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Issue 199

Where Do We Go From Here: For They Shall Be Heard

On sonic trajectories and resistance

BY Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in Features , Thematic Essays | 28 OCT 18

When will we start taking seriously Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s proposal, in Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor (2012), that decolonization is far too often subsumed into the directives of other projects? How do we move beyond the symbol to the thing itself? Catherine E. Walsh writes of the danger of the term’s ‘increasing rhetorical use’ and ‘adjectival lightness’, its commodification ‘as the property of a group of individuals […] as a new canon of sorts, both of which erase and shroud decoloniality’s terrain of political project, praxis and struggle’.1

As museums, magazines and symposia embark on decolonial shows, journal editions and roundtables, it’s important to scrutinize the danger of the notion’s commodification through institutionalization or dilution. As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth (1961): ‘Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding.’2

I didn’t – and still do not – intend to write a piece about decolonization. But it is striking to me that the points raised by Fanon are hardly heeded by cultural structures today seeking to ‘decolonize’ this or that. Too often, we are caught in a web of futile symbols. Instead, I propose, some of the very few spaces that embody the practices and imperatives of decolonization today are spaces of refuge: the US-Mexican or German-Austrian borders, the Greek islands or the coastlines of the Mediterranean, and places of asylum across the globe. It is here that Fanon’s claims of decolonization as a ‘programme of complete disorder’ is in place as something that ‘sets out to change the order of the world’. It is in spaces of refuge that the irreversible entanglements between the colonizer and the colonized manifest themselves as products of what Walter D. Mignolo and Anibal Quijano call ‘the colonial matrix of power’ and ‘coloniality of power’, respectively. The colonizer brought so-called refugees into existence and perpetuates their existence. Consciously or unconsciously, these so-called refugees have come back as spectres to face, affront, reclaim, restitute and reform all that was robbed from them: dignity, spirit, resources and being.

While the manifold ways in which this reality is enacted and enforced are familiar, what is underrecognized is how sound, in particular, assaults space, time and subjectivity. Existence in a colonial enterprise is framed around what we are told, what we listen to and the way Western hegemonic knowledge is universalized. If society has simplified its means of visual perception to the extent that refugees are confined to the extremes of invisibility or hypervisibility, then it seems reasonable to question whether sound has the potential to disrupt the dominance of the visual. Decolonization and decoloniality, as lived and practised within that space of refuge, involve the awareness of violence – of the historical and contemporary colonial enterprises that birthed refugees – and of the multifaceted resistance effected not only by their sheer presence in these spaces, but also by the sounds they make. 

You can strip them naked, shut your doors, denigrate them, take away their valuables. You can even deprive them of grace and dignity. But you cannot take away that silence, almost unbearable in weight and magnitude, which exists in the space between your left and right ears or when you lay your head to sleep. This is the silence that follows the blast of a bomb, the aftermath of every nightmare. As South African musician Zim Ngqawana once said: ‘Death can be studied through the silent moment after every exhalation when you breathe.’ Maybe these so-called refugees had hoped that, upon their arrival in Europe, we would immediately sequester that piercing silence. But no, the confiscation of their dignities and valuables seems more pressing. Yet, what of that silence they brought with them? Where will it migrate to? James Baldwin wrote in ‘BALLAD (for Yoran)’:

The hardest thing of all

Is hearing the silence fall – 

Or, no, to see it,

Touch it,

Watch silence take a form.3

Subjectivities and spaces are consumed by the abnormally tight grip of the haunting silence of trauma and of the determination to reclaim, restitute and reform. This silence rides, strides, takes form in decoloniality as a lived and uttered experience. It is the silence that has to leave the body of the so-called refugee and cast itself into the body and space of the colonizer like an evil spirit who, in a fit of sudden madness, dashes around, sometimes spitting out racist, chauvinist and otherwise uncouth slurs.

While we all have a tendency to reduce our understanding of people to their visual gesticulations or scarifications, we often pay too little attention to their bodily sounds. You can take materials and dignity away from people, but you can’t take away the noises they make when they breathe, walk, yawn or sneeze, defecate, urinate or fart. The utterance and performativity of non-vocal, bodily sounds have agency and mark space. The screams of your mother pushing you out into the world; the lullabies your grandmother sang at your bedside; the striking sound of the whip or spank that aimed to correct you in your youth; the voices of loved and unloved ones; the wailing upon their loss: these are just some of the body’s archive of sounds. This latent sonic material is transmitted and transposed into unconscious whistling, humming and snapping – even in our darkest moments – and is the source of improvisation in music and other disciplines. People express themselves and communicate through music. In these sounds, they carry their histories and philosophies. And in singing or making music, they cultivate and propagate knowledge. So it was in the middle passage; so it is today. 

