Everyday Militarisms in O’ahu: Feel-ed Work and Toxic Sovereignties

“We wonder: can this kind of immersive emplaced practice move us—tourists and uninvited strangers in this place—beyond passive knowledge acquisition and consumption?” Stella Maynard, Tess Lea and Astrida Neimanis reflect on a recent American Studies Conference held in Hawai’i.

Kauai, Hawai'i. Image by Jakob Owens, via Unsplash

We’re sweating up hills, sliding down mud and wading through overgrown thickets of tall grasses, and finally glimpse the quarry. We hear a reversing cement truck, its beep warnings carried by the natural amphitheatre of a hollowed sluice pit. Although we had technically driven past the quarry on the highway, it’s completely hidden from ordinary view by a thick ribbon of shady trees.

We’re in Oʻahu, on Kanaka Maoli lands that are colonially and militarily occupied by the United States of America. As researchers from the extended Everyday Militarisms research network, which has grown to include a diverse international cohort of scholars, artists, and activists from an original collaboration partnership between the University of Sydney (Australia) and UC Davis (US), our task here is develop a performance for the American Studies Association (ASA) 2019 conference. To begin, we have stepped through some of Honolulu’s many portals, to think collaboratively with place and time, sense and concept, and to probe interconnections between our own research programs, imported from homes elsewhere, and this place. We want to know if parsing those questions through these intensely local encounters might deepen our understanding of the sustainability of human and other life both within and outside of a militarised existence. We are particularly interested in the pervasive yet invisibilised entanglements between military logics, technologies, histories and affects and their relationship to questions of gender, continuing colonialism, race, extractive economies and environment. We wonder: can this kind of immersive, emplaced practice move us—tourists and uninvited strangers in this place—beyond passive knowledge acquisition and consumption? Are non-toxic sovereignties possible?

We’re at Sand Island, watching container ships being towed into dredged channels to supply this most fertile archipelago with 90 percent of its food and fuel. Obeying import duty demands, ships from Shanghai first head to Seattle before they can arrive here, in part to become dazzling displays of organic goodness at Wholefoods, another site where we ingest militarily-secured trade routes.

This method is a kind of “feel-ed work”— an experimental practice-based and sensory methodology and concept Astrida is developing in her own work. Expanding the notion of anthropological fieldwork, feel-ed work foregrounds observation, learning and researching in situ and with others. It also deploys arts-based and more-than-human collaborative methods—this is why we have also invited Michelle St Anne, Director of Living Room Theatre, to reorient us. She gets us breathing, noticing, listening, moving. Homing in, zooming out. We learn to focus on relations both discovered and elaborated via “arts of noticing,” as anthropologist Anna Tsing would say. This feel-ed work attunes us to situated knowledges and affects, seeking nodes and transfer points of connection.

We’re trekking across hot unshaded Honolulu pavements with no canopy disguise, made snarky and weary by the fierce midday heat. We refuse the beckoning sanctuary of air-conditioned paid consumption in the nearby shopping malls and plazas; we do not go near surf beaches. We’re searching for a pre-colonial irrigation ditchcoordinated in our efforts by militarily-enabled satellite technologies via Google Maps. This hidden ditch once watered taro fields, and like green growth pushing through bitumen, it still exists, channelled under bitumen and drainage lids amid the construction cranes and roaring dump trucks of the increasingly-securitised and gentrified Ward village, going up so quickly so that profit can be had before it all returns to sea.  

Our work shows that it is not really militarism that is hidden as such, for it really is in constant mundane and spectacular sight, most-obviously so in the displays touting American military innocence at Pearl Harbour. And, after all, 22.4 percent of the land in O’ahu is directly controlled by the United States military. More hidden is the always simultaneously still existing Indigenous co-presence and futurity.

We’re at a nondescript biscuit factory in the middle of Honolulu’s industrial belt, to track the trade routes of hard tack, from war biscuit to beloved local commodity. A beige-painted squat brick building, half-heartedly protected by cyclone mesh fencing, whispers the invisibility of our chemo-military-colonial-metabolic dependencies. That – and the drip of a broken drain pipe, supplying weeds that resiliently insist that a crack in broiling bitumen can still be inhabited by other kinds of life, even if it is only toxic sovereignty that’s on offer. This is how we can taste what it is to live among broken things, where climate change is settler colonialism is infrastructure is ingestion is impermanence is entropy is water is waste.

Immersion, taking sound recordings with our bodies, trying to inhabit public places, enables things in the world – material and immaterial – to interrupt us. Our presence is constantly surveilled. We are held in suspicion lifting our arms to attune our breathing and listening on pavements, outside factories, at the convention centre. Private security guards tell us that we cannot be near that non-irrigation stream, to record our impressions; we must not lie on grass, or rest from the overload of the Mission House tour, where lives of Kanaka Maoli are buried under tales about the hard work of missionarie-colonisers turning sandy fields into the roads and boulevards of Honolulu today. In most places, our affluent, well-fed, undiseased white appearance provides a policing pause. But such modes of sensory ethnography show us how heat, sweat, shade, loitering, transgressing, tasting, heeding, listening, are weaponised even if we don’t mean them to be.

Breathing in, breathing out, commercial aircraft and fighter jets intercept us. In worlds where sand, oil, plantations, trade routes and seized lands become lands of pavements and roads and drainage systems, how do we decide which entanglements to see? Beneath the roar of engines in the sky, we recognise there is no position of pure denunciation over the everyday militarisms that grip us—only acknowledgement of what we daily ingest as the condition of our existence. We carry new attunement to this dangerously mundane everywhereness and its demand for accountability, care and responsibility, back home.

Tess Lea, Stella Maynard, Michelle St Anne, Astrida Neimanis (University of Sydney), Lindsay Kelley (UNSW Art+Design), and Toby Smith (UC Davis) participated in the American Studies Conference “Build as we Fight” from 7-10 November, 2019, in Honolulu, Hawai’i.

This work builds on the Everyday Militarisms collaboratory between the University of Sydney, Sydney Environment Institute, The Seedbox and UC Davis, held in Eora in April 2019. The events brought together researchers, artists, activists and other professionals in order to illuminate some of the underexamined, but vitally connected ways in which militarised infrastructures, languages, logics and matters pervade our everyday lives—for better or worse.

Stella Maynard is a library rat that lives and works on unceded Gadigal land. They are currently researching the intersection of carceral and environmental violences in Australia, for an honours thesis at the University of Sydney, supervised by Tess Lea. Stella’s writing has been published by Gauss PDF, Running Dog, Runway Conversations, and they have read for events such as Morsel and Desire Lines.

Tess Lea is an Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies. She is an anthropologist who specialises in the anthropology of policy. Her fundamental interest is with issues of (dys)function: how it occurs and to what, whom and how it is ascribed. Looking at extraction industries, everyday militarisation, houses, infrastructure (eg plumbing and roads), schools, and efforts to create culturally congruent forms of employment and enterprise from multiple perspectives, her work asks why the path to realising seemingly straightforward ambitions is so densely obstacled.

Astrida Neimanis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research is located at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities, with a focus on water, weather and bodies. Her writing has appeared in places such as HypatiaEthics & EnvironmentFeminist ReviewAlphabet City, and Harvard Design Review, and various edited collections and gallery spaces, in collaboration with other writers, artists and makers. Her books include Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (2017) and the co-edited collection, Thinking with Water (2013).