[2017] These wilds beyond our fences

  title={These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity's Search for Home},
  author={Akomolafe, B. and Eisenstein, C.},
  publisher={North Atlantic Books}

In openlibrary.

My highlights:

It wasn’t just that society offered us the wrong map; it was the whole formula for making and following a map that was wrong.

My dear [daughter] Alethea, of all the critters that crawl across the earth’s meandering planes, and hide in the shadows of her belly folds, a hush is perhaps the most difficult to find. We are strangely drawn to hushes and yet simultaneously possessed by a crippling fear to actually meet them. I met a wild man once. He says that a hush has a message to share, and that to truly meet a hush, one must approach it with hesitation. One must be prepared to be marked, broken, mocked, and dismembered. To sit with a hush is to meet oneself as if for the first time. It is to come home. And this, coming home, is why I write you.

Here, with Yoruba babalawos, or medicine men, there is mystery and movement and poetry and flair. Like a street rap battle.

[…] the priest usually carries around his bag of cowrie shells. The cowrie is a symbol of overflowing fertility and life’s remarkable ability to regenerate itself. Once used in precolonial Yoruba lands as a unit of currency when perforated and strung together by a single thread, cowries swept to the shores of West Africa from the Maldives.

When he opens the container, instead of cowries, out spills disconcertingly black streams of little furry creatures. A menagerie of monsters. Hushes.

I do not, however, know how to pray. Though I know why I have come here, I do not have the words to dance out the wordless gyrations of memory, and pain and hope, the undecipherable grumbling of a heartache so fragile, and the feeling that all is askew and that something needs to be done about that. It is an itch somewhere down my back that my fingers cannot reach. There’s so much to say. So much to feel. Feelings that are not mine, but emerge from the material grounds – the killing fields, the sites of charged yearnings and gravid voids – that make me possible.

I worry about what might become of sea turtles, water, mountains, and land – the intricate life-web of the more-than-human spun outside of story and intention, upon which we depend and by which we are enfleshed. I cannot solve the world’s problems or even know how think of them. Or how to think of my skin and the infirmities that come with being a young black man in a world that prefers the pedigree of brighter colors. I wish I had answers. I wish I could be accepted without having to exert myself in acrobatic displays of cultural mobility. What can I give you, dear --that is not already haunted?

How can I make you a home unless I set out to encounter the universe halfway?

We have chased away all the spirits into the forest. If we want to do well for this world, we must to look for them. If we want to find our way, we must first come away from the road and become lost.

In meeting myself, in working through the knotty issues that becloud my mind, I make myself more available to the nuances of our relationship. I become your father over and over again–in new, unexplored ways.

In seeking home, we are coming down to earth, and we will not arrive intact. Do you feel the gravity of things? The way the ground feels beneath you? The tension in your chest as you pull oxygen and dust, thereby disturbing the boundaries between the inside and the outside? Never not dancing. Never not flowing.

In Yoruba folklore, the higher God lowers a chain to the nether region, where Oduduwa, ancestor of all people, descends into what would later become the city of Yoruba people, Ilé-Ifé. The first settlement for earth’s citizens. Oduduwa comes down the chain hanging on the corner of the sky with a pouch around his neck, containing a rooster, some earth, and a palm kernel. He meets the tipsy waters, swaying this way and that. There is no place to rest his feet as he hangs by the chain from heaven. So he throws the earth into the water, and deploys the rooster, who scratches, flails and scatters the dust far and wide with its wings, making continents and huge land masses wherever the dust settles. Oduduwa plants the palm kernel, and makes his home on earth. But the dust never settles. It may be said that the ancient rooster, restless and eager, still disturbs the dust–and it is disturbed dust, always flowing, that makes us and makes the world over and over again.

We cannot account for ourselves, and the world by which our breathing is sustained, without paying homage to dust, to this graceful contingency that imbues all and resists wholeness and lastingness. Perhaps a libation–the practice of ceremoniously pouring drink to the ground–is not so much about quenching the thirst of the bloodthirsty gods or appeasing haunting ancestors, as it is about unsettling dust. Dust gives us place, while reminding us that it isn’t ours to own forever. The generativity of dust resists permanence and undercuts lasting presence.

