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Reviewed by:
  • The Pot-King: the body and technologies of power, and:Régner au Cameroun: le roi-pot
  • Nigel Barley
Jean-Pierre Warnier, The Pot-King: the body and technologies of power. Leiden and Boston MA: Brill (pb €75 – 978 9 004 15217 5). 2007, 336 pp.
Jean-Pierre Warnier, Régner au Cameroun: le roi-pot. Paris: Karthala (pb £23.78 – 978 2 811 10176 3). 2009, 352 pp.

Jean-Pierre Warnier is known as the author of numerous studies of Grasslands Cameroon and has conducted fieldwork in the area for some 35 years, focusing on the kingdom of Mankon. The Pot-King represents both a continuation and a change of direction within this steady output, for it involves a revaluation that goes to the very root of what anthropology is. Central to the book is the Mankon institution of sacred kingship, whereby the ruler acts as a container of creative force, ultimately derived from the ancestors and communicated to the kingdom through royal saliva, palm wine, semen and camwood paste.

The notion of sacred kingship always homes in on some direct connection between the physical well-being of the monarch and his realm, but the Mankon king has three bodies – his physical body, the royal palace and the wider city, all of which must be regularly protected and strengthened in a cycle of ingestion and excretion that encompasses both the ‘mystical’ and the economic, uniting them into a single technology of power. Central here is the public act of ‘spraying’, when the monarch takes palm wine into his own mouth and blows it, mixed with saliva, over his subjects, in the gesture known so well from Grasslands carved masks. Yet equally crucial is Mankon’s economic incorporation into wide trade networks: this both allows the removal of disruptive elements and challenges the boundaries and coherence of the system itself. In all this, as Warnier is anxious to show, the polygamous and ‘privileged’ see themselves as carrying the burden of so much work upon their own long-suffering backs, and would be only too glad to slide out from under it.

And this is the crux of the matter. Warnier spends much of the book discussing both anthropological and more specifically psychoanalytical models of the body, for he has kept dangerous company, visiting not just the palace but Cameroonian psychiatric clinics both within and without the Western paradigm. The foundation of the book lies in a distinction between discursive and procedural knowledge which is rather more than the familiar opposition between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’, for procedural knowledge is different in kind, being experiential and sensori-motor, defying unpacking into language and possessed thereby of quite particular force. Warnier scores a number of excellent points as he hails down missiles on the glib anti-Cartesian orthodoxies of recent anthropology, arguing that these are to be seen as little more than the result of a quite elementary mistake between signifier and signified of the same kind as that artfully exploited by Magritte’s image of ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Similarly ripe for rethinking is the relationship between [End Page 515] material objects and their creators/users, since sensori-motor knowledge is required and physically internalized as part of any used object in the real world.

All this is well argued. And yet . . . the origin of all this stress on the very physicality and ‘thingness’ of the Mankon world seems to lie in the counter-intuitive nature of Warnier’s model of the kingdom rather than more general theoretical concerns. Mankon is traditionally cast as a kingdom where polygamy amongst notables was rife, where large numbers of citizens were exported into the slave trade or as forced labour, and where perhaps a third of the adult male population was maintained in a state of permanent prepubescent childhood, yet remained grateful to their elders. We are not speaking here of a mere theoretical model. Warnier insists that it was really exactly like this. A third of men would never experience sexual climax in their whole lives, not even in the form of masturbation. There was no convenient leakage through adultery with the wives of polygamists. Homosexuality was part...


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pp. 515-516
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