Amy Hempel’s very short eponymous story (it’s barely eight lines long) from her recent collection Sing to It: New Stories (2019), opens with the following: ‘At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else.’01 Nothing is like anything else. Some years ago, a friend shared an odd experience she had on a plane, flying from Toronto to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She was sitting next to a young man from Pakistan, aged around 22 or 23, en route from Karachi to take up a graduate scholarship at the University of Saskatchewan. He had the window seat; my friend had the aisle. As they were getting close to their destination, the young man tapped my friend on the shoulder and asked: ‘What is all that whiteness down there?’ My friend leaned over and looked out the window and of course everywhere down below was carpeted with snow. When I have retold this story, people have usually thought it can’t be true as they assume almost everyone, especially those travelling to Canada for postgraduate studies, would know what snow was, how it looked, that it was white. And sometimes I have thought that maybe I have got the story wrong, that I’ve forgotten a detail or indeed made something up.
But recently I was flying to Saskatoon, probably on the same scheduled flight as my friend and the young man from Pakistan. I was going to Saskatchewan to make a film, and as I needed lots of snow, I was travelling there in the middle of winter. As the plane approached Saskatoon, I too looked out the window and for the first time I think I understood why that young man had been puzzled by what he saw. There was indeed snow, lots of it, everywhere. But there was a strangeness to what I saw and this was not simply due to the fact of snow. Saskatchewan is almost completely flat (there are no mountains, barely any hills) with a tiny population (it’s exactly five times the size of England with less than one million people) and there are few cities and towns. Looking out the plane window, the whiteness seemed to me to go on and on forever with little articulation. It didn’t really look like ‘snow’ at all. Rather it appeared as a strange and unworldly whiteness, with its own peculiar perspectival and spatial laws. It was strange too because it was not completely unfamiliar: there were still a few roads, buildings, occasional trees, etc., but nothing looked exactly right. A modern populated region almost completely covered with snow is not the same as an empty Arctic expanse. And if I wasn’t so accustomed to the sight, I might well have asked the person next to me what it was I was looking at.
In March, the initial experience of the Covid-19 pandemic – international lockdowns, a disaster mise-en-scène – felt to me a little like going to bed one night, with everything outside clearly articulated, sharp contours as normal, and waking up and realising that while I slept the world had been carpeted with a deep layer of snow. Many of the usual markings, divisions between spaces, recognisable signs of life were gone. In this way there had been a kind of magical defamiliarisation of the earth and all its formal, social and political consequence. But in some ways, many things still looked the same – unfamiliar while remaining somewhat familiar. The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky describes this device – ostranenie – as the quintessential art effect, the work in the work of art – the work, that is, of making the world, or some aspect of it, strange. When looking at a work of art, you know what you are looking at, but somehow you also don’t. Recognition, misrecognition is a trope, given substantive value by Sigmund Freud in his description of disavowal as the work of the unconscious in the face of a different kind of strangeness – sexual difference. With both defamiliarisation and strangeness, certain things – difference, history, repression, etc. – are revealed, often as if for the first time. Or at least they can be if one pays close attention. It’s an effect that can be both political as well as psychoanalytical. It’s what Freud, in another text, called the Unheimlich, the uncanny.
In a way this strangeness means that the world looks back at the viewer, challenges them to see difference, to see something new, as if the world’s very form (in all of its complexities) has been overdetermined by something homologous to this aesthetic effect. This might explain why for some it seems so difficult to imagine what an artistic or aesthetic response to the pandemic might be. For a long time, many artists couldn’t go to their studios. Some couldn’t go outside. Many lost their income. Dozens of art institutions that have heretofore supported and presented their works have since shrunk and even disappeared. Perhaps some will not even be artists anymore. It’s an unfamiliar landscape.
