Author Archives: Timothy Burke

Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With Congo

Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With Congo

First went to Congo as humanitarian aid worker, Medicos Sin Fronteras.

“It became clear to me that local agendas drove a large part of the continuing violence. Why then did diplomats, United Nations officials, and nongovernmental organization staff members continually fail to consider the local dynamics?” p. xvii.

This is essentially the cri d’coeur of a huge body of scholarly literature, particularly Africanist literature. It’s a complicated bit of self-fulfillment, in a way: it often comes from people who first worked for development agencies or in interstate politics and who then pursued academia looking for other ways to understand what happened and why it happens.

“Two themes [in stories told by ‘perpetrators and victims of violence’] constantly recurred: the primacy of land and other micro-level issues in causing violence and producing anguish, and the unspeakable horrors perpetrated on the Congolese population. The first theme is crucial. It helps to understand why violence started, why it becameso pervasive, why it continued after the Congo embarked on a transition from war to peace and democracy, and why the efforts of international interveners failed to help the Congo build a sustainable peace.” p. 2

“The neglect of local conflicts is even more perplexing in the Congo, because we cannot attribute it to callousness, powerlessness, or inanity on the part of the foreigner interveners…Most foreign interveners genuinely tried to end organized violence in the Congo. Far from being callous, they usually were well-meaning individuals, who had often devoted their lives to combating injustice, violence and poverty…Why did almost all of them ignore the critical micro-level causes of violence?…a dominant international peacebuilding culture shaped the intervention in the Congo in a way that precluded action on local violence…this culture shaped the parameters of acceptable action.” pp. 10-11

Here I think we’re on the terrain Ferguson established in The Anti-Politics Machine, if more sympathetically to these actors: that sovereignty as both interstate and nationalist actors have codified it in Africa prevents thinking of “the local” as a domain of international and non-state actor action, and arguably prevents them even from conceding that they understand what they understand about it. To acknowledge that they understand accurately the importance of something that they also believe themselves unable to intervene within–unable both as a matter of having the right instruments and in having the right to do so–is to understand that the whole enterprise is futile.

Autesserre doesn’t agree quite with my pessimism here, in that she thinks the interveners could understand locality and could choose to conceptualize their intervention as legitimately concerned with it. For all that I don’t think that faith is quite warranted, she pulls a very nice trick off in terms of conceptualizing the problem with intervention as cultural in an almost classic “pathology of poverty” sense–e.g., that the interveners have habitual, institutionalized ways of thinking and acting that keep them stuck repeating the same mistakes. And like anyone with a project of naming culture as the problem, she has faith that there can be an intervention in the interveners–that their habitual, bounded practices and thinking can be changed or remolded. This requires her to not accept that there is any sense in which the failure of intervention reinforces the deeper interests of the interveners (which I take to be Ferguson’s argument in Anti-Politics Machine) or that it is a structural, discursive requirement of the institution itself (which would be more my point).

Clear, incisive rebuttal of any argument for intrinsic or “bottom-up” explanations of postwar conflict in Congo; also a clear history of international intervention and ideas of sovereignty. What’s bottom-up here in her view is not violence but disputes over land, property, and local forms of bureaucratic authority.

Very rich, detailed history of how attempts to craft “local solutions” were frustrated or dispersed within the intervention. This is the most original, startling material in the book, I think. (Chapter Five)

“Throughout the transition, most international actors continued to perceive local tensions as a secondary cause of violence and grassroots conflict resolution as an unfeasible and illegitimate task. This collective understanding shaped not only the overall intervention strategy away from micro-level involvement, but also the international actors’ perception of the obstacles they would have faced had they tried to become involved at the grassroots level. They viewed the institution of sovereignty, as we as mandate, financial, logistical and human limitations as absolute constraints instead of manageable problems. As a result, interveners let local tensions fester to the point where they jeopardized the macro-level settlements many times both during and after the transition.” p. 230

Artonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

Full of wonderful quotes. This larger idea that theater–or art–must be cruel is something that really seems important to me. It’s an important counter to the very tedious assertion (by some of our students among others) that the first and last thing to know about artistic work is its ethics, about whether it is doing “good work” and avoids at all costs cruelty.

“Our long habit of seeking diversion has made us forget the idea of a serious theater, which, overturning all our preconceptions, inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.” pp. 84-85

“Everything that acts is a cruelty. It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theater must be rebuilt.” p. 85

Jody Enders, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty

Jody Enders, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty, Chapter 3

“Early theorists of rhetoric, dramatists and practitioners of theater display the same behaviors of uncovering and repression…they construct rhetoric as a nonviolent and spectacular way to mediate the violence that accounts for its own genesis. They then go on to denounce selected types of community violence that rhetoric’s inherent violence is morally obliged to extinguish.” pp. 161-162

Rhetoric as a form of producing the surrogate victim of Girard.

“When medieval dramatic productions regaled spectators with an extensive repertoire of special effects that were designed to render pain and suffering as realistically as possible, they consistently pushed the limits of witnessing, impersonation and violence.” Enders args that this also explains incorporation of “real violence” into medieval/Renaissance drama.

