“Notice how it has become difficult to be oneself. Observe the spaces where things do not align and share those challenges. Find others and share those difficulties, those failures, with them.”
– Dr. Bayo Akomolafe
About Dr. Bayo Akomolafe
What you will learn
- Embracing vulnerability to weave a new, interconnected narrative of human identity (04:23)
- Imminence over transcendence (08:52)
- Post-activism, redefining issues through the lens of deterritorialization (14:05)
- The transformative potential of societal disruptions (15:30)
- Encouraging errancy—embracing mistakes and detours (18:22)
- Africa’s potential to transcend conventional progress narratives (23:05)
- Emphasizing the complexity of individual agency (29:33)
We Will Tell Our Own Story: The Lions of Africa Speak! by Bayo Akomolafe
Ross Dawson: It is a true delight to have you on the show, Bayo.
Bayo Akomolafe: Good to be here, brother Ross.
Ross: You’re one of the best-qualified people to answer the question who can we become? Humanity has come so far, and this is a fairly critical juncture in human history, but who could we become as humanity? Or maybe we shouldn’t even limit it to humanity?
Bayo: I’m hearing a bit of Spinoza in that question. Baruch Spinoza, when he asks What can the body do? What can our bodies become? Exploring capacity, identity, and the very idea of a body. But I’m hearing even more emphatically, something aspirational. You’re not just asking in some generic term what can the body do? Or in some generalized way, you’re seeking, especially now in such a moment of deep trouble, to explore what it is that we can rise to. What else is possible? What else can we become other than the warring, excavating, ecology-denying species we are, or we’ve tended to be?
Of course, that is a bit generalistic to say that we are a warring species. First, there isn’t a singular, monolithic species that is the human. We are diffracted. We are territorial. We are more than just an edifice; there’s a plurality there. But I’m trying to feel the dimensions. If you notice, I’m often closing my eyes to feel the dimensions of the question, to let it land on my fingertips. What feels like a response here is that it depends. I know that doesn’t really say much, but there is a tendency to read the human as independent, magisterial, imperial, removed, isolated, and dissociated from what the world is exploring and doing. Because we’ve performed this myth, this story of independence, of privacy, of gilded selves and interiorities, we have performed presence as this toxic, poisonous thing that some scientists call the Anthropocene. And that’s in a sense who we are.
It’s not totalizing; it’s partial, but in a sense, that has become the dominant narrative about who we are. It’s also the dominant narrative of who we are becoming. It’s a statement about the future that by this time, we would have this, it’s future tense, we would have damaged the planet to this extent that if an alien, extraterrestrial species should come, they would find our bones sedimented with plastics, chemicals, and discarded material. But I feel that we could be different. But that will depend; as I said, it depends, it will depend on a different kind of arrangement, different kinds of constraints, different kinds of alliances with the more than human world, different kinds of solidarities, and stranger kinds of solidarities. It would mean we would have to find new ways of telling stories, and we’d have to find new ways of meeting the world around us: microbes, viruses, bacteria, fungi, furniture, texture, and intensity, all of those things are the things that contribute to the human. Those things will need to be reformulated for us to find new identities.
I don’t know what we’re becoming. I don’t think in terms of destinations or utopias, but I feel that for us to become different, we would need to find new ways of building new relationships with the world. We would need to lose our way.
Ross: That sounds to me like this form of transcendence as in we transcend who we have been to something beyond. Part of what you were saying evokes the ideas of duality, as in the scientific method and the Cartesian approach is that we are separate from the world, and we divide ourselves and so, part of it is, how do we transcend the difference that we make between ourselves and the world in which we live. Also, the problems that we have created ourselves are making that division. Is that a reasonable frame to say that we can transcend? Or what is that journey beyond that?
Bayo: It’s intriguing that you think of it as transcendence. I often consider myself a philosopher of imminence, along the lines of Deleuze. I think in terms of dense and thick relationships and webs of entanglement, rather than stepping out of the web or creating some human contingent project that means we define ourselves as supreme or outside of relationships. I think of how differences come to be within relationships. Transcendence presupposes, at least in the ways that I’ve come to use it, and the ways that I read texts around it, transcendence presupposes duality, two realms: the realm of the material and the realm of the supra-material, outside of the material, where things are already predefined, and the material is a mere reflection of that. I don’t think of the world in this way.
I think of the world as collectively open-ended, emergent, promiscuous, seeking, and touching itself, possibly orgasmic. Perhaps, to clarify, I didn’t do a good job of situating myself with regard to the beautifully framed first question you asked. But it might be helpful to think of ants and their death spirals. This phenomenon, I use it ad nauseam, this example of ants getting stuck in an ant death trap. This is a circle where they go round and round and round because of some accident with the chemicals they secrete for pheromones, or for navigation, called pheromones. I call it an accident, but that’s a limited reading. But at least our observations inform us that they rotate in circles until they die. They die in the circles, and they are unable to do anything else. They just die in the circles because they get trapped in that pheromone secretion.
I’ve often asked myself like you, what can the ant become? Is it possible for the ant to step out of its trance to do other things with the world, to break out of that jail? And one way that an ant can do that is if it’s infected by fungi. I’m not going to go through the process, but there’s a fungal entity called Cordyceps, and it infiltrates the ant, takes over the ant’s body, and drives the ant away from whatever entanglement it has with its colony. That’s one way for the ant to break out, by hybridizing its body with fungi. That’s what I’m talking about here.
When you say, “Can we be different?” I’m imagining difference as infection, not as transcendence. There’s nothing transcendent about an ant getting infected by Cordyceps unilateralis. I’m thinking about all the ways we can become different by building new kinds of relationships with the world around us because we are not naturally extractivist, we’re not naturally capitalist, we’re not naturally this or that. Nature comes from arrangement, just like in a dual-slit experiment, light can either be a wave or a particle; that’s not binary, that’s a dichotomy of some kind, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one is superior to the other as in a binary. But that depends on the arrangement or what is measured. If you measure light in a particular way, it will behave like a particle, and if you measure light in another way, it will behave like a wave. None of that is transcendent. It depends on material measurements. In the same way, I feel that human can be a lot more alien than it is right now. But it depends on measurements, and those measurements are like hybridizations or infections.
Ross: I want to come back to that; part of the answer is in looking at what you’re doing with the Emergence Network which you describe as a post-activist project, which, as I understand from the outside, is seeing that if we have manifested the problems, we need to transcend the ways in which we start that separation from ourselves and the problem?
Bayo: You could say that. Post-activism is not an attempt to escape the problem. It’s not a bypassing of the problem. It’s not a dismissal of the problem. It’s the deterritorialization of the problem, and deterritorialization might be a stressful word for some people to hear. But it’s when objects take on new kinds of dimensions within relationships. For instance, a chair might be a chair to me, and useful to be defined as a chair within the circumstances of the relationships that we’re having right now. It’s a chair because it’s upholding my body in conversation. To my son, and this is for real, who is autistic, this is a spaceship, or sometimes a pirate ship, and he pushes it about, and in that instant, it’s deterritorialized. It’s not a chair merely. Within the relationship, it gains new territories, new meanings, and new possibilities.
In the same way, post-activism notices that we are a part of moral arrangements, and how we decide what is good to do, or what is bad to avoid, what we should protest, or where we should fight for, as we do with activism, is all part of an arrangement. But sometimes the world breaks open, and those things change and become deterritorialized. Then we find ourselves compelled to ask new questions, to go in different directions. For instance, to bring it down, the pandemic forced Indian parents to ask new questions about education. Suddenly, everyone was at home; it was a new social and material arrangement. Everyone was at home, kids were no longer at school, and parents were getting used to those circumstances. They were coming down from their beds in the morning and instead of finding their children on their way to school, they suddenly had to live with their own kids.
I remember a couple of journalists coming to our house, and because we don’t send our kids to school, we have this de-schooling practice, they asked my wife How do you keep your kids productive? What do you do with kids when they’re not at school? And my wife was like, I’m trying my best to keep them less productive. I’m trying to tone down because I’m tired of all that. We were used to it, but most people are not used to it. But you see, those questions would not have been possible if a virus didn’t crack the economy open. I’m talking about those moments when the world breaks open, and new questions sprout. That’s post-activism. It’s not after activism, but it’s when new possibilities become intelligible.
