Monthly Archives: October 2013

Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory

Tilley, Helen. Africa as a living laboratory: empire, development, and the problem of scientific knowledge, 1870-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

Notes re: Helen Tilley

‘natural laboratory’

“the defiant resistance of African nature”

people and environment treated as one as opposed to Western territories where nature/culture was an assumption

national/imperial/international infrastructures

Notice big jump in technical staff at 1920: something was happening

Vernacular science: imperial scientists ended up taking more of an interest in indigenous knowledge than they might otherwise have because there were so few of them in relationship to the ambitious scale of the knowledges they wanted to create

Taking the idea of laboratory seriously means: this was not just an instrumental tool for solidifying colonial power; the contingencies of “experimentalism”

Acquiring knowledge of environment as both a justification for and structure to the activities of the Scramble for Africa

“scientific stations” as another type of imperial site like mission stations or administrative centers

early awareness of the poor quality of scientific information (which raises a question about when that awareness eroded or elided into confident generalizations, if it did)

tropes of science: fertility, development, comprehensive, special/universal, local/distant [in/about Africa],

the nitty-gritty of process (how the sausage got made): science was not just a tool of empire, vernacular science was important, science slowly infiltrated domains that were originally built outside of science (agriculture)

ecology as management AND knowledge

the consequence of imperial science: trypanomomiasis pp. 118-119; BUT Tilley says, look this was not a break or a departure from imperial practice p. 120—science deconstructed empire according to Tilley p. 122

Agriculture as a domain of practical expertise that was gradually infiltrated by scientific expertise pp. 128-134

What’s at stake in the scientific study of soil fertility? (what ought African productivity to be, and what’s the explanation of a gap if there is one)

Science as a non-human agent? E.g., does science beget science?

p. 154 the capacity of science to produce surprises that repudiate earlier tropes: that tropical soils were poor in quality

Ecology as invented in practice in Africa and similar settings: what does it mean when the periphery invents the metropole?

Science for science’s sake vs. science for application/development

Science as not having that much authority: “medical pluralism” as a fact on the ground—tolerated if not sanctioned p. 184

The growth in late 20th C. science of science that can be done about Africa from a distance, and maybe as a result being less epistemically plural than colonial science was

Really great book for demonstrating why the meticulous study of institutional histories via careful archival research can be so important. It is hard for students to read through a book like this, but the details here end up being the big picture.

Smart overall critique of the treatment of colonial science as a straightfowardly instrumental “tool of empire”–Tilley ends up arguing that science by its nature ends up forcing imperial technical services and researchers to engage African knowledge seriously and to take on data that subverts imperial authority.

Jan Bender Shetler, Imagining Serengeti

Shetler, Jan Bender. Imagining Serengeti : a History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present. Ohio University Press,, 2007. Print. New African Histories Series.

Landscape as “humanized” not just through material transformations but memory and culture.

Classic restatement of the methodological dilemma of the Africanist historian: any time you want to deal with culture, subjectivity, narrative, etc. you’re either stuck ‘reading against the grain’ of an archive that refuses to acknowledge the historicity of African societies and landscapes, or you’re forced to get more and more hazy and speculative before 1800 or so. Not so hard for the environmental historian who is comfortable with the “longue duree” but hard for the person who is trying to trace imaginaries, representations, stories, etc.

Ch. 1: origin traditions as a way of imagining and charting landscape and environment.

Serengeti as described by ecologists in the rhetoric of wilderness: absent of humans. But this is as Shetler points out simply untrue for at least the last 2000 years and likely true for much, much longer. It’s always untrue in some sense in East Africa: humans and African mammals are clearly co-evolved. What happens if we learn in this case to always talk about landscape and environment in terms where humans are always present? One possibility is that the discourse of “humans despoil environment” has to shift dramatically away from implications of “Africans always despoil” and towards the landscape of dubious tropes about African modernity (overpopulation, depraved poverty, etc.).

Ch. 2 is really in some ways a very clever reclamation of ‘archaeology’–rather than the excavation of a single vacant site, using the material remnants of old networks of food production and exchange, indexed against memory, to infer a social structuring of the landscape.

Ch. 3 Sacred Landscapes

Lists of place names + specifications of rituals
Generation-set as responsible for maintenance of place
Power of place created by presence of ancestors
Different sort of ideology of preservation–the proposition that the land has to be unchanged at the site of power
Walking the land as a mnemonic of ritual (but maybe walking is an evidence of a more quotidian set of everyday connections: ritual is maybe what’s left when the everyday is taken away)

A bit of the tendency of ethnohistorians to ennoble memory by the fact of it being memory. E.g., Nata and others remember sites in association with wealth & power, but this is surely both something that is meant in terms of contemporary Kenyan politics to strike a claim to land (with it, we were rich; without it, we are poor supplicants) and it as much an erasure as a memory (e.g., there is no reason to think that wealth was equitably distributed in the past among these groups, but in these memories, any sense of social conflict within the groups drops out)

Spirits can mark beneficial places; but elsewhere in Kenya other ethnic/linguistic groups may use spirits to mark places as dangerous or unsettled.

Again, the strong association here between ancestors (embisambwa, ancestors w/specific place & power associations) and Serengeti land has got to be given some charge or valence by the absence of the people remembering from the land that’s remembered.

Specific instructions about how to treat land and animals at sites

Encirclement as a precolonial understanding of territory and boundaries–potentially really powerful combination with Nugent’s Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens for thinking about ethnogenesis and territorial control.

Good for students to “read out” a politics of environmental history/political ecology.

Olufemi Taiwo, How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa

Taiwo, Olufemi. How colonialism preempted modernity in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Open WorldCat. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Don’t think sociocryonics is going to catch on–it’s a bit of an awkward neologism that relabels a concept well established in Mamdani and others.

But otherwise, the intro and first section are really gutsy: they come straight at the problem and Taiwo is not afraid to characterize the literature in broad but cutting terms right at the outset.

The definition of modernity in the book as a whole is interesting and fairly clear, focused more on political and legal structures and their accompanying Enlightenment conceptual apparatus than on capital or political economy. “Subjectivity, reason and progress”.

“One possible answer is to say that Africa is hostile to modernity and its presuppositions…a related response is to say that Africans are congenitally incapable of working modernity. Neither explanation is plausible. They are racist to boot. But their implausibility does not stem from their racism. The problem is that such explanations tend to ignore history.” p5

This is ultimately a rather West African (and Western Cape) centered history of missionary modernity-it doesn’t work very well for East Africa or Central Africa or the rest of southern Africa except for Xhosa and Tswana experiences. There’s a counterfactual here that the creation of “self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing” mission modernity would have spread continent-wide had it not been for colonialism, and I’m not sure that holds entirely true.

“What is crucial is that when Africans were inserted or they inserted themselves into the discourse of modernity, they ran the entire gamut of possible reactions. But the most sophisticated among them wanted to marry the best of their indigenous inheritance with the best that the new forms of social living enjoined by modernity had to offer. This is what exercising agency is all about.” p. 13 [The problem here is perhaps that Taiwo is assuming that in general modernity was embraced, adopted or practiced agentively–but it’s possible to say that this was not only not true in Africa but not true anywhere, that no one ever chose it but always instead had it done to them.

Contrary to Mamdani, sees colonialism’s contradictions as “genuine” and a product of its philosophical underpinnings.

“In spite of all the prattle about communalism, not even the scholars who was eloquent about their commitment to so-called African values and traditions build their houses or live in spaces that pay any serious attention to those values and traditions…contemporary Africans end up with spaces and landscapes that are superficially modern but lack the enlivening soul that makes their counterparts in other places such beauties to behold and celebrate.” p. 14

“The underdevelopment of African agency has contributed to the persistence of sociocryonics at the present time. Evidence of the persistence abounds in many of the recent accounts of the relationship between Africa and modernity that focus on such ‘peculiarly African’ themes as ‘witchcraft’ and ‘village’…We have repeated affirmations of African difference and an almost uncritical embrace of ahistoricity in their understanding and explanation of African phenomena. Many feel that to embrace things Western is to abandon African authenticity. It is no less a sociocryonic momemnt for being popular with African scholars.”. p. 14-15

“I assume that the modern way of life represents a leap forward in human history and that the gains it offers, had they been on the table in colonial Africa, would have made for a better life and a more salubrious history than that bequeathed by colonialism as it operated in Africa. This is an acknowledgement that Africans are almost forbidden to make.” p. 16

“We shall see the inevitability paradigm that often characterizes the discourse of colonialism in Africa–things could not have turned out otherwise than they did–is inadequate, if not wrong. The key lies in showing the intimate even if conflicted connection between colonialism and the much larger complex from which it emanated: modernity.” p. 23.

“The modern era is the era of subjectivity, of the sovereignty of the individual, of no taxation without representation, of knowledge, of progress, of science and technology, and, most of all of the equality of human beings and of their entitlement to respect for the dignity of their person and all that pertains to it.” p. 39

Some clear connections here with Appiah’s approach to cosmopolitanism. Also a clear riposte to the “multiple modernities” literature: modernity is one thing, it’s an outgrowth of the Enlightenment project, and it is both material and intersubjective.

Lugard once again functions as the exemplar of ‘indirect rule’ (aka in Taiwo ‘sociocryonics’).

