“Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”: Lecture by Lilya Kaganovsky – Response by Erin Cheslow (English)

[On February 3, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Distinguished Faculty Lecture “Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe” by Professor Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Cinema and Media Studies). Below is a response by Erin Cheslow (English).]

Memory’s Gaze: Lilya Kaganovsky on 1960s Soviet Film, Trauma, and Memory
Written by Erin Cheslow (English)

Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”

Lyolya and Dimitry attempt to comprehend the consequences. (Nine Days of One Year, Kaganovsky Presentation)

“Cut Off.”That is how Lilya Kaganovsky described the lives portrayed in 1960s Soviet cinema in her Unit for Distinguished Faculty Lecture on February 3, 2020. Opening with an image of Lyolya and Dmitry – lovers in Mikhail Romm’s 1962 film, Nine Days of One Year  – facing away from one another as they attempt to comprehend the consequences of nuclear testing, Dr. Kaganovsky argues that Romm’s cinema “raised questions of science, technology, memory, and forgetting” in an attempt to work through the Soviet past.



As Kaganovsky will show, Lyolya is the most able to see the effects of the past in the present. Her gaze humanizes those she sees, complicating nuclear progressivism by locating it alongside the traumas of the past. In Nine Days of One Year, Romm broke with the conventions of Soviet cinema to work through the trauma of previous generations who lived through Stalinism and World War II. Unable to understand or recreate the events of the past, those born after the war still feel a responsibility for the past. Kaganovsky borrows Marianne Hirsch’s “postmemory,” “a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation,” to describe the fragmentation that “characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narrative that preceded their birth.” One of only a few films to address atomic power and nuclear annihilation, Nine Days of One Year enacts postmemory to locate the past firmly in the present. Lyolya, though in many ways a flat character with no last name or clear job description, sees what others cannot—the horror that underpins scientific study and an incessant drive toward an imagined future.

Before delving into the complexities of Romm’s work, however, Kaganovsky provided an overview of Soviet film in the Thaw period (approximately 1956-1967). Each of the films she mentions, meant to be representative of Soviet cinema of the period, is located firmly in the present. A series of images pulled from the films show scenes from daily life, with characters “seemingly caught up in the contemporaneity of the present.” One couple is caught in a rainstorm, while a man in another film sits in the background reading a newspaper and another stands relaxed at an airport. Although these scenes may seem everyday and relatable, they are so completely “unsaturated” by history that they project a kind anomie, or “a feeling that the characters live lives unconnected to the outside world, to history, or to the previous generation.” Indeed, as one character in the 1967 film, July Rain, tells another, “Yes, we are cut off, and the link with the outside world is broken.” Without links to history, Thaw cinema is characterized by loss; there is no closure, no comprehension, no memory.

Romm’s later films break with this kind of realism and the Stalinist Realism of his earlier work to explore the relationship between past and present, traumatic memory and postmemory. In a film released three years after Nine Days of One Year, Ordinary Fascism (1965), the gaze of children and of Auschwitz survivors provides a framework for understanding Lyolya’s gaze in the earlier film. Romm transposes images of children’s drawings and the faces of young children with images of violence to create a sense of traumatic disjuncture. In one scene, as described by Kaganovsky, a series of children’s drawings of cats and other “innocent” images is followed by images of Moscow mothers and their children. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a mother and child being shot by a Nazi soldier, accompanied by the sound of a gunshot. Yet another image is shown, that of a child in her mother’s arm, staring directly at the camera.

The child’s eyes, looking back at us, reflect those of the victims of Auschwitz,

A child gazes into the camera after the gunshot (Ordinary Fascism, Kaganovsky’s Presentation)

which paper the walls of the barracks that Romm walked through on the last day of filming. The halls, badly lit, do not afford a good view of the pictures, but each face holds something that Romm can’t identify. Each is defiant or scared, full ofhatred or submission, but that is not all. Everywhere, there are eyes, and each contains death. Romm recognized the need to transfer the death look to the screen, to create a cinematographic form of history through the gaze. For him, no one looking at those eyes could stay detached from history. “The eyes are still looking; the eyes are still looking at us.” The violence may be over, but it continues to resonate in the present. The gaze is a kind of postmemory.


Ordinary Fascism ends with more images of children, this time those of the peacetime generation. It remains unfinished, never showing any finalizing events like the death of Hitler or the end of the war. According to Kaganovsky, “Facism has not been defeated. The cancer has been cut out, but the metastasis is still spreading. The west is marked as genocidal,” linking the Holocaust with the threat of nuclear annihilation at the center of Nine Days of One Year.

Drawing on the French film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which Romm found distasteful for its graphic imagery of the victims of the atom bomb but also described as a “magnificent lesson in montage,” Romm produced Nine Days of One Year to challenge the notion that science is politically neutral, an innocuous way into the future. The film features two male physicists… and the woman who loves them. Though she is engaged to one, when the other becomes irradiated, she marries the latter. Though she seems to be nothing more than an object of desire, Lyolya introduces a human element. The men push physics beyond human limits at the cost of human lives, and she watches it all happen. Her gaze comes to reveal and work against the cost of human “perfection” gained through science and technology.

There is no moment in which science could be turned back and used only for good. Nine Days, Dmitry explains that once an idea exists, it cannot be unthought. Even if destroyed, it will be discovered again. Cheslow_Kaganovsky_Image3Yet, it is Dmitry who is irradiated and dies for such ideas. The philosophical debate is made real when we see his eyes, gazing through the viewfinder during a test of the nuclear technology, anticipating those Romm will see at Auschwitz. Like the eyes of the victims, Dmitry’s hold death.

As Lyolya gazes at Dmitry gazing into the viewfinder, she sees death where he sees scientific advancement. Her eyes reflect the horror that underpins scientific study, bringing past and future into the present as a narrative of destruction. Like Ordinary Fascism, the film ends with a child’s drawing. The crude stick figures point to the inability to turn away from history and take comfort in fantasy. The present is always saturated with the past.

Response and Q&A

In her brief response to Kaganovsky’s lecture, Brett Kaplan, a professor of Comparative and World Literature, brought together current events and French cinema to highlight the relevance of postmemory and the struggle to portray traumatic events. From German and Soviet death camps to the camps currently operating on the US/Mexican border, the resonances of fascism are undeniable, yet differences must be maintained. The past does not repeat; it moves. It lives, returning to us in the montage of traumatic flash back. As seen in films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Nine Days of One Year, memory leaves a trace, but only a trace, as it attempts to contend with histories that burn away the very possibility of memory. These cinematic attempts to access the past align victimization and perpetration through the effects of the gaze. Evoking Jacques Derrida’s use of the trace, Kaplan showed how traumatic landscapes are embedded in history and in memory. The present contains the shadows of the past.

The first question in the Q&A followed on Kaplan’s interest in the intersections of victimization and perpetration, in the hopes of unpacking that alignment. Kaganovsky responded, “Ordinary Fascism is a film about forcing us to look, forcing us to see, forcing us to identify ourselves both with the victims and with the perpetrators. In Nine Days, the gaze that is joined in Ordinary Fascism is split by the man who is both victim and perpetrator.”

Most of the remaining questions focused on the contrast between Romm’s aesthetics and those of Hollywood films and other films that portrayed the Holocaust. Kaganovsky noted the distinct differences between a Soviet anti-bourgeois aesthetic and a Hollywood aesthetic targeted at a bourgeois audience, but she also pointed to the similarities with other Holocaust films that were coming from the same kind of impulse.

Toward the end of our time, one audience member asked Kaganovsky to speak more about the gendering of Lyolya’s witnessing. Though she is a seemingly flat character, she is also the only character given an interiority through voiceovers. Much like the children in Ordinary Fascism, she is removed from the events, but she is able to witness them, to remember them. Through the woman’s gaze, postmemory becomes possible. Only she can see history unfolding into the present.

“Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”: Lecture by Lilya Kaganovsky – Response by Brett Kaplan

[On February 3, 2020 the Unit Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Distinguished Faculty lecture “Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe” by Professor Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Cinema and Media Studies). Below is a response by Professor Brett Kaplan (HGMS/CWL).]

Response to Lilya Kaganovsky’s lecture “Nine Days in One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”
Written by Brett Kaplan (HGMS/CWL)

Loose hips, bare feet, a slight slouch, flashback, close-up, the long pan, the fish-eye lens: Soviet thaw cinema, as Lilya describes it, exercises bodily and cinematic means in the wrestle to bring to the fore the saturation by the past of the present. The new bodily freedoms reflect a kind of liberation in tension with the shackles to multiple traumatic pasts: the Holocaust, the Atomic bomb, the vast numbers of Soviet dead in WW II. The fragmentations, the montages, the temporal disjunctions that often accompany this cinema speak to the struggle to convey traumatic events. As Lilya phrases it, her story is about “the relationship between WWII, the Holocaust and nuclear catastrophe that has yet to be articulated for Soviet cinema.” By gazing back at the eyes of Auschwitz and the complicities of witnessing, Lilya’s work articulates those interconnections for this 1960s cinematic moment. “The eyes of Auschwitz,” she says, “implicated the viewer, reminding them that besides Nazi concentration camps there were also Soviet prison camps and besides the cult of Hitler, there was also the cult of Stalin.” We might add, taking our cue from Romm’s understanding of the persistence of the past in the present, besides Soviet prison camps there are also, on our Southern border, right now, camps to detain immigrants; off the coast of Cuba a Naval Base holds prisoners without trial; we witness extra-judicial killings of foreign generals; and our president has just effectively been absolved of all crimes, without a trial, without witnesses, without evidence. Indeed, we might now, again taking our cue from the persistence of the past in the present see with Romm how “despite the fall of the 3rd Reich, fascism as a concept has not been defeated.” We see everywhere, from the goose-stepping Heil Hitler saluting white supremacists at Charlottesville to the guy in California who filled his front yard with a massive concrete swastika to the adoration for Trump and complete absence of resistance from within the Republican party two days before he will doubtless be acquitted echoes of Hitlerian fascism. While as William Connolly and others have argued, these resonances are undeniable, important differences must of course be maintained.

As Elaine Scarry brings to our attention in Thermonuclear Monarchy, Nixon, at the Watergate hearings, asked his lawyer to present him as “absolute a monarch as Louis XIV… and…not subject to the processes of any court in the land.” Scarry demonstrates in terrifying detail the absolute nature of the power a U.S. president has over mass nuclear destruction, the disinterest in listening to other nations who may argue against our vast nuclear arsenal and the ease with which it can be activated.

The past does not repeat. It lives and moves with its loose hips and bare feet and comes back at us through the indelible montage of the traumatic flashback.

Romm’s Nine Days of One Year appeared three years after a film that both influenced it and shaped it through reaction-formation. Both films tell the story of love triangles. In Romm’s text all the lovers exist simultaneously in the then-present whereas in Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour the love triangle evolves in multiple temporal dimensions. In the present of the film, 1957, Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), is a French actress who fell in love with a German soldier during World War II and Lui (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect marked indelibly by the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. While in the present the actress and the architect have an affair in Hiroshima, the German lover becomes the third stretch of the love triangle. The backdrop revolves around Elle’s performance as a nurse in a film about the bombing so we see mediated reproductions of the victims of the bomb. Very much like the direct addresses Lilya discusses, Resnais includes scenes where “victims” (or rather, actors playing victims) stare directly at the camera, challenging us to see the effects of nuclear catastrophe, challenging us to not turn our gazes away in disgust.  The architect draws out the memories of the past story of complicity and love between the French actress and the German soldier as the current lovers play out their present through their pasts and superimpose one upon the other ceaselessly.

Kaplan 1

The very structure of the famous and enduring image of the entwined bodies of the lovers near the beginning of Hiroshima mon amour insists on a turning of victimization into something else: ashes into sweat, memory into stark present.  Cathy Caruth, through reading Derrida and Freud, locates “a history that burns away the very possibility of conceiving memory, that leaves the future itself, in ashes” (2013, 81). The stunning image of the ashed lovers functions as an apt metaphor for the “burning up” of memory itself in the aftermath of catastrophe and as the image threads its way through our imaginaries it provides a space through which to unpack the indelible nature of memory as trace.

The striking images of the couple’s embrace set the scene for the film’s exploration of memory and victim and perpetrator traumas by rendering the lovers as almost indistinguishable; race and gender disappears, initially, as they hold each other, encased in ash. As they embrace, something gently falls on them, encrypts them, isolates them from their surroundings but simultaneously embeds them in their respective histories. Even though Duras specifies that the two should be “racialement, etc., éloignés le plus qu’il est possible de l’être” (1960, 11) the racial difference between them remains unstable, and the ash visually erases their shared trauma. If, for Derrida, ash becomes the paradigm for the trace, we can see how this image becomes the paradigm for memory as Hiroshima mon amour unspools its threads and rejects an either/or memory or forgetting when it is a question of traumatic pasts. The film revisits this powerful scene by cinematically underscoring this very superimposition many times, including the catalyzing moment when a traumatic flashback metamorphoses the hand of the Japanese lover into the hand of the dead German soldier, and the intercutting of the traumatic landscapes of Nevers and Hiroshima.

Lilya points out that Romm found Hiroshima mon amour’s “juxtaposition of the burnt bodies of the victims of Hiroshima with those of the two lovers distasteful and offensive” but that he also adapted the films “magnificent lessons in montage.” The magnificence of the montage in Hiroshima mon amour happens through the temporal and aesthetic shifts between the present moment, saturated with coming to terms with the bombing, and the past, during the war, saturated with love for an enemy soldier, a soldier implicated in if not avowedly a supporter of the Nazi genocide.

Invited to make a feature-length film about the bombing of Hiroshima after his groundbreaking early Holocaust documentary Nuit et Brouillard (1955), which expanded the international scope of Holocaust memory, Resnais famously struggled; only when Duras agreed to write the script did the project soar. Duras was brought in to the scripting of Hiroshima in order not to remake Nuit et Brouillard into a film about the atomic bomb. Thus, as Lilya explains Romm’s stacking of the Holocaust with the bomb with the war, we see can just catch the nearly invisible trace of Nuit et Brouillard on Hiroshima. The ashes at the beginning of the film, then, metaphorize both the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and carry the trace of the ashes of the crematorium during the Nazi genocide. Becoming more and more convinced that one could not make a documentary about the bomb, Duras’s script was meant to be a “love story…in which the atomic agony would not be absent” (Armes, 1968, 66). This entwinement in ash gives way to the bodies covered in sweat that then yields to successively clear bodies. Lovers emerge from the ash as if filming Pompeii backwards. Resnais notes that “Dans Hiroshima, le début n’est pas seulement une représentation du couple, c’est une image poétique. Et la cendre sur les corps, ça ne se réfère à aucune réalité anecdotique, c’est une pensée” (1960, 938). The poetic image, the thought (pensée) that Resnais imagines here, is expressly not meant to refer to any identifiable “real” and yet it affectively carries the weight of the bomb, the Shoah, and the memoryscapes of impossible pasts. The intense proximity of the pair makes it initially impossible to separate the bodies because the film equally gazes at them through the ash as victims but this common victimization changes polarities throughout, thus visually underscoring the film’s eschewing of any simple assumption of innocence and guilt. Hiroshima mon amour thus employs the language of ash to demonstrate the aftereffects of war on those aligned with victimization and perpetration.

When Hiroshima mon amour was set the expectation would have been that everyone who survived the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would carry (literally) in their bones radiation and figuratively the ineradicable past nuclear catastrophe; but they might also be weighed down by the fear of a possible future apocalypse.[i] It remains unclear, because we are not granted much of his consciousness, whether the Japanese architect in Hiroshima mon amour suffers from PTSD or stoically moved on from his experience of victimization, perhaps because that experience was shadowed by his role in fighting with the Axis powers? This remains an open, intriguing question that the film staunchly refuses to answer.

The voice-offs that inaugurate the dialogue and dialectical nature of Hiroshima mon amour offer a long series of negations that speak to the impossibility of witnessing and/or fully remembering the experience of victimization. As Elle’s voice-off claims to see the hospital at Hiroshima, the image discloses people in the hospital looking directly at the camera so her claim on vision becomes deflected back at the unnamed hospitalized injured. She then asserts that she saw the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum four times, as if the layering of visits could turn her into a witness. But Duras also has Elle observe keenly the way that the visitors to the museum imbibe these reconstructions. By thus reminding us of the mediations of memory, Duras and Resnais underscore the memory of nuclear catastrophe that goes beyond individual psyches: thus, that Elle could not have remembered directly is evident—she was in France at the time the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, but that she remembers in a more global sense is also underscored. In other words, the structure of the negations explains the unstable nature of postmemorial witnessing. By issuing these negations Duras and Resnais highlight the inherent impossibility of true witnessing, all we can do is embrace under the rain of ash. As Primo Levi famously asserted “we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses”—only those who perished in the worst can be said to be witnesses and this assertion met by negation puts this truth into play (2004, 63).

Lilya argues that in Nine Days of One Year the differences between “the scientific methods of Nazi Germany and the development of the atomic and nuclear weapons (not only by the US but also by the USSR)” effectively dissolve and that there is “no moment in which science could be turned back or used only for good.” Lilya’s work powerfully illuminaties the shadows of the past as they emerge through the luminosity of Romm’s films and situates this temporal loosening within the larger questions at play: how can we adapt to the speed of our own scientific discoveries without destroying our planet and how can we find the traces of the past to avoid treading too closely with our loose hips and bare feet in its often treacherous pathways.

Professor Louise Meintjes (Music and Cultural Anthropology, Duke) lecture “Audible Africanity: Ululation in Popular Music” at the School of Music – Response by Ian Nutting (Ethnomusicology)

[On October 18, 2019 Professor Louise Meintjes (Music and Cultural Anthropology, Duke) gave a lecture titled “Audible Africanity: Ululation in Popular Music” at the School of Music. Below is a response by Ian Nutting (Ethnomusicology)]

Schizophonic Mimetic Loops and Soundings from the Global South
Written by Ian Nutting (Ethnomusicology)

Drawing on the ethnographic work done for her 2017 book Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics after Apartheid (winner of the 2018 Alan Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology and the 2018 Gregory Bateson Prize from the Society for Cultural Anthropology), ethnomusicologist Louise Meintjes is beginning to explore a sounded phenomenon known as ululation, a high-pitched trilling heard in a variety of forms across a multiplicity of particular cultural contexts in the Global South. Meintjes has recently written a chapter on the potential significance of ululation in the 2019 volume Remapping Sound Studies, but in her presentation at UIUC, she was more interested in teasing out the global feedback loops of Zulu ululation in popular music.

Whether you know it or not, you are most likely no stranger to ululation. Listen to the ululating in this scene from Black Panther, or check out the last 30 seconds of Pray For Me by The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar off the album inspired by the movie. Meintjes pointed to a set of EDM patches for sale called “Zulu Warriors vol. 1” that contains more than 50 ululation loops, both “wet and dry” (with and without effects). In these EDM patches, the sound of ululation has been ripped from its particular culturally meaningful context and sampled, spliced, looped, distorted, and reverbed across the globe, in many cases without consideration for the particular Zulu bodies that sounded the ululation. In effect, a particular kind of ululation, or ululating aesthetic, has been abstracted, commodified, and canned as the exotic sound of Africanity. This separation and recontextualization is a paradigmatic example of what ethnomusicologist and anthropologist Steven Feld called “shizophonic mimesis.”

Meintjes described ululation in the context of a Zulu men’s song and dance called ngoma, the performance of which is a form of participatory community politics. During ngoma, ululation is performed mostly by mature women, sometimes simply on the sidelines of the men’s performance, but other times as the women dance up alongside men who are singing and dancing well; ululation is always something done for or on behalf of – ululation is always relational. It works as a kind of gendered technology of presence, used by mature women in the community to claim participation by marking and making the form of the performance. The intimacy of aesthetics and politics is obvious here.

