“And the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.”
—Homi K. Bhabha
“This is something that folks have recognized forever, that possibility of coming clean in a disaster.”
America is fully and undoubtedly submerged within a state of emergency. It is 2017. The country is still shaken from the aftershocks of Charlottesville. Unnatural super-disasters conjured by climate change have devastated some of the country’s most vulnerable, historically maligned communities. We’re potentially being steered into an era of nuclear warfare by a white supremacist who seized the White House. Yet another mass shooting has taken place and “shocked” the nation. Even though history reminds us that the United States is nothing without the state of emergency, as the country itself is buttressed by the disasters of environmental devastation, Black and Brown death, and white violence, there’s the sense that this current wave of unsettledness is too much. Too unconquerable. Too overwhelming. The Rupture has gotten too big this time, leaving us with only questions: is it possible to move from this state of death to an alternative, more life-affirming world? Can we successfully shrug off the daydream of American exceptionalism to confront our present challenges? Are we able to reach a state of something better, of something resembling emergence?
The earth shuddered and reconfigured the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles. It is winter in 1994 and an event of historic, headline-worthy dimensions has occurred. The earthquake caused destruction (billions of dollars worth), death (dozens of individuals were killed), and general devastation (that only a 6.7 magnitude earthquake could produce). A disaster’s disaster, if you will. As the city’s crustal plates returned to stillness, the late writer, scholar, and activist June Jordan looked to the earthquake’s wreckage and found inspiration in its dark recesses, transforming the tragedy of the earthquake into the muse for an opera—I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky. Invoking her background in architecture, Jordan constructed a thing of beauty from real-life debris.
The resulting libretto of the “earthquake/romance” tracks the messy, complicated, and intertwined trajectories of seven characters living and loving in Los Angeles. Navigating disparate intersections of race, nationality, gender, class, sexual orientation, political ideology, and immigrant status, the characters of the opera continuously stumble in their relationships as identities collide (there are racially motivated arrests, threats of deportation), allowing the work to traverse and interrogate America’s thorny socio-political geography. As the arc of the plot shifts from conflict to resolution, the interpersonal dramas of Jordan’s characters are resolved by an unlikely pacifier: an earthquake that takes place at the beginning of the second, and final, act. In Jordan’s world, earthquakes become baptismal.
“And then I had huge problems figuring out how to get from Act One to Act Two; I was stumbling around. Peter [Sellars] came up from L.A. and we were brainstorming and on the counter, I had a very beautiful edition of the Koran that someone had sent to me. So Peter pulled it out and came to the section towards the end about the earthquake. It says that when an earthquake occurs, every atom of evil will be known and every atom of good will be known. And we thought, “That’s it!” Now I knew what I was going to aim for; a kind of denudation would take place between and among people, that a natural catastrophe would coerce or make possible.”
Fractured furniture. The carcasses of buildings. Near-death experiences. Against scenes of ruin in the opera’s second act, Jordan’s characters surrender to the relational and physical brokenness enveloping them, creating space for them to restore their interior emotional landscapes and their relationships with each other. There are cordial breakups, confessions of love, and, in one case, a vague coming out. With their material and emotional worlds denuded and stripped bare, Jordan’s characters are forced to face themselves—to boldly reckon with, be honest with, and own up to themselves—providing the opportunity for collective and individual reconciliation. Equilibrium. Emergence. In I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, Jordan reminds us that it is possible to recover from earthquakes (both actual and symbolic), to see the sky once a ceiling has caved in. And Jordan reminds us that that shift, from upheaval to uplift, is only possible when we practice the difficult act of coming clean. A commitment to emergence while in a state of mammoth disarray necessitates a commitment to reveling in the truth.
America must come clean to arise from its present material and moral wreckage. The process of coming clean will be hard, rough work, but it will be a necessary enterprise. A long, long overdue venture. Emerging from our current emergency of climate change will require that we finally recognize that we treat our air, land, and water like products to be sold on the capitalist marketplace, forcing the natural world to riot for its liberation in the form of hurricanes and forest fires. To ascend from our emergency of white violence, those fiercely committed to regarding whiteness as sweet fruit (despite the intellectual labor and centuries-long freedom fighting of those at the margins pointing out whiteness’ putrid core) must finally admit that whiteness is a global, indiscriminate threat. In our present condition of breakage and spillage, our national emergence is possible but is dependent on our willingness and capacity to point out “every atom of evil” that makes up the fabric of America. We have to read the lines of our own palms to figure out how we got here and how we can potentially get out. In this swirl of disaster, we are courting our demise, demanding that we call a thing a thing to secure a chance at survival. Or maybe America is too addicted to myth and fantasy and is waiting to be swallowed whole into the debris of its own making.