Pablo Martínez: Fail Better – Notes for a Museum Yet-to-Come

In recent weeks the media has paid close attention to the gradual reopening of museums, following the lockdown period. Most of the television reports and interviews with various heads of institutions have focused on the various ways that exhibitions and events have been affected by the pandemic, as well as the new rules and guidelines for visits to these spaces. However, there has been little discussion about how museums should take these circumstances as a chance to rethink their ethical and political foundations, along with their structures and economics. Despite the exceptional nature of this pandemic, its emergence has merely confirmed what we have been discussing for years in seminars and debates in some museums and art centers: that the system itself is collapsing and decisive, wide-reaching action must be taken. In the case of the museum, the problem is a complex one, since, in the last few decades, the museum has proudly endorsed dynamics based on permanent mobility, the economy of exposure, and the logic of exponential growth. Therefore, as well as debating how social distancing will change the practicalities of museum visits, it is also perhaps necessary to reflect, collectively, on the urgent refounding of the museum, based on new sets of material and aesthetic parameters. The whole world as we know it is undergoing a process of restructuring, due to ecological collapse and the subsequent civilizing crisis. If museums want to play a key role in this restructuring, and make a commitment to climate justice, they have no choice but to give up their present mission and learn how to fail better.

In The Queer Art of Failure, cultural theorist Jack Halberstam analyzes how capitalism and the heteropatriarchy have produced normative ideals of happiness and success – ideals that must now be challenged. That which is often deemed a failure might in fact be, as Halberstam suggests, a genuine form of existence that simply does not conform to the prevailing logics. An act of rebellion against the imposed norm. If we consider Halberstam’s proposal from ecofeminist perspectives, this kind of dissidence would be enacted by dismissing any concept of well-being that is based on buying power, by spurning the accumulation of goods and by proposing ways of living that are more austere and therefore less harmful to the environment. In terms of museums, this approach would ideally lead to a model that pushes back against the overbearing logics of accumulation, productivity, value, property, novelty, and the constant pressure to sustain income from ticket sales, venue hire, and sponsorship. It would bring about a museum that is more internationalist than international, that supports the local without being provincial, and that refuses to keep adding to their already bloated rosters of international artists, star speakers, and low-paid workers. A museum that advocates simplicity, and that ditches all the conventional indicators that have, until now, been used as gauges of success. Because, as the Spanish ecofeminist Yayo Herrero has noted, all these indicators have helped shape a culture that is directly at odds with life itself. A museum that works toward the rematerialization of culture (or, rather, that becomes aware of its inherently material conditions, because it barely has anything to do with the immaterial) and that resolutely opts for decarbonization, across the board. Specifically, this decarbonization would ascertain the museum’s ecological footprint, as caused by its programs and structures, and act accordingly. On an abstract level, this process is just as complex and ambitious as trying to decarbonize the shared imaginaries upon which modernity was built, something that art historian Jaime Vindel has so aptly named the “fossil aesthetic.” This shift would be approached in two ways: on the one hand, by rewriting the narratives of art history from a fossilist perspective that would include not only a critique of the modern idea of “progress” but would also call into question collective belief in unlimited growth, which the art world has helped propagate, as well as the glorification of uncontrolled desire and futurist accelerationism, to name but a few examples. On the other hand, art should help create new shared imaginaries of lifestyles that are not so dependent on fossil fuels – that is to say, the exact opposite to what the biennialization of the art world has achieved. If, indeed, this process of biennialization, which began in the 1990s, has helped forge a positive image of globalization and a perception of mobility as a synonym for creative freedom and social dynamism, all with a steep ecological cost, perhaps it would now be fitting for the art world to assist in the undoing of this process, and to champion a kind of museum that participates in and promotes a libidinal economy that has a low ecological impact.

For some time now, I have been writing about the concept of the “museum yet-to-come” as an exercise in institutional imagination and conceptual production. As I have expressed elsewhere, the notion of “yet-to-come” has two sides: on the one hand, it draws a possible plan of action that adapts its operation and activity according to the biophysical limits of the planet, and on the other, it borrows a core concept from Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, published in 2009 by the Cuban American theorist José Esteban Muñoz. In his book, Muñoz defines “queerness” as something that is not yet possible, not reachable, yet-to-come: it is a rejection of the here-and-now, and a nod to the concrete possibility of a different world. He puts forward a kind of queer sociability or queer future that challenges the heteropatriarchal here-and-now by moving it into the then-and-there of minority groups who activate aesthetic strategies for survival, as well as imagining ways of being inside utopian worlds. In this sense, the act of queering the museum would entail the inclusion of all those minority groups who have long been excluded from participating in the creation of imaginaries or from telling other kinds of histories. Furthermore, this approach would spark the kind of imaginations that allow us to break free from the prison of the present time where our own imagination is held captive. Queering the museum would shake up its very purpose, betray its norms, and help create the new worlds that would inevitably emerge from the chaos. It would challenge the notions of “what must be shown” and “how it must be displayed,” and, in so doing, it would help overthrow the bourgeois notion of mass public order, of turning people into orderly visitors, which essentially means control, since art museums largely have a normalizing function – not only through the regulation of artistic work but also through the ordering of bodies, relations, and times. The challenge is therefore how to begin imagining the future of institutions that are so deeply rooted in the past, in a process that would take solidarity with other species as its starting point and that would dismantle consumerist imaginaries, rebuild cooperative communities, and recognize the individualistic and extremely fossilistic character of our shared imaginaries of apparent emancipation. The challenge is how to build a museum that is not only worth visiting, but also worth living.

In May 2020, the Spanish digital journal ctxt published artist and activist Marcelo Expósito’s inspiring conversation with Manuel Borja-Villel, director of Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía: “The museum will have to provide care like a hospital, while still being critical.” This idea, which is referenced in the title of the interview is both highly productive and provocative, since the invitation to prioritize care means that the museum will inevitably fail in some of its other remits. I suppose that when the director of Spain’s national gallery made this statement, he was proposing not only to provide a greater degree of care, but also to recognize the work of caring that museums have in fact been carrying out for decades, mainly through their educational departments and public programs. In this sense, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that the museum “will have to continue to provide care” or that it “must care for those who do the caring and improve the working conditions and status of educators, mediators, and all the staff who do outreach work.” The task of caring is crucial in these times of “capitalist realism,” to echo the words of the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, given that suffering is not limited to the museum’s visitors, but extends to its workers. It is therefore necessary to review the extent to which the museum is also the root cause of this distress, given the forms of production it favors: the present model allows and in fact demands that cultural producers work on several different projects at the same time, all of which are paid at dubious rates, are extremely precarious, require the tireless and hurried efforts of many interconnected people, and are in a state of constant mobility. In addition, in the case of European public institutions, the rigidity of the regulatory framework and the strictness of labor legislation – which has never taken into account the nature of artistic work or new forms of cultural production – play a large part in generating situations where the already precarious existence of artists is further blighted by bureaucratic violence. The idea of total mobilization is embodied in cultural workers, who are always ready and available, always on their toes. The pandemic allows us to see even more clearly just how fragile this model is – a model in which the artist, just like a juggler, has to keep moving if she does not want to be left empty-handed. Without a universal basic income, the system in its current form is unsustainable.

I would like to dwell a little more on the statement “The museum will have to provide care like a hospital, while still being critical,” and to invert its meaning, since the act of caring is in fact a prerequisite so that the museum can become, for more people, a critical space. This is because, as opposed to what the patriarchal knowledge structure has taught us, knowledge is not exclusively generated through critical distance but rather through the affects, which are what set off thought processes in most cases. This fact is especially relevant if we participate in a form of care that is based on mutual support and an equality of forms of intelligence, rather than a paternalistic idea of care. The hospital-like proposal is extremely apt in the way it shuns the privately managed public hospital model that has been implemented in Madrid over the last decade, and instead adopts the medieval hospital-temple principle that would welcome pilgrims with food, rest, and ecstatic pleasure. It would be a museum that provides shelter and encourages neighbors, fellow citizens, and pilgrims to find, within its walls, a place where they can “pass the time” – a time unlike that of productivity and consumption. However, I cannot finish this article without first sharing my fear that the idea of museums becoming more like hospitals might trigger a new curatorial wave and that, following the “social,” “educational,” “affective,” and “performative” turns of the last few decades, it will bring about some kind of “hospital turn.” This long line of “turns” creates an image of an art system that, just like a whirlpool, spins on its own axis. It is a flashy display of constant dynamism, but, in practice, it only ever deals in conceptual terms, and so it does little to actually encourage any radical change in the material foundations of the institution. If the museum wants to keep its head above water, rather than spinning on and on within these choppy seas, it will have to change course toward more ecosocialist waters.

Originally published as “Fracasar mejor. Notas para un museo por venir,” Ctxt: Contexto y Acción, May 28, 2020.

Pablo Martínez is an educator and researcher. Since 2016, he has been Head of Programs at MACBA Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and part of the editorial board of L’Internationale Online. He was associate professor of the history of contemporary art at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Complutense University of Madrid and, from 2009 to 2016, in charge of the educational and public activities of CA2M. His lines of research include educational work with the body and research into the power of images in connection with the production of political subjectivity. Pablo Martínez is the editor of the essay collection et al., published by MACBA-Arcàdia, as well as the editorial secretary of the journal Re-visiones. He is a member of Las Lindes, a research and action group on education, art and cultural practices.

Joshua Decter: Thinking about How to Think Again (June 2020)

“Moreover, what made this pestilence all the more virulent was that it was spread by the slightest contact between the sick and the healthy just as a fire will catch dry or oily materials when they are placed right beside it.”
– Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, ca. 1349–1352

“Don’t punish me with brutality”
– Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” 1971

It is difficult. It is difficult to know how to think, rethink, and unthink. What to write, what not to write. Thoughts form and then dissolve. Focus starts and then withers away. Events are happening simultaneously at such a fast pace that it is impossible to keep up, and to process. Social media, of course, is accelerating everything. The mind is present one minute, gone the next. Hyperdistraction. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City in March, I’ve been very hesitant to write anything. Probably because my brain has been scrambled. It’s no doubt a common predicament these days. One thing is for certain, however: I’ve been thinking far more about epidemiology than art over the past few months. Anxiety about the here, the now, and the future is persistent. Days flow into each other, becoming almost interchangeable – Friday feels like Wednesday, Tuesday resembles Sunday. Time is different. Hope and optimism are fugitive. One might say that there is a kind of spiritual exhaustion, along with intellectual fatigue. Even on a mundane level, a dilemma has arisen as to whether to leave the house to shop for food or to exclusively use e-commerce for all consumer transactions. But how can I complain? I’m one of the fortunate people. I have certain privileges, even though here in NYC, privilege and entitlement are always very relative conditions.

According to recent statistics, approximately 400,000 people left New York City from March through May, in an attempt to escape the pandemic. Including a few friends of mine. Some will return, others will not. Certainly, many people are experiencing significantly more harrowing challenges and greater precarity in their lives than me – such as essential workers and frontline health care professionals, who have been laboring throughout the pandemic, risking their lives for us and too often paying the ultimate price with their lives. And, so, I am endeavoring to put my troubles into perspective and to amplify my empathy. Less of me, more of we. In the midst of writing about our strange new global coronavirus reality, protests erupted here in the United States in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The May 25 incident was caught on video and went viral on social media. The footage shows the police officer (Derek Chauvin) kneeling on top of a handcuffed Floyd on the street, pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, appearing to asphyxiate him. At one point, Floyd is heard saying, “Please, I can’t breathe”—eerily reminiscent of Eric Garner’s last words, another Black man who was choked to death on a New York City street by another white police officer, in 2014, which was also captured on video and also led to nationwide demonstrations.

In the Minneapolis incident, three other police were present, but did not intervene to help Floyd. It’s a painful video, almost unwatchable. But millions have watched it. The world has seen George Floyd. Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and the three other policemen at the scene were not charged. The protests intensified, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to what was correctly perceived as another example of the criminal justice system’s structural racism – a response that recognizes the long-standing injustices of a system that often engages in discriminatory policing and has led to outsize incarceration of Black people. As the protests multiplied throughout the US, the attorney general of Minnesota launched a new investigation into the incident, leading to the raising of the charges against Chauvin to second-degree murder. Charges were also filed against the other three police officers. It has become abundantly clear that people are protesting not only for justice in Floyd’s particular case, but also to draw attention to institutionalized police violence against Black people, which is one of the most disturbing manifestations of ongoing structural racism in the US, and elsewhere in the world. The protests have now gone globally viral, even as the world is still contending with the coronavirus. And this is all within the context of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, during which he has stoked racial divisions and tensions, provoking increasing social unrest with his inflammatory rhetoric.

The coronavirus pandemic has, like elsewhere, led to mass unemployment in the US. People have been quarantined and locked down in their homes because of the virus for months; they are anxious about their futures, have become restless about their present circumstances, and find themselves with more time on their hands. These disconcerting realities have dovetailed with – and no doubt fed into – the dynamism of the protests, and the apparent increase in social activism is a positive development amid all the gloom. Indeed, New York has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and it is now also one of the epicenters of the protests. This intersection, or simultaneity, is tragic: the pandemic has already disproportionately impacted economically and politically marginalized Black and Latinx communities, which are the same communities that regularly experience the structural racism of the criminal justice system. The social, economic, racial, and political inequities of this city are haunting us, in real time, and the protesting is an attempt to exorcise New York’s historical and contemporary demons and, specifically, to create pressure for significant reform of the police. If the police can police communities, then communities have the right to police the police.

