About me (It’s all…)

(update: Thanks to having written a timely blog-post on Julian Assange, suddenly people are reading my blog. So, for those people: my name is Aaron Bady, I live in Oakland, CA, my email is zunguzungu@gmail.com, and it’s lovely that you’re reading this)


I was an mzungu in Tanzania, and now I’m an mzungu in California. In Tanzania, you learn that you’re an mzungu when children shout “zunguzungu!” and follow you around, and in California you learn to forget because they aren’t there to remind you. But you still are, so I’ve kept the name, even though I’m now writing about other things. And I won’t define what it means, because you can if you want, and words aren’t so easily corralled into order as it might sometimes seem, thank goodness. And anyway, it’s not such a bad thing to be, really. They were delighted to see me, and I was delighted to see them, if not for the same reasons.

I learned a long time ago that I’m a white guy from the United States, long before I ever left Appalachia. But being called an Mzungu–for out of the mouths of children!–can teach you different things, if you let it. Too many people take the name Mzungu as an insult; but it isn’t, not exactly. Tanzanians sometimes use it as  a compliment for other Tanzanians; wewe kizungu sana! It isn’t that either, not quite. Race is physicial, but “kizungu” is tabia or utamaduni, words that get mistranslated as culture or civilization, but mean something deeper about how and why people relate to other people the way that they do. Some people like to be called “Western,” and some people don’t; some people have that option and some people don’t. But I’ve taken the name zunguzungu for this blog not as a claim but as a provocation, and a reminder for myself. I’m really not sure what it means, on the deepest level, and I want to remember that ignorance. It also means many different things, so I want to remember that too. But whatever “zunguzungu” is, I know that I am it; the task, then, is to make that “it” into something good.

I’ll sometimes mention my academic work here, which is doubtless fascinating and of great interest to at least one or two other people in the world besides myself. But what I’m slowly groping towards in this blog (by trial and error) is not so much analogous to scholarly writing but something different, what seems to me more suited to the “web-log” form, as you kids are calling it. Scholarly writing aspires towards abstraction and finalized truth, it presumes comprehension of massive data pools, and it brandishes lit reviews and bibliographies as a way of putting forward the polite fiction that we’ve all read every important book on the subject at hand. We haven’t, of course, and though I’m not convinced that it’s a bad ideal to aspire towards in practice (however impossible in theory), this blog makes no such pretense towards acquired expertise or thorough mastery of the subject. It is true that, at certain points in my life, I will have to claim to be an “Africanist,” but this blog is not one of them. A rule of thumb of mine, by the way, is that whenever anyone claims to be an expert on Africa, they’re probably selling something. So I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires and foreground what I and we don’t know as much as possible. Please don’t take that for false modesty. It’s not. Ignorance is sort of like dark matter: it doesn’t take up a lot of space and you can’t see it, but it keeps the world turning. And as the mainstream media teaches us, sometimes the better part of knowledge is learning who to ignore, figuring out what the better kinds of ignorance are. So this blog is something of a solipsistic endeavor to unlearn as much of my bad ignorance as possible and inflict as much good ignorance as possible on anyone who cares to join me.

For that reason, I’m trying to put in the foreground two authorial modes that most academic writing fights like hell to obscure: point of view and temporal position. I have a point of view, and so do you, but the polite fiction in scholarship that we do not, that we are disembodied eyeballs surveying the universe, is a fiction I’m going to try not to employ here as much as possible. I think that’s useful. And since we are all moving along different trajectories in our lives, I want to emphasize that as well; what I find interesting, you may not, simply because the problems and questions I’m interested in at the moment are different than yours. That’s okay. Scholarship likes to maintain that “the field” has a present tense existence and is slowly progressing towards some ineffable horizon of truth, and we hear a lot about “turns” and “the new…”, but it seems to me that some of the most interesting and relevant stuff out there was done years ago, if maybe not in ways that are immediately obvious because it now lies moldering on book shelves, bad-ignored because someone somewhere decided that it had been “surpassed.” Not that you can trust the past either, but I’m not interested here in trying to make everything I do topical or necessarily related to “where the field is now” in the way that “real” scholarship has to. I like to reinvent the wheel; sometimes you’ve got to walk in another pair of shoes to really know how they fit, you know? So I take the “commonplace book” format as my leitmotif: things that I read that seem interesting and worth spooling out, I will, for reasons having everything to do with who I am, where I am, and where I’m going, right now. Welcome, and please read charitably.