Psychicness, Planetarity and the Aftermath of Knowledge
by Moses Serubiri and Halima Haruna
Moses Serubiri and Halima Haruna discuss terminologies of the psychic and the planetary and their cultural relations in Black and African scholarship through a text by Aida Mbowa, Ugandan scholar and artist, and Haruna’s own research in the Niger Delta. This conversation is an excerpt from the research sessions between Haruna and Serubiri during the Digital Earth fellowship.
Moses Serubiri: In her article ‘Abbey Lincoln’s Screaming Singing and the Sonic Liberatory Potential Thereafter’, Ugandan performance artist and scholar Aida Mbowa writes: Abbey Lincoln screams. A scream can be a literal testimony of a body in physical pain. In black history, to scream is to defy silencing and the attempt to erase the very human, a necessary noise in response to physical injury, to whips, to smacks, the breaking of the body. In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that pain more than any other phenomenon “resists objectification in language”. That is to say, pain, perhaps more frustratingly so than many other interior states, seeks an “externality”, “sharability”, that seems to move back away from language. We hear in Lincoln’s vocal expression a release of sound unalloyed to lyrics, akin to “a reversion to the pre-language of cries and groans, whereby we witness the destruction of language.” Thus, considering Scarry and Glissant alongside each other: screams on slave plantations, represented in literature, represented in musical performances centuries later, contradictorily, are and are not language.
Mbowa asks these psychological questions about pain, “what is psychological agony?” But I think the article generally is concerned with this question of affect — there’s a very potent analysis of the song, particularly in how Mbowa specifically locates the artist within a certain point of Black History. You can read in the article how affect manifests within the actual song. I think that she’s saying there is a cultural dimension and there is a political dimension within the voice, with a particular emphasis on the scream that Abbey Lincoln has.
Halima Haruna: The reason why this is so interesting to me is because I’m having a difficult time writing and outlining exactly how affect and psyche correlate — I haven’t been able to come to a conclusion about it. The reason why I’m thinking about this now is because I’m unable to answer these questions for myself, especially in writing, I’m hoping that I might be able to find other ways to act as a vessel for the idea.
A lot of what the article describes regarding psychological agony and moving past language have long been preoccupations of mine. The suggestion from the article, or from that initial abstract about the performance by Abbey Lincoln, is that social and cultural moments themselves are encapsulated in the performative instance of the scream. You also said that it could be the writer’s attempt to key Abbey Lincoln into larger narratives, a larger account of Black nationalism. So, I don’t know if the idea is that these performative moments are somehow connected to or are instances that reflect socio-political and cultural movements.
MS: Maybe my description doesn’t really do it justice because it’s not just about Black nationalism. I think Black nationalism is the context for the piece but there’s a lot more going on, in particular, when she starts to describe the actual singing on page 141 — it’s basically the section under the Sixth Sense of History or an Ensemble of Ghosts.
HH: With regards to the psychological agony that Mbowa describes when she writes about this performance by Abbey Lincoln, I would like to add that it also refers to the psyche from which I am developing the concept of ‘Psychic-ness’.
I have an idea of what I mean when I’m talking about Psychic-ness, I know that it’s tied to existentialism — states of being and of mind that influence and are influenced by social relations. I’m trying to define what a state of being is; not necessarily tied to a particular type of culture but expressing the state of being. If we consider this ‘planetarity’, that is, the duration of planetary change — what does it induce in people and how do we make more sense of that? The state of being is also the psyche ascribed to person(s), it’s also about ambient and affectual natures. So, that’s part of why I thought the Makhubu text was interesting, especially the framework that she outlined on social typologies as creating cosmologies. The idea that I think is key in planetarity is that the Earth has a specific, non-human, duration. How do we think about the cosmology of the Earth concerning agency? So, if we think about the Earth not as a planet but rather as an agent, then how is that cosmology transferred onto social life on Earth — it’s about trying to deal with the aftermath of the concept. For me, that aftermath is the Psychic-ness created by the presence of knowledge.
You know, the other thing that I should say is that I ended up doing a lot of interviews over the course of this trip, in which I have gathered a lot of audio samples of the environment due to the nature of the instrument I used to record them. There’s a lot of ambient noise such as the sound of generators and babies crying going on. I want to stay with the ambient moments that come with knowledge production (the interviews) because the sonic has an affectual quality.
MS: I think that’s really interesting, so maybe the idea you have of psychic is already permeating through the interviews somehow.
HH: I was also thinking about the artist, Lawrence Abu Hamdan. He did those sound installations. Do you know him?
MS: Yes, I do.
HH: I think the piece is called Tape Echo. In the work, there are some recordings of calls to prayer in Cairo. That is an example of the ambient /affectual environment surrounding an idea.
MS: I think conversation provokes you to really think things through, or to actually visualize exactly what you mean, what you were enacting or making. I was just hearing you go through that process, like this is what I’m making and this is where it’s going, which is always exciting to hear.
Rough concepts like planetary duration; the question being, what is produced by planetary duration once a set of beings that ingest that knowledge?
Let’s say that you think about the connections rather than the concept, the concept is not exactly the Psychic-ness. I think the concept is the shift in planetary time. I think the concept is the shift. The shift between. You end up in the psychic-planetary but it comes from this geological time, which is planetary time, right? It’s like that shift from, I guess, an embodied prehistoric time of the Earth and away from that geological time. Maybe don’t think too much about where it’s actually going because if you think about the psychic too much, you’re going to end up, like… the concept will change and become more about what is the psychic somehow? Whereas, the concept is the shift and I think turning might be a good way of looking at it. Like a turn.
HH: Like a turn from this geological place to this historical time or cultural instant, or cultural time — I mean it’s what we were — not to go back to this, but it’s that thing about time travel…
MS: Yeah, I do think the time travel concept is really helpful though.
HH: Yeah, I think so too because it might allow for a reckoning with the way that planetary time doesn’t reckon with particular instances. Which relates to this idea of ascribing a duration to the Earth and thinking of it as an agent and I believe this is positive about that concept. So, running with that I can start to suggest, if it is true that the Earth is an agent and has a duration, a temporal dimension, then how can you account for cultural instances or events. I think of these instances as a set of people, organisations, systems that are global and that deal with, or have made that event possible.
So, the shift from those two ideas and the vehicles is what I was describing an ambient aftermath. If we think of those things as true and if we start with these two notions of time — two temporalities — they have an aftermath to them. I think the idea is that by dealing with the commonality between two temporalities, which would be the aftermath, I would be able to talk about the turn, the shift, and time traveling. Using that idea of the year and the second and saying that you can account for the year and the second almost similarly: Then perhaps a year can be contained within a second, or even a millisecond.
Aida Mbowa. “Abbey Lincoln’s Screaming Singing and Sonic Liberation and the Sonic Liberatory Potential Therein.” Taking It To The Bridge ed. Nicholas Cook and Richard Pettengill. University of Michigan Press. 2013: pp. 135–154.
Makhubu, Nomusa. “Interpreting the fantastic: video-film as intervention.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28, no. 3 (2016): 299–312.
About the authors
Halima Haruna is a designer from Nigeria, currently completing her MA in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has a particular interest in African audiovisual cultures, speculative finance and the real estate industry, nature and Blackness, citizen science, the politics of translation, collective performance and sociality, and meta-fictioning.
Serubiri Moses is an independent writer and curator based in Kampala, UG. He is interested in meta-narratives and scholarly practices beyond the field of art.