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Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 8, pp. 23-24, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa
|Author Biography:||Karin Barber served as the 1993-94 Preceptor of the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities, Northwestern University. She has since returned to the Centre of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham.|
The "Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa" conference, held jointly by Northwestern University and the University of Chicago from April 29 to May 1, 1994, brought together scholars and media practitioners from Africa, Europe, and America. The papers and screenings presented at the conference became the starting point for intense and engrossing debates which are likely to continue as long as this new field of enquiry remains under construction. Many of the papers were preliminary essays and were left open-ended with many issues unresolved. This meant that the discussion was neither a post-mortem nor a mere embellishment, but a vital work of constitution. The discussants on each panel—Veit Erlmann, Misty Bastian, Brian Larkin, and James Schwoch—helped to stimulate far-reaching and imaginative interventions. We present revised texts of the papers here, hoping to widen the scope of that discussion and bring in new participants. In a field as yet undefined, whose possibilities we have only begun to sketch out, it would be impossible for me to "wrap up" the proceedings with a synthetic overview. Instead I simply offer a few remarks, inspired sometimes obliquely by the papers and discussions.
When Arjun Appadurai, Jean Comaroff, Sandra Richards, and I began to envision this conference, we started from the understanding that the "global media" are playing an increasingly crucial role in the formation of popular culture and consciousness in Africa today. Control over, or access to, new channels of communication has large political implications. New modes of domination and new possibilities of resistance are being created. Women are confronted with a new challenge, as Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi forcefully pointed out: to get into the new media production or see themselves excluded from yet another arena of public discourse. And while the influx of "transnational" culture into Africa is enormous, images of swamping and brainwashing are not useful tools to analyze what is happening. "Global" technology is put to local uses, and is amalgamated with existing popular cultural forms. A techno-determinist approach will be baffled in the attempt to predict the effects of new media in Ugandan village halls or Malian dance floors. While Africanist scholars would do well to look to Euro-American cultural studies for inspiration—we have hardly started looking at questions that have been central to cultural studies for the last twenty years—it will not do simply to extend the cultural studies paradigm developed to describe media consumption in Birmingham or New York to the "Third World" in the cozy presumption that the media have put us all in one global village. The first necessity is an empirical alertness. How are the media "consumed" in Africa? To what extent do they import new ways of conceptualizing private and public relationships, open political spaces for new kinds of discourse, speak to emergent subjectivities, or install a new perception of time?
Media are, in the first instance, technology: material goods which can be bought, owned, and controlled, and which have the potential for different uses. The media are not in and of themselves capable of having a determined "impact" on culture. Rather, people working within certain constraints and with certain advantages exploit the possibilities of media in particular ways. But these possibilities vary with the scale and cost of the technology. An obvious initial distinction would be between the older, large-scale, expensive media, such as radio and television, which are usually centralized and controlled by the state, and new, lower-cost media such as audio cassette and video, which can be acquired, controlled, and operated by individuals or small organizations. The immense proliferation of video technology all over Africa since the mid-1980s has completely redrawn the media map, making possible an informal home cinema controlled by any owner of a VCR, direct access to foreign television and film shows, and the possibility of making or commissioning local video materials relating directly to people's own lives and interests.
The questions directed to the large, centralized, and expensive media tend to focus on two issues: how (and how successfully) the state media are used to promote national or governmental projects, whether for development or domination; and how people take up, circumvent, or subvert this state address. Several of the papers included here show the relevance of this line of approach. Sheila Petty's paper investigates the project of moral nation-building that informs a popular Cameroonian soap, rendering it unassimilable to Dallas and Dynasty, which provided the producers' and viewers' initial model. Debra Spitulnik's paper shows how Zambian radio attempts to program its listeners, and how they both internalize its messages and mock them by recycling fragments of radio discourse in street talk with subversive, ironical effect. Mamadou Diawara shows that people can also, to a limited extent, insert their own agendas into centralized, staterun media: he tells us that in Mali the nouveaux riches routinely bribe radio presenters to include their own panegyrics, thus co-opting the media to magnify their personae on a hitherto unattainable scale, though at the same time with an effect of dilution and thinning of local knowledge.
When the media are smaller scale, lower in cost, and more easily accessible to individual control, a different range of questions arises. What uses do people make of the media they themselves control? Who does, in fact, control them? What new channels of communication and representation are opened up? What new voices are heard? Peter Manuel, in Cassette Culture, described how audio-casette technology made possible the transformation of the Indian recording industry, replacing a giant record company monopoly with numerous small, local recording labels, and thus making possible much greater diversification and attention to local music styles. Have similar results followed the rapid adoption of video technology in Africa, where a proliferating number of local producers make videotapes of popular music performances, weddings, chieftancy installations, religious propaganda, and so on for commercial purposes? Minou Fuglesang's paper noted that in Lamu, people watch professionally-made video records of their own weddings, as well as imported Indian romantic melodramas, Kung Fu films, Islamic religious films, and American blockbusters. Preference for documentation and circulation of local cultural material via video technology is encountered in West Africa too. The papers by Bisi Adeleye, Chris Waterman, and Jonathan Haynes show how in one area—western Nigeria—local video production of popular music styles such as fújì and jùjú, and drama produced by the local popular travelling theatres, has become a flourishing enterprise, rivalling imported videotapes.
Greater access to control of technology may open up new forms of political expression. Zackie Achmat's paper spoke of "an explosion in alternative and counter-hegemonic media production in the 1980s" which "challenged the social identities created by the apartheid state." Video artists, who were "denied access to broadcasting, marginalized, sometimes operating clandestinely, often confronting the police and army in the streets," not only produced an unparalleled record of the resistance activities of that period, but also played a crucial role in forging new identities and solidarities for the struggle against apartheid. At the same time, Achmat emphasized the necessity for video documentary-makers to challenge and interrogate all essentialist representations of unitary racial or other identity, whether reinvented and reproduced through "official history" or "popular memory." Radical documentaries have an obligation, he suggested, to recognize the instability and fissures in all South African social identities, to question the unifying myths, and to "listen to the crackle of delirious speech, destabilizing the coherent narratives of framed subjects." Simultaneously constructing and deconstructing, these texts appear to work at the very heart of momentous political transformations.
But access to new media channels may also involve the greater participation and complicity of small cultural producers in the circuits of global capital. The video presented by Alan Waters, showing Nana Tuffour, a Ghanaian reggae musician playing "live at Adehyman Gardens, Kumasi," was obviously made locally and with no great technical sophistication, but it displayed a constantly scrolling ribbon of text advertising the company's offices in London, Chicago, and Accra.
This example, and others presented during the conference, suggests that the distinction between big, centralized state media and small, localized entrepreneurial media needs to be qualified. In South Africa and elsewhere, pirate and private radio stations have greatly enhanced popular access to formerly centralized media. Or consider the case of an independent film-maker like Dommie Yambo-Odotte, who relies on substantial funding from official organizations but is nonetheless able to work on projects of her own, often against the grain of Kenyan male political prejudice. In Nigeria, the state-controlled media are often too weak to resist invasion by the live, popular entertainment genres flourishing outside: an example is the locally made, independently produced Yoruba drama, which undergoes only minimal formatting by the studio managers before being screened in large quantities on western Nigerian television. These examples show that localized/centralized and small-scale/mass-distributed are relative and shifting concepts. We need a way of mapping not just the circulation and consumption of media products, but also the patterns of access and control of media technology—how private and public, commercial and non-commercial, small-scale and large-scale production interpenetrate. National, state-controlled enterprises are constantly in tension with international global media production—sometimes antagonistic, sometimes complicit. Global media production may appeal to people directly, bypassing national censorship and control. But it may also be hijacked for local purposes.
What many of the papers in this conference have been getting at is that in addressing publics, communicative genres also constitute them. Communicative genres in new forms, communicated through new media, may therefore play a role in constituting new kinds of publics. Indeed, it might even be suggested, following Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, that the very concept of "the public" took on a new definition and scope with the rise of print culture and later of the electronic media—for these made possible the conceptualization and interpellation of extensive bodies of people who, in principle, are unknown and equivalent to each other. The concept of the "public" is more powerful and more difficult than its most obvious alternative, the concept of "audience." As Habermas suggests, it brings with it archaeological layers of usage and definitions from Roman, feudal, and post-feudal law, resulting in a multiplicity of overlapping senses. And, like the "popular" discussed by Bourdieu ("Vous avez dit populaire?," Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 46, 1983), these meanings are charged because they are contested. It is a word worth keeping, whatever its propensity to escape single definition.
In his riveting address to this conference, Achille Mbembe reminded us that the concept of "public" implies a counterpart, the notion of "private," usually taken to mean what is interior, domestic, or personal. As Mbembe suggested, we need to look at this distinction critically, not take it as self-evident. He suggested that a more relevant distinction than public/private in Africa might be public/secret. Both "private" and "secret" seem crucial counterparts to the notion of "public" space in the case evoked for us by Minou Fuglesang; an Islamic society where the domestic space becomes a site for the convocation of mini-"publics," from outside as well as within the household, to view video shows; where the greatest occasion for dressing up, fashion, and display is the kupamba wedding ceremony, which often takes place in a cinema hall, but which is strictly secluded and closed to men; and where the unmarried girls' sexually explicit chakatcha dances are performed in an enclosed household courtyard, with only women present, but in the knowledge that the scene is being overlooked by young men, ensconced on the neighboring roof-tops. What here is private and what is public? What is the relationship between seclusion, secrecy, and the domestic? What is the role of the video and the cinema hall in defining the domestic and the public space? More generally, if "private," interior subjectivities are being constituted in tandem with new "publics," the question is how the media—including print—have been involved in this process.
However, we need to avoid a one-way model that only represents the media as constituting the public, for the public also constitutes the media. The Yoruba travelling theatre discussed by Jonathan Haynes was created by audience demand. It was the public's enthusiasm for this theatre which enabled it to secularize, commercialize, and go professional, moving away from its origins in amateur bible-play productions staged by church choirs; and it was the public's taste and money, selectively spent, that steered this theatre movement subsequently into film production and then video drama. As several papers have suggested, the public also "creates" each work through the expectations it brings to bear on it. As Zackie Achmat said in relation to South African documentary videos, the public creates the video by what it brings to it. Sheila Petty showed clearly how a public acquires certain frames and preconceptions which enable it to "read" a television text in particular ways. But research into what the public does with the media—one of the main themes of contemporary cultural studies in Britain—has barely begun in African studies. We know little even about who watches television and video, let alone how they interpret it and what preconceptions they bring to bear on it. This, indeed, is a huge gap. Tunde Lawuyi's paper showed how the question of who buys video dramas in western Nigeria, where they buy them, and when they watch them can adumbrate a profound interrogation of these people's self-conception and their aspiration to self-realization.
Popular Culture, Genre, and Text
"The media" in Africa do not constitute a distinct sphere and cannot be understood on their own. Print, radio, television, film, and video interact with other popular cultural forms, including performances ranging from great established oral genres to the "innumerable little speech genres of everyday life," as Volosinov put it. Both the established cultural forms and the new media are transformed in the process. Studies of popular culture in Africa have tended to focus on single genres in isolation, and relate these to a presumed "popular consciousness" somehow located in everyday life or in ordinary language. But several papers in the conference shifted this focus by showing how genres transmute, quote each other, or cannibalize each other, and how materials circulate among media and genres in a movement that may be seamless or transgressively disruptive, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes undermining each others' sense. Luise White's paper suggests that "street talk" itself is a genre with its own conventions. Street talk and newspaper reports feed off each other; but at the same time, certain things are more appropriately said in one mode than the other, and moments of historical crisis may alter the nature of their interaction. This suggests to me that we need to look much more attentively at the relations between media and genres. We need to see how materials and themes migrate—not simply "reading" any given text as a "representation" of "what people think," but attending to the specific textual conventions which enable particular things to be said and particular themes to be recycled in particular ways. Indeed, Helen Nabasuta Mugambi's paper argues that it is precisely in the migrations of material from one medium or genre to another—from live oral performance of a song, to its performance on the radio, to its representation on video—that critiques can arise, as the gaps between the genres or media allow room for enquiry. In Mugambi's analysis, radio and video provide a position from which women—empowered by their recent military achievements in the Ugandan guerilla war—can assert themselves and gain purchase on existing "patriarchal" oral narratives. And her point is that because of the power of radio and video to reach wide publics, this space that women are claiming can be a national space; their claims can be integrated with a vision of national progress commanding the assent of all Ugandans.
The media have greatly intensified the migratory, shifting, intergeneric propensities of African popular culture. The result is a field of activities, practices, and resources where the binary oppositions conventionally used to describe and analyze African cultural forms—"oral"/"written," "traditional"/"modern," "indigenous"/"foreign," "official"/"unofficial"—simply seem to dissolve. The papers in this conference made little use of them, instead exploring the possibilities of terms like "extension and domestication" (Waterman), "cycles and recyclings" (Spitulnik), and "convergence and intersection" (Mugambi).
Attention to generic and intergeneric relations can take us into further areas of enquiry. It may seem obvious that the place to investigate the "audience" is outside the "text," and that the right procedure is to postulate two separate entities and then seek to discover the connections or interactions between them. However, as recent literary criticism has made clear, part of what constitutes a genre is the relationship it proposes—attempts to enjoin—with its audience. That is, its own conventions include a specification of a position the audience is to adopt in order to secure "uptake" of the text. What is interesting about many of the genres we have been considering in this conference is that they seek, quite explicitly, to offer the audience an image of itself—a model of how to consume new media and new genres. Richard Lepine's paper shows this very clearly: Swahili popular novels portray their characters reading popular fiction, buying magazines, and going to the cinema, thus representing these activities as part of the modern identity to which the readers presumably aspire. The novels represent the reader to him or herself—a disturbing feature of the narrative when the character who reads, within the novel, ends up committing a murder. This portrayal may be seen as a form of "advertising," but it clearly goes beyond that, for it not only evokes an entire scene of social transformation, but also, with typical ambiguity, half-criticizes it. (I saw a similar thing in a Yoruba popular drama video recently, where the spoilt brats of a rich man spend their days watching videos instead of going to school. The videos they watch are specified—and they include those made by Oyin Adejobi, the theatre leader whose video-drama this was. The two boys eventually turn to a life of crime and come to a bad end.) In other genres, for instance, the fújì music videos discussed by Chris Waterman, one of the dominant concerns of the fújì star is to produce his audience within the video-text. Barrister and Kollington repeatedly name and represent their "following" within the video, listing categories of people who enjoy dancing to fújì music and showing themselves surrounded by crowds in different situations. This "public" is half fictitious and half real; the viewers are drawn in to a fantasy of the good life in which they play a constitutive part. Thus the audience is recognized as being in the text, just as the text is recognized as being in the audience.
The conference began two days after the momentous elections in South Africa. Two of our participants arrived exhausted from South Africa, one having waited to vote and the other having had difficulty in leaving during the unexpectedly prolonged two-day national holiday. Many people in the U.S. spent days glued to the radio or television, waiting for results to come in. The presence and significance of the media in these elections were overpoweringly obvious. Many of us no doubt felt we would rather have been there, seeing for ourselves the events the media were broadcasting to us, instead of sitting in Evanston and Chicago talking about the role of the media in Africa. But it is not only big, momentous events, those that attract media attention all over the world, that need consideration. To understand the big events, it is also necessary to get a sense of the innumerable capillary actions of small-scale local change. The play staged and video-taped by the Mityana women's club in 1992 in Uganda; the child in Ilesa, Nigeria who shot a playmate while acting out a Yoruba television drama; the jokes cracked at bus-stops in Zambia ... all these can be taken as clues, as symptoms, or as strategies of transformation. They are not negligible.
1. Fuglesang's paper is not published here; see Fuglesang, M., Veils and Videos: Female Youth Culture on the Kenyan Coast, Stockholm Studies in Social Anthropology, 32 (Stockholm: Gotab, 1994).
2. Achmat's paper has been partially published in the Journal of the International Institute, University of Michigan, 1994.
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