what grass, what living water of life can give us life,
where can the word be unearthed
the propositions that governs hymn and speech,
the dance, the city and the measuring scales?
– Octavio Paz
Turning to new ways to live out a passion
Going out to find the nearest tree and describe it
Finding a tree at any rate And describing it
Throwing the description away Going home
Sitting very still in a chair and having an orgasm
– Inger Christensen
This spring, just like last summer and the summer before that, the senate in Berlin went out in the media to urge citizens to water the youngest trees outside the building because of an ongoing draught. If you don’t contribute the trees die, and a part of the world disappears. It’s that simple. Still, I have a hard time imagining someone going all the way out the door, once a week, to water the trees with five liters of water because they care in particular about the local environment. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but truly, ask yourself, apart from sorting plastic from paper and other trash, what do we do, really, to restructure our lives from the bottom up in the shadows of the sixth great extinction? Or, articulating the question differently, like the philosopher Catherine Malabou does, “How can we feel genuinely responsible for what we have done to the earth if such a deed is the result of an addicted and addictive slumber of responsibility itself? It seems impossible to produce a genuine awareness of addiction (awareness of addiction is always an addicted form of awareness).”1 The solution, she argues, can only be the staging of new addictions that can help break with the old ones. Ecology, therefore, has to be a new libidinal economy. The type of responsibility that the climate crisis demands is, in addition, extremely paradoxical insofar as it involves recognition of a significant paralysis of responsibility. Our feeling of and for a form of freedom that is driven forward by a proprietary individualism, means that we do not get anywhere. Indifference has “become the global current Stimmung”.
So, what do we do? What now? “To see the earth before the world ends,” writes the poet Ed Roberson, in one of his poems of the same title. I think a lot about that sentence these days, about seeing, to be humble, gracious, gentle, and how that has to be a reciprocal practice that involves learning and unlearning, something has to be thrown away, and something new has to be added. “People are grabbing at the chance to see / the earth before the end of the world, / the world’s death piece longer than we.” Learning to be present is a praxis that consists of breaking with our absence from the world through a deepening of new sensibilities. We are not alone, yet we continue to live as if we are isolated subjects without an attachment to the world around us. If we are to survive (here), and become native to place, we have to learn to speak in an animated grammar, Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us. That is, we have to learn to speak in and with the language of place. Place is relation and shared communities no matter how much we talk over and past each other; we are not without place; “I am because place”2 (Eve Tuck). But how to think place or the commons anew when the commons, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have pointed out, historically have been considered a collection of “individuals-in-relation,” a sociality based on the individual? As a contrast to this privatized conception, Moten and Harney have developed the term, the undercommons, signifying something more to the commons than what is visible to its overlooking and overseeing eye: “When we formulated the undercommons, we tried to look for something underneath the individualization that the commons carries, hides and tries to regulate. That is what is given in the impossibility of the one and the exhaustion of the very idea of the one.”3
The undercommons, then, as a praxis of extended relations and reciprocity. A place where we work for what is free and shared, and sing in that beautiful choir that is our communist complaint on the outskirts of a city. The world is free, but it doesn’t come for free or towards you without hard work. The spiritual underway is a feeling, a field, a listening walk, but also a talk. Spiritual work is hard work and sacrifice. I read somewhere that even the water – rivers, oceans, lakes, streams – has its own remembrance, its own memories. How do we connect or attach ourselves to these memories, impulses, the vibrations we feel in everything? In the text “Hunger as Teacher” the Colombian artist, Carolina Caycedo, writes about El Quimbo – “a dam built on the Yuma River–the Indigenous name for the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main waterway–by the Endesa-Emgesa multinational conglomerate” – and how she started to investigate its existence after reading the headline “The River Refuses to Shift its Course” in March 2012. In a conversation with Zoila Ninco, she is told that Yuma had grown in that way because it knew that the act would halt the construction of the dam. “In all the environmental conflicts I have close knowledge of, rivers, mountains, animals, jungles, and minerals all play an active role in the efforts of territorial resistance,” says Ninco.4 It might be unnecessary to say so, but Ninco can only know relations like these if they have been carefully looked for, seen, acknowledged, and later developed in reciprocity with what has been shown and said.
“We had to learn to listen, not just talk. When someone asks who we are, we therefore say that we do not know what we are. We are a hybrid, a result of reality.” (Sub-commander Marcos)
This text is an invitation; lines drawn in the sand or in the air; a listening walk, a queer landing in the land we find ourselves in and on; the desire for something else, a performative provocation (if queerness still provokes), a map drawn to think about our lives and our time in a different way. Utopia as something else – I nod my head approvingly with Jose Esteban Munoz and a beat by DJ Sprinkles – something better, a way of thinking about our political imagination that includes both a collective but also subjective becoming. Being Sami and queer, this collective imagination must include erotics, ecstasy and a new ecology, in the hope of a new morning.
At times, this land will shake your un- / derstanding of the world / and confusion will eat away at your sense / of humanity / but at least you will feel normal.
– Vernon Ah Kee
A few years ago, I had a dream; I was outside walking when the body suddenly started to feel drawn towards the Treptow Canal that runs through north-Neukölln. I could feel a voice in my body, but not hear it; “Hey, my old friend” says the canal and asks, “Where are you? Are you well? It’s been a long time since you’ve been here. Are you returning soon?” Since I know the canal well – and have a summerplace along its banks – I slowly walk towards the place I have returned to for almost nine years. I sit on a staircase that goes to the surface of the water, open a beer, light a cigarette, look around the area – a thick lung of greens grow wildly on both sides of the water, and hides us completely. We don’t speak, but a conversation progresses between me and the place. Nothing is outside or inside; everything exists on the same plane, the same vector. At some point, the water starts to move quickly towards my right, my left. A disquiet spreads through the body, and then I go under the surface of the water. When I wake up, I write down the dream, eat a quick breakfast, drink coffee, pack my backpack, and then I walk to my summerplace, already in February.
Now its almost summer again, the iridescent green butterflies have returned (do they ever leave?), ducks float by – still counting a full family – a stork spreads its wings and barely touches the water with its feet; in the bushes behind me, I hear blackbirds horny from spring, and a woodpecker I only have seen on a few occasions; and here a few squirrels that run curiously around, and there, on the opposite side of the canal, in the shadows, a hare jumps through the thorns. From time to time, boats pass by, both privately owned and huge tankers carrying scrap metal, but also sand from a factory a little further up the canal. In the distance, from one bridge to another, every spring, I clear away all the rubbish I can find – plastic bottles and glass bottles in bags for the homeless further up, plastic scrap, children’s toys, prams (only this year I found two), suitcases, bags, shoes, earplugs, shopping trolleys the Eastern-European fishermen sitting along the edges have picked up, cigarette butts and empty packaging, worst are the minuscule pieces of plastic, paper (if it has not already dissolved), etc.: everything fits into four or five garbage bags. Amazingly enough, I learned last year from a guy who translated between me and the trash-man, that I have to take all the rubbish I have scraped together for the landfill myself. If I just place it next to the bin, I will be fined several hundred euros. So now I throw everything in different bins. Afterwards, as is the tradition, I arrange a small ceremony at my place: find a bird’s nest on the ground, a few half-thick sticks of the same length, a few skinny branches, a rope, a little dry grass, and then I make a stick float; place the nest on top, while I thank the place for everything I have received and experienced here the past year; I proceed to put fire to the nest, and send it burning down the canal; burning a farewell into the sun. The power of a ceremony lies in the connection between the everyday and the sacred. What else can you give to the earth, asks Kimmerer, when it already has everything? “What else can you give but yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that creates home.” From this bond grows responsibility.
I come here to listen, to be present; the body listens and the wind speaks across and with the skin that also thinks. Was this not our first language, a language that actively stretches to the rhythm of our mother’s heart? If the world is made of flesh, “where should we put the limit between the body and the world?” (Merleau-Ponty) The area speaks, echoes, in a way I find hard to describe with the rationality of the Enlightenment and the need for physical evidence and explanations. Words don’t go there. A place between texture and formlessness, how to give that space without demanding ownership? “Listening watches over the unexpected.”5 (Anne Dufourmantelle)
I stubbornly choose not to choose drifting: I continue.
– Roland Barthes
Mapping is always a situated political process that involves social contexts, purpose and effect. Or, a term that resonates better with what I’m searching for, “counter-mapping” – a way to challenge the dominant power-effect that mapping often brings along; a mapping that disturbs power relations. When I cruise in the bushes in the park Hasenheide, and later write it down, gossip about it, or just dance because its mine, I participate in a form of oppositional-mapping; I draw loose lines without borders or just in the air to show someone the directions. “Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere,” as soon as any outsider gets too close, queerness evaporates without a trace, as Munoz reminds us in the text, “Ephemera as Evidence.” This fleeting feeling resonates and gives out a somatic vibration in the air – not just between humans, but between humans, the surroundings, breath, and a pulsating earth. Squirrels, birds, hares, foxes and queers, all move around here with a greater consciousness about their surroundings and themselves, exactly because they have to be weary of those who see (or maybe not, in case you are an exhibitionist), those who stand outside, in the open. To wander around in a labyrinth of fat bushes, trees, greenery, desire and trodden paths is here, more than in other places, to have a body, to be conscious of the body, because it here has to use and rely on other-than verbal expressions to get anywhere. That is, the body becomes a sign, a sign that communicates desire, gestures, signals, touch (that also can be activated from a distance); here is an anonymous body, here is a social field coming into being in and as fleeting communities, here is a blowjob, here is an arm, here is skin, here is you – a here in hearing you. An anarrangement of our senses. Here, it’s not words that touch you across the skin, but gestures, heat, cold, wind, sound, variations in the ground. I don’t mean to make horny and curious gay men, and men still in the closet (some of them married) into animals – whose reaction is similar to a primate – instead I want to understand cruising as a way to break with grid-shaped algorhithmic movements and desires, downloaded as a dérive-app or Grindr.
Following the Argentinian activist and researcher turned poet, Nestor Perlongher, who in his research on and with sex-workers and homosexuals in Buenos Aires, builds upon Felix Guattari’s concept of a “desiring cartography” – based on affect and embodied practice – we can start to discern how mapping, desire and becoming are entwined. In this, Perlongher is capable of delineating “the map of the other Brazil: the Brazil of the minoritarian becomings – becoming-black, becoming-woman, becoming-homosexual, becoming-child, etc. – from processes of marginalization and minoritization.” A queer becoming imbued with creativity and imagination – the construction of an otherwise. As Cristel M. Jusino Díaz writes in the preface to the essay, Minoritarian Becomings,6 “desiring cartographies are not about reproducing a fixed point – the central eye of the despot – but rather drifting: in that drift are captured the flows of life that enliven the territory, in the way a surfer rides the waves of a libidinal sea.” Our task in mapping then, is not to capture or freeze, but to allow the unrestricted flow of queer becomings. Perlongher writes, “To become is not to transform oneself into another, but rather to enter into (aberrant) alliance, into contagion, into mixture with what is different. Becoming isn’t moving from one point to another, but rather entering the in-between that is ‘in between’. Becoming-animal does not mean to turn into an animal, but rather to have the functioning capacities of an animal, ‘what an animal is capable of.’”
Thinking about these becomings in a larger framework, we can say that there exists a potential in cruising that breaks with barriers that cross class, ethnicity, age, social positions, etc. A social field therefore, rather than a network whose purpose always is recovery and extraction; the reproduction of specific sociocultural and economic strata. Social fields on the other hand are open to differences within the differences we share, and the differences we search for. Tim Dean describes cruising, fittingly enough, as strangers meeting in modernity’s darkness, in reference to dark basements and rooms where sexual differences of a variety unfold among men, and in many cases today, even women, who do not know each other. But also, in reference to fear of what is strange or alien, therefore cruising as an antidote to the peculiar and therefore privatizing grip of modernity. The latter is reflected, among other things, through urban planning, where queer spaces as clubs, bars, pubs, or other social places always risk getting squeezed out in favour of an urban economy and planning that rarely considers the needs of LGBTQ lives and desires. Although small – and to most people insignificant because of its promiscuous character – a good example is how the parkpeople in Berlin, and many other cities, thin the bushes in the cruising-area in Hasenheide to avoid unwanted activities in the future. It might be unnecessary to say so, but it has not been a successful strategy so far. Even during the corona-occupation, when the bushes and the trees were at their thinnest, I could see people getting on with their usual business. Myself, I was just doing field-research.
