Agreeing to Disagree with Elspeth Huxley’s Original Accumulation

by zunguzungu

A lot of my project is rhetorically focused around how people agree to disagree, how what David Scott calls a “problem-space” defines a kind of mutually agreed upon field of debate, thereby foreclosing all sorts of otherwise germane questions that thereby never get asked. I think this nicely frames an important part of the work that ideology does; not so much what it tells to say in any positive or prescriptive way, but how the questions and problems we are allowed/encouraged to think of as “reasonable” define out of existence a broad variety of ideas and thoughts. I’m doing this work with respect to the colonial project in the late Victorian and pre-WWII era (and with respect to how Americans and Brits and, later, Africans, agree on how to disagree about colonialism), but it occurred to me this morning that a lot of my interest in this mode of ideology critique, if that’s what we want to call it, comes from watching the political process right now, watching as “reasonable” liberals throw actual progressives under a bus to make common cause with bad-faith and mentally unbalanced conservatives, time and time again, under the notion that it is the only “reasonable” thing to do. It’s because they’ve already agreed on how they will disagree with lunatics on the right that they find it totally impossible to discuss the public option, or reconciliation, or real reform of the finance industry, or the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, etc, etc, ad nauseum. The problem-space as defined by serious people does not include such things. 

But this is why I’ve recently gotten interested in Elspeth Huxley. Part of what makes her bearable is simply that she’s a really powerful writer, and her figurative language can be just stunningly good (for example: “If love was a burden, then he traveled light. As water to the body, so love was to the spirit; you could carry a little with you but must find it or perish as you went along, and the route, like the tracks of caravans, was lined with the skeletons of the unsuccessful.”). But it’s mainly for precisely the reason Ngugi reviled her: she was a liberal apologist for settler colonialism,a contradiction she never quite squared: while she became increasingly aware of the existence of Africans as people — and her 1939 Red Strangers, which Keguro brought to my attention, is a fascinating attempt to write a novel about the interior lives of Africans, in a way that people like her just didn’t do then — she also never found the words to admit that the entire premise of settler colonialism was, from beginning to end, a racialist exercise of their superior power to dispossess and exploit.

I find this  process fascinating to watch. After her first book (White Man’s Country, a panegyric biography of Lord Delamere), she spent her entire life trying to qualify and reform her original support for what he represented, trying (and failing) to incorporate into a basically white supremacist worldview the knowledge that Africans tended to be human beings too, and that they had been, in many cases, quite extraordinarily hard done by, by people like Lord Delamere, and by her. And I find the range of tactics to which she resorts fascinating. Books like The Settlers of Kenya just straight up tell lies, of course (massively underestimating the amount of land that was taken from Kenyans, and so forth), but she’s too smart to restrict her apologias to lying. The nostalgia of The Flame Trees of Thika, for example, seems to me to be a “mistakes were made” way of disclaiming responsibility for the privileged position in the world she just happens to occupy, the claim that while people like Lord Delamere might have done crazy and indefensible things (usually out of ignorance), today we need to be reasonable and deal with the situation as it is. Let’s not bicker and argue about who dispossessed who, she says; now that we white people have agreed that Africans exist and are human beings, it’s only fair that Africans recognize the legitimacy of white ownership of most of Kenya. Nostalgia for a world that’s past and gone wasn’t just a way of refracting her desire for the white supremacy that had been decisively ended by Kenya’s emergency period (known by most people as “Mau Mau”); it was a way of pretending that the crimes of her parents’ generation were nothing to do with her, that apologizing for them and recognizing them as crimes did not necessitate her generation of white people having to take any real responsibility for redressing them.

How she uses anthropology to segregate Africans from real people in Red Strangers, or how she uses a rhetoric of “development” in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are things I might blog about in the future, or  especially, how the entire genre of “white lady in Africa” (Izak Dineson, Beryl Markham, Kiki Galloway, and Joy Adamson are all inferior versions of her) mounts a subtle defense of imperial whiteness by cloaking it in a kind of quasi-feminism. Because it’s good to see a woman “firing a rifle” in the age of Teddy Roosevelt and Hemingway, we forget to note that she’s pointing her phallus at Africa. But the fact that women could and did run businesses in the colonies (which is the point of Izak Dineson‘s “I had a farm in Africa”), could vote earlier than they could in the mother country, or the story of Elspeth’s extraordinarily independent mother, don’t change the fact that all that privilege was based on race trumping gender. White women could be full adults in the colonies only because Africans and Indians were not.

These books do a lot of things, I think, but a certain kind of historical amnesia is the thread that runs through all of them, each a different kind of evasion, a different way of un-telling the story she needs to keep not-telling, over and over again, the story of how white people stole Kenya from the Kenyans. Even the biography of Lord Delamere, her most blatantly propagandistic work, is a way of burying his project more than explicitly defending what he did; by figuring him as the face for the entire “White man’s country” enterprise and then making clear that he is dead and gone, she makes that whole project (still fully underway when she wrote the book) seem like a “settled” matter, if you’ll excuse the pun, more like an “original” accumulation than an accumulation by dispossession that extends into the present (and which she would therefore have to take real ownership of if she were to own its spoils). And her life gets especially interesting after independence, when she writes about Africa by not writing about it all. I haven’t gotten to her last book about Africa yet, Out in the Midday Sun, but the fact that it came after a long period of not writing about Kenya very much at all, a period which coincidentally coincides with Kenyan independence, is itslef interesting. 

(By the way, this is all a kind of “symptomatic” methodology that I’m now thinking about whether or not I want to use as my framework here. My first impulse is to be all Jamesonian and declare that there’s a political unconscious defined by the kinds of repressed truths she is working to dream-work out of existence and I’m not convinced that this sort of reading is wrong. She was (and in some ways remains) the supreme apologist for settler colonialism, the official chronicler and storyteller whose work was to make it seem like a not-terrible thing to do, and so a great deal of her writing has to be understood as a kind of extended “yes, but…” to people who would say things like, “So, Elspeth, wasn’t your parents’ land pretty much stolen from the people who the Kenyan government then forced to labor on it for your exclusive benefit?” At the same time, the Foucaltian critique of “repression” as an intellectual framework is well taken; such a perspective is at least inadequate, and part of the reason why I find David Scott’s structure of thought a useful point of mediation for thinking about the kind of work she’s doing. But then maybe it’s just become a different kind of Freudian criticism, an emphasis on dream-work rather than repression. More to come.)