The Modernity Bluff Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire
by Sasha Newell
University of Chicago Press, 2012
Cloth: 978-0-226-57519-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-57520-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-57521-6


In Côte d’Ivoire, appearing modern is so important for success that many young men deplete their already meager resources to project an illusion of wealth in a fantastic display of Western imitation, spending far more than they can afford on brand name clothing, accessories, technology, and a robust nightlife. Such imitation, however, is not primarily meant to deceive—rather, as Sasha Newell argues in The Modernity Bluff, it is an explicit performance so valued in Côte d’Ivoire it has become a matter of national pride.

Called bluffeurs, these young urban men operate in a system of cultural economy where reputation is essential for financial success. That reputation is measured by familiarity with and access to the fashionable and expensive, which leads to a paradoxical state of affairs in which the wasting of wealth is essential to its accumulation. Using the consumption of Western goods to express their cultural mastery over Western taste, Newell argues, bluffeurs engage a global hierarchy that is profoundly modern, one that values performance over authenticity­—highlighting the counterfeit nature of modernity itself.


Sasha Newell is assistant professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University.


The Modernity Bluff takes its place comfortably with the best writing on African youth, cities, and popular culture—Cole, De Boeck, Mbembe, Nyamanjoh, Simone, Weiss, White—and gives an utterly original angle (fashion, conspicuous consumption) for understanding the cultural underpinnings of the current conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. Sasha Newell knows both the contemporary and classic Africanist literatures. He also brings to bear a considerable amount of specialist theory, primarily from linguistic anthropology, to explain the ways the performance of ‘bluff,’ seemingly a kind of consumerist simulacrum, can actually create something out of nothing.”--Mike McGovern, Yale University
— Mike McGovern

The Modernity Bluff is a stunning exploration of the power of fakery, masking, and performance, set against larger themes of postcoloniality and modernity. It takes us into an African street world of young scenesters and scammers, describing their war of styles against the fine French tailoring of the old postcolonial elite, and their chief weapon: the US-inspired casual look of designer-branded sweatpants and sneakers associated with hip hop and urban warriors. The book’s centerpiece describes the perplexing ‘art of the surface’ that the young people cultivate, an art epitomized in meteoric performances of luxurious cosmopolitan elegance. By taking these seriously in their cultural context as a play of ‘bluffs,’ Newell arrives at a penetrating new insight into the power of modernity’s mask of success.”
— Ira Bashkow, University of Virginia

“This is an extremely interesting book that is a valuable and original addition to ethnographic studies of urban Africa. It contributes to the literature on alternative modernities, popular culture, urban societies, and the African postcolony. It will appeal to an academic audience, but also to others, as it is lively, engaging, and clear, a rich and vivid account of the author’s immersion in street bars and clubs with disenfranchised youth to acquire the details of how they spend their time getting money to fulfill their aspirations of modernity in the absence of any regular jobs.” —Janet MacGaffey, Bucknell University
— Janet MacGaffey





One / Enregistering Modernity, Bluffing Criminality: How Nouchi Speech Reinvented the Nation

Two / Bizness and “Blood Brothers”: The Moral Economy of Crime

Three/ Faire le show: Masculinity and the Performative Success of Waste

Four / Fashioning Alterity: Masking, Metonymy, and Otherworld Origins

Five / Paris Is Hard like a Rock: Migration and the Spatial Hierarchy of Global Relations

Six / Counterfeit Belongings: Branding the Ivoirian Political Crisis

Conclusion / Modernity as Bluff