Watershed: Retrospective on a Semester

“Watershed” is a loaded term, though it has two general definitions. The first of these, which comes from the natural sciences, is articulated by the United States Geological Survey as “an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel. […] Watersheds are important because the streamflow and the water quality of a river are affected by things, human-induced or not, happening in the land area ‘above’ the river-outflow point.” [1] According to the geological definition, a watershed is a segment of land just raised enough, with the right sort of creases, to allow water to flow into a common body of water, such as a river or a reservoir. The watershed influences the natural elements, contaminants, and nutrients that congregate within the body of water receiving its substance from the run-off of the watershed.

Certainly, if we use such a signification of a “watershed” and apply it metaphorically to this eponymous blog of critical theory, we might sound like we’re entertaining delusions of Platonic-idealist grandeur – as though we who enjoy critical theory seat ourselves atop a mountain like philosopher-kings issuing the ideas that should be received by the populace. But even the geological definition doesn’t allow us such hubris (nor does a graduate education, which often more than anything makes us aware of just how ignorant we fundamentally must be). The USGS also puts it this way: “What is a watershed? Easy, if you are standing on ground right now, just look down. You're standing, and everyone is standing, in a watershed.”

In this sense, a watershed is a democratic space of flux. It’s a formation that allows waters to separate and move toward larger bodies, where they will commingle with the run-off of other watersheds. Taking this to the blog, then, a watershed is a place upon which we stand, having asserted ourselves into the flow of ideas and discourse taking place all around us. By making ourselves present, we adjust the flow. However locally, we redirect patterns of discourse and reasoning to join other streams of thought, to make careful divisions between streams that ought to not run concurrently, to add new qualities to the collective ideas that congregate at other meeting places. But we do this all from within this physics, each of us in our own way. A watershed is necessarily a singularity and a collective, a distinction and a gathering.

The second, more vernacular definition of a watershed comes through in this picture, though in a peculiar way. We often think of a watershed as a turning point, a moment that determines some critical shift in condition, the emergence of a significant phenomenon. It marks a point by which we map time using terms like “before” and “after.” A watershed is a crisis, and a crisis (etymologically speaking) is a separation, a judgment, a decision. Critical thinking brings crisis to that which would remain unchallenged, and when a real act of critical thinking happens, it forces upon us a decision – or, we might say, it presents to us as a decision what would otherwise be taken as given. In a watershed moment, we make a choice by dividing out insights from the morass of opinion, fact, and bullshit, thereby allowing us to become present as a force in the current of a conversation and thereby to alter the course of things. This, I think, is the potential virtue of a blog of theory, and the great work published here this semester embodies this critical task.


Montage of Insights

“What allows our listening to be immortal, perhaps, is the resting in sound and silence, rather than incessant information-scrounging. In this way, we do not seek control […]. We enjoy - we do not bother.”

- Dillon Rockrohr, “The Exuberant Silence of an Overabundant Life

“I hear people talk about bipolar disorder, mania and depression. I hear people talk about the connection between mental health and gut health, whatever that means. I hear people talk about tryptophobia, compulsions, eating disorders, rough patches, drinking too much, seasonal affective disorder, schizophrenia, and always--always--the healing power of yoga. […] I never hear people talk about hospitalization.”

- Katie McWain, “Madness, Meds, and Mental Hospitals: A Meditation on Foucault

“[I]n removing the historical references that promote unity from the inaugural or the judiciary from the Whitehouse webpage, the Trump Administration is attempting to remove these concepts from the very grammar of politics.”

- Jonathan Carter, “Missing Memory: Exploring the Implications of Creating an Ahistorical Presidency

“In Trump, we may not be seeing a return to nativism, because nativism never really perished. Instead, we see him simply borrowing from the worst moments of U.S. history, plagiarizing the past in the absence of an original ideology.”

- Keene Short, “A Lineage of American Exclusion

“I walked past a big sign attached to a chain link fence advertising the new mixed use development being built next door. The ad had young white, young light, young mixed race, mixed up, mixed thin, mixing happy with living—all employed, no questionable job holders need apply. I thought, how will brown find its way into the future without being super?”

- Linda Garcia Merchant, “Transparent AfroCentric

“Included in this power to define what is normal is a normalization of power. […] Power is negotiated, but often appears as a given. Normal is negotiated, but often appears as a given. Where do we find the beginning and the end of when something transitions from being not yet normal to normal, and then maybe back out to not normal again?”

- Stevie Seibert Desjarlais, “NOT NORMAL: Reality TV, Competitive Dating and a Concept to Question in These Trying Times

“[A]lternormativity does not merely seek to produce another interpellating ideal. Rather, alternormativity is a break from the concept of habits creating an ideal at all, and moves past notions of opposition that are central to terms such as nonnormativity, antinormativity, and counternormativity.”

- Colten White, “Proust, Queer Theory, and Alternormativity

“[T]he post-racial ideology arrives to rationalize the system’s harm against marginalized communities, illusively privatizing harm in terms of work ethic, bootstraps mentality, meritocracy, and the American Dream. In its reference to the purity of market forces and a universal notion of rights and access, it claims a progressive humanitarian stance toward racial equality while naturalizing racial oppression under market forces.”

- Dillon Rockrohr, “The Post-Racial Ideology: HotE Preview, Alexandre Da Costa

“[T]his way of life depends on the anticipation of oppositional violence in order to justify itself. In understanding this, we can see that violence -- in the tradition of Frantz Fanon -- is instrumental to the act of decolonization. In this way, violence is the problem. Violence is the justification. And violence is the answer.”

- Emily Dowdle, “Actually, Violence Is the Answer

“[A]s Da Costa said, ‘Death clogs vision,’ because the ‘mathematics of the unliving’ cannot contain Black life, indigenous life, Othered life. The archive of death cannot contain the living: we must all attend to the voice crying ‘I am still here!’”

- Daniel Clausen, “Our So-Called Progress: Humanities on the Edge Review, Alexandre Da Costa

“In a broader sense, what might the persistence of oaks teach us about disturbance, memory retention, and restoration in other contexts? Perhaps this is an opportunity for some interdisciplinary (re)learning.”

- Dan Uden, “Social-ecological memory revisited: Human (re)learning and the persistence of oaks

“Though as humans we will never shed our social and political lives as those activities and concepts define our species, Alaimo’s wealth of evidence indicates that also recognizing ourselves as non-human humans affords us affiliations and alliances with other non-human species. When the social and political dissolves along with our material bodies in oceans of acid, it will be too late to realize that we were always already Exposed.”

- Robert Lipscomb, “Book Review: ‘Exposed’ by Stacy Alaimo

“And when we attempt to fully open the canon, we still run into the problem of having to curate it (which by definition involves interpretation and value judgments) unless we intend to abolish it. If this curatorship is based off of a model of “representation”, it seems worthwhile to consider what exactly we are trying to represent – Society as a whole? Works that have been published? What readers have considered popular?”

- Gabi Kirilloff, “Some Thoughts on the Canon

“The deep abyss is an ideal location to work against our anthropocentric tendencies because it is a place which rejects our presence, a location which (outside of a small submersible) we cannot enter easily.”

- Matthew Guzman, “2017 Robert E. Knoll Lecture, Stacy Alaimo’s ‘Deep Sea Speculations: Literature and Science in the Abyss’”

“Buick then asks again: ‘What, really, does Kara Walker’s work have to do with the historical and contemporary fact of enslavement?’ Before answering herself: ‘Nothing. She just yells “NIGGER!” in a crowded theater, and rather than stampeding out, we are forced to sit and listen and burn.’”

- Emily Dowdle, “Humanities on the Edge Preview: Kirsten Pai Buick


Well, that does it for the semester, and Watershed is coursing on into summer hiatus. Thank you to all the contributors for your insightful work, the lifeblood of this page. Thank you, as well, to our supporters, to our advisor Dr. Marco Abel, to the Department of English at UNL, to our forebears who lit the torch and carried the flame (I know this doesn’t work with the water metaphors), and, of course, to our readers. Critical thought is as relevant as it has ever been – or rather, as irrelevant, which is what makes it crucial.

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[1] https://water.usgs.gov/edu/watershed.html

Image source: Flickr, RLEVANS (edited)

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