(after Adrienne Rich)

by Clare Hemmings

Featured photographs are from ongoing photo series Skin Deep by Sakshi Parikh. Published with permission for this blog post.

I tell people off every day. I tell my parents off for not staying home early enough. They are in their eighties, and I crow with satisfaction about having saved their lives when my chiding means they turn away their gardener (who goes down with the virus the next day). I reward them with daily calls until my dad says he’s too tired to talk to me today. I tell my friend off for getting the bus to go for a walk (this was in that uncertain period just before the stay-at-home UK government mandate), and insist she tell her partner off for shopping more than necessary (once we’re only supposed to be shopping for essentials). I tut at friends who get colds: clear evidence of their failure to keep away from contaminated surfaces as well as people. I wonder with amazement at people’s manic response to being told to reduce contact with people, as they become (in retrospect) the kind of people who want to go out all the time and be in constant contact with others, even though they mostly only went out a couple of times a week pre-virus. I tell my partner off for reading too much online misery, and I tell anyone who is still stockpiling to pull themselves together. I monitor the small trip, the little sojourn, the too-long run, the unnecessary hours in a queue.

I tell myself these critiques are right, given that all the people I am talking about are ones who have no structural or economic reasons why they can’t stay home until the end of time itself. Just. Stay. The fuck. Home. And I lament the curious lack of inner resources people appear to have that generate meltdowns just days in. Seriously? I’m fine of course. I don’t need anyone to tell me off. I mean, obviously there was that transnational flight back to London from New York (remember when there were still flights?), the return trips to the corner shop (gloves firmly in place and sanitiser in hand), that coffee on Broadway Market (where else!) where I might have touched or left traces, not to mention the encounters with delivery people that felt safe (but for whom?). And there could be an irony in my rage at the people who flocked to Victoria Park, Hackney, in their thousands so that it had to be closed on day 3 of London’s stay-at-home, even though I’m one of that flock (justifying it by being the lone runner, not one of those sunbathing wankers). And somehow I have very quickly forgotten that I needed to be persuaded by my loved ones early on that I needed to take more care, for the sake of others not myself. Surprising really that anyone picks up when I call.

These are privileged intersubjective and social challenges, of course. I am not a key worker, a migrant worker, or a detainee of the state. Nor am I a queer teen or student stuck (back) at home, a target of emotional or physical violence. Nor am I easily bored (or if I am, I’m able to quickly find my way out of it). And I am not on my own. I can shelter at home, because I have a home. And it might precisely be the confrontation with inequality that is unbearable: where I dispense advice to others from my balcony overlooking the small park in the sunshine, from my balcony paid for by my permanent, well paid job, from my balcony I’m used to sitting and reading on, drinking the odd glass, even when I’m not in lockdown. Friends say the same about their chiding of picnickers, groups of three or more; is that technically exercise? You don’t look like a household!

Who would ever have heard oneself thinking let alone saying such a thing a couple of months ago?

Skin Deep by Sakshi Parikh

It is perhaps a question of reading practice. I sit in judgment on privileged people who seem unable to read the guidance ways that aren’t pushing at its edges for greater individual freedoms (I make jokes about this: ‘only go out for essential food – is twice-daily for beer ok?). Why would people be reading containment guidance for its ‘outs’, for its possible (un)regulated pleasures, I rant. Yet of course I am also reading for the edges of guidance, for appropriate judgment; I am also interpreting the document that tells us not to… to reframe for those who fail to read it right, who fail to read it straight off the top. To find my own freedoms at the edge of the text.

We might, as many are, want to look to the broader picture instead of being mired in micro-observations (navel gazing!) of this kind. And there’s plenty of material to consider the opportunism of nationalist and transnational crackdowns – border closures, citizen-monitoring, eugenics, displacements, curtailments. Reading Arundhati Roy on precisely this is sobering.[i] We might want to observe the horror of this global pandemic as revealing those inequalities caused by decades of austerity and centuries of racism, class violence and sexism in ways that give us pause about how ‘we’ normally put up with it (insofar as we do), benefit from it (insofar as we do) and failed to adequately imagine its end (insofar as we couldn’t). We might want to identify the very many dangers a ‘lockdown’ reminds us of, and the unaccountable powers that it extends. Or too, we might get sick of our own analysis, and lament the choices of career or value that brought us to this confrontation with uselessness. Or just think about the commons – giving any ‘spare’ income to keep local spaces open, or to shelter homeless people; sign up to speak to strangers who are isolated; pay artists for work; educate oneself about what’s happening; keep vigilant (not vigilante).[ii] And, too, we might, as many are, focus on developing or nurturing existing community and politics by responding collectively to the situation we find ourselves within. The development of so many Mutual Aid Groups is a perfect example. Or we might indeed generate new (and old) forms of intimacy that come to the fore in the present. As many have said, we can still participate in a broader political picture from lockdown, even if the nature of solidarity has changed.

That kind of approach (rightly) can help us glimpse the kind of role privileged, politicised subjects might consider taking in the times and places of the present viral crisis. But while certainly oriented towards this form of important analysis or community-generation and participation, I’m also wary of the very familiar pleasures that come from repositioning myself at the centre of analysis and action. Having moved away from the chiding and judging I started with – recognising varied conditions, recognising privilege and flaw – and into greater reflexivity, I can now relax into dispensing from home in ways that allow me to feel part of the greater good, an actor in the development of collective political response, an ethico-political subject who remains concerned with the welfare of others, and who is oriented towards alleviating harm.[iii] But somehow the simple shifting to a different site (donation; monitoring of power-abuses; different kinds of care or political community) doesn’t seem to get at what is different and similar about the question of solidarity or accountability in this place and time of the present crisis.

And that’s the rub. There are of course myriad important political ways of responding to this present that are collective, nurturing, important, and interventionist.[iv] And I don’t want to diminish those, or understate their value (indeed, I participate in them). But I do want to stop and consider the importance of the difference and similarity of the present from the position of privilege I inhabit, and ask some difficult questions about political desire. I want then to shine a light on the ways in which I can make these shifts and yet still imagining myself a hero (even in absentia). I am still trying to read for heroism, trying to converse for heroism, trying to imagine the most heroic things I can still do as the recognisable subject that I still am. But there’s a fissure that I’m on the edge of, looking the other way, asking myself and others how to act while I teeter on that edge. I am looking for the actions that I can take that will take me away from the edge, but they all take me back to that cracking crust. The unbearable: that withdrawal, doing nothing, is the best possible action; that my liveliness is deathly in the time and space of the present crisis. That this isn’t an ethical or political analysis or decision I am the agent of; it just is, and remains so, whether I come to this understanding or not. That the question isn’t how to be a heroic subject, but how to assume that one is the danger not the answer, the death not the life. And to really believe that and sit with that in its privileged unhappiness might be to suspend the rush to reposition myself as a heroic political subject, at least just for a while.

This is not an abstract question: I got on that plane because I wanted to be home; but I still want to be (and be seen as) the one who makes choices for the benefit of others, rather than the one mired in both self-interest (risk for a flight home, a glimpse of a friend; worse, for a coffee). Starting there might at least give me a more embodied sense of the toxicity my privilege has of course always brought, to those for whom the ‘viral crisis’ is anything but new or only in the present, as the collective IndigenousAction.org articulate so accurately: ‘colonialism is a plague’, or as Saidiya Hartman asks: how do we weigh the scales of viral death in light of the ‘uneventfulness of black and indigenous death’? The irony of seeing the world stop for a virus, but not for genocide, is not lost on these theorists, who never let history coalesce in extinction: celebrating endurance as well as refusing to let go of the horror, as M Nourbese Phillips has insisted. That starting from complicity might also give me a better sense of both that toxicity and its doubling through displacement (wanting to be the hero who alleviates the toxin she administered). Maybe this is the chance to know that better and pause, not to practice self-abnegation for its own sake, but to try and stop the patterns of political thinking that reduce accountability while seeming to enact it.

I want to try a different reading practice, one that’s not looking for the right interpretation or for being the best reader, or for passing on that reading. One that isn’t looking for reading for ‘freedom from’ the edict or the text (either for me or others), isn’t hellbent on identifying good and bad responses or interpretations, heroes and villains of a contemporary political sphere. There are plenty of heroes and villains, for sure; though it’s not always clear who falls into which category (once one has dealt with the obvious candidates). What might it mean to read from a modest place of appropriate but not ‘heroic’ withdrawal? What value might there be from assuming there is already a rampant toxicity that isn’t just viral but also part of privileged political diagnosis: where I give the right reading, where I diagnose the problem as part of the avoidance of facing the costs of privilege. What might a counter-toxic reading practice look like? One that doesn’t immediately push for my own freedom again, but looks to the expansion of touch and sound from a starting of privileged knowledge and subjects as contaminated. Mel Chen made this point back in 2011, in their discussion of ‘toxic animacies’, but I think it has taken me a while to get a sense of what they were really pointing to.[v] Chen orients us towards a kind of counter-psychoanalytic practice that eschews reading for interior meaning, centering (contaminated) touch instead. If I try and extend Chen’s proposition, I might ask of reading, not ‘what does this mean for me?’, but ‘who does this make me (want to) touch?’ And of course that touch is as likely to be toxic as it is calming or loving (and perhaps we don’t and won’t always know the difference). What are the risks of touch, and are they worth taking (and for whom)? To practice starting from toxicity not heroism, I start passing on things I have been reading if they make me think of someone, and tell them why.

Passing on the reading of a reading.

Poetry is the true empiricism perhaps, and why I – like so many – am drawn to it in a crisis. Reading off the depths but not for the interiority, for the words themselves, for the angles they reveal. A wreck, says poet Adrienne Rich, nothing more, nothing less: ‘the thing I came for:/ the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth’. She wanted to face the ravages, ‘the evidence of damage/ worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty’, not anticipate its transformation into something else, its alleviation. No, says Rich. ‘This is the place’, and then…

‘We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.’

Thanks to Leticia Sabsay and Alyosxa Tudor for ongoing conversation and challenge around the ideas in this piece (and many others besides).

Photo of Clare HemmingsClare Hemmings is Professor of Feminist Theory in the Department of Gender Studies at LSE. Her work is concerned with the many lives of feminist and queer theorising and patterns of institutionalisation, translation and narration of feminism and queer studies. Her books include Bisexual Spaces (2002), Why Stories Matter (2011) and Considering Emma Goldman (2018), and she has published a range of journal special issues, most recently with Ilana Eloit ‘Haunting Feminism: Encounters with Lesbian Ghosts’, for Feminist Theory (2019). Her new work is on generation and storytelling. Combining fantasy with memoir, the project seeks to foreground the moments in family dynamics that challenge what we think we know about gender roles, sexuality, class progression, whiteness and political attachment.

[i] Roy has been vocal on the costs for migrant workers of a lockdown clearly only interested in preserving the lives of the Indian middle classes: https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/16/arundhati_roy_coronavirus_india?dm_i=56G9,6VXK,12632O,QAMT,1

[ii] All possibilities explored by theorists brought together by Brad Evans, ed. ‘The Quarantine Files: Thinkers in Self-Isolation’ Los Angeles Review of Books, April 14 2020: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/quarantine-files-thinkers-self-isolation/

[iii] See Madhok for a trenchant critique of action-orientation in feminist thinking about agency and rights:  Sumi Madhok (2013) Rethinking Agency: Developmentalism, Gender and Rights (New Delhi: Routledge).

[iv] See the politicisation of the ‘Clap on Thursdays to thank Key Workers’

[v] Mel Chen (2011) ‘Toxic Animacies: Inanimate Affections’ GLQ. 17. 2-3: 265-286.