Things Fall Apart … and they keep falling and remaking and falling …

Introduction

In this second post in the series (for the first see here)  I continue the theme of using notable novels to examine aspects of how we imagine the public. Looking along my shelves I thought I might focus on “A Grain of Wheat” or “Petals of Blood” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or “Seasons of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih, or perhaps “The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born” by Ayi Kwei Armah. Having looked at them again, and in particular read the back covers of my mostly Penguin Classics or Heinemann I was struck by how much the reviews were less about the writer and the locale than Western Influences, for example Kwei Armah is described as a Ghanaian Sartre. So in the end I picked a book by the writer whose essays I knew, and knew to forcefully resist this inclination, Chinua Achebe.

Things Fall Apart

In his 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart” Nigerian author Chinua Achebe tells the story of Oknonkwo an Igbo man who attempts to resist the creeping colonisation of the British, as it encroaches on the land, the culture and spiritual beliefs, looking to shape politics and identity. Oknonkwo seems at first to be a typical “strong man”, a wrestling champion, who owes his renown within the area to his physical prowess, and a general sense that he is unwielding. His position is tenuous, his father was lazy, and such was his poverty he never got to marry the woman he loved, only later when she ran away from her husband did they marry. They produced a daughter, who he favours over his son, a son he sees as weak like his grandfather. He is often harsh, Achebe does not pretend that his protagonist is an easy person even a good person as he seeks to protect traditional ways form the influence of the “white man”.

Oknonkwo is asked to take a boy into his compound who is a hostage from a neighbouring village, given as recompense for the killing of the women from that village by the boy’s father. They grow close, becoming more of a son than his own. So when “the spirits” decree the boy should be killed, Oknonkwo seeks counsel from a village elder, Ezeudu. The elder advises him not to take part in the killing, but Oknonkwo is deeply conflicted, and in the end he strikes the final blow himself. Somehow in this scene, when he must sacrifice what he wants most, a strong son, for the ability to remain the defender of Igbo ways, Achebe manages to pivot the narrative.

When Oknonkwo’s gun explodes during Ezeudu funeral and he friend’s son is killed he is exiled. Returning after seven years he tries to remake himself, as a focus for resistance against the three prongs of colonialism, administration and private property, symbolic and actual violence and the church as supporter and apologist for the primacy of “Western Values”, while he is able to call some support his attempts to make himself up once again fail, and rather than be captured he kills himself, something forbidden in Igbo culture. Achebe does not give us a neat story of redemption, Oknonkwo does not stand against, or absent himself from killing his adopted son, neither does he come back as the village saviour, he is not redeemed.

Screenshot-2017-10-4 Apocalypse Now
Figure 1: A Poster from Apocolypse Now with Other Film Posters Reflected in the Glass, Cliff (2008) Apocalypse Now, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/2869509074/in/photostream/ CC BY SA 2.0

What is Achebe trying to do in this novel, what is it he wants to show us? In a talk about Africa in the imagination Achebe (1978) suggests that where Africa appears in Western literature and thought it does so as a counterpoint, an example of what somewhere without the social political and economic structures of Europe looks, which is somehow other and universal. When he examines “The Heart of Darkness”, he focused on the characterisation, where the local people are at once uncivilised and inferior, but with recognisable universal human traits which civilised European only a slip away from.  Thus he suggests, Africa its land and people, are treated by Conrad as a neutral backdrop, where narratives are set to play out very Western concerns.  He admits his analysis of Conrad is concerned with recognising the superficial way Africa is represented. However, just like in “Things Fall Apart” he is not about to offer “… bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa (p14-15 Achebe 1978). Instead we must give this up ourselves, it is up to us to stop, and ceasing will be our reward.

Achebe shows us the way we tend to think we know more about Africa than the African, with this knowing itself part of the colonial project, for to know is to control. In Oknonkwo he has a character who beats his wives, who it is hard for liberals to sympathise, a spectre of domestic violence that “Western Values” exorcised. Achebe ([1988] 1990) rejects this assertion from critics, he is also at pains to take aim at universalism, in particular the trope that sees African authors seen as making a break through when they are able to universalise the African experience, of course Euro-American authors never have to universalise, as “Western Values” are universal.

Personhood and Political

Reading the book again, as I did for this post, my mind started to wander over all I had read in the intervening years, in particular “Theory from the South” by Comaroff and Comaroff (2012). In particular, the question they ask “is the idea of an autonomous person a European invention?” (p 51).  It was a question they were asked, and a trap they felt they ought not to fall into, is the person asking the question suggesting the absence of a sense of the autonomous self as somehow an indication of failure, a deficit, is it where we are all going, it is universal. After all most of our ideas about society, democratic structures, the public are based on these autonomous individuals. On the other hand to suggest that it is a European invention whose application as a universal value is inappropriate, as it ignores complex constructions of personhood outside Europe.

I want to draw two examples from their collected essays, which have a bearing on this question and also on our previous exploration of “Things Fall Apart”. The first concerns the concept of personhood as it relates to the democratic process in South Africa through the exploring Tswana experiences in the late colonial period.  Settlers first arrived in the 1820s’, then gradually the apparatus of the British state, which created hybrid identities between European “sekgoa” ways and Tswana “setswana” ways, while also clearly demarcating a line between white and black, between the rulers and the ruled. Setswana ways were socially fluid, while gendered and not without inequities, a person’s status was largely of their own construction, even though relatedness played a part, self and status needed to be constantly made –  either you do to the world, or the world does to you. Personhood was not being, but becoming. This personhood was made and manifest materially through work and the land and property you tended and maintained, and symbolically how one made oneself through relations with others.

The second from  is post-colonial Botswana. Botswana is generally reckoned to one the best examples of a functioning democracy in Africa, so the occasions in the 1970’s and 1980’s when there appeared a demand a move away multi-party democracy, in particular by opposition parties, and a wish for one party rule, seems odd. Prior to the colonial period what is today Botswana was organised into about eight chiefdoms. Chiefs were hereditary, but it was unstable, the chief was understood as being separate from the chiefdom, he was judged and how well he performed “good governance”, subject to open challenge in the many public forums he was expected to hold to discuss decisions, and unsatisfactory performance would see his birth status challenged. The chief was chief with the people, and expected to set around him key advisors and hold public forums where these could be challenged. His exclusive right to wield power was based how inclusive the decision making process was.

While these spaces were filled with factions, and many of the actions followed a set formulae, often concerned with reminded the chief of his duties and the “setswana”, people did speak out against the chief, alliances made and remade off stage. These discussions were understood as being a reflection of the chief’s ability and also determined their ability.  This was the reason that people started to become disillusioned by party politics and the dominant Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), cycles of elections only to give life to these discourses when there is an election. While the parliament itself often behaved like these spaces, with members from all parties including the ruling one criticising the executive as they saw fit. It did not foster open debate. Interestingly the BDP rejection of one party politics made others suspicious of it, with the sense that they wanted to hold onto Western democratic models so they could get on with government away from public scrutiny.

Screenshot-2017-10-4 #MayMustGo Maybot It's Time to Go
Figure 2: MayBot Shown the Way, From Garry Knight (2017) #MayMustGo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/35235492871/in/photostream/, PD 0

Closing Remarks

It is not been my intention to hold up Oknonkwo’s story or the ones from Comaroff and Comaroff as some exotic other, nor indeed to argue for some kind of universalism, instead I merely hold them up in order that we might examine them. Reflect on them in relation to the how well, or badly, or our own political process function.

Postscript

Of course I am being disingenuous. I framed the argument in a certain way, picked the books, in particular Comaroff and Comaroff, with its subtitle “How Euro-America is Evolving towards Africa” is very deliberate. I want you to look at how “strong men” look to make themselves up, and remake themselves, how well the stages debates within our cycles of democracy and party politics function as a means for us to assess good governance. Let us examine the recent UK election in relation to “setswana”, For the Conservatives it was a series of staged and controlled debates, often through the media. It spoke of a party that is concerned with how it might appear and what people might say in these forums, in closing these down it shows its weakness.  It resulted in the Conservatives asserting a mandate they don’t have, and our “sekgoa” ways, our focus on procedural democracy, mean we have to live with it. The party political machine fights to stop challenges from inside and out, looking to shore up power and undermine political debate, so here we have what we call democracy.

 

References

Achebe C. ([1958 2001) Things Fall Apart, Penguin Books: London

 

Achebe C.  (1978), An Image of Africa, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15

 

Achebe C. ([1988] 1990), Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, Penguin Random House: London

Comaroff J., Comaroff J. L. (2012) Theory from the South: How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa, Paradigm Publishing: London

 

Advertisements

The Captive Mind, Publics and THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE [TINA]

Introduction

In this series of posts I want to explore the notion of the public, the public within public services and as articulated within discourses in public administration. While I do not make explicit reference to scholarship in the area, as this is not a review of scholars in public administration real or imagined publics.  It is an attempt to frame similar issues, like democratic process, and the public sphere that concern researchers in this area. In particular to think about how designers imagine the public.

It is an attempt to frame them in relation to different ways of knowing, and I am indebted to post-colonial writers and those who write about what is sometimes called Southern Theory, specifically  the feminist thinker Connell, who write about the dominance of western sociology, assumptions and about individuals and publics and their application in the global south through the colonial projects and the role of academic research in subjection and/or exotic othering. Her work and others like Comaroff and Comaroff have led to me question normative accounts of the public, and the dominance of a particular notion of the relationship between the self and society, and I wanted to explore this in relation to literary and academic sources.

800px-Listening_to_History

Figure 1: Listening to History, Bill Woodrow, 1995, Used as Front Cover to “A Captive Mind” in recent editions. Source: Karsten 11, 2010, https://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Listening_to_History.jpg

The Captive Mind

In this first post I want to explore Ketman, or Kitman an idea I first encountered through the work of Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and then the subsequent communist state that followed its “liberation” by the Red Army. He continued to write poetry under the communists and indeed served as a public servant in Poland and the US. His book “The Captive Mind” is concerned with creativity under totalitarian regimes, regimes which seem to use and encourage openness and debate as a way to manage conformity and weed out errant thought. Kitman is concerned with hiding ones true thoughts from the public, and comes to Milosz from the work of a French public servant and is based on his writing about Persia and Islam.  Khan (2008), in her examination of selfhood and secrecy in Islam examines Kitman in the work of al-Jahiz (circa 776AD to 868AD) and his book “Kitab Kitman al-Sirr” (the book of concealing the secret), he suggests Kitman is the watcher within. Khan suggests we read al-Jahiz text on concealment of true beliefs, of care about what one says, and the need to match utterance to context in relation to the heated political period it was written (the complex Abbasid politics of Baghdad) and the audience for whom it was meant, administrators and those in what we might loosely call “public office”. While read in this way it seems little more than Hamlets father advice to “lend everyman your ear but few your words”, however according to Khan, for al-Jahiz it goes a lot deeper. She notes the interest in embodiment, in the way the body represents thoughts, and the way bodies can betray that which words attempt to conceal. The suggestion is not that we need to act in ways that help us conceal our true thoughts or beliefs, but we should also be concerned with how we censor the inner self in relation to the context in which we live. Here the public self needs also to become the private self to avoid our bodies betraying our real thoughts.

It is an interesting idea, and not without political baggage, one only need google it to see the right wing vitriol and anti-islamic sentiment that goes with it. With lazy commentators  of “The Captive Mind” and Kitman suggesting it is a prime example of the lies and falsehood within Islam more generally. It is probably because it is actually quite a difficult idea to grasp that right wing propaganda can grasp onto it as a marker of untrustworthiness in Islam. It deals with a slightly different relationship between the public and the private from the one we are used to.  For example, Feinberg (2017) notes reviews of “The Captive Mind” in the US often failed to grasp the nature of the argument, reading it in relation to ideas around self, “the American Dream”, binary opposition between the freedoms of capitalism and the heavy fist and control of communism. It read the text as concerned with the ability of the creative mind to resist control. While Kitman is concerned with resistance and Milosz makes much of the pride in those practicing Kitman in  knowing “the truth” of not believing while performing as a believer, it is also about how the self changes, the difficulty in understanding your self when you police the internal self as part of presenting the public self. Where the self you are when alone becomes the public self, where any creative or resistant acts can only be understood in relation to the public face you have turned inwards. Your public self now structures your sense of who you are.  For Milosz the ambiguity also came from the sense of wonder amongst intellectuals and writers in Poland at the time as to whether this act served a broader political goal of creating a more equal society – that it was for “the greater good”.

THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE

One cannot help thinking about the work of Arendt, in particular the “Origins of Totalitarianism”, where she suggests what totalitarian regimes do is attempt to colonise every part of one’s life, to fold the private into the public discourse. Nancy Fraser suggests that while Arendt was concerned with the way these regimes destroyed public space, the sense of individuality, and also the notion of plurality, her work was not simply critique of these regimes, but also a commentary on the “free world” (Fraser 2004). While Fraser is careful to situate the work of Arendt in her time, Arendt contribution to our understanding of how nation states as breaking with its geographic boundaries through colonialism which led to things like stateless people, persecution of minorities, the delegitimisation of democratic process, and the “view from nowhere”. The sense of a totalising view of world events, which in treating things as global issues outside the scope of the nation state and its democratic process, depoliticises actions. The views from nowhere which are often presented as being apolitical are all around us in institutions like the World Trade Organisation, The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund. The degree to which these bodies depoliticise decisions can be read in the consternation (see the UK Guardian here) around a recent report from the IMF that acknowledged there was such a thing as neoliberalism and it might not be a good thing. This from the body whose sole prescription for economic ills was a short sharp shock of the stuff (Harvey 2006). In that sense what Fraser is suggesting is  a situation which Arendt might recognise, and even wonders about, totalitarianism beyond the nation state, the feeling There is No Alternative.

What has this got to do with Ketman and Design

The connection of Ketman is whether and how we voice our dissent. For example I have often observed a dissonance amongst hard and soft advocates of neoliberalism, in part this is created by the disjunction between the assumptions within neoliberalism that we are all rational self-interested individuals and as Game Theorists suggest any altruism is simply a product of that self-interest – e.g. herd theory in animal behaviour, and how people actually live. These self-interested rational consumers are not them, or me, or the people I know, they are someone else, it is a view from nowhere, it does not reflect how people feel, or act, nor how they would imagine themselves being in the world. However, if we do build systems that assume people are all rational and self-interested, then we should not be surprised when people behave as if they are. Or at least perform as if they are. Therefore should we understand the fact political discourses rarely alight on the dissonance between a neoliberal view from nowhere and our own lived experience as a form of Ketman?

Perhaps.

So what has this got to do with design, as this just seems to be a critique of neoliberalism, and of course it is. However, it is also concerned with framing, and how ones imagines the public. As governments become increasingly interested in using design in the development and delivery of public services I think we have to ask, just how are they, and indeed how are we, imagining the public.

References

Feinberg M. (2017) Curtain of Lies: The Battle over Truth in Stalinist Eastern Europe, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Fraser, N. (2004). Hannah Arendt in the 21st Century. Contemporary Political Theory, 3(3), pp.253–261.

Harvey D. (2006) Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, Verso: London

Khan R. Y. (2008), Self and Secrecy in Early Islam. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia

Milosz C. ([1953] 1981) The Captive Mind, Penguin Books: London

 

 

The Howling Fantods: Reading Infinte Jest

Just after the half way point in the Trans Mongolian Moscow to Beijing and just after 4000km mark I managed to complete David Foster Wallace’s Infinte Jest. It took me weeks to read. Made even longer by the long summer nights in the West Highlands keeping me away from my nightly reading routine, and the count down on the kindle. It was the first large book I read on the kindle, I had read “The Romanov’s” by Montefiore which google tells me is 736 pages, despite sometimes getting lost in the footnotes, it did follow a logical sequence and was okay. I felt lost in Infinite Jest, and recalled some research done by colleagues at the Open University (led by Anne Campbell) into e readers, which suggested that while learners appeared to find it easy to read, they also felt that “active learning”, for example preparing and evaluating discourses for an assignment, was much harder on these devices. So perhaps the sense of being lost in e ink when the reading materials demands more attention is not just my experience.

4002

Figure 1: The 4002km Mark Through the Dirty Window

It is a poor reader that blames the medium, so back to the book. The overlapping stories Centre round a tennis academy, a drug rehab house and a Quebec separatist group. When I say overlap, let’s be clear, it takes a while for them to intersect, and in the first parts of the book it is often by indirection, through following a deep description of what appears to be a minor character, a loose thread you think you are following away from the tight story ball, or at least it seems to, or at least you thought it was the story, but in the end it folds back in. There is an elegance to it, and according to the Guardian the author says it is based on the Sierpinski Gasket. 

It is a book that demands attention. So, even though it appears on those lists of very long books, being long is not the point, it does not lull like the prose in Remembrance of Times Past, or the even longer Dreams of a Red Chamber (which I am slowly reading on paper), it jars, it celebrates its complexity. It is not just the host of characters (see the infographic here) , it is also densely written, with shifts in pace, voice, vernacular and apparently style, which through its sheer length become it’s style. Through it you identify with different characters, Don and his story of redemption, Hal the prodigy (is he?), James the father film maker, Remy and his wife, and Joelle Madam Psychosis. Did I enjoy it. Is it a good book. I admit to points where I thought it over indulged, when I recalled an article about Raymond Carver where it suggested his terse style and brevity which drew comparisons with Chekov was his editor Gordon Lish, not his. If only Foster Wallace had such an editor. At other points it felt like the drug\drunk bits were overplayed, creeping into tourism  that for me seemed to date it – do you still read Eastern-Ellis, Bukowski, Kerouac, or Burroughs in your 40s.

However, other times it felt like some of the most finely crafted prose I had ever read. The characters richly drawn and viewed from multiple perspectives layering over each other, you felt their weight. This is one of the reasons for reading, to access other lives, not to live for a moment in those lives, but through those lives to think about your experiences, to spark your own hidden life. Did I enjoy it, well sometimes, I will admit I moaned to my partner about it, I am sure she was sick of it. Is it good, not sure, it is probably better to say it is a great book, as that just about accommodates the messy flawed magic.

The Storr – book review

Farquhar Angus (2006) “the Storr: Unfolding Landscape”, Luath Press, Edinburgh

 

I first heard rumblings of a project to turn ‘the Storr’ (a finger of basalt at the base of the Trotternish peninsula on Skye) into an ‘environmental art installation’ in 2002. Angus Farquhar responded promptly to my answer phone request for information. We had a long chat about the iconography of landscape and about visual arts in the Highlands, a chat that left me wondering just how ‘the truth’ of Bodach Storr could/would be extracted from the myth.

 

In August 2005 I stood in the Storr car park waiting to find out. I was impressed by; the repair of the footpath, the light ecological touch, and the contribution to the local economy – but not the artwork. The poetry of Sorley MacLean and songs of Mairi Mhor nan Oran were confined to the non-native forestry block, while silent 70s disco dancing and the ‘Romantic’ poetry of Rilke were settled in the midst of the ridge. Invoking ‘German Romanticism’ does not disrupt the mythology of Highland landscape. It re-inscribes the Highland landscape with the ideologies that saw clearance landlords de-politicise their actions, and rewrites the area as a wilderness playground.

 

If the intention of the work was to highlight the role of ‘Romanticism’ in reimagining the Highland landscape (through the absent presence of any critique) then it is to be commended. If this was the project agenda, then the knowledge required to decode the message is too exclusive. Essays by people from Skye temper that sense somewhat – Rilke would have approved. Rilke (like Heidegger) saw that ‘being’ and ‘authenticity’ were dependent on dwelling. However, many of the essays deal with ‘the Storr’ at a distance, this, coupled with the relative lack of post project comment and reflection, occlude the desire to dwell authentically.

 

The majority of the material in this volume was handed out free at the end of the £25 trip up to ‘the Storr’. This reprint has a glossier cover, but really features no notable additions. That said, I think this is still worth a look. Spot the rehashing of the argument that heritage quangos are the new landlords, except this time clearance landlordism is cast as being a democratic shaper of landscape (sorry no book token for the first correct entry). You will find plenty of other arguments of interest and ire in this volume.

 

 This article appeared in Issue 5 of Northwords Now, March 20007