Why I Sang in the Dungeons - Science and Nonduality (SAND)

Why I Sang in the Dungeons

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At the shorelines of a waning year, Bayo Akomolafe ‘makes’ a prophecy that alchemizes the troubles of our modern moments and the upheavals of cracks into a sermon for more promising futures.


What 2023 offered us.

On the 23rd day of June 1998, at the annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) in New York City, neuroscientist Christof Koch made a bet with philosopher David Chalmers. His wager? That in 25 years, the debilitatingly obscure mechanisms behind the neuronal production of consciousness would be elucidated by advances in technology.

At the time of their interesting gamble – the stakes of which exceeded the bottle of wine the victor would eventually give to the vanquished 25 years later, at an agreed location – Koch was optimistic that “certain technological advances” (such as functional magnetic resonance imaging) would make it easier for researchers to look closer at the small goings-on in our brains. He predicted that 25 years of dedicated experimentation would grant researchers enough time to resolve the age-old riddle that has plagued philosophers and scientists for millennia: how do we come to be conscious rather than not?

Chalmers, on the other hand, didn’t share Koch’s optimism. There were aspects to the mystery of consciousness that justified its intractability. The philosopher elected to take a more cautious stance: it would take longer than 25 years to finally understand consciousness. Probably many times that amount of time.

This year 2023, the bet expired, and – as you may have guessed, Koch conceded to Chalmers. In a rare show of graceful adversariality, the neuroscientist presented his opponent with a “case of fine Portuguese wine to honour his commitment”, and then proceeded to double down on his belief that a resolution was just around the corner: “Twenty-five years from now is realistic, because the techniques are getting better and, you know, I can’t wait much longer than 25 years, given my age.”

2023 may not have given us the long-sought secrets of consciousness, but in more than one way it emphasized how ‘little’ we know of ourselves, the worlds that enlist us, the gestures that innervate us, the energies that inform us, and the territorial patterns that lock us into familiar modes of experience. This year brought to us a climate justice event that was presided over by parties dogged by allegations of complicity with Big Oil; it brought us to yet another grievous threshold in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, on the face of it a problem so inflexible to political fixes that a former spokesperson for the IDF declared on television: “Politics has failed us; we need a third way.” The first time I heard that statement, my heart revved up several decibels. Here it was, in broad daylight: an acknowledgment that the creativities of the public order had now met an unknown god, an agnostos theos, a fierce gash in the fabric of the familiar. What was needed now was more than another ceasefire, more than convenient remedies, and more than just another hastily arranged ‘peace’ (which a Palestinian refugee and theatre director told me – just a day before he was kidnapped by the IDF – felt like ‘war by any other name’). I revisited a few words I had scribbled down in the closing week of 2019 about a ‘third way’ and about the failure of civilizational remedies – before we were ushered into a decade that has so far been defined by pandemics and wars:

“I am quite confident that even as the oceans boil, and the hurricanes beat violently against our once safe shores, and the air sweats with the heat of impending doom, and our fists protest the denial of climate justice, that there is a path to take that has nothing to do with victory or defeat: a place we do not yet know the coordinates to; a question we do not yet know how to ask. The point of the departed arrow is not merely to pierce the bullseye and carry the trophy: the point of the arrow is to sing the wind and remake the world in the brevity of flight. There are things we must do, sayings we must say, thoughts we must think, that look nothing like the images of success that have so thoroughly possessed our visions of justice.

May this new decade be remembered as the decade of the strange path, of the third way, of the broken binary, of the traversal disruption, the kairotic moment, the posthuman movement for emancipation, the gift of disorientation that opened up new places of power, and of slow limbs. May this decade bring more than just solutions, more than just a future – may it bring words we don’t know yet, and temporalities we have not yet inhabited. May we be slower than speed could calculate, and swifter than the pull of the gravity of words can incarcerate. And may we be visited so thoroughly, and met in wild places so overwhelmingly, that we are left undone. Ready for composting. Ready for the impossible.

Welcome to the decade of the fugitive.”

Bayo Akomolafe
The Kingdom of Exile and Metamorphosis by Waldo Saavedra

“It must have seemed like the end of days.”

There is a tender upheaval swelling in the loam of things: a gentle realization that we are stuck. That we’ve been here before. That whether we take the right or the left, we keep coming around to the same obstinate scratches we left to mark our last checkpoint.

I am perpetually haunted by a sense that we now make our moments and live our days within the epigenetic echoes of an atmospheric crisis that inflamed the planet 42,000 years ago. The story of that event is often told under the headline of its lengthy title: the Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event (or just Adams Event): a magnetic pole shift breaks the sky, lacing it “with electrical storms, widespread auroras, and cosmic radiation”. The pole reversal leaves Earth’s surfaces scorched in the wake of passing solar winds, rendering many environments unfit for life. “It must have seemed like the end of days,” says Professor Alan Cooper, one of the researchers at the South Australian Museum who helped identify the environmental impacts of the event.

What feels just as interesting about Adams Event (apart from the number ‘42’ and its association with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is that it seems to explain the “sudden widespread appearance of figurative art in caves around the world” – the explosion of red-ochre, handprinted, cave art in 400 extant sites from France to Indonesia.

The association between decorative cave art and a planetary crisis may be accidental: there is no reason to believe illustrative ‘art’ emerged for the first time in descent. It may be the case that the caves preserved the art we are now able to view, while the art pieces on the surface slowly faded away, exposed as they were to the elements. Even if their marriage is inadvertent, something about the entanglement between depths and decorations, descent and design, dehiscence and deities, caves and the art of making sanctuary, shimmers with archetypal glows. Perhaps the art form that emerged from that crisis was a becoming-response-able with the moment, a prophetic tracing of lines that fanned out into human-like appendages but also served as some kind of lithic sensuality, a fugitive hiding that prayed to the indeterminacy of the times. A coming to terms with. A being embraced red-handed.

I sense we are in moments of descent.

Moments of embarkation.

Do you sense this as well?

Do you sense that we might need to travel? That our modes of belonging may be troubled by the forms we’ve assumed? And that perhaps some kind of carnivalesque katabasis or descent marks a sensorial mutiny from ‘experience’ so called? I think so. The surface – for long the political project of white modernity – can no longer sustain the burden of proliferating the dissociated individual self, the lynchpin of its civilizing ethic. White stability is being heavily taxed by the solar winds of a world that won’t stay still.

A grief, an accompanying blackness – the same this-worldly river and world-creolizing force that streamed and lapped and giggled along with departing slave ships – churns at the edges, tearing through the public order, tugging at the sleeves of civilization, inviting us to prostrate. To fall to the ground.    

Making sanctuary in the dungeons of blackness.

Elmina Castle

The prospects of a third way, a radical hospitality that catches them where they fall, a stranger kind of transnational politics, a posthumanist-decolonial upheaval that feels like a bacchanal aesthetic performed within cracks and caves, is why I speak and write about blackness in the ways that I do, taking pains to distinguish between the identitarian ‘Big B’ Blackness (which is more committed to critique, negotiating inclusion, and seeking capitalization, visibility, and representation) and an animist, anagrammatic, italicized, lowercase blackness that opens out surprising spaces for stranger alliances within a politics of invisibility. This is why I theorize a becoming-Black as the syncopating vitalities that curdle the public order, calling for something more than justice, calling for collective experimentation. This panentheistic, paraontological blackness takes us to controversial places; it takes us to deep, dark, terrible thresholds and asks us to listen, to dance, to build, to rest, to bend our bodies.

This blackness – the promise of a stranger solidarity in times of exhausted binaries – took me to a dungeon in Ghana.

I believe the stories of my journeys as a public intellectual and Black scholar reached a critical threshold days ago (in the opening days of December 2023) when I – along with two other Black scholars, Resmaa Menakem and Orland Bishop (https://www.threeblackmen.com) – was accompanied by a transnational group into the cavernous depths of the Elmina Castle.

Founded in 1482 by the Portuguese, the Castle held African bodies in its depths, torturing them, raping the continent’s women, siring children torn from the wombs of their discarded mothers, masking their impurities away from the glory of the public, the light of an Anglican church that was constructed just above the dungeons.

There is no way to describe the horror of that Castle.

In the Men’s Dungeon, an incredibly articulate Ghanaian guide announced to us in his unwaveringly stentorian voice that those of us who had the courage to walk into its murky depths were now standing in the place where a thousand Black men were disposed of. A thousand men were squeezed into five adjoining ‘rooms’ – though to call those dank, dark, bareboned, geometric aberrations of spacetime ‘rooms’ would be assuming too much. There, in the heap of sputum and death, with little air to comfort their lungs and no light to grace their eyes, the captured waited several eternities to see the sun. Those who made too much trouble were taken across the expansive courtyard of the Castle to a smaller airless dungeon built to slowly kill its occupants. The slavers were careful to build this smaller room close to where the women were, “so the women could hear their screaming…so that they could be broken by the death of their men, their brothers, their fathers, their sons.”

As I navigated each painful step in the dungeons, knowing a writhing heap of Black limbs once occupied that ‘spot’, a mournful leitmotif stole the dense air around me, punctuated by sobbing and an occasional shriek of pain from among the village that came with us, the ‘Three Black Men’, on our public talks and rituals. I held back tears as I considered the architecture of the place, the monumental investments of time and consideration that went into beating bodies into malleable morsels of flesh useful to the vicissitudes of New World plantations and economies. Make no mistake about it: the slavers were economists, urban planners of some kind. They designed the dungeons beneath the surface to subsidize the flattened public rationality they were mounting on the surface. Though it was dark and terrible, it was easier for me to see the glowing patterns that have inhabited my thinking for years: the neat geometric lines and affordances of modern civility, the rationality of justice, and the idea of the gentleman have always been indebted to the brutality of dungeons and unspeakable depths. The dungeon is the hidden curriculum of white modernity, the prosthetic abjection to its thesis of citizenship.

The dungeon is not a place per se. It is a place of no place, a placeless place, a ‘place’ that the locateability of the citizen-subject is beholden to, the shadow underbelly of the city’s claims to foundational morality. The dungeon is how whiteness was invented. The dungeon is that child in Omelas whose misery purchased the mirth and advancement of the city. The dungeon is the abject excess that is unaccounted for. The hidden guest at every meal.

As the group shuffled through the force of ages, through forcefields of grief, I lingered in one dungeon ‘room’ where three tiny rectangles betrayed three hesitant streams of light into the otherwise obsidian space. I felt my way to the closest wall and slumped to the floor – allowing my palms to touch the moist. Then, like a faucet that couldn’t hold the waves roaring through its veins, I wept. I wept and I spoke with rapid, unprepared lyrics of grief-laden poetry. I heard myself speak as if the words weren’t mine.

The voice that spoke thanked the elders whose cells swirled with the moist, cool earth beneath my body. The voice that spoke riffed on the practical arrangements that needed to be made to create a public fit for the dissociative individual, the citizen-subject capably emblematized by the white man, and how that same public was now burning. I have heard rumours of solar winds sweeping across the surface, turning everything it touches into coal. It’s time to descend. But descend where? Not to a ‘where’, not to a ‘place’. blackness has no destinations, no purpose, no convenient and stable cartographies. blackness is not utopia. Descending is a ‘how’, not a ‘where’. A placeless place, a process, not a remedy. This dungeon is a how.

The voice that spoke sounded each syllable like it was its last breath, every word cutting through the thick like shrapnel from a mushroom cloud. Every word libated with tears.

Our work is to make sanctuary. To re/turn to this placeless place and decorate it. To catch the bodies discarded by the broken outdoors as the civilizing ethic of whiteness flails under the weight of its own aspirations to hold aloft the mastering self. The rejected stone has now become the chief cornerstone. Such joy. Such joy. Such joy.

