Saturday, February 4, 2017

Nina Sylvanus's "Patterns in Circulation"

Nina Sylvanus is assistant professor of anthropology at Northeastern University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa, and reported the following:
Page 99 is about the political significance of the Nana Benz in the small West African nation of Togo. It captures the key themes for chapter 3: “Branding Cloth, Branding Nation,” by showing how human actors, capitalist forces, and the state are bound together in the materiality of cloth. The term Nana Benz refers to the powerful Togolese cloth traders who controlled the West African wax cloth trade from the 1950s to the 1990s, until political crisis and global shifts in production derailed their hold on the economy. Emblematic of the clothing styles of countless women in West Africa and beyond, wax printed cloth has a unique history full of historical twists and turns, spanning colonial circuits of commerce between Europe, Southeast Asia and West Africa, and more recent controversies over piracy, appropriation, and China’s role in Africa. Togo was long the West African center of trade for this kind of wax-print cloth, produced in Europe specifically for West African markets, which brings us back to page 99 and the story of the Nana Benz. The passage below invites us to consider how rituals of state power were shaped by the Nana Benz in material and affective ways.

From page 99:
Echoing Filip de Boeck’s (2012) provocation to think about urbanity as a space that is being scaled and built through the infrastructure of the body, we can make a connection between the grand infrastructures of modernization and the infrastructure of the body that the Nana Benz made possible. They provided corporeal substance and superficial allegiance to Eyadéma’s national-developmentalist state as well as material infrastructure, including their cars. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Nana Benz became part and parcel of Eyadéma’s cult of the dictator. They were folded into his national narrative and became attached to the dictator himself, albeit in ambivalent ways. They would perform rituals of various kinds, including sponsoring a soccer tournament in his honor that showcased a group of younger Nana Benz playing to defend the values of the nation. Like other groups that stood by the dictator and willingly performed their national allegiance by giving their physical bodies to the body of the nation, the Nana Benz also acted as a cultural group that emitted a core economic essence.
Long considered one of the most potent economic and political forces in Togo, the Nana Benz legendarily defined the nation and became a brand unto themselves. But how secure is the link between the Nana Benz and the national heritage brand “Nana Benz”? Questions of brand ownership and authorship arise anew in the neoliberal context as a new generation of cloth traders, “Les Nanettes,” pursue control of the national Nana Benz brand but have the cloth copied and made in China, as later chapters of Patterns in Circulation reveal.
Learn more about Patterns in Circulation at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue