book review by A.K.M. Skarpelis
(Berlin Social Science Center)
Making a sound argument about historical legacies is tricky. It would have been easy to opt for a coarse-grained analysis of Ivoirian political economy that advances a straightforward history of path dependence and cumulative disadvantage. However, Matlon chooses a more difficult path: By taking us through centuries of racial capitalism – beginning with slavery, through colonialism, decolonization and into the present – she puts forward an argument about how institutional infrastructures and imagined futures guide the present-day action of her interlocutors.
Two exciting dissertations-in-progress are dealing with similar questions of how imaginaries and historical legacies shape personal agency. Julia Stier’s (2021) work on young Senegalese’s migration decision finds that migrants present their lives on social media in distorted and only positive ways. This has two consequences: Local Senegalese exhibit higher intentions to migrate; and conversely, kin who stay behind have come to expect regular remittances, even as the migrants cannot really afford them because they are stuck in bad jobs. Elena Ayala- Hurtado’s (2021) work on Spanish youth in turn finds that although young graduates denounce the “achievement narrative” of future stable employment as fraudulent, they still attach to it in spite of their lived experience to the contrary. I mention these in-progress works because they show how productive it is to conduct ethnographic work that combines the literatures on temporalities and imagined futures with those on migration and (racial) capitalism.
Across different cases, the scholarship reveals how dashed hopes and expectations do not necessarily result in despondency, but that discordant experiences may be resolved by privileging past conditions and hopes rather than acting based on one’s own lived experience. Put differently: Hope dies last. And this is something Matlon shows with sincerity across the life histories of different men. Matlon’s prose remains sincere and professional even as she describes how an orator at the Sorbonne – a postcolonial urban speaker’s corner dominated by male nationalists – waves a black dildo in the air while making jokes at her expense. While one might miss a more in-depth engagement with theory and substance of racial capitalism in the overall book. Matlon’s argument is complex and nuanced even when political implications are thorny:
For example when she shows how Abidjanais men engage in ritualized misogyny and entitled masculinity; or when it turns out that French withdrawal from Côte d’Ivoire is accompanied by the collapse of lucrative public sector employment. In less capable hands, such complexities may have been described in ways that could have exceptionalized the men’s sexuality, or partially redeemed colonial-period institutions. In Matlon’s oeuvre on the other hand, we are taken into the intimate worlds of “surplus” men’s arrested masculinities, and understand how the Black Atlantic enmeshes with historical imaginaries of colonial-period évolués to reproduce existing social cleavages.
Ayala-Hurtado, Elena. 2021. “Narrative Continuity/Rupture: Projected Professional Futures amid Pervasive Employment Precarity,” Work and Occupations 49(1):45-78.
Matlon, Jordanna. 2016. "Racial Capitalism and the Crisis of Black Masculinity," American Sociological Review 81(5):1014-38.
Matlon, Jordanna. 2022. A Man among Other Men: The Crisis of Black Masculinity in Racial Capitalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Stier, Julia. 2021. "Die Macht der Bilder: Der Einfluss gesellschaftlicher Vorstellungen auf Migrationsentscheidungen im Senegal." WZB-Mitteilungen 173.