Sensuous Knowledge is an approach to knowledge production that can help you see reality clearly, wholly, with all your faculties.
“Europatriarchal Knowledge is a nonsensical construct even by its own measures.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Minna Salami. Salami is a Nigerian, Finnish, and Swedish author, blogger, and social critic, and international keynote speaker. Her book is Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Minna Salami: The big challenges in our current social and political climate -- inequality, neocolonial capitalism, climate change, poverty and many others -- are all rooted in a worldview. The dominant worldview is based on fragmentation and hierarchy so it manifests in a divisive culture, and division is always destructive. In my book, I refer to this dominant worldview as “Europatriarchal Knowledge” because it is marked by dominant Eurocentrism and patriarchy.
One of the purposes of Sensuous Knowledge is to get to the depths of Europatriarchal Knowledge because to find a solution for a problem you have to understand its roots. By prying into Europatriarchal Knowledge we can see that it is a nonsensical construct even by its own measures. The clearer we can articulate the holes and traps in our cultural education, the less power they hold over us.
However, Sensuous Knowledge is both a polemic and an epistemology, so while it critiques Europatriarchal Knowledge, it envisions a different worldview. If the problems that we face today indeed are caused by fragmentation, hierarchy, and the mechanization of the mind, then we need an epistemic approach that unites and vivifies. We need to not only decolonize the mind but also to “de-mechanize” the mind.
“The clearer we can articulate the holes and traps in our cultural education, the less power they hold over us.”
This decolonizing and de-mechanizing approach is what I refer to as “Sensuous Knowledge.” Bear in mind the difference between the word “sensual”, which is to do with the bodily pleasures, and “sensuous” which is when something affects you wholly - mind, body, soul. Sensuous Knowledge is, therefore, an approach to knowledge production that can help you see reality clearly, wholly, with all your faculties.
How do we see reality with all our faculties? The best way is to adopt an interdisciplinary state of mind. So I develop Sensuous Knowledge by synthesizing emotional intelligence and rational thinking. We are always forced to choose between the aesthetic/mystical (art, myth, philosophy, imagination, interiority, embodiment, symbols and archetypes) and the political/demystifying (activism, science, critical analysis, theory, social realism, reasoning and rationalizing) but I wanted to explore an epistemology that interweaves them because it all informs life and lived experience.
After developing Sensuous Knowledge theoretically, the book explores universal concepts that impact all of our lives but that have not been shaped by women and people of black African heritage such as power, liberation, race, identity and beauty, through its prism.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope activists and community organizers will gain the same thing that I hope all readers will - a worldview that is more expansive and empowering. It is perhaps especially important for people who get involved with transformative action to see that to create lasting change, we need to reorganize not only the structures that govern our lives, but the narratives that inform the structures in the first place. As Toni Morrison said, “Narrative is one of the ways in which knowledge is organized.” My book grapples with this type of “organizing”.
In fact, one of my inspirations for writing the book was my involvement in activism. I have been speaking and writing about feminism, black liberation and pan-Africanism for over a decade at different types of organizations - grassroots, global conferences, and universities around the world. Everywhere I went, I witnessed the same strong desire for transformation that I too felt. I met countless people doing challenging and inspiring work toward change. Yet despite all our efforts, so little ultimately changes. It occurred to me that part of the problem is that we are using old thinking to try to create new ways of being. For example, we were deconstructing power structures yet not deconstructing the notion of power itself. In Sensuous Knowledge, I develop a theory of power that I refer to as “exousiance” to address this type of problem.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
This question of unlearning and dismantling is of central importance in Sensuous Knowledge. In fact, you could say that the book is ultimately about unlearning and dismantling the delusions and deceptions created by Europatriarchal Knowledge. However, as I write in the book, to dismantle simply means to “remove the mantle.” We think of dismantling as going into battle, or something like that, but the process of dismantling is ultimately the process of gaining clarity. Sometimes this process is combative, but it is a legacy of conventional education to automatically connect dismantling and unlearning with “doing” rather than “being.”
This is also why I argue for sensuousness when it comes to epistemology. Europatriarchal Knowledge devalues things that are central to the "being" part especially; qualities you could describe as sensuous - interiority, honesty, dialogue, poetry, playfulness, the immeasurable, the feminine, borderlessness, conscientiousness, intuition, soulfulness, stillness, Eros, beauty, compassion, wisdom. My book asks what knowledge production looks like if we include these qualities and argues that we can build a more whole and holistic view of reality with them.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My writerly imagination has always been drawn to hybridity and stitching worlds together - mythology and science, psychology and history, creation stories and evolutionary theory. Sensuous Knowledge portrays this type of interdisciplinary approach so my heroes and inspirations are from varying fields. To some extent, I think of Sensuous Knowledge as a kind of “magical nonfiction” and to that end, Toni Morrison’s writing is hugely inspiring to me. Her way of blending the spiritual, imaginative and embodied with critical intellectual research is an antecedent. Ms. Hill is a significant inspiration in the book. I “read” her Unplugged album in particular as one of the strongest treatises for liberation ever created. Every single song on the album speaks to liberation in some way. The feminist philosopher Sophie Bosede Oluwole has also been one of the great teachers whom I never met, as are Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Martin Luther King. These are all people whose spirit and words are present in the pages of Sensuous Knowledge. The book is also inspired by my research about paradigms like Ifa and Yoga, so two other great inspirations that I could mention are author Wole Soyinka and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
To help imagine new worlds, I wrote Sensuous Knowledge in a “psychoactive” way, by which I mean a holistic approach that is both contemplative, imaginative and polemic at once. To give an example, to reimagine notions of womanhood, I use the color blue as a catalyst for connecting history, theory, myth, critique, pop culture and personal narrative. The chapter starts by declaring that blue is a feminine color in Africa. It then traverses from the myth of the goddess Asi of Liberia to women's ritualistic use of the blue gemstone Lapis Lazuli in Kemet (Ancient Egypt) and the indigo blue Adire of Yorubaland, to demonstrate why and how this matters to feminist theory and the complex facets of womanhood today. The point is to create a gestalt in the reader’s perception that then begets its own deepening. It's great when readers tell me that they see the color blue differently since reading Sensuous Knowledge. These are small shifts but I think and hope that they are meaningful in our quest for new worlds.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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