Sustainability depends upon acts of reparation. Property needs to be redistributed. Families are struggling. Digital communication penetrates the life-world with anxiety. Demand a general strike. Or just slog through, do one’s best, whatever that means each day. Behave joyously. Memes have me wanting to re-watch The Big Lebowski. But when is there time? Hop in, do what is necessary, step out. Thus I scramble through the work-life balance complexities of remote teaching and parenting amid shelter-in-place. (While also trying to buy a home.) Seated, arms up across the top of a bench like a slouched cowboy, the protagonist eyes the room. Tips an imaginary hat in greeting. “In Dorn’s allegorical scheme,” writes Marjorie Perloff in her introduction to Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger, “characters exist, not as particular individuals but as functions of a larger mechanism, relational properties that take on meaning only in their interaction” (viii).
The Friday of the craziest week of my teaching career greets me with news of allowances, reason for happiness, a promotion. Friends and family email, text, and call to congratulate me, even as the local bakery announces temporary suspension of operations following state-wide “shelter in place” orders, community in a kind of lockdown of unspecified duration. Time to try one’s hand at a loaf of Pain au Levain.
In phone calls a mere hour apart from one another, I receive word that my department has voted to hire me into a better, more permanent position, and that my grandfather, my only remaining grandparent, has tested positive for the virus. He has a large, loving family — children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — all of whom would like to be with him. It’s a lot to take in and process, these waters of March.
I lean back in a reclining chair on my back deck. Birds fly past as clouds roll in overhead. One does as one can. The proletarian’s work regime leaves him exhausted.
What does it mean to convert teaching into assembly of discussion forums plus creation and delivery of content within these forums within a piece of university-administered “classroom management” software? When do we get back to in-person gatherings of students and teachers? How under such circumstances does one practice a pedagogy of hope? Do we become video friends? Do we record little lectures, each of us seated before the camera-eye atop our laptops and smart phones, prisoners in a new kind of panopticon prison? But who knows? With a little practice, we can launch a jailbreak, a prison strike, a riot. Unless perhaps we use this as a moment to build ourselves up. I suppose it’s fitting that I started my career as a teacher, back all those years ago during training, with a short videotaped lecture on the panopticon. For that is what they’ve built around us with the camera atop the devices from which we work, now that our teaching is to be done online. These conditions have been imposed by fiat down a command chain, regional accrediting bodies the ones cracking the whip. Time to get to it.
Time to head back to work, where remote / distance pedagogy is the new condition, the newly imposed norm, “until further notice.” A friend’s QuickTime lecture, “hot off the press,” as they used to say, sets me thinking about Queer responses to the AIDS crisis, that part of history surfacing again into consciousness. Another friend’s course description evokes Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Mine, meanwhile, traces a “path of resistance” in American history as manifested in literatures of rebellion across the centuries. Even as we remember trauma, let us remain champions of hope. Think of it in terms of genre. Some raise consciousness; others deflate it. Inboxes can be filled with event cancellations or broadcasts from radio outlaws. Joe Strummer broadcasting from Radio Clash, Felix Guattari broadcasting from Radio Alice in the red Bologna of 1976. Sit outside in early evening, an hour or two before sunset, though, and it’s the same old birdsong, beautiful as ever, cars well in the distance. Do we scale up from this afterwards into tribes? An owl hoots; dogs bark; crows caw; two squirrels work cooperatively in a tree, plucking tufts of evergreen for a nest. Doom is not my thing.
What is happening in this moment? Birds are singing, springtime is upon us. Families connect, celebrate, commiserate in a state of preparedness through phone, FaceTime, text messages, mail and email. We go for walks, we spend time outdoors, work made remote amid break. It’s a strange situation, certainly. We’re entering a period of change, transformation, adjustment. A perfect time, in other words, to practice hope and exercise care. Somehow in this moment of polarity, solidarity means keep your distance. The question is: for how long? Until when? How does crisis become revolution?
We’ve begun purchase on a home. A Craftsman bungalow fixer-upper on a decent-size piece of land. And I’ve drafted my job talk amid the disruptions of a pandemic. Big changes ahead, but also “continuity of instruction.” Despite the pandemic, I remain oriented toward hope. “Social distancing” is necessary for the time being, but no need to be excessive about it. We’ll grill, we’ll cook, we’ll garden, we’ll grow. By these means, we build the Oikos of our dreams.
Epidemiology, scares, containment narratives. This is what the authoritarian state uses against those who would live joyfully upon the earth. But even under rough trades, we can care for each other. Exercise compassion. Release birds from cages, shake rattles. Maintain a vibrant village. Keep each other well-housed and well-fed. Meanwhile news everywhere of schools migrating online, education conducted remotely for the remainder of the semester. These are unprecedented times.
At a desk covered in objects — stacks of papers and books; horizontal arrays of napkins, paper clips, highlighters markers and pens — I sit and work: teach, meet, read, write, converse with students. Around and behind me, dense stacks of books and records, artifacts that store and transmit stories and histories, recordings of events, theories, philosophies. From these, I build my teachings, dialogical investigations of life through study of literature. The America revealed in this literature is a place filled with stories of injustice and resistance. Conquest, slavery, wage slavery. And like a thread run through it, the revolution, the ongoing one, the perennial one, the fights for freedom, equality, love among all persons and joy to the world. The works we read and discuss implicate us — as victims, as perpetrators, oftentimes as both — in a violent, fascist, capitalist-imperialist, patriarchal settler-colonialist system of domination — a system radically at odds with the future integrity of Earth as biosphere.