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Order can be many things: a sequence; a command; a group of religious adherents; a rank; a request for something to be supplied; a particular social, political or economic system; a taxonomic category; a call for silence; a state in which rules are obeyed; a state in which all is as it should be. Its opposite, some might say, is disorder. But though it’s entertaining to imagine a disorder of nuns, or a speaker in parliament shouting “Disorder! Disorder!” to try and urge life into dozing MPs, the fact is that “disorder” lacks the dualities and divergences of the word it’s set in opposition to. Its nature is blunt, and unambiguous. Disorder is confusion, disruption, breakdown.

Small wonder that looking away from it is easier than looking at it. Merely knowing how to look poses a challenge; understanding what it is we’re looking at can seem almost impossible.

“Each move is dictated by the previous one — that is the meaning of order”

— Tom Stoppard, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’

Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad was a place of such order you could leave the keys in the ignition of your car overnight without worrying that anyone would steal it. An acquaintance recently told me this as he described a time when he lived in the Iraqi capital, which he remembered as a haven of security, good friends, fine food and nightlife. Of course, he added, the order existed because of terror. No one wanted to bear the consequences of defying authority. Despite this admission, there was a nostalgia in my acquaintance for Saddam’s Baghdad — better that world of dictatorship than the world of disorder which replaced it, with its bloody occupation, its suicide bombings, and now the threat of Isis.

He set it up as a binary: the order of the past versus the disorder of now. I thought of the line quoted above from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and wanted to point out that disorder is both consequence and continuation of order. The present, however much it differs from a nostalgically remembered past, is not a rupture in history but the most recent item in the series of before, and before that, and before that too. The conflagrations that follow the toppling of dictatorships are always, at least in part, a consequence of that dictatorship; in Iraq, of course, it is also the consequence of the manner of toppling.

Considering the disordered universe in which we live, it seems imperative to acknowledge disorder as consequence. War, the ultimate disordering force, is the most obvious example of man-made disorder. This recognition of disorder as result of human behaviour is not a punitive impulse but often the only possibility of optimism. If human behaviour is responsible for wars, human trafficking, terrorism, poverty, then it isn’t fate or inevitability or divine will that gives us images of bomb craters, and blood stains, and desperate people crowding into tiny ships across perilous seas — it is all the consequence of human actions, which can bend in another direction and make history bend with them.

A few years ago I was talking to a man who was elated to find himself in a moment of history for which he’d long wished but not believed possible. “Six months ago, if you’d told me this would happen I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. “But now I look back, we all do, and see the chain of events that led us here, those glimmers of light in the darkness which we thought were ineffectual but were actually illuminating the path to this moment.”

I found great comfort in those words: they became a way to think with hope about places that look hopeless. The moment that man found himself in, the moment in which he was talking to me about light in the darkness, was the Libyan revolution in its early days when large crowds gathered in Benghazi to sing poems of freedom, and the future looked inevitably brighter than what had come before.

Despite all that has followed, I still find comfort in his words. History moves quickly, it pivots sharply: even now, in Libya, there are glimmers of light that could lead the country out of darkness. I simply don’t know how to see them.

But there is a problem with this view of disorder as a point in a chain of events, one that has been led up to, and one that can be led away from. While it provides hope, and gives courage, it also fails to acknowledge that it is possible to be so deep in disorder that you will never emerge from it.

The disorder of wars, of falling empires, of greed, of poverty, of fast spreading viruses — history shows us again and again that humanity can survive all of this. Peace is brokered, cures are found, yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies, and the economic models of societies can profoundly shift. It doesn’t mean there isn’t tragedy and suffering and injustice along the way, but ultimately the sequence moves on.

This view of disorder as awful but temporary leaves us wholly unequipped to contend with a form of disorder for which history has no comforting precedents: climate change.

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre

Observe degree, priority and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order;

. . . but when the planets

In evil mixture to disorder wander,

What plagues and what portents! What mutiny!

What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!

Commotion in the winds!

— William Shakespeare, ‘Troilus and Cressida’

In July, Nasa’s former lead climate scientist James Hansen and 16 other scientists warned that sea levels could rise much faster than predicted. Most coastal cities could be uninhabitable within decades. “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilisation.”

We know ourselves to be in disorder already; yet most of us do nothing but continue to hurtle deeper into it, our minds distracted by what we regard as more immediate concerns. When we move through disorder to the next point in the sequence, will anything be left of the world as we know it? Will any of us be left to wonder how we could have known all we know and continued on in our destructive ways so blindly? To whom does it fall to make us understand viscerally, and immediately, the truths that climate scientists present to us in numbers and statistics?

“There is in me an anarchy and frightful disorder. Creating makes me die a thousand deaths, because it means making order, and my entire being rebels against order. But without it I would die, scattered to the winds.”

— Albert Camus

In which order should we pay attention to disorder? There’s a question to plague the contemporary world in which information comes at us faster than we can process it, and an expression such as “compassion fatigue” exists outside satire. There is too much to take in, too many horrors occurring all at once.

It’s a question that must be answered in order for an artist to turn their lens, their pen, their brush to any scene, internal or external, of confusion and disruption and breakdown. All artistic form requires order; if the artist’s subject is disorder then some way must be found to render that by imposing order upon it.

Picasso’s “Guernica” still stands as the most striking example of conflict art, but over the last century the role of framing disorder has fallen disproportionately to photographers: the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula, in National Geographic, the “Napalm Girl”, Phan Thi Kim Phúc, in Vietnam, the polar bear on a chunk of ice surrounded by water and, at the height of the migrant crisis in Europe, Aylan Kurdi, the child washed up dead on the beach in Turkey.

The power of the images is not just in their immediacy, but also because a photograph makes time stop, and we stop with it. We look at it and where once we thought there was only a cacophony that we could only shut our ears against, now we hear a different music, one that allows for emotion and reflection. The reflection can move in two directions — towards the personal (what had the Afghan girl seen with those eyes? How can I help her or people like her?) or towards the public (how did this happen?).

The latter response is always going to be the one that is potentially more powerful, but it brings with it the most vexing of questions: now that we understand where responsibility lies, and what price is borne by those who had nothing to do with the decisions that lead here, what are we prepared to do with that knowledge?

This essay appears in ‘Disorder’, edited by Michael Benson and Stephen Barber, published by teNeues

The Prix Pictet finalists are on display at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, to December 13. mam.paris.fr

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