At the same time, another dilemma has emerged: whether to protest outdoors in the midst of a pandemic, in a severely hit city that has been locked down in order to curb the spread of the virus. It is a complicated issue involving morality, health, economics, politics, and personal behavior. There are no easy answers. We do not yet have clear epidemiological data as to whether there could be an upsurge in COVID-19 cases over the next weeks, or as to what might be the cause of it – the reopening of economies, mass events like protests, people not social distancing and not wearing masks, or some combination of these factors. If there is a significant spike in virus infections here in New York City, this would impact the very people who can least afford to be impacted, such as frontline healthcare workers and economically marginalized communities. I fear a kind of vicious circle, and hope to be proven wrong. If one is reluctant, like me, to go out into the streets and protest because of health concerns, there are various other ways to show solidarity with the racial justice movement, through forms of what might be described as “meta-protest” and “meta-activism,” acts of writing such as this among them.

Flashback to 1992, when I visited Los Angeles shortly after the demonstrations that resulted from the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. A video of that infamous act of police brutality provided clear evidence of the officers’ misconduct and, yet, they escaped punishment. It was a miscarriage of justice – and incontrovertible evidence of structural racism in the criminal justice system – that outraged many people. That year in response, I wrote an essay for an exhibition catalogue entitled “The Fractious Hybrid State (of Things),” wherein I endeavored to think about those events in LA. Here is a small excerpt:

It is immediately clear what is happening: the predominantly black residents of that community have begun to protest against an acquittal which seems to reconfirm their worst fears that the country’s judicial system is inherently unjust to African-Americans, that it systematically favors whites. I am angered by a verdict delivered by a mostly white jury in a police brutality trial held in Simi Valley – a Los Angeles suburb with a mere 2% black population. The judicial system has failed in this instance. […] Following the verdict in the Rodney King trial, [the black] community let loose from years of pent-up frustration regarding the cycle of economic and social decay, disempowerment, and social marginalization. The class and race conflicts that always seem to simmer beneath the surface of this society reached a boiling point.[1]

Also in 1992, the American investigative journalist James Ridgeway commented about the unrest in Los Angeles in the Village Voice newspaper: “The Los Angeles riots were bound to happen. The country is always at war over race and class.”

In 2020, we can confirm that the United States is, indeed, continuously at war over race and class.

Over the past week, an unprecedented citywide curfew was imposed here in New York City (as well as in some other US cities). It was an attempt to reduce tensions between protestors and the police, but primarily to discourage people from engaging in vandalism, which had taken place in Manhattan and other boroughs. Significant debate about the efficacy of the curfew has been sparked, with many wondering if it hurt more than it helped, perhaps in fact exacerbating tensions between the largely peaceful protestors and the police. On the other hand, the vandalism did seem to cease. This was the first curfew of my lifetime spent here in New York, although the months-long pandemic quarantine lockdown has felt like its own type of curfew. The last time New York had a curfew imposed was in 1943, in response to a so-called race riot in Harlem, indicative of significant tensions between the Black community and the predominantly white police force during that period. These frictions have persisted for many decades and are some of the deep historical precedents for the contemporary situation. When communities are victimized by, rather than protected by, law enforcement, when they are discriminated against by the police, when they are politically disempowered, those communities have legitimate grievances.

This period in the United States reminds us that some people must be willing to live with less so that others may live with more. An equitable, redistributive form of capitalism is desirable, and attainable. We can develop a fair economy wherein a large, racially inclusive middle class is built and class divides are significantly reduced. The US used to have a substantial middle class, and it can again. It just requires human imagination and political will. At this time of intersecting crises, I believe that the federal government should provide a guaranteed basic income to people who need it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be forever, depending upon how effective it is, but, for now, as the real economy is unstable and mass unemployment prevails, it would substantially help millions of people and reduce social unrest. A guaranteed basic income would require, needless to say, a significant change in governmental leadership and thinking and in how governance is structured.

Events have moved so fast, that, as of today, June 7, the curfew has been ended. And, tomorrow, New York begins phase one of its reopening – an attempt to restart the economy amid the pandemic. In my posh, hypergentrified Tribeca neighborhood, quite a few stores and schools boarded up their windows over the past week, nervous about the social unrest and potential theft. The overall atmosphere these days feels mildly dystopian. In just a few short months, New York has become a different city, with an unclear future.

The pandemic has penetrated our subconscious minds. Recently, I had a dream in which I forgot to social distance from a friend I encountered on the street. Within the convoluted, nonlinear space-time of the dream, I hugged this person; subsequently, I felt my dream-self experience a sense of remorse that I had not social distanced. This made me think of the 1963 Roy Orbison hit “In Dreams,” and how an updated version of it may, in this time of pandemic, go something like: “In dreams I walk with a mask on, and social distance from you / In dreams I talk to you, while wearing a mask …”

Are we hallucinating the new pandemic reality, or was the pre-pandemic reality the hallucination? When you don’t know if you might die from a new disease, anxiety tends to interfere with normative rituals, even as one seeks the comfort of those rituals. For example, I rewatched one of my favorite films while in self-isolation for a few weeks with the virus: Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). I still haven’t decided whether it was an appropriate or inappropriate choice, given the circumstances. And I still haven’t figured out how to cut myself loose from the quarantine, to make a prison break from the pandemic lockdown. But we must demonstrate self-control and quell our desire to be “free,” so as to not infect our fellow human beings and to endeavor to contain the pandemic. The usual dialectic of freedom/unfreedom, or … ?

This new coronavirus has us figured out, but we haven’t figured it out yet. It exploits our human weaknesses and stupidities. But I don’t blame the virus, per se. How could I? Viruses don’t have volition. The virus is not even entirely alive; it needs us in order to activate. Make friends, so to speak, with the virus that infects you, or it might just end you. I do, however, blame human volition. It’s people that we need to be worried about. The sort of people who don’t believe in science, and who have denied the dangerousness of this virus, leading to unnecessary illnesses and deaths.

Where is time now? The seeming foreverness and potential endlessness of the pandemic (whether one thinks in terms of waves, tides, peaks, and/or valleys), combined with a sense of uncertainty about nearly everything, has produced what might be described as “pandemic anxiety syndrome,” which is no doubt already a term in vogue with some psychotherapists. Combine this with the Trump anxiety syndrome that many of us have been experiencing since 2016, and it’s clear that we’re not only in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic but also an emergent mental health crisis. Indeed, for the first time in my life, I’ve had virtual psychotherapy sessions via a proprietary web-based platform, on my iPad. Let’s call it iTherapy.

While I was at home in self-isolation for part of March and April as I navigated the virus, and while experiencing a seemingly endless fever, I became obsessed with reading every possible research paper produced by any epidemiologist, virologist, medical doctor, scientist, or other health expert I could find. I sought to understand the illness I had and what might happen to me, in the best-case and worst-case scenarios. Art, as I mentioned earlier, was very far from my mind; it still is, to be honest. I just don’t know what to do with art now. I am uncomfortable with the notion, for instance, that curators should start organizing thematic exhibitions about the pandemic. This seems a bit too easy – trite, even. Let’s endeavor, perhaps, to not produce coronavirus kitsch. I also have no desire to develop a theory about the relation between art and the pandemic. It just seems uncouth. Some things are better left unthought, unspoken, and unwritten, at least for now. I do not want to fetishize COVID-19, even though it fetishized me. Or, to be more accurate, it occupied me, my body. And perhaps it still does occupy my body in a dormant, zombielike state, waiting to reactivate at some point down the line.

This is an unprecedented time for all of us; we are stumbling around in the dark, trying to navigate that which we still do not completely understand.

Here are some of the things that have happened for the first time in my life, thanks to the pandemic:

• Self-isolated in a single room for one month, with the virus.
• Was reluctant to fall asleep for fear of never waking up.
• Did not go outdoors for over a month.
• Organized my last will and testament and related legal documents, in the event of my death.
• Had a virtual appointment with my medical doctor using an iPad, while sick in bed.
• Social distanced from my dog for a month, so as to avoid contaminating his hair with the virus and prevent him from becoming a possible vector of transmission to my family.
• Purchased a fifty-pound bag of flour from a bakery supply company so that my family could bake at home during the quarantine.
• Got an excellent haircut from my twenty-year-old kid.
• Have not entered a store, a business, or even another building since March (it is now early June).

There’s another song I’ve revised for the pandemic: the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” from 1983, retitling it “This Charming Pandemic”: “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got anywhere to go …”

Like many others, I have developed a bit of anxiety about going outdoors. When I do venture outside to get sun on my face, or to walk the dog, I am a devout practitioner of social distancing and mask wearing. As an atheist, I have no religion, but if I do at some point choose to adopt one, it will be based on new rituals of mask wearing and social distancing. I simply do not want to be around irresponsible, selfish, nihilistic, masochistic, or sadistic people who are not wearing masks or other types of face coverings and who don’t social distance; I consider them to be a threat to society, to human life. The urban environment seems considerably more threatening now than just a few months ago. I am traumatized, no doubt. My psychogeographic relationship with the city has been significantly altered. Indeed, I have not strayed beyond my immediate neighborhood in three months. In The Fall of Public Man, from 1977, the sociologist Richard Sennett muses:

[In] the frame of public life, I would define civility as follows: it is the activity which protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company. Wearing a mask is the essence of civility. Masks permit pure sociability, detached from the circumstances of power, malaise, and private feeling of those who wear them. Civility has as its aim the shielding of others from being burdened with oneself.

Sennett’s thoughts regarding the literal and the socially symbolic function of masks could not be more prescient for our times. The future new society may turn out to be a society that is perpetually socially distanced from itself, where not only our identities but also our actual faces may be masked from others, and perhaps even from ourselves, and where COVID-19 may be our constant companion.

[1] This essay can be found reprinted in my book Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2014).

Joshua Decter is a New York-based writer, curator, and art historian. Decter’s 2014 book Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects, published by JRP|Ringier, examines contemporary art in relation to its various ideological, public, discursive, and social contexts. Decter is coauthor of the 2014 book Exhibition as Social Intervention: ‘Culture in Action’ 1993, published by Afterall Books.

Decter has contributed to Artforum, Afterall, Art Review, Mousse, Texte zur Kunst, and other periodicals and has authored numerous catalogue essays for galleries, museums, and other art organizations. He has organized exhibitions at MoMA PS1, New York; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; apexart, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Kunsthalle Wien; and Santa Monica Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

He has taught art history, curatorial studies, art theory, and other disciplines at the University of Applied Arts Vienna; School of Visual Arts, New York; Cooper Union, New York; University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, New York University; University of California, Los Angeles; ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, CA; and Bennington College, Vermont.

Boris Buden: What Does It Mean to Be “In Crisis”?

The phrase “corona-crisis” is these days on everyone’s lips, and understandably so. We are faced with a deadly disease that, only a few months ago, was completely unknown and has in the meantime dramatically changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the world. They, no doubt, feel the crisis firsthand, but do they—do we?—really know what it means to be “in crisis”?

So far, the current public discourse around COVID-19 and its devastating effects has used the notion of “crisis” in almost exclusively descriptive terms, as if it were self-explanatory: a break from normality or, more abstractly, a temporary disruption of an otherwise stable preexisting condition. This overly simplified understanding of crisis is at the core of mainstream public propaganda about the struggle with the disease and its strategic goal, which could be summed up in a phrase that is heard everywhere at the moment: “return to normality.” This “return” is not only about what masses around the world, struck by the crisis, spontaneously want by themselves; rather, it is about what their political elites are promising them. Such a political promise, however, goes far beyond “getting things back on track.” It is much more a performative act of political mobilization, a call for action, which, as it is intrinsic to a political action, aims at shaping the future—a future that, curiously enough, looks like a status quo ante. At this juncture, at least, the notion of crisis becomes ideologically suspicious.

At somewhat higher levels of reflexion, the corona-crisis is regularly explained as a “revenge of nature”: what at first appears to be a sudden and dramatic salto of the virus from animals to humans—the “spillover event,” as scientists call it—is in fact only the final act of a long evolution-like process of transformation initiated and advanced by human agency and its ill treatment of nature. After having been misused for too long as a mere resource for a headless progression of humankind, subjected to endless extraction and exploitation that has led to what we today call climate change, nature strikes back. It is now exposing the intruder to the full scale of its contingency, which is threatening the very survival of the human race; the spilling over of a virus into the human species stands, in fact, for nature spilling out of control.

Bruno Latour is among the most prominent thinkers who have clearly put the global pandemic into the broader context of climate change. For him, the experience of the current health crisis is a sort of prelude—or, as he calls it, a “dress rehearsal”—for the major challenge ahead: the ecological crisis.[1] While the “war against the virus,” which an instructing and protecting nation-state fights with all the (biopolitical) means available to it, can have some success against this particular enemy, we are, Latour argues, totally unprepared for the coming “ecological mutation.” To cope with a crisis of this scale, an entire reorganization of living conditions will be required. The nineteenth-century model of a territorial nation-state, with its political and social infrastructure designed to uphold a particular (nation-)society consisting exclusively of, as Latour puts it, “humans among themselves,” is incapable of dealing with a pathogen that, unlike the coronavirus—which is only temporarily disrupting an alleged normality—“has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet.” For the French philosopher, there is no doubt as to what this pathogen, which is already causing the next crisis, is: humanity itself.

Latour’s diagnosis of both the current and the coming crisis sounds realistic. His distrust in the institution of the nation-state, which, as he believes, is helpless in the face of the coming ecological crisis, seems not to need any additional argumentation. Even his most politically explicit statement—the warning against an “archaic” return to the old regime of national borders, which has been reactivated to protect us from the virus’s spread—can count on our full support. But is that all? Can a radical change in our concept of nature and of the world of objects, and their cognitive admission into the very idea of what the human is, what society is, and what our historical temporality is—as Latour suggests—brace us for the impact of the coming climate crisis, which, as is becoming increasingly clear to us, we might not survive? In short: Can a radical turn in our understanding of nature really help us to escape its revenge?

