Colonialism: “European man seeks to be the center of the world” | future planet


Severine Kodjo-Grandvaux is a 45-year-old French philosopher, associate of the Laboratory of Studies and Research on the Contemporary Logic of Philosophy (LLCP) of the Paris 8 University, who carries out an important part of her work in connection with great African thinkers such as Felwine Sarr, Achille Mbembe or Souleymane Bachir Diagne. Author of African Philosophies (Présence Africaine, 2013), and co-editor of the book Law and Colonization (Bruylant, 2005), Kodjo-Grandvaux was responsible for the culture pages of the magazine Jeune Afrique, and is currently a journalist for the leading French newspaper, Le Mondein which he writes about issues related to racism, thought and culture.

his latest book, Becoming Vivants (Editions Phillipe Rey), published last year, is an ecological essay that has not yet been translated into Spanish. Nor will the task be easy. The title, literally, would be something like “becoming alive or reconverting into living beings”, a formula that would obviate the question that the author makes to humanity: a collective awareness of our link with the universe is necessary. “We are cosmos,” she says.

On January 27, he participated in a meeting organized by the French Institute of Saint Louis, in the north of Senegal, under the title Building Together: Individual Responsibility for a Humanistic and Sustainable Future, and this interview took place there. Rigorous and pleasant, she jokes when she finds a mouse that crosses between her feet in the middle of the conversation: “This is coexistence!”

Ask: In his last essay he deals with the question of ecology tracing European colonial history. How are these themes connected?

Answer: I approached the subject after the second edition of the Ateliers of the Pensée (workshops of thought) ―an initiative of the thinkers Felwine Sarr and Achille Mbembe to discuss contemporary issues from Africa― that dealt with the planetary and political condition of living beings and I did not think that it would lead me to the memory of history colonial, which is mine. The starting point is that in the history of humanity there has always been a desire to colonize neighboring populations, but it was not until modernity that this ambition spread to the planet, and from Europe men set out to dominate the entire world: North America, South America, Australia, Africa and Asia.

I was interested to know where this new excess in history arose from, and I realized that, in addition to the economic perspective (which coincides with the birth of capitalism, and the need for new markets and new land to cultivate) there was a psychological factor . It is the moment of the discovery of heliocentrism, which Freud describes as the “first narcissistic wound”: man is not the center of the universe. What is observed, from the point of view of ideas, is that there is a retreat on Earth: since he cannot be the center of the universe, the European man seeks to be the center of the world. For that, he makes a distinction between the natural and the cultural order, and distances himself from nature in order to control and exploit it.

In the history of humanity there has always been a desire to colonize neighboring populations, but it was not until Modernity when that ambition extended to the planet.

Q: What consequences did it have?

A: The first populations to be identified as “part” of nature in Europe are women, alluding to their organic bond with the universe, with the earth, with the lunar cycles… There are exaggeratedly violent pages of philosophers of that time, such as Francis Bacon , who justify burning witches and torturing women in the name of science for impeding progress and mathematical knowledge.

Similarly, the curiosity that moves Europeans to travel the world quickly turns into a desire to conquer, exploiting the natural resources of the territories they reach: gold, wood… but also of the populations that inhabit those other still linked lands. to the natural order. And, therefore, exterminable or exploitable.

When the slave trade started, in French the shipments of slaves were designated as “ebony wood” and I think it is very symbolic because people are spoken of as nature: since they are wood, they can be cut from its roots, loading onto a ship, deporting… Humanity is degraded to a plant or animal state, setting in motion a perverse system of inhabiting the world, which is designed in Europe but expands throughout the planet.

Q: To what extent is the damage caused by that past history still present?

A: The slave trade and slavery were not an accident or a mistake of capitalism: they are intrinsically associated and feed each other. The system that they have created, particularly the banking and insurance systems, tremendously unequal and destructive, was launched at that time and continues today. Another thing that we inherited from that historical moment are the intensive monocultures that were promoted on the plantations. The large crops of cotton, coffee or sugar cane led to the massive deforestation of regions such as Haiti, Santo Domingo or other areas of the Caribbean that are now impacted by devastating natural phenomena. To reduce the destructive impact of humanity on the environment, it is necessary for Western populations to rethink the ways of being and being with other populations, because we still continue in that logic of domination with nature, which translates into a relationship of domination of the other.

Q: You come to the conclusion that “the world is suffocating.” After that finding, how to move forward?

A: Modern Europe was founded on the denial of our union with the cosmos, losing the awareness that we inhabit an earth that is a planet linked to a universe. Although there have continued to be spiritual or religious paths that have maintained this idea, the physical and organic links that link us to the cosmos and that we experience daily have been lost sight of: the alchemy that is produced through plants so that the air is breathable, the need for vitamin D from the sun, the impact of the moon on the tides… You have to work on that awareness and live in co-presence with other living beings.

