[-empyre-] COVID-19 Movement V: Grave

Patricia Zimmermann patty at ithaca.edu
Fri May 1 16:33:10 AEST 2020

COVID-19 Movement V: Grave

April 30, today, 1975:  the end of the war in Vietnam, or, as the Vietnamese called it, the American War, or the war of US imperialism.

45 years later, on this same day, 63,733 Americans have died from COVID, more than the 58,000 who died in Vietnam.  233,000 dead around the globe.  In the State of New York, where I reside, as do  friends Tim Murray, Renate Ferro, Kathy High, Paul Vanouse, Stephanie Rothenberg, Stewart Auyash, all posting on Empyre, 18,321 dead.

My close friend from graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, David Ost, a political scientist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, posted the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War/American War on Facebook. He noted that the war, which killed between 1-2 million Vietnamese, had the effect of "making the American government one of the worse mass murderers of the 20th century."

All of these deaths, in Vietnam, and Cambodia and Laos, and then, in all the wars and epidemics following, from El Salvador, Rwanda, AIDS, H1N1, Avian flu, SARS, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Argentina, forced migrations across the globe surge through the neoliberal and the technocapitalist.  And now, the COVID deaths:  stories of people dying, alone. As Kathy High has stated so eloquently, and as I paraphrase, when we will be living with the virus?

What cracks and fissures will be exposed?  To paraphrase Eduardo Galeano, what are the open veins of coronavirus?

Beethoven's "Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op 13", also know as " Sonata Pathetique," from 1799, opens with a first movement in Grave (GRAH-vee). Grave holds the place of the slowest tempo in music: slower than adagio, heavy, solemn.  The tempo for our souls enduring a public health crisis of proportions we can not yet comprehend or navigate.

C minor is a key I actually love, but can't articulate why.  It is tragic, emotive, stormy, unsettling, a key of tension and resolution, but also of struggle.  C-minor unsettles and opens up feelings and ideas hidden by the major keys.  COVID, at least my experience of it both in my psyche and on the screens and machines and fears that define my life right now, performs in C minor.

And also, in the tempo of grave, in both the musical sense of the term, and the literal sense of the term as grave, and meaning of the term as a place to bury the dead.  Grave.

If COVID breaks open the hidden veins of the pre-COVID world we all fought against in our writing, our teaching, our art making, then we might have a chance to play in the key of C minor.  We might have a chance to rest, recalibrate, reengineer, reimagine EVERYTHING:  races, classes, genders, identities, technologies, nations, ideas, education, writing, theory, speaking, the private, the public, disease, death, government, theories, thinking, doing, feeling, loving, economies, food,  collectivities, capitalism, the environment, buildings, humans, nonhumans, land, air,  PUBLIC HEALTH.

COVID has not just wrecked our psyches, our economies, our bodies, our health.

 It has also unsettled, like the key of C minor, our disciplines, our theories, our research, our art making.  All are rocked and wrecked and shredded, like dissonant chords in the Sonata's first movement, separated by rests, moving toward resolution but not yet finding it.

My good friend and research assistant Julia Tulke, now sheltering in place in Athens, Greece Zoomed with me.  She had gone to Athens to do her dissertation research on urban ruins, comparing Detroit and Athens.  She does ethnography, walking the streets, talking to people.  COVID upended her research.  She can't talk to people. Getting out into the streets is difficult. She is photographing COVID graffiti street art.

It is unclear what to do about her dissertation, about two cities, both dealing with COVID now.   Her research plans are blown apart.

 She talked to me about something deeply bothering her: the emergence of the COVID culture industry, with book proposals and CFPs and manifestos erupting from various prominent and emerging scholars weighing in on the virus, the pandemic, and every note of the current crisis.  COVID careerism?

Julie pondered if this was ethical, this idea that one can just take what you know, the theories you swim around in for decades, and just slap them on this catastrophe.  She said, "we do not yet know what we think about things. Everything we thought needs rethinking."

 And then we both talked about how everything is unresolved --and that is the only thing we know.  None of us are ready. We all need time to marinate, to learn these new notes, scores, movements, tempos, dissonances, tensions, and resolutions of COVID, a new sonata we have not yet learned how to play because the key is difficult, the tempos changing, the chords complex.

My partner Stewart, who posted a few weeks ago in this Empyre forum, is a professor of public health. Books on pandemics and health disasters from heat waves to AIDS to the drug wars to genocide cascade through his study like myrtle groundcover.  He gets many calls from various friends and relatives asking him what he thinks about the virus, when it will be over.