What is today, in the context of the corona-crisis, called the “revenge of nature” has more than one dimension. It implies not only a reaction of nature to the human intrusion, but also its opposite of a sort: an intrusion of nature into human affairs—perpetrated, with an ideological purpose, by the humans themselves. We got a glimpse of it in the guise of social Darwinism, which was recently rediscovered by one part of the ruling political elites and spontaneously deployed in their attempts to confront the pandemic. Their policies seemed to follow the invisible hand of nature: letting the weak die and the strong recover as quickly as possible, so as to “get the economy back on track.” This, however, was not merely an accidental normative derailment. An overall ideological naturalization of the whole sphere of human affairs—a process whose devastating effects on our ability to cope today with the climate crisis cannot be overestimated—has been on track for quite a long time, at least ever since the so-called neoliberal turn. The entire realm of social relations has been polluted by the logic of natural processes up to the point of its total paralysis, which is why blind fatalism is leading us into the climate catastrophe. However, a naturalization of social relations necessarily implies their dehistoricization. What horrifies us as an apparently unstoppable extinction of a natural species is, in fact, significantly conditioned and facilitated by a no less fatal extinction of history. Celebrated, a few decades ago, almost unanimously as the ultimate victory of liberal democracy, the “end of history” has left us, in the meantime, locked up in a linear temporal continuum that resembles the natural flow of time, the tempo and direction of which are out of human control. Any orientation within the historical temporality that would rely on a reflected historical experience now seems impossible. A distant past may be easily mistaken for the present reality, or even promised as a desirable future; a society of the twenty-first century dangerously resembles those feudal ones we like to believe we have forgotten. Moreover, without a unity of historical time, the statistical data that count down the temporal distance to the climate catastrophe, to the point of no return, which will be reached soon, don’t translate into the will to change. Such a will does not exist in nature. Finally, a similar transformation has also affected political power relations. They too have acquired the character of natural hierarchies: the rich and the poor caught in an eternal stalemate, with no history to reignite the class struggle between them. In the costumes of a tragic global fable, humanity has already staged the dress rehearsal for the major political crisis that lies ahead. Before being burned by the sun, drowning in the rising seas, or dying of thirst, we will face each other on the political battlefields—armed to teeth but without the normative ideal of eternal peace on our minds.

There is, indeed, nothing natural in a crisis. Rather, it is thoroughly a historical phenomenon. According to Reinhart Koselleck, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent philosophers of history, the concept of “crisis” was an invention of the eighteenth century, specifically devised by the thinkers of the Enlightenment.[2] They, however, understood it only in its one, moral dimension. The political meaning of crisis remained hidden to them. For the crisis they cognitively grasped was, in fact, a political crisis—the crisis of an imminent political decision. This decision, as we know today, was made by the French Revolution, which provided the final answer to the question: What does it mean for the world of feudal absolutism to be in crisis? Everything speaks to the fact that we today have found ourselves in a similar situation—confronted with the question: What does it mean for the world of neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy to be in crisis? Our answer, it seems, cannot be much different from the one given by the sans-culottes on the streets of Paris more than two hundred years ago.

[1] Bruno Latour, „Is This a Dress Rehearsal?”
[2] See Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979.

Boris Buden is a writer, cultural theorist and translator. Born in former Yugoslavia he studied philosophy in Zagreb and cultural theory at Humboldt University in Berlin. Since the beginning of the 1980s Buden publishes essays and books on critical and cultural theory, psychoanalysis, politics and contemporary art in Croatian, German and English. He teaches at universities in Europe and lectures worldwide. Buden is permanent fellow at the European Institute of Progressive Cultural Policies, Vienna (eipcp). Buden currently lives in Berlin.

Adania Shibli: Living Safely

To get away from the dense city centre, with its unhealthy and unsafe atmosphere, and searching for some calm and serenity, he moved to this distant, isolated house on the northernmost fringes of the city, near the river. All that lay between the riverbank and the terrace of his house was a neglected yard, which was always empty, making it appear especially expansive. The terrace itself, only a metre above the ground, was expansive too, as was the sky, and even the window where this childlike sketch of a view peeked in. And all he had to do for that vast expanse to sweep him up was step through the terrace doorway, something he did every morning from the very first day. He would prepare his coffee, take it out to the terrace and sit with his back to the house, facing the yard and the row of trees that separated it from the river that ran behind it. He would watch the first ray of light reach the top of the last tree in the row and gradually expand to the rest of the tree, then the next two trees, then the entire row, and finally the yard. Like that light, he felt capable of moving effortlessly through the space before him, with nothing to stand in his way. Sometimes he would even leap down from the terrace to stroll around the sunlit corners of the yard before going back to sit in the shade. This was the peace he had longed for, and it now awaited him whenever he stepped onto the terrace or even went near one of the windows that looked out onto it.

One night, he was awoken by a strange wailing sound. At first, he could not work out where it came from, nor even as it went on. It was shrill and repetitive, like some birdcall he had never heard before, and came from right outside the window that looked out onto the terrace. This wailing set his heart racing and left a faint yet bewildering fear in his body. What kind of bird sang at that time of night? The strange sound continued to entreat him until finally he was overcome by sleep.

In the morning when he drew the curtains, the terrace, the yard and the row of trees came into view, everything appearing as expansive, quiet and safe as usual, save for a light wind that teased at the sunlight as it attempted to reach the top of the first tree and its dishevelled branches.

The memory of that mysterious night-time birdcall might have disappeared completely had he not awoken a few nights later to a new sound, stranger and louder than the one before. This time, however, he was woken by sound and fear simultaneously. It was a violent banging of metal on metal, and felt very close, as if it were coming from inside the bedroom. But when he opened his eyes it receded a little, to the terrace outside. He got out of bed quickly and turned on the light, to let whoever was banging know that they had woken him up and that they had better get out of there right away. And no sooner did he switch on the light than the sound vanished. He went to the terrace door and stood without opening it, not knowing whether the person who had been banging was still there or had run across the yard to hide behind the trees. Only once he felt reassured by the total silence around him, and certain that it was unbroken, did he go back to bed, but the agitation and fear did not go away.

The next morning, the sunlight had not yet reached the top of the first tree when he pushed open the door and went out to inspect the terrace. Nothing looked suspicious; there were no dents or chips in the sewage pipes, which were the only things there made of metal. Everything looked fine. He went back inside to prepare a coffee, planning to drink it as he sat like usual and watched the sunrise reveal itself in the light on the treetops, hoping to dispel the residue of last night’s angst from his body. But by the time he came back out, sunlight had already flooded the whole row of trees; still, the calm scene surrounding him restored his sense of peace and pushed the violent commotion of the previous night far from his mind so that only its echo remained, in the form of a vague perplexity as to what it could have been.

Until one morning, which seemed a perfectly ordinary morning to begin with, he was suddenly overcome by an inexplicable feeling of anguish and agitation. He could not tell why till he looked out of the big window. At first he was not quite sure what he was seeing, or perhaps he was not sure that what he was seeing was really there. In the middle of the bare, expansive scene, at the end of the yard by the row of trees, stood a dark shape, which when he looked more carefully turned into what appeared to be a huge creature that was staring right at him. Once he was sure what he was seeing, he quickly pulled back from the window to hide himself from sight. That morning, instead of going out to the terrace where he had spent all his mornings since moving into this house, he took his coffee back to the bedroom. After he had summoned up the courage, he went to the window to observe the dark form outside, but the view seemed to have gone back to normal, with no trace at all of the huge creature he had seen earlier. The wake of fear it had stirred, though, left a mark upon the scene.

A few days later, the back of the house was assaulted once again by an ear-splitting banging that made even standing near the windows to watch what was happening impossible. The blacksmith and his assistant had arrived early that morning to begin constructing a fence around the terrace, which they had finished by noon. When they went, they left behind not only a scattering of metal filings here and there, but an entirely new scene. The yard was no longer fully visible; now all he could see was the far end, where the row of trees bordered the sky. Then, when he pulled out his chair and sat down, even that meagre sliver of the old view disappeared, and all that was left was a narrow strip of sky that ran between the top of the fence and the roof of the terrace. At first he tried squinting through the narrow gaps between the bars of the fence, but doing this soon strained his eyes. In the end he made do with staring fixedly at the sky, taking care not to glance either up or down, not even slightly, otherwise his line of vision would collide with either the roof of the terrace, which he had never even noticed before today, or the dark metal fence. Still, at least he felt safe again.

But it didn’t last long; after a few nights, he was awoken once again by the wailing of that strange creature, this time louder than before. Then, some nights later, while he was asleep, a deafening banging cleaved his head, and this, too, was louder than before, coming as it was from all along the fence.

From that night onwards, as soon as he had finished making his morning coffee, he would go straight back to his bedroom and stand by the big window looking out, since the view was wider from there than from the fenced-in terrace, and it would be easy for him to spot the dark outline of that huge creature as soon as it came back. He would be waiting for it.

Translated from the Arabic by Katharine Halls

Adania Shibli (*1974, Palestine) writes fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel is Tafsil Thanawi (Beirut: Al-Adab, 2017, forthcoming as Minor Detail by Fitzcarraldo Edition, 2020). She has also been teaching part-time at Birzeit University, Palestine, and is a researcher in the field of cultural studies and visual culture.

Judith Goetz: Gender as a systematically relevant category during the coronavirus pandemic

In the words of Marxist feminist Frigga Haug, crises “can be understood as interim periods, when the familiar order has ceased to function and a new set of rules have yet to be established.” This characterisation as an intermediate status quo is also true for the current coronavirus crisis, which has required millions of people to re-organise their professional and social life, as well as the gender-specific arrangements associated therewith in a breathtakingly short period of time. What might have been understood as an opportunity to re-negotiate gender relations, however, has ended up harbouring the danger of a further escalation of social grievances. This includes, for example, an increase in violence within the close social environments, the revival of traditional, gender-specific role patterns, and the resulting financial dependencies. Anti-feminists, on the other hand, are quite pleased with these developments.

Women: Relevantly dependent

The gender-specific effects of the pandemic and of the lockdown can be seen in the world of employment, amongst other things. Particularly the gender-specific occupational pattern, which has persevered until the present day, results in additional workloads for many women. Due to the fact that women are often subject to precarious employment or work in service-industry jobs that are not considered systemically relevant, they are affected more by low wages, terminations or short-time work, as well as an increased risk of poverty and existential fears resulting. In contrast, significantly more women work in systematically relevant professions, which also tend to be badly paid however, such as in the fields of food retail or nursing. Having been ‘pillars of society’ or ‘systemically relevant heroines’, during these past few weeks, they have not only faced considerable levels of stress and overload but also a greater risk of infection. On top of that, there are double or multiple stresses to cope with at their “home sweet homes”, where for instance, three out of four mothers, but only two out of three fathers, look after their children while working from home, and where women (often at the expense of their own financial security) take on the greatest portion of reproductive work, home education, and care for sick family members. The fact that men often have a higher income also leads to women giving up their gainful employment in exchange for childcare or other (unpaid) care activities. Already before the pandemic, roughly half the women in Austria were working only part-time, not least to make their familial and professional duties more compatible with one another. Thus, the findings from a study carried out by the University of Vienna during the coronavirus crisis hardly seem surprising: the study concluded that women are significantly more dissatisfied with the situation than men “because of the relatively high demands of household chores and childcare, which were mainly shouldered by women already before the crisis, the increase of which has multiplied a great deal since the beginning of lockdown restrictions.” A fair re-negotiation of gender-specific arrangements is nowhere to be seen; quite to the contrary – traditional gender roles that had been believed to be long gone and their related distributions of duties have come to new life during the current situation of crisis, and relationships of dependency have intensified.

Women, (rather not) stay at home!

It does not come as a surprise that initial data from other countries have shown a significant increase in domestic violence since the beginning of lockdown measures. This is in line with the many years of experience of Austrian women’s shelters, which see a rise in domestic violence whenever families tend to spend much time together, for example, during the Christmas holidays. This is heightened by the fact that times of crisis accompanied by the enormous psychological stress that is caused can be perceived as an insult of male pride, thus increasing the aggressive and violent potential of men with corresponding dispositions. It is not rare that frustration over a job loss, over-cramped living conditions or increased boredom, as well as job-related stress are taken out on their partners or children. One example is an attempted murder that took place in Baden (Lower Austria) at the end of March 2020. A man had beat his sleeping wife nearly to death with a wooden log in the middle of the night. When asked for the reasons during his interrogation, he said that working night after night from home had “overwhelmed” him. In Italy, a man even strangled his partner because he thought that she had infected him with the virus. In April 2020, the Austrian women’s emergency telephone service Frauenhelpline recorded a 70% increase in the number of calls while the number of restraining orders had increased only slightly. Experts believe that the lack of a significant increase in Austria up until this point might have a variety of reasons: it might not always be possible to make undisturbed phone calls; women might not be informed correctly about their options (or not informed at all); the driving force of an encouraging exchange with others might be lacking due to the contact restrictions, or financial hardship due to a job loss or short-time work might exponentiate dependencies. There are even stories of men taking their partners’ mobile phones away from them. The statement of the Austrian Federal Minister for Women and Integration, “We have succeeded in providing help to every woman in need,” does not only seem far-fetched, but also represents a minimisation of the situation. Particularly because violence in the close social environment is a permanent societal problem that only peaks during times of crisis, government measures like the campaign Sicher zu Hause (“Safe at Home”) or a budgetary increase for the women’s helpline have long been overdue. Already before the coronavirus crisis, many women’s organisations have been directing their criticism of the dwindling of financial resources for violence protection and prevention during the past few years towards the conservative/green government. This makes it all the more important and necessary to keep relevant campaigns and institutions funded even after the pandemic. However, as austerity measures can be expected with certainty, this might mean the end of this hope.

