This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Du Bois Institute
White Humor Author(s): Johannes Fabian Source: Transition, No. 55 (1992), pp. 56-61 Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2934849 Accessed: 14/01/2010 08:28
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=iupress. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact email@example.com.
Indiana University Press and W.E.B. Du Bois Institute are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Transition.
T R A N S I T ION
The idea of the barbarous Negro is a Euro-Leo Frobenius pean invention. We still carrythe markof the masterin our carmindsandspirits,like aform of tattooing riedout in the initiationceremonies the saof credgrove. -Leopold SedarSenghoron Leo Frobenius What I am going to report is neither great news nor very entertaining, and certainly not funny. In the end, it may not even be illuminating. Still, it is something I have been unable to consign to academic storage to be analyzed later, calmly and objectively. I simply need to tell about an extraordinary passage I came across in a book written more than eighty years ago Leo Frobe(Im SchattendasKongostaates, nius, 1907). Two reasons make me believe that I should try to express publicly the private outrage I felt when I read this extraordinary document. First, I assume that I am not alone in my conviction that Western imperialism and the atrocities of colonial domination ultimately need to be understood by asking how it was (how it is?) that intelligent, sensitive people (like you and me) came to accept the enterprise as, on the whole, justified and noble. Second, I assume that the author, the eminent German Africanist Leo is known Frobenius (1873-1938), not just among his fellow anwidely, thropologists and other specialists. Many think of him as precisely the type of intelligent and sensitive student of African culture who should make one wonder how it was possible for him to identify with colonialism. Often cited with approval and admiration, Frobenius conducted his first field expedition to southwestern Zaire between 1904 and 1906. Only a year afterwards, in 1907, he published a 460-page report, titled Im Schatten des KongoStaates(In the Shade (or the Shadow?) of Congo State). The book is packed with information, not only ethnographic but also historical, political, and, above all, economic. It shows Frobenius as a scientist driven by a desire to know and understand; he comes across as critical, humane, and often compassionate. The modern reader is under the spell of this
powerful personality and willing to attribute to the spirit of the times an occasional expression of his racism, paternalism, and repeated episodes of actual violence toward his African helpers and the villagers he encounters. Leaving the stark contradictions unresolved rather than selecting outrageous passages for cheap effect seemed to me a more productive way of reading this document of colonial discourse (a reading which, at any rate, was undertaken for a project larger than exposing a single Africanist as a colonial villain). At least that was my resolve until I came to the sixteenth chapter, "Among the Conquistadors of the Kasai." The conquistadors in question are the agents of the Compagniedu Kasai, the semigovernmental trading company specializing in rubber and ivory. Frobenius accuses this company of arrogating to itself powers that belong to the State. He piles one example of the atrocious conduct of its European employees on another. Then he brings his story-quite consciously, as is clear from the context-to a climax (my translation): and inHowever, the mostterrific thesaddest we cident weregoingto witnessourselves.On October duringoursecond stop at Kabeya, 4, a sixth unfortunate pickaninny,Kaloshi Uatobelle,was caught.He too was a Kapita [a rubber his buyer] who had not quite covered advance.He was supposedto have been an excellent at fellow, a Christianeducated the Mission in Luebo.He arrivedin the evening and next morning he was thrown to the groundand held there.A capitastoodon one side, a Europeanon the other.Each wielded a cane. It sounded a mill: whack-whack, like whack-whack.And when a cane broke,anotherone was quicklybrought,so that there
From Im Sch-allev des Kongostaates, Leo Frobenius, 1907. The legend for the cartoon
fiitiutgenin ber tlumoritijfd?cn 23etracftung bcs legers: Der 30y
zuiilntl?t, ba~ Du il~n
says "Exercises in the humoristic contemplation of the Negro: The Boy wants you to treat him as an adult."
(rwtad?fenen be, kanmbelft.
was no interruption theperfect rhythm.Afof ter this had beengoing onfor a while I still heardanother whack-whacks, is, 106 53 that blows. But there were certainly 150 altogether. Whenthis hadfinished, thepoorfellow was unable to walk. He was carried away, bleedingfrom five serious wounds. That is what we saw with ourown eyes. After the mostsimpleand harmless punishment to it is customary let thepeople take a bath. In thiscase,thiswas notpermitted. Uatobelle the received samepoorfood as the otherprison onersand diedas a resultof this treatment October5. End of story; not a word about his reaction-did he have the urge to intervene, to help the victim afterwards?Noting a feeling he had at least a day later, Frobenius does tells us that he found Labryn, the European responsible for the killing, "disgusting," quickly adding, however, "I was in no position to intervene. " This is hard to believe from someone who continually reports his initiatives in matters of "native policy" and who acquired a reputation among other
Europeans as a most meddlesome nuisance. But back to the text: Gruesome facts are here proffered with a detachment bordering on serenity. It made me want to retch. That I reacted so violently was certainly in part because I share with Frobenius his native language. The literal translation I gave cannot convey some of the signals and connotations that make worse what, by itself, is a disgusting instance of "objective reporting." Objectivity, like any other normative concept used by social scientists, can become absurd, depending on context and content (think of the ledger of a concentration camp as an "objective" record). Incidentally, the "we" that seems to add credibility to this passage includes Mr. Lemme, the expedition's artist, who presently will assume a major role. Lest my reaction be dismissed as sentimental and moralizing, I shall now offer suggestions for taking this episode as a banal and therefore mind-boggling example of the workings of the colonial mind. Frobenius could not have reacted the way he did, nor could he have written about it the way he did-yet he did. What happened in this sort of writing is something that transcended and determined what the author perceived as well as the manner in which he decided to relate his experience. I begin with some comments on the text itself and then place the passage in the context of the chapter and the book. Placing things in context often serves to excuse them. In this case, interpretation shall make matters worse.
Frobenius appears to use two strategies
58 TRANSITION ISSUE 55
designed to make bearable the horror inspired by his narrative. The first one is clinical pedantry in the face of death. His reporting seems strictly objective. There is a phrase interjected between the main story and his afterthoughts that must have sounded quaint and solemn when it was written: "That is what we saw with our own eyes." The observer deserves to be believed, even if what he observes is unbelievable. Accordingly, the composition of the event as a tableau-as an exhibit-is expected to convince a reader who is put in the judge's chair. The victim is identified, even named!-not a usual courtesy extended to Africans who appearin travel accounts. Facts are given that have a bearing on the case: Kaloshi (Kalonji, we would write today) was a buyer who failed to come up with a quantity of rubber deemed to match the advance he had received. That he was educated and a Christian presumably was mentioned to make the punishment appear all the more cruel. The beating is done rhythmically, machine-like. Punishment takes on an impersonal, measurable character: At least 150 blows are served, five serious wounds are inflicted (did Frobenius count along silently; did he get close enough to the victim to examine him?). While realistic and objective reporting may have been just a distasteful choice of literary genre, I found Frobenius's second strategy simply sickening. A native speaker of German cannot fail to recognize in this passage two evocations of folklore. Both are conspicuous violations of the dominant genre. Perhaps Frobenius committed them because he was a bad writer; more likely he used them in an effort to ease the tension of his account.
The first slip into folklore is contained in the phrase "a sixth unfortunate pickaninny" (ein sechstesungluckliches Negerlein). It evokes a children's song, Zehn
kleine Negerlein ... a "counting" song
kitsch: these were combinations to which imperialism was as prone as, later, fascism.
telling of the sad fate of ten "little negroes" who go out to undertake various things. One after the other is killed and subtracted from the count. In the mouths of millions of German children the diminutive suffix may have sounded endearing, relativizing the stark message of the story. Employed by Frobenius it is condescending and insulting but, as we shall see, meant to be funny. A second allusion to, or rather actual quotation from, a popular romantic song is given in the phrase that imitates the rhythmic sound of an old fashioned water mill. Again, every German reading this is reminded of "Es klappert die Miihle am rauschenden Bach, klippklapp, klipp-klapp" (a song about a mill that is rattling away on a rushing creek). It is impossible to determine whether Frobenius simply followed an association when he tried to represent the sound made by the beating or whether he was out to create a certain effect byjuxtaposing colonial brutality with a rustic idyll. Was he perhaps unconsciously regressing to childhood images and sounds in these songs because what he described was too much to bear? As I read it-taking account of the context, to which we will turn presently-Frobenius pursued in this passage strategies whose subjective purpose at the time he was writing may keep us forever second-guessing. But there is no second-guessing the effect he created: when we read his report now, the author's literary strategies increase the horror. Brutality with frills, cruelty and
If there is any doubt left about all this being intentional, it is easily removed when we look at the pages that surround our passage. With three exceptions, the seventeen illustrations used in this chapter are cartoons. They are identified as "exercises in looking at the Negro humoristically." Drawn by the expedition's artist, Mr. Hans Martin Lemme, they all depict Africans either breaking European rules of etiquette or aping European dress and attitudes (see three examples on the following page). Just in case the reader misses the point of illustrating with funnies what is essentially a catalog of colonial atrocities, Frobenius tells us: "It is not for nothing that I illustrate this tragic chapter with gay little pictures from the life of the Boys. These are sketches of funny experiences in daily life drawn by the artist of the Expedition." "In Africa," he goes on somewhat inconsequentially, "one cannot do enough for self-control and self-education. A person who gets to be bitter (gallig) is in danger of losing himself." "Therefore," he says, "I always tried to see the comical in a situation and always to emphasize the humor in it." I think we all are inclined to see colonial discourse as conspiratorial, trying to hide its true motives and mechanisms; I know I am. I also believe that, as a historian, I should avoid easy recourse to conspiracy when it comes to explaining the conduct of colonials. It left me gaping to see Frobenius, openly and without compunction, declare that "humor" is a
WHITE HUMOR 59
~3etracti Ubnnlen in her tunioriftifchen trtui bes ZTe3ers:Der 30ovreict Dir
ltbunlien in her buiino bes lcftracttlnng riftifcen
ZTelers: Der 3oy rcicdt Dir eineu Secder.
More "Exercises in the humoristic contemplation of the Negro": the Boy hands you a spoon; the Boy hands you a cup; the Boy sifts your coffee through his loincloth.
r 3eUbuntenl in her tlunoriftifcden tracbtunt bes tegers: Der 0oy feitt Dir ben Kaffee burc? feinen fentbetfd?ur3.
Frobenius's recommendation, however clumsy and tactless, is not about compassion for Africans. His "methodological" humor fits in with those rules against boredom, idleness, and excessive sleep, but also fraternization, neglect of personal appearance, and so on, which contemporary manuals of colonization grouped under "hygiene." Health, essentially defined as self-control, was necessary in order to control others. In sum, we have in this one short passage an instance of colonial discourse in which domination is multiply encoded: In the repetitive event of the beating itself, in Frobenius's callously quantitative account of it, in the repeated breaks of style or genre that occur through the evocation of popular German songs, in the graphic context of the illustrations chosen for the chapter (each with a legend part of which is repetitive), in the "theory" of humor that is formulated to make sense of it all and then backed up with a multitude of anecdotes (not reported here) and, last but not least, in the vignette-like realistic depiction of the scene at the end of the chapter. Each is like another blow that startles us and proclaims the author's desire to show that he was in control, no matter what happened. Frobenius writes and reasons as a Herrenmensch,a human being destined to rule. At the beginning of the book he said: I shallfrequentlyhave the occasion point to out that we mustsucceed,not only in understandingthe Negro; but also in meetinghim morethanhalf-way if we want to utilize his laborpowerfully. But equallyfrequentlyI shall show that the Europeanmust see to it
necessary virtue of the colonial agentnot because it relativizes things, covers distress with irony, makes inhumane situations humanly bearable, but because it is needed to maintain "self-control," essential if one wishes to maintain a position of power over "the Boys," who stand of course for all Africans.
that the Negro race which, after all, is disposedfor slavedom, recognizeshim as the Herrenmensch. This sort of cant is easily dismissed (and by some excused) as ideological jargon that did not influence what Frobenius and the likes of him (and the likes of us) achieved as ethnographers. After all, we seem to forgive Malinowski his racist statements (admittedly never destined for publication). But our reading of a piece of factual reporting should have shown that the imperialist frame of mind can express itself in the same realistic genre that was considered appropriate for ethnography. We can never be sure, until we face that question directly,
Vignette at the end of the chapter: "Under the rod of the masters who do not
litnter ber Siucltec ber L?erren,bie ben know humor: Poor tlumior ntid)tfeilnenr:Der arile Ulatobetle Uatobelle moans as miltinert feinc llt nbe enttcgeet.
whether an ethnographer's "authority" deserves credit as a contribution to knowledge, or whether it merely reproduces the political force and violence it often took to put ethnographers in a position to claim authority.