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AfricaColonial Modernities

There are two important issues in the development of colonial modernities: the interpretation of manifestations of modernity in the process of imperial expansion, on the one hand, and the place assigned to indigenous people in the colonial enterprise, on the other. Regarding the former, authors such as C. L. R. James focus on the modernity of slavery in the Atlantic economies at the beginning of the modern period; similarly, others suggest that the Indian peasant is not an anachronism in a modernized colonial world but a veritable contemporary of colonialism, an indispensable member of modernity. The complicity between colonial history and modernity is precisely the cause of the circumstances underlying the statement, "The same historical process that has taught us the value of modernity has also made us the victims of modernity" (Chatterjee, pp. 8–9). This strong correlation has its origin in numerous attempts to reinterpret the manifestations of modernity from indigenous impressions of it, by trying to jettison certain of these signs while recognizing the revisionist efforts to which it is heavily subjected in non-Western societies. Such a perspective is notably more apparent in studies on India and China than in those on Africa. One observes in the former an abundance of qualifications that result from opposing the idea of modernity as a strictly European development and affirming it as a multivalent phenomenon. Partha Chatterjee provides the best insight on this point in his definition of an Indian (or rather, Bengali) modernity as "our modernity."

The many authors who have joined this debate after Chatterjee emphasize the ways in which non-Western societies remake modernity in their own images, revising rationality and capitalism by transforming general formulas and formulations in terms of their own interests, ideals, and enterprises—political, economic, and social. It is essential to recognize that in the case of Africa, the debate is less intense today than it has been. It does not necessarily take the same theoretical and epistemological approaches that color the writings in the social sciences on India and China, to give just two examples. It has always been presented as a double figure, each of which takes various forms, the pair tradition/modernity and the demands, expectations, and aspirations of development through the economic and social compensation by modern, industrial Europe. This figure, which does not always reflect democratic structures, secularism, or equality between the sexes, among other things, is part of a series of attempts to transform African societies by "modernizing bureaucrats" in the final phase of colonial domination. In Africa and among blacks in general, as has already been mentioned, writers and cultural critics—more than historians and social scientists—have drawn connections between Africa and Europe, whether in terms of conflict (Aimé Césaire, Camara Laye, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane) or a fruitful dialogue (Léopold Sédar Senghor and Ousmane Socé Diop). Only one author, Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese philosopher, taking a brutal, ironic approach, reverses this problematic double. He has made a name for himself as a radical dissident and has struggled to rethink and revise the genealogy of modernity to counter the notion of it as a strictly European development. On the contrary, he asserts, Europe has evolved under the aegis of Africa; it became rational by following the example and teachings of Africa, the mother of civilizations and the originator of modernity, which emerged along the banks of the Nile during the time of the Egyptian pharaohs.

This revision of the history of human rationality erases the boundary between traditional African societies and modern European societies. At the least, the idea of extreme difference between the two is interpreted as an ideological strategy for establishing the mission of civilizing native populations and the enterprises of colonization. By reintroducing Africa as a participant in the development of rationality and modernity, Cheikh Anta Diop reconfirms Africa as producer and consumer of modernity. Not many other African authors share his view, although it has been embraced by partisans of Afrocentrism, especially in the United States. On the contrary, at the heart of the debates, which intensified during the years of nationalism—after World War II to the 1970s—in the era of globalization, the crucial question is how to interpret the complex and paradoxical relationship between culture and modernization. At issue are the conflict-ridden associations between modernity and colonial cultures and violence, and the cultural and psychological renaissance that accompanied the founding of postcolonial nations and states. Two historians, J. F. A. Ajayi and Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo, have responded to this in the same way. Ajayi suggests that the colonial enterprise failed in its desire to erase the African past, having never succeeded in changing the path of African history or the strength and prevalence of African initiative. Ki-Zerbo warns against the assimilation and appropriation of the history and culture of others, which cannot provide any guarantee of success in terms of development and modernization. Among the novelists, Kane emphasizes the ambiguity of the venture. The Grande Royale, who argues for the education of the young people of the kingdom of Diallobés against his brother, the king and religious leader of the community, gives two reasons: to understand why the colonizers, even though they were in the wrong, were able to defeat them; and to enable his people to gain technological expertise. His reading considers that neither morals nor the values of authenticity can save one from domination. The experience at school and university of Samba Diallo, the book's main characater, and his delving into the Koran and texts by the philosophers of the Enlightenment do not open any doors to him other than those of solitude and death, which sanctions failure, and of assimilation and hybridization. Kane is even more explicit in his theoretical texts.

In contrast, Socé Diop, in his novel Karim (1935), relates with gusto the metamorphoses of the main character, Karim, who assumes multiple identities, including an accountant trained at a French school, a Senegalese Muslim from Saint-Louis (the oldest French colonial settlement in Africa) educated in the traditions of Islam and the values of the Wolof aristocracy, a dancer and charmer cognizant of urban opportunities and colonial chances. For each identity, Diop gives Karim a corresponding clothing style, dance steps, a manner of being and acting that are superimposed with close attention to French, African, and Islamic teachings and practices on issues of aesthetics and rhythm, dress, love, and sex. Karim represents the celebration of a hybrid form of being, rejecting the draconian choice that would have lethal consequences for the "ambiguous adventure." The approach taken by Socé Diop is shared by "the translators of colonial modernity" analyzed by Simon Gikandi.

Gikandi describes superbly the dilemma of constructing an indigenous culture that embraces the colonial political economy both internally and externally, and examines the production of colonial modernity through a never-ending negotiation between the desire to maintain the integrity and autonomy of colonized societies and the willingness to face up to the European presence and its political economy (pp. 23–41). Taking as an example the kingdom of Buganda (today the nation of Uganda), he shows how the elite adopts Christianity as a key element in developing a certain modernity, regarded as one way of participating in the colonial culture. Similar characteristics detected and analyzed by Gikandi, beginning with the account of the voyage of Ham Mukasa (Uganda's Katikiro in England) are found in the ethnographic and religious writings of David Boilat and in the militant intervention of Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, leader of Senegal's Casamance independence movement, who used the colonial culture to "develop"—in the photographic sense—indigenous moral values and religious beliefs. Through these different figures, people involved in such causes became interested in reorienting the ways of expressing and of satisfying the desires generated by colonial modernity toward indigenous ends. They tried in various ways to alter the very nature of the "colonial canon" by infusing it with their voices, passions, and anxieties, so that it would present them not as objects of European intervention but as the subjects of their own cultural destiny (Gikandi, in Mukasa's Uganda's Katikiro, p. 21).

This way of thinking led to the perception of the dual nature of tradition and the realities it conceals, involving both a constant reinvention of the colonial canon and an ever-shifting horizon due to the ceaseless work of translation, appropriation, and selection. By means of this work, the colonial experience is turned into an indigenous opportunity. The only question that troubles the carriers or translators of modernity is that of defining the colonial culture of modernity (including Christianity) in isolation from the "enlightenment" of the Christian message and colonial modernity, from the repressive, controlling mechanism of political power, and from its very authoritarian economic and cultural manifestations.

To understand the African debate on modernity is, in large measure, to identify the different ways in which the "package" (the concept and the different constructions that it has given rise to) and the numerous realities that it conceals have circulated in Africa, in various historical circumstances. The latter have been shaped by methods of appropriation, forms of opposition, and resistance, but perhaps still more fundamentally by demands and expectations regarding what is understood or proposed by the term. It still has to be made clear, as James Ferguson has suggested, that this modernity has a concrete meaning, reflecting subdivisions, pensions, and family allowances. The African modernity that he analyzes was a preoccupation for certain groups in colonial and postcolonial African societies: political leaders, union leaders, students, specialists as well as workers in economic development. Modernity thus became synonymous with development and material progress.

This reading of the term modernity subscribes to the colonial objective of impeding Africa's modernity; especially after World War I, restrictions imposed by colonial authorities led to the politics of retribalization, assimilation, and the containment of the "carriers of modernity." The colonialists tried to hold them back by claiming all the fruits—material, cultural, spiritual, economic, and political. On this question, the case of the Tsawana people, studied by Jean and John Comaroff, demonstrates the perpetual production of a modernity that is a constant source of tensions between, on the one hand, the adoption of the material elements of colonial culture (clothing, architectural styles, sanitation) and, on the other hand, their consequences under the appearance of new forms of individuation that progressively threaten the customs of the community, especially spiritual and therapeutic traditions. According to the Comaroffs, it is precisely the shock between missionary will and the processes of resistance, selection, and alteration that the Tsawana people go through, successively or simultaneously, that has created modernity. It derives in some way from what the West and the colonial enterprise call modern, the first manifestation of which was the mission to civilize the native peoples, and the last of which was modernization. These have linked the colonial enterprise and the nationalist struggle and its pursuit of development and achieving parity with Western economies. The emblems of the colonial enterprise are roads, commerce, and sanitation; the nationalist emblems are schools, community clinics, and electricity.

Among the best available analyses of colonial modernity are the groundbreaking studies by two experts on the French colonial empire, Louis-Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934) and Joseph-Simon Gallieni (1849–1916), the former on Morocco and Indochina, the latter on the Sudan and Madagascar. According to Paul Rabinow, the oscillation between the extremes of colonial modernization and continuing poverty within a framework of authenticity is not an exclusive characteristic of the autochthonous elite of African colonial societies. Gallieni, for example, established a definitive correspondence between pacification and modernity. In contrast to Lyautey's cultural relativism, he was a universalist. He did not by any means imagine that one might regard the lack of sanitation and the nondistinction among domestic space, work space, and livestock pen as anything other than signs of a lack of civilization. For him, "the sign of civilization was a busy road; the sign of modernity was hygiene" (Rabinow, pp. 149–150). Here, the meaning of modernity is, by colonial logic, constructed around elements such as security, communications lines, agriculture, commerce, and population growth.

It is difficult to determine where this chaotic journey will end. The paths and detours that it has taken reflect the great difficulty involved in making sense of a concept that is so prevalent in everyday conversations and in philosophical, political, moral, aesthetic, and cultural analyses, and increasingly in the economic realm as well. The questions regarding the genealogy of the concept of modernity and its different forms, from its initial appearance to its commonplace deployment and the subsequent debates about it, have provoked numerous examinations of its heuristic value, its effects in terms of status in the narrative and scientific fields, its limits, possibility of application, and the different manipulations that it offers to those who lay claim to it, adapt it, or reject it. As much as the imaginations it recaptures, the historical traces it carries, the uses and abuses it has undergone, the possible or probable futures that one accords it partake of different modes of reference. And it is precisely for that reason that no one challenges it for having lost, during this journey, its capacities for setting in order or disorder realities, as much descriptive as figurative. For others, despite its epistemological and narrative weaknesses, reflecting a quasi-impossibility of relating other histories and conveying other circumstances, modernity is simultaneously a horizon line, a point of anchorage, a mode of being, and a means of constructing a geography of people, of cultures, of aesthetic forms. It is probably this plasticity that makes it what it is, always different, always debated, as expected, plural and unstable, between, on the one hand, European modernity and its desire to remake the world in its image or according to its dictates, and, on the other hand, the never-ending processes of rewriting, reinterpreting, and/or retreating from other societies.


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Mamadou Diouf

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Methane to Molecular clockModernity - Africa - Signs Of Modernity, Colonial Modernities, Bibliography