Say What You Mean: Or, How to Abandon Linearity

It never becomes a conversation. I am always aphasic.

The demand is overly familiar: say what you mean. Say it clearly. And the response is equally familiar. You made it up. It’s in your head. Irrelevant. You have imbibed foreign poison.

If one has to make up a word to describe a condition then the word has no truth-value, no material referent.

Or, more familiarly: stop complaining. Recommend a solution.

Error! Invalid Code! Syntax Not Recognized!

Recommend a solution!

It often seems as though the only linearity allowed is the familiar: tell a story that reminds us all about the importance of family. Express outrage at slow service, bad service, corruption, a world that does not serve at your pleasure. Tell an uplifting tale of overcoming odds, triumphing against adversity, learning always learning. Framed within such parameters, even the most unsettling narratives can be incorporated if not assimilated into the already-known.

Attempting to be “non-linear” does not, of course, offer an alternative to the problem that frames the linear/non-linear binary. I remain seduced by possibility.

Over the past few years, I have been interested in how to think about indifference (though the term itself is catachrestic). About the importance of losing the double consciousness that haunts contemporary cultures of resistance. (Double consciousness, it seems, cannot be detached from resistance; that problem for another time.) Not, I would hasten to add, the indifference that is symptomatic of acute self-consciousness, what might be termed worldliness or sophistication or even, if we dare, cosmopolitanism. No, instead the blank stare of a man chewing on a blade of grass while looking into the horizon.

I have no desire to re-romanticize this ubiquitous image. (Google Africa images.) I am fascinated, however, by the narrative it refuses to tell: the far-seeing eyes, the abstracted expression, the arrested moment. Out of time, the image disengages from the tales we desire of challenge and resistance, from the hyper self-consciousness “we” carry as a symptom of the political. (The irony of writing about the value of indifference as a strategy does not escape me.)

What kind of demand might indifference make? I ask the question only half facetiously, aware that the language of demand draws one back into the problems of “linear” narrative and political “solutions”—the always unheard and forever irrational. I am drawn to the fractured moments of living that might be found in indifference. Fractured insofar as they refuse to justify themselves within legal, moral, social, and spiritual frameworks we inhabit. It is less the obscene (off-stage) that interests me here, nor the easily incorporated “alternative” that too often merely seems reactive. It is, for lack of a better term, the innovative or inscrutable.

To end on a less abstract note: when I teach Amos Tutuola’s Palm-wine Drinkard, I ask students to confront a text that seems indifferent to their demands: it says nothing about an Africa they hope to learn about, adds little to their ego-positions, offers no moral or ethical lesson. It offers, that is, nothing that is readily available to be consumed. Indifferent to their demands, it demands they engage with indifference. Their task, I tell them, is to imagine a way to forge a relationship beyond their usual parameters. This is not simply feeding history or anthropology or some version of contemporary culture, but learning how to imagine a shared social ground.

Such might be termed the paradoxical demand of indifference.