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My dream theatre is your terror

October 13, 2021

Bear with me here, I’m starting with muppets.

One of the most brilliant, and often under-appreciated, aspects of the muppets and Sesame Street is their transcendent use of songs. Songs like Rainbow Connection (Paul Williams), Somebody Come and Play (Joe Raposo), Bein Green (Raposo), Gonzo’s moving I’m Going to Go Back There Someday (Williams) are so much bigger in reference and emotion than the context where you encounter them. One of my favourites of those is Imagination:

My mother loved this one dearly, and I recently learned it to sing my daughter to sleep. While the song is wonderful by itself, it works particular magic in the sketch where it’s embedded. Indeed it works as a kind of magic trick: Bert (whose combination of exasperation and patience is very familiar to a parent) uses the song to invite Ernie to view the same imagination that is conjuring monsters in his dark room as a magical power that can also conjure balloons.

It’s a simple trick. It’s a good trick. But the trick doesn’t always work.

Sometimes, even worse, the process works in reverse: the imagination can fill places, even places that seem well-lit and straightforward to other people, with monsters. And while one can sometimes debate whether the feared things are really present or likely (more on that below), the fear is certainly real and very present. Sometimes the best way to address that is to adapt the really-existing place so it is welcoming again.

These last weeks have been multiple variations on this theme.

Like most people I’ve talked to, getting stuck back into work after the summer was more difficult than usual. I suspect it had a lot to do with work still mostly being at home. It was somehow very hard to convince myself I was back at work once I was home again. It was easy to put off tasks. I have learned to my detriment, that putting off a task also tends not only to inflate its difficulty in my mind, but also inflate the disappointment or anger I imagine in those to whom the tasks are owed. That makes the task a terror, something I literally can’t bear to look at, even though the people in question are almost always colleagues I know and like. Online working has amplified this sense of isolation and being in my own terrified head, surrounded by increasingly annoyed people I’m trying to avoid. My email inbox and to-do lists become a nightmare theatre.

For me, then, coming back to physical presence: seeing students and colleagues has been bliss. Catching up, chatting, drinking coffee – in sum, all of the intensified phatic communication – has made me feel more like me, and like I know what I am doing, than I have in a long time. I have also realised that meeting up and chatting with friends and colleagues (most of the latter are the former, too) is central to my functioning in my work: it’s not a luxury. It’s very noteworthy that the tasks that I am still struggling with are the ones that are more abstract and that I am trying to deal with at a distance, with peopel I don’t know or seldom see. This has also applied to teaching. I was nearly moved to tears being the classroom again, just beng able to say hello and welcome to a shared space. One of my students in that opening session asked me astutely this last week whether I was an extrovert. I guess I am. There is an extent to which a classroom is also a bit dream theatre – a place set apart, where if the teacher is not careful more one’s own visions than the learning process of the students can take over the session.

But that’s just me.

In the same week we began teaching, I was in contact with students struggling with coming into physical spaces of the university (I can’t even say ‘coming back‘ – our second-year students haven’t ever really been here). One of them talked about worries at being outside ‘the security of [their] bedroom’. The very situations I have dreamed of, and that enable me, actually make it harder for some of our students to function. The enclosed space of the classroom becomes a trap filled with terrors. Even in normal times, we needed to consider this. I don’t know yet what the solution to this is likely to be going forward, but as lots of people are pointing out, last year we had a form of teaching that managed to be inclusive for a lot of students who might not otherwise have been able to take part without fear, and now we have to try not to shut them out. I don’t know what the long-term solution will be – some part of it needs to involve funding universities properly – but it starts with looking at the way we are setting up our teaching so that all of our students feel safe and welcomed. It starts with the question what do you need to feel safe? and in many cases individual solutions to make it work.

