In the organic world […] soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 500 million years ago. At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter –energy that made up life – underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone. It is almost as if the mineral world that had served as a substratum for the emergence of biological creatures was reasserting itself, confirming that geology, far from having been left behind as a primitive stage of the earth’s evolution, fully coexisted with the soft, gelatinous newcomers.
— Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
My friend sent me a voice-note two days ago explaining that the tongue has perfect sight and knows what everything feels like just by looking. I am looking at a .jpeg of clay hands emerging from a tiled wall and I know the grainy digits, the brief salt, the pressed fingerprints and the sediment mixing with my saliva.
Long before I knew this fact about the tongue, I have wanted to put things in my mouth to see. Specifically, mud, wet earth, sand and clay. One of my front teeth is visibly worn down because, lying on a beach, I found grains of sand in my mouth and instead of spitting them out I crunched and ground them down. For those minutes, their splitting echoed in my ears from the inside and drowned the sound of the sea. My aunt used to eat iron-rich Kenyan red clay soil. She is telling me about it, 60 years later, and I can tell her mouth is watering. Her mother’s swift palm did not shift that insatiability but seasoning
the land around the house with chilli powder did.
Krishna, a blue-skinned god and a child at the time, was caught eating mud by his mother too. He denied it, but his mother, sure of his naive lie, said ‘Show me’. Not wanting to disturb his mortal mother’s parental affections, he obliged, and in his open mouth, she saw the whole cosmos spinning, right there amongst his milk teeth. For a moment, in the face of eternity, struck with doubt and wonder, she was no longer a mother. In fact, all binaries of self dissolved along with all obligations to care or to question. And in a blink, she returned as if from a daydream. Back to the līlā, the yogmāyā, this cosmic play, this divine illusion, where they were forgetting-remembering, parent-child, truth-lie, mud-mouth, this-that, you-me.
We left red soil and may never eat it again. We are in the Finchley Depression for good. During the last Ice Age, a glacial tongue pushed its way through my current hometown, which was then a valley and is now high ground. The glacier that had covered most of Britain stopped by Finchley Road station, melted, and deposited the rocks it had borne for millennia. Boulder clay sits on top of river gravel, which sits on top of London clay, here, with tropical fruit fossils and bones of animals that lived and died in far seas. Today, an allotment and London’s first publicly owned cemetery lie on opposite borders of the elevation, and the asphalt of various A roads and steel tracks sear about the remains.
Now, with this tongue-memory, the weight of clay floors me. It makes me want to lie down and let my bones sink. My tongue loosens a little from its anchor in the hyoid bone, and the hyoid bone settles into the sheets of muscle in which it is suspended. It is the only bone in the body that does not articulate with any other bone. It floats in our throats with four horns and carries an archive of speech and suckling. Sometimes, when my whole mouth is stiff with anxiety, the bone tugs at my tongue and aches. That convergence at the throat’s peak holds the things we feel but don’t articulate, and the slippery sore tongue holds the things we articulate but don’t say.
Subvocalisation is the micromovement of our speech organs reciting our inner monologue. How far inside and under does this inside-under voice go? If I really listened to it, my marrow could be a polyglot like clay slip, swirling with an ancient thrum. Lying there, I strain to hear that sedimented language. There is a tremor that passes through each of my diaphragms: from base of throat to roof of belly down to pelvic floor, making my legs shake. The movement is coming from some internal edge, just beyond the margin of control and sense. I feel the old rumble echo from a distance before it rushes through my muscled bones, taking my knees into its charge.
Before the speech and suckling days, in warm amniotic waters, we had the beginnings of gills. It’s as if a billion years of evolutionary history was downloaded in utero and lived at high-speed. Those pre-gills abandon the fishy prophecy to become the three tiny bones of our middle ear (hammer, anvil and stirrup), the tube that connects ear-nose-throat, the carotid artery, the larynx, the tonsils and the cranial nerves. And I wonder how many tiny middle-ear bones, or amphibious bones on their way to becoming ears, are lying crushed and impacted in this clay that I want to put in my mouth.
If fish quietly announce their part in all this seemingly singular subjectivity, how far back and down can I take this body before it disintegrates past pulp and powder to join the others? Minerals, too, the very smallest actors on this stage, refuse passivity. It would do me good to remember that the smallest of me (of us), minerals and microbes, have the most collective agency, making me believe my desires are mine and secret. Like my mud-lust or my anaemic mum’s fleeting urge to swipe a blade over her tongue to taste blood.
Life likely evolved from ‘non-life’ in pockets of clay in a process known as abiogenesis. I take my tongue-sight way back into the primordial stew and try to see the steaming seabed catching magma under a red sky. The warm silt is still sour with the memory of sulphur. The origins of our composite cells and relative personhood began their aeon-long courtship in that common ground. To be made of clay and bone, prehistoric sinew and many waters, is to be inhabited by elemental ancestors and ghosts, embodiments beyond whatever ‘we’, in this fallible, present assemblage might present as. So, does the plasma (that is me) recognise the microplastics (that are also me) in my bloodstream as a cousin? Plastic, that deathless polymer, was first born from coal tar and wood alcohol, known as formaldehyde, the embalmer, and phenol, the disinfectant, respectively.
There are horror stories across space and time that tell us what happens when we disturb the dead. Bodies and their parts lie dormant to the naked eye, but beneath the surface, they’re churning. Digestion might take forever. Decomposition is that ecstatic release of riches. Brief griefless endings and deathlessness keeps the planet’s crust in morbid stagnation. Jesse says that to extract is to exhume and all my thinking about bones and clay have spiralled from the image of layered bodies and grave robbing. We, ashen or decayed, or an anomaly in the striation of a rockface, need time to pass back our accumulated wealth.
The only way to know when, how and why is to grieve and even then reason falters. The grief he grief he grief he grief might lie just below the surface. I am writing this on the sixth anniversary of my dad’s… passing, and his cremated remains that were given to a goddess river far away might have made it back to me by now. In breath or in water, or even buried deep inside the oats of my breakfast. He’s taken his time, rid of fact, form and parenthood.
I am in my bones again. I’ve stopped shaking and I’m lying still, in śavāsana, the seat of the corpse. I exhale and, for a moment, resist my inhale, imagining my heart slowing. My spine yields to gravity, and each vertebra of its column draws to the centre of the earth, as though this skeleton and all its mineral parts are tempting return.
It was only 8,000 years ago that we turned the ground inside-out to cast an exoskeleton for ourselves. Sun dried clay became bricks and buildings, which in turn became our means to move and settle. Sparkling empires were excavated with no intention of demise. The miles of concrete, steel and plastic that mark in-or out stay up, dreaming of decay. But, the towers and pillars of our great cities might benefit from lying flat once in a while, becoming ruin while we become corpse. Embody collapse just once to see what happens. These bones, these tongues and lungs, and their inheritance, want to be metabolised by grief in the end, with eventual dissolution and eternal circulation in these toxic soils.
Accumulations within this text include:
Conversations with Jesse Darling, Nisha Matthew, Emii Alrai, Jack Ky Tan, Rachel Pimm, my aunt and the Google search bar. Reading Sebastian De Line, Manuel DeLanda, Italo Calvino, Nick Papadimitriou, Ursula Le Guin, Layli Long Soldier, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Nicola Singh. Listening to Leila Sadeghee, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Okwui Okpokwasili in Camden Art Centre’s Earth and World podcast, mushrooms and the sound of shells crushing underfoot in Camber Sands. And other things.
Correspondences: Jesse Darling and Sebastian De Line Excerpts from an on-going conversation between artist and scholar Sebastian De Line and Jesse Darling
Sebastian: I’m honoured that you read my article, ‘Clay and Common Ground’1. I’m still thinking about our earlier correspondence.
Jesse: I’m thinking about petrochemical by-products – especially in light of clay as an organic material. I’m wondering if there’s a way to make kin with these fossil plastics that will outlive us. I’m thinking about what I call the ‘mining wound’, the settler-colonial/imperial-capitalist prerogative to dig up the dead and produce more death in a mechanized cycle, which is anomalous in human history at this scale, especially since mishandling of the dead has been for many good reasons taboo in pretty much every human culture in recorded history. I’m thinking about how we might go about mourning this mining wound; about soil remediation; land rights and legal remediation; plastic as a technology of immortality; contagion; queerness; extraction; intractability; about the notion of private property as a form of censure and enclosure of spirit.
Sebastian: Perhaps, rather than making kin with petrochemical by-products, society may come to acknowledge that we’re already kin. Think of petrochemical by-products as those toxic relatives we see every year at family gatherings whom we don’t want to talk to yet we’re forced to live alongside.
We have relational kinships with everything, and everything has spirit or life force moving through it. According to natural law, we’re each responsible for maintaining a balance between all the elements making up the earth and skies. These same agential elements co-exist within our human bodies (earth/soil/clay, water, fire, air and space) while constantly undulating in waves of flux. What phase of the life cycle are petrochemical by-products in as they live on throughout countless generations? How much of our bodies consist of petrochemical plastics that we’ve inhaled or consumed and absorbed into our tissues and cells? How do we rebalance ourselves and our kinship circles? What aspects of nature need to be restored so that we might continue to live comfortably alongside all our relatives as kin? I say ‘live comfortably’, because it will become increasingly uncomfortable to live on earth with extreme weather – heat, cold, forest fires, floods, storms. Nature continually balances itself – that’s the essence of natural law – but what of the extreme imbalances in capitalist extraction, the over-production of materials that are chemically altered from their original embodied forms of mattering? When we throw energy and elements out of balance by digging up the dead and producing more death, how do we rebalance, and what are the repercussions of such choices? The paradox is that in digging up the dead and not respecting the resting of those kin, we’re making all of life’s kin continually labour to create products that are designed to ease our lives.
If Western society acknowledged and respected that everything has spirit/life force and is our kin, who would ‘own’ the earth as property? Why do we accept people and institutions owning divided parts of our mother, the earth, or the stones, our grandparents, the oldest witnesses, who move and live at a deeper and slower pace than the rest us, hearing, feeling and experiencing all things that have passed among them?
I remember when I was a child and they first started bottling drinking water, I thought this was the most absurd thing in the world – bottling that which is free and meant for everyone to sustain life. Now clean water is so contaminated, many of us have to drink bottled water or boil it before use. We cut down too many trees and when we do that, we deprive ourselves of oxygen, and we wonder why our mental, physical, spiritual health suffers. Rather than owning land and materials as objects of property, we must (re)awaken and remember how to live by the fundamental natural laws, respecting all of life’s creations as our relatives while living reciprocally together. There’s always an exchange in life: we offer a gift before asking permission to receive. We only use what we need, and we let go or give away the rest. Our struggle with letting go is often connected to a fear of death or inability to grieve. When we come to understand that the doorway to birth and death leads to the same place where our ancestors reside in the spirit world, we may learn to become less afraid of this home to which we’ll all return one day, trusting that our kin will be there to greet us when it’s our time to return. When we choose life-affirming ways of knowing, being and doing on earth, and we learn how to honour all that came before us, all that live among us, and all that live beyond our comprehension, we begin to reorientate life’s course.
Jesse Darling, Excerpts from letters to devynn emory in ‘Some days lately I touch a sense of peace’. Commissioned for ‘one looped year but the lake’, a journal series at Danspace Projects curated by writer and teacher Asiya Wadud in 2021
I’ve been thinking about you, or maybe with you, a lot. There’s much I’d like to say. Today is grey as February should be – though in the last week I’ve blossomed, with a conflicted heart, at the unseasonal sun. I sat last night by the water and watched the sun go down and thought it would be nice to have a ‘real’ conversation someday, but then I remembered that this is a real conversation; or at least, it’s what we’ve got. I have a hunch that the collective unconscious has us seeking connection and corroboration across time and space, less mediated and performative, more generative and exploratory. As though there is something urgent to learn from it, from each other. The reason for that urgency isn’t clear to me yet, but we always discover the method in it eventually.
I can and cannot imagine what the 13-hour days in the hospital might do to you. I’ve been thinking too of your secret injury. You know, as a dancer, that the body is smart and it will tell you the truth even if you don’t want to listen – the best and sternest teacher, as you said. I mean, the mourning we don’t have time or space to process now will show itself in our limbs and guts; not just one’s own sorrows but the sorrows of the mother and father, of one’s own people whoever they are, of those like and unlike us. You know this as a healer. Those who work with the sick and the dying must themselves find ways to lose the sorrow they hold, somehow. I feel like ‘after this’ there will be so much holding of one another, so much work to do. I don’t know much about your life beyond your work (which maybe is a lot of what you’re doing right now, by the sound of it) but I’m glad you have the cat, whose purring – at the frequency of 25-150 hertz – is a good vibration that promotes healing and strength in the bodies alongside it.
I’ve thought so much lately about the big grief work we are all being called to engage in. You are at the front of this wave, carrying the social body as we start to take stock of what’s lost. In TCM the lung is supposed to be the site of stored grief, which is to say that if that grief is not addressed, the lung will develop a malaise. I’ve been thinking about what happens to my own body when I consistently refuse to heed its signs. I’ve been thinking of Covid-19.
I thought about you and your left arm. Now I wear a brace on my left wrist too, a racist brace in rubberised Caucasian beige with a big old steel plate on the inside that follows the curve of my palm. And I think of Preciado, another old-world racist, who writes “I am linked by T[estosterone] to electricity, to genetic research projects, to mega-urbanization, to the destruction of forests and the biosphere, to pharmaceutical exploitation of living species, to Dolly the cloned sheep, to the advance of the Ebola virus, to HIV mutation, to antipersonnel mines and the broadband transmission of information. In this way, I become one of the somatic connectives that make possible the circulation of power, desire, release, submission, capital, rubbish, and rebellion.” And I think oh yes – we are all a part of everything – all these things coming to live and die i us. So much to say but words can’t contain it, although they have to, we have to.
I have a working theory, probably developed elsewhere by smarter and more eloquent people, that one of the originary traumas of modernity (like the one that made the others possible) is the Cartesian split – when body and mind, male and female, ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, living and dying, feeling and knowing were separated into 1-0 binary, with the zero being the space of liminality and undertow, underworld, undercommons – and the one being that which signifies, additive and sovereign. In colonial modernity these are hierarchised, unlike the yin/yang of harmonious balance in all being. But I feel like this is shifting. The canonical theology of modernity is showing its asymmetries and arrogance, the very idea of apocalypse itself an eschatological phenomenon, Christian settler terror metabolising its own violence as fear. It feels like suddenly there’s a lot to learn from indigeneity, a hunger for that knowledge – perhaps because indigenous people in colonial nation-states have already survived an apocalypse or two or three. Do you experience this hunger as a burden or as a gift, or both? When you get wary, how do you navigate?
While sitting by the water I thought about how much my relationship to place has been marred by the enforcement of private property, especially in England where I grew up and where there are functionally no common lands: an enclosure that fed directly into settler colonialism. Like the mind itself experiences an enclosure and a censure: forbidden to consider the ground one’s own, which means you may never develop a relationship with it, never need to take responsibility for it. Another wound. And I thought too of the bucolic American fantasies of land seized and stolen – Whitman, Walden – the arc of desire that makes a stolen thing one’s own. Somewhere in all this there must be a way to love and work with/in the places we find ourselves, spirits of the dead and the living all around.
I have been so very afraid of death, and of ‘apocalypse’, especially when I was ill. My intuition is good, but it scrambles and turns to static when I think about death. In these fears I mostly meet the white wo/man in me, the modern subject, the ego. Some days lately I touch a sense of peace around that; or I understand that what I was so afraid of was in effect already happening, in some ways I really was dying, or at least parts of me were – a million nerves in kamikaze mode about to quit their post, and some never to return. I think too that the man I was died in childbirth and he’s never coming back. Living through your own death – your own micro apocalypse – isn’t an easy road, but perhaps that’s just what life is – an ongoing series of deaths and regenerations until there isn’t anymore.
