Before I arrived in Kenya, I had heard fascinating stories about the Gnu, also known as the wildebeest, crossing the Mara River. Every year in late July and early August, flocks of wildebeests migrate from one location to the other in search of a better livelihood. On the way, they often cross a river called the Mara River at Masai Mara, Kenya. This creates a visual spectacle: hundreds of wildebeests charge into the fierce river floods with impressive determination and bravery, struggling to swim across the river. The crossing point they have chosen is unfortunately not the easiest one. Because of high waves and lack of strength, skills and even courage, a lot of wildebeests get drowned in the middle of the river and are eventually taken away by the flood. The surviving flock continue their journey towards their destination where food and water abound, getting ready for the next round of challenge which is part of their everyday existence. One mystery remains: the wildebeests could have reached their destination by taking a detour and without having to cross the river, or they could have crossed the river at an easier spot; but why do they have to cross the river at this specific point at the risk of so many lives?
I arrived in Nairobi full of anticipations to find an answer to my question. On the way from Nairobi Airport to the Multimedia University of Kenya, my local guide, a cheerful young Chinese woman who had lived in Nairobi for a couple of years, explained to me: it is true that the wildebeests do not have to cross the river nowadays; but they do it nevertheless for two reasons: first, a strong attachment to their cultural traditions. They have done so for generation after generation, and the performative act of crossing the river conjures up their cultural memories and at the same time marks their group identity; second, a strong belief in the law of the nature, that is, survival of the fittest. In her account, the wildebeests seem willing to believe that they must experience hardship in order to grow up, and species can only survive and prosper through this natural process of selection.
I am not fully convinced by my local guide’s humanistic and Darwinian explanations. But it seems to me that the two points on which she placed emphasis, that is, tradition and development, apply not only to the animal world but to today’s international development discourse as well. Indeed, most of the tourists from other parts of the world, especially from the developed countries in the Global North, choose China and Kenya for their travelling destinations in order to see the ‘traditions’; that is, the uncontaminated and often primitive cultural traditions. This in many ways has brought the ‘tradition’ into existence by casting them into the gaze of the Other, whether in the human anthropological form or in the natural ecological form. Most of these tourists have been disappointed by the speed of development which threatens to ruin the much-cherished tradition in the developing countries. In other words, development is often perceived as an antithesis to traditions. It is at the same time cheered and criticised: cheered because of its potential and promise to improve the human livelihood and criticised because of its eroding power to things that have existed before and passed down through generations. The Global South is therefore ambivalently placed in such a situation where tradition and development are at the same time celebrated and condemned. Interestingly enough, the oriental and exotic gaze of the Other not only comes from the ‘outside’, i.e. the developed countries from the Global North; it also comes from the self-orientalisation and self-exoticisation of the developing countries in the Global South, for various reasons including economic profits and cultural nationalism. The power relation between the Global South and the Global North on the issues of tradition and development is a complex and dynamic one. It is this intertwined relationship between the ‘gazing at’ and ‘being gazed at’ that makes the cultural imaginaries of today’s China and Africa.
The law of the ‘survival of the fittest’ not only seems to characterise development in the animal world, but also in the human society as well. Society is often compared to a river: with quick and slow torrents, fierce and peaceful moments, but never with repetitions and repressions. It is important to note that this concept of society, and the linear, competitive mode of social development associated with it, has not been in existence in history. It is only in the market capitalism in the name of modernisation and progress that such conceptualisations become possible. This brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ (2007) that tries to look back upon the past but who cannot resist the wind of linear and progressive historical development. In popular language, ‘time and tide wait for no man’ is a phrase that vividly captures the competitive nature of society under the capitalist mode of production. This has some resonance in both the Chinese and Kenyan context. At the beginning of the reform era in China, moving away from state socialism and taking on the challenge of market competition is often referred to as xiahai, or plunging into the sea. It has been widely acknowledged how ruthless market competition is. Many people lose their livelihood and even lives because of not being able to meet the demands of the market. They are often referred to as ‘losers’ or ‘failures’, and there is no place for losers in the market capitalism. The social Darwinian principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’ becomes the best alibi for the cruelty of capitalism. Individuals are always to blame: ‘they are too lazy’, ‘they do not work hard’, or ‘they are too old-fashioned to keep up with the developments in society’, or worse, the neo-colonial statements of ‘their culture is too backward’. An overly-optimistic belief in the individual agency overshadows the structural violence committed by the unequal social structures in the aftermath of colonialism under global capitalism, and more recently, transnational neoliberalism, broadly understood as the organisation of the social and individual lives according to the market principle and the notion of ‘free choice’.
