The Remote Sensation of Disintegration
A fragment of a work and a thought in progress.
In the coastal wetlands of the US state of Louisiana, the fossil fuel industry maintains the spatial, environmental, and economic logics and landscapes of colonialism and slavery. There, two hundred of the nation’s most polluting petrochemical plants and refineries occupy the footprints of fallow slave plantations straddling the Mississippi River. Once known as Plantation Country, this region is now called Cancer Alley.
Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, fossil fuel corporations have dredged 10,000 miles of canals in order to drill and access over 75,000 wells, which connect to Cancer Alley’s refineries and petrochemical plants via 50,000 miles of pipeline. The canals usher salt water from the Gulf into freshwater wetlands, killing the vegetation that holds sediment together as land.
In less than a century, two thousand square miles of wetlands have been disappeared. As the wetlands disintegrate, so does a critical buffer between coastal communities and the hurricanes and rising seas of the Gulf. And, with the River’s flooding cycles impeded by a network of levees, our wetlands have been reduced to a non-renewable resource.
1.1. The projects of colonialism, genocide, slavery, and fossil fuel production are phases of a single system of matter, wealth, culture, life, and soul dislocation known as Extractivism. Extractivism operates on bodies at fractal scales—expanding from the scale of the cell, the decomposed bacterium, and the leaf of three-corner marsh grass, to the scale of humans, oil fields, and Deltaic floodplains.
1.2. Humans consist of myriad bodies; we hold our individual bodies, our microbial bodies, our community bodies, and our environmental bodies. Woven together, these bodies constitute ecological bodies, or ecosystems.
1.3. To extract is to reduce a being, an entity, or an ecosystem to the parts of their whole that are easiest to racialize, synthesize, financialize. Extractive violence is the violence of segregation: the human mind is segregated from the rest of its biological body; the Black human being is segregated from the body of humanity; the human species is segregated from the ecological body.
Extraction from one body is simultaneously extraction from the ecological body. Extraction from any body demands ecological solidarity and reparations.
2.1. How might we sense the multiscalar, multispecies, multigenerational, multidimensional disintegration of our ecological body by Extractivism?
The media largely witnesses ecological violence through spectacular images, like those of Black people mired in Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. Such images fill an overflowing archive of fetishized suffering that centers explosive events and their human shrapnel, obscuring the cosmologies, systems, and corporations that perpetrate said suffering.
2.2. From which positions or scales might we sense our disintegration? By stepping beyond my grassroots perspective and adopting the view-from-afar, as well as the technological view-from-above, have I abandoned an ethical position of local agency in favor of one that “sees like a state?” Is there a unique position to be found for the local sensing remotely? What does the bird’s-eye-view or the ancestor’s-eye-view make newly sensible? Absent a face, is the human still present in the image of the ecosystem?
2.3. To sense our disintegration, we need the optical lenses of our eyes, which can be enhanced by the optical lenses of satellites. But we need to access more than the visual register privileged by Western Enlightenment. We need cellular lenses—sensing bodies and sensing through bodies––as well as cultural lenses—sensing culture and sensing through culture.
3.1. And still, it was only from my newly remote position that I regained touch with my body’s sensors and noticed that being-in-place is fundamentally a condition of being-place. Place carries on and embeds within a person, body and soul. Having spent most of my life in the Mississippi River Delta, I don’t need to be present to sense her disintegration in my body; I carry her rhythms and flows, but also her petrochemical toxins, in my cells. They say that a human body’s full process of cellular regeneration takes seven to ten years. As I encounter my River from the sky, from space, from her headwaters, I wonder what new hybrid of person and place I am becoming.
3.2. Our ecological bodies may never be whole. But perhaps holism only emerges when we take into account the gaps between subjectivities, images, speech, places, species, bodies, and atoms. These gaps are full...
...of dark matter,
also known as kinship,
which holds existence