how to think
Episode Three: Julietta Singh

Rajni Shah
Julietta Singh
Fili 周 Gibbons



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Episode notes

This episode draws on two different recordings of conversations between Rajni Shah and Julietta Singh, in which they discover and recognise common ground in their lived and embodied experiences while learning to let go of expectations about how the recording process itself might unfold. The structure of this episode is non-linear, inviting the listener on a disorienting and dreamy listening adventure.

The episode consists of three parts. First, there is an opening section in which Rajni and Julietta talk about loss, haunting, and mess, reflecting back on their original conversation, which was lost. This is followed by a series of dreamings: glimpses of the (restored) original conversation, enveloped in a thick soundscape of cicadas, neighbourhood sounds, and cello. In the third and final section, we return to the opening conversation, and hear Rajni and Julietta thinking through what it means to move into a heightened sense of the unknown.

During this episode, you will hear cicadas and neighbourhood sounds, which were recorded by Julietta in her backyard on Powhatan lands, in what is now known as Richmond, Virginia. In addition, this recording draws from the nighttime soundscape of Mile Island on Morrison Lake, located near Bracebridge, Ontario, on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat of Wendake, the Anishinaabeg, and specifically the Ojibway/Chippewa peoples. This territory is covered by the Robinson-Huron Treaty No. 61.

All recordings were made with care and respect for the lands, waters, winds, trees, and creatures being recorded.

Please note that this episode contains some slightly loud and sudden noises that begin around nine minutes in.

In the accompanying offering to this episode, Julietta shares a reading from her new book, The Breaks:

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Episode themes

Introduction [00:01:40]

PART ONE
  1. Chaos and mess and loss [00:03:45]
  2. Unthinking mastery [00:12:30]
  3. Haunting [00:16:35]
  4. Memory of the conversation [00:20:38]

PART TWO

  1. Bodies [00:25:33]
  2. Elephants [00:28:00]
  3. Struggle [00:32:13]
  4. Resistance [00:35:59]
  5. Intertwined [00:38:55]
  6. Pain [00:45:13]
  7. Ellery [00:50:37]
  8. Dreaming [00:54:07]
  9. Falling [00:56:42]

PART THREE

Linearity’s not right! [01:01:06]


Series Credits & Acknowledgements

This podcast was made on Indigenous lands, including the lands of the Bidjigal, Gadigal, Woi Wurrung, and Boonwurrung peoples in so-called Australia, and the lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation on Turtle Island. We pay respects to the custodians of the lands on which we have created and edited these recordings, and we acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.

how to think is being co-led by artist Rajni Shah and Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, the new head of DAS Graduate School, as part of the AHRC project Performance Philosophy & Animals, in partnership with the Centre for Performance Philosophy at the University of Surrey, UK.

Project conceived and delivered by Rajni Shah
Editing, mixing, and sound design by Fili 周 Gibbons and Studio Apothicaire
Recording and technical support by Roslyn Oades
Contributors: Ria Righteous, Julietta Singh, Khairani Barokka, and Omikemi
Special thanks to Theron Schmidt, Leo Burtin, Nadia Chana, Astrid Korporaal, Sheila Ghelani, and the Acts of Listening Lab

Before these conversations were recorded, podcast host Rajni Shah posted a small zine to each of their fellow listeners, in which they outlined the invitation for the conversation. You can see a copy of the zine for reference here.


Transcript

[sounds of cello plucking and bowing a fiesty little tune weaving in and out of the following words that begin each episode]

Rajni:

how to think is a series of slow conversations between humans who recentre the work of listening, healing, justice, and love. Created with recording and technical support from Roslyn Oades, and with editing, mixing, and sound design by Fili and Studio Apothicaire.

This is a DAS podcast, presented in partnership with the Centre for Performance Philosophy at the University of Surrey in the UK, and is part of the AHRC project Performance Philosophy & Animals led by Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, Head of DAS Graduate School in Amsterdam.

For transcripts, full credits, and acknowledgments, including land and water acknowledgments, please visit the Performance Philosophy website which is linked in the show notes.

Thank you for listening.

[cello stops]

PAUSE

Rajni:

So… this one's a little bit different.

Julietta:

It’s a kind of reckoning. [laughs]

Rajni:

Yeah. Yeah, this is uncharted territory because it's our reflection conversation.

[gentle sound of cicadas fades in and then out]

Rajni:

Hello and welcome to the third episode of the podcast how to think . I’m your host, Rajni Shah, and in this episode I have not one but several conversations with the wonderful Julietta Singh, who you heard in the introductory episode. In this episode Julietta and I find ourselves navigating themes of chaos, pain, and loss, on a whole number of levels. This one has a slightly unusual structure, so I’ll just take a moment to explain what you’re about to hear.

Today’s episode was recorded in two parts. The first conversation took place on a day when Julietta and I were both experiencing pain in our bodies, and it was lost when Julietta forgot to press the ‘end’ button on the recording app she was using. In the second conversation, which you’ll actually hear first, we reflect on this moment of loss, and how it sits in relation to our desires for wholeness or mastery. Later, you’ll hear parts of the original conversation that have been restored as if they were dreamings.

The whole thing is a little bit meandering and messy in ways that feel utterly right for this episode. So I invite you to be open to feeling a little bit lost alongside us as you listen, maybe unhooking your own narrative expectations as we travel through time.

As usual, there’s more information in the show notes, and there’s an attached episode for this one in which Julietta shares with us an extract from her new book, The Breaks.

I hope you enjoy the listening.

[pause]

PART ONE

Rajni:

So… Everything feels different. Um, It's… it's a Saturday. It's kind of early on a Saturday morning, so that's a particular feel of, like, coming here and setting up. Umm. I usually arrive hours before. I do yoga. I do meditation. I do a ton of stuff. And I didn't... But I think I knew, I was also following a different kind of instinct. I kind of knew that I wanted to… Well, I guess I figured that for me, anyway, this conversation is a little bit about allowing the chaos in. And so I kind of wanted to allow it in a bit, and I feel like I've been successful [laughs] because, um, yeah, it was a chaotic night, I didn't wake up as early as I thought I would, I… you know, kind of ran out of the house without having breakfast. Um… But I like it!

Julietta:

I also feel like everything's different this time. And I feel like last time I started to talk and then it became the whole of the conversation around, you know, I think I was like, I want to say that I'm not feeling great in my body. And then you were like, oh, my god! [laughs] We both have the same language and the same feeling! But I'm really aware of even just the way that I'm situated. I'm in the exact same place and I’m wearing the same pants. I’m in my Rajni suit! [laughs] But everything's a little more chaotic around me. Like my things aren't organised as properly as they were last time. Everything's a little more makeshift. And yet… um… Maybe you're right, because it's familiar, I feel in a lot of acceptance about it. And then I laughed when I saw that your meeting title was like: a short conversation on pain… loss, and mess! [laughs] And I was like, exactly!

[laughter]

Rajni:

Yeah.

Um.

So… I should probably tell you something as.. before we get into our reckoning.

Julietta:

Please.

Rajni:

Ros has been working with the Zoom recording from our last conversation. And we had a conversation the other day where she said to me quite triumphantly, “I think it sounds good! I think we can use it! So you don't need to have your extra conversation!” And I felt kind of devastated [laughs] because this -

Julietta:

Okay. I am having exactly the same response. It's like I went from… I lost the recording. I instantly knew and felt that I had done something wrong. I realised the following day exactly what I had done wrong. There was some sort of vague hope overnight that I would find a way to retrieve it, that it was floating out there somewhere in cyberspace and we would be able to grab it back. I called the company [laughing] whose app it is, and they confirmed that it was indeed gone for good.

And I went through, over the course of maybe three days, including voicelets exchanged with you, and also Ria chiming in and Ros writing to make sure that I was - everybody was like: Are you okay? And: It's okay that it happened.

And somehow I went through a complete transformation from feeling quite bereft to feeling that it was right that it was lost.

And I figured out in part… I was teaching - over Zoom yesterday - I was teaching Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Which among other things is consumed by the idea that things that have happened in the past that appear to leave no trace in fact are always here, present. And it's a kind of haunting, um… but a kind of haunting that is so filled with interest and promise. And I kept thinking -

[sections in red play over a loudspeaker in an Australian voice in the background]

[two loud tones]

Please pay attention for an urgent message concerning our power outage. This building has lost power and is being closed until power is restored-

Julietta:

Wow. [laughter] Wow.

[two loud tones]

This building is being evacuated. Please leave by the nearest emergency exit. Proceed to the designated assembly-

Rajni:

Oh no…

I don't know if these are real. Cos they keep cutting out.

Julietta:

Is it maybe a test because it's Saturday?

[two loud tones]

This building is being locked down.

Rajni [whispering]:

Oh shit.


Stay inside building.

Julietta:

It's telling you two different, it's telling you opposite messages.

Rajni:

They're just testing all their message testing. It's pretty alarming though.

Julietta:

Let's just listen to these intense messages.

[laughter]

[two loud tones]

Please pay attention for an urgent message concerning a hazardous gas leak. Follow directions of-

[laughter]

Julietta:

Wow. It's every kind of message!

[two loud tones]

Please pay attention for an urgent message concerning a hazardous chemical spill. Follow the directions of building wardens.

Rajni:

Yeah, we're just going to have to listen to all of the disasters.

Julietta:

Well I just find the array of disasters, of possible disasters, very intriguing.

[two loud tones]

We are directing everyone on campus to shelter inside buildings, stay inside buildings and take shelt-

Rajni:

I have no idea how long this will go on.

Julietta:

I'm fascinated by it.

Rajni:

Yeah, me too.

[pause]

Julietta:

This is definitely the biggest gap between them.

[pause]

Julietta:

Wow. That was very interesting and strange.

Rajni:

Yeah. It's like we just receive more gifts for our thinking-feeling around chaos and mess and loss. [laughs]

Julietta:

Yeah.

Oh, so I was in the middle of saying, when the voice of this Australian ladygod [laughs] chimed in to direct us in every possible direction, that I had really accepted the loss of that recording. And in fact, began to feel like the loss of the recording was right. So it's very strange to now have it be... not found, but salvaged in a way that is audible.

Rajni:

Yeah.

Julietta:

You know my first book, which was an academic book, is called Unthinking Mastery. And I thought, well, this is yet another reminder of the kind of fantasy of mastery that we live through. And then how radically unmasterful we are [laughs], or at least I am.

And so I took it as ultimately not quite pedagogical, but um… I don't know, erm… appropriate, given the sort of spirit of our dialogue and the question of - here come the cicadas in my background again, I don’t know if you can hear them, they’re unmutable –

[cicadas fade in and out gently in the background under the following]

Um... Yeah, it just, it's so bizarre to think it's been retrieved because I was in the fullest… like, it was more than acceptance. It was like, this is right! [laughs] It's right that it was lost. We're going to do it again in a different way!

Rajni:

Yeah, me too. I mean I, I felt like… I too went through that process of kind of… shock and loss and hope that we might find it, and … and then that process is really what taught me that each of these conversations will show me what its work is, and… what its… character is and… I can trust that.

Julietta:

Mmhmm.

One of the things that the loss of this recording that ends up not being a loss – one of the things I kept thinking about was the kind of proximities and distances between intimacy and privacy in terms of our conversation. Because I’ve always understood that my relationship with you was about, from the outset, the cultivation of certain forms of intimacy. And when I went into the recording with you I understood that we were gonna have an intimate conversation that was destined toward a certain kind of public however large or small.

But when we finished the recording and I lost it, I thought: well maybe there was something that was private in the… in the exchange… that didn’t belong beyond us.

And I couldn’t possibly point to what that was, but I just wondered if there was a kind of feeling-tone or energy that was about a kind of transmission between us that was going to stay between us, or like live in the world around us but unheard in that sonic register by others. And so it’s very interesting now to kind of return to … an idea that this thing I decided was private will become something else.

[pause]

I think there was a, you know, in that sort of full circle experience I had of like, the feeling of loss, but also the feeling of self recrimination and blame because: [laughing] fuck why didn’t I press that stupid button in the top right a corner? Like it was my, it was my fault, you know? It was on my shoulders.

And once I cycled through that and really registered the kind of total sweetness and acceptance of all of the parties involved. And kind of went back and forth with you and thought about it and felt my way through it and kind of, you know, forgave myself for yet another technological flub in my life… I, um… I think I felt like the conversation had maybe been liberated in its loss.

And so… there's something about its return that feels um… like a really interesting form of haunting. That it's gone off and been mourned and released and now is coming back to kind of manifest in the way that we had intended for it to be in the first place.

Rajni:

Yeh. Yeah, I… I don’t know what to do with that knowledge.

But I’m also fascinated by the fact that, you know, we came back together today to do a really good clean record of a conversation, and not only did we have that major interruption with the announcement of various disasters which could be happening right now, um, I have a feeling that they’re continuing to do the tests in other buildings, which might also be on my recording. And this idea that the … that we’re always in the world.

Julietta:

Mm hmm.

Even when we insulate ourselves through a series of very particular specifications [laughs]: closing blinds, turning off your this and that and, you know…

Rajni:

Yeah. Yeah.

Julietta:

You don’t get really more self-contained than… in following the instructions for how to properly record… and yet everything is still entering in.

Rajni:

Somehow these conversations are always about what's already happening.

Paying attention to what's already happening.

Which relates, I think, to what you were saying about the haunting.

[instrumental section fades in, with sounds of cicadas, crickets, and some slightly dissonant cello]

Julietta:

Mm hmm… What's already here.

*

Julietta [voice sounds more distant than in previous section]:

You know, my memory of the conversation was that it started with a kind of breathing exercise. And you said, is there anything you want to invite in or let out? And I said, I feel like letting out and inviting in might be closer registers than we think. And then I started talking about my body. And then you started talking about your body. And then we realised that not only were we feeling discomfort in the same place, but that we had the same name for it, which was that our tails hurt.

And then I just feel like the whole conversation was about, um… like, strange links. Like I remember you talking about your mother and blindness and being afraid of her falling and me saying my mother fell, and I'm afraid of the disability that she is living with now. Like every- everything that one of us said seemed to connect not by association so much as by like actual deep embodied experience over and over again. That's my memory of the conversation.

What about you?

Rajni [voice sounds more distant, sounds of cicadas and cello interweave]:

I think when I… in the moment that I knew, I think even in the moment that I knew it might be lost, though a part of me was hoping it might be retrieved, I also felt into it. And I… I understood that it was a conversation about pain in the body and…somehow… I don't even know if ‘about’ is the right word. But I feel like it was - what it was was an experience of… speaking around and with pain, and its… interruptions. And kind of um... this isn't quite the right phrase, but I want to say being humble to it.

Julietta:

Mm hm.

Rajni:

But there was this messiness around the whole process that I… I could feel myself trying to be in relationship with. And it was almost like losing the recording was… an insistence.

Julietta:

Mm hmm.

[sounds fade to silence]

PART TWO (dream conversation)

[long section of cello, cicadas, and crickets slowly fades in. Trembling, interrupted sounds and some dissonant bowing. Sounds continue under voices throughout most of the following dream conversation. The sounds are intense. The speaking voices have a less clean sound. .They are distant, with more static, and are sometimes overtaken by other sounds]

Julietta:

I feel like I annoy myself and I feel sort of embarrassed and sort of ashamed to say: “I'm kind of hurting!” [laughs] Which is so crazy because it's not a way that I would feel toward any other body in the world. But I feel that way toward my own and in relation to a public-social sphere. And so I think I wanted to like do some clearing by way of saying, like, I've been kind of uncomfortable and I'm, like, on the upswing from a very difficult couple of months. Um… but I'm still, like, in my body feeling a little like ‘ooph’ in my body, um, for the session, you know? So I think I… I wanted to just say, like, I don't want to pretend that I'm not … physically uncomfortable in some way. You know? I'm not perfectly comfortable because it's not possible for me to be right now. Um… I think that as a start, I might have more. But that's the big thing. You know? The big feeling for now.

Rajni:

It's interesting that you said that because I have been in a pain pattern this week in my body, which is um…. I've always had some pain in some way that I've been in dialogue with. And this is um… the best way I can describe it is a pain - it's a pain pattern that arrives and, um, that I have to dialogue with for an unknown amount of time, and then it goes away again. And I, I learn from it. Like, I learn to befriend it.

*

Rajni:

This morning I um... I looked over and I saw two friends who could come with me. And one of them is um… a Ganesh statue. And one of them is a very old soft elephant that I've had my whole life that I can remember.

And, you know, my relationship with Hinduism is… I was gonna say complicated, but in some ways ‘light’. I'm born Hindu and my grandparents were - on that side, certainly, were very strict - no, I mean, it's in the whole family. It’s, you know, it's a very Hindu family. But my parents are really against religion. And… I feel really ambivalent about, you know, associating with any of that right now. Because I do not think that Hinduism is doing good things in the world and I'm very worried about it. But I love the idea that Ganesh stands for obstacles and a relationship to change and to obstacles.

And… and I love it as a connection to my, to my grandad, who I could never speak to very much… um, but in the few words that we did exchange, I just felt like… something really strong.

[sounds shift to cicadas with indistinct sounds of chilldren playing and families outdoors]

Julietta:

Yeah, you know, I'm thinking about… I met my grandmother who had come to Canada [to] visit from Punjab when I was eight and had the, you know, similar to you, we shared almost nothing linguistically. And yet there was something so powerful in the meeting and… affective exchange. Like, I don't know that I ever felt so loved by someone who was a stranger - actually by anyone - as I felt in her presence.

[pause]

It's funny, too, because the one memory that I have - that I actually write about in my new book - is, um, the memory of my grandmother visiting. I have two memories of that visit. And one is that she taught me my first word, which was hati, which is an elephant. Because there were elephants on a curtain in my brother's bedroom.

And then hati then became the first word that my daughter learned. She learnt hati before she learned elephant. So she always in her infancy said hati and then had to learn elephant later on. So just, you know, an interesting little loop to your elephants present in our conversation.

Rajni [laughing]:

I love it.

*

[sounds of cicadas and cello weave in and out again, playing between each of the following sections as well as under and around the voices when they come in]

Julietta:

I was thinking about … your reminders before these sessions of like, letting there be silence, and being inarticulate, and… even if silence is awkward. And I was thinking, as you were saying this for the second time that it's very hard to feel awkward in silence with you. It's easy to feel awkward in silence, but you have a, like a disposition that's a...an invitation toward silence, which therefore… works completely against awkwardness. You know what I mean?

Rajni:

Yeah. I think um… As a host, though, I also know that I… I lay out all of those invitations and then I can really struggle to sit with them. Maybe less so in a one to one conversation, but in a bigger group, I have to listen to the dialogue in my own head that says: “Nobody's saying anything!”, you know? [laughs] After having made that invitation so explicitly and knowing the value of it, and trusting it, and having led so many sessions that are about listening, I still have that voice that goes, “Nobody's saying anything. Should I speak? Is something wrong?”

Julietta:

It's also such a perfect revealing of the fact that the work that each one of us is doing is a struggle to live into the politics that we're trying to create environmentally. So it's perfect that you struggle with silence when your mode and motive is to create it, to circulate it, to spread it, to be in it.

Rajni:

Yeah. And because I desire it and need it so much.

