“We have reached a crossroads, we have emerged from what we assumed was normality, things have suddenly overturned. One of our main tasks now—especially those of us who are not sick, are not frontline workers, and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties—is to understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.”
–Rebecca Solnit, from The Impossible Has Already Happened: What coronavirus can teach us about hope
The Guardian, April 2020
With the wisdom and insight we have come to expect from everything she writes, Rebecca Solnit has produced one of the most thoughtful and balanced articles concerning our current predicament. I can’t think of another “public intellectual” (an awkward term, but how do we describe a brilliant thinker who writes to be understood by everyone?) who commands the moral and perspicacious depths of Solnit, and can do it in such a readable manner.
I have been observing how the topics that trend in the media collectively drift into new themes. Last week was chock full of articles reminding us that working at home is hard. Expecting to be a productive employee while homeschooling your children, cooking all your own meals and handling all your previously outsourced tasks yourself is not feasible. In the words of life coach Cynthia Pong, “There is a tendency in this country and in Western society and within capitalism to be self-critical, as opposed to being self-compassionate…We have crafted a lot of our feelings of self-worth on achievement, accomplishment and being prolific in stuff that we do. If you take that away, there’s a void. And voids are so hard to deal with.”
That resonates with Andrea Sadler, a psychotherapist: “We’re conditioned to believe that being as productive as possible, and structuring our days in this very externally validating way, is what’s right…There’s an interesting judgment that the more productive people are doing it right, and the less productive people are doing it wrong.”
Sadler goes on to point out that being extremely productive as well as sleeping more than usual are both useful ways to cope, and neither is better than the other. “If anything it can be helpful to remember that the ‘be-ers’ might actually be having an easier time with all of this than the ‘doers.’ People who cope with stress by getting things done may find it difficult that they can’t do enough to stop the global pandemic.”
So it was a week of practical survival advice for the human collective, directed particularly to those of us lucky enough to have a home to be sequestered in. And the general advice to chill the fuck out (a social media technical term) is actually very useful because–let’s be honest here–what we are facing is not a simple reboot. Using that familiar metaphor to describe our current situation–an unexpected glitch that disappears once the device is turned off and then on again, bringing you right back to where you were–is a mistaken notion. This isn’t a frozen screen, folks.
I am with Aisha Ahmad, a political science professor who writes with authority after having lived through “war, violent conflict, poverty, and disaster…food shortages and disease outbreaks, as well as long periods of social isolation, restricted movement, and confinement:”
The answer to the question everyone is asking — ‘When will this be over?’ — is simple and obvious, yet terribly hard to accept. The answer is never.
Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened. And so, while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity right now. That is denial and delusion. The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.
So here we are, in the early phase of this _________. What is the name we should be using to describe what this really is? Calling it a pandemic keeps the disease itself at the center, and that may be too reductive a word for the fullness of what is going on. Yes, COVID-19 triggered a worldwide shutdown, but this phenomenon is morphing into something that is far more comprehensive than a battle against a new illness. It could be called a disaster. But that implies an event, one that has a terminus, that comes to an end. This is all that, but oh so much more.
In the absence of a name that feels adequate for this moment in time, it might be easier to lean into metaphors. Here’s a useful one from Solnit:
When a caterpillar enters its chrysalis, it dissolves itself, quite literally, into liquid. In this state, what was a caterpillar and will be a butterfly is neither one nor the other, it’s a sort of living soup. Within this living soup are the imaginal cells that will catalyse its transformation into winged maturity. May the best among us, the most visionary, the most inclusive, be the imaginal cells – for now we are in the soup. The outcome of disasters is not foreordained. It’s a conflict, one that takes place while things that were frozen, solid and locked up have become open and fluid – full of both the best and worst possibilities. We are both becalmed and in a state of profound change.
Life under quarantine forces the question, what is absolutely necessary? Stripped of the usual distraction of busy consumption, we have quickly seen that so much we thought was important, isn’t. Everyone I know talks sanguinely about wanting to reduce their needs to a short list of essentials.
The world of stuff is just one part of this sea change we are in. And certainly the cry to simplify our lives has been steady for years before an invisible microbe shut down the world and forced us to face this is a new way. In his book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, art critic Kyle Chayka takes on minimalism–which began as an art movement after all–and explores how the idea morphed into a cultural phenomenon that rejects the materialistic, consumerist, overindulgent tendencies of contemporary culture. Marie Kondo, underfurnished Brooklyn apartments, Simplify magazine and tiny houses are indicative of this tendency which is not new. It is a reaction that occurs periodically. “It is defined by the sense that the surrounding civilization is excessive, and has thus lost some kind of original authenticity, which must be regained,” says Chayka. “If the trappings of civilization leave us so dissatisfied, then maybe their absence is preferable and we should abandon them in order to seek some deeper truth.”
Other writers have explored how to dismantle an increasingly speed-driven, productivity and measurement-obsessed society. Two refugees from corporate America, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, started their muscular advocacy about 10 years ago with their book, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life.
Jenny Odell, author of of 2019 book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, is an artist as well as a technologist. Her approach is a gentle advocacy for stepping away from that outward focused world of competition, consumption and capitalism, but to do so without withdrawing:
If doing nothing requires space and time away from the unforgiving landscape of productivity, we might be tempted to conclude that the answer is to turn our backs to the world, temporarily or for good…the impulse to say goodbye to it all, permanently, doesn’t just neglect our responsibility to the world that we live in; it is largely unfeasible, and for good reason.
Turns out that artists are actually well positioned to model another way to be. Andrew Simonet makes the case that this moment is one that artists are well trained for. A few highlights from his newsletter:
Artists navigate the unknown. We go in our studios and ask new questions, pushing away from shore and into uncertainty. In this time of roiling uncertainty, we know how to stay awake and responsive, and how to help others do the same.
Artists build possible futures. This moment desperately needs futures beyond the sobering medical news and the jarring contortions of policies and markets.
We are connectors, conveners, community builders.
We understand rhythm, flow, and negative space. Not everything we do right now needs to be doing. Silence is a way of telling. Stillness is movement.
We bear witness. We listen to and reveal what it is like to be alive right now.
We use what we have on hand to build what we need. We make sculptures from discarded materials, dances out of everyday gestures, music from found sounds. At a time when many are lamenting what is being taken away, we know how to begin with what we have…
We challenge assumptions and reframe the world. How we see this current emergency and how we see ourselves within it will determine how we emerge from it. Artists look past the noise to deeper, more radical possibilities.
I don’t know what your art is. I don’t know your connections to community. But wherever you are, I call on you to unleash your practice as an artist and maker and re-imaginer.
Many of us are better equipped than we might think to help shape what lies ahead. Solnit articulates an important insight:
One of the things most dangerous…is the lapse into believing that everything was fine before disaster struck, and that all we need to do is return to things as they were. Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it. It is, I believe, what many of us are preparing to do.
This fits hand in glove with a few lines from a post that became a social media contagion recently, written by Haroon Rashid:
We fell asleep in one world, and woke up in another…
The world continues its life and it is beautiful…I think it’s sending us a message:
‘You are not necessary. The air, earth, water and sky without you are fine.
When you come back, remember that you are my guests. Not my masters.’
I am looking for space to be made, for something new to appear after this difficult time has peaked and moved out. Wiggle into this with me, and let’s make room for everybody.