February 17, 2005

Misrecognitions and Mythologies

Like Amardeep Singh, I found recent reports about the mass visitation of Rastafarians to Ethiopia very interesting. It’s not the first time that the imagination of some in the African diaspora has come into collision with the historical reality of African societies.

There’s a deep history here, persistently characterized by what the literary scholar Ken Warren has called “misrecognitions”. The famous narrative of Olaudah Equiano, in which he claims to have be born an Igbo in what is now Nigeria (Vicent Carretta in 1999 suggested that Equiano may have in fact been born in North America) has a sequence that describes the genesis of these misrecognitions. Equiano goes from the specificity of his own community to a wider awareness of the multiplicity of the African societies around him to being a slave aboard a ship, where all that diversity and complexity were violently compressed into a new social identity. Africans did not cease remembering, knowing and practicing their cultures of origin in the middle passage, but in the iterations of their memory and the circulations of people and goods across the Atlantic, the historical evolution of specific African societies and the African diaspora were also disconnected from one another. The incorporation of “Yoruba” or “Igbo” or “Kongo” identities and practices into the African diaspora proceeded without immediate or direct reference to what “Yoruba” or “Igbo” or “Kongo” peoples were becoming within Africa itself.

By the 19th Century, and even more so the 20th, the African diaspora was completing the circuit back to Africa more often and with more and more autonomy. As travelers, pilgrims, investors, expatriates, missionaries, migrants and even colonizers, Africans in the diaspora came to African societies. Sometimes for a short while, sometimes for the whole of their lives. But Africa was rarely what they imagined it would be, and often, Africa disappointed. It disappointed because it was never home, and because Africans were largely disinterested in, bemused by or puzzled by the diasporic imagination of Africa.

This is still the case today. The Rastafarian gathering in Ethiopia was just one example out of many, where the vision of Africa held by some in the diaspora came into contact with the reality of a particular African society and its history, two ships passing awkwardly in the night. The veneration of a mythologized Haile Selassie by the Rastafarians bears very little resemblance to how Selassie is known and remembered by Ethiopians today.

This is a dynamic not especially unique to the African diaspora. Irish-Americans who travel to Ireland, even before the recent economic boom, do not find the Ireland that is known to them within American popular culture. Nor is this just a diasporic problem. Civil War re-enactors, for all the meticulousness of their attention to material history, can sometimes be remarkably disconnected from the cultural, social or intellectual realities of antebellum America. Virtually every popular understanding of history that you can think of tends to run aground on the reality of the past it imagines.

Historians have a generic and often rather dour professional antagonism to these kinds of disconnects, a primal urge to dispel such illusions. More signally, there is a fairly large body of scholarship that argues, with varying degrees of scholarly care and balance, that there are particular bundles of images, representations and constructions of societies and their histories that are essential to the maintenance of domination, oppression, racism and the like, and the wellspring of structured forms of identity that constrain or oppress the individuals who are saddled with such identities. To a very large extent, that argument derives from Edward Said’s Orientalism, the basic blueprint for such arguments.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues because next year I’m once again going to teach a course called “The Image of Africa”, about the intellectual and cultural history of how Africa has been represented by other societies, including by Africans in the diaspora. As I think on it, I realize how far I’ve moved in my own assumptions from Said’s blueprint. The first time I taught the class, it was largely an attempt to document an African version of “orientalism”, of the use of images of Africa in colonialism and racism. That first version of the course had a middle section on the diaspora, and it was there that I vested all the ambiguity of the course, all the sense of an openness or debatability about the questions the material raised.

Over time, some of the questions I raised in that section of the course started to escape into the wider context, both for my students and for myself. First, I began to really doubt Said’s understanding of the genesis of “orientalist” images: it was entirely a one-sided, top-down, highly instrumental process in his reading. Power knew what power needed, power commissioned the optimal set of representations that maximized and authorized its domination. Said himself began to back away from this later in Culture and Imperialism, and some of the most skilled and intelligent scholars who sought to expand Orientalism, like Timothy Mitchell, also complicated the model. But the core remained the same: orientalism bore no resemblance to the historical reality of the places it represented, and its content came entirely from “the West”.

Later, I began to wonder far more about the ways in which orientalist images and representations were understood to be straightforward contributors to racist or imperialist ideology. The functionalism of Said’s original analysis became more and more urgent, demanding, and simplistic. To some extent, critiques that followed in the model of Orientalism began to presume, with increasingly less and less explicit theorizing, that not only were such images incorporated into racism or colonialism but were explanatory or causal to it. Eventually, the scholarship decomposed into a narrative of activism and an off-the-shelf theory of cultural interpretation. At that point, the mirroring of the cultural right and cultural left matured. Though drawn to very different texts or images, both groups in the United States shared an understanding of culture as cipher or code, that almost-subliminal references to past tropes or images or stereotypes somehow transmitted the entire history of associated ideologies and systems to later generations, that even a subtle incorporation of historical misrecognition or misrepresentation contaminated the whole of culture.

One of the things that dramatized how troubled these assumptions were was the controversy over the aliens of “The Phantom Menace”. The last time I taught my class, I had the course culminate in a series of debates about contemporary controversies in popular culture and the media, and we tackled the discussion about racial stereotype in “Phantom” as part of that series. The obvious case of stereotype were the Trade Federation, who really did seem to me to be Charlie Chan reincarnations. But even in this case, where the referent was obvious, it was much harder to work towards an argument about the meaning or effect of that referent. How could younger audiences who had no idea who Charlie Chan was, and lived in a world where the associative stereotypes of Asians involved really have very little immediate or dramatic social force be negatively affected by the invocation of the stereotype in such a disguised form? You could make the argument about the embeddedness of historical memory that allows that message to be heard and incorporated into consciousness, but that’s a very hard and difficult argument, not an easy one. When you get to the character of Boss Nass, which some critics saw as a disguised “African chief” stereotype, the problem only got much harder. I could see a bit of that allusion there, but for my students, getting to the point where they could “see” the same thing required watching a bunch of old Tarzan episodes and similar works which they would otherwise never encounter. Once you can “see” it with that trained—not at all naïve or everyday—eye, you’re not home-free. The question remains: so what exactly does “seeing” Boss Nass as a chief do to those who see him? What’s so bad about it, really?

This is a question which, once asked, blazes across a very wide political and intellectual landscape. What’s wrong with Rastafarians believing in an Ethiopia and a Selassie that bears little resemblance to the reality of those places? What’s wrong with believing that Cape Coast Castle in Ghana was a major site from which slaves were shipped across the Atlantic, even though it was not? What’s wrong with any or all the myths we carry around about the past?

It seems to me that the answer that Said provides in Orientalism is no real answer at all, because it’s ultimately so incurious about the messy historical genesis of such images and so crude about its reading of their instrumental necessity. The answer of the positivist historian is no answer, either: that in all cases and circumstances, there is an absolutely equal and undifferentiated requirement to recall people to the historical truth that is misrecognized in their imaginings. That’s a dreary and rigid response to the richness of memory and imagination. But neither can we afford a beneficient embrace of all myths, all illusions, all fantasies of other places and other times. Some of them really are pernicious or malevolent, some of them really do contribute to the origins of disorder or injustice in the world.

I’ve come to think, however, that the test you have to apply to make that determination has to be several magnitudes more demanding and precise than it often presently is.

More modestly, sometimes such images or constructed pasts simply contribute to a communicative disconnect, to a failure of potential. You can’t help but wonder if maybe the Rastafarians would learn something important if they looked for the real Selassie—perhaps in fact they would renew their faith in the Selassie they imagine by recognizing just how imaginary he is, by unshackling him from a real man who walked the Earth. Maybe you can’t find Ethiopia until you know you’re looking for something that has yet to exist, something that you have to make from nothing, something you have yet to gain rather than something you have already had and lost. Perhaps this is also not so modest a point, but instead the real source of dangerous consequences. Perhaps we should worry less about garden-variety stereotypes sprinkled through popular culture like gaudy ornaments of some barely-recalled past, and worry more about the fervid dreamers, who see a whole and coherent picture in their imagination and set out to compel the world to align itself with their vision.