This article was written on 07 Oct 2020, and is filled under New Ecologies.

Can Germanics Make Bricks?

The blog post below was going to be one of those pieces of writing that, drafted in a flash but then neglected for too long, was going to remain in draft form. And it would still be unpublished had I not watched a recording of a roundtable discussion on The Future of German Studies at the annual conference of the German Studies Association (GSA) this past weekend—and in particular the call by Vance Byrd to remember that as teachers in language departments at institutions of higher education (but not only there) we are charged with working broadly for the good of society and as such that we should look outside of German (for example) when we seek to understand and identify the reach and the recipients of our work. While I neither claim to model teacherly excellence nor to make a significant contribution to student life in the post below, I preface my post with these remarks in order to recognize that it is animated by some similar convictions and to acknowledge that is was reanimated by their presentation in that forum.

(Note: this roundtable grew out of a 2019 conference hosted by Cornell on “Re-imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the Humanities, and the University.” Participants’ essays can be found here, including Vance Byrd’s “The Whole Student, The Whole Campus.”)


During the Winter Quarter of 2020, the one whose final week was memorably interrupted by the university’s sudden closure following the belated recognition of the widespread transmission of the novel coronavirus throughout Washington state, I happened to be teaching a course on the end of the world. “Cultures of Extinction (The Art of Living on a Climate-Changed Planet),” whose name was borrowed from two of our readings, is a course in what I’ve come to call comparative post-apocalyptic studies. The course progresses along a loosely-defined trajectory from retrospective (“what is missing” and the emergence of a discourse of species extinction) to taking stock of a present already marked by damage and loss (“staying with the trouble”) to the prospective (“livable futures” in the wake of extinction) and is at the core animated by readings from Jewish, Indigenous, and Black writers and artists whose work proceeds from the premise that the end has already come and that they are living after an ecological catastrophe of the magnitude of, and in many ways indistinguishable from, the mass extinction that many regard as approaching on the horizon. The ability to think critically about the ways in which endings are framed is one of the outcomes that the course promises to impart. I should add that the forty students in this course (typically cross-listed with Germanics, English, Environmental Studies, and usually another department for good measure) are for the most part not drawn from majors in these disciplines; the course reliably enrolls because it counts toward several general education requirements, in particular the university’s 5-credit Diversity requirement, which it entirely satisfies. (One of the UW Black Student Union’s seven demands involves increasing that requirement.)

Many parts of that course stick out to me now in ways that they might not have, had a pandemic not erupted during that course. One of those is a brick-making workshop led by Michael Swaine, a friend and colleague in our Three-Dimensional Forum and frequent collaborator with the interdisciplinary art collective Futurefarmers. Pedagogical and curricular design debates in the field of German Studies often invoke and promote the “integration” of this or that topic into a course or a course of study, in ways that can recall discourses of immigration as framed by ethno-nationalism in Germany and the U.S. I did not attempt to make a case for integrating a brick-making workshop with a ceramicist into the course. If there is a praxis-oriented element to these reflections, though, it would take the form of advocacy for reaching out to unaffiliated colleagues and community members and meeting them outside of the classroom. With our students’ courses of study increasingly rationalized and their curiosity financially penalized, exposure to other practices and forms of study has diminished. These guest-led meetings are an improvised eddy in their streamlined education.  

A brick-making workshop in this course is not entirely out of context, nor fully uninstrumentalizable. Besides the readings, assignments in the course are project-based and collaborative. The workshop, occurring early in the course, would be an exercise in the latter. Also, the course’s memorial, lexicon, and storytelling assignments are all developed from artist projects that I’ve come across and, in some cases, participated in. And so, when Michael Swaine wrote me to ask if I would like him to be a guest in my class (email subject: “idea of helping your class think about earth and clay”), of course I agreed right away. We try to lead a meeting in each other’s courses every year or so. Michael, who teaches in ceramics but in a very expanded field that for lack of a better term could be best characterized as social practice, has blindfolded my travel literature students and developed soup recipes with my fairy tale students, and I’ve worked with his sculpture students to design instruments (after Tarkovsky’s Stalker) to test fluctuations in the gravitational field around the very Zone-esque former-landfill-now-official-Nature-Area adjacent to the Ceramics and Metal Arts building. 

After a brief exchange shortly before the quarter began, we settled on a brick making workshop. I had an idea of how this might at least complement the course, particularly as an exercise in collaboration. I did ensure at least an oblique relation to our readings by scheduling the workshop to coincide with a reading about the K/T mass extinction in Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (Chapter IV, “Luck of the Ammonites), a chapter which describes how the geologist Walter Alvarez encounters the sudden absence of foraminifera fossils above a certain height in a notable limestone gorge in Italy. The absence of fossils is marked by a thin stratum of clay in this Italian gorge, and when Alvarez tries to date it (when he has “the wild idea of clocking the clay”) by measuring the concentrations of the element iridium, he ends up discovering the first evidence of the bolide that triggered the K/T extinction event.

In addition to Kobert’s image of clay as data, Michael Swaine shared with us scenes from Harun Farocki’s Zum VergleichIn Comparison, a film from 2009 about different traditions of brick production and whose synopsis reads: Bricks are the resonating foundations of society. Bricks are simply very long-playing records. Like records, they appear in series, but every brick is slightly different – not just another brick in the wall. Bricks create spaces, organize social relations and store knowledge about social structures. They resonate in a way that tells us if they are any good. Bricks form the basic sound of our societies, but we haven’t yet learned to listen to them.

Farocki’s film reminded me of “The Bricks,” a poem by the Chickasaw poet and environmentalist Linda Hogan, and I shared that with students in preparation as well (and I can’t help but share it here too).

There is a secret longing
inside bricks that holds worlds together, a forest dreaming
inside every wall,
wanting to send out
a passionate tendril of life
as in Japan
when humans emptied other humans of their lives.
Cities fell
and bricks flowered
with plants from distant mountains.

With these mundane objects imbued with a deeper significance, we trekked from our classroom several hundred yards to the brick-rich quad to listen to bricks and interpret their dreams. While we were doing so, Michael Swaine and two graduate students from the school of art, Jia Jia and Jake Fetterman, were busy schlepping several hundred pounds of clay by handcart to the quad from the Ceramics and Metal Arts building, over a mile and several hundred feet of elevation away. 

Incidentally, this clay was already on a journey, recycled as it was from Walter McConnell’s installation at the Bellevue Arts Museum, Itinerant Edens: A Measure of Disorder. We met this itinerant clay on the quad, and, after a brief demonstration in brickmaking by Michael Swaine and instructions to make bricks that resonate with life and labor, commenced making them. Groups fanned out around the quad, looking for (and listening to) sources of impressions for the clay. It was joyful and almost impertinent to be making bricks at a site that is legendary for having bricks taken from it. Such is the work of repair in a disposable society. After the last group had lathered the wooden mold in olive oil, stuffed the clay into the mold, impressed it on a surface, and removed it from the mold, Michael, Jia Jia, and Jake wheeled them over to the art building and disappeared into a cavernous freight elevator.

Then, something interesting happened.

Bricks started cropping up in our readings.

Two weeks later, in Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther, we read the chapter “Babi Yar” where the narrator travels to the site of the greatest two-day massacre of the Holocaust and reflects on the many attempts not only to obstruct any remembrance of what happened but also to occlude the physical site itself. In this book of unanswered questions, including the implied question in the title (Maybe Esther?), the most striking question for me occurs in this chapter: 

Does a place stay the same place if, at this place, people murder, bury, blast, hollow out, burn, grind up, scatter, hold their tongues, plant, lie, create landfills and backfills, fill up with concrete, once again hold their tongues, block off, arrest mourners, and then later construct ten monuments, commemorate their own victims once a year, or think they have nothing to do with it?

When the Kyiv-born narrator returns to Babi Yar for the first time in a while, she notices its absence:  

When I look for the majestic ravine today—which before the war was two and a half kilometers long, up to sixty meters deep, and quite steep—I cannot find it. For ten years a brick factory pumped its loam pulp, sand, clay, and water into the ravine; the Soviet government wanted to liquidate Babi Yar as a place as well. In 1961, however, an earth dam collapsed at Babi Yar, and a mudslide poured into the city, killing 1,500 people. That, too, was kept secret. The mud was brought back to Babi Yar and used to fill up the ravine again. 

The mention of a brick factory probably would not have elicited our attention had we not participated in the brick-making workshop. But it did, and it drew attention to the absence of any images of waste in Farocki’s film about brick production, a curious omission. We also looked at the German version of this passage and found that the materially precise term “loam pulp” is Abraum, also a technical term but a much more evocative word composed of the common prefix Ab– (“ab-“ or “away”) and Raum (“space”). Abraum recalls the German word for waste (Abfall) but its scale is much more disturbing. It reminds me of my colleague Jesse Oak Taylor’s (@abnaturalist) coinage of “abnatural” to speak to “both nature’s absence and its uncanny persistence” in the Anthropocene. Likewise, the absence and uncanny persistence of the natural landform and inhuman atrocity of Babi Yar is attested to by the Abraum with which a brick factory fills it up and also empties it out. 

The following week we read excerpts from Bad Indians by Deborah Miranda (Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of California). Here too, and much more explicitly than Maybe Esther, bricks and even brick-making figure into the history of violence and displacement that Bad Indians charts. The section “The End of the World: Missionization” contains a Mission Glossary—a belated attempt by Miranda to complete a standard part (until recently) of California’s fourth-grade curriculum on the Spanish missions and to account for the history of violence that is erased in, and perpetuated by, the curriculum—and the first entry is on Adobe Bricks. I shared my experience of having to complete this curriculum, and of realizing only much later how much of California history this module suppressed and whitewashed, and I invited students to reflect on their experience of learning, or not learning, Indigenous histories in their schooling.

I recall the ensuing discussion as a very lively one. (Dear reader, it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to give a full account of how these readings fit together while refusing what Frank Wilderson calls “the ruse of analogy,” but I think they did.)

When we were invited to make bricks with Michael Swaine, we were already trained to see clay as a kind of “storied matter” (to use Serenella Iovino & Serpil Opperman’s term), but it was another matter to read of how bricks and their fabrication process figure in the ongoing erasure of these stories and histories. Our readings ended up lending more gravity to an activity which at the time offered some levity and perhaps also an escape from the classroom. But working with this recycled clay in turn made us more attentive readers and it made us more attentive to the materials in which these stories unfold.


After sitting in a neglected corner to the Art Building for several weeks and then spending some time in a kiln fired to nearly 2300 degrees Fahrenheit during what would turn out to be the final week of in-person classes, the clay became bricks. In addition to recording the traces of trees, leaves, plants, masonry, and grating, it occurs to me that these collaboratively-fashioned objects record social relations and social structures of physical proximity that were unremarkable at the time but now seem exceptional and from a bygone epoch—not extinct, but rather sleeping, to borrow a term applied to several of the supposedly “lost” Indigenous languages we encountered in this course. And as such capable of being reawakened, provided adequate care.


And suddenly, at the end of the following quarter, bricks were everywhere again. News stories showing caches of bricks, strategically placed around cities by fabled Antifa groups, proliferated in the first week of national protests against police violence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Though these fables of Antifa brick caches were soon dismissed, the menace that these objects pose to structures of oppression persists. Concurrently running to our brick making workshop, and not far from the quad where we made bricks, the Henry Art Gallery was running an exhibitionIn Plain Sight, whose posters featured a photograph by Andrea Bowers of Johanna Saavedra, a trans Latina immigrant activist, throwing a brick in the middle of a Los Angeles street framed by palm trees. The posture of Saavedra in the photograph recalls the French Situationist protest poster “Beauty is in the Street,” but the brick (rather than Parisian pavé) specifically recalls the Stonewall Riots and police violence against LGBTQ+ folx. Bowers’ montage of two uprisings makes this into a dialectical image: an image “wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation,” to cite Walter Benjamin. For Benjamin these constellations become apparent in a moment of danger. Our curricula and programs must recognize and respond to the immense danger that our “now” poses to trans students and other minoritized students. Making bricks is by itself a blatantly inadequate response to these threats, but I can report that doing so made multiple forms of resistance more visible, in our readings and beyond.

Images of the workshop can be found here.

Comments are closed.