Highlighting what is melodramatic, flashy, low, and gritty in the characters, images, and plots of African cinema, Kenneth W. Harrow uses trash as the unlikely metaphor to show how these films have depicted the globalized world. Rather than focusing on topics such as national liberation and postcolonialism, he employs the disruptive notion of trash to propose a destabilizing aesthetics of African cinema. Harrow argues that the spread of commodity capitalism has bred a culture of materiality and waste that now pervades African film. He posits that a view from below permits a way to understand the tropes of trash present in African cinematic imagery.
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About the Author
Kenneth W. Harrow is Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University. He is author of Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism (IUP, 2007).
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African Cinema From Below
By Kenneth W. Harrow
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Kenneth W. Harrow
All rights reserved.
Bataille, Stam, and Locations of Trash
If loving these islands must be my load Out of corruption my soul takes wings
In Postcolonial African Cinema (2007), I threw down the following challenge:
It is time for a revolution in African film criticism. A revolution against the old tired formulas deployed in justification of filmmaking practices that have not substantially changed in forty years. Time for new voices, a new paradigm, a new view—a new Aristotle to invent the poetics we need for today.
Something trashy, to begin, straight out of the Nigerian video handbook. Something sexy, without the trite poses of exotic behinds spinning the ventilateur for the tourists. Something violent, without the obscenity of trivializing brutality, trivializing phallocentric abuse, without the accompanying violence of Truth holding the whiphand over thought or difference.
Most of all, it is the retreat into safe and comfortable truisms that must be disrupted by this new criticism, this new third cinema challenge. (xi)
These words engendered a certain controversy when I was called to account, at an African Studies Association conference, for describing the new cinema I was seeking as "trashy." My goal here is to hold fast to the term "trash," to push into the heart of the rubbish tip until we have reached the breaking point where it will be then possible to return to such phenomena as Nigerian video films, to the melodramatic, not only in Nollywood but elsewhere, to the popular and the popularized. Furthermore, I want to deploy a new paradigm appropriate to the "tip" and the Dungle, where it will be possible to understand trash on its own terms, not in the terms of its opposite, that which produces trash.
It turns out there are a million ways to evoke this concept. The easiest place to begin is with the paradigm of high and low deployed by Bataille in his early writings, published in Visions of Excess (1989). At the time, he was very much under the influence of the surrealists, of de Sade, and probably of youthful libidinal energy as he eulogized repeatedly the value of orgies in disrupting western bourgeois society and its orders of height: high culture, high society, and high philosophical thought. I am interested in building on Stam's crucial work on third cinema, like those of Espinosa's "imperfect cinema," but without subordinating the disruptive quality of imperfection to the ideological or doctrinal program of third cinema.
Bataille's writings in the 1920s and 1930s reflect the influence of surrealism and notions of class as well as social subversions that belong to that period. His is a studied attack on the bourgeoisie and its conventionality, especially its conventional thinking. He sought to remain true to the early principles of a Dadaism and an early surrealism perhaps best summed up in Breton's famous comment that "the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd" (125). When the surrealists took little notice of Bataille's attempts at outrageous writing, and when their artistic successes resulted in wide acceptance in the world of culture, Bataille became disillusioned with them. Our interest in his work lies in his studied fidelity to a discourse whose site of enunciation is associated with everything the comfortable bourgeois would regard as "below."
"Below" is one location for trash. Its value shapes the ways in which one might view the world and speak. Bataille's rigorous adherence to this site and all the ramifications he finds there for enabling revolutionary, disruptive acts to be performed, for subversive speech to be articulated, provides a valuable approach to thinking through trash in its various permutations in the African context.
Stam could not be more different, though he too embraces trash as a point of departure. Whereas Bataille writes out of the post–World War I period with the rise to dominance of bourgeois culture, and its period of ensuring economic and political crisis in the 1930s before communist ideals had been tarnished by reports about the gulag, Stam's work might be dubbed post-Vietnam. It is grounded in the values of the counterculture of the 1960s, coming to fruition with his studies of postcolonial media, especially cinema, as his work helped define the core of left cultural politics that developed in the 1980s and 1990s. His joint publications with Ella Shohat are emblematic of a Third Worldism and its cultural and political critiques of late capitalism (for example, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media 1994; Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and Transnational Media 2003). The earliest version of Stam's essay on trash cited here was given in a conference paper in 1997, and it was published in Guneratne and Dissanayake's Rethinking Third Cinema (2003).
The essay offers a broad compendium of positions on culture produced from below, and in particular provides three examples of Brazilian films in which Stam also locates examples of a "cinema of garbage." The range of positions he embraces includes critiques of commodity capitalism, the literal and figurative dumping of Euro-American toxic waste, from commercial films to dominant ideological codes. In contrast to high culture and its pretentions of value centered on purity and presence, he opposed hybridity and contamination, or garbage, as a site of resistance. Like Bataille, his favored site of enunciation is from below—Bataille stressing the erotic and abject, Stam the wretched of the earth and their oppression. But Bataille's scorn is ultimately for bourgeois culture and social domination, whereas Stam's is located in Third World resistance, what he terms a "social indictment."
This study will depend upon both, using the earlier thinker for his focus on the notion of what is "below" and the images associated with such a position as emblematic of what is trash. The later thinker laid the groundwork for a politics that exceeds the easy, early dogmatic positions that limited the notion of what was possible as politics in the 1960s and 1970s. But this study will also see in Bataille and Stam the limits of positions that depend systematically upon binary oppositions to provide a location for what is "below." Spivak's critique of a postcolonialism that depends upon the categories of the very thing it is opposing will apply here as well. No one sums up more succinctly than Stam the world of political engagement for today, from AIDS to poverty to late capitalist exploitation. No one situates it better in a global context. But we can't stop there if trash is to be engaged in its fullness. For a transformative epistemology to be formulated, we have to consider the location of trash not simply on the axis of above and below, the one rotating above the other. There needs to be a disconnection, as in the loss of a limb to a land mine, or a paralysis suffered by the use of a medicine that is out of date. For this, the larger readjustment of what is seen to be normal and natural has to occur.
I wish to "trouble the waters" of the binary, above-below, by aligning not simply with the hybrid, mestizo, métis counter to the racially pure, or by placing an African ideal against a western one. This will require seeing the moon in more than two opposed locations, as Dionne Brand envisages in her title In the Full and Change of the Moon (1999), which was meant to encapsulate the passage of diaspora generations from the past into the present with the motion from the total and pure heights and the darkened bottom of the cycle of change. I want to situate trash not simply in the Sierra Madre mountains of revolt but in some more indefinite, ill-defined, uncomfortable position where the grain of sand comes to trouble and destabilize the oyster's sense of wholeness. That location, then, pace Bataille, is an alternative kind of belowness, a Bottoms that cannot be set in opposition to an Icarus above. Similarly, it is a personal space this is occupied by someone who is neither racially pure or hybrid, a person who sees herself in a mirror that is slanted in respect to the other two positions. Whereas purity and hybridity can reflect back a place or identity for the viewer to safely occupy with an assurance of knowing where you are—a Creole, for instance—trash is more like the ghostly presence of a missing limb, an object of desire that cannot be directly perceived, that is lost like a beloved child or mother to whose presence one makes an appeal on a TV show dedicated to reuniting lost members of a family, without a connection made at the end.
So Bataille and Stam will offer us the first steps on a program that will gesture toward a fuller readjustment of our vision when viewing African cinema. For that fuller readjustment, our shared manner of perceiving will have to shift its coordinates, in the manner suggested by Rancière along the lines of what he terms "le partage du sensible." That will be developed in subsequent chapters.
We begin with Stam and his garbage. For Stam, the value of garbage lies in its ability to disrupt the easy codes of domination. He writes, "Garbage, like death and excrement, is a great social leveler" (41). While he emphasizes the materiality of garbage, its function as the id, placing it "below" in every sense—"it steams and smells below the threshold of ideological rationalization and sublimation" (40)—his purpose is always to evoke its disruptive qualities in relation to the high points that serve as its referential marker: "garbage is reflective of social prestige; wealth and status are correlated with the capacity of a person (or a society) to discard commodities, i.e., to generate garbage" (40). The advantage of this low vantage point is that it illuminates what goes unperceived by those who so casually discard their wrappers while tasting the delectable candies: "The third shared feature of these hybrid bricolage aessthetics is their common leitmotif of the strategic redemption of the low, the despised, the imperfect, and the 'trashy' as part of a social overturning" (35). Even when denying its ideological or subliminal qualities, he still returns to a functionality, such as "social overturning" or conscientization clothed in the language of lucidity. He writes, "In these films, the garbage dump becomes a critical vantage point from which to view society as a whole" (45), and in so doing, he does not indicate the partial perspective from the vantage point, but its ability to reveal the false consciousness constructed from above: "It reveals the social formation as seen 'from below'" (45). Thus, "garbage defines and illuminates the world" (45). And although its materiality cannot be denied, its legibility reveals a metaphorical function: "It can also be read symptomatically, as a metaphorical figure for social indictment ... an allegorical text to be deciphered, a form of social colonics where the truth of a society can be 'read' in its waste products" (45).
Stam sees in hybridity the correlate to garbage, inasmuch as mixture is framed by its opposition to purity. The colonial scene validates pure racial identities: as Robert Young confirmed in Colonial Desire (1995), colonialism presented métissage as life-negating in the belief held in the eighteenth century that mixed races eventually bred sterility in the species, in contrast to the notion that reproduction of pure races was life affirming. If mixed-race people were the lowest types to emerge in the dominant discourse of the nineteenth century, their status as wretched victims of racist ideologies best positioned them as figures for resistance and ultimately liberation in the postcolonial twentieth century. Thus Stam finds in "hybrid bricolage" the common theme of the "strategic redemption of the low, the despised, the imperfect, and the 'trashy' as part of social overturning" (35).
Stam's archive of the low and the despised is vast. Whether he evokes Bakhtin's "redeeming filth," Derrida's marginalia, Benjamin's "trash of history," Deleuze and Guattari's schizophrenia, or Camp's recuperation of kitsch (Stam 35), he is able to move from the aesthetics of trash to the politics of the low and the despised, from a cinema of the despised to garbage aesthetics—all the time evoking a politics of resistance not far from the initial impulses of Third Worldism. The readings he gives of what is seen as low life, low culture, low and debased forms of art, film, society—"the low, the despised, the imperfect, and the 'trashy' "—are converted into gold and silver: "the base metals of titles, blank frames, and wild sound [are transformed] into the gold and silver of rhythmic virtuosity" (35). A people's art transformed from "history" and memory into a People's History, into a moment in modernism's quilt, a "para-modern" aesthetic that reconfigures the temporalities and cultural practices of the underclass into positive terms. Every debased moment becomes an occasion for its sublation, its "negation of the negation" (36) through its immersion in the mixed, the heterogeneous, the heterological, the multiple, the "palimsestic overlay" of polyphonous and hybridized "multichronotopicality" (37). The evocations of hybrid forms in music, art, cinema, history, society are multilayered and above all marked by immiscion in the avant-gardism of the postmodern moment, or more, in the postcolonial moment since the points of reference repeatedly return to cinema's Third locations, be they in independent western film, or Latin American and African film.
The joining of the low or debased and the mixed is captured in the phrase, "garbage is hybrid" (40), which encapsulates a plethora of combinatory possibilities, all marked by the three qualities Stam highlights in his essay, hybridity, chronotopic multiplicity, and the redemption of detritus. Here is his culminating list of hybridity's properties: it is "the diasporized, heterotopic site of the promiscuous mingling of rich and poor, center and periphery, the industrial and the artisanal, the domestic and the public, the durable and the transient, the organic and the inorganic, the national and the international, the local and the global." To cap it, he proclaims garbage the "ideal postmodern and postcolonial metaphor" as it is "mixed, synchretic, a racially decentered social text"(40). Detritus becomes more than an aspect of society and culture here; it is the moment of our times that proclaims a new cultural dominant, the defining quality of the socius. This is particularly apt when socius is viewed as the site for nonproductive expenditure and excess: "It [socius] appropriates the excessive forces of production, distributing some for the reproduction of society and wasting most (in the form of tribal honors, palaces, and ultimately war)" (Holland 62). Eugene Holland underscores the centrality of "'anti-production' of an expenditure that is at once useless (constituting a vast appropriation of productive forces for excess and expenditure) and useful (reproducing the relations) and thus does not fit within a neat Marxist conceptualization of 'forces' and 'relations' of production" (Holland 1999: 62–63).
Hybridity can accomplish this decentering because of two qualities that continually mark Stam's listings: the binary opposition of detritus to the cultural norm that privileges and naturalizes aesthetic and economic dominants—the upper classes and higher social manifestations of their cultural lives, the performances of high culture and high society as located in the authorized social sites, the theaters and stages of wealth and value. Stam's garbage is set against these sites, not ensconced within its own locations. Dirt, as Stam approvingly notes, citing Douglas, is "matter out of place." And secondly, because it is in conflict with the upper social and cultural reaches, it is naturalized as subversive if not revolutionary, and ultimately as "redemptive" as well as redeemable.
For Stam, oppostionality and redemptiveness sustain the frame of intelligibility that defined the lowly and trashy, that gave their aesthetic and ethic meaning. As the "ideal postmodern and postcolonial metaphor," they remain positioned by modernity and colonial discourse. In short, they are not independent from the very thing against which they have positioned themselves. (This is essentially Spivak's argument about the discourse of postcolonialism as being indebted to the very frame that it seeks to resist.) Hybridity thus fails to extract itself from a location that promises the continuity and presence of what detritus was intended to undermine.
Excerpted from Trash by Kenneth W. Harrow. Copyright © 2013 Kenneth W. Harrow. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgements
1. Bataille, Stam, and Locations of Trash
2. Rancière: Aesthetics, Its Mésententes and Discontents
3. The Out-of-Place Scene of Trash
4. Globalization’s Dumping Groun:, The Case of Trafigura
5. Agency and the Mosquito: Mitchell and Chakrabarty
6. Trashy Women: Karmen Gei, l’Oiseau Rebelle
7. Trashy Women, Fallen Men: Fanta Nacro’s "Puk Nini" and La Nuit de la vérité
8. Opening the Distribution of the Sensible: Kimberly Rivers and Trouble the Water
9. Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and the Image: Trash in Its Materiality
10. The Counter-Archive for a New Postcolonial Order: O Herói and Daratt
11. Nollywood and Its Masks: Fela, Osuofia in London, and Butler’s Assujetissement
12. Trash’s Last Leaves: Nollywood, Nollywood, Nollywood
What People are Saying About This
Reading these films in this manner becomes a metaphor of how one must understand African nations in a global context . . . . highly original and deeply historicized.