Reflection on Introduction to ‘Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa’

‘Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa’ is a collection of essays by a number of anthropologists who focus on African societies. The introduction by Jean and John Comaroff introduces ideas that are explored in the essays and focus particularly on the concept of modernity and its impact on Africa, and also the relationship between modernity and rituals.

In terms of modernity, the Comaroffs assert that many early anthropologists thought that ‘modernizing social forces and material forms would have the universal effect of eroding local cultural differences’. However, conquered and colonized societies were not ‘made over in the European image’ but instead maintained their own identities. Despite colonizers’ attempts to give the local people European values and ideals, this was largely unsuccessful as the locals often continued with their own traditions, beliefs and ways of understanding the world. Therefore, it is evident that the world has not been reduced to sameness, but instead remains plural, with many cultural variations.

The concepts of modernity and colonization bring to mind the differences between the two countries I have lived in, Australia and England. Many people perceive these countries as having very similar cultures but there are subtle (and in some cases extreme) differences between the language, values, traditions and general way of life, even though Australia was colonized by England. So despite many people’s perceptions, in reality colonized English speaking countries are not all culturally equivalent. This raises questions about what shapes a society and their culture. Is it environment, or history, or something else?

The Comaroffs also touch on a concept popular in early anthropological thought, which is that of the evolutionary theory of societies. This is the idea that European societies started off ‘primitive’ but slowly evolved to become the advanced societies they are today, and that other societies, such as those in Africa, are not as far advanced. The authors state that this evolutionary concept has continued in most Western social thought and that modernity is considered to be ‘the terminus toward which non-Western peoples constantly edge—without ever arriving’. So, Western societies are thought to be modern, whereas ‘other’ societies are considered to be moving towards modernity but never quite reaching it.

Regarding ritual, this is seen as having an important role in African modernity as it features in the efforts of people to empower themselves, and to ‘assert a measure of control over worlds often perceived to be rapidly changing’. Ritual is viewed as a response to contradictions created by social, material and cultural transformations, which are processes involved in modernity.

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