Historical Colonialism in Contemporary Perspective
I offer here a few thoughts provoked by Achille Mbembe’s eloquent reflections on questions of African identity (“African Modes of Self-Writing,” Public Culture 14 [winter 2002]: 239–73). Mbembe writes in the philosophical mode. His critique of the two different approaches to the question of African identity represented by Afro-radicalism and nativism focuses on their problematic assumptions, but largely bypasses questions of historicity—the circumstances, in other words, that rendered those assumptions plausible, and also made it possible to overlook their limitations and contradictions. We might well ask ourselves why it is that an awareness of these limitations and contradictions (of which his essay marks an exemplary moment) has moved to the foreground in the present.
Especially important in this regard is Mbembe’s observation that “the thematics of anti-imperialism is exhausted” (263). Anti-imperialism does not make much sense when colonialism as a system has disappeared from much of the world, and it is no longer all that easy to distinguish colonizers from the colonized in configurations of global power.
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