Unmasking the State: Making Guinea Modern

Unmasking the State: Making Guinea Modern

by Mike McGovern

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Unmasking the State: Making Guinea Modern by Mike McGovern

When the Republic of Guinea gained independence in 1958, one of the first policies of the new state was a village-to-village eradication of masks and other ritual objects it deemed “fetishes.” The Demystification Program, as it was called, was so urgent it even preceded the building of a national road system. In Unmasking the State, Mike McGovern attempts to understand why this program was so important to the emerging state and examines the complex role it had in creating a unified national identity. In doing so, he tells a dramatic story of cat and mouse where minority groups cling desperately to their important— and outlawed—customs.
Primarily focused on the communities in the country’s southeastern rainforest region—people known as Forestiers—the Demystification Program operated via a paradox. At the same time it banned rituals from Forestiers’ day-to-day lives, it appropriated them into a state-sponsored program of folklorization. McGovern points to an important purpose for this: by objectifying this polytheistic group’s rituals, the state created a viable counterexample against which the Muslim majority could define proper modernity. Describing the intertwined relationship between national and local identity making, McGovern showcases the coercive power and the unintended consequences involved when states attempt to engineer culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226925103
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/03/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Mike McGovern is assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University. 

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Unmasking the State

Making Guinea Modern

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92511-0

Chapter One

Competing Cosmopolitanisms

This is a book about iconoclasm and ethnogenesis—that is, about the attempt to destroy objectionable objects and the coming into being of new ethnic identities. Each acted on the other in the region of West Africa that came to be known as the Republic of Guinea. They were, to use the somewhat pretentious academic phrase, mutually constitutive. In this book I argue that seemingly unrelated factors, including slash-and-burn agriculture, the existence of inherited clans with special relations to totemic animals, and the presence or absence of professional oral historians, played crucial roles in this process. Above all, it was the imposition of state power on the formerly decentralized region where each three or four villages had been a law unto themselves that set into motion the reciprocal development of iconoclasm and ethnogenesis in the rainforest–savanna frontier zone I write about.

There are four such states relevant to the story I tell in the following pages. The first was that of the Almamy Samory Touré, a late-nineteenth-century conqueror and proselytizer whose state encompassed much of the region that was to become Guinée forestière and more specifically, Macenta Préfecture (map 1). The second was the French colonial state. The third, and most important for this story, was the government headed by Sékou Touré from independence in 1958 to his death in 1984. After Guinea alone among French colonies chose immediate and complete independence in September 1958, his government built policy out of an ideological commitment to state-socialist modernism and Pan-Africanist valorization of precolonial history and culture. The fourth state that enters the story obliquely is that of the post-socialist government of Lansana Conté, an army colonel who took power in a coup d'état one week after Touré's death in 1984, and who held on to it, as Touré had done, until his death in 2008. Not much of this book is about the Conté period, but because almost all of the research for it was conducted during the Conté years, there are occasional references to it. This book, a historical ethnography of the socialist period in Guinea, will be followed by a later book that focuses on the legacy of socialism under conditions of postsocialist governance in the 1990s and 2000s.

Iconoclasm as a Cosmopolitan Idiom

[T]he revolution is devoted to acting on the people so that they come back to themselves [pour qu'il revienne à lui-même], to their personality, to their originality.... (Touré 1969, 351)

The "Demystification Program" was launched almost immediately after Guinea claimed its independence from France in a referendum. It specifically targeted all forms of precolonial cultural practice deemed backward or primitive, and it focused to a large degree on the polytheistic periphery of a country that had become about 80 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian by the end of colonialism. Demystification teams including soldiers and representatives from the Ministry of Culture went from village to village, forcibly collecting masks and figurines and burning most of them while taking a few to display in national and regional museums, and recruiting young people to perform the initiation dances that they simultaneously outlawed. The Guinean state demanded several transformations of the country's peripheral inhabitants, including the choice of a monotheistic religion.

