Charles Hood on Africa and the Search for Authenticity

The following photo essay is by Charles Hood, who, like my wife and I, teaches English at Antelope Valley College in Southern California. Unlike us, however, when Charles is between semesters he is not curled up on the sofa sipping hot spiced cider from a mug that says something clever like “Cup Carrying Member of the ACLU.” Instead, Charles is off his butt and possessed with strenuous world travel. His passports, with their stamps from every continent, look like they might belong to James Bond. In any event, he went to Africa in December and is in Antarctica as we speak. Yes, that Antarctica. Maybe I can persuade him (if he survives) to write an essay here on his experiences there. But before you read further, I must caution you: Charles’ writing and photos tend to be a goad to the conscience, drawing the reader to some overwhelming questions: “Am I living too cowardly a life? Are my ambitions too low? If this guy can seize each day so magnificently, why can’t I?” Charles lives his life as a Promethean unbound, indeed; a Prometheus-at-large. I think Nietzsche would have liked Charles. As would Hemingway. May his example be one for all of us.—Santi

Africa and the Search for Authenticity

by Charles Hood 

I am writing this from California, after two trips to Africa recently, with another visit (my seventh) scheduled for spring. 

Have I really been to Africa?  Of course: here is a photo to prove it.

Not that you couldn’t get this shot in a zoo, and probably better lit.  Point is, at least I got it.  Bam, nailed it.  Got my lion.  As Sontag and so many others have said, we need the trophy to prove we made the kill, whether it’s a trip with the kids to the zoo or a multi-thousand dollar safari spanning five countries and fifty kinds of wild animals.  And it’s a lion so it’s iconic even.  This “is” Africa.

Of course, Africa has all kinds of animals.  It doesn’t have to be a lion.  What about this shot, which is of a very African toad?  Does it count?

Maybe so, since Africa is about animals and a toad is a kind of animal.  Sure, that might work.  A bit quirky, sure, but okay, I can put it on my Facebook page.  That’s getting a bit marginal to be African, but all right.  So how about this picture from France?  Is it authentic as well?

Did Monet paint here?  Is this a site special to the Impressionists?  Well, actually, no.  This shot too is from Africa, from Northern Botswana, and is not far from where the lion cub and the toad shots were taken.  But it feels wrong, somehow, as if somebody said yes I went to Africa but I stayed in a Hilton.  The general feeling would be, oh no, the Hilton?  That’s not authentic Africa.  But why can’t it be?  If a Hilton is built by an African construction company, staffed with African workers, lit by African electricity, can’t that be a “true” experience too?  All of Africa is not grass huts and inter-tribal warfare.  Millions of people watch television, drink Coke, pay taxes, use cell phones.  In fact, on a previous trip, my guide in Uganda found that when monitoring bands of chimpanzee, it was easier to stay in touch with the other trackers by cell phone than it was via his army-issued walkie talkie.  His phone got better reception.

And here’s one of the chimps:

Water lilies can be perfectly African, as African as lions.  And it’s not as if France isn’t partly African itself, literally and metaphorically.  For long stretches of some neighborhoods in Marseille, one hears North African Arabic, not French.  And it’s not as if France is always baguettes and berets (though those do exist); plenty of France is mundane, even ugly.

But somehow we expect Africa to be exotic, France to be picturesque, Texas to be redneck, and England to be charming and green.  (Better stay out of some parts of East London then.)  We build up our visual vocabulary through postcards, jigsaw puzzles, movies like French Kiss (poor Meg Ryan, always looking the wrong way when the Eiffel Tower slides into view).  No matter how sophisticated we are, I think almost all of us still expect most places outside of our home town to look the way they are “supposed” to.  In fact, there’s probably some kind of radius in this: the closer we are to where we live, the less susceptible we are to expecting visual clichés.  Conversely, if we go abroad, we go with ideas already pre-loaded for what “abroad” should look like.  In Warsaw this accordionist was playing for tips in the old part of the city.  Or rather, what used to be the old part: World War Two leveled it, and the Soviets rebuilt it to look old.  The 18th century shops and cobblestones all date from the 1950s.  Still, he was happy, even though it was about to snow, and I was glad to give him ten bucks in loose change.

