On Voting

In 2007, I wrote a blogpost that urged Kenyans to vote “for a stranger.” I meant this in at least two ways: one, to vote for the interests of a person you could not possibly know. This might be a person in the present, in a different geographical space, or a person to come, the descendant you could not imagine. Perhaps someone who comes into existence through genetic manipulation in a future that we can barely imagine today. In asking for this, I wanted to push thinking and action beyond self-interest, or at least to suggest it. I was also interested in what it meant to risk the genuinely unknown in Kenyan politics, which, for all the resignations and re-shuffles over close to 50 years now, has been marked by a remarkably consistent cast of characters. What, I wondered, might it mean to go for an “unknown quantity,” to move beyond what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.”

I use Berlant’s very useful concept a lot, so let me provide her definition:

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relations are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.
. . .
[O]ptimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation or profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.

One might think of how ethnicity or tribe might name a structure of cruel optimism: the thing one holds on to because it confirms and affirms so much, even as its disciplinary force might impede thriving. I use ethnicity because I’m thinking about Kenya, but one might equally think of gender in these terms. It is the clinging to the promise of the thing even as it actively produces attrition, exhaustion—“it’s difficult to be this or that thing or to be in this or that relation”—that marks the optimism as cruel.

The unchanging cast in Kenyan politics incarnates the voting publics’ cruel optimism, for we complain about them all the time, even calling some of them “MPigs,” only to return them to office again and again. What might it mean to vote for a stranger? To risk something?

This time around, I’m wondering what it means to vote for IDPs and refugees.

Kenya had IDPs and refugees before the post-election violence. I use these terms as placeholders for an extended, ongoing, violent history of displacement and dispossession that has been a structural feature of Kenyan state-making from its very inception as a colonial state through its post-independent emergence. What was unique about the post-election violence of the previous election was that it forced us to consider, not ignore, the existence of IDPs as a structural feature of our politics. No longer could we ignore “border” and “edge” communities whose distance from Nairobi’s seats of power all but guaranteed their invisibility. Well, we couldn’t ignore them for a few months. Subsequently, we were encouraged to forgive and forget. And, based on a recent peace rally, political leaders have decided that as long as they forgive and forget, all is right with the world.

What would it mean to vote for IDPs and refugees? What would it mean to prioritize their needs and interest over those of an unstable, precarious middle class seduced by the promise of stability in a promised techno-future called Vision2030?

I have been convinced for some time that social mobility is not as available in Kenya as it once was. That what many people see as a new, emerging, burgeoning middle class signals less a new formation than the consolidation of something cultivated through school networks, as the children of post-independence-era professionals (teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, farmers) “spread out,” so to speak, and populate more space. To take my own family, for instance, two parents produced four children: multiply that by many families, and we see what seems to be a “significant” increase in the middle class, which, I think, can be read more readily as a spreading out and consolidation. This is not to say there’s no social mobility; it is to say that I don’t really believe the “new” middle class can be linked so readily to new(er) opportunities for social mobility.

If this is so—and let me emphasize how speculative this claim is—what we have in Kenya is an increased precariat, not middle class, one that goes by the name “youth.” But then, and this is my point, the PEV demonstrated how radically unstable middle-classness could be: it suggested that precarity was not a state one could comfortably move past. Indeed, the strikes by various professional groups over the past few years—doctors, nurses, teachers—have been about being part of the precariat. Unless one comes from established money, professionalization no longer offers the guarantee of social mobility.

IDPs and refugees incarnate the Kenyan precariat, indeed, the global precariat: removed from state protection; unable to count on community protection—as reports of sexual and gendered violence in IDP and refugee camps attest; threatened with further displacement, as the Kenyan government’s efforts to relocate all refugees from urban centers to refugee camps suggest; occupying a spatial limbo, where “home” and “house” are unstable and shifting, as is legal status; stranded in extended holding patterns, as non-citizens, non-immigrants, criminalized immigrants; criminalized and pathologized by neoliberal logics that praise “self responsibility” and scorn vulnerability and weakness and ignore structural problems; treated as disposable, forgettable, and killable. Indeed, treated as unthinkable: not worthy of thought, not worthy of attention, not worthy of imagination, as problems to be solved.

How does it feel to be a problem?

What would it mean to vote “for” and “from” the problem called IDPs and refugees?
I have been wanting not to write about this election. The lie that is political depression tells us that such wanting is personal, idiosyncratic, even desirable. Because we can choose to want. I have thought over the years about what it means to be told, to be assured, that silence is a choice by those who stifle dissent. Indeed, the remarkable consensus among our political candidates represents how successfully we have stifled the notion of politics as necessary dissent.

How does one respond to the accusation that one is silent when leveled by the person who tapes your mouth shut and then complains that you do not speak in fully formed articulate sentences? The shame, the fear, the rage, the helplessness that keeps us silent—this choosing we do not choose. This choosing we can’t not choose. And the peculiar sense that one is always trying to break silence even as one sinks deeper into its abyss. I have been wanting not to write about this election.

I have wondered, been made to wonder, what writing can do, especially as fragile coalitions formed after the previous election on the grounds of shared writing have been strained and have snapped. Writing has seemed the most fragile of bonds, unable to withstand other pressures: life, love, ambition, careerism, patriotism, militarism. It has been easy to believe that silence is a choice, that I have chosen this, that this incarnates agency. It is much easier to talk about choosing than to confess one is scared, one is tired, one is depressed, one is frustrated. So much easier to say I chose this silence.

I had decided not to write about this election. But something—call it hope, call it despair, call it duty—did not permit that not writing. And now I find myself understanding why Fanon closes Black Skin, White Masks with a prayer: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”

Because a future can be hinged on questioning.
I am listening to Nina Simone.

Christopher Dorner’s Love Letter

Had Christopher Dorner been a different kind of camera-ready body, he might have been invited to tell his story by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or Rachel Maddow. Had his story been appropriately juxtapolitical, calibrated to suture and intensify an affect-saturated media-scape, he might have been invited to tell his story by Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters. We might have been invited to feel for him and feel with him. Instead, Christopher Dorner was that most banal of all things: a black man eaten by a system in which he once believed. He was that most banal of all things: the conjunction that makes race possible: a(nother) n(igger) d(ead) (and).

He believed, perhaps, that like the Haitian maroon Makandal or the Hollywood fantasies—Rambo, John Q, Django—one man could disrupt a system long enough for something, anything, to happen. He learned, as so many do, that those charged with protecting us are as driven by careerism and narcissism as they are by whatever altruistic motives they might have. He learned that minorities in the police, those desperate to fit in, assume the racist practices and beliefs that always subtend the impossible dream of cultural and racial assimilation in the U.S. He learned that justice, fairness, and honor are color-coded words, and that believing in them and working to realize them did not mean that one could benefit from them. This is part of a long history of black military service. It is, perhaps, the long story of black military service.

And because he loved America, this “tortured hell” that “feeds . . . bread of bitterness,” he wrote a love letter. He wrote the most difficult kind of love letter, the only one that really matters: a love letter that dares to risk it all.

As bold in its denunciations as it is intense in its passions, Dorner’s love letter “puts it all out there.” It hectors and cajoles, threatens and seduces, states facts and indulges fantasies. And believes, as it must, that writing can make a difference. It is a love letter that is as impassioned as Claude McKay’s “America,” which exemplifies cruel optimism: an attachment to a destroying object or situation.

He asks: “What would you do to clear your name?” Refusing to take for granted that language is shared, he defines name as “your life, your legacy, your journey, sacrifices, and everything you’ve worked hard for every day of your life as an adolescent, young adult and adult.” This definition is crucial, for definition lies at the heart of his dismissal from the force in 2008. In 2007, he reported that a police officer had “kicked” a suspect, a statement corroborated by the suspect’s father and by video footage. The evidence of testimony and corroboration was deemed insufficient. Instead, after a subsequent incident in which Dorner reacted to being insulted by a fellow officer, Dorner was labeled a “bully.”

Here is what Dorner writes:

Journalist, I want you to investigate every location I resided in growing up. Find any incidents where I was ever accused of being a bully. You won’t, because it doesn’t exist. It’s not in my DNA. Never was. I was the only black kid in each of my elementary school classes from first grade to seventh grade in junior high and any instances where I was disciplined for fighting was in response to fellow students provoking common childhood schoolyard fights, or calling me a nigger or other derogatory racial names. I grew up in neighborhoods where blacks make up less than 1%.

My first recollection of racism was in the first grade at Norwalk Christian elementary school in Norwalk, CA. A fellow student, Jim Armstrong if I can recall, called me a nigger on the playground. My response was swift and non-lethal. I struck him fast and hard with a punch an kick. He cried and reported it to a teacher. The teacher reported it to the principal. The principal swatted Jim for using a derogatory word toward me. He then for some unknown reason swatted me for striking Jim in response to him calling me a nigger. He stated as good Christians we are to turn the other cheek as Jesus did. Problem is, I’m not a fucking Christian and that old book, made of fiction and limited non-fiction, called the bible, never once stated Jesus was called a nigger. How dare you swat me for standing up for my rights for demanding that I be treated as an equal human being. That day I made a life decision that i will not tolerate racial derogatory terms spoken to me. Unfortunately I was swatted multiple times for the same exact reason up until junior high. Terminating me for telling the truth of a Caucasian officer kicking a mentally ill man is disgusting. Don’t ever call me a fucking bully. I want all journalists to utilize every source you have that specializes in collections for your reports. With the discovery and evidence available you will see the truth. Unfortunately, I will not be alive to see my name cleared. That’s what this is about, my name. A man is nothing without his name.

Christopher Dorner has been called many things by the LAPD and by those who report on him. His name has been maligned and destroyed and destroyed even more. In mainstream media reports, he has been the problem we are glad to eradicate. And in non-mainstream sources, he has been a “radical” with a bad method. He has been misnamed and unnamed and even de-named. For writing a love letter.

I have insisted on calling what he wrote a love letter because we miss its optimistic tenor when we label it a manifesto or, as one news source has it, a “so-called manifesto.” It is a love letter because it believes that truth-telling can make a better world, a more livable world. It believes that critiquing racism makes a difference. It believes in the promise of America, even as it knows that America will kill him.

Dorner writes: “Self Preservation is no longer important to me. I do not fear death as I died long ago on 1/2/09. I was told by my mother that sometimes bad things happen to good people. I refuse to accept that.” He refuses the too-easy wisdom that permits injustice to flourish, insisting, instead, “I am here to change and make policy.”

Yet, Dorner does not merely inhabit the register of policy; instead, like the mythical Makandal I invoked, he also inhabits the register of the oral performative, as he invokes a series of curses toward the end of his love letter:

Wayne LaPierre, President of the NRA, you’re a vile and inhumane piece of shit. You never even showed 30 seconds of empathy for the children, teachers, and families of Sandy Hook. . . . May all of your immediate and distant family die horrific deaths in front of you.

Westboro Baptist Church, may you all burn slowly in a fire, not from smoke inhalation, but from the flames and only the flames.

Cardinal Mahoney, you are in essence a predator yourself as you enabled your subordinates to molest multiple children in the church over many decades.

May you die a long and slow painful death.

Here, Dorner is writing what Brian Norman describes as a “curse-prayer” that, as a form, “seems to exist outside of historical time,” even as its transcription “brings the curse and curser into the present.” Norman argues, “As a subjunctive utterance, the curse-prayer is forever in search of its own obsolescence.” And adds, “There is something one can do to avoid to subjunctive from happening in the present. That is, a curse needn’t be a prophecy.” The “curse-prayer,” as a ritual, subjunctive form, is not outside of “change and policy,” but a method to drive “change.”

But change is hard, even impossible. And so, for me, the saddest section of this love letter:

To my friends listed below, I wish we could have grown old together and spent more time together. When you reminisce of our friendship and experiences, think of that and that only. Do not dwell on my recent actions the last few days. This was a necessary evil that had to be executed in order for me to obtain my NAME back. The only thing that changes policy and garners attention is death.

The danger of the Hegelian wager, that risking death might bring recognition, is precisely that it is a wager, not a promise. The LAPD has promised to perform a self-examination in response to Dorner’s accusations. But who will watch the watchers? Who will dare to say that heroes should be scrutinized? Power is not self-correcting, except to amass more power.

Dorner’s manifesto ends without ending: “We need to hold ou”

Was he writing “our”? If so, how does the incomplete word speak to the impossibility he occupied? How does the missing legibility, the urgency of that “need,” the promise of that “we” register the truncation his life and name became? And how do we read his truncated words and life in our ongoing, truncating now?

I do not know how to read Christopher Dorner. I have no interest in diagnosing or interpreting him. Not yet. Not now. Perhaps never. I do want to read him. With love. With care. Because he wrote a love letter to America.

Seeing Racism

Inside Higher Ed has linked to a blogpost today on how to evaluate racism. This is only a slight mischaracterization. Here’s the section that interests me. GMP, “Tenured female prof at a large public research university,” writes,

I don’t have the right to comment on whether something is racist or not, but I do have the right to comment on whether something is sexist or not.

And writes again,

because I am not a racial minority, I completely allow that I am not qualified to talk about whether something is racially insensitive or not.

I call bullshit. In fact, I call massive, massive bullshit.

Here’s Audre Lorde from a much-cited essay:

[A]s Adrienne Rich pointed out in a recent talk, white feminists have educated themselves about such an enormous amount . . . how come you haven’t also educated yourselves about Black women and the differences between us – white and Black – when it is key to our survival as a movement?

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought. (“The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”)

The claim that someone who is not a racial minority cannot evaluate racism is a too-convenient alibi that makes the detection of racism into a minority affair. To ask a racial minority to examine whether or not something is racist, to refuse, in fact, to put yourself on the line for calling out something as racist, is massively, massively unfair. Because it is to return those minoritized through race to the experience of that minoritization: to ask them to risk hurt in the name of some experience-based empiricism.

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating: to describe something as racist, to describe an experience as racist, is to name, inadequately, a deep, persistent hurting, to try to capture, inadequately, how it feels to be deemed less than. It is to risk ridicule, disavowal, and the ever-condescending “maybe it’s all in your head.” It is to risk something.

But racist acts are not nebulous. They are not fantasies. They are not beyond the reach and grasp of education. You don’t need to be a racial minority to “get” when racism has happened. You need to be educated, as Lorde writes. You need to learn how to apply that education. I am distressed that an educator would ever claim the most banal, experience-based disavowal possible: I’m not a racial minority so I cannot speak about racism.

I call bullshit.

That’s unacceptable.

Because being anti-racist ain’t got nothing to do with the color of your skin.

Jela si Pahala

We make concealment happen; it is not natural but rather names and organizes where racial-sexual differention happens.
—Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds

How do we think the possibility and the law of outlawed, impossible things?
—Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness”

I have been watching and re-watching KTN’s special report on sex in Kenyan prisons, especially from 5:10-6:45: Sakina’s testimony. Kind friends have transcribed her testimony and it appears below, untranslated.

SA: Sakina
R: Reporter

SA: Jela si pahala kwa sababu sisi wenyewe sisi mashoga twaonewa, nimekataa, na kutandikwa na kufanyiwa unyonge wa unyama na kuumwa hivi maalama hizi maalama chungu mzima zimenijaa, asema kwa sababu wewe ni shoga, utajiju, ukienda ukimwaambia askari, askari mimi mbona naonewa hivi ama kwa sababu mimi ni shoga ndio naonewa hivi, askari anakwambia lipa deni mimi usiniletee ujinga kama huo, nendeni huko mkaongelee huko mkamalizianie huko, saa nyegine moyo-roho yangu haitaki, wajua saa ingine wataka saa ingine hautaki, sasa wajua naye vile nafsi naye inaamka, saa ingine wataka saa ingine hautaki

R: Naam, we kwako-

SA: Na sasa venye mtu sasa, sa venye wewe wataka ndio mtu naye hakutaki basi, na saa yenye hutaki ndio mtu anakulazimisha


SA: Anakwaambia kama unataka kula hapa chakula vizuri vizuri paka nilale na wewe ndio niku-nikupe

R: Unakumbuka umelala na wanaume wangapi?

SA: Haa-watu elfu mbili na-(Laughs)-wanakupa chakula, kwa mfano ukipewa paka hivi mapeni, askari jela ashakuja kukuny’anga’nya, amekupokonya, ameshakuny’anga’nya, anakwambia mbona huku, mbona wafanya biashara hii, huku pesa watoa wapi, hebu leta hii pesa ama tukutandike, sasa wewe ukiskia hivyo wampa yeye zile pesa

Asked about the possibility of AIDS infection

SA: Roho yangu iko juu yaani naogopa nashikwa na stress nasema sasa hapa nikijipata ninao ndio basi itabidi niambukizane chungu mzima nitafanya nini, kama ni kufa nife na wengi nisife mimi peke yangu

And another version:

Sakina – Jela si pahala, sababu sisi weneywe sisi mashoga twaonewa. Nimekataa na kutandikwa na kufanyiwa unyonge na unyama na kuumwa hivi maalama hizi maalama chungu nzima zimenijaa.

Wanasema ooh, sababu wewe ni shoga utajijo. Ukienda ukimwambia askari, askari mi mbona naonewa hivi, ama kwa sababu mi ni shoga ndio naonewa hivi. Askari anakuambia lipa deni, mimi usiniletee ujinga kama huo. Endeni huko mkaongee huko mkamalizanie huko.

Saa nyingine roho yangu haitaki, wajua saa nyingine wataka saa nyingine hautaki. Sasa na unajua na yeye vile nafsi nayo inaamka. Saa nyingine wataka saa nyingine hautaki. Mhmmm.

Lulu – Naam we kwa …..

Sakina – Na haswa vile mtu, saa enye wewe wataka ndio mtu hataki basi. Na saa enye hautaki ndio mtu basi yuakulazimisha.

Anakuambia oooh, kama unataka kula hapa vyakula vizuri mpaka nilale na wewe ndio niku- nikupe.

Sakina – aaah, watu elfu mbili na.

Wanakupa chakula, ale ukipewa mpaka hivi mapeni. Askari jela ashakuja kukunyang’anya. Amekupokonya, ameshakunyang’anya. Anakuambia huku mbona wafanya biashara hiii, huku pesa watoa wapi, hebu lete hii pesa ama tukutandike. Sasa wewe ukisikia hivyo wampa zile pesa.

Sakina – roho yangu iko juu, yaani naogopa nashikwa na stress nasema sasa hapa nikijipata nina do inabidi basi niambukizane. Chungu nzima ntafanya nini? Kama ni kufa nife na wengi, nisife mi pekee yangu.

Here’s what was offered in English subtitles. Three statements.

“Prison is not a good place . . . we homosexuals are denied our rights . . .”
“ . . . if you want to live well you have to sleep with somebody . . .”
“ [I have slept with] about 2,000 men . . . I have to do it everyday . . . but I don’t care whether I get infected or not . . .”

I’m hoping, first, that the sheer physical distinction in word count—how much space it occupies on the page/screen—will tell one kind of story about how queer testimony is unheard, made concealed, rendered ungeographic, to use McKittrick’s wonderful concept. We know prisoners are “disappeared.” This distinction between what Sakina says and what is made available as translated testimony illustrates part of this disappearance.

What is disappeared matters.

As the report opens, the reporter frames the story as one about “men” who went into jail “normal” and emerged completely changed, unable to be “men” anymore. While gender seems to be the focus here—Sakina is clearly female-identified in the report—sexuality cannot be far behind. It is suggested (the passive matters) that prison turned Sakina into Sakina: a queer gender-bender. The threat of prison, then, is that it unmakes masculinities, renders gender unstable.

This framing is only part of the violence of the report.

The report says, “we homosexuals are denied our rights”

Sakina says (pardon my inexact translation):

we homosexuals (“washoga”) are victimized; I have refused, and been beaten, and been brutalized, and been bitten. These marks, these marks [on my body] have been caused by (and cause me) excruciating pain. . . . When I seek help from the prison guards, they dismiss my complaints and tell me to deal with the situation myself . . .

Sakina reports rape and violence and abuse: her scars record this violence. The subtitles translate this report of pain into an inadequate, sanitized language of rights.

But the report wants to make sure we don’t sympathize with Sakina, and this becomes clear when the subject of HIV/AIDS comes up.

Here’s the English subtitle: “I don’t care whether I get infected or not.”

Here’s what Sakina says, courtesy of another kind translation:

“My heart is racing. I’m afraid. I’m stressed out. Now, here, if I find out that I have it, I’ll then start to pass it on to others. What else would I do? If I’m to die I’ll take others with me. And not die alone.”

As the translation indicates, Sakina worries about infection, a lot. “I’ll take others with me.” It’s a curious way to position prison economies of sexual violence and sexual negotiation. The tv report wants us to hear callousness: the terrible queer who runs around infecting others. This terribleness is not absent from Sakina’s story or demeanor. Revenge fantasies abound: you raped me, you forced me, if I die, you die. We die together. Part of me would like Sakina not to be the potential death-carrying, avenging queer. I realize I want her to be “likable” so a certain argument can take shape. I want Sakina to be “relatable.”

Jela si pahala.

Sakina is appetite and survival: saa ingine wataka, saa ingine hutaki. Sakina is desire and its violation: saa nyingine wataka, saa nyingine hutaki. Sakina is the impossibility of translating from an un-place, an un-time, an un-becoming.

Two statements come together in this un-making: jela si pahala and mimi ni shoga, the ungeographic of prison and the unbeing of queerness. How else to read “jail is not a place” and “I am [a] queer.” How does what is not allowed to exist live in an ungeography?

I am uneasy about the turns I am making here, about the violence of abstraction, even as I understand that abstraction to enact a labor of re-enfleshing. I want to hold on to the “we” that McKittrick gives, “We make concealment happen,” even, and perhaps especially, when we try not to. So I will attempt to do something quite wrong. A redemptive turn, if you will.

Nisife mimi peke yangu. I will (mis)translate this through Hemphill into a different kind of wish: “Don’t let it be loneliness / that kills us.”

Banal Misogyny

We live with unrelenting, terrible, normative misogyny. Indeed, the misogyny we inhabit is so pervasive and so unrelenting, that, as I remarked to a friend, Audre Lorde’s essays from the 70s and 80s feel much too present, much too relevant. It is not simply that we are dealing with an ugly remnant that every so often reminds us of an even uglier time. Rather, it is that the ugliness of then, cloaked in masculine benevolence, is too much with us. And we seem to have lost the ability to recognize it, to name it, to respond to it.

At least this is the way it feels.

I use “banal misogyny” because I want to register something about the moment we inhabit. Something about our ability and desire to see gender work, to see gender differentiation insist on diminishing, infantilizing, and degrading women. It has become too easy to be a man, too easy to understand women as quirky girls with charming habits and idiosyncratic style. It has become too easy to forget and un-learn all the lessons of feminism.

To speak of something like “the oppression of women” one must ignore nuance and specificity. One must accept the shame that speaking in such broad terms is now meant to invoke. This shame interests me, for while part of it stems from necessary critiques against universalizing impulses, a more insidious part stems from patriarchy’s sneer at the very concept. The danger is that the ethical injunction not to universalize can meet patriarchy’s sneer, and one wanting to feel responsible can feel ashamed, coerced into the impossibility of choosing from a range of unimaginative options.

I realize, belatedly, that when I write “banal misogyny,” what I really mean is “banal.”

Banal means dull, boring, uninteresting, unremarkable. What passes without comment. At once background and foundation. What can be taken for granted. I am interested in how misogyny backgrounds banal—how it becomes banal, expected, unsurprising, the thing that need not be named. Indeed, the ground on which choices about, for, and by women can be made. Misogyny is dull.

How did misogyny become dull?

By dull I mean unremarkable and uninteresting. Unable to “cut” through the social.

Misogyny, like racism and homophobia, is a word (concept-metaphor) designed to “cut” through the social. To arrest an action, create a space for reflection, create a route to action. The “dulling” of misogyny is not an accident. Patriarchy actively works to dull concept-metaphors that arrest its action, to render such terms laughable, dull, banal, impossible.

