Africa in Theory

Presented by Achille Mbembe

Monday, 8 April, 2013 - 15:00

[Please note that an earlier version of the attached pdf was corrupted.  The current file should display properly.]

As the new century unfolds, many increasingly acknowledge that there is no better laboratory than Africa to gauge the limits of our epistemological imagination or to pose new questions about how we know what we know and what that knowledge is grounded upon; how to draw on multiple models of time so as to avoid one-way causal models; how to open a space for broader comparative undertakings; and how to account for the multiplicity of the pathways and trajectories of change. In fact, there is no better terrain than Africa for a scholarship that is keen to describe novelty, originality and complexity, mindful of the fact that the ways in which societies compose and invent themselves in the present – what we could call the creativity of practice – is always ahead of the knowledge we can ever produce about them. As amply demonstrated by Jean and John Comaroff in a recent book, Theory From the South, the challenges to critical social theory are nowhere as acute as in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps the epicenter of contemporary global transformations in any case the site of unfolding developments that are contradictory, uneven, contested, and for the most part undocumented. Here, fundamental problems of poverty and livelihood, equity and justice are still for the most part unresolved. A huge amount of labor is still being put into eliminating want, making life possible or simply maintaining it. People marginalized by the development process live under conditions of great personal risk. They permanently confront a threatening environment in conditions of virtual or functional superfluousness. In order to survive, many are willing to gamble with their lives and with those of other people, with each activity producing its own social order and rules. This is a deeply heterogeneous world of flows, fractures and frictions. Power relations and the antagonisms that shape late capitalism are being redefined here in ways and forms not seen at earlier historical periods. Contemporary forms of life, work, property, production, exchange, languages and value testify to an openness of the social that can no longer be solely accounted by earlier descriptive and interpretive models. New boundaries are emerging while old ones are being redrawn, extended or simply abandoned. The paradoxes of mobility and closure, of connection and separation, of continuities and discontinuities between the inside and the outside, the local and the global, or of temporariness and permanence pose new challenges to critical thought and intellectual inquiry.


Attached File: 
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