Alli Warren

“You can’t evade a binary by turning”*

I do all this breathing, it’s involuntary, it accumulates, years go by, suddenly I’m in-my-thirties, This Is Your Life, there’s no out but death but I’m no good at mourning and I’m no good at death. I do all this breathing, it’s involuntary, it accumulates, I’m exceptionally privileged, I’m tremendously lucky, I’m alive and I’ve been born a white USAmerican and people are starving and suffering the whole world over, across the globe and across the street. I walk down the street in the golden California sunshine it hurts.

This constant groundwork, this incessant pulse, screams absurdity: I get to lead my life in this relative dream while so many other lives are brimming with hardship and pain. When this pulsing groundwater is darkest it’s because I’m breathing living drinking eating wearing clothes going to work driving a car paying taxes renting an apartment having sex walking down the street taking a shower going to the beach watching a movie… that so many are suffering. In the darkest parts it is my mere existence that causes the suffering of so many. And it does, I do, that’s not such a far-fetched proposition if one reads just a bit of history and skims the morning news. When the ache lifts a bit, this condition retreats from the frontal lobe to the back of the closet.

If the historical and ongoing global conditions of structural inequality are the basic groundwork for any subject in late capitalism, if this condition of hopelessness and inability to topple what needs toppling is so constant, so ever-present, so basic, can any commentary on the condition itself say much more than: there is so much pain and I do not know how best to live. Or, In Considering Absurdity I Enter The Loop. It’s like being a singular individual trying to wrap one’s head around the prospect of total ecological collapse while dragging one’s body up out of bed to go to work to pay rent while the world still half-heartedly functions like it’s got a chance on the blue & green earth meanwhile the ever-sharpening fangs of capital sink deeper into flesh meat.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that philosophy cannot and should not give faith, and I wonder, should politics? Faith acts against all odds, against or above or without regard for reason, as if the future is knowable, as if desire alone is enough to give truth value. Does hope for a post-capitalist future perform the same fallacy as religious faith in life-after-death? The good books say a world turned upside is bound to come. Is this propulsive belief, which colors my everyday thinking and feeling, a concession to the absurdity of conviction in the face of a cruel world? But the “here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” (José Esteban Muñoz)

I’m propelling myself to work on the refined anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms. I’m listening to morning public doom radio reporting acidified oceans and disappearing bear habitat. I park, enter the building, walk up three flights of stairs, get a coffee, wedge the key in the office door, and lower myself in front of the work terminal. I turn on the machine. I open two browser windows, one for work (which compels and alienates me), and one for personal affairs (which makes bearable the deadening workweek). The windows occupy two halves of the large Apple machine constructed in China by slaves. I read the news, I follow the links. I see that my friends are interviewing each other about self-care, but I don’t have time to actually read the piece, so instead I print the image of the exercise routine for chair-bound office workers. I pin this to the bulletin board. The machine informs me that my boss has sent me a message.

I see my boss more than I see my loved ones, but I’m lucky, I work only 40 hours a week. On the two allotted roaming days, I mostly reproduce my laboring body. When I’m not walking around in golden California sunshine, I’m preparing for work, being at work, recovering from being at work. On the way to work today, while walking to my car, which runs on blood oil and dead Middle Eastern children, I cross paths with a man exiting a building, he says how are you this morning. I’m okay, I say, it’s Monday. I think weekends should be three days, he says, three days off, four days on. I agree, I say. Doesn’t everyone feel this way? Even my relatively conservative coworkers and I share this limited critique of capitalism together. This is the closest we come to talking about the conditions of our labor. Happy Friday, they say! Or, with a frown, Another Monday. Only a fool would want to work more not less. The world is run by fools. Sometimes I feel like I’m still 16 years old arguing with my soon-to-be financially successful older brother about what “working hard” means. My voice gets weak and I start to cry. I’m trying to tell him about structural inequality (though I don’t call it that) and he is trying to tell me about life in the big city. It is not a sign of laziness to cultivate a fruit that does not require much labor to grow.

We rent a cabin with friends on Tomales Bay. We bring some special chocolates. On psilocybin, one hour feels like four. I feel like I’m still 16 years old contemplating “time” in philosophy class. I can’t eat, I don’t want to eat, feel like I’ll never eat again. I watch the water gleaming. Back of the redwood, through the eucalyptus, I hear the whooshing of a hawk’s wings in slow motion, I see the red sailboat lit up like an animation. C says M’s face is melting.

Brandon and I go to San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to see the Bay Area Now show. We wander, ponder, touch what we are permitted to touch, and exit the art world to find another installation outside: it’s the annual Pistahan Festival celebrating Filipino culture. The festival is held on the same ground where many Filipino residents once lived, that is, before they were displaced by the construction of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This story is not a new one. The Bay Street Mall in Emeryville, where we go couch shopping at IKEA, is built on Ohlone burial ground. Squares are constructed to evoke “public space” but mostly what’s visible is displacement, emptiness, white-washed history. Is every public space also a memorial? There are so many bones. As of January 2015, average apartment rent within 10 miles of San Francisco is $3469.

The governor of the former slave state declares a preemptive state of emergency. The coroner ruled homicide, yet no one is indicted. Is there such a thing as a perpetrator-less murder, a murder without a murderer? Responsibility is vacant, vacated. Suicide and homicide are intimately bound up together where racism, poverty, and systematic destruction of communities is ongoing. Wilderness, cleared of indigenous inhabitants by murder and deceit, is rebranded as frontier. “Stó:lō” literally means “People of the River” but still the rat-faced company lawyer wants to know “do you have an estimate in terms of what proportion of Kwantlen members’ diet comes from sources in the Fraser River?”

On my way home from work, sitting in traffic, a metaphor comes to mind: if paying monthly rent is throwing money into a pit, then working a job I don’t care for is throwing my exuberance, my living breathing body, into a pit. I see my boss more than I see my loved ones. On lunch break I go outside and look to the eastern sky I see the moon maybe a bit more than half full just hanging there in the daytime without a care in the world. Is this what the luxurious rich feel like? Her instagram goes: Palm Springs, Manhattan, Turks & Caicos, yachts, yoga, perfected foods, and beautiful blooms.

We arrive at the lake, it’s an 80-degree Saturday in the Sierras, we are the only ones here, and we have forgotten our swimsuits. If we don’t undress and swim nude, is it because we are prude, or because the world has gotten away from us? Are we doomed? None of my toes is so much longer than the others such that I could dip just one in. The internal extension of the market. “This is the continuous action of the given world on your body.” (Lisa Robertson)

The top-rated comment on the video of the bicyclist confronting the driver blocking the bike lane is: “What a dumb fucking cunt.” The con-man character in the movie didn’t outwardly hate women, and this was a kind of a miracle. The fine for indecent exposure was doubled if the perpetrator and the victim were of the same sex. A discourse of identity (rather than acts) dominates. And what is the absurd but the crystalline mark of knowing laughter where once there was fear, a yoke wide enough to allow the neck to rise from the bed an hour early to pursue some bookish calm in the quiet chill of the exorbitantly rented den. The absurd is “simultaneously awareness and rejection of death” (Camus). He suggests I fake it til I make it.

To distinguishbetween idleness and otium as if it were entirely obvious that one should embrace the opportunity to earn more rather than work less. “They want us to take such great care of the tomatoes, but they don’t take care of us,” said Japolina Jaimez, a field hand at Rene Produce, a grower of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. The “intent is to create the impression of real movement while actual movement is too limited to be significant” (Robert L. Allen). The demand is satiable but the society which must be destroyed is insatiable. The American Revolution “cast off the chains of colonial rule but shackled one-fifth of the population of the newly independent states in the chains of slavery” (Ahmed Shawki). The “criminalized poor of color are characterized as either products of violent environments that should be heavily policed or as irrational people incapable of moral agency who need to be under police surveillance.” (Lisa Marie Cacho). “The gravity (as opposed to the contingency) of violence that accrues to the blackened position” (Frank Wilderson).

My family sends me photos of nachos on a stick and the best burritos in the country. He asks if I’ve ever felt parental pressure to be something other than an office worker, perhaps a doctor, a lawyer? No, none of those in my family. It is through the poetry world that I’ve met the wealthiest people I’ve known. Maybe the void doesn’t look the same from all positions on the intersectionality matrix? If you are a white American, and your family has accumulated wealth over generations, there is a pile of dead bodies in your bank. I am a white American, and there is a mountain of dead bodies on my hands. I can’t bring myself to get a pedicure or a shoeshine because the power dynamics feel too fraught, but everyday I take another step into American life don’t I.

When the blood finally comes rushing it’s a relief, the ever-present absurd rearing a visible head, I sit back and let senselessness take the reins, finding comfort in undeniable materiality (rain) after a period of indeterminate signs (clouds, wind).Maybe the way to happiness or the good life is being amused with the inevitability of pointlessness. Maybe it’s a spiritual practice to construct meaning in the face of meaninglessness. Maybe choosing to live is a day-to-day revolt against that yawning irreconcilable gap. Living is not survival – survival is evolutionary, adaptive – living is something else, something defiant. Capitalism encourages us to find meaning in what reproduces this system – alienated labor, consumption, nationalism, individualism, the heteronormative family. I find meaning despite allthat, against, and underneath, I find meaning in living politics and building intimacy.

I accidentally drop my phone in my cup of tea, I give my phone a rice bath. China, where my phone was produced by slaves, is the world’s largest producer of rice. Over 36 hours, the rice sucks dry the insides of my tea-wet phone so that it works again and I can communicate with friends and connect to the endless news cycle of death and destruction. I’m grateful to the rice and ashamed of the corporate practices I support by buying this phone and relying on it. I cook and eat the rice as a kind of penance, but also because I’m hungry and short on money this month, and rice is cheap. Trisha tells me that after reading Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret as a kid, she was terrified not knowing whether to chew or swallow the church wafer. Is swallowing silent wholesale acceptance, while chewing requires working contemplation of component parts? Does examination of the parts make anyone a better person?

I know it’s April because the sun in my apartment is shining on the same section of couch at the same time of day as it did a few years ago when I sat on the hardwood floor and desperately tried to put my face on the surface of the sun. The fictive future / I guide my hand through / the absurd and sticky / habit whose force / an inflatable estate / along the lobate plains. I drop the little pink pill in the darkness. Searching for it in the radius of light the small lamp provides, knowing that’s not anywhere near where the pill fell, it went flying somewhere far off, but that little radius is the only place with light enough to see.

* The title is a quote from Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present (Coach House Books, 2015).

Editors’ Notes

Alli Warren

Alli Warren Alli Warren's most recently published works include Don't Go Home With Your Heart On (Faux Press, 2014) and Poetry Center Book Award winner Here Come the Warm Jets (City Lights, 2013). Her writing has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Poetry, Brooklyn Rail, Jacket, and Rethinking Marxism. She co-curated The (New) Reading Series at 21 Grand, co-edited the Poetic Labor Project, and edited Dreamboat magazine.