Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics


In the autumn of 1996 I was traveling in Europe, studying, writing, and giving talks. Over dinners, drinks, and coffee, I enjoyed conversation with a range of people inside and outside the academy. Whatever the frame or content of the conversation, whatever the degree of learning of my companion or companions, one question came up again and again as it was learned that my research was located on Africa. In varying language, the question was "why have Africans been killing Africans in Rwanda?" It was a time of still extensive reporting of the 1994 genocide and its aftermath. What I first heard in this question was a request for an explanation. While over the ten weeks I tried consistently to disabuse my companions of the idea that I was an expert on this particular topic, the questions continued. Over time, my responses evolved and were reframed. At first I confronted the notion that "tribalism" explained genocide. I sought to work up a critique of "tribalism" which seemed to control the references to Tutsi and Hutu, to reset difference in Rwanda in a more complex understanding of history, class, and caste. In this, I moved into, but suppressed, my own observations that while North American andPage  247 European scholars of Africa were rejecting both the rhetorical and explanatory frames of tribe and tribalism, Africans in everyday life were finding these frames functional and powerful, and deadly.

I also sought to draw my interlocutors into at least an elementary understanding of the histories of colonialism and the off-times constructedness of colonial categories such as "ethnic groups". I tried to include in my responses some attention to the issues of regional and rural impoverization, hunger (in the sense of diet shift and caloric deficits occurring over five or six decades), the economic devastation brought on this part of the African continent with the substantial jumps in petroleum—and thus transport and thus connection to the world market—costs in the 1970s, and land hunger in that region of Africa since the 1950s. I thought about including—but hardly had the moment to move into—other issues, including arm sales to Africa and the changing shapes of international attentions to local, national, and regional issues on the continent, which would have invited attention to the history of the Cold War in Africa.

As these disquisitions unfolded as a series of conversations over the ten or so weeks in 1996, I began to observe these conversations as if I were a surveillant third party. One of the consistent aspects of these conversations was that the Rwanda discussion tended to last no more than about five minutes. There seemed to be dissatisfaction with the answers of the "expert", who was certainly avoiding direct answers to the questions focused on "why are Africans killing Africans in Rwanda?" In several of the conversations, the questioner moved the ground toward non-African settings in which individuals, or groups, of color, of African descent, were held responsible for killings, suggesting to the "expert" that the questioner's Rwanda interest was essentially a racialist inquiry on race and violence.

As I became more practiced in handling these conversations, I became more confrontational as the exchange moved along from Rwanda to other fields. [20] I called the question of racism in one conversation. And then in two conversations in Germany with individuals whom I have respected as progressive intellectuals, I asked why they assumed that in a couple of minutes I or anyone could explain genocide in Rwanda when genocide in Europe, the Holocaust, Shoah, had been opened to continuing research, reconstruction, analysis, interpretation, explanation for over fifty years without closure. WhatPage  248 is or was there about genocide in Africa that is susceptible to simple and direct explanations, the gist of which can be conveyed in conversation in five minutes? Is race the explanation for conversations so constructed or, beyond race, is there a determining economy of knowledge that restricts reflection, insight, further investigation?