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Mudimbe and the invention of Africa (and Latin America): which ways for Pan- Africanism (and Latin-Americanism) today?

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Abstract

Mudimbe is essential to that. He is one of the main critics of the essentialism present in the construction of the notions of “black” and “Africa”. He highlights that they are inventions and they are produced mainly from outside. “Black” is an invention of the “White”, the “European”, the “Western”, like “Africa” or “Orient”, built negatively for the self-assertion of a superior identity. From this perspective, it is questionable whether there would still be place for a non-essentialized and progressive conception of “Négritude”, “Afrocentricity”, “African Personality”, “Ubuntu”, or “Pan-Africanism” today – in some sense, a reproduction of a Philosophy of the Otherness. I discuss this problem particularly through the concept of Négritude, originally inspired by myths and the Western influence on its creators. Finally, as an author who defines himself as “Latin American”, I suggest that this reflection may contribute to thinking about the viability of a Latin American identity today. The concept of Latin America is also an invention, a disputed concept, implying ideological elements. “Orient”, “Africa” and “Latin America” can be analyzed with the same orientation – and the contributions of Edward Said, Mudimbe and the authors of decoloniality are important contributions in this direction.
V. Y. Mudimbe and the invention of Africa (and Latin America): which ways for Pan-
Africanism (and Latin-Americanism) today?1
Fabricio Pereira da Silva2
Introduction
This essay presents some brief reflections about “Africa and the production of
knowledges at the globalization era” (theme of the international conference for which it
was originally prepared) and suggests some possible connections with the same problem
in Latin America. This will be done in dialogue with the works of the Congolese
academic Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, one of the more important thinkers of the global
periphery. To deal with this theme, we must think about African and Black identities,
and Mudimbe is essential to do that. He is one of the main critics of the essentialism
present in the construction of the notions of “black” and “Africa”. He highlights that
they are inventions and they are produced mainly from outside. “Black” is an invention
of the “White”, the “European”, the “Western”, like “Africa” or “Orient”, built
negatively for the self-assertion of a superior identity. At the same time, he produces
some of the more interesting reflections about the ways for an epistemic
decolonialization of Africa (Ngoie Tshibambe, 2017).
From this perspective, it is questionable whether there would still be place for
(non-essentialized and progressive) supranational conceptions of Négritude”,
“Afrocentricity”, “African Personality”, “Ubuntu”, or “Pan-Africanism” today in
some sense, reproductions of a Philosophy of the Otherness. I discuss this problem
particularly through the concept of Négritude, that in some sense is a “counter-
mythology”3 originally inspired by myths and the Western influence on its creators.
Finally, as an author who defines himself as a “Latin American” and a “Latin
Americanist” (in the academic and political sense), I suggest that this reflection may
contribute to thinking about the viability of a Latin American identity today. The
concept of Latin America is also an invention, a disputed concept, implying ideological
1 Conference originally prepared for the Colloque international “L’Afrique et la production des
connaissances à l’ère de la mondialisation. Hommages au Professeur V.Y. Mudimbe”, University of
Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 2019. Revised in August 2020 for publication.
2 PhD in Political Science, Full Professor at UNIRIO (Brazil), Visiting Professor at UdelaR (Uruguay),
Researcher at CEA/UEM (Mozambique).
3 As sugested by Albert Memmi in his classical book Portrait du colonisé précédé du portrait du
colonisateur (1957).
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elements. “Orient”, “Africa” and “Latin America” can be analyzed with the same
orientation and the reflections of Edward Said, Mudimbe and the authors of
decoloniality are important contributions in this direction. Particularly, Mudimbe is the
precursor while being contemporary with relevant debates on the geopolitics of
knowledge and the urgency of epistemic decolonization. Thus, he is of the lineage of
Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, and he came first and
thus preceded the discussions on these latter issues in Latin America.
