On Archives, Metadata and Aesthetics
What has grabbed me most profoundly in the many sessions, workshops, winter conferences and readings I have participated in in the third quarter of the year 2021 are threads that braid and invoke a sustained inquiry, which my own work wrestles with, on Archives, Metadata, and Aesthetics.
To borrow a phrase from Ann Laura Stoler: ‘the durabilities of duress’, I have been ploughing through literatures that can give me a sense of handle for histories of alterities. I want to be able to handle the question that asks: what sort of world these durabilities of duress were able to create in the aftermath of bondage, slavery, and mercantilist extractivist economies (both the political and libidinal economies) in 19th century Southern Africa?
I come to Stoler through Hayden White’s engagement with tropic logics and Metahistory. The take away point I keep coming back to is that, History, invariably, must reckon with meta-history. Not just in the sense of emplotment of historical ‘facts’ and how they lean towards Hayden White’s novelistic genres such as, tragedy, comedy, irony etc. But also in the sense of precritical poesies of truths in different orders of reality or poetic sensibilities. For me, this speaks to different cognitive frames for testing veracity (or controvertibility) of truth claims.
The important aspect being that different orders of reality must find their own voice or discourses of alterity and assert these on their own terms. This is probably John Akomfrah’s counter-ballast which he invokes in the theoretical frame he calls philosophy of montage. As Akomfrah elaborates, the philosophy of montage is the courage to name the germinations that result from extracting archival images and curating these images such that they exceed the actual historical event.
Akomfrah further notes that this is his commitment to bricolage (created from a diverse collection of things) fragments and discreet elements and make them come together to hold the potential for deferred meanings. “The aim of this fusion of fragments, or dialectical collision, is to produce or engineer a sort of synthesis that can bring about new form, and new meaning which one can chase ad infinitum” (Akomfrah, 2015).
However, how my work wrestled with a certain counter-ballast that can open space for alterity to accommodate itself (and shift the tilting of dominant discourse) is not so much what can be understood from what Akomfrah express as his “aversion to fiction.”
Why history matters, or why nonfiction matters for my project? Well, why history matters for me is different to why it matters for Akomfrah. I do, however, resonate with what Akomfrah calls “fiction”; in so far as he points to some form of amnesia that sets in and allows representations that are fraught with violence of hierarchies— hierarchies bent on ordering or categorising people into the Manichaeism of ‘beings’ and ‘non-beings’. It’s this aversion to fiction, precisely the sort of philosophical anthropological fiction, that syncs my work into a certain uniform cadence with Akomfrah’s interest in the non-fictive.
It is in this sense that the questions of the historical, which I want to think of here as “the power to pose the questions”, act as a powerful counter-ballast. In a manner of speaking, one does need the ballast of historical interrogation, of memory and the historical, to counter balance the politics of knowledge that have created violent discursive hierarchies: the hierarchies or binaries of ‘beings’ and ‘non-beings’.
This resonates with what Eva-Marie Dubuisson (2013) notes, and I quote her liberally here below, about Anna Laura Stoler:
Most outstanding in her work is the challenge to break apart the categories in which we work, think, live and presume to know about each other in the world. From very early on Ann Laura Stoler has written with a sense of fierce epistemological desire to undo, unravel the taken-for-granted mirage of the essentialist ontologies particularly in the context of power and history. Call into question the categorical imperative that various theoretical approaches and disciplines seem to demand and to step outside of those frameworks as well. Not interested in categories, but in breaking them. Interested in spaces of uncertainty, and indeterminacy. Her work is an engagement with critical thinking and epistemology, focused in her work is engagement with the archive. The indeterminacy she wrestles with harmonises well with the emergent quality of her own (style) of writing as a tool of analysis and reflection. She writes notoriously beautifully and in a poetic way. She insists that we engage with uncomfortable spaces. Ragged edges. Doubts. Awkwardness. Stammers.Eva-Marie Dubuisson, 2013.
Her project can be captured in the following question: How can indeterminacy, even precariousness, become a tool to understand our subjects and ourselves? She thinks critically of categories of affect in colonial grid. These questions of affect and affective relationships along a colonial grid became a critical and central theme in her work; because as she says it’s this shaping of common sense, and the reigning in of common sense, which together make up the substance of colonial governance and its working epistemologies. The genealogy of intimacy guides her to spaces that are at once not yet known but deeply embodied. Her scholarship is a meta-scholarship about conversations, methods, and directions that are possible—
I want to note that, in parlance to Akomfrah, my work embraces an alternative order of time. It does so because it’s invested in the concept of subjectivity and becoming. As Kobena Mercer (2017) puts it:
this not only places us (people invested to think time not in its instrumentalist forward progression, but also in its discursive sense: it’s space-time-sensorium flux) in the path of what is not yet passed. But it puts us in the path of what is yet to come. This standing in the gap is the trope of ghosts and angels who are avatars of such durational thinking— such as is probed in the following documentary projects: The Angel of History and No Stories in the Riots, Only the Ghosts of Other Stories. In other words, these ghosts and angels are there to remind us that the dead never stop speaking to the living, across boundaries that actually turn out to be porous and permeable—Kobena Mercer, 2017
John Akomfrah’s advice, 1) don’t wait; 2) there are no mistakes… is provocative in that…. It plays at a time continuum that is decidedly not fixed and not rigid. In other words, Akomfrah’s time does not conform to the beginning, middle and end narrative canvas. Akomfrah’s emplotment of time is rather a provocation that rather suggests that the time-space-sensorium order, as we know order, is an order already in flux or exists in excess of its start-mid-end index.
It is in this mutable sense of the social imaginary, its openness, and permeability to many realities that create and recreate meanings that the word “mistake” doesn’t carry the sting of “incorrect.” (Why History Matters, 2015). My project is invested in this sort of strategy of reading that can temper with the way that discourses of alterity have been left, to quote Fanon, “by the way side.”
It’s obviously not chronological to read Aimé Césaire’s 1950 text into events of 1806-1869. However, as a strategy of reading I want to suggest that this is precisely how Noyi’s version of the creation story, in the William Kaye archive (1857), is read. It is read retroactively, to include white people and make sense of the autochthon’s colonial encounter with them. Summarily, Noyi’s creation story is a narrative adaptation that fabricates (In Mowitt’s sense) the white subject who inhabits a world that didn’t have him in mind but one that invites him (of you like, now) to accommodate himself in it. Noyi’s creation story is recounted as one where white people emerged at the same time that the Xhosa cattle and umNtu (loosely translated, the African) emerged from the cavern of creation.
It’s an unsettling strategy in the sense that, the ‘would be’ source document— the creation story— does not conform to the positivistic grid and western model of truth claims. Rather as an oral tradition history source, Noyi’s creation account is open-ended and retroactively adaptable. In other words, the source escapes pinning down as neutral data. As such, this move to dispense with neutrality of data suggests that Noyi insists on a kind of structurally ambivalent text; one that is always open to ‘fabrication’, — what Kristeva might refer to in her semiotic chora elaborations as “the word[/world] is that which can always be denied.”
In an interesting turn of events, Noyi may perhaps be the Angel or ghost of history who, like the data thief Robert Johnson, made a Faustian pact with the Devil. This would qualify Noyi, in William Kaye’s 1857 archive, as a prototype data thief, who, though located in the past from our perspective, inhabited the future of his time. How did he do that, one may ask? By adapting the narrative arc of beginning middle and end to the demands of his socio-political imaginary. As such, Noyi gives up the right to belong in his time in order to come to our time, to find what Akomfrah calls the ‘Mothership connect’. The mothership connect is the idea of leaving the present behind, by boarding a spaceship (out of here) into the future. This resonates with the architects of Afrofuturism— Sun Ra, Lee Perry, and George Clinton.
As a ghost or as an Angel, Noyi visits the old world and the new world, but cannot be part of either. He doesn’t know this is his problem. And I want to think of this as a good problem. I want to think of it as the problem that counter-balances what Truillot refers to as: the silences that enter the process of historical production, precisely the moment of ‘fact’ creation— the making of the source (as archive, or, more precisely, the colonial archives). This amplifies with what John Mowitt calls for: the “rigid notion of the book must die, in order for ‘the text’ to live.”