He will probably not like that I am quoting him, but this is one I wrote down overhearing him on a Zoom when I was making my English Breakfast tea to fortify me for grading papers  and programming our Rapid Response Salons on COVID 19 for Ithaca College.  Answering someone asking what will happen, he calmly (due to his EMT training in another life) explained:   WHAT WE KNOW IS THAT WE DO NOT KNOW.

The Sonata in C minor goes places we do not know.  I have played, or more accurately, struggled with this piece for a over a decade.  I started to learn it when I was recovering from surgery after my face was smashed when a trap door fell from a ceiling and smashed my nose and part of my face 15 years ago.  The surgery was later than the accident.  Recovering,  I could not read because I could not wear my glasses on my face.  So I listened to operas, and played piano.

 The piece I sunk into was the Beethoven Sonata in C minor.  Somehow, the unsettling chords, the grave,  adagio cantabile, the rondo movements, the C minor key gave shape to my crisis and my traumas that I could not speak about. Turbulence and unsettledness infiltrated my nerves, my body, my damaged face, my dreams. My face swelled from the surgery, where my  nose had to be rebroken and the insides reconstructed. This paragraph is the first time I have spoken about that accident publicly.  The accident changed my face, my nose, my thinking, my programming/curatorial practice, my writing, my life.

Julia, Stewart, my accident, Beethoven, the key of C minor:  together, they move me to assert:  WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE THINK ABOUT ANYTHING ANYMORE.

And that might be the most ethical and most political place to be, to question everything, to go deep into the the cracks and crevices and fissures COVID has broken open. We are in the first movement of this new sonata, and the tempo is grave in every layered and multiple meaning of the word.

 Some of what we did before, the theories we took solace in as a form of meditation, the writing we finished, the films and new media and art work we made, now change their function.

They were our training workouts for the marathon of the COVID world that sprawls unknown before us. It demands we rethink and recalibrate and reimagine everything:  our theories, our writing, our teaching, our solidarities, our communities, our political commitments to others and to justice, our food supply chains,  our platforms, our interfaces, our screens, our machines, our bodies.

In a recent post for the Social Science Research Council, https://items.ssrc.org/covid-19-and-the-social-sciences/society-after-pandemic/ which she heads, Alondra Nelson argues  in a piece entitled "Society after the Pandemic" that there is now an urgent need for scholars to bring our work out into the world and in conversation in the world.  "Make it dialogic with the world it seeks to apprehend and improve.  This is a time for creating knowledge pathways to a better world," she concludes.

The confusion and turbulence of COVID: that is the place we all share now.  It's the first movement of the sonata, grave.

But even the sonatas in C minor, by any composer, end with spirit and gusto. They do what Alondra Nelson advocates:  they create new pathways. They take us on a journey for which there are no words, and in the end, leave us elsewhere, a place we did not know.

We may start in grave, move through cantabile, but end in rondo, allegro, forward movement.

So I end these movements for Empyre the way all sonatas end, with a movement that moves forward, with hope, lifting the spirits, the heart, the soul, the body, the mind, in consort with phrasing and structures that suggest a way forward, if we can let go.  If we can know that what we know is that we do not know.

I started this COVID movement V with death. I end it somewhere else: in media and science and policy and clear communication and parody and music and people.

I leave you with three grace notes, two that point to the new media world emerging:

The first: The daily press conferences of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo (full disclosure:  I am a huge fan), with their emphasis on facts, science, straight talk, and care for people.  These pressers have an international cult following. Some friends will not Zoom or text or talk on the phone during them.  Art in America did a visual analysis of Cuomo's excellent PowerPoints and the staging of the press briefings with everyone six feet apart.  A professor friend told me every faculty member on the planet should study the Governor's blue and gold PPTs for the clarity they bring to complex concepts.  You can see these press conferences on his website:  https://www.governor.ny.gov/news

The second:  The Randy Rainbow love song to Andrew Cuomo and his brother, journalist Chris Cuomo, recovering from COVID. Watch it when you need a lift:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Kydr2a7Uy4

The third: a big thank you and virtual hug to Renate Ferro and Tim Murray who had the sheer guts to know that Empyre could open up a space for us to say, together:  WHAT WE KNOW IS THAT WE DO NOT KNOW

 A huge shout out of SOLIDARITY to everyone around the world sheltering in place reading Empyre this month, where together, we showed, irrefutably, irrevocably, that ideas will get us through this.

Patty Zimmermann

Professor of Screen Studies
Roy H. Park School of Communication
Codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

Ithaca College
953 Danby Road
Ithaca, New York 14850 USA


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