Signal and Noise

Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria

Signal and Noise

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

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Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 56 illustrations Published: March 2008

Author: Brian Larkin

African Studies, Media Studies > Media Technologies

Mainstream media and film theory are based on the ways that media technologies operate in Europe and the United States. In this groundbreaking work, Brian Larkin provides a history and ethnography of media in Nigeria, asking what media theory looks like when Nigeria rather than a European nation or the United States is taken as the starting point. Concentrating on the Muslim city of Kano in the north of Nigeria, Larkin charts how the material qualities of technologies and the cultural ambitions they represent feed into the everyday experiences of urban Nigeria.

Media technologies were introduced to Nigeria by colonial regimes as part of an attempt to shape political subjects and create modern, urban Africans. Larkin considers the introduction of media along with electric plants and railroads as part of the wider infrastructural project of colonial and postcolonial urbanism. Focusing on radio networks, mobile cinema units, and the building of cinema theaters, he argues that what media come to be in Kano is the outcome of technology’s encounter with the social formations of northern Nigeria and with norms shaped by colonialism, postcolonial nationalism, and Islam. Larkin examines how media technologies produce the modes of leisure and cultural forms of urban Africa by analyzing the circulation of Hindi films to Muslim Nigeria, the leisure practices of Hausa cinemagoers in Kano, and the dynamic emergence of Nigerian video films. His analysis highlights the diverse, unexpected media forms and practices that thrive in urban Africa. Signal and Noise brings anthropology and media together in an original analysis of media’s place in urban life.


Signal and Noise is an engaging work that should generate substantial interest with scholars working in African Culture Studies, Urban History, and Media Studies alike.” — Brian Hochman, Callaloo

Signal and Noise is well grounded in that subgenre of contemporary anthropology concerned with the relationships between media and religious and cultural imaginaries and noted for its theoretical interests. The book’s distinction in this regard is in the manner it foregrounds infrastructural technologies as constitutive of everyday life in Kano, both in the colonial context and in the age of the transnationalization of media.” — Akinwumi Adesokan, Research in African Literatures

“[A] fascinating historical ethnography.” — ISIM Review

“Brian Larkin's Signal and Noise marks an important intervention in the field of Film and Media Studies because it de-emphasizes a longstanding focus on the unity of cinematic articulation and enunciation in favor of examining the effects of cinema on infrastructure and reception in a well-defined cultural context. . . . This is an important book that challenges readers' previous understandings of the relationship between film and media and delves deeply into the context of Nigerian history and urban culture.” — Peter J. Bloom, Cinema Journal

“Larkin demonstrates a daunting erudition and brings this knowledge to bear in a series of often highly stimulated theoretical interjections.” — Charles Ambler, Journal of African History

“This book provides a rare insight into the introduction of many technologies, including radio and the cinema, to Africa during the colonial period.” — Margaret Cassidy, Media International Australia

“This is a rare book. Stuffed full of Larkin’s anecdotes and observations of Kano and written with clarity, its academic innovations and arguments are easy to digest. And pictures! Nearly every chapter has some visual accompaniment from Larkin’s collection of Nigerian movie posters, radio ads, and photos from the field. Anyone interested in media, Nigerian film and video, the history and fate of the postcolony, or the informal yet global economies of contemporary city life will appreciate Larkin’s insights.” — Zachary Hooker, Bidoun

“[A]n impressive study. . . . The study represents a door-opener into a wider analysis of the ways in which various parts of the urban society, from colonial times until most recently, negotiate technical and economic changes, create meaning, develop modes of coping and resistance and local cultural styles beyond a simple adaptation to new technological projects.” — Tilo Grätz, Social Anthropology

“A true intellectual tour de force, Signal and Noise should have a major impact on the way we understand Africa in the contemporary period.”
— Kenneth W. Harrow, African Studies Review

“Larkin has developed a richly researched study of media cultures in Nigeria. Equipped with language skills and a nuanced understanding of local Muslim religious practices and traditions, Larkin offers a vivid account of the emergence of modern Nigerian media infrastructures. . . . Signal and Noise inspires new ways of thinking about what media technologies are, how they have emerged in different ways in different parts of the world, and how local and national Nigerian actors have contended with the forces of the global media economy.” — Lisa Parks, Cinema Journal

“Larkin’s work is impressive in its theoretical and analytical depth, rich empirical details, and astute observations and summaries about cinema and modernity in urban Nigeria. This work is as much a development communication project as it is an anthropological study or a cinema studies project. . . . [T]he book makes excellent reading for students and scholars in a series of disciplines and sub-disciplines, including international and development communication.” — Sujatha Sosale, Global Media Journal

“This insightful, highly stimulating, and well-written book examines how media technologies entered into 20th century northern Nigeria society, and how their initial association with colonial rule, and also their material qualities and the cultural possibilities they enabled, transformed public and social life in sometimes unexpected ways. . . . [A] highly innovative study of colonial and postcolonial urban culture in Africa. It also makes it a highly welcome contribution to scholarship on modernity and postcoloniality, on media and public culture, and to analyses of global media forms and consumption. It will fascinate a wide range of readers, granting stimulating analytical insights into the place of media in urban life.” — Dorothea E. Schulz, American Ethnologist

“This eagerly anticipated book is a wonderful contribution to several fields: media studies, cultural studies, African studies, anthropology, and analyses of globalization. Brian Larkin writes with eloquence and passion, and he compels us to rethink our assumptions about the work of transnational media and the formation of identity.” — Purnima Mankekar, author of Screening Culture, Viewing Politics

“This thoughtful, scholarly, and original book links the transnational traffic of media forms to the logics of the colonial state and to the vulnerabilities of large cities in Africa. It will provoke new thinking among Africanists, urbanists, anthropologists, and all students of globalizing media processes. Brian Larkin is a major new voice in the study of media as lived infrastructure in a world of uneven connectivity.”
  — Arjun Appadurai, author of Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Brian Larkin is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is a coeditor of Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. Infrastructure, the Colonial Sublime, and Indirect Rule 16

2. Unstable Objects: The Making of Radio in Nigeria 48

3. Majigi, Colonial Film, State Publicity, and the Political Form of Cinema 73

4. Colonialism and the Built Space of Cinema 123

5. Immaterial Urbanism and the Cinematic Event 146

6. Extravagant Aesthetics: Instability and the Excessive World of Nigerian Film 168

7. Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy 217

Conclusion 242

Notes 257

Bibliography 277

Index 301
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4108-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4090-4
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