Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Hibernating, sprinting or walking

When one approaches or surpasses a certain age, the sensation that the world is moving faster and sometimes away from you, can become over bearing. So does the temptation to start running in a rush to catch up or make up for lost opportunities. But there is also the temptation to hibernate and vegetate. This sensation is amplified in the strange times we are living in, characterized by economic insecurities and fear of the unknown. The fact that the world itself is hibernating may encourage you to withdrew even further in obscurity. But one may also be tempted to defy time in a bid to suck at the nectar of life. But there is an alternative to all this. Retain composure, seek authenticity and keep walking at your own steady pace, which respects time but defies entropy, which seeks beauty without ravaging it. A sense of mellowing melancholy which accepts limits and perhaps a pride in legacy, of seeing things you have created take a life of their own...a pace of life which in the words of Bob Dylan "knows there's no success like failure. And that failure's no success at all." For ultimately the human condition is what it is and we are likely to sway from hibernation to sprinting, finding composure while recovering from the latest fall. That is one reason I find walking so liberating. For while walking one can observe, meditate and wander aimlessly without being attached to one place for too long but always free to walk back to the preferred destination.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

chocolate moments

In times like these, our concepts of 'time' and 'space' are bound to change. It increasingly feels that space has imploded while time has slowed down but passes with a greater intensity especially in moments of anxiety but also in moments of awe. The confined space and the slower pace of time, are also bound to intensify all kinds of emotions we feel.

In some ways the submission to forces over which we have little control, can be liberating as we are less bound by the rules governing life in a capitalist economy. Sure enough many who have lost their jobs or are at risk of losing them, can't even savor this freedom. This is why in times like these the socialization of risks for all and not just the few, becomes imperative. Still in some ways we are now excused from partaking in the rat race and for giving more importance to more basic things. Still there is also the negative aspect of living in a state of suspended animation, where we are even denied of experiencing the contrasts between daily routine and our private spaces, because these have been forcibly intertwined. For example working from home may have advantages like having more control over the pace of work but it also results in the annexation of the domestic realm to the work world. Sure it feels a bit like a return to pre-modern times when certain jobs were subcontracted to households. The problem here is that the change for some of us has happened suddenly and abruptly. I even find it difficult to read a book: because I mostly enjoy carrying out a book with me in my bag, to read it in the those precious intervals interspersed in different moments along the day. Now that life has itself become one long interval, I am less interested in reading. Writing also becomes an act of chronicling this particular moment in time perhaps in attempt to tame it.

What's sure is that this is a time for seeking solace in beauty and savoring sweet good things like chocolate. It is only natural in times like this to look for those things and interactions which soothe us. That may even explain the popularity of Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci whose soothing voice not only gives us collective reassurance but whose daily bulletins have established a new collective routine and demarcation of time.

But the most rewarding experience is the joy of simple acts like watching the rain from the window sill while eating nutella and daydreaming. So let's enjoy these small 'deep' moments before the monsters are unleashed on us again. For life after corona may well end up a race to catch up to where we have left. Sure enough there is a lot to catch up in the realm of human relations interrupted by COVID-19. The problem is that capitalism may well press on the accelerator to get us back on track to yet another disaster. Alternatively we may dare demand a prolonged time out, to be enjoyed outside the confined spaces imposed on us by the virus.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Disconnecting after COVID-19

When all this ends, after weeks of isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the disconnection felt between the online and the offline worlds will probably become one of the major psychological problems people are faced with. Probably this period will go in history as the one during which people spent the longest portion of their life living online. Returning back to the offline world will not be easy for many.

In times of imposed isolation the internet and social media have become the last refuge of social life. This helps in making life bearable by keeping us in contact with friends, loved ones and family. It can also be an outlet for creative expression and the continuation of cultural life and for many a time a time during which they also cultivated friendships and more meaningful relationships.

Online art exhibitions, poetry recitals and jamming sessions and concerts are also filling a big void and people are also showing their best in inventing virtual spaces to live through this crisis in good company. The creativity going in this is amazing.

But with the prospect of isolation persisting for weeks if not months it becomes crucial to recognize the risks of the online world characterized by the ease of connections and disconnections and the dissonance between an online world where you congregate with like minded people of your choice and a much more complex real world.

The social media is also the home of echo chambers where people can convince themselves and those around them that the earth is flat. As sociologist Zygmunt Baumann warned the social media can be a trap, a place where "unlike the offline world, you can avoid everything which creates your anxiety in the offline world" where "you can just bypass it" and a place where human bonds are frail, interchangeable and disposable and based on the premise that the virtual is not necessarily real. The ambiguity of this distinction may well return to haunt us when things get back to 'normal' irrespective of our definition of what normality is.

All this underlies the importance of understanding the way the social media has changed us anthropologically. For we increasingly live in a risk prone world where random change can alter our lives from one day to the next. In some ways the social media satisfies a yearning for stability and tranquility by creating a space we think we can control. But at the same the ease of disconnection also threatens this illusion. Building meaningful human relations in this chaos where everything is open to chance is important. Ultimately the focus of critical thought should be to address the question of happiness; how to create a new art of caring for the self which makes us strong, happy and considerate towards others in a risky environment. The social media can be one of several tools helping us to achieve this aim. So lets use the time in isolation to nourish our souls by finding more time to discover ourselves through introspection, meditation and creativity. Sharing our creative reflections and accomplishments on the social media could also be a joyful experience and a solace for others. In many ways the social media contributes to the creation of the commons. But let us never forget that the world is greater than our iphones and PCs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Imagination in the times of corona

In times of collective anxiety, we still have the freedom to imagine. I would even add that the grim atmosphere around us may well free our imagination from the restraints of routine, perhaps at the risk of becoming delusional but possibly more whimsical. Let's not forget that the most evocative images of gluttony: of rivers of wine, fences of sausages, roofs of bacon and plump geese rotating by themselves to roast in the streets, were invoked in times of hunger when feeling satiated was an uncommon luxury. Restrained conviviality may well offer us the opportunity to imagine utopia, a new imaginary of living together.

For in the realm of the imaginary everything is possible and plausible. This is the best antidote to anxiety about things we cannot control in the unpredictable world around us. In the realm of imagination even the grim and the macabre and the bizarre may take enchanting and playful forms.

Unfortunately in a time of fear it is natural for many of us to obsess about something which escapes our control. It is the kind of loss of control which renders us powerless in the face of an unpredictable phenomenon which we are still struggling to understand.

Added to this is real concern about the future, especially among those who have lost their jobs, those who were treated like disposable objects after being used in the times of plenty and who are now faced with paying exorbitant rents or being kicked out of the country.

We should also pause and think of how the sick and elderly feel when some of us casually repeat the offensive mantra that "only the vulnerable" will die. These people have every reason to worry. For the irresponsibility of others can kill them.

But even for the sake of the surplus populations living in our midst, imagining a world where everyone has the same protection against the vagaries of 'disaster capitalism', is a duty. We need to imagine a society where collective risk is socialised, rather than one which insures those who have made enough profits to live for another day.

But there is also a personal dimension to life in the time of corona.

For being isolated in our homes is an opportunity to transform and appreciate our small islands in all their complexities, while doing small acts of kindness. Unfortunately some will also be locked up with their oppressors and abusers, a stark reminder on the need of support structures in our communities, especially in testing times.

Isolation also gives us the chance to measure the distance between our own imaginary and the real, possibly encouraging us to make a resolution to reduce that distance. It is also an opportunity for longing for elsewhere, a process which in itself can be futile but rewarding at the same time, at least if it triggers our imagination or helps us becoming better people.

Fear also offers the opportunity for embracing the dark side which we tend to relegate or exorcise instead of conjuring it for play, homor and enchantment. Edgar Allan Poe's stories for children come to mind.

In the meantime hope needs to be nourished with imagination and books. For after the plague it will be the time to feast; hopefully not a feast of consumerism but one of renewed conviviality.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Celebrating society in testing times

The coronavirus is testing our social bonds. While panic is unjustified and there are far more serious threats to humanity, we also have a duty to avoid the spread of this virus for two major reasons namely protecting the most vulnerable and preventing an overload on our health system which would further endanger the most vulnerable.

Taking precautions and temporarily limiting our precious conviviality is an act of solidarity towards the most vulnerable especially our elderly. There is no reason to panic. The risk of dying is very low but the risk of killing someone through carelessness exists and must be avoided at all costs.

We should also rediscover some sense of humility and follow the advice of experts and medical authorities. Decisions on whether to close schools or not should be left in the hands of experts.

It is a time to celebrate our sociability by acting like a society of caring individuals.

What i found detestable in recent times was the attitude of some in the business sector who expect risks to be socialised in a way that their profit making is not effected by the virus. While they had no qualms in raking profits in the times of plenty they are always the first to expect the state and workers to foot their bill when the country is faced by a crisis.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

unstable possibilities

“Menshiki nodded. “It is. Instead of a stable truth, I choose unstable possibilities. I choose to surrender myself to that instability. Do you think that’s unnatural?”

Haruki Murakami; Killing Commendatore

Well it is very hard to give a definitive answer to that question. Like when lighting a cigarette; the best moment is when you take a drag while still craving the nicotine. The moment the crave is gone, smoking becomes pointless and joyless. But there is an ephemeral and fleeting moment where the crave and the act of smoking intersect. So the best thing to do is to prolong and savor the first drag after a long crave. That is what makes the first cigarette of the morning special. Even on a historical level, the initial days of revolutions are the best part; it is during these days that new possibilities open before normality (and betrayal) sets in. This makes the proposition of permanent revolution so enticing even if impractical and often a recipe for permanent terror. But in contrast there is the enduring image of static utopias, a sort of eternal present, which reminds me of the pictures of people in gardens as depicted on some pamphlet distributed by the Jehovah witnesses, not to mention the mushroom village of the smurfs. So damn reassuring but distant. But still all this could well be within reach in our small imperfect islands. For when one sees beauty in imperfections, on can also find enduring happiness. Than there is fear of being thrown off course. It is a fear evoked in the hellish visions found in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a sensation of hopelessness which offers no possibility of redemption but which still regales us with a bestiary of torment. And yes torment can become a way of prolonging an instability which is no longer pregnant with possibility. This recalls the feeling of when you wake up from a dream which you can't remember but which you know left you stranded, away from the island of the day before, which you can never reach despite all the efforts made. Than there is the joy of hibernation. The possibilities remain shelved and acknowledged, but you can keep afloat in blissful detachment. It is like keeping possibilities frozen in a time capsule. Yet spring always lurks at a corner and with global warming, spring sometimes does come prematurely.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

On submission

“Some people make the mistake of confusing "submission" with "weakness", whereas it is anything but. Submission is a form of peaceful acceptance of the terms of the universe including the things we are currently unable to change or comprehend.”

― Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love

For some time I have been fascinated by the concept of submission as interpreted in mystical strains of Islam. In western culture we are used to think in terms of progress, constant self improvements and utilitarian choices. Sure we have a duty to change the world around us, fight injustices and avoid harm to all those around us. But there is also an existential dimension in a chaotic world, where things happen by coincidence. Many including myself spend too much time getting entangled in thoughts simply to better understand things from a detached point of view. Sure that can be a very healthy exercise. The more one understands the world, the greater the ability to change it for the better. But this also has to co-exist with an acceptance of unpredictability, futility and silence. Many associate the idea of submission with fate. But fate itself is misunderstood as a preordained future rather than as blurring of distinctions between past and future in to an eternal present. Ultimately life happens for no reason at all but that makes it even more worth living. And realizing that is ultimately the greatest act of submission.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Il-mutur tal-ekonomija

Ihhaffer, jordom u jfarrak.
Igawdi l-aqwa zmien
Dan zmien il-hsad qalulu
U hadem kemm felah biex tikber l-ekonomija
Kull bitha, gnien u gallinar li fadal bena
It-toroq tieghu, ihuf fil-madwar qisu il-boss
Idejjaq lix-xjuh b’xi offerta specjali biex darhom jiehu
U jekk isib xi qanzha, jaf li jaf lin-nies ta stoffa ikbar
Biex jibqa ghaddej bhal gaffa
Ghax qalulu li hu l-mutur tal-ekonomija
Minghajru jkun hemm l-ghaks u l-faqar
Ghalhekk irrabja hafna meta sema b’ dak il-cowboy li radam omm taht dara
Mal-hazin se jehel it-tajjeb
Dan zmien l-ghaqda u r-riflessjoni
L-ebda cuc tal-Graffitti m’hu se jnawwar lill- kotra kontrina
Ghax ahna tal-affari taghna, ahna l-mutur tal-ekonomija

Community centred politics

Every now and then, we hear about the need of a new political party to provide a much needed opposition from the left. I have myself often entertained this thought.
Still there is a living legacy which is often overlooked; that of community based struggles in which people from movements like Graffitti have inserted themselves to support, sustain and sometimes lead such struggles without imposing themselves as a vanguard. To succeed any such strategy depends on how local communities perceive activists. Building trust in such circumstances is far from an easy task and also depends on personal charisma.
One reason why people trust these activists is that unlike politicians these are not after their vote. Neither are they perceived as a threat to their entrenched political and cultural identities. Not being tied to any of the dominant political parties is also an asset.
Sure one may ask whether this goes far enough in addressing the structural roots of social and environmental problems. But probably such a strategy is far more rewarding than celebrating a 2% score in an election.
In environmental struggles these community based alliances have yielded big results.
Moreover such movements are also communities in their own right, offering sense of belonging and a common safe space for activists. They also provide an important cultural space where people can also have fun and experience togetherness. One should never underestimate this aspect of tranformative politics. It is vital in nurturing an ecosystem where plural identities can thrive.
Rather than re-proposing the small party paradigm by summing up the pieces, we should be thinking more about building on these experiences. We may be thinking too much in terms of a tried and tested paradigm, which has largely failed in the context of the two party system. Sure such a perspective does not exclude a more direct political commitment, on a similar model to that which pushed socialist candidates like Ocasio Cortez in the US congress.
So my humble suggestion is to think more on building communities than parties, communities which can grow beside, within and against political parties and relying on creativity, revolutionary passion, commitment and joyful expression.