On first impressions, snap judgements and Achille Mbembe’s sense of style.
Openings column (shorter version): Financial Times, 14 August 2015.
‘America is the most grandiose experiment that the world has yet seen,’ wrote Sigmund Freud in 1909, ‘but, I am afraid, it will not be a success’. 106 years later I spotted the line on a poster while attending a conference at New York University – my first visit to the States. It cheered me up during a misanthropic, jet-lagged daze and set off a complex series of recognitions. For one thing, I had been thinking along the same lines myself, and marshalling every scrap of evidence to clinch the case: the bad coffee at four dollars a pop; the garbage everywhere; the fact that I got asked to move out the way at least five times a day.
But at another level, what I responded to was the tone: the sweeping confidence of the declaration, with that magisterial throwaway clause – ‘I am afraid’. How this Mittel-European sentence stoops down from on high, taking its time (four commas), to deliver a vast, over-reaching social diagnosis on an entire continent. This, I realized, was a voice that I recognize from people coming to my country and making huge pronouncements on South Africa – or just ‘Africa’ – when they have barely stepped off the plane. A short taxi ride from Cape Town International to the guesthouse and already they are experts.
There is of course a long tradition of this, stretching (to take only the tip of the continent where I live) from the English traveller John Barrow’s 1806 description of the Cape Peninsula as ‘a useless and barren…promontory, connected by a sandy isthmus to a still more useless and barren continent’ to the Conradian echoes that you can still hear in present-day travelogues. One of my favourite 21st century examples occurs in a certain esteemed (American) writer’s journey from Cape Town to Luanda, in which he laments how an American culture of rappers, baseball caps and ‘cellphoners’ (sic) has corrupted the continent, and then solemnly pronounces that (at least) ‘A skateboard is unusable on an African road’.
How I laughed. Threw the review copy against the wall. Laughed again. The neighbourhood where I live in Cape Town is inundated with skateboards. At any given time there are pelotons of longboards swiveling downhill to a skatepark, a fenced enclosure so full of people that it looks like some kind of hipster holding pen.
It doesn’t matter, though, how much you disagree with or disprove such write-ups: they keep on going; they are fulfilling some other psychic function; their inertia is tremendous. ‘The corpse obstinately persists in getting up again’, as Achille Mbembe writes in On the Postcolony, a landmark work of critical theory that has just been reissued by Wits University Press in Johannesburg. ‘Africa’ has been the means by which the West can ‘accede to its own subconscious’ and talk about something else altogether, something that has little to do with actual African people in the 21st century.
So on arriving in America, on seeing its eastern edge flare through the plane portholes, I decided that instead of beating this kind of ‘discourse’ I would join it. But this time in the opposite direction: by collecting all the most overweening and all-knowing pronouncements on ‘America’ – which was also once a young democracy visited by condescending experts. All down the eastern side from New York through Philadelphia to Baltimore and Washington, I was harvesting texts from thin air with my new Kindle – De Tocqueville, Dickens, Wilde, Baudrillard – and scanning them for choice morsels, which I then highlighted. The result, when I open up my Clippings folder, is an archive of first impressions, snap judgements and gloriously unsubstantiated claims.
De Tocqueville is perhaps the odd one out here: he has done too much homework to really talk nonsense. But Dickens is happy to claim that there is no such thing as the American gentleman (‘God forgive me for putting two such words together’) while from the other two (who really get into the swing of it) we can learn that America is (respectively): ‘the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between’ but also ‘the only remaining primitive society’. ‘This country is without hope’, Baudrillard goes on: ‘Even its garbage is clean’.
I say gloriously unsubtantiated because I am now getting closer to what I actually want to talk about, something harder to bring into focus. It is the fact that creativity – in this case: energized or memorable stretches of linguistic code – actually requires subtraction and generalization. Generalizing on the basis of meagre empirical evidence is what, in one sense, all writers do and must do – just as painters half-close their eyes to detect significant masses of light and shade. Extrapolating from a limited data set is at the heart of creation, which entails constraint, removal, subtraction of the ‘noise’ which, if we let in too much of it, will spoil the broth, muddy the waters, over-expose the negative etc.
And first impressions: they count; they are very rich tracts of experience, psychologically and artistically. Which is why the photos people take on arrival somewhere new are often more intriguing then the carefully composed shots of a week later, when a new reality has had time to insinuate itself. And, after all, one can say a lot about South Africa after a short taxi ride from the airport to the city. Almost everything, perhaps.
This is why the radical creative impulse can often be muffled by the academy, which is continually asking for de-generalisation and careful contextualization. In my experience, the general operating procedure for a university-level seminar in the Humanities is something as follows: ‘Scholar X maintains that [insert something here], while Scholar Y suggests that [insert something here], but in fact, as I will argue, it’s more complicated than that’. Then there is also the inevitable response of the crowd: ‘But you didn’t mention [insert something here]’.
I’m generalizing. But after years and years of this careful hedging, qualifying, problematizing, one longs for a sweeping, faintly outrageous declaration – even if just to introduce critical energy back into the system. Slavoj Zizek has perfected this mode, and if he is the Elvis of critical theory, then Mbembe is surely its Fela Kuti. And he duly obliged when he came to visit our department in a suave blue blazer, told us that ‘the Western archive is running dry’ (whatever that might mean, nice phrase-making nonetheless) and was later asked about China’s role in Africa. He paused for a moment, then said: ‘The thing we need to understand: it’s that China –’ (paused again, audience pens hovering above notebooks) ‘China is: a superpower without an idea’.
Objection from the audience was general, and vociferous. But those objections I have forgotten; the style of the original statement (and the blazer) remains.