Our Wrecks of the Medusa: A Dialogue

Phanuel Antwi and I prepared this dialogue for publication by Ramallah’s AM Qattan Foundation in their ebook Isolation, Separation and Quarantine: More than a Pandemic, published in December 2020 in Arabic and English (PDF here).

The following dialogue, staged in Vancouver in early October of 2020, takes as its point of departure Théodore Géricault’s monumental painting The Raft of the Medusa, which today hangs in the Louvre. First exhibited in 1819 the painting was the result of many months of the artist’s fanatical work, during which time he painstakingly researched and interviewed survivors of a notorious shipwreck of 1816, just following the Napoleonic Wars. In that historical event, the restored Bourbon monarchy sent a convoy of ships to Senegal in the hopes of reestablishing France’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Due to the incompetence of the captain (an aristocratic appointee) the flagship was stranded off the coast of the Sahara and, while the captain and other elites made off with the longboat and supplies, 150 working-class seamen and soldiers (a multi-ethnic mix) were set adrift on a hastily constructed raft. By the time they were rescued 13 days later only 15 remained alive, having been forced to throw the sick and wounded overboard, having survived mutiny and fighting, and having resorted to cannibalism.[1] Like many critics in the past, in this conversation Antwi and Haiven re-read The Raft of the Medusa as an allegory for our own troubled times, when systems of oppression and exploitation seek to turn us against ourselves and to reduce humanity to its very worst.  And yet we resist.


Phanuel: In The Raft of the Medusa, we see an image of men, all of them workers, labourers of different sorts, on top of each other, touching and in touch with one another. In this pandemic moment, one being identified and being lived as a crisis, we are also experiencing a crisis in gender, specifically a crisis in masculinity. One place this crisis cannot be avoided is on the home front. A crisis is emerging there because men are losing their jobs; men who would otherwise dispense bottled-up energies through their work now find themselves stuck at home, often without a release valve. Many of them are now having to also do service work on the homefront. They are not used to doing reproductive labour. That’s where my brain is, right now, looking at Géricault’s Raft, thinking about masculinity and its economies within this moment of lockdown entanglement.

Max: On that note I was thinking about this painting and the stories of the raft on which it was based, stories in which the refugees began to drink salt water, bake in the sun and become delusional, leading to lethal fights, to cannibalism. I’m thinking about the ways that, in patriarchies, idled masculinity becomes even more dangerous. Patriarchal worlds keep men busy in some way and, when that busywork ends, dangerous things happen. I don’t think this is  based on some “natural” kind of masculinity but on the way that we have socially constructed masculinity. Like the delusions of the idled sailors of the raft, today idled hegemonic masculinities often turn to delusions: conspiracy theories, narcissistic paranoias. These are means, I think, by which men seek to re-empower themselves as somehow “masters of reality.” But they are proving extremely dangerous. This is amplified and weaponized in online spaces that harness alienation and a sense of futility for reactionary causes.

Phanuel: There is a disturbance, a circuit break in the intimacy assembly-line of the homefront, that’s producing a crisis — if one wants to call the surfacing of an already there disturbance a crisis. I think there is (especially if we don’t overlook the surfacing of inequity is a non happening) and it’s happening on multiple fronts — not just in the (heteronomative) household, that market-mediated sphere of caring for children.

Generational shift

Max: I think in a way, this crisis of masculinity comes amidst a generational shift. We’re seeing the youngest generation to enter adulthood articulate an increasing scepticism towards the need to obey the expected norms of gender expression and sexuality. On Turtle Island (North America) we are seeing a lot more young people identify with fluid forms of gender, identify as trans, non-binary. And I think around the world there is like a huge movement of liberation from the structures of gender, and this emerges from and contributes to the broader crisis of masculinity, which can no longer successfully reproduce itself; It can’t get as many adherents because it is failing to make life precious and livable. Yet this crisis also generates its own reaction and backlash, its dangerous nostalgia for the way we imagine things once were (allegedly.

