Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The Rains Down in Africa Part 2

Reader JB provides a link to Gavan Kitching's "Why I gave up African studies", in connection to Belmont Club's The Rains Down in Africa. Kitching was a self-described "radical" intellectual who at first believed that Marxian analysis provided the answers to the continent's problems only to discover that it did not. After describing his descent into disillusionment he concluded:

In short, and to conclude, I left African studies because what was happening to a continent and a people I had grown to love left me appalled and confused. But I also left it because I felt that the emotionaly stressed and guilt-ridden debate which arose within the African studies community about the causes of Africa's decline was itself a powerful testimony to a fact even more depressing in its implications than anything that was happening in and to Africa. This fact is, to put it simply, that the most damaging legacy of colonialism and imperialism in the world has not been the global economic structures and relations it has left behind nor the patterns of modern 'neo-imperialist' economic and cultural relations of which it was the undoubted historical forerunner. Rather its most damaging legacy has been the psychological Siamese twins of endemic guilt on the European side and endemic psychological dependence on the African side, legacies which make truth telling hard and the adult taking of responsibility even harder. Imperialism fucked up the heads of so many people whom it touched - both colonialists and colonized (Frantz Fanon was absolutely and deeply right about that) and until that - ultimately depressing - legacy of its existence is finally killed, neither Africa nor African studies will be able to make real progress. It was that conclusion which led me - very sadly - to leave both behind.

Kitching had charged that the Marxist mindset was itself a legacy of European colonialism which denied the responsibility -- and hence the humanity -- of Africans themselves. This provoked the expected seething and rage from the academic community. He was excoriated for "tacitly exonerating the West". A man like Kitching simply could not produce the "fascinating, sensitive, pertinent, new research" beloved of the Left because he was the wrong sort of person, the kind that Marx himself had warned about.

Marx noted that the higher and middle rungs of society propagate and eagerly consume an “inversion” of reality that obscures from them an honest understanding of the state of the world. This inversion justifies their continued privilege at the expense of the working class. A clear perception of the violence inherent in capitalism can thus only come from the working class experience, a concept elaborated by Antonio Gramsci, by Walter Rodney and other African or Africa-based Africanists in the 1960s, by feminist standpoint theory in the 1970s and 80s, and by variations of subaltern and queer theory since the 1990s.

Marx was quoted, ergo quod erat demonstrandum, and Kitching was airily dismissed. But not every critic was silenced. Mamadou Diouf, a professor of history and director of African studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, commented wryly that the chief qualification for African scholars in the West was to be "cut off from Africa" and their principle employment "writing for themselves" in journals that even African academics could not afford to buy. And ironically, that may be the reason why Africa has done comparatively better in the last year. The Christian Science Monitor feature A Continent at Peace: Five African Hot Spots Cool Down describes how action by the Africans themselves and the US War on Terror has brought comparative tranquility to the continent (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds). If the trend holds and Africa is saved, it will have come from ordinary acts like treating Africans as men capable of freedom, who plant crops for food, work for a living and catch criminals to enforce the peace. And the pity is that the path will only have been seen by those, who like Kitching, dared to leave the land of contrived shadows to walk in wind, under sunlight and through the smell of grass.