In November 2019, I attended an event held at Abrons Arts Center, an institution for performing arts located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Afterwards, as I discussed the play in the lobby of the theatre with a group that had formed there by fellow colleagues, I confessed that I was impressed by some aspects and annoyed by some others, particularly in relation to my own works in progress for performative staging in New York, London and Rotterdam. One of my interlocutors asked, ‘Who are you working with in Rotterdam?’ ‘Extra Extra,’ I gossiped, ‘Oh, I love Extra Extra,’ the same interlocutor quipped. ‘But how does your work fit in their programme? Their thing focuses on the erotic, right?’ I was baffled by the latent meaning of the question which, in effect, might have been a thinly veiled prohibition: ‘Your work is not erotic!’ And perhaps more dramatically: ‘you are not (erotic).’ Which would mean: ‘You cannot work with Extra Extra!’
The insouciant banality of this encounter makes it no less a prototype of a confrontation. When one is lucky, a confrontation can turn out to be a simulation that gives insight into future confrontations. Or, a confrontation may be a rehearsal of confrontations that are already ongoing elsewhere. Better still, a confrontation can provide closure to the suffering caused by more serious confrontations one already experienced. This might explain why a suddenly probing dialogue in the lobby of a theatre in Manhattan reminded me of the paradoxical coupling of prohibition and promise that I experienced twenty years ago when I first arrived in the Netherlands from Rwanda as an unaccompanied minor.
Inside and outside the circuitry of the reception centres for asylum seekers and other such processing facilities, the newly arrived communities justify their existence to formidably intimidating infrastructures that include immigration, social services, legal and civil bodies tasked with statecraft and subject formation. Where are you coming from? Why are you here? Do you have relatives here? What do you want? What do you owe? What illnesses do you have? What do your parents do? What did you study? Do you really exist? My memory of these interactions and their interfaces is a coupling of prohibition and promise, whereby, sometimes, a rejection becomes the very form of inclusion. The guiding question could be diagrammed like this: why do you bother us with your existence? Obviously, my recent feeling of negation from an otherwise collegial and fellow Dutch acquaintance made me reflect on what is, how or when the erotic happens.
The following are musings about a pluralising force, an active, alive, linking agent with its own volition that is sometimes described as erotic. These reflections may be a response, a dismissal or a qualification of what I rightly or wrongly perceived as the above-mentioned hostile sentiment of my interlocutor at Abrons. What I do know is that I arrive at a more compelling appearance of relations that cannot afford to remain inside the confines of what can be considered as a rather oppressive notion of the erotic, and by extension, the subject and its corollary, identity.
The erotics of an encounter between two or more corporeal or institutional bodies is simply a relation that invites, threatens, anticipates and allows a breakage along the lines of that same relation, through the saturation of pleasure. Such erotic pleasure may arise because its instance tends to appear as a coupling of opposing saturations. The instance of the erotics suspends the usual order of relations between those involved, it is passionate in partiality, and commanding in finality, it lasts and yet it is inescapably perishable, it accepts and amplifies a fleeting contact, it performs danger, it is arguably refreshing, it foments curiosity, it elects a measure of pain, it allows transgressions, it unfolds through all kinds of unproductive expenditures that can be mistaken as a wasteful excess; and so on. To this point, a strategically essentialist comparison might be useful: the erotic is not love as such, as the latter is a feeling or relation characterised by compassion, acceptance, enterprise and other bonding structures of feelings. In contrast, the erotics is the pleasurable absence of mutuality within a temporal unity of oppositions. Although the beauty of these two terms – love and erotic – resides in their mobility, they are not mutually exclusive and create changing meaning in the mind of each reader.
Around the same time I saw the theatre play at Abrons, I also watched Atlantics (2019) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the first feature film by French-Senegalese film-maker Mati Diop, I encountered a vision of the subject that is urgent in ways that complicate the order of the senses and relations as mentioned above. Netflix describes it as a supernatural love story concerning Ada, a seventeen-year-old who is in love with Souleiman, a construction worker, who suddenly goes missing. It is not too much of an exaggeration to describe Atlantics as a labour drama, a love story, a surrealist film, a crime thriller, a zombie fiction.
British-Zambian critic and writer Namwali Serpell gave a compelling review of Atlantics in the online edition of The Nation on 18 November 2019:
Atlantics begins on a dusty construction site on the outskirts of Dakar. A great glass tower is being built. The workers have not been paid in months. There’s a chaos of figures and sounds, human and mechanical, on the screen as the men demand their due from their boss or, rather, their boss’s underlings, one of whom says, ‘In this office, we’re working, just like you.’ An irate worker named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) expands the circle of consequence, saying, ‘Remember that we have families.’ Another worker chimes in, ‘Our fathers, mothers, and brothers depend on us. They’re the reason we work.’
For Serpell, interdependence between labour relations is of importance in this film, and I would add that it is an interdependence that heightens the succession of interruption. I remember the film as an intense zone in which the intertwinement of prohibition and promise multiplies; a succession of interruptions through coexistence, in narrative and formal structures of the cinematic genre itself. The interruption occurs in the exploitation and non-payment at work, and in the love of Ada and Souleiman during the intervention of the uniformed guard at the seaside. Although Ada loves Souleiman, she is set to marry a rich, Europe-dwelling man named Omar in ten days, which Ada rebels against by interrupting her own sleep and slipping out that night with some of her girlfriends to a seaside bar to meet Souleiman and his companions. The girlfriends’ own joy is interrupted as they learn that the men they came to see are all gone. ‘Out to sea. They went in a pirogue.’ As Serpell describes, the women stand around in their tight nightclub clothes, clutching their mobiles, assimilating to ‘so many modern Penelopes, except that their men are economic migrants, not sailors.’
From here, Atlantics breaks away from the cinematic genre by avoiding the depiction of the harrowing demise of Souleiman on his seafaring journey to Spain. Meanwhile, Ada stays in bed for days aching and weeping with a broken heart, waiting for Souleiman to call. Even as Ada receives a new iPhone from her well-travelled fiancé Omar at a luxurious resort by the sea facing that great glass tower, Ada simply curls on her side, covers her face with a towel, and sleeps. When the wedding happens, and without warning, the ceremonies are interrupted because the mattress of the shiny white new nuptial bed catches fire. The police arrive. Who did it? Could it be Souleiman, whom Mariama – a more conservative friend of Ada – claims to have seen? Or did the bed spontaneously combust?
The last explanation is the one given to the inspector Issa Diop (Amadou Mbow). To make matters worse, at sunset, a mysterious fever strikes the inspector and all the abandoned women except Ada and her friend Dior who owns the bar by the sea where lovers used to congregate. Later in the night, the women are mobilised – barefoot, in nighties and pyjamas, eyes like white pebbles – where they force their entry into the villa of the owner or manager of the glass tower, whereupon they demand the salary owed them.
Soon enough, the women sit on the edge of a tombstone and count thousands of bills. The debt of their labour is finally paid, and before the boss can go, they demand one more thing: ‘Dig our graves first.’ Obviously, the boss is obliged and proceeds under the mockery of the women: ‘Look, he doesn’t even know how to dig. That’s real work! Dig till your hands burn.’ Though the words belong to the manual labourers who lie ‘unburied … at the bottom of the ocean’ for having sought to survive elsewhere, the mouths speaking those words belong to women of the night. That kind of global labour, too, Serpell says, is never paid in full.
The drowned men have returned, inside the feverish bodies of the women. The men and the women are body doubles of each other: they are temporal reincarnations of each other. When Souleiman disappears, Ada’s own body also vanishes into languid hours of sleep. But the realisation of the disappearances actually reveals an interruption of the regular disappearance of the body, which usually goes missing from the experiences of daily life. Day to day, the engagement in acts of perception, movement and abstraction means that the body is constantly disappearing from view. This disappearance interrupts when the body makes in moments of disruption and absences, such as disease, pain and death. Sensuality unfolds through sense an interruption, that differs from pain as such. Although both an erotics and pain are a form of a reappearance of the body, a presencing: the interruption of pain is a negative presencing, while sensuality is a positive one. That is how the boys return into the body of the women; who had missed the boys to the extent that they fainted from fever, itself is a marker of an erotic yearning. The boys’ return is a double cure: it turns on the absent bodies of the fainted women and makes disappeared men present and alive again.
