Issue #139 Hospicing Modernity: A Conversation

Hospicing Modernity: A Conversation

Vanessa Machado de Oliveira Andreotti and Lucia Pietroiusti

E-WERK Luckenwalde’s FLUXDOME, performance by Himali Singh Soin for “POWER NIGHTS,” 2022. Courtesy of Stefan Korte.

Issue #139
October 2023

Lucia Pietroiusti: Perhaps I could start with a very brief declaration of love for your book, Hospicing Modernity. In it you talk about medicines and tools for facing the death of modernity, which is taking place around us and within us, with humility and grace. I would describe it as a book of our time, because it really speaks to the sense that something is ending or collapsing; it speaks to the nested and interdependent collapses occurring at psychic, organizational, societal, and planetary levels, and to how we might live through these collapses without inflicting further violence. What prompted you to write it, and how would you describe it to those who haven’t yet read the book?

Vanessa Machado de Oliveira Andreotti: It is a book that looks at the spell modernity has cast. It sees the crisis that we’re living in as relational impairment, one that is imposed by a sense of separability between us and the rest of nature. The idea of humans as separate from nature creates many different problems. It creates hierarchies between us and other species—gets us to stop thinking about the consequences of what we do on the planet and takes us to a space of immaturity and irresponsibility, where we refuse to grow up, because growing up is painful. The story of modernity, which is a single story of progress, development, and civilization, has created a lot of harm. It has also brought some gifts; the book does not take a dialectical approach to the subject. It’s all part of us, we are all complicit, we all are part of modernity. We are conditioned, even neurologically impaired, by what modernity does to us. But we are not determined by it; we can find other ways to rewire ourselves. This rewiring is a collective process; there’s no way an individual can do it alone.

Figuring out how to approach this collectively through education is problematic. In the book, my research collective and I frame this problem of education as a problem of denial, not a problem of ignorance. Education that addresses denial is very different from education that addresses ignorance. When people are trying to deny something and you present them with certain information—for example, that we are complicit in historical and systemic harm—they shoot the messenger. The ego has a lot of defensiveness against feeling pain, responsibility, blame, a sense of shame. So, education needs to bypass these defenses: that is art.

The first part of the book tries to convince people not to read the book. If people read it from that defensive position—especially without understanding the fact that they’re experiencing these defenses—it will be received in a limited, perhaps even damaging way. What inspired the book was a network of Indigenous communities in the Global South, and also some here in the Global North, who all speak about how we have to start from the problem of the colonization of our unconscious. If our unconscious has been colonized, our imagination is also colonized, to the extent that we don’t even know about the boundaries that are placed on our imagination. That’s why, when we think about hope for example, we generally think about it as something in the future, often as the continuity of something already familiar—rather than the idea of placing hope in the present, in the service of the repairing and weaving of relationships, which is what actually makes a different future.

LP: You use the term “hospicing.” Could you speak about what you mean by this, and how it is slightly different from other forms of care, or care work?

VA: In the book, hospicing is about offering palliative care to something that is dying—in this case, modernity—which means that you’re not investing in its futurity. You’re offering care that allows something to die with dignity, integrity, and compassion. You’re not trying to kill modernity, but you’re not trying to keep it alive either. At the same time, you are offering prenatal care to something that is being born out of this death, that is potentially—but not necessarily—wiser, without suffocating this baby through your own projections, nor assuming that this baby is coming through you either.

The book takes a very critical stance against the feel-good, self-congratulatory approach we often see in activism. Activism is often characterized by a kind of exceptionalism, or an exalted quality that is in fact also part of the colonial project. We’re trying to invite people to do this work with humility, so that in the process they can see their failures as enormous opportunities for learning. As people try to disinvest from modernity, there are also a lot of people trying to divest from it. But there’s a difference between disinvestment and divestment. In divestment, you try to break away from the issue and just turn your back on it. With disinvestment you stay with it through the complexities, the paradoxes, the contradictions, and you give it your best shot to be taught by what is dying.

We talk in the book about how to compost our shit—both literally and metaphorically. How to stay with what’s difficult and painful without relationships falling apart, without feeling overwhelmed and immobilized, and without demanding a quick fix, or to be rescued from the discomfort. Hospicing is about developing our capacity to stomach what’s difficult and nauseating without throwing up, throwing a tantrum, or throwing in the towel. It’s about staying with this death, approaching death, and relating to death very differently—the death of the system, and our own death—in order to be able to live well. What we learned from the Indigenous communities in the South is that living well—buen vivir as a philosophy that challenges the Western philosophy of “the good life”—is inseparable from dying well. And if we don’t know how to die well, that’s when we take up arms to defend the wealth we have accumulated, even though this wealth is not giving us anything, not even the security we thought it was going to give us. Hospicing is about generatively approaching endings with much more maturity and wisdom. It’s about listening to the stories of failure and success that will help us support that which the earth is birthing, which is a new system, whatever that may be.

