Aesthetic Perception and the Critique of Emblems: The Politics of the Visible in the Public Sphere in Africaby J.-G. Bidima



Arts and Humanities (all) / Cultural Studies




Diogenes 2014, Vol. 60(1) 69 –77

Copyright © ICPHS 2014

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DOI: 10.1177/0392192114552249

Aesthetic Perception and the

Critique of Emblems: The Politics of the Visible in the Public Sphere in Africa

Jean-Godefroy Bidima

Tulane University, USA


Henri-Godefroy M. Engbwang Bidima and Monique Evelyne M. Afana Bidima.

There has never been a society governed without words, images and liturgies. In the political field, particularly in former colonial states, three domains need to be considered: 1. The Structural Domain, which analyses the effects of power and its exercise, together with hierarchies, administrations, territories, and population movements; 2. The Representational Domain, which covers various thorny problems associated with political foundations, constitutions, and the ideologies that support political doctrine; 3. The Fantastical Domain, which involves the conscious or unconscious relationships between the subject and the structures of authority and power and the admiration or hatred that these engender in that subject, issues of gender projection and its relation to the way power is invested, and finally, the theatrical and textual frameworks of power and authority.

The structural, representational, and fantastical domains also relate to the three approaches by which the philosophical dimension of politics in Africa can be addressed. Close examination reveals that it is the domains of structure and representation that dominate this discussion. Research into the violence of the post-colonial State and the dynamics of globalization are a particular current focus.

It has been thus established that the experience of the post-colonial African State has been one of prolonged heteronomy and a gradual but ineluctable erosion of human dignity.

In present-day Africa, the structure of the post-colonial State also tends to reflect the old colonial order, despite the concealment of this offered by the courtesies of international relations. This explains both the idea that micro-nation-states are unviable and the rise of Pan-Africanism, whose

Corresponding author:

Jean-Godefroy Bidima, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118, USA.


Article 70 Diogenes 60(1) origins are nevertheless complex. Certain Pan-Africanist thinkers believe that in a Pan-African environment, the ‘African identity’ (something still in the process of becoming) will be able to express itself through fraternity and a rediscovered harmony. However, African political theorists have rejected this essentialist conception of Pan-Africanism, preferring to speak rather of ‘cosmopolitanism’. Under this newer approach, political identities and theories derive from cultural multiplicity, trade and migration flows, and international law (to keep in check the baser behaviours of nation-states). The only problem with this otherwise worthy theory of a cosmopolitan sociopolitical organization is that it neglects to subject the prevalent market economy to any serious political and philosophical criticism.

When reflecting on the question of representation in post-colonial states, consideration needs to be given to matters of ethnicity, to how new social classes are constituted, and the relationship between politics, religion, and sexuality. How can ‘the people’ of post-colonial states best be characterized? What form of discipline may be established and how might a new post-colonial national subjectivity be conceived? How should the images projected by political leaders be evaluated and what shall we call this ‘representation’? Who critiques these images?

Questions concerning the fantastical domain, on the other hand, are often eclipsed by the ones relating to representation, as mentioned above. Where African political theoreticians have criticized state ideologies, they often fail to explain why a people may remain attached to these power structures and their outward expression. Despite the severe criticism of the forms of African

Socialism promoted by Senghor and Nyerere, the mockery made of Mobutu’s notion of ‘authenticity’, and the disrespect for Colonel Gaddafi’s Green Book, people have embraced these ideologies often voluntarily and in good faith (though this does not mean they are all on the same level). How can we explain this emotional investment?

A nation’s existence is typically encapsulated by a number of formative events and developments: it may frequently be built on a genesis narrative which is often mythic (for example, the

Roman narrative of Romulus and Remus); on this may built the recollection of a survived catastrophe accompanied by the enshrinement of past heroes, martyrs, apostates, hereditary enemies, celebrations, monuments, and most importantly, the incorporation of a form of ritual prothesis demonstrating the presence of power and authority.

Our investigation will therefore concentrate on the fantastical dimension, setting aside for the moment issues relating to constitutions, regime formation, politics, and the various modes of repression that states engage in. We shall on the contrary discuss the aesthetic emblems which underpin the intertwining of national memory, economic ruse, and official subterfuge to create a multi-faceted post-colonial subject. This aesthetic question will be not only a matter of philosophical metaphysics but will also address what binds people together within the public sphere. This paper will show that political concerns are co-extensive with all concerns of the State, and that the State’s presence is not just a political mode. In the first place it is essential to recognize that the relation between representation and politics revolves around the political representation of emblems. The questions pertaining to the links between national narratives and perceptions of the visible then become the second avenue of exposition for this paper.

In particular, the aim is to examine the idea of consumption from a perspective of political aesthetics. To characterize what we mean by ‘consumption’, we will adopt Baudrillard’s understanding of the term: