Category Archives: Disciplinary and Specialist Readings

Michael de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun

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Why did I get this book?

Embarrassment at having not read it while reading a discussion between historians about important scholarship.

Having liked de Certeau’s other writing.

Need to prepare for my spring course next year that’s an oddball approach to building a canon of historical scholarship.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes. The preface alone is worth the price of admission.

Great, great example of what the “anthropological turn” did for historical scholarship. I wonder in fact if anyone has properly historicized that turn? I can think of a few people who’ve written about it, including David William Cohen, but it seems almost a better or richer way to think about what gets glossed as the “cultural turn”.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

Could make a great book to throw into the mix in an Honors seminar on witchcraft, possession, etc, or to put alongside Africanist books to complicate how students read.

Should include it in Building Canons course.

Preface fits with some of what I’m writing in both Free Agency and Rituals of Sovereignty in terms of a general view of the discipline and methodology.

I would LOVE to teach Ch. 12 in a course on the Archive as idea and practice.


“Normally, strange things circulate discreetly below our streets. But a crisis will suffice for them to rise up, as if swollen by flood waters, pushing aside manhole covers, invading the cellars, then spreading through the towns. It always comes as a surprise when the nocturnal erupts into broad daylight. What it reveals is an underground existence, an inner resistance that has never been broken…Is this the outbreak of something new, or the repetition of a past? The historian never knows which. For mythologies reappear, providing the eruption of strangeness with forms of expression prepared in advance, as it were, for that sudden inundation.” p. 1

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

I think it’s a good book on historical methodology as well–students at all levels might be able to get a sense of how research informs analysis and vice-versa, though that would take some pedagogical attention to how to read it.

Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World

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Why did I get this book?

Primarily it seemed another interesting work making the argument that decolonization in Africa did not necessarily narrowly dovetail into nationalist constructions of sovereignty as the singular and only possible outcome. Crucial for Free Agency Ch. 6.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes. Very smart, very challenging, profoundly useful both theoretically and at the level of the specific histories the book recounts.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

I could imagine using it in a few classes–the Honors seminar, possibly, if I switched in a few years to a corpus of nationalist or decolonizing texts. Maybe a course on decolonization or the global Cold War.

I will certainly be using it in both Free Agency and Rituals of Sovereignty.

Strikes me as an important “canonical” book that Africanists generally will come to know and cite within a very few years.


“They [Cesaire, Senghor, et al] attempted to transcend conventional oppositions between realism and utopianism, materialism and idealism, objectivity and subjectivity, positivism and rationalism, singularity and universality, culture and humanity. The resulting conceptions of poetic knowledge, concrete humanism, rooted universalism and situated cosmopolitanism now appear remarkably contemporary. Their insights, long treated as outmoded, do not only speak to people interested in black critical thought, anticolonialism, decolonization and French Africa and the Antilles. They also warrante the attention of those on the left now attempting to rethink democracy, solidarity and pluralism beyond the limitations of methodological nationalism and the impasses of certain currents of postcolonial and poststructuralist theory”. p. 3

“This conception of gratitude concedes too much at the outset–to Europe as wealthy benefactor and to a liberal conception of private property. For if modernity was a global process its concepts are a common legacy that already belong to all humanity: they are not Europe’s to give.” p. 11

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

One interesting thing is that it seems important to Wilder, Cooper and many others to locate an actually-existing alternative in African societies or among African, pan-African or diasporic intellectuals in the 1950s-1960s as a political rejoinder to the present. E.g., rather than Mamdani, who simply says: here is how we must resolve out the structural problems created by colonialism, Wilder et al feel it’s very important to say that the alternatives were actually thought of and possible.

What Wilder calls humanism or situated universalism is a bit of what I’m thinking of as vernacular liberalism–about what a ‘free’ society actually was in the aspirations or practices of African individuals and what it could be.

Very nice opening move on reclaiming universalism, etc. as not-parochially European. Aims straight at Chakrabarty and I think does so with great clarity.

