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Central African clerical intellectualism versus African historic religion: A close reading of Valentin Mudimbe’s Tales of Faith (full version)

Part 3a. Mudimbe's homelessness: No African home, Afrocentrism, death

Wim van Binsbergen


Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Mudimbe's method
Part 2.
Clerical intellectualism in Central Africa
Part 3b. Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Historic African religion
Conclusion: Mudimbe's and van Binsbergen's itineraries compared

What Tales of Faith is really about: (2) homelessness as Mudimbe’s central predicament

Beyond the dream of an African home

Fascinated by the intellectual appropriations and contestations of Africa such as have constituted the topic of Mudimbe’s writings,[1] there are significant topics which scarcely enter into Mudimbe’s discourse, and if they do it is as things entirely remote from him, external to him, things which appear as chimerical, illusory, irrelevant, and without legitimate appeal: ‘The African people’, the formal political institutions which inform their lives and which are to some extent shaped and challenged by these people, the religious forms in which these people have expressed themselves in precolonial times and which have in part persisted since the advent of Christianity in the region. It is almost as if in Tales of faith the politics of performance are reduced to the essayistic performance of autobiography concealed under the trappings of a chain of objectifying literature reports, philosophical intermezzi and other detached modules of scholarly production, following the autobiographical poetics which I identified above.

                        In Tales of faith there is a tension, familiar from every (auto-)biography, between the subject’s unique itinerary in time and space, and the extent to which these idiosyncratic details are yet representative for a much larger category of people, and for an entire period. Sometimes Mudimbe situates his predicament in the context of a structured collectivity and its shared representations, a culture:

‘My sense of belonging to a group reflects a degree of my insertion into its culture, and what my death might signify when I am gone would be my ways of witnessing to the arbitrariness of my culture. ‘[2]

                        This is a surprising passage. For hat Mudimbe claims as a culture is not at all one of the reified ‘African ethnic or tribal cultures’, freeze-dried and packaged within the Colonial Library. His only sense of belonging resides with what in the formative period of his life was only in the process of emerging as a minority expression of cultural contestation: Central African clerical intellectualism. Yet he has a point precisely because the type of conversion at hand here can be argued to have become, ultimately, a major cultural expression in African life by the end of the twentieth century. However, Mudimbe himself does not present such an argument; sharing with the African masses is not his predilection, in Tales of faith — although such a motivation may have inspired his earlier works written in the 1970s.

                        On the contrary, in Tales of faith Mudimbe chooses, for the description of his itinerary, a terminology that is so individual-centred that it primarily conveys a sense of uniqueness:

‘Tales of Faith is about the strange constructed place I chose to inhabit so that I could think about the unthinkable: how well the predicament of Sartre’s pessimism in ‘Hell is other people’ meets the supreme beauty of ‘I am an Other’. The two positions are inseparable in this space, in which identities are always mixtures facing each other as competitive projects aimed as, to use Schlegel’s language, an impossible ars combinatoria[3] — I mean a universal and definitive ‘logical chemistry’.[4]

This is the only real home he may claim as his own. He certainly does not perceive Africa as such a home, and he perceives his Africanness as problematic:

‘In the beginning of these lectures, I intended to suggest a phenomenological description of religion as a political performance in theoretical and anthropological spaces, using Levy-Bruhl’s highly spatialized representations of effects from everyday life, as well as my own presentations of transcultural enterprises of conversion, adaptation and inculturation of Christianity. Now, this reflection is ending as a personal meditation on the being of a specific métissage between religious forms of experiences. Moreover, I should note that my meditation is grounded not only in my subjectivity but in a special locality of my experience in the world — in a Roman Catholic culture with its sensibility, which could account for my relative disinterest in African Islam. If my 'Africaness' [ sic ] designates a legacy and a project, indeed it also includes the Tales of Faith in all the possibilities of my becoming. Looking a last time at what Christianity and Islam signify, it is from the solidity of this métissité that I can marvel about what they still represent as intercultural challenges.’[5]

Only once in Tales of faith have I a spotted a phrase in which Africa, contrary to Mudimbe’s own and also Kwame Appiah’s injunctions, was simply taken for granted: characteristically, in that passage, taken for granted not in relation to Mudimbe’s own positioning, but when it is said of Alexis Kagame that he ‘made his devotion to Africa into a reality’.[6]

                        Although as much as anyone else aware of the unique complexities and potentialities of Africa as a situation,[7] Mudimbe is extremely concerned not to fall into the Afrocentrist trap which Stephen Howe caustically characterised as the construction of ‘mythical pasts and imagined homes’.[8] As a literature scholar Mudimbe is expertly at home in the realm of textual imagination (hence titles such as Parables and fables, and Tales of faith, for books in which he analyses crucial aspects of the twentieth-century experience in Central Africa), but he considers it his task to deconstruct such products of imagination, not to believe in them.

                        Afrocentricity or Afrocentrism only features positively in Mudimbe’s work[9] in the attenuated, unemotional, domesticated version of Richard Sklar, who (true to the politics of knowledge of the culture wars of the U.S.A. in the late twentieth century)[10] obliges by spontaneously identifying as Jewish-American, not African American.[11] In the last decade, hundreds of Afrocentrist publications have been written by Black scholars, many of whom would claim that being Black is more or less a condition for credible Afrocentrism. Identifying such a movement secondarily by quoting a White scholar quoting someone else on Afrocentrism, indicates that Mudimbe’s interests especially sensitivities lie elsewhere. Likewise, when Mudimbe notes that the philosopher Masolo

‘chooses to interrogate the very reason that makes his discourse possible, qualifying his own reading as ‘‘a reconstructivist term which symbolizes many aspects of the struggle of the people of African origin to control their own identity’’ ’,[12]

all Mudimbe has to say is that Masolo here ‘plays dangerously on an ‘‘afrocentricity’’ [ sic ] perspective’.[13] Why ‘dangerously’? Follows Mudimbe’s diatribe against Afrocentrism which he calls an attempt to

‘essentialize African cultures, reducing the complexity of histories to some metaphors and their variations. In this transposition that is an Ubertragung [ sic; read Übertragung — WvB] in a Freudian operation, the real self is lost in a magnificent negation. The contradictory, negotiated, and perpetually recommenced enunciation about oneself — and whose truth is always and already in the apprehension of oneself as a being-for-other — ceases to indicate the intricacy of an existence (of any existence), of a culture (of any culture) as project.’[14]

                        In a book which discusses the cultural and religious dimension of the colonial conquest, the devastating effects of Christianity upon African culture and spirituality, the Colonial Library as an objectifying ordered caricature of African socio-cultural realities, etc., Mudimbe finds mildness and patience for most of what came to Africa from the North Atlantic, but he is very dismissive of the Afrocentrists who, after all, seek to explode the heroic epic of cultural transmutation which Mudimbe sings in this book: the sage of clerical intellectualism. Afrocentrism is reduced by Mudimbe to a mere act of banal Freudian transference, i.e. distorted self-projection out of touch with reality. Elsewhere in the book the young African critics of Kagame,[15] or of the European missionising of Africa,[16] are dismissed by Mudimbe in similarly distancing terms. Here he finds himself in the company of Kwame Appiah, another cosmopolitan African philosopher who has endeared himself North Atlantic audience by rejecting the essentialism of Africanness and by mediating, instead, a sensible, middle-of-the-road image of Africa that no longer posits a radical defiance of universalising North Atlantic categories and procedures of thought.[17]

                        In the same vein, Mudimbe strongly objects both to the substance and to the tone of voice of Diagne’s attempt to find a local African grounding for African philosophy:

‘Sarcastic, Diagne rejects both the neocentrist Euro-philosophy, as represented by Franz Crahay,[18]and the critical Marxist Euro-philosophy symbolized by Paulin Hountondji[19] and other African disciples of Althusser. They are wrong, states Diagne, in the same way Tempels and his disciples were wrong, because they ‘deportent la problematique du fait africain ou négro-africain aussi loin sinon encore plus loin de ses axes que l’ethnophilosophie elle-même’ (1981: 83) [they are wrong for transferring the problematic of the African or the Negro-African factum as far away, and even further than the practitioners of ethnophilosophy] They are also wrong, adds Diagne, because in their linking of the genesis of African philosophy to alphabetic revolution in Africa, they are presenting a political thesis: African philosophy is conceived as the consequence of colonization that brought about alphabetic writing and thus let us celebrate colonialism, thanks to which African philosophizing has become possible.

              One does not understand why Diagne uses disguised or direct insults in order to make his points. On the other hand, it seems to me that his apparently well-evidenced generalizations are not philosophically obvious. The concepts of Africa, Negro-African, for example, are not transparent, particularly when the author claims to extend them as far back as the pharaonic periods. In the same vein, to postulate — from the pharaonic Egypt to Edward Blyden, Ogotemmeli, Anta Diop, Chinua Achebe, Senghor, etc. — the continuous epistemological history of a Negro-African cultural context is surely a nice hypothesis, but it is untested and probably untestable.

              Diagne is more serious in his propositions for an African philosophical praxis. With a few neat strokes, he indicates the theoretical conditions for philosophizing: a dëgg (argumentation) in which a texxale (critical reflection) should be promoted distinguishing valid and non-valid propositions (woor ag sanxal) in order to construct a xelaat (epistemology).

              So far there has been nothing quite like this in the confrontation between philosophy and African Weltanschauungen. The very fact that in his innovative ‘book two’ — strangely entitled Epistemology and Neo-pharaonic Problematics (1981: 129-219) — Diagne’s constant use of Wolof categories is a tour de force, may make the translation of texts by Plato, Althusser, Tempels, Crahay, Kagame, Mulago, Diop, Césaire, Senghor, Ndaw, Towa and Hountondji seem a simple curiosity. This takes on a radical meaning when, in his conclusion (1981: 213-19), Diagne puts aside French as mediation and synthesizes his philosophical theses directly in Wolof.’[20]

                        How can a person like Mudimbe not understand the anger informing Diagne’s style of writing? Yet, to show his good will Mudimbe later on[21] adopts Diagne’s Wolof philosophical concepts and weaves them into his own cosmopolitan philosophical discourse. But it is Hountondji, despite the geographical and denominational divides that separate him from Mudimbe (Benin versus Congo, Roman Catholicism versus Presbyterianism) who is considered worthy of Mudimbe’s praise and who even receives the exceptional honour of being recognised by him as a fellow-métis — a concept to which I shall return at length.[22]

                        Mudimbe even concedes (with the placating tones used towards a violent child?) that Diagne’s Diop-derived Egyptocentrism is ‘surely a nice hypothesis’, but this again is clearly not Mudimbe’s cup of tea. He has no time for Egyptocentrism, and has kept considerable distance from the Black Athena debate, to which he would have been eminently qualified to make significant contributions given his unique combination of being an African classicist working in the United States who, moreover, is the most applauded critic of North Atlantic and African constructions of Africa. Apart from a passing reference to Bernal’s contribution on Black Athena in Harding’s Racial economics of science,[23] Mudimbe devoted one short article to the Black Athena debate, subsequently incorporated without major changes in The idea of Africa.[24] Here he notes the following minor disagreements with Bernal as a classicist and a historian of ideas. Bernal is reproached by Mudimbe for overlooking Herodotus’ statement that the Pelasgoi were a ‘non-Greek speaking populace’;[25] to overlook Plutarch’s accusation against Herodotus (De Herodoti malignitate) that he magnified the barbarians;[26] that Herodotus naively reports on fabulous monsters therefore cannot be credible on other issues;[27] that Herodotus deliberately constructed his account in Historiae so as to humour his audience’s nationalism and anti-barbarian feelings;[28] that also in Herodotus a specific philosophy of history informs the actual narratives, manipulating the facts so as to render their narrative less then totally credible;[29] most importantly, he rightly criticises Bernal’s unique focus on eighteenth-century Germany for the emergence of race thinking whereas the true place where that ideology arose was France.[30] Mudimbe is thus far from hostile, and even very helpful. He points out that unidentified ‘Black ‘‘Afrocentrist’’ scholars’[31] have reproached Bernal for playing down the contribution by Cheik[32] Anta Diop; Mudimbe suggests that this may have been because Bernal is concerned with diffusion from Egypt towards the north, east and west, whereas Diop was mainly concerned with interactions between the south and the north.[33] He adduces other potential allies of the Black Athena thesis which Bernal has overlooked: Frazer, Wallis Budge, Seligman, Frankfort, and more recently and most importantly from the Africanist point of view: Mveng and Bourgeois.[34] By and large Mudimbe has sympathy for Bernal’s Black Athena project, but

‘...although I understand the political significance of his project and its usefulness, I am worried by the fact that it might, and very probably will, be manipulated by both the most sophisticated and the least critical of his constituencies for reasons that have nothing to do with science and the search of truth.’[35]

Beware of enthusiasm and of demagogic rhetorics, is what Mudimbe seems to be saying here! Not the debunking of North Atlantic hegemonic views of global cultural history, nor the elevation of a parochial, partisan Africa to a position where it can be the cradle of ‘Black’ [ i.e. Egyptian] Athena, is what really interests him, but detached more or less universal[36] categories such as science and truth.

                        We would do injustice to Mudimbe if we did not realise that his reservations vis-à-vis Afrocentrism and the Black Athena debate, and his ignoring African historic religion, is not simply an idiosyncratic expression of his cultural and geographical homelessness and nothing more. At the back is a profound methodological dilemma, which attends the entire empirical study of African religion through participant observation or through African believers’ introspection, and which comes out clearly in Mudimbe’s discussion of Mulago’s project:

‘Theoretically, Mulago’s project, as in Un Visage africain du Christianisme (1965), La Religion traditionnelle des Bantu et leur vision du monde (1973), or Simbolismo religioso africano (1979), can be summed up as follows: in the name of the truths of a locality or place, it questions the pertinence of colonial ‘scientific’ and ‘religious’ dominant discourses; insists on their shortcomings by reminding their practitioners that there is always a radical deviation between a lived experience (e.g. succession of seasons) or an experienced fact (e.g. death), and its possible multiple levels of interpretation presented as history, epic or simply narrative. Yet the project itself has recourse to the same controversial logical empiricism it wants to relativize. In fact, the invocation of the truths of the place against those of the interpretive space implies that there is somehow (almost necessarily) better reflections of the locality in the insider’s discourse; and this hypothesis then becomes an ideological framework and a means for negotiating a right to the authentic speech in the field of discourses about the native place.[37]

If the insider’s discourse cannot be trusted to produce a better truth, and if the ethnotheological[38] discourse is in itself external to Africa, then African historic religion may be essentially unknowable and irrelevant.

                        But by posing the question, and by contesting the validity of the local perspective by reproaching it for its claim of superiority, Mudimbe in fact claims for himself and his North Atlantic academic universalist science a similarly privileged, superior outside position — which apart from begin hegemonic would be very un-Foucoultian. African historic culture and religion have a right to affirm themselves for their own sake — which is why eleven years ago, as an accomplished North Atlantic anthropologist of religion, I opted to become a diviner-priest-therapist in the Southern African sangoma tradition. Moreover, there is another reason, one to be found within universalising science, why Mudimbe should be far less dismissive of Afrocentrism. Let me elaborate.[39]

In vindication of Afrocentrism

One cannot help agreeing with Howe’s and Lefkowitz’s[40] identification of the deficiencies endemic to the Afrocentric genre, which must play a role in Mudimbe’s rejection: the poor scholarship; the amateurish, autodidactic approach to grand historical and comparative themes without systematic use of obvious sources and obvious methods; the Afrocentrist authors’ manifest and deliberate isolation from current debates and current advances in the fields of scholarship they touch on; and the occasional lapses into Black racism.

                        However, where I fundamentally disagree with these critics of Afrocentrism is with regard to the extent of dismission that Afrocentrism calls for. For Mudimbe, Afrocentrism is sheer transference of an inferiority complex among today’s African Americans. For Lefkowitz, it is the celebration of racialist myth disguised as engaged history. For Howe, Afrocentrism is largely what in our Marxist days we used to call false consciousness: a view of reality which is systematically distorted and which can be explained from the historical trajectory traversed, in recent centuries, by the collectivity holding these views. Where Howe finds Afrocentrism by and large intolerable it is because, in the context of the politics of identity on which the postmodern world revolves, it is no longer politically correct, yea it is more and more even politically impossible, to publicly ignore or dismiss the Afrocentrist claims; hence their increasing influence in the U.S.A. educational system. For Howe,[41] as for me, the central issue here is explicitly the truth value of Afrocentrism. For Howe the truth value of Afrocentrism is zero, in other words Afrocentrism is entirely mythical. For me,[42] very much to the contrary, Afrocentrism (despite its endemic defects) does contain a kernel of truth, in the form of testable hypotheses about the possible contributions which Africans may have made towards the world-wide development of human culture. Such a position has important political and critical implications. For if there is even the remotest possibility that some of the Afrocentrist tenets (however unscholarly in their present elaboration and substantiation) might yet be confirmed when restated in a scholarly manner and investigated with state-of-the-art scientific methods, then the wholesale dismissal of Afrocentrism cannot simply be the positive, enlightened gesture Howe, Lefkowitz and even Mudimbe claim it to be. Such dismissal risks to be a confirmation of the status quo, a continuation of the processes of exclusion to which Black people, inside and outside Africa, have been subjected for centuries — an issue which in principle appeals to Mudimbe. Here there is a political role to be played by the odd person out: the scholar and polemicist who for lack of Black or African antecedents cannot be suspected of being on a mere conscious-raising trip, and who yet, for respectable scholarly reasons, defends views similar to or identical with those of the Afrocentrists. Martin Bernal’s has been such a case, inevitably denounced by Howe and Lefkowitz, but treated with far more sympathy by Mudimbe.

                        Historiographic usage offers a number of ready answers to the fundamental question: By what method and with what validity and reliability do we construct images of the past? For Howe, and for many historians like him who situate themselves in the empiricist tradition while being suspicious of an over-reliance on systematic theory, a central methodological approach is that of ‘common sense’, an appeal to the self-validating effect of simple everyday logic and common (i.e. North Atlantic, Western) everyday concepts. Inevitably (since everyday common perspectives are by definition intersubjective, shared with others and recognised to be so shared) a common sense appeal would favour the paradigms as taken for granted in a given discipline at a given moment of time.

                        It has been Bernal’s merit[43] to make us aware of the immense historical and political significance of one such historiographic paradigm, whose demolition has been the purpose of his Black Athena project:

(a)   ‘Greek classical culture was essentially independent from any inputs from the Ancient Near East (Anatolia, Phoenicia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia)’.

As far as Afrocentrism is concerned, three other such historical paradigms have been dominant throughout the second half of the twentieth century:

(b)  ‘Ancient Egypt, although situated on the edge of the African continent, was essentially a non-African civilisation whose major achievements in the fields of religion, social, political and military organisation, architecture and other crafts, the sciences etc., were largely original and whose historical cultural indebtedness lay, if anything, with West Asia rather than with sub-Saharan Africa’

(c)   ‘Ancient Egypt did not have a profound, lasting, and therefore traceable impact on the African continent, particularly not on sub-Saharan Africa’

(d)     ‘Contemporary Africa is a patchwork quilt of numerous distinct local cultures, each supported by a distinct language and each giving rise to a distinct ethnic identity, in the light of which broad perspectives on continental cultural continuity going back to the remoter past much be relegated to the realm of ideology and illusion’

Phrased in this way, these paradigms, although largely taken for granted by the scholars working in their context, are in principle testable hypotheses. Although they are not intrinsically ideological, unmistakably they well attuned to a hegemonic North Atlantic perspective on the world. They postulate a world which is neatly compartmentalised; incomparably more so than would be suggested not only by the globalising experience of our own time, but also by the demonstrable spread of agricultural techniques, weaponry, musical instruments, languages, belief systems including world religions, formal systems such as board games, divination methods, myths and symbolism, across the African continent and in considerable (though painfully understudied) continuity with the rest of the Old World, and even the New World. Under such compartmentalisation, a whole mythical geopolitics comes into being: the mystery and mystique of Europe — more recently: of the North Atlantic in general — can be maintained as a solid ideological power base for colonialism and postcolonial hegemony; Egypt, Africa, African cultures, remain the ultimate other, to the North Atlantic, but also to one another; a conceptual and geopolitical ‘divide and rule’ keeps them in their subordinate place vis-à-vis the North Atlantic; and the basic flow of achievement is defined as going from north to south, while the hegemonically undesirable idea of counter-flows in a northerly direction is ruled out. These may be testable hypothesis, but they are very close to geopolitical myths.

                        If our four paradigms (a) through (d) can be demonstrated to have considerable hegemonic ideological potential (not to say that they are downright Eurocentric and racist), their inverses are likely to have a similar but opposite ideological charge. These inverses would stress historical cultural continuity:

(ainverse)         between Greece and the ancient Near East including Ancient Egypt;

(binverse)         between prehistoric cultures situated on the Africa continent south of the Tropic of Cancer (23°27’ North), and Ancient Egypt;

(cinverse)         between Ancient Egypt and latter-day African cultures;

(dinverse)         between latter-day African cultures even regardless of the influence of Ancient Egypt.

It is my contention that the paradigms (ainverse) through (dinverse) contain a healthy and serious critique of hegemonic misconceptions, and therefore in themselves should at least b be granted some plausibility. It now so happens that these inverse paradigms are among the central tenets of Afrocentrism, tenets which therefore can no longer be relegated to mere false consciousness and Black consciousness-raising, but deserve to be admitted to the central halls of scholarship. To dismiss these inverse views as ‘myths’ (Howe, Lefkowitz) or ‘transference’ (Mudimbe) is not only doing them injustice, but also means myopia: the potentially mythical nature of the dominant paradigms itself is insufficiently brought to the fore.

                        In Lefkowitz’s case this myopia is manifest, and it was convincingly exposed in Bernal’s review of her book Not out of Africa.[44] In Mudimbe, a similar myopia risks to go unnnoticed, because of his acclaimed status as an African intellectual of great cosmopolitan scholarly accomplishment. Neither is the myopia of Howe’s book readily recognised since the execution of its design is largely impeccable. Not being an Africanist himself, he can only be praised for the meticulous way in which he has digested the vast relevant bibliography, offering a middle-of-the-road synthesis in line with the dominant paradigms (a) through (d). He finds little, in the enormous literature he has plodded through, to falsify the dominant common-sense paradigms (a) through (d); but did he search closely enough?. To Howe, ‘the actual evidence of ideas about kingship paralleling Egypt’s either in Sub-Saharan Africa or in the Aegean is extremely thin’.[45] On the basis of what kind of authority is such a statement made? My own recent discovery of very extensive Egyptian parallels in the material on Zambian kingship[46] came only after studying Nkoya kingship and myths for twenty years, from the inside, and after far more extensive exposure to Ancient Near Eastern studies than anthropologists and Africanists normally get;[47] this suggests some of the methodological and paradigmatic problems involved: usually the more one specialises in one spatio-temporally specific domain of human culture, the less likely one is to gain similarly detailed and up-to-date information on other domains, and the more likely one is to retreat into myopic paradigmatic self-evidences. Contrary to what Howe claims, the evidence on parallels between Ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa is massive, though uneven.[48]

                        In the light of my discussion of Mudimbe’s position above and below in the present argument, these four hypotheses and their radical, Afrocentrist inverses enable us to articulate Mudimbe’s contradictory positioning within the globalising politics of knowledge on Africa. As is clear from his discussion of Bernal, he is inclined to accept the first inverse hypothesis, but considers it dangerous and scholarly vulnerable. He does not pronounce himself on the second inverse hypothesis.[49] He considers the third inverse hypothesis ‘nice’, but untested and probably untestable. And he rejects the fourth inverse hypothesis. By and large he shows himself to be rather on the side of established, potentially hegemonic ‘common sense’ models of African history in line with dominant universalising science, and considerably less sensitive to the present-day politics of knowledge on Africa than one would expect considering the fact that he is the most famous critique of North Atlantic constructions of Africa.

                         Scholarly reputations are readily sacrificed on the altar of Howe’s indignation vis-à-vis Afrocentrism, and the more readily, the less Howe knows of their specialist field: Clyde Ahmad Winters, Herodotus, Henry Frankfort, Frobenius, Sergi. These ancient and modern scholars have one thing in common which makes them unwelcome in the common-sense, main-steam paradigmatic world to whose authority Howe appeals. They all had the ability to think across established cultural and geopolitical boundaries, whether this meant explaining the origin of the Persian wars in a complex context encompassing the entire Ancient World (Herodotus), or lumping Egypt and Mesopotamia in one grand argument (Frankfort’s Kingship and the gods), or stressing the essential continuity between West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia, when it comes to kinship somatic traits, kinship patterns, languages, and symbolism. Not surprisingly, Howe’s villains appear as intellectual hero’s in one of my own books in progress. I am pleased to add that, as a sign of Mudimbe’s ambivalent positioning in this problematic, at least two of Howe’s villains appear as potential allies, if not heroes, also with him (Frobenius and Frankfort).

The prominence of death in Mudimbe’s work

Because of Mudimbe’s relentless insistence on origininality, there is an essential unpredictability about Mudimbe’s work, which markes it incomparably more difficult to read and to grasp than the average Africanist academic text production along disciplinary lines (African anthropology, history, religious studies, philosophy, theology etc.), and renders this oeuvre one of the most impressive, moving and original bodies of texts to have risen from the modern (post-eighteenth century CE) encounter between Africa and the North Atlantic. Like all true poets, Mudimbe’s writing is essentially a writing in the face of death. It took a while before this insight dawned upon me. I was at first puzzled by the uncanny prominence of references to parricide (often solemnly and in Freudian fashion called ‘the murder of the father’) in his approaches to African literature, ethnotheology and philosophy.[50] Thus when Paul-Michel Foucault in early adult life drops the ‘Paul’ which was the given name of his father and grandfather, and lives on with only the ‘Michel’ which his mother gave him, Mudimbe interprets this in the line of Lacan and Freud as parricide, even though by the same time Mudimbe claims to have proceeded to a Jungian perspective[51] which would lay less stress on the sexual scheme but instead would favour an interpretation in terms of a heroic mother-son myth.[52] Likewise it is Kasavubu’s rejection of Lumumba’s parricidal challenge of the former colonising power at the moment of Congo’s Independence, which, in Mudimbe’s off-hand analysis, led to Lumumba’s isolation and murder.[53] Parricidal is the revolt of younger African philosophers against their African predecessors,[54] while Kagame himself seems to have incited yet another form of parricide:

‘Within a few weeks, I saw him convert entire annual classes of students to a ‘‘nationalistic’’ view of African history and philology. I told him that I feared that such a perspective, by generously glossing over the epistemological preconditions of the murder of the Father, ran the risk of further perverting the discipline of the social sciences in Africa, already so encumbered by a priori ideological assumptions of ‘colonial science’. His response was surprising to me in its simplicity: ‘‘obsession is also a path to the truth’’ ’. [55]

From his own itinerary, this forms of parricide appears to be what Mudimbe fears most. For when in the middle of the twentieth century Central African Roman Catholic clerical intellectuals can be seen to struggle with how much of global Christianity and North Atlantic philosophy and science they can retain while asserting their rightful difference vis-à-vis that imported foreign body of ideas and vis-à-vis the hegemonic power of the Europeans who persuaded or forced them to accept that body and built it into their very lives, that retention is suggested to be a refusal on their part to proceed to parricide. In the concluding chapter of l’Odeur du père, Mudimbe defends himself against Willame’s critique of L’Autre face du royaume:[56] the suggestion of an incitement of revolutionary parricide with which that earlier book had ended, has been misunderstood by Willame and has only a very precise, coded, psychoanalytical symbolic meaning which however escapes me:

‘À présent, j’aimerais savoir ce que l’on entend exactement quand on me parle de «meurtre du père ». J’ai accepté cette expression imagée (Recherche, Pedagogie et Culture, n° 20) pour dire une infirmité et non pour la vivre en une utopie faite d’harmonie. Je n’ai point plaidé pour une immobilité heureuse qu’accomplirait simplement un cri, mais invoque cette manière de mouvement tres violent dont parle Freud en conclusion de son analyse de l’Homme aux loups. Et bien entendu, qu’on le sache, ce dernier appel n’a rien à voir avec l’aphanisis. Vraiment ?’ [57]

The point escapes me, partly because I cannot clearly identify whose desire is disappearing here and why (but there is an echo here of psssages in Tales of faith,[58] where Mudimbe repeatedly speaks of the new desire among young converts that emerged as a result of missionising, and whose transformed and transgressive fulfilment was the project of clerical intellectualism); partly because Freud’s Wolf-man[59] ends with an evocation not of parricide, but of a strikingly different form of violence: the phantasised homosexual rape of the son by the father.

                        The fact that, in the face of overwhelming evidence concerning the eradication of African historic religion, Mudimbe refuses to make a definitive statement against Christianity and its negative effects on Africa, means that (as Tales of faith makes very clear) even though he has become an agnostic, he cannot bring himself to commit parricide vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic Church.

                        It is not clear what all these insistences on symbolic or vicarious parricde mean in relation to Mudimbe’s biological father, about whom I could only pick up from his texts that he was of Songye extraction, while his mother was Luba-Lulua.

                        Death appears not only as the murder of the father contemplated as possible but, after all, undesirable, or as the others’ parricide to be condemned, but particularly as Mudimbe’s own death:

‘Is there any individual, reflecting on his or her finitude, who does not experience the sense of being or, at any rate, of belonging to an endangered species? Death, as a closure of existence in the world, sanctions the absurdity or — if one prefers — the mystery of life and forces the observer to evaluate existence from the background of a culture and its a prioris. My sense of belonging to a group reflects a degree of my insertion into its culture, and what my death might signify when I am gone would be my ways of witnessing to the arbitrariness of my culture. The plurality of cultural a prioris is an empirical fact.’[60]

Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Mudimbe's method
Part 2.
Clerical intellectualism in Central Africa
Part 3b. Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Historic African religion
Conclusion: Mudimbe's and van Binsbergen's itineraries compared

[1]              The invention of Africa, o.c.; The idea of Africa, o.c.

[2]              Tales, p. 199.

