The not normal
Refusal as a strategy
When reality seems to be gradually melting down, one way to keep building futures is to refuse to go back to normal.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how to begin this conversation, between the news that a health insurance provider in Brazil carried out experiments on COVID-19 patients and the the grim milestone of 600,000 deaths since the onset of the pandemic. Perhaps the only possibility of beginning is summed up by N.K. Jemisin: “let’s start with the end of the world, why not? Let’s just get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”
I just finished watching República, Grace Passô’s short film. I felt a relief in hearing someone else verbalize the conclusion that “Brazil doesn’t exist, it is someone’s dream.” Since 2016, my feeling of living in an increasingly fragile reality has grown gradually worse. People defend opinions and beliefs that contradict their own rights. They insist on them, even though life has gotten harder in recent years. Who can inhabit a Brazil of dreams?
I considered Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 an end of the world. I knew that unemployment would again become a pressing issue, that violence would become even more cruel and commonplace . However, in my pessimistic calculations for the long four years until 2022, a health crisis did not constitute a part of my fears. And yet, here we are.
I have been thinking about the multiple temporalities that we have been experiencing in the last year and a half: from the hyper-connected life that for a long time seemed like a “distant future,” to the precariousness that has hit a part of the middle class, who never imagined that the alliance between neoliberalism and the denial of science would turn patients of a private health provider into laboratory guinea pigs – just as Black people have been used at several points in the history of medical research.
Looking at the coexistence of a supposed future and a past that remains, I compartmentalize my days into tasks: tending the garden, answering emails, translating, and reading. What are your strategies for dealing with our times?
Good to hear from you and to share this feeling of existing in the face of a dream/nightmare. Reading your message reminds me of Lauren Olamina meeting her gang on the way to founding Acorn: it isn’t comfortable, but it’s comforting to find our own. And yes, I agree that the end of the world is always a good place to begin anew. That’s where we are, isn’t it?
I saw this image the other day and was moved to send it to you:
As you write in your poem: country-fiction, inversion, invention, and convention. And always, and before: country-invasion.
It is becoming harder and harder to follow the news – the absurdities revealed in the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into COVID-19, the weekly atrocities of our misgovernment, the normalization of hunger and unemployment by the hegemonic media (“See the nutritional values of eating garbage”). Perhaps the problem of inhabiting the end of the world is this sensation of frozen time: time that doesn’t pass, but just is. As the meme points out, we are at the intersection between the ongoing apocalypse and having to keep working – unfortunately, that intersection is capitalism and we have been here for a few centuries now (nervous laughter).
About the strategies for dealing with our times, I keep thinking about the paradox that Grace Passô creates at the end of República. She says: “Your Brazil is over, and mine never existed.” How do we inhabit this country (this world?) that can end without ever having existed? And I recall this passage from Bifo that Kara Keeling quotes in Queer Times, Black Futures (2019):
My knowledge and my understanding do not demonstrateshow the possibility of any acceptable development out of the present catastrophe. But catastrophe, a word whose etymology stems from the Greek Kata (for “moving”) and Strophein, (for “beyond”), is exactly the point where we “move beyond” the present to the revelation of and a new landscape is revealed. I do not see that landscape because my knowledge and my understanding are limited, and the limits of my language are the limits of my world.
My knowledge and understanding are missing the event, the singularity, that might open onto that new landscape.
So I must act “as if.”
So I keep on acting “as if,” and existing in this breach: answering emails (they never end!), watching movies, writing, reading (much less than I would like), and cooking (listening to music whenever possible). Every now and then I stop and sense the absurdity of it all. But then I have to start all over again: there are always e-mails, and lunch won’t cook itself.
And what about you, Stephanie, do you glimpse something for an after-future? Could it be that after this road we will reach Acorn as well?
Yes, talking to you gives me this sense of encounter, a kind of relief, because even in such a difficult moment the possibility of having conversations like this one is motivation to keep going.
No doubt Brazil is an invasion, but I wonder how much violence is hidden beneath this word. Invasion presupposes attack, theft, dispossession, expulsion. We live in this invasion that has been ongoing under different guises for more than 520 years . Today, the vote on the “Milestone Thesis” and the ongoing illegal artisanal mining are some examples of this project of Brazil that needs to be over with.
I recently took part in a conversation between the architects and researchers Kelly Fernandes and Bianca Tavolari entitled “The city and the future.” They were both very sensitive to the issue of time. How can someone have the right to the city – the possibility of enjoying public space, of going out to a park, a museum – when they spend three hours in public transportation every day to and from work? When they are too busy surviving until the next paycheck arrives?
