Friday, August 14, 2009

Dependency, extraversion, and all the rest

With my seminar on Law, Culture and Language here at the University of Osnabrück winding down, I finally have a moment to turn away from frantically playing catch-up on course topics like cultural rights (still not sure what those are, or why they are rights, a topic to which I will return) and intellectual property and instead return to working through questions nearer to my own project, here on my blog.

Today's topic: extraversion. Such a richly descriptive term, one wishes it were not a neologism, a category that too often consists of jargon created as a way of circumventing accessible, precise description.

I spent a fair amount of time in the archives reading about how the concessionary company officials interacted with African leaders in the areas they sought to exploit. What struck me was the entrepreneurial attitude with which the most powerful African leaders met the European newcomers. For instance, with no roads, few navigable waterways, and far-flung outposts in need of equipment, the sultans of Haut-Mbomou (Bangassou, Rafai, Zemio), saw an opportunity and became "veritable entrepreneurs of transport," in the words of Louis-Bernardin Metefia. In practice, this meant they excelled at (forcibly) conscripting porters. The epic story of the Faidherbe, a tugboat the French sought to transport from the Congo to the Nile, rivals Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo debacle in the South American jungle, and was possible only with the sultans' collaboration. The first concessionaires to arrive in Haut-Mbomou in the 1890s found the sultans had, to varying degrees, adopted EuropeLinkan style of dress (Bangassou wore a British general's tunic) and spoke excellent French.

All of this seems a perfect illustration of political scientist Jean-François Bayart's concept of extraversion. Bayart proposes the term extraversion to describe the ways in which Africans have actively participated in the processes that created and maintain the continent's dependent position within the global system. The continent is not marginalized or marginal, he maintains, but in recent years there has been an "aggravation of its dependence." Rather than indulging the "meanderings of dependency theory," however, he argues for the importance of analyzing the dynamics of dependence. Such an approach enables a historical reading of change, participation, and movement. Extraversion, as he terms African participation, consists of six sets of strategies: coercion, trickery, flight, mediation, appropriation, and (its opposite) rejection. Overall, then, these are rent-based modes of action. Bayart maintains that in Africa sovereignty is defined by the ability to manage dependence through rents. On the one hand, Bayart seeks to make sense of Africa's inferior position in the global economy; on the other hand, he wants to take seriously the ways in which Africans have taken external constraints and re-made them into new creations (for instance, through emulation of attractive colonial "life-styles" and religions). But in the end, he is pessimistic, describing strategies of extraversion as "pathetic when not frankly tragic" and ill-suited to solve problems of "accumulation, representation, and legitimacy" that currently plague the continent.

Extraversion is a brilliant theory. It describes some large portion of the processes through which democracy, development and other donor-fed buzzwords become so hijacked. And it describes many of the dynamics of war on the continent. Sometimes, such as when thinking about the ways armed group leaders play with qualifications in order to obtain the recognition of the international system, I wonder what remains for me to find out and describe besides the ways these strategies represent extraversion. Extraversion can seem to encompass everything.

Any totalizing theory makes me inherently suspicious. What might it miss, or distort? For one thing, it ascribes all developments in Africa as in some sense responsive/reactive to stimuli from the exterior. Bayart would take issue with describing an "interior" and "exterior" to Africa, because he sees the continent as constituted by sets of relationships whose parties cannot be isolated for the sake of analysis. Point taken. But extraversion remains a reaction, whether within the continent or beyond.

Extraversion also misses the unpredictable processes of governance and collaboration that one finds on the ground. (Foucault termed systems of governance techniques "governmentality," but in an attempt to minimize jargon on this site, I'll stick to dictionary-available approximations of this term.) Thomas Bierschenk and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan provide a telling example in their article "Local Powers and a Distant State in Rural Central African Republic" (1997). They describe the differences between two types of Groupement d'intérêt rural (GIR, rural solidarity groups). In the associations, membership may be required (as is the case for cotton producers). The cotton producers' association is the real village treasury (the village chief gets nothing from the central state), able to raise substantial sums, thanks to inputs from members. Recognizing the importance of these associations to village life, aid donors began creating and subsidizing additional associations with organizing aims such as pig-raising or small business support. The donors bring with them large sums of money and seem to require nothing in return. Except in the case of a pig-raising project that trained a particular set of already resource-strong individuals, the outputs of these projects are next to nil. The few successful projects became sites of development tourism, with officials from Bangui and Washington (including the president of CAR) making visits, which rapidly inspired copy-cats eager to get in on the action, who used the all the trendy buzzwords like "participatory" and "community-based" to woo funds their way. In a word, these copycats are engaging in extraversion, and next to nothing remains in the village to show for it besides the installation and maintenance of a "subsidy-based mentality." The extraversion lens does not make visible the non-aid funded associations, however, which seem to be the real locus of political struggle in the village. They are there not just during the aid donors' pop-in assessment visits but all the rest of the time as well.

A full discussion of the drawbacks of aid is beyond the scope of this post. Because the roles and effects of international agencies are one of my interests, Bayart's theory of extraversion will in all likellihood be an important element of my analysis. But I hope that by drawing attention to the governance effects that accompany strategies of militarized extraversion in particular locales I might also reveal more about the ethics and political structures that organize people's daily lives.

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