• Interviewing Meredith Degyansky 

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    Posted: 25 January 2024

    On embodiment and post-/extractivism

    Conversations by Julia Kassyk with Meredith Degyansky

    Julia, our intern, was researching how artistic embodiment practices can facilitate a transition to post-extractivist ways of being. In her interpretation, post-extractivism implies non-exploitative relationships with ourselves and other beings (human, non-human, living and non-living), which are based on reciprocity and leaving space for the regeneration of ourselves and others. Julia conducted a series of interviews with artists and designers who engage with embodiment and concepts related to post-extractivism. In the spirit of sharing knowledge, valuable reflections and insights of her interviewees, the conversations will be published on the Baltan website and available for everyone to read.

    In her second interview, Julia spoke to Meredith Degyansky. Meredith is an artist, activist and anthropologist whose research and artistic practice endeavour to embody relational ways of being and organising that can help people move away from extractive practices of colonialism and capitalist modernity. Meredith presented her work and shared her knowledge with us and our audience during Economia festival, Make Economy Yours Again and Raise Your Voice learning trajectory to name a few.

    In the interview below, Meredith shared how she practised ways of living outside of the capitalist economy, her thoughts on extractivism and the profound, though sometimes eluding, impacts of embodiment.

    The interview

: To begin with, I am wondering what motivates your artistic practice.

Meredith Degyansky**
It has been a long process of finding who I am and what I care for. I graduated from my undergraduate university in 2008, the year of the big global economic crisis, with a huge amount of student debt. I majored in graphic design and at the time, I imagined myself designing logos and branding for some capitalistic corporation. Because of the economic crisis, however, I could not get a paid job. I was a serial unpaid intern. It made me question capitalism and the ethics and morality of this system.

    To me, capitalism is a very historical and violent system. It is based on stealing land from other people and stealing people from their lands and enslaving them to extract resources from the land. In the United States, capitalism was built on settlers coming to America, taking land from indigenous people, stealing Africans from their lands, and enslaving them to work the stolen land. So that the profit settlers made from the resources of the land and the free labour of enslaved people landed in the hands of the settlers.

    You can see the same practices driving our economy now, 500 years later. Our global economic system relies on cheap labour, extracting resources from land, and not seeing certain people or the natural world as alive. People exploit the land and other people to make money off of their labour and resources.

    Besides this systemic definition, to me, capitalism represents what we value. Every single thing that we do is motivated by how much money we can earn from it. At the same time, we must figure out how to make money because this system has captured everything, money is how many of us have to get our basic needs, and how we stay alive. Anything that is not captured by this system is about to be captured. There is hardly anything that we do that does not have a monetary value or motivation attached to it.

    I tend to use the word “capitalism” to encompass many things. But to me, the main problem of capitalism is the accumulation of wealth. The problem is that certain people can accumulate more wealth than other people. The “struggle” to earn a living in times of economic crisis, to pay for my basic needs after college, even as a white person, who is in a more privileged position compared to most other people in the world, made me wake up to the economic injustice of capitalism. And even made me reflect on the ways that my mom and stepdad struggled paycheck to paycheck to feed and house four kids. Like it just didn’t make sense.

    So after the 2008 crisis, the Occupy Wall Street movement broke out and I got involved in projects about alternative economies. I worked around cooperatives and the solidarity economy movement. These projects and movements put land and resources in the hands of communities, who can manage it in more just and sustainable ways, such as through barter, alternative currencies, communal ownership of land, collective ownership of businesses, and on and on.

    Turning to my art practice, I was trying to resist capitalism by living without making money for two years. I lived in a collective house in NYC with 10 people, with whom I also shared food we dumpster-dived. I worked out a deal with my landlord so that I could work for him instead of paying my rent. I biked everywhere, swapped clothes, had friends cut my hair, and got on Medicaid which is the closest poor people can get to universal healthcare in the US.

    Experimenting with trying to live without money by myself, made me realise that doing that as a white woman who was a citizen of the US, was relatively easy. I do not think that everybody could do that depending on what they look like, where they come from, or what their past experiences were. So I started to question my privilege and realised it wasn’t going to be enough just to be a person all alone living outside of capitalism in some ways by choice like so many other people who do not have that choice and never have. But I wondered what would look like if this scaled up. Could communities live the same way, without needing capitalist resources?

The frame of embodiment came when I started working on a worker-owned cooperative farm in Massachusetts in the middle of a pandemic. Working on and with land gave me a stronger understanding that it is not only about the material liberation from capitalism - living without money or organising our lands, businesses, and housing collectively. But we also need an embodied, ontological shift, for us to go beyond the colonial and extractive ways of treating land and other people.

I realised that even small-scale, community-led farming is still harmful to people and the environment. When working at the co-op, we were still caught by the system, stressed and worried about whether we made enough produce to sell to the markets and pay each other. We were still forcing the land to grow produce in a way that felt violent. I realised that we were exploiting the land and our own bodies, even if we didn’t have one formal boss. For the past few years, I have been thinking about what it means to deeply relate to the land relationally, following indigenous knowledge instead of colonial logics that create borders and ownership and requires us to extract from the land and to exploit one another and ourselves. Overall, I realised that this transition has to be also in the body, and in how we feel, how we know, how we act and how we orient ourselves to the world.

    I started creating attunements that I found helpful to deepen my understanding that we are land that we are nature and that we are interconnected. Yet, I still do not know how they could be scaled up.

I like that you explained what you mean when discussing capitalism. I struggled to define it for myself. There are so many very complex issues that come from it or cause it or link to it somehow. However, I think it is important not to let the possible inconsistencies in how people define capitalism disable conversations about it and the problems related to it that need to be solved.

Meredith Degyansky
    I agree. I like the concept of post-extractivism because it signifies moving beyond the sometimes large monstrous concept of capitalism to a practice-related post-/extractivism. I think extractivism signifies a “doing”, while capitalism is not necessarily a verb yet. The word post-extractivism helps you understand what you need to do - don't extract, stop extracting.

It is something we can all do like even in our personal lives, in the tiniest ways, in our daily life. We can do it by not taking the whole bunch of strawberries from the field, but rather taking just a few instead. We can scale it up also, for example, to mining companies in Peru. We need to stop taking. Or to try to go beyond taking. To go beyond is what post- would mean to me.

    I often speak in terms of post-capitalism and I am going to start using the term post-extractivism as well because I think that gets to the root problem, which is extracting from people and the natural world and exploiting all of us. I teach undergrads right now and so many of them are trained to want to make money that detaches them from thinking about what making money does to the planet and other people. To make money you have to exploit other people and the natural world, to spend money, you are also doing the same. Where did the thing you just bought come from? We really need to start thinking like that. Though it can be a very depressing hole to go down.

    Julia: In the context of post-capitalism/-extractivism, I am thinking about your mediations, such as “Unsettling the Settler”. I was wondering since you shared them with people during workshops and it is available online, what impact did you hope for? Or are maybe aware of what impact they already had on people?

Meredith Degyansky
    I think my audience is the professional class. When working on my projects, I think about the people I am surrounded by - people I worked with at art and design non-profits in New York City when I worked as an unpaid intern and the academics I am surrounded by now.

    With my meditations, I am trying to get this community of people to wake up and become more self-reflective. Of course, it is not all up to the individual. We have all been culturally constructed and born into this capitalistic system, even if we are situated differently within it. But I hope for a collective awakening of the professional class and a collective reflection on the practices of extraction and wealth accumulation and how they reproduce our ways of being meaning the oppression of nature and other people. I hope that my audience will ask themselves: Knowing that I live in an extractivist world, what might I want to do differently?

    I also hope that the mediation will not just lead to self-criticism but rather encourage us to search for connections with other beings. When I presented “Unsettling the Settler” at Economia, we had a conversation afterwards. It was amazing to hear what people thought and felt. There were so many moments where people were very vulnerable and talked very honestly about how they lived and the choices they made. I remember this one person in particular saying that they just ate a bunch of French fries before joining the event. My meditation made them feel guilty because I mentioned how diet culture makes us feel like failures for eating unhealthy foods, like that the dominant culture makes us feel it is our individual problem. In “Unsettling the Settler” I spoke about eating a doughnut over my steering wheel when I was stressed. The scene was not supposed to be about feeling bad for eating a caloric doughnut and focusing on the self, our body image and all this nonsense. Rather, I was trying to get people to think about how the doughnut was produced, to think about who made it, where it came from, and the bodies and lands that were exploited and extracted to produce it. I hoped to prompt people to try to get outside of the self and consider others, who are being extracted from to produce these doughnuts and whose lives are often obscured by the feelings of shame and guilt that the diet culture wants us to feel as individuals.

Through my attunements, I am breaking up this idea that we are individuals. The more recent attunements I wrote focus quite strongly on how we are interconnected with all of life –even though we live in a world that is trying to force us to see ourselves as separate from other people, from land, separate from the chairs we sit on, separate from everything. I think we are deeply in relation with all of these things and we are capable of feeling this connection. With my pieces, I am also trying to help people slow down. I believe slowing down is necessary for people to consciously transform their practices.

I only recently realised the extent of my detachment, my mental detachment from everything around me. I realised I am not able to even imagine and therefore acknowledge my interconnection with others. I think it is really important to acknowledge this interrelation and I have a lot of work to do to fully recognise it and live according to it.

    I was wondering how we could imagine/develop this connection. Maybe redevelop it?

Meredith Degyansky
I resonate with that. I think the body also plays an important role in overcoming the separation between “me” and “the other”. I think we also need to open up our bodies to realise this interconnectedness. We need to realise that our imagination has been closed off and that we believe that our imagination lives in our heads only. We have been conditioned to believe that. One may wonder if our sensing-feeling bodies can even sense and feel as a whole.

    I think it takes a lot of practice to (re-)learn how to feel and sense the world around us deeply. There is a statistic about embodiment that is one of my favourite statistics ever and I think it is the only number I ever remember. It’s from Generative Somatics, in which it says that it takes 300 repetitions of an action to gain muscle memory. But it takes e need 3000 repetitions to embody something. If we want to deeply understand our relations with the land, plants, animals, winds, skies, and the sun and have a cooperative relationship with the more-than-human world, we have to practise it 3000 times. We need to do it through our sensing, feeling bodies. Through, for example, tasting the soil, lying in it, smelling tree bark, staring at the sky, through being there.

    The other day I was at this talk by Margaret Bruchac, an Indigenous scholar who lives on the East Coast of the United States. She was talking about Indigenous medicine and somebody in the audience asked her how Indigenous people knew that certain plants were safe to consume or use as medicine. The person asked if they learned just by making a lot of mistakes and if a lot of people died because of that. Margaret answered so beautifully by saying that understanding plant medicine comes from generations and generations of knowledge passed down. It is really hard to pinpoint how it got to be known. But what was most fascinating to me was that she said that people also learned a lot about medicine by watching how animals used plants. By watching how bears used certain leaves. By smelling or tasting and having a more sensorial relationship with what is good or bad in the same way most animals do. To me, it signifies a non-separation between ourselves and the other-than-human. “Oh, the bear can do this. Then we can do this too.”

    I feel almost embarrassed to say this out loud, but that insight was an epiphany for me. It made so much sense to me, as a person who has been deeply colonised, that when you are more in tune with the earth around you, you can see and smell and feel and taste which plants might help you feel better. You listen to the bear the same way you listen to your grandfather or your neighbour.

Julia: Speaking of embodiment, were there any particular reflections or particular practices of yours that impacted you significantly and made you want to share them with others?

Meredith Degyansky
Embodiment can mean many things. It can be a meditation or a somatic experience of connecting with the centre of one's body. But I think embodiment can also be a mode of waking up to the ways our bodies are already moving with the earth. I think there is a physicality that inherently exists in our relationship with the Earth. On an obvious level, this is us living with and being dependent on the earth like we literally do need to eat earth to stay alive. But also on a deeper level, as our attunement to the earth, how we feel the earth moving with us. I think once you have the physicality, feeling and knowing your body in space, your thoughts and imagination follow along. You start to, for example, feel when the soil is ready, feel how to grow this plant, and feel how you are walking down the street with the rhythm of the earth. While working at the farm, I worked quite closely with a guy named, Gerardo. e was from Costa Rica. He was in his 60s and he has been working with the land for his entire life. While working, I would constantly watch his body and his form. He worked on the land and he knew how to move like a person that works on, with, as part of the land. He knew how to hold his shovel with so much grace that his body looked like he was dancing with the land.

In my practice, I try to take embodiment out of the sphere of “professional” practice or practice performed only in scheduled, controlled, and possibly also formally known as “spiritual” settings. When I led the Raise Your Voice workshop, I told the participants to feel free to poke things with their fingers and allow themselves not to be good at doing the embodiment exercise. I invited them to poke a tree or sniff or feel it out in the way a child might do it, to be curious. I think that getting back into the body and tuning into the physicality of our bodies with other bodies is not about doing embodiment “correctly” or even aiming to have some deep somatic awareness right away. I think it is about trying to strip your brain of some societal constraints and prejudices that stand in the way of how you might want to feel in the world and interact with the world. And as colonised subjects, this might be about sucking at it for quite a while.

    One thing I do with my students is to ask them to fall in love with an other-than-human being. They took a rock, stick, or plant home and had to form a relationship with them. Before they went, I asked: “If you are going to fall in love with your rock, how are you going to communicate with them?”. One of my students raised his hand and said: “Well, I’d communicate with them through touch”.

    It was one of the most beautiful moments in that class. You can see that there is an impulse to use the body, to use our sensorial capacity to feel through touch. I also wonder if we get more connected to our bodies, it might help us relate to other bodies. If we could explore embodiment not just by ourselves, but by feeling the bodies around us and sensing them. I understand embodiment as a simultaneous movement of and with my body and other bodies, human and other-than-human.

This reminds me of your article for Nonprofit Quarterly, in which you wrote about speaking to the land. How do you imagine speaking to the land? If you want to do it, would it be something like pronouncing words? Or would it be some, possibly abstract practice?

Meredith Degyansky
To me, it is not speaking. It could be, but it does not mean that the land would understand. It is not a new concept, however. People who have worked with the land have done this forever, including farmers. Especially in our modern era, I envision speaking to the land as spending a lot of slow time in the same place. Watching the soil year after year after year and in different climate conditions.

    There is a way of listening to how the land reacts, based on how the land holds water, how it holds the tomato post, how plants grow in it, and what kind of other beings are in the land. It is again the tactile practice of feeling, sensing and looking at the land.
The land is communicating all the time by, for example, what it grows, what dies, how it looks, how it tastes, and how it smells. It is a sensorial way of communicating and it is again a matter of being connected to a place where you keep coming back. It is a slower form of communication.

    And this is all to say that when I tell my class to fall in love with other-than-human beings, they never do because there is not enough time. My students always say that they need more time. One of my students said that they were more in love with a rock they found when they were five years old than the one they had been trying to fall in love with for the class. That was such a perceptive point.I think time matters in this case.

    Julia: I encountered people who explored embodiment with water or different elements. And I was wondering what it means to you when you speak about the land.

Meredith Degyansky
It is important to clarify that I use the word land often to encompass all elements. I think it is pretty common in much pre-colonial thought to think of land as encompassing waters, plants, microbes, fungi, wind, and sun. But I also think of land as earth, like the ground, perhaps because I work at a farm. And being in the context of the United States, I refer to settler colonialism and the displacement of people from the land that has sustained their lives for thousands of years. So I do think the ground as land as it relates to extraction comes up mostly in my work. I will say though that I never realised how intrinsic the sky is to working on and with the land until farming, the sky is so big and above you all the time. A cloud is like a cold shower, the sun can be a bit much on a hot day but a dear friend on a cold one.

    Julia: Anything you said before resonated a lot with me. Thank you. I think that I cannot understand the embodied language of others, especially the other-than-human, but through embodiment, I can at least be a bit more in tune with myself and attuned to the world around me.

Meredith Degyansky
I do not think embodiment should be just about you, about finding something in yourself. I see approaching embodiment as purely “me time” as a manifestation of colonial ways of being in the world where it is all about the individual and there is no space to see yourself connected to other bodies.

    I am thinking of the word extractivism again. If we existed in a cosmology where we understood the land to be our mother, truly and deeply, would we be extracting so violently from our mother? Would we be like drilling into our mother? Similarly, if we understand that we are deeply connected to the land that we are the land, would we injure part of our foot on purpose? If we exist in a cosmology of deep interdependence, to love the land is also to love the self.

I believe it is important to break the binary that we are constantly put in. It does not have to be that we either love others or we love ourselves. It can be everything. We can love everything and care for everything. And we can practise this love 3000 times, as prescribed by science [laughter].


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