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by Wim van Binsbergen

Globalisation and virtuality in Africa

?font color="#82FFFF"> analytical problems posed by the contemporary transformation of African society


?1997-2002 Wim van Binsbergen

van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1998, ‘Globalization and virtuality: Analytical problems posed by the contemporary transformation of African societies? in: Meyer, B., & Geschiere, P., eds., Globalization and idenity: Dialectics of flow and closure, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 273-303; also published as: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1998, ‘Globalization and virtuality: Analytical problems posed by the contemporary transformation of African societies? in: Meyer, B., & Geschiere, P., eds., Globalization and identity: Dialectics of flows and closures, special issue, Development and Change, 29, 4, October 1998, pp. 873-903

1. Globalisation[i]

1.1. Introduction

Towards the end of the first international conference to be organised by the Dutch national research programme on ‘globalisation and the construction of communal identities? Ulf Hannerz took the opportunity of stressing the need for further conceptual development, not just in the case of the Dutch programme but in that of globalisation studies in general. The present paper is an attempt on my part to take up that challenge. While situated against the background of a rapidly growing social-science literature on globalisation,[ii] my aim is not to review that literature in its impressive scope and depth; rather more modestly, and perhaps non inappropriately in the present stage of our programme, I have let myself be inspired by a series of recent discussions and presentations within the programme and within the wider intellectual framework of Dutch anthropology.

          ?          ? I concentrate on virtuality, which I have come to regard as one of the key concepts for a characterisation and understanding of the forms of globalisation in Africa; sections I and II are taken up defining virtuality and globalisation and provisionally indicating their theoretical relationship. The problematic heritage of a locality-obsessed anthropological tradition (as explored in the third section) provides the analytical framework within which virtuality makes an inspiring topic. The fourth sections offers a transition from the theory to the empirical case studies, by examining the problem of meaning in the African urban environment. In the fifth section I evoke an ethnographic situation (urban puberty rites in Zambia today) that illustrates particular forms of virtuality as part of the globalisation process.

          ?          ? True to the Manchester/ Rhodes-Livingstone tradition by which it was largely fed, my field-work career has oscillated between urban and rural African settings, and I realise of course that African towns have always been a context for cosmopolitan meaning which does not stem from the villages in the rural region surrounding the town, but reflects, and is reflected in, the world at large. Yet I have decided to dwell here upon problems of meaning which ?under the heading of virtuality ?can only be formulated (even if their solution calls for a much broader geographical scope) when we look upon globalisation from the vantage point of the African village and its largely internal processes of signification.

          ?          ? Seeking to illuminate virtuality as an aspect of globalisation requires that we set the scene by taking a closer look at the latter concept.

1.2. The globalisation process

In the final analysis, globalisation is a consequence of the mathematical properties of the shape of the earth’s surface. Taken at face value, globalisation is primarily a spatial metaphor (the socio-cultural implications of the mathematical properties of the earth’s surface, notably the fact that from any spot on that surface any other point can be reached, while (provided the journey is continued for long enough in the same direction) the ultimate destination will be the point of departure, ultimately in other words the entire surface will be covered. Yet it is important to also investigate the temporal dimension of the globalisation metaphor: the compressing of time and of time costs[iii] in relation to spatial displacement, as well as the meaning and the effects of such displacement. It is the interplay between the temporal and the spatial dimension which allows us to pinpoint why globalisation has taken on a substantially new shape in the last few decades. The shape of the earth has not noticeably changed over the few million years of man’s existence on earth, and therefore human culture, or cultures, could perhaps be said to have always been subject to globalising tendencies.[iv] But before the invention of the telegraph, the railroad, and the aeroplane the technology of time and space was in most parts of the world so limited that the effective social and cultural life world tended to be severely bound by geographical propinquity. Most people would thus live in a world where localising tendencies would greatly outweigh whatever globalisation took place or came along. People, ideas, and goods did travel, and often across wide distances, as the archaeological and historical record demonstrates. If writing and effective imperial organisation then created a continuous and more or less stable orientation across space and time, the conditions would be set for early or proto-globalisation, characteristic of the communication technology of the mounted courier and the sailing boat. Where no such conditions prevailed, movement inevitably meant dissociating from the social setting of origin, and establishing a new local world elsewhere ?a world usually no longer connected, through effective social interaction, with the one left behind, initially strongly reminiscent of the latter but decreasingly so ?even in the case of nomadic cultures whose persistence in the face of spatial mobility has depended on their comparatively low investment in spatial attachment as an organising principle.

          ?          ? If today we have the feeling that globalisation expresses a real and qualitative change that uniquely characterises the contemporary condition, it is because of the hegemonic nature of capitalist technology, which has brought about unprecedented levels of mastery of space and time. When messages travel at light speed across the globe using electronic media, when therefore physical displacement is hardly needed for effective communication yet such displacement can be effected within one or two days from anywhere on the globe to anywhere else, and when the technology of manufacturing and distribution has developed to such levels that the same material environment using the same objects can be created and fitted out anywhere on the globe at will ?then we have reduced the fees that time and space impose on the social process, to virtually zero. Then we can speak of globalisation in the true sense.

          ?          ? Globalisation is not about the absence or dissolution of boundaries, but about the dramatically reduced fee imposed by time and space, and thus the opening up of new spaces and new times within new boundaries that were hitherto inconceivable. Globalisation as a condition of the social world today revolves on the interplay between unbounded world–wide flow, and the selective framing of such flow within localising contexts; such framing organises not only flow (of people, ideas and objects) and individual experience, but also the people involved in them, creating more or less enduring social categories and groups whose collective identity as supported by their members?interaction creates an eddy of particularism, of social localisation, within the unbounded global flow.

2. Virtuality

2.1. Virtuality provisionally defined

In my view virtuality is one of the major underlying themes in the context of globalisation.

          ?          ? The terms virtual and virtuality have a well-defined and illuminating history, which in its broad sweep of space and time, its multi-lingual aspect and its repeated changes of meaning and context, reminds us of the very globalisation process we seek to illuminate by the use of these terms. Non-existent in classical Latin (although obviously inspired by the word virtus there), they are late-medieval neologisms, whose invention became necessary when, partly via Arabic versions of Aristotle’s?works, his Greek concept of du\na±mi? (‘potentiality, power, quadrate? had to be translated into Latin.[v] While the Scholastic/ Aristotelian philosophy, with its emphasis on general potential to be realised in the concrete, gradually retreated from most domains of North Atlantic intellectual life, the terms found refuge in the expanding field of physics, where virtual velocity, virtual moment, virtual work became established concepts around 1800. This was a century after optics had formulated the theory of the ‘virtual image? the objects shown in a mirror image there do not really exist, but they are merely illusory representations, which we apparently observe at the end of the light beams connecting the object, the surface of the mirror, and our eye. In our age of information technology the term ‘virtual?has gained a new lease of life,[vi] which takes its cue from the meaning given to the term in optics.

          ?          ? In the globalisation perspective we frequently refer to products of the electronic industry, and the furtive, intangible projections of texts and images on electronic screens is an obvious example of virtuality. Virtual reality has now become a cliche of the post-modern experience: computer games and simulations which ?with extreme suggestions of reality ? conjure up, for the consumer, vicarious experiences in the form of illusions. As electronic media, like television and video, march on in contemporary Africa, it is also in that continent that we can make out this form of virtuality in the context of the globalisation process.

          ?          ? But the applicability of the concept of ‘virtuality?extends further. Drawing on a notion of ‘virtual discourse?which while inspired by Foucault (1966) is in fact equivalent to that of performative discourse in analytical philosophy,[vii] Jules Rosette (1996) in a splendid recent paper reserves the notion of virtuality for a specific discursive situation: the

‘symbolic revindications of modernity’s broken promise?(1996: 5),

which play a central role in the construction of postcolonial identity:

‘When a virtual discourse becomes a master cultural narrative [ e.g. authenticite, negritude ] , individuals must accept it in order to validate themselves as members of a collectivity?(1996: 6).

This allows her to link the specific form of postcolonial political discourse in Zaire (for a strikingly similar example from Nigeria under Babangida, cf. Apter 1996) to the macro-economic predicament of Africa today, of which the elusive magic of money then emerges as the central symbol.

          ?          ? Inspiring as this is, it is not necessary to limit the concept of virtuality to that of explicit, verbal discourse, and there is much to be said for a much wider application, encompassing implicit beliefs, the images on which the electronically-inspired use of the concept of virtuality would concentrate, and object. Here we may allow ourselves to be inspired by a recent paper by Rudiger Korff (1996) even if our emphasis is to be on the cultural and symbolic rather than ?as in Korff’s case ?on the technological and economic side:

‘Globalization is accompanied by virtuality. The financial markets gained autonomy by producing the goods they trade among themselves and thereby developed into speculators?‘Monopoly? Virtuality is well shown by the information networks in which the hardware determined the possibilities for person to person interaction. This allows an anonymity in direct interaction. All personality features are hidden, and virtual personalities take over the conversation. Even the world of commodities is virtualized. While for Marx a commodity had two aspects, use- and exchange value, today a ‘symbolic?value has to be added. Traditions and cultures are created as virtual realities and states offer imaginations in their search for political subjects. This indicates a new stage in the dialectic of disenchantment and mystification. While capitalism disenchanted morality and substituted it with the magic of commodities and technology (Verdinglichung), today commodity fetishism is substituted by post-modern virtual realities. (...) Appadurai (1990) mentions in a similar vein ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes and ideoscapes. (...) As with commodities, these ‘imagined worlds?and virtual realities develop their own dynamics and start to govern their creators for whom it is impossible to distinguish reality from virtuality. Just like Goethe says in the Magician’s apprentice: ‘Die Geister, die ich rief, die werd ich nicht mehr los.?/span>[viii]

          ?          ? Ultimately, virtuality stands for a specific relation of reference as existing between elements of human culture (A1, A2, ..., An). This relation may be defined a follows.:

Once, in some original context C1, Avirtual referred to (i.e. derived its meaning from) Areal; this relationship of reference is still implied to hold, but in actual fact Avirtual has come to function in a context C2 which is so totally dissimilar to C1, that Avirtual stands on itself; and although still detectable on formal grounds to derive from Areal, has become effectively meaningless in the new context C2, unless for some new meaning which Avirtual may acquire in C2 in ways totally unrelated to C1.

Virtuality then is about disconnectivity, broken reference, de-contextualisation, through which yet formal continuity shimmers through.

2.2. Non-locality as given, locality as an actively constructed alternative, virtuality as the failure of such construction

Applying the above abstract definition, we may speak of virtuality when, in cases involving cultural material from a distant provenance in space or time or both, signification is not achieved through tautological, self-contained, reference to the local, so that such material is not incorporated and domesticated within a local cultural construct, and no meaningful contemporary symbolic connection can be established between these alien contents and other aspects of the local society and culture.

          ? That geographical nearness, propinquity should be considered of main importance to any social structure was already stated by that pioneer of legal anthropology, Maine (1883: 128f). Kroeber (1938: 307f) reiterated the same point of view when reviewing the first decades of scientific anthropology. Or in Radcliffe-Brown’s words (1940: xiv):

‘Every human society has some sort of territorial structure. (...) This territorial structure provides the framework, not only for the political organisation (...), but for other forms of social organisation also, such as economic, for example. The system of local aggregation and segregation (...) is the basis of all social life.?o:p>

          ?          ? Before the development of contemporary communication technologies (which also includes such inventions, already more than a century old, as the telephone and the motorcar, and railway which is even considerably older) the coincidence between interactive, social space and geographical space could conveniently be taken for granted for practical purposes. If horse-riding and the talking drum represent the paroxysm of technological achievement, the effective social horizon coincides with the visible horizon. It is only the invention of modern technologies which has revealed this time-honoured coincidence as accidental and not inevitable. For complex reasons which indirectly reflect the state of communication technology by the end of the nineteenth century, anthropology in its formative decades concentrated on social contexts outside the industrial North Atlantic, where such technologies was not yet available so that social space and geographical nearness continued to be two sides of the same coin.

          ?          ? For the geographically near to become the local in the classic anthropological sense, we need to add an appeal to the systemic nature of local culture. This refers to the claim (usually highly exaggerated) that its elements hang together systematically, so that it is possible to reduce the culture to a far smaller number of elements and informing principles than the astronomical number of separate cultural events that take place, and material cultural objects that exist, among the set of people involved within a fairly limited space and time. Creolisation (cf. Hannerz 1987) then means, not that the systemic nature of local culture has been abandoned by the actors or destroyed by the onslaught of outside influences, but that it only accounts for appreciably less than the entire culture: a considerable part falls outside the system. Such creolisation can be argued to be merely a specific form of virtuality: as a departure from the systemic nature of local culture. If culture produces reality in the consciousness of the actors, then the reality produced under conditions of such departure is, to the extent to which it is virtual, only... virtual reality.

          ?          ? This is ground covered by Appadurai in his well-known paper on The production of locality. A merging of two notions of locality (?i>geographical space of nearness, neighbourhood? versus ?i>social space of identity, home? was an ingredient of earlier versions of Appadurai’s argument but fortunately he has dropped that element in the final, published version, in favour of a view of locality not only as social space regardless of geographical contiguity, but also as problematic, as to be actively constructed in the face of the standard situation of non-locality (Appadurai 1995).

          ?          ? Under modern conditions of both communication technology and the social engineering of self-organisation for identity, the socially local is not any longer, necessarily, the geographically near. We need a concept of social, culture and identity space which (especially under conditions of ‘zero time-fees? i.e. electronic globalisation) is carefully distinguished from geographical space ?even although even the latter is, like that other Kantian category time, far less self-evident and unchangeable than Kant, and naive contemporary consumers of secondary school physics, would tend to believe. In the same way as the Euclidean two-dimensional geometry of the flat plane can be demonstrated to be only a special case of the immense variety of n-dimensional geometries which modern mathematics has come to conceive, the insistence on geographical propinquity as a prime determinant of social relations is merely a reflection of the state of communication technology prevailing, during much of man’s history, in the hunting and herding camps and the farming villages that until only a few millennia ago were the standard human condition. As such it has been built into classic anthropology. Meanwhile, the distinction between social space and geographical space does not mean that the material technologies of geographical space have become irrelevant or non-existent in the face of the social technology of locality construction ?a prudent approach to globalisation has to take account of both.

          ?          ? As advocated by Appadurai, we have to study in detail the processes through which localisation as a social process takes place. The local, in other words, is in itself a problem, not a given, let alone a solution. We need to study the process of the appropriation globally available objects, images and ideas in a local contexts, which more often than not constitutes itself in the very process of such appropriation. Let us take our clue from the history of a major family of divination systems found throughout Africa, under conditions of ‘proto-?globalisation (with the intermediate technology of seafaring, caravan trade and elite-restricted, pre-printing literacy).

