Tag: Mahmood Mamdani

Uganda Walking

In Uganda:

Uganda’s opposition leader was temporarily blinded after police fired pepper spray into his eyes and dragged him from his car at gunpoint, his lawyer said. Kizza Besigye had been leading a fifth round of protests against rising food and fuel prices. With his right hand heavily bandaged after being hit by a rubber bullet at an earlier demonstration, he waved to cheering crowds with his left…

This is the fourth time in three weeks that Besigye, the leader of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and runner-up to Museveni in a disputed February election, has been detained by police over the “walk to work” protests, designed to express solidarity with those who can no longer afford public transport. Museveni, in power for 25 years, blames drought for high food costs and soaring oil prices for local fuel costs, and has warned Besigye that his protests will not be tolerated.


Protests have been going on since April 11. Before today, five people (including an infant) had been killed by police, and Museveni is apparently already entering the “turn off the internet” stage. 

Angela Kintu warns not to think “that this protest is about Kizza Besigye:

It is not. His party and mode of opposition entered my ‘Twakoowa’ list long ago. He is not going to win any elections tomorrow and perhaps you should have accidentally shot him in the knees for good measure so he can’t walk tomorrow. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water; this protest is about reality, frustration and desperate times. I am buying a litre of Ugandan made and grown cooking oil for sh6,500. I am paying sh3,600 for a litre of fuel. A tomato has gone up to sh300 at the very least. I don’t know about you, but that is breaking my budget. No one is paying me any more money for my work – in fact, I am chasing debtors left, right and centre. In one short week, Easter and school holidays will be upon me. Three short weeks after that, I must rustle up school fees and requirements.

See also Andrew Mwenda, and Rosebell Kagumire; the latter reports that “President Museveni has gone to the extent of swearing to eat his opponents like samosas.” Or just go straight to Global Voices. The World Bank gives some numbers on the inflation and rising food and fuel costs that are setting the stage.

To take a more historical approach, Mahmood Mamdani gave a speech last Thursday putting the protests in history, which was reprinted in the Monitor on Sunday (via):  

Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by the memory of a single event. The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner. For many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.

My purpose today is neither to celebrate the opposition nor to demonise the government. I want to talk about the memory that seems to be driving many in the opposition and haunting many in government. That is the memory of Tahrir Square. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the great Egyptian revolution began in Tunis. Where will it end? A decade from now, will we think of it as a local, a continental or a global event? How should we understand its significance today?

In East Africa, there was a flurry of discussion after Tahrir Square, mainly in the press. Many asked whether the Egyptian revolution will spread South of the Sahara. And they responded, without a second thought: No! Why not? Because, media pundits said, sub-Saharan societies are so divided by ethnicity, so torn apart by tribalism, that none can achieve the degree of unity necessary to confront political power successfully.

This response makes little sense to me. For this answer resembles a caricature. Nowhere in the history of successful struggles will you find a people united in advance of the movement. For the simple reason that one of the achievements of a successful movement is unity. Unity is forged through struggle.

To make this point, and a few others, I want to look at the democratic revolution in Egypt in the context of a longer history, a history of democratic struggle on this continent. I want to begin with an event that occurred more than three decades ago in South Africa. I am thinking of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which followed the formation of independent trade unions in Durban in 1973. Together these two developments inaugurated a new era in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adults had come to believe that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative mode of struggle. This new mode of struggle substituted the notion of armed struggle with that of popular struggle. It stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a movement with ordinary people as its key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by a new imagination and new methods of struggle.

The significance of Soweto was two-fold. First, as I have already said, it replaced belief in power of arms with the discovery of a greater power, that of a people organised in the face of oppression. Second, Soweto forged a new unity – a wider unity. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on) by putting each under a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to reform or remove the law in question, they did so separately. In this context came a new person, Steve Biko, a visionary leader at the helm of a new movement, Black Consciousness Movement. Biko’s message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a colour, said Biko. Black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are Black…

Read the whole thing. Mamdani literally wrote the book on political ethnicity in sub-saharan Africa.

Mau Mau and Charlton Heston’s Naked Jungle

1954’s The Naked Jungle might initially seems like it was cowritten by Anne McClintock (or maybe Timothy Burke). Ostensibly set in the Amazon, the colonial tropes line up perfectly: white aligns with cleanliness, while the dark natives are dirty. The jungle is a place of primeval chaos, but Charlton Heston has made himself into “more than a king” by tearing a plantation from the earth, building a dam and thereby (almost) literally creating land where before there was none. As he puts it: “Go ten miles in any direction from here and it’s civilized. Go ten paces past where I stopped and its the bush. It’s the living jungle, where no man has a name, and the only law is to stay alive.” And though he alludes to the always feared prospect of going native — noting carefully that when he was starting out, he had “nearly forgot the English language” — you wouldn’t know it to hear his sonorous voice, nor would you guess it from the verve with which he plays colonial gentleman in the Amazon. Instead of surrounding his house with skulls on fenceposts, he has built a Victorian mansion, and drawn firm lines.

He likes the firmness of these lines, and the movie’s narrative initially seems to takes its shape from them. But the plot gets so much more interesting when he takes the next step: having long been in need of a wife (for children, for serving coffee, and for playing the piano), he imports one, getting a friend of a friend of a friend’s sister shipped out to him. And at first, even this bourgeois desire matches up neatly with the rest of the colonial tropes, for just as he’s ripped a plantation from the virgin jungle, so too does he plan to tear a wife out of this virgin woman he’s purchased. But as things devolve, the movie turns out to be so much more weird than I originally expected, both fascinated in pulling the neat binaries apart, and fascinating for the way it narrativizes this problem.

First, when the mail-order bride arrives, it turns out she’s a widow, and his anger that she’s been with another man is second only to his rage that he suddenly finds himself occupying the place of the innocent. “If you knew more about music,” she says, “You’d know that a good piano is better when it’s been played.” And after a marvelous shot where two whiskey glasses objectify the moment’s sexual tension, he drunkenly smashes down her door only to be treated to her mild reply that it’s never been locked. If you know what I mean. I’m interested partly in the way this kind of narrative problem “troubles boundaries,” to use that old cliché, and especially in the way it does so by staging Charlton Heston’s personal investment in those boundaries. If “gender” de-stabilizes “colonialism,” it does so only because the myth of the white woman occupies a peculiar and powerful place in Heston’s mind; when she isn’t only a virgin he is flabbergasted, and when she isn’t only a whore, he’s crushed. When she’s a woman, in other words, instead of a myth, he has nothing to say.

The narratologist in me is fascinated by the way this narrative problem suddenly gets shunted into the background when the second act plot kicks in, the way the movie suddenly turns into Leiningen vs. the Ants. In a certain sense, The Naked Jungle could be called an adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s short story, beloved of high school English teachers everywhere, but to say so is to drag the horse much too far behind the cart. The entire marriage plot of the first act is an invention of the screenwriter, and in that sense, the film feels less like seeing a “classic” piece of literature brought to the big screen with a romance plot tacked on than precisely the reverse, the weird experience of watching a movie about gender and colonialism suddenly get transformed into a completely different movie. It’s sort of like if The Taming of the Shrew had a horde of ants attacking Verona in act three. In this movie, on the other hand, the invasion of the ants takes an insolvable problem and replaces it with an even bigger (or at least more spectacular) problem, and by doing so, manages to resolve the original, if only by omission. When the chips are down – when the ants are on the march – gender turns out not to matter that much.

The postcolonialist in me, however, is fascinated by the Ants as a European fantasy of the modernized colonial subject, gone horribly wrong, the fantasy which transformed the “Land and Freedom Army” (whatever it was) into a narrative of Mau Mau. To wit: Europeans have come to the jungle to make things better by organization and development, but sometimes the natives actually respond to development by getting
worse, becoming more savage. The fault is clearly not Heston’s; when the ants come, his men flock to him and stay (because he’s a good master), and he stands and fights because of his people. As he puts it, “Fifteen years ago they were savages. I took them out of the jungle. If I leave now, they’ll go back. That’ll be the end of civilization on the Rio Negro.” He plays the enlightened European, uses science against the ants (studying them under a magnifying glass) and uses his ability to dam the water (and release it) as his major tactical advantage, to ultimate victory (of course).

