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Touching Is a Verb: The Hands of the Pandemic and the Inescapable Questions

By Cristina Rivera Garza.
Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker.

image: Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum via Unsplash

Emergency Brake
The phrase is from Walter Benjamin: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.” And it comes up because everything in these days of pandemic seems to be carried out in that unprecedented time inaugurated by the pulling of the emergency brake: the de-celeration. It does not, of course, have anything to do with the romantic slowness some novelists and activists have written about, but an impasse without protection in which hypervigilance and anxiety predominate. The pandemic is not a haven. Much less a safe one. We have stopped short, certainly, and though it is clear that the hand that pulled the brake is a human hand—climate change and the alteration of earth’s ecosystems are the very form of the savage capitalocene—it is less clear whether that brake will be enough to transform an economic system that, in its effort to produce the greatest profit possible, has systematically devastated the Earth. The so-called normalcy, said a lot these days and with truth, is at the root of the problem that led to the pandemic. And the impossibility of returning to it, even if some wanted to, is frequently reiterated. As Angela Davis or Rita Segato vehemently argue, the possibility of replacing that old normalcy with a world of transversed solidarities in which the awareness of our mutual material and affective interdependence includes the Earth at its center now emerges.

A Mere Approximation
We are not going through a revolution but through a change that is so radical, so disseminated to every corner of the planet, that we can call it a structural change. We don’t know how long the transformation will last or what the consequences will be or how long they’ll be felt, but we experience these days of pandemic with the anxiety and curiosity of those that see phenomena for which the precise language does not yet exist. We live with the hypervigilance button turned on. We are the foreigner that, tossed without luggage into an unknown city, strains to create analogies to be able to visualize—understanding is much more complicated—what is happening before their eyes. This is like. It could well be about. The translation process, which includes the experience and the language in which this experience is enunciated, is arduous, often frankly impenetrable. In every effort you can see that language does not fit with the unprecedented contexts and phenomena that, whether obviously or subtly, obey rules that are not yet clear to us. Every effort is just an approximation.

Touching Is a Verb
As the virus is spread through proximity, especially through the respiratory system and touch, we have to be aware that we are bodies. It seems like a simple operation. It isn’t. The machine of the production of goods has accustomed us to living under the illusion that we are incorporeal. We can work endlessly. We can consume endlessly. If we were in a story by the Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández, we would be those characters that, even when dead, even when already turned into cadavers, continue swiping our entry card to get into work or pulling out our credit card at cash registers. Capitalism in the US style is like this: literally disembodied.

The illusion of not having a body, which pills and various medications contribute to, leads to the illusion of having no other connection to the world besides the electronic connection. From the spell of abstraction hangs the absence of solidarity with our surroundings and, at the end of it all, indolence. That which does not touch us—that which we do not know touches us—does not hurt us. But now that we are stopped, now that we know that our hands are lethal weapons and not just, as Kant wanted, what differentiates us from animals, we cannot not think about it. The re-materialization of our worlds in times of deceleration forces questions that are political at their very root: who has touched this object that I am touching? Which is another way of asking: where does it come from, who produces it, in what conditions of exploitation or sanitation is this that comes into my hands created, with what quantity of virus? It took the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing years and many pages to answer those questions in relation to the matsutake, the mushroom revered in Japan that grows in wooded zones that have survived processes of devastation. Indeed, there are a ton of hands in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins: those of the migrant workers, those of the businessmen, those of the forest rangers, those of the police, those of the immigration agents. Calloused hands and soft hands. Hands accustomed to caresses or hands that have never felt moisturizing lotion. Tracing the labor of hands in the processes of production and reproduction in the world we live in is an imminently political task. And, right now, it’s an inescapable task. Our lives depend, in fact, on asking those questions and paying full attention to the answers. Everything we have close by—and right now we know that we are always, that we always have been, close to so many hands—affects us because it concerns us. This could well open the door to the end of indolence.

The Re-materialization of the Domestic Space
Stripped of routines that gave the impression of being fixed, expelled from the hustle that made the factories and banks and universities run on time, condemned to the homebound sedentariness without the security of a presumed economic stability, COVID-19 has brought us face-to-face with deceleration. Here we go, from the beginning of the day, checking statistics that are increasingly alarming, heeding new security measures. Meanwhile, we inhabit a home that before, with alarming frequency, we only used to stop at for a few hours, almost always at night, sleeping somewhat restlessly. Suddenly, that space that we referred to as house, as our house, unfolds into unexplored corners and things out of place. It’s a strange entity, released from itself, to which we have to slowly get accustomed. Sweeping, mopping, washing dishes, making the beds, putting clothes in the washing machine, dusting—all those daily activities that, at least in this house, we’ve always taken care of ourselves—frequently fall on the shoulders of women and usually go unnoticed. The impossibility of leaving, that is, the impossibility of not seeing them, makes them monumental. In fact, it transforms them into the skeleton of the day, the only structure that endures when everything else has gone down an unknown course.

The time we previously consumed in moving from one place to another, even to eat, we now occupy by carefully selecting the goods with which to cook on a daily basis. We have to carefully wash each vegetable and fruit. We have to soak the beans the night ahead. We have to calculate how many days the rice will last. Between each task, we have to wash our hands again and again, for twenty seconds that, when carefully observed, constitute a good part of the day. In Houston, the quarantine obliges us to stay at home but it does not yet prohibit us from going to the grocery store to gather provisions or walk the dog (as long as you maintain a safe distance from other walkers). The restaurants, which have closed, still prepare food to go. But in these times, when we have to think about all the hands involved in the preparation of the food, it’s best to pass on that opportunity. We would like to do it, above all to support the neighborhood restaurants, which are having a difficult time, but we still cannot persuade ourselves. Cooking, furthermore, is not an activity that lends itself to speed. Things do not hurry up or slow down according to the whims of the chef. Everything takes its time. The vegetables, the grains, the fruits. And part of the re-materialization of the home consists in finding the rhythm of things, their own ways of being in time.

Those of us who are not detained outside in the prison or the asylum or the street, but inside, are faced with furniture, spoons, mirrors, that daily life had made invisible and that, now, recover their presence. Treating someone like a piece of furniture, recalled the theorist Sara Ahmed in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, means treating them as if they do not truly exist. It means they are ignored. In a disembodied environment, the natural place of furniture is that of discretion if not the most cunning invisibility. Quite the contrary, queer objects—that uncomfortable chair, the table that is conspicuous by its presence—do not fade into the background. Queer objects resist disappearing into the scenery. The pandemic, which hasn’t let us forget the material limit of our experience, has also forced our gaze, all of our senses, to recognize the objects we depend on for their use value (and not their exchange value). The pans, chipped, almost devoid of Teflon. The fly swatter. The sofa, which has been moved from the living room, where almost no one used it, to the kitchen bar, where it’s possible to lie down to read something while the water boils. The soles of shoes, with the traces of the outside that we leave at the entryway. The materiality of the home surrounds us, encloses us, some are even suffocated by it, but at the end of the day it’s here, physical and solid, against the squalls of information and fear, in a you and you against the abstraction of the State and capital, inciting them or compelling them to know they are a body of our body.

The Solitude is Real
In the United States it’s common to invite people to parties during set hours: from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, for example; from 6:00 to 9:00 pm when there’s a real desire to let loose. Street protests require a permit that not only includes a schedule but also specific routes. Students and employees eat salads from plastic containers in front of computers or telephones while they check their messages or watch videos. No one arrives at the office doors that line narrow hallways, always lit, without calling first. Or homes. Truman Capote said that he went to New York to be alone; but I wouldn’t be so provincial. Now that remote existence has become the daily mode of work, it’s impossible not to see these interactions we experience via strictly regulated absences. We are surrounded by a profound solitude. The rhythms of the empire’s production are only possible through isolated bodies whose desires or needs are satisfied immediately and automatically so as to not stop the flow of things. The pandemic has also re-materialized this primoradial absence, making clear that we are enclosed in every direction by empty spaces. Teachers during the pandemic have noticed that they’re more exhausted after one hour of class on Zoom than five hours of in-person classes. The reason is simple but sepulchral: it seems like we’re there, all together, talking and creating, seeing each other, but the body knows we aren’t there. That distance exhausts. That dissonance leaves us with our mouths open. The distance, which far precedes the pandemic, becomes intolerable in it. We now resent the separation of these days only because we cannot stop seeing it. We cannot play dumb to the body in so many different ways. Perhaps that’s why we’ve returned to the telephone call: we complained that the sound of the voice disconnected from facial gestures or bodily movements was incapable of generating a sense of closeness. But it’s now clear to us that the mechanism of the voice, when accompanied by the stipulated choreography of Skype or Zoom, is even poorer. Now that I talk to my parents on the phone every day—they’re old and in another city—their voice alone, their even and full voice, with their inflections and hesitations, with those tones that I recognize well, produce an intense intimacy, capable of unleashing the imagination of the other senses.

Everything Is Different Through a Window
The border of a home is its door, but the most interesting operations happen through the windows. That’s where what is perceived, but not reached, is. Desire is its other name. A window is a passage, often a secret passage. Discern is a verb that occurs through glass. Although many imagine Houston as a dry place because of its association with the Texan aridity, this place is, as Gabriela Wiener once rightly described it, the Amazon itself. The humidity and sultry air make it favorable for the proliferation of oaks and magnolia trees, vines and ferns, bougainvillea and bamboo. They were here before, of course, but they’re more noticeable now that the gardeners have stopped coming and the plants grow as they will. The variety of their greens explodes on median strips and gardens, empty lots and back patios. The shadows that the trees produce are cast, precisely, over the imperfections of the pavement. An enormous beetle just passed by, noisily, with its wings extended. The butterflies, that chase each other around, crash into the fence in an act of mere distraction. The reduction of the noises of the fast-paced city, of the cars above all, has allowed other sounds to approximate our ears as if they were new. The birds that, seen from afar, are varied and magnificent, also re-materialize as they pass by with their unprecedented uproar. The cat meows. The dog barks. The cooing of pigeons. The buzzing of insects. These two, three, four, five, six chickens that, smugly, walk down the street as if it were a giant corral. Is that the crowing of a rooster in the middle of the afternoon? What I mean is that never like in these days has that interconnection been so clear between animals and plants and the twists and turns of the city, which is only half-urban. Or whose urbanity is a complicated network of negotiations with nature that, at the slightest neglect, shows its face or returns. If the window is border, border-like events are also what take place in front of it.

Recovering Our Feet
There is a scene that portrays the hyper-consumer world of the United States in Wall-E, the animated science fiction film released in 2008. If you remember, in a post-apocalyptic context a large part of humanity lives in the Axiom, where people’s desires and needs are automatically and immediately satisfied. Those humans watch so much television and sit for so much time that they’ve lost the use of their legs. Thus, a specific behavior (being a couch potato) has reconfigured the human body, mutilating it in some way. Frankensteins of the capitalocene. In cities like Houston, dominated by a landscape of numerous six-lane and greater highways, it’s easy to live without walking. In fact, the most difficult thing in a city designed for the circulation of automated vehicles is to walk. After 5:00 in the afternoon, that is, after the work day, the center of Houston is and has been a desolate territory through which pass, and only sometimes, homeless people and the lost. It’s the landscape after the daily battle: a shell of vacant buildings where the amber spark of electricity never stops glowing.

We live in a traditionally Mexican neighborhood on one side of I-45 and, even though it’s only a thirty-minute walk to the university, it’s rare to see students or professors crossing the urban space. The sanitary measures of the pandemic, which allow people to go out but without close contact, have brought out the solitary tribes from their homes and has placed them on semi-empty streets where other solitary tribes sit on their porches or on the grass in their yards, which surely they are enjoying for the first time. The mild climate of this spring helps, of course, but there is something about that slow walking of solitary groups that makes everything different. Never before have people so often raised their hands from afar in greeting or goodbye, either way in recognition. Never before have parents and children stepped on the same sidewalk. Together. There are people with masks, but on bicycles. The dogs walk, attached by leashes, these streets over and over again. Perhaps it isn’t strange that the echo of Spanish resounds so clearly on these pandemic walks. What’s there, before us and under our feet, isn’t the road of standardized and swift production. It isn’t the road of the enclosed cars, protective of the laboring of their air conditioners. It is, if you can call it that, a domestic street. As the public sphere retreats, the rules of the interior physicality, one of which consists in not forgetting that we are bodies, go out to the street, injecting a pedestrian velocity into everything that happens. As if the re-materialization of the home had first poured into the garden and then to the sidewalk to then spill over into the streets. They are solitary, it’s true, but they look, paradoxically, fuller than ever. That’s where all of us who have recovered our feet go.

