Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

African Writing Systems, Texts and Cultural Identities

Simon Battestini (Paris)


Summary: Inscribing meaning and writing systems have both been continuously attested in Africa since prehistoric time and earliest antiquity. Against all logic Africa was said to be savage, primitive, without writing, and therefore without literature or history. While most Africanists would not dare to perpetuate these nonsensical statements, the prejudices generated by their previous discourse are still with us in works of reference, in school manuals and moreover in the mass media.

The aims of the author is to look for the possible reasons of such a state of affairs, to submit a plausible explanation about the relationship of African inscriptions and writing systems related to orality, and to try to evaluate the part the created prejudice may have in the current African cultural identity crisis and indirectly in the political and economic turmoil.



The following communication is an unedited English version of a set of ideas in French. It may be considered as a survey paper or an attempt to produce a preliminary draft of what I call the "10th chapter" of a book I published in 1997 and which was published in English in 2000.

How can it be explained that the continent of Africa might have been said to have no kind of writing, of literature, of history, of culture? Africa, being the cradle of Humanity (the Chadian Toumaï -7.000.000 and the "East African Side Story"), is the continent where language and inscribed meaning first emerged. Africa is the continent of Egypt and Ethiopia. Islam, a religion of the book, penetrated Africa in the 7th century. As far as we know, it is in South and Central Africa that inscribing meaning has its roots (Blombos -77.000, Ishango -28.000). It is a fact that Africans created dozens of systems of writing before the colonial period and immediately thereafter (cf. Dalby 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1986, Coulmas 1989, 1996, Battestini 1997, 2000, 2002).

Two social sciences and their hybrid must be responsible for this state of affairs: linguistics, ethnology, and ethno-linguistics. What kind of impact on African cultural identity by such an unfair stereotype may remain in the scientific discourse and the media? How does the West perceive Africa and how do Africans see themselves? Subsequently, what are the responsibilities of the social sciences, not only in this state of affairs, but also in the current African crisis?


Visible speech and thought notation

The acquisition of communicative sign-reading appears within the first days in the live of child and an animal. This embryonic comprehension is based on intonation, stress, and rhythm of the voice (cf. Mehler et al. 1988), and on recurrent experiences of mimicry and gesture in similar situations. Indeed, these types of readings are remote from the principles that control our phonocentric writing and reading.

Prehistorians studied many incised bones and parietal abstract signs that were prior to cave paintings and engravings, and later on accompanied them. A number of them seem to note rhythmic sequences that were experimentally decoded using computerized programs. The inscriptions on the bone of Ishango (Central Africa, -28.000), may correspond to a calendar of activities related to the lunar cycle. The ochre incised tablets of Blombos (South Africa) cut with parallel lines on a polished surface, testify to the use of the spoken word, and denote a rhythm about which we do not know yet if it is phrastic, melodic, rythmic or else. Obviously, Blombos tablets precede by 30.000 years the first parietal images and are contemporary to the Ishango bone. Later on, the parietal images, accompanied by non-figurative signs, would be stylized, abbreviated, already paving the way for proto-writings and so on. As Sebeok's spatial message, the prehistoric man reduced the figurative or narrative image to a simple sign. It may be said that all human beings (prehistoric man, young infant, semioticist) share this reductive process to an essential codified core of articulated features, but it appears that most African inscriptions of meaning result from the same operation.

The fetishism surrounding the Latin alphabet prevents its users from perceiving its defects, but we are aware of them. We may be less knowledgeable about Africans' use of tonal languages(1), which indeed is not reducible to an avatar of the Latin alphabet. Yet exact sciences created written codes serving them well in spite of their little attention to phonology, not to mention music notation. They allow the highest level of scientific exchanges between experts speaking different languages. It is the same for some African writing systems. Nsibidi(2) (cf. Battestini 2002), which is semasiographic, shares these abstract qualities. An ideal universal system of linguistic notation of thought should be based on formal logic for thought and on music for spoken words. Leibniz pleaded for it, and today some West African linguists and poets, such as Professor Jegede, who speaks Yoruba, a tonal language which was reduced to writing by the Romanists, complain bitterly about the inadequacy of the Latin alphabet to convey "the full meaning" of the Yoruba language.


Inscribing meaning and writing

In order to base my argument on hard facts instead of presumptions or some miscellaneous set of different objects, we decided to select, within the communicative process, African writing systems, modern and ancient, whether phonocentric, analytic or synthetic, as well as inscribed meaning, along with endogenous oral comments, readings or interpretation. We did so because they are the concrete traces of African thought, feelings, and actions, and serve to denote and connote divisions of their situation-substance, as well as their types of relationships or logic. They constitute, globally, visible traces that there are as many marks of identity being used to denote all the real and imaginary worlds of the natural and cultural term-objects, and all the logical relationships they maintain within the social life of one culture or a cluster of cultures. We postulate that the simple fact of representing an object, a feeling, an idea, their types of interaction, or a signification linked to an experience in a given medium creates a dialectic tension beneficial to thinking. Each medium has its own attributes and limits and therefore generates new connections, new variations of signification, itself embedded in a particular situation. Identifying an image calls upon an encyclopedic knowledge. The stimulus (lines, colors, contrasts, material support...) maintains with the referent (class of represented animals, landscapes...) a relation of transformation. The stimulus conforms to a model (the signifying) that is semantically linked to a "type" (the set of chosen visual attributes) that is, itself, attached to a stored knowledge (the signified) of the represented animal in its real landscape (the referent). West and South African modes of inscribing meaning do not ignore what we commonly understand as "writing", but greatly favored, until recently, images and symbols to analytic, synthetic and alphabetic systems of writing. The dynamics of the relationship of the concrete images to the texts performed orally are as essential to African cultures as the principle of "vital force" in nature and artefacts is central to African philosophy.


Semiotics and writing as a system of signs

Now that semiotics authorizes the "reading" of signs that no one could have previously compared to writing, and that it is agreed that the "Great Divide", even as Jack Goody saw it, between oral and written civilizations, was a modern myth, since inscribing meaning is a necessary condition for the existence and the survival of any human group, we may review the entire literature about Africa. All cultures use both oral and writing systems and each culture makes use of many systems of inscribing meaning. Semiotics has a great future in Africa.

The co-existence of common codes of representation, such as language, gestures, images, symbols, codes of meaning inscription, writing systems, oral and written literature, in each culture, concretely proves the complexity of cultural identity. This is the reason I started in the 1960s the study of African literatures and, later on, African systems of writing and modes of inscribing meaning, considering them as the essential program of African semiotics. In the domain of African literatures, I looked for their functions, and never for their "message" or their "vision of the world". About writing systems and inscribing meaning I had to reject the view of writing being uniquely based on phonocentrism and adopt most of the semiotic perspectives that gave new insight into African memory-storing and communicative behavior (cf. Battestini 2000).

First, the "primitive" was deprived of any possession, reason, or invention (Césaire). Delafosse reacted shyly to this negative common belief, using the term of "non-nothing" (non-rien culturel) about what he could have seen as the "African cultural landscape".

Semiotics limits its object strictly and designs its methodology according to the principle of abstraction. The objects chosen here are all concrete modes of representation of thought and memory, and the methodology that consists in looking for all types of relations between and within these objects (scripts, images, writing) and their referents, this set constituting, ultimately, the culture. As informants explained to the inquirer the vision he/she have of it, this defines for the inquirer the cultural code of interpretation, and incidentally what is subjectively his or her cultural identity. A celebrated example is the Dogon cosmogony.

Semiotic readings of these landscapes are made possible through the knowledge of the relations of all the term-objects of the situation-substance recorded as schemas or scripts. They give guidelines to actions, help to solve problems, and plan the future. They form what cognitive psychology terms SGBD or the Management System of Basic Data. The concept of script is close to that of frame and of scheme. It is a type of representation of knowledge, notably in artificial intelligence and machine translation. We observed the historic continuum from abstraction and images to abbreviated ones and writing proper. Images of animals accompanied by sequenced abstract signs were not considered as writing or text until Leroi-Gourhan lectured (College de France 1970-1982, published in 1992) that

parietal art, by its bonds with an irremovable support, is similar to a text [...] Whatever the mobiles that may have determined the execution of graphic works, they constitute messages whose limpidity is not anymore that which it was with in the eyes of the Palaeolithic ones, but which still make it possible to detect the existence of it and to measure their complexity (274).

Borrowing freely from Schank & Albeson (1977), we may explain the process of interpretation. The image of a bull represents real events or dreams linked to experiences with the animal, and thus of the series of narrative episodes which are associated with seasonal migrations, hunting, feasts, incidents, grazing grounds, etc. Each one of these episodes divided, in turn into mini-scenarios built on a mental model of reference: rites related to the approach of the season of hunting, songs and accounts of taking care, accounts of episodes of exceptional hunting, preparation of the weapons and the bodies, rites of departure, celebration and festivities, cutting-up and drying of the skins, sharing of the meat, invented accounts of hunting... One perceives an organization of these mini-scenarios at levels of more or less great complexity. On each level one finds the old concept of the content and the form (gestalt). The terms of MOP (Memory Organization Packet) and of TOP (Thematic Packet Organization) indicates two of the modes complementary to the organization of the mental and true representations, the first related to logic and form, the second to the illustrated and stereotyped topic. The first is of the order of the reasoning related to the experiment, the second to perception, imagination and tradition. In short, prehistoric man painted the minimum of the essence of the referent, using a coded minimal sign or system of signs, which allowed and revived the oral performance. When Marcel Griaule (1952) saw in the Dogon cultured landscape that what he named "graphic facts" (faits d'écriture), he was close to recognizing that they constitute as many elements of their materialized "episodic memory". This type of memory is schematic in a sense that it is made of sequences of primitive actions and of their potential of contextual variations. They are linked to self-noetic conscience and make possible the management of the future. At this level the concretized essential of the "episodic memory" gives birth to the "semantic memory" and generates, helped by memory, experience and initiation, to semiotic interpretations. In this sense, it may be said that the so-called African "graphic facts", parietal engravings and paintings, drawings of thousands of symbols, codes of gestures and clothing, scarifications and make up ... and all kinds of art objects, are the cultural material that permit this formidable performance of African "orature". From the graphic script to the conceptual and memorized script, there is a relationship of the type of "reading", "interpreting", and "commenting" we may compare to a propositional analysis, the exact reverse of our synthesis and yet predicative.

"Graphic facts", as well as rare hand-written books, are of immense value to Africa, not in an economic sense, where rarer means more expensive, but for the simple reason that their contents or significance are constantly diffused and commented orally. A sacred text has justification only insofar as, being forgotten, it is reconstituted unceasingly in the actions, the thoughts and the feelings of the daily life of all and of each one, as for a Tibetan lama. The text is made culture. It tends to become the "texture" of our individual and cultural identities. We created the concept of texture to designate, in the field of literary studies, the core of iterative textual elements (narrative, discursive, and ornamental) that are proper to a culture and are organized logically by this culture in a unique fashion. Symbols and manuscripts are essential signs that govern the entire social life of all African cultures.

African cultures possess their own system of inscribing meaning, including in some cases what is called - in the West - proper systems of writing, plus those imposed by outsiders or freely borrowed. With regard to identity, the rejection of endogenous systems of inscribing meaning and their replacement by avatars of the alphabets, implies loss of identity. The Universal Declaration of the Linguistic Rights (Barcelona 1996), signed by 90 countries, protects the inalienable rights of any speech community to preserve its cultural identity. We may speak of a "linguistic genocide" for many African languages and African modes of inscribing meaning and systems of writing.


Origins of cultural studies

Whatever the term culture means, no one can ignore the fact that culturalists place emphasis on at least one of its aspects: functions, properties and/or content of their object. When studying "culture", the social sciences aim at understanding the unity and diversity of human gender in itself and in society. To do so, the West inherited from two traditions: one having its origins in the Enlightenment based on the literate patrimony accumulated since Antiquity, seen as the foundation on which "civilization" was built. But nowadays the writers are no more venerated than prophets were, nor are their thoughts celebrated, being seen as transitory, trivializing themselves in the mass media, their writings rarely seeking to reach the level of the once celebrated "Belles Lettres". The importance of orality for the Western erudite people, as for those ones formerly termed "primitives", is now commonly recognized as an excellent tool for transmitting the simplest as the most complex knowledge (Waquet 2003). In Africa it works for myths and originally highly-valued "traditional" literature or orature. The qualities of synthesis, interactivity and speed are now accepted. Waquet points out the essential quality of "thought in process" when writing is a "made knowledge". A long time ago, we compared writing with "common sense", "virtue" and dogma while, in contrast, oral with the dynamics of significance, or "meaning" proper, ethics and pragmatism. From this point of view oral was close to dialectics, as its perpetual movement confronts theoria to praxis, giving birth to poiesis requiring another theoria and so on...

Another reason, that seems to be a more recent conception of culture, apparently less philosophical and closer to anthropology, names culture the totality of knowledge, believes, arts, values, rules, contents and all other capacities and habits "acquired" by Man as a social being (Tylor's Primitive Culture, 1871). Then all aspects of African cultures were included.

This being said key words and movements excited many minds of great and less important scholars. Themes such as race (naturalistic), soul (religious), nation (political) or totem and magic (along with "divination", Maupoil 1939, 1943) as well as, to mention but a few: relativism (Boas), "basic personality" with psychology (Linton), functionalism (Malinovski, Radcliffe-Brown), power (Becker), structuralism (Levi-Strauss), neo-evolutionism with the impact of the milieu (Stewart), constructivism (Barth) focusing on contacts and limits, and finally "identity" and "strategies" culminating with Bourdieu and many others. At this point culture appears as an immaterial construct while identity, anchored on it, becomes an arbitrary and necessary artefact that neo-Darwinism based on the notion of "meme", the cultural equivalent of gene.



The African was described as a being, albeit one having nothing much, in comparison to the observer. The verb "to be" expresses the cancellation of verbal class but reinforces the noun. The "native" was said to have invented nothing (Césaire). So they were "primitives", the beings we are no more but must have once been. Their importance to ethnologists was proportionate to the state of their destitution and because they offer the closest possible picture of the myth of our origins.

When ethnology considered one type or another of inscribed meaning, the interpretative process was conditioned by its presuppositions. Superstitious practices, instead of technicality or knowledge, were associated with the symbol. Moreover, these drawings had to be borrowed, not invented. One of the first to uncover a kind of a systematic reading of signs in Africa was Maupoil (1939, 1943). He described it as a geomantic system linked to divination partly inspired by the Islamic culture. After him all of those who worked extensively with the Dogon: Marcel Griaule (1952, Griaule/Dieterlen 1951, Calame-Griaule/Lacroix 1969). Nowhere was the collection of oral tradition linked with symbols, analytic or synthetic systems of writing, images or art artefacts until recently (Bâ/Dieterle, 1966) and even then only as an hypothesis.

Between 1945 and 1955, the emergence of the need for decolonization among European progressists and westernized Africans was largely rooted in the most famous "liberal" metropolitan traditions. The African cultural values were recalled only (Cheikh Anta Diop) at the moment of the political independence of most African colonies. It is true, as most ethnologists would agree, that the entirety of their works, as well as all the scientific research in Africa in 1950, was qualitatively and quantitatively weak, as Delafosse's and Homburger's linguistic panafricanism, followed by Cheikh Anta Diop's "Cultural Unity" suggested. In France, for example, the perception of Africans passed mainly through an extrapolation of the abundant documentation of the Dogons of Mali, who could not be truly representative of all African populations.

The concept of "primitive" was central to any ethnographic work. Ethnologists were looking for the origins of their own civilization. Alterity was not in their mode of approach, and if cultural identity was discussed, it was not their main concern. Later on westernized African intellectuals acquired the premises of the sciences they learned, along with definitions, categories, methods and theories, instead of launching an epistemological scrutiny of the Africanist discourse. Even Cheikh Anta Diop, in his strong protest, was influenced in his research by Western ideology and in his conclusions by his own theories, which were scientific, but politically biased, about what was unique in the diversity of African cultures. Yet, he was the first to look for unity in the diversity of African cultures, a legitimate topic social sciences had apparently forgotten or could not yet envisage. To obtain the right to publish and to gain some authority in Western universities as African élite they could not do otherwise. Some of them were not prepared to confront hard facts from new premises simply because they were more or less cut from them, most being in exile, and strongly conditioned by Western ways of thinking, acting and feeling. Their "internal exile" marked their language and thought with the one of those with which they wanted to come to equal terms. Their astonishing capacity of metamorphosis made them excellent subjects for the rapidly unifying world where cultures tended to overlap each other and where identity became flexible, adapting easily to each new situation (cf. Battestini 1988-89, 1991). Yet, their "assimilation", never complete, lets appear their deep personality. This involuntary mark of their identity shows under the mask. The archetype of this westernized African élite could be Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Christian Senegalese nourished of Hellenism, who saw in the primacy allotted to orality an aspect of the African "basic personality" (the ink of the scribe is without memory). He proposed to see in intuition and emotion the highly developed qualities of Africans, and cultivated in the artist, two other distinctive criteria of the African identity, in contrast with Hellenic reason, at the origin of Western civilization, with writing and philosophy. Finally, he underlined the contrast of the "reason-étreinte", a kind of "global capture of reality", another distinctive value of Africa, with the "reason-œil" based on analysis. However, he built Senegal on the model of the colonial state and was one of the founders of Francophonie. All Africans cannot be reduced to this type and I know many who have nothing to do with this type or that one may see in Cheikh Anta Diop, but there are elements of this model in each of them. These African intellectuals and Western ethnologists, not to mention the Afro-American world, invented themselves, moreover, Africas dominated by orality. Today, the Africanist discourse does not dare anymore to neglect history and literature and thus claim "savageness" (as done since the 18th century). The term "primitive" (from the 19th century to date) is much rarer, or appears in inverted commas, as if borrowed from unknown others. Applied to society, and later culture, the term "primitive" was replaced by a series of expressions masking the implicit remnant problem in this chronological order: primitive traditional without writing without history without political structure such as the State economically marginal or underdeveloped.

