Saturday, May 27, 2017

Crit: Clary Estes, Those Who Remain

Clary Estes is one of that kind of young turk who write boring pieces on Medium about how awful everything is. There's something about Medium, I swear to god, that turns people into pompous idiots. But that's enough bitching about Medium, I've got more important things on my mind.

Here's an interesting thing about Estes. She's pretty good.

Here's another work in progress, Those Who Remain about, well, at the core it's about people who were deported from Moldava by the Stalin regime, and who have returned to Moldava. In a larger sense, it's about the story of the Stalinist policies of famine and of moving people around, of enforced Russianization, and all that business. Anyone who wasn't raised under a rock has some rough notion of this, but I think it's a rare person who has much of a detailed insight into that whole awful thing. In the largest and most general sense Estes's essay is, but I feel I may be projecting here, about forced mass migrations, the human costs of them, and perhaps the moments of empathy, generosity, and joy that make them, occasionally less dreadful.

This isn't brilliant work, it's rough, it's patchy. The writing is often clunky, the web site is terrible. I don't much love the structure. But there's the heart of something in here, the potential for something really good. I think.

Estes doesn't really try to fill in the whole story, or to unravel the whole geopolitical mess. It doesn't much matter, really. There are always reasons for these things, and they vary, but the story is always roughly the same. Racism, nationalism, greed, naked power, corruption, and a large dose of venal stupidity and brutality. Whatever. We in the western world are enjoying a weirdly insulated bubble, safely away from this, but this sort of thing has been a constant backdrop of human history.

And, just to be clear, I think it is terrible. I hope that as a species, we can manage to graduate from this sort of thing, and find a new way to exist. The west, one imagines, might be a beacon, an example. Except that as often as not, Western meddling seems to be part of the root cause.

Just to get going, the pictures are perfectly nice, well made pictures. The sort of thing, though, that we've seen a lot of. The picturesque old people in the picturesque room with the signs of European poverty. Estes is not, thank god, interested in experimenting with form, she doesn't waste time trying to make banal pictures "look interesting", she's not following some twee fad. This is straightforward documentation. Well made, often appealing, but no individual picture is going to knock your socks off, or even stand out much.

Be that as it may. Estes is interested in the personal stories. Estes gives us fragments, details, bits and pieces. The stories, we should assume, are unreliable, but that too is irrelevant. Estes isn't a historian here trying to unravel some literal truth. Estes is an artist, trying to unravel instead some of Herzog's "ecstatic truth" for us, and I think she's well on her way.

Estes manages to accomplish, pretty well, I think, my two current little pet things. She's involved, she's personal. These are her friends, people she knows and who know her. There is personal connection here, she is emotionally plugged in. There's none of this coy half-assery of simply presenting facts without taking a position. We know where Estes stands. She is not some chickenshit hiding behind some bogus veil of "objectivity" and she's being in no way cute, chic, or trendy.

Secondly, she paints the whole picture tolerably well, or any rate gives up the bits and pieces we need. She uses photographs of photographs and other physical evidence sparingly, but well, enough to push our attention toward the past, to imagine that full story. She writes and quotes enough to suggest the breadth of the story. We understand that the people she loves and shows us stand in for a larger community of deportees.

Finally, she begins to lean toward what I think of as answers or the message or something. We see that strange indomitable stoicism distinct to the eastern Europeans. I think of it as a Russian thing, but it's not. It seems to start somewhere around Berlin as you head east. I dare say that the Russians express it differently from the Czechs who are in turn different from the Moldavians. From here in Bellingham, WA, it all looks the same capacity to endure absurd trials, stoically, with a cynical humor and occasional wild outbursts of emotion.

So we have also this story of endurance.

At least once, Estes makes the mistake of saying that we must never allow this to happen again which is the common refrain of the young and strident, confronted with a terrible story. Sadly, we're not going to accomplish that. It's happening right now, all over again, in several places in the world. At any given moment, masses are being forced to flee, or are being deported, or imported, or trafficked. To stand up and cry out that we must put an end to it is to simply make ones complete impotence clear, to look young and foolish.

I don't mean to suggest that nothing should be done.

What is lacking, to my mind, is that final step, pulling it together to suggest the way forward. I think the seeds are in there, they just need to be tended a little.

If it were mine, I would (obviously) crush the captions down to nothing, or almost nothing, and instead wrap the piece in an essay that encompasses all these stories. The personal trials, the Stalinist brutalities, the stoicism of the people, leading onward to hints of the repetitive nature of the story, the reality that we see these forced migrations over and over, and that we're still seeing them today. No need to handwring about Syrian refugees specifically, and indeed that would date the work too precisely, Enough to say that mass forced migrations continue, and seem to be built in to human history. Enough to suggest that this is perhaps, someday, it might no longer be true.

Just a line or two on the general cases of forced migrations would be enough. We know. We all know.

And then, and then, dig up those little bright spots. They appear in the captions, and in my notional essay they'd appear a little more clearly. Now revisit them, point out those moments of compassion, of giving, of sharing. Those moments that saved a life, that brightened a child's day. The moment that lightened the burden of exile, that eased the day of return. They may not have been common in the stories Estes tells us, but we see them, here and there. If these bright moments had been more frequent, more generous, these stories would not have been so tragic.

As always, the answer in these stories is human connection, is empathy, is kindness.

What is necessary is not a handful of westerners standing up and yelling never again! What is necessary is more global, more general. Each forced migration seems reasonable and necessary to whoever is forcing it, because they don't have compassion, because they have no empathy for the forced, and because they do not see that this forced migration (so obviously necessary) is just the same thing as all of the (cruel, brutal, pointlessly stupid) other ones.

Not to suggest that one book, one essay, will change the minds of whichever egomaniacal ideologue will lead the charge on the next mass forced migration, or the one after that. But 100 books, essays, plays, novels, television shows, movies, a 1000, 10,000, might change the masses just enough to take away the egomaniac's support. The global culture changes drip by drip, in tiny increments.

Someday, maybe, the idea that we're just not like that, this isn't a thing we do gets baked into the human psyche. Maybe tomorrow some snotty white Parisian makes the connection between the ancient Moldavian woman's trials in Khazakstan and those difficult brown fellows living the projects on the edge of Paris. Maybe the day after that, this snotty white Parisian is just a little bit kinder to some Algerian guy who bumps into him on the street. Drip by drip we normalize the idea that turfing out all the people who aren't like you isn't a thing we do. Drip by drip the idea that being an asshole to the immigrant who doesn't look like isn't a thing we do.

There are, in any of these changes of culture, many works of art that lead, or that follow, or that reinforce. Some are seminal, some merely tap the keystone a little more firmly into place. Richard Mosse's works don't seem to be the seminal works of a new tolerance for the refugee, for the migrant, for the displaced. Mosse is just spectacle. Estes, I don't know. Maybe I am being wildly generous. I think, I imagine, I see the seed of something. I think maybe, just maybe, Estes has a shot of something weighty, something important, a seminal work in a cultural shift. She's not there now, by any means, but her trajectory looks pretty good so far.

I find the website to be obnoxious. The captions (quite long) scroll upwards, obscuring the photo they caption, but allowing you to read the caption, and this is an absurd piece of design.

But Estes? Estes is pretty good.


  1. What's wrong with saying "We must never allow this to happen again"? It will happen, certainly, as will death and eventual extinction of the species. "Must not allowing" is a pretty integral part of the mortal condition as I see it.

    As for this, it rekindles memories of the books I've read about the pandits of Kashmir.

    How heartening it is to read and see the work of someone who doesn't pretend that it's cool to look like one doesn't care.

    1. This might be just me, but to me it evokes two opposing failures. On the one hand it makes you look naive and silly, ineffectual, and it makes it harder to take the speaker seriously.

      On the other hand, it is a cry raised from time to time be people who would very much like for whatever it is to happen again, but this time with them on top. "Genocide must never again happen!" cries the fellow who very much would like to commit genocide on the people who tried it out on his people, and who proves it by giving it a jolly good go a few months later. (I have no specific case in mind, that's a generality).

      Can you tell me more about the pandits of Kashmir?

      Also, I am pleased to see that *this* one does read, across cultures. I thought that it might.

    2. In brief, the pandits of Kashmir were the Hindu peoples of the Kashmir Valley. They were driven out of their homes by the Muslims in the valley and thus became internally displaced refugees.

      You may have heard of the slogan, "Kashmir mein rehna hai toh allahu akbar kehna hai". It translates to: "If you want to stay in Kashmir, you must pledge allegiance to Allah". This was the cry heard throughout the valley on those fateful days in 1990.

      Anyhow, this is one of the reasons that a plebiscite is an unacceptable solution to the Kashmir situation. This is also why Al Jazeera and the BBC are so determined to push the story that These ~100000 families left their homes because a wind blew them away.

    3. Good lord. I have literally never heard of this, that I can recall, and I was an adult at the time.

      I'd prefer to assume that this is entirely because I am an ignorant twit, but it's surely in part because the story is so common. At that time South Africa was looming large in the minds of privileged white Americans (i.e. me)

    4. But I'm sure you did hear of the Gujarat riots, and 9/11 was on the collective white american mind at that time.

      There are vested interests at play everywhere, and I for one, will not hesitate to acknowledge them.