This panel takes up recent questions of infrastructure in relation to how technologies of communication, entertainment, and finance mediate social relations for Africans on the continent and abroad. New technologies and modes of mediation are driven by and facilitate changing labor conditions and modes of collectivity. The three papers examine how technologies abstract various kinds of social relations circulating economic, political, and aesthetic values in new ways. We describe how forms of abstraction in the realms of politics and nationhood, finance and debt, and celebrity culture rearticulate established orders of power and social hierarchy in digital modalities. At the same time these ephemeral infrastructural forms open new spaces for critical engagements. This event is part of the Institute of African Studies ongoing series on Infrastructure.
Victoria Bernal, Professor of Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine
Anne Maria Makhulu, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African & African American Studies and Adjunct Assistant Professor, The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University
Jesse Weaver Shipley, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of Africana Studies, Haverford College
Paper Titles and Abstracts
Victoria Bernal, University of California, Irvine
Infopolitics and the Space of Cyberspace: Turning Eritrean Politics Inside Out
ABSTRACT: Cyberspace is elastic, connecting the diaspora and the homeland online in ways that blur boundaries and reshuffle territory-related distinctions. This paper examines how Eritreans in diaspora have used digital media in diverse and shifting ways to participate in national politics from outside the country. Through diaspora websites, Eritreans have turned politics inside out, locating significant dimensions of civil society and dissent outside Eritrea’s borders. Eritreans are able to express themselves more freely online than they can when in Eritrea, but at the same time treat websites as national space, expanding the nation to encompass the diaspora and the virtual. Their online activities de-center the nation, shifting its primary locus from the state’s center of power in Asmara, to Eritrean people wherever they may be located. Cyberspace can be simultaneously inside the nation and outside it; it may be used to de-territorialize and to re-territorialize, as when Eritreans in diaspora write their posts in ways that sound as if they are still located inside the country. The internet is tethered to the earth and to geo-political configurations of power and relations of sovereignty, yet it remains a potent tool for reconfiguring territorial relations and unsettling distinctions between categories of experience.
Anne Maria Makhulu, Duke University
The Debt Imperium: Relations of Owing After Apartheid.
ABSTRACT: After apartheid, South Africa’s markets underwent reform and as they did so a whole structure of industrial and agricultural wage labor unraveled. Rather than affording ordinary South Africans opportunities for work and wellbeing the new interface between local and global markets instead set the volatile and often unpredictable conditions for reproducing daily life. Those newly without work frequently expressed nostalgia for the era of work and wage even as they acknowledged the cruelties of the apartheid workplace. The old labor regime surely afforded some limited certainties, yet, at the same time, money worries were a constant and black South Africans, particularly, necessarily invested tremendous time and imagination in the production of “a folk theory” of money, thus strategizing to generate “indefensibly small increments.” The hard work of producing “marginal gains” persisted after 1994 yet money worries now coalesced around new investment strategies: in high interest credit relations and other instruments of indebtedness. Working to shore up the gap between needs and means South Africans now confronted new forms of absolute power, financial power, as a central organizing logic of post-apartheid life and livelihood. This paper, “The Debt Imperium,” will explore these new debtor-creditor relations in the context of South Africa’s recent rapacious financialization.
Jesse Weaver Shipley, Haverford College
Manufacturing African Celebrity Culture
ABSTRACT: Celebrity culture is a microcosm of entrepreneurial capitalism as it dominates economic conversations and strategies around the globe; it is the idealized lifestyle of an aspirational consumer-oriented worldview. This paper examines the recent rise of celebrity culture in Anglophone Africa through an ethnography of musicians, publicists, and media technologies. Entrepreneurial capitalism has become a way of life and personal philosophy that blurs the distinctions between commerce and pleasure. Since the 2008 global economic crash, media entrepreneurs particularly in South Africa and Nigeria have used new flexible business models to develop music, film, and entertainment industries that rely heavily on social media and mobile technology infrastructures. While celebrity presents a fantasy of carefree, depoliticized success, the proximity of celebrity culture to pressing issues across African cities like wealth distribution, urban infrastructural decay, access to water, electricity, and internet, trade disparities, and political and religious violence, raises questions about the nature of the fantastical tales of pleasure, sex, and wealth that underpin music and entertainment. Celebrity culture is a business strategy built on hope and desire that makes celebrity lives into focal points for struggling aspirational fans seeking models of possibility.