1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

“The “dirty” material and symbolic work of “state” building in central Madagascar: A Powerful icon/index potentially lost to view among enticing, exotic symbols"

  • Reception follows in Brooks Hall Commons

The Malagasy poet, patriot and politician, Rabemananjara, wrote: “the virtue of the earth ceaselessly penetrates individuals as daily they walk the land with naked feet” (1970:56). “Earth” is and was a powerful icon/index of Malagasy identity and resistance to both indigenous and external exploitation and colonization.  The term ny tany sy ny fanjakana (“the land and the rule”) is the traditional designation for the “state” in Madagascar.  I propose to examine the material, linguistic and conceptual attempts, in propaganda and (landscape) projects, to co-join the icon/index of “land” and the symbol of “rule” to meet the needs of one sovereign to reunite and reshape the polity of Imerina (central highlands of Madagascar), and to subsequently envision an expansionist polity. “Land” and “landscape” played not only a powerful role in the crafting of the Merina expansionist polity of the late 18th century, but also in the physical and “visible” imposition of French colonial authority (with political complicity on the part of some elite members of the earlier indigenous expansionist polity) at the end of the 19th century.  “States” can beguile us with their material propaganda. The power of the indigenous concrete icon-index of a pinch or a handful of dirt, of “land”, can get lost among brazen symbols of monumental proportion and bedazzling rare and exotic trappings of elite consumption. Nevertheless, “the land” intimately experienced and (be)labored with poetic and philosophical tropes in a society of primary orality, when it was “disarticulated” from “the rule” (ny fanjakana), served to incite and “ground” Malagasy resistance, for more than 60 years, to both corrupt indigenous “rule” and externally imposed colonial presence on the “the land” (ny tany).

The examination of indigenous political concepts, when possible for archaeologists, helps call into question facile accession to abstract (and reified) vocabulary associated with “states”.  The Malagasy example discussed in this talk contributes to the argument that (1) the co-optation of local icons, indexes and symbols is essential to “state” propaganda when the “constellation of power” is still nascent, (2) however such co-optation is neither facile nor straightforward, and (3) in some cases co-opted symbols can be re-appropriated for critique and resistance at the local level.

Event Date: 
Friday, 7 November 2014 - 1:00pm to 3:00pm
Susan Kus
Speaker Title: 
Professor & Archaeology Program Director, Rhodes College-Memphis