Thug Realism: Inhabiting Fantasy in Urban Tanzania

Peer Reviewed

Brad Weiss, "Eddy Murphy on wall." February 2002.

Editorial Overview

In the February 2002 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Brad Weiss analyzed the intersection of the imaginary and the global through the lens of Arusha, Tanzania's vibrant barbershop scene.  How do imagined spaces and moments incorporate distant actors and realities, while also encompassing specific aspects of local life? In what ways does the interplay of living in and imagining worlds unfold in the distinctive sphere of Arusha's kinyozi, or barberships?  

Weiss argues that imaginative forms do not merely represent global connections, but that they are constitutive of globalization itself.  He positions fantasy as a critical form of social practice that, in turn, produces social facts that are crucial for understanding cultural expressions in Arusha and beyond.  As Weiss explains: "...imaginative practice is a central, dynamic feature of social life in much of the world" (98). 

The kinyozi offer a provocative example of the relationship between the simultaneous distancing and grounding of worlds.  More than a spot to stop for a quick haircut, the spatial field of the barbershop is also the site of a particular sociality marked by youth, masculinity, and the stress and hustle of urban life. In the kinyozi of contemporary Arusha, the local, imagined, and global converge in concrete and intimate ways, generating complex and interconnected realms that blur the actual, possible, and fantastic.

Brad Weiss, "Brooklyn." February 2002.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published multiple articles on globalization, space, and place, including: David Novak's "Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost of Bollywood" (2010); John Collins' "'But What if I Should Need to Defecate in your Neighborhood, Madame?' Empire, Redemption, and the 'Tradition of the Oppressed' in a Brazilian World Heritage Site" (2008); June Nash's "Consuming Interests: Water, Rum, and Coca-Cola from Ritual Propitiation to Corporate Expropriation in Highlands Chiapas" (2007);  William Mazzarella's "'Very Bombay': Contending with the Global in an Indian Advertising Agency" (2003); and Anna Tsing's "The Global Situation" (2000).

In addition, Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on the theme of gender, including: Donna L. Perry's "Fathers, Sons, and the State: Discipline and Punish in a Wolof Hinterland" (2009); Anne Meneley's "Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-de-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks" (2007); Tom Boellstorff's "Playing Back the Nation: Waria, Indonesian Tranvestites" (2004); and Lesley Gill's "Creating Citizens, Making Men: The Military and Masculinity in Bolivia" (1997).

About the Author

Brad Weiss is Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary.  An editor of the Journal of Religion in Africa for over ten years, his work examines the production of value as a symbolic, embodied, and political economic process. Weiss is the author of The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Consumption and Commoditization in Everyday Practice (Duke University Press 1996), Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvests: Globalizing Coffee in Northwest Tanzania (Heinemann 2003), and Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy in Urban Tanzania (Indiana 2009).  He has been a residential fellow at both the School of American (now Advanced) Research in Santa Fe, NM and the National Humanities Center in the Research Triangle Park of NC. Weiss's current project is examining the "local food" movement with a focus on heritage breed, niche market pig production and consumption in Central North Carolina.

College of William and Mary, "Brad Weiss." February 2002.

Brad Weiss, "2 Boys Hair Cut." February 2002.

Interview with Brad Weiss

Elizabeth Lewis: What drew you initially to the topic of youth?

Brad Weiss: I'll be perfectly frank and say that what drew me to the topic of youth were the barber shops I found in Arusha.  I had no intention of studying youth, or fashion, or pop culture when I got to town in 1999, but I had to find out what was making these barber shops such compelling, vibrant social locations.  What drew me to youth were the young people I met!

Brad Weiss, "SJ Hair Cutting Salon." February 2002.

EL: What are some theoretical contributions your research has made to the anthropology of youth?

BW: As I indicted above, I'd like to think that I've helped to clarify some of the wider claims that have been made about neoliberalism as a mode of value production.  I think it's not quite accurate to see neoliberalism as solely a political economic transformation, as many have.  It has as much to do with formulating subjectivity, and with configuring the spatial and temporal form of productive practice.  I tried, not just to illustrate contemporary global change with ethnographic description, but to get anthropologists to think about the way that attention to socio-cultural practice both indicates that something is up, but also that this "something" can't readily be reduced to global political economy.

Brad Weiss, "Darkman Barber Shop." February 2002.

EL: How have your approaches to fantasy and the imagination changed since you published this piece?  What forms do these take for you in your current projects?

BW: It might interest some readers to know that I've completely shifted the focus of my research, at lest for the time being, to the study of heritage breed pig production and consumption in U.S. niche markets.  That sounds like a very far cry from the East African fields of fantasy I trod in the 2000s, but I think there are some issues that persist – at least they persist in my way of thinking about the contemporary world.  For example, fantasy and the imagination are absolutely critical to the marketing of niche market pork.  Ideas about "heritage" and eating "real" food actually resonate, for me, with the claims I heard from folks in Tanzania, not about their food, or their animals, but about their position as global consumers. In each case, a commitment to "authenticity" is both abetted and thwarted by the ready availability of goods meant for self-fashioning.  The young men and women I worked with in Arusha, as well as the meat eaters I work with now in North Carolina are committed to having "the real" stuff in a post-industrial world full of dubious product.

EL: You position fantasy as a social act, arguing that fantasies and their products are real, significant, and revealing.  What do you see as the main contributions, risks, or challenges to studying youth through the lens of fantasy?

BW: I think many of us working in this field are hesitant to embrace fantasy as a rubric because of the risk of trivializing, or marginalizing the people you work with. It's not dissimilar to the backlash some of us felt in the 1990s when working on witchcraft and sorcery, again in Africa (though not exclusively there), was seen as giving in to prevailing images of primitivism and irrationality.  In both cases, there's a certain risk, but – in fact- I think that's all the more reason why we should engage with these issues.  If we fail to do so, we allow our predispositions about what such topics mean (to us, of course) to foreclose fuller investigation.  They matter to the people I work with, and that's good enough for me.  Moreover, challenging the preconceptions we have about "other peoples'" fantastical or otherwise incomprehensible ideas almost always ends up casting light on the things we (whoever we are) take for granted as mundane trivialities.  I study fantasy because it's what anthropologists should do: make the strange seem familiar, and the familiar seem strange.

Brad Weiss, "Mount Meru." February 2002.

Select Works by Brad Weiss

2009. Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy and Popular Practice in Urban Tanzania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

2008. "Chronic Mobb Asks a Blessing: Apocalyptic Hip-Hop in a Time of Crisis." In Figuring the Future: Children, Youth, and Globalization, Jennifer Cole and Deborah Durham eds., 197-222.  Santa Fe: Advanced Seminar Series at the School of Advanced Research.

2007. "Plastic Teeth Extraction: The Iconography of Haya Gastro-Sexual Affliction." In Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life, Judith Farquhar and Margaret Lock eds., 531-49. Durham: Duke University Press.

2006. "Cowries, Coffee, and Currencies: transforming Material Wealth in Early 20th Century Bukoba." In Commodification: Things, Objects and Identities (The Social Life of Things Revisited), Wim Van Binsbergen and Peter Geschiere eds., 175-200. Berlin: Lit Verlag.

2004. Producing African Futures: Ritual and Reproduction in a Neoliberal Age. Edited volume. Leiden: Brill.

2003. Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvests: Globalizing Coffee in Colonial Northwest Tanganyika. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

1996. The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Consumption, Commoditization, and Everyday Practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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