New Release: Excerpt from Hospicing Modernity
Categories: General Ecology & Sustainability Excerpt Health & Healing Indigenous Cultures & Anthropology Literature & the Arts New Release Psychology & Personal Growth Science & Cosmology Society & Politics
From Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, out now.
Within modernity, we are conditioned to want to cover everything with a heavy blanket of fixed meanings, to index reality in language, to word the world. Carl Mika, a Māori philosopher and friend, suggests that instead of “wording the world,” when language manifests as an entity, it “worlds the world” and this opens other possibilities for experiencing existence within the world.
There are significant implications of working with language to world the world, especially in relation to our relationship with stories. In wording the world, we are socialized to treat stories as tools of communication that enable us to describe reality, prescribe the future, and accumulate knowledge. In worlding the world, stories are living entities that emerge from and move things in the world. Some of these stories are meant to exist for a long time, others expire early. Some stories are meant to remain as and where they are and to work only with a very select group of people; other stories are meant to travel the world, and to transform and to be transformed by other world-entities, including the storytellers and those who receive the stories. These are the types of stories you will encounter in this book.
Sometimes worlding stories can create micro or macro movements, in all directions, as soon as they arrive. Sometimes they will hide somewhere in your body, perhaps close to a song that already lives there, and wait for the right time to dance with you. Sometimes they will do their work undercover, in alliance with other resident stories. Other times they will be rejected, ignored, hated, or attacked by other stories that live within you. When mobilized in this way, stories feel like they interact with your body physically (and they do!).
As I started to write this book, I was very reluctant to have personal stories show up in public. Little did I know that they were planning a coup. I actually asked these stories to stay away, but they had a different idea. However, the more they revealed themselves, the more I agreed that their work was indispensable for what this book needed to do. “Fine,” I said begrudgingly, half-worried, half-curious about what they were planning behind my back.
As the stories were moving with my hands and the computer keyboard, I heard them wondering about the different bodies they would encounter. Some stories may have shown themselves in this book especially for you, others showed up for different readers from different contexts, who occupy different positionalities. You may feel connected to some stories but not to others. The stories in this preface give you an idea of where the stories in other chapters are coming from. They give you a brief overview of the personal and academic trajectories that made this book possible. But please be mindful that this (and any other narrative) can never be the “full story.”
From a Cradle of Paradoxes
I was born in a mixed-heritage family of cultures in dissonance, of German and Indigenous ancestry in a place known as Brazil. My personal and professional pathways have been deeply marked by the lived experience of a microcosm of colonial violence, where paradoxes were abundant and where love was deeply entangled with historical and systemic trauma. Both my Guaraní (Indigenous) and German grandmothers were alphabetically illiterate and both spoke Portuguese as a second language. I am the first woman in my family to go to university, and this happened despite my strong disidentifcation with formal schooling, which was one of the reasons I dropped out of high school as a teenager.
My father married my mother out of a paradoxical—both progressive and highly problematic—desire to change the world. His grandparents had lost everything in Germany and emigrated to Brazil right after World War I. His German mother was forced to marry for material security, but they lost everything again. As a German-speaking family, they were persecuted in Brazil during World War II. My German grandmother, vó Vitória, raised six children by herself as a seamstress moving between different European colonies in the south of Brazil from the 1940s to the 1960s.
My father’s brothers were involved in agricultural expansion into Indigenous lands in the 1960s, which was part and parcel of Indigenous genocide in Brazil. My father wanted to take a stance against the violence toward Indigenous people that his brothers were supporting. Influenced by the belief in German cultural supremacy inherited from his family, as well as Western (cowboy) films and literature he was exposed to as a child, he decided to marry an Indigenous woman to “save” her from state-sanctioned violence. His long-term project was to give their future mixed-heritage children the European genetic stock that was necessary to have the opportunity for social enfranchisement.
