Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Valentin Y. Mudimbe Africa remains the absolute difference—An interview

Valentin Mudimbe: In order to understand “Invention of Africa”, we can use a number of entries, levels of interpretations which were made by scholars, journalists and anthropologists, in order to define the specificity of Africa. We have levels of comprehension and understanding the history of the West; its everyday life, practices and its ethno-philosophy, and indeed the practice of disciplines such as history, sociology, theology and the philosophical level in its two dimensions. I distinguish the semiological from the hermeneutic form. The first is understood as the totality of skills and knowledge that allows one to describe what one is seeing in social science. The second as the totality of skills and knowledge that allows one to read meanings. That is the first entry; the levels of interpretation of what is going on in a given society, which thus could qualify Africa as abnormal. We can also see that abnormality or difference, by using a model, the mode of production. In France particularly, people like Catherine Coquery Vidrovitch, Claude Meillasoux and Emmanuel Terrey, conceived “the lineage mode of production”, to qualify the specificity of Africa on the basis of the Marxist legacy, and the concept of “
mode of production”. This specificity of difference was tabulated and described in a systematic comparative study, which at the economic level was used to oppose the relationship existing between processes of production and social relations of production in the West. At the super structural level they conceived of opposing spaces: a political space in which there was a dialectic relationship between the organisation of production, that is in other terms the organisation of power, and the political discourse in the West vis-à-vis in Africa. And finally we have the intellectual configuration and the concrete speculative processes. And this comparison, which was a comparison made by highly politically motivated people back in the 1950s and the 1960s, and who were working for African independence, were qualifying Africa out there as the absolute difference, as the absolute difference to European society itself. But there again the model we are referring to, to quote Michael Foucault, is a European model in which we can distinguish internal or external procedures of integration or exclusion. Finally we can identify the procedures establishing people who can speak with competence about society itself. In the internal procedures I focus on the distinction between reason and reason, between reason and madness, between normality and abnormality. It is the distinctions we can refer to in order to understand the whole enterprise of characterising cultures and societies. We are more critical of that distinction today in social sciences and in philosophy. Yet out there, when we look at papers, news and the common sense in Europe, Africa remains today the absolute difference. And when you read some new books on Africa, you will find the same presuppositions that we find in travellers’ narratives of the 18th or the 19th century.

Mai Palmberg: In certain popular literature or popular journals, it seems as if there is even regression towards, if one can say so, more primitive images than one has seen in the past 20 years. Do you have such an impression at all?

VM: Well, I have the bad habit of not reading journals and papers and not going to movies. Yesterday I went to see a movie on Frantz Fanon. It is the first movie I have seen since August 1970. And I do not watch television in the United States. So I live in a world in which the perceptions of otherness do not exist. And what I apprehend and my understanding of what is going on come from my reading of books. And my impression is that there is a coming back of the idea of the primitive because of the political and economic catastrophes that can be seen in Africa today. Personally I do believe that this coming back of the negative images of the 19th century; images which justified colonisation as a way of assimilation, as a way of conversion to civilisation and to Christianity, can be reduced to what I call “the original sin”. There is a subject, someone apprehending himself as a subject, and looking at an object, object of knowledge or an object of domination. And in this process, what we find, is a signification: the object is in actuality a human being. And that human being is reduced to its difference as an object. And that is what we call in our language “the original sin”. And in “the original sin”the subject tends to forget that to perceive is to be perceived. The European who is actualizing the African as that object which is fundamentally different, forgets that he is being perceived also by the African. And also signified, redefined and reduced to the object represented by the mediation of his body and his behaviour.

MP: In all encounters one can figuratively speak of either looking through a window or looking in fact only in a mirror. That is, either really seeing the other or only seeing the self, or constructing the self through the image of the other. Can seeing the other really be achieved? And what are the obstacles and the prospects?

VM: I have responded already to that question by referring to “the original sin”. I prefer the metaphor of the mirror, because in conceiving the other what one is perceiving is a body. And it is only through the perception of that mediation, represented by the body, that I can conclude that there is something like a consciousness and intelligence in the other. Thus in the perception, in the understanding, in the effort to empathise with the other, in fact I am projecting my own self.And perhaps we could say that the main problem of anthropology, at least of African anthropology, has been for the West a search for itself, the origins and the understanding of this absolute commencement.

MP: Our book, which this interview is for, is premised on a perhaps unwarranted generalisation of us in Europe, and them, meaning those in Africa. If we want to question this generalisation are there any other important clusters of us and them we should rather use?

VM: The opposition between us and them reproduces the basic opposition between the I and the other. And what you do by going from the I to the we, is literally speaking a sociologisation of the Cartesian cogito. And thus we have a relationship, that we can reduce to a square; I, we, other, they. And in this square the other and the they constitute the radical opposition of the I andthe we. We can comment on a concrete relationship existing between the I, we and the other, they, which are relationships of opposition of antagonism of reduction of signification. We can also move from this violent relationship to something else, which is happening economically today, and which is frightening. It is the globalizing world in which we are living today. A mode of production that is planetary, and this mode of production is not only characteristic of one nation, but of multinationals. They are now organising this planet; they are reducing all of us, Africans and Europeans, to objects producing according to the demands of multinationals. And thus, I think the century which is coming, will be completely different because of this globalising system.

