The world will never be clean enough
Through the imprisoned archetypal figure of Baldur, I continue to find a useful way to think and talk about “whiteness”, which is in my perspective a planetary vocation that enlists bodies – organic, technological and conceptual – in the proliferation of a paradigm of “safety”, “escape”, or “purity”. If you don’t know the story, Baldur is a Norse god who dreams of his impending death. His mother, the powerful witch Freya, travels far and wide, across dimensions no less, and makes every creature swear that they wouldn’t harm her son. Baldur, now immured from pain and sensitivity, becomes a paradoxical figure: wanting permanent life but unable to feel life’s sweetness. He cannot die, but he cannot truly live either.
The coronavirus pandemic seems like an ironic reinforcement of that old (and new) paradigm and its animating impulses. I read recently that the grand war against the virus has taken on new shapes: the exaggerated emphasis on hygiene, on sanitized surfaces, on hyper-clean touch, on bleached air, on furniture blasted with antimicrobial holy water – known in boring tongue as hydrogen peroxide. If we ask whether there’s anything wrong with this, we are probably asking the “wrong” question. It isn’t about if this is the right or wrong thing to do; there are more interesting questions to ask here, some of which invite us to notice what kind of world we are reinforcing, why we think of this sanitized bubble as “privilege”, and what forces are at work in the proliferation of this potentially extensive war against microbes and pathogens.
The end of the Baldurian legend is brought about by a fatal mistake: Freya forgets to solicit the aid of the mistletoe in the conspiracy of Baldur’s unfeeling longevity. In Western parlance, she “missed a spot.” Loki, trickster-extraordinaire, fashions a weapon out of the mistletoe, and has Baldur killed. I have often wondered about this mistake: what if Freya covered all her bases? What if her work was thorough and she refused to take anything for granted? Would Baldur be alive today? Perhaps the point of the myth – like the Yoruba myth of the Tortoise who seeks to gain all knowledge, and actually succeeds, but then finds out the folly of his quest – is that it is impossible to “cover all our bases”, to wipe the slate clean, to be completely safe. Such is the embarrassing excessiveness of a world that does not stay still.
The hallowed interior of whiteness is under siege, yes, but perhaps more frightening to those of us living within its vast territory is that it is already infiltrated. Our walls could never be pure enough to keep the world out if we are made up – in part – by the things we want to keep out. The very effort to sanitize the world with toxins poisons us, deadens us even further. Of course, public health depends on compliance with simple, seemingly commonsense practices like washing our hands and maintaining some distance in public spaces (as my family and I continue to do), but even normalized “public health” measures are not without tensions, and are constructed, political, configured with cosmovisions, and contingent upon other discourses that are mangled with the magnetic terroir of whiteness.
There is some urgency in the felt vocation to investigate the ways our bodies are being made and remade within the regime of whiteness. The point is not to defeat whiteness, to treat it as an evil, to transcend it, or to imagine it as a pathogen we can rid ourselves of in small doses of workshop attendances: the invitation is, I feel, to compost it, to trace all the ways it is still connected to the earth, to mistletoes everywhere, and then to inhabit those “spots”, and allow ourselves to be acted upon. Perhaps a trickster will meet us in our sanctuary-making, and defeat us, break us open, and reconfigure us long enough for us to realize – from our bones – that we live only through others, and dying exceeds our images of it.