Category: Africa

Uganda Walking

In Uganda:

Uganda’s opposition leader was temporarily blinded after police fired pepper spray into his eyes and dragged him from his car at gunpoint, his lawyer said. Kizza Besigye had been leading a fifth round of protests against rising food and fuel prices. With his right hand heavily bandaged after being hit by a rubber bullet at an earlier demonstration, he waved to cheering crowds with his left…

This is the fourth time in three weeks that Besigye, the leader of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and runner-up to Museveni in a disputed February election, has been detained by police over the “walk to work” protests, designed to express solidarity with those who can no longer afford public transport. Museveni, in power for 25 years, blames drought for high food costs and soaring oil prices for local fuel costs, and has warned Besigye that his protests will not be tolerated.


Protests have been going on since April 11. Before today, five people (including an infant) had been killed by police, and Museveni is apparently already entering the “turn off the internet” stage. 

Angela Kintu warns not to think “that this protest is about Kizza Besigye:

It is not. His party and mode of opposition entered my ‘Twakoowa’ list long ago. He is not going to win any elections tomorrow and perhaps you should have accidentally shot him in the knees for good measure so he can’t walk tomorrow. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water; this protest is about reality, frustration and desperate times. I am buying a litre of Ugandan made and grown cooking oil for sh6,500. I am paying sh3,600 for a litre of fuel. A tomato has gone up to sh300 at the very least. I don’t know about you, but that is breaking my budget. No one is paying me any more money for my work – in fact, I am chasing debtors left, right and centre. In one short week, Easter and school holidays will be upon me. Three short weeks after that, I must rustle up school fees and requirements.

See also Andrew Mwenda, and Rosebell Kagumire; the latter reports that “President Museveni has gone to the extent of swearing to eat his opponents like samosas.” Or just go straight to Global Voices. The World Bank gives some numbers on the inflation and rising food and fuel costs that are setting the stage.

To take a more historical approach, Mahmood Mamdani gave a speech last Thursday putting the protests in history, which was reprinted in the Monitor on Sunday (via):  

Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by the memory of a single event. The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner. For many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.

My purpose today is neither to celebrate the opposition nor to demonise the government. I want to talk about the memory that seems to be driving many in the opposition and haunting many in government. That is the memory of Tahrir Square. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the great Egyptian revolution began in Tunis. Where will it end? A decade from now, will we think of it as a local, a continental or a global event? How should we understand its significance today?

In East Africa, there was a flurry of discussion after Tahrir Square, mainly in the press. Many asked whether the Egyptian revolution will spread South of the Sahara. And they responded, without a second thought: No! Why not? Because, media pundits said, sub-Saharan societies are so divided by ethnicity, so torn apart by tribalism, that none can achieve the degree of unity necessary to confront political power successfully.

This response makes little sense to me. For this answer resembles a caricature. Nowhere in the history of successful struggles will you find a people united in advance of the movement. For the simple reason that one of the achievements of a successful movement is unity. Unity is forged through struggle.

To make this point, and a few others, I want to look at the democratic revolution in Egypt in the context of a longer history, a history of democratic struggle on this continent. I want to begin with an event that occurred more than three decades ago in South Africa. I am thinking of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which followed the formation of independent trade unions in Durban in 1973. Together these two developments inaugurated a new era in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adults had come to believe that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative mode of struggle. This new mode of struggle substituted the notion of armed struggle with that of popular struggle. It stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a movement with ordinary people as its key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by a new imagination and new methods of struggle.

The significance of Soweto was two-fold. First, as I have already said, it replaced belief in power of arms with the discovery of a greater power, that of a people organised in the face of oppression. Second, Soweto forged a new unity – a wider unity. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on) by putting each under a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to reform or remove the law in question, they did so separately. In this context came a new person, Steve Biko, a visionary leader at the helm of a new movement, Black Consciousness Movement. Biko’s message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a colour, said Biko. Black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are Black…

Read the whole thing. Mamdani literally wrote the book on political ethnicity in sub-saharan Africa.

Bayart: African Doorways into American History

From Jean-Francois Bayart’s Global Subjects: A Political Critique of Globalization:

“…historical memory is a complex and fallacious process whose emotional power is at least partially disconnected from the tangibility of facts. Without going as far as the grotesque consecration of Michael Jackson in the Akan village of Krinjabo in the Ivory coast (his unconscious had suggested that his ancestors came from here), the pilgrimages made to the island of Goree by Afro-Americans with a hankering after ‘roots’ demonstrate it in an exaggerated way. It is not even certain that the famous House of Slaves ever was such a place, and it is certain that the majority of captives whose descendants people the United States did not come from Senegambia. Nonetheless, even if one needs to put a spin on the facts, it is easier and less dangerous to meet one’s past a few cables’ length away from Dakar than in the delta of the Niger, in Fernando Po or Sao Tome. The need felt by Bill and Hillary (or by George W. and Laura) to have themselves photographed in the doorframe of the mythical door, which the ancestors of their electors supposedly crossed, confirms that it is not actually just a matter of cultural and family tourism, nor of any sorrowful or nostalgic contemplation of history, but rather of the self-expression of contemporary power. In any case, one result of the Civil War, and the massive European immigration and the social phenomenon of racism that ensued, is that the memory of slavery in the United States assumed a political importance out of all proportion to the slave labor that was really transported there and to the effective conditions of its existence, if we take as our measure the slave societies of the Caribbean or Brazil.”

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with completely eliding the difference between George W. Bush and African-American “heritage tourists,” but then that’s more a corellary of the point he’s tryin to make. In any case, what I find valuable about such an exercise is the way that emphasizing the a-historical logic of this kind of tourist imaginary makes it easier to place the work it does in the context of larger political narratives. And the strange self-serving ritual of a white US president’s pilgrimage to Goree speaks volumes.

The Colonialist Western and Putting an End to Realism

As you may have noticed, I’ve been watching John Ford movies lately. I like them, a lot. But as tight and symbolically rich as his films can be at his best, at his worst his characters become cut-out figures, signifiers for larger issues without any real presence themselves. When there is ambiguity, it gets evoked so it can be resolved: everything depends on who shot Liberty Valance, for example, but there’s no doubt that he was shot, and whatever troublesome problems that it might cause for Ransom Stoddard to have not actually shot him himself is foreclosed by that happenstance (I think of this, by the way, as the Pioneers maneuver: after toying with the idea of miscegenation for the entire book, Cooper reveals that the male lead is not, after all, of mixed blood at all, and never was. Sort of like ending a book with “And suddenly she woke up and realized it was all a dream.”)
When Ford is messing around with myth, his heavy symbolism is both a blessing and a curse. At his best, he makes it into a virtue: in How Green Was My Valley, for example, the characters are so ludicrously flat and impossible that it becomes a film about the kind of fantasy-work necessary to render memory in such terms. Welsh coal miners speaking in a sort of accentless (neither American nor English, and certainly not Welsh) fairy tale dialect and living in the most bougie of middle class houses is one example, but only one of many in a film entirely about the impossibility of the very events it narrates.

In The Young Mr. Lincoln, I’m still not sure. Since the civil war is sort of a precondition for the movie itself, everything that happens is already predetermined, and because we already know that the young Abe will acquit himself well and unite the town around him (as an allegorical rehearsal for a civil war which, as myth itself, can only be perfect), the character itself becomes something of a cipher. Henry Fonda is a great cipher, but his personal charisma makes up for a real aporia in the script. Maybe its an interesting aporia; I’m still not sure.

But in The Prisoner of Shark Island, I’m more certain. The opening shot tells us that Mudd will be pardoned and his reputation restored. But unless you come to it with an overwhelming Gone-with-the-Wind love for Dixie, Mudd has to rank as one of the least interesting of all Ford protagonists: as a Christ figure, he ultimately “redeems” the south through his trials and tribulations, but it’s a passion play that gets performed on a stage bare of anything but really questionable race politics. And don’t get me started on the The Lost Patrol: one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, especially because the ending is so clearly telegraphed by the film’s first half.

Where it’s working, in other words, it works because his films become anti-realism, expressions of the impossibility of realism. That’s a fascinating thing for a filmmaker to do with a medium for whom the camera-doesn’t-lie is still a watchword, especially given his fascination with historical memory and how it gets created. When it doesn’t work, it’s because we can look back and see Ford’s own fantasies for what they were: confederate nostalgia (and where Ford, an Irishman born, came up with this crap, I’d love to know) and reflexive anti-Arab racism. That’s the trick, right? Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, works very hard to mask its own racism by foregrounding race as, itself, a mask and a blindness, and a lot of what the novel does and says can be excused by Conrad’s efforts to displace it all onto Marlowe, making it all about Marlowe’s blindness. But there are still moments when it falls into the conventions of realism; for me, the simple fact that Conrad imagines a white man could simply show up in the “deep jungle” with a rifle and a dream, and assemble a fiefdom of adoring Africans to do his bidding (which is something that happens and is represented through realist conventions independent of Marlowe’s perceptions) is an example of an early twentieth century racist perspective we still cling to (as the “open arms and flowers” fantasies of the neo-cons illustrates).

I have an axiom that I don’t get to use nearly often enough: plots are a novel’s way of asking really hard and interesting questions, but endings are a novel’s way of provide uninteresting answers. Part of the problem for these works (though not an unsolvable problem) is that the ending is a place where realism always seems to re-assert itself, where ambiguities and anti-formalism run up against the chips down question of: how does the film end? And lots of novels and films get betrayed by their endings; Defoe, for example, tells us that the message of Moll Flanders is that women should be good Christian wives and save their money. But the plot of the book (which you have to ignore for this “moral” to be taken seriously) illustrates that a woman can make a lot of money by commodifying her sexuality, and do at least as well as she could by being a good wife, especially when she ends up in the same place in the end. Defoe is a good example because Moll Flanders is one of the “classic” examples of the novel genre, but I think this dynamic is at the heart of at least most narrative literature: endings close down ambiguities that the work has spent all of the rest of its time opening up. Some works have ambiguous endings, of course, but all novels and films do end, and in a formal sense, that fact means that something ultimately gets said, even if, a la Heart of Darkness, that something is simply that Africa is a scary, nasty place. But when Marlowe is still sailing up the river to find Kurtz, when Kurtz is still just a voice in his imagination, anything can still happen because it’s just about his imagination. Meaning has not yet been foreclosed.

Kafka had a hard time finishing his novels, and I wonder if this had something to do with a desire not to fall into exactly this trap. Perhaps metameat knows? In any case, an overly holistic kind of narrative theory will always miss this dynamic: the way the most interesting stuff in a movie is the questions it asks, and the least interesting thing is the ending that answers them. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for example, has the most ridiculous ending it could possibly have: after an elegiac “passing of the West” story of failure and the remorseless passage of time, a retired John Wayne rides out into the empty desert towards an impossible California of the soul, only to be called back by the machina of deux: appointment by both northern and southern generals to be captain of the frontier scouts, or something. It goes against everything the film has done up until that point to append a happy ending to it (and an almost unforgivably bizarre cotillion at the cavalry base): poignancy over inevitably lost possibility is the thing that the film does well, and (for once) the unreconstructed confederate thing has actually worked well for the film (I particularly like the scene where they bury an aged private with the honors due to the rank he had in the confederate army, a redemption of sorts, but only to be found in death). To appreciate what the film has done up to that point, in other words, you sort of have to ignore the ending, a little. Even in films like Chinatown or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, whose endings are so powerful and are so well integrated into the rest of the film, the neatness of a gunshot is strikingly superficial when placed next to the unbelievable richness of the rest of the plot. After all, the whole point of Chinatown is that things are just too complicated for a detective to figure out or resolve (and in this sense it wants to be anti-noir), so why should the ending come along and resolve it? Maybe that’s why Chinatown had to spawn a god-awful (yet fascinating) sequel.

Back to Ford, one of his virtues is the tightness of his plots, and this tightness makes him really, really good at self-parody (or, if you like, ironic detachment and critique of the form). And so his best films begin at the end: just as the West is defined by “the closing of the frontier,” so too are his “America” movies defined by a history that is already written. And in doing so, they call attention to the process of writing, of how historical memory is created. By the same token, the virtue of his “genre” films isn’t that they invent the generic conventions, but that they work so hard to make otherwise scattered symbols into conventions, playing so hard on this generic conventionality that the movies become more about genre more than anything else. How postmodern, eh?

I haven’t yet figured out what I think of Mogambo, a 1954 Ford remake of an earlier film (1932’s Red Dust), but it seems to me that Ford is at least playing on the conventionality of the questions the film asks as he is interested in the questions themselves. Casting a noticeably too-old and too-shaggy Clark Gable to reprise the same role as he played the earlier film, too, seems like a highly self-conscious gesture.

But what is it self-conscious of? Beyond Red Dust, which I haven’t seen, I want to put forward a strikingly large and interesting genre of European writing under the moniker colonialist western. Not that the American Western isn’t itself colonialist, of course (and there’s a “postcolonial John Ford” essay that needs to be written out there), but it’s amazing how many novels and texts about colonialism are post-colonial in the sense of being, like a John Ford movie, written from the ending. The bad-wrong way to approach the “imperialism” of Victorians and early modernists is to imagine that they thought colonialism had a future, that they really believed in the imperial visions of the British Empire or France’s civilizing mission and so forth. Some did, of course, but you’ll find that those aren’t the people we read, because those people simply aren’t interesting: their blunt (and now counterfactual) realism makes their texts as valuable and as desirable as a betting stub for a race that’s already been run. And I’ll wager they weren’t even the texts about empire people were that interested in then. Rudyard Kipling, for example, is obsessed with race and cultural racism, but his obsession is driven by fear and anxiety: the fear that the Empire is failing (and his work, if you take the biographical long view, reads like one long jeremiad against the dying of the light).

In this sense, a text like Out of Africa (book or film) is not so much about proclaiming that imperialist fantasies are true (or real) as they are about wishing they were, and even about lamenting that they’re not. And in this, I find it to be quite typical of imperialist Victorianism like Conrads, which makes the fantasy into the focus. The extent it escapes from realism is the extent you stop calling it racist: it’s about racist fantasies, which it recognizes as such. And while an unforgivable piece of text-crement like Out of Africa obsesses over a lost vision of innocent racial domination, the book is hard to dismiss because, even in in 1938, years before the Mau Mau revolt, imperialism could only be represented by her as a lost possibility. To the extent that the book is anything more than an offensive collection of racist fantasies, then, it’s a collection of racist fantasies that knows itself as such; by dreaming of Africa, it refuses to live in the real world, but it does at least understand (like Conrad) that it’s a dream. Where is the status of realism for such a test? More complicated, I think, than any formal analysis can acknowledge.

This vexed relationship to realism is what makes a category like “colonialist western” stick for me. Just as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance remarks on how myth-making precedes the “reality” of the “West” (“when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”), colonialist Westerns like Out of Africa are obsessed with the failure of the colonialist enterprise, unable even to to imagine what it is except in terms of the imagined traditional Eden it disrupts and the impossible utopia it fails to achieve. Those disruptions and failures are the central narrative (as the torn-from-a-dream nostalgia of an Out of Africa illustrates), far more than the out of focus utopias or edens. And just to bring us full circle, I offer you the ultimate (and most obvious) colonial Western of all: Peter Hewitt’s Kenya Cowboy.

But since no one actually reads that one, let me toss out two more texts that such a category helps illuminate. When telling a friend about an attack on a Turkish troop train, T.E. Lawrence wrote, “I hope this sounds the fun it is … It’s the most amateurishly Buffalo-Billy sort of performance.” As the article I found this in elaborates: “at times, he was even oppressed by the sense that he was a kind of vaudeville cowboy, and Arabia a ‘foreign stage on which one plays day and night, in fancy dress, in a strange language…. The whole thing is such a play, and one cannot put conviction into one’s daydreams.’ I want to read the Seven Pillars and re-watch the film with that in mind. And, thirdly, this image from The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (and T.R. Was the ultimate maker of the American cowboy legend): when he met a bunch of Boer settlers in south Africa, he sang them a Dutch song his grandmother had sung for him, and mused on how their ancestors had left Netherlands the same time his ancestors did, a narrative in which “American” and “South Africa” as expressions of frontier colonialism are explicitly rendered analogous. Also, the first book he ever read was an account of Livingstone’s travels in Africa, and though he understood only the pictures, I can’t help but feel that his lifelong practice of reading Africa through cowboy mythology might have the opposite derivation: a lifelong reading (and writing) of the western as colonial.

Sound good? Still thinking it through. But I think it’s got legs.

Recycling Africa

Pliny the Elder is endlessly quoted for the saying “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” a phrase most easily translated as “Out of Africa, always something new.” I’m not sure what he meant when he said it. I’m not sure what a first century Roman thought “Africa” meant; the Romans gave the continent its name, but Africa to them was neither a “Heart of Darkness” nor a symbol of primeval nature. I’m also not sure why he thought there was always something new coming out of it.

But the phrase must do something useful, because it keeps getting recycled. The most famous is Izak Dineson’s Out of Africa, the memoir of a Danish countess’ spiritual rebirth from having a farm in colonial Kenya. Her book begins with the phrase “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills,” and like Elspeth Huxley and Kuki Gallman (with whom she has much in common) the book uses tenses to indicate trauma: she had a farm in Africa. This line has been quoted and revered numerous times; Dineson is held to be a master stylist and this line is seen as having style. Many people like the idea of having a farm in Africa.

I think it has the cadence and depth of a Toto lyric. Alexander McCall Smith liked it, and he began his massively popular The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with the words “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of the Kgale Hill.” Smith and Dineson both use the “having” of a thing in Africa to represent a certain kind of female empowerment, but the comedic Mma Ramotswe plays for laughs what Dineson plays in a tragically minor key: Dineson’s farm is in the past tense because her husband gave her syphilis and her lover died in a plane crash, the Mau Mau revolt burned up her pastoral paradise, and Kenya became independent. Colonial Africa could mean something to her because a strong woman could have a place there that she couldn’t in Europe, exactly because she was a white woman. Her ignorance could shield her from the kinds of knowledge that would make her beautiful dreams impossible, so she elegizes the life that was possible no where else; where else but Africa could a woman be a cowboy? In the 1940’s, where else but the colonies could a woman be a pioneer and farmer and doctor and business owner all in one?

African fashion

Thanks to Sepoy, I was recently viewing these pictures in the “femail” section of the UK Daily Mail, one of the many frighteningly popular quasi-tabloid British broadsheets. “Femail,” in case you were wondering, is a section devoted to “lifestyle” issues for women. What kind of lifestyle do women enjoy? Well, five of the six top stories for that day were: the tragic saga of a soccer star’s cheated upon wife, the fact that “the wait is over” for actor Sean Bean’s lucky newlywed wife (his fourth), the revelation that the wife of the new boss of the Chelsea soccer club is weird, a story about what kind of what woman will abase herself sufficiently to marry a millionaire, and the story of a wife whose husband was brain damaged in a crime of some sort and she has, in this sense, received a “life sentence.” You go, girl! You’ve come a long way!

The sixth story, however, was this: “Out of Africa: The incredible tribal fashion show inspired by Mother Nature”

African fashion

Indeed. To quote the writer, the good Marcus Dunk: “Here, a leaf or root is transformed into an accessory. Instead of a scarf, a necklace of banana leaves is draped around a neck. In place of a hat, a tuft of grass is jauntily positioned. A garland of flowers, a veil of seed-pods, buffalo horn, a crown of melons, feathers, stems and storks – Mother Nature has provided a fully stocked wardrobe.”

Why is this so wrong? First a bit more. The article notes that “the origins of this astonishing tradition have been lost over the years – the Surma and Mursi spend much of their time involved in tribal and guerilla warfare – their homeland is a hotbed of the arms and ivory trades,” a sentence that is even less grammatical in the original. And they go on to assert that “Fifteen tribes have lived in this region since time immemorial, and many use zebra skins for leggings, snail shells for necklaces and clay to stick their wonderful designs to their heads. As they paint each other’s bodies and make bold decisions about their outfits (all without the aid of mirrors), it seems that the only thing that motivates them is the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off to other members of the tribe.”

African fashion

The article is struck by the strange paradox of Africans having fashion. And, indeed, one of the things colonialists had to work the hardest to impress Africans with was clothing. Not that Africans didn‘t wear clothes, of course, but they wore clothing that was appropriate to the environment they lived in, and they didn‘t understand things about cleanliness’ proximity to godliness. They took a lot of teaching in some cases.

And in some cases not. After all, it’s not that some Africans didn’t think of clothing as a commodity in ways that parallel the European practice of “fashion.” Many did. In fact, one of the ways that economic historians gauge the relative economic strength of the pre-17th century West African states vis-à-vis Europe is by noting patterns of trade in cloth. for example, John Thornton reasons that since West Africans could actually make better quality cloth than the early and pre-industrial European textile industry (and wool was next to useless in the tropics) the only reason they would ever trade for European cloth in those days was because it was a kind of luxury item, a valued (fashionable?) possession precisely because it was unique and different from normal styles and makes. An older historiographic tradition held that Africans weren’t buying much cloth from Europe because they didn’t have the economic surplus to be able to afford that trade; Thornton‘s intervention, after going over the evidence that they did, in fact, produce substantial surpluses, was to argue the existence of any trade at all (given how poorly European cloth compared with African cloth) pointed to a market in luxury goods that only bolstered his original point: Africans had a lot more control of their fate than European historiography tended to imagine. But at a much later period, when Europe’s military and economic strength had gone through the roof and a lot of work went into convincing Africans to grow cotton to send to Europe, where value would be added, and to then buy the cloth back.

African fashion

But that, of course, is not why it’s being called a fashion show. These fashionable items are not created by labor surplus, but by manna from Mother Nature. That’s what’s charming about it, right? And why is it that they “make bold decisions about their outfits” and why is “the only thing that motivates them…the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off?” What makes these kinds of dress-ups into something on par with “the runways of Paris and London”? Why is it called “Out of Africa”? To a practiced grader, this article shows all the marks of a hastily written and poorly thought through student paper; if not actually plagiarized, there’s certainly not an original thought in it. So where is this narrative coming from?

You can’t tease some warped version of gender out of this racism, the way masquerading as feminism covers over something much less appealing. But when the same thing keeps coming back, again and again, its got to mean something. And we keep getting the same goddamned story told again and again, not just in Dineson, Gallman, and Huxley, but in the execrable movies made from them, I Dreamed of Africa and Out of Africa. Why does exploiting gender make racism palatable? Why is it that Elspeth Huxley has to challenge her parents’ old world patriarchy by dressing-up as African with the servants? Why is it that Dineson becomes free of her horrible husband by playing veterinarian with the local African children? Why is it that Kuki Gallman becomes a complete woman by giving birth to a “child of Africa” who is fascinated by the wilderness? Why films need to retell those stories, complete with vivid scenery? Why does Mma Ramotswe have to invoke “Out of Africa”? Why does this article? Why does it keep getting recycled?

NPR’s Apology: I’m Sorry That You’re Wrong

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlowe early on reflects on the profound ignorance of the earliest conquerors of Britain, the Romans: “It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” He is talking about himself and modern colonialism, of course, in an ambiguous way (and this ambiguity is at the heart of the novel), but the key observation, for me, is his sense that the best way to navigate in the dark is with your eyes closed. After all, if you’re in the dark, what difference does it make if your eyes are open?On the other hand, what if it’s only dark because you’ve closed your eyes? Drew sent me this article, confirming that my sleep-deprived brain hadn’t merely invented the “dark continent” reference of a few weeks ago (though I mistakenly thought it was Renee Montaigne). Apparently Jean Cochran apologized for referring to Bush’s trip to the “Dark Continent,” but the classic “mistakes were made”/”I apologize if anyone was offended” odor about her performance makes it worth reproducing in full:

“I had no idea the term would be found offensive,” said Cochran, who joined NPR in 1981. “I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was ‘racist and irredeemable,’ as one person put it in an email. I was floored. Am I insensitive? I don’t know how that could be since I didn’t know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the term to refer to the African jungle. It’s a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term.”

As the article goes on to note, Cochran’s non-apology is factually quite wrong. If you were going to oversimplify the continent according to one type of geography, you would choose the wide-open (and very bright) savannah, since, in a very literal sense, there just isn’t very much rain forest in Africa. But when she insistently clings to the term, she produces an excellent performance of the term’s true meaning: to be unknown by the West is what makes a thing “dark.” What a thing is is irrelevant; the only real truth is what Westerners think of it.

Observe the logic here: the fact that she is literally ignorant of what she is talking about, by her account, is what saves her from being deemed “insensitive.” After all, in a very basic sense, her non-apology is itself the height of insensitivity, an insulting refusal to be sensitive to why the term produced such vehement protests in the first place. Instead, she parades her ignorance, transforming it into a virtue. Phrases like “I had no idea,” “I was unaware,” “I was floored,” “I don’t know,” and “I don’t know” (as well as other rhetorical expressions of uncertainty followed by assertions that are later in the article shown to be incorrect) indicate that being wrong or ignorant is not the problem; to be “insensitive,” she asserts, is not to be “unaware” of the connotations of her words (which she manifestly was, is, and goes to great lengths to establish) but, perversely, to speak with an intent to harm. In other words, she defends herself as if this was a libel case, as if her intent was remotely relevant. To be insensitive, in that context, actually requires that one be sensible of what one is saying (and of the damage done), so the fact that she does not have a clue turns out to be the very proof of her innocence. “I can’t be racist!” she argues, “I just don’t know what I’m talking about!”

As I hope is clear, this is both a stupid and an unflattering defense for Ms. Cochran to adopt. An apology would distinguish the act from the person, saying, in essence, “I did something bad, but I’m not a bad person.” She has no interest in such an approach, and in refusing to distance herself from the bad thing she did, she can only blame herself if she’s taken for a bad person. I’m not actually that interested in blaming her; frankly, who cares whether she personally is a racist person or not? That’s her problem. But when she not only looks like a duck and quacks like a duck but, under direct questioning, does not deny being a duck, well, she should not be surprised if she’s taken for a species of avian waterfowl.

I do, however, find it deeply revealing that instead of honestly addressing the problem of being a duck, she instead wants to blame reality: the problem, if there is a problem, is that some people think Africa actually isn’t a dark continent, that some people apparently disagree with mass media representations of the place as one giant nest of disease-violence-ignorance-primitivism. Not that all journalists can be tarred with the same brush, of course, but her use of that term, like it or not, aligns her with the large portion of the news media that make a living by promoting exactly this kind of view. And by defending her use of it, moreover, she establishes even more clearly that she finds it to be an apt description. When she pretends that the chorus of protests lack validity by shutting her eyes to them, she shows her true colors. She chooses to tackle a darkness by first closing her eyes, since the truth about Africa is determined by what people (by which she means, Western people) think is true. And the comments to the ombudsman’s article illustrate, no one will ever go broke underestimating the knowledge of the American people about Africa.

