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Saturday, July 16, 2011


What is Afrocentrism or Afrocentricity, according to Asante? It is, to put it as simply as possible, a theory of language, of the oral traditions of rhetoric and discourse rooted in African culture, through which we can, Asante tells us, arrive at a non-Eurocentric understanding of human beings and human culture. Afrocentricity, he says, is "the most complete philosophical totalization of the African being-at-the-center of his or her existence. It is not merely an artistic or literary movement. Not only is it an individual or collective quest for authenticity, but it is above all the total use of method to effect psychological, political, social, cultural, and economic change. The Afrocentric idea is beyond decolonizing the mind."

Asante was trained in the field of Communications Studies, and his concern with the technical terms and problems of that subject are apparent throughout his writings. He places great emphasis on the oral traditions of African culture, and on the interactions between speaker and audience that are central to such traditions, using his own term, "orature", as a general category for those practices and traditions. He also traces the impact of this orature on the oral conventions of African-Americans, drawing examples from sermons, public speaking, rapping, signifying, and other language games and arts.

But although Asante's primary focus is on linguistic structures, practices, and traditions, he is always reaching for something more -- for the essential understanding of the human condition that he believes can be found in African and Afro-American language. He has a vision of a harmonious human society in which language mediates a union of feeling, thought, and action within and between members of a community. He finds this harmony present in African traditional societies and their linguistic practices, and markedly absent from what he sees as mechanical, linear, individualistic, isolating tendencies in European/White American linguistic and social traditions.

Asante is extremely critical of the parochialism of Euro-American social, literary, and ideological theorists, and repeatedly declares his intention to free himself from the limitations of that intellectual tradition. Some of his most telling thrusts are directed at such figures as Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, J├╝rgen Habermas, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Northrop Frye, and Ferdinand de Saussure. "The preponderant Eurocentric myths of universalism, objectivity, and classical traditions," he claims, "retain a provincial European cast."

Sometimes, Asante adopts what seems to me to be a rather modest and easily defensible stance, as when he defines Afrocentricity as "placing African ideals at the center of any analysis that involves African culture and behavior." At other times, he offers a more expansive view of Afrocentricity, as a method of understanding and a conception of language that is superior to, and hence presumably ought to displace, European/American methods and conceptions. In either case, he offers Afrocentric methods of speech and analysis as an antidote to the oppressive, colonizing infliction of a Eurocentric mind set on Africans and their descendants in the diaspora.

To these themes and arguments, Asante now adds another element, at once more dramatic and vastly more controversial. Directly rebutting Hegel's disparaging dismissal of Africa as a land without history, reason, or culture, Asante lays claim in the name of all persons of African descent to the greatest of all the ancient traditions, those of Egypt, or Kemet. ["Kemet" is the name sometimes used to refer to ancient or classical Egypt, and Asante, like Maulana Karenga and others, prefers it to "Egypt."] "The Afrocentric analysis," he says, "re-establishes the centrality of the ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) civilization and the Nile Valley cultural complex as points of reference for an African perspective in much the same way as Greece and Rome serve as reference points for the European world."

Asante makes a good deal of supposed correspondences between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the signs or symbols in sub-Saharan African languages for the same words as evidence of a linguistic influence. He also writes at length about the characteristics of ancient Egyptian culture and society as a paradigm that can stand as an alternative -- equally valuable and indisputably older -- to the oft invoked paradigms of Classical Greek and Roman culture. As one might expect, he emphasizes the primacy of Egypt in inventing or propagating a variety of religious, mathematical, scientific, and philosophical ideas, and calls attention to the fact that Egypt powerfully influenced Greece, not the other way around.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Asante argues that African-Americans should look to this Kemetic tradition for their roots, for inspiration, for whatever it is that modern Europeans and white Americans can hope to derive from Classical Greece and Rome. It is this proposal to substitute an African cultural orientation for the present emphasis on Classical Greece and Rome in school curricula that drives critics wild.

It is a fair bet that had Asante confined himself to a call for grounding the study of Africa in African culture and history, he would have stirred up much less fuss, although even in so narrowly constrained a form the proposal would certainly have triggered some anguished cries of obscurantism and fears of danger to the great traditions of Western Civilization. But in putting forward his conception of Kemetic tradition as a competitor to, indeed as superior to, the traditions of Western Civilization, and in calling on African-Americans to embrace Kemet rather than Greece and Rome, Asante has definitively placed himself outside of, and against, the white intellectual and cultural mainstream B as indeed he intended to do.

Now, I don't really think there is much merit in Asante's project. And I certainly do not think it can serve as the theoretical grounding for the true American story. But all the conceptual and methodological weaknesses in his project can be found, in exactly the same form, in the mainstream, valorized project associated with such Euro-American thinkers as Hegel, Herder, Heidegger, Arendt, Barzun, and Bloom [Allan, not Harold].

Let me say that again another way, because it is liable to come as a bit of a shock to sophisticated readers who may even have been agreeing with me thus far. Methodologically speaking, there is no difference between Asante's celebration of ancient Egypt as the source of a great African cultural tradition, and the celebration of Greece and Rome as the source of a great Euro-American tradition. Both are simply myths of a Golden Past, myths of a special time and place at which civilization begins, and to which all subsequent thought and culture must be oriented.

The celebration of what is rather oddly called "Western Civilization" has become such a staple of the intellectual, political, and cultural life of Europeans and Americans -- and also, of course, so central a tenet of the rationalization of modern Euro-American imperial adventures -- that it will strike many readers as simply bizarre or insulting to equate the glorious story of Judeo-Christian-Graeco-Roman civilization with Asante's African fantasies. Surely political correctness has its limits! But if we steel ourselves for a moment to the seductions of Western Civ, as it has come to be known on college campuses, we will not find it difficult to see the parallels with Asante's project.

Consider, for example, the thought of the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, widely esteemed in Europe and America as among the deepest, most sophisticated, most penetrating minds of the twentieth century. Arendt, like so many learned thinkers of the Western tradition, represents the cultural and political history of the last two and a half millennia of the European peninsula of Eurasia as a tragic story of decline from former glory. Her narrative perspective is that of a cultivated and alienated member of the continental upper middle classes, and the dominant tonality is nostalgia for the lost glories of Classical Athens.

Fifth and Fourth Century BC Athens occupy a privileged position in the fiction conjured by Arendt. Their invocation consequently carries a moral and aesthetic weight in her discourse utterly incompatible with the historical actuality. A cluster of small agricultural and trading communities in the Eastern Mediterranean with a relatively undeveloped technology is accorded by Arendt a heightened resonance and importance, in much the same way that communicants of other faiths­ bend the knee to Calvary in the first century of this era, or to Paris in the 1790's, St. Petersburg in October, 1917, and the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

This is not to suggest that Arendt's account of ancient Greece is factually inaccurate, any more than to suggest that Tolstoy got the facts of the Battle of Borodino wrong in War and Peace. An historical novel written with meticulous attention to the latest historical scholarship is no less a fiction for all the learning of its author. Because Arendt writes from within a fictional world in which ancient Greece shines as the golden age toward which we longingly yearn, rather than from within the real world in which the affairs of fifth century B. C. Greece are merely one among many examples of human collective behavior -- because she, like so many of the most distinguished intellectuals of Europe and America, persistently confuses the two in her writings -- it is almost impossible to come to grips realistically and objectively with her theses, any more than it is possible from within Asante's fantasy to engage in a scholarly fashion with his yearning for the glories that were Kemet.

The common failing of Arendt and Asante -- and of countless other celebrators of cultural glories -- is their tendency to understand human history as a timeless accumulation of artistic, philosophical, and religious ideas, rather than as the temporal unfolding of collective struggles to produce the means of existence and to control both the product and the process by which it is produced. In short, Arendt, Asante, and their sort are historical Idealists. Like Hegel before them, they imagine that philosophical ideas, not material realities, are the principal movers of history. The exaltation of the Great Books of Western Civilization -- or of Kemetic Civilization -- is simply the curricular embodiment of this discredited supposition.

It is not the way in which Asante carries out his project that is at fault, nor is it the fact that he seeks to elevate Africa above Europe, though that is certainly what brings down such opprobrium on his head. It is rather that both his project and the widely endorsed and praised effort to articulate the central defining characteristics of Western Civilization start from Idealist premises that are simply philosophically untenable. It is surely a bitter irony that Asante, outraged by Hegel's contemptuous dismissal of "the dark continent", has produced what can only be called a Hegelian theory of Afro­centricity.


English Jerk said...

I basically agree with your larger point here, but I think you're being unfair to Hegel in those final two paragraphs. It may well be true that Arendt and Asante "understand human history as a timeless accumulation of artistic, philosophical, and religious ideas, rather than as the temporal unfolding of collective struggles to produce the means of existence and to control both the product and the process by which it is produced." And it may be that "they imagine that philosophical ideas, not material realities, are the principal movers of history." But Hegel argues against that sort of position in great detail. In fact, Hegel's view is exactly that history is driven by collective agents (what he calls Geist) and that it is grounded in material reality. He just doesn't think that there is such a thing as the merely material, any more than he thinks there's such a thing as the purely ideal. He thinks it's a mistake to carve things up in that way. When a slave rises up against his master, he's not a merely material creature utterly devoid of any ideality, any more than he's an armchair philosopher placidly contemplating a possible world. Action, in Hegel's view (and, for that matter, in Kant's, though he wouldn't put it this way), involves making an idea real, for example by acting in accordance with some aim (what Kant calls "practice" rather than "mere doing"). What we would ordinarily call "real" Hegel calls "actual" (wirklich), and mere dead matter or merely hypothetical ideas are for Hegel unreal because one-sided. Hegel calls his position "speculative idealism," and he thinks it's the opposite of Plato's idealism insofar as Hegel denies that anything at all is genuinely transcendent. For Hegel there are no "ideas" in Plato's sense, only organisms and collectivities.

Hegel did, of course, have ludicrous ideas about Africans. Unlike his American counterparts, he very likely never saw a black person in his life, so one can at least imagine how an otherwise intelligent person might have arrived at this bizarre conception of Africa. But he's certainly not to blame for the de-historicized treatment of The Great Works of Western Civilization. He's the guy who invented historicism, or at least gave the first systematic account of it (Hamann should get some credit). People like Lessing, Schiller, and Hoelderlin were much more uncritically hellenophilic than Hegel. Hegel thought ancient Athens had ideas that it was materially incapable of putting into practice, so that it had to be destroyed to fulfill itself.

I'll get off my hobby horse now. Thanks for the tutorial, which I'm enjoying tremendously and learning a lot from!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am sure you are right. I dislike Hegel so much that I have difficulty cutting him any slack. I am too old and set in my ways to try to go back and struggle through those pages of incomprehensible garble to get at whatever he was driving at, so I will just plead senility and move on. At least I have never hidden my animosity. Oh well.