Specific Grammars of Intricate Displacement

My name is Kodwo Eshun and I live in London. My parents are from Ghana, on the West Coast and growing up in London, living in London, I've lived in other places. Since about 2003 I've been working with a close colleague Anjalika Sagar under the name the Otolith Group. We make videos, installations, photographs and we also curate.

There is a reason why we are not seated in a university seminar conducting this discussion. Why this meeting is not framed by a department of history. Or political science. Or art history. Or visual cultures. Many of us have affiliations to universities or art schools. We could be located there but we have chosen not to. This has to do with what happens when knowledge travels outside of the university or the museum or the seminar.

I take it that this movement of knowledge outside its disciplinary frames and its relocation to the constraints implied by a space of curation is part of what brings us together in this space.

The idea is that this time and this space offers this group of people a way to think through the implications of what happens to knowledge as it moves away from our expertise towards a state that is more elusive or inchoate, more difficult to grasp or locate or interrogate or question. Less amenable to those rituals of knowledge.

What draws me is the prospect of a group intelligence that mobilises a knowledge that moves away from the forms that we presume knowledge should take. Such a project is not only or not entirely a question of working with archives. There is a great deal of important artistic, critical, theoretical and curatorial thinking around archives. These days, however, I often find myself working as much with collections as with archives. By which I mean the practice of assembling collections from objects or images acquired on eBay. Which entails understanding eBay as an online platform that collects different kinds of collections, a meta-collection joined to an online auction around which communities of collectors aggregate to form an electronic market.

The Otolith Group, the group within which I work, directed a video called In the Year of the Quiet Sun 1 in 2013 that was edited from images acquired on eBay, footage downloaded from YouTube, newsreels bought from Pathé News. A project that entailed assembling scenes from international conferences in Bandung, Accra, Casablanca and Addis Ababa and others into a political calendar of Pan-Africanism. That was a project whose existence would have been impossible in the absence of an electronic market.

Part of what draws many of us to this meeting then is not only a matter of history or a question of historiography or archives or collections, important as those questions are. What draws us here is an orientation towards the future. A revisiting of future’s histories. A rethinking of history’s futures that takes the form of what Edouard Glissant once called a prophetic vision of the past.

What preoccupies some of us, at this preliminary juncture, is a reckoning with the conditions required for the construction of futures that have escaped from history’s futures. That is one of the reasons suggested by the title of the project: Women on Aeroplanes, a title that alludes to a novel named Woman of the Aeroplanes 2. Women of the Aeroplanes is not a historical text. Nor is it an art historical text. Nor is it a text of political science. It is a novel. A science fiction novel, written by one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century and the 21st Century. A novelist that died in 2017: Kojo Laing.

Laing wrote four novels: Search Sweet Country, Women of the Aeroplanes, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars, his final novel Big Bishop Roko and the Alter-Gangsters, a volume of poetry entitled Godhorse and an utterly amazing short story entitled Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ. Women of the Aeroplanes, his second novel, was published in 1988. Critics tend to describe Laing as a magical realist. I would argue that Laing wrote science fiction that desedimented the expectations of what science fiction was and what it is supposed to be. One of the things I most admire is that Laing’s books increased in difficulty. Each of his books demanded more and more from its readers, in the style and the form of its experimentation with language.

I am going to read the opening sentences from the opening chapter of Women of the Aeroplanes. It is written in chapters that are called Classes:

"Kwame Atta was the bad twin and his chin was strong enough to box with, even with the sun on his tongue. He kept his science in his chin. Now, he was so agitated that when he inadvertently picked up a piece of rubbish on the clean streets of Tukwan, he threw himself in the bin instead, with the rubbish motionless in his left footprint."

I want to follow that quotation with a second quotation from a critical essay on the writing of Kojo Laing. These two quotes will delimit the stakes of what it is I think we are working on or with or around.

These quotes will pinpoint the alteration of context that emerges from collective thinking that takes place in a public space of curation and exhibition.

The citations provide a way of specifying the shift in frame that is taking place now. A reframing that we are embarking upon. They indicate the relative degrees of autonomy of constraint under which knowledge moves. They point towards the shifting grounds and altered perspectives of thinking through the implications of living with and living in and living through the dependencies of independence.

The second quotation comes from the literary critic Derek Wright. Wright identifies a key feature of Laing’s writing carried out by and in Laing’s prose. A critical aspect of what I call the inventivism of Laing. Inventivism is a term invented by the critic Brian Massumi. According to Wright, the Laingian text carries out operations of

"... metaphorical displacement and reallocation of qualities and functions to which they do not properly belong. The effect of this is to suspend normal sense-relations and perceptual processes and to produce a kind of behavioural synaesthesia in which beards ‘disagree’, people ‘eat’ thoughts and ‘wear’ each other’s features, and smiles detach themselves from their owners and move according to their own momentum. " 3

What Wright clarifies is the way in which Laing’s formal approach to prose reallocates qualities by displacing characteristics from their proper site of belonging to locations to which they do not properly belong.

The effect of this, according to Wright, is that the Laingian text produces a kind of behavioural synesthesia in which beards disagree, people eat thoughts, wear each other’s features and smiles detach themselves from their owners and move according to their own momentum. In Women of the Aeroplanes, Kwame Atta’s chin is strong enough to box with, even or despite the revelation that the sun is on his tongue. Atta picks up a piece of rubbish but inadvertently throws himself in the bin instead of the rubbish which then stands its ground motionless in his footprint.

My suggestion is that the Laingian operations identified by Wright as the reallocation of expressions are not just, or not only, metaphorical. These operations of reallocation and displacement constitute a grammar of expressions, qualities, attributes, characteristics or actions. We could nominate these expressions, qualities, attributes, characteristics or actions under the general name of predicates.

What Laing narrates is a grammar of predicates on the move.

What we read is the ongoing movement of predicates that detach themselves from their owners and move according to their own momentum. Laing writes about predicates that are no longer properties. Predicates that are no longer the exclusive property of, nor are securely possessed by, nor automatically belong to a person. Predicates that are usually attributed to a person, fictional or historical, predicates which we might think of as the attributes of that person, which we usually think of as defining who that person is by characterising them: these predicates extricate themselves from bodies and move on. And we read them in the process of their movement. They do not stop attaching and reattaching themselves to persons. But they do not stop there either. They undergo a process of entification. They become entities that do their own thing. They are things that do their own thing.

Women of the Aeroplanes is a compendium of grammars of displacement. An anthology of predicates on the move. The Laingian grammar of predicative disallocation and reallocation reminded me of that specific moment yesterday, that striking moment, when Annett read a specific sentence on Touria Chaoui. A quotation from a newspaper that stated: For the French, Independence was as unacceptable as a girl pilot.

It is not so much that Independence is unacceptable to the French imperial nation state as the fact that the intolerability of Independence is embodied in and by the figure of the girl pilot. The French state finds the idea of a girl pilot is unacceptable because the idea of a girl as pilot, a girl that pilots a plane indicates that the border between an acceptable Independence and an unacceptable Independence has already been breached. A girl pilot is not only an embodiment of an independent Independence.

She is a figure that puts the independence of Independence into practice. She is, and has already been, practicing independence as a technology that can be, and that has already been, taught, learnt, practiced and spread.

The mobility of the predicate that is the girl pilot, the girl that pilots the aeroplane that flies by its own speed, in its movement, the plane whose movement and direction and altitude and speed is controlled by her, the girl pilot named Touria Chaoui, airborne in a sky open to her flight, a sky through which she flies, sets predicates in motion. A girl pilot practices displacement. Touria Chaoui is displacement in practice. A practice whose independence of motion no longer knows its acceptable place. She is a predicate that has left its proper place. Whatever qualities the French state believes that a girl should possesses, whatever predicates should belong to a girl no longer belong to her. Nor she to them.

What Touria Chaoui sets in motion, ahead of whatever it is the French state believes that she should be doing, entails a practice of displacement. A practice of displacement that entails and inspires a grammar of reallocation. We can think the inventivist procedure of the Laingian text together with the practice of piloting independence that is mobilized by Touria Chaoui. We can think these two distinct moments, one fictional, one historical, in their articulation, precisely because they do not have any necessary belonging to or with each other.

A figure such as Touria Chaoui would, in her singularity and her exemplarity, usually be assigned to the archives of Morocco’s histories, Morocco’s feminist histories, Maghrebian feminisms or moments from Morocco’s Independence. Women of the Aeroplanes, would be assigned to a course on African literature or West African literature or a module in magical realism.

Part of the impetus for this gathering is to practice a collective thinking with moments such as these in order to displace or disarticulate the frameworks that allocate a figure such as Touria Chaoui to her place in the history of Moroccan Independence and assigns a novel such as Women of the Aeroplanes to its place in postwar African literature.

Meeting here focuses us upon the preconditions required to undertake this work of predicative mobilisation. It requires a slightly shifted context in order to think through or think with figures or texts, not only in their historical indexicality or their fictional imagery but as predicates or as entities undergoing an ongoing mobilization.

What these texts indicate are methods for practising a mode of thought in which archival events or historical figures move away from and ahead of wherever or whatever we think we can locate the proper place and time of Independence. Even more, thinking with predicates suggests ways for moving ahead of whatever predicates we think constitute a girl or an aeroplane or a pilot or a sun or a tongue or a chin or a footprint.

A third text to draw on in this regard is Jean Allman’s essay The Disappearing of Hannah Kudjoe: Nationalism, Feminism, and the Tyrannies of History. Allman’s influential research focuses upon the nexus between West African feminisms and nationalisms by rereading the archives of Ghana’s decolonization. The Disappearing of Hannah Kudjoe reconstitutes the life and the work of the forgotten figure of Hannah Kudjoe 4, a woman that played a critical role in the Gold Coast Revolution as a founding member of Nkrumah’s Convention Peoples Party (CPP) and was gradually erased by Party politicians, journalists and historians after Ghana’s independence in 1957.

What, Allman asks, can feminism, and feminist research on African women’s role in African Independence, learn from Kudjoe’s incremental erasure? Kudjoe’s disappearance can be understood in terms of agnotology, which Allman defines as the production of ignorance. Allman pays close attention to the practices by which Kudjoe is erased. Instead of presupposing disappearance as the starting point for feminism’s recovery of the forgotten revolutionary, Allman opens another path for feminist research.

A research that proceeds by tracking the practices of ignorance through retracing the moments within archives, the events within narratives, the names of the people that carried out the work of agnosia in all its increments of violence. What Allman reveals is the work of violence that is specific to the work of erasure. The silence of agnosia is the index of its violence, its rage and its revenge.

What I would add to Allman’s point, is the understanding that the work of the allocation of predicates, the displacement of predicates practised by the entities in the novels of Kojo Laing and enacted in the piloting by Touria Chaoui engenders a rage and a fury out of all proportion to its practice.

A fury whose name is agnosia. A rage whose silenced silences and pacified peace is reconstructed by the feminist agnotology practised by Jean Allman. A rage for revenge and vengeful rage that takes differing forms that depend upon its practice by the French state or by Ghana’s new state.

The more the new state centralises itself, the more it works to erase Kudjoe’s presence. By the time Ghana consolidates itself as a Republic in 1960, Kudjoe is all but written out of history. Allman locates a critical moment in the 1962 memoir of Tawia Adamafio, a leading CPP politician.

Nkrumah instructs Adamafio to unify two different, warring women’s organisations as a distinct identity and keep them under the wings of the CPP. Adamafio complains to Nkrumah: I cannot adequately convey to you an expression of the actual difficulty involved in organizing women, but if you could imagine their gossip, bitter quarrels and bickerings and the acrimony of the lashing tongues, you would be getting nearer the truth than I could describe. I did not cherish this new task at all.

Nkrumah’s instructions trigger a panic in Adamafio that takes the form of a vision. Adamafio foresees a future world, a Ghana of the future in which the National Council of Ghanaian Women would grow so monolithic and powerful that the party could lose control of it. When you have its leadership bristling with dynamic women intellectuals and revolutionaries and the organisation had become conscious of its strength, it could break off in rebellion, form a party by itself and sweep everything before it at the polls. The ratio of women voters to men then was about three or more to one and the position could well arise where Ghana would be ruled by a woman president, an all women cabinet and the principal secretaries and regional commissioners are all women and men would be relegated to the back room.

It would be disastrous for Ghana for I could see men being ridden like horses, a male tyrant could be twisted around a woman’s little finger. An Amazonian tyrant could only probably be subdued by a battery of artillery. Adamafio’s fear at the prospect of what the organisations led by Hannah Kudjoe and Evelyn Amarteifio might achieve, leads him to imagine a world that he deems necessary to make public. In his future, Ghana’s men will shoot Ghana’s women in the name of Ghana’s national leadership. The imagination of the sociality of female leadership that is no longer attributed to male ownership or predicated on male leadership, triggers the rage-filled fantasy in which armed soldiers aim their guns at an Amazonian tyrant in order to kill her.

The figure of the Amazonian tyrant surely stands in for Hannah Kudjoe or Evelyn Amarteifio. Or both. In Adamafio’s fable of death by gunfire, both Kudjoe and Amarteifio, each leading a rival woman’s organisation, have merged into a single sovereign. A female sovereign. An Amazonian tyrant that presides over a female future in which I could see men being ridden like horses.

Tawia Adamafio’s vengeful vision of state sanctioned shooting undergoes a subtle displacement in Kojo Laing’s Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars.5 What Laing envisions is a future whose predicative inversion are able to disarm the hostile takeover imagined by Adamafio.

Set in Achimota City during the Second Wars of Existence in the year 2020, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars features a scene in which a male character called Pogo Forr is not ridden like a horse but is ridden by his horse:
"And lo! There was Pogo staggering in with the horse’s front legs up on his shoulders and a saddle on his back. And what was the horse wearing? The horse was wearing its master’s darkglasses."

In Laing’s world, women do not ride men like horses. Instead, a single horse rides its owner. Its owner wears the former’s saddle. The horse wears the latter’s sunglasses. The reallocation is ludicrous. Disarmingly so. Its absurdity works to contain and to disarm the murderous fantasy of preemptive attack unleashed by Adamafio at the prospect of women reassigning their gender from its role as a predicate of men. Laing’s grammar of predicative displacement cares for the panic it unleashes in men. It curates the effects and the implications of predicative reallocation.

What strikes Adamafio is the prospect of male ownership owned by women. An imagination of a future world in which male possession is reversed and inverted by women. An imagination of a world in which women exert a revenge upon men for their predicative ownership by men. It is this prospect that frightens Adamafio to the extent that he cannot bring himself to write who exactly will ride men: horses or women or both or neither. There is much more to be said about these quotations.

What I want to end on is a reconstitution of the movement of thought upon which we have embarked.

A movement that moves by the unguaranteed articulation of the dissimilar rather than the necessary solidarity of belonging.

A movement that begins with the Laingian figure of Kwame Atta with the sun on his tongue. A figure that throws himself in the bin.

A movement that thinks with the figure of Touria Chaoui the girl pilot whose piloting power moves her into the vanguard of Morocco’s Independence. A figure whose capacity for flight escapes the French state’s fury at the unacceptable extent of Morocco’s Independence.

A movement extended by Jean Allman’s archival reconstruction of the historical work of erasure of Hannah Kudjoe and of Evelyn Amarteifio. An erasure whose violence entails a confrontation with its silences which entails a confrontation with the extent of its belief in retaliation.

A reckoning with a rage that is triggered by Tawia Adamafio’s fear at the prospect of leadership by the National Council of Ghanaian Women. A movement from the encounter with Adamafio’s vision of an Amazonian tyrant to taking seriously the righteous vision of a war waged by Ghana’s soldiers upon women that have not been forcibly integrated into the CPP. An intramural massacre for the right to rule Ghana in the future.

From Adamafio’s vision of a future in which men are ridden like horses to Laing’s vision of a horse that rides its wealthy owner.

Moments from a movement in and of thought. A movement that aims to move away from the forms that we presume knowledge should take.

A movement that points towards the altered grounds and shifting perspectives.

A movement of thinking through the unguaranteed implications of living with and living in and living through the afterlives of the dependencies of Independence.

A movement in which to undertake the unpredictable work of predicative mobilisation.

A movement in which we think with figures or texts, not only in their historical indexicality or their fictional imagery but as predicates or entities undergoing an ongoing mobilization.

A movement in which archival events or historical figures move away from and ahead of the proper places and times and genders and nations and romances and tragedies of Independence.

A movement that reckons with the implication and the consequences entailed by its work.

1 In the Year of the Quiet Sun (2013, 33 min, UK); made by The Otolith Group; commissioned by HKW/Berlin for the exhibition After Year Zero – Geographies of Collaborations; curated by Annett Busch and Anselm Franke.

2 Kojo Laing, Woman of the Aeroplanes (London, William Heinemann, 1988).

3 See Derek Wright, Postmodernism as Realism: Magic History in Recent West African Fiction in Contemporary African Fiction, ed. Derek Wright, Bayreuth, African Studies, 1997, 181-207.

4 Jean Allmann, "The Disappearing of Hannah Kudjoe: Nationalism, Feminism, and the Tyrannies of History", in: Journal of Women’s History, Volume 21, Number 3, Fall 2009.

5 Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (London, William Heinemann, 1992).


Further Reading: 

Moussa Issifou, Beyond the Language Debate in Postcolonial Literature: Linguistic Hybridity in Kojo B. Laing’s Woman of the Aeroplanes, in: JPAS Vol 6, Nr 5, 2013.

Derek Wright, Culture Wars in Cyberspace: A Note on Kojo Laing's Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars. Northern Territory University, Australia.