The problem with Africa

At its best, V S Naipaul’s Masque of Africa is marked by moments of startling clarity and insight —

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief
V S Naipaul
Picador, 336pp, £20

In his delightfully sarcastic essay "How to Write About Africa", Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan-born writer and gourmand who is now a restless citizen of the world, offers some helpful tips to aspirant travel writers. "Always use the word 'Africa' or 'darkness' or 'safari' in your title," he begins, urging the writer who is setting out on his journey to treat Africa as if it were one rather than 54 separate countries, so as to hasten generalisation. "Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat," he continues. "Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation."

It's unlikely that V S Naipaul has read Wainaina's essay - he has low regard for the work of nearly all contemporary writers - but it's very likely that Wainaina has read Naipaul and many other esteemed non-African chroniclers of decolon­ised Africa, including Ryszard Kapuscinski and Paul Theroux. Wainaina's essay is jaunty and playful in tone, but the tips of his well-directed arrows of scorn have been dipped in poison and they are aimed straight at the heart of all those who presume to know and write about Africa from the outside, without knowledge of African languages or local cultures. From Conrad and Céline to Georges Simenon and, more recently, the French Canadian Gil Courtemanche, author of the novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, sub-Saharan Africa has long provided a ready-made setting for narratives of moral disintegration. Africa, as Chinua Achebe once put it in an essay on Conrad, is reflexively presented as the "other world", the "antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation".

Wainaina is especially contemptuous of those writer-travellers who seek to establish their impeccable liberal credentials, as well as explain how they first fell in love with Africa. Naipaul has been accused of many things - of misanthropy, cruelty, orientalism, racism and, just a few weeks ago by the august thriller writer Robert Harris, in a review of The Masque of Africa, of fascism - but never of being a liberal. (In this new book he has made few concessions to progressive courtesies, though he no longer uses the word "negro" as he did in his early writing.) Nor does Naipaul claim to love Africa.

So what is it, if not love, that compels him to return so often as a traveller and in search of a subject? "For my travel books I travel on a theme," he says. "The theme of The Masque of Africa is African belief."

By "African belief" he actually means what he mostly calls "magic" and the rest of us would call animism. Naipaul seems to think that there is something intrinsically and peculiarly African about "magic" - about ancestor worship, witch doctors, totemism, pagan initiation rights and so on - but there isn't, as any anthropologist would tell you. For Naipaul, the attempt to understand African "magic" is to be "taken far back to the beginning of things", back to the side of the African that, he writes, "resisted rationality". He could have saved himself a lot of air miles and no little anguish if he had stayed at home in Wiltshire and read instead, or perhaps reread, James George Frazer's celebrated comparative study of religion and magic, The Golden Bough, which discusses the cross-cultural similarities of the world's myths, primitive religions and rituals.

In the foreword to the Picador edition of his first non-fiction book, The Middle Passage (1962), an account of a long journey through the Caribbean, Naipaul says that "the novelist works towards conclusions of which he is often unaware, and it is better that he should". But there is a sense that the aged Naipaul is no longer surprised by what he encounters on his travels, as he was when he was working on The Middle Passage, or travelling extensively through India for the first time. Nowadays, you could say that he travels to reach conclusions about Islam or Africa of which he is already fully aware, that travel for him narrows the mind, affirms prejudices. In Gabon, for instance, he meets a lawyer who tells him that "the new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top. Inside us is the forest." Inside us is the forest. Isn't this exactly what Naipaul would have wanted to be told in Gabon?

Naipaul likes to present himself as being without influence or ideology: he travels, he asks questions, he listens attentively and, above all else, he notices, often seeing what others do not or cannot. That acute gift has never left him. Even in this new book, a minor offering by a writer approaching the end, the best moments are those lit by the radiance of sudden and unexpected noticing. The worst are when he lurches into the kind of generalisation that is the keynote of so much writing about Africa by non-Africans: "Africa [is] drowning in the fecundity of its people"; "moraines of uncollected garbage . . . Africa reclaiming its own"; and so on.

The Masque of Africa is Naipaul's first travel book since Beyond Belief (1998), in which he journeyed through Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia as part of a continuing investigation into the influence of political Islam in the world, and is his first attempt to write first-hand about Africa since some of the great essays of the 1970s and early 1980s.

However, Africa has been present in some of his more recent fiction. The novel Half a Life (2001) was set partly in a nameless African country that was a thinly disguised Mozambique at the point when the old mixed-race, or "mulatto", elite, with their vast plantations and estates, were losing hold of power as the Portuguese prepared their chaotic retreat. In that novel, the central character, Willie Chandran, an ethnic Indian who has been living in London, is fascinated by the Africans he sees around him but whom he can never properly know or understand - theirs was "an African life at which I could only guess", he says. Later, restless and increasingly unhappy, he visits African prostitutes in a garrison town that has been cut out of the humid bush; these scenes of sex are among the most luminous and affecting in what is a very strange book, among Naipaul's most Conradian in its ambiguities and ambivalent positioning.

Naipaul, who is 78, is operating in twilight mode as he travels through Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon and finally South Africa, doing the fieldwork, as he always has, but now with the shadows lengthening around him. His style is much sparer, his still-graceful sentences no longer as multilayered or richly detailed. At times, the effort seems too much. On one journey he returns after many years of absence to Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire (in the 1980s he published a fine long essay titled "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro"), birthplace of the country's founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It was here that Houphouët-Boigny built, as a memorial to himself, the world's largest cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, with its signature dome echoing St Peter's in Rome.

During his first visit, Naipaul called Yamoussoukro one of the "wonders of black Africa", but now he loathes what he sees and hates what he hears and hurries away. The whole episode feels curiously perfunctory, reading more like a postscript to the original essay than an exploration of the larger themes of the book.

In his original essay on Côte d'Ivoire, he had written that "true life was there, in the mysteries of the village" rather than in the artificialities of the modern African city. Yamoussoukro, with its spectacular airport, golf course and luxury hotel, showed one face to the world during the day and quite another at night. At night, one had a greater sense of the mysteries of Africa, or so Naipaul thought. But this time in Côte d'Ivoire he makes no attempt to venture out into the villages. He leaves, despondent, reflecting on the rape of the land and the disappearance of the elephants, hunted into oblivion, from whose ivory the country took its name.

After this, his next stop is Gabon, the setting of Simenon's African novel Tropic Moon, which dramatised the last, listless days of corrupt French colonial rule. What interests Naipaul about Gabon is its dense forests: "A little way inland the true forest began, primal and tall and tight." He wants to know about the forest lore and how the forest-dwelling pygmies live, what they believe and how they structure their lives. He has absolutely no interest in the wider politics of Gabon, and says nothing about the country's oil wealth or about the career of the Francophile Omar Bongo, who ruled from 1967 until his death in 2009 (he was succeeded by his son) and was both the world's longest-serving leader who was not a monarch and one of the richest people in Africa.

This is a baffling oversight: the lack of socio-political context is one of the failures of the book. At least, when in Ghana, Naipaul rouses himself to sketch some of its troubled post-colonial history. In an amusing scene, he has lunch in the home of the former military ruler and president Jerry Rawlings, where we learn that the despot's house is "well run" (good), the pets are kindly treated (even better) and Rawlings himself is "built like a boxer" (Naipaul does not specify at which weight Rawlings would have boxed, so the simile is meaningless).

There is a sense of last things in all of this, of a kind of leave-taking. In old age, Naipaul, his curiosity still dictated in part by his colonial Trinidadian background, returns to some of the African places he visited as a younger man, and there he finds no signs of progress, general improvement or enlightenment. He finds, instead, only more evidence of human rapacity and carelessness. "The land is full of cruelty which is hard for the visitor to bear," he concludes as he leaves Côte d'Ivoire. "The bush was almost barren of wildlife, but these people were managing to squeeze out the last remnants, while their fertile land remained largely unused," he says towards the end of his stay in Ghana.

None of this is surprising. It's exactly what one expects Naipaul to say. Yet, for all this long-nurtured pessimism, Naipaul has managed to carry his burdens through the decades: he began as a comic writer, one capable of great empathy, tenderness and forgiveness, and has ended by allowing himself to be caricatured by Robert Harris and others as a kind of latter-day Oswald Mosley. This is as absurd as it is unfair, because in one important sense he has never really changed. From the beginning, when he left Trinidad on a scholarship to Oxford, Naipaul has been consumed by an idea of the writer as truth-seeker, loyal to no one or nothing but himself, or at least loyal only to the persona he has created of himself as the great-souled writer. Or, more simply, in his own self-description: The Writer, as if there were only one.

As he travels, often irritably, through Africa on this, his latest and perhaps final long journey, complaining along the way of the usual money worries (Naipaul is exceedingly wealthy, but always alert to those he feels are ripping him off), of inferior hotel rooms and the mistreatment of animals, especially cats, he is sustained by the old ideal of unadorned truth-telling. Like Edgar in King Lear, he speaks what he feels, not what he ought to say - which is admirable and is why even now, so late in the day, you still read him with all the old fascination while at the same time recognising what a deeply odd and eccentric man he is, quite unlike anyone else: The Writer, still the only one.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge