Lastgaspism / Avram Alpert, Anthony Romero, Daniel Tucker, & Dan S. Wang

Book cover designed by Dorthy Lin for Soberscove Books, featuring Pato Hebert’s image from Lingering series, 2020–21. Digital photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2019, I organized a symposium here at ASAP/J about race, class, politics, and the arts in response to Asad Haider’s provocative book Mistaken Identity. I asked artists, critics, and creative writers to reflect in creative or analytic forms about how to situate connections between these themes. One of the many powerful responses in the symposium came in the form of a conversation between Daniel Tucker and Dan S. Wang about their collaborative work about political organizing and art practice. When I learned that Tucker and Wang had renewed their collaboration alongside Anthony Romero for their new book Lastgaspism: Art and Survival in the Age of Pandemic (Soberscove, 2022), I thought it would be a great opportunity to return to some of the themes and questions that they had discussed then. In this conversation, I sent them some broad, multi-stepped questions to elicit their collective responses about their book and what it means for art, politics, and other forms of community practice today. And they responded in turn with their characteristically meaningful reflections that reflective their collective decades thinking about and working through these concerns.

—Avram Alpert

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Avi Alpert (AA): Lastgaspism as a title has so many implications. It has, in an abstract sense, a meaning of one thing coming to an end and another beginning. But there is also a more literal and terrifying sense of running out of breath, which has such powerful resonances with both COVID and Eric Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe.” In the book you say that your use of the phrase is “of a phenomenological rather than an ideological nature.” Can you explain more about the term, why you chose it as the title, and what this distinction between phenomenology and ideology means to you? As a follow-up: is there any pressure on the distinction? I mean, there are a lot of ways to describe our present. In focusing on this phenomenon, was there any set of ideas that you did in fact want to get across?

Daniel Tucker (DT): When we were working on this book we talked a lot about how “extractivism” had served to frame both a disposition and a moment in time where resource extraction was folded into governance and cultural transformation since the early 2000s particularly in Latin America. It became a way to read into, through and across neoliberalism and climate change, indigenous sovereignty, new concentrations of wealth, and waves of left and right political formations across the continent. We wanted to make something that aspired to be elastic and useful in that way. And as another example, recently I got to talk to Communications scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser about her International Communications Association preconference event “Patriarchal Worlds, Feminist Networks, and the Conjuncture.” Banet-Weiser and her co-organizers use conjunctural analysis to frame intersections and draw together reactionary political events, racism and misogyny. And like how Kimberly Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” as a way to “see where power comes and collides” we wanted Lastgaspism to be a way to see and make sense of this moment. And beyond just giving the laundry-list of awfulness and dysfunction, we are interested in the ways that the present moment is deformed by the pandemic that has implications for altering and compounding other existing crisis.

Anthony Romero (AR): The development of the book was both a way for us to collectively process the unfolding catastrophes of the last few years in real time, and to attempt to disentangle those catastrophes that were produced by the pandemic, from those that were compounded by, which is to say made worse, and those that were catalyzed, which is to say sped up, by the pandemic. As Daniel mentioned, Lastgaspism, is an attempt to articulate all of the ways that our capacity to breathe (to live) have been constrained by hetero-patriarchal-ableist-settler-capitalist systems, while also attempting to map the social and political implications of a prolonged reduction in our capacity to live. In this way, I see lastgaspism as a term, as a developing framework for making sense of a world which not only constrains our capacity to breathe, but also our ability to make sense of what’s happening to us. We also touch on this in the introduction, but the proliferation of “last gasp” as a rhetorical device in the media, especially as it get applied to social and political discourses, functions in unique and particular ways in a post-truth media age, in part by evoking this sense of morbidity and terminality. It feels like life and death and in many ways it is, although it’s not always.

Dan S. Wang (DSW): Speaking of Latin America reminds me of a time when “developmentalism” came into the popular vocabulary, in the eighties and nineties. It first emerged as shorthand for the economic integration into the world economy that many international bankers and economists advocated as a conventional solution to the economic stagnation of Third World nations—and in its policy application, particularly of Latin American countries. With the rise of the alt-globalization movements and critiques, the term took on a negative meaning as a recipe for permanent indebtedness, dependency, and a loss of national sovereignty. So it meant different things to different people at different times, depending on perspective and agenda. I think of lastgaspism as similarly charged and similarly, let’s say, reversible in connotation of positivity or negativity. Either way, it delivers the sense of desperation vexing every segment of the today’s political landscape, affecting life right down to our ability to breathe.

AA: You note that this book grew out of your previous collaborations, The Social Practice that Is Race (2016) and Organize Your Own (2016-2020). Let me ask one question about each and how it connects to the present work.

So much of this current book is taken up with questions of care—both self-care through various healing practices like meditation and yoga, and communal care for each other through mutual aid. And much of this is framed in the book through why each of these matters with respect to the specific experiences of racialized identities in the present. How, in this book or in other practices, have you navigated the potential tensions between social practice and self-care? Do you see any particular changes in the dynamic between them over the past six years?

DT: A book I really appreciated encountering while we worked on Lastgaspism was “Take Care of Your Self: The Art and Cultures of Care and Liberation” by Sundus Abdul Hadi (Common Notions, 2020). Hadi does a really good job of framing the problem of self-care while still acknowledging its utility. In the book she writes about artists making work about trauma and about protesters in Tahrir Square coming together to support one another: “The result of self-care should ultimately lead to more people being cared for: a shift from self-care to community care. If every person in our community practiced self-care, you better believe we’d all be taking care of each other, especially those of us who struggle with self-care” (40). We certainly wanted this book to capture the oscillation between the inward facing aspects of life that was intensified during lockdown and the outward facing collectivity that took place through mutual aid food and healthcare work as well as racial justice uprisings on the heels of the initial lockdown. The pandemic made this spectrum of care for self and collective more tangible in a way that will continue to have political reverberations and is much more compelling than earlier periods of time that may have reinforced individualism through self-care.

AR: Caring for oneself is a social practice. This has been especially true in the pandemic. Neoliberalism has certainly co-opted the discourse of self-care. We see this daily on social media and it’s certainly the messaging about self-care that one gets from the workplace. Take care of yourself and you’ll be more productive, etc. but what these last few years have shown us, and I think this is what Daniel was getting at, is that to care for the self is bound up in our ability to care for each other. The pandemic proved to us, even as it required us to be physically apart, that we cannot survive without each other. Mutual aid, care work, in the pandemic is not charity, it’s a reciprocal network of exchange. Building and maintaining the network requires sociality, it requires us to know who lived in our community, what their needs are, and what they can offer, and when.

AA: At the end of the introduction of this book, you write, “What you hold in your hands is a device for collaborative comprehension of the present and a passageway into a future in which we can all breathe easier.” I wondered if there was a connection between this hope for the book and the previous work on organization. Again, I would ask if there is any tension between the theoretical work of understanding on one’s own and the collaborative work of social change? You seem to want to break down that tension with the evocative phrase, “collaborative comprehension.” Can you say more about that phrase? And what you hope the work of the book after its publication will be?

DT: Organize Your Own could have easily been titled “Organize Your Own?” as there was really an important dimension of it concerned with inquiry into the methods of organizing and what constitutes one’s “own” in 2016. But it wasn’t framed that way publicly and the subtlety might have been lost to the tensions of the political moment as well as the appearance of a finished project in the form of an exhibit and a book that came after and the pressures of rationalization that sometimes occur for something like that to get grant funding and circulate to multiple venues across the country. We tried to circumvent this with some more dynamic activities of collaborative inquiry, including the course inspired by the project that Dan and I taught which we wrote about for ASAP/J.

Lastgaspism developed differently. It was within the context of phonecalls between friends during an unprecedented lockdown that started out as collaborative comprehension of the present. Then came the idea to do a book. Then came the idea to do an exhibit. And so those were devices for us to extend that collaboration to others. We settled on an approach where we wrote an introduction together and then each wrote something on our own, interviewed someone and invited someone to do a portfolio of images. But we were highly involved in each other’s work and decision making, and were also in dialogue with the publisher and designer as it took shape. At every juncture between Spring 2020 through late 2021 we were meeting weekly and each meeting was punctuated with checking in on our lives and also on the questions and urgencies that each week produced. It was somewhere between a study group where we passed articles and offered analysis, and something more active that was producing a project. Lastgaspism captured this period where one could not confidently know or interpret the staggering and constancy of everything happening, but it felt more possible with collaboration. It was truly a life-giving collaboration and I am very grateful for the time we spent together.

AA: As someone who’s written a lot about the history of modern, global Buddhism, I was pleased to find so many references to it in this book. In both some of your writings, especially Dan’s “Enlightenment of Color,” and in the work of other contributors (Sandra de la Loza, Cheryl Derricotte), Buddhism appears as a powerful force for change. This is both as a personal practice to gain the calm and focus in order to handle difficulty and abuse, and as a worldview committed to ending suffering and embodying compassion. At the same time, there has been a fair amount of work in contemporary scholarship calling into question the pared down versions of Buddhism that we find today. Scholars have questioned whether this is disrespectful of the complex history of Buddhism—its intense focus on rituals, its political practices (including involvement in empire), and its complex and specific views on things like heaven and hell realms, reincarnation, etc. This critique has been focused on modern Buddhism in general, and not so much on the specific Buddhist practices by people of color referenced here. I’m curious if you think the practices discussed in the book may open up another way of understanding modern, global Buddhism? And, following up on that and the self-care question above, on what you see as the role of Buddhism (or Buddhisms) in future social practice/social praxis?

DSW: I really have no rebuttal to the criticisms you’ve described. I share in some of those feelings and observations with regard to the ready adoption of Buddhist concepts, terminologies, and values by people that are a product of, and living in, modern contexts. Which is to say, disenchanted contexts. So, for myself, whether in relation to Buddhism or Christianity or any other great tradition, I dispense with literalism from the start. I don’t feel like that’s a choice.

With regard to the overlooking of traditions and histories that may complicate suppositions made by practitioners coming to the philosophy and practice from starting points well outside of the Buddhist traditions of Asia, well, sure, that can be a problem. On the other hand, the motivation to engage driven by their own personal circumstances, which again are circumstances defined by modernity and not cultivated in a native cultural milieu, can open paths of mutation that invigorate traditions that all too often settle into hidebound orthodoxies. Let us note that this is happening within Asian societies, too—sometimes in pretty extreme ways. The collision of tradition and modernity is not necessarily defined by the dynamic of the passive Asian body/source and the active/exploitative/distorting Western convert.

As with any of the world’s major traditions, there can be no understanding that accounts for every philosophical strain or every historical thread, or that can resolve the contradictions found in the centuries of teachings. Accepting that one’s practice is necessarily selective, I think, is an honest and helpful acknowledgement when embarking on what is certainly worthy of lifelong engagement. This is where the relative superficiality of US Buddhism may also be an advantage. Being less tightly—or not at all—anchored to a particular lineage and/or corresponding ethnic community, practitioners in the US perhaps can be more deliberative in how and what to learn from the multifarious Buddhism that’s taken up residence in the United States. This is my optimistic take. It is up to us, the people that in whatever ways identify as practitioners of Buddhism, to make something of this potential. I see the emergence of a multiracial US Buddhism as an expression of this purposeful selectivity. As such, it could be a distinctive contribution to, as you say, modern global Buddhism.

As for the role of Buddhism(s) in “social practice” (i.e. a term readable to artists as a type of art, somewhat formalized over the last fifteen years), I am sensing a normalization underway. Artists comfortable moving between social engagement and ideas of Buddhist origin are no longer so unusual. As more and more artists develop this conceptual and practical space, I wonder if another type of Buddhist self-awareness, one that is informed by the critical faculties developed by artists, will emerge.

The question regarding social praxis (which I take to be a more general notion of social engagement, i.e. being an active citizen and a contributing community member, being involved in politics, public life, etc.) is bigger, and resides in the problem of Buddhism and its contradictions in relation to the state, statecraft, politics, activism, etc., and, ultimately, to the problem of history itself. Here again is where I see some possibility of resolution in the turn towards Buddhism by those of minortarian identification. The problem of resolving the contradiction between this-worldly conditions of oppression, on the one hand, and liberation offered in terms ostensibly eternal (e.g. “heaven”), on the other, has been a feature of Latin American liberation theology, Black liberation theology, and post-Holocaust Jewish theology, as well as feminist theology. Figures writing in what we could describe as a modern Buddhism like Larry Yang and Angel Kyodo Williams to name two voices, are thinking ways through a parallel problem in the Buddhist context, and drawing on the particular conditions of people of color in the US—that is to say, historical conditions—to do it.

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