Souleymane Bachir Diagne: "Thinking the world from Africa is an emergency"

Six o'clock on Tuesday afternoon

Souleymane Bachir Diagne: "Thinking the world from Africa is an emergency"

Six o'clock on Tuesday afternoon. The Dussane room of the prestigious École Normale Supérieure on rue d'Ulm is always full. From the back of the amphitheater to the first row, students, readers, journalists, curious people, everyone has chosen a place, as close as possible, to be able to religiously capture each word, each concept, stated by Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne. The Senegalese intellectual, one of the great voices of philosophy today, has been a guest professor at ENS-PSL since February 7 and until May for an exceptional seminar on the theme "Humanizing".

The day's lesson has barely started when we stop taking notes. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, standing on the stage, has a very personal way of captivating his audience with his frail voice. The professor designed this seminar around the question of the universal "in a decolonized world, that is to say plural and decentered", as he likes to specify. It is a question, that day, of exploring the concept of decentering from readings, in particular of Simone Weil, and her historical and political writings. Very quickly, Souleymane Bachir Diagne opened up increasingly complex perspectives on the "African paths to socialism" or even the notion of decoloniality. Themes that will be explored further in future classes, but which are already generating rich discussions in the room.

But who is Souleymane Bachir Diagne considered one of the fifty thinkers of the century?

After having taught philosophy at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, then at Northwestern University in Chicago, Souleymane Bachir Diagne is now a professor in the departments of Francophone Studies and Philosophy at Columbia University, in New York, where he also directs the Institute of African Studies (IAS). In recent years, in addition to writing major books like How to Philosophize in Islam? (Philippe Rey/Jimsaan, 2013), In Search of Africa(s), Universalism and Decolonial Thought (with Jean-Loup Amselle, Albin Michel, 2018), La Controverse (with Rémi Brague, Stock, 2019), Le Fagot de my memory (Philippe Rey, 2021), De langue à langue (Albin Michel, 2022), to name a few, he is constantly in the field.

Thus, in Dakar, from the launch of the Ateliers de la Pensée, in 2017, we find him, alongside the thinkers Achille Mbembé and Felwine Sarr, to lay the foundations for a common project that is both intellectual and symbolic to overcome the lack thinking from the continent to the continent and the world. In Paris, it is with Frédéric Worms, the director of the ENS, that the exchanges are denser, to lead to several concrete initiatives, including the course "New understandings of the world", carried by two flagship universities of the Continent - Iba Der Thiam in Thiès, Senegal, and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa – and in collaboration with the French Development Agency Campus.

In this wake, the podcast "African Modernities" was also launched, six episodes to allow a wider audience to dive into the heart of current debates on major world issues from an African perspective. This Tuesday morning, it is under a radiant sun that we find Souleymane Bachir Diagne, the first Senegalese to integrate the ENS in the 1970s, comfortably installed in the historic office of the discoverer of the vaccine against rabies, Louis Pasteur. Encounter.

Le Point Afrique: The École Normale Supérieure on rue d'Ulm is deploying new initiatives to work better with Africa, why did you think it was appropriate to take this on? What vision do you have of it?

Souleymane Bachir Diagne: The idea was born several years ago, during my many exchanges with Frédéric Worms, the current director of the École Normale Supérieure. We first thought, at the time, of creating an Africa chair, the aim being to coordinate the various studies existing within the School but dispersed in different departments. Then, things accelerated at the time of the Montpellier Summit, organized by French President Emmanuel Macron with young Africans and members of the diaspora, in October 2021, in which we were involved. We then thought that it was necessary to imagine a space for university exchanges, exchanges of knowledge, exchanges of knowledge, perspectives and common reflections. In any case, this seemed to us to be one of the surest foundations of the new relationship between Africa and France.

The ENS, which also had this desire to open up to the South and primarily to Africa, quite naturally offered itself as an ideal place to make this vision a reality. We got together, with other colleagues, other institutions, to think about the best configuration so that such a space of common reflections and common constitution of knowledge, can see the light of day. And this is how two strong initiatives were born. On the one hand, what we have called the "suds Program" in which the course that I teach at the moment fits. And on the other hand, the pilot course that we have set up within the universities Iba Der Thiam in Thiès, Senegal, and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is called "New understandings of the world".

All of this progress induces a relationship of equality which would no longer be simply a transfer of knowledge from North to South, but truly knowledge developed and shared together.

The context in which these initiatives take place is particularly sensitive, in Africa as in Western countries. What paths do you foresee in order to sustainably bring out this vision and these projects?

You are right to insist on the situation we are facing today. It is a situation where the African presence in the world is strongly affirmed. We can clearly see that partnership with Africa is sought everywhere. Africa counts on the geopolitical level, obviously, because the African potential, if only by its demography, is already significant. The context is quite favorable to equal or win-win exchanges if we want to transpose it to the field of business. The state of the world demands that.

We live in a difficult world, a fractured world and a world facing unprecedented challenges. We have experienced an unprecedented pandemic that reminds us that we are "one human species" and that we must respond to these challenges as "human species". Likewise, we are living through an environmental crisis. All this needs to be thought of according to new categories. Thinking in new categories involves thinking about things and the world from different perspectives, including African perspectives. Thinking about planetary issues from Africa has become an emergency and it has become obvious, too.

This is the configuration, if you will, of this project that we thought up together at the École Normale Supérieure, with the Iba Der Thiam University in Thiès, the Campus of the French Development Agency and the University from Johannesburg's Witwatersrand. These different actors perfectly represent what we say about joint development between the French North and the South.

The African intellectual landscape is constantly changing. The question still persists as to what are African thinkers debating and what are their contributions to major concerns of the world?

Indeed, Africa is constantly working to evolve its understanding of global issues, but it is doing so increasingly through new categories and concepts more suited to contemporary realities. You have the "Ateliers de la Pensée de Dakar", which developed in this spirit. One of the principles on which these Workshops are built is the idea that African issues are global issues and that global issues are African issues. This means that it is not a question for Africa of shutting itself up in its particularism and of elaborating a sum of knowledge which would simply be locked up in an African identity. Africa thinks about the world, thinks about its relationship to the world and thinks about its future.

African thinkers are thinkers of the totality, they are not thinkers of their own particularism, contrary to popular belief. It is said that the universal is found in the north and the south can only bring their particularities. It makes no sense, it's not true. Henceforth, we agree that the universal is a horizon that must be forged in common.

This is the meaning of the course that I give at the ENS, on the universal. Africa is saying "let's go together" towards the universal, let's invent a humanism that is a humanism for our 21st century. And in this humanism, Africa has an absolutely irreplaceable contribution that the world needs to hear. In this constitution of the universal, Africa also has an important role that the world needs to hear. This is valid for the humanities, the social sciences, but also on a more technical level.

Take the example of so-called emerging diseases, we know that globalization also means the appearance of a number of diseases and the pandemic has shown us that we are not immune, unfortunately, other epidemics with climate change and all that implies. In these areas, the African knowledge that is involved in research on these diseases needs to be shared more widely. Ebola appeared in Africa, no one cared, until it appeared in the United States, Europe, etc. And who was on the front line to both respond to this challenge and also to conduct the research? They are Africans. One of the contributions to the course on "New Understandings of the World", focuses on Senegal's contribution to the fight against desertification, in particular through the use of specific plants to develop the famous green wall. This is knowledge to be shared with the rest of the world.

Africa is courted on all levels by the rest of the world. How could it take advantage of this pivotal moment to put an end to this image of a continent theater of a war of influences and move towards that of a continent that takes its responsibilities?

There is a gap which is real, which must be measured and taken into account. The vision we have of Africa lags behind the reality of things.

For example, thinking that the rest of the world's only relationship with Africa should be a humanitarian relationship. There is a certain condescension in this idea that Africa is the continent that expects to be treated humanely instead of thinking that Africa is, on the contrary, a source of humanism. Some visions are, quite simply, outdated, they need to be completely revised.

When I say this, I am thinking of young people in particular. African youth need to understand how much the rest of the world needs them and how much they call home to a continent that matters.

It's time to take up this formula which is the quite happy name of this publishing house which is called African Presence. The phrase "African Presence" has never had more meaning than it does today. An African youth who is aware of this is a youth who will calmly look at its relationship with Europe in general, and with France in particular. By "a serene manner, a serene gaze", I mean a gaze that is not a prisoner of some colonial past. Becoming aware of this reality is the best way to rebuild the relationship between Africa and more specifically African youth and Europe, in particular, with France.

Renewing the Franco-African relationship also implies being able to make certain stories heard better. How can France not get caught in the trap?

We must already make sure to establish a climate of trust based on the reconciliation of memories. Colonialism should not be a handicap when it comes to establishing new and equal relations today. And for that, we have to work to appease the memories, this is also what is being done. Now there is a need to produce a narrative that is not at the mercy of the various narratives found on social media, which can quickly become a source of outright misinformation. I believe in always striving to put the right information and proven knowledge in place and share it.

In this context of total overhaul, do certain notions such as Pan-Africanism still have their place? Because we can see that Africa is also torn, there is not only one vision….

The best way to make the connections is to first clarify the concepts you are using. To continue to consider Pan-Africanism as a kind of attitude that is both reactive and defensive against the West in general is an attitude that is not constructive.

On the other hand, going back to the very foundations of the pan-African idea, the idea that it is a question for Africa today of forming itself as a united Africa, going back to the old dream of the United States of Africa and move forward from this point of view, saying that Africa will count all the more in the world the more united it is. This construction of Africa and the unity of Africa in relation and in solidarity, obviously, with the African diasporas, may be the foundation of a more constructive pan-Africanism in a forward-looking vision.

The challenges are significant, I see a major one, the Pan-African Free Trade Area, which has only just begun, when we know that African States have vertical relations individually with the rest of the world and in general relations that are very important. And this is changing very rapidly, because the diversification of partnerships is happening very quickly on the continent. Not to mention that intra-African trade is progressing at a fairly high rate, even if we start from very low levels. But the pace will progress. And so, if the young people who have this Pan-African will which is important and which is necessary, invest their energy in this construction, there, it will be a useful Pan-Africanism, a prospective Pan-Africanism and a Pan-Africanism which will really build Africa as a presence important in today's world and in the world of tomorrow. It is therefore better, at that time, to truly clarify what the battle to be waged is. Which will get us out of this alternative between extremist Pan-Africanism or non-extremist Pan-Africanism, because we will have truly defined the terms.

Africa has the means, today, to have its own will accepted. Africa's negotiating capacity has become much more important. An Africa aware of its own resources, of what it brings to the rest of the world and confident will be an Africa that will decide its own partnerships. In this context, a configuration of partnership between Europe and Africa makes sense, just look at the map of the world. In the same way that Europe is being built today, horizontally, in the same way, we have an Africa that is being built horizontally.

What is your view on the current state and future of the continent, in the light of all these challenges mentioned?

For my part, I have a reasoned optimism because I see the seeds of change and I see what they will produce in the medium and long term future. Africa has come a long way. Two decades ago, Afro-pessimism was deeply rooted in people's minds, including among Africans. Africa was considered at the time to be the forgotten continent of human rights and democracy.

Today, it is true that there are setbacks. The coups d'etat that we thought were from another age have returned. The Sahel is an area of ​​insecurity, etc. But all in all, democracy has become acclimatized and rooted in the African continent. Backtracking is precisely aberrations in the face of a trend that is all the same towards democratization. We must not only hope but also work for the entrenchment of a democratic culture.

Above all, there are other reasons for hope. And these reasons are the Africans themselves, I mean the demographic energy which is that of Africa.

Your courses at the ENS started on February 7, what do you have planned for the program?

Precisely, my course will both take into account the fact that today there is what I called in my introduction "a disorder in the universal", I paraphrase the famous sentence of Julie Butler who wrote that "There is a gender disorder". We both have the feeling that we must hold firm, but hold firm the universal while also taking into account the plural of the world. We are in a configuration where no region of the world can alone decree what is universal, and it must be forged together. And also consider that the universal is a common task. One only has to look at the number of philosophical works devoted to this theme, such as the magnificent book by my colleague, Francis Wolff, Plaidoyer pour l'universel (Fayard). It is a sign of the times. This title shows both that the universal is necessary and that the universal is not self-evident. So let us ask, why is it not self-evident? Why it must take into account the plural of the world and why it is necessary that they take support on the plural of the world but this plural must give itself a horizon of universality. This was the fight of African authors after the Second World War, on this chapter, Alioune Diop, the founder of African Presence, already said in 1956 that universality supposed that everyone is present and participates in the common work of 'universalization. It's a message that was valid then and even more so for us today.

* "New Understandings of the World" course cycle from March 6 to May 24.

** "SUDS Program" at ENS includes the course cycle given by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

What is called "African Studies"?, What is the economic model of the contemporary African state? What are the forms of social democracy on the continent? Why are African cities sprawling so much? Has witchcraft really disappeared? If these questions interest you but you don't know how to take them, here is a podcast, "African Modernities", launched by the École Normale Supérieure, which will be able to give you updated reading grids. The famous rue d'Ulm school is completely rethinking the way it works on and with Africa through several training and research initiatives. In this wake, she gave carte blanche to Marie-Yemta Moussanang, thirty-something, Franco-Chadian, trained in political science and philosophy, to imagine a series of podcasts, from the eponymous symposium "African Modernities: conversations, circulations, shifts ", held within the school last June, around the work of researchers in the social sciences, humanities and other disciplines on major contemporary global issues.

The educational approach of Marie-Yemta Moussanang, also creator of the "Afrotopiques" podcast, accompanies reflection and invites us to take a step back on collective and global issues, from an African perspective. This does not mean that it is only a question of the point of view of Africans, "African Modernities" opens up perspectives by giving the floor to researchers from all disciplines of the social sciences, but who allow, thanks to their expertise, to decenter our eyes. The young woman explains: "What is stimulating in these works, when one thinks of questions like that of democracy or the social state, is the fact that over the episodes, one can come back to fundamentals and realize that the way in which we have constructed the grammar of social conflict in Western contexts, starting from institutions such as wage labor, the public service, for example, is called into question when we rethink the same things in from societies that are built differently, she explains to Point Afrique. This implies other strategies, she said on the phone, continuing: take the example of urban sprawl and concretization, the two big faces of contemporary Africa, we see that cities are spreading much more than they should without really meeting housing needs. Because in reality, construction is not used to house people: the geographer Armelle Choplin explains to us that it is a strategy of economic rent. "We buy land on which we build to derive an annuity, it's a rental investment," she points out. The reason is that the rents will act as a retirement pension, because generally in Africa, people do not have a pension, they have not worked in the wage system, they are in what is called the informal economy. So, shifting focus and changing perspective allows us to see what concepts or notions that seem fundamental to us may ultimately suddenly seem more fragile, less stable. We destabilize our benchmarks and we begin to be able to consider other forms of construction and other forms of social, economic or political organization, and above all other ways of building them. »

All episodes of the "African Modernities" series and all ENS podcasts can be accessed here or on the usual listening environments.