Recently someone–a student who is also a colleague– sent me a list of words that begins with the word collaboration and ends with the word crisis. The list is a request for a collaboration as well as a compilation of many of the varieties of chaos, computational and not, introduced into our lives by COVID-19–or more precisely, by our confounding, cranky, critical and community responses to COVID-19.
My instructions are to choose a piece of music and while listening to it, to record myself reading that list of words. I choose to listen to Verses, a piece from a collaborative reinterpretation of Chopin by Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sarah Ott (Verses, The Chopin Project). As I read and record, what I notice through the device of a digital audio file interface is how strange the shapes of the words I speak are; it had not occurred to me that they might take such forms. This for me is the first fruit of the collaboration–to encounter something from an angle to which, on my own, I would not have been sensitive. But such an insight alone feels as if it is not enough.
Years ago I wrote a book about collaboration, but that’s not where my mind goes anymore, to human-centred domestic arrangements or political quiescence, nor even to artistic exchange (even as, at the moment, in my response to this request that might be exactly where I am). I find, instead, I am wanting to respond to this request for sonic collaboration with the phrase listening for what is no longer there, and a journal entry from late March about being embedded in both human and non-human worlds.
Collaboration: I wonder, what does the non-human world require of us for us to awaken, to register being in it, even as we are directed by bureaucratic, political and community health imperatives to stay shut up and closed down, to stay away from encounters with each other and real presences in the world?
29 March: In the last week the songbirds have begun to come back. Robins gather on the grass, sparrows sing from the pines and nuthatches flutter and chatter, bare branch to bare branch. The snow is melting, the grass greening and neither ducks nor geese gaggle and gather in the yard, but have all paired off. We startle them as they settle their domestic units, two by two at the back of the pond or in a pool in a salt marsh. They rise, complaining, into the sky.
The nights are still cold; cirrus clouds trap and obscure the stars, and sometime in the last ten days, when I wasn’t looking, Orion slips so far to the west that I can’t see the constellation anymore. Gone now from this corner of the world until autumn. Overhead Venus glitters, but not a single airplane. The night sky is silent, the way it used to be. The way it was after 9/11.
The sky blares blue in the day but down here on earth we shade our eyes and narrow our field of vision.
An easterly blows in, wind tumbling waves into the dark shore. A mink darts across the rocks. We crawl through the barn and pull out the summer tires; note how many beams are broken along the windward edge of the government dock. Time slips along strangely these days, as if it is something other than tiny grains of sand. Why has my vision narrowed such that paying attention feels, not like breath but pain?
I think, as I read over this entry again in September, in a moment when Orion reappears, protests fill the streets, and the grasses yellow: we’ve awakened into a time of mourning and cannot see our way out. What a strange and necessary point of arrival for residents of the global north, above all white residents: if any among us mourn for ourselves, we might also weigh the merciful forfeiture of a way of life that has meant loss to every other mortal thing on earth. But how long will our privation and our mourning–or perhaps our memories of these things–last? Until a “return to normal,” when we can return to playing our peculiar and doomed version of “masters of the universe?”
If we grieve from beneath the shadow of COVID and #blacklivesmatter because again in our world all departures must be seen for what every departure is, at once possibility of life and movement that takes place from within the shadow of death, then we shall too soon forget. Still, what is collaboration from this space but care that my life is is not the only one that counts–or indeed perhaps doesn’t count so much? In such care is not only crisis, but call to action–above all (here is another irony) not to lose myself in or on the screen, but to get lost otherwise, to lose precisely who I am in abiding with what and who is not me, even unto and into my own diminution and death.
As Edouard Glissant writes in his Poetics of Relation
Thought of the Other is the moral generosity disposing me to accept the principle of alterity, to conceive of the world as not simple and straightforward, with only one truth–mine. But thought of the Other can dwell within me, without making me alter course, without ‘prizing me open,’ without changing me within myself. An ethical principle, it is enough that I not violate it.
But this is not enough, such a thought–it is like extending a hand, prior to holding a conversation; it is not yet the opening of oneself and whatever one thinks one knows to the possibility of being scrambled and rearranged by encounter, by living, by loss.
Glissant goes on to argue that
The other of Thought is precisely this altering. Then I have to act…I change and I exchange. This is an aesthetics of turbulence whose corresponding ethics is not provided in advance.
What matters then in the world is what the shape of our acts are and will be, and whether and if we can collaborate, even, some of us, unto our own ceasing.
How beautiful the shapes of our conjoined words, our co-conjured worlds. Not without you–nor this fern or that beetle; nor this lichen; never capable of even breath alone.
The list that my student and colleague, Sonia Chow, provided for me as part of a project called “Quotidien Covid Chaos Compilation” contained the following words: