Africa as Anti-Empire of Signs

by zunguzungu

I’ve been thinking about how I would construct a course like Tim Burke’s Image of Africa; if I were to do so, I suspect it would look a lot like his, though perhaps organized by some kind of historical chronology instead of structuralist categories. But I’m not sure I want to. Here’s why.

It’s not that hard to construct an “empire of signs” for a place like Japan, since signifiers like “haiku,” “samurai,” or “sushi” are, if not reducible to it, fundamentally linked to a single and more or less stable cultural referent, the sense of a place called “Japan” and the people who live there as “Japanese.” “Japan” is implied when those words are used, and neither concept can have meaning without it. The same is more or less true for mental spaces like China, Arabia, or India; concepts like the Great Wall, the harem, and caste are each one of the many similar terms that firmly identify and anchor a particular structure of Orientalist thinking, a particular sense of the cultural singularity of a particular people and place. However geographically hazy and ethnographically obtuse they might be — and they might very of both — these are all politically powerful terms, socially significant, and real in a very concrete and lived sense.

Yet to construct a similar list for “Africa” — which is no less meaningful as a geographical referent — one faces a very different and prohibitively more difficult task. There are no end of stereotypic clichés that could be used to describe Africa and Africans, but almost none of them are the exclusive monopoly of that continent or its people, referring to it and only to it. Lions or elephants are found elsewhere, “natives” and “jungle” are found on every part of the equatorial tropics that Europe has colonized, and witch doctors, slavery, nakedness, or cannibalism are close relatives to analogous concepts in other racialist/cuturalist lexicons. At the same time, the signs which cannot be removed from their African contexts take us farther and farther away from the most generalized and abstract concept of “Africa” itself. Apartheid, for example, references not Africa but South Africa. Uhuru is Kenyan, Ujamaa is Tanzanian, and juju is west African, while Egypt, the Maghreb, and the Sahara are often not considered “African” at all. “Safari” is in some ways a special case — which is why I’m writing a dissertation about it — but it also proves the point: it’s an originally Swahili word, linked to East Africa, and hard to extricate from that context; can one take a safari in Ghana or Nigeria? I’m not sure the concept is elastic enough to allow you to do so. In other words, all the great “Images of Africa” live in an uncanny valley between images too specific for the continent and images too general for it.

I’m not trying to establish an iron clad rule here; you could quibble with the distinction I’m drawing, and I’d love it if you did, since I’m curious if it holds up. But what I’m actually trying to do here is the opposite of drawing a categorical distinction between “Africa” and the various Orientalist notions of place I’ve mentioned; my point is the reverse, that they are signs that signify by a fundamentally different logic.

After all, you can make an empire of signs where empires have done the work of making people signify, places like the parts of Asia I’ve mentioned. Japan, China, India, and Arabia are each Orientalist categories within basically imperial frames of reference: “China” or “Japan,” come into existence because a long succession of Chinese and Japanese empires built on top of each others’ ruins as part of a common and very long term project of transforming the people living there into what we now naturalize as the people of Japan, the people of China, etc. “Arabia” and “India” are more recent creations, but just as thoroughly imperial in their genealogy: without the structure of governance the British Empire built on top of the Marathas, who built on top of the Mughals, who built on top of the Delhi Sultanate (and so forth; it’s turtles all the way down), “India” does not exist. Peasants have to be made into Frenchman, you know? And Arabia, too, is unthinkable without a sense of that region’s political history, without the long and complicated stories of how empires and polities tried to convince and force and transform people into identifying themselves a particular way.

I’m thinking this way because I’m trying to expand the scope of my thinking beyond the area studies paradigm of my original training. To think about “Africa,” it really helps to know more than just Africa itself. I’ve learned a lot lately from listening to Vinay Lal’s various lectures on Indian history at UCLA (here, for example) and his use of the term “Empire of Signs” is the one I called upon at the beginning of the post (which is not exactly the same as Barthes’, I think). I’ve been reading Frederick Cooper’s and Jane Burbank‘s, Empires in World History, a book that changes everything. And the World Cup in Africa, too, gives us new opportunities to think these problems. As Sean Jacobs’ evocatively titled blog reminds us, Africa is a country and also it isn’t at all: holding Africa’s World Cup in South Africa is not at all the same as holding it in Nigeria, and yet no one would ever call a World Cup in Japan “Asia‘s World Cup.” Finally, I study East Africa, the most Asian part of Africa, the region that was, as an imperial structure, historically far more effectively integrated into the Indian ocean than it ever was to the African landmass, and which continues to exist as a region only because of Swahili penetration of the interior provided an infrastructure on which later imperial political structures could be built.

This larger perspective forces us to rethink in some fundamental ways how we think about “Africa” and its images. By contrast with empires in Asia, the imperial incorporation of Africa by Europe was historically brief, incredibly shallow, and politically superficial. And Africans were, for millennia , much better at the art of not being governed than in building imperial structures of political continuity; James Scott would tell you that this was for the better, while centuries of imperialist and neo-imperialist historiography would see this as Africa’s curse, the problem of the “uncaptured peasant.” We don’t want to idealize this state of affairs, either; the slave trade was not an empire (though some regional empires were built out of it), but the political chaos it produced is not necessarily better than an empire. Nor can you make any generalizations about what Africa’s historical resistance to empire produced, precisely because it produced an ungeneralizable variety of outcomes.

My point, then, is simply this: while “Japan,” “China,” “India,” and “Arabia”[1] are each constituted by imperial incorporation, and as such, can be usefully regarded as a place where an “Image of…” cultural infrastructure still exists to define a particular sense of what a Japanese/Chinese/Indian/Arab person is, no such political force has ever so united Africa; or, to the limited extent that it did, it was a structure of exclusion. Instead of defining what a Hindu or a Muslim was (as the British in India did via pigs and cows), Africans have historically been defined by what they were not. An African was not rational, scientific, modern, repressed, clean, clothed, not a farmer, not a capitalist, not a scientist, not an adult, not a not a not a not not not not.

In other words, the specific content of “African” is, simply, not European, a principle of resistance to [European] empire. Yet how do you make an image of that? How do you take a picture of “Not a European”?

(the short answer)


[1] Or “The Arab World” as we call Obama’s free-fire zone, our “empire of drones”; can you name the five predominantly Muslim counties in which, right now, we’re bombing whoever we want whenever we want?