We live in the decaying ruins of the modern and colonial world-system. All around us we encounter the undead institutions that structure systemic inequality, border regimes, and subject forms. To make different futures possible, this undead world – which violently resists change in its refusal to die – must be laid to rest. Ceremony (Burial of an Undead World) proposes to perform this very burial. For this, the relationship between cosmology and aesthetics needs to be rethought.
In her essays The Ceremony Must be Found (1984) and The Ceremony Found (2015), the Jamaican novelist, dramatist, and philosopher Sylvia Wynter invokes a “ceremony” as a revolutionary rite of passage: a “marriage” that breaks through capitalist modernity’s constitutive antagonisms, overcoming and remodeling the status-granting categories that reproduce its established modes of world-creation. This calls for a new engagement with origin narratives, understood as “representations of origin” that structure genres of discourse rather than as accounts of actual past events. Origin stories must be understood in this context as a narrative-symbolic genre of genres, through which categories and genealogies performatively come into being, in tandem with each society’s specific ways of “material provisioning” (the term Wynter uses instead of the Marxist concept of modes of production).
Wynter’s new “heresy,” or “New Science” does not suggest a return to some pre-modern past. Rather, it makes explicit the collective symbolic agency through which we enact ourselves as story-telling, image-making humans, and establishes a decolonial continuity between “pre-modern” and modern forms of world-making, within the wider context of the world-systemic conditions that currently endanger planetary life. As Wynter writes: “if we as humans are to collectively survive, we must actualize the heresy of securing the non-opacity of our own agency.”
“We humans,” Wynter suggests, “cannot pre-exist our origin myths any more than a bee can pre-exist its beehive.” Humanity consists of “storytellers” who “storytellingly invent themselves.” Every society, including ours, has its material-symbolic ways of dealing with the “reproduction of life and the aversion of death” and therefore has something akin to a chaos/order distinction. Every society also has its ways of “making people,” and producing personhood, initiating its members into its respective sociogenic and cosmogonic codes. Instead of speaking of “cultures” or “ideologies,” Wynter therefore speaks of “cosmogonies and counter-cosmogonies”.
Against both the religious and secular-scientific origin stories that currently serve to legitimate and naturalize the given world system, Wynter therefore offers a different possible origin narrative – an “ecumenically human (origin) story,” which centers the “laws of narrative auto-institution.” She calls for a “rewriting of knowledge” towards a counter-cosmogony, which she conceives as a revolutionary overcoming (“turning/overturning”) of the world-systemic order of colonial modernity and racial capitalism, and as a consequence, of the modern understanding of the cosmos and the figuration of the human being within it. Referencing Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, as well as Giambattista Vico, Wynter projects her New Science as a heresy against the perpetual myths and racial codes of colonial modernity. This “heresy” must undo both the racist “negation of co-humanity” built into Western humanism since the Renaissance, and the “over-representation of our Western-bourgeois, ethno-class referent We” that is its effect. A term such as the “Anthropocene,” for example, enacts this “over-representation” by conflating the “anthropos” with the Western and Westernized subject/history, with the result that the specific world-systemic conditions of colonial capitalism become falsely universalized and naturalized.
The demythologization of modernity makes necessary a renewed engagement with the social functions of myth and cosmology within and beyond modernity. How is it possible to speak of “cosmology” in terms that don’t systematically reproduce modern categorizations and divisions, such as that between logos and mythos? For, in the discourse of modernity, “cosmology” appears always categorically divided: the “hard” facts of modern scientific cosmology (i.e., astrophysics) derealize what is assumed to be the merely symbolic and pre-rational mythological or religious beliefs (i.e., astrology). The discourse of secular modernity thus claims to institute itself through a definite break with what it categorizes as the “pre-modern” past, thereby giving birth to the linear “chronopolitics” of modern time, which intimately link natural causality with economic “development” and accumulation. This has rendered non-modern life – life beyond economic abstraction and financial accumulation – all but illegible. The origin myths of modernity – its narrative of self and other, and its mechanisms of in- and exclusion – hold us hostage to false alternatives between the narrative of progress and the “rise” above “brute nature” on the one hand, and fictions of the “pre-modern past” or “tradition,” which are themselves modern myth-productions. This structural feature of the discourse of modernity can only be undermined by describing and analyzing capitalist modernity in terms that are not its own. What kind of cosmology is modern/colonial capitalism? What are its “sociogenic/cosmogonic replicator codes,” its symbolic economy of “life/death” and “chaos/order”? Ceremony (Burial of an Undead World) aims at unearthing the theological structure beneath the frontiers of capitalist extraction and the processes of conversion that enable and fuel capital accumulation, delineating its essentially sacrificial economy. In this “ceremony,” the self/other divides, and the replicator codes of the topsy-turvy capitalist cosmos – the world of the living dead – are breached. This is what we call the “burial of an undead world.”
Sylvia Wynter’s proposed discourse of the “ecumenically human” that is always already “cosmogonically chartered” breaks from modern history’s conflation with the teleology of capital, expressed as a linear development scheme. If a non-Eurocentric history is to be written that is not evolutionist in structure, it must instead be a material history of cosmological figurations. It is only from this revised basis that the material figurations of capitalism itself can come into view without replicating its codes. Then and only then will we be able to grasp the historic deployment of mythology in the service of the cosmogony of capital itself. The structural logic that equated the European colonial frontier with History itself has thus given rise, arguably since the nineteenth century, to White supremacy as the structural feature of capitalist cosmogony and the patriarchal heroization of “creative destruction” in a now-resurgent fascism, which we call, in this project, “White mythopoeia.” Its roots, ultimately, reach back to the cosmological rescripting of Christian theology in early colonial times. We argue that in order to prevent the notorious slippage typical of bourgeois and indeed fascist ideologies, namely the false universalization of racial capitalism in/as the cosmogony of modernity, its mode of world-production, the frontier imaginaries of “White mythopoeia,” have to be sharply delineated as a particular historical configuration that projects its own heroic civilizational origin story as the origin narrative of humanity in general (which is thus in fact already racialized and nationalized). Against these weaponizations of mythology in the service of the teleology of capital, Wynter’s origin account presents the condition of possibility for the planetarily extended “we” that is necessary to withstand the accelerating drive towards perpetual civil war, which is the imminent horizon of capitalist world-making under the conditions of financial capitalism and post-liberal, ethno-nationalist states. This planetarily extended “we” therefore cannot be conceived within the racializing, nationalizing, and sexuating identitarian matrix of colonial modernity and racial capitalism.
If anything characterizes our present, it is the impossibility of maintaining the cosmogonically overdetermined “spaces-of-otherness” through which colonial capitalism’s “underside costs” have been perpetually externalized, both politically and ecologically, confronting us with the planetary, and indeed cosmological, dimension of its boomerang effects. The forms of extraction, othering, and externalization upon which capitalist order relies can no longer be either contained or concealed. Moreover, this systemic challenge entails a decisively “cosmological” dimension to symbolic world-making and its forms of “material provisioning.” Sylvia Wynter’s decolonial “heresy” against the orthodoxy of the modern discourse and its divisions of labor calls for modes of world-making without the sacrificial “underside costs” of capitalism, and for refiguring the projective mechanism by which human agency, cosmologically as it were, has hitherto been “othered” and ascribed to suprahuman agents, whether these be deities, or indeed “free markets” and their alleged adherence to natural/evolutionary laws (“survival of the fittest”). This is the far-reaching horizon of her proposition that the “ecumenically human” can only come into being by “securing the non-opacity of our own agency.” Alongside Wynter, our project suggests that only a new understanding of the specificity of capitalist colonial modernity, one which unhinges the hegemony of its mythopoeia by narrating it on new grounds, will allow for a horizon for structural decolonization beyond mere “inclusion” and “recognition” within capitalist modernity. This is the precondition for a proper burial of the systemic conditions that currently push planetary life to the brink of annihilation.
Ceremony (Burial of an Undead World) is a project that puts Wynter’s proposition to the test – at once engaging and expanding her script. It is an exhibition on the cosmological functions of art, subverting the reproduction of the value forms of “modern art,” according to which the autonomous and secular artist as exemplary modern subject is tasked with individually imagining “alternative cosmologies.” Ceremony (Burial of an Undead World) also meditates on the future role of exhibitions, based on the historical function of the museum as an institution involved in the construction and naturalization of modern origin myths.
Anselm Franke, Elisa Giuliano, Denise Ryner, Claire Tancons, Zairong Xiang