literature

On Genealogy

People who are going to be
in a few years
bottoms of trees
bear a responsibility to something
besides people

—Lucille Clifton “Generations”

In no particular order, I have been thinking about environmental activism, animal rights (courtesy of my exchange with alexcia and reading Coetzee), and queer interventions into a domain termed “the natural.” Lucille Clifton’s poem seems to be the perfect starting point.

What might it mean to “bear a responsibility to something / besides people?” Almost immediately, I am reminded that the term “people” remains contested. One of queer studies early interventions, borrowing from feminism and race scholarship, was that queers were often defined as not-people (“abject” in Judith Butler’s adaptation from Julia Kristeva; as an aside, I’m still not sure how to relate Butler-Kristeva’s “abject” to Spivak-Gramsci’s “subaltern”—I’ll leave that to smarter minds). In our day, arguably, the distinction people/non-people operates most perniciously along class lines. (If nothing else, the gory photographs of Mathare residents being treated like Mau Mau suspects should give us pause.)

But Clifton is asking her readers to look beyond anthropomorphism, to question what it might mean to “bear responsibility” to a tree. To understand, for example, that what we put into our bodies returns to the environment and may have the potential to kill or nurture trees and their unrelated species-progeny.

For me, the poem is especially welcome at a time when, as Lee Edelman and Lauren Berlant point out, the reproductive family, as concept and material, authorizes repressive legislation. One need only say that “the family” and more specifically “the children” are threatened and it seems we are ready to roll over and let politicians have their way.

I use a deliberately sexual figure of speech to highlight how our complicity in the name of safeguarding the sacred family is always simultaneously an affair or rape that violates the very concept of family. Along class lines, this is most apparent when lower income individuals become military fodder; but, it also extends to legislation that, in attempting to “save” families, creates stunted growth in any number of areas.

It is telling that, at least in the US, “the family,” has less been the site of affection than the home of paranoia. Equally telling is that this paranoia has often been fostered and nurtured in political rhetoric. (Love your child: track her movements on her gps-rigged cell.)

I have moved away from Clifton, but not, I think, by too much. For the mechanisms that foreground the family as the sacred site of protection, as the excuse for all political decisions, are quite often the same ones that refuse to “bear a responsibility to something / other than people.”

What might it mean to consider genealogy as a non-anthropomorphic practice? Or, even to consider genealogy as a practice that allowed for “non-people” to be included? I don’t mean in the casual ways we talk about the faithful family pet (and even that has various race and class overtones). How might a focus on the “unlike” enable a different practice of living? Do I owe the tree at whose bottom I might rest the promise of being good manure?

I remain stuck on the indefinite “something.” I also defer a complete reading of the poem as I will be teaching it this summer.