I want to begin this reflection by taking some memory-steps back to my high school days when I was a science student. In our biology class, we were introduced to Amoeba, the shapeless, single-cell organism. As with most students of my age, the only character of this organism I really retained was its shapelessness. How can something be shapeless? I often wondered. The whole premise of materiality, or physicality is form. If something can be seen as much as touched, then it is bound to have a shape. Even as I write, I recall how “shapeless amoeba” became a derogatory expression often employed, as a joke or mean insult, to describe someone’s head whose contours are abnormally disproportionate. But I never got over this contradiction of something being shapeless. Many years after, and with the benefit of hindsight, I would come to understand that my life, almost in its entirety, plays out within the perimeters of this paradox. I will explain.
Not too long ago, I was asked to give an artist talk on the theme of violence in the 21st Century. That was at the Kadist Foundation in Paris, where I had a one-month long residency as a visual artist. I opted to focus on the covert, quotidian, not-often-spoken-of, passive-aggressive-but-active violence that is a function of centuries of institutional discrimination, racism and otherisation within the Euro-American space and thought logic. Of course, the premise was simple: we cannot talk about the big things, shaped by equally big, predefined, stereotypical depictions and politicised labels while relegating the small things to the realm of abstraction and shapelessness. This kind of abstraction is, in and of itself, violent because it is at the level of small, everyday acts of violence that majority of the population of the world reside and operate. In other words, it is the closest we can get to conversing and reengaging humanity.
Today, the world is in turmoil because the West is in turmoil. While many would immediately want to judge this statement as preposterous, let me make clear that I speak in relation to how, in constructing its identity over the last 500 years, Europe designed a world where practically all life, truth and reality is validated through its prism and pre-text of negation. The essence of European identity and its operative character from the ground up is that of negation. Its thought logic of relation and organisation is very much rooted in elimination process: to make one thing exist, the “others” have to be invented and then fictionalised. To give shape to one thing, some things ought to be shapeless.
It is this hierarchical ordering of the world (by negation), even in the sweeping tide of change, which continues to nurture the dichotomy between what is shaped and what is shapeless. Shapelessness here is a realm of abstraction and romanticisation. It is a space where subjectivities are flattened or at best relativised. It is the realm which allows for the discussion of differences so long as whiteness, (a short form for Western hegemonic thinking) is neutral, and thus the arbiter. It is a place from which nothing and no one can speak without reproducing differences: the very idea of speaking about difference means one is different. If one is different, one cannot be equal and is not considered part of humanity as defined by, say, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” of the Enlightenment age. A lot, over five centuries of modernity, has been relegated to this realm of shapelessness where all things and people are expected to stay indiscernible, inert, and perpetually out of service.
However, we are at an important juncture in the history of the world, perhaps like never before. A lot is changing. Voices are rising from the grave and from the sidewalks of linear history. The grounds are cracking open to reveal knowledge(s) that have been marched into them by the feet of negation. The earth is contesting its own roundness which has the European hegemony firmly posited as/at its centre. It is as if the ground is being pulled from under our feet in attempts to reset the earth’s cartography imposed by Western modernity. There is panic everywhere in Europe and the West at large, not necessarily because of the influx of migrants and refugees where it has to do with merely proffering solutions to shelter and means of livelihood to those without means, but because what is now contested is the centuries-long identity of negation. Thus, as one of many examples, the real story is not how many migrants and refugees drown in the ocean in attempts to get to Europe, but the mechanisms that continue to reproduce, and make into a border economy, this one-channel reality while distracting from the fact that there has been, and continues to be, other ways by which non-Europeans enter and affect the European space which contest the necessity of dying in the desert or drowning in the ocean. The real question then is: why is there less emphasis on these other ways of entering and affecting the European space and demystifying the fictitious distance between the West and Non-West? Why does it seem that solutions to the so-called immigration and refugee crisis are so far-fetched if it is not a condition deliberately sustained by the same mechanisms of identity and identification that claim to work for, and uphold human right?
In this regard, I am wont to agree with Walter D. Mignolo that “while the rhetoric and politics of right-wing nationalism, neoliberal globalism, and progressivisms may differ, each continues to perpetuate and further coloniality”. Indeed, this is implicit (rather than explicit) in the everyday manifestations of differences within the European space. On one hand, there is almost the undeniable awareness of the fact that the world is changing, and for the first time not in a direction entirely predicted/dictated by a Euro-American way-of-being. One gets a sense that some European Institutions (most especially those operating in the sphere of art, education, humanities and social sciences) are beginning to open themselves to this great change of uncertain outcomes. However, on the other hand, it almost feels like one step forward and two steps backwards – a semblance of a forward movement, but in reality, a constant relapsing into the fundaments of European hegemony. The obvious excuse one often hears is that these things take time, coupled with the consolatory “the road to heaven is paved with good intentions”. But I suspect that it is not so much about earnestly getting unto the road for the sake of a pluriversal humanity, as it is about negotiating who gets to be at the forefront for which the rest of the world continues to stay behind, regardless of how much it is agreed that heaven is for all.
Many anecdotal examples drawn from personal experiences and encountered stories abound to illustrate this tension between shape and shapelessness. In considering the limited volume of this article, I will only state a couple of them.
As recent as in yesterday’s news, boats carrying migrants were stuck at the shores of Italy because the Italian government refused to allow them into the country. They were stuck in the ocean, suspended in the limbo-space between shape and shapeless as the country, and of course, the media, indulge in overt necropolitics at the expense of these “discardable” lives.
At a learning institution in Vienna, a PhD proposal by a non-European candidate was refused (after the written proposal, in a blind selection process I presume, have been accepted to the interview stage twice in in a row) because the funding committee could not clearly grasp a “well-defined plan” on how to execute the proposal within the next four years. In other words, they simply were not confident in investing their money in a research proposal they find “very interesting and challenging”. This is a PhD program whose curriculum is littered with such words as “Transdisciplinary”, “Intersectionality”, “postcolonial”, etcetera, yet at the slightest challenge of their well-defined and shaped structure, they cringed and immediately relegated the said research proposal to the realm of shapelessness.
All my life, I have lived and spoken from the margins of the “shapeless” space. My disquietude with the fact that something can be regarded as shapeless stems from knowing that at every point in time, from where I stand, the horizon always means possibilities. For many who live and speak from this reality, there is nothing – in its most proactive context – inert about this space. The perceived inertness, if anything, comes from contrived efforts to give shape (that is, to make acceptable to mainstream-capitalist-imperialist-patriarchal-racist world-reality) to what is shapeless rather than embracing shapelessness as a shape. To embrace shapelessness as a shape is to be aware, and indeed, not take for granted the Impossible Self. It is this Impossible Self – whose birth is perpetually postponed and made into what I would call the economy of be-coming whereby its mother is trapped in a vicious circle of painful labour – that today, contests and questions Western Hegemony, tugging at its sleeves to arouse it from its game of sleeping beauty.
Two decades into the 21st century, the rhetoric of modernity has given way to new realities. The realm of the shapeless is, more than any other time in the history of the world, the realm of the Impossible Self. By its own nature, the space has become self-referential and, by extension self-articulatory. It speaks of, but not necessarily to, or for the sole benefit of, Western Hegemony. It is aware that its job is not to inform the West or administer its daily dose of guilt syrup. The aptest illustration of this positioning is in Nina Simone’s concert of “Young Black and Gifted” of which, during an introduction, she said of the song: “It is not addressed to white people primarily. Though it doesn’t put you down in any way…it simply ignores you.” To ignore and to not put one down, in this context, points to looking beyond. It is to aim for a larger picture that is more in line with the reparation of the world and the restitution of humanity.
