Jeremy Prestholdt, Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization, 2008

Globalization discourses often portray recent global interdependence as a new unprecedented development, brought by benevolent “Western” nations that ultimately modernize developing markets and their societies. Jeremy Prestholdt’s work, Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization questions the ahistorical nature of such discourse while aiming “to challenge notions of discrete socialcultural spaces and limited interactions that shape our understanding of the past and give rise to our wonder at a “globalized” present.”(1) Additionally, Domesticating the World also places East African consumerism as an important act of not only cultural and personal agency but also an influential economic force for many producers of Western consumer products.

Since the 1970s, consumerism has emerged as a useful interdisciplinary tool from which to examine and “perceive routes of interrelation” which reveal agency and various social/political/economic relations between peoples and markets. (4) Presthold’s work refocuses attention on how East Africans used consumer products to curry favor with local colonial actors, mark status within their own societies, and influence global markets such as those of Liverpool textile manufacturers. For example, in its early chapters, Domesticating the World explores the act of similitude , through which some African peoples “used the codes and languages of empire for their own ends.”(18). Later, Prestholdt analyzes the “social logics of need” or the “symbolic rhetoric of objects and the ability of commodities to shape personhood and by representing the self publicly in reference to moral norms.” (35) The result illustrates the various ideas and signifiers which persisted among consumerist Mutsamduans and how those logics affected nearly all members of society. Though, Prestholdt’s work reveals agency previous scholars sought to deny, it also suggests that East Africa developed its own sense of cosmopolitanism through not only trade but its use of various consumer products. The disjuncture Western observers ascribed to East Africans appropriations of “Western” dress and goods, furthers Prestholdt’s point concerning the perceived isolation and ignorance Europeans attached to East Africa, “Colonialism did not wrench East Africa from its isolation or introduce the benefits of the modern world. Instead it superimposed a particular vision of universal interrelation over East Africa’s global relationships, while excluding Africans from many of the social, economic and political rights championed by theorists of modernity.” (172)

Finally, Prestholdt discusses slavery and the role of slaves in both appropriating their own identities in relation to their owners and vice versa. Domesticating the World notes the role European observers, both “slavers” and “redeemers”, played in creating an image of East African slavery as centered in the Zanzibar market, which became the dominant representation of the slave market/trade regionally. Both slavers and redeemers viewed slaves as lacking “self making” powers, “British analysts transposed the image of the mute, infantile, and degraded slave onto the entirety of East Africa.” (124) Popular European culture often through travelogues and images created a “picaresque” Africa which assembled “juxtapositions of places, people, objects became “scenes”, and places as well as people came to be discussed as if they were little more than pictures.” (153). Africa and its people transformed into consumable exotic commodities.

Domesticating the World refutes the ahistorical nature of current globalization discourses, provides agency to peoples previously denied such abilities, and argues Africa’s place in global markets served as an influential force both within and outside East Africa. With that said, the book examines primarily ideas proffered by African and European elites. Even when exploring the “self making” or lack of “self making of slaves”, Prestholdt’s actors rarely emerge from the actual social strata. To be fair however, such gaps might simply result from available sources, varying literacy rates of the period or other factors out of the author’s control.

footnotes -

Nzwanian strategy of conscious self-presentation in interpersonal and political relationships that stresses likeness. As strategic replication, similitude bears a close resemblance to Homi Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimesis.

Such an observation reminds readers of warnings heard in Modernity at Large, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, and The Myth of Continents, that historians and scholars must avoid using the Western historical experience as a universal model for all.

Even chapter two’s focus on social logics flows outward from the poetry of Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassany.

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