“This Collective We”: On Bodily & Social Fragility

Photo credit: Mateo Hinojosa, more  here.  

Photo credit: Mateo Hinojosa, more here. 

Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga, Lata Mani & Nicolás Grandi with Ashara Ekundayo

Post-screening conversation at the premiere of The Poetics of Fragility, Impact Hub Oakland, October 2, 2016. The transcript has been edited for conciseness. For The Poetics of Fragility website here.

Ashara Ekundayo is a co-founder of the Impact Hub Oakland, more here. 

Ashara: I want to start with the idea of fragility as the quality of being easily broken, delicate or vulnerable. When we think about these things, we think about them as challenges, as something not appealing. However, it also describes something highly valuable, our body. And there was the part of the film that said the body was the site of the battlefield of enlightenment, of liberation and of resurrection. So if each of you could speak a little bit about the relationship between body fragility and frailty and social fragility and frailty?

Cherrie: I would like to start with my response to the film. Just that. Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. I really want to honor this work that the two of you have done. I feel like it’s very deceptively dangerous. What you’ve done here with the graciousness and beauty of your work and Nicolas’ is that you have taught us an amazing thing. I think about getting old and dying every single day of my life. I sometimes think of it hourly. I’ve had great blessings in why that has been the case and I honor those teachers. One who almost died which was my son; he didn’t die I’m happy to say 23 years later. But I know that was an original teacher: that you can be born and almost die within weeks, minutes, months; that you can come into the life and be taken or choose to go. And I’m so glad he chose to stay. And then of course, the other bookend is my mother’s own death but more importantly her Alzheimer’s.

What you’ve echoed here is what I know to be true: that the body has language. That beautiful piece that Thao did of trying to remember a line took me back to my mother trying to remember a line at 90-91 years old. I say all this simply to say that the both of you together have created a way to know we are not alone, to know that the ego has no place in this contemplation, to know that it is this collective ‘we’ that helps us look at ourselves and our arthritis and the elders that are in front of us as us, that it’s all us. I am you and you know, you are me. Muchas gracias.

Ashara: Angela, can we hear from you about fragility and your thoughts?

Angela: Well, first of all, thank you Lata, thank you, Nicolas. The film is so viscerally moving. And I think what really struck me about the way in which you create this pas de deux of fragility and strength is that is that it calls upon us to contemplate together. Oftentimes the space of reflection and contemplation is considered to be a very individual space. But you call upon us to engage in this collective contemplation. And what I really appreciated about the film was the way in which you manage to create different temporalities. I just got into town today. I’ve been moving really fast. Yesterday, at this time yesterday, I was in Georgia at an amazing festival called “Many Rivers To Cross,” organized by Harry Belafonte. And aside from all of the amazing artists and musicians who were there I had the opportunity to spend time with the mother of Trayvon Martin and the mother of Amadou Diallo. So as I watched the film today I kept thinking about them and I kept wanting them to have the experience of seeing the film. As a matter of fact, they organized this large circle of mothers who have lost their children to police violence. “No life pointless.” [A line from the film] How do we imagine ourselves as part of something that will continue? I think this is what movements need today. We’re not going to win tomorrow but we have to be able to imagine ourselves as a part of something that continues long after we are gone. We have to be able to imagine ourselves spiritually present and we have to feel the presence of those who came before us, those who are no longer with us.

Ashara: I found myself watching with my breath, being aware of my breathing while watching. It seems to be so right on time that we explore vulnerability and frailty and the strength that lies within that. Can you talk about the process of how you came to make the film?

Lata: The film builds on work that I have been doing since my brain injury and my gradual but incomplete recovery from that which threw me off an academic path. The immediate prompt was watching What Now, Tell Me, a film by a Portuguese sound recordist about life on an experimental drug for HIV+ persons. It is a tour de force, the story of his fortitude and of his intellectual engagement with the idea of illness, epidemics, gay politics etc. But illness was not a teacher for him. And I was struck by that since illness was my initiation.

Even though my academic work was about embodiment and the body, I can honestly say that I had not inhabited my body until I was thrown into it on account of pain. Pain makes you very honest. It drops you into the present. You can’t flee from it. You can’t climb up and over it. You can only breathe into it. And as you breathe into it, the body reveals its innate brilliance.

What I discovered was that the body is the most unconditioned kind of intelligence that we have. We have a lot of conditioning about the body. But the body, if we are able to access its voice, has things that can teach us. It can help us re-constellate the relationships between the intelligence of the body, the intelligence of the heart and the intelligence of the mind. This was the door that was opened to me. And also I was quite keen having written a memoir [Interleaves], to free words from my experience and have them transit through other bodies. So that the universal dimensions of what might be called a biographical experience come to the fore.

To go back to your earlier question about social and bodily fragility, one of the hardest things about catastrophic illness or aging or any kind of dependence is the struggle with shame. Because we have constructed strength in a certain way, if we cannot imagine ourselves to be productive members of society - even left progressive discourse has bought into capitalist notions of productivity -  you feel yourself to be utterly worthless. But that struggle with illness is entirely the result of the social construction of illness. There is pain which is physical - which is pure in a sense - and then there is suffering which is entirely the result of social and cultural conditioning. And that is the hinge, the connecting point between social fragility and physical fragility. Social fragilities are forms of fragilities that are imposed on account of the limited, sectarian thinking (for want of a better word) that dominates societies. I felt that if one could honestly speak to the experience of physical fragility but situate it in its social context, then it could become a door that could open conversations about social fragility. To me they are seamlessly connected.

Ashara: Nic could you talk about this sensuous tool for social and philosophical inquiry, this medium you all have designed and developed, the videocontemplation?

Nicolás: There is something regarding concepts as an action of sensuality. How can we make a portrait of an idea with all its sensuality? This form - videocontemplation - allows a kind of kaleidoscopic inquiry and approach to a subject. Actually it’s a very ancient technique or method of thinking of things together. I can recall for instance from the Rig Veda a sloka, “samvo manamsi janatam,” “with our minds together may we understand.” I think that’s really something that is pushing this. When you have something that you want to explore and you start putting different kinds of lenses then its wholeness starts to arise and its wholeness is so diverse. It doesn’t fit necessarily to a single category but it spills over different kinds of experiences. So that’s how poetry comes into place, that’s how performance comes, that’s how narrative comes. And all that produces not only a wide exploration but something that allows us to reach into truth further.

Ashara: The film that talks about how “by resisting nature we incapacitate ourselves.” Cherrie you talk about visceral pain. What does it mean to know that illness and aging are perhaps are part of the natural process of how we transition?

Cherrie: Socialization makes it something unnatural. But to me when we are talking about the ‘we’ of this, is that if the lens -  and I love thinking about this film as shifting the lens - if the lens turned to a ‘we’ then the promise is there. All of us imagine ourselves as very politically progressive people. But the most difficult and the most progressive thing that you can do is to somehow figure out how we really are a ‘we.’ Which means you have, and it’s all there in the film, to give up your attachment to this ego. I was speaking to my friend Mirtha who couldn’t come tonight. She is 82 years, Puertorriqueña, feminista, socialista, fierce sister. She is right ahead of me and she is there in a completely different state. Her vulnerability, her fragility, is that her death is closer and closer. And she knows it and I know it. But somehow the way it is packaged it can’t be a we between us. And so I feel like our true communism, our true radicalism, is where it comes down to an infinite compassion not because we want to be good Buddhists but because we actually know that that other person is us. That profound, profound way of seeing the world; I have a hard time just doing that with my lover of twenty years!

I have spent much of my life contemplating questions about my ultimate vulnerability to death, ultimate impermanence. We have to figure out also how to make that language accessible to our own pueblo; how to talk to our own elders, to our own children, growing old in front of them and having them understand. It has to be language that comes out of our traditions. And then this idea of a communism…I wrote somewhere, “I don’t want to be right, I want to be free.” I saw that line when I was coming here and I thought, well, that’s right. I have struggled as a political person my whole life to be right and it’s killing me. I mean, I’m in relatively good health. What I’m saying is it is killing the spirit of what in the years that I have left could be possible if I would give up that idea about progressive activism. There’s something else. There’s some other way to be an activist, progressive, to articulate those ideas. It’s not about being right. It’s about being ‘we’ somehow.

Ashara: I want to talk about the soundtrack: there were the words that were being spoken, the non-verbal languages and then there was the jazz. There was the jazz. How we can talk about the sound of movement, the sound of movement building and of revolution? Angela, the role of music, institution building and artivism?

Angela: First of all, the soundtrack was amazing! The music. Ambrose Akinmusire is from Oakland.  Increasingly I think that it is in art and music and stories that we are able to create the kind of consciousness that will help us get somewhere, move in the direction of freedom. And it’s interesting of course that all kinds of musicians are now seriously asking themselves how can they contribute to the promise of this moment. Because of course we are never guaranteed success. We can’t say what this moment, what this conjuncture will have turned out to be say twenty years later when we look back. I like the idea of not being caught in a particular moment, a particular temporality.  I’m the oldest person up here. I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m really old! I think I forget because of the fact that I hang out with a lot of young people all the time. I love the fact that I forget that I’m old, that I still think of myself as a young revolutionary! But at the same time I know that I have to be willing to let go of the sense of being at the forefront now.

Speaking about music, I saw this wonderful brief footage about the Clarke sisters, the gospel singers. One of the sisters was basically teaching her daughter and you saw them at various moments and you see them do this call and response and the daughter would get some of it and then she’d get to the point of giving up, ‘I can’t do that.’ And by the end the daughter was actually better than the mother! And this was offered to us as a way of imagining the generationality of our lives and our struggles and how those of us who are older also learn from the youth: the acceptance of a kind of fragility that is required in order no longer to have to imagine oneself at the center. But to recognize that our spiritual presence will always be there as long as we do what we need to do to pass it on. I struggle to work against the inevitable individualism that is imposed upon us. And to recognize that individuality is not produced by individualism. That as a matter of fact individualism prevents the emergence of the kinds of individualities that you see. And Jasim Perales in the film, an amazing trombonist. Jasim is 17 years old. And you will hear his name, believe me. He’s going to be a major figure in jazz.

Lata: I wanted to go back to your question about the sound of the movement. Among the sounds of the movement I think is silence. Central to the sounds our movements has to be silence. One of the reasons we have been developing this form, videocontemplation, is because we wanted to try to think about breathing. Breathing involves expansion and contraction. We wanted to always position the spectator in what I call a relationship of intimate remove. Intimate as an invitation but also remove since we trust the viewer sufficiently to take our time, as one way to counter the relentless pace of attention seeking, and attention grabbing and attention retaining that seems to be part of the cultural logic of the world in which we live. How do you elongate attention? How do you create the possibility of pause? How do you allow a sun to set onscreen? How do you use the extraordinarily sensuous audiovisual medium to create work or experiments which allow for thinking as a form of sensuous dispassion which is also at the same time an invitation to viscerality? That is the line we have been trying to walk.

Ashara: Nic, as we wrap up can you talk about the extension of this work, this transmedia project?

Nicolás:  The transmedia project is going back to the idea of the ‘we’ thinking together. I’ll go first to how we produced the film. There was a politics of generosity among everybody. Everybody gave their time. We came here with the idea of shooting a work in progress and we ended up shooting the whole film. That was because everybody present was able to give their time. That is one of the biggest gifts one to can give to somebody. And besides things flowed in such a manner. Somebody would take us from one spot to another, somebody would feed us. This is how the project got into shape. It’s not something that shouldn’t be pointed out because I think it’s the root of the ‘we;’ we together doing things. And its extended to the transmedia project with the book and the artists that participated in different ways with visual art work or sonic art work on the website. There is an invitation to artists to respond, to see how we can continue thinking together about fragility.

Questions from the audience:

Question#1: Considering how black people are feeling really fragile right now given police brutality and the state that we are in, how can Black Lives Matter and the folks that are struggling in that fight find strength in our fragility, seeing ourselves as fragile in the face of police brutality?

Cherrie: I think your question is the answer. I mean that honestly. Because my understanding is that it’s the moment of that encounter when we are the most fragile, when we are in those intimate physical encounters with power in that way. Across the board as women of all ethnicities we have faced it in relation to questions of sexual assault when physically you are so fragile. So I feel like in asking the question you already understand, we understand what’s going on there. But I think a consciousness about that, that if we are actually talking about Black Lives Matter, its Black bodies matter, that we are really talking here about bodies. And that means the body has a shade, the body has a size, the body has a gender, all of those things. This is what we’re looking at. I think you have asked the right question and I give it right back.

Angela: I also think that many of the activists in the Black Lives Matter have learned to incorporate breathing, collective breathing, have learned to think about self-care as a collective process, not as an individualistic process and the fact that so many women are now in the forefront of the movement makes a difference. The fact that during this instantiation of the movement against racism there is much less fear of embracing all of the other aspects of this struggle. First of all it has an anti-capitalist impulse. Black Lives Matter, that means that LGBTQ lives matter, it means black differently abled lives matter. So I think that that kind of radical intersectionality makes a difference in terms of being able to create this pas de deux between strength and fragility.

Question#2: We see these repeated images of trauma against black and brown bodies. In terms of fragility I think we are almost becoming over aware of our fragility. So this piece for me as a black bodied individual had a different kind of meaning and I wonder what did it mean to you [Angela] as a black bodied individual to think about fragility? How did your involvement in this piece as a black person have meaning?

Angela: Well, I saw the film first on the small screen on the computer and this is the first time that I really saw it with the visuality and the sound optimal. And one of the things I have really been concerned about is our inability to think universality through specificity. You know because it is often assumed that when you say Black Lives Matter that you are only talking about black people, that that’s not a way to assert that all lives matter. If you simply say All Lives Matter and forget that these universals are always very much racialized and gendered and so forth. And so what does it mean for say Black women to be the measure of humanity as opposed to thinking humanity through its historical manifestation so that in order to be truly human you have to become equal to the racialized, classed figure that has always represented “All Men are created Equal”?

I experienced in the film this really wonderful dance between the very, very particular and specific and a very different kind of universal. It’s a moving towards a feeling of togetherness, a feeling of collectivity that does not erase the particular experiences of those who have been the victims of the notion of humanity with which we have worked. And the spaces for contemplation allow you to take that journey. I liked the way in which in time is stretched out. I love the sun setting because oftentimes you watch the sun and it sets so quickly. But when you look at it onscreen in this way, you realize there are eternities in those moments. So yeah, let me stop there.

Question#3: I’d like to embrace this idea of fragility and my question is how can we use it to advance our own thinking and our own consciousness? A lot of the conditioning limits us. The thought of suffering is terrifying. How can we use this idea of fragility to make our own fears fragile, our own conditioning fragile? How can we turn it back in a way that is useful, maybe?

Lata: To borrow a line from Cherrie, the answer to your question is in the question itself. Because you so beautifully expressed it when you said, how can we make our fears fragile? How we make our fears fragile is by really opening to the fear. And to open to the fear is to embrace fragility as a first step. But as you open to fear, your fear itself will become fragile and your fear itself will dissolve. This is the trick that meditation teaches you: that anything that seems solid when you breathe into it, it loses its solidity but it reveals its nature. And it can reveal its nature as fiction. This is where the connection between fragile physical bodies and socially imposed fragility by societies structured in dominance can meet. Because if we open fearlessly to whatever is that point of pain, we find both that that pain can no longer retain its solidity in the old way and as it dissolves it reveals something about the social structure that produced it in the first place. This is the promise of the contemplative practice and this is where the social and the personal, the particular and the universal meet in a new way.

In many ways debates that have run aground around identity politics have run aground because of the resistance to the idea that we pay attention to specificity. The cry of every social movement is the hunger for a particular kind of specificity to be recognized in all its complexity. Because that complexity is resisted and refused, [in response] we take things that are nothing other than distinctions and solidify them into a form of difference that does not in fact behoove us to hold on to. But this is the result of the resistance of power. If we are able to open to the idea of fragility deeply then we can in fact name specificity and retain that complexity and insist on it even while insisting on a commitment to that which is shared. One of the ways we tried to point to that in the film is through the multi-racial cast of the Bay Area. The same truths being articulated in different contexts by different bodies; universality in a way that honors specificity.