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Beyond Words

Discourse and Critical Agency in Africa

Even within anthropology, a discipline that strives to overcome misrepresentations of peoples and cultures, colonialist depictions of the so-called Dark Continent run deep. The grand narratives, tribal tropes, distorted images, and “natural” histories that forged the foundations of discourse about Africa remain firmly entrenched. In Beyond Words, Andrew Apter explores how anthropology can come to terms with the “colonial library” and begin to develop an ethnographic practice that transcends the politics of Africa’s imperial past.

The way out of the colonial library, Apter argues, is by listening to critical discourses in Africa that reframe the social and political contexts in which they are embedded. Apter develops a model of critical agency, focusing on a variety of language genres in Africa situated in rituals that transform sociopolitical relations by self-consciously deploying the power of language itself. To break the cycle of Western illusions in discursive constructions of Africa, he shows, we must listen to African voices in ways that are culturally and locally informed. In doing so, Apter brings forth what promises to be a powerful and influential theory in contemporary anthropology.

192 pages | 1 map, 1 line drawing, 8 figures, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2007

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History

Language and Linguistics: Anthropological/Sociological Aspects of Language


“A counter-intuitive re-reading of classic anthropological texts from the colonial archive, Beyond Words proposes a brilliant solution to one of the  most pressing intellectual/political issues in African Studies today. Responding to trenchant critiques of anthropology’s complicity with colonialism and Eurocentric thought, Apter argues that these texts—of Dogon cosmological reflection, of Tswana praise poetry—be reread as critical reflection on power and authority, as vernacular criticism that was history-making rather than history-erasing and politics-averse.”

Charles Piot, Duke University

“Apter’s argument is both thoughtful and original. The juxtaposition of classic and contemporary anthropology is deft and refreshing, and the ethnographic analyses are original, rigorous, and subtle. What I most appreciate about Apter’s book is that it confronts anthropology’s entrenched ambivalence about its traditional topics head on by revisiting classic studies and finding the value within them. This is novel and bold.”

Deborah D. Kaspin, coeditor of Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa

"This is an important and inspiring book that takes on the challenge of clearing a new path for African studies while producing a freshly configured theory for coming to terms with the complexity of power, authority, and resistance in African society. . . . It provides a model for how to relate to and use the valuable if problematic work of all those early anthropologists relegated to the ’colonial library,’ and their continued importance to contemporary research. A kind of manifesto for postcolonial research in Africa, and a roadmap for how to reincorporate the canon of British social into contemporary critical theory, this book should be considered required reading for all contemporary Africanists."

Sasha Newell | Journal of African Historical Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Que Faire?
2. The Politics of Panegyric
3. Rituals against Rebellion
4. Discourse and Its Disclosures
5. Griaule’s Legacy
6. Decolonizing the Text

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