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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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When Game of Thrones Stopped Being Necessary


(believe it or not, no spoilers for yesterday’s finale, which I haven’t seen)

I’ve been fascinated by the notion that a rape scene should be (or could be) necessary. “Episode six ending was brutal – but was it necessary?” is a common way of framing it; Vanity Fair declared that “Game of Thrones Absolutely Did Not Need to Go There with Sansa Stark,” while over at Slate, the argument is made that “this particular scene was necessary,” given the grim bargain Sansa Stark had struck. Most striking, to me, was Jill Pantozzi (the editor-in-chief of the The Mary Sue) explaining why The Mary Sue would no longer actively promote the show:

“In this particular instance, rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.”

The question (and what it presumes) is a lot more revealing than any possible answers. After all, the assertion that a violation should be necessary—that it should be useful or do some kind of narrative work—brings us uncomfortably close to the idea that rape, itself, might sometimes be a “necessary evil.” Representing a violent rape on television and the actual violent act, itself, are distinct, of course; no one would argue the parallel explicitly. Yet both sides of the argument seem to accept, implicitly, that there is a line to be drawn between when a rape scene is acceptable and when it is not. If they disagree about where to draw the line, and where this particular scene falls, there still seems to be general agreement about a general principle: rape is, all things being equal, not a good thing to show on television, but it is sometimes necessary. Sometimes it does work; sometimes the plot calls for it; sometimes, it is a good thing.

There is a larger question being subsumed here. Is violence “necessary”? Was it necessary to kill Ned Stark, Catelyn Stark, Rob Stark, and Talisa Stark and her plus one? Was Joffrey’s killing of Ros necessary? Did they have to kill off Lady, the wolf? The list goes on and on. At a certain point, we are really asking whether Game of Thrones is necessary. And the answer, quite obviously, is that it is not. It is a television show. It is many things, both good, bad, and in-between. But it is not “necessary.”

That we would ask a question like this, putting a television show on (metaphorical) trial for its life, reflects the way pop culture has become a battle-ground on which a variety of other fights are waged. Culture wars are real and consequential: we are talking about whether this show is a good show, yes, but we are also talking and arguing about some of the burning issues of our time, starting with sexual violence. And representations of violence are not, fundamentally, different and distinct from “actual” violence anyway. There is complicity, feedback, and acculturation; how we understand the world through our cultural representations of it helps create the world we live in.

Here is what I think is the real question: what kind of world does Game of Thrones imagine? What does it take to be natural and normal? In its claims to be “realistic,” what sort of reality does it urge us to accept?

First and foremost, Game of Thrones is an essentially sadistic show, and there’s a direct relationship between violence and sympathy. The sympathetic characters are the characters who suffer while the characters who suffer become, as a consequence, sympathetic. We hated Sansa until she began to suffer, for example; now she’s become sympathetic. Characters that we like, who we start to follow and sympathize with and root for, tend, eventually, to suffer and die.

For the first three books of George R. R. Martin’s trilogy, I think, you could argue that this narrative sadism accomplished something. As an entry into the genre, Game of Thrones deflated the mythologies of J.R.R. Tolkien and his many, many imitators, by establishing, over and over again, that “good” characters tend to get killed by the evil and the unscrupulous, because honor and love are, essentially, political liabilities. Nice guys finish last. When the time came to adapt it as an HBO series, it was a brilliant idea to case Sean Bean as Ned Stark, the actor who played Boromir in the Lord of the Rings movies. As a good guy who was corrupted by lust for power—as well as being a usurper who found himself seeking to displace the real king—Boromir’s complexity exposes some of the fairy-tale for what it was, and for the Return of the King to happen, he had to die semi-heroically. Boromir is an important secondary character in the Lord of the Rings, therefore, because his death enables Aragorn to return as King.

In Game of Thrones, on the other hand, there is no real King, and so the Boromir character is forced into the role. But it is clear from the beginning that kingship is just usurpation and violence. Robert Baratheon was a usurper, and so were the people he displaced, in the grand scheme of things; every king was a violent usurper of the person before them. It’s usurpers all the way down, George R. R. Martin declares, and history is written by the winners. Thus, while Ned Stark and his family are obviously the good guys, and the Lannisters are obviously the bad guys, the distinction turns out to mean nothing, or less than nothing. Indeed, good guys finish last because goodness is a liability. When you play the game of thrones, honor is a luxury that you cannot afford.

High fantasy is usually structured around the romance of nobility, of good patriarchs that win in the end, and of princesses that get rescued. King Arthur is the root fantasy of what the “middle ages” were like that organizes this entire set of daydreams: Uther Pendragon’s son will pull the sword from the stone (because he’s the once and future king) and even after King Arthur gets deposed, the myth declares that King Arthur will return to save Britain. Tolkien copied a lot of that, at least for the parts of Middle Earth that don’t center on hobbits, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire turns that fantasy on its head: Westeros is structured by dominance, violence, by nice guys getting their heads cut off and women getting raped. It’s incredibly derivative, but A Song of Ice and Fire’s insistence that aristocrats are evil people (and that aristocrats who are not evil people tend not to stay aristocrats for very long) is at least interesting, because it stands Tolkien on his head.

