Theory Talk #47: Jean-François Bayart

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jean-François Bayart on Globalization, Subjectification, and the Historicity of State Formation


Debates on globalization tend to assume an analytical tension between economic dynamics on the one hand and the nation-state on the other—an assumption shared by both liberal IR theory and its critics, who for instance see nationalism as a backlash against globalization. Jean-François Bayart, well known among Africanists, has always argued against such a zero-sum interpretation of state and market—as a historical sociologist of state formation, he challenges this core narrative within IR. In this Talk, Bayart—amongst others—explains how the development of capitalism and the nation-state are part of one and the same movement, argues for an event-focused approach to comparative analysis, and elucidates the notion of subjectification in global politics.




What is, according to you, the biggest challenge or principal debate in current IR? What is your position or answer to this challenge or in this debate?

I would say that a central challenge (if perhaps not the most interesting to me personally) is whether the overall process of ‘globalization’ as they call it, undermines state sovereignty, and, more broadly, if the international system will remain organized as a quintessentially territorial state-system, or whether by contrast it will lead to the emergence of a deterritorialized, global, empire.

In that, I take a stake with for instance Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. They point towards a deterritorialized, hegemonic, empire as the most salient future, placing themselves in a line of theorizing building on Foucault and Deleuze. But me, I’m not convinced of this idea of empire, for reasons which I will come back to later. But the debate is in a sense interesting, because my own work, too, is by and large influenced by Foucault and Deleuze, which is why I can fully understand the concern with the problematique of globalization, but, contrary to Hardt and Negri, I think we will remain in a territorial, inter-state system—even if the US are naturally not the only producers of globalization, the system remains highly skewed in favor of a territorial configuration in which the United States, or perhaps eventually another state power, will remain pivotal. This is a core theoretical debate, including from a more practical standpoint, because according to one reply or the other—that is, deterritorialized empire or state-driven, territorial, system—the practical implications in terms of political commitment, public policy, activism or philosophical criticism, will be radically different.

One of the theoretical reasons why I think the international system will remain not only territorialized but asymmetrically territorialized—that is what I tried to demonstrate in Le gouvernement du monde, translated as Global Subjects—is that for the last two centuries, the state is a product of globalization, and in that observation I differ from most IR theorists. For me, not only does neoliberal globalization not undermine the state, but more fundamentally, for two centuries, it is indeed globalization that spawned the universalization of the nation-state as a mode of political organization. More precisely, the universalization of the nation-state and the systematization—if I may say—of the international political system is a dimension of globalization, and not contradictory to globalization.

Let me give two examples to illustrate this thesis, that there is generally a strong correlation between the acceleration of economic globalization on the one hand, and the crystallization of the nation-state on the other. For example in 1848, we see the triumph of free trade, the development of railway lines and telegraph lines and intercontinental submarines, and simultaneously 1848 is the ‘hot spring of political action’, that is, a whole series of national and nationalist revolutions not only in Europe but also with repercussions in Latin America.

Another interesting example: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the integration of the former Soviet economies into the global capitalist system has not occurred in par with the dissolution of the Soviet space in I don’t know what kind of political and non-state no man’s land, but rather with the creation of a whole series of states which vindicate their nation-statehood, even though we know that these nations are very recent and by-products Stalinist theories of nationalities at that. So it represents a dramatic tendency very similar to the creation of the nation-state in the wake of colonial empires. Just as the colonial empires have created nation-states, the Soviet empire has created nation-states, and the integration of the economic space in the capitalist economy has been accompanied by the emergence of a regional system of nation-states, whose matrix was communism.

One can find this dialectical relationship between globalization and the universalization of the nation-state in the international communist movement that was a matrix of globalization, most notably by generalizing a specific kind of industrial civilization, for instance in Central Asia. The international communist movement has led to nationalist revolutions, or was composed with the help of nationalist and socialist revolutions in for example China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia… So I find that the correlation is still very evident.

It reminds us of that old rule formulated so eloquently by Fernand Braudel: capitalism is not the market economy; it is the market economy plus the state. And we know very well how the universalization of capitalism through the extension of free trade in the 19th century was carried out at gunpoint. It was of course the military force of England that imposed free trade on a range of countries and even continents. So yes, I think we should rediscover this obvious self-evidence so well articulated by Fernand Braudel, this dialectical relationship between market and state.


