22.- 25.9
2020

 “Post-truth” politics: Potentials and challenges for African studies

Joschka Philipps, University of Basel

 

24/09/20 9 – 10.30 pm Room 457 (main building)

 

Short abstract:

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.

 

Post-truth, in its common usage, refers to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The core idea is that epistemic assessments, specifically in the political sphere, are not formed in accordance with facts but by appeal to emotion, and relatedly, this indicates a ‘meta-theoretical’ concern about the status and authority of truth in society. The diagnosis of a ‘post-truth’ era works, descriptively, to suggest that there is something that is happening with regards to how we relate to ‘truth’, and it also involves a normative prescription with regards to how we should relate to ‘truth’. The underlying assumption is that there is a set of objective facts that is collectively shared by society. I want to suggest that the normative prescription of the diagnosis of a ‘post-truth’ era amounts to the idea that we should restore and defend the ‘fading’ authority of a certain singular set of truths produced by science and argue that this prescription is the target of critique by proponents of decolonising knowledge. I demonstrate the plausible decolonial charge that this prescription amounts to an oppressive and authoritarian dismissal of legitimate alternative facts about the world we live in. I end with some remarks about what this means for how we approach the question of facts in African studies.

Before 2013, Guinea was not deemed a risk zone for Ebola outbreaks as none had officially ever originated in the country. In the aftermath of the epidemic, research on the ecology of the Ebola virus extended to the region, galvanized by concerns for global biosecurity and renewed investments. Forest Guinea has become a hotspot for virological and environmental science since, its local wildlife sampled in the hope of identifying the elusive Ebola reservoir and anticipating the next outbreak. My presentation draws on ethnographic work to elucidate why and how this “quest for truth” is locally interpreted and performed behind a shield of secrecy, from concealing sampling activities to withholding result communication. These practices are congruent with a historical hermeunetic of suspicion in Forest Guinea, but they also point to new challenges to the moral economy of science and its truth value. This is an invitation to reconsider fantasies of anticipatory science unmoored from sited ecologies of power, knowledge and ignorance, whereby trust appears constitutively implicated in truth- and future-making.

This paper compares different ways of theorizing about political power, notably scientific and conspiracist ways, to highlight their similarities and differences on epistemological and political levels (see Arendt 1967; Boltanski 2014; Popper 1962). Based on ethnographic field research in Guinea, it argues that the common distinction between “orthodox” and “heterodox” conspiracy theories—i.e., between generally accepted “knowledge” about proven conspiracies and misguided “paranoia” about unproven conspiracies (Anton et al. 2014)—is often difficult to establish, due to a lack of authoritative sources and highly heterogeneous belief systems (Pauthier 2014; Simone 1998). This is by no means an African specificity, however, since the boundary between orthodox and heterodox knowledge is routinely breached in the current global context as well, not least in the United States (Nagle 2018). While this is good news for Africanists, hinting at their relevance in current debates on "post-truth" politics, it comes with the fundamental challenge of situating scientific truth claims politically in an increasingly confusing multitude of national, professional, and ethical contexts, which moreover differ fundamentally from one place to another. For scholarship not to become conspiracist, i.e. isolated in its own conceptual frameworks and personal networks, this paper argues for the relevance of eclectic perspectives that juxtapose different approaches to politics, truth, and knowledge production. Presenting a new research project, equally on the case of Guinea, it presents how different methods, i.e. survey research, ethnography, literature reviews, and photography, carry with them different ways of knowing and engaging with politics, and how their incongruence can sensitize us to the ongoing need for triangulation of data and theories.