Readings and Re-Readings
March 29, 2004
Holly Elizabeth Hanson, Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Books. 2003.
With a reminder that these
essays are impulsive musings on some particular issue in a given book rather
than formal book reviews, I should start by saying that Hansons book,
which is about the precolonial East African polity of Buganda and its later
incorporation into the colonial state of Uganda during the 20th Century, is
an excellent example of Africanist scholarship which I recommend not just to
specialists in African history but to any scholar with a particular interest
in the historical relationship between the politics of land holding and forms
of political power. If you wanted to see the methodological strengths and analytic
strategies of recent Africanist historiography on display, Hansons book
is a good place to start.
Perhaps because it is such
a good exemplar of Africanist writing, however, Hansons work also is a
good springboard for thinking about the problems that result from one of the
deep structural obsessions of Africanist scholarship in recent years. For the
most part, with some important exceptions, historians and anthropologists working
on African societies have for the last fifteen years been largely concern to
document the degree to which the general or universalist vocabulary of Western
social science cannot be applied to the particularity of African experience
without considerable adjustment or even complete abandonment.
In this, Africanist writing
shares the preoccupation of subaltern studies and postcolonial theory, though
often (as in Hanson) at a much more matter-of-fact and theoretically unadorned
level (thankfully). The first gesture in many works of African history is a
gesture of refusal: do not bring this or that category, this or that generalization,
this or that analytic framework to this place.
Hanson starts like so many
others from precisely this point of departure. In this case, she writes that
Ganda people distinctively associated political power with love and affection,
and understood love and affection in terms of reciprocal obligations. Her book
is an extended argument that the history of Buganda and its people can only
be understood properly by working through these distinctively local understandings.
Since I have made and will
continue to make similar claims in my own work, I dont really disagree
with this assertion, and it bears considerable fruit in Hansons analysis.
And yet, the injunction to approach this history in its own terms is also less
than it seems (in her work or mine or in that of most Africanists). The concepts
of love, obligation and reciprocality that she describes are not really what
any of those terms commonly mean for most Western readers. This is love with
an iron fist, love as a tool of power, love that licenses the Ganda states
capacity for violence, love as a disciplinary form that subordinates individuals
to their networks of social relations but also provides them a foundation for
a critical relation to power.
So for one, Hansons
work, as is often the case in Africanist writing, is an extended act of translation.
Different Africanists work this translation to different degrees: some build
vocabularies of tens or even hundreds of words in local African languages which
a reader is expected to master and internalize in the course of a monograph.
Hanson goes the other direction, defining Ganda ideas about love, obligation,
reciprocality, land, and power and then usually though not invariably using
the English word henceforth. This produces a more readable book by far (kudos
to Hanson for not using scare quotes around terms to designate a critical distance
from them). It amounts to the same thing as the vocabulary-building, given that
both approaches ultimately remediate local African frameworks back to concepts
familiar to Anglo-American readers.
So there is universalism
here, but it sneaks in on little cat feet after the fact of the analysis, a
vaguely embarassing guest at the intellectual dinner table. In a general vein,
this is partly because of the peculiar reluctance of Africanist scholars to
conceptualize their audiences as Anglo-American students and academics. There
remains a vague romance with the belief that Africanist scholarship is also
written for the specific Africans who are its subjects and serves thus as a
useful systematization of that which they already know about their own histories,
or as a recuperation of their histories lost or obscured by the violence of
colonial representation. It is not that African scholars or elites never read
or consult scholarship by Westerners about Africa, but the subjects of that
scholarship generally do not. Africanist work in the Anglo-American academy
finds its main and necessary utility at home, and so the return to Western
frames of reference is no shameful thing, but both necessary and positive.
The other odd thing about all of this that reading Hansons book raised for me was the continuing peculiarity of scholarship that radically insists on subordinating Western categories and norms of social science to African localities while also using scholarship by other Africanists to shape and define its analysis. Just to cite an example, Hanson talks about the nnamasole, or Ganda queen mother, and relates the social role she played to a discussion of queen mothers in precolonial West Africa by Sandra Barnes. But in a historical sense, this is really no different than relating the nnamasole to Elanor of Aquitaine. The relations between the historical world of Ganda society and precolonial West Africa are extremely distant at best. Unless we are talking about modern experience, and the relation of African societies to each other through the invention of the racialized concept of Africa, the relation between some precolonial African societies is only tenable by way of the universalisms that Africanists otherwise get twitchy aboutor via some kind of Afrocentric assertion of the essential unity of the subject.
We cite each other in the
field of African Studies simply because we think of ourselves as a field: the
sociology of our subdisciplinary identity creates analytic benchmarks that are
just as sketchy in one sense as the other universalisms we showily struggle
Which leads me to think that maybe we should relax some about those universalisms, about the art and necessity of making African history meaningful to non-Africans. Hanson or anyone else in the field can always be held accountable for having not gone far enough in charting the road to Africa through a process of de-familiarization, for having dabbled too much in universalisms. You can always chase the emic will-o-the-wisp farther and farther down the road into general incomprehensibility and still get out-localized by the next academic to come along.
Is Ganda love really love,
in any sense of the word in English? Is Ganda politics really all that unfamiliar
or different? What difference in the end did underlying ideas of obligation
and reciprocality actually make in the expression or construction of political
power? These are all questions that Hanson gives you some answers for, but the
referenced difference that makes those answers work has to be supplied by the
reader. Difference from what? Does Ganda history explain anything but Ganda
history? (And could it explain even itself but for a hidden class of comparative
other histories?) As I often say to my students, so what?
I wonder perhaps if the next generation of Africanist scholars cant swing the pendulum back a bit towards working these kinds of questions consciously into their analysis rather than layering them six fathoms deep.