How Not What: Anthropocene Landscapes of St. Louis

Michael R. Allen

Reviewed by Sarah Kanouse and Rachel Leibowitz

21 May 2019

Shop and Save supermarket sign, Lemay Ferry Road, St. Louis County. Photograph by the author, 2017.

Once this place was so easy to know. Before Michael Brown, before Kate Chopin, before Jonathan Franzen, before William Bur­roughs, before David R. Fran­cis, before Leroy Bundy, before Joseph Wingate Folk went after the Big Cinch” cap­i­tal­ist syn­di­cate, before Pon­ti­ac com­mis­er­at­ed with French offi­cers at a tav­ern, before Frankie Free­man was able to whis­per to Lyn­don B. John­son, before Kay Drey and box­es of request­ed gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, before Shel­ley, and Krae­mer, before Charles Guggen­heim tri­umphal­ized the Gate­way Arch, before Minoru Yamasa­ki gave the city both its cel­e­brat­ed port of entry and its trag­ic mod­ern sym­bol, before Nathaniel Lyon con­tained the Con­fed­er­ate mob, before Har­ry Turn­er drowned him­self on Christ­mas day, before Mary Meachum led run­away slaves across the riv­er, before the wealthy of the city formed a posse and shot strik­ing street­car engi­neers, before Archie Blaine broke on sup­port­ing the bull­doz­ing of his own neigh­bor­hood, before Robert E. Lee manip­u­lat­ed our riv­er to keep St. Louis alive, before St. Louis Car­di­nals fans left their night game to assault black swim­mers at Fair­ground Park, before Joe Edwards built his trol­ley, before Edqar Quee­ny set into motion the com­pa­ny capa­ble of devel­op­ing Agent Orange, before Thomas Stearns Eliot packed his bags, before the Cahokian elite built the pal­isade to keep out the riffraff or the water, before, before, before.

Before pow­er, or empire, ever set upon this place?

The Chief Pontiac VFW in Cahokia, Illinois. Photograph by the author, 2016.

Before humans? Which part — the part that has no part? Or the part that claims its inter­ests con­sti­tute the inter­ests of the whole?

The dream of the riv­er that runs through our city may be free­dom from the strange parade of set­tle­ment — the tor­tu­ous, inflict­ed and inflect­ed pres­ences of peo­ple across its high and low lands. But such a con­di­tion is unknow­able, past or future. We are left to dwell in-between. Stay­ing with the trou­ble, as Don­na Har­away coun­sels, seems like no choice, but a preter­nat­ur­al edict.1 There’s nowhere else to go.

Are we left in the Anthropocene?

If so, we may not be any far­ther along than we have been since Cahokia rose many cen­turies ago. We just now car­ry with us a long Euro­pean her­itage of puri­tanism that has not been expi­at­ed. Some­times it seems that we chron­i­cle the actions of humans here and across the globe to shame our­selves, as if his­to­ry were a fun­da­men­tal­ly moral con­struc­tion. The past doesn’t actu­al­ly give a damn about right and wrong, but it gives any­one who does an arse­nal of evidence.

Vacant houses on Cass Avenue in St. Louis. Photograph by the author, 2018.

We look at land­scape as evi­dence with which to explain the present, the Anthro­pocene or when­ev­er this is. And I go with when­ev­er because I don’t think time is as short as a word teth­ered to the accel­er­at­ed nomos and habi­tus of humans.

Per­haps we need to start nam­ing what is about to hap­pen when we look at what has already happened.

Lost on the interpretive trail, Valmeyer, Illinois. Photograph by the author, 2017.

Land­scapes seem urgent or pre­car­i­ous now, but they are deceiv­ing us. They want us to think they are one thing when, in fact, they are anoth­er. They nat­u­ral­ize records of pow­er and abuse, send­ing detec­tives track­ing always right back to the present. We call land­scapes unsta­ble in this time, but, in truth, they are one of the most sta­ble sig­ni­fiers that the forces of cap­i­tal­ism, racism, and impe­ri­al­ism have at their dis­pos­al. It’s eas­i­er to shape the land than to change the minds of peo­ple, or kill them off. The new shape arrests time, abridg­ing the moment between the wound and the heal­ing. Instead, the wounds are dis­solved into junk spaces that few ques­tion as evi­dence of what comes next, some ques­tion as evi­dence of what came before, and most peo­ple rec­on­cile with a view of what comes now that ren­ders any hori­zon of action invisible.

The mon­u­ments tell us big lies, so we look close­ly at the ter­rain of every­day life. We hit the park­ing lots, the dying shop­ping malls, the places between fences, the ghet­toes, the slag heaps and the rud­er­al fields. Like Orpheus, for a while, we won’t look behind but ahead, at the mun­dane, fear­ing that we will kill beau­ty (or that beau­ty will kill us, or that beau­ty no longer exists accord­ing to years of pes­simistic the­o­ry). Then, like the Angel of His­to­ry, we turn around, find­ing only more of the mun­dane, but we ren­der it also a mon­u­ment, a frozen and dead thing.

Every coin­ci­dence tempts us with the lure of sig­nif­i­cance. This lure damp­ens time, flat­tens it into a cir­cle, we arrive only where we start.

The dead-end block, near where a famous musi­cian had his first house, in the mid­dle of an urban renew­al project, three blocks from a big This and not far from a That and you know what that has to mean…

But do we know what that has to mean?

In Plain Sight by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, and Robert Gerard Pietrusko, with Columbia Center for Spatial Research. Photograph by the author at Wrightwood 659 Gallery, Chicago, Illinois, 2019.

