Letters on Africanism, I: on some assumptions, etc.

Note: We have tried several times to continue our conversation on Africanism, but a meeting time could not be found, due to travels and meeting deadlines. So R. C. sent an email to R. I., who has responded with the letter below, a first in a series of perhaps three, according to what he expects to cover. Well, we shall see!

I did receive your mail on a follow-up on our conversation on Africanism. Sorry that we had to miss one another so often. From what I understand, you wanted to stir the conversation towards what seems to you the central question of this “new” movement, known as “decolonial,” and which, you say, is whether it is at all “possible to study Africa on the basis of Western social sciences.” You are perhaps right that this is the central decolonial question, at least when it comes to the matter of Africanism, which is a scholarly enterprise, a knowledge-production enterprise. You have further said: “Africa has emerged as an object of knowledge for the West through acts of domination and exploitation, and so one can legitimately ask whether it is possible to ever transcend this original sin? The very principles of Africanist knowledge are tainted, aren’t they?”

First, let us try having a clearer understanding of this question. I think it is based on two different assumptions that are mixed up together in a not too helpful way – they are mixed up because one assumption derives from the other. The first assumption is that knowledge is produced by domination, and the second, which is the assumption that you have actually expressed, is that Africanist knowledge is produced, or was started by (colonial) domination. It is as a result of these two assumptions that you question the merits of Africanist knowledge. Now, the second assumption is an assumption of fact, so it will need to be examined on the basis of empirical evidence. I have to reserve that to another letter. Here, I will limit myself to the first assumption.

The point that “knowledge is produced by domination” is circumstantial truth. It really means that knowledge can be produced by domination, under certain circumstances, not that knowledge is necessarily the product of domination. This is the case because knowledge-seeking is a passion, it is really, as the Latin phrase has it, libido sciendi, the passionate desire to know. It is a passion that can actually be dangerous or threatening to those in dominant positions, even if inadvertently. The dominant can and do organize knowledge-seeking into something which they can control and put at the service of their position, but by the very nature of knowledge-seeking, that control can never be fully total. Besides, systems of domination are rarely monolithic. At the very least, they include actors of political, economic, and social-cultural domination, who may not have unified interests regarding the production of knowledge. And lastly, domination is in fact just a usage of power, and the more general form of the assumption is, therefore, about the relations between power and knowledge. Now, power, in itself, is neutral. It is something which we need anytime we want to act, and it is, then, the nature of the action that’s important. We need power to do good or bad, we need it to dominate, but also to liberate; to oppress or to provide care. And thus, it is clear that the antecedent, in the relations of power and knowledge, is not power, but knowledge. So, modifying the assumption, I should say that “power is produced by knowledge,” and not the other way around. Here, there is even an element of necessity. Sure, knowledge-seeking, libido sciendi, does not lead to power by necessity. Again, this is a passion, and it glories and revels in its extreme frivolity or uselessness. I want to know all about butterflies just because I want to know all about butterflies, or the Kuiper Belt, or traditional medicine in Hokkaido Island, and that’s it. But power is not instinctual in that way, it is built, and because it can be built only on the basis of knowing what one is doing, it necessarily needs knowledge. And so, one could seek knowledge to build a certain kind of power. One could seek knowledge to build the power to oppress, or the power to provide care, for instance. One could seek knowledge to build the power to dominate.

But this is then all about the agent, not about knowledge itself. This means that one can engage in the passionate study of things African just because one wants to, not for any view of power, either liberating, or oppressive. Of course, this conclusion doesn’t say anything about Africanism, which is organized, collaborative knowledge-production, necessarily enmeshed with power of one kind or another. But here, I am still looking at the elementary nature of the issue, I will get to Africanism in the next letter.

Another point of assumption that needs clarification is this “domination” thing. It is more complicated than you are assuming, at least if you accept only the “decolonial” point of view. The kind of domination which is denounced by the decolonial movement is real, of course. It is willful domination, either diffuse in a system of hegemonic control, or deliberate through the physical exercise of oppressive power. In the relations between the West and Africa, the first situation would be the one which we have today, and the second existed under colonialism. But there is also involuntary domination, to reverse and, in a sense, complete the argument of La Boétie.

If you recall, for La Boétie, the incomprehensible scandal is voluntary servitude, the fact that people, apparently, just want to be dominated. To highlight that scandal, La Boétie explains that men did not come to love servitude as an act of necessity. Servitude is against our natural instincts, so loving it is against nature. This state of affairs is the outcome of something which he describes using a terrific French word which, unfortunately, is not in use in French anymore, malencontre. The meaning of this word combines the ideas of the unlucky and the accidental (the language still has the adjective malencontreux, but has dropped the substantive for some mysterious, indeed, malencontreux reason). Through an unlucky accident, men fell into the world of voluntary servitude. La Boétie never explains how that unlucky accident occurred or what it was exactly. Instead, he dives into the unnatural thing with ardent gusto, describing in vivid ways how, once a people has fallen into it, rulers can develop all kinds of wiles and stratagems to keep them entrapped in it. The implication here is that if servitude is voluntary, domination is deliberate. But one can also conclude from his reasoning that if servitude is voluntary, then domination may, at least at times, be involuntary. If servitude is accidental, then domination might also be the result of a malencontre.

In the case of the West and Africa, or the West and the Rest more generally, there was, there is, deliberate domination of the kind described by La Boétie – which is hegemonic domination; I suppose there is, too, voluntary servitude, even if, here, the malencontre is very well known, it is imperialism, a thing indeed unlucky and accidental. But there is also the involuntary or passive domination that came from the position of the West as the pace-setter of the modern age.

I want to highlight that one because its reality and effects are important for the whole set of issues in which one can raise the question you asked, but they are ill-understood. The domination of the pace-setter does not result directly from his actions, but from the positional fact of being at the vanguard of the system. In that sense, it is not even really the pace-setter that is dominant, but the system itself, in which one needs to live up to certain standards in order to survive at worst, to thrive at best. The constraints thus come from the system. The fact that the pace-setter is not the dominant element can be seen in that inferior parties are not necessarily in a condition of servitude. Rather, the point is that they feel the need to emulate the pace-setter, and the attempt to do so can be increasingly constraining and feel increasingly frustrating, the lower one is within the system, with respect to the standards set by the pace-setter. There were little sovereign German princes in the early 18th century who were poorer than a Parisian bourgeois but squandered their puny treasures to have a Versailles-like court, because Louis XIV was then the pace-setter and Bourbon absolutism, the highest standard of authority in the system of continental states. Closer to our topic, I often think, in this connection, of the cruel misadventure of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II.

Tewodros belonged in a crop of 19th century rulers who, across Asia and Africa, struggled to change their countries in response to what the West was then doing to the world. Other African examples would be Samori Touré, Rabih, Mutesa and Mwanga II, or the Pan-African activists of the Gulf of Guinea. There are probably others. Objectively speaking, the project of these people was to begin on the journey of autonomous modern development from conditions of vast inferiority relative to the pace-setter. Some of those projects succeeded, certainly, Japan, in Asia, and, to a lesser extent, Thailand. Those in Africa were all destroyed or preempted by colonialism, except for the Ethiopian one, which though it suffered a debacle in the confrontation between Tewodros and the British army man Napier, was rekindled under Menelik II, the man who routed the Italians.

Basically, Tewodros wanted to force the biggest pace-setter of the day, the British, to help him build a modern country, a British-like country, out of a chaotic Ethiopian polity. He begged for technicians and educators, invoking as the reason why the British should help  the common Christian faith of Amhara Ethiopians and Englishmen. But following the fiery instincts which had served him well in the taming of fractious Ethiopian warlords (he saw them as rebels), Tewodros thought he could strengthen his case by blackmailing Britain into sending the kind of help he wanted. He took his European guests and accredited diplomats hostage and told the British they could obtain their release in exchange of sending in technical assistants, engineers, and the like. That was a grave mistake. Britain reacted with war, brought in stupendous legions (with elephants and all) from its Indian empire, made short work of Tewodros little army, and demanded unconditional surrender. Feeling a total failure, Tewodros preferred suicide. His testament is interesting in that it congratulates the British for winning thanks to the high standards of their organization, and tells his countrymen that he lost because they did not have such high standards. To his last breath, his goal was not to defy Britain, which he did not see as a dominant power; it was to secure its help, as the entity at the vanguard of the system. When he received Napier’s after-battle ultimatum asking him to surrender and be “treated with honor” or else, he asked for clarification: “What do they mean by honorable treatment? Do they mean to treat me honorably as their prisoner, or do they intend to assist me in recovering my country from the rebels?” When it became clear that the British wanted to take him prisoner, thereby destroying his many years of efforts taming Ethiopia, instead of supporting those efforts, he simply decided to die.

