Africa Knows! It is time to decolonise minds

Accepted Paper: C15-01. To panel C15.

Title of paper:

Postcommunism, the African 'outside', and 'the denial of coevalness': the situation of African studies in the Czech Republic

Vit Zdralek (Faculty of Arts, Charles University).

Long abstract paper:
Where does our responsibility ends? Beyond what point do we no longer feel obliged to respond, to care, to study, to re-experience and re-think our own? When the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote his post-WWII philosophical texts (for example Negative Dialectics, 1966) his perhaps most urgent call was for including the unthinkable horrors of holocaust in Western philosophical thought, to let this radically outside experience in the philosophical cabinet. When, in Time and the Other (1984), the anthropologist Johannes Fabian contemplated how his discipline produces knowledge about the world's other people he famously coined the phrase 'the denial of coevalness' to describe the various strategies by which ethnographic texts deprived the others' experience of coevalness with that of the West.

In my presentation, I want to argue that the Czech postcommunist society's perception of Africa as the epistemological and experiential outside and of Africans as inhabiting another time-space unrelated to the Czechs' own, hence largely irrelevant is - due to local intellectual developments before and after the 1989, largely untouched by critical theory, anthropological debates of the 1970s and 80s, and post- and decolonial thinking - widespread as a sort of common sense in Czech academia too, having peculiar consequences for the shape of African studies in the Czech Republic today. To demonstrate the problem, I use my personal insight as a member of the faculty into the discussions surrounding the founding of the Centre for African Studies at the country's oldest and largest Charles University in Prague in 2019 (where, significantly, the country's then only African studies program, having successfully run for more than four decades, was closed down around 2005) as an example. I believe that the above mentioned framework may not only help us understand the nature of the awkward debate whether to (re)include African studies in the university's Faculty of Arts that had formerly hosted the program and that is broadly considered the country's benchmark of academic performance in humanities, but also explain why certain fields of African studies have been more welcome and thriving at regional universities across the country rather than in the centre. Ultimately, by returning to the initial questions, I try to offer an understanding of the underlying challenges African studies face in the Czech Republic as not just economic but moral, deeply political and having much to do with the postcommunist condition.

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* This conference took place from December 2020 to February 2021 *
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