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For still possible cities: a politics of failure for the politically depressed

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Abstract

We lost. Now what?
FOR STILL POSSIBLE CITIES:
A POLITICS OF FAILURE FOR THE
POLITICALLY DEPRESSED
Natalie Osborne
Lecturer
School of Environment and Science
Griffith University
Brisbane, QLD, 4111
Abstract
We lost. Now what?
“[the revolution] you desire is actually an obstacle to
your flourishing”1
Let us sit with the idea, for a moment, that we have lost.
For every #metoo, there is a chorus of anxious neck-tie-clutching about how things have gone too
far, and the deeply misogynistic and bloodied claims of ‘incels’ are receiving mainstream thinkpiece
consideration. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are disproportionately criminalised
(Australian Law Reform Commission 2017), and significant and devastating health gaps remain
(Holland 2018). The Uluru Statement From the Heart and the Makarrata Commission it proposed
offered a pathway to more substantive forms of justice (Delegates at the Referendum Convention
at Uluru 2017), but was rejected by the Turnbull Government (Gordon 2017). Indeed, we live in
1 From Lauren Berlant (2011, p1): “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an
obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a
political project” (emphasis added).
a time when papers justifying, even promoting, colonialism are published and defended (Sultana
2018). The reinvigorated alt-right is reinforcing white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism.
Palestine. Manus Island. Let us not discuss the White House, or the eager adoption of Australian-
style border enforcement. Our cities are increasingly inequitable and precarious places. Climate
change is here. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. We’ve already lost untold, uncounted, species to
extinctions, and for many more the “slow unraveling” (Van Dooren 2014, p.12) is underway. It’s
time for some of us, at least, to be “thinking systematically about worst-case scenarios” (Head
2016, p.3).
There have been moments in the West where we feminists, anti-capitalists, anti-racists, queer
activists, environmentalists, urban activist-scholars for the Just City thought that perhaps things
were turning towards us. There was a moment when the revolution we yearned for was possible,
even imminent (and of course, battles were won, with material implications). I took comfort in the
‘late’ of ‘late capitalism’, invoking as it does both an imminent demise and a post-demise state. As
the fissures and contradictions of neoliberalism rendered themselves more obvious, I took heart,
thinking (to paraphrase Arundhati Roy) another world our world was on her way. But
capitalism’s self-destructive nature is not necessarily our victory. In 2015, Isabelle Stengers wrote:
“There isn’t the slightest guarantee that we will be able to overcome the hold that
capitalism has over us…Nor do we know howwe might live in the ruins that it will leave
us: the window of opportunity in which, on paper, the measures to take were reasonably
clear, is in the process of closing” (Stengers 2015, p.10).
Perhaps the window Stengers spoke of has now closed; that we are past the point at which we
could Agenda21/ Inconvenient Truth/ Hope-and-Change/ UNDRIP/ UDHR/ Kyoto-
Protocol/ Copenhagen-Accord/ Lean-In/ global-workers’-revolution our way out of this mess.
Whole ways of living and dying have passed and are passing from this Earth, we have lost futures,
and the basics of a good life are still denied to most. Anna Tsing (2015, p.2) argues that we are
now all precarious, “confront[ing] the condition of trouble without end”, and the grand, global
feminist ecological revolutionthe end of our trouble is perhaps an example of what Berlant
(2011) calls a cruel optimism. My every moment is suffused with a panicky inadequacy – so much
to do, none of it enough. Every action available to me feels laughably pathetic, tilting at coal-fired
power stations. The fight to save The World is a breathless, never-ending state of catastrophe – a
flailing, cacophonous emergency.
Perhaps release may come from considering that we are not in the midst of a desperate, heated,
chaotic battle to save The World. In fact, we lost that battle, lost that future, lost that world.
We. Have. Lost.
Take a breath.
Now what?
