Modernization as Spectacle in Africa

Modernization as Spectacle in Africa

Modernization as Spectacle in Africa

Modernization as Spectacle in Africa


For postcolonial Africa, modernization was seen as a necessary outcome of the struggle for independence and as crucial to the success of its newly established states. Since then, the rhetoric of modernization has pervaded policy, culture, and development, lending a kind of political theatricality to nationalist framings of modernization and Africans' perceptions of their place in the global economy. These 15 essays address governance, production, and social life; the role of media; and the discourse surrounding large-scale development projects, revealing modernization's deep effects on the expressive culture of Africa.


Stephan F. Miescher, Peter J. Bloom, and Takyiwaa Manuh

IN THE EARLY years of independence, the discourse of modernization played a central role in imagining a postcolonial African future. Independence as event and spectacle, however, has often overshadowed its emerging context within the paradigm of modernization. It was couched within a preexisting rhetoric of African development proclaiming a new urgency of nation building already set in motion during the 1950s and 1960s. Foregrounding the age of modernization, in contrast to the moment of independence, allows us to propose a more subtle and nuanced understanding of the immediate postwar and early independence period. As less indebted to the quality of independence as historical rupture with the colonial era, an emphasis on the discourse and practices of modernization emphasizes continuities, or an aggregate of events and experiences, on the African continent.

We contend that recent celebrations marking fifty years of independence too easily shift attention away from the colonial legacy. Instead, revisiting modernization as spectacle foregrounds programs of development and citizenship-making claims that have a longer historical trajectory. The notion of “modernization as spectacle” refers to performance, ideology, and public enactment. Spectacle as a process of layering and instances of intersection specifies state-led modernization programs and their effects. By extension, emerging independence-era leaders across the African continent rearticulated the significance and objectives of infrastructure and cultural projects. They re-coded them in the name of nation building and frequently deployed a Pan-Africanist form of expression. In fact, colonial empire was a founding agent of modernization. Since World War I, networks of empire increasingly facilitated contact and movement of bodies and ideas between Africa and its Diaspora in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. This created a powerful dynamic, variously associated with Négritude, Pan-Africanism, and new linguistic communities.

Mass human movements, instantiated by modern forms of air, rail, and road transport, as well as theaters of conflict and educational opportunities, allowed for an emerging context of interaction. The effects of these modern forms of mobility have often been allied with conceptions of modernity. Be it on the battlefield, in the boxing ring, at literary salons, or within the improvisational context of . . .

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