Things in lockdown (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 22)
This is the twenty-second instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH
Things in lockdown
By Lina Hakim
In locked-down life, there is no shortage of things to find oneself caught up in, of objects asserting themselves as things. There’s the laundry, dishes, chairs, floors, walls, doors, steps, shelves, cot-bed, beds. There’s dust, dirt, food stains, paint stains, crumbs, hair, spilt liquids of all kinds. There’s toys, balls, mats, boxes, cars, dinosaurs. There’s books, piles of them that fall, board books, soft books, torn books, favourite books, reference books. There’s tools and technology that go missing or break down at the moment they seem most urgently needed: the phones, my specs, the TV, the remote, the laptop and mouse, the wifi router, the fridge, the hob, the sink, the washing machine, the bath shower. There’s clothes, shoes, scarves, stones, sticks, pinecones in all the wrong places. There’s scissors, tape, glue, cardboard, paper, paint. There’s cardboard masks, makeshift seesaws and all kinds of dens. There are plants that seem to revel in neglect blooming, there are plants dying, and there are sprouting avocado seeds in a plastic tub. There’s nappies, wipes, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, old dirty toothbrushes, a new dinosaur toothbrush.
The ‘great withdrawal’ has made the circulations that make up subject-object relations almost brutally concrete. Spending a lot more time amongst our things, relentlessly immersed in them, has brought to the foreground – inescapable phenomenological attention – their resilient thingness that can no longer be held at an objective distance by our thinking them. There are only so many things that can be kept up by our thinking at once (let alone in any kind of order). And in this frenzied circulation, all these things (or is it thinging?) – including us – weave our household into a communal and primary form, essentially one big mess, though often (and not often enough admitted as such) a joyful one.
Isn’t it telling that Michel Serres explains the quasi-objects (and quasi-subjects) that constitute social forms and processes, by comparison to popular child’s play? In the comparison, the quasi-object is the furet, a token passed around by players:
“He who is not discovered with the furet in his hand is anonymous, part of a monotonous chain where he remains indistinguished. He is not an individual; he is not recognized, discovered, cut; he is of the chain and in the chain. He runs, like the furet, in the collective. The thread in his hands is our simple relation, the absence of the furet; its path makes out indivision. Who are we? Those who pass the furet; those who don’t have it. The quasi-object, when being passed, makes the collective, if it stops, it makes the individual.” (Michel Serres, The Parasite, transl. Lawrence Schehr, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, 225)
The counterpoint of social withdrawal is an intense intimacy within our home. A state of constant attachement (or is it a re-attachement with the babies?). And this great being together in turn emphasises all the other ‘being there’ and ‘being together’ that we are missing.
Our indivision is shaped in the path of things. All kinds of chants, incantations, silly runs, quotations and recitations from favourite stories, singing games, pretend play, elaborate variations on inside jokes and litanies of nonsense rhymes seamlessly and constantly interweave more ‘normal’ day-to-day activity. Silly old mummy, doesn’t she know, there’s no such thing as normal anymore?
There is the temptation, which we often give into out of sheer exhaustion, to just play, fully, without trying to manage work around it, or even chores. We embrace play in a moment of surrender and remember how much fun it is, how essential it is, how it is, as Huizinga puts it in Homo Ludens, “an absolutely primary category of life, familiar to everybody at a glance right down to the animal level” (1955: 3).
Shouldn’t we rethink the balance of playtime and work-time? Isn’t this proper living time? Is this a glimpse into the revolutionary? But this kind of play, ‘real living play’, is always too enmeshed in things, too all-encompassing. It demands full absorption, so when our attention falters the spell breaks – “Don’t kiss the engine, Daddy, or the carriages won’t think it’s real” (Huizinga, 1955: 8) – and ‘real’ life rushes back in. That monstrous thing out there. Pandemic. The tragedy, the numbers, the grief, the worry. Is the virus very bigger and bigger mummy? No, it’s very very small, but it goes everywhere… Things that are difficult to make sense of, beyond grasp. Incommensurable, unimaginable, and hard to accept. Could this virus really be something we all have to live with indefinitely? What kind of growth, sharing, communal understanding will the children be able to experience under these conditions? Will we ever be able to be together again with family, loved ones and strangers?
When it all gets too much, get back to things. There are things to do, to clean, to tidy up, to play with, to wipe, to move away, to put back in, to dry, to read, to glue, to hang, to paint, to staple, to wipe again, to find, to hide. There’s ‘work from home’ to do mostly at silly hours after the children’s bedtime, laptop and mouse precariously balanced on a piece of foam from the play-mat over a high chair, a sad – because practical – version of Fischli and Weiss’ beautiful Equilibres. The ‘Second Shift’ is now employment. But the partition is leaky, the spheres merging: public and private, professional and domestic.
On Zoom meetings for work, I can glance us in one of the frames – such a bizarre feature of video-based interfaces that includes our image onscreen amongst the person(s) we try to communicate with. We’re a ready recreation of DaVinci’s drawing of the holy family for the Getty Museum’s challenge. I’ve always liked the way in which this image abandons the traditional posed or emblematic ordering of members in representations of family, in favour of an intermingled composition of figures, coalescing bodies and overlapping movements, a merged complex of gestures, expressions and intentions. Of course our version is messier, the baby clambering up into my arms, the toddler hanging by my hair behind me – Can I say hello? – any opportunity to socialise. Matt said we’re all now that correspondent whose children walked in during an interview, and I love that thought. I’ve always felt a need to resist this separation of spheres, even before motherhood. The need to share the mess of things we’re each always negotiating. Rather than the neat impersonal frictionless efficiency that has come to define professional practice, messy selves in collaboration, meaning-making friction, authentic moments of sharing. I didn’t say goodbye. It’s ok, you can say goodbye next time.
There are times when it all just gets too much, the weight of it all outside and inside, the global mess and the one at home. Then it’s survival mode: let things wash over us without pulling us down too much, keep an eye on the clock, it’s ok in Groundhog Day – wrap today up and start again at all this tomorrow. But then there are also – admittedly more rarely – moments of breathing space and objective order. Moments of extraction from the mess, when we can push away from things for a bit to look through objects again and maybe even find an ‘I’. This text was pieced in such moments, little treats, opportunities to step back and register things. And register our privilege.
Tomorrow the houses will get angry and the virus will get sad and then it will go away – go away virus! – and then we can see everyone again.
In the meantime, we’ll be staying with the things. Try to enjoy their play. There’s the drums, Matt’s guitar, musical toys, the mini-piano, the spoon on the radiator, clapping along with a song, for the NHS and keyworkers, and just because. There’s potatoes in the washing machine, a filled potty, a dropped plant pot, an upturned bowl of cereal, sticky sippy cups, squished peas in the carpet (at least I hope that’s what it is).