Les Ateliers de la pensée: « The emancipation of Africa requires new ideas

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For their second edition, organised from Wednesday 1 November to Saturday 4 November in Dakar, Senegal, the Ateliers de la pensée are expanding considerably. This event, conceived by Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr, will bring together around fifty philosophers, historians, economists, literature professors, etc., as well as writers, filmmakers, photographers, exhibition curators and personalities from the media and religious world, on the theme of « The Global Condition and Politics of Life ».

All of them will present their reflections to the general public during two Nuits de la pensée, on Thursday and Saturday. Cultural events (plays, exhibitions, workshops, etc.) are also proposed with the stated ambition of asserting that the renewal of critical thought requires imagination.

What are the challenges of this second edition?

Achille Mbembe It is a question of consolidating the foundations laid last year, with regard to questions such as the radical decolonisation of knowledge, a broader conception of the idea of the universal, the curative and restorative function of thought and writing, and the rehabilitation of the principle of heterogeneity and multiplicity, so deeply embedded in the very structure of our history. In short, it is a question of dismissing for good the idea that Africa is a world apart.

This simultaneous project of critical recovery of our own historicity and affirmative habitation of the world is the guiding thread of this second edition. At a time when our world is searching for itself more than ever – and the question of the earthly condition is once again being posed with acuity – it is a question of drawing on our archives and those of the Whole World to articulate a statement whose scope is global. It is also a question of doing so in such a way that no one can claim not to have heard anything.

For the rest, we obviously intend to reaffirm the need to think as a decisive element of Africa’s aspiration to become its own centre once again.

Felwine Sarr It is also a question of anchoring an Afrodiasporic intellectual scene that has the ambition to take charge of global issues from the continent. The idea of this edition is also to broaden the reflection to plastic thought, to artistic forms of production of meaning and to broaden the themes addressed, particularly those that deal with global issues that we share: the community of the living, circulation, well-being, the organisation of politics, the politics of care and conviviality, etc.

What links the fifty or so participants with very different profiles who have come to enrich this new edition?

A.M. Concern for the world and concern for Africa, its contemporary situation, its future and the future of its descendants in the world. This concern for Africa, once again, is inseparable from the general concern for the planet and all its inhabitants. Such concern can only be expressed in a polyphonic way. It calls for the manifestation of several kinds of intelligence. We have therefore endeavoured to make room for each of them. Moreover, the arts, plastic writing and the disciplines of the imagination constitute one of the privileged means by which critical thinking is expressed in Africa.

F. S. They are also linked by the desire for an intelligible grasp of reality as it is being made. Trying to understand it in order to better deploy our presence in the world in its most luminous forms. What distinguishes these speakers will also make the exchange rich and allow us to weave our perspectives with several threads. The fabric will be all the stronger for it.

One third of the speakers are women. What can be done to ensure that they are more heard and present in the world of ideas?

A.M. In the field of French-speaking Afrodiasporic criticism, some of the most innovative and radical voices today are those of our female thinkers, writers, curators, photographers, dancers, composers, filmmakers and playwrights. This new reality will eventually impose itself. As far as we are concerned, the number of women this year is much higher than last year. The vitality of our debates depends on it.

F.S. We have made a significant effort to identify women who are bearers of innovative intellectual discourse and fruitful artistic creation and we have invited a good number of them. We will continue this work. However, it should be noted that they are generally under-represented in our academic and artistic creation spaces. There is structural work to be done and territories to be gained.

The Ateliers are becoming a festival of ideas with a cultural programme. Is this a way of reviving the great pan-African cultural events of the 1960s that nourished African imaginations?

A.M.: It is indeed a great festival, in the old African tradition of a celebration whose aim is both to remember and to map out paths for the future. The idea is to celebrate ideas. To make them visible. To publicly value this function that many forces seek to belittle. But above all it is about equipping ourselves and the younger generation for the battles ahead.

We can hardly face the challenges we face, and with us the world we share with others, without new ideas. It is a question of forging a powerful movement of ideas capable of influencing the transformations that we can no longer postpone, of changing our imagination and opening the way to new social practices. The emancipation of Africa in contemporary conditions requires the production of new ideas, in a gesture that restores a relative autonomy to ideas. The reality is that the indefinite repetition of old ideas has cost us dearly.

F.S. The major pan-African events mentioned were also intended to claim a more important and better-recognised place for Africa in the world cultural space. The Ateliers, more than a claim, wish to contribute to the creation of new intelligibilities and to be a laboratory for a critical and fertile grasp of our time and its challenges. It is a force for contribution.

The 2017 edition opens up to the Caribbean world with the presence of Rodney Saint-Eloi and to thinkers from the north of the continent. Does the Africa of ideas abolish borders?

A.M.: This is precisely one of the functions that ideas fulfil, namely to push back the frontiers of ignorance; to make physical frontiers places of encounter to be crossed, on paths whose destination no one can predict in advance.

But it is also a question, specifically, of reopening the chapter of dialogue between Africa and its doubles. This is the case of the Caribbean. In the Anglo-Saxon world, this dialogue exists. In the French-speaking world, it collapsed after the great period of Césaire, Fanon, Conde, Glissant, Depestre, etc. A global consciousness has been replaced by an insular consciousness, sometimes based on shame of origins and contempt for the continent. There is something of the French tropism that has led to the divorce between Africa and the West Indies, to the misfortune of both. It is time to put an end to it.

F.S. Not only does it abolish the borders on that side of the sea, but it also plans to open them to the Asian, Latin American and Indo-European worlds in future editions. In order to offer a grasp of the world through the plurality of its archives. The depletion of one of its archives, which has been preponderant in recent centuries, requires a renewal of the sources of meaning and new sources of inspiration in order to face up to present and future challenges.

You have decided on a general theme: « The global condition and politics of life ». Why this choice?

A.M.: Because this is the major challenge at the beginning of this century. Our world is constantly shrinking. We are discovering its limits every day. No matter how many borders we erect, how much we try to return to the illusions of the nation-state and closed communities, how much we try to chase away all foreigners and live only among ourselves, the planetarisation of our world is irreversible. And with it the awareness that it belongs to all of us, that we are all entitled to it, humanity and the other living and organic species. To ensure its sustainability and, above all, to make it habitable for all, we will have to share it. And, above all, to take care of it collectively in a gesture of surpassing ourselves that puts us back in the school of all. This year, we wanted to look at this issue of the en-commun and its philosophical, political, economic, ecological and aesthetic expectations.

F.S. Reflection on the living or on the existing also concerns the space of relations that exists between humans and the living in all its forms. It is a question of re-examining the conditions of possibility for the production of quality relationships between these different components of our ecosystem, whose interdependence is structural. A decentring of Man and a quest for a fairer place is a path that we cannot ignore for long.

African novelists and philosophers such as Gaston-Paul Effa, Véronique Tadjo, Kossi Efoui… invite us to rethink our relationship with nature and to redefine animism. Is this a way of founding a new ecological approach?

A.M. Many people elsewhere seem to be rediscovering what we have never lost sight of, namely the community of destiny that unites all living things. They would like to turn their backs on a relatively long and destructive historical phase during which white man in particular believed he had to dominate the rest of the universe in the name of a devastating fantasy, that of his supposed uniqueness. This is undoubtedly to be welcomed. However, we must also measure what this return to measurement implies in terms of the real relinquishment of power. Or in terms of the real sharing of capacities and therefore of resources and sources of life.