“Depressed? It might be political”2
I write this for politically depressed urban activists, feminist-scholar-activists, environmentalists,
anti-capitalists, anarchists, Marxists, decolonial, anti-racist and/or queer activists and organisers
against white hetereosexist hegemony, for those experiencing a bleak ennui, for those whose
twisted panic contorts toward paralysis, for those who feel like we are in the darkest timeline.3 For
those who are hopeful, optimistic, energised thank you. I appreciate, admire, need you
sometimes I am even one of you. I do not want to convince you that you’ve lost. Scorn this
admission of (my) defeat and do not read on. Tuck this paper away in case you need it sometime
(I hope you don’t). I wish to talk with those already feeling political depression i.e. “the sense
that customary forms of political response, including direct action and critical analysis, are no
2 Slogan drawn from the Public Feelings feel tank see Berlant (2012).
3 The Darkest Timeline is a meme based on a kind of multirealism, emerging out of the television show Community.
From Know Your Meme (2017): “The Darkest Timeline is a reference to the multi-verse theory which hypothesizes
that there are multiple universes outside of our own in which all things are possible, and that we live in the worst
possible of these universes.”
longer working either to change the world or to make us feel better” (Cvetkovich 2012, p.1) with
me. –While I hope this state is not perpetual, it feels important to theorise from here, to see this
as part of the work too.
For those still with me: I worry sometimes our politics of hope lets us down. Sometimes hope
flags or fails, or does not meet us where we are. In grief, loss, and trauma, we cannot always talk
ourselves back into hope or optimism. Sometimes hope is entirely pointless, a form of denial (Head
2016), and optimism depressogenic and cruel (Berlant 2011). Further, some of these negative
feelings must be, should be felt indeed more than they currently are. There are still many lives
human and more-than-human that are ungrieved, ungrievable (Butler 2004; Butler 2009; Van
Dooren 2014), and if we are to take seriously our obligations to each other we must recognise and
grieve our failures to do so.
Sisters, comrades, friends, in the face of our losses, part of our ‘now what’ is a politics of failure
and depression, which reflects and helps us understand our affective experiences in late capitalism,
that lets us grieve loss, but does not abandon us to it. Ann Cvetkovich (2012, p.2) writes:
“The concept of political depression is not…meant to be wholly depressing…The goal is
to depathologize negative feelings so that they can be seen as a possible resource for
political action rather than as its antithesisbut these feelings, moods, and sensibilities
become sites of publicity and community formation.”
Our negative feelings are always already political, rich with possibilities as well as impossibilities,
and loss is not a fixed state. How can a politics of failure and a politics of depression help us form
communities? How can we think-with, and act from, this place from the battlefield where hope
for a global ecosocialist, ecofeminist revolution died, where we stand knee deep in ashes and
bones? It is possible: depression is not the antithesis of action (Cvetkovich 2012), and we can
salvage lifeways from toxic ruins (Davis 2015; Stengers 2015; Tsing 2015; Tsing, Swanson, Gan &
Bubandt 2017).
I dig ashes, blood, bone, and shit into my garden bed. They help things grow.
“The queer art of failure…quietly loses, and in losing
it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and
for being”4
When thinking about the loss of The World we tried to save, I turn to J Halberstam’s work linking
failing to unexpected possibilities, and sees in failure ways of imagining, “not some fantasy of an
elsewhere, but existing alternatives to hegemonic systems”(Halberstam 2011, p.89). In this
rejection of the fantasy of an elsewhere, I read a rejection of the cruel optimism of a post-
revolutionary-utopian-World-on-her-way. Instead, our attention turns to what already exists,
growing in the fissures of white colonial heteropatriarchal capitalism. For those limited by Western
notions of monorealism, this may involve learning to attend to other worlds already with us. The
planning project has often flattened out worlds to make them externally knowable (Scott 1998),
enabled by the ontology of a singular reality/World. This monorealism is, in Ghassan Hage’s (2015,
p.69) view, “Western modernity’s greatest ‘achievement’…minimising our awareness of the
multiplicity of realities in which we exist. But minimising is not obliterating.” We failed to save
The World, but there are other, subaltern worlds here, accessible if we attend and care for them.
Indeed, as we grapple with our own losses, we should listen to those walking with us who have
already survived apocalypses. Claire G. Coleman (2017) argues that First Nations Australian
Peoples are survivors of “end times” that invasion represented an apocalypse. But First Nations
Peoples are still here. Indigeneity still exists and is re/constituted, and modes of existence, being,
and knowing may emerge from the practices of Indigenous Peoples where they are (Peters &
Andersen 2013), including in post-apocalyptic landscapes. Erica Violet Lee (2016, para36) writes
of care for colonialism’s wastelands and worlds beyond mere survival for Indigenous Peoples,
4(Halberstam 2011, p.88).
“even when we must piece those worlds together from gathered scraps, slowly building
incandescent ceremonies out of nothing but our bodies, our words, and time.”
For those feeling that we lost the fight to save The World this might be our apocalypse but our
loss, while devastating, is not unique. Us settlers should not be too self-centred in our failure.
Others have lived through an apocalypse, or more than one; others lost the fight for their world/s
(Danowski & Viveiros de Castro 2017). They are still here: as Nayuka Gorrie said, “Colonisation
was our apocalypse, and we are already living in a dystopian future, so we are ahead of the game”
(Gorrie, in Yunkaporta 2017). Whilst non-Indigenous people should be careful not to appropriate
or centre ourselves in the losses of First Nations Peoples, and be cautious of how we mourn that
the same basic system of capitalism that produced colonialism is now destroying our World (after
destroying the worlds of others for our benefit), we can listen. The generative, creative, evolving
survival-and-beyond of First Nations Peoples in settler-colonial cities and countries tells us that
while we might lose a world, other worlds are already here. The monorealism that dominates
Western thought makes an apocalypse the apocalypse. Multirealism makes apocalypses possible,
and while that is depressing in its own way, plurality means possibilities.
For “still possible worlds”5
I’ve attended four screenings of Fabrizio Terranova’s film Donna Haraway: Story telling for earthly
survival. Each time I scribble notes in the dark, writing by feel alone. Reviewing the slightly damp
pages, I always find the desperately scrawled words for still possible worlds’. Haraway has a
knack for phrases that etch themselves onto my bones: stay with the trouble’; ‘we have a little
time’; and ‘still possible worlds’. The latter stays with me because it’s an equivocal, realistic hope.
It acknowledges that many worlds are closed to us, many futures are not in the becoming too
much damage has been done, too much lost, too many lifeways extinct or already living ghosts.
For still possible worlds is not a hope that relies on grandiose, superhero feats of saving there are
5 (Haraway in Terranova 2016)
no heroic individuals or grand schemes or global total revolutions invoked. It is not teleological or
Pollyannaish, nor does it deny the mourning of all we have lost and are yet to lose. We lost the
war, and there is more loss to come. But. But. There are still possible worlds, still possible shared
futures, still possible cities and some of them are worth having. These still possible worlds, the
work of imagining them, prefiguring them, breathing and singing life into them, is the feminist
urban praxis that feels available to me, and I offer it to my companions and comrades in political
depression. There is something tender, care-full, about the possible worlds hummed by Haraway,
and I turn to those Indigenous, queer, and/or feminist theorists writing about care and proximity
in place, in conversation with the places and communities I think-with, to learn to attend and
nurture tiny growing entanglements in wastespaces and ruins.
“I am placed, I am located, therefore I am”6
It feels a little redundant to argue for place in a geography journal. But in the spaces of left wing
and environmental organising, place does need to be defended. Place is often not considered
ontologically or epistemologically relevant, and may even be viewed as an impediment to
revolutionary work. But ‘Think Global, Act Local7 as an environmentalist’s imperative has failed
us,fatally dividing thought from action (alongside capitalism’s compression and attempted
assassination of time/space). Schemes schemed from this dis/location, from Cartesian, binaristic
thinking embedded in gendered and racialized oppression (Anderson 1997; Ahenakew 2016;
Ahmed 2004 ) will fail to be emancipatory or transformative.
Place is not only something geographers can offer radical movements, place has something to
offer the politically depressed. Feminisms for earthly survival, feminisms for still possible cities
and for new modes of living and dying together in “capitalist ruins” (Tsing 2015) and post-
apocalyptic landscapes must be placed. Kombumerri philosopher Mary Graham (2017) said, “I am
6 (Graham 2018).
