evolve: You speak about sensuous knowledge. What do you mean by that?
Minna Salami: The word “sensuous” is a unique word in the English language, which was coined by the poet John Milton in order to describe poetry. He coined the word sensuous as a quality that describes the integration of mind, body and spirit. He thought that poetry had the capacity to affect its reader on the level of the mind, body, and spirit. This word has since been used in all kinds of ways. I liked that it has that openness. And I think it is precisely the approach that we need. My approach to knowledge seeks to advocate for a type of knowing that affects the mind, body and spirit, a holistic way of knowing, a multidimensional way of knowing that is more than being able to discern myriad perspectives when thinking about a single issue.
I like the example of asking a person what they had for breakfast in the morning. For instance, I had some toast. I can describe the toast in conventional knowledge, what I call euro-patriarchal knowledge, which is obsessed with measurement and classifications. It’s a robotic, instrumental way of knowing. I could tell you that the toast contained so-and-so many calories. I could give you the precise nutritional content. But if I instead were to describe the toast with sensuous knowledge, a holistic and embodied, fully impacting knowing, I could describe the nutritional content, but also the texture of the bread. How did it feel when I ate it? What kind of sounds did I hear around me as I was eating? Who baked the bread? What is the tradition of bread? Maybe even the question, if I have come across any art of a loaf of bread, like in a still-life.
It means bringing in that multi-perspectival or multidimensional view of knowledge in to better grasp the truth. If I can describe something as mundane as my breakfast to you in this multidimensional way, we can imagine thinking about more complex things in this rounded, holistic way.
e: I hear in what you’re saying also that you’re breaking open the object. Instead of a piece of toast with butter on it, it’s a complex relationship. You’re bringing the object into multiple contexts of relationship.
MS: I really like the expression of breaking open the object. When one does that, the knowledge becomes more intimate and we start to seek outside of ourselves for knowledge. We are bringing in the more than human world and different ways of knowing from other parts of the world. It’s a kind of paradoxical thinking. It implies becoming comfortable with paradox, with things that are confusing or querying. And we really need to find ways of cultivating the ability to think in complex ways, because there’s so much information in our times.
e: How do you see sensuous knowledge being something that can be helpful as we’re facing the mess that instrumental reason or euro-patriarchal knowledge has gotten us into?
MS: Let’s start at the root of the problem. Whenever philosophers, thinkers, activists, artists, people who are engaged with social commentary, try to analyze the many problems that we face in the world, they typically say that there’s a problem with the system. The system is flawed or corrupt. And usually we mean the institutions that shape our lives, like educational institutions, legal and political and economic institutions. We are referring to structures like white supremacy, patriarchy, or classism. And of course, that’s true.
But at an even deeper level I’m arguing that the problem is the knowledge itself. The intellectual institutions keep reproducing the same problems over and over again. When we have new technologies, new conversations or new institutions, we reproduce the same problem. The internet and social media held so much promise when they first launched; people truly believed that they were going to transform society. As one of the early bloggers, I remember that excitement. But what we see now is that we not only reproduced, but even increased many of the same problems that already existed. That is because the very intellect and knowledge system, the way of knowing that underpins these technologies, is flawed, divisive, and robotic. It’s lacking in soul. It’s lacking that kind of mutli-dimensional impact that Milton spoke about with poetry.
Euro-patriarchal knowledge separates between things that should be in conversation with each other. Throughout the modern period, there has been the drive to have a scientific attitude. We see that very much today with the pandemic. And that is great. We need the scientific attitude, but we also need a poetic attitude. A poetic attitude means to be present. When you read a poem, you are inevitably going to be present. A poem always brings you to the present moment, it brings you into a space where you can observe in whichever way you need to observe, whether it’s critically or compassionately or intimately. This presence is an awareness that the scientific attitude doesn’t cultivate, it is focused on facts, on wanting to deduct, argue, and debate. We need that in thriving societies and I’m by no means denouncing that. But we also need the poetic attitude.
e: Part of the poetic attitude from my experience is also looking below the surface of things into some essence of a moment, an observation of whatever it is that the poet is trying to communicate. Part of what I hear you saying is that we need forms of knowledge and ways to communicate that knowledge that are looking at a deeper level, looking at that which is not simply measurable. You could even say that is the immeasurable, the meaningful, the essential. This has been ripped out of our knowledge systems, which deny aspects of our humanity that we deeply need.
MS: Yes, that’s beautiful. My life’s quest is to understand irrational rationally. That draws on a belief that there is some kind of inner empiricism. There’s certainly the ways in which we can measure, consolidate, and categorize the outer world. We can’t really do that in the inner world, but we can take the inner world seriously. That also implies taking things like joy and love seriously, because those are components that matter so much to the inner world.
What you said made me also think about Eros, the origins of the word for being in love. When we hear the word “Eros,” we think about intimacy. We look at the relationship between intimacy and love. But we should also be able to look at the external world with that imaginative, curious, and open-minded approach. It is like the way that poets often describe writing a poem. It’s a spontaneous moment when a poem arrives, and then they work on it for a very long period of time. But that initial inspiration is very spontaneous. It seems to come with all the truth and wisdom that the ultimate poem then will hopefully convey.
I’ll give you an example: Due to the intimacy that I was cultivating with rivers, I had a spontaneous flash of insight that rivers could teach us something about power. It means living in an intimate way, in a curious way. Because euro-patriarchal knowledge makes a division between the abstract and the situated. In patriarchal knowledge, everything becomes abstract. There’s an obsession with abstraction, because from its very beginnings there is this idea that there’s a higher dimension, which initially comes from religion. This idea that our souls exist in a higher dimension and that we as humans are the lesser dimension. We are constantly educated to strive for that higher dimension as something that exists outside of our world. This leads to perpetual abstractions. Sensuous knowledge by invoking an embodied way of knowing is in itself also abstract, but it’s also saying that we need to situate ourselves, look at our world around us and to derive knowledge from our bodies, from our friendships, from our ecosystems.
e: And that seems increasingly imperative in terms of making choices in relationship to the world we’re living in and simultaneously creating.
MS: Yes, it really does, as we’re seeing the impact of human behavior and our knowledge systems in our individual lives. Because of the pandemic, we are unable to move around as we’re used to, we’re unable to feel other’s touch, embrace one another and be together in collective spaces. There’s a heightened awareness of situated-ness. It’s no longer as compelling to delve into that abstract world, when everything is so hyper-real. In the literary world, the world of ideas, in arts and even in the fashion and music industries, I’m noticing a drive to simplify. I don’t know whether it is intentional or not, but abstract thinking is not quite as popular, and I think that is positive. It isn’t simplifying the knowledge but rather simplifying the way that knowledge is transmitted.
e: I also wanted to touch back on the intimacy you were speaking about. What you seem to be speaking to in your conversations with rivers about power implies that this intimacy is a different way of knowing.
MS: A distinction that euro-patriarchy makes is between the theoretical and the imaginative. I’m really driven to bring those two together, because that is the way that people’s lives actually look like. People are drawn to stories, to art, to nature, to emotions, and not only to theory, facts, and statistics.
I am somebody whose entire life has been shaped by multiple perspectives and realities. My mother is Finish, my father Nigerian, but they met in Germany. So, they always spoke German to each other and to me. My father is Muslim, my mother was Protestant. I grew up in a family compound with lots of aunties and my grandmothers. Some were Catholic, others were evangelical, and I spoke Finnish, and English and understood German. I have since learned Swedish when I moved there and I lived in Sweden for 10 years and then in Spain, so I learned Spanish. I always had multiple languages, religions, ethnicities around me and shaping me. But I always felt that I didn’t belong, that society was always trying to fix me. The place where, for the very first time in my life, I found a home, although it was an intellectual home rather than a physical one, was in Black feminism.
I have learned through my personal journey to see knowledge as activism. While I’m certainly not the only person with this cosmopolitan and multidimensional background, my particular experience taught me that another way is possible. One of the limitations of euro-patriarchal knowledge and the way we’re conventionally educated is that we don’t think other ways of knowing, living, and creating systems and institutions are possible. We’re so stuck and we need to really get out of that, especially at this point.
e: So, your work is pointing to how we can begin to change through what it is that we pay attention to and how we engage. You speak about a holistic engagement with multi-dimensionality and multi-perspectives.
MS: It’s crucial that it isn’t just about how we engage with life personally. I see my work as part of a political and social movement. Even with progressive, complex thinkers there’s a tendency to think that we work on inner development first and then we determine what is useful to society. What I’m saying is almost the opposite: Because there are so many pressing concerns in society, we are compelled to develop internally. Even within the feminist world I noticed that a lot of women, but also men, come to feminism from their own personal journeys, maybe through some discrimination or traumas that they may have experienced.
Often there’s a certain sense of accomplishment: “OK, I call myself a feminist, I’ve read a few books and now I’m a feminist.” Whereas if you inverse that and you’re working on yourself for the larger movement it emphasizes that feminism is something that you have to take seriously. You have to make some kind of commitment because you’re part of a larger social and political movement. While speaking about inner development, we need to take this very seriously because it’s part of something we are collectively fighting for and are collectively involved with.
e: In the consciousness-aware or conscious spiritual progressive movement, there are psychologically minded progressives who say, that I have to heal myself first and do all my shadow work in order for me to be able to participate.
MS: Yes, but that does not work.
e: It does not work because we end up getting ready to get ready for a very long time. But the urgency of the situation and our care for that is also a motivator for our own transformation. It’s like: “I need to be better at being a human being in order to be able to work with others for the world that we’re trying to create.” And that’s a different motivation, it’s not a narcissistic motivation, it’s more communal or future oriented. It’s a motivation in which we see ourselves as part of something whole that needs our wholeness in order to be realized.
MS: I have an image for the time we are living in. It’s like being in a house that is rectangular shaped and very long, and on both ends of the house, there is a window. If you look out of one window, you see a beautiful park, maybe a city or urban landscape, you see something that’s quite compelling. You’re drawn to that. But then if you look out at the other window, you see a fire, you see a tremendous breaking down and social anomie. What kind of feeling do you have if you’re in that house and you see you have these two windows with such diametrically opposed views? That brings you again right back into the present moment. For a long time in spiritual or psychological circles, we have been influenced by euro-patriarchal knowledge on the one hand. And on the other hand, the flip side of euro-patriarchal knowledge, which is the other side of the same coin, which is individualistic in a selfish way and perhaps even in a reclusive way.
There’s quite often this incentive to just look from the one window at the beautiful view and focus on that inner world that can be cultivated in that space, while the other side is on fire. Whereas with this image in mind, you’re brought into the present and what the present looks like. Yes, there is beauty, and it’s very important that we do beauty and we evolve internally. But it’s also very important that we are aware of the suffering around us and the ways that we are being encouraged to become blind to that suffering. That is precisely why the euro-patriarchal knowledge is more than just a formulaic approach, it has an agenda. That agenda is to make us blind to the suffering in order for euro-patriarchal knowledge to continue to dominate and thrive.
e: So, it is about presence, meaning being present to this moment and the tension in it and the potential in it.
MS: It’s being present to different ways of thinking, which leads to different ways of acting and being. And those different ways of thinking could be paradoxical thinking, intimate thinking, poetic thinking, scientific thinking, unifying thinking, querying thinking, curious thinking, and ultimately bold thinking. To be bold, to speak boldly, to speak as clearly as possible, as honestly as possible. If euro-patriarchal knowledge is blinding us with its whitewashing, obscuring, and perpetuating propaganda that biases European Eurocentric maleness, then bold thinking is speaking truth to power and not allowing it to espouse lies.
e: I appreciate that you speak about this not simply as an individual reclusive act but a response that it’s done in relationship and community.
MS: We have to be more honest and complex in how we talk about individualism. There is individualism that is tied to consumerism, which obviously is the bane of our beautiful planet. But at the same time, the individual is the seed of radical transformation and the collective is often the seed of conformity. So, it’s really paradoxical and uncomfortable. But we have to hold these paradoxes and need to think, what does that mean for creating community? Only when we bring that out into the open can we think about how to make communities radical. On a collective level, we feel that we want radical transformation. We want to see non-capitalist ways of commerce and things like that. This insight often starts in the individual that is liberating itself from conformity to act in a new way and build community in a new way.