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e-flux conversations

Letters against Separation – Mahan Moalemi in Berlin

April 3, 2020

Technically, I still live in Tehran, even if less and less so. I’ve been outside Iran since before the breakout. To be more specific, it was after the internet shutdown and nationwide slaughter of November and right before the shootdown of that passenger aircraft that I left, thanks to a writing residency in Germany. I’ve been here since, and I remember when, at the office of a prestigious art institution, a friend cut into the expressed worries of others in the room and said, “But it might still be the case that, for example, only certain ethnicities are susceptible to contracting the Virus…” We haven’t met in a while now; we’ve both been in quarantine for most of the time since then. Currently, in Berlin, I’m among those many whose Schengen visas were extended ex officio for three months in one fell swoop in late March. I cannot imagine many other occasions where the German authorities would have considered such mass exceptions in immigration matters, not least in recent times. But it’s already too obvious that that was the past – or is that really so?

I don’t actually keep a diary. In fact, I don’t even write much these days. It’s been quite a while that I don’t write unless I have to, i.e., unless there’s a deadline (not that I always keep them) and recently there haven’t been too many of them, for better or for worse. Yet I’m often hustling, compelled to actively look for opportunities, and they often come with a deadline, and hopefully a pay as well. Is this an opportunity? (I can see the meme emerging) Well, it seems so. But I wish it was paid in a currency other than exposure. Alas, “e-flux is legally prohibited, due to US government sanctions, from sending money to citizens of Iran,” as it was put by the editors in an email. Well, I assume that at least the others who write the Letters against Separation are getting paid. We, in Iran, are used to asking, again and again, “Who benefits from the sanctions?” This is just another example of the exponential effects of preexisting disparities under “critical circumstances,” even if induced by the indiscriminate coronavirus. But I will leave a larger discussion around labor conditions in the art world in goddamn times like these for another post.

All this notwithstanding, I’ve been reading a lot, trying to cope with the never ending (and ever increasing) stream of content on my Facebook feed (toward which I’ve grown, perhaps like others, an organic filtering approach that activates upon a fast scroll downward) as well as required readings for writing gigs I’ve scavenged one at a time, plus some others that I sometimes just get hooked on, and those are rare. A recent one was the Earthseed series by Octavia Butler. The two volumes are in fact formed around the collected and annotated diaries of Lauren Olamina, whose life is chronicled from when she was a vulnerable eighteen-year-old on the road to when she is known and revered as the Shaper among the followers of her movement, circa mid to late Twenty-First century. Her belief system, Earthseed, “a new fashion in faith,” is in fact a materialist process theology. The Book of the Living, an Earthseed bible, is written in verses, which proceed in a certain processual mode, like lines of code in a program for life and liveability after and in the midst of death. However, here belief is not a function of axioms that could be proposed ex nihilo, but is driven from a central truth that is perceived and (re)discovered, again and again, in (and as) all that there is and/or will be:

All that you touch,
You Change.

All that you Change,
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

This is a truth of response-ability, radical reciprocity, or onto-ethical bonding, which is more or less a fundamental ethos of Butler’s signature mythoi.

Why is God?
To shape the universe.

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

“My writing is a way for me to remind myself that I am human,” Olamina writes in her notebook and Butler in her book, “that God is Change, and that I will escape this place. As irrational as the feeling may be, my writing still comforts me.” To put it shortly, the banality of evil reigns in Olamina’s times, the world is falling apart, life is excruciatingly hard, if possible at all, and there is almost no time for writing. Her times yet uncannily resonate with ours – when living by way of hustling, like a “scavenger” on the road, is an all too common fact of life, for multiple reasons, ranging from economic to environmental. But invoking the irrationality of her humanness (and, inversely, reckoning with the “inhuman within”) she creates Time, not only in the sense of the time in which writing takes place, but also the time that follows the process of writing – proleptic invocations. While Change is the only lasting truth, to write and to keep writing is to remind oneself of one’s Survival. In fact, Change and Survival are two sides of the same coin, one which Olamina trades for the Future, and the trade constitutes Time. “God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.” The fact that she keeps writing is a condition of possibility for Earthseed, and for the Earthseed series, in the particular way that Butler merges her book and its readers with Olamina’s notebooks and her followers. To write, for Olamina, is to create Time, to take part in the future of all that changes and all that survives.

Rest assured, I have no intention to articulate or propagate any belief system. But these notes are as much intended to provide an evidence of life in times like these as they, for me in particular, provide for a preliminary examination of the meanings and modalities of liveability by serving as a condition for it. I hope writing these notes helps me approach some of the urges and urgencies of living creatively and keep away from the business as usual of a creative’s life. And while there is more than enough evidence that times like these bring about changes too magnificent to possibly disregard, I am also curious to think about all that hasn’t changed much, and probably will not, even in terms of a general aggravation (or “regress,” if you will) that we can all increasingly take for granted. All that abruptly changes for some requires and even precipitates a mode of survival that others might have been practicing for long. A focus on Change and Survival, on the creation of Time, requires a look into how the new doesn’t eliminate the old but gets grafted onto it. I want to consider this, and the truths that derive from it, in the times of corona pandemic, both the kinds of truth that enable conceptions of God and those that put pressure on existing “truths of solidarity,” as Richard Rorty once put it, and as Sylvia Wynter further expanded on: “That is, truths instituting a form or forms of solidarity indispensable to the stable, non-entropic reproduction of each such order’s human subjects, their referent-we’s modes of ‘Us, not us’, together with their respective societal worlds.” (Thanks to Ashkan, Dan, Rui An, Shirin, Tausif, and Virgil who helped me better hear these words.)

I cannot stop thinking about things that haven’t yet changed much particularly as Aras Amiri is in prison, still in prison. So far, more have been temporarily released from Iran’s overcrowded, corona-riddled prisons than the total number of confirmed cases nationwide, and many of those who have not are protesting from inside, some going on hunger strike. How, I wonder, has Aras been and still is keeping count of her days in confinement?