June 21, 2019

Daybreak, wherein I Offer Some Solutions (part I)

Recently, I took about a month off work, and I’ve spent a lot of that time thinking about capitalism. Much as I love art, it’s become necessary for me to evaluate the power of my own creative labor in writing about it and begin to reallot and repurpose that energy, in light of malignant forces in the world, the environment, the political system of my country, the cultural practices shaping my city, and even social forces within my personal life. Not to mention the staggering contradictions of the art world, which ostensibly thrives on beauty and freedom of expression, but is often comprised of feeding creative labor (and sometimes the laborers themselves) to the rich as a kind of amuse-bouche for high society hobnobbing and gentrification, or as a distraction from their war crimes, human rights atrocities, and environmental degradation. As you might imagine, I’ve not been much fun at parties lately (or more accurately, I’ve been absent from them).

Many thanks to Megan Berkobien and her excellent Ecocriticism class at the Detroit branch of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, without which nothing currently going on in my head would be possible.

For someone who has worked as hard as I have to create stability and sustainability in a perilously low-margin line of work, it has felt incredibly precarious to throw a spanner in the constantly grinding gears of freelance arts writing. Every day has begun with a conscious reminder to lead life and decision-making from somewhere outside the constant, low-grade hum of capitalism, the perpetual earworm of our society. I have a home and a car, I have food in my refrigerator and climate control, clean air and water, clothes on my back and as healthy a body as I’m entitled to, a core group of dedicated friends and family and the love of the best dog to grace our mortal plane; my Maslow hierarchy is complete. The animal in me should be happy and satisfied. If I experience discontent or worry, then, it is only capitalist programming that makes me feel like what I have is not enough. Recognizing that, as I experience those feelings, I need to call them what they are and dismantle them—and I have, day by day, as I do not work in societal sense, and instead try to hear the higher calling, a signal that will always be faint, as I have learned the voice of the great spirit is often a quiet one. Perhaps God has mellowed in its old age. To hear it, I have to turn off Netflix, sit very still, be very quiet in body and in mind.

Here’s what I have noticed:

The people who are my moral signposts in the world are putting themselves in the service of things. In the service of trees and pollinating insects, especially bees. In the service of free education with no degrees. In the service of growing potatoes for others. These are the people and processes that drew me to Detroit when I moved here ten years ago, and though some of their lives have changed superficially, their horizon remains fixed and organic. I find myself thinking about trees all the time lately. The news is bad, lately, but I find myself hopeful that if and when humanity burns itself out, there might still be something evergreen to hold our brief, fitful memory. Climate crisis is only a disaster if you insist on holding human existence at its center. These days I worry more for other species.

I think a lot about the claw-hand of Capitalism. How nothing is safe. How a practice as fundamental and sacred as yoga—the true merits of which are absolutely free and available to anyone who can sit in silence and find their own breath—has been grabbed by that claw and turned into a lifestyle commodity requiring certification, specialized retreats, and expensive workout clothing. How Detroit raised a ragged flag of freedom from the ashes of industry, only to have it serve as a siren song to thuggish redevelopment efforts, the power-grab of emergency management, a new white mayor who is happy to lap-dog to corporations, the grabbing and repackaging of lot after house after place after neighborhood. Of my own efforts to shine a light on a scene that truly seemed to have its own reasons for making art in a place untouched by the market, only to have that descend into a feeding frenzy of opportunism, with the strongest bids for attention coming from the most self-interested and sociopathic parties. You know who you are, and I know you will feel nothing but satisfaction in the knowledge that your crummy, clamoring behavior stripped me of my trust and hope.

But. Lately I think that all problems are a matter of perspective. I am a freelancer, after all, so if the sword cuts too deep in one direction, I can take it as a sign to swing it the other way. Capitalism grabs; I grab back. Perhaps the issue here is my need to solve the system, when really I’ve already managed to find a process to lift myself out of that melee. From this high ground, if I can reach in and grab back even one more person, encourage anyone to take back even an hour of the day they’ve sold to someone else, ask you to do the terrible work of setting aside your fear long enough to hear a higher call…that’s one thing liberated from the claw.

It seems insignificant, in the scope of global collapse, but I swear it’s not. We are all so important, and so unimportant. We can’t all wander off into the woods to live a life of quiet contemplation, but we absolutely can carve out a space, even a tiny one, to practice combatting the messages we receive that call constantly for success, progress, consumption, efficiency, impatience, and individualism. These are just ideas, and we can replace them with new ones.

I’m trying to see the world with new eyes. It might require that I see myself as a bit less individually important, which is a tall order for me, but I am trying. And I invite you to join me, if you feel so inclined.

3 Comments on “Daybreak, wherein I Offer Some Solutions (part I)

Vince Carducci
June 21, 2019 at 12:25 pm

Nice. State of Insecurity by Isabell Lorey is a good book on the precariousness of life under capital.

June 21, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Beautifully articulated and wonderfully insightful. There is always hope if with voices like yours.

I’m taking my soul with me when I die, it’s not for sale.

June 21, 2019 at 9:52 pm

Ahhh, “the power of creative labor.” Channeling art critic Ben Davis, I guess I’d say art don’t mean much these days, especially socially conscious art, without activism and organization attached to it. As you say, the white-cube art world, generally can’t be bothered with much more than cocktail brag about acquired, overpriced name brand art. Spectacle and distraction; Kaws, anyone?
When a collective of city artist’s went to the suburbs this Spring with an immersive exhibition of art and video that addressed race and class issues, I was hoping you would have been able to schedule a visit. The artist meet-and-greet discussion at Easter time between Detroit artists and engaged but insulated mostly white suburbanites was at times uncomfortable but necessary in response to malignant forces of capitalism you list. Wish you could have been there to help advance the narrative for sustainable change with your arts writing.
We were better when we were a no-fly zone.


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