Saturday, June 28, 2014

World Affairs: When the Mould Breaks
V.I. Lenin was the leader of the Russian Revolution and
founder of the Soviet state.
June 28, 2014
Nathaniel Manheru, Opinion & Analysis
Zimbabwe Herald

I hope I will not sound obscure and thus needlessly pedantic. While it has to be admitted that the object of writing is to communicate, it must also be conceded that the purpose of reading is to enlarge one’s knowledge, indeed to venture beyond one’s ken. Otherwise, there is no point. So, the art of writing is being able to communicate but without denying scope for acquisition of new knowledge and perceptions, deny that by being overly mundane.

And here we go, so brace up. Students of literature will gladly introduce a big word: de-familiarisation. It is a term associated with Russian Formalism, a literary school of thought whose godfather is one Viktor Shklovsky who opens the Russian twentieth century with this one profanity.

I will explain. Up until the rise of this apostate, Russian literature had been reared on the staple of realism, a school of literary thought which required art to reflect life, or to have some near one-to-one relationship with reality and truth.

The big word for that was verisimilitude, “verite” in French. Of course this was an old literary notion, stemming from the days of Plato and Aristotle, and their theory of mimesis, or art as a mirror of reality.

The law of dialectics

But it was a theory which had endured, albeit assuming various mutations. Within the Russian literary tradition, it was about to be reinforced, what with the emerging notion of socialist realism as propounded by Lenin and his acolytes, under the broad rubric of Bolshevism.

As with, but beyond realism, socialist realism required of art not just a definite relationship with reality, but also a firm commitment to the underdog in class struggles which this ideology saw as the essence and motor of history.

Art could not be for art’s sake. It had to patronise a cause and that cause had to be that of workers whose triumph in future was preordained! Of course Lenin and company forgot one rule of dialectics, itself a framework for their interpretation of reality and social change, the rule of opposites.

Dialectical theory recognised the unity and tension of opposites, including a higher resolution of that tension to yield a new and higher state of synthesis.

That new, higher synthesis would in turn get upset by a new opposite it brews in its wake, thereby starting yet another evolving tension.

One Jonathan Swift

True to the laws and logic of dialectics, socialist realism theory birthed its own opposite by way of a rival theory called formalism which repudiated reality’s shackles on art.

From foregrounding realism, formalism and its more radical successor, structuralism, postulated that the chief end of art lay in artistic beauty deriving from a creative use of language.

Art did not have to mean; it merely had to grant its consumer some pleasurable experience through word smithery.

And one way of conveying this beauty was to use language in such unusual ways that the reader got jolted from language’s familiar or conventional use.

To de-familiarise language usage, in other words. Shklovsky limited the notion to language use. But his notion became handy in appreciating old texts, including a familiar one by Jonathan Swift, an Augustan novelist writer who gave us the famous Gulliver’s Travels.

In it, Swift paints a make-belief cosmos which subverted the world as his contemporaries and ourselves know it. Man became either a midget or a monster, with his whole world either slimmed or magnified beyond familiarity.

Where the world dwindled to midget size, Swift sought to show how conceited, self-convoluting man was anything but some puny, pernicious creature wielding oversized destructiveness.

Where the world magnified to a scale larger than the human eye could encompass, the idea was to enlarge the human being so his repulsive ugliness, all along hidden by normal size and distance, could be fully grasped and recoiled from.

Either way, Swift sought to show conceited human ugliness, which is why he stood accused of misanthropy. This technique of imaginatively rearranging reality, of subverting ordinary perception and disrupting the banality of everyday scenes and life, is what then came to be called de-familiarisation as a technique or literary device.

And as a technique, it was meant to teach readers human nature through shock.

Of course I now have to apply this very notion, otherwise why expound it in this elaborate way except as a conceptual aid in my instalment for the week. As I write, Iraq is showing signs of disintegrating, and this after its founding a good ninety-three years ago.

Those with a good grasp of history will recall that it was part of the Ottoman Empire, and was carved once this sick man of Europe (Ottoman Empire which incorporated modern Turkey) twitched its last and died, thanks to First World War.

There is a rebellion in Iraq, with a Sunni fundamentalist group called ISIS leading the country-breaking rebellion.

But that is not my point this week, tragic though the auguries are or may be, for that fantastic country which has been raped repeatedly by the West, starting with the British, ending with the Americans (at least for now).

Those of my readers with a strong biblical geography will readily recognise Iraq by the fact of its boundedness by two mighty rivers Tigris and Euphrates, themselves drivers of a great civilisation which rivalled the West.

My interest is how this latest crisis has remoulded reality, teaming new bedfellows in ways that de-familiarise.

The Middle Eastern religious mosaic

The current embattled Iraq government is Shiite-dominated.

It was installed by Americans after their aggression against that country then as led by Saddam
Hussein, the American slain Iraqi leader.

Spurred by sect  considerations, the new Shiite Iraq government kept close to Americans — its maker — while developing links with Iran, an inveterate enemy of America since  the 1979 Revolution that deposed the American-propped Shah.

The Americans suffered this other link, or fumed acceptingly.

Iran emerged the biggest winner, having harnessed American military might to undo the monster America had created and armed — Saddam — without lifting a drone, or shedding an ounce of her blood.

Soon America the war-monger moved to instigate another surrogate war in Syria, while it was losing another war in Afghanistan, another of Iran’s neighbour. Syria borders Iraq which America thought had stabilised.

The surrogate war in Syria needed a Sunni Trojan Horse, feeding as it did on the inveterate schismatic animosity between Shiites and Sunnis.

It also needed Turkey as a rear base for Sunni rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, the Alawaaittes president of Syria. And the Alwaaittes are a small group within the Shiite sect.

Friends, foes, friends, foes

Assad enjoys support of Iran, quiet indifference if not sympathies of Maliki, the prime minister of the Shiite-led, American-made Iraq government.

Iran sent fighters to prop Assad, who also got support of Lebanese veteran fighters of Hezbollah, also supported by Iran, against Israel, America’s unconditional friend.

The antagonistic Syrian National Coalition fought and still fights Assad on the strength of support from the West, but also from Sunni-led Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

And in the wake of the fall of Libya to the rebels, the stiff pressure on Al Qaeda elements in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Syria became the new cynosure for jihadist fighters, each pursuing different, even antagonistic visions, but joined by a common fight against Assad, joined by the irresistible prospect of getting sophisticated arms and cheap money from an America angling for regime change in Syria by whatever fighters.

Among these fighters is ISIS whose religious sect is Sunni, whose religion is fundamentalist political Islam, and whose political programme is challenging geography in the form of “crusader partitions” which made Iraq smaller that it should have been, made Syria exist when it should not have.

And because ISIS challenges the very existence of Syria, Assad is now having to bomb ISIS rebels who have been incubated in the Syrian cauldron, before they crossed into Iraq to begin their own revolution using arms and training gotten from Americans and other western powers!

When the sick man gets sicker

And here is the new equation: America, Iran, Shiite Iraq and Assad on the one side against ISIS which benefited from the American project in Syria, and still benefits from Sunni-Arab world, led by the House of the Saudis, themselves American allies in Syria.

Not to be left behind in this entanglement, Turkey, all along opposed and even supporting the anti-Assad Coalition, finds itself supporting Kurds in the north and closer to its border, in their quest for a break-away state, independent of Iraq.

Up until now, Turkey was opposed to this development which it said would give ideas to its own Kurds who have been simmering for a new order away from Turkey.

But today Turkey has a greater fear in the form of ISIS which could affect its present boundaries while fomenting a Sunni rebellion within its secular state.

Presently Turkey reasons a new Kurdistan could, after all, prove a better buffer against ISIS. So Turkey has an interest in the break-up of Iraq, assuming a Shiite Iraq cannot subsist. Perforce, it finds itself on the same side with Assad, the man it has fought against, alongside the Americans.

When Obama personifies weakness

Clearly the mould is broken and a new reality breaks out of this amorphousness. Old foes are patching up into new friendships while old friends are unearthing buried hatchets for new wars.

That is a new, evolving reality within which Zimbabwe will have to make new friends, lose old ones; make new enemies, reconcile with old ones. Old boundaries, old loyalties, old causes continue to melt, calling for new moulds. Or, could it be challenging any moulds at all?

The world seems formless, with its gyre ever turning, ever widening. If moulds are challenged, how then does the emerging reality become recognisable cognitively, how is it made familiar perception-wise?

The centre seems no longer able to hold, even for America which thinks it wields and moulds reality, twenty years into the future. Today, it accuses Obama of being weak, without realising Obama personifies its very weaknesses.

Making Albion squeak

Let me take the matter home, closer in ways that illustrate de-familiarisation is much more than a creative artistic device in the hands of proponents of formalists. In the news is Deborah Bronnett, the British Ambassador.

She says Britain now seeks friendship, normalisation of relations with Zimbabwe. She adds: “I hope this means Zimbabwe will look in all directions in terms of its trade and other relationships and that we will shortly see an official return visit from the United Kingdom to Zimbabwe”. Of course she is pleading with us to re-look West, together with, or better still away from, our looking East. Britain has come back to her senses, realising which side her bread is buttered. All that sounds like a major climb-down, a ringing victory for a Zimbabwe that has stood firm and unshaken, in the face of combined Anglo-American punitive sanctions. I don’t doubt that, the same way I don’t doubt that by taking on the West economically and legally, Zimbabwe is beginning to bite where it worries and matters respectively.

Raising the scotch-skirt

The British are a proud lot, given to granting minimal concessions only to foe nations that have either beaten them outright, dragged them into a debilitating stalemate, or against which they have won at great personal loss. Going back in history, this is why the British respected the Ndebeles even after defeating them; why they were contemptuous of Shonas even after the Shonas collaborated with them, against their better interest. Indeed, this is why as far afield as the Sudan, the British respected Mahdi who wiped a whole lot of them, before vengeful Albion regrouped for subsequent victory. Or nearer home, why after Majuba, the British respected the Boers. When their envoy here finally raises her scotch-skirt up beyond the knees, well closer to nether regions, all in full view of two-eyed natives, know then that River Save has risen effectively, and this at a time when the African sun is setting inexorably. The river has to be crossed, if home is to be reached before sunset. We have worked very hard to get to this, paid dearly for this moment to come. We cannot fritter it away, un-gainfully.

Here comes a deadly offer

But . . . and it’s a big BUT. While animosity with Britain is familiar and in fact has shaped a fight, shaped a generation, shaped a diplomatic tradition since 1996, structured a world now familiar since 1996, do we know what to do when the Queen turns lewd and coquettish, and does so when we are so far away from home, right in the middle of a battlefield which has taken us away from the nocturnal bed for so many moons? Do we know what to do when the Queen tantalisingly offers succulent, deadly peace? Our hunger is acute, our carnal desires run brimful, our wives are so far away, locked behind chastity belts by way of vast distances that ironically sanction the lock owner, and before us is lascivious Demi-Albion, so scantily dressed, inviting. Do we have good tools, for whatever ends? De-familiarisation! Think Zimbabwe. Often, hard-won victory is lost in peace. All the King’s horses, all the King’s man, had no problem for as long as Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall.

The MDC-Madhuku-Renewal riddle

And here is another illustration of what happens when de-familiarisation sets in suddenly, inexorably. MDC-T is in turmoil. Biti is dangling renewal. The courts are diffidently handling cases they don’t find too meaningful, or promising any jurisprudential vista. Dead matter, they see and endure in this disputation of no known local value. There is the property issue which is now before the unhappy courts. Professor Madhuku, all along known to us as political NCA, enters a notice to represent Biti and his renewable colleagues. What is happening? Familiar faces, old players, old game, new roles? And before we can answer, Professor Madhuku re-emerges again, in same courtyard, to make yet another entry: he will represent Biti and Holland in defense of an April 2 resolution to oust Tsvangirai from leading MDC what? MDC-Tsvangirai! An MDC-T which Biti says he will leave shortly once events are more propitious, once renewal congress is held and a low-hanging orange reached! So why shake down a ripening damba when what you are after is a softer fruit called orange? Never mind. Another puzzle: Holland? Sekai? Yes! Yet she was part of the Guardian Council seeking reconciliation between the factions! Breaking the mould, it is called and the result is something quite unfamiliar. He told me once.

I mean Madhuku. He said, the NCA has many of its members embedded in the two MDCs. When the time is ripe, he added, they will show their true allegiances and “we shall rise against the petty bourgeoisie in both Zanu-PF and MDCs”. I wrote about it.

All the same I hope Madhuku remembers the law of opposites. We may be about to see a new synthesis, but what will be its new, emerging antithesis as it simmers and settles? I just hope he will matter beyond the litigation moment. The world is never too familiar.

Going back to Federal Rhodesia

Lastly, Jacob Mafume. Recall East 24? Hahahaha! How events hurtle forward, often at breakneck speed. His new boss, Tendai Biti, addressed his supporters (so he thinks) last week in Chinhoyi. In part, Biti: “It has been a failed 34 years since Zimbabwe got its Independence in 1980. Our lives have gone to the era of 1958. We have no electricity, we have no water. We have got a natural crisis and we cannot stand by and watch. That is why there is a renewal call. If there is good governance in any country then everything else flows. We cannot let past mistakes of Zimbabwe to revisit us. That is why we are proud of renewal as an ideology and as new ways of thinking”. Of course that was boldly oblivious, something Biti is quite capable of, given his innate impulsive recklessness.

He counts 34, embracing the five years he was Finance Minister in the Inclusive Government, as wasted years. He condemns himself, in the haystack of words and dates. Much worse, his excellent education as a lawyer — all of it after Independence — rebukes him and his claim beyond measure. Conscripting all of us, he says our lives have gone to the era of 1958, suggesting his “era” is made up of a year. Really? A white era, federal era in which you are appoint-able as black minister of finance? In which you are a lawyer, much earlier than the pioneering Herbert Chitepo?

One very old Rhodesian dawn

He also forgot Kariba is still under construction, making his electricity claims quite fraught. Much worse, he saw good governance then in 1958, under white rule! Heyi! And then hoping he was placing the punchline, he added: “That is why we are proud of renewal as an ideology….”  Ha ha ha ha! Renewal of Rhodesia! To Federal Rhodesia, and then to what? UDI? Ha ha ha! Thanks Roy Bennett! De-familiarisation! Good politicians always remember their hinds as they discharge fiery words, or seek to remake the world through false words.

That is how new and renewed things shall be, in the world that Jack built! To that add young Mafume whose new world is symbolised by an orange. Well, apart from not being an orange, the sun takes on that orange colour twice in its day’s life: as it rises and as it sets.

The science of semantics works by limiting meaning possibilities, trimming those possibilities in preferred directions. Where the semantic field is left open, the reader walks in with referred sense. And you suffer the unintended, to your detriment, Sir. Kuti haasi Mavambo zvakare? Could the orange be rotting already, the sun setting before the rise of a new day? After all, this is a sun in a day in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Fifty- Eight. A very old Rhodesian sun indeed.


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