This is not Morgan Godfery’s carpet, nor his appliance. Photo: Getty
This is not Morgan Godfery’s carpet, nor his appliance. Photo: Getty

BooksApril 22, 2020

Lockdown letters #27, Morgan Godfery: What I thought while I was vacuuming

This is not Morgan Godfery’s carpet, nor his appliance. Photo: Getty
This is not Morgan Godfery’s carpet, nor his appliance. Photo: Getty

Morgan Godfery reveals some straightforward reflections while completing domestic chores, such as, well, socialism or barbarism?

Read more from the lockdown letters here.

I spent the last four weeks taking my darkest, densest books off the shelf, skirting around their edges, reading and re-reading their back covers. Should I open it from the front? Do I take the dive? I stack Judith Binney’s trilogy – Redemption Songs, on the life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, Mihaia, her landmark book with Gillian Chapman on Rua Kenana, and Encircled Lands, her historical masterpiece – but I’m too afraid to enter those worlds. I reach for Rebecca Solnit instead, Hope in the Dark, because I’d rather boost than bust. History is too close in Kawerau, where Tūhoe is the largest iwi, if not the mana whenua, and all the events the late Professor Binney describes were events that took place so near here.

I entirely resent the early Pākehā ethnographers and amateurs, like Eldson Best, another documentarian of Tūhoe, for their tendency to invent and project for the sake of a narrative that made sense to European prejudices. The “great migration”, the lie describing how the “seven waka” (there were more) chanced on these islands (they didn’t – their voyages were deliberate), is the best example. But others exist, from Best misunderstanding how Māori tell the time (non-linear) to the contemporary scientists and journalists framing risk taking as the “warrior gene”. It strikes me like the Hegelian relegation of Africa to a space and time outside of history – artificial and European-serving.

I’m obviously not a normal person because these are my thoughts as I’m vacuuming.

It’s time to steam mop. I hope for a moderately normal thought this time.

The interesting thing about dystopian films in the aughts, like Children of Men or V for Vendetta, is the unfamiliar and uncertain element is time. The places are familiar – London, the city that made the modern world – and so are the spaces – top down, violent and commercial. But what distinguishes these dystopias from science fiction or far off shows like Star Trek isn’t necessarily the utopian element – it’s the uncertainty of time. In science fiction time is a problem solved, the end of history is reached, but in dystopias time is reaching back, reclaiming the worst parts of the past. Like I said in a previous lockdown letter, my partner says (absolutely correctly) that time is non-linear. Perhaps this makes dystopias slightly more faithful than utopias, the former playing with time, understanding its promises and problems, where the latter misunderstands time as a destination.

OK, I’m definitely not a normal person because these are my steam mopping thoughts.

I wonder, then, if the challenge for the contemporary left is to remake time? The French revolutionaries were genius, of course, literally remaking the calendar after abolishing their monarchy and securing popular sovereignty. But perhaps we can set our sights slightly lower, at least for now, understanding that revolution is a relationship to time. It’s the thing that’s always just out of reach. Richard Seymour, in his book on the Jeremy Corbyn, frames it simply and practically urging the left to think outside of the dates of electoral politics. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If we hurry it we’re more likely to burn out than “win”.

I told Nan that I’m a historical materialist (nerd alert). That means, without wanting to simplify the idea beyond recognition, that socioeconomic relations – not simply “ideas” or Great Men – shape history, pushing it forward. For Uncle Marx and Engels socioeconomic relations structure a society, and those relations produce a superstructure: politics, philosophy, art, and more. This is where the famous break with Hegel occurs – in the correct diagnosis that material relations produce the superstructure, not the other way around, and the thing driving society, the economy, and history are productive forces (like labour and technology), property relations (who holds and wields bourgeois power), and of course the inevitability of working class revolution.

Except, in this country, make that revolution Māori.


Finally: a normal thought.

My favourite philosopher is Simone Weil. For her ideas, yeah, and because she’s just so extra. A Bolshevik at 10. A factory worker. A mystic. A fighter in the Spanish Civil War (before the commanders took her off the frontlines because her eyesight was so bad they feared she might accidently shoot her own comrades, itself extremely extra). My second favourite – this is a philosopher-off, yes – is Hannah Arendt, who my partner is a keen reader and very perceptive analyst of, and every time we speak about her I remember the insight in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the inevitable result of a society built around the endless accumulation of middle class wealth is a person “degraded into a cog in the power-accumulating machine, free to console himself with sublime thoughts about the ultimate destiny of the machine, which itself is constructed in such a way that it can devour the globe simply by following its own inherent law”.

We’re coming out of lockdown next week, and with a handle on the virus. I’m very happy about that – for personal reasons, yes, and for reasons of safety and solidarity – and I’m very proud of the public service and the essential service workers. But I still feel that ‘rona, if we prioritise economic production over population protection, if we prioritise the workings of the “machine”, if we give mindlessly to the “structure”, that the virus could still devour the globe yet. The question is still socialism or barbarism. I can’t wait to answer it with Hana and the rest of our comrades.

Keep going!