What new pathways emerge when we theorize from the undercurrents? How can art challenge the corrosive logics of racial and extractive capitalism? What kind of world can we build by thinking beyond disciplinary boundaries?

In episode 75 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with scholar Macarena Gómez-Barris about how social movements and art practices throughout the Américas offer models for organizing beyond the state, the politics of translating academic scholarship in a transnational world, the creative East–South solidarities artists and thinkers are creating together to fight extractive capitalism, and why doing, making, and thinking in community is key to how Macarena imagines otherwise.

Guest: Macarena Gómez-Barris

Macarena Gómez-Barris wearing a green shirt and gold hoop earrings. Text reads "Macarena Gómez-Barris, Imagine Otherwise podcast episode 75"Macarena Gómez-Barris is chairperson of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies and director of the Global South Center at Pratt Institute.

She writes and teaches on social and cultural theory, decolonial thought, racial and extractive capitalism, social movements, queer and submerged perspectives, critical Indigenous studies, experimental film, and social / environmental transformation.

Macarena is the author of three books, including The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Duke University Press, 2017), which theorizes social life, art, and decolonial praxis through five extractive scenes of ruinous capitalism upon Indigenous territories.

Macarena’s most recent book Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas (University of California Press, 2018) asks us to imagine politics beyond the nation state. She is also the author of the book Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (2009), and co-editor with Herman Gray of the book Towards a Sociology of a Trace (2010). Macarena is working on a new book project called At the Sea’s Edge.

Macarena is the recipient of the Fullbright Research Award (2014–2015) and formerly, she was the director of Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics at New York University and a visiting fellow in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis.

We chatted about

  • Macarena’s new book Beyond the Pink Tide (02:12)
  • Working beyond the state and her book The Extractive Zone (04:19)
  • Taking a broad view in her scholarship (08:10)
  • Writing books that are embedded in community and that foreground the body (12:47)
  • Macarena’s work at the interaction of academia, art, and activism (15:57)
  • “Doing, thinking, being otherwise” at the Global South Center (17:13)
  • Imagining otherwise (21:34)

Abstract purple, red, and orange background. Text reads: For me, it's juts obvious that things are better when you're with a heterogeneous group of people engaged in heterogeneous activity on behalf of social justice, feminist justice, multispecies justice, and racial justice. With heterogeneous formats, we can do better work. Quote from Macarena Gómez-Barris on episode 75 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast

Takeaways

The limits of the state for defining the political

I’m really  seeking other definitions of the political. I’m trying to work with other imaginaries of the political. I feel that in the current political discourse, it is really important to do that.

Indigenous governance beyond the state

There are many, many ways of thinking about Indigenous governance and the fact that someone like Evo Morales arrived to the head of the state in Bolivia doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t be an Indigenous state in the future that looks different. That’s one of the lessons to be learned from both Ecuador and Bolivia in the recent moment that we’re calling the pink tide, which is a turn to socialist democratic alternatives and trying to make more progressive states in Latin America, that happened through the 1990s and 2000s and then had very Right-wing dismantling of those projects take place. One of the lessons to be learned from Bolivia and Ecuador is that it’s still the state. And the state is still a colonial state and the state was still built upon colonial systems, colonial mentalities and forms of privileging elites that have long extracted from the economies of the global south and in the United States from communities of color.

Art that draws from the undercurrents

This terminology of undercurrents, of bringing underwaters from within the matrix, of what the potentiality is for marginalized communities, for submerged perspectives has been very, very important. And art is central to that in the Américas. It is central to that in communities of color. It’s central to that from the position of the marginal precisely because it’s a form of expression that is worldmaking….It is about critique, dismantling, decolonizing, but it’s also about building alternatives and putting a lot of energy, intention, love, compassion, focus, intellectual juice, and activism into those alternatives as well.

The role of academics in troubling times

We’re in an interesting moment in the academy where the humanities and the social sciences are in both deep reflection and deep crisis about the activity of the university. It is an important moment to reflect upon our role as intellectuals and academics….For me it’s about using the platforms that we’re given in whatever position we have to challenge the dismantling of public education in this country that’s occurred over the past twenty years. Part of that work is to be in enlightened conversation with activists at the local/global level, to be thinking with artists, makers, performers (however one defines that). We need to take our role as academics, as those trained to carry out research projects, as writers (however we want to define that), as people who read a lot and are able to communicate those ideas more broadly, we need to really take this moment and go forward with it.