LP: One of the strong emotional cores of the book is a story that was transmitted to you by a Cree elder, which is about four mountains, each with an uphill and a downhill element to them, and each corresponding to different phases of life in which we learn, we struggle, and we teach younger generations. Reading through that story while staying in my grandparents’ place made me think very clearly of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls “the ancestral present”—how the people who are no longer there are nevertheless still holding your world in place. I wanted to ask you about birth accompanying death, and also about what role parenting plays in all of this, especially as a parent yourself. What do you feel you might have learned from that experience in relation to the forming of this book?

VA: That’s a wonderful question. I’ll start with a critique that is common amongst the network of Indigenous communities in Brazil, which is that of all the beings, all the other animals on the planet, human beings are the youngest, symbolically speaking. And of all cultures, Western culture is also the youngest. In terms of its life cycle, it’s in its teenage years. Other cultures cannot grow up for Western culture; Western culture needs to grow up for itself. Those other cultures do need to support a process of growing up; you need your uncles, aunts, and all your grandparents to enable this culture to find its pathway, to age well and to die well. But there’s no point of going into Indigenous communities and asking for detailed instructions. They can’t give you that. What they can give you is direction, and that direction is always towards realizing that we’re part of a much larger continuum than the individual self. The main point of all this is responsibility. As you age, you embrace more of this responsibility. It’s a kind of a visceral responsibility; it’s not an intellectual choice or a matter of convenience. It can go against your own self-interest sometimes.

Western culture, through its hyper-individualization, its hyper-consumerism, and its narcissistic tendencies, has really turned its back on developing that deeper level of responsibility, and has instead created a delusional bubble protecting the belief that the culture is separate from its wider metabolism—that is, the cosmos, or the planet. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a whole culture to shift people towards the desire to become good elders and good ancestors for all relations. This responsibility—to become good elders and ancestors—is what sustains life. If we don’t have that commitment, if we don’t recognize or accept that responsibility, the whole system becomes unbalanced, and this is where the sense of “dis-ease” comes from. The only pathway to aging we have in Western culture is one where you accumulate wealth, you look after your family and the transmission of your wealth, and then you retire so you can enjoy the last years of your life living off the wealth and success you have accumulated. But success here is defined as the achievement of some form of social mobility within systems of status that are already preestablished. That is a diseased pathway for aging. We need a different one. And the lack of alternative stories in modern and Western institutions is what is creating part of the problem.

I have four children, and one of them, who identifies with Gen Z, is extremely interested in talking about this. This is a generation who sees their future as having been stolen from them by the generations that came before them, and who are challenging themselves and the incoming generations to figure out what to do in the context of social and ecological collapse. I’m not talking about a future collapse; I’m talking about the collapses that are happening right now so that we can be here today, collapses that have happened in the past so that we can think ourselves deserving of all the comforts we have today. I think parenting is one of the most important and difficult jobs we have, especially in times of impending and ongoing collapse. I think it’s an ongoing inquiry and conversation.

LP: You speak about people needing to face our shadows collectively but also individually. The psychic well-being of an individual is nested within the well-being of a family, a community, and a local environment. It is always nested within something else, all the way to the planet and the cosmos. Could you speak to the fact that these relationships are all at different scales, and yet somehow retain an entanglement or connection with each other?

The largest seizure of illegal timber in Brazil’s history saw police recover 226,000 cubic meters (8 million cubic feet) of wood on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará in March 2021. Image courtesy of the Federal Police in Amazonas state.

VA: When we talk about relationships in and within modernity and in Western cultures, we have a very limited way of thinking about them, because generally we’re thinking about relationships between people, or between people and “nature.” But there are other ways of thinking about this, which are not based exclusively on human constructs. Within modernity, we relate to each other through human, linguistic constructs of relationships, rather than through the materiality and the organicity of relations. What would it look like if we tried to glimpse what lies beyond these anthropocentric, human constructs of the systems organizing our relationships?

