Presence Africaine

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The Surreptitious Speech: Présence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness ...I recently finished reading “The Surreptitious Speech: Présence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness “ , a compilation of essays edited by Valentine Mudimbe. The collection celebrates 40 years of the journal Presence Africaine.

Mudimbe writes a very engaging summary at the end of the compendium, in which he lays the tone of the compilation and gives his opinion on Presence.

In the span of forty years, the journal and publishing house Presence Africaine succeeded in organizing a new literary and intellectual space for “a surreptitious speech.” This space is not the other side of what we may call the Western space. In fact, it belongs to that space, though it is true that from the beginning Presence defined itself on the margin of this center it challenged.

There was a political reason for this. André Gide made it explicit in the first issue of the journal: why should Presence speak according to the expectations of a culture that was violating what Presence wanted to promote?

The idea of constructing space struck me as a very algebraic operation (we construct spaces in algebra all the time) and that got me excited. Theoretical spaces are a powerful tool for reasoning in Mathematics and in many sciences. How would this tool be useful in such a “concrete” field of study as African Studies?

Mudimbe makes it clear that the space created by Presence is a theoretical space, much like the mathematical one.

A space is always a construct. It is a theoretical articulation that claims to render and represent operations or, put simply, the reality of a place, that is, a primary experience. A space is, to say the least, a second-order plane reflecting upon a first-order practice of life and human experience.

In algebra, we use spaces to help us model some aspect of reality that is the subject of study. For instance, we may model the forces acting on an object as vectors in a 3 dimensional plane. In doing so we ignore some of the complexities of the real world and escape into the clean world of 3 dimensional vector spaces.

A notable difference between intellectual movement theoretical space and the mathematical modeling space is that the intellectual space influences the reality it models. It seems to be an active space where the mathematical space is passive (the fact that we model some scenario as vectors acting in a 3 dimensional space does not actually mean that it happens that way). In a Schrödinger-esque manner, the fact that an intellectual movement space studies a certain society changes the reality of that society.

This second-degree organization, by its very being, considerably alters and transforms the primary logic in which it claims to root itself. To that extent, its narratives as well as its postulations invent “what is really out there’ in the field of everyday place. Methods of faithfully expressing the place, at least in social and human sciences, undergo regular transformations in order to reflect better the reality of an experience and its complexity.

The idea of using spaces as a metaphor comes together wonderfully in the next paragraph. Mudimbe makes explicit the contending cultural theoretical spaces and shows how herculean Presence’s task was.

Indeed, after reading the contributions to this volume, one could deduce that, until the founding of Presence Africaine, African cultures and their designations were submitted to a European space that actualized them as figures of its own past, precisely as anterior to the rupture that radically separated prehistory from history. The memory of the European space would appear thus, diachronically and synchronically, as the paradigm of human experience and, at the same time, as that which historically has muted all other human differences by reducing them to the project of an evolutionary becoming. In this perspective, Presence Africaine could appear to signify the unthinkable: an otherness spatializing itself from a nowhere that could not but be a utopian project. In effect, its surreptitious voice faces Western culture in the name of an absolute alterity; yet this very alterity seems to spring from the Western space.

When I was 17, I wondered how little my parents knew. When I turned 23 I was surprised at how much they’d learnt in a few short years!

~ Paraphrase of Rudyard Kipling courtesy of my high school English teacher, and 8 years of convenient recall.

A question on Authenticity

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There is a push in African discourse to be true to ones roots. Authenticity often calls for disrobing of the colonial identity, including dropping European names and customs. For an intellectual, this provides a certain conflict. We are inducted into a learning that is not historically African and whose movements hold values lauded as ‘universal’ but having no African elements. To be fair, Africa’s absence is often because Africa was unknown to the movement founders and not because they set out to intentionally ignore the continent’s contributions. In any case, an African joining a foreign intellectual movement and subscribing to its values faces the authenticity challenge – can an African, remaining true, claim to inherit intellectually or be part of a movement from other parts of the world? Read more

After reading Sartre’s Orphee Noir, I was curious about this philosopher’s other writings. I picked up a copy of “Being and Nothingness”, translated by  Hezel Bernes. The ‘Translators Introduction’ section was an interesting puzzling piece. It gives us reason to believe that Philosophy is at times too abstract for its own good. In speaking of Sartre’s impact, Bernes says:

Most important is Sartre’s rejection of the primacy of the Cartesian cogito. He objects that in Descarte’s formula – “I think; therefore I am”[my note: the latin of which is cogito, ergo sum] – the consciousness which say, “I am,” is not actually the consciousness which thinks. Instead we are dealing with a secondary activity. Similarly, says Sartre, Descartes has confused spontaneous doubt, which is a consciousness, with methodological doubt, which is an act. When we catch a glimpse of an object, there may be a doubting consciousness of the object as uncertain. But Descarte’s cogito has posited this consciousness itself as an object; the Cartesian cogito is not one with the doubting consciousness but has reflected upon it. In other words this cogito is not Descartes doubting; it is Descartes reflecting upon the doubting. “I doubt; therefore I am” is really “I am aware that I doubt; therefore I am.” The Cartesian cogito is reflective,and its object is not itself but the original consciousness of doubting. The consciousness which doubted is now reflected on by the cogito but was never itself reflective; its only object is the object which it is conscious of as doubtful. These conclusions lead Sartre to establish the pre-reflective cogito as primary consciousness,and in all of his later work he makes this his original point of departure.