The fire is not in the future, so don’t ask when it will be. The fire is not yet to come, for it has happened already.
The pandemic took hold, and the world became different. The sense that we lived in a time of crisis became undeniable, even for the privileged. Work, study, and home life became enmeshed. I taught from home. I saw pictures of mass graves in New York. I tracked COVID-19 numbers in Ireland and wondered what they meant. I watched Tiger King and then dressed up as Joe Exotic and made videos to amuse my friends. Consideration of the ethics of celebrating a misogynistic sociopath took a backseat in the quest for lockdown light relief, didn’t it? There was little to be learned about American culture from that show, but its popularity, sitting at no. 1 in Ireland for several weeks, raised a lot of questions about the consumption of American culture. I considered doing a PhD on Teju Cole, a living, breathing writer and photographer who was now making it his mission to respond to this crisis as fully as he could. I joined the IAAS.
Describe the problem properly.
Everything was silly, anyway. It felt frivolous at certain points in the spring to be finishing up an MA in literature and applying for PhD grants to let me read books and theory for another four years. All reading, it felt right then, should be factual and virus-related, or perhaps economic. All PhD funding should be given to vaccine researchers and IT people who could make our video calls smoother. I have two friends with PhDs; one now works in cancer research and the other lectures in 17th-century poetry. I know which one society regards as more useful.
There is no “news.” There is only the established material manifestation of aspects of an already established reality. There is nothing in the papers today that does not follow on from such-and-such-a person being in such a role, such-and-such people having such access to power.
As political chicanery, rank stupidity, corporate interests, and wilful ignorance continued to coagulate into what passes for American political discourse, Irish public disdain for the culture that gave rise to it grew and grew. On a particularly self-deceptive day, one might sit and proudly ponder what kind of positive light Ireland’s recent presidential history of female academics and a socialist poet casts on oneself. I plugged away at my dissertation on the implicit and explicit uses of theory in the work of Teju Cole and Maggie Nelson. Here, in front of me every day, were the works of two luminous intellects, Cole and Nelson, Black and queer academics respectively, and very much products of the USA. The consolations of having American public life and culture mediated through the eyes of these authors and the American greats that they proudly lean on (Butler, hooks, Sedgwick, Baldwin) kept me from sliding into the type of anti-Americanism that is all too appealing to a certain type of left-leaning Irish person. Within the dark sea of America there are lighthouses of compassion and radicality illuminating other ways.
Nietzsche wrote, “Philosophy means living voluntarily among ice and high mountains” (3). Cole writes, “Darkness is not empty. It is information at rest” (Blind Spot 322). He and Nelson are among the thinkers who show us how philosophy means living in the warm filth of humanity.
If we have limited energy to expend, best not to spend it on the theater of surprise.
In late May, George Floyd. I didn’t watch the video of his murder, the knowledge of it being enough to fuel my sense of nauseated outrage. Dodging clips of it, my mind turned back to Cole’s essay, “Death in the Browser Tab,” first published in 2015, wherein he talks of the experience of watching videos of the deaths of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Charly Leunden Keunang. He explains that there were also many other violent death videos circulating that he had chosen not to watch, but that
just from the grim catalogue of what I’d seen, I felt that death had come within too-easy reach, as easy as opening up a browser and pressing play. I recognised the political importance of the videos I had seen, but it had also felt like an intrusion when I watched them: intruding on the sorrow of those for whom those deaths were much more significant, but intruding, too, on my own personal but unarticulated sense of right and wrong. (Known and Strange Things 201-2)
Weeks later, over coffee and croissants, a colleague asked—with a mix of awe and disgust that I don’t think affect theorists yet have a word for—whether anyone had seen the latest video of a Black man being shot in the back by a police officer. It was not one of the victims already mentioned here, and my colleague hadn’t caught his name. I still don’t know who he meant. There’s only one way to google that, and I’d rather not. None of us had seen it. “You should watch it,” he said, “it’s definitely the worst one yet.”
There is a trinity of horrors just in that sentence alone: the social capital apparently gained by having seen the video first and getting to recommend it, the recognition of the genre of “Black man being killed by cop,” and the “yet” that implies an expectation of a worse video to come.
Yet, yet, yet. I didn’t go to the BLM solidarity march in Dublin. COVID-19 regulations prohibited all mass-gatherings, and the danger of being a super-spreader seemed to far outweigh any benefits of attending. I wish I had gone, now. I imagine a lot of people here feel the same. After all, what social change was ever achieved by only assembling when conditions were fully safe, convenient, and government-approved? They didn’t wait in the States, of course. It was emboldening and inspiring to see people of all colours crowd onto the streets night after night, fighting the powers that be, refusing to be cowed and believing in their own strength in numbers. Yet I didn’t truly see it as our problem here in Ireland. We have an unarmed police force and nothing more sinisterly systemic than a social tendency to ask people of colour where they’re really from. It took until the 30th of December 2020 and the shooting of George Nkencho to disabuse many of us of that notion. And didn’t we Irish experience racism just as badly when we arrived in the USA? Aren’t we colonial victims too? James Baldwin put that one to bed quite some time ago:
The Irish middle passage . . . was as foul as my own, and as dishonourable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking. The Irish, therefore and thereafter . . . had absolutely no choice but to make certain that I could not menace their safety or status and identity: and, if I came too close, they could, with the consent of the governed, kill me. (35)
But I came to this later. It was a piece by Kimberly Reyes in this very issue of the IJAS Online that helped me better draw the lines between the average Irish citizen and systemic Irish-American racism, the blind-eye approach to public racism on Irish streets, and our quiet, ignorant toleration of the inhumane Direct Provision system. I now properly understood the importance of the IAAS, far beyond academic support and opportunity. I understood even better after watching Reyes and other IAAS members take it in turns to each dissect an element of American politics in a pre-election roundtable in November. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is more than a modish word.
Don’t wonder how far they’ll go, you already know the answer: as far as possible. And so this is a time for a precise enmity.
The US election happened, achingly slowly. The relief of the result was tempered by the fact that 74 million people still turned out to vote for four more years of the same. It was hard not to wonder how many of those voters had spent much of the summer posting #BLM content and little black squares on Instagram, providing links to reading lists of books by Audre Lorde and Reni Eddo-Lodge, and claiming to be “listening and learning.” What did they learn that made them think voting straight R all the way down their ballots was the way to achieve change? How many Irish people’s apoplexy over George Floyd turned into equivocality and excuses for the Irish Gardaí and the shooting of George Nkencho? We all have a cousin in the Guards.
Performative activism is going to be a defining issue of our time.
Describe the problem properly. The fire is not in the future.
A popular phrase, seized upon by the right in recent years, is “virtue signalling.” This is intended as an insult—it implies that the speaker has said something that was supposed to bestow honour upon themselves by making clear their virtuous and admirable position on the matter at hand. It is difficult to understand what the problem with a stated commitment to social justice would be, or why this has become a slur with any potency at all. The social media user who loudly declares “I loathe all forms of racial discrimination and want to do everything I can to play no further part in it and apologise sincerely for any role I’ve had in perpetuating it” is, by definition, virtue-signalling. When anti-racist sentiment is stated sincerely, it is a good thing. The problem at hand is the wildly disingenuous tendency toward falsely signalling virtue in public and private discourse, and the belief that Black people should give you a pat on the back as you’re doing it. Speaking of the myth of “American White Progress” and the basic recognition of Black people as free humans, James Baldwin wrote:
. . . those people who have opted for being white congratulate themselves on their generous ability to return to the slaves that freedom which they never had any right to endanger, much less take away. For this dubious effort, and still more dubious achievement, they congratulate themselves and expect to be congratulated—: in the coin, furthermore, of black gratitude, gratitude not only that my burden is—(slowly, but it takes time) being made lighter but my joy that white people are improving. (35)
Years later, invoking Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Teju Cole wrote, “Describe the problem properly. The fire is not in the future” (Cole and Sheikh 95). These sentences book-ended a short essay (the full text of which is italicised throughout this piece) to accompany images of refugees and the forcefully displaced in Cole’s collaboration with photographer Faizal Sheikh, Human Archipelago. Published in 2018, it tackles a different, longer-raging fire. The events of 2020 and those of early-January 2021 have left us in no doubt that the fire is here and now. How much more energy can we expend on this “theater of surprise”? These events are not surprising. In Ireland, in the USA, and wherever we might be, we need to set about describing our problem properly.
Baldwin, James. “The Price of the Ticket.” Dark Days, Penguin, 2018, pp. 19-40.
Cole, Teju. Blind Spot. Faber & Faber, 2017.
—. Known and Strange Things. Faber & Faber, 2016.
Cole, Teju, and Fazal Sheikh. Human Archipelago. Steidl, 2018.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Penguin, 1992.
Reyes, Kimberly. “But It Is Your Problem.” IAAS 50th Anniversary special issue on Irish American Studies, IJAS Online, vol. 9, 2020, ijas.iaas.ie/issue-9-kimberly-reyes. Last accessed 4 Jan. 2021.