Refusal is one of the virtues necessary to democracy, and to feminist theory in particular, but it takes many forms.
Bonnie Honig (2021, 14)
I belong to a legacy of those who saw what this world had to offer and refused it. Before they refused it, they fought it, and not just with words.
Lola Olufemi (2021, 9)
We can share a refusal.
Sara Ahmed (2017, 185)
Introduction: Refusal and/as Radical Imagination
Imagination is often vivified by the confluence of incommensurables. Bonnie Honig's A Feminist Theory of Refusal (2021) and Lola Olufemi's Experiments in Imagining Otherwise (2021) are, to say the least, two quite different books. Honig's refusal theory is scholarly, her prose of hermeneutic caution, her major text of reference—Euripides's Bacchae—classical, canonical, founding. In turn, Olufemi's Experiments refuse genre classification, astutely combining fragmentary theoretical essay with activist poetry as well as aphorism, and juxtapose literary narrative with raising a political voice. What they share is the goal of reclaiming and capturing emancipatory, feminist political imagination in a time of seemingly vanishing alternatives. The contemporary political situation is not only one of systemic or institutional crisis but marked by a lack of imaginative force. With the ideological consolidation of neoliberal capitalist hegemony, it has become increasingly difficult to envisage, let alone enact, emancipatory political alternatives to the status quo. Effectively confronting a constrictive social imaginary that perpetuates intersectional forms of domination and violence thus presupposes resuscitating radical imagination.1
Olufemi and Honig set about this on different paths but draw on the same practice: refusal. To refuse the given order is part and parcel of imaginative political agency. What is more, neither thinks of refusal as a mere turning away from the present and its material conditions. Politically salient refusal comprises an affirmative flip side: engagement in collective political practices, rehearsing alternative relationalities, and carefully building solidary counter-communities, alliances, and coalitions. Honig aims to carve out the "affirmative dimensions of […] refusal" (Honig 2021, 21) in terms of collective experimentation with other ways of living together. She parts ways with an ethicist "Bartleby left" (Honig 2021, 14) that depoliticizes refusal, boiling it down to the individualistic, inconsequential gesture of preferring-not-to. Honig even speaks of "the promise of refusal as a world-building practice" (Honig 2021, 104). In turn, Olufemi addresses the "Against this" as "a point of possibility": "the against is habitable, against has room for all of us," even as it "is not without conflict, it is not without pain" (Olufemi 2021, 9). She also notes that simply saying "no" is not enough, as it leaves "no room to answer the question, 'What do you desire?'" (Olufemi 2021, 137) Along these lines, Olufemi also rejects a moralized idea of refusal: "I refuse to leave anything to the arc of the moral universe." (Olufemi 2021, 15) As it seems, Honig and Olufemi prompt us to think about the paradoxical notion of a decidedly political and affirmative refusal, as it could be called, to unearth imaginative resources for political action in the very cross-fade of no and yes, of rejection and approval.2
In this respect, a notion that looms large in both Olufemi and Honig is the archive, as the ensemble of a society's institutionalized instances of historical authority and narrative continuity.3 An encounter between the two may sensitize for the archive's precarious ambiguity in regard to political imagination. On the one hand, the archive stores politicizable resources for interpreting and re-imagining the past and present, generating different outlooks for the future. On the other hand, the archive is a police dispositive of normalization, canonization, and exclusion along racialized and colonial lines.4 "The archive, with its shadows and gaps, is a colonial invention in narrative consistency," Olufemi writes. "Its greatest trick is to convince us that 'time' signals forward movement, a determined motion from which events may be regulated, predicted and anticipated." (Olufemi 2021, 18) Revolting against the political regime thus involves revolting against its regime of temporality as linear. Throughout the book, Olufemi problematizes linear notions of time and history, starting out with the question: "If I ask you to connect point A to point B and you inevitably draw a straight line, what do you think you think of history?" (Olufemi 2021, 3) Honig, on her part, draws on Saidiya Hartman's notion of fabulation (Hartman 2019), opting for agonistic counter-archival practice. Mindful of the archive's exclusionary power, Honig holds that emancipatory politics must operate both on the institutional level, critically reckoning with the official archive, as well as on the activist level, denouncing its lacunas and building counter-archives. For if one were to "leave the archive where it is and build elsewhere," Honig argues, one would be "pressed into fugitivity's path. Leaving the archive alone, we abet its reproduction of the same." (Honig 2021, 100) In view of the "choice" between fighting with the archive and turning away from it, Honig holds that "agonism is the answer" (Honig 2021, 100).
The agon about the archive, the quest for political imagination, and the exploration of the gesture(s) of refusals mark three entry points for fathoming the theoretical and political space that spans between Honig's and Olufemi's reflections. To this end, I first (1) retrace the cornerstones of Honig's theory of refusal. Honig conceptualizes feminist refusal by critically reworking three "refusal concepts" (Honig 2021, xiii), namely inoperativity as developed by Giorgio Agamben (Agamben 2010; 2016; 2000), inclination by Adriana Cavarero (Cavarero 2016), and fabulation by Saidiya Hartman (Hartman 2019). I reconstruct how Euripides's Bacchae tragedy plays a double role in Honig's argumentation. On the one hand, the bacchants paradigmatically exemplify the various gestures of refusal that Honig analyzes. On the other hand, the detour via the ancient text enables Honig to critically restage those three refusal concepts. The reading of the play reframes inoperativity, inclination, and fabulation as firmly agonal, political, and collective imaginative practices.
Against this background, I turn to Olufemi's Experiments. I take it that Olufemi's text, encompassing theoretical reflection, imaginative writing, and poetry, can play a similar role in regard to Honig's theory to that which the Bacchae fulfill in Honig's own argument, namely exemplifying and challenging the concepts she envisages at once. In parallel, I read the Experiments as showcasing and questioning Honig's notion(s) of refusal. Olufemi's text (2) stages inoperativity, inclination, and fabulation in their political import: it opens up an intensified, inoperative form of political imagination, problematizes classical notions of time and history by way of inclining and bending linear temporalities, and employs literary fabulation to go beyond the limitations and exclusionary powers of official archives. At the same time (3), I show that Olufemi's text holds resources (a) to question Honig's Arendtian focus on rights and (b) to bring into view not only the powers but also the limits of refusal as an affirmative concept for political struggle.
1. Politicizing Refusal: Honig on Inoperativity, Inclination, and Fabulation
Euripides's Bacchae recounts how the cult of Dionysus was introduced in Thebes. Pentheus, the Theban king, aims to prevent this, thus committing hubris. The bacchants are women from the city who worship Dionysus. Going on strike, the women leave Thebes and wander off to the mountainous area of Cithaeron. There, they build a heterotopian community, a sisterhood in Honig's eyes (Honig 2021, xi), that turns the patriarchal order along with its spatial and temporal regime upside down. Agave, one of the bacchants' leaders and the king's mother, kills her son, apparently, mistaking him for a mountain lion. Leading the bacchants back into the city, Agave is eventually undeceived by Cadmus, her father, mourningly recognizing her dead son. In the end, the bacchants are exiled from the city and order in Thebes is seemingly restored.
Honig notes that readings of this play usually focus on the male protagonists (Pentheus and Dionysus) while sidelining or pathologizing the women's activity. As their refusal is frequently obliterated, Honig calls for a change of perspective "from the male rivals' quest for power to the women's collaborative experiments" (Honig 2021, 2). Feminist refusal then comes into view as "a regicidal project" (Honig 2021, 4) that is successively "rendered unimaginable but […] nonetheless haunts the very present that denies its possibility" (Honig 2021, 5). While Agave's regicide is traditionally interpreted in terms of regret, as if she belatedly commiserated her own deed, Honig argues that it can also be read as staging the tragedy or double bind of women's political agency under patriarchal conditions. What Agave mourns, then, is a "situation in which she cannot kill the king without sacrificing her son. Regicide and filicide are inextricably intertwined" (Honig 2021, 10–11). From this perspective, the "play's horror is its powerful lesson: breaking with patriarchy means breaking (with) the fathers, sons, brothers, neighbors we love" (Honig 2021, 13). Honig thus asks what it would mean to no longer pathologize the women's violence as frenzy, instead seeing it "as, in some way, deliberate and free: a refusal" (Honig 2021, 12). Central to this refusal is the striking secession to Cithaeron. There, the bacchants "set up a para-polis […] in which they rehearse new comportments and inaugurate new temporalities" (Honig 2021, 11). This is part of what Honig calls an "arc of refusal" (Honig 2021, 16) that structures the whole play and that she sets out to explore via (1) inoperativity (Agamben), (2) inclination (Cavarero), and (3) fabulation (Hartman).
(1) In Agamben, inoperativity means suspending the common use of something and repurposing it so that it is withdrawn from the cycle of utility. That new use evades the means-end logic. The paradigmatic figure of suspending use is Bartleby and his "I prefer not to." The withdrawal from utility is exemplified by the Glorious Body of Christ. The Glorious Body is the body after resurrection, which led medieval scholastics to quarrel about the utility of this body's organs. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, they are no longer in use but only on display:5 Christ's Glorious Body stages the perfection of the human body's organic arrangement without lowering itself to actually performing organic functions. Inoperativity thus links suspension and sublime display. According to Honig, this conception of inoperativity remains unpolitical and can be accused of "aestheticism, purism, or passivity" (Honig 2021, 15). By favoring a mere exit from the cycle of use and action, Agamben's inoperativity amounts to an eloquent lesson in how to keep one's hands clean from actual political struggle.
The bacchants, Honig argues, provide a more political gesture of inoperativity. They suspend use, but do not stop at that. In the heterotopia of Cithaeron, they engage in intensifying use, Honig explains. The women lay down work, flee from their captivity in the city and start rehearsing new uses. They practice "another way of living" and "ground new normativities" (Honig 2021, 23) that no longer fasten them in the androcentric partition of the sensible as mothers, daughters, and wives. Breaking with the city's temporal and spatial regime, the bacchants deliberately slow down movement and intensify their actions. Also, they ironize the maternal figure of care. Suspending the reproductive use of the motherly breast, the bacchants turn away from their children, but instead of renouncing caring practices altogether they begin to breastfeed wild animals. For Honig, this "broaden[s] the circle of who counts" but even more importantly "disorient[s] the human as such. […] The bacchants who nurse wild animals rework the 'anthropological machine' to contest sovereignty" (Honig 2021, 23).6
In this way, the body becomes the primary locus of political contestation, as Honig notes with reference to Judith Butler's Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Butler 2015). In view of the MENA occupation movements, Butler argued that the public performance of seemingly private, bodily functions such as sleeping at the protest site "was the most eloquent political statement—and must even count as an action" (Butler 2015, 90). The political intensification of the bodily becomes "part of the assembly's prefigurative institution of new 'horizontal relations'" (Honig 2021, 25). Inoperativity-as-intensification can no longer linger in the ethical purity of suspended use as Agamben has it, but unfolds "in the dirt of experience, where what is can be broken down and what is not yet may be invoked" (Honig 2021, 27). While inoperativity in Agamben remains passive and politically void, just as Bartleby's refusal remains inconsequential and individualistic, inoperativity as collective intensification "make[s] alternatives imaginable" (Honig 2021, 43) by engaging in concrete experimental practices of living otherwise. The intrinsically collective political effort is also what makes the bacchants, for Honig, preferable to "Bartleby and Antigone, the great canonical refusers": "their capacity to inspire a politics seems limited or problematic. Both have long been seen as solitary actors rather than as contributors to larger movements" (Honig 2021, xi).7
(2) Developed in Inclinations: A Critique of Rectitude (2016), inclination is Adriana Cavarero's attempt to reorient the reflection on normativity from androcentric notions of calculable justice to relations of care. Inclination is understood in two connected senses: in terms of affection, as in Kantian moral philosophy, where it is the counterpart to autonomous, rational obligation; and in terms of bodily bending. While the hegemonic masculinist imaginary conceives of the human body as ideally erect, standing upright on its own, and independent from its surroundings, the caring gesture of the mother is that of bending, of inclining over her child, thereby testifying to the interdependence, relationality, and vulnerability of life. Combining both senses, "[i]nclination bends and dispossesses the I" (Cavarero 2016, 7).
As with Agamben's inoperativity, Honig thinks that inclination lacks political edge, given that Cavarero strives for a pacifist understanding of care: an ethics of gentleness. To reframe inclination in more political terms, Honig turns to Sara Ahmed's phenomenology of (dis)orientation (Ahmed 2006). From Ahmed, Honig gains the idea that rectitude/straightness is "the moral geometry of heteronormative sexuality" (Honig 2021, 55). This vertical, straight orientation can be disoriented by way of queer refusal, which is a highly difficult, painful, and itself 'disorienting' process in which the standard identifications and normative categories for self- and world-interpretation are performatively dismantled.8 Cavarero's inclination is thus, with Ahmed, reframed in terms of a queer "politics of disorientation" (Honig 2021, 55).
As Honig shows, the bacchants too attest to a political practice of inclination. Agave's bending over her son's/the king's dead body comes into view as a conflictual, disorienting form of inclination that at the same time attests to how care and violence can never be fully separated. Also, through their collective practices in the "inclinational heterotopia" (Honig 2021, 58) of Cithaeron, the bacchants do not engage in motherly care, but perform a conflictual, sororal form of inclination: "in contention with Cavarero's maternal, pacifist inclination, the bacchants offer up a gesture of inclination that is sororal, agonistic, and (figuratively) regicidal" (Honig 2021, 66). As inoperativity was reframed in terms of intensification, inclination is reframed in terms of sorority and agonism.
(3) With Saidiya Hartman's concept of fabulation, Honig turns to questions of archive and remembrance. Hartman tells fables of "wayward lives" and "beautiful experiments" (Hartman 2019), recounting liberation practices by Black women that are marginalized and often effaced in the archive's records. Fabulation operates in the lacunae and blurred traces of the archive.9 In Hartman, the archive is not renounced, but problematized for all it leaves out and erases. Honig points out that Hartman, engaging in fabulation, "refuses the authority of the archive, contests its moral judgments, and defies the positivism in which it has historically been wrapped" (Honig 2021, 73).10
In her reading of Hartman, Honig again invokes politics. She emphasizes that the experiments and fables that Hartman presents indeed testify to moments of Black liberation, but they remain mostly that: individual moments. As Honig observes, there "is no collective effort to claim or transform the city in Hartman's book" (Honig 2021, 74). The "joyous freedoms that are movingly recorded […] seem never to gather much collective steam" (Honig 2021, 86). In Honig's view, this is not a flaw but can itself be read as a politically salient refusal on Hartman's part, as a "way to register the limitations of the city, in particular its unreadiness to receive and welcome Black joy" (Honig 2021, 74).11 This is again mirrored in Euripides, as the exile the bacchants face in the end can be interpreted as "an expression of a city's limits, a confession of its unpreparedness to respond to challenges, and evidence of its incapacity for transformation" (Honig 2021, 74).
What is more, fabulation as performed by Hartman has political force insofar as it claims and subverts the official archive in a struggle against marginalization and derealization. Sustaining order always has to do with suppressing and erasing traces of otherness. Insofar as it counters and denounces the limitations of the archive, fabulation can be read as "an agonistic practice, a contest over meaning" (Honig 2021, 84). Honig shows that in the Bacchae, this agonism culminates in a conflict over how the bacchants' strike will be remembered. In this regard, Honig resorts to Hannah Arendt, namely her fabulation about the origin of the polis in The Human Condition. Arendt fabulates that "[n]ot historically, of course, but speaking metaphorically and theoretically" the polis was fortified at first because "the men who returned from the Trojan War had wished to make permanent the space of action which had arisen from their deeds and sufferings" (Arendt 1973, 198; Honig 2021, 91). According to this Arendtian fable, the polis is not an end in itself, but its purpose is to preserve the memory of the heroes' deeds. The general lesson is that insofar as reality is constituted intersubjectively, collective recognition of one's own history and past is key for evading the sorrow of derealization. As Honig suggests, the archive and the polis are thus in complicity: the archive needs the polis for maintaining and preserving it, and the polis needs the archive for weaving its own history and constructing its imaginary continuity. However, Hartman also surpasses Arendt, going beyond the archive's fixation on heroism: "Fabulation's stories, unlike Arendt's, center not on the archive's heroes but on the marginalized, the forgotten, the feminized. This refuses and interrupts the values of the archive on behalf of the world as it might be. Refusal is generative." (Honig 2021, 107) As for the bacchants, they finally fail to claim and subvert the archive. Their upheaval of the city leads to banishment in exile. But the play delivers traces, testifying to and exposing the silencing and oppression they underwent. Alluding to W.E.B. Du Bois, Honig calls the strike on Cithaeron a "splendid failure" (Honig 2021, 96; Du Bois 1964, 633).
With Hartman and Arendt, Honig emphasizes the political character of fabulation. Renouncing exile or inner exile, fabulation "presupposes and requires a right to the city: […] a right to retake the archive and maybe even transform the city" (Honig 2021, 97). While Annette Gordon-Reed, in her review of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, problematized Hartman's way of blurring the line between archive and imagination (Gordon-Reed 2020), Honig praises Hartman's fabulation for carefully fathoming the interstices "between archive (History) and imagination (Literature)" (Honig 2021, 99). Honig speaks of fabulation as a "counter-archival practice, which tells the stories that haunt the archive and resist its erasures" (Honig 2021, 98), reorienting fabulation towards the city precisely by subverting its exclusionary archives.
With inoperativity (as intensification), inclination (as disorientation), and fabulation (as counter-archive), the arc of feminist refusal that Honig retraces is complete. In view of the Bacchae, Honig sums it up in time lapse: "leave, suspend use in festival, hide out, rehearse some new moves, corporealize different habits, intensify use, try out a new world, imagine it, make it real, join up with others, fight with each other, care for each other, come back and claim your right to the city, too. You have the right to leave, the right to build elsewhere, but you also have an obligation to return because we are all depending on each other" (Honig 2021, 104).
While focusing on the bacchants as paradigmatic, Honig also alludes to many further figures as instantiations of refusal's various guises. Among others, she reads Anna Rose Holmer's 2015 film The Fits about a Black girls' dance group as a present-day Bacchae, interprets Chaplin's classic Modern Times as a display of inoperativity and ends with a reflection on Muhammad Ali's "repertoire of refusal" (Honig 2021, 123) that comprises inoperativity, inclination, and fabulation in a quest for political truth-telling12 and racial justice. In this way, she suggests that the agonistically reworked refusal concepts can be put to use to understand various insurgent and protest practices as well as taken up in political action as a kind of imaginative repertoire. Accordingly, there seems to be a certain codependence of refusal and imagination. On the one hand, imagination needs refusal: halting, clearing time and space for collective prefiguration is necessary to vivify imagination's political powers. On the other hand, refusal as affirmative needs imagination to go beyond the suspensive gesture of preferring-not-to. Envisaging political alternatives necessitates upholding and enacting the tension of refusal and imagination.
2. Experimental Inclinations: Olufemi on Time, Collectives, and the Otherwise
It seems to me that Lola Olufemi's Experiments in Imagining Otherwise can be read as both exemplifying the various refusal notions Honig discusses as well as posing critical challenges towards her refusal-theoretic approach. As with any insightful text, this is of course not the only possible reading, even more so as Olufemi decidedly invites active engagement on part of the reader in respect to how emancipatory Black feminist imagination can be furthered.13 Olufemi conceives of writing as a creative process that surpasses the capacities of the individual and that is always already collective. Indeed, the very figure of the "Individual Artist" who "works from the singular creative impulse buried deep inside" (Olufemi 2021, 114) inhibits radical imagination, as Olufemi points out. Artistic and political imagination require genuinely collective efforts of world-building: "Many have wagered that the only kind of art-making worth protecting is collective," which means to put "an end to the figure of the Individual Artist altogether. Only then can we begin to conceptualise political organising as creative space" (Olufemi 2021, 114–15). Olufemi envisages the collective process of artistic work as a model for forging political alliances: "Put simply, political organisers are art-makers; they work in search of other temporalities" (Olufemi 2021, 115).14 Against this background, the Experiments can be understood as attempts to spark collective artistic and political imagination without monologically deciding about the paths that this imagination is going to take. Coming from Honig, we can point out three gestures that Olufemi deploys in this regard: (1) intensifying inoperativity, (2) agonistic inclination, and (3) counter-archival fabulation.
(1) Intensified inoperativity: With its tenuous mixture of styles and genres, Olufemi's book is a work of literature in the best sense. Taking up Agamben's notion of inoperativity as suspension of use, literary discourse in general may be conceived as language rendered inoperative. Already John L. Austin famously excluded theatrical and poetic expressions from his theory of the performative precisely on the grounds that it was not clear to him how and in what way these strange "words," uttered on a stage or in a novel, "do things," as compared to ordinary discourse (Austin 1975, 22).15 As Christ's Glorious Body both suspends and displays the organs' functions, the literary suspends ordinary language use, rendering it inoperative and displaying language's possibilities outside the cycle of functional communicative utility. With Honig's refusal notions in mind, Olufemi's writing can be understood as shifting literary inoperativity from suspension and display to intensification. In her essay, her poetry, and her storytelling, she neither wishes to overcome common language use nor to simply communicate ideas and political opinions, as she expressly states: "I don't want to be sacrificed to the marketplace of ideas. No. I make my arguments to pierce something" (80), thus intensifying the common use of argumentation by raising it to the level of corporeal vulnerability.
In this vein, the whole project to experiment with imagining otherwise suspends an accepted, tame use of imagination and intensifies it. Rather than mere reverie, a daydream that helps bearing the disastrous status quo, or even an ideological imaginary that sustains the given order, "imaginative thinking is fuel" (Olufemi 2021, 15) for radical political movements. Political transformation encompasses an altered, more intense use of imagination: "Revolutionary movements require a / teleological pool from which to draw. / The imagination is that teleological pool: it / not only creates liberatory drives; it sustains, / justifies and legitimises them. It undoes entire / epistemes and clears a space for us to create / something new." (Olufemi 2021, 34) In this sense, imagination has the power to suspend and intensify, which enables us to think of imagination in terms of an 'inoperativity machine.' Imagination is an inoperativity machine insofar as it suspends the given order of things—"imagination is central to the cultural / production of revolutionary movements" (Olufemi 2021, 35)—and intensifies the desire for another life: "one must create the conditions that enable us to defend" a livable life and let it "flourish. Isn't that the most imaginative task of all?" (Olufemi 2021, 89)
Imagination intensifies experience by inaugurating contact with alterity. This is already outlined in the general definition of imagination Olufemi presents: "In common parlance, the imagination is understood as the process of conjuring that which does not exist—presently or subjectively. To imagine, then, is to conjure an idea, a feeling, a thought, a sensory or affective response that was not present before the act of conjuring it began" (Olufemi 2021, 27). In terms of such conjuring, imagination lets us glimpse what is not there and gain a sense of its possible presence in the first place.16 However, radical political imagination has to be distinguished from blueprint utopianism. While the traditional utopist knows precisely how the future society should be arranged, imagining otherwise in Olufemi's sense means first to expose oneself to the unknown and to embrace this exposure: "The otherwise requires a commitment to not knowing." (Olufemi 2021, 17) The alterity of political imagination involves a "knowledge that knows there is no certitude" (Olufemi 2021, 124). Instead of counting on moral progress or a historical tendency that inevitably leads to the better, radical politics on Olufemi's terms makes a different use of imagination, an intensified use that familiarizes with how political action always remains venturous.
(2) Agonistic inclination: Throughout Olufemi's text, there are many figurations of agonistic inclination and radical care. Genuinely caring for each other involves a refusal of the conditions that inhibit livable relations of care, thus "refusing ongoing brutalization of the self and others" (Olufemi 2021, 11). Against the neoliberal popularization and commodification of feminism (Olufemi 2020), Olufemi aims to re-intensify radical feminist inclination: "I feel embarrassed when I say feminism and people do not think revolution in service of every living thing" (Olufemi 2021, 13). Reading this with Honig in mind, it is difficult to not think of the bacchants nursing wild animals on Cithaeron, extending care beyond the boundaries of the recognizably human. Moreover, feminism reconfigures hegemonic temporalities and velocities that inhibit care: "feminism asks us to turn away, to refuse, to block the way, to slow down in order to destroy all those patterns and formations that would have us die before we are ready" (Olufemi 2021, 89).17
This leads to the perhaps most important gesture of inclination in Olufemi's writing, namely an inclination of hegemonic temporality. The whole book can be read as performing temporal inclinations: attempts to disorient the linearity of time, bending it to form nonlinear shapes. In this view, linear, synchronous temporality is the temporality of modern dispositives of domination, both in its progressive and conservative variants.18 If we follow Olufemi, resistance requires not only imaginative heterotopias but also heterochronies, islands or vessels of altered time.19 Perhaps surprisingly, Olufemi resorts to the most classical image of inclined time: the circle, which is even depicted as a thin, not perfectly round yellow line against the deep blue background of the book cover. "Think of how a circle," Olufemi writes, "rounded lines from a fixed point, seems to keep going and going. / That could be the key to our method" (Olufemi 2021, 111).
From the perspective of Western temporal imaginaries, this may be puzzling insofar as we have learned to think of cyclical time as mythical time: a time of endless repetition, of natural recurrence, of sameness over and over. Against this background, the invention of linear time is traditionally conceived not only as a historical event among others, but as the event of events, insofar as historical breaks and revolutions, events of radical newness can only occur when the mythical circle of recurring time is broken.20 Olufemi, to be sure, does not subscribe to this mythical notion of cyclical time. Her temporal inclination refigures or deconstructs cyclical temporality so that the image of the circle is transformed from displaying recurrent sameness into an alterity-opening device. Right at the outset, she associates the circle with "history as living commotion, a sprawling mess of the not-quite-said, or did-it-actually-happen, or what-year-was-the-massacre, or what-ushered-in-the-epoch" (Olufemi 2021, 3). What is attractive about the circle, for Olufemi, is that it invites to think of past, present, and future not as neatly divided but as interwoven and superimposed onto one another in complex ways. This is reflected in the book's tripartite structure, where the three chapters are captioned as "Past (Present / Future)," "Present (Future / Past)," and "Future (Past / Present)." Hinting to Édouard Glissant's notion of "trace thought,"21 Olufemi envisages historical time as "a record of traces that make connections between the past (present/future)----the present (future/past)----and the future (past/present)." (Olufemi 2020, 32) Her aim is to "demonstrate how these temporal regimes encroach on one another, so to tell the story of the past means telling the story of the present, which is already where the future resides. Maybe time is a many-pronged spiral: a thick and firm approach and retreat, steady and unrelenting." (Olufemi 2021, 32) Here, the circle suddenly becomes a spiral. In other instances, Olufemi speaks of a "loop" (Olufemi 2021, 56). Spirals and loops deconstruct and bend the traditional circular image of time. Focusing on traces and margins as interstices between past, present, and future may then "crack open the absolute of time" (Olufemi 2021, 32).
(3) Counter-archival fabulation: Along with the refusal of linear time, Olufemi unreservedly problematizes linear, legitimizing notions of history. The historical archive erases and derealizes Black emancipatory struggle. Here, questions of precarious remembrance again take center stage: "If we are not there, then we are not THERE, which means nobody will know about us. We feel cheated by the systems that cheat us: the school, the university, the museum, the history book. Erasure lights the path in our search for History. We go searching for the tools and archival methods to set the record straight." (Olufemi 2021, 37)22
As we have already seen in Honig with reference to Hartman, who is also present in Olufemi (Olufemi 2021, 20),23 reclaiming the archive is one of the ways to fight the derealization entailed by the erasure from official records. In the second story (each of the Experiments' three chapters ends with a short story), the protagonist named Fanta is interested in "black revolutionary movements and how the archive might help her redefine ideas of struggle, of emancipation and political discipline" (Olufemi 2021, 94). For Fanta, "the archive became a way to deal with the confinement that seemed inherent in the present" (Olufemi 2021, 96).24 However, Olufemi also puts into question this agonal focus on the official archive: "What if the political question were not preoccupied with excavation? Then we'd be forced to evacuate" (Olufemi 2021, 37), which again calls to mind Honig's reflections on exile. Once, she even speaks of the archive as "a useless word" (Olufemi 2021, 40).
Olufemi's discontents with the archive seem to suggest that the relation to memory and history, at least in the context of Black feminist struggle, ought to be one of constant recalibration and renegotiation. There is not the one, clean and pure recipe for dealing with the archive in emancipatory politics. On the one hand, Olufemi suggests to reconceptualize the archive. Referring to Lize Mogel's and Alexis Bhagat's Atlas of Radical Cartography (Mogel and Bhagat 2008), Olufemi proposes to think of the archive not in terms of a "record of the past or an arrangement of physical space, but […] as a topography of procedures. That is, a continuous, fickle, evolving set of processes that eschews definition, or concreteness, or knowing." (Olufemi 2021, 18–19) In this way, the archive could turn from a dispositive of knowledge conservation to a quarry for political imagination. On the other hand, Olufemi repeatedly turns to the gesture of refusing the archive altogether: "What if we do not need to know the past to know the past, or, indeed, to feel it? Hall writes that the archive represents an end to a kind of creative innocence. I wish to reintroduce it." (Olufemi 2021, 19; Hall 2001)25 Perhaps, such creative innocence, or at least a longing for it, is required for daring to engage in fabulation beyond the archive.