The world can only be spoken of incoherently, not because we don’t have the details but because the details themselves show up only in traces, in residues, in hints of what might yet be or what might yet have been.

The myth of modernity proposes a home in a world that is progressively conquered by scientific and technological advances: the more we come to know about how the world works, the likelier our chances for successfully colonizing it. It is us against dust.

As our fences grew (pretending to enclose within them a circle of anthropocentric agency, and distancing the wilds beyond them, where dragons and beasts and mindless weeds sprout like an uncontrollable plague), the promise of arriving at a universal, totalizing, and complete knowledge of the world keeps a steady pace–disturbed now and then by the interrupting sounds of the wilds. With science and its supposed abilities to mirror unvarnished truth, the war is supposedly being won. We are getting “better”. Of course, this imperialistic thesis of modernity made colonialism possible. And science, purportedly apolitical and neutral, was in cahoots with the economic and cultural agendas that led to the exploitation of black, brown, and even white bodies.

Modernity is also a popular gathering place where stories about what we once had, homes we once built, futures we once thought given, cultures we once embraced, powers we once sustained, and liberties we once enjoyed are told and retold with nostalgic breaths. We are desperately trying to investigate our circumstances, to ask what it takes to live well, to struggle with aging and dying, to know when to be wary of the other and when to be hospitable. To know what home means.

We live in a world that is largely populated by nonhumans, whose material effects are yet to be fully appreciated. That we understand the world through story, via discourse, does not foreclose the possibility of a material world that stretches beyond it. Because modernism cannot account for the role of discourse in shaping the seen, and constructionism cements this bifurcation by positing that language is the stuff of the world, we need to meet the universe halfway–a way of bringing the world back in, without reducing it to dead matter, and a way of acknowledging the contributions of culture as well. We cannot pose the question of home without accounting for the manner in which we are beings among beings.

Remembering is hardly a matter of recalling facts as it is about embellishing traces of an inkling with bits of the plausible.

Karen [Barad] was part of an earthly choir of agencies singing me down to land, urging me to notice the troubling yet surprising sympathy between all things … all creatures … a sympathy that weaved together mind and soil, sky and shadow, man and woman, god and dust. Father and son. A weaving so intimate that the connective stitches become indistinguishable from the fabric.

The wounds we often inflict on others have roots that connect oppressor and oppressed in a loop of shared unrequited yearning.

Feminist saw how modernism helped produce the painful racial occlusions that were once endorsed by supposedly neutral scientific authorities, and justified disenfranchisement and oppression. They walked away from the universalizing schemes of modernism insisting that we pay attention to the disciplining norms, cultural modes, discursive practices, and complex relationships that constructed bodies. They reclaimed emotionality and “irrationality” as legitimate form of intelligence. Attacking the idea of an essential self that wasn’t discoursively constructed. Carefully developing insights into the particular ways one could no longer speak of “womanhood”–as if that were a single category where all women could be lumped together.

To their former lords who opined that nature makes us, they countered: “No, we make nature. And the nature you have constructed serves you to the exclusion of us.” They placed the emphasis and the burden of causation on the discursive, on epistemology–not ontology. On language, not “material”.

By centralizing human subjectivity, postmodernism effectively denies the material effects of the world that hosts us and shapes us. And that has real consequences. We face the retribution of the finite elasticity of things: the world snaps back and stings us. The “new materialisms” embrace interdisciplinary work into the ways culture and nature can no longer be seen as separate; into the way identity and race are both material and discursive. And how the very concerns of feminst theory, the “old” anthems that draw us all into the gravitational pull of feminity, to the specificity of female-identified bodies, is also a cry for environment, for healthy economies, for ethically profound relationships with nonhuman others.

In many indigenous worldviews, there is not new that is not old and no old that is not inexhaustibly new. The “material turn” it’s about being stuck, about emerging partially, not fully understanding, not arriving.

The Yoruba people speak of “ayé”, a mode of causation that is unwieldy, surprising, diffracted, mutilinear, ecstatic, and sensuous. Objects only come to gain their “thinginess” and specificity in the context of a relationship. Not that matter is illusory, but that matter is fluid, ontologically undetermined, and always co-emergent with the measurements made. Computers, consumers, and capitalism only make sense because of the particular social-political-scientific-ethical-material circumstances that render them intelligible.

We are a companion species. The closer we look, the more we find that we never act alone: every small gesture is a generation of the collective.

The world is now open for play, and yet closed of seductively… and in that playground there are mysteries and beings and other presences (and absences) that totally recalibrate the logic of our quests so that the questions to ask about the future, about our lives, about living well, might not even be here yet for the asking. Stand still in the face of a monster, warts and all, and recognize ourselves.

Things aren’t suddenly okay because we are coming to see that the room is crowded with others. Entanglement is the milieu of monsters. Look how things sprout from other things. How nothing is itself all by itself–or without the contributions of other things. You cannot approach any one part of “the world” and walk away intact. Fertility is a matter of embracing monsters. That the generativity of the world is premised on its deep-seated monstrosity. That in the grotesque, in the anomalous, in the scandalous, we glimpse not a fall from grace but a deepening of its work. We must seek Lilith because we come from her–because we also are born of the rage of a world astray.

The subject of home cannot be dealt with without thinking of the homes we’ve already lost.

To climb this pyramid, and claw our way to the top of modernity’s pointy summit is a gesture of arrival, is the suggested route of resolution. The driving ethos is equal access to prestige, to educational opportunities, to career fulfillment, to fair representation.

Anger must be allowed its troubling passage. Confrontation, anger, and pain have their place. But even victimhood could be oppressive. Power shows up in ironic ways.

Blackness is a phenomenon of white arrangements. Its charged theo-psychological undertones of backwardness and biological monstrosity did not emerge except as a substitute category within an industrial order of limited allocations and privileged recipients. It sees the same vision of power that whiteness coaxes it to adopt: food security as access to shopping malls; prosperity as more dollar bills that ones can spend; the self as an atomized individual that knows no community or treats community as the proximity of estranged bodies; and the Future–that imaginary of techno-utopian supremacy–as the only possible timeline.

A shamanic perspective draws upon shapeshifting ontologies, cosmologies of dust and threadbare boundaries, and other visions of power-with-the-world. Within such worldview, one cannot be “black” or “white”. Not for long. It is potentially an approach that emphasizes racial differences and peculiarities only to the degree that it stitches those identities within a quilt of mutual entanglement. The “other” becomes the condition for one’s existence, and vice versa. One is not only black, but green and blue and yellow-spotted and red-hued, because human bodies are the workings of both human and nonhuman agencies. We are already the “others”, already entangled in palimpsests of trauma and possibility of co-becoming. To speak is to speak-together-with. The self and the not-self are not separate, and difference–though real–is not fixed, but dynamic and co-emergent.

Asé, is a [Yoruba] philosophy that imbues everything, that makes change happen, that motivates the earth to breathe and the skies to regurgitate rain from their bellies. The sound of the euphoric “participatoriness” of all things. The tonality of the gathering. The premise of change and the signature of hope.

“Outside” of the quests for equality or reconciliation, there is a sensuous, richly generative, luxurious intra-activity of bodies … a stream of becoming and movement that disrupts the hard edges of our claims to blackness or whiteness, and engages white normativity and privilege from a place that is simultaneously compassionate and generative-- without turning a bling eye to the oppression suffered.

To be in human was to be in debt to other actors, seen and unseen. To be human was to be immersed in a sensuous world that did things to you. By displacing this posthuman sensitivity, the colonialists downplayed the agencies of the nonhuman and more-than-human world around them. The world was reduced to a machine. A new universal metric for evaluating wealth displaced the abundance these cultures had known. All that was left for the lords to do was to rapidly convert indigenous artifacts, lands and these cultures into commodities. A universal time and singular future was pressed upon every-one. A linear notion of time helped foreground the discourses of development and progress. The rituals of attending to what the world is doing are displaced by new modern rituals of trying to escape it. Its purpose is to continue to find intelligent and resilient ways to organize society in a hierarchical way.

There is no essence here, just movement–connecting colonizer and colonized in erotic mixtures. Only a relational ontology could possibly help us make sense of the queernees at heart of things. We are inescapably interconnected–and this is tragedy and hope.

