[-empyre-] the pharmakon in the mountains

Kevin Hamilton kham at uiuc.edu
Thu Dec 18 04:20:00 EST 2008

Wow, that's great, I didn't know of Tim's connection to Colorado. It's  
another instance in a line of many for me where Colorado starts as a  
possibly "unclaimed" space or "blank slate" but quickly yields  
painfully specific associations. To my knowledge, Colorado hasn't yet  
been "claimed" by any of the theoretical discourses I'm familiar with  
from this list - the way some theorists have planted their stake in  
California, for example, or others in Paris or Palestine.  So I hadn't  
expected to find it a place to tramp around in with another here,  
kicking up the difficult stuff.

I didn't exactly head to Colorado to unpack my pharmakon, but  
Christine's invitation to consider my project in relation to the  
pharmakon has been revealing. I'll explain a little more of the larger  
work in progress here, toward meeting Tim's history and connecting  
with the present discussion.

Please forgive if this feels like a digression from the thread here.  
But it is an important setting for the marriage of subjectivity and  
reverie described by Christine.

The Mount of the Holy Cross, depicted in the images Christine posted,  
has been my entry point into exploring the construction of race and  
racism through place and space. I chose this site, and Colorado as a  
larger political entity, because of its central role in my own moral  
education about civic space, land, and Belief. This line of work for  
me is a first attempt at trying to describe and see my own "whiteness"  
- whiteness as a racist ethic - when as a white male I'm of course  
largely allowed to pass as unmarked and even native. I'm following a  
variety of rhetorical forms - image, performance, lecture, writing -  
and in I hope a variety of institutional settings, in part because the  
study of one's own "whiteness" can range from solipsistic reification  
of power to humbling confession and restitution, depending on the form  
and context, audience and setting.

I'm in the process of getting some of these forms into online or  
printed form, and it's early yet. So for now I'll just connect with  
Tim and Christine's comments through some exposition.

The mining ruins that litter the Colorado mountainscape function for  
me in two ways - from a distance, they emerge like the wildlife,  
unseen at first but revealing of a presence upon the land. To my  
particular eyes (and I'm still learning in what ways they are  
particular), a scan across a mountainside there usually registers  
first an untouched or even unreachable space, a place not even  
hospitable to the flora and trees I'm used to from the older mountains  
in the American east. To then glimpse the mining ruins, camouflaged  
through age, calls to mind (white) humanity as an alien presence on  
that scape. From afar, the remnants of human presence appear obviously  
alien in a way that bears the colonizing promise of a satellite in  
space or a modernist slab, and the colonizing threat of a first  
encounter. Compared to my experience of the longer settled parts of  
America, where the architecture is harder to distinguish from the  
land, a drive or walk through the Rockies is a welcome reminder of  

Up close, the same ruins call much different things to mind. One is  
reminded of the hardship of living in those spaces, the threat to  
working bodies. Consecutive failed attempts at reworking the earth are  
revealed through a palimpsest of materials and signage from successive  
eras of mining engineering.

But for me it's all too easy to separate myself from those spaces.  
Even walking among them, I can extract myself from "those" histories.  
And of course from afar I'm the quintessential tourist.

With the Mount of the Holy Cross, I'm less easily extricated. Is it  
really a cross in the mountains? It is to my eyes. It's neither built  
nor non-built. I activate it by looking at it. Whether it is a Cross  
has everything to do with the histories Tim describes, as well as my  
own. It's a matter of subjective perception, but of subjectivity  
constructed and informed by centuries of violence.

The short version is this - the Cross was rumored, an apparition that  
confirmed Manifest Destiny, until eventually mapped and photographed  
as part of the land survey used to drive the Ute Indians out. William  
Henry Jackson carted no small amount of new media up the mountains to  
create an image that ultimately depended on the darkroom as much as  
the camera - the most famous images of the Cross are mostly the  
product of postproduction. In wide and popular circulation during the  
early 20th century, these images contributed to the early imagination  
of Colorado as a park and a home for collective religious hope.  From  
day one, this imagination lay in tension with the industrial  
aspirations that drove early exploration.

In the 1920's, the Cross became a site of religious pilgrimage while  
still remote enough to require great sacrifice by travelers.  
Entrepreneurs eager to see their mining prospects improved by roads  
and rails grabbed on to the religious fervor, and pushed for state- 
sponsored construction toward improved access for the faithful. They  
got what they wanted, the Mount became a National Monument, with all  
the funding and attention attached. New mining towns appeared around  
the Mount, and as Colorado filled with new white workers from the East  
(the Utes long relocated to New Mexico or Western Colorado), the State  
began to brew with tensions around its own distinct identity in  
relation to Eastern politicians and barons. The Klan took hard hold at  
that time, and many a poor mining worker in the mountains joined the  
efforts of white monied Denverites to unite around the purity of  
Colorado's promise, a great 40th-parallel society destined to become a  
crossroads for the world. Colorado saw a Governor elected on a Klan  
platform, and Denver a mayor. For a while in the 30's, during the  
Mount's greatest popularity, the Klan controlled the State, including  
most of the Supreme Court and police force.

