Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics


In the United States, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/2001, it was not only the Mayor of New York who advanced a strong attack on relativism. The state's answers to 9/11 terrorism were conceived and promoted as an anti-relativist triad: an ascendance of Western or American values, a clear and universal definition of terrorism, and an unquestionable approach to eliminating terrorism from the global stage. Only certainty mattered. Today, what are the fates of epistemologies of certainty and uncertainty based in "Western" or "universal" reason and science amidst, first, these post-9/11 attacks on relativism and, second, the failures in defining and addressing terrorism?

Africa—the broader discourses on Africa—are of special interest here, as the brief for certainty, while given heightened privilege in the 9/11 aftermath, has long held Africa subject to relatively basic and direct understanding, explanation, and remediation, and has long underwritten a failure to comprehend the complexities of Africa in its past and present. A brief for uncertainty opens the way to more pluriversal repertoires, to other histories, and to different narratives as well as to new frames of critique and debate, and to a more complex and more appropriately complex understanding of the course of Africa's past, and of its present situation in the world. [1]

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At the beginning of this century and of this millennium, Africa occupies an awkward position in the world. This awkwardness is not merely the accumulation of crisis and misfortune or the outcome of the inherent contradictions of decolonization. It is hardly the consequence of the many false starts and unfulfilled promises and fantasies associated with projects of African development. [2] And it is neither the effect of proclaimed, yet hardly realized, shifts in Africa's global location toward "the South" nor the product of the incompleteness and failures of global integration. [3]

Africa's awkward position builds from one very significant force: the will to comprehend and to explain Africa from a distance within an economy of knowledge grounded elsewhere. [4] While finding its motors and directions outside Africa, this will to explain Africa from a distance has at times been reinforced through engagements with programs of knowledge production on the African continent. [5] Indeed, these programs of knowledge production on the African continent have themselves become deeply implicated in the protocols and powers of knowledge production at a distance such that today it would be quite idiotic to posit distinctive exterior and interior frames of knowledge production.

The will to explain Africa from a distance is not simply a present condition but builds upon the constantly reproduced and hardly ever challenged inventions of "Africa" as an entity within a larger system of global fates and identities over the past 1000 years. [6] It is as old as travelers viewing and imagining Africa from the deck of a ship or from a well-worn path. It is a will reflected in an American President's hours-long July 2003 Africa journey organized around a restricted set of issues: questions of trade, AIDS, democratization, and terrorism, four key measures of the globe's present imagination and representation of the continent. It is a will that presents scholars with challenges every day, as experts on Africa in the United States and other countries form interpretations and representations, whether in the classroom, or in articles and monographs, or in constructing interventions regarding public policy.

"What was the impact of Europe on Africa?" "Who underdeveloped Africa?" "What is the cause of the 'African crisis'?" Such questions and their force, persistence, recurrence, indeed their naturalization as the core questions for scholars and teachers, also and especially bring attention to the epistemological location of Africa amidst the circuits of learning, advocacy, representation, andPage  241 pedagogy of our present and recent times. Knowledge production within and about Africa has long been subject to extreme economies: the productions of handbooks and ethnographic guides and surveys providing ready knowledge to outsiders; foreshortened inquiries and so-called "rapid assessments"; commissions of inquiry; urgent research protocols relating to dying and disappeared informants (and the very concept of the informant), or dying cultures, or disappeared civilizations; satellite mapping; broad surveys of geomorphology, agrarian structures, and economic histories; popular treatments of varying political stripes [7]; utilitarian and relevant research producing generalizable findings; the composition of cultural and environmental explanations for Africa's past, present, and future; the notion of giving Africa a history, and, yes, the introductory survey course and the textbook in the North American university. Whatever the cause, the program, the difficulty, or the issue at hand, the mandate for the production of knowledge has pressed for direct, simple, and whole answers and accounts. In a consistent way, yet without formal orchestration, this mandate has been constructed by textbook publishers and curriculum committees (from the Afrocentric initiatives in the United States and South Africa to UNESCO and Cambridge and Oxford University Press editorial committees), by research groups seeking cases or analogies from "an African context" (for example, in respect to reproductive behavior, or paleo-ethnography, or mental illness, or development theory), by international agencies and missionary organizations, by business and investment houses, promoters and advertisers, by investigative and legislative bodies such as Senator Frank Church's committee in the United States of the 1970s and the anti-slave trade advocates in the British parliament at the end of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, and by the information gathering bodies on the African continent both during and after colonialism. One could also add in here the centrality, and perhaps growing centrality, of forecasting instruments and institutions, predictions of African population change, development, political reform, and health (especially predictions of AIDS occurrences). Students in African history courses in North American colleges and universities insist on knowing not only where Africa has been (and insist on a neat and comprehensible narrative) but even more so on where it is going. Greater value is accorded the firmness and credibility of projections of futures than is associated with the quest to sort through the very murky and rather indecipherable complexities of the present and recent past. Page  242Projections of futures—for example, that 30% of Africans alive today will die of AIDS—seem to claim the ground of certainty ... in comparison to fraught efforts to reconstruct, for example, African fertility rates in the first decade of the twentieth century, which appears to be a project expressing the very uncertainty of the African past.

Diagnostic of an enduring and constrained economy of knowledge production within and about Africa are the relentless or resilient workings, effects, of a limited set of recurrent interpretative frameworks within the academic literatures—the continuity-change paradigm, the strong state-weak state nexus, the internal versus external frames of explanation—which appear to restrict the range and possibilities of analysis and interpretation. [8] The first—continuity versus change—focuses on such questions as whether Africa is prone to the retention, as tradition, of dysfunctional elements or whether Africa has not been able to keep up with the process of, or need for, change, or whether Africa is throwing off its past too quickly, as if its institutions are on the one hand unchangeable or on the other too open to change. The second—strong/weak—refers to long-running questions regarding the formation and reproduction of states in Africa, whether they are for example oriented toward very strong leadership (divine kings, charismatic leaders, one party states, strongly centralized democracies) or on the other hand toward institutions that inhibit strong centralized structures: power dispersing institutions including strong kin ties (extended kinship, clans, lineages), age-based cadres, clientelism, ethnicity, communalism, and patriarchy. The third—internal/external—refers to whether Africa's processes of change, as well as its crises, are the products of internal or external forces or conditions, for example the slave trade, the expansion of European capitalism and imperialism, or African environmental, political, and cultural conditions in the present. One the eve of the June, 2004, G8 Summit at Sea Island, Georgia, President Thabo Mbeki published an op-ed piece taking to task Henry Kissinger for his view that Africa's fate rests with the "moral commitment of the American people and the international community." Mbeki offered that "The premise is that Africans lack the capacity to save themselves and must rely upon the kindness of strangers. Conscious or unconscious, this assumption pervades discourse on Africa." [9]

These interpretative frameworks thoroughly define the terms of engagement of such discussions as the Rwanda genocide, or whether Africa hasPage  243 now to solve its internal problems—civil war, poverty—on its own, or whether external intervention and subsidy is in fact deleterious ... whether globalization and deeper African relations with the world through trade and consumption are unavoidable answers to the so-called "African crisis". Seeking to evolve an internally animated conceptual framework, and one that transforms the course of history, the recently emergent concept of "the African Renaissance" beautifully condenses these three problematics into a unified idea and program. [10]

We may ask how a limited set of interpretative frameworks have continued to maintain presence discursively and theoretically in the interpretation and representation of complex processes and events on the continent, a presence that traces back to the era of the slave trade? And how have these recurrent interpretative frameworks shaped knowledge and knowledge processes within Africa and on the African past? How might observers and scholars of Africa be able to free their (our) writing from these powerful frameworks? The engagement of some historians of Africa with research and writing in the general field of cultural studies, more broadly than Africa, and the experimentation with what have been called, or denounced as, "post-modern approaches" to the study of the past, may yet provide refreshed and differentiated frameworks of interpretation and analysis through attention to the position of subject, observer, and audience in discourses about the past and through recognition of the multiplicity of sites, moments, and conditions in which the history of the African past (or any past for that matter) is produced beyond the formal academy. [11] The attentions of historians of Africa to the histories of public debates, to court cases, to programs of cultural revival and "inventions of history", and to the histories of cultural and social movements, hold promise of a much refreshed paradigmatic repertoire. Recent interest in rethinking "the modern" and the play of ideas of "modernity" on the comprehension of Africa's fate suggests the values of more complex understandings of the early work of literacy, the rough and unsettled underside of nationalism, and the deeper tensions and struggles engaging and shaping gender. [12] The extraordinary densities of experience regarding science, public policy, implementation, and personal loss and meaning in the HIV/AIDS struggles in Africa, overwhelming North-South and scientific vocabularies, cannot but result in closer attention to difference or variation in the representations of Africa. [13] In all these areas, the opening to understanding, to revision, to moving beyond the restricted setPage  244 of long-dominant interpretative frameworks, has been located in the recovery of alternative and different histories and in the recognition of the pluriversal: other, multiple, and contending productions of values, interests, and meanings in intellectual communities beyond those most directly engaged with the Western academy. [14]

A not insubstantial element of the constrained economy of research on and representation of Africa—the means of reproduction of the restricted set of interpretative frameworks—has been the force of "presentism": the formulation of historical subjectivities in terms of present concerns and interests—from the incubation of nationalist paradigms within African historiography in the 1960s, to the dependency critiques of the late 1960s and 1970s, to the partial constitution of Africa as pathology from the mid-1980s, to the focus on privatization, and more recently AIDS, terrorism, and failed states. These presentisms, emerging as popular social science and popular ecologies, drive shallow depth analyses of epidemics, refugee crises, civil wars, environmental degradation, and urban decay. They are hardly informed by close readings of the literature since the 1920s on African epidemiology, African sexuality, African demography, African nutrition, and African urbanization. Nor are they informed by the long debates on soil erosion and the carrying capacity of the land, African land tenure and animal husbandry, language, literacy, religion, and race. In a word, they are not informed by the eight decades of academic debate of social change that have engaged four generations of African scholars from Dr. D. D. T. Jabavu in the 1930s to Prof. Tabitha Kanogo in 2001. [15] The debates developing within or around these issues have hardly begun to be subjected to close inspection as to the sociologies and politics of their production. [16] An economy of knowledge giving privilege to presentism may lie in the pressures for relevance ... a large and populous continent in crisis, relatively sparse institutions and personnel to monitor and evaluate its condition and direction ... and for certainty ... establishing claims to focused, simple, direct, and affordable solutions to major challenges. The events of and following 9/11/2001 have given greater presence to the challenge of relevance and the demand for certainty, and the struggles for more complex and appropriately complex understandings of Africa are made all the more difficult, if not also more dangerous.