3. Self-Empowerment, Claims, and the Limits of Refusal
Olufemi's call for creative innocence beyond the archive's constraints can be read in two ways—and here I turn to how Olufemi's Experiments may challenge some aspects of Honig's refusal theory. First, it can be seen as part of Olufemi's problematization of narrative as a means of political transformation. Setting the record straight or forging new narratives is not enough, as she repeatedly states: "All this 'the left needs its own narrative.' Are we storytellers? Don't we deal in the material?" (Olufemi 2021, 14) One-sidedly focusing on narrative blinds oneself to reality's material conditions as well as to the forceful imaginations and theories formed outside the sanctuary of academia's archive. Political imagination is then neither a mere thought exercise in one's private mind nor exclusively found in the portico of master thinkers, but sparked in material, bodily encounters, and within concrete collectives. If radical imagination, on the political as well as the artistic plane, requires collectivity, then it also requires concrete material instantiations and space for collective practices. In other words, resources for political imagination and emancipatory theory formation are not primarily to be found in heights of the sanctioned canon (such as Euripides, for that matter). Rather, Olufemi calls for "mixing thought" and "refusing the particular and cold praise that idolatry elicits," which grants the possibility of "finding theory in the most meagre places" and "[t]he most squalid atmosphere" (Olufemi 2021, 108).26
Second, renouncing the archive in favor of creative innocence can be read as self-empowerment in the context of Black feminism. Even as erasure from the archive indeed threatens derealization, one could in turn ask whether the idea that you need to be inside the archive in order to be real makes the reality of Black life again dependent upon its official recognition within the 'white' archive, which inevitably remains a "colonial invention" (Olufemi 2021, 18). The danger would then be to lose sight of practices of self-constitution and empowerment on part of the marginalized.27 This is not to discourage tarrying with the archive but may counterbalance the struggle for reclaiming it with material practices of self-empowerment. Such practices enact a "right to build elsewhere," to speak with Honig, without however having "an obligation to return" (Honig 2021, 104) to the official archives, but rather questioning who may be in the position to impose such an obligation.
Additionally, Olufemi also challenges the liberal logic of rights and obligations altogether. The vocabulary of rights has in many contexts proved to be a forceful rhetorical device for political struggle, but it also comes with specific constraints and provisions. Olufemi experiments with imagining alternatives to the frame of rights: "What good is it to talk about rights if people do not have means? I want to ask, how do 'rights' fail us and what would happen if instead, we supported each other's claims to a livable life? What does a 'claim' do that a right cannot? What could a pact do? […] Bonds might be more powerful than rights." (Olufemi 2021, 67)
One of the ways in which the framework of rights may constrain radical political imagination is that it inevitably confronts with the necessity to justify one's political actions within a (moral or legal) register of legitimacy and deviance. In turn, Olufemi imagines ways of refusing the claims of legality and official morality. For instance, she proposes thinking about questions of political violence beyond the purview of morality: "Think of violence not as moral or immoral, but simply as a question of who has the power to justify using it." (Olufemi 2021, 51) This shifts discourse on violence from the question of theoretically legitimizing a "right to violence" (Hirsch 2004) to analyzing the strategies and power asymmetries by which certain acts are framed as violent while others are sanctioned as justified self-defense. "We have seen previously how peaceful political demands are always already misconstrued by sovereign power as a 'violent' act. Why, then, must violence be avoided? For whose sake?" (Olufemi 2021, 88)
This should not be read as a carte blanche for violence, but as taking on the task to expose the power dispositives that regulate the classification of certain acts as violent or nonviolent. A similar point has recently been made by Elsa Dorlin. Dorlin retraces a historically sedimented "defense dispositive" that decides whose lives are defensible and whose lives are exposed to violence without protection. Self-defense is never just a right, but has always been a privilege—a privilege that is unequally distributed along sexualized, racialized, and economic lines (Dorlin 2022; Butler 2020; Seitz 2021, 4). Dorlin argues that the liberal notion of a state monopoly on the legitimate use of violence disguises precisely the fact that the resources for self-defense are socially distributed along several intersectional fault lines. More accurately, one should speak of an "imperial economy of violence," as Dorlin calls it, that "paradoxically defends individuals who have always already been recognised as legitimate defenders of themselves" (Dorlin 2019, 8). Eventually, radical refusal should at times encompass a refusal of the rights-and-obligations-frame.
What is more, Olufemi also thinks about the limits of refusal as an imaginative political concept. She explores refusal's boundaries near the end of the book in the third short story, a fantasy entitled "The girl who wished to be anything but a bird." The story is set in a dystopia where the young are, at a certain age, transformed into birds in the course of a public ritual event. The girl and others opposed to this transformation form a collective that plans to refuse transformation publicly: "Their plan centred on refusal—refusal to work, refusal to transform, refusal to believe that 'ancestry' was a synonym for 'directive'. When the time came, they would simply say 'no,' and the history of that speech-act would rise up and swaddle them, protecting them from destiny." (Olufemi 2021, 137) However, even before the event, the group's confidence in the power of the No wanes: "They soon realised that merely refusing transformation would not save them. […] [R]efusal on its own was akin to strangulation." (Olufemi 2021, 137–38)
To conclude, let me note that there are several ways of understanding this problematization of refusal in Olufemi. On one reading, it points in unison with Honig, to the insufficiency of a merely negative notion of refusal as it is put forward in the "Bartleby left" (Honig 2021, 14): refusal ought to comprise affirmative flip sides. At the same time, Olufemi also helps us consider whether we ask too much of refusal when loading or perhaps overloading it with all affirmative aspects of political struggle. Emancipatory political imagination would then run the risk of again being constrained by the negationary character of refusal. In turn, the repertoire that Honig proposes—intensified inoperativity, agonistic inclination, and counter-archival fabulation—may propel political imagination regardless of whether these notions are indeed considered as subcategories of a general notion of refusal or as standalone concepts.
Furthermore, Olufemi is also sensitive to how even the negativity of 'mere' refusal, of the No can at times bring about cracks in the shell of the status quo which let the Otherwise shine through, thus possibly entailing, if not comprising, affirmation. At least this could be seen as the dystopia's lesson. For when the girl refuses and fights becoming a bird at the event, her failure and eventual transformation is not futile. Even within this very failure, Olufemi writes, "[s]he knew […] that she had succeeded. The fact that they could regard her transformation as anything other than inevitable, that they were conscious enough to know there was another way even as it slipped through their fingers, meant she had unsettled and destroyed some old aspect of being. They saw differently now." (Olufemi 2021, 141) And seeing differently—this can be learned from Honig as well as Olufemi—is one of the cornerstones of imagining otherwise and imagining political alternatives in view of a constrictive political imaginary that forecloses not only the possibility of radical transformation but even the very meaningfulness of aiming at it.
