Release the Kraken! Why we need monsters in these times of crises
Featured Piece for Revolutionary Wellness Magazine
Come Alethea,[i] let me tell you a story about monsters! Not just the ones that hide under the bed, but the ones that inhabit the familiar. I’m pretty sure that by the time I’m through, you’d see why Dada believes that we need to befriend the monstrous in response to the challenges of our times.
In Yoruba folklore, Olodumare sits above all things. He is called the creator of all, the pre-song that intones the real, the tremoring that establishes the universe and our world. Because many African cosmologies consider the call-response dynamic to be foundational to the nature of things, Olodumare and the universe his greatness calls into being might be considered the archetypal relationship. Today, when a blessing is offered, when a praise-song or Oríkì is invoked, when a story is finished in its telling, Yoruba people (at least those that still hold on to these traditions) pay homage to that archetype by saying asé. It’s much more than the Judeo-Christian ‘amen’, which means ‘so be it’ or ‘so shall it be’. Asé is not just a way of confirming concurrence, it is the vital force that moves things, the cascading performance of all things. The work of reality and its agency to bend this way and that.
The crayfish is bent because of asé; the bird flies because of asé; the moon beams its milky loyalty to the earth because of asé; a cowrie shell lands belly down to the delight of the diviner and the inquirer only because asé has ‘willed’ it. One might say asé is the movement that precedes everything that moves. Nothing happens but as the rippling work of asé.
All of this makes Eshu, the Yoruba trickster god, the most important in the pantheon. At least to moving things. It is said that Eshu is the keeper of asé. And he sits at the crossroads, not on a throne. That’s important. Crossroads. It means asé and Eshu are concepts of intersections. Aberrations. Where things mingle with other things in mangling encounters. Eshu is thus not only the one that attends to the indescribably vital force of asé, or the one that mediates between the divinations of an Ifá priest and the gods, but is behind all aberrations and perverse happenings. He is after all a trickster, a chieftain of indeterminacy whose balancing of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, acquaintance with shadows, and weaving of the mutuality of dark and light undercuts all claims to permanence and fixed identity. This notion that Eshu is intimate with darkness and shadows and unexpected things explains why the first translators of the English Bible into Yoruba tongue translated ‘devil’ and ‘Satan’ as Eshu – an unfortunate redescription.
The more stunning implication of thinking of Eshu and asé as indeterminacy is that nature is at its heart monstrous. The word ‘monster’ derives from the Latin ‘monstrum’, which indicates a fall from natural order as well as a feat of nature that appears surprising to convention. A monster, usually a biological abnormality, happens when edges stray, when the eyes grow in the place where the hands should, or when a chameleon changes its skin colour to camouflage its presence. Our usual attitude to monsters is to try to get rid of them in order to maintain the sanctity of nature. You’d find that oppression is often mounted on a stable vision of nature: for instance, the idea that women are by nature weaker and closer to the elements has historically served as grounds to justify sexism.
What asé and Eshu teach us however is that nature itself is aberrant: it is not that there is an established order of things, and then there are deviations from that standard. It is that there are no fixed and predetermined standards. Reality ‘itself’ is an apocryphal deviation from the canon of stability. Nature is not natural. The moment you think you know where it ends, it secretes a new beginning. The moment you suppose it is essentially benevolent, the feline mother eats up the child or – alternatively, in a case of matriphagy – the new-born baby (of nematode worms and some insects, for instance) eat their mothers. And the second you presume it is malevolent at heart, the flu virus turns out an effective combatant against certain forms of cancer.
Perhaps this is why the root word for ‘monstrum’ is ‘monere’, or ‘to warn and to instruct’. That root word makes its way into our English word ‘demonstrate’, effectively linking monstrosity to action – both of which are dynamic interpretations of asé. Perhaps what we are warned against is the tendency to fixate on a particular notion of nature. While we need stabilities to survive, to make sense of things, nature cannot be still. It moves. It disturbs itself. Ancient alchemists adopted the symbol of the Ouroboros or the snake devouring its own tail to show how creation arises out of destruction and vice versa. How life itself is errancy.
Quantum physics also shows this deep-seated monstrosity. The world is not made of things, it is made of relationships that are still happening. A diffractive depth underlines all things, disallowing the kind of stability that common-sense tells us we should expect of the world. By diffractively re-reading Eshu mythology with what we are now understanding about the material world, we come to see that nature is weird. Queer. Promiscuous. And that is at once frightening, liberating and instructive.
Perhaps what monsters teach us is that the nature modernity fosters on us – the one that kindly nods its agreement with the occluding effects of patriarchy and consents to the linearity of neoliberal development…the one that trusts in size and scale, belittles the little, and excludes ‘others’ – is just a momentary performance of nature, and not nature in its inexhaustibility. Monsters appear to reprimand our tethering to familiar forms, to disabuse our mind-bodies of their rest, to make us gasp as the startling nature of their bodies drives away our ready-made answers and confident questions.
Eshu is the scandalous one that sits at the crossroads to meet those that are lost, for it is only in becoming lost that we learn an openness to other paths.
When Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Accords on the first day of June 2017, the climate change world mourned. There were of course divergent opinions about the effectiveness of the accords, but – for many – it represented the possibility that the world could be politically engaged and galvanized around a single issue…the momentous issue of climate disruption and its ecological-economic-political fallouts. Every nation except Syria and Nicaragua had either signed the pact or ratified it, and that includes North Korea, Palestine, Israel, and Afghanistan. Now, the United States – the world’s largest historical emitter of carbon, the supposed leader of the free world – had just signalled its decision to turn away from carbon emission reduction protocols, thus sending the accords back a generation.
I remember watching the speech in the White House’s Rose Garden – which American comedians like Stephen Colbert joked might soon become a desert. Trump’s argument was that the pact was a conspiratorial attempt by other nations of the world to overtake America in its economic supremacy. I couldn’t fathom which was more impressive: the extraordinariness of the ‘new’ American paranoia about its legacy and power, or the suggestion that a conversation stretching all the way back before the Kyoto Protocols of 1997 was all a hoax, a world-unifying gesture to dethrone the United States from its perch. Villainy can’t be that consistent.
But I also wondered about the patterns of responding to crisis that have become canonical. You may call it the climate change imaginary or the politics of climate responsivity. This is the whole complex of action that presumes the reliability of climate data, the metrics of carbon emissions and the worthiness of the pursuit of not just carbon neutrality but carbon negativity. The narrative goes like this: human beings have contributed to carbon emissions so dramatically that they have created a distinct geological epoch called the Anthropocene. We cannot continue to destroy the environment, so we need to develop other ways and technologies that allow us do what we do without heating the planet up. The future depends on our ability to sequester these harmful gases.
What this narrative has inspired and animated in civic groups and governments is a focus on steering the bovine vehicle of international politics away from the iceberg ahead, the disaster waiting to happen when the hand of the clock finally hits midnight. But the agency of this politics is situated within, and made possible by, a culture that largely sees itself as separate from the weather. The weather is what happens in the sky outside our bodies, not in the privacy of our modern suburban lives. Living in the ways that we do strengthens the argument that we are indeed atomized beings, and that our wellbeing lies in what we accrue to ourselves – and not the goings-on ‘outside’ of our fences. In fact, disaster hardly appeals to us; our cinema screens are so saturated with disaster flicks, with pixelated visions of a world gone awry, that it is commonplace and quite in the run of things for people to flick out their phones to record a boy falling into a gorilla’s pit, instead of doing what they can to save him.
I reckon that if we were indeed to reach a point of no return climate-wise, and the sky falls in churning spirals of wind and debris and cars and destruction, many of us would ‘capture the moment’, not minding the exasperating tautology and irony in recording one’s own extinction for keepsake or for posterity. This is the world we live in now. This is how we often respond to crisis.
What if the way we respond to crisis is part of the crisis? What if the climate change imaginary, and its commitments to sustainability (or sustained modern living and human permanence), are not solutions at all, but particular ways of thinking of the world and our place ‘in’ it?
In many non-western cultures, wellbeing is a matter of thick collectives. I do not mean to romanticize non-western cultures or ascribe to them some kind of ontological coherence or depth that modernity supposedly suffers from, but at least we can point to particular ways of knowing and seeing that sidesteps the idea that the weather, for instance, is a thing apart. It is not. Within a structure that distances the immediate, it may be difficult to see how things are connected. In our homes, with their heaters and air conditioning units – the silent ones that hum, and which alter the coldness of your room when you press a button – it is hard to see that control is a fantasy. That we are in fact shaped by others, and that we are being among beings. We suppose we are free-willed, rational individuals, whose stories make the world. This is not what asé ‘teaches’, or what some new materialist accounts of the world describe. We are seeing that we are brought forth, again and again, from the interactions – no, make that intra-actions! – of many.
In this sense, our bodies are climate change. We are, in the words of Astrid Neimanis, ‘weathering bodies’. That is, the weather only makes sense within the conditions that have already been set and which make it possible. The loss of immediacy that modernity presumes is in fact an obfuscation of our entanglements with the world around us.
In other words, the chant to ‘stop climate change!’ presupposes that the weather is something outside of our own collective movements. The imaginary places the dead end in the far (and increasingly closer) distance, an apocalyptic resolution of our refusal to heed the wisdom of data. But the conditions that make that reading possible are the same ones that deny the significance of our entanglements with the world, leading to settlements that are structurally unable to care deeply for climate happenings.
What we need today then is a different ethos of responsivity, one that situates us in a web of becomings, and allows us to care for the small ways our links with others and the world at large have consequences.
I speak of other places of power, other risk-taking endeavours that are made possible in a politics of new possibilities. Other ways of thinking of wellbeing. Make no mistake – even this essay is part of this different politics I speak of. It is not one of new solutions, but one of redescription, allowing us to notice things that are probably now invisible.
The hijacking of the climate change imaginary by neoliberal accounts of linear time, future sophistication, continued human supremacy, development and progress, and the deadness of nature, hardwires away the stories that can be told about nonhuman agency, about the generativity of death and endings (which blunts the agency of disaster narratives and apocalyptic endings), about the transcorporeality of power, about the grand size of small, and about the peace that comes with attending to soil.
I know some stories: about a woman in California during its five year rainless drought (2012-2017) who inspired her class of young pupils to perform Native American dances in ritualistic appreciation of the weather, only to find small drops of rain the next day. I know of another woman, who consulted a shaman that invited her to plant earthen vessels in the soil as a response to climate change. If you are wondering how Native American dance and taking up the vocation of planting seeds anywhere you go contributes to carbon negativity or solving climate change, it’s probably because you are using the ‘wrong’ metric. Some of us suppose that adopting ‘indigenous’ practices guarantees better results or more lasting outcomes in what we are trying to achieve – and sometimes, yes, this is the case. But this is not all. Changing the means is the same as changing the ends. It is not the case of adopting new means to old ends. One does not merely arrive, one co-enacts arrivals with journeys.
Sometimes some Africans say ‘the times are urgent, let us slow down’. That is not an esoteric guarantee for safe arrivals or a formula for enforcing our own ideas about beauty. You don’t use the world that way. Perhaps in slowing down we come to see things along the way we never noticed before. We come to value the small moments. We come to appreciate the eternity in a well-planted kiss. So that if or when the fire engulfs us, it wouldn’t be a stunning tragedy but the symphony of things and the nuances of life in its ongoing posthuman complexities.
Other places of power are not necessarily other places of familiar objectives. A new ethos of climate responsivity might inspire us to purchase a Prius, and it might inspire us to plant our own food – but it could also inspire us to befriend dying, to spend more time with neighbours, to rethink money, to share recipes of our favourite meals with strangers, and to want to study where our shit goes. This may or may not reduce carbon emissions. In fact, drawing a direct link from dancing to carbon neutrality seems tenuous and disingenuous. But nothing directly accounts for anything. Our usual way of explaining causality is to draw causal patterns between A and B. That Newtonian model is blind to the material ecstasy that is the world – a world of queer causality, wherein reductionistic accounts of how things happen are only partial statements.
In short, the destination changes when we change our trajectories. The world is not already there, pre-given before our collective performances of it. Of course, I do not mean to retreat into some kind of social constructionist account of reality that says stories make up the world. Stories contribute to the real, but it is not just mind but matter that constitutes the world. In fact, mind is so entangled with matter that we should not say “mind or matter”, but “mind-matter”, or the material-discursive (as Karen Barad puts it). The world is queer and stranger than we can think – which is why we need activisms that allow us to co-perform other possibilities. Not activisms of solutions (for there aren’t solutions in a world that is movement, in a world of tricksters and asé), but activisms that allow us to be ‘otherwise’.
I speak of new kinds of justice-making. We are not calling for pure versions or prelapsarian retreats, but to turn the ‘other cheek’. We are exploring the performative openings that allow for other kinds of responsiveness.
We in the Global South know the urgency of this. We are not fooling around. We know NGOs and how to make money. We know the game. NGOs do good work, but there’s a whole lot of it committed to using this to funnel money to the rich and to the normative. We need new paths. At the risk of over-burdening the word ‘new’ (for there is nothing new that is not already old), I speak of the simmering potential for other forms of paying attention to a world that is not still.
As with all events of magnitude, today’s moments of incredible possibilities for different kinds of politics may be inaugurated with a few choice words – at least for rhetorical reasons. I have debated using the Bernie Sanders-like “We are in this together!” and the more popular “Another world is possible” declaration of Arundhati Roy fame. But in honour of monsters – as well as my penchant for the cinematic – I say “Release the Kraken!” Unleash the primal on the familiar, disturb the edges, dispute the layers, find a place of stillness, press your ears to the ground to feel the rumblings of things outside your philosophy, linger by the shrubbery, improvise new rituals, pay homage to the nonhuman, and acknowledge the wilds whence you came. To release the Kraken – that monster of Norse-Grecian lore – is not merely to call upon a monster, it is to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of a particular plot. It is acknowledge our own flailing limbs. It is to dismember ourselves.
Release the Kraken. Let the monsters roam again.
[i] Alethea is Bayo’s three year old daughter.
Bayo is Chief Curator of The Emergence Network, a curator collective that works to examine the frames that shape responsivity, the actions and presences that fall in our blind spots, and the ways we may move culture in different directions. www.emergencenetwork.org