All this is not to suggest that imposing semiotic poverty in Kenya was a simple matter, given that the KCA, along with many twentieth-century anticolonial and civil rights movements, had focused on education and literacy as a means of colonial resistance. The war, however, provided the opportunity for an excessive attack on the semiotic fabric of Kenyan society, ushering in practices of Christian pastoral power. In Europe, especially in the centuries prior to the expansion of literacy, semiotic poverty was deeply complicit with pastoral power, since the largely nonliterate Christian “flock” or laity had depended on the clergy to transpose God’s text into spoken word. Michel Foucault, in his discussion of pastoral power says little about its semiotic dimensions, despite the fact that the rite of confession—which he briefly alludes to—must have been crucial in forging pastoral relations. In this rite, the confessor’s forbidden words and deeds are transposed to the pastor, thus bringing about an exchange of responsibility. To confess to the pastor one’s former actions and words so as to be absolved of them is implicitly to exchange self-ownership and responsibility (what we could also call independence or self-rule) for pastoral solace and the magic of eschatological salvation. In thus divesting people of the consequences of their own words and actions, confession renders language into a medium of self-expropriation.
As it turns out, ritual confession was to constitute the central element of British efforts to win the war and rehabilitate village detainees, a policy based on the advice of Carothers and Louis Leakey, a paleo-anthropologist born in Kenya to missionary parents. Nairobi’s Municipal African Affairs Officer, Tom Askwith, heeding Carothers’s and Leakey’s beliefs in the potent effects of the KLFA loyalty oaths, recommended that the magic of the oaths be counteracted with what was effectively another magic: a ritual of de-oathing, which would involve confession and ritual purification, to be administered by Christian clerics, and which would constitute the decisive step toward the detainees’ release from the camps. Askwith had recently returned from a visit to Malaya where he’d observed Briggs’ Plan of villagization. In conjunction with other colonial and military officers, he conceived of a more elaborate version of Malaya’s kampung baru’s for Kenya. “The Pipeline” would separate Kikuyu civilians and militants into several categories—on a gradation of black to white—based their level of loyalty or rehabilitation. A person could progressively move toward “white” after undergoing confession and de-oathing rituals. Confessors’ renunciations of the “Mau Mau” (i.e., KLFA) would be secretly tape recorded and then publicly broadcast at other detainment camps.
In The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath, Agamben has highlighted the primordial performative role of oaths in endeavoring to stabilize the otherwise unstable relations between words and things. At its origin, the oath offered some vestige of security—however weak—against that unstable relation through the voluntary election of language as socially binding (i.e., not magically binding, although the oath will also, he says, through its patent inability to truly bind words to things, open the way for both magic and violence). It is not necessarily that the oath was believed to actually bind words irrevocably to things; rather, it encouraged people to invest words with powers of social cohesion and personal responsibility.
Agamben points out that the oath is indeed a tacit acknowledgment of the impossibility of truly binding words to things and actions. (Indeed, if, as Carothers claimed, Africans had truly regarded words as magically bound to their referents, there would have been no need for oath-taking, no need to foreswear infidelity to one’s words.) It could be said then that self-responsibility and self-rule—far from requiring, as Carothers argued, a dispassionate acceptance of the split between signified and signifier—are forged in the effort to interpolate one’s self and choices within the murky space between signified and signifier, to operate consciously from within that instability, not to magically overleap it. Arguing that magico-religious practices and violence arise from the oath’s inability to guarantee semiotic fidelity, Agamben opposes to the oath the invention of blasphemy: the uttering of words in vain, as signifiers without signifieds (for example, invoking the gods’ names without intending to refer to the gods). The effective power of such blasphemous speech lies not in signification but in magic and/or violence.
The British de-oathing campaign can be understood in similar terms, as reversing the impetus of the oath as speech act—its performance of semiotic and social fidelity—by compelling Kenyans to revoke the personal bond between self and semiosis, which is also a bond between self and society. The de-oathing campaign sought to deplete language of its performative power of self-assertion, carving out a different role for it—one of magical emanation. De-oathing, then, opened the way for “blasphemous” media to enter, media in which language functioned merely “in vain.”
Take, for example, an anecdote McLuhan gleaned from Leonard Doob’s sociological research on communications in Africa. Paraphrasing Doob, McLuhan described an “African who took great pains to listen each evening to the BBC news, even though he could understand nothing of it. Just to be in the presence of those sounds at 7 p.m. each day was important for him.” McLuhan exaggerated Doob’s account of the African’s lack of comprehension to illustrate what was meant by “the medium is the message.” For the African listening to the BBC, what signified, according to McLuhan, was not language as such but simply the presence of sounds transmitted by electronic media. To be under the spell of the British broadcast without understanding a word of it was to be subject to a semiotic magic in which signifiers effectively had no signifieds. Media was, in some senses, already its own Ur-language.
If this recalls the Western tradition of logocentrism that Derrida would subsequently critique, it should be recalled that McLuhan’s ideas also lean in the opposite direction from logocentrism, in that McLuhan believed that Europeans’ derived their special cognitive independence from the detachment between the alphabetized word and its referent and the ensuing detachment between reader and author(ity). This gives rise to the central aporia, noted earlier, in McLuhan’s work: his simultaneous predilection for print media that detach signified from signifier and, on the other hand, for Pentecostal technologies capable of binding signified and signifier as a pure, unmediating media. (Clearly McLuhan—a devout Catholic—conceived of Pentecostal technologies in a magico-religious sense. As he later put it, “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message.”) If there is an inverse relation between blasphemous media and Pentecostal communication, there is also, nonetheless, a chiasmus. Blasphemy describes the evacuation of the signified from the signifier, whereas Pentecostal technologies invert this operation, conserving the signified while obviating the need for signifiers. In either case, though, language becomes superfluous to itself, whether through its deliberate evacuation of sense or simply through its irrelevance. It is impoverished of its sociopolitical capacities, dissolved within a magic underwritten by the threat of violence. The magical, aural semiosis Carothers described as the innate condition of “the African mind” was in fact what British sought to impose as the basis of postcolonial society: Replace the politics of oath-taking with the magical nonpolitics of aural incantation, and allow the nation to self-regulate according to noopolitical and agro-economic programs.