Monthly Archives: December 2013

Charles Piot, Nostalgia For the Future: West Africa After the Cold War

Charles Piot, Nostalgia For the Future: West Africa After the Cold War

“It would not be exaggerating too much to say that everyone in Togo is trying to leave–by playing the lottery, by traying to get into European or American universities, by arranging fictitious marriages with foreigners, by joining churches that might take them abroad, by hoping to be signed by a European soccer team, by joining the fan club that accompanies the national soccer team overseas.” p. 4

Argues that ‘decentralized despotism’ came undone in the 1990s–“the state was a whisper of its former self”. Part of what I’d ask about this is whether this isn’t true everywhere–that in the 1990s, the modernist state in all its forms had come “undone”, was becoming incapable of doing anything that it either had imagined itself as able to do or that it had in actual memory done in the past. Could the modernist state ANYWHERE except in some European social democracies create a major highway system? A huge new public works program? Expand or seriously innovate in its provision of social services?

“The rejection of the dictatorial state was driven by popular protest as much as by the World Bank and the embassies”. p. 7

“The new moment…suggests that we see African ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ as atavistic and Pentecostalism as progressive (and even locally authored), that we measure ‘agency’ through engagement with rather than rejection of Euro-otherness, that we look for politics in unlikely places, surrendering familiar notions of the political, and that we commit to a position in which sacrificing the past and all that is known is the only way to the future.” p. 10

Description of Eyadema is very familiar: there is a technology of postcolonial state power, dictatorial power, that we should try to trace. How was this actually shared or communicated? [here is my Cold War stuff coming through] This can’t have just been emergent convergence on the same things.

“A notable omission in the holiday cycle: April 27, the day of Togolese independence from colonial rule–excluded because it was also the birthday of Eyadema’s political rival, Sylvanus Olympio.” p. 27

“As with those new regimes of accumulation that accompanied the neo-liberal/post-Cold War moment, so too new logics of violence emerged during this period. The state monopoly on violence that typified the Cold War years was broken and–with the emergence of new criminal networks, the proliferation of security firms, and the rise of uniformed state (police/military) actors seeking person again–was replaced by regimes of violence that were more diffuse and privatized.” p. 38

Politics of illusion and spectacle; Mbembe’s excess and vulgarity

“A grand irony of the late Eyadema years: that, in adapting to the new realities of the post-Cold War moment, the potentate oversaw and even engineered his own deconstruction”. p. 43

Pentecostalism as defining post-Cold War move, could make an interesting class/theme for a class? Better for colleagues to do that, though.

Piot’s definition of “affect” really does not help me much. In fact it makes me much more uneasy about the spread of the term.

How different is “exit strategy” from strategic migrancy/shifting locality in the colonial era? Indeed, is this a thing that really defines African modernity? A deliberate blurring of one’s presence in place, the permanent preparation for flight? [Perhaps in this sense American cosmopolitans aren’t joking when they say, “If that guy gets elected, I’m leaving”.]

Relation to White’s Speaking With Vampires: this is what an ethnography that views anything said as grist for the analytic mill looks like; in Piot (and his informants’) view, this is a requirement of a place where nobody knows what’s real (cf. the fake? coup attempt).

This is not the discourse of sovereignty I’m looking for in my own struggles with the analyzing the idea, though the readings/uses of Agamben and Hardt/Negri are kind of useful.

NGOs/churches/schoolteachers as a sort of alliance displacing “traditional authority”: is this what Mamdani hoped for (no, I think). Mamdani is still operating in the space where the modernist nation is the solution to colonialism, and the only possible source of meaningful agency; Piot is perceiving the post-Cold War African state as suffused with agency. (Very like Hecht and Simone in Invisible Governance).

Nicolas Argenti, The Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields

Nicolas Argenti, The Intestines of the State

Wonderful, useful characterization of gerontocracy in African societies: “African political hierarchies are said to be gerontocratic not because men (and to some extent women) accumulate power as a function of growing old but, on the contrary, they can only grow old to the extent that they have successfully accumulated wealth and power.” p. 8

Classic methodological statement of the need to describe African experiences in localized or indigenous categories and imaginaries in introduction, in part to argue from the outset that masking and youth are interpenetrated or interrelated subjects/experiences/practices.

“Mimetic appropriation” as a new way to characterize mimicry–connection to Ranger’s treatment of Beni ngoma; sapeurs also mentioned.

“If the children of the Grassfields ‘talk back’, they do not do so in ways that one might expect them to. Cadets do not verbally berate their elders or their chiefs, nor do they even complain about them privately to each other that often.” p. 22

Reorganization of the periodization/time of African history–modernity as spanning the late precolonial, colonial and postcolonial.

“The origin myths do not emphasize the generosity of the founding ancestors as much as their cunning and violence against the autochthons they conspire to decimate and to rob of their land.” p. 41

Reading Mabu the hunter masquerade as performative, embedded history–why is Mabu both the most feared and one of the most anticipated/pleasing masquerades? (Ch. 3) “Mabu the wild beast confronts the people of the Grassfields with the inhuman danger of the liminal stranger allegedly lurking in the bush on the periphery of the polity, Mabu the hunter reassures the citizens that the palace protects them from this exogenous threat.” p. 63 Would be a good chapter to conclude course on slavery in W. Africa–complexity of its echoes and reworkings.

Re: Ch. 4 on the modernity of slavery and German colonialism. Two interesting things–that the Germans, with no history of participation in New World slavery, should be so hesitant to abolish it in their colonial possession–because what could more mark off the inability of the colonizer to even ‘read’ the social structures of its possession? But also love the brief mention of the Chamba, a slave-raiding state formed in the generation prior to German arrival. We really, really, really need a comprehensive synthesis of 19th C. state formation across Africa to be ‘written in’ to the history of African modernity, parallel to what Taiwo suggests about “mission modernity”. So many groups are recodified by indirect rule as “traditional” in the sense of eternal autochthons and then accepted further as such by postcolonial nationalism.

Ch. 6 is terrific in so many ways. Would probably be the chapter to tell future Honors seminars to read preferentially.