Interview conducted on May 5th, 2020 | Utrecht-Warsaw
“if you hear this kind of atrocious necropolitical discourse, you obviously get into a turmoil. You get extra surplus anxiety on top of everything that already happens due to the pandemic. This is what I call the affective state of exception. Because everybody who is even a little bit caring about others, about life on this planet, is constantly in a state of engagement. We almost don’t have peace in a sense of peace of mind. And that’s very dangerous because this is – in Polish you would say – “rabunkowa gospodarka na człowieku.” In English it would be something like a “devastating economy” or “expropriating economy on a human organism” that is basically ruining the organism because of the violence and its exploitative means.”
MG: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the third interview in the series of interviews in the Breathable Futures Today Project. I’m Magdalena Górska and I’m your companion here. And today it is my pleasure to do interview with Ewa Majewska who is a friend and colleague. Ewa Majewska is a feminist philosopher and activist who is affiliated with the Institute of Cultural Inquiry in Berlin. She taught at University of Warsaw, and at Jagellonian University. She was also a visiting fellow at University of California, Berkeley, ICI Berlin and IWM in Vienna. She published four books and some 50 articles and essays in journals, magazines and collected volumes, including e-flux, Third Text, Journal of Utopian Studies. Her current research is on Hegel’s philosophy, focusing on dialectics and the weak; feminist critical theory and antifascist cultures. Her next book, Feminist Antifascism: Counterublics of the Commons, will be published in 2021. She currently lives in Warsaw.
EM: Yes, that’s me, hi! And thank you for your invitation.
MG: Thank you Ewa so much for taking the time for this interview. Maybe one thing I want to mention is that you also started doing Coronavirus Seminars from Warsaw. The seminars are really fantastic. I had the privilege of joining some of them and enjoyed them immensely. They are in Polish – unfortunately for those who might want to listen to them and are not Polish speakers. I actually learn a lot also from the Polish conversations we are having, especially as a person whose Polish is diminishing. So, it’s a great pleasure for me to be able to follow them. And for those of you who can speak Polish and are interested in those topics, please join these conversations on Facebook or on the website of the organizers. I can provide more information in the transcript.
EM: This is so kind that you mentioned it. And for me, it’s also a way of breathing, actually. Making the seminar gave me some space to continue what I usually do, which is quite reflexive, actually, but also quite radical, and often also includes creating communities. This seminar became a kind of tiny community. And I’m very happy that people enjoy it. It became a kind of collective rehearsing being a multitude. It’s a rehearsal for us to see how we can exchange, share and think together; sometimes against each other, sometimes together. I am very happy that you like it. And I totally invite everybody. I will make one session in English, on the 10 June, 5 pm. It is generously hosted and sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Natalia Sielewicz is curating it.
MG: That’s really awesome. Maybe we can actually start our conversation from this project because I think what you are doing there is really important in relation to the way we approach the current situation as a portal, since this is the theme of my interviews. How can we think about the current situation as a portal to the “next world”? And what this world can be? And what we need to do in order to make this world slightly more breathable, since, of course, we are embedded in structures which are extremely suffocating? And what I really like about your seminar is that you are creating spaces for conversations. And I like how you think about thinking as a rehearsal because there is no perfect way of making change. There is no perfect way, as we know from history, of making a revolution. And there are a lot of dangers connected to trying to make change – for example revolutions being hijacked and so, on. So, maybe to tell us a little bit more about what was the motivation behind this project and how does it help you understand what is happening today?
EM: First of all, we should revisit the notion of rehearsal. Maybe I should give the credits to the person, who works with theater and who does a lot of work – which I don’t know very much because I don’t speak German and the person is German – Sibylle Peters. We were reading her text in the last Coronaseminar. The text was published in book Truth is Concrete, edited by Florian Malzacher (2014), and has other texts by interesting theorists, activists and practitioners of art. This book is a manual for all kinds of people about how art can become a political tool, or how art acts politically. And among many – 99 – texts there are all kinds of strategies. Bio art, hacking, collective work, working with municipalities. There is even an author who is schizophrenic and he’s exploring this condition. He invites artists to stay with him in the times when he’s better, I think. And then, there they are care giving but also have time, space and resources to continue with their work. All kinds of texts are there and it’s fantastic. I think it also helped me breathing. I was translating this book to Polish. It was maybe the only book where I was really looking forward to the next chapter – for a translator it’s very important to have enthusiasm. And as much as I translated fantastic feminist writers, I was always exhausted in the process. And this book was different…
The text by Sibylle Peters is called “On Being Many” (2014) and it introduces the concept of rehearsal – it’s a theatrical concept. She introduces it into the analysis of what it means to be many, to be a multitude. She speaks of the artistic world and political activism as those situations when we never feel many, when we always feel there is not enough of us. It is this sense of not being enough, of a lack – that is our everyday feeling. In academia, I think, there is a sense like this as well – that it’s not enough of us in all kinds of ways. Sibylle Peters asks this question: how to use the artistic tools and also the political tools to practice, to learn, to rehearse the being many, because we’ve never been many. This question, or this statement is quite similar to “we have never been modern” [by Bruno Latour]. I think there is a structural resemblance. It’s actually not by accident, I think. She’s invoking Latour’s thinking because this idea – that we spoke about modernity since forever and yet we have never been modern – is exactly how we speak so much about being many. We speak about solidarity, about collectives, about communism, all kinds of things. But yet – even in feminism where sisterhood is such a large concept – in the end of the day, we always feel we are not many. Peters is coming with this notion of rehearsal as opposed somehow – not directly, indirectly – to the notion of event, which is very prominent in recent political philosophy. Alain Badiou is focusing on the event as opposed to the process, I would say, excluding the process from the visibility. So, for me as a feminist scholar, obviously, such an exclusion – such a play on what is visible and what is not – is very dangerous. I am observing all kinds of failures, reproductive labor, invisible labor, all of these social practices and cultural practices, and I don’t want them to be excluded even more, than they already are. I think the concept of event – as much as it tries to be progressive, revolutionary, and very useful, and I don’t want to deny it – not only preserves invisibility but perhaps puts more shadow on the processes which are tremendously important for any social change and have always been invisible.
In the first Coronaseminar we spoke about the concept of monsters from Antonio Gramsci. We spoke about the time of change – the time when the known patterns that we are used to are seizing to exist and new patterns are rising up, and then there is in-between time where new forms of agency, of thinking, of ideas appear. Very often people think that these new forms or ideas are like monsters. They are scared of them because they don’t belong to the past anymore. But they also don’t belong… maybe they do belong to the future, but we don’t know yet the future. They are kind of misfits of the system. Someone wrote in the comments [as the first Coronaseminar was a lecture, streamed live on Facebook] that this seminar could be called a “monster seminar” – which I loved. This also tells you that it’s not really just me who has the power to define this seminar. And I think it’s quite an important characteristic that people bringing in. Now we are going to read two texts of two women who are participating in the seminar. For the next one we read Rebecca Solnit’s (2005)text who spoke about hope so very much, but also a text by Aldona Kopkiewicz (2020) and another text by Pamela Bożek (2020) . This came in the process already because I saw they published those texts and they’re very important. The participants of the seminar said that they are very happy with that there is a whole kind of community-work and that we are sort of being many in this kind of very rehearsing way – this is probably not grammatical, but grammar has to change because if we go on with the rehearsing, obviously we’re going to have to use adjectives and useful words that go with it, and the vocabulary that does not put the emphasis on the final effects. We are going to continue with the seminar till early June and by then I know that a lot of my thinking about the pandemic is going to change. And I will also learn new things, we all will.
MG: Yeah, exactly. And I think this is a very important thing to acknowledge – the changes in our thinking – and to understand that thinking is a living being, so to speak, rather than a product in the way how it is often presented in neoliberal academia where your thinking is your book, your thinking is your article. And actually, our thinking is our life and our life is our thinking.
EM: Yes, very much.
MG: And I would like to come back to the notion of the monsters. Because I watched the first Coronaseminarium and I wanted to ask you if maybe in this context – in the context of this interview – you would like to expand on that because you were also combining it with Haraway’s way of thinking of staying with the trouble. And in the previous two conversations I had in this interview series, virus emerged as something we can learn from, something which has agency which shows us the already existing structures of inequality. And I think this was always the function of monsters also – for example how Margrit Shildrick (2002; 2009) is writing about it in her book. So, I would like to ask you if you could maybe say what kind of monstrosity emerges right now in relation to your thinking about monsters?
EM: The book that really made me think of monsters is the one by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, The Commonwealth (2011). They explored the motive that we already know from Silvia Federici: the motive of Caliban and the Witch. Caliban stands as an example of monsters. Caliban is non-white, colonized, a kind of anti-subject or non-subject of the European Western white male thinking. But to me, obviously, when I was reading the Commonwealth and the thought of Negri and Hardt – and this happened before I’ve read Silvia Federici, which was perhaps very unprofessional. First I reacted to the book The Commonwealth, from a feminist perspective, and only later I got to know the Caliban and the Witch (2004), which is an amazing book about the misogynist origins of modernity by Silvia Federici, so I didn’t know this book – already then I focused on the fact that Caliban is also a son of Sycorax, a woman who was accused of being a witch – that’s an origin that somehow too easily gets forgotten.
One thing that I learned about the monstrosity of today’s virus and today’s situation is that there are so many women who are sort of mothers of the new ideas that are coming up. Because I was comparing – before I made the seminar – how men and women in the world of prominent philosophy and prominent theory react to the corona virus situation. I was really disappointed with lots of men who were basically pushing forward their thoughts that already had been developed and were not eager to listen to each other. Quite the opposite, they would just smash the other, basically. So, there were several quarrels, between very prominent thinkers, which I did not like at all. I don’t mind debate, even an intense, heated debate. That’s not the problem. But in a situation when everything goes into a panic, I’m sort of not looking for even more panic. So, in the Coronaseminar, those quarrels of philosophers are absent we have space for them, but they seem to proceed in a very different way. There is one session of Coronaseminar we just entitled “Let’s panic together.” [laughing together] So, there is a space of rehearsal in our collective presence. And then we are going to panic over all this panicking thinkers. And we’re going to try to, on the one hand, embrace this panic somehow, and understand it. For instance, a very wise woman, and a very wise philosopher I know from Russia, Oxana Timofeeva, gave some credit and some praise to those efforts of philosophers to think. And she makes a good point that thinking is the domain of philosophy. So, even if it happens under the conditions of panic, and even if it doesn’t look very pretty in the first place, this is what philosophers do. I agree with her that there can be failures in this process, yes. But I disagree that every thought by a philosopher is valuable just because it has been produced by a philosopher, which also is not exactly the point of Oxana, obviously. But somehow her endorsement of all this plethora of philosophical thinking that appeared in the pandemic, I think, was a little bit too positive. I would be more critical. I would say, like: Ok look, I like what, Achille Mbembe (2020) says or I like very much what Arundhati Roy (2020) wrote, or I like Catherine Malabou’s (2020) thoughts – her way was to hide somehow.
MG: Yeah. I think it [hiding] is an important point of conversation. You’ve also sent me her text, so I read it, and I remember that when I was reading it, I had a little bit of ambivalent feeling about it because of the amount of withdrawal, which I feel like I cannot afford, because I feel that this is the moment when we need to act, when we need to be in conversations. But actually later on, also listening to the way how you interpreted it in your first Coronaseminar, I realized: no there’s such an important value to that.; not only in relation to dismissing the notions of productivity in which we are embedded in the kind of a Corona industry, which is developing right now and I really don’t want to be part of that, of course. For me, it’s more about conversations, thinking together rather than producing products. So, I think this moment of withdrawal is extremely important, not only in relation to a withdrawal for the individual, but also giving space and time for thinking and for processing, which is not only in words, in content, but it’s also bodily. So, for example, in the second interview with Camila Marambio we were talking about this kind of need for moving in and out of protest, of activity, of resistance. Like the way how you breathe, and you puff, and then you kind of hold your breath and withdraw your breath. And I think her [Malabou’s] text is really important in relation to seeing these different levels and layers of what resistance means today.
Paul Preciado (2020) wrote in their article for Art Forum recently that they expect not only analysis but also a practice of resistance in the digital media. I’m wondering whether people are going to mobilize themselves also to create, hopefully, more emancipated spaces also via those dating apps. Perhaps they will discover that actually it can be a way for them to connect in the quarantine. And so, like that, there could be perhaps some potential in that sector too – to sort of transform the usual routine, which is a not super nice, into something that is a bit more interesting and also supportive. So, I got some solidarity from that there were people who are not living in Poland and some of them would really comment on the Polish situation. We have, just to remind you, a government that wants the whole country to go voting in early May. So, right after we might succeed in flattening the curve of the virus, they want to introduce the whole nation, once again, to the possibility, to the risk of actually of getting the virus again, and of really bringing the curve much higher. Living in such a country is another reason why I’m feeling very oppressed.
