(REVIEW) Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, Lola Olufemi
In this review Elliot C. Mason navigates Olufemi's hybrid critical text Experiments in Imagining Otherwise through elliptic returns to Christina Sharpe's aphorism, “imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice". From here Mason considers alternatives to the university complex via Harney and Moten's concept of 'study', as well as Olufemi's "grasping at the unknowability outside the logics of genre".
In her previous book, Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, Lola Olufemi presented the project of radical feminism as yet to begin. As she writes, addressing young activists, “you are making a commitment to a world that has not yet been built.” The book is split into neat chapters, each focusing on a particular form of violence deployed by the patriarchal operation of the state.
That 2020 book opens with a quote from Christina Sharpe: “Imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice.” At first, the statement appears as a universalizing command spoken from an assumed position of authority, coordinating a map for action which could be full of use and meaning, but would remain as much of a problem as any professor distributing commands. The turn to “some of us” suddenly reveals the reflexivity of the statement, reverberating back at the professor, a black Canadian woman living on colonized land, on the grounds of a racist empire. This person has always had to imagine otherwise, even against her own commands, the commands that she is obligated to produce as a function of her position as a famous professor.
This opening moment becomes the guiding ethics of Olufemi’s latest book, Experiments in Imagining Otherwise. Where Feminism, Interrupted was studded with proclamations of the necessity of radical action, in Experiments in Imagining Otherwise the architecture of narrative has collapsed. The writer is situated in the impossibility of witnessing herself, in the firing line of the reverberations of her own commands.
Despite the appearance of its revolutionary fervor, this book is not a critique. Critique, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney say in The Undercommons (2013)and All Incomplete (2021), is a requirement of the academic institution. Universities are not damaged by internal critique. They actively employ workers to produce critique, which is circulated behind paywalls in international journals. Critique of universities is the commodity produced in universities.
What Harney and Moten propose instead is study, a way of being together that does not directly counter the violent mechanisms of the institution, but rather dismisses its logic entirely. To produce neat critiques in essay format, 12,000 words long with footnotes and acknowledgements, is a branding exercise for the author, who is employed as a brand-circulator of themself, under the banner of the university who owns, perversely, both the means of production and the object of critique: itself. Instead, Harney and Moten imagine a space where gathering is played out, where the ensemble is together in thinking, where the chorus makes a sound that only choruses can make. A place that resolutely produces nothing but its own survival.
This practice of study, beyond the institutional form of critique, is exactly what Olufemi is up to in Experiments in Imagining Otherwise.
Like all critique, the book is full of holes, providing the conditions for further critiques to be circulated behind paywalls, as the commodities of institutional wages, allowing another scholar to produce value through self-advertising and journal circulation. Critique, like all production in capitalism, produces not just a commodity but also the conditions for further production.
But to focus on Experiments in Imagining Otherwise as critique is to see only the first half of Sharpe’s phrase: “Imagine otherwise. Remake the world.” That is not the part that Olufemi is concerned with here. She writes for the second half: “Some of us have never had any other choice.” These are experiments, not essays for the institution.
These experiments assume no particular form. There are short stories, formal attempts at eradicating the message and appearance of the text itself, treatises on art’s commodification, disruptions in the use of pronouns, aphorisms on revolution, and reflections on writing the book itself. “Imagining otherwise” is not a prescriptive form in this book. There is nowhere it leads the reader to. Instead, imagining otherwise is an encounter with incommensurables; it is a way of inhabiting problems with other people, beginning the act of thinking with the crucial act of being together.
This is not a book that has a blueprint for how to improve the world. Spaces are left open for the reader to add their own thoughts, and the text is constantly challenged by its own censorship, with sections forced into obscurity by strikethroughs and black boxes. Instead of giving a text to the reader, what is given is the act of giving itself—an invitation to think, like the Russian poet Alexander Vvedensky in his otherwise imaginings; a place to not know.
It is always strange when a paradigm turns on itself, revealing the secret of its constitution. We expect the great professor to command us, to say “Imagine otherwise. Remake the world.” But then she steps back and turns around. We see all the titles and censoring accolades, all the things that attempt to make her seem like a product that was inevitably made like this, that was born to be the Great Professor. But then she says, “Some of us have never had any other choice.” She is others. She is not the singular achievement of a PhD and a professorship. She is, instead, another voice in the chorus, another moment in the sociality of study.