I want to go back to the painting and look at the figure of the old man, the only figure in the image who is facing backwards, away from the distant ship that might rescue the refugees. Instead, he is looking backwards, towards the mysterious source of light in the image, with a far-away, melancholic look in his eyes…

Phanuel: The older gentleman that you call attention to: One way of reading this image is to say, yes, he’s looking backwards, and from his clothing you might place him in a different civilization. But he is also holding on to and supporting the figure of a young man who may be dead or dying. I think there’s something here about the old seeing the young dying, or burying the young. I am trying to think about how communication and miscommunication (intimacy) is a way of learning that’s happening between the generations. The unexhausted possibilities of learning happening today is inverse to what we assume because now the older generation is learning from the younger generation.

We can also note this in the current global pandemic, in the West, where we tend to offload onto marginalized Black and Brown people the labour of reproduction and care. We send the elderly, older adults into long-term care facilities. Because these facilities are often understaffed and crowded many are now vulnerable to spreading infections to the point that some people are identifying them as “death pits.” Despite this, I am comforted to hear one of my students, early in the pandemic, request an extension for an assignment, because he is “currently in line at Costco [a major North American discount grocery store] with a community group getting supplies for folks who can’t go themselves.” These younger people, many on the frontline, are doing work, supporting people more susceptible to infections or at risk of dying; I find it very promising, this collective care work, this intergenerational activism of showing solidarity by coming together, rather than staying apart.

Max: I think, on some level, the globally dominant model of masculinity today is that of Homo Economicus, the model of the impenetrable, self-contained, competitive, independent actor. And I think about the work of Sylvia Wynter who helps us think about how this dominant paradigm of man emerged from European imperialism and global capitalism, lioniing the allegedly this naturally competitive supreme animal.[2] But the myth of homo oeconomics’s self-sufficiency and independence was a charade. His possibility was always based on the invisibilized reproductive labour of others, based on all of those on unsung and  unseen people who did the labour around them. Homo oeconomicus rode on the shoulders of so many others, yet denied it.

I think, then, about the figure on the shoulders of the others in this painting, lifted up by his fellow refugees to wave to the passing ship that might rescue them. They are one another’s only hope: it is not simply a brutal struggle for scarce resources that ends in cannibalism. This pyramid of collaborating figures gives us a view of what masculinity and humanity could be like if we recognised our shared vulnerability to one another and our shared vulnerability to not only the contagion of disease, but also the contagion of fortune, the contagion of identity, subjectivity, interreliance.

Phanuel:  If we are thinking about talking about the hegemonic, competitive nature of masculinity, as it operates within the system of patriarchy, I can’t help but think about queer masculinity in this particular moment. I note that, today, Trump and others are seeking to identify Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus.” Previously, the HIV virus, when it was spoken about at all, was understood as “the gay virus.” How do we think about the refraction of the misnaming of these two viral crises through a patriarchal lens and, particularly, through a global north patriarchal lens?


Max:  I think what’s becoming clear about the present moment is that capitalism functions in part by keeping us all so busy we can’t think or feel. And in this pandemic moment we’ve been faced with a break in the capitalist temporality.  My hope, earlier on in the pandemic was that this would lead to space and time for reconsideration.  But, oddly, I think that there has been a level of exhaustion and alienation such that many people have not had the opportunity to think about the kind of life they would actually like to live. Many people desire a return to a normal they hitherto hated, simply to escape the kind of  boredom or monotony of the pandemic. It reminds me of a lesson I learned when studying the radical imagination: we don’t think individually, we think collectively.[3] We think collaboratively and we think through doing things together. And in this moment when we are doing less, or when our “doing” is reduced to routine, and when we are forced into isolation, the imagination atrophies. It is an unprecedented moment, but something militates against our ability to seize this strange pause in the status-quo and mobilize the radical imagination.

Phanuel: I’m thinking about Black Lives Matter movement and the collapse of time and place for those living in the wake of a twin pandemic: that of the virus that you’ve been talking about and also that of the police brutality towards Black lives. While these movements were being spurred on by the death of Black folks in the US, there seems to be a global pick-up, a global response, of some sort. In terms of temporality, there seems to be both the exhaustion that you speak of and an equal exhaustion towards the state repression or state racial violence. People are  tired of that being normal and are refusing to be conscripted into the time of the state. The devaluation of the lives of the elderly that I spoke about (ageism), and the devaluation of Black lives (anti-Black racism) that I am talking about, now, make a lie out of these phrases: “physical distancing,” “flattening the curve,” and “self-quarantine”: Black people are on the streets protesting because we know being six feet apart doesn’t immune us from going six feet under.

In a place like Vancouver, where I live and work and love, the BLM movement here is aware its work on Coast Salish territories is being done on the traditional, ancestral and unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and so commits itself to systemic forms of racial violence, articulates issues affecting Indigenous people on these lands, not simply because in this particular location the “ratio” of state and racial violence is destructive to many forms of Indigenous life. It is not only that. What I am trying to get at is this: while Black activists and leaders advocate for all life forms Black, our advocacy, primarily imagined and led by Black women, queer and trans folks, is not a single-issue. And yet, as much as it is not a single issue platform, it is also not a postracial project; for those who like to see this movement as multiracial, it will do us good to see Blackness as multiraciality and as a site of multiraciality, one that emerges from and with a Black queer feminist trans differently abled poor radical tradition perspective.

Rebellions against racialization

Max: In the same way that I think we were speaking a moment ago about a kind of rebellion against gender I think this is also rebellion against racialization, led ideologically and often practically by those Black people upon whose backs the pyramids of racialial value were built. I think that in the same way that I feel like those most marginalized and most targeted by systems of gender terrorism–which is to say non-binary people, trans people, people who have been denied a space within the gendered system–are in some ways, opening a door for us to all be liberated from the gender system. So too, in a strange way, in this moment, I think the fact that globally, Blackness has been positioned at the bottom of the pyramidization of race is one important reason why that movement has, though it began in the United States, has resonated around the world, even among people and in places where Black people are not numerically predominant.

Phanuel: I read this moment in the United States alongside other global Black movements, particularly the way the call from students to decolonize education across South Africa in the #RhodesMustFall and the #FeesMustFall movements in 2015 spurred on students across the globe to refuse the epistemic architecture of colonial education. That this radical student movement focuses on decolonizing the university by confronting questions relating to institutional racism, redesigning the Eurocentric university curriculum, and increasing Black peoples access to education reminds me of the relationship between colonization and racialization. Too often in North America, there is a tendency to separate racialization from colonization and colonization from racialization. The logic to this false separation finds justification through the language of historiography, one where critics committed to this separation map a historical trajectory, identifying the 19th century as the moment of racialization’s arrival; they argue colonialism predates racialization. And yet, as we learn from the #RhodesMustFall movement, Black alienation and disempowerment is tied to the colonial and civilizing project, hence questions of racialization must engage questions of colonization. By no means am I collapsing the differences between each project; however, as projects of coercion and domination, they are part and parcel in organising our lives. And I find this difference quite interesting to highlight.

Max: How so?

Phanuel: Jodie Byrd’s groundbreaking work comes to mind,[4] which offers the necessary critique of disciplines like ethnic studies, postcolonial studies and policies like multiculturalism and liberalism that participate in the assimilation, inclusion project of settler colonialism. She does so by foregrounding colonization, its ongoing projects, and the ongoing and exploitive treatments of Indigenous nations and people within the US imperial culture. This, as in through the figure of the American “Indian,” she works to underline how the US maintains its power structures. She particularly shows how, in the US, “Indianness” is rendered as the racial other, and, as a result, figured as the transit; through this creation or figuration, the nation can make up stories about the American “Indian” that enact dispossession while at the same time professing/promising equality. She connects the violences and genocides of colonization, the land stolen from Indigenous people, so we can hear the historical traumas that the racializing project of multiculturalism redirects our attention away from.  To do this, she distinguishes racialization from colonialism.

I think this formulation allowed her to do a specific and necessary project of insisting not only on how foundational Indigeneity is to the formation of the US but also on the intellectual genealogies that articulate this formation; how the foundational violence of remaking Indigneous lands into domestic spaces (for colonial interests) continue to require the US imagination to continue to situate Indianness to the past. This necessary project constrained folks from thinking about racialization in relation to indigeneity, or in relation to colonialism as well as realizing how colonization gives force and justification to racialization. Rather, colonialism is the frame for which we think about indigeneity and racialization is the frame for thinking about non-Indigeous folks. And I think we are in a moment where that logic, while it was necessary for bringing attention to the on-going colonialism on Indigenous land, it does not help us do the work of cohabitating on these land and figuring out how to be accountable for each other and to bear witnesses to what’s happening to each other. And so these movements are actually insistent that we reimagine what it means to be here now with legacies of conquest, diasporas, displacement, dispossession, invasion, racialized alienation and exploitation, and be accountable for the lands that we live on. So, yes, we are in a different moment. And, as I said, there is something about living within the twin pandemics, right now, in North America anyways, in a year of bearing witness to two viruses attacking Black folks and many of us refusing not to attend to this anti-Black racial violence.

Max:  It reminds me of a compelling argument made a few years ago by Justin Leroy.[5] He begins his essay by indicating the quite fractious debates between Black studies and Indigenous studies in the West around to what extent we should see anti-Black racism or Settler colonialism as a “primary mover” of this system of global oppression. He wants to put that question aside: it’s a Gordian Knot that can’t be cut. Instead, he looks at how both Indigenous people and Black movements have understood themselves through solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian figure–at least for those outside of Palestine seeking solidarity with Palestinians– is both  a colonized Indigenous figure and a racialized figure. They are both the colonized other and the racialized other within the global systems of racial capitalism of which the project of Israel is an important and demonstrative part.

I take from this the importance of dwelling in such difficult contradictions, as for instance between racial and colonial projects, and looking elsewhere for the way they are reconciled not in theory but in practice.

Within, against and beyond premature death

Phanuel: The disciplinary borders within academic knowledge productions risk becoming the borders of our imaginations. I, at times, worry about how intellectual capitalism in academic work, with its appetite for newness, quickly translates academic thinking into actionable policies, which then impact how we think, organize, and live our lives. So, while separating colonialism from racialization produces a border (mnemonic) that corrects how the above fields produce academic work, this theory does not erase the experience of coloniality that Black people and many racialized people live with. My friend and colleague, Denise Ferreira da Silva, imagines sociality as an ethics of coexistence in her short essay, “On Difference Without Separability.”[6] I find myself returning to it again and again in my classrooms to remind myself and my students that difference need not be about separability — this opening up to difference is actually quite a difficult practice to live by. And yet, if we remember that separability is a principle of scientific knowledge that devalues and orders Black life and death and if we remember that scientific knowledge has been instrumental in creating the conditions for the killing of Black people, we might all learn how to knit.

Max: I have increasingly been attracted to the language of Ruth Wilson Gilmore around premature death. She defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”[7] I think this helps explain something about how we can be living in the same time but seemingly at different speeds. It can also explain to us that the systems we are living under kill us all, though they kill us all at vastly different rates and with dramatically different consequences.

I think about this in terms of my own activism in Thunder Bay, which is infamous for being a kind of synecdoche for the colonial violence of the Canadian settler colonial project, with incredible rates of premature death suffered by Indigenous people.[8] This premature deaths stem not only from police and settler violence but also from lack of medical care, lack of access to proper food, lack of access to clean water, lack of access to mental health services, the list goes on. It is a kind of conspiracy that is visible to those who suffer it, but invisible or invisibilized to those who perpetuate it and benefit from it. This seems to be the global model, too: a global distribution of premature death that is hidden in plain sight…

Phanuel:  …becoming public memories, in the very lands and in the very geographies through which we walk. The way you describe Thunder Bay, and here I’m thinking about the legislated forms of social architectures of the city and how the “lacks” you describe coalesce to dispossess Indigenous lives, also describes a typical Canadian settler colonial geography, structured by a pervasive anti-Indigenous racism. And yet, because Black geographers teach me that space is perceived and produced differently, and because Indigenous scholars and feminists such as Audra Simpson and Dory Nason teach me the liberational politics in refusal,[9] I also want to believe that signs of Indigenous resistance and survivance lie within the Thunder Bay landscape. There is an essay by Michelle Daigle and Margaret Marietta Ramairez, “Decolonial Geographies,”where they ask us to work towards “the spatial weavings of decolonial geographies on Indigenous lands and waters” (83)[10]  and, for me, part of that work is working to see how a place like where you describe also contains decolonial futures within its everyday quotidian life and work to protect these futures.

