We are in an age of spillages and fundamental breaches in the borders of things. From the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the ‘insurgency’ of Syrian refugees, to the surprising revelations that with the NSA the Americans spy on everyone else, and to the embarrassing implosion of courteous politics with leaked ‘locker-room tapes’ and Wikileaks journalism, it seems things do fall apart and centres are besieged and haunted. As such, we are being invited to question our concepts of purity, of static boundaries, and predetermined properties. The sacred is being reconfigured.
By Adebayo Akomolafe
Oct 31, 2016
I usually begin my talks by saying something prosaic like “I’m happy to be here!” and then move on to the gist of the matter. Today I want to begin a different way (mind you, it’s not that I’m not happy to be here!). In a time when the very notion of ‘here’ no longer feels secure or stable, when in a single digital transaction I can blur the boundaries between Sao Paulo, Chennai, London and a nameless spot of sky higher than cruising altitude, maybe a more robust form of gratitude is in order. A deeper accounting for what I might mean when I say ‘here’.
So – not in any particular order – I give thanks for my daughter Alethea and my wife Ej back in our adopted home of India, whose love and warmth are my loamy ground and sunlight. I give thanks for the small moments that inspired this gathering of voices; for the smiles (and frowns!) on your faces; for the pilot that not only knew how to fly the plane that brought me here, but was pretty good at landing it as well; for Emile Berliner, who in 1876 made an earlier iteration of this microphone – without which this would be an eloquent mime of sorts, or a silent black and white film; for the farming couple that planted the seed that grew into the tree that made this paper – upon which I have printed some words, with alphabets I didn’t create; for storytellers and story-listeners and the blurry lines between them; and for this city – London – and all its promise, all its pubs, and all the poetry she summons.
An old Christian song we were taught to sing when we were young says, “Count your many blessings – name them one by one”. If we were to account for how things come to matter, we would be shocked at its preposterous complexity. In a sense I hope to further characterize during this talk, the world is nothing short of miraculous – threaded through and through with wonder. By ‘miracle’, you might get the sense that I am evoking the exhausted image of a distant deity, far removed from the fray, who often tinkers with and interrupts the machine-like precision of the ordinary. But is the sacred that distant? Is it necessarily far away, showing up only in the spectacular, something we have to reach out and touch? Or is the sacred already an integral part of the ordinary, the boring, unremarkable? You might agree with me that in these very modern times when everything seems rushed; when every face seems dimly lit by the soft, seductive glow of a hand-held device; and when we are perpetually bombarded with information streaming from pixels and billboards and television screens and screaming headlines, the urge to claim sanctuary, to root oneself in nurturing waters, is compelling. But where to find sanctuary? Where is home? I think these questions are implicated in the way we think about thinking – and surely in the ways this conversation has been framed: as an investment in the idea of moving from ‘intellect’ to ‘intuition’. It’s almost as if we are grasping at the endangered vestiges of the sacred barely alive in an increasingly global society that seems hostile to enchantment. Why else would we want to move from intellect to intuition? What is happening to occasion this shift?
Let me tell you a story to move things along. It is the story of the tortoise – a trickster figure in West African folklore. In a move that predated Google’s ongoing attempt to completely digitize knowledge, Tortoise set out one day with an earthen gourd tied to his neck. His mission? To store everything that was knowable about the world. He wanted it all for himself, you see; he wanted proprietary rights to knowledge. And so he went to the flying eagle and took away his knowledge of flight; from the rushing river, her ability to dance and sing; from the rainclouds, their secret wisdom about water; from London, the ancient philosophy and painstaking craftsmanship that goes into making a sandwich; from fire, her ravenous appetite. Against all odds, Tortoise succeeded: he combed the knowable universe. There was nothing that could be known that wasn’t eventually stuffed into his gourd. What was left to do was to hide away his precious cargo – and so Tortoise made to climb an iroko tree in order to hide his invaluable treasure amongst the tree’s leaves. The problem was, with the gourd hanging from his neck, he couldn’t quite get his little limbs around the tree’s formidable body. After hours trying to get a grip, the grasshopper wandered by; he too had been colonized by the Tortoise. “I greet you, my brother”, the grasshopper intoned. Tortoise didn’t reply. “You know”, Grasshopper continued, after taking a short while to watch the trickster, “you could easily swing the gourd round your back”, and then he sprang off without further ado. Tortoise realized his foolishness, shook his head wistfully, and re-positioned the gourd of knowledge on his shell – except he was no longer sure that what he had was ‘the gourd of knowledge’. He climbed the tree, and at the very top, he let spill all the gourds contents back into the world. He had realized that if he – the possessor of all things – couldn’t a figure out how to help himself, then maybe his notion of knowledge…as something that can ultimately contained…was mistaken. His project fell asunder.
