Tag Archives: colonialism

Fredrika Bremer: Sketches of Sweden and its Aristocracy

Fredrika BremerFredrika Bremer (1801 – 1865) was a Swedish writer and feminist reformer. Wikipedia (which I was forced to turn to as the 1844 introduction to the book spoke only of translation, not the author herself) states she is she is regarded as ‘the Swedish Jane Austen’ and further that ‘her novel Hertha prompted a social movement that granted all Swedish women legal majority at the age of 25 and established Högre Lärarinneseminariet, Sweden’s first female tertiary school.’ Also that in ‘1884, she became the namesake of the Fredrika Bremer Association, the first women’s rights organization in Sweden.’

Worth a read, then.

Fredrika Bremer -- New Sketches of Everyday LifeNew sketches of every-day life: a diary as translated by her contemporary Mary Howitt (released in 1844 in its English edition)  is widely available for free, which is why it is the book I have read. It is quite an enjoyable romance, complete with women’s rights and corruption in the regiments bringing ruin onto ‘good’ families and evil old rakes, and I enjoyed the form of diary entries. While I hate that people call her the Swedish Jane Austen (and she is far more romantically and grandly melodramatic), yet there is quite a similarity in morals and manners along with a sprightly heroine. I suppose this isn’t surprising given how interwoven European monarchies were, and the centrality of French culture. But how curious that apart from a host of references particular to Sweden and descriptions of scenery, I should never have guessed this did not take place in England or France.

Felix in the mean time is better, but his health appeared deranged by the irregular life which he has led. He recovers slowly. Lennartson endeavours to animate his mind, and to cheer his spirits. He often spends the evenings in reading Sir Walter Scott’s romances to him. (250)

Does Scott explain everything?

I am reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters on Sweden at the same time, which is fascinating. Bremer actually shares more with her, I think, both in terms of judgments laid upon polite society, as well as the exclamatory sentimentality afforded to emotions, especially those raised in relation to love, friendship and scenery.

I am leaving for Sweden today! Hurrah!

I am not above exclamation points myself. I have been reading much in preparation, as I enjoy, so there shall be a slew of Swedishness upcoming. But back to Bremer.

On Women

Women and the romanticism of their connections to nature, and much on the constraints of society (though quite a bit on its joys as well):

…I was a violent child, and in my whole being the opposite of the lovely and the agreeable, which my stepmother so highly valued, and of which she unceasingly spoke in quotations from the romances of Madame Genlis. I was compared with the enchantresses in these romances, and set down in proportion. In one word my stepmother could not rightly endure me, and I could not endure—Madame Genlis and her graces, who occasioned me so much torment. Ah! the sunburnt, wild girl grown up in the ‘moors’ of Finland, whose life had passed in woods and heaths, among rocks and streams, and amid dreams as wild and wonderful as the natural scenery amongst which she grew; this girl was in truth no being for the salon, for a French Grace. Transplanted from the fresh wilderness of her childhood into the magnificent capital, where huge mirrors on every side reflected every movement, and seemed scornfully to mimic every free outbreak which was not stamped by grace,—she was afraid, afraid of herself, afraid of everybody, and especially of the goddess of the palace. The governess and the servants called me ‘the Tartar-girl, ‘ ‘the young Tartar.’ (18-19)

I like how she describes two periods in relation to her step-mother, the ‘period of my adulation’, from 11-15 and the ‘epoch of opposition’  during her later teens. The ‘diary’ starts with her having returned after an unnamed disappointment at the age of 30. She is admired:

My stepmother said I was exactly at the handsome, ‘modern age,’ for a charming woman; in one word, ‘la femme la trente ans, la femme de Balsac;’  (26)

There are remarks throughout praising kindness, simplicity and virtue, and noting its absence in many women of society:

The Baroness Bella B., the Beauty, and Helfrid O Rittersvard, paid us a visit. Afterwards, Ake Sparrskold, Felix, and others. ‘The Beauty’ expatiated (quite mal-a-prapos, methinks) on the unhappiness and disagreeableness of ugliness. She pities ‘from her heart, plain people;’ but they must at least know that they are plain, and must stop nicely at home, and not exhibit themselves out in the world, and in society, where they can awaken only disagreeable feelings. I was provoked at this speech (93)

Thus it is, that the meoldrama emerges from ugliness underneath — what she likens to a volcano more than once:

Among all these dissipations, which reign in the house; amid all those beautiful toilets and artificial flowers, and all these so-called pleasures, still strange symptoms break forth, which testify of the volcanic soil upon which they dance. (142)

Hers remains a terribly romanticised vision of women’s place, and the happiness they may attain.

I now know very well that I never can love Felix properly, because I cannot highly esteem him, as I will and must highly esteem my husband; but”
“But what, my sweet Selma?”
“If I can make him and others happy, then—neither shall I myself be unhappy. And then—God will give me, perhaps, a child, which I can love, and in which I can have pleasure in the world.”
“With this Selma wept quite softly, leaning on my shoulder. (141)

But not all of them…there is another kind of life possible for women, one more of the mind and culture. There is a desire independence here, though clearly it requires independence of money and position:

I like Brenner greatly; but not so much as I love my own independence, the peace of my soul, and the prospect of a peaceful and care-free future. I will be his friend, but no more. I dread marriage; I dread that compulsion, that dark deep suffering, which the power of one being over another so often exhibits. I have seen so much of it. (191)

Thus class and gender intersect, though Bremer would claim all the suffering for the wealthy even as she acknowledges the poverty around her — though this is one of the very few places she does so:

On the long ill-built street, I saw a herd of ragged, pale children, old women and aged men, living pictures of sickness, of poverty, and age; and I contemplated misery in all gradations of human life—in all its weeping shadows. And amid all these shadow-figures there yet probably was not one who would have exchanged his lot with mine, if he could have seen into my heart. Ah! the severest kind of-wretchedness is not that which exhibits its rags in the streets, and at night conceals itself in great deserted buildings — it is that which smiles in polite companies, which shews to the world a joyful exterior whilst sorrow gnaws its heart. (222)

Fredrika Bremer is herself of this wealthy class, of course.

fredrika bremer

On the Country

I love these descriptions of nature, and pearls! Who knew these could be found there…

On the shore where I was born, on the alder- fringed streams of Kautua, I often went, as a child, pearl-fishing, when the heat of the sun had abated the rigour of the water. I fancy still that the clear cool waves wash my feet; I fancy still that I see the pearl muscles [sic mussels they must be] which the waterfall had thrown together in heaps in the sand of the little green islands. Whole heaps of these muscles I collected together on the shore, and if I found one pearl among them what joy! (23)

On Stockholm

We dwelt upon the Blasieholm, exactly upon the limits of the fields planted with trees, where the Delagarde Palace, with its towers, had elevated itself for centuries, and had been burnt down in one night. I look out from my window, and see and hear the roaring of the broad stream which separates the city from Norrmalm, and on whose shores have been fought so many bloody battles; on the haven, the bridge of boats, the royal castle, with the Lion Hill; the river promenade, further on, beneath the north-bridge; and on the other side of the island of the Holy Ghost, the blue water of the Malar, and the southern mountains. From among the masses of houses upon the different islands, raise themselves the bold spires of the church-towers. To the left I have that of St. Catharine; to the right, that of St. James; and further off, the royal gardens, with their rich alleys, and I should never come to an end, were I to name all that I have and govern—from my window. And in my chamber, I have my pencils, my books, and myself. (29)

The older sections:

…over the bridge and through the streets into the city. There are the oldest memories of Stockholm; here is the heart of the Stockholm city, which also has the form of a heart; here flowed the blood of the nobles of Sweden in streams from the hand of Christiern; here the streets are narrow, the lanes dark; but here also is the Castle of Stockholm; and here lift themselves even now, a mass of houses, which shew by their inscriptions cut in stone, the strong fear of God which built up in ancient times the realm of Sweden. (169)

And this, on what a city, particularly a capital city of a hierarchical and cultured society, should be:

Once saw I a chief-city without any towers, with- out any one building exceeding in beauty and size the rest; all were equal, and people said, ‘see here the image of a true social community.’

But no! thus appears it not. When a people come to the consciousness of its full life, its cities and its buildings will testify of it: there must the flaming spires of the temples ascend to the sky; there must columns of honour stand in memorial of great men; there must magnificent palaces (not private ones!) express the sense of greatness in a noble public spirit; there must the beautiful express in manifold forms the good in the life of the state. (89-90)

On the pageantry of the aristocracy’s life

This is ongoing — glittering balls in glittering palaces and a parade of notables in beautiful dresses.

I confess, I love the dresses.

She makes much of the sledges, and I could almost wish we were going at a time when we could have done something similar

Felix wished to drive Selma, and St. Orme invited Flora to his sledge. This was to be covered with tiger-skins, and would be drawn by fiery piebalds, which Flora had seen, and found much to her liking. This sledge was to lead the procession, which was to drive through the principal streets of the city to the park, where they were to dine, and after that were to dance, and so on. (74)

There is more:

Yet is it a purely-northern enjoyment, which a purely northern life has—such a pleasure-excursion as this in the clear winter air, under the bright blue heaven, upon the snow-white earth! They fly away so gaily and lightly,—the open ones covered with skins and with white nets, which flutter over fiery, foaming horses, they fly along so fleetly to the play of the jingling bells. And it feels so irresistibly pleasant thus to drive away over the earth in a train of joyous people, and by the side of a friend who participates in every feeling, every impression. (195)

On even the Swedish benefiting from the ‘adventure’ of colonialism

I think this means Brenner joined the French Foreign Legion, and helped conquer Algeria…and this saved him.

at the time when France made war on the States of Barbary. Lennartson managed so with Brenner’s connexions that he should take part in this campaign, and fitted him out at his own expense, though at that time he was anything but rich. Lennartson, in his plan, had rightly judged of his friend, and accomplished his salvation.

With strong natures there is only one step between despair and heroism. With a lock of Lennartson’s hair upon his breast, and his image deeply stamped upon his soul, the young Brenner plunged forward upon a path on which dangers of every kind called him forth to combat. To him, there was more than the conquering of people and kingdoms; to him, there was the winning again of honour; the winning again the esteem of himself, of his friends, and of his fatherland. And with the most joyful mad-bravery, he ventured his life for that purpose. The young Swede divided dangers and laurels with the Frenchmen. And upon the wild sea waves, in battle before the walls of Algiers, in combats with Arabs and Kabyles on the soil of Africa, the French learned highly to esteem a bravery equal to their own (a greater is impossible), and to love a humanity towards vanquished foes, with which they are not so well acquainted.

Afterwards, Brenner accompanied some French learned men on their dangerous journey into the interior of Africa. (67)

I am bewildered at the gap by what she imagines his travels in Algeria and Africa to have been, and the harsh reality of conquest as they actually were. Small wonder he rarely spoke of them:

Many times I request that he should call forth some remembrances out of his restless life, pictures of another climate, of seas and wildernesses, of glowing Africa and strange Egypt; scenes from the battle-fields around Atlas. It is rare that he will relate anything of this; but how curiously and desiringly do I not then listen! These pictures are so grand, and, I acknowledge, something grand also in the nature which has conceived them. (134)

This anecdote serves as such a brilliant metaphor for Europe’s colonial legacy:

Brenner now related— “It was in Egypt, near to Thebes. I rambled one  morning out into the surrounding desert to hunt, and happened to see a vulture sitting not far from me, among the ruins of fallen monuments. This bird is known for its strong power of life, and is dangerous to approach when it is wounded; it has a strength almost incredible. I shot at him, and hit him on the breast, and as I believed mortally. He remained however sitting quietly in his place, and I rushed to him that I might complete my work, but in that same moment the bird raised itself, and mounted upwards. Blood streamed from his breast, and a part of his entrails fell out, but notwithstanding this he continued to ascend still higher and higher, in wider and wider circles. A few shots which I fired after him produced no effect. It was beautiful, in the vast silent wilderness to see this bird, mortally wounded and dyeing the sand with his blood, silently circling upon his monstrous wings higher and ever higher; the last circuit which he made was unquestionably a quarter of a mile in extent; then I lost sight of him in the blue space of heaven.” (272-273)

While the company are impressed with such a strange story, it somehow causes them to think even better of Bremer. How better to explain colonialism and orientalism — the European admires great strength and beauty, shoots it, and then admires it still more as it struggles through its death throes.

For a final hilarious, and slightly ill-judged sentence:

Even the larva of suffering can receive wings, can fly in the night, and be lighted by its stars, and bathe in its dew. (233)

Perhaps it suffers in translation. The whole introduction sheds an interesting light on the ongoing problems of translations not rceieving enough pay, not being credited, of being stolen and violently edited down and released in cheap editions that can never earn enough royalties to pay for the translator’s time — if indeed there were ever an intention of paying for it.  Some things never change, this is from Mary Howitt the translator:

And what have we got instead, from this advocate of public good? An importation and reprint of anonymous abridgments of these works, got up and curtailed, both in style and quantity, into the limits suited to the American cheap market, and abounding with Americanisms, which all well-educated persons will be careful not to introduce into their families; as “she is a going”—” vanity belittles a woman”—”sleighs, and sleds, and sleighing,” for sledges and sledging—”surroundings,” for environs; with such Yankee slang as “he got mad in love, and she gave him the bag,” etc.; as any one may convince himself who looks into these eye-destroying small prints. (vii)
— Mary Howitt, 1843, The Grange, Upper Clapton

[Bremer, Fredrika (1844) New sketches of every-day life: a diary. Vol. 1 Tr. [from the Swedish] by Mary Howitt. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans]

 

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Les Blancs: Lorraine Hansberry at the National Theatre

Les Blancs/ The Whites, by Lorraine Hansberry
Final text adapted by Robert Nemiroff
Directed by Yaël Farber
National Theatre, opened 30 March, 2016

This was amazingly raw and powerful as a production. At some point in life I made a shift from someone who never cried ever to someone who cries all the damn time, still, the ending of this wrung more tears from me than any other play I have seen I think. The audience applauded and stood and applauded some more and I sat there and cried.

Les Blancs, National Theatre

I don’t know if it’s possible to hate colonialism more than I already did, but this rounded it out a little, gave it a little more depth.

There was much to love in here, Hansberry herself thought it the most powerful of her plays. It demolishes liberal white hopes and expectations that if the past might just be erased and started all over again, people can just be friends. The violence can just stop. Things can just carry on as they are and people content themselves with gradual improvements achieved through democratic forms. Through responses to the character of the American journalist it exposes how all of these ideas break down in the face of a violent and murderous reality — and I love that people get to tell him what they think of him. Refuse his questions, his attempts to create an immediate intimacy, his mixture of motives that he thinks of as well-meaning.

One of my favourite moments was his explanation of his quest, the time he and his friends from Twin Forks Junction Nebraska had gone to see Black people for the first time, a troop of soldiers. His anger and despair that though he had gone to see them, none of them had returned his gaze, acknowledged him, seen him. The whole of his life an effort to be seen by the other.

Tshembe makes the journalist call him Mr Makoseh. His own bitterness in the futility of struggle, attempted escape to London and a European wife and a child only to be dragged back through the death of his father into the middle of the rebellion. His confrontation with his friends, his half-brother, his full brother now become a priest and betrayer.

The white doctor who knows that everything he has done has been in service to colonialism and genocide. So he drinks.

The Major George Rice, who tortures and kills to protect white women and children, and the land he considers his home. The land he loves, and sees as beautiful. The land he and most other white settlers own and do not see as stolen. Their utter inability to see any validity in the contestation of their rights, any humanity in those they oppress.

The old woman who knew her missionary husband had many good qualities, but his deep racism caused the death of her best friend, raped by a white man and bearing what the man of god considered an abomination.

The troubled self-medicating son who is tortured by his identity.

They are all so powerful. As was the staging, the simple wood construction of the mission and the dust upon the floor.

Les Blancs Book 1I need to read it, because while absolutely caught up in the thing while watching it, thinking about it after I remembered the few twinges I had, the questions.

So many of the insights are spoken by whites, I imagine this was purposeful, to better allow white audiences to actually hear them, process them. I think this is carefully crafted to provoke an ongoing internal critique of people’s own racism with all of its assumptions as well as an external discussion of colonialism, and I appreciated that craft.

Sheila Atim (Woman) in Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Olivier, National Theatre. Directed by Yael Farber. (Opening 30-03-16) ©Tristram Kenton 03/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com
Sheila Atim (Woman) in Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Olivier, National Theatre.
©Tristram Kenton 03/16
tristram@tristramkenton.com

Yet it is a slightly disturbing fact that Black women have no real voice in the production. They are symbolized by the servant constantly carrying and endlessly sweeping — she never really comes alive to us though her husband finally does. So there is the servants and a gaunt figure who presides over scene after scene. From our position far far away in the back I imagined her as skeletal, a product of hunger and never-ending labour. I see pictures of her as she would have been seen from the expensive seats and she is more a model. She is supposed to represent Africa, to haunt Tshembe. But she does not speak.

Also interesting, as we talked about it later, was the centering of the mission within the ring of stones and the darkness surrounding it — this is where the Africans live, where they emerge from and go back to. They are mostly impassive, unreadable — all the characteristics of the orientalized figure. They too rarely speak. It was hard to tell if this was more pronounced because of how it had been staged and directed, or the way it was written.

So there seemed much also problematic and with clear limitations, but it remains a powerful view into the lived experience of struggle over colonial Africa.

For more on race and empire…

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Language and Violence — The Meursault Investigation

The Meursault InvestigationI quite loved The Meursault Investigation, an evocative and angry wrenching away of anonymity from those murdered under colonial rule. A stinging refusal to allow the focus to remain on the problems and tragedies of the murderer to search them out instead in the man murdered, the hole he left behind, the impact of those who we were close to him. The very power of Camus’s words rendered the violence he inflicted on the stranger all the greater.

It’s simple: The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is, starting when the Arab’s body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name…So one reason for learning this language was to tell this story for my brother, the friend of the sun. Seems unlikely to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the response nobody wanted to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you…(7)

The Meursault Investigation is about how we understand things, how we construct naratives around events. How European narratives erase non-whites, push them into the background, into the scenery, into simple provocations or plot twists that facilitate the drama experienced by white males.

The way counter-narratives must be constructed.

Without realizing it, and years before I learned to read, I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud. (21)

There is so much here about language, the differences between Arabic and French, the limitations and liberations of each. In this it shares space with Assia Djebar, though from such different perspectives I love how they each grapple with the same questions.

Language and the construction of narrative.

For a long time, not a year passed without my mother swearing she’d found Musa’s body, heard his breathing or his footstep…And for a long time, that would make me feel impossibly ashamed of her–and later, it pushed me to learn a language that could serve as a barrier between her frenzies and me. Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in… I had to learn a language other than that one. To survive…Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words. (37)

She tells and retells, invents and reinvents narratives around his brother — they are so strong they smother him, contain him so that he cannot be himself, must always live in his brother’s shadow. One aspect of the violence of language, brought to life through loss and longing and obsession.

This explores another violence that can be found in words, in silences, in storytelling:

But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. That’s denial of a shockingly violent kind, don’t you think? As soon as the shot is fired, the murderer turns around, heading for a mystery he considers worthier of interest than the Arab’s life. (46)

A violence possible only through the construction of other, through conquest. What the colonised share in common around the world conquered by whites:

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,”… (60)

These strangers for the narrator are the Meursaults, the numberless faceless figures of occupation and oppression.

And reminiscent of Fanon, there is yet another kind of violence, what could be a redemptive violence:

On that hot night, nothing had suggested that a murder was about to happen. You’re asking me what I felt afterward? Huge relief. A kind of worthiness, but without honor. Something deep inside me sat down, curled up into a ball, took its head in its hands, and sighed so profoundly that I was touched and tears sprang to my eyes. Then I raised them and looked around me. Again I was surprised by the extent of the courtyard where I had just executed an unknown person. It was as if perspectives were opening up and I could finally breathe. Whereas I’d always lived like a prisoner until then, confined within the perimeter established by Musa’s death and my mother’s vigilance, I now saw myself standing upright, at the heart of a vast territory: the whole nocturnal earth, the gift of that night. When my heart regained its place, all other objects did the same. (78)

But it is not that simple of course, just as the competing narratives, the claims on identity, the nature of family, the complexes existing between a man and his mother, nothing is simple.

Well, after I’d killed a man, it wasn’t my innocence I missed the most, it was the border that had existed until then between my life and crime. That’s a line that’s hard to redraw later. The Other is a unit of measurement you lose when you kill. (90)

After the murder he is imprisoned, will possibly be executed through the new state’s state-sanctioned violence for killing outside of the liberation struggle he is despised for not having joined.

Algeria lives in a different way in this story, Algiers both concrete and abstracted:

…but I loved the virile, almost comforting roar of the engine that was snatching us, my mother and me, out of an immense labyrinth made up of buildings, downtrodden people, shantytowns, dirty urchins, aggressive cops, and beaches fatal to Arabs. For the two of us, the city would always be the scene of the crime, or the place where something pure and ancient was lost. (21)

Funny the way that this is specific and yet non-specific, belonging to a national and urban geography, yet individuals have been erased from them.

…there’s no point inn your going to the cemetery, or to Bab-el-Oued, or to the beach. You won’t find anything… This story takes place somewhere in someone’s head, in mine and in yours and in the heads of people like you. In a sort of beyond.

Don’t do any geographical searching — that’s the point I’m trying to make. (57)

There is much more to The Meursault Investigation, more on language and identity, sexuality and relationships, nation and colonialism and struggle. Much of it is not at all subtle. A book that repays rereading I imagine, a good book for teaching. At the same time it has an intellectual feel, an abstracted feel not entirely due to the form of tales told a researcher in a bar. I am not quite sure why, in some ways the violence is as abstract as it is for Camus, as removed. It does not have the emotional power of Djebar’s Algerian White, cannot touch Mouloud Feraoun’s recollections before his assassination, or even the more rigorous incandescence of Fanon.

[Daoud, Kamel. 2015. The Meursault Investigation. London: Oneworld Publications.]

 

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Walter Rodney: Imperialism’s interconnected racisms

Walter RodneyPart 1 looks at the broader argument around the dialectic of development and underdevelopment found in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. So much of my work focuses on racism in the US though, and Rodney mentions the US often. It became an Imperialist power par excellence after all, after WWII. But first, to return to the connections between capitalism and racism (later explored around the same time by Cedric Robinson, later by Roediger, Marable and others)

Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. (10)

There are some telling facts here on the early connections between slavery and capitalism. For instance J.S. Mill, as spokesman for British capitalism, said that as far as England was concerned, ‘the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.’ (82)

The whole town and country — that’s a metaphor (or a reality, or some twisted kind of whitewashing) that needs some following up.

Marx noted the connection:

‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. (83)

This is telling too, those visions of dashing buccaneers braving the seas and the Spanish? Not so true:

John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture; and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains. (83)

The origins of a version of English money in the name of the Guinea Coast:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the guinea was ‘a gold coin at one time current in the United Kingdom. It was first coined in 1663, in the reign of Charles II, from gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa by a company of merchants trading under charter from the British crown — hence the name.’ (84)

The rise of cities and their connections with the industrial revolution (though those cities mostly pretend it didn’t happen, or like Bristol focus on a heritage of abolition)

The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade was the rise of sea-port towns — – notably Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution’. (85)

Then this revolting fact:

David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. (85)

I knew I didn’t like them.

Racism shaped and has continued not just the physical underdevelopment of Africa, but how it is understood and discussed. This shouldn’t be rocket science, but how much have I read recently that completely fails to acknowledge, much less interrogate this?

It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. … However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology. (88)

These rationalisations were in service of exploitation.

The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonised world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted at least partially the European version of things. (20)

But in the move from ‘spheres of influence’ to direct colonisation in Africa unlike most other continents, the existence of racism played a key role:

In addition to the factors that caused the chain-reaction of the Scramble as described above, Europeans were also racially motivated to seek political domination over Africa. Thee 19th century was one in which white racism was most violently and openly expressed in capitalist societies, with the U.S.A. as a focal point, and with Britain taking the lead among the Western European capitalist nations. Britain accepted granting dominion status to its old colonies of white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; but it withdrew self-government from the West Indies when the white planters were ousted from the legislative assemblies by black (or brown) people. As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule. (140-141)

He looks at the content of racism:

Sometimes, white racism was vicious and at other times it was paternalist. Nor did it necessarily reflect Europe’s desire to exploit Africans economically. In Southern Rhodesia, racial discrimination was very much tied up with the white settlers maintaining their jobs and the stolen land; but when some semi-literate white inspector insulted an educated Sierra Leonean that may be referred to as ‘gratuitous’. Racism in such a context actually jeopardised economic exploitation, and it was merely the manifestation of prejudices that had grown over the centuries.

To me a key point — that racist ideologies took on lives of their own, themselves began to articulate with the economics and politics of the situation (drawing on Hall here who looks at this explicitly, but the seeds are all here in Rodney):

by the 19th century white racism had become so institutionalised in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximisation of profit as a motive for oppressing black people. … There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. (89)

This is so clearly visible in the history of the U.S. An early aside from Rodney (who has some wonderfully sarcastic lines that made me laugh out loud a couple of times):

Actually, if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder. (14)

Walter Rodney makes clear the connection between the violence of slavery and colonialism in Africa, and how they connect to slavery, genocide and the violence found throughout US society:

In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labour played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the U.S.A. — notably in the South, but including also the so-called ‘Wild West’ where black cowboys were active. (87)

Connects these too to Vietnam, to the My Lai massacre and if he were alive now, would see it in the continuing murders of Black men and women being called out by #BlackLivesMatter:

But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade. (90)

Of course, the US had a much more direct connection that most people (I include myself in that) ever realise:

During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the U.S.A. In 1926, the Firestone Rubber Company of the U.S.A. was able to acquire one million acres of forest land in Liberia at a cost of 6 cents per acre and 1% of the value of the exported rubber. Because of the demand for and the strategic importance of rubber, Firestone’s profits from Liberia’s land and labour carried them to 25th position among the giant companies of the U.S.A. (154)

But to return to the connection between imperialism, exploitation and racism, Rodney argues this violence also sits at the root of fascism:

Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). (196)

Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination and racism-mainly exercised outside of Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. (200)

These connections were hardly invisible, and helped form the basis for organising the Pan-African movement, for this vibrant and vital strain of scholarship and activism that Walter Rodney himself embodies.

The racial contradiction extended far beyond the shores of Africa, because of the historical antecedence of the slave trade. It is not in the least surprising that Pan-African ideas should have been most forcefully expressed by West Indians like Garvey and Padmore and North Americans like W.E.B. Dubois and Alpheus Hunton. Those individuals had all been educated within the international capitalist structure of exploitation on the basis of class and race. Having realised that their inferior status in the societies of America was conditioned by the fact of being black and the weakness of Africa, the Pan-Africanists were forced to deal with the central problem of Europe’s exploitation and oppression of the African continent. Needless to say, the metropolitan powers could never have foreseen that their humiliation of millions of Africans in the New World would ultimately rebound and help Africa to emancipate itself. (277)

Another fascinating insight to be followed up — and one that Rodney brings forward but then doesn’t much explore, is based on a quote from Albert Memmi (I love Albert Memmi), who writes:

The most serious blow suffered by the colonised is being removed from history and from the community. Colonisation usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.

Rodney continues:

Sweeping as that statement may initially appear, it is entirely true. The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonised is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense. A striking illustration of the fact that colonial Africa was a passive object is seen in its attraction for white anthropologists, who came to study ‘primitive society’. (225)

This idea of being removed from history resonates so strongly with Trouillot’s work on Haiti, with the experience of all oppressed peoples, and is something I’d like to follow up. Part of this is memory of collective ways of being, acting in the world. This, too needs more thought:

In the final analysis, perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism… However, the capitalist system then went on to champion and protect the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants. When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase. It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few. (254)

There is so much here.

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Walter Rodney on Europe and Africa

Walter RodneyI like it when classic texts blow you away. Walter Rodney had some of the same impact as Fanon or C.L.R. James, all of them writing from a Afro-Carribean perspective. Born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1942, Walter Rodney’s parents were part of the People’s Progressive Party, a Marxist and multiracial group… I imagine they were proud of their son. In 1963 he won a scholarship to SOAS, and became part of the group around C.L.R. James (ah, can you imagine how awesome that must have been?). Rodney taught in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then in Jamaica until he was expelled for his politics. He traveled, but moved back to Guyana in 1974 where he worked for the positive transformation of his country, helping to centralise the Working people’s Alliance in the face of intense oppression, beatings, torture and assassinations. On June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney’s car exploded, bombed, his voice silenced.

He built connections all over the world, but this book was introduced and edited by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill, and Bill Strickland of the Institute of the Black World based in Atlanta. These connections in struggle inspire… from the Caribbean to the U.S., Africa to Europe. They are not just oppressions — more and more I see that to fully understand the functioning of racism in one place, you must understand the others, go back to the source and the ways that Imperialism has connected them all over time and space. The way it has connected us. Harding, Hill and Strickland write:

Without rehearsing all the old political arguments about coalitions and alliances, neither forgetting the past nor being bound by it, we must find some way to respond to them and to allow them to come in touch with us. This is no passing luxury, in the old “race relations” style. Rather, we now realize that the children of the oppressed and the children of the oppressors are involved in a dialectical relationship that is deeper than most of us choose to recognize, and that there is no fundamental development for one without the other. (xxiii)

This is Rodney’s fundamental insight in this book as well — that Africa and Europe are dialectically related, that the development of one is related directly to the undevelopment of the other, the wealth of one built on the exploitation of the other. What does that mean for the undoing of things? Hopefully we are better than it being just a case of chickens coming home to roost, though he does use that phrase. It would be nice if the poor and the working classes of all countries might benefit from rearrangements.

Here is an exploration of his arguments under the chapter headings.

1: Some Questions on Development

There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled.

Capitalism has proved incapable of transcending fundamental weaknesses such as underutilization of productive capacity, the persistence of a permanent sector of unemployed, and periodic economic crises related to the concept of ‘market’ – which is concerned with people’s ability to pay rather than their need for commodities. Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. Above all, capitalism has intensified its own political contradictions in trying to subjugate nations and continents outside of Europe, so that workers and peasants in every part of the globe have become self-conscious and are determined to take their destiny into their own hands. (10)

Understanding underdevelopment:

At all times, therefore, one of the ideas behind underdevelopment is a comparative one.

A second and even more indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as ‘underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now preoccupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation. (14)

And why might we mistake underdevelopment based on exploitation to anything else?

Mistaken interpretations of the causes of underdevelopment usually stem either from prejudiced thinking or from the error of believing that one can learn the answers by looking inside the underdeveloped economy. The true explanation lies in seeking out the relationship between Africa and certain developed countries and in recognising that it is a relationship of exploitation. (22)

Always look to the relationships between things. Those relationships between Africa and Europe? Slavery, domination of trade, ownership of the means of production, foreign investment in the form of loans and interest:

The things which bring Africa into the capitalist market system are trade, colonial domination and capitalist investment… African economies are integrated into the very structure of the developed capitalist economies; and they are integrated in a manner that is unfavourable to Africa and ensures that Africa is dependent on the big capitalist countries. Indeed, structural dependence is one of the characteristics of underdevelopment. (25)

‘At the social and cultural level, there are many features which aid in keeping underdeveloped countries integrated into the capitalist system…’ (26) the church, language, music, the political system at first overtly through colonial rule and then through puppet governments

And perhaps the most important point in thinking about ‘underdeveloped’ countries today, across Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean:

Political instability is manifesting itself in Africa as a chronic symptom of the underdevelopment of political life within the imperialist context…If economic power is centred outside of national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centred outside… (27)

That seems so simple, yet most people working in development now fail to get it.

So, the nitty gritty of how this development on one side based upon the underdevelopment of the other worked — slavery almost makes it seem too obvious yet it is still so much ignored.

3: Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development — the Pre-Colonial Period & 4: Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment — to 1885

The developed and underdeveloped parts of the present capitalist section of the world have been in continuous contact four and a half centuries. The contention here is that over that period Africa helped to develop Western Europe in the same proportion as Western Europe helped to underdevelop Africa. (75)

To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule is virtually to discuss slave trade. Strictly speaking, the African only became a slave when he reached a society where he worked as a slave. Before that, he was first a free man and then a captive. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to talk about the trade in slaves to refer to the shipment of captives from Africa to various other parts of the world where they were to live and work as the property of Europeans. The title of this section is deliberately chosen to call attention to the fact that the shipments were all by Europeans to markets controlled by Europeans, and this was in the interest of European capitalism and nothing else. (95)

The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women (96) … African economic activity was affected both directly and indirectly by population loss. For instance, when the inhabitants of a given area were reduced below a certain number in an environment where tsetse fly was present, the remaining few had to abandon the area. In effect, enslavement was causing these people to lose their battle to tame and harness nature — a battle which is at the basis of development. (98)

The changeover to warlike activities and kidnapping must have affected all branches of economic activity, and agriculture in particular (99) … Therefore, there was what can be called ‘technological arrest’ or stagnation, and in some instances actual regression, since people forgot even the simple technique of their forefathers. … What Africa experienced in the early centuries of trade was precisely a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance. (105)

Interesting note about land — and how it was never a commodity.

At no stage in the independent history of these interlacustrine states did land become purely a personal possession, to be monopolised by a given class, as in the classic European feudal model. Scholars frequently demand this feature before they concede that feudalism has arrived; (123)

What contact with Europe really meant for Africa:

It is clearly ridiculous to assert that contacts with Europe built or benefited Africa in the pre-colonial period. Nor does it represent reality to suggest (as President Leopold Senghor once did) that the slave trade swept Africa like a bush fire, leaving nothing standing. The truth is that a developing Africa went into slave trading and European commercial relations as into a gale-force wind, which shipwrecked a few societies, set many others off course, and generally slowed down the rate of advance. (135)

On the connections between capitalism and imperialism

To elucidate the main thesis of this study, it is necessary to follow not only the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa, but also to understand how those two combined in a single system — that of capitalist imperialism. (135)

The growing technological and economic gap between Western Europe and Africa was part of the trend within capitalism to concentrate or polarise wealth and poverty at two opposite extremes.

European monopoly firms operated by constantly fighting gain control over raw materials, markets and means of communications. They also fought to be the first to invest in new profitable undertakings related to their line of business — whether it be inside or outside their countries. Indeed, after the scope for expansion became limited inside of their national economies, their main attention was turned to those countries whose economies were less developed and who would therefore offer little or no opposition to the penetration of foreign capitalism. That penetration of foreign capitalism on a world-wide scale from the late 19th century onwards is what we call ‘imperialism’.

Imperialism meant capitalist expansion. It meant that European (and North American and Japanese) capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material supplies, to find markets, and to find profitable fields of investment. The centuries of trade with Africa contributed greatly to that state of affairs where European capitalists were faced with the necessity to expand in a big way outside of their national economies. (136)

The development of arms and military technologies that allowed the complete conquest of the continent from the very resources of the continent itself:

Pre-colonial trade in slaves, ivory, gold, etc., was conducted from the coasts of Africa. On the coasts, European ships could dominate the scene, and if necessary forts could be built. Before the 19th century, Europe was incapable of penetrating the African continent, because the balance of force c their disposal was inadequate. But the same technological changes which created the need to penetrate Africa also created the power to conquer Africa. The firearms of the imperialist epoch marked a qualitative leap forward. (137)

5: Africa’s Contribution to the Capitalist Development of Europe — the Colonial Period

There was a great expatriation of African surplus under colonialism. This was partly through European trading companies, but

Channels for the exploitation of surplus were not exhausted by the trading companies and the industrial concerns. The shipping companies constituted an exploitative channel that cannot be overlooked. The largest shipping companies were those under the flags of the colonising nations, especially the British. The shippers were virtually a law unto themselves, (161)

In the background of the colonial scene hovered the banks, insurance companies, maritime underwriters and other financial houses. One can say ‘in the background’ because the peasant never dealt directly with such institutions, and was generally ignorant of their exploiting functions (162)

The seizure of land also created a labour force — Walter Rodney doesn’t make the connection to its similarities to the pillaging of the commons back in England as explored by Linebaugh and Rediker, but I couldn’t get away from it.

When colonial governments seized African lands, they achieved two things simultaneously. They satisfied their own citizens (who wanted mining concessions or farming land) and they created the conditions whereby landless Africans had to work not just to pay taxes but also to survive.(165)

And then there was always force.

Finally, when all else failed, colonial powers resorted widely to the physical coercion of labour – backed up of course by legal sanctions, since anything which the colonial government chose to do was ‘legal’. The laws and by-laws which peasants in British East Africa were required to maintain minimum acreages of cash-crops like cotton and groundnuts were in effect forms of coercion by the colonial state, although they are not normally considered under the heading of ‘forced labour’.

The simplest form of forced labour was that which colonial governments exacted to carry out ‘public works’. Labour for a given number of days per year had to be given free for these ‘public works’ – building castles for governors, prisons for Africans, barracks for troops, and bungalows for colonial officials. A great deal of this forced labour went into the construction of roads, railways and ports to provide the infrastructure for private capitalist investment and to facilitate the export of cash-crops. Taking only one example from the British colony of Sierra Leone, one finds that the railway which started at the end of the 19th century required forced labour from thousands of peasants driven from the villages. (166)

Fucking hell you say.

I bet it was hell.

It wasn’t just about money though, it was about technology and innovation. Seems like academics are still ‘discovering’ this, yet here’s Rodney laying it all out there decades ago.

But, Africa’s contribution to European capitalism was far greater than mere monetary returns. The colonial system permitted the rapid development of technology and skills within the metropolitan sectors of imperialism. It also allowed for the elaboration of the modern organisational techniques of the capitalist firm and of imperialism as a whole. Indeed, colonialism gave capitalism an added lease of life and prolonged its existence in Western Europe, which had been the cradle of capitalism. (173)

Then, of course, the US began expanding its influence, particularly after WWII while Europe lay in ruins. Another key point of Rodney’s is that imperialism does not require the same relationship as colonialism:

Colonialism was based on alien political rule and was restricted to some parts of the world. Imperialism, however, underlay all colonies, extended all over the world (except where replaced by Socialist revolutions), and it allowed the participation of all capitalist nations. Therefore, lack of colonies on the part of any capitalist nation was not a barrier to enjoying the fruits of exploiting the colonial and semi-colonial world, which was the backyard of metropolitan capitalism. (189)

More ways that colonialism was vital to the survival of capitalism, and more of what the colonial relationship actually stripped from Africa to give to Europe:

Over the last few decades of colonialism, colonial possessions served capitalism as a safety-valve in time of crisis. The first major occasion when this was displayed was during the great economic depression of 1929-34. During that period, forced labour was increased in Africa and the prices paid to Africans for their crops were reduced. Workers were paid less and imported goods cost a great deal more. That was a time when workers in the metropolitan countries also suffered terribly; but the colonialists did the best they could to transfer the burdens of the depression away from Europe and on to the colonies. (195)

The second major occasion on which the colonies had to bail out the metropoles was during the last World War. As noted earlier, the African people were required to make huge sacrifices and to supply vital raw materials at little cost to the metropoles. (195-196)

6: Colonialism as a System for Underdeveloping Africa

I love how he devastates that whole ‘pro and con’ argument over colonialism that I have heard so many damn times…and I am still meeting people who think there are more pros:

However, they would then urge that another issue to be resolved is how much Europeans did for Africans, and that it is necessary to draw up a ‘balance sheet of colonialism’. On that balance sheet, they place both the ‘credits’ and the ‘debits’, and quite often conclude that the good outweighed the bad…It is our contention that this is completely false. Colonialism had only one hand — it was a one-armed bandit. (205)

I have only copied the arguments here, not the many proofs offered by Rodney in the text. I’ll just give one as illustration, as if a long hard look at Africa over the past 60 years weren’t enough:

At the end of 500 years of shouldering the white man’s burden of civilising ‘African natives’, the Portuguese had not managed to train a single African doctor in Mozambique, and the life expectancy in Eastern Angola was less than 30 years. (206)

There is so much more here on slavery, direct exploitation and forced labour, killing, rape, poverty, malnutrition, limited education through church (and mostly for manual labour), trains that led from industrial and natural resources to ports and nowhere else, shanty towns, absence of hospitals, the stripping of natural resources and the witholding of technology and expertise…

Part 2 will look more at the arguments around all of this and the development of racism, its connections to fascism and how both articulate with capitalism.

I had some critique, and it is less of Rodney and more of Marxist theory at the time he was writing —  particularly Marxist arguments on the evolution of societies, and the trajectory through feudalism to capitalism and on to socialism. Walter Rodney’s work is much more nuanced on this than many, because he is fucking smart and it is starting where people are, respecting their differences. I read it now in view of climate change and in face of a reality that our ‘advanced’ civilization is actually on the brink of destroying itself, and see there is quite a lot in here about the wealth of knowledge in African cultures about other ways of life that he notes, but still places broadly within this ‘improving’ trajectory. Just one example:

There was no single dam or aqueduct comparable to those in Asia or ancient Rome, but countless small streams were diverted and made to flow around hills, in a manner that indicated an awareness of the scientific principles governing the motion of water. In effect, the people of Zimbabwe had produced ‘hidrologists’, through their understanding of the material environment. (66)

These are things we should be learning from. But of course, for Rodney I think, damns and factories and mining and its technologies were still marks of progress. Left unexamined by him (but noted) is the terrible environmental costs of European extractions. Their cost born by the poorest people in the poorest countries, the wealth in exporting metals and precious stones as well as all the technology and development they enabled going to Europeans:

The mining that went on in Africa left holes in the ground, and the pattern of agricultural production left African soils impoverished; but, in Europe, agricultural and mineral imports built a massive industrial complex.(180)

John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

Tropikos-John-Akomfrah-Smoking-Dogs-Films-Courtesy-Lisson-Gallery1
Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

john_akomfrah-vertigo-sea_2015_still_c_smoking-dogs-films_courtesy-lisson-gallery_3_0
John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

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The Geographical Fantasy of Donogoo-Tonka (1920)

6184154Donogoo-Tonka — a city in deepest South America, entirely made up by a French geographer (M. Trouhadec). The most unbelievable aspect of this story? That he is disgraced for such a thing.  The main character — a vaguely depressed and almost suicidal young man named Lamendin. Serendipity casts him in the path of a friend who refers him to the Institute of Biometric Psychotherapy. He is hooked up to wires and alchemical mechanical things, and then this:

I prescribe:

To be present this very day at Buci Intersection at 5:15 p.m. To watch attentively, from that moment on, the hackney-coaches that shall enter into the crossroads, coming from the Rue Mazarine.

To count sixteen occupied carriages (the empty ones remaining uncounted).

When the seventeenth appear, to rush to it; to seat yourself in it by any means; but as much as possible with courtesy and without violence.

To express to the occupant, or to the principal occupant, that his protests are useless, that he will be accompanied in spite of himself…

…to indicate to him that you put yourself without reservation into his hands… (4)

Lamendin follows his instructions, and thus begins the quest to make Donogoo-Tonka a reality, rescuing the reputation of the geographer whose carriage he has entered. Thus begins one of the most enjoyable and unique things I’ve read in ages, written as a ‘cinematographic tale’, describing the action scene by scene (or even sometimes simultaneously screened) with intertitles — strange and often not very intertitly intertitles — in boxes strung through text and descriptions of images that move from the fantastical to the surreal and back again.

Lamendin realises his prescription means he is to work to convince the world that Donogoo-Tonka exists so Trouhadec can enter his learned society, and so creates a film, distributes propaganda. There are illustrations of this imagined city (and best of all, at the back of the book, more illustrations from other versions!). From my version: Donogoo Tonka

From other versions:

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Word gets around to adventurers in ports and border towns around the world, and then look! Word arrives in London’s East End:

In London:

One of the smokiest pubs on Commercial Road, two steps from Stepney Station. Around a rectangular table, a dozen men, very diverse in appearance, shout, argue. On the table, with a bit of charcoal, they trace plans, maps, itineraries. They compute on their fingers and start complicated calculations again. (33)

What I love is that this is my own station, now the Limehouse DLR station but it was indeed once Stepney East station on Commercial Road.

Anyway, that’s a complete aside.

In partnership with a banker, Lamendin makes presentations, spreads rumours, starts a company, sells shares. The city must then be founded. Lamendin sails off, arrives with pioneers to find it already founded, by some of these adventurers pulled from these smokey bars who have sought after the imaginary. Gold was promised, and gold has been discovered.

Lamendin rides down the Avenue de la Cordillere in the brand-new Donogoo-Tonka the day after his arrival. And here is what he believes is needed for the founding of a new city, urban planners take note:

He makes frequent stops. He questions the notables. “Whose shop is this?” He turns toward two of the pioneers in the first row, architects from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. “The alignment will need to be restored. We should take advantage of it to construct a sidewalk. Too close, all of this. We’re suffocating.”

The cortege arrives at the former prairie. It is definitely here that it is appropriate to erect the General Company building; all the offices, all the services. Plenty of land remains available. They will lay out a stately square, bordered by buildings. Three new avenues will be opened up. (65)

We arrive at the Sixth Part, serving as an epilogue — describing the building of the squares and palace, the arrival of women, a bar fight. Then there is this:

Donogoo-Tonka Corporation for Instantaneous Structures (73)

Which contains a description of ridiculous automated building. Amazing. And then?  The Decrees:

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The virtues of geography to be among the most discussed subjects. My little geographer heart swooned away. That’s not even mentioning the evocation of the national cult of Scientific Error. They build temples and everything.

This is the best of this wonderful little book.

The worst is so bad because it’s both expected and awful and boring and you just don’t want it here. You want him to be better, you want him to mock colonialism along with geography and science. Yet we turn to the residential palace, where Lamendin has brought all his old cronies from Paris:

Lamendin and his friends have cool drinks. They smoke. They speak little…

Two black women do the serving. An Indian attends in particular to the lighting of the cigars and pipes, and sees that they draw regularly.

The Pioneers, since they tend to be noisy, have been crammed into a lower room with forty bottles. (79)

I think there is one other mention of all the many people who actually already inhabit South America. They are never heard and rarely seen, and then only when serving whites. Infuriating.

He was just a man of his time, you may argue. He couldn’t escape the racism of his colonial setting. That’s as may be, but then there is this, from the admirable afterward (how do I love introductions that come at the end of the book? Let me count the ways…) by Joan Ockman.

Not surprisingly, Romains’s dalliance with themes of charismatic leadership and ritual violence led some readers to associate Unanimism with fascism. (124)

And he did indeed flirt quite a lot with fascism, until he had to flee France with his Jewish wife in 1940. But before he did that, he wrote L’Homme Blanc in 1937. Epic verse to the Aryans — “the white Man, the first Man, the beautiful race.”

That tidbit of his personal history is saved for the end, however. After the interesting stuff on his theories about the urban. So I wasn’t quite sure if I should just light a match under my notes on Romains’ ideas of unanimism. I still can’t pronounce it, which makes it impossible to talk about out loud. Probably why I had never heard of it. The unitary urbanism of the situationists is much better on that level, undoubtedly indebted in some ways to unanimism but probably like me, unable to pronounce the debt.

It’s interesting, this narrow line between belief in the collective as opposed to the capitalistic individual, fascism and white supremacy. Mostly because I don’t understand how that line exists much less why it should be so narrow, but so it is. It forces me to re-examine some of my faith in the collective, which after reading and thus remembering these connections, I know is a good thing. So to look at Unanimist Urbanism, we return to Joan Ockman on Romains:

…the jostling scene of pedestrians, automobiles, buses, shop windows, and buildings suddenly revealed itself to him as evidence of an immanent, all-encompassing collective reality. This intuition, which amounted to a full-fledged conversion or religious experience in the sense of William James, caused the young poet to revolt against nineteenth-century habits of thought centered on the individual, and eventuated in his conception of the quasi-mystical materialism of the unanime as the vital principle of modern life. (104)

Donogoo-Tonka is all about a semi-mystical serendipity, a coming together of many different people for their many different reasons to build a successful city and create lives of leisure for the lucky.

He writes in Power of Paris’, which I think I will look for:

Space belongs to no one. And no being has succeeded in appropriating a morsel of space to saturate it with [his own] unique existence. All intercrosses, coincides, cohabits. Each point serves as perch to a thousand birds. There is Paris, there is the Rue Montmartre, there is an assembling, there is a man, there is a cellule on the very pavement. A thousand beings are concentric. One sees a little of some of them… (106)

This is from a translation by Ezra Pound from 1913 in The New Age. Ezra Fucking Pound. Ezra Pound, of course, didn’t even walk the line, he crossed the whole way over, moved to Italy in 1924 and supported Mussolini, Mosely and Hitler for a few decades. But back to this interesting piece that continues:

[G]roups! They are not precisely born. Their life makes and unmakes itself, as an unstable state of matter, a condensation which does not endure. They show us that life is, at the origin, a provisory attitude, a moment of exception, an intensity between abatements, nothing continuous, nothing decisive. The first togethers take life by a sort of slow success, then they extinguish themselves with catastrophe, no element perishing in the breaking of the whole. The crowd before the foreign barracks comes to life little by little as water in a kettles that sings and evaporates. (106)

The connection to fascism comes here, in the elements required to condense a group. As Ockman writes:

Within the unanimist schema it is the animateur who embodies this problem…Endowed with the task of awakening the crowd from its state of somnolence to self-consciousness, and often an authorial surrogate.

Romains wrote another novella, ‘The Town Regenerated’ in 1906, so you can see he first took aim at the dreams of urban planners before moving on to geographers. It begins with the arrival of a stranger and his piece of graffiti on the municipal urinal:

‘Those who posses live at the expense of those who work; whoever does not produce the equivalent of what he consumes is a social parasite’

Not much to complain of there. This sets off discussions, debates, interpretations, and results in complete transformation of the town:

Within a year the populace has become an extroverted collectivity, and the nameless town transformed into a humming industrial center whose factory chimneys belch “black dreams.” (107)

A sad dream perhaps. Both in some ways remind me that a key aspect of fascism is about belonging to something greater than yourself, of being important and finding meaning because of this belonging. A belonging defined through hatred and oppression of the other.

So altogether Romains represents a sad pairing of geographic imagination and love of the collective and playfulness and white supremacy and fascism. There is more to tease out there, but so much has been written about fascism that I don’t know about, I feel sure someone has already done it.

Not that I won’t look into it more.

But for now I will end with a celebration of the awesomeness of the physical object of this book from the FORuM Project, and the pages near the end with covers and illustrations from designers who loved it:

Donogoo-Tonka

Donogoo-Tonka Donogoo-Tonka

Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth

Fanon - The Wretched of the EarthThe Wretched of the Earth (1961) had such a huge impact on me when I first read it. It was a pleasure to come back to it, and get more far more from it this time around after more years of experience, and also reading Black Skin, White Masks and much more about colonialism and struggle. I had forgotten quite what an anguished call for revolution and redemption it is, and can see why looking back I loved it so much. I was in need of those things myself, though my own need barely deserves to sit within the same paragraph as all that Fanon theorises.

For those not already favourable to Fanon’s works, I think the key point is this:

The masses battle with the same poverty, wrestle with the same age-old gestures, and delineate what we could call the geography of hunger with their shrunken bellies. A world of underdevelopment, a world of poverty and inhumanity. But also a world without doctors, without engineers, without administrators. Facing this world, the European nations wallow in the most ostentatious opulence. The European opulence is literally a scandal for it was built on the backs of slaves, it fed on the blood of slaves, and it owes its very existence to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world. Europe’s well-being and progress were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Asians. This we are determined never to forget. (53)

This is what is always forgotten. The second thing is this:

Antiracist racism and the determination to defend one’s skin, which is characteristic of the colonized’s response to colonial oppression, clearly represent sufficient reasons to join the struggle.  But one does not sustain a war, one does not endure massive repression or witness the disappearance of one’s entire family in order for hatred or racism to triumph. Racism, hatred, resentment, and “the legitimate desire for revenge” alone cannot nurture a war of liberation.

…hatred is not an agenda…. (89)

The violence described by Fanon as part of the struggle for liberation is not fueled by hatred, it is necessary to break the psychological controls over one’s own mind, to claim a different worldview, set of values and above all a different way of life and a different future than that being imposed through the deeper violence of colonialism. This is why he writes:

National liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people or Commonwealth, whatever the name used…decolonization is always a violent event.

…proof of success lies in a social fabric that is has been changed inside out. This change is extraordinarily important because it is desired, clamored for, and demanded. The need for this changes exists in a raw, repressed, and reckless state in the lives and consciousness of colonized men and women. But the eventuality of such a change is also experienced as a terrifying future in the consciousness of another “species” of men and women: the colons, the colonists. (1)

Violent because it involves people standing up to reclaim what has been stolen violently from them and change everything, turn everything upside down — and that change, that reclaiming is fought tooth and tail with an immensity of fear by those who stole it.

On Violence:

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder…it can only be understood, it can only find its significance and become self coherent insofar as we can discern the history-making movement which gives it form and substance. Decolonization is the encounter between two congenitally antagonistic forces that in fact owe their singularity to the kind of reification secreted and nurtured by the colonial situation. (2)

The distance between the violence of capitalist and colonial regimes

In capitalist countries a multitude of sermonizers, counselors, and “confusion-mongers” intervene between the exploited and the authorities. In colonial regions, however, the proximity and frequent direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny, and contained by rifle butts and napalm. We have seen how the government’s agent uses a language of pure violence . The agent does not alleviate repression or mask domination. He displays and demonstrates them with the clear conscience of the law enforcer, and brings violence into the homes and minds of the colonized subject.  (4)

— though arguably in the US at least, people of colour know more of the second than the first. The results:

So the colonized subject wastes no time lamenting and almost never searches for justice in the colonial context. (43)

During the struggle for liberation their is a singular loss of interest in these rituals. With his back to the wall, the knife at his throat, or to be more exact the electrode on his genitals, the colonized subject is bound to stop telling stories. (20)

Violence become creative appropriation, a declaration that another way is possible after the old ways of enslavement and exploitation are smashed:

The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world, which tirelessly punctuated the destruction of the indigenous social fabric, and demolished unchecked the systems of reference of the country’s economy, lifestyles, and modes of dress, this same violence will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history in their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities. To blow the colonized world to smithereens is henceforth a clear image within the grasp and imagination of every colonized subject.

**

Challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonized that their world is fundamentally different. (6)

Resisting the violence of white supremacy and denigration of all others:

Now it so happens that when the colonized hear a speech on Western culture they draw their machetes or at least check to see if they are close to hand. The supremacy of white values is stated with such violence, the victorious confirmation of these values with then lifestyle and beliefs of the colonized is so impregnated with aggressiveness, that as a counter measure the colonized rightly makes a mockery of them whenever they are mentioned. (8)

Race and Marxism:

A topic very close to my heart

In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue. It is not just the concept of the precapitalist society, so effectively studied by Marx, which needs to be reexamined here…It is not the factories, the estates, or the bank account which primarily characterize the “ruling-class.” The ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, “the others.” (5)

Race used justify conquest and then exploitation, not just to maintain, but to increase those inequalities in service to an oppression of many races by white Europeans in ways that stretch to an older past:

As if to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil. (6)

It’s “them or us” is not a paradox since colonialism, as we have seen, is precisely the organization of a Manichean world, of a compartmentalized world. (43)

how these new colonial and capitalist relations have shifted over time:

Capitalism, in its expansionist phase, regarded the colonies as a source of raw materials which once processed could be unloaded on the European market. After a phase of capital accumulation, capitalism has now modified its notion of profitability. The colonies have become a market. … A blind domination on the model of slavery is not economically profitable for the metropolis. The monopolistic fraction of the metropolitan bourgeoisie will not support a government whose policy is based solely on the power of arms. (27)

Another interesting aside on the nature of work and slavery:

They very quickly realized that work is not a simple notion, that slavery is the opposite of work, and that work presupposes freedom, responsibility, and consciousness. (133)

Tactics:

You do not disorganize a society, however primitive it may be, with such an agenda if you are not determined from the very start to smash every obstacle encountered. (3)

For us who are determined to break the back of colonialism, our historic mission is to authorize every revolt, every desperate act, and every attack aborted or drowned in blood. (146)

You must be ready to go all the way (and much as I value this work, much of this rhetoric does strike me as a very masculine position — there is little here on how to build and create though the need is acknowledged.). How much there is that can only be learned through struggle — and the necessity of struggle for learning it:

The colonized intellectual learned from his masters that the individual must assert himself. The  colonialist bourgeoisie hammered into the colonized mind the notion of a society of individuals where each is locked in his subjectivity…Involvement in the organization of the struggle will already introduce him to a different vocabulary. “Brother,” “sister,” “comrade” are words outlawed by the colonialist bourgeoisie because in their thinking my brother is my wallet and my comrade, my scheming. In a kind of auto-da-fe, the colonized intellectual witnesses the destruction of all his idols: egoism, arrogant recrimination, and the idiotic, childish need to have the last word. this colonized intellectual, pulverized by colonialist culture, will also discover the strength of the village assemblies, the power of the people’s commissions…(11)

How much intellectuals have to learn…

For a colonized people, the most essential value, because it is the most meaningful, is first and foremost the land: the land which must provide bread and, naturally, dignity. (9)

The people, on the the other hand, take a global stance from the very start. “Bread and land: how do we go about getting bread and land?” And this stubborn, apparently limited, narrow-minded aspect of the people is finally the most rewarding and effective working model. (14)

He writes again:

One of the greatest services the Algerian revolution has rendered to Algerian intellectuals was to put them in touch with the masses, to allow them to see the extreme, unspeakable poverty of the people and at the same time witness the awakening of their intelligence and the development of their consciousness. (130)

The people themselves also have much to learn alongside intellectuals, for both

But political education means opening up the mind, awakening the mind, and introducing it to the world. It is as Cesaire said: “To invent the souls of men.” (138)

There is much in here that echoes Cesaire. Education and struggle are necessary because colonization works actively to deform the colonized so as to better control them, and these deformations deepen as the colonized do what they must to survive. A few examples of how insidious colonialism is and how it shapes everyday behaviours:

The question of truth must also be taken into consideration. For the people, only fellow nationals are ever owed the truth. No absolute truth, no discourse on the transparency of the soul can erode this position. In answer to the lie of the colonial situation, the colonized subject responds with a lie. (14)

The first thing the colonial subject learns is to remain in his place and not overstep its limits (15)

So one of the ways the colonized subject releases his muscular tension is through the very real collective self-destruction of these internecine feuds. Such behavior represents a death wish in the face of danger, a suicidal conduct which reinforces the colonist’s experience and domination and reassures him that such men are not rational. (17-18)

The treatment of the colonized is to brutalize, oppress into silence, and to push into the natural world so that for the colonizers they are not a troubling presence:

Under the French occupation the Germans remained human beings. In Algeria there is not simply domination but the decision, literally, to occupy nothing else but a territory. The Algerians, the women dressed in haiks, the palm groves, and the camels form a landscape, the natural backdrop for the French presence. (182)

Yet for the colonized?

We believe that in the cases presented here the triggering factor is principally the bloody, pitiless, atmosphere, the generalization of inhuman practices, of people’s lasting impression that they are witnessing a veritable apocalypse. (183)

For colonialism has not simply depersonalized the colonized. The very structure of society has been depersonalized on a collective level. (219)

Key for Fanon is violence as a tactic of self-liberation — it is part of a necessary process to become truly free of the colonial relationship — a physical struggle but more importantly a psychological one:

only the armed struggle can effectively exorcise these lies about man that subordinate and literally mutilate the more conscious minded among us (220)

The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence. (44)

At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence. Even if the armed struggle has been symbolic, and even if they have been demobilized by rapid decolonization, the people have time to realize that liberation was the achievement of each and every one and no special merit should go to the leader. Violence hoists people up to the level of the leader. (51)

For Fanon, the party (as opposed to the government) was the organising force of the struggle, he writes:

A country which really want to answer to history, which wants to develop its towns and the minds of its inhabitants, must possess a genuine party. The party is not an instrument in the hands of the government. Very much to the contrary, the party is an instrument in the hands of the people. It is the party which decides on the policy enacted by the government. (127)

The role of the intellectual:

In Algeria especially, Horne’s A Savage Peace, and to a lesser extent Feraoun’s journals and Djebar’s writings, show just how implicated French intellectuals were in the occupation of the country, particularly sociologists.

Experts and sociologists are a guiding force behind these colonialist maneuvers and conduct numerous studies on the subject of complexes…attempts are made to disarm him [the colonized subject] psychologically and, naturally, with a few coins. (90)

To counter this, another kind of intellectual is needed, another task required, though for Fanon this is always dialectical, never one way. Struggle and the will of the people fighting for liberation and the ideology of the movement are at all times educating and shaping each other:

The task of bringing the people to maturity is facilitated by rigorous organization as well as the ideological level of their leaders. The power of ideology is elaborated and strengthened as the struggle unfolds, taking into account the enemy’s maneuvers and the movement’s victories and setbacks…The insurrection proves to itself its rationality and demonstrates its maturity every time it uses a specific case to advance the consciousness of the people. (95)

Totally irresponsible yesterday, today they are bent on understanding everything and determining everything. Enlightened by violence, the people’s consciousness rebels against any pacification. (52)

These intellectuals work together with the party, to critique it and ensure it is remaining true to the struggle and to the people:

some of the intellectual elements who have made a thorough analysis of the colonial reality and the international situation, begin to criticize the ideological vacuum of the national party and its dearth of strategy and tactics. They never tire of asking the leaders the crucial questions “What is nationalism? What does it mean to you? What does the term signify? What is the point of independence? And first how do you intend to achieve it?” while at the same time demanding that methodological issued be vigorously addressed (77)

An interesting note on language and relationship to movement — perennially under discussion

Resorting to technical language means you are determined to treat the masses as uninitiated. Such language is a poor front for the lecturer’s intent to deceive the people and leave them on the sidelines. Language’s endeavor to confuse is a mask behind which looms an even greater undertaking to dispossess. The intention is to strip the people of their possessions as well as their sovereignty. You can explain anything to the people provided you really want them to understand. And if you think they can be dispensed with, that on the contrary they would be more of a nuisance to the smooth running of the many private and limited companies whose aim is to push them further into misery, than there is no more to be said. (131)

An awareness of the larger political context is also required, just as the anti-fascist fight and the US desire to become a leader of the free world after WWII played a key role in ensuring African American organising and struggle had levarage, so the context of this period must be taken into account:

Although the citadel is invincible against knives and bare hands, its invincibility crumbles when we take into account the context of the cold war. (38)

And for the future?

Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity. (145)

On Culture:

Because it is a systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity, colonialism forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: “Who am I in reality?” (182)

Culture provides an answer.

National culture is no folklore where an abstract populism is convinced it has uncovered the popular truth. It is not some congealed mass of noble gestures, in other words less and less connected with the reality fo the people. National culture is the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remained strong. National culture in the underdeveloped countries, therefore, must lie at the very heart of the liberation struggle… (168)

We believe the conscious, organized struggle undertaken by a colonized people in order to restore national sovereignty constitutes the greatest cultural manifestation that exists… After the struggle is over, there is not only the demise of colonialism, but also the demise of the colonized.

This new humanity, for itself and for other, inevitably defines a new humanism. (178)

Conclusions

And I shall let Fanon’s conclusions speak for themselves, they are splendid. I have such trouble, myself, writing conclusions. This is why I should try harder.

Now, comrades, now is the time to decide to change sides. We must shake off the mantle of night which has enveloped us, and reach for the light. The new day which is dawning must find us determined, enlightened and resolute.

We must abandon our dreams and say farewell to our old beliefs and former friendships. Let s not lose time in useless laments or sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world. (235)

When I look for man in European lifestyles and technology I see a constant denial of man, an avalanche of murders.

**

Let us decide not to imitate Europe and let us tense our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us endeavour to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.

Two centuries ago, a former European colony took it into its head to catch up with Europe. It has been so successful that the United States of American has become a monster where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions. (236-237)

yes, the European spirit is built on strange foundations…A permanent dialogue with itself, an increasingly obnoxious narcissism inevitably paved the way for a virtual delirium where intellectual thought turns into agony since the reality fo man as a living, working, self-made being is replaced by words, an assemblage of words and the tensions generated by their meanings. (237)

Last sentence:

For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavour to create a new man. (239)

For more on race, struggle, violence and empire…

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Algerian White

Djebar_AlgerianWhite_HC_largeThis was beautiful.

A meditation on death and loss, lives taken in the struggle for freedom against the colonial power, against fundamentalism. A meditation on writing and all of its risks, language and all of its meanings, Algeria and all of its tragic complications.

Love and loss, hope and despair.

A travel through memories, like this one:

I took off for Kader’s Oran, the city and its deepest depths, which he had sketched out for me… we drove around the town, splattered with cries and laughter, full of youths (oh, the youths of Oran, everywhere, leaning against a wall, on the vertical, in the sun, at every street corner, watching, laughing, cautious!), our tour was gradually fed by Kader’s memories. (21)

A town to be loved. I had only just finished The Plague, also set in Oran. Albert Camus writes, with the eyes of a European that must always be comparing the rest of the world to an ideal of home:

The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centres in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves — a thoroughly negative place in short? … Our citizens work hard, but solely with the objective of getting rich. (1-2)

There are no Arabs in the Oran found in these pages, though Camus does write of walking through the Negro district (and what does that word mean to him exactly?), ‘steep little streets flanked by blue, mauve and saffron-yellow walls… (79) He writes of the plague starting in the poorer and more crowded outskirts, but there are only Spaniards and Frenchmen.

This absence is possibly one of the largest presences in the literature I have read.

To Kader, returning to Oran, Djebar writes:

You must have often unveiled for others the naked, tumultuous and impulsive, raucous, mocking town. (22)

This town and the town of the Plague — two Orans, two visions of what a city could and should be.

Camus is in Algerian White as author. His lack of understanding of the complexities. His effort to make peace. His early death in a car accident. She later writes:

Camus, an old man: it seems almost as unimaginable as the metaphor of Algeria itself, as a wise adult, calm at last, at last turned toward life, ordinary life… (103)

I think it true that ordinary life escaped him, you see it in his words.

But he is really the least among this pantheon of writers, too many of whom I still know almost nothing, despite all my recent reading.

But first we return to the theme of dust:

Three Algerian days.

White with dust. The dust you didn’t notice, on any of these three days, but which seeped its way in, unseen and fine, into all those who came together for your departure.

A dust slowly forming, which gradually makes that day grow fainter, further away, a whiteness which insidiously effaces, distances, and makes each hour almost unreal, and the explosion of a word, the gasp of an ill-repressed sob, the bursting spray of chants and litanies from the crowd, all of the excessive on the day itself, from then on paled, worn hollow to the point of evanescence.

So, white days of that dust in which tens of witnesses, friends, those around you, who went with you to the graveside, they the followers, thereafter caught up; clothed in it stiffly and awkwardly, unknowingly. Dust of oblivion which cauteriuzes, weakens, softens, and …. Dust.

Three days white with that dust and that mortal fog. (51)

I cried for the death of Mouloud Feraoun, his words still live with me, I almost feel as though I know him. Feraoun, one of six murdered together in two sets of three, machine gunned down, with 109 9 mm cartridge cases found. The son of another there, Jean-Phillipe Ould Aloudia, spent thirty years investigating, identified the assassins granted amnesty by the French State.

Nothing could be done to them.

There is Djebar’s chance meeting with Mouloud Mammeri in Algiers, 1988:

‘Before I saw you in the distance, I was walking with my head in the clouds.. How lovely this city is, iridescent like this! I can’t get enough of it: as if it were the first time! I never tire of the facades or the balconies of the houses, and especially not of the sky!… (139-140)

I learned about Emir Abdelkader, who fought the colonial invasion, whose bones have been fought over:

Abdelkader, if he has truly come back to this land where he was first a soldier, will be better able than I to make the list of those who write and who, like so many others, are persecuted, silenced, pushed to suicide, to suffocation, or–through the intermediary if desperate youth, transformed into paid killers–killed by a single blow. (225)

There are Franz and Josie Fanon, Jean-el and Taos Amrouche, Kateb Yacine, M’Hamed Boukhobza, Mahfoud Boucebci, Anna Greki, Abdelkader Alloula among many  others. And, like Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, a return to language, nationality, home…the tangle of words and the limits language and culture place on what can be expressed.

Algerian literature–we must begin it with Apuleus in the second century and continue to Kateb Yacine and Mouloud Mammeri, passing Augustine, the emir Abdelkader, and Camus–has continuously been inscribed in  a linguistic triangle.

–a language of rock and soil, the original one let’s say.  Libyco-Berber, which lost its alphabet momentarily except among the Tuareg:

Berber

–a second language, that of the prestigious exterior, of Mediterranean heritage–Eastern and Western–admittedly reserved for lettered minorities…

Arabic and then French

–the third partner in this triangle presents itself as the most exposed of the languages, the dominant one, the public one, the language of power: that of the harangues, but also the written one of the forensic scientists, the scribes and the notaries.(227-228)

This has been Latin, Classic Arabic, Turkish, French, again Arabic…

These are just a few quotes I liked, there is so much more here, particularly for someone who knows more of these writers and the recent history. I am setting out to learn…

Perhaps the best of all, though was this (a facebook update from July 28th, as I mix my social media)

Today on the tube I met a Maori who asked how I came to be reading Assia Djebar and I told him a quick summary of the long story about this article I can’t finish and he told me how in New Zealand his university classes on colonialism had featured a professor who studied violence in Algerian women’s fiction, and then we talked about Djebar and Feraoun and Fanon and Paris and damn but did it bring happiness to my day.

For more on the struggle in Algeria…


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The incandescence of Aimé Césaire

32649Aimé Césaire has written a most powerful thing, a most beautiful thing, my words can’t do it justice — they bow before the beauty of his words. Especially as it is not for me. It is a poem of struggle still not done, a battle against all that years of slavery, colonialism, exploitation and racism have piled on to the souls of all those who wear dark skin in ways that I can’t fully know. This is the celebration of negritude, and it is wondrous that it is shared with all.

It speaks to shared humanity, shared struggle to overcome fears and insecurities and all of those things thrust on us by the world because of who we are. It speaks to my own class anxieties, a love of where I am from coexisting often with the panic response of being dragged back there. A fear of poverty, a life narrowing in on itself, everyday violence.  But holding to the good of them all the same.

Then I turned toward paradises lost for him and his kin, calmer than the face of a woman telling lies, and there, rocked by the flux of a never exhausted thought I nourished the wind, I unlaced the monsters and heard rise, from the other side of disaster, a river of turtledoves and savanna clover which I carry forever in my depths height-deep as the twentieth floor of the most arrogant houses and as a guard against the putrefying force of crepuscular surroundings, surveyed night and day by a cursed venereal sun. (1)

But still I have benefited from this world in many ways:

Hear the white world
horribly weary from its immense efforts
its stiff joints crack under the hard stars
its blue steel rigidities pierce the mystic flesh
hear its deceptive victories tout its defeats
hear the grandiose alibis of its pitiful stumbling (36)

Surely we must look outside of a rapacious white civilisation guilty of so many crimes and steadily destroying the natural world and calling our survival into question when thinking how to rebuild a new and better world?

Eia for the royal Cailcedra!
Eia for those who never invented anything
for those who never explored anything
for those who never conquered anything
but yield, captivated, to the essence of things
ignorant of surfaces by captivated by the motion of all things
indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world (35)

A final note — I cannot resist the botanical language, his love of the plants and geology of Martinique and their weaving into his poetry. Nor this reference to my profession, this understanding that our geography — our trajectory across the world, sense of place, comfort in those places — is something lived, suffered, not simply theorised and drawn.

And my special geography too; the world map made for my own use, not tinted with the arbitrary colours of scholars, but with the geometry of my spilled blood, I accept. (43)

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