Enchantings: Modernity, Culture, and the State in Postcolonial Africa
The symposium aims to bring into close systematic interaction three composite entities that traditionally are the objects of different study areas and therefore are studied together most often casually or rarely: contemporary African cultural and social forms and practices, the postcolonial African political state, and the larger modern context that subtend the two. The goal is to help us better understand in a multi-sided way (1) the sociopolitical underpinnings of African cultural and social forms and practices; (2) the cultural and social determinations on the character and performance of the African state as a genre, and (3) the modern context that is the generative canvas of the interactions.
The postcolonial state is just a little more than half a century old in most of Africa. It varies in operational micro-details from one region or country to another but the iterations all share certain fundamental features: an ancestry in the colonial state rather than in any autonomous evolution of indigenous histories, an inverted development in which the state—coercively imposed, as an outgrowth of the colonial state—preceded the “nation” conceived as an imagined community with a more or less shared culture and worldview; official languages that are alien and alienating to a majority of the population; and formal institutions—political, juridical, economic, bureaucratic—with an unyielding extraverted mentality. These features are the sources of much of what is globally known about African states today: endless “transitions” to democracy, autocratic leadership (because the state is not hegemonic, i.e. it does not command moral authority), weak civil society, political instability, epochal and especially gendered inequalities, inter-ethnic wars, anti-state rebellions, imponderable bureaucracy, recurrent refugee crises. These have been prohibitive circumstances, but they also have been particularly productive of (that is, engendered) manifold cultural and social forms and practices through which Africans inventively cope with an often-bewildering modernity.
The repressive character of African states has, for instance, produced a highly political literature, with unique thriving forms such as “anti-dictatorship literature,” “theatre for development,” and “writers' prison diaries.” In the other arts, there are “engaged cartooning,” “oppositional music,” and “guerilla journalism.” There are also sociocultural and sociopolitical practices such as women’s unions, voluntary community associations, and the phenomenal emergence of pro-democracy non-governmental organizations. They all arose in response to specifics of unresponsive states and their failed old promises of “rapid modernization” made upon independence. The qualifier, “enchanting,” is employed here to describe a condition of aporia in which modernity is railed at, for its failed promises, as mere “alien” bewitching illusion (a dis-enchantment), and at the same time employed as catalyst for further striving—“we need to modernize!” (a re-enchantment).
The cross-disciplinary symposium brings together perspectives from the humanities and the social sciences to explore the multidimensional relations between the imaginative production and social practices of contemporary Africa, and the institutional conditions that call for, enable, advance or limit those labors—or, more properly speaking, modes—of life. While it is accepted—even if not widely practiced—in cultural studies that sociopolitical and historical processes give deep meaning to cultural forms, the symposium assumes that gone should also be the days when cultural forms and practices are thought to be incapable of yielding useful explanatory and analytical categories for understanding political processes. The proposed multidimensional inquiry promises to help refine our understandings both of sociocultural forms in the political contexts that engendered them, and of political processes of the state in the context of the creative forms with which people respond and relate to them. For instance, to productively understand the state is to understand how the people, across all divides, conceive it and relate to it; and how the people conceive it is deeply inscribed in their affective productions: the cultural and social forms and practices they produce, consume, and deploy within and outside the structures of constraints and possibilities afforded by the state and its institutions.
“The crisis of the African state” is an old but still current formulation. The symposium holds that that crisis is not simply social, which involves statistics about governance, poverty, corruption, etc, and imply government policies of redress, but also epistemological, which involves deep apprehension of the state’s nature, its particular meanings to the people it rules, its history, functions, and transformations over time. The symposium is motivated in part by the conviction that advancing the epistemological challenge of understanding the African state is crucial too to resolving its social crisis.