- The Intestines of the State: youth, violence and belated histories in the Cameroon Grassfields
Argenti's book is a veritable tour de force. It accomplishes for the Cameroonian Grassfields what Rosalind Shaw's work achieved for Sierra Leone, or Paul Stoller's for Niger: it offers a reflection, through a detailed ethnography of youngsters' danced mask performances in the royal palaces of the Grassfields' kingdoms, particularly the Oku chiefdom, on history, memory and power. The Grassfields has been part of a global modernity for nearly 400 years, at first by means of its violent insertion into the transatlantic slave trade, and later on as a source of plantation labour in colonial times. This is a book about the historical and political relevance of non-discursive traumatic memories to retrieve these pasts and to shape the present. Built on years of field research and an extensive knowledge of the Grassfields' ethnographic realities, this book situates itself at the crossroads between an anthropology of youth, of the body, and of memory. In each of these carefully interwoven fields, Argenti advances our theoretical understanding of the juvenile vocabulary of dance and resistance. As a political technology of the body and a 'body of social memory', dance reveals itself to be a popular mode of youthful political action to actualize the past in the present, and make sense of a long history of structural violence, exploitation, political marginalization and dispossession.
The book's structure is carefully balanced. After a more theoretical first part which introduces in an innovative yet very accessible and elegant way all of the main themes outlined above, the author continues along two tracks: one presenting an 'official' history of the Grassfields, through archival material and common historical sources (chapters 1, 4 and 6), the other covering the same historical time span but interpreted this time through an ethnography of embodied histories as they emerge in the masked danced performances at palatine courts and outlying villages (chapters 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8). Here the author describes the evolution of these performances, which, he argues, offer sedimented layers of non-discursive memories of the slave trade. Argenti carefully unearths these incorporations of social memories formed by historical inequities and hierachies through vivid accounts of a number of performances that he attended, as well as through a detailed description of the meaning of some of the more important masks. Nowhere do the ethnographic accounts [End Page 666] burden the reader with unnecessary details, and some of the more elaborate ethnography is provided in an annex.
The whole book hinges on the idea that there is a dominant model of masked dance performance by the palace secret societies, in which young men–or social cadets–from outlying villages are called upon to be the victims of the masks' stampedes at the palace. As such the official reading of the mask performances is one that strengthens the dominant hegemonic position of the central royal courts to the detriment of youths, bachelors, and women from the periphery. They remain at the bottom of the hierachical political and economic architecture of the Grassfields societies. And yet these youths recreate in their villages some of the same forms of domination. However, as Argenti convincingly shows, they introduce subtle but important differences that transform the masking performances to look outside the kingdom and the palace for inspiration. As such the masked dance performances also become the means to address and subvert the inequalities youths and cadets face in their relations with their own elders, with the state and with the wider forces of global capitalism.
In the final chapter, Argenti briefly reiterates the main arguments, and concludes with an insightful, even poetic, interpretation of the dance performances in terms of Derrida's (and Celan's) notion of the shibboleth, a notion which accurately encapsulates and brings out the indeterminacy of the dances as representations and reinscriptions of the untold events of the past.
It is no doubt this indeterminate, aporetic nature of...