The tension between shape and shapeless opens up an interstitial space that serves as sites for new collaborations and contestations, of which the outcomes are new kinds of knowledge (Bhabha, 1994). However, there is a bind: In the book White Innocence, Gloria Wekker beautifully makes a case for the condition of fixity that, in my opinion, has and will continue to threaten constructive conversations about differences:
“While black men and black women are struggling to throw off the image that whites have made of them, white men and women are equally bound to and implicated in these representations that stem from their own irrational anxieties and fears”(…) the balancing act between the perpetrators and victims inherent in acts and processes of racism, keeps both parties – when racism remains submerged, not spoken, with either or both parties in denial – fixed”
As much as racism, in this instance, is representative of the many other signifiers and derivatives of negation and differences, what should be paid due attention here is the danger of getting stuck in this condition of fixity that results from not creating spaces, platforms, and situations where differences are thoroughly engaged. I, for one, believe that we are already deeply caught in the web of this fixity. We cannot continue to avoid the elephant in the room (as has become the norm these days) where it has to do with discussing differences. Many blacks and peoples of non-European origins are tired of what they call “the African burden” just as many whites and those of European origins shut down during a conversation that, in any way, surpasses the right dosage of their guilt syrup which makes them feel good about themselves but in reality affects nothing, concretely, in their reality. Thus we have a situation where what is often conversed in differences is only a placeholder, a mere poster for what is not. So rather than creating spaces where our differences are laid bare, we create spaces that are a function of our fears of the other. Today, everyone is caught in the “otherness” bind. It is no longer the sole predicament of the non-European.
How then do we move forward, and where to? Let’s begin by realising – if ever we are to head in a constructive direction – that the world will not be led by another hegemony. Thus, there are many options, many routes, many realities. The future will play out at the points intersection and overlapping of these options articulated in places, and from viewpoints, scattered across the globe – and most probably, in no given order. Any option that claims to put the other down as a way of asserting its importance is dangerous for the world and humanity. That said, it is important, and I would even say inevitable, that we begin by restoring the place of the human relationship in our daily interactions.
Every human being has a story, and as such, a personal history sustained by such forms of perception as intuition, emotion, instinct – often relegated to the realm of abstraction and shapelessness. I believe that these forms of perception and by extension, communication, should be freed from the realm of abstraction and to be considered tangible factors in the reading of difference. Since I have already established that we must thoroughly converse and engage our differences without cutting corners, the question then is: What roles do human stories (personal histories) play in our reading, conversing and understanding of difference when considered alongside dominant regimes of stereotypical depictions and heavily politicised labels? How do we get past this dead, scaly surface that embodies distrust and fear of the other, to get to that part of us that endears us to one another?
I say all of this bearing in mind that we continue to live in a racial world sustained by capital and capitalists, and it is far from conceivable that this will change. As Toni Morrison once said, “Such a world, free of racial hierarchy, is usually imagined or described as dreamscape—Edenesque, Utopian, so remote are the possibilities of its achievement…” But then she continues: “How to be both free and situated: how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” This is the double bind of difference that we all live in today. Everyone – white, black, people of all shades – no one is absolved except those who would rather, cowardly, remain in the divided sides of dichotomy, or in the comfort zone of a “well-defined” box, out of expedience.
Now, to the question of what kind of world and future we are heading to in view of what we today call immigration/migration crisis (but also with all the talk about the future belonging to this or that racial category/movement – a view about ownership I find highly problematic), I want to refer to this forthright quote by the Italian literary critic, Umberto Eco, framed around a thought-provoking rhetorical question:
“Is it possible to distinguish immigration from migration when the entire planet is becoming the territory of intersecting movements of people? (…) What Europe is still trying to tackle as immigration is in fact migration. The Third World is knocking at our doors, and it will come in, even if we are not in agreement. … Europe will become a multiracial continent – or “coloured” one … That’s how it will be, whether you like it or not.’ And, let me add, whether all of ‘them’ like it and/or all of ‘us’ resent it.”
There is an urgency in the above statement that should scare any white person who continues to believe in white essentialism – not that this fear will do more to change the course of things than it serves as the flame behind passive-aggressive-but-active violence and reinforcement of Institutional racial discrimination in the quotidian routine of Euro-American space. As for those who consider themselves progressive and ‘not far-right’, those who have black and coloured people as friends and family members, this should not mean that the world is now and will be, by default, a better place for all. What it should mean, however, is that the time has come for everyone to step up and step out of their comfort zone, away from that far-end of white privilege into the middle ground where they will partake in the reality of a multiracial world. Whiteness cannot continue to be exempt, neutral or the constant by which other differences are variable. It cannot be the yardstick by which other subjectivities are relativised. For we know that whiteness, as James Baldwin once inferred, will “face in your life only what [it] is willing to face in [its own]”. So for Umberto Eco’s statements to mean more than liberal platitudes, whiteness must face the inevitability of a multiracial, pluriversal, multi-optional world as its very own reality. It must look inwards.