The Specter of Hobbes and Other White Men in African Anthropology

Original Engraving by Abraham Bosse, 1651. Public Domain.

There is a well-established tradition of scholarly discourses that treats Africa as a natural laboratory against which European theories of modernity are tested. This perspective, with roots in scholars like Hobbes, lives on in anthropological discourses. This paper maps out the philosophical underpinnings behind our senses of African anthropology, aiming to ground Africa’s place in studies, while also discerning its current planetary challenges.

In Leviathan ([1651] 1982), Thomas Hobbes posits a structural approach, which provides an allegorical postulation of the foundation of state sovereignty. Hobbes’s view of sovereignty is dependent on the formation of the absolute state. Such an argument links the performance of sovereignty to a notion of government. In Hobbes’ words:

the Essence of the common-wealth; which (to define it,) is One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence. (121)

This reading of sovereignty endeavors to arrest the political volatilities of the hypothetical state of nature. It is assumed that the state of nature is an anti-social condition marred by malice. This hypothesis ignores the fact that humans are born and maintained in community. Nevertheless, the argument is forwarded for the sake of the Leviathan. By entering a social contract with others, and forming a commonwealth, individuals are able to guarantee security with the power of sovereignty and the means of a government that makes and enforces the law. With this political vehicle intact—the state—it is assumed that humanity is able to escape the state of nature and its worst angels.

If Africa, like Hobbes’ state of nature, is a pre-political world (i.e., one of kinship and natural bonding), that is the shadow of modernity and void of European-like states, then how are African social structures able to perpetuate themselves over time? I argue that this question is the invisible hand that guides much of early anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown’s preface in African Political Systems ([1940] 2015) gestures towards this conclusion. Radcliffe-Brown (1940) asserts that African social structures should not be thought of as stationary, but as a function in a condition of equilibrium that persists by constantly being renewed. Thus, events occur in Africa, or tensions play out within kin or segmentary social systems, which disrupt the equilibrium in some way, resulting in a social reaction taking place, then an event or restorative process follows to restore equilibrium. Similarly, Max Gluckman (1954) echoes this sentiment by introducing the concept of self-stabilizing social systems. By studying the function of ritual in Zulu society, he notes the way in which ceremonies engender discursive space for social tension to be expressed and redressed. Gluckman describes these expressions as rituals of rebellion. These rituals proceed within an established social structure, in which there are disputes about the allocation of power, but these discords do not challenge the very structure of the social order. This system allows for instituted dissent and protest, enabling a kind of catharsis that buttresses the return to equilibrium. Under this framework, Africa has order because of ritual and not politics. Such a distinction supposes a clean break between politics and the sacred. Carl Schmitt’s ([1922] 1985) work undermines this premise by critically linking the sacred with politics. He writes that sovereignty does not establish the law, but it lives in excess of it (ab legibus solutus). Sovereignty makes the authority of law possible.

What is more, Gluckman’s critical point is that rebellion chiefly reinforces kingship (1954). Similar to Ernst Kantorowich ([1957] 2017), Gluckman arrives at the idea of the perpetual king, an elevated conception of the institution of kingship, which remains eternal unlike the physical body of the king, but also dependent on the recognition of subjects. In search of royal sacrality, Kantorowicz (1957) examines the metaphor of the king’s two bodies—a legal concept used by Tudor lawyers to draw the distinction between the king’s physical body and the king as the embodiment of Hobbes’ eternal commonwealth. Likewise, Graeber and Sahlins (2017) contend that royal power is predicated on mystic authority, and their work offers a meta-analytic framework that explores the sacred nature of kingship.

Gluckman and Radcliffe-Brown’s models of African social structures include the perennial king but exclude the possibility of revolution and progress. They offer models that permanently anchor Africa in a cyclical process of conflict and peace. Interestingly, they assert that the more there is opposition to the king, the stronger the ritual redress of tension and the reinforcement of the office is needed. Africa and her descendants remain as ahistorical shadowy figures unable to speak in universal registers. From this vantage point, Africa is a pre-political hell that is eternally damned to repeat itself without transformation and her descendants are fathered by an aloof Hegel. Yet, in many ways, the likes of Gluckman see this as an ideal place, a heaven, the genius of harmonic systems that avoid the bloodshed and chaos of European royal wars.

