We live at a moment where a global crisis, in the form of the COVID-19 virus, is subverting humanity’s power, yes, but more profoundly it is subverting humanity’s idea of power.
And it’s about time! Running parallel to the global battle against the coronavirus pandemic is a pivotal discussion about how society should be structured. We need new conceptual resources in that fight.
Exousiance is a paradigm of power which affirms the life force within every living entity, woman, man, animal, tree, river, stream.
Exousiance, from the ancient Greek exousia, meaning power, is grounded in the belief that nature is a source of existential meaning about society. Exousiance is a theory of power that connotes an alchemic state of co-existence. Exousiance emerged from a need that I had to ‘speak' with nonhuman nature about power.
The point of exousiance, in our current context and indeed in all contexts, is to offer an understanding of power that is life-affirming rather than life-destroying. What exousiance points to above all is the catalytic power of being and becoming together with everything else that is being and becoming.
Exousiance is a paradigm of power which affirms the life force within every living entity, woman, man, animal, tree, river, stream, and the interrelation of parts in this complex whole. It is a concept that is enabling and indeed empowering, not in an oversimplified and commodifying way, but also connoting the underworld, mystery and survival strategies of existence.
Central to exousiance is that it relies on the recognition – in the dual sense of the word ‘recognition' that means both acknowledging and honouring – of ‘spirit', or ‘life force' or a ‘sacred essence' that all living entities in the cosmos are in possession of. What differentiates exousiance from directly spiritual notions such as the Yoruba ‘Ashe', Taoist ‘Chi' or Hindu ‘Prana', is that it has critical sociopolitical aims. Exousiance is a critical response to a social order that is inherently destructive. It’s a poetic, spirit-recognising response, but nevertheless it is a ‘response'.
I have been obsessed with understanding power for years, relevant as it is to the feminist and black liberation work that I do, but the literature on the topic was not up to expectations, and the issue clearly has wider relevance. I coined the term exousiance
while writing my book, Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone
. The book explores concepts such as art, beauty, liberation and indeed power with an approach that I call Sensuous Knowledge
, a decolonial feminist perspective that synthesises emotional intelligence and rational thinking by interweaving storytelling, academic study and social criticism. It is an approach to knowledge production which integrates mind, body and soul.
I contrast Sensuous Knowledge with what I refer to as Europatriarchal Knowledge, an epistemic method that instead devalues embodiment - the poetic, the erotic, the spiritual, and emotional intelligence. Realms such as these are associated with the feminine and the natural world, which in return are diminished and exploited. Europatriarchal Knowledge sets up a hierarchy between humans and the rest of nature, and between humans themselves to profit a small group.
Women, indigenous people, and nonhuman nature have not had a say in defining the parameters of power despite being impacted by its functions in similar ways.
Sociologist Ariel Salleh puts it concisely in Ecofeminism as Politics: “Eurocentric capitalist patriarchal culture is built on the domination of nature, and domination of Woman’ as nature’, or, we can turn the equation around the other way, it is a “culture constructed on the domination of women, and the domination of nature, ‘as feminine’.” Indeed, what Europatriarchal Knowledge essentially undervalues is interiority. Poetry is the language of the interior and the soul. Nature inhabits the interior of earth. And women’s sexual organs, which carry poiesis (life, pleasure, and creation) are interior.
My writerly imagination has always been drawn to hybridity and stitching worlds together - mythology and science, psychology and history, creation stories and evolutionary theory. I’m fascinated with how African philosophies of inter-being such as Ifa and Ubuntu
, epics of ancient civilisations, and life sciences can deduce similar findings, and always looking out especially for how they
communicated with rivers, forests, seasons, the stars. Years before I coined exousiance, I developed Oyalogy
, a mythopoetic African feminist conceptualisation based on the Yoruba river goddess Oya, who like her ancient Greek counterpart goddess Hekate sees over the domain of transformation. Exousiance is a hybrid conceptualisation of magical feminism and animist realism grounded in social sciences. It emerged from blending in indigenous traditions with feminist literature. It was shaped by how nature reveals a more deep and true reality that is so enchanting it can seem fabulist and otherworldly.
I needed to speak with nature when developing exousiance, because women, indigenous people, and nonhuman nature have not had a say in defining the parameters of power despite being impacted by its functions in similar ways. The common understanding of power is tied to patriarchal, hierarchical and fragmented structures: the state, the monarchy, the military, historically - the male head of the family, and in modern times - megacorporations. In addition, power is seen as synonymous to terms such as ‘dominance', ‘monopoly' and ‘control', which imply a master/slave hierarchy: The state has power over people; humans have power over nature; men have power over women, the rich have power over the poor, and so on. Prevailing perspectives all appear to connect power with social hierarchy.
The problem, as I see it, is that the language with which we speak about power is symptomatic – and antecedent – to the hierarchal inequalities in our structures of power. As long as we understand power as defined by the upper echelons of the state, as synonymous with dominance and coercion, and as something to measure and monopolise, then we cannot imagine power as a notion that is connected to love and aliveness.
Exousiance is an understanding of power attuned to self-realisation and collective metamorphosis. The concept acknowledges that we exist in a synergetic and reciprocal ecosystem where hierarchical fragmentation is self-defeating. We are individuals but we are also a multitudinous organism. If one part of the organism is exploited and diminished, the entire apparatus is weakened. “When the rain fall, it don’t fall on one man’s housetop,” Bob Marley sang.
But how do you speak with nature, with a river or a tree or a waterfall? Isn’t the notion of speaking with nature yet a way to assert the superiority of humankind by anthropomorphising natural elements? Doesn’t it suggest that human ways of being are the only ways of being? These are questions to which there are no straightforward answers. However, I believe there is, or ought to be, a possibility for methodologies to ‘bring alive' without anthropomorphising. By ‘bring alive”, I mean in an erotic sense, that implies an uncoercive desire to know an interiority, be it the interiority of a person or a river or the moon.
Speaking with nature was, in this sense a meditative and spiritual act of self-discovery.
Developing exousiance was seeking to know if nature reflects desires and ideas in a similar way that a painting might, and to feel satiated when the communion revealed new intimacies. My conversations with the natural world were exploring a mutual poetics within our shared ecology in the spirit of what biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber refers to as “enlivenment” in his book
of the same name. Weber defines enlivenment as a “deeply poetic aspect of reality” where nature is “creative and pulsing with life in every cell” like ourselves because we are “part and parcel of nature”. He argues that “We can understand or ‘feel' nature’s forces if only because we are made of them.”
This need to ‘feel' the forces of nature drew me to exousiance. However, it was also more complicated than merely feeling. I unknowingly developed exousiance using a methodology that I later discovered could be described as scholar pair Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein’s “seven transdisciplinary skills” which are: observing, patterning, abstracting, embodied thinking, modelling, playing and synthesising.
I spent as much as time as possible intentionally observing nature, in different parts of the world - in the UK, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Sweden and beyond. It was an active observing, paying close attention to “information gathered through the five senses, with intent focus and curiosity” as Root-Bernstein write. To become familiar with a given habitat, to form oikeiosis (a kind of homeward belonging), to begin to know through your skin, smell, touch and sight the life that is bursting into becoming around you can be deeply transformative.
Speaking with nature was, in this sense a meditative and spiritual act of self-discovery. It was also an intellectual endeavour, nonhuman nature being a source, which I read like a text, taking notes from the thinning red and orange-leaved branches of an oak tree in autumn, highlighting sections of springing seeds transforming to rotting fruit flesh in summer, and feeling reluctant to put the ‘book of nature' down and spending cosy evenings watching archival and contemporary footage of the natural world in tandem with my research for the book.
But still, to ‘speak' with nature, I first needed a language that we shared. This language emerged in dendritic patterns, which are vast, continuing patterns in the natural world and the bodies of all humans and animals, and which are characterised by what I came to refer to as branching. Consider, for example, how a branch of a river breaks off from the main body of water and then into smaller branches, which further break off into even smaller branches. Or think of the branches of a tree, the veins in a leaf, the capillaries in living tissue, the air passages in the lungs, coral reefs, neurogenesis, or lightning—all share a similar dendritic pattern. The branching quality which makes each of these phenomena became the ‘grammatical structure' through which I could develop exousiance.
A key characteristic of branching is that it has a centre of concentration from where it erupts, for instance, the seed of a tree, or the source of a river. Still, as it branches out, it expands and multiplies, stretching outward in both symmetrical and asymmetrical self-mirroring patterns as many times as possible until the branch ends become so thin that the process ceases, only to begin in another dendritic pattern within the ecosystem. Even when one particular cluster appears to end, its roots and function provide another cluster with the capacity to repeat the same process. Yet each group pushes toward its completion. This entire process illustrates exousiance.
Deities in Neolithic Europe were overwhelmingly female, and their values, emphasising nonviolence and reverence for nature, came from the feminine realm.
Obstacles are met within the process of exousiance in an unyielding way. If you block a branch of a river with a dam, it revolts and pushes against the preventions of its becoming by forming new branching patterns sometimes with the force of deadly consequences. There is a tremendous amount of autonomous and reciprocal life energy in each branching.
Branching is not a literal language. Although I would not rule out the very interesting opportunities to make multidisciplinary connections in the interconnected spirit of exousiance, the word ‘dendritic' meaning tree-like in the context of exousiance is a poetic, philosophical and political phenomenon, before it is a scientific one.