MP: In a recent lecture you were talking about the postulates of right to dominance, which were expressed in the enunciation by the Pope as early as in the 1400s. That this also means that racism started as early as that?

VM: Well I do not know about that. You know, it is possible to go for example to the Roman Empire. And Rome is a good illustration because people from different origins were living there; from the north of Germany for example, from the south of Africa and so on. And slavery then for example, was not based on the colour of the skin of the people. And to compare that type of society to let us say the 14th or 15th century of European society or of our present day society, is tricky because we are dealing with radically different societies. Instead of using history I want to think of what racism is about, and what universalism is about. And thinking about it in terms of research that I have been doing, and in seminars that I have been teaching (and I have been teaching in Stanford and in Berlin on theories of inequality, theories of difference) I would say that there is a paradox. We should look at universalism as a racism. Universalism comes from somewhere, from a locality, from a tradition, from a language, from a philosophy, and poses itself as normality to all other cultures, societies and individualities. And in doing so, what it is promoting is the power, the imperialism of a given local experience. I am not inventing it, I am referring to a collective work done by Etienne Balibar from France and Immanuel Wallerstein from the United States. But on the other hand racism is the apprehension of oneself as norm, more exactly looking at oneself as particular and incarnating an otherness. That incarnation disparts its negativity, then it wants to be universal. And so particularism in its own limitation is an ambition to universality.

MP: I want to refer to a discussion on this, which was held in conjunction with a book fair in Gothenburg here in Sweden two or three years ago. There was a session on human rights and all of those involved were universalists except one on the panel, who was talking about cultural rights. And I made a small intervention and I said that if it is so that human rights emanate from the French revolution or whatever, then we should just be very thankful to the French. But there was a lot of opposition to my comment: one lawyer from Spain said that it is not at all true that it is a Western concept. When the declaration of human rights was enacted or adopted by the United Nations, both the Chinese and the Indians and other representatives said that this emanated from their particular ideology and philosophy. And a politician from Sweden told me off by saying that there is only one thing that is Western about human rights, and that is our claim that it is Western. So could it be true that it came from several localities?

VM: Well, it is possible to find in different traditions the concept of human rights. It is true that in China or in America there was a philosophy that has a conception of human rights. But these conceptions, and this is my point, are completely different from those of the enlightenment. And secondly, the enlightenment also succeeded in imposing this perception thanks to the French Revolution. A concept of equality and fraternity for example imposed itself, not only philosophically but also politically, and we are dependent on that. But this should not allow us to forget the shortcomings when we look at the writings of someone like Condorçet who was sincere, who was a revolutionary, who was for the rights of the slaves and women—and yet we find passages which are sometimes astonishing, in which he writes explicitly there are people who are more equal than other people! So we should take that critically and understand that our thinking today on human rights is inscribed in a history, which is political and philosophical, and accept the fact that it has been institutionalised thanks to the legacy of the enlightenment.

MP: Is there any concept of Africa that is not externally defined?

VM: Is there a concept of Europe that is not externally defined? Europe defines itself but it is also being defined from a Chinese, Japanese or African viewpoint. All of us we define ourselves, our identities, by assuming and accepting the fact that we are beings for others. And what is true for an individual is also true for a culture. We inhabit our cultures, our traditions, in the way we inhabit our bodies. We are perceived and thus defined by other people.

MP: I was struck in Ghana by the way people said “...this is not African and this is African tradition and so on ...”. I am wondering how much the conception, or the concept African, is a reflection of the reflection of the Western concept of Africa?

VM: I think that in all societies you find a definition of yourself, which is a definition that you should be understood as a comparative. One defines oneself vis-à-vis someone else; it might be an individual, it might be a culture. And Africans … let us put it in this way; the concept of Africa is an invention. We can go back to the end of the 15th century and the encounter with Europe, when the continent is qualified. And its characteristics are given in books and in papers as if Africa is unified. And with that African cultures, which were different, collapsed. Despite their differences, with their own traditions, their own languages, they have been brought together. That is what is called an invention. It is a perception. And in the 19th century that continent is going to be colonised by Europe. And unified by Europe, the frontiers are going to be delimited by Europe also. This invention created something new, which was not there before. But despite that newness a new consciousness of belonging to a continent was indirectly created, perhaps I should say directly created. That is how in Ghana or in Senegal you meet people defining themselves as “we Africans”. It is interesting because it should be possible to ask: what is that exactly? And to which invention are they referring; to the tradition, the culture to which they belong? Was that tradition qualified as African and by whom and since when? Or are they referring to the Africa invented and organised by the coloniser? That is not impossible.

[The interview (published in Palmberg, M. (ed.) 2001, Encounter images in the meeting between Africa and Europe) took place in Stockholm on November 25, 1998.]

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