November 10, 2009

Silences in African History (book review)

Silences in African History: Between the Syndromes of Discovery and Abolition is a series of related essays on the phenomenon of silence in history. The book is an extended critique of--among others--Ferdinand Braudel, western intellectuals, the World Bank, the IMF, Africanist historians and neo-colonialism. The author Jacques Depelchin is the executive director of the Ota Benga International Alliance for Peace, based in Kinshasa, Congo and Berkeley, CA.

There are a lot of theoretical issues I could explore in relation to the book. I will sum it up by saying it is provocative, dense and deeply committed. Depelchin roundly condemns the moral irrelevance of academia and the limitations, silences and omissions of its theoretical concerns and ontological assumptions. He shows how the "post-colonial" order has largely marginalized African scholars from the mainstream institutions of academic power. As Ibrahim Abdullah writes in the introduction: "is studying Africa the same as writing for Africa?"

Depelchin shows how history needs a new paradigm: just as physics moved beyond a Newtonian model, so history needs a model which will re-theorize the relationship between observer and observed object. Actually this "new" paradigm is far from new, but it was lost or abandoned in the search to make history into an academic science. History is NOT a science. At some point the rules of evidence are not relevant to the choices one makes in a narrative. Moral considerations are. There is no going around this, no finagling it; to avoid it would be cowardly. An ethics of history demands a radical witness to the problems of our day and time. As I have said before on this blog, scholars, especially Western white scholars working on Africa, need to be more concerned to serve as a historical witness against totalizing projects, even if we ourselves are implicated in them! By doing so, we provide the "possibility of the consciousness to resist rather than simply serve the dominant powers of the age."
P.S. Big up to my man Dave B for suggesting this book.


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