Introduction: On “Effective” versus “Ineffective” Forms of Resistance
As I mentioned in the previous chapter, I would like to open the current one with a reflection on the question of violence and effectivity that emerged in the context of the discussion on the agency and potentiality of humor. This has become necessary because the same question is frequently posed in regard to silence, which is the second nonorganized mode of engagement discussed in the book.
A good place to start is the extensive literature on resistance in Africa (Abbink, de Bruijn, and Walraven 2003; Renton, Seddon, and Zeilig 2007; Markovitz 1998; cf. the essays in Obadare and Willems 2014). This literature reveals what appears to be a fundamental and seemingly irreconcilable polarization between forms of action that are seen as clearly effective in instigating sociopolitical change and others that ostensibly are not. In the first “effective” category are forms of direct confrontation, such as riots, mob action, and protests that pointedly pit the subaltern against forces acting on behalf of the state. In the second “ineffective” category are forms of protests and strategies whereby, as a rule, the subaltern avoid direct confrontation with state power and rely instead on adversarial tactics that, drawing on “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1992), tend to emphasize the need to live and fight another day.
For the most part, this clinical division between “effective” and “ineffective” forms of action has become axiomatic, reified in no small measure by the undeniable success of direct popular action in different parts of the world. The Arab Spring of 2011 and the ouster in February 2014 of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych after days of street protests are illustrations of the indisputable effectiveness of direct confrontation.
In contrast, unconventional indirect (hence, “ineffective”) modes of resistance (humor and silence, say) have always been dogged by skepticism, perhaps none more pointed than the charge that they come from a place of cowardice, are evasive, and are, therefore, ultimately impotent. This and similar critiques go to the heart of debates on agency, identity, community, and citizenship in Africa; and, having briefly addressed them in the previous chapter, I will revisit them in the concluding chapter. Having said that, there are at least four different ways in which the question of political effectivity might seem, perhaps, misguided.