Glimmers Against the Horizon

For a little more than a year I lived in Palestine. This text is not about that time but rather a phenomenon I first encountered there. That would be, in an overarching sense, the experience of the normalization of the expectation of the abnormal event. In this context, an abnormal event refers to an incident or circumstance that is outside the range of normative human experience and often beyond the capacity of the human psyche to make sense of or healthily integrate. During my time in Palestine, abnormal events were occurrences such as the nighttime raids of villages or homes, killings, woundings, beatings, kidnappings, tortures, and home demolitions carried out by Israeli military forces or settlers. (This is limited to the West Bank and would be much more devastating if expanded to include Gaza. Also left out are scenarios such as protests, which one enters into knowing that Israel will utilize varying levels of violence.)

Israeli forces carried out these actions with a consistency accompanied by an intentional unpredictability. In practice, this meant holding in one’s awareness the knowledge that something bad was going to happen, and soon. There was no if. When, where, and how bad? were the ever-lingering questions. And, given the limited territory on which these events occurred, would it involve those one knows or perhaps even oneself? To daily hold the apprehension, dread, or anxiety of the knowledge of an impending but unknown calamitous event is psychologically and physically exhausting. Its presence festers in the background, tingeing even the most positive or enjoyable of activities with an ambiguous darkness, an ill-at-ease that can not be put aside. For at any moment, the phone may ring or text may arrive with the news that something has happened.[1]

The Diffusion of the Onslaught

Occupied Palestine is certainly not the only location where such an experience exists. It is lived by communities around the world whose identities are constructed as threatening, undesirable, or disposable by structures of power and those who wield the violence of those structures. In recent years, the terrain over which the normalization of the expectation of the abnormal event is experienced, that smoldering apprehension, appears to have drastically amplified and expanded. Contributing factors to this include the shift ever further rightward of governments in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia; the authoritarian recuperation of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa; the use of countries such as Yemen, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela as proxy battlefields; and the US drumbeat for war on Iran.

The specific social politics of this rightward shift vary depending on the site, but generally express themselves along some, if not all, of the following lines: nationalist, anti-immigrant/refugee, colonialist, patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, fascist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic. While none of these ideologies are neoteric, their more explicit and fulsome institutional embrace has further empowered state and parastate forces, independent formations, and individuals to actualize the violence latent in these politics, resulting in increased attacks against targeted communities and those who proactively resist.

Alongside the spread of far-right social politics, both the creeping impacts of human-created climate change and its concomitant acceleration of unnatural disasters have contributed to the spread of the normalization of the expectation of the abnormal event. Navigating these circumstances is further complicated by the related, on-going ravages and precarity of neoliberal capitalism, and the media and tech apparatuses that distract, obfuscate, pacify, or encourage the status quo.

The brutal and shocking loss and suffering inflicted by this array of factors seems to have permeated reality, casting a shroud over lived experience. Attack after attack, calamity after calamity, the sickening cruelty and hateful violence of the powerful and their ideological adherents create that sense of constant apprehension. The ruination of global warming provokes a consistent ill-at-ease. Awash in the bleakness of the present and its projected future, we are relentlessly buffeted by tragedy. And as we yet again try to find our footing, we are aware another wave will soon hit. To be sure, some rejoice in it, others deny it, and those with the (current) privilege to may ignore it. Yet dismissing the storm offers no shelter from it.

It is not uncommon for our current reality to be referred to as “the new normal.” Such a stance seems too much of a capitulation and also inaccurate. None of these circumstances are new and the abnormal can never become normal, hence usage of the normalization of the expectation of the abnormal event instead of the perhaps pithier normalization of the abnormal. Repeated exposure to the abnormal does not result in its successful psychological integration and reinterpretation as “normal.” Instead, it results in physical, emotional, and psychological disturbances as the psyche – both individual and communal – tries as best it can to defend itself against the threat posed by the abnormal. These disturbances can be seen in mammals – human and otherwise – repeatedly exposed to conditions such as captivity, abuse, and/or violence. Though on a much-diminished level, the aforementioned apprehension, anxiety, and ill-at-ease are also psychic responses to the abnormal, signal flares from the deepest and oldest parts of ourselves that something is wrong.

Existing empirical evidence appears to confirm this widespread sense of discomfort. A Gallup survey of 146 countries that tracked people’s “stress, anger, sadness, physical pain and worry” showed that those experiences reached new levels in 2017. As far as the US, Gallup’s most recent poll showed that more people “were stressed, angry and worried last year [2018] than they have been at most points during the past decade.” Our moods and emotions are reflecting the experience of living in the grim reality we are enveloped in. The horizon is somber and hope seems in short supply, perhaps even naïve.

Enter the Fireflies

Contemplating this panorama, in a reply to a previous post, a comrade brought my attention to the short book Survival of the Fireflies by French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman. It offers not so much a counterpoint to all of the malignancies listed above but rather a shifting of gaze through which it is possible to encounter hope and resistance. The book is largely a navigation contrasting coupled metaphors. On one side is the overpowering spotlight and the horizon, varyingly symbolizing fascism or the suffocating hegemony of capitalist modernity. And on the other is the firefly and the image, symbolizing the fleeting, fragile, often hidden expressions of desire, resistance, and survival.

Didi-Huberman introduces his proposal through the words and works of Italian director and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, who as a young man during World War II was impacted by an evening outing where he saw the bright searchlights of fascist Italy’s anti-aircraft defenses and elsewhere a field of bursting with fireflies, emitting their intermittent incandescences as they sought out mates. Immensely moved by the latter and, Didi-Huberman argues, dedicating his cinematic efforts to capturing such flashes of desire and authenticity on film, decades later Pasolini nonetheless proclaimed that the fireflies had disappeared, defeated by the searchlights.

But this was Pasolini’s political despair in 1975: like fireflies, the human creatures of our contemporary societies had been vanquished, annihilated, pinned down, or dried out under the artificial glare of spotlights, under the panoptical eyes of surveillance cameras, under the deadening agitation of television screens. In Pasolini’s eyes, ‘human beings no longer exist’ in societies of control – like those of which Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze sketched out the general functioning – and there is no more living community. There are no more signals to exchange, only signs to brandish. There is nothing left to desire. Thus nothing left to see, or to hope for. (28-29)

Forty-five years later a strong case can be made that such conditions persist or have in fact worsened. Yet Didi-Huberman counters that acceptors of this pessimism, of the victory of the totalitarian horizon, have simply lost the ability to see the fireflies. For with every attempt at destruction – be it physical or metaphysical – there is inevitably survival. And what survives when humans survive is our capacity for memory and imagination, for thought images, brief flashes like those of the firefly, that offer differentiation from the horizon and are the prima materia for deconstructing its hegemony. To quote once more, where the author juxtaposes Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben:

In this historical world that is our own – that is, far from any ultimate ending, from any Last Judgement – in our world where ‘this enemy has never ceased to be victorious’ and where the horizon seems hidden by the kingdom and its glory, the first political operator of protest, of crisis, of criticism or emancipation, must be called image, as that which is revealed as capable of breaking through the horizon of totalitarian constructions. (62-63, emphasis in original)

Images that can move from mind into other forms and moments, emerging from the intersection of past and future but that head in a direction distinct from both as a “diagonal force” – as he borrows from Hannah Arendt – that can be shared as glimmers and glimpses in the spaces between the spotlights by communities of fireflies. “Firefly-images” of hope and protest, desire and survival, the irrepressible sparks of resistance.

“So that the crack does not close up, so that the crack can deepen and expand, you will have in us Zapatistas a common struggle: one that transforms pain into rage, rage into rebellion, and rebellion into tomorrow.”

A Metaphoric Route Against Despair

That is where Didi-Huberman leaves us, with the firefly-image, a signaling of that which has not been subsumed by the horizon and continues to resist. It is a striking ode to hope and a rejection of defeat. Around the globe one can certainly see these flashes of resistance and the networks that have been built for them to communicate with one another, to expand on their images, and to create new ones. Indeed, the fireflies have not disappeared.

Holding such a perspective and, better yet, participating in it, may be a means to assuage the foreboding and apprehension we are carrying. However, lingering questions remain regarding the form and capacity of resistance. A key component of the firefly-image is its ability to create a crack in the monolith of the horizon, to expose its characteristics, contradictions, vulnerabilities, and in doing so open spaces – imagined and real – to subvert and counter its reign. Unfortunately, much of today’s well-intentioned political action, even those that label themselves as #TheResistance, do not contain this quality. Instead of crafting images that crack open the horizon, their images lead to a politics that reifies the horizon by appealing to it to save us from itself.

What expectation then for the fireflies and their images? Victory against the horizon, with its echoes of the anarchist call to storm heaven, certainly elicits an image as powerful as it is improbable. Such potentiality does not seem vested within the firefly. But in these times is it not what is called for? For as carbon dioxide levels reach their highest point in 800,000 years; as one million plants and animals are on the verge of human-induced extinction; as 12 years remain to avert the worst horrors of already catastrophic climate change (or that “civilization” will end by 2050), the horizon is now imbued with an unsurpassed lethality. Even the fireflies are at risk. Just last month, an emergency appeal was made to classify one species in Delaware as endangered. The normalization of the expectation of the abnormal event looms everpresent, evermore ferocious.

Neither elections nor “green” capitalism will stave off the far right or climate catastrophe.  What is necessary is an epistemological rupture as profound as that which ushered in this epoch of Cartesian dualism, Eurocentrism, scientism, industrial civilization, and ultimately, the Anthropocene. Following Didi-Huberman’s metaphor, it is the firefly-image that provides recourse to such a rupture. Firefly-images that varyingly contain memories of other knowings, subversions of the present, and imaginings of divergent futures. Images that serve as the means to break with the conscious and unconscious assumptions and structures of the horizon and to construct a more liberatory, collective, and humble awareness of the positionality and meaning of being human and to resist.

Yet such ruptures take time. Decades if not centuries of aggregated firefly-images. There is not one key to one door. And though such a rupture is underway, the future’s interminable approach does not bode well. It seems more probable that collapse will become a contextual quality of future firefly-images.

In the renowned film Grave of the Fireflies, little Setsuko famously asks, “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” Indeed, she and her brother, fireflies in their own right, were killed by the horizon of war and the cruelty and indifference of adults. But other fireflies survived. We live in a world riddled with the graveyards of fireflies, graves filling too rapidly with every abnormal event. Yet as we mourn and seethe with apprehension and anger at the horizon and its violence, may we continue to flash, to find one another with the beacons of our flickering lights, and communicate our survival, hope, and resistance.

[1] It should be noted that this was my experience and I am not attempting to write it onto anyone else, though I imagine it was not unique. Also to be acknowledged is that being a white, US citizen placed me at significantly less risk than those around me and permitted me the opportunity to leave. And lastly, any anxiety over an event of course is incomparable to the actual experiencing of it.

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