Africa, in short, is treated less as a site of refined knowledge but rather as a reserve for raw data about Europe’s primitive or Edenic past. Africa is a living laboratory where Hobbesian conceptions of the state, human nature, kinship, and politics are tested and fashioned into general principles. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler (1997, 5) have referred to Africa as “laboratories of modernity.” Precisely, the metaphor of the laboratory is enlisted to invoke an image and place where experiments are conducted and knowledge is produced, but produced by foreign non-African scientists for the sake of Europe. The African frontier helped foster distinctions and conjectures between the state and statelessness, politics and ritual, citizen and subject, organic and mechanical solidarity. It is in the African lab where Radcliffe-Brown (1940, 23) famously claims that the state is “a fiction of philosophers.” After conducting research on “stateless” African societies, he ascertains that the state cannot be ontologically true because it cannot be captured as an ethnographic object. Rather, what exists are collections of people connected by complex systems of relations. Therefore, the state is an illusionary form that is knowable by its consequences. Likewise, Phillip Abrams (1988, 77) asserts that the state is “a triumph of concealment.” Yet, the state’s illusoriness does not mitigate the reality of its social and economic effects. More to the point, Africa was a pre-political lab to develop and implement ideas of statehood, public health (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992), urban architecture and planning (Wright 1991), and racial “truths” (Magubane 2003).

Archie Mafeje (1997) investigates how the production of anthropological ideas is divorced from the context and wellbeing of everyday Africans. He contends that anthropology is oriented toward the interests of White bourgeois and European-based anthropologists. He justifies this claim by offering a detailed analysis of anthropology’s functionalist foundations. The Marxist critiques of Talal Asad (1973) or Ben Magubane (1971) discern the contradictions of anthropology, particularly its role in supporting the colonial enterprise. Yet, such a conclusion does not only hold for anthropology. The entire Western intellectual enterprise was active in the invention of “Africa” (Mudimbe 1988). To draw attention to anthropology’s explicit contribution to knowledge-making under colonialism, Mafeje offers a critical account of structural-functionalism. He deduces that the chief error of structural-functionalist discourses is the reduction of Africa into a decontextualized and atemporal island without history. Yet, whether one is thinking crassly in monofunctionalist terms (i.e., Malinowski) or one offers a more robust but provincial structural-functionalist model (i.e., Radcliffe-Brown), we still have to ask if any social thought can be completely devoid of functionalist predilections? Put another way, where to from here? Is it a more feasible approach to move towards a dynamic and frankly chaotic multi-functionalism, in which one must carefully weigh, moreover, arduously work to determine the salience of some “functions” over others for the pursuit of rigor?

“We should aim to challenge notions that buttress Africa as a permanent outlier in history, one ensnared in historical movements authored elsewhere.”

As we peer beyond the specter of Hobbes and others, I believe that our interventions in African anthropology should obviously write against the teleology of modernity. For instance, Yarrow (2017) focuses on the spatial and temporal dimensions of ruination in a Ghanaian resettlement town, New Senchi. Built to resettle citizens displaced by a hydroelectric power plant, the town was a part of a national development strategy in the post-independence era. Visiting the town after decades of neglect, Yarrow notes how the original plans indexed the promise of linear progressive temporality and ordered and planned space. Today, we observe derelict homes in ruin and in need of drainage and power. Critically, we are made aware of the unresolved relationship between existing conditions and the fragments of speculated futures that are still present in the very ruins of infrastructure. Within studies of ruination, we see how the ruination of infrastructure marks the failure of modernization to arrive—or at the very least, its permanent tardiness, which is a consequence of atrophy (Stoler 2008; Dawdy 2010; Gordillo 2014).

We should aim to challenge notions that buttress Africa as a permanent outlier in history, one ensnared in historical movements authored elsewhere. Our work, in a sense, must aim to offer what Kwame Appiah (1992) describes as a discursive space-clearing, as a way of both acknowledging and analyzing how the continent was locked into a distinct and distant past, that preserves its difference and erases its contributions to the global commons. Without this, Africa will continue to be construed as a site “incapable of producing the universal and of attesting to its existence” (Mbembe 2017, 49). Africa, as its people, by virtue of their place and genetic disposition, are forever foreclosed from speaking and writing in a universal register.

Precisely, if a course of correction is to think from Africa or to write Africa into the world, then where do we start? What folds tie the global and local? How do we understand the dialectic interplay between the local and global? I believe we can first acknowledge that the production of modernity was, from the very start, a consequence of relations between the north-south—albeit an asymmetrical relation between the core and periphery. Additionally, we can concede that modernity has always been a convoluted composite of multiple temporalities, materializations, and significations. This fact encourages studies to examine “different state forms in and through the changing practices of government without assuming that the state has a universal or general essence” (Jessop 2007, 37). But it also demands us to pay attention to the continuities and discontinuities of control during the colonial and postcolonial turn. Ekeh’s work historicizes kinship as a way to connect it to current iterations, practices, and mentalities of tribalism.

I believe, we can start by looking at the present, not as a “temporal unit” between the past and future (Shipley 2010), but as a present interstice of possibility in which hope dimly burns, and moreover, shadows a path beyond precarity’s entrenched modes. This earned hope, “not hopeless but unhopeful” (Du Bois 2018, 156), looks intrepidly at the tragedies of our past and connects them to the social possibilities of our shared present and future. And so, thinking from moments of entanglement and disentanglement not only draw attention to the relations between the colonizer and the colonized, but also speaks to the capillary knots that shape old boundaries and define the emerging planetary challenges of our time.


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