Nathalie Etoke, Melancholia Africana. The Indispensable Overcoming of the Black Condition, translated by Bill Hamlett, Creolizing the Canon Series, London & New York, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.
A translation of the eponymous monograph that Nathalie Etoke, currently a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, published in 2010, Melancholia Africana (112 pages) offers a valuable contribution to the fields of Black existentialism, Black political thought, literary studies, and critical theory, with an original perspective on its subject-matter – the transformative potentialities of Black melancholy through which history becomes flesh, is incorporated and participates to the subjectivization of the individual and collective Black subject. A transcultural and communal experience of mourning which through time and space prescriptively calls diasporic consciousness for change.
Against the odds of contemporary academic critical fashion, Melancholia Africana is not an afropessimistic essay. Its minute account of the crushing historical weight of slavery and colonization on Afrodescendants’ minds and bodies goes beyond foreclosure and resignation in order to flourish onto a symbolic, poetic and political space of reconciliation for Blacks and Whites but also and primarily for Blacks with themselves. Etoke’s project corresponds exactly to what Lewis R. Gordon describes in Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy as the “existential paradox” whereby the movement of resigning oneself to one’s situation is concomitant to the resolving to act against that very condition (Lewis R. Gordon, “Thoughts on Afropessimism,” Contemporary Political Theory, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 2017). In that respect – as in many others including the book’s focus on the “black condition,” the non-finite making of a human reality that comprehends the possibility of change – Melancholia Africana is a remarkable contribution to theoretical inventiveness but also to resolute existential political action to which testify throughout the book the references to the Civil Rights struggle. In the last chapters the movement from survival to commitment and action – captured by the Cameroonian saying “On va faire comment?” (What we gonna do?) – also exemplifies this positioning both philosophical and political.
While pivoting on loss, mourning, and survival, Melancholia Africana expands its scope by dialectically connecting these three fundamental notions of individual and collective subjectivization to resilience, reconciliation and reconstruction. In the vein of Black letters’s tradition as exemplified by W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal and Discours sur le colonialisme, along with Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs – all works extensively cited – it is Etoke’s poetic prose which provides impetus to this analysis. Scattered throughout the main body of text, beautiful phrases and sentences (on the rebellious soul or the postcolonial subject facing social death) underpin the demonstration. The style often verges on lyricism, which sometimes culminates into mysticism. Though Melancholia Africana differentiates itself from the postcolonial trend that petrifies the past and essentializes the culture of trauma, it formally perpetuates the legacy of Black writing – be it labelled postcolonial, diasporic or Africana – with which it shares, through the blending of analytical discourse and poetic prose, of autobiographical vignettes with philosophical and political arguments, the subversion of the categorization of genres.
This highly productive quality, which is much appreciated, can nonetheless foster its own limitations. At some turning points of the essay, when diasporic consciousness is for instance being defined in the first part (in the chapter “For a diasporic consciousness”), such a formal syncretism may prove clumsy in regards to the conceptualization and critical analysis of key notions (here “panafricanism”) which could have been usefully expanded. As a result the reader may have the impression that lyricism and poetry come as substitutes for an insufficiently sharp critical analysis – a possible flaw also perceptible a few pages ahead when melancholy is being discussed more in the light of Judith Butler’s insights than in Freud’s (incidentally, the move from a melancholy that Freud studied in cohorts of individual patients to a condition applicable across an entire continent in a different time-period could have been further elaborated). The blurring of frontiers between genres – in this case poetic prose and critical discourse – depends on the successful transfer of agreed conventions from a genre to another: i.e., when the rhetorical force of the persona’s tone of voice supersedes the logicality of a reasoning, provided argumentative elements are notwithstanding proffered. In “For a diasporic consciousness,” the emotional turmoil of the Black man – elsewhere called “Afrodescendant” – which is used to describe the reinvention of a diasporic consciousness, partly fails to give impetus to the critical analysis and rather seems to conjure up counter-arguments: does this description apply to all Blacks? Do they all define themselves as partaking of a diasporic consciousness? Why would this metaphorical portrayal of a Black man stand for the experience of all Black peoples (a criticism that feminist and LGBTQI scholars addressed to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic in which he reshuffled diasporic consciousness through structures of feelings)? In this example, because of a lack of critical information, metaphorization and affectivity weaken conceptualization instead of strengthening it (this can also be explained by the structure of the essay which maintains references, argumentative discussions, genealogies of ideas, in the separate body of endnotes). It is the same phenomenon which may explain that the author’s voice tends to merge with that of the diasporic consciousness it intends to analyze. A diasporic consciousness where the diversity of Black experiences risks to be subsumed by the unifying lens of the author’s vantage point in spite of the variety of disciplines – history, philosophy, literature, politics – it articulates.
