The Embodiment of Paradox: Yoruba Kingship and Female Power

Essay Excerpt

It is not my aim to trace the subsequent twists and turns of this methodological opposition between function and meaning, but to transcend the opposition itself (Auge 1979). Needed is an interpretive frame that accommodates both sociological and philosophical conceptions of rationality and coherence. The general thesis of this article is that Yoruba cosmology constitutes such a frame by establishing the critical conditions under which knowledge becomes powerful. These conditions are both social, since powerful knowledge is restricted to specific groups and statuses engaged in collective action, and epistemological, since restricted knowledge rests on privileged access to deeper, more dangerous and paradoxical truths.

The demonstration of this thesis unfolds in three parts. Part 1 describes a royal ritual as the Yoruba publicly perform and perceive it - an annual festival for a which revitalizes the the official of ritual deity (o'risd) king.3 Following ideology representations, the reading at this public level is limited to what every Yoruba freely knows and admits. Part 2 interprets key ritual symbols to grasp their "deep" (jinl.) and hidden meanings, venturing into a forbidden discourse of paradoxical secrets and subversive themes. Part 3 focuses on female power, relating ritual expressions of witchcraft and fertility to social reproduction in the political domain. I conclude that this phenomenological movement from ritual signifiers to political signifieds is more than a method of symbolic analysis. It is a Yoruba method of critical practice that reproduces, revises, and when necessary, changes the order of things. (Apter, 213)

About the Author

Andrew Apter is a Professor at the University of California Los Angeles.  His research intersts regard West Africa (Yoruba, Nigeria) and the African Diaspora (Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba), History of Anthropology and Social Theory. Andrew Apter works on ritual, memory, and indigenous knowledge as well as colonial culture, commodity fetishism and state spectacle. His historical ethnography of Yoruba hermeneutics informs his research on “syncretism” and creolization in West Africa and the Americas.

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