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The poverty of post modern - post colonial critique

By Paul T. Shipale
Considering the events unfolding in Syria and the political situation in Egypt, I will not dwell on whether what transpired in Egypt is a military takeover or a legitimate will of 33 million Egyptians, backed by the country's military, that removed a democratically elected President from power.

Suffice to say that Mahmood Mamdani in his writing entitled; 'The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency' was right to ask who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

I agree with the Namibian government's position guided by the principles of democratic governance, the rule of law and justice as enshrined in our country's constitution and the provisions of the AU Constitutive Act when it called for all political stakeholders in Egypt to enter into an inclusive political dialogue in order to establish a roadmap that will restore the constitutional order in Egypt and therefore maintain that the demand by some that the Syrian government should voluntarily renounce power and cease all anti-rebel military actions was absurd as it is now proven wrong with the political situation in Egypt.

We should learn a lesson from what started in Syria as a legitimate struggle for democracy and constitutional changes that has later turned into a civil war led by sectarian groups inspired by a form of militantism and fully supported by the "paragons" of democracy outside the country, that any meaningful negotiations must include President Assad as all meaningful negotiations for a speedy resolution of the conflict in Egypt has to include the ousted President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi while the direct involvement of foreign powers fanning the flames of war and thus achieve an illegal regime change is a recipe for instability and must stop immediately as an excerpt from President Assad's speech reads; "Out of Womb of Pain, Hope should be Begotten, from suffering Important Solutions Rise".

What is clear is that the construction of the current modern world is today besieged by a plethora of crises. Even thinkers like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who produced the celebrated book entitled Empire acknowledged that the international order that European modernity continually proposed and re-proposed, at least since the Peace of Westphalia, is now in crisis. 'The current modern world has in fact always been in crisis, and this crisis has been one of the motors that have continuously pushed towards Empire' (Hardt, M. and Negri, A. 2000, Empire).

The Colombian anthropologist and leading thinker Arturo Escobar whose well-known work Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, notes that the current global crisis emanates from the reality of modernity which created 'modern problems for which there are no modern solutions.'

The crisis of Western civilisation was noticed long ago by one of the early anti-colonial thinkers, Aime Cesaire, who in his Discourse on Colonialism proclaimed that: A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. 'A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles of trickery and deceit is a dying civilization', (Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism, p. 8.)

From the time of Cesaire's indictment, European civilisation has suffered a series of trials and questioning, beginning with the struggles that were premised on rejecting colonialism as a medium of modernity and civilisation. The modern problems ranged widely from those of ecological destruction, climate change, global migration that is provoking new racism and xenophobia, right up to increasing inequalities, deepening poverty etc.

To fully appreciate the gravity of the current multi-dimensional crisis, we must remember the promises of Euro- American modernity to humanity. In the first place, is the fact that historically modernity promised civilisation that was founded on the Cartesian notion of 'I think, therefore, I am,' which for Africa and other parts of the colonised world, mutated into 'I conquer, therefore, I am', which was used to justify mercantilism, the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism and other dangerous 'isms.'

The second point is that sociologically, modernity promised new institutions as the best model of human organisation. Thirdly, culturally, modernity worked to banish spiritualism and replaced it with rational and expert knowledge capable of rationalising life-world with a view to overcome all those cultural obstacles to human trajectories. Finally, there is the philosophical aspect in which modernity was built to privilege 'a patriarchal society of men' in masculine gender terms, as the fountain of all knowledge about the world. Thus, the possibility of co-presence or peaceful coexistence was rendered impossible in the context in which the humanity of other people is doubted.

The postmodern and postcolonial critique of nationalism is informed by a deep misunderstanding of how the modern world was constituted and how it works. Such celebrated scholars as Achille Mbembe and Kwame Anthony Appiah manifest this misunderstanding which makes them very critical of any critical thought that builds its case from the reality of colonialism and racism. They wrongly criticised African scholars, particularly those whose thinking is informed by nationalism, for being enclosed inside an intellectual ghetto from which they articulate false philosophies.

The reality is that postmodern and postcolonial theorists totally failed to understand that modernity had two faces particularly that the progressive rhetoric of modernity including liberal democracy and human rights discourses help in hiding the negative side of modernity. What they identify as false philosophies that they name as romanticising nativism and Afro-radicalism emerge as Africans try to regain lost ontological density. It was actually them rather than nativism and Afro-radicalism that installed the discourse of metaphysics of difference.

As Africans, we are genuine victims of this system of power and have little choice but to reveal a psychosis of victimhood. As long as African ontology is doubted and ridiculed their discourse in its various forms will continue to reverberate and be 'repeated over and over again' until someone notices it. Postmodernists and some postcolonial theorists are surprising in blaming those who were and still are victims of 'modernity' for continuing to blame slavery, imperialism, colonialism, apartheid, dependence, and globalisation for the production of postcolonial problems.

To characterise genuine people's pains inflicted by these inimical processes as an 'old refrain' informed by unproductive and misguided intellectual exercise born out of the peddling of essentialist discourses of autochthony and authenticity', is mischievous and dishonest. What is seen as the 'self-ghettoisation' of African scholarship, taking the form of 'territorialisation of the production of knowledge', is in fact a genuine effort to counter imperialist thought that pushes African knowledge to the margins of society. Africa is a victim of externally generated knowledge that are not informed by geo-and biographical contextual understanding of the African condition. But scholars like Mbembe deliberately distort this intervention and cast it as promotion of a 'false belief that only autochthonous people who are physically living in Africa can produce, within a closed circle limited to themselves alone, a legitimate scientific discourse on the realities of the continent.'

(Mbembe, A. 1999, 'Getting Out of the Ghetto: The Challenge of Internationalization'; Mbembe, A. 2002a, 'African Modes of Self-Writing.'Public Culture, 14(1), pp. 239-273; Mbembe, A. 2002b. 'On the Power of the False'Public Culture, 14(3), pp. 613-655) Avoidance, if not scholarly failure to engage with our past for fear of being labelled as romanticising, is the worst sign of intellectual laziness. Logically, postmodern and postcolonial critique of African scholarship provoked an equally severe response from such scholars as Paul Tiyambe Zeleza and others. For instance, Mbembe was criticised for uncritical celebration of the globalisation and cosmopolitanism that underpin Euro- American hegemony. His call for 'internationalization' of African scholarship as a way of 'getting out of the ghetto' was equated with 'globalizing tendencies of neo-liberal economic policies of liberalization.' (Zeleza Email Comments to Francis Nyamnjoh, 19 January 2004.)

The point is that the domain of knowledge generation in and on Africa has never been 'ghettoised.' It has never been closed from external influences and currents of thoughts. Instead it has been excessively exposed to external and imported Euro-American paradigms. Mbembe was further criticised for surrendering to the triumphalist ideology of globalisation and the disempowering slogan 'There Is No Alternative' (TINA) doctrine.

Yes, there might be some positions that might degenerate into romanticism and fundamentalism, but that is not generalisable to all thoughts that give ex-colonised peoples a space to judge Euro-American deceit and hypocrisy. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper and are not in any way connected to my position but merely reflect my personal opinion as a citizen.


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