It’s Not Right

It was the late 90s, and I swore to practice dance affirmative action: I would only dance to songs by black musicians. Practically, this meant I spent more time off the floor than on—Cher was always an exception. Whitney’s song—Thunderpuss mix, I believe—became an anthem, expressing my frustration with limited dance time and my general sense of the world. Perhaps I was a more intense drama queen then. As an aside, a recent article argues that memory retention works better when there are spatial cues, when one can associate information with a specific place. And here I thought my insistence on naming the locations where education took place was cute, if irritating to my readers. Pegasus in downtown Pittsburgh—I owe you my knowledge of queer theory.

Back to Whitney.

Whitney’s song has been rattling around in my head—rattling is what happens years after the pounding of dance music subsides; regrettably, or not, the sound is never fully gone—as I try to think through Lauren Berlant’s curious claim that we now misrecognize survival as freedom. Curious not because it’s not accurate, but because I have been routing it through Kenya-speak, which is marked not by the formal niceties of “fine” and “good,” but by the ritualistic answer, “just surviving.”

In Gikuyu: no turatindika.

Kenyans use the word surviving a lot to name a daily condition but also to name what feels like accomplishment: to survive is to thrive, to beat the odds, to manage in an antagonistic world. One hopes to survive from one day to the next, and this regardless of class. It is a marker of our Christian-inflected modernity scarred by our repression under various governments to insist that we are “surviving.” To survive is to thrive, to exist by believing that “the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism).

But what does it mean to accept surviving as the condition of living? What are the short- and long-term implications of living as extras in a video by Destiny’s Child? And to accept that as the experience of the quotidian?

Whitney’s song has been rattling as I struggle to grasp the (broader) implications of knowing that something is not right—an institution, an event, a practice—but accepting its inevitability. “It’s not right, but it’s okay.” An inevitability predicated on a survivor’s mentality: “I’m gonna make it anyway.” Needless to say, I am abstracting the song from its “you no good lying bastard” context.

In many ways, “it’s not right, but it’s okay” sounds like a Kenyan soundtrack, the muzak of our lives. It describes the constant violence we enact and experience, the tenuous place of “right” and “rights” within our daily lives, our willingness to believe that “making it just one more day” is an accomplishment, our belief that bad politicians should be endured. That one should receive a merit badge for staying with an abusive partner, staying in a degrading job, staying tethered to conditions that diminish one’s spirit (I am back in Berlant territory).

There is something wrong with our “okay.”

It would take more brainspace than I can muster now to explain how Kenyan affect (if such a thing can be said to exist) differs from that explored by Berlant. While I find her concept of cruel optimism extremely useful, it does not quite describe the Kenyan present I’d like to track. Briefly, Kenya’s narrative has never had a “fantasy of a good life,” a version of the “American dream.” It’s not clear to me that the post-1963 period was marked by any discernible “optimism”: the fissures between peasant-freedom fighters’ demands for freedom and wealth redistribution and the political class’s massive consolidation of wealth and power, all of this observed and aided by an emerging petty bourgeoisie who, more often than not, claimed to side with peasant-freedom fights in principle but acted in concert with the political class (this is a strategic fiction, bear with me), created altogether different affective orientations as part of Kenyan history and being. This is a tentative formulation and I do not yet have the resources to map our affective life over the past 50 years, though I can point to “complaint” as one mode of living, perhaps a genre of being, that suffuses Kenyan discourse.

But I recognize, in Berlant’s work, a Kenya that feels familiar:

The conditions of contemporary life . . . are conditions of the attrition or the wearing out of the subject, and the irony that the labor of reproducing life in the contemporary world is also the activity of being worn out by it has specific implications for thinking about the ordinariness of suffering, the violence of normativity, and the “technologies of patience” that enable a concept of the later to suspend questions about the cruelty of the now.

To return to Whitney: it is not that Kenyans do not experience or understand the affective-ideological structures and atmospheres that surround us. Rather, it’s how we inhabit these structures and atmospheres that intrigues me. If “complaint” is the site of recognition, a place where alliances are forged, “indifference” is also, surprisingly, a site of aggregation (not collectivity), where a shared callousness is seen to define Kenyan-ness under the guise of “realism.” Were one to write a book or article on Kenyan feeling, I suspect chapters would map disappointment, complaint, indifference, and, strangely, ecstasy. These are, of course, not at all the same things, but they live in proximity to each other in fascinating ways. Again, brainspace is lacking. Along with these, one would have to map temporal modes of living: deferral, suspension, recapitulation, even something called “voidness.”

Such a book or article might be called “Okay,” and would explain how “okay” in place of “right” is a default mode of acting in the absence of right-enforcing structures (and here, I mean right in legal, ethical, and moral terms, all of which have vexed relationships with each other in Kenya). How does “okay” enable us to accept the violence of everyday life? How does “okay,” with its promise of survival, normalize inequity even as it forges affective coalitions, such that the wealthy and their underpaid domestic servants are both “surviving”? How do our rhetorical tics, our modes of speaking, tell stories about how we imagine the shapes of our lives and how we practice living based on those imaginations?

To imagine that “okay” is enough, that “to survive” is to thrive, that “right” has no claim that can be pursued; beyond imagining, to act as though all of these are inevitable. What has that meant for us and what will it mean as we head into 2012 and into the (in)glorious endlessly deferred future of Vision 2030?

4 thoughts on “It’s Not Right

  1. I’ve increasingly become aware of how intimate dancing is (“duh”). Now I either can’t do it with someone (I experience a kind of too-muchness if I do) or I can only do it alone. Privately. I haven’t thought much about this.

    You write:

    If “complaint” is the site of recognition, a place where alliances are forged, “indifference” is also, surprisingly, a site of aggregation (not collectivity), where a shared callousness is seen to define Kenyan-ness under the guise of “realism.”

    This reminds me of your post(s) about the Kenyan school system (“Stop Beating Students”, and another one I can’t remember the title to) and the sort of “realist” gloating some of the comments expressed—pride and celebration at having “survived” corporal punishment and beans with weevils. This gloating was often followed by indifference to the plight (laden word, I know) of current school children and their demands for change (read: callousness).

    In this way, hardship becomes a right of passage—no matter what. The Kenyan petit bourgeois justifies underpaying his house servants because he too (mis-)remembers a time when he was underpaid.

    “Fake it till you make it.”


    Unrelated: my language is collapsing—especially grammar.

    The long quote by Berlant is heartbreaking, because I have heard some very heart-wrenching personal stories from Kenya lately, all of them smoothed over with “technologies of patience” such as our vibrant, new faith (“I pour the blood of Jesus on this!”, or, “This too shall pass”), or Gloria Gainor: “I will survive.”

    Language is collapsing.

    One of the things I have liked all these years is to be surrounded by people who know no english. It has left me more intensely alone with my eyes and with my english. I do not know if it would have been possible to have english be so all in all to me otherwise. And they none of them could read a word I wrote, most of them did not even know that I did write. No, I like living with so very many people and being all alone with english and myself—Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

    I think it is the violence, the demolitions, that heartbreak and all the “surviving” that is making language collapse.

  2. I like the way you identify “hardship” as a “rite of passage,” which has such rich echoes with recent debates about “the cut” among the Kuria. While I’ve focused more on psychic and material economies (yes, I hear the very apt comment that psyches are “material,” but I’ve been hanging out with Marxists), I’m struck by the bodiliness of “the cut” on girls as an instantiation of this hardship. We need to prove we can endure pain–in this hypothetical book, the school would be an important, foundational site of engagement. (Alas, these days I am stuck in book-mode, and I’m not sure what’s that doing to my thinking and writing, given the very particular kind of object a book is.)

    I want to hear more about language collapsing. Tell me more. Is part of it the proliferation of borrowed cliché? So, for instance, the “war on Al Shabaab” has borrowed almost all its rhetoric from the U.S. And NGO-speak has now become idiomatic in ways that are amusing and infuriating. Yet, the world of Sheng (I’m not positing it as the ultimate site of innovation) continues to produce new(er) languages, even as I am not yet convinced that such production marks any genuine site of thinking or interaction–there’s a kind of thin vanguardism in youth cultures. But I might simply be manifesting my age-mallness.

    Stein! I love Stein! And need to read more of her, after the other books looking at me right now in disgust because I have broken so many dates. (Mouths a silent sorry.)

  3. I’ll get back to you on the language collapsing thing. I hate to think it’s simply mirroring what’s happening in my world (which you put—offline—in a way I really like: “we all crash and burn”). Language has always provided me a certainty, a getaway from it all. I guess I just never really noticed how much slippage there is in every word and concept, just how “every word is a universe unto itself” (Faulkner?).

    There is a line toward the end of Binya’s One Day. (Because I have returned it to the library and Google Books is of no assistance, allow me to remember—the memory of forgetting). I think Binya says something like: we (Kenyans) never imagined ourselves (to be) possible. True. I’d also say we (myself included) imagined ourselves too narrowly, too simply, and with almost too much certainty (those T-shirts with the caption “Wakenya hatuchaki na watu” spring to mind for some reason).

    Add Kenyan English (the way we use language to imagine ourselves into being, like how our newspapers love the phrase “jetted into the country”) to these stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and you end up with “us”. I have been looking at Kenyan English and all the NGO-speak and development-speak and I think I’m beginning to unimagine myself, the person I’ve been.

    It is almost as strange as when one arrives in the US to find that one is African (“what is that? I am Kenyan”). Just as Mudimbe (“Africa does not exist”) unimagines us, I am beginning to unimagine Kenya. Maybe Kenya does not exist (I don’t want this to collapse into the discourse of nations as imagined communities, I really don’t). Maybe that is why when I met a friend for coffee yesterday and we started “complaining” about Kenya in the same stock phrases, I got bored and looked out the window.

    To slip into the idiotic: maybe even I don’t exist (“I think therefore I am?” *insert LOL here*).

    For a very slight second last week (and maybe even on a recent blog post) I thought Sheng’ might be the result of the concomitant collapse of language along with the world in inhabits (or inhabits it?). But I think Sheng’ is too proactively “imaginative” (see Donald Barthelme’s short story “I Bought A Little City”), too self conscious to simply be a reflection of the world around it. It has its strict aesthetics, I think.

    You’re stuck in book mode (and I really appreciate the way you charted out the book) and I’m stuck in free association.

    I am *not* making sense.

    Is sense overrated?

  4. Typo (correction in screaming caps): T-shirts with the caption “Wakenya HATUCHEKI na watu”


    For a very slight second last week (and maybe even on a recent blog post) I thought Sheng’ might be the result of the concomitant collapse of language along with the world IT inhabits (or inhabits it?).

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