Thursday, June 30, 2011
Poems must start with terror in mind. The best poems grab you by the throat and don't let go. One line. Two perhaps. But the deal is they move the poem forward before they finish you off.
O.K., we're going to eliminate the most obvious choices (Shakespeare, et.al.) and count the best opening lines of poetry that we know about. No obvious classics allowed, except where they may interdict. These are some of the poems RBP admires.
the tree shadows, accelerating
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
So much I gazed on beauty,
that my vision is replete with it.
When I had money, money, O!
I knew no joy till I went poor
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Away above a harborful
of caulkless houses
There is always something to be made of pain.
(to be continued)
Remember this from "Adaptation," the 2002 Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze collaboration?
One of my favorites. Cage at his finest. The bewildered look he conjurs in response to the writer's tirade is sensational.
I'll try to post more of these in the future.
One of my favorites. Cage at his finest. The bewildered look he conjurs in response to the writer's tirade is sensational.
I'll try to post more of these in the future.
Monday, June 27, 2011
I posted my first publication on Lulu one day approximately 18 months ago. My novel, "The Friends of Round Bend," didn't become a best seller. That day was, however, an exciting moment for me. I had at last published a novel!
That had meaning for me. Fuck the rest of the world.
Fifteen years earlier a friendly publisher, K.C. Bacon, had brought out my short one-act play, "The Problem," but that experience didn't make me feel as writerly as the novel did.
I celebrated my first sustained work in years by starting this blog, as close to a PR gambit as I've ever played.
In the years between the publication of my one-act and the novel, I stopped writing for long periods. During what should have been my most productive years, I went to a series of dreary jobs every day (when I had the work), and a series of dreary bars every evening. That is I worked and drank beer. I drank and roared and brawled on occasion and stormed into the night feeling like I wanted to murder everything.
I still do at times.
I woke up most mornings and puked, and on rare occasions I tried and utterly failed to get anything down on paper that pleased me. I wrote another play, work-shopped it briefly, saw its limitations, and put it away.
My routine stagnated into misery followed by the demons of disillusionment and confusion.
This is silly, I thought, so I went back to college. I was forced by the academy to start writing again. I put it down as best as I could, little academic essays that I collected and passed on to an old friend, Charles Deemer, who once helped me get a play produced on local-access television.
Deemer had recently become the founder of the Oregon Literary Review, an adventurous online publication, so I took a chance and sent him a selection of essays.
Lo! He published them, and I did feel the writerly love. That selection is my book of essays, "Alt-Everything."
So here I am. Never mind that the publisher and writer of my novel were one and the same. The old argument that "vanity" publishing is unworthy of notice or praise was buried long ago. All of us have heard the success stories. A self-published book gets noticed, takes hold, and becomes a literary phenomenon.
Writers dream of that sort of thing. And without the public relations push of a gigantic publisher, dreams are all that writers have.
Oh, and it helps to have a little talent, like the gentlemen I mentioned above, who have been kind in allowing Round Bend Press to publish their latest work:
The police were out front.
Why else would one go to a restaurant
at 3 am on Burnside & Broadway?
One should probably stay away.
The glare I got from the black dyke,
The old coats beneath the bright lights,
Should have been sufficient warning:
Poet, go to bed this early morning.
But poached eggs won out.
So even when the dyke began to shout
And the old coats unleashed themselves
Like an army of rented elves
(And their general dead)
I wasn’t thinking of going to bed.
Nor was I thinking of small talk,
Nor of taking a meditative walk
Along a sea wall in the summer sun,
Nor of all the things that are always fun
To do, or not to do, until another time,
Nor Perrier with a twist of lime.
No. But the police were out front.
So I, at the Burnside & Broadway restaurant,
Tasted poached eggs in the bad part of town.
Good poached eggs are so rarely found.
from An Establishment of Change: Poems, 1974-1994, by K.C. Bacon, Round Bend Press (2010)
Having Coffee With An Old Girlfriend
a chance meeting at Starbucks
a table together to catch up
and I keep imagining her
naked in 1980
we were a couple then
pulling in the same direction
ending each other's sentences
laughing at the same absurdities
and never sad after sex
what went wrong?
I study her face as she tells me
about divorces, breast cancer, a troubled son
deep lines and blotches
on the ripened beauty of a young woman
eyes a shade of blue
all the oceans should demand
what went wrong?
on a Sunday morning in 1980
embraced, out of breath
damp with sweat and sex
the phone rang
my mother asked
"are you all right?"
which blew my mind
how does my mother know
about my sex life?
"on television it looks terrible"
mom, what are you talking about?
"Mt. St. Helens erupted!
the mountain exploded!
it's on television!"
after that we celebrated May 18th
as Cosmic Sex Day
and now over coffee
I wonder if she remembers this
but don't bring it up
we finish our coffee
how nice to see you and all that
but don't exchange phone numbers
and for the life of me
I can't remember what went wrong
after we caused Mt. St. Helens
it must be this way
happiness and ecstasy
are so rare in a life
that memory hordes them
and protects them
driving out any threat
that may compromise the power
of their echoes
and in this way we believe
what happened once
can happen again
and maybe we're right about that
but also maybe wrong
from In My Old Age, by Charles Deemer, Round Bend Press (2011).
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Deemer goes Whitman in the following self-penned interview:
The publisher has suggested that I interview myself about the genesis of my book of poems, IN MY OLD AGE. A splendid idea! In a splendid tradition as well.
Whitman wrote favorable reviews of himself using pseudonyms. What I will do is split myself into two personae, Q and A.
Q. Talk about the origins of IN MY OLD AGE.
A. I need to start with the individual poems. First of all, I have written very little poetry through my career. My brother Bill Deemer is a huge talent, under-appreciated in Oregon, and one poet in the family is enough. At the same time, upon occasion I have met the day with poetry in my head, sometimes an entire poem, usually the beginning of one. I have no idea how these lines get there. I developed the habit of using them when I found them, getting them down before I forgot and working on them to some kind of completion. The most extreme case of this was a series of love sonnets I wrote to a particular female who shall remain unnamed, later collected as SEATTLE SONNETS. This was about twenty years ago.
Recently, in my old age, poetic lines began to greet my mornings once again. Many had to do with dying, or with failure, or with the aches and pains of getting old. I let them ride for a while, thinking they were a passing fancy, but they persisted so I started finishing them and putting them down in my blog, The Writing Life II.
Terry Simons of Round Bend Press suggested gathering them into a book. He'd publish it. I said, let’s wait and see if I have enough. They kept coming, and I did.
The first assembly for this book came in at 116 pages. I felt very strongly that I wanted a book with no duds, and I was writing a lot of duds. So I began going through the manuscript and eliminating poems. By the time I was done, I had a 62 page book. I own up to every poem in there.
Q. Are they still coming?
A. Actually I haven't written a new one since I started putting together the book. Maybe it's over. Maybe not. We'll see.
Q. What are your strengths as a poet?
A. I'm still not comfortable calling myself a poet. A writer who occasionally writes poems is better. I think my best poems are either very personal or very funny. The last two in the book showcase each mode: “Autobiography” is just what it says, however dark and sad. “The West Meets East Talkin' Misery Blues” is hilarious to anyone familiar with the culture of Maryland's Eastern Shore. This one, by the way, was written over 30 years ago when I lived there. I performed it as often as people would let me. Another pair might be “I'm Not Fit Company,” which speaks to generational changes in gender relationships from a personal perspective, and “Email Stress,” inspired by all the spam everyone gets. So I can be personal and dark on the one hand, and funny and witty on the other.
Q. Almost a contradiction.
A. I don't consider it a contradiction. When I look inside, I cry. When I look outside, I laugh. It's still a zero-sum universe.
Q. Several of your poems mention a zero-sum universe. What's that about?
A. Just what it says. It's really about yin and yang, an eternal balance, the conservation of energy, it's been put lots of ways. In my view, you can't explain evil in the world unless you accept it as a balance to goodness. Evil has no logic otherwise. But evil clearly exists. The question is why? Because we live in a zero-sum universe. Given all the goodness in the world, in which art plays a large part, there has to be considerable negativity, evil, to bring the sum back down to zero.
Q. Anything else you want to say about your book?
A. Yes. I love reading most of these aloud. They are much more fun to read than anything else I've written, especially the comic ones. I look forward to being able to do that.