In a 1990 seminal article, Meintjes traced the mediation of musical meaning in Paul Simon’s album Graceland. She returned to Graceland in this presentation, drawing attention to the way Africanity was sounded in the beginning of the track “Homeless” through ululation and other calls for participation. Here, a song recorded in London, mixed in New York, and consumed all over the world, uses particular Zulu sounds to stand in for African-ness. As abstracted and commodified Africanity, ululation as a heard phenomenon loses its contextual political power. But, as often happens in cases such as this, the very circulation of ululation required by global capitalism provides an exploitable contradiction of sorts. Meintjes went on to show that the use of ululation in popular music as Africanity is not simply a South African export for international audiences; the use of ululation in popular music loops back from whence it came. Musicians in South Africa have used ululation and other sound effects in their own locally produced and consumed music. When music is produced by South African Zulu for a local audience (with the hope of potentially making it big internationally, of course), as opposed to being produced explicitly for an international audience or dance club scene, ululation and other sound effects are not used less, but much more, which creates a contextually meaningful high-density aesthetic of collective participation. Meintjes showed this by examining recordings from the Umzansi Zulu Dancers and a local musician and producer named Siyazi. The density of sound changed when recordings were locally produced, and ululation has been used heavily in South Africa by Zulu producers to sound their particular Africanity.

As this is the beginning of a new major research project, the Q&A was especially generative. Discussion included comparing ululation to other kinds of performative interjection and women’s practices of keening and lamenting, questioning how Zulu women conceive of this practice, and tying this practice to other potentially similar instances of ululation in India the Levant (or even Xena’s battle cry). At this stage in the research process, Meintjes admitted there are any number of potential directions for this work.

By continuing to focus her work on the sounds of South Africa and their aesthetic and political meanings, Meintjes is showing the importance of intersectionality and the Global South for the future of sound studies. Examining sounds as always already gendered, racialized, and part of various systems of power like global capitalism, is imperative for the field if it is to have any chance of avoiding the mere reinscription of the epistemological (and actual) violence of colonialism and Euro-centric thinking. Studying ululation, as relation, is a timely project as sound studies and musicology turn to globality while attempting to retain difference and particularity. The schitzophonic mimetic loops of ululation Meintjes elucidated are a great example of what sticking with the soundings of the Global South can do for our understanding of meaning and power.

Professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Teresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) on Indigenous Studies – Response by Lettycia Terrones (Latina/o Studies and Information Science)

[On October 25, 2019 of professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Teresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) presented talks on Indigenous Studies as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Lettycia Terrones (Latina/o Studies and Information Science)]

In “Ethnographic Refusal, Anthropological Need” from her book Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Audra Simpson interrogates the “dissonance between the representations” constructed by western epistemologies of empire and their resultant forms of making and disciplining knowledge. Against these systems, Simpson asks what is shown about the recursive logics of settler colonialism when western forms of knowledge, exemplified for instance in the disciplinary field of anthropology, are held up against what Indigenous people have to “say about themselves” (98). Simpson’s project challenges the normalizing power of western “technologies of rule” and “techniques of knowing” —their categorizations, descriptions, definitions, comparisons, linguistic scripting, visuality and military force—by showing the methodological approaches of Indigenous knowledge forms and knowledge practices—what these “look like, or sound like, when [Indigenous] goals and aspirations … inform the methods and the shape of our theorizing and analysis” (98).

Indeed, Simpson’s theoretical and political move to contest, shake up and transform western disciplinary traditions and methods by working from Native American and Indigenous methodologies and knowledge formation is also the project of professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Theresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) who together delivered the Indigenous Studies lecture on October 25th for the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s Modern Criticism and Theory lecture series.

Emerging from the collaborative work and interdisciplinary conversations which Wisecup (early-Americanist literary scholar), Negrin (historian of Native American life, women and gender) and and Montoya (anthropologist and film-maker) engage with the Chicago-area Native Studies working group, their intersecting talks illuminated how centering Native American and Indigenous Studies modes of inquiry and knowledge-making exceed western disciplinary forms, thus presenting ways of looking and modes of inquiry that hold settler colonial structures accountable in shaping American society, and in turn global settler projects of empire. Moreover, Native American and Indigenous Studies, as the three scholars demonstrated theorize and practice ways of speculating how to study, how to struggle and how to live in ways that exceed the capture of the settler state. They showed us that while Native American and Indigenous Studies works toward futurities which value life and horizontal relationalities in co-existence, these modes of praxis are in effect and utilized in the present day in Indigenous-led struggles throughout states of empire.

Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern)

Building from Simpson, Kelly Wisecup began by asking how regimes of disciplinarity, their structures and forms, their categories and cartographies, become stabilized and produce concepts of culture that position Native people and Indigeneity as objects of study. She asked how Native American and Indigenous Studies methods interrupt disciplinarity’s capture of Native people by refusing the normalizing discursive and material categorizations of culture that seek to fix and make legible Native people within western epistemological structures. Wisecup asked: What happens to our understanding of Indigenous literary history, for instance, when we “privilege the study of and with Native people and not just the concept of Indigeneity?”

To set the stage for interrogating this question, Wisecup leveraged Simpson’s “scenes of apprehension,” an analytic which Simpson theorizes as material and symbolic “spaces of discernment,” where ideas of difference and apparatuses of containment are constructed and maintained. Here, the ideology of culture functions to differentiate, mark, categorize, taxonomize, delimit, territorialize, and dispossess Native peoples in settlers and colonial empire (Simpson 97, 102). Culture as an ideology of difference in this way functions to order and read Indigenous people within settler colonial structures of dispossession.

