Affirming the Consequent: A Syllogistic Fallacy for Racializing Authority
- “Mzungu” = “European/Caucasian”
- “Mweusi” = “African/Negro”
We might wonder whether universality is more rightfully the province of one literary Spirit and not another, one poetic Sensibility and not another, one authorial Voice and not another.
I believe that Wambui Mwangi’s questions about Alexander Opicho’s article, “White African Writers Can Be Our Celebrities As Well” (2005), call for careful attention. I am curious about what motivates Opicho to expend so much effort to legitimize the ‘African literary spirit’ by
- (a) presenting White writers “who conform to [it]” as exemplary authorities and
- (b) identifying celebrated writers as White, regardless of their actual ethnicity.
And even if we agreed to dismiss racialization as artificial and backward, what does a person who promotes a racialized concept of the universe, whether for purposes noble or nefarious, reveal about themselves and their world view? After careful consideration, I would like to suggest that there is method in Opicho’s seemingly unaccountable initiative to identify Frantz Fanon et alia as “White,” method which we may say characterizes racialization in general. Let me clarify that the scope of this essay is limited to reading Opicho’s piece and suggesting a key to deciphering the code in which it is written.
Opicho’s stated intention is to set an ethically superior example by championing — rather than deprecating — White African Writers. His stated reason for doing this is in order to contrast those Western institutions which, in his opinion, relegate the works of African authors to a marginal rank by confining them to comparative or non-specific fields.
Opicho appears to believe, although he never actually says it explicitly, that the White African Writer has been disenfranchised in favor of the Black African Writer who has surely already enjoyed sufficient attention. Why, in 2005, a few months before Opicho’s article appeared in The Standard, the New York Times proudly announced the long delayed authentic and legitimate birth of African Literature after extensively surrogate gestations and many false starts in an illuminating essay by Lila Azam Zanganeh charmingly titled “Out of Africa”, here appended for your reading pleasure. [The Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen/Meryl Streep flashbacks about “a faaahm in Aaahfricaaah” are almost unavoidable]. But I digress… Returning to the more serious matter of Opicho’s apologia, I echo Wambui Mwangi’s query: whence the need for such a defense?
We are forced to ask, “What is ‘African Literature’?”; “What is the ‘African literary spirit’?”; and by both to wonder, “To what authority should we turn for assurance of its legitimacy/authenticity/seriousness?”
Opicho’s piece recalls to mind Munene wa Mumbi’s more uncouth (and almost amusing) ‘review’ of Kwani?, also published in The Standard 2005. Both pieces could quite easily be dismissed on the grounds that they are naïve, carelessly written, and rife with erroneous and inconclusive remarks — all of which betray surprising editorial negligence on the part of The Standard, an established periodical that boasts wide international circulation in print and on the internet. Yet we must not forget that both Opicho and Munene wa Mumbi, in their own way, are concerned with extolling the ‘African literary spirit’ and, careless or not, purport to speak for… [whom exactly?]. Although this last point may remain unresolved, I believe that we can only benefit from trying to understand where these writers are coming from.
I will focus on Opicho, although it is unclear to me how, or where he finds that Comparative Literature “mean[s] that African creativity is sub in value and […] derives its direction from its Western prototype” (Opicho, 2005). Perhaps the rational leap required in order to equate Comparative Literature with the necessary marginalization of African creativity is the same one that propels Zanganeh to confidently pronounce that, in 2005, “through literary sleight of hand, [one writer — absent all others] has made Africa visible at last.” We are forced by Zanganeh to ask, “What is ‘African Literature’?”; by Opicho to ask, “What is the ‘African literary spirit’?”; and by both to wonder, “To what authority should we turn for assurance of its legitimacy/authenticity/seriousness?”
Opicho, who here most concerns us, does not define or describe ‘the African literary spirit’ of which he speaks. He does, however, offer an answer to the question of authority: the final arbiter of all things good and worthy of consideration must be the Mzungu. At the root of Opicho’s answer is a syllogistic fallacy based on an arbitrary metonym which has become so familiar as to have evolved into an uninterrogated Axiom, or Truth. Let us first consider an example we find regularly at the movies, and whose Arbitrary metonym has deep roots in European aesthetics:
[GENERAL PRINCIPLE] Beautiful is desirable.
- [MAJOR PREMISE] Blonde is beautiful; [ARBITRARY METONYM]
- [MINOR PREMISE] Betsy is blonde; [SPECIFIC OBSERVATION]
- [SYLLOGISTIC CONCLUSION] Betsy is beautiful; therefore
- [CONCLUSION] Betsy is desirable.
