Ioan Davies' Teaching Site

Negotiating African Culture: Towards a Decolonization of the Fetish

Ecoutez le monde blanc
horriblement las de son effort immense
ses articulations rebelles craquer sous les etoiles dures
ses raideurs d'acier bleu transpercant la chair mystique
ecoute ses victoires proditoires trompter ses defaites
ecoute aux alibis grandioses son pietre trebuchement

Pitie pour nos vainqueurs omniscients et naifs!

1. Of Gods and Philosophers.

The debate around the origins and history of religion is at the heart of the re-examination of the idea of Africa, as Mudimbe's book of that name, as well as two others and several novels make clear. And yet in what ways is the exercise central to understanding the culture of the present? At one level, that of the sense of the essence of African identity, it is, of course, crucial to know that we have had other identities than the ones we appear to have now. This is an exercise which is common to all societies and all cultures. It is an exercise which is necessary in understanding how culture has been misread, misappropriated, deliberately distorted so that those who were active in the making of history were displaced from that history. Much of the rethinking of history during the latter part of the twentieth century in Africa and elsewhere is precisely about reconstructing how the narratives were put together. But such an act has its own complications. Is the rethinking being done in the name of ethicity, religion, class, gender, nation? And against which hegemonies? In Mudimbe's account at least three stories are interwoven: rethinking the genesis of civilization in terms of the commonality of myths (Greek, Christian, African); rethinking the particularily European concept of Africa which he argues "the will to truth ...seems to espouse perfectly a will to power"; and, finally, the value of certain kinds of European philosophy in posing the contradictions between the claims to universalism of European thought and the apparent particularism of the African. In this exercise, Mudimbe is wonderfully eclectic. Levi-Strauss, Sartre, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Marx, Evans-Pritchard, are critically invoked either because there is usefulness in some of their conceptualizations, or because they have become part of the "colonial library" and thus the resource of ideas that Africans are bound to explore. In telling these "stories" Mudimbe is concerned both to weave a narrative of how different approaches to the study of Africa came together or, through fissiparity, produced new forms of thought, and to fight against any essentialism which might reduce `Africanness' to a common denominator. Because Mudimbe's education has been Catholic and in French (he is a Zairean-born former Benedictine monk), the discourse leans heavily on Central African, Catholic and French sources, though in The Invention of Africa he surely provides some of the most succinct overviews found anywhere. This Catholic-French emphasis, however, provides the basis for raising a strategic issue about the direction that Mudimbe seems to be taking us.

The religious affiliation which nurtured Mudimbe is one which is popular over wide tracts of Africa (primarily French, Italian and Portuguese-speaking, but not entirely so). In fact in Mudimbe's own reading it is interesting to note that he has little problem with dealing with English-speaking African political, sociological and anthropological writings, while the arguments of non-Catholic Christians (including Ethiopians) and Islamic scholars are dealt with parenthetically. The observation is not one on which one wishes to base a contestation, but rather to further explore the tension that he himself outlines in discussing an article by the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu. After saying that he suspects "empiricism for being a kind of simplification of the phenomenon it comments on", Mudimbe goes on to argue:

Wiredu is speaking a "British language." I am reading it in "French."What does this imply for both the Akan worldview in particular and "African" philosophy in general? The concept of alienation to which he refers in his invitation for a conceptual decolonization could be used a propos of our difficult dialogue. Yet it is perhaps a wonderful trap. What is at stake here seems more a question of method. It is, I would suspect, a question about our respective subjective choices for thinking the philosophical practice in Africa.

In establishing his own stance for "thinking the philosophical practice in Africa", Mudimbe leaves open a door to other philosophical practices, and, needless to say, this opening is much more generous and more sophisticated than some of the earlier discussions of ethnophilosophy and Egyptology. The opening that Mudimbe suggests to Wiredu is one that requires a response that might be a Ghanaian-Akan-Protestant-English-Empiricist response, in which "I wish very much that Wiredu would speak more explicitly from his own existential locality as subject." In this Mudimbe may have been conjuring up Appiah's book, (though Appiah, too, is Catholic) which is existential, and which emerges out of different tradition, though one which is conscious of Mudimbe's own. But In My Father's House is not quite the response that Mudimbe might have wished. Though, as with The Invention of Africa, it deals largely with the development of debates around African philosophy, but from a distinctly different stance, and although the sense of place and individuals is woven throughout it, an element enters into Appiah's narrative which takes it in a direction which is not present in Mudimbe's concerns. If Mudimbe, thinking about politics, deals with it discoursively, as theoretical positions, Appiah confronts it as event, movement, theatre. His Ghana is described from his father's house, through to the Asante, to the emergence of an independent Ghana and the rise and fall of Nkrumah, to the evolution of Ghanaian politics over the subsequent years. If in some ways the chapter "Altered States" reads like an intrusion, reading through the book one realizes that most of the theorizing and accounts of philosophical developments is done precisely to help Appiah to come to terms with himself in the context of his country's political changes. Apart from occasional references to Christianity, religion plays a small part in these explorations.

Appiah's collection of essays helps us to begin to place the differences between reading African philosophy. Mudimbe cannot avoid being hermeneutical, placing text on text to unravel a sense of meaning. The central feature of philosophy is to work through, or talk to a viable living one which offers a coherence to the various ways by which we are dominated. Mudimbe's philosophy is both deconstructive and reconstitutive, in which everything that has ever been written about Africa, and as much of the talking that has been recorded, becomes an occasion for establishing, in the best way, a set of critical African problematics. If Mudimbe is everywhere concerned with the everyday as the negotiable presence, it is a concern which is directly related to the textuality, the facticity of the everyday. When he deals with art, it is a discourse which is swathed in text, in the establishment of creative and critical schools, and in the assignation of meaning and purpose to artists and art objects:

To academic rules of representation and techniques of arriving at "the beautiful," popular artists propose an opposing vision. They want to transmit a clear message; they claim the virtue of sociological and historical truth; and they try to name even the unnameable and the taboo. Here technical flaws become marks of originality. The artist appears as the "undisciplinable" hero, challenging social institutions, including art practices, particularily academic ones. Yet this "deviant," who sometimes attacks both a tradition and its modern currents, incarnates clearly the locus of their confrontations.

Mudimbe's work is that of the schoolman who writes as if the turmoils of the world can be reconstructed as discourse. It is a world where the chaos might be understood, engaged in, as part of a structured whole, where the maker of batiks in Kenya or the mermaid-artist in Zaire can be seen as part of an ongoing pattern of meaning. Even the discussion with the anthropologist Peter Rigby, critical as it is, brings Marxism as a research endeavour into the search for a totalizing schema.

In contrast, Appiah provides us with a perspective which drives us to consider the current crisis in different parts of Africa and how they interlock with the crisis of the rest of the world. This is not to claim that Appiah is particularily radical in anything that he says, but rather that his approach to issues essentially similar to those that Mudimbe confronts displays a difference of sensibility. Mudimbe's article "Reprendre" appeared in a catalogue for an exhibition, "African Explores", curated by Susan Vogel at the Center for African Art in New York in 1991. Appiah attended an earlier exhibition, also curated by Susan Vogel at the same Center, in 1987. It is instructive to note how Appiah saw the exhibition. Where Mudimbe theorized over the exhibition to provide meanings to the objects (he was not the only commentator: there were five other contributors, all of them Western, to the catalogue, with Vogel providing the narrative connections), Appiah deconstructs the exhibition, its place, its sponsors, their write-overs. This specific gallery space is the occasion for theorizing. Thus we move from the auspices of the exhibition and the manifest absurdities of "[David] Rockefeller's easy movement between considerations of finance, of aesthetics and of decor" to the objects and artists themselves and their treatment as commodity. From this Appiah takes us to James Baldwin's choice, and discussion, of a Nigerian piece called "Man With a Bicycle" and hence to a lengthly discussion on postcolonial and postmodern culture, and in particular to a discussion of the African novel, culminating with Mudimbe's novel Entre les eaux. The details of Appiah's analysis need not concern us here. Much more telling is the form and the consciousness that the world inhabited by Africans is a world which is bound up with that of the Other, that the fate of the African intellectual, marginalized in Africa as proto-colonial products, is to become "Otherness-machines" and that "our only distinction in the world of texts to which we are latecomers is that we can mediate it to our fellows". The African intellectual/philosopher is therefore caught in the middleground, as Other in both worlds. "And what happens will happen not because we pronounce on the matter in theory, but out of the changing practices of African culture".

These authors suggest two existential routes for African philosophy. With Mudimbe the "Colonial library" must be re-stocked, rethought, re-animated.

Moving in my imaginary library, which includes the best and the worst books about the idea of Africa, I chose my own path. It led me beyond the classically historical boundaries (in terms of references and texts) and, at the same time, maintained me firmly in what is a line of desolation.

With Appiah the libraries matter less than the practices.

I am grateful to James Baldwin for his introduction to the `Man with a Bicycle': a figure who is, as Baldwin rightly saw, polyglot - speaking Yoruba and English, probably some Hausa and a little French for his trips to Contonou or Cameroon; someone whose `clothes do not fit him too well'. He and the other men and women amongst whom he mostly lives suggest to me that the place to look for home is not just the postcolonial novel...but to the all-consuming vision of this less-anxious creativity. It matters little who it was made for; what we should learn from is the imagination that produced it.

Within this dichotomy, there is surely a common thread that runs through the concerns of both Appiah and Mudimbe. Any search for the new Africa will hardly succeed unless the essential cultural eclecticism is recognized and unless the absolute marginality of its intellectuals (most of whom can only seriously live and work outside their countries of origin) is taken as an operating fact. To the former I return below, but of the latter it is perhaps worth considering the ongoing thematic of Homi Bhabha's collection of essays on Nation and Narration in which identity is seen as necessarily hybrid, between the `inside' and the `outside', and the "turning of boundaries and limits into the in-between spaces through which the meanings of cultural and political authority are negotiated". If Bhabha, and many of the contributors to his collection see this as a promising space, creating a transnational culture from an anti-nationalist nation-space, the problem remains that this culture may be as elitist as that of the Imperial Chinese literati and that the agency for its transmission may be through movements and organizations (unlike in China) that are not of the literati's choosing.

An alternative reading of religion and culture is found in Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia, published in Ghana and written by Mensa Otabil, pastor of the International Central Gospel Church in Accra, with a congregation of 6,000. Dr Otabil's auspices are clear. The book has an introduction by Dr Leonard Lovett (who grew up "as an African-American Pompano Beach, Florida"), Professor of Religion and Society at the Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from which university Dr Otabil received one of his two doctorates. The aim of the book is also clear: to retrace within the Bible (the King James version, no less) "the purposes of God for the Black Race." Thus we have an exegetical exercise in which the Bible is rethought in terms of Abraham's third wife, Keturah, of Moses father-in-law, of the Midianites, of the Cushites, of the Cyrenians, of Simon the cross-bearer, of some of the early Church elders. If the book falls short of saying that the Children of Israel and the Apostles were Black (and it does not, of course, question the authenticity of the texts themseves), it does completely shift the emphasis of a textual reading of Biblical continuity and intent by searching for a sub-text or at least a parallel reading of the existing text. The important element in this reading is not that it displaces the white or the semitic man, nor does it glorify Egypt (for that would surely provide a real dichotomy) but that it rediscovers the black presence in the existing text. It operates in the "in-between spaces" to create a narrative continuity. This is not simply saying that we were there before, but that we have been continuously present whenever God needed us. And the message for the present is quite explicit: "We need to know our history so that we can know the future. We have to move backwards in order to move forwards. When we trace black history, we do not trace it in a narrow cultural sense...Whenever the world has been in a crisis the black man has always appeared on the scene"

Thus there is a different international intellectual community, spreading from Oklahoma to Accra and beyond. Its audience is in the millions and its practice is the hermeneutical reading of text to give hope to the present. What was missing, perhaps, in Mudimbe's plea for dialogue with Wiredu's rationalism or in Appiah's practical culture was this other discourse. At the end of Mudimbe's novel Entre les eaux, the central figure Pierre Landu, a revolutionary priest, is saved from execution and sent off to a contemplative monastery: "l'humilite de ma bassesse, quelle gloire pour l'homme" (Mudimbe, 1973: 189). Mudimbe's character's pessimism is that of, having been failed by both Marx and Aquinas, the only personal solution is that of quietistc retreat. The Protestant solution, backed as it is now with the Black Christians of the American Diaspora, is much more cunning. By seeing blacks everywhere always as operating between the cracks, the texts can move from being hegemonic to interstitial. "By the rivers of Babylon" and "Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia" are, ultimately, the same text.

2. The Languages of Culture

I have nothing against English, French, Portuguese, or any other language for that matter. They are all valid as far as they are languages and in as far as they do not seek to oppress other nations, nationalities, and languages. But if Kiswahili or any other African language were to become the language for the world, this would symbolize the dawn of a new era in human relations between the nations and peoples of Africa and those of other continents.