The downfall of House Stark is a pretty good tragedy, then, taking up the three books Martin wrote and published in the 1990’s: A Game of Thrones, 1996; A Clash of Kings, 1998; A Storm of Swords, 2000. The first book is built around the lead-up to Ned Stark’s death; the next two books lead up to the Red Wedding, which kills or scatters all the good guys. It’s tragedy because the end is predetermined: as long as the Starks are who they are—honorable, noble, and just—they are doomed to lose at the game of thrones.

After the first three books, however, something fundamental changed. Classical tragedy is defined by its cathartic end-point, the explosion of violence which reveals the null state of existence to be the nullification of all our devices: watching a great man return to the dust from which he came is to inspire pity and fear, Aristotle wrote, because it is terrible to see it happen to the best of us and also to know that we are next. But tragedy ends—and this is the point—so that we can all go home and go about our lives as normal, as if all of existence isn’t a meaningless horrible blip until we die. Tragedy purges the emotions by confirming the worst, and after we weep, life goes on, because what else can it do?

The Red Wedding should have been the end of the show, I think; it’s the cathartic end-point, and the culmination of the Stark tragedy. We watch, we pity, and we feel fear: we have seen that being good, struggling for justice, for family, and for love, are not compatible with playing the game of thrones. To play the game of thrones, you have to play to win; you have to kill your darlings. If you don’t, you’ll die. The Starks don’t; they die.

But what happens to this story once the Starks are all dead or scattered? Why does the story go on? Tragedies don’t usually continue after the tragic hero is dead, because they cannot, by definition, be tragedies any more. At a certain point, there’s no one left to kill. And Game of Thrones is, after the third book stopped providing source material, no longer a tragedy. The bad guys won, and if life goes on, the good guys don’t come back to life (or, if they do, it’s pretty awful). Ideed, so many of the good guys are dead that the show has no choice but to make bad guys into protagonists (how have Jaime and Cercei Lanister become protagonists, again?)

In the context of romantic high fantasy, the show’s sado-masochistic narrative engine had a moderately subversive purpose. The Starks were nobility who were actually noble, and they embodied the daydream that powers High Fantasy: the romantic belief that Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses are Good People, that being good and being high not only go together, but do so naturally. By lulling the viewer into a sense of complacent interest in the characters, engaging our sympathetic identification with their struggles, and then killing our darlings, the show plants the seeds of sympathy, allows us to watch them grow, then harvests them. Ned Stark’s death is the point; the Red Wedding is the point; horror and suspense are the point. Who will die next? No one is safe.

There is something about this experience that we enjoy, for the same reason we like watching horror movies (if we do). There is a certain pleasure in being shocked and hurt. Maybe there’s a purging of the emotions, so we can continue: we watch our greatest fears played out on television, so that we can go on ignoring them in our everyday life. People who are afraid of sexual violence are often drawn to procedural cop shows about sexual violence, for example; if we watch it happen on-screen, we can experience our worst fears in safety. And so forth.

Since this is what people like about the show, why are people suddenly, now, declaring that the show’s violence has gone over the line?

What has changed, I think, is that tragedy has become pornography. Not literal pornography, of course, because very specific forms of gratuitous sexual titillation have been consistent throughout. Put some boobs on screen is one of the boxes each episode needs to check off, and consistently does. But what is the point of evoking terror and pity by hurting characters like Sansa or Cercei? Watching Ned, Catelyn, and Rob die was horrible not only because they were good people, but because we were watching the patriarchal fantasies of Good Kings dying with them. They represented something, the possibility of a return to the way things should be: the tragedy was coming to realize its impossibility. The Starks were the tragic heroes, because, from Ned on down, their heroic qualities were what doomed them, made their deaths inevitable. George R. R. Martin’s innovation was to suggest that “Goodness” is a tragic flaw.

After writing three books in four years, Martin lost the plot; since the Red Wedding, basically, he’s written two books in fifteen years, and they’re a hot mess. He’d written himself into a corner, and it will be interesting to see if HBO can write him out of it. I suspect he’s totally stuck, and here’s why: one way to end the thing would be with the Return of the King (google “R+L=J” if you want to know how it could happen), which would make A Song of Ice and Fire into a tragedy with a happy ending. But a tragedy with a happy ending is not a tragedy, and this is Martin’s dilemma: if the King returns, and all is well that ends well, then we have returned to the narrative that he so devilishly skewered in the first three books. If we watched a nightmarish horror, in which good guys finish last, we’ll wake up to discover that it was all a dream: actually, good guys finish first!

