The Consequences of Representation

John Holbo was kind enough to pick up on my posting about tropes for my Image of Africa course this semester and add a new item, a really interesting one: the extent to which imaginative fictions feel comfortable inventing countries, cities, places in Africa (in fact, are actively uncomfortable using real countries and places). What’s really interesting about this is that many of the source fictions that we looked at this semester, like King Solomon’s Mines and Sanders of the River, blend real African geographies with fake ones. There are latter-day examples of that, Michael Crichton’s Congo, for example. But more often in recent popular culture, fictions and entertainments offer African places (Wakanda, for example) unmoored from any link to real geographies and places.

The Crooked Timber commenters point out that there are a host of European examples of this as well, and even fictional American cities (Metropolis and Gotham City, for starters). So it’s not just Africa, but there’s a particular vagueness and plasticity of the African examples, a blurriness. Metropolis and Gotham City invoke known versions of New York City, light and dark. The kinds of Boogaboogalands we see set in fictional Africas invoke nowhere in particular. They have a dictator here, a refugee camp there, insurgents, witch doctors, pleasant villagers under the sway of custom, perhaps some savage warriors with long Zulu-style shields, an avuncular chief (often, as a Crooked Timber contributor observed, sporting a monocle and claiming to have been educated at Eton).

I was really satisfied with the Image of Africa course this past semester. The students were great, we had good discussions, the mix of texts seemed to me to work. I felt less obligated to “coverage” than I had in the past, and stuck with what generated reactions. One of the most satisfying things to me, though, is that I thought we began to zero in on a more sophisticated way to think about what kinds of consequences representation has in the world, of the relationship between representation and action. The combination of identity politics and historicist cultural criticism, whether you dismissively call it “political correctness” or acknowledge its more sophisticated underpinnings, nevertheless left us with a generic, one-size-fits-all response to “bad” culture, certain in advance that we know why such culture is wrong or what work it does in the world.

However, though I was pushing the course away from that shoot-from-the-hip reaction, you don’t want to end up at the opposite pole, where representation is just a mirror of society, where it has no relationship to action or behavior. In the case of representations of Africa, particularly the representation John Holbo describes, you don’t have to look any further than a December 19th story in The Wall Street Journal (sorry, no online version of the article) about Bruce Wilkinson, an American preacher determined to create a huge village of orphans in Swaziland, through his “Dream for Africa” project, extending existing endeavors like the “Never-Ending Garden”.

I suppose generously you could say the impulse behind the project was at least genuinely humanitarian. At least some of the people who’ve given to the project or who believe in it are utterly sincere in their desire to help. The problem of AIDS-orphaned children is also very real in southern Africa, and heart-breaking. But the fantasies that got mustered in this particular humanitarian dream were roughly as grotesque and unreal as those of any 20th Century autocrat you care to name. Leaving aside any of the thinking behind the project, the mere design and scale of it was bad enough: a huge residential and commercial complex intended to house up to 10,000 orphans plus preachers and support personnel, funded through work by the orphans, a 99-year lease over two major game parks adjacent to the complex, and expected tourist revenues from Americans and others flying in to see the salvation of orphans one day and wild animals the next. The whiff of Ceausescu in that design (and Dickens, for that matter) is pretty unmistakeable to me. At the least it’s a high-modernist fantasy of centralization and control. Not to mention that any of us who study the history of development projects in Africa know exactly where this project was headed if it was given any further room to become reality, towards a kind of half-assed initial implementation that would round up the most vulnerable, marginal “orphans”, put them in some poorly thought out starter complex and probably end up abandoning them after five or ten years. That history goes way back, all the way to the 19th Century expedition of British missionaries who went up the Niger to demonstrate to the locals the virtues of free labor over slavery and ended up buying slaves in order to “free” them for work on a plantation. It comes way forward, with the ill-conceived Somalian intervention of the 1990s.

Always inappropriate to the circumstance, and always utterly unconcerned with the actual people involved. Here’s a case where I think precisely the imaginary geographies that John Holbo writes about are involved: Africa is the place where it’s ok to capaciously envision grand projects of various kinds with little concern for the specific humanity of specific African individuals or communities, where you treat them as generic, faceless objects to be saved, remade, to be waved about as totemic proof of your own goodness, not as people who may have histories, psychologies, aspirations, cultures, individual and collective complexities. And when such projects die their inevitable deaths, rather than looking hard at themselves, the grand dreamers always blame African intransigence and malfeasance. It’s not as if Swaziland’s government is normally a model of probity and responsible governance, but here’s one case where they did exactly the right thing by stringing along the donors for whatever they could get from them and cutting them off at the point where their project threatened to become just real enough to do actual harm.

