Sunday, 9 April 2017

Trying to measure the earthquake inside

Assignment: write a list of everything that fucks you off. Choose things that directly affect you. It's easy for us all to agree that war is shitty but if you haven't been on the receiving end of warfare, don't put it down.

The performance of With Force and Noise that I saw at IBT17 began with Hannah Sullivan walking stiffly, tentatively, as though the floor were carpeted in speckled eggshells, to the position near the audience that she held throughout, near enough for the faintest flicker of her features to register but not quite close enough to read the delicate embroidery of her suit. (That detail is much easier to see on this video.) She stood and in a voice barely registering above a whisper began to sing, a single verse that with every repetition grew fractionally louder until she couldn't hold the tone of it, notes lurching wayward and throat scratched with quiver:
What a pity it is
to tease me to sing,
when it does not lay in my power
to do such a thing.
Except clearly it does, because here she is doing it. A pared but potent metaphor for the ways in which humans feel goaded when challenged, react rather than act, wallow, overlook their agency, and give up before they even try.

With Force and Noise is concerned with protest and revolution, both words stitched into Sullivan's costume, along with careful outlines of people marching with placards and the entirely correct name Jeremy Cunt. There's a bit of me thinks that the costume is funny, because it's impossible to be angry when doing embroidery: it's the most placid and domestic of past-times. There's a bit of me thinks that first bit is an idiot, because there's a whole lineage of needle-wielding feminists: suffragettes who used embroidery to communicate their demand, their frustration, their experience of prison; artists who shaped innovative forms of expression through ancient stitchcraft; an entire history – herstory – of political activity that Sullivan and designer Annalies Henny undoubtedly know and respect.

Before protest or revolution, however, With Force and Noise is concerned with anger: the anger needed to prick people into doing something to change the society they live in. Sullivan's text is (deliberately) a patchwork of storytelling and verbatim utterances, unknown voices synthesised with her own, all of them hesitant, diffident, describing moments of experiencing anger with a kind of embarrassment. I wonder whether all of the people she spoke to, or had in mind when shaping the text, were white. Whether the threads of inhibition are interwoven with whiteness.

I didn't take enough notes during the show; what I did write is terse and enigmatic, but might also be suggestive, if I'd ever gotten round to reading Jung: “dream/scratch the black walls/cut the white sky” reads one line; “then revolutionaries ran into everything” another. I don't remember the detail, I remember the atmosphere: focused, sparse and yet full, seemingly reticent yet so forceful she might have been gripping her audience individually by the shoulders and giving us each a shake. Ultimately it's her body that shakes, judders and rattles with rage, and as it moves there is the eerie crashing sound of cutlery clattering, crockery shattering, domestic ease splintering, as though an earthquake were rumbling beneath our feet with Sullivan as its epicentre. I thought this was recorded sound at first, but then she turned around and her back was hobbled by bells. I found the revelation of this burden so unnerving: it made manifest some pain and weight otherwise locked deep within.

Assignment: Look at the list of things that fuck you off, the injustices that leave you inarticulate but with rage in your belly. Choose one and write a rant in response to it. It need not be coherent, intelligent or balanced.

The day I devoured Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, I lost my voice. As I write this sentence, 10 days later, it still hasn't properly come back. And aside from the germs there's a weird psychological thing going on: certain conversations or encounters are closing my voice box. I'm trying to speak but literally haven't the energy, the power, to do such a thing.

Devoured isn't quite the word for how I read Why I Am Not a Feminist: it was more like gulping down an icy drink on a sweltering day, gratefully but also flinching. The book is brief, sharp and angry. It is also coherent, intelligent and balanced (although if you're a man encountering the bit on page 111 where she says: “I just want to be clear that I don't give a fuck about your response to this book”, balanced might be the last way you'd describe it. That chapter certainly put the critic from the LA Review of Books off). Above all, Crispin is concerned with power: the power of patriarchy to hypnotize women into perpetuating its systems; the power that humans have to shape and instigate change, if only they set their minds to it.

As such, it's an excoriating book, because it exposes the weakness in feminist thinking, and with it hidden hypocrisy. There are many strands to feminism, and it's worth making clear that Crispin keeps her lens quite tight: to categorise her focus as (relatively) young, white, cis and middle-class feminism is not totally fair but also not totally inaccurate. What she wants is a feminism that dismantles the hierarchies “by which the powerful maintain their position through the control and the oppression of the many”. What she sees is a feminism concerned with attaining power and wielding power. “A feminism that springs from self-interest,” she warns, “that is embraced because it more easily gives access to power – rather than being embraced out of any social awareness – will necessarily be part of this system of power and oppression, and so meaningless as a way towards universal human rights.” What she sees is a feminism choosing to continue “excluding and exploiting”, in the ongoing quest for equality.

In principle – by which I mean, as a basic position, and also in keeping with the principles by which I try to live – I agree with Crispin's argument absolutely. (OK, there is probably the occasional sentence that I question or recoil from, but none of them have stayed in memory.) But I also know I agree with her only in thought, not action. She lives “outside the system”; I bought in. And now I'm trying to bring up kids there, I'm seeing the extent to which thought without action is insufficient. On page 87 Crispin writes: “Growing up in a system that measures success by money, that values consumerism and competition, that devalues compassion and community, … girls and women have already been indoctrinated into what to want. Without close examination, without conversion into a different way of thinking and acting, what that girl wants is going to be money, power, and, possibly, her continued subjugation, because a feminism that does not provide an alternative to the system will still have the system's values.” In the time between first writing and rewriting this sentence my daughter turned 10; her favourite activity is shopping in Zara and Top Shop, and me talking to her about exploitation in the fashion industry is doing nothing to convert her to a different way of thinking or acting. In taking her to the wrong clothes shops at all I have colluded in her indoctrination.

(And now it's the morning of international women's day and, more pertinently, the global strike action, and guess who did the school run? Guess who is sitting at their desk rather than joining a day of protests on the streets in the rain? I have zero sympathy with the women writing sentences, for money, like this: “As a mother whose husband works long hours away from home, how am I supposed to stop taking care of my very young children?” Er, you've had weeks to sort your shit out: tell your husband that he's doing the unpaid labour, ie standing in solidarity with you, and go stand in solidarity with other humans. But here, again, is the hypocrisy Crispin exposes: it's not as if I've done this.)

I felt frustrated, reading the book, that it's 94% diagnosis of the problem, when what I crave is a list of actions, solutions, a 13-point programme to destroy capitalism and patriarchy. Yes, I know, I'm asking for someone to make it easy, or at least easier, and that's ridiculous. Where Crispin does instruct, she has already had an impact, particularly with this paragraph on value: “In order to dismantle our patriarchal, capitalistic, consumerist society … we must stop telling each other stories that equate money with value. We must imagine a world where value is expressed with things like love and care.” I've fretted so much – on this blog, elsewhere – about how I am and am not paid for the writing I do, not just because I'm neurotic about it but as part of a wider conversation about the ways in which art (and criticism) are (de)valued and exploited. When artists I know are not only struggling to make rent but being expected to work for free because they're “doing what they love”, it's vital to keep that discussion going, and expand it to include more people. But are there other ways in which I can contribute to stretching the conversation, arguing for and shaping a dialect of other values, reclaiming the language of love that has been so violently and ruthlessly co-opted by market forces and putting it to fairer purpose? That might be useful work I could do.

This is Crispin's challenge throughout: nothing will change without dedicated work. And by work she doesn't mean writing blog posts and getting busy on twitter, but putting active effort and energy into building new and non-patriarchal systems of social interaction. “We have to understand our power, that we are not at the mercy of this culture,” she says elsewhere in that 6% of solutions. “We are participants of it. We can shape it. But that requires work, not simply commentary. Stop reacting to the moving parts. Lay your attack at the machinery itself.” Figuring out how is also part of the work.

Assignment: add expletives to the rant, and a call to arms. Who do you want to stand alongside you? How do you get them on board?

An hour after With Force and Noise, I returned to the same room in the Wickham theatre for FK Alexander's Recovery. Except it wasn't the same room at all: the bank of raked seats had been pushed out of sight, erasing the line between performer and audience; the floor was scattered with cushions, arranged around a central circle of gongs and singing bowls; and animated images were projected on a side wall, abstract, gloopy things, like the squirming movements of bacteria under a microscope. Welcoming her audience, FK gave reassurance: there is no metaphor or hidden meaning here, nothing that you need to work out. And so I lay on the floor, image flow in sight, draped my coat over me like a blanket against the draughty chill, and let my brain drift.

