Feminist author and social critic Minna Salami, says that her upcoming advaya course, Sensuous Knowledge, is an endeavour to be present to the disorderly character of our times. The point is to counter the impulse of neoliberal capitalist culture which denies complexity and collective sorrow in propagation of consumerism and “fast” self-help fixes.
The balm will be found in being present in and to the current unrest: but what does this mean? Situating Minna Salami’s work in an ecosystem of others, including public intellectual Báyò Akómoláfé, writers Elwood Jimmy and Vanessa Andreotti, and theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, we explore how some of her teachings may be applied practically.
“Imagine the mind as a garden. Our traditional idea of decolonizing it would be like vigorously chopping down a poison ivy that is threatening to infest the garden with its toxic branches. But decolonizing the garden of the mind is more about planting new, rare, forgotten, and hybrid trees, herbs, and flowers that eventually do away with the ivy. It is decorating the trees with bowls where birds can rest and sing songs of freedom. It is creating a wild meadow in the center of the enclave and finding time to just lie in this green place.”
Minna Salami, Sensuous Knowledge
Decolonisation is resisting the urge to “amputate”. In Sensuous Knowledge, Minna Salami likens the prefix de-, in decolonisation, to amputating. Within the paradigm of Europatriarchal knowledge, to fix something requires isolation and extraction: the “solution” lies in getting rid of things; the foundation of which is the belief that the problem can be exactly identified and tidily removed from the premises.
But, as she explains, “you cannot extract colonial thinking by forcefully removing parts of your character and behavior. The mind does not work that way. All such attempts result only in self-censorship, collective deception, and paranoia.”
So what if the prefix de- meant to “reduce”, like in devalue, rather than to “remove”, like in dethrone? What if to decolonise meant “gently inserting new insights, which eventually reshuffle and do away with harmful thoughts?” What if to decolonise meant “observing how every poisoned bark and every blooming bud find a way to exist in this enclosure together?”
What does it mean to lie in this green place, with the poison ivy and its toxic branches, and everything that the poison ivy has infiltrated—or interacted with? Less metaphorically, her invitation is for us to see how in doing the work of activism, we can “reinforce the very things we’re trying to work against”, to borrow from Báyò Akómoláfé. By seeing decolonisation as a process of amputating colonial thoughts, we are replicating the concepts and structures of knowability, categorisation, stability: the very ones that have gotten us this far detached from, and some will say above, ‘nature’.
Returning to the question: how do we first exist together with what we want removed? Like Minna Salami, Báyò Akómoláfé ventures into the territory of disorder and asks what it can teach us.
She asks: “How do we become present to the disorderly character of our times without losing hope and joy?” Echoing this, Báyò asserts: “We need a politics of risk and play.” Minna’s metaphor of a garden run amok with wild, invasive, monstrous poison ivy parallels his metaphor of a carnival. In both metaphors we observe elements we would instinctively, within this paradigm, associate with horror and fear, which we then want to refuse. But we are being invited to refuse the refusal. “As the wilds show up in our living rooms,” he says, “we would need something more than chasing them away.” Rather than being so quick to define the problem and getting rid of it (assuming this was possible and easy), is there more value in being present with its being and becoming?
In other words, seeing as the dominant forms of activism work has become trapped in ‘identity politics’, ‘cancel/carceral culture’, or just getting caught up in wronging, shaming, blaming each other (rather than institutions, structures, etc.), is there more value in concerning ourselves with the relational instead? Instead of judging from taking things at face value, what about the harder work of digging deeper to what these behaviours and actions reveal of our culture?
Here is another metaphor to think about: bricks and threads. In Towards Braiding, Elwood Jimmy and Vanessa Andreotti identify two ways of thinking and being. Brick sense and sensibilities, which like the image of a brick suggests, “stand for a set of ways of being that emphasize fixed form and linear time, where the world is experienced through concepts that describe the form of things and places them systematically in ordered hierarchical structures”. In contrast, there are thread sense and sensibilities, which, like the image of threads suggest, “stand for a set of ways of being that emphasize interwovenness, shape-shifting flexibility and and layered time”, where every entity, in itself living, operates “within an integrative and dynamic whole”.
Decolonisation in the brick sense would mean the process could be formulaic, methodological, that there is a ‘right’ way to do activism work and a logic which we can apply to explain our way about these times. In the thread sense, however, we would understand that each person is bound up with another, and that our relations exist in a moving whole. To return to the garden metaphor: this means that the poison ivy’s branches have really invaded—inter-acted. It can’t be ‘weeded out’ because it’s so deeply rooted and interwoven that all parties involved have been changed by it; and its abrupt deletion wouldn’t matter, because all parties have already been imprinted, and will continue to be haunted. Which is not to say that the poison ivy should not be dealt with, but that the monoculturing way of herbicides would lead us eventually back to the same paradigm we’re trying to escape.
So instead we enter the territory of disorder. Drawing from the Afrocene, Báyò Akómoláfé invites us to be “traveling with the slave across the Atlantic [...] a different posture altogether, is to listen to a world that is wilder than the materials of the Anthropocene might invite us to notice [...] this carnivalesque, festive, radically hospitable concept that invites experimentation with embodiment [which] is a disappointment of those enlightenment precepts, concepts about politics, being either utilitarian, industrial, or natural or any of those things is not Lockean or Hobbesian that politics is premised on a singular notion of nature can be a form of a trap. That what we want to do right now is experiment with new nature culture, and render them more resilient as we perform with them.”
Some may misunderstand the notion of being present to the disorderly character of our times’ as simple, foolish rebellion. As Jack Halberstam says in The Wild Beyond, on the work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney: “it is not a place where we “take arms against a sea of troubles/and by opposing end them.” The undercommons is a space and time which is always here. Our goal – and the “we” is always the right mode of address here – is not to end the troubles but to end the world that created those particular troubles as the ones that must be opposed.” In this, decolonisation becomes less about the opposition to particular things, behaviours, actions; less about being seen doing the ‘right’ things… but about the rejection of being stuck in all of that.
Returning to Minna Salami: what if to decolonise meant “observing how every poisoned bark and every blooming bud find a way to exist in this enclosure together?”
To put that thought into practice, this is what Jack Halberstam says: “[C]hange cannot come in the form that we think of as “revolutionary” – not as a masculinist surge or an armed confrontation. Revolution will come in a form we cannot yet imagine. Moten and Harney propose that we prepare now for what will come by entering into study. Study, a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you, prepares us to be embedded in what Harney calls “the with and for” and allows you to spend less time antagonized and antagonizing.”
To be where the wild things are, to be with the poison ivy, to be in the carnival, the undercommons, the garden (whatever the metaphor), is to simply be present with what is. To open our eyes to what is in front of us and resist the urge to put into words and rationalise; to be with the trouble and to study it; to allow what desires to emerge to do so, rather than “suffocate it with our expectations and projections”; to acknowledge that we are implicated, complicit, involved—related. It is to be tender and empathetic, to resist the urge to shame (because that is essentially a version of amputating), to acknowledge that we only have each other, the worst of each other, but also the best of each other.
We are capable of complexity. To recognise this is to refuse the way that has led us to thinking that meaningful change will come by finding the ‘right’ way to be in this world and forcing everyone into the same mould, and thinking that activism work is about being able to point out ‘wrong’ from ‘right’.
Instead, meaningful change will come from, as Báyò Akómoláfé says, “[teasing] out branches from the singular, [teasing] out the many streams from the mainstream”; from, as Jack Halberstam says, foregoing “the hold they have on us” and “on the other, preferring instead to touch, to be with, to love”; from, as Minna Salami says, “inserting and reinserting, imagining and reimagining, shaping and reshaping”. It is study, it is experiment… it is “creating a wild meadow in the center of the enclave and finding time to just lie in this green place.” In doing so we make space too, for hope, joy, play, calm, rest.