When I think about the coexistence of present and past, I wonder about the extent to which inequality sustains itself by way of a capitalist system that interferes with people’s agency over time. If one has to work and study, if one barely sleeps, if one has no rest, how can one imagine and act for a better life? Since 2019, I think that part of the strategy to obstruct struggles against neoliberalism is to keep us exhausted.
However, Kelly Fernandes also commented on “movements that build futures,” groups that do not aim for hegemony but create frictions and ruptures in the prevailing dystopian thinking. In these breaches, some people can catch glimpses of change, or actually make change happen. Think of the Landless Workers’ Movement, the cyclists’ movements, the collectives from favelas, the homeless workers’ movements.
Amid the desolate scenario we live in, some hope could be found in the self-organized initiatives in the Paraisópolis favela, and from the solidarity kitchens in the Complexo do Alemão. The Brasilia Indigenous people camp was also a breath of fresh air. Perhaps here we find some of Lauren Olamina’s wisdom in the Parable of the Sower.
We observed large demonstrations against the government, we saw expressive protests against racism and the genocide of the Black population. In the midst of the pandemic, people protested the murder of Kathlen Romeu by the police in Rio de Janeiro, partly inspired by the uproar caused by George Floyd’s case. Although the Brazilian press minimizes these demonstrations with a good deal of cynicism, I think there is a mixture of grief, anger, frustration, and weariness in us – that manifests in our longing for encounters, for the street. Also for Carnival.
For months it has seemed to me the fascists’ strategy extends beyond the bureaucratic administration of genocide, but involves prolonging the health crisis to hinder demonstrations, collective catharsis of mourning and/or joy. Perhaps this is why I have been clinging to small daily gestures of care, like morning walks, tea breaks, watching plants flourish even though the world is chaotic. I’m trying to keep myself healthy in the hope that the time will come to take back the streets.
We live in a moment in which several futures are in dispute. There are future builders who do not think in utopias, but in possibilities. There are invaders eager to consume and exploit whatever is still possible, even if this logic is suicidal. What I hope, at this moment, is that we have some future that gives us a little more margin to keep on creating ruptures, communities, breaches.
Maybe then we can find a way to build our Acorn.
It was your birthday not too long ago, right? I hope you had a beautiful day and that your new year brings renewed joys and affections. I like birthdays, end of years, carnivals, and all those dates (arbitrary or not) of renewal.
Your last message gave me a breath of life, reminding me of all these movements of struggle. “They agreed to kill us, but we agreed not to die,” as Conceição Evaristo said so well. This agreement seems to be part of this collective creation of ruptures, communities, breaches.
Today, by chance, I saw again that part of Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007) in which a solitary penguin walks obstinately in the opposite direction to the sea, into the continent. Herzog’s narration focuses on how inexplicable this gesture is (that will ultimately lead to its death), even though this gesture is repeated from time to time by different penguins and it is impossible to intervene in their resolution. Commenting on the gesture, a friend said that it reminded him of the ending of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The One Who Walk Away from Omelas. What is important in the penguin’s gesture is not the ending (the death), but the dissidence, the radical rupture, the doing of the opposite of what is due, the unexpected. This radical rupture seems to me, in the end, more about fulfilling life than about death. In short, it is this powerful force that also exists in gestures of refusal, right?
(I could have a whole conversation just about refusal, but I’ll leave most of it for therapy…) I really like the definition of refusal by Tina Campt when speaking about the tactics of some contemporary Black artists. She says that refusal is “a rejection of the status quo as livable and the creation of possibility in the face of negation (i.e., a refusal to recognize a system that renders you fundamentally illegible and unintelligible); the decision to reject the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented, using negation as a generative and creative source of disorderly power to embrace the possibility of living otherwise.”
In short: to leave, to get out of the game, to abandon some debates is a life-affirming practice. (Like Sueli Carneiro leaving the editorial board of that newspaper that thinks that publishing racist, sexist or transphobic articles is promoting a ~democratic and plural~ debate of ideas).
A big hug and a happy new year!
yes, it was my birthday last week. As I am still very cautious about the pandemic situation here in Rio de Janeiro, I ended up having a small celebration, at home. But it was good to receive the love of friends with invitations to “see each other outdoors soon.” Finally, the perspective that, little by little, it is possible to resume contact with people beyond the screen.
I’ve been thinking about refusal in recent years, especially in relation to poetry, but the theme seems to have made its way into other spheres of life. I used to worry about writing poems that didn’t align with essentialist ideas about women’s lives, that moved away from images of controlling black bodies, but now refusal is present in everyday choices: not attending an event to stay home and rest, or not following the city hall’s guidance of not wearing a mask in open spaces.
I wasn’t familiar with this definition from Tina Campt, but several of my recent readings resonate with her perspective on issues of refusal and dialogue: Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, Jota Mombaça’s essays in Não Vão nos Matar Agora (They Ain’t Gonna Kill Us Now), Jack Halberstam’s provocations in The Queer Art of Failure. Saying no, retreating, dodging, are important gestures for preserving not only our health but our creative capacities.
I recently interviewed Saidiya Hartman on Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and commented on how her work with archives carefully looks at various forms of refusal – from those who fled the slave trade to people who reject gender roles. She told me that refusal is an important strategy because it is not an open confrontation, but the possibility of being unavailable to others’ demands, to unproductive debates. A form of preservation.
For us, constantly displaced by the invasions, the only thing left is to refuse to go back.
Yesterday, I saw a post by the writer Tathyana Viana in which she says, “I don’t want to go back to being that other me, the one I was before the end of the world.” She meant following her routine more calmly, taking better care of her own health, but it made me think of Ailton Krenak saying that “If we go back to normality, it is because the death of thousands of people meant nothing.”
I wonder how many possibilities for the future open up if we embrace grief, individually and collectively. If we refuse to “go back to the way it was,” in the opposite direction of so many people who are eager to pretend that none of this happened in order to avoid trauma. Which disruptions can we create by refusing to be silent, by talking about the loss, the fear, the fragility that we’ve had to live in since 2020?
If, on the one hand, I believe in the ruptures created by movements and encounters, on the other, I also think that a sum of individual refusals can disrupt some dynamics.
Who knows, maybe “going back” is of interest only to those who prefer a Brazil of dreams and illusions. For us, constantly displaced by the invasions, the only thing left is to refuse to go back. Although there is no open path ahead of us, we will try to create possibilities of life that will need adaptations and changes of course. And perhaps because we know that there is nowhere to go back to and that the unknown awaits us, by following through in the midst of insecurity, we also collaborate to create a little more of a future.
I was wondering how to end this exchange – I mean, end it within this publication, since we will continue in imaginary and concrete dialogues throughout life. You began with the end of the world, and your last messages made me think about the possibilities of recreating the world, of glimpsing futures “in spite of.” I remember that look at the camera from Grace Passô’s character at the end of República. After the dream, after the film within the film, after the double of herself, and the non-existence, she looks at us from the corner of her eye, but lingeringly. It is as if she insists with this gesture that there is still something – a lot? – to imagine in this Brazil that doesn’t exist.
I was happy to read your interview with Saidiya. It was one of those conversations that made sense in my head. (Did you know that Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt call each other academic wives? That expression is so wonderful that I had to digress.) When I first read “Venus in Two Acts,” it was so magical – as if suddenly it was more possible to do research, to look at the accumulation of images of violence against black bodies – also called film history – and not fall into despair. It was as if this dilemma of dealing with archives and black images marked by anti-blackness was more navigable. Not only because I share the tactics of critical fabulation proposed by Saidiya, but above all, because she assumes the always-already impossible and failed condition of this deal – an impossibility that does not lead to paralysis or pessimism, but to a constant ethical and creative commitment. It’s a commitment to the living and to the dead. After all, as Saidiya says, it is also about sticking to the present and doing justice to our dead, which the colonial machine has violated so much and still violates with its “post-colonial” façade. Anyway, with Saidiya I have understood that this “a bit more future” relies on re-imagining “a bit more past” for us (and for our dead). After all, Black speculation does not fit into a merely linear reading of time.
This seems to relate so much to everything you bring up about life after the pandemic and the (im)possibility of going back to normal. I am always left with that question: normal for whom? We’ve been navigating dystopia for so long. We are far more in the afro-surreal realm than in any regime of normality. But we are left with the challenge: how to present and honor these thousands of pandemic deaths in times to come, in these futures that we fabulate through the breaches? I don’t have many answers, but as I said I have learned so much by way of refusal, impossibility, and failure.
I hope to see you outdoors soon, and I wish us futures far from either the new or the old normal.