The hour began softly, with caressing luminous rings and chimes, so mesmeric I began to unburden, for a few moments might have fallen asleep. And somewhere in that rare quiescence, that limbo of placidity, another noise began to rise: like static, radio crackle, electrical disturbance; like the atmospheric build-up of a hurricane; not just the rattle of cutlery and crockery that warns of impending earthquake but the ruptures that it brings, the deafening crash of masonry crumbling, buildings keeling to the ground; the volume rising and rising still, the sound at once alien and familiar; a sound I know in my deepest self, because I hear it between my ears so often, a sound that suffocates, and might drown me, that has me tearing at my skin as though to claw through its surface, seeking release from its pressure, release from everything against which it roars. The sound rises and somehow in its inescapable aggression what I felt was relief: the relief of being known, understood, held. And then it subsides and the hums and flickers and gentle scintillations of the gongs and singing bowls re-emerge from its depths; there is a slow fold into silence, and then another invitation, to take all the time we need to return to the street and the rest of life.

I left Recovery wanting three things: to be hugged, to tell FK how much it had meant to me, and to write, the volcanic kind of writing that is all heat and light and rupture from the centre of my being. It's probably as well that I didn't, that I've waited a few weeks, because... why? I'm always grateful to people who turn their skin inside out online. But they tend to be writing about life; I'm writing about theatre. I guess it's the ways in which that sentence is a lie that keeps me coming back here.

In the four weeks since writing the muted paragraph that appeared on IBT's own site and writing this, FK has presented a five-hour, durational but also drop-in version of Recovery at the Wellcome Collection as part of the Sick of the Fringe festival. I couldn't go so this is just surmise, but I can't imagine it working as a drop-in: it's too carefully orchestrated, too deliberately crafted with beginning, middle and end, not to be encountered as a whole (and indeed holistic) experience. It's an assumption supported by the review by the brilliant White Pube duo (Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad), who – possibly exaggerating – say they stayed for 12 minutes, enough time to experience something of the resting circle and something of the cacophony, then left with some incisive questions:

[Zarina:] I am so fascinated by white spirituality & its components. Bc tbh European Philosophy & religion r separate things (which is odd 4 me bc it's not the case for my experience... I feel like Hinduism,,, duh they're the same... but Islam, also kinda blurrrs the line between religion & philosophy in a way Occidental traditions could never kinda fathom??) & the west hasn't rlly got a history of spiritualism;,;,;,;. … when hippy culture kinda said fuk u to capitalism n if that's a binary, does that mean there's something about the conditions created by anglo-saxon protestantism & capitalism that just INHERENTLY rejects the spiritual??? Does protestant/ - capitalism represent & vibe off that part of knowledge that is quantified & qualified (something the spiritual kinda rejects, bc i feel it as a system of knowing and learning thru ur body & the very f a c t of yr corporeality.??? u get me??? ) n like... amongst all of that is the way whiteness frames meditation: as an activity separate & cut off from any other action than itself.

There's a lot here to unpack, but at a basic level Zarina just didn't have the same experience as me: I felt totally absorbed by Recovery, whereas she felt repelled. What I understand Zarina to be saying is that FK appropriates eastern spiritualities to give (mostly white) audiences a meditation experience, but one that gets no further than a meaningless temporary escape. What I understand FK to be doing is commenting on the ways in which the industries of, for instance, self-help and mindfulness not only appropriate eastern spiritualities but skim their depths and warp them from their original meaning to create a system that deliberately numbs people, distracting them from the actual problem – the impossibility of living within a neoliberal economy – by presenting the problem as internal, a question of attitude, nothing to do with external political realities. Zarina thinks FK remakes this system; I think she condemns it and claims the space for something else.

In thinking this I'm much influenced by discussion elsewhere: in the IBT writing I mentioned that Recovery reminds me of James Leadbitter/the vacuum cleaner's Madlove activism, and his shaping of “a safe place to go mad”; that's where it seems to me useful that Recovery takes place in a “cut off” sphere. Recovery also reminds me of theatre-maker Ellie Stamp talking about how mindfulness makes her furious, because it's designed to extinguish fury, and with it the power to create change, by smothering it in acceptance of the way things are. If capitalism is a system that breaks people, the “recovery” that FK offers is a different system of knowing, of listening through the body to everything that hurts, and understanding that it hurts because the world is loud and violent and bores to the core of your bones. But part of Zarina's problem, as I read it, is that, as a white woman, FK is able to employ the spiritualities of other cultures as her tools: an act of power comparable to that of the white colonialists and capitalists who for centuries have used the riches of the east to their advantage. At the root of the difference between Zarina and me is the way in which we see (or don't see) FK's whiteness, and through that see historical and contemporary white western exploitation of eastern cultures. And I have no idea how to respond to that, except by listening.

What if depression … could be traced to histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery, legal exclusion, and everyday segregation and isolation that haunt all of our lives, rather than to biochemical imbalances? … [W]hat are the consequences for white people of living lives of privilege in the vicinity of the violence of racism? [Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling]

At the end of January I started an online workshop run by Scottee called Notepad Warrior. It was supposed to last four weeks, but here I am in the middle of March and not yet halfway through. To be honest, I'll probably spend the next four years working on it. But for now, I'm stuck. I'm specifically stuck on the assignments I've included here, all edited versions of exercises set in the first couple of weeks. I'm stuck because, in following that first instruction to list only “things that directly affect you” as things that fuck me off, I've collided into a concrete wall of privilege. So for instance, threats to abortion access fuck me off, but I've never had an abortion, and now I'm in my early 40s I'm never likely to require one, so that's that one discounted. The treatment of homeless people fucks me off, but I was nine when my family got evicted from our flat by an unscrupulous landlord, we were only homeless for a couple of weeks, and I barely remember it anyway, so that doesn't feel like it counts either. I get fucked off by the insidious ways in which poor people are manoeuvred into paying more for utilities, car insurance, you name it, but that's not something I've been affected by in adult life either, especially as my husband is a canny one for haggling a deal. Racism fucks me off, but I've never felt its impact. I could go on. The point is, when it came to choosing one thing from that list and writing a rant, the object of that rant inevitably, disgustedly, frustratedly, was myself: my well-meaning but ineffectual, privileged self.

Looking back at the list, I'm surprised by my omissions. Motherhood isn't on it: I suppose because I drew it up on my sixth night away from the family out of seven, enough time that the bruises from constantly headbutting the situations that motherhood puts me in to had faded. (And yes, it should be parenting: I'd be fucked off about the elision, except I'm efficiently programmed not to notice.) For the same reason, perhaps, the national curriculum is missing, even though I'm witnessing directly its rapid asphyxiation of curiosity and creativity in my children. Also missing is the English language: I suppose because, even though there is so much about this language that infuriates me (its in-built capacity for racism; the way seminal is used synonymously with importance and value; its lack of elasticity, particularly in relation to gender, and ability to force binary where multiplicity would be more natural and humane), it's something that I can have a modicum of control over, using some words/constructions and avoiding others. Something I can't control is complicity: it is impossible, in this society, not to be complicit in inequality, abuse of humans and natural resources, the systems of oppression that, as Crispin puts it, “we inadequately convey with words like 'patriarchy' or 'capitalism'”. Silent complicity isn't on the list either.

(And now it's the morning of April 5 and all I seem to have inside my head is the low breathy whirr of an air-conditioning machine set to temperate. I've lost count of the number of nights I've stayed up as the clock has ticked towards morning, struggling with these paragraphs. If the starting of this blog was the stoking of a fire, the flames that flared have long gone out: I no longer know what the point is of this writing, of my writing at all. And the more I read of people with privilege bleating about how they too are troubled by or depressed within these systems of inequality, or recommendations for how white people can be genuine allies to people of colour, or even just good people [a twitter thread I now can't find], the more I hear in my own voice that bleating, that whining, that anxiety around loss of voice, loss of power, loss of prestige in a system of hierarchy.)

I think about the possibly white people whose voices are heard in fragments in With Force and Noise, struggling to express anger or name a reason to be angry: how much is that to do with this idea of authenticity, a perceived absence of first-hand experience and “direct affect”? I feel myself wanting to evade something here: wanting to protest that you don't have to experience injustice or oppression directly to care. That a key component of humanity is the capacity for empathy. And then I remember how I gave no real thought to the rules around child maintenance, or Legal Aid, or how child arrangement cases are conducted in family courts, particularly those cases in which the woman is claiming domestic violence, particularly those in which her claims of domestic violence have been overlooked, because the evidence to prove them was assumed insufficient to bring to trial, until I accompanied a friend to the West London Family Court – truly a place where dreams go to die, in so many painfully literal ways – and watched the man who had been controlling her existence also control the narrative to get the child access he wanted. I remember that I didn't care about the education system until I had children at school; nor did I think about the segregation that kicks in at secondary level (such is the intersection of class and race that segregation is what wealth creates) until witnessing it first-hand on visits to local comprehensive and private schools. I could go on, again. I could talk of hypocrisy again.

I've been writing this while spending time in a rehearsal room with X the Derek Jarman film Jubilee. It's a punk film, centred on a girl gang conjured up as “the shadow of this time” by a mystic for Queen Elizabeth I, running rampage in an apocalyptic England ravaged by poverty, unemployment, ineffectual politics and social disorder. Something that one of the performers, the sharp and lovely Temi Wilkey, said in the first week has burrowed into me: the young women in the film are rebels without a cause, railing at nothing because they're so privileged they have nothing to rail against. Whereas if they were black, they would know what makes them angry. And it would be white supremacy.

I've also been writing this while listening to the to-and-fro argument triggered by the Channel 4 interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Reading back on the paragraph two weeks later, I realise I have no appetite to re-rehearse what that argument entailed, and delete everything except the first sentence. All I feel able to add is this: there is feminism, there are feminisms, and then there is the expectation that women, especially those who position themselves as in any way allies to people more marginalised than themselves, must exist in a mode of constant perfection, always saying exactly the right thing, but also being silent and supportive. And suddenly I'm struck by how similar these expectations are to those that attach to motherhood.

I wanted to do Scottee's workshop because it says it will “help you channel your inner art activist” and for ages now I've felt the need to break myself open in some way, find routes towards a different kind of self-expression, stop feeling so futile and surplus to requirement, silence the noise in my head of constant criticism, or at least learn to harness it or find in it something useful and supportive, something that will guide me into the world, specifically the world of making – making art, but more than that, making social activity. Although I haven't finished the course, and although I've raised questions about that listing exercise, and although I feel a failure, because all the indications are that I'm not an artist at all, or an activist for that matter, Notepad Warrior has been brilliant and fantastically helpful: a challenge I keep trying to hide from, but that follows me around like a Jack Russell, nipping at my ankles so I never forget its demand. I write this at the end of an intensive week of interviewing people about the “civic role of the arts”, not words I'd choose but words I feel I instinctively understand: people like Tom Andrews at People United, whose work is entirely an expression of radical kindness; and David Slater at Entelechy Arts, whose work re-creates models of community eroded by urbanism, the digitalisation of existence, and austerity; and Carine Osment, who with her friend Alexandre runs the Farnham Fun Palace, and through that has become a genuinely active participant in local civic life. Everything in Scottee's course points in the same direction.

But it also points back to writing, and its uses. Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist is essentially Scottee's second week of assignments in book form: a rant, with added expletives and colour, transformed into a manifesto. I read its final chapter – in particular, its rallying cry to “reclaim our imaginations” – thinking of the Department of Feminist Conversations, a project I'm doing with Mary Paterson and Diana Damian, the Tiny Letters we're writing to the future, the many aspirations we have for that project – and all the things preventing us from fulfilling them, from day jobs to childcare. The same dull stuff feminism has been talking about for decades, in other words. Progress isn't linear: I know this, we know this. (How funny to re-encounter that sentence after interviewing Le Gateau Chocolat: it's a line he also said to me.) Progress is slow and stumbling and easy to push aside. But the sun keeps rising and we need to keep trying, because living without that song isn't living at all.

We must lay claim to the culture, occupy it. We must remember that our world does not have to be this way. We do not have to reward exploitation, we do not have to support the degradation of the planet, of our souls, of our bodies. We can resist. We must stop thinking so small.

We must reclaim our imaginations. We have been limited by the patriarchal imagination, infected by it. We see only as far as they see.

We must begin again to see beyond the structures we've been given. The way we order our lives, our homes, our work, our souls – our worldviews must be reimagined in wholly new ways. This is more important than ever before. [Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist, p150]

On Thursday, on a whim, I bought a new notebook. (Thank you Scottee for the encouragement.) On Friday, also whimsical, I inscribed a paragraph from John Berger's Hold Everything Dear on the first page. “Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.”

Already Saturday has turned into Sunday, and the noise in my brain is of electricity surging, crackling, dying out. What recovery could solve this, what force could answer this, what noise could replace this? Somehow, with all the writing, there's still so much to figure out.