European hostages of Tewodros. In exchange of « development aid »…

In this story, we see that Britain was not interested in colonizing Ethiopia, it was not after direct domination – just a prideful acte gratuit of the kind the West still engages in today in the poorer quarters of the world. But in the new world that came out of empire – I explain the meaning which I give to this word in my next letter – Britain was sitting at the center of an increasingly inescapable modern civilization. Even when one was not subjugated by direct Western domination, one was still under the inexorable hegemony of the modern. This pace-setter hegemony of the West may be resented, but the resentment will be neither just nor rational. It will be the result of the frustration one may have that one has to give up one’s own ways in order not to be left behind, and the humiliation that comes from having to admit being inferior. For those, like Tewodros, who did not care to wallow in resentment, the solution was “development,” meaning, to strive to be on a level with the pace-setter. In cases of great inequality, such as the one between African and Western countries, this project will invite condescension from the pace-setter. In Africanist political science, for instance, Western scholars generally cannot bring themselves to taking modern African states seriously, because they are such shabby copies of the Western original. But under the goads of this hegemony of the modern, what other choice is there?

Yet, if this kind of pace-setter domination is not necessarily malign, it is destructively so when it is coupled with direct domination from one of the pace-setting nations. There have been cases in history when the dominant power was not the pace-setter. For instance, in the Roman Empire, Rome was the dominant power, but the Greeks were the true pace-setters, despite being defeated and physically dominated. Something of the sort happened also between Han Chinese and the various Barbarians who ruled them, the Mongols and the Manchus. In these cases, there was consolation for the peoples who have lost their freedom and power in seeing that they have, in a way, conquered their conquerors. But in the cases when the pace-setter is also the dominant power, the dominated is really crushed absolutely, both physically and psychologically. The result is often an inability or difficulty of the dominant to think of himself as the same kind of being as the dominated, but also, in fact, the dominated may feel the same way. To the racism of the dominant, bloated by a superiority complex, responds the self-loathing of the dominated, crippled by an inferiority complex. The problem, for the dominated, is then how to rise against domination without also rising against progress, when both appear to have the same source. How to get rid of servitude, but not of development (in the meaning of development given above)?

In the modern world, the first people to face this quandary were probably the Haitians, and they faced it in its starkest form. Here, domination was in the form of capitalist slavery, attended with the ghastliest racism. In my next letter, I will define this as Negro slavery. And yet, the nation that perpetrated the barbarity was smack at the center of the ruling civilization of the day. The Haitians rose up against Negro slavery, but since Negro slavery was ingrained in the ruling civilization, the question became, how to keep its benefits and emulate the French while becoming free as “Negros” (this injurious term ended up taking the ennobling meaning of “man” in Haitian creole). Introducing his Histoire d’Haïti (1847), the first “complete” history of Haiti, Thomas Madiou writes that the Spanish and French have “left the blood-spattered imprint of their domination” on Haiti, but they have also sowed there the “seeds of a new civilization.” “Civilization,” he adds, “was introduced into the bosom of Haiti [by the Europeans] despite the nearly insurmountable obstacles which it had faced in the criminal system of servitude [inflicted on the Africans].” The contradiction was solved by an African revolution. Now that the unchained Africans have removed the obstacles, it was time for them to pick up the pace, understanding that “the peoples who have neglected or refused to follow the progress of the human mind have eventually lost, in most cases, their national existence, and fallen victim of their own resistance to the development of enlightenment.”

bois caiman
Blood Pact at Bois Caiman. The « Pan-Africanist » ritual of resistance that started the Haitian Revolution

It must be noted that Madiou did not see civilization in the ethnocentric way in which it was generally conceived in the colonial discourse. He really did see it as pace-setting, claiming that in older times, the “home of human civilization” was in Africa and Asia, not in Europe. In modern days, Europe has taken the torch, and so there was no other choice than following the lead. However, it was clear to him that this should be the lead of humanity, not of Europe per se. And this is one of the junctures where the problem of Africanism arises, as I will explain in my next letter. It is certainly regrettable that people like Madiou and other 19th century Pan-Africanists were not present at the baptismal founts of this scholarly tradition, which, after gestating for one or two centuries, started to take shape when they were active.

So I think now there has been enough clearing of the grounds to allow me to turn to the question itself.

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