The effect, in other words, is to displace all the fears and anxieties of the first part of the film onto the people themselves, humanizing the loyalists while animalizing the dissenters. It’s an example, in other words, of how you “Mau Mau” a peasant revolt: to foreclose the possibility that people’s discontent stems from being exploited and denied the fruits of modernization, you imagine that they are angry at the very prospect of modernity itself, that they have chosen, irrationally, to attack rationality. Offered the choice of becoming happy modern subjects, with schools and churches and stuff, these ungrateful savages instead turn to violence and cannibalism and mindless violence (usually under the influence of an authoritarian leader) thereby allowing the good Western liberal to cluck his tongue and reluctantly put his assent to massive campaigns of violence. This is not dissimilar to the way the war on terror has been conducted – I would note, parenthetically – and while Al-Quaeda is certainly not the equivalent of the Land and Freedom Army in Kenya, the narrative strategy taken by the West to the both of them is similar enough to warrant the comparison. In Kenya, there were good Africans and bad ones. And today, as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, there are two possible images the West can have of Islam: “Good Muslims” who have become secular and modern and “Bad Muslims” who have chosen not to.

Nowhere in that continuum is it possible to find Kenyans or Muslims who would like to be modern (or at least not poor and oppressed) but who have been denied the opportunity, which is precisely the point. So you get strange articles like this one, from Time magazine in 1953:

…the fear of spreading Mau Mauism haunts the fertile British Protectorate of Nyasaland. The colony’s 4,400 Britons raise bumper crops of tea, tobacco and citrus fruits along the Shire River valley, which drains the 360-mile-long Lake Nyasa (see map). They are outnumbered more than 500-to-one by 2,500,000 Africans, whom they call “niggers” and “coons.” Last week the British in Nyasaland were faced with the most ominous outbreak of mass disobedience and rowdyism since David Livingstone, Bible in hand, discovered the lush valley 94 years ago…

Get it? Mau Mau is not only a “fear” but it’s the kind of “disobedience” and “rowdyism” that can only be legible as an irrational response to a figure like Livingstone, the guy who came to Africa to end slavery by bringing capitalism. It doesn’t merely contradict the presence of development, it presumes it, and is legible only as a response to it; “rowdyism” before Livingstone is unthinkable. And while the fertility being protected by the British is oddly counterpointed by the blatant racism of the “whom they call” sentence, it still links back to an underlying colonial narrative of protecting femininity, domesticity, and reproduction from scary African men, something that articles like this one or this one make very, very clear. In the former, we get the evocation of African pangas (the machete as phallus) being wielded against white women in isolated plantations, while the latter spreads the rumor that “Negro nursemaids had been ordered by the Mau Mau to murder white babies.” I dreamed I saw Nat Turner, alive as you and me…

Izak Dinesen is the great example of how Kenyan settlers transformed the confusing status of female colonialists – how, after all, could a woman tear a plantation from the virgin soil? — into a pro-colonialist narrative: Dinesen as mother figure to infantilized, animalized Africans. The Naked Jungle is a context inspecific version of a similar narrative, only with “Mau Mau” an explicit presence, instead of merely implied. And if Ernest Hemingway is the other side of that coin – massive masculinity through shooting Africans – it’s only because he read Teddy Roosevelt carefully.

But what made “Mau Mau” distinct from other fantasies of African savagery – and here’s why ants are the appropriate animal metaphor – was the very organization by which they opposed development. People like Stanley and Livingstone could afford the luxury of not knowing any better, so they imagined that Africans lived in some version of Rousseauvian anti-development, a tribal life that was close to nature in the sense that development was an absence (and one which, it was implied, “development” would naturally disrupt). By 1952, such an illusion was no longer available, and nature now signified not the absence of development, but the two possible paths a permanently de-humanized portion of the human race could take: the path of the domesticated animal or the path of the wild animal. While the former could be taken in and allowed to serve — like Lulu and Kimante, Dinesen’s antelope and Kikuyu boy, treated by her as categorically indistinguishable – wild animals were those who could never be trusted with development, and who had therefore to be “conserved” in wild places set apart for them. And just as – in the perverse logic of a Teddy Roosevelt – you “conserve” a wild animal by shooting it, the Kenyan state’s response to Mau Mau was to burn the villages in order to save them. Locating the distinction in the animals themselves allowed development itself to emerge as both omnipresent and unquestionable: instead of Stanley’s distinctions been developed people and the not yet developed (but all equally develop-able), we have a distinction between those Africans who are animalized as domestics and those who are animalized as predators, and both by reference to the one-way technology of development which is appropriate to their status: the former is to be mothered; the latter is to be shot.

In The Naked Jungle, then, ants are exactly the unthinkable horror that Mau Mau was taken to be, a perverse and grotesque caricature of development which not only rejects development, but does so by using the very technologies of development to attack it. The ants organize themselves, moving in unison and with an implacable intention to destroy directed against the (newly) feminized domestic sphere of the plantation, and seem to emerge from the jungle in response to Heston’s efforts to create domestic spaces. In a sense, neither Roosevelt nor Dineson had to ever imagine such a thing happening in Kenya; Roosevelt “loved the great game” by shooting it while Dineson pastoral dream was of pulling the thorns out of the feet of metaphorical lions so they could lie down with lambs. For both, the animals loved them back. Yet, in another sense, I suspect these vigorous attempts to imagine pastoral bliss are motivated by a desire to dis-imagine the very contradictions of colonialism which Mau Mau both mediated and made immediate: what happens when Africans turn out to be human? The same thing as when a wife you’ve purchased turns out to have desire of her own. You freak out, and change the subject. “Look! A million billion ants!”

I am a Flypaper Vegetarian

If you juxtapose the spectacle of Michael Vick’s woeful cruelty to animals with the kind of insight Michael Pollin’s Omnivore’s Dilemma gives into how carefully we misunderstand the origin and meaning of the meat we eat, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we are pretty adept at a really interesting kind of doublethink when it comes to killing animals (along the lines of the “commodity fetish,” we should talk about a “meat fetish”). Michael Pollin is of course not at all unique in pointing that out, but it was in reading that book that I first got a sense for how long-running and important a problem it is, how unsolvable the following set of presumptions are:

  1. Bad to Kill Humans
  2. Humans ~ Animals
  3. Okay to Kill Animals

This circle doesn’t square easily. So it’s no wonder that the question of how like or unlike humans are to animals has had such a contentious history: how we gloss that little squiggle in the middle of the whole structure determines how we answer the question of who gets to kill who. Especially when people let race enter into the question (and they have had a tendency to do that, to put it diplomatically), I’m increasingly convinced that how we think about animals has a great deal to say about the ways we engage with the question of what kinds of violence are legitimate. The contraversy around the “Scopes Monkey trial” was not unrelated to the fact that Africans were very conventionally seen as not only primitive but primates, and as all kinds of people have observed, you can’t talk about “social darwinism” without stepping all over the ways people have tried to use science to both justify and criticize racial colonialism.

To put an even finer point on it, as Mahmood Mamdani observes, when Prime Minister Salisbury said in 1898 that “one can roughly divide the nations of the world into the living and the dying” he was taking a stand in the hotly contested, oh so 19th century question of whether a thriving race had the right and was justified in “helping” a dying race, nation, or species (the difference between being useully fuzzy) along its merry way to oblivion. Depending on your preference, Spencer, Malthus, and Darwin could give you different kinds of answers to that question. But as Mamdani goes on to observe, the ways we justify political violence, then and now, are related back to that kind of question, to the issue of whether violence really is the midwife of progress, as Marx put it, and as Adam Smith probably would have too. People like Berman are good for reminding us that Smith and Marx and Goethe and all the other “modernists” were highly cogniscent of all the scary stuff modernity brings with it, and that progress isn’t always a good thing, but what Mamdani shows us–that he doesn’t–is that whether or not you thought using violence to bring modernity into existence was a good thing or not showed a very high level of correlation with whether or not you found yourself in the day-to-day predicament of being mistaken for an animal, and were thus personally subject to such violence.

This post could go from here into talking about Michael Vick, but Dave Zirin has already done that, or it could veer into a discussion of J.M. Coetze’s really interesting foray into using the figure of the animal as a way to talk about political violence (which began way back in Disgrace, at least), but I find I haven’t figured out what I think about that yet. So I want to talk, as always, about my dissertation, about the ways that animal metaphors get used to magically transform the idea of human beings being killed into something as normal as a McDonald’s hamburger, or as inoffensive as a fly swatter. As Mamdani, again, notes, the spectacle of 9-11 should show us how good we are, as a society, at transformin a horror for violence into a legitimization of violence, using one kind of terror to justify another. More specifically, as he puts it, it shows that what we object to is not violence per se, but senseless violence. In fact, if we put a Weberian spin on Salisbury’s statement, there’s something really interesting about the ways he’s conflating “nation” with “race”: Weber observed that the modern state achieves itself when it acquires a monopoly on violence (and this insertion of violence into the origin story of modern political society is a surprisingly Hobbesian way to go about it, though Hannah Arendt warned us that it was so) and Salisbury is doing exactly the same thing, defining the success of a nation–and its modernity, if I may make that leap–by its ability to use violence rather than be subjected to it. Such violence is sensible; what we object to is senseless violence, violence by dying animals against their more highly evolved competitors, us. Me eating a hamburger is banal; a cow eating me is terrible. The US bombing the third world is banal; the third world bombing us is terrible*.

Thus, when–via the always great Obsidian Wings–I found this discussion of “flypaper theory” I had the urge to take the argument there slightly farther. Here is what Matt Duss said:

“Those who have been following the Iraq debate might remember “flypaper theory,” which was one of the earliest exponents of the “incoherent post hoc justifications for the Iraq war” genre. The idea was that there was some limited number of terrorists in the Middle East, and the presence of an occupying U.S. army would lure them to Iraq, whereupon they could all be conveniently killed, presumably as soon as they stepped off the bus.

This plan was prevented from working only by the fact that it was staggeringly dumb. The U.S. occupation radicalized scores of young Muslims, many of whom traveled to Iraq, where they learned terror warfare and were galvanized in the global jihad. And now they’ve begun returning home, to share the tactics and technology developed in a laboratory we provided for them by invading Iraq. The violence in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in May 2007 was one instance of this. Yesterday’s attack in Yemen is another.”

What strikes me isn’t just that our leaders are staggeringly dumb–if that’s a new idea, you haven’t been paying attention–it’s how central an animalizing metaphor still is to how this kind of political violence gets imagined. Hutu power referred to “tutsi cockroaches” and the United States cavalry referred to the ways “nits make lice”** in their project of wiping out American indians, and it should shock us more than it does to find that we don’t mind following in their footsteps and naturalizing violence against terrorists by imagining terrorists as flies. It’s bad politics, sure, but while it’s dumb by the standards of someone who understands that terrorists are human beings, the neo-con political imaginary operates by an unimpeachable (if grotesque) logic: in abhoring senseless violence, it finds that violence against animals and terrorists makes sense, in exactly the same way that putting a fly on trial doesn’t. But where, oh where, do you draw that line?

Every Friday, I have a chicken BBQ sandwich; today I’m thinking about having a veggie quesadilla***.

* which would be another way into the interesting issue Sepoy raised a while ago; since the United States is currently bombing targets inside Pakistan, what happens when Pakistani defenses of their political sovereignty result in American loss of life or property? You can only go so far by positing the tribal areas being targeted as ungoverned “frontiers”; not only are they still a part of Pakistan, but encroaching on Pakistani sovereignty breaks the “nuclear rule,” as the Pakistani Daily Times put it, by which (presumably) you only bomb people who don’t have the bomb. The US failure to play by this rule reflects a very interesting (and frightening) disinclination to play by Kissingerian realism. This is not surprising–the neo-cons are specifically not Kissingerian realists–but it is a scary reminder that stupid can be a lot worse than evil.

** That reference comes from an essay Ward Churchill wrote at a time when he was producing extremely competent scholarship. I don’t know if he stopped and became an idealogue, as his politically motivated enemies have asserted, but my own use of his work makes me second this judgement by one of his colleagues:

“By addressing only a tiny fragment of his writings, the report implies that Ward tries to overawe and hoodwink his readers with spurious documentation. Anyone who reads an essay like “Nits Make Lice: The Extermination of North American Indians 1607-1996″ with its 612 footnotes will get a very different impression. Churchill, they will see, goes far beyond most writers of broad historical overviews in trying to support his claims. He often cites several references in the same footnote. Ward is deeply engaged with the materials he references and frequently comments extensively upon them. He typically mounts a running critique of authors like James Axtell, Steven Katz, and Deborah Lipstadt. Readers will see that Churchill is familiar with a formidable variety of materials and can engage in a broad range of intellectual discourses.”

***Though if I do that, the terrorists win.

Well received as his argument has been by idiots, mine will conclusively demonstrate…

One of my favorite genres of academic writing is the ever-so-slightly but not-quite-completely-necessary putdown, the announcement of a specific point of disagreement between the writer and some other noted scholar that damns with just the right faintness of praise. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about, the short two or three sentences, often nestled into the footnotes or endnotes where almost no one reads them, where–in a very specificly prolix way–the writer stakes out some piece of ground against his or her challengers. “Scholar X has made a fine demonstration of Y, but as scholars A and B have shown, such an account is insufficient when placed in the context of Z fascinating archival material that my work brings to light.”

I like them best when they’re just ever so slightly too bitchy, when, behind the careful, practiced ego ideal that a careful, practiced writer presents to the reader, you get a glimpse of baser instincts, of motivations and agendas that aren’t strictly reducible to the objectivity of cold scholarly practice. The writer doesn’t need to take any shots at the other guy, and yet they just can’t help it. And this is also what makes them instructive and useful: whatever it is that is impelling the writer to paraphrase a lengthy work by a noted scholar in a matter of short sentences (thereby, inevitably, doing an injustice to the original argument) is probably worth attending to. It is easy to note that a straw man argument is, as such, a bad argument, but then there’s also always a reason why someone resorts to such tactics, and that reason, lurking in the interstices, often signifies something very interesting.

For example, I recall well the moment when I found Frederick Cooper’s casual reference to Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and State in his recent Colonialism in Question (I’ll admit it, I looked up Mamdani in the index). He writes “[Mamdani’s] case for interwar colonial policy is a strong one, but he misses the extent to which Africans developed networks that cut across these divisions, and most importantly the strength of the claims that to citizenship that exploded in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.”

Maybe it only feels too personal because names are used, because many examples could have been chosen and he chose this one, and maybe my amusement at such textual gems is eccentric and juvenile. But on the other hand, there’s something very revealing about the imperative driving that figure to be made. Mamdani’s book emphasizes continuity between colonial and postcolonial governance, arguing that the “decentralized despotism” of the postcolonial African state is just indirect rule under another name. And Cooper is making an argument about the feelings of structure* that emerged only as the colonial state began to fall apart, an imagination of community that could only exist once colonial rule ended. So they contradict each other, in an important way, and one can debate this point. People do; these are fine scholars who both know their stuff and are really, really smart, and there are plenty of ways into and out of this debate.

But as an intellectual argument, it’s also telling in other suggestive ways: that Mamdani, a superb political scientist, makes the structuralist’s error of failing to distinguish between different instantiations of similar structural forms shouldn’t surprise us, nor should we be taken aback when Cooper, the historian’s historian, decries a failure to engage with the historical particularity of each historical moment and its irreducibility to any other. One sees continuity and the other sees change; both are right, both are wrong. But in an interesting way, and not because we need to resolve their disagreement, but because that disagreement illustrates something vital about the questions we have an interest in asking.

I got similarly exercised when I came across this lovely sentence in J-F- Bayart’s Global Subjects: “Of course, we can decide to get irritated by the way [the notion of globalization] has become so trendy, seeing it as merely the effect of ideological fashion and deciding not to use it,” when I followed the tiny number at its tail to the endnote in the back of the book reading thusly: “As does F. Cooper, ‘What is the concept of globalisation good for?'” Oh, that Frederick Cooper, we can just hear Bayart saying, what a big old baby, tutting with displeasure at those kids and their hip lingo.

Here, I’m definitely the one being childish, of course. But it’s an interesting disagreement, precisely because the two aren’t really talking to each other. Cooper’s intervention in that original essay was to point out the theoretical incoherence to the concept of “Globalisation,” to argue that, as used, it doesn’t actually mean anything beyond asserting a variety of things which are demonstrably false. And again, this feels to me like a very historian’s argument, with its concern for the willy-nilly conflation of period and geography that the most red-faced of the globalization cheerleaders tend to presume and celebrate, the “vulgar” globalization, if you will. But Bayart isn’t really talking to Cooper either, and he certainly isn’t doing the things that Cooper is critiquing; Global Subjects might make a few over-broad strokes here and there, but Bayart is also very well attuned to the texture of local histories (especially in Africa, where he really knows his stuff). For Bayart, the term “globalisation” is worth keeping around not as meaning what people think it means, but as something a little more like the unlovely term “glocalization” and which is halfway reducible to the long duree of historical capitalism.

Perhaps I can make my giggling pleasure at academic putdowns slightly more respectable by suggesting that moments like these illustrate a dialectic, a dialogue, or the way knowledge is socially constructed between individual statements. As a matter of method, I firmly believe that if you don’t know who a writer is writing to, who preceded them, and how their words are being received, you know very little about how their text works. And in that sense, reconstructing academic debates is a matter of deriving what is most vital–the larger intellectual questions and the why of them–from those contextual details. But I’d also be lying if I maintained that it was for this reason that I savor the oddly boilerpoint construction of the Cooper put-down of Mamdani, or the bitchy “we can decide to get irritated” of the Bayart put-down of Cooper. Like all of humanity, you see, with its myths and origin stories, I like the big questions much better when I can reduce them to small ones, about human relationships and about conflict.

* As Ed White puts it, and puts it well, adapting a Raymond Williams figure which he likes a great deal (and I do too, because it’s very good).

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