Category Archives: Generalist Readings

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Nairobi Heat

LibraryThing link
Amazon link

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?

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

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

In many ways a more detailed history of the rise of state centralization and absolutism, one that goes beyond simply asserting that this was done as a command exercise, or for nakedly functional reasons. Soll instead argues that much of this had to do with Colbert’s own form of encyclopedism, and that the private or secret world of information was conceptually intertwined with the invention of the 17th & 18th Century public sphere. I find this a really smart reading of many things besides Colbert and the French state.

“Colbert sought to become a scholar of state learning: not simply a bureaucrat but an expert.” p. 7

“There are reasons tht intellectual and cultural historians have not studied the intellectual history of the state….Studies of the public sphere focus on journalism, clandestine literature, and printing; as well as sites of sociability, such as academies and the Republic of Letters, public and private communication networks, art markets, salons, learned societies, Masonic lodges, societies, coffeehouses and lending libraries. These social and cultural phenomena are often used as ilustrations of a bourgeois opposition and counterbalance to arbitrary, secretive absolute monarchy”. p. 10

Yes, but it’s also that I think we take the state as not having a “culture”, or if it does, as if its culture does not need investigation–much as we take the actuality of “capital” as sometimes uninteresting unless/until it is simultaneous with bourgeois life.

“Philip II was the first hands-on bureaucrat king of a massive empire and certainly the forerunner of his Bourbon heirs in France. His information system was so vast, so intricate, and in some cases so efficient that even the Venetian ambadssador sent his relazioni back to Venice via Spanish royal messenger posts. Yet this Planet King, on whose empire the sun never set, was never a traveler, but rather inhabited his own virtual world, enclosed in the halls of his monastery palace, the Escorial, which he filled wit mountains of dispatches and reports.” p.20

Interesting use of the concept of virtual world–as sequestered/enclosed/unreal.

“Old Italian mercantile, administrative culture had fostered humanism, and it was steeped in an ethic of technical expertise…[but]as humanist traditions evolved, they had less and less mercantile content. What had been a merchant and bureaucratic-inspired tradition of learning became increasingly literary and scientific and humanist philologists translated ancient texts and copied their content. Humanist political theory became grounded in ancient history and legal scholarship. Yet at the very moment that Tacitist humanists claimed that statecraft cold be learned through classical ethics and history, it became increasingly clear that these forms of political learning were not sufficient for managing a large, industrial, colonial and militarized state.” p. 52

Very interesting material on double-entry bookkeeping and on the technological establishment of archives. Ch. 4

Ch. 5–creation of “informers”, e.g, bureaucratic workers who were trained both to provision information back to Colbert and to carry his will or ideas out to provincial actors. “He transformed their function from provincial tax collectors, into professional observers, statistic-takers and, as Anette Smedley-Weill calls them, ‘informers’. The intendants were trained observers whom Colbert told to take notes only on what they had seen with their own eyes, and not rely on the accounts of others.” p. 70

Great use of Colbert’s system for training his son as a way to reveal both the empirical content of his system and Colbert’s authorial imagination of the system, Ch. 6.

“For Colbert, governing was about writing clearly and organizing writing into easy-to-use notebooks. The evolving humanist culture of the commonplace notebook and the Jesuit schools, along with mercantile book keeping, now became the basis of governmental pedagogy.” p. 89

“The former English chancellor and inventor of the experimental method, Francis Bacon had suggested that the sort of information collected by scholars, scientists, bureaucrats and industrialists could be formalized within the state itself. Bacon envisioned the state as a center of research and collection, which constantly acquired new information by discovery and experiment. Like Thomas Hobbes, Bacon believed that the monarch should rule over knowledge. What Bacon envisioned was not simply formal, university learning of a library, but rather a state-controlled depot of information of all sorts, constantly renewed, and potentially secret, which gave the state the monopoly on the information of politics, trade and science.” p. 97

“Colbert had no time for the formalities of the Republic of Letters, such as openness and the ethics of information exchange. His collecting techniques both disregarded the integrity of individual collections and were devoid of ethics in acquisition. Indeed, he offered to buy the Wolfenbuttel Library outright…He bought other entire collections for the Royal Library, 10,000 books at a time.” p. 102

“While Colbert’s library and research facilities produced knowledge and appeared to be practical, they also created constraints on Colbert’s government. One of the most revealing elements of Colbert’s policy archive are the files concerning colonial enterprises….while he certainly kept his large colonial administrative correspondence, he did not integrate it into his archival system for daily government. This undermined his ability to effectively manage his Canadian policy” p. 113

“The fact that Colbert mixed the worlds of state administration and scholarship so closely makes it hard to define exactly what he created. Were his intendants and agents bureaucrats in a modern sense? Or were they subservient versions of the humanist secretaries that had filled the ranks of papal and Italian administrations since the late Middle Ages? What becomes clear is that Colbert was creating a new sort of agent loyal only to the state. He actively trained information managers who could find, copy, catalog, and bring him documentation as he needed it for his day-to-day affairs. In other agents, he sought scholars to teach him how better to handle the historical material he used for government.” p. 120

“More than anything, however, was remained of Colbert’s legacy was not a permanent state information system or even tradition. Rather, Colbertism should be defined as the idea that a large-scale state would need to centralize and harness encyclopedic knowledge to govern effectively, and that all knowledge, formal and practical, could be used together in one archival system to understand and master the material world.” p. 163