Ngugi's brave plea will not be taken up seriously, of course, (where is the forum to make it practical?) though Wole Soyinka and others have backed the campaign in different ways. The point of his critique, however, is not flippant: of all African writers he has adressed the issue of the dominant and subordinate languages in the most precise manner. Ngugi's detention and ultimate exile from Kenya was as much caused by language as it was by politics. His attempt to establish an oppositional culture, through the Cultural Centre at Limuru, the performance of plays and the publication of fiction (in particular his novel Matigari) were seen by the government as subversive: it reacted violently when the material was issued in Gikuyu. (Matigari, which was confiscated by orders of the president when in appeared in Gikuyu, is today easily available in Nairobi in its English translation). The point of Ngugi's stance on language is clear enough (and he has a prison sentence and exile to show for it). The vast majority of the people are denied a literature that they can read, or have read to them, because of the political elite's use of an alien tongue. And N'gugi, since residing in the United States has himself worked with Manthia Diawara and Ousomene to construct a film on the latter's work in French and English so that it might reach a transatlantic audience. This suggests that there is a more complex issue that needs to be explored.

I have referred to Appiah's approving comment on the `polyglot' Nigerian sculptor. The topic needs to be taken further. Today, the everyday culture of Africa is polyglot, and the sense of what languages these are needs to be explored. A striking feature of urban Africa at least is the number of languages that people have to possess to function at all. Almost everyone in any African city has to have access to at least two languages: the first is the language of home, and the second is whatever lingua franca is necessary to function in the market-place. The second is typically a European language, though it might also include a third regional language (e.g. Swahili, Hausa, Twi). In these languages one may, or may not be literate in a bookish sense. And even here, as the educational sociologists tell us, we may be functionally literate (able to read street signs, newspaper headlines, or job instructions), culturally literate (able to acquire knowledge about political and cultural norms of a society by reading about them in accepted works of literature and science) and criticalyl literate (able to identify ideological positions of texts, cultural forms, in order to challenge the status quo). People may have any of these literacies in their home language, and less in a lingua franca (or vice versa). In addition to all of these forms of literacy employing language there are also the `languages' of the media, the body, the space, the `signs in the street.' It may be possible to be `critically' literate without being book literate; and it might be possible to be critically book literate and also be politically impotent. When Appiah appeals to the "changing everyday practices of African life" it is to this concatenation of signs that he appeals.

But how to read them? The strategy for reading that is generally adopted normally involves some schematization derived from one or other matrix borrowed from the post-colonial library. This involves many forms. For example, in putting together the exhibition Africa Explores, Susan Vogel and her colleagues came up with a five-fold classification to enable them to organize African Art: traditional art, new functional art, urban art, international art and "extinct" art. This neat packaging within the exhibition concealed a curiosity of place, much of the discussion of `traditional' art rests on an examination of Dogon masks from Mali, that of "new functional" art from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana, that of "Urban" art from Zaire, that of "International" art and "Extinct" art randomly from different parts of Africa. Although there is some heuristc advantage in coming up with some form of classification, it is pertinent to raise the question: in whose interests is this classification made? The answer must surely be for the collector. Obviously this collector is of a different tradition to the one carefully explored by Annie E. Coombes in her detailed study of the British "collecting" of African Art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the relationship between imperialism, ethnography, natural history and the development of the museum. If anything, the Vogel system is a way of trying to transcend that earlier form of classification, and even Vogel's own schema for the earlier exhibition in 1987. In her `Foreward' Vogel admits that "this book is mainly the work of Western writers who speak as intimate outsiders. There is nothing specifically African about this kind of study; we are aware that the whole exercise is typical of late-twentieth-century Western scholarship. The use of the category `art' to describe the objects included here - like the category `museum' - can be defended on grounds of theory and of convenience, but this concept is in no way inherent in all of the African objects under discussion. It is a strictly Western category that we employ here as a useful tool." This disclaimer (and even if Mudimbe is given the last word in the catalogue) posits the ongoing problem of creating a discourse which does not have post-colonial written all over it. The African artist, crafter, shaman, schoolteacher, hairdresser engaged in their everyday practices operate without knowledge of these categorizations or through them. What takes place in a gallery in New York or Paris is part of a discourse which may trickle down to the seamstress or the teak carver, but the chances are that it will only do so if it becomes frozen into the search for particular commodities.

