- The Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields
Scholars of Africa are justifiably committed to explaining and understanding the continent’s contemporary problems through a historical lens. Yet [End Page 174] in many African societies it is rare for ordinary citizens to voice their discontents about the postcolonial situation through overt discourses about colonialism and the slave trade. But there are other modes in which history is retained. In this meticulously researched book, Nicolas Argenti argues that through masked dance performances people in the Cameroon Grassfields remember histories of violence that they cannot articulate verbally. These performances evoke past horrors, even as they simultaneously protect current structures of inequality and offer marginalized populations a vehicle for criticizing elites through a nondiscursive medium. Argenti contends that for Grassfields male youth, and to some extent for women, these masked performances provide a complex intersubjective arena in which the violence of the past is remembered, reproduced, and challenged.
The analysis is multilayered, the interpretations are often truly brilliant, and the ethnographic data on the performances are rich and nuanced. Argenti undermines linear historical narratives and suggests that the meaning of the past is literally created and revealed through dance and masking. The book draws convincing parallels among the slave trade, colonialism, and the Cameroonian postcolony, suggesting that similar modes of power are necessary to establish and maintain a state in each case. Argenti demonstrates that embedded in masking are memories of past oppression as well as assertions of creativity, resistance, and agency. By contrasting the masked performances of the palaces, where chiefs preside over a deeply unequal social order, with similar performances at the level of the lineage and the village, Argenti illustrates the capacity of masks to serve the political interests of both elites and ordinary citizens—the latter represented most characteristically in the Grassfields by “cadets,” men who cannot achieve social adulthood because of poverty, unemployment, and the inability to garner the resources necessary to marry.
Perhaps most compelling about The Intestines of the State is Argenti’s ability to avoid misleading dualisms or easy reductionism. Each argument is carefully considered and the contradictory elements of his evidence are embraced and explored rather than explained away. Truly impressive are the details and the precision of Argenti’s accounts of the masked dance performances. His descriptions are masterful and reminded me of the work of great art historians. His eye for nuance is extraordinary. Much of the book’s central argument depends upon Argenti’s ability to persuade the reader that his interpretations of these performances are accurate, both as to what sorts of past events are being represented and recreated, and with regard to how the performers and the audience experience them. The painstaking detail of the material and the clarity of Argenti’s writing make the book and its claims highly compelling.
However, despite this skillful analysis, I must admit that I felt some lingering unease over the extent to which the argument depends upon accepting the interpretations of the author, which are not explicitly corroborated by the performers or their audience. Argenti admits that people in the Grassfields did not talk about masked dance performances as a means of [End Page 175] understanding the slave trade, colonialism, and inequality in contemporary Cameroon. Although I am not suggesting that the subjects of anthropological inquiry must articulate an ethnographer’s argument themselves to make it valid, this disjuncture does raise questions about interpretation. Because Argenti argues that people cannot verbalize these things, given the unspeakable nature of the violence that is being enacted, he appears to protect the book from a natural critique, which is to ask how one knows whether Cameroonians are experiencing these performances in the manner the author suggests. Ultimately, it may be impossible to judge conclusively whether Argenti’s interpretations are accurate. But it would have been helpful to learn more about other means by which Grassfields cadets...