Seeing Through You
Exhibition Four: A Time of Monsters
Curated by César García-Alvarez
When Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci was jailed in a Fascist prison in Italy in the early 1930’s he wrote constantly as he reflected on the radically changing world taking shape beyond the walls of his cell. A passage from his renowned Prison Notebooks now popularly circulates like this:
The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.
The monsters Gramsci wrote about weren’t the otherworldly creatures that inhabit our imaginaries. They were the ones that even today continue to occupy our lives—political unrest, economic collapse, war, and death amongst many others. Monsters, as ideas, predate the written word, and have roamed for centuries as forms and forces that threaten the order of things. Their presence unsettles and marks a forthcoming transformation; one that is usually painful and prolonged. Today we see and hear these monsters and their actions in the headlines and images that saturate our screens. They also evolve and birth others—immigration policies that lead to the separation of families and the caging of children, transphobia that leads to the killing of transgender women of color, an epidemic of police brutality that violently ends Black lives. Their badgering existence becomes an erratic background noise and somehow we learn to endure them and sometimes, like recent days have shown, to fight them.
In the last three months we’ve also come to intimately know other kinds of monsters—ones that are visible only to us, as individuals, and that have been awakened by a virus that has deranged the world. These monsters reside in us and in our homes. They’ve been there for a long time and we’ve either had no way of expelling them or chose to ignore them as we busied ourselves with the routines and demands that until recently structured how we lived. Now that we’ve been forced to be still, time has thickened, and we’ve had no other choice than to face them. These monsters manifest in the experience of disease by an already ailing body, as depression and addiction, as violent relationships and failing marriages, as shortcomings in our parenting, as inequality that not only leads us to have to share insufficient space with too many others but that also reminds us of our precariousness. They manifest in the anxieties that bloom from unrealized dreams, in the absence of a love we’ve felt unworthy of, in the necessary grief or rage we’ve denied ourselves from feeling, and in our occasional disdain for our own bodies when they’re freed from the cosmetic armatures we shield them with. These monsters are of the most dangerous kind not only because they unmake us, but also because they must be dealt with in deep solitude and in turn often compromise our responsibilities to others.
This project was conceived while sick with COVID-19 and imagined as a journal entry or visual story. As this virus became more public and the rampage of its monsters evident in all aspects of society, I thought often about the silence of the bodies feeling it and fighting the lesser-known monsters it too had awoken. Through images of works by artists with whom I’ve collaborated with for years and others whom I’ve recently come to know, this project grapples with that silence and those monsters. Alongside these images are excerpts from writings I penned while sick and then during recovery. These texts will appear within the exhibition page episodically. Together I hope they may function as informal narratives that are shaped by wounded bodies and not just about them; as testimonies that challenge the accounts of bodies that are told by medical charts, academic studies, and policy papers while simultaneously erasing them.
In narrative medicine, the stories of those who are ill are an integral part in determining care and guiding healing. As many of us today work to heal—from disease, trauma, or a collective ailment—here are some stories by Felipe Baeza, Gisela McDaniel, Mark McKnight, Star Montana, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Fay Ray, Eduardo Sarabia, Ken Taylor, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Liat Yossifor, and I to keep that work going.
I feel like I got jacked. In March I got COVID-19 and ever since then any time something doesn’t feel right in my body I panic and wonder if it’s the Rona still hanging around. My body has felt like the scene of a crime, like if someone broke in & took stuff from me & I’m still trying to figure out what was taken. It’s a horrible feeling. To think that the body that you thought was yours isn’t all yours anymore. It has been robbed of its fullness. When my neck hurts in the morning or I get winded during hikes I can’t stop wondering whether the Rona fucked me up for good. Doctors don’t seem to know and when they say something they change their tune the next day. “Recovery” is like getting played and we’re all out here trying to see if we’re gonna ever heal in the long run. The news were and are useless too. When I was really sick I kept looking for images of other bodies that were ill too, but I only found blurred bits, statistics, and horrific headlines. I kept thinking about that invisibility, about how lonely this illness was & about all the other things that only those infected or those vulnerable would FEEL.
The virus attacks bodies savagely but we heard about it more by what it did to economies, job reports, political systems. Those monsters that stopped the world are visible, but there were/are others lesser seen; the monsters that live in us & our homes, the ones that we’ll only see ourselves & have to expel on our own. Those are the scariest monsters. Those arrest ones we’re still trying to understand.
So in the thick of it all, I did the one thing I felt gave me grounding — I made a show of sorts. With friends I’ve known for a long time & more recent ones, we work through these monsters. We try to see them, fight them, expelling them. We try most of all to make sense of this world we now inhabit and the bodies we’ve been left with.
I don’t believe that illness is a form of onerous citizenship. Sontag got that part wrong. Citizenship is wedded to some type of acknowledged belonging that is accompanied with presence – you are here, you hold space, you are seen. We don’t see our fellow citizens in illness though. They are myths too often.
Our bodies are materially changed. My skin turned foggy and yellowish, the bags under my eyes sunk in deep into my face and my face itself started to thin out fast. I wanted to know if other bodies looked like mine. I wanted to know what bodies carrying this virus looked like.
In the news I only found bits of those bodies. Stand-ins. Outlines of translucent corporeal forms surrounding organs that were used to illustrate what this virus did. When photographs came through screens they were of blurred bodies in hospital beds or worse of just parts of those bodies – details meant to protect privacy. I still believe privacy is important and letting those bodies keep their agency even more so. I also know however that erasure is happening. These bodies have been converted into statistics, into headlines, into objects that are being acted upon, violently.
These mostly Brown & Black bodies we are losing need to be seen. The stories that are shared of them can perhaps, like Sontag wrote, make us understand. But photographs of them do something different she argued – they haunt us. We need to be haunted. We deserve to be haunted. Because we keep losing more people and little seems to be done about it—little done by all of us. Sontag said compassion is too unstable of an emotion and that it needs action so that it doesn’t wither. Maybe being haunted will make us feel again, and instigate us to do more and only that way will we earn the compassion we falsely think we know.
This virus isn’t confined in the bodies it inhabits. It has destroyed economies, exposed the failures of government, confirmed the shortcomings of healthcare systems, reinforced borders, and empowered racism. This virus has also done more subtle things. As we quarantined in our homes (for us privileged enough to have homes), we lost the distracting freedom that comes with being “out in the world.” The fast-paced rhythms of work demands and daily routines were quieted and in the silence of a world now stopped we’ve begun to face ourselves. We see images of celebrities on lockdown in large houses and ever since TV personalities started to shoot their programs at home we’ve gotten to see how they live. They ask for donations nightly and celebrate first responders and do giveaways but the monster we’re not dealing with is pretty visible through all this. While they quarantine in these spaces there are others in spaces that are far less than ideal. Some don’t have a space to quarantine at all while others have to share their spaces with many others because that’s what they can afford. There are migrant families with many children sharing small apartments across this country and other families in makeshift homes near the border. There are some who fear losing the space they have everyday. The stress of this eventually creeps in in varying ways. Sometimes there’s violence. Sometimes there’s depression that isn’t acknowledged and leads to more violence. Not everyone really gets to “safely” shelter in place.
Elaine Scarry wrote that when one experiences great pain, one has certitude. When one hears that someone else has great pain, one has doubt she said. Physical pain, which sometimes comes from illness and other times from the emotional burdens we bear, dissolves language. It’s difficult to express to others who haven’t embodied it; for them it will always be a story. Pain is lived in solitude. It’s not just the body aches or burning chest tightness experienced by those who have this illness. There’s also the pain of those who lose someone during this time and can’t be with them in their final moments or even grief properly with others. There’s the pain of those whose abusive relationships have them confined with someone who endangers them. There’s the pain felt by those who can’t provide for their own. All of that pain becomes physical at some point too and when that happens our anxieties become certitudes.
I’ve been thinking about pain obsessively and you can’t think about pain without thinking about the ones who feel it; without thinking about bodies. There is a book that for a long time and arguably even today circulates as a primer on pain and what it does not just to bodies but more broadly to language and thus communicative and political structures. Elaine Scarry’s “The Body in Pain” is powerful, but also sited in a space of intellectual privilege. Scarry’s definition of pain is Eurocentric and irresponsibly specific. Pain must be physical for purposes of her argument and as such it has to be understood as unsharable. That “unsharability” is what she says makes pain resistant to language, what lets it destroy language altogether in fact. That is why this pain is certain only for those who feel it she goes on to argue. It cannot be truly shared with others; it is placed internally on a body that suffers alone.
These arguments and her broader project are important, but they sound stale now. Understanding pain as a physical moment of suffering isolated in a person’s body fails to acknowledge that how we understand bodies differs across cultures – that a body can (and is) be familial, communal, ancestral, and political. It fails to acknowledge that pain is not only an internal event but is most always also contingent on our world and our experience of it. It fails to acknowledge the pain that is shared and experienced in fellowship with others—the pain that lingers from trauma, from inherited histories, from systemic violence, from relentless racist aggressions. That pain perhaps may be unsharable with those who haven’t had to experience it, but it is very much shared by those who have been subject to it. It may not come from an illness, but it is pain too. Real pain. Embodied pain. The same pain that Scarry says destroys language and that is perhaps why it has been action that we’re seeing today. Action because language is exhausted and ineffective. If language doesn’t function in the face of this pain, then perhaps the streets are the new site for discourse, and the bodies on the front line its powerful words.
When pain dismantles language, bodies too come undone. That’s when it begins. That’s when we start becoming strangers to ourselves. This is the most frightening part of transformation; of acknowledging that the way things were didn’t work and of accepting the reality that we’ll never go back to experiencing the world the same.
After things fall apart they inevitably have to be put back together. Deconstruction, after all, is not just destruction like Spivak says but also construction. How we get from one to the other is the hard part. The road between those two points reverberates with private disquietudes. That’s where we question all we are; where we start paying attention to all of our shortcomings. That process starts slowly but picks up the pace fast. At first it may just be noticing the changes of our bodies when we look in the mirror – critiquing every imperfection now that we can’t manicure them. Some are desperate for a haircut, others want their skin treatments, some are angry they can’t get a blowout. Those are the little things. The big ones come later. We begin to notice the spaces we are in and wishing that we should’ve made other decisions—maybe picked a different color of paint, hung things on the wall in a different way, chosen a different carpet. More distractions. When we try to get back to “normal”—to the work that defines us—we start questioning other things and then the pace picks up. Did we pick the right career choice? Do we like the people we work with? Do we like the work? How long have we been doing it? What do we have to show for it? Are we good at it? Good enough maybe?
The questions come faster and faster until they reach the things that matter. Why did we lose touch with that friend we don’t speak to anymore? Is my partner who I really want to be with? Am I just comfortable? Where has all my time gone? To who have I given it? Have those choices been truly mine? The flood of those thoughts only speeds up and we don’t know what to make of them. We say to ourselves that we’re being too hard and then we read some inspirational quote on Instagram and decide that this is just all self-loathing and that we have to stop. That’s one way looking at it. There’s another way too. This painful unmaking of ourselves can be looked at as a practice of love. Judith Butler wrote a small reflection about love for an anthology and what she said has never left me. She said that love was not a state or a feeling but an uneven exchange that was fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that were legible to those trying to see one another with their faulty visions. Grappling with the doubts we have is difficult and words escape us and sometimes we feel we completely fall apart and dissolve even. That needs to happen if we are to accept love for ourselves as Butler dreams it.
Doubts inevitably bring us truths. We start picking up the pieces. That’s construction. Spivak referred to this process as a type of critical intimacy because we can only deconstruct what we love—we do it from the inside, with intimacy, and so that critique allows us to re-build with unique purpose in a way. We start to accept and perhaps embrace all of what we are and this requires a different understanding of our bodies as well – it requires us to think of our bodies as both archive and repertoire like Diana Taylor wrote. If we took Foucault’s words literally, the body as an archive means knowing that it is an inscribed surface of events. We see time acting on it. We notice the graying hair, the loser skin, the scars of accidents or illnesses, the pains and aches of normal use. We know this is material, we can see these things, feel them, but there’s also the ephemeral dimension of our being. That’s the repertoire. Those acts that happened, that we embodied and that shaped us even if they didn’t leave an indexical trace. We know that repertoire when we slouch as we walk because we remember doing it as we sat to work. We know it when we walk faster than others because we have always been in a rush to what’s next (usually because our productivity and thus our survival depended on it). We also know it when we hear our accents as we speak—reminders that we’re from elsewhere or that we have lost touch with where we’re from.
Eventually that archive and that repertoire start to make sense together and while the exchanges, fraught with ghosts, never stop, we start embracing them and in doing so embracing a fuller sense of we are.
Just as things seemed to start opening up, police murdered a Black man in front of us and while the world screamed I couldn’t quiet the questions that distracted my rage – Where was everyone when border patrol agents shot Brown teens? Where was everyone when families were being separated and kids caged? When a man with a gun walked into a Walmart in El Paso to shoot people because they were Mexican? My blood boils because of what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Andres Guardado and countless others whose names we’ll never know. My blood boils because at times it seems impossible to do anything about it no matter how many marches there are. It also boils because I know that I’ve let too many things slip and that many of my Latinx brothers and sisters are complicit in validating a culture that normalizes this type of violence.
In social media my friends and colleagues share their opinions about how we should talk to our parents about systemic racism and what we can do to help Brown folks understand our fraught relationship with race. They put up strategies and book lists and I commend them for it but I don’t know how that moves the needle. How we get our elders who at times don’t speak English and work more than two jobs to sit to be lectured by their kids or grandkids in half-assed Spanish about what they need to be doing. Translating terms like systemic racism isn’t enough, it’s not just a direct translation.
It’s embarrassing to admit that the profound shame many of us feel is not new, but rather an acknowledgement that throughout our lives, in subtle ways, racism made itself present in us and in those around us and we did nothing.
It slid in and we didn’t even think twice when…..
We’d play rap and our mothers told us to shut down that loud “Black music”;
When we’d wear baggy pants because those were the vibes and our pops asked us why we wanted to dress like a Black man;
When our aunts sat around the table lamenting about our cousin who was too dark and that’s why she was never going to find a husband;
When our parents warned our sisters that they better think about dating a Black man because they’d kick her out;
Or When we lovingly nicknamed family members Negro, Prieto, or Morenita.
At some point it became very clear that this was not okay and we did nothing. We thought it was harmless. Who was going to pay attention to our parents or nosy aunts? This is just how they were, but they meant no harm right? Maybe we even tried to bring it up at times and they snapped and told us they were exhausted from work or to not talk back to them in front of people. White people are racists they said, we can’t be. Eventually we lost our patience.
It’s time we find it.
I don’t know how to be meaningfully productive yet, but I know the work that needs to happen is not going to happen only on social media and on screens. Most of the people in our community still get their news from problematic Telemundo or Univision. They’re not on Facebook or Instagram. The work we need to do is going to happen at the dinner table, at birthday parties, when the Tias get together to make the tamales at Christmas, at Church. It’s going to happen in Spanish.
It’s going to be hard work and it’s going to have no end, it needs to become inscribed in all we do and how we live. It’s going to hurt sometimes. We are going to piss a lot of people off, we are going to lose our relationship with some relatives and that’s okay. It may be good actually. What is no longer acceptable in any way is the complicity we’ve told ourselves is harmless.
Irit Rogoff talks about exhausted geographies. She says exhausted geographies are seen when there is a glitch of sorts between what a place is (or we think it is) and what is actually happening there. That’s how I feel about the world right now. It’s exhausted, it no longer works, it doesn’t feel recognizable sometimes and so conversations about normalcy or getting back to normal sound crazy. The world feels like an abstraction. It has somewhat of a shape, and pulses seem to be telling us where things are moving or where things should go, but it’s still so fluid. We spend so much time trying to run plays in our head about how the dust is going to settle so that we can “be ready” but it’s pointless. If there was ever a time when we needed to be flexible, it is now. I think of Tuan and Kemang’s landscapes often these days. I don’t have words for it but in the marks that make galaxies across a white plane or the contours of a folded golden blanket I find some solace because the world makes sense again somehow. It’s movements. It’s time thickened. It’s reminders that even if I can’t see the world to come, I know it’s taking shape, and we’ll be better for it.