2020 May – June: Lockdown Writing

I did not mention that the past few months (since late March), life has changed quite substantially for people in this country and around the world; namely, we are living through the coronavirus pandemic. Not only that, but a number of political upheavals are taking place, from the greater visibility on the Black Lives Matter movement since the murder of George Flloyd at the hands of a police officer, to the local ways in which populaces have responded to their governments’ measures in mitigating the human and economic cost of the pandemic, which has been less successful in some places than others.

During this period, I think many artists, certainly my own colleagues and I, felt at a loss of how best to conceive of our civil as well as occupational roles and responsibilities. It seemed to be a period of watching, listening, feeling outraged by the things we saw, and occasionally also uplifted. More locally, my colleagues and I saw our higher education institutions failing (and flailing), not only to remain financially solvent, but culturally relevant. As a result, I felt that my career plans had been compromised by all kinds of compounded circumstances that were difficult to pick apart. Universities are downsizing, making cuts to their academic staff, and the positions I had long envisioned for myself are becoming increasingly unstable prospects, liable to disappear. And in this act of desperate downsizing, a lot of the universities also, wittingly or unwittingly, dramatically reduce the diversity of their staff as a consequence. Not only should this be concerning as a matter of equality, but also because it means the very intellectual impoverishment of the institutions in which I think a lot of people place hope – as places of innovative thinking, problem solving and creativity; skills sorely needed to combat the unprecedented crises faced by the 21st century. I grew disillusioned in the university, a place I had always romanticised so much; now beginning to understand piece by piece the fragments of disillusionment I had picked up from other tutors and some students up until this point, and before which I struggled to empathise with. It has begun to dawn on me, as it appears to have done to many others long before me, that universities might very soon, if not already, no longer be the sites of innovation, the ‘cutting edge’ of exciting inquiry. This did depress me for a while, as did my doubts about my own research and vocation. I threw myself into activism for a while, and attempted to learn as much as I could about the problems at my own university, as well as wider, more pressing but sometimes connected issues, in particular structural racism and the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement. I do not regret the learning or the effort to better understand aspects of my cultural moment which do not always appear so plainly in front of me; I hope I will continue to learn and to listen as actively as possible. But I did sense, after a month of wildcat striking at Goldsmiths and social distanced activism in other areas, that I was quite impotent in this role. I am not particularly good at the skills required of an activist, and was furthermore not always sure which battles to pick, however passionately I felt about an issue (there are too many battles).

I then began to remember my art practice, and recognised that I am much better at doing art than activism. Of course, the two do not need to be mutually exclusive, but I could palpably sense that I was far less useful to anyone not doing art. That might sound arrogant, and I do not think that my artworks can solve social problems any better than an activist’s labours could. But it does seem to me that the kind of thinking available to artists is something worth protecting in times of crisis – particularly when so many of these crises are not only material, but thoroughly implicated in the stories we tell ourselves and each other. The assumptions we make about what’s common sense.

One of the principle (but not only) utilities of art has historically been its propensity to take those most normal, everyday, unquestioned articles of ‘common sense’, to then estrange them to the point that they can be for the first time examined and critiqued – not necessarily by the artists themselves, but perhaps by others. One of art’s critical political uses, whether known to artists themselves or not, is to dislodge our cultural habits, which can sometimes become so comfortably entrenched to the point that everyday evils become part and parcel of society’s breathing. Without estranging these societal habits and allowing them to proliferate, unchecked by curious meddlers like artists, it is possible to imagine certain evils having much greater longevity, and becoming much more difficult to identify in the first place, let alone address.

