The second edition of the “Ateliers de la pensée” will be held in Dakar from 1 to 4 November 2017. These Workshops were launched in 2016 by Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist and writer, and Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian historian based in Johannesburg, and have opened a space for debates to take stock of current thinking in Africa. Felwine Sarr explains how the second edition of the Workshops will renew the experience in form and content.
What were the impacts of the first edition in 2016?
There has been a real interest among various publics for the Thinking Workshops: young people, intellectuals and artists, the Afrodiaspora community, and all those who were somewhat lacking spaces of debate and vitality on issues which concern us all. We saw that there was a great deal of enthusiasm about the idea of gathering people from diverse backgrounds in Africa, who share a common concern for the African continent. This idea of creating a real intellectual and artistic scene struck a chord, undoubtedly because it echoed a demand.
The reaction to the Thinking Workshops stems from this underlying desire to see the issue of our future taken in hand locally, to know where we want to go and what form of living together to promote. The terms of this debate are no longer only expected from outside, they need to be defined in Africa, otherwise we will be merely consumers of thinking about us produced elsewhere.
“Planetary condition and life policy”: why did you choose this theme for the Thinking Workshops 2017?
We start with the observation that all local issues today have planetary dimensions, whether they concern economics, migrations or ecology. Yet they are always considered from a place or region, without us making the effort to question this way of addressing them.
Life policies concern the space and relations established between mankind, matter, and the environment which hosts us, especially bearing in mind that we are not the only ones on Earth. It involves encompassing nature, the elements we live with, and making the living central to reflection, at a time when human activity has a significant impact on our biotope.
What sub-themes will be addressed and who will be the guests of the Thinking Workshops 2017?
Over twenty thematic areas will structure the debates such as decoloniality and the circulation of knowledge, contemporary religious figures, urban forms, the need to rethink democracy in the light of ante-colonial political models, digital Africa, the cultures of renewal, the status of borders and the continent in the global geopolitical order.
Special attention will also be given to contemporary creation and the “Afrodiaspora novel of the future”. Photographers, playwrights and exhibition commissioners will come to generate discussion. For example, participants will include the Cameroonian filmmaker based in Berlin, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, the exhibition commissioners Simon Njami, Marie-Ann Yemsi, Lionel Manga and Koyo Kouoh, the playwright from Burkina Faso, Etienne Minoungou, founder of the Récréâtrales festival in Ouagadougou, and the Belgian-Congolese photographer Léonard Pongo.
Participants from English-speaking Africa will include Ntone Edjabe, the Cameroonian founder of the pan-African review Chimurenga, based in South Africa, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a Zimbabwean historian at the University of South Africa (Unisa) in Pretoria, and the Rwandan political scientist Olivia Rutazibwa, from the University of Portsmouth (UK), who works on the need to rethink international relationships and relations, particularly forms of solidarity.
You propose a perspective which focuses neither on the subject, nor on the quest for the truth, and giving place to the excluded third. Can you explain this to us?
The idea is to rethink the humanities by working on holistic humanities, which would include all the cognitive, cultural and scientific heritage of humanity, and not only the debate as posed by Ancient Greece and Rome.
The notion of excluded third expresses the idea that he who produces knowledge is separate from the object of his knowledge. The exact sciences have made nature an object, with a reality that is punctuated, fragmented, dissected and classified into tiny portions in order to understand it. This approach helped them make progress.
But for human and social sciences, it is more difficult: social reality has such a depth that we cannot objectify it as we do in biology or physics. It is a question of reincluding the third, considering that the subject itself contributes to the reality that it wants to understand, that it is not outside this reality, and that its position itself will determine its observation and what it can know.
In diplomatic terms, are you talking here about decolonizing Western or still very Eurocentric knowledge?
The word “decolonial” is interesting, as it is appropriate. It carries this idea of removing obstacles. Coloniality should be removed from knowledge, by questioning the Eurocentric aspect of anthropology and ethnology, for example. Especially, by extending the scope of knowledge and giving epistemologies from other geographical areas the place they deserve.
I think that this proposal is necessary, but insufficient. We need to deepen our perspective and go further than the “decolonial” dimension, which may keep us in an antagonism of binary schemes. We can look at other forms of thinking. For example, it is a question of exploring the non-discursive forms of knowledge, such as artistic practices (cinema, photography, dance, painting, installations, etc.), which are sensitive ways of interpreting reality and which offer us knowledge of it. The fact that they are subjective does, of course, pose methodological problems, but this should not stop us from taking them into account.
Is the decolonization of perceptions of Africa not slow in coming in the French-speaking zone?
Yes, resistance is being seen and old reflexes die hard in the former colonial power. However, in its academic spheres, progress is being made on these issues, even if there is still a long way to go.
The process is inevitable: it will take place in the temporality of a society experiencing an identity crisis, which is struggling to find its place in the world. Politique de l’inimitié (La Découverte, Paris, 2016) by Achille Mbembe clearly shows this, as does the controversy surrounding the Histoire mondiale de la France (Seuil, Paris, 2017), collective work directed by Patrick Boucheron. A reactionary group rejects this globality of the history of France highlighted by this book. These historians would have liked only a Franco-French history to be recounted.
Is your desire to anchor reflection on the continent opposed to the universalism upheld by the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne?
No, not at all. Asserting the fact of being from somewhere does not mean that you want to exclude the others or situate yourself outside universality. This debate is ill-defined, hence my latest essay, Habiter le monde (Mémoires d’encrier, Montreal, 2017), in which I call for us to extend the sense of national or continental belonging.
Furthermore, the third edition of the Thinking Workshops will invite more thinkers and artists from Asia and Latin America, from Indian and European worlds, in order to become a platform where we look at the world that needs to be built from different perspectives.
What do you expect from this second edition of the Thinking Workshops?
The Thinking Workshops must firmly establish an open space for debate in Africa, which will allow us to take stock of each other’s research, as well as of the ongoing dynamics and the world we need to build together. Our objective is to circulate thinkers on issues which need to be addressed in both a sensitive and intellectual manner.
For example, what are the purposes of the economy? Is it the well-being of the greatest possible number of people? Or maybe the value of work, or even of time? How to consider demography, the number, circulation in the context of an ageing world? These are all questions which are subject to debate and call for answers.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.