Eschewing disciplinarity at the Global South Center

For me, it’s just obvious that things are better when you’re with a heterogeneous group of people engaged in heterogeneous activity on behalf of social justice, environmental justice, feminist justice, multispecies justice, and racial justice. With heterogeneous formats, we can do better work. Without those submerged perspectives, it is very, very difficult to fight these big multinational, increasingly coordinated forms of capitalism and increasingly violent states and institutions that we’re working within. Seeing that bigger project right now is really, really important and it comes out of academic, artistic, and activist doing, making, and thinking—the kind of work that we’re doing through the Global South Center [at Pratt Institute].

Imagining otherwise

We have to look to each other for the things that make us happy in relationship to each other through friendship, through solidarity, through compassionate listening, through political activity, and through being more forceful in our speech as women, as women of color, and as marginalized subjects. We need to voice those things in solidarity with each other. That’s the world I want to live with: where ideas are really valued, where connections are valued, where follow through is valued, not in a neoliberal technocratic sense but for our own selves and for each other.

More from Macarena

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Sign up for our newsletter

Podcast episodes, articles, and offers right to your inbox to help you rock your interdisciplinary career

Our Privacy Policy

Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 75 and my guest today is market Macarena Gómez-Barris. Macarena is chairperson of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies and director of the Global South Center at Pratt Institute.

She writes and teaches on social and cultural theory, decolonial thought, racial and extractive capitalism, social movements, queer and submerged perspectives, critical Indigenous studies, experimental film, and social / environmental transformation.

Macarena is the author of three books, including The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Duke University Press, 2017), which theorizes social life, art, and decolonial praxis through five extractive scenes of ruinous capitalism upon Indigenous territories.

Macarena’s most recent book Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas (University of California Press, 2018) asks us to imagine politics beyond the nation state.

She is also the author of the book Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (2009), and co-editor with Herman Gray of the book Towards a Sociology of a Trace (2010).

[01:27] Macarena is working on a new book project called At the Sea’s Edge. Macarena is the recipient of the Fullbright Research Award (2014–2015) and formerly, she was the director of Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics at New York University and a visiting fellow in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis.

In our interview Macarena and I chat about how social movements and art practices throughout the Américas offer models for organizing beyond the state, the politics of translating academic scholarship in a transnational world, the creative East–South solidarities artists and thinkers are creating together, and why doing, making, and thinking in community is how Macarena imagines otherwise.

[02:07] [to Macarena] Thanks so much for being with us today.

Macarena Gómez-Barris: Oh, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Cathy Hannabach: I love to start off by talking about your latest book Beyond the Pink Tide, that really shows how powerful imagining otherwise can be. Can you give our listeners a little bit of sense of what that book covers and what got you interested in researching these social movements and practices?

Macarena: Sure. So it really, for me, is an extension of the book I wrote recently for Duke University press called The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives, where I was thinking a lot about the role of aesthetics, activism, scholars, thinkers, doers, and makers in conversation with each other and the powerful combination of doing that work. And I know your radio program really has strong currents in that direction as well. So it kind of began with the earlier project, but it was an effort to suggest in my findings and then in subsequent research that there’s much to be learned from the Américas.

[03:09] There’s much to be learned from the political experiences there. There’s much to be learned from its revolutionary histories and ongoing efforts to make enlivened social activities that don’t necessarily run through the state. So on the one hand, it was out of my own research trajectory and a need put the Américas and Latinx communities and Latin America more centrally on the map in US discourse.

On the other hand, I was seeing in the US political discourse at a national level, this turn to try to improve the nation-state, to improve government, improve political institutions without attention to what would it mean to think outside of, under, beside state solutions to what the political could be.

So I’m really seeking other definitions of the political. I’m trying to work with other imaginaries of the political. I felt that in the current political discourse, it was really important to do that.

Cathy [04:19]: So I want to take up this question of working beyond the state because it’s certainly central to this project as well as your previous work. A previous guest on the podcast, Manuela Picq, was also talking about this theme that shows up in so many Latin American revolutionary movements and activist struggles and community organizing. It’s this need to find—or indeed the ways that people are already finding and have long found—ways of organizing communal life and politics beyond the state. She’s specifically talking about Indigenous struggles and Indigenous forms of government and community formation and I know this intersects really well with the work that you do. I’m curious if you saw—or how you saw—different social movements and artists and actors that you’re talking about take up those kind of Indigenous forms of sociality even in movements that themselves weren’t Indigenous.

Macarena [05:11]: So The Extractive Zone really deals very centrally with a lot of these questions and overlaps with some of Manuela’s work. I think Ecuador is a very interesting site, as is Bolivia, for trying to see what it means to put Indigenous governance first.

Now, there are many, many ways of thinking about Indigenous governance and the fact that someone like Evo Morales arrived to the head of the state in Bolivia doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t be an Indigenous state in the future that looks different. That’s one of the lessons to be learned from both Ecuador and Bolivia in the recent moment that we’re calling the pink tide, which is a turn to socialist democratic alternatives and trying to make more progressive states in Latin America, that happened through the 1990s and 2000s and then had very Right-wing dismantling of those projects take place. So one of the lessons to be learned from Bolivia and Ecuador is that it’s still the state. And the state is still a colonial state and the state was still built upon colonial systems, colonial mentalities and forms of privileging elites that have long extracted from the economies of the global south and in the United States from communities of color.

[06:18] So to right that by putting an Indigenous president in office doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a different state. That has been really made clear to me. One of the things I discuss very briefly in Beyond the Pink Tide but discuss it more centrally in The Extractive Zone, is the way that feminist and queer challenges to Morales’s state were really important in rewriting the constitution to make earth politics central. That was certainly an improvement upon not thinking about the earth having rights.

Feminist and queer activism came in specifically through Mujeres Creando (Women Building Together). That project was very much about trying to instantiate feminist and sex-positive alternatives, which was really important.

[07:16]

This terminology of undercurrents, of bringing underwaters from within the matrix, of what the potentiality is for marginalized communities, for submerged perspectives has been very, very important. And art is central to that in the Américas. It is central to that in communities of color. It’s central to that from the position of the marginal precisely because it’s a form of expression that is worldmaking. That’s become even more clear to me now that I’m firmly situated in an art school [Pratt Institute].

It is about critique, dismantling, decolonizing, but it’s also about building alternatives and putting a lot of energy, intention, love, compassion, focus, intellectual juice, and activism into those alternatives as well.

Cathy: What was something surprising that you found over the course of putting this book together?

Macarena [08:20]: Well, what was surprising to me is that it is really important in this moment to write with a broader vision in mind. I’ve done a lot of specialized, focused work, first on Chile and the aftermath of authoritarianism after [Salvador] Allende was toppled by the intervention of the US and the CIA. And I’ve had very focused work regions within extractive economies.

But this book [Beyond the Pink Tide], is about very precise examples and it’s about a broader view. I think as academics we’re not always used to taking that broader view in our scholarship. We’re used to doing that in our classrooms with 200 students at a general education level, but we don’t always know how to allow ourselves to think more broadly and then show those patterns [in our scholarship].

I saw a lot of patterns. I saw a lot of incredible activism at work. I saw the work in El Salvador that people were doing against the prison industrial complex and I saw the work that people were doing against feminicide in Central America, and I was able to understand how in Brazil the Right wing was reacting and how that reproduced certain global trends and why certain genderqueer bodies were targeted in those specific activities. It was important for me to see those patterns in order to be able to redefine the political in this mode I was suggesting earlier.

Cathy [09:46]: So in addition to writing your own scholarship that takes this global or transnational approach, you, along with Diana Taylor, also edit a book series for Duke University Press, which focuses on these kinds of embodied decolonial politics. What got you interested in editing that kind of a book series? I’m also curious if we could get a bit of a foreshadowing of some new projects that we should expect to see coming out of there.

Macarena [10:11]: It’s very exciting to be doing that work. The series is called Dissident Acts and Ken Wissoker at Duke University Press has been really wonderful in supporting the idea of a hemispheric approach to thinking about radical politics, to thinking about dissident bodies as continuing to do important work.

The project really emerged out of thinking about the need at this moment to center the body as a form of refusing a lot of the logics that are at work in neoliberalism, in settler colonialism, in extractive capitalism and racial capitalism. It turns out that the racialized gendered, classed, denationalized body is an important form of refusal.

We’re seeing interesting work coming out of Columbia, Ecuador, Chile (particularly the south and Indigenous regions), we’re seeing work out of Central America on the relationship between migration crises, drug policies, increased carceral regimes, performance, bodies, visuality, forms and modes of being and doing otherwise.

[11:25] We’re clearly at the center of a lot of that work and we’re really propelling these other visions forward. So that’s what got me interested in doing that. [I was also inspired by] seeing that there needed to be more venues for our tenure-track faculty of color, for Latinx faculty, doing really important critical inquiry throughout the Américas for the possibility of translation from Spanish, Portuguese, and French (in the Francophone Caribbean), and throughout the Américas.

Ken [Wissoker] at Duke University Press in particular said that they would offer us particular possibilities for doing this translation work. There are huge responses to important intellectual questions from around the world, including in the United States, but sometimes the venues don’t exist for this work in intellectual context. And on the other hand, folks from Latin America and the Caribbean aren’t always able to translate their work and vice versa, our work is not always translated into Spanish and Portuguese, etc.

[12:28] I would like to highlight the work of Leticia Alvarado in her book Abject Performances. That’s a spectacular book that does a lot of work on Latinx queer thinking and uses the category of abjection in very powerful ways.

Cathy: Do you have any advice for scholars who want to write the kind of books that you’re looking for in the series: texts that are deeply embedded in communities and that foreground the body? I’m curious not just about topic choice but also style and how to pitch books or embed books within communities themselves.

Macarena: That is such a wonderful question. Thank you for asking that. I don’t think anyone has asked me that question yet.

I think we’re in an interesting moment in the academy where the humanities and the social sciences are in both deep reflection and deep crisis about the activity of the university.

[13:27] It is an important moment to reflect upon our role as intellectuals and academics. [We have] the loss of tenure-track faculty, the fact that people are increasingly in precarious positions in relationship to the professoriate, the disappearance of the professoriate, the duress that political Left Black and Brown faculty are undergoing, that queer and feminist faculty are undergoing by a forceful Right in this country and beyond.

It’s a very difficult moment and I think the work that we do matters. I think it matters especially if we’re in conversation, as you put it, with communities. I have a very capacious understanding of what community is. Not everyone agrees with me. I don’t think it has to be in your immediate vicinity, five miles away. We have to be conscious of our role and our positionality and how we’re embedded in very particular surroundings, whether it be in institutions or in local communities, and how the institutions relate to local communities. Of course those are many problems with this.

[14:35] For me it’s about using the platforms that we’re given in whatever position we have to challenge the dismantling of public education in this country that’s occurred over the past twenty years. Part of that work is to be in enlightened conversation with activists at the local/global level, to be thinking with artists, makers, performers (however one defines that). We need to take our role as academics, as those trained to carry out research projects, as writers (however we want to define that), as people who read a lot and are able to communicate those ideas more broadly, we need to really take this moment and go forward with it.

[15:30] The direct advice I would have for people looking to publish in these kinds of venues is to communicate from a space of passion and with your whole self, rather than a part of yourself, your whole identity. That doesn’t mean that we all have to be writing memoirs or we all have to be writing from a close position of our own suffering. But it means we should communicate with passion. I feel like this idea of the dispassionate, objective activity of academia, if it were ever relevant, is no more.

Cathy: I’m curious how you see your work combining academia, art, and activism. I mean, we’ve been talking about this and you’ve named some really fantastic examples, but I’m hoping we can dive a little further into this. What draws you to that nexus?

Macarena: I don’t know if there ever was exactly an “ivory tower,” but there certainly was an effort in the 1960s and 1970s when demands were put on the university to bring forward the concerns of communities of color and the concerns of politically Left movements, antiwar movements, peace movements, etc., to make actually make the university accountable to these publics.

[16:40] But there has been a very active dismantling of that work, both a dismantling and a cooptation and an incorporation. It’s happened in various stages. In part, [it’s happened through] dismantling public space and dismantling opportunities for academics to have more connection to communities. I don’t see these as separate, but certainly fences have been tried to be built. Walls had been tried to be built between these spaces.

For me it’s just obvious that things are better when you’re with a heterogeneous group of people engaged in heterogeneous activity on behalf of social justice, environmental justice, feminist justice, multispecies justice, and racial justice. With heterogeneous formats, we can do better work. Without those submerged perspectives, it is very, very difficult to fight these big multinational, increasingly coordinated forms of capitalism and increasingly violent states and institutions that we’re working within. Seeing that bigger project right now is really, really important and it comes out of academic, artistic, and activist doing, making, and thinking—the kind of work that we’re doing through the Global South Center [at Pratt Institute].

Cathy [18:06]: I think this is a really nice connection to what I was going to ask about the center because you’ve been doing some really fantastically interesting projects there. And in many ways, your tagline could also be a tagline for this show: “doing, thinking, being otherwise.” That’s what got me so excited about the center’s work. I’d love to hear a little bit about some projects that you just completed that you’re excited about, but also some ones that we can look forward to seeing in the future.