One question it leaves hanging for me is what I mean to think about with “vernacular liberalism”, which is the extent to which these kinds of humanisms had any circulatory power beyond the master texts and key authors who occupy much of Wilder’s attention. This is almost an old-fashioned kind of intellectual history and theoretical analysis, which again makes sense if Wilder is looking to find a political imagination that’s actually situated in history that had a counterfactual or alternative understanding of decolonization’s possibilities.

I’m not sure Wilder recognizes what the limit condition on using the finely calibrated vision that he attributes to Cesaire, Senghor etc., which is precisely that it is so finely calibrated. Look in the quote above about how precisely he attributes the needle-threading here, as if anything that falls too much to one side or the other of liberalism, humanism, nationalism, etc. is tainted. Maybe this is really the problem with the contemporary left: it is not robust enough, it is too fragile–postcolonial and postmodern theory has produced a kind of fastidiousness in the political imaginary, a sense that all possible articulations of politics are notable first for their complicity in something. But that’s one of the things you can discover I think by re-reading this moment–there is not such a fastidiousness, not a sense of weariness and entrapment.

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Nairobi Heat

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Why did I get this book?

My colleague Carina Yervasi got me thinking a few years back about my perception that African literature and film tended to have a kind of didactic, formalist and stilted quality, for all that I liked some of the work that I thought of in those terms. She mentioned that there was lots of good mystery and thriller writing across sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, and not just local market/pulp literature. This was one of the books I picked up to try and get a sense of this kind of work.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes, almost too much so. Meaning that the book reads to me almost like a conscious attempt to write against the didactic, written-for-the-West quality of older African literature (the author is now a professor at Cornell University), so it feels a bit like it is that interesting space that is not quite a genre work but wants to productively use genre conventions. Strong sense of indebtedness to Walter Mosley in that sense.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

Could use it in my Africa Travellers/Travellers to Africa course if I teach it again. Wish I had used it this last year, in fact.

If I ever teach a course in histories of crime, policing, smuggling, shadow economies, etc. in Africa/British Empire/comparative, it might be fun to use it.

Obviously belongs in any listing of recent thriller/detective work set in Africa and/or by Africans. Might make a very interesting book to be read alongside something like Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, etc: white authors trying to use Africa as a backdrop for thrillers/detective stories.


“If I was to give advice to black criminals, I would tell them this: do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught.”

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

There’s something about the voice of the main character that doesn’t quite ring right to me, maybe because there’s a kind of odd unsituatedness about his actual work as a cop, and also because there is still the odd hint of the didactic in the way that characters announce and reflect on their sociologies and cultural locations in a way that’s too diagrammatic. But also just it’s really too on the nose or generic at points–the character thinks stuff like “This tea is amazing!” in a way that feels lacking in craft or sharply observed. I wonder if the second book is better in this sense?

Peter Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging

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Why did I get this book?

1. Really like Geschiere’s other work.
2. Helps for thinking about sovereignty and the legacies of indirect rule/decentralization in my current writing.
3. Good model for comparative analysis of Africa and Europe.
4. Thought it might be good to teach.
5. Timely on migration–even more since written.
6. Helps potentially with a critique of romantic conceptualizations of indigenous rights.

Is it what I thought it was?

Yes: great for unpacking indigeneity and authocthony, and their relationship to current structures of globalization, citizenship and migration.

No: way harder to teach to undergraduates than I thought. (Used it in Honors seminar, a real struggle). Very erudite, densely referential. Would be a great book for a graduate seminar in multiple respects, and not just in African Studies.

What continuing uses might I have for it?

1. Should use “Decentralization and Belonging” for Free Agency 6.
2. Treatment of the idea of the “stranger” is useful for lectures in West African history. Chapter Four.
3. Epilogue would be useful in some contexts of discussion of migration, citizenship, etc. in comparative or Africanist conversations.
4. Bibliography is good on Africanist theories of the state up to 2008 or so.


