Fiction and the Meaning of Life

How can we imbue the novel with a quality that is less about social realism, more about the meaning of life? (“The ‘meaning of life’ is really the center about which the novel moves — Walter Benjamin”) This is the question for the African novelist who seeks to escape the niche of polemicism and social realism. It goes further to the root of the complaint people make nowadays about the inadequacy of fiction to compensate for the hyper-realness of the occurrences in the world. If novels can somehow be tasked with something other than realism, perhaps with meditativeness and a proliferation of ideas, then we can gift stories that are not judged by their familiarity with social realities but how they are seeped in meandering through the pressing questions of our time.

(“The novelist…cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis.'” — Walter Benjamin.)

My point is that the imaginative work of fiction cannot be circumscribed only as social realism. In the wake of growing interest (and growing commodification) of African literature, we have to demand for other narrative niches that approach the meanings and purpose of life differently. This is not merely a call for genre-bending narratives, or experimental writing.

The Darling Notes

Darling, would you forgive me if I walk beside you as though the world is a big couch for slumbering? I now measure my days like they’re dispatches, as trash postcards I’m collecting. I don’t sleep, I switch beds, and night after night hope is gathered in sacks of the unknown. Here in New York people call to me in my dreams, asking for friendship, and I respond in the affirmative, because good fortune is a verb.

I knew about the forgotten bridges, darling, but couldn’t warn you. Now you hurl the past into view. I am calm and patient, but strangely disillusioned.

This beauty strikes us all—everything passes within it. I want to point to moments of reprieve. Neither the end nor the beginning will bring any comfort. It’ll have to be the middle passage, the trigger of a smile, loud cackles of a baby’s innocence.

We are waiting for a rupture: the world’s ever-widening anger is circumscribed on our tongues. When we speak out of despair, or even happiness, it is evidence of a transition from one thing to another, from a promised future to an inevitable one.

What I’m doing is suggest that this world can exist—it’s never going to be a perfect world, but it must suggest a rupture, and how that rupture works—and then repair, hope, justice, happiness, love, devotion—because acts of resistance are forms of justice.

You are making me sad, shifting the balance of things: I do not want to be angry; anger is a form of response that always invalidates itself. And in the context in which it works, nothing will be authenticated. What’s left is the ego, sitting on a fence, and yet we hurl stones at it.

  •  

I will like to tell the story of a bald woman who wears a wig, and how embarrassed I feel when I see her take it off. It feels like a dubious revelation; all this while she’s been in a half-disguise, not what I’ve seen her to be and yet an equivalent of what I thought she was, a bit of what she really is.

  •  

[I don’t know what…] It’s like being a prostitute: you must learn how to touch in the right places.

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.

Into White

For Ray Daniels Okeugo

 

Our friend said you lay in a white kaftan, smiling the smile of sleepful death. Your death is my imagination, for the dead is the imagination of the living. But yes I have to imagine that the white kaftan must have been what you wanted. In Accra, our last time together when we shared a room, you wore white underwear as always. Your body was tethered to an invisible white-scape, your underwear, an architecture I believe made you feel present, conscious, kin to purity.

You remember when, as we struggled to cross into Cameroon, our white van stuck in the border-mud, you remained on the driver’s seat, unstained like the rest of us. We spent almost 24 hours in the stretch between Ekok, Nigeria and Ejumoyok, Cameroon. The mud reached our ankles, except of course yours. The van was pushed by the rest of us and sometimes pulled by Hilux four-wheel-drive pickups while you drove. When we crossed over and your feet touched Cameroonian soil, you were wearing a clean singlet. Of course, white.

The days are peeling apart like surging tides, but they return again. Reaching out endlessly, morphing interminably, but remaining the same. From time to time I go to look at your photographs on Facebook. What is the shape of distance? Our friend had said it is shaped like an ameba. Like a microscopic organism you now move by changing the shape of your body, so that your laughter and silence are the same texture. So the right question would be: what is the shape of the distance you now occupy in my heart? Looming large but microscopic? At once being the memory of shared laughter and of shared silence.

This is how the poem ends:

I want to hold you this way

For a few years

[i]

Our last trip together, this past July. We had underplanned. We got to the border that cuts off Lagos from Cotonou. The rainy season had just begun. The ground around us was wet and muddy. As we struggled to clear with immigration and customs, you walked without care on the muddy ground, almost being whisked into detention because you were carrying an expired International Driver’s Licence and attempting to cross over with it. After we had bribed the Beninois officer with all the money we had left we were allowed to leave.

I looked at your shoe with its white sole and dried mud.

A bright romance. I want to be able to make death outstrip its singular gaze at you, so perhaps I should illustrate it as the loss of a lover. The first thing we remember when a lover dies is a look. How had my lover looked at me? In those moments when silence knitted our breaths together, what sort of Look?

I look at you

like the opening minutes of a film,

when you don’t know

what to focus on.

[ii]

Then, truly like the opening minutes of a film, when time slows down and my lover’s hair seems liquid, the prophecy of the narrative becomes apparent. We are seeing a movie neither of us had seen before. So the end is difficult to imagine, a white-scape being colored by strings of events and by evolving action. Doesn’t film begin as tabula rasa, written over by imagination and performance? Anyway, romantic love is premised on a sort of primacy that pre-dates experience. When a lover dies, and experience has come full circle, the living lover mourns an absence that looms large. An indefinite reexperiencing of experience, a perpetual retooling of memory. It soon happens that the living lover begins to think,

You slow down so much

your hair seems liquid

[iii]

Don’t we understand this liquidity? The stance of distance is poured as liquid. It flows back and forth in non-linear time. I feel that when a lover dies the other lover carries the weight of absence until he, too, goes afield. In between the time when she dies and when he dies, a slowing-down occurs. Memories appear and reappear, at first endlessly, and then sparsely without warning. When the memories are sparse, he is wont to think:

Keep walking, but look back

So we know we are together.

[iv]

It is like slowly rubbing off a recolored white-scape until it returns to its original whiteness. By the time the white-scape returns to an original saturation, a pre-dated experience, the surviving lover is dead. What happens when both lovers go afield I do not know. The conscious world is however bereft of the experiences they exchanged. Perhaps it is inevitable to imagine white as bereftness, as absence, as going afield, as Eternity.

The feeling of going afield. We were artists crossing Otherness. The premise of our trip was to see past our immediate identity, to construct a trans-African identity and stagger within the bracket of the word “Africa”. As we drove past Benin Republic and entered Lome, sometime after sunset, the capital city stretched, blurred into white. No other color might suffice for the wide road beside which was the beach, the sea opening into vast stillness, like painless dying. You were driving. I went back and forth between sleep and waking. As the day darkened and the roads lost their whiteness, the night swept into my eyes. What swept into yours as you drove? Fading light? The most available light? The approaching destination?

I keep imagining your imaginations.

Until 2005, the Togolese had not had a change of President for thirty-eight years. A recurring offer of poverty on a platter of totalitarianism. We drove through an exact, but unjust beauty. The sort of life you lived is one that deemphasized this sort of unjust beauty. Even your death, I have recently learned, was at a hospital disaccredited from offering dialysis. You seemed to me like one who always wanted to commingle with people at the margins. You would wear a white kaftan so that you could roll in the dust. And so, in your memory and as a prayer for that small city we crossed,

I look again at the painted city, falling

silent at sunset, even the birds stilled.

In the last flash of the sun, the city gleams

white and hard as bone.

[v]

One afternoon in Khartoum, as one of your final Facebook posts attested, you joined the protests against fuel subsidy. What did you wear on that afternoon you were almost mobbed in a country you were visiting? No, not anything white, considering the dusty air. About eighteen months earlier you took photographs of fuel subsidy protests in Lagos. One of those photographs is of a burning tyre blackened beyond recognition, dark smoke piercing the sky. And with this photograph we see your gesture, a question: How does the stance of undefeated despair work?

In your photographs there’s mostly a staging of itinerant comedy. Your gaze was on fleeting grace. I see how you do it. You stop in the middle of the road to take a photo, putting the rest of us in the van in panic. Here is grace, your eyes say, I can’t let it pass. The grace of laughter, of a costumed dancer pausing mid-performance to check his phone, of a madman beside a statue. Grace in spite of life’s contradictions is the stance of undefeated despair.

Aren’t our lives gasps of undefeated despair? To live as you did, and to die in the circumstances you did, is to exhale with our mouths wide open. If I had seen you as you lay dying, how would I have imagined your final gasp? Life had unploughed you, so that you began to vanish into a white-scape. Your body was broken so that your spirit could emerge.

This is how I imagine a white-scape. No, it is the dream our friend had after you went afield. You are sitting in a bar talking as you do, with complete audacity, eyeballs almost shooting out – you were always opinionated, always operated as though it was you against the world, as though the explanations of the world could never appease your bravado. So you’re there, talking amongst a group. A road separates the bar from where our friend stands calling out to you. He calls but you do not turn in response. Your white-scape assumes that silence is a form of communication. And distance (that road separating our friend from the bar) is a new form of companionship, bearing on our hearts like the contested space between two worlds. So we look into this contested space, and we imagine that your death was an inimitable calling card, a blank invitation into eternal whiteness. Because this is when we begin to re-experience you.

 


 

Source Notes


[i] All poems cited are by Gabeba Baderoon. This is from “Memories of a blue fortnight.”

[ii] From “The Opening Minutes of a Film” in Sentinel Poetry (Online), No. 37

[iii] From “The Opening Minutes of a Film”

[iv] From “The Opening Minutes of a Film”

[v] From “A Prospect of Beauty and Unjustness” in World Literature Today (July 2008)

No Selasi, African Literature Exists

I am worried that it is too late to do away with African Literature, as Taiye Selasi has proposed. It is not a question of how long the term has existed. To my mind it is the fact that it is as complicated as the identity it embodies, as nebulous in its construct and usage as the word “Africa.” Few paragraphs into her Talk Selasi might not realize that she contradicted herself. It is a slippery slope created in plain light:

“What do I mean, or not mean? By ‘African Literature,’ I refer not to the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent – but rather, to the category.”

It is strange that a category called African Literature can be distinguished from the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent. What may we call the body of work produced by these storytellers? We see that Selasi identifies that there are storytellers who are on and from the continent, but she is skeptical about what to call them. I wonder how her Talk would have read if she admitted this difficulty in naming instead of an outright rejection of a category. Skepticism is certainly preferable to negativity, at least in this case.

I like skepticism because it becomes potent in my attempt to outpace the complexities packed into a word. The fact of Africanness, whether manifest in literature or in personal identity, begins from a scheme of naming perpetuated by thinkers outside the physical entity called Africa. To accept the term should be to be skeptical about it, and to infuse it with the sort of meaning it must embody today. If Africa is an idea, it is petty and nonsensical to imagine it out of existence. It’s rather helpful to ask: what might it mean today, and in what ways can this meaning be deployed in literature?

If you know anything about Selasi, you will recall that she is famous for brandishing her mish-mashed identity – at once a Ghanaian, Nigerian, British and American, and now living in Rome. She made this clear in 2005 with her essay about her Afropolitan identity (in recent weeks there have been renewed skepticism about the term, so it is unnecessary for now to share my antithesis). But she reinforces her commingled identity again:

 “…I was writing about personal identity, about the challenge faced by a certain demographic of Africans, both in and outside of Africa, in declaring their own identities.”

It became clear to me at a second reading that Selasi’s Talk is addressed to a group I do not belong to. The “we” she uses throughout her essay specifies an audience for whom “African Literature” is a label that can be discarded at will. I do not know who this group is or where they are located; are they “Afropolitan?” In my understanding African Literature is a parenthetical term within which I can stumble. I call myself an African writer because I am constantly trying to avoid a generalization. Within the category is a suggestion that it cannot mean just one thing. The audience Selasi is conversing with would likely imagine African Literature as just-one-thing, and they would see reason with any call for declassification. But I do not. My friends who write in Ibadan or Asmara do not engage in the fanciful performance of declassification, or the illusion that when African Literature ceases to exist their stories would begin to engage a global audience.

