The Instead is a beautiful and expansive investigation of how to be human— of how to navigate deafening injustice and a need for joy despite. While it ostensibly documents the thinking and questioning of just two writers, Abendroth and Mellis bring in the work of others to form a much larger whole. The Instead is a book you will return to. —Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela
The Instead is a book that records a series of five email dialogues conducted during prearranged, bracketed time periods between two time zones, states, years, and people: Emily Abendroth & Miranda Mellis. The first dialogue unfolded over 24 hours between 11/18/14–11/19/14; the second over 48 hours between 12/29/14–12/30/14; the third over 72 hours between 4/11/15–4/13/15; the fourth over 96 hours between 6/27/15–6/30/15; and the fifth over 120 hours between 9/1/15–9/5/15. The dialogues are punctuated by pauses during which each person went to work, or off the grid, or to sleep or . . . to wake up/return to new thoughts, notes, and questions. The selection that follows is an excerpt:
Speaking of failure. Of a system that fails people. I think of the “F grade,” how people who have the least support for being in school are “flunked” most, while social protection allows for learning from inevitable failure. And so there’s that oppression: be perfect, be the best, because the slightest slip could be fatal. That set up absolutely precludes learning, because there is no learning without thousands of mistakes.
Being able to fail without consequences: that is surely a definition of privilege, to have the safety and safety net to be able to make mistakes and rebound, recover, and learn. I couldn’t agree with you more that this freedom to fail is a “singular privilege whose widespread distribution and extension seem worth fighting for, rather than trying to rid oneself of.”
In particular, if we can’t acknowledge the failure of a framework, a cognitive map we live inside of, to be adequate to what we’re asked to reckon with, we lose the opportunity to reflect and change, that is, we need to en- gage with our “imaginary” to use that term, in its received forms, and as potential.
And writing is such a primary tool for this reworking of our cognitive maps. What has historically motivated you, given you the desire to write, in particular, as opposed to, oh, make films, or paint, or? It’s a very specific need, in my case, for a sensation that life means something and is changeable. It isn’t that writing empirically confirms that life means something. It’s that during the time (the specific seconds, minutes, and hours) of writing, it feels as though life is not eluding me or if it is, I become aware of it and that elusiveness becomes a subject of observation, intervention, and description, no longer just a state.
Your current writing is on surveillance, a word that contains the French sur – over, and veillance; watch, from Latin vigilare: watchful. How is vigilantly watching over surveillance effecting your emotional, embodied relation to or orientation towards the omnipresence of surveillance? Here is a paradox: how knowing more can make you less paranoid, even when the more is even worse than you thought (which it almost always is). In that way, writing is a way of getting distance, by getting close.
One of the many reasons I find teaching writing to be meaningful is that I know for myself some knowledge can feel too sharp, too intense, too overwhelming to access. Writing can allow a shift in one’s relation to the polarities of overwhelm, overstimulation, and collapse on the one hand, and numbness, evasion, and opacity on the other. Where there is numbness, evasion, and opacity, writing can create connection, aliveness, the possibility of action. Where there is overstimulation, overwhelm, and collapse, writing can dry things out, create distance and perspective.
Simple description of experience, even the description of numbness can start to awaken the tissues. Close vivid description is good for enlivening awareness to see what has been opaque, and metaphor and allegory are good for sorting and “drying out” overly intense material.
I see a stand of trees right now, striped on their south sides by the light of a waning sun. The shifts in light mean the lower leaves are dark green while the upper ones are illuminated. The branches and needles of Douglas Fir trees appear to float out into the light, receptive to wind and animals, while the trunks root down and root up, in stillness. The light ripples around the branches bathing the scaled, bare, umber trunks of the trees. Behind me irregular patches of blue sky strewn between the trees.
As I write to you in reply, I’m circled on three sides by concrete walls extending some ten feet high and beveled at top, angled toward the sharply inclined earth embankment that stretches another twenty feet higher still, and is covered with the growth of ice plants and shriveled sage and cagey tendrils of poison oak. These are the walls of a former military battery, and more specifically its mortar-staging platform, perhaps once ominous in appearance, but now neglected, degrading, covered in colorful graffiti. The midday sun’s heat is tempered by strong breezes that make the donning of a jacket a comfortable choosing, not an overkill, particularly if you are someone who appreciates warmth (as I do). Just moments ago, I was startled – my whole body involuntarily jerking forward in surprise – as two mid-sized deer bolted across the otherwise serene scene and catapulted themselves into a nearby eucalyptus grove. Their actions seemed unwarranted, incongruous, until a panting black Labrador arrived, displaying its hysterical tongue-wagging antics, shortly thereafter. The largest and nearest aerosol tag to my left is rendered entirely in gradated blue and pink pastels. It spells: $KORCH!
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates also takes up this question on the limitations of intention, how motivations matter but are not magical. Coates’s comment comes in the midst of a description giving picture to how the streets and the schools in the Baltimore of his youth operated as “arms of the same beast,” one enjoying “the official power of the state while the other enjoy[ed] its implicit sanction.” And failure in either could put the body (the black body) in profound danger. “It does not matter,” writes Coates, “that the intentions of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, intend for you is secondary. Our world is physical.” (6)
There’s that poem that you and I have both worked with at Bard College by Anna Akhmatova – a piece that serves as an opening prose epigraph to her collection of poems, Requiem:
In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody “identified” me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there); “Can you describe this?” And I said: “Yes, I can.” And then some- thing like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face. (7)
I always used to try to ask my students to explain why the other woman smiles at that moment – or why the shadow of a smile in any case crosses her face. What, I would ask them, does it mean to be able to describe this situation (any situation) and why is that so powerful (joy-inducing even)? Their answers to those questions would always hover around what I think you and I are also circling here, pointedly but also tentatively. Namely, that the capacity to describe something makes it not beyond you, bringing it into the realm of comprehensibility and the realm of comprehensibility at least implies, even if it can’t always fulfill, the prospect of transformation. Because if I understand something – understand its dynamics and my own role in them – then I have an opportunity to attempt to make choices to change or to shift those dynamics, even if full control remains largely out- side my purview. And even when I cannot do that (cannot shift things some, that is), I can at a minimum open myself up to the reality of where I am and how I’ve landed there – and that clarity alone (however painful) can be liberating, if only from certain delusions that I may have been carrying that have variously narrowed or put blinders on my thinking and analysis and life actions.
I do believe in the power of that – and definitely not just for describing suffering or atrocity, but also pleasure and desire and frictions and resentments and admirations and historical/emotive/material tangles and cross-pollinations and more.
Purchase The Instead at SPD Books.
(6) Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau: 2015), 33.
(7) Akhmatova, Anna. The Complete Poems, tr. Judith Hemschemeyer (Zephyr Press: 2000). 160
Header image courtesy Dan Carlson and Unsplash.