“So the soil does not speak for itself. This is why it is important to historicize notions like autochthony with their naturalizing implications. The ‘global conjucture of belonging’ brought a return of highly localized preoccupations, as the flip side of intensifying processes of globalization.” p. 223

Asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints

I’m not sure where this leaves us. E.g., I think anthropologists and historians in 2008 already knew that indigeneity was mostly empirically untrue and often ethically dubious. Geschiere helps a bit with laying out the specific cultural and political histories that have given it power, but if anything since 2008 the authority of invocations of indigeneity and authenticity have accelerated, especially in progressive discourses in social media. God help the incautious intellectual who steps naively into some of those conversations to tell people that their sense of authentic experience of locality and belonging is a construction that has potentially “predatory” effects that are invisibly tied to the destructive impact of globalization. There are ways in which the very worked-out political and analytic terrain of the 1990s and 2000s that this book arises out of have very quickly been shoved aside by the very phenomena that Geschiere is analyzing.

Scott and Hirschkind, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors

David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, eds., Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Primarily interested in two essays in this volume: Scott’s “The Tragic Sensibility of Talal Asad”, which connects to Scott’s general ideas about interpreting colonialism as tragedy, and more urgently Jon E. Wilson’s “Subjects and Agents in the History of Imperialism and Resistance”, which assesses Asad’s arguments about agency.

Notes are on Wilson’s “Subjects and Agents”.

Jon E. Wilson, “Subjects and Agents in the History of Imperialism and Resistance”, pp. 180-205.

“One of the most powerful elements of Talal Asad’s work over the last decade or so has been his genealogical critique of the ‘modern’ use of the category of agency. Asad places the concept of agency at the center of the modern intellectual landscape he terms ‘secularism’…[secularism] is a conceptual enviroment that presupposes certain ways of defining how religion, ethics, the nation and politics relate to each other.” p. 180

“Within these discourses, agency is never a clear-cut category. Its functioning relies on the operation of rules of inclusion and exclusion, tensions and contradictions that articulate and sustain the power differential between the West and the non-European world.” p. 180

“Over the last twenty years the category of agency has become centrally important to the way in which historians and anthropologists write about the relationship between Europe and the non-European world. When it was intially invoked by historians and others…the concept was used to challenge the elitist assumption that the poor and marginalized are merely passive victims of elite oppression. Progressive historians argued that subaltern peoples were self-determining historical agents who challenged, resisted and attempted to liberate themselves from the oppressive social and political structures they inhabited. The assumption that subalterns were autonomous, self-activating agents whose history was ‘their own’ required the historian to challenge teleological narratives that saw the peasant or worker as the passive subject of a process directed from elsewhere (by, for instance, abstract socio-economic forces, the colonial region, or politically conscious elite politicians.)” p. 181

Very nice summary of subalternist use of agency!

“Yet, as a number of scholars have noted, the desire to discover agency is itself part of precisely such a Eurocentric narrative of historical change. The assertion of subaltern agency is one component of a modern style of reasoning that posits the autonomous, self-determining human subject (whether that subject is the individual person or collective group) as the beginning and end points in a process of global social transformation. It is the product of a form of secular political commitment that asserts that emancipation only occurs when human beings are freed from the social and political structures that prevent them from leading fulfilled, self-determining lives–whether liberation takes the form of a liberal democratic state or a socialist society. In order to resist ‘colonial and nationalist discursive hegemonies’ a history that attempts to free subalterns from ‘the will of a the colonial and national elite’ needs to pose the autonomy of the subaltern’s consciousness by invoking a category of agency produced by the kind of Eurocentric story about global emancipation that the subaltern critique was initially designed to overturn.” p. 182

This is a good description of where postcolonial theory found itself on this and many other issues, and why I think poco theory was and still is a kind of frustrating dead end–“futilitarian”. For the following reasons:

a) this line of critique is subject to endless recursion–it’s arguably only Eurocentrism that would produce a critique of a critique of a critique etc.

b) it assumes, as so many glosses of Orientalism/Eurocentrism do, that the Eurocentric story was created only by the agency of Western domination in the first place, e.g., it’s a kind of “auteur theory” of modernity. If instead this sort of political imagination is the product of all sorts of relational and dialogic moments, then it’s not solely the product of or instrument of Western domination.