MG: So, do you feel like [the mainstream] thinking is changing somehow? That the connections and critical connections are easier to make in that sense?
EM: I don’t know. I think that for some people, yes. Some people start to maybe take different possibilities of radical politics more seriously. Look at Spain. In Spain, the guaranteed basic income was offered by the government to the whole country. Not just for the time of pandemic, but basically for longer. So, this is clearly an example of how a whole government can actually try to think differently and try to embrace new scenarios – economic and political scenarios – which are still considered to be rather utopian. And then out of the blue, the whole country, a big country, with a big economy in the European Union decides to switch towards that. There are moments where there is surprisingly big openness, suddenly. This is what I would call also monstrosity of some kind. But some monsters are becoming not pets, maybe, but … some monsters become kind of home animals. You know what I mean? There is a process of working with it and of assimilating… Assimilating is not the best word, I don’t know.
MG: Domesticated, maybe?
EM: Yeah, but still… Because in Polish “oswoić” is more a neutral word. And the English word “assimilate” has this suppression.
MG: Yes, totally. You’re right.
EM: In Polish “oswoić” means that this animal becomes more known to us or more ours.
MG: Yeah. Like “living-with” in Harawayan sense.
EM: Yeah. So, I would say that those monsters become “our monsters”.
MG: But that’s exactly this kind of danger of what can happen, with those monsters. Because this move in Spain, I think this is exactly the direction in which the governments should be heading, and it should be a permanent solution outside of the crisis. It should become structural in that sense. At the same time, what is going on in Poland… the way how the elections are being done, it’s not only that they are opening everything just in order to enable elections rather than being motivated by well thought through health-based process. But also, what they are doing is that – from what I understood and I still have to look into it a little bit more – the people who live abroad are forbidden to vote. So, they are also eliminating huge counter publics, which is also your type of research in sense of counter resistance. Because a lot of people who live abroad are actually very much critical to the current government. So, it’s almost like a gesture of seizing power.
EM: Yes. And I mean, we know the notion of necropolitics from Achille Mbembe (2003). It’s basically the sovereign’s governance over who is allowed to live and who can die or even who should die. And to me, the monstrosity of this process is also fueled, is enhanced even, by a certain preoccupation and procedures. So, a government that is ruining and stepping all over the Constitution suddenly says that the Constitution does not allow them to postpone the presidential election, which is obviously not true. And also, they confuse the values. I mean, the value of human life is huge. It is fundamental. And this is the reason why this law, the Constitution, but also any other laws exist. If human rights or a population’s life, in this case, are endangered, obviously, you can be very inventive in providing with protection here. This kind of preventive measures have been very well enhanced after the terrorist attacks in 9/11 without any problems. There was a whole set of changes, very unconstitutional. Poland joined the war in Iraq without considering Constitution – the president announced it earlier than the parliament, which was anti-constitutional par excellence. There were all kinds of examples of stepping over the Constitution in situations where it was really unnecessary. To say worse, it was against international laws and so on.
MG: It is a good case of Naomi Klein’s (2008) “shock doctrine.”
MG: Using the moment of shock in order to push rules and forms of policies and decisions, which wouldn’t have been accepted otherwise.
EM: Yes, I’m using the concept because… You know, Gorgio Agamben follows Walter Benjamin in negotiating with Carl Schmitt and his doctrine of sovereignty. And Schmittian sovereignty is basically beyond the law. The sovereign power is exceptional. It’s the only ruler in a sense of creating the law. But also, it is externalized from it. So, it’s not responsible to anyone.
MG: Like the position of Trump right now.
EM: Yes. He is following Schmitt’s doctrine as well. It’s a fascist doctrine. Carl Schmitt was the lawyer and philosopher of law who built the structures for the fascist regime in Germany in the 1930s. . The effort of Giorgio Agamben is basically to show how the doctrine of the state of exception is still mobilized. And in the pandemic times, obviously, taking out a lot of liberties can be treated… the Polish courts now are almost demobilized because of the pandemic, and of course in other countries as well. So, if your rights are being violated, there is far less possibilities for you to negotiate this. Thus, the mediation between the sovereign power and you as a citizen, you as a person, as a human being, the possibilities of mediation between them have decreased. The more direct touch of sovereign’s hands on you is, the more fascist regime. Currently, it’s quite obvious that we have quite a lot of this unwanted, unmediated proximity, this direct contact, with sovereignty.
And we don’t like it at all, especially in Poland, where, our presidential elections should be on the 10th of May. Now [during the conversation] is 5th of May. And on the on the 7th of May, the parliament is going to vote about the way this election is supposed to happen. This is incredible, we still do not know how the voting will be conducted [and it was not conducted, on 10 of May nothing happened, although the decision of the parliament about the date of presidential election was not rejected neither, now the proceedings for the presidential elections are about “what should be done after a planned election did not happen? This is a farce. The government pushes for the election on the 28 June, and we still don’t know, what is going to happen, and it is 28 May. The government did not not allow people to get the proper information about who, what, how, where will be voting, what it means etc. So, there is a lot of procedural mess, I would say, that this situation creates. But there is also a fear that the older people are going to be basically exposed to a danger of getting the virus and dying, unfortunately. And this risk is completely ignored by the government, who says that they are opening now shopping malls, shops, and all kinds of facilities and therefore [they say] people are safe. And this is really careless. There, is this neglect over human life, which is tremendously sad. And also the parliament voted against testing the doctors every week. There was a proposal that basically everybody who works in medical care should be tested for corona virus at least once a week. And this has been declined by the ruling party, which basically means that they do not care about those very people who are the only people who can save us.
That’s an example of the [sovereign’s] arrogance and, in a sense, of a superpower regime where the ruling politicians are like God’s already, they are not normal human beings. They are beyond humanity. They’re above. There is a sense of exceptionality, which is why it can be called the state of exception. This exceptionality means basically that those in power are beyond any normative frameworks, legal frameworks, etc.
