It takes a lot to get people suspicious these days. I mean, seriously, think of all the strange goings-on with Libby, et. al. and how presidents somehow stay in power. So it shouldn’t surprise me that Borders booksellers refuse to stop selling racist cartoons of Tintin in their stores, opting instead to move them to the “adult” section in the U.K. (Does Borders have an adult section in the U.S.? Don’t think so.)
Anyway, I find it so peculiar that Tintin’s author himself came to be embarrassed by his depiction of Africans as animals and the plot line of Tintin and his dog becoming gods in the eyes of Africans, yet contemporary readers and distributors can’t quite see the same thing. At least not enough of the same thing to decline selling the book. Let’s be clear: this is about saying “no” to a racist book. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. We aren’t obligated to sell a book because it has been manufactured, then offered to us. That isn’t censorship. That’s just a basic moral and political judgment that says “no” to some of the most horrific stuff in human history.
Colonialism, which functions centrally and unproblematically in Tintin, killed tens of millions of people. Tintin’s author, Georges Remi, hails from Belgium, that funky little home of King Leopold, who reduced the population of Congo by one-half (murder, starvation, disease) when under his colonial control. (Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost is a first-rate account and engaging read of just this period.) Remi wrote through the middle of the twentieth century, which means he casually recast the same murderous ideology for children, fully aware of the astonishing death that resulted from that ideology. Yeah, I hope he was a little embarrassed. Turns out, the Belgians “honored” him recently as a national hero of sorts.
My big question is this: how do otherwise decent adults (let’s work with that assumption) come to accept these sorts of images and storylines as appropriate for their children? That’s what is happening here, of course. Buying racist books for children who, by definition, are initially clueless about such vicious history and violence. Why put those children at risk of this grotesque ideological constellation? There are better educational tools for little brains, if you’re thinking about that angle…
I think this goes to the heart of a particular version of postmodernity. I imagine the buyer of these books saying a couple of things. “I loved them as a kid!” “But he’s so cute!” “It’s ironic now!” I understand those sentiments. They aren’t entirely foreign to my initial instinct. I’m both nostalgic for things – especially cute things – of my youth and I love both irony and sarcasm. But there is a lot at stake in this disposition.
In his Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies, Zygmunt Bauman underscores an important feature of postmodernity: the atomization of time. This renders our experience (or imagined experience) of time a series of moments, each distinct from one another. This has a lot of consequences. The important consequence here is that it reshapes our relation to history. If time is broken into distinct parts, only related by will or chance, then we can begin looking at the past as if it had no relation to the present and future. So, we can read Tintin and laugh at it or pretend that it isn’t problematic. After all, right, it’s just old and outdated…
I’d argue that this is one of the problematic features of postmodernity. J-F Lyotard makes a good argument for the liberatory aspects of postmodernity, emphasizing how it allows previously forgotten or silenced voices to begin speaking truths. The death of Truth, according to Lyotard, leads to the proliferation of truths.
Yet this very same move severs our relation to history. At that moment, I would claim, postmodernity enters into a problematic relation with the images and stories around us, images and stories that ought to propel us back into history in the mode of self-examination and considerations of justice. Those images and stories – exactly what Tintin brings to the fore – ought to disturb us with their Truth, and so not be read as just one story amongst others. The Tintin case is postmodernity par excellence, that is, problematic postmodernity par excellence. In the end, this postmodern relation to Tintin is nothing other than a new form of individualism – that’s how I read Tintin. I have my relation to Tintin. Really, I swear, I don’t enjoy the racism.
We can do better. Surely there is an alternative to postmodernity’s indifference to the folding of history into the present and future. Surely we can hear that call of conscience in something like Tintin. But that would require us to step outside the postmodern moment and hear real human suffering through images and words. I’m thinking here of Enrique Dussel’s conception of the transmodern, but that’s another post altogether…
And that would make Tintin some serious adult business. You know, the kind of stuff from which we rightly protect little children. Or at least find a more reflective, sensitive medium in which to begin reflection, discussion, and transformation.
As it stands, Tintin? Icky.