[here’s a question: why does rhetoric work to produce power? The answer, via Foucault: because institutions/prior historicities/epistemes/power. But no wonder then genealogy and its hostility to origins: this is the kind of banishment of causality that drives conventional social scientists batty–it’s a “because” that answers almost nothing–or that makes mute whatever it is that rhetoric is working its violence upon]

“ludic violence against Christ”: the playfulness of Christ’s torturers is tied to the horror and gruesome character of games of chance generally

catharsis’ intellectual and cultural roots as a concept: to “purge emotion” and therefore permit the distanced, balanced, etc. subject to step forward to act

“the most beautiful [execution] ever seen” p. 188: what is going on here in Enders’ reading? are there others?

“Among the most haunting features of the history of torture is the transmutation of the role of witness/spectator to that of participant/victim. That is, victims of torture are forced to view the staging of their own dismemberment.” p. 188

Is the audience participating in the catharsis of violence and torture “acquiring or abandoning agency”? p. 191

Enders argues strongly that medieval audiences did not think of the violence of drama as “not really happening”, quite the contrary–that the drama was a mimetic re-enactment

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance, Ch. 2 “Photojournalism and Human Rights”

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance Ch. 2

“Documents of suffering are documents of protest”. p. 33

Fits w/Agamben in that she says: the photograph shows a form of the exception–they document or display what a human without rights is or looks like. p. 37

What of images of suffering, tortured bodies where the torture is not meant as a documentation (and cannot be read of a documentation) of a human deprived of rights but instead re: Agamben is of a sacred life? Mayan codices showing sacrificed prisoners, for example.

Photography of torture, violence, suffering is defended against the charge of pornography: it shows “something that ought not to exist”. Are there photographs of tortured or suffering bodies which are about normalcy? What about Stelarc? Surgery? Boxers after the fight? Saints?

“Too-beautiful” is defended just on the notion that “portraying suffereing” is imperfect and impure. I think she’s not really coming to grips with the beautiful, interesting, enthralling, etc. of violence–but then the critics who charge “pornography” are equally not coming to grips with that. Re: Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: this is collapsing many genres, texts, and desires into the need to read out one category or sensation and either permit or forbid it ethically.

I agree w/Linfield that “desensitization” is a nonsense argument that has all sorts of flaws in the way that it connects media observers/consumers with crimes of commission–it is a subset of all the bad arguments about media and violence. It also has within it the equally flawed assertion that somehow “good representation” creates sensitivity–this is the whole awful infrastructure of art-as-intentional-politics rising up into this space.

What does it mean, in terms of her interpretation, that all these torturers and murderers filmed themselves? What does it take for it to be a sabotage, or for these photographs to be on the side of the victims, to be accusations? Isn’t most of our reaction, re: Agamben, that they had no right? E.g., that these are only murderers? (or in the context of Abu Ghraib, “bad apples”). When a photograph is taken of an exception that is broadly granted to the sovereign–the battlefield dead, Dillinger dead, does it accuse anyone? What about Mussolini hung? Qaddafi dead?

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer

Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

This is totally an aside, but there is something in me that increasingly rebels at a philosophical or theoretical exploration that begins (inevitably, almost) with what the Greeks thought, only to conclude that what the Greeks thought is not the progenitor of a long lineage of thinking but instead to some extent another episteme, that modernity is alien or unthinkable within a classical Greek way of thought–that the Greeks are used as a way to have another possibility than the modern, but one with sufficient complexity (in part so the philosopher and theorist can show themselves adequately credentialed to do intellectual work) and without the presumed dilemmas of alterity that non-Western examples present.

Biopolitics, explored via Foucault, re: its possible extensions and further intellectual development. Liberation from power that derives out of sovereignty, to power that is a property or a field that permeates social relations, institutionalizations of all kinds, etc. Agamben wants to explore relation between biopower and sovereign power. “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”. p. 6

“The protagonist of this book is bare life, that is, the life of homer sacer (sacred man), who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, and whose essential function in modern politics we intend to assert.” p. 8

“Bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion.” p. 11

Agamben is partly trying to initiate an account of Marxist/anarchist inability to understand the state–I’m not entirely sure what the inadequacy of a simpler, more classically liberal or libertarian analysis is in that respect, that many radicals underestimate the state because they regard it as simply subordinate to or sheltering capital. But this does take the thought further: what kinds of power might be distinctive to sovereignty, and what kinds of personhood and practices do they produce?

Now familiar, derived in part from Schmitt, proposition of the exception–that the sovereign is inside and outside of law or juridical power all at once. This is where “natural law” proponents come in and are pretty much dismissed out of hand–their insistence that there is some limit to the sovereign in human nature, in God, in some principle outside and beyond the sovereign (as opposed to some material or practical limit) just can’t stand up given that these limits do not function unless the sovereign describes, accepts and interprets them. E.g., the sovereign uses the juridical to describe what the juridical does not address. “Inalienable rights”, but if they were, we should not need a Constitution to specify them or identify their existence. If I set the rule that prohibits me from acting, then I can unset the rule: the rule does not exist before nor will not persist after my willingness to set it. If the protection of the citizen from the sovereign is by the magnaminous consent of the sovereign, then it is no protection at all.