I don’t think art is particularly good at offering solutions, but I do think it is very good at highlighting problems, sometimes extremely viscerally. Sometimes it brings home a previously unknown truth so blatantly, that one is struck with wonder at how it all of a sudden appears to have been sitting plainly in front of us the whole time. Art is good at that, and it is good at playful speculation – which in the world of problem solving is a bit like casting nets out into unlikely waters; scouting spaces of possibility that do not already live in the problem solver’s toolkit. I think these are worthy strategies in a time of crisis, and in the time before crisis, in stages of prevention and mitigation. The word ‘unprecedented’ gets used a lot nowadays, to describe our earthly circumstances, and unprecedented problems cannot safely rely on old wisdom. For this reason it is worthwhile, strategically speaking (strategically, from the perspective of humanity), to always have a sector in society that is reserved for unsolicited speculation, wild thought-experimentation and the continual estrangement of society’s strongest ideological foundations.

I think that in my own work in this area, one of the ideological foundations that have nagged at me the most over the years, is the story of the ‘person’. Who the person is, and what it is that makes me a person. My inquiries into the subject came out of the practical, daily need to adapt to the culturally specific situations in which I grew up, which varied enough to almost turn me into a different person depending on my social climate. What’s changed since I began to think consciously about this subject, is a lessening inclination to use to qualifier ‘almost’ with reference to the mutability of personhood. For me, the person is a fiction, which does not make it less profound as an institution, or phenomenon. It is a fiction in ways that conflicts with the essentialist individualism of the (stereotypical) ‘West’ and in ways that are nonetheless also incompatible with the idea that the person is an ‘illusion’, from the (stereotypical) ‘East’. In Dennett’s terms, a person is a ‘real pattern’ – a real fiction. I see it as my vocation to estrange the ideological foundations of personhood. When others encounter the person in uncanny ways like this, they can do things with that. They can think about other ways to see themselves, and can think about the ethics of personhood in a new light. My own particular interest is in the status of nonhuman agents as persons – or not. And such candidates are on their way to us.

Translating Rosa and Lawrence

After questioning my vocation for some time, and settling on art practice as being a good place to devote my energies after all, I thought about what sort of art I could work on or share during lockdown. I had been granted a modest Research Award from my department, to use on travelling to a conference, but since that trip had been cancelled in light of the pandemic, I proposed another use for the money: translating A Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers into 3 new languages. The aim would then be to record a few new readings.

It seemed a good time to return to that project, at least lightly, because here the experience is really designed for the benefit of the two performers, not an audience. It could be an activity to try, with whomever you live with at home, whilst in quarantine. And it’s a love poem, so it’s a bit uplifting, if a little melancholic on the part of the characters. I was fortunate to find three artists from Italy, Lithuania and Jordan who seemed interested in translating the text into Italian, Lithuanian and Arabic. My mother also kindly translated the text into Serbian. The Serbian and the Italian translation have been completed, and so I will be looking for people interested in reading the texts in these two languages over the next few weeks. I am also slowly working on a Norwegian translation myself.

New Empathy Drawing: Horse

(Above image: Half finished horse-like creature drawn in ink on paper. A3. 2020.)

The times have prompted me to look over older work, think about it, probably romanticise it. I made a new empathy drawing, out of the blue (see image above). Well, it’s not finished yet. Getting this far took me quite a lot of time. I suppose I had reached a saturation point with words. There are days when I spend all day either reading or writing, and then I can begin to miss doing something relatively mindless. I started doodling at times like these, but I did also take care – actively willing the doodle towards a kind of creature. All I really need to do to encourage a creature to emerge is to continually imagine, as I doodle, that the pieces I am weaving forth are mere tissue, bone or filaments of a more complex body that I am not able to see yet. Then drawing becomes a bit like scratching a scratchcard, gradually revealing something beneath which appears to have always been there, lying in wait. Despite somewhat remembering the tactics of my vibrating hand, or the psychic practice of inferring anatomy in the textures appearing on the page, I did not expect to get so close to the kinds of drawings I was making around the time I got fed up with drawing and stopped altogether doing it for a long while. It was odd, having got to this point in the drawing, where I could see a horse-like figure emerging from the webs of multi-purpose tissue and bone, to find that I could quite simply pick up where I left off with my drawing practice; even though it must be about five years since I drew my last creature (the big turkey on A1 paper). Nonetheless, it has been a week or two since I worked on this drawing. It’s just been left, half finished in my sketchbook. I don’t know if and when I’ll come back to it.

