Kojo’s Illumination: Koram’s Uncommon Wealth

by | 31 Mar 2022

In a nutshell, Kojo’s approach aims not only to make legible the past which we live and experience as a hall of mirrors, without which we cannot hope to better our understanding (Verstehen, in German) of the present; giddy-making and confusing, not merely a reflection but a ‘spell.’ Also, most importantly, he seeks to illuminate (Erklaren, in German) the historical path that lies ahead.

Notice how the previous lines introduce a crucial distinction between understanding and illumination, between critique and emphatic or ‘fantastic’ critique. Notice how this is done. Notice the quality of Kojo’s writing: It moves between a biographical register which is also a historical one, in the genetic sense that is typical of the phenomenological and genealogical methods fashionable these days. But also, and in contrast with such manifest manners and fashions, his emphasis shifts from our lived experience of groundlessness or disorientation in today’s societies to our ability to locate and reaffirm ourselves not merely in a structure of institutions -legal, political and economic- but also to give away ,as a gift, or handing over that self to another in a moment of decided or determinant chance that interrupts the ongoingness of these institutional structures.

This is what the poet Claudia Rankine exemplifies when she says that a poem is no different from a handshake:

The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.[1]

‘Here’ both recognises and demands recognition. It indicates the presence of, as opposed to void or absence, but it also means to hand something to somebody. “Here you are. Here, he said to her.’ And, of course, in order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. Something similar can be discerned in Frantz Fanon’s use of terms such as lightning, vertiginous, volcanic, ‘night deprived brilliance,’ or ‘come back’.[2] These practical poetic tropes are known as ‘explosive metaphors’ (métaphore filée, in French). A distinctive ethopoetic mode which reinvents the surrealistic technique best described by Pierre Yoyotte in 1934 and Max Ernst in 1936, or more recently by China Miéville. But it is Yoyotte, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire who provide the dominant linguistic and conceptual influence on his work, just as they provide Kojo with the crucial image of his book: the ‘boomerang effect.’ 

What the image shows is what ethnographers call the law of reciprocity. The logic of gift-economies, also the wild idea that chance determines what returns in/to history. Or rather, it is a means of comprehending history in its seemingly repetitive, mimetic, or invariant structures and those structures in the pull of historical vertiginousness. As when Kojo says, invoking Césaire’s ‘boomerang effect,’ that ‘experiments carried out in the peripheries of the empire eventually come flying back into its very heartland.’[3]

To speak of the ‘boomerang effect’ is, therefore, to knot together a diversity of critical tactics or differencing orientations, and a diversity of aesthetics. Philosophically, Kojo’s work looks around for support and nods at the dialectic of indigenous, African, and diasporic worldviews sensitive to the interplay between structure and dialectical change. This interplay remains ‘animated’ because it takes place in a consideration of patterns that are not given a priori and not only exist but have to be continuously preserved. Unlike the coldly abstract sense in which ‘structuralism’ tends to be invoked, the native structuralism imagined by Césaire, Fanon and others points to a broader sense of reciprocity and responsibility for the structures that hold together a material world. We can call this philosophy an ‘animated structuralism.’

Aesthetically or rhetorically, the trope which organises Kojo’s narration is an exploding-fixed (dialectical) image, which we share and experience as an image and body space. It is a rhetorical or poetic practice that provides mimetic links or associations between things, words, or activities not obviously mimetically related. You can see this in the very title of the book ‘Uncommon Wealth,’ which is not only an ironic take on ‘Commonwealth’, but in associating words that would otherwise not make sense together evoke in our minds the mimetic image of something that can hit its target only in missing it or be true only by being different. 

This is a trope that is capable of movement and can represent movement. Like J. L. Borges’s ‘infinite sphere,’ evoking the immanent and transcendent interplay of the concept as such. It consists in exploding what avails itself to the mind’s eye by adding something (in the cases of Plotinus and Pascal’s geometric symbols Borges adds the infinitum as a surface located nowhere) and withdrawing it from apperception, to detonate the spell of the symbol materially. 

This is precisely what Kojo’s Uncommon Wealth does. By making visible the infinitum that is smuggled into the image and concept of Britain’s sphere of influence -the Commomwealth- by a sleight of hand, as a periphery infinitely revolving around its centre, and then calling to our attention the fact that under the presuppositions of that image the  affirmation of British self-identity is conceived as the constant availability of a totality of elements for a centre, Kojo’s book illuminates the metaphysics at work in the topic of empire. The tension between Britain’s self-affirmation or the management of its imagined centrality vis-à-vis a supposedly equal, revolving yet equally static periphery (an idea repeated from Enoch Powell’s ‘there’s no such thing as an Empire’, through Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ and “There’s no such thing as society’ all the way up to Patel and Kwarteng’s 2012 Britannia Unchained or Boris Johnson’s 2019 ‘recaptured sovereignty’) on the one hand. And on the other the collapse of that notion (and the promise) of equality towards its centre. [4]

Referring to Government minister Kemi Badenoch’s warning that ‘unbalanced’ teaching (notice the accountancy metaphor) on racism and empire is tantamount to breaking the law, Kojo asks: ‘But then how are we to think through problems like the rise of corporatisation [what Julio Cortázar and the other members of the II Russel Tribunal had termed in 1975, fusing decolonial practices with the language of human rights, the ‘multinational vampires’] without asking where the multinational corporation came from? Or about the disappearance of factories without asking where the factories went to?’ He goes on to suggest a re-imagination of the impact of environmental and pandemic crises as well as the global 2019-2021 protests on so-called ‘Global Britain’ in terms of ‘the boomerang of the promise of nationalism’ at the end of his book. I would have preferred a shift from Césaire’s ‘boomerang’ to Fanon’s ‘bombs,’ and ‘violence in the international level’ at this conclusive point in the book, facilitated by it’s the apparent reference to the pitfalls of national consciousness. Still, the focus on the metaphysics of empire via a re-articulation of ‘animated’ structuralism, the ethopoetic of artistic irony, and dialectical images is both appropriate and fruitful.   

Irony and explosive associations between uncommon elements work best when typically reinforced by running the association through several lines or indeed the whole work, as Kojo does, emphasized by devices such as rhythmical repetition, caesura, and stepped verse falling across the page. Or transposition, the trope I believe to be more fundamental to Kojo’s approach. Transposition is a Freudian concept used to describe ‘the passage of one sign system to another.’ It’s also a tertiary poetic process, in addition to metaphor and metonymy, and the psychoanalytic (clinical) equivalent of a ‘thesis position.’ As such, it indicates the destruction of the old synthesis or frame of reference and the formation of a different position.[5]

The thesis position is the ‘enunciative and denotative positionality’ that emerges when a person or a community is forced to mark out their meaning amid a stream of changing semiotic regimes, which is what happened to the Akan, Ashanti, Yoruba and Kikuyu-speaking peoples forced into the lower deck of the slaveship, where they had to navigate not only the Middle Passage but also contradictory sign systems and considerations of representability before being offloaded to work for nothing in the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. 

This is like the experience of forcibly displaced and exiled peoples as they move through and traverse different environs (for instance, moving to the metropolitan centres of empires) and undergoing thorough change. This positionality is, therefore, related to a kind of ‘anamnesis,’ memory techniques and technologies (inasmuch as changing sign systems induce considerations of representability) taking place in a conscious illumination of tensions and contradiction between the sign systems of the environs we move through. 

A kind of criticality emerges here, from the self-aware shifts in the meaning of signs, which is more emphatic, even fantastic. I mean it in the sense of dreams, but not in the sense of how humans dream at night. Rather, something between subject and object, like a seam, a border, or an interzone. There, at this interzone, something is dreaming, because people are doing something, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. 

Another term that is apposite in this respect is ‘phantasmagoria,’ in the sense developed by Walter Benjamin: thought as involving condensed emotions, emotions illuminating things we cannot bear, or ‘a mirror that remembers,’ which is Benjamin’s definition of photography and cinema. This basic fact of acquiring a different (or third) reality at the edge of the cinematic image’s frame where the invisible image outside the film and the image the frame shows converge together in a single explosive action. I would also like to relate this sense of explosive criticality with the legal practice that John Borrows teaches in his wonderful book on Anishinaabe indigenous law Drawing Out Law. A Spirit’s Guide, concerning the use of dream-circles in mediation and conflict resolution. But that would take too far from our immediate focus on explosive associations and self-reckoning in Kojo’s book.    

To sum up, this is what Kojo and I term ‘position’. Position must be distinguished from affirmation. The latter, which features prominently in contemporary politics and law and human rights (i. e. identity), is insufficient. We must not be content with affirmation. Especially not with self-affirmation, or with the affirmation of the group. Affirmation washes its hands of the institution in order to remain at a safe, moralistic, well-grounded distance. This is an illusion. It is the illusion of today’s horizontalism of the self and the horizontalism of movements, which may be a latent effect of our networked societies of otherwise wondrous communication, complexity, and exchange.  

What is needed instead, the only thing that is needed, is position. We need a stance. If I were to say, ‘I affirm this or that (for instance, my skin colour, my flexible gender, my geography and locale) and then the rest is of no interest to me, the institution is of no interest to me … let others take care of it’, then the affirmation (‘I am here’), which is also a promise, not a contract but a change-exchange (‘Here. I am here’) would fail. It would deny itself. It would not be an affirmation.

I need to move from my lived experience here or in the Americas, and from my affirmative declaration or confession (‘I am here’) to the mental representations of the situation I find myself in, and then to the structure of the institutions as well as the moment of their development or their historical motion. Otherwise, my affirmation won’t matter. It will not have been fulfilled. This animated structure (there’s no true promise that doesn’t ask to be fulfilled) requires a position. It requires that I/we move to action, even if it’s imperfect and even if there’s no a priori guarantee that we will win or arrive at the ‘correct’ destination. 

In other words, we are called to negotiate precisely because it is not enough to abstractly heed our responsibility to the other. Precisely because it is not nearly enough to endlessly debate our reasons and differences, nor to analyse in the lived experience of the act its justifications vis-à-vis our demands and desires through the existing normative orders, which we tend to confuse with the ordering principle, confusing what is with justice as such. What is … Parliaments, courts and tribunals, the given order of rights tend to focus on the facts as seen by the accused in a scenario of universalised victimhood and assuming relative lack of any real agency (‘But, where are you really from?’). It seeks to mobilise more or less artistic images of victimhood and sympathy under the presumption that they will make us shift from natural apathy to empathy for the victims, thereby accepting guilt or wrongdoing lived as an irreversible vitiation of existence. It is as if in politics and applied rights jurisprudence we are now, all of us, Bergsonians seeing in Raskolnikow’s confession (or in the immigrant’s assimilation, his/her declaration that ‘this is the best country in the world’) the price for his (re)integration in the group.[6]

The repetitive affirmation of these assumptions and presumptions, incarnated and reified in our existing normative orders, not only raises the problem of the internal coherence of the act (for instance, the criminal act or an act of rebellious insurrection). It also threatens to collapse the vision and idea of justice as the likely result of political combat and negotiations into a matter of the coherence of our internal subjectivity (for instance, as British). Political negotiations aim at achieving substantial change out there, now and in the future, and demand that we act to right the concrete wrong in the concrete situation, even before we know or subtract the complete truth of the situation.

Endless debate and (self-defeating) affirmative institutional attitudes presuppose everyday relations with a foundation on mutual recognition and the rational or persuasive identification of self-interest and moral sentiment. But this appeal to inner matter is no matter at all; it matters not. For it effaces, it renders invisible the historical legacy and inter-temporal effects of real differences in power (not culture) that explain the tragedy of, say, Josie in WEB Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk as well as the plight that women, from Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz to Drucilla Cornell and Angela Davis, have been directing against the cosy distinctions introduced by Hobbes, Locke and Hegel between political and maternal power as well as the affirmation of the individual in civil society and the state. Making ours the words used by Frantz Fanon in his invocation of the method of existential phenomenology, such politics of subjectivity amount to an unacceptably ‘neurotic contraction of consciousness’. 

After Césaire and Fanon, Kojo and I consider this politics of subjectivity or identity (right or left-Hegelian) insufficient. In contrast, we adhere to the call to arms that makes things and peoples matter again and matter more in spacetime. Our emphasis shifts from my/our lived experience in Ghana, the UK, or the Caribbean to the mental representations of the colonial situation (which is to say, the persistence of both external and internal colonialism in the time of money, products, and people in the world economy). 

Kojo, and I agree with him, prefers Fanon’s invocation of the ethopoetic cores of lived experience in Africa and the Caribbean in combat against persisting forms of external and internal colonialism that intersect the struggle for rights. Speaking of the demand that the French imposed upon Algerian fighters, which the colonisers proclaimed and denounced as criminal ‘terrorists,’ that the fighters demonstrate moral constancy by confessing their deeds to the institution, Fanon observed: ‘But how can we not remark that these different attitudes postulate a reciprocal and prior recognition of the group by the individual and of the individual by the group? … All this once again presupposes the group’s homogeneity.’[7]

The point is, of course, not to founder in the poetry of the ‘law of the jungle’ so dear to novelists and Hobbesians. But to recognise that the idea of ‘Global Britain’ in the aftermath of the (denied) empire is an attempt to reimpose and sustain the reign of terror ‘by recreating the system of the unipolar group.’ That is, to me, Kojo’s lesson. His gift. And we become better for it.

[1] Clauida Rankine, Don’t let me Be Lonely. An American Lyric (London: Penguin, 2004) 130-1 citing Paul Celan. The line continues: ‘Or one meaning of here is “In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,” or in other words, I am here. 

[2] Frantz Fanon, ‘Parallel Hands,’ Alienation and Freedom (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2018) 163.

[3] Kojo Koram, ‘Introduction: Seeing the Boomerang’, Uncommon Wealth. Britain and the Aftermath of Empire (London: John Murray/Hachette UK, 2022) 6 citing Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (41) to clarify his standpoint in the book as a kind of visual anthropology, a way of seeing.

[4] Kojo Koram, Uncommon Wealth, 217-8 and 219-20 invoking the ‘boomerang’ trope in the conclusion.

[5] Edgar Garcia, Signs of the Americas. A Poetics of Pictography, Hyerogliphs and Khipu (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020) 192 citing Julia Kristeva, among others. See also, Frantz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, 408 on French medical psychiatry of North Africans racializing conceptions that criticise the absolutisation of the ‘self’ (or ‘affixed’ dialectics) as ‘lack of synthesis.’ Contrast such psycho-geographical racist concepts with what indigenous thinkers call transmotion, which is a rearticulation of self-determination meaning ‘the ability of the vision to move in imagination and the substantive rights of motion in native communities.’ See on this, Gerald Vizenor, Fugitive Poses. Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000) 182.  

[6] Frantz Fanon, ‘Conducts of Confession in North Africa (2)’, in Alienation and Freedom (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2018) 414, citing Henri Bergson, Les Deux Sources de la morale et la religion (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1932 and PUF, 1941) 11. Also, Drucilla Cornell, ‘Derrida’s Negotiations as a Technique of Liberation’, in Discourse. Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture, 39.2, Special issue edited by O. Guardiola-Rivera (Wayne State University Press, Spring 2017) 195-215 at 196, citing Jacques Derrida, Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001 (Stanford, Cal/: Stanford University Press, 2002) 25-26.

[7] Frantz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, 414.


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