On a hot, sunny day – 25 August 2020 – artist-author Season Butler met political scientist and philosopher Françoise Vergès on a patchy Skype call between Berlin and Paris.
So, I’m Season Butler and I do a lot of different kinds of jobs. And I think that’s similar to a lot of people my age and a lot of people who are in my position creatively. I generally say that I’m a writer (so as not to make a super long list that sounds like a conference bio); and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on intersectionality and how the intersectional matrix can inform creative writing practice as well as literary analysis.
And…let’s see…at the moment I’m in Berlin with some fairytale puffy clouds I can see out of my window and the red roof tops that I really associate with Germany.
And I feel like I’m hustling a lot creatively and professionally – like I’m doing lots of different kinds of jobs and trying to satisfy lots of different kinds of demands and desires more than having a single project or even a single creative field right now.
And I have a troubled relationship with academia. So I guess that’s normal.
Well, how can I introduce myself?
The thing that keeps me alive is the fight – the fight against injustice and inequality. That fight is what has guided me and continues to guide me.
Nowadays, I am a public educator, an activist, a writer and a member of the collective Decolonize the Arts. I grew up in Réunion Island and this has remained my archive, this “small island” where the French State imposed slavery, colonialism and is still dominating the island. When I arrived in France in the 1970s, I did many jobs before becoming a journalist and an editor in a feminist publishing house. I left France in 1983, went to the USA, worked in small jobs before going to the university and getting a Ph.D. I was an academic for a while, but did also other jobs. What else can I say? I love to cook. I’m very interested in cooking, which means that I’m interested in what people cook and how. When I travel I always go to markets. I’m also very interested in weaving and textiles, in their beauty, in the ability of humans to create something with colour and texture. I love to dance and to party.
Like you, I’m more interested in doing than in being in an institution. I want to remain a very curious person and academia often kills curiosity. I want to remain a curious person in every aspect of my life, always asking questions. I want to be disturbed. I want to be questioned.
How wonderful to meet you. I brought a couple of poems to our conversation and I wanted to read one to you by Danez Smith for starters. This is a piece of a poem called ‘summer, somewhere’ and it just feels so resonate with the boiling intensity of racial confrontation, which seems very visible in the summer from Martin Luther King’s reference to ‘the summer of our discontent’, and a lot of Langston Hughes’s imagery…sorry for the rambling analysis. I should just read it:
somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. I won’t get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy
color of a July well spent. but here, not earth
not heaven, boys can’t recall their white shirt
turned a ruby gown. here, there is no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
You’re very welcome.
So, I have to read one now?
If you’d like to. I would like it if you would.
OK. This one is from Aimé Césaire –
I was hoping you would choose one from Aimé Césaire
I think we’ve been deprived of kindness so much and for so long, and especially now with all that is happening in the world we need kindness.
So let me read and excerpt from New Kindness by Aimé Césaire:
to deliver the world to the assassins of dawn is out of the question
those who slap dusk in the face
roads hang from their flayer necks
like shoes too new
we’re not dealing with a rout
only the traps have been whisked away during the night
as for the rest
horses that have left nothing more in the ground
than their furious hoofprints
muzzles aimed with lapped-up blood
the unsheathing of the knives of justice
and of the inspired horns
of vampire birds their entire beaks lit up
but also breasts nursing rivers
and sweet calabashes in the hollows of offering hands
a new kindness is ceaselessly growing on the horizon.
Thank you so much.
I sent through some questions that I’m just interested in hashing through with you; were there any you were particularly drawn to?
Accepting your question is part of the art of conversation.
Yeah, for sure for sure.
I’m very interested in your idea of the Promethean way of life [‘the idea that “Man” can invent a mechanical, technical solution to triumph over any problem’]
and the potential of a post-Promethean way of life.
It just seems to me to be such a productive and emancipated shift from simplistic dualities. And so, it would be a real treat for me to be able to hear how you think about this distinction, and maybe how we might think about a post-Promethean recovery? From not just Covid-19, but also a very carceral white supremacy…the whole picture.
Well, European ‘conquest of the world’ is a story of murder, genocide and destruction in the name of “discovery,” science, progress and white supremacy. Promethean thinking drove European colonization and imperialism and is driving techno-racial capitalism, it’s motto is “extract everything from earth, air, seas, humans, accept no limits to expansion, do not mind about destruction and devastation, expand, expand, expand, dominate and exploit” and do it in the name of ‘civilization’. If we don’t overcome this thinking, I don’t think we will survive. I mean something will survive, some form of life, but – you know – it will not be human life.
The Promethean world is a world conceived as limitless, of endless extraction until the land is barren, the soil exhausted and people are famished, a world that trusts, embraces technological progress and science to resolve social, cultural and political problems created by this very logic, a world in which the engineer feels “he” does not need poetry or the art of weaving, a world where the economy of speed is king, where there is no place for the vulnerable, for the precarious, for the unexpected.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, and I find this very enlightening, racial capitalism is the fabrication of a differentiated vulnerability to premature death. Who died during the first part of the pandemic (and this is not finished): Black, indigenous and brown people, poor people. Why? Not only because they don’t have access to public health, but also because they have bad housing, bad jobs and high rates of co-morbidity – diabetes, heart problems, obesity –which are the result of racism but they had to work and were thus exposed to the virus. Their bodies were exposed, knowingly, to premature death.
The white body extracts his/her comfort from the exhausted black body, and when I say “black” here, I connect it to the logic of anti-Blackness. The white bourgeois body has access to good health, good food, good housing – jog in the morning, yoga class, avocado toast, send the kids to the swimming pool, do tennis, have access to good transportation, bike to work, go to a sex worker, go home and enjoy your family in a big safe home, not because of some better talent or expertise but because of the long history of plundering and extracting care. Millions of Black and brown bodies make this world possible.
The environmental crisis is not just about extracting wealth from the soil and forest, it’s also about extracting life-energy from the Black and brown body. Racism is the extraction of the life energy of black and brown people who have been denied full humanity. This is the Promethean world, of endless extraction and exploitation, made possible by racial capitalism. It leads to utter destruction, it is anti-human.
It looks like a science fiction movie where a few are sucking the blood and the flesh of million others.
What do we need as human beings?
We need clean air. We need to breathe. And this remark inevitably leads us to ‘I can’t breathe’ and Black Lives Matter. It takes us to police violence, to palliative care, to what I call the “economy” of exhaustion of Black and brown bodies, women and men, who are made to work until they are exhausted, sick, dying.
We need clean water. A human being cannot survive without water for more than a couple of days, and water has been privatised and polluted. There is practically no place in the global South today where you don’t need a plastic bottle if you want to drink clean water.
So, why and how are the basic needs for human life have been privatised and their production militarised? If not to increase vulnerability to premature death.
And the third thing we need is love – to be loved and to love, to be together.
The role of the artist-activist is to show what power is most afraid of, the power of imagination. It’s not enough to deprive people of water and air. The racist, sexist, capitalist system also seeks to deprive them of the power of imagination, of the possibility of imagining a peaceful world.
The right to imagine that there is an alternative.
So, though I cannot say exactly what the post-Promethean world will look like because that will inevitably construct a totalitarian vision, I will say that we have to imagine it, that we have to put all the power of our imagination into that. And that alternative forms and practices are imagined everyday.
The post-Promethean world belongs to the work of imagination what it would be to be human in the world with all our complexities and differences. Life, a fruitful life, is one that is not based on domination and exploitation.
The scattergun nature of the way that restrictions are imposed and lifted keep exposing the problems within the existing modes of entanglement and exploitation. About a month ago the shelter-in-place orders were lifted to the extent that people were now allowed to have domestic help come and go into their homes, but they were still advising keeping older people isolated. And so middle-class people could now have their cleaners come and go, but they weren’t allowed to visit their parents for example, and so whatever danger of exposure they might have posed to their parents in their 70s or 80s was sanctioned against, but the person coming in to clean (who is probably female and with caring responsibilities, who may or may not be documented, who is probably from Southern or Eastern Europe or from the global South, who may or may not have pre-existing conditions and may be in an age bracket of that makes her more vulnerable) – it’s fine to expose her.
And it was very interesting to see some of the public responses to this by white, middle-class professional women, who were trying to justify in feminist terms why it was important to have their cleaners come into their homes.
These inequalities were explained through the vocabulary of health and protection, but good health and protection for whom?
During the pandemic, the State forbade people to visit their elderly parents in the name of protection, but at the same time, it exposed black and brown women and men to the virus by asking them to go to work, to go clean individual homes and public spaces so the white bourgeois family would be living and circulating in spaces devoid of the virus. And then, the State put the responsibility of protection onto the individuals; if they don’t have protection, it was their own fault. It was the old colonial racist coding “these people have no hygiene, they don’t clean themselves; they live in dirty places,” as if dirtiness is not produced by race and class, let us just look at the neighbourhoods that are cleaned by public services and those that are not, those with green spaces, clean air, nice housing and those without. Some people deserve to be protected and others do not, they do not have the right to protection.
I’ve been working on a book which will be published this November on the need for an antiracist politics of protection. I look at how white bourgeois feminism has been giving to the state, to the police, to the tribunal and to the prison the role of protecting women from men’s violence, which is then explained in personal terms (“man is violent”). The politics of protection has been high jacked, captured, colonised by the militaristic racist state, by the police, by the industry of surveillance and control.
Women need to be protected from violence, from rape, they have the right to walk in the street at 3am. Okay, but this is not applicable to the migrants, to Black and brown people, to trans people, to sex workers. The city is not open to everyone, it has been built for the white bourgeois males and now white women want access to his space, fine, but do not call this freedom to be in the city, call it an extension of privilege.
So I asked myself: what will be anti-racist politics of protection? Because we do need protection – children, elderly people, sick, vulnerable people, people with disabilities—but as I said, protection has been thought for the white and the bourgeoisie, and white feminism has played a very important role in giving the militaristic racist and sexist state the mission to protect. Antiracist politics of protection means collective thinking, community self-defence, reparative justice, the abolition of prisons, the end of systemic violence.
There is no capitalism without constant daily violence, insidious, cunning or open, cracking the head, suffocating, killing or slowly destroying the body and the psyche.
If you look at the history of violence, violence that stole land, deprived people of their language, their culture, their way of life…Its promise is “if you can kill, you can survive. Show your ability to murder without hesitation, to see life as cheap and you will survive.” Under colonialism, violence was saturating life, under neoliberalism, violence saturates life. Violence saturates every aspect of our life, capitalist needs to expand and consume. Places, forests, seas, rivers, mountains, bodies, ideas, art must be colonised and consumed.
There is this form of violence that drives me crazy when kids who go to school will hear, day after day, you are stupid, the story of your ancestors does not exist, who see their mother coming home exhausted, their father being humiliated, commodities everywhere to which they do not have access but which are shown as the measure of existence, if you have them, you will “exist,” if you don’t have them, you don’t. That violence is incommensurable.
To be human in the world means getting rid of a world that does not care for life, real life.
I have a bit of an agenda, something I want to reach for in my practice, this question about art work and raising expectations. It’s so essential that we reject the capitalist realism of ‘there is no alternative.’ So I think about that in relation to the conventions of fiction writing
that I’ve been acculturated to and that are quite naturalised for me, conventions that focus on conflict, triumph and the individual. And so I’m trying to negotiate an ambition to write fiction that makes the reader feel that the world is transformable and that it is possible to take back agency.
Yet I’m struggling to do that elegantly. I have some hope that continuing my personal decolonisation and emancipation as a human and as a worker, and I wondered if you have and thoughts or tips for me in this endeavour.
Agency is the capacity of the writer to say this is possible…to make us dream.
The world is transformable. Decolonisation is not just about a world outside there, a world outside but also about myself. It’s not just about teaching people to be decolonised. It’s a commitment to co-educate myself with people, to decolonise ourselves together, to away from the psycho-narcissistic tone of self-help literature.
With being an agent comes the reality that sometimes we fail, but that’s okay. Acknowledging the difficulty is part of the possibility.
For instance, I’ve been reading a book by a woman born in Sri Lanka who had lost her parents, her companion, two young children during the 2004 tsunami.
Wave [by Sonali Deraniyagala]?
Yes. The way she describes loss. Over two years she cannot sleep because she’s afraid that when she wakes up, she will remember [the 2004 Tsunami].
