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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

African Novels and the Politics of Pedagogy

Posted by Aaron Bady on 04/20/08 at 10:12 AM

(This, for what it’s worth, is a continuation of what I was thinking through in this previous post)

It’s something of a cliché that literary writing in Africa is more political than we are accustomed to expect in the West, but truisms often become clichés precisely because they have something true about them. So after tabling the fraught issue of whether one can productively compare “Western” and “African” literary aesthetics in any meaningful sense, I’m interested in the fact that the form taken by such literary politics is so often--and so significantly--that of pedagogy.

For example, Chinua Achebe’s 1965 essay “The Novelist as Teacher” set the tone for decades of critical work to follow by arguing that:

“the writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact, he should march right in front…I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections--was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. But who cares? Art is important, but so is education of the kind I have in mind.”

I’m not sure whether this is simply a cliché; given Achebe’s stature, you could also call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. His influence over African literature, after all, has been prodigious, not merely as writer and essayist, but (perhaps more importantly) as long-time editor of Heinemann’s--now defunct--African Writer Series, the form in which an astoundingly large majority of Anglophone African writers found audiences. It’s worth, then, examining what he means by imagining a particularly pedagogical literary aesthetic. 

In “The Writer and his Community,” an essay first delivered as a speech at UCLA in 1984, Achebe would stress continuity between contemporary “pedagogical” literature and pre-colonial artistic traditions, a point that is, at the most, muted in the earlier essay. He notes, for example, that Western conceptions of the artist as individualistic, as intrinsically separate from society, would strike the traditional Mbari artists of his own Igbo people as perverse. Claiming personal “ownership” of a work of art, to them, would have been to invite disaster, for even to admit having personally created it (as opposed to allowing the community as a whole to take moral possession of it) would anger the gods who truly created it. African art and literature, he asserts, is therefore communal in its orientation. The African writer is a social figure; more specifically, he is a teacher. He marches in front, etc.

This is all fine, as far as it goes. But when I teach these essays, I make that my students understand that the Igbo are not exemplary representatives of African culture (they are, by any standard, at least very unique) and ask if it’s a problem that Achebe holds his own society up as metonym for a continent. My students usually nod and agree with me that it’s problematic. And we move on. There’s not much more to do at that point; it’s an important issue, but it’s not a particularly teachable one.

The trouble is, what Achebe doesn’t do (in either essay) is historicize or adequately theorize what he means by “African” literary practice. But it is clear that both his sense of what has to be “un-taught” (ancestors as howling pagans) and the mode of pedagogy by which this is to be done (a return to traditionalism) depend on the baseline assumption of African colonial indoctrination. After all, the point of asking whether the Igbo can be metonymic for a continent is to observe, as clearly as possible, that they cannot be, that there is at least arguably more linguistic and cultural diversity in the African continent than in the rest of the world put together (because of how the human race dispersed itself from Africa millennia ago) and that the only plausible way that “Africa” can make sense as a singular unit is by reference to the experience of European colonialism and a more general Western conquest.

This assumption, however--a singular “Africa” produced by the singularity of European colonialism--is not a very tenable one. Imperial governance was very far from a uniform or comprehensive historical experience in Africa; like “globalism” today, the lofty claims made for its global reach tend to be vastly overstated, an influence unquestionably broad in a geographical sense, but quite shallow and uneven in a social sense. What Frederick Cooper has said about globalism is roughly true for colonialism in Africa as well: it didn’t so much flow through and incorporate outlying communities, as it tended to hop over and exclude them. Being hopped over can certainly have a powerful impact on the ways that outlying communities live, but it’s a very different sort of influence than postcolonial theorists often presume: as Kwame Anthony Appiah mildly noted in In My Father’s House, his family in the colonial Gold Coast didn’t have particularly strong feelings about the British, because they barely knew the British.

The result is that the small educated urban population (people like Achebe and his father, the model for Okonkwo’s son Nwoye in Things Fall Apart) tended to experience colonial rule in a very different way than the vast majority of Africans; this majority might have been ruled by Europe in an important way, but it was not, in any meaningful sense, “modernized.” As Appiah points out, therefore, most Africans were far from having internalized the kinds of feelings of racial inferiority that Achebe is seeking to un-teach. Unless you’ve been educated (and relatively few Africans were), you haven’t read Conrad and Cary and Haggard and learned to imagine Africa as a dark jungle filled with howling cannibals; unless you’ve joined the Christian church (and a relative minority did), you haven’t learned to look on your ancestors as sinning pagans burning in hell. And so forth.

It’s significant, therefore, that Achebe has to overstress the formative importance of the colonial period in order to theorize an African aesthetic at all. And it’s worth trying to historicize the whole paradigm with that in mind, putting this sense of the essentially pedagogical function of the African writer within that historical framework. In such a social order, the fastest emerging class differential was, significantly, the difference between a small urban, educated population (who had read Conrad, Haggard, and Cary, and were therefore in need of being re-educated) and what economists have since called Africa’s “uncaptured peasantry,” the vast populations of people (then mostly rural, but now increasingly urban) who were impacted by colonial and postcolonial governance, but were never really included within it, people who never, for example, learned a colonial language. The fact that postcolonial governments (at least at first) tended to consist of the former, to the radical exclusion of the latter, is worth noting, as is the fact that Achebe’s early African readership would, also, have included primarily the former, to the radical exclusion of the latter. As Aijaz Ahmad has noted, such class differences are absolutely central to understanding the ways that “postcolonial” literature gets produced and consumed, despite the tendency of Western critics to almost completely exclude such class structures from their purview. 

With that in mind, the most basic point that has to be made is the simplest: English and French were then, and are now, widely spoken in Africa, but virtually always as a second or third language taught in schools. In that sense, then, English writing like Achebe’s still gets read (and, perhaps, written) primarily because it serves a pedagogical function, if not exactly the one Achebe was thinking of: the acquisition and the display of English, as cultural capital. In Tanzania, to cherry pick the example I know something about (and then make it metonymic for a continent!), literature in English tends to be “pedagogical” for the most pure of market reasons: the readership of such novels is dominated by young adult readers who need these books for their English classes. It is therefore, in practical terms, virtually impossible to publish African novels that do not feed that market. Bookstores, the few that exist, tend to be textbook outlets, and the canon of “African novels” as a Tanzanian might experience it, seems to be almost purely a function of the English high school curriculum.

(In my next post, I’m going to go through the Tanzanian English high school curriculum, and try to make some sense of the ordering principles that seem to structure it)


Comments

Interesting! When we screened Ousmane Sembene’s _Moolaade_ at our campus and had a prof in history lead discussion afterwards, he made a similar point about film ---- that what Americans might think of as “African film” is actually a small and unusual exception. He noted that there is a very thriving cheap film industry in parts of Africa, where stuff gets made on a shoestring and screened in small stores, completely centered around local urban African experiences and with little relation to Western aesthetics or language. And it’s seen as ephemeral; rather than any of it getting sent to the US it’s just tossed once it’s been screened.

By Sisyphus on 04/20/08 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, it seems that the people Achebe is really “re-educating” are, of course, Westerners, which would explain his writing Things Fall Apart in English, for example.  I don’t know much about the book’s publication history, but it was originally published in London, right? (Correct me if I’m misremembering this.) And of course the title comes from Yeats.  So, I agree that the book seems to fill a pedagogical role, but even Achebe (in the statement you quoted) seems to be aiming the pedagogy out of Africa to the places where the Africa-as-barbaric-before-Europe stereotypes are really much more ingrained.

By on 04/20/08 at 08:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great post, though I wonder if it reinvents the wheel from a “Ngugian” perspective.  I’m reading your post as a strong criticism of Achebe’s essays.  Your point seems to be that the conception of activist/pedagogical literature is informed and limited by the very colonialist force it purports to resist.  In two major ways:  (1) Achebe’s holistic conception of “African culture” is an artificial construct founded on a colonizing West/ colonized Africa binary.  In fact, Africa is too diverse for there to be any single tradition to be recovered (eg, a conception of art-production as communal, not individualistic).  (2) Only upper-class, literate elites like Achebe felt the specific kind of cultural inferiority that he wants to reverse. 

If this is true, then perhaps Achebe’s project of speaking to the people with politically engaged art was doomed from the beginning.  It’s ironic, but not entirely surprising, that his biggest influence is on elites who use his books as “cultural capital,” and students who buy his book essentially as an English-language textbook.  (I’m just drawing out the implications of your post; I don’t know Achebe well enough, myself, to say if this is accurate.)

But from the perspective of Ngugi, doesn’t this mean that Achebe hadn’t yet “decolonized his mind”?  The reason I say your post reinvents the wheel is because at its end, we seem to be at precisely the point when Ngugi chose to write “Devil on the Cross” in Gikuyu.  In writing in this language, and drawing specifically on Gikuyu oral tradition, Ngugi might have cast off Achebe’s ideological blinkers.  First, while neo-colonialism is obviously a continent-wide problem, Ngugi draws on specifical cultural myths to get his message across to many Kenyan people.  Second, Ngugi overcomes the “language trap” that would confine his book, however radical in content, to Westernized elites, and leftish Westerners like me who felt a pleasing glow of consciousness-raising when they read his prior novel, “Petals of Blood.”

There’s a kind of corollary question here, an empirical one:  does anyone actually know if “Devil on the Cross” hit its target?  Apparently Ngugi didn’t imagine a Gikuyu-literate Kenyan sitting alone in his living room to read the book; rather, he imagined the book being read aloud where peasants and workers gathered.  Did the book actually reach such an audience?  I’m completely ignorant about this.  But it’s relevant to Aaron’s post, because instead of discussing how Achebe, the literary pedagogue, arguably fell prey to colonialist paradigms, we’d look at what happened when a pedagogical novelist tried to get beyond them.

