Spring Conference 2011: Time, Place, and the Problem of Uncertainty in Africa

Time, Place, and the Problem of Uncertainty in Africa”

African Studies Workshop spring conference

Wilder House, University of Chicago

May 27-28, 2011

Keynote addresses by:

Jane Guyer, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University,

Adeline Masquelier, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Tulane University, and

Derek Peterson, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Michigan


8:30-8:45 : Breakfast

8:45-9:00 : Welcome Remarks – conference organizers

9:00-9:30 : Opening Remarks – Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, University of Chicago

9:30-11:00 : Panel 1 – Uncertainty as Social Threat

Anita Hannig, University of Chicago – “Spiritual Border-Crossings: Motherhood from the Margins”

Zebulon York Dingley, University of Chicago – “The Eighth Door: Of Bond and Boundary in Kenya’s South Coast”

Robert Blunt, University of Michigan – “Witchcraft, Theology, and the Unnameable: The Deinstitutionalization of the Occult in Kenya”

Discussant: Jean Comaroff, University of Chicago

Chair: Lauren Coyle, University of Chicago

11:00-11:30 : Coffee / Tea

11:30-12:30 : Panel 2 – Knowledge & Uncertainty

Hylton White, University of Witwatersrand – “Beyond Materiality: The Uncertain Value of Marriage Payments in Zululand”

Betsey Brada, University of Chicago – “False Positives: Epistemological Experiments in Botswana’s AIDS Epidemic”

Discussant: François Richard, University of Chicago

Chair: Theo Rose, University of Chicago

12:30-2:00 : Lunch

2:00-3:30 : Panel 3 – Reckoning Precarious Economies

Bernard Dubbeld, University of Chicago and Stellenbosch University – “Nostalgia and the Problem of ‘Changing Times’ in Glendale”

Lauren Coyle, University of Chicago – “Tender Reckoned in Time: Dispossession and Reconstitution on the Edges of a Gold Mine in Ghana”

Jeremy Jones, University of Chicago – “Opportunity in Hyperinflationary Zimbabwe – Mind the Gaps”

Discussant: John Comaroff, University of Chicago

Chair: Zebulon York Dingley, University of Chicago

3:30-3:45 : Coffee / Tea

3:45-5:00 : Keynote 1 – Jane Guyer, Johns Hopkins University, “Experience in Punctuated Time: Rigid, Rhythmic or Random?”


9:30-9:45 : Breakfast

9:45-11:00 : Keynote 2Adeline Masquelier, Tulane University – “While We Wait: Boredom, Tea-Drinking, and the Temporalities of Youth in Niger”

11:00-12:30 : Panel 4 – Conflict & Value

Michael Ralph, New York University – “The Forensics of Debt”

Theo Rose, University of Chicago – “Moments of Uncertainty in the Sierra Leone War”

James H. Smith, University of California-Davis – “Tantalus in the Digital Age?: Coltan, Time, and Movement in the Eastern Congo”

Discussant: Paul Ocobock, University of Notre Dame

Chair: Anita Hannig, University of Chicago

12:30-2:00 : Lunch

2:00-3:30 : Panel 5 – Time & Transition

Lisa Simeone, University of Chicago – “Riding the Recession in the Post Postcolony: Development Imaginaries of an Integrating Africa”

Kelly Gillespie, University of Witwatersrand – “Hegel and Post-Apartheid Time”

Ralph Austen, University of Chicago – “The Great Uncertainties of Africanist Historiography: Is There an ‘African’ Time and Can Its Past Predict Its Future?”

Discussant: Emily Osborn, University of Chicago

Chair: Bernard Dubbeld, University of Chicago

3:30-3:45 : Coffee / Tea

3:45-5:00 : Keynote 3 – Derek Peterson, University of Michigan – “The Work of Time in Western Uganda”

All are welcome, and no registration is required. This conference is generously sponsored by the Center for International Studies, the Norman Wait Harris Memorial Foundation Fund, the Marion R. and Adolph J. Lichtstern Fund of the Department of Anthropology, the Council on Advanced Studies, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, the Committee on African and African American Studies, and the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory (3CT) at the University of Chicago.

Organizers: Lauren Coyle, Zebulon York Dingley, Bernard Dubbeld, Anita Hannig, and Theo Rose

Call for Papers

(Please note that this is the original CFP. Alas, we are no longer able to accept abstracts.)

This conference seeks to draw into systematic conversation three often unruly concepts—time, place, and uncertainty—in an attempt to frame key theoretical and analytical challenges in African studies. “Uncertainty” is evocative as both an analytic construct and object. As a central problematic, uncertainty captures historical and contemporary dilemmas across the continent at once empirical and conceptual, and at scales both micro and macro. On the one hand, uncertainty besets individual or group anxieties in the face of various forms of economic, environmental, religious, and political instability. On the other hand, uncertainty frames and bedevils historical inquires of social processes as well as contemporary analyses of the collapse of once-assumed trajectories heralded by ideas such as industrialization, modernization, development, or urbanization. In recent times, has the promise of a predictable future vanished or receded? What does it mean, socially and politically, to continue to advance promises of a known better future, despite their apparent anachronism? To the extent that neoliberalism or late capitalism have replaced familiar visions of progress, has this shift signaled new forms of heightened uncertainty about the future? Or has predictive power merely been shifted from the state and other traditional sites of productive development to elsewhere—religion, medicine, occult divination, actuarial universes, market speculation—which have themselves borne forms of uncertainty, both novel and familiar?

At the same time, despite the innovative return in the social sciences to notions of space, place, and the city, the tidy boundaries suggested by the rubric of place seem everywhere uncertain, in theory and in practice. Have the uncertain—and at times violent—making and remaking of places and their borders posed new questions of subjectivity? Transformations in the meanings of ethnicity, universal citizenship, and effective sovereignty seem to have coincided with the reconceptualization and reconfiguration of national boundaries, as well as distinctions between rural and urban.

This conference thus seeks to interrogate the core conceptual issues of time and place in the study of historical and contemporary Africa, with reference to the problem of uncertainty and efforts to tame or harness it. Uncertainty, of course, is no new phenomenon. This investigation asks of its specific forms and meanings within particular social moments, within varying scales of analysis, and within specific configurations of space-time. We ask that abstracts directly respond to at least two of the three anchoring concepts – time, place, and uncertainty. In addition, thematic foci might draw from the following non-exhaustive list:

The country and the city. How do imaginaries and realities of rural and urban settings register aspirations and anxieties over time and place? In which ways might rural and urban socio-scapes serve as sites for both nostalgia and futuristic longing, and what does this reveal about a particular historical or social moment? How might changes in rural-urban migratory flows—both within and beyond nations—attest to either the continuing or declining power of such discrete categories?

National and local borders. How can popular theories of sovereignty—whether privileging biopower/biopolitics, necropolitics, logics of internal/external, dialectical antagonisms, developmentalist/modernist state politics, ethnicized politics, or late-liberal multicultural recognition—serve in analysis of time and place, at different scales of analysis—local, national, regional, and global? What are the limits of sovereignty and what sorts of anxieties and uncertainties do those limits generate?

Time and meaning. What does the relationship between senses of the past and the future tell us about the present? How might uncertainty at one or more timescales be mediated by forms of predictability, cyclicity, repetition, or reconstitution at others, and what would the implications of such mediation be for social life? How might notions of space be entailed in notions of temporality, and how might social space-time configure senses of place and forms of certainty in particular historical or ethnographic settings?

Communities and belonging. How can one understand attempts to delimit and constitute “groupness,” variously understood, as the attempt to produce kinds of certainty? What might those forms of certainty be, beyond “a place to feel at home”? In this light, what is the role of social exclusion or displacement in the creation and maintenance of communities? Might one read the recent proliferation of “communities of conviction”—such as ethnic essentialism, religious fundamentalism, authoritarian political regimes, and so forth—as attempts to achieve specific forms of certainty (fixed identity, salvation, political order) in response to current prevailing forms of uncertainty in other domains of social life?