Nor is exousiance a conceptualisation of power that denies the harshness and brutality of ecosystemic reality but rather it is incorporating fertile and dynamic reality into knowledge production about power and consequently into practice. This is what makes it feminist, as it is the unearthing and rebirthing of multiple meanings in co-existence, and thus the opposite of machine-like, mechanical and biased patriarchal thought that is based on false and incomplete assumptions of reality to justify the exploitation and monopolisation of nature and women.
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas writes in her book The Civilisation of the Goddess - the World of Old Europe
, “Neolithic Europe was not
'. As a goddess-worshipping era, it was not based on the archetypal Great Man who considers himself the ruler of earth, women, children and animals. Instead, deities were overwhelmingly female, and their values, emphasising nonviolence and reverence for nature, came from the feminine realm.” You could argue that such values made Neolithic Europe more civilised than modern society in many ways. The creation of an Anthropocene habitat which devalues nature and promotes division between humans of different sex, race, and class has become a self-destructive beast that feeds on catastrophe, worsened by its incapacity to see itself.
In this sense, the most pressing issues the world faces are a consequence of a meta crisis
, a contention between what is
and what is claimed to be what is
. In his essay Bildung in the 21st Century,
philosopher and author Jonathan Rowson
describes the meta crisis as, “Our inability to see how we see, our unwillingness to understand how we understand; our failure to perceive how we perceive or to know how we know.”
There is much more to say on the meta crisis. Still, it is apt to take note of it here, as it informs the cognitive dissonance we feel in yearning for aliveness and co-existence but instead deepening into divides and culture wars. Only by enquiring into the ontological terrain where fragmentation was embryonated in the first place can we resolve the dissonance with fertile interventions. To address problems of unequal power structures without simultaneously deconstructing the mindset that created those problems is like pulling out a weed and expecting a rose to grow in its position automatically. We need to plant a rose for a rose to grow.
Infections such as COVID-19 and SARS, as well as the even deadlier Ebola, Nipah and Hendra, are to varying extents the aftereffect of deforestation.
I find it extraordinary that while the concept of power is central to feminism, decolonisation and environmentalism, there are curiously few attempts to explicitly re-conceptualise power within these movements. There are even fewer attempts to develop an explicit understanding of power that is simultaneously feminist, decolonial and environmentalist. However, there is no denying that power structures impact these groups in similar and interwoven ways.
The example of COVID-19 reveals this symbiotic existence uncannily. It is hard to think of any event in recent history that exposes intra-human connectedness and human entanglement with nature as the COVID-19 crisis has. The virus and subsequent pandemic may be surreal
events, but they are not chance
events. We know, or at least we ought to know, that society is deeply networked especially in the age of globalisation. What we eat, how we distribute the food we eat, how we structure global industries, how we invest in social welfare and prepare our pharmaceutical and healthcare systems, how we treat the commons and exploit resources - all have to do with our power structures, and all have to do with the nascence and growth of COVID-19. Infections such as COVID-19 and SARS, as well as the even deadlier Ebola, Nipah and Hendra, are to varying extents
the aftereffect of deforestation. If you destroy the world’s forests – the natural and protective habitat of bats, who are the most notorious host of a notable number of viruses – then it follows that bats will settle in human dwellings. As the One Health movement
recognises, “the health of humans, animals and ecosystems are interconnected.”
If our societies were structured around the imminent pattern/language of branching in exousiance, counterstrategies to COVID-19 would be achiral - meaning able to be superimposed on its mirror image. The state apparatus, healthcare, education, politics, social welfare etc. would be modelled on the understanding that for the individual to prosper, the organism as a whole must thrive, and vice versa. Decision-making would be shaped around striving for the entire societal entity (and micro-entities) to evolve and thrive, relying on networks of trust and mutuality. It would be imperative to equip each branching cluster – be it the health sector, care work, farmers etc. – with all the possible resources they need to flourish. People would not only have responsibilities; they would also have power.
A civilised society is also an ethical society, and a truly developed city inhabits evolving citizens who are individually and collectively committed to co-existing in life-affirming ways.
Many take for granted that reigning conceptualisations and constructions of power are the only way to build a civilisation. They aren’t. Civilisation is not only measured by technical advance, the information age and evolved cities. Much as these things matter, a civilised society is also an ethical society, and a truly developed city inhabits evolving citizens who are individually and collectively committed to co-existing in life-affirming ways.
Ultimately, the present articulation of power and the natural world which - at least for now! - still includes humans – are at odds. We need to redefine power as life-affirming, connected, rooted in mutuality. We need to build relationships with each other and with nature with the intent of healthy functioning of the collective cosmos. And we need exousiance… to listen to what rivers, trees, mountains, and all their kin, and ours, can tell us about power.
This essay is part of a series by Minna Salami on love and power, produced for Emerge in collaboration with Perspectiva.