Its reading was very important because it reminded me that loss, death and mourning can be sometimes impossible to process, some form of madness is acceptable. There is no need to avoid it. You know you have to go through the darkness. The Promethean will seek mastery, will seek technological fixes or undergo a week of meditation somewhere and overcome this. I disagree.
The long process is very important. We must be able to say, yeah, it takes time.
The element of time seems essential. Over the years, I’ve watched the ascendancy of certain right-wing factions through multiple failures in the UK. They try and fail, and they’re a joke and they’re ridiculed in the mainstream press, and they try and fail and then make a little gain and then try and fail and then they make a little bit more gain. People I saw being ridiculed daily when I first moved to the UK twenty years ago are now commanding the political agenda.
I was having a conversation recently with some comrades who wanted to have a meeting about utopias, questioning whether, in the current context, maybe we shouldn’t even talk about utopia. I felt that during crises we have to keep our expectations high. If you don’t want to use the word ‘utopia,’ fine, but now is not the time to back down and say that will accept less.
While we’re debating whether we dare ask for a four-day work week, does Donald Trump ever think, ‘do I dare to abolish the Postal Service?’ Is it possible to go around the country and just remove mailboxes?’ He doesn’t ask what’s possible. He just acts audaciously to consolidate the power of himself and his class.
Yeah. He does.
The politics of respectability are a trap, it tells us that if we are gracious, nice and polite, right-wing and racist/sexist people will listen to us. No. The more polite we are the more likely they will continue to beat us. Every time we speak loudly, we are said to be negative or to embody the angry Black woman or the angry Muslim and that may keep us from raising our voices. Maybe the oppressors are not raising their voices but they are killing people. So we have to raise our voice, we have to be impolite and to also be indifferent to the seductive part of power, because indifference to their love of power drives them crazy. Drives them crazy. We have to be impolite, “kill joy feminists” as Sara Ahmed said, we have to be in their face. We have to be utopian.
The women and men who fought from the first day of their capture on the road to enslavement, from the first day of enslavement, in the barracks, in the slave ships, in the plantations, never said: “oh, this struggle is too difficult, we cannot go on.” Never! Their thinking was utopian. At a time when slavery was natural as day and night, supported by the Church, the law, the culture, and the economy, they dared to say “No!,” they dared to see beyond slavery, to hold freedom as a possibility. “Some day, we will be free! Some day! We will never stop fighting.” They said no, slavery is not normal or natural. There is no justification. They were so audacious! Utopian thinking is like this, to say: yes, freedom will come, even when everything says otherwise.
I hadn’t thought about indifference, and I think that’s so important.
I’d like to read you one more poem and hear one more from you. Okay?
This morning he told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, like screaming? He says, No, like abandon.
This is by a poet named Rachel Long from her collection My Darling from the Lions.
This poem is by a young South African poet, Koleka Putuma. She talks about water and, you know, I come from an island, so water is very important. How water has been portrayed as something that is not there, within post-colonial discourse that focuses so much on land. Water is what brought slave ships and armies…
Every time our skin goes under
The reeds remember that they were once chains
And the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves and ships onto shore
Whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk
Their tears are what have turned the ocean salty
This is why our irises burn every time we go under
Every December sixteenth, December 24th and December 31st
Our skin traumatises the sea
They mock us
For not being able to throw ourselves into something that was instrumental in trying to execute our extinction
For you, the ocean is for surf boards, boats and tans
And all the cool stuff you do under there in your suits and goggles
But we, we come to be baptised here
We have come to stir the other world here
We have come to cleanse ourselves here
We have come to connect our living to the dead here
Our respect for water is what you have termed fear
The audacity to trade and murder us over water
Then mock us for being scared of it
The audacity to arrive by water and invade us
If the land was really yours then resurrect the bones of the colonisers and use them as a compass
Then quit using black bodies as tour guides or the site for your authentic African experience
Are we not tired of dancing for you?
Gyrating and singing on cue
Are we not tired of gathering as a mass of blackness to atone for just being here
To beg God to save us from a war we never started
To March for a cause caused by the intolerance for our existence
Raise our hands so we don’t get shot
Raise our hands in church to pray for protection
And we still get shot there too
With our hands raised
Invasion comes naturally for your people
So you have come to rob us of our places of worship too
Come to murder us in prisons too
That is not new either
Thank you. And thank you for the conversation. You have given so much to think about.