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 Hanson’s 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, Hanson’s book is a good place to start.

Perhaps because it is such a good exemplar of Africanist writing, however, Hanson’s 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 don’t really disagree with this assertion, and it bears considerable fruit in Hanson’s 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 state’s 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, Hanson’s 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 Hanson’s 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 about—or 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 to avoid.

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 can’t swing the pendulum back a bit towards working these kinds of questions consciously into their analysis rather than layering them six fathoms deep.