By on 04/20/08 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"the readership of such novels is dominated by young adult readers who need these books for their English classes.”

Hmm.  Isn’t this also true of literature in English in the U.S.?  Of course, the novels that U.S. students read were mostly written before literature reading became primarily a classroom activity, so the authors didn’t write towards this purpose.

By on 04/21/08 at 11:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, that may be true, but there is still a path for American fiction writers that exists outside of high school curricula. As a Jamaican I think my island’s situation is similar enough for comparison. The bookstores there are functionally textbook outlets and if there is a Caribbean or African fiction book on the shelf it is only there because it is on a high school syllabus. I learnt about Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah because of Cambridge examiners. (Otherwise, Achebe may have been stocked because of his special status but Armah wouldn’t be seen outside of university bookstores.)

On the other hand the store may stock a few Nora Roberts-Stephen King-Robin Cooks and, since fantasy movies hit it big, Tolkien and Rowling. If Caribbean writers want to be read they must go abroad, and their best angle for making an impression back home is if their fiction fits properly into the now regional examination body’s “re-education” angle.

By Imani on 04/21/08 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sisyphus,
Nollywood (The Nigerian film industry) is large and in charge, but even in Tanzania and Kenya, the Swahili video industry is pretty imposing (a lot gets shown on tv). Of course, these days, the movies travel around via “informal” markets, since the ease of copying a video-disc makes them very easily distributed. And I’m not sure how clear the urban/rural divide is; I’ve seen some out of the way bars with mud walls and no electricity showing movies on tiny little tvs run by gasoline generators. But as far as literary criticism goes, I think that stuff is way off the radar screen. 

Tom,
One can’t discount the importance of selling books in England and the states back then (or today), but much of Achebe’s audience was composed of urban Nigerians like himself, and I think it’s those people he’s most consciously trying to reach. After all, while Westerners were often fairly willing to believe both the best and the worst of Africans, the first generation to leave “the bush” and come to “civilization” often understood that transition in precisely those kinds of derogative terms, and were the most viciously dismissive of their traditional communities.

NBB,
Well, it’s hard to criticise an essay written forty years ago; at a certain point it becomes more of a historical document than a theory one can dispute. Too much has changed since then. Achebe wouldn’t write the same essay today, either (in fact, the secdon one, written in the early eighties *is* a diffferent essay), and I think the better we understand the historical and political moment he was attempting to intervene in, the more his political choices make sense.
I would basically agree with the paraphrase that my “point seems to be that the conception of activist/pedagogical literature is informed and limited by the very colonialist force it purports to resist,” but I would add, significantly, “enabled.” When we think only in terms of resistance and collaboration, we miss the ways that the political cleavages within colonialism (and there were many) were precisely the means by which colonialism was ended, in a formal sense. There were always liberal arguments for colonialism (based on reform and uplift and a sense of universal humanity) and there were always conservative arguments for colonialism (based on racism and power politics) and the period following WWII was one in which a liberal notion of culture could become a kind of wedge that nationalist Africans used quite effectively against the conservative racialist elements of the colonial order. And it’s in that sense that I would disagree, mildly, with your statement that “Achebe’s project of speaking to the people with politically engaged art was doomed from the beginning.” Co-opted, perhaps, but that’s politics. The effects of politically powerful acts are not always predictable or simple, but I do think there was a lot of organizational potency and ideological force in African writing of the fifties and sixties. The trick is, how to track its ambiguous relation to colonialism without simply dismissing it or simply lauding it. And one of the things that’s most fascinating in looking at the essays Achebe wrote over his career (taking a hoistoricist perspective on them) is to observe the ways his rhetorical strategies change with the times, responding to the dramatic shifts that have characterized postcolonial African development.
As for Devil on the Cross, well, the trouble is that “Gikuyu” already exists as a highly contested identity within a highly fraught national project. The recent election fiasco in Kenya cast in stark terms the kind of problem that has characterized Kenyan politics since at least the thirties: since the Gikuyu dominated the immediate post-colonial period, and the other tribes have been left out, the decision to write in gikuyu is not such an easy solution as it may seem from outside. Writing in English or Swahili is actually a much more inclusively Kenyan way of writing (and this is why Ngugi published in all three languages, even if he first wrote in Gikuyu). This is also why Achebe has always defending writing in English; except for English, there is no national Nigerian language (the way swahili functions as an east African lingua franca), and writing in a language like Igbo would have just as problematic political consequences.
And as for the question of whether DotC hit it’s target, I’d love to know that too. Ngugi claimed that it did, but who can really tell? It’s not an easy thing to verify.

Rich,
There is a pretty dramatic difference in scale, though. The percentage of books sold for classroom use in the US has got to be well below fifty percent, though I’m just gessing blindly. But the percentage of books sold for classroom use (or for displaying one’s attainment of English) in Tanzania would, if I were to guess equally blindly, approach a sizeable majority, very possibly as high as ninety percent. That’s a pretty dramatic structural difference in the publishing industry.

By on 04/21/08 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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