Ross: You use the word new arrangements or different arrangements in various ways. In the Emergence Network, what are the ways in which the Emergence Network is facilitating these new possibilities of new arrangements?
Bayo: What we are excited about doing is noticing, first, that the ways we respond to a crisis, or to the crisis is part of the crisis. That is a shocking thing to say, for most people, because we often expect that the world is divided neatly into categories of problems and solutions. When a problem is out there, objectively defined and separate from how we approach it, what we do is sit in isolation, and then we come up with solutions to the problem. It’s difficult for people to notice, and maybe not that difficult any longer, but it seems to be so difficult for people to understand that how we measure the world is also how we show up in the world. We’re not separate from the world we try to understand. We’re not outside; we don’t live on a planet; we are the planet in its complexity. It’s just like a wave.
I often tell the joke about a wave, a small ocean wave saying to itself, I wish I were as large as the ocean. But that wave is the ocean in its complexity, in its ongoing materiality. There isn’t a fixed destination, there isn’t some isolation that we’re trying to navigate here. What we’re trying to do here is, notice and hold space and nurture errancy. Errancy is the act of being wrong, or strain away from a highway. We are holding space for communities that are looking for other ways to respond or to be accountable or to respond to a crisis that doesn’t, in fact, reinforce the metaphysics of that crisis. For instance, the Gaza situation right now. Think about the moral compulsion to adopt a stance and how that is coterminous with our social algorithms. It’s like people are creating images of what you might call moral purity. If you don’t want to go that extreme, you may just call it a position. It’s like the proliferation of positions seems to be part of the phenomenon of this crisis. People are saying things like, I stand with this, I stand with that. I’m questioning, I’m interrogating, or I’m intrigued by the idea that how we stand, all the postures we adopt actually contribute to this crisis because I don’t think it’s a conflagration or war between two sides, per se, I think it’s the secretion of an arrangement or social structure. We are inviting communities of inquiry networks to craft new ways of thinking about the world in its crisis without reinforcing those positions that are deadening and exhausted, in a nutshell.
Ross: I’d like to come back to where people can find out more and engage with that. But take just a bit of a shift around thinking about Africa and we don’t need to limit ourselves to Africa, but for decades, people have said Africa is the continent of the future, and today, it seems to be more true than ever. But I would love to hear your thoughts on Africa, as Africa’s future and Africa in humanity’s future.
Bayo: I don’t know. There’s something about the framing, and I don’t know if that’s a stable or popular framing. But Africa – the future sounds a lot like the framework that makes intelligible this idea of Africa as a rising economy. That still feels intelligible to the ways we understand nation-states and the global order, and progress, and democracy, and industrialization, and development, and growth, so a rising economy. Africa is a continent of the future. It has more young people than old people. We’re getting more technologically sophisticated. We’re improving our economies; more nation-states are adopting democracy. Africa is…I don’t know. I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I can give myself to that framework.
It feels suspiciously familiar to me. But there might be a sense in which we could speak about Africa as a canary in a coal mine, as prophetic. That doesn’t mean Africa is or that doesn’t necessarily position Africa at the head of some futural project. But it says that, in a sense, the continent has been treated as a dumping place for progress. Africa, in many real senses, still receives the waste of the Western industrialized world, 93% of recyclable material goes to the continent. It doesn’t go to a green, emerald city, and then repurposed as green products, it comes to Africa, and it goes to the global South. That, in a sense, Africa is…and I don’t think of Africa as unique or as monolithic. There are many Africas within Africa. I just hope that is clear.
But in a sense, for our conversational purposes, Africa is the engine room for the human as a colonial project, and it has subsidized this transcendence project to leave the world behind and to create a world that is flat and flattened and clear. In that sense, Africa is troublingly futural, not in a way that I would celebrate, but that it’s caught up in an understanding of time and temporality and progress that is no longer serving our species. I hope Africa and many other places around the world drop off the progress machine. I hope Africa becomes a prophetic space of experimentation with plural governance structures, ways of thinking about technology and ourselves and the world, ways of understanding education and economies that are not reducible to the liberal world order and the consensus we’ve built after the Second World War. I’m hoping that some other tentative projects emerge that break through this conformist, carceral dynamic we find ourselves in, where politics no longer serves, on the right and on the left.
Ross: That’s beautiful. I think in terms of framing that potential, as you say, not being an echo of what the West and the Westerners have done. Recreation of what is, what this society can be.
Bayo: I just wanted to add this very quickly, brother. Most of the time, for decades, on end, the framework was that Africa was late. Auguste Comte, the sociologist, would think about Africa on the latter end of the spectrum, we needed to catch up. The idea of the catch-up narrative or imperative was entrenched in us, as we’re kids, right from being children in school. Now, from being late, we’re early, we’re now, Oh, you’re the future, and all that. It still seems to be caught in the same spectrum. This is what I’m saying that our other Africa is out of time, that Africa falls off the clock, the atomic militaristic clock.
Ross: That would be a good future.
Bayo: You could say that.
Ross: A lot of the framing has been at a very macro level, at the level of humanity or societies. I loved the couple of things you were saying, for example, around the circle of ants and what required to break out was being infected with a fungus or how the Coronavirus enabled us to break out of the patterns of the past.
I’d like to think of that at an individual level as in what are the fractures or forks in the path or the ways as an individual. Now, what is your advice to individuals to be able to go off what is the path that seems to be given to us or which we get stuck on in our lives? How can people find those divergences or creating these divergences that take them where they could be?
Bayo: I’ll answer it with two tongues, like a snake, like a trickster. On one side of my tongue, I will say that the individual is a vocation of the public. I don’t know really, I don’t know how to think about individuals as fait accompli, as finished products. When I think about the individual, I instead think about individuation, along the lines of Gilbert Simondon. It’s a process, and this process is already connected with social, political, archeological, architectural, ecological, biological, ancestral, and archetypal processes.
You cannot remove or separate them. It doesn’t come down to our level, and it’s not always available for that scrutiny, what’s going on in the world at large, which is the reason why I call into question, the immediacy of the kinds of solidarities that are being expressed at the moment without pathologizing them or dismissing them or throwing my hand off and saying it’s wrong or evil. I don’t think of the world that way. But stressing them and noticing the tensions and the entanglements of taking stands in that way and how that feels like a response within a framework of emergency that collapses at this or that, it doesn’t seem to rise to the complicatedness or the complexity, the nuance that this moment really deserves.
I don’t know how to arrive at the individual but on the other hand, we’re always there, aren’t we? We are making choices, so to speak. I don’t think in terms of choices, but let’s go with that. We are making choices. My wife yesterday was telling me that some paper she read, by some psychologist, noticed that we make 35,000 choices every morning, that by morning time or by noon, we’ve already made 35,000 choices or decisions. That tells me that we are not the ones to make them because it doesn’t seem to be a conscious thing. Therefore, we should reframe what choices are. But I digress.
If we stick to the individual as a space of agency, then I would invite people to notice that cracks are emerging around the world. Notice how it’s becoming difficult to be yourself. Notice the spaces where things don’t add up and share those difficulties, find others, and share those difficulties, those failures with them. Because as we become stuck within patterns of repetition, not repetition, “repeatability,” I want to think about them as different; as we become stuck in patterns of repeatability, it’s important that we invite new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things, and the only way to do that in my expression is that we hold space or make a sanctuary for failure, for the fugitive, for where things don’t add up, for where our losses are strong, where grief wants to erupt. Instead of covering up the portals, instead of healing the wounds, let them breathe in a way, but find the others to do this with. I think, in some way, that feels like an individual-level expression, an invitation to strange kinds of solidarities.
Ross: Absolutely. What you’ve just been saying is the highlight of the conversation for me. It’s been a wonderful conversation. But I think that what you’re saying is very pragmatic, and I hope that people will be able to take that into their lives.
Where can people go to find out about your work and also the Emergence Network?
Bayo: A Google search would suffice. My name, Bayo Akomolafe, will pop up lots of things. You can click on one of them, and the Emergence Network just as well, a new website and a new administration is coming into place. I’m excited about the new team coming up. It’s led by Aaron Danford, a dear sister, who is now the new director, or the lead weaver, of the Emergence Network, and a beautiful team across the planet is coming together to hold space for this beautiful exploration. People, write, ask questions, and we’ll meet in the middle.
Ross: Thank you so much for your time and your insights.
Bayo: Thank you, brother. Thank you.