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Anthropology at the Limits: A Geneaological Re-Appraisal of Colonialism in the Time of Contemporary Globalization
University of Ibadan, Nigeria
he work of John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff is no doubt unique in the ﬁeld of African studies due to its learned multidisciplinarity, scope, depth, and startling freshness. It is difﬁcult to cover the grounds made by their corpus within a single article, but an attempt can be made to explain their insights into the nature and ramiﬁcations of colonialism within the context of South Africa and also to demonstrate why these insights are unique within the ﬁeld of African studies. In addition, focusing on their work on globalization and the relation(s) of parts of Africa to that millennial process shows that the colonial encounter, with all its disruptive, reconstructive, and transformative processes, can be read and constructed along certain thematic lines. In this way, colonialism within the African context can be read into and from the dynamics of global capitalism with a cogent theoretical and empirical point of view. Furthermore, it is possible to pursue this course in a way not found in the work of V. Y. Mudimbe, Mahmood Mamdani, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or Kwasi Wiredu. Those theorists have all been concerned in a profound manner with the historical antecedents of the colonial encounter and also its enduring contemporary effects, but none has developed as elaborate theoretical models as the Comaroffs, who offers us fresh ways of linking the event of colonialism with the current wave of global capitalism. It is this theoretical expanse
Research in African Literatures Vol. 34, No. 1 Spring 2003: 173–86
Research in African Literatures
and continuity that allow us to read the African predicament within and outside the matrix of the contemporary global system. Theoretical readings of the colonial encounter are often decidedly rigid and discontinuous, thus precluding a satisfactory engagement of the African continent with the processes of contemporary globalization. The Comaroffs turn this state of affairs around, so that the African continent, even its position of extreme marginality and continuing peripheralization, can be inserted in interesting ways into the age of virtuality. The multifaceted dimensions of colonialism can be understood through volumes one and two of their on-going opus, Of Revelation and Revolution (vol. 1, 1991; vol. 2, 1997). Their theoretical reﬂections on the processes of contemporary globalization span several essays in which their insights are complemented by the work of theorists such as Achille Mbembe and Arjun Appadurai. The coupling of processes of colonialism with those of contemporary globalization offer unexpectedly vast apertures for inventive theoretical reconstructions of the event of colonization beyond its immediate historical limits. Those processes transcend their limits in a way that they continually reinvent the African postcolonial subject not only as a product of historical colonialism but also as a participant in the millennial moment whose central features she has not actively created but whose evolving and transformative dynamics she is always subverting, replacing, and displacing in local terms. Thus, for the African postcolonial subject, the history and event of colonialism remain key parameters for the apprehension and transcendence of the millennial moment. The ﬁrst volume of Of Revelation and Revolution begins with a sustained discourse on the colonization of consciousness and the consciousness of colonialism, pointing out that “[c]olonizers everywhere try to gain control over the practices through which would-be subjects produce and reproduce the bases of their existence. No habit is too humble, no sign too insigniﬁ cant to be implicated. And colonization always provokes struggles—albeit often tragically uneven ones—over power and meaning on the frontiers of empire” (1: 5). Arjun Appadurai explains how cricket as a seemingly harmless sport became an elaborate instrument of the colonial enterprise and subsequently became an indigenized medium of decolonization when the time came. This situation only underscores the fact that no habit or sign was too insigniﬁcant for the “civilizing” and transformative imperatives of colonial event. Although the Comaroffs claim that their study is “a historical anthropology of the Non-conformist mission to Southern Tswana,” there are obviously deep lessons to be drawn from their wide-ranging analyses of the effects of colonialism as a whole. Furthermore, their study establishes fresh guidelines for constructing similar productive genealogies regarding the antecedents, nature, and continuing impact of various forms and events of colonialism. Usually theorists of colonialism are unduly schematic or disappointingly manichean in their analyses. The Comaroffs compel us to discard our explanatory binarisms in favor of deeper and more nuanced modes of analysis. For instance, what was the background and general culture of the
missionaries who sought to transform Tswana land and how did this affect their work and general outlook? What role did their involvement play in changing the socioeconomic landscape in traditional Southern Tswana? In between and within these general questions are to be found several challenges that oblige us to modify our strategies of theorization so as to enrich our discursive practices. We are forced to pay much closer attention to issues of race, class, sex, and gender within a constantly mobile conceptual landscape than we ﬁnd in other studies concerned with the consciousness of colonization. Ngugi wa Thiong’o offers radical critiques of colonialism and also somewhat truncated options of decolonization. Mahmood Mamdani explains the civic and ethnic spaces the postcolonial subject has to negotiate in order to meet the demands of post-Enlightenment modernity. For his part, V. Y. Mudimbe focuses on the textual and disciplinary invention, or otherization, of the African colonial and postcolonial subject. All these approaches are valid, but none of them is sufﬁciently deep or broad. We need to carry out our interrogations not only between various conceptual schemes, but also beyond them. This is one of the most obvious lessons we derive from the Comaroffs. As anthropologists, the Comaroffs concern themselves with how a selfchosen group of Britons elected to work upon and transform the “passive” black people of Southern Tswana: [T]he essence of colonization inheres less in political overrule than in seizing and transforming “others” by the very act of conceptualizing, inscribing, and interacting with them on terms not of their choosing; in making them into the pliant objects and silenced subjects of our scripts and scenarios; in assuming the capacity to “represent” them, the active verb itself conﬂating politics and poetics. (1: 5) Also of note is that African subjects and problems continue to ghettoized. To deghettoize things African means we have to construct a universally acceptable vocabulary in theoretical terms. If this cannot be done, then we have to incorporate already existing theoretical models that have universal applicability into our “modes of self-writing” (see Mbembe). Thus the Comaroffs suggest that there are numerous gains to be made from some of the more acute practices of critical postmodernism. What this ultimately implies is that established archeologies of colonialism can be productively subverted in view of the latest theoretical developments to increase not only our layers of interpretation, but also enrich our ways of understanding. Thus we shall proﬁt by taking cognizance of the fact that “[w]hile signs, social relations, and material practices are constantly open to transformation—and while meaning may indeed become unﬁxed, resisted, and reconstructed—history everywhere is actively made in a dialectic of order and disorder, consensus and contest” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1: 18). Another concept the Comaroffs focus on, which was unsatisfactorily formulated by Gramsci, is “hegemony.” They note that “the construct remains under-speciﬁed and inadequately situated in its conceptual con-
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text” (1: 20). However, they transcend Gramsci’s conceptual shortcomings in two key ways. First of all, they reformulate the construct, which they deﬁne as “that order of signs and practices, relations and distinctions, images and epistemologies drawn from a historically situated cultural ﬁeld—that come to be taken-for-granted as the natural and received shape of the world and everything that inhabits it” (1: 23). Next, they establish the difference between hegemony and ideology: Whereas the ﬁrst consists of constructs and conventions that have come to be shared and naturalized throughout a political community, the second is the expression and ultimately the possession of a particular social group, although it may be widely peddled beyond. (1: 24) An understanding of hegemony and ideology is shown to be necessary in order to come to grips with the full implications of the consciousness of colonization and the colonized consciousness. They are never completely mutually exclusive since hegemony as a construct is always unstable and vulnerable. Similarly, the colonizer and the colonized in spite of the forces of hegemony and ideology are conjoined in often startling ways to produce meaning and value. The colonized as such is not always the passive subject she is often presumed to be: “[N]ative peoples” seek to plumb the depths of the colonizing process. They search for the coherence—and sometimes, the deus ex machina—that lies behind its visible face. For the recently colonized, or those who feel the vibrations of the imperial presence just over the horizon, generally believe that there is something invisible, something profound, happening to them—and that their future may well depend on gaining control over its “magic.” (1: 31–32) Just as the Tswana world and politics were transformed in all sorts of ways by the colonial encounter, the world and politics of the colonialists did not remain the same. The Boers (of Dutch, German, and French descent) struggled with the British over the control of Tswana land. In more speciﬁc terms, the African communities along the frontier became the object of struggle among white colonists with designs on their land and labor and the Dutch Reformed Church had long opposed mission work among the slaves at the Cape. Not unexpectedly, then, the Nonconformists entered this troubled arena as marked men and were soon drawn into the thick of the dispute. For they too were competitors in the battle to gain control over black populations. Fresh from an abolitionist climate, they tried to force the issue of “native” social and legal rights upon the administration. (1: 45) This scenario—in which various European nationalities participated in the colonial process—was unique within the South African context since the colonialists of other African regions were usually solely anglophonic,
francophonic, or lusophonic. In Tswana land, the combustive mix of these various European nationalities must have contributed immensely to the strange brew that came to be known as apartheid. The Comaroffs have also drawn well-deserved attention to the socialpolitical background of the evangelists who deﬁned the shape and trajectory of the civilizing mission. This background is not depicted with the aid of anthropological or historical texts alone. Classic English literature is employed as a credible source of information in the background of the crusading evangelists. Daniel Defoe was aware of the formation of missionary societies. Charlotte Brontë drew “deft strokes” of the missionary in ﬁctive discourse and it is pointed out that “Dickens called upon all his powers of polemic and sarcasm to attack the very idea of missionary philanthropy, and he dismissed Africa as irredeemably unﬁt for civilization” (1: 51). This evinces the extent to which the public sphere in England was affected by the missionary effort at the time. It is emphasized that we need to be less partial regarding our analyses of the encounter between Christian missionaries and African peoples. Likewise, anthropological studies also need to focus on the sociopolitical conditions that produced and directed European missionary activity. And as noted recently, the literary context of the period is equally important if we are to understand the numerous antecedents of colonialism in their continuous and discontinuous forms. In short, “Wordsworth’s romantic idealism, Defoe’s gentle skepticism, and Smith’s editorial cynicism; Southey’s polemical imperialism, Brontë’s ﬁctional ambivalence, and Dickens’s populist criticism” (1: 54) all provide crucial keys for understanding the impulses that propelled Nonconformist missionary activity. To accomplish analyses of sufﬁcient depth and subtlety, it is necessary to bear in mind that “the missionary encounter must be regarded as a twosided historical process; as a dialectic that takes into account the social and cultural endowments of, and the consequences for, all the actors—missionaries no less than Africans” (1: 54). In the past, anthropological studies, historical texts, philosophical constructs, and postcolonial themes generally excluded these crucial elements. One of the vital features in the work of the Comaroffs, however, is their ability to carry out this two-sided project of analysis. The typical missionary who sought to change his fortunes and those of Southern Tswana was often a product of the drastic socioeconomic upheavals taking place in England. Accordingly, “[T]he industrial revolution, then, forged the particular sociological context from which arose the clerical army of Nonconformist missionaries to the colonies” (1: 59). They were also the “dominated fraction of a dominant class,” as propounded by Pierre Bourdieu. In more ways than one, Christianity itself became the site of intense political struggle. Consequently, it is important to bear in mind that “from the moment that the church had, like other human agencies, to negotiate its position in the world, its absolutist spiritual dominion began to melt away” (1: 78). This weakening of the powers of the church in Britain in turn intensiﬁed the drive to appropriate and reconstitute the African world.
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But the Kingdom of God in Tswana also paved the way for the Empire of Britain. Before the advent of the Empire of Britain in Southern Tswana, we must remember, the clergy were caught in a struggle to raise above the underclass and be counted among the bourgeoisie. They had little theological education and actively sought to recreate an idyll of British yeomanry within the seemingly virgin stretches of African lands or wastelands, as the case may be. The epistemological and psychological framework that deﬁned the relationship between Britain and precolonial Southern Africa is described thus: [W]e witness the rise of a more and more elaborate model of the relationship of Europe to the “dark continent”: a relationship of both complementary opposition and inequality, in which the former stood to the latter as civilization to nature, savior to victim, actor to subject. It was a relationship whose very creation implied a historical imperative, a process of intervention through which wild would be cultivated, the suffering save. (1: 87) And from this point on, the racist biases of the colonial enterprise begin to pile up. Mungo Park, an important explorer, regarded “black men as nothing” (1: 116–17). An entire epistemology within Eurocentric discourse was initiated to liken the African continent to a passive female body waiting to be penetrated by the heroic European in “a spirit of improvement” and adventure. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., contends in his essay “Writing, ‘Race,’ and the Difference It Makes” that Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel were all great Western intellectual racists (73). Thus the epistemology regarding not only the mythological classiﬁcation of the passive African body (and landscape) but also the need for its urgent penetration went along with a quite remarkable intellectual vocabulary. The Comaroffs add that “the vocabulary of natural science was to strengthen and legitimize the association of dark continents with black bodies and dim minds” (1: 99) became a prominent mode of signiﬁcation. Georges Cuvier, a prestigious Swiss comparative anatomist, believed qualities such as “self-awareness and control were underdeveloped among non-Europeans” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1: 101). This sort of view contributed immensely to the epistemology of the time in terms ascribing tropes of gender and subjection to questions of race: [I]n the late eighteenth-century images of Africa, the feminization of the black “other” was a potent trope of devaluation. The non-European was to be made as peripheral to the global axes of reason and production as women had become at home. Both were vital to the material and imaginative order of modern Europe. Yet both were deprived access to its highest values. (1: 105) Having explored the various contours of colonialism from both sides of the racial divide, the Comaroffs begin to analyze the internal construction of Southern Tswana. Prior to that, they had depicted in elaborate terms “a colonialism whose founding charter ﬁxed contemporary images
of nature and gender, race and reason, savagery and civility, into a compelling mythological mosaic” (1: 116). They also carry out an intensive exploration of the traditional Tswana before the intrusive excursion of colonialism. Of that stable traditional world they write: “[A]n incessant stream of political, social, and ritual acts reiterated the precedence of agnation over matrilaterality, of males over females, of pastoral production over cultivation, of the dictates of the public arena over those of the domestic sphere” (1: 137). That assessment more or less captures the nature of Tswana society. Of course, within this broad context we encounter various tropes of dominance and subjugation within and outside the domestic sphere, continual struggle for chieﬂy control of the realm and its perpetual themes of power, legitimacy, centralization, and decentralization. Such were the sociopolitical tropes at play in Tswana society before the advent of the colonial encounter. The stage was set for the meeting of two worlds, “one imperial and expansive, the other local and defensive” (1: 171). We are to note also that “despite the fact that the colonization of the Tswana began with polite ceremony rather than with a crashing military onslaught or a crippling economic invasion, there was, hidden in the politesse, oblique forewarning of later struggles” (1: 171). Those struggles had to do with control over local resources and also human capital. Thus Tswana society was not exactly the passive virgin territory projected by the Eurocentric imagination. Within the seemingly paciﬁc undercurrents of the initial colonial encounter loomed the imperial ﬁgure of the evangelist: The evangelist was an intrusive, forceful ﬁgure within the chiefdom, a ﬁgure not subject, ﬁnally, to indigenous control. Not only did his knowledge and technology challenge their categories, conventions, and forms of creativity, but his commanding bearing also contested existing lines of authority. (1: 196) Soon after being admitted into the chiefdom, the primary task of the evangelist became transforming the habits of the local people, removing the detritus of a counterproductive culture, and replacing it with European technological reason. That decisive effort at cultural transformation on the part of the Nonconformist missionary was extended into the sphere of language, a sphere that has been the preoccupation of major theorists of decolonization such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Kwasi Wiredu. The Comaroffs describe this critical aspect of the colonization process in the following terms: [T]he colonization of language became an increasingly important feature of the process of symbolic domination at large. Indeed, Setswana was to carry the lasting imprint of Christian Europe in its lexicon. This was evident in the commandeering of everyday terms like moruti (“teacher”), which took on the connotation of “minister of the church,” and modumedi (“one who agrees”), which came to imply “Christian believer” [. . .]; unlike badimo, these were subtle acts of appropriation rather than bold mistranslations and hence
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were potentially all the more invasive. The process was also marked by the use of Dutch and especially English loan-words for features of the emerging colonial universe. (1: 218–19) For the European linguistic scholar, the domestication and restructuring of Setswana was a welcome challenge. It meant reducing a “folk” tongue into some civilized, manageable form. In a similar vein, “[i]t was language [. . .] that provided the ﬁxed categories through which an amorphous cultural landscape became subject to European control” (1: 222). In essence, the conquest of Setswana as dialect should be perceived as a vital part of what the Comaroffs have term “the colonization of consciousness.” Contained in the colonization of consciousness were processes of conversion: “Conversion”, the ultimate objective of the Nonconformists, was a process involving the removal of difference and distinction—a process whereby the Tswana were to be assimilated into the moral economy of civilized man, in which human worth was evaluated against the single currency of absolute truth. Over the long run, the process would not efface human differences but would extend the European system of distinction over Africa, drawing its peoples into a single scale of social, spiritual, and material inequality. (1: 244–45) After sufﬁcient physical and cultural penetration of Tswana political psychology by the Nonconformists, the powers of the chiefs started to wane because their previous control over tributary wealth, cattle, and serfs became far less secure. Furthermore, European ways of seeing and doing things had resulted in the chiefs’ loss of a monopoly over power and knowledge. In overturning the powers of chiefs, the Nonconformists often conﬂated secular power with religious authority, which within the Tswana context was quite different from European doctrines of separation of powers. In Tswana society, the secular and sacred were fused to form a cosmological totality. The Nonconformists’ intrusion in this realm was to be extremely disruptive, because the chiefship, rather than being the sole focus of authority, became one of two contending powers. Once that had taken place, it was left for the Boers to assume control not only over the lands but also over human capital. The seizure was almost total, and most certainly brutal, due to the quest of the Boerish masters to transform the physical landscape. The Boers continued their brutal domination and exploitation of the blacks of Bechuanaland, which eventually led to the ﬁrst Anglo-Boer War, between 1880 and 1881. Subsequently, in 1884 the Gladstone administration in Britain decided to install a protectorate over Bechuanaland. In the end, the missionaries had done their bit for the colonizing process, but they were not equipped, on the other hand, for the demands of realpolitik, since it entailed a tough-minded secularism. A passage in the conclusion of the ﬁrst volume of Of Revelation and Revolution captures the very spirit of
the colonial encounter in Southern Tswana, summarizing the impact and ambivalences of the missionary encounter: [T]he meeting of these two worlds was driven by a logic that transcended—indeed, shaped—the explicit intentions of the actors on either side. On the one hand, it was preﬁgured in the imperial thrust of Europe into the non-European world, itself a product of the postenlightenment imagination. The evangelists were not just bearers of a vocal Protestant ideology, nor merely the media of modernity. They were also the human vehicles of a hegemonic worldview. In their long conversation with the Tswana, whether they knew it or not, they purveyed its axioms in everything they said and did. And yet despite this, they were themselves deeply affected by the encounter. (1: 310) The second volume of Of Revelation and Revolution continues the exploration of the conversation between Africans and Europeans and how this process marked both in a ﬂuid context of hegemonic contesting, ideological squabble, and religious argument. Another aspect of the Comaroffs’ work can also be examined—the South African postcolony in this age of globalization. In that volume of their massive work, the Comaroffs continue their argument that the colonial encounter transformed both Europeans and non-Europeans. In the same vein, it is interesting to note that “it was in the confrontation with non-Western societies that bourgeois Britons honed a sense of themselves as gendered, national citizens, as Godly, rightbearing individuals, and as agents of Western reason” (2: 6). The development of this line of thought further distinguishes their work from that of other theorists (especially African) who concern themselves with the colonial encounter. Undoubtedly, insights such as this are bound to change in a signiﬁcant way discursive approaches to the study of the encounter. Still on the effects of the encounter, the Comaroffs state: The encounter between Nonconformists and the peoples of the South African interior, then, joined populations with divergent cultural perspectives, dissimilar intentions, dissonant notions of value—and distinctly unequal capacities to control the terms of the unfolding relations. Not surprisingly, their early exchanges initiated a protracted dialogue based in part on misrecognition, in part on shared interests, in part on alliances across the very lines that divided them. These parties acted as mirrors to and for each other, refracting and reifying new orders of social distinction and identity— and struggling to master the hybrid language, the swirl of signs and objects, that circulated among them. (2: 6–7) In the second volume of Of Revelation and Revolution,the very contradictions of the colonial enterprise are unearthed on a number of levels and with a variety of analytical registers. The Comaroffs argue about the missionaries, for instance, that “in order to convert ‘natives’ into ‘civilized’ Christians they had to make other into same, to erase the distinctions on which colo-
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nialism was founded” (2: 7). But what emerged from this religious encounter or argument, as the case may be, was “the reality of a creolized African Christianity whose very vitality—often ascribed to the peculiarities of the African ‘nature’—spoke to the Europeans of apostasy, even paganism” (2: 7). The Nonconformists nonetheless continually strove to impart the value of honest toil among the converts so as to create God’s kingdom on earth. For them, this was an important way to construct a moral and self-regulating civil society in Bechuanaland. This in turn “opened the door to the liberal forces of Euro-modernism and industrial capitalism” (2: 9). But even Western-style capitalism was not without its contradictions and incoherences, as the Comaroffs suggest: [. . .] European capitalism was always less rationalized and homogenous than its own dominant ideology allowed; always more internally diverse, more localized in its forms, more inﬂuenced by moral and material considerations beyond its control—and, ﬁnally, wrought more by its confrontation with the rest of the world than by purely endogenous forces. Despite its own self-image and its afﬁnity for rationalization, it was shot through with the features it projected on colonial others: parochialism, syncretism, unreason, enchantment. (2: 11) These are the kinds of issues the Comaroffs tackle in the second volume of Of Revelation and Revolution. The construction of the colonial world was never a harmonious or strife-free endeavor. Rather, it involved complicated processes of construction that the colonial subject “contested, appropriated, joined, turned aside, acquiesced” (2: 9). In short, it was a world produced by “hybridity, mimesis, and cultural fusion” (2: 13). Quite a number of the theoretical tropes employed by the Comaroffs are obviously postmodernist, but again, such an enriched discursive expanse deﬁnitely increases and improves our approaches to the analysis of the colonial encounter. In both volumes of Of Revelation and Revolution, they manage to develop a number of analytical models that can be employed in the study of various forms of colonialism. For instance, we must always remember that the colonial encounter was never a one-sided affair with the rational, civilized, Christian Nonconformist on the one hand, and the passive, feminized colonial subject on the other. Further, in analyzing the colonial encounter, we must study in equally broad detail both the colonized and the colonizer: their sociopolitical backgrounds, religious orientations, cultural afﬁliations, economic circumstances, and cosmological outlooks. All those factors go a long way in deepening our modes of analysis regarding the colonial encounter. The African postcolony in the age of contemporary globalization deserves to be studied and is being studied in interesting ways. The peripheralization caused by the decisive event of the colonial encounter bears some resemblance to the forms of sociopolitical, cultural, and economic disempowerment created by the unparalleled expansion of global capital-
ism. In spite of the mechanics of exclusion created by the various manifestations of Western capital, non-Western societies are also inventing new modes of appropriation, rejection, and subversion. Again, tropes of hybridity and mimesis and also questions concerning cultural differences and the meaning of value are being (for they need to be) reformulated for greater relevance. The entrenchment of all kinds of inequalities within the global system necessitates a rethinking of terms such as imperialism, domination, and subjection. Similarly, terms such as gender, class, and race have to be recontextualized within a far more complicated conceptual milieu. In some cases our conceptual tools are simply inadequate and have to be discarded, and in other instances we obviously need to modify and complexify them in order to function in an increasingly complex universe. We need to examine how the twin processes of colonialism and global capitalism have continued to deﬁne the destiny of African territories. Again, this is an area in which the Comaroffs have done considerable work. The Cameroonian theorist Achille Mbembe points out that [f]ar from being simple products of colonialism, current boundaries thus reﬂect the rivalries, power relationships and alliances that prevailed among the various imperial powers, and between them and Africans through the centuries preceding colonization proper. (“At the Edge” 6) The collapse of state order within the “strategic ghetto that Africa has become in the aftermath of the Cold War” (Mbembe, “At the Edge” 10) is an occurrence that most existing explanatory models cannot handle. To be sure, strange processes are taking place. Apart from chronic economic and institutional failure in the African continent, we also have to contend with the widespread debacle of democratization experiments that in turn have truncated in a fundamental way the project of modernization in most parts of the continent. Consequently, according to Mbembe, disturbing scenarios keep emerging: Through the mediation of war and the collapse of projects of democratization, this interlacing of dynamics and temporalities leads to the “exit of the state”. It promotes the emergence of technologies of domination based in forms of private indirect government, and have as their function the constitution of new systems of property and new bases of social stratiﬁcation. (“At the Edge” 10) The informalization of many African economies is also creating strange scenarios. A general tendency that Mbembe terms “disinstitutionalization” is not only leading to the dissolution of the state but also the diffraction of society. To understand in speciﬁc terms this process of disinstitutionalization, it is important to note that new forms of territorialization and economies of scale, movements of money have accentuated fragmentation of national and regional economic spaces. Whereas some spaces were evincing an advanced de-monetarization, and even experiencing a return to practices
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of bartering or self-subsistence, others were entering an economy based on the dollar, with unanticipated effects. (“An Essay” 7) It would be interesting to give if only a passing glance at the contribution of the Comaroffs to the understanding of these disturbing events in the African postcolony. They point out that concepts such as citizenship, identity, nation-building, heritage, and patrimony are being recast even in the light of the most mundane events as processes of transnationalization and informalization continue to create ever newer instances of social stratiﬁcation and fragmentation. A prolonged period of “debt, dependency and structural maladjustment” has become the condition of existence after the political and economic realities and after-effects of decolonization. Since we now inhabit a universe in which market forces have been set free in a context of extreme digitalization largely controlled by the West, Africans have to grapple with a situation where geography is perforce being written; in which transnational identities, diaspora, connections, ecological disasters, and the mobility of human populations challenge both the nature of sovereignty and the sovereignty of nature; in which “the network” returns as the dominant metaphor of social connectedness; in which liberty is distilled to its postmodern ontological essence, the right to choose identities, subjectivities, commodities, sexualities, localities, and other forms of collective representation. (“Naturing the Nation” 14) The same processes of disinstitutionalization in addition to the diffraction of society Mbembe dwells so much upon are also treated at great length and with great sophistication by the Comaroffs. For instance, in relation to existential conditions in the postcolony, they write: Almost everywhere in the postcolonial world, it seems, community and family are said to be widely at risk; the very existence of ‘society’ is under scrutiny, called ever more acutely into question as other kinds of attachment take precedence; regular, standardized blue collar jobs are thought to be a fast-disappearing anachronism in ever more labile material environments; masculinity is felt to be compromised with the reconstruction of gender roles and relations. (14) At the institutional level, they observe, “‘the’ state, an ever more polymorphous entity, is held, increasingly, to be in perpetual crisis, its power ever more dispersed, its legitimacy tested by debt, disease, and poverty, its executive control repeatedly pushed to the limit and, most of all, its hyphen—nation—the articulation, that is, of the state to the nation, of the nation—state—everywhere under challenge” (14). These related developments can be construed as the outcome of globalization, and the Comaroffs suggest an interesting theoretical possibility by relating, even if only obliquely, colonialism with the process. In the
ﬁnal analysis, they accomplish a theoretical consistency in explicating a historical anthropology of colonialism coupled with proffering revelatory insights about the processes—continuous and discontinuous—reconstitutions and dysfunctionalities yet unfolding within the postcolony. All this is accomplished keeping in focus important questions of indeterminacy and contingency without the usual postmodernist excess. The matter of life and death has become unduly vulgarized and has assumed too alarming proportions in Africa to allow for such an excess. When all is said and done, the Comaroffs establish the basis for a serious methodological reappraisal of various forms of colonialism, and in concentrating systematic attention on the current wave of globalization, they situate Africa in discursive centers that tend to be perpetually oppressive and permanently exclusionary. Furthermore, not only has careful attention been given the selection of discursive strategies suited for the network of presentations about Africa, they have also deepened the modes of analysis by which those very strategies may indeed become enduring paradigms. The precolonial subject’s encounter with modernity begins when she becomes a colonial subject or when she is branded “native.” This apparently simple act has an inﬁnite scope of implications. An entire universe of relations and epistemic constructs is thrown into disarray. In other words, a complete existential mode is reconstructed by coercion. Nonetheless, this coercive process is not a one-sided affair. Victim and victimizer are transformed in spite of the unequal relations. Hybridity and the eclectic ingredients of the newly evolving world are set into motion, creating new satellites, languages, commodities, and beings. In short, a new mode of existence is set in motion. Neither victim nor victimizer, colonized nor colonizer is free from its transformative currents, from the tyrannical forces at work and the equally vehement elements of resistance. John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff encourage us to rethink the possibilities inherent in these processes against a much larger backdrop than we had previously been accustomed. In that way, we will come to appreciate that processes of force and power once let loose mold and transform all beings, commodities, and values in their way, including perhaps also their long forgotten histories.
Appadurai, Arjun. “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place.” Cultural Anthropology 3 (1988): 37–60. . Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: Cambridge UP, 1977. . Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.
Research in African Literatures
Comaroff, John L., and Jean. “Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse, and the Postcolonial State.” HAGAR: International Social Science Review 1.1 (2000). Civil Society and the Political Imagination in Africa: Critical Perspectives. Ed. By J. L. and Jean Comaroff. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. . Of Revelation and Revolution. Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. . Of Revelation and Revolution. Volume 2: The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Writing, ‘Race,’ and the Difference It Makes.” Loose Canons. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 43–69. Mamdani, Mahmood. Citizen and Subject. Princeotn: PUP, 1996. Mbembe, Achille. “An Essay on the Political Imagination in Wartime.” CODESRIA Bulletin 2, 3, and 4 (2000). . “At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality and Sovereignty in Africa.” CODESRIA Bulletin 3 and 4 (1999). Mudimbe, V. Y. The Idea of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. . Fables and Parables. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. . The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Homecoming. London: Heinemann, 1970. . Writers in Politics. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1981. . Decolonising the Mind. Nairobi: EAEP, 1986. . Moving the Centre. London: James Currey, 1993. Wiredu, Kwasi. Philosophy and an African Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. . Conceptual Decolonization in African Philosophy. Ibadan: Hope, 1995. . Cultural Universals and Particulars. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
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