“The harder I tried to make sense of the idea of “decolonization” that has become the rallying cry for those trying to undo the racist legacies of the past, the more I kept asking myself to what extent we might be fighting a complexly mutating entity with concepts inherited from an entirely different age and epoch. Is today’s university the same as yesterday’s or are we confronting an entirely different apparatus, an entirely different rationality – both of which require us to produce radically new concepts?”
-Achille Mbembe, “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive”
Mbembe’s appraisal of the plight of South African universities reiterates many of the concerns that we face, bringing Western academic traditions to archives marked by subjugation. Mbembe understands that modern knowledge production is more than just the vestiges of a colonial or imperialistic discursive legacy—he paints this entity as a moving target, one which shifts its focus and adapts an intangible slipperiness because it melds contemporary liberatory ideals with discourse and schema “inherited from an entirely different age and epoch.” It seems to me that he’s describing the process of reterritorialization, where any movement away from hegemony inevitably shifts back, in this example because our very concepts of knowledge and knowledge production are shot through with colonial impulse. Even the phrase “reterritorialization” is prey to this; the concept comes from Gilles Deleuze, a thinker within a very established ideological lineage (white, male, Western), and one could make the argument that even employing his terminology becomes a self-defeating practice. But it’s important to note that it’s never enough to merely reveal the ways in which archives reinstitute colonizing practices while attempting to escape from them; these kinds of revelations can never be a drop the mic moment—they’re a given. Instead, this paper will explore how hierarchy manages to lure producers of knowledge back to systems of domination and control, and moreover, the specific ways in which African-produced archives emulate Western ideals.
This brings us to Joe, a popular magazine published in Kenya from 1973 to 1979. Published in part as a response to the volatile political climate of its time, and imbued with a desire to expose the realities of urban contemporary life, Joe begat Joe, “the common man” mascot, an avatar and conglomeration of the modern Kenyan. Bodil Folke Frederiksen, in “Joe, the Sweetest Reading in Africa,” quotes the magazine’s primary artist Terry Hirst as saying this of Joe the character: “[he is] a survivor who has to laugh to keep himself from crying” (95). Indeed, much of the publication’s jokes revolve around Joe’s misadventures as a source of mirth, but Joe’s affective operation also cuts deeper; often, these jokes culminate in the denigration of the women voices the magazine constructs. In other words, Joe makes us laugh at the same time it encourages us to cry for the women whose authentic experience the magazine wholeheartedly repudiates. Frederiksen notes that some of the male-female conflict present in the magazine “was the reaction of Kenyan women (and men) to the Idi Amin-induced influx of Ugandan women, many of whom were, or were seen as, prostitutes” (98). Such historical contextualization implicates Kenyan women in the masculine disparagement of immigrant female identity; in this magazine, male fictional characters ventriloquize male and female attitudes of simultaneously misogynist and xenophobic origin, cast upon female fictional characters whose national identity is only sometimes made explicit. In effect, Joe weaponizes Kenyan womanhood against both its immigrant and non-immigrant populations.
Frederiksen, echoing Terry Hirst, suggests that mascot Joe is “‘a survivor who has to laugh to keep from crying’” (95). While the creators of the magazine do suggest that the magazine proffers some strain of counterdiscourse to the Kenyan politicians who’ve lost touch with the common man, the gender of the often taken-for-granted phrase asserts itself perhaps virulently in the smattering of strips, jokes, and scraps collected from Joe Magazine. Frederiksen makes no suggestion that the magazine’s constituency is men, particularly through his assertion that the first blessing of Uhuru is bottled beer. What strikes me as counterproductive to Joe Magazine’s attempt to resonate with “the common man,” is the extent to which it elides female identity almost completely.
Joe’s representational rhetoric also proves somewhat troubling, at least by the standards of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose text Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature serves as one of the chief inspirations for Mbembe’s own project. In that text, Thiong’o raises a particularly damning question for popular Africe texts:
The question is this: we as African writers have always complained about the neo-colonial economic and political relationship to Euro America. Tight. But by our continuing to write in foreign languages, paying homage to them, are we not on the cultural level continuing that neo-colonial slavish and cringing spirit? What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages? (26)
Thiong’o’s concerns seem particularly troublesome to authors of popular magazines such as Joe, which make no explicit claim to revolutionize Kenya’s political landscape, but whose distribution is fiscally limited by the number of potential customers who can speak or read English. Especially suspect is Joe’s suggestion that “Karibuni, it’s where you belong. Where? Well here with us at Joe Magazine, Kenya’s, East Africa’s, even Africa’s first humour monthly magazine. Become a part of it, share it with us, and let it become part of you, because it’s about you” (95). If Joe’s use of English suggests distinctive imperial overtones, then the transformations it invites its reader to undergo in its inaugural issue are downright sinister. Thiong’o’s question does raise interesting implications for a popular magazine, however. In 1973, when Joe began, English was the only official language of Kenya (though Swahili was later added). To remain maximally profitable, Joe must have reached as wide an audience as possible, and English was simply more widespread than other options. This tension between imperial English and need for profit suggests that popular texts lack the capacity for radical work, which Joe more or less confirms.
Both Mbembe’s anxieties about Westernized knowledge production and Joe’s depiction of women gesture toward the tension between theory and practice. These examples seem plagued by the practical implications of the theoretical underpinnings that inform each text’s given message. Christopher Lee offers one potential avenue to mediate the difficult middle ground that exists between theoretical and practical concerns through his concept of the semblance, or the extent to which artistic renderings adhere to a realist and pragmatic representation. Lee asserts that that subjects of a given artistic product operate “as a means of providing coherence to oppositional knowledge projects and political practices,” and in so doing, necessarily reduce the complexity of a given stable of identity markers for the sake of facile representation (4). This results in the semblance. Unlike actual Kenyan or Ugandan women, whose experiences are manifold and far too fluid to accurately represent via popular magazine, the cartoon and disembodied women portrayed in Joe exist as a product of representation that negotiates the difficulty implicit in translating diverse experiences to a wide audience. Note that the semblance neither excuses nor vilifies Joe for its treatment of women; if, however, Joe as a site of knowledge production attempts to combat a target that’s as in motion as Mbembe claims “the racist legacy of the past” is, then reliance on the semblance seems to be a way to arrest the motion of that target just long enough to compose a critique against it. This paper evaluates the extent to which the semblances Joe employs ultimately help spur the movement of that target; though its characters envision an escape from imperial control, they enact it on many of the same women whose voices they elide through semblematic reliance.
Many of Joe’s covers poise women against one another as sexual rivals, in an effort to place Joe in an amusing situation. The November 1974 and January 1975 covers in particular demonstrate this phenomenon, denying women a degree of friendship or agency that are granted men in the stories and vignettes within the magazine. The November 1974 cover is the most explicit example, and features down-on-his-luck Joe as his wife catches him ogling a more traditionally attractive woman than her. Though the more attractive woman appears left-of-center, she’s unmistakably the focal point of the cover, commanding the attention of all other three characters (even a dog!). Though Joe is turned away from his wife, he appears ready to sign a document his wife holds stating “I, Joe, swear that in 1975 I will not drink, smoke, idle, chase women, fight, or Kung Fu!” His wife, meanwhile, clutches Joe’s tie menacingly and acts as the sole source of negative affect in the illustration. The irony of the cover is obvious; as Joe prepares himself to sign a document swearing fealty to his wife, a woman emerges who will immediately tempt him away from his faith. That the wife acts as this scene’s killjoy is unsurprising, and a theme that recurs in other covers and stories throughout issues of the magazine. January 1975 likewise places her in a position of rage, though this time, the setting accentuates her dissatisfaction and further alienates her. This cover features Joe mid-bounce, enjoying his time on some beach as the cover asks “Did you ever have a holiday.” The scene is entirely relaxed, and only the wife, again positioned next to a curvy woman in a revealing bikini, bears any trace of resentment. Aside from the angry wife, both covers also feature a dog with an affinity for attractive women (in the January 1975, a dog rests next to the bikini-wearing woman on the beach). By conflating Joe’s sexual desire for women with the dog’s in both covers, they suggest that there is something universally, animally natural about the nature of attraction. Whereas Joe is beholden to the consternation of his wife and the social implications of infidelity, a dog possesses no such roadblocks. It, in effect, legitimizes the suggestion that desiring women is guiltless, and further reinforces the wife’s villainization for her stick-in-the-mud attitude towards Joe. It likewise reduces the identity of women to sexual objects; just as Joe’s attraction to the other woman leaves no room for her own agency, the wife’s impotent jealousy disavows her any real chance to express herself, either.
Frederiksen notes that the majority of the stories in Joe Magazine that deal with marriage simultaneously deal with infidelity (100). If the magazine works with an imaginative utopic impulse, this might suggest that marriage is itself an invitation to cheat, or devalue the women to whom these men presumably have powerful communal or affective attachments.
While male sexuality is something that cannot be fought, female sexuality not only can, but must, be regulated. An excerpt from January 1976’s issue, entitled “Dear Joe,” suggests as much. This section, which manifests as a spoof on traditional advice columns, is one that most explicitly engages with questions of marriage and romantic relationships, as Frederiksen notes in his initial appraisal of themes the magazine covers. One of the queries, entitled “The Girl Needs Help,” raises concerns that the writer has about his girlfriend, stating that it seems she has another boyfriend, and worse yet, a multitude of other amorous attachments. Joe’s response begins even-handedly: “I am sure there’s a simple explanation for your girlfriend going out with all these men at the same time. She’s probably a nymphomaniac!” (106). Here, the joke arrives at the same time Joe the adviser condemns the unnamed woman for her sexuality. The letter itself is distinguished by desperation, suggesting that infidelity on the part of the girlfriend will bring the author an unbearable degree of shame. Another query, titled “Unfaithful Wife,” reiterates these concerns, but even further nuances the dynamic of sexual power between men and women. The writer claims that “I discovered an unfaithful connection between my wife and a drunken bachelor…I sent her away from me, and now she is at her parents’ home. Did I do the right thing?” (106). Joe responds by suggesting that the man should use this moral advantage over his wife to extort money from the parents, revealing a curious discrepancy between gendered unfaithfulness. When men are unfaithful in Joe, it’s comedy. It’s natural, and try as they might, women cannot fight it. When women are unfaithful, they must pay for their transgressions. One last letter occupies the contested space between aspirational female sexuality and male desire; in a letter entitled “An Outcast,” a “girl of 23, reasonably attractive” claims that she “feel[s] like an ‘outcast’ [because she is] a virgin,” to which Joe replies that she should stay put and he’ll be over shortly (106). The outcast’s desire for sexual congress no longer seems dangerous, as it is oriented toward the particular viewpoint of the advice column. This letter envisions a space where female sexuality can be productive, but only because it’s legitimized by personal, requited motions toward intimacy. This is Joe’s operational logic for feminized sexuality; as long as it operates within a specifically narrow set of boundaries, it is validated. Otherwise, it becomes transgression.
The Party Jokes section on the preceding page mobilizes similar rhetoric to point to women’s place in their magazine as punchline. The first, a glib sentence suggesting that “An executive friend of ours is so dedicated to his work that he keeps his secretary near his bed in case he gets an idea during the night” works on a similar register (106). The moment the sentence is supposed to become funny is in the adjacency of two objects with no business being near each other; “secretary,” reduced to sexual object, reduces a woman’s identity not just to the feminized, administrative labor expected of her, but translates that labor sideways into sex work. Another joke in the collection acts as a corollary to the joke, explaining why women like the one above is stripped of agency. When a man shoots his wife after discovering her infidelity, he explains his actions by stating “Better shoot her once than one man every week!” (106). This wife occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, where exertion of her agency fatalistically circumscribes her to cheat on her husband once a week.
Frederiksen, Bodil Folke. “Joe, the Sweetest Reading in Africa: Documentation & Discussion of a Popular Magazine in Kenya.” Readings in African Popular Fiction. Ed. Stephanie Newell. Oxford & Bloomington/Indianapolis: James Currey & University of Indiana Press, 2002. 94–103.
Lee, Christopher. The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Mbembe, Achille. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.” Africa Is a Country. 11 May 2015.
Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Oxford: James Currey Ltd / Heinemann, 2011.