Do we know any­thing at all when we make such sur­mis­es, or are we fee­bly lurch­ing toward a pat­tern recog­ni­tion our brains instill because the con­di­tion always worse than death is to be com­plete­ly lost?

Maybe being lost is not so bad after all. Being found seems pret­ty dull. There are Insta­gram feeds devot­ed to so many aspects of ordi­nary land­scapes that the pho­tographs some­times seem to be not images of oth­er places, but oth­er images or at least oth­er influ­ences. Skid­ding by at a split-sec­ond view, they sig­ni­fy only what we can already envi­sion them to sig­ni­fy, because we aren’t inhab­it­ing the images let alone the sub­jects they present. Mass media kills us by mak­ing us tourists.

The words of artist Claire Pen­te­cost are bet­ter than mine here: The tourism of every­day life may include sig­ni­fiers of place, but para­dox­i­cal­ly, the over­all effect is to make us for­get that we live in a place, a place called Earth.”2 Affect sub­li­mates what we tru­ly seek to change.

How do we break the flat plane of time, and move past nam­ing it before we actu­al­ly change his­to­ry? Bruno Latour recent­ly direct­ed us, actors in the throes of an epoch we want to call the Anthropocene.”

Latour: What to do? First of all, gen­er­ate alter­na­tive descrip­tions.”3

I pro­pose that we describe what places doin­stead of what they are. Some­where in these new descrip­tions will be antic­i­pa­tions of time when a new set of rela­tions is pos­si­ble or becom­ing. If the agony of our land­scapes is a sense that they record things we don’t want, we must locate the record of things that we do want.

Or we risk dying try­ing. A noble death, of course.

But here are just two of many paths through how and now what.


The Mis­sisip­pi­ans left us a record of shit. The most real source of dis­cov­ery about the dec­li­na­tion of Cahokia may come through fecal stanols that archae­ol­o­gists are now inves­ti­gat­ing. Hard evi­dence may break years of soft spec­u­la­tion against an empir­ic hori­zon. So far, fecal evi­dence sug­gests that Cahokia pop­u­la­tion declined after flood­ing and pos­si­bly events not yet well under­stood, includ­ing cli­mate change.4

An 1882 illustration of Monks Mound at Cahokia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In Feb­ru­ary 2019, AJ White (a Ph.D. stu­dent in Anthro­pol­o­gy at UC Berke­ley) and oth­ers pub­lished an arti­cle in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences releas­ing find­ings from a fecal stanol study of Horse­hoe Lake, a large, nat­ur­al lake with­in the Cahokia set­tle­ment area.5 The Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans at Cahokia defe­cat­ed out­doors, and their excre­ment often end­ed up drain­ing toward the lake. Decades of exam­in­ing less venal aspects of Cahokia have not been as instruc­tive as fecal research in sug­gest­ing how the first city there died completely.

White and the team found that the stanol den­si­ty rose from 600 until 1100 CE but declined from 1200 until 1400. Five hun­dred years in, two hun­dred years out. St. Louis, by com­par­i­son, had 190 years in and is now either about 70 years out (city pop­u­la­tion) or 70 years flat­lined (city and coun­ty population).

Eight hun­dred years from now, what stuff that we have dumped will show any­one that our city was declining?

We can look back­ward toward St. Louis’s Chouteau Pond, an occlu­sion of the Mill Creek made by a French miller, whose new pond became both the recre­ation­al grounds of a park­less city and a des­ti­na­tion for shunt­ed human waste. That the Euro-Amer­i­cans, who also sent their shit to a body of water, could now judge the Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans or any oth­er North Amer­i­can inhab­i­tants as sav­age is deeply hyp­o­crit­i­cal, per­haps even patho­log­i­cal. (Today we send ours into a riv­er into a gulf into an ocean. Is that what some Marx­ists call accelerationism?)

Thomas Easterly daguerreotype of Chouteau’s Pond, 1852. Source: Missouri History Museum Library and Collections Center.

The waste sent to Chouteau’s Pond ulti­mate­ly killed at least 4,285 peo­ple through cholera in 1849. At that time, the city still lacked munic­i­pal sewage sys­tems, although they soon would be built. The city’s response was to drain the pond, and the drained low­land soon was sold off to the new­ly-cap­i­tal­ized rail­roads need­ing lines through the city.

One hun­dred years lat­er, and civ­i­liza­tion in St. Louis pro­gress­es enough to match the last century’s shit with blood. When the city’s park com­mis­sion­er uni­lat­er­al­ly and hasti­ly decid­ed to inte­grate swim­ming pools to all humans in June 1949, the open­ing day of the pool at Fair­ground Park end­ed in the first and only race riot con­fined to the city lim­its of St. Louis. Anx­i­ety over the future of north St. Louis spurred white peo­ple to attack not only black swim­mers, but also white police offi­cers who attempt­ed to enforce the laws actu­al­ly in place. Blood on the ground, blood on the hands of the white peo­ple who would aban­don the pool and the park and an entire half of the city in short order. Did they take that blood with them?

The riot end­ed with offi­cial blame on both white and black peo­ple, a door closed on the pol­lu­tion of racial vio­lence for a gen­er­a­tion. When we claim that East St. Louis or north St. Louis is pre­car­i­ous, do we mean that Ladue or Clay­ton or St. Charles is now too far gone, past pre­car­i­ty? Because I want to fol­low the blood from those hands, from those lunatic minds, not to bad­ger the descen­dants of the peo­ple who just showed up to swim. Those who showed up to kill both­er me more.

The American flag appears at the Boenker Hill Vineyard and Winery overlooking the West Lake Landfill. Photograph by the author, 2016.

The ulti­mate worm­hole in St. Louis may be the pos­si­bly smol­der­ing iso­topes of the Man­hat­tan Project waste tucked into the West Lake Land­fill. We need a new con­cept of time to even think through what this waste could do to our set­tle­ment. Deep time. Not cheap time. Deep time forces us to think through a future of emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion, forced evac­u­a­tion, and harm­ful con­t­a­m­i­na­tion that could out­live any cur­rent form of gov­ern­ment exist­ing here. If the waste’s worst fate means that our cur­rent men­tal­i­ty is inad­e­quate, its best fate — removal and vol­un­tary relo­ca­tion — makes it some­one else’s prob­lem, in a dif­fer­ent place and on a dif­fer­ent time scale.

Middle class properties of the early twentieth century, on Holly Avenue in St. Louis. Photograph by the author, 2012.

Per­haps prop­er­ty is the worst form of pol­lu­tion. Trac­ing the root of prop­er­ty back to Latin, to one’s own,” we may find that the only real real prop­er­ty in the world is our blood or our shit.6 Yet, many peo­ple think it’s land that is owned, and we have bent land to accom­mo­date a mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of parcels and hous­es. No one can exon­er­ate any part of the region by pick­ing on anoth­er, either, such as those who exco­ri­ate the sub­urbs or the gen­tri­fy­ing city neigh­bor­hoods for bour­geois excess­es attempt to do. The code of pri­vate prop­er­ty arrived with French colonists, was per­fect­ed in the hands of urban elites, and end­ed up shap­ing New Town and Wild­wood. We can call a part of the sys­tem exot­ic, but that’s like let­ting a snowflake land on your tongue and claim­ing it is the entire weath­er pattern.

A tract house rises in Monroe County, Illinois, near St. Louis. Photograph by the author, 2007.

St. Louis’s ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry pro­lif­er­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ized land ben­e­fit­ed in part from an import-export rela­tion with the Great South­west”: Texas, Okla­homa, and Arkansas. Fin­ished goods and equi­ty went out, while baux­ite, lead, cot­ton, live­stock, and petro­le­um head­ed north­east on St. Louis-con­trolled rail­road lines for pro­cess­ing in that city. No fin­er memo­r­i­al to this trade exists than the remain­ing chat piles that form a tox­ic heart­land ver­sion of Mon­u­ment Val­ley. Pich­er, Okla­homa, has become an unin­hab­it­able Super­fund site, with each head­wind thick with tail­ings dust. The mines closed as their sur­plus val­ue declined, and the St. Louis investors retreat­ed with­out repa­ra­tion. Much of the chat now forms road pave­ment, which breaks down. More dust.

Julius Huttawa, “Great Fire of the City on 17th and 18th of May 1849. View of the City of St. Louis.”

Why the Riv­er City nev­er learned to revere dust eludes expla­na­tion. The entire cen­tral city was destroyed by dust in 1849, when the metonymic steam­er White Cloud sent aloft a dis­charge of smol­der­ing ash, a com­mon urban atmos­pher­ic aspect of ante­bel­lum St. Louis. The dis­charge set the boat on fire, then flames leapt onto oth­er steam­boats, raw goods, roofs, and wag­ons. Dust to dust. The fire end­ed when vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers used black gun­pow­der to det­o­nate build­ings along a fire­wall. One of the vol­un­teers, Cap­tain Thomas Targee, blew him­self to king­dom come but end­ed the con­fla­gra­tion. The fire proved for­tu­itous and allowed for the cap­i­tal­iza­tion of new cast-iron-faced mod­ern ware­hous­es along the city’s aged water­front. Even­tu­al­ly those would be smashed to dust to build the Jef­fer­son Nation­al Expan­sion Memo­r­i­al at a time when bitu­mi­nous coal dust ban­ished the ris­ing sun from the city for weeks.

Demolition begins in the Mill Creek Valley. Source: St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 1959.

Then the city would man­i­cal­ly rush to make entire neigh­bor­hoods dust. Even­tu­al­ly, too, land­lords seek­ing to offload worth­less hous­es in north city dur­ing the white flight era would turn them into dust through fire, and that dust con­vert­ed to cash through insur­ance set­tle­ments. Nowa­days the fires con­tin­ue, but they don’t pro­duce exchange val­ue. They just con­sume. Usu­al­ly noth­ing replaces these build­ings. The dust pre­sum­ably set­tles some­where, much of it in our organs, so that the arti­facts of a long past speak through our ragged breath and altered vocal pitch, when dust exits us.

The James Clemens House in north city St. Louis, destroyed by fire in 2017. Photograph by the author, 2017.

No land­scape ele­ment is any­thing but an arrow toward anoth­er, usu­al­ly some­where far away. No ele­ment is a sol­id mark except in the now. In the then and the lat­er, it’s liq­uid, it’s tran­si­to­ry, it’s our own blood, the con­sti­tu­tion of which links us to bil­lions of peo­ple var­i­ous­ly dead, alive, and not yet alive.

Land­scape. Land. Shape. How. How. How.


Knowl­edge is pow­er. Bacon, Hobbes, Fou­cault, you, me?

Polit­i­cal the­o­rist Jodi Dean reminds us of the out­come of what we con­sid­er knowl­edge: We can and already do make deci­sions about who gets what, who has what, what is reward­ed, what is pun­ished, what is ampli­fied, what is thwart­ed.”7

The expanded grid of the city taking hold, 1853. Source: Map of St. Louis, Wikimedia Commons.

No land has been shaped that has not been known, and rarely has any land been known that has not been shaped. Yet, land­scape has always been pro­duced in mutu­al­i­ty, in which the know­er is shaped by the known. Some­times the know­er doesn’t want to know this. Some­times encounter pro­duces author­i­ty as a pri­ma­ry affect and igno­rance as a sec­ondary affect.

Collot plan of St. Louis, 1796. Source: Missouri History Museum Library and Collections Center.

St. Louis emanates from a great epis­temic sys­tem in ser­vice to polit­i­cal pow­er, the urban grid. The grid, sub­ject to much urban­ist ado­ra­tion, instan­ti­ates pow­er and joins land to human con­trol. Our city’s base mod­el is the Roman cas­trum with its ordi­nal fix­i­ty, the infi­nite­ly fun­gi­ble web that could cap­ture the entire planet’s sur­face. (In fact, under the pseu­do­nym of the US Pub­lic Land Sur­vey Sys­tem, it tried.) It’s a drag­net of state­craft, a matrix of tax­able land and gov­ern­able sub­jects. The web is intrin­si­cal­ly a type of pol­lu­tion, because it is a mech­a­nism for mak­ing pri­vate prop­er­ty out of com­mons, which it did after the orig­i­nal vil­lage of St. Louis devoured com­mon fields and con­flict­ing, alter­nate spa­tial plans.

Map of Granite City from 1904 promotional brochure.

In Gran­ite City, we sit on a grid with dia­grid tran­sects, a merg­er of Roman ide­al­ism and Hauss­mann­ian pomp. Does the flat plan of the city teach us any­thing? Cer­tain­ly. Does it mis­lead us at the same time? Of course. Miss­ing is what activist and crit­ic Bri­an Holmes has termed the car­tog­ra­phy of togeth­er­ness,” a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sen­so­ry order.8 We have the lines of sur­vey­ors and tax col­lec­tors, endorse­ments of pow­er, but not the aura of place, not the sense of place. No record that Gran­ite City was a vicious sun­down town from the moment the sur­vey­ors were hired to draw a line, no rep­re­sen­ta­tion show­ing that, in 1990, only 69 out of 32,862 res­i­dents were black. Ten years lat­er, in 2000, 622 out of 31,301 res­i­dents of Gran­ite City were black. That was just 18 years ago. Out­side of St. Louis. We’re left sense­less by what.

Writer Eduar­do Galeano posit­ed that Euro­peans still do not know where they are in the Amer­i­c­as, that their col­o­niza­tion is a mask hid­ing a deep igno­rance of where they are and with whom they share the con­ti­nent. Per­haps the great uni­ver­si­ty across the riv­er in St. Louis knows some­thing about where it is. With the best minds for miles around and $7.2 bil­lion in endow­ment, this school has no rote excuse for not-know­ing. In fact, it has spent mil­lions — lit­er­al­ly — to uncov­er the spa­tial pol­i­tics of the divid­ed city.” So, when its retir­ing chan­cel­lor aims for a post-col­le­giate, civic com­mit­ment, he choos­es to be the tit­u­lar head and ombuds­man for a city-coun­ty con­sol­i­da­tion draft­ed in a clos­et and fund­ed large­ly by a local oli­garch. Knowl­edge of the land­scape, knowl­edge of the divides, all seems to prof­it some­one oth­er than the inhab­i­tants stud­ied most often at school. Are the schol­ars just spec­tat­ing the trau­ma of oth­ers, study­ing divi­sion but not heal­ing divides? So far, Bet­ter Togeth­er” has held four pub­lic meet­ings with 150 seats each. 600 of the 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing across city and coun­ty have been allowed to read the chained man­u­script, to receive com­mu­nion into the chancellor’s cause. They don’t want us not to know what they don’t know. They must fear any­thing but the abstract truth. Maybe they fear them­selves most. (Sum­mon­ing the super­ego, please — the ego is mak­ing the map of the future again!)

Mayor Raymond Tucker and Sidney Mastre gaze at the Mill Creek Valley in St. Louis, 1956. Source: Missouri History Museum Library and Collections Center.

But it’s not what; it’s how, again. (And again.) The chan­cel­lor is not a tem­po­ral­ly vac­u­um-packed agent of oppres­sion. He fol­lows cen­turies of the pow­er­ful not-know­ing by know­ing, the dom­i­na­tor cul­ture” that bell hooks has iden­ti­fied.9 The ear­ly French colo­nial set­tlers across the riv­er from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty thought that the mounds of Cahokia had to be the achieve­ments of a white peo­ple, or Toltecs, or maybe Hin­dus, but cer­tain­ly not the sav­age” indige­nous Amer­i­cans that they had encoun­tered. Freud says we tend to aggress most severe­ly against our imme­di­ate neigh­bors, right?

And so it went, until Cyrus Thomas pub­lished in the late 1880s a case that unknown — and, I sub­mit, still unknow­able — peo­ple had built the mounds.10 Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans. The mounds were no longer nat­u­ral­ized ruins, sub­ject to pro­ject­ed pasts, but some­thing with real incom­plete mate­r­i­al fact. The igno­rance of the truth — the onto­log­i­cal heav­i­ness of Cahokia as some­thing to be known only a lit­tle more than now — has been too much for many white folks. They keep retreat­ing to the safer igno­rance of author­i­ty. They con­vince them­selves that they know the place and they know who lived here, not through their shit, but through some cul­tur­al essence.

If any­one ever thinks that they know your cul­tur­al essence, run. They prob­a­bly want your land or your life.


Now that we have the word Anthro­pocene,” we may think that we know what time it is. We may think that we have liv­ing proof.

Or we may be fac­ing a new mil­lenar­i­an­ism, where we whis­per a word that we hope will absolve us, resolve our ways, reshape our world, and make the plan­e­tary moment some­thing that fun­da­men­tal­ly is about our capac­i­ty for reform.

Or we may be in denial.

Or we may real­ize that the lie of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy has final­ly over­tak­en its sup­posed truth, a long painful eclipse. Anthro­pocene is not com­men­su­rate with Anthro­pos unless every human had equal pow­er to shape this time, equal wealth and equal cul­pa­bil­i­ty. Which Anthro­pos do we mean? We’ve avoid­ed answer­ing that ques­tion, hop­ing that we die, retire, hide behind a pro­tect­ed gate or get tenure before it gets answered, and mean­while too often silenc­ing those who have dared to ask.

Latour writes that humans aren’t up to the chal­lenge of now because they think that the root cause and root pas­sage through this era revolve around Anthro­pos instead of Plani­tis. We see the signs, detect the waves, and then see our­selves as cen­tral. We are great at aim­ing to know in order to end up not-know­ing in pro­found ways.

Can it be anoth­er way? Does it matter?

Is it pos­si­ble that, when we talk about the Anthro­pocene, when we read the land­scape for evi­dence of cat­a­stroph­ic forces, we are look­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly for a new pol­i­tics? Pol­i­tics will always be a human pur­suit, and with­in pol­i­tics we study land­scapes like St. Louis and the Amer­i­can Bot­tom, and with­in pol­i­tics we either let these places speak us or we choose to speak them in new ways.

Message from a dead retail storefront in north St. Louis County. Photograph by the author, 2016.

But speech is an act, acts come from pow­er, and pow­er is knowl­edge. To act dif­fer­ent­ly, we must know differently.

Yet, pol­i­tics with­out sys­tems con­scious­ness, with­out a ded­i­cat­ed under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ships that make the things, the how that we’ve man­aged to per­pet­u­ate as we study its affect — that may be no pol­i­tics at all. With­draw­al — anoth­er human thing, tried and true.

Hiding out. Nightmare City at The Luminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Source: photograph by the author, 2016.

Apart. A part. A part of what?

Tourist always found, or human always lost but not alone?

Track your pol­lu­tion, make a log of your know­ing, and map the land­scape that you make every day.

There is the Anthro­pocene. Right there, on the scale that you pro­duce. And that you can undo.

Sign on Illinois Route 3 in Granite City, Illinois. Photograph by the author, 2019.

What on that map don’t you like, and how will you change that?


By Sarah Kanouse

In March 2019, just as win­ter turned to spring, Michael Allen deliv­ered this essay as a lec­ture-per­for­mance to about fifty peo­ple crowd­ed into an unheat­ed, ram­shackle store­front in Gran­ite City, Illi­nois. Per­haps half hailed from the St. Louis area, drawn by the open­ing recep­tion for artist-cura­tor Gavin Kroeber’s Art + Land­scape” exhi­bi­tion, which sprawled across indoor and out­door spaces in the scrap­py, artist-led Gran­ite City Art and Design Dis­trict and includ­ed Allen’s per­for­mance. The oth­er half, includ­ing me, hailed from a glob­al else­where — a group of vis­it­ing schol­ars and artists affil­i­at­ed with the Haus der Kul­turen der Welt’s sprawl­ing project, Mis­sis­sip­pi: An Anthro­pocene Riv­er. Hav­ing spent much of the day think­ing about the Anthro­pocene land­scapes of St. Louis, we were a sym­pa­thet­ic audi­ence, and every­thing about the per­for­mance just worked. The chipped linoleum floor, the uncom­fort­able chairs, the table­top pro­jec­tor beam­ing snap­shots, maps, and his­tor­i­cal imagery at the wall, and above all Allen’s deliv­ery — part beat poet, part tour guide, part wry com­men­ta­tor — were all inex­tri­ca­bly part of the expe­ri­ence. You just had to be there. 

I found myself long­ing for Allen’s per­for­mance while read­ing its script for Forty-Five. Ani­mat­ed by Allen’s voice, the open­ing invo­ca­tion of names and events from the his­to­ry of St. Louis drew vis­i­tors to the city into its palimpses­ts. It didn’t mat­ter that some ref­er­ences engen­dered flash­es of recog­ni­tion and oth­ers not at all. Allen’s voice and ges­tures gave the litany a spell­bind­ing qual­i­ty, and what wasn’t leg­i­ble became evoca­tive. Sim­i­lar­ly, the rhetor­i­cal ques­tions and rever­sals that pep­per the script reg­is­tered dur­ing the live read­ing as active thought exper­i­ments. In print, it is more dif­fi­cult to fol­low Allen on this deep time dérive of St. Louis. He ges­tures to pos­si­ble argu­ments — most provoca­tive­ly the deep time mate­r­i­al entan­gle­ment of St. Louis’s bio­log­i­cal inhab­i­tants with var­i­ous forms of dust, ash, and, in the case of the West Lake Land­fill, poten­tial­ly explo­sive wastes — but what the con­nec­tions mean remains sug­ges­tive­ly fuzzy. You just had to be there, in the same room, feel­ing it out together. 

Pre­sent­ed on the page or screen, Allen’s words are stripped from the flow of time and no longer inhab­it­ed by a speaking/​thinking/​sensing sub­ject. The reader’s recep­tion of the text may be con­di­tioned by expec­ta­tions of pre­ci­sion and author­i­ty that thwart Allen’s inten­tions. Dear read­er, please lay those expec­ta­tions aside. At the same time, I wish Allen had employed some of the affor­dances of print, like addi­tion­al foot­notes, extend­ed image cap­tions, and even mar­gin­al anno­ta­tions (per­haps as images) — to help mod­u­late between one reg­is­ter and the other. 

