Issue 2/2020 - Come Together!
To live in the Borderlands means you …
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands.
The current climate crisis and catastrophic predictions for the next decades call for an immediate answer. As in most crisis situations, also now the most vocal are either the messages of immediate, direct action, usually disguised in heroic, brave speech of the winners or those of their direct opposite—nihilism and despair, announced as withdrawal, melancholy or resignation. What comes to mind is the dispute between Susan Sontag and Jean Baudrillard over staging Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo in 1993. While Baudrillard sipped his wine watching another war merely taking place on his tv screen in Paris, and thinking “why don’t we leave them in peace,” Sontag could not sit in New York, and went to Sarajevo, where she invited local actors and producers to stage Beckett’s piece at the Youth Theater (Pozoriste Mladih). The immediacy of Sontag’s action versus the ultimate withdrawal of Baudrillard, still present themselves as the only choice, while there is more. Because the Future is Now.
The concept and also the practice of weak resistance, explores neither of these options, perhaps keeping some sympathy with both of them at the same time. It applies the transversal method of moving across such divides, as it acknowledges its entanglement in the conditions that make us all contradictory creatures, including our professional and political involvements, situatedness and alliances. Like Donna Haraway’s cyborg, also weak resistance has no clean origins, nor it hopes to find some perfect future. Innocence is ideology. Weakness, historically attributed to women and other Europe’s “Others,” can be seen as a beginning of transformative action, as a shifting point, a moment of mobilization. Perhaps we don’t need another Hero. We can act together instead, because the Future is Now.
In his reinterpretation of the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century, Boris Groys argues, that they all aim at building a form of universality, that would overcome class divisions. Their search for abstraction or their claims about overcoming the distinction between art and life, as well as the more contemporary claim, that everyone is an artist, should be understood as (artistic) forms of weak messianism. As we all know, Walter Benjamin’s weak messianism was a pact between generations, a pact of the unprivileged and the weak in their work for emancipation. This solidarity among various generations of the oppressed is not a history written by the victors, though. It is paved with failures. Rosa Luxemburg claimed that we need to learn to fail, and that despair is only available to those, who are not forced to practice resistance and resilience every day. In her politics and in her prison correspondence, she emphasizes the need for overcoming obstacles, sometimes by learning from failures, and sometimes—from observing nature’s self-preservation efforts. Thus, it can be assumed, that she was praising learning from failures, and failing better. This should be remembered, as the Future is Now.
In neoliberal times of accelerated productivity, when every aspect of our agency is enhanced and capitalized at once, not necessarily by us though, we need to remember these old, revolutionary statements in our practices of resistance. Overwhelmed by images, which—as Guy Debord warned us, are petrified replacements of social relations, we can only imagine the future as multiplied experiences of reification, mediated by social media, work assignments, deadlines and consumerist dreams. We float—this is indeed a reference to the song by PJ Harvey, but we cannot move. Our ability of making a move, or a movement, is always already subsumed as a part of the petrified, commodified capitalist now. While most apostles of revolutionary events praise the now, I would like to sublate it, as we have never been able to move beyond it. We were fixated on the idea, that such move necessarily requires abandoning the now. How about doing both, though? The neoliberal logic transformed every aspect of our existence into an event, so preoccupied with the alienated now, that we suddenly wake up flooded, and thus it is time perhaps to finally understand, that the Future is Now.
Feminist theorists and artists most often focus on the process. It is important, because change is needed, and change requires that we finally leave the now, and move on, perhaps as parts of a movement. All these—making a move, organizing a movement—take time and require a process, a lot of failing and rehearsing, to finally make it. Yes—rehearsing. Here I need to mention Sybille Peters, who claims, that we have never been many, and thus we need to practice, to rehearse our togetherness. I also need to reference Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure for its idea of low theory and the perceptive observations on how failing to perform becomes resistance to neoliberal capitalism. Because the Future is Now.
This need to rehearse, to fail in the process, and to rise again, clearly calls for a more general concept of history, becoming and resistance. In Hegel’s dialectics those, who make history, are quite a bunch of misfits: a slave, a short man on a horse, and a cultural producer exhausted and perverted by the precarity of their condition. We should add here a desperate and severely disappointed housewife—a figure, which I clearly see in the chapter on “unhappy consciousness.” I seriously do not see it as a chapter on romantic, male youth, filled with melancholia. I see dishes and laundry piling up, exhaustion and repetitiveness, and a sense of non-sense in all this, only sublated by a feeling of contribution to the survival of the species. This is not a story of Werther, this is a story of housewives. Altogether—history is made by a bunch of imperfect, tired anti-heroes. Because the Future is Now.
However—is it really? Do those imperfect, exhausted, troubled figures—actually make history? Yes and no. Yes—because they make it, as we all know, and in fact we all make it. No—because history erases them, as it had always been written by the victors, as Walter Benjamin reminded. In the opening pages of Staying with the Trouble Donna Haraway warns us against two obstacles—despair and “easy technofixes.” I think what I wrote above can be read as a variation on this warning: neither easy, always effective technological solutions—fixes—will save us, nor a militant leftwing melancholia. Also: not any Messiah. The eco activist, Greta Thunberg, tells us: “How dare you?” I take her question seriously every time I fail acknowledging the consequences of my actions. Because the Future is Now.
This girl, acting as the porte-parole of those not only anxious about the planet’s future, but also willing to do something about it, is an amazing exemplification of the “power of the powerless,” so brilliantly depicted by Vaclav Havel. Millions of other “powerless”—the schoolkids, girls, students, their mums and grandmothers, as well as all others, practice everyday resistance—a concrete example I just found, is that the consumption of meat in EU dropped by 20% in the last three months. This is huge, and this was done in the way Havel argued for—as everyday resistance of the ordinary people, who probably would depict themselves as “powerless,” if asked for their feeling of empowerment. While in 1978 the everyday resistance would consist in not hanging the state’s flag in front of your house on a state holiday, in 2020 it consists in consumer’s choices, hashtags and human microphones, however it cannot stop at that, since—as Patricia Reed and other Xenofeminists warn us—for global disasters, we need global solutions, perhaps more than ever. The specter of extinction hunts the entire world today, not just Europe. The burning question therefore is: how do we become many? How do we form a multitude?
Martin Luther King, another prophet of the weak, and of rehearsals, try-outs and failure, later recalled the March on Washington in August 1963 thus: “among the nearly 250 000 people who journeyed that day to the capital, there were many dignitaries and many celebrities, but the stirring emotion came from the mass of ordinary people who stood in majestic dignity as witnesses to their single-minded determination to achieve democracy in their time.” He imagined we all lived with dignity and integrity, as equals. Now—does equality need rehearsing? I believe, that in times, when women still earn almost 20% less than men in most European countries (of the EU countries, the gender pay-gap is the smallest in Romania!), we need to rehearse our ability to be equals, and the “event” of winning constitutional gender equality, equal rights at work or other legal, social and political equality measures are not enough. We need to practice, to fall, and to be equal better. Because the Future is Now.
Our weakness also appears when we fail at being as egalitarian, progressive, ecological or revolutionary, as we imagine we should. And we all fail, spectacularly, at all those things, sometimes more and sometimes less often, yet—we fail, and we will fail, perhaps a bit better, because being egalitarian exceeds the petrified, consumerist, exploitative and patriarchal now we all live in, it throws us on the deep waters of unknown attitudes, unlearned behaviors, it confronts our habits and routines with the new, emancipated world we have never fully inhabited. Would that mean, that we should stay where we are, in the spectacular now, and turn into another generation of authoritarian, racist, classist, misogynist homophobes? Or impregnate ourselves against all weakness and failure by choosing the splendid isolation, as some intellectuals did in the past? Hell no! How dare you!?—should we repeat after Greta Thunberg. How dare you think that writing some Marxist essays of going to several demonstrations can become an excuse for not unlearning the accumulated privilege defining your now?
The ability of making kin in Chthulucene is one, where we cross borders. This is not only about the species, although atypical alliances are Donna Haraway’s special, just as the politics of cyborgs. Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana feminist, wrote: “I crossed border? No—the border crossed me!” The scattered dialectics of living in the borderland, the confusion of species, countries, languages, cultures, genders, values—“this chili in the borscht, eat whole wheat tortillas, speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent”—is a lived experience of living the future not like an arrow, which clearly follows a linear move, but as a multitude, contradicted, perplexed, scattered and conflicted, yet—finding power in its weakness.
There is one other image I would like to insert here, in a short text, which is meant as an inspiration, not a detailed analysis. It is one by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, from the beginning of the chapter on “Ritournelle” in Mille Plateaux. It offers an alternative to the heroic image of a brave soldier we have implemented for so many decades in our analysis of political action. The frightened boy from the pages of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s book overcomes fear by singing a song to himself—a lullaby perhaps. Activity often undertaken by cyclists in heavy, metropolitan traffic. A song to console oneself, to move on across fear, perhaps not so much against it. A song can be invented and sung by many, it often helps us to keep the picket lines, to join with others. Such song can lift us after we fail, and we still need one, as the Future is Now.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco 1987.
Jean Baudrillard, “No Pity for Sarajevo”, in: T. Cushman and S. G. Meštrović (eds.), This Time We Knew. Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia, New York, 1996.
Walter Benjamin, “Theses on History”, in: Selected Writings, transl. E. Jephcott, vol. 1, Cambridge 1996.
Laboria Cubonix, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, Verso, 2018.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris 1980.
Boris Groys, “The Weak Universalism”, in: e-flux Journal, 1(15) 2010, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/15/61294/the-weak-universalism/
Judith J. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Durham 2010.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Durham 2016.
Vaclav Havel, “The power of the powerless” (1978), https://hac.bard.edu/amor-mundi/the-power-of-the-powerless-vaclav-havel-2011-12-23
G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of the Mind , various editions.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait, Boston, Beacon Press 2010.
Lorea Michaelis, “Rosa Luxemburg on disappointment and the politics of commitment”, in: European Journal of Political Theory, 2(10), 2011, 202–224.
Sybille Peters, “On Being Many”, in: F. Malzacher et al. (eds.), Truth Is Concrete, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015.
Susan Sontag, “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo”, in: Performing Arts Journal, 16 (2), May 1994.
Ewa Majewska is a feminist philosopher and activist, affiliated fellow at the ICI Berlin.