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Josh Leon: 'Sociality in the Time of Grief'

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On March 30th I joined my first digital reading group. The theme was, and was not, Covid-19. Because no-one wants to talk about it, but it’s all we can talk about at this moment. And during the conversation, which I found it very complicated to participate in, the concept of "pre-trauma" arose. Trauma as a whole is already hard enough to understand and comprehend. But "pre-trauma" had me perplexed. One member of the group suggested that perhaps trauma could only be experienced prior to or post the traumatic event. This was in relation to a text that had been set as part of the readings. I disagreed, and in this moment of Covid-19, the idea that we are not experiencing trauma, or could not comprehend our trauma, is something that makes so little sense. I thought, is this notion rooted in the condition of us not seeing all the loss that is happening?

I get a text the next day from a friend whose father is in hospital in Italy.

We are living through a trauma. Just because we are sat in our flats, homes, bedrooms, that does not mean we are not part of this trauma. We are losing loved ones, and friends are losing loved ones, and for many places this is just the beginning, it feels there is no end to look forward to. We keep saying “when this is over”, but I am now more aware than ever that we should be saying “as this is happening”. We can meet online, sure, but we cannot be present as a body, and our lack of presence should not be underestimated, for there are those who need to be present, whose bodies are living the trauma.

We are in self-isolation to remind ourselves that our sociality is what conditions our inter-connectedness and that without that inter-connectedness those whose lives are lost are too quickly forgotten. I am wary of enabling the idea that we will be suffering from post- or pre-traumas. We are in trauma. We have been in trauma. When we suggest that trauma, and therefore loss, and grief, are the result of an individual event, we isolate ourselves from a concern of our historical social condition. I would like to propose that as a means for breaking this individualistic notion of trauma, of suffering, we need to take this time to enter into a new contract with grief, which is not actually a new contract, but a contract that already exists and which we consistently ignore.

We seem to want to do away with grief. As if it can be overcome, or resolved, or even forgotten. Yet this is not the case. I prefer to follow Judith Butler’s understanding. We are hit by waves[1]. In the coming months, and for the following years, we will be hit by waves of grief. You may be reading this, and thinking, I have not lost anyone, but that does not mean you do not know grief, or that you do not know someone who is grieving. As we endure this event, this moment, we must make our pact to accept grief as a continuous and ever-present part of our life. We should take time to find ways to lament this grief. It is our means for connecting. The sociality you will long for, if not now, later, is based on this connection, in the relation between one-another’s loss.

I am not sick, but who do I know who is? A mother, a father, a grandparent, a child, a friend, who is at the edge? All of us are there now. We speak of ritual as though it some kind of daily activity, but that is a habit. If we can break out of our linguistic constraints, and see what meanings can be newly conceived, we may begin to understand how things like ritual, or lament, can offer up the spaces for this sociality of grief to be part of our lives. Let us take the ritual and condition it properly as a space for the practice of grieving and lament. Ritual as a means for developing spaces where we can be with the lost, the passed, as a means for conditioning our social responsibility in the future. Which will be a future built on our ethical and social responsibility to one another.

When I heard that comment in that group, I thought how absurd it was, how isolated it was. Our isolated bodies do not make us isolated from historic events of collective death, nor do they isolate us from this event. By thinking about these events, it is clear that our knowledge of trauma is already embedded in our history, and therefore our social existence.

Trauma is a lived experience. The effects of trauma are lived. We are living trauma. We are constituted by our relation to trauma. In this time of social distance, we can find means of proximity outside of our previous social conditions; a proximity to our collective grief, making space for those of us who will be grieving and those of us who are grieving. Letting those emotions be the space of our day to day being, distancing ourselves from the conception of life moving at hyper-speed, and hyper-production.

Grief is slow. Grief is overwhelming. Grief is paralysing. Grief is not normal. These are the conditions of our future, but in truth they are and have been under the surface for years. This virus has brought about a sociality of grief. And this sociality might just allow us to live in the present with an awareness of the larger impacts of the systems we engage with, and the smaller circles of engagements we participate in. If we can stay close to the grief, we will deepen our understanding of the truth of our world’s precarity.

[1] Judith Butler, Precarious Life : The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2006), p. 21.

Joshua Leon, is an artist and writer. He is working towards a Ph.D in the Arts and Humanities at the RCA, with the prospective title If This is a Man.