7 In researching this paper I started typing the phrase into Google, and the second suggested autofill result (the first
just completed the “think global act local” phrase) was “think global act local coca cola”. This seems damning.
placed, I am located, therefore I am”. From ontology to epistemology, Larsen and Johnson (2012,
p.2) write that Indigenous intellectual praxis is formed from “concrete, place-based encounters
and relationships…knowledge requires an actively inhabited place”. This emplacement, this
locating, is collective places are always already inhabited. We are here, together. We think
together from here. Thought is embedded “in the worlds one cares for” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017,
p.75). There is an uneasiness here for settler-colonial folk like myself my being also comes from
place, making my being indisputably constituted by colonialism. I live in Meanjin/Brisbane, land
of the Jagera and Turrbal Peoples; in thinking-with this place, I must think-with how I come to be
here and the responsibilities and obligations that creates.
Feminism for shared urban futures must attend to place, including the violence that co-produced
these places and which perpetuates itself in how places are known, governed and planned. The
compression of space-time, the acceleration of production, consumption, of daily practices (almost
everything accelerated except the decomposition of the artefacts of our lives)8, is one of the tools
that has defeated us. Proximity, specificity, and particular entanglements, places and times matter
(Van Dooren 2014; Haraway 2016; Todd 2017). What does it mean to think and do feminism with
place? To dig our toes down into the humus and think-am ourselves from here, attuned to the
ecological imperatives of our time-space location, dwelling in the otherness we already inhabit
(Hage 2015, p.70), when we find ourselves politically depressed?
I find some guidance in Haraway - in the urban battlefield of our loss, in the rubble and debris, let
us “join forces to reconstitute refuges” (Haraway 2016, p.192), and emphasise present practices of
care and recuperation to keep still possible cities possible. In the remainder of this paper, I turn to
8 In fact, given the near permanence of many of these artefacts including our toxic, plastic progeny, in Heather
Davis’ parlance, which are already “queering our bodies” (2015, p.237) we may need to think of them, and “fossil-
beings…as a kind of kin”, to knit them into ‘de-weaponised’ relations and include them in our understandings of
our responsibilities and obligations to places and each other (Todd 2017, p.107).
the places and people I think-with, and the prefigurative practices of care and recuperation they
are enacting.
“All organizing is science fiction”9
If we eschew futurism and insist on staying with the trouble, our “speculative fabulation[s]”
(Haraway, 2016, p.122) might come from collective and care-full spaces of prefigurative
community organising, in line with adrienne maree brown’s (2017, p.197) claim that “all organising
is science fiction”. In my own experiences of political depression and ecological grief, still possible
worlds can feel close in such spaces, and community organising projects like Brisbane Free
University and Right to the City BNE prefigurative projects in a constellation of community
organising projects in Meanjin/Brisbane are examples of “sites of publicity and community
formation” (Cvetkovich 2012, p.2).They are radical projects that centre a feminist ethic of care
(Carlson & Walker forthcoming)care for organisers, participants, places and rely heavily on
joyful, relational organising.
Brisbane Free University (BFU) is a free education project emerging from Boundary Street in
Meanjin/Brisbane (Carlson & Walker forthcoming). BFU is committed to radical openness and a
“fumble-friendly” approach to organising (Thompsett 2017, p.25); that is, at their core they refuse
to commit to a pre-defined notion of success, and they explicitly leave room for failing. BFU
embraces prefigurative politics: “a political orientation which, rather than aiming to overthrow or
reclaim dominant structures, focuses energy on building alternatives in their interstices
(Thompsett 2016, p.63). The project currently comprises a radical reading group that meets weekly,
a writing and collaborative ‘undisciplined’ research collective, and more public-facing events
lectures/talks/panels held in public space, every 4-6 weeks. Beyond, across, and underneath these
events and gatherings is a commitment not only to “emancipatory modes of ‘study’” (Thompsett
2017, p.26) but to the people and places engaged in and producing these radical pedagogies
9 (maree brown 2017, p.197).
(Carlson & Walker forthcoming). Carlson and Walker situate BFU within a feminist ethics of care,
arguing that care-full modes of study strive for “small and intimate ways to live and learn together”,
and in doing so:
“we find moments beyond the brutal carelessness of capitalism, small tastes of something
better…As capitalist social reproduction falters and corresponding future imaginaries
buckle under the weight of grief and precarity, we stop where and when we are, and turn towards
each other” (Carlson & Walker forthcoming, emphasis added).
In this radically open, prefigurative, fail friendly project, the collaborators centre care, affection,
proximity, place, and encounter, and make small and tender offerings to the community they
nurture in capitalist ruins.
One of the growing things nurtured by the care and the entwined intellectual work/political
practices of BFU is Right to the City BNE, a collective of folk living in Meanjin/Brisbane
interested in radical spatial politics for just and sustainable cities. The group emerged out of an
interest in ‘the spatial turn’, and the relationships between social and material conditions and urban
space. Broadly opposed to neoliberal and capitalist modes of urban governance and production,
the collective draws on a diverse (sometimes contradictory), shifting assemblage of theories,
philosophies and practices in their organising, including right to the city theory, feminism,
prefigurative politics, tactical urbanism, radical/insurgent planning, queer theory, urban ecology,
queer ecology, decolonial theory, Marxism, anarchism, relational organising, electoral politics, and
ethics of care. Right to the City BNE is influenced by the idea that we can change the city to
change ourselves, and change ourselves to change the city. In exercising a collective right to the
city, we are not gaining influence over a city we have now (the city we lost), or the selves we have
now, but something new and only partly imagined that emerges from generative, collective,
creative appropriations and struggles. This is a kind of “mycelium magic” (maree brown 2017,
p.20)the idea that in working together through,across, and deep into place, our fruiting bodies
will emerge in unpredictable, situated, and responsive formations, as we move toward just and
sustainable cities, and “[create] conditions we have never experienced” (maree brown 2017, p.160)
except in the ephemeral spaces prefigured through our actions.
When I ponder still possible cities and still possible futures from this dark place, and the work of
reconstituting refuges and regenerating just, connected, and meaningful ways of living and dying
together, I think of the gentle spaces of wonder these projects offer. These projects are radical but
not revolutionary; they are not overly concerned with expansion or replication, and do not offer a
recipe for defeating kyriarchal oppression with a single blow. I do not recount these projects as
the sum total of politics worth doing; there are many dangers and limitations to everyday practices
of care in proximity, not the least of which being that we are not all proximate to all in need of
care, and that proximity is a product of political, socio-economic and historical relations that are
not inherently good and which we might reproduce, when in fact some of them need determined
unsettling. But, following Soren C. Larsen and Jay T. Johnson (2017) struggles together in place
may offer something other than what we currently have, something worth having place has
agency that works on us, and we must attend to the development of cosmopolitical, pluralist, and
educational (rather than essentialist) relationships to place.10 Everyday practices of emplaced care
may be part of that practice of attentiveness for the politically depressed.
. I offer the examples herein as an indication of how those of us feeling the weight of political
depression might craft a politics from dark places, and bear our grief and political depression
“without paralysis” (Head 2016, p.7). These projects enact moments of counterhegemonic
warmth, valuing smallness, proximity, relationships, connection, care, and affection, generally
funnelled through collective appropriations of space. As they nestle into wasted urban spaces they
do not only demonstrate that worlds worth having are still possible they make tiny versions of
10 Of place, they write “it is also the scale of relationship, reciprocity, and respect across the manifold ontological
styles of pluriverse…place provides the impetus for the protocols of pluralism” (Larsen and Johnson 2017, p.186).
those worlds, spin them into being and breathe life into them for a time, and release them. The
embodied gentleness of these projects, the permission wax and wane, the ephemerality of the work
itself, and the emphasis on becoming rather than fixing, makes this form of organising and
participation habitual it makes an everyday practice out of care-full organising and spatial politics
in which “we render each other capable” (Haraway 2016, p.136). This kind of care, this
attentiveness to place and each other, and reconstituting refuges may be how those of us who feel
helpless and hopeless can find a way to acting, to being, in the dark.to stay with the trouble.
“Just because there’s no happy ending doesn’t mean
that we have to feel bad all the time”11
It might be over, but this is not the end.
This politics of failure for the politically depressed is a commitment to still possible worldings that
both “refus[es] to deny irreversible destruction, and refus[es] to disengage from living and dying
well in presents and futures” (Haraway 2016, p.86), worldings operating in the space of everyday,
ordinary life (Cvetkovich, 2012).In accepting our lost World and our failed revolution, we shed
fixations on a clearly specified endpoint or pre-existing sets of strategies to get there, and instead
focus on nurturing still possible cities in the cracks in the concrete, in the ruins and wastespaces
we find ourselves in. These nurturing practices will be habitual, emphasising the daily and partial
than the distant and complete, and resonate with Mary Graham’s (1999, p.183) account of the
custodial ethic in Aboriginal worldviews as “achieved through repetitive action, such that gradually,
over time, the ethic becomes the ‘norm.’” In everyday habit the politically depressed might find
room for small, tender, difficult things: care, affection, attentiveness to embodiment, place,
encounter, situated entanglements, material effects, located practices.
11 “…or that feeling bad is a state that precludes feelings of hope and joy” (Cvetkovich 2012, p.206).
In the examples of BFU and Right to the City BNE we find practices of prefigurative urban
organising that are consistent with grief, loss, and political depression in their everyday spatial
politics for still possible cities. To the extent that these projects for still possible cities are engaged
in imaginaries of the future, it is more in line with creating and enacting “a means not to an end,
but only to future means” (Springer 2016, p.287). Though they may generate hope, these projects
do not rely on it, committed as they are instead to “lived alternativity in the present” (Berlant 2011,
p.75).
Making space for political depression and failure does not equate to nihilism, apathy, or
resignation. Indeed, learning to feel our grief together and to work with political depression and
failure may help enable the entangled, more-than-human communities of care that will make still
possible cities worth havingand may, perhaps, lead us back to hope through practices, as Head
(2016) suggests. In the words of Nēhiyaw philosopher Erica Violet Lee (2016, para35):
“To provide care in the wastelands is about gathering enough love to turn devastation
into mourning and then, maybe, turn that mourning into hope.”
But if not, well, you’ll find me caring in and for wastelands anyway. What else am I going to do?
Acknowledgements
My sincere love and thanks to all those I think-with who have been patient, kind and generous with me, and who
to paraphrase Donna Harawayrender me capable, even in darkness. In particular: Anna Carlson, without whom I
think very little; Shelley Cheng; Marissa Dooris; Liam Flenady, Amelia Hine; Declan McClure; Hannah Reardon-
Smith; Taylor Redwood; Jonathan Sri; Ollie; the generous regulars at the BFU Radical Reading Group; the brilliant
co-producers at Radio Reversal; dear Right to the City-BNE conspirators; and Lachlan Griffin, my mentor in sunny
cynicism and cheerful nihilism, who makes existential dread much less dreadful. My thanks also to Dallas Rogers,
Libby Porter, Wendy Steele and the IAG Urban Geography Study Group for the invitation to do this work, all those
who attended the presentation of this paper at the NZGS/IAG 2018 Conference and offered their thoughts, and
Australian Geographer editors Chris Gibson and Natascha Klocker for their support and feedback. This paper was
written with Maiwar at high tide, my bike and the orange ribbon we ride together at night, and the bush turkeys and
curlews along the way.
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Being Together in Place explores the landscapes that convene Native and non-Native people into sustained and difficult negotiations over their radically different interests and concerns. Grounded in three sites-the Cheslatta-Carrier traditional territory in British Columbia; the Wakarusa Wetlands in northeastern Kansas; and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in Aotearoa/New Zealand-this book highlights the challenging, tentative, and provisional work of coexistence around such contested spaces as wetlands, treaty grounds, fishing spots, recreation areas, cemeteries, heritage trails, and traditional village sites. At these sites, activists learn how to articulate and defend their intrinsic and life-supportive ways of being, particularly to those who are intent on damaging or destroying these places. Using ethnographic research and a geographic perspective, Soren C. Larsen and Jay T. Johnson show how the communities in these regions challenge the power relations that structure the ongoing (post)colonial encounter in liberal democratic settler-states. Emerging from their conversations with activists was a distinctive sense that the places for which they cared had agency, a "call" that pulled them into dialogue, relationships, and action with human and nonhuman others. This being-together-in-place, they find, speaks in a powerful way to the vitalities of coexistence: where humans and nonhumans are working to decolonize their relationships; where reciprocal guardianship is being stitched back together in new and unanticipated ways; and where a new kind of "place thinking" is emerging on the borders of colonial power. © 2017 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.