Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Writing about a fiscal policy change in Guinea that affects data, Clovis Bergère examines the intersections of youth, digital technologies, and political power. He reflects on the role of imagination on studies on youth and the digital in contemporary Guinea, and invites us to conceive imaginative digital practices as contributing to theoretical experimentations that help us move towards decolonized versions of the world.
In reaction to the introduction of a new tax on digital data, part of the 2015 finance law known as L/2015/N002/AN, young Guinean blogger Gata Doré joined the chorus of protestations on Twitter with the following tweet:
For this short essay, I would like to hold Gata Doré’s tweet as a kind of metaphor for thinking about the intersections of youth, digital technologies, and political power in Guinea. Rather than juice oranges, Guineans tend to cut the top of the fruit off and use the opening to suck the juice directly out of the orange, the gesture referenced in Gata Doré’s tweet above. However, that Gata Doré included a capital O in his message is significant. It specifically pointed to French telecommunication giant Orange, the main internet service provider in Guinea, now tasked by the new law with collecting a 5% tax on all internet data. In Fiscal Disobedience, Janet Roitman writes that:
[…] economic concepts and institutions, such as tax and price, are political technologies that serve to constitute ‘that which is to be governed’ […]. Such political technologies are mechanisms that render aspects of social life both intelligible and governable. They are thus not simply instrumental methods for obtaining or assuring power; they are, rather, the very material form of power itself. (2005: 3)
How, then, do internet data taxes constitutes their fiscal subjects i.e., ‘that which is to be governed’ to use Janet Roitman’s expression? And, given that the overwhelming majority of internet-users in Guinea are young, how are they positioned within these digital forms of regulatory power? Or perhaps, to be put it in the terms presented by Gata Doré: what can be learned about the changing contours of power in Guinea today through the metaphor of an Orange – with a capital O – being sucked?
Answering these questions requires a much more comprehensive examination than the format of this short essay allows. Instead, I would like here to take a small epistemological and methodological detour and use Gata Doré’s metaphor to reflect, albeit succinctly, on the role of imagination in studies of youth and the digital in contemporary Guinea. What can we learn about the workings of power in Guinea today by taking seriously the creative, humoristic, metaphoric, poetic, in other words, imaginative digital practices of Guinean youths? Crucially, imagination, here, is not conceived as the opposite of reality, as a kind of fiction or dream-like state to be distinguished from real life. Rather, it is understood as a full-blown social practice, one that, as Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe recently noted, is ‘a fundamental dimension of our shared existence,’ a vital resource for inventing ways of relating to each other, of living together. Imagination allows us to go beyond an immediate reality often marked by long histories of domination, appropriation, stigmatization, and violent extraction. This, however, is not the same as escaping somewhere else – an early critique of digital practices understood as escapist virtuality opposed along a crude binary to a supposedly more real analog life. Imaginative practices – as digital practices – are very much anchored in reality, which they seek to narrate, relate, surpass, or keep open and moving. It points towards a dimension of life that escapes not reality itself but rather calculations, systematic quantifications, apparatuses of control, evading total capture. To use AbdouMaliq Simone’s phrase, for youth in Douala or Conakry, it is part of a necessary set of improvisations and rehearsals, a ‘stirring’ that ‘keeps channels open’ (2005; 2019). Relatedly, in Poetics of Relation, Edouard Glissant, writes:
[…] Relation informs not simply what is relayed but also the relative and the related. Its always approximate truth is given in a narrative. For, though the world is not a book, it is nonetheless true that the silence of the world would, in turn, make us deaf. Relation, driving humanities chaotically onward, needs words to publish itself, to continue. But because what it relates, in reality, proceeds from no absolute, it proves to be the totality of relatives, put in touch and told. (1997: 27)
In the digital age, how Relation – with a capital R to echo Gata Doré’s capital O – is ‘put in touch and told’ has greatly expanded. In Virusland, Pierre Cassou-Noguès describes the large quantities of biometric, user data, cookies, and traces constantly generated by our digitally mediated lives as a membrane. As he notes, this membrane is ‘not a skin, but [it] interrupts the return action from objects, so that we can perceive, touch, without being perceived, touched ourselves’ (2020: 224). This membrane is constituted by the digital technologies that establish our relations to the world. It is today so thick that we have become intangible to the objects around us, yet to the membrane itself we are very much touchable, perceivable, tangible. This digital membrane is at the heart of a shift in the logic of power from the panoptic to haptic. Power today resembles touch rather than continuous vision. Deleuze’s famous essay on the societies of control also comes to mind here (Deleuze, 1992). Being ‘sucked like an Orange’ then emerges as a creative way of putting words, of narrating, the affective dimension of relating to one’s digital membrane in Guinea. The poetically acerbic metaphor enables us to inscribe digital relations within longer histories of colonial and extractive power in Guinea. These histories of predatory power and extraction have turned the membrane vampiristic, blood – or rather juice-sucking – an assemblage of privatized government, increasingly swayed by neoliberal authoritarian tendencies. In On the Postcolony, Mbembe notes that in postcolonial societies:
Taxation is transformed into an extended category for which no consent is required and no demand tied to any precise idea of public utility or the common good. Raising taxes ceases to be one aspect of the state monopoly of coercion and becomes rather one aspect of the loss of that monopoly and of its dispersion within society. In other words, there is no longer difference between taxation and exaction. (2001: 84)
The digital redeployment of long-standing exactions and coercive forces at play in the institution of a data tax can clearly be read pessimistically as depleting the vital forces of entire generations of African citizens, relegated to permanent ‘waithood’ (Honwana, 2012), for whom ‘hope is cut’ (Mains, 2013). However, the pessimistic sentiment which has long dominated analyses of youth and politics on the continent seems increasingly complicated by the multitudes of creative gestures revealed by a careful engagement with African archives. Here, Gata Doré’s sarcastic pun can be seen as symptomatic of the profusion and proliferation of a poetic, imaginative, humoristic, joyously messy emergent digital archive in Africa, with youth as a driving force behind its creation. In Guinea alone, to Gata Doré’s can be added the incredibly pointed humor of the fake Twitter account of President Alpha Condé, the telenovelas remakes of Guinean news and everyday life that circulate online, the rise of multilingual slam poetry across the country, the hip-hop inspired scathing political vignettes of musicians such as Masta G or Hezbo Rap, or the organizing activities around the concept of creative anticorruption to name but a few. Clearly, there is a danger in centering humoristic or joyful modalities in studies of African youth and digital archives, which could seem to hark back to the obscenely racist depictions of laughing Africans in colonial archives. Rather, what is at stake here in reclaiming the joyfulness of imaginative digital practices in Guinea, is what Nadia Yala Kisukidi terms Læticia Africana, as a way to designate a set of theoretical experimentations, within Africa and afro-diasporas, to produce decolonized versions of the world. Interrogating the imaginative within the African digital archive is part of this project currently gaining momentum to examine the relations of imagination and everyday life. As Mbembe reminds us, this is crucial if we are to ‘re-imagine the political [in Africa] and stop making it an object of assassination.’ Joyful denunciations of the haptic logics of privatized government and digital control may then be important steps in keeping the extractive logics increasingly draining young Guineans’ digital membranes at bay. And, clearly, then, we should take them seriously.
I explore these issues further in Bergère, C. (2019, April). From street corners to social media: The changing location of youth citizenship in Guinea. African Studies Review, 1‒22. doi:10.1017/asr.2019.
See Horst, H. A., and D. Miller (2012), Digital Anthropology (Bloomsbury Publishing) for instance.
See Bernstein, R. (2011). Racial innocence: performing American childhood from slavery to civil rights (New York: NYU Press) for instance.
Bergère, C. (2019, April). From street corners to social media: The changing location of youth citizenship in Guinea. African Studies Review, 1‒22. doi:10.1017/asr.2019.
Bernstein, R. (2011). Racial innocence: performing American childhood from slavery to civil rights. New York: NYU Press.
Cassou-Noguès, Pierre (2020) Virusland, Cerf : Paris, France.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59 (Winter), 3–7.
Glissant, Edouard, and Betsy Wing. Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Honwana, A. (2012). Time of Youth: Work, Social Change, and Politics in Africa. Sterling, Virginia: Kumarian Press.
Horst, H. A., and D. Miller (2012). Digital Anthropology. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kisukidi, N. Y. (2016) “Laeticia africana – Philosophie, décolonisation et philosophie” in Mbembe, A., and F. Sarr (eds.) (2016). Écrire L'afrique-monde : Ateliers De La Pensée, Dakar Et Saint-louis Du Sénégal, 2016.
Mains, D. (2013). Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Mbembe, A. (2001). On the postcolony. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Simone, AM. (2005). Urban Circulation and the Everyday Politics of African Urban Youth: The Case of Douala, Cameroon.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29 (3): 516–32.
------ (2019) Improvised Lives: Rhythms of Endurance in an Urban South. Polity: Cambridge, UK.
Roitman, J. L. (2005). Fiscal disobedience: An anthropology of economic regulation in central Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Clovis Bergère is Assistant Director for Research at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a visual ethnographer whose research examines the politics of youth as they are realized in relation to digital media in Guinea, West Africa.
(Editors' note: This piece was submitted for our January theme: 'Digital Technologies: Changing Childhoods and Youth.' We received an overwhelming number of submissions last month, and hence this entry had to be delayed slightly.)