African Witchcraft: Rumor, Politics, and Memory
In Africa, and in African Studies, witchcraft is awkward. Witchcraft and sorcery practices, the belief in its power, accusations of witchcraft, and fears of witchcraft alike are sites of perpetual racial stereotyping—a stereotype that, for many Africans, is forever anxiously anticipated. In this context, witchcraft comes to operate as both a proving ground and a metaphor—for African “primitivity” or for modernity, for “superstition” or for “analysis,” for tribalist threat or for decolonial possibility. But witchcraft and its study are a terrain on which other things take place. Colonialism and capitalism are criticized; distant experiences of violence, and the resistance to them, are remembered. No less importantly, power and money trade hands, and various forms of social marginalization are reinscribed, sometimes violently. How might these abundant meanings of witchcraft—as practice, as rumor, as idea—be taken seriously? What might they teach us about how power has worked, and is rumored and thought to work, in Africa?
In this course, we will grapple with African witchcraft’s multiple and contested meanings by tracing several anthropological, historical, philosophical, and filmic responses to it. Engaging with the various desires that are invested into the idea of witchcraft, we will explore how they correspond to problems of historical memory and political positioning. By analyzing witchcraft alongside legacies of slavery and colonialism, and the ongoing complexities of post-independence African politics, we will explore how witchcraft becomes a means to manage difficult-to-reckon-with pasts, to confront and maneouvre contemporary politics, and to stake claims about things quite separate to witchcraft itself. Throughout, we will attend to the problem of the simultaneity of all of these meanings, and their inevitable conversation with Western reappraisals and revivals of practices taking this same name. Along with a screening of Rungano Nyoni’s 2017 film, I Am Not a Witch, readings will draw from the work of E. E. Evans Pritchard, J. Lorand Matory, Rosalind Shaw, Sylvia Federici, and Achille Mbembe, among others.
Course ScheduleSunday, 2:00-5:00pm EST
February 06 — February 27, 2022