As I said, this is not personal; whether Jean Cochran is a racist person is irrelevent and draws attention away from the real issue, the fact that it is possible to say racist things about Africa and receive a chorus of approval. In that regard, one shouldn’t be fooled by the apology, or the ombudsman’s article in general: they are scraps thrown to people who find the use of that characterization to be both stupid and racist, and they are thrown because racism, believe it or not, is still technically not the official state religion of the United States, the Washington Redskins notwithstanding. But not having an established church hasn’t impaired American religiosity, and by the same token, we should note that these halfhearted gestures of remorse only allows NPR to play the martyr, as if ravening hordes were demanding Jean Cochran’s head on a stick. “Should NPR have apologized?” becomes the question, as if anyone but conservatives bent on overturning the tyranny of political correctness even remotely cares; the real question is whether NPR should be allowed to promote racist counterfactuals on public airwaves. Is ignorance in defense of racism a vice or not? And by apologizing for reality’s failure to accord with the untruths they believe to be true, by faulting reality for not according with white mythology, Cochran and company indicate which side they’re on.

Chinua Achebe and the Damnation of Faint Praise

 A few weeks back, at Critical Mass, there was an interesting interview with Norman Rush, the author of a variety of mzungu novels (hat tip). I won’t comment on Rush himself, but a comment he made caught my eye. After the interviewer asks him if he was influenced by any African writers-and good for Scott Esposito for asking a question that wouldn’t occur to nine tenths of critics in his place-Rush namedrops the usual troika (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o) and moves on. But he first places himself in his place as mzungu, noting that “No non-African could do what Achebe has done.”

 Maybe. Probably. Hell, almost certainly. But there’s a backhandedness to this compliment that makes me nervous. See, here’s the thing: Achebe is just a great writer, full stop. I’m not sure anyone could do what he did; I’m biased, but I’m pretty sure no one has. And while this may seem like a small point, like complaining that a genuine compliment just isn’t enough of a compliment, there’s a larger point of which it’s in service, a larger issue of who gets to “know” what sorts of knowledges and why. It diminishes his achievement to pretend that white writers don’t write about the things he wrote about, because if Rush’s novels (or any post-war white novelist) had to be placed next to Achebe’s, we might have to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that the best practitioner of English literature is an African.

I am certainly not suggesting we treat novel-writing like a foot race. But there are those who certainly do think of literature as a kind of olympic sport, and for “our” writers to share the same field with “their” writers would be as calamitous as for a black pitcher to throw to a white batter in baseball’s pre-Jackie Robinson era. He might strike him out, after all (or, more complexly, he might not). So, as a result, we get separate events for “race” or “cultural” writers, distinct and cordoned off from the more universal concerns of real writers. And, as widely read as Achebe is, it always irks me that people so rarely revere him in the way that I think he should be revered. I may seem to be making the banal request that people should revere him more, I’m not, not really; I’m saying we should revere him better, doing so for better reasons.

Things Fall Apart, for example, is a very deceptively simple book, and this apparent simplicity deceives (I suspect) the vast majority of his readers. Okonkwo may be a man who never let thinking get in the way of whatever he wanted to do, but his puppetmaster’s seemingly uncrafted and naïve narration is as tightly plotted and structured as the Greek dramaturgy it both tropes on and defies (something Soyinka has done more ostentatiously). It may seem to be the simple story of a man and his destiny, a simply redemptive vision of a romantic lifestyle wiped out by colonialism and a condemnation of the colonialists that did it, but part of its magnificence as a piece of writing is that it manages to be all of this without disturbing its ability to also be about the ways that culture gets politicized, the way that traditionalism manages to express (and, dare I say, sublate) deeper and less coherent political anxieties and desires, particularly different modes of gender practice. And it’s a novel which enacts these conflicting desires with a certain magnificent disdain for resolving them, or moralizing on them; in fact, so much of what Okonkwo does is gets moralized upon in such spectacularly unsuccessful ways that one can (I would argue) understand Okonkwo only by deferring judgment of him, like a particle in a parable on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The plot hinges on why Okonkwo kills his stepson, but that act is also the novel’s black box; one can offer any number of explanations for Okonkwo’s act (and the consequences which it provokes in the style of Greek tragedy), but the novel does everything in its power to illustrate the ultimate unknowability of that origination, until one is left only to reflect on the ways that Okonkwo’s unknowability gets known, the ways that fictive truths take the place of a true truth eternally deferred. Precisely because the author refuses to authoritatively know Okonkwo, the novel has a profound and complex double-life, a narrative given shape by the absence at its center.

As I read back on what I just read, I find myself sounding uncomfortably like a bad post-structural theorist from the eighties, so although I think my reading is sound, I’ll put it aside. The real point buried back there is that Achebe is not, in a “literary” sense, anything but a peer of “great” writers. And of course Norman Rush didn’t say that. But there is, hidden in the nest of assumptions out of which his aside slithered, a particular claim for the proper spheres inhabited by white writers and the proper sphere inhabited by Africans: what an African knows, an mzungu cannot, and vice versa. To say that only an African could write what Achebe wrote is to excuse himself for not having done so, and to claim his own little piece of the rock, the mzungu novel.

Not many people waste their breath in asserting that only a white person could really understand what it means to be white, and rightly. I think of the mystifications of the title character in Esk’ia Mphaphlele’s “Mrs. Plum” as an example of how it can be through the eyes of non-white characters (and authors) that “whiteness” gets expressed in all its glory. Sometimes those who live outside your world understand you in a way you don’t understand yourself, and this is as important a part of identity as the kind of claims made by a “race” writer. It is largely a white fiction that only Africans can understand Africa, and so too is Rush’s space-clearing gesture for himself a popular kind of white privilege within “African letters”: he is happy to be shielded from competition, to be awarded a tiny, but comfortable corner in which to sit. Rush is as much a race writer in this sense as Achebe. But while Achebe was canny enough to realize that wazungu were quick to extend him the benefit of the doubt with regards to his subject (being African, he must surely know Africans), he was also aware that he hardly deserved that credit, and made something of that realization. What, after all, did a Christian-educated Nigerian of the mid-twentieth century really know about the inner life of a late nineteenth century Igbo warrior, a man who never lived to hear the word Nigeria? So instead of eliding that knowledge, he built a magnificent literary edifice on top of it. Instead of donning the victory wreath he was awarded for a game he was too good to play, he proclaimed that the center was hollow, and would not hold.


We’re coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of Things Fall Apart, so the haters have started to pile on.

On the Slavishness of Hacks

I already knew that NPR’s “Marketplace” commentators aren’t particularly trustworthy, in the way that slavish hacks for laissez-fair are generally not to be trusted. In fact, in exactly that way. So I was only listening with half a mind the other night, idly humming the internationale while flipping through the new graphic novel version of the Grundrisse, when something caught my ear. I snapped to attention; did he just say that countries with the “rule of law” show higher rates of growth? And did he point to comparison studies of neighboring countries that share religions, customs, and ethnicity, except that one supported the “rule of law” more than the other? And did he then just use Zimbabwe and Botswana as his examples?

