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  • Introduction
  • Jesse Weaver Shipley

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Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa. Capacity 88,460. Photo by Jesse Weaver Shipley

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The essays in this volume are concerned with theorizing changing institutional and embodied forms of power in this post-liberation epoch. The end of apartheid in South Africa symbolized for many the final conquest over explicit oppression. As romanticized celebrations of successful liberation faded and promised hopes for change became mired in webs of inequality, the language of liberalization emerged as hegemonic in state and international circles, naturalized by global finance, development organizations, and marginal economic actors. South Africa's hosting of the FIFA World Cup in June-July 2010, perhaps, most starkly represents how privatizing forces have become embedded within the state form, aligning corporate profit with collective political institutions. Hosting the World Cup involved a mammoth effort in which the South African state was mandated by FIFA to invest huge amounts of capital and institute strict regulations in exchange for the right to put on the sporting event. For South Africa, this corporatized global sporting spectacle presented [End Page 473] hopes for global recognition and investment. Its dynamics sum up the blending of service industry consumption and citizenship that characterizes the early 21st century. The valorization of individuated entrepreneurship blurs legal discourse, human rights, and movements for political change with profit, where personal gain stands in for collective well-being. State and corporate bodies work together in the increasingly banal project of neoliberalism. Cultural, political, and religious collectivities use the language of privatization and liberalization to stake claims on cultural signs and material resources. Crucially, there has been a shift in how people contest power: from processes that produce place towards the ways that entrepreneurial subjects deploy the languages of mobility and rights to reinvent circulatory mechanisms themselves. Ethnographers have struggled to address shifts in the scalar relation between lived, bodily experience and institutional and geographical circuits of power. Rapid yet uneven velocity in the movements of bodies, signs, and technologies creates uncertainty, complicating the social and political alignments that coalesce around an entrepreneurial aesthetic.

These essays are concerned with understanding the various articulations of neoliberal political economy and postcolonial life. Scale—that is "how to relate the micro-social to the macro-social frame" (Silverstein 2003:193)—is both a methodological and political issue. Ethnographers struggle to connect "evidence and explanation" (Comaroff and Comaroff 2003), which requires understanding the historically specific ways that people reflexively negotiate event-making processes and ideologies of how small things relate to big forces. An ethics of scale entails thinking not about resistance or consciousness in an abstract sense, but exploring how local people themselves imagine causality and intent; how people in seemingly intractable situations live through the possibilities and impossibilities of transformation.

This special edition began with a workshop I convened at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University in April 2007 to critically engage Comaroff's Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People in relation to the changing object of ethnographic inquiry.1 Published in 1985, this text is a landmark in the political, ethical, and intellectual work of anthropological field research. Comaroff's ethnography develops an historical ethnography of changing forms of power manifest in the practical and sensual aspects of cultural embodiment—in particular, in ritual structure and the rise of the Zionist Church [End Page 474] movement among Tswana peoples in South Africa. Using current ethnographic research, these papers reflect on the theoretical influence of Body of Power by historicizing its theoretical frame as a part of the ethnographic contexts it examines. This volume theorizes the changing nature of the contemporary political-moral landscape from the perspective of various mobile life-worlds.

Comaroff's text provides an historical snapshot of how apartheid-era struggles over power and meaning were carried out in the making of events out of the flux of daily experience. In tracing how the mundane and the spectacular are demarcated through built forms and bodily actions, Comaroff details how intentionality and conscious political opposition are made through the historical struggles of a political economic system. Her work further...


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