Provocations / Cajetan Iheka’s African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics

In contrast to the traditional review that dives deep into a summary and critique of a scholarly book, Provocations looks at what comes next: what does this book provoke in the fields in which it intervenes, and what questions does it raise for future inquiry? After a capsule summary of the book, scholars from multiple fields provide a capsule provocation that answers to this charge.

In this Provocation, we explore Cajetan Iheka’s African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).

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African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics is a provocative account of how contemporary works of African visual culture embody the “infinite resourcefulness” needed to survive an anthropogenic planet defined by the “limitedness of resources.” Media, in Iheka’s account, communicate the problem of ecological degradation but are also its symptoms when digital production machines, such as smartphones, require the mining of oil, uranium, and coltan. An analysis of media requires not only attention to aesthetic structure, but also to resource extraction infrastructure. And because this resource extraction overwhelmingly happens in formerly colonized African nations, the continent is a primary site for this analysis, which will not only “provincialize” or “pluralize” (7) what has come to be called the Anthropocene, but will also reveal how Africans, at the frontlines of degradation, have figured out new strategies for surviving the Anthropocene. Iheka’s case studies include the garbage aesthetics of filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu and the visual artists Fabrice Monteiro El Anatsui, Wangechi Mutu, and Cyrus Kabiru; documentaries of electronic recycling and banana farming as well as Idrissou Mora-Kpai’s study of environmental racism in a uranium mining town in Niger; the visual economy that linked Black Lives Matter in the U.S. and safari images of the killing of Cecil the Lion in 2015; and representations of African cities in the work of Guy Tillim, Wu Jing, Femi Odugbemi, and Olalekan Jeyifous, constituting “the urban as a site of everyday precarity, a space for geopolitical-cum-ideological contestation that endangers the human and nonhuman biosphere, and a space for articulating future possibilities” (187).

Along the way, Iheka resists easy binaries, for instance interpreting the China-Africa relationship as neither fully exploitative nor fully beneficial, and reading artworks as neither fully emancipatory nor fully regressive, instead tracking how they might get some things right about the environment while getting some things wrong about the global order of race, gender, and labor. Many of these ecomedia are finally what Iheka calls “imperfect media,” improvisations that “make do with available resources” (225). Throughout, Iheka invites others to extend his ecomedia approach. In his epilogue, he returns to his background in literary studies and asks us to reflect on “literature—in the broadest sense of the term—as a material practice. The textual object, the printed book that grounds our work, is an outcome of processes with serious ecological import at the levels of production, distribution, consumption, and disposal” (228). And at the end of his introduction, Iheka draws our attention to artists his book did not have the space to explore, but deserving of future scholarship: Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, George Osodi, Victor Ehikhamenor, Jeta Amata, Timaya, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Andrew Esiebo, Neill Blomkamp, and Miguel Llansó.

In similar fashion, the following provocations by Comfort Azubuko-Udah, Jeanne-Marie Jackson, and Rebecca S. Oh explore what might scholarship might come in the wake of Iheka’s approach.

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Provocation #1: Comfort Azubuko-Udah

African Ecomedia is an illuminating exploration into the study of “images of ecology and the ecology of images in Africa,” primarily through the lens of the global climate crisis and its particular implications for the continent—its land, air, water, human and nonhuman bodies (229). Cajetan Iheka breaks ground in this work by offering a deeply transhuman analysis of the representation of African ecologies through a range of texts from films and photographs to art installations and artistic renderings, from Pieter Hugo’s photographs to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. African Ecomedia is self-aware of the problems with some of these primary texts, for instance critiquing when the work itself reproduces the problematic situation that it is representing. On Pieter Hugo’s photograph series called Permanent Error, Iheka notes that, being a white South African, Hugo is already implicated in “a fraught racial economy,” and his ouvre tends to concentrate on “images of suffering and abjection of people of color” (65), even though it is the photogragher, and not his subjects, who profits most from Hugo’s work. But in discussing the reproduction of disturbing images of African bodies in despair, Iheka also proposes what he calls “insightful reading” as an alternative to the instinct to turn away from “poverty porn.” In the end, though, African Ecomedia seems to gesture towards future work in which this same reproduction of the problematic and/or exploitative text might not be necessary. It points to a future in studying African ecomedia wherein the images, films, and other representational media that are foregrounded are perhaps more like what Iheka terms “imperfect media”—representational media whose production is in better alignment with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s  “poor theory.”

Towards the end of the same chapter on Hugo, Iheka briefly discusses a collaborative film project between a Norwegian filmmaker and a Kenyan farmer. While this film likely does participate in the same imbalanced networks critiqued throughout the book, it also includes an African subject who has some control over his story and the representation of his environment. The discussion of this film, like other such gestures in later chapters, points to the existence of alternative representational media that might not be as deeply implicated in the network of suffering, pain, and loss visited on Africa. But Iheka does not have space in his book to explore these other media fully. What might future work look like on this topic, if centering “imperfect media” were prioritized? Would such an endeavor diffuse the emphasis on the loss, trauma, precarity, and pain that tends to saturate the ecology of representational media on Africa? In analyzing its choice of primary texts, African Ecomedia is fantastic in highlighting the globalized implications of ecomedia in Africa. However, I wonder what else could be said if primary texts were selected with a view towards centering the local and allowing “imperfect media” to supplant some of the mainstream trends in African media ecology. Perhaps centering local African ecomedia could make a strong future to build on Iheka’s groundbreaking work.

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Provocation #2: Jeanne-Marie Jackson

Cajetan Iheka wants us to take more care with trash. This is not meant to be glib. As his position is elaborated in African Ecomedia, it is both a global call to arms and a methodological correction: Africa is the literal dumping site of the world’s electronic waste, and it is also a continent whose cutting-edge visual engagements with ecological turmoil have yet to sufficiently penetrate global media theory. As Iheka puts it, Africa is often seen as “the laboratory and disposal zone of modernity rather than its condition of possibility,” when in fact it is the crucial and, until now, under-developed source of any global ecological thinking worth the name.

I use the words “seen” and “under-developed” here intentionally, because both can raise critical hackles and yet are at the heart of African Ecomedia’s investments. To “see” when the subject is Global South suffering veers easily into unwitting voyeurism, and to think in terms of “development” on the African continent is heavy with colonial and neocolonial implications. The book nonetheless takes its conjoined themes of stark, unnerving images and a self-consciously sophisticated art world by their horns. It is an agile series of negotiations between what is visible and what is obscured, between what is casually discarded and what is painstakingly made new. Iheka’s thinking is not “binary,” of course (that dreaded charge), but it does draw strength from a tense mutual re-calibration of hidden African labor and its bold, or even brash, artistic presentation. There is no safe space of an “Africa rising” paradigm here; instead, African Ecomedia looks to a confrontational ecological aesthetics to cultivate a more delicate kind of reader.

This, then, is the book’s underlying goal: to make us work in our reception of African ecomedia. By “us” Iheka means everyone who is numbed by the technologies we rely on to keep caring. By “work” he means refusing to give over to ready-made ethical dismissals of ethically provocative art, such as, for example, by accusing the white South African photographer Pieter Hugo of exploitation in his photo series on Agbogbloshie, Accra’s toxic e-waste dump, and leaving it there. Even the oft-derided practice of digital photo manipulation in numerous of the oeuvres surveyed comes to seem essential to an active give-and-take between acknowledging labor and appreciating finesse, never quite able to rest easy in either denial or rote avowals of complicity. African Ecomedia wants us to see, most of all, that we need to do more than merely “trouble” or “problematize” the high-gloss sheen of human and environmental trauma presented as art. It takes the abundance of African ecological representations and what Iheka calls their “trash aesthetics” as a call to map the material and aesthetic coordinates of over-production.

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Provocation #3: Rebecca S. Oh

African Ecomedia puts Africa at the “beginning and end” of our mediated world, which is to say, at the center of things (8). Drawing on a postcolonial commitment to centering the margins, the continent is revealed as the obscured foundation on which modern media life is built. Following the harmful practices of ecomedia’s infrastructural production and disposal, we are confronted with the toxic life of media before and after its consumption. The stakes of this material turn could not be higher. The physical costs of ecomedia raise serious questions for the environmental humanities and environmental activism, much of which rely on the circulation of media for consciousness-raising. As much as we hope ecomedia will galvanize change, how much is media imbricated in the processes of carbon production and environmental injustice it seeks to expose and contradict? Though film and images have been especially effective in cultivating empathy or outrage, how do these objects, and our relationships with them, change if we foreground the racialized costs of their production and disposal in Africa and elsewhere in the global South? What are we left with to combat the climate crisis when some of our most effective tools exacerbate the problem?  And if we take seriously the ethic of reuse, minimalism, and collaboration that Iheka describes as “imperfect media,” how are we in the humanities supposed to relate to the mantra of “publish or perish,” which begins to look like a bad maximalism that perpetuates deforestation, carbon consumption, and more electronic waste? How might we derive cultures of scholarship that are more sustainable and just?

Iheka’s methodological restlessness is equally provocative. What he calls “insightful reading” accords with the many versions of reading—surface, depth, reparative, descriptive—prosed in recent years. But rather than planting a new methodological flag, Iheka gathers strategies from all. In an archive that features film, photography, waste dumps, and oil spills, Iheka brings into focus the way literary practices of reading can spill over from aesthetic objects to illuminate the social and political processes that shape how media circulates, accumulates, and overlooks. How else might we apply such insightful—or omnivorous—reading? How might such combinations allow us to consider new kinds of objects and make new kinds of claims? By putting the content and form of representation alongside ecomedia’s material effects without hierarchizing either, Iheka models how to “show what the real world is really like,” as Bruno Latour puts it in his own turn away from a hermeneutics of suspicion. African Ecomedia horizontalizes the aesthetic and the social in ways few books do—in ways we might all learn to do better.

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Comfort Azubuko-Udah received her PhD from the University of California Los Angeles, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Leslie Center for the Humanities in Dartmouth College. She is the author, most recently, of “Unwritten City: Abuja in the Nigerian Literary Imagination” in the Journal of the African Literature Association. Her creative work has appeared in venues including bozalta.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson is an associate professor of world Anglophone literature at Johns Hopkins, and she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale. She is the author of two books: The African Novel of Ideas (2021) and South African Literature’s Russian Soul (2015), as well as a wide range of essays in both scholarly and public-facing venues. She is a current Andrew Carnegie Fellow.

Rebecca S. Oh is an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois. Her current book project, States of Failure: Reading Environmental Harm in the Global South, examines contradictory forms of the postcolonial state that are imagined in the wake of environmental harms in South Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. She has also published work on apocalyptic realism and is in the early stages of a second project on genre and infrastructure in the global South. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Modern Fiction Studies, ariel: A Review of International English Literature, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and the edited collection Days of Futures Past.

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