A Crisis of Immediacy

I wonder if other writers feel as though they are throwing words by the hopeful fistful into a void, into the place where an audience might be. This hoped-for-reader is on my mind because I feel I should apologise for having taken so long to think these thoughts and align them so that I can throw them into that void.

There is no reason for apologies, however, because my hoped-for-reader doesn’t know that my current thoughts are inspired by a planned but only partly written series of posts from two-and-a-half years ago. Yet I feel I am writing an overdue assignment on the last day of class.

My thoughts are not timely. I worry this means they are no good. This is a strange feeling, to worry not that the words that carry our thoughts are inadequate but rather that they have gestated too long, such that tossing them into the void ceases to be a hopeful act of communication and becomes rather like dropping a crumpled page into the nearest bin.

Artwork from wraphome.org

Artwork from wraphome.org

Those many months past I wanted to write more about the economic crisis, about the disaster in the making that was “austerity”. In particular I wanted to consider what virtues might help us to navigate what seemed an all-encompassing crisis. But the moment has passed, surely. Right? There’s talk now of recovery even in Britain and signs of changing attitudes in Europe.

The urgent need to respond seems to be gone, but I wonder how it passed. None of the economic inequalities that shocked us have changed. The people most affected by the events of the past several years are still suffering. There are no solutions being discussed, much less put to work. Like lovers drawn together by powerful chemistry but with terrible timing, common sense demands that we leave our passion to the past, with the fleeting moment unrealised.

But what determines the ripeness of any moment? Who blesses our words with timeliness?

The felt need to respond – that calling out of our conscience – can only occupy us so long before its power fades. Our moral outrage is replaced by other concerns. Our alarm at the state of the world is turned into a cynical acceptance of the unacceptable. We accept the unacceptable because if we do not habituate our selves to it we could hardly make our way through the world actively living such contradictions.

The wealthy and the powerful manipulated the system till it broke and once it broke they pushed the consequence of that breakdown on to those who were left out of their bonanza. They have not been held accountable.

Yet what once caused outrage in me now incites only a dull disgust. Why? It seems already too late for anger, and without the impetus provided by anger what hope is there for action? We all know how awful the world is and how hopeless we feel. Our inability to be timely or effective when our conscience is aroused is psychologically deadening. Again like lovers out of synch we dismiss the rush of emotion as memory, though remembering is actually an experience of the present by which we resign ourselves to keeping the inflamed moment of outrage in the muffled rooms of memory and the immediate experience that taught us so much about the disorder of things succumbs to the dampening weight of the order of things.

The injunction to be timely is oppressive. The events of the world rattle by with a speed and nearness that steals our breath like a train rushing past the platform. As an intellectual of some description I feel the demand for sound bites, policy relevance, clear messaging, instant commentary – IMPACT! Yet, it is not events that make these impatient demands. Who does? We make them of ourselves, as we’ve learned to make them of others.

The love of speed is swiftly (of course) becoming (has become) the desire that cannot be denied, even if we might hesitate to speak its name in rapturous timbre. I am embarrassed of the lust for speed that wells up in me, embarrassed because I do not feel worthy of this fast moving world and its shinning idols. There are too many articles, blogs and tweets for me to keep up with. The list of things to read only grows. I am sure everyone else is better informed and has formed their opinion already. They must already have achieved the clarity that always eludes me.

I also feel embarrassed by the libidinous energy swelling in me that is not mine. We have learned to desire speed the same way we have learned to desire coca cola, smart phones and the hairless silicone icons of impossible inhuman beauty – though repetition, shame and the promise of transcendence. The desire that wells up inside of me for this swift and shimmering world does not cause me shame because I believe in some natural or true set of desires but because the desire for that advertised world contradicts my overt desires, threatens to push other pleasures further from my attention.

I hate all this speed. I hate these demands to attend constantly to the ever-unfolding newness of the moment. I hate the psychic current that activates my desire, that distorts and overloads my desire for other things. I hate this because it makes immediacy impossible.

Flush with energy, immediacy is not about speed or timeliness but rather fullness. Immediacy can as easily slow us and connect us to the distant past as it can hurriedly thrust into a future still to be made. All this panting for the new, this lusting after speed disconnects us from the world and ourselves; it is a love in which the self is abdicated and in which communion is aborted. Dwelling in immediacy is an ethical statement.

I think of what austerity has meant these past years. It is a memory made up of reports from Athens of failing hospitals and fascist street gangs killing helpless foreigners in the streets, of angry students smashing the windows of the Tory party’s headquarters because they knew their future was being made worse by those privileged man-boys, of walking among Skid Row’s deprived and homeless residents in Los Angeles feeling like an observer in a refugee camp, of community meetings in Chicago where people came together to share stories of abuse and plans for a future they know they will have to fight for every day.

