Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Violence of Order: Mudime's 'The Invention of Africa'

by Theresa M. Senft (The Invention of Africa is online here.)

We are living in an historical moment in which the question is raised, again and again, "Why Colonialism?" In his book, The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe summarizes the most popularly defended answers to this question. The first answer, which might be called the Irrationalist Claim, suggests that colonialism has been some kind of historical accident, a "largely unplanned and, as it turns out, a transient phase in the evolving relationship between more and less developed parts of the world." According to Mudimbe, "Those who hold to this theory argue that on the whole, colonialism was not the worst thing that could have happened to the black continent."(2)

A second answer to the question, "why colonialism?" is the Marxist Argument. According to Mudimbe, this argument says "If colonialism has been inconsistent with economic development, it has been, at least, since its inception, quite consistent with its own economic interests and objectives." Mudimbe summarizes these interests as follows: industry over agriculture; heavy industry over all other types; service economies; preference for experts to the detriment of the total economy.

The third answer, a more sophisticated version of the second, is the Dependency Theory argument, in which the following claims are made: 1. capitalism demands that some parts of the system grow at the expense of other parts; 2. underdevelopment is not only lack of development, but also a systematic means for bringing non-Western economies into capitalist markets; 3. Dependent countries lack the ability to grow and become autonomous, because their economic fate is largely determined by developed nations.

Although entirely sympathetic to the urge to ask, "why colonialism?" much of the remainder of Mudimbe's book suggests that these arguments do nothing to get at the heart of the matter, because "whichever theory one accepts, the application remains the same." The more useful question to be asking, Mudimbe infers, is this: "What precisely IS colonialism?" How does colonialism function, what is its history, and what are its truth claims? The Invention of Africa is primarily devoted to detailing what might be called the Epistemology of Colonialism.

"Colonialism, and colonialization," states Mudimbe, "basically means organization and arrangement." The pattern of colonial arrangement in Africa, he points out, has been threefold: the domination of physical space (procedures of acquiring, distributing and exploiting lands in colonies); the reformation of the native mind (through policies of "domesticating" natives); and the integration of native economies and histories into western perspectives (through the western reinstitution of new modes of production.) These three organziational strategies are the ones which in turn, produce marginal societies, cultures and human beings. This name for this organziational stategy, which encompasses economics, but also art, history, science, and anthropology, is that which Mudimbe (after Sachs) terms "Europocentrism."

Europeocentrism is a modality of making order of the universe, it is a historical and inherited system of thought-making and truth telling (it is both ontological and epistemological.) The most pronounced feature of Europocentrism is its need to act as a force that dichotomizes: traditional vs. modern, oral vs. written, agrarian vs. urban, subsistence vs. highly productive economies are all examples of this mode of thinking. In Europocentrist thinking, only the "jump" from one side of this dichotomy to the other is what can be adequately conceptualized in literature regarding the "third world".

Ironically, Mudimbe points out, especially in Africa, "Between the two extremes there is an intermediate, a diffused space in which social and economic events define the extent of marginality." Two example he uses to illustrate this are the social disintegration of African societies from "traditional" arrangements, and the growing urban proletariat in Africa. This type of marginality, he suggests, "designates the intermediate space between the so-called African tradition and the projected modernity of colonialism".

Mudimbe writes a treatise on Europocentrism and the European Invention of Africa as a way to speak to social scientists working in Africa, who in his words "react to these examples of marginality as reasons to reassess programs of modernization." Rather than rush off to think up new modernizing programs for poor stupid Africans, Mudimbe makes the case that "one may already understand that this marginal space has been a great problem since the beginning of the colonializing experience, rather than a step in he imagined "evolutionary process" toward modernity.(5) Implicit in his critique is the demand that social scientists of every nationality wake up and acknowledge their Eurocentric claims to "knowledge" of Africa.

Contrary to most economists, who continue to ask "why colonization" , Mudimbe makes the radical claim that the colonizing process may not be the only explanation for Africa's present-day marginality. Rather, the ways in which Africa has been known by Europe (as the antithesis of all things European) existed long before colonialism.

Mudimbe specifically addresses the early European inability to pictorially render black bodies as anything less than "that which was not European", the European use of African "tourist" art, and the creation of African Studies--that is, the European"invention" of Africanism as a scientific discipline, to show the ways in which Eurocentrism had a hold on Africa further prior to colonialism.

Making the point that pictorial resemblance in the human features between blacks and European had already been pushed out of the painting of Rubens, Rembrant and Rigaud , Mudimbe points out that the way had been made clear for Europeans to consider Africans as objects of inquiry. One thing that pushed Africanism along was "tourist art", brought to Europe from Africa, which had long served as a symbolic and economic exchange between the two places, and significantly predates colonialism. Africans could and did produce "sacred art" for European markets. Paradoxically, however, the very importation of tourist art from Africa began to blur European distinctions between "folk art" and collectible "fine art", as African art made its way into private collections of wealthy Europeans. In order to resist the encroachment of African art on European high culture Mudimbe argues that African art, and all things African (including bodies) were reduced in the European mind as "radical alterity" (that which is not me).

These European developments in the art world were contemporary with Enlightenment discussions of such propositions as "men are born unequal" and "the place of the savage in the chain of being". (12) Additionally, more sailing trips were made to Africa in order to bring "new proofs of African inferiority." As Mudimbe puts it: "The techniques of Yoruba statuary must have come from the Egyptians, Benin art must have been a Portuguese invention; the architectural achievements of Zimbabwe were due to Arab technicians," and so on.

This urge toward African inferiority persists to this day. To make his case, Mudimbe cites the eurocentrism of Carl Sagan, the American physicist, who claimed that the complex and well-documented cosmological knowledge of the Dogon country in Africa was in fact that work of a "Gallic visitor". Never mind that Sagan had no documentation to make this assertion; Africans could not have possibly had this level of knowledge about the stars on their own, he hypothesizes. This line of reasoning is what Mudimbe will term, "epistemological ethnocentrism; namely the belief that scientifically there is nothing to be learned from them unless it already ours or comes from us.

What made the Eurocentrist ideology of "savagery" a specific novelty around the time of colonialism, writes Mudimbe, was its concurrent deployment by way of the social sciences. " For the first time, a discourse in which an explicit political power presumes the authority of scientific knowledge, and vice-versa, occurs. Colonialism becomes its project and can be thought of as duplication and fulfillment of the power of Western discourses on human varieties. "(16)

To consider the historical moment in which social science and colonialism combined to "Invent Africa", Mudimbe turns to anthropology, arguably the most clear example of the colonialist project of the social scientists will to knowledge. Mudimbe takes up Frobenius's expression "African genesis" to demonstrate that both mercantilist ideologies and anthropological interpretations of primitivism sprung up in Europe at approximately the same time (this is the standard economic argument, outlined earlier.) Additionally, however, at the very moment that the merchant with the savage were finally meeting, the European (Hegelian) notion of history, with a capital "H" was introduced. Mudimbe points out that History, in the Hegelian sense, has at least two tenets: 1. the superiority of the white race, and 2. the necessity for European economies and structures to expand to the 'virgin world'. (17)

It is these two factors, ideology of expansionist white supremacy, and the model of the natural sciences as "truth", have combined, through the force of History, in order to give us what we today understand as anthropology. For this reason: "the basic concern of anthropology is not so much the description of 'primitive achievements and societies, as the questioning of its own motives..." In truth, if natives are not properly human subjects, how could they possibly be of interest to the European mind? The only thing of interest to the European mind is the European, and anthropology's epistemological project of locating the same by way of alterity is ironically that which Mudimbe claims as anthropology's "virtue and its weakness" (19)

To those who claim that a new, self-reflexive free-form ethnography may yield a more "true" and "exact" anthropology, Mudimbe offers his reading of N. Barley's 1984 memoir Adventures in a Mud Hut. While musing over the fact that "ten years ago, this would not have been considered a legitimate text in anthropological circles", Mudimbe ventures that harmless though the text is, as insightful and interesting a critique of Eurocentric anthropological accounts it is, it woefully repaints Africa as a type of Heart of Darkness with a laugh track. "Why," questions Mudimbe," Is African culture a 'barbarous' experience? What is European civilization and in which sense is it different?"

Answering his own question, Mudimbe suggests that the very scientific claims to knowledge made by anthropology (as it has been and continues to be configured within Eurocentric ideas about dichotomies, truth and progress) will continue to be oppressive, regardless of the ways in which it is deployed. The violence of Eurocentrism is, importantly, an epistemological one, with felt material effects. In Mudimbe's words, "In the eighteenth century, as well of those of the nineteenth and their successors in the twentieth, explorers spoke using the same type of signs and symbols and acted upon them." Why should today be different?

Strangely, after this trenchant critique of anthropology as a violent practice of ordering, irretrievably wedded to Eurocentrism, Mudimbe calls for a new kind of anthropological knowledge, one which may confer its meanings "for the foundation of both Africanist discourses and African gnosis." His plan of attack, so to speak, lies in resurrecting "the subject" from ashes of structuralist anthropology and economics, and re-casting the subject as Africanist.

In his words:

"Today, the best students, faced with contradictory reports, will ask pertinent questions: What are the reports witnessing to? Do they contribute to a better knowledge of the African past? Are they scientifically credible and acceptable? If answered correctly, these propositions, in principle, lead to a new understanding of human history. (23)"