Screen caption from “I did my own research” meme on TikTok.
The scales at which we think about human problems, and the problem of the human, require that we reflect on the way we understand scenes, the way we picture an event as it opens out onto wide and rough terrain sitting atop deep layers. In timescales that shrink the human to varying degrees, certain global, non-localizable effects, such as those that mark the Anthropocene, “cannot be pictured adequately in some sensuous image in that way that, for example, poverty can be depicted in the form of an ill-fed family huddled together in one shabby room,” as Timothy Clark points out in his work on “scale framing.”1 In the case of overpopulation, which he believes exemplifies the fact that a scale effect “is never visible in itself,” Clark argues that “whenever you meet any other people, you are now experiencing overpopulation in some sense, but you never directly experience overpopulation as such.”2 Whether or not we can rule out bumping into others in very different parts of the world as an ex ungue leonem experience, narrative and its immersion imperative do seem in a number of instances to be patently limited technologies for accessing things at scales beyond the anthropocentric event, around which care typically concentrates. In such cases, at the limit of sympathetic, aesthetic concern, is it possible for critical attention to harness the exanthropic momentum of narrative’s post-narrative and anti-narrative techniques in order to channel the intensities of care through different kinds of sensing technology? Can a meshwork of attention and care capture synecdochic shards of wreckage, claws of lions, constitutive eddies of larger flows and processes? Can it clarify sites or unintuitive sequences of struggle, suggesting a set of tactics that includes but is not solely focused on effective storification or the downscaling of the posthuman to the usual tight orbits of concern?
In this brief essay, I would like to reflect on a constellation of scenes, each of which illuminates, at least partially, synecdochically, the larger histories and problematics of knowledge transmission and instruction in North America, and that invites a distension and distribution of care—an expansion necessary to reflect on those educational institutions whose own missions have frequently expressed a care for individual human persons and their formation. The assortment of “scenes of instruction” that I want to describe evokes larger timescales than caring can typically accommodate, and that emerge against a larger backdrop of emergency that features things like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a back-up archive for salvaging agricultural biodiversity, or the Long Now Foundation’s millennium-scale, survivalist library called “The Manual for Civilization,” or new mutations in our cultural representations of and fantasies about educational institutions, such as Margaret Atwood’s depiction of corporatized learning’s connection to viral apocalypse in Oryx and Crake (2003), or Emily St. John Mandel’s representation of the return to performing arts as knowledge transmission after the collapse of electronic and electric society in Station Eleven (2014). Against this backdrop that is not really a backdrop but a major element in the network itself, I want to think about the lion-claw connections among Chief Swift Bear’s nineteenth-century Winter Count, the shot of a yellow school bus in Danis Goulet’s film Night Raiders (2021), the unearthing of the remains of children at residential schools across North America, and the “I did my own research” meme that has circulated on social media the past two Halloweens.
The first scene is depicted in a Winter Count from 1800 to 1898—a pictographic chronicle, inscribed on animal hide, of major events worth remembering each year kept by Chief Swift Bear’s family in what is now called South Dakota.3 Toward the bottom right in the outer ring of this spiraling history is a traumatic scene of North American education: Richard Henry Pratt holding, perhaps clutching, a Lakota child. This pictograph of Pratt’s visit to the Lakota tribes at Rosebud and Pine Ridge, between the first snowfalls of 1879 and 1880, widens out beyond ideographic to historiographic territory very quickly, and then, I would argue, goes further still. Pratt, at the time a First Lieutenant, took 82 children from Rosebud and Pine Ridge to the boarding school he had just founded over a thousand miles away: the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an institution within a larger network powered by a number of big, odious ideas, among them civilization, assimilation, citizenship, industry. The narrative details of Pratt’s life are nested within a larger story about Christian-nationalist genocide.4 Having participated in the Washita Massacre (1868-69) and the Red River War that violently displaced tribes from the southern Great Plains (1874-75), Pratt thought that his work as the Superintendent of this ideological settler-state apparatus stood in benevolent ambivalence in relation to his military service. In his notorious 1892 speech at the Conference of Charities and Correction, he remarked:
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one …. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.5
