Monday, July 15, 2013

Aesthetics in Protest

Kim Gurney
 --Johannesburg, 06 July 2013--"We live in a drastically different world. The earth has shifted below our feet. I hear of and see pictures of protest everywhere ... Many people believe we had our so-called Spring, the revolution of 1994, and others differ. But we of course have the soundtrack for our revolution, the protest songs we are very well known for."
So began South African musician Neo Muyanga's introduction of a performance with Egyptian troupe El Warsha at Goethe-Institute on 29 June, as part of the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism (JWTC), an annual initiative of WISER at Wits University. The performance was the end result of an experiment with protest music, past and present, from their respective countries. The key idea was to discover what elements might be shared in the popular protest archive of two vastly different musical cultures and compose protest anew from these commonalities.
The performance to a packed auditorium included solos, duets, instrumentals and voice and was interspersed with explanatory context. El Warsha explained how storytelling had become a large part of current protest in Egypt, from graffiti to poetry, and the group has been collecting testimonies over the past couple of years, one of which they performed -- the words of a mother whose son was shot. The evening ended with a rousing performance of Senzeni Na, a hymn as Muyanga put it, "that encouraged people to walk much further than they thought they could".
Photo: Kim Gurney
This collaboration forms part of a broader research project by Muyanga, housed at the University of the Western Cape, that keys into its famous Mayibuye archives. Muyanga earlier the same week played audio clips from this archive and others that also formed part of the performance remix.
He told the audience: "We are concerned this week with the idea of aesthetics, the idea of beauty, sadness, the idea of the art form in protest. We are not going to talk about it too much today but we will perform it for you." And quite so - his words cue a larger challenge in trying to evoke any artistic performance through a linguistic lens; it has its own register and impact.
Muyanga is no stranger to JWTC -- he participated in the 2012 session too and upon reflection the two projects seem pertinently linked. Last year, he presented in July to a public audience about his new operetta The Flower of Shembe, a mythic tale about faith and destiny that is loosely based on the lives of various messiahs. Muyanga told the audience back then that imagining a new world was imperative and a revolutionary strategy we must apply with vigour. He was fascinated by the link music establishes in the world, alikening notation to a kind of journalistic shorthand. And he spoke about the operetta storyline, demonstrating the fusion of musical principles on which it hinged: "It's a story about how difficult it is to love because we are wired to self-preserve, which is a barrier to love," he said in question time.
Referring to local political skirmishes at the time, Muyanga added at last year's session: "I do wonder whether we need a messiah so our messiah asks this question. The proposal is perhaps we can be the messiah -- to transcend the self-preservation sense and to give to the world." Questioned about what kind of leader might be proposed, Muyanga said: "We have become wired to expect certain talented erudite individuals to have answers so we give them a mandate. I don't know what the new proposal is. My thinking is circumscribed by the environment. The process is trying to find a clearer question that leads to another paradigm."
Photo: Kim Gurney
Kim Gurney is a visual artist, independent curator and freelance writer affiliated to University of Cape Town's African Centre for Cities

Monday, July 8, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Kabiru Salami 
is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology of the University of Ibadan Nigeria.  He was awarded a PhD degree from the University of Ibadan in 2008, with specialization in Medical Sociology. Kabiru works with population rather than individual health needs, within a larger social, economic, cultural, and historical context and applies definite skills and expertise to community health care needs. He was a recipient of global classroom’s International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice in 2008. He was also a recipient of Career Development Fellowship of the World Health Organization between 2010 and 2011.  He is currently on a scholarship scheme sponsored by the National Universities Commission (NUC) Nigeria, on Applied Gerontology Programme of the University of North Texas.  Dr Kabiru Salami belongs to several professional bodies including the Nigeria Anthropological and Sociological Association (NASA), International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal among others.
As one of the key speakers for the JWTC 2013, Kabiru’s teamwork addressed “Confusion as a Form” through Idioms and Analytics for Impasse and Precarity.  The atmosphere of JWTC was beneficial enough that even while theory and criticism were ongoing, Kabiru had the opportunity to discuss participation in another WiSER Workshop in September.


Elias Courson tracks the ambiguous and shifting lines of formal anomaly in his discussion of Sue Van Zyl's lecture.
The main focus of Sue’s paper is an attempt at theorizing or problematizing the concept of ANOMALY. She identifies four types of anomaly: being, exchange, action and thing. She anchors her conceptual project on Foucault’s genealogies: the notion of power/knowledge relations, and other theoretical insights from structural anthropology.
In her examination of these four types, she tries to examine the politics of Form with relation to anomaly. In my understanding, she describes anomaly as a very fluid concept that cannot be categorically defined and contextualized in any particular social form. Thus, anomaly as Form is socially constructed and politically institutionalized depending on what Foucault calls “discursive formation”. Anomaly is used here as a logic not of negation in political discourse. Knowledge formations create the conditions for the production of anomaly.
Alan Todd, Anomaly,http://fineartamerica.com/featured/anomaly-alan-todd.html 
She describes anomaly as ‘indiscernible counterpart’.  It is an exception, but also it is something that crosses established ways of categories. In life, we have man, animals, and things: The combination of any two of these categories produces a form of anomaly because such products cross categories (an anomaly in this sense is a Form that exhibits two categories in equal proportion). Anomalous Forms that traverse categories thereby produce difficult circumstances. Anomalous Forms in her view, occupy spaces of two categories: it is neither a form nor its negation. All four (monsters, contrabonds, neurotic symptom and art) are examples of anomalous Forms with political consequences as long as we don’t know what to do with them. Thus in each example, what are the consequences at stake in each anomalous situation? In all of these anomalous Forms, the Form cannot be categorized into any category. For example, the ‘monster’, she argues, is half animal and half man, e.g, the centaur, sphinx and harpy (thus it is neither man nor animal), hence, it is an anomalous Form. The monster as an anomalous Form occupies two categories, and in modern science the monster as an anomalous takes various Forms, i.e, the combination of ‘thing and man’ or animal and man’ depending on the anomalous Form of monster conceived.
Similarly, neurotic symptom would be considered as a Form of anomaly since actions undertaken by such persons cannot be classified in the realm of sanity or insanity. A neurotic is half sane and half insane, and actions by such individual cannot be classified into any of the realms (sanity or insanity) by law. Since the action does not fall within the purview of sanity or insanity, the need to determine its rationality or irrationality is required in order to give it a category. The politics of anomalous Form is thus about an issue/action that affects the legality or illegality of an action. By politics of anomalous Form, she refers to the politics and intricacies involved in the determination of the category of a person’s action. A situation whereby the actions of neurotic (a man half sane and half insane) has to be examined, to determine if such a person is liable or not is the politics of anomalous Form. In law ordinarily, punishment awaits all murderers, however a sane man is expected to face the wrath of the law while an insane is left off the hook on grounds of irrationality. The neurotic rebuttal is what Sue regards as anomaly of Forms. The neurotic is a Form of anomaly because psychiatrics and other experts would be called to determine the state of the neurotic so as to assign him a place in law. This is what Sue calls “the politics of Form”. There is a lot at stake in Forms of anomaly as espoused by Sue because we do not know what laws to judge them upon. As a Form of anomaly, we do not know how to police it. Forms of anomaly are thus problematic because we do not know what to do until we put them into category or categories: until they are put into categories we are at a loss. Spaces for Forms of anomaly are only created under historical circumstances: from the state of the actor in modernity we now have to prove whether an act is punishable or not, right or wrong. The action before its determination would be regarded as neither right nor wrong – making it metaphysical.
She seems to argue that once one has said that something is neither of categories, one is debarred from saying that it is or will be, of attributing to it a category or a dissolution in time, or any alteration or motion whatsoever. She supposes that anomalous Form had not always existed in its present cosmic state. They are derived from two categories, which they assert in various ways in order to produce category in the present world-order.
Sue’s Form of anomaly, I would conclude, is a ‘category-iless’ Form whose category is only socially constructed and determined by knowledge/power relations.
Elias Courson is lecturer in the Philosophy Department, Niger Delta University

Friday, July 5, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Melanie Boehi
Melanie Eva Boehi is a PhD student from the University of Basel, Switzerland. Her PhD dissertation is concerned with the South African botanical complex in the 20th and 21st century. The dissertation examines how social life in cities is negotiated by defining relationships between people and plants, how floral spaces can be approached as archives and flowers as carriers of historical narratives.

"A city can only exist for those who can move around it": Edgar Pieterse and Teresa Caldeira, Views from the Periphery

Melanie Boehi considers the possibilities of reconfiguring city-space in her response to Teresa Caldeira and Edgar Pieterse
How do city forms influence demonstrations? How do we think about urban forms and citizen engagement? What connects desires and design sensibilities? These and other questions were addressed in a panel hold on Tuesday, June 25, at the Goethe Institute. Teresa Caldeira presented an interpretation of the unfolding political protests in Brazilian cities and Edgar Pieterse talked about the need to better understand the functioning of infrastructure and networks in slum urbanism. 
In early June 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) called for a demonstration in São Paolo that was quickly followed by a series of large demonstrations all over the country. While the first demonstration focused on the demand for free public transport, subsequent demonstrations also asked for changes regarding corruption, investments for the FIFA World Cup, LGBT rights, pensioner’s rights and racism, and highlighted a class conflict between poor and middle class protestors. The police countered violently and politicians and the media reacted to the demonstrations with expressions of surprise and quickly labelled the marchers as vandals. In response to the inadequate reporting, the demonstrations became spaces of dialogue between what politicians and the press said and what people posted on the internet. Demonstrators carried messages on cardboards directed at the TV audience and social media users. The press was constantly contested and the main TV station hindered from covering the events in the streets.
According to Caldeira, the unfolding demonstrations emerged in two contexts. The first one is the demonstrations occuring globally since the beginning of the Arab spring. Demonstrators’ posters frequently express solidarity with other cities of protest. The second one is the prevalence of mass gatherings at cultural events in contemporary Brazil that have emerged over the past ten years and are now increasingly politicised, e.g. music and theatre festivals, demonstrations, gay parades, evangelical demonstrations. In São Paolo, the form of the city influenced the peripheral organisation of the demonstrations. Since the 1940s, migrants who couldn’t afford the city built houses in the periphery. With their social upward mobility, these houses were upgraded and urban social movements successfully demanded the supply of infrastructure such as water and electricity. The city had arrived in the periphery. In the 1990s, a series of negative factors affected life in the periphery, marked by economic downturn, youth unemployment and crime. Crime decreased after 2000, accompanied by an increase of artistic and cultural movements that embraced the notion of the city as a space for circulation. “A city only exists for those who can move around it” became a prominent slogan. Unlike elsewhere, the demonstrations in São Paolo did not focus on a square but were mobile. In a city with 11 million inhabitants, 7 million motor vehicles and an incredible amount of traffic, circulation was issue around which mass protest was first mobilised.
Image: Melanie Boehi
A different basis for mobilization for city changes exists in the slums in which 62 % of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population live, where urban life is marked by low and erratic household incomes, small tax bases and dysfunctional politics. Negative trends accumulate to an urban polycrisis, affecting the ecosystem, supply of water, energy and food, land distribution, employment and violence. According to Pieterse, participatory development is essential but insufficient to tackle the challenges of slum urbanism. Participatory development becomes ineffectual when the scope of challenges is vast, goes beyond urgent short-term concerns and includes high levels of complexity. It is therefore necessary to recognise the importance of city-wide networks, apply systemic thinking and take design seriously. Pieterse emphasised that much work needs to be done to understand the auto-constructions of urban slum citizens – desires, aspirations, affective registers, as well as focus on the understanding of networks, including the ones shaped by religious belief systems.
Image: Melanie Boehi
Melanie Boehi is a PhD student at the University of Basel, Switzerland
A more detailed discussion of Teresa's critique can be found here http://kafila.org/2013/07/05/sao-paulo-the-city-and-its-protests-teresa-caldeira/

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Matthew Omelsky
Matthew Omelsky is a doctoral student in English at Duke University. He works on African novels and films, jazz aesthetics, and science fiction. His work can be found in Research in African Literatures, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and on the African literary blog brittlepaper.com.

Benjamin and Beckett in West Africa

Matthew Omelsky lingers on the spatial afterlives of Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett as traced by Ato Quayson in his lecture on Accra's Oxford Street. 
18 December 1926. Walter Benjamin writes in his Moscow Diary on the circuitous routes of pedestrian life in the Russian capital:
“It has been observed that pedestrians here walk in ‘zigzags.’ This is simply on account of the overcrowding of the narrow sidewalks…. They give Moscow a provincial air, or rather the character of an improvised metropolis that has fallen into place overnight.”
Today, in his lecture “Spatial Practices and Performative Streetscapes: Oxford St., Accra,” Ato Quayson drew from this brief moment in Benjamin’s Diary. Transposing and reconfiguring the zigzagging figure to the streets of Accra, Quayson spoke of the meandering pedestrian on the sidewalks of the bustling Oxford street, in the Osu neighborhood of Accra. But where the narrowness of Benjamin’s Moscow sidewalks necessitated zigzag movement, the sheer density of hawkers and merchandise covering the sidewalk necessitates labyrinthine movement in Quayson’s Accra. For Quayson, improvisatory walking is part of the performative streetscape of contemporary Accra. Figurations of global capital – from cell phone top-up cards, to handbags, to wheel barrows full of coconuts – saturate the walkways, creating obstacles for the Oxford pedestrian to bound around and over.
Oxford Street, Accra. Source: panoramio photos
Later in his talk, Quayson moved to another 20th century European figure, this time situating Samuel Beckett in contemporary Lagos. He likened the “burden of free time” on the streets of Lagos to that of Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But where Beckett’s absurdist protagonists speak to one another to while away time as they wait for the much-anticipated Godot, contemporary Lagosians pass time by remaking themselves and the objects around them. Didi and Gogo recycle language in their free time, Lagosians recycle space, Quayson says. Attempting to access labor and evade the paralysis of free time, the Lagosian moves through a cycle of ad hoc occupations, from shyster to pastor to water vendor. Objects, lives, and occupations are reworked in the Lagosian informal economy. Improvisation becomes a way of sustaining life in one’s perpetual search for work.
Quayson revealed how global capital has shaped the performative and improvisatory landscape of Oxford Street. He showed how we might begin to work through the spatial logics of West Africa via Beckett and Benjamin, but importantly, how West Africa and the work of these European vanguardists are often utterly incommensurable. Reaching outside of West Africa to work through the modern African city demands a contortion of these outside spatial logics, a mutation of thought from other geographies and epochs.
Matthew Omelsky is a PhD student in the Department of English, Duke University.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Ashleigh Harris 
is senior lecturer in English at Uppsala University, Sweden, where she is working on a book project tentatively entitled The Afterlives of Africa: De-realising land in contemporary African Fiction. Some recent publications include ‘The Fathers’ Dark Triumph: terror and the end of revolution in J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg.’ In Fantasias of Terrorism, a special issue of The Journal for Cultural Research. (forthcoming); ‘The Danish African: Wolle Kirk, Whiteness and Colonial complicity’. Kult: a postcolonial special issue series. (with Lene Bull Christiansen, Roskilde University) (forthcoming); and ‘An Awkward Silence: Reflections on Theory and Africa’ Kunapipi: A Journal of Postcolonial Writing. 34.1, 2012.

Sellotaping demonstration and critique – a scrapbook reflection on Ackbar Abbas’s lecture ‘Junk Space, Dogville and Poor Theory’

In her response to Ackbar Abbas's lecture, Ashleigh Harris brilliantly evokes underlying themes of destruction in Rem Koolhaas's architecture, and attempts to reinsert crticism into demonstration through a play on the etymology of 'sellotape'.
Source: www.chinese-architecture.info/A-HIST2.htm 
Ackbar Abbas begins his illustration of Rem Koolhaas’s notion of Junk Space (see ‘Junkspace’, Obsolescence Vol. 100, Spring, 2002, pp 175-90) via a discussion of the above building, the CCTV (Chinese Central Television) Building in Beijing. The building is designed by Koolhaas, in collaboration with Ola Scheeren. The architectural sketch above captures some of the urban exhilaration that Abbas speaks of, emerging from the ‘man made experience which allows people to live inside fantasy and not be apologetic about it’. He states that ‘cities don’t need character, because the action is taking place in cyberspace’ – and what better building to illustrate this point than the Chinese Central Television building, an architectural monument to the importance of fantasy and the cyber-lives that the building itself is a portal to. 
For participants of the JWTC, the building may have evoked Jane Guyer’s discussion of the Möbius strip,[1] in her elaboration of confusion as a form. After Guyer’s address, Ackbar Abbas made an insightful point: in explaining the logic of the Möbius strip, he reminded us that the confusion evoked by the Möbius form lies in its dimensional shift from the second to the third dimension. It cannot exist in two-dimensional space. It is in that transposition of dimensions in which confusion arises. In the case of the CCTV building, the design cannot itself traverse the materiality of its construction (or the laws of gravity) that would allow it to become truly möbian. Yet, as Abbas points out, the aesthetics of the building is surrealistic; where bricks, glass and mortar fail to produce a true möbius, the building’s grandiose contortion around its vacant core nevertheless evokes a sense, in the eye of the onlooker, of the distortion of those materialities, of the gravitational impossibility of the building’s massive overhang.
It is the television and media work framed by and framing the building that opens another dimensionality in this design, and it is here that the building achieves its true Möbius aesthetic. The surface of the real undergoes a dimensional shift as it segues into the life and work in and of the building. Yet, there is a second möbian dimensionality to the building. We are reminded (and Abbas occasionally prompts us to recall) Walter Benjamin’s notion of ruin: “In the ruins of great buildings, the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings, however well preserved they are; and for this reason the German Trauerspiel merits interpretation. In the spirit of allegory it is conceived from the outset as a ruin, a fragment. Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last.” (Benjamin, Walter The Origins of German Tragic Drama, Transl. John Osborne, Introduced by George Steiner. Verso 1998: 235. Emphasis mine).
The resplendent shine of the virtual architectural sketch is echoed in the almost Cathedral-like vertical aspiration of the building under construction; the cranes reaching even higher than the construction itself, as though in an attitude of rapture. Note, at this stage the second building under construction in the background: as part of the CCTV’s construction, this origami-like structure (a hotel, as it happens, the ultimate site of life in junk space?) seems to fold awkwardly under the sheer magnitude of its sister building.
Keeping Benjamin’s ruins in mind, (and also Ato Quayson’s observation on Tuesday morning, in his talk ‘Urban Theory and Performative Streetscapes: Oxford Street, Accra’ that city spaces are produced relatively), it is worth noting that in February 2009, CCTV hosted a firework display that set fire to the (as yet unfinished) hotel, turning it into a ruin before it was completed.
The above image is reminiscent not only of the countless destruction scenes we have seen in films such as The Dark Knight Returns, (is Beijing replacing New York as the archetype of Gotham city?), but also of Slavoj Žižek’s analysis in ‘Welcome to the desert of the real’ (see http://lacan.com/reflections.htm). He writes:
It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw Real of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates which determine its perception. If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion of the "center of financial capitalism," but, rather, the notion that the two WTC towers stood for the center of the VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for only against the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized First World from the Third World "desert of the Real." It is the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction.
The catastrophe of ruin in the unfinished building: the ruin is always already here: a mobiüs surface twisting together the times and spaces of construction and destruction, forming and deforming, a creation and a ruin. In the above image the structure of the burnt out hotel appears precariously balanced on the fold that runs in an oblique line across the building, suggesting immanent collapse, suggesting the frailty of paper. (I recall Josh Comaroff’s statement about the short life-spans of buildings and wonder if in Junkspace the life-span of the building is over before it is built?)
This relates to what Abbas calls the monstrous life of urban forms; not the monstrosity of the ruin, but the catastrophe already written into the virtually composed image of the architectural sketch, the catastrophe that is the generic city. As Žižek’s reminds us “the question we should have asked ourselves when we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: WHERE DID WE ALREADY SEE THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN?” (Original emphasis). It is this return of the ruin before the completion of the building, that evokes the möbian contours of these two building’s awkward dance of construction and destruction.
The möbius strip denies us the comfort of theoretical understandings of the seam or the stitch (see, for example, Leon de Kock’s theorisation of the seam in ‘South Africa in the Global Imaginary: an introduction’ Poetics today 22: 2, 2001: 263-298). Yet, it is here that we hit up against a formal problem: where do we draw the line of distinction between what Abbas calls ‘demonstration’ and ‘critique’? The möbius logic of Koolhaas’s paper ‘Junkspace’ demonstratively insists in its very form and style that theory is awkwardly[2] poised behind the life of the city, unable to get critical purchase on the speed with which it reformulates itself and the lives within it. Thus, critique is engulfed by demonstration. In the Junkspace of modern life, where we have gorged ourselves to capacity on filling every orifice, every space, with the junk and excess offered by the generic city, we end up melancholic and without political and critical purchase.
This is possibly why, for Abbas, “Manifestos are always wrong”. Yet he (melancholically?) returns to them for his own critical purchase: in his lecture he refers to his own Manifesto, written with David Theo Goldberg, on Poor theory;[3] Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogma 95 manifesto’ and ‘Vow of Chastity’; by implication André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. He raises these manifestos only to dismiss them: Von Trier ‘breaks almost every rule of his own vows of chastity’; Urban change outpaces urban theory, including poor theory; the city, Abbas claims, is invisible to urban theory. As Abbas fell back on Breton’s fascination with Lautréamont’s aesthetic of the incommensurability (what Breton saw as convulsive art) in the poet’s famous quip about the beauty in “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,” I wondered: are we caught in a return to the paradox of politics within surrealism, where incommensurability inevitably devours the aims and politics of critique? Convulsive beauty, incommensurability, as drawn up in Breton’s manifestos of surrealism must also, surely, have had their ruin, their ‘wrongness’ written into them from the outset.
But, if manifestos are always wrong, we are caught in the inevitable twist (a mobiüs twist, perhaps) of vainly attempting to politicise that which we ruin before it is constructed: theory itself. Koolhaas’s lucid display of how theory is undone in its attempt to capture the complexities of junkspace, turns into ‘demonstration’ rather than ‘critique’. Abbas insists that Von Trier’s films, too, demonstrate rather than offer critique. In the discussion following Abbas’s lecture, Helena Chavez MacGregor reminded us of the ambiguity of the term ‘demonstration’: the word operates as both resistance and illustration. But perhaps the political potential of the term is diffused (confused even) in Koolhas’s written style and in Von Trier’s articulation of space and affect: a confusion perhaps best articulated in Von Trier’s infamous, highly confused, Nazi-sympathy statement (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LayW8aq4GLw).
If we do not actively produce critical purchase on the demonstration of the world (demonstrate against the world, not just demonstrate it), we risk a möbian confusion wherein every form of representation stands only in mimetic relation to the world. When I read Koolhaas’s paper (manifesto?) on Junkspace, the absence of the critics accountability looms large in the contortions of the paper’s style: much like the empty space carved out by the CCTV building, framing the ruins of an unfinished hotel.


Sellotape [ˈsɛləˌteɪp] n. The proprietary name of a cellulose or plastic self-adhesive tape, freq. dispensed from reels for domestic use. Also gen.
sellotape   v. trans. to fasten with Sellotape.
sellotaped adj.
sellotaping   n.

Sellotape is a proprietary noun, a word that evokes a late capitalist production of language, the junkification (if you will) of language itself (the product is made of cellophane, the spelling was changed to create the proprietary noun). The product is a weak connector, taping together only paper (it is too weak for other forms cohesion) and only for a short amount of time (the yellowed, frayed edges of old tape, gone brittle, declares the tapes loss of its adhesive). It has its own ruin built into it. Sellotape is useless material in and of itself, its use emerges in relation to other objects. It is easily made waste, it creates waste. It is leaves no seam, because it does not convincingly join substances together, it merely places them next to or on top of one another. It is an inappropriate material to think of alongside architecture, and the internet (though the structure of blogging reminds us of the notice boards of old, with torn and messy messages taped onto the ever shifting landscape of the board. The notice board must be cleared to make space, the junk is removed, whereas the junk of blogs remain as the virtual space expands to make room for new notes, messages, discarded information). Sellotape is invented post-second world war. It is anachronistic. It nostalgically returns us to the montage, the scrapbook, the collage: it is a substance from postmodernism’s kindergarten. It has no place in the era of 3D printers and drone warfare. Yet it is precisely because of its cheap, trashy, old-fashioned, materiality that I bring it into this blog (a nod to the material trace, perhaps): In a digitised world, materiality is more tenuous than digital cutting and pasting. I open a document from 2007 and cut and paste and print a section of it today, while the sellotape holding a postcard to my notice board in my office, frays and peels away from the board. If we ‘trope’ the word, allowing it to enter a critical frame of reference, it is these properties that I am trying to capture: I wish to tape criticism back onto demonstration. It is a tentative (and somewhat old fashioned) gesture. It will fall apart in some near future. It will be subsumed within much grander swathes of digitised information. But I allow myself this tentative act of connecting, because it refuses the dimensional shift that the möbius turns into confusion. It is hopelessly, and unapologetically, two-dimensional. It asks us to read demonstration and critique in the same dimension.
What better way to illustrate this than to look at what art can do with the poor materiality of Sellotape. I leave the blog with this ‘Tape Installation’, created with over 45km of tape, by the Croatian design collective foruse/numen, at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin 2010. (All images available on http://www.designboom.com/design/dmy-2010-award-winner-forusenumen/).

(Webbed, organic, transparent, smooth)
(Uterine, sensual, alien, frail, membrane)
Source: designboom
(Constructed, alienating, shadowed, light, celluloid)
(Cathedral, sacred, womb, stomach, cave, ocean, air, melancholy)
(Adhesive. Empty. Junk. Space.)
Ashleigh Harris is senior lecturer in English at Uppsala University, Sweden.

[1] Koolhaas’s more overt use of the möbius form can be seen in his design of the ‘Möbius hi shoe’. See http://leibal.com/products/mbius-united-nude/) where he is cited describing the shoe as an attempt to “down[size] architecture to its smallest and most vulnerable scale…of a woman’s foot.”
[2] Again, I’m reminded of Josh Comaroff’s discussion of awkward architecture.

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Samaila Suleiman
Samaila holds B.A. and M.A. in History from Bayero University, Kano.  He is the recipient of the Ibrahim El-Tayyeb prize for the Best Final Year Student in History in 2004. An Assistant Lecturer in the Department of History of the same university, Samaila is broadly passionate about the “technologies” of historical production in Nigeria with a focus on the Nigerian Middle belt region. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis “The Nigerian History Machine and the Production of the Middle Historiography” at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He recieved  the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Fellowship for doctoral research and completion in 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 respectively. 
My reason for attending the JWTC workshop on the "Life of Forms" is to engage in a cross-disciplinary conversation with scholars and practitioners from different intellectual backgrounds. I hope to gain useful methodological insights that could bear on my research project and establish networks with colleagues from both North and South. 

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Huey Copeland
Huey Copeland is Associate Professor of Art History with affiliations in the Department of African American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL, USA). His work focuses on modern and contemporary art with emphases on the articulation of blackness in the American visual field and the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in Western aesthetic practice broadly construed. A regular contributor to Artforum, Copeland has also published in Art Journal, Callaloo, Parkett, Qui Parle, Representations, and Small Axe as well as in numerous edited volumes and international exhibition catalogues, including the award-winning "Modern Women: Women Artists" at the Museum of Modern Art. Most notable among his forthcoming publications is Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America, a book funded by a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant that will be published by the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2013. 

“The Life of Forms” has been central to my scholarly and pedagogical collaboration with Krista Thompson, Northwestern University Associate Professor of Art History, over the last seven years and to our current project, which centers on what we term the “afrotrope.” This neologism refers to those key visual forms—from the spirit Mami-Wata to the slave ship icon to the “I AM A MAN” poster—that recur within and have become central to the formation of black culture and identity in the modern era. Taking its cues from both Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s theorization of figurative turns and Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope, our project explores how changes in the materiality of specific afrotropes over time and space speak to the ways that African diasporic history, subjectivity, and modes of resistance are produced and consumed globally through technologies of vision and visual representation.

La démocratie à l’âge de l’animisme: A summary in French by Emery Kalema

Dans sa présentation du 27 juin 2013 intitulée la démocratie à l’âge de l’animisme, Achille Mbembe a offert à l’audience un ensemble d’observations concernant la remise en question et la potentielle signification des fissures auxquelles nous assistons dans l’invocation et la pratique de la démocratie dans le monde actuel. La première série de ces observations se rapporte au concept de démocratie. Après avoir rappelé que « tout-ce qui devait être dit à propos de la démocratie, du moins dans sa forme moderne, n’a jamais été dit jusque-là », Achille Mbembe a défini la démocratie moderne à la fois comme un moyen de défense des droits et comme un rejet de l’arbitraire. Il a également dit que c’est un régime dans lequel l’indétermination radicale est pleinement embrassée et instituée ; un terrain de non-certitude dans ce sens qu’elle (la démocratie) n’a ni poids, ni présence antérieure au processus de différentiation et d’antagonisme.
Après avoir défini la démocratie, Achille passa présenta la deuxième série d’observations : la critique de la démocratie, le réexamen de ses potentialités et de ses limites. Cette critique, sans cesse renouvelée au cours du dernier quart du 20e siècle et au début du 21e siècle, et dont l’objectif principal consistait à lier la pratique politique à la théorie de gauche, souligna Achille, a fait partie de l’effort continuel pour inverser ce que beaucoup ont perçu comme la « dépolitisation » et la « dé-démocratisation » des tendances tardives du capitalisme.
Achille a relevé deux facettes de cette critique renouvelée de la démocratie. La première, c’est la prétendue perte de puissance de la démocratie à signifier; l’argument de base étant : « très peu reste de la démocratie, la rationalité néolibérale et ses critères de rentabilité l’emportent sur les principes politiques libéraux. Notre travail, nos besoins, nos désirs, nos pensées, les fantasmes et les images de soi sont capturés par des capitaux à la suite de la colonisation de la vie quotidienne par des relations de marché, le culte de la richesse et la destruction des fondements naturels de la vie.
La deuxième facette de cette critique concerne ce que les démocraties contemporaines ont fait de la double équation sécurité et liberté, d’une part, et violence et loi, de l’autre. Achille a noté qu’une relation structurelle entre la loi et l’illégalité est caractéristique de notre époque. Cette double structure, a-t-il rappelé, s’inscrit non seulement dans des logiques contemporaines de terreur étatique et non-étatique, mais également dans de nouvelles formes de gouvernance avec une augmentation considérable de la régulation juridique et de la juridicisation de la politique allant de pair avec la multiplication des espaces d’illégalité (lawlessness) ; la loi et l’illégalité coexistant l’une avec l’autre, le désordre marchant parfaitement de pair avec un maximum de législation - une législation dont le but est de priver certaines catégories de populations de tout droit de posséder des droits.
Après avoir brièvement rappelé la préoccupation fondamentale de Walter Benjamin en rapport avec la loi et la violence et la fameuse conclusion de ce dernier - selon laquelle « la violence réaffirme la loi et la loi réaffirme la violence » -, Achille Mbembe a déclaré que nous vivons l’ère post-benjamine. D’après lui, le problème du monde actuel, le monde du contre-terrorisme et des assassinats ciblés, n’est pas simplement celui de l’existence d’une complicité entre les deux ordres apparemment opposés de la violence et de la loi ; ce n’est pas simplement que le geste fondateur de la loi, le secret de son être est une sorte de crime originel désavoué et caché dans ses structures symboliques profondes ; ce n’est pas simplement que le pouvoir souverain se confesse à parler au nom de la loi tout en la violant simultanément ; c’est plutôt le problème de la modulation du secret et du spectacle. Achille a souligné que d’une part, le crime n’a plus besoin d’être caché pendant cette époque post-benjamine, et d’autre part, la logique de spécularisation va de pair avec celle de poursuite de l’ennemi non seulement au moyen des travaux des détections lente et minutieuse, mais également au moyen d’une cartographie des réseaux sociaux. Achille a noté que ces assassinats ciblés, ou plus précisément les exécutions arbitraires, obéissent à la logique de la guerre cynégétique qui cible le corps de l’ennemi. Puisque ce corps est mobile, le principe du ciblage est accompagné d’une extension virtuelle illimitée de la zone de conflit. En fait, c’est le monde comme tel qui est transformé en un champ de bataille ; les exécutions sommaires servant de concept revisité de la justice. Selon cette logique, et d’après Achille, la justice elle-même est presque entièrement détachée de la loi. Elle n’est plus distincte de la vengeance. Les crimes sous le couvert de la loi sont révélés dans la pleine lumière du jour et de la manière la plus spectaculaire possible. La violence et la loi sont donc inscrites dans une constellation complexe terrifiant où elles sont des moyens purs en aucune extrémité, à l’exception de l’auto-préservation et de la perpétuation de soi. Elles sont également inscrites dans une constellation où la justice des extrémités ne justifie ni l’injustice, encore moins l’inhumanité, mais la nature vengeresse de la loi.        
Achille déclara que le genre de planétarisation du modèle israélien auquel nous assistons aujourd’hui à l’échelle mondiale constitue une menace pour la forme démocratique moderne. Par « israélisation », il entend la transformation ou la conversion de la forme étatique démocratique libérale en une forme étatique contre-terroriste ; une tentative par l’Etat moderne, libéral démocratique à relier sans précédent la création et la destruction, le secret et la transparence, la justice et la vengeance pour atteindre un niveau de plasticité à peine connu à des périodes antérieures de  son histoire.
La troisième série d’observations évoquées par Achille se rapporte à un ensemble de critiques qui proviennent de l’hémisphère sud (global South) et dont le mobile est de ré-imaginer la démocratie comme une communauté de vie au sein d’une définition élargie de l’humain – une définition qui, selon Achille, pourrait éventuellement créer de l’espace pour d’autres espèces vivantes. Loin d’être un signifiant entièrement vide, la simple affirmation que les hommes devraient se prononcer eux-mêmes a reconfiguré la démocratie comme un acte éminent de révolte, de rébellion, et même d’insurrection. Dans ces régions du monde où des groupes de personnes ont été structurellement, sinon de manière programmatique, exclus de l’activité économique et où les profondeurs de la souffrance sociale sont abyssales, l’idée d’une démocratie à venir a déclenché de novelles langues vernaculaires de résistance. Elle a relancé des formes radicales de militantisme et de mobilisation qui ont pris l’ordinaire et le quotidien comme point de départ.
Ici, fit savoir Achille, la critique de la démocratie a pris une différente forme. Il s’agit de ce que la liberté pourrait éventuellement signifier à  la face des réalités brutales de la pauvreté des masses et des sans-abris (Homelessness). Achille a posé le problème en ces termes : Que peut éventuellement signifier la démocratie lorsque, en dépit de l’avènement des diverses libertés, la vie quotidienne n’a pas été transfigurée mais elle a plutôt gagné en trivialité et en dureté pendant que la pauvreté a submergé et écrasé la vie des pauvres ? Achille a souligné qu’une telle interrogation porte un poids encore plus important dans un contexte où les êtres humains sont réputés n’exister qu’à travers ce qu’ils peuvent payer, ce qu’ils possèdent ou encore ce qu’ils consomment, pourtant la grande majorité est privée de tout droit objectif, soit sur les objets d’importance sociale ou encore sur ceux qui constituent la base de leur subsistance. Achille a fait remarquer que depuis l’intérieur des paramètres contemporains de richesse et de pouvoir, les hommes ont tendance à entrer dans les réseaux complexes des relations humaines principalement par le biais d’objets et d’être humains. Ils tendent à exister à travers ce qu’ils possèdent, les démunis se trouvant ainsi dans une situation dans laquelle la non-possession signifie la quasi-impossibilité de toute reconnaissance de relation humaine significative.
Achille a signalé que la menace que la pauvreté représente pour la démocratie dans une société de marché réside dans le fait que les besoins et les désirs de ceux qui n’ont rien, ou pas grand-chose, risque de se retrouver ayant son fondement d’une part, dans la vie biologique, et d’autre part, dans les instincts. Ce risque, a ajouté Achille, c’est que les réalités biologiques ne pourraient jamais se transformer en liberté, en sécurité et en pouvoir. La conséquence résultante de ce phénomène est la précarité de la vie des pauvres. Achille a souligné que l’un des défis majeurs du projet démocratique dans ces régions du monde est de savoir : « comment parvenir à sauver les besoins du règne de la nécessité aveugle ? ».
Achille a pris l’Afrique du Sud comme exemple illustratif de ce problème. L’Afrique du Sud, d’après Mbembe, est cette partie de notre planète où les nouvelles et anciennes qualités des capitaux, les nouveaux moyens de mesure de temps et de valeur sont de plus en plus en train de remodeler la vie quotidienne, provoquant ainsi des changements dramatiques dans les topographies de l’affect et du sentiment, refondant au même moment le problème de la démocratie comme une forme de vie précaire – l’interrogation étant : comment réconcilier la démocratie et la réalité de la vie qui caractérise le quotidien sud-africain ? Achille releva quatre éléments : l’implosion du temps - que peuvent signifier les attentes dans un contexte  de précarité et de fragilité existentielle déclenché par la pauvreté et par les blessures? » - ; la recristallisation du temps autour des opérations de consommation ; l’apparition du temps de consommation comme nouveau constituant du temps, la hausse de la consommation et de la variation de la psyché  - quel genre de démocratie peut-on construire dans une société dominée par la question de la propriété et de la dignité ?- ; un moment de créativité particulier pour le capital.
Achille a posé le problème de démocratie en termes de « différence » et de « répétition », deux notions qu’il emprunta à Deleuze. Selon lui, la démocratie comme différence ne signifie pas le retour du même et de l’identique. Elle se rapporte plutôt à l’abolition et à la dissolution de toutes les identités antérieures. D’après Achille, le monde des masques a été remplacé par celui des pures intensités. Achille suggéra que la tension entre le monde des masques et celui des intensités constitue la problématique, la négativité ou encore la structure de notre temps où la démocratie formelle est ce cercle mythique.
Achille a terminé sa présentation par une longue analyse de ce qu’il appelle animisme. Après avoir retracé la généalogie de ce concept, Achille a insisté sur l’hypothèse du « second retour » de l’animisme. Les signes de cette seconde venue sont partout, a-t-il dit : dans les zones animistes du produit mondial contemporain, dans le monde des choses en général ou dans le monde d’Harry Potter. Ces signes sont également présents dans les efforts pour réanimer le monde à travers l’œuvre du Saint-Esprit comme en témoignent les diverses ramifications du christianisme évangélique. Achille voit également le signe de ce retour dans la média-sphère où le processus de production des appareils multimédias implique la standardisation, la masse-mobilisation des minéraux et l’exploitation de la nature à l’échelle mondiale.
Achille a déclaré que nous vivons dans une période où la socialité, la personnification, la subjectivation et l’individualisation sont de plus en plus appliquées aux objets qui existaient jusque-là de l’autre côté de ce qui semblait être une distinction stable. Après avoir appuyé son argument par des exemples concrets, Achille a suggéré que cette fois, la notion d’animisme ne devrait pas être colée aux peuples primitifs. Elle devrait plutôt être mobilisée pour produire une critique de cette nouvelle ère du capitalisme et rendre compte de ce qui semble être un événement majeur de notre temps – l’extension prothétique des sens dans un monde plus que jamais médiatisé par toutes sortes d’abstractions qui, elles-mêmes, sont profondément ancrées dans la matière.
Mbembe a souligné qu’il voulait mener une réflexion critique sur certains des changements techno-culturels qui ont présidé au retour de l’animisme pour tirer certaines de leurs implications politiques et épistémologiques nécessaires à la compréhension de la démocratie. Le premier élément de ces changements techno-culturels, d’après lui, c’est l’esprit du capitalisme. L’une des principales caractéristiques de cette nouvelle économie politique, a-t-il dit, est l’étendue de la ramification, la prolifération et la diffusion des capitaux dans les domaines de l’optique, et plus généralement dans les sens, ou le sensuel. Le second élément ayant présidé à la ré-visitation de l’hypothèse de l’animisme, selon Achille, est la question de la vie et de ses formes ou encore la relation entre la reproduction biologique, l’accumulation du capital et le pouvoir souverain de notre temps. La recherche de nouvelles ontologies au-delà des relations nature et culture, animal et humain, personnes et choses constitue le dernier élément de ce contexte.
Après avoir présenté ces éléments de contexte, Achille posa une question cruciale : comment surmonter les préjugés de l’anthropomorphisme et du centrisme ? Et comment pouvons-nous renouveler notre critique de la réification ? Pour répondre à cette question, Achille a évoqué les traditions littéraires africaines – principalement l’œuvre d’Amos Tutuola intitulée The Palm Wine Drunkard (fin 1950) qui traite du problème de métamorphose et de changement permanent de forme. Après une brève énonciation du contenu de cette œuvre, Achille souligna que la seconde venue de l’animisme correspond à ceci : « grâce au capitalisme, nous ne sommes plus fondamentalement différents des choses. Nous les transformons en personnes. Nous tombons amoureux d’elles. Nous avons des relations sexuelles avec elles précisément parce qu’elles ne sont pas de personnes et nous ne sommes plus fondamentalement différents d’elles. Nous ne sommes plus seulement de personnes ou, mieux, nous n’avons jamais été seulement de personnes ». Achille a affirmé que l’impératif du capitalisme aujourd’hui est la production du parfait self et du parfait thing, le sujet contemporain devant s’auto-engendrer en permanence comme un sujet apparent.
Achille a conclu en disant que l’animisme effectuera une tâche historique si elle est comprise comme une traînée de mouvement qui retrace une relation – non pas une relation entre une chose et une autre, mais un sentier le long duquel la vie est vécue ; un sentier des lignes entrelacées ; plusieurs sentiers constamment en ramification ; les lignes de croissance issues de sources multiples et enchevêtrées les unes aux autres. Ce domaine d’enchevêtrement, a-t-il souligné, est ce que les Européens ont pris pour culte des idoles ou pour animisme – un enchevêtrement de pistes entrelacées, continuellement effilochant et démêlant les lignes de leurs relations. Cet enchevêtrement, les pensées des peuples primitifs, était la texture du monde. Peut-être que c’est la texture même de la démocratie, a-t-il renchéri.
Emery Kalema is a PhD candidate in History at WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand

Commoditising Architecture

Aditi Surie Von Czechowski critiques the sublimation of architectural form by capital in her discussion of Joshua Comaroff's lecture, "Poor Form". 
Josh Comaroff’s talk on “Poor Form” asks us: “what do we learn about the life of forms, when form itself appears to be challenged?” Comaroff started by foregrounding the oft-incommensurable relationship between architectural practice and the requirements of capital. What does it mean when architectural form fails? In other words, moments in which architecture is awkward, comical, menacing, or tragic; when architects fail to unify the elements of function or scale with design, or when the values to which they are committed are at loggerheads with the logic of rentierism embodied by the buildings themselves.
Comaroff picks moments of “articulate” failures: failures of form that emerge under specific historical circumstances and tell us something significant about their genesis. For an architect, form means something quite specific: the transformation of the functional and technical requirements into a coherent aesthetic form using architectural vocabulary. Most architects see form as inseparable from function, but understand it as a medium for molding all parts of the building in harmony. This holistic idea of form, according to Comaroff, is what is under pressure today, when the relationship between the form of a building and its interior contents often seems arbitrary and contingent. Architecture like this, where there is no notion of form as following function, is emerging globally, particularly in places like China. The building as commodity begins to exert continual pressure on form, as seen in the example of the protean blob with its vast and highly profitable interior, aestheticized as a signifier of high design, but nevertheless vulgar; or in the cases of buildings that exemplify the tensions of tailoring size, density and repetition to high real-estate value and the requirements of investment. The picture below - Thames Town in China, a reproduction of an entire English style town close to Shanghai -  for instance, shows the end result of the logic of repetition and reproduction; a spectacle of architectural mimicry, it embodies the unheimlich:

Comaroff draws on a dazzling array of architectural examples across a spatial and temporal spread, from the Chicago loop to semi-detached houses in Singapore to point to the effects of commodification on the built environment. Architecture, as a commercial enterprise, can no longer use form to subordinate the technical and economic core of a building, or its relationship within a larger context. An example of formal failure might be novelty architecture, or a building of such sheer scale and numbers that an architect cannot express anything but quantity. These awkward forms, then, show the effect of market logic on formal proposition. They show, in Comaroff’s words: “the violence that value asserts on the built environment” – whether thought in the purely rentier terms of maximizing profit at the expense of dead space, or in terms of the maximization of value and the corresponding scales of density in the production of affordable housing.
The title, “Poor Form” is perhaps more adequate than Comaroff originally imagined: it points to both the poverty of forms as well as the both the economic and aesthetic poverty engendered by the move away from architectural formalism – the “drift in which architecture, under the sway of its evolution as an economic substance, floats away even from architecture itself.” Indeed, within the architectural profession, some have espoused the idea that the responsibility and centrality of the architectural profession has suddenly moved away from form.
Like Massimo Cacciari, Comaroff demands that we become aware of what is incommensurable in advanced capitalist societies – that we recognize, rather than sublate, the tragic and farcical elements of modern culture, that we treat these moments as a sort of analytical technique. But whereas for Cacciari, negative thought resides in the “Metropolis,” Comaroff’s architectural examples, though determinedly of the modern city, seem to float somehow above or outside of it as forms in and of themselves. In fact, buildings come to resemble cities in boxes – what he terms “potted urbanism.” Recalling Arjun Appadurai’s opening talk at JWTC, can we connect our understanding of the functioning of financial capitalism and real-estate speculation to the very real problems of architectural form? That is, rather than removing the C from Marx’s M-C-M, can we put it back in with a renewed force?
Comaroff described his intellectual enterprise as a kind of sleight-of-hand – but we can also see the crisis of form in the sleight-of-hand performed by terms like “sustainable architecture” or “architectural renewal” – that is, times when forms do not quite fail, but become entirely beholden to the logic of making capital(ism/s), rather than anything else, sustainable. Here, forms appear adequate, even perfect, but their appropriateness conceals their intended purpose. I am thinking of places like the High Line Park in New York, a gorgeous, once-abandoned railway track that has been rehabilitated into a lovely mid-city-level park. It now draws in hordes of tourists, pushing up real-estate values in the neighbourhood, and “revitalizing” formerly uncared-for areas near the West Side Highway and undesirable parts close to midtown transport hubs. Similarly, parts of East London, the construction of sporting, travel and accommodation infrastructure for the Olympics has brought in a surge in real estate investment and a corresponding exodus of large numbers of working class Londoners who can no longer afford to live there. How are we, then, also to approach the innovation of forms as those which are welcome, but disguise something menacing in the promise of a better-designed, functional-yet-prettier future?
Aditi Surie Von Czechowski is a PhD Candidate in Middle East, South Asian and African Studies, Columbia University

The Life of Forms: An Indirect Commentary via the Sea

In her intimate piece below, Jessica Webster explores the shifting moods of the sea alongside questions of formlessness.

I have always had some misgivings about the sea. These misgivings are more or less the same when someone speaks to me of the ocean. Or not less, only that there is a difference in how I have misgivings between the sea and the ocean. When someone speaks to me of the ocean I think of much wider expanses of sea seen from a plane or satellite photographs of the earth. Here the ocean gives contour to continents with flats expanses of cerulean blue between. Shadowy darker blue dots certain places; we are told that some of these places are seep that they have never been visited by man. Human beings have achieved higher altitudes than deeper depths.

From a high viewpoint or a satellite photograph these deep areas look like shadowy ink blots and the flat expanses which span continents can be measured between my fingers. From where I am the truth of the ocean is an utterly different thing. I have to imagine how far the flat expanses stretch and how deep the deepest canyons hollow. The responsibility for this imagining is as big and serious as the ocean, and this causes me some misgivings, because I am bound to leave something out. That I leave something out unnerves me, because there is a sense that that something may be what is most important. The sea, as it is a part of but different from my image of an ocean, gives me a similar ambiguous sense. I am missing something important. This thing causes me to have misgivings.
Corey Arnold, The North Sea, 2011

Others have found a satisfying form in the sea by documenting in precise detail all the empirical data to be had of the sea, and can therefore largely shrug off the weight of the sea in imagination. They document how far the sea stretches from bay to bay, how the sea is the ocean by dint of its precise location on a carefully detailed map, how deep its crevasses hollow, how high its mountainous ridges rise, how much water that is seawater weighs, why it is so salty, a measure of the strength of its tides, precisely what type of creature lives in salted areas, what type of person lives off what sea creature, what type of person has access to certain parts of the sea, what happens when certain people fish in dangerous areas. We have a lot of data on this issue of the sea, and it ranges all over, and it is imbricated in complex structures. The sea goes on regardless.

From the porch of my seaside cottage the view out to sea is high enough for the press of the ocean. If I place a colossal image of myself standing in front of where I sit on the porch, the shore stretches just to the point below my kneecaps. In the area of my kneecaps, rocks and swirls of white foam spoil each other. But from the roots of each kneecap stretches upward a large expanse of sea which folds over the top of my shoulders, cutting off my neck and head, which are lost in the clouds. The sea is the trunk. If I place an image of myself standing in front of where I sit, I am truncated by the sea such that the sea is my trunk. The trunk is, as we all know, the place where all the meaty stuff is set. It is set there in the trunk in such a way that it can remain largely inert and unaffected by the sweeping actions of the limbs. The meaty stuff, in their thanatotic rhythm, have their own life independent of a movie on a Sunday evening, or a call from your mother. To be sure, what you eat affects the machinations of the organs but these are affected by whatever you eat – they have value for the level of nutritional substance absorbed but otherwise your trunk has no time for meaning whatsoever. 

The sea is largely the same. There is an original dependence on the sea for the functioning of life. We plumb its depths for oil to make our rollercoasters faster and guns penetrate harder. We fish all sorts of fish so that someone with pertly held chopsticks and neat ankles can say ‘I luurve sushi!’ We ride its shoreline peaks with long and short, body, knee, and kite boards all carefully rubbed with beeswax. If you are carried along by a wave towards the shore you feel very comforted and loved by the brilliance of ‘your’ wave, as if you are in togetherness, a working in concert to achieve a given aim of riding, as if on a rollercoaster. Here nature is kind and supportive of your desire to be held, to be carried swiftly, lovingly. When you are being drowned by the sea in a tidal wave or undercurrent, you feel as if the sea has something terrible against you, nature has colluded in air and water to suck you down against your will. Nature is wild and unkind.

People say, ‘I love the sea’ and ‘I am happiest when I am near the ocean’ and other things that assert an attachment to these waters. They assert this humble attachment by pronouncing it to others. It affirms a value of connectedness to this most primordial form of nature, the origin of life. People feel humbled by this awareness and via this connection feel themselves to be humble. But even as we view the sea humbly and acknowledge with gravity the ocean beyond it, the sea lives on regardless. It pulls and pushes its mass, churns and whips along. The sea does not love or hate, it has neither love nor hatred in any of its parts, if indeed there is anything of the sea to partition.

In lieu of the contradiction the various gifts the sea can bestow, some people will say with a knowing face, ‘You need to respect the sea’. But the sea has no time for respect. The sea wants nothing of us. It carries on churning and whipping regardless. You cannot measure one’s regard for the sea between your fingers, or in statements that bounce off the surface of the water not even to echo back at you. We can only measure our regard for the sea with respect to the regard held by others (even if in this regard they are drowned); the sea has nothing to do with it.

This clean cut between you and the sea, between me and the sea, requires a degree of imagination in crossing over from where I am writing, a crossing that can take us to the sea. But this degree of imagination, where it takes the form of deciding on your love or hate for the sea, misses something essential when we take into account that the sea has no time for nominations of love or hate. Is there a form free from ‘love’ and ‘hate’? Kant would refer to it as the ability to judge ‘pure beauty’; psychology calls it the unconscious.
People come and watch the sea. People lay down blankets and towels, tents and umbrellas, and day after day we sit and watch the sea: at least, it is a European fashion to congregate at the sea in this way. But people, as a universal principle as much as they are in proximity to it, look out to sea.

I have a past, a collection of memories attached to my sea in one hand. In the other hand, I have a vast array of scientific data about the sea. Between these, there is only my trunk, which carries on churning and grinding regardless of what I hold in my hands. The trunk is what is left when I have sifted all my memories through my fingers, when I pinch large granules of data between my fingers and allow the finer grains of no concern to escape. Yet the trunk is a large area to call a remainder. It escapes my sifting and sieving, because it has no interest in the actions of my hands. It is absent from the entire process.

People stop at car accidents, and they watch the sea.

Jessica Webster is an artist and PhD Student with the Wits School of Arts