Ishmaels

by zunguzungu

I’m working on the central chapter of my dissertation right now, trying to produce a draft by the 25th. Allah help us all if I do. One of the things I’ve discovered, as I struggle to weave all the threads I’ve been spinning into a single text, is that doing so, pretending there’s a singular argument that leads to a singular endpoint, is an incredibly difficult thing and, however necessary, a kind of fiction in its own right. And the final version of the chapter will have to have a lot of perfectly good writing cut out of it, because its goodness will prove not to be the right kind of goodness; to be legible to a new reader requires streamlining and directness, and tangential thickness dilutes the force of the intervention.

Making one’s argument legible to a reader that hasn’t been living in your mind for the last year is a trickier proposition than one might think, too; as I have been living in my head for the last year, I find the perspective of people who haven’t to be alien and bizarre. Being read requires this kind of writing, so I‘m trying to do it. But there’s all sorts of stuff in there that I can see the purpose of — that I can see the virtue of — but which would, in the final version of the chapter, only distract from the chapter’s intervention, and has to be cut. I hate this, but I’m doing it.

To give you some context, I’ve been working on this chapter for over a year now, and I’ve been working on it that long because it’s the crux of the entire dissertation (which is structured as three big chapters). There’ll be a lot of work still to do when this middle chapter is finished, of course, but at that point the dissertation will be a bridge you can drive across, if not a perfect one; the first chapter makes the historical argument I need to set up the argument of the middle one while the third chapter is sort of the application of the second chapter’s theoretical/historical argument about Jomo Kenyatta and Theodore Roosevelt to more conventionally “literary” texts.

While this Roosevelt/Kenyatta chapter will eventually be about ninety pages, the word file in which it currently lives is, as of this morning, 66,421 words long — perhaps 220 pages — and a whole lot of that won’t be in the final version, or even the August 25th draft (where I’m shooting for a lean and crazy mean sixty). There’s just a shit-ton of stuff in there that I wrote and then lost in the massiveness of the file; since I work by revising the first thirty pages or so and chopping out anything that doesn’t fit by pasting it later in the file, I’m continually surprised by the strange and interesting tangents and digressions I went on. I really do mean surprised, by the way; in practice, I find that writing something seems to be an effective way of eliminating it from my memory (I’ ve occasionally had the embarrassing experience, by the way, of having a conversation where someone refers to something I’ve written on the blog, and I find I have no idea what they’re talking about, as if it’s completely gone from my memory). But this means that reading stuff I wrote 8 months ago is somewhere between déjà vu and discovery: this writer I’m reading seems to be someone I’d like to get to know better  (as we seem to have much in common), and I’m startled never to have read him before.

So, as I stroll through the jungle of that file — “Kenya chapter 2 version 9.wps” — it’s interesting, perhaps, only to me, to see what a jumbled archeology it forms of my last years work, like looking at a paleographic record of evolutionary roads taken and not taken. I know now, basically, how the chapter is to be structured, and so I can see now what needs to be cut and which lines of thought lead off into tangential areas. But even while I struggle to corral this wild ass of a chapter into a docile beast of burden, it’s sort of interesting to pause and contemplate some of the roads not taken, arguments which are good and interesting in their own respect but which will probably not make the final cut because of the particular type of good and interesting that the final argument will require.

Here’s a snippet, and forgive me if it’s completely incoherent. It begins with the words “one problem,” which was a transition from another chunk of text, clearly, but at some point I copy and pasted it away from the preceding argument, and I’m no longer sure exactly what it refers to. And while I like the argument it makes, it no longer serves the rhetorical function this chapter would need it to. But since I love all my children equally, even the ones I’ve had to expel from the garden for the good of the family (with the mark of Cain on their little textual foreheads), I offer this bit of argument to the internet. I’m not sure whether, to follow that Old Testament idiom, it’s a sacrifice, an exile, a washing-of-the-hands or a liberation, but, in whatever spirit, karibuni.

One problem is that, however traumatic and transformative the colonial period might have been in particular times and places, an investment in the analytic tools of “trauma” and “transformation” not only places colonial history on a different level than other forms of history (as if the only transformative traumas Africa has experienced were colonial ones) but invites us to ignore the ways the very idea of “Trauma” and “Transformation” were already always an integral part of the colonial project’s own vocabulary and self-representations. To question the authenticity of Africa’s culture vis-a-vis Western cultural dominance is therefore not only to make use of basically “colonial” terms of analysis, but limits our critical perspective from the long story of African globalization (which both precedes and follows formal colonialism itself) by encouraging us to fetishize “the colonial” in very similar terms to those which colonialist architects themselves employed. Just as Edward Said has been criticized for apparently eliding the difference between a timeless Occidental image of the Orient which stretches back millennia and one which is more firmly located in the structures of the period of formal European colonial control of the “oriental world,” it is just as true that the colonialist short story of Africa exists within a much longer (and ongoing) story of Africa’s experience of “the world,” and one to which it is not reducible.

To say, then, that “Africa” is not merely a colonialist category is not therefore to imply that it is a “real” signifier, but simply to allow it to index more than merely the colonial relationship through which Africa’s experience of the world (and vice versa) proceeded. I will therefore approach “Africa” as a kind of middle term, as the point of mediation between insides and outsides by reference to which those categories get rendered thinkable in the first place.

The question of how an American would see and relate to a Gikuyu, and vice versa, for example, is produced less by mutual cultural irreconcilability between Africans and Europeans than by a mutual agreement to act as if this were the case, displacing differences of interest and the strategies of rhetorical positioning which advance them onto a term like “African.” I don’t mean to pretend that Theodore Roosevelt and his porters perfectly understood each other, of course (though to say so is simply to acknowledge that it was like any other interaction between human beings), but merely to observe that “Africa” represents more a consensus reached on how the sides will disagree with each other than a signifier of the content of one side of that disagreement itself. Misunderstanding the other is (I suspect) more often a discursive strategy of engagement with that other (presuming a certain very significant level of comprehension) than it is the actual experience of alien incomprehension. We are all so much more similar than we so often find it strategically useful to pretend.

For this reason, instead of defining the difference between two irreconcilable worlds or marking the one simply as the reflection of the other (in either case presuming an existential distinction), I will treat the definition (and re-definition) of “Africa” as both a function of a relationship between African and European actors that has constantly been (in a variety of ways) negotiated and re-negotiated, and also as the basic subject of those negotiations. In approaching the specific differences between Stanley’s and Roosevelt’s respective visions of the continent, therefore, I will try to bring out both the  significance that their disagreements had during the colonial period itself, as well as  foregrounding the extent to which these disagreements continue to give culture form to Africa’s political relationship with the outside world: as I have said, the terms they developed to disagree with each other (whether they knew it or not) have continued to shape the cultural conversations by which Africa’s place in the world continues to be negotiated.