Excavating Histories of Terror: Thugs, Sovereignty, and the Colonial Sublime [chapter]

Alex Tickell
Terror and the Postcolonial  
Achille Mbembe The following essay distances itself, in many respects, from the preoccupations generally invoked in debates on memory, history, and forgetting (including colonial history). My concern is not to pinpoint the status of memory in historiographic operations and processes of knowledge in general, and I am even less concerned with unraveling relations between collective and individual memory. It has become evid-ent that the distances (but also the connections) between memory as a
more » ... cultural phenomenon and history as epistemology are complex, and the intersections between historical and mnemonic discourses are manifest. 2 By contrast, the concern here is to reflect upon ways of considering how the colony inscribes itself into the contemporary African imagination. This manner of defining the subject has obvious limits. African forms of mobilizing the memory of the colony vary according to the period, the stakes involved, and the precise situations evoked. As for the modes of representing the colonial experience itself, these range from active commemoration to forgetting, passing via nostalgia, fiction, and reappropriation, all diverse forms through which the past becomes instrumental in current social struggles -or, a more serious consequence, becomes used as a means to destroy the political connection altogether. 3 Contrary to such instrumentalist readings of the colonial past, however, I will demonstrate that memory (just like recollections, nostalgia, Terror and the Postcolonial, First Edition. Edited by Elleke Boehmer and Stephen Morton. or forgetting) is fundamentally composed of psychic images. This is the manner all these elements take, as they resurface in the representative field. These images are composed of absent objects, of formative, original experiences that occurred in the past -the image enabling the presence of absence. Therefore, what is important in memory, recollections, and forgetting, is not so much "truth," but rather gaps, "lies," erasures, and blackouts, things which cannot easily be articulated, slips and the failure to recall simple acts, all of which may be summed up as the reluctance to confess. As powerful representational complexes, memory, recollection, and forgetting are, strictly speaking, symptomatic acts. They only glean meaning through their relation to a secret. They thus emerge as the product of psychic work and the critique of time -which are two fundamental processes of the cure from the past. I am, then, particularly interested in those aspects of the African remembrance of the colony which render the latter a place of loss. In canonical African texts (literature, philosophy, political essays, art, music, and cinema), the colony appears first and foremost as a place of loss, which, in turn, makes it possible to establish a debt between the ex-colonized subject and the ex-colonizer. Indeed, all this is not unrelated to the very nature of the colonial potentate and the manner in which he operated two levers which were, on the one hand, the functions of terror (the colony's accursed share) and on the other, the functions of fantasy (its guilty secret). Then again, representing the memory of the colony does not only require an engagement with psychic work and its losses; it also requires a critique of time and artifacts that claim to be the last substitutes for the very substance of time (statues, monuments, effigies). I will consider literature as an example of this African critique of time, one of the instances (alongside dance, music, celebrations, trance, and possession) when memory, imagination, and forgetting become entwined to such an extent that distinctions between the symbolic and the real, the individual and the collective, are abolished. 4 Finally, I will examine the connections between skulls (in statues, effigies, and colonial monuments which are found in many public squares in Africa today) and the question of the proper name (auto-recognition), which, as we know, occupies such a central place in modes of African self-writing.
doi:10.1002/9781444310085.ch7 fatcat:cleblbamvvblnnv7q3xz7czupq