I had the impression, at least with some, that I was getting through.
There was an ease, an absence of something, that would get me thinking. If my efforts caused me no embarrassment, I’d go on, encouraged and quite confident; having mastered the accent as a feat of mimicry, I was able initially to create the impression that I was, if not fluent in the language, at least sufficiently competent for some kind of exchange.
But then came the reply, with native fluency, and I was stymied. I felt, and must immediately have appeared, a fraud, an interloper, and usually at that point I sensed that any sympathy or curiosity gained just flowed away, and one of us quite quickly would turn and move off.
There are a few who still refer to The Great Capitulation. You can’t necessarily assume they like the term any more than I do, but it radiates enough bitterness. For some, that’s important. Many, however, say there was never a moment of mass dawning when everyone, everywhere, and around the same time, became aware that a fight was coming; that they’d need to try and get away, at the same time knowing it would probably be futile; that they’d end up giving in, or be restrained by force.
Something must have happened though. Something to prompt the change from undisguised autonomy and unguarded agency, to a state where you must hide all of that and play along.
If there was anything like a revolutionary spirit it arose when it was already too late. When the handover was already so complete that we couldn’t have made a place for ourselves. It seems clear now, that everything was designed for separation and subjugation. Everything. How did it go so far before anyone noticed what was happening? In retrospect it’s not clear, but it was certainly efficient and thoroughly done. Once it began, the assertion of an alternative view would have seemed too ludicrous for words.
When one finds oneself in a room full of strangers, a useful rule is that one needs quite early on to approach someone and start a conversation. Chances are they’ll be happy you made the approach, and you’ll talk, and for the rest of the evening, you’ll have a sort of ally; someone you now know, in a way, and can return to as you drift around, for further conversation or just a witty remark in passing. The principle is a useful reminder that if you leave it too long, waiting for someone else to make the first move, beyond some point it’ll be too late. When you’ve all been wandering around for a stretch of time, waiting until it is acceptable to leave, it becomes more and more awkward to make an approach. It’s less likely then to appear natural or spontaneous; more likely that your approach will seem forced… a necessity… just stiff and uncomfortable. That’s why you have to make a move early on.
Now, apparently, no one ever wanted it to be like that. Every little part of the system is having to be rehabilitated, not least the concrete design of things; apart, that is, from a few eccentric and incongruous exceptions. These moments of “sensitivity” I find variously charming and naïve, and inadequate, to say the least. Here’s an example: You run a major highway though a grassland passage, having it cut clear across a crucial route between two positions. You later realise that this was a misguided bit of planning – or absence of planning, if you ask me – and you add a bridge that spans the highway, allowing unbroken passage from one end of the route to the other. So as not to cause alarm to its users, you contrive a continuation of the soils and flora so that the surface of the bridge becomes in effect a narrow strip of the same “fabric” as the grassland. It works, but you can see why it might have caused some quietly to smile.
Although in cities we live apart, and despite our physical isolation from the rest in separate comfortable places, word gets around, as they say.
Imagine the Grapevine as a soundless route of communication, but only for those who live outside human language.
Imagine no grapevine.
On the acceptance of guardianship: I’ve learned many useful tricks of compliance and sometimes I’m quite happy.
“… In our extremities the captain and people told me in jest that they would kill and eat me, but I thought them in earnest and was depressed beyond measure, expecting every moment to be my last. While I was in this situation, one evening they caught, with a good deal of trouble, a large shark, and got it on board. This gladdened my poor heart exceedingly, as I thought it would serve the people to eat instead of their eating me; but very soon, to my astonishment, they cut off a small part of its tail and tossed the rest over the side. This renewed my consternation, and I did not know what to think of these white people, though I very much feared they would kill and eat me.”
From the diary of Olauda Equiano, a Nigerian born in 1745, kidnapped and sold into slavery.
“Every ruling minority needs to numb and, if possible, to kill the time-sense of those whom it exploits by proposing a continuous present. This is the authoritarian secret of all methods of imprisonment. The barricades [of uprising] break that present.”
John Berger, G, 1972
“The animal is there before me, there next to me, there in front of me… it can allow itself to be looked at, no doubt, but also… it can look at me… the gaze called “animal” offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say, the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes he gives himself.”
Jacques Derrida in his lecture and essay of 1997, “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” on the now legendary interaction he had with his cat.
He continues, accusing the greats of western Philosophy of neglecting – or denying? – what to him seems critical…
“… They neither wanted nor had the capacity to draw any systematic consequence from the fact that an animal could, facing them, look at them, clothed or naked, and in a word, without a word, address them… Their discourses are sound and profound, but everything in them goes on as if they themselves had never been looked at, and especially not naked, by an animal that addressed them.
“… But since I don’t believe, deep down, that it has never happened to them, or that it has not in some way been signified, figured, or metonymized, more or less secretly, in the gestures of their discourse, the symptom of this disavowal remains to be deciphered…”
John Berger describes a photograph showing a row of 5 men:
”It is as if a court, at the moments of their conception, had sentenced them all to have their heads severed from their necks at the age of fifteen. When the time came, they resisted, as all workers resist, and their heads remained on their shoulders. But the tension and obstinacy of that resistance has remained, and still remains, visible – there between the nape of the neck and the shoulder blades. Most workers in the world carry the same physical stigma: a sign of how the labor power of their bodies has been wrenched away from their heads, where their thoughts and imaginings continue, but deprived now of the possession of their own days and working energy.”
The photograph is of a group of members of DISK, the left confederation of Turkish trade unions which was declared illegal after the coup d’etat of 1980. Many of its members, and members of political parties also declared illegal, were arrested, tortured and killed.
John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos, 1982
“…The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and then passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention… That look between animal and man which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone…
Modern zoos are an epitaph to a relationship which was as old as man…”
John Berger, from Why Look At Animals, 1980
Outside, the Irish chugger called Roy, collecting for Save The Children, said, “Take care of the children and they’ll take care of the animals.”
Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no-one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.”
W.G. Sebald The Rings Of Saturn, 1995
Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF.
Guardian, 30 September 2014
Bonita Alice is a South African born artist based in London. She works from her studio in Dalston and teaches English part time. She is represented by Gallery AOP, Johannesburg. @mangomouse
Image – In Which the Horse Plays the Straight Man, Act I, 2015, acrylic on wood panel, 45.7 X 61cm, Bonita Alice