Community and other Bloody Projects

Introduction

After a long delay this post returns to more certain ground, the Highlands, and with it a sense of uncertainty that comes from looking at what you think you know. One of the issues with the familiar is the way it falls into your assumptions about it. Earlier posts in this series touched on these assumptions and confirmation biases and their role in shaping our worldview in relation to totalitarianism and post colonialism. For example, Achebe (1978) threw Western Liberal assumptions back at us, and Comaroff and Comaroff (2012) asked us to consider our assumptions about what a functioning democracy looks like. I cannot promise anything on Western Liberalism, however, I am going to consider our assumptions about the functioning of democracy through examining local decision making practices in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I focus on two books, the first is by anthropologist Susan Parman (2005) entitled “Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village” based on early 1970’s doctoral research. The second is Booker Winner “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnett (2015).

Bloody Projects

Fig 1

Figure 1: Bloody Prints, source: Sara Band, http://saraband.net/2016/07/27/bloody-project-longlisted-man-booker-prize-2016/ Fair Use

“His Bloody Project” uses a familiar literary trope, found or narrated accounts that are put together or narrated to the author. In this novel the accounts centre on Roddy Macrae and the events leading up to a triple murder.  This is not a spoiler, so does not contain anything about whodunit, or perhaps more appropriately whydunit, instead I focus on a particular character, Lachlan MacKenzie. Lachlan, and his daughter and son, are murdered, we know this at the start, the narrative unfolds through the events leading up to and then past the murders. The Macrae’s and the Mackenzie’s have a fractious relationship, made even more difficult when Lachlan takes on the post of the village constable, and begins to exercise his power over the village and in particular the Macrae’s. The position of village constable is seen as a burden, organising compulsory works, communal events, adjudicating local disputes, but mainly being the link with the local landlord and enforcing their rules.

The novel suggest people take on the role reluctantly, accepting it on through the fear of a “willing constable” being imposed. The best candidate for constable is the person who wants it least. Roddy’s father, a somewhat withdrawn man, is approached in a roundabout way typical of the Highlands, while not asked directly he understands what is being asked and refuses.  Lachlan makes a grab for and gets the position.  In Roddy’s account the power brings out the worst in Lachlan, the accounts from other villagers add to this sense,  through these Macrae Burnett creates a sense that wanting this type of power and influence over your neighbours is “not a Highland thing”. Indeed it is not. While I cannot do justice to the passages, I think it is one of the best descriptions of how decisions are still reached in some Highland communities, a mode of indirection that bewilders some. It reminds me of debates around whether questions around temporality explored in narratives concerned with remembering and forgetting are actually concerned place. For example, whether “Being and Time” by Heidegger uses the temporal as a way to approach place making by indirection (Malpass 2006).

The Scottish Crofters

Parman’s account of her time in the Western Isles contains a similar set of stories, of reluctant “township clerks” taking their turn, or of those who relished the role being subject to ridicule.  Of a distrust of authority and official process’s, while also recognising  communities needed to learn how to operate in these spaces, and individuals who could act as translators (even approximate ones) of local issues into official rhetoric were useful, even if they were not to be trusted. Parman’s was a young student from the US, and what is interesting is her confusion. Her own missteps as she found it difficult to get “straight answers” to questions, or when she made appointments  and they were not kept, or trying to get the heart of how decisions were made.

I first read Parman’s in 2005 when the second edition came out and an online colloquium on a Highland discussion board was set up, with the great and the good from rural/Highland sociology and anthropology commenting. I read it as an ethnography, asking how closely it sat with my own experience, it is only now I am able to ask what it says about decision making in local communities. Parman identifies some interesting areas, the importance of informal networks, of the ripples that flow through a community, of issues that appear fully formed and unamiously supported when they suddenly appear in official documents. Rather than deliberate discussions in public, the risk of open disagreement is minimised through indirection, through carefully structured discussions which never surface the matter at hand. It is familiar, and you can see why I referenced Heidegger earlier, clearly a politically troubling figure whose arcane language does little to hide distasteful views, yet I  often think about his work on the “close at hand” (Heidegger 1993), how one reads things through those things that are close, and thus don’t need to be spoken. I suppose here I situate my own approach to understanding place in relation to Heidegger, and Ingold’s (2000) use of Heidegger, to suggest place making arises first from dwelling and through this building the social and structural, contested of course, but we can read the close at hand, and to whose hand it is close to, as a way to read these places.

What Parman does it set out the unspoken, the ripples go out, but not directly, one does not ask what do think of this when you pop round, you say well this person has suggested this, what do you think. But of you don’t, you would never come straight out and ask, the suggestion must appear to come as a natural part of the conversation, maybe even an “ah yes I forgot … did you hear” on parting at the door. Likewise people will not disagree directly, but suggest someone else who might not agree, or a hypothetical position to depersonalise what they are saying. Even though everyone knows “the rules”, it is a way of communicating that allows extended relations who live in close proximity to engage in shared activities.

Figure 2

Figure 2:  The Public Sphere, Frederic Sorrieu lithograph from 1848 commemortating universal male suffrage in France entitled “Suffrage universal dedie a Ledru-Rollin, Public Domain

Parman does not extend the analysis, or make the political points, and perhaps it is not for anthropologists to do. However, I can tease this out, as I have earlier asking, how culturally specific the modes of deliberation privileged within western models of democracy are, how they don’t even account for decision making, but describe particular sets of relations amongst particular social a class. I could argue these normative accounts of what a functioning deliberative decision making spaces should look like are more than cultural blindness but are themselves as system of exclusion (Negt O., Kluge A. ([1993] 2016), and certainly Parman  and Macrae Burnett touch on these themes. The way it favours particular forms of communication and rhetoric, and as aspect of communities life become tied into apparently democratic structures how it excludes some voices, and promotes others. However, I am going to make a practical point relating to the operation of community development. Over the years I have seen community development initiatives, community animators, local development workers, community consultations come and go. What I have often heard, as a local “they can talk to”, is a frustration, “… after all  …we had a meeting, open to anyone,  people could have come, spoken up if they objected. No one did, we have gone head, and now I can’t get anyone to help me …”

Coming Round to Community Development through Indirection

The problem in community development is people like me, we have experience of professional discourse, this means when there is a consultation, or a review, or letter to write, a person to meet, we can engage them, we are heard. For me this comes with the additional issues of being “a local” that can be wheeled out always ready with an opinion. We thrive in community consultations, and community development workers are drawn to us. It is easy to speak to those who share the same language and approach, even better if they are viewed as a legitimate actor through their temporal connections – being of the place. However, this bridging does little to challenge the structuring of consultation, community empowerment/right to buy [delete as applicable] which assume deliberative decision making based on cultural assumptions which do not always hold.

It is not just community development workers who are drawn in, as the community I live has enjoyed the benefits of having knowledge and time rich people who can perform in these spaces, so researchers also come. They look at places that have been successful in the community market place created by competitive funding bids and those that have done less well. One of the fashionable research and policy readings of the differences between communities focussed on social capital, and while the fashion has faded the imprint remains, the sense that some communities have something others need to develop. It tends to focus on the need to be able to engage with the formal structures, the need  for people who can bridge. However, in reaching for this solution one needs to ask whether this is the case, and what kinds of questions it stops us asking. I can see two questions it obscures. First whether these people who can bridge and claim a legitimate right to speak for others have such a right. Might the very act of accepting the rhetoric of professional community development mean they are no longer legitimate, they are alienated from those experiences (Laclau and Mouffe [1985] 2014), and like Roddy are unreliable narrators of their own and the experience of others.

Secondly, and more importantly, asking what these places lack that would allow them to engage with those structures means setting aside the sense it is the structures themselves that ought to change. Arriving at this point I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who worked in international development musing on a particular issue and the difference between UK and international development work. We began to wonder whether the soul searching that went on within international development around the role of Western educated development workers telling people across the globe how to develop needed to happen within the UK sector. Neither of us could remember the source until their partner reminded us of the work done by Chalmers on participatory approaches and Inglis on asking why it only applied in the Global South.  The influence of their work has clearly sat dully in the back of my mind, as I still ask myself why the participatory approaches common in international contexts are rarely applied in here. I have a perspective, perhaps it is because participatory approaches to deliberative decision making destabilise existing power relations, and while we are happy to use them internationally, we might be less keen at home. Or am I just getting too cynical, take your pick.

References

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

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

Heidegger M. (1993) Basic Writing: from Being and Time (1927) to Tasks of Thinking (1964), Ed D F Krell, Routledge: London

Ingold, Tim 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge

Laclau E., Mouffe C. ([1985] 2014) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso: London

Malpass J. (2006) Heideggers Typology: Being, Place, World, MIT Press: London

Negt O., Kluge A. ([1993] 2016) Public Sphere of Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proleterian Public Sphere. Verso: London

Parman S. (2005) Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village, Thomson Wadsworth: London

 

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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