I wonder if this instance of the pluralisation of the subject is the actual realisation of an erotics. A common explanation of this phenomenon involves a djinn – a ghostly entity from Arabic and Islamic folklore both malevolent and benevolent – or a zombie. For Serpell, a zombie has origins in the black diaspora: it is a slave forced to do the bidding of others. Diop’s mixture of the two distinct phenomena – the djinn and the slave – creates a spiritual hermaphrodite, whose composition narrates a life beyond the limits imposed on the dispossessed – male and female, management and labour. They now rise up not as mutual enemies but as the communal body that hosts its own composite and doubled life within a present that is hostile to life as such.
This leads Serpell to suggest that in fact ‘We’ are the Atlantics, and that the sea is the sweat of the great majority trying to live, love and work. In the meantime, Inspector Issa harasses and brutalises Ada. He even incarcerated Ada extrajudicially, on the pretence that Ada refused to cooperate with his investigation into the whereabouts of Souleiman, who by now is suspected of committing the arson in the case of the nuptial mattress. As it turns out, Souleiman did not survive the crossing of the sea and has been returning through the fevered body of Inspector Issa. Ada recognises Souleiman in the body of Issa. ‘I will always taste the salt of your body in the sweat of mine,’ Ada tells her lover who is doubled by the inspector. They spend a night at Dior’s bar and house on the beach. As the dawn begins to rise, Souleiman leaves the inspector’s body, who then regains his own self and leaves the bed and the house. It would be impossible to say with certainty what constitute that ‘self’ any longer after all these visitations and body doublings. Perhaps the body doubling is something that precedes and exceeds the formation of a self or a subject. If so, the body doubling would resist the subject who would claim this instance for itself, to incorporate or internalise it. In this sense, the doubling cannot be appropriated. It is incapable of being claimed and owned or made one’s own – but it might also be what cannot be expropriated, stolen or taken away from you.
It is through a sentiment of visitation and clarity that Ada awakens. As she rises and turns towards the camera, her valedictions reduce the whole film into a mere preface to some raging fire to come: ‘Last night will stay with me to remind me who I am and show me who I will become. Ada, to whom the future belongs. I am Ada.’ Here, this relation of interruption – if that is what one can call an erotics that resists subjecthood – is not a luxury pastime but an interdependence resulting from a succession of interruption constitutive of the very notion of the continuity of life under the pressures imposed by the boss, the policing of life and the fatality of crossing the sea while trying to escape those forces. Why else did Souleiman return in the likeness of the inspector, the only male double in the film? Why did Souleiman not return in one of Ada’s women friends? What criteria do the drowned men use to determine who to return and double themselves into? Souleiman’s return in the likeness of the inspector is another interruption within the film. The inspector grows to become one of the many hostile forces against the love of Ada and Souleiman. And yet, Souleiman, Ada and the inspector share a moment of interdependent interruption that is suggestive of how one can become wonderfully insignificant, as just another creature, a form of life out there among other creatures.
By ‘wonderful insignificant’ I mean that the doubling of bodies is an expression of a desire and a practice of freedom that wants to escape, calls to be liberated from a certain grid and particular terms that organise the history of the present as a hostility to life itself, to paraphrase Saidiya V. Hartman, an African American philosopher, who once asked me: does one really want to be a man or a woman at all? When I visited her office at Columbia University in the summer of 2019, Hartman said that when asking this question, one might be a bird flying high or a wildflower smiling in the field. I dream of all the movement and locomotion, like swarms, swells and sways. What language, movement or images are there that can convey such feelings of wanting to inhabit deeply, and trying not to think like a subject?
What do you call an occurrence that is less than an event, functions neither as a cause nor an effect, and yet remains formative as a force, although not in a developmental way? This might seem like a capricious digression to the reader, and in order to make sense of this point, a brief excursus to a completely different film is in order. I am talking about Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight (2016), which A24 describes as a story of human connection and self-discovery that chronicles the life of Chiron, ‘a young black man,’ from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in ‘a rough neighbourhood’ of Miami. It is a vision and portrayal of the moments, people and unknowable forces that shape one’s lives. Canadian queer philosopher John Paul Ricco recently sent me an email containing his new essay, ‘Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight’ (2019), where he offers a reading of Moonlight, following a reading of French literary critic Roland Barthes’ The Neutral (1978), as that which happens but doesn’t last, not even in a matter of being formative, even though it can be said to singularly endure in its very momentariness. For Ricco, it is what Barthes described as a ‘hole-filled temporality’ in opposition to what we might describe as a crystallisation of time.
Ricco elaborates on this by focusing on Story 2 of Moonlight, whereby Chiron and his high-school classmate Kevin meet on the beach one night. Earlier that evening, Chiron’s drug-addicted mother had kicked him out of the house for the night, telling him she has someone coming over and he could not be there. The displaced Chiron spends most of the evening riding the trains and hanging out in the stations of Miami’s public transit system. Later that night, Chiron walks to the beach, a place described by the director as one of solace and life-giving. To illustrate this, Ricco resorts to a passage from ‘Moonlight Undoes Our Expectations,’ the review of the same film by African American writer and critic Hilton Als published The New Yorker on 24 October 2016:
When the boys kiss, Chiron apologizes for it, and we wince, because who among us hasn’t wanted to apologize for his presence? Intimacy makes the world, the body, feel strange. How does it make a boy who’s been rejected because of his skin color, his sexual interests, and his sensitivity feel? Kevin says, ‘What have you got to be sorry for?’ As he works his hand down Chiron’s shorts, the camera pulls back; this is the only moment of physical intimacy in the film, and Jenkins knows that in this study of black male closeness the point isn’t to show fucking; it’s to show the stops and starts, the hesitation, and the rush that comes when one black male body finds pleasure and something like liberation in another.
By interrupting the need to apologise for one’s own presence, the scene offers respite from the question preferred by the immigration officer: why are you here? Ricco reads this moment as extemporaneous, as an out of time and erotic moment, and as a potential source of liberation and freedom. Free in part from the neoliberal script of self-becoming by celebrating the unapologetic, and thus also free from the measure of a subject’s failure to become paradigmatic – in terms of racial, gendered, sexual and social class identity and other forms of categorisation.
For Ricco, this is an instance composed of a temporal moment and a movement, to the precise extent that this mobility is conjoined with – rather than separate from – the stasis of the momentary. For Ricco, a ‘moment of momentum’ is a description of what moves or affects someone or something, yet without either that moment or that momentum being extended or subsumed within a temporal duration of development or progress.
I wonder if this would be another way of understanding erotics? To return to Diop’s Atlantics: the encounter between Souleiman, Ada and Issa, is a movement in which the unity of oppositions interrupts the relation of exclusion and separation. Instead, the distance between the victims of the crossing, those left behind, and those who harass them daily, becomes conjunctive relationships.
Souleiman’s absence is a departure that has no arrival, and it is also an arrival that has no journey. Like this Story 2 of Moonlight, Diop’s Atlantics rehearses the polysemy of the Latin ‘momentum,’ that combines the temporal moment and the mechanical movement into one word that bears the tension of these otherwise contradictory forces of stasis and mobility. Perhaps this is how Ada’s acceptance of the body double resolves the triangular contradiction that resides between the departed Souleiman, the heartbroken Ada and the oppressive legalities of Inspector Issa. The body doubling establishes instead a relation – a proximity – of inclusive disjunction. The drowning at sea, the disabling heartbreak of those left behind and the oppressive regimes of law and order that push one to leave in the first place and harass those who stay are forces of stasis or inertia of a moment. The doubling mobilises these forces of inertia into a relation of inclusive disjunction that exists beyond encounter, sense or experience as these are phenomena that demand a subject and its indebted or indenting Other. Instead, the body as its own double is more and is less than the outdated questioning moralism of the proclamation that ‘your work is not erotic.’ By this, the interlocutor might mean: you owe me tribute because your work does not create my desire, your personhood does not arouse me.
