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.
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.
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.
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.