A matter of Time

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Juan Obarrio. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.018


A matter of Time

Juan OBARRIO, Johns Hopkins University

Response to HAU Symposium on Obarrio, Juan. 2014. The spirit of the laws in Mozambique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

For David Brent,
And to the Ghost of Electricity

And when it’s time
for leaving Mozambique
To say goodbye to sand and sea
You turn around to take a final peek
And you see why it’s so unique to be
Among the lovely people living free
Upon the beach of sunny Mozambique

— Bob Dylan, “Mozambique”

Where to begin: On Mahmood’s heels

In this impasse, where to begin? How to follow on from there? As is customary one should begin by thanking, and stating that it is a pleasure and a rare honor to respond to such a distinguished interdisciplinary group of senior Africanist scholars who took the time to read my book and then took the time to write about it.

It is about time that I should respond, as well as about matter: matters of law and morality and custom; even matters of gifts and debts. I have to reply to fine criticisms of a book which aimed at addressing, precisely, the time and the matter of politics in an African postcolonial condition: or, the temporality and the materiality of the state. My critics contend that it was about time that a book like this emerged in the field of African studies. AbdouMaliq Simone observes that in my [274]book the law appears as a “technology that sutures disjunctive times,” jurisdiction attempting to be “a temporalization that connects the different spatial localities, materializing history.”

Ato Quayson, noting a similar orientation present both in my book and in Mahmood Mamdani’s texts such as Define and rule (2012), underlines the specificity that the Mozambican case adds to several key political issues with vast ramifications throughout the continent, in particular the “multisynchronicity” of various temporal modes of production. Quayson esteems that my study of the “resuscitation” of the customary “under the aegis of neoliberalism represents the coming-tothe-foreground of a repressed temporality.”

Morten Nielsen, himself a Mozambique expert, incisively detects that the book is about time. He writes, “The spirit of the laws in Mozambique is an ethnography of a state machine, which operates not only in time but also essentially as time.” Indeed, to study in depth, in detail (Simone) the dynamics of the state politics on the ground meant not only to discover a renewed hypostasis of the law, a new inflation of the juridical, or “law, law, everywhere” (Harri Englund), but also to unveil time as the substance of the political, to uncover the temporal device inserted within the juridical apparatus that, expanding and contracting, indeed projects the fetishized dialectical image of the state as a time machine. A politics of time made of delays, deferrals, detours, accelerations, phases, cycles, sudden interruptions, turns, and returns that shape the untimely contemporary moment of postcolonial politics, while illustrating how textures of the past, the time of historicity, saturate the present, how, in sum, as presented in the book, History takes place; how jurisdiction is established over both space and time.

“It was only a matter of time that a book marrying commandement with customary citizenship appeared, and that book had to be about Mozambique,” affirms Englund, reading the book as being aligned with two powerful intellectual trends in African postcolonial political thought. For me, it is a matter of debts and gifts, here, of course, as everywhere else. It was a question of how to process the—affective and intellectual—liaisons and legacies received from those systems of thought (the one stemming from the time of historical materialism and its latest detours and trajectories; the other one, stemming from the entanglements of “time on the move,” of “the only subjectivity, that is time” (Deleuze, quoted in Mbembe’s On the postcolony [2002]).

And this, despite the fact that the term I coined, “customary citizenship,” to my knowledge does not feature anywhere in Mahmood Mamdani’s work, and that, instead of following on his heels, it is a matter here of going beyond his preferred dichotomy between “ethnic” and “civic” citizenship, in order for me to describe an extended liminal zone of simultaneous belonging and segregation, or inclusion/ exclusion, currently expanding through the subcontinent.

Where to begin, regarding the time of the state, if not with the history of the law, with the historicity of the official demarcation between citizens and subjects imprinted on a legal corpus, as well as on the body of the native. Legacies of late colonialism that mark in an indelible manner the matter of citizenship, of who belongs and who does not belong in a nation, in the state we are in; the matter of who is a native and who is a foreigner; or the sheer matter of land, of who can access it, [275]own it, cultivate it. It is a matter of time, the unfolding of history shaping the clay of the political present.

“Law, law, everywhere,” indeed, and even paradoxically so, belying the fact that a colonial regime was predominantly an immense machine of exploitation and violent expropriation. Yet those two intellectual traditions mentioned by my critics have disclosed the proliferation of minute legal inscription of those arbitrary and violent social, racial, ethnic categories, as a crucial technology of colonial power that the postindependence regimes have not, could not, or did not wish to reform, at the level of locality. As in a Kafkaesque time machine of inscription, as in the penal colony, where the device is at the same time judge and executioner, carving the sentence with its needles on the body of the condemned legal subject. This occurred in the past, as much as in the closed circuit of the—allegedly perfect— logic of the drone, in the present. In the colony as in the postcolony: necropolitics, indeed.

Simone writes that in my book “the law invents sentences that it cannot finish and it reserves for itself the possibility of ellipsis and incompletion.” These apparent dead ends are not death sentences. They are a new articulation of the law as speech, or jurisdiction, located in close entwinement with other norms, within late liberal forms of governance that, as much as they resemble the features of colonial regimes of yesteryear and eternal returns of law and custom, they surely present new original contours: in particular, its absolutely new conjunction of expropriation and segregation, of extractive industries and production of surplus populations, or remainders of life. “In much of the world, collective life has become a remnant,” Simone writes. Death sentences?

We must first begin with, and then follow those original insights. Regarding what Englund deems “Mahmood Mamdani’s controversial thesis on the bifurcation of the colonial state in Africa,” he then writes about my initial analytic frameworks: “Obarrio follows hard on Mamdani’s heels.” Indeed part of my book on the state departs from that original partition. There is nothing to hide regarding this anxiety of influence: It is the Law everywhere, indeed, as the need to follow official mandates; yet also, as Englund insists, it is a matter of moral obligation, or, perhaps, of kinship rules; as in the respectful acquiescence toward those who paved the way for this analysis. Legacies of the recent past in the present; in mine and in the states I study.

One could certainly start with colonial decentralized despotism (Mamdani) and end at the arbitrary imagination of power in the postcolony (Mbembe). It is a twolane avenue, from biopolitical bifurcated states to necropolitical entanglements. It might also be a two-way labyrinth leading, back and forth, time and again, to a dead end. It is a conundrum for my generation of Africanist scholars. In the current, violent impasse of both African political systems and of our analytical frameworks, where to begin, actually? How to follow on from there?

Back in the day, some time ago, Simone had already told me in passing that mine would be an M&M book. He mostly meant, merely: Mamdani/Mbembe. But I took it then more as sweet talk than as bitter, detached analytical speech. If one searches for traces there are many other strong influences on the book. I had actually not noticed the way in which these two sources could occlude the evident [276]impact of postmetaphysical continental thought, the anthropology of state magic, or Latin American aesthetic avant-gardism (or, authors such as Deleuze on minor politics, Jean-Luc Nancy on jurisdiction, Celestin Monga [1996] on state, civil society, and violence, or Joseph Tonda [2005] on the fetish of power).

In fact, to emphasize that binary is probably a doomed path, one that recreates a dialectic that, as with the fetish of state politics, would produce new dichotomies and binary oppositions, leading to the trap of supposed negations, alleged sublation, masking the violence of abstraction that effaces each singular subjectivity and life-world. My book attempts to evade that negative dialectics, even if, at times, it slows down, to inhabit that liminal space of in-between mix of apparent opposites in terms of intellectual trends, as well as regarding state and customary, or law and custom.

Even if Englund evokes intellectual liaisons and institutional divorces in the field of African studies, as in the small scenes of trials in the People’s courts, he affirms my book is “no bastard child,” but rather the product of a “perfectly respectable marriage.” As the critical texts composing this symposium show, the jury is out on the value of my monograph. Yet, as in the community court, after the acrimonious separation and the violent parting of ways that Englund references, we should secure the welfare of the progeny, so the spirits of the various lineages are appeased, and official genealogies can be certified by the bureaucratic registers.

In my book, the exit toward the minor state into the space of locality understood as temporal textures and not as a matter of scale, was one possible way out of the dialectical mode. Through the minor state channeling power in the locality, two types of politics unfolded. One was the anachronistic politics of local socialist legal and political institutions that were not supposed to exist anymore, or have any jurisdiction whatsoever, having been erased by the postwar Constitutional reforms and yet continued to exist on the ground, in an afterlife that a good portion of the population acknowledged as legitimate. The other one was a minor politics that encompassed intimacy, corporeality, emotion, attempting to harness the body and the spirit of the citizen, in order to relaunch a local program of state legitimacy (postsocialist, or neoliberal democratic). The minor state was not a set of sovereign institutions but rather a condition, encompassing moments, folds, various elements of a strategic situation of power and resistances.

Indeed, as much in the locality as at the level of the central state, the state revealed itself not as an institution but rather, patently, as in the early modern meaning of the word state (stato, status), as a temporal condition, a dynamic situational framework. From the articulation of national ministries and foreign agencies in the capital, the joint flow of aid funding and precarious fiscality and state revenues on extractive industries, to the conjunction of customary rights and citizenship rights in rural and peri-urban areas, my fieldwork demonstrated that the state is but a time frame, articulating versions of history and remnants of memory, operating through a variegated set of arrangements such as current state officials, past authorities, chiefs, political practice, spiritual ritual, legal norms as well as kinship rules. An in-depth, grounded, ethnographic analytical perspective that went beyond any assumed current theorization on “failed” or “shadow” states, as well as beyond the discourse of the state itself, showed that the state is a material condition of tactics and movements in time: a state of things.[277]

Interlude: The devil is in the details

Abject demon or redeeming, exterminating angel? The Spirit of the Laws is analyzed in the book in detail, from many vantage points, as the elusive, metaphysical kernel of the legitimacy of the juridical. To some extent, it is explored as incarnating the force of law, the sheer demonic violences that constitute the foundation of norms (as in Benjamin’s Critique of violence [1986]), as threat folded within judgment, or, more plainly, as the devastating war that antecedes the political frames of liberal democracy, shaping it, constraining it. It is also studied as the implicit authoritarian violence present in the customary and deployed by its authorities. Other examinations of details of legal practice, jurisprudence, legislation, normativity at the central state, or at the sessions of conflict resolution at customary courts and ex–People’s tribunals, showed the other face of the spirit of the laws: its more ethereal visage folded within rhetoric, poetics, theatricality, language, protocols of ritualized gestures, or a dialectics between orality and writing. The foundation of state sovereignty, which according to modern political philosophy, is incarnated the law, is a quasi-theological force: a spirit of secrecy and sacredness at the core of the modern state, or the action of spirits of lineages and invisible powers within the blend of law and custom in informal legal institutions.

In the same way that the book shows that the alleged transparent, universal mode of state sovereignty had to be confronted by the test of the local space and time of jurisdiction, also the abstraction of state theory had to undergo the trial of the painstaking empirical ethnographic observation of the shortcomings of sovereignty’s legal petition of principles. The ethnographic gaze posed on details revealed invisible—evil, or virtuous—spirits acting behind the law, propelling its force. And yet, I now wonder if certain effort present in my book tending toward minimalism, to slow and parsimonious descriptions and quotations, that uncover only partly the true kernel of sociality being observed, was not a veiled response to so much emphasis on differential “details” in postmodern and postcolonial theory. As if the exoticization of anthropologies searching for the overwhelming power of deranged, eccentric, and extraneous forms (the absoluteness of “sorcery,” or “moral obligations”) had been replaced in those theoretical programs by an equally selfdefeating emphasis on the apparent endless effervescence and creative ebullition of life. As if the classical dismissal of Africa as a place of void and lack, located outside history, in sum the paradigmatic Hegelian place of negation, was confronted by the mirror image or dialectical negating counterpart, of an equally diminishing view of the continent as a space of saturation.

The task was to exorcise the proverbial devil of the details; neither romanticizing nor banalizing through epistemological hyperbole or clinical gaze the experiences I observed and lived with, indeed, in the context of multiplying normativities, overlapping authorities, and proliferating rules that blend past and future. The objective was to restore legitimacy to forms of life historically marginalized as “superstition,” “custom,” “moral obligation,” or magical thinking. The presentation of the endless details of all those different norms as Law, which Englund perhaps rightly disapproves, not only followed the logic of governmentality (in order to criticize it), but also in order to contradict its new forms of segregation, discrimination, and compartmentalization.[278]

Simone, nevertheless, rightly puts the emphasis on the “proof of the details,” focusing on the place of visible evidence within “invisible governance,” and captures well the Geist of the first chapter when he evokes states of belief and disbelief, or, shall we say, the political theology of the juridical foundation of sovereignty, the Spirit of the Laws, which is the crux of the modern state, that is everywhere predicated upon the dialectics of truth-telling and secrecy. Simone writes about the materiality of how “everyday practices availed spatially and materially heterogeneous environments with densities. . . . It was a matter of my coming before the law because my act could be construed as my coming before law, as if the law has existence prior to anything else.” Engaging one of the core themes of my book, the spatialization of time as a political modality, for instance, crucially in the case of legal jurisdiction, Simone references what constitutes the main object of study of my book, since its very title and first pages. The place, in temporal and spatial terms, of the original foundation of the law: located “before,” be it in custom, violence, or sacredness.

The Spirit of the Laws evokes the eternal recursive mode, the historical tautology of the state’s sovereignty, founded upon the juridical. Metaphysics, as Hobbes would have it, or pataphysics, as in the surreal, Ubu-esque reading of my book produced by Nielsen. Indeed, as the book demonstrates, the universal status of sovereignty cannot pass the acid test of jurisdiction, where and when the time of locality and the singularity of cases and subjects belies the grand conceit of sovereign power. Even if Alfred Jarry’s Ubu King is in this case incarnated not by the individual autocrat but, rather, by the remains of the party-state system that today gives way, in its intricate articulation with transnational agencies, to a sometimes majestic, often grotesque state of structural adjustment, in which precisely the constant reproduction of the realm of the customary plays a key role in generating a double bind of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of populations.

The law painstakingly accumulates detail over detail, examining them, evaluating them as evidence, passing judgment: is the spirit of the laws a devil specter? In the text, the concept was meant to also refer to a zeitgeist, or spirit of a time, the orientation of a particular period in which the law is being deployed as an instrument to repair deep social fractures produced by historical disjunctures and political events (colonialism, socialism) or acts of massive violence (war massacres). It is a text about the passage of time and its political effects. As a customary chief from the district of Mogovolas told me in 2004, “My father used to make rain and communicated with the spirits. . . . I, myself, nowadays go to the cemetery and I pray and I try and try, to no avail . . . nothing happens . . . that spirit must have surely already passed. . .”

Yet the book was not aimed at presenting the temporalities of the political at large, at the communal level in general. Rather, it specifically constituted a historical ethnography of a postcolonial state. It addressed a singular case—a postSocialist, post–civil war process of transition to democracy, rule of law, neoliberal juridical reform of governance and privatization of a centralized economy. Within this context, the book addressed the law as it was being fetishized, hypostatized, by policy-makers, donor agencies, and state officials as the main framework to bring about a transformation of state and society. The book essentially asked: what was the spirit of this law? As new conceptions of juridical frameworks were deployed, [279]as liberal rule of law, as norm, or normalizing disciplinary sanction, and articulated, in a postcolonial manner, with remnants of colonial codes and the resurgence of custom.

The other key particularity of the Mozambican case, beyond any exaggerated contours, or exceptional features, was the paradigmatic form in which the “customary,” its authorities, rituals, and norms, were being recognized again as legitimate after a ban of several decades. This aligned this case study with many other parallel processes occurring in contemporary Africa regarding the centrality of custom, indigeneity, and autochtony, in broad political processes. Addressing the neoliberal juridico-economic system ruling over the process of democratic transition, the book described it as both a series of new rounds of “primitive accumulation” as well as of “accumulation of primitivism,” so to speak; that is, a process in which the re-production of the customary played a key role in terms of governance, citizenship rights, external funding for national budgets, and local populations’ access to resources on the ground.

The book researched state units and officials, both at the level of the “central” state and of the “local” state, disclosing the fallacy of that scalar view, showing the disjunctures between echelons and units of governance, yet also uncovering new, different connections between spaces and temporalities of power, novel articulations between formal, official units and other instances, supposedly located beyond the realm of the state and its rule of law (custom, chiefs, ritual, religion, or, at the level of macrogovernance, foreign donor agencies). In this way, the book addressed custom, moral economies, ritual belief and practice, language, insofar as they are harnessed, processed by “minor” state agencies in order to govern the “conduct of conducts” and relaunch its precarious legitimacy undermined by decades of war, failed policies, authoritarian coercion. Yet, a crucial insight shed by the detailed ethnographic analysis of community court cases, life stories, and local narratives, was to realize that the “state” agencies, such as the former People’s courts, actually functioned as a sounding board for loose structures of relatedness. When the spirit of the laws acquiesced to the spirit of lineages, the calculus of legal reason was coopted by the systems of never ending unpaid debts and open donations that constituted the local conception of sociality-understood-as justice, and the regional matrix of “moral obligation,” to use Englund’s concept. And all this, specifically, paradoxically, happening in a region that was for decades the target of harsh partystate policy aimed at effacing the customary and kin-related norms and authorities.

Thus my book features its second chapter, “Law as history,” in which events, dates, temporal landmarks, constitute an analogical mode of the Law, and where historicity is akin to a jurisprudence, the legislator—colonial, or nationalist historian—inscribing in a code the identities of groups and individuals. Analyzing the historical archive of the formation of state and citizenship, the book implicitly asks which postcolonial histories of the state it is possible to write today, in the impasse. Chapter Three follows on its heels, depicting historically and ethnographically the state as a temporal condition, a state of things. These two chapters on the history of the state disassemble both teleological visions of historicity as well as the attendant notions of the unified bounded state that stem from them. The ethnographic analysis of the state did not produce a view, or concept, of a central institutional apparatus of governance. It shed light on the way linear conceptions of history—propelled [280]by colonial or nationalist disciplinary perspectives, or the conjoined governmental practice of state units and transnational development agencies—were constantly interrupted, deviated, deferred, by the multiplicity of temporal phases, cycles, vectors of multiple life-worlds on the ground, of which only a small share is captured in the official demarcation of the “customary” by the colonial, or postcolonial state.

The book thus tackles both the fetish of history and the fetish of law, ever present today in the instrumental reason of both academic analysis and the technocratic prognosis of policy makers that prescribe juridical frameworks to remedy political conditions of crisis and anomy. The detailed ethnographic study of state dynamics and the place of the customary within the political, exposed history not as a temporal succession of events but rather showed that the very condition of possibility of historicity in these regions is the perennial unfolding of the political antagonism between two time machines: a centralized formation of power (Islamic Sultanate of Angoche, Portuguese colonialism, or FRELIMO’s Marxism-Leninism) and a segmented formation of power (the multiple layers of vernacular practice and ritual). These two temporalities, or two normativities, clashing and coalescing for centuries, produce history. Political conflict creates the texture of historical time. The political, within the war of position between state and customary, operates under the mode of the future anterior, creating the optical illusion of the return of the past in the present, the simulacrum of the “neocolonial” or the “reemergence” of a customary that has in actuality never left the scene and still today utilizes minor, precarious remnants of the state, as a screen to project its norms.

It was not an inveterate ethnographic obsession that found “law everywhere,” but rather the obvious perspective solicited by the study of political transformations at the end of Socialist rule and the transition toward neoliberal democracy.

It was indeed a response to the national state units and transnational agencies of governance, which read everything through an economic logic of the law as the hypostasis that constituted the main template for reconstitution of sociality. The book was aimed at producing a critique of this reification of a singular, fraught version of the law, and its enactment as universal panacea for postviolence conditions. In sum, the book attacked both the fetishization of history and of the law, or, the deployment of juridical reforms as new erasures and new rewritings of the recent political past. It showed how the Law folds myriad exceptions within it, that interrupt and divert its logic, and in the same way the time of governance, its linear history, encloses multiple temporalities that subvert it, negate it, bring it to a halt.

How to follow: On Achille’s heels

Finally, besides offering praise on matters of style and content, which I appreciate, these careful critical interventions point out what they see as pitfalls in my project, indicating flaws of the text, touching upon its Achilles heels. The main criticisms are directed toward issues related to local populations (the question of mobility in the case of Quayson, the issue of moral obligation according to Englund). These are legitimate critical points, despite the fact that the book was aimed as an analytical study of the state; as an ethnography of the dynamics of state institutions and the imagination and practice of state officials. That is, the text unveils the textures [281]of political processes through which the post-Socialist (central, local, or “minor”) state lives a spectral afterlife in which it attempts to harness local forms of sociality, in order to reconstruct its legitimacy, damaged by war, economic duress, and social contestation. In sum, an ethnography of a state trying to rebuild itself, mixing past and new practices and symbols, articulating itself to custom, magic, regional language, local temporality, and different versions of history, in order to be able to still govern conducts and shape the new citizens-subjects.

The book also unfolded as an ethnographic study of striving rural and periurban populations of citizens caught within profound political transformations, attempting to reconstitute sociality in the wake of violence, pursuing singular, regional conceptions of justice. Yet it mostly took as its main group of interlocutors a group of local state officials, juridical and political authorities that shared with me some of their practices, their dreams and nightmares, their deferred projects and interrupted hopes.

Between the lines of Englund’s well-taken critical points, one can perhaps read an analogy that blends the form and the content of the book, that is, in the way he traces a parallel between Mozambique, where a “liberation movement turned postcolonial government embarked on a campaign against customary practices and authorities,” and the theoretical thrust of my own book on this country, which, tracing that campaign and its pitfalls, apparently goes from seeking inspiration in the “Marxist-nationalist’s sure-footed call to abolish the custom that had so enslaved the African people from late colonialism to postcolonial experiments,” to postcolonial theory and phantom footnotes that would seem to mimic its aesthetic experiments. The footnote he refers to, lamenting its lack of actual referential content, was indeed present in the final version of the manuscript yet, as so many other things within the recent economic neoliberalization of Mozambique, it got lost and effaced within the process of production of the book.

The text was not intended as a piece of legal ethnography but rather as an anthropology of law and justice. Technical and methodological critiques regarding cases should not apply when the epistemological approach is sensibly different: more of an overarching critical perspective on the logic of the law as deployed at the nation-state level, its statements and its ambitions as expressed in technocratic reform, jurisprudence, and jurisdiction. Also, a political analysis of the practice and imagination of the law at the level of locality, there where it always got entangled with custom, magic, chieftaincy, religion, and petty violence.

Yet the title of the book is a red flag; it indicates the contradictory, mysterious status of the juridical, in particular in conditions such as the ones portrayed in it. The book is not so much about the technicalities of the law but rather about justice as a political imagination. It studied, through observation of everyday practice, life stories, hopes, sorrows, detours of local dwellers and state officials, what lies beyond the calculus of law, as an open-ended and incalculable horizon of ethics and justness.

Englund deplores the apparent absolute focus on law, which might leave unexplored the crux of social life; beyond the local state institutions and its norms, some kind of ethical moral obligation located beyond the framework of law. Yet this critical reading, which referenced an alleged excessive focus on the law and its temporality, missed the time of the present.[282]

Indeed, the book studied a moral economy pervasive in the region, documented both in my extensive fieldwork as well as in the research of anthropologists such as Christian Geffray (1990), who had conducted fieldwork in the same region. This was a “customary” conception of justice, indeed of sociality in general, rooted in conceptualizations of kinship understood as a system of open debts, which are never expected to be paid in full: a sort of extended reciprocity constantly being interrupted from within.

This imagination of relatedness and the social embraced a particular imagination of justice, summarized under the folkloric Makhwua proverb: “a milando (conflict) never rots”; meaning, “the aggrieved person in a conflict forgets but there is a remnant that can never be forgotten or erased, and it has to be pardoned.” I studied this customary concept of sociality and custom as “the gift of justice,” its work upon remnants being located beyond the law and its calculation of equivalences, toward reproducing an open-ended relatedness. While the (precolonial?) origins of this practical sense could not be located, it seemed self-evident that this type of regional custom had been reshaped by colonial arrangements of the local, as well as by a Socialist ethos of commonality and a deflection of violence.

The book, as an ethnography of state governance, specifically studied these regional forms of local sociality, or moral economy situated beyond the form-of-law, only insofar as they were harnessed, co-opted, processed by the law, within the framework of political and legal institutions. At some point in the middle of the fieldwork, a main insight shed by the detailed ethnographic observation was the confirmation that kinship rules were taking over the protocols of juridical units that had been set to annul them, the gift of justice was ruling over the calculus of the law, open-ended debt was reshaping the primacy of equivalences.

Even within a rapidly changing post-Socialist condition, where kinship, matrilineality, and ritual ceremonies were waning or being transformed, the customary was interrupting its capture by the law and utilizing the local state units to deploy its own forms of governance. The law was being in its turn co-opted by a local moral economy of indebtment, of kinship as double entry book to organize the deferred payment of debts.

Beyond political scaling and juridical territorialization, in peri-urban interstitial spaces, through the resilience of local practices, imaginations, desires, life itself, as absolute contingency, as a precariously stitched sociality of lives lived as perennially deferred debt, constantly interrupted the conceits of legal jurisdiction understood as the sovereign voice of the state demarcating space and ruling over populations.

In this regard, Nielsen touches upon something important for my project, when he references “Without being able to establish exact equivalences, there is always something that remains; a relational residue, which cannot be contained by the circulations of exchanges that flow through the minor state. This residue or ’leftover’ is precisely the desire for more sociality, activated by the unfulfilled promise of just reciprocation.” Indeed, I tried to portray the elusive element that circulated, recreating sociality, as an ethereal donation in a zone of destitution and precariousness. While the minor state operated through language, emotion, and corporeality, the private life of the citizen-subjects, stitched through that circulation, became the intimacy of the state itself. In this context, the law and its institutional settings were merely a prism to observe that moral economy of remains and debts that circulated [283]through society. For instance, the book portrays the way in which former People’s courts are just one site where local dwellers can take their quarrels within a variegated set of informal modes of conflict resolution, from customary to religious and encompassing also various political authorities of different orientation. Through those prisms I did not observe more or less fixed “moral obligations,” but rather an ethics of irreverence, of constant invention, rule-breaking, and absolute joyful resilience in its constant recombination of signs, objects, and forces, in the wake of almost unimaginable violence and scarcity.

If one followed on Achille Mbembe’s heels, his analysis of the postcolonial citizen as “homo ludens par excellence,” straddling various subjectivities and personas (beyond “conviviality” with the “intimacy of tyranny” of commandement) would acquire here the highest moment of its analytic purchase and political force, trumping the closed-circuit anthropology of obligation, reciprocity, and submission.

Quayson offers excellent constructive criticism, pointing out the lack of analysis regarding the crucial issues of mobility and migration in my account of the history of state formation as being derived from private concessions and colonial rule, and my genealogy of citizenship as derivative from forced labor and segregation. In this regard, he says, my analysis departs from Mahmood Mamdani’s account of citizenship and subjecthood. My emphasis on forced labor and colonial capitalism did lead me to strongly reference the issue of native populations being coerced into working for the mines in the Rand, and hence displaced. Yet Quayson might be right that this is not enough.

Even though the historical evidence in Mozambique differs from the West African cases Quayson references, and despite the fact that in my chapters on the courts (located in ebullient zones of peri-urban mobility) new claims to indigenous identity and rights are said to be predicated upon the difference between Makwhua groups from the coast and those from the hinterland, much more should be explored in terms of the crucial question of displaced populations. This should be engaged, especially, in the singular case of Portuguese fascist colonial government and its management of race in terms of Lusotropicalism.

I am just beginning to address this most important issue of native/foreigner relations, especially in the context of war and postwar displacement, in particular with regard to “micropolitics and segmentarity” in a new book on materiality of politics in Northern Mozambique. This, as well as other relevant points that my critics have raised will have to be addressed in that text, a history of a process of reconstitutions of communities and “reconciliation without truth,” which I have been feverishly rewriting and hope to finish sometime soon. It is only a matter of time.


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Juan Obarrio
Department of Anthropology
The Johns Hopkins University
404 Macaulay Hall
3400 North Charles Street Baltimore, MD 21218