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French Research Seminar: Madeleine Chalmers (Leicester), '"Wild Thought" and World Knowledge: The Alternative Taxonomies of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré'

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Location: Online - Teams

Abstract: While the title of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée sauvage (1962) rings some twenty-first-century alarm bells, it is one of the first texts to take modes of knowledge that operate outside western scientific and educational schema on their own terms as sophisticated and valid epistemologies. The extensive anthropological study of taxonomy, cosmology, and conceptual bricolage which Lévi-Strauss details among indigenous groups in Australia and North America suggests that encyclopaedism is not a European aspiration. Rather, it is a global aspiration to global knowledge.

This paper takes as its focus the work of the Ivorian artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923—2014), who worked on his monumental Connaissance du monde until his death. Spotlighted in MoMA’s 2022 exhibition ‘World Unbound’, Bouabré was a prolific visual encyclopaedist and self-taught artist. Working with cardboard, biro, and colouring pencil, he created compendia of knowledge over decades, eschewing the arcane in favour of genealogies, phonetic alphabets, and analogical relationships designed to communicate and share his vision of the world. The 449 drawings of his phonetic Alphabet bété and the pictograms of his Méthodologie de la nouvelle écriture bété were designed to allow speakers of his dialect to read and write it – but also to render it accessible beyond west Africa. New origin stories (such as the evolution of the baseball cap from the tortoise shell) combine with the transmission of ancestral Bété culture and its myths.

Bouabré was educated under the French colonial system and worked as a civil servant in its administration until 1948, when a ‘vision’ prompted his full commitment to his art. This paper places his work in dialogue with the nineteenth-century French tradition of encyclopaedism, exploring how he reinterprets this form and its linguistic codes to make it a vehicle for west African culture. It then explores how – far from being the preserve of institutional orthodoxy – encyclopaedias, dictionaries, and glossaries have been arenas for autodidacts and marginalized social outsiders to map relationships that others do not, or cannot, see.

Ultimately, this paper suggests that these DIY epistemologists might allow us to renovate Lévi-Strauss’s concept for our contemporary research context, which is ever more keenly attuned to questions of identity and difference.

This seminar will take place on Microsoft Teams. Please visit this page for the Teams link.

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