The articles in this special section highlight the need to adopt “an African-focused perspective” to understand African experiences of mobility.1 The impetus for an African-focused perspective that places African experiences at the center has a very long arduous history. It has been narrated in literature straddling themes and perspectives in diverse areas such as sociology, literature, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and African philosophy. For African scholars who use an interdisciplinary approach, this impetus presents an exciting opportunity to address how we can give voice and articulateness to African subjectivities that have been rendered voiceless and invisible due to the overbearing weight of Western imperial/colonial dominance.
Dipesh Chakrabarty’s concept of “historicism” demonstrates how it was ever possible for African voices to be muted or drowned by Western domination. Historicism takes historical time as linear, unidirectional, and teleological. Historicism’s temporal structure conceives political modernity as “first in the West, and then elsewhere.”2 Colonization was a moment when traditions, genealogies, and conceptual categories that “bear the burden of European thought and history” incorporated the colonized into historical time,3 thus making European standards the default universal and normative standpoints according to which everything else must be judged. James Blaut’s term, “European diffusionism,” describes the view of Europe as the center that “eternally advances, progresses, modernizes” while the rest of the world, which is “traditional society,” follows behind “more sluggishly, or stagnates.”4
Historicism was given new philosophical nuances in the nineteenth century. John Stuart Mill argued that “rude nations” or “barbarians” were inherently unfit for representative government; thus he saw despotism as the legitimate form of government.5 Historicism also rode on the wave of a Hegelian dialectics, whereby progress is a teleological and stagist process by which contradictions are resolved. “Progress,” “knowledge,” and “development” that emerge from the dialectical process mark the triumph of reason. Hegel juxtaposed civilized nations against barbarians, thus creating a hierarchy that rests on anthropological, social and political structures and institutions. In this hierarchy, civilized nations were justified “in regarding and treating as barbarians those who lagged behind them in institutions which are essential moments of the state.”6 Hegel’s view that progress toward the institutionalization of the modern state is the instantiation of human freedom explains the widely shared perception and representation of natives’ temporal lag that needed to be expedited through colonialism. Political modernity was a historical moment to which “Europe” or “the West” had “arrived earlier than others.”7 The colonial crucible, however, was programmatic such that the natives, being “not yet” mature to meet the standards of political modernity and in need of transformation, needed to be eliminated or segregated by consigning them to the “imaginary waiting room of history.”8
The ideologies of modernization and development that came in the wake of colonial modernity were underwritten by the notion of civilization, which Marshall Sahlins describes as the apex of “a progressive series of evolutionary stages” as a people makes transitions from savagery.9 Harrison Esam Awuh’s article demonstrates how contemporary African postcolonial states have taken up the modernizing and developmental agenda through forcible sedenterization of its citizens. The agenda, which aims to achieve conservation, also intensifies a people’s incorporation into capitalist society. The shortcomings of the modernization and developmental paradigms are that they curtail “itineraries of knowledge” about indigenous medicines and also create a host of other social, environmental, and health problems. Awuh’s essay can be read as a sharp ridicule of postcolonial rhetoric of modernization and development that seeks to mobilize citizens along the path of civilization while immobilizing them by curtailing efficient transmission of traditional medicinal knowledge.
The (mis)representation of Africans as stagnant and failing to move in historical time still persists in the ways globalization has been theorized. Globalization has been described as a process to make the world “flat,”10 a process that evens out cultural, political, and spatiotemporal differences. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call the new global reconfiguration “Empire,” a logic of rule premised on a new form of sovereignty exercised through global capital with universally homogenizing tendencies that seek to eradicate cultural and historical difference.11 The implication of dismissing spatiality and temporality as insignificant categories of human experience is the trivialization of the contingency of history and culture, thus rendering experiences of mobility not only as ahistorical, antihistorical, and unhistorical, but also as happening in a cultural vacuum.
Dominant discourses of globalization emphasize intensification of “spaces of flows” between physically disjointed positions held together by social actors in economic, political, and symbolic structures of society.12 Such an emphasis accords high currency to homogeneity while simultaneously playing down the multiplicity and heterogeneity of experiences in the distinct spatial and temporal zones of the globe. Yet the predilection for flows as “the expression of processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life” obfuscates their complexities.13 Alessandro Jedlowski’s article demonstrates that experiences of global migration and mobility are implicated in cultural clashes, frustrations, precariousness, uncertainties, and vulnerability. Global “flows” are not always smooth as ordinarily suggested. They can be stalled as the “extended case study” highlights. The planned migration from Italy to Nigeria turns into frustration and becomes an emotionally charged aff air when the relationship between Larry and Venus collapses amid a family dispute fueled by cultural expectations and glitches in the bureaucratic processing of travel documents for the return of Larry and the clearance of the cargo in the container. Like the container, which assumes an ambiguous position and new “metaphor of menace” upon its arrival in a Nigerian port, the global flows from Western cities can also turn mobilities into immobilities—a dimension often missed in dominant discourses of mobilities. Mobilities can be planned, idealized, and realized but the global flows that make them possible are not as smooth and easy as some of the discourses of globalization portray.
The position that mobilities are often failed, unrealised, and unachievable points to mobility’s underside: immobility. Awuh provides a broader view when he argues that immobility is an analytical category “embedded within political constellations” and that it “does not necessarily imply a complete lack and/or absence of movement” but “refers to a state in which transfers and movements of people and goods, knowledge and practices are restricted or curtailed.”14 The theme of immobility as a theoretical innovation intervenes in the debates over globalization, especially how they seem to have uncritically accepted the view that “mobility is everything”—a view that fails both “to realise relations and differences between movements” and acknowledge “the inherent changeability and erratic nature of our mobile world.”15 As Awuh’s and Jedlowski’s case studies testify, movements of people, material goods, and ideas are always conditioned by geographic, cultural, and historical contexts. We need to go beyond generalization to understand im/mobility experiences in their specificities. Thus the theme of immobility cuts against the grain of the dominant discourses of globalization and the mobility paradigms they support.
Dominant narratives of globalization that follow the logic of homogenization through whitewashing cultural and historical difference uncritically focus on technology transfer and how it has shaped mobility in Africa. This tangent, despite its importance, has skewed mobility discourses by emphasizing the “taken-for-granted assumptions about technology transfer, according to which most technology travels from the Global North to Global South.”16 One effect of this is the attenuation of the discourses of mobility, especially mobility experiences of the Global South.
A swift and uncritical embrace of globalization’s homogenizing effects misses the opportunity to interrogate how Africa and Africans, both on the continent and abroad, have unique stories that form a rich tapestry of diverse, concrete, and intellectually stimulating experiences that do not (or perhaps refuse to) fit into the Western rubric. One of the challenges facing scholars of African studies is to foreground the limitations of Western thought that privileges its template as the epitome of knowledge and reality that the rest of the world should follow or fit into. This challenge requires theoretical intervention to formulate discourses to confront and unmask the Western paradigm and its claims to normativity and universality.
The articles in this special section undertake that challenge by highlighting the specificities of African experiences of mobility and showing how they offer new insights to the wider discourses of mobility. Interestingly, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga’s essay seeks “to clear analytical space for the investigation of the mobilities of the mobility-centered African understandings of tsetse into Western science and colonial stratagems against the insect.”17 This task allows the emergence of new, nuanced African-centered conceptions of mobility whose trajectories go beyond Western-centric models. The metaphor of clearing space invokes tidying up or making new arrangements to create more room for new things. We clear space to have a new beginning, to be able to accommodate more objects. Space clearing “allows new ideas and connections to develop.”18 The metaphor not only gestures the emergence of diversity and multiplicity but also enables simplifying the complex relations between and among entities that occupy place.
In intellectual debates over mobility, clearing space involves perceptively looking at how discourses of mobility are framed and rethinking how we can conceptualize new methodologies that capture the forms of mobility that remain latent, transient, and not taken seriously. By foregrounding new forms of mobility in the African context, the articles under consideration attempt to decenter Western-centric articulations of mobility. Decentering is unavoidably a way of clearing or creating space. The object’s continued occupation of the center implies its privileged status that renders other objects invisible and inarticulate. Hence decentering involves pushing the object from the center as a strategy to enable the emergence and visibility of multiplicity. We should, however, not be tempted to take Chakrabarty’s notion of “provincializing Europe” as a call to discard European thought. Rather, provincializing is a strategy to arrest the arrogance of Western-centric theory that numbs or stifles the emergence of multiple theoretical perspectives of mobility. Here I follow James Ferguson who urges us to read “the desire to ‘provincialize Europe’” not as “a matter of devaluing” European thought, but “cutting it down to size” and displacing it.19
There is more to say about African mobilities as “a theoretical standpoint” not least for its unflappable potential to serve “as a critique of Western notions of mobility that have been universalized” and also because it helps us “to rethink the concept of mobility from deep African genealogies.”20 The image of a mobilities standpoint that draws from deep African genealogies simultaneously conjures up Amit Chaudhuri’s conception of decentering as “to fashion a subversive genealogy.”21 This is because a subversive genealogy seeks to achieve its objective through undermining and weakening the official discourse. It constructs a counternarrative that goes against the grain of the dominant discourse. Alessandro Jedlowski’s urge to put “African experiences at the center of the inquiry” is an attempt to decenter the normativity of Western discourse.22 Hence it can be argued that the articles presented here are united in their call for African scholars to use empirical and theoretical developments in both Africa and the diaspora to produce modes of thought that are locally generated through a pursuit of the voices of African people and things African.
A subversive genealogy fashioned from such a pursuit does not shy away from disrupting long-held assumptions about Western superiority, its misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Africa and Africans. It seeks not only to argue that Western-centric conceptual categories, tools of analysis, and modes of thought are inadequate for Africa’s lived realities, but also to demonstrate the shortcomings of the beliefs that underpin them. As Ludwig Wittgenstein argues, the reason that a belief can “stand unshakeably fast” and “more or less liable to shift” is “not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing” but rather because it is “held fast by what lies around it.”23 I take what “lies around” beliefs as the background condition, or what Edmund Husserl terms a “lifeworld”24—a term that designates the concrete world in which subjects share experiences; a world in which things become coherent, meaningful, and intelligible. By extension, lifeworld is the context in which we represent ourselves and also get (mis)represented by others; a world in which we affirm or contest how we are (mis)represented. We fashion subversive discourse to decenter discourses that misrepresent us in the lifeworld.
Chakrabarty’s argument that European thought should “be renewed from and by the margins” rather than be rejected or discarded helps us to rethink the overall task confronting African scholarship.25 European thought cannot be allowed to continue with its exclusionary tendencies, its condescendence of non-European Other and its skewed view of history. Rather its renewal entails what Ajay Skaria describes as “an extensive transformation” that comes “through a focus not only on what that thought must marginalise but also on how it has been translated into other traditions of the world.”26 The articles in the special section work within the paradigm of European thought yet keep a vigilant watch on what lies outside and beyond that thought. The authors are affiliated with institutions that can be described as “Western,” yet they remain wary of the thought and its own limits and prejudices. They avoid being too engrossed with the thought for fear of failing to emphasize the uniqueness of Africa and things African. Further, a look at their scholarly references shows that they also acknowledge European thought and its importance to off er some insights, yet their task to fashion African modes of thought that serve as a counternarrative to European thought and subvert the misrepresentations of Africa and things African flags their observation of the limits of European thought. The task to fashion African modes of thought is also a strong argument that European thought is only one among many. This enables the authors to engage with how African modes of thought display and affirm their own historical, geographical, and cultural specificity, thus allowing African thought to stand on its own merit and sit side by side with European thought to claim a position of equals.
The case studies tell African stories of im/mobility. Two of the stories have nonhuman characters. Both Mavhunga and Jedlowski defy academic conventions. The former takes the unusual risk of being a storyteller of an anthropomorphized being, an insect, which is assigned historical agency. The latter describes a story in which the cargo container is “one of the protagonists.” Robin George Collingwood (a philosopher of history who argued that all history is the history of thought, thus highlighting how history is constituted by human actions, which directly stem from processes of human deliberation and rational choice27) would probably find the authors’ choices disturbing. However, reading Mavhunga’s justification for ascribing historical agency to an insect is refreshing. In traditional Shona society (the society that Mavhunga identifies as vedzimbabwe), tellers of folklore have poetic license by which to claim an unassailable narrative prerogative to represent their version of events as truth, and thus they maintain a certain commitment to novelty and innovation while simultaneously captivating the audience. This strategy becomes strength in the way the author balances the rungano (story) with intense and rigorous analysis of the mobilities of the main character, tsetse fly. For a mudzimbahwe, animate and inanimate beings have anthropomorphic will and intent, and thus shape the course of history.
If African modes of thought have to be taken seriously, then they have to represent Africa and things African. They have to speak for Africa and Africans. Their theoretical perspective should enunciate an African standpoint. Without wanting to get involved in the long drawn-out debate over who and what is or is not Africa/n, I can confidently say that theories and processes of theorizing about Africa should draw from an African standpoint. A standpoint is that spot or position from which a subject can be adequately represented. Theory is implicated in mis/representations because it is “a form of “seeing” phenomena”; it is “a particular angle of vision,” such that “the way in which phenomena will be visualized depends in large measure on where the viewer ‘stands.’”28 A theory is always structured by a set of beliefs and assumptions, and these are articulated through conceptual categories that constitute the theorist’s standpoint. As such, African modes of thought about mobility drawn from “stories” about Africa and things African provide better representations than modes of thought drawn from elsewhere.
See Mavhunga, Cuvelier, and Pype, this issue, 45.
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Diff erence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 6.
James Morris Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diff usionism and Eurocentric History (New York: Guilford Press, 1993), 1.
John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (London: Parker, Son and Bourn, West Strand, 1861); John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863).
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans. H. B. Nisbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 219.
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 8.
Marshall Sahlins, “On the Anthropology of Modernity, Or, Some Triumphs of Culture Over Despondency Theory,” in Culture and Sustainable Development in the Pacific, ed. Antony Hooper (Canberra: Asia Pacific Press and Australian National University, 2005), here: 44: 44–61.
Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 412.
Harrison Esam Awuh, this issue, 58.
Peter Adey, “If Mobility Is Everything Then It Is Nothing: Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)Mobilities,” Mobilities 1, no. 1, 2006, here: 91: 75–94.
Mavhunga, Cuvelier, and Pype, this issue, 47.
Mavhunga, this issue, 76.
Rob Garbutt, “The Clearing, Heidegger’s Lichtung and the Big Scrub,” Cultural Studies Review 16, no. 1 (2010): here: 36: 27–42.
James Ferguson, “Novelty and Method: Reflections on Global Fieldwork,” in Multi-Sited Ethnography: Problems and Possibilities in the Translocation of Research Method, ed. Simon Coleman and Pauline von Hellermann (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), 205: 194–207.
Mavhunga, Cuvelier, and Pype, this issue, 44.
Amit Chaudhuri, “‘In the Waiting-Room of History,’ Review of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Diff erence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000),” London Review of Books 26, no. 12, 24 June 2004, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n12/amit-chaudhuri/in-the-waiting-room-of-history (accessed 14 April 2016).
Jedlowski, this issue, 96.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979), §144, 149.
Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. D. Carr (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970).
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 16.
Ajay Skaria, “The Project of Provincialising Europe: Reading Dipesh Chakrabarty,” Economic and Political Weekly, 44, no. 14 (April 2009): 53: 52–59.
Robin George Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946).
Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 17.