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  • Africa in Theory:A Conversation Between Jean Comaroff and Achille Mbembe
  • Jesse Weaver Shipley

Achille Mbembe

I would like to start with an anecdote. I first met Jean Comaroff not literally, but through her thought provoking, generous, and hospitable Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance during the winter of 1987. I was then on a Ford Foundation grant, spending a year at the University of Madison-Wisconsin—my first ever trip to the United States. I was writing a book on "political religion"—in this case Christianity—published in Paris a year later under the title Afriques indociles. Christianisme, pouvoir et État en société postcoloniale (Paris, Karthala, 1988)—like the rest of my work in French, a book hardly known in the Anglo-Saxon world. I went to Memorial Library that night not knowing that the book existed and never having heard of Jean Comaroff. I stumbled over the book accidentally while trudging through the shelves. I took it home and spent almost the entire night reading it. Since then, Body of Power has not only remained with me; it has pursued me, and it is easy to find its echoes in the deepest recesses of On the Postcolony. [End Page 653]

Body of Power is a detailed, vivid, and richly textured historiography of everyday life in a remote and not so remote corner of South Africa under apartheid—from the minutiae of dress, spatial organization, bodily gestures to productive techniques, rites of initiation, and cult practices. It is a powerful example of how we should think and write about human agency; what analytical strategies we should deploy in order to describe and interpret specific forms of social life in particular settings. Situated beyond the strictures of positivist epistemology and objectivist ontology, it is also an account of what is life for and what is most at stake, especially for people living in what Jean calls "the shadow of the modern world system"—people who are forced to undo and remake their lives under conditions of precariousness and uncertainty.

That this amazing book, a combination of thick ethnography, interpretive history, and symbolic analysis, helped to set the stage for the critical debates on the forms and methods of social inquiry that dominated the mid-1980s to mid-1990s has not been sufficiently recognized for various reasons. Unfortunately, the most compelling reason is that the immediate and most apparent object of Body of Power is the study of life forms in this place called Africa.

As a name and as a sign, Africa has always occupied a paradoxical position in modern formations of knowledge. On the one hand, it has been largely assumed that "things African" are residual entities, the study of which does not contribute anything to the knowledge of the world or of the human condition in general. Rapid surveys, off-the-cuff remarks, and anecdotes with sensational value suffice. On the other hand, it has always been implicitly acknowledged that in the field of social sciences and the humanities, there is no better laboratory than Africa to gauge the limits of our epistemological imagination or to pose questions about how we know what we know and what that knowledge is grounded upon; how to draw on multiple models of time so as to avoid one-way causal models; how to open a space for broader comparative undertakings; and how to account for the multiplicity of the pathways and trajectories of change.

In fact, there is no better terrain than Africa for a scholarship keen to describe novelty, originality, and complexity. Those of us who live and work in Africa know first hand that the ways in which societies compose and invent themselves in the present—what we could call the creativity of practice—is always ahead of the knowledge we can ever produce about them. Therefore, to think or to theorize from Africa implies an acute awareness of [End Page 654] the existence of this rift—even a full embrace of this rift which is at the same time a risk, and the understanding that "the social" is less a matter of order and contract than a matter of composition and experiment; that what ultimately binds societies...


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