How anti-feminists are utilising the coronavirus crisis

For example, U.S. Archbishop emeritus Raymond Leo Burke construed a connection between the virus and anti-discriminatory gender policies: as he put it, “Great evils like pestilence are an effect… of our actual sins”, those being, amongst other things, abortion, assisted suicide, LGBTIQ* rights and the “devastating effect on individuals and families of the so-called gender theory.” In addition, he emphasised “the necessity of Catholics to pray and worship in their churches and chapels” despite measures of social distancing – otherwise, gender theory would be winning. Likewise, Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbaş, linked the outbreak of COVID-19 in his first sermon on the occasion of the month of fasting, Ramadan, to homosexuality and being unmarried, which brought about illnesses and caused a whole generation to rot. It does not seem surprising that his statements received the backing of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Quite in line with this, anti-feminists are overjoyed with the societal backlash described above, which has been forcing men and women alike back into more traditional roles and dependencies. They are glad that discourses of gender equality have been silenced, that mortality statistics do not indicate a third gender, and that access to abortions has become more difficult. On top of that, they feel that their concept of the heterosexual (nuclear) family as a bulwark in times of crisis has been proven right, thus receiving its duly wished-for revaluation. Particularly in crises, they argue, stereotypical role models bring about comfort and security. One of them, German anti-feminist Birgit Kelle, celebrates the fact that the coronavirus crisis created a “new self-confidence of mothers”, who “in the very moment when public order and its artificial pressure on mothers collapse, matter-of-factly return to a role that some never even left on their own accord, but which they were forced to abandon.” Another anti-feminist triumph is the fact that home-schooling “has become possible suddenly and extensively”, thus finally bringing education back under parents’ control – protecting children from the harmful influence of school education and the influence of early sex education in particular. Given the fact (or rather, the claim) that everything went so well, voices around the anti-feminist action group Demo für Alle (“Demonstration for All”) are demanding the abolition of compulsory schooling.

In conclusion, it can be said that gender is a critical category that is surfacing within the wide variety of effects the current pandemic has caused. Thus, problem-solving strategies that take this concept into account become even more important. In accordance with this, it cannot be sufficient to applaud the indispensable and yet badly paid employees who uphold the system once a day while no efforts are made to improve the working conditions and salaries of those occupational groups. This would be as important as financial security in order to combat dependencies, reliefs in view of multiple workloads (e.g. by means of a corona parental leave) or the sustainable funding of violence protection organisations. Another significant contribution might be seriously taking account of gender budgeting in recovery packages or the upcoming austerity measures, as well as the closer involvement of women’s organisations into the decision-making process. On top of that, the re-negotiation of gender-specific societal arrangements should not be forgotten after the crisis has passed.

Judith Goetz holds degrees in Literary and Political Science and is a lecturer at various universities. She is a member of the research group Ideologien und Politiken der Ungleichheit (“Ideologies and Policies of Inequality”, and of the research network Frauen und Rechtsextremismus (“Women and Right-Wing Extremism”,

Her main interests include women/gender and the extreme right, as well as anti-feminism. Most recently, she was co-editor of the anthologies Untergangster des Abendlandes. Ideologie und Rezeption der rechtsextremen ‘Identitären’ (Marta Press, 2017) and Rechtsextremismus Band 3: Geschlechterreflektierte Perspektiven (Mandelbaum, 2019).

Defiant Pensioners

We are happy to host the poetic voices of the Defiant Pensioners (Prkosni Penzioneri) from Serbia in our series Thirsty for Words. Throughout the last weeks of quarantine, the Defiant Pensioniers have continued to write poems, both from their retirement homes or under strict lockdown in their flats. The artist group ŠKART from Belgrade has made videos for some of them and also illustrated the poems.

The Defiant Pensioners are best introduced through their own words:

The garden of poetry is everyone’s
(some selfishly think – no one’s).
The defiant pensioners do not idle about.

They united their poetic tools in 2014 at a ŠKART workshop in Zrenjanin and have cherished their garden ever since, despite everything, keeping it from withering away.

Today in a Retirement Home

I chat up grannies, banter with greybeards
Everyone’s fiercely glaring at me
Corona is the word of the day
About it I have nothing to say

I read books, compose rhymes and then
Often resort to things forbidden
On YouTube I watch all sorts of clips
The teeth I’ve left are but three odd chips

All my books I have read,
My old worries I have shed.
What a joy, oh, poor me
Just junk remains eventually.

Now I’ll be sour awhile
And once again I will compile
Some Coronavirus hearsay,
So that I keep them at bay!!!

Dušan Todić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, April 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART A Cat

A pair of beds
a chair
a door

Irma, my roommate
Sits alone
caresses the air
and moans.

What are you up to, Irma?

Feeding the cats,
Can’t you see?
I really am, I swear
On my mother’s grave.

Bogdanka Kelemen Lalić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, April 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART Wall

Don’t want to socialize with walls
They are life threatening
They sputter loneliness
How to escape them with my fettered, bare feet
Me within my own four walls.

The four walls blurred the eyes easily
Clipped imagination’s wings
And gave me but an album to leaf through
Flooding me with the photos’ black and white memories

Within the four walls there is no image, or sound
Just a distant booming like when bells resound
And as for colours, all shades of gray thrive
How to endure this alive
Me in between the four walls

Pava Martinović, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, April 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART Masks

Stage masks.
Home masks,
Soul masks
How much more
This black carnival?
Hey, people,
Don’t go out
Stay at home!

Nenad Terzioski, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, March 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART Sharing

It is nice
to share
if we have something
to share
the little something
that we did
not share
has remained
to be shared

Mira Vasić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, March 2020

Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART The Stare

With a persistent stare
Straight in the eyes –
I drive away unwanted strangers’ cats
from my yard.
I feed sparrows,
And with the cats, it all resembles a ploy.

I swear,
I don’t know which sense of theirs warned them
They first stood there frozen
Staring back
And then they withdrew.
I would never know
What these unfamiliar strangers’ cats
Had sniffed in me.
I dread
I’d be reborn
As an unwanted cat.

Rada Gava, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Bela Crkva, March 2020
The text was received via telephone (RG) and animated live, using auxiliary materials, a pair of hands and a pair of legs (Škart).

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PGlmcmFtZSB0aXRsZT0iRGVmaWFudCBQZW5zaW9uZXJzOiBQT0dMRUQiIHdpZHRoPSI2NDAiIGhlaWdodD0iMzYwIiBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3LnlvdXR1YmUuY29tL2VtYmVkL3E1ejA0WWc4ZzZFP2ZlYXR1cmU9b2VtYmVkIiBmcmFtZWJvcmRlcj0iMCIgYWxsb3c9ImFjY2VsZXJvbWV0ZXI7IGF1dG9wbGF5OyBlbmNyeXB0ZWQtbWVkaWE7IGd5cm9zY29wZTsgcGljdHVyZS1pbi1waWN0dXJlIiBhbGxvd2Z1bGxzY3JlZW4+PC9pZnJhbWU+The Ears of the Neighborhood

“Quarantine is the latest craze!” my mom’s greengrocer says, and adds in soothsayer’s voice: “Do not just sit there like a load within your private nursing abode. Could you stay at least partially mobile perchance, by doing perhaps some comical dance? Don’t let them move you out of your own cozy bed, to where you’d recline under a stone overhead!”

Bata Kara-Pešić, defiant pensioner
In quarantine, Belgrade, April 2020
The text was received via telephone (BKP) and animated live, using auxiliary materials, a pair of hands and a pair of legs (Škart).

