By John Ward Knox.
I vacillate between optimism and pessimism based on how full or empty my stomach is and how close the walls have gotten. I don’t want to write an op-ed style fluff-piece of the resurgence of community spirit and co-operation because in an hour or two my neighbour will walk by with his dog (cupcake or noodle or some such nonsense) and it’ll do one of its dainty little turds next to my gate and he’ll baby talk it like it was some gift from heaven before wrapping it in blue plastic for future archaeologists to marvel at and then I’ll be straight back to loathing. This vacillation is painful because so long as the lockdown lasts there is a constant fluctuation between the sense of possibility - drawing on all of the good things that have emerged like saying hello to people on the street and the re-appraisal of value within work - and fatalism, drawn from our shared experience of modern, ostentatiously comfortable, crushing struggle.
I should note here that when I write ‘shared’ - this applies to a very small wedge of contemporary world experience. It is very much written from the ‘first’ world to the ‘first’ world. I know that this is the audience I am addressing because if you are truly living through generational scarcity - there is almost no chance that you’d turn to the art world for guidance - the gatekeepers of extreme privilege have little for you except platitudes.
Really what we need is to rehouse our guiding philosophies from the manor of exponential growth - rent is long past due and the longer we live here the more our debt will grow and the responsibilities of the landlords to tenants lessen. We need to emerge with a focus on resilience. We need to share resources because there are an awful goddamn shit-tonne of us out here. It is clear that corporatism is emerging from capitalism and this is fucking terrifying because corporations are vertically integrated to more efficiently speed resources from the bottom to the top. There isn't even lip-service to trickle-down economics any longer.
A depression is upon us, there is no point to try to sugar-coat this. It will mean hardship and it will mean the end of life for a lot of people. It’ll mean homelessness and suicide and straight-up tragedy. For many of us this will mean the first encounter with generational scarcity and it’ll be hard to vilify boomers or any other other when those people affected are the ones who you know personally, who you probably love and rely on in some fashion. Even hating on somebody is a form of relying on them, because you direct a strong emotion at them which helps to establish your world view. When these oppositional resistances are eroded by sympathy and empathy we will find ourselves in the exact same position, drifting through a complicated world on a raft of naivety. James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in the book “The Fire Next Time’ about the criminality of innocence. He was speaking of white America but the lesson is universal - it is innocence won in the face of knowledge which constitutes the greatest and most pitiable crime. It would be criminal to ‘return to normal’ after lockdown is over because it is clear that normal relies on the subjugation of many for the privilege of a few. It would mean a direct continuation of the colonial mindset of resource extraction and it would mean we are complicit. It would mean ecological as well as human disaster, and we - with the knowledge we have - would be the white jurors passing sentence at a black person's trial. The return to normal would be to the detriment of us all. Maybe this brings to mind Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and the possibility of virtuosity within a rigged system, but it is important to remember that as beautiful a character as Atticus is, that story is an outlier - a popular mythology that allows innocence to persist.
There is a similar thing happening now with the notion of heroism - with doctors and nurses and supermarket workers. Labelling such workers as heroes elevates them to a place which requires no introspection on our behalf because labelling somebody a hero is a coping mechanism designed to avoid the necessity to implicate yourself in a system and therefore to avoid the need to create change in your own life.
So how the fuck do we emerge with purpose, without the veil of innocence? I don’t know. I’m not certain that anybody does. I don’t believe that socialism is the answer because switching hard and fast to a new top-down political model without society having teased and nourished itself out of innocence (again, bear in mind I’m writing with a knowledge that I address only a small section of worldly experience) would be doomed to failure. I can only say what my own personal re-appraisal looks like.
I’m paying a lot more attention to ecologies than economies, as you can’t eat money when it all comes down to it. I’ve been lying on my belly in the dirt and thinking about accumulated wealth as the amount of strange critters that crawl past my face because each of these alien others is a dear friend in our collective health. I look at my neighbour's yard with as much disgust as they do to mine because we are manifesting different philosophies. I would characterise these neighbours - sept and octogenarians respectively - as typical New Zealanders, stewards of the flat quarter-acre dream, a short and lifeless lawn surrounded by only what was planted. They are diligently in control of their own sterility. My lawn, on the other hand, is a mess of weeds and decay - a monument to willful neglect. Maybe it sounds glib to position a scruffy lawn as an antidote to probable suffering but in some senses the lawn is metaphorical, and in some specifically intentional.
If we are to replace an architecture of power it would be naive to assume that we can instantly erect a new power in its place that will not be subject to the same shortcomings as its predecessor. Think about a forest, when a stately and grand tree grows frail or is eroded and topples, another giant tree does not instantly take its place, there is a process of necessary decay - new nutrients once locked up within the institution of the tree that must be teased out by a whole ecology, working simultaneously but not necessarily in unison. We must not be so naive as to assume that we can work together instantly under the banner of a new unified idea of collective prosperity, we must work for our own individual health but do this work purposefully with the knowledge that our individual health must be transformed when possible into collective health.
So I’m thinking about dirt first, about bugs and mushrooms and worms and countless things I could not name, I’m thinking about the potential health and the potential wealth kept at bay by the 18th-century manifestation of philosophy that somehow has persisted into the present in the form of a lawn. If we start to create a new foundation for our own nutriment through healthy dirt and then the resilience that comes from being able to feed ourselves from our own little slice of a global ecology we can then expand this understanding outward and begin to offer our personal excesses to our community, and to start to form the new pathways of communication that will be needed to exist without innocence.