When the Republic of Guinea gained independence in 1958, one of the first policies of the new state was a village-to-village eradication of masks and other ritual objects it deemed “fetishes.” The Demystification Program, as it was called, was so urgent it even preceded the building of a national road system. In
Unmasking the State, Mike McGovern attempts to understand why this program was so important to the emerging state and examines the complex role it had in creating a unified national identity. In doing so, he tells a dramatic story of cat and mouse where minority groups cling desperately to their important— and outlawed—customs.
Primarily focused on the communities in the country’s southeastern rainforest region—people known as Forestiers—the Demystification Program operated via a paradox. At the same time it banned rituals from Forestiers’ day-to-day lives, it appropriated them into a state-sponsored program of folklorization. McGovern points to an important purpose for this: by objectifying this polytheistic group’s rituals, the state created a viable counterexample against which the Muslim majority could define proper modernity. Describing the intertwined relationship between national and local identity making, McGovern showcases the coercive power and the unintended consequences involved when states attempt to engineer culture.
Mike McGovern is assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University. He is the author of
Making War in Côte d’Ivoire, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
“Unmasking the State is an engaging and insightful work that constitutes an important contribution to African Studies, political and religious anthropology, and the study of iconoclasm. Mike McGovern artfully weaves an edifying tapestry of the demystification programs launched by Sékou Touré in the 1960s among Loma-speaking people of Guinea, West Africa. This is a well-argued and timely book about an area and a problematic that deserves more attention.”
— David Berliner, University of Brussels
Unmasking the State is a top-quality work of scholarship. It is clear that Mike McGovern has read widely and deeply in social theory from a variety of schools, in both English and French, yet at no stage does this theoretical material risk overwhelming the rich historical and ethnographic material on this dynamic part of West Africa. The book is well organized and exceptionally well written. It is hard to know how it could be improved.”
— Stephen Ellis, University of Leiden
“It takes a smart and subtle author to put scientific socialism and Pan-Africanism into one postcolony, and that’s just the frame Mike McGovern gives us.
Unmasking the State is more than a history from the ground up of Sekou Toure’s bungled modernizing project—it’s a study of state practice, the making of ethnicity, and the active and critical dialogue between the two. Perhaps more important, this is a book about the ways a state becomes a nation.”
— Luise White, University of Florida
“Mike McGovern’s promise to ‘unmask the state’ in this book is both literally to describe Guinea’s new national government’s campaign against secrecy and ‘fetishism’ amongst its rural citizens (1958–1984) and theoretically to reveal the multiple levels and stages at which conviction, persuasion, imposition, and violent expropriation have worked in the creation of the modern state as it now is, with what he sees as a kind of double consciousness, a combination of ethnic and national identity. He combines methods and results from several sites, using close empirical attentiveness and impressive interpretive and expositional skill, to make this important and original contribution to political studies. The book has a great deal to offer to a range of political scholars, from specialists in Guinea to broad comparativists of identity in the twenty-first century.”