Last semester, I blogged extensively about this Xtranormal Video “So You Want To Get a PhD in the Humanities” that went viral on the internet at the end of October, 2010. My blog post about the original video is [here] and about the conservative reaction to it that soon followed [here]. It seems that since then, just this January, somebody else made a sequel to the original entitled “Nine Years Later.” I don’t have too much to say about it, but since I blogged about the first two, I figured I’d follow up with this one. Last semester, my argument was basically that the humor of the videos only makes sense in its specific political context, and I’d make the same argument about this new one, except that this new one isn’t all that funny to me. See for yourself here:
What is supposed to be funny is how obtuse her advisor is about the financial reality of her situation. This basically reverses the roles of the original video in which the student was insistently obtuse and the professor frustrated. Of course, in reality, most advisors are quite aware of the problem facing academia today. The exigency (or timeliness and urgency) and what Aristotle called the kairos of this video is the recent budget cuts to higher education by state legislatures across the country. University presidents have actively protested these budget cuts. For example, the president of the University of Minnesota [see here] and the president of Penn State University [see here]. Students have also protested in Albany, New York [see here], and you may remember that it was the State University of New York in Albany’s elimination of several departments that prompted the first “So You Want To Get a PhD…” video. The upshot of all this is that higher education in the United States appears to be downsizing, and this is scary.
Questions I could explore in this blog post include (1) Why isn’t the new video as funny as the first one? (2) What the heck is causing all this mess in the first place? (3) What intended and unintended effects might we expect to see in the future? And (4) does this video spur us to actually do something about it, and what might that something be?
But for the first time in the history of this blog, I’m not going to explore them. I’m too pissed off.
I woke up late this Saturday morning and discovered I had caught a cold. I’m sure you know the feeling — headache, stuffy nose, and other yuckiness; I’ll spare you the rather gross details. I have a very particular way that I respond to the common cold, a regimen I’ve innovated after years of experimentation, and part of this regimen includes going to the movie theater to see a mindless action movie. But there’s not much good in the theaters this month, so I saw Sucker Punch. Actually, it was pretty fun, and coincidentally the movie suggests some interesting ideas about the relationship between mind and body, and it reminded me of the philosophy I’ve invented to explain (or rationalize) the way I respond to the common cold.
So, before I get to talking about the movie and the theory, here’s my somewhat idiosyncratic regimen. First thing is a small cardiovascular workout. Now, the word “small” is a relative term, and I exercise pretty regularly, so for me “small” means half of what I’d do if I were feeling healthy. I think this is the opposite of what most people do when they’re sick. Most people rest, but the first thing that I want to do is clear out all the stuffed up yuckiness that I feel has been collecting in my body while I slept. It feels gross, and I want to get rid of it. A short run gets the lungs and arteries moving so that they can clean up the yuckiness. After the workout, I have a big breakfast with lots of fruit and some hot green tea with some lemon, honey, and fresh grated ginger. Ginger is good for the throat and for the soul, according to many cultural traditions around the world, and green tea has antioxidants. After spending the morning reading enjoyable stuff (and it’s got be enjoyable, or it’s not going to work), for lunch I have a spicy-garlic-vegetable soup. Garlic is also a famous anti-cold remedy and generally good for your health, and I suspect that’s where the tradition of using garlic to ward of vampires and evil spirits came from. The spiciness just helps clear my head and my nose. I don’t know why it does this, but it does. I’ve heard that red pepper releases endorphins in your brain, which makes you feel better, so maybe that’s it. Then I go see an action movie in the movie theater. Something about being in the theater, with the loud sound and intense visual, allows me to stop thinking about being sick and gets my pulse going. And when I stop thinking about it, then my body seems to relax and begin to cure itself. In a sense, I suspect that worrying about being sick gets in the way of getting better. Then I come home, have some roiboos (a.k.a. African red bush) tea.