As newly independent Guinea embraced socialism in the early 1960s, national elites embraced several forms of cosmopolitan practice and discourse that hailed Guinea's arrival on the international scene. Yet these cosmopolitan idioms were not, themselves, without contradictions and ambivalences. Scientific socialism held out the promise that countries like Guinea could vault forward in the political economic queue, but only if they acknowledged and then renounced their alleged backwardness. Pan- Africanism, by contrast, allowed African countries to embrace African histories and cultures denigrated by Eurocentric ideologies, but it offered mostly intangible benefits to a country seeking rapid economic development. In this context, Guinean state elites mobilized a third cosmopolitan form that partially resolved the contradictions within and between transnational Marxism and Pan-Africanism. Iconoclastic sweeps aimed at eradicating religious "fetishism" and social "mystification."

While I am interested in the ways the Demystification Program was experienced by speakers of Lomagui in the region where I conducted fieldwork, this book takes Demystification as a window on the logics, dynamics, and internal contradictions of a postcolonial socialist state. Why did eradicating polytheism become one of a fledgling country's first policy initiatives? Why was the program prosecuted with such ferocity—beating and publicly humiliating elders, exposing men's sacred objects to women, who were supposed to be rendered infertile or die as a result? Why was it announced a total success about once a year, only to be started over the next?

To get at that set of questions, I will begin with a brief ethnographic vignette and then suggest three possible frames for interpreting it. The frames do not exist in a zero-sum relation to one another, but each one (in my mind at least) adds further nuances to the others. The effect, I hope, will be one of increasingly subtle and complex interpretation. In the end, I don't intend to offer a single interpretive frame that accounts for all of the phenomena involved in Demystification—in fact after twenty years of trying to understand this iconoclastic movement, I still find it perplexing, so will not pretend to that type of mastery.

I begin with a story that I have been mulling over for many years. I was in my second fieldwork site, beginning to settle in after a month or two. Having spent fifteen months in an isolated, ethnically homogenous Loma-speaking village of about 1,200 inhabitants, I was now working in a small, ethnically heterogeneous town of 8,000 people about 40 km away.

I was speaking with an elder Loma man, and we were talking about the history of his town, including current relations between the two main ethnolinguistic groups who lived there, the Loma (understood to be the original inhabitants of the area) and the Manya (one of the two biggest ethnic groups in the country but understood to be relative newcomers in this region). As we were talking, an older man walked by at a distance. He greeted my interlocutor in Maninkakan (a Northern Mande language), and we responded in kind. The elder Loma man talking with me said, "You see him? He and I were initiated into the men's secret society together. In the sacred forest, everything took place in the Loma language. He spoke Lomagui perfectly. Today, he is a Muslim elder and would deny that he was ever initiated. If you greet him in Lomagui, he will pretend not even to understand you. You should try it the next time you see him. And yet, he has the same cicatrizations on his back as me." I did indeed try a few days later, and he responded to my Loma greeting with the roughly equivalent response in Maninkakan.

For Loma speakers, the bonding that takes place between initiates secluded for months or even years in the forest is one of the strongest social ties that exists, and it cuts across all other solidarities created by kinship, marriage, religious, or even ethnic relations. What troubled my Loma informant and many other Loma people I knew well was what they perceived to be the hypocrisy of this sort of personal erasure—a form of iconoclasm at the individual level. That full immersion into Islam required a renunciation of secret society membership was well understood. The same was true for serious converts to Protestant (though not necessarily Catholic) Christianity. Most Loma speakers who did not convert to a world religion might not have valued this choice, but they understood it. What they did not understand was why embracing a world religion would entail such a thoroughgoing attempt to efface past actions that were easily verifiable by those who had been there to witness the events. Why, they asked, pretend not to even know the greetings in a language one once spoke fluently and continued to hear spoken every day?

I would like to take this small everyday case as a starting point for thinking through the complexities of iconoclasm at the everyday level of village life. I believe that if we can untangle some of the complications involved in such a story of personal iconoclastic self-making, we will be able to understand something new about the history and sociology of this postcolony. To understand the kind of state postcolonial Guinea was and what it aspired to be, it helps to understand the reasons why iconoclasm became a privileged tool in the state's arsenal for shaping new socialist citizens. Understanding iconoclasm in Guinea may also give some new critical purchase to the broader discussion of iconoclasm as practice and ideology.

Uncanny Iconoclasm

Guinea's Demystification Program prompts three questions:

1 Why do some objects become so objectionable to iconoclasts that they "require" their own eradication?

2 How does this process work, even when the objects in question have never been seen by those who find them offensive, and they will in fact have to be viewed for the first time in order to destroy them?

3 What accounts for the particularly strong affective component in iconoclastic movements such as the one in Guinea?

To try to answer the first question, "Why do some objects become so objectionable to iconoclasts that they 'require' their own eradication?" I turn to W.J.T. Mitchell. Mitchell's work is important precisely because of his ability to bring clinically precise thinking to the phenomenon of the power of images. This power is perfectly intuitive at the same time that it is extremely difficult to explicate. Mitchell's framework for unraveling this problem draws on both Marx and Freud, but uses them as jumping off points toward his own original framework. In his 2005 collection of essays, entitled What Do Pictures Want? he interrogates the power of images to bring out in us what we might think of as the "exorcist" and "adoricist" reactions described by Luc de Heusch (1971) for possession practices in Africa.

Mitchell asks about the source of the "surplus value of images," first by asking how techniques such as cloning destabilize our notions about "the thing itself" (and consequently, as if in mirror image, any simple notions of the relationship between the thing and its image). Secondly, he asks about the interrelationships of those aura-laden images, the totem, the idol, and the fetish. He quotes Lévi-Strauss quoting McLennan, "fetishism is totem ism minus exogamy and matrilineal descent"(2005, 99)—an absurd equation that nonetheless insightfully points to the place where Marx's preoccupation with use and exchange values crosses Durkheim's distinction between mechanical and organic solidarities. For them, as for Freud, what distinguishes the fetish is its lack of social usefulness. For Mitchell, ever interested in iconoclasm, this is what distinguishes the "iconoclastic hostility" trained on the fetish from the "curatorial solicitude" aimed at the totem (100).

He writes that there are four ways of relating to a libidinal object: love, desire, friendship, and jouissance:

What happens to the four ways of relating to a libidinal object when an image or picture is involved? An exact correspondence emerges between these relations and the standard array of sacred icons and iconic practices: love belongs to the idol, desire to the fetish, friendship to the totem, and jouissance to iconoclasm, the shattering or melting of the image. When a picture wants love, or more imperiously, when it demands love, but does not need it or return it, but looms in silence, it becomes and idol.... When it asks to be shattered, disfigured or dissolved, it enters the sphere of the offending, violent or sacrificial image, the object of iconoclasm, the pictorial counterpart to the death drive, or the ecstatic shattering of the ego associated with the orgasm. When it is the object of fixation, compulsive repetition, the gap between articulated demand and brute need, forever teasing with its fort-da of lack and plenitude, its crossing of drive and desire, it is the fetish.... Finally there is friendship ... and its proper image type, the totem. (Mitchell 2005, 74)

Mitchell's magisterial treatment of the power that images have over us brings together Marxist and Freudian notions of the fetish, the anthropological and Freudian notions of the totem, and an intellectual history of iconoclasm. He imposes order on our hunches about the work of iconoclasm. We can only begin to make sense of it by paying close attention to both the implicit theories of society that accompany the classification of differing images, and then by paying equally close attention to the affective (even libidinal) economies that overlay these same theories.

Bruno Latour's writings supplement Mitchell's formulations in several ways. He has insightfully stated about the religious fetish or idol:

The only one who is projecting feelings onto the idol is the iconoclast with a hammer, not those who should be freed, by his gesture, from their shackles. The only one who believes is him, the fighter against all beliefs.... Belief, naïve belief, might be the way for the iconoclast to enter into contact, violent contact, with the others. It is not a state of mind, not a way to grasp statements, but a mode of relations. (1997, 67)

As Latour rightly notes, there is something about this iconoclastic posture, both accusatory and slightly desperate for making contact, that seems to characterize young men. In this desire to instantiate a mode of relations, iconoclasm seems to serve almost the same purpose for citizens of the new postcolonial cosmopolis as the incest prohibition serves for isolated corporate communities as described by Lévi-Strauss (1969). It is a prohibition that prescribes other forms of contact, exchange, and sociality. And indeed, if we look at the personnel involved in most iconoclastic undertakings, we find that they are overwhelmingly young men. Latour underlines "the extravagant belief that the iconoclast wishes to impute to them [the would-be naïve believers]," as well as insisting on iconoclasm's modernist flavor. The iconoclast thus transubstantiates the fetish. However, by accusing those who use the fetish of belief (in his view, naïve belief), he in fact attributes to it powers that it may never have had in the eyes of its actual users. At the least, the iconoclast mistakes a metaphor for the thing itself. In this context the iconoclasts bring a zeal and a naïve sincerity to their own practice that they project onto those they figure as "behind," "backwards," and "fetishistic."

