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The Modernity Bluff

Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire

The Modernity Bluff

Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire

In Côte d’Ivoire, appearing modern is so important for success that many young men deplete their already meager resources to project an illusion of wealth in a fantastic display of Western imitation, spending far more than they can afford on brand name clothing, accessories, technology, and a robust nightlife. Such imitation, however, is not primarily meant to deceive—rather, as Sasha Newell argues in The Modernity Bluff, it is an explicit performance so valued in Côte d’Ivoire it has become a matter of national pride.

Called bluffeurs, these young urban men operate in a system of cultural economy where reputation is essential for financial success. That reputation is measured by familiarity with and access to the fashionable and expensive, which leads to a paradoxical state of affairs in which the wasting of wealth is essential to its accumulation. Using the consumption of Western goods to express their cultural mastery over Western taste, Newell argues, bluffeurs engage a global hierarchy that is profoundly modern, one that values performance over authenticity­—highlighting the counterfeit nature of modernity itself.

296 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology


The Modernity Bluff takes its place comfortably with the best writing on African youth, cities, and popular culture—Cole, De Boeck, Mbembe, Nyamanjoh, Simone, Weiss, White—and gives an utterly original angle (fashion, conspicuous consumption) for understanding the cultural underpinnings of the current conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. Sasha Newell knows both the contemporary and classic Africanist literatures. He also brings to bear a considerable amount of specialist theory, primarily from linguistic anthropology, to explain the ways the performance of ‘bluff,’ seemingly a kind of consumerist simulacrum, can actually create something out of nothing.”--Mike McGovern, Yale University

Mike McGovern

The Modernity Bluff is a stunning exploration of the power of fakery, masking, and performance, set against larger themes of postcoloniality and modernity. It takes us into an African street world of young scenesters and scammers, describing their war of styles against the fine French tailoring of the old postcolonial elite, and their chief weapon: the US-inspired casual look of designer-branded sweatpants and sneakers associated with hip hop and urban warriors. The book’s centerpiece describes the perplexing ‘art of the surface’ that the young people cultivate, an art epitomized in meteoric performances of luxurious cosmopolitan elegance. By taking these seriously in their cultural context as a play of ‘bluffs,’ Newell arrives at a penetrating new insight into the power of modernity’s mask of success.”

Ira Bashkow, University of Virginia

“This is an extremely interesting book that is a valuable and original addition to ethnographic studies of urban Africa. It contributes to the literature on alternative modernities, popular culture, urban societies, and the African postcolony. It will appeal to an academic audience, but also to others, as it is lively, engaging, and clear, a rich and vivid account of the author’s immersion in street bars and clubs with disenfranchised youth to acquire the details of how they spend their time getting money to fulfill their aspirations of modernity in the absence of any regular jobs.” —Janet MacGaffey, Bucknell University

Janet MacGaffey

Table of Contents


Ivoirian Nationalism and Urban Popular Culture
Yere and Gaou: Authenticity and the Cosmology of Modernity
Sapeurs and Bluffeurs: Discourses on African Mimesis
Mimesis and Masking: Real Fakes and the Elusive Illusion of Modernity
Abidjan: The Urban Setting
Outline of the Argument

ONE / Enregistering Modernity, Bluffing Criminality: How Nouchi Speech Reinvented the Nation
Les Nouchis—Speaking of “Gangsters”
Loubard, Boss, and Bakroman: Further Stereotypes
Yere and Gaou: Nouchi Hierarchy and Modernity
Ivoirian Language Policy and the French Model of National Identity
Urban Cultural Integration and the Ivoirianization of French
The Emergence of Nouchi and the Self-Recognition of Ivoirian Popular Culture
Vicarious Banditry: The Mediation of Nouchi
Purity and the Perils of Degeneration: Anxious Interpretations of Nouchi
Nouchi and National Identity

TWO / Bizness and “Blood Brothers”: The Moral Economy of Crime
The Infamy of Treichville
The Economic Underpinnings of the Bluff: Illicit yet Moral Economies
The Illegitimacy of Labor
Kinship, Economy, and Gendered Sociality
The Productivity of Social Networks
The Normative Network
State Intervention/State Cooperation
Hierarchical Relations
Social Accumulation

THREE / Faire le show: Maquis Masculinity and the Performative Success of Waste
The Maquis: Public Space Par Excellence
Imbibing Differentiation: Drinking Establishments and Disdain
“Gâte, on est ensemble”: The Trope of Waste
“Go Waste It, We are Watching”: Dance and Display
The Gift of Bluffing: Exchanges Underlying the “Show”
Out on “La Rue”
The Dangers of Display
Street Rituals: Urban Life Cycle Ceremonies and the Maquis
Potlatch and the Production of Audience
Masculinity and the Dangerous Consumption of Women
Gender and the Performativity of the Bluff

FOUR / Fashioning Alterity: Masking, Metonymy, and Otherworld Origins
The Centrality of the Sartorial
The Bluff: Appearance and Economy
Elite Consumption: Following the French
Yere Consumers and Urban Symbols of Modernity
Suits versus Hip-Hop: Taste and Social Hierarchy
Whiteness and the Otherworld: A Local Cosmology of Externality
Evaluating Objects: The Modernity of Brands
Authentic Imitations, Metonymic Transformations
Ivoirian Masquerades and Yere Vision

FIVE / Paris Is Hard like a Rock: Migration and the Spatial Hierarchy of Global Relations
Urban-Village Migration
Migrating Dreams
Migratory Practicalities
The Descent and the Bluff
Bengiste Networks, Migrant Economies
Demystification and Remythologizing Discourses
The Mediation of the Otherworld: Migration as a Form of Consumption
Migration and National Identity

SIX / Counterfeit Belongings: Branding the Ivoirian Political Crisis
Ethnicity, Postcoloniality, and National Identity
Ivoirian Models of Nationality: French versus Nouchi
The Death of Houphouët and the Emergence of Ivoirité
Boubous and the Politics of Exclusion
The Structure of the North-South Divide in Popular Culture
Branding the Nation: Cultural Mastery and the Unstable Signification of Authenticity

CONCLUSION / Modernity as Bluff
On the Nature of “Western” Imitation
On the Character of (Alternative?) Modernity
Postcolonial Mimesis and the Crisis of Signification
Incommensurability: Fetishes, Doubles, and the Fake



Royal Anthropological Institute: Amaury Talbot Prize

African Studies Association: Melville J. Herskovits Award

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