- Forensics of Capital by Michael Ralph
Forensics of Capital is an interesting book written by anthropologist Michael Ralph. It offers an accurate analysis of how Senegal’s complex historical, religious and socio-cultural past and present shaped its current political standing and challenges as a democratic republic. There are at least three good things about this book: first, it is an excellent study of how external influences gave shape to Senegal’s political identity - in this, it is an exemplary case study of how foreign powers can affect the diplomatic standing of African countries. Second, it advances our understanding of a relatively novel field of inquiry - what Ralph calls forensics of capital. And third, it conducts a thorough examination of Senegal’s history, untangling different socio-political layers through time.
Ralph’s analysis starts from the dealings in the fifteenth century between John II of Portugal and the Wolof King Bemoim, who, converted to Christianity, was then killed in shady circumstances by Portuguese naval commander Pero Vaz da Cunha. A formal inquest was never held. And yet, after his conversion and political agreement with the Portuguese king, Bemoim’s authority as sovereign derived from both the Portuguese crown and God’s earthly embodiment, the Pope. An inquest seemed necessary under the formal temporal and spiritual bonds that had sealed the collaboration between the Portuguese and the Wolof. Ralph uses this, and many more examples from West African history, to analyse - calculate, as he says - the factors that influence the value of a person or a polity in a political regime: ‘I call this calculus used to adjudicate social standings the forensics of capital’ (p. 13). The fulcrum of Ralph’s analysis is the currently growing interest of the United States in Dakar as the western entry point for their network of oil-oriented infrastructures, and how their interest intersects with the political decisions of the newly elected government of Macky Sall. As the book unfolds, it uncovers how important elements that compose our current understanding of sovereignty were born from ad hoc rituals created to establish solid bonds between European and African powers.
Challenging the idea that polities are composed of groups of pure, rational agents, Forensics of Capital looks instead at the rituals and protocols that people use to establish consensus, and to strengthen diplomatic and trade agreements. Take, for instance, the way in which Ralph looks at Bush’s visit to the slave prison on the Senegalese island of Gorée (when the US administration locked the entire island population in a soccer field), at Senegal’s victory against France in a football match, or at the tea-drinking practices of the growing younger generations who have no access to jobs. Concrete examples from Senegalese past and present history and society are looked at from an investigatory angle that engages the reader with a dense style, which, however, doesn’t lack moments of sarcasm.
Generally speaking, Ralph’s book offers an analysis of how external political-economic efforts to strengthen the international profile of a given country [End Page 643] deeply weaken the political coherence that government officials owe to their electorate, in turn undermining those very democratic principles that external powers might be trying to strengthen. Many readers will find in Forensics of Capital an example of how we can gather information and analytical strategies from various fields of knowledge to carry out a critical, multifaceted investigation of a case to point towards new ways of thinking about international relations.
I would especially recommend reading this book to those interested in West Africa and its relations with Western powers. It is probably difficult to capture the whole of Senegal today, but Ralph does a good job. Having spent a few years in Senegal, I would have hoped that Ralph would also have touched upon another two points. The first is the speech given by Obama in Dakar, urging the Senegalese government to make sure that homosexual people are not discriminated against (this was...