Thursday, November 5, 2009

Magical twilight institutions?

One of my favorite blogs, Texas in Africa, picked up on my last post to further discuss the idea of a "magical" state. When I started this blog a few months ago, I figured it would be a good way to start working through my findings, but I didn't even dare hope that it might incite some discussion. The fact that it has is both surprising and gratifying!

Now, off to read up on "twilight institutions" before my internet connection fades out or curfew o'clock, whichever comes first...

Here is her discussion of my post.

And here is the comment I posted in response:

The parallels between eastern Congo and CAR are striking – just replace Mobutu with Bokassa (“C'est notre Louis XIV! Notre Pericles!” gushed one man yesterday). People in CAR, too, feel squeezed by their more-powerful neighbors, especially Chad and Sudan. And the desire for a state that does “the things a state is supposed to do” – and then some – is immense. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs stoke this desire and unfortunately seem always to leave people more frustrated than ever.

Though I'm not thrilled with the term “magical” to describe state power, what I like about the descriptor is that reinserts the idea that state power, as played out in daily interactions, is not necessarily predictable. Thus it's not just about the Big Man who is able to dictate (a line of thought grounded in political theology and the works of people like Carl Schmitt or Ernst Kantorowicz, both of whom pointed to the enduring legacy of the Christian foundation of the European state) or control the heavens (Ranil Dissanayake, if you haven't read Max Gluckman's Custom and Conflict in Africa, you might find it interesting – he too points to the importance of rituals in re-inscribing state legitimacy), but also about the peculiar, almost nonsensical, kind of legitimacy that the state form has – a legitimacy that goes against logical reasoning, as the example of driving permits in eastern Congo so richly illustrates.

But I don't think this is a particularly African quality – I think all state power is magical, in different ways. Veena Das uses the example of India, and she makes the point that state officials themselves often don't know how to properly execute the letter of the law. This is where the unpredictability, and possibly magic, comes in. Every time I encounter the Norwegian state bureaucracy, I have this kind of experience: Norway is relatively small and homogenous, and so its laws often have gaps when it comes to outlying cases, such as Norwegians born abroad (like me). An American-Chilean friend who lived in Oslo for five years still gets erroneous tax reports mailed to her in Bonn, where she now lives. The peculiar thing about high-functioning states like Norway is that the officials truly believe the bureaucracy operates wholly rationally (they figure knowing the letter of the law suffices) and often respond with a “not possible” when in fact even a “not possible” is but one possible interpretation of an ambiguous rule.

Thanks for the tip about twilight institutions – I look forward to reading Lund's work. ICG has a report that labels CAR a “phantom state,” which I think is also nicely descriptive, provided one considers phantoms to be here among us.

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