Comaroff’s, modernity and its malcontents, ritual and power in postcolonial Africa – introduction


In this introduction Jean and John Comaroff Discusses the use and meaning of the term ‘modernity’ and how it has affected rituals in Africa. As a Western reader I couldn’t help but feel guilt as a result of the West’s tyrannical reign within Africa throughout colonialism. On a basic level, Comaroff states that modernity implies new beginnings and ends, with varying meanings in the different places it lands. Yet he also says that modernity “masquerades as a technical concept”, which highlights the paradoxical nature of the process of modernity and the difficulties Comaroff faces when examining the term.  With the social and economic advances that come with modernity, neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism are two big problems that arise as a result; particularly in Africa, which adds to their history already deeply marked by the West’s colonisation of the 19th and 20th Centuries.


Yet herein lies the dichotomy; it is this same ‘modernity’ that has driven the growth of modern global economy thus leading to development. This has been especially evident in Africa with the expanse of “markets, media”, “books and bureaucracies”. This double-edged-modernity-sword has enabled Africa to have more of a global voice and has “drawn a multitude of distinct voices into a worldwide conversation.” Comaroff raises the point that it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly modernity is, as it is always changing in the present moment as time progresses, yet the term is based on a comparison with the past. Additionally within this, certain terms have been concentrated on such as “tradition” and “culture” which only contribute to pigeon-holing societies and compartmentalising groups of people. And what this does is actually creates an ‘us and ‘them’ or a feeling of ‘otherness’ as these ideas of what culture and tradition are, are Western ideals. So it is the West that has the ability to modernise less developed nations, yet on the most basic linguistic level, in doing so those nations are squashed underneath a Western definition of what it means to be ‘modernised’ not to mention the lack of independence and neo-colonial links to the West that this creates.


This is the context in which ritual in Africa is studied and “ritual has long been a mark, in Western social thought, of all that separates rational modernity from the cultures of tradition.” Leach noted that ritual lies largely in the eye of the beholder and is seen as something done by the “other”. He continues, saying that anthropologists have “fetishized” ritual seeing a necessary practice as something meaningful. This raises the notion that perhaps what we, the West, have taken ritualistic activity out of its context and by looking at it through alien eyes, we have made it into something that it is not. 


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