The infrastructure supporting such violent saviorism was resourced by the 1819 Indian Civilization Fund Act, whereby Congress appropriated $10,000 annually for “benevolent associations, or individuals”—i.e., Christian missionary organizations. This money would serve to establish a network of schools that would Christianize and “civilize” all the different Indigenous peoples across the expanding nation, a network that, as Tova Cooper puts it, would ensure “systematic tribal disidentification through a curriculum that imposed a generic ‘Indian’ identity on all students, regardless of tribal affiliation”; moreover, in relation to the 1887 Dawes Act, the process of cultivating Indian citizenship “allowed the government to subdivide and privatize their land.”6 As Thomas Jefferson Morgan, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, put it in his 1889 Annual Report, the school system, operating at scale, would be “completely systematized”: “The camp schools, agency boarding schools, and the great industrial schools should … form a connected and complete whole” with “a uniform course of study, similar methods of instruction, the same textbooks, and a carefully organized … system of industrial training.”7 The following year, his Annual Report was very explicit about what this education entailed: “the supplanting of a foreign language by the English, the destruction of barbarous habits by the substitution of civilized manners, the displacement of heathenish superstitions by the inculcation of moral principles, the awakening of sluggish minds to intellectual activity by wise mental training and the impartation of useful knowledge.”8 In the section titled “A Hopeful Outlook,” Morgan states that “It has become the settled policy of the Government to break up reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations or tribes or bands, but as individual citizens. The American Indian is to become the Indian
In the long scene of North American education, my second image is the reference to a yellow school bus in the 2021 critical dystopian film Night Raiders, written and directed by Canadian First Nations artist Danis Goulet. At the beginning of the film, the main character Niska, a Cree mother, is fleeing with her daughter Waseese from their makeshift home—a yellow school bus, somewhere in a unified North America called “Emerson State.” Having discovered the presence of an Indigenous child who has evaded compulsory state schooling, truancy/police drones begin bombing the school bus. The film’s references to Indian residential schools in North America evoke the scale and comprehensive ambition of the apparatus set in motion by the 1819 Indian Civilization Fund Act. As Morgan put it in his 1889 Annual Report, this school system “should seek the disintegration of the tribes, and not their segregation”: “the public school should do for them what it is so successfully doing for all the other races of this country, assimilate them.”10 The film captures the regimented, military-school style of instruction that this assimilation employed in service to the genocidal sweep of cultural-knowledge destruction and “the systematic tribal disidentification through a curriculum that imposed a generic ‘Indian’ identity”—an important reminder that the Office of Indian Affairs was run by the Secretary and Department of War from 1824 to 1849 before being transferred to
the Department of the Interior.11
The third image in this extended scene is any of the recent “discoveries” of the remains of children at residential Indian schools. In June, 2021, the Smithsonian Magazine reported that the remains of ten children at the Carlisle Indian School—ten of “more than 180 Native children [who] died at Carlisle, often from a combination of malnourishment, sustained abuse and disease brought on by poor living conditions”—would finally be making the journey home to their families.12 In Canadian residential schools, the remains of over 1000 students have been found in mass and unmarked graves in 2021. In an address to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and said that “to address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past.” Some of the light employed by Canada’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to unearth the long traumas of Indigenous communities, which is now the primary instrument for similar work in the US, has been ground-penetrating radar (GPR). Used by the military, engineers, and archaeologists, GPR transmitters send electromagnetic energy/high-frequency radio signals into the ground, which bounce back from objects to an antenna measuring how long it takes for the signals to return (depth) and registering conductivity differences of materials in the earth.13 As the former Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, Wilton Littlechild, described the shock to Canadians of the full discovery unearthed by GPR: “It was because the story was hidden that people didn’t know about
The final scene in this constellation is the Halloween meme of the YouTube or 4Chan “researcher” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, an image of a partially buried skeleton with a sign (2021) or a headstone (2022) that reads “I did my own research.” In these images, the utopian vision of knowledge infrastructure has finally been recognized by settler culture to be a fatal delivery system, whose virality Indigenous peoples across North America have long understood. In 1938, H. G. Wells had figured this infrastructure as a “world brain,” a global “Knowledge Apparatus” that was both a collectively authored encyclopedia and the foundation for a “super university” (34), which by extending “its informing tentacles to every intelligent individual in … the new world community” (65) would lead to “the evolution of a new, more powerful type of man” rather than “the extinction of our species” (71).15 Necessitating this evolutionary vision is the scale of “the problem of World Knowledge” in the face of another looming world war: “knowledge is still dispersed, unorganized, impotent in the face of adventurous violence and mass excitement” (62), in a world now defined by the fact that “we can speak to anyone anywhere so soon as the proper connections have been made and in a little while we shall be able to look one another in the face from the ends of the earth” (43). Now that the world brain has been achieved, the system itself is the source of viral fatality. But in this scene the remains belong to those who imagined a learning that could exist outside the network and could afford secret knowledge of the system—research imagined to be a victory of the free individual over the network but that exposed the researchers to the lethal dangers of biological and informational virality. The bones are pedagogical props warning against MAGA critique and cruel libertarian epistemological optimism, the upside-down of the Undercommons (to use a Stranger Things trope)—the white-grievance, auto-didactic flip side in the wake of a very specific infection of democracy, when peak viral load was on or about January 6, 2021. The network itself—its illusion of a human scale—can be deadly.
