That which is “[h]alf obliterated by plague then resurrected by riot” (132) is the central theme of Hannah Black’s novella, Tuesday Or September Or The End. Already an agitator in the art world, with significant works of criticism and installations attached to her name, Black’s work of agitational fiction is an extension of her already existing practice. Indeed, around the time her novella was released she had an exhibition at my university’s art gallery entitled The Meaning of Life. Both the novella and the exhibition are united by this theme of plague annihilation and riot renewal. Tuesday Or September Or The End is a fictional account of the emergence of the pandemic to the riots responding to the pig execution of George Floyd; The Meaning of Life is an installation structured around video interviews about the meaning of these riots’ forms of life.
When I finished reading the novella, in the week following my experience of the exhibition, I found I could not separate the two. The closing moments of Tuesday Or September Or The End reminded me of the peaceful spaces of The Meaning of Life where I listened to the yearning for utopia in the speeches of the subjects whom Black had recorded. The desire that that which was obliterated by plague be resurrected by riot is indeed the utopian impulse of the novella, supplemented by her parallel art installation, and it is appropriate that the piece of fiction isn’t divisible from Black’s art practice. After all, the reason I was interested in her novella was because of Black’s significance in the art world and her many incisive interventions. But then again, she could always write––her prose was always elegant and compelling––and so I immediately wanted to read her foray into fiction.
Black’s novella is a meditative retreat into the time/space of the pandemic. There is a strangeness of the months leading up to March 11th 2020, the way in which our memory of those immediate before times became subordinated to the pandemic temporal order, that Black captures. “Coronatime: the crown of time had closed around everyone.” (63) The feeling that time was moving both quickly and slowly––that the pandemic felt both long but at the same time rushed with events––is replicated by the book. Reminders of the surreality of the early days, the onslaught of the new normal of pandemic being, abound. One of the protagonists (stuck in London at the time) begins wearing a mask early on, before it becomes a required practice, and wonders at the strangers staring at her for this supposed transgression. “Some of these strangers,” she notes, “along with their strange gazes, would be dead.” (64) The slow creeping of the normalization of pandemic protocol, the anxiety of what to do, is described as “little sci-fi lurches” that eventually resulted, after months of practice, as a “dull buzzing” that “took up space” in this protagonist’s head. (64)
But Black’s narrative is also a “sci-fi lurch” in that it takes place in a fictional space adjacent to ours, one in which some form of alien visitation happened just before the global pandemic. This visitation is a political football for the candidates running in the primary with only President Pig (Trump) and Moley Salamanders (Bernie Sanders) taking the populist appeal of alien visitation seriously. The two protagonists, the couple Bird and Dog, cannot agree on the visitation. Bird initially doesn’t care about it, just as she doesn’t care about the Salamanders campaign, whereas Dog thinks that both the visitation and the Salamanders campaign are meaningful, throwing himself into the social democracy of the latter in an attempt to find personal meaning. Eventually pandemic time closes about both of them, trapping Bird in London and Dog on the campaign trail––locking them both in the dead time mobilized by the pandemic. For Bird this dead time is an unresolved relationship with her step brother that leads her to an encounter with an alien mind that inhabits one of the Black elders in her step brother’s community. For Dog, this dead time is encountered on the campaign trail with Fossa, a retired actress who starred in a cancelled television show about an ancient alien conspiracy. Indeed, this fictional television show, Ancient Aliens, represents dead time in that Fossa is obsessed with watching its only season over and over, subjecting Dog to this re/watching, until “[e]very day the day became gradually less and less realistic… the wash of time collapsing all around them. It was Tuesday or September or the end.” (95)
Can we imagine a space in which the riotous energy of mid-2020 resulted in a break from capitalist time and space?
In Black’s adjacent reality, though, that which was “obliterated by plague” is thoroughly “resurrected by riot” due to the aliens’ interference. Rather than the predictable end the George Floyd protests met in reality––the incorporation into status quo politics all disorganized riots face, in this specific case the capture and appropriation of anti-systemic energy by the Biden campaign––we are instead told a story of a riotous resurrection of revolutionary politics, an abolitionist utopia. This same utopian impulse, as aforementioned, was the theme of Black’s art installation. Both the novella and the installation yearn for Benjaminian messianic time against the onslaught of the capture of the real. Can we imagine a space in which the riotous energy of mid-2020 resulted in a break from capitalist time and space? Such a spontaneous imaginary requires aliens. Aliens unhappy with the carceral politics of imperialist racial capitalism. Aliens told to find a glimmer of a different way of life in Cuba. Aliens whose thought process is completely alien from capitalist business as usual. Without such aliens, after all, there is no way to imagine these spontaneous rebellions as going beyond the threshold all spontaneous eruptions face: the organized might of world capitalism.
Early in the novella, Black juxtaposes the bland utopianism of the “Moley Salamanders” campaign with a more radical utopianism. This is the long-standing debate between Bird and Dog. Bird understands that simple attempts at social democracy within the capitalist system do not go far enough. Dog hopes that such challenges, based on the low hanging fruit of conventions such as universal healthcare, can be overcome through a big tent reformism. Whereas Bird argues “that nothing originated in mainstream politics, which was just a clearing house of happenstance,” Dog responds that “her arguments were too purist.” (29)
The onslaught of the pandemic, in combination with US politics in general, proved the death of this dream. All attempts to generate this non-purist politics within status quo democracy were defeated. Dog finds himself bereft of his ecumenical social democracy as the pandemic manifests and his comrades in the Salamanders campaign die in an accident. Reformist politics cannot escape the capture of systemic politics. As Bird understood, based on her experience of the presidency of Llama (Obama), this capture was already in place: “[s]he blamed President Llama for playing the false image of reconciliation like an instrument.” (18) Whereas Dog initially believed that the failure of Llama can be recuperated through Salamanders’ appeal to social democracy, Bird already understood that nothing can be recuperated through official state parties. The pandemic manifestation, though, places them on a collision course with a riotous break from the state of affairs.
Here it is worth noting that the death of the US social democratic delirium is, in the real world, being repeated as farce after two times as tragedy within the Democratic primaries. Now we have the Democratic Socialists of America, many of whom were originally invested in the Bernie Sanders campaigns, jettisoning their anti-imperialist factions who upheld Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) in support of Palestinian self-determination because BDS is too “purist” and thus cannot unite Americans behind a simple social democratic politics, whatever that is. Bird’s overall point to Dog, and the reason they temporarily part ways, thus remains salient: what kind of politics are you actually going to espouse when you cannot critique the state of affairs? And Dog finds himself suddenly aware of this dilemma when the pandemic results in him being sequestered with an actor trapped in the past. Forced to watch and rewatch episodes of the cancelled television program in which Fossa starred as the main character’s token black friend, Dog looks back on his recent “Moley days” and decides that “it was as if he had spent months campaigning to have air conditioning installed in hell.” (90-91)
Indeed, all that the social democracy promise of the Salamanders’ campaign revealed, following the onslaught of pandemic and alien visitation, was the uselessness of the supposed return to normalcy promised by the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party. “If only the collapse of the Moley Salamanders campaign and the arrival of the aliens hadn’t rendered the savage compromises of the Democratic Party fully historically redundant,” writes Black, “they could have been gaining ground right now. They were hollowed out, waiting for whatever winds of history to take them like a sail.” (105) In the real world, in the years following the fictionalized versions of events in Black’s novella, this hollowing out is patently evident. After being told that Sanders’ vision of social democracy in the US was too much for the mainstream Democratic Party to embrace––after US progressive voters were exhorted to instead accept the banal neoliberalism of Biden and Harris––the vacuousness of this political imagination is evident. Instead of installing air conditioning in the hell of US capitalism, they have barely established a functional fan. Although the pursuit of social democracy within a violent settler capitalist society would have done little to alleviate such a society’s structural problems––it would have perpetuated these problems through a tenuous state of social peace––the fact that such a social compromise was forbidden by paramount power reveals the limits of the US electoral circus. Limits that Bird understands from the beginning of the novella, though she possesses no productive political practice to confront them. Limits that Dog, despite having sought to transgress them through the false solution of the Salamanders campaign, is forced to encounter when he retreats into the dead time of Fossa’s nostalgia.
Abolition is the novella’s denouement, its wager against the dead time ossified by the pandemic; this is the first abolitionist novel(la) of the pandemic. The last quarter of the book is an abolitionist delirium, derived from the combination of real world events, the critique of the limits of social democracy, and the fictional additive of alien visitation. The rebellions that erupted in the US in early 2020 following George Floyd’s execution mainstreamed the notion of contemporary abolitionism, and led to demands to abolish and/or defund the police––not only in the US but in other imperialist metropoles. These rebellions and their demands eventually petered out as they met with the reality of the limits of spontaneity and the ways in which mainstream electoral parties could capture and neutralize this rebellious energy. But in Black’s novella, due to the additive of alien intervention, they progress beyond the moment they were captured in our world by capitalist electoral parties, proliferating into utopian moments of anti-capitalist self-organization. “Love of aliens melted fascist sympathies, eroding the social base of reaction. The riots became daily practice. […] The riots made the world new.” (120-121)
Imagine if the social life that was obliterated by plague had been fully resurrected through the riots. Imagine if the hope of the riots––the sudden prevalence of calls to abolish the police and prisons, the resistant forms of life highlighted by Black’s simultaneous art installation––had developed into a productive, world-making politics. Tuesday Or September Or The End is invested in this imagining; it is a fictionalized account of a utopian turn from the dystopia of plague politics. Such an abolitionist imagination is of course a challenge to the carceral imagination of the world in which we actually live, a world that Black’s aliens encounter as an imprisoned and policed world whose inhabitants accept as common sense. This carceral imagination is what these extraterrestrials find truly alien. This out of world perspective, a kind of Archimedean point that reveals the brutality of the everyday––that those immersed in this everyday treat as normal––is what transforms the riotous moments of the pandemic into a sequence of social transformation that results, in the last paragraph of the novella, with Bird and Dog reuniting in the New York Commune. But this perspective is also a metaphor for what is required in an abolitionist/revolutionary project: an imagination uncontaminated by the capitalist atrophy of thought.
Although the addition of aliens transforms the abolitionist promise of the 2020 uprisings into a concrete political sequence, it also serves as a reminder of the hope of that moment and the impossibility, in our world, of cashing in on that hope. So much of the novella is a testament to what we experienced since the declaration of pandemic, and the riots and their promise strike a chord. I immediately recalled all of the debates about politics that were operationalized in that fragile moment, a time when a surprising number of people started calling themselves “abolitionists” as if it was the new political flavour of the day, and innumerable online discussions I was pulled into that were ultimately rendered transitory. For example, I recall challenging the simplistic adoption of the abolitionist identity by anyone and everyone, arguing that political identity should not be based on what was fashionable, that a global revolutionary politics required more than identification with a particular US fad, and we should think beyond spontaneous slogans. Some people I argued with were certain that such slogans and the spontaneity of riots were leading to a new political sequence. Black’s novella gives them that sequence, but it is not one that exists in real time and space; it is a fictive utopia that requires the existence of aliens.
Tuesday Or September Or The End is one of the first fictional records of the pandemic. I’m mindful of how such a record plays out, and how it is experienced, because I was involved in a collective writing project that––from early 2020 to early 2021––attempted to chart and theorize the vicissitudes of the pandemic and its politics. When this project, On Necrocapitalism, went to print in mid-2021 it had already functioned as an online plague journal, documenting the politics of pandemic as they emerged. Rereading this project after it was edited into a published book was wild: there was so much I had forgotten and repressed that the written record had preserved. Black’s novella is similar to this project since it also charts out a journey through the repressed time of pandemic, forcing us to recall the sequence of pandemic politics.
Unlike On Necrocapitalism, though, Black’s novella recasts these events according to an abolitionist utopian fiction so as to alter the historical record. What if there was an alien element that caused the riots of 2020 to generate a different reality than what we were given in 2021––what if we could have transcended this vicious necrocapitalist reality? In this fiction, however, there is a truth: something different from business as usual, something alien to the immanent violence of global capitalism and its imaginary, would have been necessary to transform the opening provided by these anti-systemic rebellions. Or in Benjamin’s terms: to transform this “second of time” into the “strait gate through which the Messiah [i.e. the revolution] might enter.” Forms of revolutionary organization have largely become alien at the centres of global capitalism––though they were known in the past (i.e. the Black Panther Party, elements of the New Communist Movement, etc.) and they are known and practiced elsewhere today (i.e. The New Peoples Army, the Peoples Liberation Guerrilla Army, etc.)––and yet at the same time they are paradoxically dismissed as banal and uninteresting. Indeed, Black begins her novella by noting the fact that alien visitation is known but that “[h]umans had underdeveloped the abilities that would have made the moment of alien contact special.” (10) There is a “cinematic quality of everyday life” that has not only “spiritually murdered” cinema itself but, vice versa, is “like the slow death of some form of society.” (11) But it is this dismissed alien element, in the final passages of the novella, that permits the social transformation we did not get in the real world.
In the end Black’s novel functions as an aspirational reading of the pandemic. A way to think what was missing during the obliteration of plague, what needs to be recovered for any resurrection through riot. As an aspirational text it also seeks to preserve and amplify those utopian moments which were briefly recognized in 2020 (moments she has also preserved in the hope of recovery in her art installation) but that we are in danger of forgetting. And as we move into a “post-pandemic” reality that seeks to embrace obliteration by denying both the ongoing existence of the plague and those moments where the state of affairs was actually challenged. Not the reactionary “challenge” presented by the backwards rebellions of the storming of the Capitol or the anti-vaxxer trucker convoys that sought a return to the worst version of business as usual––the bad conscience of the state of affairs eating itself––but a challenge against the capitalist imaginary itself. A world where “[a]t last there was the possibility of a shared language.” (131)
Hannah Black is an artist and writer from the UK. She lives in New York. She has written for a number of publications including The New Inquiry, Artforum, and Bookforum. Her previous books include Dark Pool Party (2016) and Life (2017, with Juliana Huxtable). She is represented by the galleries Arcadia Missa in London and Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin. Tuesday Or September Or the End is published by Capricious.
J. Moufawad-Paul lives in Toronto and works as casualized contract faculty at York University where he received his PhD in philosophy. He is the author of Austerity Apparatus, Continuity and Rupture, and Demarcation and Demystification as well as other books.