‘His detailed plot summaries of the movies in the book are so well written that readers may no longer need to see the films after reading his book’
Ken Harrow is a very thoughtful writer whose contributions to online debates always signal to me that a thread is important enough not to be junked automatically. I was pleased to see that his new book has two chapters on Nollywood whereas his past books on African cinema ignored this iconic genre because, according to him: ‘The images scattered to the wind in Nollywood films are continually relegated to the rubbish bin by celluloid film standards’ (p. 279). Gloria Emeagwali alerted me to the controversial nature of the new book when she questioned online why the author obsesses with trash and why there is no distinction between the people and trash in the book.
Having read the book, I admit that the author has an original thesis that he argued with varying degrees of conviction mixed with serious doubts. To argue that there are tropes of trash in African cinema is far from the mantra that African cinema is trash or that Africans are ‘worthless people’. The author over-generalized his observation of trash in some scenes by concluding that such trash is what defines the films, the culture, the politics, the law and the people. ‘What is worthless? Who is trash?’ He asks provocatively (p. 57). No one is worthless, and everything is not trash should be the answers.
The author reports in the introduction that he was warned about this choice of words in his earlier book on Postcolonial Cinema in Africa. According to him, Jude Akudinobi warned him against taking the analogy too far especially given that the dismissal of African cinema in a scene analyzed in that earlier book was contested by a character who condemned the speaker as trash: ‘If African cinema is trash, then you are trash because you are an African’, he retaliated. For reasons best known to him, Ken decided to double down on this pejorative description of Africans that is all too familiar from the point of view of white supremacy, a perspective that is contradictory to his otherwise pro-African views in his scholarship.
One of the reasons given by Ken Harrow for using the trope of trash to represent valuable African cultural productions is because he finds support in the theory of Bataille about the locations of trash in surrealism (Chapter 1). Here he said that he threw a challenge in his earlier book, Postcolonial Cinema, calling for a new Aristotle to emerge to theorize the new cinema of Africa. Without telling us why he presumed that another Aristotle, a guy who believed that slavery was natural, would be a suitable theoretical framework for understanding African culture, a culture that was wounded by centuries of slavery, Bro Ken decided to take up his own challenge.
Trash therefore appears to be a pitiable wrestling match between him and himself. His difficulty could have been enormously lessened if he had ignored Aristotle and examined the drama of classical African civilization in ancient Egypt that predated Greek drama by 3000 years, according to Cheikh Anta Diop (Civilization or Barbarism). The presumption of race-class-gender superiorism by Harrow is revealed when he cites Battaille as asserting that the upper classes make ‘almost exclusive use of ideas’ even when some of those ideas may have lowly origins (p.15). The Ken Harrow who writes everything in lower case letters in his constant online contributions to debates would have been expected to challenge Bataille here but he accepts the dubious notion uncritically just as he accepted Mbembe’s astonishing slur that Africans focus exclusively on the mouth, the belly and the phallus as if they have no mind of their own.
His only attempt to critique this myopic view about Africans came out lame because of his coupling of ‘glamorousness/repulsiveness’ (p.24) as if they are conjoined twins in African cinema. On the same page he demeans Ghana by suggesting that a ‘shit-caked handrail’ in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (where the handrail in question was not covered in shit cakes but in a ‘generous grub of mucous’, a wise hygienic advice to avoid germ-infested public handrails that is heard even in ‘clean’ countries) was representative of Ghana under Nkrumah. But CLR James would differ in Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution by identifying the glorious National School Movement as a major medium of resistance to colonialism and a major achievement in nation-building, not shit cakes or trash.
Harrow cites Sembene Ousmane as identifying African cinema as the night school of the masses in line with Achebe’s subservience of literature to pedagogy but he devalues such emphases in African arts and cinema by following Ranciere to term them ‘mimesis’ or mere ‘representation’ as opposed to 'experimentation' (32-33).
In arguing his spurious hypothesis that revolutionary accounts tend to neglect trash, Harrow makes a grievous theoretical error by asserting that ‘views from the trash landscape…don’t figure in the Fanonian liberationist schemata’ (p.40). Quite the contrary, for according to Fanon, the dominant image of the colonized in the mind of the colonizer was that of: ‘Dirty Nigger, or simply, look a Negro’, dirty Arab, dirty Jew, or dirty Indian despite the fact that the colonized was remarkably clean compared to some filthy-rich members of the colonizing group.
Harrow also erred historically by asserting that ‘western decadence’ is the source of postmodernism whereas Jacques Derrida insisted that his deconstruction derived from his African cultural background, a view that is indirectly supported by Ron Eglash in African Fractals and by Adbul Karim Banguara in Fractal Complexity in the Works of Major Black Thinkers. Recognizing African originality even in a western art form such as cinema would demand less obsession with trash and a greater focus on creativity and worthiness.
To his credit, Harrow throws in genuine concerns about inequality, revolution and protest about consumer capitalism and the export of toxic waste from the West to underdeveloped countries. The former President of Harvard University and former Obama economics adviser, Larry Summers, is quoted (pp21-22) as saying that there is a rational basis for rich countries to export toxic waste to poor countries because the lives of the poor are not as valuable as the lives of the rich. This is an indirect suggestion that the trash represented in African cinema may be part of the 'evidence' for the 'mock trial' of imperialism as dramatized in one of the films that he discussed. With a chapter on the dumping of toxic waste in Africa, Harrow may be indirectly calling for more films on the theme of environmental justice in Africa.
However, Harrow neglected to point out to readers that the trope of trash is not an African trope but a Western one. The importation of trash is actually less pronounced in Africa than in the developed countries where interstate trade and transportation of trash was ruled by the US Supreme Court in 1973 as legitimate commerce after Philadelphia sued New Jersey for attempting to block the transportation of out-of-state trash across state lines.
Pennsylvania and Virginia are the top importers of trash, not just from other states in the US but also from Canada and Mexico in line with NAFTA, and the dumps for such refuse are usually located near poor communities where racial minorities predominate. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers do not need a search warrant to seek incriminating evidence by going through the garbage left on the kerb for collection by garbage collectors. Also, Sweden had so little trash due to recycling that trash was imported from Norway to help power their trash-fueled power generators.
By contrast, African societies, like most precapitalist societies, managed to go on for centuries without generating mountains of trash until the unhygienic Europeans, as Olaudah Equiano observed, came to dump the excrements of their excessive consumption on the relatively deprived. Yet, not even Cecil Rhodes saw Africa simply as a junkyard of trash, he saw the mineral wealth and set out to rob Africans of their land and stole their labor to exploit the riches. Harrow sees trash everywhere in Africa and thereby missed the morality, the wealth and the natural beauty that are even more preponderant in African cinema despite the occasional scenes of trash that are common in Hollywood films too.
Instead of admitting that Africa is relatively unpolluted compared to the industrialized countries, Ken Harrow presents a fictional contrast between the suparmarche or supermarket in Paris and the trash ridden streets of Africa as represented in Sissoko’s La Vie sur Terre (1999) as if this is a contrast based on empirical reality that is verifiable in every part of Africa and every part of Paris – even the slums of Paris will have those gaudy supermarkets too while upper class reserved areas in Africa would be buried in rubbish. Harrow forgot that advice that his mother must have given him; do not believe everything you see in the movies. His dirty mind saw even things that were not trash, such as shoes on the streets, as trash.
I recommend Ken Harrow’s Trash to readers who are looking for spoilers given that his detailed plot summaries of the movies in the book are so well written that readers may no longer need to see the films after reading his book. The consumer warning to the reader is to beware of the trash talk lest you fail to see the people, landscape, gold and diamonds due to the obsession of Harrow with filth and rubbish - the 'below' of his sub-title.
* Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA