Connections, a new concept

Interview with Jean-Loup Amselle by Ayoko Mensah

Published 25/03/2005
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You were one of the first to refer to métissage, or cultural blending, in anthropology, particularly in your book Logiques Métisses – anthropologie de l’identité en Afrique et ailleurs (1). What does the term mean to you?
At the time, I used métissage as a metaphor to describe the relationships between different Malian populations such as the Fulani, Bambara, Mandinka and Senufo people. In this particular context, it seemed to me that identities were not fixed or immutable, but rather malleable. There was no fundamental difference between the populations. There was a sort of cultural-linguistic continuity between them.
This perspective brought me to question the discontinuist approach in anthropology, which constitutes one of the bases for the West’s domination of the rest of the planet. As an alternative to ethnological reasoning, which consists in extracting elements from their context, purifying and classifying them to establish political, economic, religious, ethnic or cultural types, I suggest « mestizo logic » [logic of cultural blending], that is, a continuist approach that emphasises « indistinction » and « originary syncretism ».
You are critical of the generalised use of the notion of cultural blending. Why is that?
At first, in my mind, it wasn’t a concept, but rather a metaphor. But, it turns out that the idea blossomed. Many people started to write about the « mestizo mind » (2), the history of cultural blending, and so on. The metaphor has become a cliché, an intellectual, cultural and commercial marketing concept. The term is often used in all kinds of arts fields from fashion, to the visual arts, music, show business and literature. It refers to something like the mix of different genres as well as the mix of different skin colours.
It is also a commercial concept. The new Toyota, which is very popular in California, comes equipped with an engine that can run on either gas or electricity. It’s called a hybrid. Hybridity is fashionable. These are post-modern concepts that concentrate on the absence of rupture.
What is it about the notion of cultural blending that shocks you?
The idea of blending dates back to the 19th century. It refers to the mixing of bloods, from a racial point of view. At the time, there were two opposing schools of thought: the « mixophobes » who were set against blending, like the racism theorist, Gobineau, who believed it caused the decadence of the Western world, and the « mixophiles » like Faidherbe who thought blending would be Africa’s salvation. In fact, Faidherbe encouraged mixed marriages between blacks and whites as he believed they would create a mixed race that would combine strong intellectual capabilities with physical strength! According to him, only the mixed race would be capable of developing the African continent.
« Mestizo logic » is based on two notions. Firstly, polygenism, which suggests that different races exist as opposed to monogenism, which suggests that there is only one unique human race. Secondly, the zootechnical model, which is a method that consists in improving animal lines by cross-breeding or miscegenation.
I stopped using the cultural blending metaphor because the terms polygenism and zootechnics carry too much weight. In social sciences, it is hard to avoid biological references when discussing the issue of blending.
You also say that the French trend towards blending in the cultural sphere refers to a very ambiguous concept in Africa…
Yes, that bothers me. The movement refers to a colonial point of view about Africa. Africa is seen both as a continent of death (with its ethnic conflicts, poverty, Aids, etc.) and as a source of revitalisation. It is a strange paradox! Africa is subject to, both negative and positive libidinal investments, from a psychoanalytical point of view. The black continent is supposed to regenerate and give new energy to the old, developed world. This idea is often portrayed by artists. Africa, but it could also be Asia, brings new energy to stagnant Western art.
This ambivalent concept is still very present today. On one hand, we shouldn’t mix with Africans, but on the other we must because they are a source of revitalisation. The way in which the Western world perceives renewed art forms in African contemporary art reflects this ambivalence.
People are fascinated by Africa’s negative image. The photos in the book on Kinshasa by Tituan Lamazou and André Magnin are an aesthetic of ruin and decomposition. The Dogon, a so-called primitive people, are not what fascinates Westerners today, but rather the aesthetic of urban degradation. This ambivalence can be found in their fascination with suburbs, the hot spots from which hip-hop was born. The hip-hop movement fascinates a great number of choreographers who believe it holds a lot of potential.
