This reading and composition course focuses on the ethics and politics of writing and representing difference. It takes as its main concern the anthropological study of sub-Saharan Africa, a place-in-the-world that has been historically been represented as the “dark continent”—only as a place of lack, of conflict, and of unreason—set against the imaginary of Europe as the pinnacle of Enlightenment and reason. The tasks of this course are to develop critical perspectives on the material consequences such representations have in the world, and to cultivate thoughtful and reflective writing practices with such potential consequences in mind.
The first part of the course will review some major accounts of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, while also juxtaposing accounts before colonialism to trouble some normative claims to intervention on the continent. We will look at a wide variety of representations, including those of travel writers, philosophers, and anthropologists. In doing so, we will review some major debates on civilization, modernity, colonialism, and imperialism with a keen eye to how certain representations provide justifications for different interventions on the continent. We will then shift our focus in the second half of the course to look at some contemporary accounts of violence and conflict—a series of representations that have had a substantial impact on Africa’s place in the world. In each topic, we will juxtapose different ethnographic accounts with representations in other domains such as news media, visual media, photography, and journalism. It will be our task to parse out how writing and engaging in various styles produces different representations, and to try and understand the ethical and political consequences of such representations. However, in our engagement with anthropological work, we will also ask what the limits of representation are by focusing on contemporary ethnographic accounts of practices and forms of life in Africa. Through an engagement with both this history of representations and contemporary practices, we will ask: what are the ethical-political stakes of writing Africa today?
The course will include readings by: Jean-François Bayart, Steve Biko, Jean and John Comaroff, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, James Ferguson, Archie Mafeje, Mahmood Mamdani, Nelson Mandela, Achille Mbembe, Francis Nyamnjoh, Jemima Pierre, Michael Ralph, and Janet Roitman, among others.