Author Teju Cole gives 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecture
On April 24, between the hours of 7:30 and 8:45 p.m., author Teju Cole received an unusually concentrated bump in new Twitter followers.
Around 190 Duke, Durham, and Triangle community members turned out—many with laptop screens and Twitter apps at-the-ready—for the 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecture, given by Cole in Schiciano Auditorium. The lecture, “Here Comes Everybody: The Crisis of Equality in the Age of Social Media,” is the most recent in an ongoing annual series bringing a distinguished speaker to campus to address moral issues of broad social and cultural significance. Co-sponsored by Duke’s Center for African & African American Research, Center for Documentary Studies, English Department, Forum for Scholars & Publics, Franklin Humanities Institute, and the Office of the President, Cole’s visit marks the first time the Lecture has been given by a novelist.
And, while a novelist he is—having penned the 2011 Pen/Hemingway winner Open City, as well as the novella Every Day is For the Thief, just published this year in the U.S. and previously in Nigeria—Cole’s work defies easy categorization. As a photographer, art historian, public intellectual, and popular Twitter presence, Cole bridges disciplinary perspectives to connect art and politics and the local and the global, whether in a tweet about drone strikes or a photo-series of life in Lagos, Nigeria. Laurent Dubois, Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History and Faculty Director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics, introduced Cole as a “writer, artist and thinker of remarkable range whose works speak from and to a contemporary global landscape rich with motion and possibility while haunted by past and present of empire.”
Despite the lecture’s up-front emphasis on the increasing cultural importance of social media, Cole’s opening words—excerpts from the first congressional testimonials by U.S.-led drone strike victims in Pakistan—held the audience captivated, freeing their attention from waiting screens. Cole quoted 13-year-old Zubair Rehman, whose grandmother was killed by a drone strike: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”
Cole used these words to introduce the central argument of his lecture—that, in an increasingly transnationally connected world, we must collectively contend with new and more diverse declarations of human equality and visibility. These are declarations, Cole argued, often from the “empire’s edge”—voices outside mainstream Western cultural discourse, that have found new and powerful life through social media. “There are people on Twitter who are not elsewhere,” he said, such as Nigerian citizens using newly-ubiquitous cellular devices to tweet, or citizen-activists and journalists in the Middle East turning to social media as an organizing and documentary tool during the Arab Spring revolts.
Cole talked about how forms of social media, such as Twitter, are ways in which we, in the 21st century, can become—and are becoming—more visible to each other. “Each person is the command center,” he explained, “of a new way of thinking about the world.” He spoke of the function of electronic devices to do things as seemingly disparate as connect us to loved ones and convey news of international injustice. There is a space between these two uses, he alluded, that may open up the most possibility for interpersonal connection and organization: a space that can enable us to harness the power of imagination to “close the empathy gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” Maybe that means writing seven short tweet-stories incorporating drone violence into classic literature, or maybe it means crowdsourcing photos of blooming spring flowers from followers around the globe. In essence, it could mean simply tweeting as a way to declare that we exist in the world, and that we have both things to say and a desire to listen to one another.
As if anticipating the audience’s response, Cole’s final words served as invocation: “We are all equal, and for our collective sakes, we must continue to figure out how.” A lively Q&A section immediately followed the lecture, parsing out the “how” in a range of questions addressing Cole’s various disciplinary perspectives. One attendee, a public policy graduate student, asked about how Twitter’s decentered nature will change society’s traditional “gaze”; another, a writer, asked about the importance of place in Cole’s written work. An engineering student addressed his criticism of drones and their role in U.S. warfare, which is meant to reduce the number of casualties. He replied that he did not contest drone technology, saying that resisting the advances of drone technology is as useless as resisting the early advances of aviation. He explained that his critique of drone technology is in its use as a weapon to remove potential threats, those who have not been tried or convicted of committing a crime.
One of the final questions was directed toward the apparent disjuncture between the “frenetic world of Twitter” and the serene and wandering mood evoked by Cole’s novel Open City, narrated by a Nigerian psychiatrist who takes long walks through New York City and ponders art, culture, and the role of the personal within society. Writing and publishing through Twitter, Cole said, is like “going into a crowded marketplace and trying to create a place of serenity.” Similarly, literature and art—or any type of creation, for that matter—is “always about creating space. Life does not pause so you can enter into the opening sentences of a Henry James novel,” he said.
The conversational atmosphere continued into the reception, where the audience took turns snacking on desserts and chatting with Cole about aspects of the lecture and his work in general. A few even jumped on the opportunity to use technology to create new spaces of connection in real-time—spaces filled, on Twitter and on Facebook, with a number of “selfies” with Cole himself.