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Friday, November 21, 2008

Just a couple of dudes…

Posted by Aaron Bady on 11/21/08 at 02:57 PM

After he was done being President, Teddy Roosevelt decided to unwind by going on safari in East Africa and blasting the living bejeezus out of everything he could find. Ostensibly, he was there to get natural history specimens for the Smithsonian, but his heart was really in the simpler pleasures of hunt. Whatever else TR was, he was a man who like to shoot things. A lot.

He also took his son Kermit with him, but other than dedicating African Game Trails to “My Side-Partner,” he’s interestingly reluctant to frame the trip as the big father-son picnic it was. Instead, he displaces the problem of the father-son relationship (which is a problem for him for various reasons) onto the African landscape itself. Teddy’s epigram kind of says it all: “He loved the great game as if he were their father.” Because nothing says paternal love like a bullet to the brainpan.

Anyway, I find this photograph of the pair incredibly great:

There’s so much to say. They sit like manly men, legs folded to leave plenty of room for their genitalia, and they present their guns to us like the manly man phalli that they so clearly are. Their heads stick into the empty whiteness of the sky, stark against the background of a staged African emptiness that stretches out into the far horizon. Manly men in Africa, the place where manly men go to be men, manly-ly.

There’s also a clear gendered hierarchy within their manliness: Kermit’s hat is like a sun-bonnet, open and wide like his collar and posture, while TR’s hat is (like his face, closed off by glasses and mustache) tight and constricting. His gun is more phallic than Kermit’s, which is held at arm’s length, and TR’s wall of teeth (much beloved of caricaturists) has been displaced onto the bull itself, since his own lips are pinched closed and his gaze lowered and remote. And while Kermit has his leg braced against the animal, indicating that TR must be putting his weight against his son, the surface composition has TR floating unsupported, a towering tower of towering masculinity.

The bull itself… Shooting African animals brings these dudes together, and even though they sit in classic man-style (phalli carefully pointed in different directions to avoid the embarrassment of “crossing the streams"), the line between their bodies is both a point of contact and an impermeable barrier, both the point where they cleave together and where they cleave apart. But the horns of the dead bull they’ve shot resolves the problem, curving and embracing them in a single grisly familial body. Posed in an “action” pose—emphasizing not a scientific curiosity but a trophy—the Buffalo bull is the object on which their masculinity can be expended, and in doing so, bring them together. As TR writes:

“Kermit put his first barrel into the second bull, and I my second barrel into one of the others, after which it became impossible to say which bullet struck which animal, as the firing became general.”

Not much I can say about that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes a hunting rifle is a phallus. And this is one of those times.


Comments

The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth . . . and kill!

By Adam Roberts on 11/22/08 at 03:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s What Republicans Do: Overview Of the Coleman / Franken Recount

By John Emerson on 11/22/08 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, it seems to me there’s a mismatch between your rhetoric and what you say and imply about the photo. The phallic phallicity feels over the top. I mean, proving manliness by shooting game in Africa, so what? Sure, these guys did it up grand, but they had the means, so what? I mean, they know, consciously, that they’re proving themselves.

Nor is there anything unusual about father and son hunting trips. And if you’ve got the means, go on a grand scale. What’s remark-worthy about a little father-son bonding in the face of a common foe, even if that foe is an animal that hasn’t a chance in the world?

Your point about the guns being pointed in different directions is not, in fact, true. If you extend straight lines upward from each gun you’ll find that those lines do cross, though at some considerable distance. What’s bugging me is that something about the post prompted me to check you on this point.

Yes, those dudes are not relaxed. There’s tension in their postures. But then, why should they be relaxed? There’s nothing routine about sitting on a dead bull buffalo.

By Bill Benzon on 11/22/08 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“even if that foe is an animal that hasn’t a chance in the world?

I tell you what I’d want: I’d want some information about the misfire rate of their arms versus the potential-being-disemboweled-and/or-gored-and-trampled-rate before introducing that particular qualifier, yes.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/23/08 at 02:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I wish you had worked in some bit about TR being a Mithraist, or nodded at the The Recognitions or something.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/23/08 at 02:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey Bill,
Well, it is hyperbolic, I’ll grant you that. But I’m trying to defamiliarize what otherwise looks—as you point out—like nothing unusual; you can ask “Why not?” (and the burden of proof is on me) but I find “why so?” to be a much more interesting question, whether or not my answer satisfying. Humor is a good way to make us look again at the ridiculous things we do without addressing their ridiculousness, and TR is pretty fabulous in terms of unintended comic grotesques.

In any case, the stakes of that question, which (to be fair) I didn’t make clear in this post, are the larger issue of how hunting in Africa has become a way for the West to conceptualize what Africa is, which is part of what I’m doing in the dissertation. TR is an exemplary figure in that process, and his book makes that much more clear: shooting animals in Africa allows him to demonstrate African dependence on the Great White Hunters, which seamlessly turns into an explicit argument he makes in that book for American settler colonialism in Africa. And it’s not coincidence that it’s a buffalo they’re sitting on, after all. A photograph like this one (aided by John’s commentary) does a similar kind of work as what I was trying to do, defamiliarizing the massive slaughter that we’ve come to naturalize and take as normal. In this sense, when you say that there’s nothing unusual about “a little father-son bonding in the face of a common foe,” my point was to try to emphasize how much weirder it is than it initially seems (or we’ve learned to regard it as). Roosevelt’s party shot 11,397 animals (not “little” by any means) and the really weird part is how careful he is to emphasize that he was shooting the animals for their own benefit; as a conservationist and a scientist, he emphasizes over and over again, it was necessary to kill the animals to save them. And, as the epigram to the book indicates (“He loved the great game as if he were their father”), the issue of the father-son relationship then becomes extremely vexed when being a father to Africa implies shooting it. I think a lot of this then comes out in the photo, which then gives a disturbing edge to the otherwise normality of it’s signification.

But mostly, I just love TR and enjoy making fun of him. 

Jonathan,
TR devotes lots of pages to the handful of genuinely dangerous hunts (buffalo, rhino, lions, etc), and I’ll grant him that in those cases a not insignificant amount of danger was involved. But a more typical day on the trail goes something like this: “Shot 18 elands before breakfast. Coffee a bit weak. Enjoyed being angry at Matthew Arnold while Kermit was hunting wildebeest and gazelle. After lunch, we shot warthogs.” The NY Times noted that he averaged 40 vertebrates a day; I think it’s hard for this kind of slaughter not to approach the incredibly banal at a certain point, however punctuated it may occasionally be by occasional real danger.

By on 11/23/08 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s one thing to make fun of TR, it’s something more to be funny while doing so.

By Bill Benzon on 11/23/08 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is this a joke, or what?  Your post and the follow up addressed to Bill read like a brilliant send-up of sloppy contemporary academic criticism, but then you seem so sincere that I almost start to wonder if you are serious…

By on 11/24/08 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hilariously, Aaron Bady will at some point in the next week wonder why no one in other areas of study really takes critical theorists seriously.

By on 11/25/08 at 09:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, CH, it’s a serious joke, if that makes sense. And it’s interesting that both you and Ajay slotted my post into narratives about “contemporary academic criticism” and “critical theorists.” Criticizing the sloppiness of “contemporary academic criticism” is certainly not what I was after, both because it’s really low hanging fruit and because it’s been a cliché since before I was born. As for being “taken seriously,” I’m sort of baffled that anyone would mistake this post for either critical theory or an attempt to do “serious” critical work. It’s a blog post, the title is a very crude pun, and the language (“bejeezus” for example) should indicate that I’m not trying to be “scholarly” in the usual sense. It may be motivated by a set of serious concerns, but if I was trying to write for a journal, it would be written in a completely different way. I wasn’t, so I didn’t. It was an experiment; and after all, if blogging is just a different medium for doing the same kind of academic writing, I don‘t see that we really need it. There are journals one could publish in, and peer-reviewers to make sure the work matches up to a particular set of standards. The virtue of blogging, as I see it, is that it provides a venue for other kinds of writing outside that standard, especially the kind of writing that takes its subject more seriously than it takes itself. 

All that said, while I was seeing how far I could take the psychoanalytic conceit (and if Freud is somehow the same thing as “critical theory” then I don’t know what to say), I do have an investment in thinking seriously about TR’s activities in Africa. But how to do that? Lots of scholars have written about how people like him are sexist/racist/imperialist, etc and they’re not exactly wrong, but there’s a point of diminishing returns, and—at the end of the day—it’s just not a very interesting argument. Plus, it’s no great interpretive feat to show that TR was an imperialist; when he talks on and on about how it would be good if Africa were more settled by white people, it kind of gives the game away. Kenya was a settler colony when he visited it, and that‘s why he visited it. And since TR was such a walking caricature of himself, it’s hard to take him completely seriously anyway, nor do I think we should; so many of this guy’s most cherished beliefs (the existence of lesser races, the importance of masculine domination of the world) are better treated as the grotesque jokes they are, and TR‘s forthrightness in talking about them makes it easier. So I was serious when I said that I’m trying to defamiliarize TR. I think it’s disturbing that so many politicians look to TR as some kind of model president (like McCain’s “I’m a Teddy Roosevelt conservative”); they’re not talking about the real TR but an airbrushed version. So I was trying to emphasize how ludicrous the non-airbrushed version was by today‘s standards, and if the claims I made in the post were exaggerated for effect, I find a less-comprehensive version of that basic argument to be more or less persuasive.

For what it’s worth, the project I’m working on (in a more conventionally scholarly way) is to think about how TR uses his ideas about hunting, masculinity, and his relationship to his son to put forward this kind of colonial project, to use the settlement of the United States as a model for settling Africa with white people. In that sense, it’s not a blanket denunciation of “hunting” any more than I’m trying to suggest that being male is a bad idea, but the particular kind of hunting that TR is engaged in is much more (or at least differently) ideologically motivated than the deer hunting season I remember from growing up in Appalachia. For TR, shooting a ton of animals in Africa is also a way of demonstrating that Africans (who he presents counterfactually as non-hunters) are incapable of properly governing the land. That’s why he’ll put great emphasis on how shooting big game is actually the proper action of a conservationist. The logic is completely specious—he pretty much says that shooting a predator, any predator, will improve the ecosystem, which is stupid—but he wants to have it both ways, wants to be in a position of being both a loving father to the game (as in the epigram I cited) and a Weberian state-entity which monopolizes the legitimate use of violence. Colonial rhetoric is often bifurcated in exactly this way, and TR is no exception: there are good Africans and bad ones, and the job of the white governor is to protect the good ones by shooting the bad ones. So in a context where Africans are supposed to be “natural” people, close to animals (and TR believes this) conservation can be a paradigm for colonial governance. He therefore spends a lot of time shooting meat to give to the natives, because this lets him demonstrate how his ability to shoot predators (bad Africans) makes him a proper governor for the good ones. But these two models of fatherhood sometimes get a little confused, as in the epigram: if one is father both to Kermit and to the game one shoots, then the categories are getting confused. I was trying both to point that out, and to laugh at it. I’m sorry you didn’t find it funny.

By on 11/25/08 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d find interesting an analysis of TR’s trust-busting using the same categories.  He has to shoot the big charismatic predator companies to protect the good ones.  There’s a metaphor, however mixed, that might come in useful sometime soon.

By on 11/25/08 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, exactly. There’s something about using hunting as a universal metaphor that really itches TR where he scratches; “conservationaism” as universal theory or something. I’d say it’s the pervasive influence of social darwinism on American society, but I’ve heard we’re not allowed to use that as a term anymore.

By on 11/25/08 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And it’s interesting that both you and Ajay slotted my post into narratives about “contemporary academic criticism” and “critical theorists.”

That’s not an accurate description: you’re claiming we both slotted your post into both of those “narratives,” but I never mentioned critical theory, and s/he never mentioned academic criticism. And for the record, psychoanalytic readings of texts are certainly within the realm of critical theory and even Critical Theory to an extent; I’m not sure why you “wouldn’t know what to say” if that was what Ajay had suggested. 

Anyway, I did find the blog entry funny-- that’s why I said it read like a piece of satire! But I am, I guess, still a bit unclear regarding the “serious concerns” that you say are present even in the humorous blog entry.

What is the serious reason for mocking Teddy Roosevelt? It’s great fun, of course, but aside from that is there really some important point that remains to be made about TR? What are you trying to prove, and what are the stakes? (These aren’t rhetorical questions; I’m really curious to know what you think needs to be done as far as investigating TR’s legacy, and why you think that work is important.)

