Public Lecture in the Seminar Series of the Sociology and Anthropology Department. location:Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. date:2 November 2009
If, as Lévi-Strauss famously remarked in the concluding pages of Tristes Tropiques, cities are machines “destinées à produire de l’inertie à un rhythme et dans une proportion infiniment plus élevée que la quantité d’organisation qu’ils impliquent”, then Kinshasa's Kintambo cemetery and the surrounding slums of Camp Luka seem indeed to be the right place to redefine anthropology as entropology, “une discipline vouée à étudier dans ses manifestations les plus hautes ce processus de désintégration". But is this what is really going on in Kinshasa’s burial grounds? It is easy to read a space such as the cemetery of Kintambo, with its infrastructural degradation and the breakdown of cultural norms and longstanding notions of social order that accompany this material decay, as a general metaphor for the zombified state of the city and the country as a whole. But are notions of entropy, chaos, disorder or dissipation of energy adequate tools to understand this urban dynamics? It is indeed tempting, perhaps even too obvious, to understand Kinshasa’s postcolonial cemetery as a mere zone of social abandonment with specific Agamben-esque connotations, in which the law is in force but no longer has substantive meaning. The cemetery of Kintambo and its surrounding slums indeed offer an almost camp-like infrastructure (as Camp Luka’s name already indicates in itself) which exemplifies the state of exception that has become the rule in postcolonial Congo. This abandonment illustrates to what extent Kinois are turned into homines sacri, collectively reduced to the specific forms of vie nue, the raw bare life as described by Agamben, i.e. a politicized form of natural life, a life exposed and subjugated to death, placed outside both the divine and the profane law.
In this contribution, however, my focus of attention is not so much on the processes of zombification that seem to pervade both the cemetery city that Kinshasa has become. Rather, I want to analyse how youngsters, through their cohabitation with death and the generation of new forms of mourning and coping with dispersal and loss, reframe the conditions of such bare life into something else. Through an ethnographic description of their –sometimes violent- involvement in matters pertaining to death, I will analyze specific local attempts made by Kinshasa’s youth to turn the aporia of this naked life-form into more euphoric solutions.