But the idea of a ‘response’ is far too transactional, too myopic, and would instinctively miss the radical possibilities of this new, changing landscape. Perhaps it’s the instinct that needs to be resisted here. Do we, for instance, really need works of art that play coy creative with the mask motif? Probably not, or not yet anyway. What, then, is to be done? It’s a familiar question, that even at the ‘best of times’ is troubling, enigmatic and hard to grasp, but now is differently torqued. How to imagine an art that can be contemporary with this new world form – able to respond to the pandemic phenomenon’s own seemingly totalising aesthetic. It might be a question, for instance, of how we make that defamiliarising effect have an impact and consequence adequate to the differences it exposes. Art can make things strange; but if everything is now strange, then what? How can artists depict, transliterate, ponder, muse, reckon with this devastating snow storm that has transformed our landscape beyond recognition and, temporarily at least, revealed through amplification societies’ racist divisions and diminishing social and economic prospects for the many as the sine qua non of comprehensive nefarious political repressions?
Certainly a defamiliarising effect can enable an opportunistic disenchantment. If, for instance, we have wondered, as most have, whether things will ever ‘return to normal’, we have at least been forced to consider how such nostalgia is simply a longing for something that never really existed, at least uniformly, consistently or satisfactorily for many. Normal for a few; hell for others. In the context of the pandemic’s divisions, ‘normal’ reveals its contradictory, complex meaning and erasures. Some have been excited by this effect, not necessarily happy or pleased, but excited nevertheless – awake, temporarily at least, to the dreary, contingent and reactionary ‘normal’ of their lives. And for some, even those who don’t exactly glimpse possibility, pessimism has certainly become an engine, un cri perçant. Pessimism, as Eugene Thacker has characterised it, is an enchantment with disenchantment, ‘an ecstasy of the worst’.02 So while some remain anxious (still longing perhaps for that impossible normal), others have become exhilarated, angry and defiant. The pandemic has erased our normal, made the latter, at least for now, palpable and tendentious
Sometimes you need real darkness to see something different, to experience invention. Creativity, as Peter Wollen once wrote, ‘always makes use of what it can scavenge by night’.03Henry James writes that ‘the rarest works pop out of the dusk of the inscrutable, the untracked’.04 Light wages war with itself, I read somewhere, and if you are looking for new planets in distant galaxies, you understand that all the wonderful magical light from a billion stars, both dead and alive, is simply pollution that stops you seeing. If you want to see something, really see it, you need to see past the light, and catch the dark precarity. Darkness, like silence, is a location: full of meaning, full of possibility. Darkness is doubt, an unsettling uncertainty, a lack of self-confidence – what Maurice Merleau-Ponty found in Paul Cézanne, for instance: a doubt without end. When we look into the dark, when we look attentively, ‘normal’ explodes; it disintegrates; we lose our balance. 05
I believe that the chill I feel in this darkness is the thrill of contemporaneity. The feeling that this space, this out of time moment, will breathe into the future as a vital memory of now, of something that happened, that evolved somewhere, where you are. This chill then connects you to this moment, makes you feel more than a witness, but part of its essential form. I think you can feel this thrill, or rather its evanescence, in that momentary and profound disappointment you experience when you finally find something you had thought for a moment you had lost, and that if you had lost would have imposed difficulty at best, devastation at worst. You found what you were looking for, what you needed to find, but somehow you wish you hadn’t. For that material loss would seem hardly worse than the disappearance of the momentary thrill you experienced that something wholly unpredictable was about to change the course of (your) history, before the light returned and a kind of adjectival normal was imposed. Holding that moment in suspended animation, now that’s an effort of invention. In Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Cathedral’,06 Robert, a blind friend, persuades the narrator to draw a cathedral with his eyes closed, so that he can experience the creative act in darkness, like a blind person might. When the drawing is finished, Robert tells the narrator to open his eyes and see what he has made. But the narrator doesn’t; he keeps his eyes closed, to extend the moment, to experience his own drawing in total darkness for a little longer. The story ends with the blind Robert asking the narrator if he’s now in fact looking at the drawing. The narrator, his eyes still shut, only darkness at his fingertips, replies, ‘it’s really something.’
Things now are ‘extraordinary’ – palpable, deep, layered and most of all strange. There might even emerge the feeling that if, day by day, things weren’t made strange afresh, then this would itself be truly strange. This strangeness, then, is itself really something. It really ‘is’. Its darkness, the resistance, no matter how short-lived, to any return to normal, means we all have to engage in a reckoning. With dizzying, minatory inequality, in disease as in life. Black Lives Matter. Monuments to slavery impose. There remain, of course, agents – states, those with ill-considered stakes – who insist on the return of some status quo ante, or preach ‘tolerance’ as panacea. Tolerance can certainly be a virtue, but as Michael Wood reminds us, ‘all kinds of things which are not virtues can hide in its skirts, and […] tolerance itself may be indistinguishable from condescension.’ 07
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, ‘You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument’, the poet Caroline Randall Williams writes: ‘The black people I come from were owned and raped by the white people I come from […]. I have rape-coloured skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. Who dares to tell me to celebrate them?’ 08 To argue now for historical context, tolerance, the specificity of prior aesthetic judgement and so on, feels blind, completely out of context, violent even. Williams might well have quoted Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment(1866): ‘In place of dialectics, life has arrived.’ Art’s complicity. Art’s failure. And finally, art’s opportunity.
For this, our 50th issue of Afterall, the seven editors have each written texts and commissioned essays, responding independently to the particularities and the strangeness of these critical, strange and darkened times. Each has brought their own history, geography and practice to this editorial septuple; and each has also chosen seven works of art that seem significant, powerful and appropriate now. When we were planning this issue we had initially thought that when all the essays were written and works of art chosen, that we would then round up the selection of artworks by choosing a 50th. Fifty works for issue 50. But we unexpectedly stumbled. We realised that in the spirit of this issue’s editorial idea, that the 50th, final work would really need to be chosen by all of us together. Yet this would have undermined, contradicted even, the predicate of the editorial imperative. On reflection the lacuna here seems appropriate, consequential. Perhaps it can stand in for all the important and significant works made in both the glare and shadow of this past year’s strangeness, works that have been produced but have not yet been recognised as such.
Finally we want to acknowledge the instrumental and creative energy of Ute Meta Bauer. Ute joined Afterall four years ago and jointly edited and guided the development of all issues since then, including both this and the next, issue 51; but sadly, Ute and NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore are leaving Afterall at the end of this year. Ute and her team will be greatly missed. We also want to acknowledge the important intellectual work of Ana Bilbao, Charles Esche, Anders Kreuger and David Morris in developing the journal over the years. With this new issue we warmly welcome our new editors: Amanda Carneiro, Nav Haq, Amber Husain and Adeena Mey. Elizabeth Karp-Evans and Adam Turnbull of Pacific have produced this issue’s innovative design.
Amy Hempel, Sing to It, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019, p.2.
Eugene Thacker, Infinite Resignation, London: Repeater Books, 2018, p.271.
Peter Wollen, Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth Century Culture, London: Verso, 1993, p.210.
Henry James, ‘Letter to Graham Balfour’, November 1901.
But there is room for caution here too. Roland Barthes warns against the night, when ‘the adjectives return, en masse’ (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard, London: Papermac, 1995, p.115). For Barthes, the adjective is enlisted to rob things of their truth – it reassures us, it pits language ‘against’, and hides the meaningless of meaning as everything becomes pithy, trite.
Raymond Carver, ‘Cathedral’, Cathedral, New York: Knopf, 1983.
Michael Wood, ‘The Meaninglessness of Meaning’, London Review of Books, vol.8, no.17, 1986.
Caroline Randall Williams, ‘You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument’, The New York Times, 26 June 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/opinion/confederate-monuments-racism.html (last accessed on 7 October 2020).