The Fear: Working through the apocalypse

How can we work when we have no future? In a crumbling world, does anthropology really matter?

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear
‘Cause I’m being taken over by the fear

— Lily Allen

I blink. Visions of overcrowded hospital wards disappear from my eyes. I focus back on the screen.

Such vital arts emerge from and reformulate the evolving conflict between the world-making projects of Ayoreo and the world-ordering projects of others.

I’ve read this sentence eight (8) times in a row. I don’t know what it says. I’m trying to care, but I don’t. All I know is the feeling in my belly. It’s kept at bay by a steady stream of chocolate and Dexedrine, but it threatens to overwhelm at any minute.

Coronavirus is silently sweeping through the world. Borders are being locked down. Seven thousand people are dead. Doctors are breaking down sobbing in Italy. States of emergency are called. Public life is at a terrified standstill.

And here I am, staring at a peer-reviewed article. If I don’t get it read and annotated, I’ll fall further behind. But it’s hard to remember why that matters anymore.

I’m a PhD student studying how drug users are harmed by drug prohibition and capitalism, and how they resist and organize against these structures. I have to get my annotated bibliography and research proposal done by the end of April so I can do my comps exam in May and move to my fieldwork site, Toronto, in June. The further everything gets pushed back, the more tuition I’ll eventually have to pay as my PhD drags on. My funding runs out in May. My partner needs to find a new job in Toronto. And now he’ll be trying to find one in the middle of a recession. Or more likely, a depression. There are no signs that point to optimism. There’s only fear.

No, wait—there’s anger, too. Tourists frolic defiantly on Florida beaches while the rest of us shelter because we believe experts and care about the elderly. Profiteers are out in full force. Eco-fascists are cheering on mass deaths as population control. Liberal democrats are wringing their pathetic hands and talking about means testing emergency UBI payments. We can only imagine the depths to which the shock doctrine will play out as this crisis unfolds. So yes—there is anger.

But anger waxes and wanes. It’s the fear that really sticks.

How will my partner find a job when the economy is crashing? How will we afford an apartment in the second most expensive city in Canada? Will my partner, our toddler and I have to move into the basement of my mom’s one-bedroom house, a 90-minute drive from my fieldsite? How will I get anything done? How will we afford child care? Will child care even exist? What if my mom loses her retirement savings and can’t pay her mortgage anymore? What if she gets the virus while I’m not there to do her shopping for her? Never mind us, how will my friends and colleagues fare? What about the people I know who are living paycheck to paycheck? What about the people I don’t know?

I try to focus back on the screen.

…disconnect between analytic foreclosure and vital open-endedness is not coincidental. Rather, it is a crucial operation that calls attention to a wider system of expenditure and negation…

Imagine being able to focus on “the anthropology of becoming” right now, as the walls are crumbling around us. For all my ethnographic training, I cannot put myself into the headspace of someone who cares about theorizing while the world is on lockdown and the economy is in a tailspin. How can I make this work matter to me? I don’t have time to not do it, either. I’m already so behind. My stress levels rise every day, to new and unexplored heights, as I try to force myself to concentrate.

I stand up and pace around, careful not to touch any surfaces in the library. I hear someone cough and reflexively tense up.

As far as theory goes, anthropology is, as always, relevant to the current crisis. How do we grapple with both despair and hope? What kinds of affects motivate organizing efforts? Where is solidarity found among people who are being crushed by the vice of neoliberalism?

But in order to think through these questions, to produce the kind of knowledge we traffick in, you have to feel safe. You have to know your family is going to have some kind of income four months from now.

It’s hard to focus when I can’t stop thinking about the danger myself—and more realistically, others—are in. Worry about the suffering of others, and whether I’m doing enough, has always been a problem for me when I’m trying to work. The urgency of doing everything I humanly can to fight the rising tide of fascism burns through my whole body, 24 hours a day. This PhD, dear as it is to my heart, does not feel important to that fight, because in the short term, it’s not. But maybe it is in the long term. Maybe academic credentials will amplify my voice and impact. I don’t know.

The world has been falling apart ever more rapidly for a while now, and thinking for a living feels increasingly unjustifiable under these conditions. Academic work feels like a bourgeois pursuit, a luxury we can’t afford when there’s organizing and fighting to be done. Now, with millions of people immediately at risk, it feels downright insulting to the people who need our labour, our time, our energy, our solidarity.

The growling in my belly I’ve felt for the last few years, my conscience trying to figure out if this is the best use of my time as class war looms, has started piercing through my ability to focus at a rate that’s hard to ignore. I have to keep going, because there is nothing else to be done. But how can I work when I can’t work? I’m stuck in a terrible paralysis, and knowing that sitting paralyzed is the worst possible use of my time does not make it any better.

I compulsively open up Twitter. My socialist friends and I circulate our feelings of dread and attempts at hope amongst each other. We don’t know what to do.

My baby is at home sick right now. Childcare is cancelled indefinitely. Her Abuelita, my mother-in-law, visiting from Mexico with no travel insurance, is taking care of her. I count off the unfinished tasks on my fingers. Gotta figure out how to get Abuelita insurance. Have to somehow convince her she can’t go to the store anymore. We are four human beings in a one-bedroom apartment, trapped for the unknowable future. My partner still has to work. Out there, unprotected.

The odds are, we’ll probably be fine. I wish that was enough to comfort me, but I have spent years purposely cultivating empathy for people I don’t know, humanizing the people society tries to dehumanize, and that empathy is now mixing with knowledge and it’s a dagger stabbing me in the gut. Homeless people are going to die of COVID-19, untreated. Prisoners are going to die. Undocumented people are going to die. Uninsured people are going to die.

Who gives a shit about Deleuze’s plane of immanence? Who is that helping?

The rage I have at the political establishment, the media that manufactures their consent, and those who support both boils under my skin. It’s capitalism. It’s white supremacy and it’s colonialism and it’s fucking capitalism. Via voter suppression and other forms of fraud, the DNC is stealing the Democratic primary election from Bernie Sanders, the only candidate who recognizes what the problem is, and giving it to Joe Biden, epitome of the neoliberal order. The profit motive is killing people. Its stranglehold on our society is suffocating us and people still think one doddering, gropey old corporate profiteer is all we need to save us from the other doddering, gropey old corporate profiteer. I have friends and colleagues, people I love, who think tinkering around the edges of capitalism is good enough. Who think we need to be practical and reasonable and work within the system, using incrementalism and respectability politics as cudgels to stop people from believing we can make actual progress. I have to will myself not to hate their guts every time I see the news that another person died from rationing their insulin.

I know that the fear and rage is slowly eating me alive from the inside. It’s carving a hole into my soul and it’s doing that with everyone I know who doesn’t have their head in the sand. Therapy, drugs and human connection keep us from going over the edge, but the toll on our bodies is massive. The coping mechanisms have their own toll too.

So I breathe, and repeat to myself: Fear is not productive. Paralysis kills praxis. I can’t be useful if I let despair take over. It’s not fair to the people I want to fight for and alongside to let myself dissolve into a puddle. Caring for ourselves is not optional, it’s necessary for action.

Anger, at least, is useful. I re-read Audre Lorde and let the anger motivate my work as best I can. I read Black and Indigenous writers, the people who have been grappling with these feelings for centuries. I talk to other students whose precarity is worse than mine. I seek out writers whose fierce humanity bubbles underneath the surface. I discard writers who downplay race or class. I put writers whose supposed commitment to class politics does not extend to making their writing accessible on my own personal “fuck you, never reading or citing you” list. I learn about the never-ending fight against oppression and try to figure out where I can fit into it. I let it shape my research.

But still, the fear remains, existential, compounded by a thousand minor and major concerns. What if my supervisor reads this post and thinks I’m not committed to my work? What if my landlord sees me posting Mao memes on Twitter? What if all this stupid chocolate is giving me the type 2 diabetes I’m already at risk for? What if American border patrol finds out I’m a person who uses you-know-whats and bans me from entering for life? Did I sanitize this library table enough? What if there’s evil Monsanto chemicals in my cereal giving me cancer? What if I can’t get a job in academia? What if I can’t get a job outside of academia?

What if I can’t make a difference?

Us anthropologists tell ourselves our work is relevant because we stay with the trouble, and bear witness to injustice, and ride alongside crisis. We have produced so many valuable insights—at least, that’s what we believe. I believe it too. But no one with the power to implement our knowledge is actually listening to us. And we know that. We cry out together at every conference about the unfairness of how no one listens to our oh-so-brilliant insights, or the critically important concerns of our research populations. Yet we keep producing the knowledge anyway. Why?

The only answer I have is that we know no other way, and we are terrified of confronting what might happen if we truly grappled with the question of what it is we are doing with our time.

Tomorrow, all libraries in Vancouver will close indefinitely. I will have to begin working every day from my tiny bedroom with its single tiny window and sneak into the bathroom when I need it, trying not to let my daughter realize I’m home. It will not be pleasant, but I will survive this.

Not everyone will, and that is knowledge I have no idea what to do with.

  1. Sipoy Sarveswar April 1, 2020 at 5:17 am

    wonderfully articulated.

    Reply

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