Conferences & lectures

The flickering torch: blackouts and phatic communication in Tanzania

Friday, September 20, 2019
3 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Michael Degani


This event is free


Henry F. Hall Building
1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
Room H-1120




This talk examines electricity cuts in the megacity of Dar es Salaam as a social drama of Tanzanian nationalism. Every few years, the national power utility Tanesco cycles the city through exceptionally lean periods of generation, when outages spike with a frequency, duration and distribution that demands explanation.

Drawing on the concept of phatic communication — messages that reference channels — as well as psychoanalytic work on the relation between language, lack and authority, this talk shows how Tanesco’s announcements of rationing allowed urban dwellers to experience power cuts as a shared and thus meaningful burden in ways that resonated with a socialist history of collective sacrifice.

However, such announcements were not always felicitous. Irregular or unexplained cuts during rationing periods threatened the fragile paradox of connection through absence. They gave rise to wild rumours and conspiracy theories as to the source of the outages, staging, by contrast, a rending of the compact between citizen and state.

About Michael Degani

Michael Degani is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, broadly focusing on energy use and infrastructure in African cities.

This event is co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and is part of their fall speaker series.

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