We are Waves*

Lionel Manga

Lionel Manga is an author living in Douala. The free spirit who trained in economics at the Sorbonne in Paris is committed to the rehabilitation of African constitutions that have been disqualified by colonization. He relies on quantum mechanics, the theory of dissipative systems and thermodynamics. His L’Ivresse du papillon (2008) is the only book to-date dealing with the visual arts scene in Cameroun. In addition to teaching at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (2018), he produced the morning radio show Klorofil on environmental issues from 1992 to 1996

Lionel Manga: We are Waves (Film stills: Balduin Mund and Esther Poppe; Subtitles: Jacob Eisenmann and Mona Varichon).

Speaking on capitalism and its planetary deployment from within the Crystal Palace, the caustic German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk places at the heart of this expansion that flies the flag of the Christian faith, what he calls a “system of madness”, born from the royal European courts and driven by a logic of disinhibition. Madness? Disinhibition? These words are as cutting as they are irrevocable. Seen however with five centuries of hindsight, one needed no more than this singular mindset to effectively destroy those brilliant Meso-American civilizations.

Werner Herzog has masterfully recounted a slice of this epic in his cult film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The character of the hallucinatory conquistador – played by Klaus Kinski with formidable brilliance – is out of his mind for taking on an endeavor which everything, including nature itself, thwarts at every turn. Knighted by the very holy Catholic church and emboldened by the 1455 papal bull, Romanus pontifex, which initiated the Doctrine of Discovery, Christopher Columbus and his gold-seeking peers did not arrive subtly. Well out of the sight and censorship of their homeland, the degradados, as Peter Sloterdijk likes to call them, gave free rein to the most vile of their impulses. Between the mass massacre and the rape and devastation committed on that same scale, the saga of The Mad will have left behind a fatal imprint upon which the contemporary endemic and ordinary violence of South America has been built.

Le Clézio, recipient of the Nobel prize in literature, can wonder (and rightfully so), in his book The Mexican Dream (not without a perceptible and legitimate hint of bitterness), what our era would have been had this all-out rampage not taken place.

Draped in a humanism of good taste and sewn together by the white thread of Universalism, even as the Renaissance came parading on the stage of history with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, icons of the European artistic renewal among many others, there opens for the Earthlings of the antipodes, a chapter as sordid as it is somber, under the sign of enslavement. Perched high on the arrogant stilts of the Greek miracle, the white man’s irruption rhymes with disruption, under all geographic latitudes. Acting in unison and without mercy, both firearms and the crucifix – as secular as they are sublime –work to silence poetics. The steamroller of the civilizing mission crushes everything in its path in the name of the Bible’s unique God because nothing can subsist that is not Christianized. Labelled pagan for the needs of the cause, whole worlds collapse here and there in a bloodbath. The Catholic teleology of salvation linearizes time, which until then was seen as cyclical in most of the cultures thus hindered. These brutal destitutions then paved the way to a modus vivendi which broke with their widespread commensality and heliocentric immersion. The Mad go-around then professed the separation of the biped from the other kingdoms which preceded it on the planet under the aegis of the ‘law of the excluded middle’, once formalized by Aristotle.

Today, we see with much anxiety and to our dismay, what a dramatic surge of entropy this furious insularisation of the human race within the biosphere will have led to in just a brief half-millennium of domination, being based on that scientific knowledge which Francis Bacon initialized in the 16th century. In their Everest-like arrogance, and by gleefully ignoring the knowledge learned through long-term observation and encoded by oral civilizations in those rituals which were systematically denigrated in favor of the scientific method, the Faustians will have managed to have set off a systemic feedback by inducing this serious climate crisis in which both an altricial odyssey and history are irreversibly taking part. If Gaia herself is affected to this degree by the chronic hubris of the Mads’ posterity, how could it not also affect the individuals living on her surface? The vast dismantlement of these atavistic moorings is a fatal source of the trauma for which both the body and mind ultimately become the required theatre. Without a doubt, Africa more than any other region in the world will have paid that price in the wake of the explosion of the slave trade.

Where Parmenides and his doubt-wielding Greek accomplices wondered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” the divination with eight strings[1] – as practiced by the Mwaba-Gurma – considers that those who ask that question are still children. Its brilliant initiates do not see the world as being created ex nihilo by a God from whom everything derives as if from a single point. According to them, no intelligible substance shall be considered as the sole root of all things. If intelligible, it is thus inevitably limited (since comprehending it assumes a delimiting of it), because it is inseparable from the opposite term, or from that which is in opposition to how it defines itself. As far as they concede to bring us into intelligence, they only ever speak in dualities. The most remarkable of them all is the opposition of a highly scattered “above” to a compacted “below” which acts as the invisible and subterranean foundation of all phenomena.

Reflected at all levels, this systematic dualism implies that they do not locate the supreme principle in a delineable substance. Rather, it is the relationship confronting the two substances which makes them grow mutually, one according to the other. In other words, they locate this supreme principle within this infinite interval of the formidable harmony, or within the welcoming expanse of a harmony which (beyond the limits that impose themselves on reason from the outset), forever rings or amplifies the overall chord of the universe. That thought, which forbids itself from defining anything in isolation, always conceives of paired terms which are dominated by, and logically preceded by, this relationship which unites them and which they express. The triad, composed of two terms and of the relationship of mutual movement from one toward the other, or of the tension revealed by the opposition of one against the other, seems to them to condition the very intelligibility of things. But wasn’t this enough to bring trouble to the congregation of the Friends of Wisdom, whose arguments and counter-arguments in the name of the dialectic, have fleshed out the long march of extensive knowledge for the last 2500 years?

In these fundamental insignias of the complexity of the real, the Faustians only saw a jumble of archaic superstitions which anthropologists, steeped in positivism, called animism. Having understood not a single thing about these religious practices or beliefs, their Cartesian condescendence found it convenient to simply brush them aside, reducing African peoples to mentally distraught beings who in the face of nature’s forces and results, seek the protection of terrible invisible forces at the inevitable cost of their own alienation. But this is not the case, and these reductionist conclusions were as far from reality as the equator is from the polar icecap. In the case of the Mwaba-Gurma, their religious practices intend, in a pragmatic and down-to-earth fashion, to touch the ruling forces of man in a manner which is favorable to him, so that he may live in peace and good health through the intervention of propitiation. How then can we understand “touching” if not in the sense of “moving with emotion?”

The power to appease deities is judged as something outside of man, so long as it is invisible and, in some way transcends the world of the living. This power of propitiation is no less than a constitutive element of man. And this is to the highest level, which is to say, it has the richest effects. Here, man is de facto defined as a subject incapable of existing independently – it is neither a being-by-itself nor a being-for-itself, but rather an individualizable term used for relationships which are established beyond appearances. These are the same relationships which simultaneously establish the existence of the world and collectivity. In the worldview of the Mwaba-Gurma, we do not find dark cults worshipping altars or artificial objects which have been cleverly studied to serve as bait, or to become vessels for some vagabond foreign spirit they would find auspicious to come in contact with and use to their advantage. Within this perspective, the institution of such an occult commerce is absolutely pointless, because before anything, man must be reinstated in the full sovereignty of his substance by taking the most direct route to connecting each to his own ontological foundation.

Responding to the simple human desires for food, health, safety and happiness etc., this spirituality prides itself on engaging its followers in an enterprise or even an adventure – that is, the great human adventure par excellence, which brings them, by knocking on the door of their origins, to take control of their life. They then see themselves as no longer limited and enslaved by that which they believed themselves to be, and finally discover that on top of, or instead of, the divine favors they had been waiting for, the principle thing (which is the Being and even beyond beings), is the harmonic relationship which both places them apart and unites them.

The veritable end of creation walks on its own two legs by leaning on the kingdoms that preceded it, thanks to the large-brained Biped, who the Mwaba-Gurma don’t consider to be a great machine. He is a free being, capable of governing his own nature, and his prime duty will be to rise, using the sacrifice that helps him escape the determined chain of causes and effects, from the raw state in which he is born toward a veritable condition of man taking part in the intellect of the world “above” i.e., a world which is a continuous totality of light. Born into this world like a trivial piece of coal, the stakes are, in summary, to refine oneself through the sacrificial, and throughout one’s existence to ultimately become a diamond capable of producing, from the apparent, something new, which was neither included nor predictable within it. And is that not the register of Art and its privilege?

We are in the world to express ourselves, says the divination with eight strings. That is, only if we are able to go off the beaten path, that cliché-filled route that anyone can take. So, to really say something, we must renounce a part of our knowledge. This equates to sacrificing certain turns of thought or old concepts by knocking them down in order to conjure up new ones. These would rely on certain old forms that at first glance, like ancestors, seem to hinder expression. An authentic speech is never perfectly written in advance, nor is it patched together from found bits. It readjusts itself continuously to unpredictable responses. All words, like all combinations of words, are polysemous. This polysemy being the property of raw matter to which language is destined to give form, it conditions and justifies the existence of even language itself. The major function of language is not just to connect one element of the interior or exterior phenomenal universe, which is thought of as ‘signified’ and another thought of as ‘signifier’ in order to offer a receivable image: this would only ensure a banal act of translation. Language is essentially a constructive operation of significations, the substance of which it dresses up and conceals much more than it reveals their mysteries. Which shows that, pushed to say something, man as conceived by the Mwaba-Gurma does not ever really know what he will say before he has said it.

From this stipulation, it is easy to deduct that the symptom of mental disorder could proceed from a block in the subject’s ability to express themselves. Or, phrased otherwise, it would form the subject’s sequestration within the recesses of an expression that is too mimetic and resembles the stiff wooden language. To paraphrase Gaston Bachelard’s indexing of the infinite, admittedly we don’t exactly feel at home in the wooden language. And this is where the linear Euclidean world, imposed on us by the hegemony of the Faustians, partly stems from, and in a way clashes, with a daily experience made up of discontinuities and irregularities. Knowing that speech is a vibration, it is not forbidden to consider here, that to stay stuck on the same frequency for a long time fatally numbs the psyche, and that this fixation paves the way for disease. It is just like when monoculture — and let us dare to trace this bold parallel — ineluctably depletes the soil and biodiversity. But something is probably on its way to change within this enclosed field of reductionism…

On May 20, 2019, the international instances of metrology revised the standard of the kilogram for the first time in 130 years to this date. From now on, it is defined by the Planck constant. Noted h and fundamental for quantum mechanics, this scalable size connects the photon’s energy —the grain of light— to its frequency. However, if a photon is indeed an elementary particle, it behaves no less like a wave, such as in Young’s double-slit experiment. Isaac Newton must have trembled in limbo when this came out. It is indeed no small fact that the base unit of mass, beyond its ordinary applications, is expressed by the quantum term h. It reminds us that, under the apparent Newtonian solidity, we are waves and we are likely to start resonating with the appropriate stimuli. This is why we may resort to music and mantras as therapeutic mediums.

[1] See Albert De Surgy, LA DIVINATION PAR LES HUIT CORDELETTES CHEZ LES MWABA GURMA; Esquisses de leurs croyances religieuses; Tome 2. Editions L’Harmattan, 1983. (DIVINATION BY THE EIGHT CORDELETTES AT THE MWABA GURMA, Sketches of their religious beliefs; Volume 2. Editions L’Harmattan, 1983)

* Mr Albert de Surgy, ethnologist, who has collected with humility and accuracy the words of initiates Mwaba-Gurma, find in this manifesto We are waves, the expression of my sincere gratitude. His precious work has been with me since 1985.