When the quarantine hit a lot of things broke. Yes, the fear of death hit us, the fear of no work, the fear of survival, the fear of the future, the fear of not knowing. But also, for some of us—the stress broke. The anxiety of waiting broke. The feeling of being a dead person living—it broke. Feelings broke through the surface of coping mechanisms. Clarity broke through years of lack of sleep. Time to think broke through our busy minds to reveal looser tongues and new thoughts articulated in language and art. Sex and dancing revealed a sense of feeling alive again. I felt filled with a kind virility and a will to live. I felt, at least for one moment—happy.
That’s because, and I speak from a very particular privileged temporality which may end tomorrow, or even tonight—no one I knew/know personally was/is dying. And at the very same time, all life as we knew it/know it, had/has changed over night. This is a tender and precious temporality which most certainly will not continue unless we increase our vigilance in physical distancing (social solidarity) and put our energies towards supporting those who need medical attention or extra assistance.
I felt/feel freedom and security in knowing that we were in this together: myself and my patchwork family together, and us as a team together with millions of other teams. I felt/feel the sense that I was alive and wanting to live more, that I wanted to experience even more fiercely all that this world would and could offer. I was, and continue to be, amazed at the lengths that governments will go when presented with a crisis that is so imminent. Some changes that #instinctionrebellion and #fridaysforfuture have been asking their elders for a while; now elders asking of youth.
I, for one, have been buried emotionally. Not enough sleep perhaps. Unfulfilled perhaps. Bewildered perhaps. Working. Hard. So buried that I had forgotten even the feeling of realizing I was being buried. I remember realizing it while it was happening—that was years ago. And I remember thinking, don’t let this happen. But it happened anyway. I feel a sense that some of the things that I have experienced for a while have been traumatizing. I feel that these things have been really pushing me under emotionally and I don’t want to live in a place which is under the earth, a place which is buried. I don’t want to live like that.
I wrote a song—a few weeks before Covid 19 really hit Berlin—about annihilation. Im not afraid of annihilation, I wrote, Im afraid of living like this. Im not afraid of not surviving, I aint afraid of death. Im afraid of living, day to day, like this. Anesthetizing with Netflix.
I haven’t been anesthetizing with Netflix because I haven’t been as tired from WORK. Not the work itself, but the insanity of the systems of production.
I don’t want to feel the endless race of survival and the hustle to produce art/ideas transformed into monetized work. I don’t want to live like that and I don’t want others to live like that either. I trade security and comfort for the opportunity to work in a career which saves my mental health but when the hustle gets so constant that I lose sleep the whole balance begins to unravel. And yet the alternative, I mean the alternative of taking any other grind—looks equally, if not more, bleak.
Face it. The way work is structured, looks BLEAK.
One conversation which has emerged online is about how academics (or others) might or might not use this time to be more productive. The pushback was/is enormous—Are we so deeply ingrained with guilt and the drive towards making ourselves into more productive machines? Is the academic, even in times of Covid 19, driven towards productivity even in this temporality called “time off”?
Yes, this is very deeply ingrained thinking; but production of “good content” is also the definition of being relevant, and relevance is our existence held in the eyes of others. Relevance pays the bills, puts food on the table. Relevance keeps us physically alive. And what makes it worse is that this negative drive cannot simply be disentangled from the very beautiful and insatiable act of thought-production. Guilt and pressure and greed and the capitalistic race of productivity does not motivate everything we do—academic or any other field. That’s what makes a good idea with good intentions but causes harm so difficult to parse.
Why are we blaming each individual, calling him a workaholic, instead of blaming a system which has rendered the act of working so incredibly draining and yet so hard to escape?
Speaking from the vantage point of the artist, whom one might say is the natural shadow of the academic (and vise-versa), I would put forth that though the two try to coincide, the working freelance artist has less security than the working academic; even if the academic feels pressure from the institution, at least there is an institution to pressure them.
My work as a writer and as an artist is largely unpaid—even for the products that I produce, the albums that I make—no one is paying me for these things, not initially, and certainly not a living wage by the hour. And yet I feel incredible lucky to choose it. I don’t feel motivated by a sense of guilt to an institution, but, rather, a hustle to pay my rent and eat, combined with an urgency to write, an urgency to engage in the conversation, to put some thoughts into the world. I am doing the thinking anyway, I am wanting to express the thoughts anyway. Just as, presumably, an academic is.
I live month to month since years, which means that my natural state is the anxiety of looking for the next gig, trying to figure out where and how I will get paid. On some level, we were made for this quarantine. We sit alone in a little room with nothing at all and create something out of all that nothingness. We hustle art and we hustle a buck out of thin air. It is a constant struggle to be able to live as an artist but, and I repeat, I feel lucky to choose it. I continue to choose it (at least up to now).
The struggle is real and important because I believe that art should survive aside from big funding which is almost always intertwined with morally ambiguous origins. That’s how big money is made in capitalism.
I believe in the struggling artist—not because I believe in struggle but because I believe in resistance to the capitalist mechanism, and struggle—as it is largely defined—is part of the resistance. Refusing to consume is part of the resistance; not only to the failing project of capitalism but as resistance to environmental destruction. And the struggle only feels like struggle not because we don’t make it each month but because we don’t know if we will make it and we don’t see with the certainty the way that we will make it.
But what’s more scary than the suffering of not being able to consume or have the security of a monthly paycheck, is simply the looming idea of a world which doesn’t have art. But I don’t mean just art which has been supported and paid for, but art which has resisted, art which has countered power, art which has countered its own silencing, which has fought against its own annihilation.
This does not mean art cannot be funded—but if funding is a funneling of funds kept by gatekeepers, any gatekeepers—it is bound to encounter censorship. And even if funding is privatized and personalized, funds to distribute can only be amassed by working through the gatekeepers; thus work itself is bound to encounter censorship. This may be censorship of a different kind, but censorship nonetheless.
We have seen this censorship in our work lately, the kinds of chains we feel to our work, the binding we feel to our work, to the instruments of our work—our phones, our computers. Work has encountered censorship and gatekeepers and this is where we find/found ourselves in this temporal moment.
And this is what might* be powerful about the kind of work we are NOT doing, could be un-doing, right now, in this particular temporality of not working.
To these ends, on the one hand I’m glad so many of us have started to get creative and build beautiful online platforms, meetups in parks, podcasts, DJ streaming, live streams. I’m really glad for that. But on the other hand, I also realized that as soon as these creative innovations, streaming performances and other ideas started to expand and go viral I began to feel those same feelings of the rat-race I live/lived pre-Covid. The pervasive idea of having to be the first to think of something, the creative competition which can be, sometimes, motivating, but is often also deflating. I felt already this tendency towards proving the authenticity of an idea, the ownership of an idea, the challenge to be the first to execute the idea, to get the funding, to be visible, to be audible.
I immediately felt an equally familiar sense of wanting to pull out from contributing at all, from participating at all. I felt/feel—rebellious to that hustle and yet self-loathing about not having the energy to just do it.
I desire neither of these positions.
I would like to remain inside the creative process and generation of beautiful exciting ideas. I would like to be part of this collective blossoming. I am, in any case, producing creative thoughts—these do not have to be forced, they are my lifeline. Yet I somehow would like to be part of the BIG THINK instead of a thousand SPLINTERED THINKS in this current temporality of intimacies that are 90% managed through digital means.
When my father died, I started to think about something I called aliveness. His death made me think about how the sense of someone else being alive to me is a particular mix of how I understand their proximity—through physicality, digitality, emotionality, energy.
These questions seem more relevant than ever as we think about people being “alive” or “dead” / in the physical world, in their community, in the digital world, in relation to us. I liken it to relevance, which is intimately tied to our survival. And survival is the opposite of annihilation.
Are we participating in the conversation? Are we “showing up” digitally? If we do not, do we “show up” on the street? If I cannot go onto the street where do I show up? If you cannot go onto the street, do I show up to you?
And what about those that are mentally ill, physically ill, have no access to technology, technophobic or techno-resistant. What about those who simply do not want to show up in that way of so-called digital intimacy. They simply cannot participate in the same ways. My aunt doesn’t have a smart phone and my father, while he was dying of ALS, while his lungs closed up and he carried around an oxygen tank … my father did not want to live on a breathing machine, did not seem to want to engage with such assisted living possibilities that might help him to continue to “show up” in this physical world. Now he only “shows up” in my dreams.
When I choose defeatism and when I choose not to show up digitally I am choosing, at the very minimum, a kind of silencing, and at worse, a kind of “death.”
But I don’t want to have to make that choice. I don’t want to have to struggle to show up to you.
And moreover, what must be seriously understood is that I am not silent to me. I am not dead to me. This silencing and this deadening is never from my vantage point but from the vantage point of some others. This is an enormous difference. This is the difference between life and death.
I can show up every day by waking up. But when you do not see me, I am never awake to you. I am never alive to you.
But can this somehow be resisted, is there a viable alterantive, a way out? Can this somehow be not my work but your work to see me, to hear me? Can you bridge this space of silence that is created by not showing up or being unable to show up or not willing to show up?
Aliveness to me suggests or was shown by the way that we cannot witness loss, loss of relationships that are outside of INTERPELLATED relations. Relations of importance. Aliveness suggest to me the way that we can understand people that exist but outside of INTERPELLATED understandings of existence; outside of audibility. How can fight or mourn for those people that we cannot see or hear? Those that do not come to the digital table, who do not speak in the recognized forms. One might say, but it is not my fault—how can I see them if they do not appear, how can I hear them if they do not speak?
I think of this now, in this time: if I fall ill, I cannot participate. If I am simply busy caring for my children, I cannot participate. I cannot tweet, I cannot come to the digital table. I stop existing, I stop being alive. No one can see me and no one can feel me. I stop being “relevant,” if I ever was. And yet, again, this is only in positioning, in perspective, because I am very much alive to those who I am caring for, for those who are caring for me.
The academic speaks about lives that we were not able to mourn, those who were not interpellated into existence. Unnamed and unmarked numbers of human bodies who in historical registers may not even have been regarded as human. And yet there is something missing in that perspective alone. There are people who knew those bodies, who knew those people so intimately as babies and children … people who cared about them, who raised them, who knew them as lives, as alive lives. Just because we academics far in the future do not know their names, does not mean they did not have names, does not mean they were not mourned by someone, does not mean they were never cared for. And so it is the same for those who any of us do not see now or never will see.
Perhaps we aught to complicate this idea of what it means to “exist”, a more dynamic sense of what it is to “show up” to “be present” to be “remarkable” to “be alive”. Da sein. And in its opposite – what are those various perspectives through which we mourn despite a persons’ grievability, despite a persons aliveness, relevance. These are not absolute terms, they must be mitigated by our proximities, our perspectives.
No one thinks of themselves as only a victim. No one in the midst of chaos thinks only of themselves as a victim; each person has some sense of their own agency and choice. It is up to others to call them a victim, to call them powerless, to render them irrelevant. Calling a person inaudible does not amplify them. They were already shouting. This does not raise them up. This does not make them more alive. They already were alive.
No one is irrelevant to themselves. No one is silent to themselves. No one thinks of themselves as a dead person. Perhaps a dead person living, but living nonetheless. Surviving. Battling annihilation.