Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Critique of Neoliberalism in Art

Each speaker at the panel on the status of neoliberalism opened with a metaphor: John Comaroff called to mind a scene from a Marx Brothers movie to highlight the misdiagnosis of neoliberalism as dead; Michael Hardt compared neoliberalism to zombies in its existence even after its death; and Ashwyn Desai opened with the title: “Monty Python meets George Orwell in Johannesburg in 2009” to foreground the ridiculousness of its status in South Africa. The multiple metaphors appealed to my sense of the literary and prompted me to consider the realm of art and literature, of which little has been said thus far in the workshop. Art and literature offer an alternative way to think about the social and the political through its imaginative function. Art lends a space for working through contradictions and negotiating social issues.

Neoliberalism is a term rarely employed in literary analyses. Perhaps it lacks the sexiness of more popular political terms, such as globalization, diaspora, governance, transnationalism, among others. Or perhaps it is a term that lacks specificity and actually encompasses the more frequently used terms I have listed. However, the political realm is omnipresent in many African films and novels, and neoliberal policies and practices shape the experiences of fiction and film. Since neoliberalism is not often linked to fiction and film, I want to offer a list of African novels and films that depict the effects of neoliberalism in imaginative ways.

Bamako (2006, Abderrahmane Sissako Mali): In this highly regarded film, Sissako imagines what it would look like for Africa to sue the IMF and the World Bank. He transforms the courtyard of a housing complex into a legal court, juxtaposing the court proceedings with the daily life of the courtyard: women dyeing fabrics, people bathing, children playing, the celebration of a marriage, and the occurrence of death. He creates “the common” Michael Hardt has advocated in his call for Africa to protest the policies that have been imposed on various countries.

Wizard of the Crow (2006, Ngugi wa Thiong’o): Ngugi’s satire of a fictional African country depicts the failing rule of a dictator, who is constricted by the rule of the Global Bank. To facilitate funding from the Global Bank, he encourages the show of democracy by the people forming queues with no beginning or end. Ngugi’s protagonist is a university-educated man who cannot find a place in the economy and resorts to becoming a traditional healer. The Ruler is opposed by the movement for the Voice of the People, a social protest movement that relies on the elements of surprise and creativity to make their voices heard. What Achille Mbembe describes as the “aesthetics of vulgarity” appears throughout the narrative of the failing state. Note: Many of Ngugi’s other novels and plays also critique neoliberal policies.

Hyenas (1992 Djibril Diop Mambety Senegal): Mambety’s film takes place in Colobane, outside Dakar, Senegal, a town forgotten by the railroad that once supported it. Ramatou, once a resident of the town, returns to the community as a wealthy woman and offers money to anyone who will kill the man who spurned her when she became pregnant with his child. Dramaan, the man in question, is a prominent community member and friend to the town. Yet, the enticement of wealth alters the personal and political relationships, and the residents to begin buying on credit, subconsciously entertaining the thought of his death: refrigerators, washers and dryers, fans, among other items. The atmosphere becomes carnivalesque as Draaman, the former lover, tries to save his life amidst the town’s windfall.

Other texts and films feature characters that protest or have been corrupted by neoliberal policies. The film Blue Eyes of Yonta features a hero of the revolution who has become a wealthy entrepreneur taking advantage of his workers, and the title character of Ousmane Sembene’s film Guelwaar protests the neoliberal policies of Senegal that make the Senegalese dependent on foreign aid. The articulation of neoliberal policies in fiction and film is also often concealed under a more prominent narrative. In the film The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, the girl in question sells newspapers with a headline about the devaluing of the African franc. The penetration of the political into art suggests how deeply “the capillary forms” of neoliberalism, as John Comaroff described them, reach. I could continue describing moments and themes in these films and literature for quite a while, but I will leave it to you to add your own titles in the comments section.

Kathleen Hanggi


Cioara Andrei said...

Foarte interesant subiectul prezentat de tine.M-am uitat pe blogul tau si imi place tare mult
Sigur am sa mai revin. O zi buna!

Brandt K. Biggsley said...

Fascinating! Expanding the dialogue of the conference into the realm of film and literature is a brilliant idea. I must see some of these films!

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