PRINT May/June 2020

hannah baer

PART OF THIS MEME, like a lot of memes I make, comes from conversations I was having in my head that were echoing conversations I was having or seeing happen in the world. One thing I kept thinking and talking about is the way this crisis—especially its epidemiological component—promotes a tension between individualist and collectivist concerns. On the one hand, many of us have shrunk our cones of experience to very narrow, hyperindivudated sets of priorities: Am I practicing CDC guidelines correctly? What will I eat today? When will I run out of money? On the other, many of us are more tuned into collectivity than usual, compulsively reading the news, worrying about our neighbors, wondering if our personal choices about our bodies are endangering others, etc.

I’ve experienced this moment with a mix of strong emotions, including rage, hopelessness, confusion, amusement, and sometimes, strangely, optimism. Part of my hopefulness in this horrible and scary moment comes from the pressure it has placed on the contradictions between individualism and collectivism, the contradictions of our individualist consumerist society. Amplifying those contradictions can be progressive—at least, I can imagine a version of this moment where we collectively emerge with a different set of instincts and practices regarding collective engagement and political power.

I’m in grad school for clinical psychology, and one thing I’m studying is how day-to-day variations in mood, opinion, and experience are essential to maintaining stasis. We’re actually always holding fundamental contradictions—between positive and negative affect, hopefulness and fatalism, our own needs and the needs of others—and small fluctuations across such polarities help us form stable, coherent realities, for better or for worse. When these everyday variations become larger and more erratic—say, during a crisis—there can be meaningful shifts in our lives. A similar process can take place in any dynamic system, whether an ecosystem, a financial market, or a person’s mental health. Transformative outcomes are not just the silver lining of moments of chaos and instability. Chaos and instability can actually be necessary in order for a stable dynamic system (for example, a dystopian neoliberal economic regime) to shift. 

hannah baer is the author of trans girl suicide museum (Hesse Press, 2019). She runs the Instagram account @malefragility.