Civilising norms and Africa: Reflections drawn from psychoanalysis

Julia Gallagher

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter explores the meaning of civilisation in Africa, using psychoanalytic theory to understand its historical role in shaping structures of political authority. European ideas of civilisation have historically placed Africa on the outside, a primitive foil to European progress. This has been pursued, as Fanon (1986), Bhabha (2004) and other postcolonial scholars show, in ways that have enabled Europeans to defend against psychic anxiety by projecting it onto colonial subjects. These scholars explain how the idea of ‘civilisation’ has shaped colonial and postcolonial international relationships, and the dramatic effects it has had on colonised communities. But it is possible to trace similar processes in pre-colonial social practice in Africa, where, as Mudimbe (1991) shows, ideas of progress and civilisation were also used to establish political authority rooted in a collective defence of psychic anxiety. As a result, postcolonial politics contains layered and complex meanings of ‘civilisation’, drawing on both pre-colonial and colonial meanings. The chapter offers an intellectual history of psychoanalysis and Africa in an attempt to explain the complex genesis of postcolonial authority, which, I argue, builds on external and internal ideas of civilisation and primitivism. While the bulk of the discussion is theoretical, the chapter ends with an illustration of political authority in Zimbabwe, evaluating the complex and ambiguous attitudes towards civilisation and primitivism that underwrite it.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAgainst International Norms
Subtitle of host publicationPostcolonial perspectives
EditorsCharlotte Epstein
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781315665955
ISBN (Print)9781138955981
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameWorlding beyond the West

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