Olufemi does the same thing. Her name is on the front of the book, her long list of impressive achievements in the author bio, the imposing author photo with her looking coolly down at the viewer. I fully expect her to know. I am going to open the cover, and she will tell me things. She will reveal to me what she has learnt, what her education and her personal experiences have taught her. But what she says is: “Some of us have never had any other choice.” What she says is not critique. It is study.
The first page offers a playlist to listen to while reading. The tenth page invites me to grasp at nothing with Olufemi, to hold on to the unknown. The sixteenth is blank, leaving me a whole page to contribute my own lack of knowledge, my own mode of study.
These openings are nothing like the feel-good gestures of liberal feminism, commanding women to “Remake the world” on t-shirts made by hyper-exploited women in Bangladeshi and Chinese factories, to “Imagine otherwise” on podcasts that are not accessible to women without access to the internet, to take that hijab off and feel good in the presumption of the universality of white, post-Christian, capitalist liberalism. None of these commands questions what “women” are in the first place or what brings anyone called a “woman” together.
Olufemi begins with the question of the ensemble, of the gathering, of the chorus. Why do we keep coming together despite everything? Why are the social signs “black” and “woman” and “non-binary person” still sites for this gathering? What is it about being together as an experiment that makes the regime of capitalism’s global value-production not work here? There is a reason to gather in these experiments and imagine otherwise despite the continuous intentions of our political economy.
This survival of the possibility of questioning is exactly what Harney and Moten talk about as study. It’s what Saidiya Hartman does in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, when the prescriptive format of academic theory is not sufficient to satisfy the lost pasts of real lives, when the silence of history is affirmed by the language of the academy, so all Hartman can do is gather the chorus and sing, choking the limitations of critique in the reverberation of her song that animates history. It’s what Marx does in 1864 when, having spent fifteen years in London, isolated from activism after the disappointment of the 1848 revolutions, he joins the First International, uniting the communist, socialist, and anarchist groups of Europe to celebrate the fact that they are all still there, still together, still uncaught. It’s what Angela Davis does when she raises a fist into the air as she arrives at court. It’s what Frank B. Wilderson III does when the supposed objectivity of academic critique cannot speak anymore about what he is, what formed this complex of pains and pathologies as a desire for revolution, so instead, in Afropessimism, he turns the narrative into himself, almost writing the book on the insides of his own body—his study is the practice of being himself. It’s what Claudia Jones does when she turns race riots and institutional police violence into race celebration beyond the understanding of the police, and turns the volume up, focusing on the very fact of people gathering. It’s what Claudie Rankine does when the expectations of a single genre will not match the multiplicity of reasons and conflicts that forms a person’s life, entangled in the lives of countless others, so instead she spreads her rupture of genre across hundreds and hundreds of pages, laying out a space for all those lives to come together and wonder how they got here despite everything, despite the book’s commodification, despite Penguin’s suspicious history mediating this meeting.
And it’s what Lola Olufemi does after the possibility of form, grasping at the unknowability outside the logics of genre. When she touches empty space, a space where the simplicity of liberal commands reverberates back and begins to question the author herself. That empty space is the pages of this book, these reverberations are its chorus of thoughts centered on the experience of being in this space, thinking together. The echoes move towards a materiality of thinking, towards “knowledge you can sit a while in, knowledge that won’t expel you for pontificating, knowledge that knows there is no certitude” (124).
As Harney and Moten say, “Some still stay, committed to black study in the university’s undercommon rooms. They study without an end, plan without a pause, rebel without a policy, conserve without a patrimony.” Experiments in Imagining Otherwise is a place for those who remain, who study without critique, way beyond the limitations of academic regulation, in the space where the wonderful fact of being in this space is the first question.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013).
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, All Incomplete (Colchester: Minor Compositions, 2021).
Vvendensky, Alexander, An Invitation for Me to Think, trans. and ed. Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich (New York: New York Review of Books, 2013).
Text: Elliot C. Mason
Photo: Ian Macartney