Reflections on the final chapters of Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

This is a summary and discussion of the final two chapters and conclusion of Travel, Humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa, by Kathryn Mathers (2010). It has been structured from the minute notes of the seminar dedicated to these chapters so the answers, opinions, compliments, criticisms, and general sentiments within this post are not only reflective of this author alone but contain those of all the seminar participants. My efforts here have been to coherently reproduce these various positions to dialogue with (rather than a response to) these closing chapters.

The three students (Megan, Corey, and Maria) were defined as just “white” and “American” by Mathers. She placed a good deal of emphasis on how these three student travelers needed to express their ‘Americaness’ and ethnic identities through food, fashion, and hair style. Do you think that South Africans are homogenizing what it means to be American? (Is it fair treatment by the author?) Is Mathers implying that who they are is determined by South Africans?

While Mathers certainly argues that South African culture has a homogenizing effect on the American student travelers she spent her time with, it is not a unidirectional process. As far reaching as American culture is globally it does not have a totalizing effect, rather, the development of ‘Americaness’ in parts of the world not in the United States is a collaborative endeavor. Both sides appear to be engaged in this homogenizing project, it is a two way street. Both Americans and South Africans had preconceptions and assumptions of each other. Mathers mentions how South Africans generally viewed Americans as leading opulent, privileged and wealthy lifestyles. Much like their American counterparts their constructions of America and Americans was heavily influenced by mediated film and television imagery (Beverley Hills 90210, Fresh Prince of Bel-air, etc) though Mathers is less accusative of South Africans than the student travelers from the United States.

As well, the American student travelers were confronted with stereotypes and cultural models that they did not normally have to do deal with which evoked a deep sense of disjuncture with their normative cultural narratives. These Student travelers expressed reactions ranging from confusion to disgust. Many also reported a general awakening (personal, emotional, social, political, and cultural in form), but it should be noted that these moments of clarity and connection with the local populations they were immersed in their travels were highly personalized moments of self discovery that it into their preconceived notions and assumptions of Africa as a place in need of their intervention.

Are the author’s descriptions of South African homogenization adequate? That is, did the author’s descriptions of Americans through an organizational matrix prove adequate? (As opposed to a political-economic identity: not a ‘Montrealer’ but a ‘banker’) It seems that South Africans (who are most often nameless) and Mathers are engaged in a process of guilt transfer: as if these young and vulnerable student travelers need to account (or are being asked to take account) for these heavy power relations between America and Africa. Or rather, by framing these larger socio-political and economic issues around tourism and humanitarian work by Americans in Africa, Mathers draws our attention to how some of these larger issues are at the core of Americans’ projects of self discovery. Perhaps if Mathers had made the individual journey’s of these student travelers, and their preconceptions and assumptions, as the central point of departure, and not the larger macro issues surrounding ‘Americanness’ or Western Hegemony, then these types of organizational identities would not have been so problematic. As well, the journals that the student travelers were asked to write and the context of the Mathers research project brought these imperialist stereotypes into their thoughts. For instance, Maria’s journal entries appear to be highly reflexive, but an imperialist is not an adequate description of her attitude or comportment in the field. Rather, she seems at odds with imperialist or western hegemonic attitudes in her need to express herself through her ethnic identity rather than her ‘Americanness” so to speak.

Mathers seems to lean on an argument that Baudrillard put forth that post 9/11 America is composed of weakly defined notions of freedom and democracy that spread easy but leave culture in the United States undefined. That is, we know where the United States is and what it looks like (on a map or through stereotypes and stereotypical imagery) but we do not know where it ends. It is dilemma that involves both entity and process. Entity in that there are Americans in America; process in that there are places and individuals who have been Americanized all over the world. These Americanized individuals may not have passports but they hold American “values” and culture” to a high degree (language, Harvard business, freedom, and democracy). This dilemma, Mathers says, makes it difficult to talk about American culture because “everybody and nobody can be American” (2010: 142).

Although it can be argued that a unique form of American identity may not be fully realizable under these types of conditions, there are many unique formulations of localized ‘Americanness’ in many parts of the world. These formulations are also heavily influenced by mediated imagery in the news, film, and television, fashion, and generate their own subcultures of knowledge and worldviews. Moroccans, for instance, are very much connected to western politics and culture through television. They consume idealized representations of western food, people, capitalism, politics, etc that are used as symbols of status, literally ‘to know’ or possess knowledge of western culture, politics, and affairs is a form of social currency. This is also not limited to Morocco as many cultures utilize these forms of social capital to engage in everyday relationships, Canada especially due to its proximity and close ties economically and politically.

Mathers seems to be over emphasizing this idea of pervasive ‘Americanness’ after the fact. She indicates clearly in the beginning of the book that she never thought about ‘Americaness’ before she set out to do this research and that it was a realization she came to in the field. Discovering one’s main topical idea in the field is not an uncommon occurrence as many ethnographers have had assumptions dispelled or moments of clarity through interactions with research populations, however, Mathers decision to make this the central and over arching theme to her book seems more revisionist, something done after the fact. Still, Mathers rightfully describes this privilege that United States student travelers have to go abroad and travel compared to South Africans. This is not a wrongful or inadequate description since Americans are privileged in this sense, besides enjoying the privileges of being citizens of the most powerful military and political country in the world.

Being that Mathers is an anthropologist traveler (at a minimum to the United States and back), how might the argument of this book and its conclusions reflect on the encounter in the field and on anthropology in general? One important aspect of the book is that it draws attention to the assumptions and motivations that anthropologists have going into the field. But are the anthropologists not also travelers?

Firstly, this book uniquely displays how anthropologists move, dwell, and occupy foreign places. Anthropologists immerse themselves in foreign cultures to better understand them, the daily lives of their practitioners, and their struggles. Secondly, it shows that as much as anthropology is concerned with adventure and discovery of new places and people, it is also a journey of self discovery. Field experiences and encounters change the anthropologist as much as those they collaborate with. There are always preconceptions and assumptions when entering the field. That they may concern your topic of research is of little importance as we carry cultural and social biases, norms, markers, and assumptions to every foreign cultural encounter. The journal entries that Mathers produced helped to articulate this symbiotic and reflexive relationship throughout the book. However, the downplaying of the relationships that some of the student travelers had with local South Africans and Kenyans left the reader asking how these relationships influenced not only the perceptions and assumptions of these student travelers but of their companions as well.

 

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