The second part of the book completes the first and clarifies its sundry points – quite in the fashion of the consciousness-awakening movement the essay describes, from a numbing history of pain to a transcending and transformative memory pregnant with meaning. After a few pages dedicated to melancholy spirituals or sorrow songs and the instrumental part they had in the resistance and survival of slaves, Melancholia Africana resumes its account of the worldwide Black experiences it had started with the transatlantic pertinence of the qualifications of “post-black”, “post-racial”, “color-blind” in contemporary France and the US. While focusing now on Cameroon and Rwanda the book continues to spin the thread of a positive and productive melancholy – the cradle of a knowledge shared by all Black communities, haunting but also calling for being acknowledged and which cannot be severed from an ethics of survival and resistance. Nevertheless the argument increasingly draws its force from its positioning in literary studies, giving voice to contemporary fictional texts of African descent or African. In Léonora Miano’s novel Les Aubes écarlates, Etoke explores for instance the role played by spirituality and communality in the transition from what she calls, after Paul Ricoeur, a memory fallen into oblivion and a memory of forgetfulness. The analysis astutely articulates a narratological dimension with a thematic perspective that concentrates on family connections and the poisonous legacy left by History of a disrupted affectivity. With the novels Murambi, le livre des ossements by the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop and Le Passé devant soi by the Rwandan author Gilbert Gatore, the following chapter pursues the critical study of the knot weaving memory and melancholy but furthers the conceptualization by shedding light on the inner mechanism of such an articulation. Though the author pays tribute to philosophers or theoreticians (Fanon, Derrida, Freud, Butler, Gilroy, Gordon) the primary source for her conceptualization remains African contemporary literature. In this chapter, it is a passage from Murambi, le livre des ossements that fleshes out a key dimension of “Africana melancholia” – the redefinition of survival into an intensification of both desire and life. In that respect the entire essay – and that is one its numerous assets – partakes of a form of “pretheorization:” it reveals and works through the capacity that the literary text has to produce new concepts. A reflection on what thinking the unthinkable is about; Le Passé devant soi provides another opportunity for Etoke’s conceptualizing process, her successful effort to transition from literary melancholy to philosophical resistance. The “Coda” and its conclusive focus on pain eloquently sketch this reflexive movement and its many questions – what to do with pain, how to transform it, beyond the rationalization of the irrational? How to transcend the fundamental experience of loss and mourning that African peoples and peoples of African descent have experienced into creation, construction and hope?
Depuis sa thèse de doctorat (2001, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne) consacrée à l’œuvre de James Baldwin, la recherche de Jean-Paul Rocchi a toujours eu pour axe central l’identité et plus particulièrement l’articulation des identités raciales, genrées et sexuelles, telles que le texte littéraire américain contemporain les porte et les affronte aux textes théoriques, notamment ceux de la psychanalyse freudienne et, plus largement, des théories du sujet. Cette double perspective, thématique et théorique, s’est, après la thèse et pendant une maîtrise de conférences à l’Université Paris-Diderot, élargie aux héritiers en littérature de Baldwin, notamment les auteurs noirs et queer américains des années 1990, dans le contexte particulier de la crise esthétique, politique et identitaire générée par l’épidémie du sida. A partir de 2008 et des questions suscitées par la réception de ces travaux, s’est ajoutée à cet élargissement une nouvelle thématique : celle de la réception, des conditions de la production scientifique, de la cartographie disciplinaire et du rôle qu’elle peut jouer, particulièrement en France, dans la marginalisation de certains champs du savoir, notamment ceux dits « subalternes ». Ces questions sont aujourd’hui rassemblées dans la thématique de la transdisciplinarité, organiquement reliée aux enjeux épistémologiques initiaux de ses travaux sur l’identité. C’est dans cette perspective transdisciplinaire et intersectionnelle que Jean-Paul Rocchi a récemment codirigé les quatre ouvrages collectifs suivants : Understanding Blackness through Performance—Contemporary Arts and the Representation of Identity (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013); Black Intersectionalities—A Critique for the 21st Century (Liverpool University Press, 2014); Black Europe: Subjects, Struggles, and Shifting Perceptions (Palimpsest, A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, SUNY Press, 2015); and Black and Sexual Geographies of Community-Building (Sexualities, SAGE Publications, à paraître en 2016/2017). Il prépare actuellement une anthologie de ses essais intitulée The Desiring Modes of Being Black: Essays in Literature & Critical Theory à paraître aux éditions Rowman & Littlefied International en 2017. Jean-Paul Rocchi est Professeur de Littératures et Cultures Américaines à l’Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée et Directeur adjoint de l’Ecole Doctorale « Cultures et Sociétés » d’ Université Paris-Est.
Professor at the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, Jean-Paul Rocchi teaches in American studies and on African American literature and gay, lesbian, and queer studies. A Fellow at the Du Bois Institute (Harvard, Fall 2007), he is the Director adjunct of the Graduate School “Cultures et Sociétés” (Université Paris-Est). He has published several essays on James Baldwin and other contemporary black writers, and on race, sexualities, psychoanalysis, and epistemology. He is the author of several edited collections including L’objet identité: épistémologie et transversalité (2006) and Dissidence et identités plurielles (2008). He was in 2011 the main organizer of the CAAR Conference “Black States of Desire: Dispossession, Circulation, Transformation” (http://caar2011.caar-web.org) from which he currently co-edits four collections: Understanding Blackness through Performance—Contemporary Arts and the Representation of Identity (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013); Black Intersectionalities—A Critique for the 21st Century (Liverpool University Press, 2014); Black Europe: Subjects, Struggles, and Shifting Perceptions (Palimpsest, A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, SUNY Press, 2015); and Black and Sexual Geographies of Community-Building (Sexualities, SAGE Publications, forthcoming 2016/2017). He is currently working on an anthology of critical essays entitled The Desiring Modes of Being Black: Essays in Literature & Critical Theory to be published with Rowman & Littlefied International in 2017).
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Jean-Paul Rocchi, Nathalie Etoke, Melancholia Africana. The Indispensable Overcoming of the Black Condition, translated by Bill Hamlett, Creolizing the Canon Series, London & New York, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019., ©2021 Quaderna, mis en ligne le 10 mai 2021, url permanente : https://quaderna.org/5/nathalie-etoke-imelancholia-africana-the-indispensable-overcoming-of-the-black-condition-i-translated-by-bill-hamlett-creolizing-the-canon-series-london-new-york-rowman-littlefield-international-201/