Interview by Ilana Gershon
If you found yourself sharing a taxi to the AAA conference with a media anthropologist studying Chinese soap operas, how would you explain your book’s major points?
It’s funny that you mention soap operas since some of the names that are given to the (pagne) cloth that features at the heart of the book are named after (or inspired by) the characters of popular Ivorian and Latin American soap operas. A pattern called “Ricardo’s suitcase” for example is named after the hero of a Brazilian telenovela, and there are many others that broadcast images about power and politics, beauty and wealth, and romance and conflict between men and women in global West Africa. I’d probably continue to talk more about the framing and analytical connections between television, cloth, and the global-local mediations of popular culture, but let me get to the book’s major points.
In the book I take a mundane object –the pagne or the boldly patterned wrap that women wear in large parts of West Africa—to trace its origins, paths of circulation, and its technical and social production from Holland to Java, from Togo to the broader West African region, and now from China back to Africa. Drawing upon archival research and multi-sited fieldwork, the book theorizes the material economies of this iconic commodity (so-called Dutch wax cloth), born out of 19th-century Dutch colonial efforts to copy Javanese batik cloth for Southeast Asian markets, and reborn as a cultural and status marker for West African women. I think of this wax-printed cloth as a vibrant object and an assembled commodity, whose fabrication is uniquely entangled in both imperial circuits of commerce and more recent controversies over piracy and appropriation.
At the heart of this work are two metaphors. First is a visual metaphor: “pattern”–the idea of (memorable) recurring forms that we see and recognize across time and space. Secondly, there is “dense materiality” –the notion that there are properties inherent in the cloth that gives it material agency, and yet it is manipulated by its wearer and brought to life by the body. Through analysis of the cloth, my book reveals the making, unmaking and remaking of relationships between things, people, and the institutions that govern them. While the material object is at the center of the story, the book pays close attention to its various uses and to the way it extends out into different spaces: into the market, into the world of national Togolese politics, and into factory floors in Holland and China.
Chapter 3 focuses on analyzing wax cloth as a medium central to political spectacle and the formation of Togo as a nation, I was hoping you could talk a bit about the analytical implications of engaging with cloth this way. Taking cloth to be a medium particularly well suited to the political in Togo allows you to add to Benedict Anderson’s argument about how national identity emerges, and am hoping you can talk about how using cloth makes this a specifically Togolese form of nationalism.
To answer this question is to address the chapter’s central arguments about how a material object such as cloth helped forge national identity in intimate and public terms in Togo. I have to start with the Nana Benz’s role in the representational order of the nation. 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, neoliberal reform and Chinese knock-offs derailed their hold on the economy. Named this way because these market ‘mothers’ used their wealth to buy the Mercedes Benz cars, which they then lent to the long time president-dictator, the Nana Benz built their financial power by controlling the circulation of cloth and embedding the cloth’s semiotic power (and their branding power) into the order of the nation. The Nana Benz made the nation both intimate and palpable, by trading on national associations in the popular pattern names they bestowed on pagne, thus enabling ordinary Togolese to partake in the narrative of nation-building through their everyday consumption of cloth.
Anderson’s argument about print capitalism is useful for considering how wax cloth (pagne) reached the masses, solidifying communal identities while registering national, ethnic, and gender differences. This is what makes cloth a particularly well-suited medium to the political and the specific brand of Togolese nationalism. The efficacy of this particular type of cloth and its association with Nana Benz-style nationalism is reflected in the common stories Togolese remember about the cloth traders, which offer insights into the way the Nana Benz (and their powerful stock in trade) captured people’s imaginations. My analysis draws out the “dense materiality” of cloth and the way it can at once evoke sentiment and move imaginaries and bodies while grounding the political and the nation in its materiality and visibility. Because cloth provides a surface for multiple narrations and representations (the literal image layered onto the cloth for everyone to see and the bundle of unbridled meaning it generates and that is open for manipulation) it was made to work as a medium that inscribed and disseminated the political spectacle and embodied power. For instance, when the portrait of the Togolese dictator Eyadéma (in power for nearly 40 years) appeared on cloth, the fabric literally captured the body politic during political spectacles when wearing the presidential party pagne became practically obligatory.
During the course of your research, how to be a successful trader transformed to such a degree that who was or could be successful shifted dramatically. Could you explain how trading cloth changed to such a degree during those ten years that the Nana Benz was replaced by the Nanette?
One of the most dramatic events that fundamentally changed the nature of the regional cloth trade was the 1994 currency devaluation of the West African CFA franc: when the price of cloth doubled over night and practically turned an everyday consumer good into a luxury item. At the same time, shifts in global production, the liberalization of Togo’s political, economic and public spheres and the undoing of the old system of cloth distribution, which had granted the women traders exclusive retail rights to the (Dutch) designs, all weakened the Nana Benz’s place in the market. With the breakdown of national protections in post-Cold War Togo –amidst the crisis of the state, the unraveling of the dictatorship and national structures (Charlie Piot describes this process brilliantly in Nostalgia for the Future)– the Nana Benz’s position as entrepreneurial nationals diminished, if it wasn’t devalued all together. So when this system fell apart, a new set of female Togolese entrepreneurs, the Nanette, began collaborating with Chinese companies to produce better and better imitations of Dutch wax, undermining the very basis of class distinction in Togo as well as throwing wax cloth production and distribution into chaos.
Over the course of a decade-long fieldwork (2000-2010), I witnessed the struggles, and in some cases the financial ruin, of the old guard of cloth entrepreneurs whose profit margins continued to decline while some Nanettes accumulated fortunes. Although the Nana Benz initially denigrated the new China prints that the Nanettes distributed to cash-constrained consumers as fakes, some of the older women entered the China trade with varying degrees of success. For the new trade required a new kind of entrepreneurial subjectivity and savvy, including the ability to operate multiple trades at the same time. As subtle neoliberal actors, the Nanettes fashioned themselves entrepreneurially through the flexibility of cloth, moving themselves and cloth in and out of Chinese factory floors. But tinkering with cloth design, engineering copies while teaching Chinese manufacturers about the qualia of cloth — its texture, color, and smell— to enhance its sensuous and aesthetic properties is also a high-risk affair. I saw several Nanettes ruin themselves when the containers of cloth they had commissioned arrived at the port with unsellable (that is, faulty) merchandise. Navigating the fluctuations of a market where profit is made from the speed of copying and moving things transnationally, requires a distinct set of entrepreneurial dispositions. A successful Nanette not only appropriates neoliberal logics but she mobilizes an autonomous set of practices and subjectivities by constantly moving herself and cloth, cultivating close relationships with powerful port brokers, and involving herself with innovative open-source design and production.
What does the story of China’s role in Africa look like when one begins by looking at the trade relationships surrounding cloth?
The circuit of capital built in the corridor between Africa and China is often portrayed as the new axis of South-South exploitation in Western media and policy discourses. Lurking behind this new axis are often ideological fears about the decline of the West in the world and the appearance of new global empires. Simplistic descriptions of Chinese neo-colonialism fall short in accounting for the complex ways that objects enter into and make social life, history and transnational trade. Looking closely at the materiality of trade and cloth allows moving beyond clichés about new forms of colonialism to ethnographically study what Chinese investment in Africa means for the people who work and live there.
What I try to show in the book is how China-in-Africa or China-in-Togo for that matter is made through complex patterns of coproduction and cross-positioning. Nanettes traveling to China leverage considerable agency with Chinese manufacturers who depend on the women’s deep knowledge about the qualia of cloth and consumer taste. These are intimate encounters, when traders spend weeks at a time on a single factory floor and become producers of their own brands. Which does not mean that traders and consumers view the dominance of Chinese goods on local markets as unproblematic. There are many symbols, metaphors and stories that are associated with Chinese traders who dupe the population with low quality goods in the city. Yet beliefs about the aggressive business practices of Chinese traders are often contradicted by the traders’ actual practices.
I am currently in Togo to work on my new project on Chinese investments in the Lomé port (Harboring the Future) and have had time to reconnect with the China-trading women in the market. While some complain that there is no longer money to be made in Chinese cloth (partially because there is too much of it), others speak of a strengthened partnership with their Chinese manufacturers. Certainly, what this trade relationship surrounding cloth reveals is the patterning of a new phase of global capitalism–whether that is capitalism with “Chinese characteristics” à la Aihwa Ong or a new form of (last) frontier capitalism remains to be seen.