Would this shot be better if there wasn’t a Toyota Camry in the background?  Would it be more authentically Eastern European slash Travel Charming that way?  For the Sunday papers, most editors would say yes, ditch the car.  But I suppose maybe if I really wanted authentic I would show mass graves from this or that pogrom, or maybe somebody pounding on the public phone because the service was so poor.  Would this accordion fellow be in any way less interesting if he had been playing riffs from Pearl Jam instead of the polkas my grandmother taught me?  Hey pops, do you know “Stairway to Heaven”?  It makes it easier when there are no contradictions but I’m not sure it’s any more authentic.

With travel photos it’s less a search for authenticity, when it comes down to it, than just picking up the shots that do their job in terms of punching the ticket.  “Okay, I’ve got lion and giraffe, so next I just need a really good zebra shot.”  If my African travel slides were really accurate they would show long waits at the airport, or me fussing with my pack to dig out some toilet paper as I sprint to the loo—not because of something I ate, but because I get so anxious before flying it manifests itself with the mad dash syndrome. 

Reality is inherently contradictory.  On my most recent African trip I drank gin and tonic on the banks of Zambezi.  I ate fried caterpillars.  I ate peanut stew with goat meat and vegetables I had never heard of.  I flew in very expensive airplanes made by Airbus in France, but I also flew in American Cessnas so beat-up the dials on the dashboard were all worn smooth.  You had to kick the tires and fiddle with the knobs to get these planes started.  Once my bush pilot fell asleep mid-journey.  Yet in the airport in Johannesburg I saw a diamond necklace for sale that cost $60,000.  I rode a mountain bike made from bamboo, a truly indigenous product . . . indigenous if we exclude the fact that the epoxy that held it together was a resin imported from America, as had been the tires, the brakes, the seat, the derailleur—in fact, ALL the components.  It was easily 80% non-African in origin.  But it was marketed as a great solution to resource allocation.  Was it in any way still an African bike?  Was I having an African experience to ride on a bamboo bike if the bike had American tires, American shocks, and American-made seat?

It’s all contradictions.  On this recent trip, I saw schools so grim they looked like prisons.  I had somebody recite Shakespeare to me, and somebody else name all of the US presidents in reverse order.  (I got a 5 on my AP history test, and even I had to scratch my head to keep up.)  I went birdwatching protected by a man with a loaded elephant rifle.  Getting dressed by candlelight one morning I put on my black underpants without looking closely enough and discovered after it was too late that they had become infested overnight with small, black, very fiercely biting ants.  Just for the record, welts on one’s testicles can take a long time to heal.  Termites filled our mouths, our ears, our breakfast orange juice.  There were scorpions in the shower stalls.  There was the best white wine I have ever had in my life for dinner.  There were beggars and corrupt police.  There were Turner sunrises and daily fits of laughter and hourly acts of astounding generosity.

Will somebody come and help me sort out my memories?

The authentic and the manufactured and the strange and the everyday all have become mixed up in my head.

I went to Africa last week and now that I am back, I still am trying to learn what it was I expected to see, and if I saw it or not.

Until then, if anybody wants to see a picture of a lion, just let me know.  That I did get sorted out.  As for the rest, that may take years to sort out.  Wish me luck.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Charles Hood on Africa and the Search for Authenticity

  1. Paradigm says:

    Global capitalism creates one big monoculture. And that makes us all more stupid.

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      I take it your reference is, in part, to the accordian guy in front of the Toyota. I suppose it’s possible that tapping into human universals in search of global profits (everybody needs to get from some point A to some point B; everybody likes music) leads to a flattening of particularist culture. But what if accordion guy makes a CD and sells it to tourists, is discovered by a label, and scores enough money from his global CD sales to buy a Camry? Has that narrowed human experience? Hardly. It might be that some music student in Brazil hears the old man’s CD and takes up the accordion. Or maybe the old man passes away and his grandchild inherits the Camry, driving it to college every day. The grandchild then, perhaps, becomes an astronomer wondering and thinking for a lifetime into the night sky. Far from making people stupid or psychologically flat, global capitalism tends to make people smarter by increasing wealth and efficiency (and hence opportunities for liesure) and more creative (tapping into the desire to figure out a fresh way to make a buck). Matt Ridley suggests that this is precisely what distinguished humans from Neanderthals: trade and specialization:

      I’m inclined to agree.

      —Santi

      • Paradigm says:

        You’re looking at this from a short-term individual perspective. Sure it’s good for that accordion player to get worldwide attention but what will the world look like in the longer perspective if everything and everybody intermingle? If there is one thing Social Psychology has proven it is that we behave like people around us, like our neighbors. And if we’re all neighbors in the Global Village then we all behave the same.

        We may not be driving Camrys and playing the accordion, but you may have noticed that music and cars are much more generic today than they were a few decades ago. So the human experience is indeed narrowing. Classical music is dying and literature is more and more easy-reading suspense and so on. TV has been taken over by a lot of meaningless non-scripted shows. All this indicates that pluralism and diversity is a degenerative process. We are dumbing down.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Paradigm,

    Film scripts support your position (the fewer words in them makes for easier global distribution). And there’s always going to be a human tension between the “Israelis” (the creators of insular culture) and the “Phoenecians” (the traders who set out upon the sea). But, really, the world in which people live in quaint cultural zoos is over.

    The Phoenecians, in the long run, will win.

    The reality is that we are a species fast evolving into a global civilization where most people live in urban centers. And we’re heading in the direction of planet colonization—the greening of Mars—over the next thousand years. The human world we are evolving will be, by orders of magnitude, smarter and more psychologically open and diverse than anything that we have now (if, for no other reason, people will be genetically enhanced, and perhaps genetically diversified, with a lot of repetitive drudgery given over to machines. People will actually have the leisure to take up classical music study, literature etc). 200 years from now there will be no shabby accordion players on the streets of Warsaw, but people everywhere will be smart, educated, healthy, prosperous, and with the leisure to pursue all sorts of subcultural interests.

    Imagine a world where energy is as inexpensive as tap water and technology is even more magical than it already is, but distributed everywhere. That’s where we’re headed. And fast.

    I realize this is a turbulant century, and terrorists with nuclear bombs could slow the human trajectory. But I doubt that they can really ever stop it. We’re heading, over the next couple of thousand years (which is a blink of the eye), to the stars.

    —Santi

  3. Paradigm says:

    Yes, they will have the time to study classical music but they rather watch Two and a half men instead. The “quaint zoos” are actually real cultures maybe soon lost forever. I might not be able to stop that but it is a weak argument in favor of it. You talk of diversity and subcultures as if these are not also subject to the same conformist process. It may all vanish.

    The Israelis think of themselves as the chosen people, the Phoenicicans dreamt only of money. That’s why the Israelis are still around, thousands of years later while the Phoenicians are extinct. The fact that the (metaphorical) Phoenicians have the upper hand right now may be true, but that’s nothing to be glad about. You too will miss those quaint zoos once they’re gone.

    There is of course a counter-force to conformism inherent in human nature. We have an instinctual urge to live in groups and distinguish ourselves from other groups. Exactly how and if that will create new diversity, and if so what kind of diversity, is an open question.

    As for your SF visions, who knows? You think applied science will save us. I see a planet badly damaged by applied science, in some ways irreversibly so. I guess this might be a temperamental difference between us. Anyway, history shows that it is extremely hard to predict the future, so an argument based on such predictions is inherently weak.

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm:

      I’m not sure why diversity has to be defined by geography, nation, ethnicity, costume, or religion. For example, we recently had the MLA (Modern Language Association) conference in Los Angeles. I couldn’t go this year, but when you go to such a conference, you can find groups of people sitting over coffee who are obsessed with, say, the novels of Phillip Roth, or Irish folklore, or who are Blake or Thoreau scholars. They might communicate online throughout the year, or through printed journals, and read one another’s books, but once a year they get together and do a panel at the MLA.

      And what is a college major but the Alice-in-Wonderland step down a curious rabbit hole—an undiscovered country of specialties and subcultures? If you’re 17 years old, for example, you can find some college in the world where you can study Latin poetry from the Roman period, or the role of the limbic system in the production of emotions. You can give your life to such subjects (if you choose). Isn’t that diversity?

      Going forward in human history, subcultures are going to be more gnostic, and less conventionally embodied. Aren’t teenagers obsessed with skateboarding a culture? Or people who play this or that online game? Or Star Trek fans?

      The joy of global culture is that people can find people like them and interact. It’s no longer the case that if you were born Catholic in a Catholic country that you have to be a Catholic or conform to Catholic modes of thought. With the click of a mouse, you can find people not like you and outside of your immediate locality.

      The Internet changes everything, and makes the world more diverse, not less.

      As for the ancient Israeli cultural meme (our team is best, piss on the rest), well, that’s morphed into the Muslim meme, and the Mormon meme, and the Baptist meme, and the Italian nationalist meme, and the North Korean dictatorship meme. Everybody thinks they’ve got the direct line to God or Truth. The meme works for certain purposes, but it’s a stupid meme.

      The Phoenecian meme is Odysseus out on the open waves; it’s the French Voltaire writing letters from England praising Locke and Bacon. That’s the right meme for a sane and diverse global human future.

      Big Religion and Big Culture are breaking down under scrutiny. And geography matters less and less. Voluntary gnostic association is what counts.

      And not everything is flat in the larger pop culture. Have you seen, for example, the just released, and astonishingly beautiful, general release film, True Grit?

      Wow. What a movie.

      —Santi

      • Paradigm says:

        Philip Roth is a Jewish American, his book American Pastoral is largely about Jews in America, and Irish folklore is by definition Irish, so subcultures around cultural phenomena based on nation, ethnicity are secondary to these. They can’t exist when there is no Jewish or Irish culture left. Same goes for Alice in Wonderland and Latin Poetry by the way. That’s all in the quaint zoo. In fact all the cultural references in your comment above is ultimately in that zoo with the only possible exception being True Grit – which is a remake.

        They would have to be obsessed by something of lasting power created by the Global Village. But what would that be? Capitalism just picks up cultural elements already in place and make them more mainstream and thereby commercial.

        “The Internet changes everything, and makes the world more diverse, not less.”

        No, this way we all immerse in the same global culture faster. A clip on YouTube goes viral because everybody gets it. That’s the triumph of the monoculture.

        The meme, as you call it is just a part of human nature – for better and worse. I think we might agree on that. The Phoenician way is the way of Ceasar when he thought he could depict his Roman rivals being killed by the enemy and get the crowd to cheer – he was surprised they didn’t. More generally his internationalist vision of Rome, with Celtic members of the Senate and things like that, was his undoing as well as the end of Rome. When we are all Romans no one is a Roman and Rome is no more. That is my vision of the Global Village. I havent read Voltaire in french but I find his ideas to be just a popular/commercial and shallow as to be expected by a pioneer of modernity.

        It’s true that pop culture has quality, but is it getting better or worse? Is Lady Gaga as good as the major artists recent decades? Is she the equal of John Lennon or Freddy Mercury? She is just a salesperson with extremely few ideas and a massive talent for marketing. In this way she is sadly typical of our time.

        No, haven’t seen it. I did see the original with John Wayne and liked it, even though I’m completely against the capital punishment. But there is good stuff nowadays too. But I fear a lot of it will not get the attention it deserves. One of my strongest film experiences was a scene from the horror movie “May”. It did not get much attention. I don’t know if you saw Twin Peaks, perhaps the best TV show ever. It was cancelled after two seasons – not mainstream enough.

  4. Pingback: What’s Wrong with This Picture? | Prometheus Unbound

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