Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African postcolony

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Abstract

Postcolonial South Africa, like other postrevolutionary societies, appears to have witnessed a dramatic rise in occult economies: in the deployment, real or imagined, of magical means for material ends. These embrace a wide range of phenomena, from "ritual murder," the sale of body parts, and the putative production of zombies to pyramid schemes and other financial scams. And they have led, in many places, to violent reactions against people accused of illicit accumulation. In the struggles that have ensued, the major lines of opposition have been not race or class but generation—mediated by gender. Why is all this occurring with such intensity, right now? An answer to the question, and to the more general problem of making sense of the enchantments of modernity, is sought in the encounter of rural South Africa with the contradictory effects of millennial capitalism and the culture of neoliberalism. This encounter, goes the argument, brings "the global" and "the local"— treated here as analytic constructs rather than explanatory terms or empirical realities—into a dialectical interplay. It also has implications for the practice of anthropology, challenging us to do ethnography on an "awkward" scale, on planes that transect the here and now, then and there,

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