I write these words with a profound sense of the altered order of things, the subjectivity of rupture and woundedness that we have plunged into. I register shock, sadness, anger, pain, fear, helplessness. And also, strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, a sense of wonder, similar to the feeling that comes from walking down a street you’ve never been on before, being surrounded by a language that you don’t speak, a first encounter with a stranger.
Or perhaps better to compare to think of the way we experience this moment as the heightened reality after a natural disaster. The building you lived in shattered, red-tagged — you can’t go back, now you’re in a temporary shelter, on a friend’s couch. The basic structures of everyday life radically rearranged.
Or maybe we should think of the days after 9/11 — a manmade disaster that people instantly intuited would “change us forever.”
In such devastating moments there is typically an interregnum, a liminal state between the destruction of the old and the still-undefined “new.” After the disaster there are moments of stillness and silence – only then come the pleas for help, the first responders, the politicians arriving on the scene projecting compassion or whipping up the fervor as they march the people towards war.
How do we react in language in such moments? A rhetoric of disaster emerged almost instantly (“stunning upset”). Among liberals and progressives, a chorus calls upon us to “resist,” to defend the spaces and bodies suddenly vulnerable to the new mode of power, an instinctive and absolutely indispensable call to solidarity.
Mostly it seems that we are still groping in the dark to find the language we will come to speak. We have been shocked into a state beyond the language(s) we used before the election. Into what? Pure feeling? Into catastrophic thinking, where we pick up shards of language, haplessly trying to make them cohere into something that makes sense in the face of the senseless?
But I also want to stay in the dark space — the one without an entirely coherent language, the one where I regard everyday life, which at the moment is not everyday life, as suddenly imbued with sharp, unfamiliar meanings, or ones that I was only dimly aware of in our previous state. I am keenly aware of each word I pronounce to my daughters, not just about the election but about what they’re having for breakfast. A talk with my mother, who has been surviving a long bout with cancer, about somethings and nothings, nothing in particular — suddenly becomes luminous, like St. Augustine and his beloved Monica at Ostia. The sublime and the ominous commingle in this in-between world. In the canyon where I live the leafless gray branches of drought-stricken trees bring tears. A helicopter buzzes overhead and I imagine it firing upon a crowd of protesters. The fantastically drawn cirrus over Southern California today induce me to think of Sarah Palin as Interior Secretary.
Slowly the contours of the new language start to emerge. In several meetings over the past few days with undocumented students at Loyola Marymount University, where I am a professor, I listen to undocumented students move from near-speechless sorrow and fear to calls for “safe spaces,” for “self care,” to “resist normalization.” Indeed, there will be increasing calls to return to “normal.” Our political leaders have already done so with platitudes about the “peaceful transition of power.” (Let us be clear that this transition, which includes the long slog of the presidential campaign, has been ceaselessly violent.)
What we experience now is rupture so profound that there is no way to return to the normal nor would that serve any purpose other than a redoubling of this election’s violence. And as understandably self-obsessed in this moment we are as Americans — “Americans” rather, since an essential part of Trump’s appeal was to narrow the definition of who is an American, leaving so many of us “othered” yet again — we are not an exception. Our election is part of a global convulsion of reactionary populist revolts.
Which means that people are experiencing versions of shock and silence and the emergence of new languages the world over.
I am not talking about a silver lining. I am talking about a radical, multi-vectored “deterritorialization” of language that potentializes new utterances — and relations, from the most public to the most intimate spheres.
When I went to bed with my partner after Trump’s victory became clear, we held each other with a level of need and care and wonder, almost as if we’d made love for the first time. It was a hopelessly restless night. Our bodies would disentangle for sleep but the shock of the unfamiliar pulled us back into contact again and again. It was an unseasonably warm night in Oakland, the stillness of the night, broken only occasionally by the sound of wee-hours delivery trucks charging up or down the grade of the road. Emerging from and re-entering the silence.
The unfamiliar, the terrifying, the as-yet-unformed world we are passing through and into is both tearing us apart and pulling us together, in bed and on the streets, in the classroom and at work.
Perhaps we can take this awareness of rupture — and the vulnerability that comes with it, which leaves us open to listen, both to shocked silence and the new languages that spring from it — and begin to feel that with every pause and word, we are remaking the world.
Rubén Martínez is an writer, performer, and professor of literature and writing and Loyola Marymount University.