- As the term's etymology from lat. radix (root) suggests, imagination is radical insofar as it touches upon the very foundations of political order instead of reproducing or even fixating the status quo. In his theory of revolutionary political action, Cornelius Castoriadis famously builds on the notion of radical imagination, calling to mind its subversive function with regard to the given order but also emphasizing the necessity of re-inscribing the imagined other into the social imaginary: "The creative role of the radical imagination of subjects […] is their contribution to the positing of forms-types/eide other than those that already exist and are in force for the society, an essential, inexpungible contribution, but one that always presupposes the instituted social field and the means that it supplies, and that effectively becomes a contribution (something other than daydreams, whimsy, delirium) only to the extent that it is taken up again on the social level in the form of the modification of the institution or the positing of another institution." (Castoriadis 1997, 263) While Castoriadis "places the radical imagination on the level of the individual" (Dosse 2017, 139), both Honig and Olufemi insist on radical imagination being a decidedly collective matter, as we shall see. [^]
- Recently, such a logic of affirmative refusal was widely visible through the popularization of abolitionist demands in the context of the worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Since the Black struggle for emancipation and the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, abolitionism never settled for a merely negative refusal of the given order. Rather, negating the status quo had to be entangled with forging new relations, bonds, and institutions. This is already expressed in W.E.B. Du Bois's idea of "Abolition Democracy" (Du Bois 1964, 387): putting an end to slavery only on the formal-juridical plane was not enough to get rid of the imperial economy that sustains and perpetuates systemic racism. As Angela Davis points out, Abolition Democracy involves imagining and building "a host of democratic institutions" (Davis 2005, 92). Recently, Andrew Dilts reconstructed abolitionism as a critical practice in a time of seemingly vanishing political alternatives and a resurgence of left melancholia as well as reformist realism, arguing that Abolition Democracy is "deeply materialist" and at the same time "a project to expand our political imagination" (Dilts 2019, 237). [^]
- For critical reflection on this classical notion of the archive, see Georges Didi-Huberman's essays on the "burning archive" (Didi-Huberman 2007; 2018). As Andreas Oberprantacher notes, Didi-Huberman's whole oeuvre can be read as revolving "around the archive as a problematic index and locus of imagination" (Oberprantacher 2022, 15). [^]
- In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida points out that "every archive […] is at once constitutive and conservative. Revolutionary and traditional." (Derrida 1996, 7) In both respects, the archive's meaning and significance stems, as Tobias Hering notes, not so much from its relation to the past, but rather from its relation to the future: "'heritage' is the name for something that engages us with the future. And so does the archive: the question of the archive is not a question of the past, but a question of the future" (Hering 2012). [^]
- "In the glorious body," Agamben writes, "it became possible for the first time to conceive the separation of an organ from its physiological function. […] The exhibition of the organ separated from its exercise or the empty repetition of its function have no aim other than the glorification of God's work." (Agamben 2010, 100) [^]
- This seems particularly striking in view of the ecological disaster we face. Think, in this context, of Donna Haraway's idea of responsibility as no longer restricted to the confines of the human. Instead of privileging human relations of responsibility, Haraway envisages practices of "making kin" across species borders and speaks of "viral" responsibility: "responsibility in and for the worldlings […] requires the cultivation of viral response-abilities, carrying meanings and materials across kinds in order to infect processes and practices that might yet ignite epidemics of multispecies recuperation and maybe even flourishing on terra in ordinary times and places" (Haraway 2016, 114). A similar motif is to be found in Paul B. Preciado when he explicitly refuses a humanist understanding of feminism: "Ladies, gentlemen, and others: once and for all, feminism is not a humanism. Feminism is an animalism. In other words, animalism is an expanded feminism, and not anthropocentric." (Preciado 2020, 100) Bruno Latour also argues that "we have to agree to remain open to the dizzying otherness of existents, the list of which is not closed, and to the multiple ways they have of existing or of relating among themselves" (Latour 2017, 36). [^]
- Notably, Honig herself delivered an alternative reading of Antigone as a more collective-oriented protest figure in Antigone, Interrupted (Honig 2013). Also, she points to traces of collectivity in Melville's Bartleby (Honig 2021, 18–19). [^]
- This concept of disorientation comes close to Jacques Rancière's understanding of political subjectification as disidentification. Rather than thinking of political subjectivity as presupposing or expressing some sense of shared identity, Rancière holds that "[a]ny subjectification is a disidentification, removal from the naturalness of a place" (Rancière 1998, 36). In this sense, political subjectification can be seen as disorienting the given "partition of the perceptible" (Rancière 1998, 24). On political subjectification beyond identity formations see also Martinez Mateo (2022), who draws on Chicana feminism to elaborate a politically salient notion of disidentification. [^]
- With Didi-Huberman, we could perhaps speak of fabulation as the paradigmatic counter-archival practice. For as Didi-Huberman points out, the lacuna is not external to the archive, but constitutive of it: "Every time when we look at an image, should we not reflect about what it was that prevented its destruction, its disappearance? For it is so simple and has been so common in every epoch to destroy images. Therefore, every time we want to build up a historical interpretation—or an 'archeology' in Michel Foucault's sense—we have to take care not to identify the archive that is accessible to us—as large as it may be—with the actions and deeds of a world of which it only ever delivers some traces. The authenticity of the archive is its lacuna, its holey essence." (Didi-Huberman 2007, 7, my trans.) [^]
- Perhaps we could then think of fabulation as the archive's "dangerous supplement" in Derrida's sense: as that which at once fills a gap and subverts the whole (Derrida 1998, 141; 1996). [^]
- In this context, it would also be important to retrace more closely how structural/systemic racism aims at inhibiting collectivization on part of the marginalized. [^]
- As Honig repeatedly approaches questions of truth-telling in her refusal theory, it is strange that she leaves Foucault unmentioned. In his 1983 Berkeley lectures, Foucault focuses on parrhesia as an ancient practice of political truth-telling, thereby turning precisely to the Bacchae as well as other tragedies by Euripides (Foucault 2019). [^]