Now, this may not strike you as being an egregious sin against the reality-based community, but it be. Especially given a specious and poorly-defined concept like “rule of law” as the experimental variable, Botswana and Zimbabwe are apples and oranges, and the only way you could use them as control and experimental is if all African nations are seen to be, in essence, the same. Quasi-racism, journalistic shortcuts, etc. I’ve sung that song before. But if I were to attack the problem of that comparison in a rational way, refuting it factually by going into all the significant differences, I frankly wouldn’t even know how to start. And that’s kind of the problem: anyone who would ever even make that comparison would probably not find my arguments very convincing anyway. So what to do? I‘m not sure. How do you talk to someone whose point of departure is what they know to be true without knowing (or caring) why they know it?

This is related to other things, of course. As you may know, “truthiness” was named the word of the year by the American Dialect Society in 2005, and this is as good a place as any other to mark the point when the shine really started coming off the Bush presidency. Bush used to be a divisive subject, and there used to be as many people that loved him as there were people that hated him, but, if I may venture a guess, Colbert could start getting mileage out of the “truthiness” joke at about the time when even Bush supporters started to feel a little disoriented by their guy. I mean the war had been failing for a while, and even that isn’t enough to derail a presidency (look at old “Hundred Years of War” McCain, if you doubt that); heck, it had been failing even when he was re-elected. I think it was the disconnect between the news about Iraq and the Bush people’s response to it that started to make rational people start to sweat. I mean, seriously, “Stay the course”?! Are you kidding us? It’s not that the war strategy was failing (which would be forgivable if you‘re a jingoistic patriot), it’s that a lot of people started to notice that Bush didn’t believe that the strategy was failing. This man, people started to think (people who didn‘t already think it), is not quite right.

This is free political analysis and you‘re getting what you pay for, of course, but I do think the question of exactly how is he not right, and why, is still a good one. So: there are two strong components of the Bush psychology: fundamentalist Christianity and unfettered free market capitalism, but not necessarily in that order. And I think we secular humanists are often in danger of confusing these different causes for the Bush (as face for the conservative right) ignorance. For example, it’s easy to burst a vein when you read something like this:

”’Mr. President,’ [Biden] said, ‘How can you be so sure when you know you don’t know the facts?”’…Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator’s shoulder. ”My instincts,” he said. ”My instincts.”

But where does a Bush get the knowledge he works under? In the article I got that quote from, the famous one by Ron Suskind, the discussion of the Bush presidency’s “faith based” bubble is framed from the start in the following way:

”Just in the past few months,” Bartlett said, ”I think a light has gone off for people who’ve spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.” Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush’s governance, went on to say: ”This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them. . . .This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,” Bartlett went on to say. ”He truly believes he’s on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.” Bartlett paused, then said, ”But you can’t run the world on faith.”

And the climax of the article is a bit of first person reportage that sent many a democrat into fits of apoplectic rage, a conversation with a very self-satisfied aide:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

Don’t get me wrong, that’s wildly scary stuff, scary enough for me to feel like if we get out of the Bush presidency at all, we’re doing pretty goddamn well, all things considered. But I think Bartlett is wrong to try to pin Bush’s contempt for reality on messianic faith in God, and I think he’s wrong to say that the world can’t be run on faith. It can, and it is, but it’s just a different kind of faith.

To go back to my new favorite old book, Ferguson’s Anti-Politics Machine was connecting “truthiness” in the abstract to its practical utility as governmental apparatus way back in the nineties. But for him, religion and God aren’t anywhere on the horizon; for him, it‘s all about the institutional necessities of the development apparatus. For example, one of the book’s great set-pieces is him tearing apart an egregiously inaccurate paragraph from an egregiously inaccurate World Bank country profile of Lesotho, not simply to display its sins (which shone forth pretty well on their own, if you were looking) but to think about why such blatantly counterfactual facts get so consistently reproduced. As he put it, “One would be mistaken to suppose that the paragraph cited is simply an error, the sign of gross ignorance or incompetent scholarship…the authors of this statement cannot simply be dismissed as second-rate academics [since] what is being done here is not some sort of staggeringly bad scholarship, but something else entirely.” The book goes on to explore the conditions under which such “statements such as the ones I have cited are no longer bizarre and unacceptable, but comprehensible, and even necessary,” with specific reference to how “development” works in the regional economy of southern Africa, how specific kinds of counterfactual ideas about what “Lesotho” is have to be propagated if the World Bank and other developmental institutions are going to do what they are paid to do (27-8). In such a process, Zimbabwe and Botswana have to be presented as if they are variations on the same country because they have to be the same country if the argument for “rule of law” is to make sense.

In other words, I think we secular humanists are far too quick if we pin the conservative right’s stupidity on its religious faith. Contrary to what Bartlett wants to believe, you can run the world on faith. To the extent that a single system does run the world, it’s what’s come to be known as the “Washington Consensus,” a particular set of very ideological and largely counterfactual beliefs about how development should be done. Politics is complicated (and no one thing can really explain everything that happens in the world, of course), but if you want to understand third-world politics and development (the glue that unites the first and third world, which is to say, the whole world), it seems to me the absolute starting point would have to be the set of very ideological beliefs about free trade and open market economies that bodies like the World Bank are able to persuade weaker countries to adopt. And yet there is absolutely nothing to empirically show that such policies work in any real sense; to the contrary, the overwhelming evidence is that they do not “work,” or at least they do not work for the people in whose names they are implemented. Rational people have noticed this, and have made rational efforts to understand why such policies have failed. See, for example, Stiglitz’s book as an example of a crisis of faith amongst the believers. But this strikes me as kind of like trying to use reason to explain why Armageddon hasn’t happened yet: you can always come up with an explanation, because there’s nothing in a faith-based philosophy that would contradict it, no point where the two lines cross and come into conflict.

The question, for me, is what one is to do when people say blatantly wrong things. I, for example, got all self-righteous about how the Washington Post was wrong in their coverage of the election of Kenya, and I could (and did) point to people that were more right, but I wonder if I’m really talking about objective reality. Or am I just talking politics? For example, part of the problem for commenting on the events in Kenya is that the political violence really is taking an “ethnic” shape, so while it’s fair to call foul when someone compares it to Rwanda, neither is it the Ukraine either: you can’t explain the violence by referring to “tribalism” or to “people power” when it’s not quite both and more close to neither. There are better models, of course, but when partisans from the right want it to be about “tribalism” (because they have investments in a certain politics of cultural racism) and partisans on the left want it to be a people-driven “Orange” revolution (because leftists love the “people versus the power” narrative), is knowledge about what is happening being created in any less political way? In a way, the easiest answer is the truest one: a pox on all their houses. But it doesn’t get you very much real traction in the real world; you got to vote for somebody, because if you don’t, others will.

Ferguson’s very Foucaultian point is that the kinds of discourse that get produced by an institution like the World Bank can’t be judged by objective standards without misunderstanding what it is that that discourse accomplishes: imagining a country as a “developing” economy allows the World Bank to justify its developmental intervention. Throwing “facts” at such people, in that situation, is beside the point, like telling Bush that Iran isn‘t developing a nuclear weapons program: anything that doesn’t reinforce what they already know, will still reinforce what they already know. But it’s too easy to allow that critique to settle only on the right wing buffoons that inhabit the neo-liberal Washington consensus. When I make claims about what tribalism in Kenya is or isn’t, from a café in the US, do I speak because I actually know something or because I’m playing a game of knowledge politics where I’m trying to devalue the intellectual currency of the MSM in favor of a currency I myself trade in more easily? When I get enraged at the “marketplace” hacks for blithely skating over a distinction that I would make much of, is it because there is something really important at stake, or is it simply because it’s a distinction that I could make much of, and I want the opportunity to do so? I’m not completely sure.

The Colonialist Money Laundromat

In Money Has No Smell, Paul Stoller’s ethnography of West African traders in New York, the title comes from something one of Stoller’s friends on the streets tells him. When asked how a good Muslim can sell a t-shirt with the word “fuck” on it, the trader simply rehearses a shop-worn expression: “Money has no smell.” Coincidentally, I happened also to be reading Upton Sinclair’s The Metropolis and was startled to come across a similar phrase; as our country mouse protagonist, Montague, is being told of a big city banking scandal (of which I will not tire you with the details), he is “reminded of the story of the Roman emperor who pointed out that money had no smell.”

Wikipedia tells us that the latin for “money does not smell” is Pecunia non olet, and regales us with the tale of the Roman Emperor Vespasian who put a urine tax on public toilets. When criticized, he supposedly pointed out that a coin did not smell. But I’m not particularly interested in the genealogy of the phrase, because I don’t think trying to trace where it comes from and how and why is really the right tactic to take with this kind of coincidence. You wouldn’t expect a sufi muslim in New York City to be trading the same cliché as Montague, the rural boy gone to face the temptations of the city in the follow-up to Sinclair’s The Jungle (or a Roman Emperor, for that matter); you wouldn’t expect it in the same way that it’s exceedingly unlikely for a river in West Africa to share the same source as a creek in Virginia. But all rivers flow to the ocean, and if you want to know why they do that (and who, in this tangled metaphor, the Rome that all roads flow into is, or the emperor of it), it makes more sense to look at what the metropolis represents, in the most general sense.

Or, perhaps, we should first gloss the work being done in the original phrase. So let me toss off another reference from a book whose leaves I’ve been idly perusing, as I live the idle lifestyle of an idle blogger, with nothing to do but peruse idly. From Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a bus conductor has a moment of reverie, staring down at a paper bill (amongst a sea of coins) he has received:

“The cedi [Ghanaian currency] lay there on the seat. Among the coins it looked strange, and for a moment the conductor thought it was ridiculous that the paper should be more important than the shiny metal. In the weak light inside the bus he peered closely at the markings on the note. Then a vague but persistent odor forced itself on him and he rolled the cedi up and deliberately, deeply smelled it. He had to smell it again, this time standing up and away from the public leather of the bus seat. But the smell was not his mistake. Fascinated, he breathed it slowly into his lungs. It was the most unexpected smell for something so new to have: it was a very old smell, very strong, and so very rotten that the stench itself of it came with a curious, satisfying pleasure. Strange that a man could have so many cedis pass through his hand and yet not really know their smell.”

I’ve got a 500 shilling note that’s worn to a translucent finery,  and I may use it as a a teaching aid in the future; it has a peculiar smell. African central banks tend not to replace their currency with anything like the vigilance that they do in developed countries. In a very literal sense, that is, money does smell; the amount of sweat, dead skin, and other emoluments that befall a hapless paper bill is dramatically more than you probably realize, and this becomes much clearer if the government doesn’t regularly wash and replace their currency. As is often the case, though, realities which are boldly visible in African contexts are no less true because our eyes are shielded from them here; if you want to keep your hands clean, keep them out of your wallet. But Armah’s description of the foul cedi is doing more work than a simple realistic description: he is troping, implicitly, on exactly this common phrase and the sentiment behind it, that money has no smell. In a novel about the failures of modernization, about the corruption festering beneath independence governments, the stinky Cedi is the aria that the rest of the work plays variations on; like those lucky few who have no sense of smell, Africa’s post-independence leaders learned how to climb through a toilet and smell like roses on the other side.

For the West Africans selling these bootlegged cds, t-shirts that say “fuck,” and other less than legitimate items of trade, a similar kind of conflict needs to be resolved. A good muslim should not trade in such things, yet how is one to make the money one needs to survive in a jungle like New York? Without a green card, one can‘t be too selective. So you learn not to smell your money, how to forestall the questions without useful answers.

Marx makes the ever-so evocative point that capital comes into the world “dripping from head to toe from every pore with blood and dirt.” Beyond the poetry, there’s a serious point: money has a history. It comes from somewhere. And as he points out, we can’t afford to smell our money because we can’t afford to remember that bloody and dirty history. If we, too, want to get by in a capitalist economy, we can’t be too selective about where our money comes from. So what Marx calls the commodity fetish is our ability to forget that a commodity didn’t simply appear. Your clothes were made in a sweatshop, and the blood of the fourteen year old who spent her childhood (or her life) chained to a sewing machine is on your hands, or on your sleeves. But when we buy it, when we pay for it in odor-free lucre, we erase all that. It’s just a sweater from Target.

Natalia pointed out a few posts ago that Freud used the term “dark continent” to refer to female sexuality, and (as you can tell) I love those sorts of coincidences. After all, Africa was never “dark” until people like Henry Morton Stanley explored it and named it the Dark Continent; if it was unknown to people in Europe, that’s only because they had forgotten everything they once knew and had taught themselves how to not understand everything that Africans might have told them. So there’s something important about Freud using the trope of one invented Victorian darkness to describe another, using disinformation coined in one place to disinform himself about another.

And it’s not surprising that Freud also used the term “fetish,” though he didn’t coin it; like a Ghanaian cedi, it has a smell and a history. When the Portuguese first came to Africa (and they were the first) these good catholics needed a way to describe the strange ways of the Africans they were discovering, so they latched onto the word feitiço, a thing which is made. Unlike these good catholics, you see, the Africans seemed to worship things they had made with their hands, the fetish objects that they called their gods and which they invested with a power that was not only wrong but nonsensical. Unlike these Portuguese, for whom God was distant and unapproachable, Africans used divination and “fetish” objects to learn truths about reality. In sharp contrast to the European fear of spirits and witchcraft, Africans were accustomed to “smelling” out reality through these objects, masks and dolls and totems. And for these Europeans, well-tempered in the fires of the inquisition, such divination and smelling of fortunes had become forbidden and dangerous; just as hechizos, the kinds of healing and divination that rural Europeans practiced well into the nineteenth century, had been made into dangerous satanic magic by the European witch hunts that invented witchcraft, so too did the “fetish” manifest dangerously un-christian practices, and it become a dangerously African tendency to know an object by its smell. And thus the Africa became one who practiced witchery.

Later, this move from the inquisition’s playbook (given new life by colonial creoles) was reborn in 19th century colonialist anthropology as way of troping the most “primitive” form of religion: unlike higher religions, in which the sacred is invested with a heavenly distance and clothed in a priestly raiment, the most basic (and delusive) spiritual beliefs are those in which mere objects are seen as having a kind of power and motivating force themselves. Africans, you see, belief in the power of the totem object because they haven’t yet learned to revere a God you can’t see but must receive from your priest; just as the superstitious peasant in Europe had believed that one could learn the truth via direct revelation–and had to be taught to accept truth only from the hands of the church–so too did the African have to learn that true religion was not to be found at home but only in the firmly authoritarian practices of an established church. These ignorant fetishists, in other words, believed that the truth of an object was its unseen relation with the world around it, that spirits of the past still lived on and could be talked to and questioned. If you want to know why you’re sick, or why you’re poor, smell your neighbor’s money and you might smell a witch. To these Fetishists, history spoke to them exactly the way a Sherlock Holmes read the truth on a scuff-marked shoe; not only did money have a smell, but good and bad deeds in the past lived on in the spirits of the ancestors, and ill-got gains would swiftly find some form of retribution. There is, of course, much more to such belief systems than I’m addressing here (you‘ll want to read, for example, John Thornton‘s chapter “African Religions and Christianity in the Atlantic world” in his Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800), but my point is simply that the practice of “fetishism” was dangerous because it enunciated a very basic critique of exploitative social practice. Not only were Africans teaching the dangerous belief that spirits live in the world around us, they were finding a morality less in books than in causes and consequences: ill-gotten wealth was cursed, and those who got fat by “eating” their neighbors needed to take care that no one smelled their money. This is, as Timothy Burke points out, eminently rational: “some of the powerful are witches, if by that we mean people who illicitly manipulate invisible and hidden forces to produce selfish gains for themselves at the expense of everyone else.” So such fetishists had to be taught otherwise, that truth was to be found only in writing, be it in bibles or on the blackboards and ledgers of international commodity markets. Along with learning that cleanliness was godliness, and the way to be clean was to buy soap, they had to be taught that money had no smell.

Freud’s use of the word “fetish” was only tangentially related to all this, I think, though he did concur in the belief that according an object a power and relation to things outside of itself was abnormal, for him produced by trauma instead of mere pagan ignorance. And Marx uses it in a very 19th century way: for a person to believe in the commodity fetish is to allow his mind to be clouded like an African‘s. Put aside superstition, they both said, and let go of your chains; by understanding your ignorance, you can make a new future. You are more free than you think. These days, of course, Freud is mostly seen to have been wrong about everything (the dark continent of female sexuality, for example) and Marx was looking steadfastly forward when the Communist revolution came up from behind and hit him in the ass, figuratively speaking. They both were at their most interesting when they addressed the ways that history finds ways to continue to exist in the present, and at their least when they pretended it could be put aside. But what they both did was to say of a thing, be it a dream or a dollar, this thing is more than itself, and that’s a powerfully useful story to tell about a thing. And just as a sweater can drip with sweatshop blood and a dream-cigar can represent a penis, so too can words and books carry with them the problems and arguments of their writers and readers. When a sufi Muslim claims that money doesn’t smell, he says it because he has to hold his nose or starve; he protests so much because his livelihood depends on it. When Nick in The Great Gatsby sees “the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money,” he’s seeing a metropolis built on a need for money to be whitened and cleansed of the stink of brown and black labor. When Upton Sinclair exposed the stench of the Chicago packing industry in The Jungle, he’s telling his delicate audience that their meat smelled like money. And that money smells bad.

More shrill objections

At 6:32 this morning (yes, I get up early) I heard Morning Edition commentator Renee Montagne refer to George Bush’s upcoming trip to the “dark continent.” That’s Africa, in case you were thrown by the use of a nineteenth century colonial stereotype in the twentieth century. I’ve been trying to find confirmation online that she actually said that, but can’t seem to.  Did I make it up?  I’m positive I didn’t, but then perception and memory are not so reliable as we seem to think. Such an odd thing to say, and so stupid. But, here’s something equally stupid and racist that I can find, so let me yelp my indignation into the intertubes. 

You can find more here if you care too.  

I object!

Maina Kiai and L. Muthoni Wanyeki wrote an op-ed for the New York Times yestarday, and it begins this way:

“UNTIL December, Kenya was the most stable nation in East Africa. It has long been a willing partner in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Yet the United States has mostly stood by as our country has descended into chaos.”

This first sentence is just silly. Kenya has never been “stable” by any standard I want to embrace: from the abortive coup attempt in 1982 to the ongoing low-scale insurgency-counterinsurgency campaign in the north, and from being ruled by a pair of pretty-much-dictators for most of its history, the astounding levels of petty and not-so petty graft that characterize its economy, to the violence of its independance struggle getting recycled into a vicious brew of class and tribal tensions that have always been simmering (and only in the last few months came to a powerful boil), the word “stable” is just flat out wrong. Besides that, although “East Africa” usually only refers to three countries (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda), you only have to look to Kenya’s south to see a country that has had stable elections for a while, a history of presidents giving up power voluntarily, and nothing like the kinds of violent tribal politics that independent Kenya has always been characterized by. Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere used Swahili to unite the country, whereas Jomo Kenyatta used tribalism to solidify his power base, to give only one aspect of a complex story.

But of course “stability” is not really about peace, is it? A stable country is one which has free markets and (as the next sentence clarifies) supports the West. There’s a long history of calling countries “stable” which adhere to those two criteria; Cote D’Ivoire used to be a shining beacon of hope in West Africa, as did (to a lesser extent) Zimbabwe. Not so much anymore, since those countries have all but fallen apart. And the US’s closest partner in the region has, for a while, been Museveni’s Uganda, a country which has been fighting a civil war in its north for decades but which will continue to be touted as a model of stability and growth until it has its own meltdown in a few years (you heard it here first!). But its not about that, you see; “stability” is a magical quality that has nothing to do with democracy or citizen well-being.

The rest of that article is just as airy, I thought. It doesn’t mention the role of tribally based militias and gangs like Mungiki, who have taken the lead in mobilizing and exploiting political dissent; not only do references to “the current calm” seem strangely at odds with reality (much like referring to how the surge is working in Iraq), but there’s a faith in high-level power sharing between Odinga and Kibaki that seems frankly delusional to me. They may have been part of the catalysts for the original post-election meltdown, but the evolution of the conflict has taken things far beyond their ability to control. Any real move towards peaceful resolution has to address those factors. But I guess an op-ed in the New York Times isn’t really about that either. Peace isn’t their business; happy disinformation is what pays the bills.     

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