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The Politics of Being and Identity

02 Mar 2020 at 08:49hrs | Views
The politics of being and that of identity are as old as humanity. People are not objects that are just freely floating in the air and rolling on the ground.

We are subjects that are named and located. I was frightened into writing this short piece by a much dusty and even muddy intellectual exchange between two titanic African scholars whose work I have relished. Mahmood Mamdani and Michael Neocosmos  are intellectuals that have brought many of us up in terms of their critical edge and public intellection. These two elephantine thinkers have clashed and the grass has suffered under their feet. For me it is profitless to seek to take sides or vote on who between the two is right or wrong. I only seek to use their rather unhygienic intellectual exchange to illuminate some issues on the politics of knowledge, being human, and identity.

The Book Neocosmos wrote

In 2016 Neocosmos wrote a book: Thinking Freedom in Africa. The book immediately won the Frantz Fanon outstanding book award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association, which is no small achievement. In the book Neocosmos did not pull punches. He sought to be a true iconoclasts that brings the gods tumbling down from the high skies. Mamdani was not spared the whip as Neocosmos threw mud at his all-time classic: Citizen and Subject.  Mamdani's initial response was that Neocosmos has written "more a political manifesto than it is a work of political analysis."

Not only Mamdani was sjamboked in the book. A huge family of African scholars were bundled together and whipped by a scholar that really meant to overturn the order of intellectual things in the African academy. The Marxists, Pan-Africanists, Negritude poets and philosophers of Africa were all compressed into toddlers that are trying and failing to understand the politics of freedom in Africa and in the world at large.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou became Neocosmos's giant upon whose shoulders he stood to administer his considered lecture to African scholars on freedom and politics. I doubt Neocosmos expected a response. He wrote in the instructive tone of a prophet and a high priest before a captive audience of unquestioning believers. Perhaps, that was his mistake.

One does not appoint himself magistrate and judge in such itchy intellectual and political subjects as freedom and expect to walk smoothly and slowly away as if in the proverbial stroll in the park with green grass.

Capital among the observations and arguments that Neocosmos makes is that African scholars and political activists should abandon political economy analysis which is just tired politics of interests. Africans should strive, otherwise, to be "part of universal humanity rather than of the animal world of interests." That hurts. It sounds and seems like the old colonial talk of the civilising mission and modernisation crusade that saw black people as objects that were struggling with their animalism.

Neocosmos was not done. He proceeded to argue that Africans should leave behind their obsession with contexts, historically and geographically, "all people are capable of thinking beyond their social space." Africans have an obsession that "forces concentration on identity, ethnicity, authenticity, race, natives, Africanity, periphery" and so on. This also sounds typically colonial and imperial. After using racism and identity politics to conquer and divide the colonised the Empire builders were fast to discourage blacks from thinking and acting in identity terms. But the colonised knew that they were conquered as blacks and fought back as blacks, helped by some white allies here and there. People should use "reason" to ponder and act for freedom. That was Neocosmos's prescription to African social and political movements in their search for freedom.

Mamdani: Time and Place

In the statement that Neocosmos wrote a manifesto and not a work of political analysis and intellection Mamdani meant that ideology, a set of dogmatic beliefs, are circulated as wisdom and truth. In that way Neocosmos might have mistaken his political feelings for political philosophy. "Humans are not Gods; we are located within history and locality, even if we are to rise above these," so it was naïve of Neocosmos to dream of Africans that are just universal objects that have no time and place. Thinkers like Neocosmos, Mamdani opined "prefer to talk of human rights in their generality than to identify and analyse human wrongs." Perpetrators and beneficiaries of oppression are usually the first to ask people to think and talk about freedom and not remember who and what caused the unfreedom in the very first place. Colonialists, and neocolonialists are good at demanding democracy and human rights but do poorly at recognising and condemning the crimes of settler colonialism. Mamdani, in his own words, accused Neocosmos of behaving like that. Demanding a future of freedom without reckoning with a past of unfreedom; a past of which he might have been a beneficiary even if he was not a direct perpetrator. What offended Mamdani the most, I think, is Neocosmos's observation that "Africans think." For Mamdani it should be obvious and not a discovery that Africans think. To exclaim that Africans think is to suggest that it was possible that they did not have the gift of thought in the first place. To be surprised that Africans think is to insult them, otherwise.

Location and Meaning

While condemning Africans for concentrating on identity politics and the politics of place, Neocosmos was actually practicing the same. First, Mamdani notes how "this is Neocosmos in a didactic mode, translating the thought of a master, Alain Badiou," and imposing him on Africans. Neocosmos writes from a certain "location" and a certain "luxury" that makes him think ideas of a French philosopher are a precious gift to Africans.

"So dedicated a worshipper — rather than a student — of Badiou is Neocosmos that we are introduced even to Mao through Badiou." Neocosmos thinks Badiou can be lifted from France and be made a philosopher of all other parts of the world from China to South Africa.

Tragically, "Neocosmos would like to be a philosopher, better still a French philosopher, one who soars above clouds, to think in world historical terms, unencumbered by facts or relations on the ground." But "to be an African intellectual, or a scholar in Africa, Neocosmos would have to walk on two legs, both as a scholar and as a public intellectual." Otherwise, the politics of location and identity cannot be escaped if one wants to deal with the real world.

In other words, and not so many words, Mamdani tells Neocosmos that he thinks the way he thinks and acts the way he does because he enjoys some power and privilege that makes him distant from the experiences of black people. Neocosmos, as a white man that is well-meaning and openly against racism fails to overcome the blinkers that come with being white and imagining rather than experiencing oppression.

The politics of being and that of identity, otherwise, means that what we say and what we do is not removed from who we are. Our ideas are blind to our crimes and complicity in oppression. We are intentionally ignorant of the wrongs that we do and that we benefit from. Neocosmos opposed the politics of interests because it was in his interest to do so. Being and belonging, identity and history are real factors in the real world of politics. Those that benefit from identity politics are usually the first to blame it on others.

– Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from the Durban University of Technology:

Source - sundaynews
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