Suspicious Times?

Monday, 14 May, 2018 - 15:00

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Suspicion. The term evokes so many moods, so much affect, used as ways of reading the world: uncertainty, fear, anxiety, doubt, and the unknown. But also their opposites: faith, trust, confidence, certainty, the known and knowable. Is suspicion the defining feature of our times? If so, what might it mean for anthropologists working in Africa? And what can “suspicious” Africa tell us about a world increasingly drawn to doubt, conspiracy, and anxieties about the unknown? We propose that suspicion is the characteristic par excellence of modern subjectivity – not its its excess, something to be relegated to the realm of irrationality. Nor is it an expression of enchantment. Rather, we take suspicion seriously as a mode of navigating, reading, and living the world. From Cameroon, we explore how the power of elites and their moral authority is increasingly questioned over their affiliations with freemasonry – a global secret society that traces its origins to Western esotericism. From Congo, we demonstrate how people experience all kinds of signs – from things to people – as objects of danger that need to be carefully managed. Common to both contexts is the uncertainty and possible threat surrounding the figures with whom one is in relation: institutions, things, people, infrastructures. And yet, connectedness is crucial for sustaining all life. We argue that doubt about the viability and reliability of signs is characteristic of social life tout court. But today, the particular, and particularly acute, anxieties about signs and their meanings are symptomatic of the increased velocity of their circulation. For all concerned in this moment, the task of making and interpreting meaning to navigate the world is full of both danger and promise. Danger, because of the increased slipperiness of surfaces and appearances; promise, because suspicion has, more than ever before, become a form of agency. In this sense, the double-edged sword of suspicion is the only way to live in these Times.

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