Abstract for “Into the Sun: Light and Atmospherics of the American West”

The program in Visual Studies at UC Irvine holds a graduate conference every year. This year, the theme is titled, “Into the Sun: Light and Atmospherics of the American West” (CFP can be found here). Given my dissertation research on the siting and development of utility-scale solar facilities in the southwest deserts of the United States, I couldn’t not submit something (despite my being strapped for time). My hope is that this will turn into part of the second chapter. Anyway, here it is:

“Light, Air, and Color”

 Solar Logics in John C. Van Dyke and the Development of the American Southwest

In 1901, John C. Van Dyke, a classically trained art historian and renowned Rembrandt scholar, published what many consider to be the first formal aesthetic treatment of the American southwest, titled The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances.[1] While doubts have been cast on the veracity of Van Dyke’s solo excursions into the deserts of California, Arizona, and Mexico,[2] scholar David Teague correctly argues that Van Dyke’s text “has colored American perceptions of the desert for the past ninety years…[and] he and his book provide an opportunity to understand better the process by which our culture learned to appreciate arid landscapes.”[3]

Central to this appreciation is Van Dyke’s analysis of light, air, and color. Desert light, he suggests, cannot be understood without a study of desert air, which has “something almost inexplicable about it. It seems so thin, so rarefied; and it is so scentless—I had almost said breathless—that it is like no air at all. You breathe it without feeling it, you look through it without being conscious of its presence.”[4] But, Van Dyke notes, here lies a contradiction because, while desert air is so transparent so as to be an almost non-medium, it is “very easily recognized by the eyes” in its colors, in the “coloring of the atmosphere on the Colorado and the Mojave [which] is oftener pink, yellow, lilac, rose-color, sometimes fire-red.”[5] The beauty of desert landscapes, therefore, “lies not in the lines of mountain, valley and plain, but in the almost formless masses of color and light.”[6] As Alessandra Ponte and Marisa Trubiano argue, for Van Dyke, “Living in the desert means inhabiting a space defined by light, imbued with color. The desert is the house of pure visibility; this why Van Dyke feels at home there. Total triumph of the visible.”[7]

If the American desert is the house of light and color, as Ponte and Trubiano formulate it, this presentation develops the following questions: Who lives in this house, is able to live in it, has been living in it, and will live in it? How does light, and “solarity” more generally, have the ability to constitute sight, and sight the ability to constitute notions of the political, of subjectivity, of belonging and non-belonging? Beginning with Van Dyke’s treatise, this presentation will explore these questions in the context of recent utility-scale solar developments in the Mojave, which have been described as “our moment of encounter, of possibility, a moment of great meaning and importance for our country, our state, our community, our family that is here and our children to come and their children to come.”[8]

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Freud’s Homology: The Psychic Apparatus and the Organism [Presentation]

I presented this paper at the “New Materialisms and Economies of Excess” conference at Emory last September/October. A link to the PowerPoint that went along with it:



If one were to trace the genealogy of what is being called ‘new materialism,’ one would find, if only in terms of textual reference, figures like Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Gilles Deleuze preeminent – and, as we saw in the first day of presentations, the work of Georges Bataille has come into favor as well; and, later, thinkers such as Manuel DeLanda, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Rosi Braidotti, and Michel Serres would further shape the desire to rethink the relationship between nature and culture, form and matter. My purpose here today involves a relatively modest proposal: that, just as the works of Bataille and, as we saw this morning, Jacques Derrida are being mined for how we might think or, perhaps, rethink materialism and materiality, that we do so similarly with the work of Freud.

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Natural History and the Question of ‘The Organism’ [Presentation]

I presented this paper at the “Abstraction” graduate conference at UC Irvine last March. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint that went along with it:


What I would like to do today is trace a line of thought from the 18th century Natural History of Pierre Maupertuis and the Comte de Buffon on the one hand, and the 19th century Biology of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck on the other; and I do so aware of Foucault’s argument in The Order of Things that such an exercise is a waste of time. His reason is this: for Natural History, ‘Life’ does not yet exist as an analytic, only ‘living beings’ distributed across a non-temporal and homogenous surface orderable according to their identities and differences. At the beginning of the 19th century, with the emergence of Biology, this surface begins to be dissociated and an opposition arises: differences proliferate on the surface while, deeper down, they begin to fade, merge, and mingle in that invisible focal unity called ‘Life’, from which the multiple derives. For Natural History, order is the given and difference is what must be explained; for Biology, difference is the given and order is what must be explained; and between the two is what Foucault describes as ‘an essential rupture’.

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EMC Announces its 2016 Schedule for “Scales of Matter(ing)”

The inter-UC EcoMaterialisms Collective has announced the schedule for its second annual graduate conference “Scales of Matter(ing)” to be held at UC Davis May 13-14, 2016 (see here). From the announcement:

The EMC is pleased to announce the schedule for the second annual EcoMaterialisms graduate conference, “Scales of Matter(ing),” to be held at UC Davis May 13-14, 2016. We have thirty-seven presenters over two days, representing twelve universities, including two international universities, and thirteen disciplinary backgrounds.

Super exciting event, super exciting work. If you’re in the area, try to make it! If you’re in southern California, a pretty sizable contingent of us will be driving up from Irvine. Let me know if you’d like to join the carpool.

EcoMaterialisms Conference CFP

The inter-UC EcoMaterialisms Collective has released the CFP for its 2016 graduate conference “EcoMaterialisms: Scales of Matter(ing)” to be held at UC Davis:

EcoMaterialisms: Scales of Matter(ing)

University of California, Davis

May 13-14, 2016

Keynote: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (George Mason University, English)

Scales delineate zones, trajectories, bodies, spaces, and intensities. Whether scales are large or small, go up or down, they form territories with fractal properties that disrupt the traditional relations between inside and outside, macro and micro, friend and enemy. Simultaneously incongruent, fragmented, and interrelated, scales complicate questions of legibility, knowledge, and power. Rather than the pre-given contours of matter, scales are constructed and performed by the various actors for whom they matter. Making scales is about creating, inhabiting, and containing worlds, and the ways those worlds build up on one another and in one another – worlds that are situated, vulnerable, experimental, and never innocent.

With this in mind, “EcoMaterialisms: Scales of Matter(ing)” will bring interdisciplinary graduate work to bear on questions of scale in new materialist discourse and practice. As this field attempts to think the relation between matter and meaning, we ask: how are scales structured and negotiated through discursive and material practices? What kinds of scales do these practices produce? What kinds of beings, relations, and affective states do particular forms of scale enable or exclude? What kinds of politics do different forms of scale make possible? Submissions may address the following topics, but are by no means limited to:

  • Histories and theories of the organism, of ecologies, and of cosmologies
  • Racial, sexual, and psychological difference and normative scaling
  • Spatial and temporal scales and the ethics and politics thereof
  • Scales of embodiment: measurement and visibility
  • Rhetorics, practices, and philosophies of science: critical perspectives
  • Scales of sensory perception
  • Phenomenology after ‘the human’
  • Scale and knowledge production
  • Scales of environmental disaster and response
  • Humanist and post-humanist scales
  • Scale: topologies and topographies
  • Ontological scales and ontologies of scale-making

We are accepting abstracts for individual presentations as well as panel proposals for 3-4 presenters. Individual abstracts should be no more than 300 words and include your name and institutional affiliation. Panel proposals should be no more than 750 words and include a description of the panel topic and title as well as the names and institutional affiliations of each participant.

Submit abstracts and proposals to EcoMaterialismsCollective@gmail.com by Friday, January 29th, 2016.

Los Corridos de Jimmy Santiago Baca: Community in the Refrain

The corrido is a popular genre in nineteenth and twentieth century Mexican literature and social practice. Used in the oral and printed transmission of information, education, and, at times, subversive politics, corridos often take the form of narrative song, ballad, and/or poem and deal with oppression, history, and the day-to-day of rural life. Many academic studies of the history and form of the corrido — e.g. Vicente T. Mendoza, Américo Paredes, and Merle E. Simmons — treat it as a genealogical object. Whether that genealogy can be effectively traced —  that is, whether there is a broken or unbroken step-by-step development from Spanish romance ballads to Mexican corridos through the resemblance of formal attributes  — is a topic of debate, but missing from this conversation are Chicana/o appropriations and deployments of this form, whether in the Chicano nationalism of the 1960s and 70s, or the postmodern and post-nationalist chicanisma/o of the 80s and 90s. A result is the impression that the corrido is, post-1930,  static or, even, dead.

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EcoMaterialisms Conference Keynote

The inter-UC EcoMaterialisms Collective has announced the keynote for its 2016 graduate conference “EcoMaterialisms: Scales of Matter(ing)” to be held at UC Davis: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson. Here’s a description of her work:

“My book in progress, tentatively titled The Blackness of Space Between Matter and Meaning, argues that key Black Atlantic literary, visual, and philosophical texts generate a critical praxis of humanity, paradigms of relationality, and modes of embodiment that alternately expose, alter, or reject the nexus of ‘race’ and ‘species’ discourse in Western science and philosophy. Reading the existential predicament of modern racial blackness through and against the human-animal distinction in Western philosophy and science reveals not only the mutual imbrication of ‘race’ and ‘species’ in Western thought but also invites a reconsideration of the extent to which exigencies of racialization have preconditioned and prefigured modern discourses governing the nonhuman. Ultimately, The Blackness of Space reveals the pernicious peculiarity of both prevailing foundational conceptions of ‘the human’ rooted in Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism and current ‘multiculturalist’ alternatives. What emerges from this questioning is an emphatically queer sense of being/knowing/feeling human, one that necessarily disrupts the foundations of the current hegemonic mode of the Human.”