That last word – ‘asunder’, when things fall apart, or rather that things are always out of joint and broken from the start – could very well be the definitive feature of our times. In a very urgent sense (and in a very rhetorical sense as well), we are in an age of spillages and fundamental breaches in the borders of things. From the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the ‘insurgency’ of Syrian refugees, to the surprising revelations that with the NSA the Americans spy on everyone else, and to the embarrassing implosion of courteous politics with leaked ‘locker-room tapes’ and Wikileaks journalism, it seems things do fall apart and centres are besieged and haunted. Many things accounted for ‘Brexit’ and I wouldn’t presume I – or anyone for that matter – could possibly isolate a single causative agent in this political scenario. I think, however, it is probably safe to say one of the more prominent features of Brexit was concern about borders – about people streaming in from without, and the need to perhaps rekindle the long-dormant quest for the pure Englishman. But in a world of spillages, we are invited to question our concepts of purity, of static boundaries, and predetermined properties. If you’d consider it, we tend to think of the world in binaries: it’s us versus them, white versus black, male versus female, human versus nonhuman, god versus flesh, subject versus object, light versus dark. In short the world is merely a container for established objects that have essences and unique boundaries. All that is alive and sacred is fenced into a very small space – perhaps the space covered by a halo. But is this the case? Is the world outside a halo dead and inert, or does the halo also spill?
The 17th century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, is credited as being the one who formulated the now popular dictum: I think therefore I am – a startling manifesto for the deadness and redundancy of the world. For Descartes it was important to ground science in something that could not be refuted. In certainty. And so, with a thought experiment, he proceeded to question the existence of everything. He found he could summarily dispense with the existence of eagles, of rivers, of rainclouds, of sandwiches in London, of fire. The entire world in fact. But the one thing Descartes couldn’t doubt was that he was doubting. He thus came to the conclusion that doubt was evidence of mind, and that the mind was fundamentally separate from the material world. Of a finer, less discernible stuff – if you will. In this way, he formally split the world in ways that still resonate in how we meet the universe – as a resource, as a mute tool or backdrop to the glorious foreground activity of humans.
These Cartesian orthodoxies situate mind at a distance from matter. The scientific method is based on this assumption: that to properly know what a thing ‘is’, you lean away from it – in a sense preserving the distance between subject and object. One could almost see this as a bourgeois gesture of repulsion! ‘Ultimately’, Cartesian parameters have led us to localize thought, feeling, agency, and all the mysterious psychological events we are intimate with, in the brain. And so with broad brush-strokes, Descartes painted the portrait of a world where enchantment is always in short supply. We are en-souled in a world that has no soul until it is touched by our phallic presence. The soul is something shrivelled up, locked in the finite…in lack. The plot thickens, and the dynamics of longed-for escape are activated.
Today, our many systems of being and institutions are encoded with these Cartesian imperatives. When we roll over a tree, and expand the regime of tar and asphalt, and speak about climate change as if it were simply a matter of human continuity, or insist that the oceans and its unspeakable wealth of life actually cost trillions of dollars, we are performing a blind spot – a denial of the significance and agency of the world that is supposedly ‘around’ us. Thankfully, like the Tortoise coming to see that knowledge could not be owned or labelled or stabilized or contained, our Cartesian coordinates are met by troubling and disruptive influences that impugn this mode of being. ‘New’ stories are being told that would make us blush. What if the world is alive? What if there’s enchantment and mind and beauty and agency even in the things that feel dead and merely instrumental?I think therefore I am! – how rude! A perverse dalliance between matter and mind is afoot. And the awkward immanence of the sacred in the ordinary is continuing its unholy crusade.
We dance from Descartes to the ménage à trois between an 18th century London-born physician, Thomas Young, and two of perhaps the western world’s most consequential philosopher-scientists, Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Between them, some of the more startling insights about quantum mechanics and how it disturbs our classical-Cartesian view of things, emerged.
