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PPV #22: The Aesthetics of Revolution: Broadcasts from Accra


5pm GMT. Room TBC.

Trans-media lecture with video by Jesse Weaver Shipley (John D. Willard Professor of African and African American Studies and Oratory, Dartmouth College). Comments by Hélène Neveu-Kringelbach, Associate Professor of African Anthropology, UCL.

Location: Common Ground, IAS, UCL.

Please note: This event will be held IRL (In Real Life). Hybrid online participation via Zoom will be enabled. Registration is required

Mohammed Ben Abdallah in *Anatomy of a Revolution*, a film by Jesse Weaver Shipley

In the mid 20th century, the coup d’état became a seemingly common form of political action around the world. Theorists on both the left and the right argued about how to defend the state from, as well as instigate, various types of coups. While purportedly illegitimate, the coup was central to state craft and the practices of international relations. It had a recognizable ritual order and aesthetic. With end of the Cold War and the growing hegemony of a global neoliberal capitalist order, the coup d’état seemingly became a relic of an older political-economic moment. But recently there has been a new wave of both failed and successful coups from Washington to Conakry. I ask why the coup has returned to prominence as a form of political discourse. Its reappearance as a mode of legitimate action reveals the imperialist origins of the modern nation-state and the growing recent pressure on national borders and techniques of rule. I argue that while the coup d’état is signified as an outdated nightmare and relic of state disfunction it is, in fact, the apotheosis of the nation-state. Its organization and violence mimic and invert the order and bureaucracy of state rule. Rebels attempt to inhabit the trappings of the state to claim that their use of violence is moral and legitimate.

I focus on a largely forgotten radical period in Ghanaian history beginning with a successful coup 1979 and ending with a failed coup in 1983. For a brief period, radical soldiers and intellectuals ruled, seeking to tear down society and rebuild it anew. But they were divided, seduced, and killed as their government embraced a free-market oriented security state. The sudden rise and fall of revolutionary Ghana—and its erasure from historical discourse—reveals both the possibility of alternative modes of political power in Africa and how these forms have been contained through both violence and representational practices. Indeed, if we think historically and geographically through a coup d’état in 1979 Accra—rather than 1968 Paris for example—it reorients our understanding of sovereignty and revolution in the 20th century by showing how young revolutionaries sought an African-grounded independent sovereignty, a future now forgotten. Excavating Ghana’s lost revolution—and numerous other radical movements around Africa in that moment—changes how we calibrate historical change, geographic continuities and gaps, and the flow of power. The return of the coup as a technique of statecraft raises renewed questions about the relationship of the radical left and right and the viability of the nation-state as a sustainable political form.

Jesse Weaver Shipley is a writer, ethnographer, and artist whose work explores the links between aesthetics and politics. He focuses on how performance genres are shaped by political-economic regimes while at the same time providing tools for people to create new relationships to power. His first book Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music explores the rise of African hip-hop and its political-economic significance. His second book Trickster Theatre: Poetics of Freedom in Urban Africa examines how modern pan-African theatre is crucial to the struggle for decolonization and independence. His films and multimedia art works experiment with forms of storytelling, portraiture, and theory to tie mundane details and spectacular events to broader principles of power, aesthetics, desire, and trauma.

Hélène Neveu Kringelbach is Associate Professor of African Anthropology at University College London. She has carried out fieldwork in Senegal, France and the UK. Her study of social mobility in Dakar, as seen through the lives and work of dancers and musicians, was published in 2013 as a prize-winning monograph, Dance Circles: Movement, Morality and Self-Fashioning in Urban Senegal. She is currently working on an ethnographic study of binational and transnational families between Senegal and Europe.


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