I saw The Destroyed Room at Battersea Arts Centre last Saturday. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, about what it felt like to watch it. My stomach became knotted as I watched. The moment which keeps coming back is the moment I noticed the water beginning to seep across the stage. It came from under the fridge, beneath the worktop where the bottle of wines were stood. I don’t know if that’s where it always starts, but for a minute perhaps, I was thinking maybe a bottle of wine had been knocked over, or that the fridge is leaking. The couple in the row in front of me were squirming as well. Writing about it now, I can feel my stomach becoming knotted again. It was frightening.
A few months ago, I made a series of podcasts, documenting research I was doing into a show about the housing crisis. We recorded interviews with people who were being displaced by regeneration projects on housing estates in London (of which there are lots). We invited spoken word artists and poets to record each episode with us, and asked them to respond to the material we had gathered. Images of water kept appearing in our conversations with them: of people not being able to keep their head above the water, of being flushed out, of floods, of drowning. It was just after the image of the drowned boy on the beach had appeared in the media.
Around that time, a friend of mine living in California wrote to me. He wrote about the ocean and surfing, about seeking out powerful currents and waves and riding them, and the sense of wonder and fulfillment of being carried in that way, how he understood his own life in these terms (I’m simplifying). I was struck by how different our metaphors had become. How, in Europe, the sea was a place where people drowned; in California it was something with which to be “at one”.
For a while, around this period, I began spending more and more time reading comments below the line on Guardian opinion pieces about the refugee / migrant crisis in Europe. They made me feel sick, but I couldn’t stop reading them. The ones which had been recommended the most times by other readers seemed to be the ones which displayed the least empathy or imagination. It wasn’t doing me any good – they were making me angry and upset, and they were taking up a lot of time and mental energy, but I felt compelled to keep scrolling through them. I work a lot at my computer – they were only ever a click away. Eventually, I managed to come to terms with the BTL comments after reading an essay by Stuart Hall where he develops Gramsci’s ideas about “common sense” in relation to neo-liberalism:
“[common sense] is a form of ‘everyday thinking’ which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of ‘the common people’ for practical guidance and advice.”
After reading Hall’s essay, it occurred to me that what was bothering most about the comments was their “common sense” quality.
That idea of “common sense thinking” kept coming back to me as I was watching The Destroyed Room – the banality / triteness of things said in the face of complexity, the necessity (or not?) of reducing complexity to this level of discourse, how the content of what is being said is often irrelevant (what is actually going on is a negotiation of power / status rather than a logical argument), the impotence of this form of thinking, its inability to effect change, even in the face of disaster…