Tentatively

I find myself intrigued (and terrified) by certainty in Kenya. I’m fascinated by the complex blends of fundamentalist belief and fact dissemination that govern not only what can be said, but what can be heard as being said. Rarely does one hear or read “perhaps” or “maybe” or “might” or even catch hints of hesitation—we fear to be thought indecisive, and so we speak with a sense of rightness: fundamentalist belief meet fact dissemination.

This is why, for instance, question time in public forums is a performance of competing positions: one’s question is always some form of “don’t you agree with me?” To some extent, I am used to this mode of questioning—it’s a common feature of graduate seminars and too many academic talks. One need only get the right Marxist and psychoanalytic critics in the same space to witness ideological fortress building. Or, to offer an even more common example: one need only witness the seemingly never-ending canon/anti-canon debates.

In part, one can trace this certainty to the importance attached to the figure of “the teacher.” Within a certain Kenyan imaginary, the teacher is the figure who knows. One aspires to be known as “a teacher,” as mwalimu, as the subject who knows. Kenyan education seeks to produce and re-produce the subject who knows, even as, materially, the teacher must remain figured, abstracted. It is this subject who knows that is produced and re-produced within the NGO imagination.

In conversation, I am struck by how often I am inundated with facts and figures and answers. These are, I hasten to add, good things, or at least necessary things. Yet, the ways we imagine groups and individuals—men are, women are, Somalis are, Coastal people are, gays want, IDPs want, slum dwellers want—remind me too much of what Megan Vaughan has described as the aggregating function of colonial psychiatry and, by extension, colonial knowledge-making.

We know too much to allow silence and contradiction and hesitation to interrupt how and what we know. This, in part, comes from an NGO culture that wants “outcomes” to be part of a process of discovering the world. However, as James Baldwin might say, “People are not, though in our age we seem to think so, endlessly manipulable.” Or, perhaps, it is that we grant complexity to some of us: those educated enough to embody complexity, those hybrid Afro-cosmopolitans we aspire to embody. (The logic of developmentalism that subtends Afro-cosmopolitan hybridities makes me itchy: one ostensibly moves from ruralities to urbanities to internationalisms and becomes a more complex, rounded creature. It’s a nice fiction.)

How does one venture forth? Where might one find space for silence and hesitation? Even for surprise? (The reason I love Muthoni Garland’s writing is that it works in the realm of the unexpected. Surprise always lurks in wonderful ways.)

As a teacher, I understand some of the authority wielded by the figure who knows: one of my college teachers once pronounced that one could not be educated without reading “The Rape of the Lock.” Thus, we tripped through its heroic couplets for several weeks. It was great fun. Still, I spend much of my teaching time saying, “I don’t know” and “I’ll have to think about that,” teaching, I hope, through certain forms of hesitation. I try to teach my students to value hesitation and uncertainty, and not simply as theoretical gimmicks that prevent one from attempting difficulty.

There are other consequences to our infatuation with certainty. Much of our literature veers between satire and allegory, marked, too often, by a knowing wink. And while I understand the histories that have produced this work, I wonder about the spaces left for other forms of formal and tonal experimentation. I wonder about our gaps and ellipses: how we can insist on their existence, their usefulness. I find myself shrinking away from certainty, afraid of the violence it might perform in lifeworlds that need something else: space, care, shelter.

More and more often, I write about Kenya in “perhapses” and “mights” and “maybes.” I try to avoid the “musts” and “shoulds” that punctuate our national discourses, the never-ending prescriptives guaranteed to “fix us right up!” I understand, of course, that the public sphere is the site of multiple competing interests and voices and that one could read the various prescriptives that abound as a variety of “perhapses” and “mights” and “maybes.” One could, in other words, be generous.

I also realize that it is dangerously naïve to wish for less certainty as we head into an extended election season—whether elections are held in August, December, January, or March. We probably need more boldness and vision. Still, I find myself longing for a less blue-printed world, a less “outcomed” world, desiring, instead, a more hesitant and tentative world.

2 thoughts on “Tentatively

  1. I always say that Kenyans are not opinionated; they are just right. Their opinions are fact.

    Of course, I say this tongue in cheek, but I mean it because it comes from my experience talking to Kenya, to “us”.

    I really appreciate teachers who say “I will think about that” or “I don’t know, what do you think?” We give lip service to how teaching is really facilitating, and then we go right ahead and teach (and I use “teach” here in that old way we were miseducated in Kenya, that way in which you learned the right way to do something or the ruler met the back of your hand). There are other rulers to the back of the hand even here in college, even here in the United States of the Empty Pose of Power. I think the sort of disrespect a lot of graduate students face from faculty also turns them into academic bullies (this is something I haven’t experienced about as I am an undergrad).

    I was talking to a friend recently about this teacher-status is Kenya. I was telling a joke, a psychoanalytic one as always. Growing up in Nyanza, teachers weren’t even known by their names, just as “japuonj”. Japuonj replaced the teacher’s real name. The way for a teacher to become himself or herself was to wear the mask of japuonj, the subject supposed to know. One’s identity took the back burner and one became one’s appearance: japuonj. A real testament to that Lacanian notion of how the Real is mediated by its appearance, its mask. (This, of course, is counter to how the followers of Marx speak of unmasking the false appearance of things to get to the real).

    Back to Kenyan certainty: there are a great many of us (NGO hacks, politicians, good old academics) whose job it is to feign certainty, to play pretend, to be the subject supposed to know. It depresses me sometimes just how many professions are about pretending to know undoubtedly. Think Wall Street and Alan Greenspan.

    Unrelated (but brought on by the topic of work): I was doing some menial work on a construction site yesterday. The architect comes along to inspect things. She looks around, orders workers accordingly. And then I noticed this group of talking heads circling her everywhere she went. They kept saying, “Should we move this table here, or leave it there? Is the light in here too bright?” etc. And the whole time the architect was quiet, thinking, then she’d make a decision. That’s when it hit me: these people around her are paid to think out loud like this. And I thought: how many people in this damn economy are paid to think out loud like this? I got very depressed at that thought.

    I wanted to be an academic. I still dream about it at times, but I don’t have the patience to take all the crap that goes on at the academy. My big mouth would get me in trouble, no?

    Onward! to more certainty.

  2. [b]I try to teach my students to value hesitation and uncertainty, and not simply as theoretical gimmicks that prevent one from attempting difficulty. [/b]

    This.

    But you know me, I’m a proud watermelon, actually I think it is the only honest way to be.

    I am really interested in how this certainty, and what Kweli describes in his comment has affected our practice of democracy, and what a citizen is in such a political system.

    Because it is impossible for citizens to know in our system (there’s a long history of information hoarding and this not just by government) and because those who they allow to ‘lead’ them are punished for nuance, irresolution or even for hesitation, we’re bound to ever more ‘preference falsification’ and its consequences. I wonder what students here would think of a teacher who said he did not know, or one who suggested more than one answer could be valid.

    The result of this, increasingly disengaged and disempowered citizens – always happy to sit back and complain about bad leadership, is I hope as worrying to others as it is to me.

    I’d call for greater direct participation in governing by citizens, and more responsibility for the outcomes of their choices, actions and decisions. It is the only way to make people truly think things through, and in that way to appreciate that most questions don’t have clear yes or no answers.

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