Below are some emails that I exchanged with one of my closest friends (PK) just after reading James Miller’s great essay, ‘Carnivals of Atrocity: Foucault, Nietzsche, Cruelty,’ (in Political Theory, Vol. 18, #3, August, 1990.) It is a bit of a switch from the kind of digressions and rants that have appeared here in the past but may be enjoyable to some folks…
MMK: The way Nietzsche (and later Foucault) saw this place has come to pass guy. Is there any doubt that London and Europe have perfected control and the shrinking of the human space by growing the mechanisms of mercy and ‘rational’ policy? And that we, on the other hand, still exist in a place where people are bigger than the institutions that seek to extend control over them. That is where all our shit comes from and also the glorious ability to actually be and feel power -not ‘influence’ as they call it out here.
As Europeans have in the past few generations created their world of rights and utility, they have cast man down. Every man so that even the highest in the land are ruled by mechanisms that are wholly divorced from all. It is what makes you feel that everyone here is arranging themselves vis-a-vis a process, an institution or a set template. The very process of building the modern penal system was reflected in institutions outside it. The goal as Morpheus in The Matrix said: control. But it would have been preferable if this edifice was built by conspiracy, by a king-like figure that yearns for control. That way, it would have a human scale and there would only be a few necks to chop through. But no, this situation is like layers of concrete laid by different generations so that there is now no going back to dig through to the person anymore. No wonder there was this desire to build thousands of nukes. Deep inside I think Europeans are deeply suicidal, they want it all to end but they just cannot get beyond the safety mechanisms that they have built into their societies.
This is what I think is so awesome (in the biblical sense of the word) about this thing we call Africa. It refuses to be brought to heel in the most infuriating and dispiriting fashion. The bush just keeps growing back no matter what the European build on it or at least this is their version of events. Their dreams refuse to take here since the structures that they have grown on their soil can hardly last a generation on ours.
I was watching a recreation of the murder of Lord Errol the other night. Done by the BBC with that cultured, ‘we are going to understand our Africa’ tone. For the first time I actually felt sorry for Europeans who do the whole Africa thing. Their dreams are so flimsy and yet they always start out with so much faith that they can write themselves into the blank darkness and become what they could not in their country. No matter how much life they see or experience around them, whether good or bad, they persist with the conceit that it is not fully human, that it awaits their building it into existence. But it crushes them and in Happy Valley they basically lost it, and have been losing it ever since. All manner of methods have been brought to bear to grow this dream in the ‘bush’: guns, conquest, aid, intervention, non-intervention … everything, and yet it all keeps failing. Africa is their last indulgence. The last kick of their humanist conceits and the place keeps responding by kicking them in the balls. And the pain is probably made worse by the fact that in fact Africans might actually genuinely want to be down with the program, we mean the European no harm after all. We even have many of us trying to grow his little project with him and sometimes for him. But even this won’t take.
Just reading the Miller piece left me with such a satisfied calm. I felt that there was no crisis really in our part of the world. There are problems for sure, but no crisis whatsoever. To be a little Zen, the shit will go as the shit goes and it is as simple as that. Is that too Senegalese?
PK: Guy, remember me texting you last December from Club Afrique in London and saying that perhaps all Foucault needed was a dose of Lingala and a Congolese prostitute to show him in real terms what ‘limit experience’ is to the European — or what he defines as taking shit to the very edge.
The most acerbic criticism, the harshest assessments always come from people on the inside. Or more specifically, people on the outside-in, the silent observers of The Project, any project, the ones always assumed to be part of it but who in reality are deeply critical of it by virtue of their positioning. However, they know of no other. They adopt an anti-language whose deepest metaphors and most illuminating insights, whose zinging idioms are constructed to provide insights into the thing they most detest, which is also they only thing they know: The Project.
Africans who read Foucault love him because he articulated viscerally felt insights. He is no surprise to an African who knows it well but has always wondered where it comes from. But unlike Foucault, we have ways-out, ‘way-forwards’: Foucault’s preoccupation with reconciling his sex with his mind is what Eldridge Cleaver called the dilemma of the Omnipotent Administrator (man that black consciousness lingo was funky! I fear that Africans, in the States at least, have been absorbed into ‘The System’ and are now bland and mild-mannered and addicted to shopping malls). Did you ever read that shit? Juxtapose it to Foucault — it is cruel, angry, politically incorrect, misogynistic, and historically imprecise in places but always stabbing at the heart of African-existence. Anyway, Cleaver’s depiction of the Omnipotent Administrator is the white man as all head, no soul and no sex. He makes cruel stabs — ordinary today but probably deeply wounding then — about the European’s dead-man’s dance; his perpetual suspicion of sexual inadequacy — and by extension, the threat of the Supermasculine Menial.
All this sounds fairly banal today, even irrelevant. I was reading a 1976 Eldrige Cleaver interview in Transition and you can just feel the energy and dynamism of people living inside a project. When I hear the same terms used by the likes of X (a well known rights activist in Nairobi), they sound all rehearsed, as if she (and others) were playing at being adult.
You and I feel that frustration; how reduced, how small, the world gets when we receive the idea of project-completion, of final organisation, of last-man thoughts. And by the way, it’s happening everywhere. Re: the drought thing, and the quite genuine outrage of the public in sedentary-Kenya, an outrage underpinned by Mohammed Aminesque images of starving, fly-ridden children in strange, far-flung locations; in short, an outrage whose infrastructure looks disturbingly like white-liberal concern a la Live Aid/Live Eight. Nobody of course questions why the famine happened or will happen again. It is considered a given that people in strange, non-sedentary locations — people who were not touched by the civilizing mission; whose MBA-quotient is sub-optimal — will starve. The problem, the outrage is about the fact that food aid did not arrive in time. That even after the establishment of ‘early-warning systems’ the government was not able to respond in time.
What I’m trying to say is that we are all being sucked into a last-man thought system. Last as a universe constructed by a narrow-minded little bourgeois whose black holes consist of Friday-night infidelities, credit-card debts, SUV desires and MBA ambitions.
MMK: Let us continue. I need to find me some Cleaver. Now!
The madness in this thing is when Africans try and get with it in the usual babi, civil society ways. They become worse than mad men, they become fools. Did you read the details of Damien’s public execution in Miller and the intimate ritual between ruler and ruled that was playing out? The paradoxical freedom of the victim from all power directed at his intimate self?
Let us praise the bush if only ironically! And by this I do not mean a turn to the ‘primitive’ which as usual is all about the European template. I mean thank god I can listen to Lingala, tusker in hand in screwed Nairobi feeling bigger than all the mechanisms of the state erected to try and get one over on me. Yes, yes, I know that there are many victims and vulnerable people and all that claptrap that is the manna of what I will call the tyranny-by-humanist-increment crew.
Will get back to Cleaver and famines and Kenya in a second. Let me stay with our ostensible saviour for a while longer because after all we are supposed to be trying to be like him. Right? The European is being crushed beneath the layers of his humanist, rationalist and utilitarian institutions. These take aim, whether deliberately or not, at God, and the godliness in the human being, preferring rational man as godhead. Because they have judged themselves to be nothing more than unreasoning flesh straining against reason, while needing a creed of some kind to maintain social control to maintain control, they have built god-like institutions to rule. Each generation for the past century at least has added to the power of these institutions. Would I be going to far to say that politics here is the contest to determine who gets to add to the size and reach of the state-God?
The modern finds a rare recourse in the bedroom where he hopes to momentarily escape the jealous eye of the machines that control him. Words like freedom and society’s will or truth are all mere labels for mechanisms that are anything but. The European lives in the midst of giant conceits that separate his thought and word from their actual nature.
Back to the bedroom: freedom is in transgression, in the sexual fetishes that Foucault was so fascinated by. (Isn’t it funny how all fetishes are embraced by the transgression warriors except for what they call commodity or consumer fetishism?). There is no longer any possibility of freedom here, it is actually a meaningless word and better thought of as a chimera. I am not speaking here of political freedom, in the sense of freedom from dictatorship or the attainment of democracy, but rather the impulse to be free of the overwhelming conceits of the individual European’s society which him no room to breathe even while he proclaims it the peak of human achievement. How maddening it must be: to be told, and to hear yourself say, daily, that you are the richest, most humane, cleverest and nicest while feeling empty and put upon by all that you experience.
This morning, while commuting into the city, I found that the tube fare – for an 8 minute ride – had gone up by about 40% since I used the tube a week ago. Bus fare is also up and so is the congestion charge which was meant to discourage driving and be invested in better, cheaper public transport. On getting to the office in a fury, I tried ranting about the raises. In response, one guy suggested that surely there must be someone who is paying less therefore it is ok that he and I get to pay more! Another one blamed Thatcherite policies of privatization and was happy that Labour was finally investing in public services. Yet another constructive type wished that the public could join with the unions to stage a demonstration against the hikes. You see? There were plenty of reactions but none of anger at being made poorer and basically getting ripped off. I pulled a mini Black Man Rage saying that the people here have been broken. Only this Arabic woman jokingly advocated riots or for folks to crowd into buses and refuse to pay. None of the so-called ‘masters of the universe’ types like Blair can actually change anything here, seeing how all interests are aligned to leave standing only a massive depersonalized society-wide controls (Foucault’s govermentality?). You may as well buy a giant dildo and to use it on yourself. Transgression in the bedroom looks to be a way out, right? Turn to your nerve endings – when your nipples are burnt or your penis coated in burning wax – for momentary freedom from your institutional masters in the hope that they are not watching and might disapprove. But you know in truth that this is not the case because their regime is alive and well even in the heart of sexual sado-masochism which is now to be conducted with ‘safety words’, child-safety clamps and feathered whips. With every passing year, they shrug off and flatten the ancient religious and sexual hierarchies with a God at their head substituting them with a flat equality here on earth that they lord over as a new God who believes in nothing except reason and the need to destroy all hope in a human soul. The helplessness of it is must be crushing.
Oh yes, we Africans may go down in the face of some diseases and natural forces but here they are helpless at the root. Well fed in the belly and totally starving outside it. Yet even this binary set-up may be an illusion because it seems to promise that from one can emerge the other but this may only be true in the vast sweep of history and not in the individual life. Thus the constant refrain in the West of ‘what history will say’ about one action of the powerful or the other; it is yet another of the little conceits that are a scream for help by a people so helplessly drowned that they attempt to live in a single life an entire history and futurestory of mankind. Death is what is scary and made so much more so because this ‘modernist’ project or rather projects, for they are many atop and alongside each other, has rejected at its root the possibility of human transcendence.
The European is trapped in a world that he wants to imagine is of his making when he is actually just the recipient of his forefathers’ addition to the very rope that is holding him down. He is caught between pride at the awesome machine that rules him (‘we are the greatest, the best, the superior’) and a mighty desire to escape it (‘let us go to Africa’, noble savages, Maasais, Save The Children). He wants nothing better than pull others in with him so that in doing so, he momentarily escapes. This is where those conversations by the old Africa hand come in. How wonderful and freeing was the world that they had come to conquer and dominate. They had (have) a genuine love for a thing they never shared in. Even in the darkest heart of Africa, their soul was imprisoned in the light of a modernist prison and their simultaneous dream of freedom and dominance would not take. The bush during colonialism and especially after its short reign kept growing back. They were caught between an unfeeling pride for their prison and its soul crushing weight. The few who attempted went mad, and when you speak to them about anything, be it Maasai art or wildlife, and are not coming from their direction, they just sound either foolish or childish.
If only the African could fight this thing, fight to join the moderns. But the African who joins in that game, usually of the babi middle class, civil society persuasion, ‘we can be just like the west’ game, is functionally insane in my opinion. He is driven to join what others are trying to escape, so taken with the narrow freedoms that he cannot spot the machine that is crushing the life out of his human/animal/black/female/gay/landless/vulnerable/disabled/gender outlaw/anti-ageism/welsh/Palestinian/Israeli/Panafrican/labour/capitalist rights colleagues. He little understands that these values are better judged as Trojan Horses whether or not they have universal merit. Many indeed do, but it was never about these rights. It has always been about the institutional mechanism that shall carry them. The Bible is very hip to this stuff and gives a good example in Matthews. When Jesus was in the desert fasting, the Devil came to him and tried tempting him to eat. Now you know the Devil could have hooked him up something to eat, as he did to Adam and Eve, but Jesus chooses hunger. The Devil and in our case the rights crew come in with plenty of temptations but the inner goal is of robbing you of all life. And like I was saying, what makes this so much worse is that there is no conspiracy. It is a wholly impersonal historical epoch that in all probability shall not last. The European is already held captive by it, and we in the bush have been targets for the last few hundred years. Thank God that the bush is going to stay strong in my lifetime.