While the connections between different parts of the larger scene are not analogical—the historical specificities don’t and shouldn’t allow for likeness in experience or narrative—what insights can be drawn from these scenes of instruction? One might be that, as we continue to value determining the location of instruction and its synchronic impact in superstructure and base, there is also value in stretching the object out on longer historical timelines.16 In Milton Gaither’s “The History of North American Education, 15,000 BCE to 1491,” comprehensive “landscape learning” was embedded in “osmotic” transmission practices of stories and rites, and these scenes of instruction of “Paleo-Indians,” an anachronistic designation for Pleistocene peoples in the Americas, give way post-contact to very different kinds of knowledges and types of individual and social formation, which Night Raiders rightly underscores as violent. This conclusion is overly obvious, but in a scaled-up frame, the institution of so-called Indian boarding schools appears as a malicious super-spreader event for viral information that could be counted as part of the catastrophic Columbian Exchange.17
I want to end this piece with a reflection on the hopeful figure of the “scyborg” in la paperson’s A Third University is Possible (2017), where scyborg is spelled with the s in front of the word in order to signal the larger system in which being is recast as “entanglements in the machinery of assemblages,” and in which agential being is reconfigured as “structural agency” (61).18 In all the preceding scenes, instruction takes place at the end of the world and is implicated in the ending of worlds. In the backdrop of cultural fantasy that I mentioned at the outset, education is imagined in the context of a total reset—a catastrophic reboot of civilization in which knowledge cannot and perhaps should not be transmitted at scale. paperson arrives at his theorization of the scyborg in part by way of a reflection on Luther Standing Bear, who was among the first students at the infamous Carlisle Industrial Indian School in 1879. Standing Bear made use of his education there but went on “to challenge the paradigms of property, Eurocentric history, and assimilation” (57). His “thoughts and deeds suggest a ‘shadow curriculum’ of a deep sovereignty beyond their immediate referents in the (English) world.”19 For paperson, this shadow curriculum belongs to a fourth kind of university, a space in which “some forms of knowledge and learning … refuse the university” in its function as a “land-capitalizing machine [attached to] war machines, media machines, governmental and nongovernmental machines” (32). And it is on the syllabus of the “third university,” a distributed network comprising elements of universities’ contextual and mission-driven complicities while nevertheless advancing “a decolonial project” that “is multiscalar … transnational in scope, with a multitude of campuses” (xv). As paperson puts it, “Its scope is at the scale of the apparatus and at the scale of the personal; its temporalities are transhistorical and futuristic. It already exists” (xv).20
What is the scyborg university in deep time, faced with a number of apocalyptic scenarios? On the one hand, the shadow curriculum in the course catalogue of the fourth university, like the important avowals of the Undercommons, is not just an affirmation of the work outside of official structures, but also an expression of what Megan Faragher and Caroline Z. Krzakowski call “the institutional unconscious”—the deep anxiety that the modes of life afforded by certain infrastructures will (and perhaps should) crumble and, in the case of education, return all human beings to forms of osmotic transfer.21 The shadow curriculum valiantly refuses the machinic nature of the institution and of agency, and the contrast between working beneath and beyond institutional structures and the Youtube researcher’s faith in infrastructure starts to get flattened out. But on the other hand, the university at the end of the world, hoping to care for global and even non-localizable challenges, or to transmit our own species into the next 10,000 years, must “think of the university as a machine that is the composite of many other machines,” as paperson puts it. Since machines are not fully “loyal” to each other or perfectly aligned, “the agency of the scyborg is precisely that it is a reorganizer of institutional machinery” (55). paperson’s invitation in the very first paragraph of the book is to become these “subversive beings [who] wreck, scavenge, retool, and reassemble the colonizing university into decolonizing contraptions” (xiii). In the flipbook where we have cycled through but not fully displaced the University of Reason, the University of Utility, and the Entrepreneurial University, the university in ruins has a scyborg program thinking about the relations between the knowledge transmission mechanisms and the transhistorical and planetary scales at which care must operate, a program in which affiliate faculty scavenge and retool the nuts and bolts of cura post-personalis.
This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.
- Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 73.
- Clark, 87.
- Lindsay M. Montgomery and Chip Colwell, Objects of Survivance: A Material History of the American Indian School Experience (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2019), 8, 21.
- David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995); Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose, eds., Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2016); Stephen James Minton, ed., Residential Schools and Indigenous Peoples: From Genocide via Education to the Possibilities for Processes of Truth, Restitution, Reconciliation, and Reclamation (New York: Routledge, 2020).
- Richard H. Pratt, Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46–59, reprinted as “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–271.
- Tova Cooper, “Assimilative Schooling and Native American Literature,” in The Routledge Companion to Native American Literature, ed. Deborah Madsen (London: Routledge, 2016), 157, 158.
- Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, D.C.: US Government Print Office, 1889), 95.
- Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, D.C.: US Government Print Office, 1890), 9–10.
- Annual Report 1890, 6.
- Annual Report 1889, 95.
- See the Organization Authority Record for the Office of Indian Affairs at the National Archives: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/10452221.
- Nora McGreevy, “Remains of Ten Native American Children Who Died at Government Boarding School Return Home after 100 Years,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 23, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/remains-ten-native-american-children-will-return-home-after-100-years-180978043/.
- Worth locating my own interest—its distances and minor proximities—in the residential school system: in AZ, where my grandfather settled in 1908 and where I grew up, there were 51 such schools (the second largest number next to Oklahoma, which had 83). My auntie served briefly as a school counselor in the Phoenix Indian School, not fully conscious of the ways in which her own mid-century hyper-nationalist assimilation was intertwined with the long arc of colonial violence, and specifically of the violence of the Indian Civilization Fund Act. Photo found at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School History website: https://www.armywarcollege.edu/ciis/index.cfm.
- Phil Heidenreich, “‘The story was hidden’: How residential school graves shocked and shaped Canada in 2021,” Global News, December 31, 2021, https://globalnews.ca/news/8458351/canada-residential-schools-unmarked-graves-indigenous-impact/.
- H. G. Wells, World Brain (Columbia, SC: Read Books, 2016).
- Etienne Balibar’s characterizations in recalling his research group in the wake of May 1968 that sought to problematize the whole school system.
- The Columbian Exchange was the 15th-century transfer of animals, plants, and diseases that “began an ongoing global re-ordering of life on Earth,” as Lewis and Maslin put it, and is visible in the dip in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels inscribed in geological sediments because “more than 50 million people [died] over a few decades” (13).
- la paperson, A Third University Is Possible (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2017). la paperson is the pseudonym of K. Wayne Yang.
- paperson, 57. paperson is citing Troy Richardson drawing on Gerald Vizenor.
- In paperson’s work, the university can be loosely taxonomized into three different kinds of institution: the first world university, which is the R1 “academic-industrial complex… characterized by an ultimate commitment to brand expansion and accumulation of patent, publication, and prestige” (36); the second world university, comprising smaller colleges whose mission for democratic citizenship, critical consciousness, and self-actualization ultimately blocks “the possibility of sustained, radical critique” (36).
- Megan Faragher, “Modernist Institutions: Rainey’s Institutions: Twenty Years Later,” Modernism/Modernity Print Plus, Modernist Institutions Cluster, 5, no. 2 (November 9, 2020).