This might be how it ends; tragedy might become fantasy again. I hope not. I hope the White Walkers destroy the Seven Kingdoms and also that the peasants string up all the aristocrats and collectivize agriculture and establish a socialist utopia. That’s my fantasy, different than the one the crypto-royalists seem to cherish. But in the meantime, it’s spectacle without a purpose other than the pleasure of watching it. The show must go on because that’s what television does.

In other words, it is melodramatic pornography. It will have a happy ending, whatever happy means in that context. We will see some kind of visually satisfying spectacle of (dragon) riding and (sword) thrusting and a lot of sound and fury will go into making going-through-the-motions look like it signifies something. We will agonize at the violence and we will thrill to ecstatic thrusts and entanglements and betrayals, but because it happens to characters we barely care about, it will be cheap, easy, and forgettable. We’ll consume it, clean up, and move on. But it will not be necessary, because there will be no purpose to it. And that’s why we’re suddenly knowing it when we see it, as Supreme Court Justice Potter once famously described pornography; nothing is at stake anymore, and nothing can be at stake. The only suspense to be found is an artificially deferred gratification, since we all know where this is going, and it’s fun, but, you know, that’s it.

Pornography is titillation without a purpose, defined by the fact that it isn’t necessary. Whether he admitted it or not, Justice Potter in Jacobellis v. Ohio determined that The Lovers was not pornography, because there was artistic intent (it was a French film in 1958, after all). Game of Thrones was, when it was Tragedy, doing something Artistic-ish. Now it’s just True Detective, a veneer of Artisticish-ness that uses a fairly ludicrous storyline to cover up the fact that it’s not really going anywhere or doing anything. Art gives you permission to watch what would otherwise just be pornography, and we could be titillated by Game of Thrones when we could see that it wasn’t just television, but High Drama on HBO. We could enjoy the trappings of High Fantasy when we could tell ourselves that we were watching it be critiqued and subverted. Now that it isn’t, we’re suddenly feeling a bit icky about watching snuff porn.

Recrimination and Ruined Hope


This is a guest post from Rei Terada, one of my favorite thinkers, and a piece which–in view of its timeliness and pertinence–I was delighted to be able to host. 

Reading Laura Kipnis’s “My Title IX Inquisition” prompts the need to consider student-faculty hostilities in a more historical and relational light. Kipnis’s article details how she has become the target of student protest and Title IX retaliation complaints. She had published an essay, written in what she calls a “slightly mocking tone” arguing that new codes ruling out consensual erotic student-faculty relationships “infantilized students while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives.” For Kipnis, complaints of retaliation against her appear misplaced because she had never been accused of harassment and therefore had nothing, in her view, to retaliate for; as she saw it, she had simply published an opinion about a matter that did not directly concern her. Thus, Kipnis discusses student hostility primarily as a threat to her academic freedom. She laments a “climate of emotional peril” and “collective terror” on campuses, where “there are a lot of grudges these days” (“My TItle IX”) as well as the capriciousness and opacity of the officials investigating her.

Lauren Leydon-Hardy, who is a member of the department from which the Title IX complaints against Kipnis have issued, has written from her perspective. I would like to step back from the particulars of this and any dispute, however, to connect some otherwise unconnected elements of the larger situation.

Everyone seems to agree that this kind of conflict is new, as is its expression through rhetorics of vulnerability and institutional instruments such as Title IX and codes of conduct. Indeed, this trend has developed in the aftermath of student protests over privatization and other crises, and needs to be considered in conjunction with them. The protests began in California in 2009, then spread with the help of Occupy in 2011-12. They encompassed tuition increases, exploitation of workers, institutional anti-blackness, and police brutality, among other issues. Over the course of events (remember?), campus police arrested, beat with batons, pepper-sprayed, fired projectiles at, and on at least one occasion drew a gun on student protesters. University administrations harassed students with conduct charges for protests and prosecuted them in county courtrooms for political speech. There were people whose lives were seriously damaged by frivolous criminal charges.

During all this, the overwhelming majority of faculty remained distant and passive. I’m not aware that Laura Kipnis was ever moved to editorialize about the plight of students who fought for political expression during these years; few feminist faculty were, despite their avowed beliefs. Jennifer Doyle, in notable exception, observed in 2011 that student protesters were labeled “violent” no matter how restrained they actually were (I should add that Doyle has a detailed position on campus sexual politics that I do not mean to conflate with my thoughts on campus politics in general). When Berkeley campus police attacked students standing on a lawn with linked arms, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau responded by trying to argue that the students were “not non-violent.” After police pepper-sprayed seated students at UC Davis, Chancellor Linda Katehi was reported to be afraid to leave a campus building because students were gathered outside. A strange spectacle was staged in which Katehi, ashen with an imaginary distress that reversed the actual direction of the violence, was escorted by police to her car as funereally quiet students lined her path. Doyle wrote of the “increasing force directed at protesters who have sought ever more dramatic ways of demonstrating that they are angry–but not violent. Shouting? Too violent. Standing? Violent. Sitting down and chanting? Still violent. Finally, our students are on the floor with their mouths shut . . . [That] leadership has produced a situation in which the most effective protest has been silence should give us all pause.” Such phenomena form a matrix for the protest trope that Kipnis dismisses, students with “mouths taped shut (by themselves).” Or as Kipnis puts it–attributing the source of the problem to students–”open conversations are practically impossible” (Kipnis, “TItle IX”). Yes, they are.

After this attempted reduction to immobility, and after officials like then-UC President Mark Yudof repeatedly equated political speech with hate speech, thus closing the conceptual space for objection, how can it be surprising if anyone concludes that casting university problems in the terms of hate speech–the only terms it recognizes–might be an effective tactic? It is darkly logical to use the very codes of conduct and safety in the name of which the university represses protest to turn the tables, even as the fact that that is so sinks in with disappointment and resentment. Returning the rhetoric of the university to itself cannot perform autonomy, but constitutes a bitter reflection on its unavailability.

While commentators have observed the mostly “left” politics of the current friction, they haven’t got beyond seeing it as a contradiction. “It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years,” Kipnis writes (“My Title IX”). In fact, aggressive vulnerability is neither a blind contradiction nor supposed to be celebratory. It can mean different things in practice, without those things’ implying that it is anyone’s model of what meaningful remediation would be. Last quarter, UC Irvine’s Chancellor Howard Gillman derided student legislation against the use of national flags in student government space, then failed to object as racist insults and death threats to the students poured in. Students demanded that Gillman take issue with lack of civility against them, for a change, until he eventually succumbed to pressure in a belated op-ed. These claims of vulnerability were indeed “aggressive” in a way that complicates the picture of exaggerated sensitivity and absence of worldly realism. Where there are death threats, there is certainly vulnerability. At the same time, the protesting students were not, in my witness, at all cowed by racist threats, nor did they crave the loving kindness of an administration they perceived as corrupt. They were politically aware people who refused to be set back, and they pointed to their involuntary vulnerability to highlight the uneven application and would-be convenience of civility. The university’s official culture finds itself in a double bind of its own making. Given the demolition of options all around–the closure and threatened closure of programs, funds, access, time, and expression–that double bind is the impoverished shape of the remaining political space. It is a “right-wing” form, often but not inevitably used for “left” purposes (insofar as one can use that liberal vocabulary). It deploys university administrations (at best, parts of them against other parts). It’s airless, tense, and unsatisfying to inhabit, for anyone. It’s a form of damage. But whose signature is on it?

I’m not unsympathetic to Kipnis’s experience of administrative persecution, its protocols “under-explanatory in the extreme” (Kipnis, “My Title IX”). Rather, it sounds all too familiar, like what people lower in the hierarchy, people unlike myself, often experience. Faculty continue to sound oblivious to the conditions in which others in the university live. Kipnis’s original essay contends that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around” (“Sexual Paranoia”; my italics), and at length this turn-about seems to be much of the problem. It’s shocking to Kipnis that due to the animosities, “a tenured professor on [her] campus” might now lie “awake at night worrying” about losing her job (“My Title IX”); but the novelty of the experience suggests that the tenured professor does not lie awake worrying about others’ losses, and doesn’t find them intolerable. “If a graduate student can publicly blast her own university’s president, mock his ideas, and fear no repercussions, then clearly the retaliatory power that university employment confers on anyone — from professors to presidents — is nil,” Kipnis writes (“My Title IX”). But as soon as the graduate student does not arm her criticism in the legal obligation of Title IX, it doesn’t hesitate, as Kipnis leaves unmentioned, to treat her as a thing to be persecuted or ignored. Although Kipnis is sorry that “adjuncts, instructors, part-timers,” don’t have academic freedom, her immediate concern is not to get it for them. It’s that the situation not get worse by consuming her own, for “the idea is that once you’ve fought and clawed your way up the tenure ladder, the prize is academic freedom” (“My Title IX”). Here as elsewhere today, the concept of academic freedom can be appropriated to justify and obscure social discriminations. This defense of meritocratic freedom for the few (i.e.: of non-freedom) culminates in Kipnis’s “refus[al] to believe that students get to dictate what professors can or can’t write about, or what we’re allowed to discuss at our Faculty Senate meetings.” But isn’t the deeper question why students should be excluded from deciding what their relations to professors are, i.e., why they should be excluded from governance? Malcolm Harris’s interpretation of vulnerability claims against syllabus choices–that they “are a red herring in a wider fight” and “a way students have found to use language to lodge a complaint against the canon”–is closer to the mark (“Western Canon, Meet Trigger Warning”). The current state of things suggests that academic freedom can be developed only when it ceases to protect an inside from an outside; until then, there will always be a legitimate motive to attack what people are using, in practice, to protect themselves from the experience of others. Recrimination in the language of the university is the image of a ruined hope that things would be different. Many things would be better, but the ruin is not the invention of the mirror.

On the other side of the defense of hierarchy is not a new world with less hostility–not now, anyway. Sexism and/or racism arrive from within the activist/student milieu as well as from the hierarchy, and the former does not have much habitus to offer. Overworked, angry, underslept communities are not, in the extramoral sense, reliable places to live. In such places, hostilities continue to fly. Yet, they are what they are whether or not faculty manage to live above them, and their conditions and the forces that maintain them remain the issue. As long as that remains to be realized and altered, there is point in dwelling in the damage. I don’t see how “academic freedom” is or will have been possible unless everyone takes up residence on exposed ground.


What Even Can You Even Say About The Princess-Man of North Sudan?

icanhasprincessWhat is there to say about the “Princess of North Sudan” that isn’t already so incredibly soul-killingly obvious that it feels embarrassingly superfluous to say it? That it’s racist and stupid? Yes, obviously. I mean, are you kidding me? You cannot not be kidding me. You have to be kidding me.

It’s like condemning blackface. If you even have to say it, if you have to articulate the actual words, then are we even having the same conversation? Are we even a “we”? What are we even talking about? It feels insane to even have the conversation. We should be better than this. “We” should recognize that massively encouraging and indulging a child’s childish desire to be a princess by trying to invent a country in Africa is not only terrible, weird parenting—and seriously, good luck to that kid in growing up—but it also represents an absolutely bizarre and oblivious repetition of literally centuries of violent oppression. Man going to great lengths to make his daughter happy is sort of a good look, I guess; white guy showing up in an “unclaimed” part of Africa, with a flag, to start a country and make himself King of it? LESS SO.

So what do you say about such a person? What the hell do you say? Where do you even start?

The only thing more useless than calling it racist and terrible is not calling it racist and terrible, I suppose, which is my way of explaining why I needed to barf up this blog post. And yet the toxic sickness of the cultural imaginary that feeds these fantasies—that makes us hungry for them—is not something you can name and shame, precisely because it’s so normal. We are not better than this, first and foremost, if only because there is no “we.” There is only a repertoire of texts and stories and fantasies that help us imagine who it is that “we” might be, and so many of the white ones, so many of the white senses of the first person plural, are predicated on the exclusion of other senses of we. If whiteness is the desire to produce an us by excluding a them, then of course a white guy with a weakness for arrogant self-delusion is going to set up his daughter as a princess in Africa. It is and he will. But it’s an equally self-congratulatory delusion to imagine that “we” are actually better than this, that “we” are post-racial, that imperialism was a thing that “they” used to believe in, but which “we’ve” put behind us. We have seen the enemy and it’s still us.

As a normative claim, in other words, “we should be better than this” is actually part of the problem, because it only demonstrates the extent to which we aren’t a “we” at all. “We” know that colonialism is over, and “we” understand that a white guy indulging monarchical fantasies on a putatively “blank slate” that he found in Africa is, at best, sort of like planning a safari-themed or plantation-themed wedding and then being defensively pleased with yourself for not actually requiring the waiters to wear blackface. Which happens, constantly, predictably. At best, it represents a level of oblivious self-assertion that reminds you why parent-age white men have been such a problem population for centuries: the amount of arrogant entitlement required to show up in Africa with a flag and declare yourself to be both the new King and also the savior because of Western science or something—on the basis of the fact that no one else has “called it” already, no take-backs—is a toxic brain sickness that has historically correlated with white skin, even if it isn’t a causative genetic link.

Beneath the astounding madness of this guy’s project is the fact that these kinds of imperialist fantasies are so easy to indulge, and that they find such a quick and easy purchase in white minds (which is to say, minds that insist on being white by taking something like this seriously). It tells you something that Disney is not only not better than this, but hired a screenwriter to write the movie who insists that the movie is not about what it is obviously about. But underneath the craziness of this project—a craziness produced by our insistence that it’s SO crazy, that normal people like us would never think this was remotely okay—there is the fact that none of this is actually surprising or crazy. This guy is trying to do what his culture has programmed him to do: he is performing patriarchal whiteness using the convenient props provided by “Africa” as a space of negation. If your heroes are George Washington and Winston Churchill, then this is the sort of thing you are likely to do.

As crazy-making as the existence of this guy and his Indigogo campaign are, Jeremiah Heaton has done us the marvelous favor of demonstrating how crazy-making the history of the last few centuries still is. Jeremy Heaton didn’t set up the borders of Sudan and Egypt so that both countries specifically un-claim the patch of land called Bir Tawil; Jeremy Heaton didn’t draw the borders of these nation-states in schizophrenic contradictions. That was Great Britain that did that, and the United Nations that has, for sixty-odd years (very odd years), insisted on pretending that those arbitrary lines in the sand are somehow sacred. In a world where nearly every African nation is stuck with the absolutely arbitrary and nonsensical fantasy-borders imposed on them, by white men a century ago, normality is already thoroughly defined by the leftover remnants of Jeremy Heaton’s predecessors. And it’s crazy-making!

In such a world, nothing is so unsurprising and unremarkable as a white man playing King of Africa through his daughter, nor the fact that Disney would take a look at this story and see their kind of story being told. Where do you think this seven-year old girl got the idea that she should want to be a princess? Americans love saying that we are an anti-monarchical country almost as much as we love pretending to be kings and princesses. We just don’t do it here. After all, where, in a Democracy, can you be a princess? Where can real patriarchal power be indulged? Only in pantomime and play. Only in pretend. Only in the past. Only out there. Space solves the problem of time: outside of our Democracy,  “out there” in mythical places like Africa and the Orient, you can pretend to be doing it for real, because and to the extent that you can pretend those places are not actually real places, or are lodged in a time before modernity. They can become blank slates for white imagination, white fantasy, because and to the extent that you can imagine that no one lives there, or if they do, that they’re not like us (and need help becoming like us). Because and if they are imaginary—mere images—you can imagine that you are real, that you are really living up to your image of what you really are. This is what Jeremy Heaton has been programmed by his toxic culture to imagine he and his daughter should do.

Put simply, what makes a story like this so unsurprising—and how inevitable it is that the old imperial geographies will get used, in the present, to project fantasies of domination that might otherwise be awkward for American white people to indulge in America“Awkward” in a sort of do it but don’t talk about it way.—are the expectations for personhood that are baked into normative whiteness, a rancid calzone of aristocratic desires that children are fed from the moment they’re old enough to understand. After all, why wouldn’t a (white) child want to be a princess? Why wouldn’t she expect that this is a thing to aspire to be? And why wouldn’t a (white) father feel the need to give this to her? “This” being an aristocratic privilege of command and a bloodline-based superiority; “this” being the expectation that patriarchal love be expressed by leaving a despotism to your child. If these are things we teach children to want, things we have taught ourselves to expect, it’s because we never really reconstructed this racist country; a Georgia-born Virginian like Jeremy Heaton can unashamedly parade his desire to own an Africa, so that his daughter can inherit an Africa, because we live in a crazy-making racist country that insists Democracy and Chattel slavery were ever, in some sense, compatible. That’s what happens when your Declaration of Independence was written by a slave owner, and that’s what happened when we pretended the whole thing wasn’t therefore totally delegitmized.

That was tragedy, though; this is farce. For centuries, the global economy was built on the violently expropriated labor, land, and lives of non-white people, in very clear and direct and brutal and vicious ways. It was not subtle. White people owned black people and Africa, not because it made any sense, but because those white people would shoot you if you disagreed with them, and they did, a lot. The human tragedy produced by this violence for centuries is vastly beyond human comprehension. But then, we also try really hard not to comprehend it, we white people who think white is an okay thing to be; we close the book on it and insist on moving on, looking forward, not back. Mistakes were made by those white people, but we white people are different white people. That’s why Jeremy Heaton can come along with a hilariously literal-mindedness and imagine that repeating the past is a thing that’s not crazy. Because what is he doing but playing out the childish fantasies that his honored predecessors played out, and are still honored for playing? If you refuse to acknowledge the tragedy, you will make yourself a farce. White people who think that “white people” is an identity you can inhabit without being defined by centuries of violence—who bristle at words like “privilege” because it makes whiteness tangible and visible—are a joke without a punch line, just a punch in the mouth if you laugh.

And yet: Jeremy Heaton is more a scandal than a threat. He’s just a guy with delusions and enough money to play them out. Disney is another story, but for different reasons; they have a lot more money, but they confie themselves to the cultural realm, which is a different category of damage. But ultimately, there’s a limited amount of damage that this buffoon can do. Historically, when a white guy with a flag showed up somewhere at a place and called it “terra nullius,” the problem was that he tended, thereafter, to systematically kill everybody who lived there. Terra Nullius was a euphemism for genocide, historically, because calling the land “uninhabited” was a way to pretend you hadn’t just murdered that lie into coming true. But Jeremy Heaton came along at the wrong time to become a genocidaire; like so many clueless white buffoons, he’s much more likely to get used by Egypt and Sudan than he is to cause any real damage. His project is a clusterfuck, but he’s just a tourist with a case of bad nostalgia. He’s not going to shoot people.