This social enfranchisement by genetic assistance is also deeply paradoxical and comes at great cost. I have written about this before, using the analogy of being carried up a ladder of social mobility that stands on the broken backs of piling bodies of other human and nonhuman beings. To be carried up is to make a deal, a transaction that involves acceptance of being a burden and incurring an unpayable debt. My mother accepted the deal together with its devastating implications for her sense of self and self-worth. She did so despite the warnings of vó Vitalina, my Indigenous grandmother and her mother, who insisted that not only was this a terrible deal, but also that the ladder itself was not going to last because it was both violent and unsustainable. She used to say that the house the European man built on the backs of Indigenous peoples would eventually fall, and that we’d better take cover when it happened.
My father understood that the system was rigged, but he enjoyed the benefits afforded by it. He ignored the ironic fact that the benefits and social mobility he sought were made possible only by the structural injustices he was trying to fight against by marrying my mother. Vó Vitalina’s analogies pointed exactly to that problem. She was warning my mother that the promises and securities of social mobility were not meant to last: one day we would need to reckon with the violence and unsustainability of the ladder.
The Complexities of the In-Between
Both of my parents were concerned about being perceived as a “normal” family. It was after several racist incidents involving teachers, salespeople, and neighbors that I understood the risks we faced as a mixed-heritage family challenging racial expectations of marriage of that place and time. During incidents when I, my brother, or my mother were being victimized, my father always stood up for the family in his Germanness, insisting on us all being treated according to his racial privilege, often to our dismay and visible embarrassment.
My father tells the story of a particularly intense summer when I was a toddler. He had been sunburned and become utterly pink, while I had become ten shades darker. He went to the store carrying me in his arms and he was approached by a woman who congratulated him on adopting a child in need “from the streets.” Needless to say, my father got really angry and made everyone in the store know I was his child and that I was not not-white, which must have been really confusing for everyone involved (including me). These were common occurrences. It was also common then for me to want to wash my skin color off with soap, so that these incidents would no longer happen.
I was taught indirectly, by both of my parents, that there are deep contradictions between thinking, saying, and doing. That, for example, one can build a specific identity holding and expressing highly problematic views about other people, and then show up in a critical situation involving said people in completely selfless ways that totally contradict those views or one’s self-image. Conversely, people can build a virtuous identity and promote the most beautiful values and ethical commitments, but when pushed to the edge, make decisions or act in ways that completely negate those values and commitments.
My father expected us to be grateful for the sacrifices he had made in choosing to marry my mum rather than someone from his own cultural background. Both my father and my mother expected diligence, discipline, and reverence toward the social mobility ladder representing the social order that would give my family the class privileges and securities my parents aspired to. They both felt they had sacrificed much in order to give me and my brother access to this opportunity. Our lack of interest in the path they had projected for us was initially perceived as a betrayal of these sacrifices.
In my state of rebellion against my parents’ expectations, I sought out many stories on both sides of the family. On both sides, I found experiences of dispossession, destitution, and displacement; and sexual, class, and racial violence. However, the experiences were very different in relation to Indigenous genocide. The weight of these Indigenous stories cannot be fully expressed by logic. The closest I came to touching these experiences was through writing a poem that illustrates how trauma travels and manifests differently in different generations. The first verse is about my grandmother Vitalina (She), then my mother (Girl), and finishing with me (she).
Being Born “Índia”
She being born “índia,” stubborn and free She being sent to Catholic mission school She running away
She being forced to marry older white man She bearing his child
She running away again
She back to nomadic life with community
She having many partners there and elsewhere
She banished from settled Indigenous community that turned Catholic She constantly refusing to assimilate
But still singing songs at the church out of tune and out loud, on purpose
Last brown baby girl born in the streets Mother and toddler saved from destitution By former husband
Girl raised by old white man as loving father figure Girl sees Indigeneity as shame and dispossession Girl seeks enfranchisement
Girl loses adoptive father and promised comforts early Girl repudiates mother’s reputation
Girl repeats mother’s patterns of relationship Girl saved again by white man
Girl agrees with social mobility deal Girl wants her children not to struggle
Girl insists her mother joins family in city
Girl loses mother who prefers to die in and with the land
she is born, still stubborn, but not free
she has Indigenous blood both in her veins and on her hands her body overcrowded by ancestral lines in dissonance
she suffocates in this body
her flesh pulled in opposite directions she believing her life is a mistake
her parents forcing assimilation she failing to want it
her parents fearing destitution she not afraid of it
her parents blaming her for failure she finding freedom in it
her parents believed their project had failed,
they had sacrificed in vain because just like her grandmother, who refused the ladder,
“she will die as a nobody, in the middle of nowhere”
Existing in between cultures in historical dissonance can be painfully complicated. As a teenager, I gave up on living a few times. I hated my body. I left home and dropped out of school. I became a single teenage mum at sixteen. I ended up in violent relationships, then at a woman’s shelter. My body got hurt and broken, and I nearly died in a car accident. The odds were definitely not good. Everything happened very early, very quickly, very intensely. If I had not found support to barely get it together, I am certain I would not have survived. My undergraduate degree was completed in evening classes at a public university while I worked as a teacher fifty-eight hours a week (including weekends), in three shifts, in different towns. This was 1997.
Fast forward to 2021: my academic profile states that I hold a Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change. I have worked at different universities internationally since 2004; and have been a tenured full professor at the Department of Educational Studies at Canada’s University of British Columbia, since 2017. I have held academic positions in Ireland, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Finland, where I became a full professor at age thirty-four. I have worked extensively with teachers, NGOs, professional associations, governments, social movements, and communities.
My work has identified and offered alternatives to common problematic patterns in international and community relations, particularly in the areas of global education and Indigenous engagement. I have been a strong critic of prevalent educational approaches that reproduce paternalistic forms of relationships; simplistic solutions to complex problems; and ethnocentric ideals of sustainability, equity, justice, and change. Through my scholarship and service, I have critically examined existing practices of engagement and representation related to poverty, development, progress, and sustainability in different educational contexts. I have offered generative conceptual clarifications that supported policy and curricular changes; cocreated alternatives to existing practices; mentored colleagues and students; and fostered innovative partnerships in knowledge production, mobilization, and translation across sectors and disciplines.
This academic trajectory was not intentional—quite the contrary. My motivation to stay in academia was never about an academic career, but about securing a space of collaborative experimentation with other communities. This journey has been unanticipated, and both painful and instructive. Black, Indigenous, and racialized people are perceived to enter modern institutions through the back door. We are expected to be in and of service to those who see themselves as the rightful heirs of the academic ivory tower. Regardless of what we actually do, the impact of what we do, or want to do, from an institutional perspective our main job is to make “diversity” work in ways that make people feel comfortable and that allow business to go on as usual. We are expected to feel grateful and indebted for the opportunity to contribute. If we meet expectations, we are supported and lifted up. If we refuse to comply, if we decide to rock the boat, our competency is questioned; our work scrutinized; and direct and indirect retaliation, penalties, and punishments become routine. Both of my grandmothers have helped me survive institutional racism.
Vó Vitória was a role model of work stamina. She also taught me how to sew together different pieces of fabric. For me this is what academic writing is about, which has helped immensely with productivity. Vó Vitalina taught me courage and irreverence: I too am singing in their church, out of tune and out loud, on purpose. And I will do it for as long as this is generative for the communities that I work with and the work that needs to be done.
I believe that my particular trajectory made me a specialist in articulating paradoxes at the interface of colonial encounters. I was conceived through one of these paradoxes and the experiences in my life led me to look for paradoxes in different contexts, such as in education, and in efforts toward social and global justice. Since people tend to turn away when paradoxes are presented through logic, I have learned to translate them into stories, images, metaphors, and pedagogical exercises. This is what I call one of the “medicines” that I carry. I might also say that I am a specialist in identifying some of the complexities of colonial violence, having witnessed how these complexities manifest within and around me over the course of my life. On good days I may also carry—for myself and others—the medicine of holding spaces where heavy things can be held and difficult movements can happen without relationships falling apart. This medicine is always necessary, both for keeping my family together and for safely raising painful, risky topics of conversation in academia without immediately being shut down.
This book is an attempt to bring these medicines together. These may be exactly the medicines you need right now—or not. This book also presents teachings I have received when collaborating with other people,2 in particular the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures arts/research/ecology collective and the Indigenous network Teia das 5 Curas. It is important to say from the outset that when I engage with Indigenous knowledges in some of the chapters, I do not intend to represent or to speak for Indigenous individuals or communities. Indigenous groups are as diverse and complex as non-Indigenous groups; and questions about where, how, by, and with whom Indigenous knowledges should be shared are contested issues. In cases when specific Indigenous stories are shared in this book, permission was granted by Indigenous storytellers.
What I present in this book are translations of what I have been taught about modernity keeping us in an immature state; and the need for a political practice of healing, of radical tenderness, that can enable us to step up, to grow up, and to show up differently. This involves unlearning our learned ways: of thinking and imagining; of sensing and feeling; of relating to one another, the earth, and the cosmos; of facing life, fear, pain, loss, and death. The stories are gifted as a compass that points to the need for us all to become healthy elders and good ancestors for all relations: to learn to live, to grieve, and to die well. This requires that we learn how to face our shadows, how to compost our “shit,” and how to weather storms together. For this to happen, we need a container where we can manifest unconditional regard for everyone’s being; while we commit to interrogating our thinking, our doing, our hopes and desires, and our ways of relating in order to breathe and to move together with maturity, sobriety, discernment, and accountability. This book is an attempt to create that container.
I do not claim to be able to do all these things or even to be able to teach others what to do. In fact, I would be suspicious of, and encourage others to be suspicious of, people who declare that they have the answers. The mess we find ourselves in is unprecedented and we all have a lot of work to do.
The Idea of Hospicing Modernity
If you can read this book, it is likely that modernity is like the air you breathe. You would not be able to access or read it without having acquired modernity’s literacies. Modernity is a single story of progress, development, human evolution, and civilization that is omnipresent. Modernity is full of paradoxes: of war and humanitarian support, of ongoing colonialism and reconciliation, of imperialism and education, of poverty creation and alleviation, of exponential growth and sustainability. Whether you and I identify with or are critical of it, it still conditions what and how we think, feel, desire, relate, hope, and imagine. Although modernity always sees itself and behaves as if “young,” it has grown old and is facing its end. Learning to offer palliative care to modernity dying within and around us is not something that modernity itself can teach us to do. In other words, most people will not willingly let go of the enjoyments and securities afforded by modernity: they will not voluntarily part with harmful habits of being that are extremely pleasurable. However, our collective unconscious knows that the enjoyments and securities promised by modernity cannot be endlessly sustained. This book is about preparing ourselves for coexisting differently whenever these enjoyments and securities may be taken away, whether this will happen in our lifetimes.
The first time I heard the word hospice used as a verb was in Ireland in 2011, at an Occupy movement event. I had been invited to contribute to a conversation taking place outside the Central Bank of Ireland on Dame Street in Dublin. The word hospice was introduced through the book Walk Out, Walk On by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.3 This word was used to refer to acting with compassion to assist systems to die with grace, and to support people in the process of letting go—even when they are holding on for dear life to what is already gone. Although the authors and I may have different perspectives about what is dying, why, and what needs to be let go of, I am very grateful for their work and for the gift of that word.
Since that encounter, the idea for a book about hospicing modernity visited me many times. I postponed it as much as I could, but as with all stubborn ideas, the book had its own agenda. It is important to note that, as the book will be received through your cultural and affective filters and will start to interact with your experiences, it will transform into something different altogether. Please understand that your interpretations are the result of different traveling stories intermingling and spinning together in a direction of their own that happens in your time and context—they may have very little resemblance to my own interpretations. This is fine as long as we are both aware that there may be significant differences between what I wrote and what you will interpret.
The book is organized in two parts: the first part (warm-up/prep work) creates a container for the second part (hospicing modernity). In part I you will be introduced to a thought experiment about our current social and ecological predicament (warm-up), you will become familiar with different understandings of modernity (prep work 1), you will be asked to carefully consider the implications of reading this book (prep work 2), and if you decide to continue reading, you will be offered seven basic tools that will give you a new language (frameworks, images, and strategies) to navigate the rest of the book (prep work 3). In part II, you will find ten chapters addressing themes related to modernity dying, and what would be necessary to hospice it and assist with the birth of something new—without suffocating the “baby.” These chapters are collections of stories and exercises that invite you to sit with our collective shadows and “shit” and to stay with the storm, stay with the trouble. These chapters articulate some of modernity’s wrongs and the implications of facing these wrongs for different forms of social activism. These chapters offer insights on how to gradually part with habits of living that are harmful to yourself, to other human and nonhuman beings, and to the metabolic movements of the planet at large. Although the chapters are organized sequentially, each chapter is an independent bundle of stories and exercises that stands on its own. Thus, the chapters in part II could, in theory, be read in any order. However, I do not recommend reading the chapters in part II without going through part I first.
Since this book is about expanding our collective capacity to hold space for difficult and painful things, I cannot say, “I hope you enjoy this book.” There will be parts of it that you won’t enjoy, and at some points perhaps you will even be angry at me. If you need to process what you are going through, the GTDF collective has created a peer support pathway you are welcome to use at decolonialfutures.net/hospicingmodernity. What I wish for is for you to learn to feel comfortable with the nausea and discomfort of difficult learning as soon as possible. Then, I promise you, it will be much easier to enjoy the ride.
The Gifts of Paradoxes
I titled this preface “My Grandmothers’ Gifts,” in loving memory of my grandmothers, vó Vitória and vó Vitalina. They were both tremendously courageous, contradictory, stubborn women living complex lives in their historical contexts. Vó Vitória was a victim of political, sexual, and gender (forced marriage) violence who kept the photo of her sweetheart (whom she met at fourteen and was not allowed to date) hidden in her wallet until the day she died at eighty-four years old. She also reproduced gender violence toward my aunts and firmly believed in the superiority of white people over non-white people until close to her death. She gave my mother and other racialized people who joined the family a very hard time, yet despite my skin color being different from hers, she showed me only unconditional love and always had my back. Vó Vitalina was a victim of colonial, racial, gender, class, and sexual violence and her politics was one of unfaltering refusal to submit to modernity—regardless of the costs of that refusal, including her becoming homeless. As much as I want to romanticize her resistance, I know that— despite having been a victim of multiple forms of historical and systemic violence—she was not immune to reproducing it herself.
Within modernity we are encouraged to idealize humanity and to look for faultless virtuous role models. However, my grandmothers’ gifts were crafted and offered mostly through their mistakes, their paradoxes, and the complexities of their lives. From vó Vitória, who was a seamstress, I inherited determination, endurance, and confidence to cross borders and to work through whatever life presented me (including becoming a teenage mum and writing in order to cope with and survive racism at the university). From vó Vitalina, who was a benzedeira (healer), I inherited intuition, free-spiritedness, and an unbounded source of vitality (the translation of her name). She also instilled in me the insight that the sense of separation and superiority implanted by modernity is a social disease in all of us, that requires collective healing. This commitment to healing is the reason I dropped out of school and later became a teacher aspiring (rather naively) to redirect education away from the reproduction of harm.
The multiple forms of violence my grandmothers faced—and reproduced—in their lifetime have not disappeared, far from it. But hopefully, one day, the integration of the lessons of our collective failure to interrupt violence will become part of what reframes how we approach our human predicament. Although my grandmothers are not physically around anymore, they make themselves present in every aspect of my life as I process and integrate their teachings. They whisper persistently and sometimes annoyingly as I try to work. They both insist on asking, “What if?”
What if racism, colonialism, and all other forms of toxic, contagious divisions are preventable social diseases?
What if the texts, education, and forms of organization we revere have carried and spread the disease, but also contain latent parts of the medicine that can heal it?
What if learning to activate this medicine requires coming to terms with our violent histories (as painful as that may be); learning to see the world through the eyes of others (as impossible as that sounds); and facing humanity (in our own selves first) in its full complexity, affliction, and imperfection? What if the purging prompted by this medicine leads us to confront our traumas and learn to let go of fears of scarcity, loneliness, worthlessness, guilt, and shame?
What if we must learn to trust each other without guarantees?
What if the motivation to survive alongside one another in a finite planet in dynamic balance (without written agreements, coercive enforcements, or assurances) will come through being taught collectively by the disease itself? What if collective healing will be made possible precisely by facing—together—the end of the world as we know it?