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catastrophe, process, critical friendship, resilience, discourse

Post-pandemic discourse

Over a year and a half after Covid-19 first shook the world, in the midst of alarming new variants and severe vaccine inequity, we appear to be living in a state of cognitive dissonance. The world has undergone changes of the likes not seen since the middle of the last century. Against the backdrop of millions of deaths and sometimes severe health repercussions for survivors, we have seen a return to large-scale government interventions as well as a ruthless politics of vaccine nationalism. We have thus been jolted into awareness of the fragility of our global systems; forced to acknowledge our dependence on the labour of multitudinous, anonymous, and frequently underpaid frontline workers; and brought face-to-face with how poorly equipped our systems of care are, especially for people made vulnerable by age, illness, poverty, race, or gender. And yet, there has also emerged a discourse of ‘returning to normal’ which disavows these fault lines, which seeks to paper over the cracks without looking at the scale of the damage to our planet, countries, workplaces and homes. Such damage has been revealed, magnified, but not necessarily caused, by the pandemic, and so, even if we are able to ‘fix’ the pandemic, there is no simple solution for the long-term problems we have created.

Covid enters our lives. Image: Erica

Thinking differently about catastrophe, survival, management and writing

This Special Issue on ‘Living with Catastrophe’ of AMED’s online journal e-Organisations and People (e-O&P) is a response to such discourse. It seeks to emphasise the ubiquity, continuity and the intractability of the diverse hardships faced by so many, by bringing together new ways of thinking and communicating about catastrophe and survival. Conceived over a year ago when talk of ‘post-catastrophe’ life was quickly beginning to take hold even before the first lockdown spring was over, this edition emerged from conversations about the many catastrophes which we felt, and still feel, that are deeply entangled with Covid: inequality; the climate crisis; structural racism; gender violence. Not pretending and indeed not wanting to provide some lofty treatise on the state of the world as we know it, as guest editors we decided, inspired by critical disability studies, to focus more specifically on stories of the un-heroic. We wished to move away from narratives of triumphant overcoming and/or tragic demise and concentrate instead on the kind of state which we believe is more frequently the norm: on the state, to quote Lauren Berlant, of “ongoingness, getting by and living on” (2007, p.759).

Re-thinking ‘management’

In seeking such an understanding of what it means to live with and through catastrophe, we have taken some liberties with the concept of ‘management, education and development’. As committed feminists and students of gender studies we wanted to think more obliquely about the scope of the journal. Management, we thought, does not necessarily have to mean what we expect it to mean. What if, we asked ourselves, ‘management’ could describe the “ordinary work of living on” when one has been “marked out for wearing out” (Berlant, 2007, pp.760–761)? What if it could mean managing one’s self, one’s own experiences and life, managing one’s home and one’s community? What if it could mean managing Covid and its fallout? While we realise that the notion of “living on” without necessarily “getting better” (Shildrick, 2015) is somewhat anathema to the concept of ‘development’, we hope that our readers will be able to think of this edition as a chance to take stock, and to reflect on the viability of ‘normality’ as it is upheld in our societies; a normality which is leading to the collapse of our systems, be they bodily, social, or environmental.

As co-editors, our own backgrounds have a part to play in our overall approach. Both of us have worked, and continue to work, in education and training, but we have not formally studied business. What we have tried to do with this edition, then, is to unravel somewhat the basic principle of ‘management, education and development,’ thinking in particular about its connections to the concept of care, whether that be of self, of family, or of other others. While we wish to learn, if we can, from our critical friends (qv), readers and collaborators who have different backgrounds and skill-sets, we also believe that the relentless pursuit of profit embedded within a cult of individualism has led us to the very edge of the cliff. Now is a time for thinking about how we might do things differently, more inclusively, from a position of mutual aid.

Diverse ‘writings’

In developing this approach, we also decided to ‘push the envelope’ a little more and to consider different ways of encapsulating such stories. The academic article is one, very valid form of writing, and one which we, rather ensconced within our university contexts, are all too familiar with. However, it occurred to us that writing may not only take other forms but be all the more powerful for it. Writing can be visual or auditory; it can be personal, sharing insights only visible from the writer’s vantage point; it can be fictional and still be deeply revealing. Given this realisation, and our desire to make this edition as accessible as possible, we decided to embrace a creative spirit and to invite a wide range of contributions, including works of a more multimodal nature. The edition therefore includes poems, sound and video work alongside more traditional articles and excerpts from a narrative and a theatrical piece. Although there is something of a novelty element, we also view the range of contributions as a continuation of a tradition already established within the journal - a tradition of embracing elements of creative and/or poetic writing which seems fitting to us in the light of AMED’s own philosophy of doing things a little differently.

Questioning resilience

In trying to support the development of critical friendships amongst our collaborators, we organised two workshops, both of which were hugely energising, inspiring, and indeed moving. In our first workshop, one of the words that came up again and again was ‘resilience’. Without wishing to say that resilience is necessarily always used exploitatively, it occurred to many of us that the notion of resilience appears to contain an implicit expectation of violence. What happens, after all, when our capacity for resilience has dried up? And is resilience a universal necessity? Or are some of us expected to be more resilient than others? Sarah Bracke (2016) has identified three manifestations of the modern resilient subject. Firstly, there is the resilience of the First World subject, contained within the discourse of ‘back to normal’. This is a resilience which disavows vulnerability, “absorb[ing] potential transformation for the purpose of going back to the same, to a ground zero where the hazard or impact ultimately leaves no impact” (p.58). Secondly, Bracke points to presumed resilience of the Global South, a resilience born out of colonisation, exploitation and “the practice of getting up in the morning and making it through the day in conditions of often unbearable symbolic and material violence” (p.59). This is the resilience of those who have no other choice, who become imbued with an innate ‘toughness’ so that we may avoid looking too closely at the brutality at the heart of global systems. And finally, there is the gendered resilient subject “who continues to survive patriarchy, is increasingly exposed to the neoliberal labour conditions of flexicurity, and is considered individually responsible for her survival” (p.65). Unpaid reproductive labour has long been an unacknowledged cornerstone of capitalism without which there would be no ‘flexibility’ – as millions of home-schooling mothers have become all too aware.

Locating the “I”

What Bracke’s account of resilience makes clear is that living with catastrophe means very different things in different contexts. In order to reflect this reality, we have tried to bring together a range of voices from various different backgrounds. Many of the contributions here contain a multilingual element, reflecting the hybridity within the lives and identities of each author-creator as well as within the group. While all of our final contributors were, at least at the time of writing, based in the Global North, some of them have relocated here from other contexts, and our initial workshop reflected an even greater range and scope. The reasons as to why some of these prospective initial contributors had to bow out subsequently is an important consideration in weighing the overall merits of a project curating creative productions. Being able to write and create is in itself a privilege that requires bringing together material and psychological resources – epitomised by Virginia’s Woolf as that elusive ‘room of one’s own’ - that not all who have joined us on this journey have had access to throughout. Thus, we do not pretend, by any means, to have achieved complete inclusivity. Yet we are both pleased and grateful to have been able to create a space in which we hope a fairly diverse group of people with important experiences felt able to come together and share their perspectives.

Without becoming entrapped within a ‘tyranny’ of individual experience (Price and Shildrick, 2002, p.66), we believe that situating one’s work and acknowledging the ‘I’ is essential to avoiding the “god trick” of the disembodied universal gaze which “[sees] everything from nowhere” (Haraway, 1988, p.581). For this reason, we have tried to practise reflexivity in terms of who we are writing about, how we are writing about them and who is doing the writing. Many of our conversations with authors revolved around pinning down this slippery ‘I’, which was also the core theme of our second writers’ workshop held in April. Almost as a natural accompaniment to the desire to push the “I” into visibility, to the issue of self-disclosure, our workshop also focused on care, exploring with our contributors whether they felt able to care for themselves, what sort of support they found useful, and what they needed going forward.

How this edition came together

Writing in a time of upheaval

The process of assembling this edition has been a complicated one, with many stops and starts, and a heavy sprinkle of guilt and inner turmoil, as we tried to juggle the work for the journal with paid work, university studies, childcare, and just general living through a pandemic and trying to cope mentally with all that that involved. As guest editors, both of us are somewhat used to living uprooted – somewhat nomadic – lives. But it is one thing to be doing so in an ordinary context, and quite another to have had to manage it during a state of Covid-induced semi-isolation and uncertainty. We thank our contributors and many critical friends for their patience and warmth while we experimented with our roles and attempted to balance editing with other commitments.

Likewise, many of our collaborators have had their own upheavals, some of which have meant that there was not always the time and space for them to complete their work within the timeframe for the publication of this edition. These people we thank for their critical friendship, for their participation in the workshops and enthusiasm about the project, and we hope to have set enough gears in motion for them to be able to publish their work in a different form later down the line. *

At the same time, we have wondered, and still do, about what we could have done differently. Many of the contributions are deeply personal, and we realise that the process of creating them has been an emotional one. How much and in which form to reveal was a real sticking point, and like our authors we, too, have grappled with whether the vulnerability required was justified. And while our commitment to reflexivity and responsible writing means that we have often encouraged our collaborators to ‘write from the I,’ we have also come to realise that this can in some circumstances be both taxing and risky, and requires careful consideration. It is one thing to place a duty of care at the centre of a project and another thing, sometimes, to accurately predict the level of support that everyone will need. While we still do not have all the answers (and in all certainty never will), we hope to have grown in our approach to these questions. We would also be very willing to hear any feedback participants and readers might have on these issues.

Juxtaposition I. Image: Fizza

The practice of critical friendship

Critical friendship (e.g. MacKenzie 2015), in fact, as with any AMED project, has been central to the successful completion of this edition. In tandem with the experimental element, we have tried, wherever possible to honour the principles of AMED and the journal itself, and for us critical friendship seemed to embody from the very beginning a kind of politics of writing (and even, dare we say it, a feminist praxis). As we have understood it, critical friendship is based on the understanding that creative work (much like the creators themselves) requires a degree of outside constructive, humane challenge and support. Perhaps conceptually this is not a novel idea, but it was refreshing to be part of an organisation which saw this element as central rather than peripheral to the success of the project.

As co-editors, we also saw it integral to our role to provide something of a scaffolding for critical friendships to be forged among our contributors. In support of this endeavour, we experimented with a number of possible fora, a Learning Management System, a dedicated discussion ‘group’ situated on the AMED website, a contact sharing system, and two workshops. Setting up and running these platforms presented a learning curve for us -- and indeed some were vastly more successful than others. This also taught us invaluable lessons, for instance on the importance of ground rules and boundaries as our community of practice evolved.

About the contributions

The stories in this edition include narratives of trauma, of pain, illness and destruction. They are poignant, disturbing, hopeful, sardonic, and often urgent. Some of them indicate a possible path towards healing, but more often than not they draw attention to survival - not in terms of recovery, but rather of living with Without diminishing for a second the scale of the devastation which people have suffered in the wake of the pandemic, we would also like to acknowledge that there are still many, many stories of day-to-day hardship which do not feature here.

While we have tried, as much as possible, to feature a diverse range of positionalities, the catastrophes which we present here are in no way intended to paint a comprehensive picture of human hardship in the twenty-first century. Rather, they are a first step towards a very partial view of everyday life in our bodies, in our systems, and in our relationships with others. A rough sketch of living with catastrophe but, we contend, significant nonetheless.

How this edition is organised

We have distributed the contributions across three sections. The first deals with accounts of catastrophes experienced within ourselves, when our bodies stubbornly refuse to cooperate with us. The second section looks at catastrophes unfolding in contexts that we have set up to run our collective lives, such as the government or the workplace, but which are intimately influenced by larger, global forces and attitudes. Finally, the third section takes a more ‘macro‘ approach to framing catastrophes, as traumas perpetrated or reinforced by society, often because of our membership of a certain demographic or social group.

Before delving any further into these sections and the contributions contained therein, we would like to acknowledge that the categories we have devised are not mutually exclusive. Each of these categories contains within itself allusions to its entwinement with the others: our bodily experiences take place within social contexts and our access to our own experiences is dictated by the systems that surround, or rather, encompass, our lives. Our first contribution, by Alicia Easley, provides multiple examples of this interconnectedness. It is a sensitive account of personal trauma in the wake of illness which engages with the idea that her experience of her body has been highly mediated by social and organisational demands and messages. Moreover, while the contributions we have grouped together seem to us to be responding to the same or closely linked questions, this should not keep our readers from making their own links between the texts. Of these, we are sure, there are many to be uncovered and discovered. Perhaps the discoveries will prove as inspiring as our own experience of developing a community of writing practice, in which members began to find shared passions and common causes among themselves.

Section 1: the body as a site of catastrophe

The contributions in our first section, then, are reflective accounts on catastrophes that take place within our bodies. What happens when our bodies, like soldiers gone rogue, appear to turn against us? When experiences of illness, pain, or death alienate us from the world at large? Such events can prevent us from making sense of ourselves and our place in the world, and may be made worse by our inability to fully know what it that is that we are struggling with. Alicia Easley, Concha Jimenez (Espanol - English) and Emma Langman have contributed three seemingly different responses to these questions. Emma’s is a haunting poem about an extremely difficult period in her life, Concha explores pain and grief in ethereal visual and textual modes, and Alicia shares her reflections on her surgery by connecting the personal with global political themes. We invite the readers to see with us the emergent commonalities in these various struggles, such as the challenges of seeking or making use of help. Finally, Aniela Piasecka’s sound piece is an invitation for us to connect with our own bodies, complete with all their burdens.

Section 2: professionals dealing with catastrophes of others

Our second section shifts the focus somewhat to professional (eco) systems designed to deal with catastrophes. As such, this section is closest to AMED and e-O&P’s traditional themes. But as our contributors make amply clear, discourses of normality, responsibility and productivity, to name but a few, intersect with the workplace. Ideas about what it means to be a functioning individual are brought to bear upon these contexts, shaping or obstructing the ways in which people are talked or thought about. Neglect and omission impact the individuals employed in these organisations as well as those they ‘serve’ and stymies their ability to provide meaningful care. The excerpt from Jonathan Massey’s play presents a tense encounter between two such individuals in which the benchmarks for sanity and responsibility are negotiated. The other two pieces in this section, by Beth Davis and Stephen Musk and by RajVinder Singh Gill, are espousals of a more compassionate approach than the ones made possible by current discourses of mental health and social services.

Section 3: macro-catastrophes

‘Macro-catastrophes’ is the theme of our third and final section, the one which we, as co-editors, have agonised over the most. The lengths and depths of our conversations, given our time-constraints, are somewhat surprising, perhaps even to us as, in some ways, it is expected that a journal co-edited by two intersectional feminists would carry pieces on gender-based violence or catastrophes perpetuated because of one’s social identity. What we worried about with this section in particular, but also with the journal as a whole, was that we could unwittingly create what is sometimes termed ‘oppression porn’ (Morris, 2021). We were conscious that a lot of tropes, such as those about the helpless brown woman, directly and indirectly feed contemporary (neo) colonialist and chauvinistic thinking, keeping Victorian racial hierarchies alive in subtle ways. We strongly feel that such images harm everyone, regardless of where they may be in the supposed ‘racial hierarchy’, as it allows our societies to point fingers elsewhere, instead of looking inwards at deep-seated misogyny and other forms of oppression within their own communities. Yet, we could not simply look away from the very real catastrophes that are taking place every minute around the globe. These catastrophes, often fatal for the victims, such as the ones in Rumana Mehdi’s poem based on Sylvia Plath’s “Three Women”, make us all a little less safe and a little less free. The excerpt from Jacinta Nandi’s short story about ‘perpetrator mentality’ pushes back at the overwhelming narratives of passive victimhood. What also gives us confidence in our decision to include this section on macro-catastrophes is that our contributions come from both the Global North and the Global South. In this context, Hazel Soper’s video contribution drives home the interconnectedness of our experiences on this planet we share.

And two poems

We also need to mention, though they speak for themselves, the succinct yet powerful poems by Ian Andrew and Diyo Bopengo, whose contributions reached us via Tom Boydell and the Good Chance project.

Acknowledgement of a collective, collaborative and creative project

For a few of our writers, this was their first foray into a new genre, which they were compelled into by the power of their visions. Many of our authors had to tap into painful memories to be able to share their experiences. Yet, in the hope of illuminating and connecting with the experiences of others, they were determined to share their experiences, and we applaud their courage for doing so.

Process I: Fizza’s laundry

The process of putting together this journal broke us all down at different times. In the end, however, we are proud to share this edition with the larger public and hope that our readers can be moved by these stories, just as we have been, touched by the sensitivity, and enlightened by the insights of our contributors.

Process II: Erica’s earthquake fort

We are eternally grateful to all our contributors who made this journey with us. While we had had some experience in similar roles before (thank you, Anna Fairtlough, for letting Erica support you as co-editor in 2017!), it was our first time having full control -- and full responsibility. We could not have made it this far without the support of our contributors, critical friends and other collaborators*, or indeed without the enormous amounts of help and guidance we have received from our commissioning editor, Bob MacKenzie. To Bob we are especially grateful for his openness, and indeed encouragement, for new ways of doing, for his ability to listen to us deeply, and for his courage and patience in continuing to do so even when he may disagree with us.

We also give thanks for the encouragement of experienced AMED collaborators such as Steve Dilworth, who was kind enough to help facilitate our first workshop and provide additional guidance on critical friendship; Ruth Slater, who was an active participant throughout; and our design and technical editor, David McAra, for his good humour, enthusiasm and readiness to embrace experimentation, along with his colleague Rory Samuels. Linda Williams, AMED’s Administrator, and the larger AMED Council have also been a constant support and resource. While it has been exciting for us to introduce some new faces to AMED, it has also been a real privilege for us to be able to benefit from the knowledge and skills of existing AMED members, and we hope to have given something in return.

Finally, the publication of this edition is not the end of the story. It is certainly not for e-O&P, but this edition, too, lives on for as long as we are ‘Living with Catastrophe’. We hope our readers will feel empowered to share with us their responses and comments. Additionally, in the future we may continue to publish select pieces as addenda to our web edition. We will also be hosting a post-publication get-together with our contributors and critical friends to continue our discussions on some of the questions this edition has raised. Watch this space for more details.

* We would like to give special thanks to our critical friends Aurelia Streit, Caterina Mapelli, Christine Hollywood, Elsa Costa, Eman Alyan, Hani Yousuf, Helena Brandist, Romana Lalarukh and Tom Boydell.


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About Erica and Fizza

Erica is a postgraduate student in the very final stages (she hopes) of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master's Degree in Women's and Gender Studies at the universities of York and Granada. Her research takes a phenomenological approach to feminist performance art on chronic pain and she has also worked as an English language teacher for a number of years. You can contact her at: piasecka@gmail.com.

Fizza is a full-time solo parent who, after nearly a year’s break, is looking forward to writing her thesis at the University of York. After studying a combination of literature, sociology and art history during her time as an MA student in the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, her research hopes to find how heterosexual marriages in urban Pakistan are faring in the current socio-economic climate. She can be contacted at sfizzahasan@gmail.com.

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