I tend not to like the question “what went wrong?” It sends out a tendril of hope to the past with the expectation that said tendril will return as a fully-formed plan(t), a manifesto for the future. It also assumes, as several recent reports claim, that the “wrong” I occupy is the same “wrong” you occupy, or even that we both occupy “wrongs,” ignoring the possibility that some might be reveling in a “right” or be irritated by the “merely inconvenient.”
I am not interested, here, in mapping out gradations of how different citizens are experiencing the crisis, some as ghosts others, like myself, as virtual bodies. Nor am I interested in registering hurt, pain, loss, disappointment, or disillusionment. Others have done so far more effectively.
I am interesting in considering the complex question of what it means to be an agential citizenry. And I am interested in registering a sense of what, following Lauren Berlant, might be termed “stuckness.”
I will confess that “stuckness” describes, first and foremost, my inability to write and, perhaps worse, the absence of any desire to do so. But, for now, I will attempt to defer the psychic negotiations of the present.
Thanks to Mutumia (one of my favorite bad influences) I can’t get rid of the image of a Datsun stuck in the mud. I will confess that this is one of my “nostalgic” images of Kenya: a country where the drivers get stuck in the mud while pedestrians gawk, walk on by, or deign to help.
I have been thinking of “stuckness” as I read bloggers get entrenched in their positions—I make no distinctions here between political positions; as I read essays and blog posts from different constituencies that seem to repeat the same facts, use the same syntax, even have the same tone. This is not a simple matter of plagiarism, but a symptom of “stuckness.”
It is a particular stuckness in which, seemingly, there are no helpful pedestrians around, only people wanting to climb out of the mud and into the Datsun (let’s “move on,” “get beyond,” “go back to normal”). And the wheels spin frantically. We are all pretty sure that the driver, whose face, for some reason, remains hidden, “bought” his license. Still we pile on, hoping that the Datsun will fulfill its national promise. Kenya is my country, Datsun is my car.
To register stuckness through the metaphor of the Datsun, is also to say that the roads were never constructed, the river never dammed, and erosion never halted. We might also say the fields have not been fertilized, the farmers have not been paid, and the harvest rots in the granaries. More patient minds than mine can parse this.
I detect “stuckness” in frantic, even manic, turns toward this negotiator and that; in the continuation of hate speech via blogs and text messages; in our invocations of pasts that have never been, or have been occupied unevenly. Perhaps under VOK we were once one, but that supposed unity fractured a long time ago.
I think what is interesting, and simultaneously disabling, is how stuckness responds to revelation (assuming conditions respond). One would hope—I certainly do in my increasingly few utopic moments—that revelations about the past and the present, about electoral procedure and possible misconduct, would enable us to take different positions, would, somehow, cause a shift that might enable the Datsun to start moving (I will admit here, I take the car metaphor from Binyavanga, who uses it far more eloquently and to better purpose than I can muster). Yet, somehow, the shame-laced bravado of our strutting male leaders (we cannot and must not forget about the stakes of masculinity in all this) makes such re-thinking impossible.
To continue with the metaphor: each new revelation seems to be yet another weight added to the Datsun, another deepening of entrenchment, and the wheels spin frantically.
There is also another kind of stuckness in terms of what I have termed an agential citizenry. In a long-ago post (too lazy to search and link), I had mentioned that my legacy from the Moi years was a profound impotence, an inability to feel that I had or would ever have a voice or opinion that mattered. We are, I think, still laboring under this legacy, to the extent that we tie our political futures and identities to certain leaders who, quite often, do not have our best interests at heart. Justice has no other proper name. Neither does equality. But somehow, one could say because of a long process of acculturation, we seem to believe, too much, in the power of synonyms and less so in our own (impoverished) agency.
Put another way, we seem to believe that we can exercise our agency only through specific “anointed” leaders, leaders for whom we are willing to fracture the relationships we have spent lifetimes cultivating. Instead of looking to them to “save us” or give our choices validity, we might question our reliance on them as the only proxies for our desires. This, it seems to me, is one of the most tragic manifestations of our stuckness.