“Post-truth” politics: Potentials and challenges for African studies
Joschka Philipps, University of Basel
This roundtable addresses how Africanists can engage with the debate on so-called “post-truth” politics: first, how they can contribute to a less Eurocentric understanding of the phenomena behind the catchphrase, and secondly, how their epistemological and methodological approaches are positioned in contemporary controversies about scientific truth and politics.
In 2016, “post-truth” was declared the international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. It was defined as concerning “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” For obvious reasons, the term has aroused attention among academics, but the debate is still pending in African studies. While Africa is rarely associated with the label of “post-truth politics”, it is all the more permeated by the phenomenon it describes. Rumors, conspiracy theories, political uncertainty, and suspicions vis-à-vis the global world order abound, and African studies indeed have a lot of insights to offer on these issues. Ethnographies of uncertainty and perceptive accounts of rumors and conspiracy thinking, for instance, situate such issues not against the backdrop of a Western consensus on what can be scientifically proven and what sources can be trusted, but within the heterogeneous social and discursive spaces that allow for their emergence. At the same time, and on a metatheoretical level, post-truth politics also constitute a serious challenge to Africanist scholarship. The discipline’s widespread criticism of knowledge production about Africa, and the concomitant epistemological skepticism concerning the notion of “objective facts” now speak not only to the African “empirical” context; they also acquire meaning within our alleged post-factual era. In this panel, we discuss different perspectives on the character and role of (scientific) truth in African studies, and debate what the discipline has to offer to, and learn from, contemporary epistemological-political challenges.