Felwine Sarr is a musician, novelist, and professor of economics in Saint-Louis. In his essay »Afrotopia,« published in French, translated into English, and recently into German, he expressly mentions the necessity and the need for a »cultural revolution« in Africa: He says it is time to create a new understanding of the African continent. »Now is the time to dream the utopia in Africa itself, to design Africa ourselves, to think, and to act for ourselves.« He is doing so not by neglecting the history of the continent, and its entanglements with global dynamics, but by presenting forms of knowledge and reason, characteristic to African thinking. »There are a great number of knowledge archives, a variety of knowledge of different cultures, of cognitive and cultural resources,« he says. »On the day of the revolution, Africa will once again be the spiritual center of the world.«
In January, Deniz Utlu invited Felwine Sarr to be a guest for his series »Prosa der Verhältnisse« in Studio Я of Maxim Gorki Theater. In it, he deals with the relationship between literature and politics. The following interview is based on excerpts of the discussion in Berlin.
Deniz Utlu: You are a musician, novelist, and professor of economics! In your essay »Afrotopia,« a vast potential of spaces in and for the African continent is represented. One topic that can be found repeatedly in your texts, is the notion of a solidaristic society, prominently, throughout the discussion about economic models: In your essay »Afrotopia,« you discuss and criticize predominant economic models that are often to be discussed of within a rather elitist discourse, thus adding a literary component.
»My basic idea is that the future is open. That she remains open to all of us. And that it is the task of Africans to think and formulate their own future and to find their own metaphors for it.«
Felwine Sarr: When I was writing »Afrotopia,« my aim was for it to develop a kind of reflection that unfolds across the disciplines of economics, politics, and realms of the social and the psychological, one that is interdisciplinary and transversal. But at the same time I wanted to write in a language that is not esoteric, but accessible to everyone.
DU: I’d like to begin with the title, with the utopia. Utopia is essentially something that does not exist, first of all. Thus the book mentions many things that exist in Africa today. What is the »Afrotopia,« the African utopia you design? And why is there the notion of an African utopia in the first place?
FS: First and foremost, I wanted to rehabilitate the notion of utopia: The term »utopia« comes from »ou-topos« and designates a place that is not in existence, one could also say: that is not there yet. But just because something does not exist yet does not mean that it can’t exist sometime in the future. If you are not satisfied with our present, then you can begin to create a utopia, and then start to transform it into reality in the course of history. My basic idea is that the future is open. That she remains open to all of us. And that it is the task of Africans to think and formulate their own future and to find their own metaphors for it. But in no case, however: to inscribe this future in a teleology that is already given, for example, the modern age, the prevailing development paradigms or anything alike. So far, Africa has always been the object of discourse by others. Now it’s about to dream this utopia in Africa itself, to design Africa ourselves, to think, and to act for ourselves.
DU: The book addresses the question of how we acquire knowledge. It is not only concerned about what we know, but about what forms of knowledge are actually out there. The notion of metaphors/images of the future also permeates this essay. Is »Afrotopia« one of those metaphors/images for the future that you require?
FS: First of all, I would like to say that this book project is about working on a theoretical level. It was not my idea to give practical instructions and say: Here, this is how you should do it! I was more concerned with paving the way for the possibility for thinking about what is desirable to begin with: how can we live well? And how can we live in good coexistence? Such a concept has not been established yet for all. We can’t and should not just apply something that has already worked elsewhere. However, »Afrotopia« wants to open new ways of thinking of the social, the economic, and the political realms, and of humanity itself. If you look at our African societies you can see that they are producing a lot of social innovations in many different fields. But most of these innovations happen where they are not seen, where they are not named, not thought theoretically and therefore are not noticed.
»We have to challenge a mechanistic perspective and allow us to introduce new principles that of the spiritual and sensual tradition, all the symbolic capital.«
DU: At one point in the text, »Afrotopia« quotes the Afro-Caribbean writer and politician Aimé Césaire: Better to live in hell than in a bad copy of paradise. Here, you address the epistemic injustice; an injustice about how people have access to knowledge production. Can you explain in detail what is meant by epistemic injustice?
FS: First of all, it is important to say that the core of any economic, social, and political socialization is always an epistemic one. Socialization is a system of knowledge production. Second, it can be admitted that epistemology is a way of understanding the world, creating one world within the world, and in doing so, sometimes excluding other worlds. The question is, which forms of knowledge can exist, can coexist next to each other? There are a great number of knowledge archives, a variety of knowledge of different cultures, of cognitive and cultural resources. In the past 500 years, only one of these archives has been acquired, that of Europe, and it is time to acknowledge that this is only one form to refer to reality.
Colonialism has not only used military power and trading, but systems of knowledge, meaningful and powerful systems to convince the cultures that have been colonized that their concepts, their form of meaning and knowledge production, are not be considered valid. That was the case everywhere: India, Africa, etc.
DU: An important aspect in this conflictual discussion is the concept of reason. In your text you criticize the idea of Western modern reason. We are living in an era in which people and states are acting more and more irrationally, which allows you to question how the authority of the argument can be restored. And precisely, now comes the critique, an epistemic critique that claims that we need other forms of reason. Has the concept of European Enlightenment, the heart of European reason, failed?
FS: First, I would like to clarify that what I criticize is the instrumentalized reason, that eliminates all other forms of knowledge systems, traditions, e.g. the spiritual. The first philosopher that had criticized the Western concept of reason was Jürgen Habermas, who says the European Enlightenment is an unfinished project – indeed, there was progress, but is also created many disasters, world wars.
DU: So no »catch-up economies« anymore?
FS: We have to challenge a mechanistic perspective and allow us to introduce new principles that of the spiritual and sensual tradition, all the symbolic capital. What is a society without the archaic, all the old knowledge? I do not criticize reasonable thinking. The reason that I criticize is one which sheds over all things, thereby denies pluralistic forms of reason. Western post-modernism limited itself to this historiography, but one should also remember what the project of enlightenment actually was about: The greatest challenge was to create a reason for all – but it is often forgotten that not everybody had access to human dignity.
When you look at how it has been talked about Africa for a long time, you can see that Africa is the subject of a significant debate in which the way it has to develop, which forms of organization it has to use, and so on, is imposed. By contrast, the utopia of Afrotopia is a place that Africans must at first create, which they must first of all imagine and dream of. That’s why we spend our time looking at Africa and saying what Africa lacks so that it finally becomes like Europe. That’s the way Europe looks at the world: the world is what it lacks to become like Europe.
»So far, Africa has always been the object of discourse by others. Now it’s about to dream this utopia in Africa itself, to design Africa ourselves, to think, and to act for ourselves.«
DU: But you do not confine yourself to criticizing the excesses of Western modernism, but instead show alternative approaches: ideas and concepts that come in part from precolonial times, the precolonial library, as you call it.
FS: I take the economy as an example. When one speaks of economics, one often forgets that business science is first and foremost an anthropology about individuals who have certain resources, living in a particular geography and under certain constraints, and who try to use their limited resources under these circumstances as optimally as possible to their needs. But even the most basic economic event, i.e. production, consumption, exchange, is not a natural behavior, but consists entirely of social constructions.
DU: What does that mean?
FS: That there is a plurality of economic behaviors in human history, of ways of behaving in the domain of economics. The type of economy that is dominant today in Europe and elsewhere has emerged at some given point in time. It is following a certain dynamic, and sooner or later it will disappear again, I am quite sure about that. There are already serious economists who speak of post-capitalism and what an economic system can look like when there is no financial market and the like. What I want to say is that the economy is first and foremost a relationship. Every exchange of material is based on a social relationship that makes the exchange possible in the first place. Many societies understood this concept and base their material values on a »relational economy,« which is first of all about interpersonal relationships. When you look at the latter, you notice that there is a kind of old and profound substratum that gives rise to very different forms of economic relations, the very anthropologies of which I spoke previously. When I try to find and formulate alternatives, I refer to economics as intersecting relationships that is the foundation for any material exchange.
»I would say that Europe has been heard a lot in the last five centuries, Europe has spoken a lot and undoubtedly given a lot to humankind – one has to acknowledge that. But I think it is time for Europe to learn to listen.«
DU: Another concept you refer to in you essay is the oral reason. Can you explain what constitutes the oral reason which rises out of the African societies?
FS: Also in Africa, there were written traditions. But a very powerful and very present means, was the hegemony of language. The essence of oral reason is based on a certain agility in the verbal transmission, in general oral communication allows to produce and codify forms and knowledge and pass it on in its fluidity.
DU: One thing that came to my attention was that »Afrotopia« completely abandons the role of Europe or of the West. At no point does »Afrotopia« suggest that Europe should, could, or get to do this or that: Europe is completely irrelevant. It makes me think of a reference in Sarte’s preface to the book »The Wretched of the Earth« (original: Les damnés des la terre) by Franz Fanon, where Sarte writes: »Europeans, you must open this book and enter into it. After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading centers and to the hired soldiers who defend them. (…) Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound, and perished with cold.«
FS: The goal of my essay was to reflect, originating from the African continent. The place from which one thinks and from which one turns towards the world is important. That’s why I also criticize a number of concepts that originated from the mythological universe of Europe and claim to be universal, but, in actual fact, they are not. My aim was not to make Europe accountable for its responsibilities, but instead to take the theoretical and historical initiative itself. That’s why it’s not about what Europe would have to do but what we Africans need to do.
DU: Nevertheless, I would like to ask: what role does Europe play when it comes to shifting the balance? Because if this epistemic revolution takes place in Africa, then the European behavior can’t stay as it is.
FS: From my point of view, I would say that Europe has been heard a lot in the last five centuries, Europe has spoken a lot and undoubtedly given a lot to humankind – one has to acknowledge that. But I think it is time for Europe to learn to listen. And to understand that we live in a world where there are a multitude of different archives and traditions that are significant and fruitful. The challenges we face as humankind are so great that we will need all the resources. Our resources, however, and those we will need, exist in a multiplicity; in a plurality, they come from Asia, from India, from Africa, from everywhere.
DU: Do you think there is a political movement in Africa at this stage that is working toward something you have been considering in »Afrotopia«?
FS: One of the difficulties we have in Africa is that in society, social groups produce forms of the political, economical, and cultural that are innovative, but that the real existing policies do not go into that because they are not the ones given correspond to institutional forms. There is a big contradiction – societies are innovative, but that is not taken up by the official institutions. Therefore, no, I do not currently see a political movement that would go in this direction. But I’m sure that will come.
We would like to thank the team from Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin, especially Monica Marotta and Susanne Hentschel, as well as Pepe Egger, editor for the newspaper »der Freitag« for the generous support in publishing this interview. A German version of this interview was published in the issue 05/2019 of »der Freitag«. Please find a link to the original article here. The interview was translated from German by Denise Helene Sumi.