PRINT December 2021


Grids of hay stabilize against desertification, Minqin, China. Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Shutterstock.

WHEN I STARTED seeing people who weren’t my cat this past spring and taking short and medium trips, my body didn’t know how to tell a story about the many months that had passed. I could account for specific happenings: I worked so much and then more; I took naps in the middle of the day because Zoom hurt; I played virtual trivia with friends strewn across the country and watched many seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. What I didn’t know was how to feel in touch with the year-plus between us, in the fleshy, nervy, felt ways of forty years of habit. Those habits are where materiality and immateriality, narrative, history, psychology, and physiology have usually danced a tango. Even if some years it’s been a tango on sand, it’s choreography my consciousness and sensorium together have known and kept for me. Your choreography might be another dance altogether.

“It’s like I’m swimming in time,” I observed several times in conversations I could now have in person, “but only because I’m realizing that I’ve been swimming in time for over a year.” Swimming, with no sight or sense of shore or distance, because my body didn’t know how to hold the choreography (work, Zoom, trivia, work, Zoom, trivia). It was difficult, if not impossible, to know, as in to feel, time had passed at all.

What if we took seriously what our bodies knew this year: that we might no longer know how to tell time, which is also how to orient ourselves in space, which is also how to tell stories, which is also how to mark a sense of scale.

One way to translate not knowing and not knowing yet (the contingency between these is an orientation, and orientations rely on a sense of time even when not dancing) is uncertainty. Another is ignorance. And still another is raw potential.


On New Year’s Eve, I fill out the YearCompass pamphlet. Ten Hungarian friends put it together. And with the help of hundreds of volunteers, it’s now available for free in fifty-two languages. Last year, it had a million and a half downloads. The pamphlet is about twenty pages long, with a section for reviewing the previous year and a section for envisioning the next one. Each part takes you through different modes of conceptualizing what happened and what you want to happen next. Some questions are not really questions; they’re more like writing prompts.

Page from Békéssy László, Csúth Zsófia, Döbrössy Katalin, Fejes Anikó, Freisinger Ádám, P. Tóth András, Szabó Dávid, Szőnyi Noémi, Vad László, and Vigh István’s YearCompass, 2020–21.

I print it out to practice nostalgia and aspiration for hours, sometimes over the course of two days. Nothing really ends. Nothing really begins. I just interrupt time as a way to mark it (one way to be in time is to attempt to interrupt it), which is just a way to mark myself while I keep going. A mark isn’t Logos, isn’t thesis or antithesis. A mark needn’t be a signature. A mark is a notch—if we feel like being cheap—on a bedpost. If we feel like being historical, a mark is a line on a wall, in the sand.


q: What three words would you use to describe the past year?

a: Exhaustion


In addition to a virological contagion, a public-health catastrophe, and a political crisis that made ongoing economic devastation and widespread infrastructural failure ever clearer, the pandemic has been a problem of consciousness: the frantic anxiety of the first months of quarantine—did I wipe down the groceries? Did I bring an extra mask? Did I walk too close to that couple? Did I touch the banister with the edge of my sweater that I just used to wipe my nose? Did I breathe too deeply in the grocery store? Did my parent wear a mask and use hand sanitizer after pumping gas at the gas station today? What about yesterday? Will they remember tomorrow? Anxious brain became the white noise of relative, iterative isolation, made possible by the labor of those who could not stay home and worked “as usual” while holding in their fears and anxieties, and bearing anew society’s structural inequities.

And then sometime midyear the communal isolation started to break. It was a problem of consciousness, how to link into the time that had happened with little and yet, somehow, everything happening. The material conditions of consciousness in which we woke up this year were consistent in some ways with all the years of these United States: poverty as a policy priority; profit for the few at the expense of mostly everyone, at the expense of life, delight, connection, the ability for most to thrive. This is the ordering reality of our lives, made even clearer by not knowing how to tell the past year, how to feel it so as to count it.

