RSS Feed

Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

  1. 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.























  2. 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.




  3. 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.
















  4. 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.