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African Studies Review 49.1 (2006) 1-14

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The Ordeal of Modernity in an Age of Terror

(Editors' note: The following paper was delivered as the Presidential Address at the 48th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Washington, D.C., November 18, 2005.)

Sometime during the increasingly tense European summer of 1938, the Anglo-Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski sat down to write an introduction to a new book by one of his students, Jomo Kenyatta—a book based on the graduate thesis the latter had written under his supervision at the London School of Economics. A scientific rationalist and atheist, as well as an antiracist, antifascist, and anticommunist, Malinowski was most of all in that fraught time a deeply frightened liberal watching Europe slide into war. During the 1930s he had shifted his focus from the South Pacific to Africa. Over the course of that decade he had become increasingly critical of European colonialism, particularly of what he regarded as its deeply destructive impact on indigenous societies. In his brief introductory essay, Malinowski reflected on Kenyatta's work and, no doubt, on their many long conversations during the three years Kenyatta had studied with him. He commented on the dilemma of the educated African who had "suffered the injury of higher education" and noted that "an African who looks at things from the tribal point of view and at the same time from that of Western civilization experiences the tragedy of the modern world in an especially acute manner" (1938:ix).

And what was this tragedy of the modern world? Malinowski immediately added, "For to quote William James, 'Progress is a terrible thing'" (1938:ix). What was called "progress" in Malinowski's era and "development" in ours refers to global social processes that have not simply [End Page 1] enriched a few and impoverished the many, but, more tragically, have generated intense moral and political crises in every society and led to the most destructive violence against humanity and nature in history. Modernity and its cultural and institutional expressions in scientific rationality, capitalism, and the nation-state have engulfed the world in increasingly intense waves of global expansion from its Western European origins. The celebrated victory of liberal democracy and humanist social democracy in the West itself was not secured until the middle of the last century, and it is threatened again in this. And, as Sigmund Bauman (1989) has brutally reminded us, the same social forces of modernity that made possible liberal democracy, the welfare state, individual freedom and human rights, and the achievements of modern science and medicine, also made possible the Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet gulag.

Today, the desperate atrocities of global terrorism have brutally upset the amnesiac euphoria of Western elites over the "fall" of Communism and betrayed the fantasy expectations of neoliberal globalization.Modernity remains an unfinished project, a continuing source of bitter conflict as well as epochal change both in the West and in the non-Western societies in which it was abruptly and forcibly introduced. The ordeal of modernity is the enduring "tragedy of the modern world," and its impact on African societies large and small is the context and defines the issues for all of us who study the experience of the continent over the past three centuries.

As a graduate student, I wrote a paper on the psychology of terror. I was proud of it then, I am not now. But the conclusion comes back to haunt me: the object of terror is not violence in itself, but the destruction of security and trust in the protection of social institutions, in the stability and orderliness of everyday life, and in the ability of those in power to protect. Terror is the state of disorder, unpredictability, and overwhelming risk and menace that annihilates our trust in the social world. It is the deeply ambiguous and often destructive consequences of modernity in Africa that I wish to discuss tonight. I will examine, first, the social ordeal of capitalist modernity in the West and its relationships to the development...


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