Can a World be Rebuilt From Fragments?
Paper presented at the conference Penser le marronnage: Vers une autre histoire de l’émancipation / Thinking Marronage: Towards another history of emancipation, in Columbia Global Centers/Paris.
First of all, I’d like to begin with the question what is a world? If world-building can be imagined as a fundamental task of survival and emancipatory politics, world cannot be the world that we know. It’s not our planet with all its objects, facts and phenomena — and world-building is not terraforming or any similar work of engineering. World is not the content of a proposition, but a structure, a structural organization of the core elements of human life. A lived articulation that becomes ours before it can even appear in a clear and distinct fashion. But what does it articulate? What are its core elements?
When our bodies give birth to subjects for the very first time, world is the god we make the inaugural sacrifice to, in the fiery altar of normativity. From its heavens, meaning and intelligibility is given to our everyday encounters with everything else — the world does not have a meaning for it is the most basic meaning-giver, the giver of the form of our life. In its waters — what we call the social imaginary — , among many possible identities, we see the image of who we are. We inherit its earth and are rooted in its mythology before we can judge or deliberate about it, before we can desire something other — it becomes so familiar we cannot see it properly as object while we walk on it. I do not wish to call this a “definition” of world but to conjure an image of articulation that we vaguely try to convene when we say ordinary things like “I don’t belong to this world” or “this person is not from our world”, or when we talk about a multiplicity of worlds, the “Western world”, the “black and the white worlds” and so on. It’s always something about the everyday and familiar experience of home and belonging — something we live and share with others who live the same articulation of elements.
And the question of the world is relevant here because I want to talk about the Atlantic slave trade as a mass removal of people from their worlds and some consequences of this for their descendents, and, more especifically, the consequences relating to the order of social imaginary. In previous works and presentations, I called “the partition of the imaginary” the system of self-evident imaginary associations, the social distribution of images that informs what we imagine as real, impossible and possible. Realist imagining is at the core of the partition, for it provides us with the images of who we are and must be as a collectivity, and with the hegemonic way of imagining the world and ourselves as parts of it. It is an orientation towards the same and its success depends on how we imagine formal and structural alternatives — the radical ones must be either heavenly images of a future that will never be properly ours, or infernal images of a future that must never be ours for it means the end of the world — the end of our world.
Realism can also extend itself to the whole of our political horizon, so our world becomes the only possible world even when it is perceived as doomed. The removal of the Yoruba, the Kongo, the Igbo and people of dozens of other ethnical groups from their world — and not just from a geographical locality — meant a radical reorganization of their social imagination: what was impossible became the real, what was the real became chimerical. Those people were “changed into something different, into a new set of possibilities,’’ as Édouard Glissant said, but the first possibilities to appear are not of inhabiting a world — properties are merely located in one.
And the people painted with the image of Blackness did not have to assimilate one new partition of the imaginary, but two: one for the slave, one for the freed. In a first moment, the slave acquires an alien image of the world where personal identities are available only for the masters. The slave is located in this world as an instrument and a property of another, and this position can never be stable enough because the images of a higher existence fuel a desire to be something more, a desire that burns the real and makes it more and more infernal.
The question remembered by Frederick Douglass is inevitable: “Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves, and others masters?”. This “I” is the departure point of flight and rebellious encounters. The second partition comes with the possibility of emancipation and integration into a previously established order, not as a property or instrument, but as a person inhabiting the world of the masters, ready to occupy different positions of the master. The question here is not why but when the slaves can become like the masters. In the everyday reality of the plantation, away from traditional metaphysical debates on the nature of freedom, the image of the master is the most intense image available of the free man, but matters are more complicated than the lack of reference for self-identification in a world previously denied as home.
And then it begins the long history of a very peculiar strife, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”, as Du Bois said in The Souls of the Black Folk. One could say this haunted belonging is the true universal property of world-inhabiting — no one can form an identity without the gaze of the other, no one is one-hundred percent assimilated into the world and so on. And this is all true. But then why not black skin and black masks?
There is a qualitative difference that cannot be erased and it is a difference between being a world-builder and a world-owner, a difference reproduced and inherited by the descendents of both categories. The builder follows the blueprint designed by the owner. The builders built the universities so the children of owners could learn the ways of their modern ancestors. And then the children of the builders became the janitors, the security guards and the cooks in the same universities, dreaming of a day they would be students. Citing Du Bois: “the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine”. And then some of them became students and now they dream of being professors. But when they become professors, what are they going to teach? The position of the master can be occupied but the world is still not theirs.
The occupation of positions denied to slaves has been a part of the struggle of their children ever since the process of emancipation named “abolition”. The assimilation of this world and its images of the real, of its names and destinies, of its myths and meanings is a process of becoming-master that continues as democracies are forced to be more democratic, as institutions have to open more and more doors, as the universal is forced to be more universal. And, even though this means an improvement of life for the descendents of builders, we are not emancipated from its measure, a measure that was produced for someone else.
Our desire for improvement and reform is the desire to imitate. We imagine a better life with the images of Western civilization, images belonging to a social imaginary that disguises its particular significations as universal and human. But in the end, one could not say it better than Jay-Z: “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga, rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga, still nigga, still nigga”. Still the problem, still the doubleness, still the qualitative failure of assimilation — this “still nigga” points to a difference that cannot be erased, the difference between proper and improper inhabiting, between being at home in the positions inherited and occupying the positions of the other as a means to reinforce and consolidate legal emancipation.
This emancipation could never be anything but a first step towards something bigger — for slavery was more than a legal matter. But how can a world be part of any reparation or restitution? We talk about the Constitution, human rights, democracy and keep struggling to be subsumed under the universals that appear in the mirrors of the master’s house. Our reflection shows a white mask — and masks are a special kind of image: they are not images that hide the real behind the appearance. They hide the imaginary character of both mask and face. They hide the imaginary doubling, the absence of necessity of a specific face that remains disguised as inescapable reality, the fact that there is an order of the image to be disrupted. Can we imagine the exclusion from the universal as part its very design? To desire something else we need to imagine otherwise. And there were the ones who escaped from the house, who could not stay with the ghosts and the cursed mirrors. But what is outside the house? Can a lost world be recovered in maroon societies or quilombos?
There is not a single form of life that characterizes the quilombo, just as there is not a single form of fugitivity. Communities that choose radical isolation do not live the same life as communities that engage in constant negotiations for recognition in asymmetrical situations. Life in quilombos could never be animated univocally by the same stories and memories — there was not a single Africa with a single partition of the imaginary that was previously shared by slaves. The dreams of return do not point to the same world — the dreams of a new future do not reveal the same desire.
And, ever since the image of Blackness ceased to be flattened by the iron hands of the slave breaker, different possibilities have been emerging of being Black, more or less informed by different images of Whiteness. But the problem of world-building for maroon societies is a problem for maroon societies. What really interests me is the significance of marronage for those who are still inside the haunted house of Western civilization, no matter the reasons for this, and who still need another world that is not a modest update of the present.
First of all, I’d like to think, as Neil Roberts, of fugitivity as “at once episodic and yet a permanent facet of everyday politics”. The still niggas still have to evade searchlights, cops, sirens — the “sound of da police, the sound of the beast”, as The Philosopher says (KRS-One). In broad daylight or in a dark corner, the law comes as Fugitive Law, a weapon of disciplinary correction and normalisation to take us away from the places we are not supposed to be, back to where we belong: in chains and behind bars. How many laws were designed with the sole purpose of arresting black people? You can even be a black celebrity and still be stopped and inspected before being certified as free or condemned as fugitive. And this fugitive state can be so unconscious that we don’t even notice when we are walking in the street and escaping at the same time.
But there is also positive senses of fugitivity: the discovery of new places, the opening of the underground, the countermovement, the songs of protest speaking transnationally, the encounters with other fugitives and the institution of all kinds of networks. There is always a possible community for impossible freedoms, a specter to be turned image of the real, this irreductible haunting of hegemony, as Derrida would say.
And there is also marronage as a form of imaginal politics. “Imaginal” is the word coined by Henry Corbin to translate the name of the land of images we encounter in the philosophy of Suhrawardi and his followers, the Persian School of Illuminationism. There, we do not find false representations, appearances opposed to essential reality or alienation, but images as something to be lived, images as ontologically dignified entities between the spiritual and the physical realms. There, we hear the voice of God, we dream the prophecy, we hear the advice of the elders — there we witness the autonomous lives of images. And what else do we find there? In each of its cities we find a social imaginary and its partition — and the imaginal lines of flight along which acts of marronage can happen in a landscape with its own laws.
I understand those acts as the basic meaning of Marcus Garvey’s demand — popularized by the voice of Bob Marley — of an emancipation from “mental slavery” and as crucial steps towards the decolonization of the imaginary. The lives of maroon societies are a permanent and open source for different images of the possible, and the multiple efforts to preserve what was before the Atlantic slave trade give us world-fragments that can operate what Rancière called “dissensus” — but not a collapse of “two different worlds”. I’d say dissensus is better imagined as the collapse of a world-fragment and a world of hegemony, as the former is eventually assimilated into the latter as a modification of what is visible and audible. And this has been very important in the struggle for visibility by quilombola communities in Brazil, reminding those outside them that they are not a form of resistance in the past. But can those fragments form a world to be desired?
The recognition of the absence of a unified frame of references and of the multiplicity of world-fragments leads to the question of return. As Glissant says: “a population that would activate the impulse towards return without having become a people would be destined to face bitter memories of possibilities forever lost”. The process of becoming-people is made easier with the institution of quilombola territories, but it is easier for the people inside them. For those who are not, this institution can offer inspiration and objects of desire that may feed a melancholic attachment to a past that is lost as we also lived another life — the history of those who are assimilated is mixed with the history of post-abolition Westernized societies in a very asymmetrical way. Double-consciousness, double history. If we want to be imaginal maroons, we have to make our doubleness something other and abandon the heavenly images of Black utopias, of a return to a single origin, of being one once again. We went too far in religious syncretism to go back.
We have to leave behind the self-evident imaginary associations involving political forms of return and progress. They are part of the Enlightened Realism, a set of images, values and significations that we inherited as a development of the Western worlds and that opposed the Ancien Régime and its images, values and significations. It may be hard to achieve a historiographic consensus on Enlightenment as a historical movement, but it is not that hard to see what it hegemonically means for us when we learn about it in History textbooks, classes etc., and when its legacy is defended in so-called progressive circles. The opposition to all forms of beliefs framed as superstition, the denial of tradition as a source of values and truths, the quarantining of religion and the commitment to the disenchantment of the world as a positive development are all part of this Enlightened image of who we are as a society forever fighting against the possibility of a return to the Dark Ages of irrationality. Enlightened Realism gives us a picture of progress as intertwined with the uses of reason.
As every form of unhealthy realism, the Enlightened one expands itself to the whole of our political horizon, leaving this rearrangement of our political institutions and forms of organization that we call “reformism” the only future available to be imagined as properly ours. We look at this house haunted by the ghosts of the murdered to feed the war machine we call “nation-state” and we say “this is my house, but needs some repair before I can feel completely at home”. And the colonial expansion of the real pushes other images to the boundaries of the imaginal city so they can only manifest themselves as useless or terrifying.
And, of course, it also wears its own diabolical mask to hide its imaginary face and disguise it as purely rational development — the purest of them. We are all impure in its eyes unless we too wear the mask and consume and assimilate this disenchanted rationality. The shaman is shattered and the pieces are disguised as certified doctors of all kinds so they cannot suffer exile. Exile or disguise! These are always the options when war is declared in imaginal lands — imaginal politics takes the fight to the proper battlefield.
But it is not this war that makes the return to oneness a utopia. Through Enlightened eyes we only see the ways of the ancient as undesirable. The world-owners still have nightmares populated by orixás, drums and animal sacrifices. In their house, we dream their dreams and their nightmares too. To dream otherwise, politics must become imaginal. But why not fight against the Enlightened Realism by consolidating return as an object of desire? We can free this movement imagined as return according to Western calendars and make it a form of marronage, we can free politics from linear time and imagine political forms of organization as different ramifications and not as different steps in The Great March of Progress — and this is urgent but not enough as the ones that remained in the house inherited a world and we cannot pretend it never happened.
It is a part of who we are even when we want to practice an “ontologie critique of nous-mêmes”. We are not radical strangers in this world, we are its very body, as Abdias Nascimento would say. We say “decolonization” because we lived the doubleness and because it became ours. But, still, this world was not designed for us. We keep trying to fix the house and clean the blood on the floor but the blood is ours. The mirrors return white masks. And we are afraid to leave the parliament seats because we fear to leave all our weapons behind to be used against us all at once. But these are not our weapons and are not all of them. The State as a product of reason is the product of an imaginary that was not imagined by us. It does not need to be situated at the core of our political imagination, draining our psychic energies and leaving our political imagination exhausted. To realize this displacement is to decolonize our social imaginary, to make the mask undesirable and the face a possibility among many others.
But we do not need purification of discourse or hatred of everything that is not purely African — we need other images of the sacred and the profane and leave behind the dream of purity. Imaginal emancipation through imaginal marronage is a movement of conciliation between the desire for another world and the fact that we have been living in this world. Becoming-other is only a denial of oneself in the sense that a present constellation of images is not desired anymore, because we desire other rearrangements of what we have been. Our pasts have been erased enough, we do not need this anymore. I have inherited what I have inherited, and this was not a matter of deliberation — but I can choose how I relate to it now.
And then there are all the changes of desire we deem positive and want to keep it that way — and even though we can say that, in a general sense, non-Western tribal and indigenous societies always had better politics of gender, sexuality, mental health and so on, we certainly benefited from what we learned from encounters with Western philosophy, political activism and critical theory, to give a few examples. On the negative side, there are many ways of life that we can maintain as undesirable even after a repartition of the imaginary. I certainly don’t want no business with no goddamn king or empire. Some world-fragments can be rejected and some can be accepted in world-building or future-making as opposed to world-rebuilding and past-recovering. We cannot rebuild a world from fragments but we do not need to live a life forever fragmented and caught between isolation and full mimetic assimilation.
Assimilation as part of our realism fuels the demand for reform — the house can be changed but it does not need to be fixed. It’s not broken. It works perfectly fine. The police are only doing their job. We are forcing unwanted reform on a war machine designed to break us — and the machine-owners are fighting back now and this was to be expected if we weren’t so caught in this image of the democratic state as something we had to be part of because it was only rational. But even this rationality was not supposed to be ours — we became rational by accident, error, violence. And as historian Luiz Antonio Simas says: “The Brazil that sees itself in the mirror is one formed by slave patrols, foremen, plantation owners, bandeirantes in charge of imprisoning indigenous people and destroying quilombos, agents of ethnocide, torturers, coronels, gunmen, death squads’ members, misogynistic and homophobic men, […] social parasites, religious zealots and ambitious men without principles”. And I couldn’t agree more when he claims that “making Brazil go wrong is our most urgent task”.
And this “our” is of a “we” that is no universal but the open marker of a community yet to appear. Open to all of those who have this sense of haunted belonging in common, who are tired of this higher form of identity politics called Enlightenment, who do not want to live in a world masked as rational and universal while it devours other worlds and fragments of worlds. And the task of political philosophy for me is the naming and dissemination of this sense of haunting, so we can make things go wronger every day and form our political alliances. Imaginal politics opens the doors to fugitives so they can gather around a common desire — not a common political programme. A desire to emancipate desire from the colonization of our imaginary and from mental slavery — ’cause none but ouselves can free our own imaginations.