Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 217-218
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Ecriture et texte: contribution africaine
Ecriture et texte: contribution africaine, by Simon Battestini. Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1997. 475 pp. ISBN 2-7637-7508-X paper.
Once in a while a book comes along that provokes and redefines the framework that has shaped and developed our thought, forcing us not only to rethink but reappraise and, eventually, reject fundamental yet unfounded notions and concepts that we have taken for granted. Ecriture et texte: contribution africaine is such a book. Arising out of the African experience, it is an original work that proposes a new definition of writing in relationship to definitions of semiotics, text, and culture. It presents the conclusions of an exhaustive forty-year research in Africa and elsewhere, demonstrating that Africa's relations with the West are based on an erroneous definition of what constitutes writing. It must be obvious that a book of such dimension will appear fragmented, and the diversity of the cases presented would seem to undermine any attempt at a synthesis. This is willfully intended, the author assures us, for as he explains in the avant-propos, "L'Afrique est multiple et diverse et le défaut majeur du discours africaniste, à nos yeux, est sa tendance à l'extrapolation et aux vastes généralisations" 'Africa is multiple and diverse and the major flaw of Africanist discourse, it seems to us, is its tendency towards extrapolation and vast generalizations' (19). Battestini thus invites the scientific world to critique its own discourse.
From Ferdinand de Saussure through Roman Jakobson to Julia Kristeva, Battestini clearly shows how so-called universal attempts to classify systems of writing completely ignore what obtains on the African continent. According to the author, whereas speech can be made visible, thoughts can only be perceived through signs. Paradoxically, since writing renders speech mute and secret, and freezes thought, we are obligated to resurrect it through other means. The means he proposes is the semiotics of writing, from which we can construct a useful reflection on the relationships between text and writing. As he points out, Africa deconstructs our knowledge on writing because it has been excluded from this knowledge: "En l'absence d'une théorie universelle toute histoire de l'écriture réduit le multiple hétérogène à un continuum sans fondement scientifique" 'In the absence of a universal theory, any history of writing reduces [End Page 217] the multiple heterogeneity to a continuum without a scientific basis' (20). Battestini therefore examines history's interaction with writing in order to understand how definitions of writing, text, and Eurocentric stereotypes that determine Euro-African relations are constituted. He analyzes numerous texts produced by Africanists and exposes their limitations and ideological inclinations. He denounces the myth of an Africa without writing, without history, literature, or culture, and given over to orality. Ironically, he points out, this outlook, which in the past was employed to justify the colonial enterprise, still persists among several Western specialists and Westernized Africans. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the author is able to propose new statements on Africa where the modes for the conservation of memory and thought as well as the transmission of coded messages in time and space create the need for a universal science of writing and text that includes all writing systems. Battestini is hopeful that through the domain of African literature a reversal now operates in Euro-African relations. As was the case in the past for painting and sculpture, Western artists now interrogate African images and writings, nourishing their works from their interaction.
It is doubtful whether we can pinpoint any one specific audience for Ecriture et texte. What is not in doubt is that it is intended for just about everybody: linguists, communication specialists, specialists of African art, teachers and scholars of African literature and African studies, theorists of writing, semioticians, and anybody curious about or interested in Africa. This is because, for the author, the question of an authentic decolonization is subsumed under the theme of writing. If Ahmadou...