What would a Mountain do?
Activism in an Age of Entanglement
Keynote Address at the Impuls/Smart CSOs Conference
November 5, 2015 (Berlin, Germany)
“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” – Niels Bohr
It’s good to be back. Germany looks a lot different from how it was when I last visited. Not merely because much has changed, but because I was three months old when I first came here, and three years old when I left. As such, I cannot remember anything about my time here, save a few half-sure memories of jumping up and down on a couch and bursting my lower lip on the floor. My mother told me I spoke with a thick foreign accent, had a German ‘girlfriend’, and could at least count to ten in German – none of which I remember.
In the winter of 1983, an afro-haired Nigerian diplomat, his wife, and two children were dispatched by our Federal Government to Bonn, then the administrative capital and seat of government of West Germany. My sister, Tito, was later born in Bonn. There is an unsubstantiated family legend that my father named her after his political hero, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia. Though I have also heard that this might have been accidental: facing the officiating priest, and looking for a name that was going to be pronounceable by the majority of our new white world, my father offered the first word that popped into his head. I can imagine how annoyingly brief the priest’s relief was when he came to her surname: Akomolafe.
So Germany feels like a coming home in a strange way. And in more ways than one, a cosmic re-encounter, a tactile re-membering of splinters of myself. I am here because we are living in menstrual times, in a period when easy divides and membranes and walls are thinning out and coming down – not least of which is the exhausted barricade between humans and planet, between us and them, between culture and nature, between the material and the discursive, between the practical and the mystical, between coherence and confusion.
Three years after my family left the shores of the black eagle, the Berlin Wall came down. I have read that it was also a slip of tongue (like my father’s), a mistake made during a press conference on the evening of November 9 (1989) by Guenter Schabowski, former spokesman of East Germany’s ruling communist party (the GDR), that led to the beginning of the end of the ‘Wall of Shame’.
However, Berlin was also the site of an even more remarkable reconciliation of sorts; the beginnings of a conversation that would electrify our understanding of things, echoes of which are now finding greater amplification in these times of impasse. In these times when the classical physics of activism is meeting trouble.
In 1920, here in Berlin, Albert Einstein, the madly eccentric wielder of Ockham’s razor and conqueror of the material world, met his Danish counterpart, a brilliant physicist, Niels Bohr, for the first time. It was a beautiful encounter by Einstein’s account. A promising brotherhood approved by the gods of small things, so to speak. In spite of this initial sense of mutual admiration, their relationship turned sour in the years that followed. You see, Einstein was a firm believer in a Cartesian-Newtonian worldview – a universe with discrete, localized, boundaried, measurable objects spread out in the givenness of space/time. In a musical sense, the world was composed of essences and substances strung together in a cosmic song, the lyrics of which were available for the keenest minds to ponder. If you ran into a paradox, an impossible situation, it was because you didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. Truth, for Einstein, was fixed. Solid ontology. God doesn’t play dice, he famously said.
And yet, science was at a deeply troubling and confusing place in its history that it seemed like God not only played dice, but was the entire casino. It started with examinations of the nature of light. Under certain conditions, light behaved very much like discrete packs of energy – particulate like billiard balls. And yet, under other conditions, light behaved like non-localized diffracting waves spread out everywhere. How could something both be present and not present, here and there, this and that? There was no room for this kind of nonsense in Einstein’s world. Werner Heisenberg, another physicist, came up with wave collapse theory and the ‘uncertainty principle’, proposing that we couldn’t possibly know what was happening ‘behind’ the curtain; uncertainty was built into the very structure of the human mind. A knowledge threshold of some sort that hindered us from accessing the determinate nature of reality.
Enter Bohr, the father of quantum theory.
The Copenhagen-based philosopher-physicist offered a radical series of questions: what about language? What about the ways we make meaning? What does ‘particle’ or ‘wave’ mean? For Bohr, the reason why light behaves in very self-deprecating (!) ways is because ‘it’ is indeterminate. As is ‘reality’. It wasn’t merely a question of uncertainty or epistemic limitations. The queerness of what was happening was bone-deep, roping in the observer and the observed, language and the material, in a single loop. In a sense, Bohr invited us to consider that the nature of a ‘thing’, its value, changes with the experimental apparatus used to determine ‘its’ nature. A ‘thing’ is only a ‘thing’ in the ‘context’ of relationship. Change the relationship, and the ‘thing’ changes. In other words, there are no ‘things’, only entanglements, only relationships – and an entanglement isn’t a tethering of already determined essences. It is ‘an’ ongoing promiscuity that makes thingness possible, the waltz of a thousand im/possibilities, the world melting into and making love with itself. The electron is not ‘in’ the void, it is the void – and the void is a constant paroxysm of ontological experimentation, and not the empty space of Newtonian imagination. Einstein laughed, nervously – calling Bohr’s entanglement ‘explanation’ ‘spooky action from a distance’.
There’s without doubt a lot lost between the gaps of my understanding of the quantum. I am a happy dilettante using the swirl and magic of poetic license to legitimize my confusion! And yet, what seems ‘clear’ is that our understanding of the world is indeed spooked and haunted. We can no longer rest in the supposition that what we’ve rudely called nature is completely knowable or tame. Or mute. The very nature of thought, of causality, of action, of memory, of intellection and emotion, of time and space and spacetime, of presence, of humanity, is being contested. The thingness of the self – that treasured artefact of our modern mattering, the single nut upon which our modern systems of individuation are hinged – is giving way.
Today, we are witnessing an insurgency of the ‘other’. In terrifying hordes, what we’ve repressed – what we thought we had safely resolved – is stressing us. Tugging at us. The ‘other’ – once removed and far away – is breaking into our well-manicured lawns, so to speak. Everywhere around us, we are being haunted by spectres modernity promised to banish. The prospects of remaining private citizens of a rational economic order of nation-states, the idea that we can simply ignore others because they hold a different passport or do not have visas, and the notion that solving our most intractable problems would mean coming up with the correct answer or model, are imploding. Business as usual is dead. The far is now near, right in the peripheries of our cities, right on the edges of our homes, right in our faces.
From melting glaciers altering the very mood of the planet, to toxic water seeping from radioactive power plants thousands of miles away, to the unabated influx of migrants, the vibrant materiality of the ‘other’, the non-human, the spooky, is shattering the myth and complacency of the modern self. An ethical interruption of the small self. Our capacities to feel the deep and bovine stirrings of our mother Gaia is ‘increasing’ (though we often pathologize these experiences). The self, Joanna Macy writes, is ‘greening’, and we are finding that we are co-constitutive with the world around us. Atlas, the archetype of the ego, the epistemic construct of modern identity, no longer bears the weight of the world on his shoulders.
As we come to terms with the implications of a world that can no longer be considered as Other; a world that will not be encountered in terms of micro and macro levels, or in terms of neat demarcations between the human and the non-human – a world that is entangled – we are faced with the question of what to do with activism.
In many of my engagements around the world, I am coming to see – along with many others – the deep and ponderous sea of despair, disenchantment and exhaustion that envelopes activists’ conversations about change. The once high notes of idealistic hopes for a radically different world are losing octaves, crashing into a bass of cynicism and anger. It seems that no matter how much we try, we keep reinforcing and reproducing the very realities we hope to address.
Many of our NGOs and peoples’ movements seem caught up in a game of thrones, in a quest for supremacy. Where money flows, there is a blind fury of activity, of flashy publications and reports and programs and organized protest against the powers that be. Meanwhile the powers that be, imprisoned in a humanist paradigm, unable to accommodate the irrational, keep dressing up the emperor in new clothes. Practitioners and experts fly across the globe to sit in nice rooms, hardly ever listening to themselves. Agendas are sold, and urgent practical solutions are insisted on. Ideas are stripped of their specificity, temporality and uniqueness as funding imperatives demand scaling up measures and standardizing approaches. Negotiations and the calls for change are condensed into neat outcome documents that can be ‘declared’ at large Summits. MDGs become SDGs. Power structures and fundamental visions of our existential crisis remain resolute. Easy liberalism wins the day. And the world spins madly on.
But no matter. At the kernel of this performance of civil justice seems to be an unshakeable idea that we are agents of change, that all we need is a little more effort, perhaps a synthesis of our many projects, perhaps a more accurate model of transformation. That we must do something about the suffering children stolen from a school in Northern Nigeria; that we are at the 11th hour and we cannot afford to suffer the folly of climate change deniers if we are to survive as a species; and, that we must fix ourselves.
This secure sense of identity is perhaps the one thing we are not willing to let go of – so, in a continued war on the self that is produced by certain material-discursive conditions, we entertain a sense of guilt when we ‘do nothing’, and discretely impose our feel-good demands on the world. We otherize ourselves by treating ourselves as discrete objects of a given moral universe, as authors, as Atlasian agents of change. We cry, like Archimedes, “give me whereon to stand, and I shall move the earth”. But no such vantage point exists, as Chinua Achebe reminds us. We all have to move at the earth’s pace. And moving at the earth’s pace is a tacit recognition that we no longer have the luxury of being ‘agents’ of change.
The ‘human’ is not propped up above the world, disembodied and distant, but embedded in/with it. The more we investigate ourselves, the more we find it impossible to ‘find’ the individual, the modern ghost lurking in the folds of the brain, pulling the reins of intention. Action is not redemptive, it is haptic. In a world that is entangled, there could be no saviours, no outside. To think that we can merely act upon the world, and that the source of action is alien to the supposedly perfunctory motions of nature, is to maintain our separation from a parliament of things and exclude other ways of thinking about what can happen today.
This is why elders from my continent say ‘the time is urgent, let us slow down’. They understood that we are a companion species, inseparable from the entangling ecologies that sustain us. When ‘we’ act, it is the whole that is acting – not the ‘human’. An irrepressible vibrancy of agencies, of fauna, of rock, of story, is implied in the seemingly isolated instance of choice. The wave does not crash ashore, the ocean does.
An ethics of ‘noticing the invisible’ recommends itself to us. What would become of economics and politics if we sought the wisdom of trees and acknowledged the collective intelligence our modernity pretends we are divorced from? What would become of education if we paid attention to the diverse ways of learning, and listened to our grandmothers and children – instead of silencing them because they do not have certificates? What would become of our gatherings and conferences if we recognized that hugging is just as crucial as the official agenda? What if we listened to the genius of grief and allowed the rhythms of not-knowing and confusion to work themselves out?
What if how we think about the crisis we face is part of the crisis?
We would like to think, for instance, that climate change and ecological devastation are ‘outside’ of us – something that we can resolve with the gloves of technological sophistication or administrative efficiency. We would like to think that it is our place to mobilize nature to fit our rational imperatives. And when things don’t pan out, we throw more money, more methodologies, and more men at the problem – hoping it would go away. But it doesn’t, because ‘we’ are the crisis – ‘we’, the entanglement of ‘human’ and ‘non-human’, are the trouble that touches itself perversely. The crisis is not an interruption of our humanity, or something wrong we can throw solutions at. It is the whole re-considering itself.
In honour of these riddles, these challenging reconfigurations of agency, I offer a turbulent question to open up wider civil spaces, and to direct our gaze towards the excluded edges and other places of power. I offer this knowing that the type of changes that need to happen will probably not come about as an outcome of a project or in response to funding. I offer this knowing that there are resources we have access to but cannot see because we are blinded by the linearity of the correct answer.
The question is ‘what would a mountain do?’ When we ask this, we are finding new ways of responding and framing the critical, unexamined questions and assumptions we make about the world: who is the activist, the ‘active ingredient’ behind the identity? What is the source of action and agency? What is our relationship with crisis? What are we excluding from mattering? Are there other ways of thinking about urgency? What do we have at our disposal to bring about the changes we desire? And is achieving what we desire always a good thing?
By asking what a mountain would do, we queer our notions of power and gain a more mature sense of how entangled we are with the world. We attune to the wisdom of the soil, and lean into the novelty that comes with paradox. We might recognize that, in the words of Karen Barad, “there are no solutions; there is only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting, each intra-action, so that we might use our ability to respond, our responsibility, to help awaken, to breathe life into ever new possibilities for living justly.”
It is this coming down to earth that led Chip Richards, ocean activist, to seek to do something about commercial whaling, but only in the spirit and with the energies of the ocean; it is this sensitivity to the outrageous that inspired Cynthia Jurs to begin burying consecrated clay vessels in order to bring healing to the planet; it is this celebration of gift that allowed Vinoba Bhave, land rights activist, to reclaim 5 million acres of land without spending a dime.
And I suspect it is this noticing, this attuning to the ‘peace of wild things’, this slowing down, this openness to the invisible, this acknowledgement of the gift of disenchantment, this queering of our habitual modes of thought and hegemonic patterns of stabilizing nature as ‘object’, a slip of tongue, that will usher us gently into new continents too wild and creative for words and answers to accommodate.