Q. You have a reading scheduled at Blackbird Wineshop's First Wednesday on October 5.
A. Correct. And maybe there will be other readings, too.
Q. Thank you for your time.
A. My time is your time. Literally.
Charles Deemer's new book of poems is now ready for sale at Lulu. This is a nice addition to the Round Bend Press lineup, a look at the wonderful and regrettable phenomenon of aging, through the eyes of one of Oregon's best writers.
Deemer is 70, but these poems have the energetic appeal of work written by a much younger man. They're wise, funny, poignant, and serious. Highly recommended for people who appreciate good poetry.
Here's a favorite of mine from the book:
I suspect it will happen
without warning or fanfare
without drama or premonition
now you see him now
you don't sort of thing
and of course there will be
those who are surprised
and those who aren't
but no one collapses
the tidbit in the paper
gets published or not
and a gathering of sorts
arranged by my wife
and some come
and some don't
a few nice things get said
somebody reads something
if I get my way but
of course I'll never know
and that's about it really
maybe a few mentions now
and again but there's no family
legacy to speak of
just a library full of writing
an online archive the same
gathering dust and whatever it is
that happens in cyberspace
to megs of forgotten bytes
finally no one remembers much
of anything and says less
silence begets silence
even dust to dust suggests
more activity than merited
Preview and buy the book here.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
From Round Bend author and artist K.C. Bacon comes this sketch of a painter's world. Is it autobiography?
Next to a gallon of mineral spirits were several tin cans that once held tomatoes and beans but now had slender paintbrushes thrown into them, nose down, up to their necks in gray sludge. The music was on like it always was, and an East Texas troubadour was singing about some road bearing low to the far side of things and longing for a girl with twang.
Next to the music box sat a pack of willow charcoal drawing sticks, medium, small and large, with child's crayons, gesso, packs of various sizes of drawing papers scattered about, and a ring of artist's tape hanging from a nail. Every wall of the small studio was patterned with paintings, made either of canvas or wood, vivid explorations of the color wheel, and dozens of half-finished paintings had been stacked against the walls on their sides, drying like Mexican leaves in a shed surrounded by flowers.
Two of the only three visitors ever invited into the studio employed the same word when describing the look of the painter's studio: vigorous. And the third one said, "intense," but later said, "vigorous," too.
The painter didn't like to think about himself in adjectives, content rather to think of himself mostly as a sitter in a chair, positioned between his able easel and the long table where the colors got flattened out of large tubes like tendons torn at by a mad masseuse. The spent tubes piled up in a sculpted heap, lain there by the painter's sense of practiced discard and sloth. When asked that gruesome question, "What kinds of things do you paint," the painter would mumble things like, "line and form and color," or, "places that look like people," or, most usually, "stuff." Sometimes the painter wouldn't answer at all, just turn or walk away. But when he said things like that it was usually during a time when he was evading the studio, trusting his conceit that time away from his studio might later make a better next stay. Then the painter spent his time pulling weeds in his garden, or pretending he was interested in cooking, or smoking too much, sulking and drinking, sometimes with others.
The painter only talked about painting. But not everyone understood him. He'd say things like, "the studio and I aren't much individually, but together we make a halfway decent mess." And the painter really did think so. How could it be else? They'd spent all those years together trying to create things worth their familiarity.
Today, the painter had been painting since noon, and, as was his habit, had done in a half bottle of sale cabernet while sitting and staring at the painting-in-progress leaning on the easel, a precarious, confidant panel of birch, partitioned by three closely toned ochre hues, featuring high swept red diagonals above a wide black mouth that displayed several cruel, fractal teeth. For reasons only unknown to the painter, it had a sick green tongue slithering down one side. Last week he called it, "a short dragon in a sad tattoo."
But the painting wasn't working well and, if he'd been a despairing man, the painter would have despaired. No, the painter was just a painter. For him, painting wasn't about promise or pleasure or purse. It was about living with the life worth living with.
Years before, the painter had written something his dealer had placed in an art magazine, one of several short statements by what the editor had termed, "working artists." (He remembered scoffing at the idea that there might be "non-working artists," over brandies with his dealer.) In his statement he had made much of the notion that line represented the intellect, the Apollonian intent, and that form represented its Dionysian alternate, emotions. He'd written that only through the act of painting is the painter able to merge idea and feeling, with the imagination driving the painter's will.
But he wasn't very sure about that now.
Now sixty, the painter shuddered at the idea of enlightenment, or whatever it is that bar philosophers suggest they've achieved. The completeness of life for the painter was only found in his chair between the easel and palette, or on a knife combed with streaks of odd color limned into a glob of mixed white, or in the sweep or joust of his hand/arm as it thrust away from his shoulder. Or in a still, eye closed moment of music and smell of paint.
Though it once had mattered to him, the painter hadn't had a proper show in years. When he was younger ambition and will were as plentiful as testosterone. The painter had wanted a name; money, too. Then, somewhere along the way, he realized that no matter how much his name or money, it could always only be little of each. After that, the painter began to look down on dealers and collectors and the legion of art appreciative fans. He looked down at their sad account of accomplishment, gossip adorned by prices. But, the painter didn't feel that anymore, either. When he thought about at all, the painter reckoned that he'd rather produce something more shoddy than good, as long as it didn't help him lie.
And that was the only rule the painter followed. He didn't believe in God and didn't believe in not-God. His only faith was in motion. His creed was human will as it powered its way through work towards the mystery of life.
Sometime after three, the painter caught from the side of his eye an edge of a white paper towel as it suddenly waved at him as if to say, "Color, you old fool, color." And he looked up at his troubled easel, then down, resting his eyes in his hands, a painter at prayer. "Ok, mystery - should I go with yellow next, or should I go with blue?"
And the painter opened his eyes to find himself staring at a painter's cobalt-ruined shoes.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
While the American plutocracy (or oligarchy) that is the U.S. Congress picks the dried shit balls out of it collective ass day after day and accomplishes nothing meaningful, one brave American takes a stand.
And makes a symbolic gesture.
And wins legions of fans.
I consider Richard James Verone an American hero.
Authorities have dropped the robbery charges to larceny, however, so the guy may not get the health care he desperately needs after all.
Can things get any more fucked up in this country?
The corruption at my university, sadly, appears to run into the murky depths.
I'm talking about the football program. In a post last season I reminded everybody that Nike University's program would one day crash to earth, the victim of a self-destructive scandal.
The day has arrived.
Given the current state of corruption in college sports (mainly football and basketball) my prophecy was a no-brainer, of course.
I just didn't think it would happen so soon after the program's back-to-back PAC-10 titles.
I don't see Chip Kelly surviving this. It looks incredibly dumb. I love college football and I wish it would (could) change, but it won't. Not with the billions involved.
I can tell you this much--college coaches in big-time football and basketball are drastically over-paid. That in itself leads to corruption.
The players? Let's face it; they're used and abused by the present system.
I'm laughing through my heartbreak.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Clarence Clemons' signature sax line on "Jungleland" starts at 4:21 of this rendition filmed in Hyde Park, London just two years ago.
Whole notes never sounded so good. The coda to this song is a great American poem.
"The poets down here
don't write nothing at all,
they just stand back
and let it all be."
Friday, June 17, 2011
Deemer's book is coming along nicely. I've read half of it and really like what I see from this accomplished writer and adjunct professor in the Portland State English Department, where every year for the past ten years (or more) he has taught a screenwriting course.
I've taken the course and loved every second of it. Highly recommended for any of you aspiring movie writers out there.
Here's a glimpse of the cover from Deemer's Writing Life II blog.
And here is a fine poem from the book:
when my closest friends
were still alive
we'd often get together
for coffee or drinks
and our conversations
reached deep into
our essential selves
with trust and affection
today my conversations
have little reach
beyond some trifling
remark about whatever
it is that people
talk about when
they have nothing
important to say
in my head I still
talk to my friends
but they have yet to
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Photo of Deemer by his wife, Harriet.
With school out of the way (for now), it is time to move on to another project (or two). I'm looking forward this month to seeing the manuscript Charles Deemer is assembling for his new book of poems, "In My Old Age," which will appear soon as a Round Bend title.
I've seen many of the poems on Deemer's Writing Life II blog, and if you've followed my previous announcements regarding this collaboration, or you are a regular Deemer reader, you probably have as well. I've seen good, solid work from a West Coast artist I have known for 25 years.
I have no problem telling it the way I see it, of course. This book will be the best book of poems published in Portland this year. In fact, this might be the best book of poems published in Portland in the past one-hundred years.
Here is why I like the poems I've seen.
Language. Fuck the obscure and the "poetic" language of the "poets." Deemer is a writer. He is concerned with the truth, and he is concerned with getting there as quickly as possible. He is concerned with the truth, even if it turns out to be a lie. Direct, strong metaphors, humor, pathos, joy, all of it a sudden exposure of something universal in the human condition.
Economy, in other words, drives the writing. Get in, say something that thinking adults can grab hold of, and get out.
Above all else, that is the function of poetry.
Believe me. I've been in this game a long time and I know.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Well, I did it! I turned in my final history paper today at PSU, and provided I didn't completely blow the assignment I have earned my bachelor's in History, a project that has lately taken on a "just do it and get it done and move on" feel. I love to read history, and my "History of Health and Healing in Africa" class at the university was both inspiring and tedious. The reading was a load, and not all of it was scintillating. But I liked it. I liked being there, sitting with a group of very bright kids (for the most part) who were engaged (for the most part) and serious and determined to learn. I had a great instructor, a young woman named Jennifer Tappan, who knows her stuff and communicates well and demanded that her students work and get as much out of the classroom and reading experiences as possible. All and all a great educational experience. I think I learned something. Glad I did it.
Here is my final paper, sans the footnotes. I've included a bibliography of sources.
There is Much to Be Done: Hegemony and the New Africanists--An Evaluation of the Past and Present
The focus of this paper will attempt to explore whether actual change has occurred in numerous African states since the Berlin Conference of 1871 set off the “Scramble for Africa.” In the context of a partial and fragmented historiography of health and healing, the contrasts and similarities of the West’s present vision of Africa with that of the colonizers’ will be evaluated from numerous angles, including biomedical and localized healing therapies, political economy and hegemonic control, individualized and group resistance to hegemony and biomedicine, migrant labor, gender considerations, and the scourge of AIDS. An interpretation of the historical and present reality of hegemony, gleaned from select texts, is the dominant theme of this effort.
A triumphalist narrative steeped in myth flourished in the colonial documents of the nineteenth century—the myth of a forbidden, dark, and disease-ridden continent inhabited by uncivilized “savages” who only needed to learn the foundations of a Westernized worldview and hygiene to pull themselves out of their culturally deprived and sickly lives (Prins 159-162, Ranger 256, Swanson 387, Marks 205). Coveted for its natural resources and a favorite target of Christian crusaders in the late nineteenth century, Africa was haphazardly partitioned, coerced, and at times brutally manipulated by European elites, who rarely suspected nor were overly concerned that the unintended consequences of their actions could and often would lead to unimaginable suffering among the African people. In the case of Congo, which Leopold claimed as his private dominion, a deliberate genocide coincided with colonization. In more recent times, in large swaths of Africa, a benign genocide could be said to have occurred vis-à-vis the West’s neglect of HIV/AIDS victims, a situation marked by mismanaged and underfunded attempts to eradicate the disease (Vaughan 56, Landau 262, Hunt 432, Nguyen 1-187).
The rise of African studies as a discipline in the academy has countered many of the lingering effects of colonialism as an intellectual barrier to our understanding of how African health and healing conundrums have evolved over time. By giving health and healing an historical foundation, Africanists have created new narratives that unfold in direct opposition to lingering colonial constructs and the presence of new, highly developed methods of surveillance and coercion, new technologies, and reorganized economies. The new history of health and healing in Africa is very much concerned with power—who held it during the colonial era, who holds it now, and who may hold it in the future (Feierman 75).
