Trans-Waters: Coalitional Thinking on Art & Environment with Adela C. Licona and Eva S. Hayward

December 17, 2014
by Eric Magrane

As the fifth in an ongoing series of cross-posts with A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, this Proximities features a conversation between the University of Arizona’s Adela C. Licona and Eva S. Hayward. Licona and Hayward’s collaborative photo essay—written in a form they present as a type of experimental “coalitional thinking”—gets at links between environmental degradation and issues of social justice, between climate change and racism, between dead fish and desolation, between personal loss and liminal thinking and seeing, and between multi-species solidarities and decomposition.

This piece takes place in two (physical and web) locations: The Salton Sea here in Proximities, and Guaymas, Sonora, in

                                                    -Eric Magrane

Adela C. Licona is Associate Professor & Director, UA Graduate Program in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English and affiliated faculty in Gender & Women’s Studies, Family Studies & Human Development, Institute of the Environment, and Mexican American Studies. She serves on the Faculty Advisory Committee for the Institute for LGBT Studies. She co-edited Feminist Pedagogy: Looking Back to Move Forward (JHUP 2009) and authored Zines In Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric (SUNY Press 2012). Licona is co-director of Crossroads Collaborative and co-founder of Feminist Action Research in Rhetoric (FARR). She serves on the board for Women’s Studies in Communication, QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, and Orion Magazine.

Eva S. Hayward is an assistant professor in Gender & Women's Studies at the University of Arizona. Hayward was hired as part of the Transgender Studies initiative underway at the university. Her research focuses on aesthetics, environmental and science studies, and transgender theory. She has recently published articles in Cultural Anthropology, differences, Parallax, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Women and Performance. Her book, SymbioSeas, on underwater representations and trans-species “mediations,” is forthcoming from Penn State University Press.

Trans~ as Coalitional

What follows is a gathering of notes, incomplete journal entries, photographs, and stories that illustrate how coalitional thinking might begin. A thought here, then a reflection, perhaps a question that prompts another story, and some illustrations help get at shared insights, and probably a walk full of pointing and talking: coalition is a trans~ knowledge. Translation, transfiguration, transformation, trans-differentiation, and transcription: the prefix trans~ promises movements across, but never without holding tightly to the locations that it is moving from. Trans~ is a prefix that is prepositional – it is a crossing of spacetime, a movement within relationship. As such, trans~ materializes the process of movements; trans~ marks the where-ness of with-ness. We might say trans~ is moving-mattering, foregrounding political lines and possibilities, and refusing to dissolve difference in favor of recognizing coalitional modes of emergence as possibilities.

Trans~Waters marks, here, are shared commitments to the environment, anti-racism, and trans~ knowledges. We mean this work to be a glimpse into a rather preliminary exchange between colleagues and friends who are getting to know one another and recognizing affinities. We are deeply troubled by environmental injustices that play themselves out always unevenly in bodies of water, bodies of knowledges and histories, our human and more-than-human bodies, and the Earth. How do we understand the mutual natures of ecological violences and modes of racism? Can a trans~ heuristic (a way of knowing through trans~) provide insights into environmental injustice? How are our differently marked bodies and histories entry points into understanding and acting on ecological problems? As such, this composition should be read as a transaction. A start.  A possibility.

The Salton Sea

From the neritic to the oceanic pelagic and their subtending benthic zones, most of blue planet’s life resides therein. The vast majority of its biomass is composed of organisms too infinitesimal for our primate eyes to see: generally zooplankton and phytoplankton, specifically diatoms, dinoflagellates, radiolarians, and other minute biota. Seawater is replete with micro-viruses, bacteria, and endless cycles of decay and regeneration. The ocean’s fathoms are a rich proto-plasma, a life~death~life soup; the water formed nearly three billion years ago is still with us. These briny waters are pungent layers of time, pulsing temporalities that gather deep, deep histories, histories of ongoing ex-, intra-, and interchange.

It was an accident. Like me. Only she told me – again and again – that I was not an accident but, rather, a surprise. The accident of the Salton Sea another contradiction. It was intended to feed – quench the thirst of the farming areas around it. Instead, they fed it. Poison. Pesticides. I close my eyes. Recall Heroes and Saints[i]. I inhale the salt. Feel it on my skin. Too much. I imagine the ghosts as dancing souls.[ii] Doing the undoing dance. Desolation. The haunted poetics and performances of and beyond the Imperial Valley. The undoing of false promises. Evidence in the stench of environmental degradation. It stinks. Dispossessions. Dislocations. Disease. Greed. Racism. The always-limited, limiting promise of prosperity. I stand on covered-over histories and the creation of an underground community of past peoples suffocated in too much water and salt. Water and food injustice.  Invisible. Peoples still here. Invisible. Dead fish. Infected birds. Abundant flies. Evaporites. Silence. Except for the buzz.

Racism is an environmental catastrophe. Is climate change. Racisms are the toxic by-product of the industry called racial thinking and un-thinking. If some of the effects of race—the fantasy attached to what race is thought to be—works at the level of melancholia, then racism might be also understood as a deadly ambivalence or refusal to see how race is at work in our lives.[iii] In 2015, it is already redundant to use the phrase “environmental racism” because ecological crises are so often the end result of genealogies of racism, and are unequally experienced across racialized demographics. The disproportionate impact of environmental pollution in Arizona, for instance, is felt most by the poor, by Chican@s/Latin@s, by migrants, and by Native populations. The injustices associated with chemical runoff, clean water access, waste disposal, and resource development/use have turned questions about the environment into racial politics. Why are so many environmental groups not talking about the racialization of ecological crises? The inability to address racism parallels our inability to attend to climate change—the effect of this inability for some, an ambivalence or refusal by some to pay attention has become unlivable for the majority on this planet. Perhaps instead of thinking of the Earth as only our mother, those with the means might do better to see that they/we have treated the Earth as an unwelcomed guest, alienated. They/we have built a policed border between “us” and the Earth, turning the Earth into alienated labor that makes everything possible without planetary accountability.  The we that has benefited the most from Earth-alienating power might do well to see ourselves (non-ambivalently) as hostile to our host and inhospitable to fellow earthlings.

Flies flew into and out of my mouth, ears, eyes. It took hours to get them out of the car. The stench. The horrible, terrible beauty. The teeming bird life. The unseen botulism. Avian botulism. Hidden. Deep. The horror driven into the bloodstreams of the birds. Like the plastics now swimming through us that she has taught me about. Penetrating. I am walking on scales. Scales of injustice as evidence of the uneven burdens and atrocities of abundance. Beautiful stinking death. I lick my lips and taste salt. Too much salt. Imagine eating salted flies.

These skeletal remains, this salty decay, remind me of the film titled Salt of the Earth (1954). A New Mexico town, Zinc Town (known before this Anglo-fied name as San Marcos) is exposed as yet another place of economic inequality and racism. Miners resist their exploitation in revealing what forces compose these mines. Which bodies are denied their full humanity so that they may be abused, capitalized upon, and killed. In 1954, in the Southwest, we already knew that humanness was not yet available to all humans. What a strange symptom of racism (more evidence of its melancholic state?) that we talk about post-humanism in 2014. It is not that we have made humanness a more available category in sixty years, but that those whose humanness was already certain (say, white, able-bodied, men) are in the luxurious position of sloughing off their humanity. Too harsh? To me, to my AIDS body that is a hostel for ongoing, temporally stable, and the effects of opportunistic infections causes by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, post-humanism is the state of illness, is the consequence of institutionalized violence against trans~ women, and not a new interpretive that holds promise. Post-humanism implies a privilege of having been human; implies a racing, sexing, and classing ethos that cannot see itself as such. Post-humanism is a pretense of not already understanding humanness as a trans-, re-, and decomposing. 

I am here to bear witness to the desolation. To experience the barren place others’ photos have made manifest for me. An inland sea. An Imperial Sea. Empire. Meant to mirror Palm Beach. I am looking for a dry seabed of my imagination with an old chair situated where water used to be with seaweed wrapped around its legs. Instead I see seawater stretching to the horizon. Sun touched. Glistening. Rather beautiful. But where sandy beaches should be, I stand only on dead fish. No sand.  It was the Salton Sink. Stink. Now the Salton Sea. And it is eerie. I am moved to a closer look. And I’m horrified. Disgusted and drawn in. At once. How to see differently? Underneath. A Nation? Submerged under too much salt? Another accident of colonialism. Settler colonialism. Ongoing. I read that Tilapia might survive here. But only maybe. Tilapia. Birds. Botulism. Salt and pesticides. Toxic soup. For the birds. The poor. The first peoples below. The water carrying these toxic histories. Bountiful, beautiful bacteria and algae blooms as noxious adornments. So pretty. Earthquakes and toxins. More profound permeations into the earth with each tectonic shift. Mutations. It was supposed to be a playground for the wealthy. But only those who could not get away remain. The fish and the birds. And the flies and the algae. And the changing water. Kissing the gleaming horizon. Dead fish smells. Rotting fish. And flies. And flying birds. And ghosts. And some people I don’t see in what’s left of a resort that never was. She would tell me it was never meant to be. And still, like me, and like her, it is. In us. All of us. Unequally so.  

To see environmental crisis as racism is not to foreclose the voices of other species. That human-ness has never been certain (even for those who have been sure theirs was) underscores sites of solidarity (I love that solidarity carries solid-ness) across (trans-) rather than after (post-) species. Solidarity does not require identification (as is part of melancholia), but a willful act of alliance. Let us put aside post-humanism and its tools of “becoming animal,” as effects of power writing about itself, and re-orient the critique of humanism toward multispecies solid-arities, trans-differentiations, and de-composings. Too often toward materiality (as seen in New Materialism), to the bumptious liveliness of matter are efforts to deracinate life, to depoliticize worldliness. What would an ardently materialist eco-critical race politics look like?  

Continue to Guaymas in

[i] Moraga, Cherrie. Heroes and Saints and Other Plays. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1994.

[ii] Yamauchi, Wakako. “And the Soul Shall Dance.” Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. 214.

[iii] Cheng, Anne Anling. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Photos by Adela C. Licona.
View more photos by Adela C. Licona: Uncarnival in Guaymas: Encountering the Unexpected and Matters of Scale: The Haunted Ecosystem of the Salton Sea
Adela and Eva want to thank Francisco Galarte for providing editorial insights and encouragement and Jamie A. Lee for generously reading early drafts of this essay.