Oceanic Sorrow: An Elegy for Detroit


I just thought I would share with everyone here a talk I recently delivered at George Washington University as part of a symposium on “Ecological Movement,” sponsored by GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, and which also featured remarks from Jennifer James, Lowell Duckert, and Stacy Alaimo. I share it in the spirit of the type of creative para-academic alliances and assemblages and aesthetic movements that punctum books is interested in fostering:

Oceanic Sorrow: An Elegy for Detroit 

Eileen A. Joy

I have a friend in Ypsilanti, Michigan who likes to say, ‘the city of Detroit is depressed; it’s how people are dressing, walking around, the buildings, what they’re talking about, what they’re eating, the streets, the houses.’ The city of Detroit has the blues; the city is feeling it. I like to go to Detroit when I can, with my friend Christine, to feel the city feeling itself. Christine is the one who told me this; she feels the city feeling itself and she wants me to feel it, too. Depression is a collective affair, and when people realize that together, that is also an opportunity. Detroit gets this. Detroit carries itself with a benighted grace and is gathering together in the deserted avenues and empty warehouses of its post-metropolis to stage a gaudy, come-what-may comeback, or is it a parting gesture, or the one-more-time last torch song of the ‘I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar spaces’ genre? Who knows? You can’t predict the future like that, and maybe you shouldn’t even try. Instead of trying to fix Detroit, or diagnose ‘what went wrong,’ maybe we should be trying to get deeper into it, and start feeling it feeling itself. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been or don’t want to go to Detroit, or if you’re not ‘from’ Detroit or have no ‘stakes’ there, no ‘posts’ in the ground, no supposed ‘affiliations.’ I have seen, and felt, Detroit, and it is us.

Detroit isn’t ‘over there’ somewhere, failing and feeling depressed but also perversely thriving in various pocket-zones on its own, except by a concerted act of will that allows you to separate your problems from everyone else’s, your depression from Detroit’s depression, your fortunes from their fortunes. Detroit got fucked by something I like to call a runaway, impersonal, transnational, hyper-capitalized, rhizomatically dispersed, polluting and polluted post-modernity without a ‘sovereign function,’[1] where being an individual, as Zygmunt Bauman has put it, is no longer a choice but a fate. That goes for cities, too. That means, whatever happened to Detroit, happened in Detroit. It’s their problem, even when the causes of their problem are ‘global,’ and we just hope they’ll ‘get help.’

But what I want to say is: Let’s get fated together. Not as an experiment in reckless fatalism or collective abandonment of our hopes, but as the crafting of a more heightened sense of awareness of the ecological co-implication of pretty much everything — of what, quite literally, has ‘already been spoken’ — of our shared ‘ecomelancholia’ (to cadge from Jennifer James[2]), of the dark ecological ‘mesh’ in which we are all caught, entangled, benighted, and trans-corporeal together, and in which, as Tim Morton has written, ‘the only way out is down.’[3] Places can be insane, and we might work harder to recognize the state of affairs where it is difficult to tell where the self ends and everything else begins, including cities, and maybe the best thing we can do right now, as the Detroit writer Phreddy Wischusen suggests, is to wonder together

if the rain recognizes itself in the sea as it falls. If it remembers the place from whence it rose. What the sea and the rain feel, one salty, one sweet, about each other as they reconnect. The differences are obvious, yet they are discovering that they are separated only by what they have picked up along the way, not by what is in them[, and so we should look for ourselves] . . . . beyond [our] terrestrial frontiers.[4]

Like the nameless ‘Wanderer’ of the Old English elegy, we might ‘awaken again’ [onwæcneð eft, l. 45] from our dreams and see before ourselves the ‘dark waves’ [fealwe wægas, l. 46] and the ‘fall of frost and snow mingled with hail’ [‘hreosan hrim and snaw hagle gemenged,’ l. 48], but instead of seeing this as the site of one’s ultimate alienation from one’s only ever human ‘comrades,’ who endlessly ‘float away’ from us [‘swimmað eft onweg,’ l. 53], we might bind ourselves to this scene of oceanic winter, this crumbling world, as the only way down together.[5] ‘Fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks,’[6] as Steve Mentz has put it, always remembering at the same time that ‘all is not lost’ if we can keep telling stories to each other as we’re drowning.


I didn’t come here to play the medievalist, but the elegaist. But if that’s a medieval occupation, and if being ‘fated’ is the style of the early Middle Ages (and some think it is), then I’m willing to regress in this moment with you. First I want to say, inspired by Stacy Alaimo, that mental illness is also environmental illness, with ‘environment’ here understood, in Alaimo’s words, as ‘fleshy, emergent, and ultimately inseparable from the stuff of the human.’[7] But unlike some others, I’ve given up on the idea of agency altogether, even one mapped as a transit system across different bodies, human and nonhuman. Nor do I care any longer about the supposedly crucial reflexivity — self-reflexivity or other Other-reflexivity — of critique. I want to get decadent now — literally, to decline — I’m going to decline myself and see what I hit on the way down in my declension; I want to get lost, but with my eyes wide open. Like the Old English ‘Seafarer,’ but going against the grain of his despair, I want to be ‘behung with icicles’ [bihongen hrimgicelum, l. 17], where I’ll hear nothing but the ‘sea’s sounding’ [hlimman sæ, l. 18].[8]

For now, agency will be something like temporary strategic maneuvers that will be the opposite of depth soundings and even actor-network mappings. These maneuvers will necessitate occasional returns from the bottom to the surface of things to see who or what might be thinking, who or what might be willing to join hands or tentacles or fins on the deck of this wreck, who or what might be willing to get wrecked together — ‘wreck,’ from the Old English wrecca, wretch and exile, but also, adventurer, also, to be driven, to keep going, even nowhere. We’ll go down, and then we’ll resurface to stage flash events of resistance to the business as usual of everything: literally, here and gone, in a flash. The name of the game will be recombination and the sort of creativity Tim Ingold argues for, where ‘to improvise is to follow the ways of the world, as they unfold, rather than to connect up, in reverse, a series of points already traversed,’[9] and following Deleuze and Guattari, we’ll ‘venture from home [or the bottom] on the thread of a tune.’[10]

We’ll agree with the Seafarer (and Tim Morton) that this is already a ‘dead life, loaned on the land’ [‘deade lif, / læne on londe,’ ll. 65-66]. We’ll set ourselves to the task of tuning things and being attuned, feeling ourselves forward and along, and this will require singing, and this is a blue song, by the way: ocean-blue and ice-blue, blue like Billie Holiday’s strange fruit with its ‘scent of magnolia’ and its ‘blood at the root,’ blue like valium, because we want to cultivate historical forgetting, because we still want to feel good even when we feel bad. We’ll work (following Ingold again, who is following Lefebvre) to ‘texturize’ these feelings and our feeling entanglements which are always being pushed forward by forces we can’t control, and by ‘texturize’ we mean to keep writing, just as the world itself is writing on us and we on it — with ‘writing’ here understood ‘not as a verbal composition, but as a tissue of lines.’[11] We need new aesthetic, but always temporary, alliances, radical acts of inter-subjective and matrixial co-poeisis (which will also mean: co-emergence),[12] of interlinearity (getting between the lines), so that the entanglements can get . . . weirder and more strange, which is to say, more beautiful. By ‘writing,’ we also mean ‘writing,’ like this, with no intention of making sense, but rather, of making sentience.

But, I was talking about Detroit and how places can be insane and how depression is really trans-corporeal, which means it could also be a style of collectivity, if only we could agree to ‘bear up’ together, which is to say, to allow ourselves to get and be carried away, and to carry others away with us, to carry their sadness, to recognize one’s responsibility for everyone else’s sadness, everyone else’s fuck-up-ness, everyone else’s plight, which is to say their danger,[13] which is also our danger.

[1] On the idea that there can be no functioning legal order (even a democracy) without a sovereign authority or sovereign function who has the capability to suspend the law in certain ‘emergencies,’ see Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (1985; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). I find myself increasingly wondering if we have entered a post-sovereign era (where sovereigns still exist — here and there — but have less and less ability to affect a modernity that has literally ‘run away’ from them). On this point, see Michael Dillon, Deconstructing International Politics (London: Routledge, 2011).
[2] Jennifer James, ‘Ecomelancholia: Slavery, War, and Black Ecological Imaginings,’ in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner (New York: Routledge, 2011), 163-78.
[3] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 59.
[4] Phreddy Wischusen, [estuaries] (Detroit: [sic], 2012), 16.
[5] All citations of the Old English poem ‘Wanderer’ are from T.P. Dunning and A.J. Bliss, eds., The Wanderer (London: Methuen, 1969), by line numbers. All translations are mine.
[6] Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009), 98.
[7] Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2010), 140.
[8] Citations of the Old English poem ‘Seafarer’ are from George Philip Krapp and Elliott V.K. Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), by line number. Translations are mine.
[9] Tim Ingold, ‘Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials’ [unpublished paper], April 2008: 17.
[10] Gilles Deleuze and Féliz Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 244.
[11] Ingold, ‘Bringing Things to Life,’ 19. See also Tim Ingold, ‘When ANT Meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods,’ in Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentic Approach, ed. Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2008), 209-15, and Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
[12] On the idea of matrixial borderspaces and co-poiesis, see Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
[13] The word ‘plight’ is cognate with the Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Middle Low German ‘plicht,’ meaning ‘care’ or ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt,’ and also denoting ‘community’ and ‘obligation.’ It is related to the Old English ‘pleoh’ (‘danger,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘risk’) and ‘pleon’ (‘to risk the loss of,’ ‘expose to danger’), and also the Middle Dutch ‘plegen’ (‘to carry out,’ ‘to be in the habit of doing’). In invoking ‘plight’ here in my concluding paragraph, I mean to put into play all of these senses, as well as the associated Latin ‘pliter’ (from which we get ‘plait’): ‘to fold,’ ‘to pleat.’

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