But what I’m talking about very often is the affective state of exception, because living in those conditions and hearing all the bullshit makes you… if somebody is a little bit empathetic, a little bit, I don’t know, moral or anywhere political in any sense or simply can be empathetic with others, if you hear this kind of atrocious necropolitical discourse, you obviously get into a turmoil. You get extra surplus anxiety on top of everything that already happens due to the pandemic. This is what I call the affective state of exception. Because everybody who is even a little bit caring about others, about life on this planet, is constantly in a state of engagement. We almost don’t have peace in a sense of peace of mind. And that’s very dangerous because this is – in Polish you would say – “rabunkowa gospodarka na człowieku.” In English it would be something like a “devastating economy” or “expropriating economy on a human organism” that is basically ruining the organism because of the violence and its exploitative means.
MG: It links so well to Ann Cvetkovich’s (2012) work on depression and the debilitating effects of social structures, as well as Fanon’s combat breathing, right?
EM: Exactly. Yeah, this is a very good note . In Poland most commentators, most political commentators, do not notice this fatigue and exhaustion of the population. There is a lot of criticism of the government by the opposition, but always focusing on something else than affect, like: “why they are so stupid?” “Why they do that?”; “Why they cannot respond to the measures?” This is an affective state of exception, but nobody notices that in Poland we have already been in this fatigue, in this exploitation – affectively, emotional, and intellectually – for over five years . Who can maintain a good, decent, sense of reality in a constant stress? Here we go back to Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”. Several practices are considered to be tortures: not being able to sleep for a long time, not having any privacy whatsoever, these are tortures. And if you are constantly in stress, that’s also a form of torture. So, I would say the whole country [ Poland] – and probably some other countries like in Brazil or U.S., or for some people like for Black people, for minorities, sometimes for women – there is this surplus of affective turmoil that actually is ruining our lives. It’s too long, it’s not just one day or two days. Every day I wake up and I know that I’m going to have to protest against something. This is just exhausting.
MG: Yes. I think we need to talk so much more about the affective state violence in that sense. That the state violence is also having the affective and bodily – because embodiment and affect mutually constitutive – or corpo-affective state violence, which has been happening for decades in relation to discriminatory social structures. But it’s also happening right now in slightly shifted form, because, I think, it kind of expands across broader groups of population in that sense.
And I was wondering if you would like to maybe connect in this moment to some points which you’ve been making in the previous Coronaseminars in relation to, for example, how we can think with certainty and uncertainty – “pewność” and “niepewność – and weak resistance or “krucha strategia.” I love the term “krucha strategia” so much. I don’t know how to translate it from Polish. Some people were translating it as a “precarious strategy.” But I think “kruchość” has something in it which is very fragile but also something strong, something which holds together but can also kind of crumble.
MG: And I love this kind of dynamic of this strength and vulnerability which is in this term at the same time. So, I wonder if you would like to connect maybe our conversation to that because, I think, it links so much to the affective state violence.
EM: I totally enjoy your fascination with the word “kruchość.” I love it too because it’s very material. You know, we have “kruche ciastka.” (butter cookies are called “kruche” – fragile)
MG: Yeah, exactly.
EM: “Kruche ciastka” are specifically… these are not cookies that can be kept for a long time. They are also cookies that will dismantle. We can keep them very delicately and still they’re already in pieces.
MG: And they are so yummy.
EM: Yeah. So, “kruche” means fragile also those little porcelain figurines are “kruche.” Because you don’t need much to put them in pieces, basically. So, “kruche” means exactly something that can be easily dismantled into pieces and in a very material sense of the word. Precarity (which is a word we translate into Polish as “kruchy”, Agata Czarnacka does it in her translation of Judith Butler for example) doesn’t have this very material connotation, this immediacy, these materialistic immediate connotations – it’s a poorer version of a word. But in fact, yes, “kruche” if you speak about life, about social bonds, about a labor market, all kinds of things like that, obviously you can translate precarious as “kruche.”
In the Coronaseminar we spoke about precarity. Contingency is also a good word here. Contingency, meaning that it’s not very long term, that it can be very easily transformed or destroyed, it’s uncertain. And obviously with “kruchość”, there is some sort of sense of uncertainty. You don’t know how long this piece you like so much is going to survive. Right?
MG: So, it’s also connected to how we experience resistance in capitalism. Because we are already so bodily and effectively run down. Of course, across our differences this notion of rundown has different effects and we are run down by different structures. So, I don’t want to homogenize it, of course. But this kind of running down is a very important aspect in relation to this weak resistance or “krucha strategia.”
EM: So, basically, this consciousness… we might not produce it as very stable for very long. I’m quite interested in long term thinking. And I believe that this analysis of the weak, contingent strategies is actually helping to build long term strategies. Some people, immediately say: “oh so you are for those things that just pop up and disappear”. No. Precisely, no. I wanted to give visibility to those processes that are so vulnerable and invisible and exploited to such an extent that they are not seen. I want to put the lights back on those processes that construct us as human beings, as empathetic or even powerful human beings, which are not strong.
You know, I have all those experiences from my childhood, from my household, my father was a political activist. He not only had to know all those skills [of camouflage, hiding, disguise etc.], he had fake beard, glasses or hair. Seriously, literally, he had such objects. He had all kinds of gadgets to dismantle his looks. And he was quite clever and quite cool in the sense of like: “police ran after me for ages and I know how to disappear.” So, there was this brilliance and coolness and courage, of course. But obviously, if me, and my mother, and 20 other people, mainly women, would not support him…
And also his students were fantastic. I recently came across a bunch of postcards that they were sending him to the jail – because, obviously, eventually he was caught and spent seven months in jail back in 1980s. So, this period in jail is interesting. I was mentioning this also in the Coronaseminar how all those people who spent time in jail how all those different people who were serving time, how their experience somehow prepares us for understanding confinement, even in this much softer version we currently experience in the pandemic … Like Rosa Luxemburg – my father loves it when I say “Rosa Luxemburg and my father.” He’s like: “She was a communist and I was an anti-communist.” And I respond: “Yeah, but you have certain things in common. You wanted a democratic society, both of you.” Also, the focus on plants – my father and Rosa Luxemburg they shared it. They were quite excited by different types of being, forms of life. Rosa Luxemburg (2009) produced a whole herbarium; it was published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. She had one of the best collections of different plants that she was putting together. So, these are those mini strategies, vulnerable ones, of weak resistance
If you look at the correspondence from jail of Rosa Luxemburg, but also my father has it, Jacek Kuroń has it, Antonio Gramsci has it, Antonio Negri has it, this ability to cheer other people up. It’s something you probably wouldn’t expect. But that’s what happens in this correspondence. It’s like: “Dear Sonieczka (Liebknecht) how are you doing?” wrights Rosa Luxemburg. Basically, you’re kind of like: “Where do you charge your batteries? [laughs] How do you do it?”
All those lockdowns that happened because of political reasons are tremendously important, for me at least, as they are a source of understanding what you can do in this lockdown, in being quarantined and so on. How to find ways of not losing all this energy that is so necessary for us to create, to expand, also to breathe? You have to have the will to breathe. I mean, there are all kinds of processes of dying when the will to live is not there anymore. So, we need to protect this kind of internal will to live
We are talking now about plants and being joyful, in different kinds of difficult conditions – well, these are weak strategies. These are not something that people wrote manifestos about. Even in a Communist Manifesto you have this very fragile figure of the specter [laughs]. Even hardline communists are like: “We want proper, strong resistance,” I’m like: “Look at your bible, look at The Communist Manifesto (1848), see what it starts with”. I’m sorry to say, it’s not tanks that they invoked – tanks probably were not yet there, it’s not bombs or something like that they invoke. What they invoke is a specter. That’s very wise. I’m kind of seeing a lot of affiliation with Marx and Engels on this, because I think they have this ability of building up a sense of the common, of being many from very different, very diverse spaces. And the fact that they are speaking of the specter and of haunting rather than, I don’t know, victors, martyrs or something. No, they speak about haunting. Haunting is not the strongest strategy. And yet it’s there. It’s at the core. I was thinking of what is powerful – what what’s powerful and what is not? And also, what is effective and what is not? And also, what can happen and what cannot happen? And I think this should be shifted politically.
I think that recent feminist movements give us some good arguments for it. If you look at the International Women’s Strike or at the Polish Black Protest (as we call it: Czarny protest or Women’s Strike), you see that at first it’s women connecting with each other, on in internet groups. They are doing something which also per se is not a big deal – we join internet groups all the time for all kinds of reasons. And then they post images saying that they support the protesters, and then they take to the streets. There is an evolution that leads eventually to quite groundbreaking strike formula. But it’s not from day one. It’s step by step. There are all kinds of rehearsals, basically. In Berlin we made the women’s demonstrations as early as in April 2016 and the Women’s Strike took place on the 3rdOctober 2016. A a lot happened in the process. And I think that the ability to proceed from small steps to bigger ones that matters. Since the 1960s and 70s – this negotiation of political strategies and political radicalism takes place, and what it means to be on the left, or what it means to be a feminist even – there was a sort of necessity even, I think, of dismantling those collective identities. There was obviously a search for more specific experiences. Also women discovered that there are very different women and they work in very different conditions and they are also sexually present in very different ways, they have abilities and disabilities, and there are all kinds of differences. So, those differences have been expanding.
When I speak of weak resistance I’m not trying to say that we need to study our weaknesses in separation. What I’m trying to do is to say: “OK, let’s analyze, let’s learn from those moments when we are not so powerful.” And the constellation of thinkers I bring up is very diverse. One of them is Vaclav Havel – by no means a communist. He also uses the metaphor of the specter, which is really cool because in his essay The Power of the Powerless (Havel 2018) he begins with this reference to Marx and Engels and he says that there is a this specter, which is called dissidents right now. So, there is Havel. There is Jacek Kuroń who wrote in his memoirs (Wiara i wina (1990)) that for him being on the left always means to be on the minorities’ side. Then I found the same definition in the Deleuze and Guattari. That is so cool to see this connection – that so different important figures say the same thing, basically. Then there is also Jack Halberstam and their tremendously important book Queer Art of Failure (2011) about the impossibility of reiterating, repeating, performative staging of gender identities and other identities, which is being discussed as a form of resistance to neoliberal capitalism and its productivity. I find that great. It’s always inspiring. But there is also Judith Butler, her Gender Trouble, whose theory of gender performative identity is also based on the fact that there are some bodies that basically do not perform binary gender very well. I believe this is at the core, and this is a performance that actually allows everyone to understand resistance. It demands re-shifting, rescheduling our understanding of gender composition, gender processes and gender identities. It’s extremely wise to take a failure as a key example for how we should not look at gender. And there is also Deleuze’s and Guattari’ s A Thousand Plateaux (2005) and this figure of this boy that finds himself in fear and tries to console himself with a song. I think this is also nice… this is very persuasive as an image. It is kind of showing us that we can overcome fear. There is also a beautiful song of Jean Baez (1970) Joe Hill – it’s very important for all kinds of social movements. By the way, Jean Baez came to Poland, to Gdańsk, in the 1980s, and my father told me recently that I was in this concert with him which I didn’t remember, I was quite small. I was always listening to her songs, from Poland. She was singing about how it “takes more than a gun to kill a man.” There is this song about Joe Hill who was a unionist and gets killed in strikes . But there are also other motives and other songs that have this amazing ability of awakening courage in the moment of greatest fear. I think we are not so powerful when we fear that something might happen, when we are basically in fear. Yet, it is a powerful position in a sense that what we do out of fear can be extremely powerful, extremely effective. So, there is a paradox.
Obviously, there is a sort of return to dialectics, I’m sorry to say [laughs]. And I’m clearly seeing that with this ability of using the binary codes not to fix and petrify historical, political or social entities, but to allow a movement. For me this is a very important methodology and ontology. So, if I invoke Hegel out of the blue, it’s not to say that the last hundred years don’t count, but it’s to say that after these hundred years of deconstruction, we are allowed, I think, to take back this understanding of failure, that can be deduced from his work. In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1977) there is a chapter, for instance, on unhappy consciousness. It has been always read in Kierkegaardian way of the melancholy of the young romantic. But when you read this more carefully, I think, you discover that there is too much of a repetition. And you can discover that it could actually be read also as a description of domestic labor, of this invisible labor that women do or refugees to do. This unhappiness that Hegel depicts is not out of the blue. It’s not Werter or other melancholic young boy. The subject in that chapter is rather built in the process of repetitive doing of things that make no sense at all. Only the understanding that all those activities actually help to maintain the species, makes you realize that it actually has some sense. This is a realization that every mother I know eventually told me about – that ironing, washing, cleaning, cooking, and all those repetitive activities totally made sense. Most of my friends are intellectuals or artists or whatever, so they are really suffering in these repetitive tasks. They have to convince themselves somehow that that makes sense. And this realization: “OK, I’m sustaining the species, or at least I’m sustaining my child and my family by this work” is a realization which puts an end to thieir melancholia. The sadness of the subject in the unhappy consciousness is not an unhappiness of a teenage boy. This is an unhappiness of a tired, annoyed mother, I think, or a servant who is taking care of all kinds of people, basically doing the same care labor over and over again.
I’m very happy to get back to Hegel after long years of feminist research. Because there are also moments when in the dialectical processes of the making of the subject, you see failed or weak subjects that take over. Even this crucial metaphor of the slave and the master is basically based on the sense that from this great weakness and greatest sense of disappropriation, of misfitting, of not being a person even, of being a slave, some victories are building up. I find this dynamics quite interesting to look at. . Actually, I haven’t used the dialectic so very much yet. But I’m getting there because also what I am trained to do is quite unorthodox, so I really have to put my steps very carefully. But in the Coronaseminar I don’t openly enhance readership of Hegel, although perhaps this also happens between the lines.
The Coronaseminar is more about discovering the monstrosity, the weakness and its strategic potential. My appreciation of parenting is grounded in this recognition of weakness because when we rehearse, we don’t feel like we are performing. We are basically not ready yet. And so the essence of this rehearsal situation is that the subject is still working on it. It’s a work in process. It’s not yet finished. And I think in the pandemic times, we are also not ready. We have never rehearsed it, we are not ready for it. In the last seminar, you remember, the topic of death suddenly appeared . That was a surprising even for me, although I wrote the script of the seminar. And in this concept [of the seminar] there is necropolitics, obviously. Death is in the very core of it. We speak about people dying and having hope against death, and death is there. And yet, suddenly, when we spoke about how the body in confrontation with death is almost hysterically searching for ways out, it was very dramatic. Five months ago, if we discussed it in a seminar, we would just go over fluently. And in this seminar, now, I could see on the faces of the people that there was anxiety. The very word, and one sentence with it – the word “death” and what the bodies do in order to not be petrified by fear, this already was too much. This is a discovery that I made: those words, like death, that have always been so central in philosophy and we’ve discussed them forever, now, suddenly, are much more materialized and much more concrete. Therefore, there is also some extra care that has to happen when I want to introduce them in our discussions.
MG: So, I would have two more questions to ask you so that we stay within the hour, hour-and-a-half length of our conversation. And one question which I ask all the participants is… You know, Arundhati Roy talks about the portal, about travelling light in the sense that we need to decide what kind of tools we want to pick up and how they can be helpful in creating the next world, so to speak, from our own situated perspective. So, the two questions I have: One is: what kind of tools would you pick up right now in order – and I think our conversation has already mapped it a little bit, but to kind of go more into it -… So, what kind of tools you would pick up right now? What kind of tools makes sense for you? And what do you think… [breaths out deeply] it sounds almost naive to say that, of course, but I think we need to ask ourselves this question: what kind of “next world” is possible from where we are right now?
EM: [Silence] I’m noting it down [laughing]. Speaking of tools… I think that I’m learning right now – and I always try to do it, but now in the pandemic means I’m extra careful about it and I wonder why because I can’t deduce why exactly – that I’m trying to build those narratives of togetherness. I’m trying to think less individually and more in connection with others. I mean, I always do a lot of thinking together. That’s a kind of personal predisposition, probably. But in the written form especially it [collective thinking] often doesn’t get included. And the first Coronaseminar… I remember that I started it with the artist Wojciech Kosma, with whom I worked on several occasions, we did some part of Transmediale 2019 public program together, and his practice of hugging everyone in the performances and other works – he usually works with collectives. He’s very attentive to how is everybody feeling, and introducing the kind of embodied contact between all the participants of the project in order for everybody to feel safe, maybe, but also to connect somehow. So, I quoted him, then I quoted Ewa Opałka who earlier spoke with me about this neoliberal mode of pushing us toward certitudes and excluding uncertainty. My introduction to the seminar was totally filled with references and quotes of other people.
I was even reading a poem by a son of my fried; actually I should not say “son”, but “child” because this is a non-binary person- it’s a 10 year old person born as a boy who said that they are not binary, so they don’t want to be gendered, and labelled as a “he” or a “she”. They prefer to be called “they”. They wrote this amazing poem, which I quoted, about spring. They even used this sentence of “every flower has some power.” There is a bit about spring coming up. And then suddenly there is this sentence, by the end of this poem, that “darkness comes to park.” And the atmosphere of this little poem… it’s like six lines of text, very short. But it gave me much more of a sense of what is happening today, in the pandemics, than any analysis I’ve read. I was like: “No, I’m bringing this up as well.” So, somehow, I think that’s my tool now – to really embrace, and show, how much I owe to other people, to dialogies… It is very difficult to do.
So what I’m really doing a lot is basically providing a narrative that includes all those references as I speak or as we speak. It’s a very chaotic way of speaking in a way. On the yet another hand, it’s really not strengthening, I hope, this individualist mode of “I” . There is no “I” here. Not really much of it. There is a collective of people who are rehearsing together perhaps. Some years ago I translated Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (2004) into Polish so I’m very indebted in the idea of human and non-human elements, of these closed circuits that we are in. I totally believe that – this is my ontology, very much – when I used to live with a dog, the dog was teaching me how to rest, for instance. I was completely restless when I got her. And then suddenly she would jump around and then do this “caput dog,” kind of a sleeping feel. And I would learn from her, . So, I have to think about the word “I.” because I’m not sure if I’m happy to use it. I use it a lot now because I am so neurotic. The more I decline to embrace it, the more I am using it. That’s a neurotic mechanism.
But one of the important tools is basically to dismantle the concept of “I” as we knew it. Because I don’t think there is an “I” here. In this pandemic we have gotten so distanced as yet so much closer with many people. Also with you – we have now beautiful conversations since some weeks and I think this is also pandemic speaking here. This is also what the virus has taught us – that we need to build some deeper connections, perhaps. That’s not to say that we have never built any deeper connections between the two of us or with others. It’s not that. But I think this is deeper. There is much more of caring how you are, it really makes sense today.
MG: And it’s also a shared thinking. So, one thing which you were saying about all those male philosophers kind of fighting about their perspectives and so on – I think what is really sad about that is that I think we are not in a moment where we should try to push our own way of thinking as the answer. We are in a moment where we can cherish that we are situated in some kind of way of understanding ourselves, our societies, our materialities, our embodiments, our affects and so on. And we can use it as something which supports us. But it is through conversations that I think we can try to understand what is happening and create some kind of forms of resistance which is exactly not only about the resistance as a strike, for example – although this is a very important tool right now, which is emerging, for example, in relation to Amazon but also other companies which have been rightly targeted by strikes and unions and so on, and we need more union work and strikes in general. But also, we need to recognize those quotidian practices of everyday resistance, which happen on so many different levels. And that’s why I think it is those conversations and storytelling practices – conceptual, bodily, affective storytelling practices, – the poems you are bringing in, the artistically informed conceptualization of your own practice as rehearsal. All these kinds of modes of thinking in conversation are, for me, a form of engagement which is much more meaningful now than having talking heads and competing discourses, so to speak.
EM: But also exchanging practices of how to… where to… Today… I’m going to show you, I got a very beautiful new [face] mask.
EM: So, basically this object.
MG: [laughing] Oh, wow is it [the print of the fabric] water animals? No, is it… What is it? Is it cacti? Different forms of cacti?
EM: It’s different kinds of plants. Yeah, it’s different forms of cacti!
EM: But you know, I got this after several people told me there is this shop which normally sells women’s underwear. But now they start to sell those face masks. And those two ladies who set there… this is a very vulnerable moment for them because they used to have this shop for over 20 years and now they are basically on the shrink, they were closed for a month or two, they might not survive. There is a sense also that if you go there and get it, you’ll help them. And I think this time is opening a lot of possibilities to actually be supportive and to be nice and kind. So, as much as people were afraid that there’s going to be lots of aggression and fear – that anxiety is going to translate into acts of violence – until now, at least more or less in my area, it’s the opposite. People are actually much more caring. I’m kind of cherishing this. This also introduces these other tools. And one tool is dismantling the “I.”
MG: I love that. [both laughing]
EM: I have to write it down because actually I haven’t put it like this until we spoke now.
MG: That’s the beauty of conversations, that we can think out loud with each other.
EM: Yeah. I have to explain to you what I am intuitively building up. And that’s precisely it. In philosophy especially, but also in a lot of theory, it sounds like if people were individually creating stuff. I don’t think so . I think there has always been an exchange. In one of the Coronaseminars we are going to try to take a walk with Socrates and Phaidros (Platon 1996). So, we’re going to watch the queer beginnings of European civilization. “Szach mat Katolicy” [Check mate, Catholics].
MG: Dokładnie [Exactly]. [both laughing]
EM: You know, I really want to revisit these origins of the European culture because it cannot be like this. It cannot be like as if we only had straight, male, cultural origins. No.
MG: And doing it from Polish perspective, doing it from the belly of the beast. I am a fan.
EM: Yeah? Cool! So, basically, it’s going to be a joy to take a stroll next to the river. And also in Warsaw we have a river. And we can go with the river to the outskirts of the city. Taking it out from the Polis for a while and checking what the nature is bringing. Many people have already traveled to the outskirts of the city and they noticed that there is a draught. We have not enough water and Poland is going to suffer severely in the summertime because of the draught. So, another thing that happens in the pandemic is that more and more people are getting pretty conscious about how huge the climate catastrophe is . Before that they didn’t have the time for it. And right now, some of them have more time to engage with this.
I think also another tool is basically getting ready to immediately protest. There are so many things that went wrong in Polish politics in the recent weeks that we had to learn about. I was working with the Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Wspóczesnej – Citizens Forum of Contemporary Art – and it’s a network of freelancers and institution members from the culture sector, different artists, writers, curators, producers, all kinds of people doing culture. Together with them I participated in writing three different kinds of protest documents recently. You know, these kind of immediate letters to the Minister of Culture or other institutions, to demand certain things – equality, rights. To build claims together. This connects us with this notion of counterpublics, which I’m preoccupied with otherwise. In terms of tools, it’s also this kind of intervening and collective building of claims, that I see as a tool.
I think also for theory, for my own theorizing, the pandemics going to have quite a huge impact because I believe that there are some claims that can be formulated. Also focusing on how claims get produced? Where they come from? What they achieve? Why they are important? And how they don’t require that western, white subjects? Claims can be produced by a multitude very well. This was a topic of small conversation I had with Antonio Negri: Can the multitude speak? And the response was: “but of course”. And I was like: “OK, so let’s go into detail. How does multitude speak?” So, in the body, how does multitude speak? How do we understand it speaking? How do we know the difference between when it speaks and when it also gives noise, but maybe the noises are noises of pleasure or joy or anger or something that are not really claims? And how in the language of multitude – or in this post-Spinozian materialism – how do we explain the phenomenon of articulation, and political articulation? That’s what I’m also looking at.
And I think that learning to include those painful elements… This pandemic is a moment when people are dying and in Poland, throughout the last weeks, there were many critics of the government’s pushing to have the election right now. But not many people were courageous enough to use the notion of genocide or at least criticize the government for putting at risk the life of the population. This is what we should be speaking about. Because we are not just talking about somebody suddenly coughing, or something. No, we are speaking about a risk of death.
MG: Yeah. But at the same time, it’s also really interesting who’s risk of death is being mobilized. Because one problem I have with focusing on the death connected to the Corona virus – which is very important, and we should be focusing on it and talking about it – is that there are so many other deaths happening right now as well. How come that the deaths on the borders of Europe have never led to that kind of mobilization? So, how do we – and this is maybe connected to the “next world” and the tools that we have to develop while walking through the portal, right? – how do we account also for the disbalance of whose death matters, so to speak? And how do we shift that in order not to use the current pandemic as… Because – for example speaking from a white European perspective in which I am situated – all of a sudden, when the white lives start to be affected more by certain forms of vulnerability to death, the market can shut down, the airplanes can stop flying, even though people have been dying because of environmental consequences already, people have been dying because of warfare in which we as a European continent, and as different countries, are implicated in. So, how do we think about this question of death in relation to the specificity of the current situation? Our crisis is not one in that sense. There are many crises.
EM: I think of those elements from the last question and last answer – dismantling the “I,” and caring, and producing claims. On the one hand, the ability to produce claims. On the other hand, the understanding how claims are being produced could give answers also to the future world, or the “next world.” Even in the text of Paul Preciado, whom I admire and whose work I really appreciate, and it woke me up somehow to focus more on resistance Before I was thinking more in terms of maintenance, sustainability. And then suddenly it was his text that made me think about resisting actively; although I’ve been resisting all the time, to all kinds of things. But now I really focused. So, I love this text. But on the other hand, there is this moment when he speaks of us all being on Lampedusa…
MG: I know, yeah…
EM: And in a detention situation. We are definitely not all in a detention situation. My nice apartment in Warsaw is by no means comparable to a detention center or to a refugee camp.
MG: This is also a point that Angela Davis made in her talk on the May 1st (2020). I used the notion of a lockdown myself. And she was also pointing out: now you shouldn’t be using these kinds of terms because they are very, very disproportionately experienced in comparison to the persons who actually live in lockdown situations in prisons.
EM: Yeah. Now, this artist from Kraków, Pamela Bożek (2020) wrote her text “Nothing New” (Nic Nowego) and there she specifically speaks of refugee women who live in this, I don’t know how to call it, refugee shelters, although it’s more like a refugee arrest site. But obviously, the possibilities of mobility, of contact and other things are very limited on everyday basis. This artist makes this parallel, and she makes it right. She speaks of our current experience as something that still is not what the refugees living in the center suffer from on daily basis. We might feel threatened or afraid and, still, it’s nothing in comparison with what the refugees are going through every day, also without the pandemics. Now some of their freedoms have been even more restricted. So, I think that our ability of making comparisons should definitely be changing.
And also, I made another discovery. I’m organizing a conference, which should happen in October. I’m really trying to convince everyone that we don’t have to fly there, that we really can do it online, at least in part. Because even if the airlines are going to open again, I really don’t think it would be ethical to travel as much as we did before. We have a draught. There is a climate collapse. Let’s try to rethink organizing conferences in ways that are making use of the internet means that we are using right now. We [the two of us] are sitting in cities with thousand kilometer between us but we can still communicate. So, perhaps we can learn to do that. And this is not an innocent technology by the way.
MG: Yeah, I just wanted to say that. Because that’s also really difficult – how polluting online communication is as well, even though we stay in our houses.
EM: So, I think that the “next world,” to me, seems a little bit more connected, a little bit more sustainable in the sense of trying to find some balance. But unfortunately, and this is something I regret, the understanding of equality and the eagerness to produce claims in terms of equality this I don’t see very much. I see a little bit of it. As I mentioned…
MG: What do you mean, can you explain that?
EM: Yes. I think that there have been several companies – you mentioned Amazon but there is also the Polish Post. It’s a state run, but separate company. And what happens there is tremendously bad. So, somehow nothing changes. On the one hand, there are places that are zones where some more equality and more sustainability is being introduced. But I think so many of this critical, demanding discourse still could be produced. And I’m afraid that people are not going to have strength to produce claims that are really going to put enough pressure to make it all more egalitarian. We might be a little bit hippie in the sense of having the sensation of being together. It’s nice. But I’m not sure if this sensation, let’s say, of togetherness and of more balance, is going to translate into effective building of claims. I’ve never seen any rights being introduced without a proper claim and without insistence that this claim is fulfilled. So, I want to repeat after de Sade “another effort, dear Frenchmen.” That’s what I need and I don’t see it very much. I think that there is some criticality and some efforts to rephrase our understanding of the world and our being in the world and that’s fantastic. But then…
MG: Then what?
EM: How to how to make it politically effective in some sense. And I’m not speaking of productivity in the sense “we need to have effect now.” But I’m very much afraid that it just might disperse after the pandemics.
MG: Yeah. This is also what I worry about a lot – that the resistance disperses and totalitarianism strengthens. And I wonder, of course… I’ve been watching some Corona seminars, also organized by the Haymarket Books, and I really appreciated their Marxist edition on May 1st where they were discussing a lot of more leftist and Marxist understanding of resistance in relation to the unions. And for example, some people were talking also about the importance of restructuring economy towards the kind of New Deal of the AOC. But at the same time, of course, I’m still struggling with that because, yes, we need to restructure our economy towards green economy. But when we look at what green economy is based on – for example what goes into the production of a solar batteries, solar panels, which are based on extraction which is extremely exploitative and polluting – how are we supposed to really think that this is the green and just alternative? So, I also kind of find myself in this impasse of what do we need in order for this not to disperse?
EM: Yes, you are right. I’m going to end with this question that comes from Russia. And I think it’s a legitimate question: “What is to be done?” I think that we can explore all kinds of modes of resistance; we can rethink and rephrase our ontologies and activisms and strategies of being together. It’s tremendously important. And then I have this feeling that we also need some good general terms to describe all those processes. So, we need to create some universalistic terminology we should invest some effort to build a new dictionary. This is why I appreciate so much this pandemic text by Achille Mbembe (2020) where he speaks of the right to breathe. Because I think that combining together this very embodied practice of breathing and the concept of law, or rights, is extremely important. There we can see the materialized universality – not just of one species, because there are other beings that breathe – which is very expansive and is aiming toward this concept of law and rights. I believe that could be one of the ways of producing universality, which is really not exclusive.
MG: Yeah, universality, which is situated in a situated difference. As we talked about it also during the Coronaseminar and that we all breathe different in that sentence, and we cannot homogenize breathing. And then extending this universalization through specificity. This is what I’ve been trying to do in my thinking about breathing, precisely because I find it discomforting to think only in universalizing terms. I think we need both situatedness and dispersal. That it’s kind of one and the other. It’s not one or another in that sense.
EM: Yeah, but I believe in the concept of situated knowledges from Donna Haraway.
EM: Because it speaks of creating knowledge as par excellence something objective and yet, obviously, rooted in some specific situated situation, experience or embodiment. So, if we can try to universalize all kinds of experiences from the pandemic in such a way, it could be helpful.
MG: Well, on that note, I think this is a conversation which will continue on many different platforms across us and also across different people. So, thank you Ewa so, much for our conversation.
EM: Thank you very much, Magda.
MG: OK. See you soon.
EM: I’m very happy we did it. Thank you so very much.
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