Comments on "Of Mimicry and Membership"

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Excerpt From Essay

"The topic that James Ferguson takes up in his article is an important one. Moreover, it takes courage to address African expressions of what looks like nostalgia for colonial times because they tend to be politically embarrassing. Such expressions are by no means new; in fact there were colonial versions, for instance, when West or East Africans under French or British rule expressed nostalgia for German times. African colonial nostalgia had its counterpart to attitudes analyzed by Renato Rosaldo (1989) in his essay on "imperialist nostalgia." I wrote "what looks like nostalgia" because Ferguson correctly emphasizes that his documents express not regret for a past but claims on a present. It is a present that Africans want to share with the modern world. However, contemporaneity is not a fact; it demands mutual recognition and, more fundamentally, it must be created. It is with regard to the latter that I have some disagreement with, and see some weakness in, the author's argument. I find that the attention paid in this article to African cultural production of contemporaneity is too selective. I think he may not sufficiently appreciate that the study of phenomena such as performative mimicry, if seen in a critical perspective (that I, for instance, found in the concept of popular culture [Fabian 1998]), does not doom us to condescending toward some of the expressions discussed in the first part of the article. These should be seen in the wider context without which they would not occur—popular song, theater, painting, and historiography. That some of these attempts at cultural appropriation come out as pathetic failures should not be excluded a priori and can therefore be stated, if supported by what we know about them; after all, we would not want to relapse into the functionalist or aestheticizing reifications of African "tradition" that excluded failure by definition (or explained failure away as either deviant or due to outside intervention)."

"Comments on "Of Mimicry and Membership,"" Johannes Fabian (570).

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