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Sarr – Mbembe on « les Ateliers de la Pensée » 2019 / Interview Olivia Marsaud

From something we Africans got issue 10

During the third edition of the Ateliers de la pensée held in Dakar at the end of October 2019, the two founders of this gathering of intellectuals reflecting on Africa from inside the continent agreed to an impromptu interview between two debates.

Felwine Sarr & Achille Mbembe
© Agence Anne &amp. Arnaud

 

Olivia Marsaud : The question of decoloniality, which is highly present in debates in France at the moment, was also raised during the discussions here. In what way do Africans adhere to this concept? 

Achille Mbembe : It’s far from being a new theme in Africa. In the French-speaking world, it has been a reflection in the diaspora and on the continent since the 1920s, which was first related to the anti-colonial struggle. People did not yet refer to it then as decolonial thought; they talked of anti-colonialism and decolonization. They sought an adequation between reflection and the concrete act of decolonization, for example in the works of Frantz Fanon or in Amilcar Cabral’s texts, « The Weapon of Theory » and « Revolutionary Theory and Practice ». Their aim was to end the colonial system and to open the path to self-determination for the people. This debate also marked the 1950s and 1960s and was found in Africa on a cultural level. Our French friends appear to have entirely missed this reflection, which lasted half a century! They appear to have discovered it long after many of us feel that we have already surpassed it… 

The theme of these Ateliers was devulnerabilisation. And that was precisely how they ultimately translated. They themselves fulfilled a devulnerabilizing role. Were you expecting such an outcome? We want to offer Africans and the diaspora a free, autonomous and independent space of reflection and respectful discussion. A space of listening in which we hear one another. It is imperative that Africa rises. We must defatalize the future. Africa’s lot is in our hands and the moment is ripe. A demand existed, but wasn’t yet clearly articulated. We established the means for its expression. One of our objectives is to revive the project of human emancipation from inside this continent which has borne the specific burden of a historical injustice. We all, participants and audience alike, have been party to something singular that will be hard to forget.

To cite the title of Leonora Miano’s book Contours du jour qui vient (Contours of the Coming Day), I got the impression that the contours of humans to come were drawn during these Ateliers. What idea of the human do you uphold? We must reflect on the question: what is this era of ours? In which era are we living? I believe that it is an era characterized by our realization of the finite and limited nature of our world. This world is not eternal. On the other hand, we are increasingly confronted with extremes, be they climatic or ideological. We are increasingly exposed to extreme and potentially catastrophic situations that are likely to call into question the very survival of humanity on this planet. We have to cope with disparate facts in a context of the objective possibility of the end of life: this thus concerns the way in which we treat nature, but also ourselves. It is an epochal or historical challenge, to use a Hegelian expression. That is why I defend a humanity open to the unforeseen, in balance with the other species, welcoming to all living things. This today requires a fundamental revision of our relation to ourselves and to the universe. 


Olivia Marsaud : The question of decoloniality, which is highly
present in debates in France at the moment, was also raised during the discussions here. In what way do Africans adhere to this concept? 

Felwine Sarr : Coloniality is an episteme in which relations of domination are embedded and which continue to infuse the economic, symbolic and political. The formerly colonized African nations’ democratization process wasn’t just about political independence; it’s about what was knotted into the very structures of the relationship in the long term, and which continues to induce an asymmetry. Coloniality continues; it affects relations. The decolonial is a critique of, and a desire for, emancipation from a fundamentally asymmetrical relationship. To me, what matters most is to be able to produce intelligibility out of the cosmogonies and plural epistemological universes of the world as resources that are as valid, as dignified as those produced by the West in the past five centuries. When people pluralize knowledge, seek endogenous therapeutic resources, exhume architectural models that make sense, that take care of individuals, that is decoloniality in practice. There is a need for decoloniality, but it needs to surpass the decolonial. As long as we remain in a decolonial face-off, the colonial will remain a marker. We must extricate ourselves from the decolonial, transcend it. The next stage is to manage to name the coming era without referring to coloniality.

The theme of these Ateliers was devulnerabilisation. And that was precisely how they ultimately translated. They themselves fulfilled a devulnerabilizing role. Were you expecting such an outcome? We have been surprised by the unforeseen outcomes of creating a space in which the collective is enacted. Together, we are intelligent, as we have shown. If you create a place of profound, respectful, serious discussion, something emerges from it. We are really happy to see that the preparatory work – seeking out people who we think have an experience to share, thinking about transdisciplinarity, about who can speak with whom, about what perspectives might resonate – has, in our view, borne its fruit. All these resources were there, atomized, individual, and bringing them together, into resonance, has created a third element that is the unforetold. It is an example of co-constitution in which everyone participates and the public with its questions, its contributions, is fundamental. Over the days, I have not often, or even very rarely felt any negativity.  

To cite the title of Leonora Miano’s book Contours du jour qui vient (Contours of the Coming Day), I got the impression that the contours of humans to come were drawn during these Ateliers. What idea of the human do you uphold? A more luminous humanity. That was the Fanonian project – to enhance humanity – in the realization that we charge the term humanity, we breathe a luminous charge into it, for humans bear within them shadow and light. Culture is fundamental in this project of civilization because it humanizes. And that is what we have attempted these last few days: to think about how to devulnerabilize and, taking it further, about how we bring together societies’ resources, memories, practices, and knowledges in order to construct far more luminous, balanced and loving humans. (…) Find the French version of the text in Something we Africans got Issue 10.
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les ateliers de la Pensée

                                                                    Something we Africans got Issue 10
Olivia Marsaud
November 2019