Course Spotlight: Material Culture, Magic and the Senses in Equatorial Africa

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Reflecting a broader change in African studies, exciting new work in Equatorial Africa is looking at the rise of new moral and sensual imaginations.  In countries where poverty, ethnic strife and lack of prospects remain a challenge for most, people invest in creating opportunities for addressing the risks and hardships of everyday life, and for imagining a better future.  They strive for maximizing social networks, economic prospects and spiritual protection.  Part of these strategies borrows from long-standing ideas and practices.  Most engage with modern settings and resources: the media (TV, videos, music), diasporic networks, church life (Pentecostalism) and new technologies of the self (cosmetics and fashion).

Course Objectives

The seminar will help students to read about Equatorial Africa from the 19th to the 21st centuries.  Combining history and anthropology, it will encourage them to acquire basic tools for approaching religion, material culture, subjectivity love, intimacy and the senses in Africa.  Because some of the most exciting work on visual culture, media studies, history of the body, moral imaginations and technologies of the self has been conducted outside of Equatorial Africa, we will use a few readings from other regions of Africa.  Students will have the opportunity to write a research paper on a topic of their choice.

Sample Readings

Historical works such as D. Gordon: Invisible Agents, J. Rich: A Workman is Worthy of his Meat, R. Jean Baptiste: Conjugal Rights, J. Vansina: Being Colonized, P. Martin: Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville, M. Moorman: Intonations, R. White: Rumba Rules, J. McGaffey and R. Bazenguissa-Ganga: Congo-Paris, Nancy Hunt: A Colonial Lexicon of Birth Ritual.

Theoretical works such as N. Eggers: “Violence of Healing,” N. Hunt: “An Acoustic Register of Rape and Repetition,” P. Geschiere: “Witchcraft and Intimacy,” K. Pype “Christian Key Scenario in Kinshasa’s Teleserials,” Ch. D. Gondola: “Dream and Drama,” B. Meyer: “Aesthetics of Persuasion and Sensational Forms,” F. De Boeck: “Domesticating Diamonds and Dollars,” B. Larkin: “The Colonial Sublime,” M. Taussig: “Culture of Terror, Space of Death,” T. Burke, “Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women.” J. Livingston, “Suicide, Risk and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle,” J. Cole “Sex, Money and Intergenerational Transformation”

Enrollment Details

History 861: Seminar – History of Africa: Material Culture, Magic and the Senses in Equatorial Africa
1-3 credits
TH 1:20-3:15pm, Humanities 5245
Spring 2015

About the instructor

Florence Bernault does research on the history of equatorial Africa, and has written extensively on contemporary politics and culture. After a monograph on decolonization in Equatorial Africa, she edited a volume on the history of prisons in Africa, and another on the import of postcolonial studies in France. Her new book in progress seeks to explain why, at the twentieth century’s end, witchcraft constitutes one of the most powerful rhetorics of popular culture in central Africa, and how, in today’s postcolonial world, global notions of power remain grounded in carnal fetishism. Her work has been rewarded by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001.

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