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Author: Arjun Appadurai
Title: Contesting the popular in Africa
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Contesting the popular in Africa
Arjun Appadurai

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 8, pp. 1, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa
Author Biography: Arjun Appadurai is Director of the Chicago Humanities Institute at the University of Chicago, where he holds the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professorship in the Humanities.

Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa

Contesting the Popular in Africa


This conference brings together an impressive array of scholars and practitioners, to discuss and debate topics of the greatest importance in contemporary Africa: the state, mass media, performance forms, public life, and civil society. It is therefore especially important that two of the key terms engaged in the Conference be thought about carefully. These terms are "Africa" and "state."

"Africa" is a subject of conscious debate, in light of the work of V. Y. Mudimbe, Achille Mbembe, and others who have sought to discuss the experiences and categorical debates through which Africa has come to be real. These discussions are important in and of themselves. They are even more important in a time when "area studies" are under attack. Africa is not a flat or homogeneous social landscape. But neither is it an arbitrary figment of disciplinarity. Its intellectual geography needs internal deconstruction, through the sort of comparisons and internal cultural linkages that several of the papers in the Conference remark. Refugees, politicians, and aid-workers circulate in an African landscape that is simultaneously stable, interactive, and embattled. What do these practical negotiations in Africa have to do with the mass-mediated pictures of "Africa"?

The "state," too, is a troubling notion in Africa. Partly, African states bear the brunt of the responsibility for the violence, starvation, ethnocide, and everyday terror that characterize many societies in Africa. Yet the study of states and their practices has been largely in the hands of political scientists and sociologists, with little systematic attention from students of cultural and aesthetic processes. How does the state work as an apparatus for the production of the everyday? Do states stimulate the popular imagination even as they seek to curb it? Are the careers of bureaucrats, clerks, and diplomats divorced from the worlds of music, dance, and literature? Does art in Africa imagine the state as an object, a fetish, or a distraction?

Whatever else may be true of the state, it is part of what differentiates Africa, and creates internal borders and differences of considerable consequence. It is a resolutely localizing force, a fact which is generally true of the modern-nation form. In the context of the role of modern media in popular culture, it is important to ask how styles and ideas in popular culture move across borders. Is such movement part of a traffic in persons and media vehicles to which African states are indifferent? Is the constant mixture and reorganization of musical idioms, for example, seen as a significant threat to the production of national cultures? Do states see these national cultures in a strictly localizing manner? What is the politics of hybridity in Africa today? By asking these questions, "Africa" and the "state" as terms can be made to destabilize one another in the examination of popular cultural forms.

These thoughts raise the broader question of the humanities in Africa. It may seem frivolous to examine art and drama, literature and music in Africa, when so much of our attention is drawn to the spectacles of death and carnage, starvation, and mass exodus that fill our newspapers and television screens, now in Rwanda, and elsewhere before. There is an unspoken criticism of Conferences such as this one, which suggests they are fiddling while African society burns. Yet the humanity of Africans has much to do with the African humanities, and it is vital to recognize the energy and life-affirmation of popular cultural activities against the cynicism and violence of other aspects of public life.

In Africa, perhaps more than everywhere else, the popular is not just another name for the commonplace, the traditional or the most shared features of quotidian life. In fact, the popular is a particular sedimentation of everyday life, which, by its very newness and selectivity, allows non- and anti-official voices and images to circulate. In official circles the popular may be deeply unpopular. Yet especially in an age where states control vital media outlets (such as radio stations and film industries) and markets deeply affect the chances of popular cultural elements to reach the widest audience, it would be unwise to see the popularity of certain cultural elements to be a guarantee either of their authenticity or their capability to stimulate resistance. What is certain is that the field of popular culture is a space of contestation and argumentation about form, style, and meaning in ordinary life. This is why the popular is inherently political.

Thus, one reason for insisting on the life of the African humanities, in a Conference such as this one, is that the practices and desires to which the popular arts testify are not just ornaments in African life. Rather, they are the techniques through which modern subjectivities are produced, often in the face of predatory states, indifferent international bureaucracies, devastating famines and epidemics. It is through these practices that African subjects retain some sense that life can include pleasure and possibility, meaning and form. Such practices are part of a long history of popular art and discourse. Today, they are transcontinental, mass-mediated, and frequently commodified. To understand them better requires not just careful attention to texts, artifacts, and performances. It requires something even harder: a positive theory of crisis which recognizes the arts as key resources in the production of both the popular and the real.

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