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To Be or Not to Be Modern?

By Hofmeyr, Benda; Pauwels, Matthias | Journal of Literary Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview

To Be or Not to Be Modern?

Hofmeyr, Benda, Pauwels, Matthias, Journal of Literary Studies


Contemporary French philosophers typically characterise modern Western thought as an egocentric assimilation of the Other by the Self, Similar to Western thought's reductive relationship towards alterity, the relationship between Europe and Africa is, more often than not, seen as an asymmetric one of Europeanisation. The ethical dilemma being addressed in this essay concerns a possible way of interacting with the Other without necessarily violating or reducing its alterity. An ethical appeal demands a response, for ignoring the appeal and remaining silent amounts to "murdering" the Other. However, a response necessarily amounts to a violation. A critical analysis of two discourses on postcolonial Africa is conducted to address this dilemma: a political and urbanistic discourse. The first is that of the South African president, Thabo Mbeki's briefing on the implementation of the Millennium Africa Renaissance Programme (MAP) at the World Economic Forum held on 28 January 2001. The urbanistic discourse is a study on the Nigerian city of Lagos performed by "The Harvard Design School Project" (HPC). Using a "comparative methodology" these two discourses are critically analysed in an effort to find an alternative African modernity, an ethical alternative that leaves the alterity of the Other intact.


Kontemporere Franse filosowe tipeer moderne Westerse denke as 'n egosentriese beweging waarin die Self die Ander assimileer. Soortgelyk aan Westerse denke se reduserende verhouding tot andersheid, word die verhouding tussen Europa en Afrika meestal beskou as 'n asimmetriese betrekking waarin Afrika geeuropeaniseer word. Die etiese dilemma wat in hierdie essay aangespreek word het betrekking op 'n moontlike wyse waarop die Self kan omgaan met die Ander sonder die noodwendige geweldpleging teen andersheid of verskraling van verskil. 'n Etiese beroep vereis 'n antwoord, want om die beroep te ignoreer en stil te bly beteken om die Ander te "vermoor". Terselfdertyd kom 'n antwoord noodwendig altyd neer op 'n geweldpleging. Om hierdie dilemma aan te spreek word 'n kritiese analise van twee diskoerse oor postkoloniale Afrika uitgevoer: 'n politieke en urbanistiese diskoers. Eersgenoemde is die Suid-Afrikaanse president, Thabo Mbeki, se voorligting oor die implementering van die Millennium Africa Renaissance Programme (MAP), gelewer op the Wereld Ekonomiese Forum, op 28 Januarie 2001. the urbanistiese diskoers is 'n studie oor die Nigeriese stad, Lagos, uitgevoer deur"The Harvard Design School Project" (HPC). Met behulp van 'n "vergelykende metodologie" word hierdie twee diskoerse krities geanaliseer ten einde 'n alternatiewe moderniteit vir Afrika te probeer vind, 'n etiese alternatief wat the andersheid van the Ander ongedeerd laat.


   Outsider! Trespasser! You have no right to this subject! ... I know:
   nobody ever arrested me. Nor are they ever likely to. Poacher!
   Pirate! We reject your authority. We know you, with your foreign
   language wrapped around you like a flag: speaking about us in your
   forked tongue, what can you tell but lies? (1)

(Rushdie 1984: 23)

1 Introduction: Sketching the Scenario and Situating the Ethical Dilemma

Africa can be conceived of as a heterotopia--a heterotopia par excellence. The heterotopia is, after all, the site of violence and transgression where disparate elements can coexist as difference (Foucault [1967]1998). (2) According to Foucault, a heterotopia has the ability to juxtapose in a single real place several emplacements that are, in themselves, incompatible (p. 181). It is a site where we can speak of the possibility of the impossibility of convergence, because a confrontation with the other necessarily means being violated. The mere awareness of the other is a violation of its alterity. And Africa has been violated. Even as we write on Africa now--as Europeans--Africa is being violated (and, as in the above quotation taken from Rushdie's Shame, we are reminded of our disputable ability to speak at all .

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