It is important to remember here that apprehension signifies colonial capture and also points to modes of comprehending, i.e., modes for accounting for the ways in which disciplinarity’s discursive stabilizing power produces knowledge. Illuminating the ways in which disciplinary fields order the world—constructing and representing the other and situating its dominance—makes available opportunities to interrupt, divert, disorder and refuse disciplinarity’s possession.

Wisecup’s research into the production and circulation of Native literatures and their entanglement with institutional nineteenth century archives (such as The Newberry Library, The New York Antiquarian Society, The Field Museum, The Smithsonian) demonstrates a challenged to western epistemes and their  attempt to fix, catalog and read Native people as objects of study in categories that support settler colonial elimination.

Wisecup illustrated how – cartographies of Native American languages created in nineteenth century for the Bureau of American Ethnology enabled settler governance and its projects of elimination, ordering languages into ethnic classifications, fixing in this way Native languages to state boundaries and geographies to facilitate land dispossession. John Wesley Powell, the director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, as Wisecup quoted, communicated the purpose of these documents, stating: “Its purpose was the discovery of relations among the Native American tribes to the end that amicable groups might be gathered on reservations.” The containment and elimination of Native Nations and people through material documentation occurred widely throughout the everyday operational practices of nineteenth century archival processes.


Powell, John Wesley. Map of linguistic stocks of American Indians. [S.l, 1890] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2001620496/

Against these “settler technologies of rule” (Simpson), Wisecup contrasted Joseph Laurent’s 1884 book New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. A leader of the Odanak Nation, Laurent’s dynamic text listed vocabulary of the Abenaki language alongside complementing participatory dialogs. This juxtaposition put in relief the dynamic, co-constitutive, livingness of language.

Wisecup describe the text’s dynamism across time and geographies, thus tracing its ability to “evade archival control.” She noted how Laurent not only took his book to the very center of settler archives, sending a copy to the Bureau of American Ethnology. Laurent’s circulation of the Dialogues also took him across Abenaki lands, across the U.S. Northeast and Canada. As Wisecup noted, Laurent’s book continues to circulate today, “invit[ing] interaction and further uses.”


Laurent, Joseph. New Familiar Abenakis And English Dialogues: The First Ever Published On the Grammatical System. Quebec: Printed by L. Brousseau, 1884. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044013553805

Hayley Negrin (History, UIC)

Hayley Negrin’s discussion of Sequoyah and the Cherokee Syllabary likewise posed questions of disciplinary scripting, gendered representation and the entanglement of setter ordering. Building from Native feminist theories, Negrin considered what a history of the Cherokee Syllabary would illuminate if Sally Benge, Sequoyah’s wife, were to tell it. Negrin confronted this provocation, this anticipation of unruly accounts, this diversion from normalizing and fixing scripts during a research visit to Cherokee North Carolina in the Smokey Mountains. There, as Negrin tells it, her friend and college—a Native woman and historian of gender and women in the Native South— pointed out: “His wife Sally burned his manuscript you know.”

Here, Negrin centered Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck and Angie Morrill’s (2013) reminder that the U.S., like many other countries, is a settler colonial nation state where structures of Native elimination are necessarily gendered. Moreover, “[b]ecause the United States is balanced upon notions of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, everyone living in the country is not only racialized and gendered, but also has a relationship to settler colonialism” (9). What does this analytic enable for Sally and for us? Negrin asked: “Did Sally not agree with the syllabary project? Was writing a colonial imposition in her eyes—a way of distorting Cherokee life and culture? Or was she angry over something else unrelated in their marriage?” And why is Sally’s incineration a story that Native women tell? Negrin asked how these questions would inform critiques about the representation of masculinity in the iconography of Sequoyah, a masculinity which predominates how the dominant culture reads, locates and misrecognizes Cherokee people.

Unfolding historiography and cultural critique from Native feminist positions in turn offers new ways of understanding how works such as Sequoyah’s syllabary made possible connections and sustained relationships across separated Cherokee bands. Negrin emphasized how Cherokee print culture, including the drafting of the Cherokee Constitution, the Chreokee Phoneix, a bilingual newspaper of the Cherokee Nation, challenged settler attempts to render Cherokee people as savage. This production made legible to settlers Cherokee legal and intellectual sovereignty. What does the circuit and adoption of Cherokee print culture look like from the angle of Native women’s leadership in its circulation?

Negrin considered what research into the histories of cultural production and circulation of Native texts might yield in our understanding of and refusal against setter logics if we do not allow the erasure of Native women’s stories, location and experiences. Negrin emphasized how Native Feminist Theory “change[s] the terms of analysis,” by attending to the ways heteropatriarchy supports the logics and structures of elimination, including its non-engagement and erasure of Native women’s stories and experiences. Rather than seeking inclusion into colonial recognitions, Negrin urged us to see how the imperative of Native Feminist modes of analysis demands an understanding of our relationships to settler colonialism and an understanding of how Native struggle for sovereignty and Native jurisdiction are necessarily connected to women’s bodies and land. Indeed, Native Feminisms show the entanglements of colonial violences across peoples and how these understandings allow us spaces to forge alliances across struggles for justice.

Teresa Montoya (Anthropology, U Chicago)

Teresa Montoya’s talk on Diné mobilizations against uranium contamination and chronic toxic exposure in checkerboard communities—communities such as Sanders, Arizona, which lie outside Navajo jurisdiction, yet whose residents are primarily citizens of the Navajo Nation—illuminated how alliances across struggles for justice also demand skillful navigation and leveraging of multiple discourses in ways that exceeds colonial entrapment.

If Native American and Indigenous Studies theorizes futurities that imagine and enable life beyond and in alternative to colonial structures, these modes of knowledge-making further require a combined imaginary and direct action. In the words of Indigenous resurgence scholar Leanne Simpson, these modes urge us to “not just ‘dream alternative realities’ but to create them, on the ground in the physical world, in spite of being occupied (Simpson qtd in Flowers 35).

Montoya’s project amplifies how Diné researchers and community activists engage Native knowledge forms, bringing together Diné-centered science research, political action, and aesthetic engagement in the shared responsibility to protect fellow citizens of the Navajo Nation who live in the unincorporated city of Sanders from uranium contamination of their drinking water. Montoya pointed out that while Sanders’s community response started in 2015 when they received notice of? uranium water contamination, the environmental disaster itself stems from the July 16, 1979 United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill spill. This spill, Montoya explained, released over 94 million gallons of “acidic radioactive fluid into the Puerco River.” These contaminated waters flowed into the community Sanders, eventually reaching Sanders’s ground water and promoted the community’s urgent call to action. Montoya contextualized this decades long environmental disaster as part of the “slow violence” of decades long environmental toxic pollution—compounded all the more by the “legal ambiguity” impeding juridical redress available to checkerboard communities.  Montoya argued that shared community action in Sanders requires skillful leveraging of disparate and often conflicting discourses, utilizing “different strategies and approaches than their neighboring Diné communities” because of their unincorporated location outside of non-Navajo jurisdiction.

Montoya theorizes this “political arrangement in a longer trajectory of settler colonial land dispossession,” noting how Navajo people and their lands have historically been vulnerable to environmental violence manifest in settler colonial projects. This includes the toxic pollution of extractive capitalism to the war-making experiments that have occurred with impunity on Navajo lands. Checkerboard communities continue to bear the material and juridical consequences of settler statecraft. Montoya emphasized how the dexterity of approaches necessitated in Sanders’s call to action against uranium contamination “highlight the ways in which Navajo citizens strategically and necessarily move between multiple jurisdictions, leveraging discourses of human rights, tribal sovereignty, Diné ontologies of kinship, and even private property ownership in overlapping and sometimes competing ways.” The stakes here, as Montoya provocatively urged, point to new modes that imagine and act upon a Diné politic that emerges from “everyday practices of sovereignty and self-determination,”—modes different from those available through geopolitical discourses of tribal sovereignty.

Montoya described what this Diné politics looks like in action, noting the work of Diné and Indigenous scientists whose research refutes water contamination rates affirmed by state regulatory agents, such as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Arizona Department of Health, whose track record evidences the masking of toxic contamination through a manipulation of water sampling data. This manipulation normalizes toxicity “to accommodate industry,” as Montoya noted. Community caretakers, through grassroots efforts, have amplified and circulated Diné and Indigenous scientists’ and the Navajo Environmental Protection findings of water contamination, and have done the difficult work of making legible what state regulated “science” seeks to obscure through data manipulation.

MontoyaPhotograph by Teresa Montoya. Taken near Dennehotso, AZ on the Navajo Nation in March 2016.

Montoya’s photograph of a water well near Dennehotso, Arizona on the Navajo Nation illustrates what the intersection of Diné research on environmental pollution and direct citizen action looks like. The protective warning spread across this water well amplifies the authority of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency, while further centering Navajo Nation policy for acceptable water consumption. The political/aesthetic force inherent in graffiti—its defiant, bold letters—illustrate Montoya’s intervention: the graffiti calls for everyday sovereignty practices and acts of self-determination against the extractive violence of settler colonial projects. Likewise, Montoya’s photograph manifests Leanne Simpson’s reminder that imagining new worlds insurgent and in rebellion to the permanence of settler colonialism requires on the ground action.

To this end, Montoya reminded us to challenge the false binaries pitting traditional knowledges against western science, and to instead adjust our questions to interrogate which knowledge systems and epistemologies yield discourses of power, and in this way support our vigilant refusal against the normalization of settler colonialism as the permanent social order.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Jodi Byrd, whose expert feedback helped me write with clarity during a time of worry.

Works Cited

Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing feminism: Challenging Connection between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 8-34.

Flowers, Rachel. “Refusal to Forgive: Indigenous Women’s Love and Rage.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society vol. 4, no. 2, 2015, pp. 32-49.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political life across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.

Unit Fellows. “2019 10 29 Indigenous Studies.” YouTube, 14 November 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYVyPVYMR4Y&t=3770s

Professor Patricia Nguyen (Asian American Studies, Northwestern) on Critical Race Theory – Response by Aida Guhlincozzi (Geography and GIS)

[On October 22, 2019 Professor Patricai Nguyen (Asian American Studies, Northwestern) presented a talk on Critical Race Theory as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Aida Guhlincozzi (Geography and GIScience)]

Critical Race Theory and Reparations Come Together in Chicago
Written by Aida Guhlincozzi (Geography and GIScience)

The MCT Critical race lecture was delivered by Dr. Patricia Nguyen, a Visiting Professor at Northwestern University, where she also earned her PhD in Performance Studies. A Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans, she has widely published on her performance work examining “critical refugee studies, political economy, forced migration, oral histories, inherited trauma, torture, and nation-building in the United States and Vietnam.” In her critical artistic work, she has recently employed Critical Race Theory in her contribution and examination of a real form of reparations. In this case, these are reparations in the face of what occurred throughout the 1970s – 1990s. In this time, Chicago police officer Jon Burge tortured numerous black and Latinx men, women, and children, in order to elicit information for police investigations. He used a variety of torture methods, including electric shocks. Dr. Nguyen began this work when she and her collaborator, architectural designer John Lee, were chosen to design a memorial for the survivors.

The survivors of this torture eventually went on to pursue Burge in court, and reparations from the City of Chicago. As part of these reparations, a group of artists and activists worked with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial and the survivors of Burge’s torture ring to create a memorial. The memorial that Dr. Nguyen and her collaborator, John Lee, designed was titled “Breathe, Form, and Freedom” with the intent of centering community voices to review histories of state violence. Speaking on this memorial at the Unit for Criticism event, Dr. Nguyen related Critical Race Theory and its themes of centering people of color and a “push for more structural analysis between the law and white supremacy.” She discussed how this intersection drove some of the artistic design of the memorial. More importantly, were the goals of honoring the existence of the survivors through a community space and memorial stating that they are “still here.”

Unfortunately, the effects of the police state are also still here. In this context Dr. Nguyen asks: “What do reparations look like for survivors of police torture?” She uses Critical Race Theory, as it seeks to “understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America and in particular, to examine how the relationship between that social structure and professed ideals such as the rule of law and equal protection”. The memorial serves as an intervention in response to the police state. This intervention allows the community to take space back in places where the state has caused pain, marking the history and ongoing fight to change the system.  The memorial embodies the ideals of “breathe, form, and freedom.” The main components include:

  • Names of survivors – including etches for those who are unknown
  • Timeline – the timeline of torture, a political project, framing how something is remembered and what is remembered
  • Community space – a space for people to gather that could be contemplative and educational and meditative
  • Manifestos – a collective creative writing project for survivors to write visions for the future and to transform the forced confessions – the first and last words that visitors see when entering and leaving the memorial

The memorial is shaped in the form of a spiral, to lead visitors as they enter the space, starting with the timeline and survivor names, leading them to the manifestos and community space. One detail of the form is contrasting ribbed and smooth concrete that Dr. Nguyen noted is “meant to be unfinished to speak to continued struggle and endurance.” This sharing of space of the voices and ongoing struggle allows for breath to be “enlivened.”

Form is embodied through the curved structure. This curved structure prevents a “relegating of the past as an object of observance.” Again, through the spiral shape, the names of survivors are immediately viewable, along with the timeline of the reparations movement. Part of this memorial is the opportunity for visitors and survivors to “imagine together.”

The third element, freedom is meant to speak to the continued struggle for more life in the face of systemic violence. The space is an opportunity for workshops to be held, and for visitors to be held accountable to the questions the memorial’s display of history forces us to ask.

Dr. Nguyen’s work also explores the transnational implications of this horrific pattern of police abuse. Jon Burge was in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, where it is suggested that he learned his torture methods. Dr. Nguyen asks how Critical Race Theory would be applicable in a transnational context. She says, “How CRT, as it’s written, can be very limited, through its focus on U.S. law and thus the proposed interventions.” The U.S. imperialist war helped construct a Vietnam War military officer who then employed the same torture techniques to extend that imperialism back at home against Black men – U.S. citizens – in the United States. Where does Critical Race Theory stand in this confluence? Addressing this, Dr. Nguyen notes that in many ways, the law is necessary, but never enough. The law is a tool, but not “capacious enough to create justice.”

As a result of the survivors’ fight for justice, the City of Chicago not only is expected to provide a $5.5 million fund for financial reparations, but a number of educational opportunities. This includes a history lesson in all Chicago Public Schools curriculum. Coupled with this history lesson, the memorial which Dr. Nguyen described as a “womb that holds a history of Chicago,” truly states that the survivors are “still here” – and that they can move forward with the next generation to prevent this type of systematic torture and abuse from happening again.

However, it must be noted that the memorial also embodies another aspect of where CRT may fall short – the memorial does not yet exist as the group works to secure funding, an appropriate location, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial is still awaiting a response from the mayor. Dr. Nguyen states that “the fight for reparations doesn’t end with the passing of a law…” which seems to be where Critical Race Theory would naturally see an endpoint. But Dr. Nguyen also quoted Mari J. Matsuda, stating that “[reparations] is the formal recognition of historical wrong, continuing injury and commitment to redress.”  In this way, CRT ideals are extended through the memorial as one key piece of ensuring formal recognition, and hopefully, true reparations.

Image from WTTW Arts and Entertainment article on memorial (Patricia Nguyen and John Lee rendering)