‘When the chance came all she could see with her skin was space space space space space.’
– Alexis Pauline Gumbs
While we travel by train, she waves at the passing fields and remarks: “Why does everyone in the Netherlands say there isn’t enough room?” She’s been living in the Netherlands for ten years now. “We’re just fifteen minutes out of town and there’s plenty of space.” The familiar phrase ‘there’s too little space’ is more than a reference to available square meters or having a ‘seat at the table’ – it’s a mentality. A mentality that visualizes how space and resources should be distributed. We’re all familiar with how fields look like from above, as seen from a plane or a drone: straight lines formed by canals and fences, neatly chopped-up land. What grows there was planted deliberately: it has a name and it grows according to plan.
I share with her that over the past ten years, I’ve often left the Netherlands because of crab mentality. It’s as if every title, position, flood or job only allows one voice to represent it. As if the image of the little boy who plugged the leaking dyke has become emblematic of how we think: one hero (a blond white boy), one finger (an index finger, also serving to emphasize a patronizing correction) could save the entire country. The only leaks allowed in the Netherlands are manageable drips. Never a stream or a storm. Friend and actor Romana Vrede once shared, weary: “There’s only one Romana Vrede in the Netherlands, so obviously I’m overworked. In New York there are hundreds of me. That’s a reassuring thought.”
Scarcity is the dominating ideology that structures our mind. Scarcity determines how we achieve knowledge and how we organize material reality. We create a story about our reality, which is then presented as an outcome of reality. As if the world demands just one way of thinking. As if the earth pleads for single truths. Idealistically speaking, there’s room for a diversity of voices, since that is the definition of democracy. But the way the world is organized materially and morally, has become based on a mainstream voice, which is perceived to be the most logical and true.
Crab mentality points to scarcity. This isn’t only a problem in the Netherlands. I wrongly portray the Netherlands as unique: scarcity thinking is widespread everywhere. By making the Netherlands specific and the leaking dyke emblematic, I am trying to convey a sense of exception and isolated importance. Hierarchical distinctions, comparisons and competition are inherent to scarcity thinking: it’s really terrible here; it’s different in New York; the grass is always greener elsewhere… Scarcity thinking has multiple roots and affects nearly everything. Scarcity thinking prevails in abundance, so to say. This has not gone unnoticed: nowadays there are countless meditation courses available online, focused on practicing abundance. The exercise in these sessions is aimed primarily at abundance in the financial sense. To some extent, these meditations touch on what the Abundance Chapter at Het Hem attempts to imagine. Friend Aishah Sarfraz notes that, as a child of immigrants, she learned to think primarily from scarcity. “They told me: we will never have a lot of money; we will always have too little. I try to counter this expectation by at least envisioning I’ll be earning more.”
When thinking from scarcity, it makes sense to map the world with straight lines, to buy life insurance and to scheme a five-year future plan. To maintain control, fearing lack and shortage. That’s how we learn to create multiplicity: not by expecting abundance, but by thinking from preservation, by saving, and boxing everything in very precise categories. My criticism of scarcity – the ‘too little’ mentality – isn’t based on a belief that our resources are infinite and that we can carelessly continue abusing the planet. For example, burnouts – whether of people or the planet – are real: we demand too much. But we primarily overcharge because of a rigid distinction between what is supposedly valuable and useless. This hierarchy of importance reflects scarcity thinking: not everything can be equally important at the same time. Scarcity and the allocation of value are fundamentally interlinked. Even to the extent that value emerges where scarcity is introduced.
Scarcity and abundance
Thinking from abundance is not a promise of riches. Abundance is not a reckless negation of scarcity. Rather, it explores how scarcity is created and why, as well as who benefits from it. Our current economy emerged from the notion that resources and raw materials are scarce. This shortage has to be solved by growth and reproduction. Growth is accomplished through control. Capitalism promises infinite growth and possibilities, but introduces a lack of time: there aren’t enough hours in one day. The portrayal of time as a scarce resource, enforces the belief that your desires and capabilities are limitless, if only you’re able to combat this scarcity (by rushing through life, by purchasing services, and not sleeping much). In the narrative of progress, growth requires control and moderation – fantasies, resources and appetites need to be tamed.
The colonizer preaches a cultural deficit and a lack of restraint: this is how the west justifies exploitation and industrial monopolies. The notion that some cultures pioneer and create the future, while others lag behind, creates a distinction between the ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds. This way, the future is more than just a point in time, it’s also a site that must be protected and sealed off. Ergo Fortress Europe.
We learn to perceive scarcity as a biological, natural phenomenon. Charles Darwin installed this notion of inherent scarcity by systematizing life as an ascending line of growth and progress. Rather than living together in chaos and coincidence, Darwin saw a race, a survival of the fittest in which progress emerges as a result of competition. ‘Different’ is marked as frightening: because if everything is a competition, then ‘different’ might just be better. An ‘either/or’ model dominates, rather than ‘both-and’. Survival is life’s natural priority, so everything that doesn’t adapt or improves is gradually eliminated from the race. Whatever confuses the norm of average function, is given a place in the dominant narrative. For example, lesbians and gays are considered useful, because they don’t have children and it is beneficial for humanity if not everyone reproduces. This way, everything that exists is rendered comprehensible.
As long as we understand the world as a big, shiny marble, we feel in control. Philosopher Gayatri Spivak counters this reductive view of ‘Mother Earth’ or ‘the planet’. In order to emphasize a multitude of voices, she speaks of ‘planetarity’. Everything that exists on the planet is planetary-like. Planetary elements can exclude each other and yet exist side by side. Spivak forces a magnificent break with the idea that the planet can be studied as a single entity and that it therefore can be saved with a single, universal policy. In the west, for example, discipline is praised as a solution. Sustainable living orders to consume less and instill flygskam; promoting risk averse living, abstinence and moderation, setting boundaries, and praising preservation. As long as ‘less’ seems to be the solution, we have no need for structural redistribution of resources.
Nowadays, everyone knows that the Earth is round and we laugh at the old belief that the world was flat. Nevertheless, people keep spilling over the edge, thresholds are ubiquitous and border crossing is forbidden for many. Abundance centralizes the accessibility of those who are usually seen as add-ons, those invited out of politeness, those who may enter through a side door or back ally, across a hastily installed ramp or with their own interpreters. They are received with applause as bearers of lived experience, but they are never rewarded as experts in their own right. Minority, marginalized, spilled over the edge, disadvantaged. Through this language, the fringe is rendered insignificant. It becomes the unfortunate place you end up, where you don’t want to be. Medical researchers, statisticians, and politicians who ‘advocate for’ perpetuate this edge as an evidently limited space.
Take, for example LGBTQIA+ people. Our social emancipation ostensibly took a great leap forward in the 1990s when we were recognized and accepted as a natural ten percent of the total population. #BornLikeThis implies that no one would go out of their way to become LGBTQIA+, instead it’s something that simply happens to you. If it didn’t happen to you, if you weren’t born this way, you would never choose to be this way. Moreover, identifying the ten percent safeguards the norm that is the ninety percent. The ten percent are allowed to be what they want to be, because ten percent does not disrupt. Categorizing something as a ‘minority’ enhances acceptance by the wider society (tolerance?) but the minority has to remain a minority to deserve this acceptance (tolerance?). Calling something a minority is not just a quantitative label. It’s also a moral stigma, because whatever needs to be marked as ‘uncommon’ is usually viewed as ‘too much’: too loud, too big, too fat, too Black, too rebellious, too colorful, too messy, too confusing to be allowed to count as an inspiring standard.
Abundance Abundance is the wealth of presence: those who always have been around. We don’t need a polite invitation to temporarily fill the main stage. This isn’t a one-off performance, or an alternative arts fund, or a separate month or a special day a year to celebrate our existence – we claim the stages upon which we’re already standing as the stage, rather than selecting a single one. A multitude of stages and voices can be The One. Simultaneously. Without competing with each other. Abundance hopes to put the social and material peripheries center-stage, unequivocally, in the form of a collage. Displaying yourself as a so-called minority, fighting your way in, window-dressing and adaptation is no longer a necessity. Abundance renders the objective of representation obsolete. We are already out and wild, dancing, whispering, and shouting. We drift, we observe and listen with abundant attention, offering a concentration not based on selection, comparison, and hierarchical validation. In abundance, no one has to show themselves. Beyond scarcity, there may no longer be a self to show. Eliminating a self is not a step towards a colorblind world or a society free of disruption. This depositioning is a philosophical attempt that recognizes current identity frames, but also encourages to refuse and surpass them, because the construction of these positionalities is so profound and influential that it requires radical fantasies to uproot them, to change them, and to think them impossible.
Abundance opposes the idea of identity stasis. Abundance refutes the notion that you can be knowable and that you must show yourself visibly, that you have to come out proud and sound coherent. Abundance assumes that everything already exists; no existing form is obligated to defend itself or prove itself. Abundance is drag culture, as expressed by LGBTQIA+ people. Drag performance celebrates and prioritizes exaggeration and the fake, because layered meaning and concealment do not lead to less ‘real’. More. More wigs, more faces, more mixed lipstick colors, more packers and binders, false beards, balloon breasts and suspenders. More layers and masks without presuming a hidden core or natural cause: the composition and collage are reality. As the amazing novelist Akwaeke Emezi writes: “You wear the mask; you are the thing. For people who live in the knuckles with 67 faces, it’s not really about pretending to be people you’re not. It’s more about having faces for all the things you already are – blurred spaces, trickster mobility.” The distinction between humans, things, and animals was established because in a neoliberal society, a sense of safety can only be achieved by means of superiority and control. Abundance eliminates that distinction. *Abundance attests to the healing power of scattered and shattered attention.** It laughs and protests, whispering a proposal: other forms of safety are possible.
In her anthology Spill. Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs shows that thinking from abundance offers a kind of political release. Spill refers to everything that floods over the edges. Spilling, flowing, splashing, pouring, swarming, leaking. Everything that is considered unprofessional, or ‘too much’, or ‘too loud’. Everything that transcends the tight framework of value and status – the surplus that can’t be sold and can’t be used for profit. Spill is extra, it is marked as unnecessary. The Black fugitivity Gumbs writes about, signals a refusal to be defined by imposed categories, promising to consent not to be a single being. Black fugitivity doesn’t accept this position of unnecessary, unmanageable, wastage as a problem, but rather radically claims it as potential liberation. Instead of forcing yourself into a prescribed role or position, you might be(come) more of you when you’re on the run. Because whoever proves to be valuable in the current world order, can be sold, enslaved, exploited, colonized, or used as a political tool.
Quantum particles are also fugitives. As soon as you measure a quantum particle, it disappears under the influence of the measurement: damaged by light and heat. Research in quantum physics shows that nothing is singular. There is no such thing as an individual, insulated existence. The elusiveness of quantum physics confronts us with an infinite composition of possibilities. The world is a collage, some layers of which – for example, in the past and the future, underwater or in outer space – we can’t directly see or hear, but we sense their presence-absence anyway. What is concretely and clearly present, refers simultaneously to a potential, invisible, and unknown existence. Entanglement allows this. Does infinity sound abstract? Perhaps.
Perhaps it’s not so different from the imagination that Covid-19 requires of us. The virus is here, but it’s mostly invisible. It can be detected by a test, in a person’s nose and throat. But everything surrounding it – the regulations, the distance, the constant hand-washing – is usually not a direct response to the presence of virus particles. We follow a choreography with potential presence. Perhaps living with an abstraction is less philosophical that it might sound in words. We’re already doing it. The response to Covid should, however, be formulated much more from the perspective of people who are used to living with risk and vulnerability – those who are portrayed as a societal obstruction and burden; those whose lives are placed on the edge by institutionalization and stigma. What would happen if we stopped projecting our current conceptual framework and grammar onto the virus?
“We must bring about the end of the world as we know it,” is the subtitle of this chapter in Het Hem. Philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva emphasizes knowing in this context. Da Silva is not so much calling for material destruction. She is not advocating extermination, but rather moves towards thinking impossible current structures of knowledge from which violent inequality and hierarchical division make sense. Perhaps calling for an end doesn’t sound abundant, but for much of what exists, for many who exist, dismantling current conceptual frameworks is a basic requirement to finally be able to begin.
We humans are incredible storytellers, argues Sylvia Wynter in On Being Human as Praxis, but we tend to forget that these stories shape our biological and scientific research. Wynter indicates that we know and live by selecting and excluding, and that this way of existing is presented as a law of nature. Whereas it’s only one way of existing, one way of knowing, one way of telling stories. We eagerly believe in exclusion in order to include, categorizing in order to claim, select, and mark inclusivity. But what if everything has a right to exist without any proof of usefulness, goal, distinct characteristic, hierarchy, priority, or profit? That is abundance. And what else it might be? That’s the infinite imagination ‘Abundance’ demands.