politics

Stickiness

How do masculinity and ethnicity attach themselves to specific objects, bodies, historical situations, and affects? Or, rather, because I’m less interested in the “how,” in what ways might considering the sticky natures of masculinity and ethnicity offer a glimpse into the present?

I use stickiness in a deliberately vague way to suggest that ethnicity and masculinity are less about bounded, definite identities, and more about accruing objects and affiliations, attachments and identifications that come, in turn, to function as prosthetics, as potential sites of woundedness and for wounding. This is, of course, not the only way prosthetics function, and toward the end of this entry, I want to consider benign, pleasurable, and beneficial ways to conceive of prosthesis within the contexts of ethnicity and masculinity.

The language of prosthesis provides at least one way of thinking about the panga-wielding, gun-toting, and branch-waving images and ideas that have been circulating in the past few weeks. These objects, frozen within photographic frames, extend bodies in new directions, give them new meanings, change the nature of objects (the agricultural panga into the death-wielding panga), allow bodies to realize new potentials. At the same time, such images pull us back into history to consider the various prostheses we associate with national masculinity (Kenyatta’s flywhisk, Moi’s rungu, the GSU’s vigorously applied clubs).

We are a nation attached to our prostheses.

To speak of prostheses is also to invoke the specter of phantom limbs: masculinities denuded of meaning during colonialism and increasingly after independence. Ethnicity stripped of its meaning by the mechanisms designed to produce compliant citizens and docile bodies. Increasingly, I believe we have to understand the masculinization of ethnicity, the production of male bodies as especially vulnerable to the deracinating effects of modernity.

It seems that, at a certain point, let’s call it the 1920s and 30s, though it can be extended backwards and forwards, Kenyan women and men diverged in their abilities and willingness to make sense of and inhabit modernity. Whereas women found ways to form new social attachments and build new social worlds, men adopted a wounded relationship to the past, most especially to a past where black, ethnic masculinity had a clear meaning and aim. Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya is the key text of this movement. (To be sure, the trade union activities of Harry Thuku and others seemed to offer an innovative mode of sociality, but it is not one that survived in any sustained way.)

Facing Mount Kenya represents one dominant affective and ideological relationship we have, as a nation, adopted to the past. The past is a site of wounding, of loss, yet, paradoxically, a place that, were we to visit, would allow us to recover unsullied, untarnished, whole forms of masculinity and ethnicity, indeed, masculinities available through ethnicities. Now, here it must be emphasized that the conditions under which we live today continually produce denuded, uncertain, forms of masculinity, tied to the contingencies of labor and economics, state intervention, and encroaching global norms. We might consider, for instance, the amazing popularity of kung-fu films and what seems to be a national attachment to certain very male heroes: James Bond, Rambo, the Terminator. As these figures become sites of identification, they simultaneously become impossible yardsticks: fully agential, they reveal our own sense of limited and constrained agency.

I return to the image of the Nairobi-bred and born young man who, at the appropriate age “returns” (and this word is crucial) to the countryside to undergo a masculinizing ritual in the “correct” way. There is a desire, here, to arrest time, to halt the masculinity-disrupting effects of the modern city, to reclaim a mode of authentic “masculinity. Yet, the impossibility of this return is precisely what generates the need for a prosthetic, creates a condition of prostheses, where meaning is supplemented, rituals created, history arrested, form re-captured.

I do not mean to imply that all forms of prosthetic creation are negative. Indeed, we cannot do without these aids to living and meaning-making.

Still, it might be worth thinking about the sticky quality of certain prostheses: their ability to accrue objects and aims that are always potential sites of attrition and wounding. In watching the success of certain forms of masculinity, one develops notions of what successful masculinity should be. Ideas stick. Yet, this stickiness is much like that of a suppurating wound. Painful to the touch.

Ethnicity, for instance, becomes linked to an ever-expansive but still ill-defined notion of culture. Each encounter with a “genuine” culture, be it via a documentary or through fashion, produces anxiety. We need only consider, for example, the strained, ongoing problem of a Kenyan national dress. On some level, it reflects a profound anxiety about our national identity, one provoked by what we have seen and recognized in other countries. Here, the sticky idea that national pride has something to do with dress.

Ethnicity acquires meaning as it comes into contact with other forms of belonging, absorbs ideas from them, attempts to replicate their structures. Again, here, we might consider Kenyatta’s decision to write about the structure of traditional life in the idiom of English political and social structures. It has a prosthetic aspect to it, a place of grafting and re-framing.

To understand the sticky, prosthetic quality of ethnicized masculinity:masculinized ethnicity means going beyond a glance toward the past (“traditional enemies”) and even a move beyond the politico-economic explanations (under x ruler, y people “ate”). It means considering, instead, the various local and global, real and imaginative, sticky attachments through which ethnicity and masculinity have come to be defined. It requires that we trace, in excruciating detail, how Stetson hats (a major prosthetic) come to be attached to specific modes of masculinity; how the magazine pages that adorn a young man’s room may shape his sense of self; how participation in sports has added to what particular modes of masculinity might mean.

Now, there are ways that sticky attachments help to create modes of pleasurable affiliation, moments when, through sports, for instance, we come to re-define how we belong to each other. Kenyans abroad know that flush of pleasure that comes from seeing a Kenyan flag waving in a random window. We can certainly accrue ways of extending into the world that enrich us. I think, for instance, of our shared foods—the distinctive Kenyan cuisine that brings such joy and pleasure. And such moments of stickiness need to be cultivated.

Of course, and here’s the rub, what might be termed stickiness’s adhesive quality is notoriously fickle. One picks up the good and bad alike; one has to learn to cultivate the appropriate filters, to ensure the bad does not overwhelm the good.

At a time when negative affect seems to be spreading, much like a bad disease, when rumors and news fuel desires for and acts of revenge, at a time when it seems impossible to reflect, as we are called to action, to write, to mourn, to provide succor, to flee, to hope, to dream, to act, at such a time, it seems especially irresponsible to attempt a certain kind of writing, a certain kind of thinking, to abstract away from the responsibilities of the now. Yet, I would insist, at such a time, we cannot discount the (ir)rational acts of theorizing, of speculation, of thinking otherwise. It is to this end that I continue to try to think otherwise, to address the urgencies of now in another register, one that may be just as crucial, if less palatable.

I have tried, here, to think about the particular ways ethnicity and masculinity accrue objects and meanings in seemingly irrational ways, but with potentially devastating consequences, to translate the image of panga-wielding men into an object of analysis, as a symptom of the place where ethnicity meets masculinity in the vexed sticky region of the present.

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