Every diaspora will need its music as its memory, its documentation centre, its hard drive. Perhaps the most effective form of decoloniality, as a continuous process of hacking into the system of the colonizer, has been the music people have brought with them into various diasporic settings. Consider how infiltration happens through tonalities, beats, notes, pitches, forms, tempos, (dis)harmonies, rifts, measures, melodies and motifs, and how the soundtrack of the West today is based on the sounds of the former colonized, which ‘plays on & on place after place into futures past’, as the poet Amiri Baraka wrote in ‘Funk’s Memory’(1996). In our present age of refuge, these sonic trajectories mutate, modify and recraft not only the spaces in which they find themselves, but also the subjectivities of the people in those spaces. The resulting affronts, reclamations, restitutions and reformations adhere to the mandate to ‘change the order of the world’ and to the ‘programme of complete disorder’ that, as Fanon contends, are necessitated by any claim of decolonization and decoloniality.

That meeting between colonizer and colonized is characterized by the sonic rather than by the visual. In the anti-physics of this encounter, sound travels faster than light. By means of voice, speech, sound and music – media through which histories are conveyed – that which is heard, as well as how and where it is perceived, serve not only to establish counternarratives but to effectuate resistances. Sound has the capacity to embody, to create and accommodate psychic and physical spaces, to establish synchronicity between people, places, spaces and histories. Orality and sound are not only a means of sharing knowledge and archiving memories in or on a moving and vulnerable body: they provide the possibility of embedding that knowledge and those memories within specific times and spaces. Sonority is the ‘groove of temporality’, to borrow Alexander Weheliye’s phrase, that makes the epistemological basis of visual and written history vibrate. Sonority is a bodily means of narration and being in the world, yet it functions outside of a visual and written logic. The mutation of sound reshapes our perspectives – and the intersections of time, space and place that we are able to imagine – on a cognitive and sensory level. Jean-Luc Nancy contrasts the visual, which is tendentially mimetic, to the sonorous, which is ‘tendentially methexic’: concerning ‘participation, sharing or contagion’.4 With this assertion, Nancy ventures into the phenomenology of sound by describing the sonorous as something that outweighs form by enlarging it, giving it amplitude and density, as well as vibration or undulation. A reflection on, or against, coloniality must also situate itself within the realm of the sonorous. If sound impacts form through enlargement, amplification, density and vibration, then the sonorous leaves traces as its waves meander through spaces in their becoming and in places as they metamorphose. The sonic is a broker in the dynamic interplay between time, place, space and embodiment in a (de)colonial reality. This determines how the bodies of the colonizer and colonized navigate political, social, economic and psychic spaces.

Decolonization and decoloniality are not rhetorical, trendy or temporary issues, and they must not be reduced to Walsh’s ‘adjectival lightness’. They cannot be locked up within the covers of a magazine or book or the limited premises of a museum show. They cannot be pigeonholed within the crevices of power and institutionalization. Above all, they cannot be held hostage by the cunningness of whiteness. Decolonization is a way of being, existing and surviving that is underlined, framed and led by resistances, reclamations, restitutions, repatriations and reformations that are informed by a history of violence, dispossession and oppression. These topics are not comfortable. They are an affront and indignation towards colonization and coloniality and all the by-products of the colonial matrix of power. We need to be more rigorous. Not every noun that is preceded by an adjective called decolonial is therefore qualified as such. More often than not, decoloniality as it is used is a scam. We need to find new languages, new sounds, to qualify what we do. We need to find new forms and trajectories to think, see, hear and experience decolonization beyond the futility of symbols.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 199 with the headline ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’

Main image: Theo Eshetu, Atlas Fractured, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Tiwani Contemporary, London

1.  Catherine E. Walsh, ‘On Decolonial Dangers, Decolonial Cracks, and Decolonial Pedagogies’, in On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, 2018, Duke University Press, Durham, p. 82
2.  Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1968, Grove Press, New York, p. 35
3.  James Baldwin, ‘Ballad: For Yoran’, in Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, 2014, Beacon Press, Boston, p. 92
4.  Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, 2009, Fordham University Press, New York, p. 24

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is artistic director of sonsbeek 2020, Arnhem, the Netherlands, founding director of SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, Germany and professor of Spatial Strategies at Weißensee Academy of Art, Berlin. In October 2020, he was awarded the Order of Merit of Berlin.