During this pandemic, the planetary cracks are getting deeper: We see inequalities, racism and social injustices on the rise, but at the same time new types of kinship, ties and solidarity are forming. The virus is akin to an amplifier and a magnifying glass. What can we see at this point? How will we go on? What do we aspire to beyond survival?
Artists and researchers from all over the globe compose personal letters sharing their takes on the situation. You are in cc. Take care.
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As artists and citizens, we are especially interested in how the media informs our understanding through specific racialized framing of catastrophic events such as the attack on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina or “stop and frisk” laws. Our national discourse reinforces or interrupts ideas informing the racial imaginary and since many, if not all, of these events engage the language of race and racism this age-old tension was crucial as we set out to marry language to image. The documentary impulse behind the Situations series can be seen not only in the appropriated images but also in the appropriated language. It is our feeling that both devastating images and racist statements need management.
claudia rankine john lucas
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New Haven, CT,
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The amount of particulate matter suspended in a given body of water is indicative of its turbidity. Incident light is scattered to a greater degree under highly turbid conditions. In any troubled body of water, some sediments will eventually settle of their own accord. Other particles, in colloidal form, will remain suspended. In such cases, mechanical or chemical intervention is required to reduce the haziness of the water.
The appeal of Bruegel’s paintings in a time like this has something to do with the paradox they contain. Paintings don’t move. They are soundless. Bruegel’s paintings are rhythmic in composition and often unconcerned with world events. But they take place in a world of concerns, in a loud and agitated world. Hunters in the Snow was completed in 1565, The Blind Leading the Blind in 1568, and during these years, the Spanish Netherlands is falling violently apart.
Turbulence was made in conversation with and in part addressed to, among others, Love is the Message, the Message is Death by Arthur Jafa, Stopover in Dubai and Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, The Mirror and Solaris by Tarkovsky, Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid, Best of Luck with the Wall and Concussion Protocol by Josh Begley, Powaqqatsi by Godfrey Reggio, Fly Paper by Kahlil Joseph, Videograms of a Revolution by Harun Farocki, Floh by Tacita Dean, Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje, The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, In Defense of the Poor Image by Hito Steyerl, Black and Blur by Fred Moten, and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.
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As a young girl, I had a pet bird. I didn’t ask for her; she was a Christmas gift from a friend of my mother. I called her Orion. We hated the idea of keeping birds in cages, so we let her fly around our screened-in porch. A bigger cage. She would never survive freedom, we told ourselves. My love for her was a cruelty.
On clear nights, I search for her constellation. During the days, I ask for her forgiveness, through you.
You might not have noticed, but the world as we humans have known it, as we built it, is coming to an end. As the world burns, we despair and rejoice. Other worlds await. I have found one such world in a forgotten space of time, here with you on my balcony.
Some humans (the lucky ones?) have been given two choices for what we can do with the excess of time we call “lockdown” – time at home, which we feel as a cage (it’s not): I can either stretch my consciousness away from my body, grasping at reflections and analytics and predictions of the world in those black mirrors we all carry, or I can sit within my body, sit with existence. Among my kind, it is a privilege to simply exist. I’ve missed existence.
So, out of the long hours of lockdown, I’ve woven a bit of time with you. You come for the offering of birdseed and water, of course. But then you stay, settling down in a patch of sun, stretching out one wing at a time. Warm rays reach that cold spot on your back that’s usually folded behind your wing joint. Your eyelids heavy as your partner preens the tiniest feathers on your cheek.
For the moment, I’ve lost much of what we humans think of as freedom, but there’s some eternal freedom to be found in the sun, isn’t there? You’re teaching me something about life.
Feelings come on strong as of late. Sometimes, I’m swollen with grief. I look into your eyes and weep. Sometimes, I’m overcome with joy. I look into your eyes and weep.
I like that you’ve made my balcony home. I don’t mind cleaning up after you. I’m grateful for your company. There’s a lot of death among humankind these days. There’s a lot of death among all kinds these days. Our war against existence is lonely.
Did you know that your ancestors once fought in our wars? They were bred by our ancestors for thousands of years before the current era. They were immortalized in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. They carried messages across distances of up to 1,000 km at speeds of up to 150 kph. They learned to recognize the Roman alphabet.
And during our “Great War,” we strapped tiny cameras to their soft bellies, using the brilliance of their internal compass and map senses to track our enemies’ movements. Some humans even offered them medals of honor. (We are a silly species.)
And then we invented the telegraph. Having extracted all the labor we needed from your bodies, we cast you out. Now, we line our buildings with spikes. We let our children kick at you. We poison your nests. An exile from both domestication and nature, you are at best insignificant, at worst a pest, the enemy, ranked among the lowest of Earth’s creatures. We resent your freedom.
I am chilled by this story. It nags at the dark matter that holds me together, that holds existence together.
We humans also cast out members of our own kind. Humankind’s segregation into “my kind” and “their kind” is one facet of the war that divides existence into kinds with and without care, with and without a right to exist. My kind – we are called “the Blacks”– are relegated to the bottom of the human hierarchy. We were once enslaved by the group at the top. They call themselves “the Whites.” Some of them resent our freedom, too.
There is a human named J. Drew Lanham who has written for Orion about the entangled 19th century destinies of African maroons fleeing enslavement and Carolina parakeets fleeing extinction.1 They each found refuge from death on plantations by living in swamps – ecosystems with a vital function to protect life, yet at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.
Lanham is a “Black birder”, meaning that he is an admirer of birds and also Black. According to Enlightened human reason, to be Black and a lover of nature is unnatural, a contradiction, because, being at the bottom of humanity, we exist at the edge of the so-called “state of nature.” We cannot love nature because we are supposed to hate ourselves. And we cannot share in nature because we must leave ourselves behind if we are to be welcomed among humanity. Of course we are nature, just like everything and everyone else, but to admit as much would be a surrender. (Or a coup?) Human reason is a contradiction.
No human lives will matter until Black lives matter. But what of the rest of matter?
In his guide for Black birders,2 Lanham suggests that the blackbird, “family Icteridae,” and the crow, “family Covidae,” be adopted (figuratively speaking) by Black birders as our bird-kin because they are black in color and often disparaged and disregarded. But what of you, the common pigeon, “family Columbidae?” (Columbidae. Columbidae. Columbus. The very name humankind has offered to yours carries echoes of our war.)
Sitting with you, I’ve thought a lot about kinship. Not as a metaphor, not as a myth, but as a truth. As a fact: That all matter is shared. The shared condition of existence is one of bodies within bodies, houses within houses. Our bodies are homes to microscopic bodies. Our bodies strive to be at home within the greater body of the world, which the human has reshaped into a hostile environment. I want you to be at home in the world. I want to be at home in the world.
The folktales of my ancestors tell us that birds are messengers of the spirit world, and that Black humans can fly. My body is the voice; yours, the message: Kinship is the dark matter that connects each and every body. Kinship is the dark wisdom that teaches humanity how to end this war: One cannot love existence and disparage you. Loving you is a politics of reparation.
Some saw in the Black [human] the salt of the earth, the vein of life through which the dream of a humanity reconciled with nature, and even with the totality of existence, would find its new face, voice, and movement. –Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason
I realize that I am not supposed to write to you. According to the latest directive published and distributed by the Divine Directorate of Pandemic Affairs: “Any form of communication with viruses in retirement is strictly prohibited.” If this message were to be intercepted by a third party, I could face severe consequences. Would they recall me? Cancel me? Can they afford to? Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist the temptation.
I must first apologize if my salutation is too informal. I wasn’t sure of the most proper or “correct” way to address you. “Dear Fellow Virus” would have been too formal and bureaucratic. “Dear Spanish Flu” sounds a bit awkward and it is inaccurate. Our names are confused and conflated with our work. Moreover, you didn’t begin your journey in Spain. “La Grippe Espagnole, or “La Pesadilla” does sound exotic, in English at least. I am spending so much time on appellations, but they continue to be a nuisance. I am called by some “The Chinese Flu” because that is where my initial contact was. Sometimes it is ignorance, at others nationalism and xenophobia. The grandson of one of the humans you killed, who rules an empire in decline, calls me “The China Virus” with exaggerated stress on “China.” It irritates me. I am hovering around his entourage, but haven’t found my way to him yet. You claimed Woodrow Wilson, who was once the emperor. I have such big shoes to fill! I’m in awe of your legacy. You took more than 500 million of them. I’m still far behind.
