- Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar
Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar by Jennifer Cole is a fitting counterpoint to her earlier work, Forget Colonialism? Sacrifice and the Art of Memory in Madagascar . Whereas her earlier book plumbed the past as it is constructed through the narratives and ritual speeches of Betsimisaraka people on the east coast, Sex and Salvation plots how young people, particularly women, erect the future as they “disembed” themselves from their families of origin, move out of rural villages, and aspire toward a better life in the city. Yet Sex and Salvation also can be read as a seamless continuation of Cole’s research into the interplay of social consciousness and everyday practice that constitutes temporality in Madagascar.
Both books interrogate ways in which societies create explanatory fictions of their experience. These are expressed through personal and collective acts of commemoration, storytelling, selective recall, planning, hoping, and pursing livelihoods, all of which sculpt the sense of time and lend it subjective and social meaning. In Forget Colonialism?, Cole shows how Betsimisaraka people’s cognition of the past is conditioned by collective acts of remembering and forgetting. People’s tendency to wax nostalgic over the days of French colonialism makes it seem as though violent incidents under colonial rule never happened. Cole focuses in particular on the silencing of narratives about the bloody, anti-colonial uprising of 1947, in which approximately 80,000 Betsimisaraka rebels from the rural east coast were assassinated by French troops.
With Sex and Salvation, Cole succeeds in writing another empirically rich and theoretically nuanced account of how Betsimisaraka people express and reproduce a sense of chronological time. Here, she focuses on the future-under-construction by youths who are in the process of [End Page 1313] projecting their individual and collective identities into adulthood. This book also shifts from a rural setting to an urban one, the port city of Toamasina (called Tamatave in French). Cole explores the evolving future through the ideas and practices of young women aspiring to either secure advantageous, long-term sexual relationships, or to build virtuous reputations as Pentecostalists. The book is essential reading for anthropologists engaged in questions of time and temporality, gender and sexuality, youth, and religion.
One of Cole’s aims is to deconstruct the concept of “generational change,” assumed by scholars and Tamatavians alike to be predicated on sudden rupture, on youth’s (or a segment of the youthful population’s) rejection of the way their parents have done things. Emphasizing the point that life does not imitate stage theory, Cole reveals how the linkage of generation to epoch in the historical imagination is also a fiction. She draws on the metaphor of synergy—the unique, conjoined effect of multiple substances or forces—to describe the process of social change. The perception that current time-space is distinctly different from what came before is the effect of an interchange between an enculturated and a potential self. In other words, the future unfolds through a tug-of-war between the subjective past and the subjective future, or the ways of the ancestors and the ways of the moderns. Cole’s data elucidate how conventional mores of the present slow the potential for radical change by setting constraints on youthful desires. Yet the imagined future pulls a little more forcefully, as opportunities arise, young people selectively seize them, and history rolls onward.
In Madagascar, neoliberal reforms enacted in the late 1980s, when former president Didier Ratsiraka conceded the failure of his brand of state socialism and sought Western aid, appear to have nurtured a greater desire in Malagasy citizens for expensive foreign goods and technologies. Critical commentators within Madagascar have cast the neoliberal turn as a moment of moral crisis or break with the past, when large numbers of young people increasingly turned away from ancestral custom, understood to be rooted in rural life, and embraced an ethos of consumerism and cosmopolitanism. In the words of one young man: “before, men wanted cattle whereas now they want televisions...