On safari

On our annual publishing break, we’ll be pondering what the responsibility of the African intellectual is today.

Still from Barbie, © Warner Brothers, 2023.

I did not expect to enjoy Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. More than this, I put up every defense against its thrall, and like a faithful Marxist, dutifully rehearsed every note against it: the coming wave of soulless, IP movies it augurs, the quickening death of indie cinema, its veneration of (white) girlboss feminism, and celebration of American consumerism. Be that as it may—it is a delightfully silly and fun film (I cannot stop singing “I’m just Ken,” to the mild annoyance of my partner). If culture is on track to become a feast of flavorless bubblegum, Barbie was a more chewable piece.

The film has been polarizing. Along with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (which I have not yet seen), a debate has emerged considering on which terms a film (or any piece of art, for that matter) can be judged to be good, as well as by which standards these judgments are made. A debate that can be reduced to the questions: what is good art, alongside, what is good criticism.

In The Atlantic, Adam Kotsko complains that “Moralism is ruining cultural criticism,” writing that “Just as the reduction of art to political propaganda leads to bad art, the aestheticization of politics leads to bad, irresponsible politics. That’s because aesthetics and politics are not the same thing.” The points are well-taken (albeit, debatable). But the thing they underscore is the broad crisis of meaning that characterizes our political moment, riven with all sorts of existential questions about domains that not long ago, we would have taken for granted: what is art, what is politics, what is feminism, what is masculinity, what is the left, what is race, what is the energy transition, etc.

We could also ask: what is Africa? The name of this publication gives a tongue-in-cheek answer, meant to imply the opposite of what it says: Africa is not a country. Writing in The Pan African Review, however, Yusuf Serunkuma argues for the political potential of embracing otherwise:

Africans ought to appreciate the reality that while we might be undeniably diverse and different, as a continent, we are still trapped in an existential power relation; a contest over our own resources with Euro-America—and Africa is seen and approached as a continent but with several disunited and confused small countries. With this position, I want to challenge the African elite and politicians to see themselves, not with their own eyes, but with the same eyes through which their nemeses see them.

Yet, this begs the question. Is the West our sole enemy? The geopolitical machinations of today—centered, in the main, around the war in Ukraine—certainly give the appearance of that. It has been easy to treat the rise of multipolarity as offering a new lease of life for pan-Africanism. Though the contradiction is obviated by, for example, Kenyan president William Ruto calling for a non-US centered economic system abroad, while presiding over austerity, privatization, and securitization at home (see the crackdown on the cost-of-living, maandamano protests).

If we could think of the history of Africa Is a Country as a succession of phases, each with its own, overarching orientation, it would go something like this: initially, advancing a critique of how the West perceived Africa, followed by a turn inward to unmask the pathologies of the postcolonial situation. Now, as much as any other media outlet in today’s murky waters marked by shortened attention spans and an exasperating social media landscape (coinciding with political impasse on all matters of world-historical importance, not least the ecological question), we are wondering: what is the responsibility of the African intellectual today?

This question is not unlike the question Barbie confronts: what is the responsibility of Barbies today? In the final analysis, Barbie’s answer is something like a realistic optimism, both disabused of the fantasy that the world is a good place for women, but nonetheless seeing something worth fighting for in the human story. What would it mean to be an intellectual who, as Perry Anderson once put it, “refuses any accommodation with the ruling system,” but at the same time “rejects every piety and euphemism that would understate its power,” all the while having “sympathy with strivings for a better life, no matter how modest their scope.”

In all seriousness, Barbie itself is a film that is ultimately a grand promotional exercise for Mattel, wildly successful precisely because it has generated a great hullabaloo across the left and right. So much of political and cultural commentary today follows the pattern of Barbie discourse: charged with sound and fury, and fading away just as quickly. How to go beyond the noise, toward discerning what really matters? And who decides? Some questions to ponder.

We are on our annual publishing break until August 30th. That means we won’t be publishing any new material on our website, nor producing the podcast or videos. Of course, we will tweet occasionally and post on our Facebook page, and you can always catch up on the archive. When we return, we will have some exciting things to announce, and most importantly, a lot of work to do.

Further Reading

On safari

For the 10th anniversary of the Marikana massacre, we are planning a public event on August 20th to reflect on its legacies.

On safari

We are not just marking the end of 2019, but also the end of a momentous, if frustrating decade for building a more humane, caring future for Africans.