This piece was first published on www.zelezapost.com as a contribution to an e-Symposium on District 9. Those interested in reading further contributions to this debate are invited to visit www.zelezapost.comI: On Growing Up with
The first part of my title is borrowed from a piece I wrote after my first ever visit to
But I recall this incident for another reason. Thinking back at what Nigeria has meant to me as a Ghanaian, it now seems to me that 1993 and the dire events that were unleashed after that coincided with the gradual shift in the nature of urban myths that were to come out of that great country. Going to boarding secondary school in
The infrequent letters that Castro wrote to us from his sojourn were only one source of stories about
This and other such stories were commonplace in 1970s and 80s
Thus it is not entirely surprising that District 9, a mixed-genre science fiction and faux documentary film should settle on the image of Nigerians as profiteering gangsters. It is not the only film to have featured that impression of Nigerians. The Informant, with Matt Damon as the lead actor, is the story of a whistleblower working for a large food chemical company in the American midwest. The problem is that the whistleblower is an inveterate liar and has himself been siphoning off millions while trying to discredit his also corrupt senior management. Throughout the film the terms “419” and
II: District 9 and the Representation of the Social Relation
And yet there is something deeply unsettling about District 9’s representation of its Nigerian characters. Recall that in the film the Nigerians are part of the slum dwellers that, with the alien “prawns”, lie outside the bounds of civil society. The Nigerians exploit the prawns by selling them catfood which they crave. Crucially, the Nigerians are also gangsters and seek to amass the aliens’ armaments and ammunitions but for reasons that are not made clear in the film. We are left to speculate by an extension of their depiction as gangsters, that this must be in order to dominate the rest of society. Additionally, and here is where the rudest shock is delivered, they are also depicted as cannibals. At one point in the film the Nigerian gang leader, pointedly named “Obasanjo”, attempts to eat the arm of the partially transmogrified Wikus van de Merwe, the central character, so that he can acquire the ability to manipulate the weapons that he has stockpiled. The aliens’ guns are so sophisticated that they only respond to a particular form of biology, namely, that of the aliens themselves. Obasanjo believes that by eating Wikus’s arm his own human biology will be transformed so that he can deploy their armaments. In many respects it is the dimension of their rabid acquisition of armaments and their explicit cannibalism that reveals the degree to which District 9 is prepared to go beyond the historicity that we noted earlier in registering the absolute otherness of the Nigerian characters. In other words, by not stopping at depicting them as inveterate and heartless scamsters but adding to this a dimension of blind military acquisitiveness and cannibalism the film goes well beyond the pale of what is now a key characterization of Nigerianness. For the film they are first and last barbarians, with no redeeming features.
Despite this highly offensive depiction, however, I think it would be mistake to read the film exclusively in relation to the a-historical othering of
In attempting to unpack the social imaginary of this or any other representational text we have to grasp the fact that the social imaginary entails the portrayal of a social relation. Essentially, the social relation has two inter-related aspects to it. The first aspect involves the depiction of the manner by which men and women relate to other people in society. These relations are relations of equality, hierarchy, subordination, self-and-othering, able-bodied vs disabled, and so forth. In a word, they are relations of Power, in the sense made famous by Foucault. The social relations depicted in any representational text can easily be inventoried. Are they depictions of individual vs state, father vs daughter, husband vs wife, culture vs culture, or, as is often the case, a combination of all these? Such an inventory of interpersonal and collective relations, however, has to be augmented by the analysis of a second aspect of the social relation, namely, the ways and means by which the relations of Power are converted into something else. By what instruments is it possible to convert a given set of relations of Power into a different, and perhaps more hospitable (for the foreigner) or democratic (for the putative citizen) or equivalent and respectful (for the family member)? At one level the instruments of conversion may be institutional and external to the self (courts, civic and interest lobby organizations, schools, churches), personal (you resign your job and go back to school), or collective (revolution), or, as is often the case, internal to the self and lying at the level of psychology. The two levels are not entirely separable, yet it is also the case that most texts focus on either one or the other. And each historic epoch provides a dominant way in which the two aspects of the social relation are dialectically connected. Thus, for example, in Native Son Richard Wright depicts the practical impossibility that is faced by a character such as Bigger Thomas in his attempts at freeing himself from the dominant relations of Power in his quest for self-fashioning. This is because, given the depicted race relations of 1930s
In District 9 there is clearly a partial equivalence in the representation of the alien prawns on the one hand, and the Nigerians on the other. Both groups are alien to the civic and political order of
It is when we come to the depiction of the instruments of the conversion of the relations of Power, however, that we see a very sharp distinction between the prawns and the Nigerians. The prawns are shown to desire a mastery of science and technology in spite of all the negative conditions to which they have been subjected. The gritty yet highly sophisticated laboratory the prawn leader sets up with his son in their basement is a marker of this desire for technological mastery. Not only that, they desire the technological mastery not to conquer the people amongst whom they have been forced to live for over 20 years, but in order to go back to their own alien planet to fulfill their destiny. The prawn leader is first and foremost a scientist, but one with a highly developed social conscience. His social conscience is depicted in a miniaturized fashion in the warm and caring relations he establishes with his son, and at a higher level, his desire to repair the space ship in order that he might go back to his planet and return to save his people.
In order to radically alter their social relations in a society that clearly thinks very little of them, the Nigerians in the film on the other hand want to master not science and technology, but the mere use of the armaments they have acquired through exploiting the needs of others. And it is not clear what ultimate claims of sociality they want to make in the mastery of these arms. To the aliens is assigned the mastery of science and technology, but to the Nigerians the mastery first of the alien military technology, and later the society in which they reside The problem with the Nigerians’ quest for mastery, however, is that it is shown as being mediated through black magic (the cannibalism) and thus is essentially the marker of a moral and intellectual deficit. We see then that in the social imaginary of District 9 it is the Nigerians that are the true Other. The prawns are only partially so, because they are shown to possess superior “human” characteristics of familial love, reason (in the mastery of science), and political consciousness (in the prawn leader’s desire to come back and save his people).
So what then as Nigerians and Africans, are we to make of the social imaginary of District 9? The first thing is to acknowledge that the film is representing an image of Nigeria that is also true of what the country is in the popular imagination, and which has been contributed to, willy-nilly, by Nigerians themselves. However, when we shift the focus away from historicity (i.e., the truth or falsehood of
The depiction of black life as somewhat in excess of reason has a long and chequered history, and takes us most famously to Hegel’s views on Africa, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and through various other disquisitions that have seen Africa and black life posited as the ultimate heart of unreason. Suddenly we see that the depiction of the social relation in Wright’s Native Son is not so distant from that of District 9 after all. In each instance the depiction shows certain race and its links to relations of Power, and in each one the attempt to convert the relations of Power into another set of relations is short-circuited by the fact that the black characters lack the consciousness by which such a conversion might be achieved. The difference between Native Son and District 9 is that Bigger has our sympathy but the Nigerians do not. This, we should note, is also due to the relationship established between historicity and representation. To unpack that we would have to go into questions of the contrast between medium (novel vs film) and generic conventions (realism/naturalism vs science fiction), and ultimately, to the objectives that the representations are expected to achieve in the real world. Perhaps we will pursue this thread another time.