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Research Area 3 — Power, space, time and uses of the past

This research area deals with the question of power in terms of the mechanisms or processes whereby it circulates, perpetuates itself, changes and copes with challenges : the various of forms of consent, conflict, opposition or circumvention that accompany domination. The state and its exercise of power will not be overlooked, nor the undercurrents and fringes of politics. Starting from the postulate that power is always plural and relational, this research area focuses both on the most visible forms of power and authority and on the low-profile, hidden or infra-political forms (in which everyday power relations are played out and through which critical opinions and positions are shaped). These four themes focus on contemporary situations but while bearing constantly in mind their long history.

Spaces and borders of power
The relation of “space” and politics can be used to reflect on power and discuss it with the help of spatial metaphors, which shed light on past and present changes in power relations in a given area and on a given scale. This relation is also useful for analyzing the manifestations of politics : space is “produced” by politics and shaped by asymmetrical, contentious relations that are constantly evolving and being reworked. These relations are rooted in a social, cultural and economic substrate from which they continually draw. Understanding power in terms of “spatialization” and its positioning in space opens toward a new interpretation of politics. By dialectically analyzing the relation between space and power, space can be taken to be both a tangible, sensory thing and a method for interpreting politics and domination. “Scale” thus refers to a “scalar structuring”, like the projection of a political or social hierarchy onto space. This conception of space takes account of dynamic variables, including its subjective constructions, which frequently involve heuristic forms of opposition (perceived/experienced space and heteronormative space ; restricted space and desired or “potential” space) and, too, authoritarian, neoliberal or more democratic spaces.
By changing perspectives, new subjects of study come into view. By conceiving of scale as a whole, our viewpoint shifts away from local or national situations toward the multiplication of the scalar shortcuts, distortions or short-circuits, fostered by the meeting (more or less direct) of the two extremities of the scale (from the most global to the most local). This change of perspective also opens onto more dynamic interpretations of this scalar construction, which take account of the historicity, disequilbrium and social embeddedness of power relations. Shifts of scale become finer and shed light on the circulation of practices and uses related to power at different levels and in different spaces. This circulatory approach to power is essential in African (in particular urban) societies with different forms of actual or potential mobility : geographical migrations frequently motivated by aspirations for social mobility, the diffusion of social, cultural or economic models, the dynamics of extroversion and local reinvention, etc.
In this respect, very promising topics for analysis are the past and present construction and functions of borderlands and the study of how borders affect society and space. A very heuristic understanding of the relation between power and physical or metaphorical spaces can thus emerge. These physical, social, moral and perhaps “temporal” issues (the alternation between night and day, its spatial and political effects) form a field that is, by definition, shifting, a flexibility that reflects (often intaglio) power relations. Borders become even more visible when they are disputed, crossed, trespassed or reimagined.

Materiality and performance in politics
Studying the materiality and performance of power is an emerging approach. Studies of commemorations, monuments, flags, parades or national hymns are classical topics of research on African nationalism and state-building ; they fall in line with the studies that historians have made of European nationalism. Africanist research has focused on the nationalism of decolonization and independence, but the fiftieth anniversary of independence has drawn the interest of academics to current forms of nationalism. The erection of new monuments or the recycling of old monuments, the construction of the national heroes and “fathers” of the nation (figures forgotten or fabricated) with their official statues and iconography, the “museumization” of “the” founding event for the new nation… these are the new materials for a postcolonial heritage-based nationalism. Museums, the legacy from the past, commemorations… all of this is quite effective for building the nation as an imagined community with a common destiny and creating feelings and social bonds — so many physical, spatial incarnations of symbols for activating the sensations and emotions of participants and altering their political subjectivity. Often on the initiative of state officials, materiality and performance in the political sphere are negotiated, even disputed. For this reason, this theme overlaps with the study of protest movements.
This theme also spans socialism in Africa, a topic of increasing research. This implies studying written sources (especially newspapers) as well as the objects, infrastructures and redevelopment schemes that embody modernity and development during that period. We thus obtain information on the nostalgia and memories, what has been forgotten or rejected or left among the material remains of this socialism. Big infrastructure projects, now borne by a vigorous state capitalism, represent a new stage in the material production of a national postcolonial conception.
Elections have to be studied as the staging and implementing of state power by political parties or career politicians — but not just from the angle of electoral sociology or the hermeneutics of voting. They entail a full set of materials, such as ballots, polling booths, biometric kits, ballot boxes, election posters, wax-print fabrics, etc., which affect political feelings, voter turnout and voting patterns. This approach to elections is similar to that of the National Research Agency’s multidisciplinary, comparative research project (PIAF) ; it draws on the methodology of the seminar “The documentary state and worlds of paper in Africa”, since it intends to closely follow these objects and techniques in order to understand how the act of voting and the acts of the imagination associated with it have been shaped — and, more broadly, to study the relations between the state and its citizens as well as conceptions of the nation, nationality and citizenship.

Electoral violence and conflict
Although voting procedures and materials are apparently routinizing electoral processes in many African countries, recent years have brought evidence of the persistence of controversies before and after elections and of repression on the continent. The use of force is still an option for keeping, winning or (re)negotiating power. Force can be used in many ways that, ranging from the courts to manipulation of the media, diplomatic maneuvers or penal sentences, are combined with a crackdown by the forces of security or by political parties or with the formation of armed movements. Conflicts do not spring up systematically but remain a possibility and are a cause of concern for local societies, power-holders and international and regional organizations, which have difficulty offering a unanimous interpretation of critical events and gaining a consensus for proposed settlements. Political events of this sort shed light on the violent processes, whether lasting or not, of state-building and domination during the colonial period and afterwards. They also shape political aspirations and old or new forms of action.
Moreover, conflicts and violence (or even the presumption thereof) affect the meaning and methodology of research studies, or even disrupt them. The intent is to stimulate thought about how tense or extreme political situations weigh on scientific studies, their findings, production and publication.

Uses of the past and the dynamics of memory
Power relies on practices and narratives to produce the past as a symbolic referent, or foil, for the present and to turn it into a cultural, economic and political resource. Such uses of the past reverse the passage of time, or merge forms of temporality, so as to either foster memories or produce amnesia. Anamnesis or solemnity is often required for the duration of this experience “in reverse” or with rewritten layers of meaning. A useful distinction can be made between “commemorative” and “memorial” : the first refers to the spontaneous qualities or selective capacities of the actions of remembering or forgetting whereas the second entails updating and sometimes actually fabricating the traces of history. A memorial institution is intended as such (e.g., marches, pilgrimages, etc.) and is materialized (in stone, museums, artistic installations, etc.) or expressed evocatively (trauma, genocide, exile, victims, persecution, repentance, witnessing, etc.). These two forms, memorial and commemorative whereby the past is summoned, sketch the outlines of a conception of identities.
By studying politics and the making of culture, we focus on community narratives, which are often in a subordinate status or in a quest for hegemony, and on official narratives (by the state, churches, councils of elders, royal families, etc.). Our research concentrates on the “spaces” where the “genealogy” of a society or group is part of the contemporary (moral, political, religious and economic) uses of tradition and history. It also implies studying the “institution” of narratives that are stored as vectors and signs for the construction of identities. This research focuses on the interactions between these narratives and the heritage (monuments and museums).
Several subjects of study have emerged : forgetting while conveying myths or epics, the commemorative and pragmatic functions of religious groups in diaspora communities, the phenomenon of orality and the recall of writings by ethnologists, missionaries, etc. in “traditional” circles, the production and diffusion of official or unofficial archives and their use in historical, memory-based narratives, the past as used in protests (in particular how major figures of anticolonialism and pan-Africanism are put to use), the recuperation of a heritage in religious activities, the metamorphosis of hard times (e.g., the slave trade) or tragic events (e.g., assassinations or mass crimes) into cultural or political goods, the forms of “ritualization” whereby social actors enact the theatrical “impregnation” of, and “distanciation” from, a past they claim as their own.