In this seminar, we strive to explore the critical or “epistemic” distance that separates the two following, and apparently contradictory assertions by Achille Mbembe. In Critique de la raison nègre [Critique of Black Reason], Mbembe argues that African discursive constructions of Africa are enabled, in the last instance, by the very discourses such “inventions” (as Mudimbe might call them) vie to refute: “Africa as such—and one should add the Black subject [le Nègre] exists only by dint of a text which constructs it as the other’s fiction … to such an extent that the self which claims to speak in a voice that is authentically its own always incurs the risk of never expressing itself except by means of a pre-constituted discourse that masks its own, censures it and compels imitation” (« n’existe qu’à partir du texte qui [le] construit comme la fiction de l’autre … au point où le soi qui prétend parler d’une voix authentiquement sienne encourt toujours le risque de ne jamais s’exprimer qu’à partir d’un discours pré-constitué, qui masque le sien propre, le censure ou l’oblige à l’imitation » ). In this way, Mbembe continues, Africa and the African subject belong in large measure to a massive and ubiquitous “colonial library,” which “encroaches and insinuates itself everywhere, including in the discourse that claims to repudiate it,” ultimately rendering it, “if not impossible at least difficult to distinguish (“in terms of identity, tradition or authenticity”) the original from its copy, indeed from its simulacrum” (une bibliothèque coloniale qui s’immisce et s’insinue partout, y compris dans le discours qui prétend la réfuter, au point où, en matière d’identité, de tradition ou d’authenticité, il est sinon impossible du moins difficile de distinguer l’original de sa copie, voire de son simulacre [Critique 142]). On the other hand, in Sortir de la grande nuit, he avers, “there is, in effect, a precolonial African modernity which has not yet been the object of consideration” (« Il y a, en effet, une modernité africaine précoloniale qui n’a pas encore fait l’objet d’une prise en compte » ).
Given the discursive and indeed epistemological limitations Mbembe outlines in the fragment quoted above, how would we go about detecting and critically assessing the vestiges of this putative alternate African modernity? How would we take stock and account of these concealed or unremembered paradigms of “modernity,” grounded on African terrain, rather than sustained by a stale and all too familiar mimetic operation?
These are the central questions that will occupy us throughout the semester. Our readings will include seminal works by Appiah, Mbembe, Mudimbe, Gilroy, and others. The primary texts will include excerpts from slave narratives (notably, Equiano), from early modern European and African travel narratives and official chronicles, as well the correspondence (with the Portuguese Crown) by the Bakongo Kings and Queen Nzinga Mbanzi. Finally, we will examine a few selected works of historical fiction from Africa.