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2010/2 (No 194)

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Jean-Pierre Warnier’s and Nicolas Argenti’s books concern two neighboring societies of the Cameroon Grassfields; the authors know each other well, and cite each other numerous times. However, this is not the only reason to conduct a comparative analysis of their work. First and foremost, their work shares a common line of reasoning, the anthropological interest of which goes well beyond the ethnographic details of the cultural domain in question. They focus on the way in which domination is interiorized by the dominated classes in a hierarchical—and thus very inegalitarian—society. The societies of Cameroon’s Western Highlands, densely populated, are organized into hundreds of chiefdoms of varying size. While the Bamileke chiefdoms or the Bamum kingdom are the best known among them (Tardits 1960, 1980), the small kingdoms of Mankon and Oku in the Anglophone part of the Grassfields are the subject of Warnier’s and Argenti’s fieldwork respectively. These chiefdoms and kingdoms are based on the domination of the king (fon) and of the palace’s aristocracy over the common people. This political domination translates into the economic exploitation of the subjects, but also in the polygamy of the elites, which forces a significant portion of the cadets to celibacy for life. Considering such inequality, how can the kingship hold on and continue to exist? How can the subjects be made to accept the domination? To answer this question, Warnier and Argenti use the concept of “hegemony,” which revisits the Marxist notion of “ideology” via Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu, and the Comaroffs. Domination is hegemonic when it does not translate into an explicit ideological discourse (which could become a subject of contention), but it is interiorized and incorporated by the dominated classes themselves, to the point of being self-evident and remaining largely implicit (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 19–32). Domination is, in fact, more effective when it is not verbalized. Warnier and Argenti are interested, in particular, in the non-discursive practices that inform power relationships: direct actions on the body (Warnier) or masked dances (Argenti). The study of the processes of interiorization and incorporation of domination leads the authors to question the compliance or resistance of the dominated. To what extent do the cadets of the kingdom accept a domination that partly escapes awareness? And in these conditions, what are the forms of resistance available to them? On these questions, Warnier’s and Argenti’s opinions diverge—and it is indeed on this point that we can conduct a comparative analysis of their work.

The Pot-King Governmentality


The relationships between body and power have been the object of long theoretical developments in Warnier’s book; in fact, he proposes a new paradigm in political anthropology, furthering a line of inquiry that had already been opened in a previous work. [1]  Jean-François Bayart and Jean-Pierre Warnier, Matière...[1] Removed from the semiological as well as the socio-functionalist paradigm, his “praxeological” approach considers power relationships from the point of view of the material and sensory-motor culture on which they are based. It originates from a critique of what Warnier calls “the Magritte effect” (a reference to Ceci n’est pas une pipe), a typical bias of scholarly illusion that confuses the world with its representation. Against a certain logocentrism of French anthropology, he emphasizes that the body is not a sign to be thought of, but rather an organism that acts and can be acted upon. In this way Warnier continues Mauss’s work on the technologies of the body (Mauss 1936), which he updates with references to neurobiologist Alain Berthoz (1997), sport sociologist Pierre Parlebas (1999), and the phenomenological anthropology of embodiment (Csordas 1994). But it is above all Foucault’s influence, with the notions of governmentality, power technologies, and the discipline of the body that emerges in this work (Foucault 1995, 2008). Warnier shows that the power relationships underpinning Mankon kingship are “incorporated” in material and bodily technologies. Revisiting the classic distinction between procedural (in action) and declarative (explicit) knowledge, he posits that these power technologies are based on procedural knowledge that derives from a “cognitive and motor unconscious” that remains largely unsaid: they are “practices that go without saying.” Warnier transposes the arguments advanced by Maurice Bloch in How We Think They Think (1998) and applies them to power relationships: a significant part of human knowledge is, in fact, non-linguistic. Ordinary knowledge employs implicit concepts formed in and by practice, and only occasionally takes the form of explicit discourse.


Attempting to expose the principles of Mankon kingship, Jean-Pierre Warnier follows the example of previous works on sacred kingship in Africa, a classic theme of political anthropology since James Frazer (Frazer 2002 [1935]; De Heusch 1972, 1982, 2000; Adler 1982). He distances himself, however, from the structuralist and functionalist approaches that usually dominate this research field. He shows that the king is king firstly through his body. The exercise of royal power in the Grassfields is based, in fact, on an imaginary of the body and substances: all human bodies are perceived as containers. These bodies/containers are differentiated by their contents. The body of the king is full of the ancestors’ vital substances. These substances materialize in his breath, saliva, and sperm, but also in the raffia wine, palm oil, and camwood powder contained in the calabashes that are like prostheses of the king’s body. The Mankon king is thus a “pot-king,” a “vital piggy bank.” [2]  The expression “vital piggy bank” does not come from...[2] Conversely, the bodies of his subjects are empty containers that depend on the vital substances dispensed by the king, usually during the festival celebrating the end of the farming cycle. The king has the task to “nurture” and “strengthen” the kingdom through ceremonial spraying or high polygamy. In short, kingship is rooted in a veritable “physiology of power.”


This conception of the body-container translates into a specific attention to the envelopes and their orifices, to what goes in and what comes out. The skin, a mark of health, receives meticulous care, from washing infants to the anointment of the king’s successor. The works of psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu (1985) show that skin is the object of a virtually universal psychological investment. The Grassfields are characterized by a political over-investment of corporeal envelopes; there is a shift from the “skin ego” (“moi-peau”, according to Anzieu’s expression) to the “Pot-King” (“Roi-Pot”). Political relevance is allocated to a broad range of practices aimed at the body and the skin, the containers and the substances. Furthering the seminal intuitions of André-Georges Haudricourt (1962), Warnier shows how the government technologies specific to the Grassfields are based on a systematic mutual echoing between actions on the matter and the body, and actions on oneself and others. From this point of view, the comparison between the highland kingdoms and the forest societies of Southern Cameroon is revealing. While these two cultural areas share the same attention to the body and substances, they diverge as concerns the power technologies based on these practices. Although, in the highlands, substances circulate vertically from the king to the subjects, in Southern Cameroon they circulate horizontally among all initiated men. This difference results in very concrete practices, such as passing a calabash of palm wine from hand to hand. Forest societies, based on lineage, are in fact characterized by an egalitarian ideology, as opposed to the social stratifications of the highland chiefdoms (Laburthe-Tolra 1985).


The body of the king is placed in a fractal relationship with other containers according to a typical “analogist” principle (in Philippe Descola’s [2005] sense). In fact, a political system such as sacred kingship necessarily presupposes an analogist cosmology where all beings are placed in a hierarchy where the king is at the top. The Mankon kingdom is defined by a series of containers fitting into one another, like Russian dolls. The calabashes containing the royal powder, the king’s palace, the city of Mankon are replicas of the king’s body, watered by his vital substances. Argenti observes about the chiefdom of Oku that the palace represents the “intestines of the state.” In this sense, Grassfields kingships are an exemplar of the notion of corporate group dear to British anthropology: the human collective is conceived as an organism in the image of the king’s body. Based on a comparison with the theory of the “two bodies of the king” in medieval political theology (Kantorowicz 1989), Warnier shows how royal succession constitutes a particularly sensitive event: the body of the heir must be refashioned in an enclosing political body that allows him to “swallow” the kingdom. Because of this fractal analogy, the same attention to the boundaries of the corporeal envelope exists, but on a larger scale: the doorstep of the house, the outer wall of the palace, the trench surrounding the city. The circulation of goods and people is perceived as a vast movement of incorporation into the kingdom: the body of the city absorbs goods, appropriated by the palace officials, but also women (also monopolized by a polygamous aristocracy) and cadets estranged from their native chiefdom, who come to offer their services to new masters. On the other hand, every year, during a ceremony of ordeal by poison, the city expels witches: these causes of intestinal troubles are the “excrements” of the kingdom.


The king is a “vital piggy bank” because he has a monopoly on the substances of the ancestors, the symbolic capital of the kingdom. The Grassfields’ sacred kingships are in fact the product of a process of economic accumulation and political centralization, whose long-term history is outlined by both Warnier and Argenti. Their emergence predates the Atlantic slave trade: the highlands were, in fact, an important center of civilization well before becoming the periphery of a world-system centered on Atlantic Europe (Warnier 1985). The Grassfields’ societies have progressively structured themselves as city-states within a vast regional area characterized by an intense mixing of populations. This process presupposes the setting of boundaries, which confer a certain interiority and autonomy to political entities by territorializing people and goods that would otherwise move within them. It is therefore easy to see why the Grassfields’ political systems ascribe such importance to envelopes and their boundaries. Metallurgy, which has been present in the region for more than two millennia, allowed the accumulation of the wealth necessary for these kingdoms to emerge. The importance of metallurgy as the material and symbolical foundation of sacred kingships emerges also in the south, in Central Africa (Vansina 1990).


The Atlantic slave trade undoubtedly fostered the political centralization of the Grassfields’ kingdoms. The insertion of city-states into a global economy founded on long-distance trade networks accentuated social stratification to the point that palace hierarchies mushroomed. It is not a coincidence that the royal treasure contained prestige goods, most often of European origin, obtained through long-distance trade. The slave trade has had a central role in the political economy of the Grassfields. Myths of origin tell of how the founding ancestor, escaping slave raiders on horses, settled in a new region to found the kingdom. However, with the exception of the raids by the Fulani, Bamum or Chamba people, slaves were supplied not through armed raids led by foreigners, but rather through sale of relatives or neighbors. In the eighteenth century, palace officials started to sell their own people into slavery in exchange for prestige goods. It was a system of “trade without raids” (Warnier 1989). This insidious internal predation is conceived as a form of endocannibalism: the elders “eat” the cadets. Although German colonization (from 1884) was done in the name of the fight against slavery, this decreased very slowly in the region. The forced labor imposed by the colonial power, which needed a workforce for the plantations or caravan porterage, evoked the pre-colonial era. Palace elites took advantage of the forced labor system as they did previously with the slave trade: they delivered cohorts of cadets to colonizers in exchange for maintaining their customary authority. French and English mandates after World War I did not put an end to this situation, and the postcolonial era beginning after 1960 perpetuated this domination: palace officials, now taking an active part in the single-party system, used the state apparatus to appropriate its resources, to the detriment of the cadets (the Mankon king, for example, assumed a political role at the national level). The pot-king governmentality thus extended to a national scale, a “politics of the belly” (Bayart 1990) that played significantly on the same imaginary of the body. As noted by Argenti, the colonial and post-colonial state ultimately reproduced the inequalities of local gerontocracies.


This alliance between traditional authorities and the state is part of a reinvention of kingship tradition in the service of a politically conservative modernity. This “return of the kings” (Perrot and Fauvelle-Aymar 2003) questions the role of the Grassfields’ chiefdoms in the Cameroonian state. Filling a gap in the English edition (The Pot-King [2007]), Warnier dedicates the final chapter of the French edition to the contemporary situation of Mankon kingship. In a political context where the kingdom exists only as a subordinate subsection of the nation-state, can kingship be anything other than an institution on the way to folklorization? However, the king managed to use the principles of fractal analogy to his advantage, to adapt kingship to this change in scale. While the trench that in earlier times delimited the city lost its reason to be, the website of the MACUDA association (Mankon Cultural Development Association, of which the king is the founder and president) represents today a virtual envelope that potentially includes the globalized elites of the kingdom, which have expatriated to Europe or to the United States. The inauguration of the Mankon museum in 2005 illustrates well the process of cultural patrimonialization that accompanied these changes. This museal patrimonialization, which is informed by a policy of autochthony defined at the state level in Cameroon and supported by international NGOs, attests to the shifts caused by the contemporary redefinition of kingship and the possible tensions this can cause. The regalia on display at the museum adjoining the palace are the undivided property of the kingdom: the king is the one in charge of it for the common good. Based on a juridical regime of property that is separate from customary law, the creation of the museum, however, establishes that the king is the owner of the royal treasure in his own name, at the risk of exposing his legitimacy to the open contestation of his subjects.

Cadets: From Support to Revolt


Grassfields kingships are historically based on the exploitation and domination of the cadets, which is the very condition for their existence. Among other aspects, this domination translates into the high polygamy of palace aristocracy: some kings could have several hundred wives. According to Warnier, [3]  The assimilation of unmarried status and forced celibacy...[3] this implies that a significant portion of the male population cannot get married and, given the severity of the rules concerning relations outside of marriage, these ones are nearly deprived of any sexuality. He estimates that between a third (at the time of the Atlantic slave trade) and a half (at the beginning of the colonial era) of the male population was forced into celibacy for life. How could kingship remain, given such unequal conditions? Surely the frustration of celibate cadets would lead to their revolt against the palace. Warnier argues that this was not the case: Mankon kingship inspired general support, including from the cadets. Palace domination pushed the ideology of seniority to extremes: all the palace subordinates are eternal cadets, subject to their elders. Seniority is a matter of status. In the absence of any male initiation, it is marriage that makes the man, and not the other way around. As old as they are, celibate cadets are but “children” and perceive themselves as such: they have a completely asexual, unconscious image of their body. Cadets do not experience celibacy as a deprivation. However, there is no precise ethnography of sexuality, of its ordinary practices and the technologies by which the palace controls it, to support these hypotheses empirically. Warnier acknowledges that, reluctantly, he had to stop his fieldwork at the door to the bedroom. While the hypothesis of asexual cadets seems a little unlikely, an alternative scenario could be imagined that accounts for the elders’ control of sexuality: celibate men have clandestine access to sexuality, but the polygamous elites claim their children, depriving them of descendants. In this way, the elders appropriate the reproductive potential of the cadets to their advantage.


Warnier highlights that the symbolic value associated with the actions that concern vital substances also contributes to disguising domination. In a typical example of false consciousness, the cadets perceive themselves as being in debt to their king, as they receive from him the priceless substances of the ancestors in exchange for more ordinary goods (labor, livestock, women). They are satisfied with this exchange, and they do not see themselves as being cheated. The king is himself subject to the system over which he presides, like Louis XIV and court society (Elias 1985). Feeding his subjects with vital substances and taking care of his numerous wives is a difficult task, with no notion of pleasure or personal interest. Palace domination appeals to consent rather than constraint—and in this way it is exercised hegemonically. It is interiorized by the cadets to the point that it largely escapes critical awareness and is accepted without frustration.


Warnier’s argument, however, is based on an analogy (a little too rushed to be completely convincing) between procedural knowledge associated with motor behavior and implicit knowledge associated with power relationships. Cycling needs procedural knowledge to be implemented automatically and unconsciously as incorporated motor schemas. If this were not the case, the cyclist would fall. But does the exercise of power relationships really involve a procedural knowledge of the same kind as technical mastery? It is the “value” ascribed to the king’s saliva that gives the royal spraying its effectiveness and consequently receives the cadets’ support. Warnier notes that power technologies are often accompanied by words with a performative value; however, he does not give enough attention to these verbal performances and to the details of language embedded in action. Thus, the exercise of power relationships does not depend, strictly speaking, on technical effectiveness, even if the actors themselves may perceive it as such (hence the need to maintain the distinction between emic and etic descriptions). This is why expressions such as “power technology” or “power physiology,” if taken too literally, are somewhat deceiving. While I agree with Warnier’s critique of the approaches that reduce the body and materiality to a system of abstract signs, semiology cannot be completely forsaken for praxeology. That is why further analysis is needed on the reasons for the effectiveness of the symbolic actions associated with power relationships, and on the cognitive processes that these actions mobilize. For example, it is evident that pot-king governmentality is based on a massive use of analogic reasoning. The fact that the body constitutes the matrix of this analogic reasoning does not mean that unconscious cognitive schemas governing this reasoning are the same as automatic motor schemas. The ambiguity of Warnier’s argument derives from a certain shift in the use of the notion of “unconscious,” caught between psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology and motor physiology. If pot-king governmentality is based on a “cognitive and motor unconscious,” the issue lies in the articulation of this “and.” It is necessary to better distinguish between body technologies sensu stricto and power technologies, between what is considered automatic motor routines and what requires a higher-level cognitive treatment. Similarly, a better distinction is needed between what is completely unconscious and what is only tacit or implicit: what is usually self-evident can in fact, under certain conditions, be an object of awareness. The political anthropology Warnier proposes thus needs a precise exploration of the shift from implicit to explicit in cognition, and of the various stages between procedural and declarative knowledge (Karmiloff-Smith 1992).


These clarifications would undoubtedly refine, even nuance, the thesis concerning the unconscious interiorization of domination and the impossibility of any critical awareness. Warnier himself mentions at a certain point the possibility (as marginal as it may be) that individual trajectories could allow for a form of critical reflexivity. He alludes to artists—for example, the mysterious “king-sculptor of the Kom”—and to medicine men and diviners, but also to “thinkers” and “sharp ‘mothers,’ whose truculence, irony and wit commanded respect from the people around them” (282). It would have been interesting to know more about these peculiar individuals and the conditions for their emergence. It seems that their marginal position gives these individuals the necessary distance for awareness: the diviner’s outsider status with his family, the detachment created by the sculptor through his pieces, and the causticity of laughter. The peculiar acumen that Warnier attributes to these individuals, whom he names and knows well, may be a consequence of the privileged relationship he had with them in the field, and of the private confidences that he would have collected in this way. The common lack of verbalization about the palace’s domination is not because its conscious understanding is impossible, but because certain confidential matters cannot be talked about with whomever and in any way: they must remain quiet, even when they are widely known about (Zempléni 1984, 1996). An anthropology of power relationships cannot exist without a careful reflexive analysis of dialogue situations and, implicitly, of the role of tacit silence.


The specification of the possible steps between implicit and explicit knowledge would also allow a better explanation for the change. How could a form of domination that escapes conscious understanding be questioned? Warnier describes a brutal change in the 1980s and 1990s: refusing their condition of asexual cadets, young people unshackled themselves from the sexual governmentality of the pot-king. This sexual revolution, which threatened the very principles of kingship, coincided with the political unrest led by the Social Democratic Front, the opposition party to President Biya, in power since 1982; SDF activists were mostly young men. The Anglophone Grassfields, a SDF stronghold, were the target of a violent repression by the state, exacerbating the tensions between cadets and elites. The 1990s marked a separation between the cadets and the kingship, which until then they had seemed to largely support. In 2000, the Mankon king had to install metal gates at the palace to contain the violence. But did the cadets really wait until the end of the twentieth century to become aware of their oppression and rebel? Warnier argues for this hypothesis, which leads him to reinterpret his previous works (1996) about the riots in the Grassfields in light of Dominique Malaquais’s research (2002) to show that these movements were not, in fact, a rebellion of the cadets against the kingship. Argenti, however, gives another interpretation of these events and insists on the importance of the cadets’ riots in the history of the Grassfields.


In the pre-colonial era, the threat of being sold into slavery or of the poison ordeal undoubtedly contributed to discourage any leanings toward rebellion (coercion is not missing from power technologies, even if Warnier tends to downplay it). Defection represented a security valve. The Grassfields’ demography has historically been characterized by a significant shifting population of cadets, who hoped to escape celibacy by moving from one chiefdom to the other. They were then integrated in local families as the classificatory “children” of the new masters for whom they worked, hoping in return to be able to get married one day. During the colonial era, the cadets’ defection became a more interesting strategy: young men left the chiefdoms to join missionary schools or search for salaried work in the city, the plantations, or the mines. This defection represents a chance of emancipation from the tutelage of the elders. Having left the kingdom to work, the “free boys” refused to pay their salary to the king, as they should have normally done, and thus openly rebelled against the power. At the turn of the twentieth century, the first violent riots of the cadets against the chiefdoms took place with the Tapenta movement. It was a group of irregular soldiers who had become mercenaries on their own after breaking their ties with their native chiefdom and colonial authorities. They wore German uniforms and rifles and wreaked havoc in the region. The term tapenta comes from the English “interpreters” and originally designated the translators employed by the colonial administration; it then went on to refer to anyone speaking a European language or, more broadly, anyone who mastered White knowledge, in any form. Thus, it was by appropriating White resources—their language, habits, and weapons—that the cadets estranged from their chiefdom found freedom from them. Cadets’ riots reoccurred throughout the twentieth century in the Grassfields. The rebellion of the maquisards of the Union of Cameroonian Peoples in the 1950s and 1960s (Mbembe 1996) was at once an anti-colonial insurrection and a revolt of the cadets against chiefdom elites, allies of the colonial power. In insisting on the importance of the cadets’ revolts, Argenti highlights the emergence of a new political force: “youth.” It is a liminal category, born from the inability of the colonial and postcolonial state to offer an alternative to traditional seniority; it included those who refused to remain “children” subject to the elites, but who could not access the status of “elder” and found their aspirations of emancipation thwarted.


In sum, Warnier and Argenti give us two very different versions of the cadets’ situation. Certainly, some of the Grassfields micro-kingdoms are peculiar. Oku, more isolated in the mountains, offers fewer escape options; therefore, the tensions between elders and cadets are heightened. In Mankon, internal conflicts focused more on succession disputes within the palace aristocracy (between 1920 and 1960). Nevertheless, the divergence between the two authors is first and foremost a matter of perspective. Warnier adopts in a way the king’s point of view. [4]  For example, he blatantly assumes the point of view...[4] He describes cadets as empty containers who depend on the purveying power of the king to exist. Palace officials are the only ones with the actual opportunity to act. Argenti paints a more generous picture of the cadets’ situation. Refusing to present them simply as passive containers, he ascribes to them a higher capacity for political action. In this sense he follows the recent current of research dedicated to children and adolescents in postcolonial Africa, which insists on the fact that they represent an active force with a central role in the public space (Honwana and De Boeck 2005). While Warnier gives a very Bourdieusian version of domination and its interiorization by the dominated, Argenti adopts a more Foucauldian perspective, which leaves room for the analysis of the practices of resistance that exist in the interstices of power relationships. The cadets are not a category that has been disciplined to the point of not being able to resist. While hegemonic domination penetrates the body and the spirit to the point of being beyond critical awareness, the practices of resistance that it causes can also be located in the same grey area of vague consciousness, “the space between consciousness and unconsciousness” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 29). In fact, rebellion does not necessarily involve a clearly articulated critical discourse, but it can also be expressed in more ambiguous non-discursive practices—which James C. Scott (2009) terms the domain of “infra-politics.” Against the theories of hegemony that prevail in critical sociology, this author emphasizes the importance of underground resistance practices that hide behind the public discourse (or silences) of subaltern groups. Paying attention to these “weapons of the weak” (to cite the title of a previous work of James Scott, published in 1985), Argenti revisits the question of the cadets’ support or resistance posed by Warnier, but suggests shifting the perspective by focusing on masked dances. The Grassfields masquerades are in fact the location of a persistent tension between elders and cadets.

Ambiguous Masquerades


Abandoning the functionalist approach to rituals as instruments in the service of social order, Argenti insists on the historical imagination expressed by masquerades. He follows Comaroff’s perspective on the “ritual as historical practice” (Comaroff 1985, 194), and is inspired more specifically by Rosalind Shaw’s work Memories of the Slave Trade (2002), which shows how the memory of the slave trade in Sierra Leone is about the imaginary of spirit possession, divination, and sorcery, rather than explicit discourses. Similarly, in the Grassfields, the kingdoms’ founding violence, the fear of slavery and colonization, the brutality of the antagonism between the cadets and the elites are not addressed by any explicit contemporary discourses. It is in fact the masked dances that, in their own way, attest to this violent but silent past. The social memory of past events—especially traumatizing ones—is not necessarily based on declarative memory, but can also involve procedural memory. To those who can interpret them, masquerades offer a “summary of the history of the Grassfields” (Argenti 2007, 242). In interpreting masked dances as the embodiment of the memory of the Grassfields’ past, Argenti thus follows Warnier’s approach, centered on non-discursive practices and incorporated culture. In attempting to decipher the implicit meanings of the masquerades, however, he also exposes himself to the risk of over-interpretation (Olivier de Sardan 1993). [5]  The followers of the Hauka cult, which originated in...[5]


Masked dances are omnipresent in the Grassfields. The most important among them are the official masquerades occurring during royal festivals. Numerous masks are put on show: Nkok, a wild beast, Mabu, the palace’s executioner, and so forth. The semantic field of the term for “mask” (kekúm) goes beyond the object itself, as it also designates unmasked characters, such as the Nokan jesters. Mask-wearers are palace officials who sometimes pay high sums to join a secret mask society. Masquerades are an implicit evocation of the past and in particular they re-enact the slave trade. According to Argenti, the cowrie shells that decorate the costumes represent the currency used during the trade era. Similarly, the swords worn by the fearsome masks that attack the audience evoke the raids by Fulani slave traders. In reality, however, the masks embody ambiguous entities: Mabu is at once prey and predator, a native and a foreigner, a slave and a slave trader. This ambivalence is conveyed through ritual condensation and inversion, made more ambiguous by their implicitness—a process Argenti calls the “poetic indeterminacy” of the masquerades/dances. The expression is not particularly helpful, in the sense that the ambivalence of masquerades is not related to an apparent poetic vagueness, but rather to a precise and effective interactional dynamics, as shown by the behavior of the masks toward the audience. For instance, the sidekicks of the Aga mask ask for donations with mute insistence: one hand outstretched, the other brandishing a spear, they smile enigmatically, eyes wide open. This paradoxical posture brings together a series of antithetical attitudes: the spear contradicts the outstretched hand and the smile; the imperiousness of the demand contradicts the fact that it is a donation. The mask’s sidekicks assume a posture that implies at once submission and domination for the spectators they approach. [6]  On paradoxical condensation in rituals, see Houseman...[6] This destabilizing behavior (even more so as they are officials) illustrates well the singular way in which masquerades reveal the palace’s domination.


As liminal characters associated both with the city and the wilderness of the forest, masks are in fact images of the king himself. Myths attribute him a foreign origin, despite the fact that he is the founder of the kingdom’s autochthony. The king, protector and nurturer, is also a dangerous predator: the panther is his animal counterpart. Therefore, masquerades are not transparent representations of the Grassfields’ history, but are based on a series of implicit shifts. They represent the palace’s power as a necessary defense against the threat of outside aggressors (the raids of slave traders, or cannibal sorcerers from the forest). Masks represent at once the threat from which the palace protects the subjects, and the violence used to enact this protection. But at the same time this hides the fact that the palace elites exercise internal violence toward the subjects of their own kingdom, by reducing them into slavery to enrich themselves or by accusing them of sorcery to silence the rebels. The palace presents itself as the protector of the same people it terrorizes. Consequently, official masquerades are part of the legitimization of the palace’s power: they enact the violence of the past by dressing it up, by “masking” it.


Because of their ambivalence, masked dances can nevertheless be subject to a double interpretation. Argenti focuses on the way in which the cadets perceive official ceremonies, in opposition to the palace’s hegemonic version. In fact, masquerades are a privileged tool to examine the ambiguous relationship between the cadets’ submission and disobedience. According to Argenti, thousands of cadets attend the royal festivals because the spectacle of the fearsome masks attacking the audience shows clearly the violence the palace imposes on them: far from masking their oppression, it unmasks it. From their point of view, masquerades are not an innocent folkloristic commemoration, but a performance of incredible relevance: they represent a violent, oppressive past that continues in the present. Through masquerades, the cadets can relive the past, not as a trauma but in a more ambiguous way that brings together fear and pleasure. They enjoy the display of their domination. Argenti’s argument, however, which is at times too psychological, is not entirely persuasive. His argument presupposes a theory of “sublimation” that is not really supported, even though he seeks to distance himself from Max Gluckman’s (1963) cathartic model of the “rituals of rebellion.” [7]  Max Gluckman sees the “rituals of rebellion” as a safety...[7] In the end, the cadets find pleasure in the representation of terror, insofar as it is not conveyed by an explicit discourse, but by an aesthetic performance that plays on implicitness and ambiguity. In fact, the allure of palace masquerades for the cadets is more about the dynamics of interaction than catharsis. Masquerades are founded on the articulation of the manifest behaviors that masked officials and cadets have towards one another. The involvement of each of the two parties is based on the perception of the other party’s behavior toward oneself. [8]  About the relational dynamics of the masquerades, see...[8] Even if they are just spectators, the cadets play a crucial role, for without them, masquerades lose their significance. To manifest their power, palace officials need the cadets to run away from their masks. However, the cadets are not completely unaware of the role that they play. They may imagine that they are the ones tricking palace officials by playing their game. This gap between the two parties’ perspectives allows cadets to derive an ambiguous pleasure from their participation in the performance of their subjugation by the palace masks. The emotional and epistemic attitudes of the cadets toward masquerades are, ultimately, the emerging products of the underlying dynamics of interaction.


The palace’s grand masquerades, however, represent only a fraction of the numerous masked dances in the Grassfields. Every chiefdom, family, and village has their own masks. Village masquerades are subordinate to those of the palace, which serve as their model: all new masks must be approved by the king. This, however, does not mean that they are simple copies of the palace’s masked dances. Even though they are under the control of the elders, village masquerades are appropriated by the cadets since they are their most active members and those who constantly invent new masks. In this way, cadets are no longer relegated to the role of spectators, but are fully actors of the masquerades. In the village, masks appear notably during mourning. As it often happens in sub-Saharan Africa, these second funerals are celebrations, and are in fact a “dancing of death” (while funerals are a “mourning of death”). Village masquerades are thus much more festive than palace ones, which are more violent and sinister. While palace ceremonies evoke the cadets’ exclusion from marriage, village performances are an occasion for flirting between boys and girls. Furthermore, Argenti shows how village masquerades are used in women’s rites of fertility, as he seeks to represent women’s point of view, which is absent from Warnier’s book (who tends to downplay the female perspective compared to the dominant male one).


Other dances, of recent origin, express even more clearly the autonomy of the dominated vis-à-vis the palace (Argenti 1998, 2002, 2004). They are masquerades organized by women or by young men, often forbidden by the palace and having suggestive names (such as the “Worldwide” group). During the 1960s and 1970s, in the Grassfields, a dance group called “Air Youth” replaced traditional masks with military outfits and a modern aesthetic. Imitating the “gendarmes” with a sinister reputation embodying the violence of the postcolonial state, this new dance represented the oppressed cadets’ imaginary attempt at appropriating the power of the state.


Young children also pretend to have masquerades like the adults. These dances are entirely organized by children (between three and twelve years old) and are completely outside of the elders’ control. Child masquerades represent military officials, the SDF opposition party or white people, with choreographies inspired by popular music. They allow children to appropriate the world in which they live as a game, including both political violence and market modernity. It is significant that, unlike adults, children do not make their masks with forest materials, but with the “waste of modernity” such as old bins or cardboard boxes.


We may think that these imitations of official masquerades attest to the alienation of the dominated, who are unable to avoid the hegemonic model imposed by the palace. They are actually original appropriations that affect the official model (about these issues, see Bonhomme 2010). By referencing Mikhail Bakhtin (1970), an unavoidable author in postmodern anthropology, Argenti emphasizes that cadets, women, and children only imitate palace masquerades to better subvert them, in a carnival-like manner. In a way they are masquerades of masquerades, festive parodies that offer dominated people a space for contestation. This imitative transformation has a cathartic effect: the laughter of the carnival creates a reflexive gap that puts the domination of the palace at a distance—something that Warnier notes also about the bursts of laughter of the “sharp” women. In postcolonial Africa, grotesque derision is often the weapon of the weak: the dominated mock power through caricature (Mbembe 1992, Toulabor 1981). Ultimately, Argenti interprets village masquerades as the cadets’ “counter-discourse” against the palace’s hegemonic discourse. The issue of the ambiguous relationship between these masked dances and more straightforward rebellions remains, however. Are masquerades based on a “real,” “symbolic,” or “imaginary” resistance (on these questions, see Althabe 1969)? In short, what is the political significance of the “counter-discourse” of the cadets’ masks? Arguably, this term is not the most appropriate for ritual performances that do not involve spoken discourse, but it seems that the linguistic metaphor cannot be so easily avoided. This linguistic bias emerges also in Warnier’s work when he sees subjects’ bodies as the “written Constitution” of the Mankon kingdom (280). These Freudian slips attest to the difficulties that anthropology (used to “entextualize” culture) has in accounting for non-discursive practices. However, Warnier’s and Argenti’s works represent, each in their own way, important and thought-provoking contributions to understanding how power penetrates the body as well as the mind (through palm wine sprayings or masked dances), and to comprehend the ambiguous modalities through which the dominated consent to or resist domination.


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[*] Jean-Pierre Warnier, Régner au Cameroun: Le Roi-Pot (Paris: Karthala, 2009); Nicolas Argenti, The Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[1] Jean-François Bayart and Jean-Pierre Warnier, Matière à politique. Le pouvoir, le corps et les choses (Paris: Khartala, 2004).

[2] The expression “vital piggy bank” does not come from the Mankon themselves, but from Bamileke Catholic priests. According to Warnier, their position of cultural brokers allowed them to put into words what others usually could not express.

[3] The assimilation of unmarried status and forced celibacy presupposes, however, a link between sexuality and marriage that is not self-evident: forbidding adultery does not make it impossible; it makes it clandestine. The gap between moral norms and real practices cannot be ignored.

[4] For example, he blatantly assumes the point of view of the polygamous elites about the sexuality of cadets, or rather about their supposed lack thereof. When cadets openly accessed sex in the 1980s and 1990s, elders complained of the “moral depravation” of the young generations, whom they blamed for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

[5] The followers of the Hauka cult, which originated in the 1920s in Niger, are possessed by spirits associated with the colonial world. Paul Stoller (1995), following Jean Rouch (1955), sees it as a “horrific comedy” that mocks White power with cruel humor. Resistance to the colonizer is thus expressed directly in the violent spectacle of possessed bodies—a political interpretation that Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan critiques or, at least, nuances.

[6] On paradoxical condensation in rituals, see Houseman and Severi (1994).

[7] Max Gluckman sees the “rituals of rebellion” as a safety valve that allows social tensions to be expressed in a controlled environment.

[8] About the relational dynamics of the masquerades, see Bonhomme (2006, 182–184). See also Smith (1984); Houseman (2002).


  1. The Pot-King Governmentality
  2. Cadets: From Support to Revolt
  3. Ambiguous Masquerades

Translated from the French by Cadenza Academic Translations

To cite this article

Julien Bonhomme, “ Troubles de l'intestin ”, L'Homme 2/2010 (n° 194) , p. 157-177
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-l-homme-2010-2-page-157.htm.

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