At a time when the scientific world was caught up in questions about the nature of nature – and specifically the nature of light, whether it was a wave (showing interference patterns) or a particle (localized into small bits) – Young came up with an experiment designed to settle the question once and for all. Karen Barad tells us that “waves and particles are ontologically distinct kinds: waves are extended disturbances that can overlap and move through one another; particles are localised entities that singly occupy a given position in space one moment at a time. Light can’t simply just be a wave and a particle, extended and localised.” Thomas believed that light behaved like a wave, dispersed everywhere – a view that stood against Isaac Newton’s century-old belief that light was particulate. His apparatus – called the double slit experiment – involved introducing a beam of light from a single opening in the window, and putting a narrow card in its way. Like Francesco Grimaldi years before him, he made the observation that the phenomenon of light striking the card ‘caused’ fringes of darkness or bands of shadow to appear at the edges of the card. When he placed a different card to split the ray of light, he observed that the bands of shadows disappeared. For Young, it was consistent with the idea that light is a wave – since you’d expect that kind of behaviour from waves (like ripples on the surface of a water body cancelling themselves out and interfering with each other).
Many years after Young, Niels Bohr, a Dutch physicist, father of quantum theory and contemporary of Einstein, insisted that light was not inherently a wave. Or a particle. It was both and neither. Einstein, his bitter rival, sought to rubbish his claims – insisting that the implications of Bohr’s thinking was that nothing existed as a given – or that things do not come already made. Einstein wanted to believe that the world had ordered, elegant, measurable material laws that governed how things related with each other – but here was Bohr basically saying that things themselves did not derive their ‘thingness’ from anything within. And that the property of a thing, the identity of a thing, its ontology, what makes a human, or a cup of tea, or a sandwich what it is, depends on how it is measured. Bohr was pointing out that the world is made of relationships, not things. It is within the context of relationships that things derive their ‘thingness’.
The way Bohr sought to show this could not be performed in his days – but he suggested that if Young’s double slit experiment or the measuring apparatus could be modified, we would observe that light is a particle. Not a wave as Young sought to demonstrate with some finality. Ever since these hair-splitting conversations between Einstein and Bohr, it has been demonstrated again and again, in numerous experiments and reiterations of Young’s initial quest, that Bohr was right. When electrons – little bits of light – were beamed at a screen with two slits opening out to another screen behind, scientists observed interference patterns. When they tried to observe how sending single particles of light could cause an interference pattern, something miraculous happened: they observed scatter patterns consistent with the theory that light is particulate. Some physicists don’t even speak about it: to do so would be like walking into Hogwarts, and then screaming the name of “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”. This is because the implications of this – a fraction of which I cannot even cover if we spent all day here – disturbs everything we thought we knew. If particles can be ‘aware’, then matter isn’t dead – and privacy is a sham, because in a sense that is no longer merely poetic, walls do have ears.
If the world is ongoing relationship, if there are no things in themselves, no sturdy boundaries that are not already a fluid congealment in a stream of more-than-human becomings, and if we derive disambiguation only within the context of this flow, then we have to rethink everything – even thinking. At least there’s something interesting happening that should warrant a second look at our ideas about the world – at our gourds of knowledge. We are talking about spillages here! Supreme spillages and leaks that cannot be helped.
Karen Barad, a theoretical physicist and feminist – whose work has greatly enriched my work with the world – formulated the concept of intra-action (as opposed to ‘interaction’) to describe how things are constantly melting into each other, and how there are originals. Donna Haraway speaks about infectious ecologies – suggesting that the world arises from a becoming-together. A sympoiesis. A moving together. John Shotter, ‘reflecting’ on these dramatic shifts, explains that all of this “means that no ‘things’ exist for us as fixed and permanent ‘things-in-themselves’ in separation from their surroundings. All ‘things’ exist as ‘doings’, as agential enactments, as focal things attended to from within a larger, ceaselessly unfolding, unbounded, fluid process. Thus, as beings within (and of) a world that is always in the process of becoming other than what it was before, we must learn to think ‘while in motion’, so to speak, and to treat our ‘thinkings’ as temporary results within a still continuing process of becoming.”
And Chinua Achebe, that master of simple words, wrote in his novel – ‘No Longer at Ease’, the name of which feels like our lot: “The impatient idealist says: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.”
Perhaps, this idea that we are moving with the earth – or what the earth is doing, not just static constituents of the planet (as if anything is static and pregiven) – could help us understand why dogs seem to know when their ‘owners’ – faraway at work – are coming home, immediately the owners intend to do so. A few years ago, Rupert Sheldrake – an English author and researcher in parapsychology – published a book that reported the results of experiments he had conducted to test the idea that many dog owners could swear to: that their dogs seem to know when they are coming, and are always at the door by the time they get home – even though there are no obvious indications of their presence. In many of the case studies, more conventional explanations were ruled out: it wasn’t the case that the dogs had some kind of ‘time sense’ about when their owners returned home; it wasn’t the case that they could smell them from a distance since some owners were many kilometres away when live video recordings showed that the dogs would suddenly get up and wait by the door. And it also wasn’t due to subtle cues, like movements of cars outside. Some randomized control measures were enacted, and what was produced was an outcome, something we dog-lovers seem to know already: that dogs are wonderful sentient beings.
To the best of my knowledge, no experiments with cats have been performed!
What all of this points to is that the “things we name as ‘thoughts’ are better imagined as intra-active processes occurring in the world at large. Thought is not localized to human brains. We are not special. Orcas have been known to conduct experiments on the people that thought they were conducting the sole experiments. But it’s not just dogs and cetaceans and animals that are large-like-us, it’s that we cannot with any certitude affirm that we live in the world described by Descartes – the world of isolated selves and impoverished others. We are with-nessing spillages across boundaries, and the phallic binaries between human and nonhuman, male and female, this and that, here and there, are breaking down – in ways that would be difficult to characterize within the time I have left.
Mind becomes matter, and matter no longer looks like the reductionistic, squeezed up quality we thought we had completely figured out. It is in this space that many are speaking about ‘intra-thinking’ or the idea that the mind is transcorporeal, disturbing boundaries between inside and outside, chastising our attempts to quickly ensconce ourselves away from the ‘environment’. The proposal that we ‘have’ souls – souls that are responsible for all our behaviour – is summarily disrupted when we studiously follow the transitional processes that exist between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’. I like to say that the soul is no longer within, or without – just ‘with’. It is in the spaces between, in relationship, in the wilds beyond our fences and within our fences that the soul thrives – and in a sense, we haven’t met the soul yet.
We can see that the hasty ways we tend to think about intuition and intellect derive from that ‘old’ Cartesian rift. Recall that Descartes effectively proposed that since the world is mind versus matter or subjective in tension with the objective, there are basically two types of knowledges: one is representational and superior and indirect. These are the efforts taken to meet the world outside of experience – an objective world that exists whether we are here or not. The scientific method emerged from this idea – that our everyday knowledges cannot be trusted. That our senses need to be mediated by correct language and authorized experts – by control measures. What many scientists believe they are producing are precise pictures of reality.
If however mere observation has consequences, if knowledge is a doing, a performative meeting or co-enactment, if there are no gourds of knowledge, and if there is no rift and things are still being made – even things that seem to have already made boundaries – then science is not about accuracy as it is about political power. Power over what is ‘real’. To put it simply, there is no privileged access point that is limited to intellectual practice. Our everyday navigations of the world, those things that we seem to know – even though we cannot back them up in ways that satisfy the public – are just as important as those knowledges that appear to be intellectually grounded. But I perpetuate a false binary in speaking this way. Grammar fails me here. Intellect and intuition are not two sides of a coin. They are not separate, and their meanings are still at stake. Both are world-making processes. If we adopt conventional understandings, and figure intuition as pre-conscious neural networks shaped by practice and behaviour, then it means the intellect – or the more conscious rational process implied in our cognitive practices – is part of that shaping. Both are co-constitutive, in the same way the ocean constitutes the shore and the shoreline characterizes the ocean. What might happen if we started to trust our bodies, our feelings – as what the world is doing?
In conclusion, this feminist posthuman redescription of the world coincides with what my people seem to know – that the world is alive, and we can learn to listen. That matter signifies, initiates, conducts experiments, yearns for, hopes for, listens, wonders, disturbs and creates. Suddenly the anorexic world of four coordinates – forward, backward, upward, downward – is interrupted (or should I say ‘intra-rupted’?) by perverse new directionalities: awkward.
We are part of a world that is stitched through and through with aliveness – a world that wasn’t finished in the mythical origin stories we tell. A world that is still figuring itself out, still undoing its own parameters, still working out its meanings. A world that is always at stake.
The streets of London (and of everywhere else) are still dotted with gold; there is a surprise at every turn and at every re/turn. Where mind is no longer the sole possession of humans, and is not even a possession at all but an ecological phenomenon – enlisting stones, trees, curbs, tables, laptops – we don’t have to seek the sacred in the distant. Here, right now, this place, this moment of confusion, of strange feelings, of broken fences, of things falling asunder…this moment, is beautiful. Sacred.
Perhaps, like Jacob – that old trickster character of Judeo-Christian affections – who slept in exile, placing his tired troubled head on a rock, cursing his hustling ways and the fact that he was once again fleeing a brother who wanted his head, we can awaken from the dream of Cartesian rifts, take a ‘better’ look at the world we constantly strive to leave behind, and exclaim, as he did, “God was here, the sacred has been here all along, right here…and I did not know it.”
 Karen Barad, ‘Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, Spacetime Enfoldings and Justice-to-come’, Derrida Today 3.2 (2010): 240–268