There is a second aspect to the notion of blending that you criticise. You say that it leads people to believe that there are pure cultures that tend to mix.
The notion of blending evokes a meeting of cultures, which supposes that they are distinct and pure, but there are no isolated or secret cultures. They are already blended and hybrid. It is only when two cultures meet that they become unknown to each other. In reality, they are open ensembles.
The shock of colonialism led to the creation of cultures. The shock was a mix of mixes, a patchwork of patchworks. Cultural blending always follows « originary syncretism ».
That’s why I just can’t agree with Creole thinkers, for example. Edouard Glissant differentiates between atavistic, deep-rooted cultures and Creole cultures that only came to exist through slavery. The concept was thought up by the far-right French politician, Mauras. However, there was never any genuinely pure culture. Even in the most traditional and closed societies, there is social constructivism. What bothers me is that the cultural blending theory is linked to the theory of the purity of cultures…
A few years ago you proposed a new concept to replace cultural blending, which you call branchements [connections]. Can you explain what it means?
Today, everyone uses the notion of cultural blending in all kinds of fields so it has become a cliché. Now, I prefer to replace the notion with the metaphor of connections, a term taken from the fields of electricity and information technology. I believe that there are universal signifiers, such as the Bible, the Koran or Coca Cola, which are appropriated in a different way by each person, in each region of the world. If you take for example the Bible, in Africa the phenomenon of independent churches represents what I call a contortion of the universal signifier (the Bible) in a particular idiom (such as African society). This contortion lends a certain colour to the universal language of Christianity – not in the sense of skin colour, obviously!
Therefore, software aims to become universal and certain religions – whether born of books or multinationals – attempt to dominate. But, they don’t necessarily succeed in crushing the world’s social forces because there is always the possibility to reinterpret, re-elaborate, to « vernaculate » common idioms. A society can click on a folder to open it and take possession of the contents.
How do you apply the connections concept to cultural phenomena in Africa?
I was able to analyse the process by studying N’Ko (4), a sort of cultural multinational, or what others may call a movement or sect that combines Arab-Muslim, Mandinka and European influences. The founder of the movement set Islam against European culture to give the identity of the Mandingo people more importance. However, he is firmly against cultural blending. You must not forget that in Africa, like it was the case in Europe, cultures follow reasoning based on aristocracy, pure blood, and tradition. Although there are connections, those involved do not necessarily demand this type of social existence.
Another example is the interesting career of the Senegalese musician, Youssou N’Dour. Fifteen years ago, he sang alongside Peter Gabriel in order to gain a foothold in the Western world music market. Today, things are different. His latest album Egypt, recorded with a prestigious orchestra from Cairo, represents a disconnection from Western culture and a reconnection with the Arab-Muslim world. When Youssou calls himself a Senegalese Muslim, he says he incarnates a less extreme form of Islam, in complete opposition with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. His initiative symbolises a kind of remedy for Muslim fundamentalism. The vision refers back to the colonial concept of black Islam, which was long considered to be peaceful in comparison with the more domineering, vindictive Maghreb Islam. It is a complete invention. There are always old colonial schemas that keep resurfacing.
As a last example, I heard that the next edition of the Dakar biennial might be replaced by a new festival of Negro-African art. Yet, many artists who won awards after the last edition of Dak’Art came from North Africa. The decision marks a disconnection from the Maghreb people and a reconnection with Sub-Saharan Africa. President Wade’s political choice may be explained by a desire to build better relations with the United States and with the African-American diaspora.
How is your connections concept viewed by intellectuals, artists and the general public?
Firstly, my book (5) sold well. It is going to be published again in a soft-cover edition in the Champs Flammarion collection. Secondly, I have a certain role to play in the cultural sphere, as a privileged observer, notably at the Royaumont Foundation. The connections metaphor is slowly making headway, but cultural blending is still largely dominant. It is difficult to go against the use of a popular notion, especially when it is commonly used by the press.
Don’t you think that the concept of cultural blending is also carried on by the ideology of globalisation?
Yes, of course. But, globalisation comes in different forms. Coca-Cola and McDonalds are only one type of globalisation. In the Parisian district where I live, I have noticed that there are more and more Asian food shops setting up business, but it isn’t clear whether they are Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian or Japanese. This Asianisation is another form of globalisation. In fact, the restaurants have dishes on their menus that don’t even exist in their country of origin. In marketing, we call this glocalisation, adapting to local taste standards. However, the phenomenon is not related to Americanisation.
Other examples can be found in the success of Brazilian telenovelas in Africa, a form of Southern hemisphere cooperation, or in the Sufi Muslims from Northern Nigeria who sing along with Bollywood Indian film soundtracks. There are several forms of globalisation that are all interlinked.
What is Africa’s role today in cultural globalisation?
That’s the theme of my latest book (5). I show how French culture wouldn’t be anything much if it weren’t for what is often called in a condescending manner, Francophone culture. Without it, French literature departments in American universities would cease to exist! The Association française d’action artistique (Afaa) exports African culture to the whole world through its special culture programme, Afrique en Créations. The programme is beneficial for Africans and also for France because it benefits from the export of African cultural goods! It’s what I call Françaffriche. Africa is fallow land for France and for Western countries in general. It’s the idea of Françafrique, but in the field of culture and the arts.
That’s a very striking image! Does that mean that Françaffriche is based on neo-colonial exploitation, just like Françafrique?
Yes, I believe so. The Afaa, Afrique en Créations and French cultural centres are what I call universalisation operators. They put African, as well as Caribbean and Asian artists, into contact with each other. It is not the artists themselves, but rather France that organises the meetings. Therefore, Africans have no control over their creation. The incident that occurred during the last Rencontres chorégraphiques in Antananarivo (6) is very important. Augosto Cuvilas’naked dancers were chosen by the jury but rejected by the Madagascan population.
Therefore, blending in the cultural sphere cannot be studied without taking into consideration political strategies…
Exactly. This raises the question of an internalised hierarchy of cultures, of the choice between a dominating culture and a dominated culture. Even today there are still elements of Afrocentrist thinking in Africa. However, I don’t think that it is a good idea to hold onto the idea of African specificity. It is better to assume the past with all its contradictions, to accept the idea of something more complicated.
I think that it is completely futile to always try to look for the origin of elements, like to search for Yoruba elements in Brazilian Candomble or to trace African elements in mixed productions. The idea of a pure identity, free from all contact with white people, is just as harmful as the notion of a diaspora, which is based purely on race and supposes that there is a biological continuity between Africans and Afro-Americans.
It is important to remember that the more that social science researchers talk about cultural blending as political progress, the recognition of a complex reality, the more those who are concerned by it reject the idea. It is very representative of the post-colonial ambiguity of African identity.

1. J.-L. Amselle, Logiques métisses, Anthropologie de l’identité en Afrique et ailleurs, Payot, 1990. Translated into English as Mestizo Logics, Anthropology of Identity in Africa and elsewhere, Stanford, 1998.
2. Serge Gruzinski, La Pensée métisse, librairie Arthème Fayard, 1999. Translated into English by Deke Dusinberre as The Mestizo Mind, Routledge, 2002.
3. See J.-L. Amselle, Branchements, Anthropologie de l’universalité des cultures [Connections, anthropology of the universality of cultures], Flammarion, 2001.
4. Idem
5. J.-L. Amselle, L’Art de la friche, essai sur l’art Africain contemporain [fallow art, an essay on contemporary African art], Flammarion, 2005.
6. African and Indian Ocean choreography creation competition organised since 1995 by the Afaa. The biennial event is the most important pan-African choreography event on the continent representing over thirty different nationalities, with 10 finalist companies and around fifty choreographers and guest programmers.
///Article N° : 5733

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