To consider this I would draw on the words of Chief Ninawa Huni Kui, from the Amazon, who talks about colonialism as creating neurobiological impairments. These impairments are based on the imposed sense of separation between us and the nested systems we are part of—what he calls the wider “metabolism” (to emphasize its dynamic nature). He talks about the fact that climate change, climate destabilization, and biodiversity collapse are not things that are happening outside of us. The famines, fires, and floods that are happening in our environment are also happening in our internal landscapes. Our formal modern education is extremely effective at numbing us to the expressions of these effects, but they are still there and cannot be repressed forever. We believe we are individual capsules navigating all of this with unaccountable autonomy. But all these fires, famines, and floods are also already happening in our unconscious.

Chief Ninawa says most people think the pressing issues are a lack of access to water, food, housing, shelter, and so on. But he is much more concerned with the internal collapse of the infrastructures of modernity that are happening in Western societies; these forms of collapse are creating a global mental health crisis that is extremely dangerous to humanity. It’s putting us on a path to premature extinction. He talks about mass extinction in slow motion, across the planet at large. The planet is going to be fine without us. Other beings are going to emerge from the ruins of all we created. So we cannot destroy the planet. But we can destroy the possibility of the continuity of human life, and the life of other species on the planet.

It’s not just about expanding the forms of relationships that we’ve learned within modernity. It’s about re-manifesting the ways that we can relate. I see a lot of people wanting to connect with the land, connect with the whales, the sea, the stars, the sky, and the flowers—but not with the shit. The shit is part of it too though. So how do we figure out a way to connect with the pain without drowning in this pain? How have other cultures, the aunties and uncles, learned how to process all of this differently?

One of the things I’ve learned is that when you are struggling with pain and difficulty, talking about it may not be the best thing you can do, but dancing with it can really help move it. So it’s about figuring out what we’ve been missing out on, what our bodies’ exiled capacities are, and then reactivating them, so we can begin undoing all the separation that has been imprinted and ingrained into us. That’s the spell modernity has us under, and that’s the work that needs to be done. This involves not only changing how we relate to each other, but also how we relate to ourselves, to language, to knowledge, to critique, and to reality itself.

LP: The book speaks in such profound ways across so many different registers. On the one hand it speaks to the most violent complexes and systems and individuals in colonial modernity, and on the other it also speaks to the complexities of certain forms of activism that still buy into the logics of colonial modernity. You make a distinction between low-intensity struggle and high-intensity struggle, and I wanted to ask you who the book is for.

Rupert’s Alternative Education Programme, workshop with artist Bones Tan Jones, 2022.

VA: Thank you, that’s an incredible question. The book is inviting us to think in diffractive ways or in prismatic ways. So it includes a chapter about how politics within modernity is marked by five characteristics, five “E”s that we use in the book to explore the kinds of politics we need to challenge. The first is that politics is marked by a notion of “exceptionalism”—when people follow the idea that human beings, or a specific group of human beings, or one so-called genius human being, is exceptional and the most fit to lead. The second is “exaltedness”—that a particular human being or group of human beings needs to be held up and constantly celebrated in order for them to lead. Then thirdly there’s the “externalization” of culpability, which is the idea that we have good people on one side, and the people who are doing the harm on the other—rather than an understanding that we’re all part of this problem in different ways, with unevenly distributed vulnerabilities. Fourth, we have the concept of “empowerment,” which is about reinforcing certainties and desires rather than questioning them. This reinforcement of certainties and desires is fundamental to the bigger story of modernity, of progress, development, and civilization, and is very dialectic in that sense. And the last one is “emancipation”—politically, emancipation from colonialism and from fascism makes sense. But we cannot be emancipated from the earth. There’s no emancipation from the metabolism of the planet.

And in thinking about this part, we have to remember that each argument has different effects depending on the given context and people. I’m very careful when I talk about this aspect, because I know that Black and Indigenous people, and people of color, still have so many claims to make within the context of modernity, which is extremely unequal, to be able to survive. This cannot be undermined by arguments that question the universality of these claims. At the same time, we have to talk about the fact that we are in a house that is falling apart, and a house that is going to fall on the heads of the most vulnerable first. It is a difficult conversation. The book is inspired by Indigenous teachings, but what I didn’t want to see happen is an idealization and romanticization of a group of people, who then become superhuman: from subhuman to superhuman. The burden of superhumanity is, in a sense, just as difficult. The book’s invitation is for us to stop escaping into idealizations. It was written for those of us who have been socialized and conditioned by modern, colonial formal education, and who also have the time, privilege, and literacy required to read the book.

People ask me, “Why didn’t you write a book for everybody?” My answer is that a universal book of that kind doesn’t exist. If I were to write a book for the communities engaged in high-intensity struggle, who I work with—well firstly, it wouldn’t be a book. Secondly, I would be more interested in their analysis and in having a conversation from there than in creating tools. They have a lot of tools and concepts already. Western and modern colonial contexts lack the frameworks and pathways needed to draw us to responsibility, to invite us to decenter ourselves and our egos, to disarm and declutter our unconscious, to disinvest from harmful desires, harmful certainties, and harmful ways of being.

LP: In Hospicing Modernity you refer to the “bus,” which you describe as a methodology that can be used when one gets confused internally and becomes populated by many voices. You suggest making room for a conversation between those voices, as if they were passengers on a bus. There are also other tools in the book. You speak at the beginning of the book about offering up medicines as a gift. You also recommend tools you’ve used in workshops, tools for imagining future scenarios. You note the amazing thing that happens when you put people in a workshop situation in which they also have to imagine backwards, as it were—to think back through what went wrong and how we might come to understand it. The book is composed of these practices, rituals, and tools—all of which you invite everybody to practice.

VA: While talking about things may shift some cognitive or intellectual frames, the nature of intellectual exchange in Western culture often means that things don’t land in the affective space at the heart of things, or in the relational space of the gut. One of the things we’ve learned from education in Indigenous communities, from the communities within the network, is their critique that in Western culture you educate the head first and the body follows. But in Indigenous cultures you educate the gut first, and the gut is relationality, it’s practice. It’s an invitation to relate differently to oneself, to be able to hold space for the complexity of the self before you begin to hold space for the complexity around you. The heart is cleansed and the head follows. That really provided direction for the book. If the gut doesn’t change, if the heart is not cleansed and filled with other effects, nothing changes. You need this to activate the sense of visceral responsibility, to open up to different cognitive references and go beyond cognition. We explore this in the book with artist Dani D’Emilia in the text “Co-Sensing with Radical Tenderness,” as well as through exercises that are very different from talking. In one of Dani’s exercises, you hold a piece of ice between someone else’s skin and your own. This is about actually sensing and activating some of the other sensibilities of the body that Aboriginal people in Australia talk about when they say that we have ninety-five senses, not just five. Part of the job is to open up all the other senses that are beyond words to help us feel entangled and connected with both the beauty and the pain of everything. And that is what would lead to a different relationship with aging well, and living well, and dying well.

LP: There’s a beautiful way you articulate this at the beginning of the book, where you write about modernity’s tendency to “word the world”—and the need to shift to “worlding the world.” After reading the book I was left with a very strong feeling of the importance of love and feeling loved—not in the sense of individual love, but in a larger sense of love, one that also encounters death, and passing, and pain, and the shit. Could we close with a few words on love perhaps?

VA: Love” is a very loaded word, especially in Western societies, because of all these layers of meaning: when we say it, people understand something else. Love for me would be an inquiry into the depths of this compass that we need for emotional sobriety, relational maturity, intellectual discernment, and intergenerational accountability. It’s a kind of love that is not necessarily about elation, a love through which we can collectively manifest the sobriety we need once we interrupt the harmful impulses of the ego, and our addictions and neuroses. Sometimes we can interrupt those delusions and forms of escapism to be present with what’s happening, and that is what we mean by sobriety. Maturity is doing what is needed, rather than what you want to do—figuring out how to offer yourself in service to what is needed, even though it’s not what your ego would have chosen to do. Discernment is about being able to hold the weight and depth of all these paradoxes and layers of complexity and tensions; it’s about moving things towards being accountable to the debt we owe to what has kept us alive, to the future and to those who are yet to come. Once we can manifest these things, then that word, “love,” has an enriched meaning, one that is not trivialized as it generally is within normal conversations. So love, for me, is depth.

Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity, Nature & Ecology
Return to Issue #139

This conversation took place in July 2023 at E-WERK Luckenwalde in Luckenwalde, Germany, as part of the initiative The Sustainable Institution.

Vanessa Machado de Oliveira Andreotti is a Latinx educator and Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria. She is the author of Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanitys Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism (North Atlantic Books, 2021).

Lucia Pietroiusti is Head of Ecologies at Serpentine, London and the founder of the General Ecology project (2018–ongoing). Pietroiusti works at the intersection of art, ecology, and systems. She is the curator of “Sun & Sea” (Lithuanian Pavilion, 2019 Venice Biennale and 2019–25 tour) and the coeditor of More-than-Human (2020).


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