We hear from Jose Antonio Vargas on immigration, Marion Nestle on food, Damian Woetzel on the arts, Sarah Lewis on images, and Irin Carmon on power in Breaking Points, a portfolio from Document's Fall/Winter 2018 issue.
Read the entire Breaking Points portfolio here.
If anything in contemporary life continues to function, if thinly, as a common substrate, it is a thoroughgoing sense of crisis.
There’s little consensus about the source or the essence of this crisis, and even less overlap on the matter of redress, but at the very least we are brought together by our panic. The most parsimonious description of the nature of this crisis is that the only thing we all agree about is that it exists. Practically everybody would concede that the situation, in the broadest sense of the term, can’t continue. We have come to a breaking point.
If we were to begin to find ourselves in agreement about other things—about matters beyond the fact of the crisis—we could take that halting communication as a sign that we’d begun to break through. One shortcut to such an outcome is simply to redefine the “we” we’re talking about: If “we” can’t agree, perhaps the problem was only a mass confusion about what “we” was supposed to mean in the first place. In this case, the relevant “break” is a cultural and political divergence: Things, in a narrower sense of the term, will in fact continue, in a narrower sense of the term.
Beyond the collapse of our great democratic experiment, the problem with such a shortcut is that it mistakes the symptom for the cause. The idea that we can gerrymander ourselves out of incoherence without any attention to the conditions of that incoherence—to the inequality and sectarianism that are the ongoing consequences of precedented greed at unprecedented scale—seems like little more than the quickest and surest route to the perpetual war of all against all.
If we instead aspire to imagine a “break” that’s not merely an angry or resigned redefinition of the “we,” what might the post-break era look and sound like? We have at our longstanding disposal—since at least the French Revolution, if not earlier—a crude first-order approximation that divides us between two basic responses, each with its own promise or threat of discontinuity. The first is to suggest that the present is in crisis insofar as it no longer resembles the past: We no longer agree because we have lost our moorings in bygone agreement. The relevant break, on this account, is with the heedlessness of forward motion; in the wake of the coming restoration, we will find ourselves replete with the old union. The second is to propose that the present is in crisis because it too cleanly resembles the past. The relevant break, on this alternate account, is with dull quiescence; in the wake of this interruption, we will find ourselves transported to the new union.
“Practically everybody would concede that the situation, in the broadest sense of the term, can’t continue. We have come to a breaking point.”
We all know this to be a crude first-order approximation of the available options, but we also recognize that in times of scarcity, alarm, and fragmentation, we tend to reach for the succor of crude first-order approximation. We also now have ready to hand a set of assortative tools designed not only to satisfy but to deepen and extend, at an unprecedented scale, our crudest and most approximate desires. Those tools, and the digitally enhanced, runaway feedback cycles they encourage, are one reason we ended up here in the first place. In our distress, we attempt to use the tools of crude first-order approximation to combat the effects of crude first-order approximation: We call out the reactionaries as secret radicals, and the radicals as secret reactionaries. We shame those who push for discontinuity under the banner of continuity, and vice versa; we identify them as actors in bad faith. But even when these counterclaims are fair and righteous in their specificity, as they often are, the specifics are soon washed away by the tidal scale of the general.
What is left to us is the hope that if we sequester ourselves from the crude terror of scale, most of us, aside from the professionally greedy, neither expect nor demand absolute rupture or retreat. This position of greater nuance is, of course, susceptible to caricature—one thinks of the absurd slogan of Veep’s Selina Meyer, later adopted by an Australian prime minister who wasn’t in on the joke, “Continuity and Change.” One of the things that draws together the subjects of this portfolio is that all of them— academics, journalists, and performers committed at once to scholarship and activism—ultimately disavow the idea that the breaking point of a crisis can or should represent an absolute historical discontinuity. They each find the fine grain of the durably vital in different places and at different registers: Jose Antonio Vargas looks to situate the contemporary immigration debate as part of a long and—for many white people—often-forgotten story of where Americans came from; Damian Woetzel, at the end of his discussion about his ambition to make Juilliard a more inclusive place, reaches back to Philip Glass; Marion Nestle frames her work on nutrition as a logical extension of 1960s activism; Sarah Lewis moves along from the work of Gordon Parks to the recent films and TV series of Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe; Irin Carmon, at a loss to explain why she had such a hard time finding biographies of important women, was inspired and initiated by the legacy of Ms. magazine.
The idea of “loss aversion,” as formulated by behavioral economists and social psychologists, describes our inclination to protect what we presently have at the expense of some improved, if uncertain, future welfare—even when the expected value of the reward makes acceptance of the risk a rational calculation. It is fear and despair that motivates this pattern of rearguard action. When presented with the diagnosis that everything is broken, people will rush to hoard whatever shards they claim are rightfully theirs. The work described in these pages is specific, slow, and careful in its attempts to separate what is broken from what is not; it is pointed in its regenerative aspiration; it is predicated on a refusal of the temptation to regard everything, no matter how dire the crisis may seem, as wholly beyond repair.
Hair Jimmy Paul at Susan Price Agency. Make Up Francelle Daly at Art+Commerce. Lighting Technician Romain Dubus. Digital Technician Henri Coutant. Photo Assistant Gaspar Dietrich. Make Up Assistant Jessica Lundgren. Production One Thirty-Eight Productions. Set Design Piers Hanmer at Art+Commerce.