Cannibalism, Utopianism, & the Stupid Nonsense of Art

Photograph Source: Doug Kerr – CC BY-SA 2.0

Wetiko is a Cree term which refers to a cannibal, or to an evil spirit who terrorizes other creatures by means of terrible evil acts including cannibalism….I have come to the conclusion that imperialism and exploitation are forms of cannibalism [which] as I define it is the consuming of another’s life for for one’s own private purpose or profit.

– Jack Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals

The real test of a spiritual path… is: How do people who follow that path behave?

– Ibid.

The fictive power of the literary imagination is the imaginal power of the psyche, and as we develop this part of ourselves [i.e., as writers], we are like shamans retrieving the lost “soul,” not only of ourselves but of humanity as a whole.

– Paul Levy, Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil

Last month, both Democratic and Republican mayoral primaries in Utica ended in upset victories. Either way it goes in November, it appears Utica’s leadership will escape the entrenched predictabilities of the old machine politics; either way, the new leadership, though both candidates are white and conventionally gendered, will be a departure from governance-as usual. The Democratic candidate, Celeste, Boston suburbs ex-pat, is a Philosophy PhD, master gardener, jewelry artisan, jack-of-all trades hard worker who does all things she sets her intention on superbly.

Once getting elected to the Common Council two terms ago, with no prior experience in politics, Celeste transformed that job by making her work visible to constituents. Connecting with us via regular emails as if it matters that we be acquainted with our city’s operations, she has made local government and its functions comprehensible, even interesting. Though she doesn’t have a philosophical opposition to corporate chain entities, when some of her constituents took on Stewarts’ Shops’ plan to build a gas station in a residential neighborhood, she jumped in, involving herself in the cause. Furthermore, it seems her primary win may have had to do with her effectively connecting with Utica’s very ethnically and racially mixed inner city neighborhoods.

The Republican Primary winner, current Common Council President Mike, a personable young man who touts his business background, is also a musician and connected generationally with the local music scene. Both winners are longtime customers of our Cafe but only Celeste has made her association with our Cafe explicitly a part of her campaign. Her election night (victory) party was held there; it’s her publicly proclaimed “base.” Orin and I were among the first business owners she asked for her endorsement as a mayoral candidate. She has filmed several of her PR videos at the Cafe or next door at The Other Side gallery. Thus, although we do not share her faith in the Democratic Party and its progressivism, it’s not a big leap to suggest Celeste takes her sense of legitimacy from our business, and indirectly, from our utopianism, i.e., from our Cafe-as-commons, a safe place for all human beings (and dogs too if they behave themselves!), the belief that underlies our stubborn tenacity. That is, we see this, if she does not, and we bless this surprise late fruit of our labors.

As for our tenacity, although both candidates doubtless appreciate our Cafe and the local arts and culture perspective it embodies, it’s likely that neither candidate fully understands how perilous the existence of a coffeeshop like ours is in the global market reality, especially in an outpost sacrifice zone like Utica. If we disappeared, though there’d be regret, people would simply shift their routine to Starbucks or Dunkin donuts. That is, much as both candidates prize it, I doubt they understand that such “punily (as in “puny”) human things” as our little coffeeshop – existentially embattled – not supposed to be in the global corporate marketplace – must be fiercely protected against cannibalization, the way indigenous people protect water or air. (If they did understand that, they’d be useless in local politics, so I must forgive them!)

Though some may fault us for paying less attention to electoral politics than our liberal progressive friends, our inattention isn’t due to apathy or apoliticism. We believe keeping our establishments existing is a political act. We cultivate this, our “garden,” in the soul-depleted soil of liberal corporate reality. We suspect, inasmuch as our politics is grasped by the public, our utopianism translates in peoples’ minds as “socialism,” either the great Good or the great Evil depending on which end of the spectrum one stands. We further suspect Celeste, an avowed atheist and fan of AOC, draws strength from our mysterious politics without understanding us. ( As well, fulfilling our vision of unitivity-not-divisiveness, local Republican party organizers also use The Other Side as a meeting place. Seemingly they forgive us our “socialism,” maybe because our commitment to the community is a conservatism they can relate to.)

Fully aware other factors are at play than just the ones I’m speaking of, the primary upsets give room for a cautious and very local hope for consciousness change. Confirmed for me in these victories is the high probability that in the world controlled by wealth, power and white supremacy, that thrives upon social divisiveness and liberal complacency, “autonomous zones” such as our Cafe and The Other Side provide, are necessary soil for change to take root in. Merely holding a space-as-commons is not Nothing, but Something! Adherence to the divine inclusivity of the soul makes fertility, not more barrenness.

Although people wondering at what we’ve done may suspect we’re trust fund babies (don’t I wish!), non-boastfully I can state the soil that now appears to support leadership change was built up with farmer-like sacrifice in “blood, sweat and tears” – out of our very lives. It is built of belief in process and change struggling daily with a preponderance of evidence that nothing wants to change nor ever will. Not unwavering, unfaltering, unshakeable belief, mind you, but belief held to like the star we have to follow in the otherwise terrifying darkness of the anthropocenic age, in the shadow of the intimidatingly seamless edifice of liberal self-satisfaction proclaimed in every page of the NY Times and network news. Accustomed as the liberal media are to falling into line, will they now bless Biden’s escalation in Ukraine implementing internationally outlawed cluster bombs?


The art director for our small gallery at The Other Side, a sculptor from Berlin who wound up at Sculpture Space in Utica, married a Utica woman 20 years ago and is now stuck here (I need a smiley emoji in this spot!), pesters us at Board meetings about the matter of money. Hindered by his language limitations from doing anything about it himself, he implies we should be bringing more of the green stuff in like the other local galleries, that have big budgets, paid staff, art classes, ambitious programming, etc. Recently he picked up the budget report for the annual meeting of a local – and much larger – non-profit art center for me to see (and maybe take home some ideas!)

For Hans, the matter is simple dollars and cents. For me, it’s more complicated. At the risk of sounding like a burnout case, which probably I am, our little arts space has to be kept in its place, never becoming (too much) a set of demands on me. (Our Cafe business provides us with enough of those!) In order to contain The Other Side’s demands, I selfishly limit them. But even if Hans’s intentions are good (that is, assuming we’re not just scapegoats for his disappointments and frustrations) the fear he provokes in me cannot be explained away as paranoia. If he persists, there’s a risk that other Board members might join his crusade. With good intentions they could ask for more formality, “transparency,” etc., unbalancing and undermining the vibe, or at very least costing me more work of a particularly tedious kind.

If Orin and I have our set and peculiar ways, if we seem to run our coffeeshop and nonprofit arts space against – or in spite of – the success/growth model, it’s not without reason. In the oppressive political context divided along and limited by party loyalties, in which the “air” of thought, like the commons in 18th century England, is increasingly enclosed, our little enterprises offer breathing spaces (autonomous zones). They depend on support from people who can appreciate their defiance of the dominant growth imperative. But defiance is costly; it makes us vulnerable, certainly financially, and even to the good intentions of friends.

God knows I’m not arguing against the reality of the need for money! However, although everybody knows one’s not supposed to identify with having (lots of) it, there’s a paucity of guidelines for how to do that without caving in either to Hans’s ideas or to self condemnation. I’ve read that the authorial lord of darkness, Cormac McCarthy, lived in impoverishment until, somewhat miraculously, one of his novels caught on and then the earlier ones came into a second reading, and voila!, success! I’ve read that the independent voice of Noam Chomsky is largely possible because he and his wife had obtained good tenured jobs at major universities. Smart!

So you see, vulnerability comes in many guises. Do we fold our tents because we weren’t smart, talented or lucky enough to be monetarily secure? And what about mythologist Joseph Campbell’s advice – music to our ears at the time we had our idea for a coffeeshop! Follow bliss and the money will follow! Campbell did not add, “but not in Utica!”

Let’s be real: How many visionary projects begin in that place of dreams, but then get taken over by the exigencies of growth, of paying salaries, of having to look investment-worthy to their membership, etc.? One could say this is what happened to Jesus’s dream! Behind the strategy of The Other Side’s co-founders, Orin and me, (or is this an absence of strategy?) exists a purpose Hans can’t see: we’re committed to our bliss, and thus we protect/preserve time in our lives for practicing it. By practicing the art that’s my bliss, and only by doing so, I recontextualize; our embattled projects are restored in my imagination to the preferred reality of the dream.

I’m no guru and so cannot speak universally, but I have this idea that just as a spiritual path must be “proved” by the actual behaviors of its followers, so art-making – inherently individual and immaterial – must reflect the higher truth for which there’s so little evidence in our social-political soul-denying reality, which is, summed up, a person can be internally free and therefore free. Any other freedom than the one granted in the soul is counterfeit, and likely taken at the cost of somebody else’s.


Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson (2016) , which a friend lent to us last week, speaks to the idea of art as internal freedom. With its protagonist a bus driver poet (named Paterson) in Paterson NJ, the movie allows one to see poetry writing as the act of internal freedom it is. How else to understand Paterson’s odd practice of putting words on a page? Moreover, (here’s me talking, not Jarmusch) having always to overcome the tyranny of the arts-ambivalent, freedom-challenged liberal reality – that likes from its artists both a happy outlook and a belief that doesn’t challenge rationalist supremacy – to take up and persist in one’s authorship is inherently anarchist. That is, my understanding of anarchism is it’s based in internal freedom (i.e., freedom from the defended ego, the soul “retrieved”) and this is why it is inherently opposed to liberal reality’s approved “freedom” to build and bomb.

In my case, I’m an aspirant to individuality who advocates counter-intuitively for the return to the local as necessary condition for individual freedom and community both. The “local,” however, if you’ve tried it, is no achieved commons! Being a representative slice of America, most “locals,” wherever they are, are adapted to the demands of social (media-driven) convention. Thus, living in place means entanglement with top-down liberal reality. For my troubles, I’m continually beset with disillusionment and despair. Only with the internal freedom of art-making is it possible to build “breathing spaces” that conjure freedom’s possibility for others. Not having it, one is helpless against inward tyranny over imagination’s knowing, and thus helpless against the cannibalization of local places by the corporate chains fully endorsed in neoliberal reality.

In Paterson, when the poet falls into doubt and despair, he is visited by a mysterious Japanese poet/pilgrim who gently nudges Paterson back into the “stupid nonsense” (my words, not Jarmusch’s) of his writing. By contrast, when I fall back into the clutches of the charmless neoliberal world, no Jarmuschian shamanic character will come to my aid except the one born in my imagination. So, I keep writing.


Few understand that if one determines to keep one’s nonprofit off the pursestrings of faceless bureaucratic entities, and/or one’s for-profit independent and at least a little bit anarchist, this makes one vulnerable to the cannibalism that is “imperialism.” That vulnerability of the “punily human” autonomous spaces is invisible until/unless one refuses to take the side of the entire edifice of Empire constructed from the tyranny of ego supremacy. That is, only those – especially among white liberals – who will take up the stupid nonsense of their art will know the cannibalism is real. People who do not daily confront the tyranny of the defended ego cannot see the cannibalization and will only see something to be fixed.

Anyway, right or wrong, we’ve held that line so our Utica establishments would be free to be as quirkily anarchist as people using them have a passion or energy to be. Real world containers, as we see them, for the soul’s dream of unity, the only possible protection human beings have against the soul sickness (cannibalism) that thrives in divisiveness, their bottom-up influence is actual, but nearly imperceptible. Change happens the way it will, not as I will it, but, ever so cautiously, I believe our utopianism may be breathing some change energy into one American city.

If any readers – you who’ve been reading my essays over the past 10 years plus, and understand best what our coffeeshop and arts space are – are inclined to give us a hand, we would be incredibly grateful. Donations can be made at The Other Side’s website – – or checks made out to and mailed to the Cafe Domenico, 2011 Genesee St., Utica NY 13501.


Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: