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?