Hemp-smoking and ecstatic states in Africa's dark heart

Out of Our Minds

September 14, 2001

Over the past 20 years, Johannes Fabian has written a great deal about the historical epistemology of anthropology and it is not surprising that in Out of Our Minds he passes through territory that he has visited before. He is often a very wordy writer, turning into a book what, in other hands, might have been an excellent short article, or into an article what would have produced a world-class footnote. Here, he seems finally to have matched form to content in a fact and theory-rich book that rolls in a very leisurely fashion through a selection of early expeditions to central Africa, examining, probing, picking out curiosities, taking measurements and documenting the odd ways in which they produced knowledge. It is now a conventional part of ethnography to situate the researcher, and Fabian claims the book as his "attempt to get even" with the discipline - hence its often self-righteous tone and its insistence on the continuities between imperial colonialism, "scientific" research and academic anthropology that are calculated to annoy believers, if any still exist, in either the intellectual honesty or utility of the subject.

The raw material is published accounts of expeditions to central Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly originating under the aegis of King Leopold's International African Association. Not surprisingly, since this body led to the iniquities of the Congo Free State, "scientific" research is ceaselessly unmasked as inherently political, a tool, precursor and justifier of colonialism. But Fabian's brief goes far beyond this to focus on what he terms "ecstatic" moments where the explorers are in every sense "out of their minds" and able to engage Africa in a way they never could when they followed their own myths of maintaining rational, controlled and hygienic relationships with a passive object of research. This may involve reference to drugs, disease, fatigue, brutality and terror as well as friendship, play, performance and the appreciation of beauty. Often the ecstatic seems simply the explorers' inability to fulfil their self-appointed role as decision-makers through the drift into dependency, so that the confusions of reality break through the certainties of myth. This may not exactly be the high road to truth, but at least it shows Africa not to be a matter of nice certainties, predictable in advance. In other words, Fabian's view of ethnographic practice valorises exactly the elements expunged by allegedly positivistic science and its dispassionate gathering of facts. Research is a matter of contingency, surprise, human engagement against one's will.

This is all fairly standard straw-man bashing, but in the process a great deal of valuable information of the most concrete kind emerges about such expeditions that were the inevitable framework for creating knowledge - the employment of children (the "boys" on expeditions often really were boys) and women, camp followers, the use of drugs and drink, the recruitment and handling of bearers, soldiers and interpreters and the facilitating role of a pre-existing Arab-Swahili imperialism in the European "penetration" of the dark heart of Africa. The solitary traveller never travelled alone, caravans spent most of their time not moving and when they did followed well-trodden paths. Relations with local rulers are particularly central and subject to literary deformation. The stereotype of the fat, drunken tyrant was early generated and turns up even in passages of pure invention. Oddly, Fabian never considers the origins of these expeditions in the sea voyages that set the pattern - often wildly unsuitable - for exploration of land masses. It is not coincidence that the nearest continent to Europe was the last to be explored.

There is too a great deal of "PoMo" reglossing of standard topoi - cannibalism, nudity, racial inferiority, sex - and one of the oddest aspects of this work is its curious lack of self-awareness. As a Californian poolside vision of the world that authoritatively recalibrates the rationalities of others, it swarms with as many epistemological presuppositions and cliches as the texts it dissects. Fabian reacts with every bit as much bizarre excitement to any mention of writing or naming as do his 19th-century explorers to the words "fetish" or "magic". He is at his most ungainly trying to find sense and structure in the racist pictorial caricatures of Africans that turn up in some of the works. (Surely - he feels - they must be significant: after all they too are a topos of much recent research.) He is certainly at his best teasing out the neglected phenomenon of Bene Diamba, the children of hemp, a 19th-century charismatic and anti-fetishist mass movement also known under the ethnic name of Bashilange. The children of hemp inhabit the borders of various European myths about undiscovered lakes and pygmies, though they are real enough. It is just western preconceived ideas that make them largely invisible as the explorers were totally unprepared for an innovating, anti-traditional social formation that was not simply "tribal" or territorial and viewed the outside world as a welcome source of social change. It evoked in westerners the standardised expression of regret at the inevitability of the passing of traditional Africa. They were not prepared either for their hemp-smoking rituals that were rapidly downgraded in western reports to archetypal native orgies, whereas their refusal to shed blood was largely passed over.

Fabian ends with a curious note. "Ecstasis," he writes, "is not something to pursue in the practice of ethnography - getting drunk or high, losing one's mind from fatigue, pain, and fever-induced delirium, or working oneself into a frenzy - as a method of field research." In view of all that has gone before, is this a final welcome sign of self-awareness, of an appreciation of the inevitable contradictions built into such a ratiocinating study of the benefits of being out of one's mind? Or is this someone just fending off all those fieldwork applications that will now surely come his way, urging the importance of working on the Bongo-Bongo while stoned?

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper of ethnography, Museum of Mankind.

Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa

Author - Johannes Fabian
ISBN - 0 520 22122 2 and 22123 0
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00 and £13.95
Pages - 320

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