I do not know how much time I spent in that ‘place’. I do know that several concerned people came to check on me and thought it best to leave me alone – maybe just watch for when I needed them. Even murkier still was the moment my tear-libated words ran dry, emptying out in the dungeons. However, there was something else, something more than words that wanted out.

A song.

It felt ‘right’. It came from the depths of my own youthful histories in the Christian faith as well as the edges of my eventual apostasy. It came from the spiritual cadence of my career as a public intellectual whose distrust of the highways of justice led me to my articulation of stranger cracks as more promising choreographies of emancipation. I opened my mouth:

Wade in the water.

Wade in the water, children.

Wade in the water.

Don’t you know that God’s gonna trouble the waters.

Don’t you know that God’s gonna trouble the waters.

The song – and my singing – straddled manifold timelines, reconvening the past, the present, and the future at the crossroads of our stuckness. Somehow, God was at once the ancient descent of angels that troubled the healing waters of the pool (“near the Sheep Gate with five covered colonnades”) long enough for the faithful first dip to become restorative; the present trouble that sailed across the planet, upsetting the monument of the Man, whispering its entropy, opening out seditious traces of marronage from the plantation of our toils and labours; as well as the futural promise of the monstrous.

I stood up with that song lingering on my lips, and rejoined the group who were now in the middle of a historic moment: the first ritualistic sacrifice ever performed with animals in the belly of a slave dungeon. Never in the history of that place – the oldest monument to the middle passage – had anything like that happened. Not when President Obama visited the Castle. Not when the Door of No Return was first burdened with a new insignia that registered a new kind of welcome: ‘Door of Return’. The blood of fowls spilled, the gods of sanctuaries-to-come appeased, we walked through the lines that snaked towards embarkation, stepping outside to the lapping waves and waters the slaves would have seen when they were told they were on a one-way trip to hell, and then with libations and priestly prayers we returned through the same wooden door to cries of welcome and drumming.

I remember thinking to myself: what does it mean to return if you never left? Clearly, for me, an African who lived and grew up on the continent, returning wasn’t as charged or as affecting as it was for my colleagues. But then a smile crept on my face, a gift no doubt from my seconds in the dungeons with the spirits of the cracks: we were back in the dungeons, back within the castle grounds. This returning wasn’t a matter of distances. It wasn’t about reclaiming originals, restoring lost images, or gaining new territory. It was about queer inversions. It was about troubling locateability.

Thank you and goodbye, 2023.

Prophecy has less to do with predicting the future than it has to do with reconvening time in ways that allows it to do different things. The prophet is not the bearded human, staff in hand, that straddles the lines between the known and the distant; the prophet is the moment that pierces convenient continuity, the crack that forces a slowness, the transversal crossing that streaks across the azure sky, breaking time into a million bokeh lights, constellations of possibilities. The prophet is the crack.

There are cracks dancing across the surface of things. Cracks are sites of excess, an excess that cannot be tucked into or accommodated by the folds of the public. Cracks are the marks that syncopations leave on bodies as they stream through. Mass disabling events. We are out of time, out of turn, out of whack, beside ourselves.

In small pollination songs, in stifled dungeon music, in stirring strains flowing across desolate places, in smaller revolutions, in molecular experiments within arachnean networks, at the shorelines of “no return”, something else sings. Something crosses. You’ll never capture it, not fully. You can only touch traces of its awkward glory. You might find pieces of it as we notice that conferences aren’t doing as much as we want them to do, and that we need para-pedagogical, postactivist experiments in the carnivalesque perhaps just as much as we need instruction; you might notice traces of “it” as we feel the grief that dances across partisan lines; you might sense the tingling sensation of it as a politician admits that contemporary politics is stuck on itself, and can’t seem to rise to the occasion. You might smile then because you’d know what I know and feel what I feel – that when one comes to one’s death, when one arrives at the door of no return, when one touches the agnostos theos, the tribute to the unknown god, it is not a rising that is needed.  


Originally published on Bayo’s website.

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