Other people are, however. Farce follows tragedy because violence does not leave the world unchanged. There is no more slavery and no more colonialism; today’s rapaciously exploitative capitalism takes different forms. But while those who insist on mindlessly repeating the past make themselves into a spectacle, unconscious self-parody—and Jeremy Heaton has been almost uniformly mocked because this is not the sort of thing we do anymore—the fact that he is a spectacle is also because the capitalist world has found much more efficient and boring ways of expropriating labor, land, and lives. His are unfashionable, like blackface: the modern world has new and improved methods of dehumanizing and exploiting black people.

Put simply, Jeremy Heaton is an anachronism because if you want to make a lot of money by throwing Africans off their land or exploiting their very cheap labor, all you have to do is cut a deal with their governments, who do the hard work of murder and discipline themselves. This point needs to be underscored, because it’s not unrelated to global white supremacy, but it’s not the same, either: Africans being pushed off their land by agro-business (or being put to work on land which is no longer theirs) is as likely to be done at the behest of Saudi capital or Chinese, and the hand holding the gun and giving the order is likely to be black (though there’s always a white man in there somewhere, getting his cut). But Bir Tawil is a sideshow compared to the land expropriations and violent exploitation of routine global capitalism. The big land-grabs that have been accelerating, since about 2008, are utterly normal, utterly unspectacular, business as usual, and they’re so enormous that something like Heaton’s little project is just a hilarious little joke. Millions of hectares being sold are today’s economic tragedy (or one of them, rather), but the mismatch in scale is staggering. I won’t summarize this Oxfam report, because you can pick a page and see for yourself; or click a few of these links, taken from the Stop Africa Land Grab website:

We white people can and should be humiliated by the fact that Jeremy Heaton is able to get as much play out of this lunacy as he is, because he’s reminding us of what it means to be white, wtill. He’s playing by the rules of a game we haven’t repudiated, even if we might sometimes flatter ourselves that we have. But white-guy-with-a-flag-and-a-dream is an old game, one that might occasionally experience a revival, but one which isn’t coming back. Jeremy Heaton is toxic backwash from a cultural imaginary that hasn’t purged itself of the poison. But he’s only as dangerous as a Disney movie, not armed with a gun. And other people are, people who don’t need to crowd-source their dreams of empire.

Witnessing Patriarchy

The first PEN event I attended last weekend in NYC, was a gathering of the Elders, “the Witnesses,” a group of old men whose collective wisdom we were invited to witness: Boubacar Boris Diop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Achille Mbembe, and Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o.

They were led onto stage, however, and introduced with so much ceremony and praise that there could be no vitality to the event. This was not exactly their fault, not exactly; if you’d already read their work before, you’d probably already heard everything before, a repetition which was what it was. And I’d have paid the price of admission to see any one of them speak, alone: they are each interesting and flawed and vital thinkers, with archives of work that haunt the present, and they aren’t dead yet. They have said so many interesting things, over the years; it can be easy to take someone like Ngugi for granted, because of the way “Decolonizing the Mind” has become a framing conceptual structure for any and all discussion of African literature, even if (especially if) you struggle to disregard it. Seeing them in person, embodied, is the opportunity to see them move and speak and contend with their textual selves: how does Ngugi feel about the English language now? Someone needs to ask him about how it feels to write his memoirs in English, now, an issue that goes strangely un-addressed when people invoke his decision to stop writing in English. Ngugi of the 1980’s haunts the Ngugi of today. I’d like to hear him talk about living in California; I’d be the last person to tell him he should move back to Kenya (or write his memoirs in Gikuyu), but there’s a strange gap between the sense of “What Ngugi would say” that is so often invoked in discussions of African language and literature—permanently crystallized in the early 80’s—and the actual Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The former is an unyielding firebrand who makes uncompromising political demands; the latter is an old guy who makes lots of warm grandfatherly jokes. There is no scandal here; we are all conflicted and contradictory mixed up combinations of different selves, of course. It’s just that some people have a lot of things to say about that fact. Someone should ask them.

Instead, what became apparent almost immediately at “The Witnesses” was that the ceremony with which these Witnesses were to be presented to us, made present, would place and preserve them in a place outside of time and history: the preserved Africa of perpetual tradition. Perhaps that’s what happens when you put four very different thinkers in one place, and ask them to reflect on “What is the value of age and wisdom when it comes to artistic expression?” Perhaps that’s what happens when—before they are given the chance to do—they are placed under the spotlight of “When an Old Man dies, a library is burned” and allowed to do no more than reflect the grisly light of that cliche and other burning ruins. They played along. But because the room was so carefully staged by the aura of their dead genius, the only part they could play was that of ancestor, of dead father. The conveners buried them under the imperative to perform Africa The Traditional.

“Traditional Africa,” whether a real thing or an invented Victorian imposition by British colonialism—and it’s at least a combination of both—is nothing if not patriarchal, as this event scrupulously reflected. There were six people on stage; two of them were women, but if they had ever written anything themselves, it never became apparent: they only talked about the four patriarchs, performing reverence to them, reading their work, praising them, even placing personal copies of their books on the table before them to be signed. At least twice, the phrase “Old Men” was used as a synonym for Elder; several times, the masculine Elder was awkwardly expanded to include the feminine, an awkwardness that was more audible than the correction. But the gendered distribution of performative functions on stage had a clarity that the language could only muddy and mask: the men were witnessed and the women did the witnessing.

On the one hand, there’s the conversation we could have about why Ama Ata Aidoo or someone like that wasn’t brought to be one of The Witnesses. Granted, there aren’t a lot of Ama Ata Aidoos around (though I know of at least one, and also, Rashidah Ismaili was right there). But also, it’s easier to find male elders to reflect on “the value of age and wisdom when it comes to artistic expression,” if for no better reason than that the generation of Ngugi and Aidoo was segregated by gender in ways the archive of elderly prestige now reflects. It’s also one of the reasons why age, by itself, is not quite the same thing as wisdom: women with age do not reliably turn out to be treated as Wise Elders, while Wise Old Men are often treated as such without needing to reflect it. This is a good conversation to have because, My God, what was even going on on that stage? Worth noting: at the same time as “The Witnesses” were parading patriarchal authorship, the panel on writing gender was happening somewhere else. Men Witness, Women gender….

Anyway, the drama of patriarchy is always interesting, at least, because of the ways it so poorly serves their humanity, and this is another conversation to have. Every word that Ngũgĩ speaks reminds us of how many years it has been since he wrote Decolonizing the Mind; a day later, the panel on Glissant would reference “what Ngũgĩ would say” about Glissant’s demand that we try to dirty or language, to soil it and make it impure, because it was never pure anyway. And in that room, Mbembe was able to argue, explicitly, that there has never been a “pure” language, and that Ngũgĩ’s argument demands a return to something that never existed. But he didn’t say this when he was sitting next to him. “What Ngũgĩ would say” only became available as a position to refute—a caricature, even—in his absence. Because the best kind of father to kill is the father that’s already dead?

It became clear, at a certain point, that Mbembe was uncomfortably situated between three icons of literary art, a discomfort he did his best to emphasize, perform, and articulate: he was the youngest person on stage, he observed, a moment before suggesting that age does not necessarily confer wisdom. This was an idea which no part of the preceedings would have led one to suspect; every act of framing and presentation led inescapably to the opposite conclusion, that age and wisdom (and masculinity, implicitly) were the same. With a laugh, Ngũgĩ observed that his son was in the audience, and complained that Mbembe was undermining his authority. Don’t listen to this man, he instructed his son; listen to me. We all laughed. As a joke, it was a charming moment (and Ngugi is at his most charming when he makes jokes, as he often does). Yet that joke held, with a loose grip, the tension of the statement: if Ngũgĩ’s joke about paternal authority was funny, it was because Mukoma wa Ngugi is is a grown man, and in the absence of true patriarchal authority, when one adult pretends to command another, the laugh expresses love, not anxiety. The pretense of the claim, its pretension, performance, actually marks the relaxed grip with which the father is holding his child. You can laugh, and we did, because it’s only a joke.

Of course, and this is the point, sometimes patriarchs don’t grip their children so loosely. You can be opposed to patriarchy and also be charmed by patriarchs; Ngũgĩ is charming, such a far cry from the unyielding firebrand who rebukes and disciplines, in his own absence. But only in his absence does “What Ngũgĩ would say” frame him as a father who must either revered or killed. In his presence, he’s a funny old grandfather who performs love for his son, not only praising the novel his son wrote in English, but failing to rebuke him for contributing to the death of African languages.

Boris Bouboucar Diop spoke movingly, that evening, about Cheik Anta Diop, and suggested that when he and his fellow students were young, they tried to kill the father: Marxists all, they found Cheik Anta Diop’s work inadequate, ill-conceived, something to be cast off. Today, he reflected, decades after his passing, Senegal has realized its error. Having killed the father, perhaps, his absence made them realize the value of his living presence? It wasn’t necessary to be at this event to read Diop’s reflections on Diop, of course; his collection of essays, Africa Beyond the Mirror, contains a moving reflection of the Senegalese intellectual class’s two fathers, Cheik Anta Diop and Leopold Sedar Senghor. It’s a tremendously illuminating essay, and I’m glad I read it. But when he quickly, briefly, described the ways the Senegalese intellectuals of today were un-killing the father in their memory, he animated knowledge I had been glad to read and gave it emotional weight, substance, presence. Mourning the father makes his presence felt in ways the mere figure in the room never could, nor should. But give me the latter, any day.