My practice goes against what’s usually done in Western medicine, which emphasizes rest, seclusion, repeated diagnosis, and drugs. Typically what this means today is sitting around the house, watching TV, taking cold medicine, and feeling like crap. All of these things combined basically make you feel even more lousy, and because you haven’t done anything all day, it’s hard to sleep, even though you’re tired, and so your sleep cycle gets messed up, and then you get more tired the next day. Cold medicines aren’t actually designed to do anything about the virus that causes the cold. They are designed to simply numb your body so it doesn’t feel the symptoms. I can’t see how this is at all helpful, unless the pain is so great that it prevents you from doing things. (I readily concede that there are cases — rare cases — when Western medicine is useful.) In my admittedly paranoid opinion, the primary goal of Western medicine is not to make you get better and live a happier and more productive life; rather, the goal is to make money for the pharmaceutical industry and doctors. There is a whole industry at stake here, and that industry funds a system of knowledge, a whole way of thinking about health — something the theorist Michel Foucault calls a regime of truth — a way of thinking that I wouldn’t say is false, but perhaps blinds us to more simpler, healthier alternatives.
For me, the way to get better is self-discipline and a flight into wellness. To put it simply, I want to be well, so I do well things. And also for me, the mind is connected to the body; it’s all one. There is no dualism between them, no distinction. The only way to make yourself well is self-discipline, a regimen of the body rather than a regime of truth about biochemistry. To put it another way, for me, the location of my soul is my lungs and my arteries. And I think the ancients understood this which is why the word spirit is etymologically related to the word respiration. To put it still another way, if you think of your head being connected to your feet, and you want your head to get better, then move your feet. This reminds me of the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.”
What does this have to do with the movie Sucker Punch? Well, check out its trailer:
The movie is about a girl nicknamed Babydoll, whose abusive stepfather puts her in an institution for the mentally insane after she tries to defend herself and her sister against him. She is traumatized by the fact that when she tried to shoot him, she accidentally shot her sister. Her stepfather is afraid her confession to the police might implicate him, so he makes a deal with the corrupt and criminal manager of the institution to have her lobotomized. The manager, we soon find out, uses the institution as a front for his criminal activity, and he prostitutes all the young girls. The girls are trained by a dance instructor to perform sexy dances for an audience. All of this we learn in the first few minutes of the film. The rest of the film is Babydoll’s plan to escape with her fellow inmates Rocket, Blondie, Amber, and Sweet Pea and her flights of imagination into these elaborate, action-packed, video-game-like battle scenes. So, the movie is pretty absurd, mostly just some cute girls kicking ass, but the absurdity isn’t there for nothing. The metaphor between the fantasy battles and the girl gang’s real strategy for libration is obvious, and it is a metaphor that (like all metaphors) moves us somewhere. The movie explicitly articulates its moral, “your mind can set you free.”
But what does that mean? Certainly, it does not simply mean to deny reality and fantasize. The movie deliberately blurs the lines between “reality” and “fantasy,” and what is more, Babydoll’s fantasies about doing battle only occur when she is dancing. The relationship between her body dancing and her mind imagining is the key here. The dance instructor tells the girls that the dance is a little world that they control in the midst of a larger world which imprisons and abuses them. She tells them that she is teaching them how to survive evil. Significantly, surviving evil is not the same thing as escaping it, and what Babydoll does is use the survival practice of dancing as a tool for imagining and putting into practice a means of escape — what the theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call a line of flight. And it is Babydoll’s transfiguration of survival tactics into a revolutionary liberation strategy that is the basis of the plot.
Like me, Deleuze and Guattari also deny the mind-body dualism, and instead advocate a very empiricist and critical practice of freedom. Their philosophy also calls into question Western psychology, as the title of their first book, Anti-Oedipus, indicates. However, I think it is a mistake to think (as many scholars today do) that they were simply opposed to psychoanalytic teachings of Freud and Lacan. In fact, Guattari considered himself a Lacanian. What they did was move psychology away from reductive mind categories (e.g., id, ego, superego, Oedipal relationship, etc., which I’ve discussed in detail elsewhere in my blog [here]) and towards a philosophy and practice of the body. Their philosophy is somewhat based on the real-world practices of institutional psychotherapy that Guattari actually ran at La Borde. I have been reading about this recently in a new biography of Deleuze and Guattari by François Dosse, entitled Intersecting Lives. (I’m not finished with the book yet.) Guattari’s practices were reputed to be quite successful but were also radically different from standard medical practices. La Borde was something of a utopian commune in which the doctors, nurses, and patients all shared responsibilities (including the menial labor of cleaning and cooking) and regularly met to discuss the daily schedule and duties. The point was to move patients out of the subject position of “patient” and get them to actually act like a person. The line of flight out of mental illness was not drugs and diagnosis; rather it was activity, conversation, planning, the body’s relationship to other bodies, and an affirmation of differences. In other words, discipline and flight.
I have to admit something. I am completely overwhelmed by all the events of the past couple months: the democratic protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, the subsequent conflict in Libya, the attempt by Wisconsin’s governor to remove the collective bargaining rights of public employees, the attempt by Michigan’s governor to give himself emergency powers against unions, massive cuts to public education (especially public universities) across the country, the proposal in Congress to eliminate funding for public broadcasting (no more Sesame Street?), another proposal to make it illegal for private insurance to be used for abortions, still another proposal by a legislator in Missouri to bring back child labor… and of course the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Because some of these events have received a lot of attention from the mainstream media and others haven’t, and because so many of them are connected to each other in surprising ways, I have felt some obligation to write and to try to make sense of these things. And because the mainstream media so often misrepresents what it talks about, I have in the past usually been compelled to respond critically to the media’s misrepresentations. The way such events are mediated become, for me, occasions for the usefulness of theory.
But lately, I find myself avoiding the news. It makes me sad, angry, and frustrated. Though I know the TV and radio news is usually a bit incorrect (and sometimes even really wrong), I can’t bring myself to do the hard work to respond to it. And please believe me, I’ve started numerous blog posts about all of the above topics, but I quickly become afraid of my own ignorance, and my writing never gets very far. The responsibility to be correct, in the context of so many incorrect statements, has felt too heavy. And I don’t want to watch and read the horrible stuff I’d have to watch and read in order to write something good. Anyway, I want to return to the subject of my writer’s block in a moment, but before I do, I want to overcome it for a brief moment and say something about how to help Japan.
I guess the reason why I’m overcoming my writer’s block on this subject is simple. I lived in Tokyo for two years (1997-1999), and am still in touch with a few of the friends I made during that time. I took a group of students there a couple years ago (2009) and blogged a lot about it [here]; I have a Japanese exchange student in my class right now; my school has a program there every fall; and a former student whose honors thesis I advised is working there now. I’ve thankfully heard from all of my friends and my former student since the earthquake, and they are all fine. And probably because of my history there and my connections, a few people in the United States have asked me what they should do. More specifically, they have asked what organization might be the best to donate to? And I forwarded their question on to my Japanese friends and got some answers. It is more difficult question than it might seem, and I’ve blogged before on the difficulty of the question of aid with regards to Haiti’s earthquake last year [here] and [here], aid to Kenya [here], and aid to Ethiopia [here]. So, for the past week, I’ve tried to think of a good answer, but my writer’s block and other things keep getting in the way — my own ego too, perhaps… my hesitation is maybe just silly.
To get right to the point, there is a simple answer and a complex answer. The simple answer is this. I was advised by my Japanese friends to donate to Japan’s Red Cross [here] or a special fund set up by Japanese banks [here]. This is what the Japanese television is saying, apparently. One of my friends in Japan alerted me to the fact that there are some bogus websites out there, so be careful — for example, see [here] about a bogus website pretending to be Japan’s Red Cross. However, the Japanese Red Cross’s English website also suggests that foreigners check to see if their own national Red Cross is supporting Japan’s endeavors. And the American Red Cross announced that it is [here]. (Note, the different Red Crosses are independent of each other, not just one big organization.)
There are a number of reasons why the relationship between organizations matters. First, sometimes large multinational organizations act as if they know everything, try to take over when they arrive in a foreign country, and just get in the way or are insensitive to local issues. It’s actually more efficient to make use of already existing institutions that have been there, so it’s better if the American Red Cross simply gives some money to the Japanese Red Cross than if it descends upon the country en masse. Second, multinational organizations and the American Red Cross have been criticized in the past for making use of a natural disaster to re-engineer a smaller country’s economy and political structure, which is why I am sometimes suspicious of them (as I wrote about at length in my blogs about Haiti’s earthquake), but in this case, Japan is obviously not a small country, and it has one of the best national infrastructures on the planet, so it seems the relationship between Japan’s Red Cross and America’s is reasonable. Third, the most challenging aspect of disaster relief is supply chains — how to get stuff like water, food, and blankets from one place to another. And this is always a problem, but especially a problem in the case of a tsunami like this one which has destroyed many of the means of transportation. Hence, too many organizations on the ground will get in each other’s way unless there is some coordination. The national government is almost always able to respond more quickly and more effectively than private charities for this reason. And considering the challenge of supply chains, it should be obviously stupid for us to send truckloads of stuff or even truckloads of people to Japan at this time. How would it get there? Doesn’t it make more sense to trust the Japanese organizations to handle this?
So, the best way to help Japan is by donating to organizations that will support Japan’s own organizations with money, not with stuff. That’s the simple answer. But there is a more complex answer too, and this more complex answer has something to do with why I was afraid to write about this, why I avoided watching the media’s representations, and the very strange psychology of international aid. The American media’s response has been frustratingly stupid and even offensive to some Japanese people. The news stories are often unclear about the specifics of location and time (looping the same image over and over without identifying which city it’s from). Annoyingly, it emphasizes how America is helping rather than how Japan is helping itself. It will even make racist generalizations about the Japanese character; words I’ve heard a lot are stoic and traditional; I’ve even heard the word tribal; none of these adjectives make the least bit of sense to me. At the same time, the danger at the nuclear power plant has prompted endless debate about the safety of nuclear power and what America needs to do to help Japan, as if TEPCO (Japan’s energy company) and the Japanese government haven’t already been planning for this kind of thing for years. There is almost no discussion of the important role of Japan’s Self Defense Force, which has one of the largest budgets of any military in the world. Since Japan’s Constitution, written after World War II with significant input from the United States, prohibited Japan from having a traditional military that could invade other countries, its SDF was often used as a disaster-response force. (This of course changed somewhat recently after George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi found a legal loophole so as to let Japan participate in the “war on terror”, especially in Afghanistan.) In sum, the history of Japan’s political relationship to the rest of the world is often absent from the characterizations (including the fact that Japan has been for years one of the largest givers of aid to other countries, as I had to chance to witness first hand when I was there in 2009 — see my blog post about that [here].)
My point here is not that the mainstream American media is doing a poor job innocently. Rather my point is that it is not innocent at all — that there is a strange self-serving psychology motivating the way it represents Japan and all other countries. There is a wonderful analysis of the contradictory and protean history of American representations of Japan by the cultural theorist Masao Miyoshi in his introduction to the book Japan in the World. My personal experience in Japan agrees with Miyoshi, and I first became aware of this kind of thing back in 1997 when my American friends would send me stories from the New York Times and Newsweek that were presumably about Japanese society, but were bizarrely untrue. In 1997 and 1998, it was obvious what motivated the American media’s symbolic denigration of Japanese society — the United States’s president Bill Clinton was in the middle of renegotiating a trade relationship and was hoping to open up Japan’s financial sector to American banks. That was over a decade ago; what motivates the American media now is something I don’t understand. Maybe it’s just habit.
A second issue is something that we are almost not supposed to talk about out loud. One of my students wrote a great paper about this for my class a couple years ago, so I’m relying on her research. All aid organizations such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, etc., know that they function best when they are proactive and prepared and when they perform preventative measures. Waiting for an emotionally distraught public to send money after disaster has struck will do no good at all. But it never occurs to the public to support institutions (both governmental and non-governmental) and to engage in preventative measures that are efficient and that work. The public’s emotions are only mobilized reactively not proactively, and this is a huge problem that everyone in the “relief” business is well aware of. Hence, usually, a relief organization will save the money they raise during any given disaster for the next disaster that hasn’t happened yet. In other words, the money you gave to non-governmental organizations during Hait’s earthquake or Pakistan’s flood might now be used for Japan’s tsunami, and the money you give now for Japan’s tsunami might be used for some future disaster somewhere else in the world. This makes good sense, and non-governmental organizations have long figured out how to use the irrational and generally ignorant emotionalism of the general public to good effect. To raise money, organizations hype the personal connection between the giver and the receiver, no matter how inefficient or ineffective that personal connection might actually be in practice.
But — and this is a big but — the risk is that such hype and sentiments might symbolically and psychologically undermine the institutions that are actually more effective (e.g., the national governments), since when people expect such a personal connection, they come to expect the wrong things from their investment and distrust the organizations that actually are most effective. It puts the government and the non-governmental organization in the habit of managing public emotions, and television becomes a necessary tool for this management, and sometimes it becomes difficult to find the right set of symbols to appeal to the public’s emotions (as was the case during Pakistan’s flood, which received relatively less support, as many aid workers lamented)… and thus… all the misrepresentations of other cultures proliferate.
Possibly I’m wrong about all this. I have been avoiding most media about this topic, precisely because it makes me so upset, and so my sense of the media and the reality on the ground is by no means thorough…. And so… thus… hence… therefore… my writer’s block about so many issues.
So now back to my writer’s block. A friend recently reminded me of something the philosopher Jacques Derrida said in an interview done for a documentary about him (entitled Derrida.) Here’s what he said:
Derrida says that when he is half asleep he will have a moment of panic and second-guess himself. Thus, in a classic deconstructive move, Derrida reverses how we usually think of things. We usually think of the panic about writing happening when we are very conscious — perhaps even overly conscious — not when we are unconscious. But Derrida suggests it is our unconscious that is the more vigilant.
But I’m not so sure Derrida is right. Most people (since most people don’t have Derrida’s ability to write book after book after book) feel that anxiety before they write, not after they write. Most people feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and the challenge of making sense, which is why they feel unable to say things unless they are empowered by some larger movement. (Whether that movement is sensible or not is another story.) When Derrida says he is compelled to write by some feeling of necessity or some force outside himself, this is an unusual mystification on his part of the complex social relations that empower him — specifically the relation he and everone else have to certain kinds of information and the affective conditions that give us a feeling we have a right to speak even when we are largely ignorant of the facts.
In a funny way, democracy as a form of government depends upon an incredibly ignorant public believing they have a right to speak about everything. And this is important. What frightens me most about the overload of information and recent crises around the world is that it might cause us (or maybe just me) to want to hide. The question of what to do is too big a question.
Thomas Jefferson once suggested that democracy required an informed public, and it is common to think of fascist dictatorial regimes, in contrast, as controlling and limiting access to information (Orwell’s famous book 1984, for instance, but also the actions of Libya and Egypt’s governments.) But there is also the possibility that too much information might stymie the public. In other words, perhaps too much information and a constant feeling that we are in the middle of a crisis is the new postmodern form of fascism that causes people either to stammer and yell or to hide and retreat rather than come together and reasonably discuss. (And this is, by the way, one of the insights of the philosopher Agamben’s recent books, State of Exception.) Maybe writing is a form of exceptionalism — we must temporarily become the exception when we write. What a strange idea!!!
It’s spring break this week, so among other things I caught up on my movie watching. The King’s Speech was great. (I don’t know about “best picture” but definitely great, and that’s not the kind of film I usually go in for.) In stark contrast, The Adjustment Bureau, based loosely on a Philip K. Dick story, is the kind of film I do usually go in for, but I didn’t like it at all because the whole story is organized around a simplistic, obvious idea that the director seems to think is really smart. It’s not smart. From my library, I checked out the comedy Due Date, starring Robert Downey, Jr., which follows the standard road-trip genre. It is sometimes amusing (and I unfortunately have a bit too much in common with Downey’s character), but predictable and forgettable. Another movie I checked out on pure whim turned out to be a surprising gem: Searchers 2.0. First shown in British theaters in 2007 and 2008, but just released on DVD in the United States in October 2010, it is a road trip revenge Western parody — an ironic blend of genres. As you might guess from the title, the movie alludes to the classic John Wayne Western, The Searchers (1958), and since I taught that movie just a few weeks ago in my film class, I’d like to say something about this new film. Here is the trailer:
The characters Mel and Fred are old, out-of-work Western-movie actors who decide to search out and take their revenge upon a screenwriter who physically abused them when they were child actors. Since neither of them has a working car, they convince Mel’s daughter Delilah to drive them to the famous location of so many Westerns, Monument Valley, where they believe the evil screenwriter, Fritz Frobisher, will be. During their road trip through the west, Mel and Fred constantly talk about movies, especially some of the classic westerns, and some of the scenes clearly allude to famous moments in that genre. Because it’s essentially a meta-film (a film about films), and because it was made on a tiny budget, just $180, 000, it is perhaps the kind of movie that only a movie nerd like me would find hilariously clever. And I did find it hilariously clever.
The movie satirizes American culture by having the Quentin-Tarantino-style dialogue meander back and forth from discussions of revenge tragedies, war films, and Westerns to discussions of the war in Iraq, gas-guzzling cars, the corporate film industry, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, and Chicano politics. The slogan the characters come up with for their quest is “justice, gas, revenge” — an obvious commentary on American foreign policy, except the characters don’t themselves see that connection. (And this is an example of dramatic irony.) The humor is based on the unlikely connections between movie worlds and the real world.
For some reason, the movie reminded me of Karl Marx’s sarcastic joke about Napoleon III in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte when he says, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” As the characters in Searchers 2.0 say, the first Searchers movie is almost a classic revenge tragedy (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet) of American racism against Native Americans, but the tragedy that happened in the real historical world is famously averted in the film world in the final climactic moment. The first Searchers was made right when the civil rights movement was beginning, and the second Searchers 2.0 was made during the post-civil rights era. So, the comic irony is that its characters are trying to emulate the pre-civil rights era hero. But of course the world has changed, and their attempt to reference an earlier movie world is clearly farcical. It is especially farcical since the character Mel is Chicano, so he both idolizes and hates the racist white hero of the classic Hollywood Western. (For example, he mentions that his father would not let his family watch any John Wayne movies.) All they can do is talk endlessly about the many manifestations of heroism that clearly they are not.
In the next paragraph of his book, Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” So, the characters talk and talk and talk, but can do nothing, so trapped are they by their cloudy memory, the role they want to play but ironically can not play. To conclude, the movie is a classic example of how dramatic irony reveals the disconnect between metaphorical identity and real identity (condensation) and exposes the narrative trick of displacing real political problems onto simpler moral stories.
What are values? My friend Leigh, a professor of philosophy, made a video called “American Values,” which she discusses on her blog [here], [here], and [here]. Her idea is pretty straightforward and very smart, and it goes something like this: you hear pundits on the television networks refer to American Values all the time, but often they don’t say precisely what those values are, or they seem to assume a very short list. So, in response, she asked people to mail in photographs that illustrate their values, and the video she made from these photographs emphasizes just how many different kinds of values people have. It took me a while to decide which value I wanted to contribute to the project, because I had a few. For one of them (“irony”), I couldn’t figure out how to photograph an image that would go along with the word, so I sent in something else (and you have to watch the video to find out what.)
Essentially, we might say that Leigh’s video exemplifies the e pluribus unum of America — the somewhat anti-essentialist motto “one out of many” that, ironically, appears on the most basic measure of value for American capitalism, the dollar bill.
As you watch the values go by on the screen, they range from coffee and music to strength and exercise, from authenticity and truth to irreverence and metaphor, from family and friends to solitude and non-attachment. It is a wonderful list. And in addition to the obvious diversity and even divergent contradictions between some of them, what strikes me about the list is something that most of them seem to have in common. If you will allow me to propose a general definition, I might say that values are both what we desire and what we feel are necessary to our lives. Some values are material things, others are ways of behaving ethically, and still others are abstractions, idealizations, or principles, but in all of them there seems to be something almost contradictory — we desire them, and if we desire them, we admit they aren’t plentiful or permanent. They may even be fleeting and rare, yet we believe they are also necessary, and if they are necessary, they are foundational for our social existence. And so it seems to me that the structure of value is a strange and almost contradictory dialectic between the foundational and the scarce, between the basic and the special or precious. For instance, one of the values in the video is the most necessary thing for our existence — fresh air — but why this is named as a value at this moment in history is because it is now perceived to be becoming scarce. It is a beautiful dialectic, but underneath it all, there is something a bit awe-inspiring and maybe even somewhat scary.
In the United States, it’s hard to see movies from Africa.
And this is true despite the fact that Nollywood in Nigeria is one of the largest producers of movies in the world. Only Hollywood and Bollywood produce more. I discovered how hard it was to get movies from Africa a few months ago when I was planning my syllabus for my film class and wanted to do a unit on African film. I was inspired to do this because of my wonderful experience at an international film festival in Ethiopia last summer, which I blogged about at length [here]. As I talked about in that blog post, I read a bunch of books about African cinema and watched some movies, and so then, as I was sketching out the syllabus for my film class this year, I looked to see what my own library had.