Potentiality
It’s true that the number of infections and deaths is increasing, as is the rate of unemployment. Enclosed in our domestic spaces, our bodies have stopped presenting themselves to the communion of the market except to acquire the most basic things: food, cleaning products, water. We already knew it, but we confirm it: those who produce the basic goods, those who keep us alive, are immigrants that, even considering yesterday’s essential workers stamp, still don’t have documents or, even worse, health insurance. In addition to the doctors and nurses, we depend on those who harvest lettuce and eggplants, the grocery store cashier, those that clean the bodies of the elderly, those that fix the washing machine, the mailman. We wouldn’t be here, digitally fulfilling our jobs, if there weren’t men and women out there, bent over vast vegetable fields, risking their lives to, paradoxically, keep living.

I work at a public university whose majority of Latino students has made it, officially, a “Hispanic-Serving Institution.” This means that many of our students are the first of their working families to attend college. Perhaps some of them are children or grandchildren of men and women who have dedicated their lives to picking beets or lettuce. This also means that many of them have one or two jobs to survive, pay rent and tuition, contribute to their households. The pandemic has hit them with a special furor. But it isn’t strange to me that, although they face major challenges—some have lost their jobs and some are threatened with eviction orders—they are still fighting, attending classes through a digital platform hurriedly and efficiently organized by the university. We aren’t reinventing the wheel, but a more flexible system, especially regarding the class schedule, to facilitate their participation. I don’t know if they will become writers, but they write in Spanish in this class; they write creatively, expressing in their texts critical views about our world and the status quo, both in the United States and Latin America, as well as about other possible futures. Sofía writes about a young gymnast who never gives up. Rony about a general that represses activists in Central America. Jessica about twins who have to get used to living in peace. Alan about an athlete who, once he has accepted that his team has lost a soccer game, begins to mentally prepare himself for the next season. Linda about a young woman who finally accepts herself. Jonathan about a woman who prepares for her return to Chile. There aren’t moral lessons in their stories or reiterations of an identity that has burst in a thousand ways, but the traces of a vast and critical experience that will illuminate our futurity. Reading them keeps me alert. Seeing them react to the texts keeps me alert. Because it isn’t only the writing in itself that wakes me up, hopeful, but the way they talk to one another: the care of their readings and the care of their opinions. This awareness of the state of vulnerability that we share when we pull out a text and offer it to others. If these young people in serious predicaments are capable of such responsibility and such care, if they are capable of giving so much of themselves during such difficult times, I believe they are capable of anything. And then I can sleep.

Toward a Visceral State
When the university campus where I work made the announcement that it was extending spring break so as to prepare for the transition to remote education and take other measures against the dissemination of the coronavirus, I knew this thing was serious and would arrive soon. At that moment I was walking with my mother, a healthy woman of seventy-six, through the streets of the neighborhood where we live in Houston. I had gone a little ahead of her to read the message on my cell phone and, when I finished, I turned back to look at her. She walked with those long strides her legs allow her. Her head was bent forward, paying attention to the imperfections in her path so as to avoid any kind of fall. I had gotten used to those daily walks in which, under the pretext of health, we talked about everything. I was going to miss her, without a doubt, but I told her immediately: You have to go back to Mexico (speaking to my mother, like all good border women, I use the formal usted). The decision was immediate and the reason simple: here on a tourist visa, my mother lacked the health insurance that would allow her to be admitted to a hospital if she got sick. Without that document, she would be rejected, as so many others are, at the doors of any health establishment. This is what it is to live in a country that lacks any public health system and that insists on protecting the large pharmaceuticals and not the wellbeing of the population. As she was employed by the Autonomous University of Mexico State for a good part of her life, she enjoys a meager pension, one that includes medical services that, until now, have been fundamental for her life as an elderly adult. The three surgeries she had to save her from a ruptured aneurism were done, for example, in the Neurology Hospital in Mexico City with an unbeatable quality of care and for which she didn’t have to pay a dollar out of pocket. But here, on this side of the border, my mother shared the eviscerated destiny of the thousands and thousands of people of this country that, in order to take care of themselves, frequently have to resort to home remedies and, when possible, medications that some relative or friend brings from Mexico. The number of times I’ve witnessed the informal exchange of B12 vitamins, antibiotics, or antihistamines, all medications that do not cure the illness but that offer relief to bodies that do not have the luxury to stop working for even a day. My mother agreed with me and we acted immediately. In a day we made the necessary arrangements for her to meet with her sisters on the border before leaving. Two days later, my mother boarded a plane that deposited her in the capital of a country where, in spite of everything, she is safer. The statistics have shown that COVID-19 not only attacks with particular viciousness elderly adults, but also precarious and minoritized populations, precisely those that cannot cover health insurance expenses and for whom an infection means a death sentence.

Like a giant x-ray, the deceleration the pandemic has brought makes clear, or even exaggerates, what was already here: an economic system guided by profit at the expense of everything else and a visceraless State—that is, a State for which bodies are not a matter of care but merely extraction. The worst that could happen to us, Arundhati Roy convincingly argued, is to return to the that savage normalcy. And I add: to that merciless world that, imprisoned by the evil spell of disembodiment, is incapable of recognizing the ties of reciprocity that unite us with others and with the earth. The inescapable awareness of a material closeness with others comes mixed with anxiety and unease, but also with potentiality. Another world is possible, that’s what life clearly tells us when it imposes over the pandemic. Will it be possible then, from all this experience with illness, to overthrow once and for all that visceraless normalcy and participate, at the same time, in the emergence of a State with heart and flesh, muscle and cartilage? In other words, how will we resolve to demand that the State comply with its responsibility to protect the health of the population while, simultaneously, we produce embodied relations, that is, modes of affect and connection that depart from the broad admission that we are bodies and that we need and can afford care? It is clear to me that, at least in the United States, this struggle begins and is intimately tied to the absence of a public health system that, by not existing, has sentenced to routine death a large number of workers, especially essential workers—and now the pandemic has also confirmed this status—that continue being considered illegal by this incompetent and genocidal government. In that sense, the fight for a public health system and the fight for migration reform in reality are the same fight; both are centered, first, on the basic admission that we are bodies and, consequently, on the also basic fact that so many bodies depend on each other in seriously altered ecological contexts. The macro measures—demanded by the public health that corresponds to the State—do not go against and, moreover, complement the miniscule, quotidian community measures, able perhaps to unlock the harmful alliance of the State and capitalist corporations. The pandemic, which has helped us clearly see the brutal disposition of our time, will not create visceral relations on its own—embodied, with others, in material connection with our communities—that could well lay the groundwork for another reality. We would do well to attend to the questions the re-materialization compels and that the re-materialization makes inescapable. The beginning of the end of indolence depends on those answers. And that is something.

This piece is part of a longer collection of essays by Cristina Rivera Garza and translated by Sarah Booker titled Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country that will be published with Feminist Press in October 2020.

 Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006.
Benjamin, Walter. “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History.’” Selected Writings, volume 4. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Others, Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 401-411.
Lowenhaupt Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cristina Rivera Garza is an award-winning author, translator, and critic. Her books, originally written in Spanish, have been translated into multiple languages, including The Iliac Crest (tr. Sarah Booker, Feminist Press, 2017), The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Aviva Kana and Suzanne Jill Levine, 2018), and Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (tr. Sarah Booker, Feminist Press, 2020). She is the recipient of the Roger Caillois Award for Latin American Literature (2013), the Anna Seghers-Preis (2005), and the only two-time winner of the International Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize (2001; 2009). She is currently a distinguished professor and founder of the PhD in Creative Writing in Spanish at the University of Houston.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Sarah Booker is a literary translator and doctoral candidate in Hispanic Literature at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she studies contemporary Latin American narrative and translation studies. She has translated texts by Cristina Rivera Garza and Mónica Ojeda, among others.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 14th, 2020.