Bayart on Strategic Syncretism

the illusion of cultural identity cover“While British colonial administrators fabricated ‘Indianness’, Hindu intellectuals were formulating Hinduness by resorting to ‘strategic syncretism’. According to Christophe Jaffrelot, this involved ‘structuring one’s identity in opposition to the Other by assimilating the latter’s prestigious and efficacious cultural characteristics’: ‘The appearance of an exogenous threat awakened in the Hindu majority a feeling of vulnerability, and even an inferiority complex, that justified a reform of Hinduism borrowing from the aggressor its strong points, under the cover of a return to the sources of a prestigious Vedic Golden Age that was largely reinvented but whose “xenology” remained active’.*…  In short, the reinterpretation of India’s ‘Hindu’ past by the nationalists and their instrumentalisation of ‘tradition’ for militant political purposes have for nearly a century sustained a political identity unprecedented in the cultural landscape of the sub-continent, by incorporating foreign representations into Hinduism — e.g., egalitarian individualism, proselytisation, ecclesiastical structures — and by seeking to ‘homogenise in order to create a nation, a society that is characterised by extreme differentiation’.** On the Indian political chessboard, the celebration of a golden Vedic age is a mere fig-leaf concealing modernity, like the versions of African ‘authenticity’ that developed in the wake of the colonial invention of tradition…” (37-38)

* Christophe Jaffrelot, Les Nationalistes hindous (Paris: Presses de la Foundation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1993, p. 24, 41).

** Ibid., 83-4.

 [This is one of an ongoing series of posts, quoting from Bayart’s The Illusion of Cultural Identity, that further documents the theoretical basis
on which Culture on the Edge is working.]

Bayart on Ethnicity

the illusion of cultural identity cover“A great many anthropological and historical studies have shown that pre-colonial societies were almost always mutli-ethnic, and included a great diversity of cultural repertoires; that the principal forms of social or religious mobilisation were trans-ethnic; and that ancient Africa most definitely did not consist of a mosaic of ethnic groups. This does not mean that ethnicity is a pure construct … produced by colonising powers that sought to divide the better to rule, as African nationalists — and, paradoxically, some ethno-nationalists — still like to believe. Colonised peoples took part in its ‘formation’ by appropriating the new political, cultural and economic resources of the bureaucratic state. In one of the many working misunderstandings, ‘Europeans believed Africans belonged to tribes; [whereas] Africans built tribes to belong to’, as John Iliffe brilliantly expressed it.* The political importance of ethnicity proceeds precisely from the fact that it is an eminently modern phenomenon connected to the ‘imported state’, and not a residue or resurgence of ‘traditional culture’.” (29-30)

*John Iliffee, A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 324). The role of African middlemen, especially the literate ones, in the process of colonial ‘imagination’ of ethnicity is now better understood than a few years ago, when emphasis was placed on the intervention of European administrators and missionaries….

[This is one of a series of posts, quoting from Bayart’s The Illusion of Cultural Identity, that further documents the theoretical basis
on which Culture on the Edge is working.]

Changing the Subject

Merinda Simmons‘s first monograph, Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora, has just been contracted by Ohio State University Press. A critique of the scholarly emphasis on authenticity in literary and postcolonial theory, it offers a counterpoint with readings of several African diasporic texts that demonstrate the contingent and contextual frameworks within which categories like “identity” and “voice” are thought to emerge, demonstrating that, instead of being stable, subjects and subjectivities change as they move from place to place.