Five Dispatches on Surrender

[Thought Scores No. 9]

I

“…it is because the world is not finished that literature is possible.” (Roland Barthes)

I want to surrender to this unfinished project, because ultimately I root my faith in happiness, which is a form of justice, and literature always takes side with the world, although of course the world’s meaning is unutterable, and the project remains unfinished for the simple fact that we keep trying to utter the world’s meaning.

 II

My first impulse, on a second look at Julie Maroh’s painting, was to think that it is a woman’s prerogative to carry things across—and a man’s courtesy lies in his surrender to her strength. This sort of argument has nothing to do with gender roles. Instead it points to a realization that there are two duties in every interaction. The first is to carry things across. The second is to surrender to being carried.

III

A chorus ends The Bacchae of Euripides:

There may be many shapes of mystery,
And many things God makes to be,
            Past hope or fear.
And the end men looked for cometh not,
And a path is there where no man thought.
            So hath it fallen here.
 

IV

The ill-fated Pantheus said to Dionysus: “In the hollow of thine hand I lay me. Deck me as thou wilt.” I do not want a version of surrender in which predestination is akin to destruction. There are children and women and men in northeastern Nigeria who are decked by the trauma of Boko Haram, whose capacity to imagine alternatives is being stolen by a Government that can’t tell the difference between an insurgency and a war. If justice will begin, it must address, and circumvent, ill-fate.

V

“For the writer, literature is that utterance which says until death: I shall not begin to live before I know the meaning of life.” (Roland Barthes)

The ultimate goal of surrender is to know the meaning of life.  The world’s meaning is unutterable, yes, but literature is an utterance—with literature we begin to live and have our being. Compared to photography, literature does not mediate between us and the known world. It is the meaning, not merely the surface that points to the meaning. Thus, we can surrender to literature in seeking to decode photography, thinking of the world not as a sprawl of images but as a giant body of text that signifies the unutterable meaning of life.

 

Julie Maroh, untitled, 2014. Acrylic on colored paper, A4.
Julie Maroh, untitled, 2014. Acrylic on colored paper, A4.

 

Sentences on Freedom / Thought Scores No.8

Julie Maroh, untitled, 2014. Acrylic on colored paper, A4.
Julie Maroh, untitled, 2014. Acrylic on colored paper, A4.

This one is for my friends, who understand this madness.

The starting point was when, on my phone, I followed an e-flux trail and looked at a painting by Julie Maroh—a human shape is being ferried across; a traversal, an outdistancing, a collapse, a surrender.

Surrender is the beginning of freedom.

Think of it this way, I told a friend: the nature of conviction is to appreciate the opposing argument, and despite that remain committed to what you have become convinced about.

It was Novalis who wrote, “All doubt, all need for truth.”

It was Novalis who wrote, “The power of faith is therefore the will.”

Last week, I told a colleague our obsession with sex must have something to do with thrusts of freedom.

“I love dancing, and I especially love being in a club at 2 a.m.., when one or three drinks, good company and a gifted D.J. collectively liberate me into my body,” writes Teju Cole.

And, “I stop my habitual overthinking and become, quite simply, a body in the half-dark.”

Two paragraphs in Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth made me stop for a smile, in order to recognize myself:

“She danced on her own into the early hours of the morning and drove back through a landscape shrouded in primordial mist….After a night’s dancing she would usually return tired but content, her mind a blank, her calves numb. Occasionally something more would happen. While dancing she would unexpectedly enter a different plane of awareness. Whenever this happened she felt that all the years of dancing as if on hot coals had not been wasted.”

Reading novels, at this point in my life, is a revolt—I speak often about critical demons, their blessings and curses given as one token, and how they push me to revel in the redemptive power of novels. In one stretch I read Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas, and I thought, “oh he has named freedom, grace, and all the ambiguities in between.”

Freedom is a form of hallucination.

What I love about this year’s Oscars is how our Lupitain celebration was founded on an existing, primordial prejudice—how is it possible that even today, racial binaries still exist, small victories are still celebrated, and dreams still require validation?

I love Lupita Nyong’o because thinking about her success has made me find words for the strange dynamics of visibility—this strange object that dangles within my sight.

“We live in a colossal novel,” writes Novalis, to complete my revolt against overthinking.

A Gun to the Head [Thought Scores No. 7]

Saigon Execution
Saigon Execution by Eddie Adams

 

Salvation by Duane Michals
Salvation by Duane Michals

 

Dilemma-of-the-New-Age-by-Emeka-Okereke
Dilemma of the New Age by Emeka Okereke

 

I think of how Delueze affirmed Dostoyevskian logic, “If you insist on banging your head on the wall all the time, life becomes impossible”, and yet this impossibility is an amazing thing, because as Delueze continues to say, “A creator who isn’t grabbed around the throat by a set of impossibilities is no creator”, and “A creator’s someone who creates their own impossibilities, and thereby creates possibilities”; but how can I look at photographs of a gun pointing to the head and imagine an impossibility that becomes a possibility, especially if I have to imagine a gun to the head as the ultimate breakdown of order, the improbability of salvation, like what we see in an execution; if hope is not shaped first as despair what might it look like? – and I write because I recall the infamous 1974 situation (which is first a kidnap, and then the victim joins forces with her captors against the world) when Patty “Tania” Hearst (the victim) says, “there is no victory in half-assed attempts at revolution”; and I know that anything done halfway will probably kill you; the gun has to point to your head, right at your place of discomfort; you must look for positive troubles; and we end with Delueze, “Creation takes place in choked passages,” in an abandoned filling station, for example.

Thought Scores /5 – More Sentences on Distance

photo

Drawing by Nabila, Victim of Drone Attack | Emmanuel Iduma

 

 

“In traditional societies, everything that made sense of the world was real; the surrounding chaos existed and was threatening, but it was threatening because it was unreal. Without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in non-being, in unreality. Without a home everything was fragmentation….

“Emigration does not only involve leaving behind, crossing water, living amongst strangers, but, also, undoing the very meaning of the world and – at its most extreme – abandoning oneself to the unreal which is the absurd.”[1]

If home is the center of the world, in an ontological (not geographical) sense, have I shifted centers?

I feel I have been beguiled by physicality; I hadn’t known that it is through the visible that one orientates himself with the world. These days I am disoriented by the simple fact that I can’t find her face on every street.

 “The very sense of loss keeps alive an expectation.”

I have lost the ability to recall her face without looking at a photograph.

 “Without a history of choice no dwelling can be a home.”

When does a dwelling become “home”? If you could feel uprooted in every city you’ve chosen to settle in, what can you claim as home? What is your center?

 “The mortar which holds the improvised ‘home’ together – even for a child – is memory. Within it, visible, tangible mementoes are arranged….but the roof and four walls which safeguard the lives within, these are invisible, intangible, and biographical.”

You have to realize, as I have, that home is memory and memory prostitutes itself.

“Meanwhile, we live not just our own lives but the longings of our century.”

I am implicated by demands higher than myself; it has carried me afield. It seems all my life I will have to keep outpacing distance, covering the tenuous ground between my Self and other Selves.

 

Note[2]



[1] All quotations from: John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, (London: Writers and Readers, 1984), 54-67

[2] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to.

Thought Scores /4 – Sentences on Distance

What the Eye Saw in Passing | Emmanuel Iduma
What the Eye Saw in Passing | Emmanuel Iduma

I have to be conscious that I am getting an American education, and this wasn’t an inevitable choice.

I ask my sister to ask my Dad to send the winter coat he had used in the early ‘90s.

I am writing longer essays now like it takes all that time to make an object into a subject – writing is also making – and all that time to make finer and finer distinctions between what I think a work of art is saying and what it is actually saying.

About her boyfriend in a foreign country a girlfriend writes, “we are outpacing distance.”

It is not “culture shock” but a long gaze at unfamiliarity.

I now accept to write with an audience in mind, but I will have to fix the right scaffolding so I don’t lose grip on my vision.

It is writing and knowing you can’t cover all the possible grounds yet remaining in motion.

My friend is going to attend the burial of our friend and he has been having nightmares lately.

I think about the distance we cover in our nightmares as I recall another friend who dreamt that hair from his nose grew until it reached his feet.

When I sat beside a fatter man in the train, too close for comfort, I waited until a man on my left alighted at the next station, then I moved farther from the fatter man.

Let’s pull the viewer into a space and something will unfold over time, a continuous and active engagement with the work, or so an artist says.

Sending an email is an exercise in hesitation, yet I cannot prove this.

What did you do about your rent except borrow money from your home country?

I read too much opinion that I fear I wouldn’t have any myself.

It is like reading the schedule for a conference of writers held in 1840, and recognizing only three names.

What is the tenuous ground that makes binaries lose their steam, and how do I get there?

All I’m asking from every writer is, let’s see you in motion.

It was the strangest thing, having to exchange emails with my father.

Thought Scores /3

I

I’m scouring the world for metaphors; suddenly their meaning has been problematized. My positive trouble with the word began when I read Teju Cole’s introduction to Ivan Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative. Cole finds that in Vladislavic’s writing, there is an impressive “facility with metaphor.” “Metaphors provide the observational scaffolding on which the story is set.” Gifted this idea of “observational scaffolding” I began to slowly come to terms with the function of metaphors, invisible as skeletons, inimitable in their rifeness, gallant in their assault. Metaphors, as Lisa Robertson mentions in “How to Colour,” “inflate an economy.” Language, stingy in its generosity, economical in its gestures, is inflated by metaphors.

II

I just wanted to say

That I’d had a dream

My lips were to your ear

I kept saying things

That made you smile

There was no end

/

Darling,

I’m

“pushed forward by your idiom

like a giantess opening a window sash….”

— (Barbara Guest)

III

Writing about photographic representation in relation to Boko Haram has made me interested in the metaphorical kinship between cameras and guns. Paul Virilio in Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology posits a relationship between the development of automatic weapons—the repeating gun—and the invention of cameras that took rapid-fire images in much the same way. In “Photographs of Agony” John Berger writes: “The word trigger, applied to rifle and camera, reflects a correspondence which does not stop at the purely mechanical. The image seized by the camera is doubly violent and both violences reinforce the same contrast: the contrast between the photographed moment and all others.”[1] When I think of the photographed moment, I recall the distinction Berger made between the work of Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had popularized the term “decisive moment” in his 1952 essay. About Strand, Berger wrote: “His method as a photographer is more unusual. One could say that it was the antithesis to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s. The photographic moment for Cartier-Bresson is an instant as though it were a wild animal. The photographic moment for Strand is a biographical or historic moment, whose duration is ideally measured not by seconds but by its relation to a lifetime. Strand does not pursue an instant, but encourages a moment to arise as one might encourage a story to be told.”[2]

 

 



[1] John Berger, “Photographs of Agony” in About Looking, (New York: Vintage International, 1991) 43

[2] John Berger, “Paul Strand” in About Looking, (New York: Vintage International, 1991) 47

 

Note[1]



[1] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to.

Thought Scores /2

 I

I think it was Francis Cape who set me on this path to figure out the work of art in an expansive political field. He said, simply, so convincingly I was shocked, “I make art to critique society.” Then, I thought, what can art do? I think specifically about my dealings with Nigerian politicization. “That other witchcraft called ‘politics’,” as Ali Jimale Ahmed is quoted to have called it, and as Uche Peter Umez suggests, is something my generation of Nigerian writers has “weaned” itself from. Of course I write as a person whose artistic medium is writing, but I also speak as one who collaborates with (mostly) visual artists and cultural operators. My Position, like Okwui Enweazor’s (in his remarks at “Curating the Curatorial”) is to avoid the “deep depoliticization” in which curators (replace this with writers, artists) take no responsibility. Simply: I want to take responsibility in the field of politics. And what kind of responsibility? It’s certainly not, for practical reasons, offering myself for an elective position. “Art teaches people how to see,” I heard Lucy Lippard say. It is finding a gesture and strategy with which to engage with society. I have to ensure that my work in public is not merely seen — it will have to “trigger emancipatory thinking” (Enwezor). The task of the work of literature and art, therefore, is to move towards the margin. “Unless art meets people where they live, it is not useful.” (Lippard).

 II

Photographs with an Audience (Houston), Nude 2, 2001, C-print, 30 x 40”.
Photographs with an Audience (Houston), Nude 2, 2001, C-print, 30 x 40”.

Stripped of its embattled content, where do you think this image was taken? I am merging two thoughts into something rambling and discursive — the silence of photography and Clifford Owens’ Photographs with an Audience. Yet they are powerfully linked. Clifford Owens describes his ongoing series Photographs with an Audience as the “construction of a photograph” with himself and/or the audience “through simple gestures.” In each iteration, Owens is both ringleader and provocateur. He invites his audience to respond to a question, and afterwards he photographs them. Don’t you think it takes unimaginable charisma, confidence, swagger, energy to make someone undress for performance art? David Levi-Strauss has suggested[1] that “If a photograph is ‘literally an emanation of the referent,’ then photography can conceivably be used to let things speak for themselves.” Look at the eyes of the man Clifford Owens is lifting up, and that of the men on the right and the left, and discover what this “referent” is. It’s not a pornographic referent that emanates. It’s the evidence of what Owens calls a “microcommunity.” A microcommunity that disembodies shame: we have to watch ourselves in ways that sidestep the physical.

 

Note[2]



[1] David Levi Strauss, “A Second Gaze” in Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics, (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2003) 122

[2] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to.

Thought Scores /1

I

The word “gesture” has stayed in my head for weeks now. I hope to fulfill the wish of Bataille and work out an entry into a critical dictionary that examines the task of, and not merely the meaning of, “gesture.”[1] In its latest iteration in my thinking, it is tasked with suggesting the fate of printed books, magazines, chapbooks and journals. Earlier this week, Saraba Magazine released its first individual poetry chapbook, a suite of fourteen poems by co-publisher Dami Ajayi. In the press release, Dami Ajayi’s poems is said to have “notoriously stayed out of print” and in my preface to the chapbook I reflect on how poetry “is falling apart in my time” because the collection is self-published. Illa Amudi, Saraba’s graphic designer, came up with the idea that the chapbook can be “read on all PDF-compatible devices or printed for keep.” Pearl Osibu, in her impassioned “not-a-review” of the chapbook ends with “I know what I will do. I will print this chapbook and keep under my pillow – my bible, my devotional.” This idea immediately becomes a counter-argument to the point that printed matter is becoming obsolete. Print books are emotional gestures. I want to keep thinking of strategies to offer that gesture in my role as co-publisher of Saraba Magazine. I propose that “printed matter” will become a counterpoint to the amorphous, fleeting Internet; I have to, like Triple Canopy, offer strategies that slow it down.

II

While watching the second installment of Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures, I made notes about contemporary dance. My involvement with criticism began with an attempt to write about contemporary dance, at a workshop where Qudus Onikeku was one of the facilitators. This was in November 2009. Mr Onikeku was part of 24 dancers that performed “Levée des Conflits Extended” (“Suspension of Conflicts Extended”) by the French choreographer Boris Charmatz. “The concept at the core of “Levée” is mathematical. The dance consists of a sequence of 25 simple and repetitive movements, but there are only 24 dancers. So when each of the dancers is executing one of the movements, something is left out,” reports Brian Seibert. While attempting to figure out what was unfolding in front of me, I came up with the idea that contemporary dance was the most successful invective against spectacularization. It is a troubling display of moving bodies, in a place that is better termed a “space” than a “stage.” And to use Sherman Fleming’s words, this sort of contemporary dance is a “noncommodifiable energy,” the kind that tasks you to see and not necessarily to understand. It’s like the “object theatre” in American performance art of the 1970s, or the performance pieces of Jelili Atiku: everyday mundane items become something other than themselves, yet their resulting substance is hard to define. But the bodies on display, like the mundane items, emerge as souvenirs attached to memory. We will not forget what we do not understand.

 

Endnote[2]


[1] An introduction to Bataille’s critical dictionary is here
[2] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to. I’ve never succeeded in keeping my word about “series” and side-projects – for instance “Afropicking”, Weekly Round Ups” – but “Thought Scores” will be an easier promise to keep as I hope that the items will be as though I’m performing thoughts on the go.