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  1. Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism

    December 1, 2012 by Fan

    Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism


    Fan Zhang


    I. Framework: Poststructuralism, Postmodernism and Posthumanism



    “My sense of posthumanism is thus analogous to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s paradoxical rendering of the postmodern: it comes both before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world … But it comes after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human [becomes] impossible to ignore …” (Wolf 2010:102-103)



    Cary Wolf in the above quotation from her What is Posthumanism? (2010) evokes posthumanism, postmodernism and poststructuralism all at once without further deliberation on their relationships. This is a clarification I’m going to make now because it is crucial in establishing my central argument, the WWI origin of “post- isms”. With minimal understanding of all three concepts, I will closely follow her text.

    The word Poststructuralism doesn’t appear in the above text, yet it is not only implied but also essential to the idea of posthumanism. “Embodiment” and “embeddedness” Wolf uses denote the structural nature of posthumanism: it is a trinity of humanism in its broadest sense with animal (“biological”), technicality (or materiality) as well as an humanism in a narrower sense. This trinity have never been outside humanity and they interact horizontally. But the emergence of posthumanism as a conscious and active movement is a vertical or an historical event when the animalistic and technological aspects of humanism become “impossible to ignore” – here, the introduction of history into structure in Wolf’s argument is poststructuralist through and through. A close re-inspection of this text also reveals its extraordinary resemblance to a central poststructuralist text from Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference, a text I will refer to again later in the essay:


    “Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event’ … the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as …Western science and Western philosophy – and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language … Nevertheless, up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure – or rather the structurality of structure – although it has always been at work, has

    always been neutralized or reduced …” (Derrida 1978: 351-352, emphasis is mine)


    Derrida’s text begins with an “event” and ends with a structure that is “always been at work”. Wolf’s text twenty years later begins with structural “embeddiness” and ends with an “event”. The two texts have the same gist. Their difference is that of scale: in this particular essay Derrida devotes his attention to anthropology in general and Claude Levi-Strauss in particular in their contributions to the decentering practices; a revolt against ethnocentricism is the key. Cary Wolf’s text, in a way, is an expansion on these decentering practices from anti-ethnocentrism to anti-anthropocentrism.

    As a theory, posthumanism is built on the structure of poststructuralism. As a set of practices, it is not only “analogous” to postmodernism but part of it. Cary Wolf doesn’t feel it necessary to make this connection explicitly, but her references to postmodernism throughout the book prove the point, such as in her discussions of films (Wolf 2010:2469), architecture (Wolf 2010:3024), , Kantian aesthetics (Wolf 2010:3069), and social system of art (Wolf 2010:3123), etc.

    The above list also reveals postmodernism’s close relationship with art. This prompts me to sort out poststructuralism, posthumanism and postmodernism in a novel but systematic way. I will first present the following diagrams:


    (Figure 1) Chronology of the Tripartite

    poststructualism → postmodernism → posthumanism

    (Figure 2) Different Emphases of the Tripartite

    Poststructuralism: Metaphysics

    Postmodernism: Aesthetics

    Posthumanism: Ethics

    (Figure 3) Re-scaling (Reduction) of Posthumanism Issues to Postmodern Issues 





    reduced to

    reduced to

    reduced to


    Ethnographic other/ Nature / Artefacts

    Self / Culture / Art




    Figure 1 assumes there is a linear development of the tripartite, or to use a music or dance term with a beautiful double entendre, a “canonical” development – in music, a canon is “a contrapuntal musical composition in two or more voice parts in which the melody is imitated exactly and completely by the successively entering voices though not always at the same pitch and which either ends with a coda or begins over again” (Merriam-Webster); in dance, “certain dancers follow the patterns previously set by others who then change to new patterns” (ibid).

    Figure 2 assumes what is new. Poststructuralism is essentially a theoretical concern born out of structuralist linguistics and branched into anthropology and then philosophy, as documented by Jacques Derrida (Derrida 1978:351-370). Postmodernism is a more daring and more diverse variation in which artistic endeavours are particularly favoured – and art, as we know, is something between “thinking” and “doing”. Finally, posthumanism is a return from aesthetic frivolities to serious concerns. But this time, ethical practices become as central as metaphysical theories.

    Figures 3 concerns my current project. As I point out above, posthumanism is a far more ambitious project than either Poststructuralism and postmodernism. It is also a vague late development and not-very-well-defined field in which our intellectual and social activist pioneers are still testing the water, as our readings throughout the course could testify. But its central characters, I believe, are in line with poststructualism and postmodernism because they come from the same source. Those characters include an emphasis on textuality, the increasing importance of visuality, the ambiguous oppositions between self and others (in poststructuralism the other is non-Western populations while in posthumanism it is expanded to animals), the blurring boundaries between the high and low (art and artefacts, or Being and technological utility), the dynamic binarism of rationality and irrationality (or animality), the practices of decentering (across geography, history, species and metaphysics), etc..

    The operations useful in grasping the essence of a vague posthumanism, thus, are: (I) to reduce it in scale from more cosmological concerns to more “ethnographic” or humanly concerns; (II) to rewind it from the age of ethics to the age of hobbyhorse aesthetics or armchair contemplations; (III) to trace the common origin(s) of poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism.

    As shown in figure 3, the particular operations I’m going to take are : (I) to trace the issue of animality in ethnographic other (or as we will see, also in ethnographic self) and artefacts while tracing technologicality in essential self and art – this operation is arbitrary (animality and technologicality are supposed to be on the same side against essentialism) but it is useful tentatively; (II) to focus on the concept of postmodernism which I believe is not only transitional but also a broader term that can be used to include both poststructualism and posthumanism; (III) to trace their common origin beyond 1960s, beyond WWII, to at least WWI, in particular, the Surrealist movement.

    Instead of grand linear narrative, true to the postmodern spirit, I would like to focus on a very particular individual and a set of very particular text+images and follow a highly digressive or decentralized course/discourse that brings me to Europe, Africa, and Indonesia. The timeframe expands from the last fin-de-siecle to this fin-de-siecle. The individual in question is the French surrealistic writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris. The set of text+images refers to a 1936 magazine article with surrealist artist Man Ray’s photographs of African art/artefacts from the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti (1931-33) with commentary written by Leiris.

    Before embarking on my trip, first I need to return to Cary Wolf’ text to clarify two points.




    II .Questions and Their Theoretical Implications


    1. Three Origin Theories of Postmodernism


    The term “posthumanism”, according to Wolf, appears in the humanities and social sciences during the mid-1990s (Wolf 2010:53). However, it is rooted in the emergence of poststructualism and postmodernism in the 1960s’. A text of particular importance is Foucault’s 1966 The Order of Things which concludes with man’s disappearance from history, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault 1994:387). The historical reason of mid-1990s exuberance is not given, but I tentatively locate it in the age leading to neo-liberalism.

    There is a second theory concerning the origin.

    Let’s pay close attention to a particularly quotable Montaigne text from his Of Experience: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”. In 1966, it appears in the chapter II The Prose of the World section IV The Writing of Things of Foucault’s The Order of Things (Foucault 1994:40). In 1978, it appears again in the chapter X. Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science of Derrida’s Writing and Difference as introduction (Derrida 1978:278). The full quote, however, should be: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things. We need more books about books than any other subject. The world is swarming with commentaries; of [original] authors there is a great scarcity” (Montaigne 2003:996). In the same essay, Montaigne also declares “I judge myself only by actual sensation, not by reasoning” (Montaigne 2003:1024).

    The scepticism expressed in the Montaigne text and its emphasis on embodiment and sensations distinguish postmodernism, poststructualism and posthumanism, hence the popular quote. I don’t know what prompted Montaigne’s scepticism, but there is a peculiar theory concerning the neo-scepticism appearing in the post-WWII France. According to this theory (proposed by one of my mentors), which I’m highly intrigued but without access to evidences (hence my omission of the source), French intellectual establishment’s attempt at evading the responsibility of war-time appeasement or even collaboration with the Fascists accounts for relativism, anti-science sentiment, and Third-Worldism which is said to be a geographical deflection of the domestic guilt. In other words, neo-scepticism is in fact an immoral disguise.

    I could not testify if this theory is right or wrong. But the Montaigne quote is as good to describe Foucault as to describe a much more senior member of the French intellectual establishment: the surrealist autobiographer, dream-recorder and ethnographer Michel Leiris who is from a post WWI age and from the Surrealist movement prosperous then. His writing also fits Cary Wolf’s aesthetics of posthumanism of “hybridity, perversity and irony” (Wolf 2010:56) more than perfectly. I’m thus proposing a possible WWI/Surrealist origin of postmodernism/posthumanism.



    2. The Question of the Sublime


          The question of Poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism is the question of scale. The enriching in meaning of ethnographic other in theoretical and practical outreaching, the deepening of globalization and inter-connectedness of world system, and the technological translation between the nano and the meta all contribute to their development. Not surprisingly, the Kantian idea of the sublime, which is individual’s affective response to scale, is essential in “post-aesthetics”.

    Here I would only briefly point out Wolf’s inadequacy in rendering this Kantian idea via the route of Lyotard: “The sublime … is a ‘feeling’ that marks the incommensurability of reason … and the singularity or particularity of the world and its objects … this [kind of essentialism] is a price we have to pay …” (Wolf 2010:3094-3095). My criticism are two-fold: first, the sublime is more than a rational political decision one chooses to pay or not – it occurs in the moment of great spontaneity; secondly and more importantly, the sublime is more than a result of horizontal/structural opposition between the finite self and the infinite world, it is sparkled by the temporal movements of personal or collective history, as we will see in the discussion of Michel Leiris.

    With my framework set up and two focal points in hand, I would love to move on to the discussion of particular objects in uncovering the WWI origin of post-isms.



    III. Objects: Man Ray’s Art, Michel Leiris’s Text, and Postmodernism

    1. Introduction


          The simple cover photo of Wendy A. Grossman’s Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens (2009, figure 4) serves as a fitting departure point to manifold digressions. It also leads me to an hypothesis of the surrealist origin of postmodernism.


    (Figure 4)




    2. People, Places, Objects, Photographs and Texts


    Shot in 1934 by the title artist, French surrealist Man Ray, the female figurine in the spotlight was collected in 1898 by German merchant, explorer and colonial agent Gustav Conrau in Cameroon. It represents an earth cult priestess known as twins mother “Bangwa Queen” whose ritual importance might be inferred from Marcel Griaule’s 1948 ethnography of Dogon mythology Conversations with Ogotemmeli. The ethnography was published more than a decade after Griaule’s initial contact with Dogon people in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti from 1931 to 1933. An album of the artefacts collected during the mission, however, were published by Cahiers d’art as early as 1936. Again shot by Man Ray in similar style to “Bangwa Queen”, those pictures were accompanied by Bois rituels des falaises, an essay  by the surrealist writer Michel Leiris who began his career as an anthropologist in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti but who never revoked his literary vocations. Ray’s photos and Leiris’ essay were intended as ethnographical documents, but both of them have since become objects of art criticism, not unlike the African objects appeared in the photos.

    3. Michel Leiris’ Text : the Sublime Reversed


    Here is a passage from Leiris’ Bois rituels des falaise:


    “ Among the Dogon … there is not, as in our industrial world, this divorce, this division (or better, this dispersion) of being and things in such a manner that, for better or worse, the work of art, cut off from its roots in immediate use, finds itself reduced, once it leaves the hands of its creator, to being only a diversion of aesthetes.” (Herbert 1998:183)


    “Divorce”, “division”, “dispersion”, and “diversion”. Admittedly through the fog of translation, the poetic and emotional strength of Leiris’ writing can still be strongly detected.

    The essay was written three year after the end of the mission in which a team of French intellectuals (ethnographers, artists, musicologists, linguistics) crossed the continent of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea along the lower perimeter of the Sahara (Grinker 2010:285) and collected a huge amount of information and 3500 pieces of objects (Grossman 2009:114). Griaule and some other members on the team returned to the same region afterwards for further fieldwork. Leiris, however, besides writing occasional ethnographical comments such as Bois rituels des falaise, spent most of the subsequent years in Paris applying newly-acquired ethnographical methods to his writing of autobiography which was eventually published in 1939 as L’Age d’homme. Here is a typical passage from its English translation with an impossible title Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fiece Order of Virility (1963):


    “In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating” (Leiris 1992:30)


    Susan Sontag, one of most prominent American Francophiles (and a friend of anthropology), observes in 1964 that the English translation is rather a puzzle: Michel Leiris was virtually unknown to American reading public – none of his some twenty books had been translated – but the book has no covering note and no author’s biography. What’s more, the translation doesn’t explain that the book was not a recent one but written three decades earlier (Sontag 1992:vii).

    Sontag doesn’t offer an explicit solution to this puzzle. Instead, she immediately jumps to the comparison of autobiographical practices of Michel Leiris and Norman Mailer both of whom in their writings talk about their personal weakness in great details, such as undesirable appearances, sexual impotence, cowardness, and various indecent acts (Sontag 1992:xii). Had she paid the close attention to the passage quoted above, Sontag would have predicted Philip Roth who details his sessions of masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

    Literary anti-hero is what connects Michel Leiris to Norman Mailer or Philip Roth. Or what connects France in 1930s to America in 1960s. But Sontag also discovers their differences: While Mailer is boasting his personal failures as a prerequisite to literary and public success, Leiris is using literature as a psychoanalytic tool to get rid of literature, to return to “real life” which to a significant extent refers to his sexual life.

    How do we position Africa in Leiris’ intellectual scheme? Is “Africa” literature or anti-literature to him? Is his fieldwork in Africa literature or anti-literature? Is his writing about Africa literature or anti-literature?

    Leiris’ idea of African art, as indicated by the above quote from Bois rituels des falaise, is a union of utility and aesthetics. It’s easy to detect that this is also his ideal of art in general. Africa embodies the conflation of writing and practice: the antithesis of literature and anti-literature becomes synthesis.

    His ethnographic trip to Africa also has double roles. It is anti-literature in that it is an escape from traditional literary order assigned to him by the French catholic society which he repeatedly shows his contempt. The “offering” of is semen on the Olympia mountain quoted above illustrates his longing for pre-Christian paganism in which he imagines that there is a union of body, materiality and spirituality. The same longing for primordial living inspired his African journey.  It began with Jazz music which first appeared in Paris in 1916. Leiris was impressed by the frenzies of Jazz that “makes us regret … most contemporary performances”, that inspired “impassioned frankness we inarticulately longed for”, and that introduced the first public appearance of Negros, “the manifestation and the myth of black Eden which were to lead me to Africa and, beyond Africa, to ethnography.” (Leiris 1992:108)

    Contradictorily, the African expedition is also thoroughly literary for him. In fact, it is not only an escape from European literary society, but also an escape from women, from his own body, and from chaotic metropolitan physicality exuberant in the city of Paris. 40 pages after the last quotes, Leiris in Manhood admits in great intimate details that what prompted his acceptation of invitation to Africa was his repeated sexual failures with various women:


    “Coming out of this limbo, advised by my doctor and convinced myself that I needed a more strenuous  life for a while, I seized the opportunity of making a long trip and went to Africa for almost two years, as a member of an ethnographical expedition.” (Leiris 1992:139).


    It was two years’ high chastity until he “fell in love” with a local Ethiopian woman. But it is still a literary affair rather than a love affair, because he didn’t really have sex with her – he initiated the relationship because he found the woman “[correspond] to my double image of Lucrece and Judith [Roman and Jewish heroines respectively]” (Leiris 1992:140).

    Leiris’ Africa and his trip to Africa are contradictory unions of literature and anti-literature. His writing on Africa possesses similar quality. British historian of photography Ian Walker compares Leiris’s anthropological writings, Bois rituels des falaise in particular, to his autobiographical practices – he finds a dialectic process.

    Leiris learned from the African trip the value of “messy” field notes and tried to apply the method to the observation of his personal life. The result is a dense texture of long twisting sentences with multiple sub clauses curiously similar to the style of Marcel Proust who had never left Paris. In turn, he utilized those dense sentences occasionally in  anthropological writings such as  Bois rituels des falaise to “give a sense of deep connection in Dogon society between geography and social structure, everyday life and rituals” (Grossman 2009:115).

    Walker notices in Bois rituels des falaise “shifts in tone and attitude between the cool accumulation of factual information and a passionate and indeed sometimes impenetrable poetic evocation” (Grossman 2009:115-116). He attributes the nuance to the double roles Leiris played: “The former is his response to an ethnographer, the latter as a creative writer and lapsed surrealist”.

    However, the more important point might not be “horizontal” split between two somewhat oppositional identities, which is structural and synchronic. What decides the shifting in tone in the text, I believe, is Leiris’s sojourning in Africa and being away from this sojourning experiences – it is essentially temporal and diachronical.

    Before we go further into Leiris’ change in tone in the text of Bois rituels des falaise, I would like to make a detour to the battlefield of Indonesia’s Atjeh region where the Dutch invaders were fighting the fierce local resistance. Our attention, again, is fixed on an album with the war-zone photographs shot by a Dutch photographer named Niuwenhuis. The companion text in the album was written by himself.

    A shifting in tone is noticed: before the final victory came, facing tragic carnage and imminent death, Niuwenhuis kept calm and a syntopical view of the battlefield as if he was a total outsider to the event. But when the victory was achieved, his writing – which basically are the notes from his fieldwork – suddenly becomes excited with a great sense of elevation (Siegel 2011:84).

    One interpretation of this change in tone, proposed by American anthropologist James T. Siegel in 2011, is that there is a uniquely Western sensibility of the sublime working in the situation. According to Kant, the sublime is a great feeling occurs when one has a narrow escape from death, and this is exactly what happened to Niuwenhuis when the Dutch triumphed (Siegel 2011:84).

    However, Kant’s interpretation of the sublime is a “modern” one that accords to the general philosophy since the Enlightenment in which a Western sense of aggressive progress and triumph are assumed. On its basis, I would like to propose an exactly opposite version of the sublime which sheds light on what is called “postmodernism” in anthropology and philosophy but “modernism” in art and music. It also sheds light on Leiris’ change of tone in Bois rituels des falaise which intrigues us.

    The modernist/postmodernist sense of the sublime, instead of a narrow escape or near failure, is provoked by a narrow survival or near success. In other words, death and failure, not life and success, become objects of desire or representation. This is intrinsically related to the aftermath of WWI with the collapse of Russian and Austrian empires. Not surprisingly, prominent attempts at creating new art form were often made by Russians, their expatriate community in Paris and Austrians.

    Superficially there is a preference for order and mechanic beauty in the chaotic aftermath: geometric cubism reaches a high point in 1916; Sergei Prokofiev wrote his neo-classical Symphony No. 1 in 1918; Arnold Schoenberg devised strict method of twelve-tone composing technique in 1921; psychoanalytic movement – a rational attempt at the irrational –  reached the pinnacle with the formation of The Committee 1922 under the leadership of Freud. But all those admirable quietude was probably only calm acceptance of what was inevitable. The intense silence is embodied in the photo” A heart-rendering group” depicting the 1927 reunion of severely mutilated veterans of WWI (figure 5).



    (figure 5)


    The eruption of the defeatist beauty occurred as early as 1887 when a young Gustav Mahler turned the cheerful nursery song “Frère Jacques” into a prolonged but gorgeous funeral march in his Symphony No. 1 “Titan”. In 1893, a St. Petersburg’s audience were stunned by the death finale of Pyotr Iiyich Tchikovsky’s Symphony No.6. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was published in 1915 in which the hero Gregor Samsa was eventually crushed to death. Those earlier examples of passionate expressions of defeat, however, make great contrast to the ethnographic (and Parisian) coolness to human misery as in Surrealist art such as Luis Bunuel’s mock documentary Las hurdes: Tierra sin pan, or Leiris’ autobiographical Manhood which amounts to a detached description of trivial humiliations he had suffered.

    Reversed sense of the sublime related to Mission Dakar-Djibouti Leiris participated six years ago explains this aesthetics of coolness. His personal failures in Paris very much proved a degeneratvie philosophy of history. The sublime feeling is produced – at least partially – by a gratifying sense of self-denying, because deep in his consciousness he knows that there are some people (Africans) in somewhere (Africa) that have been and still are producing original art with original beauty (African art). Continuing failures here and now justify the eternal triumph there and then – and that’s where and when his true self is still living in. This anthropological conflation of self with others is highly satisfying. There is a sense of immortality in the awareness of the spatial and temporal immensity of not just world but human world. The feeling is enhanced by the temporal proximity of “failure now” to “triumph then” when he wrote his autobiography immediately after he left Africa: he knows that he is still close to “there” and himself still close to “others”. This is the postmodern sublime.



    4. Primitivism


    The importance of the postmodern sublime lies in its ability to evoke self in other, often an individual self in collective other. This is ostensibly a spatial and discontinuous opposition between – in the Leiris case – a European self and an African other. But in essence it is also a temporal and continuous opposition between a primordial collectivity (as discovered in African ethnography) and an authentic individuality (as in art modernism). Their conflation is reflected in primitivism.



    5. Cahiers d’arts


          Two Dogon sculptures appeared in the 1936 issue of Cahiers d’art make an interesting comparison: the hermaphrodite rider has both his/her arms stretching overhead with two hands pointing to the sky (figure 6); the Dyougou Serou figurine, however, bury his face in his two hands.




    (figure 6)


    “We mustn’t understand those two works in isolation”, Leiris says in Bois rituels des falaise: we must defer to native connoisseurs – for them, the gesture of the hermaphrodite is an attempt at connecting earth and sky, while Dyougou Serou buries his face because he is in shame (Grossman 2009:116).

    Taken out of Leiris’ essay’s natural flow, this interpretation of those two artefacts hardly gives us more information than what is obvious to our own eyes, yet a slight familiarity with the French anthropology at the moment allows us to treat Leiris’ words with more seriousness: the “sky-pointing” explanation reminds us of Robert Hertz’s 1909 essay The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. The “shame” of Dyougou Serou, however, reminds us of Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli and Claude Levi-Strauss’s first major work, The Elementary Structure of Kinship System, published in the same year.

    Hertz’s essay intends to explain why the preference for right-hand is universal. His conclusion is that a religious preference for the concept of right dictates this bodily function. In establishing his argument, Hertz follows a Durkehimian logicality: (I) Right hand’s preeminence is a social fact, not a biological fact; (II) There is a universal opposition between the sacred and profane; (III) The concept of right is always associated with the sacred while the left with the profane; (IV). Human body is the microsm of the universe and reflexive of cosmology; (V). The cosmological opposition between the right and the left is translated into the preeminence of the right hand.

    In the essay, Hertz evokes biblical evidence to support the concept of the right’s sacredness: on the Judgement Day, God points out his right hand to the sky and left hand to the hell (Hertz 2009:96). This paragraph comes before Hertz links hands to right/left conceptual dichotomy, so it is circular logic. He obviously in the heat of writing forgot that the reason God uses his right hand to point at sky is that God is modeled after man. What interests us here is the comparison with Leiris’ interpretation of Dogon sacred figurine who points both his/her hand to the sky and who possesses two sexes – unlike God. There is an implied lack of religious and sexual dichotomy prevalent in the theories of mainstream French sociology/anthropology.

    Hertz’s circular logic mentioned above went uncriticised even now as far as I know, although his assertion of the universality of conceptual preeminence of the right over the left had be proven wrong as early as 1930s when his fellow Durkheimian and Sinologist Marcel Granet pointed out that the concept of the left enjoys more prestigious position than the right in China (Granet 2007:41-49). The general oversight, for me, indicates the spell of Christian essentialism still looming over anthropology and other disciplines of social sciences. This essentialism is what Michel Leiris wanted to overcome decades ago.



    The reason Dyougou Serou burying his face in hands in great shame is because he just had sex with his mother due to a lack of sexual partner. He is the first-born child of Mother Earth – in Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli, he is jackal the bastard child of Father Sky and Mother Earth. In that account, the jackal raped his mother because he wanted to get access to the secret of language (Griaule 2009:296). This detail of incest in mythology surpasses any saucy detail Michel Leiris provocatively wanted to share with us. In African mythology as represented by its visual arts, Leiris saw the deep meaning or great value he might have articulated himself.

    Claude Levi-Strauss, Leiris’ colleague from Musée l’Homme articulated the mirroring relationship between primitive art and modern psyche in his Effective of Symbols. In the essay, Levi-Strauss finds that the private thoughts and fantasies of neurotic patients analyzed by psychoanalysts is an extension of mythology in modern society where myth has no public venue (Levi-Strauss 1963:186-204). In other words, Michel Leiris’s messy thoughts and personal life suddenly had mythological significance – and African art satisfactorily gave him much needed evidence. In African art, he finds the middle ground between the private and the public.

    6. May Ray’s Photographs




    Leiris’s text is often dense. May Ray’s photos, on the other hand, often look simple and transparent. In the 1936 issue of Cahier l’arts, there are in total eight photographs (Grossman 2009:117). Besides the hermaphrodite rider and Dyougou Serou, there are masks and locks. The combination of text and pictures looks like just another magazine article. But careful inspection of Bois rituels des falaise, as we did above, and Ray’s photo, sheds lights on something extraordinary.

    The most unusual thing about Man Ray’s photos is its intensity despite its being still life. The Dogon objects are dramatically lit, often from the side. The background is complete dark, like the unlimited universe. The light travels across part of their surface to create rich contrast and texture feel.

    The aesthetics demonstrated in those photos makes stark contrast with the claim Michel Leiris makes in Bois rituels des falaise that lookers should contextualize the objects to understand it. Decontextualization is exactly what Ray did to give those objects – and pictures – powerful appeal to unsuspecting magazine readers. But it fits very well with the style of Leiris’ intense text. It also strays away from the neutral lighting typical of most ethnographic photos of the time.

    The deep focus and drama of Man Ray’s pictures reminds us of another passage from Robert Hertz’s The Preeminance of Left Hands:


    “ … in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside.” (Hertz 2009:96)


    Hertz’s text gives mystic and sentimental feel to objects. It also translates body into objects and then into space and finally into religion.

    It is worthwhile here to make digression to Levi-Strauss’ 1958 essay Do Duel Organization Exist? from his Structural Anthropology. In it Levi-Strauss proposes what he calls the concentric dualism. As opposed to diametric dualism which is an opposition between two equal parts and which corresponds to restrict exchange, concentric dualism is the opposition between the periphery of a circle and its core. Levi-Strauss builds up his argument from native village arrangements, and then incorporates layers of ethnographic data on other aspects of native lives, finally reach a universal symbolism. Levi-Strauss, who is good at lifting small details from other people’s papers and then developing them to a full-scale thesis, doesn’t mention Hertz’s turn-of-the-century article but its influence is clearly there.

    There are three key elements in the concentric dualism: (I) individuality as represented by the lonely core of the circle; (II) religiosity or sacredness of the individual – in a concentric village, the center is always sacred (and also reserved only for unmarried men); (III) the need for external space: unlike equal binary form in which the opposition is defined by two elements against each other, concentric dualism is defined by the space between the individual (the core) and the collective (the periphery), as well as the vast space beyond the circle.

    If we return to Man Ray’s photos, we will find the African artefact in the center is not the only object in the picture – the dramatic lighting and darkness emphasize the space around it. Space is also an object that was photographed. His aesthetics highlights individuality, religiosity and spatial expansion crucial to the establishment of individuality and religiosity.

    The objects in the pictures are decontextualized, but this act of decontexualization allows us to re-contextualize them with higher sense of sensitivity. What the object contextualizes, however, is not Africa but Europe – and anthropology, which is born with the heightened sense of individuality in the age of nation-state building, missionary work and colonial expansion. All those elements are embodied in Man Ray’s deceivingly simple photographs.


    IV. Conclusion by Way of Two Vignettes



    1. The Derrida Moment: Decentering and Postmodernism



    Jacques Derrida deeply understands the connection between anthropology and new sensibility. In his 1967 essay Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science in which he pays tribute to anthropology and Levi-Strauss, Derrida advocates the decentering of the structure – in other words, the core of the concentric structure should leave the center and go outside the periphery to the “wildness”. He points out that this process of decentering is only possible with the advent of anthropology where we find “others”. It pushes the essentialist Western philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular back to deep history, turning a horizontal grid into a vertical pole. From one end of the pole, Europeans are able to trace back the origin of philosophy to proto-philosophy which is incest taboo discovered by anthropologists (in particular Levi-Strauss who in The Elementary Structure of Kinship System calls the incest taboo pivotal to the nature-culture division).

    Derrida regrets in the article that anthropologists and philosophers still position them as objective observers and scientists. He calls for “play” as a way of decentering and getting rid of ethnocentrism. This article becomes one of the landmarks of postmodernism.

    But if we look closed at the underlying intellectual milieu in France since last turn of the century, we find late 20th-century’s postmodernism in philosophy and early 20th-century’s modernism in art is closely associated. All the “play” Derrida advocates Michel Leiris had already done with his text and Man Ray with his photography, which appears perfectly together in the 1936 Cahier l’arts. Derrida’ – and other postmodernists’ – typical style of switching between a scientific and objective coolness and long-winding and intense reflexivity is already there in the change of tone of Leiris’ writing and the mystic contrast of Ray’s photos – and in the very nature of those African objects which at the same time denote a scientific other and an artistic self.

    The question is whether Africa is really crucial to the whole postmodern project? Or is it just another “playground” or even mere metaphor?



    1. The Heidegger Moment: Richard Long in Africa



    Three decades after Leiris left Africa, around the same time when Foucault and Derrida emerged on the European intellectual stage, British conceputal artist Richard Long began his African trips in the 1960s. Unlike Leiris who was seeking a human connection, Africans this time were completed left out. Long’s focus was the African landscape. The relationship in question is that between his solitary self and the World. What he was seeking is an Heideggerian Dasein in silence: he walked straight line, putting stones in order to experience the temporal dimension of Dasein (figure 7), and he walked in circle in order to experience the eternal and structural dimension of Dasein (figure 8). Leaving humanity aside, he consciously followed what Heidegger calls “poetically man dwells” (Valdes-Dapena 2012).


    (figure 7)




    (figure 8)

          Is Richard Long’s art art? In concluding Letter on Humanism, Heidegger says:


    “The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics … However … the thinking that is to come can no longer … become … absolute knowledge [but] its provisional essence. Thinking gathers language into simple sayings …” (Heidegger 1972:265)


    In that sense, Richard Long was attempting at this kind of “simple sayings” and “provisional essence” in recreating an original artistic language. Posthumanism, following this interpretation, is not a process of denying humanism but a process of recreating humanism from scratch with materials old and new.

    Posthumanists could walk with artists such as Richard Long in their exploration, just like earlier postmodernists walked with Surrealists such as Michel Leiris. On their way, they might meet one or two solitary Africans doing the same.







    Clifford, James

    1998. On Ethnographic Surrealism. In The Predicament of Culture. Harvard: Cambridge University Press.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Foucault, Michel,

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Griaule, Marcel

    2010 [1948]. Conversations with Ogotemmeli. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 292-301.


    Grossman, Wendy A.

    2009. Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens. Washington: International Art & Artists.


    Granet, Marcel

    2007 [1933]. Right and Left in China. In Beyond the Body Proper. M. Lock and J. Farquar, edits. Pp.41-49. Durham: Duke University Press.


    Heidegger, Martin

    1972 [1947]. Letter on Humanism. In Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. Pp. 210-265. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.


    Herbert, James D.

    1998. Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Hertz, Robert

    2009 (1909). The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. London: Paradigm Publishers.


    Leiris, Michel

    1992 [1939]. Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Montaigne, Michel de

    2003 [1592]. The Complete Works of Montaigne. Donald M. Frame trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf  “Everyman’s Library”.


    Rapaport, Herman

    1997. Is There Truth in Art?. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 76-96.


    Sontag, Susan

    1992 [1963]. Forward to the English translation of Michel Leiris’ Manhood. In : A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. vii-xiv.


    Valdes-Dapena, Antonia

    2012. Richard Long’s Passage as Line: Measuring Toward the Horizon, speech given at the AIA symposium “Making Space”.



    Wolf, Cary

    2010. What is Posthumanism?. Minniapolis: University of Minnesota Press. [Note: The in-text citations here refer to the book’s Kindle edition which gives “location” number instead of page number]














  2. Space and Body Modification: Rebecca Popenoe’s Feeding Desire

    August 3, 2012 by Fan

         (For summary and sample, view the book on Google Books here)


          Spatiality is the central concept in Popenoe’s ethnographic interpretations of Azawagh female-fattening practices, which I will refer to in the local term lebluh in the following passages. It allows her a systematic approach in the interpretation of the phenomenon. The limits of her understanding of this concept might serve as a departure point for further contemplation and theorization. 
          In the beginning of Chapter 7, The Exterior Spaces of Social Life, Popenoe observes that spatial organization is an important element connecting Azawagh individual to social life:

     “Lines … run from horizon through tent to body and outwards again … keeping the concerns of the most immediate bodily activity … aligned with the forces and order of the wider world” (Popenoe 2004:154).

    It is salient in all aspects of Azawagh life, from east-facing burials to the direction of bed at home. It is also assumedly an element starkly different from her Western experiences: “People … asked me frequently in which direction America was … [but] I was never asked what my country looked like or how far away it was.” (ibid).
          She further generalizes the Western-native differences in spatial conception: “ Coming from a world where space is largely imagined in terms of grids and graphs, it took me some time to realize that space was … ordered … like a circle, with radii running out in all directions from the center.” (ibid)
           Popenoe then focuses on the gender opposition this spatial conception is associated with: “women constantly gravitate to and occupy the center, while men gravitate constantly outwards towards the wilder world” (ibid). The importance of this observation is crucial to entire book’s argument. It contrasts a “fattening” female body which is situated –in fact sits – at the center of domestic space with a lean male body which is moving outwards to engage economic activities such as herding and trade.
           In a single stroke, Popenoe puts her core puzzle of female body and Azawagh’s cosmological system (in its geometric representation), economic system and kinship system in one picture. While all those aspects are deliberated in details in separate chapters, this chapter on spatiality unifies the entire book into one system. In that sense, it is the central section of the book, just as spatiality is the central concept to understand Popenoe’s overall argument.
          Whether Popenoe herself is aware of the centrality of space to her argument is debatable. Her casual manner of writing suggests that she might have unwittingly demoted the topic of spatial organization to just one chapter among others, as if those other aspects of Azawagh life have equal weights with regard to her analysis: “The point I make here about the relationship between how space is inhabited and how the social world is experiences are not new.” (Popenoe 2004:159) The anthropologists quoted in her endnotes to this sentence are a loose bunch , from new Afrianist Réne Devisch to old-hand Comaroffs to the classic Michel Griaule (Popenoe 2004:205). However, Pierre Bourdieu is quoted in the main text: “the appropriation by the world of a body thus enabled to appropriate the world” (Popenoe 2004:155).
           Bourdieu, in fact, is Popenoe’s theoretical departure point. The above quote from his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972) expresses in a highly concise way his philosophical animism that attempts to capture the dialectical relationships between the self and the world, subjectivity and objectivity, practice/agency and structure. Popenoe finds it necessary to rephrase Bourdieu’s text: “In other words, by being socialized in spaces … individuals absorb deep knowledge about the cultural categories …” (ibid). But Popenoe’s reinterpretation actually makes Bourdieu’s words more obscure. A simpler and more powerful rendition can be made as such: “Body is the microcosm of universe.”
           Bourdieu is known to have based his whole system of philosophy on Claude Levi-Strauss’ structuralism (Miller 2005:45) which is itself an extension of the Durkheim school of sociology (Miller 2005:60). Indeed, a quick review of the history of the French school reveals deep concerns about the connection between physical body and spatiality which is key to Popenoe’s argument.
           An earlier example appears in Robert Hertz’s monograph The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity (1909). In the monograph, Hertz, a student of Emile Durkheim, tries to establish the religious origin of a physiological phenomenon: the universal predilection for right hand – a project not unlike Popenoe’s. In the study, Hertz says:

    “… in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside” (Hertz 2009:96)

    Here Hertz associates the right with center/inside (and the sacred) and the left with periphery/outside (and the profane). In a separate quote, Hertz makes the gender connection to this classification of body and space:

     “How could man’s body, the microcosm, escape the law [of religious opposition of the sacred and the profane] which governs everything? Society and the whole universe have a side that is sacred, noble, and precious, and another which is profane and common: a male side, strong and active, and another, female, weak and passive; or, in two words, a right side and a left side?” (Hertz 2009:35, my emphasis).

    Compare Popenoe’s project with Hertz’s, we see revealing similarities and contrasts as seen in the following table:






    gender position

    physical attributes


    religiosity of the center


    right hand dominance

    concentric circle


    male in the center






    concentric circle


    female in the center




          Let me first explain Hertz’s male-centric gender position which is only apparent if we associate the two quotes above with each other: in the first quote, he points out that the center of a community space is sacred (“where gods shine”); in the second quote, he associates this sacredness with male and his activeness, hence the male-center connection. This connection, in fact, becomes the central tool of analysis for Claude Levi-Strauss and his structuralism. Levi-Strauss uses extensive ethnographic examples to show that in a closed circular spatial arrangement of native villages, the central space is always exclusively male and public (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163).
          Clearly, while both describe space in its circular form, Hertz and Popenoe have different gender conceptions: for Hertz, men are in the center; for Popenoe, women are in the center. For Hertz, the center is associated god’s grace. For Popenoe, the center is associated with domesticity. How do we account for the differences?
           One important omission of Popenoe’s ethnography is a detailed comparison of the female fattening customs of Azawagh people with their neighbours, many of whom have similar traditions. While Popenoe attempts to explain the phenomenon in terms of the totality of Azawagh way of life, she fails to pinpoint its uniqueness – comparative methods are inevitable if this uniqueness is to be established.
            If I’m allowed to take over her project, with my knowledge of the French school of anthropology (with which Popenoe doesn’t demonstrate her familiarity either in the main text or in her endnotes and bibliography), I will utilize the aforementioned Popenoe-Hertz discrepancy and make such hypothesis: the nomadic way life shifts the sacred center to the remote Mecca. The entirety of the desert environment and tents in it, as opposed to Popenoe’s female-domestic-center proposal, belongs to the periphery to Mecca which is where the ultimate sacred and public space is. This requires a major reinterpretations of her ethnographic data which is beyond the scope of this short review.
          Popenoe’s lack of comparison is part of her shortcomings of particularist approach. As the Hertz text reveals, the circular arrangement is universal – they are not only prevalent in the desert but also prevalent in Europe throughout history. Popenoe’s assumption that the Western space is in grid form is based on her modern urban living experiences, which account for many other problems in the book. Nevertheless, she provides readers with interesting materials and departure points for further critique and contemplation, as this very review demonstrates.






    Hertz, R.

      2009 [1909]. The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. New York:Paradigm Publishers.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

     1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Miller, Daniel

      2005. Materiality: an introduction. In Materiality, edited by Daniel Miller, Duke University Press. 2005.pp. 1-50.


    Popenoe, Rebecca

      2004. Feeding Desire: Fatness, Beauty, and Sexuality among a Saharan People. New York: Routledge.

  3. In Search of Selfhood: On African Statehood and International Relations

    July 19, 2012 by Fan


    In Search of Selfhood: On African Statehood and International Relations

    Fan Zhang


    This paper intends to look at African statehood through the lens of psychological selfhood. The difference between moral relativism and moral universalism is at the heart of the issue. I believe in moral universalism and the traditional conception of statehood, which is an indispensible ideal both to IR and Africa. The nation-statist approaches developed in the past decade, however, provide invaluable insights into how the traditional statehood shall be built according to African reality. They shall be taken seriously as useful analytical tools, but they are not ideals.

    A persistent theme in recent literature of IR theories with regard to Africa,  as sampled in the first part of our course readings, is re-assessing nation-state as the central object of IR study. Different authors have different approaches: some advocate broadening the concept of nation-state; some propose abandoning the nation-state concept in favour of a generalized notion of sovereignty within the IR discipline; some raise the possibilities of more radical subaltern and interdisciplinary approaches; some, however, defend the validity of traditional realist approaches to nation-state either from a behavioural or systematic point of view. The timeframe of those readings indicate that this disciplinary dialogue has been going on for more than one decade without reaching consensus. Relativist arguments on expanding sovereignty concepts are still in an incoherent state.  Africa, and the world, at the same time, have been moving on probably in unprecedented pace. To tentatively reach coherence in this fragmented postmodern debate, I suggest we look at the statehood discussion in terms of selfhood.

    Mohammed Ayoob’s Inequality and Theorizing in International Relations: The Case for Subaltern Realism (2002), originally presented in a 2001 Chicago conference, is the earliest text in our readings. It is probably a development of his 1998 thesis Subaltern Realism: International Relations Theory Meets the Third World. In any case, it is a direct response to the rampant neoliberalism triumphant since the 1990s and the corresponding emergence of neorealism within the IR discipline. The keyword missing from both neoliberalism and neorealism, according to Ayoob, is inequality, an “acute state” that “pervades International Relations terrorizing”: “inequality is certainly not new, yet it seems to be intensifying as a result of globalization ..” (Ayoob 2002:48). What is inequality? It is power imbalance. But what is Ayhood worrying about? He is worrying about power imbalance’s impact on knowledge production, and in turn knowledge production’s reinforcement of existent power imbalance, hence the statement: “not only is knowledge power, but power is knowledge as well” (Ayoob 2002:29).

    What is being argued here is the question of selfhood. It’s noteworthy that Ayoob is unwilling to let go the word realism, a word – along with idealism – denotes an attitude, a psychological state and a behavioural pattern – all of them lead to human agency and selfhood. What he sets out to do is to reveal who is this self in previous IR studies and who has agency in neoliberal world order. Neoliberalism endorses a “scientific” approach to universal human agency. Its absolute gain doctrine assumes that global laissez-faire allows free-flowing of capital, technology, other forms of power and knowledge from the North to the South and vice versa. Ayoob, however, points out that “most Third World states are economically and militarily far too dependent on their external benefactors” to have any real gain (Ayoob 2002:36). In other words, neoliberal agency is one-sided in favour of the North. Neorealism in IR appropriate classical realism in its analogue of state behaviour and individual psychology, yet it discards philosophical nuances and historical contexts embed in the classical arguments and recreates a pseudo human “science”. Ayoob re-introduces to IR a classical sense of selfhood developed in European history and accepts its  “statism, survival and self-help” (Ayoob 2002:41). On that basis, he makes his original contribution to IR: the subaltern subjectivity, in other words, the selfhood of non-Western state entities in general and African state entities in particular.

    It’s very noteworthy that Ayhoob doesn’t deliberate on the actual contents of the subaltern realism. Why? Because it is not necessary: for Ayhoob, the psychological components of subaltern realism is not essentially different from classical one: the African self and Western self are the same, albeit the fact that they belong to different individuals “who” are going through different stages of historical-sociological development.

    Ayhoob’s silence on subaltern contents underlines a universalist view of world history and psychology, it also demonstrates methodologically how to appropriate competing discourses: if liberal view of the world, either through idealist or realist lenses, is at the roots of the IR discipline1, the rival critical and neo-Marxist paradigms are introduced implicitly via third parties. The idea of subaltern subjectivity is the brainchild of a ménage à trois, the threesome between anthropology, literary studies and postmodern philosophy. In particular, the summer of 1983 at the University of Illinois sees the presentation of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s canoic text Can Subaltern Speak?(Nelson 1988:ix), an essay that makes the word subaltern popular. Spivak in the essay articulates, with philosophical intensity, literary sensitivity and ethnographic example from India, the possibility of accepting non-Western subjectivity into Western discourses (Spivak 2010:21-78). Spivak’s subaltern agency, however, is not content-free: for example, the ritual suicide of Hindu widow, according to her, could be exercising agency as opposed to submitting passively to “culture” as Western outsiders general perceive (Spivak 2010:66). By contrast, Ayhood in introducing the subaltern concept into IR almost two decades later “deliberately not addressed the issue of … classes, groups, and individuals” (Ayhood 2002:46). The reason Ayhood gives is that “the international system has not yet progressed from being an international society to that of a world society” (ibid).  That is to say: subaltern agency is defined by subaltern nation-state’s relationality with regard to the West – subaltern subjectivity itself – as manifested by smaller groups, individuals and cultural aspects within a nation-state – is outside the scope of IR. This stand is inherently contradictory: how can one be a full-fledged individual without having individuality? It leaves the door open for future articulations, which are done subsequently by William Brown, Ian Taylor, Douglas Lemke, Christopher LaMonica, Thomas Kwasi Tieku and probably many others in the next ten years.

    John F. Clark’s Realism, Neo-Realism, and Africa’s International Relations in the Post­-Cold War Era (2001) was published in the same year when Ayhood gave his speech on inequality and subaltern realism. Like Ayhood’s article, it is also a defence of psychological approach to international relations against neoliberalism and neorealism and a rejection of absolute rationalism and scienticism in IR. Clark pointedly quotes the founding father of neorealism Morgenthau that “politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (Clark 2001:90), and that “there are ‘spiritual’ and ‘instinctual’ drives in the individuals that frequently govern behaviours” (Clark 2001:93). That is to say, we shall not use abstract terms to describe international relations and then to quantify them in a systematics way – international relations are historical dramas: we shall describe them as if we are describing human beings’ desires and actions; we shall understand nation-state as if they are individuals. The individual psychology as seen through classic realists’ nation-states, however, is quite simple: it is embodied in the concept of regime security (Clark 2001:96).  Clark supports his claim with examples of South Africa-Angola and Ethiopia-Somali conflicts, as well as DRC civil war (Clark 2001:96-98).

    In defending classical realism, Clark gives leeway to its object of study. He points out the exceptions to the rules found in Africa, such as personal wealth accumulation becoming functions of nation-states and voluntary resignation from government (Clark 2001:100). Superficially those exceptions weaken the argument supporting IR’s relevance to African reality. In fact, according to Clark, they re-inforce the validity of regime security argument, which is the essence of classical IR. Clark opens new front of IR study by distilling the meaning of classical IR from statism to individual psychology.

    Like the Ayhood and Clark articles, a sense of selfhood permeates Siba N. Grovogui’s Sovereignty in Africa: Quasi-Statehood and Other Myths in International Theory (2001) – only it is more pronounced here. If we look beyond the keyword sovereignty in the title, we will see these words: morality (Grovogui 2001:31), desire (31), determination (44), and self-realization (43). Only armed with this sense of selfhood, is Grovogui able to penetrate African political psychology deeper than either Ayhood and Clark. He uses the phrase “domestic focus” (Grovogui 2001:42) to describe this self-awareness. An example of this domestic focus is African intellectuals’ emphasis on Africans’ responsibility in history: even when they fully understand the global and historical origins of political problems that bring huge personal losses and tragedies, they won’t blame everything on external forces. They will “gaze on internal modes of being that perpetuate the subordination and exploitation of Africa” (ibid). Selfhood, self-determination and self-responsibility are inseparable from each other. Contrary to Robert Kaplan who argues that African states have no internal coherence, thus no true status of sovereignty, thus interventions entirely decided by external actors are justified (Grovogui 2001:29), Grovogui believes in moral universality which is embedded in Africa as well as in other parts of the world. Interventions of any kind can only be justified by this universal morality shared by within and without (ibid: 45).

    Grovogui’s psychological penetration, however, generates technical questions unaddressed in his essay: how to study African sovereignty? where could we find this intense sense of selfhood? To answer this question, we could look into his theoretic background. A quick review of the article shows the word “moral” or “morality” makes one of the most frequent appearances among subjectivity terms listed above. Its association with the question of sovereignty leads us to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Gambian who makes explicit connection between the entity of sovereignty and the existence of individual moral order (Gambian 1998:63). If Foucault cuts the king’s head off, that is to say, denies traditional concept of sovereignty2 (Foucault 1980:121), Gambian re-establishes it – not in old centralized form but in fragmented non-governmental entities or in undocumented governmental . Professor Joshua Barker of the Anthropology Department is an expert on Indonesian police force. He once observes that Indonesian police in their daily works often keep important occurrences off-record while utilizing local oral tradition to keep history alive (conversation with the author). There are possibilities that in contemporary African nation-states, the bureaucracy, which is often inherited from colonial powers, doesn’t necessarily have local welfare in mind and doesn’t necessarily keep local history intact. True practices and true history of the nation-state government exist off-record. In order to study some of the African nation-states, IR scholars or historians might need to go beyond official records and take closer look at daily practices of individual actors or behaviours of smaller institutions and groups, then they might find the moral order, the selfhood, the sovereignty and the statehood universal within the IR discipline.

    If I raise the possibility of African statehood as existing in undocumented daily governmental practices, Kevin C. Dunn’s The (Blank) African State (2001) expands the possibilities to more specific actors such as international financial institutions, regional strongmen, foreign companies, mercenaries, etc. However, the most noteworthy part of his scheme is not the inclusion of non-governmental entities and individuals, but the inclusion of foreign powers in the discussion of sovereignty of African states. Another observation is the absence of moral argument salient in Grovogui’s article collected in the same volume. Those two points are significant: there is no doubt that Dunn’s discursive approach (Dunn 2001:58) is highly practical and precise without overt rhetoric and obscurantism rampant in social sciences, but here he is risking confusing reality with ideal. But why is idealism important? I would like to take the chance to point out that realism, as discussed in the very beginning of this essay, is assuming the selfhood and subjectivity of a nation-state – in other words, is to treat a nation-state as an individual person. Since it is a psychological or behavioural approach, it inevitably invites the discussion of ideals, even when those ideals are not positive ideals.  In confusing reality with ideal, or in abandoning ideals altogether, Dunn might be justifying foreign appropriations of Africa, although he might insist on his scholarly detachment. We could and we should re-define African sovereignty well beyond the scope of nation-state, but we shall always be looking for a selfhood in this sovereignty. Foreign interests, I believe, shall always be looked at as external not internal to sovereignty.

    The same attempt at expanding IR research scope is made by Ian Taylor in his introduction to the volume of African International Relations. The African political entities, under his pen, becomes far more inclusive without losing a sense of selfhood. The mentioning of cultural aspects and the Diaspora is Taylor’s unique contribution in our readings. Taylor also correctly puts foreign actors under the category of international relations instead of African sovereignty, a distinction that is important to make (Taylor 2004:19).

    The distinction between self and others and the integrity of individuality (or selfhood) are keys to the current debates in IR. They are also the two key debates within the discipline of anthropology. The connection made here is neither casual nor trivial. It reveals a coherent and vibrant total history of ideas in modern Western tradition. If we treat the West as an individual – just like we have been doing so far – this individual has been engaging two kinds of intense gazing since its modern history. The exact periodization of modernity is highly debatable. If we take Jacques Derrida’s words, the most revolutionary moment occurred when this tradition was engaging in colonial expansion, in particular its engagement with Africa. This process propels a movement of decentering (Derrida 1978:280), in other words, a moment when the twins of ethnocentrisms and anti-ethnocentrisms were conceived at the same time. If this “individual” had been gazing at himself in the past, colonial expansion truly introduces into his entities and concept of others. Gazing at others gives the self stronger sense of self. If one always perceives self temporally as opposed to spatially (no one can be at two different places at the same time after all), others or the other are first of all distinguished on spatially terms. This leads us to two different kinds of gazing, namely, history and structure. On disciplinary terms, philosophy, when losing its steam in front of sciences, takes two different turns after the onset of colonization: at home it engages in a living history (or politics), morphing into political sciences; in faraway lands it morphs into ethnography and ethnology which is combined into anthropology that studies spatial structure and relationality. IR is born into political sciences, but it was born with an anthropological gene which is reflected in the word “relations” in its name. Political sciences, along with history, and anthropology, have always been approaching each other: the former from the North to the South while anthropology from the South to the North in terms of their respective fieldwork locales. There is no doubt that rampant globalization since the 1990s changes reality on the ground at such a speed that both camps felt compelled to walk faster towards each other. In the Anthropology Department of the UofT, symbolic anthropologists who study rituals and tribes are being replaced by political anthropologists who study nation-state, activism and globalization. The materials I have been reading so far in this class indicate IR researchers are shortening the distance as well. But both sides yet to reach a point where conversations can be carried out in the same room.

    Both William Brown’s defence of IR theory (2006) and Thomas Kwasi Tieko’s plea for African collective worldview  (2012) touch upon key anthropological questions. In Brown’s case, as I have pointed out in my presentation essay, his inconsistent use of relationality on local level and on global level – the former he champions, the latter he detests (Brown 2006:126) – raises the question of how to understand African sovereignty’s statehood. To use the analogue of selfhood again, we can see Brown and Tieko are on the same front: both insist on – if I’m allowed to borrow Grovogui’s favourite word “moral” – moral relativism with regards to African nation-states. In insisting African individual particularities (Brown 2006:140), Brown endorse a self that doesn’t take the same moral responsibilities as others do. Tieku’s collectivism view of African statehood is  based on solid observations (Tieko 2012:41) – the problem is he gives and essentialist interpretation of this phenomenon. Instead of taking into account of African states history and geopolitical contexts, he evokes Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was in search of a pan-African culture and solidarity, and uses the phrase “world view” (ibid). But I believe, what is important is not a particular world view but a particular living condition which is going on rapid change at this very moment.

    To face the challenges and changes, both Africa and IR need to has a strong sense of self. This strong sense self, in modern ages, can only be found in the form of nation-state. African countries shall (and indeed will) continue nation-state building at a time when new opportunities present themselves. IR shall do the same: instead of languishing in the incoherent words of moral relativism, it shall refocus on the idea and ideal of nation-state, and dig into their undiscovered meanings on African ground.





    1. Although LaMonica includes Marxism in his IR paradigm chart under historical-structuralism (LaMonica 2010:366), it is a relatively new development in IR. See Encyclopedia Britannica entry on IR
    2. See Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon: “… a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (1980:121).







    Agamben, Giorgio

    1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Standford University Press.


    Ayoob, Mohammed

    2002. Inequality and Theorizing in International Relations: The Case for Subaltern Realism. In International Studies Review, 4:3, pp. 27-48.


    Brown, William

    2006. Africa and International Relations: A Comment on IR Theory,

    Anarchy and Statehood. In Review of International Studies 32:1.


    Clark, John F.

    2001. Realism, Neo-Realism and Africa’s International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. In Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.278-293.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    2002. Semiology and Grammatology: An Interview with Julia Kristeva. In Positions: Jacques Derrida, Alan Bass trans. London: Continuum, pp.15-36.


    Dunn, Kevin C.

    2001.  The (Blank) African State. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Foucault, Michel

    1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester.


    Grovogui, Siba N.

    2001. Africa: Quasi-Statehoo and Other Myths in International Theory. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Lemke, Douglas

    2011. Intra-national IR in Africa. In Review of International Studies 37:1.


    Lévi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Nelson, Cary and Lawrence Grossberg (edits.)

    1988. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University fo Illinois Press.


    Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

    2010. Can the Subaltern Speak?. In Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, R. C. Morris, ed.. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.21-78.


    Taylor, Ian and Paul Williams (editss)

    2004. Africa in International Politics: External involvement on the continent. New York: Routledge.























  4. Old Wine in New Bottles: Realism, Neorealism and No-Realism

    July 10, 2012 by Fan


    Old Wine in New Bottles: Realism, Neorealism and No-Realism


    Fan Zhang


    An intellectually exciting era is an era when the dust hasn’t’ settled and when thinkers don’t just wait for the dust to settle, thus, it is a relief for me to notice the chronology of this week’s readings: some of them seem to be responding to arguments made later. For example, Brown’s 2006 defence of the IR discipline (based on his 2001 presentation), in a way, is an answer to LaMonica’s 2010 call for new paradigms we read last week. It’s true Lemke responded directly to Brown in defence of neo-realism (some five years later), but both of their arguments have been answered  in 2001 when Clark justified the traditional realism and its philosophy of regime security.  The debate, it seems, is still in the air.

    This, to be honest, wasn’t my earlier impression of political sciences (which I believe IR belongs to). An aura of over-confidence, most saliently in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1993) but also in the writings of many human rights scholars such as Jack Donnelly and Rhoda Howard, seems to be prevailing in the discipline. A clear distinction of everything and everybody, to paraphrase Brown (Brown 2006:136), predominates. Nuances, ambiguity and ambivalence appear to be as rare in political sciences as in politics. The “either/or” dichotomy rules.

    The necessity of this dichotomy in the IR discipline is a myth, Brown tells us in his discussion of statehood and anarchy: there are many shades of grey between the black and white. The key is to leave the lofty theoretical ground and goes deep into particularities. We need to pay “some serious attention to the particular ways in which political authority is constructed [and] the particular claims to sovereignty” (Brown 2006:133). More importantly, we shall see socio-political constructs not as elemental but relational, thus, we may find that statehood is a matter of degree rather than present or absent (ibid), and there is fluidity between anarchy and hierarchy such as interdependence (ibid.:137-138).

    What’s particularly interesting is not Brown’s argument per se but how he makes it, namely, his appropriation, subversion, misunderstanding – and probably unconscious insight – of anthropology.

    One glaring example is his use of the relationality concept. In combating essentialism, Brown declares that “once one moves away from neorealist assumption of statehood to a more relational understanding , a greater opening up of the potential for change becomes possible” (Brown 2006:126, my emphasis). But relationality, according to Brown, is also the culprit leading to the misconceived dichotomy of Western statehood and African anarchy when earlier anthropologists such as Fortes, Nadel and Evans-Pritchard, in a bid to assist colonial authorities’ indirect rules, replaced African individual particularities with abstract roles, just like words are replaced by grammar and syntax (Brown 2006:140, my emphasis).  How do we understand the discrepancy?

    A look at the history of anthropological thoughts, which Brown uses to refute Waltz (ibid), provides us with possible answers. Brown’s relationality concept corresponds to the structure concept in anthropology. Not unlike what happened in Brown’s argument, this concept is a source of confusion for anthropologists. For earlier champions of rigorous fieldwork such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, structure means relationality within a particular community. For what is known as structural anthropology, however, structure denotes underlying mental pattern or patterns of universal humanity. The word’s ambiguity ensures the tensions between different approaches throughout anthropology’s history which in my humble opinion give the discipline necessary energy: the local and the global; the empirical and the speculative; induction and deduction; the study of materiality and the study of symbolism; data-oriented approach (ethnography) and theory-oriented approach (ethnology).

    The discrepancy between Brown’s early and late uses of relationality concept mirrors the inconsistent use of structure concept in anthropology, an inconsistency Claude Levi-Strauss  devotes the entire volume of Structural Anthropology to change. His solution is a vast topic of its own. The gist of his argument, to put it in an extremely simple manner, could be summed up as such: 1. a community must be studied in its totality; 2. to understand the meaning of this totality, one must compare; 3. this comparison will inevitably leads us to the universal human mental pattern. It’s not difficult to see that Brown is operating on the same mechanism. The first Levi-Strauss statement corresponds to Brown’s local relationality. The second statement is what Brown tries to refine – from discontinuous dichotomy to continuous change of degrees2. The third statement about mental pattern leads us to the Lemke and the Clark articles.

    Both Lemke’s defence of neorealism and Clark’s defence of traditional realism depend on the legitimacy of mental patterns they employ. Lemke’s mental pattern is that of assumed scientific model while Clark’s mental pattern is that of political psychology, both of them are of Western in origin. Both patterns are claimed to be universal by their respective authors.

    For Lemke, Brown’s accusation of a lack of nuances in neorealist analysis of African states is largely due to the insufficient dataset, not because of absolute dichotomy. Thus, more data from intro-national study of IR in Africa would solve the problem (Lemke 2011:67). Would it be good enough? Levi-Strauss probably would say “no”, because IR will thus engage “an undertaking so vast” (Levi-Strauss 1963:12) that African states in its current form might have evolved into other things before any meaningful conclusion has been reached.

    The difference between Clark’s realism and Lemke’s neorealism, to use C. P. Snow’s famous phrase, is a battle between “two cultures”, which is to say, between humanities and science. Clark’s regime security paradigm is a psychological and overtly European one which he demonstrates with concrete examples its validity. But this validity is arm-chair validity without “scientific” data – his cases are anecdotal at best. How useful it is to solve the real-life problems, diplomatic or otherwise, is also not demonstrated. But for the same reason, it is not to be easily debunked neither.

    If we look closely, Brown’s new concepts of sovereignty and anarchy, as accommodating as it seems to Third World reality, are also based on European historical experiences: they are borrowed from Michel Foucault’s “beheading of the king” about “a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (Foucault 1980:121). Foucault, an historian interested in European political history, becomes a darling of anthropologists who study the Third World and “primitive societies”. This trend in contemporary social sciences doesn’t really divert from their old routes at all.

    Probably we shall not get excited too soon. Dust, sometimes is just smoke screen.





    1. A comparison of Claude Levi-Strauss’ study of community patterns and mythology will serve the purpose.
    2. See Levi-Strauss Do Dual Organization Exist? (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163) for a far more rigorous treatment.







    Brown, William

    2006. Africa and International Relations: A Comment on IR Theory,

    Anarchy and Statehood. In Review of International Studies 32:1.


    Clark, John F.

    2001. Realism, Neo-Realism and Africa’s International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Foucault, Michel

    1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester.


    Lemke, Douglas

    2011. Intra-national IR in Africa. In Review of International Studies 37:1.


    Lévi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.




  5. Africa in My Dream: Nationalism and Culture, Identity and Difference

    March 15, 2012 by Fan


    Africa in My Dream: Nationalism and Culture, Identity and Difference

    Fan Zhang

          I was in great agitation. I turned over again and again, sweat flowing down my cheeks … until I woke up and realized this was only a nightmare in which a group of smiling classmates suddenly burst into angry argument over some scholarly debate. In the final climax, everyone was throwing chairs at each other before the class was dismissed by a devastated professor.

    I got up from the bed and penned down this mock letter – which I would never send – to one of the classmates whom I was supposed to be fighting in my dream:

    “I appreciate your frank disagreement with me [in my dream]. For me, it was actually a great show of trust. After yesterday’s big fight, I know we are truly a brilliant bunch of students and we are truly together like one big family.

    I always dreamed of finding in the university a genuinely intellectual milieu in which communications were carried out on a truly spiritual (a bad choice of a word but let me use it tentatively) level. So many classes began and ended in great harmony but left me with a little cynicism and loneliness. Our ability to fight in this class, however, is a great show of our identification with each other …”

    Before bed I was reading this week’s pieces on Africa’s nationalism and her search for cultural identity. Without the necessity to consult Dr. Freud, I began to interpret my own dream. From the very beginning of the class, I sense the connection between my personal self and the continent. This connection has to be a metaphor, because my knowledge of Africa is still extremely limited. But this connection could also be that of metonymy in that Africa is the whole and I’m the (very small) part.

    Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor’s ode to “negritude” (Senghor 2010:477-483) is beautifully essentialistic: every time he raises African culture’s opposition to European culture, he is proving to us how much he himself is part of European culture – to use his own words: “[European culture] is … dichotomic [and] dualistic, in that it makes … absolute distinction[s] …” (Senghor 2010:479). Is this ethnocentrism? I wouldn’t say so – it is only an attempt at ethnocentrism, not unlike my dream of a great intellectual harmony which rarely happens in real life – he must have left unsatisfied as I was. His use of “humanism” in the byline is apt, if we consider humanism as particularly European and essentialistic (Derrida 1978:278-293).

    Senghor equates a race with a culture (or a culture with a race) – assuming the use of “race” concept is acceptable – probably because he believes that the foundation of a creative culture has to be similitude. But this might be a misunderstanding. One theory about the method colonial powers used to destruct native cultures in Africa or elsewhere is their banning of warfare between native communities and take over the business of life and death. Fanon sees this clearly in his two insights: first, there is no single black culture, there is only a multitude of African national cultures the foundation of which is not uniformity but differences; secondly, the establishment and active control of national sovereignty is the only way to cultural prosperity – you have to have to power of your own life and death to have your own ideas and pleasures (Fanon 2010:484-497).

    Writing, or print culture, is central to nation-building, sovereignty and cultural identity. This insight of Benedict Anderson (Berman 2010:505) leads Berman to his interpretation of Mau Mau as a product of modernity and literary culture. What left unsaid is that writing takes over physical antagonisms and turns “tribal” fighting into debates – just like my throwing chairs in the dream would be throwing words in real life. Contention is still there for the sake of creating culture, but horrifying consequences are replaced by “play” (Derrida 1978:293). However unsuccessful Côte d’Ivoire government’s mask business is (Steiner 2010:514), similar intention is there.

    Africa’ fractionality that created “the politics of the belly” (Bayart 2010:631) is probably still seen by some as the root cause of its underdevelopment, but I see it as its foundation for development, cultural creativity and identity-formation. I’m ambivalent in my dream. Africa’s current situation is ambiguous. From here, I see ambitions.





    Bayart, Jean-François

    2010 [1993]. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 498-513.


    Berman, Bruce, J.

    2010 [1991]. Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Modernity: The Paradox of Mau Mau. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 498-513.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. In Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.278-293.


    Fanon, Frantz

    2010 [1963]. On National Culture. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 484-497.


    Senghor, Léopold Sédar

    2010 [1970]. Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 477-483.


    Steiner, Christopher B.

    2010 [1992]. The Invisible Face: Masks, Ethnicity, and the State in Côte d’Ivoire. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 514-519.
















  6. Inventing Traditions, Inventing History

    March 8, 2012 by Fan

     Inventing Traditions, Inventing History

    Fan Zhang


    “ … the invented traditions which were introduced to Africans were those of governance rather than of production” (Ranger 2010:454).



    This statement is crucial in that it somehow proves the truism of a rather corny epigram: “History is a mirror to the future”: it reminds us of Dambisa Moyo’s polemic Dead Aid (2009) in which she calls foreign aid “the silent killer of growth” (Moyo 2009:48). Moyo doesn’t dwell on history much in the slim book – her targets are the current corrupt governing practices of African elites and their greedy or gullible international co-conspirators. Her book can be criticised for being a little crude and “journalistic”, and the economics arguments she makes in the book do feel insufficient in revealing the root cause of Africa’s bad governing practices and related poor economic performance. This makes Terence Ranger’s piece on the artificiality of the so-called “African tradition” particularly nuanced and useful. The current stagnating practices, in this light, can be viewed alternatively as a continuation of the invented European ruling-class culture in Africa and a continuation of African manipulation of invented customs. What those once-fake-but-now-real traditions are stifling is Africa’s original and organic grassroots living force that is indispensible for real growth, real production. A fake historical identity is now killing the real history.

    History is real. History is also invented – by culture. Cultural histories are often written in separate (and often much less authoritative) history books, but either Lugard’ 1922 manual on African governance or Thiong’o’s brilliantly angry piece on the lack of creativity in the ruling colonial elites (despite their ample leisure time) or Ranger’s conception of invented traditions testifies the importance of rather intangible cultural histories’ power in modifying “real” history that can be qualified by names and quantified by numbers. They show that the substance in a name is often tentative and value of things can not always be quantified – non-fictions sometimes begin with fictions, and vice versa.

    Frederick D. Lugard’s study on indirect rule of Africa cements the importance of tradition as a concept in the practice of governing – historical contingency will inevitably invents tradition when it is not there or has never been there. Dambisa Moyo in her book acknowledges with some sarcasm the good intention of some foreign aiders in a section entitled “We Meant Well” (Moyo 2009:28). This applies to Lugard’s study: it is fairly neutral and as objective as the author’s milieu allows. But the consequences of his ruling method, according to Walter Rodney’s Marxist study done some 50 years later, can hardly be called benign. Lugard’s is an essentialist piece (“the habits of a people can not be changed in a decade”, Lugard 2010:436) – he was within history, or at the moment of history. By contrast, Rodney’s is a materialistic attempt at being objectively outside history. This attempt is unsuccessful in his putting all the blame on the external colonial powers and discounts the role of tradition – real or invented – altogether. In turn, his assertion that post-colonial rules are necessarily superior than the colonial rule in economic performance and social welfare (Rodney 2010:440) sounds empty today.

    After reading excerpts from Ranger’s book, we know Thiong’o supplies Ranger with one aspect of tradition-invention: the corrupt ruling-class culture (or a lack of culture). A casual reader, however, will find his brilliant piece has a very peculiar and very exciting slant. But when this casual reader calms down, he will recognize the global importance of the issue raised in the piece:  colonialism in particular and global migration in general and their relationships with the development of creative culture. He will also admit at least on global level this is a far more complex issue. In some of the contemporary ethnographies, foreign expatriates are continuously portrayed as corrupt parasites whose only hobby is binge-drink and hanging out with native prostitutes (Gregory 2006:130). To portray all expatriates as tasteless losers is clearly unfair. Nevertheless, we prefer a partial but genuine voice such as Thiong’o’s to a seemingly objective voice that has nothing substantial and original to say. Don’t we?





    Gregory, S.

    2006. Devil behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press.


    Lugard, Frederick D.

    2010 [1922]. The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa: Methods of Ruling Native Races. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 431-438.


    Moyo, Dambisa

    2009. Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.


    Ranger, Terence

    2010 [1983]. The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 450-461.


    Rodney, Walter

    2010 [1972]. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 439-449.


    Thiong’o, Ngugi wa

    2010 [1981]. Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 460-470.