But if the language is not bounded by the museum, where is it? Take two readings, one on the media, and another in the languages of everyday negotiation. These have the advantages of being very specific and randomly general. The media is not merely new technology or an opportunity to gain new means of communicating: it is, like every language, processed through power, ideology and community relations. Some of the explorations of African film, for example, such as Diawara's African Cinema: Politics and Culture or Lizbeth Malkmus and Roy Armes' Arab and African Film Making, necessarily stress not only the political economy of making film but also the importance of language and community and contrasting narratives. Important as these books are in providing overviews, they barely address the nuances of the negotiating process which places media at the centre of both personal and political-economic pressures. African film, in spite of it being based on newer communicative technologies than print, is still, in its African version, less immediate than newspaper communication. African film, because of the processes of funding and distribution, is a minority culture, celebrated through the work of the Federation Panafricaine des Cineastes (FEPACI) and the biennial festival at Ougadougou, but otherwise an art form for European and North American film festivals. Most of the Africans who watch films see B movies from the United States, Britain, France or India, either in their local movie houses or, if they have access, on a television station controlled by the government or owned by an associate of the government.

Newspapers, however, in most parts of Africa, are something different. Although operating under various forms of censorship, government or foreign ownership, their existence is somehow taken as a sacred mandate (because freedom of speech is guarranted in every constitution? because every country has some commitment to literacy, which is equated with the press?) No country has banned newspapers and magazines altogether, and the idea that `news' should somehow be transmitted in print provides something of an ongoing commitment to a conception of the fifth estate. In his book, I Accuse the Press, Philip Ochieng, a Kenyan journalist-intellectual living in Africa, at times editor of quite different daily newspapers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, provides a strategic view of the problems of being a journalist in Africa. This Kenyan J'Accuse is ultimately a collective self-accusation. It's importance is that Kenya, in many ways, presents intself as the model of a diversified newspaper industry. Apart from a number of weeklies that come and go, there are three daily newspapers: the Nation, the Times and the Standard. The first is owned by the Aga Khan, the second by the governing party, the Kenya African National Union, and the third by the British conglomerate Lonrho. Ochieng worked on two of them either as journalist or in various editorial capacities. In addition he also worked on the Uganda Sunday Times and in Dar es Salaam. As an occasional student, he also studied Literature, French and Philosophy in the USA, France, Germany and Switzerland. It is important to establish Ochieng's credentials partly because he is not well-known in the West: he has spent most of his life being a journalist) and partly because of his biographical route. His commitment to being a journalist is as impeccable as the best of Western journalists and comparable to lawyers, doctors, academics in Africa who take what they think of as professionalism in the West as their templates. But because he operates in the media his saga is of relevance to anyone in Africa who wants to work in television, radio, film, theatre or, possibly, the internet.

Because of his many experiences, Ochieng might be seen as the great Survivor or Operator: from being a Nyerere socialist to being the co-ordinator of the propaganda machine for Moi's government. The man who co-authored The Kenyatta Succession became the handyman of the successors. This reading, however, would simplify the narrative and the experiences so that they would become meaningless for any thoughtful consideration. For what is written through Ochieng's own narrative is something more powerful. A series of narratives interconnect and then break off from each other. The nomadology of happenstance is compromised by the vocation of being a journalist. Telling a story requires knowing how and where to tell it. The story may change, but the act of telling is all-important. There are different communities for whom one builds up a particular alliegance. Who is to know which communities matter? Ochieng is concerned with the vocation of telling tales in print, in a country where the communicating medium is alien to, perhaps, 90% of the population, but important to almost all of the other 10% and ultimately to the rest of the world. His particular gift is to describe in detail the ways in which the press in East Africa is run, how important internal and external events are woven together, and how seriously journalists take their vocation. One of his central arguments is that the press is not necessarily freer if it owned by private enterprise, and that the roots of press corruption are to be found in the inadequate salaries paid to journalists by the owners. Frequently the government owns nespapers because no-one else has the capital to do so, unless, as is the case in Kenya, foreign companies see a political and commercial advantage in having their own mouth-piece. Foreign ownership, however, does not guarantee against government interference. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the British-owned Standard became the mouthpiece of a powerful faction within KANU, led by the Constitutional and Home Affairs Minister Charles Njonjo: the imprisonment of senior editors at The Nation was a direct consequence of a campaign waged in the Standard. There is no guarantee against such interference in the operations of the press, but journalists, if they are to be honest, must not only acquire the technical skills (which is largely what academic communications departments provide) but must also see their mandate as an educational one. While castigating most journalists and newspapers of printing "trivia", Ochieng has a clear agenda. Journalists must learn their trade in every form of media that is available, but, above all,

...those who have had the opportunity to educate themselves over matters of information, finance, technology and ideology...must exploit all the loopholes existing in the present national and international power system and write as many economic and cultural facts as possible about our societies so that we can educate more and more individuals into realizing the nature of the national ind international power structure itself. There is a literacy slogan which says: "Each one, teach one." Let those who can teach two, ten, a hundred or a thousand go right ahead.