- Olufemi indeed makes no pretense of her firm belief in collectivity in ways that sometimes remind of Keri Smith's Wreck this Journal (Smith 2017), as when she leaves page 16 blank except for noting: "I believe in collaboration, so I have left this space for you—write something" (Olufemi 2021, 16) or when she calls her book a "live document. Feel free to rewrite what you don't like. No more text-as-dead-space" (Olufemi 2021, 110). [^]
- The intricate relation of feminist art and politics is already at stake in Olufemi's Feminism, Interrupted: "Feminist art is moralising and instructive because this is necessary ammunition when our lives are on the line. It helps us clarify our position and make sense of what it is we are imagining. When we engage in political work, we do so for every artist that cannot become an artist because they are black, poor, uneducated, disabled, trans, because structural barriers mean that their lives are already mapped out for them. We use art to fight political battles in order to create the conditions for unbridled creativity. So that we might all be able to live artistic lives: lives of freedom." (Olufemi 2020, 94) [^]
- Austin excludes the literary from his theory of performativity by pointing to the fact that it suspends the ordinary use of language: "a performative utterance will […] be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. This applies in a similar manner to any and every utterance—a sea-change in special circumstances. Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use" (Austin 1975, 22; Derrida 1997, 16–18). [^]
- The talk of 'conjuring' should not have us think of imagination as a faculty of which we may dispose sovereignly. With Ahmed, we may argue that a certain line of imagination, just as any intentional object, is not so much at our autonomous disposal but rather in reach or out of reach, depending upon certain social and political conditions (Ahmed 2006, 101–2). In this context, I am grateful to Michaela Bstieler who suggested to me the notion of "conditions of imaginability," in the sense of precarious, politically contestable limitations and preconditions of imagination. [^]
- Already in Feminism, Interrupted, which alludes to Honig's Antigone, Interrupted, Olufemi starts out with staging feminism as constitutively oriented towards futurity and beyond what is considered possible at a given point: "Feminism is a political project about what could be. It's always looking forward, invested in futures we can't quite grasp yet. It's a way of wishing, hoping, aiming at everything that has been deemed impossible." (Olufemi 2020, 1) [^]
- In his classic Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson shows how the emergence of modern nationalism and the nation as an imagined community is bound to a linear and synchronous notion of time (Anderson 2016, 187–89). [^]
- Already in Foucault, heterotopias often involve heterochronies: "Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time—which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time." (Foucault 1999, 234; see also Gross 2020, 21; Seywald 2021, 12). [^]
- As Jan Keller observes, "the very notion of 'progress' […] was created when the Enlightened secularised the Christian concept of linear history. Antiquity, subscribing to a cyclical concept of time, lacked this notion. Rather than progress, it dwelt on the receding Golden Age and the gradual spoiling of what had been at the beginning" (Keller, in Hrubec, Dvořáková, and Keller 2016, 9). [^]
- Glissant opposes trace thought to classical forms of "systematic thought:" "Systematic thought and systems of thought were prodigiously fruitful and prodigiously dominant and prodigiously deadly. Trace thought is that which today most validly opposes the false universality of systematic thought." (Glissant 2020, 7) [^]
- Along similar lines, Saidiya Hartman already writes in her first book Scenes of Subjection: "the effort to reconstruct the history of the dominated is not discontinuous with dominant accounts of official history but, rather, is a struggle within and against the constraints and silences imposed by the nature of the archive—the system that governs the appearance of statements and generates social meaning." (Hartman 1997, 11) [^]
- An interesting discussion between the two, focusing on Hartman's Wayward Lives, is available as a podcast, see Hartman and Olufemi 2019. [^]
- In Feminism, Interrupted, Olufemi points, under the appellative heading "Know your history," to the importance of fables and historical narrative for forging a Black feminist self-understanding: "Black women's history travels in whispers and memories recalled around the dining table by mothers and grandmothers and it often dies when those voices leave us. The power of these stories is that they make us feel less alone and give us the courage to act by providing us with a blueprint. This is important for young feminists because there are forces acting on us at all times that tell us that revolution is impossible. These forces take a toll on our bodies, our minds, our sense of ourselves and our understanding of what is possible. History allows us to see that subversion and, more importantly, resistance has always existed. Feminist activists have always pushed boundaries set by the state, by men, by the powerful, and in doing so, laid the foundations for a new world." (Olufemi 2020, 10–11) [^]
- Olufemi refers to a short text by Stuart Hall on how archives are constituted. Hall argues that archives not only preserve history but have themselves a pre-history that is always to some degree thwarted by the archive in its actual existence: "Constituting an archive represents a significant moment, on which we need to reflect with care. It occurs at that moment when a relatively random collection of works, whose movement appears simply to be propelled from one creative production to the next, is at the point of becoming something more ordered and considered: an object of reflection and debate. The moment of the archive represents the end of a certain kind of creative innocence, and the beginning of a new stage of self-consciousness, of self-reflexivity in an artistic movement." (Hall 2001, 89) [^]
- This harks back to the Gramscian notion of the "organic intellectual" (Gramsci 1971) as it has been taken up by Patricia Hill Collins to recover a submerged tradition of Black feminist theory: "Academics are the intellectuals trained to represent the interests of groups in power. In contrast, 'organic' intellectuals depend on common sense and represent the interests of their own group." (Hill Collins 1999, 291) Following Gramsci, Oliver Marchart coined the notion of "organic theory" as a form of theory-building within political collectives that recognizes how "the political practice of social movements not only generates empirical knowledge but creates theoretical models for self- and world-interpretation" (Marchart, Adolphs, and Hamm 2010, 73, my trans.), which may resonate well with the notion of "finding theory in the most meagre places" (Olufemi 2021, 108). [^]
- A genealogy of subaltern self-empowerment has recently been presented by Elsa Dorlin (Dorlin 2022). [^]
I thank Michaela Bstieler, Matthias Flatscher, Simon Ganahl, Mareike Gebhardt, and Anna Wieder for their careful readings and helpful comments.
This work has been funded by the European Union (ERC, PREDEF, 101055015). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.
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