By Naomi Riddle
31 March, 2020
‘In this moment, we have been asked to mitigate being numerous together. Solidarity in the pandemic, for those in my position, is situated in not making things worse; this we can choose.’
Natasha Lennard, ‘After the Quarantine, the Flood’, Commune, (2020)
‘Go back to Tolstoy, forget the dystopias you got second-hand from crappy TV, say your prayers, buy a block of pink salt shaped like a bar of soap and cleanse your energy with it. It burns.’
Francesco Pacifico, ‘Stop Making Points: Rome Coronavirus Dispatch’, n+1, (2020)
Halting the progress of a global pandemic requires the ethical use of time. It requires acting, and distancing, before the full-scale arrival of the event. Slowing the impact of Covid-19 means reckoning with a set of temporal responsibilities: we act to alter our trajectory based on what we are witnessing elsewhere; we act not for ourselves, but for others; the success of our actions will not feel celebratory or victorious. Success means nothing will happen. A future threat will not show up.
So, we tread water, we sit indoors, waiting, because we won’t know, until it arrives, what it is that will arrive. It feels as if there is plenty of time. It feels as if there is no time. We ask the same questions because nobody has an answer: how long will this last, what else will we lose, what will be remade, what is it we will return to?
The value of a decision today is four times more than in a week’s time, says the financial analyst on ABC News. We’ve never faced anything like this before.
To be in quarantine or in the hospital ward or refreshing the myGov page is to be in a bargain with the future tense. Illness and economic strain press in on one another. One gains ground, overtakes, and the other catches up.
Suddenly, we are asking a Liberal government how far they will go with previously unthinkable socialist policies in order to prop up our economy. Suddenly, a conservative prime minister, who has spent much of his career fostering division, is requesting us to make sacrifices for the greater good. In a society that has spent decades eroding the safety net for our most vulnerable—all the while placing the onus on the individual for their own circumstance—is it any wonder we now see instances of suspicion, disbelief, and misbehaviour? The bonds of community and solidarity are not formed in a vacuum. They do not just appear when asked.
At the same time, politicians insist on creating a false opposition between ‘lives’ and ‘livelihoods’ (as if these two things are separate from each other, as if the livelihoods of some—like the delivery drivers or the casual teachers or the checkout operators or the cleaners—are more valuable to us than the lives). But I know what it’s like to fear for a loved one whose health is already compromised; I know what it’s like to lose, without warning, a job and an income. The feeling of terror is the same. The experience of one will often create the conditions for the other.
Jennifer Cooke writes, from England: ‘‘It is not a time for ideology,’ Rishi Sunak, the British Chancellor, said yesterday. He is wrong. At this moment, as we lockdown, we need creative, generous, supportive thinking about how we want to restructure the future. Everything is thinkable. Everything is on the table.’
Will we remember, then, when this is over—in three months or six months or years from now—the parts of our society we deemed essential and the parts we did not? Will those who bemoaned the handouts for welfare recipients and refused, tooth and nail, to raise the Newstart Allowance, reconsider their position, seeing as they, by their own admission, are now joining the same queue? Will we use our time in isolation to attempt to live an anti-capitalist life—discovering the limit of how much we can satiate ourselves with what we consume, choosing to take no more than we need?
Will we care for those who are housebound, or who have limited movement, or who are in the oncology ward, or who are elderly or ‘vulnerable’, or who are trapped, imprisoned, and detained, when we are able to freely open our doors? Will we, in witnessing and experiencing fear, remain alert to the ways in which authoritarian tendencies flare in a crisis, and how easily we succumb to these tendencies when they are couched as protection?
Another future we must wait for. Another future we can anticipate, even though we cannot see the shape of its curve.
In response, what Running Dog can do is focus on continuing our work. We are lucky we are in the position to maintain our weekly schedule and to pay writers (many of whom have lost income and resources). We are lucky because it is our smallness, and our fragility as a publication, that enables us to regather in times of crisis. We will continue to pay our writer’s invoices on time. We will attempt to find room for those who find themselves no longer able to earn or make or share. These are the pragmatic and necessary steps we can take.
But how to square this with my own need to rush towards silence? How to square this with my instinct to run and bound away from this new frenzy of online production, even though I know this frenzy is economic in nature?
I’ll admit it—this letter is a mishmash, an incomplete jigsaw. I tried to make more sense of it. I wrote many paragraphs about my father’s illness. I wrote about my experience with intensive care units and immuno-compromised patients. I wrote about what in-tubing and ventilation looks, feels and sounds like. I deleted all of them. They did not want to be shared. And we must be mindful of the sentiments that wish to remain hidden, or siloed, or bordered up, in a time of removal. Language failed me, but I failed in my attempts to make the words fit together. (I have not yet determined what this means.)
In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, the poet Ariana Reines speaks about our relationship to online technology and social media, and its potential to dehumanise: ‘We have not yet learned how to use language. We haven’t yet learned how to communicate. And we haven’t yet figured out how to build and rebuild a kind of technology that better reflects the fullness of who we are and what we are.’
The question becomes: If we are now to spend most of our time moving our ‘selves’ online, how are we able to write, produce, and share with one another if we do not yet know the traps of language?
‘Listen to me. The problem is your imagination,’ writes Francesco Pacifico, from Rome. ‘Stop using dystopia as your compass. Stop using metaphors. You have to live through this…No takes. No points. Stop making points.’
No more metaphor. No more comparison. The problem is your imagination and its ability to reconcile. The lack of money is the lack of money. The illness is the illness. To be without protective clothing is to be without protective clothing. It is not like The Great Depression. It is not like the financial crisis. It is not a war. The suffering of a whole country does not exist so as to function as another country’s warning. The dots on the graph are not dots, but people.
Say things are as they are. Do not reach for their counterpoint. Do not lie or obfuscate. The most infuriating thing to a person in grief or distress is to be told the same thing they have heard many times before, or worse, to sense an untruth. The difference between healthy and sick, or employed and unemployed, is an instant rip, and there is a particular type of fury that comes with the unjustness of illness.
I wish for a moratorium on platitudes. I wish for a halt on the descriptors ‘urgent’, ‘necessary’, ‘meaningful’, ‘poignant’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘insightful.’
Another time I will write to you more about art. Another time I will write to you more about Running Dog.
But language is a brick, and when hurled too fast, it loses its aim.