A Conversation on Africanism, I

Rahim Samine converses with Rahmane Idrissa on “Africanism”. Edited back-and-forth in a café.

R. S. – I heard you complain the other day – I think “complain” is the right word, right? – about something called “Africanism.” But I must admit, I am not clear what that is. Is it some version of Panafricanism? Of nationalism in Africa?

R. I. – Well, I am sure you heard of Orientalism?

R. S. – I have read the book some years ago. I see, Africanism is Orientalism for Africa.

R. I. – Indeed.

R. S. – So you think it is as bad?

R. I. – It depends on the extent to which you agree with Edward Said’s argument. Insofar as you agree with it, then Africanism is as bad, and even worse than Orientalism. However, I think that Africanism, just as Orientalism, is a big house, and you’ll find many different types and trends in there, not all of which are objectionable from the Said point of view.

R. S. – Let us suppose we agree with Said’s argument, hypothetically. Why would you say that Africanism, seen in that light, is even worse than Orientalism?

R. I. – The underlying point of Said is that Orientalism isn’t really about “the Orient.” It is a conversation between Europeans, or Westerners, on something which they created in their discourses, mostly, in their written discourses, although you could also add pictorial discourses such as the paintings of Delacroix and others, and which they then called “the Orient.” And Said had a beef with that conversation, because he thought it was mostly disparagement, persiflage, and, more ominously, an elaborate justification for the political domination and economic exploitation of the peoples and lands that were thus “Orientalized.” At the same time, Orientalism was a tradition of knowledge, of high grade scholarship, but these knowledge and scholarship lent themselves too readily to manipulation, or better said, to a sort of trahison des clercs [treason of the intellectuals], whereby the quest for truth, the only mission of the intellectual, is sacrificed to a bunch of unhealthy and dangerous fantasies. Africanism can be suspected of doing the same, but in an even more deplorable way, if you remember that in the ontological pecking order imagined by Europe’s intelligentsia in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Black Africans skulk at the bottom, even below the “Asiaticks”. So the disparagement and persiflage are bound to be even harsher in their case. By the way, for Said, Africanism is only a variant of Orientalism.

R. S. – But you seem to think this Said point of view isn’t all that there is to it.

R. I. – There is something of a polemic in Said’s book. His relentlessness results in something that is awfully close to an essentializing of the West, and his denunciation of Orientalism ends up becoming, on some level, an Occidentalism. I get why and how he got there. His real target isn’t the discourse of Orientalism per se, but the order of things, the colonial order which this discourse promoted in a variety of ways. So he could listen only to the words that confirmed his convictions about the sinister, colonialist aspects of Orientalism, and these words formed a discourse which became all that he heard or read. He overshot as it were. Still, he didn’t miss the mark when it came to getting at the heart of the matter, the power-knowledge relations between colonialism and the sets of literary and scholarly discourses which he calls Orientalism. That is still alive in Africanism.

R. S. – How does that manifest itself? I know the question is probably too broad, so maybe you could narrow down on some aspects?

R. I. – Or on my own experience. I did not know until I was 30 that such a thing as Africanism existed, that there was this vast conversation on Africa in Western universities. Did not know at all. Until then, I had been a student at the University of Dakar, in Senegal, which, you could say, was a province of French universities – and yet, not quite. I think it was more like a curious point of encounter between intellectual genres that were coming mostly from France, and the African lived experience in which I was swimming. You had multiple points of reference, from the European-language books, from the surrounding Islamic culture, from the African cultures, languages, food, ways and means. And in the end, that African side was the dominant note, even if it didn’t look that way. I mean, we didn’t study as many African scholars and books as we did French ones, by any measure, but we studied everything from an African perspective, without even being deliberate about that. Actually, I remember I was always negative, in those days, about people who insisted too much on Africa, Africanness, and those sorts of things, you know, the Afrocentric. I attended a course on African philosophy from an Afrocentric professor, and I did like it, but in a very curious way. I found it both refreshing and a bit spooky. My conclusion was that the gist of his teaching was very reasonable and enlightening, but because he was teaching in what, basically, was a French university, a Eurocentric university teleported in Tropical Africa, he felt, probably rightly so, that he had to be shrill and intense to be heard, and so many times, he did sound rather unreasonable and obscurantist, you see what I mean?

R. S. – (laughing) Totally!

R. I. – So the other students were impatient with him when he sometimes went a-ranting, but I, well, somehow I found that endearing, which was partly because I had this satirical eye, so to me, when he launched into these tirades, it was the stuff of comedy, something molieresque, as if Moliere had written a play titled L’Afrocentrique besides his Le Misanthrope, or L’Avare. And you know, there are always those great rants in those plays, where you see things that we may all feel sometime during the day, like a frustration with humanity, or love of money, escalated to the level of monomania. And so of course, it was also partly because I was myself a bit of an Afrocentric at some points during the week or the month that I could smile at his deluge of angry assertions, which frankly, were sometimes legit racist.

R. S. – Oh? I imagine. But that’s also part of being in this context of getting educated in a Eurocentric university in Africa, right?

R. I. – Exactly. But it was not Eurocentric to me, because it was an African university, at the end of the day. One way I saw it was more like in the resemblance of the old European universities, where teaching was done in Latin and all classical authors were Greek and Roman, not French, German, English; and where the latter used Latin for their study of these classical authors. All the while, they did not feel threatened that they would become Greek or Roman, and in fact, they felt a good deal of desire to becoming at least something like the Greeks and Romans of Antiquity. The English poet Milton expressed this very forcefully somewhere [Note: Idrissa was referring to this passage of The Areopagitica: “If I should thus far presume upon the meek demeanour of your civil and gentle greatness, lords and commons, as what your published order hath directly said, that to gainsay, I might defend myself with ease, if any should accuse me of being new or insolent, did they but know how much better I find ye esteem it to imitate the old and elegant humanity of Greece, than the barbaric pride of a Hunnish and Norwegian stateliness. And out of those ages, to whose polite wisdom and letters we owe that we are not yet Goths and Jutlanders, I could name him [Isocrates] who from his private house wrote that discourse to the parliament of Athens, that persuades them to change the form of democracy that was then established.”]. Of course, there was the little fact that by the time the Europeans were doing all this sort of thing in their schools and universities, the Greeks and Romans were long dead and were not about to, you know, put them under a political or economic yoke, as in fact the Europeans, well, at least the French, Americans, and the like, were doing in Africa. Still, there was a feeling of distance from the face of Western power, and a sense of Africa being just this mass of sturdy humanity that surrounded us, that led many of us to feel that we did not have to be scared of Rousseau, Voltaire, or even Hegel or Hugo, who both wrote some pretty vile things about us. And I did not conclude from the opinions of these two men that there was something fishy in the Western image of Africa, but that you could be a great philosopher, a great poet, and yet also an imbecile. Yet, in fact, the first proposition was also true.

R. S. – You mean, that Africanism is this “something fishy in the Western image of Africa?”

R. I. – Well, at least something about Africanism is certainly fishy. When I discovered its existence, I must say, I was disconcerted.

R. S. – When was that?

R. I. – When I moved to the United States for my studies in political science. That was my first time leaving the African continent, but it was not just a geographic crossing, it was also an intellectual voyage, a change of intellectual vantage point. It was very exciting, challenging too, but mostly exciting. And it came with the requirement that I must change my mind.

R. S. – Wow!

R. I. – Oh, not like that, it is not something “wowable” (laughter). I mean, it wasn’t a written, formal requirement. Just that, all of a sudden, I found myself into a place where people were talking in certain ways about objects of knowledge, in ways that were not completely different from how we went about it in Africa, but that were very different nonetheless. And the first thing that struck me was that, in this new perspective, the world was not a seamless place, but a set of areas, like, North America, Latin America, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, Africa, which is in fact Africa south of the Sahara, and some would add: north of the Limpopo, etc. When I was in Dakar or Niamey, I routinely compared things happening in Europe and Asia to things happening in Africa, they seemed to me to belong to the same order of phenomena, granted that there were differences of context, but these were contingent, in the end, it was the same humanity. The first time I took part to a conference in the US, I did that, I compared very naturally the coups d’état in Niger to those in Turkey because it appeared to me that they belonged in the same league of coups that purported to protect the secular republic from the deviations of politicians. The comparison surprised many in attendance. I was informed of the existence of those “areas”, and also of the fact that one could actually make such cross-area comparisons when studying a theme, like the coups d’état for instance, so I shouldn’t feel like I did anything untoward, and that my comparison was “refreshing”, “bracing.” American academics are delightful with the newcomer. I asked questions and learned that most of the time, people kept to their area and knew next to nothing about what would happen in another area, didn’t even care to know. Of course, today, I am so familiarized with all this that it seems to make sense, but I was astonished and even shocked by this new perspective at that time, and up to know, I must say it still only seems to make sense to me.

R. S. – Sorry, but our time is up for today. Should we continue next?

R. I. – Next. And really, you shouldn’t let me ramble.

R. S. – You know I am a good listener, a hungry listener. But agreed, next time I will keep you in line, I will try anyway.

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