Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne chats to C& about post-Trump America and Africa after pan-Africanism
In the series Curriculum of Connections, we bring together critical voices, ideas, and projects working towards educational, artistic, and research practices. In this space, we learn, unlearn, and co-investigate old and new territories of knowledge systems, collaborations, and imagination.
C&: When in your life did you develop your interest in philosophy? Did you have any philosophical influences as a child?
Souleymane Bachir Diagne: Philosophy has always been there. When I was growing up, my father was a civil servant, an inspector, by profession but his real life was as a theologist. He had an education in the humanities and theology. So I grew up with him and his books. But the decision to pursue philosophy came fairly late. Throughout school, I planned to be an engineer. I was in the scientific track at Lycée CJC. Until my senior year of high school, I saw myself becoming an engineer. I was admitted to the classes préparatoires [Higher School Preparatory Classes] in France for the Grandes Écoles [elite universities] in humanities and philosophy, but I was also accepted to engineering school at the National Institute of Applied Sciences of Lyon. I opted for the preparatory classes and therefore philosophy. And sure enough, I found myself!
C&: Living in New York as a Professor of French Studies at Columbia University, how do you view Donald Trump’s rise to power and what has unfolded in recent months, especially in regard to immigration laws?
SBD: Like everyone, this election came as a huge surprise to me, essentially as I saw what’s known as populism, nationalism, developing around the world. Here we have the election of President Trump, but there are similar movements taking shape in Europe. However, in terms of New York City and state overall, the Democratic Party is in power.
The situation you describe doesn’t affect me personally in my own life, but I do have some responsibility for the Senegalese community living here. For example, I’m president of Decena (acronym for Délégation extérieure de la commission électorale nationale autonome), which supervises [Senegalese] elections in the US, so I see many people from the community. The community is very troubled by the measures that have been taken. The press has reported widely on the recent deportation of fellow Senegalese citizens.
C&: I recently watched the film Kemtiyu: Cheikh Anta, directed by Ousmane William Mbaye. If you’ve seen it, what do you think about the film and the thinker Cheikh Anta Diop’s vision of pan-African emancipation?
SBD: Yes, the film is one way of presenting the life of Cheikh Anta Diop through the power of images. It brings back Pan-Africanism. It’s true that we’ve lost sight a bit of that pan-African generosity that should be the engine of our continent’s development. Obviously, the vision of Pan-Africanism has evolved. We are in a different era from when Cheikh Anta Diop was advocating Pan-Africanism. So it’s essential that we adapt things to the new reality we inhabit. I was just talking about the Senegalese elections we organize here. The ID card for ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] is a good start. That’s a measure with a lot of symbolic power. It shows that, despite everything, West African citizenship is on its way. The torch of Pan-Africanism needs be taken up again. And that film comes as a reminder of that.
C&: In October 2016, you participated in Ateliers de la pensée (Thinking Workshops), a project initiated by Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr. What are your thoughts on this intellectual and cultural exchange project?
SBD: That’s precisely in line with what we were just talking about with Pan-Africanism, essentially proposing a reflection on the future of Africa. Which is what we set out to do with those Ateliers de la pensée, organized in Dakar and Saint-Louis [in Senegal]. Right now, the idea is to repeat this exercise, to make it into an annual meeting assembling a number of African intellectuals who will try to think collectively at workshops alternating with events with the broader public. The idea is to create a synergy, to foster communal reflection.
C&: Is the initiative very Francophone? How would it compare, for example, to other models from Anglophone perspectives? Do you see parallels or contradictions?
SBD: By necessity, the meeting was among French-speakers. Nevertheless, there is no reason it needs to remain Francophone in the future. The workshop’s mission is to expand and embrace plenty of people and perspectives. For example, CODESRIA, headquartered in Dakar, is the pan-African body devoted to social science research on the continent. And it’s offering a space for expanding the workshop to Anglophone and Lusophone people.
C&: Right now, the notion of decolonizing thought and body is widely discussed. How do you see that as applied to philosophy? How can it be decolonized?
SBD: First and foremost, we have to decolonize the history of philosophy. For years, textbooks have taught that philosophy began in Greece with the Greek Miracle, moved to [Roman] Antiquity, to Medieval writers in Latin, and then into the modern and contemporary era. This made philosophy into something uniquely and strictly European. To decolonize the history of philosophy, we must restore complexity to that history. Ultimately, the transmission of philosophical knowledge was not strictly linear or unilateral from Athens to Rome and from Rome to the Latin, Christian West. The story of philosophy is also the passage of Greek philosophy and knowledge to Baghdad, to Fez, to Timbuktu, etc. Greek science and philosophy took many roundabout journeys and detours that need to be explained. Philosophy today is plural in people’s thinking around the world.
C&: What are your thoughts about contemporary art coming from African perspectives? Can you name any example of artistic practices that you see as relevant?
SBD: I find the approach of Kader Attia, for instance, very inspiring. His work, which is both global and centered on Africa, raises questions that are not strictly African. In my view, that illustrates what art on our continent should be like today. Not self-contained and self-referential, but embracing global questions. In terms of artistic realization, Kader Attia’s work is going in the same direction we’re aiming for with Ateliers de la pensée.
Interview by Aïcha Diallo.
This Interview was first published in the latest C& Print Issue #7. Read the full magazine here.