introduction
A Life Science in Its African Para- State
P. Wenzel Geissler
The twenty- first century is an age of para phenomena, not simply in the
sense of a “millennial” age of mirage, specter, and occult imaginaries (e.g.,
see Comaroff and Comaroff 2000), but also in its reliance on absent pres-
ences. The prefix, denoting “beside, near, behind, and from” as well as “op-
posed and contrary to,” captures a conflation between original and copy, ob-
ject and imprint or shadow— or between model, mold, and cast object— that
challenges contemporary social scholarship. Para- helps us to avoid alterna-
tive descriptors such as post- or anti- as in postdemocratic, postdevelopment,
antipolitical— which draw attention to important features but miss the
peculiar sense of things changing without losing their form. Democracy be-
comes para- democracy when its institutions and routines persist but demo-
cratic control evaporates, which is different from twentieth- century anti- or
non- democracies, for example, in their various military guises, but yet not
postdemocratic; the economy becomes a para- economy if informal or ille-
gal transactions, and formal ones cease to be distinguishable, and when this
conflation operates across economic scale, from African bicycle mechan-
ics to British MPs; even contemporary “revolutions” have a whiff of para-
about them— neither fundamental political- economic ruptures nor obvious
counterrevolutions. The remnants of older social and political forms appear
sometimes as “mere” performance, empty shells, and sometimes solid and
durable; insidious changes rather than obvious ruptures can be observed
anywhere: more of the same things, and yet something very different.
In this edited volume we are particularly interested in the para- state in
Africa— the ways in which the state, albeit changed or in unexpected ways,
continues to work as structure, people, imaginary, laws, standards, and so
on. The term helps us to avoid older normative understandings of the state,
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