By on 11/25/08 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR,
Sorry to so quick on the trigger. To the extent that I was trying on a critical persona in the post, I was trying to be as single-mindedly psychoanalytic as possible, so I was struck by the way Ajay took that as the “Evil 1980’s Theory” bugbear (since, to my mind, Freudian dream interpretation is the foundation on which even the older forms of lit crit are built). But that’s a side point.

I’m convinced that TR is one of the most important historical figures we’ve got, for several reasons. For a start, he was a progressive, but an interestingly conservative one, and this means he’s interestingly implicated in “both” sides of American political discourse. While FDR has come to be a kind of rallying point for progressive liberals, TR was his hero and a really important predecessor, while at the same time he’s the original mavericky republican, and the whole “Western cowboy” president thing that Reagan, Bush II, and McCain tried to pull off is total TR shtick. So I’m interested in him because he’s a really interesting point of convergence in our political landscape: everyone disagrees about policy particulars, but TR is a sort of mythic unifying “American” figure. And I think he’s also somewhat underrated as an intellectual; Turner gets all the credit for the “frontier thesis” but a lot of it was cribbed from TR’s book on the winning of the west, and TR as a kind of living embodiment of that mythos was far more influential than Turner anyway. It’s TR’s West, we just live in it.

My personal stakes in him are that his importance as an “American” figure doesn’t stop with the ways he helped build an image many Americans have of themselves: he also helped model a way for Americans to conceptualize their way if interacting with the rest of the world. This is why his weird blend of conservative progressivism is so important: he made the South angry when he invited Booker T Washington to the white house, but he still believed in the underlying thesis of racial difference (he just believed that races could be improved; modestly, slowly, and paternalistically). He believed in the right of power to justify itself (social Darwinistically, if I may be allowed the imprecision) and the ways he performed this power fantasy were both implicitly and explicitly geared towards justifying an American brand of quasi-imperial power that makes the Iraq war (for me) a lot more easy to understand. In this sense, he not only created a frontier thesis sense of America, but he when he goes to Africa (or Brazil, or wherever) he exports this parardigm of frontier colonialism and translates it into an argument for settler colonialism.

Most specifically (and this is stuff I’m still working through, so pardon me if I’m unclear), the thing that really bothers me about TR is how hard he works to think of Africans as “natural” people, to un-think the difference between the animals he exerts a paternalistic conservationist authority over, and the African people he (or the British) exert a paternalistic colonial authority over. And when he went to Kenya to shoot animals, he really popularized a set of touristic practices that now form the basis of the formal economy in that part of East Africa. Not only is tourism a gigantic part of the economy, but the language of that industry is very, very Rooseveltian. People come to see the “big five” big game animals (elephants, lions, rhino, hippo, and buffalo) and they supplement it with trips to see the Maasai, who the tour guides counterfactually describe as “natural” people living in nature. At the same time, the Tanzanian government (which doesn’t have a ministry of the interior, but a ministry of “tourism and natural resources”) can move the Maasai around as they see fit (like kicking them out of nature preserves) by first citing conservationist imperative and then by using the fact of their status as “natural” to justify the paternalistic authority the government wields over them. TR saw (explicitly) conservation as a logic of governance, and these are exactly the terms in which the Tanzanian government operates when it comes to treating people as natural resources. And the people they’re trying to attract (as tourists) are primarily Americans.

By on 11/26/08 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron,

This sounds very interesting! Reading the initial entry here after hearing about your interest in TR makes, I think, a world of difference. Apologies if I came off as narrow earlier; I just don’t know enough about the people on this blog to have a clear idea of where everyone is coming from.

By on 11/26/08 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All very interesting, but it seems the hilarity of a soul named Kermit, or rather a soul that wasn’t begot in Jim Henson’s workshop, has passed you all by. Ante-Muppets or not (though especially not), it’s easily the silliest name ever. Kermit? Kermit! I mean, really, Kermit.

By on 11/27/08 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, not at all and thanks for the kind words; this is definitely still something I’m working out, and I certainly didn’t make it clear in the original post. Got to work more on making the stakes of a post clear to people who don’t have the benefit of reading my mind!

And yeah, Charlie, I’ve always wondered about that. Every time TR talks about him, I have to fight the urge to say “Kermieeeee” in Miss Piggie’s voice. Sometimes that’s a fight I lose.

By on 11/27/08 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For TR, shooting a ton of animals in Africa is also a way of demonstrating that Africans (who he presents counterfactually as non-hunters) are incapable of properly governing the land.

Nothing counterfactual about presenting Africans as non-hunters - at least in the sense that you (and presumably TR) meant it as non-hunters of big game. The Kenyans, and a lot of other Africans, would be either pastoralists or settled farmers. Even so-called “hunter-gatherers” in Africa, such as Kalahari Bushmen and Congolese pygmies, get most of their calories from gathering plants and trapping small animals and insects. TR was quite right - big game hunting in Africa was largely a white speciality. (Would you want to go after a buffalo with nothing but a bow or a spear? Well, quite.)

Jared Diamond’s pretty good on this. In hunter-gatherer cultures in a lot of different climates, the men do most of the hunting and the women do most of the gathering. And there’s a fairly neat gradation from the tropics to the poles in terms of which is most important; in tropical hunter-gatherers, gathering and trapping is most important, so the women supply most of the food; in the Arctic, there isn’t much to gather, so the hunters (ie the men) supply most of the food.

to my mind, Freudian dream interpretation is the foundation on which even the older forms of lit crit are built

I hope this is a joke too. Freudian dream interpretation, eh? Sure you wouldn’t rather just go straight to phrenology?

By on 11/28/08 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“Sure you wouldn’t rather just go straight to phrenology?"

Reading Fodor’s Modularity of Mind might give you a different perspective on this.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/28/08 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Freudian dream interpretation is the foundation on which even the older forms of lit crit are built”

People keep oddly disagreeing with statements that seem fairly self-evident.  Yes, if you look at it historically, Freud is the basis for a whole lot of lit crit.  Clearly this can’t be true for forms of lit crit that existed before Freud, so you have to qualify “older forms”, but still—it’s historically true whether Freudian dream interpretation is equivalent to phrenology or not.

By on 11/28/08 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t a horse in this race, but Ajay, I believe the point isn’t about whether Africans were hunters or not, but how white folks lent ridiculous meanings to what people did on their land.  So that one justification for South African colonialism was that the black folk did not farm the land and so did not truly possess it. 

Also, Ajay, let’s remember that by the time TR was big-game hunting, many African ethnic groups had had access to European weapons for a century.

By on 11/28/08 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ajay,
TR didn’t get many of his calories from big game hunting either, but does that prove he didn’t hunt elephants? This is why Jared Diamond doesn’t get you very far in this type of argument; he makes broad sweeping claims about enormous chunks of heterogeneity by relying on his audience’s ignorance of and disinterest in outliers and anomalous data. Not to say that his arguments aren’t interesting and scholarly respectable (though I disagree with a lot of his stuff) for what they are, but claims about the general gradations between the tropics and the poles tell you nothing about specific people. The Maasai hunt(ed) lions with spears; they get the vast majority of their calories from milk cows, and these facts don’t conflict. 

In any case, presenting “Africans” as anything almost always involves a lot of oversimplification and selectively emphasized data. There certainly were Africans who hunted big game (and did it without fairly unsophisticated weaponry) long before TR came along, just as most Africans never bothered; it was mainly white colonialists like him who felt the need to prove their masculinity by killing enormous animals. But only mainly them; similar ways of thinking about masculinity also existed in a variety of “native” communities. But, as Luther pointed out, I wasn’t making a claim about the difference between white people and native peoples, I was evaluating the claims which TR made along these lines, claims which might have had some points of convergence with empirical reality, but which were far more informed and determined by their ideological function.

Finally, saying that “big game hunting in Africa was largely a white specialty” isn’t even a good way of thinking abotu TR, since it ignores (as TR carefully and strategically did) the fact that big game hunting was only made possible by the skills and participation of dozens of highly skilled “native” assistants. Hunting an elephant was a team effort, and while TR wanted to think that only the guy who pulled the trigger actually killed the animal (with all that that implied), he never would have gotten in the same zip code as the elephant had he not had various African “assistants” making it possible.

By on 11/29/08 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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