Imagining Africa

The first post in a new book symposium, on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Clive is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. After living as a critical ethnographer of international development and state-civil society relations in Southern Africa, in around 2016 he ditched it all for critical race studies and a love affair with a dead German-Jewish Anarchist called Gustav Landauer. In his head this all ties together because he was born Jewish, to an Egyptian father and a Ukrainian-descended mother, and had thus long obsessed over both the nature of whiteness and variants of political Jewishness that abscond from Zionism. As well as publishing Imagining Africa in late 2018 (most recently recipient of an honourable mention for the British International Studies Association 2019 Susan Strange Book Prize), Clive has also been writing a series of articles on Landauer, race and (settler) colonialism which all cohere around an anti-colonial critique of post-structural and Derridian conceptions of identity-formation and subjectivity. Two of these are forthcoming in Contemporary Political Theory and Citizenship Studies. Clive tweets sporadically @clivesg.

The posts in this forum are collected for posterity here.


Conventionally, we have long known that disciplinary International Relations has constructed itself around a racialized hierarchy of the international that places the West and an ever revolving set of pretenders at the top, with ‘Africa’, a continent of 54 countries, at the bottom. We know this because everyone from Hegel to Huntington said it, and more importantly because giants of African scholarship and writing have also said it, from Chinua Achebe, through VY Mudimbe, to Achille Mbembe.

Huntington Clash

Figure 1: The list of ‘civilisations’ From Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Sub-Saharan Africa constituted a ‘possible’ eighth civilisation.

It is not difficult to find work in IR that coheres around Africa as a place of death, disease, corruption and state failure. Indeed, Africa has to serve this function in order for careers to perpetuated, journal articles and books to be published, grants to be won and budgets to be justified. This obviously bleeds out beyond the discipline, and is informed by discourses produced from beyond the discipline. This in itself has produced a mini-industry of scholarly and cultural interventions designed to humanise and deconstruct racist ideas about ‘Africa’ within and beyond IR. Popularly, the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write about Africa was a classic of this trope, as was the more recently viral Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, The Danger of a Single Story.

So if Newsweek decides to put monkeys on its front cover to suggest that the West is at threat from ‘African diseases’, or a reputed journal publishes an article that suggests that Africa is so messed up that it needs more, rather than less colonialism, we should not be surprised.

Newsweek Ebola

Figure 2: Newsweek front cover, 29th August 2014

And yet, that Newsweek front cover was, if not atypical, then at least running against a broader tide that had begun to swell and take shape in the aftermath of the 2007/08 financial crisis. I began teaching a course on African politics in 2011, and as someone who had been inducted into the field via conventionally racist pieces such as Robert Kaplan’s 1994 The Coming Anarchy, it was immediately obvious to me that something funny was going on. The same year that I started teaching the piece, the Economist magazine published an edition proclaiming that Africa was ‘rising’. Set against backdrop of a sunlit savannah, the cover was supposed to denote hope and optimism. It was particularly notable because just over ten years earlier the magazine had published a front cover with a far more conventional image of Africa, involving a rocket launcher wielding teenager set against a black backdrop, the kind of blackness that invoked Hegel’s infamous assertion that Africa was ‘enveloped in the dark mantle of Night’.

Economist Hopeless Continent

Figure 3: Two Economist front covers, 2000 and 2011

The 2011 front cover was far from being alone. There were countless numbers of books being published by IR scholars, business writers and policy informers, conferences being organised by international organizations and a general cultural renewal in the old imperial metropole that witnessed the upbeat commodification of Africa in the form of pop-up bars, food and film festivals.

Although by the time of the Newsweek front cover this explosion of upbeat, hopeful and optimistic coverage of Africa was already fading, the ‘Africa Rising’ moment felt important; a period of time when the conventional tropes about the continent seemed to be being flouted (although keen-eyed readers will see just as much of Hegel in the 2011 Economist front cover as in the one from 2000). If, in Chinua Achebe’s words, Africa was ‘a foil to Europe, as a place of negations . . . in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest’ what were we to make of all of these affirmations of African power, strength, virility and future-making, especially when in many cases they were being partnered by exclamations of Western economic, demographic and political degradation, summed up by Severino and Ray’s description of ‘our sluggish European societies’.

It was very noticeable and notable that none of this coverage appeared prior to the 2007/08 financial crisis, and that it petered out by 2014/15. In Imagining Africa then I take this brief period as a jumping off point. For, if this was in many respects a quite short-lived phenomenon, undone by the bursting of Africa’s commodity boom since 2014–15, it nonetheless represented a burgeoning field of knowledge and construction site of ideas about a place called ‘Africa’. Much more than this though, I also argue that it represented an important insight into the state of racial anxiety in the post-financial crash era, and highlighted the relationship between racial anxiety and imaginaries of international order. And if the critical scholarship on the racialisation of international hierarchy and order couldn’t capture this moment when Africa was constructed as a potential saviour of international order from a post financial crisis degraded West, what other moments in the construction of international imaginaries, both within IR and beyond, could this scholarship also not account for?

The book thus unfolds across the longue durée of a century of Western racial anxieties concerning racial pollution, feminism, Christian morality, industrial stagnation, colonial provenance and latterly economic crisis, political instability and plunging birthrates among racialized-as-white population groups in some Western countries. The book seeks to isolate the genealogy of the post-2007/08 crisis fascination with and belief in this place called ‘Africa’ to save what was held to be the economic, political and social genius of the Western intellectual and politico-economic tradition. Of course this, in itself is a myopic perspective that ignores the vital contributions of the colonised and the enslaved to the gestation and emergence of the project of European Modernity, as well as traditions of democracy and natural sciences that both informed, and were erased by that self-same project.

Nonetheless, what emerges through the book is a genealogy of Western myopia about these roots, which instead allocates them to the historical genius of white European (almost always) men, and the simultaneous belief that this genius was being undermined by degrading forces in the metropole. Indeed, drawing on the work of Charles Mills I suggest that it is this supposed genius and the structures it creates that distinguish between (phenotypical) whiteness and structural Whiteness. It is the apparent and felt degradations to the latter and its gradual re-siting in the bodies of phenotypically black Africans that the book traces.

Union of South Africa Pamphlet

Figure 4: ‘Is this a Wise Distribution of Population within our Empire?’ Pamphlet distributed by the Union of South Africa at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London. Brent Archives, British Empire Exhibition, WHS/0/1/0/6/9.c02.

Thus, if in the 1920s, where the book begins, it was believed that Africa would save the genius of Whiteness but only through the personage of European settlers, then through the middle part of the century and then into this one that belief in the necessary relationship between the salvage of White genius and white embodiment began to slip, until we reached the point after the 2007/08 financial crisis where White genius, the genius that saw Huntington place the Christian West at the top of his civilisation hierarchy, was no longer safe in the bodies of phenotypically white people. Step forward then Homo Liberal-Africanus, a figure thoroughly individualised, fully market-engaged, unwilling to tolerate corruption, human rights abuses, and able to monitor and report on such abuses through their tech-savvy predilections for smart phone apps and social networks.

Ultimately, a Western gaze so implicated in logics associated with historical phenotypical white supremacy and their universalisation (a set of logics and an impulse that I call ‘Whiteness’ in the book) will never be able to produce an imaginary of Africa that is devoid of generalisations and crucial absences. Whether driven by a greater sense of racial supremacy or racial deterioration, the result has been, and will be, the same – the idealisation of particular forms of African subjectivity that can serve to reaffirm a sense of historical White genius. It is, therefore, not so much that Western imaginaries of Africa have to be deracialised, in order to avoid telling what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously called a ‘single story’ of the continent, but rather Whiteness itself. Africa, that cognitive space that has been so central to imaginations of Western racial exceptionality and international order, will always be a single story if Whiteness remains a form of implicit social self-categorisation that rests on a sense of linear historical, social and racial homogeneity, a ‘geo and body-politics’ that assigns historical development to originally European, phenotypically white bodies, even where those bodies become deemed no longer to be the best-placed carriers of White vitality and genius. To repeat, it is Whiteness that most urgently needs to be deracialised, and as such, as much as the book explores different and evolving imaginaries of Africa, it is Whiteness itself that ‘needs to be made strange’.

3 thoughts on “Imagining Africa

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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