Errant Journal – Discomfort – Issue #3

Ashley Maum (ed.)

16.00 

Vorrätig

  • Errant Journal
  • 2022
  • 136 pages
  • Softcover
  • 24 × 17 × 1 cm

Errant #3 takes the ambiguous feeling of discomfort as a productive space to think from. What if instead of avoiding discomfort, we lean into it, dwell on it, stay with it so as to be able to learn from it? Central to the issue is the presence of discomfort as it accompanies the work of decoloniality, both in positions of marginalisation and of those who perhaps feel their comfort shaken for the first time. The contributions explore discomfort through personal histories, as well as curatorial, architectural & psychoanalytic perspectives.

list of contents

Editor’s Note

Welcome to the third issue of Errant Journal. With it, we feel that we have passed a long and precarious start-up phase and can say with careful confidence that Errant Journal is here to stay… at least for now.

The topic of this issue is one that has been part of our very first discussions about starting a magazine. In fact, the topic of discomfort is always present in the process of understanding structural inequalities in our societies, as well as our own role – and responsibilities – in these. Finally being able to explore the subject in full and seeing how it resonates in different ways with our contributors, has not disappointed, nor could its timing have been more fitting.

Personally, I feel that mentioning discomfort often just serves as a kind of disclaimer in discussions on ‘decolonisation’, without ever getting the attention it truly deserves – a necessary by-product that, after a brief acknowledgement (to protect who?), can be put aside again.[1] But I also think of how the term ‘quality’ – still used as the main marker in deciding whether a project is considered worthy of funding – is in fact applied to those cultural expressions that fit ever so comfortably within what we already know (while at the same time having an equally comfortable notion of being ‘controversial’, ‘experimental’ or any other term that makes us feel something is new or worthy). It therefore feels as if the work of decoloniality is being done without really addressing an important factor that runs throughout: a sense of discomfort.

The feeling definitely sneaks up on you. When experienced, discomfort is not always something that can be easily placed or defined, even to oneself. And although discomfort should not in any way be confused with structural inequalities, racism or any form of violence, it often acts as a thin layer that hides these matters behind its façade, thereby making its ‘unspeakable’ nature a mechanism for holding inequality and systems of domination in place.

What’s more, the feeling of discomfort can be part of a productive not-knowing, in the way Édouard Glissant advocates for by claiming the ‘right to opacity’. Letting go of what we (think we) know is simultaneously a letting-go of our desire to comprehend and thereby reduce, or even assimilate, the singularities of cultural difference – something that is touched upon in several contributions to this issue.

It is with these thoughts in mind that we published our first open call, through which we received most of the contributions to this issue. The different ways people responded to the topic has been exciting to see, as they greatly expanded the initial queries we posed. It is telling how many of them deal with an imbalance or shift of power relations; whether from the view of a marginalised member of society or those who feel their comfort shaken – perhaps for the first time – and use certain mechanisms to avoid such negative emotion(s).

This is what Rebecca Glyn-Blanco dives into with her text about the role and limits of empathy, particularly in relation to the dynamics of migration politics. Glyn-Blanco asks ‘[w]hat if empathy shields us from the presence of the Other by returning us to the familiar Self, and as such, remains a deeply un-transformative act for the subject?’ By feeling sorry for others, we become reassured that we are being good citizens, and consequently ‘avoid confronting the discomfort of [our] own complicity in oppression.’

No such transposition is available when living a queer life on an island like Barbados for example. In her poetic and purposely fragmented contribution to this issue, Ada M. Patterson recounts her life on the island, what it means to leave it, and what dysphoria and other unbearable and uncomfortable conditions might mean for different species in a climate crisis-queered world. In this sometimes hostile and breathless space, what does it mean for queer and trans people to gather and ‘come up for air’?

The unspeakable nature of discomfort perhaps explains why this issue of Errant has more creative contributions than our previous ones. Aaron Schuster makes a case for this in exemplifying how Franz Kafka can be thought of as a poet of discomfort, irritation, annoyance, suffering, and complaint, and showing the relationship between writing and suffering. It is in a poetic way, M.C. Julie Yu is able to ruminate on her experience of working as a masseur, bringing together the many layers of stigmatisation of the profession, further complicated by her own identity, place, and the need to just make a living. This ambiguity and inexpressibility of discomfort is also explored in Maaike Hommes’ essay about her inability to put into words her own undiagnosed physical pain. Counter to what we are made to believe, our bodies are relational and defined by vulnerability. Drawing on Johanna Hedva and Judith Butler, Hommes states that ´capitalism’s focus on able-bodied productivity conceives of wellness as the standard mode of existence and thinks of illness or vulnerability as a temporary state.´ Being ill then becomes an individual failure, entangled with feelings of shame and guilt.

With a very different approach, Marwan Moujaes considers humiliation in his speculative essay on the consequences of a lowering of the gaze to the experience of a landscape. Since the invention of perspective in the Renaissance, our experience of a landscape can be said to be based on a man, standing and looking straight ahead. What then, does a landscape look like for those whose heads are permanently tilted in subjugation? What if, to humiliate is to obscure a landscape?

While discomfort is often something that sneaks up on us, or something we simply endure, could we instead use it consciously as a strategy, and consequently as an act of resistance? This is the starting point of my conversation with curators Amal Alhaag and Rita Ouédraogo on the project A Funeral for Street Culture that took place at Framer Framed over the summer of 2021. Partly in response to the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, their project considers how to mourn as well as celebrate together. Ouédraogo and Alhaag talk about working with and in big institutions as Black women, about the use of anger, about safety and the value of not knowing. But most of all about creating space for those who are often overseen, and the importance of coming together.

Through the words of another conversation – this time one taking place in the nineteenth century between Sara Mazhar Makatemele, the first Black woman to live in Kalmar, Sweden, and her employer – Mmabatho Thobejane’s text offers a valuable historic reflection on the long history of mourning and manoeuvres made to ‘fit’ a worldview that is not one’s own. Although purportedly staying in Sweden and converting to Christianity by her own choice, Sara’s words resonate with a sad remembrance and a double consciousness of two cosmologies. ‘There are leaps and bounds performed by Sara to arrive here. To move, in the nineteenth century from one (dead) cosmology to the (alive and salvation-filled) other. What is the shape of those leaps? What mental and emotional manoeuvres does this movement require?’

We felt this issue could not have been complete without also addressing our built environments. In ‘The Idea of Comfort’, a text originally written in 1987, Tomás Maldonado retraces the origin of the concept of comfort as something categorically modern. Emerging alongside the capitalist societies of the Industrial Revolution, the fundamental role of comfort – according to Maldonado – is that of social control. In extension of this thesis, but to counter it with a more pluralistic approach, we read Dalle Abraham’s text about his upbringing in governmental housing in northern Kenya. Perhaps once thought of as signifiers of status or progress, they quickly have become a cliché of the postcolonial condition, functioning as a backdrop to a genre of African novels. Abraham’s very personal text recounts the dreams he had as a child, those of his parents, and what the ideas and mindsets stemming from such quarters have mutated into today.

Equally unavoidable was the presence of COVID-19 in this issue as it has been in our lives the last two years and has drastically transformed the ways we think and feel about being in close proximity to others. The case, discussed here by architectural collective m7red, of the Argentinian government’s Sanitary Park in Buenos Aires, set up to temporarily house individuals infected with the virus who were not able to remain isolated from their families at home, can be seen as an experiment with important implications. How to stay connected while being isolated? What other forms of closeness can we imagine when our zones of comfort are suddenly shattered? As we adapt to a new reality in which the urgency of the COVID crisis recedes in our memory, we can perhaps rethink some of these relations the pandemic has exposed. Let us not just slip back into our comfortable lives unthinkingly but consider how so much of what has been exposed these last years is structural, but not unchanging.


[1] Recently, much discussion seems to centre around the notion that the buzzword ‘decolonisation’ has lost its meaning (and this in turn has become a fashionable thing to say). Although it is true that a great deal of institutions use the term to justify their programme, without actually doing any of the work or truly making changes, it is not by any means a term without meaning. Important to mention here is the difference between decolonisation and decoloniality as coined by Aníbal Quijano. Whereas the first refers to the struggle of people to get their land back from colonial settlers, the second encompasses an epistemic reconstitution that is ongoing. These meanings seem to be consistently mixed up, and in common use (although incorrect), the latter is what is usually meant with the term ‘decolonisation’. See for more info on the differentiation: Mignolo, Walter D., Catherine Walsh. On Decoloniality. Concepts Analytics Praxis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018.

 

Contributors: Dalle Abraham, Amal Alhaag, Rebecca Glyn-Blanco, Irene de Craen, Maaike Hommes, m7red, Tomás Maldonado, Marwan Moujaes, Rita Ouédraogo, Ada M. Patterson, Aaron Schuster, Mmabatho Thobejane, M.C. Julie Yu