From a different direction, this is also coming up in my research. From my endowed chair at the VU Amsterdam together with the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, we have a new project starting called Polyvocal Interpretations of Contested Colonial Heritage (I’ll add a link to our site when it goes live), which explores the way audiovisual archives can listen to the voices surrounding postcolonial material in order to rethink the way we access it. As the audiovisual archive of a former colonial power, Sound and Vision holds a huge range of material that not only represents colonized people in a number of painful ways, but was itself violent or painful in its creation and collection. This makes the archive itself, which we are working to make open and accessible, a potentially traumatic place. A recent episode of the Unsettling Knowledge podcast (below) featuring Dr Robin Mitchell, and Stevie Nolten, who works at Beeld en Geluid, speaks directly to this issue. At 23:23, Dr Mitchell says: “I always expect archives to be violent. I have never walked into one that has not been violent in terms of what I’ve seen, and what I’m looking for […]My job is to give some context to what I’m seeing… Of course this person thought that he was being objective when he put this in the archive – here’s why he’s not.“ Stevie Nolten also talks about the painful, excluding confrontation with archival authority when faced with material with which she has a direct personal and emotional connection. Both express a deep-seated unease (to put it mildly) with the space of the archve as it is defined.

As you can hear, it is something of a revelation to the historians listening to think of the archive in such terms. For a lot of historians (myself included), the archive tends to be a place of desire: it’s where we meet the past that is our stock and trade. The archive is, traditionally, to the historian what “the Field“ is to the anthropologist: it is the place there from which we author(ize) our accounts. And just as the anthropological “Field“ continues to be interrogated as an often violent colonial encounter, so the archive must, too. And it is precisely here where the ambivalent role of imagination becomes apparent. As Carolyn Steedman writes in Dust, her extended musings on the archive: “The archive is a place of dreams“ – where the dream that stands foremost is “making the dead walk and talk.“ Particularly in the postcolonial archive, that work also involves imagining pain and trauma – indeed making the archive a nightmare theatre for those who approach the material with the necessary care and imagination to do this work.

The anthropologist, curator, and activist Jessica de Abreu brings this point home in a research blog post from earlier this year called “postcolonial depressions“ where she talks about a constant dilemma in exploring Sound and Vision’s historical archives:

How do we deal with archival material that reproduce (colonial) violence, despite the fact that we consider them as educational and informative about hidden histories?

Answers can be found in how society is divided: those who do remember colonial history, and those who do not and feel traumatized by it. It is a fact that Black people experience racism on a daily basis. However, we don’t always have the time and space to heal from such violent events. Additionally, societies often ask victims of racism, rape and trans-/homophobia and more to also come with solutions to these problems. Often they are asked to do this emotional and intellectual labor without being paid for their time, knowledge and experience while they are also vulnerable at the bottom of the social ladder. Experiencing social inequality besides these human right violations is a headache, to say the least.

Listening to this carefully demands that I qualify what I mean here by imagination, particularly in a post that begins with muppets, and return to the point above that speaking of imagination is not to suggest that traumas are not real. As de Abreu argues succinctly, it is precisely because of multiple and daily experiences of traumatic exclusion, that Black people are able (and often forced) to re-imagine them in the space of the archive. De Abreu goes on to argue that artistic re-use and imagination in the archive can also offer new means of resistance, indeed:

that resistance can come in the form of images of Black people just being happy and having pleasure in a society that continues to dehumanize them. And why not also on film, in the archives? Despite my periods of postcolonial depressions, I take great joy in seeing Black people smile on camera, in archives.

This week’s Inward/Outward Symposium on emotion in the archive will explore these themes more deeply, looking at the various ways in which our emotional responses to the archive can help change how we lean there.

All of this suggests that there is much to learn and think about from Bert’s apparently simple re-directing of imagination above. But it also has implications for how we need to think about making spaces like classrooms and archives accessible for those who have important, but potentially painful, work to do there. In my class last week, we read the introduction to Elizabeth Ellcessor’s Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation (2016) in which she lays out the need to re-think what we mean by access. She writes that:

Thinking critically about access requires consideration of it as a relational, unstable phenomenon that both grants benefits and interpellates individuals into larger social systems that may be empowering,
exploitative, or both. (p. 7)

When I had the pleasure of discussing the PICCH project with Stevie Nolten at Sound and Vision recently,, she made a very similar point about the notion of access meaning something other than just throwing the door open as wide as you can. If we offer access topostcolonial material in ways that assume a white and non-traumatized user, we end up normalizing that use and relationship to the material precisely at a long-overdue moment when we should be rethinking, as a society, how we relate to it.

Both in the classroom and in the archive, this asks us to re-imagine what use and access mean to those we need to be most concerned about. And the foundations for that lie in stopping to step forward and listen to the needs and fears that people are bringing to us.

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