Academic journal article Africa

On the Aesthetics and Dialogics of Power in the Postcolony

Academic journal article Africa

On the Aesthetics and Dialogics of Power in the Postcolony

Article excerpt


Achille Mbembe's 'Provisional notes on the postcolony' has become a canonical contribution to the literature on postcolonial African politics, yet the piece has also proved difficult to digest and build upon. This article focuses on Mbembe's thesis that postcolonial rulers and subjects share an 'aesthetics of power', involving ceremonialism and an emphasis on bodily functions and metaphors. It attempts to disentangle Mbembe's insights into such political dispositions from the state-centrism and radical pessimism of his account by examining its analytical indeterminacies and critically re-evaluating his theoretical deployment of Bakhtin. It then develops an alternative Bakhtinian approach to Mbembe's problematic through an analysis of the public staging of political relations in Buganda (Uganda). The standardised ceremony staged by local communities in Buganda to welcome visiting dignitaries--a ceremonial form here designated 'political hospitality'--projects and enacts legitimate relations of reciprocity and communication between rulers and subjects through performative prestation and the giving and eating of food. It thus lends itself to political ceremonialism and the elaboration of corporeal political metaphors without entailing the pathologies that Mbembe (mis)identifies as intrinsic to such dispositions and discourses. The distorted magnification of this ceremonial pattern by the national state does contribute to the state-society impasse that preoccupies Mbembe. Yet, contrary to Mbembe's bleak vision, such local idioms also provide resources for popular critical consciousness and, thus, some grounds for cautious optimism regarding the postcolonial African political predicament.


Alors qu'elles constituent desormais une contribution canonique a la litterature sur la politique africaine postcoloniale, les [??]Notes provisoires sur la postcolonie[??] d'Achille Mbembe se sont averees difficiles a assimiler et a developper. Cet article se concentre sur la these de Mbembe selon laquelle les dirigeants et les sujets postcoloniaux ont en commun une [??]esthetique du pouvoir[??] caracterisee par un ceremonialisme et une preponderance des metaphores et fonctions physiologiques. Il tente de degager les dispositions politiques de Mbembe du centrisme d'Etat et du pessimisme radical qu'il decrit, en examinant ses indeterminations analytiques et en reevaluant d'un point de vue critique son deploiement theorique de Bakhtin. Il developpe ensuite une autre conception bakhtinienne de la problematique de Mbembe a travers une analyse de l'organisation publique des relations politiques dans le Bouganda (Ouganda). La ceremonie normalisee qu'organisent les communautes locales du Bouganda pour accueillir les dignitaires en visite--une forme ceremoniale designee ici sous le terme de [??]hospitalite politique[??]--projette et incarne des relations legitimes de reciprocite et de communication entre les dirigerants et les sujets a travers une prestation performative ainsi que l'offre et la consommation de nourriture. Elle se prete donc a un ceremonialisme politique et a l'elaboration de metaphores politiques corporelles sans entrainer les pathologies que Mbembe designe (a tort) comme intrinseques a ces dispositions et discours. L'exageration deformee de ce modele ceremonial par l'Etat national contribue a l'impasse dans laquelle se trouve l'Etat/la societe et qui preoccupe Mbembe. Pourtant, contrairement a la vision morose de Mbembe, ces idiomes locaux apportent egalement des ressources a la conscience critique populaire et donc des raisons d'afficher un optimisme prudent quant aux difficultes politiques africaines postcoloniales.


In the decade since its publication, Achille Mbembe's 'Provisional notes on the postcolony' (1992a) has proven one of the most lastingly provocative and stimulating contributions to the theoretical literature on the postcolonial state in sub-Saharan Africa. …

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