The Cathedral & the Chamber

 

Prologue: A Pledge Redeemed

(This preamble was initially planned to resemble an epic. Alas, there was not enough pathos.)

In March 2017, during the celebrations to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Ghana’s independence from Britain, the President of Ghana announced the ‘legacy project’ of the National Cathedral, and in the following year’s anniversary, he unveiled drawings by a bona fide Knight of the British Empire, Sir David Adjaye, a Tanzanian-born British Architect of recent Ghanaian ancestry.

For Sir David, the ‘National Cathedral’ is to provide a multifuctional home for “all faiths” smack in the middle of the erstwhile European Quarter of formerly segregated Accra. His designs feature a baptistry; a musical conservatory; an ecumenical auditorium for state functions; libraries and museums; and ornamental gardens[1]. The Cathedral was presented as a fixture in the gallery of recent Adjaye global projects: the National Museum of African American History and Culture; a museum of espionage; and a memorial to extinct species.

Ghana_Cathedral_Artist_Impression_Boulevard_Gardens_2018

Fig. 1. Sir David Adjaye’s vision of a “National Cathedral” in the heart of once-British Accra

Still, the announcements were met with fierce debate. Even claims by Government Communicators that the cathedral shall enable “deep national conversations on the role of faith in building the progressive and prosperous Ghana” couldn’t quieten the agitation. So the President upped the ante: “I am convinced that out of these conversations would emerge ideas and values that should help us build a new Ghanaian civilization.”

If such a fine coup de grâce was meant to stultify his critics, it merely increased their wariness. The petit-elite, in particular, was highly unimpressed. The 14 acres of central Accra land designated for the project already hosted several important government buildings that were now to be pulled down to make way for the $100 million cathedral, in a country where two-thirds of the people don’t have decent housing.

Other critics insisted that Ghana was a secular state. What business did the State have with a cathedral?”.[2] Ghana was a leader in the pan-African liberation from neo-colonialism; why impose something from a Eurocentric-colonial past on the future of this proud, black, country’s heritage?[3] Worse, the President had admitted a personal pledge to God ahead of the 2016 elections to build a “Mother Church of Ghana” should he be blessed with divine victory.

The most committed of the discontents retained an Ivy League PhD-wielding lawyer to file suit at the Supreme Court demanding a halt to the national cathedral project for violating the constitutional proscription against the imposition of a “discriminatory common religious program” in a religiously plural nation.

Government communicators[4] were thus compelled to construct a method of justification unhindered by the need to respond to specific, factual or ideological, critique. Such as: “[the cathedral] will be…an iconic infrastructure for national, regional and international pilgrimage and tourism. It will create jobs, and serve as a catalyst for technology and skills transfer into our country.”[5]

These techniques that the Government deployed to fightback; the vocabularies developed to legitimise the enterprise; and what it all say about the peculiar practice of justification in Ghanaian politics, as evidenced in the invention of new formats and the perpetuation of traditional ones in this specific practice we have labelled as, legacy-communication, are the subject matter of this descriptive essay.

The Ontology of Legacy

There is no difficulty at all in seeing that the President of Ghana, and his political party, use “legacy” as a construct of their own making to refer to a curious, time and reality-warped, admixture of personal, partisan, factional, sectarian, but also State, deployment of power. It is merely coincidence that “legacy” can mean both a received heirloom and a bequest handed down to the next generation.

We can think of it as the appropriation of a very specific religious architectural motif – the cathedral – belonging to one branch, albeit a major one, of Christianity, the episcopal-orthodox polity; but we also need to consider the relevance, not just of ecumenical content, but also of post-colonial national-actualisation ambitions.

This political-communication dispositif, in the language of Foucault[6], brings up the eternal Foucauldian question of “where and how, between whom, between what points, according to what processes, and with what effects, [legacy-communicative] power is applied.” And how exactly that power determines which boundaries and structures should be defended, redefined, dissolved, and reconstituted to make this grand motif of a “national cathedral” sustainable as a “political achievement”.

Success takes as its raw materials the contradictions, paradoxes, confusions, ambiguities and the many gaps inherent in the state-craft, nay stage-craft, that can transform something as static as a cathedral – the crown ornament of a colonial ancien-regime – into a modern legacy of a progressive African State[7].

The Performativity of the Justificatory

There are some Western authors who have done a good job in the Eurocentric tradition of examining how subjective values and meanings can be abused or strained to produce objective power, often oppressive power. Riles, Anderson and Foucault[1] comes to mind.

The principal mechanism is something we can call the “performance” of power. For example, a book burning depends on the books being burned even though that would seem a frivolous point. It would seem that the artists of hate have power already and that the very principle of burning in hate is what matters, and yet the trouble to craft effigies and ensure that real books are at hand matter.  Power Performativity is like that too.

As in the world of Riles, Anderson and Foucault, the minutiae of political drama in Accra matter greatly for the two-sided phase transition between seemingly meaningless, provincial spell-words, on the one hand, and the oral blueprints of the substantive architecture of power, on the other hand. We must pay attention to how babbling becomes towering.

The Ghanaian political communicators’ task is to carefully improvise vocabularies belonging elsewhere in developing-country state-craft – phrases such as “technology transfer”, “youth unemployment”, “national harmony”, etc. – so that the transition from the cathedral as a European religio-architectural motif to the nationalistic imagery of proud legacy can happen seamlessly.

The challenge is akin to the responsibility placed on the continuity Director in a CGI-laden film. It is easy to trip because the CGI elements are infinitely malleable in post-production, making it easy to forget that the underlying motion-capture is as stubborn and gooey as any non-digital mass can be. That is why simple projections of power-words alone cannot do. The sophistry must be far more subtle than that, delicately swapping synonyms with homonyms as the drama of power proceeds.

The shared habitus (the unstated and deep-seated unconscious norms of appreciation among the national Ghanaian audience), as a Pierre Bourdieu might say, of performer and audience dissolves the ordinary meaning of such vocabularies until power has done its work of transforming cathedral into legacy.[8]

So, we come to the essence of power, beyond mere discourse, itself. Anderson has theorised elsewhere about the creation of alternative legitimacies and about the potentiality of the state as the guardian of “generalised tradition”.[9] The Ghanaian cathedralists in improvising their “invented episcopacy” – their spiritually barren Mother Church – paid careful attention to the choice of civilizational experts. Having made “civilisation” the central object of performance, they would not have discharged this burden of “giving meaning” to it without declaring it a discipline, a dispositif in fact, in the finest tradition of Foucault, if they had not exercised the power of determining its credentialed assayers.

For instance, the charge of mental neocolonialism and Eurocentricism (why a cathedral instead of a shrine to Pan-African ancestors?) had to be tackled through illumination, the blinding light of expert-condescension.

Dr. Okeke-Agulu, a Professor of Art History at Princeton, himself of Nigerian ancestry, declared ex cathedra in the New York Times that[10]:

“[the cathedral is] a huge deal. It signals that the country is poised to consolidate the gains of decades of democracy. And the new interdenominational Christian cathedral will inspire ambitious civic architecture projects across the continent that harness the talents of Africa’s emerging artists.”

He further expressed, in response to the ‘misplaced priorities’ charge, “[the] hope [that] it becomes a model for how art museums in Africa can also be multifunctional public institutions. And this is why the criticisms of the cathedral are misplaced.”[11]

Princetonian eminence was supplemented by world-class expertise in civilizational-architecture. Government Communicators reminded everyone who Sir David Adjaye was: a world-acclaimed architect who builds grand tributes to civilisation. “International endorsement” thus serving as a prism to refract, not rebut, criticism.

In this approach, Government Communicators were certainly channeling settled tradition. Despite Ghana’s fierce pan-African, anti-neocolonial, and Black Pride, credentials, the country’s post-independence state-symbol building practice has consistently, right from the Nkrumah era, relied on Western acclaimed architectural experts – Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Maxwell Fry, Walter Gropius, Kenneth Scott, and James Cubitt, among others.[12]

The third strand of the imposition of meaning enterprise consisted in creative sovereignty.

Government Communicators stressed a forward-looking, free to envision, agenda. By cultivating a “nostalgia for the future”, to paraphrase Riles[13], civilizational license was generated to assign benefits of the Cathedral to future generations, rendering present cost-benefit analysis meaningless, and culminating in a structure akin to what Arjun Appadurai calls “overlapping ecumenes”.[14]

Finally, to be ecumenical is not to be universal. Some exclusionaries remain critical. Ghana’s usually invisible homosexual community was highlighted for negation through a dubious report about a faceless “gay representative” announcing a donation of $6 million for the cathedral, which was dutifully rejected by a suitably mortified Bishop.[15]

Riles has referred to such tapestries of performance somewhere as the “alternating patterns of concreteness and abstraction”.[16] Concrete ideas are juxtaposed with abstract features, until eventually, to channel the version of Nietzsche preferred by Foucault, an invisible, unfunded, cathedral becomes visible as a tangible political achievement.[17]

The failure of multiple fund-raising efforts to raise private funds through donations for the project does not register as a threat to the viability of the physical manifestation of the Cathedral idea at all. The success of the communication enterprise preempts and redefines all notions of attainment. It sets the boundaries of the real and the important and directs the attention to where it is allowed.

Conclusion:

Some observers saw in this spectacle the elements of an enchanted democracy.”[18]

In that framing, the sheer absence of conventional bureaucratic deliberation, of fiscal realism, of coherent urbanography, or of anything resembling official project-making in a plural democracy gave credence to the power of phantasmagorical politics. Spectacle prevails where all else retreats.

For those mesmerized by said enchantment, only one pillar of hope remained: Ghana’s fiercely politically independent Supreme Court. Surely, hardnosed, illumination-resistant, Judges would see through this phantasmagorical charade?

But on January 23, 2019, the seven eminent Judges unanimously pronounced:

“In our considered opinion, lending a helping hand to one religious community does not mean a denial or preclusion of support/assistance to another in similar circumstances….The plaintiff’s action fails. It is therefore dismissed.”

The President of Ghana’s position as Patron of the Faith now had both de jure and de facto legitimacy. The performance of power had served the cause of justification faithfully. The cathedral could be counted among the proud props of legacy.

 

Post-Script: A Developing Performance

A year later, the Speaker of Parliament, the third highest State Official, also tried his hand at bringing to life another phantasmagorical script: the unveiling of the Chamber.

Not to be outdone by the performance benchmarks set by the Cathedralists, the Chamberists upped the box office target to $200 million, the floated construction cost of the eponymous new chamber of Parliament, in fact a massive legislative complex to be erected on top of the ashes of major historical landmarks in that same enclave of Accra where the Cathedral is to rise.

In the overtures, the Speaker intoned solemnly to the gathered pressmen of a coming age of Parliamentary glory where an edifice befitting the second branch of the Ghanaian government shall be adorned with hotels, supermarkets, “plenty eateries”, “diplomatic offices”, mosques, chapels, post offices, gardens, and well….”everything you can imagine”.[19]

High-ranking legislators, led by the leader of the government’s business in Parliament, the aptly named Majority Leader, filed out from back stage to do the rounds on the primetime television and radio shows.

The program of justification included elaborate horror tales of potential acidification of the Speaker’s fine mien by rogues and dissidents perched like venom-slinging reptiles in the public gallery of the present Parliamentary building, a recently renovated emporium of First Republican vintage.

A Senior Journalist of great eminence reminded his national weekend audience that the current Parliament was not originally, just like the Palace of Westminster, designated for the legislature. Its obscure purpose now long forgotten, it has been corralled for nearly three decades now into a role for which it is somewhat poorly suited due to unspecified security challenges.

Sir David Adjaye, back once more on the stage for this edition of his grand architecting tour through Ghana, was detailed in his responses to the press gallery: “the new building would have an underground car park. MPs shall drive straight into the parking lot and then ascend to the main building.” The imagery was not lost on the nation: descent, rebirth and ascendancy.

Adjaye_David_Parliament_Chamber_New_Design_July_2019

Fig. 2. Sir David Adjaye’s rendition of the “New Parliamentary Chamber/Complex” dwarfs the Cathedral in the background.

And yet, two weeks into the performance, and this is still an unfolding story, antipathy reigns supreme among the national audience[20]. The performance has sputtered from one lacklustre act to the other with the Minister of Information openly contradicting the Speaker of Parliament about the facts of Presidential assent and fiscal allocation. Accusations of nepotism, breach of procurement laws, and even kickbacks and graft swamp every angle of every vista.[21]

It is clear that the Chamber Music lacked a Cathedral Choir. The careful positioning of Government Communicators and the diligent mastery of improvised vocabularies to mark the seamless transition from the material to the ideal and the concrete to the poetic have all been missing. There is clearly no dispositif guiding the performance here. Bare and bald sentiments about the creature comforts of Parliamentarians and their nocturnal dining habits or the pneumatic suspensions of their vehicular navigation into Parliament do not a proper performance make. The absence of discipline is evident and the poverty of choreography rampant.

Stripped bare of the important props of Government Communication, the sleight of hand of idea-matter transformation, and left to fend for itself in the public gallery[22], the giant edifice construction spectacle designed to project the power of a faction of the Grand Elite in Accra is now at risk of a massive box office disappointment.

 

Notes

[1] Annelise Riles, Benedict Anderson & Michel Foucault.

[1] The engineering firm of AKT II Limited has an official description of the project’s structural merits on its website (https://akt-uk.com/projects/ghana%20national%20cathedral), as follows:

Ghana National Cathedral’s main building is split into a semi-buried concrete basement box, housing a multitude of uses including a crypt, museum, chapels, events spaces, prayer rooms, office spaces, car park and more. The concept of this building is to design it in a way that maximises the use of local labour and products, whilst still achieving the architect’s aspirations and the quality befitting.

The podium level acts as a roof for the basement, where the main altar and grand hall exist. Above this level, there is a 100m wide, upper tier structure that is fixed to circular reinforced concrete cores, providing additional seating with a superior vantage point to the main altar, all within a half crescent shape.

The tent shaped roof, inspired by Ghanaian rich history, is framed by deep steel girder-trusses, parametrically designed to maximise structural efficiency whilst fulfilling the architectural aspiration, of creating an 80m wide column-free space. Exposed concrete panels drape from the edge of the roof serving two main functions – being the canvases for future artworks and contributing to the structural performance of the canopy as a whole.

This project is set to position Ghana on the world stage of structures as it will be an integral piece of architecture for locals and visitors alike.

[2] Secularist protestation has been imaged and construed in the literature in a great many ways. We particularly like the framings of Marian Burchardt and his collaborator, Wohlrab-Sahr. In various papers (see, for instance, http://www.mmg.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Publikationen/Pdf/2016/2016_Burchardt_Hovh_Religious-vs-secular.pdf) they postulate the concept of “multiple secularities”, each of which is aligned with different “defense scenarios”. Defense scenarios premised on notions of personal and individual liberty, for example, are held to be as ineffective as those based on notions of the accommodation of religious diversity. Those based on an assertion of nationalist and public program necessity tend to be more robust.

[3] Jerry Rawlings, the longest serving Ghanaian leader, was both a putschist and a professed socialist. The first half of his rule was marked by demolitions of the Central Mosque and structures belonging to Christian-allied lodges, accused of corrupting the justice system through perverse influence over the courts through members who were also judges. During the Nkrumah era, Bishops and other leaders of “foreign imported faiths” had suffered summary deportation. In some ways, the indigenization of Christianity and Islam has proceeded in Ghana to a very thorough degree without any renewal of civic myths of Ghanaian civilizational identity or official state ideology.

[4] This is NOT a generic term. A “government communicator” in Ghana is a definite and specific landmark on the landscape of the country’s political economy. The practice, and the practitioners skilled in it, emerged at a definite point in Ghana’s political history, during the first transfer of power from one regime to the other through democratic means in 2000. They are rarely formally employed by the Government. They are understood to be working for the ruling party, but they hold no formal position. Everyone however knows who is and who isn’t a “Government Communicator” and can recognise the patterns of appearance and interjections into the national conversation, and the set of communicative behaviours that characterise the craft of “government communication”. One may even go so far as mention, with a fair degree of confidence, the types of persons attracted to this role, certain trajectories of their personal career development, and even venture a typology of rank.

[5] See, for instance, this report carried in the Philadelphia Tribune: https://www.phillytrib.com/religion/effort-underway-to-build-national-cathedral-in-ghana/article_9662e5a1-846b-52f8-863d-37420b29a636.html (last accessed on the www on 27th April 2019).

[6] See: Michel FoucaultSecurityTerritoryPopulation: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977‐78, Edited by Michel Senellart.

[7] There are of course various ways of construing the contradictions of secularist contestation. Foucault, for instance, turns the orthodox competition between Church and State on its head by positing an opposition between pastoral and sovereign forms of power, before proceeding to situate some of the tensions along a Cartesian plane of self-transformation in the nexus between knowledge and power. (See: Michel Foucault. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[8] A cathedral – its ritualistic character, its proper utilisation in the intercourse between state and church, high cost and complex architecture, and Eurocentric associations – is hardly the object of power’s crystalisation here. Rather it is used as a prop in a particular, concerted, discourse around civilisation, fealty to God, pandering to Pentecostals, national emergence, state grandeur, the court of the statesman, and the piety of personal beneficence enacted through political theatre, which then lays a path through discursive church-state struggles and contestation all the way to a grand religious object’s ultimate emanation from ‘dogged vision’ into magnificent physical form projecting the power of political achievement for the sponsors and their allies, natural and co-opted, amongst the national elite.

[9] See Benedict Anderson, “Census, Map. Museum,” from Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin und Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (London: Verso. 1991), pp. 163-85.

[10] Text accessed via the worldwideweb (as of 27th April, 2019): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/14/opinion/sunday/ghana-deserves-this-cathedral-dont-fight-it.html

[11] Multifunctionality as a constructional ideal of monuments in the contemporary era has become increasingly pervasive. See the case of the Taj Mahal in Hilal Ahmed’s Monumentalisation of the Taj Mahal in Postcolonial India: Secularising the ‘Secular’, Vol. 48, Issue No. 50, 14 Dec, 2013, Revisiting Secularisation.

[12] See: Imagining Architecture: The Structure of Nationalism in Accra, Ghana by Janet Berry in Africa Today, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 35-58.

[13] Riles, Annelise, The Network Inside Out, University of Michigan Press, January 2000. Available online at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=203471 (last accessed: 27th April, 2019).

[14] See: Arjun Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy Theory, Culture and Society, 7 (2-3):295-310, 1990.

[15] See: https://starrfm.com.gh/2019/01/gays-not-funding-ghanas-national-cathedral-secretariat/ (last accessed: 27th April, 2019)

[16] Ibid.

[17] There is no suggestion here that a cathedral, particularly one that has actually been operating for a while in a distinct communal fashion, cannot transcend any overly restrictive discursive limits and begin to exhibit concreteness. But as some commentators, such as Coleman and Bowman (see: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0048721X.2018.1515341- Last accessed 27th April, 2019), have argued, there is an essential praxis associated with the use of cathedrals as a juxtaposition of “sacred ground” and “common ground” through an ethnographic recognition of their “liturgical forms of replication” that cannot be dismissed so lightly. They give the example of how a Muslim politician’s utilisation of cathedral enclosures in certain instances might be associated with the “weakening of Christian moral and ritual boundaries” as a consequence of the “evolving salience of cathedrals in civic space” and the enduring history-creating power of these giant religious objects. These are however already existing cathedrals, many of which have distilled into the communal soil for hundreds of years, participating in the civic transformation of the polity over that lengthy period in the context of multicultural progression. We are in this essay concerned with different scales of transformation and a far more discourse-centric context.

[18] European specialists on Ghana, such as George Bob-Milliar and Karen Lauterbach, described the phenomenon of the Cathedral in terms of an enchanted democracy on these grounds:

“The case reveals an interesting crossover of two dominating trends in which culture, religion and politics merge, namely the ambition to create and define the future of civilization in Africa and the emergence of a theocratic-political elite.”

Text accessible on the www (as of 25th April, 2019): https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2019/01/the-politics-of-a-national-cathedral-in-ghana-a-symbol-of-a-corrupted-government-or-reaching-wakanda/ (last accessed: 07th July, 2019)

 [19] See: https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Proposed-new-parliamentary-chamber-block-design-unveiled-759823 (last accessed: 07th July, 2019)

[20] See: https://www.africanews.com/2019/07/04/dropthatchamber-ghanaians-protest-200m-parliament-project// (last accessed: 07th July, 2019)

[21] See: https://starrfm.com.gh/2019/07/dropthatchamber-dymog-petitions-chraj/

[22] See: https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Luxurious-200m-Chamber-Brouhaha-Parliament-begs-citizens-761076 (last accessed: 07th July, 2019)

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s