The imagination

Max: This makes me think about coming back to the Raft of the Medusa. The raft is space of Incredible cruelty and violence, but also a space where new relationships need to be forged. What’s so interesting, as we’ve discussed, is that Gericault is so crafty at making almost every moment of touch in this image ambiguous. We don’t know if the figure in the pinkish, flowing head headpiece in the very middle of the image is supporting the man in front of him or pulling that man down. We don’t know if the old man, the father figure, who is staring off into the distance on the left side of the image, is clutching a young man’s dead body to him or rescuing that body from drowning. We don’t know if, in the bottom right of the image, the Black body we see draped, face-down, across a white, red-headed body is alive or dead, if the Black body pins the white down or if they are in some sort of more loving embrace. None of the relationships in this image are clear to us. And so we can, and we must, read the painting as two things at once: on the one hand, an image of the complete degradation of humanity, the war of all against all, the origin and destiny of homo oeconomicus; on the other, a portrait of the power of humanity to forge new relationships, new possibilities and new solidarities in the midst of want and terror and fear.

Phanuel: Particularly, the freedom of imagination dramatized at the heart of this image, which renders the image so Dee. Lish. Shus. for me is the possible erotic manifestation of monstrous masculinities — of these men being shipwrecked and being delirious for thirteen days and drinking salt water, eating leather, consuming those that are dead — cannibalism’s love crime; how in the midst of want and terror and fear these men cross a taboo, they eat one another. And possibly, as viewers, we are all invited into the throes of an orgy of some kind. However this queer orgy (aren’t all orgies somewhat queer?) is not solely the orgy of sexual exploration and exhaustion. It’s a different order of orgy, an orgy of not knowing how to not be what the image is; we cannot stand outside this ironic self-aware image and proclaim not to be what it is; we don’t know the end, right now — we cannot know the end, now — and so we are forced to account for our shifting times and its possibilities. And so, of this image, let me see in its continuous flow of bodies in relation to each other, being beside themselves, doing things that both harm and give pleasure, an image asking viewers living in this historical moment to rethink the borders between pleasure and erotics and violence and intimacy and vulnerability and death. Afterall, we see that in the time of the image, the racial hierarchies that justified the ship’s journey seem to break down, invert even: we have the figuration of a Black body, a non-white body, lifted up, looking into the future, remembering forward, or, in some sense, rewriting the course of that ship’s journey. There is that possibility as well in this image.

[1] Alhadeff, Albert. The Raft of the Medusa. Munich, London and New York: Prestel, 2002.

[2] Wynter, Sylvia, and Katherine McKittrick. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” In Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick, 9–89. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press, 2015.

[3] Haiven, Max, and Alex Khasnabish. The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity. London and New York: Zed Books, 2014.

[4] Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

[5] Leroy, Justin. “Black History in Occupied Territory: On the Entanglements of Slavery and Settler Colonialism.” Theory and Event 19, no. 4 (2016).

[6]da Silva, Denise Ferreira. “On Difference Without Separability.” In Dear History, We Don’t Need Another Hero, edited by Gabi Ngcobo, 57–65. Berlin: Berlin Biennale, 2018.

[7] Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

[8] Haiven, Max. “The Colonial Secrets of Canada’s Most Racist City.” ROAR Magazine, February 13, 2019.

[9] Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014; Nason, Dory. “Carceral Power and Indeignous Feminist Resurgence in D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded and Janet Campbell Hale’s ‘Claire’. American Indian Culture & Research Journal. Vol. 40, no.1 (2016).

[10] Michelle Daigle and Margaret Marietta Ramirez. “Decolonial Geographies.” Keywords in Radical Geography: Antipode @ 50. Ed by Antipode Editorial Collective. New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2019. 78-84.