What We Don't Know: The Failure of Presumed Understanding
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Sightlines

What We Don't Know: The Failure of Presumed Understanding

Chloë Bass What We Don't Know: The Failure of Presumed Understanding
Image: Walker Design Studio

A little over a year ago, reeling from the events of 2016 and against the already-failed promise of 2017, I wrote to the Walker Reader, “I want to question the title, ‘Reading List for the New America.’ I think calling it ‘the New America’ misses some major aspects of what’s going on—and has been going on for awhile: that this is really an America that has continued to exist since the nation’s founding. […] I want to remain clear on my own stance that what we need to do is prepare ourselves for ongoing revolution in a way that resists even the paradigms of ‘old’ and ‘new’ and accepts that our nation contains contradictions at all levels.”

Shortly after, I went on strike. After signing the #J20 Art Strike letter, I used a combination of social media, (limited, but meaningful) cultural capital, and optimism to encourage others to do the same: “Continuing the great disruption: artists and critics, even if you don’t know what the place of your work is in relation to contemporary politics, here’s a place to start. On January 20th, we’re on strike. Proud to be a signatory.” Despite those strong words, I’m not sure what I hoped the strike would bring. However, I know what it shouldn’t have been: the thing I actually did. Rather than no work, no school, no business, on January 20, 2017, I found myself in absolutely the wrong place: the restaurant of the Whitney Museum.

Everyone was drinking with lunch. I wasn’t drinking or eating—less than 24 hours back from California, I was jet-lagged and blurry with rage, baffled by being in a building thatprominently features Steve Mnuchin’s name on its front-door donor list. I was seated next to a friend who passed me, under the table like a secret note, a piece of writing by Black gay poet Brad Johnson: “On Subjugation,” a haunting, angry, square of text that pulls no punches. The last line lodged in my throat: “Love and freedom will happily keep their mouths shut, and their children will hand you their heads on a platter—no questions asked.”

I let myself down that day: the first hours of the so-called revolution. I allowed myself to be drawn into the same kinds of attractive traps (convenient community, easy attendance, comfortable thoughtfulness) that have always called to me. I don’t think I was the only one. The J20 event at the Whitney was not created out of ignorance or bad intention. Rather, it was a missed opportunity: a coming together of many powerful minds in the spirit of assumed mutual understanding that only creates cocooning, rather than outreach and real, destabilizing change. On January 20, 2017, I displaced myself: not even scrutinizing enough for self-knowledge, yet somehow hoping I’d find solace from connecting with others.

In the past year, I’ve had a few social fits. The most memorable, also the most public, took place the day James Comey was fired. It happened to coincide with the date—and, almost down to the minute, the start time—of a panel I’d planned for months to be on. The topic was “Precarious Collaboration and Equitable Conflict,” which sounds, in the abstract, like the most optimistic hope for democracy. Scrapping whatever other material I’d prepared, I read aloud the New York Times breaking-news article about the firing (some earlier, shorter version of this)—one of the more shocking break-up memos I’ve ever received via phone alert. Who knew, on January 20, 2017, how quickly the names we focused on (Mnuchin, Priebus, Spicer, Bannon) would fall out of dialogue: faded, fired, irrelevant, quit. How many new names to fear would emerge on the following Mondays; how soon we might forget those, too. Make no mistake: this is not about names. It is, however, about relationships. I classified the Comey-Trump breakdown as a failure of partnered intimacy between two men: we thought we agreed what government does, but it turns out we don’t.

A more private irritation was triggered during the particular personal and political stress of a few weeks ago, when an American friend based overseas asked me to tell him why people stateside were upset about the new tax plan. More than slightly over-stretched by other things, I sent him a quick video link from a liberal source, and a few hours later received his response: surely you must be trolling me! Well. I am the first person to admit that misinformation comes in many different forms. Yet I’m surprised by how the contemporary impulse is not to test the facts themselves, but rather to assume that the messenger is a taunting pundit with bad intentions. I wanted to write back: this is what you get for asking someone else to do your homework. But I didn’t. I thought about what I know and don’t know about my taxes this year, and how those taxes will impact or unravel what I think might be the necessary aspects of our nation.

We want things to be legible. It feels good to assume we all have the same idea of what revolution, or even resistance, is. It certainly feels better to do that than to experience the discomfort of admitting we have no idea what might happen or that the things we already do may not actually be helpful in acrisis. When we think we know each other, we’re bound for bad surprises: on Election Day 2016, we thought we knew, but it turned out we didn’t. If this is the America we’ve always been, the idea that we know each other enough to keep doing what we usually do and call it remedy seems at best stupid, and at worst insane. Practice is not just trying the same thing over and over and hoping it will be better next time. If anything, it’s clear that even our most well-intentioned usual patterns make things worse. Assuming we already know is not a place of learning. Optimistically, I want to leave room for misunderstanding as a place of discovery.

It’s 2018 now. Oprah might be our next president. Taco Bell is running ads suggesting that anyone with a dollar is the Illuminati. (The ultimate American dream: pay your way into a scary secret society. Success, like junk food, is just around the corner.) I can walk through my neighborhood on a warm winter evening and suddenly smell, in the wet leaves, the undertone of a tea someone brought my mother from Paris in the late 1990s. I’m still moved most by the spontaneous political conversations I hear in the backs of Brooklyn buses. If you’re asking me to be hopeful for the future, that’s complicated. A year ago, on either side of the country, two of my friends gave birth: one baby the last of the Obama years, and the other the first of the Trump. So far, both children are doing fine.

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