Macarena [18:33]: Yes. So the center has been fantastic because I have the privilege to be with the social science and cultural studies faculty in the humanities and media faculty here at Pratt [Institute], the art history faculty, faculty in math and science, and a lot of the thinkers, artists, and practitioners who find themselves in this particular location in this particular moment in the middle of Brooklyn, a gentrifying Brooklyn, but also the center of much activity. It’s traditionally been a center for black intellectuals and black cultural life. It’s been really fantastic to be in conversation with this group of people.

I’ve learned so much about eschewing disciplinarity and thinking beyond the disciplinary. For us that means not only the differences between, say, literature and sociology, but much more broadly like what it means to engage architects, interior designers, fashion majors, and folks who are thinking about sustainability and building new worlds and how they’re doing that right here on campus.

[19:39] So the Global South Center is really a place for a lot of that experimental thinking to come forward. We’ve had a lot of reading groups together. We’ve invited faculty from the outside who are doing this work. We’ve invited artists and curators who are engaged in these kinds of projects. We’ve invited designers to think with us. And so a lot of it has been setting up the possibility for collaborative projects.

We’re starting a number of research projects now and one of those is focused closely on Latin America where we invite Indigenous activists and artists from Latin America to learn and think with us. We’re doing an exchange with Goldsmiths [University of London] and the wonderful Sociology and Visual Studies Program there to allow our students to go back and forth. We’re continuing to do work in Cuba and inviting students to do research, grounded research, in Cuba.

[20:37] We’re doing a memory project in the aftermath of war in eastern Europe, connecting eastern European socialisms to Latin America and East–South connections. So we’ve been doing a lot of work on South–South connections, but we’re now increasingly thinking about East–South connections and what that does to change the axis of North–South or East–West. We’re trying to reconfigure maps. That’s been really initiated by our faculty here. We also have new faculty fellows coming into the program who are starting decolonial political economy studies.

So it’s really an enlivened space. A lot of curatorial work is now happening by our own faculty and others. There are a lot of exciting projects so check out our website. Lots of things happening and more to come.

Cathy: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at that big why behind the work that you’re doing and the projects that you’re a part of—and that’s that world that you’re working towards. What’s that world that you’re trying to bring into being?

Macarena [21:45] My friend Jayna Brown, a colleague, has just written a beautiful book that will be out soon from Duke University Press [Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds] on black utopias and futurity. Utopia has a bad valence to it sometimes for us, but I actually think it’s really important to long for and desire these better worlds that are the possibility of utopia.

I was born in the beginning of a utopic socialist project in Chile with Salvador Allende, which was truncated by [Augusto] Pinochet, the Chicago [School] boys, and US neoliberal forces who created a kind of collective nightmare. I have strong feelings about and am motivated by what it could mean to make better worlds and to activate in them. What it’s not for me is, again, recourse through the nation-state and activities of governments. Certainly we can improve upon those things and provide social democratic alternatives and futures there. But what it is for me is looking to each other.

[22:52] Here, I’m indebted to the work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in The Undercommons and really thinking about, again, these submerged worlds. It’s already there. I don’t think we have to look to a better world in the future. I think there are so many possibilities of looking to each other, lending to each other, borrowing from each other, creating alternative market structures, thinking about sustainability, thinking about our relationship to the planet and its future. It’s not inevitable that the planet will crash. I feel like we have to really counter that message right now that’s coming from pundits and climatologists in hegemonic positions.

[23:45] I think we have to look to each other for the things that make us happy in relationship to each other through friendship, through solidarity, through compassionate listening, through political activity, and through being more forceful in our speech as women, as women of color, and as marginalized subjects. We need to voice those things in solidarity with each other.

That’s the world I want to live with: where ideas are really valued, where connections are valued, where follow through is valued, not in a neoliberal technocratic sense but for our own selves and for each other. I try to do that work in my own projects and in my department.

I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly having to pull back on my own authoritarian tendencies that of course have been learned through patriarchal structures. Of course, there’s a lot of self learning to be to be had there, but it happens in conversation and relationality. There is no other way. It happens by listening to Indigenous people, listening to Black leaders and intellectuals and activists. It happens by listening to those around us who are trying to say something, like youth. I really center youth in this book because there are a lot of answers there about the kinds of risks that they’ve taken to make a better world. That’s a world I want to live in: one that listens to young people and to submerged perspectives. I’m happy to dwell in those spaces and then those undercurrents, to go back to your original question.

Cathy [25:20]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]