Richard Dawson 2020

[Domino; 2019]

Styles: ethnography, Middle England, “Remain”
Others: a more laid-back Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

One of the tendencies that artists most frequently regress to when “authoring” grand narratives is the overemphasis on the individual or group of individuals — i.e., protagonist(s) — who, following the customary narrative plot structure, play a role in the resolution of the main challenge that guides the narrative to its climax.

In early human history, myths gave us exalted protagonists: hero-gods whose idealized human forms were moralizing vessels onto which individuals might project themselves & onto whose struggles a community might map & rationalize the fluctuations & struggles of its own existence (e.g., famine, fertility). Ironically, the grand narratives of the Abrahamic religions that grew out of Mesopotamian paganism give us the purest examples of these exalted protagonists in the form of prophets — i.e., reconstructed hero-gods whose struggles represent or forecast the redemption of the human race.

Our way of telling stories over the past few millennia hasn’t changed too much, generally speaking. While the vicissitudes of modern communities’ existence are different, the coherence of these grand narratives remains attractive in times of chaos: “we” are the protagonists; “our” world is fundamentally a place of harmony; there are forces against “us” that threaten to disrupt the traditional order of things, & these antagonists have a name & a face that we can vanquish. By overcoming or succumbing to these forces — repairing & redeeming the world, respectively — these protagonists assure us that suffering has a cause, a reason, & a way out: even chaos has a function in a realm of order.

Of course, such stories aren’t just found in narrative art (e.g., fiction, film) & folklore; or rather, our definition of folklore in the contemporary must be wider. Namely, political discourses are their own type of folklore: narrative embroideries that weave disparate experiences into patterned realities, forming cohesive worldviews with their respective protagonists & antagonists. Hence the Cowboys & the Indians, NATO & the Warsaw Pact, the Israelis & the Palestinians, Trump & Hillary — Leave & Remain.

We’re often persuaded by these narratives’ explanatory power, even as we recognize that the truth is much more complex: Communities are heterogenous, experiences granular & often incoherent — even contradictory. Narratives are fabricated & constructed by community superiors (e.g., the clergy, government). Separate voices form an eclectic tapestry of meaning; complexity is cast aside when these voices are joined into a singular thread.

In reality, incoherence rather than coherence is what we experience daily. That’s why anthropology’s process of ethnography is the closest we can get to producing a sort of anti-narrative that may challenge explanatory & reductionist mythologies. In ethnography, nothing is schematized, as complexity is embraced & explored; nothing is extrapolated into the future, as there’s no resolution nor redemption — only entropy. Sure, ethnographic writings might seem to “go nowhere” for these very reasons, but that’s what makes them more faithful to reality:

We’re hardly going anywhere.


This is the spirit of Richard Dawson’s 2020, which pieces together a fragmented snapshot of quotidian life in Middle England via a series of discontinuous vignettes. Superficially, it might seem the complete opposite of 2017’s Peasant — set in the early medieval kingdom of Bryneich — yet 2020 in fact parallels its predecessor in its approach to storytelling, which is rather ethnographic in its refreshing rejection of coherence via a series of unrelated narrators whose stories offer no aphoristic takeaways.

Which is to say that 2020 doesn’t go anywhere — to its credit. With various political shifts underway simultaneously on the world stage, many politically-minded artists have cast aside nuance in the urgency to convey a direct, even mobilizing message to their audiences. It’s commendable at times, though we lose something in the process; grand narratives can obscure marginality, even when marginality is the protagonist. As Spivak laments, it’s why so often the subaltern can’t speak.

Dawson doesn’t obscure his political predispositions, which are quite understood on tracks such as “Civil Servant” & “Fulfilment Centre,” for example. But 2020 is far from a soapbox, despite being clearly inflected by contemporary anxieties. Dawson’s characters speak for themselves through their lived experience, jostling with each other in ways that emulate the fractured nature of our own communities, relationships, families, & careers, & bare the cognitive dissonance between our actions & the beliefs we purport to maintain.

Ironically, that’s what made Peasant so affecting: the immediacy of specificity is the key to universality. Because coherence is a fiction of the grand narrative, there’s no resolution to the chaos that is, ultimately, just the sum total of everyday life. As for us, we are not protagonists — just assemblies of experiences that make up the incoherent now.

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