On a relat­ed note, Allen’s piece promi­nent­ly uses the first-per­son plur­al pro­noun, we.” In the con­text of the orig­i­nal per­for­mance, the term we” seemed local­ly ref­er­en­tial: an assem­bly of audi­ence and speak­er linked by par­tic­i­pa­tion in con­tem­po­rary art, a shared inter­est in the St. Louis land­scape, and engage­ment with ideas of the Anthro­pocene. The print piece has a poten­tial­ly more gen­er­al pub­lic, a less spe­cif­ic we” that risks stand­ing in as a gener­ic uni­ver­sal. Con­trary to Latour’s claim, para­phrased by Allen, that humans aren’t up to the chal­lenge of now because they think that the root cause and root pas­sage through this era revolve around the Anthro­pos instead of the Plani­tis,” there exist many thriv­ing epis­te­molo­gies that have nev­er lost sight of the entan­gle­ment of the human in a more-than-human world. More­over, as Rob Nixon notes, plan­e­tary envi­ron­men­tal rhetorics can be valu­able but risk a uni­ver­sal­iz­ing, tran­scen­den­tal analy­sis in a way that sets up the prob­lem as humanity’s prob­lem with­out dis­crim­i­nat­ing among the slow vio­lence unleashed by dif­fer­ent nation­al and transna­tion­al actors.”11 In a piece deeply attuned to how racism, cap­i­tal­ism, and mil­i­tarism co-pro­duce urban space, clar­i­fy­ing who the we” includes, excludes, and only par­tial­ly encom­pass­es would help show how, to para­phrase Nixon, we” may all reside in an Anthro­pocene land­scape, just not in the same way.12


By Rachel Leibowitz

The aim of med­i­tat­ing about the world is final­ly to change the world.”
Don­ald Barthelme13

Thomas Pyn­chon14

15 April 2019

Is it true that all that is sol­id melts into air, and all that is holy is pro­faned? Is it?

Paris is burn­ing. To be more spe­cif­ic, the Cathe­dral of Notre-Dame de Paris is on fire. Now, as I write. Engulfed in flames.

As I sit here in my office in a his­toric build­ing in a for­mer­ly-great Rust Belt city, a city that once was an indus­tri­al pow­er­house built upon the shores of a lake sacred to the Ononda­ga Nation and the Hau­denosaunee Con­fed­er­a­cy that now dou­bles as a Super­fund site…the spire of the cathe­dral has already suc­cumbed to the blaze. It has fall­en, per­ished. The roof is sure­ly next. Then what?

In How Not What,” Michael Allen instructs us to describe what places do instead of what they are” and to make lists and maps of the ways in which we humans make imprints upon the land every day. Activ­i­ties, actions; how, not what.


One ques­tion keeps pop­ping up in my mind, over and over: What matters?”

Our build­ings, our land­scapes, our mon­u­ments, our every­day places — even the shit and the blood Allen men­tions repeatedly…

What mat­ters? What mat­ters? What matters?

Like a mantra, that’s what thrums in my brain, the soft tis­sue and elec­tri­cal impuls­es that help me to process it all, to get through it all. I do not know the answer. I nev­er have. All these years work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, a preser­va­tion­ist, a his­to­ri­an, a pub­lic ser­vant, an edu­ca­tor, the ques­tion has been plagu­ing me. What matters?

But mantras are for med­i­ta­tion, and this is not an act of meditation.

How not what,” Allen charges. Or is it a help­ful sug­ges­tion? He asks, Can it be anoth­er way? Does it matter?”

Does what mat­ter? Doesn’t what” matter? 

What mat­ters? What mat­ters? What matters. 

Ash­es to ash­es, dust to dust.

I sit here, hor­ri­fied and tem­porar­i­ly par­a­lyzed, and I am won­der­ing what will replace the great cathe­dral. I have nev­er been to Paris, I have nev­er seen Notre-Dame, yet I feel such shock and sad­ness, as if I knew it inti­mate­ly. It was announced a moment ago that a fundrais­er to restore — or rebuild — the cathe­dral will begin tomor­row. Oth­er news out­lets are report­ing that the focus so far has been on sal­vaging works of art and relics, and the 850-year-old build­ing will not be saved. Crowds of peo­ple are sur­round­ing the trag­ic site, watch­ing the con­fla­gra­tion, sob­bing and singing hymns.

Life is suf­fer­ing. Accord­ing to the Bud­dha, life is suf­fer­ing, and attach­ment is suf­fer­ing. Yet, the Bud­dha also taught that suf­fer­ing is not with­out its caus­es, and those can change, and suf­fer­ing can end.

Much of Allen’s essay focus­es on what we” (humans) know, what we don’t know or can’t know, how com­fort­able we are with not-know­ing — what we stead­fast­ly choose to ignore, to deny, to avoid. But these are intel­lec­tu­al process­es, strate­gies for deal­ing with grief over the loss of places that are sig­nif­i­cant to us, the sad­ness and the anger felt when his­to­ry and its asso­ci­a­tions with­in a place are denied or dis­count­ed for polit­i­cal obfus­ca­tion, pri­vate prof­it, or oth­er rea­sons. Allen writes, No land has been shaped that has not been known, and rarely has any land been known that has not been shaped. Yet, land­scape has always been pro­duced in mutu­al­i­ty, in which the know­er is shaped by the known. Some­times the know­er doesn’t want to know this.”

Still, we know.

As Carl O. Sauer and oth­er geo­g­ra­phers, his­to­ri­ans, and philoso­phers after him have said, humans shape the land, the land shapes us. The land has informed sea­far­ing cul­tures, desert cul­tures, moun­tain and val­ley cul­tures, frozen cul­tures, agri­cul­tures — and those, in turn, fur­ther shaped the lands they occu­pied to suit their needs. That inter­de­pen­dence con­tin­ues; it is cease­less. Mate­r­i­al shapes cul­ture shapes mate­r­i­al. What, how, what, how, what.

The land has long told us of its lim­its, things it can­not do, things it will not do. It is not in its best inter­ests to accom­mo­date us, our needs and our desires. Of course, the land does not know as we know, it does not care as we care; it has no moral­i­ty, no ethics (but humans do). It is in a con­stant state of change, of motion. Big (dhar­ma) wheel keep on turnin’. Pratītyasamut­pā­da—depen­dent arising:

When this is, that is.
From the aris­ing of this comes the aris­ing of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the ces­sa­tion of this comes the ces­sa­tion of that.

Inter­de­pen­dent exis­tence. Pro­duced in mutu­al­i­ty,” Allen says. Just as Sauer and all the oth­ers said.

The com­ple­ment to pratītyasamut­pā­da is sūny­atā, empti­ness. What­ev­er aris­es depen­dent­ly is emp­ty of inher­ent exis­tence. And because every­thing aris­es in depen­dence with oth­er caus­es and con­di­tions, all is emp­ty of inher­ent exis­tence. There is noth­ing that is not emp­ty. Very reassuring.

In oth­er words, what matters.

The vacant lots of St. Louis, Mis­souri, are emp­ty, though they are not emp­ty of mat­ter or of what mat­ters. In fact, they are full of mat­ter, which means they are also full of ener­gy — soils teem­ing with poi­sons and poten­tials we can­not see, flo­ra and fau­na of wide­ly diver­gent shapes and sizes, his­to­ry we may or may not know, and the fan­tasies of the chil­dren who play in such places or the plans politi­cians and devel­op­ers have for them. Land­scape archi­tects and cul­tur­al land­scape his­to­ri­ans under­stand this. They rec­og­nize what mat­ters with­in vacant lots. So often, too often, archi­tects imag­ine vacant lots as voids, as if they were emp­ty of causal exis­tence and free of con­di­tions—tab­u­la rasa. But this is impos­si­ble. The open spaces, the sites of the for­mer this or the future that, exist not inde­pen­dent­ly, but only inter­de­pen­dent­ly. From the aris­ing of this comes the aris­ing ofthat.

Mat­ter is what makes them emp­ty. What makes them empty.

What mat­ters? What.



See Don­na J. Har­away, Stay­ing with the Trou­ble: Anthro­pocene, Capi­tolocene, Cth­lu­lucene,” Anthro­pocene or Capi­tolocene? Nature, His­to­ry and the Cri­sis of Cap­i­tal­ism, ed. Jason W. More (Oak­land, CA: PM Press, 2016).


Claire Pen­te­cost, Notes on the Project Called Con­ti­nen­tal Drift,” in Com­pass Col­lab­o­ra­tors, Deep Routes: The Mid­west in All Direc­tions, eds. Roza­lin­da Bor­cilā, Bon­nie For­tune, and Sarah Ross (White Wire, 2012), 18.


Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Pol­i­tics in the New Cli­mat­ic Régime (Med­ford, MA: Poli­ty Press, 2018), 94.


Susan Alt, Cahoki­a’s Boom and Bust in the Con­text of Cli­mate Change,” Amer­i­can Antiq­ui­ty (July 2009): 467.


A.J. White, Lora R. Stevens, Varen­ka Loren­zi, Samuel E. Munoz, Sis­sel Schroed­er, Angel­i­ca Cao, and Tay­lor Bog­danovich, Fecal Stanols Show Simul­ta­ne­ous Flood­ing and Sea­son­al Pre­cip­i­ta­tion Change Cor­re­late with Cahokia’s Pop­u­la­tion Decline,” Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences 112: 12 (March 19, 2019): 5461 – 5466.


For an argu­ment sup­port­ing excres­cence as the ori­gin of real prop­er­ty, see Michel Ser­res, Malfeasence: Appro­pri­a­tion Through Pol­lu­tion? (Stan­ford, CA: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011), 1 – 15.


Jodi Dean, The Com­mu­nist Hori­zon (New York, NY: Ver­so, 2018), 118.


Bri­an Holmes, Car­tog­ra­phy with Your Feet: Work­shop Pro­pos­al for Beneath the Uni­ver­si­ty, the Com­mons”,” Deep Routes, 118.


bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Mas­culin­i­ty, Change (New York, NY: Wash­ing­ton Square Press, 2004), 115.


Cyrus Thomas, Work in Mound Explo­ration of the Bureau of Eth­nol­o­gy,” Bureau of Eth­nol­o­gy Bul­letin 4 (1887): 1 – 15.


Ash­ley Daw­son, Slow Vio­lence and the Envi­ron­men­tal­ism of the Poor: An Inter­view with Rob Nixon,” Social Text Online, August 31, 2011: https://​social​tex​tjour​nal​.org/​s​l​o​w​_​v​i​o​l​e​n​c​e​_​a​n​d​_​t​h​e​_​e​n​v​i​r​o​n​m​e​n​t​a​l​i​s​m​_​o​f​_​t​h​e​_​p​o​o​r​_​a​n​_​i​n​t​e​r​v​i​e​w​_​w​i​t​h​_​r​o​b​_​n​ixon/.


Rob Nixon, The Anthro­pocene: The Promise and Pit­falls of an Epochal Idea,” Edge Effects, Novem­ber 6, 2014: http://​edge​ef​fects​.net/​a​n​t​h​r​o​p​o​c​e​n​e​-​p​r​o​m​i​s​e​-​a​n​d​-​p​i​t​f​alls/.


Don­ald Barthelme, Not-Know­ing,” in Kim Herzinger, ed., Not-Know­ing: The Essays and Inter­views of Don­ald Barthelme (Berke­ley, CA: Coun­ter­point, 1997), 24.


Thomas Pyn­chon, epi­graph to chap­ter 4, The Coun­ter­force,” in Gravity’s Rain­bow (New York, NY: Viking, 1973), 617.


Thānis­saro Bikkhu, The Shape of Suf­fer­ing: A Study of Depen­dent Co-aris­ing (Val­ley Cen­ter, CA: Met­ta For­est Monastery, 2008), 16.


Michael R. Allen works as an aca­d­e­m­ic researcher, his­to­ri­an, teacher, design crit­ic, pub­lic artist, crit­i­cal spa­tial tour guide, and her­itage con­ser­va­tion­ist in pri­vate prac­tice. Cur­rent­ly, he is a Senior Lec­tur­er in Archi­tec­ture, Land­scape Archi­tec­ture and Urban Design, as well as a Lec­tur­er in Amer­i­can Cul­tur­al Stud­ies (AMCS), at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis, where he served as Coor­di­na­tor of the AMCS Mas­ter of Arts degree from 2014 – 2018. Allen’s uni­ver­si­ty teach­ing has focused on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary inves­ti­ga­tion of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry, cul­tur­al land­scapes, the eco­nom­ics of real estate and the pol­i­tics of urban plan­ning. Addi­tion­al­ly, since 2009, Allen has been Direc­tor of the Preser­va­tion Research Office, a her­itage con­sul­tan­cy, and is a fed­er­al­ly qual­i­fied archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an who has worked on numer­ous preser­va­tion projects across the coun­try. He con­tributed to the Mel­lon Divid­ed City”-funded Chart­ing the Amer­i­can Bot­tom cul­tur­al land­scape guide and, with Nora Wendl, man­aged the Pruitt Igoe Now ideas com­pe­ti­tion. The bind­ing ties in his research are inves­ti­ga­tion of the ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­sti­tu­tion of archi­tec­tur­al and infra­struc­tur­al space, a com­mit­ment to study­ing mate­r­i­al her­itage and its con­ser­va­tion, and advo­ca­cy for the forms of lib­er­a­to­ry agency that real­ize the poten­tial of the mod­ern metrop­o­lis to dis­trib­ute wealth, knowl­edge. and shel­ter. Allen’s essays have appeared in a wide range of schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar sources, such as Build­ings and Land­scapes, City­Lab, Dis­eg­no, Next City, Tem­po­rary Art Review, the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch, the St. Louis Amer­i­can, and Stud­ies in the His­to­ry of Gar­dens and Designed Land­scapes. Begin­ning in fall 2019, he will be pur­su­ing a Ph.D. in Cul­tur­al Her­itage at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Birm­ing­ham. Web­site: http://​michael​-allen​.org Email: michael@​michael-​allen.​org

Sarah Kanouse is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist and crit­i­cal writer exam­in­ing the pol­i­tics of land­scape and space. Migrat­ing between video, pho­tog­ra­phy, and per­for­ma­tive forms, her research- based cre­ative projects shift the visu­al dimen­sion of the land­scape to allow hid­den sto­ries of envi­ron­men­tal and social trans­for­ma­tion to emerge. Her cre­ative work has been screened or exhib­it­ed at Doc­u­men­ta 13, the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art Chica­go, the Coop­er Union, the Clark Art Insti­tute, the Smart Muse­um, the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art Detroit, and in numer­ous aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions includ­ing CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin. She has writ­ten about per­for­ma­tive and site-based con­tem­po­rary art prac­tices in the jour­nals Acme, Leonar­do, Par­al­lax, and Art Jour­nal, as well the edit­ed vol­umes Ecolo­gies, Agents, Ter­rains (2018); Crit­i­cal Land­scapes: Art, Space, Pol­i­tics (2015); Art Against the Law (2015); and Map­ping Envi­ron­men­tal Issues in the City (2011).2019 Rachel Car­son Fel­low at Lud­wig Max­i­m­il­ian Uni­ver­si­ty of Munich, Kanouse holds a per­ma­nent posi­tion in the Depart­ment of Art + Design at North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, where she directs the MFA pro­gram in Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Arts. She earned her MFA degree in Stu­dio Art from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign and a BA in Art, magna cum laude, from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty. Email: s.​kanouse@​northeastern.​edu

Rachel Lei­bowitz is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture at the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Col­lege of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) and a co-direc­tor of its Cen­ter for Cul­tur­al Land­scape Preser­va­tion. She has taught cours­es in the his­to­ry of archi­tec­ture and land­scape archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign. Leibowitz’s past prac­tice includes posi­tions at two Chica­go archi­tec­ture firms, the His­toric Preser­va­tion Divi­sion of the City of Chica­go, and the state his­toric preser­va­tion offices of Texas and Illi­nois. Most recent­ly, she served for five years as the Deputy State His­toric Preser­va­tion Offi­cer for Illi­nois and Divi­sion Head of the State His­toric Preser­va­tion Office there. Lei­bowitz earned BFA and MFA degrees in pho­tog­ra­phy from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis and Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty in New Orleans, respec­tive­ly, and a Mas­ter of Archi­tec­ture degree and a Ph.D. in Land­scape Archi­tec­ture (His­to­ry and The­o­ry) from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign. She is a board mem­ber of both the Alliance for His­toric Land­scape Preser­va­tion and the Preser­va­tion Asso­ci­a­tion of Cen­tral New York and a past board mem­ber of the Ver­nac­u­lar Archi­tec­ture Forum. Email: leibowitz@​esf.​edu