We are, I hope, fumbling toward the beginnings of an answer to the first question, which was why images have the power to provoke humans in the way they have done for millennia. Less well understood, I think, is the answer to my second question, why the knowledge of an image rarely if ever seen by the iconoclast would provoke the iconoclastic reaction. In Guinea, the foci of iconoclastic attention were not golden calves, but objects (masks, figurines, staffs of office) used only by initiates in settings spatially and temporally removed from the sight even of members of the same village of the opposite gender or too young to be initiated, let alone the wider national population. Here we should perhaps talk about the image of the offending image. Michael Taussig (1999) has drawn our attention to the political potency of secrecy and the ways in which it draws defacing reactions similar to iconoclasm. He has also noted the perverse effect of iconoclasm in such settings, namely the "awkwardness to iconoclasm, paradoxically privileging its target by virtue of ridicule" (1999, 27).

Is it correct to say that such objects provoked via their role as parts of an "open secret"? As an alternative system of meaning-making and of political sovereignty? Yes, certainly. But I don't think this can account fully for some of the ardor with which iconoclasm in Guinea, or many other places, has been undertaken. To begin to answer my third question, why does iconoclasm provoke such strong emotional reactions, we need to dig deeper into this rich vein of self-contradictory material. I propose that we take a brief detour, namely to consider Freud's notion of the uncanny.


Excerpted from Unmasking the State by MIKE MCGOVERN Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Note on Orthography

Part I:  The Grammar and Rhetoric of Identity
One / Competing Cosmopolitanisms
Iconoclasm as a Cosmopolitan Idiom
Uncanny Iconoclasm
Jouissance and the Search for Purity
Ethnogenesis:  Two or Three Things I Know about It
Iconoclasm and Ethnogenesis in the Context of Competing Cosmopolitanisms
The Chapters
Two / The Tactics of Mutable Identity
    Insecurity, Migration, and Fluidity of Identities
    The Koivogui-Kamara Corridor and the Question of Ethnicity
    Clanship and Ethnic Mediation
    Who Was “Malinke” in 1921?
    Living with Violence, Binding Insecurity
Interlude I:  Togba’s Sword
Three / Autochthony as a Cultural Resource
    Autochthony as a Cultural Resource
    The Politics of Sacrifice
    The Importance of Oaths and Ordeals
Four / The Emergence of Ethnicity
    Space, Landscape, and Production:  Loma Rice Farming
    Land Tenure and Cash Crops
    The Logic of Ethnicized Territory
    Mise en Valeur and Ethnicity
    Mamadi’s Story
Five / Portable Identities and the Politics of Religion along the Forest-Savanna Border 
    Portable Identities
    Iconoclastic Precedents
    Monotheism and Modernist Anxiety
    Northern-Southwestern Mande Links and their Denial
Part II:  Revealing and Reshaping the Body Politic
Interlude II:  Bonfire
Six / Personae:  Demystification and the Mask
Changing Notions of Personhood in Modernist Political Discourse: Personae, Masks, and Mystification
    Contradictory Cosmopolitanism: Marxism and the Modern Person
    Modernist Anxiety and Double Double Consciousness
Seven / Unmasking the State:  Making Guinea Modern
    Demystification, the Forest Region, and the Guinean Nation
    Demystification:  An “Inside Job”?
    The Cultural Politics of Catching Up: A Comparison
    A Convergence of Reasonings
Eight / Performing the Self, Performing the Nation 
    The Aesthetics of Discretion and the State
    Aestheticization, Folklorization, Re-presentation
    A Sociology of Ambition
    Surviving Authoritarianism
Conclusion / Double Double Consciousness in an African Postcolony
    The First Legacy: Denigration into Ethnic Solidarity
    The Second Legacy: Embattlement into National Solidarity
    Violence, Marginality, and Divided Consciousness
Appendix 1 / List of Kokologi/zu and their dominant clans, according to Beavogui/Person
Appendix 2 / Agricultural Production in Giziwulu, 1999
Works Cited

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