Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Kano Durbar, a Nigerian ritual that presents a social drama of and for Kano residents" now available on AJCS website

by Wendy Griswold and Muhammed Bhadmus

The authors make two important contributions:
They bring politics out of the “purely” political realm.
They emphasizes the symbolic nature of place.

The authors make an important contribution to the study of the nexus of culture and politics by understanding that which is political to be that which involves power instead of only those who currently have a monopoly on the use of violence in a given territory.  They define political aesthetics as, “…the process of putting beauty (of imagery, of language, of music, of the body) in the service of some power arrangement (p. 127).”  Thus, they avoid certain problems associated with the analysis of political rituals and performances.  For instance, they argue that most studies of political rituals and performances focus on authoritarian contexts because the massive pomp and power marshaled by these regimes and because they present an easier case—one where there is a central performer/audience binary—one unified center that performs for the undifferentiated periphery or one citizen audience.

Therefore, it is not surprising that it is more likely to be nondemocratic governmental forms that rely on more dramatic rituals – that rally more aesthetic supports to their legitimacy.  This is because it is their legitimacy that is the primary question.  That is, authoritarian regimes cannot rely on the legitimacy inherent in the governmental form itself, as is the case in most democracies or as most democracies are able to claim, but on the legitimacy of the particular ruling party or specific officials.  And this legitimacy must be constantly performed and narrated, particularly without reliance on actual popular support.  They must perform the existence of this popular support instead of pointing to actual instances of popular participation.  The performance is designed to make the claim that they represent the public in particular ways and always for their own good.

Instead, Griswold and Bhadmus make a more strongly cultural argument by saying that the meaning and function of public performances and rituals cannot be imposed on cases beforehand.  In fact, to the extent that it is legal to express so openly, there will always be audience contestation over interpretation of the meaning of any public event (whether orchestrated or not).  In fact, those “in” power are not the only ones “with” power.  This should be more apparent in countries where there is not a homogenous citizenry and where the government does not maintain a monopoly over definitions of that citizenry and public performances.  By allowing their data to talk to them instead of talking over the case-study, the authors are able to illustrate, compellingly, how power is clustered in different groups and mustered in different ways. 

The authors show that nowhere is this more important to understand than in studies of nation-building.  While the authors agree that nation-building, the creation of an “imagined community”, is achieved through collective identity narration and re-narration in performances and rituals.  But, past studies have often chosen, on the basis of an understanding of performances as having a primarily legitimating function, mostly those cases where there is little (in actuality or in ability) contestation over interpretation and where an imagined community had already been established.  This results in post hoc selection of cases with an undivided authority.  But if interpretations vary and most societies are not defined by an undifferentiated mass of bodies that naturally flock to participate in rituals whose aim is to legitimate the unquestioned authority, then other cases ought to be selected.  This is precisely what Griswold and Bhadmus do.

In fact, in countries where collective identity is divided and/or highly contentious and where power is either seen as shaky or provisional (often the same place), public performances are often successful not because of their claim to represent the imagined community or bolster the legitimacy of a popular leader, but because they are able to organize the performance around a unifying and highly potent aesthetic element.  In the case of Kano, the authors argue that this element is place.  In successful aesthetic politics it is not always the political element that creates solidarity, but the nature of the aesthetic elements that can create solidarity through affectation.  Hence, they argue not for an analysis of the aesthetics of politics; it is the politics of aesthetics – the inherently political nature of the aesthetic—that is important.

Place is an important symbolic container of performances because it has the potential to draw upon various identities and affective processes and is therefore capable of crossing the boundaries distinguishing groups from one another to create a more cohesive solidarity-making experience for participants and audience.

The article also includes a succinct summary of the historical context of Kano (tied to the Biafra conflict) which many readers will find useful to understanding the importance of Kano as a place of symbolic and political significance.  Kano is a large city in northern Nigeria which has been a hot center of conflict for many years between different ethnic-linguistic and religious groups.  Griswold and Bhadmus also provide a concise map of political, demographic, and economic tensions that plague the region and come to a point in the overpopulated and underemployed city.

The Durbar is a twice a year spectacle in Kano associated with Muslim holidays and revolve around a salute to the Emir.  The history of the Durbar is one of colonial legacy and the salutation to the Emir, the authors point out, is an odd one because he holds not legal or constitutional but only religious power.  Despite the fact that these are not obviously solidarity-rallying meaning-points for the events, it is extremely popular among all groups.  This is the conundrum that Griswold and Bhadmus attempt to solve—why is such a symbolically contaminated spectacle able to achieve such successful performance-audience fusion?

Many scholars studying ritual and performance in post-colonial nations focus on the authenticity of culture.  They make the argument that returning to local cultural roots is part of the answer to solving the crises of post-colonial nations.  But, these scholars merely become responsible for a politics of naming and division by saying that this and not that element is “pre-colonial”.  In fact, it does not matter whether or not a local cultural spectacle or ritual is pre- or post-colonial or in fact imperial in its origins.  It only matters that it resonates with the current local population in order to be successful and that, in cases of general identity formation based on local life, the symbolic meaning of festivals of space has the potential to muster more a more inclusive fusion.  All traditions are invented.

In this case, the political ritual spectacle of the Kano Durbar is able to resonate with its audience because it utilizes both cognitive and emotional elements, because those elements speak to an inclusive localness of Kano and not of Nigeria, Islam, African or otherwise, and because the performers (the bodies in motion) represent the not-undifferentiated masses of Kano and the local powers of Kano.  In fact, these local powers (the Emir) is seen, in the course of the ritual procession, to make local demands of national government thereby drawing lines of distinction between the local and the national and creating a more universal local identity that is not associated only with being Muslim.

Most importantly, as their interview data show, though the spectacle is highly scripted, it resonates with audience because it is perceived not as a drama, but as reality.  In fact, the performance is not understood in terms of its historical authenticity, but for the realness—the immediate authenticity—that is perceived by the audience.  It is understood as a pageant of real local culture and the reality of living local Kano lives.  This means that the performance is understood as largely apolitical and therefore not very divisive (though there are critiques).  The audience is able to consume politics through the entertaining aesthetics of that which is perceived to be local reality.

On a final note:
It is often difficult to write a significant qualitative journal article that discusses the politics and history of a place far from the common knowledge of the readership.  The authors do an impeccable job of sailing between the horns of multiple practical dilemmas.  Readers will particularly enjoy the tendency for the authors to clearly define the specificity of the concepts they are using and the terms of the theoretical and methodological dilemmas they are resolving.

Questions for comments:
Is it possible that the success of the spectacle in fusing with the audience and in creating a more inclusive local identity that crosses ethnic, religious, political, and economic lines is the product of the specific local charisma of the Emir?

Is it possible that local character can, that a definition of “us”, is only possible as the result of the generally condemned violence by the Boko Haram?  That is, does identity form more easily through ritual when faced with adversity?


  1. This was a neat analysis. Although this is from a different part of Africa I was reminded of Bruce Lincoln's classic analysis of the Swazi Ncwala - I think it was published in "Man" in the late 1980s. It would have been instructive if Griswold and Bhadmus had contrasted their neo-Geertzian approach with Lincoln's more semiotic or structuralist one.

  2. Some of the ideas of this inspiring research dialogue with Caroline Levine's analysis of avant-garde movements, "Provoking Democracy. Why we need the arts". Influenced by Chantal Mouffe's political theory, Levine tried to analyse the structural role of the agonistic artistic voice in protecting democratic culture from the risk of standardisation. Griswold and Bhadmusb take the question of the structural role of political aesthetics to a new level. Public performance is neither a non-conformist but elitist voice of the avant-garde, nor a simply stabilising political tool, affirming the pre-existing sacred convictions of the wider public. Instead it remains widely popular while including diverse artistic contributions, and maintains a mutual dependency between potentially disagreeing political actors. Contrary to Mouffe and Levine, it seems that this agonistic process does not need to be overtly expressed as part of a competitive plot, but it can rather be negotiated within a place-based political culture. With the fact of the actor's self-limitation in mind, this line of thinking seems closer to Johan Huizinga's interpretation of agon as an inherently ludic function of culture.

    Even more counterintuitively, such political rituals in the post-colonial context turn out to neatly encompass not only traditional, but also colonial formal elements, avoiding criticism of both fundamental Islamists as well as modernists. One can even wonder about what sort of excellent ethnographic documentary (outgrowing "Les maîtres fous"?) Jean Rouche could create on such a neat postcolonial, multivocal performance case study.

    1. I really want to reply to your comment. It sounds really informed, but I don't have time to look up all of those allusions.

      I liked this article a lot though and I gather your meaning about the built-in defense of those political rituals.