Blackness is the figure of being late and the pressure to be punctual to a time that is not ours. We have demanded to be seen, to be heard, to be invited, and to be served. We do not see that there are other clocks. There are murmurations–the waltz of wind, sky, starling, and ground-- which are not meant to be spoken about but merely to be seen and appreciated. There are other powers, other agencies, and other clocks.

There is no perfect victim, no innocent past or coherent indigeneity that was lost and which we have to regain. We–the once coherent selves of humanist imaginations–are not at all central to the equation of the world. Asé forbids this. We are not complete. We are not in charge. Other justices are possible. Other ways of meeting each other. In a wide open space, in a world dislodged from its neoliberal coordinates, what racial matterings might look like are yet to be seen-- and we may not be prepared for what wants to come next.

Divorced from the wilds, from the heart-racing immediacy of the world at large, and cradled in the fantasy of our centrality, we have largely become a species of convenience–expecting things to work for us neat and tidy. We are sophisticated, and we no longer have many places to grieve. The particular estrangements produced by modernity blind us from noticing that the dark we try to push away is not only part of life but necessary to it, and that noting shows up except partially. “You have driven away the dark with your big development and your pills, and now you must find it. You must head into the forest to find the dark.”

There is no solution to the dark. We are never not broken. Heading into the forest to find the dark brings us into encounters with the nonhumans. Emotions are posthuman. Thoughts emerge “between”. Heading in the dark is always a matter of collectives. Many indigenous practices of healing draw in other bodies in the community as part of person-making. Healing in African indigenous systems is interactional. Therapy is not a fix as much a s it is an immersion. Staying-with, going down together. It happens in slow time, in soft yielding places where the logic of darkness is allowed to play out. There is no cure, no shortcut, and no detour. Just the long dusty road traveled with others.

We haven’t gotten rid of wild things, they dwell “within” us–somewhere beneath the threshold of normalcy. Your discomfort is a holy ally, a redeeming interruption. Where you are most confused, exhausted, distressed, and compromised is where the wild things grow. Find others who can hold space with you. You are larger than you could ever imagine.

When in the alchemical dynamics of things, the sun emerges again, don’t walk off rudely into his arms. Turn toward the smoldering darkness whence you came, and thank her for shaping you, for scaring you, for wounding you and defeating you, and shaking you, because in her womb you were thoroughly purged, and made fresh for new glimpses to wonder. And as you walk farther into the domineering light, the dark will bless you with a gift to remind you that you are not as contained or as limited as you think, that there is more to you than what meets the educated eye, that whatever you do, the whole universe does the same along with you–imitating yu with a childish keenness, and that you are never, ever alone.

The entire world is flailing and bending and seeking with me because I am not in the world, I am the world in its specific self-inquiry. The asking itself might be inexhaustible in its won right and may not require the redemptive intervention of an answer for it to be valuable or profound in its way. Just the asking is good enough.

Ethics is not external to the material doings and undoings of the world, but emerges with it. To think is to think-with. As I think of the world’s problems and what to do about them, I am learning to offer different questions-- more generative questions…

What if, when we meet, we exchanged singing seeds, shared stories of psychedelic expeditions through the portals of normal wakeful states, and swapped wisdoms and rituals on navigating the ambivalence of life? What if we weren’t so addicted to growth, progress, consumption, and independence? What if we befriended dying? What would life look like?

The “new” possibilities invite performance artistry, rekindling or improvising indigeneity, writing and speaking about “deepening” our responsibilities to climate matterings, and learning to take care with the nonhuman populations around us.

This is a time to longer at the edges, to lean into the troubling intersection points where the differences between me and you, us and them, queer and straight, nature and culture, living and nonliving, man and world, are not given and done, but still in the making. The things we name as obstacles are invitations to shapeshift–to reconsider the genealogy of the forms that we have assumed, and to work with others to see what we might become.

We will have to improvise if the sun is to shine on us tomorrow. To wait for guidance from a tree; to protest carbon markets and the extinction of our earth-siblings by standing still in the rain; to do something preposterous; and to tell us why one and one could equal sixteen. These are the days of ritual, of changing parameters, of paradox, and of humble courage.