07.- 11.06
2021

P 46

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

Joschka Philipps, University of Basel

 

Short abstract:

This panel 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 normative prescription of the diagnosis of a ‘post-truth’ era amounts to the idea that we should restore and defend the ‘fading’ authority of, especially, truths produced by science. This paper seeks to critique the notion of post-truth in light of decolonial arguments about truth in order to expand, complicated and/or deepen the conceptualization of the notion. The goal is to connect the notion of post-truth and decolonial arguments with the broad question of truth’s capacity to compel its authority.

This paper aims at understanding the absence of social unrest in Yaoundé, Cameroon in spite of ubiquitous discontent and “objectively” favorable conditions that would otherwise motivate urban revolt. To explain this state of affairs, and empirically focusing on a social housing project and dynamics of autochtony in Cameroonian urban space, I put forward the hypothesis of a "politics of suspicion" - understood as a set of hardly proven interpretations of reality that influence the processes of political violence and the exercise of domination. My argument is that urban suspicion constitutes the central thread to understand the absence of revolt, as well as the reduction of episodes of brutal violence, whether it is anti-establishment violence, violence between populations or violence enacted by the state. In this paper, I will first try to understand how, in Cameroon, the deployment of the state through the insidious violence of suspicion contributes to the making of obedient subjects in the city. Secondly, I will show that conversely, suspicion in Cameroon, while reducing the risks of anti-establishment violence in the city, constitutes itself a mode of political subjectivation that can facilitate the temporary retention of political violence between populations and in their relationship to the State.

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.

In this paper, I seek to delineate different ways in which African studies can and should contribute to contemporary research on conspiracy theories and post-truth politics, which has thus far remained a blatantly Eurocentric endeavor. After providing an overview on the ongoing controversies across different disciplines, the paper highlights why African studies should inform this debate and how it can do so on methodological, conceptual, and empirical levels. Based on ethnographic field research and a quantitative survey carried out in Guinea, it elaborates on the potentials of interdisciplinarity, reflexivity, and especially of dealing with socio-political contexts where the lines between “orthodox” and “heterodox” knowledge are routinely blurred.