I woke up early this morning and with mornings coming so late these days, I was awake before the birds and heard them all wake up in order. First, the ruru called a last few times after its long night awake, then one after another tui began to call, the warblers warbled, a kaka called out and the blackbirds began to sing. In the summer, the tui wake up long before I do, and today I thought about how much more sleep birds have in the winter than they do in the summer, and I wondered whether they dream more in the winter, even though you would think in the winter they would have less to dream about. I read somewhere once that scientists had tracked the dreams of animals by comparing the patterns of neurons firing in their sleep to their waking patterns, and concluded that rats dreamed of running in mazes, birds dreamed about bird songs, presumably confirming their hypotheses, although the maze-running must be a laboratory-specific dream and perhaps birds, too, have more to dream about after a day of flying around outside. The point of the experiment I think was to confirm that dreaming consolidates learning, one of the theories about dreaming and why we sleep. Perhaps I am not sleeping late because I have nothing I need to dream about, going out so little into the world at the moment. Perhaps the rats and birds in the laboratory also woke early, electrodes on their heads, not feeling like sleeping any later even if all they had to wake up to was another day of running mazes and learning notes. If the sleep of birds depends so much on the season though, dreaming cannot really be what is driving sleep patterns, and bears hibernating through the winter may not be processing particularly complicated knowledge they took in without processing through the long summer, or managing particularly troubled or repressed emotions. Perhaps dreaming really is just like reading with your eyes shut, a way of getting through a time in which it isn’t safe to move around in the world, a way of staying put. I have been half thinking of using the long sleeping hours of my hens to accustom them to being patted, by patting them on their perches when they are relaxed and half asleep, except they roost so high up that by the time I’d climbed up to where I could reach them they would probably be in a state of high alarm, as well as tired, and in any case as the weather worsens I don’t find myself much wanting to put my gumboots on over my pyjamas and make the trek down to the coop in the dark. Instead, I go to sleep early, and dream about minding children I realise are substitute children, dreaming yet another dream about having the wrong child in my arms, or, the other night, a blue speckled rooster who let me carry him around but whom I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to keep, and shouldn’t be carrying, but how could I know he’d be safe, if I let him go?
I have been thinking about emergencies, as the whole world enters a state of emergency, and about the distinction between a disaster and an emergency Jenny Offill gives in Weather – “a disaster is a sudden event that causes great damage or loss. An emergency is a situation in which normal operations cannot continue and immediate action is required so as to prevent a disaster” – feeling like we are living through both a disaster and an emergency, with the actions taken to prevent disaster being also the cause of disaster, and the emergency having arrived with a suddenness the disaster didn’t share, the disaster of both the epidemic and the economic collapse being slower in the unfolding than the emergency which has changed everything with astonishing speed. Jenny Offill’s definition is given in the context of a novel about climate change, a novel in which nothing quite happens, but everything that happens has a kind of refracted significance in relation to the disaster of climate change, a disaster that is happening so slowly that normal operations are continuing and no immediate action is being taken, despite the understanding that we are, in fact, in a state of emergency. Now in the grip of the COVID-19 epidemic, extraordinary measures are suddenly being taken to save lives, measures we desperately need to take, and that almost everyone is willing and ready to take, many of them the same measures we have needed to take to prevent the disaster of climate change. For some time what we have needed has no longer been more facts and projections but a leap of the imagination, but what kind of art installation or work of literature was it going to take to make any change in policy? Inspiring, disquieting works were being produced, and a growing call for change was being heard, and perhaps it was only a matter of time, perhaps we have been preparing for emergency action for years now, but perhaps nothing would have changed and perhaps even now, we will come out of this crisis into a world in which an urgency to get economies growing will see more roads built, new coal plants built, as they already are being built in China, a renewed exhortation to everyone to buy more consumer items. I hope we can respond to the scale of the suffering we are witnessing, across a world in which the virus has crossed every border, with the solidarity it will take to meet the challenge of climate change and with the experience everyone has shared of how dramatically it is possible to change how we live, to accept extraordinary restrictions, and to redistribute, borrow and conjure up previously unimaginable funds of money, all of which we will need and need to fight for with some urgency as we look ahead to the time when we can begin to open up businesses again, put on theatre and concerts, and see the family and friends we are missing, when I will make the apple pie I have promised my son and when I hope to watch television curled up with my daughter, and then I will make my way to Auckland to be with my parents who are having to go through so much alone.