How did you arrive at where you currently are in your thinking about global politics?

I am a political scientist—nobody’s perfect—and my tribe is the historical sociology of the state one, which means I look at processes of state formation. So I was early in my career influenced by scholars like Bendix, Barrington Moore… My PhD was on the state in Cameroon but I worked in a comparative perspective right away, confronting an African trajectory of state formation with a Latin American one. I think the main goal with writing The State in Africa: the Politics of the Belly in ’89 was to redress the imbalance in historical sociology of state formation in terms of the complete silence around the state in Africa. A lot of books appeared on the state in Western Europe, in North America, but also on Latin America or Asia—see The Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship—but nothing on the state in Africa! Yet to focus on the African state was somewhat of an uncomfortable anomaly in the field—where ideas that Africa doesn’t have a state, that it is outside history still prevailed at the time—so my main goal was to reintroduce Africa as an interesting site of study for historical sociology of state formation.

I have had a bit of an eclectic trajectory (some say), or perhaps a bit baroque. I am a French researcher, which inevitably inscribes my work and research center in a certain intellectual tradition, but I hasten to add that this intellectual tradition is not isolated, does not constitute a kind of isolation that would cut me off from the rest of the world. Some of my favorite French authors are widely read and very widely translated in North America, such as Foucault or Deleuze, and vice versa, I am myself a very large consumer of works published in North America and a big reader of Max Weber, although I unfortunately do not read him German, but in French, thanks to the excellent French translations that were made over the past twenty years.

With my training in political science, my first fieldwork was in Cameroon, and working in Cameroon, I was very quickly—especially because my subject was the historicity of politics in Cameroon—working hand in hand with anthropologists on the one hand, and historians on the other. So in the very beginning, I developed a multi-disciplinary understanding of political science, or rather, I would speak not of political science, but rather of social sciences of the political. I always tried to mobilize the full scope—within the bounds of my abilities—of social sciences to fully understand an object normally quite circumscribed, that is, the political, not only the terms of the state but all things political, what Gramsci would call the integral state, that is, a dimension of hegemony, which evolves through common sense.

Very quickly I was faced with this kind of theoretical issues, which actually led me to reflect theoretically on the definition of the political. That kept me busy during the early 1980s, and led to me emphasizing the ‘politics from below’. I tried to show how the political is primarily the result of efforts of enunciation on the part of actors, that is to say that all actors in a given system do not forcibly share the same ideas as to what is or is not political, and working on the State, I was led to take into consideration on the one hand the dimension of material culture, and on the other techniques of the body in the sense of Marcel Mauss, which are inseparable from material cultures. And I was also brought to work on the imaginary, imaginary figures that inevitably accompany techniques of the body or practices of material culture. We cannot even say that one "accompanies" the other as, by definition, a technique of the body or an element of material culture springs from imagination. And one cannot think about materiality without at the same time understanding our imaginary production. Our imaginary production is always connected with materiality. Working on these issues, I preferred, at least initially, authors such as Michel Foucault and Michel deCerteau, to authors such as Pierre Bourdieu or Derrida, Lyotard. Even in the French theoretical field, it is probably quite particular that I’m not a Bourdieuan. A historian who was very close to Foucault, Paul Veyne, is an important reference to me.

From the 1980s to the 1990s, Deleuze was very important to me especially in understanding deterritorialization and I used his concept of ‘rhizome’ working on Africa: the African state is a rhizome state. I also drew inspiration in his reflection on repetition and difference. And from the late 1980s, early 1990s, new translations of Max Weber came out in French. The previous were very poor, and some of them were not even translations from German, but from the very bad translations by Talcott Parsons. In his translations a variety of concepts, such as routinization, which were translated from Talcott Parsons, which were absolute nonsense. Not until the translations of the early 1990s did we see that routinization was nothing but a figment of Parsons, when in reality Max Weber spoke of veralltäglichen which has became translated very laboriously in French as "quotidiennisation" [everydayization], which is not at all the same as routinization. So there were very interesting discussions about the translation of Max Weber’s concepts, and these new French translations of Max Weber gave me a lot to think about. There is another important reference which is Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘l’Institution imaginaire de la société’ (‘The imaginary institution of society’) that helped me write the Illusion of Identity and to conceptualize this particular dimension of imagination. That's basically my theoretical influences.

Besides that, the generation I am part of obviously shaped me as well—the condition of a generation, to speak with Karl Mannheim. To me it is clear that, having been born in 1950, I am a child of May ‘68 that has not been directly involved in May ‘68 and it’s obvious that the interest I found in Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault is very closely tied to that particular moment in French society. All my early adult socialization took place through this literature, these theoretical references and all surrounding mobilizations. I was quite close—not in terms of activism, but ideologically or in terms of sensitivity—to a movement which was called ‘Tout’ ["Everything"] and whose motto was "we want everything right away," a movement that was not at all Maoist. Gramsci was very popular in France in the 1970s, in the context of the union of the left, of Eurocommunism… And I of course I was also very influenced by Marx. But Marx has been read and brilliantly interpreted by a philosopher—in this case a Christian, unless I am mistaken—called Michel Henry, who wrote a huge book called Marx, a superb reading of Marx, based on the finding that Marxism is the sum of misinterpretations of Marx. Which amounts to a very anti-Marxist position; in France there is this difference between being a Marxist, that is, being an adept of the Marxist-Leninist dogma, and being a ‘Marxian’, that is, having read and using Marx, including the young Marx. Michel Henry said that everything is already in the young Marx and the Marx of the second period, the period of The Capital, did nothing more than reworking, rewriting, but Michel Henry rejects the idea of ​​a second Marx who tears apart his earlier mistakes, his illusions or his earlier idealism. So obviously it strongly marked me.

Besides the books, backpacking as a student in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan in 1969-1970 left a strong impression. I also went to East Asia, but I liked it less. I have always had very strong affinities with the world of Central Asia, what we called Asia Minor. I was, and still am, very sensitive to the music of these countries. I think that my aesthetic taste for modal music has certainly influenced my social science theorizing. These personal experiences in Asia Minor certainly contributed to a number of theoretical choices.


What would a student need to become a specialist in IR?

In terms of basic techniques, there is of course firstly the issue—now commonplace, but it was less obvious before—of multilingualism. It’s a great pleasure to see that the younger generations of researchers are much more linguistically plural. Maybe one should insist, for students of international relations, the need for them to learn languages ​​other than Western languages. English is obviously essential. Yet it's already much better if one can speak German, Spanish, Portuguese… But I think international relations theorists of today should absolutely invest in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, etc.. This is certainly a challenge for theorists of international relations, which can be confined to the certain comfort of the perfect command of English as their language of communication. But obviously, it prohibits their understanding of what I call the historicity of African societies.

Secondly, I think the field is absolutely essential. And the crucial, serious mistake in my opinion is of IR theorists not going to the field but to go from one conference to another, without being confronted with the complexity of societies. If they do not face the complexity of societies directly through fieldwork, if they meet nothing but their scholarly alter egos, be they yellow with slanted eyes, or black, they will never understand much about the real functioning of the international system.

I believe that a third recommendation I can make is that of humility, because when you look at the changing world and confront it with theory of international relations, we have to recognize a certain gap. If IR theory wants to provide the means to understand the world it purports to decipher, it can only do so by working on specific societies, not just by working on the global pidgin whereby these societies seem to exchange and express themselves.

Fourthly, I think that anger, political anger is a scientific engine. Me personally, when I worked on international relations, the foreign policy of France, I did it from a certain political or civic anger, for example with regards to the immigration issue or the question of what is called—I think a great big misunderstanding—Françafrique, that is, the African policy of France. I think political passion is not necessarily a bad advisor when it is mediated by theory, by conceptualization, by problematization.

Finally, what is the added value comparative politics to me? It’s not to compare, but to share interrogations, to share problematics, to share references, books, questions—in the definition of Paul Veyne, a French historian working on ancient Rome and Greece—comparison is an operator for the individualization of historical situations. That is, it allows theoretical imagination to deepen our understanding of the specific and contingent richness of particular historical configurations—even though we work on very different situations.


Your work is always singularly characterized by a wealth of historical data. Why this emphasis on history?

This encompasses a theoretical point more important to me than the one I mentioned before—even if it is less disputed in academic debate and that is not unrelated to my answer to your first question—is to understand the historicity that characterizes societies. Gilles Deleuze introduced a very specific and clear heuristic distinction between essence and event. For him, a concept has to encompass not essence but event. The historicity of politics is not about the essence of cultural politics in Africa, but rather to understand the event of state formation. So historicity means accepting the singularity of historical configurations of all societies, polities, political struggles and cultural representations of politics, that we have to however apprehend with universalized tools and concepts—without having a normative definition of the state (that is, knowing it’s essence). The state, or civil society, cannot be understood as essences but only as events, processes of formation. Public space is not an essence but a process we have to understand in terms of very concrete practices—the public sphere is formed day after day by micro-social struggles and practices. Struggles, practices, are for me more important than essentialist and universalist notions. And that’s historicity.

On the one hand, we have an international system that is increasingly becoming systematized, or, so to speak, globalized, a phenomenon comprising a compression of time and space, the development of the capitalist economy, the search for what they call global governance, and so forth. On the other hand, the political sociologist that I am is aware that this process of world unity does not contradict the historicity of societies, both Western societies or other ones. So I think a fundamental theoretical challenge is to provide tools that allow us to understand the historicity of the societies encapsulated by or embedded in this process of global unification. Unification in the sense of German and Italian unification, in the sense of the constitution of a national market under the auspices of a unified state, these processes do not translate into an eradication of diversity in the political societies concerned. We know that the Länder in Germany or the Mezzogiorno or different regions in Italy have kept a very high specificity, a specificity that only their many—plural—histories provide an understanding of in the context of German and Italian unification. Most recently, and German reunification after the end of the Cold War has only illustrated this process, since the Ost-Deutsche Länder [Eastern German States] retain a very strong cultural specificity.

My first objective in studying the state in Cameroon was to understand the inherently own historicity of polities, politics and societies in non-Western countries. I had to struggle against on the one hand the liberal developmentalist conceptions of politics—people like Verba, Easterly who explain politics from a very evolutionist approach—and the so-called dependency-theorists on the other, Latin American political economists that had to insist on dependency to explain state formation (or, in the case of Africa, Samir Amin). Both approaches—the one liberal, the other neo-Marxist—occulted the very historicity of state-formation in Africa, forcing me to develop a double critique against them. Yet what I didn’t manage to forge into the book were discussions on culture, ethnicity and identity, the conceptions of which had hitherto troubled me. I did that in l’Ilusion Identitaire (1996), or the Illusion of Cultural Identities. There I try to understand the relationship between the cultural dimension of life and politics, the historicity of politics, in a non-culturalist way. It has always been my problem: how to think about the relationship of dependence without being a dependency-scholar; how to think about the relationship between culture and politics without being a culturalist—a bit of an ambivalent position I must admit. In the Illusion of Cultural Identities I denounce the concept of ‘cultural identity’ for those of enunciation and imaginaire, political imagination. In the book I explain that we cannot imagine the latter without also understanding material culture and vice versa in relation to processes of political subjectification (a Foucaultian concept).

I expand exactly on that latter point in the next project, Global Subjects. The underlying challenge was: what can a political scientist whose main topic has always been the historicity of the state say about this suddenly popular globalization process which is supposed to weaken or eradicate the state? A contradictio in terminis! I tried to understand globalization in terms of the historical sociology of state formation. Marx, Tocqueville, Max Weber, Otto Hintze, Barrington Moore, Fernand Braudel—globalization was a central preoccupation for them, and yet they conceive of it not in terms of a tension or trade-off between economic globalization and state power. For Braudel, for instance, capitalism is not just the market economy, it is the market economy and state formation. Here we have a huge tradition to interpret what we now call globalization in terms of state formation. Yet this tradition has been completely sidelined by political scientists, especially those working on globalization, and I wanted to reconsider this. I propose to interpret globalization in terms of the Foucauldian governmentality, and more precisely, in terms of subjectification. Subjectivity for Foucault is a meeting point between techniques of domination and techniques of the self, the latter itself being a point of encounter between material culture (consumption) and imaginaire. Subjectification, as an expression of governmentality, is a kind of combinatory between practices in the field of material culture and the repertoire of imaginaire. Both books are comparative and largely built on African social material.


So how does one ‘do’ historically aware analysis of political process?

Let me indicate some avenues of inquiry. The first is this link between empire and nation-state that I mentioned in regards to Western colonial empires or Russia and the Soviet Union. In fact, this is a much more general process, and we know for example how the military defeat of the Habsburg Empire or the Ottoman Empire gave birth to nation-states. By some sort of anachronism—we are somehow trapped in a teleological view of things—we always tend to say that these empires have died by the blows of nationalism; and we often have a very essentialist vision of nationalisms in Central Europe or the Ottoman world. In fact, historians of the Ottoman Empire have shown in recent years that the Ottoman Empire died of military defeat, not of the centrifugal forces of nationalism. This is very clear in the case of the Albanians. The Albanians have developed ‘Albanianism’, the sense of being distinctly Albanian, because they saw their Ottoman protection disintegrate, and because they were caught between the Serbians and the Greeks and had to affirm their particularity. Obviously, one has to nuance this argument for one Ottoman province to another because each province had its own historicity. But I think that this line of inquiry of the historicity of societies requires that we need understand that in the transition from empire to nation-states, empire is the real matrix of the nation-state. And this is one aspect, one facet of this synergy between globalization and nation-state that I mentioned earlier.

There is a second aspect which is very important. This is that we have to arrive at the understanding that the societies that we analyze—and especially the formerly colonized societies—are constituted by a plurality of time-frames [durées hétérogènes], in the Braudellian sense of the term. First there is the longue durée of these societies that colonization has not ended, and there's the medium durée, that is, the colonial moment—or rather, colonial moments plural, because each specific colonial moment has its own historicity. And then there's the most recent, after-colonial, durée. And I say after-colonial rather than post-colonial for reasons that I will come back to. Now theorists of neoliberal economic globalization focus solely on the short durée of after perhaps 1980, while neoliberal IR theorists focus on the post-1989 world to argue for an essentialist understanding of a new—flat?—world. This for me is denying that exact historicity of societies (the longer durées), which lends significance to whatever short-term phenomenon might occupy a central spot in popular cultural preoccupation. Globalization, in the same vein, is an event that has been taking place in the concatenation between the 19th and 20th centuries, an event that has always involved both the universalization of the nation-state and the capitalist economy.

With regards to these different time frames, we need to develop the theoretial tools to apprehend the way these different durées are constituted and the effects of conquest of nations from one period to another. You can not get away with simply saying that there is a kind of pre-colonial past which overdetermines, in the historicist meaning of the word, the medium, colonial, and recent, after-colonial durées. Things are much more complicated, because long-term tendencies have themselves been reshaped and refashioned by events of the middle- and short-term. It constitutes a dialogical effect in the sense in which Bakhtin would use the term, a dialogical effect of which the invention of tradition, in the way in which Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger understand it, are a manifestation. We clearly see how the invention of tradition, a tradition which is sometimes said to be perfect, was the result of a joint venture between the orientalism of western and colonial scholars on the one hand, and the erudite work of literates of the societies militarily occupied by the West. This is most clear in India, Java, and in some way also in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance in the way Denise Paulme or Marcel Griaule worked with the literates such as for example that of the Dogon. So we can see that in this process of invention of tradition, there is a kind of synergy and dialogical relationship between the long and medium durée—the colonial—and of course Africanism, the studies that do nothing but prolong, and perhaps scientifically refine, this kind of interaction between different durées.

There might be a third theoretical aspect which would imply that we resume anew the dialectic between Macht and Herrschaft in Max Weber or between hegemony and coercion in Gramsci. These are things I have recently tried to develop, particularly in an article on the use of the whip, that is, the whip and flogging in Sub-Saharan Africa. I think we have somewhat of a simplistic vision of the concept of hegemony in Gramsci, which goes as follows: the more of hegemony, the less coercion, and the more coercion, the less hegemony—a sort of zero-sum game between coercion and hegemony. And I believe that things do not work like that and I tried to show in this article on flogging in Africa how practices of physical coercion—there is nothing more physical than coercion by the whip—can be vectors of hegemony. This theoretical questioning of the relationship between coercion and hegemony is at the heart of the contemporary debate on the colonial and post-colonial, but it is a much more general problem: neoliberal hegemony, for instance, goes hand in hand with the development of highly coercive practices that are evident in the fight against terrorism, with the rehabilitation of torture by Western states and the fight against illegal immigration with all kinds of practices of expulsion. Take for instance the institution or restoration in very westernized countries like Singapore and Malaysia, of flogging as a form of discipline of immigrant labor. So this relationship between coercion and hegemony is more generally visible, also outside the specific context of colonialism. Take for instance the debate that historians of subaltern studies had among themselves: shouldn’t we speak, in the case of British colonialism, about domination without hegemony—which is roughly Guha's thesis—or should we rather speak of a true hegemony in a colonial context of which nationalism is a mere manifestation—which is roughly Chatterjee’s thesis. On the theoretical level, it is this insistence on the historicity of politics, which forms the red thread that weaves together of all my work since my PhD thesis, and which takes me to adopt a highly critical stance vis-à-vis post-colonial theories. I tried to expand on that critical position in the small book Postcolonial studies: an academic carnival.


Last question. What do you think of the relationship between French and American academia? It seems that there is some antagonism sometimes a misunderstanding, or it's another way.

I do not think there is any antagonism. When it does seem to exist, it is often very artificially constructed, sometimes by the Americans, sometimes by the French, but concretely, these worlds are strongly intertwined. It is true that 30 or 50 years ago, French researchers may have read little English, but that’s surely a thing of the past. Most debates that are supposed to be cleaved along national lines between America and France, are actually divided within each of these entities. For example: one can easily say that France is hesitant towards postcolonial studies and interpret this in terms of a cleavage between France and the United States, but in truth, postcolonial studies is criticized both within France and the United States, and there are also French defending postcolonial studies. I think this thinking is a fashion item: this emphasis on the French cultural exception, the provincialism of French universities, but I don’t like it. Moreover, one of the major influential writers in the U.S. is French. Neither can we say that the U.S. is closed towards the French intellectual tradition.

The only thing I want to draw attention to, especially that of English readers, is that there is a tendency at present in the United States, a kind of imperial provincialism. And I am struck by how Americans work more in isolation, and this is a very recent phenomenon, I think largely created by bibliometrics. And now you have people who only cite among themselves, a very curious sort of phenomenon, a phenomenon French authors naturally complain about, but increasingly the British as well. I have British colleagues telling me "you say you are no longer cited, but neither are we." There is a phenomenon of imperial provincialism, which I think is very dangerous for the vitality of social sciences in the United States. But that is fairly new, and I think it has nothing to do with a kind of Franco-American conflict, it's more a perverse effect of bibliometrics and the general evolution of our business. By contrast, the real criticism you can make against social sciences in France, is that they completely lack any knowledge of what their counterparts in other European countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain are doing.

But we still feel clearly how all of this mediated by translations. For financial reasons, there are increasingly less translations then before. For example, back in the 1980s, the microstoria were immediately translated into French. If today we’d see the same effort in terms of translations from Italian to French, I’m not quite sure. So I think that French social science aren’t too open, essentially for linguistic reasons, towards what people are doing in other European countries. And even more so with regards to cultural or linguistic spaces such as Turkey, Japan and China… Obviously, the specialists in those countries will speak their languages. French historians, for instance, completely ignore the enormous production available on the Ottoman Empire, while the existing body of literature is extremely rich. They rely solely on the body that is available in English, German, or French—but whatever is written in Turkish and not translated into these dominant languages, escapes us. I think in France, the opening towards the English language is complete—but the rest remains more problematic.


Jean-François Bayart is director of studies at the Centre nationale de recherche scientifique and professor of African politics at the Institut d'études politiques in Paris. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly and The Criminalization of the State in Africa.

Related links

  • Read Bayart’s Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion (African Affairs, 2000) here (pdf) 
  • Read Bayart’s Comparing from Below (Sociétés Politiques Comparées, 2008) here (pdf) 
  • Read Bayart’s Postcolonial Studies: A Political Invention of Tradition? (Public Culture, 2011) here (pdf) 
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