Of course Africa doesn't exist as such, but when, really, has the facticity of representations ever stopped anthropologists from concerning himself with them? Ferguson ask why we draw the line on a continental scale and why we anthropologist insist on seeing difference everywhere we look? This question becomes especially pressing when we note that while we are busy making detailed qualification, public imaginaries, whether these be held by western media or African men, busily construct ‘Africa’ through head-on dealings and through representations. 


The problem is that constructions are not only made, but are also operationalized – they are differences that make a difference. If, Ferguson tells us, negative images of the continent make investors cautious, the caution itself and the subsequent withholding of investment brings about the very results that were feared (7) – Africa is a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure and poverty.  Ferguson attempts to turn an anthropological eye to discourses forming around and being operationalized through this negative imaginary. Ferguson eschews anthropology’s favored arguments of local resistance to the west in appropriation and parody of practices.  Instead, he invites a problematic that is more difficult to manage: If we can agree that Africa is a discursive shadow, a negative signifier, an emblem for poverty, then what?  His interest is, as he says, non- or supra-ethnographic.  He wants the bigger picture. Perhaps we can call his approach textual, certainly it is eclectic.  By juxtaposing letters from dead children and angered journalists (chap 6), by delving into the archive of development theory, (chap 7), by highlighting his own ethnographic encounters (intro), Ferguson attempts to make two claims about this discursive and lived Africa. The first is that cultural difference (relativity), needs to be replaced by a real concern of material inequality.  The second is a larger claim about the static nature of status and membership in a neoliberal globe.


In the introductory essay Ferguson plumbs the metaphor of shadow to characterize Africa’s place in the global imaginary.  Racked with civil and interstate war, economic failure, disease, and debt, Africa becomes a troubled signified. Even democracy, the key component to ‘progress’, “in an ironic twist” taxes the wrong guy insofar as it burdens the voters with the responsibility of debt accrued through mismanagement elsewhere  (12).  Forget debt, forgiveness, the Zambian journalist writes, “they owe us big time!.”


Africa, for Ferguson, is then not simply an Other, but a shadow, which despite its shape-shifting nature, is always stuck tight against western modernity as its double or its haunt. As a shadow, where informal economies and black markets trump formal economies, and where ununiformed “shadow” soldiers parallel state armies, membership to the explicit, rule-of law discourses of modern society is always kept at arms length. Seeing these informal regimes as cultural difference, Ferguson argues, is often to overlook the relations of inequality and to ignore demands for ““Western” recognition of, and responsibility for, “Africa”” (20).


Is Ferguson taking a back-door liberal position here in forcing a definition of equality? This is the anthropological bugaboo, right? I don’t think so.  By injustice he means something concrete, namely, a failure to recognize the membership and global status of Africa, and a failure to recognize the terms on which the demand for that status is made. For Ferguson, Western modernity is not the end goal, nor is the desire of ‘Africa’ to be like the west. Nor is the goal of ‘Africa’ to appropriate the West’s power, as some anthropologists would have it (557).  Rather, the goal is to be with the west, to share in the rights and privileges that such rights afford, to enter into a larger conversation that they are told is the mark of modernity.


A question that lingers after reading Ferguson’s account concerns an uncertainty about Ferguson’s acquiescence to Mr. Lebona’s arguments for a rectangular house.  I wonder if it might not be an important step in the analysis of “material injustice” to bring in an ecological argument and to together recognize that the very modernity that Mr. Lebona wants to be accepted into is in fact predicated on the very fact of his exclusion. That is, Mr. Ferguson can only have his large 10-room home because Mr. Lebona, and the other billion Africans, make do with grass and dung. Perhaps this is what Ferguson is getting at when he notes that with the de-temporalizing of modernity, there only remains the fetishization of borders, the erection of walls, and increased social exclusion.  When temporality can no longer buttress the walls of status, materiality comes in to do the job.




ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo

japan

architecture

urban