Shaden M. Tageldin is associate professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She joins the IAS as a residential faculty fellow for Spring 2022.
Shaden is at work on a project titled The Place of Africa, in Theory: Of Continents and Their Discontents, which asks the question, “What would it mean to center Africa in a reinterpretation of the global politics by which the world’s literatures and cultures came into comparative perspective in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?”
IAS: In just a few sentences, tell us about the new project you’re working on.
Shaden M. Tageldin: At the IAS this spring, I am writing a foundational chapter in a new project, The Place of Africa, in Theory: Of Continents and Their Discontents. Across a comparative arc spanning the nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth centuries, this project traces the ways in which the literature and thought of North Africa and West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and their diasporas (re)constructed the relationship between “Arabness” and “Blackness,” the place of each in Africa and in diasporic consciousness, and the place of Africa writ large in their entanglements with both modern European colonialisms and prior (or competing) Arab-Islamic and African imperial formations. Animating my work is a bigger question: What would it mean to center Africa in a reinterpretation of the global politics by which the world’s languages, literatures, and cultures came into comparative perspective in the long nineteenth century? I am interested, too, in how writings of the post-1950s period—that is, the high noon of twentieth-century Afro-Asian decolonization struggles—take up this legacy, and how they forget it.
IAS: What motivated you to take this project on, now?
SMT: This project has been years in the making but assumes a new charge—a new urgency—in the present. For many reasons. One is the wave of recent scholarship on the Afro-Asian movements that followed the Bandung conference of 1955, as well as on conceptions of race and economies of enslavement (a different yet not unrelated problem) in the premodern African and Asian empires that preceded or competed with modern European imperial formations. What these bodies of scholarship don’t explain is the shrinkage of “Africa” not only in the U.S. academic discipline of African Studies—whose purview is often sub-Saharan Africa, with North Africa exiled to Middle Eastern Studies, where its fit is also uneasy—but also in the minds of many who define Africanness or non-Africanness through a series of exceptionalisms. Taking just the proverbial poles of Cairo and the Cape, for example, we find some Egyptians repudiating Afrocentric discourse and arguing that Egypt is not Black, hence not African at all. Such refusals sometimes assume patently racist forms. And they hark back to nineteenth-century arguments such as that of the Turco-Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismail, who infamously declared that Egypt was no longer part of Africa but now part of Europe. Conversely, an essentializing discourse that alienates Islam, Arabic, and Arabs from Africa—intent on recouping pure indigeneity from the jaws of conquest and slavery as well as less malignant forms of contact—has emerged in African quarters north and south of the Sahara. We find some South Africans, in turn—and others elsewhere on the continent—saying that South Africa is not “really” Africa. That logic emanates, in part, from the afterlife of racial apartheid in South Africa. What I find curious, of course, is that spaces like Egypt and South Africa, each central to the history of Arab and African anti-colonialisms and Afro-Asian solidarity movements, might imagine themselves—for different reasons, and yet for reasons that have all to do with hierarchies of race and “civilization”—as states of exception to an imagined “Africa.” Perhaps not uncoincidentally, sub-Saharan African refugees and labor migrants have suffered various forms of racism, exclusion, and exploitation both in North African nations (Egypt, Libya, Morocco) and in South Africa. To understand why the place of Africa is so vexed in disciplinary, political, and popular imaginations, we need to deconstruct the hinges of modernity: the fault lines of time, space, or language on which Africa buckles or cracks in the literature and theory of the long nineteenth century, which redrew Africa between the lines of premodern and modern empires. I heed Frantz Fanon’s prescient warning, restating W. E. B. Du Bois’s powerful contention that the problem of the twentieth century was that of the color-line, that the problem of post-independence Africa would be a division of the continent along lines North/sub-Saharan, “White”/“Black,” Muslim/Christian/animist. Writings of the long nineteenth century reveal some of the roots of that problem—and some routes, however sinuous, around or beyond its reductive binaries.
IAS: You recently presented your work in progress to the cohort. What new perspectives did you gain on your work?
SMT: I truly enjoyed presenting my work in progress! The questions I have received thus far—and I’m still in dialogue with my cohort about my project—nudged me to think more seriously about my choices: why I was framing the project in the way I did, what context is missing for others. One question centered on what it meant for me to constellate an Ottoman-Palestinian intellectual like Rūḥī al-Khālidī—whose writings on the Comoros Islands and Dahomey are the focus of the chapter I am elaborating right now—with the Senegalese intellectual Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire, since the latter two either are African-born or of African descent, whereas al-Khālidī is not. My new project takes its main title (and conceptual seed) from a 2014 essay I published in the Journal of Historical Sociology, “The Place of Africa, in Theory: Pan-Africanism, Postcolonialism, Beyond.” In that essay, I read Senegalese poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor’s 1967 Cairo lecture on négritude and arabité, Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser’s 1955 treatise on the philosophy of revolution, and Achille Mbembe’s 2001 book On the Postcolony to argue that these thinkers marshal race/culture hybridities, historical/geographic alignments, and temporal entanglements to deconstruct monolithic constructions of “Arab,” “Black,” and “African” being, space, and time—and to pluralize and “world” a continent. I would point out that in his 1967 lecture on négritude and arabité, Senghor enlarged the scope of “Blackness” to the whole of Africa, including so-called Arab Africa, in almost a reversal of the way in which al-Khālidī—writing between 1903 and 1910—enlarges the scope of “Arabness” and “Islam” (in big scare quotes) to the whole of Africa, including so-called Black Africa. In other words, contra those who accuse Senghor of essentializing Blackness, I have argued that he actually hybridizes the concept and involves it in Arabness, and so too the reverse. One might say that al-Khālidī stages a similar move, albeit in different terms, over a half century before Senghor—and from a different geopolitical position. Both invoke bloodlines as well as lines of linguistic, cultural, and religious affiliation in their writings.
Another question encouraged me to articulate more clearly why the Middle East, or the Ottoman Empire, would be interested in Africa in the long nineteenth century. I have given that question further thought as well. First, I would point out that the terms of the question are symptomatic of the very division my project is trying to deconstruct: namely, that there is something called a “Middle East” (or an “Ottoman Empire”) that can be thought apart from something called “Africa” during this period, if ever. Indeed, unlike some of his contemporaries, al-Khālidī explicitly understood the geopolitical fate of Algeria and Tunisia at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries as an African question, not just an “Arab” or “Islamic” one. He spent nearly half his short life in France (he arrived in Paris in 1893 and was posted to Bordeaux as Ottoman consul general from 1898 to 1908; he died five years later, in 1913, in Istanbul), and France’s entanglement with Islam was articulated most heavily in North and West Africa. French empire routed Ottoman empire from North Africa in the nineteenth century: Algeria became a French colony in the 1840s (Algiers was captured a decade prior, in 1830), and Tunisia, a French protectorate in the 1880s. I gesture to this fact in my readings of al-Khālidī’s pronouncements on Dahomey, where he explicitly ties “the question of the African colonies” to “the surveillance of [European] nations over the Maghrib,” referring here to Algeria and Tunisia especially, but implicitly also to Morocco and Libya. Further, as I noted at various points in my presentation, he continually links Algeria and Tunisia to Dahomey and the Comoros Islands. Finally, al-Khālidī’s conception of comparative literature—central to a book I am currently completing—premises its notions of a properly modern language as much on the position of Arabic in relation to African languages as on the position of Arabic in relation to European languages, even if African languages appear in fleeting brushstrokes, awash with overcoats of European paint. We might say, then, that al-Khālidī is calling on his contemporaries 1) to pay as much attention to Africa as they do to Europe and 2) to pay closer attention to the African faces of Arabness and Islam.
Finally, I continue to mull over a wonderful question on Syrians—in the larger sense of Ottoman greater Syria, which of course included al-Khālidī’s Palestine—as “middlemen” between Ottoman and European colonialisms in Africa (in West Africa but also in the Sudan, where, as scholars such as Eve Troutt Powell have rightly argued, Egyptians too were colonial middlemen). That question calls to mind the position of South Asians in East and South Africa, and it has given me yet another hinge to take apart and theorize.
IAS: This is your third time as a residential fellow! What do you value about your time here at the IAS?
SMT: As a three-time IAS residential faculty fellow (2006, 2013, 2022), I have found the experience of thinking and working in a cross-generational interdisciplinary community transformative. The IAS community, I think, is what many of us wish the academy would be: a space to read and think and imagine otherwise, and a space of critical yet supportive intellectual exchange. Each of my book projects thus far has germinated from seeds planted during IAS fellowships—from my first, Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt (University of California Press, 2011), to the book I am now completing, provisionally titled Toward a Transcontinental Theory of Modern Comparative Literature, which has also enjoyed the support of an American Council of Learned Societies Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. I have made enduring friendships each time, and my work bears the stamp of questions colleagues have posed in IAS fellows seminars. Thus far this spring, I am learning so much from other fellows in my wonderful cohort, who are pursuing such fascinating projects, as well as from our IAS Thursdays speakers! I am an insatiably curious intellectual omnivore, so I truly enjoy engaging the work of other fellows and speakers across disciplines, as well as developing my new work on the place of Africa in theory in conversation with colleagues. As a literary comparatist wedded to close reading, I am eager to further explore the implications of extra-literary disciplinary methods—archival, ethnographic, geospatial—in dialogue with others this spring.
Map of the world, with Africa at the top, by Moroccan geographer Muḥammad al-Idrīsī (c. 1100–1166)
Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Pococke 375: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/ced0d8bd-1019-4af2-9086-e411115f1507/
Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford