The Perfect Nine

I have posted about a number of Ngugi wa Thiongo's academic books (Decolonizing the MindTheory and Politics of KnowingSomething Torn and New, Moving the Centre, Secure the Base). For those who know him, Ngugi did not start as an academic and most of his work is non-academic – he has authored much more in the way of theatre, poem, and novels. I've not read those works, but am hoping to do so in 2023. I started with The Perfect Nine, translated by the author from Gikuyu in 2020 (original 2018). The book relates the origin story of the Gikuyu, one of the peoples of Kenya (the 'perfect nine' about daughters, who the author points out, offers a version of femininity rooted in self-reliance

Common to foundational narratives as this one is are guiding values that people who identify with the narrative can orient their lives toward. One of the concluding discussions includes: "Look for me in love. Look for me in unity. Look for me among the helping. Look for me among the oppressed. Look for me among the seekers of justice, those who give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty. Look for me among those helping the ailing. Look for me among them without clothes or shelter. Look for me among those building the nation in the name of the human." (p. 227) 

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Wax & Gold

Levine's Wax & Gold (1965) is one the 'classics' of Ethiopian studies in the socio-anthropological realm. Much ink has been spilled about his work (including the author himself added a Preface to the 1972 to explain his change of views), much work has also been inspired that draws on the wax and gold concept that Levine describes and employs. 

In many ways, this was a book of its time - similar to other ethnographic type works that emerged in the early decades within the discipline of anthropology. Levine has sections on history, coming of age, adulthood, roles, marriage, individualism, social organizations, psycho-social analysis; all of which focusing on the Amhara. This post won't delve into the content, but instead share his points on the idea of wax and gold:

  • "The apparent, figurative meaning of the words is called "wax"; their more or less hidden actual significance is the "gold"." (p. 5)
  • "This terminology is derived from the work of the goldsmith, who constructs a clay mold around a form created in wax and then, draining the wax, pours the molten gold into that form." (p. 5)
  • The chief delight of Ethiopic poetry is to attain a maximum of thought within a minimum of words. This effect is reached, as we have seen, through subtle allusions and plays on words." (p. 7)
  • "... wax and gold is so important in Amharic that some Amhara maintain that one does not properly speak the language unless he is well versed in the art of exploiting its numerous ambiguities." (p. 8)
  • "Just as the Amhara tends to be tight-lipped and evasive when confronted with questions he does not feel like answering, so he finds pleasure in stubbornly withholding his meaning from his audience through employing figures and allusions which no one can understand. This may be understood as a passive form of oral aggression." (p. 230)
  • "Unless there is some overwhelming personal advantage to be obtained from providing information, the Amhara tend to give answers - when they do not pretend not to understand the question - in terms so ambiguous as to be worthless" (p. 251). 

The 'wax and gold' tradition is one wherein ambiguity is praised as it conveys one's linguistic and intellectual abilities to speak with brevity and offer multiple meanings at once. Literal, straight forward viewed as simplistic and lacking of intellect, whereas the use of 'wax and gold' in communication conveys complexity and intellect.

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Achille Mbembe is not as well-known as he should be. One reason is that much of his work is written in French (although more translations are becoming available). I suspect this Cameroonian philosopher and critical scholar will become increasingly well-known in the years to come. This is essential reading (as is his Critique of Black Reason, which I will post about soon). Here I share some notes from his "Necropolitics" (original in French published in 2016, and the English translation published by Duke was published in 2019):

"… war is determined as an end and necessity not only in democracy but also in politics and in culture. War has become both remedy and poison – our pharmakon. Its transformation into the pharmakon of our time has, in turn, let loose gruesome passions that are increasingly pushing our societies to exit democracy and, as was the case under colonization, to transform into societies of enmity." (p. 3)

"His [Fanon's] advice to colonized persons who refused castration was to turn their backs on Europe; in other words, he suggested that one begin with oneself and stand tall outside the categories that brought one to bow and scrape. The difficult involved not only one's being assigned a race but one's internalizing of the terms of this assignation, that is, one's coming to the point of desiring and becoming the accomplice of castration. For everything, or nearly everything, encouraged colonized peoples to inhabit as their skin and their truth the fiction that the Other had produced in their regard." (p. 5)

"Civil peace in the West thus depends in large part on inflicting violence far away, on lighting up centers of atrocities, and on the fiefdom wars and other massacres that accompany the establishment of strongholds and trading posts around the four corners of the planet… the fulfillment of these new desires depended on institutionalizing a regime of inequality at the planetary scale." (p. 19-20)

"The history of modern democracies gets painted as though it reduces to a history internal to Western societies, as if, closed in on themselves and closed to the world, these societies confined themselves to the narrow limits of their immediate environment. Well, never has this been the case. The triumph of modern democracy in the West coincides with the period of its history during which this region of the world was engaged in a two-fold movement of internal consolidation and expansion across the seas. The history of modern democracy is, at bottom, a history with two faces, and even two bodies…" (p. 22)

"… this law aimed at 'humanizing' war. It emerged just as the 'war of brutalization' in Africa was in full swing. The modern laws of war were first formulated during the Conventions in Brussels in 1874, and then at The Hague in 1899 and 1907. But the development of international principles on the subject of war did not necessarily change the conduct of European powers on the ground. Such was the case yesterday; such is the case today." (p. 25)

'The colonial world, as an offspring of democracy, was not the antithesis of the democratic order. It has always been its double, or, again, its nocturnal face. No democracy exists without its double, without its colony – little matter the name and the structure. The colony is not external to democracy and is not necessarily located outside its walls. Democracy bears the colony within it, just as colonialism bears democracy, often in the guise of a mask." (p. 26-27)

"The domain of objects and machines, as much as capital itself, is increasingly presented in the guise of an animistic religion. Everything is put into question up to and including the status of truth. Certainties and convictions are held to be the truth. Reason needs not be employed. Simply believing and surrendering oneself is enough. As a result, public deliberation, which is one of democracy's essential features, no longer consists in discussing and seeking collectively, before the eyes of all citizens, the truth, and ultimately, justice." (p. 55)

"… if they really persist in wanting to live next to us, in our home, they should have their pants down, rears out in the open. Nanoracism defines an era of scullion racism, a sort of pocketknife racism, a spectacle of pigs wallowing in the mud pit. Its function is to turn each of us into billy-goat leather mercenaries. It consists in placing the greatest number of those that we regard as undesirable in intolerable conditions, to surround them daily, to inflict upon them, repeatedly, an incalculable number of racist jabs and injuries, to strip them of all their acquired rights, to smoke them out of their hives and dishonor them until they are left with no choice but to self-deport." (p. 58)

"That the technologies which produced Nazism originated in the plantation or in the colony, or that – Foucault's thesis – Nazism and Stalinism actually only amplified a series of already extant mechanisms of Western European social and political formations (subjugation of the body, health regulations, social Darwinism, eugenics, medicolegal theories on heredity, degeneration, and race) is, in the end, irrelevant. Yet one fact remains: in modern philosophical thought and in the imaginary and practice of European politics, the colony represents a site in which sovereignty fundamentally consists in exercising a power outside the law …" (p. 76)

"If yesterday the modern rational subject's raison de vivre was to fight against myth, superstition, and obscurantism, the work of reason nowadays is to allow for different modes of seeing and measuring to appear. It is to help human subjects to properly identify the threshold that distinguishes between the calculable and the incalculable, the quantifiable and the unquantifiable, the computable and the incomputable. It is to help them understand that technologies of calculation, computation, and quantification do present us with one world among many actual and possible worlds. Therefore, as Pasquinelli argues, different modes of measuring will open up the possibility of different aesthetics, of different politics of inhabiting the Earth, and, we may add, of sharing the planet." (p. 113)

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Rethinking Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah is probably most well known for his book Cosmopolitanism (2006). His most recent book, "The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity" (2018) explores forms of identities (gender, religion, race, nationality, class, culture), on a chapter-by-chapter basis. The arguments deconstruct these identities, ultimately leading toward a cosmopolitanist case in the conclusion. Essentially, each chapter seeks to cast a sufficient amount of doubt about any Truth claim relating to identity, such that it would be questioned, contested, and to an extent negated as a Truth claim (and held as a truth claim amongst many equally true truth claims). Each deconstruction is rooted in post-modernist relativism. At the outset, the foundation is described as follows: "The French sociologist Pierre Bourdie put it this way. Each of us has what he called a habitus: a set of dispositions to respond more or less spontaneously to the world in particular ways, without much thought. Your habitus is trained into you starting from childhood. Parents tell you not to speak with your mouth full, to sit up straight, not to touch your food with your left hand, and so on, and thus form table manners that are likely to stick with you all your life." (21) From this, analogies are drawn to all forms of identity. 

The cosmopolitan conclusion is: "Once we abandon organicism, we can take up the more cosmopolitan picture in which every element of culture - from philosophy or cuisine to the style of bodily movement - is separable in principle from all the others; you really can walk and talk in a way that's recognizably African-American and commune with Immanuel Kant and George Eliot, as well as Bessie Smith and Martin Luther King Jr. No Muslim essence stops individual inhabitants of Dar al-Islam from taking up anything from the Western Civ. syllabus, including democracy. No Western essence is there to stop a New Yorker of any ancestry taking up Islam." (207) "When it comes to the compass of our concern and compassion, humanity as a whole is not too broad a horizon. We live with 7 billion fellow humans on a small, warming planet. The cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity." (219) 

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