more of Beth Povinelli’s interview

The Inheritance

https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-inheritance

Randeep Hothi: The Inheritance is about many things — inter alia, your family’s migration to the US, your two parents and five siblings, childhood in Louisiana, your ancestral village at the juncture between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy, trauma, melancholy, brutality, patriarchy, and (as you say in the preface) what Hortense Spillers calls the American grammar of race. At its most explicit, the book argues that, “Inheritance doesn’t come from the past. Inheritance is the place we are given in the present in a world structured to care for the existence of some and not of others.” (p. 315) Elaborating on this, you conclude The Inheritance by explaining that: “While my family’s psychic disturbances are real and undeniable, they lie within a racial and settler infrastructure that dismisses an entire host of systematic social harms. All of us travel along this infrastructure, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or with both feet on the brakes.” (p. 312)

I think of queer theoretical criticisms of biological kinship, or what you elsewhere have called the “genealogical grid” (Povinelli 2002), and wonder whether The Inheritance might be suggesting a politics of un-inheritance, insofar as this structure of care might be re-made. On the other hand, it seems that our political horizon allows some to un-inherit what others cannot (family, religion, nation, race, and so on). Does The Inheritance point to something like un-inheritance as a project?

Beth: I am not sure in hindsight either one of us will like the words un-inherit and un-inheritance. Their sounds are wrong in an unrecoverable way. But their discordant phonologies touch on, in ways that the terms disinherit and disinheriting do not, crucial issues at the center of The Inheritance and Between Gaia and Ground, both of which came out in 2021. On the surface, Between Gaia and Ground is nothing like The Inheritance. It is a theoretical intervention in how ontological claims about entangled existence are being articulated to human and more-than-human histories of colonialism. I won’t take up space summarizing the details of the argument. But one strand in Between Gaia and Ground may be useful here, namely, the contrast I draw between the way Édouard Glissant begins Poetics of Relation and the way Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari begin What is Philosophy? The latter asks what should be the proper relation between disciplines (philosophy, science, and the arts) and their productions (concepts, functions, affects). The former begins on a slave ship in the middle of the Atlantic in order to anchor a theory of Relation to the play between the specific and infinite differences that emerged from the belly of this monstrous trade, including how this place changed our concept-work. I suppose it should not surprise me how tightly connected the two books are, given they were being completed at the same time. Still, it wasn’t really until I was talking with my friend, the wonderful curator, Vivian Ziherl, that I really thought how much both books are born along by the same question—namely, how do we anchor specific inheritances to the ongoing spiraling sedimentations of the Indigenous and Black Atlantic and Pacific?

So, yes, The Inheritance stages my family’s history—the affects and narratives about our ancestral village—in order to unwork their affective, social, economic, ecological common sense. It tries to do so by articulating the stories little Elizabeth hears about her village to the racial and colonial worlds she is actually living in. The specificities of the family histories sketched in The Inheritance act as a sort of limit case. How do I frame the disturbances that rumbled through my family based on their dispossession in relation to the dispossessions they were able to take advantage of without thought? How do we tell these stories in such a way that they do not reinforce the white nativism running rampant in the US and Europe or the soft sell of DNA capitalism? It’s all too easy to reduce such stories to something like, “See we were also dispossessed.” How to produce, instead, a framework in which one feels the deep history of dispossession that marked Europe’s emergence from within its colonial actions, and yet still demonstrate how these European dispossessions are connected to the great machinery of settler capitalism? How are Europe’s dispossessed related to that slave ship whether or not they were steering it, landing on Plymouth Rock, or fleeing endless European wars. All the violence in the book is meant to stage a simple question. What do you do with violence done to you?

The great unsaid of the book is, of course, the nearly thirty-year old relation I have with my Belyuen/Karrabing family, colleagues. I mention Belyuen once in The Inheritance, near the end of Gramma’s section (“Then you died. Then Papa died. By that time, I was far away. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Belyuen, Australia”). My earliest conversations with now deceased Belyuen women were about their lands and how they “picked them up” through kinship with and descent from specific placed based therrawin (Dreamings, clan totems), and how one could come to belong to a place through mirrh (conception spirits). I have written about this in other places—especially in Labor’s Lot and The Cunning of Recognition. When they asked me where my family was from, I sketched out my family’s history, some of which you see in The Inheritance. I talked about how Povinellis and Ambrosis, like many families from the region had, and still have, clans; how I am a Simonaz Povinelli through my grandfather; and that my Gramma was a Bartolot Ambrosi. When a group of Karrabing travelled to Carisolo in 2020—Linda Yarrowin Rex Sing, Aiden Sing and I—we had a good chuckle watching the village genealogist work with me on my clan lineage. So, contrary to a critique of genealogy as such, we found a commonality in clan- and place-based forms of belonging.

But the genealogical grids that we met each other through were refracted. How to say this? Even as we found a space of shared relation to clan-based place-belonging—my family has clans too; my family belonged to land in common too; my family was dispossessed by the unfolding tsunami of European capital too—it was also easy to see that another grid disarticulated this relation, namely the racial grid of white supremacy and settled colonialism. Linda Yarrowin and I are leading a Karrabing project that emerged from our visit to Carisolo. We are calling it the “two clans” project. It tracks how my family clans and Karrabing Indigenous clans were inserted into the infrastructures of settler liberal capitalism. We aren’t thinking of it as a comparative history of abstracted forms, but a history of how these different clans maneuvered within the very different opportunities afforded to them. For example, “Povinelli” emerged as a cognomen, in the mid to late 15th century. The first clans of Povinelli, including the Simonaz, emerged at the turn of the 18th century. Family lineage and clans were important in Trentino in part because of system of semi-autonomy governance that emerged in 12th century, called the carte di regola system. In the carte system, male heads of families, cognomen and then clans, were given the power to decide who was part of the vicini and who was a stranger and thus who and how they could use common lands and smaller private gardens. When Napoleon conquered the region in the turn of the 19th century, he abrogated the carte di regola system in order to free the region of feudalism. We were freed from our common freedom so we could possess ourselves as individualized subjects and other things as purchasable objects. Of course, what happened was that others with capital swooped in and bought village lands and resources forcing villagers into intensive wage labor. Nice studies have been done showing the effects on local mortality—it plummets. By the early to mid 1900s, the Simonaz and Bartolot clans are largely gone from Carisolo, no longer able to survive within the village. They take up knife grinding. This is where The Inheritance commences.

Of course, at the same time that Napoleon is liberating us from our autonomy, he is refusing to allow Haitians to be liberated from their enslavement. The Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard puts the difference perfectly. Europe’s dispossessed become proletarianized, and as proletariats and then petite bourgeoisie my ancestors made a beeline to the lands of the Seneca. Europeans did not merely dispossess Native Americans, and other Indigenous peoples, they tried to exterminate them. As my ancestors are flocking into Seneca lands in Buffalo, New York, the first settlers are reaching Darwin having poisoned, shot, and interned a multitude of Indigenous people along the way. As my family is being inserted into whiteness, Karrabing families are struggling to survive within it. In other words, the two clans project is a sort of prologue to The Inheritance even as The Inheritance is a sort of prologue to my relation to Belyuen/Karrabing. When placed together the American grammars of race meet Australian grammars of settler colonialism.

But I want to come back to what you quoted above about the structures of care. These weren’t the actual final words of the book. The last words are, “My Gramma offered me an avenue into this insight. It took many others to force me to begin to use it.” I think these words are as crucially important as the ones that come before then. It wasn’t the responsibility of these Belyuen women to educate me. But equally, I did not educate myself. I think these two points are important for all the reasons, issues, raised in the Act III, namely—and this is hardly a new insight—at the core of settler and racial power is the amnesia, blindness, and disregard it produces for those who benefit from it. On the one hand, this structural blindness was turbo charged in my family because of the intensity of our own dispossession narratives. On the other hand, this blindness is just a typical feature of the US grammar of race.

