Discourse on the canon – or: Why ghosts that dance don’t survive in canned goods – maybe.

Mariama Diagne

Based on the Ghanaian dwarf, a figure of  ‘transgression’, dance scholar Mariama Diagne reflects on the canon and canned goods, and on the connection between colonial cultural practices and the emergence of European archives. What could a critique of the canon or decanonization look like today? Is it possible (and if so, for whom) to evade conventional archiving and escape the classic ‘preserve’?

In the summer of 2023, I went on a field trip with a group of researchers from the IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) conference at the University of Ghana and visited Kakum National Park, in addition to the Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, the two largest forts and hubs of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. One night, in a tree house in the rainforest at the National Park, a floating being with a body moved between us as we lay on the ground and touched our legs. In small skips it pulled up its knees at an acute angle. Its physique resembled a dark dense shadow, maybe; with small glowing eyes, light green or yellow, maybe; with arms or branches, maybe; with hair or leaves blowing in the wind; maybe. As it bounced around the being with a body let out deafening cries, or was it silent? Maybe. I remember shouting out: “Please stop!” I was neither wide awake, nor merely dreaming, rather, I was sleepily alert. Was I afraid? Maybe. According to the interpretations of fellow Ghanaian travelers of the group, the being with a body I saw was what can be translated as a ‘dwarf-spirit’. Such a spirit would – on rare occasions – lead people living in surrounding villages into the forest at night and initiate them into the art of herbal medicine over long periods of time. dwarf, as I will call the apparition here, without the definite article to avoid the comfortable pronunciation of a foreign phenomenon, was bodily present that night. The imprint of its footfalls was perceptible, yet too light to give in to gravity like a human being or an animal. dwarf had an airy gait and left an impression, a trace, with articulated movements. But was it a dance? Maybe. Was there a connection between writing on dwarf’s movements and the topics of the canon and canned goods? Clearly.

This text’s title “Discourse on the canon” refers to Aimé Césaire’s text “Discourse on Colonialism” (1950). In regard to debates on the canon, the following thought seems telling to me: even if pre-colonial times were characterized by ‘tactful civilizations’ (annotation 1), a return to them is no longer possible. Césaire, a poet and politician,emphasized the necessity of transcending conceptions of culture:

“For us [Black people of African socialization, M.D.], the problem is not to make a utopian and sterile attempt to repeat the past, but to go beyond. It is not a dead society that we want to revive. We leave that to those who go in for exoticism.“ (annotation 2)

How should I tell the story of dwarf in Europe, without finding myself and the being with a body in the chamber of exoticism, of mysticism? How to describe without the attempt of classification, without awakening Carl Einstein’s ghosts of primitivism (“The ultimate drama of African art plays out in the forest. There, elementary art still lives […]“) (annotation 3), without serving fetishes by telling another ‘story from Africa’? How to save it from associative thinking in dance styles and preserve the peculiarity of its movements? What movement can on would dwarf have to compete with when the search for similarities begins and comparisons emerge? Would dwarf survive its preservation with its ‘specular devices’? (annotation 4) For me, as a Black German and non-Ghanaian, I associated traveling to Ghana with a more than: with longing, caution, and with a duty to be open. Saidiya Hartman describes such a more than in her book “Lose Your Mother” (2007):

“I arrived in Ghana intent upon finding the remnants of those who had vanished. It’s hard to explain what propels a quixotic mission, or why you miss people you don’t even know, or why skepticism doesn’t lessen longing. […] I wanted to bring the past closer. I wanted to understand how the ordeal of slavery began. I wanted to comprehend how a boy came to be worth three yards of cotton cloth and a bottle of rum or a woman equivalent to a basketful of cowries.“ (annotation 5)

Hartman is a great-grand daughter of Caribbean Americans who lived through the Jim Crow days of the United States and who, like many, could not speak about it. The more than is a sense for and knowledge of the everlasting afterlife, a ‘Nachleben’ of the “dark days“ (annotation 6), to recall the most influential German thinker of Western modernity, Walter Benjamin. The past does not pass, does not vanish. The past reoccurs when for example visitors at the Cape Coast Castle, Elmina Castle or in Goree (Senegal) pass through the “Door of No Return”. It is a door (or rather a hole in the wall) with a step that leads to the open sea. It served as the opening through which human bodies were passed over to the cargo ships that shipped ‘body-goods’ (bodies as goods) across the Atlantic. The canon of movement qualities, whereby cultural practices are seen as cultural property, as a currency, cannot be thought about without including the knowledge of international colonial as well as generally dehumanizing cultural practices with bodies as goods that structurally initiated the emergence of European archives or the ories of metaphysics. (annotation 7)

Movement histories of people and spirits from the colonial period have been archived, but they disappear in to the in-between spaces of registers and ontologies so that ‘such’ spirits leave the sagas of the dominant culture in peace. (annotation 8) The practices need to be thought together, which dance research is already undertaking with regard to “fictive memories“ or movements in the “anti-canon“ (annotation 9). Only then a critique of the canon can be comprehensible and a possible “decanonization” (annotation 10), as Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung imagines, can take place by thinking about movements as dance. What questions would need to be asked in order to decide if, how, when, and which practices of the immaterial can become part of a culture of remembrance? Dedicating oneself to this entanglement may well be paralyzing. Yet, archiving as a practice, as archaeology, is indispensable precisely for those histories that need to become the “institution of memory and an idiom of remembering“ (annotation 11), or that accompany an “expanded notion of archivisation“ as a “participatory archive“ (annotation 12). The practice of archiving forms which memories are stored in a society. However, according to Wolfgang Ernst, in the 20th century temporality would,  unlike Noah’s Ark with its first “collection of representative objects of world“ (annotation 13), above all have changed from “end time“ to “de-temporalization“. “The archive becomes a condition.“ (annotation 14) When debates about adhering to the conventions of the canon become heated, it seems to be a matter of precisely negotiating this condition. dwarf, in the typeface of this text ,is not just a figure of transgression that eludes “sterile“ (annotation 15) archiving. dwarf is, maybe, as Jacques Derrida sees it, a “quasi-ghost“ (annotation 16), endowed with the quality of a supernatural lightness. As a spirit with body weight, dwarf echoes an ancient European longing for the human body being weightless. This very old dream, which especially since Romanticism creates an illusion of weightlessness by imagining elemental spirits and by inventing techniques of movement and space, defines the canon of European Classicism. It seems to be the ‘species’ (l’espece), the ‘appearance’ (l’aspect) and the ‘ghost’ (le spectre) (annotation 17) in constellation that challenge familiar certainties in the rain forest as well as on stage.

Can dwarf, once described and translated into text as an apparition, escape the immediate transparency of classical preservation? Maybe – if there are “careful concealers“ (annotation 18), who keep secrets, as Derrida calls the obscuring archival practice of Sigmund Freud. Maybe – but only as long as these ‘careful concealers’ implement that care with a posture that Édouard Glissant demands as ‘the right to opacity’: “Opacities must be preserved“. (annotation 19)


  1. Césaire, Aimé, Discourse onColonialism[1950], translated by Joan Pinkham, New York: Monthly Review Press 197, p. 52.
  2.  Césaire, p. 50.
  3. Leeb, Susanne, “The Magazine Documents (1929-30). For a Material Culture,” in Dance & Archive: ForschungsReisen, issue 7, ed. by Irene Brandenburg, Nicole Haitzinger, and Claudia Jeschke, München: epodium 2017, pp. 22-33.
  4. “What the archive produces is a specular device, a fundamental and reality-generating hallucination.” Mbembe, Achille, Necropolitics, Duke University Press: Durham and London 2019, p. 173.
  5. Hartman, Saidiya V., Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007, p. 17.
  6. Hartman, p. 16.
  7. See Walcott, Rinaldo, The Long Emancipation: Moving toward Black Freedom, Durham: Duke University Press 2021. Didi-Huberman, Georges, Ebeling, Knut, Das Archiv brennt, Berlin: Kadmos 2007.
  8. Mbembe, Achille, Politik der Feindschaft, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2017, p. 210.
  9. See the September/October issue of tanzraumberlin 2023 with articles by Kirsten Maar, “Fictive Memories and their Contexts,” and Anna Chwialkowska, “Permanent Prison Breaks. Canon, Anti-Canon, and Somatics.” https://www.tanzraumberlin.de/magazin/2023-3/ [Accessed September 30, 2023].
  10. Ndikung, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng, “The Globalized Museum? Decanonization as Method: A Reflection in Three Acts -Mousse Magazine and Publishing,” 5 April 2017. https://www.moussemagazine.it/magazine/the-globalized-museum-bonaventure-soh-bejeng-ndikung-documenta-14-2017, [accessed September 30, 2023].
  11. Scott, David, “Introduction: On the Archaeologies of Black Memory,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 12.2, 2008, v-xvi.
  12. De Laet, Timmy, “Expanding Dance Archives: Access, Legibility, and Archival Participation,” Dance Research Journal Vol.38.2, pp. 206-229. here: p. 215.
  13. Ernst, Wolfgang, Das Rumoren der Archive: Ordnung aus Unordnung, Berlin: Merve 2002, p. 44.
  14. Ernst.S. 40.
  15. Césaire, p. 50.
  16. Derrida, Jacques, Dem Archiv verschrieben. Eine Freudsche Impression [Mal d’archive. Une impression freudienne, 1995], Berlin: Brinkmann + Bose 1997, excerpt, in: Ebeling, Knut u.a. (eds.), Archivologie: Theorien des Archivs in Wissenschaft, Medien und Künsten, Berlin: Kadmos 2009, p. 50. For reminding me of this ghost during a conversation about spirits, I thank Gabriele Brandstetter.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Derrida, p. 60.
  19. Glissant, Édouard, “Transparency and Opacity,” in: Glissant, Édouard, Poetics of Relation [1990], Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press 2010, p. 120.