It was in a Tiny Ruins song I heard the concept of “the commons” being invoked if not for the first time, maybe the first time in this kind of ordinary way, in a line in a song that anyone might sing, or listen to. The yearning in the song is for a utopia more whimsy than realism, with ballet dancers for traffic controllers, and all the billboards painted over with colours, and even so, the commons aren’t depicted as something we need to work together to build but just as something it would be nice if “no one felt like taking.” But however well our lives might be going, the commons were being taken, have been being taken from us, systematically, for centuries and with an exponentially new drive since the 1970s, even the internet, which looked, for a few years, as if it might be a space in which the commons might flourish, largely given over to advertising and algorithms. I think this is partly why I loved the Agnes Varda film Visages, Villages, or Faces, Places, so much – driving around taking photographs becomes a way of creating a commons, inventing public projects, collaborating with people and communities to come together around large-scale public art. And then this morning I read the word commons again in George Monbiot’s article for the Guardian about how communities are coming together in response to the COVID-19 threat. How surprising that we can come together in self-isolation! But some people are feeling less isolated, he writes, than they have for years, and he lists dozens of community actions linking people and providing services all around the world. At the same time as people are taking on a greater social responsibility in communities, governments are taking on a greater role offering the kind of safety net that hasn’t been seen for decades. It is very strange living through a time in which lives are changing so dramatically and not just in one country but everywhere, and so fast. It must have been a bit like this during the Second World War, which, come to think about it, there seem to have been a lot of films and television series about recently, as if perhaps we had already felt the loss of the commons, and were ready for a shift in power away from corporations and private wealth, towards both states and communities, though come to think of it that nostalgia came dressed up with a lot of uniforms and relied on a lot of mostly decent policing, not a lot of ballet dancing by the traffic controllers.
If the world has mostly got worse over the last thirty years, as perhaps anyone who was twenty thirty years ago has always thought, one thing that has got dramatically better is the opening up of possibilities for the expression of sexuality and gender. The recognition not only of transgender identity but genderqueer and nonbinary identities is liberating in a way that wasn’t easy to imagine in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up. We did have books in our house by Jan Morris, alongside books she wrote as James Morris, before she transitioned – her book on Oxford, written as James Morris, gave me an early Romantic feeling for Oxford that wasn't entirely undone by the years I lived there. I find the argument that transgender women don’t share the same experiences as cisgendered women no argument at all because who shares the same experiences as anyone? I can remember the same argument once being made about lesbian women who didn’t have the same romantic experiences as straight women. But who has the same romantic experiences as anyone? I don’t think anyone now would say loving a woman is less of a woman’s experience than loving a man, and having a childhood as a boy can’t be any less of a woman’s experience than having a childhood as a girl, given that some women have boyhoods, some have girlhoods. And the possibilities opening up for more complicated or more fluid gender identities can be welcomed without any contradiction or any loss of transgender identities. I’d like to be open to all the possible ways we can find to live our lives, not shutting down any possibilities but adding to a lovely array. I wouldn’t want to lose any of the possibilities, even problematic ones, because what gender concept isn’t problematic and what gender concept doesn’t have its possibilities for identity freedoms? The concept of the tomboy could mean all sorts of things for girls, in a way that the idea of the sissy never usefully did for boys when I was growing up. For a few years from around the age of 8 or 9 I liked to think of myself as a tomboy, which to me only gave me a word, and a kind of permission, for the way I liked going into the bush more than going to birthday parties and didn’t much like the kind of girl culture that was marketed to us, or perhaps was sold to us more by some of our peers than anyone in advertising. If I identified with literary tomboys like George and Jo, it was as a girl not as a boy being labelled a girl. For me, being a tomboy made me no less a girl, but opened up possibilities for what a girl could be. It had a kind of age limit to it, which for a transgender boy must have been an unbearably painful limitation, but if the concept could be kept in play alongside other liberating and available non-binary and transgender identities, perhaps it could still offer its own freedom without closing down any possibilities for others. One of my favourite novels, my favourite Virginia Woolf novel, is Orlando, and I love the Sally Potter film as well, the way Orlando swoops so joyously through the centuries and from one gender to another, with some irritating bureaucratic complications but nothing to trouble his, then her, sense of self. I was always also going to love essa may ranapiri’s collection ransack, with its series of letters to Orlando, and its ransacking of an impossibly inadequate language for all its ardour and despair, and I do love it, through and through. It is a reminder that Orlando’s freedom from body dysphoria and chemicals and hormone replacement therapy is not the experience of everyone (but what experience is?), a reminder that Orlando’s ease was always a fiction. But it is also a joyous and complicated and profound celebration of desire, intimacy, struggle, self-seeking and self-making, spaces between words, freedoms in quotation marks, “a sunrise with my gender / embossed in its peaking,” “a laugh that hit the high ceilings and tangled with the light”… Every time I read it (quite often) I find more to find, and every time I read it I want to see the world and our words held open to make space for everyone to be whoever it is possible they can be.
Often I read that being brave isn’t about being unafraid, that you can only be brave if you are afraid. I would like to believe this, and it is obviously more useful to believe you can act bravely without feeling you have to wait to feel unafraid, or would have had to have been a braver person in the first place. I can’t help thinking, though, that it isn’t exactly what we mean when we talk about someone being brave, and it isn’t what we’re going to be looking for when deciding who should lead us into battle. Maybe there were other battle leaders besides Boudicca who were far more frightened than she was, but it is her bravery I’d have been counting on in the fray. I can’t help noticing, too, that some people are kinder than others. I think even those of us who might not be as kind as others ought to try to be kind, and we can model our behaviour on the kindest people around us, but I don’t think it takes anything away from someone’s kindness if it is so natural to them to be kind that they would find it harder not to be kind. People can be more or less sociable, too, without anyone saying you are only sociable if you see people when you really don’t want to, without anyone saying it isn’t friendliness if you actually like hanging out with me. I don’t want to only see people who are making a particular effort to see me but would much rather not. Having said that, it is very nice of anyone who ever did make a particular effort to see me and I hope it turned out better than you expected.
I am having all my American literature students write blog posts, because although I like to write exams, I find out far more from the blog assignment about what my students are reading and thinking, more than I could ever have imagined from reading most of their exam answers. But, they tell me, no one has actually read a blog since 2010 – everyone now listens to podcasts, and scrolls through twitter and Instagram. We don’t have the attention for blogs, they said, though I would have thought a podcast took more attention than a blog (I am not very good at listening). I wonder whether it is really an audience shift, driven by a changing capacity for attention, or whether it is the writers (or presenters) who are directing the shift, by choosing to present their work on different platforms? It does feel as if our attention-capacity is changing, but what is changing it, if not our engagement with these different kinds of presentation? Is it really the change in available technology that is deciding how we communicate with each other? Does anyone write a diary anymore, for instance? For writers like Virginia Woolf – and later, Sarah Manguso – this was a daily necessity, a form of expression so compulsive that a day without writing in the diary felt for Woolf like “a tap left running,” with it being not the writing she imagined as a running tap but the day itself, as if writing somehow stemmed the flow of time. Could the diary really have become so important to so many writers just because paper was cheap, and ready-made exercise books were sold in stationery shops? And if writers began at some point, perhaps in the 1990s or 2000s, to stop writing diaries and start writing blogs, simply because of the availability of personal computers and the internet, how strange to think that a shift in technology could involve such a shift in audience, could really lead to the end of one kind of writing and its replacement with a completely different genre, with a completely different purpose, answering, surely, completely different needs, and maybe involving a different way even of imagining the self. Did the diary not so much answer a need for secret self-reflection, as create it? And then, if being able to publish blog-posts somehow replaced the need for secrecy with a need for an audience, what happened to the need for self-reflection and for memory-recording when the podcast took over from the blog as the genre audiences listen to, and Instagram took over as the platform people post on to? (And we haven’t even got our solar panels up and writing yet!) My own Instagramming still feels unfamiliar and strange to me, as I wonder who is going to look at these pictures, and why I am posting them out to people who aren’t here, and why I don’t send them to friends as part of an email correspondence, that would still be a conversation of sorts between two people. (But who would I email photos of squares to?) It isn’t just a shift in self-expression or even just a different form of communication, it creates a different and strange sort of relationship I think. But then, doesn’t also the novel, or the poem? There is hardly anything stranger than how well you can know a writer through a novel, or a collection of poems, and how diminished the relationship with them is in, for instance, the signing line at a book festival.
Already vast amounts of power is being generated by solar panels, and it is so much better if we are not clearing forest for solar panel grids, which there is no need to do if we all have our own solar panels on our rooftops, as more and more people are doing. It helps to have subsidies, and it helps to have the technology getting cheaper and cheaper, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t help more if solar panels were also to become more of a form of self-expression. After all many people pay quite a lot to keep up their data plans, so they can post images and messages on social media. How lovely it could be if we were able to light up our solar panels to print messages, in little alphabet-cells, and with colours we could adapt like octopuses to present our messages in the right emotional tone, and perhaps we could persuade our panels to present images too, and we would want to be able to panel-shot our messages like a screen-shot so that they could be seen not only by people flying overhead in aeroplanes (electric planes) or from the road, for those people living in houses with a luckily-pitched roof, but could be posted onto social media. I am imagining it will be easy to change them every day, from our phones. And I am imagining people in aeroplanes, or on the side of the roads, sharing good solar panel displays on social media, so that there could be a form of popular critical acclaim that we would all aspire to even as we also might want to just connect with our neighbours or express our feelings of sorrow or wonder or dismay.
I feel like almost everyone begins almost everything they say these days with the preface, “I feel like….” I feel like they are not in fact talking about their feelings but offering opinions or thoughts, or even sometimes making plans. What does it mean to present thoughts in terms of feelings? Perhaps it is a belated cultural recognition of the psychological truth, that we do experience thoughts emotionally, that we do need feelings in order to make decisions. It used to be fairly mainstream for scientists to claim that animals didn’t have feelings or consciousness but only followed pre-programmed instincts, and yet our own most powerful feelings are those we feel because of our own pre-programmed instincts – the love for our own children, the romantic love that so many songs and poems are about, the fears that give children nightmares, our fears for our children’s safety. Maybe our thoughts are only rationalisations of our feelings, just as our morals, I think I read somewhere, don’t determine what we do, though we might think that they do, but are worked out afterwards to be consistent with our actions. If we work for an oil company we are less likely to believe in climate change, not because this is why we work for the oil company in the first place but because we have to live with ourselves afterwards. So maybe it is a good idea to begin with an awareness of our feelings. We went to a lovely climate change salon the other night, ready to talk to people living locally about what we might get on and do, but the evening started with the suggestion we talk first about our feelings. I thought, feelings? I want to make a plan of action! By the end of the evening, we hadn’t even started to come up with a single plan of anything we might do. But we all felt very differently than we had when we turned up – we felt connected to each other, hopeful, ready to act. We are going to meet up again and make plans, and this time, when we make plans, we will know who we are making them with, we will know what concerns the plans are addressing, we will want to work with each other specifically, not just with a group of local people who happen to want to take action. So, I feel like it does matter to think about how we feel. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself entering a conversation using the phrase myself, for (I think) the first time. It felt very comfortable, perhaps because I was talking like everyone else (all much younger than I am), in the way it feels comfortable to be dressed similarly at, say, a climate change salon, but also, I think, because I wasn’t quite presenting an argument, or making a claim that could be expected to be backed up. I was just mentioning a feeling. But I wasn’t, really. I was making a claim. It is a bit like the way politicians – but also colleagues (who also say “I feel like” sometimes, even in formal meetings – quite nice really) will talk “around” a subject. I feel like this is a way of skirting the issue – we have conversations around a topic, rather than addressing particular points of view or points of contention. And yet, when I wanted to replace the word “around” with the word “about,” I realised they are in fact almost the exact same word, and perhaps in the same way the word “about” has come to mean “on the subject of,” so, too, does the word “around.” Or does it? Have we moved from “about” to “around” just because the word “around” does still allow us to skirt around an issue we ought to be confronting directly? I feel like we ought to acknowledge our feelings, but I also feel like we ought to then present thoughts, and claims, that can be challenged and which could be backed up with evidence, and we ought to act on our claims and the implications of them, and we ought to plant trees, and put some solar panels on our roofs. And I feel like the phrase “I feel like” ought to introduce a simile at least as often as a thought or an opinion or a plan, and perhaps what I really want to feel like is a leaf, or a hen, or a sink full of dishes. I feel like a pillow with no head on me, a carpet with dust swept under it, a cicada singing its one day’s quota of song, a screen with words inflicting themselves on me, one dark letter at a time.
No sooner have I liked the idea of Instagram making artists of us all than I read Nathan Jurgenson’s “The Social Photo,” in which he argues against reading images on social media in terms of art criticism, and sees the criticism of Instagram images, or “social photography” more generally, as banal and lacking in aesthetic interest, as missing the point: “To treat social photography in terms of its aesthetic quality is analogous to judging all written language on its poetic merits.” At once I completely capitulate. I don’t even want to judge all poetry in terms of its poetic merits (although, when judging a poetry competition, then I do). In fact social photography perhaps is less like all written language (in contrast to the subset of poetry) than it is like language in general (in contrast also to the subset of only written language). It is a new form of conversation, “a kind of visual speaking,” Jurgenson writes. I was reading about animal languages over the summer, and one of the questions most central to animal language studies is whether animal communication ever has a grammar, rather than just consisting of a series of coded sounds (or gestures, or other forms of symbol). It seems that some animals certainly can learn to communicate grammatically, and some animal languages do seem to have a form of grammar. But is there an Instagrammar? What would that mean? And what would it mean for our communication amongst ourselves to be increasingly conducted in a mode which doesn’t have a grammar?
More people write poetry than read it, used to be a kind of joke against poets. But poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield rather likes it that so many people write poetry, and that reading poetry so quickly turns into wanting to write poetry. This suggests that reading poetry is a particularly active form of reading, that reading poetry is very close to writing poetry, as the reader moves through the actions and travels a particular poem takes. (Brian Blanchfield also writes essays using a method involving never looking anything up and allowing misreadings and misrememberings their own creative flourishing, which is the method I too am using, so this account of his thinking may not be entirely accurate.) Writing poetry, he also observes, is the form of writing most like reading, a form of writing in which poets write at a distance from themselves, and when the poem works it works by surprising the poet as much as later readers. I have very recently started posting images on Instagram, with one collection of photos mostly of my hens and sometimes of books I am reading and reading nests I make to read them in, and one account just for posting pictures of squares. I felt a surge of excitement when I thought of taking pictures of squares, and it gives me the feeling of being a kind of artist when I find myself looking out for good squares, and finding the right angle in which the squares will come out most squarely. As an artist, I am like the poet who doesn’t read poetry. This isn’t quite true, I do look at art, more even than I take photos of squares, but I don’t think of my photos of squares as art, really, and I do not look at art in order to understand my own contribution in terms of a conceptual field I am entering, or to find approaches to the visual that might resonate with and inform my own. I just take pictures of squares. Even so, this practice orients me towards the world a little more like an artist than before, and makes me think what an extraordinary social shift it is, as more and more people post images on social media, towards a world in which everyone is an artist. This seems rather a lovely reorientation, a world in which everyone looks for the aesthetic value in the world they inhabit, and the lives they are living, and is interested in how it might be framed, and curated, in moments, details, juxtapositions.