THE OTHER SIDE NATHANIEL MANHERU
I don’t know what triggered it, but I just woke up craving for hard-reading stuff. Deep and tough reading. It happens quite often, especially when you suffer a surfeit of the mundane, the everyday, when everything looks unvaryingly matter-of-fact. Or when you are pelted by impossible whys and wherefores, by great questions to which you vainly grapple for great, satisfying answers. You then crave for the less obvious, maybe seek refuge in the philosophical. That assumes you have the tendon for it.
Theology of divine absence
My first sojourn was Susan Sontag. The girl really engages you, in most cases leaving you exhausted. But exhilarated by flashes of deep insights well put. And I have this craving for deep thoughts well put. Most writers do, often finding sure triggers that ignite exciting thoughts and pieces. As I read Sontag, I found myself sharing in her puzzlement; indeed found form and expression to a nagging question which I had failed to verbalise, failed to verbalise repeatedly.
This is the issue of unrelieved pessimism that seems to dog certain sections of the media, even in the face of general sanguineness. Her review of Simone Weil — a French philosopher, mystic and leftist activist — gave expression to my gnawing, formless thoughts. Sontag hits out against writers “who impress by force — not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardour, but by their sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity.” She elaborates: “The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self — these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live.” And then the paradox of her time which, arguably, is the paradox of our time too: “Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness.
The truths we respect are those born of affliction.” She thus hits out against our inexplicable, morbid craving for pain and depression, the “enormous indulgence in suffering”, to use her own phrase. In her search, she thinks this self-mutilation has something to do with “gnostic theology of divine absence” which get us wadded to writers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kafka or Samuel Beckett, even though our living milieu is very different, very unlike theirs. She lashes out at absurdists who explain away personal crises and failures by evolving dire canons on life as inherently meaningless, chaotic, stricken and tragic. Their personal tragedies, personal failures, become the state all humanity is in! Proof of a godless cosmos.
Two contrasting epigrams
Having found form and expression, I left Sontag, eternally grateful for her help. Then flipped through pages of Walter Benjamin, a Marxist thinker. I did not have to go very far, as I was arrested by two contrastive epigrams with which Hannah Arendt — another philosopher — introduced Benjamin. The first epigram came from Franz Kafka: a diary entry of October 19, 1921. It reads: “Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.” You cannot doubt the appropriateness of citing Kafka, a figure repeatedly used idiomatically by one editor I know. How much of Kafka he has read, only his pen knows! The second epigram of course was from Walter Benjamin himself, by way of an excerpt from a letter to Gerhard Scholem, dated April 17, 1931. It reads: “Like one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” If you are a student of literature like I am, then you know that the quote is natural to Benjamin, given how wedded he was to Marxism. Marxism peddles the idea of socialist realism, a literary precept founded on an incurable belief in the eventual triumph of “class” good over “class” evil!
Three cheers to Zimbabwe!
I notice that as we inch closer and closer to elections, we are being treated to my presentations, many of them cajoling us for attention. That is natural, usual. Elections should be about ideas and visions, parading these so the voter can weigh and choose. In a way it suggests some significant evolution on our part, well away from politics of history and personalities, to politics of ideas and clashing alternatives.
That is if one were to simply evaluate us on the simple basis of taking to platforms, and of course knowing that it is a season for rituals of presenting ideas. Of course the judgment gets less flattering when one goes beyond the occupation of platforms, beyond noises made on those platforms, to try to get to the kernel of ideas proffered from those platforms. Simply, I am paying tribute to the elementary knowledge that election times are preceded by talking, by debating, by saying something to a voting audience. For our young democracy, one often distorted and bloodied by politics of biceps and raw, naked ardour, this is a huge leap forward. Two, three cheers to Zimbabwe!
Marketplace of ideas?
But of course we cannot remain stuck in the rut of rituals, the rut of forms and platforms. The platforms already occupied must then yield ideas for national engagement, weighing and consideration. And then for national decisions. Immediately we run into difficulties, great difficulties if you care to ask me. Difficulties of roles. Difficulties of getting electable ideas into currency and circulation.
But first, roles. We have a bit of a problem when platforms which must host ideas pretend to be, or even become, ideas themselves. I am adverting to the institutions of the media. Media writ large. And I assess the media by their own self-estimate, much as I have never believed in that estimate. They call themselves “marketplaces of ideas”, I wonder with how much reflection and knowledge of this one capitalist metaphor they are so wont deploy.
Simply, a market is a meeting point for demand and supply, a setting for the two magnitudes to interact, hopefully perfectly. It is not itself the good in supply or the good in demand. We don’t buy markets; we go to markets to buy goods and services. To buy value. Extending this logic to our media, you immediately see our problem, a mortal deficit which is both conceptual and practical. Conceptual in that those manning the market have little understanding of their role(s). And because of the preceding, invariably they mismanage that market.
There is a way in which we don’t meet ideas in the media; rather we meet and know the media by their fixed idea(s) — “id’ee fixe”. The market is no longer the place, it is now the good we are expected to demand. The market now supplies this good. And it’s not difficult to work this out. Ideationally, there is an overbearing, boring predictability in the national media industry. Editors, please save us by serving us well, and justly.
In all fairness you can’t claim to be editing ideas when you are generating and buttressing, or ventriloquially amplifying a single, stale idea. Surely? Week in; week out! In real life, we all wake up to surprises, which is why our dreams, plans and wishes are sometimes subverted and frustrated, other times realized and fulfilled. Not so in newsrooms run and inhabited by perfect gods who seem always to create perfect being in seven days without resting! Not even God approximates their state of creative perfection. For quite often, it is He who creates cripples! But not these gods from news machines. They run newsrooms which are too ethereal to share the untidiness of the work-a-day world inhabited by their imperfect readers who are their customers. To them ideas are squeaky clean, ever tidy.
Except one then wonders, if the world is that tidy, perfect, why then does the noun “idea” have a plural? We have no “perfects”; only prefects. Why have newspaper(s) even? Why need editor(s)? Or even paste a dollar value on masthead? Sameness yields no commodity for markets, surely? Why even have elections? The media have run themselves in ways that repudiate them, which is why our editors have died in their own lifetime, indeed have become their own cadavers, undertakers, chief mourners and ghosts, all rolled in one great bundle of gigantic ineptitude. Simply, the message has become the medium, which is why papers are selling on just one vantage point, all for 367 days given how long and boring an unimaginative newsday is (no pun intended)! And we all feel entombed and concussed in one din of unvarying, dolorous noise. An elongated purr of a ceaseless engine that takes no one nowhere.
Perspectives as persons
Ideas, the second divine absence! Ahh, except it begins with the first distortion already dealt with above. Which is why merchants of political “ideas” seek and bribe for editorial homes, rather than search for platforms through which to reach the voting masses. The other day I asked an “assortment” of editors why their papers carried pejorative tags in the market. Tags like “opposition mouthpiece”; “G-40 mouthpiece”; “Lacoste mouthpiece”; “Government/public paper”; “private/independent paper”. The answers were hardly varied, suggesting that one editing logic is regnant in all newsrooms: playing charitable host to preferred “perspectives”.
And because perspectives are un-comprehended by these little gods of perfection, perspectives are then simply conflated with persons! And because the persons to whom patronage is hawked are powerful, there is lots of brown envelops being pushed around. In Zimbabwe, to publish is to pawn: editorial pawning. Which is why power semantics thrall the media! Split the media into rival camps that parallel the various political divides. The impact on national thinking is as obvious as it is deleterious.
Politicians do not have to think; they only have to belong to a stable. Which is why breathtaking mediocrity is guaranteed headline status on the morrow. My politician, right or wrong; my paper in or out. Which is why arguments which flagrantly infract basic facts — of history, of politics, of economics, of culture, of anything — do still go editorially unmolested. Politicians can make the most outrageous of claims with an abiding sense of righteous impunity. Or claim weight that’s blatantly disproportionate to their worth, whether inner or associational.
You are an appointee in your party; you have no constituency, yet you think your viewpoint carries decisive weight in settling great questions of the day in your party! How so? Who asks: by what authority? You have a personal tiff with this or that politician — your erstwhile ally in some past ventures — yet you seek to globalise that highly individual tiff; seek to make it a national issue. How and why were you allies in the past, how and why are you enemies in the present? Who asks: by what dimension does your tiff become national? Of national purport or concern? Need we then wonder why the political discourse in the run-up to elections is so poor, so sparse, with no apparent relief in sight? Inane, factually inaccurate postulates are credited with profound wonderment? Ahh!
Then there is this other baffling dimension where spoilt politicians are allowed to raise and debate matters which have not arisen. And on platforms completely irrelevant and inappropriate to those questions. As if newspapers have become brothels for any mating partners who cannot go home! And the issue of succession is a case in point.
Succession in all parties. Whether you view it from the point of view of ZANU-PF which has a substantive leader who is set to run in 2018, or from the point of view of the various opposition parties which seek redemption through the so-called grand coalition, the notion of succession simply does not arise in both situations. In the former, a leader has been confirmed; in the latter a leader has to be made from the existing stock, and for a formation more real in un-likelihood than in prospect. How does confirmation become succession?
True, it needs to succeed, as indeed it has in the former. But President Mugabe cannot succeed President Mugabe! It is that basic. And in the case of the latter, how does a Mujuru, a Tsvangirai, a Biti, a Ngarivhume or whoever, play successor to an idea still to be birthed and if birthed — which is highly unlikely — to a formation sui generis? Doesn’t succession suggest pre-existence? And why should it be difficult for the media to simply ask the offending politicians which question they are responding to? Answering? To ask who the questioner is? Indeed to ask what their interest is in answering a question which they themselves appear to have set or raised? To challenge them to distinguish between personal rivalries and national issues?
Mere alter egos?
Or worse, ask them why they need innocent dummies to ventilate their own ambitions to retire the incumbent and take over from him before Congress, outside due process? Or how peering into a vastly unknown future helps today’s voter decide in 2018? All the more so when the self-put debate hardly takes one outside the same party which has to battle it out against the rest? Or how such a line of discourse coheres with claims of loyalty and continued health to an incumbent? Surely you cannot produce a candidate or two while asserting there is no vacancy in the Presidency? Or is the media allowing such politicians to get away with such bald debates because they themselves are no different in thought and inclination? That they themselves see personal stakes in the reigning rivalries? Which is why they allow potshots on platforms whose integrity as marketplaces they should strenuously guard and guarantee? In which case the asking politicians are their mere alter egos, mere speaking dummies through whom to ventilate their own predilections? If so, why not have the courage of convictions? Why not leave newsrooms to news-men and women?
Chief mourners to own funeral
Lest it might sound like all is lost. Not really. Lost in and to the media, perhaps. But if you have been to the most elementary school of journalism, you would readily know that citizens do not necessarily depend on media for information. Or even follow the media. That when citizens consult the media, it is for their own uses and gratifications. It is no overstatement to say that as matters stand today, the media in Zimbabwe subsist by reader sufferance. Hence the massive loss of influence; the mortal decline in circulation and readership. And you don’t need depth to know this.
The media’s obsessive politics are repudiated by the citizen’s obsessive economics. A clear mismatch: by goal and pursuits. Which is to say while the media are still in their unrelieved political purr, the dashing citizen is busy with hustling and harvesting. Which is to say while the media are indulging in a generous serve of gloom and doom, the citizen is already disembarking to safety after a successful rescue from a shipwreck. They have put the economic tempest behind them, survived it. They have defeated sanctions, are poised for recovery and growth. Which is why 2018 is sure to be a huge shock to the media and their select politicians so given to warding off a little despair over their face with one hand, while jotting down requiem lines for ruins they invent. For by not being truly dead in your lifetime, your living fate is to be dead matter. To be a chief mourner to your own funeral.