Friday, October 16, 2009

Unthinkable Nigeriana: The Social Imaginary of District 9

This piece was first published on www.zelezapost.com as a contribution to an e-Symposium on District 9. Those interested in reading further contributions to this debate are invited to visit www.zelezapost.com

I: On Growing Up with Nigeria

The first part of my title is borrowed from a piece I wrote after my first ever visit to Nigeria in 1993. My six-week trip happened to coincide with the 1993 June general elections that were subsequently annulled by then President Ibrahim Babangida. I recall the palpable and abject sense of shock and disbelief of the students at the University of Ibadan amongst whom I sat watching the television announcement. I have never encountered such a collective gasp of despair as was emitted immediately after Babangida’s speech.

But I recall this incident for another reason. Thinking back at what Nigeria has meant to me as a Ghanaian, it now seems to me that 1993 and the dire events that were unleashed after that coincided with the gradual shift in the nature of urban myths that were to come out of that great country. Going to boarding secondary school in Ghana in the late 70s and early 80s, I remember that we used to spend an incredible amount of time trading tales about the wonders of Nigeria. There was good reason for this. My own uncle, Uncle Castro, was one of thousands of Ghanaians who had left for Nigeria to search for greener pastures. “Castro” had not been my uncle’s given name, but he had been such a radical at school and so attached to the ideals of the redoubtable Cuban leader that he changed his name and was forever after branded as the incurable radical of the family. He was a teacher, and was a radical in more ways than I can recount. He took off to Nigeria in the late 70s, learnt to speak Yoruba, married a local woman, and was never seen again. Not even the Nigerian expulsions of Ghanaians and other foreigners in 1983 could prize him out of his adopted country.

The infrequent letters that Castro wrote to us from his sojourn were only one source of stories about Nigeria. Many others were completely apocryphal, but no less believed for what they painted about the immense wonders of this much-envied land of milk and honey. My personal favorite from that time is about a hapless Ghanaian student who had been invited to visit his pen-pal (yes, those were the days!) at the University of Kano in Northern Nigeria. The Ghanaian student was utterly flabbergasted at the facilities he saw. But nothing could have prepared him for the surprise that was waiting for him at the dining hall. His friend asked him to join him for lunch and at the end of it, the Ghanaian, without being prompted, decided to take his tray to one of the innocuous looking sinks that lined the walls of the hall at regular intervals. As he was walking towards one of the sinks he noticed from the corner of his eyes what he thought were looks of condescension on the faces of some of the Nigerian students. They turned out to be looks of dismay, but how was he to know? And he had no intention of allowing them to think that he didn’t know what to do in a dinning hall. How dare they think that? How dare they? He continued purposefully towards the sink and turned around briefly to catch his friend gesticulating wildly from their sitting place. He ignored him. Who did he think he was, huh, trying to tell him that he didn’t know how to work a mere tap? Or did he think that because Nigeria was way ahead of Ghana we didn’t have even the most basic skills, eh? Twiaaa! The cheek of it! He continued his walk towards the sink, put his tray to one side, picked up his cutlery, poised them under the tap, and turned it full blast only to see Lo! and Behold! a rich warm stream of dark and absolutely delicious looking drinking chocolate!!! There are different variants of what happens next. In one of them, the chap remains calm and unfazed and places his other capped hand under the tap to gulp down a large helping of the magical drink. After which he continues walking calmly out of the dinning hall, making a dash out of the campus to the lorry park never to be heard of again!

This and other such stories were commonplace in 1970s and 80s Ghana. Yet by 1993 the stories had definitely taken on a different coloration. Stories of Nigerian internal corruption and external scams became increasingly common and many of the stories were distinctive for the sheer audacity that they revealed about Nigerians. These stories, that tended to circulate largely by word of mouth, have over the past few years entered the international public media domain. Some time in 2008 the British media widely reported on an email sent to members of Jack Straw’s constituency, saying he was stranded in Nigeria without his passport on a government mission and pleading that his constituents send contributions to a special bank account to help salvage the poor man out of Nigeria. Jack Straw, variously Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and at the time of the scam, Secretary of State for Justice, only got wind of the scam when phone calls started flooding into his Blackburn constituency office informing them that monies had been sent out and that they hoped he could return home safely. Prayers had also been sent on his behalf. Add to this an earlier news item that did the rounds in 2006 of the governor of a provincial state in Nigeria who made away with three million pounds in a brief case, and, on being detained in the UK, escaped his captors and went back to Nigeria via Cameroon by dressing in drag, and we can see the image that has now been firmly fixed in the public mind about “the Nigerian character”.

Thus it is not entirely surprising that District 9, a mixed-genre science fiction and faux documentary film should settle on the image of Nigerians as profiteering gangsters. It is not the only film to have featured that impression of Nigerians. The Informant, with Matt Damon as the lead actor, is the story of a whistleblower working for a large food chemical company in the American midwest. The problem is that the whistleblower is an inveterate liar and has himself been siphoning off millions while trying to discredit his also corrupt senior management. Throughout the film the terms “419” and Nigeria are mentioned, and towards the end a Justice Department investigator explicitly tries to explain the whistleblower’s behavior in terms of the 419 scam phenomenon. Thus “Nigerian scamming” is now being used as a commonplace popular cultural shorthand for audacious shady dealings and corruption. In that respect scamming, as a dimension of “the Nigerian character,” and one that is repeatedly used as a stereotype for the country, is now part of its historicity. It is not dissimilar to the idea that Brazil produces great soccer players, or that Canadians are nice and peace-loving people, or that Australians are generally laid back, or that Swedish women are generally beautiful. These stereotypes and ideas are the elements that cement a community’s historicity both in their own minds and in the minds of others.

II: District 9 and the Representation of the Social Relation

And yet there is something deeply unsettling about District 9’s representation of its Nigerian characters. Recall that in the film the Nigerians are part of the slum dwellers that, with the alien “prawns”, lie outside the bounds of civil society. The Nigerians exploit the prawns by selling them catfood which they crave. Crucially, the Nigerians are also gangsters and seek to amass the aliens’ armaments and ammunitions but for reasons that are not made clear in the film. We are left to speculate by an extension of their depiction as gangsters, that this must be in order to dominate the rest of society. Additionally, and here is where the rudest shock is delivered, they are also depicted as cannibals. At one point in the film the Nigerian gang leader, pointedly named “Obasanjo”, attempts to eat the arm of the partially transmogrified Wikus van de Merwe, the central character, so that he can acquire the ability to manipulate the weapons that he has stockpiled. The aliens’ guns are so sophisticated that they only respond to a particular form of biology, namely, that of the aliens themselves. Obasanjo believes that by eating Wikus’s arm his own human biology will be transformed so that he can deploy their armaments. In many respects it is the dimension of their rabid acquisition of armaments and their explicit cannibalism that reveals the degree to which District 9 is prepared to go beyond the historicity that we noted earlier in registering the absolute otherness of the Nigerian characters. In other words, by not stopping at depicting them as inveterate and heartless scamsters but adding to this a dimension of blind military acquisitiveness and cannibalism the film goes well beyond the pale of what is now a key characterization of Nigerianness. For the film they are first and last barbarians, with no redeeming features.

Despite this highly offensive depiction, however, I think it would be mistake to read the film exclusively in relation to the a-historical othering of Nigeria. There is something much more subtle and complex taking place, which is best understood in what I want to elaborate in terms of the film’s social imaginary. Every literary and filmic text, whether realist, science fiction, magical realist, or otherwise, and no matter how apparently distant from the real world, displays a social imaginary. But what is this social imaginary, and how is it to be understood in the first instance?

In attempting to unpack the social imaginary of this or any other representational text we have to grasp the fact that the social imaginary entails the portrayal of a social relation. Essentially, the social relation has two inter-related aspects to it. The first aspect involves the depiction of the manner by which men and women relate to other people in society. These relations are relations of equality, hierarchy, subordination, self-and-othering, able-bodied vs disabled, and so forth. In a word, they are relations of Power, in the sense made famous by Foucault. The social relations depicted in any representational text can easily be inventoried. Are they depictions of individual vs state, father vs daughter, husband vs wife, culture vs culture, or, as is often the case, a combination of all these? Such an inventory of interpersonal and collective relations, however, has to be augmented by the analysis of a second aspect of the social relation, namely, the ways and means by which the relations of Power are converted into something else. By what instruments is it possible to convert a given set of relations of Power into a different, and perhaps more hospitable (for the foreigner) or democratic (for the putative citizen) or equivalent and respectful (for the family member)? At one level the instruments of conversion may be institutional and external to the self (courts, civic and interest lobby organizations, schools, churches), personal (you resign your job and go back to school), or collective (revolution), or, as is often the case, internal to the self and lying at the level of psychology. The two levels are not entirely separable, yet it is also the case that most texts focus on either one or the other. And each historic epoch provides a dominant way in which the two aspects of the social relation are dialectically connected. Thus, for example, in Native Son Richard Wright depicts the practical impossibility that is faced by a character such as Bigger Thomas in his attempts at freeing himself from the dominant relations of Power in his quest for self-fashioning. This is because, given the depicted race relations of 1930s Chicago, Bigger has not grown up with the requisite psychological instruments by which to successfully achieve a conversion of the relations of Power for his own benefit. Even when the external instruments are presented to him, such as the offer of the job as a chauffeur at the wealthy Dalton’s home, the external gesture is so compromised by the structuring of race relations of the period that Bigger interprets the offer not as an instrument of potential self-fashioning but as a trap. And, because of his psychic formation, the feeling of entrapment that unfolds progressively as the white folks try to be nice to him leads him to want to “blot” out the feeling of incapacitation that they generate inside of him. And because of his inherent social ineptitude and psychic formation the only means that appear pertinent to his own situation are those of violence. Thus the double murders that he perpetrates and which land him in jail. Bigger’s psychic responses are overdetermined by the warped character of race relations in the Chicago in which he grew up. Though this interpretation accords at least with the views espoused by Bigger’s Marxist lawyer in the long court scene at the end of the novel, it is really nothing but a shorthand for a much more complex set of conditions underpinning the dual aspects of the social relation depicted in the novel. But this synopsis serves to make the point about the dialectical links between the relations of Power and the instruments of conversion from one stage to another elaborated here.

In District 9 there is clearly a partial equivalence in the representation of the alien prawns on the one hand, and the Nigerians on the other. Both groups are alien to the civic and political order of Johannesburg and South Africa. Both are depicted as meat eating. At various points the prawns are shown tearing into raw meat as are the Nigerians. At the level of meat eating, the equivalence between the two groups begins to fray slightly when the prawns are shown to tear offending human beings into pieces but not necessarily to eat them, while the Nigerians want to eat a part of a human being. However, since the source of the chunks of red meat we see the prawns tearing into at certain points in the film are not clearly stipulated, there is a vague suspicion that they may also be cannibalistic. Be that as it may, at the level of the relations of Power, both the alien prawns and the Nigerians are depicted as not only unfit to be members of the civic community, but actually not wanted on the voyage (to quote the title of the Canadian Timothy Findley’s novel).

It is when we come to the depiction of the instruments of the conversion of the relations of Power, however, that we see a very sharp distinction between the prawns and the Nigerians. The prawns are shown to desire a mastery of science and technology in spite of all the negative conditions to which they have been subjected. The gritty yet highly sophisticated laboratory the prawn leader sets up with his son in their basement is a marker of this desire for technological mastery. Not only that, they desire the technological mastery not to conquer the people amongst whom they have been forced to live for over 20 years, but in order to go back to their own alien planet to fulfill their destiny. The prawn leader is first and foremost a scientist, but one with a highly developed social conscience. His social conscience is depicted in a miniaturized fashion in the warm and caring relations he establishes with his son, and at a higher level, his desire to repair the space ship in order that he might go back to his planet and return to save his people.

In order to radically alter their social relations in a society that clearly thinks very little of them, the Nigerians in the film on the other hand want to master not science and technology, but the mere use of the armaments they have acquired through exploiting the needs of others. And it is not clear what ultimate claims of sociality they want to make in the mastery of these arms. To the aliens is assigned the mastery of science and technology, but to the Nigerians the mastery first of the alien military technology, and later the society in which they reside The problem with the Nigerians’ quest for mastery, however, is that it is shown as being mediated through black magic (the cannibalism) and thus is essentially the marker of a moral and intellectual deficit. We see then that in the social imaginary of District 9 it is the Nigerians that are the true Other. The prawns are only partially so, because they are shown to possess superior “human” characteristics of familial love, reason (in the mastery of science), and political consciousness (in the prawn leader’s desire to come back and save his people).

So what then as Nigerians and Africans, are we to make of the social imaginary of District 9? The first thing is to acknowledge that the film is representing an image of Nigeria that is also true of what the country is in the popular imagination, and which has been contributed to, willy-nilly, by Nigerians themselves. However, when we shift the focus away from historicity (i.e., the truth or falsehood of Nigeria’s image) we have to account for why it is that, yet again, black life is depicted as somehow the bearer of an inherent moral deficit. This is a highly pertinent question because District 9 is set in a South African society that still bears the scars of years of apartheid and horrible race relations. In such a political context in which the imagining of black life takes shape under the shadow of the race relations left over from apartheid, the depiction of black life, whether individual or collective, cannot be taken as completely innocent. It is first and last ideological. True, the film also shows well-dressed urban blacks protesting the presence of the prawn slum. But that should not obscure the fact that the color coding of the film involves a white protagonist partially metamorphosing into an alien prawn, befriending the prawn leader as a fugitive, and almost being devoured by black folk. And it is not insignificant that the hero is himself a scientist. Thus it is black life that retains the mark of the intractable moral deficit, depicted here in the form of rabid acquisitiveness and cannibalism and handily projected onto Nigerians. Since, as we have shown, the cannibalistic tendencies of the Nigerians in the film exceeds their current historicity as scamsters, what the film does is to deploy their representation as a shorthand to register black life in terms of the excess of unreason (magical thought and cannibalism), something they could have done without referencing Nigeria at all. Given the subtle binary overlaps and oppositions that we have seen help shape the discursive relations between the alien prawns and the Nigerians in the film, it would not be unfair to say that the “Nigerians” are redundant, and that we are obliged to interpret them predominantly as ciphers of black life rather than as a reference to a putative Nigerian historicity as such.

The depiction of black life as somewhat in excess of reason has a long and chequered history, and takes us most famously to Hegel’s views on Africa, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and through various other disquisitions that have seen Africa and black life posited as the ultimate heart of unreason. Suddenly we see that the depiction of the social relation in Wright’s Native Son is not so distant from that of District 9 after all. In each instance the depiction shows certain race and its links to relations of Power, and in each one the attempt to convert the relations of Power into another set of relations is short-circuited by the fact that the black characters lack the consciousness by which such a conversion might be achieved. The difference between Native Son and District 9 is that Bigger has our sympathy but the Nigerians do not. This, we should note, is also due to the relationship established between historicity and representation. To unpack that we would have to go into questions of the contrast between medium (novel vs film) and generic conventions (realism/naturalism vs science fiction), and ultimately, to the objectives that the representations are expected to achieve in the real world. Perhaps we will pursue this thread another time.

Ato Quayson, University of Toronto


Nii said...

Ato interesting take on D9. Here is another perspective

'Debo Oladosu said...

This film is like abstract art - the work is deliberate, showing the bias, believes and viewpoints of its author, but is not necessarily based on deep thought. From a Nigerian's perspective Blomkamp's depiction is an extreme & deliberate, almost unfeeling, carryover of racist thinking. It is racist, pure and simple - any other analysis boils down to this fact!

See my petition letter here: http://nigeria-anew.blogspot.com/2009/09/district-9s-appalling-caricature-of.html

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