African Futures: Essays on Crisis, Emergence, and Possibility

African Futures: Essays on Crisis, Emergence, and Possibility


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Civil wars, corporate exploitation, AIDS, and Ebola—but also democracy, burgeoning cities, and unprecedented communication and mobility: the future of Africa has never been more uncertain. Indeed, that future is one of the most complex issues in contemporary anthropology, as evidenced by the incredible wealth of ideas offered in this landmark volume. A consortium comprised of some of the most important scholars of Africa today, this book surveys an intellectual landscape of opposed perspectives in order to think within the contradictions that characterize this central question: Where is Africa headed?
The experts in this book address Africa’s future as it is embedded within various social and cultural forms emerging on the continent today: the reconfiguration of the urban, the efflorescence of signs and wonders and gospels of prosperity, the assorted techniques of legality and illegality, lotteries and Ponzi schemes, apocalyptic visions, a yearning for exile, and many other phenomena. Bringing together social, political, religious, and economic viewpoints, the book reveals not one but multiple prospects for the future of Africa. In doing so, it offers a pathbreaking model of pluralistic and open-ended thinking and a powerful tool for addressing the vexing uncertainties that underlie so many futures around the world.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226402383
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/10/2017
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Brian Goldstone is an anthropologist and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. Juan Obarrio is associate professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Spirit of the Laws in Mozambique, published by the University of Chicago Press.

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African Futures

Essays on Crisis, Emergence, and Possibility

By Brian Goldstone, Juan Obarrio

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-40241-3


Introduction: Untimely Africa?

Brian Goldstone and Juan Obarrio

This book of essays approaches the subject of futurity in Africa as an irreducibly open question, one whose potential answers are contingent not only on who is posing the question but also on the myriad specificities — of scale, location, sensibility — that orient it. Emphatically of the moment, the contributions to this volume bear the imprint of the context in which they were conceived: stemming from an invited session on "African Futures in Crisis" held at the American Anthropological Association meetings in New Orleans in 2010, with additional essays later commissioned along those thematic lines, these texts address a conjuncture whereby Africa is posited, paradoxically, not only as a more insular and desperate place than previously had been imagined — think Save Darfur, for example — but also as an ambivalent and even auspicious site of "Africa rising" (as The Economist famously put it in its December 2011 cover story) through investment and speculation — or more promising still, an "African renaissance" (Thiong'o 2009) — in the domains of politics and social and cultural life.

How contemporary Africanist scholarship might effectively traverse (or indeed circumvent) these coincident, seemingly contradictory forecasts — their implicit codes and underlying presuppositions and the new images that might dislodge them — is at the heart of the debate that this book engages. What stance might scholars assume in the face of such a motley ensemble of verdicts and diagnoses, which so frequently are rendered as indisputable, even inescapable? Are those who proffer these claims to be responded to on their own terms, within their own coordinates of success and failure, confidence and despondency, and within their own genres of verification? Or might the intervention rather lie in discerning other concepts, other intimations of what it means to hope and anticipate, struggle and despair in Africa today? Could the tempo and timeliness of such interventions provide a counterpoint to the instantaneity of those pronouncements that dominate the global public sphere?

Alternating between the modes of conceptual history and analysis, on the one hand, and close-to-the-ground ethnography, on the other, between sustained phenomenologies of a given place or people and equally sustained critique (and indeed, at times, disclosure of the limits of critique as such), the chapters in this collection speak in a range of voices. What unites them, in a manner somewhat different from other valuable collections that have appeared over the past decade, is not so much a single topical or subdisciplinary preoccupation (e.g., aesthetics [Nuttall 2007], religion and media [Hackett and Soares 2015], love [Cole and Thomas 2009], law and illegality [Comaroff and Comaroff 2006], mental illness [Akyeampong, Hill, and Kleinman 2014], health and healing [Dilger, Kane, and Langwick 2012; Geissler 2015; Luedke and West 2006], cities and urban life [Diouf and Fredericks 2014]), nor a common methodological or theoretical orientation (e.g., Marxism, psychoanalysis, social history, actor-network theory), but instead a broad concern with how particular senses and experiences of time, of potentiality and emergence, along with feelings of incapacity or impossibility, come together to make certain futures actualizable, inhabitable — and others not at all. In the wake of the various neoliberal experiments with democracy and putatively freer markets; in the wake of decolonization and the well-documented postcolonial disenchantments with previous models of the state apparatus or with popular collective movements; in the wake of Ebola, conflagrations of xenophobia, and the surfacing of new fronts in an ongoing war on terror; in the wake of any expectation, in some places, that there could ever be a reliable source of electricity, water, or work — in the wake of all this, what becomes of one's relationship to one's nation, to one's ethnic group, to one's church or religion, to one's family, to one's locality or region, let alone to Africa and its diasporic elsewheres? In engaging these developments and their attendant problem-spaces (Scott 2004), this collection turns on a distinctive axis of investigation: one in which the global is refracted and recast from an array of localized vantage points, revealing anew "the world and Africa" (to evoke the title of Du Bois's 1946 study by that name; see also Cooper 2014) by attending to its peripheries, its internal frontiers, its interstices and corridors, its "shadows" (De Boeck, chapter 11; Engelke 2015; Ferguson 2006;) and "underneaths" (Ferme 2001; Nuttall 2009), and its constitutive blind spots, as well as those enduring social projects and emerging cultural forms that, for many observers of the continent, continue to hide in plain sight.

