts of other directions.

I thought that form of thought is also in– it has that feel of an oceanic form of thought and also the sense of the kind of resurgence. Then when you think about his arguments about what is to be done– what is to be done for critical diagnosis and for politics, how do we steer clear of the shoals of economism and idealism?

He has a surprising thing about the levels of analysis, and it’s not a stratigraphy. That would seem like it’s a stratigraphy, but it’s not. And he says that, not in those terms.

And he also says what we should look for is the moment when the organic erupts into the conjunctural. What does that mean? Again, there’s some kind of– I call a kind of oceanic concept metaphor in its form. So formally and in terms of content, there’s something exciting here that is different from how we usually read Gramsci.

[COLLEEN LYE] I’m going to try to answer for him.

[SHARAD CHARI] No, you can subtract as well.

[COLLEEN LYE] I just want to add. So I think that’s right actually because I was having trouble grasping your argument precisely because it is very associative and metaphoric. You’re arguing through metaphor, right? This is the style of your argument.

I kept asking myself as I was reading this like, what are you– how do you follow through? It’s not like an expository essay. You’re not arguing through in a standard, academic way.


But what you just said confirmed my hunch that there is an intervention here conceptually through the metaphor of working through the ocean– and you can disagree with my reading, the ocean as both matter and form. You are interested. I feel like you’re toggling back and forth between thinking about ocean as matter that forces us to constantly come up against the impossibility of its enclosure, right? A space that refuses enclosure but also is continually subject to exploitation as the continual frontier where exploitation and exploitability is coming up against its limit.

And on the other hand, how is it also in that refusal and continual movement also a form of thought that interestingly makes us not simply associate fluidity, the oceanic with fluidity versus fixity of land, which is to say that what I got from your emphasis on thinking sublation in the fluid way was the emphasis not simply on the preservation of past forms of oppression but also past forms of struggle, past forms of counter-hegemonic popular folk ways that resist.

And it seemed to me that conceptually, that was your contribution to current debates and racial capitalism. And by revisiting the agrarian question within the Marxist tradition, as you say, which is very good on thinking about the uneven persistence of formal subsumption and uneven development, but your interesting appreciation for Gramsci’s Leninism actually forces us– and this is where I want to just bring out for people who haven’t read the pamphlet yet, that your focus specifically on waves and currents you say–

Yeah, that section.

You say, “Waves on the surface–” this is a quote, “Waves on the surface come and go capriciously, but deep down there’s a strong historical current, right?” So that’s your way of–

[SHARAD CHARI] That’s Gramsci.

[COLLEEN LYE] OK, yeah, you quote in your book. And so your reading of that is that Gramsci’s break– that is Gramsci’s break with mechanistic materialism and Marxist tradition or his own way of thinking about structure and superstructure. And then you say, “In studying structure, let’s distinguish organic movements, the relatively permanent–” that’s the currents, “–from movements which may be termed occasional, immediate, almost accidental, the waves, right?”

So OK, here’s where I feel like your metaphor is more than just a metaphor, it’s also a concept. It’s the matter but also the concept. And then you say on page 17, the sublimation of the spirit of Jacobinism points to submerged legacies of popular struggle that might surface at various opportune moments.

OK, good. So what’s interesting is that if pelagic imperialism cannot really accumulate on the sea in the same way that it can easily accumulate on land, and that’s part of the resistance to a continuous accumulation, then it seems like you’re countering the pelagic imperialism, which is someone else’s term, I forget who, with this idea of a different idea of base superstructure in a more fluid sense that also conserves past struggles.

And so yeah, so I just wanted to emphasize the preservation of the past but the preservation not of past forms of oppression re-adapted to present forms of exploitation but past forms of sequence of popular struggles, which also seems super relevant for our present.

[SHARAD CHARI] Thanks, Colleen. There’s a book that haunts the pamphlet. It doesn’t exist, so don’t worry. It’s a book that– so I’ve been doing research in the Southern African, Indian Ocean region, and Mauritius, Réunion, ports of Mozambique and trying to figure out what is this about, and I thought I’d hinge it on the idea of the blue economy.

And I wrote this partly to figure out where I am, what I want to think about. And it’s around these issues. So really, to properly answer, you have to work through that, elaborate through that material and those struggles.

So I’ll give you one example of one of the sites. Mauritius has the sort of very mythologized and highly symbolically overloaded region, which is the place of maroonage. And that’s where the annual march to commemorate the end of the slave trade ends there, with Rastafarians actually leading the way in the Indian Ocean.

And anyway, that archives of the end of the slave trade in this particular corner of where the Black Atlantic and the Indian Ocean intersect. There’s a thriving illegal slave trade after the end of the formal slave trade, with ships changing names and people changing names and continuing to trafficking humans in this.

And I found someone– amazing stuff about the way in which people are trafficked through the infrastructure of that perfect in, back traffic back in the landscape of maroonage. And there’s a site which refuses some kind of determinism around what maroonage looks like, what those shoals, the land space, land-sea interface.

Here is not a place of freedom but also a place of re-enslavement, which requires one to work through the concrete material. That’s how I would work through some of this with, where I had to actually write a book.

And then the other thing that I thought of, yeah, so fluidity fixity is, of course, another dialectical relation that has to be thought through concretely. And that passage that you read from Gramsci is, of course, also an engagement through oceanic metaphors of Marx and Marx’s 1857 introduction to the Grundrisse and the notion of a rising to the concrete of deeper relations that the mistake is of thinking of that in some kind of layering. So I think these are– it’s also about rereading Marx methodologically.

[JAMES VERNON] I’m going to throw it open to other people in the–

[LESLIE SALZINGER] James, before you do, I just want to say one thing. I know we’re at time. But I just think one thing about this pamphlet that’s wonderful is that it just shows us the virtues of going back to great theorists over and over again. And that this is so clearly a reading from now from a time of climate crisis and from a time in which discussions of racial capitalism– so it’s just very much a reading from this moment. And I just think that’s really interesting and wonderful.

Thank you.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about if we accept Colleen’s reading or if we think about the oceanic in terms of form and matter, what happens to organic intellectuals? Because that seems like he sets up conjunctural versus organic and the task of separating those two where all things appear conjunctural and identifying that Jacobin spirit, identifying conjuncture seems to be the duty of the party. And it’s collected in the modern prince chapter of that anthology so yeah.

I just wondered also, if we’re reading Gramsci again towards this sort of Leninism, I wonder in the light of what happened to his reception in workerist Italy that he was ultimately rejected because of what happened to the PCI and the party and its effect on the Italian working class, that he became an enemy of Italian communism in the ’60s. Yeah, I guess I just wondered if that sparked something.

[SHARAD CHARI] What do we make of the organic intellectual and the modern prince? The organic intellectual I point to is Pip in Moby-Dick, the young Black cabin boy who falls into the sea. And all the– Ellen Gallagher is interested in Pip. C.L.R James is interested in Pip.

But when we read Pip now, I’m struck that– so Pip falls into the sea. And the first time he falls in from the whaling boat, they rescue him. And the second time the guy says, if you fall in again, your life isn’t worth it rescuing basically.

The whales are much more– the whales are more lucrative than you would cost– than you would fetch if I were to sell you again in Alabama, something like that. There’s a reference to this. This is still the Fugitive Slave Act is still in the background and so on.

And he falls in. And the second time he falls in, he’s abandoned and then he’s plucked out of the sea, but he’s never the same. And he’s this figure who has seen something, and he is also the only person that Ahab listens to and sees as the voice of reason.

This is a kind of Shakespearean figure in some ways, right, but also– and not quite an answer to the modern prince because they have the modern princess. It doesn’t come together in Moby-Dick, actually. But Pip is that figure who has seen something.

Also, Ellen Gallagher is interested in Pip as a figure who sees the climate catastrophe. What does that mean? What is the organic intellectual if young Delio, Gramsci’s child, grows up and can regard the teeming life of the sea in a different way than the party could? What does that mean? That’s part of it, I think, what is an ecological modern– what is a planetary modern France?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] OK. Yeah, thank you very much for the extremely thoughtful and stimulating presentation and discussion. Thinking about oceans over time and the Atlantic Ocean but also the Mediterranean Sea over time during the lengthy period of slavery, British slavery in the Caribbean and the lengthy period of British imperialism.

So thinking literally about a littoral zone, I did work on the salt on the rice production in the rural, the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina, which produced more than 90% of rice that was produced in the United States and had a very distinctive plantation labor regime. So I’m curious about that in terms of the binary and breaking down the binary. So that’s during the period of slavery.

But during imperialism, working again from my hometown Liverpool and the role it played in slavery but also in West Africa, the oil rivers region, where the Brits initially thought there was one river but thought there were multiple rivers. Well, I forget how they got confused. I’m getting confused now.

But it turns out that there are multiple strands, and these zones, they have their own labor regimes because the big ships can’t go in. And they employ mainly male but some female. So there are two littoral littorals that act, and I wonder how they– I got it from you. It’s very imaginative. I’m very appreciative. I’ve made some notes for future use.

But my second– so that’s one question for reflections. But my second one is that geography, as I see it, is the home of Black geography in this country. And I wonder what Gramsci had to say about the Mediterranean and what the people writing about Black geographies are saying about the Mediterranean.

I know it’s a big place. It’s a sea. It’s not an ocean. But I wonder if there are ways in which thinking about Gramsci enables us to think about the Black Mediterranean as a very different zone from the Black Atlantic. Thanks very much.

[SHARAD CHARI] Well, we do have one of our rising stars in Black geographies. Camilla Hawthorne works on the Black Mediterranean. Yeah, we learn from the work of supervision. Yeah, so let’s see. Can I answer about how I– a lot of what you offered were comments.

But Gramsci’s relation to Blackness is an interesting one. And I engage Frank Wilderson’s response in his essay Gramsci’s Black Marx. The way that I think the essay calls for– the essay begins with an axiomatic refusal of the possibility of Black Marxism. It’s a death sentence, literally, the first sentence.

And I think it’s actually not a useful way to read. Gramsci is strangely– I looked and I found sites, places where he’s totally racist about Black music and Black popular culture. For someone who’s so excited about popular culture, that’s interesting.

So what is this aphasia– not aphasia, what is this blindness? What is going on there? I think Fumi Okiji here is, for me, the person to think with, the way she reads Adorno’s blindness to jazz and reads that as a way of reading Jazz as Critique, as she puts it, and Adorno’s deafness in relation. That’s exciting to me. Well, that’s what I suggest is possible.

And then it’s interesting that that’s my segue into thinking about Drexciya, which emerges in the ruins of Fordism. Gramsci doesn’t see that despite having been in the common term around the discussion of the Negro question that Claude McKay brought to the Comintern. He doesn’t engage it, and it is an emergent in the Americanism and Fordism essay as it probably should.

So he would have heard it and known it, so it’s strange. But so there is some deafness or aphasia or something, right? That’s how I try to think about that.

But I don’t think it’s a death sentence because this is the Gramsci, the young Gramsci in revolution against capital warns against deifying Marx because the Bolsheviks didn’t follow a prescription there. We should do the same with Gramsci, right? We should open up many forms of reading, which then takes us back to the importance of reading or doing a reading, which is what he always does.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you so much for this. So I’m going to return in my disciplinary role to the question of metaphor as method, partly because you talk about one of my favorite moments in Freud early on, which is the oceanic feeling. And I wanted to think about whether or not the oceanic is in fact metaphoric in this moment and what that might do for your later use of the oceanic.

Because while Freud and Rolland dramatically disagree about what the oceanic feeling can be and who might have it, it is for both of them, not a metaphor. They understand that the oceanic feeling is phenomenological and it’s psychic.

And I’m wondering if that materiality of the oceanic feeling might be a way to return to oceanic Marxism, which is where you take us, right? You go from the oceanic feeling to oceanic Marxism. So I’m wondering about materiality and the body as we move from feeling to, let’s say, politics.

And the reason I’m thinking with you quite in a current is because of your example of Pip right now. Because when you say that Pip returns having seen something, this is actually the story that Rolland is reading right of Ramakrishna.

He says, the salt doll goes into the ocean to measure the depths, and he finds that he’s become one with the ocean, except the actual story is that most cannot return. And sometimes the salt doll comes back but cannot say what he has seen, right? That there is something about having seen something that you cannot say that seems essential to the movement between, let’s say, the affective, or even the perceptual and the political.



[SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. That’s brilliant. I realize that I just threw that out at some point as a question, what would Gramsci have done with the oceanic feeling? He wouldn’t have– and I think he would have done something. And even that little letter to his son indicates something.

In terms of his reading of– Freud’s reading of Rolland I would need to think more about it. But I’m with you on this point. I do think– I’m sure he would do something. I think he would have to interrogate Rolland’s Orientalism, right? And that would then make him– would have to make him question what he thinks of as absolute secularization of thought today. We would have to think about that differently.

But primary narcissism, that wouldn’t be the direction he would go. But there’s something else that is possible. I’d like to talk to you more about this. I appreciate the provocation. Thank you.

One more.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Quick question in the middle. First, thanks so much. This panel is great, and I can’t wait to go out and get your book, which I will read, I think, with great enthusiasm and pleasure. Here’s the question. What– and I don’t mean to be– I don’t want to involve myself in the theological term.

But in the Gramsci texts, what is the word in Italian for ocean? Is it mare? Because if it is mare, then the map gets redefined, right? Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean. And it doesn’t mean that the readings are different, but there is a colonial space marked out.

I’m thinking of this really in retrospection from contemporary debates about the Mediterranean as a site of unity and connection. And also, that brings in race as well, and it also brings in the emigration from Italy. But anyway, that was just my question which could supplement your proposals, which are, of course great. But anyway, wanted to know what you thought about ocean and mare.

[SHARAD CHARI] I don’t know actually. Maybe some of the– maybe some other– I’m not sure what that carries. I’m not sure what– he does use– the translated terms you can find are the sea and maritime and the ocean as well both for different things.

The ocean is in that section on the Pacific and the shift in the global– in the axis of geopolitics, something like that. But I’d have to think about the– one would have to think about the entailments in this method and the entailments within the act of translation. I take your point. I appreciate it.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hey, there, Sharad. Thank you so much for your talk. My name is William. I’m a geography PhD student. And I wanted to– I had two questions. And the first was on a phrase that kept on coming up.

The idea that terracentrism presupposes a land/sea binary. And through this, I was thinking– I immediately went to Kevin Dawson’s work and undercurrents of power and his use of the term waterscapes or aquascapes to get out of this binary between the rivers and the swamps and the sea.

And as you were talking, I was thinking that if we do take the sea as our framework and we take maritime lens, that could exclude a lot of aquatic material culture, particularly in the continent. So if we look at West Africa, prior to 1600s, you had a lot of interior travel on the lagoons and the rivers and the latrines but not necessarily out to sea. And so if we focus on the maritime, we exclude their material history.

So I was thinking about if terracentrism does presuppose a land/sea binary, then what does it mean to use waterscapes or aquascapes to rethink this binary in this way? And just you know, I’m thinking about method. If we’re looking at slave ships, we can still see wrecks in the sea. If we’re looking at canoes, they’ve all rotted, right?

And the second question I had was related to this is one thing that comes up in terracentric histories is periodization and this impulse to periodize, particularly according to anodyne timescales. And I was thinking about what focusing on aquatics, what focusing on the sea can help do to refuse periodization and how you deal with that.

[SHARAD CHARI] Thanks. Well, I’ve read some of Kevin Dawson’s articles about slave surfing and all that. I actually didn’t turn to him in this piece because I didn’t think he was engaging, but I haven’t read the book. I don’t know what he does in the book.

And I did actually say incorrectly earlier that I didn’t find exemplary works that are wrestling with thinking beyond the land/sea binary. I do find several– I thought Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery is very interesting for thinking about– and one could read it or thinking about some of what you’re asking for, the connections between the oceanic and the canoes and so on and the canoe trade and also the aftermath in the US and saltwater slaves, slaves marked by recent passage.

And I was thinking about some other texts that try to– but I think this is an area of work that your dissertation will be an interesting addition to this hopefully, yeah.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] OK, thank you for this panel. Since I’m coming last, I’m going to ask the dystopian climate future question. Someone had to do it. OK, so in two parts.

So part one is the origin story or myth or story of eco-Marxism is that Marx is interested in soil science. And from that comes this concept of the metabolism. And so then now eco-Marxism is about the metabolic rift.

And hearing you all talk makes me think that there’s maybe something to interrogate there about a land bias to the metabolic rift and then to what eco-Marxism thinks about and how that metaphor organizes eco-Marxist thoughts.

The second part is if we think about the ocean and the future of the ocean, I wonder if you think it is the land-ocean dialectic or Thai dialectic is qualitatively similar to what it is now. So in the future, a notion with probably radical reduction in its own biodiversity from carbon absorption, potentially much hotter in many ways is like the shock absorber of both carbon and heat but also the tormentor of society because the hurricanes, much stronger storms, wetter.

And then most importantly, maybe sea level rise could mean the elimination of every single beach in the world. Seems virtually certain in the absence of geoengineering that 5 feet of sea level rise of course wipes out all the beaches. So how does the future of the ocean inform a different kind of eco-Marxism or eco-socialism?

[JAMES VERNON] You got five minutes, four minutes.

[SHARAD CHARI] Yeah, well, I can only go back to optimism of the intellect, right? Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. He gets that from Rolland but right. The political challenges to refuse this future but it is a future that is in the near– it’s in the near future.

It’s a future we cannot avoid.

Yeah. That is the challenge that Aravamudan poses for us, but he also then go back to that initial quotation that the shadow of impending ecological disaster leaps over today and reunites with abandoned conceptions of human finitude from a past rich with apocalyptic nightmares that the enlightenment and temporarily vanquished.

But that presumes that forms of response to this predicament are going to be varied if we take sublation of prior struggles, prior cultural forms, prior socio spatial, prior land/sea, prior dialectics. Seriously, there is no point in hoping for a singular modern prince. This is the time, if ever, to think about united front in research as well as in politics, right?

But methodologically, that is actually quite an interesting opening for us. If one takes our modern position seriously that prior forms continue to shape multiple ways of meeting this challenge, that’s an abstract way of engaging.

[JAMES VERNON] I think a good place to end at least somehow. Join me in thanking this panel for a wonderful time.

Thank you.