You can not own what you give or sacrifice and connect yourself with, nor can you own the exchange or the random encounter that is the other partner’s participation when you cruise; the encounter and the relationship (no matter how fleeting these are), in both cases, by virtue of their resistance to a peculiar grip, depend on something unbearable in the best sense, something you can not hold on to other than as a gesture, a gift, a sacrifice, a shared (subjective) ecstasy, a fleeting moment you share there and then and not later as something else. This unassailable quality is queerness’ strength
Along with Munoz, I am interested in ecstasy as energy, as a way of getting out of yourself and in(to) another (shared) space. I give and take energy, both when I cruise and sacrifice; energy is what is developed and exchanged. Munoz writes, “To know ecstasy is to have a sense of the movement of actuality, to understand a temporal unity, which includes the past (to have been), the future (that which is not yet) and the present (creation-present). This temporarily calibrated idea of ecstasy holds the potential to help us face a queer temporality, which is not the linearity that many of us have called straight time.” It is about taking the step out of straight time’s ‘here and now’, in other words. I find an especially productive connection between Munoz’s motivations and the spiral shaped directions of indigenous philosophy, that also includes the past (what would our ancestors do?), the present (how do we respond to and take responsibility for the gifts we have got from our ancestors?), and the future (what do we give further?). The ecstasy I am thinking with is therefore not something we primarily find on the dance-floor, though that is relevant too. Instead, I think of how ecstasy is about being drawn out of and outside oneself, and how that experience also can translate to nature and ecotemporal relationality. To give or sacrifice, or to cruise is to deny the sovereign individual’s power over others; it is to acknowledge that/the other. In both instances, you have to give yourself over to an unknown (size) that is, you have to fall into a queer land(ing). Queerness is something we do (a verb), something we become, and not so much something we are (a noun); a spiritual landing, a feeling, a field, a listening walk. You can lay claim to queerness as little as you can claim the spiritual or cruising; the only thing you can offer, is yourself, which is to say, your body, which is to say, a valid instrument.
To sacrifice offers a queer bridge, or a queer transport to say it with Munoz, a way to leave “a here and now in favor of a there and then.” When I then combine queerness with ecoethics or ecotemporality, it is to create new paths, alternate roads on the outskirts of a city that does not want us, and neither can it provide us with what we need, a there and then for an impossible state. My friend Andres Sarabia articulated it incisively in a chat we had: “Let us go back to nature (because the city has thrown us queers out of private).”
There is a field. We don’t question its meaning or try to find narrative or accessibility. There is simply a field. (Jake Skeet)
A beautiful gray and white goshawk sits on a fence a few hundred meters into the field almost every time I enter Tempelhof from Kreuzberg. I have therefore many times had the feeling that she is sitting there waiting for me to come, as if to greet me, to show that we have met before and continue to see each other. At first, I always stop a few meters away so as not to scare her off, greeting, saying hello, sometimes with the body, other times with verbal language; it does not really matter as long as I am conscious of the other life, the other’s awareness of her and me, as long as I show respect. As soon as I walk on she always flies off again. When I describe the goshawk that sits there and waits for me to britt kramvig, she tells me about Ingmar, a sea-Sami healer who, in order to gain knowledge about nature “looks into nature.” An example is when he is going to sea, and can tell by looking at the clouds over the mountain whether it is worth going out or not. As he puts it, “When the fog is even over the mountain top, the sea is difficult; when the fog moves, the sea can be calm. This is how nature works. … Heaven and clouds are as connected as good and evil. There is no need to be overwhelmed.” Likewise, Ingmar can look “into the weather” rather than “look at the weather.” The difference is important, writes kramvig, and emphasizes that “to see in the weather,” as “seeing in nature,” is not primarily about what the eye can observe (the West’s preferred sense), but rather refers “to the totality of sensory experiences, and the systematization of these experiences that Ingmar has gained insight into through a long life as a fisherman.” Just as the people of Songhay can smell witches and hear ancestors, Ingmar can hear both changes in wind direction and the ways in which the ocean breaks and the wind builds. “In addition, (you) can also smell when changes occur, either in wind direction or build-up of low pressure or high pressure.” Are these not examples of extended relations, a way of disavowing the logic of selfish sovereigns, which today is the way we understand and nurture the commons. The ground and the land, I am trying to say, looks after us if we treat it with mutual respect and care. It is often said that animals cannot talk, but as many indigenous people have pointed out, why should they talk to you if you are not listening in the first place?
The experience I have at Tempelhof with the goshawk is not the same as looking into the weather, to say it with Ingmar, it is not the weather I am looking for, but the logic works along the same axis, in an unfolding and folding where all of me and the other is listening, in a listening encounter that takes responsibility for each other’s response. To use a Sami concept, kramvig has made use of the word Gulahallat which means conversation and understanding; a mutual verb consisting of gullat (to hear) and the mutual suffix hallat (to speak). “Irja Seurujärvi-Kari, for example, has introduced the verbs áddehallat (to understand each other), and birgehallat (to come to terms with each other). Since, gulahallat is associated with hearing or listening in between and hearing and listening together, it is basically something you can only practice with others.”
Lying on my back, exhausted, the day has been running under a sun that coughs indifferently. Breathing broken glass and a map / only the birds can read. Fishbone clouds form over my head and I think about my cousine Hege, and áddjá / how they taught me to see / tomorrow’s weather / in the skies.
“To a place where life takes place,” writes kramvig about the practices and meanings of transience, about finding something beautiful (monumental) in a plank, a gift that carries with it the traces of having lain in nature for a long time. At one point in my life, the ground and the land were reduced to words, or as the artist Amar Kanwar has said, “words about information, anger, protest, cycles of violence, and the response to it.” What I was given was no longer tenable. The only thing I could do was to learn to see and hear, to walk, and to listen anew, not just to my own life and to what I feel is a growing gap between the earth and me, but to what provides a life outside the pure essentials of food and immediate care. That is, I had to allow myself to fall in and with the unknown – a practice of fallenness – or more precisely, to fall out of paradise, and in and with the earth’s animating roundness. The compass in me had to be reactivated. As I said to a friend: I live here, breathe here, wander and get lost here, walk in circles here, cruise, give, sacrifice and work here, this is my land. I got one foot on land, another in the water, the body knows no borders.
1 Malabou is a french philosopher who works in the field between neuroscience, epigenetics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, through the phenomenon of trauma. Rather than looking at the brain in isolation from its surroundings, she draws lines between biology and the brain`s location in the ecosystem. Malabou, on the other hand, has been criticized for putting too much emphasis on the mental and the brain, but I personally believe that a holistic mindset cannot exclude one from the other. The problem lies in the specialization itself, and the way it often refuses to embrace more broadly, and thus include other perspectives on the same issue. That the climate crisis is also a mental problem for people does not exclude capitalist fundamentalism, colonialism, etc. as equally important constituents. If capitalism and colonialism are part of the problem, it is precisely through the ways they produce different forms of dependence in us through everything we can own, take and have.
2 Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie, Place in Research: Theory, Methodology, and Methods, Routledge 2015
3 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, Propositions for non-Fascist Living: Tentative and Urgent – Plantocracy or Communism. Edited by Maria Hlavajova and Wietske Maas, bak
4 Carolina Caycedo, Hunger as Teacher, Social Text Online, June 7, 2018: https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/hunger-as-a-teacher/
5 Anne Dufourmantelle, Power of Gentleness. Meditations on the Risk of Living, translated by Katherine Payne and Vincent Sallé, Fordham University Press 2018.
6 Minoritarian Becomings, Néstor Perlongher, Preface by Cristel M. Jusino Díaz, https://hemisphericinstitute.org/en/emisferica-102/10-2-essays/minoritarian-becomings.html
niilas helander (1983) is a Sami nomad currently staying in Berlin. He has a BA from fotohøgskolan i Gothenburg, and an MFA from Malmø art academy. He has worked as an assistant for Tom Sandberg.
Proofreading (English) by Prerna Bishnoi
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.