Quarantine Letter #8: Shards

May 5, 2020

In March, my friends August and Kora spoke of a “jump-cut” when describing the interruption that COVID-19 has had on many of our lives. [1] I too felt this sense of disorientation in the first days and weeks of the pandemic, as the virus made its way first through my social media feed, before seeping into casual conversations and suddenly coming to structure our daily lives. The “inhuman velocity” of change made it impossible to grasp. Yet while the pace of events was indeed disorienting, it also seemed to present a window for previously radical ideas to take hold in ways we could have never imagined. 

It was not long before such hopes found collective expression. Calls for a rent strike invaded the public imagination, and neighbors who had barely spoken before started getting organized together. Mutual aid became a common expression to describe the outpouring of caring gestures that so many sought to share with one another as people were alternatively laid off or forced to work hazardous conditions, as schools closed, social spaces were shuttered, and venturing to the store became a daunting task. In such rebellious commitments to one another, we see glimmers of our true potential. 

From my vantage point, it seems nonetheless likely that the window of opportunity has by now closed. Despite his pessimistic tone, Frédéric Neyrat was not wrong to say that “today there is no communism sufficiently powerful enough to be in a position to welcome an opportunity such as the one that confronts us today.” [2] A new routine of quarantine has imposed itself—if not yet a “new normal”, a temporary normality has restructured the rhythm of daily life. Whatever chance there might have been to convert COVID-19 into the death blow of capitalism, if it is even possible for a single crisis to accomplish such a thing, this chance seems for now to have passed us by. 

While it is still important to intervene in these windows as they open—and rest assured, the bumbling politicians attempting a hasty return to a normality that no longer exists will ensure there will indeed be more windows of opportunity to come—it is not sufficient to only respond to crises as they arise. Is there another rhythm, another sense of temporal possibility from which we might engage with the world, beyond the unceasing progression of political and social crises that keep us continually on the back foot, and too often close before we can even make sense of them? 

*

Despite knowing that life on earth is bigger, older, and ultimately more resilient than the overwhelming death drive of global capital, it’s hard to avoid a fatalistic sense of capitalist realism. A couple of months ago I expected my hopes for somehow escaping this system through a deepened bond with my local ecology to result in little more than a few additional carrots in my garden, or an ability to identify the trees near my house while the ecological collapse progressed alongside my draining, daily grind. 

Some friends in Quebec recently proposed that we think of our ethical orientation toward the world in terms of an “ecology of presence”, which they understand as entailing a two-fold shift in our way of experiencing the world: 

“An ecology of presence unfolds in a double movement, that of a material and existential unification of the world we inhabit. Positions and dispositions. To become present is a practice which consists of breaking with our absence from the world through an elaboration of new sensibilities, but also new positions from which to act on them, from new circumstances.” [3]

Like many of you, I live in the city. A fair amount of my time is spent in buildings designed to look and feel the same on the inside during the cold Northern winters as if they’d been built in the desert. I can buy whatever I want at the grocery store any time of year. All of my would-be points of connection to the ecology around me are replaced by nodes in capitalism’s globalized logistical web. My roommate jokes about the street being the “big hallway” between indoor destinations, climate control not yet installed. I laugh, knowing something’s missing but unsure of exactly what. I can sense that things are moving in the wrong direction, but I’m not sure of exactly where to. 

However, since the pandemic closed my workplace, I’ve had a lot more time to attend to the robins in my yard, and the plants that appear daily in the wild patches of my neighborhood. I’m glad to have been attuned to them this spring, a time of incredible growth and change, just as an unprecedented economic halt occurred. As the markets crashed, the plants surged forth into life. As everything stopped, I began to catch glimpses of life existing outside of the economy. The robin’s indifference to the world of the economy crept into clearer relief. The trees budding out, the increasingly energetic morning bird chorus, sightings of foxes and turkeys roaming the streets, and, of course, so many people in the mix. On what used to be a fairly quiet path by the river, I now run into people climbing trees, smoking joints, and chatting through masks. Back at home, my roommates and I, generally distant in our routines, began eating dinners together every night. There seem to be so many people baking bread, gardening, entertaining one another; decommodifying our lives—first out of necessity, but increasingly out of a desire for something better. 

Life blossoms when the managers despair, and, for me, the way out has become much more clear.  

* *

For the moment, it seems undeniable that the jump-cut has produced sufficient chaos to “make order more desirable than revolution.” [4] This unfortunate fact is plainly seen in the resonance that the “Re-Open America” protests appear to have, irrespective of their obviously astroturfed nature. 

I would be lying if I did not admit that there are moments when even I found myself wishing for a return to normal. Stability is seductive in a world that is falling apart before our eyes. To me, this means: How do we produce a stability that makes normality the least attractive option?

The ethical problem consists in unburdening ourselves of the urgency that transforms every episodic crisis into a frantic vocation, a desperate delegation that sees every suspension of normality as the ‘final one’. If we wish to avoid the exhaustion and disappointment to which such boom-and-bust cycles condemn us, we must attempt to orient ourselves along a longer-term temporality, one that affords us the means to cultivate a desirable stability, for ourselves and everyone else. 

The sense of time we must cultivate persists and subsists under and alongside the waves of crises and emergencies. It allows us to approach them, not expecting a checkmate, but simply as a means to rearrange the board in a favorable way.

There are countless ways in which people are reclaiming the means to directly provide and care for each other as well as themselves. The mutual aid projects that have picked up such momentum in the past months are an early indication of the sorts of practices that will be necessary on a much wider scale in the coming months and years. Ultimately, the full breadth of this task is nothing less than to build a life in common outside of the economy. This is not a single act but an ongoing and lifelong process of inhabiting a world. In doing so we elaborate a different way of relating to ourselves, our surroundings, and each other in a way that blends these distinctions irreducibly.

Needless to say, there’s no secret escape hatch out of capitalism—our struggle is a long one. Still, glimmers of another life appear in shared experiences, in moments of temporary departure. As we build autonomy, we can glimpse other worlds in these moments, worlds within this one but not of it. When the pandemic hit, shards of these other worlds that’d I’d begun noticing suddenly came together to reflect a broader constellation of possibility. Just as much, I saw new forms of life emerge among the people in my community, from the mutual aid projects to the kids playing in the park. 

An interest in building a relationship with the land—which on Turtle Island must involve relationships with our indigenous friends and contributions to their struggles—ultimately reveals a multitude of worlds already existing, persisting, with room for us to fit in among them. While no one crisis could ever suspend them all, the time that weaves them together is also deeper and more enduring than our impoverished measurements could ever calculate. The robins in my yard, the trees, the river, are doing what they always have done, and we can meet them, here, in this place. [5]

– Nevada

May 5, 2020 

Notes

  1. August and Kora, “Destitution, Interrupted.” https://illwilleditions.com/destitutioninterrupted/
  2. Frédéric Neyrat, “Our Shared Absence.” https://illwilleditions.com/our-shared-absence/
  3. Dispositions, “Rattachements” (translation our own). https://contrepoints.media/posts/rattachements-pour-une-ecologie-de-la-presence
  4. The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends. https://illwilleditions.com/the-invisible-committee-to-our-friends/
  5. I’m borrowing this phrasing from the title of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s book As We Always Have Done, used here with a different context and meaning.