what next?

By Heather Phillipson

Courtesy Heather Phillipson

Now the results are in, what am I going to do with myself? Now I am all out of spark. Just when now is the time – for the drudge, for the pooling of gumption, when we need to smash down whatever stands looming. Not in a big meathead way, but with big hands of love. I’ve been craving a being to lay my hands on, in love.

Ideally, not a human being. Not someone mind-deep in borders.

I realised, terminally – I NEED A DOG – while I was up to my thighs in tears. Tears, sliding out of me like oil swimming around an over-oiled egg. Days, dripping. News from home, news from Syria, news from Turkey, Germany, Belgium, family bereavement, too much future.

Sometimes a catastrophe bleeds life.

So I sought out Marj. On the Internet, a true one-sided eros, and me an online dating virgin. Nights spent scrolling through profile pictures, hooked up to waggy vids, the needing and needed, dreaming. And finally a single image. Her wavy hair, a real looker. Blue-black as an aubergine, buoyant as the whining sea. A blanched-almond-like smoothness of nose. An apparition from Chipping Sodbury. That expression. Flopped-out and enquiring.

She came to me by another name, but ‘Marjorie’ was my grandmother, dead ten years – ten years since she sat, observant and rascally – and this later life-force, with her dark, self-cleaning collie coat, arrived materialised, attentive, emboldened, her tail respondent, flexing, brushing against my skin. And so she was Marj, renewed.

Suppose you had to live your life over, knowing what a dog knows? To come back mute, with ulterior wisdom, the wisdom of just running to catch up with what’s going on? A dog has a way of living unproductively, triggered by stimuli or repose, remaining vulnerable to the unknown, gleaming in pure feeling, which is all very well, and similar to love. As bell hooks tells me (mercifully), ‘The principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle underlying love are incompatible.’ Maybe the dog comes back to yank our sensibilities to the doorway and say: ‘There!’

Of course, the dog doesn’t ‘say’ anything. Sometimes, she sings – freaked forth with a morning stretch. With a dog, the day gets quickly started. Quick with different modes of being-with – being after, being ahead, being alongside, being near. Now I make my days with another breathing body in the room. (Yes, yes, sometimes I check.)

Humans and dogs, we mainly live together in the flesh – in ways that, as Donna Haraway says, are not exhausted by our ideologies: ‘We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand.’ That’s what we have around here, ‘culture’ running rampant, a communications-ruckus, but not enough training, not enough new ways of hearing.

Face-to-face. Breath-to-breath. I don’t care if every evening of every day your mouth smells of kibbles and stagnant drain-water. Marj, you are an ever-ready resource. You are excellent and I could be better.

I remember reading James Schuyler in my late-twenties: ‘What is, is by its nature, on display.’ With a dog, I am before even introducing myself. With dogs, I am ripped of my masks. I am not so much seen or heard as tasted. Airborne. I am leaking into our suspended moment – not only between bodies but also between intersecting worlds – our dog-human cavity.

Right now, always now, the task is to remember ‘how to live like that at every scale, with all partners’ (again, Haraway). Until I had pot plants, I never really knew looking after a pot plant could be so much hard work. We’re alive in a world of physical dependencies. Caring for lives is a big job. Being implicated in lives that are not our own. It is sometimes hard to know this as politics, because it plays like the work of getting-on-with-it. There is even more of a challenge in caring for dogs, but not much. It’s like being at a party with your favourite friend. She refuses her own importance, sashays her body around, is full of interest in and for you. And when someone makes you feel good, you want to feel more of it (them). Because, let’s face it, we play havoc with each other. And if we don’t, who knows what we’re losing. 


From the October 2016 issue of ArtReview