c) The phobia here of universalism both as objective and as phenomenon is crippling, perhaps intentionally–here is where I think nationalism and nationalist visions of sovereignty enter in the picture, even when some of the poco critics are expressly anti-nationalist on paper–the invocation of particularity and specificity against the universal, the counterfactual of postcolonial theory (“what we would have been but for”) is always particularist and inevitably also like a singularity–something that one cannot look inside. What this gets the critic out of is having to say what’s wrong with universalist (even Eurocentric universalist) conceptions of politics, personhood, etc. To me the way out remains to think of fomulations like agency as sociopolitical/intersubjective technologies. Which doesn’t absolve them of history and power any more than it does penicillin, but it suggests that to deny penicillin in order to achieve sovereignty/autonomy/authenticity is the extreme move that it is (and again with the recursion: is the Eurocentric imagination of what the ‘customary’ or ‘traditional’ entail, the subtraction of modernity to some kind of remainder).

“In South Asian studis in particular, as a result of the theoretical difficulties that agency poses, forms of history-writing that depend upon its explicit use have been quietly abandoned.” p. 182

“Even if the category of agency is no longer invoked quite as often as it once was, it remains an implicit component within many aspects of historical research. In the following pages, I suggest that the work of Talal Asad provides a set of tools that historians and others can use to prise apart the rather limiting terms of an old debate about agency–a debate whose aftereffects nonetheless continue to linger in the historiography of the non-European world…Asad challenges the tendency of historians and anthorpologists to conflate subjectivity and agenacy. Asad notes that scholars tend to assume that an analysis of subjective consciousness is adequate to explain the agentive power human beings have in the world. But, as he puts it, “the structres of possible actions…are logically independent of the consciousness of actors.’ Asad asks us to separate conscious subjectivity from agentive power.” p. 183 Quotes from Genealogies of Religion.

“The landholder’s way of understanding the world, his or her sense of self, was defined by idioms of authority that did not always include the vast majority of his or her subjects or tenants. The landholding self was constituted in languages about kinship and lineage, about status and substance, which involved a dialogue with peers in civic bodies such as the eka-jai (community council) and in royal courts of one sort or another, not only with tenants and subjects of a signficantly lower social status. Nonetheless, these elitist idioms of self-constitution were undermined by the practical recognition that the landholder’s authority could only be upheld in practice by maintaining a dialogic relationship with his or her subjects. The landhold would offer peasants concessions sufficient to prevent rebellion or mass migration, but would employ other means to retain that role when they were able to…an analysis that concentrates on the autonomous consciousness of either of these groups is unable to explain the events or the unequal power relations that occurred.” p. 187

“An examination of the thoughts and deeds of British officials shows that they took for granted their ability to act autonomously to a far greater degree than the other groups we have looked at…” p. 187

“In order to maintain their authority–to avoid the possibility of a rebellion and secure a continuing revenue stream–the colonial regime reinvented itself on a regular basis. In doing so, it also transformed the language it used to legitimate its own authority.” p. 188-189

“One needs to go beyond this [Asad’s distinction between agency as action and consciousness/subjectivity] and show how a historical process…cannot be explained with reference to any coherent agentive subject, whether conscious or not. This is the case for two reasons. First of all, the historical process that produces particular events (e.g., ‘the rebellion’) occurs as the consequence of a process of interaction between subjects (whether conscious nor not) who are constituted in different ways, each with their own conscious and unconscious tendencies and trajectories. The agency that produced the rebellion and its repression did not exist inherently in one of those forces (such as ‘capitalism’, the revenue-maximizing logic of the colonial regime, the consciousness of peasants, demographics, or whatever), but rather in a set of power-relations that flowed between them in their interaction. Secondly, the way the subjects that participated in these events were constituted was itself the product of the contingent historical relationship between the different forces I am speaking of.” p. 189

“Searching for agency consists simply in the identification of characteristics in the thought or conduct of the insurgent subject that differe from those perceived in other modes of practice or consciousness. These characteristics are then imputed to a transcendent subject that retains those characteristics throughout the historical process. The solution is not for historians to look for different kinds of subjects, but to question the link between subjectivity and agency in its entirety.” p. 194

I think this is very useful for my “vernacular liberalism” argument in the sovereignty chapter of Spiders and Captives–e.g., I can call action to preserve the bifurcations of indirect rule a case of “vernacular liberalism” without having to posit a liberal subjectivity–an essentialized kind of individual.

“The word ‘agency’ is a surrogate for the term ‘power’–the capacity to act, affect, or influence something else. Historians who search for agency, whether the agency of the colonial official or the subaltern peasant, believe that power is possessed by the particular individual or collective subject. Different subjects possess different levels of power…The fact of rebellion–of a conscious, premeditated mode of defiance–is evidence of peasants’ power over the world they inhabit, even though its suppression is proof that their power was opposed by a stronger force.” p.194

Again very clarifying: my argument about agency in Zimbabwe is thus fundamentally that because agency is so visible in the idiosyncratic and everyday, that is evidence of just how partial and feeble the power of colonialism really was–despite its own proclamations of totality, which postcolonial theory has largely endorsed or underscored. Totality is most visible in the actions (and subjectivity) of those most incorporated into the colonial order, but that’s not where we look to document colonial totality–we look to chiefs, peasants, etc., where it is much less evident in agency.

“Power possesses strategies and tactics, moves in particular directions, and even has certain intentions, but these are never firmly attached to particular subjects”. p. 195–Foucault is being used here as theoretical guide, but this strikes more at the kind of actor-network theory that functions in Timothy Mitchell’s work and other STS scholarship–things & systems as agents

E.g., both Wilson and Asad here are striving to describe imperialism as forces, as the movement of power, but not as the moves of masterful subject-agents on a chessboard

“Connolly’s point is that if we could live more easily with contingency and inhabit a world in which all instances of human suffering did not need to be attributed to determinate, responsible agents, we could avoid the resentful attribution of evil to the other. But being at ease with contingency involves a radical epistemological shift and a vigorous critique of the secular foundations of political action. Fundamentally, it requires us to disconnect subjectivity and identity from agency. It involves a refusal to attribute all activity–good and bad–to coherent subjects, whether ourselves or another.” p. 203

I suppose what I want to do is attribute activity to coherent subjects, but not agency–e.g., to decouple “actions that change or maintain the structural status quo” from “things that individual people do”. To remain humane in our understandings of people, we need to keep the latter full of “coherent subjects”; but we need a radical schism between how the humane landscape of individual doings relates to “actions”.

“A life as both a critic and activist is possible, but it cannot exist within a single institutional and intellectual site…If we are to take seriously the assumption that the objects of our historical and anthropological inquiry have multiple identities and perform many different roles, we should apply this insight to our own lives.” p. 205

Pierre Englebert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow

Pierre Englebert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishers. 2009.

“By and large, the states of sub-Sarahan Africa are failures. Of course, not all of them are failed states where disorder and violence are rampant. And, of course, there is variation among them, with some showing greater concern for their citizens’ welfare than others. Most of them, however, have not brought about or facilitated much economic or human development for their populations since independence. Often, they have caused their people much havoc, misery, uncertainty and fear. With some exceptions, African states have been, mildly or acutely, the enemies of Africans. Parasitic or predatory, they suck resources out of their societies. At the same time, weak and dysfunctional, many of them are unable or unwilling to sustainably provide the rule of law, safety and basic property rights that have, since Hobbest, justified the very existence of states in the modern world.” p. 1

“Yet, there is a paradoxical feature of Africa’s weak states that has received much less attention: they will not go away. For all their catastrophic failures, weak African states are still around. With the partial exception of Somalia, state collapse has yet to lead to state distintegration on the continent.” p. 1

This looks different just a few years later, I think.

“Although decline and failure take place in all sorts of organizations, what is puzzling about Africa is the lack of sanction for failure. How can African states get away with their lousy performance? Why do they endure? How can these oppressive and exploitative, yet otherwise decrepit structures remain broadly unchallenged in their territories or their fundamental existence as states? How can they simultaneously display decay and stability, weakness and resilience? These are the paradoxes this book addresses.” p. 3

From patron-client relations/neopatrimonialism to ‘territorial nationalism’: Englebert suggests this made sense up to the economic collapse of the late 1970s (the postcolonial state as redistributionist) but stopped making sense afterwards. But I think he’s coming at this from political science and thus the notion that the reproduction of the state needs to be explained in terms of some form of rational choice–a proposition that if it didn’t, the state’s victims would not comply with or would resist the state’s intrusions, that there’s a prediction of secession/revolution/etc. that’s not being met.

Here I think he really does not account for the degree to which the state’s weakness is already satisfying some of those rational expectations, if they truly exist, that the desire for a strong state that Englebert presumes should exist is not what many local actors want. This is pretty much how I want to approach the reproduction of indirect rule & tradition/modernity in my own work–not as a legacy that people are helpless to escape (Mamdani) but as a project they actively reproduce in order to keep the state weak.

Englebert is looking to the exogeny of the African state to explain some of this–this is an elaboration of Cooper’s “gatekeeper state” concept.

“One can count Africa’s wars of secession on one’s fingers”. p. 16

Here I think Englebert is using formalism (wars of secession) to categorize something as rare when in fact if you think more widely African states that have regions which are very nearly functionally autonomous are pretty common. Indeed, both regions and even particular communities or districts. The idea that the DRC *or* Congo-Brazzaville have only had two “wars of secession” in the early 1960s is kind of silly. Even in 2009, he could have listed the first round of the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, the war in Northern Uganda, the conflicts in eastern Congo, Central/North Mozambique, etc. Since 2009, quite a few more.

Analysis of Chad is fairly telling–“continuous warfare among armed groups from poorly integrated communities” doesn’t count as “wars of secession” because the combatants don’t have a formal ideological demand for secession. Same for Cote d’Ivoire. I think this is mistaking what groups say they want for what they in fact get through armed action–essentially wanting to resolve them into groups with clear objectives (capture of the state, political transformation, secession) when I don’t think any of those formalisms really describe either the active intentionality or effective impact. Landau’s rethinking of 18th-19th C. state formation in southern Africa (or Ellis and Richards on Liberia and Sierra Leone) might help get past this need to ‘read out’ what’s going on in terms of formal ideologies of the state. As Englebert says, “Cultural theories are only somewhat more enlightening”. p. 23 –only somewhat more for him because again he’s treating them like hypotheses that predict action rather than vocabularies that describe it.

Fundamental argument is that sovereignty in Africa is externally driven. I think that’s fine, up to a point, but it begs the question of whether there are other kinds of authority and territoriality that are struggling to emerge.

Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

I remember hearing an early presentation version of this at some point, and then reading it somewhat distractedly the year it came out. At least at that time, it struck me as taking the sort of futilitarian position on knowledge that I saw in Timothy Mitchell’s Egypt book and going one step further–that the West and colonialism were so fundamentally impossible to unknow that the best we could do was to know about the violence of their imposition of systems of knowing. I will be curious on this reading to see if my memory is wrong.

On an initial reading, I do find that my memory is wrong–I think this must have been what Prakash himself said about the argument in the book when I heard him give a talk about it. It’s certainly an interpretation you could offer–ultimately he’s using his historical argument to say that you can’t call “Hindu science” a science, and that in some ways you can’t really understand precolonial systems of Hindu knowledge production for what they were in and of themselves because even an interest in that is inflected through colonialism. But the book is a quite careful intellectual and social history first, an epistemological meditation second.

“To the British, India was an ideal locus for science: it provided rich diversity that could be mined for knowledge and, as a colony, offered the possibility for an unhindered pursuit of science.” p. 21

“If one aim of colonial pedagogy was to instruct peasants by exhibiting their own products and knowledge organized and authorized by the science of classification, its other aim was to render manifest the principle of function so that it could be applied to improve production.” p. 23

“As the colonial discourse assembled and staged India as an object of the sciences of naming and function, it also created a place for what it sought to appropriate; indigenous artifacts and ‘tribes and races’ emerged in their native particularity as objects of scientific discourse.” p. 26

“If performance mixed science with magical spectacle, it also enhanced the importance of visuality. Museums confronted observers with an orderly organization of fossils, rocks, minerals, bones, vegetation, coins, sculptures, and manuscripts. Exhibitions, on the other hand, offered a feast to the Indian eye. Depending on the scale, no effort was spared to produce an attractive spectacle: ceremonial arches, palatial structures, military bands, lakes, fountains bathed in colored lights, food stalls, wrestling competitions, pony races and regional theater–all combined to impress the public eye and draw it to agricultural products, manufactured goods, machines, scientific invetions, and new methods of working and living.” p. 33

“As colonial conditions turned the staging of science into a wondrous spectacle, a space opened for the subjectivity and agency of the Western-educated indigenous elite. Trained in Western schools and colleges, and employed in colonial bureaucracy and modern professions, this elite acquired a visible presence in principal Indian cities and towns by the late nineteenth century. In a sense, their emergence was attributable to the colonila project of re-forming Indian subjects.” p. 34

“To advance universal claims for a people stigmatized as metaphysical and out of touch with modernity was an act of enormous imagination and ambition. Precisely such a far-reaching project came into view in late-nineteenth-century British India as the Hindu intelligentsia began to identify a body of scientific knowledge in particular Indian texts and tradition. Denying that science was alien to India, they argued with remarkable ingenuity and deep cultural learning that the ancient Hindus had originated scientific knowledge, and that this justified the modern existence of Indians as a people.” p. 86

“As important as it is to recognize the far-reaching implications of the idea of Hindu science, we should not read it too quickly as an expression of the organicity and atavism of nationalism. The enduringly powerful identification of Hindu traditions with India’s cultural texture was rooted in the colonial predicment of Hindu intellectuals. While the West was enabled by its global expansion to assert the universality of its reason in spite of its particularity, the colonized were denied this privilege; their historical fate was to assert the autonomy and universality of their culture in the domain of the nation.” p. 89

Prakash is quite clear that this is not in some arbitrary sense an “invented tradition”–that there was some very sophisticated reading of Vedic knowledge by Hindu intellectuals in the early 20th Century to make the claim that there was a Hindu universality–it’s more that Prakash wants to point out that a “universality” is itself fundamentally part of modernity’s imagination, that this involves finding in the Hindu past something that could not in that sense have been there. But that surely goes just as much for the West–which is often what Foucault and others are getting at–the West looks backward into “itself” and invents something that wasn’t really there even as it empties out the possibility of understanding what was “really” there without having to reference the West’s invention of itself.

Ray’s History of Hindu Chemistry: “not a work of nationalist cheerleading, but a work of immense sophistication and erudiction that assessed the achievements of Hindu alchemy from the point of view of modern experiments and observations. Rayt never claimed that Hindu alchemy was an experimental science, but only that its development in India was owed to indigenous sources, not to Greek influence, as European Orientalists were wont to believe.” p. 102

“What are we to make of the unmistakable sense of ruin and desolation that the fabricated remembrance of the past produced? Could the Hindu past serve as the culture of the modern nation without producing a searing sense of loss?” p. 106

“The passionate belief in the existence of an indigenous tradition of science was no mere fantasy. As Indian intellectuals demonstrated with patient and persuasive scholarly studies and argued with passion and conviction, scientific thought was not alien to the subcontinent’s traditions.” p. 228

“With the vital sign of modernity–science–lodged in the ‘inner’ fiber of the nation, India could be modern without being Western.” p. 231

“Colonial rule saw itself as an agent of bringing the timeless ‘native’ into the present, into the time of History. Nationalism shared this agenda. It, too, thought that India had to be awakened from its slumber and live a full lif ein the modern world; and science and technology were alluring because they would help India catch up with the West. Sharing an intimate relationship, colonialism and nationalism constituted India in a time that is at once different from that of the West and from that of India’s traditions. From this arises the specific trajectory of Indian modernity” p. 233

“Neither community nor modernity appear in themselves, nor have they ever done so. If Hindu majoritarianism cannot pass as the resurgence of the authentic tradition, neither can the secular nation be defended as the pure domain of rationality and modernity.” p. 237

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

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.