ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


After development: critical aesthetics of past futures

Location Playfair Building, Fellows Library
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


John Manton (LSHTM) email
Paul Wenzel Geissler (University of Oslo) email
Noémi Tousignant (University of Cambridge) email
Mail All Convenors


This panel blends scholarly and artistic approaches to the aesthetic resonances of colonial and post-colonial development, its material consequences, its projections, and its past futures.

Long Abstract

Development, a set of ideas and practices addressing global spatial inequalities, embodies and encodes futures. Hopes and expectations of change have driven the development enterprise; a conception of the future defines its ethos. Though often technocratic and instrumental, its projections are deeply affective, intimate and ephemeral: while consonant with nostalgia, community mobilization, and the persistence of structural inequality, the style and content of these projections remain stubbornly resistant to scholarly methodologies. Instead, they provoke and demand an aesthetic sensitivity and require an expanded technical repertoire to articulate their emotional resonance.

We invite submissions which interrogate past futures of development - its politics, science, promises, and fantasies - in view of their aesthetic resonances, as compound artefacts conjoining statist or liberatory politics with temporalities and spatialities of beauty, order, harmony and design. Whether interpolating with artistic projects which amplify the aesthetics of hope deferred and repressed, resuscitating and reanimating the forlorn hopes of grandiose colonial development projects, counterpointing the arts of medical dreaming with unfolding public health catastrophe, or foregrounding remains of disrupted revolutions in social organization, we seek a wide range of contributions and welcome methodological diversity. We hope to capture the sublime and grandiose beauty of the development enterprise, its undercurrents of anxiety and desire, and the unease with which we register and propagate this beauty through scholarly and artistic interventions. Finally, we seek to examine what a critical aesthetics of past futures brings to a global critical and methodological project addressing questions of justice, reciprocity and ethics.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Archivophagy: an excremental politics of the machinery of memory

Author: John Manton (LSHTM)  email


Reflecting on a destroyed archive of postcolonial medical research, this paper considers the aesthetics and politics of archival failure, as a facet of the spectacular abjection at the heart of oil-fuelled political performance in Nigeria.

Long Abstract

If the archive operates as an apparatus of socialised memory, then its destruction is an active agent in the production of historical memory. The conditions which give rise to attenuation and destruction of datapower index a relation between the institution, the community, and the state. Postcolonial violence and developmental failure have been destructive, not only of the lives and livelihoods of individuals, families, and communities across Africa and Asia, but of the stake of the state in managing encounters with subject populations.

Our encounter with the failed archive or the ruins of development raises significant affective and aesthetic issues. It foregrounds notions of nostalgia and disappointment, of beauty and the sublime, of relationships betrayed, of care and stewardship, as well as disrupting our recourse to narrative, and interpolating temporalities of decay, abandonment and abjection into the relations constituted around historical and ethnographic research. The aesthetic-affective dimensions suffusing the research enterprise need critical attention.

My paper approaches this critical aesthetic labour through a consideration and contextualisation of the remains of the recording apparatus at the Leprosy Centre and Research Unit, Uzuakoli, Nigeria, neglected since the Nigerian Civil War, in a forgotten corner of an under-resourced hospital. It considers the ruination of these records as an active political process, interpreting their scattering, heaping, their (literal) consumption and excretion - archivophagy - as an agent in productions of the memory and trajectory of the African state. In doing so, it suggests strategies for constructive scholarly and public engagement with the detritus of development.

Speaking the rhythms of the past to life

Author: Sarah Buckler (Robert Gordon University)  email


Using material gathered over 8 years working in ex-mining villages in N E England I show how past aesthetics are embodied in places and people in a way which keeps them present, physical and experienced by residents yet unimagined and un-engaged by the discourses of policy makers and planners.

Long Abstract

Music has always been integral to the lives of those in the coalfields communities of north east England - the rhythms of brass bands and folk reels became embedded in the daily activities of those who worked there, giving expression to the tensions, conflicts and commonalities of a life balancing the demands of mines, mine owners, family and community. Two musical traditions weave their way through the lives of residents past and present; the formal and more rigid style of the brass bands along with a somewhat earnest moral tone and the playful, improvisational style of folk with its air of resistance, rebellion and community support. Today, alongside gradual erosion of mines and livelihoods, an industrial de-development, the music has faded into silence yet the rhythms remain, echoed in people's speech and their sense of being in the world. Contrasting aesthetics of conformity and resistance run through the talk of residents and play out in their lives in unanticipated ways but are not incorporated into the discourses of 'community development' which imagines a unified future. It is an ethnography of both presence and absence, music and silence, memory and experience.

Born in "Russia": past futures of modernization and socialist internationalism in post-colonial Kenya

Author: Ruth Prince (University of Oslo)  email


Focusing on a large public hospital in Kenya, built by the Soviet Union in 1968 and known locally as "Russia", I use photographs, interviews, newspaper reports and observations to explore the institution as a site of struggles about development, its pasts and its futures.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on fieldwork, photographs, newspaper reports, interviews and observations relating to a central public institution in the Kenyan city of Kisumu: the hospital, known to city residents by its nickname, "Russia". Built in 1968, the hospital was a gift from the Soviet Union; designed and built by Soviet architects and planners, and staffed by Soviet doctors, it embodied visions of national development. Generations of residents have been born in the hospital and it remains a symbol of Kenya's modernisation. The Soviet gift was a manifestation of wider currents. From 1961, Kenyan doctors began medical training at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. Many participated in student activism, pan-Africanism and Socialist Internationalism. Returning to Kenya in the early '70s, speaking Russian, some with Russian wives, they were eager to serve the expanding national health system. However they faced an often hostile government, and worsening working conditions.

In this paper I focus on "Russia" as a site of struggles over different pasts and their futures, held together by an expectation of expansive horizons and potentials. The promises of such futures materialized only partially, yet they left traces - material and affective, institutional and intimate, formal and in the everyday. Focusing on the hospital - its architecture, its staff and their recollections, its connections to worlds outside, as well as the experiences of different generations connected to it, I trace the remains of these futures past.

Hut-like stations and station-like huts: the familiar aesthetics of research for development in Niakhar

Authors: Ashley Ouvrier (University Paris Diderot/Inserm/IRD)  email
Noémi Tousignant (University of Cambridge)  email
Aïssatou Mbodj-Pouye (CNRS)  email


We explore the projected aesthetics and affective memories of postcolonial Franco-African research-for-development through three sets of huts (cases) built by scientists in a rural area in central Senegal (Niakhar).

Long Abstract

In Niakhar, a small area in the heart of Senegal's groundnut basin, locals and foreigners have been interacting as scientific workers and subjects since the early 1960s. Huts (cases) built by scientists are the focus of contested memories and ideals of Franco-African research-for-development as it has unfolded over the past half-century. As crucial sites for navigating long-term scientific sociability, these "homes for science" elicit reflection, now and in the past, on the proper relationship between familiarity, knowledge and development; on how French and Senegalese researchers can work with Senegalese fieldworkers and inhabitants to accurately and ethically produce knowledge, and on what projected futures and legacies research should create and leave in Niakhar itself.

The huts of the research station, built only after two decades of scientific activity in 1981, and those put up previously by an individual French researcher, are spaces in and for which rules of intimacy are asserted and contested, and its affective and epistemological traces are described and debated. Their emplacement and aesthetic, and the use of the term "cases" (loosely translated as 'hut') to describe them, conjures an ethics of research based on recognition of and respect for the "local." Yet memories and accounts of these huts elicit a range of emotions; from nostalgia to outrage, mockery and genealogical pride. Our paper examines how these both assert and question the extent to which local intimacies can and should be a condition for the production of knowledge and for development.

The future in ruins: aesthetic legacies and practices of care in Darjeeling's tea plantation landscape

Author: Sarah Besky (University of Michigan)  email


This paper explores how colonial aesthetics inform tea laborers’ visions of the future. Contextualizing plants and people within an inherited landscape of “imperial ruins,” I highlight how historical practices of cultivation inform local frameworks for understanding development.

Long Abstract

Drawing on fieldwork from tea plantations in Darjeeling, India, this paper explores how the aesthetic legacies of colonialism inform laborers' visions of the future. Women tea pluckers expressed care for the plantation landscape, even though they understood that their relationship to tea plants emerged out of a past of colonial exploitation and landscape transformation. By actively "inheriting" this relationship, laborers were able to develop a critique of deteriorating plantation conditions in the present, as well as of international development projects aimed at the betterment of workers.

When discussing the meanings of their work, women tea pluckers spoke metaphorically of a kinship with tea bushes. Women's concerns about the lives of tea-bush "kin" resonated with concerns about the well-being of their human relatives and co-workers. Attention to these multiple forms of care shows how affective and material legacies of the colonial period meld with contemporary concerns about the stability of families and the sustainability of industrial agriculture.

Darjeeling's landscape was replete with potholed roads, dried-up water pipes, and mildewed bungalows. These infrastructural vestiges of the British colonial era are examples of what Stoler calls "imperial ruins," the decaying aesthetic legacy of the area's agrarian past. The living elements of the colonial landscape, particularly aging tea bushes, were also kinds of ruins. Tea was an active reminder of colonial production and a continued force of colonial destruction. Contextualizing plants and people within an inherited landscape of "ruins" highlights how historical processes of cultivation inform local frameworks for understanding plantation futures.

Kidevu[Beardie]'s return: re-enacting an historical threshold in African science

Authors: Paul Wenzel Geissler (University of Oslo)  email
Ann Kelly (King's College London)  email


This paper describes a series of historical-ethnographic re-enactment experiments with elderly scientific workers, intended to excavate aesthetic and affective dimensions of the 'past futures' of mid-20th century bioscientific research in an East African research station.

Long Abstract

Amani, in the Tanzanian mountains was built in the late nineteenth century as botanical research station. Since, it has been a site of progressive scientific endeavours, pushing the boundaries of botanical, zoological and medical knowledge, and providing expertise and technical capacity for imperial expansion, colonial welfare and national progress.

The station's heyday was between 1950s and 70s - a time of global disease eradication campaigns, and of decolonisation and the 'Africanisation' of science. 'Progress' referenced then more than the expansion of knowledge on pathogens and their arthropod vectors, and its translation into civic projects like urban sanitation and disease control. It meant the transformation of the social order and political economy within which this happened, including the reform of personal mores and ethos - from breeches of racial relations to new, prescribed codes of conduct - of linguistic conventions, modes of habitation and domesticity, enactments of gender and class, and the conduct of scientific labour.

To recuperate this progressive moment's aestetic and affective dimensions, we brought together scientific workers who had been in Amani in the 1950s-60s, to revisit past scientific endeavours, documented in illustrated scientific papers and personal photographs, and to perform them around the station. These re-enacments, of naturalist collection, control experiments and laboratory modelling, of collaboration and exploration, rendered available habitual movements and tempi, unspoken pleasures and exhaustions, longings and disappointments, and rekindled ethical commitments. Our entanglements in these experiments with anachronicity confronts past scientific promise - discovery, development, radicalism - with a distinctively less progressive present.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.