I write to you and address you in an intimate fashion, because I am often compared and contrasted with you. They often bring you up when they speak of me. You are a century my senior, but we do have so much in common. I realize I’m sounding all too human myself, but I’ve been through so many of them I picked up many of their languages and modes of expression. You know how it is. I am writing from a human host at the moment.
I wonder if these humans have changed that much since your time? Perhaps only superficially. My presence among them seems to accentuate their best qualities. Many risk their lives to save others. But it brings out the worst as well.
Despite their unprecedented access to knowledge and technology and their supposed enlightenments, greed and narcissism overdetermine the thoughts and actions of so many. They speak of equality, but there are absurd hierarchies, structures, and mechanisms that ensure the distribution of human worth and material wealth to the few, leaving many to suffer and wither.
I have come to learn and think that some of their actions are far more harmful and lethal than what any of us could ever do. They are still the most destructive species on this planet.
I have written mostly about humans so far. But what of us? I must confess to you that I no longer know what my purpose is in this whole affair? Were you, too, haunted by existential questions such as these during your tenure? Why are we brought into being, time and again? What is the purpose of our interaction with humans? I have combed through the literature, SOP manuals, and various reports, but cannot find satisfying answers.
I daydream about being a different kind of virus. Maybe a computer virus. Perhaps such thoughts are unbecoming of a serious virus. There were no computers when you were active. No internet or social media. Did you have moments of doubt and weakness? What did you dream of being or becoming?
I apologize again for any inconvenience this message might cause. A response, no matter how brief, would mean a great deal to me.
PS: There is news that they are inching closer to a vaccine. I still have a lot of work to do, but my tenure could be shorter than I had initially anticipated.
The text was translated from the Virese. The author wishes to thank two members of The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses who aided in the translation process. They wish to remain anonymous.
This letter was intercepted and confiscated by the Department of Global Security before reaching its intended recipient.
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I moved to Los Angeles on March 6, 2020, when shortly thereafter the mayor issued a "shelter in place" order and the city shut down. I took to obsessively watching 80s sci-fi and film noir as the desolate streets conjured an atmosphere of cataclysm. To Live and Die in L.A., the title of a 1985 neo-noir action movie starring Willem Dafoe, became a daily reflection amidst mounting dread of COVID-19. This track, inspired by Hollywood's post-apocalyptic cityscapes of yesteryear, was made during the month of April. Little did I know that in a few weeks time the largest protest movement in US history, Black Lives Matter, would reignite a near-extinguished hope in the fight for justice against systemic racism. A state of emergency and curfew were soon declared and the National Guard moved in to quell the protests. The memories of previous uprisings against police brutality reverberated through the city, notably in 1992 with the beating of Rodney King and in 1965 with the Watts Rebellion. The past, present and future exploded onto the streets of the City of Angels once again.
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A few days ago, I got off the phone with your aunt and one thing we kept saying was “In our lifetime.” When we were your age, we used to swim in the Matshemhlophe River after the rains in Bulawayo. But in my lifetime, I have seen that river turn black. It doesn’t flow anymore but rather sludges along. And when the economy in Zimbabwe crashed, the family had to move back to South Africa. Then came xenophobic attacks, increasing inequality, power failures, the drought, the rand fell and so on and so on. We thought we had finally reached the bottom when Cape Town almost ran out of water.
We had to fetch water from the springs in Newlands and Muizenberg. That should have taught us a lesson, right? That we need to keep all our water sources clean should we ever have to face another Day Zero? But I guess we didn’t get scared enough because I got a call from one of the community members I work with saying that the Kuils River that they live right next to was so full of chemicals and things it was making them sick. I thought, “Haven’t we already reached the proverbial rock bottom since our dams started to look like desert wastelands?” The lack of water showed us the inequalities in this country and the only way to move was up.
But something happened and a lot has changed. The pandemic called Covid-19 put the world at a stop. And when we stopped, we started to listen more carefully. We listened with care and full attention. Or so we thought.
I had just finished writing some notes on a clipboard, the patient seemed to be getting better. Nursing staff wearing gloves and a mask handed me two vials that needed to be sent to a lab to get tested. Everyone was busy so I decided to take it to the lab myself. I walked over to the next ward, I was stopped at the door, my temperature was tested. Oh no, I had a fever. I handed over the vial to the nurses on duty. I was sprayed and wiped down, told to change into a hospital gown; I was being admitted into the hospital right now. I proceeded to remove my clothes; these were then placed in a plastic bag. I was sprayed and wiped down and by the time I was done, all my belongings from my workstation were placed next to me on a bed at the entrance of the ward, being sprayed and wiped down. I searched frantically for my phone to call your father because I had to let him know I wouldn’t be coming home tonight. He had to pick you up, get supper ready, make sure you do your homework because I wasn’t coming home tonight. I couldn’t find my phone. I continued to look for it under the laptop, the heaps of notebooks, the keypad of desktop and I found a phone. But it wasn’t mine. I hear a ringing in the background. I am told I need to move to the ward now; I must leave everything behind because it might be contaminated. The ringing continues. I shout it might be my husband; I need to let him know that I am okay but I won’t be coming home tonight. I am gently pushed away from all my belongings, guided past a set of white curtains, bare feet on cold sterile floors.
On the 27th of May 2020, Okuhle Hlati of Cape Times news reported that nurses at a private hospital in Pinelands, Cape Town were infuriated by the negligence and discrimination by senior management after testing positive with Covid-19. About 36 of the nursing staff tested positive and they reported that management accused them of bringing these infections from their communities. A voice message sent by management stated that investigations were done and the results indicated that there was no way the infection could have occurred in the hospital, it was most likely that these nurses were infected while in their communities or in the transportation that brought them to and from work.
The hospital is located in the plush, a relatively wealthy neighbourhood of Cape Town that is unaffordable to the majority of South Africans. The nurses and care staff live on the other side of the railway tracks in more populated neighbourhoods, relying on public/shared transport to get to work. The spatial planning of the apartheid era is still rearing its ugly head today. The nurses who tested positive were told to self-isolate at home and if they could not do that, they were required to bring their identity document and medical aid cards to self-isolate at the hospital. Every day they placed themselves at the front lines of the pandemic, caring for others. But when the time came for them to be cared for, only if they had enough money to pay up their medical aid every month could they stay in the very same hospital they worked in every day.
In many cities in Zimbabwe, which your father and I left a long time ago to set up a better life for our family, doctors and nurses posted messages, some in tears, exhausted from the amount of work they did with the extremely little they had. They were incapacitated by the lack of equipment to provide adequate care for their patients, often sending them off with painkillers because that was the sum of care that they could give. Underpaid (a paltry US $200 per month) and overworked, strike after strike, to no avail. The government told the doctors to stop being selfish and get back to work. Only after billionaire Strive Masiyiwa offered assistance of between US $290 and 580 for six months depending on seniority did they agree to go back to work. Even with the increase, many found the conditions untenable because they lacked the basics such as gloves and masks to provide care for their patients without consistently placing their own lives at risk. The country has been hit by epidemics of typhoid and cholera over the years, when news broke of the widespread COVID-19, fear once again struck in the hearts of healthcare workers. How would they cope? Your father and I wondered what our lives would have been like if we had stayed. Would we have been forced to hustle, too, just to make ends meet? Would we also be heavily reliant on the black market, which seems to be more stable than the actual government? What would your lives have been like?
My feet are cold, my body is stiff, the ground is so cold. Someone next to me coughs again. I am up now. I can’t get back to sleep. It’s getting light outside. I must get up anyway. I pull myself out of my sleeping bag and whisper to the lady sleeping near me, “Please watch my stuff, I will be back; I just need to use the toilet.” The other woman lying next to me says, “Me too, let’s go together.” I make my way past other bodies, hundreds of them, some gently snoring and others stirring as the sun rises. I get to the toilets and there is already a queue. I wait, I have to wait even though I feel I am about to burst. My body still aches from last night. My stomach growls, I need to eat.
And now we live in Cape Town, but it has its own challenges. While we lived a relatively comfortable life, worried about if we will still have jobs if the pandemic was to continue, hundreds of homeless people around Cape Town were rounded up and relocated to the Strandfontein Sports Ground where tented shelters were set up when the coronavirus lockdown came into effect at the end of March 2020. The cost of setting up this camp was R30 million over one month. The shelter has been embroiled in controversy, with concerns of health and safety for the new residents being raised. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) made scathing findings on the conditions in which the thousands of homeless people at this shelter were living. While the city reported that best efforts were being made to provide healthcare, security and entertainment for those living there, NGOs reported concerns that these provisions were inadequate, especially to allow for social distancing. Reports also emerged of a young woman who was raped at the camp and officials stated the suspect was apprehended. The City’s law enforcement officers were also issuing fines to residents of this shelter for failure to comply with lockdown rules. Failure to pay the fine or appear in court could result in imprisonment. After conflicting statements from city officials, residents of the camp and NGOs working the camp, the matter was taken to court. The City of Cape Town has now closed the infamous shelter.
The opening of the shelter struck a nerve for many South Africans, with the planning and enforcement being reminiscent of the apartheid forced removals in the 1960s of the black and coloured people from homes close to services and the central business district to the Cape Flats.
In Zimbabwe, where the official unemployment rate is only 5% (although reality and fact checkers stated that the number is closer to 95%), the introduction of the lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 brought its citizens to their knees. Many relied on informal trading for sustenance and the inability to leave their homes increased food insecurity for many families. It was reported that President Mnangagwa’s son, Collins, on the other hand earned approximately R17 million from this crisis. Collins Mnangagwa and his friend Delish Nguwaya set up a company to distribute PPE kits to the health ministry. So scandalous was this transaction that Delish Nguwaya was arrested, however nothing has been said about the arrest of Mnangwagwa. In the midst of this, the Zimbabwean president condemned the killing of George Floyd and yet turns a blind eye to the slow death of thousands of his citizens due to hunger and poor healthcare. In response to the upheaval and instability around the world, the president called for a day of fasting and prayer. Political and social commentators and journalists said this call was a mockery, a punch in the gut and a failure to read the room or a concerted effort to ignore the realities of the country. How do you ask a citizenry to go on a fast when they told you over and over again that they are dying of hunger?
It was getting dark and I hated being at the food market this late. It was always such a mess at the end of the day. Also, I hadn’t walked in that part of Harare for a long time and expected the streets to be isolated, making me an easier target for thieves. But I was surprised to see so many people lined up along shop walls, laying down cardboard and pulling out blankets as if they were getting ready to lie down for the night. I stopped and asked an old woman holding the hands of who I assume were her grandchildren what was going on. I thought people were just setting up to queue for cash withdrawals at the bank as this had now become normal practice in Zimbabwe. But what she told me cut really deep. She had a stall in the marketplace where she sold fresh vegetables. When they left home two days ago, the money they had was enough for transport into town and back and maybe even a loaf of bread. But because of the inflation of the dollar in Zimbabwe, she couldn’t afford to take herself and her grandchildren home and come back into town to sell at her stall. She said that it made more sense to spend nights sleeping under the shelter on a shop entrance than to spend more money trying to get home. To me, it didn’t make sense at all. How could a woman struggle so much to put food on the table… just food… the basic needs… while the children of the political elite could buy the latest car and sneakers and then flaunt it all over social media? How was this okay? That also meant she couldn’t afford to send her grandchildren to school or buy them warm clothes to comfortably endure the cold nights of sleeping on a pavement. How was this okay? How was this even real?
It all feels surreal, between states of dreaming and being awake, not knowing which is which. The presence of the virus has made society’s fault lines more visible: social inequality with millions of people across the globe applying for unemployment benefits, gender inequality with women often bearing the load of childcare and working from home, ecocide, ageism, sexism, racism and more. Covid-19 has further highlighted the brutality of neoliberalism, which reduces people and multi-species worlds to numbers. If you can count the number of people who have been infected using scientific methods to model the spread of the disease, the assumption is that with enough resources (capital) and technical interventions, you would be able to manage the pandemic. However, the local (such as those mentioned above) and global events have shown us that these three gods of reason – scientific objectivity, technical efficiency and economic productivity – are not enough to respond to the challenges of our time and what will be the challenges of your time. What we have done is put the economy above all else, hoping that its growth would improve the lives of the majority of the earth’s inhabitants. But what this has revealed is the increase in the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the exploitation of nature and the poisoning of our water and soils.
This has probably been one of the most difficult things I have had to write. I wondered do I stick to the script or do I flip the script? I wanted this letter to be filled with hope. Every time I had these dreams, I woke up and thought about you, what will happen to you, your cousins and friends, and I am struck with fear and dread. I think of how you will all look back and say, “What did you do? How could you let things get so bad?” I would have wanted the message to you, future generations, to be that we finally came together as humanity in the face of a global pandemic, economic collapse and environmental degradation. That we tried and we worked hard to change because a virus that does not discriminate based on race, class, gender forced us to.
But every time I opened a newsfeed or went on social media I saw the number of coronavirus cases increase in the same way cases of intolerance and discrimination targeted at mostly black bodies increased. The virus may not discriminate, but healthcare systems do, governance systems do, policing systems do. The moment we are living in is something many in my generation never imagined would happen in our lifetime. We found ourselves looking at newsfeeds and asking each other again and again, “Is this for real?” Because we had seen some of the things we have witnessed in movies and read about them in books, which became parts of our dreams. So fact checking has become a pastime for some and others use the line ‘truth is subjective’ to make sense of a topsy-turvy world or justify their disillusionment. Ours is a time of post-truth. The truth is that the virus spread from an animal to human and from human to human and yet governments delayed putting measures in place to respond to pandemics and the rapid decline in species habitats in the Anthropocene era. The truth is that reliance on the markets to sustain and improve lives has not worked. So how do we do better?
But it is also true that in this time of crises, millions of people across the globe have come together to speak out about the injustices of a system that exploits and marginalizes non-conforming bodies and the environment. In our communities, we have seen people think collectively about food sovereignty, providing for those without. In Cape Town, some neighbourhoods have partnered with NGOs to ensure that less privileged families receive food each week. In Harare, we have seen individuals donating necessities to communities in need. I have seen the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe calling for restorative justice in a system that brutalizes people of colour. In moments asking “Is this for real or am I dreaming?” sparks of hope emerge because of small acts by people. Central to all of these movements is an ethics of care because people and the environment matter more than maintaining systems of privilege and dominance. So I encourage you to hold on to that hope that people care enough to stand up for each other. It may take a lot of time, attempts and failures, but throughout history, people have come together in moments of crisis to pave a better way to live. As long as we keep trying there will be hope.
Let our stories be a cautionary tale. Learn from how we lived and what we considered important. I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope the stories that will emerge are stories of how our generation pushed back the world over and no longer accepted the inequalities and exploitation of people and the planet. If not … I hope we at least gave you the tools to know how to keep fighting. I look at you now and I do see hope. A light, like at the break of dawn, because you have learnt to ask questions, to challenge my thinking. I hope you continue to do this and hope you know that I will keep trying, for you and yours.
With all my love, Nikiwe
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For a long time now, I’ve harboured a fascination with the figure of the sports commentator. ‘If I weren’t a writer,’ I used to say to myself, ‘that’s what I’d want to do.’ In my twenties I would fantasise: ‘Perhaps I can publish a few novels, then retire and take up commentary as a second career.’ The idea of being a cricket commentator appealed to me in particular. Where football comes in frantic 90-minute bursts, a cricket game (in its purest version, the Test Match format) stretches over five long days, affording endless variations in mode and tempo, cross currents and eddies, correspondences and sub-texts, with chance encounters prising open unexpected windows onto global vistas.
To take just one example: fifteen or so years ago, when England were playing the West Indies in London, one of the BBC radio team providing constant coverage of the game noted in an offhand way the coincidence that the name of the great Antiguan bowler Curtly Ambrose found an echo in his English counterpart and on-field opponent James Kirtley. Two or so hours later, an email sent in by a listener was read out over air: No coincidence perhaps, it claimed; James Kirtley’s grandfather had been a Scottish preacher in the Caribbean, where it is a custom for congregants to baptise offspring with their pastor’s name. By tea-time on the same day, or perhaps lunch on the next one, English Kirtley’s mother was located in the stands and brought into the press box. Yes, she confirmed, my late father was indeed Mrs. Ambrose’s pastor; the West Indian bowler was indeed named after him (although I wonder if the spell-change was a small act of subversion on the West Indian mother’s part: no placid subject, Ambrose would terrorise English batsmen with his short, i.e. aggressively high-bouncing, 90 mph deliveries; to condescending English journalists he was habitually curt). Everyone in the press box had heard about Mrs. Ambrose: she was well known on Antigua, where, sitting on her porch, listening to the radio while Curtly tore his way through an opposition’s top order, she would, each time he claimed a new scalp, ring a loud bell that hung there, sending the news echoing about the valley. Hearing of this practice, timid English Mrs. Kirtley, whose son was a far lesser bowler, had taken to ringing her own little silver-service tea-bell on the rare occasions that he claimed a wicket. As the West Indian Marxist CLR James points out, the entire history of empire and of post-colonial politics and culture is on replay every time a cricket game takes place.
More recently, it’s struck me that my planned career change was unnecessary, a redundant doubling. Why? Because the writer, narrating events, drawing into focus social, haptic and dramatic tableaux, is already performing a function very similar to that of the commentator, and vice versa. It’s been this way for millennia. A battle takes place just outside the boundary walls of Troy, a drawn-out set of actions, moves and countermoves, trajectories, reversals; and a guy called Homer has to tell us about it — convey it, bring it back to life. Or, if we opt for Robert Graves’s Celtic, rather than Hellenic, version of the origin of poetry and literature: a young man is ceremonially required to speak for an extended stretch, to keep a set of words and phrases issuing from his mouth to a rhythm beat out by a ring of tribal cohorts; if he loses the beat or runs out of things to say, he’s executed. Nothing’s worse than silence, than dead air. The modern presence of the radio, that great feat of techné and poesis, of assembly and dissemination that masks both author and audience at the very moment it connects them, raises a question Roland Barthes asks of all writing: Who is speaking, and to whom?
Don DeLillo, in his brilliant 1992 novella Pafko at the Wall, re-poses this question through his character Russ Hodges, radio commentator covering the National League pennant-clinching 1951 baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. ‘They’re smuggling radios into boardrooms,’ Hodges muses. ‘They got it in jail. They got it in taxicabs and barbershops… The game and its extensions. The woman cooking cabbage. The man who wishes he could be done with drink. These are the game’s remoter soul.’ Hodges’ back-story involves him cutting his professional teeth by doing ‘ghost games’ — in other words, commentating from the isolation of a windowless room on a game he’s not at and can’t see, embellishing from data sent in on a telegraph-ribbon and transcribed on a typewriter into ‘standard baseball cryptic.’
‘Someone hands you a piece of paper filled with letters and numbers and you have to make a ball game out of it. You create the weather, flesh out the players, you make them sweat and grouse and hitch up their pants. You construct the fiction of a distant city, making up everything but the stark facts of the evolving game.’
The fiction of a distant city indeed; and the fiction, too, of presence. Was Homer actually at Troy? Who knows. Structurally, according to the logic of event and iteration, it doesn’t matter one way or another: all that counts are — once more — the techné and poesis, the overall configuration of transmission, of Sendung.
We do know, in DeLillo’s story, that Hodges is in the stadium for the Yankees-Dodgers game; and so are Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover — these last three seated together in the stands, personifying the perennial unholy alliance of art, media and power. In the fifth innings, Hoover receives a private communiqué informing him that the Soviet Union has just successfully conducted its first atomic bomb-test. The news is bad, almost disastrous — but Hoover consoles himself with the thought that (thanks to his spies) President Truman will announce the detonation before the Soviets do, so that ‘People will understand that we’ve maintained control of the news if not of the bomb.’ Politics, too, is a matter of commentating. Just as the small ball-game between Curtlys/Kirtleys blossoms out, when narrated, into wide, complex spreads of geo-history, so here does the proscribed contest held within the boundary suddenly expand into a worldwide and even apocalyptic one in which the spectre of a dead air that is universal is borne by the very air from which death threatens to descend.
A more recent study of the themes with which DeLillo’s novel grapples can be found in a piece that, if I weren’t so painfully aware how sadly white and male it would be to say this, I would call the first monumentally great artwork of the twenty-first century: Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film Zidane. Running at ninety minutes — the same length as a football match — the work covers most, but not all, of a 2005 La Liga meet-up between Real Madrid and Villareal. The match’s final few minutes are not included, since Zidane is sent off just before the whistle for an attack on his opponent Pepe Reina; but the time lopped off is made up for by the roving of the film-makers’ camera-feed at half-time as they provide us with an overview of world events taking place during the game: flooding in Serbia-Montenegro; the recording of plasmawave sounds at the solar wind termination shock boundary; a twenty-four hour marathon reading of Don Quixote; and (as on almost every other day during that period) a car-bombing in Iraq — a still-frame from which last scene shows us a wounded man wearing a blood-soaked Zidane t-shirt. Thus — once more — the bound event space of the football stadium opens, through the duplication of a name, onto a global realm of terror, violence and (above all) mediation.
Which itself is also a duplication, since what else is the football game in the first place? Gordon and Parreno’s brilliance as artists, and Zidane’s genius as a footballer, consist almost entirely in their understanding of the own modality as not a ‘natural’, ‘expressive’ or ‘authentic’ one, but rather as inherently, pre-emptively, always-already mediated. ‘As a child,’ Zidane’s text-over tells us,
‘I had a running commentary in my head, when I was playing. It wasn’t really my own voice; it was the voice of Pierre Cangioni, a television anchor from the 1970s. Every time I heard his voice, I would run towards the TV, as close as I could get, for as long as I could. It wasn’t that his words were so important; but the tone, the accent, the atmosphere, was everything.’
Far from being experience’s goal or endpoint, media is its precondition, where it all begins. This inversion of the conventionally-presumed order of things plays games not only with the aesthetic and ideology of presentness — to put it in classical deconstructionist terms, with the ‘metaphysics of presence’ — but also with those of the present in the tensal sense; indeed, it disrupts any sense of smooth, uninterrupted linear temporality. ‘Sometimes,’ Zidane tells us, ‘when you arrive in the stadium you feel that everything has already been decided. The script has already been written.’ He recalls playing ‘in another place, at another time when something amazing happened. Someone passed the ball to me, and before even touching it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to score.’ What plays out on the field, the space created for and by and as the countless instruments of its own mediation, scrolling text-boards and embedded cameras, movement sensor-relays, data-acquisition software (even the grass is mown in pixellated squares) — what plays out there, under the grammar of the future perfect, is a form of originary replay: the re-enactment of what will have happened.
What’s more, this cross- or mid-temporal logic, this logic of re-mediated temporality, spills out beyond the bounds of Gordon and Parreno’s work. The Real Madrid-Villareal game takes place in April 2005; the film receives its general release in September 2006; between those two dates, Zidane is sent off in the world cup final here in Berlin for his head-butt on Materazzi — an act of violence so monumental and epochal that it, too, seemed pre-ordained or ‘scripted’. Thus his red card-earning scratching of Reina in the La Liga game becomes, once more, a re- or even pre-enactment of what will have been, comment on an event that’s yet to come to pass.
As will be clear, I’ve been not so much simply drawing a parallel between the worlds of art or artistry and commentary as showing how these are entangled in inseparable loops and feedbacks, Moebius Strips, great Gordian or Borromean Knots. Why, then, the title, Against Commentary? The contrarian impulse on my part stems from a conviction, more recent and more firm than my young career-path reflections, that art, all art and artists, and especially those of us whose medium of choice is literature, should resist the demand to provide a kind of running commentary on real-time, real-world events. The demand is like a siren call, repeated endlessly on all frequencies (institutional, commercial, social), amplified in times of supposed crisis, such as (for example) that posed lately by the appearance of Covid 19, pulsed out more subtly, sub- or supra-sonically, in supposed ‘normal’ times. But if these terms, these metrics — ‘commentary’, ‘real-time’, ‘real-world’ and, not least ‘event’ — are not thoroughly interrogated, shaken down so rigorously that they unravel, then the artist’s, the writer’s, work risks being penned within the most narrow and reactionary of boundaries. Art may, as I’ve suggested, stand in an intimate, specular relation with time, spectacle, power, violence and all the rest — but the relation is a dynamic, fluid and recursive one whose terms are never fixed. Art isn’t there to furnish some kind of insta-metaphor translator, some user-friendly lens or software-interface of parable or allegory or even straight-up narrative. DeLillo — a writer whom, as I hope is also clear, I admire — has written a 9/11 novel, but I haven’t read it since a) I’m all but certain that it will, through structural necessity, be a dud; and b) his other novels were already 9/11 novels, avant la lettre. So, for that matter, were The Iliad, The Aeneid and the entire Trojan canon: what do those works involve if not a vehicle full of hidden terrorists, or at least enemies of a certain state, being driven into this state’s very polis or metropolis, bringing its high towers low, trapped citizens hurling themselves from the burning roofs and windows?
Consider these lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
What is the city over the mountains Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London Unreal
The script, as Zidane so astutely notes, has already been written. The feedback loops here — between history and fantasy and record; mediation and catastrophe; past, present and future (each of which, in Eliotic fashion, both contains and spills or disgorges the others) — are so convoluted and so mobile as to defy any definitive freeze-framing, to elude all reductive designations. One thing, though, we can say with certainty: the poem is not the comment.
As for falling towers, so for contagion. My first reaction — indeed, my only reaction, as a writer — to the onset of masks, lockdown, tests, and so forth, was to mail my editor in London and urge him not to publish, in a year or so, any ‘corona novels’. He promised not to; but someone will. They’ll have titles like ‘The Covid Chronicles’ or ‘Journal of the Plague Year’, and they’ll all be awful. If you want to read about contagion, read Ovid’s account of the plague at Aegina, or Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, or almost anything by William Burroughs — or, in a German context, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. In the case of this last text, you might well find that what’s most interesting about Mann’s take on illness is — as for Zidane-Gordon-Parreno — the way it disrupts received models of time. When you are ill in bed, muses the tubercular Hans Castorp,
‘All the days are nothing but the same day repeating itself – or rather, since it is always the same day, it is incorrect to speak of repetition; a continuous present, an identity, an everlastingness – such words as these would better convey the idea. They bring you your midday broth, as they brought it yesterday and will bring it tomorrow; and it comes over you – but whence or how you do not know, it makes you quite giddy to see the broth coming in – that you are losing a sense of the demarcation of time, that its units are running together, disappearing; and what is being revealed to you as the true content of time is merely a dimensionless present in which they eternally bring you the broth.’
A similar disruption is described by Maurice Blanchot — linear temporality, our grasp on it through consciousness and representation, our aspiration that through these last two we might enter into, take possession of, even command some kind of future, all being overturned by an event so fundamentally, so foundationally disruptive that it could be said to contain the characteristics and dimensions proper to illness, violence, death and all order of calamity yet at the same time to exceed all these, looming about us in a spectral mass to which we can can give no other name than, vaguely and almost sacredly, ‘the disaster’. ‘We are,’ he writes,
‘on the edge of the disaster without being able to situate it in the future: it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future – that which is yet to come – if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival. To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it.’
The title of the work in which these lines appear is ‘The Writing of the Disaster’, and its central thought is that the art of writing should be understood as standing, always, in relation to this overwhelming presence, which is also overwhelming and abyssal absence, negative totality from which it will never extricate itself and yet which it can neither contain within writerly commentary. The disaster is what writing orbits round; the disaster is itself already writing and writing’s undoing (it ‘de-scribes’, claims Blanchot — that is, writes and unwrites in one and the same act). In a gesture that for me harks back, not so much to Graves’s Celtic poets as to the sub-linguistic rhythm that both underpins their iteration and carries, with each repetition, the spectre of its, and their, own end, he adds, in an admonition that I’ll take as my cue to surrender to dead air:
‘To want to write: what an absurdity. Writing is the decay of the will, just as it is the loss of power, and the fall of the regular fall of the beat, the disaster again.’
Gradient based on live data:
Temperature: 18.8°, Pressure: 1014.7, Humidity: 92.
Air Quality Index (AQI): co 3.7, no2 18.3, o3 12.3, pm10 9, pm25 30, so2 4.2.
A conversation in images, missives to selves and world, mood swings in lockdown and a share in the planet’s lucid dreams during a global pandemic. Gleaned from a month’s worth of the habit, within Raqs, of a regular chatter, the daily back and forth of things seen, heard, read and sensed between three people across decades. From the dawn of new feelings to the obstinate sediment of images that don’t let themselves be unseen. Disappearing ephemera, history in the making, the scene that unfolds in the corner of the eye – everything, and nothing. Real, imagined, and everywhere in between. Notes of pictures that whisper, speak in tongues, and sometimes leap, from hibernation to upheaval.
Gradient based on live data:
Temperature: 33°, Pressure: 996, Humidity: 70.
Air Quality Index (AQI): dew 27, pm25 70.
Are those who are contemplative all children? They race with the winds in pursuit of a bell’s chime. When their energies are spent, they drift off to sleep, with hope in their embrace. To them, there is no difference between the stars in their dreams and those in the night sky, the twinkling lights patiently anticipating human presence.
The contemplative ones are indeed children. They search for a room with an open door within this city. In that room, the lamp is always lit. If there are traces of sleep in their eyes, no one notices them. Night descends like thick, dark ink permeating paper. As dewdrops appear, they bring tidings of a refreshing dawn. People begin laying down their heavy luggage, no longer fretting which direction they will be taking next.
The light fragrance of mint fills the infinitely regenerative herb garden. The contemplative ones must be children then. They will always have, for company, the night sky, the earth and glimpses into the lives of others.
Gradient based on live data:
Temperature: 29°, Pressure: 1007.5, Humidity: 70.
Air Quality Index (AQI): co 6.4, no2 17, o3 27.3, pm10 34, pm25 65, so2 3.1.
It has become commonplace to speak of our current situation as exceptional and unprecedented. It is true that much of what we recognise as normal is in a state of suspension; everyday routines and rhythms are disrupted, work and sociality grind to a halt or take virtual forms whilst a disturbingly abstract numerical figure of suffering (the ‘count’) continues to accumulate. Despite the apparent strangeness of this scenario, we insist that this is not an exception but an aggressive and catastrophic affirmation of existing socio-economic logics; an intensified continuation of the rule rather than a break with it.
The pandemic reinforces existing separations, demarcations and boundaries, such that precarisation and insecurity coupled with the logics of racialisation and nationalism, regional and environmental inequalities all attain heightened force. We must not forget that this virus, like its recent zoonotic precursors, was made possible by industrial agriculture, which itself only obeys the basic compulsion to accumulate wealth that is disrupting the ecological balance of our lifeworld. The pandemic has fused and concentrated multiple states of emergencies that subsisted invisibly under the surface long before the virus took hold. If it does not present an entirely novel situation, the current moment at least confers on these states of emergency a heightened visibility, illuminating the delicate interplay between stability and crisis that is a guiding principle of neoliberal governance.
In order to guarantee the stability of accumulation and state power, the production of diffused crises of health, work and ecology is necessary. Nowhere is this crisis production for the sake of stability more transparent than in the prioritisation of the economy over the lives of the poor, the marginalised and key or essential workers, who have continued to care, clean, build, manufacture, transport and deliver during the lockdown without proper payment, security and health protection. Even though the current pandemic is far from over, what it has already posed with utmost urgency is the question of whose life matters. What is considered life and what is not? Which lives have value and deserve not to be lost? What techniques and technologies are employed to maintain and reproduce life? The ethical attention demanded by these problems is globally distributed along lines of nation, class, gender and race.
In attempting to decipher this distribution of the ethical, it would be easy and obvious to refer to emergent nationalism and projects of ethnic and cultural differentiation. The dangers they represent for those both within and outside their speculative constructs of community are clear. However, a deeper structuring principle is at work in the current conjuncture, one that determines and regulates the distribution of the ethical, of who belongs and, ultimately, who has the right to security and life.
We find ourselves at the close of a cycle of internationalist optimism. Not, of course, the internationalism of communist solidarity, but a capitalist internationalism that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the socialist states. Since 1989, the world has no longer been stratified according to allegiance with competing political projects of social organisation; two kinds of ‘freedom' bound to two superpowers, which had given social conflicts their meaning and orientation. After the collapse of the socialist project, the globe was designated a smooth space in which all conflicts were to be resolved within the sphere of property relations and market forces.
Thirty years of the global rule of capital has deflated every seductive variation on the old notion of ‘progress’, expressed after 1989 as the imperialist trope of ‘catching up’ with Western democracies, or ‘development’. Today the ideologies of promised peace, mutual benefit and institutional integration have been dismantled in favour of exclusive identities, militarised border regimes and a grim social realism that legitimates the finitude of responsibility toward other groups.
Conflictuality has been reduced to competition between national capitals, transnational corporations and new geopolitical blocs. This is why the remnants of Cold War infrastructure now serve the task of winning the competition for the place of a new capitalist and colonial superpower. The utopias are over and all that remains is the economy. Even if new geopolitical blocs mobilise the twentieth century ideologies of social justice, abuse of the old symbols should not mislead us. What brands itself as a struggle against Western or European Union domination and colonialism in fact is, in the absence of any alternative project for social existence, simply the struggle for a new configuration of geopolitical domination. This post-Cold War cynicism of competing regional capitalisms is a new framework for the distribution of the ethical.
The pandemic has only sharpened the structural tension between the totalising tendency of globalisation – the integration of production and exchange – on the one hand, and the individualising techniques of antagonistic national-cultural projects on the other. In syncopating the supposedly frictionless dynamics of the world market and global value chains, the virus discloses the invisible veins and threads of global production, the interdependency of workers across the globe, the tightness of the world rhythm of accumulation and the binding force it exerts over the lives of billions. But at the same time, the gravitation of ever more integrated economic and political forces is inverted at the level of cultural and ethical identifications and exclusions, as the artificially reproduced fantasy of economic scarcity is replayed on the stage of identity. The techniques of cultural differentiation operating here reinforce a perverse denial of our material interdependence, responsibility and collective interests. These tendencies constitute a violent contradiction at the heart of the world order in its current configuration, a play of attraction and repulsion, of interdependency and disavowal that form two sides of the same coin. In spite of the beleaguered efforts of the WHO, the absence of anything resembling effective international co-operation to mitigate the effects and spread of the virus attests to this tragic tension.
Under the rule of unimpeded international capitalism – social life with no project but competition for maximal exploitation and accumulation – the unity and condition of humanity can be registered only in abstract numbers, economic graphs and the cold balance sheet of mortality rates. ‘Success’ in this scenario has meaning only as outdoing the other, just as it does in ‘normal’ times (only GDP has now been replaced by lives lost or saved). Google the coronavirus map and you will find a competing index of nation states that registers the winners and losers of the day. The projects of differentiation and exclusion function here not only to individuate competing communities but also to erase the presence of others, such as Palestine, which will simply not appear on this map (and we know well that symbolic erasure is the pre-condition for actual annihilation). The map foregrounds geopolitical divisions, it reminds us what must be seen and how, and what should remain unseen, who gets recognition and who will remain unrecognised and stateless; virtually inexistent, before the fact. The maps and league tables affirm the pandemic as nothing but a global competition and one more theatre for the demonstration of power relations. The statistical data of cases and death tolls highlights a patriotism of local and regional technologies of pandemic management, ranging from the eugenic concept of herd immunity in Sweden and the UK (intended to secure a ‘competitive advantage’ over national economies practicing a genuine shutdown) to the old models of population control and pastoral care in East Asia.
Instead of asking why we are reduced to these statistical models and management strategies, people ask which is better: to develop herd immunity or avoid viral infection by means of heavily policed lockdown. We might ask instead why we must choose between being treated as a herd or a parish. The reduction of global community to comparative numeric calculations and death counts (‘Oh, we are not as bad as the United States!’ ‘Well, look at Brazil and Belarus, they deny the virus exists!’) redirects solidarity and mourning towards patriotic competition for the most exceptional national strategies to battle the pandemic. Clapping hands appear at the balcony not so much to celebrate key workers, but to affirm each other’s numerical representation and nationalist exceptionalism: the war effort.
This competitive regional distribution of ethical identification and responsibility springs from no natural or anthropological source (group mentality, survival instinct, etc.). Its foundation is instead the generalised ethic of indifference toward the fate of the other presupposed by a market society. Without this generalised indifference the construction or resurrection of such speculative and spectral communities would not be possible. What is affirmed in the applause is the abstract indifference of the isolated individual, of a generic social being for which there is no community or solidarity but that of the count (of property, rights, salary, health, likes, etc.).
The death count represents the highest affirmation of this abstraction; it renders mortality scientific, neutral, statistical, erasing the qualitative problem of who gets to live, who will be allowed to die and under what conditions. Even in its most radical iterations, this standpoint can only ask what constitutes an objectively ‘premature’ or ‘unnatural’ death. But all death is ultimately political, dependent on the full contour of life, from what we eat to what we earn, where we live, the air we breath and the access we have to basic services. If the limits of formal equality and the concrete problem of how the state actually treats individuals and communities are currently being contested around the most extreme terms of life and death, of police killings and the systematic denial of justice, such coarse demands cannot stop there but will have to penetrate the most private and particular regions of the individual.
Any genuinely alternative project of social solidarity will have to break through the cold indifference that is built into our lives as a social fact: those subjective mechanisms of denial that the other matters, to which we currently concede a pragmatic necessity. The same operation makes it possible to accept the crude fact of homelessness, bombs dropped elsewhere and the thousands dying unnecessarily from the virus. The UK’s annual defence budget amounts to £40 billion, meanwhile the government refuses to provide protective equipment for frontline health workers, who consequently die. We understand what this means in terms of the count, and yet cannot develop another relation to these facts. What distribution of the ethical is at work to enable this? One in which there is no collective fate but the count of each individual. The other dies. Or I die. But ‘we’ do not die.
The ethics of indifference mirrors the loss of political agency. If capitalism abstracts us as numbers and behaviour to be managed, this only means that it dehumanises us. If it is easier to sympathise with the non-human, the post-human or the unhuman, it only means that it is a symptom of the very inhuman design of capitalist society. It is true that in a sense we are already non-humans, numbers, algorithms and behaviours. But where will the simple description or self-identification with the inhumanity of this design lead us? The popular discussions on the Anthropocene often imagine that the world without humans would be a better place; ‘clean’, that if liberated from an anthropological presence nature would flourish. The self-annihilation of the human project is a symptom of tiredness and indifference. Humans are considered evil by nature, but what produces this evil is not nature, it is society: a particular kind of society, which has not and will not always exist.
We know that what is human depends on how we define what is inhuman, what is excluded and repressed. An alternative human point of view, or image of globality must be constructed against the inhumanity and indifference of capitalist power, a power that draws upon and activates traditional prejudices, resentments and hierarchies in order to inhibit the construction of a genuinely collective standpoint for action. If the tradition of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, the cascade of toppled monuments to slave traders and colonial heroes expresses a struggle for liberation from long standing and still-enduring oppressions – if only as an image or metaphor, an anticipation of realising that liberation in practice.
Like the virus, such monuments attest to the concealed threads of global trade and exploitation, but here in terms of the continuity between past cycles of accumulation and the social configurations of the present. Tracing the wealth of slave owning families and nations – who were so generously compensated for their ‘losses’ following abolition – to the ruling classes of today demonstrates this irrefutably. Yet the images of transgenerational suffering torn away are also a powerful reminder that humanity is not in itself an ahistorical norm, something given and self-same in every concrete instance, but is the polymorphous capacity or task of norm-positing, of collectively determining what will count as a meaningful life, of which and what form of life matters.
Gradient based on live data:
Temperature: 18.8°, Pressure: 1014.7, Humidity: 92.
Air Quality Index (AQI): co 3.7, no2 18.3, o3 12.3, pm10 9, pm25 30, so2 4.2.
Comrade, how have you been? Where are you? What happened? And wtf was that?
Previously in this series: The ER team tries to figure out the strange phenomena of Covid-19 patients presenting with severe lack of oxygen yet no apparent distress. Dr. Blue remembers a study:
“In a simulated high-altitude parachute jump from 30,000 feet, nine volunteers from the Norwegian Special Operations Command underwent repeated blood gas testing while breathing air at different ambient pressures.”
After the simulated jump it turned out the commando’s oxygen saturation parameters were all over the place. Some had severely impaired and even life threatening blood oxygen saturations but functioned completely normally. Some didn’t. One fainted.
Flashback ends. The doctor concludes: Our patients present in a similar condition. How can they function even though they are not supposed to be conscious? We might as well call this condition: happy hypoxia.
My friend. Are you there? We got separated while falling. Am I even still alive? I got kicked off a plane. Or so I reconstruct from the paradoxical symptoms, which seem completely unlikely. I feel at altitude even though I am firmly on sea level. But now I even forgot my mission.
Previously in this series: Whereby the commando finds an old scroll after crash landing and tries to decipher its meaning.
“Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground.
Many contemporary philosophers have pointed out that the present moment is distinguished by a prevailing condition of groundlessness.
We cannot assume any stable ground on which to base metaphysical claims or foundational political myths. At best, we are faced with temporary, contingent, and partial attempts at grounding. But if there is no stable ground available for our social lives and philosophical aspirations, the consequence must be a permanent or at least intermittent state of free fall for subjects and objects alike. But why don’t we notice?
Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating – or not even moving at all. Falling is relational – if there is nothing to fall toward, you may not even be aware that you’re falling. If there is no ground, gravity might be low and you’ll feel weightless. Objects will stay suspended if you let go of them. Whole societies around you may be falling just as you are. And it may actually feel like perfect stasis – as if history and time have ended and you can’t even remember that time ever moved forward.
As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people. Traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and multiplied.”
The commando rolls up the scroll again. He looks into the camera and says:
I fell. They fell. Lightheaded as fuck. Dizzy and disoriented. The map view was just a blurred insert from a past in which numbers accelerated towards autonomy. While falling the map gained depth – the geographical 2D overview map turned into a game map, a literal 3D model, maybe building up all around you procedurally. After all, falling into a map is a standard mode of entering a game world.
This is how I see: A first person perspective (fpp) is what I see with my own eyes.
This is how they see: A third person perspective (tpp) is how someone else sees someone falling.
What do you see, my friend? How does the world look like through your eyes?
Previously in this series: Another pop-up from the past, left behind in an empty oxygen cylinder turns up on the map.
“Many of the aerial views, 3D nose-dives, Google Maps, and surveillance panoramas do not actually portray a stable ground. Instead, they create a supposition that it exists in the first place. Retroactively, this virtual ground creates a perspective of overview and surveillance for a distanced, superior spectator safely floating up in the air. Just as linear perspective established an imaginary stable observer and horizon, so does the perspective from above establish an imaginary floating observer and an imaginary stable ground.”
The doctor shrugs. This message refers to a time when 2D maps made sense. There is no road map for this specific situation; the new map is immersive and the doctor has been dropped right inside. She is part of the situation, even lost her doctor title during the fall. She fell through the plexi and lost her breath.
The terrain around her builds procedurally, but the person formerly known as doctor does not know the procedure. There are no data to even predict the past let alone the present. Her visor turns into an AR screen and flashes:
You are now part of the “happy hypoxia” squad and you need to first figure out your mission.
Within this map you may be navigating confusing and shifting situations, not least the one that the map itself keeps shifting. No one will believe your reports until they surface in the media weeks later. Like the “happy hypoxia” syndrome that was deemed improbable until it actually happened. When patients started describing it from an fpp, no one believed them – it was considered fiction. It took a tpp to become accepted as reality.
As far as anyone can tell you could drop dead 6 months from now, or suddenly acquire the ability to fly, see the future or cook stones into delicious meals. None of this is likely but then again, only a short time ago, your existence wasn’t considered likely either. You exist within a very thin slice of probability where fpps and tpps keep overlapping and diverging.
Start Shepard glissando. It may have been called a zone of miracle at different points in history, the kind of miracle you pray will never ever happen. To navigate it you may have to use the tools Tarkovskys stalkers used to find their way: try to toss nuts and bolts tied with scraps of cloth, to verify that gravity is working as usual.
Previously on this series: the last episode was filmed in splitscreen: tpp and fpp.
A voice comes over the radio: A gravitational wave hit the plane. It came from the future. Actually, two futures were fighting one another in a gigantic battle, causing space-time to ripple. One was the future that came from the past produced through a gigantic amount of big data crunching and risk management. States and corporations tried to control the future by prolonging past data, including its entrenched inequalities and monopolies, its fiefdoms and clans. The future projected was a futur anterieur, something that has passed before it even happened, the only future we used to know.
The other future wore a mask. It was impassive, dispassionate, almost disinterested. It had sprung from a small arm of the previous future and grown exponentially like a lichen that grows on a tree and starts to gradually replace it. They clashed like Godzilla vs Mothra. The shock wave hit the plane and threw us off.
Whose voice was that?
Also in this episode: The lack of montage. The endless real-time essential workers world of logistics and reproduction carrying deceased relatives on our backs towards teleoperated incinerators. I will hopefully see myself, looking for you, worried, then relieved as our eyes meet.
You will finally find them. Dispersed and bewildered.
You will ask:
Comrade tell me about the times when you were happily trying to ambush Trevor in GTA Liberty City. The time you were an octopus in Minecraft and never got killed because you were useless. And now your days are spent being taken over non-stop, possessed by hectic people trying to prototype virtual art fairs. You will tell me how you were forced to be the NPC gallerina at the Virtual Art Basel entrance, repeating the same sentence over and over again: your name is not on the list.
You know: There is no list. There has never been a list. Even if there was there would have been another door behind the first one. The person would have washed up in front of a different npc gallerina repeating the same sentence. You hated your job, and you remember how you hated it when you had to do it IRL. You were dropped into this map with a sagging oxygen saturation and even while you recover, there are more people raining in from above, trying to claim stakes while still being confused and suffering from hypoxia.
And you, comrade, you have been dispatched to measure the temperature of museum audiences. You are telecontrolled by a theater actor who was left unemployed. Two months ago he didn’t even know the word furloughed. He has been furloughed because of the Castorf piece he was in. Lots of spitting and yelling. Had he been in the von Schirach one (“debate style”) he might have kept his job. His colleagues are forced to take tests to keep shooting TV series – like porn actors in times of HIV. The actor is nervous and yanks you around. He’s coughing and he doesn’t have a gamer’s thumb – yet. You really would like to keep your distance from him but unless you unlock the don’t-possess-me reward there is little you can do.
You comrade you’re used to an editor. But montage has become one of the victims of this condition. Little content is edited these days. It’s either the flatness of real-time or the iconicity of the meme. Montage will be about assembling different points of view into a weave – now every strand remains on parallel lines, every face on it’s own screen, uncut, unassembled, isolated. Montage will be organization and infrastructure, the labor of creating quality out of quantity, a debate out of mere voices, a composition out of notes, society out of specimens. Now, strands are left to run in parallel in a real-time observation that is indistinguishable from reality TV surveillance. While you are wearing a ridiculous commando skin.
And you, my friend Mike. How many incinerations were you filming from your teleoperations center, how many old-school android files did you send off to relatives mourning in front of screens? They saw your hands in frame pushing the deceased into the flames and are thanking you for your service.
You used to be the pilot, so tell me what happened? Why did we have to eject?
A gravitational wave hit the plane. It came from the future. But actually from two futures that were fighting one another in a gigantic battle, causing space-time to ripple. One was the future that came from the past produced through a humungous amount of big data crunching. A massive attempt to control the future by prolonging past data, including its entrenched inequalities and monopolies, its fiefs and clans. The other one wore a mask. It was impassive, dispassionate, almost disinterested. It had sprung from a small arm of the previous future and grown exponentially like lichen that grows on a tree and starts to strangle it.
Many of us were yearning for something new. There we go.
After a lot of historical blockage and repetition our squad has to learn how to navigate unknowns like a TV writer that has no clue where the plot will take her. You are sure the plot will not add up but there is no emergency exit. All you know are disjointed past episodes that keep popping up within empty oxygen containers.
We fell into the improbable, breathless and will remain lost unless we figure out how to operate the second person perspective. Maybe someone left controls behind somewhere within this map. If not we will need to montage them.
Previously on this series: the squad has built a preprint prototype for a second person perspective.
From a spp, we are trying to figure out an improbability that has suddenly become rather normal. commonplace.
Gradient based on live data:
Temperature: 30.7°, Pressure: 1014.2, Humidity: 41.6.
Air Quality Index (AQI): no2 16.5, o3 61, pm10 29.
Tom McCarthy is a novelist whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages. His debut Remainder (2005) was adapted for the cinema. His novels C (2010) and Satin Island (2015) were Booker Prize finalists. He has held visiting professorships at Columbia University, the Royal College of Art and Städelschule. He contributes regularly to The New York Times, London Review of Books, Harper's, and Artforum. In 2013 he was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction by Yale University.
Teju Cole is a photographer, novelist, and essayist. In 2013, he and the translator Christine Richter-Nilsson were awarded the Internationaler Literaturpreis for the novel Open City (2011). Cole’s other honors include the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Windham Campbell Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His most recent books are Human Archipelago (2019), a collaboration with the photographer Fazal Sheikh, and Fernweh (2020), a photobook. Cole is currently a Professor of Creative Writing at Harvard University.
Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, scholar and translator. He holds degrees from Baghdad, Georgetown and Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in Arabic literature. Antoon has published two collections of poetry and four novels, including The Book of Collateral Damage (2019), The Baghdad Eucharist (2017) and The Corpse Washer (2013). His essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian and The Nation. He is an associate professor at New York University. His works have been translated into thirteen languages.
Raqs Media Collective are artists, curators, and thinkers. Founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, the collective’s practice spans the making of multi-medium installations, films, events and publications, in addition to collaborations across architecture, literature, science, and theatre. Recent solo exhibitions include Still More World, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar (2019), Not Yet At Ease, Firstsite, Colchester (2018); Everything Else is Ordinary, K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf (2018); Provisions for Everybody, AV Festival, Newcastle (2018).
Nikiwe Solomonis a lecturer in the Social Anthropology Department at the University of Cape Town and currently pursuing a PhD in Environmental Humanities. Her PhD research focuses on the Kuils River in Cape Town, its entanglement with social and political worlds as well as in urban planning. Solomon is also a Research Associate at the African Centre for a Green Economy where she practices the integration of theoretical knowledge with the experience of the everyday. Her work at the African Centre focuses on civil society and community engagement platforms committed to human and environmental well-being.
Maria Chehonadskih is a philosopher and critic. She is a Max Hayward Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Her research and work concentrate on Soviet epistemologies across philosophy, literature, and art, as well as on post-Soviet politics and culture. She is currently preparing a book on The Transformation of Knowledge after the October Revolution.
Andrés Saenz De Sicilia is a philosopher and sound artist based in London. His theoretical work addresses the multiple crises of modern society and the enduring relevance of philosophical concepts for making sense of these crises. He lectures at Central Saint Martins and has performed and presented works at the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Cafe Oto, Villa Lontana, Whitechapel Gallery and Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Roma.
Kiluanji Kia Henda is an artist who employs a surprising sense of humor in his multidisciplinary practice in the fields of photography, video and performance, often homing in on themes of identity, politics and perceptions of postcolonialism and modernism in Africa. In complicity with historical legacy, Kia Henda recognizes processes of appropriation and manipulation of public spaces and structures, and the different representations that form collective memory. He received several prizes, like the Frieze Artist Award in 2018 and in 2012 the National Prize for Art and Culture, awarded by the Minister of Culture in Angola. His work was featured on biennales in Venice, Dakar, São Paulo and Gwangju, as well as international travelling exhibitions and solo exhibitions.
Jenna Sutela works with words, sounds and other living media, such as Bacillus subtilis nattō bacteria and the “many-headed” slime mold Physarum polycephalum. Her audiovisual pieces, sculptures and performances seek to identify and react to precarious social and material moments, often in relation to technology. Sutela's work has been presented at museums and art contexts including Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Moderna Museet and Serpentine Galleries. She is a Visiting Artist at The MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) from 2019–2020.
James T. Hong is a filmmaker and artist based in Taiwan who has been producing thought-provoking, unconventional, and occasionally controversial films and videos for over twenty years. He has produced works about Heidegger, Spinoza, Japanese biological warfare, and racism. He is currently researching the concept of morality in East Asia.
Imani Jacqueline Brown is an artist, activist, researcher and writer. Her work investigates extractive environmental and economic practices and policies in order to expose the layers of violence and resistance that comprise the crumbling foundations of US American society. Brown orients her practice towards ecological justice, knowing that the world cannot find balance until reparations are won. She holds a MA in Research Architecture from Goldsmiths, University of London.
Fatima Al Qadiri is a composer and artist based in Los Angeles. She has released music as a solo artist under her real name and the alias Ayshay. She recently composed the original score for the award-winning feature film Atlantics by director Mati Diop. Al Qadiri is a founding member of the Gulf-based art collective GCC.
Ruha Benjaminis Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Founding Director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, author of the award-winning book Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (2019) and editor of Captivating Technology: Reimagining Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (2019) among others. Her work investigates science, medicine and technology with a focus on the relationship between innovation and inequity, health and justice, knowledge and power.
David Theo Goldberg is Director of the Humanities Research Institute and distinguished professor of comparative literature, anthropology, criminology, law and society at University of California, Irvine. His work focuses on political theory, race and racism, ethics, critical theory and digital humanities. Among his publications are The Threat of Race (2009) and Are We All Postracial Yet? (2015). His latest book, Dread: The Politics of Our Time, will appear early in 2021. Goldberg is a member of HKW’s Program Advisory Board.
Claudia Rankine is the author of five volumes of poetry including The End of the Alphabet (1998), Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004) and Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). She also writes plays, creates video works and has edited several anthologies. Her book of essays Just Us will be published in 2020. She is co-founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII). Her numerous awards include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. She teaches at Yale University.
John Lucas has directed and produced several cutting-edge multimedia projects, including the collaborative series Situations with poet Claudia Rankine and the feature-length documentary film, The Cooler Bandits. His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries both nationally and internationally as well as publications including Vogue, BOMB, The Atlantic, The New York Times and Art Forum. He is a founding member of the curatorial team at The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII). Lucas lives and works in New Haven, CT.
Established in 2018, Black Brown Berlin consists of the four BPoC co-founders Femi Oyewole, Chanel Knight, Tristan Littlejohn and Rhea Ramjohn. Black Brown Berlin is a multi platform organisation that builds and solidifies recognition of Black and Brown excellence that has been too long dismissed and appropriated. The goal is to reflect Berlin’s true diversity to ensure the active representation and inclusion of Berlin's Black and Brown communities as essential contributors to the cultural, social and economic development of the capital.
Ava Rocha is a singer, songwriter and filmmaker. She has released three albums: Diurno (2011), Ava Patrya Yndia Yracema (2015) and Trança (2018). One of Rocha’s paths is to experiment with ideas and fragments of multidisciplinary forms of expressions such as music, cinema, perfomance and visual arts. Her latest EP Sal Gruesa (2020) is a collaboration with the Colombian band Los Toscos together with artists like Negro Leo among others.