We are born of indigestion. Some two billion years ago, one bacterial cell half-swallowed another and our first eukaryotic mother was born. Ever since, we have been made of bodies tumbled into bodies; each cell belly full of our mother’s mitochondria, each eyeball a reservoir of seawater. Symbiogenesis, the evolutionary theory, shows us how all of life’s diversity stems from this original uneasy engulfment. There was always contamination and collaboration before there was you and me: the bacteria in our gut, the mites who clean our eyelashes, all the innumerable microbiota who inhabit our bodies, who are our bodies.
In the age of a pandemic, we have no choice but to recognise this virus as our body too. How does this globe-trotting virus inhabit bodies differently? What conditions determine whose lungs can’t breathe? Who transformed this ball of RNA into a pandemic? Around the world, zoonoses are rising; industrial agriculture pushes out small-scale farmers; wildlife is commodified as luxury product; climate change threatens to unthaw 15,000 year old-viruses from the permafrost; and other yet unknown vectors are born from the rapidly changing environment.
We are feeling the pressure from the compression of a slinky that’s long been rollingi. We now see these inequalities most clearly through the unevenly felt impacts of this virus: people already forced into ‘self-isolation’ in jails and detention centers; people without shelter who are now directed to ‘shelter in place’ with domestic abusers, in overcrowded shelters or on the streets; people encouraged to stay healthy and clean in healthcare systems that prioritises profit over life. The virus knows no borders, but it follows the contours of the social boundaries and inequalities already engrained; structural injustice is expressed through the virus’ unruly path.
When we can emerge from our homes again, I hope that we will hug again in an uneasy embrace.
As we are forced apart, may we revalue our basic need for human contact. As some are forced to slow down and stay home, may we remember to notice our more intimate ecologies, our multispecies bodies, our house plants and windowsill bugs, our neighborhood woods and weeds. As we promote self-care in trying times, may we uplift the care work of farmers and grocery clerks, maintenance and sanitation workers, healthcare workers and manufacturers – the underpaid people who are the most vital to sustaining society. May this time of compression enliven compassion, remind us that these connections are all we have, all we are.
So many undervalued forms of care are vital to our survival in this time. We need to remember all these forms of care – the sympoesis, the mutual aid that was there for our communities when nothing else was. As we learn to adjust our lives to live in proximity with this invisible pathogen, we might learn some valuable tools for greeting all of the other invisible strangers – toxins, nutrient pollutants, changed atmospheres – with whom we must learn to live better.
When we can emerge from our homes again, let’s not let neo-Pasteurian germaphobia prevail. I hope that we will hug again in an uneasy embrace, and by reaching out find new ways forwards in the messy world we inherit. History teaches us how crises create ruptures that enable radical change. Already, authoritarian governments are leaning in to capitalise on this moment – in part out of fearful anticipation of people’s movements rising. Now is the time for global solidarity, foreign and domestic – cancel debt, abolish the prison industrial complex, end crippling sanctions on Iran – as well as human and nonhuman – end illegal wildlife trade, stop drastic pollution regulation rollbacks, and keep fossil fuels in the ground.
As we resist, we learn to recreate from the underbelly of this crisis. As always, we need to learn from the long lineage of underground, underwater creativities that can guide us in this time – all of the people who have practice seeing from “submerged perspectives”ii. We must learn to attend not only to our creaturely kiniii but also to our toxic progenyiv. Fortunately, we have a rich compost heapv of ideas to dig through.
The ‘Rot’ editorial section invites work that explores these messy ways of living with our uneasy neighbors in uncertain times. Contributions to this theme question co-authorship through the ecological entanglements that are always shot through creative works. They consider the collaborators we invite and the ones we never asked for – the destructive and the useful, following both matsutake and mold spore.
This section gathers artists, scientists, activists, and writers with poorly disciplined curiosities. It encourages dialogue around works in process; field notes, half-completed projects, the tangled in-between moments where cross-contaminations and co-creations occur. Contributions to this theme offer tools and practices to unravel the enduring myth of self-made Man, to fray the edges of seemingly coherent boundaries and reconnect across distance.
All of these in-between stories help us to love this messy family we didn’t choose. It’s ok to be a bad environmentalistvi; curling up in the fetal position is a perfectly realistic, accurate responsevii. Inheriting these rotten ecologies is hard work. Learning to love them is even harder.
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For more information on submitting your work please see Open call: Rot.
Image credit: Leila Nadir and Cary Adams, from the series Microbial Selfie (2017): digital images created with custom electronics and software that allow microbes to take their own ‘selfies’ and add image manipulation effects based on the shifting pH levels, oxygen, and color values of the fermentation process.
i. Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017). On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 16(4), 761–780.
ii. Gómez-Barris, M. (2017). The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Duke University Press.
iii. Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press Books.
iv. Davis, H. (2015). Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures. PhiloSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism, 5(2), 231–250.
vi. Seymour, N. (2018). Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age. University of Minnesota Press.
vii. Morton, T. (2020, January 2). The End of the World Has Already Happened – 1: We’re doomed!, BBC Sounds