So, first we will briefly discuss the Mudimbe’s notion of “gnosis”. After this, we
will make some reflections about possible contemporary uses of the concept of
Négritude, and finally we will argue if this can be relevant for the comprehension of
Latin American identity today. It is important to think about the viability of a Latin
American Thought, or we can deal simply with thoughts produced by Latin Americans –
as we can differentiate African Knowledge from knowledges by Africans.
Mudimbe and African gnosis
This search for identity clearly marks the intellectuality of Africa and Latin
America from the beginning. It is our intellectual dilemma, the intellectual dilemma of
the peripheries between being as the center or being as ourselves, as Eduardo Devés
(2017) observes. In this way, the uses and disputes around these concepts are crossed by
scientific-philosophical reflections and by ideology. So, the notion of “gnosis” used by
Mudimbe assumes a greater relevance and applicability than the author suggested in his
classical book The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of
Knowledge (1988). Just as one can speak of an “African gnosis, that is, both the
scientific and ideological discourse on Africa” (p. 187), we can refer to, for example, a
Latin American gnosis. Probably, the idea of gnosis in Mudimbe has similitudes with
the notion of pensamiento, pensée recurrently used in Latin American Studies to
nominate the intellectual reflections of the region. Nor doxa, nor croyance.
This African gnosis “is sometimes African by virtue of its authors and
promoters, but which extends to a Western epistemological territory” (p. 186). It is more
Western because it is thought from Western categories (philosophical, anthropological),
and in non-African languages. Would this have to be overcome by an epistemological
shift? Mudimbe wonders: “Is it possible to consider this shift outside of the very
epistemological field which makes my question both possible and thinkable?” In short,
a classic problem of intellectual production in the periphery. Mudimbe notes that
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we are dealing with ideology. Modern African thought seems somehow to be basically
a product of the West. What is more, since most African leaders and thinkers have
received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western
epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism. Moreover, many concepts and
categories underpinning this ethnocentrism are inventions of the West. When
prominent leaders such as [Léopold] Senghor or [Julius] Nyerere propose to
synthetize liberalism and socialism, idealism, and materialism, they know that they are
transplanting Western intellectual manicheism (p. 185).
Then, Mudimbe suggests that the only way to approach the problem is as a
challenge, but at the same time as a promise. This African gnosis, and the very
anthropology that is at its core, must be understood from its conditions of existence. To
this end, Mudimbe proposes a permanent reassessment of the frontiers of anthropology
so that it effectively contributes to a knowledge about the human being and to a
historicizing approach.
Such a strategy could approximate us carefully and progressively from a greater
knowledge of la chose du texte, the African gnosis itself. It is a rich, complex, and
creative strategy, for the plurality of approaches the author appropriates, recreating
them. It is more interesting than the Hegelian dialectical proposition present in Jean-
Paul Sartre’s approach to Négritude in Orphée Noir (1948) and in Frantz Fanon’s Les
Damnés de la Terre (1961), who understood Négritude as the antithesis, the “anti-racist
racism” that would give rise to a superior synthesis. Mudimbe’s approach is a safe
scientific strategy, but one that does not solve the following problem for the analyst:
these political identities, these scientific and ideological discourses that are intended to
be understood and overcome, are still alive, strongly alive. And in certain contexts, they
assume clearly progressive, even revolutionary meanings. This is not the problem of our
author, we cannot wait that Mudimbe solve this problem, his preoccupation is not to
solve the question if the African gnosis is “true” or if is a “falsification”: his mainly
question is to show the meanings of this production.
We can always hope to overcome them by more universal, cosmopolitical and
humanistic approaches. I agree with Mudimbe when he says in the conference En
nombre de la similitude” [“In the name of the similitude”] that “With competitive orders
of difference in the interdependent political economies, which we still inhabit today, a
basic common sense is still the most decent and reasonable bet, despite its
precariousness” (2013, loc 2332); and that “alterity” and “difference”, as well as the
theories they inspire, in some sense have become a “business”. But in despite of this, the
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Pan-Africanisms, Latin-Americanisms, Négritudes, Latinités and Indigenismos go on
and on, like words and things, like myths and realities. We continue to think in
binarisms as autochthonous/cosmopolitan, East/West, black/white, because they still
refer to things, very concrete things, like oppressions, dominations, colonialities,
racisms. So, identities produced as a reaction to that (like Négritude) are very concrete
too, even in the following sense: if we believe in something (that a “black essence”
exists, for example), it is as if it existed in fact. But not only in that sense. Let us look at
the issue of Négritude today to exemplify this point.
The problem of Négritude
Between the metaphysical, the biological, the psychological, the cultural, the
historical, the social, the creators of Négritude endeavored to justify the thesis of black
unity in its past, present and future. As Mudimbe resumes,
if they believed in affirming their difference, it was, according to him [Senghor
himself], because of anthropologists and Black Americans. Also, in the period
between the two wars they were privileged witnesses of the crisis of Western values.
Moreover, their recent discovery of Marx gave them reasons for utopian dreams.
Senghor’s explanation is plausible. Up to the 1960s, anthropology, Black American
ideology, and Marxism had a significant impact on the African intelligentsia (1988, p.
88).
Particularly, the debt of the Négritude and this generation with the called
Etnophilosophy and with all the “colonial library”4 (bibliotèque coloniale) is notable,
particularly with Father Placide Tempels’s La Philosophie Bantoue (1945).
Considering all the criticisms that the idea of Négritude has received in the last
decades, it is questionable if there would be room for it in the 21st century. First, it
should be emphasized that “black” and “Africa” are inventions, produced from the
outside – as expounded by Said, Mudimbe, Achille Mbembe and others. In this way, any
notion of Négritude based on essentialisms of any kind is something belonging only to
the world of myth. Like Mudimbe says in the article “Quam Metuendus Est Locus Iste
[How Awe-Inspiring This Place Is],
4 “Exploiting travellers’ and explorers’ writings, at the end of the nineteenth century a ‘colonial library’
begins to take shape. It represents a body of knowledge constructed with the explicit purpose of faithfully
translating and deciphering the African object. Indeed, it fulfilled a political project in which, supposedly,
the object unveils its being, its secrets, and its potential to a master who could, finally, domesticate it.
Certainly, the depth as well as the ambition of the colonial library disseminates the concept of deviation
as the best symbol of the idea of Africa” (Mudimbe, 1994, p. xii).
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the notion of a Black Personality, and your variations (“Africanity”, Négritude, etc.) as
it occurs with every notion of identity, would like to be intended in its extremely
dynamic intricacy. When identity politics succumbs to essentialism, it denies the
obvious, the intricate process of constant transformation, and promotes a form of
cultural blindness; that is, an objective mechanism that impoverishes the resonant
angles of our self-perception, and that also neutralizes the complexity of the set of
relationships with everything, including one's own history (2013, loc 3870).
Among all the essentialisms, obviously the most nefarious is the explicitly
supplied by physical, biological bases. The first step then is to get rid of biology in any
Senghorian version. Less negatives are the cultural or metaphysical-spiritual
essentialisms which, in truth, have always prevailed, and have been increasingly
emphasized by the authors of Négritude. Even better if we go particularly with Aimé
Césaire and his emphasis on the historical heritage of oppression (coloniality and
slavery) as a basis for black identity. However, there is no scientific basis for
understanding these traits of culture, religiosity, or worldview as “inherent” only as
dynamical creations as Mudimbe suggests.
Thus, originally racially based notions such as Négritude and the various strands
of Pan-Africanism or Pan-Negrism – as demonstrated by Kwame Appiah in his book In
My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1992) should not be
understood racially or ethnically, at best as political choices of identity, to be
conveniently activated. Black identity may constitute a socially constructed identity, as
a response to racism – that is generated by “white” or “European” identity as a form of
domination. A political identity and an anti-racist identity no longer based on the notion
of race but in a common past, an economic-social heritage that would allow us to think
of an equally shared future as proposed by Aimé Césaire in his Discours sur la
Négritude in 1987. Pan-Africanism in general is not a fantasy, it has a material basis: the
legacy of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, the diaspora, and the racism constructed
from the beginning to sustain them and present in capitalist modernity, that was built in
function of this legacy and absolutely dependent on it. So, Négritude has a material
basis, and is also a founding myth, a creation, an invention, a counter-mythology.
