Drawing by Elisabeth Povinelli in het book The Inheritance

Senses / Sedimentations – a conversation with Elizabeth A. Povinelli

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

Vivian Ziherl talks to Elizabeth Povinelli, academic and member of the Karrabing Film Collective, about her recent books The Inheritance and Between Gaia and Ground ​and her research on the ancestral, political identity and the entanglements of existence.

Rituals, sculptural altars, rites of mourning – these are only some of the artistic maneuvers by which we find ourselves amid a resurgent interest in the aesthetics of the ancestral. An investigation of intergenerational relations, repressed traditions and their embodiments in lives and family relations signals a certain rejection of the worlds of commerce, extraction and consumption which are ever more palpably known to issue harm on mass scales. And yet, what does such an impulse engage in contexts marked by colonization such as in Europe or – for example – the Netherlands? How can we come to terms with the proximity of a desire to reconsider pagan European practice alongside a neo-conservative politics of nativism?

In the following conversation, Vivian Ziherl speaks with Elizabeth A. Povinelli about her attempts to disentangle these double-binds. Addressed are two new publications by Povinelli, both released in 2021, which each take different routes towards an investigation of the ancestral and its current politics of belonging. The Inheritance is a three-part graphic meditation on the intergenerational vectors of displacement, within and beyond the structures of settler colonization. The second book, Between Gaia and Ground: Four Axioms of Existence and the Ancestral Catastrophe of Late Liberalism, is much more concise and contains a theoretical intervention among recent critical projects that foreground ontological concerns.

—Vivian Ziherl I have the sense that The Inheritance took much longer to develop than Between Gaia and Ground – is that correct?

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘I may not have known it, but I have been writing Between Gaia and Ground since I came to Australia in 1984. So, we could also say that Between Gaia and Ground has taken between 38 and 40 years to compose. And I don't mean this in a trivial way. This book is the result of a constant rethinking of a conversation and a life that began on the shores of Cox Peninsula in 1984. So while it might seem like my conceptual labor emerges quickly, that's only if we think in book-unit time and not in thought time.

The Inheritance also began in 1984, when I first met the Belyuen women whose thoughts and lives would have such a consequential impact on my own. Almost immediately after our meeting, we began a conversation about what I would now call ‘survivance’, after Gerald Vizenor. The conversations emerged at the edge of creeks as we were fishing, in the bush over strong tea while hunting, or during afternoons at the Women’s Center as we engaged in “language-language”, or: land-based linguistics. As the women described and enacted their ways of belonging to the human and more-than-human world, I noted how similar it was to my white paternal family. They had family and clan-based relations to subnational lands as did my Povinelli and Ambrosi relations. They were oriented to more-than-human worlds through hunting and camping, as was mine. But the more similarities emerged, the more evident the impact of racism and settler colonialism became on the trajectories of our lives and worlds.’

'The Inheritance attempts to show how history is not about “going back” in time, but about the material sedimentations of the ancestral present'

Elisabeth Povinelli's 'The Inheritance', spread

—Vivian Ziherl In The Inheritance you describe your family story from Trentino (Italy) to the United States. It's a fable of the intergenerational impacts of profound disruptions in belonging. On the flip-side, it's also a book about nativism, and it treads carefully around experiences of white dispossession relative to scales of colonization. I can't help but wonder how this might serve in disentangling attachments in current nativist European politics, or even the complexity of anti-vax movements wherein certain enfranchised groups seem shocked to discover themselves as alienable subjects of the state?

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘One motivation for writing the book was to intervene in what I'm now calling the white counter-reformation. My use of “counter-reformation” is meant to refer to the sixteenth century Council of Trent. These Councils sought to reform the Catholic Church as a way of countering the threat of the Protestant reformation. Likewise, the rise of white nativism and white cultural archaeologies as part of a contemporary cultural counterreformation. No longer able to anchor themselves in the presupposed superiority of European Christianity and capitalism, white nativists in Europe and its colonial diaspora search for new moorings in their own pre-modern heritage. This twist in the history of cultural politics and political theologies threatens to intensify as the economic and environmental consequences of climate change and new viral contagions spread unevenly. In other words, I think we are in the midst of a new wrinkle in whiteness.

Whiteness Studies have shown how numerous European groups were absorbed into the category of whiteness, and white supremacy, in the US —say the Irish, Italians, and Jews. But as numerous authors have noted, whiteness began to inflect itself by ethnicity —a sort of reverse engineering. In the United States, this is exemplified in the commercialization of DNA testing. Here we are bombarded with commercials from corporations like Ancestry DNA. The format always goes the same: you see a person in, for example, a Scottish kilt, who says: “I thought I was Scottish but now I know I am German!,” and suddenly you see that same person wearing lederhosen. So, I have for a while been wondering what discursive relation holds between white nativism, commercial DNA ethnicity, and some political and artistic projects on the ecological left emerging from the crisis of climate collapse and industrial toxicity.

A bunch of folks in Europe are looking toward ancestral traditions of commoning, ancestral ecological practices, and knowledges, in order to explore precapitalist and pre-Christian modes of human existence in the more-than-human world. Because I have spent the last forty years with my Belyuen/Karrabing family, I cannot not help but hear in the back of my mind: 'We too once were not Christian or not capitalist’, which eventually tends towards the enunciation, “We too were once indigenous' The tricky part is that it seems that some are mobilizing this discursive space in a progressive way to fight climate change and industrial toxicity, while others are weaponizing it against First Nations and the movement of Black and Migrant bodies.

The Inheritance was intended to intervene exactly here in such a way that the entire discursive spectrum might be disrupted. If anyone can engage in a European Indigenization project, I can. I can trace the emergence of the cognomen Povinelli to the late fourteenth century, and my Simonaz clan to the seventeenth century. My ancestral village was granted semi-autonomous governance within various empires from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. But The Inheritance also shows how the movement back in time shatters the referential framework of inheritance. Instead of finding a common ground, one finds a disputed set of alternative truths. As Wittgenstein already noted, the axial propositions around which rotated the various worlds people imagined to have existed were not the same.

On the other hand, The Inheritance attempts to show how history is not about “going back” in time, but about the material sedimentations of the ancestral present. This ancestral present includes how my family and its clans were treated as a potential part of Europe’s future, thus our proletarianization, the Alps incorporation into the ski economy, our ability, once dispossessed, to take advantage of others’ dispossession and subsequently how Belyuen/Karrabing colleagues were excluded from history—and the subsequent effects on their bodies and lands. Thus, the ancestral present also includes the variety of material sedimentations that are constantly being left behind by the histories of racism and settler colonialism—the melting Alps, the rising seas, the toxic dumps, and ever re-emerging pathogens.

The book is an attempt to intervene in a fantasy that imagines that the political syntactic consequence of “We also were” is actually “Let’s roll back as a way of creating a better future as European civilisation.” This disavows so many things at the same time—that there is no singular back then and that the corporeal-material sedimentations of all that flowed from European supremacy and settler colonialism has created, literally, a fundamentally different ground on which politics sits. No matter how overpowering the storms were of my ancestral village in my earliest, formative psychic life, these storms are also raging within ongoing struggles against white supremacy and settler colonialism in the US.’

'Our obligation is to understand how we are related to, benefiting or not by these sedimentations, and work against this distribution'

Elisabeth Povinelli's 'The Inheritance', spread

—Vivian Ziherl In Gaia and Ground you're making a very similar argument about the emplacement of critical impulses within colonial legacies.

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘There I am discussing sedimentations of thought. While legacies point to the passing down of something, they can also allow us to imagine that we are somehow attributed certain characteristics over time. Whereas when I think about sedimentation –bodies as sedimentations, infrastructures as sedimentations, climate change as sedimentation, toxicity as sedimentations —I see leakages, and efforts of embankment, stress and straining. I don’t see, say, the Earth as an object but as a struggle of endurance. It's not there anymore ecologically, affectively, subjectively.’

—Vivian Ziherl In the visual arts there is a resurgent interest in aesthetic aspects of ritual, esotericism, and ancestry – which often lies adjacent to an interest in Indigenous knowledge. I wonder if there's something in the way that you posit the four axioms in Gaia and Ground that is useful in navigating the complex issues central to such artworks?

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘With the axioms I'm trying to draw attention to a certain syntax that cuts beyond intentionality. The four axioms are: first, that existence is entangled; second, that the way that existence is entangled distributes the ability to intervene in the social effects and affects of the entanglement; third, these differential distributions of social power have multiplied and collapsed what counts as a political event; and, finally, that modern western ontologies and epistemologies are the after-effects of Atlantic and Pacific racisms and settler colonialisms. In other words, if we follow the syntax of the way these axioms are normally articulated, we see that they begin with an ontological claim, move to the social effects of this ontology, then move to the political frameworks immanent to these social conditions, and end with a historical perspective. Between Gaia and Ground asks us to consider the conceptual-political effects of submitting to this syntax rather than starting with the fourth axiom.

As an example I look at the difference between the way Deleuze and Guattari begin What is Philosophy (1991) and the way Edouard Glissant begins the Poetics of Relation (1990). Deleuze and Guattari try to intervene in the distribution of objects and aims across disciplines. Who should produce concepts? Who should produce affects? Who should produce propositions? What fatal consequences come from capitalists producing concepts? They convince me that we should worry over these distributions. And yet, should I also be worried that there remains a certain ahistoricism here? Sure, liberalism and capitalism are in the framework, but the proper of different disciplinary spaces feel without material sedimentation.

Glissant’s book, on the contrary, starts in the middle of the Atlantic in the hull of a slave ship where three abysses meet — the belly of the boat, the depth of the sea, and the shores which will never return and the shores one may never reach. From these abysses emerge the sedimentations of the ancestral present of white supremacy and colonial relations. And from the abysses emerge his subsequent reflections of relation(s). That is, his “ontological reflections”, if we wish to call them ontological, are the consequences of his historical axiomatic. He asks us to consider the effects of these poetics of relation on subjectivities, affects, psyches, bodies, and ecologies.

Relative to our discussion of The Inheritance, Glissant is not saying: “This happened in the past. These things happened to those people. What's your affective relation to them? Do you have empathy?” Rather, he's saying: “These specific historic abysses opened specific historical relations of differential sedimentation.” Some bodies and places bear ongoing sedimentations of Blackness and Indigeneity other to Whiteness and Europeanness. So we have sedimentations and relations, relations as ongoing sedimentations of these and other ships that crossed the Atlantic and Pacific even as the current white counter-reformation is attempting to find a moment before all this to begin anew.

Glissant allows us to ask what our obligations be in the current moment of these relational sedimentations should be: should I cease going to the countries of my Karrabing family, cease working together in an effort to endure and expand against the sedimentations of power unleashed by colonialism, or return to my ancestral village and do ancestral work there? At the moment, I don’t think my obligation is to pull up stakes and move to my ancestral country, or to adopt its traditions and rituals. Glissant doesn’t ask for a purified return but an effort to actively intervene in the redirection of the forces sedimenting toxicity—affectively, materially, psychically, and socially. Our obligation is to understand how we are related to, benefiting or not by these sedimentations, and work against this distribution. We do this in Karrabing as best as we can. Going to my ancestral village could as well, but not by starting with a deracinated abstracted ancestral past but with a reflection on how it is related to an ongoing ancestral distribution. How do I, or it, work to help disrupt the relations of racism and settler colonialism of which I and it are by-products?’

'Glissant doesn’t ask for a purified return but an effort to actively intervene in the redirection of the forces sedimenting toxicity—affectively, materially, psychically, and socially'

Elisabeth Povinelli's 'The Inheritance', spread

—Vivian Ziherl It's exactly for this reason that I started working and talking about ‘the frontier’ in my curatorial work. I had an obligation towards Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, yet at the same time in Europe there was a lack of context and the real risk of a representational collapse. The frontier was a term that I mobilized curatorially in order to send a current through the exhibition field – prioritizing Indigenous knowledge and aesthetics based upon expertise, and at the same time situating the projects in local histories, investigating the ‘frontiers’ of our perception of aesthetics in art.

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘I think we can see the states of these differential relations most clearly in these frontier relations. But I guess I would ask you whether you think they're confined to the frontier regions?’

—Vivian Ziherl No, and in fact the intervention of using the frontier was a way to provide a frame for Dutch viewers, for example, to grasp their situatedness in encountering certain aesthetics. It was a tool that was trying to do exactly the work of saying:‘You are embedded in these places and that embeddedness is not separate from these histories, nor from how it feels to be with these images here and now, strange or familiar, comforting or disturbing, recognizable or otherwise.’

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘As a sort of internalised frontier?’

—Vivian Ziherl Yes, precisely. The project Frontier Imaginaries was, for example, dedicated to examining the frontier as an aesthetic phenomenon, as one that crosses oneself deeply. There's a passage in The Inheritance about your grandmother that captures that especially well:
‘Some said the war had left a permanent mark on your mind. I think that what you lost was not your mind but your world or, in losing your world, you lost the mind that made sense only there. The nerves of your entire being, thickly twined into the mountains and rivers of Carisolo, were sliced off, your language was lost in transit, your ways of caring for others characterized as abuse.’

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘My grandmother is, for me, the object lesson of The Inheritance. For me her life was an Aristotelian tragedy — not merely a history of what happened but what happens when one is dispossessed of their world. One of the hardest parts of composing The Inheritance was how to affectively convey this tragedy while at the same time placing it within Glissant’s poetics of relation, namely, the psychic subjective consequences of her dispossession in relation to the social worlds in which I lived and made sense of her stories. To somehow relate her presence to the white police a few neighbourhoods away from where I lived in the violently segregated city of Shreveport, Louisiana, who would break up black protests against segregation and racism.’

'One of the challenges I set for myself when I embarked on The Inheritance was how much of the affective-psychic forces of this story I could convey by image alone'

Elisabeth Povinelli's 'The Inheritance', spread

—Vivian Ziherl What really marks The Inheritance are the drawings. Given the personal nature of its storytelling, did this maneuverer into images somehow help to bring your own situated knowledge into focus?

—Elizabeth A. Povinelli ‘One of the challenges I set for myself when I embarked on The Inheritance was how much of the affective-psychic forces of this story I could convey by image alone. In particular I was trying to conjure inheritance as a melancholic obligation — a vicious commitment to the loss of an object that never existed. The book has a background presupposition that little Elizabeth’s subjectivity and psyche includes sedimentations of ancestral affects that came before she entered into language — she only subsequently refigured the affects of her parents and grandparents around the image of the map on the wall, and the image itself into linguistic sense.
In the first iteration of The Inheritance there were just, maybe, a hundred words. I was really interested whether people could, if not follow it exactly, nevertheless feel this disorientation at the heart of identification even as these disorientations ripple across racial and colonial infrastructures. One can just say it in written words, somewhat like I have just said it, but then one cannot enter into the disorienting relationship that comes into being when images are transferred: what can be seen but not said, what can be said but never seen. Seeing can open as wide a range of potential worlds as words. Answers in plain sight, if you know what you are looking for.’

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is a filmmaker and critical theorist. She received her PhD from Yale University in 1991 and is currently Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in New York. She has five books and numerous essays and publications to her name. She has worked with her indigenous colleagues in northern Australia for over 35 years and is a member of the Karrabing Film Collective.

Vivian Ziherl is a curator, researcher and critic, she currently works at Kunstinstuut Melly as Head of Research and Programme. She has collaborated with documenta 14, e-flux, Columbia University, the Van Abbemuseum and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. She participated in De Appel's Curatorial Program in 2010/2011 and is currently a PhD student at Monash University in Melbourne. Since 2015, she has been the founder and leader of the Frontier Imaginaries foundation.


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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023