10.05.08

Bankelele’s comment on The Phantom’s longevity got me thinking about the three figures who define, in some way still to be thought, or perhaps mediate a racialized model of masculinity between Africa and “the west.” In order of appearance: Tarzan in the 1900s (U.S.), The Phantom in the 1930s (U.S.), and James Bond in the 1950s (U.K.).

I must admit this is a partial and, for that reason, irresponsible post, but it might provoke something, define some kind of project for African-based or African-focused cultural historians.

A responsible post would involve a broader ethno-historical method that traced when these figures first “appeared” in Africa and in what format; how they continue to exist and to circulate. The Phantom has been serialized in Kenyan magazines and newspapers for at least 30 years, I believe only on Sundays; James Bond lives in the movies; and Tarzan has had lives in the movies and on TV for longer than I can remember.

A responsible approach would track, via ticket sales, which Bond movies have been most successful, which Bond characters Kenyans, and Africans, have preferred; which issues of The Phantom have been serialized, which one’s haven’t; the relationship between The Phantom, the first super-hero to wear a skin-tight costume and mask, and Tarzan, who floats around in peri-naked splendor.

Such a project would also entail speaking to the editors who choose to serialize and circulate such work.
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I am interested in the politics of infantilism, how racial, gender, sexual, and classed minorities become depicted as and treated as children—here, the infamous homophobic claim, “it’s just a phase.”

I am, of course, willing to accept the claim, as long as it applies to all forms of sexual practice and identity.

Tarzan and The Phantom—and The Phantom’s creator was influenced by Tarzan—are forever saving hapless natives, even as they, sometimes, destroy evil natives. In fact, if we pay attention to these two figures, both located in amorphous African-like destinations, we discover an intricate ethno-racial epistemology. These white heroes distinguish between good and bad white people, good and bad black people, fight against oppression on behalf of the weak.

They are, to use a historically ambivalent term, heroes.

Since I’ve invoked ambivalence, I might as well admit that I offer one kind of interested reading of these figures, and the kind of racial over-reading I offer here seeks to be shrill.

Increasingly, I value shrill critique.
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One must step delicately: we should be careful to distinguish between necessary external critique, what those from outside see with dazzling clarity, how they tell us what we cannot see, translate for us what we cannot hear, the new paths external voices open for us.

Distinguish between what I have just described and the persistence of imperial and racist ideas and ideologies.

And it is this delicate negotiation that must form part of the ethno-historical project, for how these figures are understood, used, appropriated by Kenyans must form part of any responsible scholarship.
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What can be called “practical critique” must balance between the missionary zeal of the young person who has just discovered ideological critique and believes that the oppressed are blind to their oppression. I have been this person more than once. One walks in, makes pronouncements about raising awareness, and blames the natives who do not rush to convert.

Practical critique must balance between this missionary zeal and what might be called a responsible socio-ethnographic embedding: understanding how one’s audience actually lives, how individuals and communities produce meaning, how what the missionary deems oppressive becomes appropriated and embedded within local ways of living.

This is all to say what others have been saying: that many forms of racial and postcolonial critique often ignore the aesthetics and ethics of local, embedded modes of meaning-making and pleasure-getting. And once we consider these, it becomes difficult to speak of hapless natives in thrall to neo-imperial and racist ideologies.
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A longer, more detailed analysis of these three figures would focus on the fantasies of immortality they represent, albeit in distinct ways.

We know that Tarzan has a son, the son of Tarzan, but it remains unclear within the series whether the son of Tarzan becomes Tarzan himself. Reports indicate that Burroughs hated Jane and did his best to get rid of her.

We know that Bond is an institutional fiction, a character from M16, that we are dealing with institutional reproduction—and this is especially crucial as Bond is born as empire dies. Bond never dies. Empire never dies. This I have broached previously.

Of the three, The Phantom interests me the most, as ideological reproduction is tied to biological reproduction (this is one of the broad themes my scholarship engages). The Phantom’s biologically produced children, always pure white, never of mixed race, or one should clarify, biologically produced sons grow up to be The Phantom. Created before racial eugenics became a dirty term after the excesses of Nazism, The Phantom embodies a eugenic fantasy of imperial-racial paternalism. Indeed, as a “son of Tarzan,” The Phantom makes explicit the bio-immortality fantasy that undergirds US eugenic imperialism.
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To note, as Bankelele does, that The Phantom has been running at least since Kenyatta’s death, 30 years now, is also to think about who we as Kenyans have been and have been becoming in relation to the imperial fantasies we consume and appropriate.

It is also to ask a more specifically generational question: we, the new e-generation, are the ones who have been consuming and appropriating this particular fantasy.

The task of finding out who we are because of what we have been consuming remains to be done.