Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, cover

Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is often seen as a riposte to European representations of African life and culture, not least for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Achebe memorably described as the work of “a thoroughgoing racist.” Achebe’s critique is that Conrad’s novella treats “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Moreover, he continues, “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”

I wonder, however, about the effectiveness of this riposte. Not least because Things Fall Apart reads as an extended obituary to a vanished way of life and as such mimics a quasi-anthropological perspective on colonized cultures. However much Achebe wants to distinguish himself not only from Conrad but also from the colonial District Commissioner who features at the book’s conclusion as a would-be ethnologist contemplating writing a book to be entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209), he sustains rather than undermines the tropes that enable such Eurocentric visions.

Achebe’s novel is certainly obsessed with mourning and death: both the ultimate suicide of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a strongman in an Ibo village called Umuofia, and the vanishing of the precolonial customs and structures with which Okonkwo’s demise is associated. Okonkwo is an ambitious striver, whose rash actions lead first to his exile from the community and later to his killing himself (an unholy action) as he realizes that resistance to cultural invasion is apparently futile. But this has already been foretold: towards the end, after a convert interrupts a ritual performance and unmasks one of its participants, we hear that “the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. [. . .] Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and terrible sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death” (187). We are, I think, to share in this sorrow, and thus to condemn the coming of the colonizers.

But such lamentation is a typical feature of colonial discourse itself, which regularly mourned–and continues to mourn–the destruction of indigenous practices and lifestyles for which it itself was and is responsible. From the cult of the “noble savage” and The Last of the Mohicans to the fascination towards supposedly uncontacted tribes from Amazonian Peru to the Andamans, imperial powers have always professed ambivalence towards the consequences of modernization and/or development. But this mourning is expressed so as to suggest that these are the inevitable victims of a progress that is unstoppable, the price we pay for so-called civilization. At the same time, the anthropological lament tells us that as soon as the pristine authenticity of the indigenous is compromised, they cease to be (really) indigenous at all. Hence, it is not only no use trying to save the victims of colonization: in that as soon as we know of them they are irredeemably transformed (acculturated, inauthentic), it is not worth saving them either.

Perhaps the success of Achebe’s book, as no doubt (and by some distance) the best-known and best-selling novel written by a black African, is due to its playing into precisely this colonial fantasy. It helps that its narrative is set in some rather vague and imprecise past: the Ibo are presented very much as people without history, whose way of life is perpetuated through constant repetition undergirded by folk memory. As the colonizers arrive, inducing a “terrible sound” never heard before and “never to be heard again,” this is the eruption of a new mode of temporality into an otherwise relatively static (at best, cyclical) way of life. Okonkwo then has to die, in a foolhardy act of useless resistance, because his life is unimaginable after the taint of Western corruption has come.

In fact, however, the Ibo (now usually called Igbo) have had a rather more interesting postcolonial history than the novel suggests. Indeed, the very notion of Igbo identity is itself largely the product of colonial contact, and led to a dramatic twentieth-century history (not least the Biafra rebellion) in which Achebe himself played a not insignificant part. But this afterlife of the I(g)bo would come as a surprise to a reader of the novel, riven through as it is with an air of chilling finality. And I would argue that this attempt (almost literally) to close the book on I(g)bo culture is as dehumanizing as anything to be found in Conrad or his ilk. For it denies them their human complexity, even as the figure of Okonkwo himself (twice over traitor to his tribe) points indirectly to the mythic dimension of the dream of precolonial purity.

For more, see my lecture on Arts One Open.

loss

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air conjures up the strange half-light of the northern summer, which also stands in for the half-remembered aura that is memory’s version of the past. It is a tale of Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, back in the 1970s. It is a book about nostalgia and loss: a loss only made worse by the fact that what is lost was never really possessed in the first place; it is the loss of what might have been or what should have been.

The story centers around a radio station and its unlikely employees: a semi-alcoholic acting manager suddenly promoted when the boss leaves town without warning; two young women who turn up unannounced looking for a job; an older woman receptionist who is the only one to stay on in this town of transients; a technician who hints at barely-concealed violence; a book critic who finally, and perhaps belatedly, discovers tenderness and love; and an indigenous woman who is at turns sympathetic and scathing about the presence of these white folk, all of whom are in some way lost in her ancestors’ lands.

The issue of the land, and who owns it or has the rights to it, forms the rumbling political backdrop to the book’s plot. A federal inquiry is underway into a proposed pipeline that would be built through the Arctic, the biggest private construction project in history. For perhaps the first time, however, the native people are being asked for their opinions and are starting to find their collective voice.

And if the land is the book’s backdrop (or subsoil), it is the apparently more insubstantial and fleeting qualities of voice and air that are front and center. Hay is interested in the way in which the voice can take on a life of its own, not least in the long nights through which a small team of broadcasters reach out to whoever may be listening, sleepless in the endless twilight.

On the radio, the presenters are invisible, but have to project a sense of presence and personality to an audience they have to imagine, literally, out of thin air. They are faced with the stark contrast between the tiny studio in which they speak into their microphones, and the vast tundra over which the radio waves will travel. They have to learn the trick that an older radio hand describes as “trying to be almost yourself. [. . .] You’re giving a performance as your natural self” (114).

And off air as much as on, each character, wounded and withdrawn in different ways from the previous lives that led them to seek refuge in the far-distant north, likewise struggles with the effort of performing their “natural” selves. They endeavor to make connections with the people around them, to get beyond their shynesses and inhibitions, their fear of (once again) losing out or becoming hurt. They learn to produce and to desire, to connect and to go beyond themselves.

The story’s centerpiece is a trip to the so-called barren lands, a desolate and uninhabited stretch of tundra on the other side of Great Slave Lake. For five weeks four friends canoe and camp in this remote wilderness, following the tracks of a disastrous early twentieth-century expedition that perished through starvation. This voyage is both the consummation and the downfall of their precarious community. At its end, nothing is the same, and they have to face up to the reality of “irretrievable loss” (303): first the sound recordings patiently gathered over the course of the expedition, though as nothing ever really decays at this latitude, there’s the possibility that someone will stumble across the tapes one day; and then an abrupt death that comes (again, literally) out of thin air.

A concluding couple of chapters offer a brief coda on the characters’ lives some years later: the transients all leave the Northwest Territories almost as soon as they return from their canoe expedition; two of them do pick up where they left off, though they are perhaps unaware that there was ever anything to leave off; but even the reconciliation and repose they manage to achieve remains troubled by the sense that this is still a substitute for what might have been.

The world is changing. Sometimes for the better, as with the final judicial report that at least delays the pipeline that would transform the Arctic’s delicate ecology. But sometimes for the worse, feels the character who had been the radio station’s acting manager in Yellowknife, as television’s literalness and homogeneity forces out the mystery and localism of radio. At the end, when he hears of one more death, and one more irretrievable loss, even though he has by now cemented new bonds the most comfort he can achieve is when “for some reason the tangle in his heart let go a little” (363).

schlock

After many moons of silence, a new post over at Latin American on Screen

Jesús (Jess) Franco, prolific Spanish-born master of schlock and exploitation, has shot more than his fair share of movies in or about Latin America. Indeed, he has pretty much cornered the market in the genre of women-in-prison-on-unnamed-South-American-island-or-in-unnamed-South-American-jungle films. (See for instance 99 Women, Women in Cellblock 9, Quartier des femmes, or Sadomania).

Girl from Rio posterIn The Girl from Rio (like many of Franco’s films, released in various different versions and under different titles, including The Seven Secrets of Sumuru and Rio 70), the women are, at least temporarily, on top.

[. . .]

The film is full of hokey and low-budget special effects, copious soft-core nudity not least in its dream-like pre-credit sequence, bizarre futuristic outfits, bikini-clad lovelies cavorting in swimming pools, torture scenes involving either portable fans or a contraption that looks like a dentist’s x-ray machine, and unavoidably a chase scene through the crowds of Rio’s Carnival.

Girl from Rio Torture scene
More…

touch

Titarenko, Untitled (Boy)“I’ll keep in touch,” they say, you say. But as with all metaphors, it’s a porous and ineffable boundary that separates what’s in and what’s out of touch. Perhaps it creeps up on you after a while, perhaps you catch note of it while it’s happening, seemingly unstoppable like a glacier slowly falling towards the sea: you’ve lost touch, you’re losing touch, you may even be losing your touch.

I’ll phone tomorrow; I’ll send that email tonight; you promise yourself. But the first deferral makes the second easier, and so progressively until you no longer remember what you might have said, what you might have written.

In part it may be because now there are so many more ways to keep in touch: letter, phone, email, instant message.

You can look up addresses and phone numbers with lightning speed: the other day I was naively shocked by how easy it was to locate people at WhitePages.com, and even more by how much more information (and for only $39.95) US Search could offer me.

Plugging in my own name, I saw US Search had details of 22 former addresses. Had I really moved so much? I wondered. And so the feeling with which that left me was more a sense of being irrevocably out of touch, now with my own life, with all that I had managed to forget even about myself.

It’s like the strange shock of looking at old photos, seeing yourself among a smiling group of people, and realizing you have no idea who these others are: people who obviously meant so much, so intensely, at one point, but who have now drifted irredeemably out of your memory.

There’s something brutal, then, about technology’s power of memorialization and recall, when set alongside our own dwindling capabilities to keep in touch with the many now nameless individuals who at one point touched you, whom you at one point touched.

And with all the power we now have to remedy these deficits, increasingly we allow it to fall into disuse. When was the last time I sent or received a letter? Or did much with email beyond barely trying to keep abreast of my inbox?

Perhaps we teachers are (if we allow ourselves to be) especially susceptible to this sudden shock of realizing how much we have lost touch. The other day I stumbled across a sheaf of essays that students had forgotten to pick up a couple of semesters ago. Looking over the names of my former students, while some images suddenly flashed back into view, I realized how many names I could no longer put a face to, how many of their personalities and characteristics had been obliterated in my attempt to learn the names of ever new student cohorts each semester.

But somewhere here is simply the same old, same old vertigo of modernity: the experience of rapid change, even during one lifetime, the sense that expanded social circles and social mobility casts its shadow in transience and oblivion.

And no wonder paranoia becomes our age’s defining neurosis, generating on the one hand the conpiratorial theses that suggest everything is connected, and on the other hand the worry that if I have lost touch it’s somehow their fault. But at least if they’re all after me, then they’re thinking about me after all.

Titarenko, Begging Womanimages by Alexey Titarenko

Crossposted at Act 13. Touch.

telegraphy

A quick note on my friend Adam Frank’s “Valdemar’s Tongue, Poe’s Telegraphy”, available (for those who don’t have access to Project Muse) from the most recent issue (number 72) of ELH.

Frank reads Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, a text analyzed also by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, in terms not merely of nineteenth-century enthusiasm for Mesmerism, but also an engagement with the (then) new communications technology of telegraphy.

ValdemarThe tale’s narrator is some kind of amateur scientist, interested in Mesmerism, who is called to the deathbed of one M. Valdemar, eager to experiment as to whether hypnosis might delay or arrest “the encroachments of Death.” The narrator successfully puts his patient in a trance, only to discover that he enters a sort of post-mortem limbo, in which his tongue, “swollen and blackened,” displays a “strong vibratory motion” and a voice emanating as though “from a vast distance” declares “Yes; – no; – I have been sleeping – and now – now – I am dead.”

General horror ensures, and Valdemar is left in his funereal trance for seven months. Then, as the narrator decides finally to awaken his patient, once more “the tongue quiver[s]” and a voice is heard intoning “For God’s sake! – quick! – quick! – put me to sleep – or, quick! – waken me! – quick! – I say to you that I am dead!” “Waking” him, the narrator finds that, at one stroke, the body deteriorates, leaving only “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putrescence.”

Frank reads this episode, of the tongue speaking from within a dead body, both as a scene of writing–a black mark on a face white as paper–and as an instance of telegraphic communication. The vibrating tongue functions as a vibrating armature, registering a voice transmitted from an almost unimaginable distance, and conveying with it the affect associated (for Poe) with the innovation, creativity, and novelty of the new technology.

In stressing the affective qualities of telegraphic communication, Frank sees Poe’s story as staging an almost anticipatory criticism of the discourse of science and transparency that will soon claim telegraphy for its own:

The narrator’s facts-in-the-case [cf. the story’s title], antifigurative style can be understood as governed by a decontamination script, one that tries to purify itself of figurative language: the struggle between the narrator and Valdemar, a struggle over style, is more specifically a struggle over figure. [. . . The story can then be read as] a burlesque of the antifigurative style and its desire for a purified control. [. . .] Poe’s writing insists not on telegraphy as antifigurative but on telegraphy as (from the start) an overdetermined figure for, precisely, effective or manipulative writing, writing that may conceal the figurative but can never do without it. (655-656)

At the interface of telegraphic and literary writing, and also registering a nascent contest between and over these two technologies of communication, Poe’s story is therefore profoundly political. At stake is

the control of body parts, thinking, and feeling of people at a distance [. . . that] creates the imagined possibility of a social body’s consensus through the powerful force of a mass medium. (657)

At stake, in other words, is the properly posthegemonic question of the affective technologies that produce the fantasy–the “imagined possibility”–of a consensus that will then be misread as hegemony. The alternative is perhaps a dissolution, a literal body without organs, that belies the suspended animation of the mesmerized subject conjured up by rational control.

Such a dissolution provokes intense disgust in the narrator, and “unwarranted popular feeling” in his addressees, but is for Valdemar himself “a matter neither to be avoided nor regretted.”

Benito Cereno

The University of Chicago Press’s reissue of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology has a new Foreword by Tracy B. Strong. (I guess that’s really his name… [and see Jodi’s comment on this post]) It’s a thoughtful and smart take on Schmitt, aligning him ultimately with Weber as a thinker concerned above all about the bureaucratization and so elimination of politics effected by modern technological rationality. Strong stresses therefore Schmitt’s humanism, and suggests that this, however counter-intuitively, is what led him ultimately to Nazism:

Hitler appeared to him as something like the entity God had sent to perform a miracle [. . .] and the miracle was the recovery of a this-world transcendence to sovereignty and thus the human realm of the political. (xxx)

In this context, Strong also notes the connection, for Schmitt, between the exception and the miracle: “The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology” (Political Theology 36).

Strong’s engagement with Schmitt’s Nazism is well-handled: neither the occasion for simple denunciation, nor for any kind of exculpation. He frames his analysis with a discussion of Schmitt’s identification with the eponymous “hero” of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. Indeed, Strong reports, “in a letter apparently written on his fiftieth birthday in 1938, Schmitt signed himself as ‘Benito Cereno'” (ix). He summarizes the novel’s plot as follows:

The title character in Benito Cereno is the captain of a slave ship that has been taken over by the African slaves. The owner of the slaves and most of the white crew have been killed, although Don Benito is left alive and forced by the slaves’ leader, Babo, to play the role of captain so as not to arouse suspicion from other ships. Eventually, after a prolonged encounter with the frigate of the American Captain Delano during which the American at first suspects Cereno of malfeasance–he cannot conceive of the possibility that slaves have taken over a ship–the truth comes out: the slaves are recaptured and imprisoned, some executed. (viii-ix)

There’s plenty of ambivalence in this story, not least when we try to map it on to Schmitt’s own circumstances. As Strong notes, after World War II Schmitt’s identification with Cereno could also serve as a metaphor for his relationship with the (now) occupying American powers. There are many ways in which one could read this story of a world turned (almost) upside-down.

Benito CerenoAlmost upside-down, that is, in that a white man continues to perform the role of slaveship captain. And the novel revolves around the question of that performance, of its credibility and its effects. In Strong’s words again:

Benito Cereno is about, among other things, what being a sovereign or captain is, how one is to recognize one, and the mistakes that can be made when one doesn’t. (x)

It’s also therefore about the performativity of power, and what happens when the power to decide is displaced from its ostensible location.

Once more, though, ships on the (colonial, Hispanic) high seas serve as the model of sovereignty. And mutiny, treason, on board ship as instances of the threats that sovereignty faces.

speed

The Third World is often depicted as a place of languor and lassitude, where not much ever happens, and where what does happen takes place with almost infinite torpitude, as if in some tropical slow motion. Latin America is particularly associated with this arrested temporality: here Third World torpor meets the Hispanic legacy of “mañana culture.”

This conception of Latin American life in the slow lane applies to all temporal and social scales: from a corner store’s relaxed approach to opening times to the delays of an over-bureaucratized state, from the individual slumbering under his sombrero to the patience of whole indigenous races, from the slow swing of a hammock to lands that the twentieth-century has passed by, all facets of the region’s culture and history are imagined to be bathed in this thick viscosity.

Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó celebrated a Latin habit of leisure that allowed for philosophy and contrasted with North American utilitarian industriousness. Perhaps most influentially, Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional Macondo is affectionately portrayed as a quaint tropical oasis inhabiting its own, parallel, unchanging temporality.

So Fernando Ortiz’s emphasis is perhaps brusque and surprising. His stress is on immense speed and tumultuous changes, a breathtaking rush of precipitate adaptation and re-invention:

The whole gamut of culture run by Europe in a span of more than four millenniums took place in Cuba in less than four centuries. In Europe the change was step by step; here it was by leaps and bounds. (Cuban Counterpoint 99)

He notes particularly the abruptness of the transition ushered in by Spanish colonization:

At one bound the bridge between the drowsing stone ages and the wide-awake Renaissance was spanned. In a single day various of the intervening ages were crossed in Cuba. [. . .] If the Indies of America were a New World for the Europeans, Europe was a far newer world for the people of America. They were two worlds that discovered each other and collided head-on. (99-100)

Far from a vision of Latin American culture as close to nature, bound to the slow rhythms of either the seasons or the sea gently lapping on the beach, Ortiz suggests a history of continual dislocation, deracination, uprooting, confrontation, confusion, and innovation that comprise a process he designates with the term “transculturation.”

In short, for Ortiz, Cuba, Spain’s richest colony and source of so much of Europe’s wealth, has long been a cauldron of activity stirred up to an accelerated pace. It was always revolutionary, always the site of struggle and creative disruption, long before the 1959 uprising that brought Castro to power.

But no doubt the same could be said for Latin America as a whole: rather than a region left out of the loop of world history, it was here that modernity itself was born and continues to thrive.

Mackandal's miracleAnd no wonder that Alejo Carpentier, another Cuban though writing in a somewhat different context, could say that “the presence and vitality of this marvelous real” was “the heritage of all America” (“On the Marvelous Real in America” 87).

In Carpentier’s founding manifesto for what would later be packaged (and slowed down) as “magical realism,” what is most striking is again the sense of dynamism and potential that he identifies with what he terms an “unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality, perceived with particular intensity by virtue of an exaltation of the spirit that leads it to a kind of extreme state” (86).

But rather than merely an “extreme state,” Carpentier’s original Spanish refers here to an estado límite or “limit state.” So why not envisage Latin America not as perpetual laggard but as a region always at the limit, at the cutting edge (too often, literally the bleeding edge) of modernization and history?