By Naomi Riddle
31 January, 2020
“Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth.”
Ali Smith, Spring (2019)
“Governments which lead the masses into misery must guard against the masses’ thinking about government while they are miserable. Such governments talk a great deal about Fate. It is Fate, not they, which is to blame for all distress.”
Bertolt Brecht, ‘Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties’ (1935)
I would like to be more concise and resolute. I would like to be able to write to you in a way that does not add another “opinion” to the pile of “opinion pieces” we have already read (and reread, and shared, and quoted, and screenshot, and reshared).
I would like to stop clicking on the LIVE feeds. I would like to be able to write this letter not as a letter but as something that is able to reject the personal pronoun.
Mostly I would like more silence in which I can think. Mostly I would like—like many—for there to have been more time. I would like to forget the face of the scientist when she was asked whether she was surprised. No, she said. No, I am not surprised.
This is the start of a new year, the start of a new decade, and this is where we begin: year of the rat, year of the fires, two hundred and fifty years since Captain Cook.
How to begin when we begin in the wake of destruction?
Is it our role to keep looking, and refuse to turn away, because we should decide to keep looking at what it is we have wrought? Or should we refuse to be co-opted into this act of looking, because there are some truths that are truths even if we would wish otherwise, and there is a form of looking that makes us passive and inured to change. Teju Cole: “What sort of person needs to see such photographs in order to know what they should already know? Who are we if we need to look at ever more brutal images in order to feel something?” Or, Aruna D’Souza: “Why do we demand those most afflicted to speak?”1
Is the role of art to be a mirror to the dominant culture, or is it to counteract this culture? Is it to turn our backs, because, as Brecht writes, there is much to be said for speaking only to those who are able to hear? Is the role of art to justify its value to the publics-at-large by the amount of money “the arts” can raise, and to make sure our work is pronounced and quantified by economic value?
Is the role of art at a time like this to recognise that it has always been a time like this? The time was happening elsewhere, it was happening to someone else, but all the time it was still occurring. There is the other blood, other pain, already stratified, already hidden, already silenced, underneath the soil, and offshore, in detention, too. Is the role of art to hold all of these things together? Or does placing all of these things together only cause bifurcation over bifurcation?
(I’ve been thinking of an imagined protest where everyone did not march, but sat down, in silence, with no speeches or placards or signs or phones. I’ve been thinking about the occupation of space, in silence. I’ve been thinking of an imagined protest where we went on strike, not on an assigned day, but for many days, when those who were able did not turn up to work, and would not turn up to work, until something was to be done.)
If it is true, as Anne Carson says, that in crisis our souls become visible, is it our role to know whose souls are becoming visible and whose souls are remaining hidden?2 Is it to refuse to think in the abstract? Or is it to think only in and through abstraction? Is it to read more or less?
Is it our role to assist in the development of sanctuary? And is it to stop foreclosing this comfort and carry this feeling outside the sanctuary’s walls? Is it to refuse borders and platitudes and binary opposition? Is it to divest and boycott, and to separate art from the institution and from governance?
When he was asked what he thought artists should be doing to incite more radical change, Nikolay Oleynikov responded: My politics is in the streets. My art is my poetry.3 Which meant: why can’t my art be the door/ why can’t my art be an escape hatch/ my art is the one place I have where I do not have to explain myself.
If, as Simone Weil writes, we must “discredit intrinsically meaningless words” and “define the use of others by precise analysis” then is it our role to question why reporters decided on “blackened” as the most accurate descriptor for the landscape?4 (“Blackened” is to “burnt” as “rough air” is to “turbulence.” Other words we could interrogate: “fuel load”, “land management”, “backburning”, “adaptation”, “mitigation.”)
Is it the role of art to share stories without an awareness of the ways in which “story” can become the “mindless promotion of story”?5 If we are in a state of confusion “of living and telling” then shouldn’t the role of art be to (re)think how we tell and listen and share? Should we see our role as becoming more like social media, or becoming more like its alternative?
Is it our role to ask whose freedom, whose injury, whose death, whose land, whose change, whose community, whose blame, whose action, whose home? Is it our role to refute outright pessimism and despair and fatalism? Is it, as Ben Davis claims, our task to not cede the space of optimism and utopic thinking to those who do the most harm? (Sean Bonney: “Remember this. Our word for Satan is not their word for Satan. Our word for Evil is not their word for Evil. Our word for Death is not their word for Death.”) Do we proliferate and spread the phrase “the new normal”, or worse, “the apocalypse”, both of which house at their centre the abdication of responsibility?
What I keep asking myself: how to continue, and how to begin. And everywhere I look there is more opinion.
I will give to you what my father said to me in the months before he died: I am only interested in taking pleasure in simple things now, like the sunset or this record we are listening to. You can choose, then, what it is you pay attention to; where your care will lie; what meaning will come out of the loss.
This is what grief is. Something breaks. You have lost a person, a home, a place, a land, animals, that were dear to you. But you learn, quickly, that everything hasn’t ended the way you wanted it to.
There are days afterwards. There are weeks afterwards. Then months, years. And no, what you have lost will not come back to you. Nor will you stop thinking of what you had before the rupture occurred.
Still time does not stop. Still everything continues. There will be bills to pay, and jobs to go to, and other crises. Less smoke, more sky. Other joys.
This “afterwards” is when you make the choice in how to carry on. (Omar Sakr: “What will you do if things don’t get better, and also the world doesn’t end?”)
Yes, there is grief. And there is, undoubtedly, more pain and confusion to come. We find ourselves in this pit. How we continue depends on knowing there are other things to be found in this pit than just despair.
- Aruna D’Souza, ‘Empathy will not save us’, presented as part of Creative Time Summit: Speaking Truth, Creative Time, New York (15/11/19)
- Anne Carson, ‘Tragedy: A Curious Art Form’, in Grief Lessons: Four Plays (New York: New York Review of Books, 2006)
- Nikolay Oleynikov, speaking as part of ‘Making Another World Possible’, Creative Time Summit: Speaking Truth, Creative Time, New York (16/11/19)
- Simone Weil, ‘The Power of Words’ (1937), in Selected Essays, trans. Richard Rees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963)
- Peter Brooks, ‘The Story of the Story of the Story’, New York Review of Books (16/01/20)