I have been reading Sara Ahmed on pain and skin, her reading through psychoanalysis and phenomenology of how we come to experience our bodies as ours through encounters with border-making experiences. Pain and irritation alert us to the places where something we define as us meets the something that is not us. Bordering or, to use her terms, surfacing, is ongoing. In a significant revision of Lacan’s mirror phase, Ahmed reminds us about the contingency of bodily integrity: it is only when we come against obstruction, often in the form of pain, that we are newly resurfaced as discrete bodies. Indeed, in the trash romance I have been reading for twenty years now, good sex is often described as liquid, melting, as a moment of dissolution. One’s borders melt in pleasure. The two or more become one. (That reading trash romance prepared me to read Leo Bersani and Sara Ahmed is important to mark: I respect the intelligence of popular trash.)
Kenya is at war with Somalia. Or, as the new media reports have it, Kenya has joined forced with Somalia to combat Al-Shabaab. But the slippage between the two—Kenya against Somalia and Kenya against Somalis—is the grounds for this writing.
Put otherwise, Kenya is officially at war with Somalis. In a sense, this is unsurprising, to the extent that our official and unofficial discourses depict Somalis as refugees or terrorists, drains on our economy and our imagination. The term “terrorist” became newly available to the Kenyan imagination in 1998 and was subsequently finessed by 9/11. It is no secret that Kenya has been less than pleased with Obama’s distance from us, and it is terrifying to imagine that we might be waging this war “against terrorists” to curry favor with our indifferent son.
Before Somalis were terrorists they were bandits.
I want to detour through Ahmed to think about how Somalis became terrorists. I am interested in the link between the taxonomic and the affective, in what, to paraphrase Fanon, registers as, “Look! A Somali! In this claim, the figure of the Somali enables a border-effect, a surfacing of the one naming the Somali as “not Somali.” Not Somali, in Kenya, registers as legitimate. Kenyan nativism and autochthony depend on “not Somali.” Kenyan-ness understands itself as such because it is “irritated” or “pained” by Somali-ness. But I get ahead of where I was heading.
In “Problematic Proximities,” Ahmed considers the effect of discursive proximities. She offers this example:
An example . . . can be found in discourses around the ‘war on terror’. Politicians can make an explicit argument that ‘this is not a war against Islam’, as they often do. However in the same speech they might use the term ‘Islamic terrorists’, indeed that term will be repeated, often in a very casual way. The term can work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words. The repetition of the proximity makes the association ‘essential’. A repetition of proximity is an affective mechanism: the word ‘Islam’ becomes sticky; it comes to carry the conations or value of the words that it is placed near. Saying just the word ‘Islam’ can then be enough to generate an affect of terror. In other words, the stickiness of proximities congeals into an attribute, without an explicit act of attribution having to be made . . . . Even if an argument is explicitly made that Islam does not equal terrorism, an implicit association between Islam and terror is sustained. Associations that do not have to be made explicitly are those that are already given. (125)
The example is clear enough not to need glossing.
Placed within the context of Kenya-Somali relationships, one notices the words that cluster around Somali-ness, so much so that they become attributes of Somali-ness: bandits, warlords, refugees, terrorists. Each of these is understood to “extract” something from Kenya: safety, security (military, economic, food), sovereignty. Take, for instance, the opening paragraphs of this article by Macharia Gaitho:
In the wake of the Migingo Island dispute with Uganda, repeated forays into Kenya by Ethiopian and Sudanese bandits and cattle-rustlers, and the latest incursions and abductions by the Somali Al Shabaab group, there was plenty of frustration expressed all round about the seeming impotence of our security organs.
Now the authorities have decided enough is enough. Kenya has declared war on Al Shabaab, an extremist groups that controls large swathes of Somalia and boasts links with the face of global terrorism, the Afghan-based al Qaeda movement of the late and dearly unlamented Osama bin Laden.
Histories of aggression cluster around Somali and Somalia: disputes over land, attacks by bandits and cattle-rustlers, “abductions” by pirates—Kenya under attack. Kenya, an impotent Kenya, a less-than-masculine Kenya—attacked by a group of lawless people. Somali becomes “extremist,” “terrorism,” “the face of global terrorism.” Macharia Gaitho is beating the war drums loudly and persistently.
Kenya is going to prove her masculinity using war as viagra.
Kenya—fracturing under its own weight and histories and irreconcilable differences, on trial in front of the world at the ICC, watched by international bodies in case of a future PEV—Kenya needs this war. Kenya needs this war to secure something called a “border” or “self,” to avoid the internal dissolution that haunts our quotidian-ness. A new constitution is not enough—we compromised it as soon as it was signed. And we are busy trying to amend it into something impotent against our politicians and their cronies.
We need Somalis, inside and outside the country, to be the irritants around which Kenya can establish its psychic and material borders. Not content with the deaths inside our borders, we must go kill Somalis in the name of fighting “global terrorism.”
A friend writes me that 75 people are already dead.
On twitter, #KenyaAtWar, a nation threatened by dissolution gels into shape.