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Representation and Terror in V.Y. Mudimbe

Neil Lazarus
Journal of African Cultural Studies
Vol. 17, No. 1, Special Issue: Reading Mudimbe (Jun., 2005), pp. 81-101
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4141303
Page Count: 21
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Representation and Terror in V.Y. Mudimbe
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Abstract

In the field of Postcolonial Studies, no debate today is more consequential or vexed, than that concerning representation. The questions: Who speaks? Of and for whom? How, where, and to what ends? In which languages? Through means of which concepts and categories? On the basis of which problematics and epistemological assumptions? - are all central to contemporary scholarship in the field. Generally speaking, the question of representation has been broached under three main thematics in postcolonial scholarship: first, concerning subalternity and the recovery of popular consciousness; second, concerning the critique of Eurocentrism and colonialist ideology; third (an extension and radicalisation of the second), concerning the deconstruction of the 'Western' ratio and its discourses, and the corresponding production of what the Moroccan writer, Abdelkebir Khatibi, has called 'the thought of difference '. In my paper, I briefly discuss each of these postcolonialist thematics, before moving to a consideration and assessment of the ways in which the question of representation has tended to be situated in the work of V.Y. Mudimbe. Mudimbe has been concerned less with the actuality, the existential for-itselfness, of African material and symbolic practice than with the analysis of the epistemo-political problems surrounding the representation of such practice. I discuss the terms of Mudimbe's approach to the African chose du texte, focusing initially on his anthropological/philosophical writings and then, more substantially, on his fiction (especially L'Ecart [The Rift] and Le bel immonde [Before the Birth of the Moon]). I conclude by examining his celebrated debate with the anthropologist, Peter Rigby, in which Mudimbe proposes that the violence of representation is irreducible. This proposition strikes me as being unwarranted, and I lay out my reasons for opposing Mudimbe. Ultimately, I find his critique of Rigby unsatisfactory on two accounts. First, it privileges the question of the conditions of possibility of the generation of 'truth-effects' over that of representational adequacy - a move that I regard as politically disenabling. Second, its identification of the 'gap ' of ethnographic (or, more generally, social scientific) representation in terms of a power differential fails to specify the precise form(s) of power involved. Instead, representational power is conceptualised on the model of colonialist power - on the model, that is to say, of terrorism and dictatorship. My own view is that not all forms of objectification are dominative; and that between authority and authoritarianism the question of application must be raised.

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