Q: Not in harmony?

A: I distrust the discourses that say that you have to live in harmony with nature, because this can be extremely chaotic and violent in its manifestations, such as hurricanes or locust plagues… You don’t have to live in harmony with that, you have to know that they exist and live in co-presence. We have to implement smart habitats so that the human presence does not aggravate these devastating phenomena, such as droughts or torrential rains. Covid-19 has made us aware that we are not all-powerful and has given us the opportunity to rethink our way of inhabiting the planet.

Q: In this search for other ways of living, you have frequently looked at Africa. Why?

A: The historical links between the European and African continents have shaped the populations on both sides of the Mediterranean. I bet on questioning those encounters, which have been especially painful and violent, but from which beautiful things and beautiful relationships have also borne fruit. What I propose is not to always be focused on looking at what Europe contributes to Africa, but on the contrary, to open up to what Africa can contribute to our European societies. African cosmologies are linked to primary ecologies that think of man as one of the elements of nature, not necessarily the dominant one, but the one that, due to his unique character, has the greatest responsibility for caring for his environment.

What I propose is not to always be focused on looking at what Europe contributes to Africa, but on the contrary, to open up to what Africa can contribute to our European societies.

Q: Do you think that in Europe there is a willingness to learn from other voices?

A: I think that in Europe there is currently a strong identity reaction, self-absorption, fear of the new, the foreign, the different, even one’s own neighbor, as we saw with the management of covid. But there is another current that seeks alternatives, which are less visible because they are not experiences that are thought of from the hegemonic or from a national or supranational perspective, but rather very local. There are many people who no longer expect anything from the current system and who invent and question “what is possible”, who experiment with other ways of doing things. I call them “resistances”: the solidarity networks, the people who welcome migrants… we may be at a key point where either we are going to get worse, or people are taking the reins with alternative solutions.

Q: As a journalist, how do you perceive the reception of these alternative stories in the conventional media?

A: I have never been limited to talk about other stories, philosophies or ideas. I also see it in the meetings or debates in which I participate: there is a real thirst for knowledge, there is an audience that is ready to hear other stories, that questions itself and wants to debate other futures.

Q: In the meeting in which he participates in Saint Louis, he expressly alludes to rethinking relations between France and Africa. Is there a real will to change?

A: I believe that on the part of certain French media that work with Africa there is an awareness of the need to change the ways of doing things. The paternalistic colonial reflex that consists of thinking that France is going to help the Africans is still common, which maintains that idea of ​​superiority. It must be admitted that what France has brought to the continent have not always been good ideas, that there have been mistakes and that, in many cases, the solutions provided did not correspond to the real problems.

Philosophical meeting 'The Night of Ideas', organized by the French Institute, in the city of Saint Louis (Senegal).
Philosophical meeting ‘The Night of Ideas’, organized by the French Institute, in the city of Saint Louis (Senegal).Paul Tosco

This awareness has been possible because an African elite, such as Felwine Sarr or Achille Mbembe, has carried out the task of explaining that they are not willing to wait for France or international institutions to tell them what to do, and that They advocate their own solutions. After some time, certain French actors have understood the message, which corresponds to experiences they have had on the ground, and entities such as the French Institutes, the Alliances Françaises, or the French Development Agency (AFD) have seen that it is not possible continue as before.

The reflection goes both in the direction of action (what does it mean to work in Africa today), and in the modalities of action: solutions are no longer arrived with in mind, but they are “co-constructed”, alliances are created which are new words that are heard more and more. In any case, I perceive that there is a will: we must not be skeptical, but we must be vigilant. There is a lot at stake.

Q: On numerous occasions, philosophical reflections are perceived as far from reality. In this sense, Fabrique de Souza was born in Cameroon.

A: It is an experience that was born from the intellectual reflections that arose in the 3rd edition of the Ateliers of the Pensée with the aim of rethinking the relationship between humanity and nature from a specific territory, Souza, 40 minutes from Douala, bringing together scientists, artists, young entrepreneurs, lawyers and farmers. We understand that the solutions have to come from local knowledge or traditional knowledge that has not yet disappeared and that it is interesting to make it dialogue with technology and science. At this intersection, experiences can be identified that can be operational for the contemporary world and more effective than solutions that are only scientific and/or brought from the north.

Thus, since 2019, we have set up a biological farm and we are working on cultural and social mapping, in order to study the reintegration of the economy into cultural practices. There are also three Cameroonian doctoral students who study land tenure, the social dynamics derived from the arrival of Anglophone refugees in the area, and therapeutic and culinary heritage. La Fabrique de Souza is an ecological utopia in modern times.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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