The mines began to decline as the State's great economic promise just  
as WWII gripped America. Around the Mount, the Army set up a large  
military base that cut off access for the religious faithful for  
decades. Colorado's "skiing soldiers" later returned from Europe after  
the War to start all of today's largest ski resorts, and Colorado  
found itself a new industry. Moving into the Cold War, the base  
finally looked to close, its last act serving as a training ground for  
Tibetan soldiers later dropped into Communist China and never heard  
from again. By that time, all the surrounding mines had long closed.  
The Mount is again accessible, but at its base one finds Gilman, a  
former Viacom-owned mining town closed to all and sitting atop a  
Superfund site. Nearby ski resorts eye such a site hungry for more  
space for tourists, or at least for housing for immigrant hospitality  
industry workers.

As in Tim's post, I continue to meet people with differing connections  
to these stories. Latino friends here in Illinois told me of how their  
parents and grandparents viewed Colorado as a place to be avoided, an  
unsafe space. One old relative of mine that just died this week used  
to tell me of his hunting encounters in those mountains, where he  
might be lucky enough to have "bagged one" but would then get run off  
from claiming it by the "locals." And then there's Zippy the Pinhead.

This will all at least be of interest to Tim, I hope, if not already  
familiar to him. And it lays the setting for my own history with these  
sites, my implication in their stories. But I'll get to that later,  
and hopefully back connected with the thread here.


On Dec 17, 2008, at 6:28 AM, Timothy Murray wrote:

> This has been an interesting discussion for me, since I grew up in
> those Colorado Rocky Mountains as did my family since the late
> nineteenth-century gold rush.  For my grandparents and
> great-grandparents, the Rockies were more a place of labor and toil
> than a pastoral remedy from their urban/suburban lives.  When I would
> roam the back country as a kid, one of my greatest fascinations was
> the debris left behind from these labors, debris that usually marked
> the fraught ghosts of unrequited toil for the philosopher's stone
> (gold/pharmakon?) and what we've since come to appreciate as the
> ecodebris of mining's pollution and the traces it still leaves behind
> (in my area of Upstate New York, we're now struggling against the
> natural gas companies who want to pollute miles and miles of soil
> with new high pressure mining techniques that pump millions of
> gallons of chemically laced water to break up shale deposits deep
> under the earth).
> Of course what was labor and toil and death for the many resulted in
> profit and leisure for the few, an equation that still drives the
> mountain economies now dependent on combinations of leisure
> industries and mining.   Left out of that equation, of course, is the
> native American population (my family and those other Rocky Mountain
> settlers of the nineteenth century like to call themselves the
> "natives" in response to the massive influx of monied suburbanites
> who later moved to Colorado over the past thirty years to profit from
> the mountain leisure on which Kevin reflects).
> Another important aspect of my youth was passionate education about
> native American culture, from the Utes to the Pueblo to the Cheyenne,
> but with one curious deficiency.  The education didn't come from
> those populations but from anthropologists, folklorists, and Boy
> Scout leaders intent on keeping the fictional narrative of indigenous
> "liveness" alive, in the wake of forced evacuations, massive death,
> and cultural tourism.  Also left out of the narrative were the toils
> of Chinese immigrants whose forced labor brought the railroad (and
> the gold and later the tourists) through the Rockies, just as the
> labor of Latino immigrants now  drives the Colorado ranching and meat
> producing economies today (read Fast Food Nation).
> What many of my childhood peers came to appreciate through hindsight
> and reflection, as they've struggled politically against more recent
> Colorado initiatives against immigration, sexual freedom, and a
> general resistance to Native American rights (note the ouster of Wade
> Churchill from the University of Colorado)  is the fraught fiction of
> our proud mountain "nativeness" as it is laced with the traumatic
> traces of populations left behind in the rush for product, profit,
> and pride.
> The wonder of digital culture, in the midst of such complex and
> tragic histories, is its abilities to help recast the histories anew,
> if only by connecting those artists who have recently worked on the
> pharmakon in the mountains with those of us who carry in soul and
> memory the traces of ancestral labor,  violence, and, certainly,
> willed ignorance of those darker traumas shielded by the healing
> powers of the pharmakon.
> Best,
> Tim
> -- 
> Timothy Murray
> Director, Society for the Humanities
> http://www.arts.cornell.edu/sochum/
> Curator, The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell Library
> http://goldsen.library.cornell.edu
> Professor of Comparative Literature and English
> A. D. White House
> Cornell University
> Ithaca, New York 14853
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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