To conclude my musings on Atlantics, I return to the interactions of the arrival in the Netherlands. It might sound as though I am boasting about this, but I first need to gossip to the reader that in the doctoral studies I recently completed at Goldsmiths in London under the supervision of artist Kodwo Eshun, the later works of Roland Barthes played a crucial role. From the same Neutral discussed by John Paul Ricco above, I learnt that there is always a terrorism of the question; a power is implied in every question. The question denies the right not to know or the right to the indeterminacy of desire. For instance, with certain subjects – I sometimes am one of them – a question may set off a certain panic; even more so if the question is, or claims to be, precise. Precision can be power; it can be a form of intimidation. Hence my occasional desire to give imprecise answers to precise questions: is your work erotic? I decide to embrace imprecision, even if it is perceived as a weakness, as an indirect way of mystifying the power of the questioner. Every question comes from a subject who intends something other than a plain, first-degree answer.
In my thesis, I speculate that Barthes might have said all of this because he was probably worried that an attentive reader would ask him questions about his relation to his maternal grandfather Louis-Gustave Binger, the French explorer and colonial officer who claimed the region that is now called Côte d’Ivoire for the French Empire in the 1880s. Binger even served for a time as the colony’s governor, and this is how he lent his name to Bingerville, the city that remains named in his honour to this day. This is what I would call a biographical complexity: Barthes is an affiliation to a figure, agent, group, community or society, by dint of the sheer reality of not being able to choose where we are born. A reality that can morph into a sociographic complicity if no effort is made to acknowledge how historical forces double themselves within one’s own bodies and minds. As such, Barthes’ relation to Binger should be taken into consideration in order to understand his own desire for the death of the author and its culmination into ‘the neutral’ as a more just position. And this leads me to wonder: is Barthes’ desire for the neutral a manifestation of Binger’s body double as the imperial bureaucrat?
At any rate, it might be true that some questions are indeed denuding, and can be read as a situation of inquisition. A question may force one to be and to think like a subject. The State and its institutions are very good at subjecting one to something, noticeable in the processes of immigration. The bureaucrat is not a musing but a questioning character. Behind the State’s ‘objective’ inquiries underlies the question: who would you sleep with? This is what makes the bureaucracy of immigration into a form of a negative erotics. If Souleiman had reached the shores of Spain in 2019 as I reached the Netherlands by plane in 1999, the ensuing negative erotics would have been measured in Souleiman’s readiness to undergo civil conversion and to attain a desirability achieved by accepting the bureaucrat’s rejections of body doubling, even though this rejection might become the very form of inclusion.
Perhaps this is what compels Souleiman to return in the body of Inspector Issa Diop: this particular doubling is in itself already erotic, it is a self-combustion of the question, of the negative erotics, and of all the sensing organs that enforce and prevent the flow of life to exist beyond the confines of subjecthood. The doubling is an expression of a desire and a practice of freedom, moving beyond the limits imposed by the orders of thinking, being and working, that consider life as a problem in itself. Perhaps this is the locus of my own erotics, and not only as an embodied in ‘my body’: I have failed to include footnotes, as I am following what the Malian novelist Yambo Ouologuem did before me. It is through the absence of footnotes, that this essay becomes a body doubled with the words of Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes, Mati Diop, Saidiya V. Hartman, Rosalind E. Krauss, Namwali Serpell, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, John Paul Ricco, Vincent Meessen, T.J. Demos, Isaïe Nzeyimana and Mary Wang.