Sitting with It — John Mowitt

In 1989 the Manchester based band, James, released “Sit Down.” The music video that accompanied its release depicted a variety of chairs framed against a white backdrop, chairs in which band members sat while holding instruments.  At one point the lead singer and co-composer, Tim Booth, sits on the floor holding an unshorn sheep.  The lyrics: “Oh sit down; oh sit down; oh sit down; sit down next to me; sit down in sympathy,” echo here both to pose the ethical question of eating meat, but also to extend outward the concept of who or what might deserve our sympathy.  Played live “Sit Down” assumes anthemic stature with huge audiences reaching to hold, to carry, to accompany the friends and strangers near, while faithfully bellowing every word in the song.   Obviously, to sit, is more than a verb even if it is also that.

German speakers, for whom Sitte has the connotation of custom or tradition, and Sittlichkeit that of morality, might be forgiven for thinking that James is tapping the inner sap of their language, but they have their own word for “to sit.”  Similar, but different.  Uttered in the echo-chamber of etymology “sit “ricochets off “seat,” “to set,” and “to settle” (both sedate and to occupy).  Yes, sit down next to me.  Calm me.  Be my sitter.

Yes, but sitting with it?  Another German speaker, Sigmund Freud, upon reading Karl Abel’s little pamphlet on the antithetical senses of Urworte (primal words) decided that this linguistic characteristic (words having opposing signifieds) coincided with what he had been discovering about language in dreams where, notoriousy, negation does not exist.  In the dream nothing can be taken back; it can only be elaborated.  Among the words Abel included on his list was the preposition “with.”  His reasoning has been challenged, but something about his idea that “with” always preserves the separation that it gestures to override retains its pertinence.  “Sitting with it” is thus always not sitting as or in it.  “With” is another way to spell “next.”

Yes, but “it”?  For Freud, “it” (das Es) was always what his English translators rendered, in a legitimating Latin, as “id.” Sitting with the unconscious?  Too Freudian, no?  Useful here is a related formulation confected by Donna Haraway: “staying with the trouble.”  By this she means to summon up the respons-ability of working with the difficulties and contradictions of the present.  Theorists, artists, politicians need desperately not to turn away, to daydream their ways out of the torn paper bag of the present.  This is the trouble (not troubles) one stays with; this is the “it.”  To sit with it, is to work patiently and with drive on, but also in, the trouble.

This trouble, being everywhere, is something one sits with, sits next to on a page, on a canvas, on a keyboard, in an algorithm.  You name it. The discipline of this tenacity is where new pleasures become feasible.  Sitting with it. May I trouble you?  Or me?

Professor John Mowitt, Leadership Chair in Critical Humanities
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies