The second part of the Chronicle of Writing Paths that RFI dedicates to the Congolese from the Congo, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe. Author of novels, poetry collections and theoretical essays on Africa, Mudimbe is recognized as one of the leading African intellectuals and philosophers. This year’s publication in French of his famous essay The Invention of Africa is an opportunity to discover the essential inspiration of the essential author.
“The division of Africa and the most intense period of colonization lasted less than a century. These events, which affected most of the African continent, took place between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century. In today’s prism, the colonial experience represents only a brief moment in African history, but this moment is still a source of pain and controversy today, as it at least created a new historical form and paved the way for a radically new kind of discourse on African traditions and cultures … ”
It is on these words that the masterful opens The invention of Africa, opus magnum by the philosopher from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe. This essay, which has just been published in French translation, about three decades after the publication of its original version in English, has become a classic of African studies in the English-speaking academic world. His fame, the author, owes to the extent of his reflection on the intellectual development of the African world, far from clichés and common places. The introductory sentences that we have just heard set the tone for his book and add reflection in philosophy, classical and modern humanities, the history of ideas and the history itself. In short, a book of exceptional wealth.
IN first part of this column broadcast last week, we discussed the author’s important and atypical literary work. It consists of poems and fictions, genres that the author has abandoned since moving to the United States in the 1980s, to devote himself to writing theoretical essays on Africa, apart from his memoirs which he published in 1994, entitled Le Corps glorieux des mots a des being, in homage to Merleau-Ponty.
African different and its colonial genealogy
For the historian of African letters, Bernard Mouralis, who was in France one of the first exegetes of Mudimbe’s thought and writings (1), we cannot distance the author’s proper literary project and the reflection he leads through his essays on African difference and his colonial genealogy. . The fact remains that the abandonment or postponement of the literary project raises questions, as Bernard Mouralis confirms at RFI’s microphone: . The author had published mainly in French and from the moment he is in the United States he is trying to meet American social demand. He is appreciated, but this exile did not slow down the continuation of his work, which is a fantastic work, both in terms of poetry and novels. “
However, it is worth remembering here that Mudimbe’s first essays are from the 1970s, when he led a double career as an academic and writer in his country, formerly Zaire. The reflection he had then initiated on the effectiveness and scope of the social sciences in Africa had inspired him in particular two titles: The Other Face of the Kingdom or an introduction to the critique of languages in madness, published in 1973 and L ‘Odeur du père, an essay on the frontiers of science and life in black Africa, published 1982.
Each in its own way, the two works are part of the critique of ethnology, a very problematic discipline, born in the late 19th century in colonial Europe, and widely perceived as a tool for studying exotic societies. Mudimbe develops a reflection on the conditions under which Africans, freed from the weight of the Eurocentric gaze – which the author describes as the “smell of the father” – can in turn force themselves as producers and practitioners of knowledge about their societies, their experiences. and their continent.
Clear the discursive spaces
The Invention of Africa, published in English in the United States, resolutely follows Mudimbe’s first two essays, while emphasizing the role that colonial ethnocentrism plays in building African discourse. This book is “an examination of the foundations of the discourse on Africa”, writes the historian Mamadou Diouf, who preceded the French version of his elder’s work.
The investigation, led by Professor Mudimbe, continues mainly in two directions. His first movement consists of systematically clearing discursive spaces to show how colonial discourses, such as stories of explorers, the writings of anthropologists or even the words of missionaries, influenced the notion of Africa, constituted the top-level place of negativity and different. In short, the “primitive” Africa versus the “civilized” West.
Paradoxically, during the anti-colonial struggles, many African intellectuals drew this set of speeches and representations that Mudimbe calls the “colonial book trade” to shape their nationalist and Afro-centered ideologies. One example is the famous affirmation of Senghor “emotions are black, reasons Hellenic”, which has become the doctrine of the movement of the negritud.
The second movement of L’Invention is to explore the methods of the emergence of an autonomous African subject, the only guarantee in the author’s eyes for a possible authenticity or validity of African knowledge. of Africa, Bernard Mouralis explains, is to question the validity of historical, anthropological and philosophical statements about Africa. For a long time, Africa was often seen through statements of European origin, but also statements about African origins, such as neglect, statements about African centrism. Mudimbe believes that only the African subject can talk about his experience. If we had to summarize Mudimbe’s work, from The Other Face of the Kingdom to the present day, I would say that he has never ceased to want to give back all subject rights to the subject. “
“Topos” of the subject
Mudimbe himself realized how much Michel Foucault, Lévi-Strauss and even Sartre influenced his thinking on social sciences and African thinking. Many commentators have also emphasized the similarities between Mudimbe’s attitude towards Africa as an object of Western anthropological discourse and the approach of Edward Saïd, author of Orientalism, who deconstructed the ideological and political goals of Western discourses on the Orient.
For Bernard Mouralis, the similarity between these two thinkers also lies in the trust they place in subjectivity as the basis for discourse about societies and men. “When it comes to Edward Said’s Orientalism and the Invention of Africa by Valentin Mudimbe, there are common points,” he readily admits. But perhaps Mudimbe’s own brand is to have insisted on restoring the subject’s rights. Now Said has written a wonderful autobiography entitled “Out of Place”, in the same way that Mudimbe wrote a wonderful memoir called “The Glorious Body of Words and Beings”. When reading these autobiographical texts, one has the impression that the analysis of statements was not sufficient in these two great minds. They wanted to go further in themselves and both produced these very beautiful autobiographies. And there we obviously find the subject. “
This topos of the “subject”, synonymous with man, which recur so often in Mudimbe’s reflection, is undoubtedly the proof that this thought is not only at the level of theory. What if the “subject” was the antidote to the “tears” – individually and collectively – a theme that haunts the pages of the novels and poems of the author of The Invention of Africa?
VIEW. Mudimbe or discourse, separation and writing (Paris, Présence Africaine, 1988, 144 pages)
Read Mudimbe in French:
Poetry: Tear (1971), Entretailles, preceded by Fulgurance d’une lézarde (1973), Sometimes Les Fuseaux (1974).
Novels: Entre les eaux (1973), Le bel filth (1976), L’Ecart (1979), Shaba deux. Mother Marie-Gertrude’s notebooks (1989).
Testing: Reflections on Daily Life (1972), The Other Face of the Kingdom, an introduction to the critique of language in madness (1973), The Scent of the Father (1982), The Invention of Africa. Gnos, philosophy and order knowledge (1988 and 2021 for the French version).