Intoxicated Feminisms and the Politics of the Visible: Khairani Barokka’s Indigenous Species
by: Kate Lewis Hood , April 19, 2018
by: Kate Lewis Hood , April 19, 2018
Khairani Barokka’s Indigenous Species (2016) is a poetry book, an art book, a feminist book. Tracing the journey of an unnamed narrator kidnapped and transported down a polluted river in Indonesia, the work weaves together myth and glitch, translation and toxicity, supercharging visual culture(s) with the politics of the visible. Using a range of visual and verbal techniques, Barokka calls attention to the practices of erasure – or making-invisible – of certain bodies and communities, in particular women of colour living in environmental precarity in places such as Indonesia, and visually impaired people disabled by the lack of accessibility in mainstream publishing. In turn, she works to make visible diverse cultures of creativity, artistry, and resistance against or outside of dominant white, enabled assumptions and the power structures they uphold.
However, through the work’s multidimensional aspects, Barokka also interrogates the primacy of the visible as a mode of representation. The ‘sighted’ print version of the Indigenous Species – which will be the focus of this essay – is immediately distinctive owing to its striking visuals and colours, but the work exists or will come to exist in multiple formats and mediums. Barokka and the team at Tilted Axis Press have already produced several types of ebook alongside the print version, soon to be joined by a Braille translation and a tactile edition for visually impaired readers. These collectively destabilise normative practices of consumption and interpretation and relocate politics of visibility within broader vocabularies and experiences of perception. In both form and content, then, Indigenous Species offers critical intervention and creative experimentation. The work radically challenges assumptions and erasures leading to injustices – ranging from discrimination in publishing to damage to environments – and amplifies modes of resistance and response.
A disclaimer: I am intoxicated by Indigenous Species. What I mean by this is that I am captured and compelled by its aesthetics, its visual and verbal textures, but I am also implicated in the erasures and violence it uncovers. Here I draw upon Mel Y. Chen’s mobilisation of toxicity as a critical framework. Examining the rhetorical use of toxicity in US public and financial discourse, Chen notes that the effects of such conceptual frameworks ‘are never merely figurative, but materially consequential’, particularly for racialised or otherwise marginalised subjects. (Chen 2015: 25) Material and metaphorical elements are mutually constitutive in the ‘production of the toxic’ as biopolitical regime; Chen writes that ‘to only manage toxins as biochemical processes might be to unwittingly collude with the dynamics that produced them’, dynamics that include ‘colonial logics of development, time, sexuality and race.’ (28) Where practices of material and metaphorical marginalisation are often replicated in the academy, Chen proposes an ‘intoxicated method’ of scholarship. This is ‘a hypothetical mode of approach that refuses idealised research positions by “critically disabling” the idealised cognitive and conceptual lens of analysis.’ (25) An intoxicated method acknowledges not only the partiality of critical perspectives, but also the differing perceptual efforts of bodies that are variously dis/abled and toxified, often along social, political, and geopolitical lines. Crucially, Chen writes, an intoxicated method is ‘not an attempt to advocate for a kind of sensory cosmopolitanism as a way of “understanding” the lives of interest, but rather approximating a method that may converse with other people’s methods of survival and/or thriving.’ (29) Such a method seems indispensable in the struggle towards a decolonising, intersectional feminist response to Indigenous Species. In an attempt at approximation, I have tried to expose my own processes of engaging with the work to critical perspectives and cultural practices that call attention to the limits of these processes, but also to possible sites of convergence or transformation. In addition, alongside contextually informed reading practised in the situated modes of feminist scholarship, I have had several email conversations with Barokka herself. In this essay, I intersperse her words with my own in order to acknowledge what I have learnt from her, not only in approaching Indigenous Species but also in working towards strategies for feminist conversation across varying degrees of complicity and precarity.
The sighted version of Indigenous Species is visually arresting: photographs of people, animals, landscapes, tattoos, and maps are collaged beside the text onto turquoise pages, accompanied by a ‘bright pink-orange-blue-green river’ that runs through the book. (Barokka 2016: 8) Set amongst these on every left-hand page is the word ‘Braille’ in what appears to be the Braille language. However, although the word has the corresponding pattern of dots, it is missing the language’s vital textural dimension, leaving only a flattened form or placeholder. As Barokka writes in the introduction, ‘Indigenous Species attempts to make the absence of Braille visible and felt in its sighted-reader version, just as sight-impaired or blind readers feel its absence in every two-dimensional book.’ (8) Such a tactic points towards the social model of disability, which views disability in terms of systemic and societal barriers and cultural assumptions rather than solely medical or bodily conditions. By calling attention to the absence of Braille, Barokka highlights ways that visually impaired readers become disabled by limitations imposed by the publishing industry. At the same time, she explores the aesthetic potential opened up by different corporealities. Addressing the issue of corporeality in the context of visual culture studies, Asko Lehmuskallio notes that most scholarship focuses on the social construction of vision, including scopic regimes and their power structures. She argues that this work often assumes normalised levels of vision and by doing so leaves a critical gap that fails to consider sight-impaired perspectives. (Lehmuskallio 2015: 2) Even in its sighted version, Indigenous Species encourages readers to imagine a range of perceptions of and responses to its combinations of shape, text, and colour. Barokka does not seek to replace socio-cultural understandings of vision and visibility with corporeal determinism; rather, she attends to the multiple, intersecting factors affecting embodied perception, including their structural dimensions.
As she repeatedly stresses both in the introduction to the work and in interviews, Barokka’s emphasis is not on representing or speaking for sight-impaired people; in a conversation between Barokka and Tilted Axis founder Deborah Smith in Tender both speakers note the importance of the disability rights slogan ‘nothing about us without us.’ (Barokka and Smith 2017: 31) Rather, her approach lies in translation as a tactic of conversation and amplification:
KB: ‘I see translation between abled and non-abled languages as key to [the] liberation of D/deaf and disabled artists from the marginal, and of our communities from being seen as charity objects and instead [as] incredibly diverse and long resistant to dominant oppression.’
This includes translating across cultural and geopolitical lines, and in her wider work Barokka has called attention to histories of disability that do not correspond to linear narratives of ‘progress’ or ‘development’. The glossary to the recent anthology Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (2017), which Barokka co-edited with Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman, notes that ‘[e]xperiences and meanings of disability as spiritually important vary greatly across history and place, and ideas being explored in modern-day UK have been examined in myriad ways across the centuries.’ (Alland, Barokka & Sluman 2017: 241) The ‘ideas being explored in modern-day UK’ refer to the social model, and Barokka draws on Slamet Thohari’s book Disability in Java to show that this model is not exclusive to the UK or to the last forty or fifty years:
Javanese notions of disability as spiritually important were denied by colonial Dutch doctors and medical institutions – who sought to ‘cure’ disability at all costs. In this sense, Javanese disability history is predicated on a social model, but one that predates UK work on social models entirely, reaching back hundreds of years into Javanese culture. (241)
By calling attention to histories of thought and community values and practices that trouble dominant colonial narratives, Stairs and Whispers participates in wider efforts to decolonise understandings of disability. Here, Indigenous Species acts as an important companion attentive to specific contexts and configurations of power and resistance as they are manifested across natural-cultural ecologies.
In particular, the work’s setting in a series of damaged and exploited environments in Indonesia means that transforming understandings of disability is inseparable from uneven bio- and geopolitical realities of disablement and debilitation. Across Indigenous Species, Barokka draws together human and nonhuman bodies facing loss, debilitation, and even extinction at the hands of violent regimes of extraction, production, and consumption. These bodies are what Chen refers to as the ‘gendered, laboring, and chronically toxically exposed bodies of globalized capital’ (Chen 2012: 188), and elsewhere as ‘the metonymic subpopulation of the toxic.’ (Chen 2015: 26) Chen’s notion of metonymy is useful in thinking through the uneven material iterations of what Jason W. Moore has recently called the ‘world-ecology’ or ‘capital’s ecological regime.’ (Moore 2015) Challenging the universalising implications of what has recently been named the Anthropocene, Moore charts ways that unsustainable or actively damaging practices largely initiated by actors in the Global North have been displaced elsewhere. Such patterns and practices often result in the toxification or debilitation of populations and environments that do not figure in the dominant imaginaries of global capitalism until they come to threaten its profoundly unequal notions of growth and health in the form of social, economic, or ecological crisis. Even then, marginalised subjects and histories are rendered imperceptible, as cultural as well as material process. Faced with the Anthropocene, many artists, writers, and theorists have turned to visions of catastrophe and apocalypse as a means of representing present and future environmental precarity. For Neel Ahuja, this generic shift has geopolitical undertones: ‘Even as artists and activists begin to envision a far-off spectacular destruction of metropolitan empire, such seductive projections risk overshadowing the many colonial, social, political, economic, and ecological violences that have formed the present time of extinction.’ (Ahuja 2009: 49)
These different and differential dynamics ricochet across Indigenous Species and its visual and verbal tonalities. In this short excerpt I quote below, Barokka’s narrator has been gagged and tied, and is addressing her kidnapper through internal monologue:
And I don’t want to grow old
As you paddle downriver
With the mercury
Beating down your synapses,
Eating at your unborn childlings,
While I close my eyes
And look away
And pretend girls my age
Don’t live here and won’t. (21; see images)
The text is nearly overwhelmed by a collage of abstract, swirling imagery, intermingling with Dayak patterns and clashing with the neon river, producing states of intensity, disorientation, and freneticism. These threaten apocalypse, but they also suggest toxification. The mercury mentioned in the poem is a toxic heavy metal used mainly for the manufacture of industrial chemicals and electronics, and affects the function and development of the nervous system in human and nonhuman animals. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest emitter of mercury, after China and India, with emissions mostly coming from gold mining. In 2013, the Government of Indonesia signed the Minamata Convention and announced its aim to phase out mercury use in gold mining by 2018. (Spiegel et al. 2017: 2) Although mercury is a significant trans-boundary pollutant, its impacts are concentrated in poorer nations as a result of a long history of trade from wealthier countries. (3) As Chen notes, ‘[s]ensory impairment correlated to mercury’s neuronal damage … can include loss of proprioception, nystagmus (involuntary eye movement), and heightened sensitivity to touch or sounds.’ (Chen 2012: 205) Ostensibly, these effects seem to correspond to the states and sensations evoked by the page in Indigenous Species.
However, Barokka is careful neither to medicalise the toxification suggested, nor to abandon the poem to panic and apocalypse. In contrast with the visual imagery, the strong ‘I’ of the speaker articulating her actions and desires re-root the poem in particular experiences of living and surviving. These cannot be reduced to a single perspective or moral stance; the shifts from imagined futures to present realities and back again, from ‘grow[ing] old’ to the ‘unborn’ to the unstable conditions of a deictic ‘here’, add a speculative dimension to the poem, suggesting that its narratives are open to change, for better or for worse. Not only this, but the work’s tone and emphasis seem to shift, the narrator oscillating between relative calmness and strident anger. On the one hand, this mercurial quality could be construed as an effect of the mercury itself. ‘The word mercurial’, Chen writes, ‘means what it means – unstable and wildly unpredictable – because the mercury toxin has altered a self, has directly transformed an affective matrix: affect goes faster, affect goes hostile, goes toxic.’ (Chen 2012: 201) On the other hand, the attribution of instability or anger purely to a substance denies the narrator agency and invalidates her anger as a form of resistance. Rather than subscribing to one viewpoint or the other, however, Indigenous Species challenges us to confront these complex affects and engage speculatively with the perceptual and material conditions of others, as essential practices of a decolonising feminism and environmentalism.
After the mercury pollution, the speaker is blindfolded by her kidnapper and continues down the river to ‘the place / Where they’re collapsing / Entire cosmologies / Into pulp and paper.’ (27) This points towards the destruction of the rainforests and their multispecies cultures, largely for oil palm plantations. Producing half of global palm oil, Indonesia’s landscapes and ecologies have been transformed and devastated by this intensified industry. (Austin et al. 2015: 2) The palm oil extracted from the fruit of the trees is used in hundreds of consumer products, ranging from food to biofuels to cosmetics. Precisely because of the individualised use of such products, the scale and extent of the damage to environments and indigenous communities is rendered almost imperceptible to those who do not live amongst it. However, Barokka utilises the capacity of collage and digital manipulation for a visual synecdoche able to call attention to the contradictions of individualised consumption practices and their scale effects in global environmental crisis. For instance, one of the pages in Indigenous Species features an image of a single lipstick whose drawn outline has been filled with photographs of green forest:
I bet you, from the raucous
Machinery I’m hearing
And the smell of rashness,
That this is where the grease deals
Are siphoned into miners’ food.
And where they are packing down
Eons of intricacies and strength
From the forest to molecular form
On a woman’s lipstick bottle in Iowa (29; see images)
The fire used for deforestation is here depicted using the same print as the ‘open sores of forest,’ their ‘[p]estilent red wounds in the trunk / Exposing great-great-grandmotherly rings’ suggestive of generations of environmental and cultural heritages now under threat. (13) Re-placing destroyed rainforest and its ‘[e]ons of intricacies and strength’ in ‘a woman’s lipstick bottle in Iowa’, Barokka exposes the erasures of white, liberal ‘lipstick feminism’ and its emphasis on individual choice rather than wider power dynamics and longer timescales. This brand of feminism is implicated in what Kathryn Yusoff calls ‘banal violence’: seemingly mundane acts contributing to unseen and displaced extinctions. (Yusoff 2012: 580)
Significantly, Barokka’s speaker does not exist outside of these cultures. Near the end of the book, she acknowledges her own role in ‘pouring vapor and rot / Down the necks of Kalimatan’ (43), admitting:
And I shampoo my hair with oil crafted
From dead-end social experiments
And gargantuan-scale domestication of hectares,
Cemeteries of growth (41)
The description of Indonesia’s monocultural plantations as ‘[c]emeteries of growth’ captures the paradoxical nature of a capitalist world-ecology, in which rapid short-term ‘growth’ causes irreversible damage to ecosystems and lifeways. As Vandana Shiva has written, these are also ‘monocultures of the mind’: dominant globalising knowledge systems that lead to the erasure of the physical and cultural conditions for biodiversity. (Shiva 1993: 12) In this context, Indigenous Species exposes the rhetorical and literal violence through which certain human and nonhuman bodies are erased and toxified, debilitated, and disabled. Rather than setting out a simple distinction between perpetrators and victims, though, Barokka explores the complexities of living and surviving in radically unequal social, economic, and environmental regimes. The bodies at risk of erasure have their own agency and distinct identities, even their own complicities in everyday practices, the narrator ‘forgetting the names of fauna / While making tea.’ (43) However, even when brought to the level of the individual, the kind of subjectivity Barokka evokes does not entirely correspond to the ‘I’ of liberal capitalism or Western post-Romantic lyric traditions. The speaker is ‘bred … the same’ as the fauna she forgets, intertwined over generations in mutual attempts to make a living. (33) This hybridised subjectivity is implicit in the work’s collaged aesthetic, through which distinctions between human, animal, and toxin are blurred. It also becomes the grounds for a kind of multispecies politics, in which the narrator ‘share[s] in an outrage’ with human and nonhuman companions: ‘Because, you see, I know there are claws in me / From the bullish deaths of millions of fanged things / In the tangle of this decapitated place.’ (39)
Instead of attempting to untangle her environments, Barokka employs metaphors and practices of making, in particular weaving and sewing, from that which exists in complex configurations and intersections, combining multiple identifications, heritages, and communities. In particular, the print that Barokka uses for fire, forest, and river – vibrant and toxified – conveys a sense of visible absence; like the word ‘Braille’, its neon hyper-visibility is counteracted by the fact that the texture of its fabric cannot be felt. Not only anticipating the tactile edition of the work, this also flattens and erases the practices of weaving and making that have constituted a long history of textile production, chiefly among communities of women. However, as Barokka writes in the introduction, the river is made from ‘a contemporary print, not a traditional, established one.’ (8)
KB: ‘Using both contemporary and traditional images and prints in collage was really enjoyable; like many young Indonesian women I know, I’ve always liked taking clothing designs and applying them to my own wardrobe by having them made with found or bought fabric, grew up like many around so many examples of cloth as culture … I suppose subconsciously I was asserting the importance of fabric, textile, and adornment as something both threatening and calming for a girl like the Narrator – the interplay in cloth between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is a storm in itself.’
Combining this textile work with collage, reappropriation and a ‘glitchy’ aesthetic, Indigenous Species supports the interweaving of multiple practices, exchanged in and changed by contemporary media. Neither setting one culture against another, nor romanticising other periods or places, Barokka translates and amplifies the ideas and energies of marginalised communities as a form of liberation. In this sense, rather than presenting a single, universal catastrophe in the mode of dominant imaginaries of ecological crisis, she notes the stratified, historical and ongoing nature of damage, extinction, and disablement. Making anew from a diverse but often interconnected set of materials, she critiques the assumptions and practices that have made histories of resistance necessary. Crucially, though, she also celebrates the potency of such acts of making to represent collective memories, losses, and emotions, to work towards stronger communities, means of survival, and even possibilities for thriving.
KB: ‘There are members of communities of women all around the world for whom representing ourselves to white feminists is not the end or main goal necessarily – it’s about representing or channelling our emotions for our own communities. If white feminists learn from our art, fantastic, but the assumption that an audience for ‘art’ is automatically white needs to be picked apart.’
As a multifaceted publishing project, Indigenous Species turns attention to that which is made imperceptible not only in globalised capitalism but also in dominant modes of cultural criticism, feminism, and environmentalism. Against conceptual frameworks of cultural and moral hygiene, normalised perceptivity, and bounded subjectivity, it practises being and making as already intoxicated, not as a new universal or idealised condition, but the weaving of a ‘complex resilience.’ (13)
All images from Indigenous Species are reproduced courtesy of Tilted Axis Press.
Ahuja, Neel (2009), ‘Postcolonial Critique in a Multispecies World,’ PMLA, Vol. 124, No. 2, pp. 556-63.
Austin, Kemen G., et al. (2015), ‘Reconciling Oil Palm Expansion and Climate Change Mitigation in Kalimantan, Indonesia’, PLoS ONE, 10:5, pp 1-17.
Alland, Sandra, Khairani Barokka & Daniel Sluman, eds. (2017), Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, Rugby: Nine Arches Press.
Barokka, Khairani (2016), Indigenous Species, London: Tilted Axis Press.
Barokka, Khairani & Deborah Smith (2017), ‘Conversation’, in Tender, No. 8, pp. 20-33, docs.tenderjournal.co.uk/tender-eight.pdf.
Chen, Mel Y. (2012), Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Durham: Duke University Press.
Chen, Mel Y. (2015), ‘Unpacking Intoxication, Racialising Disability’, in Medical Humanities, No. 41, pp. 25-29.
Lehmuskallio, Asko (2015), ‘Seeing with Special Requirements: Visual Frictions During the Everyday’, in Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, No. 7, pp. 1-7.
Moore, Jason W. (2015), Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London: Verso.
Shiva, Vandana (1993), Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology, London: Zed Books.
Spiegel, Samuel J., et al. (2017), ‘Phasing Out Mercury? Ecological Economics and Indonesia’s Small-Scale Gold Mining Sector’, Ecological Economics, No. 144, pp. 1-11.
Yusoff, Kathryn (2012), ‘Aesthetics of Loss: Biodiversity, Banal Violence and Biotic Subjects’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 578-592.
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