Yet, to Durkheim, Morgan and Mauss there was no society without civilization. They rejected the previous "racial explanation", as well as all reference to the "natural foundation" of culture. Their atomization of each culture through either religion, rites, believes, or myths... gave birth to the triumph of the monograph memoir, and to a fragmented view of culture of the continent. Malinowski (1968) reacted with functionalism, rightly demanding studies of the "integrated whole" of each culture, an entity that tends to self-reproduction in spite of marginal changes and some borrowings. But it was Parsons (1951) who followed them but placed high in the hierarchy of cultural values "a system of shared and expressive symbols". To Parsons, culture is what integrates all societal spheres, not only the cultural heritage or patrimony. We choose the "script", the "texture" and the "texts", because they are used in all of these spheres of activities, modes of thinking and feeling. They serve to communicate and store messages and thought, and so they are concrete marks (signifiers?) of the identity (signified?) of a culture (referent?).


Ethnography and linguistics in Africa

It would be the same in Africa if some of these codes had not been denied, ignored, pejoratively interpreted or stigmatized by ethnographic discourse. The proof is in their current and frequent use in contemporary African art, in the revival of interest for the "desert libraries", and many other modes of their actual recovery.

Ethnological objects had no meaning in Western museums without the various media used to describe and explain them in their cultural surrounding. More accurately, we claim that at the origin of an African artefact there is a text that conditions its forms and size, constitutive material and added colors, attributes and types of use. This text may be "read", "commented", "interpreted" by the initiated, the ones who possess the code of representation. It was the relation of the elements of the artefacts and their organization to the elements of their environments and their cosmogony that created their significance. These art objects had neither message nor weltanschauung in themselves, but they had, and still have, a function: to store the memory of events and to communicate values and articulated bits and pieces of thought. In this respect, they function not differently to any mode of inscribing meaning if not writing as such. We cannot, in this paper, give an idea of the major importance metaphoric use has in African languages and literatures. To those interested not only in theories of metaphor, from Aristotle to Austin, but also in componential analysis of metaphoric literary text, we would refer them to Backman (1991). He argues, for example, that "on the basis of recent findings in linguistics and psychology, metaphor is basic not only to language but also to human cognition in general" and adds about "metaphoric reading" that the study of meaning components offers

the literary critic a means to analyze the vehicles of thought and the production of meaning in a text and to synthesize the metaphoric concepts which help to structure the work (Introduction).

It is well known that the inventory of rhetoric figures practised in a society defines many aspects of its culture, including identity.


Ethno-linguistics and "writing"

Linguistics as a science is born out of research for the origin of language (18th century), and relationships between languages (19th century), therefore marked by the "Great Historical Interrogation" in conjunction with the quest for the origin of Humanity. Saussure's linguistics (cf. 1916) designed, in addition to the still-practised etymology, philology and other diachronic studies, a new synchronic object, analyzed as one moment of the language, in its structure perceived through speech, and as an entity of internal relations. Indirectly, Saussure is largely responsible for the prejudice inflicted on Africans. To quote Martinet (1968), one of his followers: "Language is the human faculty to communicate through vocal signs" (7), but to prevent objections, he immediately adds: "The study of writing represents a distinct mode of study from linguistics, even if practically one of its subsidiary fields. The linguist, on principle, makes abstraction of the graphic facts" (8). This kind of scientific choice, with other factors, reduced to blindness most ethno-linguists working in Africa. The concept of "primitive", the phonocentrism of our conception of writing, the critical point of emergence of history as opposed to prehistory, ideologies of the moment, colonialism and imperialism were some of the factors reinforcing the stereotype according to which Africans were illiterate. On the contrary, ethnology would have to go into a metamorphosis that it may vanish into a kind of sociology studying exclusively economically under-developed dominated people.

The ethnology of writing, if we play with the implicit non-sense, would be the study of modes of writing and inscribing meaning or "scripts" of once dominated people in the midst of their social life, and of the diverse circumstances of their usage. Ethno-linguistics of "oral cultures" studies a linguistic community, its shared and transmitted knowledge, its linguistic competence, as evident in their oral practice, the norms of use of oral literary genres and communicative process, as well as the speaker strategies in specific situations. But ethno-linguists were rarely interested in any link between, on the one hand, graphic paintings and engravings or art objects as representative, or on the other hand, the communicative process or the storage of message and memories.

So the ethnology of writing aimed at studying shared knowledge as made evident in "graphic facts" and 3-D art objects in their homology with the attributes and norms of the literary oral genres. They are produced in specific modes and means to each culture. So, its set of questions could be: Who, in this society, makes use of writing (or script) and produces what with it? What literary genres are characteristic of each culture or a cluster of neighboring cultures? How do these systems of writing or script evolve? Which media and screens are the best-adapted to store and communicate which types of texts? What are the norms of the diverse genres in use in each culture or group of cultures? What are the favored and tolerated variations permitted by the script and the culture of each genre, and in which circumstances? What is the spectrum of strategic choices at the disposal of the "Master of Speech" (Maître de la parole) within the imposed general normative constraints? Each new interpretation of the same script suggests new articulations between its forms and its plausible meanings and may, as well, reveal the short-comings of preceding "readings", or reduce them to poor performances, but each interpretation tends to make all the others provisional and arbitrary. The essential here is not the story-telling or its adequacy to the script, as the story is more or less known by everyone in the audience, but in the teller's art, his use of variations, his adaptation of the story to his audience and the circumstances, his voice quality and inflections, gestures and mimicry, the rhythm of his performance, the excellence of his vocabulary, and his use of rhetorical figures. The "double-entendre" is particularly appreciated.


The same and the other, "identity" vs "alterity"

To Derrida, writing is the search for identity, for the repetitive self, the analogous and the similar. Science believed for a while that a phenomenon exists if it is structurally stable. It was assumed that stability of a being is the algebraic and geometric entity due to a property, that of structural stability (Heraclite and René Thom) and writing or inscribed meaning may serve as a substitute to it. The concepts of identity and of alterity, if non-definable, defined each other in their opposition. They are, on the other hand, inter-defined by their relation of reciprocal presupposition. The couple they form is essential in finding the significance's elementary structure. The term "identity" is used to indicate the feature or the entirety of features that have two or more objects in common. The identification of two objects presupposes their otherness, which makes them initially distinct. Identity is also used to indicate the principle of permanence, which makes it possible for the individual to remain the same one and to persist in its being, throughout its narrative existence, in spite of the changes which it may cause or sustain. Any identity is thus only partial or anaphoric, it denies the differences, variations and transformations and considers only the "same".

Identity may be considered a virtual entity essential to social life. Created signs help to anchor it in social life seen as a culture. It may be given a "real" but artificial existence: the totality of coded actions, feelings, thoughts, that the empiricist sociologist or ethnologist materializes in images, sketches... and descriptive discourse if he/she avoids ethnocentrism. Studying the structures of inscribed meaning is researching the modes of production and of conservation of meaning in the midst of social life. This is the program of semiotics that explains the function of the integrating mechanisms of identity.


Unfair denial anomy

Identification is essential in order to plan the future, to consolidate the process of socialization, and to define the self. Therefore, one may interpret the denial of these features to African cultures as generative of anomy and alienation. This rejection did not occur in isolation. Many other aspects and values of the once dominating society disappeared, such as clothing, language, religion, schooling, transport, politics, economic exchanges, judiciary traditions, and were not replaced by another unified cultural landscape. A new general condition was created where each individual lost his/her traditional moorings and became prone to disorientation or psychic disorder. In Greek, "anomy" meant "without law", and to Durkheim it was the disintegration of previously and commonly accepted normative codes. Nowadays, as seen on TV, African societal behavior shows some degree of alienation. The dismissal of Taylor in Liberia, and the death of Amin Dada in exile, are just two of the recent events and reminders of the turmoil in which Africa is. Some use the term "anomy" to describe exactly this condition. Erasing the symbolic code of a society may give birth to meaningless impulses that will fill the vacuum, leading to behavior without any mooring assorted to a feeling of unbound power that Nigerians name "power drunkenness".


African identity crisis or transition?

The question of identity, in Africa as elsewhere, is today the question of the sublimation of a crisis of direction, or its failure (cf. Kristeva 1977: 256). Presently, any discourse about Africa, being scientific or poetic, must be concerned with its potential consequences. Any semiotic model, in this respect, whether about inscribing meaning or economic development, must bend its thetic function towards an ethic necessity.

The primitive one was described without "having", i.e. he "was". The verb "to be" (infinitive) expresses cancellation par excellence of the category of the verb. For the present world, it affirms the category of the noun. Ethnology says that the Africans "are" but "do not have". They only exist as "primitive" beings, as what we once were, but have nothing to do with what we invented. They are important because they offer the image of our "antecedent being". Their only possible "identity" can thus be just a negative picture of ours. If the person is what constitutes the unit of existence of various acts, such as feeling, acting and thinking (La notion...1973), the conscience of a recurring "same" in the actions of the group and the individual, in time and space, from the interior or from outside, may sufficiently define identity. In Africa, an "ethnic" group rarely claims a common origin. Ethnologists or their informants and translators may have invented this origin. It may have existed and been forgotten, and may resurface on certain occasions. It may be forged on a new basis, linked to the encounter of the Other, to religious conversion or to the impact of universality... (says Elikia M'Bokolo 1998). Ethnology allotted to "primitive" the identity of ones group, but the possibility of an individual identity was denied. Thus, each Fulani, Dogon or Yoruba is representative of its group, as opposed to that of the ethnologist and the neighboring groups. The first African writers in imported languages saw in individualism the most obvious mark of the West, and in collegiality that of the African people. In such an ideological perspective, the possession of a system of writing became impossible to see or admit.

The identity of the Africans cannot be generalized for the whole of the continent. The myth of the unit of the African cultures (Cheikh Anta Diop) has not been abandoned. If it must be reactivated it will be on acceptation of the multiplicity of transcending experiments and if their comparison allows it. The conscience of the interior exile will create a vacuum to be filled with old and new values, albeit all rooted in the past. Then, decolonizing each ego shall generate the need for innovation rooted in the local historical culture. The local cultural heritage in its entirety when it survived the colonial heritage and the falsifications by outsiders, taking into account the post-colonial current situation (cf. Achille Mbembe), will build the necessary conditions for the birth of African identities.


The question of African identity

It results from the sublimation of the crisis of meaning and of the relations of ego with his/her society and the world. It is thus a crisis of sense, which could well be not only African. Over the course of time various sciences were born, which disappeared or evolved. In times of abrupt change, abandonment or transformation, one spoke about ruptures and epistemological obstacles. Nowadays, our social sciences must reinstate the pre-Socratic thought. They are no longer able to claim having fulfilled their explanatory role only on the condition of integrating the poetic and the psychotic, the semiotic and the symbolic systems.

The heterogeneous(3) was ignored as deliberately not fitting the premises and framework of the social sciences, or allotted to the primitive impulses, for it was nothing but the residue created by and left over by the habitus of the scientist. This created "heterogeneous" part of the studied object and phenomenon will have to be reinstated in the field of study of the Africanist. For example, the "heterogeneous" created by linguists in the communicative process (intonation, accent, tonality, rhythm, singing voice, murmur, mimicry, gestures...) is an obvious mark of cultural identities. Because sciences avoid the intuitive and the subjective, they have lost contact with the integrity of life. The African inscription of meaning necessitated technological knowledge. Ethnologists choose to see in it a domain of psychotic or childish activity. We must mention here a discrete but real danger for ethnography. Endowed with the possession of whatever capacity of writing, the entire relation of the African and its observer would have condemned the ethnologist to oblivion or to disappearance in sociological types of studies. This discrete perspective, it is worth noting, would have been similar to the one of colonization, which was, right from its premises, planning its own suicide.

I may quote some of my encounters with African cultural pride linked with the possession of writing and books, but there are countless similar samples. In 1983, in Foumban, we noted that the "old" system of Bamun writing was still in use by some people and by some scholars in Yaounde, and a question of creating, along with the restoration of the Palate of Njoya by UNESCO, a school which would teach it. Similarly to the behavior of those who maintain the many so-called "bibliothèques du désert" (Saharian Libraries), some Bamun families keep with great pride libraries of hand-written books in one or the other of their six avatars of their system of writing, that are beautifully bound in local leather. Those in the French Musée de l'Homme in Paris were catalogued as "ethnological objects made of paper and goatskin". Most of the books were written at the beginning of the 20th century, but copies of them are still produced. The value allotted to this script and books cannot rely on their use but evidently on their function as a major source of pride and, thus, an important component of the Bamum identity. A early master of semiotics, Bakhtin (1978) explained that the terms in the expression "invented thing" are contradictory.

One can invent only something which is subjectively valued and meaningful in the event, something of importance from the human point of view, but not a thing: an "invented thing" is a contradictory expression (72-73).

Reified, an invention becomes non-significant, except if this reduction assumes the risk of the absurd falsely justified by survival instinct or dogmatism. Isolated from their cultural environment, reduced to their material existence, these catalogued ethnologic "objects" were devoid of their "invention", their signification and, indeed, of their epistemological power to deny the ethnological discourse of its right to exist.

Far from the Sahara and the Grasslands of Cameroon, we found a small text by Tawo-Asu (1977) in the Bokyi language of Nigeria. This humble teacher makes obvious, in the introduction (c-j), the feeling and the reflection of African educators in the rural schools, confronted with the invasion of the "colonial" language and its dramatically negative consequences for rural economy, family ties and cultural identity. Also from South West Nigeria, the ukara, a dyed fabric covered with motives and Nsibidi script signs, is still used by Efik people to create a barrier between the people and the initiates of the Ekpe secret society, to stimulate the collective Efik identity, and ritualize authority (cf. Battestini 1991, 2000).

Even the Afro-American Diaspora may have lost the significance for perpetuating African motives on cushions for pins, quilts, and protective magic clothing, but they still preserve the geometrical designs of their origins, such as West Africa (kente cloth) or Congo (nkisi), which are remotely linked to voodoo rites. Kiracofe (1983), for example, depicts some of the symbols of use in the art of the Americans of African origin. The American Diaspora seems to express the need for the memory of cultural roots, the safeguarding of a discrete but nodal identity, and may be the power that they believe still permeates through these forms. Yet, some academics have started to query the poetics of African Art (Poetics... 2000).




The cultural base of the economic development of Africa passes by the inventory of the writings but does not limit itself to it. These systems of signs are essential to the necessary myth of identity, which includes the memory and the inheritance of post-colonial Africa.

It seems that a considerable number of scripts which the African languages were written in, constitute an obstacle for an effective and economic literacy, materially and financially. In connection with literacy, it should be noted that they, too, often take the tone of a crusade against primitivism, the absence of culture. Freire (1984) announces the risk of causing a phenomenon of blocking, refusal, and rejection on behalf of the taught populations. It warns those who confuse illiteracy and lack of culture. In the same review, Guerra (1984) requires that one respect the cultural identity and even as one integrates, as much as possible, in the process of education, all the values of the local culture. This implies that where these systems pre-exist to the introduction of the Latin alphabet, the local writing should be maintained even if only for certain type of use. A modernization of this old system should be preferred to its brutal substitution with an avatar of the Latin alphabet. Guerra calls upon culturally-rooted reasons in educational reforms, for they have powerful consequences on economic, psychological and political development.

We do not claim that all of Africa knew writing as the West understands it, even if many cultures had one form or another of it, whether phonologic, synthetic or analytic. We have no intention of supporting the consolidation of the notion of an invented African singularity (cf. Mudimbe 1988). On the contrary, having studied these systems for a third of a century, we demand the inclusion of these systems as many of the similar or original contributions of Africa to the progress of Humanity. We acknowledge that orality is practised to a high degree of achievement in all of Africa, but we observed in many places between 1951 and 1982 that oral performance finds its vital force in inscribed meaning, if not in analytic, synthetic and phonologic writing systems. As the study of all systems of signs, semiotics uncovers an entire continent and the creation of universal theory of writing an immense field of unknown or unused data to understand, to describe, classify, explain and analyze.

The Africans did not experiment with the historic movement of Western exacerbated nationalism. Apparently they are avoiding the current universal impact of the economic and cultural North-American model on them. Like the rest of the world, they are developing a new type of cultural identity, which is built on the "juxtaposition of differentiated cultures" (Attali 1998), more or less permeable to others, a composite milieu where cultural values of the neighboring cultures and those imported from afar as well as maintained in endogenous values and knowledge circulate freely. Within this generalized exchange operate "interbreeding and branchements" (Amselle 1999). All human entities will build a culture with variable geometry anchored on a stable core. The risk involved in the obligatory game of constant modifications can lead to schizoidism, the difficulty of adaptation to external realities, or anomy, perceived by Durkheim as a momentary rupture of solidarity between individuals and of indetermination of the previous values, perceived as legitimate values. In the heart of this device, a core of endogenous values and knowledge is necessary to avoid one and the other. The capacity of change is not a new African capability, but it becomes paramount to the rest of the world. The post-colonial situation creates a vacuum, the "inter-ethnic branchement", the condition of underdevelopment, this unit which could appear as "Blank Terror"(4), project the Africans on the front of the scene. They are and have always been cultural "mutants". Semiotics scans the reality to discover, not so much a constantly renewed meaning, but the mechanisms of its fabrication, thus appears to me particularly well-equipped to observe the African cultures, not so much the signification they give to themselves, but how each time, here or there, for a group or an individual, the significance tends to get established, indeed necessary and coherent, but always arbitrary and provisional.

At the core of the current African problems, there are their fast-vanishing endogenous systems of communication and inscriptions of meaning that could function again as facilitators or as motors of progress, renewing with the local modes of relating inscribed meaning with text, concrete moorings with knowledge.

© Simon Battestini (Paris)


(1) Two thirds of the languages south of the Sahara. See Doneux (2003) for a survey of the tone studies in Africa. This author points out their major importance and yet their general neglect.

(2) Nsibidi is a multi-ethnic, eastern Nigerian indigenous design system coming from the Ejagham people east of the Igboland.

(3) The concept of the "heterogeneous" covers a vast field which includes and exceeds that of the topic of this paper. Let us quote randomly, moreover, the poetic and the psychotic, the magic and wizard powers in the West in which ethnology starts showing a real interest (cf. Favret-Saada 1979, Camus 1988).

(4) The origin of "Blank Terror" is in the first years of the 1789 French Revolution. One world was vanishing fast and no world of replacement could be conceived. The future was scary until the present appeared to be a period of transition towards a plausible better society. "Mutants" are the modern type of individuals doted with the capability to adapt appearance and behavior to different kinds of situation.


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Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Simon Battestini (Paris): African Writing Systems, Texts and Cultural Identities. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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