Clout Atlas

Clout Atlas: The Self and Advocacy


“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

When I first read Vibrant Matter in class I was struck by its description of the agency of matter I thought about two things. Chemistry and my favorite novel Cloud Atlas, from which the above quote originates. It’s our unacknowledged connection to all things chemically, physically, and holistically that drives the complexity and outcomes of our world. In our collective class musings and readings we have explored everything from affect to AI, law to land use (and misuse). And with every text we delve deeper into seeing that nothing ever really ends. Things can be created, things can be changed, things can be forgotten, but nothing is ever gone. Whether it’s nuclear waste, agricultural run off, or a lost life, everything has consequences.

Growing up both my parents were chemists, and their work and exposure to the scientific world really gave me one of the first lenses with which I saw the world. Take your kid to work day was just me going into laboratories and eating liquid nitrogen cooled ice cream (which is awesome). Yet it also shaped my relationship to the world as something that could be examined, discovered, broken down, and combined to form amazing things (like ice cream). And with that mentality, it bred in me a flame of wonder and optimism that I couldn’t get rid of even if I tried, and believe me I’ve tried.

Science Enthusiast!

Sometimes it seems a little insane really, to want to believe that there is some light in the darkness. Especially when it seems humanity seems keen on turning off the lights on ourselves. But this lovely insanity is the same reason I loved Cloud Atlas so much, a book about the connection of people, places, and resources throughout time and how their actions shaped the world around them in both positive and destructive ways. And many times, in our lives, we try to maximize the amount of positive change we can make. Very few people want to actively destroy the world, but how much can we as individuals actually shape it? And before we even chart our paths, how do we know what exactly we should focus our efforts on?

The Surveyor’s Dilemma

Information is abundant to the point of inundation, and with that inundation comes a tendency for desensitization. Things we know may be important, or horrible, or anywhere in between that are happening anywhere in the world (and many times even in our own “backyard”) are glossed over. It’s not that these stories or issues don’t invoke sympathy, anger, sadness, intrigue, debate, or empathy (articles, texts, and documentaries are often very well crafted); it’s that there is so many coming from all directions that we personally feel helpless to do anything at all.


I’ve felt this plenty of times, a lot of purpose but not much direction, and as the days go by and life goes on, you forget. It’s natural, no need to be ashamed, it happens to all of us because no one can focus on everything going on all the time. The intensity of passion for cause or movement or issue usually dwindles when its lack of traction, or immense opposition, becomes disheartening and you focus your efforts on what you can control. But also know, as my favorite Canadian rapper Shad once dropped in a verse, “Getting mad ain’t the same thing as getting involved.”

It’s very easy to know that there are problems in the world. From the immense ecological disaster of the Salton Sea to the resource mismanagement of our food production system, everything is seemingly left grossly neglected or unchecked. And while knowing is half the battle, how does one actually do the other half? You know, the part where one takes action to change things? Well, it’s not that simple. Not only does the contextual worries of our everyday lives call our attention, but there are entire entrenched structures of instituted power (or policy) that either need to be changed, abolished, or made anew.


That’s where so much despair tends to set in, which many of us (me included) get caught up in often. There is no clear way, or set path, or obvious right steps to go about it. The message is simple, but the conversation is not. So the question is, how do you traverse the complexity to actually bring about tangible change? Is it possible? Should you try? Do I sound overly dramatic (because I’ve been thinking that for the past couple paragraphs)?

Well, I think before any course or direction (or aye even intention) should be considered we first must consider the map of the situation. An atlas for advocacy, if you will. A series of rhizomic investigations to undertake an endeavor of guerrilla cartography to see how power meets matter.

moving map

The Cartography of Clout

In our ecological chart of matter and power we first need to determine who wields power and where they are, and then wrap it up in context.

Who are our players? Well we have those who have instituted power in the space (government, corporations, non-profits, etc.), and those who want more power in the space to enact change (individuals, advocacy interests, etc.). These organizations and groups aren’t faceless they are a conglomeration of people (all of whom flawed no matter their political or social interests). Yet all of them have a lot of power to dictate how something is legislated or controlled.


Next we want to actually understand where they are in physical space. Where exactly is the core of the issue happening? If it’s not a specific place, or multiple places, where exactly are those in power that affect the situation in general? Understanding this I think is important, not only do you get a picture of what the situation actually looks like, but you also get a picture of the ecology around it. The Salton Sea, for instance, is a fast disappearing salt water lake that no longer can sustainably support life. Hypersalinization, algae blooms from agro-run off, and over farming destroy the eco-system there, that was ironically man made in the first place. When you start trying to build a physical “where” for an issue you start to see the causes, the sources, and the effects more clearly (and also which of the power holders affects the area the most).


This then leads us to look at the context of the issue at hand after the location and the agency has been identified. In Salton’s case we first can look at how it was formed via various rerouted rivers, and why it has changed (water diversion for agriculture, run off from those same farms, and even nuclear radiation), and what are the affects (not only pollution, but seismic activity and strong winds could spread the contaminants in the sea).

It is then that an understanding can be made so that any action is informed, and that multiple facets are considered. All of these things are pretty standard for activism for an issue, and are usually the first steps in not only understanding an issue, but taking action. Yet, if your thinking about how individually you can do anything at all, it’s still hard to get out of that cycle of despair by doing something other than ignoring the problem. It of course is going to take more than one person to change things, but I think the changing of the self is often overlooked when thinking about the changing of a situation. Both are important, and necessary when trying to advocate for a seemingly losing fight.

The Self & The Cause


First and foremost, fault no one for not fighting for a cause, or not getting involved. It’s a hard thing to do, and it is not your place to judge or define what another person does or who they are. Because in your own act of defining your identity and convictions, inherently then you say you can not define others, or what they believe or stand for (even if – especially if – they do not agree with you).

Secondly, don’t get jaded by the enormity of the tasks at hand. This is easier said than done, because it seems that defeat is inevitable. And when the information overload about the brokeness of the world and people seems to show a picture of injustice after injustice, all I really want to do is watch Netflix and curl up in a ball. But remember that true darkness just means the absence of light, and as long as there is a flicker of light, however small, darkness can never fully win.


Many times, as a collective, people like to point out corporations or government as the bane of all our problems. And yes, it’s true that there are a lot of injustices that are committed because these organizations have an immense amount of wealth or power to protect them. Yet, corruption and foul play originated far before anyone had the idea of, stock markets and super PACs. These organizations too are run and filled with people. And before they are demonized, they should be recognized and worked with to combat these problems which effect us as all mutaully. These problems, are mainly manmade, and they can be (at least in part), alleviated by human intervention or in some cases (cessation).

The real problem, many times, does not just come from the intentions people, but from the after effects of matter. The agency of objects and affect are what create the complex atmospheric conditions to cause global warming, which in turn creates strange weather patterns, and food shortages, and droughts. Nothing comes in a neat isolated package, even the phone in your pocket will obsolesce and it’s lithium ion batteries leak out into the ground. It’s this kind of giant string of consequences that make me want to crawl into a hole because the task of fixing anything at all seems impossible. And the reality is, we can’t change things sometimes, we can’t un-radiate the nuclear waste sitting on Native American sovereign land (or the effects on its populace). We can’t undo the thousands of species die offs in the ocean because of our massive waste dumping practices. But we can turn the ship around.


This is where we meet the individual again, who now may have purpose and direction, but now needs the will. Again, something hard to do over long periods of time. The main thing to realize here is that there will be times where the despair does set in again, when all the effort seems to be in vain, as in any hard endeavor. Even the starting mental capital to start something like this is hard to do. It’s something I’m still learning to do, because I never have done it before. But I think to strive first for a mentality of sacrifice is how one then can go out of their comfort zone to do something (no matter how small or large). Personal sacrifice is probably one of the hardest things you could do, especially in a culture of convenience and consumption. Loss and uncomfortableness are among our biggest fears. Unfortunately, it’s what must be delved into in order to delve into holistic advocacy.

Which is why it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay.

I myself am still wondering if this is something I want to incorporate into my life, because it means having to live less comfortably than I’m used to by possibly not eating meat, or consciously minimizing waste, or attending local governance meetings. Yet, it’s these small dis-comforts that breed that spirit of advocacy, to soon make bigger sacrifices and put more energy into fighting the façade. Because at some point in our lives there comes a time, when you really just have to ask yourself, are you okay with everything going on? Do you make the sacrifices it takes to traverse the atlas you’ve seen? Or will you shrug? Doing one or the other will not destroy either the cause or the the self. It just charts your course elsewhere, and shapes the world accordingly, for better or for worse.

The last thing I wanted to get out, because I feel a bit weird and preachy at this point, is that even though your individual actions matter THIS IS NOT AN INDIVIDUAL JOURNEY. Even the best atlas makers and cartographers, who usually were also adventurers and explorers, had scores of crew members and the help of those who charted the world who came before and after to work with. It’s not our job to sail these seas alone. This journey is about a lot of motivated individuals risking failure trying to do what they feel is right. And at the end of it all, it may just amount to nothing more than a few drops in an endless ocean.

Yet, what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?



“I believe there is another world waiting for us. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there.”Cloud Atlas

James J. Fan


~ by jamesjfan on March 21, 2016.

One Response to “Clout Atlas”

  1. Best content: This had a lot of great incorporation of the readings and did so in a way that was very easy to relate to. Plus, making it personal and relating it to your own thoughts and feelings makes it a lot more personable.

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