This history is basically that of localisation processes involving astrological and numerological interpretational schemes as current in the medieval Arabian culture of North Africa and the Middle East, where they are known under the name of geomancy or Ailm al-raml (‘the science of sand?.[ix] This process produced the interpretative catalogues for all African divination systems based on a material apparatus producing 2n different configurations, such as Fa, Ifa, Sixteen Cowries, Sikidy, Four Tablets: illiterate African versions so elaborate and so saturated with local African imagery that they would appear to be authentically, autochthonous African. In the same way it can be demonstrated that the actual material apparatuses used in this connexion (tablets, divining boards, divining bowls), although ultimately conceived within an African iconography and carving techniques, and clad in awesome African mystery and imputed authenticity, in fact are extreme localisations of the intercontinentally mediated scientific instruments (the sand board, the wax board, the lode compass, and the square wooden simplification of the astrolabe) of Greek, Arabian, and Chinese nautical specialists and scribes. The example has considerable relevance, because here some of the main factors of globalisation and universalism (notably literate scholarship, empirical research and long-distance sea-faring), have rather ironically ended up as forms of the most entrenched, stereotypical African localisation and particularism. The hardest analytical nut to crack is to explain why, and as a result of what ideological, social, economic, and technological mechanisms, such extreme localisation seems to be more typical of sub-Saharan Africa than of other parts of the Old World in the second millennium CE. Whatever of the original, distant contexts still clings to these localised African precipitates (the overall format of the apparatus, immutable but locally un-interpretable formal details such as isolated astrological terms and iconographic representations) amounts to virtuality and probably adds much to these systems?charisma.[x]

Such extreme localisation of outside influences, rendering them practically imperceptible and positioning them within the rural environment, although typical for much of Africa’s history, is however no longer the dominant form globalisation takes in Africa. Present-day virtually manifests itself through the incomplete systemic incorporation of cultural material which is both alien and recognised by the actors to be so, and which circulates not primarily in remote villages but in cities.

          ?          ? Examples of this form of virtuality are to be found all over Africa today, and in fact (in a way which would render a classic, holistic anthropological analysis nonsensical) they constitute the majority of cultural expressions: from world religions to party politics mediating world-wide models if formal organisation, development and democracy;[xi] from specialist production of contemporary art, belles lettres and philosophy inspired by cosmopolitan models, to the production ?no longer self-evidently but, self-consciously, as a deliberate performance ?of apparently local forms of music and dance during an ethnic festival like Kazanga in western central Zambia (van Binsbergen 1992a, 1994); from fashionable lingerie to public bodily prudery demonstrably imposed by Christianity and Islam.

          ?          ? These symbolic processes are accompanied by, in fact carried by, forms of social organisation which (through the creation of new categories and groups, the erection of conceptual and interactional boundaries around them, and the positioning of objects and symbols through which both to reinforce and to transgress these boundaries) create the socially local (in terms of identity and home) within the global. Such categories and groups are (in general) no longer spatially localised, in the sense that they do no longer create a bounded geographical space which is internally homogeneous in that it only inhabited by people belonging to the same bounded organisation (‘village? ‘ward? ‘neighbourhood?. We have to think of such organisations (whose member­ship is typically geographically dispersed while creating a social focus) as: ethnic associations, churches, political parties, professional associations, schools, hospitals, etc. If they are geographically dispersed, this does not mean that their membership is distributed all over the globe. Statistically, they have a fairly limited geographical catchment area commensurate with the available transport technology, but within that catchment area, the vast majority of human inhabitants are non-members ?it does therefore not constitute a contiguous social space.

          ?          ? Their typical, although not exclusive, abode is the town, and it is to African towns that we shall finally turn for the case study of urban puberty rites that is to add a measure of descriptive and contextual substance to the above theoretical exercises. However, virtuality presents itself in that case study in the form of an emulation of the village as a virtual image; so let us first discuss that unfortunate obsession of classic anthropology, the village.

3. The virtual village

The classic anthropological image of ‘the?African culture as holistic, self-contained, locally anchored, effectively to be subsumed under an ethnic name, was deliberately constructed so as to constitute a local universe of meaning ?the opposite of virtuality. For such a culture was thought to form an integrated unity, so all its parts were supposed to refer to that same coherence, which in its entirety gave the satisfactory illusion of localised meaningfulness.

3.1. Characterising African village society

It is necessary to dwell on this point, since (as I found out when presenting an earlier version of the present argument) it is capable of producing considerable confusion. Although there are notable exceptions,[xii] and although the research programme of which the present book is a first product is prompted by the determination to change that situation, it is true to say that most of the existing literature on globalisation was not written by established ethnographers of African rural life. The typical focus for globalisation studies is the metropolis, the self-evident access to international life-styles mediated by electronic media, with a dominant presence of the state and the culture and communication industry. However, people born in African villages are now also being globalised, and an understanding of their experiences requires an analytical and descriptive grip on African rural social formations.

          ?          ? Not infrequently, Marxist studies of the 1970s and ?0s, including my own, are claimed to have demonstrated the deficit of earlier mainstream anthropology. This is largely a spurious claim. Modes-of-production analysis, as the main contribution of Marxism to contemporary anthropology, has done a number of essential things:

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     reintroduce an emphasis on material production and appropriation;

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     dissolve the assumed unitary nature of the local rural society into a handful of subsystems ‘modes of production? , each with their own logic of exploitation and ideological legitimation, and linked together (‘articulated? within the ‘social formation? in such a way that the reproduction of one mode depends on the exploitation of another mode; and finally,

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     provide a theoretical perspective which could account for the persistence and relative autonomy (also as ‘logics?of signification and legitimation) of these various modes and their articulations, even under conditions of capitalism and the colonial or post-colonial state.

This revolutionary reformulation of the classic anthropological perspective therefore could accommodate internal contradictions, multiplicity of fields of symbolic reference (notably: as many fields as there were modes of production, while the articulation process itself also generated a field of symbolism of its own (van Binsbergen 1981), and outside functioning within the world system; but it did not discard the essentially local nature of the social formation, nor its systemic nature even if the latter was no longer conceived as unitary, holistic integration, but came to be represented as a dialectic composite of contradictions between the few specific ‘logics? each informing a specific mode of production. The Marxist approach did not render the notion of local integration obsolete: to the extent to which the articulation of modes of production under the hegemony of one dominant mode has succeeded, the resulting social formation is effectively integrated by its very contradictions.

          ?          ? So even from a Marxist perspective it appears to be true to say that African historic societies in the present millennium have invariably displayed cleavages in terms of gender, age, class, and political power, while containing only partially integrated elements deriving from and still referring, beyond the local society, to other cultural complexes which were often remote in space and time. Yet they have offered to their members (and largely in order to accommodate those very contradictions) a fairly coherent universe, in which the human body-self, interpersonal relations, the landscape and the supernatural all featured in one composite, comprehensive world-view, whose symbolism and ritual elaboration was to reconcile and conceal, rather than articulate, such internal contradictions as constitute the whole and render it dynamic.

          ?          ? In this context, the meaning of an element of the local society and culture (to attempt a definition of a word used too loosely in the argument so far) consists in the network of referential relations at the centre of which such element is perceived and conceptualised by the participants; through this relational network the element is taken, by the actors, and explicitly or implicitly, as belonging to that general socio-cultural order, cognitively and emotively linked to many other aspects of that order ?a condition which produces a sense of proper placement, connectivity and coherence, recognition, identity as a person and as a group, aesthetics, bodily comfort and even healing.

3.2. Yet the rural African community is problematic, or: the virtual village

In Africa, village society still forms the context in which many[xiii] present-day urbanites were born, and where some will retire and die. Until recently, the dichotomy between town and village dominated Africanist anthropology. Today we have to admit that, considering the constant movement of ideas, goods and people between town and village, the dichotomy has lost much of its explanatory value. In terms of social organisation, economic and productive structures, goals and evaluations town and village have become complementary, even converging options within the social experience of Africans today; their difference has become gradual, and is no longer absolute. However, while of diminishing value in the hands of us analysts, the dichotomy between town and village remains relevant in so far as it informs African actors?conceptualisations of their life-world and social experience. Here the idealised image of the village stands for an imaginary context (no longer to be found in the real villages of today) where production and reproduction are viable and meaningful, pursued by people who ?organised along the lines of age and gender divisions, and historic (‘traditional? leadership ?are turned into an effective community through an un-eroded kinship system, symbolism, ritual and cosmology. Vital in this set-up is that ?typically through non-verbal means ?ritual manages to construct the bodies of the members of the residential group as charged or inscribed with a shared meaning, a shared identity, and while the body moves across time and space this indelible mark is carried to new contexts yet remains.

          ?          ? Even in the village context the effective construction of community cannot be taken for granted. Central African villages, for instance, have been described[xiv] as the scene of an uneasy truce between strangers, only temporarily constructed into community ?at the expense of kinship rituals which take up an enormous part of available resources and even so barely conceal or negotiate underlying contradictions among the village population. Such rituals of kinship (those attending pregnancy, birth, adolescence, marriage, and death) not only transform biological human individuals into competent social persons with a marked identity founded in the local community (or in the case of death transform such social persons in the face of physical decomposition); such rituals thus construct, within that overall community, specific constituent identities, e.g. those of gender and age. They refer to, and to a considerable extent reproduce and perpetuate, the productive and social organisation of the village society. Perhaps the central characteristic of the old (nineteenth-century) village order was that the construction of community was still so effective that in the villagers? consciousness their actual residential group self-evidently appeared as the realisation of that ideal.

          ?          ? It is crucial to realise that in the twentieth century, even with reference to rural settings, we are not so much dealing with ‘real?communities, but with rural folks?increasingly problematic model of the village community. Perhaps we could say that the village was becoming a virtual village. Rural ideological change in Africa during the twentieth century (van Binsbergen 1981) can be summed up as a process of people actively confronting the erosion of that model, its becoming irrelevant and impotent in the face of political economic realities. Throughout the twentieth century, rural populations in Africa have struggled, through numerous forms of organisational, ideological and productive innovation combining local practices with outside borrowings, to reconstruct a new sense of community in an attempt to revitalise, complement or replace the collapsing village community in its viable nineteenth century form. In fact the entire ideological history of twentieth century Africa could be written from this perspective. Peasants have been constantly engaged in the construction of new, alternative forms of community on the basis of rather new principles as derived from political, cultic, productive and consumerist ideas introduced from the wider world. Many of these movements have sought to re-formulate the notion of the viable, intact village community in new terms and with new outside inspiration and outside pressure. Ethnicity, healing cults, prophetic cults, anti-sorcery movements, varieties of imported world religions and local transformations thereof e.g. in the form of Independent churches, struggles for political independence, involvement in modern national politics including the recent wave of democratisation, involvement in a peripheral-capitalist cash economy with new symbols of status and distinction, ?these have been some of the strategies by which villagers have sought (often against many odds) to create and bring to life the image of a new world, and a continued sense of meaning and community, when the old village order was felt, or said, to fall apart. And that old village order, and the ethnic cultures under which it was usually subsumed, may in itself have been largely illusory, strategically underpinned by the ideological claims of elders, chiefs, first-generation local intellectuals, colonial administrators and missionaries, open to the cultural bricolage of invented tradition of the part of these vocal actors (Hobsbawm & Ranger 1983; Vail 1989).

          ?          ? If the construction of community in the rural context has been problematic, the village yet represents one of the few models of viable community among Africans today, including urbanites. It is the only model which is part of a collective idiom pervading all sections of contemporary society. As such it features massively as a nostalgic reference in ethnic identity construction. Whatever alternative models of community are available, are shallowly rooted and reserved to specific sections of the society: Christians or Muslims (the local religious congregation as a community; and by extension the abstract world-wide collective of co-religionists), cult members (the cultic group as a community), members of a specific ethnic group (where the ethnic group is constructed into a community, but typically constructed by emphatic reference to the village model as a focal point of origin and meaning), the elite (patterns of consumerism which replace the notion of community through interaction with the notion of virtual or vicarious global community through media transmission and the display of appropriate manufactured symbols ?status symbols in clothing, transport, housing etc.).

          ?          ? We are now ready to step into African urban life as an obvious locus of globalisation, and explore virtuality there.

4. The problem of meaning in African towns today

Globalisation theory has stressed the paradoxical phenomenon that, in the world today, the increasing unification of the world in political, economic, cultural and communication terms does not lead to increasing uniformity but, on the contrary, goes hand in hand with a proliferation of local differences. It is as if myriad eddies of particularism (which may take the form of ethnic, linguistic and religious identities, consumerist life-styles etc.) are the inevitable accompaniment of the swelling stream of globalising universalism. Anthropologists have ?in theory, that is ?long ceased to define their research object primarily by reference to a more or less demarcated part of the global landscape assumed to be the habitat of a bounded, integrated ‘culture?supposedly shared by a people, tribe or ethnic group. While the time-honoured technique of participant observation still favours their focusing on a set of people who are more or less tied together by enduring social relations and forms of organisation, such a set need no longer be localised (for modern technology?not just fax machines and E-mail, but also simple telephones and rural buses ?enables people to effectively maintain relationships across wide distances: as members of the same ethnic group, as employees of the same multinational corporation, as members of a cult, as traders etc.) nor do the individuals which constitute that set (as a statistical conglomerate, or a social network of dyadic ties) necessarily and as a dominant feature of their social experience construct that set as an ideal community with a name, an identity, moral codes and values. Fragmentation, heterogeneity, alienation and cultural and organisational experiment are characteristic of the global condition, not only in North Atlantic urban society but also, for much the same reasons, in the rapidly growing towns of Africa today.

          ?          ? In essence, the aspect of globalisation which we seek to capture by concentrating on virtuality, revolves around issues of African actors?production and sustaining of meaning. The notion of virtuality is hoped to equip us for the situation, rather more common than village anthropology prepared us to believe, that meaning is encountered and manipulated in a context far removed, in time and space, from the concrete social context of production and reproduction where that meaning was originally worked out in a dialectical interplay of articulated modes of production; where, on the contrary, it is no longer local and systemic, but fragmented, ragged, virtual, absurd, maybe even absent. The study of such forms of meaning is of course doubly problematic because anthropology itself is a globalising project, and one of the first in western intellectual history. African towns, with their usually recent history, heterogeneous migrant population, and full of social, political and economic structures apparently totally at variance with any village conditions in the surrounding countryside, are laboratories of meaning. What can the anthropologist, and particularly the variety of the rurally-orientated anthropologist unfashionably favoured in this paper, learn here about virtuality?

          ?          ? To what extent has the contemporary urban environment in Africa managed to produce and nurture symbols which selectively refer to the state and the world economy, yet at the same time negotiate dilemmas of rural-derived identity and of urban-rural relations? It is here that one can begin to look for the stuff that African urbanism is made of. Is it true to say that these towns have engendered collective representations which are strikingly urban, and which offer partial and tentative yet creative solutions to such typically urban problems as incessant personnel flow, ethnic, class and religious heterogeneity, economic and political powerlessness, and the increasing irrelevance, in the urban situation, of historic, rural-derived forms of social organisation (kinship, marriage, ‘traditional?politics and ritual)? Mitchell’s Kalela dance (1956) still offers a classic paradigm, stressing how at the city boundaries elements of rural society and culture (such as a rural-based ethnic identity, a minority language, expressive forms of music and dance, specific ways to organise production and reproduction in localised kin groups) may be selectively admitted onto the urban scene, yet undergo such a dramatic transformation of form, organisation and function that their urban manifestations must be understood by reference to the urban situation alone. Or, in Gluckman’s (1960: 57) famous words,

‘the African townsman is a townsman?/span>[xv]

In other words, the African townsman is not a displaced villager or tribesman ?but on the contrary ‘detribalised?as soon as he leaves his village (Gluckman 1945: 12) These ideas have evidently circulated in African urban studies long before 1960.

          ?          ? Statements of this nature have helped to free our perception of African urbanites from traditionalist and paternalistic projections; for according to the latter they continued to be viewed as temporarily displaced villagers whose true commitment and identity continued to lie with their rural societies of origin. The stress on the urban nature of African urbanites even amounted to a radical political challenge, in a time when the colonial (and South African) economy was largely based on the over-exploitation[xvi] of rural communities through circulatory migration of male workers conveniently defined as bachelors while in town. We can therefore forgive these authors their one-sidedness, but there is no denying that they failed to address the fundamental problems of meaning which the construction of a town-based culture in the (by and large) new cities of Africa has always posed.[xvii]

          ?          ? But what happens to meaning in town? It is particularly in the context of meaning that we see African towns as the arena where a migrant’s specific, disconnected and fragmented rural-based heritage is confronted with a limited number of ‘cosmopolitan?socio-cultural complexes, each generating its own discourse and claiming its own commitment from the people drawn into its orbit in exchange for partial solutions of their problems of meaning.

          ?          ? Before discussing these complexes, it is useful to realise that, as a source of meaning, the historic rural background culture of urban migrants is not necessarily as fragmented as the multiplicity of ethnic labels and linguistic practices in the town may suggest. Ethnic groups have a history (Chretien & Prunier 1989), and while some ethnic groups can be said to be recent, colonial creations, underlying their unmistakable differences there is in many cases a common substratum of regional cultural similarities and even identities: continuities such as a patrilineal kinship system, emphasis on cattle, similarities in the marital system, the cult of the land and of the ancestors, patterns of divination and of sacrifice, shared ideas about causation including witchcraft beliefs, converging ideas about conflict resolution and morality. The result is that even urban migrants with a different ethnic, linguistic and geographical background may yet find that they possess a cultural lingua franca that allows them to share such historic meanings as have not been mediated through the state and capitalism. Sometimes specific routinised modes of inter-ethnic discourse (such as joking relations) explicitly mediate this joint substratum. Traditional cults and independent Christian churches in town, which tend to be trans-ethnic, derive much of their appeal from the way in which they articulate this historic substratum and thus recapture meanings which no longer can be communicated with through migrants?direct identification with any specific historic rural culture. Moreover, partly on the basis or these rural continuities, urban migrants creatively develop a new common idiom not only for language communication, but also for the patterning of their everyday relationships, their notions of propriety and neighbourliness, the interpretation and settlement of their conflicts, and the evaluation of their statuses.

          ?          ? After this qualification, let us sum up the principal cosmopolitan complexes:

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     The post-colonial state: a principal actor in the struggle for control of the urban space; a major agent of social control through its law-and-order institutions (the judiciary, police, immigration department); a major mediator of ‘cosmopolitan? meaning through the bureaucratically organised services it offers in such fields as education, cosmopolitan medicine, housing, the restructuration of kinship forms through statutory marriage etc.; a major context for the creation of new, politically instrumen­tal meaning in the process of nation-building and elite legitimation; and through its constitutional premises the object (and often hub) of modern political organisations.

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     A variety of manifestations of the capitalist mode of production, largely structuring the urbanites?economic participation and hence their experience of time, space, causation, personhood and social relations; involving them in relations of dependence and exploitation whose ideological expression we have learned to interpret in terms of alienation (the destruction of historic meaning); but also, in the process, leading on to modern organisational forms (e.g. trade unions) meant to counter the powerlessness generated in that process; and finally producing both the manufactured products on which mass consumption as a world-wide economic and cultural expression ? in other words, as another, immensely potent form of ‘cosmopolitan?meaning ?depends, as well as the financial means to participate in mass consumption.

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     World religions, which pursue organisational forms and ideological orientations rather reminiscent of the post-colonial state and the capitalist mode of production, yet tending to maintain, in time, space and ideological content, sufficient distance from either complex to have their own appeal on the urban population, offering formal socio-ritual contexts in which imported cosmopolitan symbols can be articulated and shared between urbanites, and in which ?more than in the former two complexes ?rural-based historic symbols can be mediated, particularly through independent churches.

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">    ? Cosmopolitan consumer culture, ranging from fast food shops to hire-purchase furniture stores displaying the whole material dream of prospective middle-class life-style, and from video outlets and record shops to the retail shops of the international ready-made garment industry, and all the other material objects by which one can encode distinctions in or around one’s body and its senses, and create identity not by seclusive group-wise self-organisation but by individual communication with globally mediated manufactured symbols.

          ?          ? These four cosmopolitan repertoires of meaning differ considerably from the ideal-typical meaning enshrined in the rural historic universe. While historically related, they are present on the urban African scene as mutually competitive, fragmented, optional, and more or less anomic or even ?when viewed from a competitive angle ?absurd. Yet together, as more or less elite expressions, they constitute a realm of symbolic discourse that, however internally contradictory, assumes dominance over the rural-orientated, local and historic repertoires of meaning of African migrants and workers.

          ?          ? The ways in which African urbanites, in their interactions and conceptualisations, construct, keep apart, and merge as the case may be, cosmopolitan and rural idioms, are ill understood for several reasons. Those who, as social scientists, are supposed to study these patterns of interaction are, in their personal and professional lives, partisans of cosmopolitan repertoires and are likely to be identified as such by the other actors on the urban scene. Much of the actors?juggling of repertoires is evasive and combines the assumption of rigid subordination with the practice of creative challenge and tacit symbolic resistance in private spheres of urban life where few representatives of the cosmopolitan repertoires have access. And whereas anthropology has developed great expertise in the handling of meaning in one spatio-temporal context (e.g. rural African societies) whose wholeness and integration it has tended to exaggerate, the development of a sensitive approach to fragmented and incoherent multiplicity of repertoires of meaning, each assaulted and rendered more or less meaningless by the presence of the other, had to wait till the advent of Postmodernism as an attempt to revolutionarise, or to explode, anthropology.[xviii] Our classic predecessors in African urban studies worked on the assumption that the African urban situation was very highly structured ? by what they called the ‘colonial-industrial complex? imposing rigid segregation and class interests, by voluntary associations, by networks.[xix] In the contemporary world, such structure is becoming more and more problematic, and the town, especially the African town, appears as the post-modern social space par excellence. My greatest analytical problem here is that as a social space the town lacks the coherent integrated structure which could produce, like the village, a systematic (albeit internally segmented and contradictory) repertoire of meaning ready for monographic processing; but this may not merely be one researcher’s analytical problem ?it appears to sum up the essence of what the urban experience in Africa today is about, in the lives of a great many urbanites.

                      ?                       ?Postmodernism is not the only, and deliberately unsystematic, analytical approach to multiplicity of meaning within a social formation consisting of fundamentally different and mutually irreducible sub-formations. As a paradigm that preceded Postmodernism by a decade in the circulation of intellectual fashions, the notion of articulation of modes of production is in principle capable of handling such a situation.[xx] However, the emphasis, in this approach, on enduring structure and a specific internal logic for each constituent ‘mode of production?renders it difficult to accommodate the extreme fragmentation and contradiction of meaning typical of the urban situation. The various cosmopolitan and local historic repertoires of meaning available in the Francistown situation as discussed here cannot convincingly be subsumed under the heading of a limited number of articulated modes of production. Yet while deriving inspiration from the post-modern position, my argument in the present paper is a plea for rather greater insistence on structure, power and material conditions than would suit the convinced post-modernist.

                      ?                       ?The work of Ulf Hannerz[xxi] is exemplary for the kind of processes of cultural production, variation and control one would stress when looking at African towns (or towns anywhere else in the modern world, for that matter) from the perspective of the modern world as a unifying, globalising whole. However, it is significant that his work, far from problematising the concept of meaning as such, takes meaning rather for granted and concentrates on the social circulation of meaning, in other words the management of meaning.[xxii] Hannerz’s position here is far from exceptional in anthropology, where we theorise much less about meaning than would be suggested by the large number of anthropological publications with ‘meaning? ‘significance? ‘interpretation?and ‘explanation?in their titles. And I am not doing much better here myself. I did offer, above, a homespun definition of ethnographic meaning, but must leave the necessary theoretical discussion for another paper, or book.

          ?          ? Also for Hannerz the African townsman is truly a townsman, and even the analyst seems to be entirely forgotten that ‘many? (see note 13) of these urbanites, even today, have been born outside town under conditions of rural, localised meaning evoked today, and that this circumstance is likely to be somehow reflected in their urban patterns of signification.

          ?          ? In certain urban situations rural models of interaction and co-residence tend to be more prominent than in others. We need to remind ourselves of the fact that urban does not necessarily mean global. For instance, as a fresh urban immigrant one can take refuge among former fellow-villagers, in an urban setting. The vast evidence on urban immigration in Africa suggests that the rural-orientated refuge in a denial of globalisation tends to be partial and largely illusory, in other words towns precisely in their display of apparently rural-derived elements tend to high levels of virtuality/ discontinuity/ transformation. Even so it remains important to look at meaning in African towns not only from a global perspective but also from the perspective of the home villages of many of the urbanites or their parents and grandparents. Our first case study deal with an urban situation, and should help us to lend empirical and comparative insight in the applicability of the virtuality concept.

          ?          ? With these theoretical considerations in mind, let us now turn to our case study, in a bid to add further empirical detail and relevance to the concept of virtuality.

5. The virtual village in town: Girl’s puberty ceremonies in urban Zambia[xxiii]

5.1. Historic (‘traditional? village-derived ritual in African urban settings today, and its interpretation

When central reproductive institutions of the old village order, including rituals of kinship, are already under great pressure from new and external alternatives in the rural environment, one would hardly expect them to survive in urban contexts. For in town people’s life is obviously structured, economically and in terms of social organisation, in ways which would render all symbolic and ritual reference to rural-based cults reproducing the old village order, hopelessly obsolete. Who would expect ancestral cults to take place in urban settings in modern Africa? What theory of change and continuity would predict the continued, even increasing practice of ecstatic possession ritual in urban residential areas, often in the trappings of new formally organised cults posing as Christian churches or Islamic brotherhoods, but often also without such emulation of world religions. Why do people pursue apparently rural forms when socially, politically and economically their lives as urbanites are effectively divorced from the village? The point is, however that rural symbolic forms are prominent on the African urban scene; as such they represent a conspicuous element of virtuality, since urban life is no longer informed by the patterns of production and reproduction that corresponded with these rural symbols in the first place.

          ?          ? Stressing the complementarity between a local community’s social, political and economic organisation and the attending religious forms, the Durkheimian heritage in the social science approach to religion, however dominant, provided no ready answers when applied to study of historic (‘traditional? urban ritual, at least in Africa.[xxiv] For how can there be such continuity when African urbanites stage a rural ritual in the very different urban context? What would be the referent of the symbols circulating in such ritual? The relative paucity of studies on this point stands in amazing contrast with the prevalence and ubiquity of the actual practice on the ground. It is as if the absence of an adequate interpretative framework has caused anthropologists to close their eyes for the ethnographic facts staring them in the face. At the same time they have produced in abundance studies of such forms urban ritual in the context of world religions (especially studies on urban Independent and mainstream Christian churches), which of course do ‘feel right?in an urban setting, where (far more directly than in the remote countryside) globalisation made its impact on the African continent.

          ?          ? The relatively few researchers (including myself) who have documented urban ‘traditional?ritual in modern Africa and sought to interpret it, have come up with answers which, while persuasive in the light of the analytical paradigms prevalent at the time, would now seem rather partial and unsatisfactory.

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     The most classic argument is that in terms of socialisation and the inertia of culture: even if urbanites pursue new forms of social and economic life especially outside their urban homes, in childhood they have been socialised into a particular rural culture which seeks continued acknowledgement in their lives, especially where the more intimate, existential dimensions are concerned; staging a rural kinship ritual in town would be held to restore or perpetuate a cultural orientation which has its focus in the distant village ?by which is then meant not in the intangible ideal model of community, but the actual rural residential group on the ground.

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     A more sophisticated rephrasing of the preceding argument would be in terms of broad, largely implicit, long-term cultural orientations that may be subsumed under Bourdieu’s term habitus: girl’s initiation deals with the inscribing, into the body and through the body, of a socially constructed and mediated personal identity which implies, as an aspect of habitus, a total cosmology, a system of causation, an eminently self-evident way of positioning one’s self in the natural and social world; in a layered conception of the human life-world, it is at the deeper, most implicit layer that such habitus situates itself, largely impervious to the strategic and ephemeral surface adaptations of individuals and groups in the conjuncture of topical social, political and economic conditions prevailing here and now.

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     Then there has been the urban mutual aid argument: economically insecure recent urban migrants seek to create, in the ritual sphere, a basis for solidary so that they may appeal to each other in practical crises: illness, funerals, unemployment etc.; being from home, the traditional ritual may help to engender such solidarity, but (a remarkably Durkheimian streak again, cf. Durkheim’s theory of the arbitrary nature of the sacred) in fact any ritual might serve that function, and in fact often world religions provide adequate settings for the construction of alternative, fictive kin solidarity in town.

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     The urban-rural mutual aid argument: A related argument derives from modes-of-production analysis, and stresses the urban migrants?continued reliance on rural relationships in the face of their urban insecurity; since rural relationships are largely reproduced through rural ritual, urbanites stage rural-derived ritual (often with rural cultic personnel coming over to town for the occasion) in order to ensure their continued benefit from rural resources: access to land, shelter, healing, historical political and ritual office.


?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     Having thus stressed the shared economic and ideological interest between townsmen and villagers, it is only a small step to the argument of ethnic construction. This revolves on the active propagation of a specific ethnic identity among urban migrants, which serves to conceptualise an urban-rural community of interests, assigns specific roles to villagers and urbanites in that context (the townsmen would often feature as ethnic brokers vis-a-vis the outside world), and effectively re-defines the old localised and homogeneous village community into a de-localised ethnic field spanning both rural and urban structures, confronting ethnic strangers and organising those of the same ethnic identity for new tasks outside the village, in confrontation with urban ethnic rivals, with the urban economy and with the central state. In this ethnic context, the urban staging of ‘traditional?rural ritual would be explained as the self-evident display of ethnically distinctive symbolic production. But again, any bricolage of old and new, local and global forms of symbolic production might serve the same purpose.

          ?          ? These approaches have various things in common. They assume the urbanites involved in rural kinship ritual to be recent urban migrants retaining still one foot in the village. They do not make the distinction (which, I argued above, emerged as a dominant feature of South Central African symbolic transformations throughout the twentieth century) between the actual rural residential group and the ideal model of the village community, and hence cannot decide between two fundamentally different interpretation of the ritual performance in town:

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     does it seek to recreate a real village and by implication to deny urbanism?

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     or does it seek to create urban community, as (in South Central Africa, at least) new form of social locality, open to world-wide influences and pressures, merely by reference to an inspiring village-centred abstract model of community?

And finally, these approaches ignore such alternative and rival modes of creating meaning and community, precisely in a context of heterogeneity and choice which is so typical for towns wherever in the modern world. If urbanites stage rural kinship rituals in town it is not because they have no choice. They could tap any of the four complexes of cosmopolitan meaning outlines above, do as Hannerz and the many authors he cites suggest, and completely forget about rural forms. And if they do insist on selectively adhering to rural forms in the urban context, further questions can be asked. Do they retain firm boundaries vis-a-vis each other and vis-a-vis the rural-centred model, or is there rather a mutual interpenetration and blending? What explains that these globalising alternatives leave ample room for what would appear to be an obsolete, rural form, the puberty rite? How do these symbolic and ideological dimensions relate to material conditions, and to power and authority: do they reflect or deny material structures of deprivation and domination; do they underpin such power as is based on privileged position in the political economy of town and state, or do they, on the contrary, empower those that otherwise would remain underprivileged; to what strategies do they give rise in the inequalities of age and gender, which are symbolically enacted in the village model of community and in the associated kinship rituals, but which also, albeit in rather different forms, structure urban social life?

5.2. Girls?initiation in the towns along the Zambian ‘Line of Rail?b>

While the centrally-located farmer’s town of Lusaka took over from the town of Livingstone in the extreme south of the country as territorial capital, a series of new towns was created in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) at the northern end of the ‘Line of Rail?as from the late 1920s, in order to accommodate the massive influx of labourers in the copper mining industry. As ‘the Copperbelt? this is the most highly urbanized part of the country, and the site of famous and seminal studies in urban ethnicity, politics and religion. While imposed on a rural area where ethnic identity was primarily constructed in terms of the Lamba identity, the Copperbelt attracted migrants from all over South Central Africa but particularly from Northern Zambia; the Bemba identity (in itself undergoing considerable transformation and expansion in the process) became dominant in these towns, and the ‘town Bemba? dialect their lingua franca.

          ?          ? If rural kinship rituals may seem out of place in town, they would seem even more so in the context of mainstream urban churches such as the Roman Catholic church. As a major agent of globalisation, this world-wide hierarchical organisation has sought to vigorously impose its particular conception of cosmology, hierarchy, sanctity and salvation (through the image of a community of believers and of saints), in short its system of meaning, on the African population, and part of its project has been the attempted monopolisation of the social organisation of human reproduction and human life crisis ritual.

          ?          ? Throughout South Central Africa, female puberty ritual is one of the dominant kinship rituals (even more so than the male counterpart); its remarkably similar forms have been described in detail in many rural ethnographic contexts from Zaire to Northern Transvaal. For almost a century, female puberty ritual has been banned as pagan and sinful in Roman Catholic circles in Zambia. However, already during my research on urban churches in Zambia’s capital Lusaka in the early 1970s I found women’s lay groups within the formal organisation of mainstream churches to experiment with Christian alternatives to female puberty training. Therefore I was not surprised to learn that by the late 1980s, these experiments had grown into accepted practice. Nor is the phenomenon strictly confined to urban churches; for instance in the area of my main Zambian research, in Kaoma district in the western part of the country, a limited number of women now claim to have been ‘matured [ the standard expression for puberty initiation in Zambian English ] in church?rather than in a family-controlled rural or urban kinship ritual.

          ?          ? The situation in the urban church congregations, as brought out by Rasing’s recent research (1995), is of inspiring complexity. On the one hand there is a proliferation of lay groups, each with their own uniforms and paraphernalia, formal authority structure within the overall church hierarchy, routine of meetings and prayers, and specialised topics of attention: caring for the sick, the battle against alcoholism, etc. Already in these groups the organisational form and routine, and the social embeddedness this offers to its socially uprooted members, would appear to be an attempt at the construction of social locality. The latter might be of greater interpretative relevance than the specific contents of the religious ideas and practices circulating there; the result is, to use this phrase once more, ‘a place to feel at home??but at the same time a place to engage in formal organisation. At first sight such voluntary organisational form would appear to be an aim and a source of satisfaction and meaning in itself, that is how, for instance, I looked at the Independent churches which I first studied in Lusaka in the early 1970s, when my theoretical baggage was still totally inadequate to appreciate them beyond the idea that they were contexts to learn about bureaucracy and modernity. However, I am now beginning to realise that it is such formal organisations which create the bedding, and the boundaries, within which the uncontrolled flow of goods, images and ideas as conveyed by globalisation, can be turned into identity.

          ?          ? Some of these lay groups particularly specialise in girl’s initiation. However, contrary to what might be expected on the basis of comparative evidence from my own field research (Lusaka early 1970s, western central Zambia 1980s-90s), the lay group’s symbolic and cultic repertoire for puberty initiation has incorporated far more than just a minimal selection of the rural ritual, far more than just a mere token appendage of isolated traditional elements to a predominantly Christian and foreign rite of passage. On the contrary, the women lay leaders have used the church and their authority as a context within which to perform puberty ritual that, despite inevitable practical adaptations and frequent lapses of ritual knowledge and competence, emulates the historic, well-described Bemba kinship ritual to remarkable detail, and with open support from the church clergy.

          ?          ? Selected analytical and theoretical questions to which this state of affairs gives rise have been outlined above by way of introduction. Meanwhile the complexity of the situation calls for extensive ethnographic research, not only on the Copperbelt but also in present-day rural communities in Northern Zambia; in addition, a thorough study must be made of the ideological position and the exercise of religious authority of the clergy involved, as mediators between a world-wide hierarchically organised world religion (which has been very articulate in the field of human reproduction and gender relations) and the ritual and organisational activities of urban Christian lay women. A secondary research question revolves around the reasons for the senior representatives of the Roman Catholic church to accept, even welcome, a ritual and symbolic repertoire which would appear to challenge the globalising universalism of this world religion, and which for close to a century has been condemned for doing just that.

          ?          ? The crucial interpretative problem here lies in its virtuality: in the fact that the Copperbelt women staging these rituals, as well as their adolescent initiands, do not in the least belong, nor consciously aspire to belong, to the ideal village world which is expounded in the ritual. These rituals belong to a realm of virtuality, very far removed from the Durkheimian premise (1912) of a coincidence between religious form and local group. Here we have to assess the various orders of reality, dream, ideal, fantasy and imagery that informs a modern African urban population in the construction of their life-world. For while the kinship ritual emphasises reproductive roles within marriage, agricultural and domestic productive roles for women, and their respect for authority positions within the rural kinship structure, these urban women depart very far from the model of rural womanhood upheld in the initiation, where it is formally taught through songs, through the supervising elders? pantomimes, wall pictures specifically drawn for the purpose, and especially by reference to clay models of human beings, their body parts, and man-made artefacts. Admittedly, many of these women still cherish their urban garden plots, but even if these are not raided by thieves around harvest time, their produce falls far short in feeding the owners and their families through the annual cycle. These women have hardly any effective ties any more with a distant village ?and those that exist are mainly revived in the case of funerals. In their sexual and reproductive behaviour they operate largely outside the constraints stipulated by the kinship ritual and the associated formal training; as female heads of households are often without effective and enduring ties with male partner; and not even all do subscribe to the Bemba ethnic identity.

          ?          ? Very clearly this urban puberty ritual is concerned with the construction of meaningful social locality out of the fragmentation of social life in the Copperbelt high-density residential areas, and beyond that with the social construction of female personhood; but why, in this urban context, is the remote and clearly inapplicable dream of the village model yet so dominant and inspiring? Is the puberty ritual a way, for the women involved, to construct themselves as ethnically Bemba? That is not the case, since the church congregations are by nature multi-ethnic and no instances of ethnic juxtaposition to other groups have been noted so far in relation to this urban puberty ritual. Is the communal identity to be constructed through the puberty ritual rather that of a community of women? Then why hark back to a rural-based model of womanhood which, even if part of a meaningful ideal universe, no longer has any practical correspondence with the life of Copperbelt women today ?women who do not till the soil, in their daily life including its sexual aspects to not observe the rules of conduct and the taboos to which they were instructed at their initiation, and who will in many cases will not contract a formal marriage with their male sexual and reproductive partners. Or is the social construction of womanhood, and personhood in general, perhaps such a subtle and profound process that foreign symbols (as mediated through the Christian church) are in themselves insufficiently powerful to bring about the bodily inscription that produces identity ? so that what appears as virtuality, as a lack of connectedness between the urban day-to-day practice of womanhood today and the ideological contents of the initiation, might mark merely the relative unimportance of the details of the women’s day-to-day situation (including the fact that this happens to be urban), in the face of an implicit, long-term habitus?

6. Conclusion

I hope that after my theoretical explorations, the case study I presented has set some descriptive basis for a further theoretical elaboration of the concept of virtuality in a context of globalisation in Africa today. The kind of problems I have tried to pinpoint continue to stand out in my mind as both relevant and tantalising, and I realise that my own commitment to the study of globalisation is largely fuelled by my hope that somewhere in that sort of perspective these analytical problems which have haunted me for a long time (cf. 1981: ch. 6) may come closer to a solution; but the present paper makes only a small step towards such a solution, and in the process reveals how difficult it is to capture, in academic discourse whose hallmark is consistency, the contradictions which exist in reality.

          ?          ? I have concentrated, as forms of virtuality, on phenomena of dislocation and disconnectedness in time and space, and have al but overlooked forms of disembodiment, and of dehumanisation of human activity. As Norman Long remarked during a recent conference,[xxv] under contemporary technological conditions new questions of agency are raised. Agency now is more than ever a matter of man / object communication (in stead of primary man / man communication). This means that the formal organisation which I have stressed so much, if based on such agency, are no longer what they used to be. The images of Africa as conveyed in this paper are rooted in years of anthropological participation in African contexts, by myself and others, yet the mechanics of the actual production of these images has involved not only human intersubjectivity (both between the researcher and the researched, and between the researcher and his colleagues), but also solid days of solitary interaction between me and my computer. There is also virtuality for you, of the self-reflective kind so much cherished by our post-modernists. Anthropology may be among the West’s more sympathetic globalising projects, but that does not prevent it from being infested with the very phenomena it tries to study detachedly.


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[i]               Earlier versions of this paper were presented on the following occasions: at two meetings of the WOTRO (Netherlands Foundation for Tropical Research) Programme on ‘Globalization and the construction of communal identities? in the form of an oral presentation at the Bergen (Netherlands) conference, 15-16 February 1996, and as a paper at the programme’s monthly seminar, Amsterdam, 6 May 1996; at the one-day conference on globalisation, Department of Cultural Anthropology/ Sociology of Development, Free University, Amsterdam, 7 June, 1996; and at the graduate seminar, Africa Research Centre, Catholic University of Louvain, 8 November, 1996. For constructive comments and criticism I am indebted to all participants, and especially to (alphabetically) Filip de Boeck, Rene Devisch, Martin Doornbos, Andre Droogers, Mike Featherstone, Jonathan Friedman, Peter Geschiere, Ulf Hannerz, Peter Kloos, Birgit Meyer, Peter Pels, Rafael Sanchez, Matthew Schoffeleers, Bonno Thoden van Velzen, Rijk van Dijk, Wilhelmina van Wetering, and Karin Willemse. Most of all I am indebted to the editors of the present book, for their encouragement, advice, and criticism.

[ii]            ?Cf. Fardon 1995; Featherstone 1990; Forster 1987; Friedman 1995; Hannerz 1992; and references cited there. Some of the underlying ideas have been expressed decades ago, e.g. Baudrillard 1972, 1981. Or let us remember that, on the authority of Marshal McLuhan (1966), the world was becoming a ‘global village?was a truism throughout the 1980s. In fact, work by Toynbee (1952: 134-5) and his great example Spengler (1993) can be cited to show that the idea of a global confrontation of cultures, with global cultural coalescence as a possible outcome, has been in the air throughout the twentieth century.

[iii]             Notions on space-time compression in globalisation are to be found with Harvey and Giddens, e.g. Harvey 1989; Giddens 1990, cf. 1991: 16f. Some of my own recent work (1996b) suggests that we should not jump to the conclusion that such compression is uniquely related to the globalisation context. In fact, an argument leading through African divination systems and board-games right to the Neolithic suggests that such compression is an essential feature of both games and rituals throughout the last few millennia of human cultural history.

[iv]             For a similar view Friedman (e.g. 1995), who chides anthropology for having relegated other cultures to the status of isolated communities.

[v]            ?Hoenen 1947: 326, n. 1; Little e.a. 1978 s.v. ‘virtual?

[vi]             E.g., IBM 1987 lists as many as 56 entries starting on ‘virtual?

[vii]          ?Cf. Austin 1962: statements which cannot be true or false, e.g. exhortations, or the expression of an ideal.

[viii]  ?Korff 1996: 5. On virtuality and related aspects of today’s automated technology, also cf. Cheater 1995; Rheingold 1991.

[ix]             And, incidentally, even in that Arabian culture such schemes were already highly virtual in that their symbolism and iconography did not derive from the local society of that time and age, but carried (in clearly demonstrable ways, open to the patient scrutiny of scholarship rather than to the brooding fantasies of New Age) distant echoes of Hebrew, pre-Islamic Arabian, Old-Egyptian, Northwest African, Sumerian, Akkadian, Indian, Iranian and Chinese systems of representation...

[x]            ?              ? Cf. van Binsbergen 1995c, 1995b, 1996c, 1996a.

[xi]                           ? Cf. van Binsbergen 1995a, where a cultural relativist argument on democracy is presented.

[xii]          ?              ? Cf. the collections by Comaroff & Comaroff 1993 and Fardon 1995; moreover, Geschiere c.s. 1995; de Boeck, in press; Meyer 1995; Pels 1993; and perhaps my own recent work.

[xiii]                         ? How many? That varies considerably between regions and between countries. The post-independence stagnation of African national economies, the structural adjustment programmes implemented in many African countries, the food insecurity under conditions of civil war and refugeeship, the implementation of rural development programmes ?all these conditions have not been able to bring the massive migration to African towns to an end, even if their continued growth must of course be partly accounted for by intra-urban reproduction, so that even in African towns that were colonial creations, many inhabitants are second, third or fourth generation urbanites. Typical figures of village-born, first generation urbanites available to me range from an estimated 15% in Lusaka, Zambia to as much as 50% in Francistown, Botswana.

[xiv]                         ? Turner 1968; van Velsen 1971; van Binsbergen 1992b.

[xv]     In other words, the African townsman is not a displaced villager or tribesman ?but on the contrary ‘detribalised?as soon as he leaves his village: Gluckman 1945: 12. The latter reference shows that these ideas have circulated in African urban studies long before 1960.

[xvi]  ?Meillassoux 1975; cf. Gerold-Scheepers & van Binsbergen 1978; van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985.

[xvii]        ?              ? Nor should we over-generalise. Mitchell’s seminal Kalela dance should be contrasted with the work of Philip and Ilona Mayer, which was far more subtle, and much better informed, on rural cultural material as introduced into the towns of Southern Africa; cf. Mayer 1971; Mayer 1980; Mayer & Mayer 1974.

[xviii]?Cf. Geuijen 1992; Kapferer 1988; Nencel Pels 1991; Tyler 1987; and references cited there.

[xix]                         ? Cf. Mitchell 1956, 1969; Epstein 1958, 1967.

[xx]          ?               ?E.g. van Binsbergen 1981; van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985.

[xxi]     Hannerz 1980, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1992a, 1992b.

[xxii]  ? Hannerz, 1992a: 17, 273; taking his clue from: Cohen & Comaroff 1976.

[xxiii]                       ? The following section is based on a text which I wrote in 1994 as a statement of intent for the WOTRO Programme on globalisation and the construction of communal identities, thus opening the way for my student Thera Rasing to submit her own fully-fledged application for Ph.D. research as based on her previous M.A. work. This was approved, so that before long we may expect her more detailed ethnographic and analytical answers to the questions raised in this section. Meanwhile, cf. Rasing 1995. Of the vast literature on puberty initiation in South Central and Southern Africa, I mention moreover: Corbeil 1982; de Boeck 1992; Gluckman 1949; Hoch 1968; Jules-Rosette 1979-80; Maxwell 1983: 52-70; Mayer 1971; Mayer & Mayer 1974; Richards 1982 (which includes a ‘regional bibliography?on girls?initiation in South Central Africa); Turner 1964, 1967; van Binsbergen 1987, 1992b, 1993b; White 1953.

[xxiv]        ?              ? This embarrassment created by the dominant paradigm is probably the main reason why the study of African historic urban ritual is much less developed than the empirical incidence of such ritual would justify. Such studies as exist have tended to underplay the historic, rural dimension in favour of the modern dimension (Mitchell 1956; Ranger 1975), or have drawn from other founts of inspiration than the dominant Durkheimian paradigm (Janzen 1992; van Binsbergen 1981).

[xxv]           WOTRO Programme on ‘Globalization and the construction of communal identities? Bergen (The Netherlands) conference, 15-16 February 1996.



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