These wilds beyond our fences
Speech by Bayo Akomolafe at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa
March 24, 2018
Tonight, I want to talk about walls and fences. Borders, bulwarks and barriers. Big walls. Huge walls. Glorious walls. Walls that divide. Walls that cohere. Walls that wound. And walls that heal.
Of course, walls aren’t monolithic, and do not refer to anything stable: from the pixelated ‘walls’ of Facebook fame to the imposing sprawl of the Great Chinese Wall and the ‘innocent’ white picket fences that are so aesthetically intimate with particular visions of the American Dream, walls have multiple ontologies and tell many stories. Tonight it is therefore not my intention to speak against ‘walls’ in some generic, dismissive, totalizing fashion; neither am I as strictly concerned with their architecture or variability as I am interested in seeing them as social actors – active agents in our becoming, tangible producers of the real.
Perhaps you, citizens of these United States, might understand why speaking about walls – real, concrete, physical and yet ideological structures – is not only urgent, but is encouraged and with great precedent, given that our collective histories are replete with wall-making activities. Think about it: in this 21st century, decades after Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, decades in a progressive time model that is supposed to indicate that we are getting better as a species, when Donald Trump screamed “Build the Wall!”, millions of Americans heard, and thought that was a good idea – endorsing his plans to create a 2000-mile US-Mexico border structure with their votes. He argued that his Wall would stop corrupt Mexicans from bringing in drugs and “bad hombres”, leaving America less crime-ridden and less prone to poverty. The promise of safety and of restoring purity and ‘greatness’ by fortifying walls electrifies the air – scaring migrant communities, silencing minorities, gentrifying neighbourhoods, justifying reckless acts of state-sanctioned brutality (such as the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento this week, in the wee hours of the morning of the 19th), and nurturing the emergence of a nation intolerant of difference.
But this rise of fundamentalism is not just in the US alone. In the past year, we have witnessed the flourishing of nativist and nationalist sentiments. The far-right parties of Europe have shown resilience and remarkable staying power, fuelled by an immigrant crisis that is often accused as the culpable variable in the failing experiment of neoliberalism. “If only we can get those guys out, we will finally get what’s coming to us” is a refrain that is increasingly popular even with no evidence to support that claim.
So why are walls becoming fashionable? Why are we ‘walling up’? Terrorists? What do walls tell us about our commitments and how we understand the world? And what are the real costs of walls? What do walls do?
Though I barely remember any of it, I was born in and grew up in a time of concrete walls, angry partitions, cold wars and sharp geopolitical tensions. In 1983, the Cold War still hissed and sizzled, enlisting the Soviet states and the Western bloc on either side of an Iron Curtain that ran through Eastern Europe. In South Africa, Afrikaner settlers had a name for a social order designed to protect white supremacy: they called it ‘apartheid’ – a wall by any other name, one which trusted that the black Africans of that land could not live by themselves or make sense of their worlds without the colonial benevolence of segregation.
Shortly after I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, my family migrated to West Germany – in furtherance of my father’s career as a diplomat. We lived in Bonn, several hundreds of kilometres away from the Berlin Wall. I remember, hazily, ponies, snow, telling my mother I wanted to go to the moon, and jumping up and down on the settees in our living room, falling on the floor and bursting my lower lip. There’s photographic evidence for my swollen lip.
We would come back to Nigeria when I was 3 or 4, and then leave for yet another posting – this time to Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). There was no scarred and jarring wall running through the city, but I do remember the see-through fence that bordered the residence of Zaire’s dictator-leader, Mobutu Sese Seko. The fence ran for what felt to me then to be miles, shielding within it a system that depended on the exploitation of the country’s poor and the enrichment of a few. The residence itself could not be seen, just luscious gardens and ornate trees floating like a congress of green clouds just behind the fence. My father would drive us past the residence, urging us to spot the animals hidden in the gardens. It was fascinating to me – this fence.
At this point, however, I want to tell a story of a more personal wall – one that sprouted between me and my father – tearing father from son, locking me away in the meantime as my father’s voice, still resonant in my tearful dreams, called softly from the endtime. You see, my father died when I was just 15 years old – almost 20 years ago. He was my best friend, my mentor. He died in Kinshasa: one morning, he felt a pang in his chest, drove himself to the hospital, and eased away on the doctor’s table. He didn’t say goodbye; he wasn’t meant to. He was supposed to come back to us in Nigeria on a Thursday; he died on the Monday preceding his long-awaited return.
I cannot find any words adequate to the sense of loss I still feel when I think about his passing. Needless to say, I was immediately thrown into a quest for reconciliation. I yearned to make sense of my grief, to help my mother know that everything was going to be alright. But every day, and every night, a young boy barely in his teens, lost and without premise or plot, pounded his fists on the gilded cosmic wall that divided the living from the dead, sternly patrolled by Nature. Unbreachable. Redoubtable. Unforgiving.
I began seeking heaven, transcendent and distant – where souls presumably lived away from the messy carnality of mortality. I was seeking the sacred. Seeking Eden. Hoping that the rapture might allow me safe entry to embrace my father once again.
I sought to return to the past, to time-travel away from a timeline that had let me down, to fill the hole of my loss with the blackness of his face. But the story of transcendent sacredness, Platonic heights and distant souls that once lived within bodies began to fall apart the more I probed it for answers. So I decided to seek his hand in the familiar…in the confident blueprints of reductive materialism. In the gravity of Newton’s falling apple. In the elegance of Einstein’s equations. In the poetry of the machine.
But no matter how I tried, he was irreparably removed from me. A ghastly phantasm never to be held or loved or known again. Buried and done with. He was neither within nor without. Where was he?
Like the barrier between the death and life, the inanimate and the animate, the masculine and the feminine, mind and consciousness, nature and nurture, past and future, man and beast, man and environment, man and technology, there are some walls that are not to be breached. Or are there?
Here is a story from Yorubaland (which I love so much) about things mixing, about futile attempts to keep things away, about the irony of concealment and exposure (I seek your blessings to tell this story: Àlo ó!).
In the story of Ìjàpá the tortoise and the gourd, tortoise meets the irony of containment – that nothing is truly contained. That the world spills. One day, the tortoise decides to gather all knowledge to himself. He wants to own all the wisdom of the world for himself. And so he does it: he succeeds in archiving everything, and then stores it away in a gourd which he hangs around his neck with a thin rope. But considering that such a prized possession might be open to theft, Ìjàpá imagines he must hide it away where no one can ever take it away from him. He has an idea: he would hide it all the way up on an Iroko tree.
As tortoise makes his way to the tree, all the animals wonder what it is he is carrying. The Hyena asks, “What is that in your possession?” “Just something I have to put away”, tortoise replies, walking as quickly as his abbreviated limbs can carry him. The Elephant asks him the same. And so does the Snake, the Cheetah, the Monkey and the Birds. Tortoise’s answers are the same in each circumstance.
Soon he arrives at the Iroko tree, and does his best to climb all the way to the top. The problem is the gourd hanging right in front him, between him and the tree, makes it difficult to properly grasp its thick trunk. He climbs and falls, climbs and falls, climbs and falls, sliding into a frustrated heap at the bottom of the tree, cursing himself for being so short. Meanwhile, the Snail has been watching him all this time; she slithers out of the shrubbery and says, “You know, you could just place the gourd on your back instead; see if that doesn’t help.” And she slides away, very slowly. Ìjàpá takes Snails advice, and – sure enough – makes it to the top of the tree. But he is so frustrated and angry with himself that he cannot bring himself to complete his mission. “If Snail, the basest of all creatures, slower that all, was wiser than the keeper of all wisdom, then what then am I doing here?” the tortoise thinks aloud. Shortly after, in disgust, he smashes the gourd, releasing its content back into the world.
That things spill, slip away, breach borders, resist containment and definition, stray away from algorithms, is well known. In quantum physics, the realm that our practices of essentializing things brought us to, we meet a world that dances away from its delineations. A world so rapturously perverse and promiscuous that no language is adequate to describe it. Perhaps a gasp is the most eloquent way to meet this world, which isn’t made up of things but relationships. This indeterminate, ever-unfolding, waltz between things – this orchestra of movements, of mattering, of human and nonhuman becomings – is the motif of an intradisciplinary insurgency in biology, psychology, chaos theory, information theory, feminist materialisms, and indigenous traditional wisdoms…and in my search for reconciliation I have sat wide-eyed at this liminal edge for some time now, like a child freckled with sand, beholding the ocean for the first time.
I learned this ontology in a more intimate way with Alethea, our 4 year old daughter. When she was two, we were with her aunt in Richmond, Virginia. One fine day I had promised that whatever Alethea wanted to do that day, I was going to do it – think of it as a dangerous unschooling experiment that I have since learned should not be attempted by the faint of heart. Anyway, I made the promise and I intended to keep it.
That morning, Alethea told me she wanted us to go swimming. There was a pool nearby. It wasn’t so cold outside. I said yes. She dragged me outside, pulling my little finger as she stomped towards the pool. But then, instead of going to the pool, she took a turn towards a lake a few yards further down the path. I helped her understand that we had missed our way, but she insisted the ‘pool’ was ahead. So I kept shut and submitted to her toddling authority! Just before we got to the lake, she told me to remove my slippers and wear hers instead. I did.
Soon we arrived at the lakeside, where she fell silent and just stood still. I was by her side, wondering if the silence that enveloped us wasn’t a good time to insert some fatherly wisdom about life, and bond with my daughter. I tried to say something. She turned to me and said “Shhhhhh”. Then she whispered for me to take off her own tiny slippers, which I had been wearing. So I let the awkwardness of not-knowing and silence reverberate, instead of stuffing it up with my words.
Moments later, a simple realization alighted ever so softly on my shoulder – a hint of an epiphany, the whiff of rapture. For a few seconds, I became overwhelmed with the abundance of life I was immersed in. Lichens crawling up a tree; a noble termite navigating the traffic of bowed grass to make it home; the callous quack-quacking of ducks moving in murmuration; the rippling surfaces of the water body disturbed by their conferencing; the framing blue of the sky. I sighed. It was a lesson I had not expected to learn in such an affecting way: that the world is not dead at all, and that we are derived only in the concatenation and entanglement of body-ideas, and not independent of each other. It was as if Alethea, in encouraging me to be silent, brought me to my father – showing me he had never been separate all this while. It was as if she recognized the sacredness of the ground upon which we stood – and like the voice from the Burning Bush, urged me to meet it on its own terms. Like Snail, she observed my pounding, my struggles, and brought me to the space of the hyphen, helping me see how things connect, how everything is indeed hauntingly in touch with everything else – and all of this without a word fired into the ether.
Do you see it too? Do you hear it? Do you hear them? Your own fathers and mothers? The music of the past still being sung in the thick now? The nobility of the world around us? What our own children might tell us in not so many words – or with no words at all – is not for the faint-hearted. Our views of what the world is makes a difference. And the world that now presses itself upon us is a different world – a world where things spill into each other, a materially vital world, a messy mangle of things. This is not the world of modern transcendence that insists we are separate from everything else; this is the world that accommodates the beauty and the terror of never arriving – a world that chastises our claims to fixed identities, safety, compensation, vindication or finality.
Indeed, we live in this middle, and – perhaps – dwelling in the dissolve is what it means to be real. Consequently, in this territory opening up, we need new geometries of touch; we need a language and concepts that acknowledge our flailing disassembly – that says independent, apolitical, neutral knowledge from a distance is impossible; that resituates us in ecologies we once told ourselves we had transcended. We need a language of exposure – one that knows we are already touched, complicit, scandalized and ‘interested’. Thanks to DNA ancestry testing for instance we are seeing just how convoluted, diffracted and spread out we are.
Such a redescription of our place in the world makes it concerning and perhaps dangerous to think in terms of impermeability. The myth of security and safety is now suspect in an age of exposure: what does the recent scandal with Facebook and the data of billions of people around the world tell us? I submit: that privacy or absolute protection has switched ontologies. What does telephone tapping and surveillance by the NSA tell us about the apparatus of global security? That in holding up a wall to keep the outside at bay, we provide the very conditions for compromise. What do BP spillages and pipeline failures tell us about our way in the world? That in a bid to survive and ensure our permanence for years to come, we are scratching away at our throbbing fragility as a species. And what do residential projects in new walled estates across the United States (as well as India, Nigeria and perhaps world over) tell us about safety and cleanliness? In order to keep a place free from germs, one must introduce something just as toxic or even more so.
It’s true: Homeland Security and its various paraphernalia were produced in response to terrorism, which American expansionist interests helped create. Accordingly, the immigrant crisis is resonant with decades of extractive capitalism, colonial interruption and the poverty that resulted from that. In keeping away, we create the very conditions that make in-coming meaningful. And in trying to contain, we miss the spot. The outside has never been outside of the inside.
You might say that we can easily walk away from these things, from BP, from NSA spying and the espionage that already complicates the ordinary, and from the corporate fascism of Facebook. But the futility of walking away is brought to our attention by the fact that walking away often needs apps.
This brings us to the very irony of walls. You might suppose that if you could really build a wall one might be secure. But the world strays. This quest for impermeability, this dismissal of co-emergence, is not just dangerous – it is dangerous because it is productive, and what it produces is not safety but a toxic territorialisation of identity, a refusal of variability, a militarization of purity. Walls like our skins are not dead borders that simply keep the outside away from the inside; in fact, our skins are the places where the inside and the outside interface, where their mutual delineation happens. Walls are productive in myriad ways – and the ritual performance of safety must come entangled with a permeability that cannot be forestalled or postponed.
Yes, walls produce us. Walls are immigrants. Nouns are verbs in masquerade. They move – and that’s not even the scary part, they harbour stowaway populations of life, they are dynamic and ironic. Walls are always porous. Building a wall might slow down people from coming in, but it won’t stop the consequences from touching us – for we are defined, reconfigured, and constituted by what we resist. What we shut out is always already in. Just ask the ‘Ossis’, the East Berliners and their descendants: studies conducted in the wake of re-unification showed how former East Germans were less trusting, and were likely to see their neighbours as traitors. The Wall actively shaped them ontologically, in the same way a double slit experiment marks whether light (for instance) emerges as a particle or as a wave.
What walls are producing us right now? What walls subject classes of people to biosocial degeneracy, making them the usual suspects and victims of state brutality? What walls stand between us and a humble spirituality of composting our forms again and again with the earth? What walls keeps us perniciously at war with sadness, keeping us tethered to the pursuit of happiness and the frantic rush for its trappings on Black Friday?
I think we are in a time of panicked whiteness, when more walls will rise. White picket fences, residential fences, security measures, and police practices might yet be the order of our coming days. But this sense of panic actually stems from noticing that things are touching each other in ways large systems did not expect. This is in fact an insurgency of vulnerability we are ‘with-nessing’. In short, the more formidable walls are coming down: the ones that divide here and there, nature and culture, past and future, the sacred and the mundane. You and me. The walls that divided nature and culture, development from its exteriorities, this and that, are falling apart – fading away.
What kinds of subversive spiritualities, ecological awarenesses, rituals of radical hospitality, ethical reconfigurations are called upon now, in these times of scandalous disclosures, spillages, leakages, boundary-corroding loss of safety and privacy? What are the implications of an ontology of co-emergence for our quests for supremacy, for mastery, for safety, for justice, for homecomings?
I come with a gospel of the fall – that here in the Great Meantime, where most Christian theologies posit we have to wait for the end of times, is where the beauty of the world resides. Where haloes spill, where everywhere is the burning bush and requires you to remove your slippers – not just the small area closest to the flames.
The question isn’t so much ‘what to do’ in these times of messy exposure, but what kinds of worldly doings are we already immersed in? What practices are we a part of? In noticing these performances, we do not become holy or supreme or better, but we become remade – reconfigured with new response-abilities and capacities to address our troubles (for it is the case that our usual modes of engagement often perpetuate the very events we seek to escape). Our modest proposal is to notice the wilds beyond our fences. This is not hope in the future – trusting that by and by things will get good. No, this is time-travel of a queer sort – the kind that blasts open time and knows that the past is yet to come. This insurgency of vulnerability I speak of opens up new kinds of questions and new forms of power with the world. In doing ancestral work, we blast open time, queering temporalities; in opening our doors to the stranger, we dismantle the attenuations of modernity and its individuation of our always roving selves; in learning how to grieve, we are gesturing toward the community; in walking out of school we are creating an ethics of wonder; in saying ‘the times are urgent let us slow down’, we are thinking deeply about our efforts to save, to rush in, and do.
Let me end here – but what is an end anyway? Aren’t ends always beginnings of a different sort?
I lost my father when I was 15 – a loss that took me on a quest…that brought me to an obstacle of silence via the agency of a toddler, and helped me see that my father was never away from me. He was/is/yet as close as the stars, as my bones, as memory, as story, as the birth of our son, whose name is Abayomi – the name my father danced with, a signal that ancestry is the very thread by which an always thick now is stitched.
Walking down a small road near our home in the city of Chennai, India, together with my difficult guru, Alethea, she wondered about the moon and stars. My father winked. Now this was a time to speak!
Do not dishonour the stars by seeking to reach them, by trusting that home lies in the glittery distance. ‘Reaching for the stars’ erases the hard work they have done, travelling unfathomable miles across our galaxy, spilling their guts in temper tantrums, baptizing earth with the very minerals that have become our bodies and our civilizations. Reaching for the stars? Why? They are already pressingly close, stirring with our bodies, tricksters of eternal night. We can learn that stars are ‘far’ because they teach us that distance is not synonymous with separation. We can learn that the homes we seek are seductively near, here in the thick-now, some creative risks away from the familiar.
 Stacy Alaimo, ‘Exposure: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times’, 2016.