Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Belonging As An Episteme

Peter Geschiere

Peter Geschiere’s lecture “Neo-Liberalism and The Paradoxes of Community and Belonging” generates two accounts of belonging. The first account connects belonging to state power, the sharing of resources, recognition and rights within the nation state etc. At the heart of this reading of belonging is public recognition. And the key criterion for public recognition here is autochthony which is a claim to the state of being aboriginal or native to a particular state. This stands in contrast to the allochtons-the so-called strangers. The politics of estrangement and antinomy among the elements of this concept of belonging drove Geschiere’s lecture and partly animated audience’s response.

The antinomy and how it is to be resolved boils down to the ethics of public recognition-that is who is to be recognized as free, necessary, sovereign, autonomous and freely participating member of a polity, and those whose membership of that polity is contingent. Applied to the African continent Geschiere observes the inclusive ethics that defined African societies prior to colonialism and transatlantic slavery. Given this supposition, the issue is : to what extent are the issues of (i) autochthony/allochtony and (ii) ethics of public recognition based on the binary of autochthony/allochtony a problem of the unresolved question of the arbitrariness of the colonial nation state which was driven primarily by crude capital accumulation, cheap labor, colonial conquest and transatlantic slavery? That the politics of autochthony/allochtony cuts across all polities-South and North – with similar characteristics speak to the similarity of the historical project of the nation state both in the colonies and the metropolis.

The second reading of belonging which dominated the response from the audience is belonging as a form of resistance. Belonging as a form of resistance allows us to read historically and properly resistance against global sites of evil-colonialism, transatlantic slavery, racism, apartheid, the holocaust, the occupation of Palestine etc. I will like to round this off with how this plays itself out with respect to the idea of belonging in Global Africa’s (by this I mean the experiences of peoples of African descent in Africa, America , Caribbean, Europe, Asia etc) Diaspora experience. W.E.B. Du Bois’ thesis on Double Consciousness and its problematic appropriation by Paul Gilroy in his thesis on the Black Atlantic forms the basis of my argument.

During the transatlantic slave trade, the first point of attack was the spiritual state of peoples of African descent, their consciousness, their belonging. And the manner of attack is a mutilation of the black identity. The consequence is that peoples of African descent were compelled to look at the world and themselves through the consciousness of others, the “belonging” of others, that of the racist authority. This was a veil Du Bois called Double Consciousness of the Negro. Du Bois was critical of Double Consciousness for he argued that people of African descent were in possession of a true self consciousness, a cultural subjectivity, a belonging which racist authority attacked virulently and crudely.
In more recent period, Paul Gilroy appropriated Du Bois’ thesis and pressed it into a thesis of Black Atlantic in characterizing the experiences of the New African Diaspora .. In Gilroy’s words “… in opposition to nationalist and ethnically absolute approaches, I want to develop the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective…” That any space can be taken as a single unit of analysis is not the problem. The problem for African Diaspora is the sort of black Atlantic subject that emerges from this unit of analysis. Where a single unit of analysis is purged of its ontology, its transformative sense of belonging the product is nothing but a ghost in the machine of capital, pliable, usable and disposable by capital.

Gilroy cites the creative hybrid musical forms of black communities in England as examples of this hybrid black Atlantic cultural product. The crucial point is that Gilroy fails to see why and how his transatlantic product might have been driven by capital rather than the cultural agency of the African Diaspora. A good illustration is the complete purging of black music by capital of its transformative ethos in the name of creativity. Walking around black communities anywhere in the Diaspora and looking straight into the eyes of those little black kids who shake their heads and hips to those musical chloroforms and musical opium in the name of creativity and hybridity, my question all the time is that who benefits, who gains from this flight of belonging and ontology from formerly vibrant transformative and liberating black musical forms?

We do not need to go too far before we see the transformative nature of belonging as a form of resistance. The struggle of the Palestinian people is a true reminder of the unfinished business of culture, of true belonging as form of resistance which Amilcar Cabral talked about, and which Du Bois gestured towards and apprehend as true self consciousness. The global, the universal, the transatlantic are legitimate species in the peoples history only when they are transformative, otherwise they are opium, cracks and soulless ghosts in the machine of capital. Transformative belonging is the antidote against these cracks.

Adeolu Ademoyo


  1. Peter Geschiere (2009) Perils Of belonging Autochthony, Citizenship And Exclusion in Africa And Europe, Chicago University Press.
  2. Echeruo, Michael, “An African Diaspora: The Ontological Project.” The AfricanDiaspora, ed. I. Okpewho, C.B. Davies, and, A.I. Mazrui Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  3. Gilroy, Paul The Black Atlantic Modernity and Double Consciousness.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  4. Cabral, Amilcar, Return To Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral. NewYork:Monthly Review Press, 1973. Pp. 39-56
  5. W.E.B. Du Bois The Soul of Black folks.
  6. Adeolu Ademoyo “The Ontological Imperative For The New African Diaspora’ in Isidore okpewho and Nkiru Nzegwu (eds) The New African Diaspora (2009) Indiana University Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment