In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Car Culture and Its Trialectics
  • Madhu Krishnan (bio)
Lindsey B. Green-Simms, Postcolonial Automobility: Car Culture in West Africa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, xi + 248 pp. $112.00; $28.00 paper.

There are few symbols more weighted in the colonialist imaginary than the railway. Invoked with predictable regularity as both an alibi for and indicator of British colonialism in particular, the image of the train has become a ubiquitous metonym for imperialism that simultaneously attempts to efface its foundational and structural violence. Yet the constant recourse to the train as a signifier of colonial modernity has rendered its image overdetermined, verging on cliché. By contrast, Lindsey B. Green-Simms’s Postcolonial Automobility: Car Culture in West Africa offers a fresh perspective on the interconnections across infrastructure, modernity, development, and (post)coloniality through its focus on the automobile. As Green-Simms’s study makes plain, the car, while less frequently invoked, is no less central than the train in its importance as a symbol and signifier of the paradoxes and tensions of coloniality and its legacies. The automobile, as Green-Simms notes, serves as “the commodity par excellence of postwar modernity” (3), whose own valuations register specific articulations in the West African context. Centered on the concept of “automobility,” a term intended to evoke both autonomy and mobility (concepts which, as Green-Simms observes, are inherently paradoxical in nature and central to post-Enlightenment notions of the [End Page 305] subject), the study explores a range of cultural texts including literature, film, and video to expose “the complex ways that automobility in West Africa is, at once, an everyday practice, an ethos, a fantasy of autonomy and mobility, and an affective experience intimately tied to modern social life” (4). Throughout the study, the keywords “modernity,” “development,” and “globalization” are invoked to anchor readings which excavate the diversity of formations in which the cultural imaginary of the automobile operates across the latter half of the long twentieth century, from its large-scale introduction into African markets following the Second World War to the era of mass deregulation, which saw the importation of expanding numbers of secondhand vehicles, to its present day symbolism in Nollywood videos as a marker of opulence and success in a moral economy of consumption and materialism.

Postcolonial Automobility opens with a sweeping introduction placing the automobile in its West African context as a decidedly ambivalent site which enables a multitude of “messy ways” in which “African subjects navigate their role as global consumers in a rapidly and still unevenly globalizing world” (16). Taking inspiration from Roberto Schwartz’s concept of “misplaced idea[s]” (14), or ideas whose relocation across cultural contexts exposes their fissures and inherent inconsistencies, the study uses its focus on automobility to powerfully assert the ways in which African subjects—and indeed Africa—have functioned not as external to or supplemental of modernity, but as agents within, occupied with negotiating what James Ferguson calls “Africa’s ‘place-in-the-world’” (qtd. in Green-Simms 11) and the claims entailed therein. Green-Simms provides a lucid and urgent discussion of how the teleological developmentalist narrative which progresses across the long twentieth century, from Fordism to post-Fordism, requires revision in a West African context, exposing the dissonances and fractures made plain by its uneven realization across time and space.

Subsequent chapters provide a historical overview of the automobile in West Africa, including narrative and filmic accounts of early crossings by Félix Dubois and sponsored by André Citroën during the first half of the twentieth century. Undertaken in a spirit of “colonial humanism” (41) in line with the so-called “civilizing mission” (40) of French colonialism, these journeys and their textual afterlives [End Page 306] highlight the ambiguity of the motorcar as both an agent of opening the territory to development and an agent of opening the territory to destruction. By contrast, local transportion controlled by African businessmen (gender deliberate) offers a rare opportunity for entrepreneurial activity usually denied to local populations under colonial policy. As Green-Simms notes, “throughout West Africa auto-mobility provided African workers in the transport sector with the opportunity to fashion their identity and articulate their autonomy...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 305-310
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.