Review: Introduction to TRAVEL, HUMANITARIANISM, AND BECOMING AMERICAN IN AFRICA.

Mathers, K. (2010). “Introduction.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 1-9.

From the collaborate volume of Auto-Ethnographies (Meneley and Young 2005) to the singularly authored “Reversed Gaze” (Ntarangwi 2010), the works explored thus far in our seminar are each  characterised by a gaze on and critique of Western academic lives and practices. In the next book central to our discussion, Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa (Mathers 2010) we continue gazing close to home at the conceptual and lived ideals of Americans, specifically those formed by United States national(ist) discourse. However, the context of this work is outside the domain of academic institutions. Katheryn Mathers tracks the movements of tourists to and from South Africa to explore her questions of American identity and its connection to and contingency on an idea of ‘Africa’. This anthropological work explores the ideas of ‘Africa’ and ‘African’ imagined by America, and how the particular idea of Africa  sought after and acted upon by media and tourists are formed by and contingent on the shared ethos of Americaness. Mathers’ interest is in the meeting places of these ideologies and images; the meeting of the ‘real’ and the ‘imaged’ and the effect of the collision. The ideas and ideals of ‘Americans’ confront ideas and realities of Africa, and by this intersection personal and national perceptions are revealed.

This book is based on Mathers’ PhD fieldwork which was conducted in Cape Town, South Africa between 1999 and 2002 and affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. Originally from Cape Town, she completed her masters degree at University of Cape Town. She then moved to the United States for graduate studies only to return home to study America.

The introduction to this work begins and ends with reference to Barack Obama, aptly so as he captures, physically and in oration, the American ethos of interest to and complicating Mathers’ research. Obama embodies intersection, which is central to the author’s research question and its direction. He also represents the intersection of America and Africa which characterises the history of colonialism and present neo-colonial socio-political relationship. Obama also vocalised the US’s motivated national ideals of “democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope” (9); abstract values which are hard to conceptualize and materialize, though are encouraged to life through capitalism.

In a nation that combines insidious remnants of a protestant work ethic with a capitalist spirit it is not surprising its ideals promote creation or industriousness; action oriented ideals with value only realisable through productivity. Individuals must seek out channels through which to enact these values, and in the process of performing them feel to discover (or create) a collective American definition. However, a discourse of consensual difference challenges notions of national collectivity and unity, but the intersection of these differences coheres in ‘doing’. The search for identity within the framework of national values took on a new tone post 9/11. This political environment amplified the need to fulfil the expectations of productivity through goodwill, which stirs memories of missionary projects. The mass produced and circulated image of a despondent ‘Africa’ was useful and opportune The continent offered Americans the chance, economically or physically, to enact (not exclusively) secularized redemption (see here for a provocative political commentary on this topic). Though not all the subjects in Mathers’ study missioned to the continent, she states there was always an element of caring involved in their choice of travel, a choice informed by the above mentioned images of ‘Africa which were normalized in American media.

Mathers engages the tourist’s journey in order to explore Americans’ confrontation with their identity as it collides with Africa the continent and ‘Africa’ the reality beyond imaginings. Through their reception by South Africans the tourists came to understand the collective sense of Americanness indiscernible from a subjective, individualistic point of view, but which is a concrete and potent idea held by non-Americans. The study of synchronic experiences in bound, dissociated contexts was not useful to Mathers’ research. Rather, her fieldwork focused on the full range of tourist experience, including the course of travel from home to away and the banal quotidian of the journeys. She followed closely in her informants’ tracks, through the familiar, the uncomfortable, across borders and the “spaces of awkward engagement that caught friction between the idea of Africa and the idea of America” (Tsing 2005 in Mathers 2010).

The tourists, and tourist culture, she studied appears to extend the historical legacy of self-exploration through ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’. This reflects the discussion in our previous reading, “Reversed Gaze”(Ntarangwi 2010), of the centrality of Africa in the history of Anthropology, the discipline which formalized the search for the individual and collective “I”, and the discipline which has maintained a steady, but productive, degree of identity crisis (maybe best resolvable by an appeal to the words of Jean Rouch, “je est un autre”).  Mathers reflexively maintains this tradition and probes simultaneously two dimensions of two national identities; the subjective and objective ‘African’ and ‘America’.

In the pages that follow we will read how Mathers’ anthropology sought after Americans’ perception of their own Americanness, as well as their perceptions of Africa. She seeks to understand what constitutes that perception and how it comes to be confirmed and reified by engagement with ‘Africa’, the idea and the lived experience. Further, she wants to explore how it is that “even after visiting southern Africa, the continent remained, was cemented even, as a homogeneous space of helpless people who just needed a little push from a well-meaning American” (7).

In our discussion of the book we argued that the perceptions of America Mathers sought were as essentialised and reductive as those of ‘Africa’, but perhaps this was an intended and implicit point of commentary in her work.  We understand Mathers’ informants were from a particular American region and this may inform the basis of her generalizations of American identity. But we cannot discount individual life trajectories and are certain Mathers was cognisant of these diverse variables. However, our comments must be contextualized in a preliminary and partial reading of the book and an understanding that further reading will clarify these ideas. I believe, though, there is reason to her framing and seeking (the idea of) collective Americanness. It is such an identity, formed by politically and socially mediated and circulated national values, which promote ties to places like ‘Africa’.

By consuming the African landscape, Mathers argues, it amalgamates with part of a wider American one. Our consumption also continues to create the African, according to Achille Mbembe (5) and in so doing we create (and enact) the equally absurd and reductive idea of the American. These are a sampling of the political and social problematics of the tourist journey we hope, along with the idea of ‘America’, will be taken seriously by Mathers in the pages to follow.

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