This plea for the pedagogically-conscious press provides one method of thinking about the languages of culture which derives its inspiration, as Ochieng claims, from, among others, Armand Mattelart, Wilbur Schramm, Juan Somavia and Herbert Schiller (none of whose works are available in the University of Nairobi library). Ochieng's rationalist campaign is portrayed in a fierce missionary rhetoric. In dealing with the topic in this manner, we are presented with another option in reading the material regularily being issued by such bodies as Amnesty International, PEN and Index on Censorship. Press freedom in Africa, and probably most of the world, is a spectral presence which exists in a world apart from the lives of most of the people. Published in a language which only a minority can read, it flashes in and out of their lives, providing what Michael Taussig, echoing Roland Barthes, calls obtuse meanings. By arguing that the press must be seen in the context of literacy and the construction of meaning in everyday life, Ochieng pushes the study of the press in a more important direction than a simple-minded exercise in documenting censorship.

An alternative version of reading the signs is provided by David Hecht and Maliqalim Simone in their study Invisible Governance: the Art of African Micropolitics. This lively little book provides more clues than many, more serious, tomes, in part because, eclectic as it is in its sources, it tries to read the signs as they appear, not through reticulated Western lenses, but as the flash-images of cultures in process. The advantage of this approach is that it invites to explore how culture is made, not how it ought to have been made according to some external criterion of otherness or inclusiveness. The ongoing critiques of African politics and culture dwell on the notion of the nation-state and its relationship to the existence of pre-colonial political or linguistic territories. The argument advanced by Basil Davidson, Wole Soyinka and others that the nation-state is a colonial invention which must be rethought is opposed by such political scientists as Colin Leys who argue, rather, that the state is crucial but that it is the notion of civil society that has to be rethought. Wole Soyinka has gone so far as to argue that the troubles in Rwanda and Burundi would not exist if the populations in that region were to construct their own boundaries. These issues will not detain us here. The approach suggested by Hecht and Simone offers an important alternative in situating any questions of culture, building on a growing body of work by independent researchers.

Hecht and Simone provide graphic moments of how Africa dances and how the different spectres merge into each other and become real bodies and places. The tactic of simulacrum - of reinventing the art-object for those who want the authentic - might be set against the hair-dresser's salon or the Sape boutique where the self is reinvented whatever poverty stalks around. How different from California where, as Umberto Eco wrote with august Italian distance, everyone goes to look at the one authentic fake? Quite a lot, in fact: Africans are faking themselves both for themselves and others. The term 'fetish' was constructed by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century in order to come to terms with the importance placed on objects by West African traders in their contact with the colonials. Its use as an object is derived form its surface properties was susequently popularized by Marx and has subsequently become a theme in Fredric Jameson and David Harvey's critique of post-modern architecture. Hecht and Simone's analysis suggests that fetish is the individual, that, even though the name was given to Africans by Europeans, the naming has been taken up as a playful, yet deeply serious act. The object has little of the base/superstructure connotations of Marx's fetish, nor of the psychoanalytical features of the supplementary nature of fetishism. Both Marx and Freud are concerned with fetish as something that is symptomatic of something else, and therefore not a thing in itself. Fetish is itself a product of two different economic and cultural spaces, hence its appropriation by both Marx and Freud to objectify various transactions. But what if the object itself, this thing we call fetish, becomes itself more than object, that is renewable and discardable, that is the bearer of stories, but itself tells no stories, that its surface is consciously produced in order for the surface to laugh at us and join in our sadness?

A curious cult called Mami Wata (Mother Water) is to be found in many parts of Central, East and West Africa, and also extends to Brazil and the Caribbean. It has many forms and operates through religious shrines, video stores, computer companies, art galleries (even in New York and Paris), and in hairdressing salons. Mami Wata is usually found in the form of a mermaid. She comes from everywhere and nowhere. When did she originate? Even though some Ghanaian classicists claim she originated in Minoan Crete, it is more likely that she emerged from the head of a slave ship. But she has so many ancestors: the Sirens, Isis, Cleopatra, the Mona Lisa, Shiva, the Virgin Mary, Lady Godiva, the Statue of Liberty, and, more recently, by her own promotion, Madonna. Mami Wata is multicultural, international and any objects made of her are independent of her power as a moving force. She will make you rich, she will make you poor but only through objects that are claimed for her. Mami Wata is the ultimate transnational fetish. A painting of her by the Zairean artist Cheri Samba may sell well in Paris, but you will only see the production of a surface. Mami Wata is everything that Freud missed. She is the fetish for the space between land and water, East and West, North and South, Black and White. Mami Wata is the name (because she is the occasion) for African cultural theory.

If we think about Mami Wata, several things suggest themselves. This fetish-woman may have her origins in any African myth or none, but she is clearly in her present existence the product of a borderless continent, indeed of a world without boundaries. Because she is not currency, she cannot be exchanged, yet she is the product of exchange. She symbolizes the commodities that are acquired for use but which are valueless in any long-term sense because there are no repair kits. She is the person as commodity, to be made up, dressed up, painted over, exchanged, disposed of. Because she has no feet, she cannot walk. Because she has no wings, she cannot fly. She is the person who has to be made over constantly to discover who she is. She is the floating signifier.

In her wake swim many others - the trickster, the syncretic cult, the national currencies, the international currencies, French cuisine in Senegal, cross-border shopping, shantytowns, fine clothes, hairstyles, the simulation of old cultural styles. Hecht and Simone quote Ali Mazrui who commented that Africans had borrowed the wrong things from the West - the profit motive but not the entrepreneurial spirit. They comment:

But this "shadow, not the substance," as Mazrui calls it, is not, after all, an obedient mimicry of the West. Rather it can operate as a map, a means of engagement with, and deconstruction of the West, while ambiguating hegemonic control over thought and action. Even by demonstrating overt dependencies on Western economic and cultural practices, Africans covertly shape the tactical practices of self-reliance. Of course, all of this may be nothing but an empty gesture, yet it is the emptiness that gives rise to a greater silence. For centuries, Africans have felt at home with other cultures...But their embrace of one culture rarely excluded the embrace of another and another.

Some years ago, The president of the IMF visited Ghana to check out on the progress of Structural Adjustment. On arriving at the President's Castle-home in Accra, he found a helicopter waiting to take him to a location north of Kumasi. Here he met President Rawlings who, bare-breasted, was helping railway workers to mend a line. The man from the IMF was asked to join in. Because the TV crew was there, he did. Later the President asked the workers to join in the conference. They were asked how Structural Adjustment was working. After saying that it was good to have jobs, they complained about the decline in the social infrastructure: schools, hospitals, the post office, sanitation. All this was relayed live to the TV-viewing public. The man from the IMF agreed to adjust the Adjustment. If not all African politicians are as openly mischievous as Rawlings, his political theatre is certainly something that any African can appreciate, whether or not they accept Structural Adjustment.

3. Decolonizing the Fetish

Hecht and Simone's "micropolitics" operates at every level of African society, and the culture of the briccolage, much more than Benin bronzes which sit on the stairway of the British Museum, is the culture of the everyday. In Achille Mbembe's writings this culture is considered in detail at the top of the societies and what he refers to as "the banality of power" where he examines the divide between how the political leaders employ the symbols and how the "subject" does. For the powerful, fetish is clearly used "by a regime of domination in seeking to legitimize violent practices". Thus power is the ultimate fetish, and the play around it is a "zombification" of both the leaders and the led. With a skilful use of theory derived centrally from Bakhtin, but also from Foucault, de Certeau and Bataille, Mbembe locates the fetishization of power in the language of the body, turning "the postcolonial autocrat into an object of representation that feeds on applause, flattery and lies". The people are cowed, but they also "engage in baroque practices which are fundamentally ambiguous, mobile, and `revisable,' even in instances where there are clear, written, and precise rules." Mbembe's sense of the banality of power is that this masquerade leads nowhere except to the "violent quest for grandeur and prestige" which "makes vulgarity and wrongdoing its main mode of existence".

In his reply to his critics takes up the issue of shared knowledges, and how "dominant and dominated share in the same episteme". The common stock of narratives and counter-narratives may derive from the colonial library, but they are made active by "practices of `disorder' and indiscipline, desertion, disguise, duplication and `improvisation'". The large number of "documents" of culture (written materials, visual imagery, music, oral speech) are mute and are "made to speak" by us in terms of "a direct link between lived temporality and the narrative act". How we make them speak depends on how we see "power and servitude" operate "as expressive practices". But in what ways the narrative might "transform the general process of decomposition" in Africa, as Mudimbe questions in his critique is not addressed.

In her response to Mbembe, Judith Butler notes that the term fetish is the most problematic of all. "It may be that the state as fetish, derived from the Latin facera, is always a fake, a substitute, and that it will be the logic of the fetish, when it poses as origin, to undermine its own originating claims. It was, I think, the psychologist Maud Mannoni who claimed that the structure of fetishism was to claim, `I know, but still..': I know all the reasons not to desire what I desire, but I desire it nonetheless, or I know that what I desire is repellant, but I desire it nonetheless". Useful as this is, it is a classic colonialist and neo-colonialist reading of the term, skirting around Mbembe's own use.What if, as Mark Wigley has suggested, an alternative reading of fetish is not that of fake, but of a double meaning "slipping constantly between exemplifying the subordination of the surface and exemplifying its dominance"? In which case the "desire" which the fetish arouses is not for something else but for the slippage space between itself and its double.

The issue is worth exploring because the colonial library, which invented the term, is now sending it back, through African ventriloquists, to explain what is going on in Africa. Marx, Freud, Durkheim, Mauss and many others have taken the fetish as a substitute for reality, a token of something else. It easily slides into Baudrillard's simulacrum, the idea of a part of the body being taken for the whole, the inanimate object being taken for the living. And so on. Fetish therefore becomes a metaphor, like many others, to account for another reality. But fetish, though named as such by the Portuguese, is not a metaphor. It is the space within which the individual and nature are united: it is the space (a carving, a painting, a shrine) where the stories of hopes and despairs can co-exist. In his `Reprendre' Mudimbe, while talking of contemporary African Art, hits the metaphorical nail firmly with a fetishistic head:

[The] popular artists...want to transmit a clear message: they claim the virtue of sociological and historical truth; and they try to name and unveil even the unnamable and the taboo. Here technical flaws become marks of originality. The artist appears as the `undisciplinable' hero, challenging social institutions, including art practices, particularily academic ones. Yet this `deviant', who sometimes lacks both a tradition and its modern currents, incarnates clearly the locus of their confrontation. In popular art, the politics of mimesis insert in the `maternal' territory of the tradition a practice that questions both art and history in the name of the subject. This is work that aims to bring together art, the past, and the community's dreams for a better future.

The problem with the European use of Fetish is that it is seen to represent an other reality, which was a `source', an origin. Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke thought they had found a `source' and Richard Leakey and his family have established an anthropological industry in Kenya based on the `origins' of mankind. They are the classic colonial fetishists, and Gorillas in the Mist, Born Free,and Out of Africa are their contemporary momentoes. The gun is not a fetish, real as it may seem to be, but a metaphor for someone who has nothing else to do but blast someone-else's head off. The American Black who comes to view the Slave Castles at Cape Coast is looking for a visible metaphor to dull his own pain. The view of Pan-Africa as a political thing is surely that which was invented by Blacks of the Diaspora to create a homogeneous Promised Land. The important fetish is the travelling music of the Rasta Rudie who turns Ghana or Jamaica or Nigeria into the space of transcontinental hope. In this the common storytelling becomes part of the music and the music part of the personal image.

If this sense of fetish is valuable, then it operates in precisely the same way as Mami Wata, or Appiah's Many Mansions, or Otabil's Biblical text, or Ochieng's newspapers, or, indeed, Mudimbe's library. By living in the slippage between the dominance and the subordination of the surface a mutation is being created with new languages and new possibilities. It is important that Mbembe has opened up the territory and provided a new strategy for mapping the cultures, but it must be read closely with the other cartographies or else the old metaphors will continue to dominate and prevent the fetish from decolonizing itself.

Ioan Davies
Social and Political Thought,
York University, Toronto

The work of which this is an instalment was made possible in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. At least as important was his collegial work with Mwikali Kieti and Ato Sekyi-Otu without whom none of the contacts, readings, travellings on which this piece is based would have been conceivable. Various colleagues and students added to the fun of being co-explorers into the decolonizing of the fetish. The exploration continues.
Published in:
Jameson, Fredric and M Myoshi (eds), The Cultures of Globalization. Durham, N.c.: Duke U.P., 1998

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Professor of Sociology and Social and Political Thought,
York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York (Toronto), Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3