Valentin-Yves Mudimbe’s The Idea of Africa: Colonialism, Theory, and Absolute Discourse
The consequences of European colonization linger well after the destruction of overt colonial rule. Perhaps most profoundly, colonization drew upon and extended a mode of thinking and speaking that, for Westerners and Africans alike, continues to shape and naturalize the very ways we think about Africa and Africans—perpetuating, among other things, notions of African inferiority, pathology, and dependency. Decolonization seems to mean not just the overthrow of colonial regimes, but also the rejection of a by-now deeply entrenched discourse. But how? And what supplants it? How can we develop, or recover, an African discourse whose categories and concepts do not depend, pace the philosopher and theorist Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, “on a Western epistemological order”?
In this course, we will grapple with questions of how we think and speak about Africa, and how discourse, on Africa and beyond, both shapes and is shaped by power, through a deep engagement with Valentin-Yves Mudimbe’s two major works: The Idea of Africa and The Invention of Africa. We’ll engage particularly with Mudimbe’s notion of “absolute discourse,” a concept mentioned but briefly in either work, but which nevertheless undergirds Mudimbe’s theorization of both Westernized understandings of Africa and the possibility of an African discourse that’s autonomous of conquest. Working through Mudimbe’s method of dialogic and immanent critique, this course will lay out the ambitions of absolute discourse, its intellectual antecedents and interlocutors, from Marxian postcolonial theory to Foucauldian post-structuralism, and its meaning for questions of African authenticity, sovereignty, and authority. And, as we grapple with Mudimbe’s work, we will ask: what are its stake, not only for the African continent, but for the broader post-conquest world, where traditional modes of colonialism have receded, but Western hegemony persists?
Course ScheduleSunday, 3:00-6:00pm ET
June 13 — July 11, 2021
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Sunday, July 4th.