A few months back, while on another headless adventure through my Facebook feed, I was pinched back awake by a wonderful meme that read something like: “remember, tradition is just peer pressure from dead people!”
Perhaps one of the reasons it arrested me back then, was because it foregrounds the sheer contingency of our ways of being, our lived world and the presuppositions that give it structure. All that unconscious knowledge as a kind of unwieldy inheritance that one more or less blindly repeats. It reappeared back into my mind more recently, in our new world with its new register.
The more unsettling underside to this quip, muffled out as it was by the laugh-out-loud moment, could be the knowledge of how hard it is to simply just ‘drop’ ways of being and to acquire new ones, it’s potentially traumatic, as we are finding out right now, in our singular and uneven ways.
The two sides of freedom and agency: on one hand the liberating notion of unshackling oneself from the desires of dead people. On the other hand, a more sobering take: how free are we really to abandon all the injunction, rules, prohibitions, we have inherited and that animated us? What can we lose and what’s worth keeping? Perhaps it’s akin to the dilemma of the lonely wife, that Sartre mentions in Being and Nothingness: confined to the home while her husband is out to work. Stuck as she is in the murky space between lonely confinement and the possibility of being faced with one’s desire, contemplating freedom, its possibilities, its limits.
Add to this, the disorienting contexts we inhabit, the living unreality of consumer society, the dizzying kaleidoscope of sameness, barely concealing its terrifying trajectory. And of course the excluded majority, who go without basic material needs. Is it strange or is it unsurprising that advertisements go on dreaming for us, unperturbed by the most pressing of human affairs? The questions around collective freedom are becoming ever harder to ignore. Where even, was the space available to even think about what one might really desire, and what might freedom mean outside a consumer context? There’s something both exhilarating and terrifying about this, boundaries, shared meanings and rules offer comfort, even ones that don’t coincide with any concept of human flourishing.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this living rupture is the omnipresent injunction towards ever increasing productivity and consumption becomes harder to sustain or at least easier to problematise in the context of a ‘lockdown’.
Likewise, the question of the Other and their always ambiguous proximity reemerges with great force. Sure, the random smile of a stranger or even being able to pass another in a supermarket without the possibility of contamination counted for a lot. But these everyday contingent encounters acquire meaning against the backdrop of collective care, a care that requires institutional structures of indifference, a gift that does not ask the recipient to qualify for it or to justify receiving it in any way.
The most profound love is a love that is indifferent to who receives it. A pandemic makes the need for such structures of indifferent care more pertinent than ever. Not a battle between the deserving and undeserving but on recognizing the fragile status of our bodies and the unconditional value of human life. Such institutions like the NHS, that have been slowly eaten from the inside out, were born of such ideals, and might well be considered the gifts of dead people, exerting their gentle peer pressure on the minds of the living.
One thing’s for sure: it’s impossible to ignore the gaps where reality used to reside.
Image: Hand / Wrist 2017 Oil and acrylic on canvas 35 x 45 cm.
Ciarán Murphy is an Irish artist who lives and works in the South East of the country. Recent solo exhibitions include 'there, there now', GRIMM, Amsterdam, (2018), 'Hundreds of Nature,' GRIMM, New York (2018). His paintings are included in the collections of Arts Council of Ireland, Dublin (IE) Defares Collection, Amsterdam (NL) Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Dublin (IE) Sanders Collection, Haarlem (NL)