[3]              Cf. Platzeck, E.W, 1971, ‘Ars combinatoria’ in: Ritter, J., ed., Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Band 1, A-C, Basel/Stuttgart: Schwabe & Co, col. 521-522; a famous author of an Ars combinatoria was Leibniz, published in Frankfurt am Main, 1666.

[4]              Tales, p. 202.

[5]              Tales, p. 203.

[6]              Tales, p. 135f.

[7]              Cf. Tales, p. 198:

‘the stories I have chosen to share in these lectures on conversion are, indeed, not only unthinkable outside of a space circumscribed by African elements but also well determined by anthropology and the colonial saga, as well as the practices and missionizing of Islam and Christianity’; italics added.

[8]              Howe, Stephen, 1999, Afrocentrism: Mythical pasts and imagined homes, London/New York: Verso, first published 1998.

[9]              Tales, p. 160.

[10]            Cf. Berlinerblau, J., 1999, Heresy in the University: The Black Athena controvery and the responsibilities of American intellectuals, New Brunswick etc.: Rutgers University Press, which also includes rich bibliographical materials on the recent American culture wars.

[11]            Sklar, R.L., 1993, ‘The African frontier for political science’, in: Africa and the Disciplines, o.c., pp. 83-110, pp. 98f. Sklar follows the definition of C.S. Whitaker:

‘Properly invoked ....Afrocentricity[‘s]...importance derives from fundamental issues of comprehension in the wake of powerful intellectual legacies that tend to discount the capacity of African cultures and societies to act rationally and constructively in the face of historic realities. It suggests, importantly, that these realities, not Africans, are the course of problematic conditions.’ Whitaker, C.S., 1991, ‘A coda on Afrocentricity’, in: Sklar, R.L., & Whitaker, C.S., eds., African politics and problems in development, Boulder (Colo.): Lynne Rienner [ add pages ] , p. 359.

[12]            Tales, p. 29.

[13]            Tales, p. 29; the lower-case initial of ‘afrocentricity’ here is original.

[14]            Tales, p. 30.

[15]            Tales, p. 143.

[16]     ‘For people familiar with African Christianity, the conversion model [ i.e. the approach to Central African Chrstian intellectual history as propounded in Tales of faith — WvB ] in both its intention and realization would describe the African critique as generally violent and often, alas, excessive, not only in its evaluatrion of conversion policies but also of the missionary.’ Tales, p. 56; italics added.

[17]            Appiah, K.A., 1992, In my father’s house: Africa in the philosophy of culture, New York & London: Oxford University Press; cf. Tales, pp. 63f for a most sympathetic reading; and on Afrocentrism: Appiah, K.A., 1993, ‘Europe Upside Down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism.’ Times Literary Supplement (London), 12 February, 24-25.

[18]            Crahay, F., 1965, ‘Le ‘’décollage’’ conceptual: conditions d’une philosophie africaine’, Diogène, 52: 61-84.

[19]                Hountondji, P.J., 1976. Sur la ‘philosophie africaine’: critique de l’ethnophilosophie, Paris: Maspero. Translated as African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983, Second edition, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.

[20]            Tales, pp. 104f; Diagne, P., 1981, L’Europhilosophie face a la pensée du négro-africain and Problématique néo-pharaonique et épistémologie du réel. Dakar: Sankore.

[21]            Tales, p. 110.

[22]            Tales, p. 107f.

[23]            Bernal, M., 1993, ‘Black Athena: Hostilities to Egypt in the eighteenth century’, in: Harding, The ‘Racial’ Economy of Science, o.c. [ add pages ] ; cf. Tales, pp. 187f.

[24]                Mudimbe, V.Y. 1992, ‘African Athena?’ Transition, 58: 114-123; The idea of Africa, o.c., pp. 93-104.

[25]                Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 116.

[26]            ‘African Athena?’, p. 118; cf. Plutarch, 1989, On Herodotus’s Malice, Translated by A. G. Gent. In Plutarch’s Miscellanies and Essays. Boston: Little, Brown,. 1989.

[27]            ‘African Athena?’, p. 118 (in defence of Herodotus, meanwhile cf.: Pritchett, K. 1993. The Liar School of Herodotos. Amsterdam: Gieben; Spiegelberg, W., 1927, The Credibility of Herodotus’ Account of Egypt in the Light of the Egyptian Monuments. Oxford: Blackwell — however, cf. also: Moles, J. L. 1993, ‘Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides’, in: Gill, C., and Wiseman, T.P., 1993, eds., Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 88-121.

[28]            Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 118.

[29]                Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 119.

[30]                Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 121.

[31]                Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 122.

[32]            sic; in Tales, pp. 30, 102, 119, 171, and index, the name is repeatedly spelled as Sheik, as if name were a religious title, not a given name, as it is usually considered to be. Cf. Amadiume, I., 1997, ‘Diop, Cheikh Anta’, in: Middleton, J.M., ed., Encyclopaedia of Africa south of the Sahara, New York: Scribners, vol. 1, pp. 468-469; van Sertima, I., ed., 1986, Great African thinkers, vol. I: Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick & Oxford: Transaction Books; Gray, C., 1989, Conceptions of History in the Works of Cheikh Anta Diop and Theophile Obenga. London: Karnak House; Fauvelle, F.-X., 1996, L’Afrique de Cheikh Anta Diop, Paris: Karthala.

[33]                Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 122f.

[34]            Mveng, E., 1972, Les sources grecques de l’histoire africaine, Paris: Présence Africaine; Bourgeois, A., 1973, La Grèce antique devant la Négritude, Paris: Présence Africaine.

[35]                Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 123. No doubt, my forthcoming book Global bee flight will represent Mudimbe’s worst fears come true on this point; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., in preparation, Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World — Beyond the Black Athena thesis.

[36]                Meanwhile the fact that science is less than universal and e.g. is capable of endorsing racial prejudice and enforcing inequalities along racialist lines, is recognized by Mudimbe in his discussion of Sandra Harding mentioned elsewhere in my argument; cf. Tales, pp. 184ff.

[37]            Tales, p. 89.

[38]                Mudimbe defines ethnotheology ‘as a subfield uncomfortably situated between theology and anthropology, opposed to reductionism and claiming to speak in the name of the vitality of local cultures’, pointing out that it faces a major paradox: as anthropology ethnotheology affirms local cultures, as theology it denies them for the sake of the hegemony of the imported Christian doctrine. Tales, pp. 88f.

[39]            van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 2000, ‘Le point de vue de Wim van Binsbergen’, in: Autour d’un livre. Afrocentrisme, de Stephen Howe, et Afrocentrismes: L’histoire des Afriocains entre Egypte et Amérique, de Jean-Pierre chrétien [ sic ] , François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar et Claude-Hélène Perrot (dir.), par Mohamed Mbodj, Jean Copans et Wim van Binsbergen, Politique africaine, no. 79, octobre 2000, pp. 175-180 — the next few pages of the present argument are an English rendering of part of my French article; van Binsbergen, Global Bee Flight; and: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97.

[40]            Howe, Afrocentrism, o.c.; Lefkowitz, M.R., 1996, Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history, New York: Basic Books.

[41]            Howe, Afrocentrism, o.c., p. 6.

[42]            van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97, now being reprinted in expanded form as Black Athena Alive, Hamburg/Muenster: LIT Verlag, 2001; also cf. W.M.J. van Binsbergen, 2000, ‘Dans le troisième millénaire avec Black Athena?’, in: Fauvelle-Aymar et al., Afrocentrismes, o.c., pp. 127-150; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., forthcoming, Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World — Beyond the Black Athena thesis.

[43]            Bernal, M., 1987, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, I, The fabrication of ancient Greece 1787-1987, Londen: Free Association Books/New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; Bernal, M., 1991, Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic roots of classical civilization, II, The archaeological and documentary evidence, Londen: Free Association Books/New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press; cf. his contributions to Black Athena Ten Years After, o.c.

[44]            Bernal, M., 1996, Review of Not out of Africa, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Internet journal; Bernal, M., 1997, ‘Responses to Black Athena: General and linguistic issues’, in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97, pp. 65-98.

[45]            Howe, Afrocentrism, o.c., p. 130.

[46]            van Binsbergen, Global Bee Flight, o.c.

[47]            I was a full-time member of the Workgroup on Religion and Magic in the Ancient Near East, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, Wassenaar, The Netherlands, 1994-95.

[48]            Shinnie, P. L., 1971. ‘The legacy to Africa’, in: Harris, J.R., ed., The legacy of Egypt, 2d ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 434-55, espec. pp. 447f.

[49]            At least not in Tales of faith, The idea of Africa, and in the selection of his other publications on which my present argument is based.

[50]                Mudimbe, V.Y. 1991 [ check ] , ‘Letters of reference’, Transition, 53: 62-78, 71ff; Mudimbe, V.Y. 1992 [ check ] , ‘Saint Paul-Michel Foucault?’ Transition, 57: 122-127.

[51]                Mudimbe, Parables and fables, p. xi.

[52]            Jung, C.G., 1987, Verzameld werk 8: De held en het moederarchetype, Rotterdam: Lemniscaat; Dutch translation of Part II of Symbole der Wandlung.

[53]            Tales, p. 131.

[54]            Tales, p. 104 (Diagne), p. 143 (Kagame).

[55]            Tales, p. 140.

[56]            Willame, ‘L’autre face du royaume ou le meurtre du père’; Mudimbe, L’Odeur.

[57]                Mudimbe, L’Odeur, p. 203.

[58]            Tales of faith, pp. 112f, 175.

[59]            Gardiner, M., 1972, De Wolfman, met: Uit de geschiedenis van een kinderneurose (de Wolfman) door Sigmund Freud, supplement door Ruth Mack Brunswick, voorwoord door Anna Freud, Bilthoven: Amboboeken, Dutch tr. of The Wolf-man, New York: Basic Books, 1971; cf. Freud, S., 1953-1974, The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud: Translated from the German under the general editorship of J. Strachey, in coll. with A. Freud, ass. by A. Strachey & A. Tyson, 24 vols, London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

[60]            Tales, p. 199.

Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Mudimbe's method
Part 2.
Clerical intellectualism in Central Africa
Part 3b. Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Historic African religion
Conclusion: Mudimbe's and van Binsbergen's itineraries compared


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