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A response to the review by Jonathon Repinecz of Richard Fardon and Senga la Rouge, Learning from the Curse: Semhene's Xala.

A response to the review by Jonathon Repinecz of Richard Fardon and Senga la Rouge, Learning from the Curse: Semhene's Xala. London: Hurst (hb 17.99 [pounds sterling] 978 1 8490 4695 4), 2017, 133 pp. in Africa 88 (4): 885-6

I am grateful that Jonathon Repinecz took the time to review our book. I respond here only to the implication that it plagiarizes the work of other authors. Put so starkly, this may not have been the reviewer's intention, but it reads that way.

Repinecz starts with Ousmane Sembene's rebuke, addressed to Jean Rouch in 1965, of studying Africans as he might insects. Is it placed prominently to imply that Sembene's suspicion of ethnography extends to everything written by ethnographers or anthropologists in the next half century? It seems so, although the comment might equally be construed historically as a reaction to one kind of French Africanist' colonial ethnography, or to one kind of ethnographic film; even in 1965 Sembene excluded Rouch's Moi, un noir from his strictures. (1) This opening prepares the ground for the statement that 'Fardon's anthropological emphasis privileges themes such as "kinship" and "kleptocracy", classic issues in the social sciences'. What would be the alternative? Xala is the story of a businessman who takes a third wife the age of his oldest daughter only to discover that he is stricken with impotence. He at first attributes his affliction to the jealousy of a co-wife, but is eventually forced to recognize that his manhood has been 'tied up' by his kin in revenge for the theft from them that set him on the path to becoming a rich polygynist. At the denouement, his seat on the Board of Commerce will be taken by a petty thief. So, it is difficult to see why elucidating these 'issues' in an expressly introductory work reflects the concerns of the social sciences at the expense of the social themes from which Sembene chose to craft a storyline that interlaced moralities in intimate relations and in the relations of state.

Ethnography and anthropology are set up as foils to other fields, later identified as literary and cinema studies. Repinecz suggests I have made 'a claim to creative licence' so this work 'enjoys a degree of relative freedom from citation that seems, at times, unwarranted'; 'many of [the book's] unattributed claims have been covered by previous scholarship. That fact deserves recognition.' If this is 'fact' then it is a serious allegation of which we are given two examples. The first and most detailed is my failure to cite Kenneth Harrow's 2013 Trash: African cinema from below, to which the discussion 'seems strongly indebted'. What evidence of indebtedness is offered? A 'diligent reader', to borrow the reviewer's self-description, will notice that my 'First word' is dated April 2013 and April 2014, Dakar--this being the place and those the times of completion of the two drafts. An illustrated book takes time from writing, through design, to publication. I was unaware of Harrow's book at the time. That I wrote about pollution is hardly evidence, since this is a theme any social anthropologist would be unlikely to overlook. I have particular reasons not to do so. If Repinecz had checked even the brief biographical entry on my institution's website, because admittedly I do not self-cite in this volume, he would find that I was a student of Mary Douglas, wrote her intellectual biography (Fardon 1999), and have continued to write occasional pieces, some of them on aspects of her analyses of purity and pollution (for example, Fardon 2013; 2016). I was co-editor of the most recent edition of Franz Steiner's 1956 Taboo, which, as Douglas acknowledged, provided an initial inspiration to look at social and classificatory borders in their association with danger (Adler and Fardon 1999). Harrow cites Mary Douglas, but his discussion of her is critical, whereas my analysis is consistent with her thought. As further evidence of the specific debt to Harrow, Repinecz offers the fact of Harrow's title--'trash'--being a translation into (American) English of the French phrase dechets humains, which I also highlight. A reviewer might attribute this to coincidence, or to a shared awareness of Fanon, or might have noticed that I translated the phrase not as 'trash' but as 'human waste', which, in (British) English, is a euphemism for shit, whereas trash is not. The reviewer could not reasonably be expected to know that I had delivered the Charles Jedrej Memorial Lecture in late April 2013 at the University of Edinburgh under the title 'Dechets humains: "human waste", Xala and the anthropology of West Africa'. Even if the book under review 'seems strongly indebted' to Harrow's work, and even if it discusses the phrase Harrow translates as 'trash', it demonstrably was not in 'fact' indebted to it.

The second piece of evidence, Repinecz continues, is to be found 'in another instance' when I identify Ibrahima Sow as the author of an account of Senegalese maraboutism in an endnote. But this is not 'another' example of the same alleged failure to attribute ideas. The notes are listed in the contents page of the book, and collected, identified by chapter and page number, in four pages at the end of a book that is only just over 20,000 words. Because the book was written for an audience wider than the scholarly community, we explain that we opted not to put author/date citations or endnote numbers in the main text but in (eight pages of) notes and bibliography at its end. Repinecz is welcome to disagree with an editorial decision about style but should not elide that with his previous claim that this is 'another' missing attribution of intellectual debt. These two facts are the sum of evidence presented for the 'many unattributed claims' the reviewer has detected.

The general impression of negligence is finally reinforced by noting three proofreading oversights: two are accurate comment; the third is inaccurate (capitalization of Marxist is not inconsistent because in the instances cited a marxist is used of a follower of Marx, and Marxism/Marxist of the doctrine).

Cross-disciplinary forays can be unsettling. I thank Jonathon Repinecz for his other comments on our work, as I do the editors of Africa for the opportunity of response to points of fact.


Adler, J. and R. Fardon (1999) (edited and introduced) Franz Baermann Steiner: selected writings. Volume 1: Taboo, truth, and religion. New York NY and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Fardon, R. (1999) Mary Douglas: an intellectual biography. London and New York NY: Routledge.

Fardon, R. (2013) 'Citations out of place: or, Lord Palmerston goes viral in the nineteenth century but gets lost in the twentieth', Anthropology Today 29 (1): 25-7.

Fardon, R. (2016) 'Purity as danger: "Purity and Danger revisited" at fifty' in R. Duschinsky, S. Schnall and D. H. Weiss (eds), Purity and Danger Now: new perspectives. London and New York NY: Routledge.

(1) See <>.

Editors' note: We do not intend to publish any further comment on this matter.

Richard Fardon

SOAS, University of London

doi: 10.1017/S0001972019000445
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Date:May 1, 2019
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