The end of the western archive?

“Africa Theorises”: A conversation between Achille Mbembe and Anthony Bogues, 13 August 2013, English Department, University of Cape Town.


Over the last fifty years there has been, in the phrase of Achille Mbembe, a “redrawing of the global intellectual map”, marked by two moments of acceleration: the decolonisation process, which brought a superabundance of inassimilable voices into discourse; and in the 1990s, a “moment of dispersion” crystallised through economic crises, authoritarianism, exile and intellectual migrations. The analytic total of these historic movements has been a radical pluralism; the desire to “provincialise Europe”, to resist macro-narratives, to locate the embryonic Eurocentrism embedded at the point of modernity’s conception, to reconceptualise the “human”, expanding its border beyond the fingertips of white males. Mbembe, who has played an active and imaginative part in all this, speaks of a rise of “alternative circuits of circulation”, wherein the sovereignty North-North dialogue is interrupted by South-North, or East-North, or South-South configurations of radical intellectual ambition.

Santiago Castro-Gomez speaks of the “hubris of zero degrees”, the invisibilisation of the “locus of enunciation” – or the point at which the European speaking subject erases the contingency of its character in time-space, speaking thereby in the terms of the universal. Part of the project of radical theorisation today is to contribute to a de-centring and multi-centring of knowledge, a critique of modern reason and colonial power. Mbembe argues that the state of theory today takes three approximate forms: “methods to question the truth of authority”; “techniques to reveal figures of power”; and “investigating the limits of human reason”. He suggests that we are witnessing a “flight from theory” and a “born-again realism”, a return to the “ethical and theological”.

Mbembe warns of a vacuum in the Humanities, in which socio-biology, genetic reductionism and neuroscience have consolidated themselves, “annexing” the questions of the humanities, proposing themselves as the empiric and ultimate answerers to the vexed domains of culture and politics. Certain tendencies within such projects master an idea of “history as essence”, he argues, and he calls for renewed attention to a splendid contingency, the kinds of untameable contingencies which cannot be domesticated by modernity; which complicate every glib appraisal of ethics, politics and history from Francis Fukuyama to Sam Harris. “The fate of theory”, says Mbembe ­– and this talk is finally about a new theoretical apparatus which undergirds praxis and programmatic – “hangs in the air at a time when […] the hegemony of the western archive is coming to an end.” He speaks of the global South as a “laboratory of contradictions” – an extraordinary phrase which captures the imaginative possibilities of places like Africa, which inflect and interrupt the old cluster of master narratives with a threatening power to think alternatively.

Anthony Bogues, of Brown University, uses the Valentin-Yves Mudimbe-edited collection Africa and the Disciplines (1993) to enter into the conversation. He quotes twice from contributing author Steven Feierman. The first: “What was once thought to be universal was in fact very partial and selective”; the second: “History can no longer be written as a single, clear line narrated by the spread of civilisation from an historic heartland to Africa and other parts of the world”. He calls for a deepening of conceptions, categories, forms, languages, archives; representation. Bogues tells an interesting story of his encounter with a recent Guardian article on artist Meschac Gaba. It proclaims that “African art is no longer ethnographic, it is now modern”, and Bogues reflects on the use of “African” as an adjective or descriptor, as in “African modernism”, and how this formulation simply inserts Africa into an old European teleology, whereby African culture is a belated historical phenomenon, converging with forms of representation already mastered and superannuated in the annals of European history.

In concluding his presentation, Bogues offers up a few ideas for discussion. He says that “the genealogy of African thought and practice in the 20th century poses fundamental questions” about life and lived experience. The questions centrifuge around two further categories: that of freedom, and the ontology of the human. Of the former, he suggests a distinction between emancipation (narrower, political sense of being released from dependency) and freedom (a broader conception which must reckon with the political rationalities of colonialism, and the coloniality of power/knowledge, obscured and occluded and lurking among the split veins of our very reasoning). Of the latter, he says that “neoliberalism wants to capture desire and imagination” and that in the process, it claims to describe existent humans, whilst actually auguring “the construction of a different species” according to its own perverse logic. Neoliberalism and its related intellectual enterprises are, in fact, a “project for totality” – it becomes, then, the urgent counter-discursive reply to resist our totalisation by these foreign instruments of static ontologisation, self-reflexively searching to transcend the horizons in which Africa has been captured, reified and subjected by coloniality.

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