Project introduction | April 24th, 2020 | Utrecht
“Roy makes me wonder what kind of portal we are in? Maybe it is not even one portal but many portals; because the current situation has very different effects for different people in relation to how they are positioned in the current world; how their lives are structured through hierarchizing, privileging and de-privileging operations of geopolitically-specific social power relations. I also wonder what this “next” world could be? And what it would mean to walk through the portal “lightly”? I wonder what kinds of ideas and practices can bring wind under our wings at this difficult moment? How can we mobilize richness of existing counterhegemonic, intersectionally feminist thinking as the luggage we/you/I would like to bring to this next world? And what would make this world breathable?”
I’m Magdalena Górska. I’m assistant professor at the Graduate Gender Studies Program at Utrecht University and I will be a companion in the upcoming conversations that I hope will unfold here.
In this short entry, I would like to take a moment to introduce this Breathable Futures Today project, and my motivations behind it.
I started this audio-blog out of my desire to think with others about what the current situation of the corona lock-down could lead to. What kind of conditions the present state enables for the future. Like many others, I was pondering this question – with a lot of worry and with a little bit of hope – since the start of the pandemic. But it was the text of Arundhati Roy “The Pandemic is a Portal” that made this question even more urgent. Roy argues that
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Roy makes me wonder what kind of portal we are in? Maybe it is not even one portal but many portals; because the current situation has very different effects for different people in relation to how they are positioned in the current world; how their lives are structured through hierarchizing, privileging and de-privileging operations of geopolitically-specific social power relations. I also wonder what this “next” world could be? And what it would mean to walk through the portal “lightly”? I wonder what kinds of ideas and practices can bring wind under our wings at this difficult moment? How can we mobilize richness of existing counterhegemonic, intersectionally feminist thinking as the luggage we/you/I would like to bring to this next world? And what would make this world breathable?
Because our world has been toxic, suffocating and deadly for so many, together with Roy I believe that “nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”
So, I decided that I would like to be in conversation with other scholars and critical practitioners who also ponder about this question from a critical feminist, queer, anti-racist, and anti-ableist perspective. And that is how the idea for this project sparkled.
I’m very much looking forward to finding out what people are thinking about the current situation. What are their hopes and worries? What kind of possibilities, challenges and dangers they see from their own situated perspectives? What kind of inequalities do they want to address in relation to what needs to be reconfigured? And what would they like to bring as their luggage? I am curious to discuss what kind of conditions they think we need to develop in order to be able to use this moment as a portal, as a possibility for developing a socially just and breathable “next world.”
But breathing and breathability are not homogenous processes. While they are shared across all breathing beings, they are also differential in the way they are bodily and affectively lived. There is a universal need to breathe but we also breathe differently due to our specific physiologies such as our bodily formation, size, weight or age – for example, we breathe differently if we have one or two lungs, we breathe differently according to our different lung conditions, or infants breathe faster than adults. But we also breathe differently according to our specific situatedness in social and geo-political power relations. Stacy Alaimo in her discussion of the “proletarian lung” in the Bodily Natures book argues
“the human body is never a rigidly enclosed, protected entity, but is vulnerable to the substances and flows of its environments, which may include industrial environments and their social/economic forces.” (Alaimo 2010, 28) And she continues “the bodies of the working class [but as I would add, and I am sure Stacy Alaimo would agree with that, of course also other bodies such as racialized, gendered, immigrant bodies] are themselves shaped by social and economic forces. … it means that the body is not separate from the social.” (Alaimo 2020, 40).
So, we literally – physiologically, affectively, and socially – breathe differently according to different environmental and social toxicities we live in; and those toxicities are distributed along racial, ablist, sexist, and classist (to name just a few) intersections of power. In that sense, as we breathe differently in our universal need to breathe, breathable futures, while they are shared to some degree, also need to be understood in their specific situatedness.
But I am also very wary about idealizing the current moment or fetishizing the specificity of the current corona lock-down situation as a space of imagination. Not only because this situation is so difficult for so many people who are suffocating and suffering from its consequences, but also because suffering, injustice, pain, suffocation and death have been fundamental structures of the life before the pandemic. I also don’t want to idealize the current situation as a space of imagination because imagining worlds otherwise and a critique of the unjust social relations have been part of intersectional critical feminist thinking and practices for decades. Before the corona lock-down, many scholars and practitioners have been thinking about what it would mean to develop different futures, alternative practices, and counter-hegemonic ways of living. And as Roy points out, trying to foster change requires readiness and willingness to fight for it. Such fight is of course not easy as we cannot simply undo millions of decisions that have built the unjust infrastructure of the world we live in today. As Roy also pointed out in her current conversation with Imani Perry, that was organized by Heymarket Books and streamed on YouTube on April 23rd, we can’t simply undo those decisions like we undo knitting. Current power relations are not balanced and the future can be also easily highjacked by those who are close to power. I worry because not letting the world come back to “normal” can, unfortunately, also mean developing politics and policies that lead to more totalitarianism, digital policing, nationalist border politics, and even more discrimination of already de-privileged and vulnerable groups.
Moreover, the current corona pandemic is not the only one happening right now. There are so many other circumstances which call for intervention. A pandemic of everyday racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and nationalist deadly discrimination that destroys bodies, affective lives, and “life chances” (as Dean Spade calls it) of minoritized groups. A pandemic of war and geopolitical politics that destroy livelihoods and take lives of whole populations that are deemed killable (as Mbembe argues). A pandemic of national fortifications when people who have been deemed disposable are left to drown on national borders such as the European one. Or a pandemic of ignorance in the face of climate change and its unequal effects; and a pandemic of injustice such as suffering and violation of rights caused by state violence, economic violence, gendered violence, or occupation (to mention only some of existing discriminatory processes that are part of the corona lock-down we are in today). In that sense, we are in a much more complex pandemic than merely the pandemic of the Corona virus.
And at the same time, what the Corona virus enabled is something unprecedented; something I (personally) would have never thought possible. It shut down societies and it shut down economy. Such a shut-down was said to be unimaginable within the hegemonic doctrine of global neoliberalism. Such an unexpected turn of events does something. It has effects not only on the present but also on how lives will be lived and structured by social, national and geopolitical powers in the future. Most probably there will indeed be no return to the “normal.” But as I said before the “new normal” can very easily be even more suffocating and deadly. This is why – despite my weariness of idealizing this specific moment – I think it is crucial to think what kind of tools, interventions, and imaginaries can we/you/I mobilize not only NOT to go back to “normal” or prevent the “normal” from getting worse, but also to engage in what kinds of breathable futures we/you/I can imagine and fight for today.
This is why I started this project as a collective conversational endeavor. While I worry about the present moment and the future, I also look forward to grapple with these questions in conversation with others. I’m not sure where this project and its conversations will lead to. I only know that it will be a spontaneous process that will be developing as we speak.
I’m very much looking forward to the conversations and I’m very much looking forward to learning from them. So, if you are interested in those questions too, please stay tuned. Thank you for listening to this first recording and hear you soon.
Alaimo, Stacy. 2010. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mbembe, Achille. 2003. ‘Necropolitics’. Public Culture 15 (1): 1–40.
Roy, Arundhati. 2020a. ‘The Pandemic Is a Portal’’. Financial Times. 3 April 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.
———. 2020b. The Pandemic is A Portal: A conversation with Arundhati Roy Interview by Imani Perry. Heymarket Books Live event.
Spade, Dean. 2015. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Duke University Press.