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Abstract

This dissertation is an ethnography of domestic economies and the management of information and material goods within and between households in Dakar, Senegal. It begins by introducing two seemingly unrelated sets of practices and concerns: forms of everyday Islamic almsgiving grouped under the term sarax (arabic: sadaqa), and practices and discourses surrounding concerns about discretion and concealment, sutura. At first, it seems that very little draws the two practices together: alms are often given in the street, to strangers; discretion is a concern of managing (circulation of knowledge about) the most intimate aspects of the domestic sphere. The first is emblematized by ragged male children in torn clothing who beg in the street, the second by lovely veiled women in the space of their own homes. Over the course of the dissertation, I argue that the two concerns are bound to each other as two sides of the same coin. Or better put, working together they create an outside and an inside to people, homes, and linked relationships. To do this, each relies upon and enacts careful means of controlling the flow of information about interactions. I locate these practices in the unremarkable activities of women’s everyday lives as they manage themselves, their households, and the reputations of both. Tracing the movement of food given as alms, and contrasting it with the circulation of food within households and in kin networks, I locate sarax and sutura as built within, integral to, and reflections upon local institutions of Islamic piety, kinship and allied modes of relatedness, gender and feminine power, citizenship and neighborliness, and commodity markets and flows. Put in more sharply analytical terms: though apparently quite distant, the practices which constitute both sarax and sutura have much in common. I argue that the multiple practices and discourses that make up each of these modes of action create what we might term “boundaries,” moments and places of disjuncture between social contexts and entities, through the careful management the epistemic qualities of the exchange of goods and other sign media. Both sarax and sutura craft objects and situations to create aporia of information about histories of circulation, setting participants at a step of remove from actions and object. Both, then, create ignorance, or better, non-knowledge (in Simmel’s sense): spaces purged of knowable information. Far from the violent silences about which other anthropologists have written in other contexts, here blank spaces and epistemic aporia are protective and nurturing, the very condition of possibility of any form of agentive action. Further, these practices of active not-knowing and carefully constructed non-knowability are framed as virtues, and models for other ways in which people manage the circulation of objects and information in the city. As such, sarax and sutura model a generally applicable (though still irreducibly feminine) semiotic ideology at play in the city (and perhaps the larger region). As such, sutura informs communication and transactions well beyond the space of the household, in Senegalese domestic and foreign policy contexts from intellectual property and privacy online to modes of engaging with international diplomacy.

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