Africa of the past, Africa of the future:
The dynamics of time in Africanist scholarship and art
SOAS Lecture Series on African Science Fiction
1st February 5-7pm (S320)
22nd February 6-8pm (S314)
1 March 5-8pm (MB563)
8th March 4-8pm (22 RS T202)
22nd March 6-8pm (S314)
Asixoxe – Let’s Talk! SOAS Conference on African Philosophy
5th-6th May 2017, Russell Square Campus, SOAS, University of London
2nd-3rd May, Centre of Global Studies, Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague
Africa is often portrayed as a continent without a future, a continent of innocent ignorance about time, a place of a blissful, animal-like existence in the present. Such is the basis of Hegel’s dismissal of the continent as an actor in the world’s history: “Africa . . . is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature” (Hegel 117). Hegel’s reading of Africa was very influential in Europe’s intellectual and political history, feeding directly into justifications of the colonial enterprise. Alternatively, Africa is depicted as a continent of the past, of perennial traditions that determine the present—and compromise the future. Such visions constitute a vein that goes through much Africanist discourse: from cultural theory, built upon issues of identity and cultural essentialism, via politics, which oftentimes strives to resurrect a putative precolonial past, to philosophy.
African philosophers such as John S. Mbiti have, notoriously, denied Africans the very capacity to conceive of a “distant future” (23) and found evidence of this in a range of African practices, down to the alleged grammatical incapacity of African languages to express the remote future. While Mbiti’s arguments can easily be refuted, the point he made about Africans’ lack of imagining the future is a complex one and it has been reasserted by other scholars. Johanna Offe confirms a glaring absence in Africa of the “modern” concept of a “contingent, and yet controllable future” (56). This concept underlies the notion of development understood as the readiness to alter one’s current practices to change a future situation; for that, the future situation must be imagined first—and it must be seen as determinable by human agency. If, as Offe suggests in line with Pierre Bourdieu, in Africa the future is conceptualized as an inescapable “unfolding” (Offe 62) of events that are taking place in the present, following on from the present as its logical consequence, and it is “not contingent and open” (63) with “various [possible] outcomes” (62), but rather “expected and certain” (63), then of course the continent is locked in an eternal cyclical return of the same. The future only regurgitates the past and it is meaningless to make it the object of imagination because it is simply an extension of the present and past situation.
In a sharp contrast with this past-oriented outlook of African philosophy, African science-fiction and, in particular, Afrofuturism is a vibrant, booming genre that imagines Africa’s future. In counterbalance to the portrayal of Africa as “the zone of the absolute dystopia” in the media and in social sciences, where “African social reality is overdetermined by intimidating global scenarios, doomsday economic projections, weather predictions, medical reports on AIDS, and life-expectancy forecasts, all of which predict decades of immiserization” (Eshun 291-292), African sci-fi and Afrofuturism “studies the appeals that black artists, musicians, critics, and writers have made to the future, in moments where any future was made difficult for them to imagine” (Eshun 294) and strives to intervene in the dystopian projections regarding Africa and to regain control over views of Africa’s future through an examination of “extraterrestriality, futurology, and techno-science fictions” (Eshun 293).
The future is malleable; its imagination is coextensive with human freedom: “Afrofuturism gives a central role to human agency and free will” (Okoth 7). Sci-fi and Afrofuturism command freedom in reimagining Africa and reinventing African identities. These trends have the amazing power to rewrite perceptions of the African present and reconfigure the narratives of Africa’s past: “Just as the right words and actions can speak the future into existence, the same can recast the past, too” (Womack 153). Science fiction is “neither forward-looking nor utopian” but “a means through which to preprogram the present” (Eshun 290); it “engineer[s] feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present” (ibid.).
While African philosophy largely remains burdened with nostalgia for “origins” (Kezilahabi 365), the conceptual frameworks of sci-fi and (Afro)futurism imagine even the present and past from within a future perspective. Our project strives to bring African sci-fi in a dialogue with African philosophy. Can African sci-fi and Afrofuturism inspire a more future-oriented outlook also in African philosophy? What effects would such an orientation have in a discipline like philosophy?
SOAS’s Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa and the Centre of Global Studies of the Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences invite you to explore these questions through a lecture series on African science-fiction and the fourth edition of Asixoxe–Let’s Talk!, the SOAS annual conference on African philosophy. This year the conference will be organized jointly by SOAS and the Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, with two-day conference in London and in Prague. The lecture series and the conference will share the same theme: “Africa of the past, Africa of the future: The dynamics of time in Africanist scholarship and art”.
We invite contributions to the conference; while topics that speak to the outlined focus are preferred, we also welcome papers on other topics related to African philosophy. Please confirm your participation and submit the titles and abstracts (100-150 words) of your papers by 1st April 2017 to firstname.lastname@example.org. All queries should also be sent to this email address. Each speaker will be given 20 minutes for the presentation, with subsequent 10 minutes for questions and discussion. We envisage a subsequent publication of selected papers from the conference. There is no registration fee for presenters and other participants.
Alena Rettová (email@example.com)
Michelle Clarke (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa
SOAS, University of London
WC1H 0XG London
Albert Kasanda (email@example.com)
Centre of Global Studies
Institute of Philosophy
Czech Academy of Sciences
Jilská 1, 110 00 Prague 1