On the Power of the False
In the essay “African Modes of Self-Writing” ( Public Culture 14 [winter 2002]: 239–73), I develop the idea that Marxism and nationalism, as practiced in Africa throughout the twentieth century, gave rise to two narratives on African identity: nativism and Afro-radicalism. I contend that the objective of these two discourses was not only to pronounce once and for all the “truth” on the issue of what Africa and Africans are (theory), but also to chart what might or should be the destiny of Africa and Africans in the world (praxis).
I state that when analyzed closely, these two orthodoxies are revealed to be faked philosophies (philosophies du travestissement). As dogmas and doctrines repeated over and over again rather than methods of interrogation, they have led to a dramatic contraction and impoverishment both in the modes of conceptualizing Africa and in the terms of philosophical inquiry concerning the region. Nativism, everywhere actively lamenting the loss of purity, is a form of culturalism preoccupied with questions of identity and authenticity. Faced with the malaise resulting from the encounter between the West and the indigenous worlds, nativism proposes a return to an ontological and mythical “Africanness” in which the African subject might once again say “I” and express him- or herself in his or her own name. Drawing its fundamental categories from a Marxist political economy, Afro-radicalism claims to have founded a so-called revolutionary politics, which seeks to break away from imperialism and dependence.
Despite their differences, these two accounts share the same episteme. I show that, on the one hand, both rely on an idea of “good” and “evil”—a moral economy— whose power of falsification derives from its opaque ties with the cult of suffering and victimization. On the other hand, both consist of superstitions that function to persuade us that nothing is happening in Africa because history (the slave trade, colonization, and apartheid) has already happened, and anything more would be nothing but a repetition of these originary events. Further, the African subject cannot express him- or herself in the world other than as a wounded and traumatized subject. In the essay, I demonstrate that these two narratives falsify the event itself (whether slavery, colonization, or apartheid) in the very act in which they claim to name it and to decode its significations. What I am being asked to explain (Vergès, Quayson, Segall) and what seems to be denied (Guyer, Jules-Rosette) is that such superstitions continue to beleaguer the African discourses of the self, turning them into discourses that are both possessed and haunted.
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