Annual Review Panel

At some point in May, I had my Annual Review Panel. It consisted of my two supervisors and two fellow PhD students. We have been recruited to sit on each other’s review panels as a consequence of the disorder cause by lockdown, and of course the meeting was online. I often operate in a kind of constant haze for months at a time, until a checkpoint like this review panel arrives; when I get in front of others and suddenly speak with a considerable degree of clarity about what I am doing and why. I consistently surprise myself in moments when I must present in front of others – I suppose in a positive way – but it is very confusing that when I get back to working on my own, I suddenly find myself back in the haze, unable to make heads or tails of my various scatterbrained efforts. I seem to take pleasure in reading all manner of books that don’t seem to bear any direct relevance to my research proposal; right now for instance, I am reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and before that had quite happily occupied myself with reading A Short History of Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins. Then these various voices tumble around in my head giving me various moods and thoughts that are pleasurable in themselves, but which perhaps diffuse my focus overall.

But despite finding it quite difficult to feel in command of my research when I’m on my own, I came to the meeting seemingly equipped with an answer for everything. I tend to turn back at myself mentally as I am talking to the others and inquire, a bit maddened, “Well? Where have you been all this time?”

Back in April when I had finished the first attempt at writing a chapter of my thesis, I had decided to focus on my novel until at least the end of September, the start of the next academic year. I had therefore already decided long before that I would share the first chapter of Anomaline with the panel, as means of introducing it to my supervisors, who had not yet sampled anything from that side of my practice, and as a means of evaluating my own progress in the writing, by talking with them about it. I also showed the panel the recent work I did for Exposed Arts – the video in which I talk about ‘self-estrangement’ as a brainstorming strategy and then demonstrate it through a character that talks about her own ‘intelligence’. In the end we spent the entire time talking about the novel extract.

I felt that my peers’ response indicated that they were not too impressed with the work. In particular, they both seemed a bit unsure about my writing style, which can be a bit descriptive and include many metaphors – too many, seemed to be the point. I listened with interest to their opinions, but realised that to some extent I was beyond the point of accepting feedback. I began to wonder why I even chose to share this work, if in fact I feel I didn’t really want feedback. To some extent, I am happy with it as it is. I have an idea of its shape. I just want to see it fully realised, fleshed out with pretty much the same literary style, temperament and line of questioning. How many times have I exposed myself to critique, hoping to get some sign in the process, about how to proceed, but found myself going back to the same resolution: no, that’s not what I need; what I need to do is just go back and write. I realised that in spite of my colleagues’ well-intentioned feedback, that I was quite happy and deliberate about every choice that they criticised. I’d retrace my steps and find how and why what I did worked well, why in fact I think it was the right decision, or right way to go about things. I felt a kind of confidence emerge; I don’t need advice right now – I just need to work as I have been doing. My supervisors participated sparingly, as they are supposed to principally just observe the review panel and not intervene much. But they both seemed a bit more interested in the work. In either case, I realised that the whole thing was for me mostly a formality. The benefit was perhaps that afterwards it made me feel more resolved about my practice and the way I write.

But with Anomaline, the truth is that I have been struggling, if not substantially in the sense of work, then emotionally in the sense of painful doubting and reluctance to try. I feel I haven’t been able to bring myself with much gusto or vitality, to the desk, to the task of writing. I’ve felt daunted and lost in my own streams of words, ultimately procrastinating to avoid plunging right in. It rather shocked me that I’d only written one small chapter (labelled ‘Doubled’ for my own ease of reference) in the space of April, May, June and – in truth it is now July, and I am sitting here typing, trying to reflect on those quickly elapsed months before starting the new ‘July’ document in my journal. And I haven’t managed to get much done in those three-ish months with regards to writing – time I’d thought would be so leisurely and perfectly devoted to the task.

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