There is Always Outside

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"Washington County, NY," photograph by Jack Norton.

A collaboration between the renowned magazine of literature and politics, n+1, and Verso Books, this ebook collection tracks the course of Covid-19 across the circuits of global capital to New York’s prisons and emergency rooms, Los Angeles’s homeless encampments, the migrant camps in Greece, the streets of Delhi, Rome, and London; and into the intimate spaces of our homes, our ideas of how to live, and into our bodies and cells.

From some of the most exciting and thoughtful young writers around the globe, There Is No Outside explores the unspooling wreckage of Covid-19 and helps us imagine what might come in the aftermath.

With contributions from Andrew Liu, Rachel Ossip, Gabriel Winant, Francesco Pacifico, Sarah Resnick, Teresa Thornhill, Shigraf Zahbi, Debjani Bhattacharyya, Banu Subramaniam, Mark Krotov, Karim Sariahmed, Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Jack Norton, Laleh Khalili, Aaron Timms, Sonya Aragon, Sean Cooper, Chloe Aridjis, and Marco Roth. Jessie Kindig's introduction reproduced below.

The title of this collection is something of a feint—there is always outside.

Even during this quarantine period, from inside our homes—should we have them—we see the outside through windows. From mine, outside looks like birds, masked walkers, ambulances, leafing trees, the NYPD mobile command unit, neighbors arriving to mourn the dead, a small patch of sky. We also try to map the outside world through unemployment rates and death counts, social media posts and hearsay, reports of overwhelmed hospitals and domestic violence hotlines, the spaced-out line of people at the church food bank up the street. Outside glints and beckons. Outside people die.

What these essays track, drawn from n+1’s website and print issue and Verso’s blog over the past weeks, is not the fact of no outside, but rather what it is to feel that there is no outside. Perhaps we work at one of the overwhelmed hospitals, or have been to one. As Karim Sariahmed reports, to experience the “ever-worsening status quo” of the ER is to know a crisis so severe and all-consuming that “there is no outside.” The pandemic has only further constricted the thin living space to be had at the extremes of these borders—for those in prison, on the inside, as Sarah Resnick relates; for the homeless, for whom there is only ever outside, as Ana Cecilia Alvarez notes from Los Angeles; for Muslims in India being further excluded from Hindu society and confined to the insides of ghettos, as Shigraf Zahbi reports from Delhi; and for those, as Teresa Thornhill describes, in Greece’s refugee camps, held in limbo between exile and belonging, outside and in.

To be denied an outside is to be forced to mine the interior, to measure the weight of the social body once it has been hollowed out. So Francesco Pacifico recounts from Rome, and so Rachel Ossip describes in her account of the virus’s effect on a body. Mark Krotov grieves those who have died, and Chloe Aridjis keeps looking for the ones who have gone missing.

There is, it seems to many of our authors, no outside to outside either. “I must leave my house,” Sean Cooper declares, yet finds himself entrapped within a Covid-19 landscape of surveillance apps and digitized contact tracing; in a different way, Aaron Timms and Marco Roth each find that the gardens and streets of Brooklyn remind them of the scale of loss that exists and the mammoth work of repair the future will require.

* * *

Let me say this. I miss the outside, desperately, by which I mean: I miss the conditions of social life under which we might begin to practice repair. I miss the glinting world.

In quarantine, I have been kept good company by Virginia Woolf’s late—last—masterpiece, The Waves. It’s a cacophony of a book, full of the mad lyricism of the young eager to eat the whole world, their voices interweaving. Everything, every moment and interaction, every falling leaf and failed kiss and butter-stained napkin means so, so much. Yet the novel is framed by the quiet, human-less beach—the sounds of birds swarming and waves beating and the mute hills, bristling—Woolf says—with trees. This is a book about what is bundled together and what is kept apart, and the necessary relationship between the two:

In the garden the birds that had sung erratically and spasmodically in the dawn on that tree, on that bush, now sang together in chorus, shrill and sharp; now together, as if conscious of companionship, now alone as if to the pale blue sky. . . . Fear was in their song, and apprehension of pain, and joy to be snatched quickly now at this instant.

What makes the world, Woolf reminds, is not the mere fact of it but the waves of relations into which it plunges you. Jack Norton’s photo essay from the deindustrialized towns of northern New York reminds us of the same. Everywhere, even—especially—spaces gutted by capital, is the center of the universe. Even on an empty beach, the waves still beat.

* * *

We are in a moment when outside the crisis and outside the quarantine seems a utopia as unattainable as the diorama in a snow globe. These essays each argue that the global crisis of Covid-19 is intricately connected to the unfolding devastation of neoliberalism and racism, environmental destruction and precarity, mass incarceration and the rise of emboldened authoritarian states. Across India, for example, as Debjani Bhattacharyya and Banu Subramaniam show, the crisis has only served to highlight the “spreading virus” of Hindu fascism.

Andrew Liu notes in his incisive essay on Wuhan and global capitalism that tracking the spread of the virus illustrates “contemporary global interchange at its most prosaic,” as the novel coronavirus transmission pathway has followed the circuits of twenty-first century markets.

In so doing, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of these nodes, prime among them the precarious workers who exist in the shadow of recognized labor markets. Laleh Khalili surveys the position of seafarers during the epidemic, the workers responsible for global shipping and tourism, without which capitalism in its current form could not function. These sailors, most on short-term contracts with little or no access to health care on board their ships and most from the global south, have been quarantined at sea, adrift and neglected. The pandemic has also left sex workers exposed and adrift. Sonya Aragon’s personal account reveals how the intimate and proximate labor many sex workers provide is no longer possible during the pandemic, and how criminalization makes any hope of a safety net, unemployment insurance, or health care impossible. Capitalism has made most of us, in Aragon’s apt phrase, “whores at the end of the world.”

But here at the end of the world, in this place of no outside, something important is proved. For all the complexity, the just-in-time production, the digital age, global capitalism remains a predominantly social and political endeavor. When consumers stop consuming in public, when workers can no longer go to work or refuse to work in unsafe conditions, when we stay home and the social sphere collapses—it is made clear how it is still, and always, the fact of people acting in the world that is the decisive thing.

Gabriel Winant contends that we are watching the pandemic highlight the “cruel inequities” of capitalism, in race and income, of course, but also generationally. A twentieth-century capitalism based on amassing wealth away from the young is now breaking, perhaps irreparably. What we need, though, is one another: the old and the young, the whores and the unemployed, the sailors adrift and the prisoners struggling to contact loved ones, the neighbors looking for each other, the pangolins of the market and the birds of the gardens, the doctors and nurses on twelve-hour shifts and the postal workers and the tellers of stories.

* * *

We will go outside. The pandemic will fade, for now. The future will come, imperfect but alive. But what will be left in the sand when this tide has ebbed? We can hope it might be robust mutual aid networks, a renewed commitment to the commons, a fighting movement for Medicare for All. Even should this be true, there will also be mass unemployment, hundreds of thousands of deaths, gutted social infrastructures, global supply chains on the verge of collapse, and a devastated planet. To ask what the outside might be when we are still inside is, as Marco Roth notes, to “feed our wishes with even meager leavings.”

Let these essays bear witness. But let them also grant us leavings, however meager. Outside, after all, is still there, glinting, waiting for us to give it meaning.

Brooklyn, NY

May 9, 2020 

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Edited by Jessie Kindig, Mark Krotov, et al.
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May 2020 / 9781839762307