Modernity and Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Post-colonial Africa

From my understanding of the introduction to Modernity and Malcontent, a selection of writings on ritual and power in Africa, written by John and Jean Comaroff the piece seeks to describe the inextricable link between the movement of modernity and the practices of rituals. They begin by describing how modernity is a difficult concept to define with different cultures reacting to it differently and experiencing it in differing forms. They state how for many African communities the advent of modernity saw the re-establishment of traditions and the use of ritual in order to make sense and take control of an ever changing world, and societal order.  In the section Rites of Rapprochement they describe the different ways in which ritual is seen; firstly the early anthropological conception of it as an enchanted and traditional based notion, compared to the rationality and secular ways of the west. Secondly referring to Leach they note how he saw ritual as lying with the eye of the beholder, bringing meaning back into control of the individual rather than the Durkheimian view of it as a collective idea (the ‘social glue’) whether sacred or profane. However it is this structural functionalist belief that restores the concept of ritual back into ideas of the tribal versus the modern west.  According to the ideas of the Birmingham School it was decided that ritual was in fact a facet of all society the “intentional communication or signifying practice” of rites that discerned the society as a united force.

Later on in the piece in Doing the Rite thing, they use the example of the Huasa market and their experiences of modernity and ritual. They describe how Apter saw the “ritual economy” of the Huasa market as the perfect case to “dramatize how ritual acts as a historical practice” and how it is incorporated into the local Bori cults understanding and acceptance of the changes modernity brings. For instance Comaroff describes how the Bori were faced with the intrusion of Muslim control in trade and economy and thus how they were forced to reconfigure and appropriate the Muslim reproductive sources, through collaboration in order to profit from the new forms of wealth.

From my understating of this piece, the Comaroff’s are demonstrating the relationship between ritual and modernity. By describing each in their own space and then linking the concepts , they demonstrate how each is taken as a medium and product of a human being’s ability to empower, and how they use this and attempt to make their world “manageable and meaningful” to them.




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