Far from presenting a case for African exceptionalism, then, or positing a single totalizing image of futurity and emergence taking place on the continent, the chapters that follow engage a wide, interdisciplinary conversation about imaginations and practices of the future while at the same time addressing, from the perspective of specific (if shifting) regional and historical loci, global debates taking place across a spectrum of regions and fields of inquiry. These chapters can thus be read not only as an attempt to move beyond the notorious essentialist and exoticizing tropes — incisively skewered by Binyavanga Wainaina (2008) in his "How to Write about Africa" — that have long seduced scholars of the continent but also as an alternative to a more recent reluctance among some scholars to make any statements at all about Africa for fear of falling prey to such essentialism. Hence the recent suggestion that, averse as anthropologists — as opposed to, say, journalists and politicians — have been to speak of Africa in general, "the discipline that contributed more than any other to what Mudimbe has termed 'the invention of Africa' has had almost nothing to say about 'Africa' in its time of crisis" (Ferguson 2006: 1–7). Notwithstanding a dose of skepticism as to the facticity and pervasiveness of this "time of crisis" through which the continent and its populations are ostensibly living, the criticism is apt. Moreover, the chapters that follow serve to demonstrate that to speak of "Africa" is not, inexorably, to advance some new (or not so new) reductionist argument but that speaking thus can in fact be intellectually and politically warranted — even if this requires an analytic sensibility imaginative enough to be oriented toward what often becomes a dizzying, overlapping multiplicity of sites, histories, and events. The objective here is neither an Archimedean comprehensiveness nor the discovery of some master category or theoretical schema that would dispel the sundry mysteries in which the term "Africa" seems perpetually to find itself enclosed. The point is to contribute to an ongoing collective discussion on how to "write the world from Africa, or to write Africa into the world or as a fragment thereof" (Mbembe, chapter 15).

In short, African Futures navigates a landscape of confronting perspectives, aiming not so much to iron out the contradictions nor to disprove the verdicts (though such disproving will at times be necessary) as to think within the paradoxes, perplexities, and apparent certitudes Africa is taken to insinuate. Taken together, the chapters gathered here attest to the fact that the study of Africa can no longer be confined to its geographic borders, that the matter of where Africa begins and ends is always, necessarily, in a state of flux and cannot be settled conclusively in advance. They attest, too, to the conviction that the categories and phenomena that for so long animated scholarly work on the continent might find themselves exhausted and evacuated of significance. Put differently, these chapters show how such phenomena (local political authority, humanitarianism, militarism and conflict, migration, urbanization, and economies formal and informal, to cite only some of the issues that will be addressed in this collection) might be reconceived by expanding the scope of inquiry, situating our research topoi within broader networks of relationality and wider webs of signification.

The chapters in this book, finally, resist the urge to simply flip the script on Africa's persistent status in the planetary order of things, remaining agnostic on the question of whether the continent is lagging behind the West or whether it is, in fact, the West that is lagging behind Africa. Such dichotomies, after all, seem to leave intact the dubious fiction of a single, universal telos. The task, so prosaic and yet so quickly swept aside in the rush to either praise or pathologize the continent, is to expose the inadequacies of telling a "single story" (Adichie 2009) about Africa and its prospects, defying the hegemonic and uniform terms by which we are asked to decide on the "fate of Africa" (Meredith 2006) and acknowledging their currency while locating in their place a veritable montage of simultaneous trajectories. As such, these chapters explore the ways in which the moral, temporal, and epistemological frames that continue to facilitate interventions in Africa might be turned inside out or subjected to arrangements that redefine their meanings and nature, as well as the extent to which dominant conceptualizations of futurity — be they rooted in evolutionary, "end-of-history" (Fukuyama 1992), "empty" and "homogenous" (Benjamin 1968), or developmental models of time — have come to be rejected, adopted, or transformed by Africans themselves in a manner unforeseen by what the prevailing formulations in the social sciences have taught us to expect.

Once denied its claim to historicity, even infamously exiled from history entirely, the term "Africa" now conjures up a different set of possibilities. The time is ripe, this book contends, to throw light on the plurality of routes through which African futures are being engendered and apprehended.


Current debates in the academy and public sphere alike center on the uncertain destiny of the planet, engulfed in a range of crises related to everything from finance, climate, and ecology to security and terrorism. Africa, more often than not, is presented as the exemplary site of this critical conjuncture. This comes as little surprise, for the continent's contemporary condition has long been held captive to an assortment of demonizing and often cynical diagnoses of its present state and a grim assessment of its impending future.

The signs of alleged, multiple, concurrent crises within the continent, reported by academic and policy centers and amplified by the media — regional wars, disease, mismanagement of resources, failed development, widespread anomie, dissolution of social structures, displacement, the demise of genealogy and generation — appear to be nothing if not self-evident. Yet the chapters in this volume gesture toward an altogether different line of inquiry, one that demands a thoroughgoing interrogation of the spectacularization of catastrophe typically associated with Africa as well as the attendant stigmatization of African states and political cultures that is rampant in broad sectors of the public sphere. Indeed, this book goes a step further: what would it entail, we ask, not merely to fine-tune or to redirect the category of crisis with regard to contemporary Africa but to subject the notion to a more sweeping critical analysis? How might we provincialize, cut down to size, the very concept of crisis as such? What functions does the term perform, not only in the hands of foreign pundits and policy makers, but for African citizens themselves? Can we begin to imagine Africa beyond the pervasive sign of "crisis"?

Such questions arise from the realization that today, as Janet Roitman (chapter 2) notes, it seems impossible to discuss Africa without making recourse in some shape or form to the figure of crisis. Spanning domains as diverse as state governance, law, security, finance, health, humanitarianism, citizenship, and the natural environment, crisis appears as an "omnipresent" feature of contemporary existence, arguably losing in the process whatever conceptual purchase it may previously have possessed. Moreover, as Roitman goes on to assert, crisis must not be construed as a mere descriptor. Rather, it has become a metaconcept of sorts, a linguistic placeholder, a structuring device that, far from simply appraising the quality of this or that phenomenon vis-à-vis a particular calculus or within a specific narrative, literally constructs the narrative itself. On Roitman's view, then, "crisis" is not just an object of historical knowledge but — here she draws on the work of German historian Reinhart Koselleck (1988 [1959]; 2006) — an "enabling blind spot," a precondition for historical knowledge, the "place from which one claims access to and knowledge of history" (chapter 2). Likewise — perhaps nowhere as much as Africa — it has come to serve as the chief criterion for determining the significance of events, of what counts as news amid the flow of circumstances that compose the everyday in Africa. Rupture, malfunction, disorder, and disaster, a deviation from a presumptive norm or standard: this is what we tend to hear about. It is in this sense, then, that crisis can be said to constitute not only an epistemological blind spot but also a political one, for its prodigious glare diverts attention away from a whole range of other phenomena such that the urgent, emergency-charged "Event" gets foregrounded to the neglect of, well, everything else (see Roitman 2014).

Indeed, in terms of a politics of knowledge, one of the most troubling consequences of the incessant talk of crisis is the simplistic explanatory frameworks it tends to nourish. Jane Guyer (chapter 5) assesses one celebrated work (van de Walle 2001) whose basic premise is the temporal transformation, with regard to African economies, of crisis from the turning point or passing condition its etymology implies into an enduring, even "permanent," state of affairs. Here crisis, as Guyer puts it, comes to stand "as a large, persistent, and singular condition," a "point of suspension rather than turning," one result of which is that within its logic, every process (social, economic, political, or otherwise), every experience or sensibility, is scrutinized as a mere reflection and aftereffect or, at best, as a form of resistance to an intractable dilemma of one kind or another. And the same holds true for the complex historicities of the continent, as the longevity of crisis — itself presented as an effect of a single factor originating in the near or distant past, be it colonial expropriation, the economy, war, or ethnic identity — engulfs all of sociality within the whirlwind of the various maladies of the present. From the vantage of such a scheme, whereby explanations of a given predicament work finally to buttress precisely those double binds (modernity/tradition, customary/state, global/local, urban/rural) they purport to investigate, the future, it seems, can be imagined only in accordance with an expanding repertoire of technocratic formulas or salvaginginterventions. Africa as a whole, according to Mbembe (chapter 15), becomes little more than "an event that calls for a technical decision."

This book therefore subjects the very idea of crisis to critique, disentangling the concept and revealing how it functions within the study of contemporary Africa (and beyond) by shrouding itself in an aura of enlightened common sense and privileged insight into a supposedly irrefutable, however unverifiable, empirical terrain. Implicit, too, is a suspicion that the term — more a symptom than a signifier, indeed a diagnostic — is often an alibi for the political-economic management of putative conditions of existential duress (Redfield 2012), thus serving as a key discursive figure in the enormous feedback loop that continues to make and remake Africa's fraught "place-in-the-world" (Ferguson 2006).

And yet, critical though they are, the contributors to this collection are neither univocal in their disavowal of the term as such nor wholly in agreement as to its semantic properties in the specific milieus they address. Two broad currents can be discerned. On the one hand, there are those (Roitman, Ralph, Mbembe, and to a certain extent Larkin and Guyer) who treat crisis less as a description than as an intervention in Africa — even, we might say, as one of the primary bases upon which "Africa" gets produced as such within a global arena. For them, crisis is a "conceptual technology," as Larkin (chapter 3) puts it, one that fundamentally serves as "a means of categorizing, periodizing, and standardizing" the world — specifically, as a commonplace of social and political discourse about Africa, as a means of narrating an entire continent (and then, in some cases, reaping the fruits that come from it, such as research funding, military and humanitarian involvement, and so forth). Other authors, however, are more ambivalent about the category, not because they find the notion of a "continent in crisis" to be more palatable or accurate, but because they are operating, on the whole, on a rather different scale of inquiry. Thus "crisis," in these chapters, is presented less as a product of hysteria and abjectifying prognoses than as an opportunity, a term, for Nigerians, of emergence and disjuncture (Larkin), of new modes of work and war making in Sierra Leone (Hoffman), or in urban centers like Kinshasa (Simone) or Arusha (Weiss), at once a catalyst and site for the everyday mobilization of livelihoods. Or, for Malagasy women in Madagascar (Cole) or the so-called bush-fallers in Cameroon's Grassfields (Geschiere and Socpa), it becomes the affective and existential impetus to find such livelihoods elsewhere.


Excerpted from African Futures by Brian Goldstone, Juan Obarrio. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

One / Introduction: Untimely Africa?
Brian Goldstone and Juan Obarrio

Part I: Rethinking Crisis

Two / Africa Otherwise
Janet Roitman
Three / The Form of Crisis and the Affect of Modernization
Brian Larkin
Four / The Productivity of Crisis: Aid, Time, and Medicine in Mozambique
Ramah McKay

Part II: Emergent Economies

Five / Money in the Future of Africans
Jane I. Guyer
Six / Forensics of Capital
Michael Ralph
Seven / Brokering Revolution: Imagining Future War on the West African Borderlands
Danny Hoffman
Eight / Hedging the Future
Charles Piot
Nine / Entangled Postcolonial Futures: Malagasy Marriage Migrants and Provincial Frenchmen
Jennifer Cole

Part III: Urban Spaces and Local Futures

Ten / Rough Towns: Mobilizing Uncertainty in Kinshasa
AbdouMaliq Simone
Eleven / Local Futures, the Future of the Local: Urban Living in a Central African Metropolis
Filip De Boeck
Twelve / Changing Mobilities, Shifting Futures
Peter Geschiere and Antoine Socpa
Thirteen / Time and Again: Locality as Future Anterior in Mozambique
Juan Obarrio

Part IV: Possibilities

Fourteen / Getting Ahead When We’re Behind: Time, Potential, and Value in Urban Tanzania
Brad Weiss
Fifteen / Africa in Theory
Achille Mbembe
List of Contributors

What People are Saying About This

Julie Livingston

“At once theoretically invigorating and ethnographically attuned, African Futures brings together many of the most original thinkers in the field for a thoroughly anti-teleological consideration of the future. This book sets the terms of debate for a new and vital moment in Africanist anthropology.”

James Ferguson

African Futures is an exceptionally stimulating and timely contribution. The volume’s introduction offers a compelling and masterful overview of a body of scholarship that has become a key point of theoretical linkage for African studies with scholarship elsewhere in the postcolonial world, while an extremely impressive roster of contributors offer sparkling essays from a range of illuminating perspectives. The strong thematic focus and the timeliness of the topic should ensure this volume the kind of broad readership and strong intellectual impact that only the very best edited collections achieve.”

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