On a good day I think I see it all in balance, the current regime as arbitrary and petty as it is, another world already present in the wind, perhaps a drift from the past or a gust of future. My dad told me once that the motes of dust you see in the light are particles of skin and bone and faeces from people living and dead. “You could be breathing in a tiny particle of a big crap that Jesus sat down and took one day,” he said. My dad told me a lot of stuff I now know to be bullshit, but as a materialist metaphor for how our ancestors are right here among us, I guess it works.
Again this letter got too long because I saved up the thoughts all week while doing my 13-hour days with two three year olds with their own ways of talking and thinking. So many questions to ask you about spirits and Covid and death but I don’t know how to form them. I missed your thing on Friday – though I signed up for it and everything! – because I was asleep by then, but it looks like I’ll be able to watch it on YouTube soon.
Motes in the light,
1 Sebastian De Line, ‘Clay and Common Ground: Clanships and Polyspirited Embodiment’, Encuentros/Encounters/Rencontres on Education in Journal of Critical Race Inquiry,
vol. 7 (2020).
Sylvia Wynter, ‘The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism’, Boundary 2, vol. 12/13 (1984).
Thomas W.Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton University Press, 2015)
Sebastian De Line, ‘Clay and Common Ground: Clanships and Polyspirited Embodiment’, Encuentros/Encounters/Rencontres on Education in Journal of Critical Race Inquiry, vol. 7 (2020).
Wolfgang Paul, Mining Lore; an Illustrated Composition and Documentary Compilation with Emphasis on the Spirit and History of Mining (Morris Print. Co., 1970)
Graham M. Jones, Magic’s Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy (University of Chicago Press, 2017)
Dali Muru & The Polyphonic Swarm ‘Finest Escape’ track #1 on Dali Muru & The Polyphonic Swarm (Stroom, 2021)
Roger Wright, ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’ by Frederic Rzewski, track #4 on Roger Wright in Concert (wright-sounds, 2004)
Caetano Veloso, ‘The Empty Boat’, track #9 on Caetano Veloso (Philips, 1969)
Shamir, ‘Lived and Died Alone’, track #5 on Northtown (Godmode, 2014)
Poison Girls, ‘Too Proud’, track #10 on Songs of Praise (Xntrix, 1985)
Goatman, ‘Carry the Load’, track #4 on Rhythms, (Rocket Recordings, 2018)
Tintin Patrone, ‘Water’, track #7 on When You And Your Goat Find Bread (Stoffe, 2019)
Rev. F.W. McGee, ‘Fifty Miles of Elbow Room’, track #4 on Fify Miles of Elbow Room (Peak Records, 2021)
Kìzis, ‘There is Only Love in My Heart’, track #12 on Tidibàbide/Turn (Tin Angel Records, 2021)
David Byrne, ‘Glass, Concrete & Stone’, track #1 on Grown Backwards (Nonesuch Records, 2004)
‘This common ground, which fell from the sky, from exploded stars and meteors, who became beings on this earth and is composed of the minerals and metals which produced biochemical reactions with their oceanic relatives, has rendered us the culmination of our ancestors.’ Sebastian De Line
lives and works in Berlin. Recent solo shows include: No Medals No Ribbons, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford (2022); Beth Collar and Jesse Darling, Doppel, A plus A Gallery Venice (2021); Gravity Road, Kunsteverein Freiburg, Freiburg (2020); Selva Oscura, Galerie Sultana, Paris (2019); Crevé, La Friche Belle de Mai, Marseille (2019), The Ballad of Saint Jerome, ART NOW, Tate Britain, London (2018); Support Level, Chapter Gallery, New York (2018) and Armes Blanches, Galerie Sultana, Paris (2017). Recent group shows include: Drawing in the Continuous Present, The Drawing Centre, New York (2022), Crip Time, Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2021); The Same Room: Julie Becker in dialogue, Galerie Neu, Berlin (2020); Transcorporealities, Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2019); May You Live in Interesting Times, Venice Biennale, Venice (2019).
Priya Jay is a writer and researcher based in London. Her practice engages with embodied writing, informal study and the liberatory potential of bodywork.
Sebastian De Line is an artist and Curatorial Fellow for the Toronto Biennial of Art and an Associate Curator for the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, PhD candidate in Cultural Studies and Teaching Fellow at Queen’s University, Canada.
Supported by Freelands Foundation