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This report is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

Echoes from a Conference on Crisis Vahni Capildeo
They keep trying to come in, a guard reportedly said. The lady and the man will not listen. They turn up at the door. They want to come up the steps. A little boy in a sailor suit is with them. They insist that they should be able to come in. What a job it is, looking after the place at night. It is under restoration during the day. He is tired trying to stop them from coming in.

The phrase ‘colonial uncanny’ has been haunting me, and not just in its academic sense. Not far away, Mille Fleurs, the marble and wrought iron mansion built in 1904 for Dr and Mrs Prada, and now government property, palely overlooks Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Savannah where masked people exercise at dawn or dusk. Mille Fleurs had been falling apart for years, in contrast with the health-seeking, sweating bodies across the road. Lately somewhat restored, and secured at night, it continues to host tensions of ownership, between territorial creole ghosts and post-independence guards. The proximity between decaying refinement and straining movement recalls our genetic and/or cultural legacy from slavery and indentured labour. Yet ‘colonial uncanny’ spoke itself in my mind only when the ‘pandemic uncanny’ was invoked during a Zoom conference I attended on 26 June 2020. Zombies also received a mention.

This was the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies (BACLS) conference on crisis. Two hundred participants registered, with the majority remaining in attendance throughout. Preparation for the online BACLS 2021 conference is already underway. Since the plague has changed how we can know each other, and intensified pre-existing differences, I have witnessed the eagerness of some attendees at online events for normality’s return, when they can reconvene, or invite new friends. This was not a theme of the BACLS conference.

While eagerness to meet up is a sign of living hopefully, hope can be perverted into destructive channels. The thoughtfulness of the BACLS participants about many senses of ‘crisis’ laid the groundwork for new thinking. Perhaps this means that – rather than hoping for the return of rushing about by aeroplane and private car for short trips, polluting, consuming, touristifying – organisers will set an example, and embrace the lightness of distance and nearly carbon-neutral approaches; enhancing accessibility, too…

Virus-related anxiety belongs in a longer-running story of disaster: our species’ addiction to anti-environmental ways of life. Lethal habits enjoy a flipped value, as if they were signs of our specialness and flourishing. We could activate instead a sense of ‘crisis’ deeply and ordinarily enough to modify our turning points. For the history of the word ‘crisis’ indicates judgment as well as event, decision-making as well as loss of control. It names the moment in illness that may lead to bettering.

Moreover, ‘crisis’, beautifully, is related to ‘discernment’ (via the-cern-element). At the BACLS conference, it became possible to discern many more different modes of understanding, and living, the applications of this small, supercharged word, while rethinking what personal experience might constitute ‘crisis’. This piece will highlight details that implanted themselves in me and are changing my mind; without prejudice to those presentations left unmentioned. The aim is to give a faithful example of how one individual might react to the saturation of a day dedicated to the discussion of crisis; not to report from a reconstructed, ideal perspective. Fuller information is available from BACLS1.

My first reflections are on the nature of the day itself as a prolonged moment. Attending a conference via Zoom (during extended lockdown in someone else’s home) compels attention into unaccustomed forms. While I failed to be there for the ‘real time’ component of several panels, considerable material was provided in advance, on the conference website. At the time of writing, these audio recordings, documents, and slides remain freely available. Anyone interested can catch up later and re-play sections. Learning via replay has the kindness which slowness brings. You can pause, cross-check, and become unsocially absorbed. Notably, though, it lessens the feeling of things coming to a point – the crisis-like quality of energetic, ephemeral talk.

Is it universally acknowledged that listeners lose part of what they try to learn – it passes too fast? Are recordings therefore better than live participation – an improvement, not an alternative or supplement? Such a judgment, biased towards garnering information rather than engaging in thought, loses the importance of shared process, lovable in its nervy imperfection. If online events become the norm, how much would you miss companionship in velocity; complicity in falling from attention into distraction?

As with classroom teaching, so with conferences: the in-between matters. Knowledge is produced, and becomes memorable, when we mill about together. People need and deserve to chat informally about what they hear officially. When we interact freely and responsively, as mostly unlisted others, the analyses and information offered by presenters take on new, sometimes rebellious meanings. BACLS was the best of all possible Zooms, but Zoom lacks happenstance, even with an open chat room, an active lunch break, and the comradely interweaving of strands across panels. Like other online platforms, it feels high-exposure and up for ‘capture’.

A move to e-participation need not strictly oppose knowledge to information. More radically, it will alter our ‘normality’, as regards the respective roles of authority and community in producing knowledge. It will affect how we actualise, and value, our potential for spontaneity. Time out to play/fight can be a phase of concentration. Any ‘new normal’ that sets efficiency above embodiment has a faulty metric for efficiency. Yet the ‘old normal’ of jetting around, often to picturesque, disabled-inaccessible places, was no good. What then? A blend of the hyperlocal and the long-distance?

