Friday, July 5, 2013

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.

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