It doesn’t make sense to me that I can know what has happened to so many blameless communities but my anger now feels excessive when I know it is as justified as ever.

The echo of the demand for speed is cynicism. Injunctions to attend to “now” reflect off of us and we reply with cynicism, with the quick and easy critique, with the ready-made world-weariness that belies our emptiness. We have nothing to say. We lack the time to absorb, reflect, or articulate. Worse still we lack the self-possession to call out, “Stop!”

“…”

And what do we stop for? We don’t even have time to know.

There is a film, “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food“, that follows a deprived young man as he survives on the streets of Athens. It is a heartbreaking film and I cannot describe its power here. I watched it at the London Film Festival in 2012 and what has stayed with me all that time was how it showed the activity of life as an exchange, as the conversion of matter into energy, of fuel into action.

boy_landscape

The impoverished young man in the film must calculate carefully how much food he eats, how much water he uses, how much energy he expends. These calculations are vital because he has so little; he has no money, no resources, no relationships, no skills. He lives austerity and shows us its inevitable consequence, a state of equilibrium that is even less than death. Acts of kindness, moments of joy, fits of rage, the comfort of love are sacrificed. Life becomes a continuous moment of survival devoid of any immediacy.

And the young man knows he wants this constant exchange of bare survival to stop but it is not clear what stopping it could possible achieve. In the film he makes a romantic connection with a young woman but it provides no escape. Survival has no resources for love. And the speed of the world pushes us past each other long enough to exchange glances, to run hands briefly over bodies, to exchange fluids, but not to dwell in the immediacy of another human being’s needs and desires.

If we did slow ourselves what would we do?

The unfortunate and abused victims of austerity are still there, still struggling. The inequality of our world is as vicious as ever. The pernicious men and women who benefit from the order of things are as blithely indifferent to all this as they were before.

But does dwelling in immediacy threaten to overwhelm us with the hurt and unhappiness we experience? The only insight I have is that along with allowing us to see the unacceptable condition of things, slowing down makes space to move from an isolating and despondent anger to a careful and loving communion. These ideas of love, care and communion may generate a kind of embarrassment for many intellectuals (maybe especially for academics). They seem soft, naïve and ineffectual ideas but I think our ethical response to the disorder of things must start here.

I have sat in many classrooms, seminars and pubs with brilliant minds all too aware of how ugly the world has become, empowered with a knowledge of how it got that way, but that energy dissipates quickly because it is not sustaining. I take hope from having spent many days and evenings over the past two years with communities in opposition to the order of things, not merely surviving and resisting but caring and loving first and foremost, trying to build sustaining communities. In cluttered meeting rooms, church basements, backyards and crowded around tables to share a meal I have seen a different response to the challenge of maintaining immediacy that starts with love and care rather than anger or outrage – though those feelings are present the focus shifts to sustaining a sense of shared purpose and concern for others.

Lessons in organising at One DC

Lessons in organising at One DC

In August I was fortunate to see the final stages of One DC’s struggle to move displaced public housing residents back into their homes. The fight took 10 years and many of the displaced residents gave up in the process, some died before it was time to move back, but the former residents of Kelsey Gardens will be moving into new homes this year. It was powerful to see this small victory (small in scale but not significance), as the displaced residents were returning to new apartments, new amenities and to their community thanks to their own determination and the loving and sustaining community that made it possible to be so persistent for so long. This seems a vital lesson.

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30 thoughts on “A Crisis of Immediacy

  1. Apology accepted. I definitely agree with your point but would generalize it towards the inadequacy of impulse to ensure that justice is served. Relating to Syria for example, it is not enough to rely on the outrage or emotions of observers because they are fickle and finite in time and scope. That is why institutionalization is so necessary. This is somewhat against Nussbaum.

    • But the same challenge exists for institutions – what do you institutionalise? How do you institutionalise a sense of care and community? I have no idea really. It’s for this reason I find the UN a deeply sad institution. People I know who’ve worked there tend to get ground down, their care and love converted into bureaucratic fuel till they are worn out. Or reading on the early history of the institutions when those involved and the general public were so optimistic – in a way that would seem laughable to most today.

      • I would like to answer that the picture is different in Europe where there exist institutions that actually are meant to take care of community. I would like to answer that the creation of European citizenship has created the drive that transcends solidarity across national borders. But I am sad and disappointed that not even the traditional nation state with its fully fledged institutions, ideologies and unifying narratives – not even this machine that was able to unleash wars over wars and suffering over suffering — is able to tame the distrust that economic hardship is able to cause.

