Virunga and Academic Masochism

A revealing commentary on the documentary film Virunga was published about a week ago in the magazine Foreign Affairs. The key lesson one gains when reading the article is the importance of avoiding a dynamic of representation wherein white people advocate on behalf of non-white people for a good, noble, or important cause, but – in so doing – radically simplify the complexities of social situations and, more importantly, deny or silence local voices. The authors are to be particularly commended for making this lesson in autological form. Realizing, one would assume, that the few nuanced postcolonial (theory) discussions of the “white savior complex” in the literature have made precisely zero impact in combatting this phenomenon, the authors have taken the bold step of rhetorically articulating their point within their own text (Derrida would be proud). Thus, in the first paragraph of their editorial, not only are we warned against the dangers of “moral righteousness” obscuring “the violent colonial origins of Virunga” and “marginalizing the voices of the people who live in and around the park” but the piece deftly drives this point home by deliberately failing to mention the especially pertinent colonial origins of Brussels and Ghent universities (from which two of the authors hail) as well as, more broadly, the (neo-)colonial roles of universities in France, the U.S, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other countries from which the remainder of the authors emerge. Originally penned in Flemish, this revised version improves on the former by including several Congolese scholars in its author-list (thus better reflecting ‘marginalization’ rather than total ‘exclusion’ of local voices, pace the postcolonialist literature’s recognition that racial-imperial power inequalities are well served by the inclusion of token representatives of the oppressed). A carefully crafted inversion of the films simplified focus on Virunga as a force for good is also produced through the claim that “the people living near Virunga are ambivalent [about] the park,” the “locals” regard the park rangers “with much suspicion and even animosity,” and anonymous, faceless Congolese voices are said to “repeatedly” rage against its colonial origins. Naturally, we are told about the work of Congolese civil society organizations, but no specifics are given, just as the film gives us glimpses of Congolese agency, but then overshadows them by the white voices of its authors.

Not content with autologically critiquing the film itself, the piece can also be read as a trenchant assault on the academics that are its authors! Only (white, European) academics, of course, can offer the suitably complex vision of “the politically economy of violent conflict in the Congo” that would better Virunga. No matter that the books written by said academics are adorned only with single-authored names with their local research ‘assistants’ relegated to acknowledgements for, it goes without saying, European-university sketched postcolonial theories of what goes on in the Congo are far superior to anything those “locals” could conjure. The attention to detail in their autological conceit is only cemented through their choice of venue. For, just as Virunga is cast in Hollywood-esque form for the sake of activism and distributed through mainstream channels, so their dissection of the film is distributed through Foreign Affairs magazine, mouthpiece for Washington D.C. and cheerleader for many an imperial adventure. Of course, this choice of venue is also a deliciously ironically self-aware one given its paid-subscription model, English language use, and general parochialism means that it is very unlikely to be read by any Congolese audience and, “consequently, the very people whose lives are affected by what happens in Virunga are left out” yet again. In short, this painfully self-aware commentary is one of the most succinct renditions yet of the point that:

To insist that behind all the various issues there exists the overarching presence of the same system, the same empire, the same totality, has always struck me as an extreme case of masochism, a perverted way to look for a sure defeat while enjoying the bittersweet feeling of superior political correctness. (Latour, 2005: 252)

The Natural Refugees of Virunga National Park

I’ve spent the last two weeks in and around Goma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), visiting fellow Then They Were None blogger Stephanie Perazzone. My next few posts will thus concentrate on my experiences in moving away from my own field site in Beirut to another site that, although visiting as a tourist, I experienced at least partially through the eyes of another researcher. This first post, however, is a simple narrative and photo account of a visit to view the silverback mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park in the DRC.

The first thing that (literally) hits you, when crossing the border from Rwanda to the North Kivu province of the DRC, is the roads. Goma is blessed with just a single short (one or two kilometer long) stretch of asphalt around its old colonial centre. Next best are the dirt- or rather volcanic ash- flattened roads that are, presumably, to be asphalted at some future date. Beyond this the streets are little more than dirt and stone tracks, which are irregularly but frequently interspersed by large potholes and misshapen rocks that make any journey decidedly arduous, even in an appropriate vehicle. To those who frequent Africa this might be unsurprising, although my only other point of African contrast- Kigali, Rwanda- at least had a good portion of its central arteries smoothly asphalted right up to the Congolese border. In any case, the actual mechanics of travel in Goma are not something to look forward to. Continue reading