The image of wildebeests plunging into the ominous water fighting for survival can be compared to individuals being placed in the cruel competition under the market capitalism. The ‘crossing the river’ scene is best read as a trope for the condition of human existence in the context of global capitalism, which seems to triumph over other modes of economic productions and social relations. More importantly, the scene not only offers us a perspective into development, but into today’s politics on the national and international level as well. For example, China Central Television (CCTV) recently sent its filming team to Kenya to live broadcast the wildebeests’ migration process. ‘The Great Migration’ (daqianxi) program, as it is known to the Chinese audience, not only provides an insight into the exotic Other in an alien land, an evidence witnessing the strengthening of the Sino-African political, economic and cultural ties, but serves as a trope for China’s national politics as well. CCTV’s live broadcast can be read as a political trope for the forthcoming Chinese People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference which expects the changing of state leaders in China. The determination and bravery that characterises the wildebeest in crossing the strong water torrents seems symbolic of the spirit of the new leadership in the Chinese government. Thus, the live broadcast of the wildebeests crossing the river by China’s state television is a deeply politically and ideologically-laden act. In this sense, the media certainly has a role to play in domestic and international relations.
I felt worried about my local guide’s uncritical sense of development, although I was also aware that it was not entirely her fault. I was concerned about the relative lack of critical reflection towards issues of development and the power dynamics hidden behind the celebration of media and communication technologies in many papers I heard at the Media League conference. My aim here is to situate the words and speeches in their historical context and treat them as a discourse, that is, a set of statements that are made by particular groups of people and institutions to establish certain truths (Foucault 1990). The discourse, coherent as it seems, certainly has a limit; it has its instabilities, uncertainties, inadequacies, and ambivalences. It cannot conceal other parallel discourses which open up alternative social imaginaries and which embody radical potentials for decolonisation and democratisation. I hope to point out that this notion of linear and progressive development has a long genealogy in global history and has become the most dominant interpretation for social development only in the past few decades. Yet it is not, and never will be, the only one that celebrates the ‘end of history’ proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama (1992). The decolonialising and democratising role of media and communications certainly should be brought to attention; and the critical and performative function of media and communication studies as a socially-engaged discipline should also be addressed.
I arrived at the Multimedia University of Kenya on a Sunday morning, just in time for a Sunday morning church service on campus. The Nairobi Chapel, Rongai, was having a celebration in a big hall. Out of curiosity, despite being atheist, my local guide and I went in and joined the crowd. A singer on the stage was singing a gospel; the audience members were standing in the hall waving hands and singing along. What immediately captured my attention was how multiethnic and multicultural the congregation was: although most of them were black Africans; some were Caucasians; a few were South Asians; a few were East Asians. This is ‘minor cosmopolitanism’, that is, cosmopolitanism in the making, but is not in a hegemonic sense (Minor Cosmopolitanisms 2012). My guide and I were warmly greeted and welcomed by the crowd. Within merely a few minutes we were singing in the crowd, waving our hands to the music. As a media professional, I could not help noticing the use of multimedia in this event, including laptop computer, digital projection of subtitles, microphones, and several cameras in different corners of the hall. Apparently, they were making a programme for the local TV station. After the performance, the journalist interviewed a couple of people in the crowd asking about their study experience and expectations for the future. The interviewees responded to the questions with humour and ingenuity, which immediately triggered some laugher and applause. Some audience members took out their mobile phones and cameras to take photos. It was more than a church service, I thought to myself. It was at the same time a pedagogical activity and a way to build affective communities, and media certainly played a role in this process. I was deeply touched by the friendly and cheerful atmosphere, together with the realisation of how media and communication technologies were used by the ordinary people in the part of the world with which I was not familiar. It occurs to me that media and communication studies is not only about theories from the Global North; it is also about how people in different parts of the world use them to communicate, to build communities and to share affective experiences. As a media and communication studies scholar, I feel that we have put a lot of emphasis on the structural issues that makes development possible (which is undoubtedly important); it is also necessary to examine how ordinary people use the media in their everyday lives. An ethnographic account of media use and an attention to people’s lived experiences in the mediated environment also helps us understand the role of media and communications in the Global South.
In this paper, by using anecdotal evidences and personal voices, both of which have gained increasing popularity in media and cultural studies, I have demonstrated that the concept of ‘development’ is political and is open to contestations for cultural hegemony in the global nexus of power today, and that media and communications play an important role in this process. In doing so, I hope to urge media and communication studies scholars from the Global South to reflect on what media and communication studies as a discipline can do in developing countries, how it can relate to the lived experiences of the ordinary people on the one hand, and remain attentive and critical to the power relations in global geopolitics on the other.
Benjamin, Walter (2007) ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in H. Arendt (ed.) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, pp. 253-64.
Foucault, Michel (1990) The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. London: Penguin Books.
Fukuyama, Francis (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.
Minor Cosmopolitanisms (2012) ‘Minor Cosmopolitanisms’ https://minorcosmopolitanisms.wordpress.com/