…Because just what is happening to us right now? In so many ways, it’s not possible to make sense of it because we don’t really know what it is. We can all put the situation into words: “a public health crisis on a global scale, demanding a global response” – but those words hardly capture any sense of magnitude, of potential, of meaning.
Whatever tools reasoning creatures need in order to make meaning, are, like toilet paper and N95 masks, simply not in stock.
For starters – as of week three of the 2020 quarantine, there is too much that experts don’t yet know about Coronavirus, and what they do know has to compete for attention with all manner of other “information” – that is, out-of-date news, spurious opinion, fears, folk remedies, propagandistic manipulation, political posturing. Every 12 hours we get some new bulletin that changes, or contradicts, everything we thought we knew yesterday: how, or if, we can work; how we can move and how far; who we can see and at what distance; whether it’s worth the risk to go to the grocery store for fresh fruit (yes); whether we should be dunking our lettuce in soapy water (no); whether we should wear masks (probably); whether we should burn all our clothes and wash the walls with vinegar (maybe, but wait – that advice was for plague and scarlet fever – never mind); how we know if we’ve had it (was that bad cold in January actually it?); how we know if we’re getting it; what to do if we’ve got it; whether we can get it again.
The one thing we’ve all gotten used to is knowing what the grammatical antecedent of “it” is.
Experts don’t know enough. And not only do the rest of us know just about nothing; more importantly, we don’t even know how to know – or how to know when we don’t know – because the individual human brain isn’t set up to process the ramifications of a global pandemic.
I mean, how do I grasp, really get, what today’s numbers mean?
This many cases here, that many cases 6000 kilometers away, 200,000 projected deaths, so many trillions lost in the economy…distances, stock valuations, risk probabilities, the costs of providing care to people, or bailouts to corporations….
The obsession with numbers is understandable: we want facts right now, we want concrete data. We want certainty. But is that what the numbers are doing, is “certainty” what those numbers mean? It seems like a lot of the numbers are really just a thin shell, a crust of quantification over a purulent mess of unwholesome qualification, of prejudicial assessment of worth: the worth of grocery store workers, or grandparents, or prisoners, versus the long-term performance of investment portfolios and polling numbers for upcoming elections. How prepared are any of us to perform these calculations of value? of power?
Something we know (or should know, or have no moral excuse not to know) is that reason, logic, and order are what will save us. And yet – while evidence-based protocols will save lives, mitigate harm – such measures don’t help me understand.
Sorry, bioethicists and economists – you don’t have much to tell me that helps right now. The scale of this, of it, is a matter of being able to grasp how my individual needs (stupid, trivial, all-consuming) compare with the needs of the whole teeming planet, and all the statistical modeling and thought-experiments we’ve studied in safe classrooms, bland offices, and rarefied libraries (all shut now, everywhere), are insufficient to capture the simultaneous enormity and particularity of what’s happening.
We might think we know.
We have no idea.
— I mean, really no idea, insofar as any idea you have right now is a product of how we thought last month, last week, yesterday. Neither you, nor I, have the ideas to process today, let alone what’s around the corner.
I put my faith in art to do the meaning-making work that mere reason just can not manage right now.
You can try to tell a story when you’re in it, because you want there to be a story, that is, something with a beginning, middle, and end – a shape – a meaning…You can try to tell that story, but you might not get any further than the realization that whatever-this-is-that-we’re-living-through-today refuses narrative, resists shape, denies meaning.
This is what we call a chaos narrative.
We don’t understand it well enough to write it yet —
(though we’ll try; we can’t help it).
In the midst of it, all we can do is live it.
That means – if there is meaning – enduring the chaos, and the inconvenience, upheaval, and suffering it brings.
And that means – if there is meaning – that living the chaos demands living – being alive to all that we have, allowing – reveling in, wallowing in – feeling, perception, connection.
This is where the art comes in.
Let reason and order emerge when they can, where they must. We need to think, of course – but as we’re learning, as one day blends into the next, trying to do the thinking that imposes order (over what? we know little and control less) – might not get us any farther than the distance from the bedroom to the kitchen and back again. To travel any farther distance than that, now, depends less on linear narrative, careful plotting, analysis, and purposeful, targeted inquiry, and more on (about all that most of us can muster) exploration, wandering, daydreaming, imagining what if, what else.
This is the thinking, the feeling, that will ignite poetry, art, music.
This is the thinking, the feeling, that will fuel manifestos, that will set movements alight.
Inhabiting the chaos narrative – that is, the story that defies storytelling – is uncomfortable at best. But the discomfort – the upheaval, the destruction – is also the enemy of complacency, of obedience, forcing us to move, react, create.
Complacency doesn’t teach us much.
But, whether we like it or not, we have much to learn from chaos.