Let us return to our known day of crisis…

A welcome effect of the opening roundtable was a feeling of time restored, the adjustability of self, and the lengthening of time. Novelist Sheena Kalayil relaxed our grasping after the immediate, calling the contemporary ‘just a fleeting moment, a blink in the eye of the longer moment which is life’. The necessity of looking death in the face echoed through Dr Caroline Edwards’s words. Dr Zayneb Allak, speaking on Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, showed our interiority and exteriority sprouting into each other. Her reader is a Hieronymus Bosch-like creature, consumed by a proliferating novel. Ben Doyle, publisher for Literary Studies at Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, struck me the most, with his evidence base and his empathetic insight into the behaviour, prospects, and interconnexions of authors, academics, editors, and booksellers in Tempo Coronavirus.

Panel 1, ‘Contamination, Contagion, and Crisis’ was extraordinary. Checking my memory for continuing echoes, I find Liam Harrison on the ‘untellability’ of an ill person within an ill system resonating with Joseph Anderton, who was brilliant on the opportunity to use the crisis of the pandemic to re-evaluate other crises, but especially on the pathologisation of homelessness, and how the homeless long have been deprived of human warmth, as others avoid touching or looking at them. Mark Bresnan on the ‘current infodemic’, and whether losing oneself in conspiracy theories is a way of avoiding dealing with our all-too-obvious social affliction, violent masculinity, chimed with Sarah Collier’s close reading of the ‘trauma hero myth’.

Still in Panel 1, ‘Plague Logics and Covid-19’s Worst Hot Takes’, Jennifer Cooke’s presentation, gave me a paradigm for thinking through the coronavirus pandemic. Cooke observed that while community afflictions are not the same as individual diseases, and have unequal effects, the ‘way the disease is perceived’ is a risk to everyone. She explored how we understand the body and illnesses through metaphoric constructions.

Cooke rightly questioned the popular reactions that ‘Nature is healing’ and ‘we brought this upon ourselves’. Some aspect of this may be factually true in terms of our poor stewardship of the planet. However, such attitudes unhelpfully belong with the same active and sturdy structure of revenge that has persisted since ancient times: God is wrathful; healers may be poisoners and make good scapegoats. Cooke critiqued the metaphorisation of language, a feature of ‘plague logic’. ‘Plague logic’, as a style of thinking, seems orderly but in effect and in fact is unhelpful, even injurious. In tracing the barbed drift of terms that have gained currency – ‘immunity’ developed as a legal concept: exceptions that prove the universal applicability of law – Cooke gestures to the danger of casting everything as war.

Cooke’s ‘plague logic’ echoed for me with Siân Adiseshiah’s talk on ‘Ageing as Crisis in Contemporary British Theatre’, in Panel 3. Adiseshiah’s incisive, poetic work remixed itself in my memory and haunts me in a series of tolling phrases, something like this. Crisis: instant. Crisis: impending event. Old age as risk, not opportunity. Crisis: moment. Disease. Recovery or death. Crisis: turning point. Better. Worse. Crisis: event. Large detrimental change. Crisis: lack of proportionality between cause and consequence. A small thing happens, in a short period of time. A structural breach. Radical transformative possibilities of rupture.

From memory’s ongoing sampling of her conference paper, I select and highlight Adiseshiah’s phrase ‘crisis ordinariness’. She pointed out that ‘crisis’ has begun to shift to a narrative of ‘what is’. This meaning of ‘crisis’ unfolds in stories of how to navigate the overwhelming. Here time lengthens non-restoratively, into a seemingly endless day of precarious existence, as with Benjamin’s catastrophic perpetuation of the status quo. Crisis no longer names a rupture or turning point. In considering the revision of routines of what ‘livability’ might be, Adiseshiah looked at the co-production of old age and climate crisis. Older people are required to sacrifice themselves, to little effect. For crisis management (more of the same) is not crisis response (followed by transformation).

I hope this taster summary is enough to encourage you to follow up on the BACLS conference, which extended to four other sessions and lunchtime ‘lightning talks’, before the Live Writers Q&A in which I had been invited to take part. It was hard for me to speak. Zooming in from Trinidad to the UK gathering of intelligent, generous and kind thinkers, I felt weary beyond all reckoning; an affiliative weariness with those whose ‘tongueless whispering’ (in Martin Carter’s phrase) animates these smaller islands. This was less to do with what was not there, than with the desire for my fellows to orientate themselves towards awareness of that absence, till it became more voiced, more collective.

Let’s return to that phrase, the ‘pandemic uncanny’. This was the subject of Helen E. Mundler’s lunchtime ‘lightning talk’ on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy. Throughout the insightful discussion of whether or not a ‘home’, however temporary, can be developed or inhabited, there was no gesture towards how this resembles the ‘colonial uncanny’ (or, dare I say it, the ‘white supremacy uncanny’) in which much of world has been living for generations. When Mundler aptly stated that ‘The Covid-19 virus, like radiation, is invisible and intangible, but wreaks terrible and often long-term damage; it is a cause of anxiety and an inability to live comfortably in the world’, my mind antiphonally, rebelliously sang back ‘magical realism is realism’. The magic realist texture of my current everyday is not only to do with diversity of spiritualities, créolités and habitats; but overarchingly and foundationally with this uncanny.

Here is an example of the ‘crisis ordinariness’ of our unacknowledged, shared context. A friend and I were sitting in the cinema in Port of Spain (during the Before Coronavirus years). Almost everyone on screen, in the trailers for films that would be shown in that theatre, was white. Almost everyone in the audience was non-white. I am not talking about the box-office-friendly casting of protagonists. The normed milky sameness extended to characters in the background of peopled scenes, where you would have expected a mixed crowd in real life. ‘Post-genocidal fantasy’, we joked incorrectly, in between awareness of the genocides perpetrated in our Americas, and what looked like wish-fulfilment elimination, or at least segregation, in our world to come.

It is no surprise, therefore, that after Megen De Bruin-Molé (Panel 2) delivered a magnificent paper on ‘Living with the Crisis: ‘Mindful’ Consumption and the Rehabilitation of the Zombie in Twenty-First-Century Popular Culture’, I went to look up ‘real’ zombies. De Bruin-Molé was merciless and funny about the political symbolism of the ‘zombie’ in popular film and TV depictions. The late-mid twentieth century zombie arrives in hordes to threaten individuals and individuality. (Hmmm…) The zombie of the 1980s is an oddball, a monster not unlike our misunderstood selves. Nowadays, the mindful, neoliberal zombie may work against organised, bad zombies…without escaping from consumerism, of course. But zombies are local, and the tongueless whispering in the land told me I already knew more and needed to know yet more…

The friend who had been with me in the cinema referred me to Mike Mariani’s article for The Atlantic (2015).2 In this piece, Mariani restores the heritage of the ‘horror-movie trope’: Haitian slavery. Haiti is a country of great culture, not too far away from Trinidad. I wish I could visit. There is a continuous strand of incredulity in my awareness about how this nation has been forced to service generations of debt, first exacted by France then administered by America, as punishment for winning a black liberation war of independence not long after the French Revolution. Mariani sees the initial ‘zombie archetype’ as a mirror of the inhumanity of slavery. Speaking of the 1625-1800 period of Hispaniola/Haiti, Mariani asserts that while those trapped in subjugated bodies ‘believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free’, suicide was not a permissible pathway. The spiritual penalty for taking one’s own life was to remain on the plantation as ‘an undead slave’, a zombie.

The trajectory Mariani proceeds to narrate goes a little way to healing our knowing, even if nothing can be made whole. I laid it alongside De Bruin-Molé’s narration of the trajectory of fictional bodies, strongly desiring a similar juxtaposition to happen as a matter of course, in reality, at the next such public conversation. To summarise Mariani: what he terms ‘the post-colonialism zombie’ refers to the post-Haitian Revolution period (1804 onwards). This was different from the trapped undead suicide. A reanimated corpse, made to work without reward or carry out dubious tasks, the post-colonialism zombie embodied ‘a more fractured representation of the anxieties of slavery’.

Excision is how Mariani figures the zombie myth’s disconnexion, in popular culture, from the memory of millions of African dead. The bodies and minds that do not fit marketable hero tales are cut out. His choice of word is telling. Amputation would have indicated the loss of a limb, i.e. something that was part of a body. Excision suggests the extraction of an alien growth. This chimes with the BACLS papers looking at how the language and logic of contagion have been used, long before the 2020 pandemic, to justify social exclusion. Mariani’s attentiveness to the metaphorisation of language also is of a register with the day of discussion of crisis with which this essay primarily is concerned. What Mariani shows is that with this excision, we have lost any ‘clear metaphor’.

What remains? ‘Entertainment’ and ‘escapism’ – not even true apocalypse, in Mariani’s sceptical reading of the fictions featuring ‘zombies’. End-of-the-world fantasies engage us in a refusal to confront real fears. Mariani concludes, ‘Hence a bitter irony between the Haitian zombie and its American counterpart. The monster once represented the real-life horrors of dehumanisation; now it’s used as a way to fantasise about human beings whose every decision is exalted.’ For the stripped-down, brown-and-green landscapes of the zombie apocalypse give excessive power to the few remaining characters, feeding individualist desires for ‘us’ to make a difference – so long as ‘we’ can be significant, and saviours.

I agree, and conclude slightly otherwise. Before going out again on this heat-risen, rain-wet evening in Port of Spain to walk among the ghostly and perspiring inhabitants of Queen’s Park Savannah and its neighbouring mansions, I find myself thinking of British ‘nature writing’ and ‘psychogeography’. Ah, these increasingly well-funded, modish and respectable outsider genres. Never dare apply a political lens to the writing of the ‘good guys’, who elegise and/or empty their landscapes, forever writing loss, loving through lament and at best a kind of pained tolerance of change. Are these homegrown genres of excision? What tongueless whispering is accumulating in, and off the shores of, my adoptive land? May there be a crisis of transformation.


This report is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

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