Re-thinking lots of things

 I dug through my boxes from freshman year to find my copy of the Heart of Darkness. Coffee-stained, highlighted and frayed, this book was one of the few I carried with me from home. Ironically I also unearthed Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ngugi von Thiogo’s, ‘Grain of Wheat’ wrapped in jeans I haven’t been able to fit into since freshman orientation. To see Achebe and Conrad, lying spine to spine, provided the inspiration I needed to finally begin to write…

Here’s the truth: I used to love Conrad’s book in high school because I didn’t really know any better. I could recite portions of it, not only because I had to – but because I loved the language: the rhetoric, the prose, this travel which seemed like an almost out-of-body experience. The Lolita-esquenarration framing served itself well – so that it seemed to be an ironic work of fiction, within a work of fiction, not the opinion of the writer himself. This is going to sound terribly inane, but racism never entered scholarly debate, discussions or even the public consciousness where I grew up – never as a term in any case. Post-colonialism, imperialism and plenty more such ism’s yes. Racism, never. Even when the connotations, implications and consequences of racism took up whole chapters in history books, films and novels, it just never entered conversations. SO in the light of our class discussions, and readings, I re-read parts of Conrad this past week. It’s funny to me how I needed the semantics of naming in order to put my reading of this text into perspective. Now that I know something can be racist, I see how easily it becomes racist. I know we didn’t necessarily identify as Conrad as racist or anything like that – I drew the associations however because of the readings and discussions we’ve had in class. Having grown up being told Conrad was the bees-knees, this re-reading was equivalent to the time I found out the tooth fairy was a fraud. Anyway, I took the liberty of trying to find more writing on the subject matter, and came across a lecture Achebe gave on the book [in UMass Amherst, actually]. The link to this article is here, and for the sake of not being too out of reference I’ll try not to let it pop up everywhere in this post. However, I rely on it heavily to make my points.

 

http://www.cis.vt.edu/modernworld/d/Achebe.html

 

The pages we got from the book for class: that excerpt is relatively mild. For someone who has not read the book, the references to the Thames etc, can be confusing. What place is Marlowe referring to?

The language of darkness within the text however brief is our indicator. There is a string of words that evoke an unknown, mysterious place. Put the words dark, unknown and mysterious together, and lo: we have constructed Conrad’s Africa [which isn’t as different from the representation of Africa today] And in Conrad’s book the Thames too was once dark the way the Congo is now – outside the periphery of civilized ideals. In the light of the discussions in class about Mayer and Artificial Africa, as well as contemporary visual and print sources, including some advertisements it’s glaringly obvious how little we have come since the time of Achebe’s criticism. This is why I use it to frame my issues with Tomb Raider, Hang Time, contemporary ad’s and to break the monotony of my whining – some praise of Amistad. This is of course my own analysis and since I’m no expert, I know the criticisms might even sound presumptuous.

Heart of Darkness posits Africa as the source of both silence and frenzy. Similarly, it mentions Africa as a return to the beginning, or the rather seen in a different way as a return to the ‘past’. We see this in a section of Ruth Mayer’s article, where she talks about the idea of progress as incompatible with this ‘past’-formation in Africa. It is an idea Tomb Raider certainly plays on to provide the setting for its happy, action-packed ending – not to mention provide its title: the cradle of life. A cradle mind you, brings to mind a lap, or a loving pair of arms, or a rickety wooden bed – no images of technological innovations conveyed by the term cradle.

. Lastly of course there is the literal and metaphorical Darkness, which not only depicts the ‘jungle cover’ Conrad later says he was depicting, but also the connotations of Africa – the Dark Continent and all that this darkness entails. All of these are themes, I picked up from Achebe’s criticism of the novel in so far as they are depicted in the various other sources before us. All in all therefore Achebe points out how Conrad as a ‘purveyor of myths’ – he appealed to pre-set notions and assumptions and they provided the necessary foundations on which to provide a story-line. Another thing we discussed in class which is significant is the idea of slipping into categories – the danger of ‘them’ and ‘they’ which render it. Conrad doesn’t allow this to happen – in fact as Achebe also points out he repeatedly specifies ‘who’ it is – the black arms, the black face, the black man, with the black legs and Achebe is quick to point this out. I just thought that was interesting. Maybe constant reminders do as much damage as losing meaning in vague ‘they’ and ‘them’ can in terms of creating and perpetuating myth? Only from the opposite direction?

Keim talks about these myths, and stemming from discussions we had in class, the idea that we haven’t really ‘changed these myths we inherited from our racist and imperial past’ we can continue this story.

‘Amistad’ spins a fresh representation of Africa by not falling into conventional patterns of cinematography and character development in its portrayal of Africa and the African and the continuation of these myths. Its funny knowing Amistad, which is a more culturally, racially and historically accurate account than most Hollywood flicks [and I’m no expert] has been directed by Spielberg, the same dude who while he directed Schindlers List, also gave us Indiana Jones. I still cringe at that scene in Indiana Jones, the Temple of Doom when they have that crazy mantra sacrifice in the middle of some Indian village, one where mostly white people in brown face wail and moan and kiss Harrison Fords feet for deliverance. Why the complete 180 degree spin Stephen, why must you confuse me like this?

I think an important way Amistad differs, minus the story-line which by itself requires an entirely different perspective, – one developed on fact not sci-fi, is the character development of Cinque and Joadson, the black protagonist. Cinque is chained, but he is not helpless. Unlike Conrad’s ‘savages’ with which Marlowe had reckoned a kinship, ‘ugly’ and frightening – Cinque does not merely ‘grunt’ or ‘wheeze’. He speaks, but not in translations. There is no impetus on subtitling his language into the mainstream language of the Western world for our convenience. We rely instead therefore on the ‘other’ language: his body language, his emotions. I find that empowering for Cinque. Even though this ‘lost in translation’ aspect is a primary source of tension in the film in that in a way it postpones the revelation of what we know to be true, well before the images of his life flash before our eyes created by the crisp accent of Covey, we ‘believe’ and root for Cinque and the others on Amistad. Djimon Honsou is a really powerful presence on screen, and there is something to be said of his stature: this is no on-fours savage as in Conrad’s Darkness, who has ‘developed’ enough to learn the tricks of working a boiler: Cinque is a powerful, charismatic leader with stature and impeccable posture. [P.S I certainly have no problem having to see him in pretty much every film over this semester. Actually, after we’ve seen Blood Diamond, I really want to argue against the position — takes where she questions the role of Solomon played by Honsou in Blood Diamond. I actually found the character of Solomon to be ‘thinking’ and well-developed. Bah, that’s for another time] Similarly at the end when Matthew McConnaughay as Baldwin speaks in Mende as Cinque is getting ready to leave, the use of language as communication not lost, and connections sustained in a equitable way, is demonstrated.

Speaking of language, I thought of one thing which did led to this idea of Hang Time not resonating as an African story. I don’t know if it’s already been mentioned, but I feel this was because of the use of English – accented English – which indicates an immediate ‘foreign-ness’. When that is done, it is an audio-visual representation for a certain audience, which in class we identified as many. I understand the director was Nigerian but at the same time, this impetus on the English language as the primary mode of communication took away from its authenticity.

The story itself for me was powerful and certainly a universal one with the themes of greed, and unhappiness which underline many human stories. I didn’t find it to be critical of a certain American or a even certain kind of individual from the developing world. Uncle Sam – the collective figure-head – seemed to me to embody the Achilles heel of success where true success could be measured in familial love, and personal happiness outside the periphery of wealth and finances.

Back to Amistad: The character of Morgan Freeman is fictional: I find that interesting. We can wonder then what Spielberg intended in the inclusion of a black abolitionist, a well-developed character, a clear thinker. Similarly, Adam’s speech might use the Westernized language of ‘natural law’ and such, but at its core it ‘mirrors’ Cinque’s ideals. Rather than resorting to the American ideals being realized as a moral to the film, such as the good ones [no sarcasm intended] of freedom and liberty, Adams ‘translates’ Cinque’s ideals and his reflections on truth. In fact the American system of justice is the one criticized a kind of system, ‘where the laws don’t work’ as per Cinque’s outburst upon the taking of the case to the Supreme Court.

 

—————————————————————————————–

On a somewhat similar vein, the discussion we had in class on Thursday really made me question a lot of things, I know I am guilty of. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been embarrassed when I couldn’t answer questions about the history of the Darfur conflict, not to mention the silent respect I hold for the boy or girl I don’t know very well who chooses an African-country to study abroad in. [South Africa? Nice! Niger? Botswana? NI-II-IICE!]I hate admitting it, but I do it.  And it’s not like I’ve ever set foot in the African continent so I don’t even know why I find myself holding this silent authority to judge. In retrospect, I come out sounding ignorant and sort of empty. I do agree however that we all sort of do it: make ourselves feel good by measuring ourselves and our actions against this yardstick this space of ‘Africa’ provides. If you care about AID’s in Africa, you’re automatically a nice, politically aware, kind member of the world. Is this exploitation, pitching ourselves against this space to make ourselves look good? Achebe mentions this by writing how Africa provided a foil to Europe – Africa was mentioned so that in comparison the Europeans would feel life wasn’t so bad.  We do the same today – the media portrayal and news reports on Africa are almost always negative, and thus against their troubles, ours [well, technically Pakistan is in the gutter so I don’t know why I say our] look much nicer.

 Similarly, in this humanitarian world, Africa now also induces the language of humanitarian aid, development aid, debt, crises – just as much as it does poverty and squalor and disease. So with this new language in mind, we respond accordingly. This goes back in a way to the idea of Africa as this large blank space in a different way. How many times has the IPod buyer who gets the Product (RED) edition IPOD pause to think which part of Africa the funds go to? How does it get there? We pitch our pennies into the pits of this ‘dark well’ without evaluating what we know about it – almost like a well we need not get returns on. We evoke responsibility in ‘caring’ about ‘Africa’ which is steeped in so many problems: poverty, AID’s, hunger, disease, famine, war – focusing on a single isn’t even that important. It’s going to help somewhere, somehow – how specifically we don’t care enough to follow on. Once our penny is pitched, we cease to be responsible. Africa, and Africa alone – by its ‘sheer size’, its ‘meaningless boundaries’, its lack of ‘reciprocal contact’ gives us the opportunity to be sensitive without having to care.

How about these companies? I couldn’t find distinct numbers for how product (red) sales have earned for which places – there is no transparency. It’s a certain percentage, that’s all we know – but the figures are vague because people aren’t asking. Once the ‘good deed’ into this continent is inserted, like a slot-machine, we don’t wait to see the returns, minus the ad which follows that shows the dusty village and smiling boys and girls dancing and waving into the camera. Our conscience is then, restored. Speaking of the ad’s for these companies. I remember seeing the hall-mark one once and thinking it was cute. Its still cute – who doesn’t love little children being cute – but once more it reinforces the imagery of the American, or European – helping the barefoot African, now clutching a book and smiling thanks to the kindness of this Western stranger. It is the imagery of inferiority.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oClbf9f-L5o

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-NwS7d-tJ0&feature=related

 

Since I’m on this rant, let me also now on a tangent, sort of, confess how sincerely I loved Angeline when she was weird and messed up. As she got all humanistic, well before I had access to Artificial Africa or this class – I thought sold out. In Chapter 2, Amusement Parks, Keim talks about celebrities like Angelina and Madonna and [the horror] Jessica Simpson — why must they adopt, or in Simpson’s case talk of adopting the African child?  I’m sorry for my holier-than-thou attitude but around the same time that a few of these adoptions happened, many children were orphaned by Hurricane Katrina. I know there’s no easy way to say it without sounding controversial/heartless and let me send out a disclaimer that I believe with all my heart that all children have the right to the best lives possible, and if I could adopt all the babies in the world, and provide safe homes for them I would – location not being taken into account. But why did Angelina, as she became a UN Good will ambassador and developed further this off-screen/on-screen alpha-woman never once adopt a child from the United States who also needs a home? Is it not exotic enough?  Or in line with her newfound picture of the mother of the world? Not to mention, when she gives birth to Shiloh, the writer also points to that kind of arrogance which requires of this birth to be in the ‘cradle of life’ Africa. It is a little narcissistic – I agree with Keim.

‘Its in the cradle of life, this blast to the past, the origins of the human race where tribes [which we disassociate with progress according to Mayer] inhabit the earth. Africa is this whole. With regards to her self-vehicle of a film, Tomb Raider, we’ve already discussed the whole idea of not specifying where exactly in Africa we are in the movie, but hey at least they name Kilimanjaro? And they’ve got all the necessary Africa props to create a true African experience – just about as legitimate as Busch Gardens or Animal Kingdom [which I actually visited and had a great time at]. Running zebras, check, lions, check, African drum-music every time the word Africa is mentioned, check, angry tribesmen with spears, check. Where her Lara Croft stood in the midst of red-robed frowning tribes, [where she seamlessly fit in, t-2 minutes later btw] and became their savior, she fulfills too this role of being the saving grace – the concerned samaritarian.

 

Whoa this post is long and all-over the place. I’ll be succinct next time. So much more to rant about…

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