Tag Archives: Colonialism

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.

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.

Thomas Packenham, The Scramble for Africa

Pakenham, Thomas. The scramble for Africa. New York: Perennial, 2003. Print.

Good book for talking about history as narrative, particularly for how the alleged need to “tell a good story” allows one to get away with all sorts of stuff. Is one looking through narrative in order to “compose up” an analysis of causality that derives out of the sequence of events? Or is narrative its own reward?

E.g., is there in the detail of a narrative account of the Scramble either a good theory of its causation or a significant argument against various theories? I think both, actually. The narrative account almost intrinsically lends itself to a Robinson-and-Gallagher approach: the peripheral actors seem so dominant in the events, at least as Packenham tells it. But note the two narratives that get mostly boxed out: you could also tell a narrative of interstate relations set in Europe in which the Scramble is an “episode” and you could tell a much more scattered, less coherent story of African initiatives, responses, actions, which is what Boahen et al largely set out to do in the UNESCO history. To tell the story as Packenham does is already loading the dice in favor of a R&G style approach in which the empire arises out of various accidents, dispersed ambitions, personal error etc.

Also though this is a story to appreciate independent of the question of whether it supplies a “causal engine” for European colonialism in Africa. But note again the stories it provides: mostly stories of the empowered or engorged agency of various “Europeans in empire”, which actually has a pretty tight feedback loop into “why Europeans wanted to be in imperial situations”, that they imagined (and so produced) a magnification of their importance in the narrative of events.

Worth thinking about the people and specific events to pull out of this, and which people and events do not emerge as “of the Scramble” even though they are active “in the Scramble”. People: Rhodes, Gordon, Faidherbe, Stanley, Leopold, Colenso, Shepstone, Emin Pasha, Ceteshwayo, Mutesa, Wolseley, de Brazza, Gladstone, Courcel, Gambetta, Disraeli, Umar Tall, Bismarck, Muhammed Ahmad (Mahdi), Kirchner, Kirk, Peters, Samori Ture, Mackay, Lugard, Abushiri, Salisbury, Khama, Johnston, Jameson, Yohannes, Menelik, Chamberlain, Lobengula, etc.

So what kind of people do not appear in such a list and yet are important? It’s a list entirely composed of sovereigns, military leaders, and political leaders–absolutely the classic Great Men. There must be another list that is neither Representative or Average Men in opposite (e.g., not Kas Maine) but people with more oblique roles in shaping the Scramble “on the ground”. People also in places that are not the central agonistic theaters of “the Scramble” but that are important to its unfolding, or where actual conquest happens at some other time or fashion.

Also episodes: Anglo-Zulu War, Pioneer Column/Ndebele Uprising, Race for Fashoda, Jameson Raid, Anglo-Boer Wars, Maji-Maji, Emin Pasha Relief Column, etc.–all of them the same kinds of military & occasionally diplomatic events.

Left out: almost all Africans. Even African sovereigns get almost no psychological representation in this account while there is tons of attention to the psychological interiority of Stanley, Rhodes, Colenso, de Brazza, you name it. There’s plenty of people who can be talked about in this way.

Left out: almost all stories that are “in” the Scramble but suggest there are other dynamics or things going on besides the military/diplomatic events.

Left out: readings of or reactions to the Scramble’s events among various (or any) publics save for a few framing statements.

Left out: any sense of the complexity of the periodization of the story–Faidherbe, for example, creeps in, despite acting years earlier, while the lateness of the actual imposition of administrative authority in many territories is almost wholly unacknowledged.

Left out: any territory where something was happening but it didn’t involve dramatic military showdowns.

Etc. It’s such an antiquated kind of history, even for a popular account. Students were shocked it was written in 1991, most of them assumed it was far older. Question is, could someone write a largely narrative account of the Scramble–or even a more analytic/interpretative account that wasn’t just a new overarcing theory of causation like Cain & Hopkins’ “gentlemanly imperialism”, that would read differently than this? I think yes. Certainly of episodes in the Scramble (Parsons King Khama and Emperor Joe for example.)