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Reviewed by:
  • Essais sur les cultures en contact
  • F. Abiola Irele
Essais sur les cultures en contact By Elisabeth Mudimbe–Boyi Paris: Karthala. ISBN 2-84586-805-7. 280 pp. €19.

In considering this book, it is imperative to begin with two previous publications by Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, publications that provide a thematic as well as theoretical and methodological entry into the present work. The first is her introduction to Remembering Africa, in which she states that her objective in soliciting the essays that constitute the book is not to provide a definition of Africanity, but rather, as she puts it, "to mark a shift away from the question of an African image or identity." Thus, despite the title, and even as a deliberate unscrambling of the fixed reference that this title seems to convey, Africa functions here as a point of departure for an adventure of the mind that takes its bearings from the multiple horizons of a lived experience on three continents, therefore as a conceptual marker that extends its meanings continuously outwards, rather than as a clearly articulated point of self-apprehension. As she puts the matter, the volume "configures the territory of the encounter between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean." And we may add: with all the ambiguities that this encounter entails. It may be remarked, however, that as she was writing from North America, the circle she defines here seems curiously [End Page 216] limited, though it is already wider than Gilroy's, for whom Africa does not enter at all within the field of vision of his "Black Atlantic." Moreover, Gilroy pays hardly any attention to the non-English-speaking areas of reference suggested by his concept. Mudimbe-Boyi's African background and her prolonged contact with an exterior world, provoking a dispersed order of identities, enable her to go further than Gilroy, to discern with unusual clarity the inner complexities of a situation that Gilroy seems to perceive merely as an intellectual proposition.

The second publication that needs to be considered is her introduction to the collective volume Beyond Dichotomies, which seems to me to establish the general perspective of all her work: that of the interlocking system of relations in the contemporary world and the multiple responses they have determined in all areas of concrete life as well as their forms of textual expression. Her introduction poses a series of questions that go to the heart of complex web of issues which constitute for her the challenge of globalization: "How can we convey the ambiguities, the ambivalence and the contradictions as well as the continuities and ruptures inherent to transnational and transcultural contexts?" It is against this background that she explores in the book under review the discourses engendered by the triangular relation between Africa, Europe, and America, situated in the historic perspective of an original encounter and an evolving pattern of situations and conflicting interests of the actors involved in this encounter.

There is an obvious sense in which Mudimbe-Boyi revisits in her study a terrain that has often been explored by several scholars, but she brings an original perspective and a fresh approach to her investment of the field, revealing new contours and areas of interest; indeed, she may be said to have mapped the landscape anew. For it is not merely a conventional subject—the image of Africa in the western imagination—that commands her attention in this book but the wider cross-currents of discourse formed by the diversity of texts generated on all sides by the historic relation that is the directing theme of her analyses.

The originality of her study is immediately apparent from the extended examination, in the first chapter, of the Relazioni, produced by the Capuchin missionaries who were the first to undertake extensive Christian evangelical work in the Kongo in the sixteenth century. The exemplary thoroughness of this chapter testifies to the focused effort of research from which it proceeds. Mudimbe-Boyi emphasizes the convergence between the religious and the cultural in the Relazioni, a convergence that is the sign of their ideological and arbitrary nature. As she points out, it is not so much that the Relazioni are tendentious as that...


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pp. 216-219
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