Yet the banality of misogyny should not blind us to its active, hyper-active life: misogyny is not inert. It is dynamic and active, always working to shore itself up, to make itself felt and invisible, always working to hide in plain sight. Always working, especially, to recruit young women to its cause. And so the young, too many of them, sneer at the idea of misogyny. Or, rather, sneer at the idea of feminism. There are many ways to read this too-common scene: I read it as a symptom of misogyny’s labor to recruit women so that they will be against feminism.

I tell a friend that I want to see the word patriarchy used more. Used often. I want to hear its harsh syllables “cut” across the social. I want it to labor, to work on unmaking the ordinariness with which patriarchy masks itself. Unfashionable as it might be, I want to talk about the oppression of women. Not in our too-polite languages that say women are getting more choices today. I want to “cut” across the social, to make visible patriarchy at work. To refuse its sneer and its grin and its cocky walk and its hatred for and exploitation of women. To refuse its wink and its nod and its casual invitations to join “men’s clubs” where we shake our heads at “women” and marvel at their shrillness. To refuse its laugh and its glazed eyes when it’s confronted with its violence.

And because she helps me think this way, I give the final words to Shailja:

Because you never know enough / but you can learn / you’ll never be / ready but you can fake it / because the when and where / are here and now the answers / to who and what / are you and this is the how / and why will reveal themselves / in the making.

Because ready / is never a question just a reminder / to breathe / and jump (“The Making”)


Wanjiku is sovereign. She has rights to services. She has the right to access justice. She has the right to condemn those who abuse and steal from her.

She is no longer a dummy. She is a leader as Mama Mboga, farmer, teacher, painter, executive, mother, scientist, preacher, doctor, computer specialist, etc. She must be paid fairly.
G-C.M. Mutiso, Daily Nation, November 14, 2012

Wanjiku was always a dangerous fiction. Created through dismissal—Moi’s infamous claim that she could not, could never, read the constitution—she quickly became a symbol of resistance against what was perceived as Moi’s elitism. Moi was many things, but never a snob. Following Moi’s dismissal, a chorus of voices arose to speak for (and as) Wanjiku. She had to be defended, protected, supported. Wanjiku was everywhere and, as Wambui Mwangi has suggested, nowhere at the same time. Flesh made into figure, figured beyond recognition. With Wambui I wondered: does Wanjiku have a body?

But if a male-conjured Wanjiku was not real, those of us who came to her through our deep commitments to feminist and class politics seized on her public circulation, as figure, to speak to and for a gender-class politics. We attempted to materialize her concerns where figuration might allow, even, and especially, when such efforts seemed to fail. Still, there appeared to be a space to enflesh her, to inhabit her, to think about the violence of speaking for and speaking as, but also to consider what such enfleshments might accomplish. We asked, repeatedly, what the constitution could do for Wanjiku. It seemed, for a while, that while the constitution might not fix anything specifically—constitutions are aspirational documents, I believe; they create opportunities—its long occasion—from debates about it, to votes for it, to its promulgation, to its extended implementation—might keep Wanjiku alive, as a spur for us to do better, think harder, work against abjection, work toward her active enfleshment.

But just as quickly as Wanjiku was conjured through a stray comment, she has disappeared from view. Wanjiku’s spectral presence in our political discourse once tried to nudge us toward a politics attuned to class:gender, the gendering of class and the classing of gender, and those figures unaccounted for and made illegible: her disappearance (she has been “disappeared”) should trouble us. For the disappearing of figuration has material implications: those not available to be thought of and with, even as figures, cannot stake claims on our imaginations, our practices, our lives, our politics.

Yet, my epigraph seems to tell a different story. Far from being “disappeared” from public discourse, it appears that Wanjiku is everywhere. She is “mama mboga” and “computer scientist, etc.,” so vast her accomplishments that they cannot be listed, “etc.” And how quickly Wanjiku assumes leadership in all spheres of life: she leads as “mama mboga.” To which one wants to query: where does she lead the “mboga”? I understand the rhetorical attempt to make meaningful the multiple ways women lead across all social spheres; but this is a dangerous fiction because it evacuates the problem of class stratification that abjects Wanjiku. Wanjiku, if a male fantasy, becomes Wanjiku within a class:gender politics in relation to other women. Inequality, Wanjiku-fication, is as much an intra-gender problem as it is an inter-gender one.

In Mutiso’s utopic vision, Wanjiku is no longer abject, never subaltern: she no longer represents the wretched of the earth who coalesce around a radical politics determined to reshape the political order. Wanjiku is a worker who “must be paid fairly.” Now that she has a constitution that guarantees her rights, Wanjiku should work and should be paid fairly.

I’m for “fair payment.” But to believe that “fair payment” will solve the problem of Wanjiku—this figure who cannot be imagined except as absence, as abjection, as subalternity—is to misread Wanjiku and to silence whatever radicalism her circulation, as figure, might have suggested.

Wanjiku has been disappeared from Kenyan political discourse at a time when gender parity, always a threatened element in the constitution, has become increasingly precarious. Constitutional provisions have been deemed impractical in the short term and deferred to an indefinite future. Indefinite because “tomorrow never comes” in Kenyan politics. An election season that had promised to feature at least a few women running as presidential candidates has been turned into a spectator sport between men, with women as convenient adjuncts, their roles being to support their menfolk. And Wanjiku, now a rights-bearing subject, has been told to step up to the plate. If she does, “gender parity” will pay her “fairly.”

Because Wanjiku is a rights-bearing subject, we need not think about her.

She is strikingly absent from contemporary political debates. And it seems we are done with her. She need no longer nag us, irritate us, bother us. She might still not be able to read the constitution, but it gives her rights! She only needs to step up to the plate.

The dangerous fiction has become discarded fiction. We now inhabit a post-Wanjiku world. Done with her insatiable, illegible demands—doesn’t she know how to write a proposal?—we can now move on to the political things that matter. And to the economic things that matter.

Does the disappearing of Wanjiku matter? If she was always a too-convenient, dangerous fiction, isn’t it better to embrace a politics of the real, a politics of the legible, a politics of the achievable? What, after all, can we do about those figures who remain in the shadow of the political? What can we do for those figures who remain illegible within our political imaginations? What can we do for figures who are “disappeared”?

If, as I have suggested, Wanjiku was a male fantasy, she was also available for feminist labor, and I think her disappearance, her being disappeared, registers a profoundly patriarchal anxiety about feminist labor. For all that Wanjiku might have been a misrecognition, she circulated as a name that could be called and invoked and re-named, as Kezia, Atieno, Miriamu, Scholastica, Sitawa, Sera, Wangu, Mshai. Wanjiku was a naming that assembled women in public, offered a space from which to speak to and against patriarchy. And patriarchy wanted to erase this name.

I have skimmed through the available websites for Kenya’s presidential candidates and respective political parties. Wanjiku is not there.

Dear Kenya:

Somehow, two men accused of crimes against humanity, have been nominated to run for president and vice president in next year’s general election. I say “somehow” because it happened while we were awake, while we were watching, and even with our approval.

These men declared themselves African patriots and identified the ICC as an imperialist agent. Their nomination is understood as a fight for African justice against Western interference. They are our flag bearers. Our warriors. Our heroes.

Something happened in 2007-2008. Between December 2007 and February 2008, many people were killed, many others displaced, while conspirators capitalized on this instability to create a political system they could inhabit and control. Contrary to what we have been told, we have not moved to a new generation of rulers. The foot soldiers have moved into the throne room. And they know the value of money and violence.

We have been told that deals were made, talks were had, discussions were staged. Away from the public eye. We have been told that such deals will avert violence. Deals made in private rooms will save Kenya and will help to implement a constitution that is, supposedly, by and for we the people.

We were taught that our cosmology consists of the living, the unborn, and the ancestors. If we respected the ancestors, then the living and the unborn would be safe. This cosmology has nothing to say about the dead, the murdered, the raped, the immolated, the killable, and the dead-dead. Killed once by election violence and killed again by our forgetting.

Elections are for the living. They are not for the dead-dead.

Something happened.

Once, we hoped that the dead would find justice, or be remembered. We hoped that we could help them move from the limbo of the violated-forgotten to the world of the ancestors. That they might come to forgive us in time. We believed we owed them something.

Something happened.

Two men accused of crimes against humanity are running for the highest political offices in Kenya.

Somewhere, a choir of ghosts is keening.