Whiteness is a relationship: Thinking with Shary Boyle’s “Outside the Palace of Me”

18 January, 2024 – access copy

Race is a social relationship, a creation, a collective fabrication. But it is real. It kills some people and enriches others; it pretends that these deaths and that horded wealth are just the way the world is and therefore how it will always be. This is a lie. Even if we are not personally targeted by the life-destroying lie of racial superiority, if we care about our own and other’s humanity, we should fight for the truth. We should bend our will toward liberation with all our hearts and all our skill. We should look for every opportunity to reckon with the past and create the imaginative and practical possibility for a different present and future. We should fight on the side of people targeted by racism, border militarism, and genocidal colonialism. We should fight to win.

If we begin this work against racism, we might feel helpless or useless. White people in particular often feel adrift and incompetent, implicated by the fact that we benefit from violence directed against other people. Shary Boyle’s new show, “Outside the Palace of Me” offers us a model for thinking about race in the midst of those complex feelings. A rare example of a white artist reckoning deliberately with whiteness, the show is beautiful, provoking, and pedagogical.

Viewers enter the exhibit through a curtain, stepping onto a raised stage. On the stage of this show, but also in our lives, we enact different roles; our expressive intent does not control the interpretive uptake we might receive. And we’re only ever holding a role in relation to others. Thus talking about something like whiteness invites us to dwell with the complexity of social relations that are entirely made up but have real material effects. We make and remake our self and the world in relation with others; Boyle’s work here stages some relations with which we can identify or disidentify – figures, images, and also the space of the stage, other people who might move through it with us, in complex configurations of gaze and body.

We experience whiteness this way, as a whole world we move through with others, a co-production in which we are differentially situated and for whom the meaning we make shifts depending on how others perceive and position us.  So, we can start by recognizing that whiteness as a social relationship of oppression and benefit has not always existed, that “white” is not a biological category, and we can ask what it will take to destroy the work it currently does – to make whiteness as a relation of oppression no longer exist. And we can reflect on how looking at art can help in that creative destruction.

The pieces in the show that most directly engage whiteness are the White Elephant figure and the images that bracket them. But it is notable that we could have an entire discussion about whiteness exclusively through attending to the work in this exhibit that is not overtly or obviously about whiteness or white people. Indeed, often the most important places to understand whiteness are through thinking about the ways that culture creates identity [potter]; how culture is racialized, travels, and becomes mutually-implicated [Cephalophic saint]; the echoes of people experiencing what Franz Fanon called epidermalization, Black skin contemplating white masks [drag show]; the entanglements of racial capital with spectacle and performance [Centering]; and the ways gender and sex are always lived through race and vice versa, in ways that mark the vital importance of resisting binaries and fixity as we move toward worlds that can celebrate the glorious complexity of our actual lives [Oasis].

But space is limited! So let me tell you a little about the animatronic sculpture “White Elephant” and its affiliated paintings “Lone Gunman” and “Settler.” As Boyle said in one of the conversations about the making of this work, “white elephant” names whiteness as the perpetual elephant in the room, which white people would like to not have to acknowledge or talk about even as it distorts the fabric of space and time. And a “white elephant” sale is often of those things that people don’t want but have priced too high to sell, that which has been overvalued but cannot be disposed of.

But where does this sense of “white elephant” come from? It turns out, OG colonialism! Which is to say, this phrase densely figures the intertwined material and symbolic formation of whiteness as it manifests today, though this actual animal other. Toung Taloung was a Burmese (from what is now Myanmar) elephant with distinctive epidermal difference, pale patches on their body. Symbolically, in parts of cosmologies in Siam and Burma, the birth of a chang pheuak or “strange coloured” elephant marked the auspiciousness or legitimacy of the monarch ruling at the time. They became symbolically important when Britain invaded and took over direct rule of Burma over the course of three wars between 1824 and 1885 – complex fetish objects for the British colonial imaginary. And so when circus operator P.T. Barnum bought and brought to first London and then the US this white elephant it is perhaps to be expected that it catalysed a much bigger conversation about race and whiteness.

As Sarah Amato notes in her brilliant social history of Toung Taloung and race, the definition in the OED in the 1850s read: “a. A rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries. b.  fig A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”. Amato carefully examines how debates about whether Toung Taloung was “really” white, or mottled, whether he was becoming whiter the longer he was away from the east, and what it would mean about the orientalised other for him to be venerated in the ways Barnum claimed that he was.

All of this carried over into the elephant’s further adventures in North America, facilitated by the Pears soap campaigns that quickly tranversed the trope of the elephant being whitened through to the idea of Blackness being something that could be washed off. A competitor to Barnum painted and bleached the skin of an elephant, rendering it much whiter, and put it on display. So here we have one aspect of whiteness, the epidermal question, pigmentation, melanin, “looking white.” Determining who is “really white” by the colour of their skin (alongside other physiognomy criteria) has of course been a key technology of racial oppression globally. One of the fears 19th century racists had about Toung Taloung was precisely the worry that colour could be erased – if it was so easy to become white, how would the racial order be maintained?

Boyle’s White Elephant is a kind of white no white person is, from their skin colour to their nose, lips, eyes, hair texture, and politely cold expression. Boyle deploys here the visual markers that have been central to racial projects of whiteness. But, as marked by the racial anxieties white people had about the existence of a white elephant (or an elephant who could be made white), the project of whiteness requires constant vigilance. In White Elephant’s case, this manifests as a motion-sensor-triggered spinning head, a 360 degree pivot on a moment’s notice. We can think of it as the racial pivot from imputing racial biological markers to fanatically stabilizing a social order that creates racial meaning. This figure harkens back to many horror tropes; the uncanny spin of their head, along with the distortion of the White Elephant’s body, might enact the affective charge of horror in viewers of the exhibit. As scholar Laura Hall and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein have elaborated, horror as a genre is densely entangled with legacies of chattel slavery and genocidal colonialism, especially as horror works through the question of resistance to Christian domination. So there are interesting questions here about what it means to be horrified by whiteness, especially for those of us who are white. 

It matters that Boyle’s work is coming from the Canadian context. Color-based racism of course matters in Canada, everywhere from the ongoing reality of police murders of and violence against Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people to less overtly murderous forms of interpersonal racism. But consider what was happening in Canada the same year Toung Taloung was brought over to North America, 1884. 1884 was an early iteration of what would later become the “Indian Act.” John A Macdonald forwarded the “Indian Advancement Act,” an early iteration of “enfranchisement,” voting, Canadian political control of Indigenous governance. The Act, and indeed all subsequent versions of it, aimed at extinguishment of Indigenous being. This doesn’t sound so bad, but enfranchisement in fact was part of a genocidal project – if Indigenous people became eligible to live off-reserve, vote, if they became clergy or got a university education, they would forfeit their Indigenous status. This extinguishment was also material, manifest in the government’s stated policies to use starvation, confinement to reserve systems, and withdrawal of medical care to kill Indigenous people. Macdonald and the Dominion and subsequent Canadian government used these extermination practices (including but by no means limited to stealing children from their communities through forced residential schooling and later the sixties scoop) as an arm in the broader genocidal project that continues to ground what is currently “Canada.” That project uses legal extinguishment in attempts to formally end treaty and other relationships that require Canada to respect the sovereignty of Indigenous people. Indigenous people and their governance structures, being, and relationships with other beings and places are not dependent on Canadian recognition, much as Canada has tried to make them dependent on that recognition and then withhold it.

The emaciated White Elephant who sits in judgement, head spinning, the long arms of the law ready to hand, whose mouth is so small that they cannot ever consume enough to satisfy their long, long body, might be a figure of this manifestation of whiteness. This is whiteness as the legal arrangements that determine who can enter or stay in the country, who has standing for civil engagement in all its forms, who should be imprisoned, and how resources are distributed. Whiteness like this is hard for white people to perceive even as it is constantly apparent to the people it targets for our benefit.

The way that Canadian whiteness happens is often as being “better than the US.” We can consider the figure of the “Lone Gunman,” who evokes the Boy Scouts, Hitler Youth, the agent of deadly mass shootings that happen so regularly now in the US that they are not even reported, and certainly not as a form of a racial project. Boyle’s work points to the formulation of the “lone gunman” whose whiteness and frequent connection to overt white supremacist and misogynist groups is erased through media representation of him as a lone actor.

The Lone Gunman, his violence and the refusal to reckon with what that violence protects, expresses one aspect of whiteness in the mode of the work white people do to create and then discipline a racial order – whiteness is in continual need of defense, collusion, and violent maintenance. Philosopher Charles Mills called this the “Racial Contract” – formal and informal agreements between white people that sort the world into groups, benefitting the people constituted as white.

The Lone Gunman also signals the violence of resource extraction, militarism, and the idea that it is possible to have dominion over the land, and that some people have the God-given right to that domination. Aileen Moreton-Robinson focuses on the aspect of the racial contract which operates on a logic of what she calls “the White Possessive.” She writes, “racialization is the process by which whiteness operates possessively to define and construct itself as the pinnacle of its own racial hierarchy” (Moreton-Robinson, 2015, p. xx). The gun is a key technology for enforcing the very idea that ownership is possible, with whiteness emerging from the classifications of who can own and who or what can be owned. This is practical (inherited wealth being the engine of home ownership) for example, and it’s ideological (as when Black people entering their own homes are assumed to be robbers). As Robyn Maynard argues in her work on Blackness in the Canadian context, it is vital to consider the role of state violence in the creation and maintenance of the racial order, from colonization to police murders of racialized people; who has sanctioned or official access to guns, and who they kill, tells us a lot about the racial organization of violence in our world, and what it protects.

Whiteness also organizes the eugenic work of determining who should reproduce the pure white race and who should be sterilized. Boyle pairs with the boyish representation of the RCMP the figuration of the settler, a young, pregnant, chained white woman necessary to securing the future of the white nation. She is bound by her own whiteness, but as she gets what one hopes is some ease from the pot she smokes, we can see the echo between her fingers clutching her chains and the fingers that clutch her. For me, this is an important reference to the ways that white women have been central figures in the violence meted out to racialized men in particular. White feminists thus can trouble rather than embrace the anaesthetic necessary to either numb out to our complicity with, or actively participate in, the evils of racism.

This figure of the pregnant settler also references ongoing debates about meaningful abortion access. Forced sterilization of racialized people and disabled people are part of the eugenic project of forced pregnancy for the white race. White supremacists here in Canada, as abroad, consistently reference a commitment to securing a future for whiteness, whether they reference the “14 Words” of white supremacist David Lane (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”), or in the slightly masked formulation of the Progressive Conservative party, simply “Secure the Future.” The figure of the pregnant white woman settler asks us what other futures we can imagine, which do not simply replicate the horrific histories and presents we now live.

Canadian evocations of multiculturalism and diversity often stand as a counter to this triptych of the white elephant, the lone gunman, the innocent-yet-knowing settler. This returns us to everyone in this exhibit who is not overtly coded as white. What is the relationship between them and the figure of the White Elephant, the Lone Gunman, the Settler?

Most of what I’ve elaborated so far applies to white racial formation across North America, grounded in the founding violences of settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and border militarism. In Canada, we have a perhaps more subtle unfolding of white racial formation and the racial contract, which uses the language of diversity and multiculturalism. To be a diverse and multicultural nation sounds good, better anyhow than being an engine of white supremacy – and this is complicated because decrying “multiculturalism” has become itself a dogwhistle of the right. As both Himani Bannerji and Sunera Thobani have elaborated, what seem to be value-neutral or actually quite positive commitments to multiplicity and complexity are in fact more complicated. Being a mosiac rather than a melting pot seems to hold the promise of everyone being able to have their own dignity. These thinkers argue that what happens, instead, is a solidification of conceptions of people framed as “diverse” or “multicultural” – everyone who is not white – into fixed cultural or ethnic groups, who are then seen as the site of difference, backwardness, and “culture.”

So as white people look hard at ourselves, maybe with new eyes, what can we do with what we see? If this exhibit is to help us think about whiteness, situated as it is in the context of an art world that has not yet collectively reckoned with its own whiteness and the material conditions that make questions about race consistently the white elephant in the room, what kind of action might it spark? 

What new faces might we shape, if white people aim to refuse the benefits we receive from whiteness and repair the harms of the inheritances we’ve received? One option is to come to this exhibit, or to think about whiteness, and feel bad. Lots of us do this – white people feel bad, decide we need to learn more, read more, and so on. When we do this, the bad feeling and the learning more can become the end point of our actions. This does not actually help dismantle white supremacy and massively transform the racial order that is doing its part to destroy our shared world.

The best way to break the racial contract, to become a traitor to whiteness, is through collective action. This doesn’t have to take the form of a protest march, though it can and often does. Wherever white people are situated, we are made complicit against our will with horrific wrongs. And each point of complicity, each thing we want to repudiate, is also a site of traction for transformation. We can ask, both in daily life and as we set broader strategic goals for collective transformation, how we can rend the forms of life that stabilize racism.

As the tombstone for antiracist white activist Joel Olson asks, “What is the most damage I can do, given my biography, abilities, and commitments, to the racial order and rule of capital?” Are we upholding whiteness, or transforming and destroying it? These are helpful questions, and ones I think this exhibit helps us ask.

Panel on Ami Harbin’s Fearing Together

Fermenting freeform feelings – access copy

Panel on Ami Harbin’s Fearing Together

Eastern APA, January 18, 2024

Feelings have turned out to be a perhaps unexpected terrain of struggle over the first years of the ongoing Covid pandemic. And among those feelings, fear has emerged as a kind of “hinge feeling,” a feeling upon which other claims, affects, and theories of change turn. People who think we should be practicing various virus-curbing behaviors are accused of being ruled by fear, while people contesting mask and vaccine mandates are characterized as viciously indifferent to suffering and death, and not feeling sufficient concern for the well-being of themselves and others. And here “well-being” is code for “not being disabled.” We cannot think about the fear of Covid without thinking about the fear of disability. How we feel about disability indexes our collective situation, and the distribution of dignity and flourishing under capitalism. What might it mean to welcome disability instead of fear it, while also working collectively to prevent the disabling effects of repeat Covid infections? And is fear the best lever we have for that welcome and that work?

Ami Harbin’s work in Fearing Together helps immeasurably in approaching these questions. In this short response to her book, I attend especially to Harbin’s extension and application of Sue Campbell’s expressivist account of feelings. My core questions for Harbin will be about more expansively individuating the feelings clustered under the rubric of fear in the book, and about whether politics are necessary to the moral responsibility of fearing well together.

Harbin follows Sue Campbell’s rejection of accounts of emotion that hold that “our emotions can be individuated prior to their expression,” the “presupposition of individuation.” Instead, on the Campbellian account, “expression individuates. It is expressing to others through our language or behavior that actually forms or creates the feelings we have” (Harbin 2023, 48). In Campbell’s words, “we form our feelings through acts of expression and, in doing so, attempt to make clear to others, or even just to ourselves, the personal significance of some occasion or set of occasions in our lives” (Campbell 1998, 131). Because of this imbrication of personal significance with the necessity to have a hermeneutic space that can receive our expressive attempts, through which we individuate our feelings, Campbell spends quite a lot of time articulating an account of feelings beyond the ordinary list of feelings we might identify. She observes, “It is only sometimes that we express our emotions, express ‘how we are feeling’ by referring to a classic emotion, such as anger, jealousy, or love. Often our feelings are too nuanced, complex, or inchoate to be easily categorized” (Campbell 1998, 3). The expressionist theory she forwards offers an account of “the existence of nuanced and nameless feelings that are neither reducible to sensations nor the sorts of states that are adequately captured by the categories of the classic emotions” (Campbell 1998, 71). These are idiosyncratic, “freestyle,” or “free-form” feelings, which do not fall into the classic buckets of emotions. They may be inchoate, unformed, or complex. It is this feature of freestyle feelings that illuminates the necessity of an expressive account of feelings, for Campbell. As Harbin explains them:

Freestyle feelings are those which have not yet been adequately identified or recognized, or even named. According to Campbell, the individuation of freestyle feelings is collaborative: it requires expression and interpretation. There are cases in which successfully forming feelings depends on other people’s capacities for recognizing our feelings: these are cases where uptake is necessary for the formation of those feelings (Harbin 2023, 50).

I have long wondered about the lynchpin status of freestyle feelings in Campbell’s account; it is clear that the existence of these feelings is key to the expressivist stance, and allows Campbell to reject the presupposition of individuation and the view that we individuals have epistemic authority over what we are feeling and why we are feeling it. Harbin relies on these aspects of Campbell’s view in making the – very compelling – case for the idea that in the domain of fear in particular, people can be wrong about the causes of their fear in ways that matter tremendously, both morally and politically.

 Harbin usefully clarifies some key things in Campbell’s view here, notably about the classic emotions. She writes,

In the case of classic emotions, expression is sometimes but not always needed to identify the object of an emotion, and thereby to individuate the emption. Expression is not always required because sometimes we have already practiced an emotion so much, people can recognize the scenarios and anticipate what is appropriate for people to be feeling (Harbin 2023, 49).

Even in the case of classic emotions, though, both Harbin and Campbell hold that often we require interpretive help to individuate our feeling – if not about what the feeling is, then perhaps about what the object of the feeling is. Harbin gives the example of the early months of the Covid pandemic. She reflects:

It was at some points difficult to determine the perceived threats to which individuals were responding. Through an individual’s expression – for instance, behavior to avoid talking about the emerging facts about those populations most at risk of negative outcomes, avoiding talking with elderly loved ones, and perhaps through tearing up at every mention of outbreaks at nursing homes – it might become clear that the chief object of one’s fear is loss of elderly parents. This maybe not be the only fear a person has in this context, but if it was not immediately clear to an individual, it could become clarified as one of their fears by expression. Some instances of fear, like this one, may be classic emotions where the object is not clearly established, and expression might be necessary for identify it, and thereby for forming the emotion (Harbin 2023, 53).

So, there are at least two ways that individuation can help us as feelers: We may benefit from interpretive collaboration with good hermeneutic others to individuate freeform, non-classic feelings, or we may benefit from such hermeneutic help in identifying the object of classic feelings.

            Fear is a classic emotion, though, like pain, something that is difficult to accurately describe and account for, and as personal as any feeling really gets. This may be one reason for fear’s frequent deployment – as feeling and as suggested interpretive frame – about Covid. It functions as a boundary object, in Bowker and Star’s sense, something that can travel between discursive realms and work well enough even in very different deployments. We can be said to fear too much, too little, the wrong objects, in the wrong way, and so on. My own impulse about Covid feelings has been to move away from classic emotions and toward a call to craft hermeneutic spaces that can nourish the individuation of freeform feelings, mostly because I am convinced that too often we lack the interpretive resources to turn toward nuance, slowness, and co-creation as regards feelings. I think creating these resources involves some fundamental and beneficial transformations in how we feel together.

            And so I want to push Harbin on the extent to which this book may tend to fold freeform feelings back into the classic emotion of fear. She writes:

Though we may be tempted to interpret a lot of nuanced feelings under the umbrella of a classic kind of fear, Campbell’s view helps show how doing so may not do justice to what the feeling actually is. Indeed, my inquiry into fearing is partly an inquiry into feelings that we might tend to categorize as something other than fear, but that should instead be understood as forms of fearing, as well as into instance that we might misunderstand as a simple kind of fear, but that are actually more complex (Harbin 2023, 54-55).

Here, I would like to hear more about the criteria and practice we might enact of individuation in these different cases: Times when interpreting freeform feelings as fear is inappropriate, times when things that are elsewise classified should be understood as fear, and times when we understand something as simple fear when it is in fact complex. How do we tell the difference, and when – and how – do these differences matter? Maybe another way to ask these questions is about whether we need to do more to individuate what is currently dumped into the big bucket category of fear, or whether we need to do more to delineate and identify the objects of fear. I see Harbin in practice in this book doing this latter work, to better delineate objects, causes, and experiences, more often, and very productively, and I’d like to hear more about why.

My second big question is about the question of how to cultivate better practices of fearing together. I find Harbin’s central argument – that “fear is a thing we learn and do with others and that we have learned to fear badly” (Harbin 2023, 122) totally compelling. As she demonstrates, being too sure that we can identify the objects of our fear, being too reactive, and being too easily compelled towards particular actions out of our fears are significant, life-threatening problems. Under regimes of white supremacism, border militarism, and gender oppression, in particular, racialized people, migrants, and trans people experience horrific results of bad fearing. Harbin turns in response to these significant threats to the need to practice “new ways of feeling fearful without immediately being drawn into action by these feelings, without rushing to resolve, escape, or otherwise dispel them” (Harbin 2023, 122). She is especially interested in “mindfulness-based and somatic regulation approaches to emotional life” (123). My worry is that mindfulness and somatic experiencing are not enough, and indeed that simply not being reactive is not enough – we need politics.

I should situate this worry a bit in my own biography, since it may be overwhelming my philosophical reasoning. I grew up in a Buddhist community and have been a serious practitioner of mindfulness meditation since I was a kid – I did my first silent retreat at 11, my first month-long retreat at 17, and many more retreats since then. I was a formally authorized mindfulness meditation instructor and teacher of Buddhism within my tradition from 1999 until 2020, since which time I have been on hiatus. As part of my training, I also did work with somatic practices and trauma-responsive mindfulness practices. I became unable to do mindfulness meditation or teach Buddhism in the wake of abuse revelations in my home community, and then through research and reflection on the ubiquity of power abuse in all Buddhist lineages, across tradition and time. There is a very strong narrative within mindfulness community that simply sitting is transformative of our action in the world. Harbin quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn’s widely-popularized definition of mindfulness, the practice of “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Harbin 2023, 123). This is a good general depiction of the practice. The outcomes of this are supposed to be multiple, but they frequently come down to the possibility that if we create a little more space around our felt experience, we can shift from reactive stances to responsive ones. Harbin’s attention to mindfulness as a possible avenue to fearing better together rests on this possibility. As she writes, “by creating some space between feelings and automatic action, actions will be motivated as considered responses to some feelings rather than as impulsive reactions to all feelings” (Harbin 2023, 126). The other modalities of working with reactive responses – which will tend to be expressions of prejudice, oppression, and supremacist modes – similarly aim at this creation of space between feeling and action; Harbin examines Generative Somatics/politicized somatics and the trauma-aware approaches as other modes of slowing down, attending, and cultivating the possibilities for relations that can hold the discomfort of fear without moving into ill-considered action.

While my own skepticism about these links definitely arises from my own spiritual crisis, I don’t think it is entirely unfounded. My doubts about mindfulness practice arose from learning about and experiencing bad behaviour on the part of very seasoned practitioners of mindfulness and compassion practices, people who used their positions as teachers of meditation in ways that were clearly harmful to their students. It became unavoidable that meditation had not produced any particular behaviour, ethical or otherwise. The most neutral way to think about this is simply to say that there has to be something else that makes for a principled person who behaves well towards others. By extension, I believe there has to be some other normative footing to determine what good relations of feeling are.

I think the missing ingredient is politics. In other words, even if we have a space between experience and action, that space may not have any particular content. Indeed, it is likely that, given precisely the Campbellian account of the relational formation of selves and feelings that Harbin relies upon, we will have racist, sexist, ableist, ethnonationalist (and so on) responses. While the pace of those responses matters, I’m not convinced that Jillian Wuestenberg, who drew a loaded gun on an unarmed Black family in the Chipotle parking lot, would have had a substantively different set of feelings given more time and good interpretive others to feel her responses less reactively. I agree absolutely that slowing the reaction time between someone reaching for an someone using a gun is vitally important. But just as important is what the space of response opens. And I suspect that only changing things other than our own habituated reactions will help with that question.

I turn back to Harbin’s relational commitments here. As she writes:

We are only able to act in the ways we do because the possibilities have been opened up for us by others’ having acted before us. What responsibilities we have, and whether or not we can live up to those responsibilities, depend on other people – what others are calling for us to do, and whether or how others are participating with us in trying to meet those responsibilities (Harbin 2023, 9).

Let’s transpose this to considering Covid, and fear as a politicized feeling, with imperatives to feel more or less fear about it.

We may benefit from an approach that I think of as feeling fermentation. Our feelings are our own but shared, and the interpretive space we offer can function like an appropriate culturing ground for feelings; if we’re making tempeh, the soybeans need to have a specific humidity and temperature to grow their delicious spores. As in fermentation, we can identify specific strands that we want to culture, which in virtue of their proliferation make the context less friendly for bacteria and viruses that hurt or kill us. This is to say: We need an explicit politics in thinking about our feelings. The focus on fear, as something that we are supposed to feel more or less of, has carried with it a supposition that Covid is primarily a thing we ought to personally manage, calibrating our physical behavior to our level of fear. So, if we’re very afraid, we’ll wear masks, not spend time in crowded public spaces that don’t have good air, attend meetings remotely, and so on. If we’re less afraid, we’ll just go about our lives as though the pandemic had never happened.

For any question of health and sickness, our best politics are a radical disability politics. What we could be doing in this situation includes but is not limited to: providing the conditions for everyone to have clean air wherever they are breathing, using the adaptation of James T Reason’s “Swiss Cheese” model of cumulative effects in systemically preventing accidents in complex systems. For Covid, this might include a combination of easily available effective masks for people to wear when they’re sick, filters and UV light everywhere air circulates, being vaccinated and staying home when sick so that we’re not putting so much virus out into the world for other people to contract, wastewater testing and updating health guidelines with data, and all the other partial acts that can reduce the spread of transmissible illness. But all of that is insufficient without much more: ensuring paid sick days for all workers; offering free housing and food for all people whether or not they work for a wage; socially – that is, not through dyadic units predicated on monogamous sexual desire – providing child care for all kids and elder care for all elders; again, socially – not through forced institutionalization – making sure all disabled people have dignified and joyful conditions for living well; ensuring meaningful and free access to healthcare for all regardless of employment or citizenship status. In other words, turning away from fear and fatalism and towards “what we could be doing” in this situation is a turning towards a set of anti-capitalist, decolonial, radical disability politics, which are also a set of feelings.

The free-form disability feelings that I continue to take heart from include grief and worry about people developing Long Covid and becoming disabled right alongside a blazing belief in the goodness of disabled lives well-lived, a belief that we can welcome the disability to come while at the same time resisting the conditions that make disabled lives harder than necessary. Writing about the dismantling of collective care entering the fourth year of the pandemic, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:

When my fear and disabled despair gets big, I remember: there’re still more of us than them. There are more of us all the time, and especially more of us because of COVID. And disabled people are (some of) the best goddamn people in the world. Our disabled love and all our brilliant collective care and crip ingenuity, that we’ve done before and through the endemic, is love work that’s not going anywhere. We’re not going to stop dreaming.

As it turns out, a lot of oppressed communities have a lot of practice dreaming in the middle of complete despair (Piepzna-Samarasinha 46).  

This practice of dreaming in the middle of complete despair, amplifying how to live when you were never meant to survive, in Saidiya Hartman’s words, includes the interpretive work of individuating these resistant free-form feelings. To return to the fermentation analogy: We create the causes and conditions for some things and not others to arise; we can do this with how we organize and also how we offer interpretive justice to one another. May we all have the conditions to live good lives. May we ferment a freestyle feeling for that world, and for the many worlds it might nourish.