Metaphysics for the Pandemic

On Time Travel Movies, Etel Adnan and Lynn Marie Kirby, and Renee Gladman

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835/1845), Eugène Delacroix

Recently a spate of shows and films about being caught in a time loop have appeared (by my count, five), all of them following, to some degree, a formula similar to that laid down by Groundhog Day.*

The formula goes like this: you are stuck in a time loop by yourself. The same day keeps repeating over and over. No one else knows, until finally someone else also gets stuck. Now you are not alone. The task is to figure out how to get out of the loop and back into the flow of chronological time. This will entail two things: researching quantum physics, and becoming a better person. These stories mirror something that is happening during the pandemic: a heightened awareness of the repetitiveness of our days and lives; the need to understand science better; and the understanding that transforming conditions requires compassionate insight and ethical action.

Our lives were always repetitive, but now we can’t un-know that fact, because they are so much more repetitive than they used to be. Even our unconscious knows: last night I dreamed I was wandering in an unfamiliar city. I went into a café and I noticed no one was wearing masks. I couldn’t make sense of it except to think: the virus hasn’t reached this place. I wandered trying to find my way back to the place I was supposed to be. I was both trapped in this city, and exiled from another one.

The number of people reaching out for mental health services has skyrocketed—therapists are in demand. People need places not only to work through the anxieties and sorrows of this frightening, grievous time, but also to free associate with someone, in a time when freely associating is dangerous. If therapy is a way to become conscious that we have an unconscious (among other things) then free associating is enigmatic, in contrast to what has become numbingly overdetermined, recurring predictably.

In stories about time loops, there is an enigma at the center, and the interpretation of that enigma is what will allow the protagonists to escape and rejoin history: difference, change, and that end point, that enigmatic threshold which gives living its shape, our death.

Around the time that these stories began popping up on my screen, I read Oracular Transmissions, an artist’s book by Etel Adnan and Lynn Marie Kirby. The book is unusual, a tactile pleasure to read. Its discussion, rendered in large and varying typography flows across thickly textured and pleasing-to-the-touch pages, and seems to echo across a valley, oracular in a vastness, repeating, but not helplessly, phrases and ideas, as a transcription of friendship centered on a decades long poetic dialogue. It weaves together several of their collaborations over the decades into one handsome codex. Oracular Transmissions embodies, in its formatting, the irregular and spontaneous rhythms of the best kind of conversation—its excited interruptions, keenness to hear and keenness to respond, listening and talking at the same time, improvised punctuations, elliptical, layered and looping patterns, the charmed weather of receptive interest and emergent properties—that is, good conversation.

The first section of the book explores the kinship between divination and art. The text overflows, as phrases overlap and repeat. Tidally, in talking, we say back what we’ve heard: we translate, affirm, clarify, and circle back. The form and style of Oracular Transmissions evokes the etymology of conversation: con/verse, to turn together with. The oracle itself, in contrast, prefigures the relation between an audience (auditor)—be they readers, healers, or theater-goers—who is all ears, and the presence of ambiguous poiesis that demands motivated interpreters—be it on the stage, on the page, or in the clinic. Here theater and medicine are not separate.

The oracle, Pythia, entranced over a vaporous gash in the earth, eschews yes or no answers. As Kirby and Adnan put it, “She spoke in enigma,” ––   

She is the link that brings the gods to us or the invisible to us… she is the beginning of Greek theater… and brings you the possibility of truth… every time the oracle would go to the cave and it would be slightly different even though it would be the same therefore it’s theater… the beginnings of democracy… the theater addresses the public… it opens up like a democracy the importance of the people as people.

The oracle is the beginning of theater, of democracy, which is to say, of the social provision for multiplicities, for difference, for practices of interpretation and translation. This is what makes democracy different from culture, but also, a cultural practice.

The ambiguous survives, historically, Adnan and Kirby write, because if something is proven unambiguous, “the ritual is over.”

That is, ritual survives precisely by not answering prayers. Having one’s prayer answered would be the end of prayer. Prayers are ends unto themselves: to pray is the point.

Prayer and divination are not so different. They are both methods of receptivity to gauge and engage whatever cannot be understood on one’s own, or on the face of it. A prayer divines. Divining prays. True prayer asks not just for what it wants, but what wanting is.

Renee Gladman’s The Activist revolves around friendship and enigmatic speech as well, in a tense dialectic with politics. Here it is as if the oracle had wandered into the agora and took over the oratory.

If we expect the oracle to be enigmatic, and we expect ambiguities in ceremonial and aesthetic contexts, when activists are trying to solve political problems; transform social and ecological conditions; stop harmful practices; and institute policies to address systemically harmful infrastructures, the enigmatic and the ambiguous may seem to be, on the face of it, unhelpful. And yet ambiguous language is not the only thing that produces enigmas. Facts themselves produce enigmas. Documents we take to be embodiments of facticity can’t be relied upon.

A crucial map (at once enigmatic and emblematic) which the activists require in The Activist (for an action they have planned) keeps mutating and changing. The unreliable, anamorphic map is linked, narratively, poetically, to what is felt to be impermissible to say among these friends, whose relationships are organized around shared political desires, and also evokes the historical relation between cartography and empire building, the complicity of the surveyor with state violence.

Comrades in The Activist have an argot of their own: “There is a language that distinguishes this group from the other activists in the city, a language they fall into when they are together, that they do not know on their own.”

One belongs to the language as one belongs to the group; to the group as to the language. The Activist explores the poignancy of this tension, as well: that uncertainties, discrepancies, and secrets are part of a group’s language as well, that solidarities and enigmas co-exist.

* Tales from the Loop, Palm Springs, Russian Doll, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, Time Loop, to name the ones I’ve noticed.

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