Tag Archives: African Studies

Jan Bender Shetler, Imagining Serengeti

Shetler, Jan Bender. Imagining Serengeti : a History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present. Ohio University Press,, 2007. Print. New African Histories Series.

Landscape as “humanized” not just through material transformations but memory and culture.

Classic restatement of the methodological dilemma of the Africanist historian: any time you want to deal with culture, subjectivity, narrative, etc. you’re either stuck ‘reading against the grain’ of an archive that refuses to acknowledge the historicity of African societies and landscapes, or you’re forced to get more and more hazy and speculative before 1800 or so. Not so hard for the environmental historian who is comfortable with the “longue duree” but hard for the person who is trying to trace imaginaries, representations, stories, etc.

Ch. 1: origin traditions as a way of imagining and charting landscape and environment.

Serengeti as described by ecologists in the rhetoric of wilderness: absent of humans. But this is as Shetler points out simply untrue for at least the last 2000 years and likely true for much, much longer. It’s always untrue in some sense in East Africa: humans and African mammals are clearly co-evolved. What happens if we learn in this case to always talk about landscape and environment in terms where humans are always present? One possibility is that the discourse of “humans despoil environment” has to shift dramatically away from implications of “Africans always despoil” and towards the landscape of dubious tropes about African modernity (overpopulation, depraved poverty, etc.).

Ch. 2 is really in some ways a very clever reclamation of ‘archaeology’–rather than the excavation of a single vacant site, using the material remnants of old networks of food production and exchange, indexed against memory, to infer a social structuring of the landscape.

Ch. 3 Sacred Landscapes

Lists of place names + specifications of rituals
Generation-set as responsible for maintenance of place
Power of place created by presence of ancestors
Different sort of ideology of preservation–the proposition that the land has to be unchanged at the site of power
Walking the land as a mnemonic of ritual (but maybe walking is an evidence of a more quotidian set of everyday connections: ritual is maybe what’s left when the everyday is taken away)

A bit of the tendency of ethnohistorians to ennoble memory by the fact of it being memory. E.g., Nata and others remember sites in association with wealth & power, but this is surely both something that is meant in terms of contemporary Kenyan politics to strike a claim to land (with it, we were rich; without it, we are poor supplicants) and it as much an erasure as a memory (e.g., there is no reason to think that wealth was equitably distributed in the past among these groups, but in these memories, any sense of social conflict within the groups drops out)

Spirits can mark beneficial places; but elsewhere in Kenya other ethnic/linguistic groups may use spirits to mark places as dangerous or unsettled.

Again, the strong association here between ancestors (embisambwa, ancestors w/specific place & power associations) and Serengeti land has got to be given some charge or valence by the absence of the people remembering from the land that’s remembered.

Specific instructions about how to treat land and animals at sites

Encirclement as a precolonial understanding of territory and boundaries–potentially really powerful combination with Nugent’s Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens for thinking about ethnogenesis and territorial control.

Good for students to “read out” a politics of environmental history/political ecology.

Olufemi Taiwo, How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa

Taiwo, Olufemi. How colonialism preempted modernity in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Open WorldCat. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Don’t think sociocryonics is going to catch on–it’s a bit of an awkward neologism that relabels a concept well established in Mamdani and others.

But otherwise, the intro and first section are really gutsy: they come straight at the problem and Taiwo is not afraid to characterize the literature in broad but cutting terms right at the outset.

The definition of modernity in the book as a whole is interesting and fairly clear, focused more on political and legal structures and their accompanying Enlightenment conceptual apparatus than on capital or political economy. “Subjectivity, reason and progress”.

“One possible answer is to say that Africa is hostile to modernity and its presuppositions…a related response is to say that Africans are congenitally incapable of working modernity. Neither explanation is plausible. They are racist to boot. But their implausibility does not stem from their racism. The problem is that such explanations tend to ignore history.” p5

This is ultimately a rather West African (and Western Cape) centered history of missionary modernity-it doesn’t work very well for East Africa or Central Africa or the rest of southern Africa except for Xhosa and Tswana experiences. There’s a counterfactual here that the creation of “self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing” mission modernity would have spread continent-wide had it not been for colonialism, and I’m not sure that holds entirely true.

“What is crucial is that when Africans were inserted or they inserted themselves into the discourse of modernity, they ran the entire gamut of possible reactions. But the most sophisticated among them wanted to marry the best of their indigenous inheritance with the best that the new forms of social living enjoined by modernity had to offer. This is what exercising agency is all about.” p. 13 [The problem here is perhaps that Taiwo is assuming that in general modernity was embraced, adopted or practiced agentively–but it’s possible to say that this was not only not true in Africa but not true anywhere, that no one ever chose it but always instead had it done to them.

Contrary to Mamdani, sees colonialism’s contradictions as “genuine” and a product of its philosophical underpinnings.

“In spite of all the prattle about communalism, not even the scholars who was eloquent about their commitment to so-called African values and traditions build their houses or live in spaces that pay any serious attention to those values and traditions…contemporary Africans end up with spaces and landscapes that are superficially modern but lack the enlivening soul that makes their counterparts in other places such beauties to behold and celebrate.” p. 14

“The underdevelopment of African agency has contributed to the persistence of sociocryonics at the present time. Evidence of the persistence abounds in many of the recent accounts of the relationship between Africa and modernity that focus on such ‘peculiarly African’ themes as ‘witchcraft’ and ‘village’…We have repeated affirmations of African difference and an almost uncritical embrace of ahistoricity in their understanding and explanation of African phenomena. Many feel that to embrace things Western is to abandon African authenticity. It is no less a sociocryonic momemnt for being popular with African scholars.”. p. 14-15

“I assume that the modern way of life represents a leap forward in human history and that the gains it offers, had they been on the table in colonial Africa, would have made for a better life and a more salubrious history than that bequeathed by colonialism as it operated in Africa. This is an acknowledgement that Africans are almost forbidden to make.” p. 16

“We shall see the inevitability paradigm that often characterizes the discourse of colonialism in Africa–things could not have turned out otherwise than they did–is inadequate, if not wrong. The key lies in showing the intimate even if conflicted connection between colonialism and the much larger complex from which it emanated: modernity.” p. 23.

“The modern era is the era of subjectivity, of the sovereignty of the individual, of no taxation without representation, of knowledge, of progress, of science and technology, and, most of all of the equality of human beings and of their entitlement to respect for the dignity of their person and all that pertains to it.” p. 39

Some clear connections here with Appiah’s approach to cosmopolitanism. Also a clear riposte to the “multiple modernities” literature: modernity is one thing, it’s an outgrowth of the Enlightenment project, and it is both material and intersubjective.

Lugard once again functions as the exemplar of ‘indirect rule’ (aka in Taiwo ‘sociocryonics’).

Not necessarily much clearer than Mamdani about the motives or intent behind colonialism, but at any rate neither analysis really takes much interest in the classic view of colonialism as motivated by the self-interest of globalizing capitalism, etc. Does dovetail on Mudimbe a bit in asserting that Africa was in some absolute sense defined by difference not just from Europe but from all other colonies/non-Western persons. That inevitably is going to lead you back into an assertion of European difference–that Europeans had a particular prior way of imagining blackness and black subjects.

In some ways this is also a repudiation of the Non-Aligned Movement/Bandung/postcolonial theory/etc. assertion of an essential similarity between “the Rest” (vs. “the West”) in the expansion of Europe.

Despite the limits of taking coastal W. Africa in the 19th Century as a proxy for the continent, the argument Taiwo makes about missionaries and modernity is really bold and exciting stuff. Even where it’s “wrong”, I can really see it pacing a serious revival of 18th/19th Century African history, which is often mired in the grinding aftermath of the numbing empiricism of the literature on the slave trade.

The arguments about law and constitutionalism in the later part of the book feel to me like something of a detour. I understand why he goes there (not the least because it’s part of his training and his past scholarly work) but it’s a plodding discussion by comparison with the exciting writing in the earlier part of the book. I also think in some ways the most subversive argument in the existing literature that he needs to deal with is not nationalism/Afrocentrism (which he is clearly poised to critique) but the growing tendency to break down or decompose the power of the colonial state and to question the degree to which “sociocryonics” was a totalizing system. (He may not agree with Mamdani on much but on this point they actually align.) The last chapter on globalization, on the other hand, is really subversive and interesting.