Randeep Hothi: The Inheritance mentions the many ways your family could be divided, for example, across generation, gender, age. And yet despite calling yours a “brutal inheritance” (p. 124), the book refuses, or at least bypasses, ready-made inroads to critiques of masculinity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and so on. In an interview on your book The Empire of Love, you say that, “…across my writings, I have kind of stubbornly refused to say how my work relates to feminism (DiFruscia 2010: 91).” You go on to say that your study of power and difference has, “led to a set of more intractable issues, below a certain field of visibility as defined by identity categories.”

Does The Inheritance continue what you’ve elsewhere called a “refusal of victimology” (Haritaworn et al. 2013: 559)? How does it think about refusing certain kinds of focus on identity matrices? Of course, ACT III is very much focused on privilege, displacement, and erasure with respect to settler colonialism and race.

Beth: There are so many moments in the book in which masculinity, patriarchy and heteronormativity rear their horrid heads, and moments when I signal my identification with and estrangement from them. Remember I was the fourth daughter, so if I had been living in carte di regola Carisolo, I would have had little public say in village governance. I also don’t think it’d be lost on readers that little Elizabeth is a little wild tomboy, and big Elizabeth could easily be slotted into older and new identity categories—butch, queer, trans. There’s a difference, however, between how a social world addresses you—interpellates you—and how your subjectivity is formed within a social world. Usually these overlap fairly evenly. Mine didn’t. My sexual and gender identity has never been my drama. My drama is violent dispossession and its discursive and affective distortions and opportunities. In other words, gender and sexual identity per se are not what incite me to discourse, to paraphrase Michel Foucault from his History of Sexuality V1. Indeed, I always feel a bit like I still inhabit what Foucault called “a deployment of alliance” (“a system of marriage, of fixation and development of kinship ties, of transmission of names and possessions”, p. 106). Thus, back we swing to your previous question about biological verses other forms of kinship and alliance. A partner of mine once defined my identity group as “over-related people who do well in the woods.” It’s true, I feel most myself when looking for mudcrabs with others in mangrove. Try plugging that into an Ok Cupid profile.

This said, I live a large part of my life within worlds defined almost exclusively by heteronormative, cis, sexual, and gender identities. And, there is one way of telling my story based on how I was cast out of my own family because of my sexuality—another way in which I walked away from it right after high school in protest of the way women were being treated. But whether or not I personally find my truth in my gender/sexuality, I am hardly unaware that the operation of power works through them. It’s why I spent a significant part of my early university life building queer studies programs at Yale, Cornell, and Chicago. I remain, however, queer in an older, perhaps, understanding of this term, namely, oriented toward a critique of normativity. I sometimes think I’d be much easier to relate to if I cared more about my gender or sexual identity. But the Island of Lost Toys on which I live is built on a different foundation; the confrontation with what Gail Rubin called the sex-gender system is digested through a different imaginary of power.

I think this is what you are intuiting with your question about victimology. Maybe after finishing The Inheritance readers have a sense of the strategies my grandparents deployed to deal and make sense of the violent worlds that they found themselves in—all the different ways that my grandparents dealt with the mess of Europe’s endless wars. My maternal grandfather just flushed his past down the toilet. Instead of holding on to what was lost, he walked away from it, refusing to discuss his family in Alsace-Lorraine even with his own children. That’s kind of brutal. My paternal grandparents did the opposite. They were children living in the village during the first world war. The Austrian army requisitioned all the village animals and crops. All men between 15 to 50 were drafted. The mountains were stripped of anything edible. My grandmother’s brothers starved to death. My grandfather and his siblings did not largely because he did whatever chores he could for the army and they let him cart home the bones and entrails of animals, left over bread, that kind of thing. As far as we can tell, my great grandfather was in detention camp somewhere in the US through all this, caught up in the Enemy Alien detainment craze.

Instead of being told that these were unusual conditions, our grandparents told us that they were a normal feature of the world, and had the potential to erupt at any moment (“They can come from anywhere”). Papa’s example was to say we have to be able to sew up our eyeballs (which is a true story). Gramma’s was that we must retain the ability to retrieve food from a latrine. At some point in my life, I garbled all this together and started saying to myself, “Learn how to survive on what grows in the barn.” This was my shorthand for stubbornly holding onto things that people say do not exist or they don’t want to exist. This is what queer is for me. Object choice, whatever. Being a queer is having the wherewithal to make, insist on, and survive a world, no matter if you had to eat out of trash cans. So, in college and graduate school when I didn’t have much money, it was a source of pride, not shame, to dumpster dive. A more vital example is my Karrabing colleague’s insistence on holding their lands based on analytic of belonging at odd with settler colonialism—this is what matters.

As one holds onto things, however, the things in your hand can drift, discursively, affectively, materially. What is being passed down to you can passes into a context that might distort it, often dramatically, often reversing what was intended. My parents and grandparents did not intend to pass down some general progressive point of view. They meant, we had to persist at all costs, against others. But in the context of the racial struggle exploding all around me, and then, as I said above, the specific conversation with Belyuen women and men, what my grandparents inadvertently passed down—what I ultimately inherited—was the general problem, the generally problematic, of persistence, of differential survivance.

So, yes, lots of the story is brutal. The eyeball is just one of the horror scenes. But, remember, the kind of brutalities my grandparents were describing aren’t historical. So, yes, I am sure someone should have intervened in our domestic scene. But then I wouldn’t be the charming person I am. Or, more seriously, if it hadn’t been, maybe I would have been one of those people who stand self-righteously above and judge the way certain aspects of life within racist settler colonialism—the large and small brutalities that can characterize life there. But I can’t. I cannot say, “Well, if it were my family, we would never do such things no matter bla bla bla” because of course it did.

Randeep Hothi: SPEAKING OF INTERVENING ACT II focuses on Gramma and suggests that she disintegrates mentally and physically in the wake of severe dislocation and brutality: “Some said the war had left a permanent mark on your mind. I think what you lost was not your mind but your world. Or in losing your world, you lost the mind that made sense only there. The nerves of your entire being, thickly twined into the mountains and rivers of Carisolo, were sliced off, your language was lost in transit, your ways of caring for others characterized as abuse. Your collapse was for me the most consequential puzzle placed on top of the pile of trouble that was my family.” (p. 203) But at the end of the book, the memory of Gramma gives little Elizabeth a torch, which she uses to immolate the seeming blood and soil of her inheritance — though she notices that she is still left with her self, ultimately.

In a related scene, you reflect on the ways that Mother dealt with complex wake of dislocation sometimes by seeking refuge underneath her blanket in bed. “We knew the other reasons she pulled the blankets over her head. But we were too busy developing our inner strength to intervene.” [p. 244] (here, “developing our inner strength” is a sarcastic euphemism for bearing brutality from family).

I want to focus on this mention of intervention. Where otherwise the narrator and Little Elizabeth tend to be passive onlookers, this reflection on intervention is conspicuous. Could have Little Elizabeth intervened for Gramma, or Mother? How about in adulthood? Is an intervention possible? I ask these questions given that The Inheritance, as the book itself acknowledges, is not only your story but a far more general one. And in this general story, intervening in structures of intimate and brutal inheritance is what matters most but also seems sometimes impossible. 

Beth Povinelli: The little torch, yes, thank you. That series of images, in all their cartoonish clownishness, meant to capture the weight of carrying lost worlds; or, of carrying worlds that will not be lost as long as you are willing to bear them, but you’re having to bear them across a world that has no need of them—or is actively hostile to them. The images are the dream that one could simply dive into Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and be done with everything. Which is what the amnesia of privilege does—it backstrokes in obliviousness. Anyway, that section follows some of the funny psychological effects of growing up in these vortexes of dispossessed inheritance—the double-vision, the “expando dreams,” the terror of anyone coming to “help you.” And it is followed, yes, by the single tiny image of little Elizabeth being covered in the ashes of the burnt frame, and then another single image of her ripping herself open only to find the double matrix of hooded men (KKK and World War I gasmasks). Obviously, I am trying to intervene in the fantasy that there is some unified Elizabeth beneath all of this history and these subject-effects; a self that, with the proper care, could be found and healed. Nope. Only division. And even the divisions are not operating on the same plane. The hooded men were attacking Gramma. Little Elizabeth is not being attacked by them. She is being interpellated into the position of white supremacy. In other words, she is not only divided within herself, but she is also in a different position to hooded men than was her beloved Gramma. This is analogous to what I was saying before about the genealogical grids that unite and divide Belyuen/Karrabing and me. We share a history of dispossession, but we have been inserted into it in radically different ways.

But the entire book is also funny, I think; or it’s meant to be funny. A melancholic romp—everyone making and sharpening their knives; everyone attached to something they never had or was never there or is no longer there and yet to let it go would unravel you. My grandparents’ intuition about subjectivity was—when thrown into a world that has no space for you—whose axial propositions hurl you off its spokes—you don’t have the option of presto magico becoming something else. The only choice one has is to fashion yourself and your people into little cannonballs of stubborn refusal. Insanely paradoxical statements ensue, like, “You can kill me, but I am not going anywhere.” Papa’s version of this statement was gruesome. Gramma’s equally not kidding. The book lets you imagine how all of this played out, what it looked like, in the white southern US suburbs of the 1960s and 70s. A lot wasn’t pretty. Even as they are being told to always be vigilant for those people who might be coming over the mountains to steal your food and slaughter your relatives, the real danger was lurking inside your house. But the point of telling some stories and insinuating others was this: get readers to care about Gramma’s tragedy and the slightly wtf of the Povinelli household in order to sharply turn the question of care, of intervention, in Act III. (“Chekov wrote that if a gun is on the mantle in the first act, then it must go off in the last. So let me start over, from the beginning, but this time writing my birthright from the perspective of who mattered and those who didn’t in the place where I actually lived.”)

Could little Elizabeth, her siblings, the neighbors, have done something? Did they? Yes, no, this, that…all sorts of things were done, and nothing at all. The decision about how to treat Gramma’s depression wasn’t made cavalierly. My father, for instance, suffered in the wake of the consequences. But I meant the passage on p. 273: “Take away the ingrown narrative about our village and I reappear as nothing more than typical white kid with the privilege or not knowing or having to be affected by knowing all the systems that kept us floating along…” I meant to use every little bit of sympathy and empathy for all these characters to fuel a question about who gets cared for, what sort of interventions are organized, what it takes to shift focus away from that little white girl Elizabeth. And, yeah, it is a sort of zero-sum game—when all the resources go one way, they do not go another. Sorry to burst folks’ bubbles. And it’s worse than a zero-sum game, because, the rules of the game have to change in order to shift how the multitudes of difference within power are organized, to go back to Glissant, and the grammars of race and settler colonialism are read, to go back to Spillers.

So, yes, Gramma is so key to the book. She taught me what dispossession looks and feels like. She made the problem of dispossession central to the way I think about and move in the world. But if I only focus on her dispossession I cannot see, for all its truth and pathos, how my family, in being dispossessed, was also handed the opportunity to take advantage of other people’s dispossession. Again, I feel like I am saying the same thing over and over, Gramma gave me the opportunity to see the stakes of dispossession, but I didn’t absorb her lesson on my own. It took others to make me see that to care about my Gramma is to care, first and foremost, about the broader frameworks in which race and dispossession operate.

Randeep Hothi: You have a longstanding engagement with visual form. I think specifically of the Karrabing Film Collective. I want to ask about the specific kinds of conventionally “academic” interventions that graphic memoir offers, for example, conceptual, theoretical, analytic, and so on. I’m piqued by a recent interview [Duke], in which you mention that, “I let a certain meandering of being in the world take charge of The Inheritance in a way I wouldn’t in my scholarly work.” How does meandering and the meandering of being in the world help your thinking go somewhere new for you?