She quotes from Achebe’s “The African Writer and the English Language” to make the point that overlooking the complexities of the African scene is the “only” way to define African literature. Achebe’s vision was clearer than what she might have recalled. He wanted to define African literature in a way that did not overlook complexities, but embraced them as such. She wants us to embrace the complexities but she amputates the arms we should use. African Literature as a category is how we can embrace the complexities of our vast Africanness. It has become as simple as that to me.

I agree with her: “Of all the continents, Africa is the least eligible for generalization.” What worries me, however, is that if we discard the category in order to make room for its specificities and variations, there would be no endpoint to our degeneralization. Supposing we apply the same theory to the term “Nigerian Literature,” it would soon become clear that it does not account for “Igbo Literature” or the “Literature of the Nsukka People.” One specificity would lead to its underlying specificity, until we would be unable to call up the unspecified specificities.

Selasi says Ben Okri’s answer to the question “do you consider yourself an African writer” in a panel justifies her proposition. Okri had responded: “There are only two kinds of writers. Good writers and bad ones.” Well, I would answer in a different way. I would say, yes I am an African writer and I hope to be a good one. Why? I am African writer because I am Nigerian and Nigeria is in a continent called Africa and Africa is a word I am coming to terms with. In doing this I do not “unhook” a smaller story from a larger one; there is no danger of a single story in my admittance. I know there are multiple, even dispersive stories, but I need a term to account for that multiplicity. “African” is my term of choice.

When Selasi asks, “Why does it matter where a writer comes from? Does it change the way he writes?” I am wont to answer, yes it certainly does. For one the material and functional differences in the world needs to be dealt with. Literature helps with that – or I hope that the literature I write accounts for the material conditions under which I work. The more I consider my experience, my doubts and fears, my consciousness and biases, the more I realize that they enable me to offer imaginaries to the world.

For Selasi, though:

 “To write fiction, one must remove oneself — one’s consciousness, one’s experiences, one’s biases, one’s doubts and fears–as completely as one can. To write powerful fiction, one disappears altogether. All writers know this moment.”

Such a moment eludes me. I wish I knew how to enable an act of disappearance in my fiction. This proposition is made with such blatancy that we might have to conclude that Selasi’s vision exaggerates its importance, or undermines the scope it should consider. The question has shifted from that of African Literature to one of the writer’s handling of material. A dangerous proposal is made: to write fiction with as much absence you can master. But when you disappear, what is left of the work? Which part of yourself would be left to complete it? What will bear the marks of your suffering?

I hope I can embody the material I am working with. It has to break me, bring me to my knees and then promise redemption, all at once. Even if I wanted to disappear when I write fiction the material wouldn’t allow me to. In fact, “powerful fiction” would mean being so present you wish you could disappear.

How do we begin to make sense of Selasi’s declaration?

 “Afropolitan is a personal identity. Fiction has no need for such things.”

A piece of writing, like any godlike creative ability, takes its breath of life from its creator.  The creation should be ipso facto identified by the creator. Accordingly, a category such as African Literature invokes the identity of an African – or an Afropolitan, or an Afrofuturist. That my writing is termed “African” has something to do with the fact of my being and of my belonging. Selasi may want us to belong to “a world with human literature” or to “classify literature as we do music, allowing that the identity of consequence is the writing’s, not the writer’s,” but I remain convinced that you cannot fully imagine my writing if you do not imagine me. Besides, whether or not I write a story set in Nigeria, I necessarily offer imaginaries out of my personhood and my understanding of my place in the world.

Agreed, novels aspire to “global engagement.” Certainly in a good novel the map of a nation might turn out to be the map of the world. Yet I realize that the idea of global engagement is incomplete without one of a center; the point where a compass begins to draw a circle. By all means African Literature has to stand side by side with the rest of world literature. But the departure point matters. It must be named, termed, categorized.

 

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.