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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 128-130

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Book Review

La Palabre:
Une juridiction de la parole

Jean-Godefroy Bidima, La Palabre: Une juridiction de la parole. Paris: Michalon, 1997. 127 pp.

The Camerounian philosopher Jean-Godefroy Bidima has published a number of books on African culture and philosophy, including Théorie critique et modernité africaine (Publications de la Sorbonne), and studies on La philosophie négro-africaine and L'art négro-africain (puf). Pursuing the application of Critical Theory to contemporary [End Page 128] African cultures developed in those earlier works, Bidima's La Palabre articulates a contemporary theory of intersubjectivity based upon the traditional African vernacular procedure of the agonistic palabre, or public exchange of discourse destined to mediate conflict. The author presents this neglected indigenous African resource as a powerful means of overcoming, through the mediation of the word (palabra), the recourse to political and ethnic violence that continues to plague postcolonial African cultures.

In his first chapter, Bidima describes how the palabre structures public space to allow for the appearance of what he terms le détour, whereby violent confrontation is bypassed "dans un réseau de médiations qui s'emboîtent à l'infini" (14). Bidima first describes the various forms and procedures of palabre in African cultures (examples are drawn primarily from Central Africa, Béti culture in particular), including those of convocation, necessary proof, trials and inquests, sentences, and terms of reconciliation. The latter in particular stands in direct opposition to Western legal tradition, since the entire process of palabre is designed not to compensate a victim but rather to reinstitute intersubjective relations between the parties concerned, to reject the castigation and withdrawal of a guilty subject into its resentful interiority for an opening onto the Other through forgiveness. "A l'inverse de 'surveiller et punir,' la palabre se caractériserait plutôt par 'discuter et racheter'" (32). Palabre establishes communication through rhetoric and gesture, returning legal practice to those subjects who today experience the European-derived legal codes and procedures of the independent African states as sources of alienation and distantiated justice.

In his second chapter, "Un paradigme politique," the author argues for a novel understanding of palabre that in effect redirects the procedure from its status as an antiquated folkloric remnant to become a theoretically sophisticated refusal and critique of the consensual logic of totality. Too often, Bidima argues, palabre has been understood in postcolonial culture as the exorcism of conflict and dissent leading to the unity of a single, undivided community. In contrast, the author argues in Adornian fashion for an aporetic understanding of palabre that, rather than monological harmony, generates provisionary compromise respectful of specificity and alterity. Bidima's understanding of Palabre implies not the passive, siege mentality of chacun pour soi but rather an active tolerance in which something of the self is given [End Page 129] up in a public loss of sovereignty, serving to institute the socio-political community so tragically absent in the postcolonial dictatorships. To do so, the author argues that a public space for discussion must be created that would begin to transform regions struggling with the forces of ethnic violence, modernity, and globalization via concrete forums for intersubjective communication and mediation.

Chapter three surveys the various receptions of the palabre in traditional, colonial, and post-independence African cultures, focusing on the derogation of notions of alterity in societies marked by the politics of the parti unique. In such totalitarian states subjectivity becomes the mere heteronomous extension of centralized authoritarian power. All transformative exteriorizations of the subject threaten such power, the protection of law is replaced by that of the totemic head of state, and political life degenerates into a series of moments in the paranoid liquidation of difference. The fourth chapter similarly describes the theoretical space allotted to the palabre in the ideologies of panafricanism, African socialism, Christian evangelism, and negritude, showing how each participated in the dereliction of communities through their refusal to develop the means to manage internal diversity and conflict in deference to chimerical totalitarian visions of primordial unity and monological...


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