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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 239-273

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African Modes of Self-Writing

Achille Mbembe

translated by Steven Rendall

The only subjectivity is time. . . .

Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2: L'image-temps

Over the past two centuries, intellectual currents have emerged whose goal has been to confer authority on certain symbolic elements integrated into the African collective imaginaire. Some of these trends have gained a following, while others have remained mere outlines. Very few are outstanding in richness and creativity, and fewer still are of exceptional power.

At the intersection of religious practices and the interrogation of human tragedy, a distinctively African philosophy has emerged. But governed though it has been, for the most part, by narratives of loss, such meditation on divine sovereignty and African people's histories has not yielded any integrated philosophico-theological inquiry systematic enough to situate human misfortune and wrongdoing in a singular theoretical framework. 1 Africa offers nothing comparable, [End Page 239] for example, to a German philosophy that from Luther to Heidegger has been based not only on religious mysticism but also, more fundamentally, on the will to transgress the boundary between the human and the divine. Nor is there anything comparable to Jewish Messianism, which, combining desire and dream, confronted almost without mediation the problem of the absolute and its promises, pursuing the latter to its most extreme consequences in tragedy and despair, while at the same time treating the uniqueness of Jewish suffering as sacred at the risk of making it taboo. 2 It is true that, following the examples of these two metanarratives, contemporary African modes of writing the self are inseparably connected with the problematics of self-constitution and the modern philosophy of the subject. However, there the similarities end.

Various factors have prevented the full development of conceptions that might have explained the meaning of the African past and present by reference to the future, but chief among them may be named historicism. The effort to determine the conditions under which the African subject could attain full selfhood, become self-conscious, and be answerable to no one else soon encountered historicist thinking in two forms that led it into a dead end. The first of these is what might be termed Afro-radicalism, with its baggage of instrumentalism and political opportunism. The second is the burden of the metaphysics of difference (nativism). 3 The first current of thought--which liked to present itself as "democratic," "radical," and "progressive"--used Marxist and nationalist categories to develop an imaginaire of culture and politics in which a manipulation of the rhetoric of [End Page 240] autonomy, resistance, and emancipation serves as the sole criterion for determining the legitimacy of an authentic African discourse. 4 The second current of thought developed out of an emphasis on the "native condition." It promoted the idea of a unique African identity founded on membership of the black race.

Fundamental to both currents of thought are three historical events, broadly construed: slavery, colonization, and apartheid. A particular set of canonical meanings has been attributed to these three events. First, on the level of individual subjectivities, there is the idea that through the processes of slavery, colonization, and apartheid, the African self has become alienated from itself (self-division). This separation is supposed to result in a loss of familiarity with the self, to the point that the subject, having become estranged from him- or herself, has been relegated to a lifeless form of identity (objecthood). Not only is the self no longer recognized by the Other; the self no longer recognizes itself. 5

The second canonical meaning has to do with property. According to the dominant narrative, the three events have led to dispossession, a process in which juridical and economic procedures have led to material expropriation. This was followed by a unique experience of subjection characterized by the falsification of Africa's history by the Other, which resulted in a state of maximal exteriority (estrangement) and deracination. These two phases--the violence of falsification and material expropriation--are said to be the main components of African history...