The attributes here presented — beautiful/blonde/desirable — do not in themselves have empirically demonstrable necessary correlations to one another. The equation in the major premise of “Blonde” and “Beautiful” is purely arbitrary. It is a metaphor transformed into a metonym such that the specific observation “Betsy is blonde” is taken to mean “Betsy is beautiful.” According to the general principle, Betsy must therefore be “desirable” — never mind what Betsy”s intellectual or psychological disposition or character might be, nor whether she is in fact attractive to anybody to begin with.
Under the general principle that ‘Good deserves to be honored’, Opicho’s syllogism is a variation on the above example and goes something like this:
[GENERAL PRINCIPLE] White deserves to be honored;
- [MAJOR PREMISE] Good is White; [ARBITRARY METONYM]
- [MINOR PREMISE] Fanon is good; [SPECIFIC OBSERVATION]
- [SYLLOGISTIC CONCLUSION] Fanon is White; therefore
- [ULTIMATE CONCLUSION] Fanon deserves to be honored.
The metonymic substitution of the arbitrary equation “Good=White” takes place, and “Frantz Fanon is good” becomes “Frantz Fanon is White” and therefore deserves to be honored.
Consider Fanon’s own conception of the White Mask. Fanon refers here to a psychic disposition; of cultural assimilation as evidenced by the language one uses, the customs one practices and the education one cultivates and propagates.
‘But,’ the keen-eyed reader may object, ‘while Betsy (or Heather, or Jessica, or Jennifer) may coincidentally be beautiful as well as blonde, Fanon is emphatically NOT, nor even appears to be White, even though he is decidedly good.’ This is where the transformative power of the metonym becomes apparent. Yes, Betsy (or Heather, or Jessica, or Jennifer) could well be beautiful (as well) and therefore, as per the general principle, desirable, just as Fanon is good and therefore deserves to be honored for that specific attribute. The key here is the magic of substitution within a closed system that admits no new input. In the first example “Blonde” and “Beautiful” become metaphorically equivalent and thus interchangeable. In the second example uniterrogated cultural axioms presume that “good” and “White” are metaphorically equivalent and therefore interchangeable, obviating the need for any further specific observations. Normalizing this axiom does away with the figurative nature of this equation, rendering the entanglement of “good” and “White” not only literal, but also indissoluble and, ultimately, necessary.
But Opicho is not just operating metaphorically, nor is he merely forcing the issue. In identifying Fanon as “White,” Opicho is obviously not referring to Fanon’s ethnicity or physical appearance, and so he may be going primarily by the apparently European name and cultural background. Consider Fanon’s own conception of the White Mask. Fanon refers here to a psychic disposition; of cultural assimilation as evidenced by the language one uses, the customs one practices and the education one cultivates and propagates. I can only assume, therefore, that Opicho’s designation here is not racial/biological, but rather cultural; an apt, even if unintended, application of Fanon’s own concept. Of course, such a premise begs the question that Opicho, having contemplated photographs of Fanon, has decided to anchor the writer’s characterization on his “French-ness” or “Carribean-ness” of mind and character rather than on his “Black-ness” or “Negro-ness” of aspect. Were this hypothesis valid, it would mean that Opicho raises more telling questions about race and identity than perhaps even he realizes [I believe Muhonjia Khaminwa’s question about Camus is especially pertinent here, although addressing it is currently beyond the scope of this reading]. It may be argued that I give Opicho too much credit, but let me reiterate this essay’s concern with the questions generated by the reading, rather than the writing of Opicho’s article.
When I read Munene wa Mumbi’s review of Kwani? I was puzzled. Literary accolades aside, I was especially bewildered to see his crude assessment of Yvonne Adhiambo’s subtle and poetically haunting short story “Weight of Whispers.” At the time it did not occur to me to consider the questions that Opicho now moves me to pose: might the works of the writers published in Kwani? have enjoyed a more indulgent reception from this critic had their authors been racially or conceptually Mzungu [let us allow for metaphor here]? A naïve question, I know, but I generally don’t mind asking naïve questions. And what if Kwani? were a Mzungu publication, might it be approached with greater circumspection and more respectful critical regard? Lastly, even if we recognized that Kwani? had a challenge ahead of it, do the works published therein, be they by colored or colorless authors, in some way characterize the ‘African literary spirit,’ or fail to do so? Munene wa Mumbi’s review suggests that there is some crucial standard that Adhiambo and other Kwani? writers have failed to meet. But as he does not articulate what this mysterious standard may be, he leaves an important lacuna in making his work comprehensible.
- [GENERAL PRINCIPLE] Excellence deserves respect;
- (Arbitrary Attribute) is excellence;
- IF Adhiambo is/has (Arbitrary Attribute) ==> [NOT TRUE], THEN
- Adhiambo deserves respect. [NOT TRUE]
By respect, I do not mean that one has to agree with or unaccountably praise a writer. I simply mean that one ought to pay attention to the text at hand and address it intelligently. Since Munene wa Mumbi does not pay attention to the text nor address it intelligently, we must presume that it has somehow failed to meet the conditions necessary to merit his respect. If we could discover what these conditions are, perhaps we could better understand what the ‘African literary spirit’ he and Opicho are so keen to champion actually is.
For example, is the ‘African literary spirit’ definitively responsive to the colonial condition? Is it bound to a racialized conception of the universe (yes, the universe)? Might not the poetically inspired ‘African literary spirit’ aspire to the sublime, to the universal, to such a treatment of the human experience as may speak to, and for, any homo sapiens? Probing a little further, we might wonder whether universality is more rightfully the province of one literary Spirit and not another, one poetic Sensibility and not another, one authorial Voice and not another.
What I now see in Opicho’s piece is an ingenuous search for a representative White voice to vindicate said ‘African literary spirit’; a search that takes for granted the White (whatever that may be understood to be) voice’s authority to represent the Human Experience; a search that also takes it for granted that every other voice is but an exotic ornament, an aberration, an exception. Opicho’s underlying premise, therefore, is that the Colored voice cannot hope to carry any authorial significance; it must be sponsored by the more authoritative voice of the not-colored, and specifically the White.
Opicho’s meditation offers a penetrating glimpse of one of the most enduring binding forces of the mind: that illusion of power that conformity confers to the subject who strives to affirm his reactive dependency and consequently becomes unmindful of — and even inimical to — his own creative autonomy.
There’s the rub in Opicho’s seemingly benign, and I do not doubt gallantly intended, effort. Opicho believes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and therefore, there can be no greater approbation than the recognition by Mzungu, the author and final arbiter of all things laudable, than his ‘conforming’ to, and imitating the accents of the ‘African literary spirit.’ Opicho therefore probably sees his article as a defense of African creativity.
‘Look,’ Opicho seems to plead, ‘the African literary spirit is genuine/real/authoritative/legitimate/really-to-be-taken-seriously because, see, even Mzungus have given it their seal of approval!’
The general sentiment reverberates in countless meditations on, and treatments of, African creativity: from Jean-Paul Sartre’s impassioned defense of Negritude to the celebration of Pablo Picasso’s ‘discovery’ of the abstract aesthetic in African art: ‘We have naught to celebrate about [black] African creativity and so we must look to “our White brethren, […] to get our celebrities of African art from the white African stock” (Opicho, 2005).’
Opicho’s defense is based on the afrementioned Weltanschauung of binaries where ‘White’=‘good’ and ‘Black’=‘bad’, ‘Mzungu’s Voice’=‘authority’ and ‘Mweusi’s Voice’=‘irrelevant’. Were this not the case, Opicho would not only have found it necessary to ‘whitify’ Frantz Fanon (even if only metaphorically); he could have found countless writers through whom to celebrate ‘the African literary spirit’ without racializing virtue and authority.
I am inclined to take Opicho’s piece seriously — not for what it says, but rather for what it does not say. In its (unknowing) silence we find the unquestioning assumptions, not just of one Kenyan man, but of tens of thousands — yea, millions — all around the world about where arbitrary authority necessarily resides; the unschooled candor of Opicho’s meditation offers a penetrating glimpse of one of the most enduring binding forces of the mind: that illusion of power that conformity confers to the subject who strives to affirm his reactive dependency and consequently becomes unmindful of — and even inimical to — his own creative autonomy.
Yvonne Adhiambo, Weight of Whispers
Lila Azam Zanganeh, “Out of Africa” (New York Times, 2005)
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Wambui Mwangi, Wtf?: On Skins And Masks (October 12, 2005)
Alexander Opicho, “Kenya: White African Writers Can Be Our Celebrities As Well”
Munene Wa Mumbi, Kenya: The Emotional Turbulence That is ‘Kwani?3’