Talk:Afrique aux noirs

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Discussion 25 Oct 2019

Celebration and Omission[edit]

L'Afrique Aux Noirs is a text written by Paul Otlet, a figure who Constant has become familiar with. Indeed, previous Constant projects such as Algolit and Mondothèque had approached the Mundaneum and Otlet's work in various ways. Paul Otlet became over the last twenty years a celebrated figure of Belgian intellectualism, romanticized as a tragic hero, the eternal misunderstood genius[1]. In my research into this character, he emerges as a brilliant, passionate and caring man, in short a remarkable person. Indeed, he was defined as a universalist, utopian, documentalist, internationalist,[2] pacifist, socialist militant and visionary, among others. 3] This obscure text entitled L'Afrique Aux Noirs written when Otlet was 19 years old never seems to have provoked enough questions regarding this beautiful portrayal. I was unable to find any comments or criticism of this text. Similarly, the Constant projects mentioned above were limited to simple references, as if the text did not deserve any attention; as if it was in no way a reflection of the person who Paul Otlet was and the heritage in which he positioned himself.

My argument is that the text L'Afrique Aux Noirs is as significant as Paul Otlet's other texts, works and projects. And it is not just an embarrassing slip that can be ignored under the pretext of a youthful mistake. If at no point in his career Otlet had reconsidered his remarks, it is because on the contrary he confirmed them through his professional projects. The romantic portrait that was drawn to describe Otlet seems to have made difficult any criticism on his figure, causing a kind of deliberate blindness towards the elements that have the potential to obscure this beautiful portrayal. L'Afrique Aux Noirs, I argue, is just one manifestation, among others, of the deeply racist character of Paul Otlet's person.

Labelling an individual as racist is always risky because first of all it causes excessive emotions, whose strength is such that the rest of the argument can often no longer be followed. Secondly, it is indeed dangerous because it can lead to racism being embedded, once again, in an extremely problematic pattern of thought that limits racism to an essentially individual phenomenon. In other words, the risk is to consider the problem of racism as a problem of the behaviour of individuals with each other and not a largely systemic mechanism.

I will try to put forward the argument that the person, as well as the legacy of Paul Otlet is fundamentally racist. This does not mean that he spent his free time cutting off black hands, although he had praised such system set up by King Leopold II,[4] but rather that he actively participated in an enterprise of Dantean dehumanization of non-white, and especially black, populations, thanks to which the sufferings and injustices experienced yesterday and today by these populations had been legitimized and normalized. Otlet was so supportive of the activities of Leopold II that he aspired to build the World Palace in Tervuren Park, very close to what was then called the Palace of Congo[5]. This seem to show that he himself considered the World Palace akin to the Leopoldian colonial project, to the point of wanting to underline this by a close physical link.

The text L'Afrique aux Noirs begins with the observation of an emerging movement in the United States. This movement advocates a return of the Black American community to the African homeland. The leader of this movement preaches a return to Africa in order to burn the African "false gods" and "convert cannibals to Christianity". Otlet praised this movement, recognizing that the Black American community would never be respected or integrated in a country where it was brutally exploited during centuries of slavery. He then called on Belgium to take part in this movement as a state that had already accomplished "a humanitarian and Christian work" in Congo. However, he warns of the danger of mixing the Belgian civilization, so complex and refined, with the African one, so "wild". Belgium's role, according to Otlet, would then be to act as a guardian for the black population in order to ensure that things evolve in a positive way. This black American population, having already been in contact with an "advanced civilization", would then have the capacity to take their black compatriots out of "African barbarism". Otlet ends by encouraging Leopold II to take the lead and invite these newcomers to Congo in order to offer them land and facilitate the development of an African society. There are two main points that should be noted from this text. First, that Africans are of a fundamentally evil nature, since they are barbaric and immoral, and incapable of acting in self-determination and for their own good without the help of Western white populations. The second point is that Otlet is, without any ambiguity, very favourable to the colonialist enterprise, which is obviously very much linked to the first point.

When I began working on L'Afrique Aux Noirs, two forms of defense were expressed to me on several occasions, by a wide variety of people. It therefore seems essential to me to focus my arguments on these reactions, by firmly opposing them, because the occurrence with which they were articulated to me was more than disconcerting. The first and most unbearable defense is to excuse Otlet and his sordid words because they would, after all, reflect an era and not a man. The second defence is to absolve the character because of his young age when he wrote the text L'Afrique Aux Noirs, as Otlet was 19 years old at the time.

I would like to discard the first typical argument that always appears whenever one approaches the deconstruction of texts of historical European figures. I simply refuse the argument that Otlet's words should be re-contextualized within his time, around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th (1868-1944). This argument has the infernal effect of placing the European white point of view as the default, within which the difference from such default, the black, is the strange, the savage, the evil. Thanks to this reflective laziness, hatred, contempt and violence towards the African has been excused, normalized and accepted. This European point of view is presented as the cardinal point of intellectual thought, with its atrocities expiated under the guise of an alleged uniqueness of white Europeans. It is precisely this position that has produced the belief that, as a cardinal point, the West has the right, even the duty, to rule the rest of the world, to arbitrate what is good and what is not, to decide who lives and who does not live. This is the predominant posture that Otlet uses in his text. He speaks of a colonizing and civilizing Europe that must take part in the affairs of Africans and Black Americans, as an agent of modernity and progress. Otlet is explicit when he supports the statement that there is a deep antagonism between Europeans, representing complexity, finesse, intelligence and Africans representing savagery, barbarism and moral and intellectual degradation. These are his words, not mine.[6] This is not to claim that the hierarchical structuring of humanity has been an exclusively European process. It was in Europe, however, that the inherent inferiority of certain populations was so deeply accepted as absolute truth that entire generations of scientists worked to prove it through alleged scientific rigour.[7] The inferiority of blacks was therefore not only the justification for slavery exploitation but became a scientific reality. I learned at school, as probably most European children do, that Europe owes its greatness to the advances that took place during the glorious Enlightenment. This period was proposed to me as the true ascent of the human spirit and its exceptionality. This triumph of the spirit could only take place in Europe, of course. It was the glorious century of the Enlightenment that saw the beginning of the work on human races, as European scientists entered an era of frenetic classification. Everything had to be able to be classified into categories: plants, rocks, animals and humans[8].

This classifying logic is also at the fundaments of institutions that deal with cultural and scientific heritage, such as museums. Museum collections reflect the encounter between this appetite for classification and the European impulses for extreme accumulation; a conjunction that characterizes Otlet's work tremendously well. And Otlet, this "man who wanted to classify the world" (a name used by Françoise Levie to appeal to an exacerbated naive romanticism) actually set about classifying and collecting everything he could, thus nourishing the idea that Europeans must have access to all things and all knowledge, as a benefactresses of humanity. The title of Françoise Levie's documentary is a striking example of the white naivety with which Otlet's work has been approached so far. The problem here lies mainly in the articulation of such a nickname as an implicitly good attribute, thus completely omitting the ideologies born of the deployments of classification such as physiognomy, phrenology, racialism as well as their brutal legacies.

The scientifisation of racism made a fundamental shift in logic with the spread of anti-black racism, whereby not only slavery was legitimised but also any system of oppression against black people. Such rhetoric of inferiority, fundamentally linked to the work of constructing the notion of race, became a mark for everything belonging to the universe of the non-white. Black, yellow, red, etc. then all become figures of "the other" in relation to white. Thus, the invisible system of whiteness emerges, where white is neither defined nor categorized because it is the neutral point of view and can thus categorize the rest of humanity. My rejection of this first argument, which is the product of a Eurocentric logic, is an indispensable gesture in order to be able to touch on the violent experience of otherness in which people considered as external to the white canon were and still are locked up by the West.

In order to bury once and for all the argument of the time, I would also like to point out its factual falsity. Even at the very time when Otlet proudly displayed his disgust for African people in the guise of false scientificity, many African and European thinkers had already published revolutionary, anti-slavery and anti-racist writings. For example, Olaudah Equiano, re-baptized Gustavus Vassa, wrote his autobiography "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano" in 1789, 100 years before L'Afrique Aux Noirs, and became a bestseller in the years of its publication. This book is the first direct account of a former slave's experience of slavery. This autobiography was published in several European countries and was considered to have contributed to the rise of anti-slavery sentiment in Europe and the United States[10]. It appears that Otlet was therefore not even a man of his time, during which there was already documents contradicting his racist preconceptions regarding the intellectual inferiority of black people. It is imperative to judge Otlet harshly because he had a privileged access to world's knowledge, and said that he wanted to create an access to that knowledge.

Thus, if anti-racist thought was already available in Otlet's time, it shows how much his racism was not a defect of the time but rather a conscious refusal to confront his racist conceptions deeply rooted in the heritage of European thought. Indeed, if I talk about confronting it is not by chance because if Otlet, and many other European intellectuals, came to admit that Africans were indeed equal to whites, the whole colonial system would lose its civilizing splendour, to show itself as a monstrous enterprise, driven purely and simply by capitalist machinery. Where would one locate the thinking of the Enlightenment then, which theorized that individual freedom is a natural element of human beings, if Africans are indeed human too? In fact, the ambition of the Enlightenment according to Immanuel Kant, which is quoted many times in Otlet's works[11] and is considered as a major figure of the Age of Enlightenment[12], was articulated as follows:

“The Enlightenment is mankind’s release from its self-imposed tutelage. Tutelage is mankind’s inability to make use of one's understanding without direction from another. Self-imposed is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of Enlightenment.”

As a result, considering African people as human beings seriously undermines the foundations of the Enlightenment. The dehumanization of Africans had to be realized in order to be able to perpetuate atrocities while maintaining the humanist grandeur articulated by the Enlightenment. Cornel West and Achille Mbembe, in their criticism of slavery and colonialism, brilliantly draw attention to this point: "White supremacy is an integral part of European progress, and the odious slavery of Africans is a precondition for the progressive breakthroughs of the modern world"[14] "As an offspring of democracy, the colonial world was not the antithesis of the democratic order. It has always been its double, or its night face. There can be no democracy without its double, its colony, doesn't matter its name and its structure"[15]

To conclude this argument, I would like to point out how essential it is to reject Otlet's justification of racism on the basis of his temporal placement. Emphasis must be placed on the active role that the latter has played in a system that has killed, tortured and enslaved millions of people to this day, nurturing the idea that Africans are sub-human beings, flesh to be enslaved. The dehumanization of Africans has been such an effective strategy that even today, when one comes into contact with it as in Otlet's text, it provokes nothing more than a shrug that excuses the outdated hatred and disdain. As if this dehumanization project did not continue its influence on society, today.

I will tackle now the second argument, that defends Otlet due to his relatively young age when writing the text. I dispute this weak argument, as the result of a real reluctance to face the problem. A simple reading of the book "World: Essay on Universalism", written by Otlet in 1935, when he was 67 years, clearly reveals the inconsistency of this argument. Here are some excerpts:

"On the other hand, we must carefully distinguish from our superior races the truly inferior races, with smaller brains, such as Weddas, Axas, Negroes, etc. Here the error is no longer possible: the mixing that is good in European races becomes bad in mulattos. »[16]

"Breeds, as far as they have been observed, give rise to specific characteristics. Thus, in black species, the brain is less developed than in white species, the convolutions are shallower and the nerves that emanate from this centre to spread into the sensory organs are much more voluminous. Hence a much more pronounced degree of perfection in the organs, so that those seem to have more, what their intelligence has less. »[17]

It is difficult not to note here Otlet's almost fetishistic contempt for black people when he takes the trouble to name two distinct ethnic groups (the Awas of the Amazon and the Veddas of Sri Lanka) while referring very broadly to the "negroes" raking in, I imagine, a few thousand different ethnic groups from Africa. This hateful fetishism of the African can be found in every corner of the glorious European heritage that Norman Ajari, in his devastating book, Dignity or Death, has set out to highlight. Among the intellectuals taken into account is Kant, with whom we find the same fantasized image of the savage as in Otlet's writings:

"The Negroes of Africa have not received from nature any feelings that rise above nonsense. Among the whites, on the contrary, it is constant that some rise from the lowest populace and gain some consideration in the world through the excellence of their superior gifts. So essential is the difference between these two human races! And it seems as great in terms of the faculties of the mind as it is in terms of the colour of the skin".

"Thus we see the Negro appear, who is well adapted to his climate, namely strong, fleshy, agile; but who, because of the material abundance from which his native country benefits, is still lazy, limp and frivolous"[18]

The similarity of ideas and the language used are furiously striking and demonstrate to which point Otlet did not appeal to any personal imagination but rather to his own European heritage rooted in the work of racist thinkers such as Kant.

These two arguments, which I have set about deconstructing, demonstrate the rhetorical gymnastics that some are willing to engage with, in in order to keep intact a glorious but fantasized European heritage. A heritage of which some characters are the major references, thus making them untouchable. It is indeed difficult to confront one's own heritage because it did, after all, make us what we are. Or at least that's what we're being taught: - Belgium was born in 1830 - Belgium is a royalty - Belgium has given birth to great figures of which we should be proud: Jacques Brel, Hergé, Sister Emmanuelle, Paul Otlet etc - Belgium was at the head of an empire 60 times larger than Belgium thanks to King Leopold II -...

This heritage is taught to us in such a way that we learn to cherish it in order to maintain the fantasized idea of a nation, of a singularity formed together. Thus, we are able to recognize those who are part of it and those who are not, but also it pushes us to remain on our guard regarding this heritage. And if this heritage is what we are, we must oppose what could alter it. Knowing this, it is easier to understand these poor buggers at the Tervuren Museum (it is a conscious choice not to call it by its new name, which I consider insulting) who frantically cling to the dusty image of Leopold II the civilizing father, like a castaway clings to his liferaft. Or the public who is scandalized by the demands to remove statues representing men, including Leopold II, who were the leaders of one of the most murderous regimes in history, with an estimated 10 million people killed[19]. Yet, regularly we are offended: racist songs at a music festival[20], party people in settler clothes[21], students in blackface[22] and there will be others, I am convinced. We take offence and then forget until next time. Because that's the problem, nothing in our Belgian society is against these racist "incidents" which are then condemned to be repeated, as they are micro-events fundamentally revealing a system of oppression that is not about to move. It is also, from my point of view, this preservation of the state of things that brings us into a sort of identity crisis in cultural institutions. The real raison d'être of the institutions, the protection of the Belgian heritage, is suddenly called into question and the institutions are pointed out. But what happens to an institution, a museum if it recognizes that its very existence is the manifestation of a system of unprecedented violence and that its own activity is a component of that violence?

The silence around the text L'Afrique Aux Noirs is a manifestation of an enraged preservation of a fantasized heritage, that gives rise to an almost natural desire to make the text disappear with a gesture of the hand in order to be able to concentrate on the good, true heritage of Paul Otlet. As if this text was not a part of a whole that must be considered in its entirety in order to uncover the deeply racist and colonial nature of Otlet's person and heritage. The study of European canons such as Otlet or Kant, in the European context, functions by means of celebrations and omissions, revealing on the one hand the privilege of those who can afford to ignore hateful ideas, and on the other hand, the violence that acts on those who simply cannot close their eyes.