Category Archives: Rituals of Sovereignty Cites

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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LibraryThing link

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.

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).