The notion of Négritude, and the peripherical thought in general, are products of
meetings between Western concepts and ideas originated at the periphery – this one in
general produced from Western categories and also from the poetical and scientific
languages of the West. It explicit the hybrid character, that Du Boisian “double
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consciousness” experienced by the authors of Négritude, who sought to solve this
dilemma by a return to the roots, to the particularities, but in the explicit intention of
integrating the black from its particularities to some kind of universalism in process of
incorporation la Civilisation de l’Universal [The Civilization of the Universal]
proposed by Senghor.
Returning to the question of the future of the concept of Négritude, I consider
that it can be relevant if it is stripped of essentialisms, assuming itself as a construction
and a political option, as an identity to be (re)activated without exclusion of other
identities in the diasporic universe – in the “Black Atlantic” proposed by Paul Gilroy
(1993) –, a universe of “multiple and hybrid identities” in the sense of Stuart Hall
(2015). It may be relevant as: 1) a response to a still powerful racism, which cannot be
answered merely with abstract values allegedly “universalists”, precisely the partial
“universalism” produced by Eurocentric modernity; and 2) a transnational,
complementary or alternative formulation to nationalisms of all kinds.
As for the first reason, if there is racism – and there is no reason why it should
disappear in the near future, since it is a constituent element of capitalist modernity
the most effective response to it must be the valorization and non-essentialist
dignification of the black and African history, as well as the preservation of the memory
of slavery and colonialism. In Brazil or in USA this “screams” today. There is no way to
overcome racism by claiming that races do not exist, so racism will disappear at the
instant of widespread acceptance of this premise. Races do not exist, is a fact, but there
are cultures, heritages, memories, socioeconomic inequalities, diaspora, and slavery.
As for the second reason, Négritude and Pan-Africanism still have much to
contribute to the construction and maintenance of new diasporic identities, exchanges,
institutions, and movements, and particularly in the efforts around African integration
spaces and the Black Diaspora network movements in Latin America and Caribbean.
They can collaborate in reactivating transnational identities that at least could
counterbalance local and national identities.
From Africa to Latin America: the Mudimbe’s legacy
Inspired by this debate, it is possible to reflect about the concept of “Latin
America”, the possibilities of a Latin American identity and of an effective Latin
American episteme today. The term “Latin America” was first used by Latin Americans
in 1856. The majority offered the primacy to the Chilean Francisco Bilbao in a speech
given in Paris. Bilbao used the term when it referred to the “Saxon”, “Latin” and
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“indigenous” Americas. Also, in 1856, the Colombian poet José María Torres Caicedo
used the term referring to a “race of Latin America” as opposed to a “Saxon race”. That
same year, the Colombian politician Justo Arosemena referred to “Latin America” and
“Latin American interests” in speeches and articles. The term already appeared as a
form of contraposition to the North, the Anglo-Saxons, and the USA – from a cultural,
racial, religious, civilizational approach. At the same time, the term was used with other
intentions, by the Second French Empire, of Louis Napoleon, as a way of legitimizing
its “Latin” pretensions of influence over the Latin part of America. This use of the
concept by the French refers us to another version about its emergence, which would
have been reported in the French politician Michel Chevalier as early as 1836.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of Latin America has
acquired a greater resonance – in the South and in the North, since in the USA also the
notion of Latin America started to circulate more and more between politicians and
scholars. A landmark of this moment is José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel in 1900. In the mid-
twentieth century, it underwent a considerable semantic transformation by gradually
aggregating economic and social significance, largely from the works of the Economic
Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, or CEPAL in the Spanish
acronym), of the Latin American Marxism, the militant leftist groups, the dependency
theorists, and the philosophical and religious progressive currents like the Philosophy
and Theology of Liberation. Now, Latin America, in addition to a pretentious or
effective civilizational, cultural, racial, or spiritual heritage, has begun to express a
relative place in the world: “(neo)colonial”, “underdeveloped”, “dependent”,
“peripheral”, “third World”, “Global South”. A place structurally interconnected and
diametrically opposed to that occupied by the neighbor of the north, that should be
fought.
Invented either from the North or the South, the concept is in any way hybrid,
peripheral, constructed from an identity opposition, of a racial spirit in the beginning. It
has always been used to differentiate two opposed or complimentary poles: Anglo-
Saxon and Latin (north and south). The Anglo-Saxon/north pole in the northern
analyzes and for the most analysts in the South was understood as positive, superior.
But from the outset there was already a counter-hegemonic use of the concept, as early
as Edward Wilmot Blyden’s African Personality (probably the founder of a modern
African identity). This use expressed the spiritual, holistic, human, Christian, communal
characteristics of the Southern American as opposed to the coldness, atheism,
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individualism, artificialism, consumerism of the Northern American. It is worth
mentioning that the reflection of José Vasconcelos’s La Raza Cósmica [The Cosmic
Race] in 1925 presents many common points with Senghor. So, hegemonically the idea
of the Latin (American) is a negative pole in a binarism, but comparatively it is less
negative than black/African. The Latin is not precisely Western, is a mestizo, an
“hybridization”, but it is on the border of the west, being able to be inside or outside of
it depending on the analysis and the context. This is not the same thing with the African.
In some sense, The Latin American is like a Caribbean créole, a métisse.
Like Pan-Africanism, Négritude, Pan-Negrism, Afrocentricity, it is questionable
whether the idea of Latin America can be useful today. Gerónimo de Sierra (2008)
responds positively to this question, since these countries are in the same geographic
region; are mostly heirs of Iberian and Catholic colonization; speak nearby languages;
present considerable groups of black, indigenous and mestizo populations; and most
important, they are dependent societies of the central economies, presenting peripheral
capitalism. It can then be considered that the idea of Latin America is an invention, but
it also has concreteness. These objective and subjective elements must be recognized, to
avoid both an essentialist approach to the region and its fragmentation and negation that
could be negative to the recognition and development of the region. And this could be
negative also to the production and recognition of Latin American knowledges.
Conclusion
This essay recognizes the urgent need to defend and rethink humanism and
universalism from counter-hegemonic and multicentric approaches. With Mudimbe, I
agree that identities like the African or the Latin American are basically based in
“colonial libraries” and in essentialisms. But I do suggest that this critical effort may be
complementary to the recognition that partial and regional identities are concrete, can be
sometimes progressive and revolutionary, and we will not be able to get rid of them in
the near future. We can try to make of them partial enlargements in the long process of
higher, more cosmopolitan inventions. This will be neither Western (ethnocentric,
liberal) cosmopolitanism, nor the Marxist final synthesis, nor Senghor’s “Civilization of
the Universal” (Civilisation de l’Universel). What will it be?
Mudimbe proposes to defend and rethink humanism and universalism through
counter-hegemonic and multicentric approaches. Beyond ethnocentric and liberal
Western cosmopolitanism, Mudimbe is a thinker whose contribution to contemporary
debates on the geopolitics of knowledge must be recognized. Mudimbe and others (like
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the decolonial thinkers) insists that there is no global thought, that all thought is partial,
provincialized both those from the “centre” and those from the “periphery”. It turns
out that the former imposed themselves globally. It is necessary to make the thought of
the periphery more visible, so that a global dialogue of knowledge can effectively take
place. To this aim, regional identities (and the claim of an African Thought and a Latin
American Thought in all its rights) can still contribute, symbolically, economically,
politically. The connections, dialogues, feedbacks, and fertilizations between different
knowledges produced in the global periphery (as proposed in this essay) are essential to
that.
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