It’s only Africa where it’s ok to envision doing something like creating a gigantic tourist complex for foreigners to come and being photographed with orphans one day and wild animals the next, leaving the orphans to be preached at and prodded in the days in between: nobody, except maybe a Hollywood celebrity or two, would dream of buying up existing communities or facilities in the United States for anything of this kind. This is one of those junctures where what is otherwise safely imaginary has a kind of surplus to it, spilling over the chalice of dreams into real lives and real places. I don’t think you deal with that spillage by attacking imagination, but maybe you could help prevent it with an increased supply of knowledge about the real-world.

This entry was posted in Academia, Africa, Popular Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Consequences of Representation

  1. Great post, Tim. I usually don’t care much for diagnoses that turn on racial categories and allegations, but your comment that “Africa is the place where it’s ok to capaciously envision grand projects of various kinds with little concern for the specific humanity of specific African individuals or communities…” immediately made me think of mostly-black D.C., and the social experimentation often foisted upon that city by a Republican (and white)-dominated Congress. Sex-abstinence education, vouchers, etc.–a lot of it I’m more than willing to give a listen to, and some of it I outright support in principle. But I hate the way it’s done. As any former or current D.C. resident can tell you, the way in which some Congresspersons continue to treat the District as a benighted no-man’s-land, the perfect subject for “capaciously envision[ed] grand projects,” smacks of nothing so much as a plantation-owner mentality. And so, the reluctant conclusion: there probably really is some substance to those who claim that white Europeans often (one hopes unknowingly) treat majority-black communities as blank sheets, upon which they can imagine anything except real people, with real histories and agendas of their own.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    No argument that the Dream for Africa project is fundamentally misguided, and I have no intention of defending it — but a “whiff of Ceausescu”? Rather extreme language, don’t you think? (and very unusual for you, Tim.) Wilkinson is naive and out of his depth, but I think there’s a considerable distance between what he’s trying to do and a totalitarian nightmare. (Hell, his plan is not even Dickensian, if by invoking that name you’re recalling the “telescopic philanthropy” of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House: Wilkinson has been living in Africa, and plans to bring others there, whereas one of the chief points of Dickens’s critique of telescopic philanthropy is that its practitioners never come within thousands of miles of the objects of their compassion.)

    Wouldn’t it be more fair to say that Wilkinson is just recognizing what a lot of Westerners in Africa have felt — compare the recent Paul Theroux piece in the NYT — namely, that poverty and misery in Africa have not yielded to any of the relief-and-development models that have had at least modest success elsewhere? And therefore new, different, and more drastic measures are worth a try? And that he himself has an obligation to take some of the vast wealth he has accumulated from sales of his (quite stupid) Prayer of Jabez books and use it to help the poorest of the poor? It seems to me, then, that if Wilkinson’s project is wrong-headed (and it is) it would be more appropriate and constructive to offer correction than to compare him to a murderous totalitarian dictator — or for that matter to fatuous Victorian do-gooders who carefully insulated themselves from direct contact with the afflicted.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think he has the dictatorial character of Ceausescu, but the centralizing, modernizing, managerial aspect of Wilkinson’s fantasies, combined with the imperial disinterest in the people his design would encompass, strike me as having a family resemblance to high-modernist state socialist planning of the kind that manifested in Romania’s interventions into fertility and family life. I found James Scott’s Seeing Like a State pretty persuasive on this point, that the centralization of welfare housing in the US, state socialist planning in the Soviet Bloc, and ujaama villages in Tanzania all shared some hidden connections, and not some bland “left” ideology, instead, a common view about what a high-modernist state can accomplish and a belief in the possibility of accomplishing those goals through massive, centralized and top-down projects. Wilkinson’s ambitions in this respect are very similar. So in a way, I don’t necessarily blame him personally as much as I take note of the continuing strength of this vision in all sorts of places–and I think it’s no accident that it surfaces in Africa and in the visions outsiders bring to Africa.

    I think the correction here, Alan, is to back up and try something completely different. If Wilkinson’s genuine in his desire to help, he has to start from a completely different set of premises. The project he’s offered to date isn’t just naive or out-of-its-depth: if even a small portion of it became reality (and likely that’s all that would ever become reality), it would become a problem nearly as bad as the problem it proposes to ameliorate. Good intentions don’t absolve you of bad results. Wilkinson has been living in Africa, perhaps, but he clearly hasn’t developed the least bit of sensitivity to actual Africans. Pure physical presence doesn’t make you any less telescopic: to abandon the telescope, you’ve got to put on a different set of lenses.

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    I know Seeing Like a State, Tim, and I think its argument powerful. But I believe you are misapplying it here, because you are focusing only on the two elements of Wilkinson’s project that resemble state activities: its size, and the fact that it creates a purely artificial community. You’re ignoring everything else: that Wilkinson is not a public official, that he is in fact a complete outsider to Swaziland, that his project depends for its funding on private voluntary contributions, and — above all — that (unlike the seeing-like-a-state centralized planning that you rightly deplore) it is not imposed as a matter of policy but rather offered to the Swaziland government and wholly dependent on that government’s explicit approval. He’s not coming in with tanks if the government turns him down (which I believe it already has).

    Again, I have no interest in defending Wilkinson’s project, and I completely agree with you that those who want to help Africa should “back up and try something completely different.” (I have taught, rather briefly, in Africa myself, and my wife worked for fifteen years for a relief agency that emphasized micro-enterprise and other forms of long-term community development rather than high-profile relief interventions.) Where we disagree is simply on the characterization of the mistake that wilkinson has made: I think linking it with totalitarian schemes of comprehensive social planning is way out of line, both inaccurate and uncharitable.

    Look at it this way: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the people who remained in New Orleans were encouraged to take refuge in the Superdome. Do you denounce that as yet another example of the “centralizing, modernizing, managerial” character of late modernity, the creation of dangerously artificial community? I would think not; I would imagine that you’d say, hey, it was an emergency, drastic temporary action was called for. This is precisely what Wilkinson thinks he is doing in Swaziland — trying to deal as quickly and comprehensively as he can with a great emergency. He’s thinking, “We can’t save all these orphans while they’re scattered all over the country, let’s bring them together so we can care for them — which we need to do NOW before they all die. And while we’re at it, let’s educate rich Westerners about what’s going on here.” So I don’t think this has anything at all to do with Weberian bureaucratic rationalism, and everything to do with Wilkinson’s sense that we have an emergency on our hands. I just don’t think insisting that his mission of mercy bears a “family resemblance” to family planning in Ceausescu’s Romania is a reasonable analysis. And in any case, isn’t the real question whether people like you and I have any better ideas? How do we think Wilkinson ought to be spending his money?

    I just don’t get the sneering here. You suppose you could “generously” say that “the impulse behind the project was at least genuinely humanitarian” — but what’s generous about that? Are you doing Wilkinson a kindness by being willing to grant that he may have some of the compassion you believe you have? “At least some of the people who’ve given to the project or who believe in it are utterly sincere in their desire to help” — what a concession! Not all of these Christians are insincere. (Only most of them?) I think this relatively recent acquisition of a social conscience by prominent evangelicals — think also of Rick Warren in Rwanda, as recently written up by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker — is a wonderful development, and way past due. These are people with vast resources and great energy; I think that, if we want to change some things about the world, we’d do better to encourage and educate them than mock them.

  5. Timothy Burke says:


    Wilkinson may not be a public official in Swaziland, but the terms of the offer he made to Swaziland’s government would have made him (or the governing body of the project) a de facto ruler of a mini-state. This is precisely one of several things about his project that draws my fire, and one of the things that I think has both a deep history in Western interactions with Africa and a more recent history in the kind of high-modernist planning that Scott describes.

    Nothing about Wilkinson’s project is a temporary, emergency response to a short-term crisis. That’s simply and flatly wrong as a characterization of what they propose. They propose a permanent construction of a new kind of community. You’re ignoring the overwhelming arrogance behind the planning (Wilkinson’s group gave the Swaziland government five days to approve the final proposal for the project after they submitted it), the complete disinterest in knowing these people for what they are and how they are, the idea that the continuing funding for this effort will be raised in part by making the orphans part of a combined tourist attraction, and of course the fact that the effort is expressly combined with a conscious attempt to evangelize the orphans themselves.

    This is why I question the sincerity. To be sincere in the desire to render emergency aid, I’d say that virtually all of those aspects of this or any other plan would have to be inverted. Sincerity requires some humility, and I don’t see any humility here. I see instead the desire to fix the world by reordering it from a great distance above according to some predesignated, highly centralized plan.

    Why this particularly irritates me is that they and we should know better by now. The men who went up the Niger in the early 19th Century to try and undo the manifest harms of the Atlantic slave trade can be forgiven for the innocent hubris of their aims, but we’re at the other end of history now. There is an elephant’s graveyard full of proposals like Wilkinson’s. Money and faith are not a license to just do whatever the hell you think best, and be forgiven your errors (errors which, if taken any further, are certain to compound rather than relieve suffering) just because you mean well.

  6. Alan Jacobs says:

    You’re absolutely right about the permanence of the project, Tim, I shouldn’t have suggested otherwise. But let me try — for the third time! — to make a very simple distinction. You keep telling me that Wilkinson’s plan is misbegotten, but I have already acknowledged that, repeatedly. No question, it’s totally nuts. That is not my issue at all. You seem to think that I want to “forgive Wilkinson his errors,” and I’m not even thinking about that. “Money and faith are not a license to just do whatever the hell you think best” — well, who said (or even suggested) that they were? The question for me is, where do Wilkinson’s errors come from?

    Your answer to that question, Tim — and forgive me for using such a deeply pejorative term — is a characteristic liberal one: Wilkinson is screwing up because he is morally inferior to us. He can’t possibly be sincere because “Sincerity requires some humility.” What a ridiculous thing to say. I know plenty of deeply sincere people who don’t have a humble bone in their bodies, and so, I presume, do you.

    But it’s convenient to link the two virtues, because if you can believe that Wilkinson and his supporters are insincere, that they’re arrogant and domineering, little Ceausescus grasping for a plot of land to rule — well, then, all you have to do is denounce.

    But what if you’re wrong? What if people like Wilkinson do such stupid things not because they are morally inferior to you but because they are extraordinarily ignorant? Bruce Wilkinson didn’t go to Swarthmore, for God’s sake, he went to a little Bible college and then to an extremely conservative seminary. Where the hell was he going to learn this stuff? And if you read around the net — for instance the long interview he did with Beliefnet in which he describes what he learned from his visits to Kenya, Namibia, and South Africa — what you discover is not “complete disinterest in knowing these people for what they are and how they are” but rather a shocking naïvete.

    It may be hard for you to believe that someone could be so completely clueless about the state of affairs in Africa today, but it shouldn’t be. You say that “they and we should know better by now,” but that’s like saying we all should know calculus by now. People have to be taught one at a time, and it’s clear that no one has ever taught Wilkinson. All I am saying is that ignorance is a more likely explanation for Wilkinson’s errors than moral turpitude. Why are you so insistent that that can’t be so?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Ah, I see. Forgive me for not quite getting what you’re suggesting.

    However, I would suggest this is where you’re not quite getting me, either. I bring up the Scott precisely to suggest that this is part of why Wilkinson is going so wrong: because he is very casually reaching for the toolkit that high modernist central planning provisions to him. Why so casually? Here I’ll stick to my guns: because he wants to save Africans. If he was concerned about white Americans, he wouldn’t be reaching for that whole apparatus. Let me be clear: I have no reason to think that’s anything but unconscious bias. But it’s still a differentiated reaction. The failure to recognize that is moral turpitude.

    I think Julius Nyerere was also a very sincere and honorable person, and clearly morally preferable to many of his nationalist contemporaries, but at the same time, his personal ambitions and ideologies at the time of Tanzanian independence deformed the futures of many of his citizens in very serious ways. The consequences were severe: why should I not read his failure to consider consequences (or to listen to clear warnings about those consequences) as a kind of morally lamentable arrogance? Why don’t you see moral significance in Wilkinson’s very similar errors? Would it take similarly bad results for that judgement to become appropriate, rather than the prospects of bad results?

    You think I should be understanding and sympathetic rather than harsh and critical. I think you’re being too undemanding and generous. I don’t concern myself much with somebody who doesn’t know much about Africa up until the moment that they are proposing a multimillion dollar intervention into the lives of 10,000 Africans. At that point, I concern myself quite a bit, and I don’t quite understand why you are as generous as you are. I also read the same things differently than you do: a “shocking naivete” after significant travel and residence is a form of disinterest: it takes a kind of mental effort, the maintenance of blinders. I also am thinking about sincerity specifically in terms of “sincerity of ambition”, e.g., the degree to which someone is sincere in their desire to accomplish a particular declared end. If Wilkinson says, “I want to help these orphans”, then that’s the ambition that I’d specifically say requires humility at the outset in order to be a sincere one. Otherwise, it’s a form of self-aggrandisement familiar to me in the context of development in Africa: a sincere desire to authenticate one’s own personal goodness rather than a sincere ambition to aid others. That is not limited to Christians, by the way: it drives a goodly amount of secular leftist developmentalism and even some of the underlying problematic of writing scholarly histories and anthropologies of Africa.

    This may be the point on which our disagreement is potentially most sharply poised, however. In Wilkinson’s case, I would say that his particular form of evangelism (and the evangelism of those closest to him) is a particular cause of the blindnesses and failures evident so far in his efforts, much as I would say Nyerere’s naive socialism and collectivism was in his case. So yes, I’m not just criticizing the man: I’m criticizing the particular form and institutional character of his community of faith.

  8. Alan Jacobs says:

    Okay, Tim, I think we’re getting somewhere. Thanks much for the constructive response. If you don’t mind another round:

    He is very casually reaching for the toolkit that high modernist central planning provisions to him. Why so casually? Here I’ll stick to my guns: because he wants to save Africans. If he was concerned about white Americans, he wouldn’t be reaching for that whole apparatus. Let me be clear: I have no reason to think that’s anything but unconscious bias. But it’s still a differentiated reaction. The failure to recognize that is moral turpitude.

    I would say: possibly, but not necessarily. A more likely explanation, I believe, is that he wouldn’t be reaching for that apparatus if he wanted to save white Americans — or black Americans, or Western Europeans, or Japanese — because he knows that in those countries that apparatus is already in the hands of others. The administrative infrastructure in the “developed” nations is more fully, shall we say, developed than it is in most African nations. You think Wilkinson made the choices he did because cultural imperialism is in his bones; I think it’s more because entrepreneurial ambition is in his bones. Wilkinson — about whom I’ve learned a lot in the last few days — is a kind of religious entrepreneur, and a very successful one, and I think he’s just applying the same logic to this problem that he applied to the problem of getting more people to read the Bible. Now let me hasten to add that I can’t stand religious entrepreneurs: again, I come not to praise Wlkinson but to understand him. And if there’s one thing I know about these people it’s that they are sincere. Lord have mercy, are they sincere.

    I also read the same things differently than you do: a “shocking naivete” after significant travel and residence is a form of disinterest: it takes a kind of mental effort, the maintenance of blinders.

    I was referring to the naïvete of Wilkinson’s early experiences in Africa — the (to him surprising) discoveries of pain and crime and suffering that made him decide to move there and invest so much time and energy and money. Whether he is culpable for ongoing naïvete I couldn’t say; a lot depends on who he talked to, whose advice he sought. I hope you will agree at least with this: that there are a lot of people out there who have some superficial claim to “expertise” about Africa whose policy recommendations are disastrously misbegotten. But someone like Wilkinson, with far more money and energy than education, is not likely to be able to tell the wise men from the charlatans.

    I am “generous” towards Wilkinson, as you put it — or reluctant to assign blame, as I would put it — because I have no reason to think that I would do any better if I had his limitations of education and experience. For me, that’s an important part of being a Christian. I have been blessed with a better education than Wilkinson, and exposure to gifted and committed people who know first-hand the kind of damage that projects like his can do. But those are gifts, not achievements for which I can pat myself on the back, and when I try to read his mind and heart — to discern “what darkness lurks in the hearts of men” (the Shadow knows!) — it becomes all too easy for me to indulge in the infinite pleasures of self-congratulation. I consider it a Christian duty to be more attentive to my shortcomings than those of others, especially since I am naturally inclined to grant myself the very benefit of the doubt that I deny to people whom I disagree with.

    Moreover, denunciation and blame-assigning are counterproductive. The time and energy we spend speculating about the flaws in Wilkinson’s character are time and energy better spent in imagining an alternative, imagining ways in which people like him — and Rick Warren, who’s even richer and a whole lot smarter — could be better educated, so that their enormous reserves of money and commitment don’t just end up, as you fear they will, making a bad situation worse.

    This is too long already, so I won’t get into the evangelism questions except to say that it is a disastrous idea, in every respect, to try use the bringing of aid as a “wedge” for evangelism. That can only be an especially lamentable form of coercion.

Comments are closed.