I was hoping my library would have one of Ousmane Sembene’s great classics, the movie Black Girl, which so brilliantly diagnoses the psychology of colonialism. It’s also a classic of the French 1950s realist style. But getting this movie would cost our library over $200 (over ten times the amount we usually pay for DVDs.) And our library didn’t have anything from Nollywood. And I don’t mean to pick on our library, because last summer I was hoping to get through interlibrary loan some of the classic movies that I had read about, such as Love Brewed in the African Pot, but couldn’t. I still haven’t seen it. All this goes to illustrate the point I made in my previous blog post, which is that one of the most important things affecting both film and the ideology of film is not the intentions of the director, but the infrastructure of production, distribution, and consumption. I’m not saying we don’t have anything. In fact, we have several of Sembene’s movies as well as a few by other directors, but the pickings are slim.
And here’s another thing that I discovered. Almost every single movie that my library had about Africa — whether those movies were made by Americans, Europeans, or Africans — all portrayed the people there as either suffering, corrupt, or screwed up. Or, they represented Africa as a place full of nature and animals. In other words, for the mainstream film industry, Africa is either a disaster or cute animals. And this is pretty much what the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina made fun of in his hilarious satire “How to Write about Africa” in 2005. And this is pretty much what the world-famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie was saying in her well-known TED lecture “The Danger of the Single Story” in 2009.
I was concerned about this. I knew that most of my students — if they knew anything about the many countries of Africa — probably got their information from the American media, which almost always focuses on the negative. In the American media, from stories in the New York Times to blockbuster movies such as Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener, Africa means disaster. Almost always disaster, unless you’re a child, and then it means the cute cartoon animals of movies like Madagascar. (And by the way, see my blog post about animals and nature in Kenya [here].) So, I didn’t want to show my students movies like that, because I thought those movies would just fit the stereotypes my students already had. Instead, I wanted to show them a movie that had characters that I liked — characters like the people from Africa whom I was friends with. People like the people I met during my trips to Kenya in 2009 and Ethiopia in 2010. Where were these people in the movies?
Probably the most famous African film-maker is Ousmane Sembene from Senegal, and he is very smart, but even many of his older movies just repeat the idea of Africa as a place of victims under the racist colonialism of Europe (e.g., the movie Black Girl) or as a place of corruption under neo-colonialism after independence (e.g., the movie Xala.) Now don’t get me wrong, I think Black Girl and Xala are great movies, but both of them are depressing.
So, basically the upshot is this. It seemed I basically had two choices. There were numerous American and European movies that illustrated what I think of as the “conservative” view of Africa, the chauvinist view of Africa in so many American and European movies that implies its culture is basically inferior. Or there were several African movies that illustrated what I think of as the “liberal” postcolonialist view of Africa, the view that suggests Africa is messed up because of European and American imperialism. Both of these ideologies miss it.
The only movie that our library had that I felt I could, in good conscience, show to my film class was one of Ousmane Sembene’s more recent films, Faat Kine, produced in 2001. I really like this movie a lot. It’s about a way-cool woman who raises two kids with the help of her mother and manages a successful business. At the beginning of the movie, her kids are going to find out if they passed their entrance exams for university. We eventually learn that the men who got her pregnant are jerks, but there is the possibility of romance with another man who is a pretty cool guy. She is a Muslim, and he is a Catholic, but this religious difference isn’t an overpowering issue. We see several conversations between her and her various friends. The characters talk frankly and realistically about sex. They crack jokes. Some are successful, some aren’t. These are like the people I know — like the people in the wonderful short stories by the Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana. (By the way, you can watch a video of Doreen reading at St. John’s University in Minnesota [here].)
As critics have noticed, Faat Kine has a clever narrative structure, somewhat similar to the classic movie by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing. It starts in the morning and ends in the evening, and although the story actually takes place over several days, it feels like a typical day in Kine’s life. It’s a sophisticated movie, with a complex plot and a tight narrative structure, about the modern-day middle class in Senegal.
So, this is the movie I decided to show to my class, because this was the only African movie in my school’s library that had characters whom I actually liked. This was the only movie that I could be sure would challenge the stereotypes I suspected many of my students might have had. And the important thing here is that this is a problem not of production but of distribution. I can only imagine the many movies that are out there that I’d like to see…. I know they exist, and our library does have a few, but I need to learn a whole lot more so that my students can have better access to them…. I’m looking for suggestions if anyone has any.
All that said, aside from the question of distribution and ancillary markets, there is a lot more that one could say about the complex ideological issues and narrative structure of Faat Kine….