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  3. “We all know how awful the world is and how hopeless we feel. Our inability to be timely or effective when our conscience is aroused is psychologically deadening.” …. I tried to write a response but could not end it on anything upbeat. Now I’m late for work and feeling somewhat despondent. I glanced back over your post and this time the word “immediacy” stood out. No, we can’t tackle the big problems with immediacy. Yes, we should still live in the moment and notice where our help is needed now. I’d love to be able to fix the big stuff, but I’m glad I noticed the elderly lady struggling with a food wrapper and was able to stop and help her.

  4. yes… “other writers feel as though they are throwing words by the fistful into the hopeful void…” But is it an audience you crave more than the urge to write? You said your thoughts are not “timely” and that, that might mean they are “no good” but what is timely anymore? Probably being in the “now” and practicing zen would be most “timely”. Then, one is just doing what one is doing for it’s own sake, be it critical writing, political action or domestic task. So like, sow the seed and hope for rain, but don’t worry so much about the harvest, maybe?

  5. Totally love this. If only the world could embrace the fact that the simple things of life- love, peace, truth etc- are what truly matter, humanity would have been in a better place where equality would be truly seen and not merely heard or talked about.

  6. Wow….thank you for writing this. You have given voice to many of my own unarticulated feelings. I think the issue with writing and immediacy, at least for me, is that I need to give myself the distance that the passing of time creates to truly understand events.

  7. Lovely sentiments. And not at all “soft, naive, and ineffectual.” In fact, one person at a time choosing love instead of anger or indifference is the *only* thing that’s going to get this world out of the mess it’s in.
    I personally think we should tune out all the voices that push immediacy. These are the same voices that dub us “consumers” instead of “people.” I got rid of my TV five years ago and that really helped. Much less stressed. Yeah, I miss some news, but I get what I need.
    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed. Very intelligent and heartfelt post.
    And timely. :-)

  8. Oh, I think anger is still a timely emotion and impetus. All that’s really changed is the proximity of an election. Throw your anger out into the void. I’m sure you’ll hear its echo loud and clear.

  9. What a thoughtful essay!
    I very much agree with you that anger is fueled by the immediacy and proximity of an issue; anger seeks remedial action and once the anger dies down, things often get left behind because the next issue demands attention and outrage.
    Yet, the time for thoughtful action arrives AFTER the anger dies down.
    So the dilemma between the freshness and immediacy of an issue and the time lag required for well-thought out solutions is very much aggravated by the small window of public attention. When was the last time we heard about the after effects of the monstrous storm in the Philipines? And is the need for re-building any less urgent just a few weeks or months later? Now, the wintry conditions in the US take over the news space. And what about follow-up on those tent cities of the unemployed and homeless (in the US) in this brutally cold weather? Were are they now, how are they surviving….?
    I think the only resistance we can offer is by practising quiet time ourselves… what is important to me today, how can I be of service….before we even look at the news, check e-mail, etc. Do we know what our over-riding values are and do we remind ourselves on a daily basis?
    And to link up with people who are committed to the same kind of work and process, so we can hold each other accountable and inspire each other when we feel dejected and overwhelmed by all that’s happening in the world.
    That’s the only way I can think of to stay on our chosen path and to persevere.

  10. Not to carry the entire weight of the world upon your shoulders my friend. Have you ever considered the possibility that this system to breakdown so that we can learn to live and love again? That all these material things about us are lacking in just that?

    However, that does NOT mean that I didn’t enjoy the read. I most certainly did! It will wake more people up to what they’re really up against, and what a long hard haul we’re all in for…

    I must read more to see if it contains the same intensity. If so, I’ll be nominating you for: ‘The Sunshine Award’ given the political side of things. ‘I’ve got one who can see!’ LOL!

  11. Life’s an endurance contest, but without a sense of urgency we won’t be able to survive, much less get anything done. I think you nailed it when you said care and concern rather than talk and ideas. Love comes first, then thoughts, then actions. Great answers proceed from the heart.

  12. Xing DaVinci”The only solution for the world to be some what fix is within out selves. We as Society must become Wiser and Brighter, And more Loving. Not untell i read your blog did i realize the Magnatuid That TheClubOfSolomon.wordpress.com might have.
    It’s Goal is to make a League of Wise people to help conquer the worlds problems. And a community that shows love to everyone.

    Xing DaVinci “I would love to have you lead The discussion on what to do about the World economy, and state of rebuilding. “

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