Brief Encounter / NICHOLAS KORODY
responding to Jack Self
Understanding contemporary life is a constant struggle, which sometimes seems almost impossible. What does it mean to live today?
“This is the first thing I’ve done today — I’m having my coffee right now — so I suspect my answer is inflected by the hour, and that any answer to this question would always have to be situated, temporally and otherwise, because what it means to live is, I think, not only mediated by the question of what demarcates a shared sense of the present — the today — but also by an even more immediate set of qualifiers — the right now and the where of the who that responds. That is, I’m tempted to say that what it means to live today is always situational knowledge, and always subjective, and then maybe to hoard my answer, to lock it up in the realm of the personal and swaddle it in soundproof foam to protect it from eavesdroppers.
But I think Jack is looking for an answer that strives for, if not the universal, then a shared condition — one to which the political may be, however tentatively, staked — and so I’ll do my best while trying to keep in sight the site from which I speak.
My instinct right now, as I’m reeling from reading an article about school children being arrested for protesting climate inaction and an op-ed from a pundit attempting to maneuver around any policy action designed to ameliorate staggering wealth inequality, is that what it means to live today is, simply, to survive.
Survival, of course, does not mean the same thing to the same people at the same time: survival, for me in Brooklyn as a white cis male in 2019 looks different — is easier, I think you could say — than what it means for someone else, somewhere else. Sometimes survival is mere, sometimes it is bare, but often it is something else.
So, keeping in mind its fundamentally relative character, I think survival suggests a shared condition in that, at least, it describes how we are (almost all, if not all) fucked in some way by a system that is highly heterogeneous in its affects and effects but somehow is bound up together and bounds us up together. While I might not be merely surviving right now, and I must always remember that other people are, in the face of the existential questions that mark the contemporary, we are all surviving on borrowed time, and, in that, survival is a concept through which we might chain our solidarity and ground our struggle.
And, at the risk of sounding like a complete and utter asshole, I’m reminded of a distinction Walter Benjamin makes between two meanings of survival: überleben, to live on after death, like a work of art after the demise of its author, and fortleben, to keep on living. I’d like to venture that what it means to live today is to grab hold of that which we want to survive us — a concept, an object, a horizon of possibility — as the thing that brings us together as we struggle to keep on living, or that which motivates us to keep on living, together.”