Category Archives: Books

Senegal Abroad

Today we present an interview with Maya Angela Smith, author of the new book Senegal AbroadThis book illustrates the experiences of Senegalese people in Paris, Rome, and New York, and is a part of our series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture.

 

How did you become interested in language in the context of migration, and why did you decide to focus on the Senegalese diaspora?

I first became interested in the relationship between language, identity, and setting as a college student. While studying abroad in Paris and Dakar, I experienced the social nature of learning a language and how this social practice varied with context. For me, learning French in Paris was a more challenging experience than learning French in Dakar. Many Parisians seemed to have little patience for language learners, and I was often self-conscious about my French-speaking abilities, worried about making mistakes. By contrast, while learning French in Dakar, I felt less pressure to speak French perfectly, partially because I was simultaneously studying Wolof, the most widely spoken national language of Senegal. Senegal, however, represented a conundrum to me. While I did not sense the same imposition of standard French as I had when studying in France, there was still a reverence for the French language that surprised me. People I met in Dakar insisted that Senegalese spoke the best French in Africa and even better than many people in France. I had not expected an African country to place so much pride in a colonial European language, all the while enthusiastically championing the various national languages of Senegal.

Furthermore, when interacting with people in Dakar, I realized that so many people had either been abroad, were planning to go abroad, or had family members abroad. Senegal, thus, was a mobile space constructed and managed through various diasporic settings. Many of the students at the university in Dakar had spent time studying in France, and I assumed that this mobility was tied to social class. However, I soon found that people from all social classes had access to the world beyond Senegal. For instance, vendors at the Marché Sandaga, Dakar’s largest market, when realizing I was American would tell me about their experiences living in New York City and about how many of their family members were still there. They would proudly show off the English they had acquired. Others, when learning of my travels to Spain and Italy, would talk about their time in these countries, and we would compare our experiences there especially as it pertained to language. These were not isolated incidents. It seemed like everyone had a story from abroad. These informal conversations I had with Senegalese in Senegal thus became a point of departure for a more formal inquiry into language and migration in the Senegalese diaspora.

 

How does your research inform your pedagogy?

My scholarship broadly focuses on the intersection of racial and linguistic identity formations among marginalized groups in the African diaspora, particularly in the postcolonial francophone world. As someone trained in sociolinguistics but who has always been housed in French departments whose primary interest is literary and cultural scholarship, my practice of bringing close textual readings to ethnographic interviews allows me to tell something new about the human condition. In my courses, I give students the tools to think critically about how we as humans engage with our environments and how we act, react, and interact with others. My goal is to help them articulate not only what they experience in their own lives, but to thoughtfully analyze how different communities and societies make sense of the world. In addition to the various forms of cultural production that we analyze in class—language, art, film, music, literature—I often have them grapple with the data I collect. I find that my interview data offer a productive space for students to comprehend the larger social and cultural phenomena that become visible in the themes we explore in class.

 

Speaking of your data, do you have a favorite anecdote from your research?

For my most recent book, Senegal Abroad, I interviewed over 80 people of Senegalese descent across Paris, Rome, and New York as they convey a variety of illuminating experiences on language, blackness, and migration. While it is hard to pick a favorite, I have a tendency to gravitate toward the anecdotes that showcase multilingualism, creativity, and humor. For instance, in winter of 2010, I was eating lunch with some Senegalese acquaintances at a restaurant in Rome. Although Wolof was the most common language used among this group, a regular patron named Idi abruptly switched into Italian to announce that he was discarding his Senegalese identity and claiming an Italian one instead. One of his friends then retorted that if he were so Italian, he should drink his water in Italian, to which Idi replied that drinking was not part of the Italian language. While the group began to argue playfully in Wolof and Italian about national identity and what constitutes being Italian, a man named Bachir exclaimed in French that he was proud to be Senegalese. As the only use of French in the whole exchange, I wondered why he would use French to profess his Senegalese heritage, especially considering the negative position he had taken in previous discussions concerning the role of the French language in Senegal. The linguistic intricacy of this exchange conveys the complexity surrounding where the Senegalese fit in discussions of Italian identity, the role of French as the former colonial language in current articulations of a Senegalese identity, and the agency that people have in negotiating these and other dynamic identities. Importantly, this exchange was happening over laughter and playful teasing as they shared a meal, demonstrating the cultivation of joy even in what many of them view as hostile spaces.

 

Why do you think the work that you do matters?

I place a lot of importance on representation. In this moment where political discourse and the media provide such a skewed and myopic view of immigrants and where their stories are usually told by those in positions of power and privilege, I wanted to find a way for the most marginalized among us to share in their own words the complexity of their lived experiences. Furthermore, in academic scholarship, most of the work on transnationalism depicts African migrants succumbing to economic temptations as the sole reason for migrating and creates a depressing picture of their existence in host countries. While I do not minimize these motivations and difficulties, I go beyond political economy and also concentrate on the pride, passion, and happiness that the people in my research achieve through their reflections on language. Their stories blur the lines between utility and pleasure, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of why and how Senegalese move.

 

Maya Angela Smith is an assistant professor of French and Italian studies at the University of Washington.

History You Didn’t Learn in School

Today’s guest blogger is Donna Urbikas, author of the book My Sister’s Mother, a finalist for numerous awards including the Midwest Book Awards.

With the publication of my hardcover book in 2016, I’ve had many opportunities to present a much under-reported history of World War II Poland and eastern Europe, which has reverberations even today.  Most people, especially Americans, are not aware that not only did Hitler’s Nazi Germany attack Poland on September 1, 1939, but so did Soviet Russia under Stalin just a couple of weeks later, on September 17, 1939.  I’ve learned that that history can be much distorted today when it occasionally emerges from Russia.  Most Communist-era Russians will say that they “liberated” Poland from the Germans, reluctant to mention, if they even know about it, that Russia and Germany had a secret protocol to their Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 23, 1939, better known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which the two aggressors agreed to divide up Poland.  The following graphic, courtesy of author Wesley Adamczyk (When God Looked the Other Way, University of Chicago, 2004), depicts that division.

That secret protocol was a terrible sentence for my mother and my then five-year old half-sister and the hundreds of thousands of Poles and others living in the eastern borderlands of what was then Poland, known as the Kresy. Taken at gunpoint by the Soviet secret police in the middle of the night on February 10, 1940, my mother and sister were deported to a labor camp in Siberia, traveling long hard weeks by cattle car and sled.  Today, those lands where they lived in Poland are Belarus. 

My mother’s arrest and the aftermath of her ordeals surviving hard labor, saving my sister from hunger, diseases, and the sheer harsh climate, impacted my life many years later.  It was only after I became a mother myself could I begin to understand my mother’s war trauma.

My father also suffered as a result of that secret protocol when he was called to duty as a Polish Army officer to fight against the German and Russian invaders.  He was later captured by the Russians and sent to a prisoner of war camp near the infamous Katyń forest where over 20,000 Polish officers and other imprisoned Polish educated men were murdered by the Soviets.

When the mass grave sites were first discovered in 1943, the Soviet Russians blamed the Germans for the murders. Only in 1990/91, with the fall of Communism, did Russia admit their crime, but have since retracted from those assertions.  With the current regime in Russia, it is uncertain whether they will ever take responsibility for such atrocities, invasions, and deportations.

I was born several years after the war ended when my parents were re-united in England, both afraid to return to Communist Poland.  Shortly after, we immigrated to America and my life became far different from my sister’s childhood, thus we had very different experiences of the same mother.

Our mother never really left Siberia and Russia mentally as she relentlessly told her stories. I grew up with World War II as if I had been through it all with them.  Trying to assimilate in America was difficult enough without having to relive the war.

My book is that story of growing up with a mother so impacted by the war that she could not reconcile what had happened to her and my sister.  It is more importantly a good history lesson within a family story of surviving war and its after effects, prevailing over the dark forces of war by not only surviving but thriving.  Thus, it is a story of perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

 

Donna Urbikas’ website for more info:  www.danutaurbikas.com

Click these links to access the audiobookbook trailer, and a US Holocaust Memorial Museum interview with Donna’s sister, Mira

 

Donna Solecka Urbikas was born in Coventry, England, and immigrated with her parents and sister to Chicago in 1952. After careers as a high school science teacher and environmental engineer, she is now a writer, realtor, and community volunteer. She lives in Chicago with her husband.

 

 

Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar

Political science professor Ardeth Thawnghmung has just published her new book with us: Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar, about strategies adopted by ordinary citizens in Burma/Myanmar—most of whom survive on the equivalent of two to five dollars a day—to cope with the economic stresses of everyday life.

What inspired you to write the book?

The book was inspired by my own experiences growing up in Burma under the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s. My family and I employed various survival tactics to supplement my parents’ combined earnings, which barely covered the cost of food and basic necessities. These strategies—multiple poorly paid jobs, painstaking financial management, pooling resources, and engaging in acts of reciprocity and mutual obligation—are still being utilized by many people, even in the freer political and economic environment created by the more reformist governments elected in 2010 and 2015.

A lot has been written about everyday life in poor countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa. How does your book differ from others in this field?

I employ a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates political, economic, social and psychological aspects of coping strategies, analyzing their impacts on collective welfare, the environment, the national economy, and political development. I also examine comparable political and economic situations in Asia, Africa and Latin America to develop systematic categories of informal activities that produce autonomous and self-governing spaces and lead to positive—as well as negative—policy changes for society, or even undermine state capacity and democratization efforts.

How did you collect data, and what were the biggest challenges you faced while conducting research in Myanmar?

This project is based on in-depth interviews and surveys of 372 individuals from all walks of life throughout Myanmar between 2008 and 2015 as well as my own observations and experiences. Many of the challenges I faced are typical for research carried out under authoritarian regimes, including a lack of available data, restricted political environments and concerns about the safety of those who associated with me.

Did any of your findings surprise you?

I was surprised by how prevalent and long-lasting these strategies were, and how creative people became to meet economic challenges in evolving political situations.

Myanmar has recently provoked international outrage over military brutality which triggered the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh. How does your study of everyday politics in mainly Buddhist areas of the country offer insight into their plight?

The Rohingyas situation is an extreme case where people go about trying to create a sense of normalcy out of difficult situations. However, very little attention has been paid to the majority of Myanmar citizens, whose attitudes toward the Rohingya have been overwhelmingly hostile. While these attitudes are influenced by specific historical and political context that shape and constrain popular behavior, and by the growing anti-Islamic sentiments that we see across the world, they are also a product of responses to decades-old authoritarianism. Some of these individual and collective coping practices help foster self-help and can even challenge the legitimacy and longevity of military rule, but general survival tactics among ordinary people rarely align with the practices that are key to successful transitions to democracy.

Do you think your findings offer advice and insights for the current National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi?

Some survival strategies have negative long-term consequences, not only on individuals and their communities, but also on the environment, public welfare, state capacity, and democratic processes. Both the Thein Sein and NLD governments have attempted to deal with their effects by formulating new regulations and enhancing enforcement mechanisms while rarely addressing the root causes. For instance, successful attempts to act on negative activities from petty corruption, counterfeit products and illegal gambling to illegal mining, and logging and issues such as child labor require not only enhancing state capacity through proper incentives and training for civil servants, but also providing alternative opportunities for those utilizing such methods. These are crucial challenges that need to be addressed by any transitional democratic government with limited resources, particularly the NLD government which is facing elections in 2020.

 

Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung author photoArdeth Maung Thawnghmung is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is the author of several books, including Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism, Agricultural Policies, and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma.

Library of Congress acquires and makes available the Omar Ibn Said Collection

The Library of Congress recently acquired and made publicly available online the Omar Ibn Said Collection, which includes 42 original documents in both English and Arabic. Omar Ibn Said was a wealthy, Muslim man in West Africa who was abducted in the early 1800s and sold into slavery in South Carolina. The centerpiece of the collection—a fifteen page autobiography of his life in Africa and the circumstances of his enslavement in America—is the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic.

The University of Wisconsin Press is proud to have published a English translation and facsimile edition of Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography in 2011 titled A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn SaidThe book includes an introduction by translator Ala Alryyes and several contextualizing essays. Alryyes’ translation is presented in facing pages against Omar Ibn Said’s original writing.

In celebration of the Omar Ibn Said Collection’s online debut, the University of Wisconsin Press is giving away a copy of A Muslim American Slave to one (1) lucky entrant:

2018 James Harvey Robinson Prize for Understanding and Teaching American Slavery

Cover of Understanding and Teaching American SlaveryThe University of Wisconsin Press is thrilled that the American Historical Association Conference is awarding editors Cynthia Lynn Lyerly and Bethany Jay the 2018 James Harvey Robinson Prize for Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, part of the Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History. This award, offered biennially, is given to the teaching aid which had made the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field.

“Not only do I recommend this book to educators but I also will be using it in my own graduate courses, where we often spend much of our time discussing the intricacies of slavery but not quite enough on the effective teaching pedagogy that they will undoubtedly invoke in their own classrooms. It is my hope that all educators will find this book to be an invaluable resource to improve their own instruction and the instruction of others,” writes Kellie Carter Jackson, assistant professor at Wellesley College, in the Journal of American History.

Understanding and Teaching American Slavery has been a critical resource focused on teaching this challenging topic in all its complexity since its publication. In February 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center and its Teaching Tolerance Project launched a framework for teaching students about slavery that was based on key concepts from the contributors of this book.

“Teachers with serious content knowledge are more likely to be effective, but we all know that content knowledge isn’t enough in the classroom. I hope we’ll see more resources like this stellar book to help move our society closer to understanding slavery in all of its dimensions. We, and our students, dearly need this knowledge to navigate the present,” says Kate Schuster in EdWeek.

Named for Harvey Goldberg—a professor renowned for his history teaching at Oberlin College, Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin from the 1960s to the 1980s—the series reflects Goldberg’s commitment to helping students think critically about the past with the goal of creating a better future. Other series titles focus on the Vietnam War; U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History; the Cold War; and the Age of Revolutions. The series editors are John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin.

Congratulations again to the editors, series editors, and all involved with Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. To celebrate, we are giving away a copy of the book to one (1) lucky entrant:

A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg”

 

Today we present a piece written by Leonid Livak, editor of the book A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg

 

Few artistic works created before World War I convey the sensibility, ideas, phobias, and aspirations of Russian and transnational modernism as comprehensively as Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913), whose place and importance in cultural history have been often compared to those of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Yet Petersburg has not received its due attention from the Anglophone public and is rarely taught within the framework of literature and humanities courses, because like other hermetic modernist classics, this novel presents serious challenges to nonspecialist readers as well as to instructors in literature and general humanities. The essays collected in our volume strive to make Petersburg more accessible. They have been written with a broad audience in mind in order to help the Anglophone reader gain a better understanding of Bely’s novel and to facilitate its study in the college classroom. The volume’s contributors have been asked to refrain from new interpretations of the literary classic and to summarize instead what we already know about Petersburg, explicating it in the intellectual and artistic context that informed the novel’s creation and historical reception.

Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (1880–1934), who used the penname Andrei Bely, was an intellectual omnivore drawn to the most diverse practices in art and thought. Petersburg is a virtual encyclopedia of European philosophical and aesthetic currents between the turn of the century and World War I. This makes Petersburg—originally written for an interpretive community that shared the author’s cultural knowledge—all the more difficult to understand today. Hence the structure of our book: each essay explores a particular aspect of Bely’s novel.

The first part treats Petersburg’s rapports with Russian and European intellectual life in Bely’s day. Lynn Patyk elucidates the historical circumstances informing Petersburg’s terrorist intrigue, with an eye on the range of meanings that intrigue had in Bely’s modernist circle and in contemporary Russian society at large. Maria Carlson draws attention to Bely’s fascination with Theosophy and with its offshoot—Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical doctrine, which freshly captivated the writer midway through his work on Petersburg. Bely’s interest in Friedrich Nietzsche’s iconoclastic thought predated his work on the novel. The formative role in modernist philosophies of art and life of Nietzsche’s intellectual heritage all but assured that Bely would engage with it in Petersburg, as Edith Clowes illustrates. Neo-Kantianism is yet another philosophical current informing the novel. As Timothy Langen explains, it shaped Bely’s thought in the decade preceding his Petersburg project, and it is present there as one of the novel’s competing philosophies. Henri Bergson equipped Bely with polemical tools for a critical reexamination of Nietzscheanism and Neo-Kantianism, whose philosophical virtues, Hilary Fink argues, the writer no longer took for granted during his work on Petersburg. Judith Wermuth-Atkinson shows that Bely’s modernist search for alternatives to the materialist understanding of the world and the human being led the author of Petersburg to heed the new science of psychology, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud. A special place in Petersburg’s imaginative universe is occupied by racial theories, whose narrative manifestations are explored by Henrietta Mondry. Closing the book’s first part, David Bethea demonstrates the centrality of eschatology—speculation about the end of history, framed as the demise and rebirth of the world and humankind— in Petersburg’s narrative and stylistic economy.

The volume’s second part examines Petersburg in the aesthetic context of Bely’s day. Keenly following the latest developments in Russian and Western artistic theory and practice, Bely poured his erudition into Petersburg as a medium for reflecting on and realizing modernist artistic philosophy. Steven Cassedy explores the role of music in Bely’s novel against the backdrop of modernist musical theories and their implementation in literature. Considering Bely’s novel as an exemplar of modernism’s embrace of performance practices and metaphors, Colleen McQuillen shows Petersburg’s place in the practice of “life-creation,” common among Russian modernists who turned their lives into artistic texts that were lived before they could be written down. Olga Matich treats Petersburg as an expression of Bely’s passion for painting, exploring the ways Bely uses verbal signs to create visual images. Taras Koznarsky shows Petersburg’s contribution to transnational modernism’s intense preoccupation with urbanism. Violeta Sotirova looks at Petersburg as a case study in the larger modernist turn to consciousness as the source of reality, placing Bely’s novel alongside literary experiments by his Western European peers.

Petersburg explores every level of spoken and written language in order to speculate about language as a source of what people perceive as reality but what might as well be an illusion originating in the psyche. That is why we open this volume with an essay by John Elsworth, the author of the most recent English translation of Petersburg, who endeavors to impart to Bely’s Anglophone reader a sense of the challenges inherent in translating the novel; and to give the reader an idea of the inevitable losses and distortions accompanying any such translation project.

Petersburg’s importance for the evolution of Russian prose writing in the twentieth century had no equals. Fifty years after the novel’s original publication, Vladimir Nabokov ranked Petersburg alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in his list of “my greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.” Like the other modernist masterpieces on Nabokov’s list, Petersburg makes for an intensely enjoyable but challenging read, for Bely expected his audience to actively participate in unraveling the work’s many meanings, narrative strains, and patterns of details. The present volume aims to facilitate that task by recreating for the general Anglophone public the sociopolitical, intellectual, and artistic context informing Bely’s novel.

 

 

Leonid Livak is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Russian Émigrés in the Intellectual and Literary Life of Interwar FranceThe Jewish Persona in the European Imagination, and How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Émigré Literature and French Modernism.

The Lasting Impact of Francisco Franco

This week we have a piece written by guest-blogger Stanley G. Payne, co-author of the book Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.

 

The revolutionary movements that provoked the Spanish Civil War in 1936 created the only violent mass collectivist revolution of Western Europe in the twentieth century, but the victor in this contest was Francisco Franco, the most successful counterrevolutionary leader of the era.  He went on to create the first stable dictatorship in Spain’s history, surviving World War II and remaining in power until he died of natural causes in 1975, having defeated all comers for nearly four decades.  In the process he promoted the definitive socioeconomic modernization of his country and created institutions that after his death permitted a peaceful transition to democratic constitutional monarchy, led by liberal Francoists, though this final outcome was not his intention.

Franco was the most powerful individual figure in the more than two millennia of Spanish history, for no king under traditional institutions enjoyed the resources of an organized twentieth-century dictator.  He has been both the most widely praised and the most extensively and vehemently vituperated personality in the annals of Spain.

During the twenty-first century the country has begun to fragment.  The Spanish left, bereft of ideas or a coherent new program, has partially repudiated the prosperous, broadly decentralized democracy of 1977-2018, claiming that it was tainted by Franco’s dictatorship, even though it put an end to the latter. “Anti-Francoism” has become a central banner, crediting a dictator who vanished more than four decades ago with the power to dominate Spanish affairs from beyond the tomb.  In Spain more than anywhere else, polemics about recent history form a major part of current political controversy.

Though most twenty-first century Spaniards do not support the fantasies of so-called “historical memory,” which is neither history nor memory, the ignorance of history is as widespread in their country as in any other Western land.  These circumstances raise anew the question of exactly who was Francisco Franco and what exactly was his historical record.  The literature about him is enormous, greater than that concerning anyone else in Spanish history, but is strongly divided between encomia and denunciation.

The present biography seeks to open a new inquiry that is more balanced and objective, or at least less subject to the influence of polemics than its predecessors, based on a broad base of key primary and secondary sources.  It treats the sharply contrasting aspects of Franco’s rule, from the rigorous Civil War-era repression to the positive achievements of later years.  While investigating all the major aspects of Franco’s career over four decades, it also seeks to offer a personal portrait of the dictator, from his early career as a teen-aged infantry officer through his marriage and family life to his eventual demise in the most public (and one of the most prolonged) natural deaths of modern times.

It may be that no other Western country changed more during one lifetime than did Spain during Franco’s eighty-three years, and many of these changes were closely involved with his own biography.  The book grapples with this lengthy process of change, and with the numerous mutations of Franco’s own rule, as his regime evolved from a politics of semi-fascism to Catholic corporatism to modernizing bureaucratic authoritarianism, from associate of the Third Reich to important ally of the United States.  It seeks to provide deeper understanding of a key historical personality, and also of the dynamic evolution of Spain during the twentieth century.

 

Stanley G. Payne (right) is the Hilldale–Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the author of many books, including A History of Fascism, 1914–1945The Franco Regime, 1936–1975; and Spain: A Unique History.
Jesús Palacios (left) is a noted historian, investigative journalist, and adjunct professor at the University of Madrid.

Universal Witchcraft and the Problem of Categories

Today we present a piece written by Douglas J. Falen, author of the new book African Science.

 

In 1935, the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote, “Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” Although Evans-Pritchard made a sincere attempt to explain the rationality of African witchcraft, his remark voiced an enduring Western view of the distinction between imaginary witchcraft and scientific reality. Since then, anthropologists have used less dismissive language to address such cultural differences, but this does not automatically mean they accept the reality of other cultures’ magical forces. What is the role of our own reality in our interpretation of other cultures? And what do we make of a society where witchcraft and science are not competing paradigms, but rather are similar forms of knowledge? These are the philosophical and interpretive dilemmas that an anthropologist faces in studying the occult in the Republic  of Benin, West Africa.

Sacred objects used in the creation of a deity’s new shrine

In the course of many years of research, I have come to recognize that my Beninese friends do not feel the need to make a choice between science and magic. For them, western scientific knowledge is a kind of magic that is responsible for fantastic technology, such as airplanes, cellphones, and the internet. This “white people’s witchcraft” as Beninese call it, is often likened to the incredible accomplishments of their own occult knowledge, which they call “African science” – an indigenous force that also permits people to travel around the world and to communicate via invisible waves. Another feature that these two systems share is their moral ambiguity. Beninese people acknowledge that, despite their benevolent potential, technology and witchcraft are similar in that both can result in death and destruction – such as through bombs or invisible soul attacks. This suggests that in Benin, what we might call “witchcraft” (àzě in the Fon language) is a much broader category drawing up ideas about knowledge, technology, and magic. Some informants also suggest that witchcraft is the animating force behind their indigenous deities, Christian churches, and esoteric societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. They regard witchcraft as the ultimate, all-encompassing, and universal force in the world. While people attribute misfortune, illness, and death to the work of malevolent witches, àzě’s incorporative tendencies allow traditional healers to adopt and employ new, often foreign, spiritual traditions in a supernatural arms race to triumph over evil. Beninese witches and healers battle over people’s souls, reaffirming the existence of good and evil in the world.

 A healer, right, engages in an Asian-inspired ritual to protect a patient from witchcraft

Rather than reduce witchcraft to mere folklore, or a naïve belief held by those lacking scientific rationality, I have taken inspiration from my Beninese friends for whom witchcraft is not a traditional belief giving way to modernity. Witchcraft is instead a contemporary, adaptive, and inclusive system that incorporates many domains that westerners regard as distinct – science, medicine, religion, and the occult. Although I do not expect foreign people to accept another culture’s supernatural reality, one of the lessons of anthropology’s “ontological turn” has been to encourage us to take native categories seriously and to let them shape our interpretation of other cultures. Through long-term, intimate ethnographic experience, I have come to appreciate my Beninese friends’ understanding of their world without feeling the need to discount it or frame it terms of my own categories of real, imaginary, science, or myth. Anthropology’s contribution to current social debates is to show us that cultural difference does not have to result in judgment, disavowal, and discrimination. If we make an effort to befriend people who are different from ourselves, we usually find that they possess the same human rationality as we do.

 

Douglas J. Falen is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.