Not necessarily much clearer than Mamdani about the motives or intent behind colonialism, but at any rate neither analysis really takes much interest in the classic view of colonialism as motivated by the self-interest of globalizing capitalism, etc. Does dovetail on Mudimbe a bit in asserting that Africa was in some absolute sense defined by difference not just from Europe but from all other colonies/non-Western persons. That inevitably is going to lead you back into an assertion of European difference–that Europeans had a particular prior way of imagining blackness and black subjects.

In some ways this is also a repudiation of the Non-Aligned Movement/Bandung/postcolonial theory/etc. assertion of an essential similarity between “the Rest” (vs. “the West”) in the expansion of Europe.

Despite the limits of taking coastal W. Africa in the 19th Century as a proxy for the continent, the argument Taiwo makes about missionaries and modernity is really bold and exciting stuff. Even where it’s “wrong”, I can really see it pacing a serious revival of 18th/19th Century African history, which is often mired in the grinding aftermath of the numbing empiricism of the literature on the slave trade.

The arguments about law and constitutionalism in the later part of the book feel to me like something of a detour. I understand why he goes there (not the least because it’s part of his training and his past scholarly work) but it’s a plodding discussion by comparison with the exciting writing in the earlier part of the book. I also think in some ways the most subversive argument in the existing literature that he needs to deal with is not nationalism/Afrocentrism (which he is clearly poised to critique) but the growing tendency to break down or decompose the power of the colonial state and to question the degree to which “sociocryonics” was a totalizing system. (He may not agree with Mamdani on much but on this point they actually align.) The last chapter on globalization, on the other hand, is really subversive and interesting.

Osumaka Likaka, Naming Colonialism

Likaka, Osumaka. Naming colonialism history and collective memory in the Congo, 1870-1960. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009. Open WorldCat. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Smartly conceived, tightly written.

p. 5: Likaka’s advisor told him he has to “stick to written documents”–I think this shows just how long the life of a certain kind of orthodoxy can be as it travels the world, but also the degree to which postcolonial African civic and bureaucratic institutions have adopted the most formal, most reserved, most hierarchical possible forms and manners of common global institutions.

p.8: given the aspirations of the monograph, this is a somewhat frustrating critique of “reading against the grain”, e.g., a very formal reading of how Africans are or are not present in colonial texts. I don’t think Likaka needs a caricature to justify the approach of his study. But I do think his critique of scholarship inspired by Saidian characterizations of “orientalism” is fair enough–lots of those granted overwhelming power to colonizers to “invent” or “imagine” and regarded the entirety of what they “invented” as having no correspondence with the lived world of colonial subjects.

Really interesting mapping of the moral landscape of colonialism as Africans saw it, in that some Europeans could get praise names rather than critical names. This is really important: we’re finally beginning to open up the landscape of colonial rule as morally variegated and full of complex causal and hermeneutical loops.

Ch. 2 the road as the symbols of the corvee and of colonialism as a whole. “The construction of roads made colonialism abusive, created misgivings about promises of economic progress, swelled the hearts of Congolese villagers with anger, and stimulated resistance.” p. 39 Ch. 2 is actually a good compact summary of village-level experience of colonialism, in some ways I’d prefer it for a class over Vansina’s Kuba book.

Love the praise-name chapter: this is wonderfully subtle thinking, worked with a lot of care. “These illustrations show that for all the atrocities of colonialism and the ruthless brutality of its agents, village people appreciated friendship, learning and the new technical skills that improved the quality of their lives and conditions of work.” p. 121 So there are genuine praise-names and then there are those that are closer to James Scott’s “weapons of the weak”–names whose seeming praise masks a sly double-meaning.

“Mister Tall” or “Big Boss”; “Mister Handsome”–emasculating praisenames understood by colonial officials as literal descriptions. Classic “weapons of the weak”, but raises the same questions about trees falling in forests–this communicates a kind of moral understanding between local people but it can’t ever flash over into being known to the colonizer without losing its usefulness. But the colonizer also knows all the time that there is a kind of local or secret knowledge about him, or is at least worried about this–this is the kind of thing White is thinking about a bunch in Speaking With Vampires.

Arun Agrawal, Environmentality

Agrawal, Arun. Environmentality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.


Environmental subjectivity as a result of “involvement in struggles over resources an in relation to new institutions and changing calculations of self-interest and notions of the self”. p. 3 So both complicated feedback loops but also agency.

Forests and villages defined in order to control fires: how categories are required to exercise power. Once you make the category “forest”, you can imagine a form of state power that would control the forest and human activity within it. So how to do you make the category forest? surveys, typologies, techniques of intervention and management, surveillance, etc.

But then why do villagers protest the creation and management of forest? Fires. Which is why you make the category! So you now are managing forest AND village and criminalizing in the process activities which had taken place within “the forest” but without any sense of “the forest” as a categorically distinct subject.

So in connecting, you create “environmental subjects”: people who govern forest; “governmentalized localities”. You teach ways of thinking about it (“you are now responsible for forest”; “you are a villager”). But this is not coercion and resistance; it is something more complicated. Not really “negotiation” either.

“Governmentalization of the environment was accomplished in India was accomplished in India by the creation, activation and execution of new procedures for surveying, demcarcating, consolidating, protecting, planting, managing, harvesting and marketing forests.”p. 12 Particular agencies and experts were responsible for these processes and procedures, and undergoing these procedures in turn changed how they saw and interacted with forests.

“New ways to govern forests were the result of changing perceptions about their potential uses, among them naval manufacture, sleeper ties for the railways, the production of turpentine, and of course revenue generation. Emerging demands because of greater commercialization, strategic imperial needs and the consolidation of empire were crucial in shaping how state officials regarded forests…new procedures and regulations based on statistical representations and numericized relationships also defined forests and redefined legitimate ways to use them. They rendered some types of uses inappropriate and wasteful, illegal and ill-considered. They validated other types of uses on grounds of efficiency. They excluded some existing users. They favored others. They were mediating organizational forms in the widespread extension of new views about forests.” p. 13

“There is a third facet to the process, which is given the singular name of decentralization: the making of environmental subjects. Environmental subjects are those for whom the environment constitutes a critical domain of thought and action.” p. 16

Governmentality: e.g., that which can be governed, as distinct from government, that which governs. Governmentality allows government itself to be dispersed over a wide range of institutions and actors.

“Concurrent processes of regulation and subject making that underpin all efforts to institute new technologies of government”. p. 24

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts

Ch. 1 “Can the Mosquito Speak?”

About as iconic an example of a Foucauldian approach to technopolitical analysis as you’re going to find. Would also be good as a way to think about actor-network theory or something rather like it.

Starts with what seems like environmental determinism, but very quickly switches up both by bringing increasingly complex chains of causation into the picture; second by subordinating disease and food to technological and economic institutions and the landscapes of change and action that they create; third by introducing the figure of unintended or anticipated change and quickly ramping that up to near-ontological primacy (e.g., that the complexity of causality + the full ‘landscape’ of environmental transformation + the near-certainty of unintended effects = technopolitical change is always unmanageable and inevitably destructive, but that power allows some human agents and institutions to weather unmanageability better.)

“Dams, blood-borne parasites, synthetic chemicals, mechanized war, and man-made famine coincided and interacted.” But says: it’s not enough that they interacted–that’s a fairly conventional kind of argument in environmental and technological history (add a new variable! add a new relationship!).

Commandment against “isolating” any factor or element from interaction–that this is not just an ordinary error, but crucial to the functioning of technopolitical power. The list of things that should not be isolated out multiplies on p. 28: colonialism, nationalism, developmentalism, social class and social change, capitalism, globalization, modernity. And the attempt to stand in a “universal” location to appreciate all those additions is in turn yet another part of technopolitical power–the analyst is outside of and exempt from the analysis.

What does it mean to make organisms, water, dams, institutions into actors w/agency? In part that (following in his reading Marx) there is no human agency without technics; that all agency is hybrid–human-water, government-dam, mosquito-building. By p. 34 I’d argue that the repudiation of a liberal theory of agency is so total however that the human is now somewhat indistinguishable from “additional agencies, circulations and forces”, that no kind of atomism or distinction is permitted. Take that too seriously and language itself is indicted in the dock.

“It was an important aspect of the politics of technical expertise that these failures were overlooked, in fact actively covered up. Techno-science had to conceal its extrascientific origins. Nowhere…was it mentioned that every one of these technologies–crop spraying, high-yield corn, drainage mechanisms, fertilizer plants, or a mud brick more resistant to disease–were themselves responses (and unsuccessful responses) to problems caused by earlier techno-scientific projects, in particular the Aswan Dam.” p. 42

Even that which technopolitical work calls its progress or triumph, in Mitchell’s reading, is the outcome of unintended or unanticipated systematic effects. But this for me is another huge objection in the end to Mitchell’s framing (throughout the book): that a theory of unintention (or emergence) should allow that sometimes unintention subverts or destroys existing structures of power, and that sometimes broadly speaking “good” things happen. Either way is kicking modernism in the and I’m all for that–it denies that for the most part that we can consciously name a goal that is based on independent, objective analysis and then consciously measure the steps necessary to reach the goal. But there is a problem with assuming that unintention always preserves forms of rule or power and that it always has a perverse directionality.

Strongest possible statement against: nature/culture; material/idealist; naturalist/agentive; environment/society, reason/forces and so on.

I understand Mitchell’s assertion that this does not mean “introducting a limitless number of actors and networks, all of which are somehow of equal significance and power”. But it’s not clear on what basis we could provide a limit if not through the kind of reasoning that social science provisions.