While the new historians are laudable, one worries that, like newly developed drugs with an unknown efficacy against AIDS in 1983, their impact will not (or cannot) translate into an antidote against those who would, in the context of health and healing issues, abuse the fundamental right of every human being to lead an optimal existence free of poverty and its associated diseases. It is also presumed that the new Africanists are not responsible for empowering Africa, though such an outcome would be welcomed. When many of the citizens of the richest countries in the world are severely limited by their own incapacity to evolve from racist and/or impoverished modalities, or unable to clearly enunciate the dilemmas confronting them while demanding change, the chances for a final victory over servitude are diminished. The chance of overcoming class constructs on a scale large enough to effect economic power and control is diminished in the face of elites’ business and governmental interests. Collusion on that level is necessarily confined to hierarchal structures that trample the individual economies of the majority while enriching the few. That is as true today as it was in the colonial era, when localized authority guarded the interests of European elites, because it is an aspect of capitalism that is non-negotiable and unlikely to ever change (Nguyen 1-187).
When workers left the merafe in post-World War II Bechuanaland to work in South Africa’s mines for wages, they lost a crucial part of themselves, a part that could be reclaimed only by an adjustment of their “moral imaginations,” an adaptive survival mechanism. Workers were literally changed by the newness in their lives as old paradigms of culture and ritual eroded. The phenomenon demanded resolution and a direct confrontation with new realities. Money (madi) gained import to Batswana because its meaning was forced upon them in an atmosphere of colonial control and increasingly forced dependence upon it. By the same token, the discovery of madi’s liberating qualities appealed to many workers, as did the hard work itself, which gave them new insights into their lives. Strength and individualism emerged as valued assets for many workers in the mines, but the dangers of the job could also create apprehension about the future as Batswana witnessed an onslaught of debility and the toxic effects of unsafe hard labor, as well as the damaged ecology of the merafe, where jobs grew scarcer and scarcer and the Batswana way of life changed (Livingston 107-141).
In Bechuanaland and elsewhere in Africa in the colonial era, the social cost of debility was borne by the workers, just as it is in much of Africa and other parts of the world today. This narrative argues that control within the ongoing economic hegemony of the West comes with profound costs. As “developing nations,” states such as Cote d’Ivoire, which gained Independence in 1960 and at first flourished before growing increasingly dependent on foreign loans to compete amidst nascent globalization, the crush of hegemony is crucial to understanding the new Africanists’ point of view. The neoliberalism of political policies best exemplified by Reaganomics and Thatcherism in the 1980s tied Cote d’Ivoire to its debt and caused the state’s educational system and other institutions to collapse. The newest shibboleths of the West’s economy in the 1980s precluded anything like a reasonable effort to fairly and equitably distribute social costs. The neoliberal model of doing business carried over in the initial fight against AIDS in the mid-nineties, when the known efficacy of ARV therapies should have given the West a better opportunity to do the right thing, but was rather squandered by a reliance on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the pharmaceutical industry to carry the fight in a poorly designed and underfunded model of therapeutics. Today Cote d’Ivoire is struggling to pull itself out of the ravages of a recent civil war, in no small part created by the effects of hegemony (Thomas, Livingston, Nguyen 187).
Like Bechuanaland after World War II and the Meru district of Kenya, in Cote d’Ivoire during the early days of the AIDS crisis, and in other colonies throughout the colonial era, individuals became entangled in colonial systems of surveillance and control and were forced into relationships with governing entities from faraway lands. Bodies, formerly conjoined to cultures guided by vastly different cosmological views, fell under the hegemonic spell of the colonizers in ways that suggest pure hubris on the part of the European powers. In Meru, the British seemed unable to settle on a clear direction of influence; several times creating laws that contradicted former policies in what a modern politician would call a “flip-flop.” It is fair to suggest that elements of individualized resistance (see footnote) came into play in some cultures. Meru’s girls, exemplified by some of their reactions against the ban on circumcision, grew entangled with colonial rule. Some girls circumcised each other and themselves, or at least attempted or pretended to as a show of solidarity against patriarchy, Christian objection, and London’s at-the-time small but noisy feminist movement in the mid-twentieth century (Thomas 1-186).
The history of Africa is a history of political struggle even within the highly nuanced, micro historical discussion of health and healing which the new Africanists favor in the texts under scrutiny here. In the conflation between missionary work and therapeutics that developed under colonialism in Congo, emerging methods of mobility (bicycles) and communications (letter writing) were designed to aid and abet Belgian companies in the control and dissemination of health care to maximize business interests. Where concern for the health of the Congolese was elucidated and carried out, it was conflated with business interests, patriotism, and attempts to keep and promote a ready-made system of forced labor and servitude, aspects of the genocides alluded to above. Health care systems as political and hegemonic exercises took precedence over purely humanitarian reasons for organizing bodies and placing medical dispensaries in key population zones throughout Congo in the colonial era (Hunt 160-195).
The historical analysis under scrutiny here repeatedly draws comparisons between the efficacy of biomedicine and “traditional” or localized forms of therapy. Implicit in discussions of that duality has been the recognition that an historical bias regarding Westernized medicine has dominated the general discourse, particularly in the political and economic realm, from the colonial era through the present. Yet, repeated instances of the efficacy of localized therapies are known. The new Africanists seek to integrate biomedicine and known herbal and cosmological remedies among Africans in their understanding of the history of health and healing in Africa (Whyte 289).
It is important to understand that the persistence of the faith in biomedicine in some circles is a product of the medical hegemony of the West—an understandable but limited result of the undisputed efficacy of certain biomedical therapies worldwide. Since the 1970s, the new Africanists have focused on “medical pluralism,” a conjoining of Westernized and local therapies, as a way to understand the history of disease and healing in Africa. The recognition of this phenomenon, mined out of deep ethnographic and anthropological studies in a multi-disciplinarian effort to locate knowledge, creates testimonials of individualized native resistance to colonialism in a medical context. But the new Africanists succinctly note that medical pluralism also generated new ideas about disease and the efficacy of localized therapies among healers and tribal leaders in parts of the continent. Pluralism was a good thing if allowed to be explored outside the fold of biomedical biases, in other words (Whyte 291).
As First World Africanists and their cohorts in Africa explored new techniques of gathering and disseminating knowledge, they made a remarkable discovery—the locals, these supposedly backward and afflicted citizens of the world, were doing the same thing! Scholars discovered that networks of information-based knowledge in many forms were an aspect of the historiography of Africa long overlooked. Recognition emerged—the history of Africa was a living thing. Notions of African existence being static rather than an amalgam of heterogeneous groupings of people who had created and organized their cultures, were just plain wrong-headed. It was time to take Africa and its diverse people, cultures and many languages (750 to 1000) seriously. The Africanists looked to the medical and cultural anthropologists, interpreting their data flow, and developing a vocabulary suitable to the tasks of scientific and medical exploration. Disease no longer was something that simply happened in the historical narrative of Africa. Rather the Africanists, shaping the shared discoveries of other scholars into medical narratives, gleaned meaning from associated disciplines. One example—it helped to thoroughly understand the historical and scientific differences between rinderpest and schistosomiasis, their causations, cultural significance, and historical markers. It also helped to learn the language of the people one communicated with, particularly as it applied to gathering oral histories and using that material to forage theses which revealed what people actually think and believe about health and healing, about their pasts, their present lives, and what the future may hold for their families and cultures (Kodesh 208, White 1381, Feierman 73-131).
Much of the textual evidence examined herein is concerned with the tension wrought between individuals suffering debility and powerlessness against both state-run and localized hierarchies organized to control populations through two centuries of highly sophisticated and evolved monetary and social design. What is the difference between colonial era bans on circumcision and controversies over perinatal drug trials in Africa today? The answer to the question suggests that power is regenerative; methods of subjugation and control are reissued and updated in new forms of surveillance aligned with the moral sponsorship of social, cultural and economic hegemony. Historically, abused bodies, discipline, and evolving apparatuses of control are constants in the evidence gathered by the new Africanists since their discoveries soared into consciousness in a not-too-distant past and continue to move ahead. Not coincidently, those barriers to actual freedom from abusive power, or what Nguyen refers to as the “therapeutic recolonization” of Africa, are with us as much today as they were in the nineteenth century (Wendland 4, Nguyen 185).
Given the complexity of their exercise, what are the new Africanists capable of offering the world? The argument herein is that hegemony and a persistent method of social, cultural and economic control organized and disseminated by the West, have conspired, whether deliberately or through a pattern of unintended harmful consequences, to give the academy much to stress about. While a new vision of what has happened and continues to happen in Africa has been elucidated, the gap between knowledge and the enactment of strategies to eradicate debility in Africa remains large. The business of creating a link between the histories of health and healing in Africa and the present quandary of Africa is unfinished. African nations remain among the poorest in the world. One is inclined to ask, what is the purpose and intent of the gathering of the knowledge the new Africanists have produced in recent decades? The scholarly disciplines have merged and been hashed out, with plenty of opportunities ahead to make discoveries, but what will be their effects? Can hegemony and the “disease of capitalism” be eradicated from the world? Will capital ever reconcile itself to the earth’s suffering and provide enough to help rather than hinder progress in the field of health and healing? These are difficult questions to answer at this time, and may never be answerable (Malowany 325).
Despite the recognition of the difficulties that lie ahead, new collaborative models are being dreamed of in some circles. James Pfeiffer asks that the policymakers and the researchers and the heads of the foundations and the workers in the NGOs and the rest of the health industry finally admit that current models have to a large degree failed. He lists a number of advisable systemic changes to the bureaucratic nightmare that accompanies programs of disease eradication in Mozambique. These changes make sense for health systems throughout Africa. Pfeiffer is an anthropologist and his ideas deserve consideration, as the twenty-first century is quickly speeding along and there is much to be done in Africa and elsewhere (Pfeiffer 736).
Sources and Bibliography
Articles and Book Chapters
Steven Feierman, “Struggles for Control: The Social Roots of Health and Healing in Modern Africa,” African Studies Review 28:2/3 (1985), 73-147.
Gwyn Prins, “But What Was the Disease? The Present State of Health and Healing in African Studies,” Past and Present 124 (1989), 159-179.
Shula Marks, “What is Colonial about Colonial Medicine? And What has Happened to Imperialism and Health?” Social History of Medicine 10:2 (1997), 205-219.
Maureen Malowany, “Unfinished Agendas: Writing the History of Medicine of Sub-Saharan Africa,” African Affairs 99 (2000): 325-349.
Susan Whyte, “Anthropological Approaches to African Misfortune, from Religion to Medicine,” in Anita Jacobsen-Widding and David Westerlund (eds.), Culture, Experience, and Pluralism: Essays on African Ideas of Illness and Healing (1989).
Neil Kodesh, “Networks of Knowledge: Clanship and Collective Well‐Being in Buganda,” The Journal of African History 49:2 (2008): 197-216.
Megan Vaughan, “The Great Dispensary in the Sky: Mission Medicine,” in Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness, 55-76.
Paul Landau, “Explaining Surgical Evangelism in Colonial Southern Africa: Teeth, Pain and Faith,” Journal of African History 37:2 (1996), 261-281.
Luise White, “They Could Make their Victims Dull: Genders and Genres, Fantasies and Cures in Colonial Southern Uganda,“ American Historical Review 100:5 (1995), 1379-1402.
Terence Ranger, “Godly Medicine: The Ambiguities of Medical Missions in Southeastern Tanzania,” in Steven Feierman and John Janzen, eds., The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa (1992), 256-282.
Nancy Rose Hunt, “Nurses and Bicycles,” in A Colonial Lexicon of Birth, Medicalization and Mobility in the Congo (1999), ch. 4.
Nancy Rose Hunt, “Le Bebe en Brusse”: European Women, African Birth Spacing and Colonial Intervention in Breast Feeding in the Belgian Congo,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 21:3 (1988), 401-432.
Maynard W. Swanson, “The Sanitation Syndrome: Bubonic Plague and Urban Native Policy in the Cape Colony, 1900-1909,” The Journal of African History, 18:3 (1977): 387-410.
James Pfeiffer, “International NGOs and Primary Health Care in Mozambique: The Need for a New Model of Collaboration,” Social Science and Medicine 56:4 (2003): 725-738.
Claire Wendland, “Research, Therapy, and Bioethical Hegemony: The Controversy Over Perinatal HIV Research in Africa,” African Studies Review 51:3 (2008): 1-23.
Lynn Thomas, Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (University of California Press, 2003).
Julie Livingston, Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana (University of Indiana Press, 2005).
Vinh-Kim Nguyen, The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS (Duke University Press, 2010).