Beth Povinelli: Yes, our Karrabing Film Collective has gotten an amazing reception—and we always want to thank all the amazing young curators doing spectacular work. If you google us, pay attention to them. I love our collective, maybe because I grew up with parents and siblings for whom drawing, composing music, designing hang gliders, hanging out with World Book’s Childcraft No. 9: Make and Do on rainy days was just a normal thing. My younger brother and sister and I had a writers’ club for a tick. We’d would give ourselves an hour to write a story. Then we’d mimeograph it on a machine one of us found in a trash heap. And we’d send our little sister door to door to sell them because she was the cutest. I still have my illustrated “Terror in the Sky” somewhere—a Star Trek knock off. Throughout the film version of The Inheritance you can hear my little sister’s songs, composed in her teens. There was a lot of meandering in my family; there remains a lot in my life. I remained committed to, what I call, crack-ass world-making. If something strikes me, a phrasing or an image, I just let it loop into whatever it ends up being—the cover of Empire of Love and Geontologies were results of such loops. I know these quite unscholarly amusements are key to how I keep my academic work interesting to me. I don’t really worry, or even care too much, about why or how.

Maybe because of this, I am of two minds about the division between academic and nonacademic work. I like feeling hard borders and boundaries between genres of creating. But then again, to be honest, when I read your question, I suddenly panicked, unsure what “academic” meant. But then I looked it up in Columbia’s online OED. I definitely fit “A member of a university or college, now spec. a senior member, a member of a university or college’s teaching or research staff. Also, in weakened sense: a person interested in or excelling at pursuits involving reading, thinking, and study.” But then again who wouldn’t? I guess what I would say is that the waywardness of The Inheritance was intentionally designed. It has a specific purpose. Whereas the “two-clan” project I mentioned above sits on a history of facts, The Inheritance sits on a history of affective and memory distortions. Indeed, many things in The Inheritance are factually incorrect, just wrong; little things, perhaps, like where my cousins lived and what berries grew. I tell readers this in the prologue. But then the book just enacts these falsehoods. Why? I was intellectually interested in drawing out what sits deeper within than factual truth and knowledge; what persists as a framework of perception no matter that one knows the content is not factually true. What would the images remember? I also knew a more conventional history was sitting in the background. And I also know that the theoretical work I do sits beneath my academic and nonacademic works. In both I try to stay on the border of the actual and the “might be, could be, and the `let’s give a shot’.” That’s the topological space where I think concepts lie.

The question of academic/scholarly and nonacademic/(the antonyms of scholarly are: ignorant, uncultured, uneducated!) work is less interesting to me than a set of questions about narrative creativity in the context of Indigenous survivance and settler colonialism. I am midway into a true meander of a book that touches on questions that I raised in chapter of Object-Oriented Feminisms, what I am calling the Alice Henry book. In Object-Oriented Feminisms I recount an event that happened while a group of us Karrabing were out camping. In order to try to get some of our little ones to sleep, a niece of mine told them a story about where Beth came from. It’s a hysterically funny story, anchored in a specific place, mixing biblical and totemic genres, and really sending up all the complications of the emergence of what would happen if a white blob of a baby arrived in a wicker basket. But when I was all like, “wow, that’s brilliant!” my niece said, “yeah but it’s just a story. It’s not a real story,” By “real story” she meant an account, passed down generationally, of how Karrabing lands were shaped, came to belong to specific families, and remained full of potential alterations depending on how they are cared for. These are the valuable real stories, as opposed to “just stories,” fun but of no real consequence. And I love this distinction. The west so fetishizes what it calls “creativity” as a practice of pretending to make up things whole cloth. Which we know no one does. I remain convinced, that the most creative people, and I have said this before, are those who, situated in brutal and collapsing worlds, are able to find a way of continuing to hold onto what has been—what, I think, Gerald Vizenor meant by survivance—by fitting it into what is.

Randeep Hothi: Let’s talk about face. From the outset, little Elizabeth’s facial expressions are — how would you call it — sad, melancholic, on the verge of tears. She remains more-or-less the same age.

In another interview (New Books in Anthropology: 6:30), you explain that graphic depiction initially promised you way of aligning readers with Little Elizabeth herself— little Elizabeth “tried to make sense of an image before linguistic meaning”, and relatedly you gave yourself the authorial task of composing a graphic text that could, “convey or prompt the affects of an image before a linguistic or discursive frame has been added onto it.” Eventually, you added more text, but still you find a disjuncture between the graphic text and the discursive text: “What you’re seeing is the affective register of little Elizabeth and what you’re reading is a story about her.”

In the past, you’ve found Jean Genet teaching us that, “to be human is to engage in practices of intimate recognition (Povinelli 2002: 234).” But though defacialization might serve the project of desubjectification, here little Elizabeth is not only facialized but returns to a few powerful, sad, visages. What kind of recognition is the child, who so often faces the reader, calling for? How do you see the reader becoming what you elsewhere call “obligated” to this young child? Here, I also think of Jack Halberstam’s (2011: 3) study of animated feature films made for children, precisely because children are structurally positioned to become a site of revolutionary reception (link).

Beth Povinelli: Such a great question. Her agelessness, her face…but, really, what is going on with that bow tie? Like, where did that come from? I have no idea. I can tell you the pragmatically inflected psychoanalytic theory subtending the reason that I drew little Elizabeth as frozen in time—why she bloops out a little bigger, a little smaller, but never breaks the size she was when she was first trying to interpret the frame image of her village hanging on her den wall. I can tell you why she carries that little dagger of a knife around. I am sure my accounts don’t fully explain the reasons for the images. I am sure these are justificatory backformations. Still they would be convincing. But the bow tie? I can scratch my head until the cows come home and still have no idea how to explain its emergence. There are tons of other instances, as I drew my way along, in which I was like, wtf is this doing here. But there it was and thus seemed to want to be—to come back to the meandering point; in my academic work I would have put more pressure of an emergent idea/image to justify itself. Clearly there’s lots of illustrative drawing. But I also wanted as much associative imagery as possible—the images came and then the writing, for example, the dixy cubs and then the words about floating obliviously in them. 

But, yes, ok, her face. I see her as a clown figure, sad clown to be sure. Poor thing. Every time she has it figured out the wind kicks up and blows her down. At one moment, a little super hero with her little dagger, the next, a sad clown in a big bow tie. The nice thing about drawings, cartoons, animation, is you can stretch and distort various features. Really GIANT hands. Teeny tiny hands. If we were being academic here, I’d say her facial and bodily distortions correspond to the imaginary and symbolic distortions of her social world just as she is moving between the imaginary stage and the symbolic stage. Distortions squared. Like the genealogical grid, like the hooded men, so her face/body is there are not there, something crossing rather than landing, difference without unity. Which body is she going to become obligated to? Which way will her face ultimately turn—inward into to her family drama or outward into the world which cares more that she is white than once she was from Carisolo? Will her face congeal into that self-satisfied image of her having just won an award at the Social Science State Fair, or be erased by a more pressing concern, say, the Black children who need police escort to go to school even as the police are the ones who will turn dogs and water hoses on them and their parents? These faces are scenes of subjection and subjectivation, to paraphrase my colleague, Saidiya Hartmann. And so, yes, they are the scenes which make, or not, revolutionary subjects.

Works Cited 

Coulthard Glenn. Red Skin, White Masks. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Columbia University Press, 1996.

DiFruscia, Kim T. “Shapes of freedom: An interview with Elizabeth A. Povinelli.” Altérités 7, no. 1 (2010): 88-98.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.

Haritaworn, Jin, Adi Kuntsman, Silvia Posocco, and Elizabeth Povinelli. “Obligation, social projects and queer politics: Elizabeth Povinelli in conversation with Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman and Silvia Posocco.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 15, no. 4 (2013): 554-564.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. “Notes on gridlock: Genealogy, intimacy, sexuality.” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 215-238.

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