Comaroff and Comaroff – Introduction to Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa.

In this introduction the Comaroffs outline some of the theories of ritual and show how the book intends to reconcile some of the contradictions these theories present.

Modernity in Western thought was seen as a social and material force that could erode cultural differences and existed in contrast to tradition. It was essentially a Eurocentric concept that placed the non-Western as the other, putting modernity always out of reach. The Comaroffs agree that modernity is therefore a historical concept, with not one but many modernities existing at once.

The book is concerned with modernity as ritual has often been seen as important to the tradition/modernity conundrum. Ritual has been seen as an overhang of tradition or symbolic of history, something held onto in the face of the confusion of modernisation. It has been seen as the very opposite of practical reason.  What is more, it has been seen as “a quality attributed to others”, not a part of our own lives.

The Comaroffs hope to show, through the case of witchcraft, how this is not the case. Ritual is infact “mundane and meaningful”, part of everyday life and “history-in-the-making” rather than separate, formalised and constricting. It is universal. The meaning carried by ritual changes through time and produced historical consciousness as much as it reflects past custom.

They argue that phenomena like witchcraft and magic should not be described in uncomfortable Western categories, though the discourse of these phenomena has had a powerful impact on the making of modern African history. Witchcraft reflects the “chillingly concrete, real micropolitics” of daily life, in the ways that it deals responsibility and demands response.  In this way they promise to offer a definition of ritual as a “vehicle” that embodies social life rather than an outpost of “tradition”.


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