Julietta:

Yeah, it's interesting that so often… what we're struggling against, you know, what we're fighting against is exactly the thing that we simply need to welcome in another, you know, without judgement. Like the struggle is a .. so often related to a self judgement that we can’t … dismantle. But we struggle and struggle and struggle to let it go, and really what we need to do is… let it be where it is. And be gentle toward it, in relation to it.

*

Rajni:

I think what I'm discovering more and more is that so many of the things that I felt like… that I felt were being imposed on me by other people… it's not that they weren't, because I think a lot of those things relate to systemic issues, but I also feel like… For a long time, I couldn't see the extent to which I was imposing them on myself… and the work of that, that place of letting go, which is… possible to do. In a way that, you know, the systemic work is… is possible for sure, but can feel impossible or can feel… yeah. It can be hard to find any power in that. Whereas actually when I can recognise those things in myself, they might be kind of shocking, but I can then just let them go. And allow myself to be who I am in the world.

Julietta:

Mmhm.

Well it's interesting because, you know, the systemic things or the things - the things that you - that are imposed upon you from the outside, so quickly and insidiously become internalised and the mode through which you relate to yourself. And I think… yeah, it's true that the ways that… race or gender or ability or what have you, come bearing down on you, and the way that you understand yourself and see yourself are always… profoundly intertwined.

*

Rajni:

I'm thinking about how… in everything that you've just said, I had this image of… like when two trees or a tree and a vine grow together and are tightly wound. That - with the inside and the outside - the systemic and the, you know, the actual insides of our bodies. And… and I think the work that I'm trying to do at the moment is to… even just recognise the… the impact of that, or the emotions of that - of all of those systemic forces and… how they've shaped me.

But what I'm realising is that… I guess I'm thinking about Indigenous knowledge systems, and this feels like a really basic thing to say, but I guess I'm just observing it in this moment, which is - you know, the desire is so much to open to the world and to tune in and to ‘be one with’ – or maybe ‘be many with’ feels more appropriate – and.. And that feels like it's - even though I think they’re different things - but the work of telling that apart from what it feels like it's in conflict with, which is the systemic injustices of the world that have shaped me so strongly that I am so armoured against or because of … those two things feel like… Yeah. Maybe those two things feel like they're intertwined.

Julietta:

Mmhmm.

I think that's beautiful because you… It was feeling like you were angling toward: they're in conflict. But actually the whole idea of the creation of another world necessitates the dismantling of the one that is negatively bearing down upon us - I’m going to say us meaning all living things - and I think one also has to cultivate the world one wants to live toward, one wants to live into.

And so the intertwining rather than the ‘against’ - although I really like ‘against’ in the double sense of like brushing together, brushing against one another, and resisting something, you know? So maybe ‘against’ isn't wrong after all. Maybe we can be against the system precisely by… feeling toward, moving toward, thinking toward other ways of being.

And so I think, I think resistance is interesting because resistance is… resistance is happening even in the vine that's looping around the tree. It looks as though it's … absolutely… uncomplicated in attachment. But in fact, there's all kinds of resistance at play in growth itself, in the kind of organic matter that is coming together and becoming one, but also more than one, and more than themselves, you know?

I just think we have an idea of resistance now, that is not what resistance has always looked like and is certainly not the only model of resistance. And I think part of the tension maybe in the here and now that you're feeling might be a resistance to a prescribed form of resistance. Resistance to resistance as it appears now to us, as it has become popularised, without remembering that there are so many extraordinary histories of resistance, not only human, but much more than human.

And there will be well beyond us.

*

Julietta:

Can we talk a little bit about pain?

What did you call it again? You're experiencing a pain…

Rajni:

Pattern.

Julietta:

Pattern! A pain pattern.

You know, I keep thinking about.. I have a real resistance to… So I've had two emergency very critical neuro surgeries in my lower spine. And I understand that in some holistic healing way that my sister likes to explain to me, that the back and the lower back is um the place where we, we hold trust or lack of trust. And she would say: you know, you really need to work on trust. [laughs]

And I really appreciate that as a kind of um… orientation toward healing and… a form of um… embodied self-awareness or emergent self-awareness. But when one is profoundly hurt and like critically wounded and having to undergo emergency hospitalisations and surgeries, it's hard to be like: I need to work on my trust! [laughter]

Rajni:

Yeah. So… I do feel like my pain pattern is something I'm in dialogue with, that I learn from. But also, one of the questions that I have, that I carry, and that I have carried throughout the work I've been doing on listening is the question, how do I listen when I'm in pain? Because the two - you know, it's like, yeah, like that is not the moment when you can look at trust or, you know. But it's a big question for me, given that we're all in, you know, at some level we are all in pain, or we're living within diseased and painful societies.

Julietta:

I… I think that there's something really interesting about, like, individual pain and how to listen when one is in individual pain. Because my practice, in the most negative way, has always been like: shut your body down, shut your consciousness towards your body down so that you can give the lecture / teach the class / participate in the conversation. As though the body… mm… precisely because it is in pain has to cease to exist. You know?

And there's so many forms of that. I mean, like, the gendered body, the racialised body. Like, we perform ourselves, obviously, socially, and in very particular ways to play into or against a politics that defines us. But I think with pain, instead of recognising it as a kind of identity politics that is cast upon us, it's something that's happening inside of us that doesn't seem to be related to the outside world at all and therefore becomes our fault. And therefore, it needs to get shut down, you know?

And I, I think the question of like how we, how we listen, and maybe beyond listening or adjacent to listening, how we mobilise ourselves and in relation to the world is so vital to thinking about the pain of the world. Whatever that world may be, however, however wide we want to cast the net of that term. And I think um, you know, just beginning the session with you today and being like: “I’m in pain” and you being like, “I'm in pain, too” is really profound and instructive.

*

Julietta:

So in November when we were supposed to have our conversation and I had to cancel because my dog was very wounded, um… I had a very strange moment where my dog Ellery was expressing profound pain and I diagnosed his condition before bringing him to the vet to get a diagnosis. I diagnosed it because I radically identified with the pain that he was in, and the mode of expression, because I had been there. So I understood that he had injured his spine in a radical way that was not going to be able to heal without a serious intervention, by the look in his eyes and the sound of his body, because I knew it from my own experience.

And I'm interested in… I mean, I think it was, you know, it was a very difficult, very profound moment for me because I essentially had to euthanise him for something that I had allowed myself to be treated for. And it created an extraordinarily difficult ethical crisis in me. But also, I was in the perfect position to know how to act and react because I knew what he was going through, exactly.

So I'm saying all of this because there is no world in which we would say Ellery's injury was because he didn't trust. We understand Ellery's injury to be about an ageing body, a hard life, a world we didn't know before because he was a stray, a genetic weakness. There's all kinds of ways of explaining it, but none would be: his spine was radically injured because he had trust issues.

And so I guess in the end I come out feeling very attached to the energetics of healing, the possibilities of healing through breathwork, through meditation, through all kinds of treatment. But I, I refuse the… the narrative of: this is so because of this. This is so because you don't trust. This is so because, you know… because we are also bodies!

Rajni:

Yeah.

Julietta:

In some ways we’re primarily bodies.

*

Rajni:

I feel like you gave me permission to dream in the night. And to do the work of dreaming. And for that to be valid night time work. [laughs]

Julietta:

What did I say?

Rajni:

Well, because it was late and I was talking about how I wanted to be a night time person who wrote late at night but I've never really been that person. And um, and you were just very clear that it's okay to sleep in the night. And, and I also said that my name means the night, and so I always feel like I’ve failed in some way by not - by being afraid of the dark, actually.

Julietta:

Oh, interesting!

Rajni:

Yeah. And I do still, you know, that's something I still feel like I'm reckoning with. But… I had a conversation with my partner actually about this, and they said: “You're afraid of the literal dark – like,everything literal about it being dark scares you. But you're not at all afraid of darkness or shadow in other ways.”

Um. But yeah, there was something about you saying that that made me feel like, Ah, yeah! I do value that work and I speak about and write about valuing that work of dreaming in, you know, in the many different ways. But also quite… quite literally, you know, what our bodies do at night is so important. I feel like so much happens in the night for my mindbody state and… that's a different kind of work that's really important.

Julietta:

Absolutely.

*

[cello and cicada sounds fade out during the following section]

Rajni:

The only part of a dream that I've had in between our two meetings that I can remember is that my mum, who’s blind, fell down a big set of stairs, and was like falling, falling, and then I woke up right after she'd kind of managed to hold on to something.

But it was also this… very familiar feeling somehow of… looking out for her in this very particular way because of her eyesight. And her mode of being, of being very practical, always, including in the moment when she's falling down a very grand set of stairs and like sliding down parts of the banister, but just looking for like ‘where is the place where I can hold on?’ or, you know...

Julietta:

My mum… a few years ago… fell down stairs and took the weight of the fall on the back of her head. And it caused a bleed in her brain, a haemorrhaging in her brain that ignited a haemorrhagic stroke. And so she became paralysed on the right side through a fall that hit her head, that ignited a stroke, that paralysed her… So I’m, I'm really feeling that with you - the kind of fragility of her body and her being, and the long distance from her, and the impossibility with COVID of any kind of easy access to… an ageing and disabled body… maternal body. It's very hard. Very intense.

[cicadas and then cello start to fade back in gently]

Rajni:

Yeah. Yeah.

I think I'm also coming to understand that we live with impossibilities, inevitably.

Julietta:

Yeah.

Yeah.

[long section of cello and cicadas plays, and then slowly fades out, to silence]

[pause]

PART THREE (epilogue)

Rajni:

I just, um, finally read Octavia Butler's Earthseed books.

Julietta:

Yeah.

Rajni:

I felt so late. … I feel late in when I read most things.

But also, I was glad to have waited. I'm also learning to wait till the right moment for when I can read something.

Julietta:

I love being late to the game. [laughter]

Discovering things, you know, when you're ready for them, or when they find you, or when you find each other.

Rajni:

I think what I'm discovering is that I love the people who, for whom that resonates, who also feel late to the game.

Julietta:

Yeah.

Rajni:

But this, yeah, this idea of… adaptation, change… and our… capabilities, but also resist- resistances to…

Julietta:

Mm hm.

Rajni:

…actually changing.

Julietta:

Mm hmm.

Rajni:

You know, and I can feel it in myself because… we're starting to come in to the hotter months. And of course there are fires happening where you are right now. But also I'm aware that, you know, I… I've been trying this whole year to feel into the reality of… the… rolling disasters that, you know, we've just heard announced, but that are very real … for some of us, you know, and have been very real for many people for a long time, but in my world, feel quite new as a daily lived experience and…

I've done so much work, I feel like I've done so much work to be with change and not knowing. That's been so much of my practice for so long. And yet my ability to really really be with this moment is… quite minimal. Or at least the power of my desire to go back to something is much stronger than I thought it would be.

Julietta:

Mm. Mm hm.

Rajni:

Because I didn't think I was very attached to that thing that I'm wanting to go back to, or those things, those sets of conditions. But to really imagine or feel into the work of … nothing being known, for someone like me ... I guess it just makes me realise how much, how much actually has been known and has been stable in my life.

Julietta:

Mm. Mm hm.

Rajni:

There's still a lot … of undoing … that needs to happen.

Julietta:

It's interesting to think about… you know, I had a feminist mentor in my life for many years when I was in graduate school. And, you know, she used to look at me inquisitively around the ideas or questions or problems that I was persistently confronting in my work, like what it was that I was drawn to. And in a very psychoanalytic mode, she was like: “You know, the things that you work on are always the things that you're trying to work out.”

And I think that there's something about the kind of commitment to certain kinds of practices or certain kinds of pursuits or the desire to follow… particular lines of questioning or lines of thought that reveal so much to us about ourselves. And maybe not simply through, or not strictly through the lens of like, I'm meeting this moment with a degree of instability, because I've had so much stability . But rather, precisely because of the path that you've been on in pursuit of kinds of acceptance and attentiveness and awareness of the moment and the surround, and your practice of listening, and your politics of listening, that there's something about that, that practice and that pursuit and that spirit and that desire that brings you exactly to this, which is a real attentiveness and a real awareness of a desire to go backwards.

Which is not, you know, you, you… one way of looking at that is to be, like, critical, like: W hy, after all this time, do I want to go backwards? But the other is actually quite enlightened, like: Wow, look at me in where I am and what I've done wanting to run backward to another time and another place . But it's the, it's the understanding, it's the attunement to that desire which is possible precisely because of everything you've done along the way to get here.

In other words, the desire to return doesn't have to be met with critique or resistance, but is in fact the outcome of the pursuit that you've been on all along.

Do you know what I mean?

Rajni:

Yeah.

It feels like an invitation as well to be less linear.

Julietta:

Yeah. Yes.

Linearity’s not right! [laughter]

It’s a fiction -

Rajni:

Yeah.

Julietta:

- of the most limiting kind.

Rajni:

Yeah… yeah.



Offering

[sounds of cello plucking and bowing a fiesty little tune fade in]

Rajni:

Welcome to this short offering that accompanies episode 3 of how to think. In this recording, Julietta Singh reads an extract from her latest book, The Breaks, which takes the form of a letter to her daughter. During our long conversation, Julietta described the book as an exploration of the very notion of breaking – thinking about bodies breaking, but also thinking about breaking from the past, breaking from history, and breaking from the structures that oppress us and oppress others. She read to me from the book during our original conversation, and I found her words really resonant. So I’m really excited to share this reading with you. Enjoy!

Julietta:

Another Thanksgiving is upon us, and this year you inform me that your first-grade class will soon be studying Pocahontas. You ask me earnestly whether we might watch the Disney movie together. Intuiting my hesitation, you add that Pocahontas comes from the land near where we now live, and that she is a superimportant person. I concede to your request, knowing you will see this film sooner or later, and finding myself oddly curious about how Disney has rendered this history.

In preparation for our date, we slice apples, pour chamomile tea, and fill bowls with popcorn before climbing into my bed to watch under the covers. Early in the film, you declare that Pocahontas reminds you of yourself, and I ask you how you see a resemblance. Eager to keep your attention on the movie, you briefly list her kindness and her connection with nature. Then, in a fabulous offhanded gesture that makes me laugh, you add that Pocahontas’s hair, which is long, immaculate, and shining black, is quite similar to your own short, ever-disheveled, and unmistakably brown hair.

Moments later—on the heels of your declarative affiliation with Pocahontas—you say, for the first time in your life, I wish I was white. I hit the space bar on the laptop to pause the film. I feel like I’m sliding through time, careening into transmutation. Thirty-five years ago, I too was a little girl wishing for whiteness. I am astonished by the twinning, even though I know intellectually that a childhood wish for whiteness is as mundane as it is predictable. Still, in that split second I want to look into your eyes, our eyes, and say, I have always loved you, little misfit.

Instead, I ask an inane question: Why do you feel this way? You respond without hesitation, bluntly, Because I want to be one of the good guys. I remind you that the only expressly “bad guy” we’ve seen so far in the film is the white Ratcliffe. But I know you are intuiting and absorbing the representation of the “savage” that the film propagates, and so while there is one “bad” white man in this narrative, the “uncivilized” ways of the Indigenous peoples of this film are presented as the real problem. In other words, you are reading the film through its own disturbing lens: the white man is fundamentally good if we can just beat off the one bad seed, and the Indigenous peoples are inherently misguided and belligerent, even while we are given permission to love the girl who dared to love a white man.

How to explain all this to you? How to say in simple terms that we are steeped in layers of ideology that make up a collective sense of goodness, beauty, and civility? To explain that these dominant narratives come to inform, if not dictate, what we desire and how we live our most intimate lives. I cannot shield you from these structures of belief or their profound and abiding effects on you. But I can complicate and unearth them with you. Indeed, my role as your mother may be nothing more than an endless task of reading narratives against the grain, of resisting the mainstream’s consumptive ease.

When the film is done, we turn out the lights to fall asleep together and our ritual unfolds. I whisper, I love you for always. You’re my favorite thing. You respond, Tell me a story, Amma. Then, often together, we say, Once upon a time, a long, long time ago . . . before I break into a fantastical story that you expect me, night after night, to invent for you on the spot.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a magical little girl

You interrupt me promptly and insist, No! Not magical, Amma!

So, I begin again . . . There was an ordinary little girl . . .

And then, frustrated with my easy adjectival foreclosures, you interrupt to assert that I should not make the story so obvious . . .

Who is the teacher and who is the student in this elementary pedagogy? In the end, it is you who schools me—to always complicate the story, to never prescribe, never reduce. There is infinite promise in this teaching. I hold the lesson in my body.

*

On the sixth day of a nine-day work trip—the longest period I have been away from you—I FaceTime home and find you deeply engaged in an act of fruit sculpting. You tell me you are making a Native American village. The Native Americans are represented by banana slices, and apple skins make up their shelters. Off to the side of the village, you have crafted colonial ships by slicing kiwis in half, gutting their insides and attaching the skins to the little fruit boats to serve as sails. You have created rough waters out of banana peels, and a wall of carved-apple manatees that surrounds the kiwi ships on three sides.

What’s happening in this scene? I ask.

The rough waters and manatees are pushing the Europeans back home, you reply earnestly.

I am blown away to witness this art-making against the state, this anticolonial fruit installation that is also a fantasy of organically reversing history. What I love most is that in your historical revisioning, you move us beyond the subjugated histories of Indigenous resistance to colonial force. Instead, you turn your attention to the sea, letting it emerge as an actor in the opposition to the colonial mission. Your artwork veers me away from the anthropocentric position, carefully and imaginatively invoking what the earth itself might desire.

[end of Episode Three]

 

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. 1993. Parable of the Sower. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

———. 1998. Parable of the Talents. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf .

Singh, Julietta. 2018. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822372363

———. 2021. The Breaks. Minneapolis and London: Coffee House Press and Daunt Books.


Biographies

Fili 周 Gibbons (we/them/us) are a musician and recording engineer working across a range of community and professional contexts to support plural voices, expressions, and sonic experiences. As well as leading community workshops they frequently work with other sound and video artists, drawing on listening, memory and intuition as guiding forces in collaborative making practices. Their work interfaces with plural cultural histories and experiences, intangible arts traditions, and community-oriented sound practice.

Rajni Shah (they/them) is an artist whose practice is focused on listening and gathering as creative and political acts. Key projects—always created alongside and in collaboration with others—include hold each as we fall (1999), The Awkward Position (2003-2004), Mr Quiver (2005-2008), small gifts (2006-2008), Dinner with America (2007-2009), Glorious (2010-2012), Experiments in Listening (2014-2015), Lying Fallow (2014-2015), Song (2016), I don’t know how (to decolonize myself) (2018), Feminist Killjoys Reading Group (2016-2020) and Listening Tables (2019-2020). In 2021, Rajni will publish a monograph and series of zines as part of the Performance Philosophy Series, entitled Experiments in Listening.

Julietta Singh is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Richmond, where she teaches courses on decolonial literature, the ecological humanities, and queer studies. She is the author of three books: No Archive Will Restore You (Punctum Books, 2018), Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Duke UP, 2018), and her forthcoming work of epistolary nonfiction, The Breaks (Coffee House Press and Daunt Books Originals, 2021). 


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