Beyond Theorising: A Conversation with T.J. Demos

Sunday 1 March 23:11

T.J. Demos at Sonic Acts Academy 2020. Photo by Pieter Kers.
by Jeannette Petrik T.J. Demos is a writer, scholar, community organiser, activist and speaker engaged as Professor of Visual Culture at University of California, Santa Cruz and Director of its Center for Creative Ecologies. His practice is focused on developments in contemporary art, global politics and ecology. Demos is the author of Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (2017) and Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (2016), co-curator of the exhibition Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas, at Nottingham Contemporary (2015) and organiser of Specters: A Ciné-Politics of Haunting, at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (2014). He is currently working on a longer-term research project dedicated to exploring what lies beyond dystopian catastrophism, past and present end-of-world narratives, and imagining and cultivating radical futures of social justice and ecological flourishing. In his talk entitled ‘Beyond Despair: Potential Worlds and Eco-Fictions’ at Sonic Acts Academy 2020, T.J. Demos addressed the imagining of new worlds in the face of ‘a seemingly inescapable future’ and countering fatalism with approaches of radical equality, intersectionality and solidarity across difference which takes reference in nature as a site for multiplicity. In this conversation with critical writer and maker Jeannette Petrik, Demos addresses his personal relation to creative processes which reclaim a positive sense of futurity. The conversation took place after Demos' lecture in the context of Sonic Acts Academy at de Brakke Grond in February 2020. T.J. Demos: There is a positive sense to the term 'ally' describing a sense of solidarity with those on the front lines or those who are less privileged and threatened; using one's privilege or power as leverage in a struggle for equality and radical politics. But, increasingly, the term encounters resistance in activist and organising circles because it tends to produce a potentially paternalistic category of someone who sits aside and supports but locates themselves at the peripheries of struggles. Instead, I like to think of myself as an accomplice or as a comrade. I'm part of the struggle for equality against pervasive oppression that's harming us all and that is installing systems of fascism, environmental destruction, economic inequality and other forms of injustice. I consider myself as someone who's engaged in the struggle. Locally, in the States, I'm part of the organisation Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which is an anti-capitalist pro-socialist movement that's multi-racial and struggles for economic and environmental justice. I regard my own involvement in a movement which is part of a larger formation as a kind of creative practice which creates relations of equality that's not an equality of amnesia. It recognises that there's people with historical relations to greater or lesser oppression and violence that's, surely, ongoing. It's a creative practice of thinking and doing together with others that's intersectionalist and anti-capitalist. It's about creating new worlds of radical equality, social justice and environmental flourishing in the very small way that is accessible to us on a very local level, while accepting that we don't always know what we're doing, completely. There's a sense of being open to potential contradictions, errors, false steps and making ourselves vulnerable to learning to develop together. That's an expansive definition of creativity: creating a practice that is engaged, embodied, local and connective. Jeannette Petrik: You've been active as a scholar in the UK from 2005 and relocated to California in 2015 to pursue a position as professor of history of art and visual culture at the University of California in Santa Cruz. How did your practice evolve? TJD: After living and working in the UK for ten years, part of my motivation of returning to the States was being able to act and be more political in ways that didn't feel accessible to me in the UK, partly because I was on a work visa. I had a limited role in relation to activism. I was at a point in my career where I felt it was necessary for me to develop professionally. It was important for me and my family to survive economically. Moving back to the States offered an opportunity of shifting my practice to become more engaged with what I see as a long-term ongoing struggle, which connects to struggles against colonialism. Moving back to California, I realised very quickly that settler-colonial power is still in place. It's the Western frontier in a lot of ways. The struggle against racism and the overt white supremacy or ethno-nationalism in the States is quasi fascist and that requires a different kind of activity on the ground. This has played a big role in shifting my practice. JP: How do you engage with this struggle in your Everyday? TJD: I'm dealing with this material in the classroom, trying to introduce a range of radical ideas and traditions within my pedagogy, research and writing but I also find it important to be part of a collective struggle that has local practices and local relations. Becoming part of a collective is important to me. I don't want to continue being a free-floating entrepreneurial academic. That's a dominant role within academia these days and there's a lot of pressure to perform that role. Becoming an activist, becoming an organiser that's part of a collective, for me, is an important alternative. One aspect that exemplifies how it translates to the Everyday is a struggle that's locally relevant to California and relates to the privatised energy system of electricity provision through the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PGNE), an investor-owned private company which has, over the years, put funds designated to infrastructure into investors' pockets. As a result, the crumbling infrastructure has begun to cause wildfires in the last years because heavy winds cause the lines to fall and this causes catastrophic wildfires to break out. This is also related to and worsened by climate change through drought due to a lack of rainfall. One of the things that PGNE has begun to do to avoid liability is to simply shut down the electricity when there's heavy winds. This is causing an unprecedented phenomenon in California where whole regions are cut off of electricity, sometimes for days. This is beginning to happen with greater frequency. I'm part of the Eco-Socialist Working Group in the Santa Cruz chapter of DSA. Part of what we're doing is creating the conditions of a mutual aid practice. When the energy is turned off without warning, and you don't know when it's going to come back on, we're trying to put together the beginnings of the material provisioning within a collective context that is a kind of mutual aid system for eventually growing an alternative system of grassroots socialism. This is one way of moving beyond theorising the need for socialism in an abstract sense in scholarship. Let's actually build mutual aid societies on the ground that are helping people, some who are more vulnerable than others, to deal with these infrastructure breakdowns right now. JP: Is your evolution as an activist informed by your previous experience as a migrant worker? TJD: Working in the UK for ten years as a migrant worker, even if with a lot of privilege, I came to realise just how exemplary that identity is for global Capitalism because you're reduced to merely being a worker. This is about an economic identity which doesn't grant any political agency. Getting arrested at a protest could potentially influence your visa status. That's a real threat under those conditions, whether you're a low level migrant worker in the Arab Emirates or whether you're working in Europe as a migrant labourer – the perfect global neo-liberal subjectivity. There's a whole population of undocumented people in the US who have to be very careful about how they engage in labour struggles. They are excluded from any kind of political participation because there's a concrete risk of being arrested and deported. It's that simple. In a way, although they are unwanted and the government wants to kick them out of the country they are the perfect subjects within the US because they do their jobs and disappear when it comes to any kind of political dissidence. There's a kind of profound pervasive sense of depression right now, instigated by the failure of public institutions. This is a real threat to the wider web of life that we're living in. We're all witnessing and are at the same time complicit in the collective destruction of the world. The antidote that I've come up with for myself is to struggle against it, to become an activist. That's the only way that I see. Or else, there's a real danger of entering into a negative spiral when you're continually faced with just the obscenity of our world. Either we end that world or it will potentially end us. That's a difficult position to be in. At the same time I understand that this is just my way of thinking about it. I try to beware of any moralistic position of putting pressure on other people making it seem like I'm doing something that other people should do or appearing like I don't have my own contradictions and failures – because I do. JP: How do you, then, negotiate your position? TJD: The converse is to create conditions of positivity that are enabling conditions of solidarity and collective empowerment rather than collective self destruction. That's easily said but it's freaking hard to deal with.

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