Excellence Reporter: Bayo, what is the meaning of life?
Bayo Akomolafe: A few years ago I might have answered the question about the meaning of life with a lot of confidence. I might have insisted it had something to do with love, peace, free will or some other inspiring human quality. I might have waxed poetic about the whole thing, painting into my response the kind of flourish and verbosity indigenous Yoruba people are recognized for. Today, I am not quite sure I can manage a direct response: you see, I met the world in its stunning material vibrancy.
I learned that plants communicate with each other, and respond to emotions; that brittle-stars manage to do well without using brains; that bees have society and complex social rituals for navigating their environment; that orcas have been known to perform their own experiments on the human researchers that study them; that light is either a particle or a wave depending on the apparatus used to measure ‘it’ – which is to say that the world has no pre-relational, determinate quality except within the context of relationships; that time isn’t linear and that originary points are not necessary to explain the world; and, that we live and thrive and die in the entangling orbit of other beings.
Much like a wave is not just part of the sea but the very sea in its specific materialization, my voice and my words only make sense within a commonwealth of other beings that make me possible. I shudder in the face of an inquiry so sensuous, so expansive and so monstrous: how can I speak of the meaning of life when the outlines of this ‘life’ I hope to examine is not yet clear or still emerging? How can I know what it is to live when my very breathing tugs on webs of death, banishing other forms of life to shadows? How can I speak with one essence when my very body is made of billions of revenant bacterial communities that move and remake me every single moment? How can I know truth in any absolute way when thought is co-emergent with stone and river and road and cloud? How can I dismiss the contributions of my ancestors, whose ghostly absences still give me shape?
The meaning of life must be a gasp – an often wordless, bewildering, inarticulable, diffracted, contingent springing up of yearning and ebbing away of desire. A reaching out that doesn’t quite arrive. A scandalous love affair not quite consummated.
The meaning of life is deferred and always-to-come. I must now learn to be content with the many fragments – with leaning into the recalcitrance of a lump of cow dung, with knowing the pride of a mountain summit, the sternness of a wintry morning in Vermont, the harshness of the Chennai sun, the rhapsody of flowers in full bloom, the nonchalance of bees humming their pollination songs, the ineffability of a sunset, and the sacredness of typing on a computer – without hoping to weave all of these into a complete whole. That doesn’t seem as inspiring and as heart-warming and as coherent as I would like it. Yet it is strangely comforting: life is real, because it is messy.
~Bayo Akomolafe (PhD) changes diapers, loves ghee dosas with coconut chutney, and is slowly learning how to play with his 4 year old daughter, Alethea. He is the grateful life-partner of Ijeoma, author of These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to my Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home (North Atlantic Books, 2017), and Chief Curator of The Emergence Network – a postactivism project concerned with the material performativity of responsivity in precarious times.
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