Sunday, April 26, 2020

Quarantine, Discretionary Time and Self-Realization: appalling unequal conditions and thus a dearth of opportunities for freedom


“My Quarantine: The Calm of Collaging,” by Luc Sante 

“The Covid-19 quarantine, which has in many other ways decimated my concentration, has revived my collage industry. I started making collages around age thirteen, in part out of frustration at my poor drawing skills and in part because of the lure of unpredictable found objects. The practice reached its peak in my twenties, when I made fliers for bands and had a hand in a zine or two. Then the scene changed, the bands broke up, and I no longer had an audience or a purpose. So I quit making visual work for nearly forty years. But the flame never entirely went out, as proven by the fact that I lugged my materials—piles of magazines, accordion folders full of clippings—from apartment to apartment and house to house, at least nine times.

What brought me back to action a few years ago was Instagram, which seems to include more people I know IRL [I had to look this up: ‘In Real Life’] than any other social medium—nearly all the most visually oriented of my friends. Instagram became a wall on which I could slap up my latest collage for a bit, before it got covered over by new stuff by others. I’m a performer; I have to work to some semblance of a crowd, however small. Getting a reaction stimulated me to keep trying to top the previous thing I put up. After about a year, though, even that flare-up subsided; my hobby ceded to more pressing matters. But then the quarantine came along. All of a sudden I was in need of a form of expression that would bypass the usual cognitive pathways. I had no reason not to make collages, and seemingly all the time in the world, since every day had become about a month long. 

So I’ve been making collages in consecutive series determined by physical constraint: a ledger, a stenographer’s notebook, mounted industrial photographs, a deck of lotto cards. I have a vast trove of imagery to draw upon: the disbound and damaged books I collected while working at the Strand Bookstore after college, the New York Post headlines I hoarded in those same years, the bag of half-shredded movie posters I bought from a street peddler in the Nineties, the wildly random ephemera—a German medical textbook from the Twenties, crudely illustrated Spanish pamphlets from the Thirties, movie-star magazines from the Forties—that until recently I was able to glean from the book-exchange table at my local supermarket. Collage is a scavenger’s art: it forms the dead matter of the past into combinations that could only occur in the present; it builds a future from ruins. [….]

I enjoy the challenge of making something that can be consumed by the eyes with no thought involved, and at the same time introduce a thought that lies just on the edge of meaning, preserving maximum ambiguity. Collage-making suits the moment; it is a meditative practice that requires the regular exercise of fine motor skills. It imposes calm.” The entire essay is here. 

In a very important sense, it is certainly true that Luc Sante’s quarantine is, so to speak, indeed “his,” and yet it reminds us that opportunities to exercise one’s agency (always within constraints of one kind or another) and creative abilities and powers, such as they may be, are the result of causes and conditions, the social and political forms of and control over which are in the main or generally speaking, above and beyond any one individual, raising questions of class, status, privilege, race, sex, and so forth. In other words, during this pandemic, the socio-economic, existential, and psychological circumstances one is facing are vastly different owing to the operation of these causes and conditions, reflecting, as they do today, in all parts of the world, vastly unequal conditions of freedom. (We leave for another day the questions and facts of social epidemiology that directly address the differential variables and causal factors accounting for the varying conditions and experiences of health, morbidity, and mortality exposed by this pandemic.) 

I do not at all begrudge Sante’s use of his discretionary time under quarantine conditions to engage in an activity that lends itself to self-realization.* I know a law professor who is likewise availing himself of such an activity with his free time at home, in this case, making beautiful glass mosaics. Apart from appreciating the value of such activities, we might think of all those who are compelled to do other things with their time, much of which may be rarely or truly discretionary: stand in line for free food distribution; apply (or repeatedly attempt to apply) for unemployment benefits; finds ways to avoid an abusing spouse, parent or caregiver; plead with mortgage lenders, landlords or creditors to be excused from making the next payment or negotiating for different and more lenient terms; provide education for their school-age children; caring for others young and/or old, or helping those unable to fully care for themselves; and so forth and so on. As for what one does with what discretionary time one has, that too often reflects the aforementioned causes and conditions, much like working people will use their time off from work—their precious leisure time—to “escape” the reality of their working lives, to forget the work week and live for the weekend, or to simply nap or be lazy, watch TV (it hardly matters what one is watching), or to engage in a consumption or consumption-like activity that brings immediate satisfaction, instant gratification or pleasure….

Now and again a poor or working person may stumble upon an activity the purpose of which is to “achieve something,” in which “satisfaction is supervenient upon the achievement rather than being the immediate purpose of the activity” (of course a kind of pleasure or enjoyment may accompany the activity but there is something about its goal, the purpose that brings more lasting satisfaction or contentment or eudaimonia). This may be the result of the beneficent influence of a close friend or family member, or the memory of a particular or unusual event, or a learning experience of one sort or another; the point being that it is typically the case that many if not most of us have been socialized into an habitual preference, as it were, for consumption (hence ‘bread and circuses’ ideology), thus we’ve not learned to value those activities that tend toward self-realization, the opportunities for such learning having been few and far between or virtually non-existent (there are always exceptions, but these are exceptions to the rule, not occasions for self-reproach or blame of those that fall within the class captured by the rule). 

Finally, as Jon Elster points out, “[a]lthough self-realisation can be deeply satisfying, the satisfaction must not be the immediate purpose of the activity. Self-realisation belongs to the general class of states that are essentially by-products, that is, states that can come about only as the side effect of actions undertaken for some purpose, such as ‘getting it right’ or ‘beating the opposition.’

We should be fighting, in our capacity as individuals, as members of groups, organizations and social movements, as political representatives and public officials, for the day when everyone will be able to live under the conditions of equal freedom(s), for a day in which every person will have, for example, the substantive freedom to choose to engage, like Luc Sante, in “a meditative practice that requires the regular exercise of fine motor skills.” 

* My understanding of this is shaped largely by Jon Ester’s treatment of the concept in his essay, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989): 127-158. 

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