restricted access Obverse Denominations: Africa?
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Public Culture 14.3 (2002) 585-588

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Obverse Denominations:

Ato Quayson

Let us note first of all the polemical mood in which Achille Mbembe's "African Modes of Self-Writing" (Public Culture 14 [winter 2002]: 239- 73) is styled. A response that any polemical piece encourages is the desire to isolate its more extreme propositions for refutation. A refutation could also be undertaken on methodological grounds. One could say that the essayist has not taken account of enough scholarship, that the polemical propositions have been carelessly established, and that the entire set of questions could have been better posed in a different light.

But such a response would signally fail to register interest in the essay in its fundamental purpose, which is to get us thinking rigorously about what we mean when we invoke an "African" identity. The autochthonous denominations of this identity, as Mbembe shows, have led to a fixation with narratives of victimhood and with an interpretation of history as sorcery—that Africans have been accidentalized and mutilated by historical processes over which they have had little or no control. Slavery, colonialism, and a rabid globalization are named as the villains in this tragic drama of dispossession. Mbembe is generally right in pointing out that these autochthonous determinations have served to obscure a number of vectors of our history, such as our own contributions to some of our woes and tribulations, and the multiple trajectories of our contemporary identities.

But this critique of autochthonous determinations leaves out an important question, one that may be formulated in a variety of ways: Why does this explanatory [End Page 585] impulse persist in African modes of self-writing up to the present time? Are Africans somehow so compulsive in their dreams of a pure and nativist identity that they fail to conceptualize the issue in any other way? Why this obsession? To try to gesture toward an answer, I want to suggest a polemical formulation of my own: There are no blacks in Africa.

What I mean by this is that blackness (read here: Africanness also) is first and foremost a location within a structure of determinations. This structure writes itself in history as a series of cross-cultural encounters in which blackness has always had a particular quality of impoverishment and evolutionary backwardness as its signature. No idle semiotic structure, it spawns material effects. In a quite real sense, all changes to the knowledge-economy nexus within which "Africans" are denominated have to go through a series of genre chains in which knowledge is aligned with management (in the economic as well as political sense) and with power. These genre chains are partly situated within Africa's self-conception. But they are also heavily dependent on debates about Africa from outside the continent.

The persistence of the autochthonous denominations that Mbembe laments, therefore, might fruitfully be read as the African's sustained enactment of a semiotic overload of the place assigned to him or her within the denominating structure. 1 This point is not, in fact, far distant from what Mbembe himself has to say about the way nativist thinking originates in the need to respond to the negations of blackness embedded in Western philosophical discourse. My point augments this view in suggesting that nativism becomes a means of overloading the denominating structure with precisely that which the latter names as negative. This is seen as a necessary move to arrest the play of significations within the denominating structure and to force it to confront, in its starkness, that which had been designated negative. The issue that needs to be confronted in this scenario is whether—given this denominative excess from the domain of the negative—the possibility of self-reflexivity gets lost in an ensuing obsession with the structure of obverse denomination.

It is here that we can join Mbembe in lamenting the lack in African modes of self-writing of the transcendental orientations that have enabled German and Jewish thought to integrate forms of the radical negation of identity. What I understand by this comparison is that we must be prepared in our own...