The ethnographic setting of this paper is a contemporary diamond frontier along the borderline between Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). 1 The diamond frontier described here is not only an intermediate geographical reality on the periphery of two different states. The frontier-setting which I will deal with in this chapter is also a state of mind. It provides a physical and mental landscape in which local and global imaginaries meet and, eventually, merge. The frontier presented here is thus not only political or economical, but above all socio-cultural, in an inventive pot-pourri between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’, local and global, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ categories, practices, mentalities, relationships and belief systems. This paper intends to scrutinize some of this shape-shifting by analyzing how frontier images of the American Wild West, and especially the figure of the Cowboy, are incorporated into and become a constitutive part of a rich conglomerate of isotopic meaning-production which also solidifies around other focal units such as the hunter, the warrior, the soldier, the trader and, last but not least, the saint. Each of those units are materializations, through different forms, of what Castoriadis has called a magma, a web of plural meanings, of social imaginary significations through which society (re)creates and institutionalizes itself (Castoriadis 1997). Developing this notion of the magmatic, Castoriadis leans on Freud’s mention of breccia, volcanic rocks in which hard fragments are caught within solidified lava flows. At moments, this lava brings back up to the surface elements from the deepest magmas (cf Castoriadis 1997: 187). I shall analyze how the particular magma of the Congolese diamond frontier -in which the cowboy, the hunter, the soldier, the warrior, the saint and tutti quanti appear as the breccia in the lava flow of that frontier’s history- forms the materialization of a social imaginary of the frontier that posits, embodies, animates and institutes an ongoing societal creation, an eidos for the kind of post-colonial societies that Congo and Angola have become today. The paper will also illustrate how, at the fringes, at those seemingly ‘lost corners in the world’ as Vansina (1982) once termed them, the lava flow of that frontier’s long history (which originated with the trade of slaves, ivory and rubber in the mid-seventeenth century), has not solidified but continues to be a fluid and negotiable reality. The frontier is not closed, the historical trajectory has not ended, the breccia from different local and global worlds keep surfacing and transforming in different constellations. What I intend to do, then, in this contribution, is to narrate a metahistory of the diamond frontier in Congo and Angola as it resounds in the ‘historical imagination’ of the frontier space and its inhabitants, as well as in the cognitive, discursive and experiential frontiers that shape its daily palimpsestual realities. 2 The imaginary here becomes interaction: between the past, the present, and a projection of a future, between social actors, and between different worlds and societal constellations (cf Bayart 1996: 143).
Following the analysis of the shape-shifting dynamics between the various figures that take up a central position in the socio-cultural horizon of the diamond frontier and its historical imagination (which is, to a large extent, the imagination of the young), I propose, in the final section, a cultural model of the mutant hero, based on a reinterpretation of the notion of ‘fetish’.
Colonial/Post-colonial Frontier: a summary
‘We should imagine a hundred frontiers, not one, some political, some economic, and some cultural.’ (Braudel, 1976:170)
The cartographic image of ‘frontier’ suggests boundary-drawing, exclusion, category discrimination, hierarchy and control. In contemporary academic discourse, however, the notion of ‘frontier’ is increasingly used to convey the post-colonial cosmogonies of the interstitial. The world of the frontier is currently portrayed as one of fluid margins rather than fixed boundaries. In this interpretation, the notion of frontier as spatial ‘boundary’ becomes one of ‘borderlands’ (cf Donnan & Wilson 1994cf Donnan & Wilson 1999). As such it deconstructs and dissolves the clear-cut center/periphery or...