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The workshops hosted by Škart in various gerontology centers are supported by: IWC Charity Fund (International Women’s Club), Belgrade
PPP’s (Paper Puppet Poetry) animation is supported by: Borderline Offensive + CZKD, Belgrade

Special thanks to the wonderful translator Milan Marković and to Dragan Protić Prota from ŠKART for never giving up on poetry.

G. M. Tamás: The Nationality of a Virus

As it was to be expected, the authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe have used the coronavirus epidemic as a pretext to enlarge, to extend, to harden their power and, in the case of Hungary, to put finally the constitutional system out of its misery, where – for an idefinite period of time – the only source of law (Rechtsquelle) is now the supreme leader, Mr Orbán. What a bore.

Like always in such cases, people in richer and cleaner, better appointed and better equipped countries are asking themselves piously, how on earth could East Europeans put up with this sort of annoying nonsense.

Well, one thing is that people everywhere are prepared to submit to a new public order that has no precedent in interfering with individual, even physical, liberty to this extent, in regulating individuals’ movement and proximate human intercourse, prohibiting work, presence in public places and so on, something no outlandish tyranny would have ever dared to demand in the darkest of ages. In this, apparently voluntary, obedience East Europeans are no worse than anyone else, on the contrary, they are as a rule less disciplined than most Western nations.

But politics is different.

East Europeans are not protesting the loss of a liberty they do not believe in anyway.

It is not a question of the preternatural hypocrisy of the bourgeois order where individual freedom has been contrasted – for long centuries – with the lack of social justice. This is a little deeper and a little more specific than the old thing that (to quote Leonard Cohen) everybody knows.

In order to defend itself and its autonomy, a civic community will have to know itself as such, but East European societies would not dream of imagining themselves to be ‘civic communities’.

This, like most things, has historical origins.

In our backward and hidebound imaginations, we East Europeans have only one memory of a ‘civic community’, to wit, the one based on common ownership: not the ‘common ownership of the means of production’ in the strict old-Marxist sense, but the common ownership of everything that matters. Not only the factory, not only the barracks, not only the university, but also the family apartments in the council estates (or Plattenbau in the GDR or the Arbeitersiedlungen in Red Vienna), the summer camps, the workers’ clubs, the libraries and so on, meaning work and leisure, public and private, social and personal – literally, everything that matters.

A ‘civic community’, according to East Europeans, existed when the community seemed to own and to rule and to arrange for places to live and to work and to be ‘ourselves together’. Obviously, not everybody liked that, but those who didn’t, did not like communities either. When what was called, rather imprecisely, ‘real socialism’ was asked to join the company of everybody else, East Europeans calculated that politics – which appeared to them to be a question of commitment and mobilisation – has ended altogether. No community, no politics. Individual liberty equals the primacy and the preponderance of the personal. (Compare my earlier essay, ‘1989: The End of What?’)

As long as individual variety with all its quirks and styles did not seem to be touched by state brutality and prejudice was tolerated in its virtual infinity, the East European malaise was not thought to be a matter of freedom or not.

Power, of course, belongs to the owners separated from the community – as it has earlier belonged to the community of owners – hence there is no freedom for people who would constitute a civic community if they had power, the power of ownership. But they don’t.

So when people such as myself would make a fuss about the abolition of the ‘rule of law’, of ‘constitutionalism’ and such, i. e., about the suppression of civic liberty, East Europeans would ask, well, didn’t you guys of 1989 say that the state is there to protect us from its own interference. But now it isn’t the state that interferes, but the virus. The constitution was put there because there is no civic community which could defend itself even without such pieces of paper if it existed. But it doesn’t. So get lost.

It isn’t true that East Europeans don’t care about freedom. They do. But they were taught by quite respectable thinkers from Aristotle to Spinoza to Hegel that freedom without civic power is not much. If they could be tempted, again, by an idea of liberty, the political seducers will have to answer questions concerning common ownership and the ability of a civic community to furnish our lives – work and sex and leisure and study and art and sleep – with the ability only property confers, as both real socialism and real capitalism are teaching us without the shadow of a doubt.

I am in two minds about this.

Quite apart from my old dissident antipathy for ‘real socialism’, I believe – without any liberal illusions – that under capitalism (especially state capitalism that might take over from ‘neoliberal globalisation’ which had ceased to function a number of years ago in any case) the guarantee against arbitrary rule can only be a guarantee of paper, that is, a text, deemed to be uncontrovertible, both upholding and opposing the rule of fact which is, as everybody knows, money and firepower. Law is where you can, under capitalism, to negotiate liberty without an unmediated regard for property.

Many East Europeans think that this doesn’t make a great deal of difference. And it frequently doesn’t. However we judge this, arbitrary, lawless authoritarianism is growing, with a true religion of inequality (class, race, nationality, gender, age, health, education, housing, degree of pollution), and socialism – real or imaginary – is nowhere. But we must admit that constitutionalism is not anywhere, either. It has vanished without eliciting comment. The problem seems to be, are there enough masks, gloves, protective clothing, disinfectants, intensive-care beds, crematoria, cemeteries and dustbins. Nobody seems to be interested in where would they come from. The civic community is absent, the state functions in a vacuum – therefore inefficiently – and the increased powers refer to something (such as, say, ‘society’) the reality of which is rejected with our distinctive brand of humour.

Meanwhile, people are dying, alone, forced by the current etiquette to eschew saying good-bye to their children.

G. M. Tamás (*1948 in Kolozsvár/Cluj, Romania) is a Hungarian philosopher and writer. Forced to emigrate from Romania to Hungary in 1978, he taught for two years at the University of Budapest (ELTE) but was then dismissed for having published (and signed openly) illegal tracts in samizdat. He subsequently became a leading figure in the East European dissident movement. From 1986 to the present day, Tamás has held numerous appointments and fellowships (a. o. at the Central European University, Budapest/Vienna; Oxford (Columbia); Woodrow Wilson Center, Chicago; Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; University of Georgetown, New School at Yale; Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna). He was elected to Parliament in 1990 and elected Director of the Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1991. In 1994 and 1995, respectively, he has stepped down from both. Later, he lost his job at the Academy of Sciences – this instigated public protests.
Currently, he is Visiting Professor at CEU’s Department of Sociology, Budapest/Vienna.

The versatility of Tamás’ political philosophy and theory is remarkable: over the course of his lifetime, his views gradually shifted to the left. He is said to belong to the circle of heretical European Marxists.

Selected works: Essay on Descartes (1977), Törzsi fogalmak (Tribal Concepts, Collected Philosophical Papers, 2 volumes, 1999), L’Oeil et la main (1985), Les Idoles de la tribu (1989), Telling the Truth about Class (Socialist Register, vol. 42, 2006), Innocent Power (2012), Postfascism şi anticomunism (2014), Ethnicism After Nationalism (Socialist Register, vol. 52, 2015), Kommunismus nach 1989 (2015), K filosofii socializmu (2016), Komunizem po letu 1989 (2016).

G. M. Tamás’s piece The Nationality of a Virus has been published in German in the May issue of Tagebuch, a “leftist, unorthodox magazine” from Vienna, discussing issues of politics and culture.