What is political storytelling that lets go of fortune-telling as its driving purpose and mode of persuasion?

Consciousness is a problem for science as for philosophy as for art. For some philosophers, consciousness itself is the result of natural selection, not the effect of some unique cause that makes humans special animals. Such anthro-exceptionalism would suggest there are separable, discernible stages in the work of natural selection instead of utter proliferation, randomness, chance at every turn, everything happening simultaneously in relation to everything else. This is a humbling prospect. (Some humans have answered nature’s invitation to humility with the opposite.)

After swimming through time, upon touching the shore to say hello, it was hard to say with certainty how anyone got there. In lieu of firsthand experiences for much of this year, those who were relying on those who could not stay home have nonetheless had an abundance of language. And if language is associated with abstraction and with the capacity to generalize, and as such is a condition for self-reflection, then there has been a surfeit of these, too. Sometimes most of what there was in isolation was language.

In addition to a new dance, might we also have been learning, in the deepest ways, that human language isn’t a precondition for being, in or out of time? That is, language alone did not make it easier to find the shore in time. And then what. What then.


This spring I met a Covid dalliance who until then had been only mediated sound and digital image. Despite multiple forms of equipment (e.g., fizzy water, weed) and technique (e.g., yoga, daily walks), neither of us could tolerably synthesize the unclaimed symptoms and specific choreography of unscreened meat, bone, and consciousness.


My doctor thinks there ought to be a new diagnosis: post-traumatic Covid disorder. No one she has seen, even if they are relatively healthy otherwise, is OK.


Jerry Zee is an anthropologist who thinks about overlapping temporalities through the sand and dust that have taken over large areas where lakes used to be—sand and dust that are temporarily in China until they are carried by the wind to somewhere else. For Zee, “climate projections are also narrative forms.”1 What he sees in public-works projects intended to hold back the dunes is sand’s capacity to “[disclose] futures that may also challenge the singular narratives of environmental ending, while in the meantime earthly and political rhythms demand new vocabularies for futures that end, but may also cycle, endure, and recur again.”2 Zee names a condition particular to Minqin, a county in Gansu Province experiencing desertification, but evocative of the questions we’ve been asking with greater urgency as each summer gets warmer and each storm gets stronger: “Minqin, whose end is both imminent and yet still always in the future, remains caught in a period of waiting, wherein the end is always present and still not immediate.”3 All we’re doing is finding ways to keep waiting and then keep waiting some more.


No matter how practiced at transitioning to solid ground from a moving walkway, each time there’s a jolt, a halt, a felt ambiguity. No precise start. No precise end. Just as when a plane’s wheels first hit the runway. One speed hits another speed while in motion. Having and riding in machines has yet to rid us of clumsy physics. These are minor collisions as a way of life. Perhaps a kind of choreography could emerge.


q: These three things I will dare to discover.

a: Can I finish my taxes before April?


Interstate 676 after Hurricane Ida, Philadelphia, September 2, 2021. Photo: Branden Eastwood/AFP/Getty Images.

Flooded by Ida’s remnants the week I was invited to write this essay, Highway 676, which cuts through Philadelphia, became a canal so an autumnal infatuation could not make it to me.


Near the end of her much-anticipated graphic memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison Bechdel admits there’s nothing intuitive—even for a practiced author—about how to end the book she’s finishing in the middle of an ongoing pandemic that might not have an end, while white supremacy and nationalism are trying to impose their versions of historical amnesia despite the tireless work and effort of so many. Even the spectacular materialization of racial capitalism’s history in the weather (as everywhere else) is subject to erasure.

Page from Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021).

And yet. What may begin to predominate is not the need to mark either surprise or its absence. For modernists, the quintessential modern affect was shock. Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, for example, founded a small magazine called Blast. It’s possible to hear in Blast, as in the modernity implied by a faith in shock, the electric buzzing of telegraph wires becoming telecommunications industries becoming satellites in the sky. Shock is the loud cousin of surprise, as in the effect and affect of an unsuspected camera flash. As in the way Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Images à la Sauvette was (incorrectly, with a confident pen) translated as The Decisive Moment. That the phrase (decisively) stuck to Cartier-Bresson illustrates the poetics with which analog photography was more broadly associated: the flash, the candid snapshot, the surprise that from within that aesthetic system also promised to be a fulcrum. But instead of relying on decisive blasts, could there be a way of cultivating, instead, an insistence on facing all there is to face piecemeal?


The two established political parties tell us one neoliberal platform will save us and the other neoliberal one will damn us. Yet this frame does not explain the repopularization of fascism in red, white, and blue. World historian Carolyn Biltoft shows how interwar global information-age technologies created pathways for fascistic impulses in conflicts about truth and power.4 In some of her stories, the allure of promises for absolute solutions is the allure of predicting the future. What is political storytelling that lets go of fortune-telling as its driving purpose and mode of persuasion?

I don’t have an answer. But is it possible to tenaciously insist on one another’s safety and well-being (understanding all planetary liveliness as “anothers”) and refuse to predict a future? That needn’t mean giving up on convictions, visions, dreams, large-scale upheavals. Just loosening the desire to predict as in to know for certain. A bit of grass might take root in sand.


One tempting idea—that the sheer depth of time renders this story, like others, meaningless—is desperately unhelpful. It is also boring. The desire for oblivion—that it won’t have mattered, that the Earth either might or might not go on without us here—is what makes me say playfully to an old friend in a gin-infused moment, “Maybe Planet of the Apes is hopeful documentary.” But in saying that, I’m stuck in the very old cycle of looking for waning modes of catharsis. The erotics of oblivion lie in the absence of responsibility.

Franklin J. Schaffner, Planet of the Apes, 1968, 35 mm, color, sound, 112 minutes. George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and Nova (Linda Harrison). Production still. Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock.

And we’re here. The sun, like our hillsides, like the ocean in an oil spill, burns. If I’m only as meaningless as a grain of sand, I’m also deciding to be a self-indulgent kind of sand-grain. Sand itself follows wind, clings to the grain next door, the pull of gravity, sand breaks across more sand to be—for a day, a week, an hour—a mountain, an onslaught, an environment where lakes used to be.5

The point is we’re here. Still. Even without a certain sense of time. And then what—what then. It’s a question that’s not a question. Having answers to problems people caused is one way human animals feel special. It’s more like a writing prompt that lets us keep finding ways to collectively prolong waiting for what has already arrived.


In her 2019 essay “The Plot of Her Undoing,” Saidiya Hartman catalogues historical, structural, grammatical “beginnings,” sentences slipping around among centuries: “The plot of her undoing begins with inviolable rights, with liberty. . . . The plot of her undoing begins with the transition from foraging to cultivation. . . .”6 Then, three-quarters of the way through, Hartman transitions from the plot of her undoing to “the undoing of the plot.” From beginnings that foreclosed the “her” around which the essay is oriented, Hartman gestures toward beginnings that could find a way out of “the plot,” by which she means racial capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and history by turns and at once. As Hartman tells it, an undoing might be piecemeal. A million one-two steps on sand.

Monica Huerta is the author of Magical Habits (Duke University Press, 2021) and The Unintended: Photography, Property, and the Aesthetics of Racial Capitalism (New York University Press, forthcoming 2022). She is an assistant professor of English and American studies at Princeton University.


1. Jerry Zee, “Holding Patterns: Sand and Political Time at China’s Desert Shores,” Cultural Anthropology 32: 2, 217.

2. Zee, 218.

3. Zee, 225.

4. Carolyn Biltoft, A Violent Peace: Media, Truth, and Power at the League of Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).

5. I’m thankful to Alexis Pauline Gumbs for her work, which, with others’, pointed me in this direction of thinking with the non-human. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020).

6. Saidiya Hartman, “The Plot of Her Undoing.” Notes on Feminisms. Feminist Art Coalition, 2019.