The shiny blue and pink satin dazzle against the grey of the sidewalk and the wood of the building’s walls, revealed beneath the peeling white paint. The three pageant winners, one tall and thin, two short and stout, stand in the shade of the 2nd story porch, around the corner from the Main Street of New Straitsville, Ohio, where the Moonshine Festival is underway. It is a glaringly hot day, and the street itself is empty, the crowd from earlier in the day already headed home, those remaining seeking shelter from the sun under another porch overhang, watching karaoke performers. I don’t remember what was sung, or whether the singers were strong or off key, only that the sound amplified throughout the festival area, making it the attraction in the late afternoon heat.
New Straitsville’s annual Moonshine Festival commemorates the product for which the town became famous after the mine companies left around the turn of the twentieth century. During Prohibition, “Straitsville special” was known across the country, its reputation reaching as far as southern California. The abandoned mines, remnants of the town’s reason for existence, provided the space, and cover, for moonshine production, the steam of the stills mistaken for the smoke of a smouldering coal fire. Started in 1884 during a labor dispute, the fires moved through seams of coal inside the mines and beyond. Unable to put out the fires, the mine company owners abandoned the mines, and the town.
The fire continues to burn. A still vital sign of the work another moment, it devours the material that was the source of the struggle that caused it, transforming the seeming solidity of the ground beneath us into empty pockets into which the surface might fall. Absent in its ephemeral elusiveness, it eludes place even as its movement inscribes the interconnectedness of the region, surface to underground, people to material, present to past. It will burn, residents say, “as long as there is oxygen.” The fire’s location is only apparent through surface effects related to its heat: melted snow in the winter, steam visible in the cold air, perhaps smoke. Occasionally a flame licks up above ground. Residents say, “We were lucky a few years ago, when a flame shot up at the Moonshine Festival.”
At the festival, a sign directs visitors to a still. Turning a corner, one is drawn into the gaiety of carnival rides, dart throwing games, potential prizes of stuffed animals, mostly empty and the late afternoon heat. The still is here, tucked away, apparent only from the heat emanating from an area closed off with chicken wire, and a scent, damp and rank, of fermentation. When combined with the heat of the day, the barrel is nearly too hot to stand near.
The present is a moment of sensory attunement to past and future. Heat connects this day and its bright and shiny festivities with a past of mining and future states of labor, economy, and climate, in this region and beyond. Heat – energy that puts atoms into motion – is felt, linking temporal moments materially and metaphorically, through the circulation of energy and as a poetics of sense. As Lord Kelvin wrote in 1851, explaining thermodynamics, “heat is not a substance, but a dynamical form of mechanical effect. …Heat consists of a motion excited among the particles of bodies” (http://zapatopi.net/kelvin/papers/on_the_dynamical_theory_of_heat.html).
Heat moves spatially and temporally, through animate and inanimate bodies, connecting the “matter” of stone, air, and breath, drawing humans and objects together in collective forms that, as Stuart McLean writes, are “constantly changing, constantly re-arranging themselves.” Memory, thus, becomes, as McLean suggests, a “continuously unfolding process involving shifting and hetero-generously composed collectives, the constituent elements of which might include, in no particular order of precedence, human beings, technologies, philosophies of history, architecture, chemical reactions, animals, plants, micro-organisms, landscape, geology and climate” (2008:306).
The culminating event of the festival is a parade. Barefoot children eagerly await the candy that police and firemen will throw from their vehicles. Cheryl had been describing Cam’s float for the New Straitsville Historical Society – “a moonshine powered rocket to the moon.” The parade, which opened with emergency service vehicles proclaiming their sonic capacities, featured float after float of winners of regional festival pageants.
Moonshine Festival (royalty, last year’s royalty?, baby royalty)
Fall Festival of Leaves, Bainbridge, OH
Dennison Railroad Festival
Murray City Miner’s Festival
Wellston Coal Festival
Amanda Firefighters Festival
In the midst of this, between the Wellston Coal Festival and the Amanda Firefighters Festival, the New Straitsville History Group’s float came into sight, pulled by a rusty blue van with a handwritten sign on its side and bedecked with American flags. Robert, shirtless, in overalls and a silver helmet, was playing guitar. Teens in everyday clothes throw candy.
A mottled gray-green and brown rocket runs the length of the float, angled up as if it might just clear the roof of the van pulling it. Assembled from cardboard and tape, black dots of spray paint suggest bolts holding uneven pieces of steel together. The tape connecting the back fin to the body of the rocket mimics a weld seam. Jugs and tubes carry the moonshine into the rocket and the riders. The only float to address the theme of the festival, it, like the others, pulls away from the history on which it draws with an anachronism that nevertheless situates the float in a suspended present that makes fuel out of coal’s aftermath to launch a (symbolically) future looking object. All while playing on regional stereotypes, the contemporary condition of war, and pleasure in a masterful work of bricolage.
This float, in the end, is not as disjunctive from the others as it at first seems. They, too, with their “royalty” wearing colorful dresses, and perfecting their royal waves as their faces gleam with sweat, present a present disconnected from the history indexed by the text on their floats.
Some large, some small, some artificially tanned, all with mascara and well groomed hair, the girls sit on the floats in the hot sun and smile and wave at the sparse audience on the sidewalk. They are professionalized, on a pageant circuit, not necessarily residents of the towns they represent. And though, their (in Diana Taylor’s words [2003:21]) “embodied and performed acts generate, record, and transmit knowledge,” the ways in which they may be “transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next” is unclear if not ruptured.
The past is somewhat more of a “haunting” than a “being” (insofar as it is neither inhabited or ascribed to). A memory that is put in service of current festivities, a mode of branding perhaps, even as the actual conditions of that past are remembered and reiterated across registers of representation (Fennell 2013). Yet there continues to be a straining across temporalities. The juxtaposition of these girls with these words is another moment of bricolage, a creation out of material at hand, which, here, is as much the past as the present.
We might expand Taylor’s notion of repertoire that is grounded in human bodies to include an assemblage of humans and objects (Bennett 2010, Latour 2005, McLean 2008). In this region, coal, bodies, and heat are enmeshed in a “complicated web of dissonant connections between bodies” (Bennett 2010:4). McLean uses “collective memory” to address “what ‘happens’ as a result of…always ongoing interactions and re-alignments” between forms of matter and social processes. In this way, “collective memory is indissolubly linked to transformation – the preservation of the past is the outcome of an open-ended series of transformations, just as the contemporary retrieval and articulation of the past is always also a transformative intervention in the present” (McLean 306).
Here, despite their distancing mechanisms, the floats, and the festival, present moments of parataxis in which meaningful relationships between past and present are created by the viewer. Like Bacon’s tryptichs, “there is a relationship of great intensity between the separate panels…, although this relationship has nothing narrative about it” (Deleuze 2002:6). These girls’ bodies are not those of miners, or firefighters, or rail operators. Yet an image of miners’ bodies shimmers alongside theirs in the heat of the day.
In Shawnee, five miles to the north, a miner stands half crouched. One knee on the ground, the other is partially bent as he hefts a pick ax over his shoulder. Cast in bronze, the nearly life-sized statue stands at the center of a park on Main Street in a small city in Appalachian Ohio. The miners’ surface (his clothing, revealed skin, and ax) reveals its original sculpting, the hands of the artist adding strips of clay to create an expressionistic surface.
This sculpture resonates with another representation, or performance, of a “miner.” On another hot summer day, a teen, shirtless and dirty from a day digging, measuring, and sifting as part of an archaeological project behind a historic building in Somerset, threw a shovel over his shoulder. “You look like a miner,” the jobs program director said. Earlier I had been told that Somerset was not a mining community. Wealthier than cities to its south, its economy was based in agriculture. Yet mining haunts the regional imaginary, a visual referent readily invoked.
Both portrayals of miners reflect a shift in the nature of labor from past to present. With the sculpture, the work of mining, labor migration from as far as Wales and Hungary, and early labor organizing are refigured in the service of a neoliberal economy – a singular miner on display in a park that is part of revitalization efforts organized around civic tourism. The teen was working in a summer jobs program run by Perry County Jobs and Family Services for low income, at risk youth. They make $8/hour and work 28 hours a week. The previous week they had restored the town’s cemetery, learning about gravestone symbolism. This week they are learning archaeological techniques. The town’s mayor invests in historic research and preservation (with support from state and federal grants) with the aim of attracting tourists.
The memorialization of labor in this region is drawn on in service of an imagined future (of civic tourism). The work of mining is not conceived of as heroic. Rather, it is commemorated in terms of struggle, from the necessary secrecy of labor organizing to commemorations of the worst mine disaster in the country and the crouched stance of the miner – the very conditions of labor conveyed through the disfigurement of the body. The stance circulates in stories – at Robinson’s Cave, where secret organizing for the Knights of Labor took place, we are told that miners sat crouched in the natural amphitheater, listening to labor organizers. During a cemetery tour, the guide explains that it was clear that men chasing a reported murderer when he escaped from jail were miners because they crouched down as they ran. Wanting him because he knew the names of those who had started the mine fire, they hung him from a tree in the cemetery and buried him in a shallow grave at its back edge.
Later, in this same cemetery, I watch a reenactment of Christopher Evans, a labor organizer who came to New Straitsville in the late 19th century and later helped found the United Mine Workers of America and served as its secretary. He is buried in the New Straitsville cemetery. The New Straitsville history group wants to have a commemorative sculpture made of Evans, to put in a garden they are planning. At its monthly meeting they discuss this. “He’s the best known person from here, none of the rest of us got an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.”
A playful disconnect underlies the earnestness of the performance, a gap creating distance between the first person narrative of historical events and the narrated past, between the man wearing a black suit and old fashioned bow tie and the tombstone bearing the name “Christopher Evans” that he stands beside. This becomes especially apparent as he nears the end of his life. “In 1908, in my 70s…” he says, and we understand that the personal is eclipsing his role in the general labor history that has been the focus up to now. Suspension of disbelief is strained to its limit when he says, “and in 1924 I passed.” He continues, speaking from the grave while standing next to it, saying, “I look back at my life and say, what did I accomplish, what was it for…wonderful family, stood up for something I believed in from my earliest days until the very end. People need unions. Together we can do things we cannot do alone. Union is the center of my existence. If we do not have unions workers will suffer and owners will control and take advantage… I hope that since my passing in 1924 we have gone forward on that issue.”
While actors conjure the past through reenactment, others go ghost hunting. People say that the active presence of ghosts in the region is due to the fact that spirits “hang out” in limestone. Most of the built traces of a past of mining, infrastructure and urbanism are said to be haunted. Stories of specific deaths (due to mining accidents or otherwise) provide content to explain things seen and heard. The Moonville Tunnel goes through a hill in the Zaleski Forest. It is difficult to find. From Athens, we are directed to “Follow Rt. 50 as it separates from Rt. 32. Turn right on Rt. 278 towards Zaleski. Turn right onto Wheelabout Road. Stay straight on this road. This becomes a gravel path, and eventually crosses a one-lane bridge. Park near the old rail bed and cross Raccoon Creek to pick up the trail. Moonville Tunnel is about 100 yards from this point” (http://www.athensohio.com/whattodo/parks-national-forests/moonville-tunnel-trail). These directions turn out to be imprecise, pointing to infrastructure that is not readily apparent in the landscape, a creek whose name is not marked, a trail that starts vaguely at a widened part of the road’s shoulder.
We are lucky to pull off the road at the same time as someone who tells us he knows where it is because he is “local.” He’s bringing his young son on a Saturday outing. We walk along a stream for awhile until the trail takes us away from the water. The tunnel appears in front of us in a clearing. A middle-aged couple, bikers, comes soon after. We all take pictures, walk through the tunnel, look at the years of graffiti on the walls, climb up the hill to stand over the name. There is no trace of the rail line that once ran through the tunnel, or the town, that, as our guide tells us “used to be over there. At least that’s what people say. I wasn’t here then.” The couple exclaims loudly. Their cell phone camera has captured a swarm of colors inside the tunnel. They take this for the sign of ghosts, and are gratified to have accomplished what they came for. I photograph their photograph.
This “evidence” of haunting looks uncannily similar to Australia’s heat map of last summer, when two colors were added to reflect the unprecedentedly high temperatures. The striking difference is the “hole” in the center of the “ghost” image – the other end of the tunnel, which creates a gap at the very site of the highest temperatures.
In other images temperature is used as a visual representation of social dynamics, naturalizing moral sentiments and erasing histories of exclusion. A few weeks ago maps of “rich blocks, poor blocks” were circulating via social network platforms. A truism re-presented visually echoes these images of radiating “heat.” As one blogger reminds us, “Colder colors mean wealthier neighborhoods; warmer colors mean poorer ones” (http://www.upworthy.com/this-is-the-most-depressing-version-of-google-maps-i-ve-ever-seen?c=cp2). Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia and Las Vegas have “hot” centers, and “cool” peripheries. As with their sister images, the history of the social forces that contributed to this condition is obscured.
A cartographic company that makes maps of downtown L.A. for the business association used heat map imagery to map the concentration of homeless people. The index of “heat” is used to signify numbers, not the level of heat given off by bodies – higher in groups than alone. “Heat” is not a good thing for these map makers. Though others (whether Christopher Evans or Occupy) might find something more inspiring in the heat of a collective.
This cartographic company also made maps of rising sea levels, under a range of climate change models (http://risingoceanlevels.com). (The “models” are not of the same order, but range from “climate change is a myth” to moderate and significant scenarios as outlined by the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, and severe and extreme scenarios under forecasts of Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets melting. In other words, there are two models, each with two scenarios, and a naysayer stance). We don’t (or can’t) know the future, these suggest. Though the Guardian reports that in ten years hunks of meat may have to be delivered to polar bears if they are to survive.
The modern science of heat is caught up in a history of technology fueled by coal. The scientific theory of thermodynamics was developed from study of the steam engine, which, fueled by coal, was used to bring coal out of the mines. Later, the steam engine was used to power modes of transportation – rail and boat – that were crucial for facilitating a market for coal, making it worthwhile to put energy (and capital) into its extraction. Thus, coal not only laid the material foundations of the modern built environment and transformation of everyday life, as the fuel to forge steel strong enough for rail lines and skyscraper girders, to power domestic light and heat, and to develop passenger transportation, it also gave rise to our very understanding of the nature of heat as energy, as motion, and as work.
The present is caught up in a dance between past and future, bound up with the former while reaching toward the latter, with whatever levels of anxiety or hope. We continue, as modern subjects, to be forward looking. But prediction is uncertain. Even the weather forecast seems to often not bear out a day later (at least this winter in Ohio). As Bifo writes, “We don’t believe in the future in the same way. Of course, we know that a time after the present is going to come, but we don’t expect that it will fulfill the promises of the present” (Berardi 2011:25).
The present is palpable – felt. Bodies entangled with matter are conductive mediums for the movement of heat, sensorily attuned to a past of work that turned men’s faces black and a future in which a coal fire evoking the passion of early labor struggles continues to burn. Heat achieves a “distribution of the sensible” (Ranciere 2006), catching up people and minerals, animals and streams, reshaping and refiguring relationships over time. Today, carbon from coal burnt over two centuries resides in the atmosphere, bringing past into present and an unforecastable, yet likely warmer, future.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” 2011. After the Future. Edited by Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. 2002. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Transl. Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Fennell, Catherine. 2013. The Museum of Resilience: Raising a Sympathetic Public in Postwelfare Chicago. Cultural Anthropology 27(4):641-666.
Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
McLean, Stuart. 2008. Bodies From the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-Human Agency and the Making of “Collective” Memory. Trames 12(3):299-308.
Ranciere, Jacques. 2006. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum.
Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.
Presented at “Traversing the New: Climates and Contours in 21st Century Performance Practices Symposium,” IN>TIME Festival, Chicago, Illinois, February 23, 2013
A revised version was published in SAQ 115(2) as “Sensory Attunements: Working with the Past in the Little Cities of Black Diamonds”