I wonder a bit if this underrates the materiality of history. Take a similar position: identity is constructed. But this does not mean that one can at will unconstruct it, adopt any other identity, etc.: the history and structure of identity has a kind of materiality in the present that’s important.

For our course, it is Ch. 3, Sacred Life, that is the biggest payoff–it explains why the elaborated ritual or ceremonial setting aside of a particular kind of “exception”–essentially, why the state is not a murderer, why the sovereign is entitled to the exception. “Life exposed to death” is “the originary political element”.

“The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule”. p. 168-169

As always in this sort of work, there is a kind of presumption of descriptive universality out of the specificity of Western history–I wonder for example how highly organized stateless societies (Igbo) would work in relationship to this description.

Certainly to re-read this after 2001 is to have an interesting new understanding of al-Qaeda and “stateless actors”, especially Ch. 5 Threshold–very much explains why so many cited or turned to Agamben at that point. Osama bin Laden as the “bandit” of bare life? The exception becoming the rule in a new and different way, the world as “camp” which the sovereign can strike at will from no particular place?

Ernst Junger, “On Danger”

Ernst Junger, “On Danger”, New German Critique, 59: Spring/Summer 1993.
Stable JSTOR link.

This is my first experience reading Junger–have been catching up a lot on the context. Shows how spotty my European cultural history really is–British and French contexts so dominate my understanding due to the connection to modern empire.

Can’t help but think of the Patton speech, but also of Lawrence and the Spanish Civil War–seems a kind of carry-over of one lineage of Counter-Enlightenment romanticism, that war or violence are one kind of spectacular rupture that disrupts bourgeois rationalism. In certain ways also reminds of Fanon’s thinking on violence.

“the securing of life against fate, that great mother of danger, appears as the truly bourgeois problem”. p. 28 The way that some cultural historians have approached the role of gambling (and metaphors of gambling) in American history comes to mind here as another version of this–the deep attachment to the possibility of great luck is what keeps some people from demanding the security of equity.

Almost proto-Foucauldian reading of danger as the necessary partner of the production of order–that claims about order must produce danger in equal measure and then reproduce danger as ubiquitous spectacle, an environment out of which order must be constantly saved and produced. And the orderly have to be reminded of danger, risk, violence?

As in the photography essay, Junger is taken by the ubiquity of recording, documentation, visuality, that soon everything will be seen, photographed, archived.

“Our time is prompted by human need–which explains,among other things,the success of war literature. We already possess a new style of language, one which gradually becomes visible from underneath the language of the bourgeois epoch. The same, however, is true of our style altogether; it is reminiscent of the fact that the automobile was for a long time constructed in the form of a horse-drawn coach, or that a wholly different society has already long since established itself beneath the surface of bourgeois society. As during the inflation,we continue for a time to spend the usual coins, without sensing that the rate of exchange is no longer the same. In this sense, it may be said that we have already plunged deeply into new, more dangerous realms, without our being conscious of them.” p. 32

Really interesting. Worth talking about the “new, more dangerous realms”.

I really feel a need to read comprehensively the Counter-Enlightenment.

Ernst Junger and Anthony Nassar, “War and Photography”

Ernst Junger and Anthony Nassar, “War and Photography”, New German Critique, 59: Spring-Summer 1993.
Stable Jstor link.

“A war that is distinguished by the high level of technical precision required to wage it, is bound to leave behind documents more numerous and varied than battles waged in earlier times, less present to consciousness”. p. 24

I think this shows a bit at the extent to which “contemporary history” is sometimes too eager to pronounce the divergence or distinctiveness of the present, to see time’s arrow moving in a particular direction. Because it doesn’t seem so now: so many of the wars fought between 1993-2013 have been unphotographed, undocumented, undescribed. Even the war in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 less so in its battlefields and more so in its occupations, and most famously so against the will of those who planned the war–who were undone in part by the ubiquity of personal photography. E.g., Abu Ghraib was photographed not because of an official desire for documentation but because almost anyone can create photographic and violent spectacle now. Humanists aren’t any better at being futurists than anyone else, I think–the projection into a future seems to be the way to deliver an authority about one’s readings of the present. But I should appreciate more the context I guess in which Junger was perceived to be reading this shift or change.

“For the attentive observer, a collection of such optical documents opens the way for a valuation of war not only as a succession of battles, but in its essence, as labor as well. In particular, the viewer is offered a singular view of horror and of the desolation of a landscape that will in all probability never be repeated.” p. 25

“Weapons are becoming continually more abstract, developing in stride with the technological world in general; increased mechanization makes them more mobile and effective at greater distances. One could guess that the army of engines which will carry these weapons across the land and through the air will no longer tolerate an extended stalemate on the front…”p. 25

Seems to me a huge difference between those photographs/videos created as spectacle, those deposited as document, and those captured by presence and accident…

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.

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.