- African Appropriations: Cultural Difference, Mimesis, and Media by Matthias Krings
With great attention to detail, Matthais Krings explores decades of media phenomena that he has both observed and participated in across the African continent. The concept organizing his exploration is “mimesis,” an idea overloaded with complexity and connotation, which Krings deftly appropriates. For Krings, mimesis takes place when people imitate other people, or imitate other people’s works of art—processes that, in fact, often intersect. The media appropriations that he studies, therefore, cannot be understood without the concept of cultural difference, which he describes not as a phenomenon itself, but more as an epiphenomenon of contact. Krings is quick to point out that African imitations of cultural difference do not necessarily represent submission to cultural imperialism, or resistance to it. Rather, he focuses on the cultural producers themselves, depicting them as particularly active audience members who react to foreign media content, and the “life-worlds” such content may represent, by, literally, remaking it. In so doing, he argues, “they perform and produce audiovisual representations of alterity so that the viewers are spared undergoing mimesis themselves” (265).
In his introduction Krings redefines not just cultural difference, but the notion of culture itself upon which that difference might be measured. He also reviews the concepts of mediation and copy that are central to all forms of mimesis. As such, the introduction constitutes useful reading for both scholars and students of Africa. The following eight chapters explore eight different kinds of appropriation, each of which would also make for interesting classroom discussion.
In chapter 1, Krings writes about Hausa Babule ritualists (related to the well-known Hauka movement), whose bodies are the media that have copied and contained European colonial power, as well as postcolonial authoritarian power. This is perhaps the most important theoretical chapter in the book, since it takes up a well-studied subject. Krings teases apart important [End Page 227] debates in the study of ritual mimicry, and with particular attention to how media work, offers a unique interpretation of ritual performers as “pastiches” (40).
In Chapters 2–8 Krings writes about phenomena that have been little studied, including photo novels (chapter 2), video adaptations of Hollywood and Bollywood films (chapters 3 and 4), Tanzanian negotiations with Nigerian audiovisual media (chapter 5), consumer art featuring the likeness of Osama Bin Laden (chapter 6), the infamous Nigerian 419 scam (chapter 7), and white performers who have achieved some success in otherwise black African music industries (chapter 8). Each of these phenomena has seen some scholarly attention, but not enough for certain conceptual dust to have settled, so Krings spends much of his book covering the histories, ethnographic details, and other descriptive features of the media forms in question.
Indeed, if there is one criticism to make, it is that some of the objects of study call for even more theoretical contemplation. Krings exhibits mastery of a wide range of ethnographic and media theory and consistently provides conceptual anchors for the various features he describes. Furthermore, his thick descriptions should be praised in the highest possible terms. However, the core concepts of mimesis, appropriation, and difference inherently raise very big and very interesting questions about the distribution of power, which must eventually be addressed. For example, in the chapter on white men who perform “black music” (sometimes in African languages), Krings applies the concept of cosmopolitanism, claiming initially that their habitus “communicates equality and serves to undo difference” (237). There is little attention to critiques of cosmopolitanism, nor is there much of a discussion about the concept of cultural appropriation as it is manifested, for example, in American popular culture. Certainly there are useful ideas from studies of white blues musicians or rappers that would be useful here. When Krings does address the “enabling conditions” (255) of white appropriation, he quickly resorts to a distinction between “reflexive” and “banal” forms of cosmopolitanism, suggesting that there may be good and bad...