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What is African Consciousness by the way?


An Intellectual Muses


By Wambui Mwangi


Let me start by saying at once that I don’t know the answer to this question. I’m not sure that there is a definitive answer.


It seems to me that any answer would already be contingently defined according to the interlocuter, the moment and the context, and even then would still be vulnerable to a radical indeterminacy.

But I think that one could usefully begin, at least, to interrogate the boundaries of the question — to meet it at its limit, as it were, by suggesting that any notion of consciousness involves a deliberate self-positing.


One posits a specific mode of existence, of being, and moreover one posits it against other patterns and other propositions, in order to assert the historical social or cultural specificity of the self or oneself.


One speaks oneself against other modes of speaking about the figure of the African, the subject that is the African.

These other modes of speaking, then, are a sort of a negative heuristic that structures the platform for this self-positing. And I thought I would take a brief glance at two of these structuring rhetorical economies, that seem to me to be connected or at the very least conducive to a productive juxtaposition.

I use the notion of rhetorical economy in a dual sense; firstly, that of constituting an economical—that is, efficient-- system of signification—a sort of a linguistic shorthand if you like, that works as symbolic stand-in for much larger and more complex schematics of entangled fears, theories, rumuors, concepts, suppositions, epistemologies, etc.

Secondly, I use rhetorical economy also to refer to the dynamic interaction, sociality and materiality associated with the idea of an economy.


This is to say that these speech acts and verbalisations have historically specific modes of production, spatially elaborated realms of circulation, and are consumed according to complex trajectories of desire, in this way, constituting an economy.

The first rhetorical economy is that which is anchored by the current and aggressively repeated notion that civilisation itself is under attack from terror, and consequently that civilisation must rise up in response and in self-defense.


I am struck by this because of the constant and consistent emphasis on civilisation, as opposed to people, as opposed to cultures, as opposed to policies, etc.


And as an African, I must note that in the face of all this talk about civilisation, and when confronted with this exhortation to the civilised, Africans are not immediately sure whether to stand up, remain seated, or what.

The reason for this uncertainty is related to the second of my rhetorical economies.


This one is anchored by the default explanatory phrase for anything that happens anywhere at any time in Africa, or as the Camerounais say, “n’importe qui, n’importe ou, n’importe quand, n’importe comment,” one can always produce a satisfactory answer for the African enigma by resorting to the notion of “age-old tribal hatreds.”

The reason these two ideas confront me as things to be examined together is because I think they are involved in different but connected assumptions about time and about historicity.


Which is to say that clearly a civilisation does not exist for a day. The idea of civilisation itself demands, indeed, creates the idea of history in a very immediate sense.


This is why one names particular ages after particular civilisations — it is an unstated recognition that these social and political constellations not only exist in a historical temporal space, but in important ways, own and produce that temporal space.

Thus, a civilisation is able not only to possess its own time, but also to make that time speak its narrative. A civilisation enacts a historical space from within which it is able to convert its present, its contemporaneity into a dense multiplicity of time.


It is able to deploy itself into the past of its achievements whilst simultaneously projecting itself into the future of its aspirations. What is important here is that it maintains the richness and the thickness of these multiple temporal projections in and as the justification for the generating and narrating moment of the present.


The lived experience, the now, of civilisation is dense and dynamic time, precisely because of the evocation of these two capacities of temporal auto-generation and temporal auto-narration.


I refer you to the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisaitionns as case studies. I would in fact refer you to the contemporary United Republics of America, but I have a horror of jail. kidnapping and interrogation.


But of course we must win the war on terror. Just as soon as we can find someone who actually has weapons of mass destruction outside of Condi’s fortune teller.

Back to my point, to contrtast with civilization. The notion of age-old, (please refer to deep thoughts on civilization) on the other hand, works to precisely the opposite effect. “Age-Old” does not evoke history, but absence of history.


Age-old refers not to any particular age or time, but rather to the negation of time. Age-old is the time before time, the time beyond time, the time that preceded history, and that is therefore incapable of narration, meaning or logic or reason. Age-old is the silent non-time of nothingness.


Since Africa exists in the age-old, it is denied both its own historicity and its proper specificity and thus can only exist as the sign of absence, lack and failure. It can move neither backwards nor forwards through time or history.


It is a pit of horror and terror of nothingness in which the primordial and the apocalyptic endlessly collide in chaos without generating anything at all except the fact of itself.

These rhetorical economies—and others like them--form the a priori discourse, the a priori schematic of an imposed truth, against which any contemporary articulation by an African about Africa is deployed.


They constitute the conditions of possibility within which the African experience of existence is posited. As a friend of mine has recently written, this is the conceptual monstrosity, the normative scylla and charybdis that any comment, any speculation, any utterance about Africa by an African must negotiate.


We Africans attempt, with all the array of weapons at our disposal to defeat this a priori discourse, to erase it, to eradicate it, with cogent arguments as well as with emotional appeals, with pragmatism as well as with poetry, with lyricism as well as with logic, with rage as well as with reason. And every time, just outside the margins of our exhaustion, the corpse stubbornly gets up again.

So to the question, “is there an African consciousness,” perhaps it is possible to suggest, borrowing from the movie The Matrix, that the question itself, the question is the answer.


Wambui Mwangi is an assitant professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Canada. She blogs as Mad Kenyan Woman.


What do you think of African Civilisation? Do Black people as a group and being of African origin, have consciousness? Please join the debate.


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