Book Review: Marriage, Perversion and Power [Jeater]- 1993

Book Review: Marriage, Perversion and Power [Jeater]- 1993

Marriage, Perversion and Power: The Construction of Moral Discourse in Southern Rhodesia 1894-1930. By Diana Jeater. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. 281. #40.00.

In addition to its considerable virtues as a work of excellent scholarship on early twentieth century Zimbabwe, Professor Jeater's new book stands as a marker of sorts, a sign of important intellectual transitions. Within southern African historiography, Jeater's approach recalls a number of other recent studies focusing on the interconnections between gender, sexuality and colonial rule. Additionally, Jeater's work documents the complex historical production of a particular form of discourse, a project which echoes recent studies by Adam Ashforth and Clifton Crais. Jeater's book is not only a rich example of the immediate future of southern African studies, but also offers an illuminating snapshot of the larger insights that are coming from the engagement between colonial historiography and recent work in critical theory and cultural studies.

For those who regard such changes with profound dread, Jeater's work is likely to prove a pleasant surprise. There is no impenetrable thicket of neologisms to sift through. Theoretical citations are only very lightly and appropriately placed throughout the text. In pursuing a study of discourse, the book does not sideline or ignore political economy. Jeater's narrative is meticulously developed and thoroughly documented.

Over the course of nine chapters, Jeater chronicles a series of intricate institutional and social interactions in early colonial Zimbabwe concerning African marriage practices, female mobility, "customary" law, bridewealth, "black peril" panics, adultery and other related matters. Jeater's central claim--that these interactions gradually defined the boundaries of a "moral realm" and "perversity"--emerges strongly and convincingly.

As Jeater is careful to point out, the limits and character of such a "moral realm" or similar discursive domains cannot be specified with unerring precision. Nevertheless, many readers will probably argue that Jeater has neglected some important matter, subject to their own pet obsessions. For myself, I was frustrated that because the narrative ends in 1930, the development of African domesticity and its interaction with the "moral realm"--an interaction which ultimately produced the powerful cultural archetype of the "good, Christian, club-going wife"--was examined relatively lightly. Domesticity and a number of other social institutions discussed in this book, such as prostitution, also offer the opportunity for a more extended consideration of female agency than Jeater provides.

I also wondered about the role of settler women, which Jeater discusses to some extent. In particular, some very interesting comments about white women as "sexual fetish objects" (p. 192) seem to invite more exploration. Additionally, I wanted to see a lot more than Jeater offers on sexual relationships between male settlers and African women. These relationships were crucial to colonial notions of the "perverse" while also underlining their elastic application to social groups according to their access to power.

Jeater's work also highlights some important challenges for other scholars pursuing similar approaches. Studying the history of a discourse requires careful and consistent attention to how and why specific texts are produced, the conditions which discipline and circulate discourses. There is little of this sort of analysis to be found in this book. For example, Jeater regards the growing desire of British South Africa Company administrators to register African marriages as an outgrowth of particular stages in the evolution of the "moral realm" without also considering the place of "registration" within the landscape of state power itself.

Jeater also joins a growing number of scholars in suggesting that the colonial order was not simply a one-sided conversation between all-powerful Europeans and mute Others. This book unfortunately only tentatively embraces this possibility. Accepting the heterogeneity of colonial discourse suggests that the shape of domains like the Zimbabwean "moral realm" emerged in some measure as surprises to all parties, producing unexpected obligations, needs and desires on all sides. Marriage, Perversion and Power is only sporadically and inconsistently interested in exploring the full implications of this proposition. Similarly, accepting the multiplicity of colonial discourse requires an integrated rendering of the relationships between various "voices". Jeater calls upon a rich base of archival documents and oral testimony, but the two types of evidence rarely co-exist smoothly within the same chapter.

Given her acknowledgment of Foucault, it is surprising that Jeater does not go further in exploring the multiple meanings of the "perverse". Colonial "perversity" was not merely a "serpent in the Garden of Eden" (p. 266), a new source of shame and degradation. Many of Jeater's female sources declare their "immorality" openly, defiantly, even proudly. Many men and women alike celebrated their experience of the "immoral"--shebeens and queens, music and manje-manje --in urban southern Africa from the 1930s onward.

Scholars of both African and colonial history will find this study important and thought-provoking, a sign of things to come.

Tim Burke,
Dept. of History 
Swarthmore College,
500 College Avenue, 
Swarthmore, PA 19081
610-328-8115 (w), 
610-544-2504 (h)

From: "Arthur R. McGee" 
Subject:      Book Review: Marriage, Perversion and Power (fwd)
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 6 Oct 1994 13:12:06 -0500
Subject: Jeater

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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