- Symptoms of the Present in Ato Quayson's Calibrations
Ato Quayson's Calibrations adds a crucial volume to the expanding library of Africa-inflected theoretical apprehensions of the present. Achille Mbembe's provocative ruminations on the macabre state of the African present, On the Postcolony, appeared in 2001. Olakunle George's compelling work on the proper way to account for the modernity of the African postcolonial subject, Relocating Agency, appeared two years later. All these writers find contemporary continental European philosophy very useful for understanding life in postcolonial Africa. Hegel, Heidegger, and Bakhtin are the motivators of analysis in Mbembe, and the theoretical backcloth of George's account of how African agents relate to their worlds is cut out of Althusserian notions on subjection and subjectivity. While it is very hard to locate a single source of inspiration for Quayson, reverberating through every chapter in Calibrations are echoes of an array of modernist and postmodernist thinkers like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sigmund Freud, Clifford Geertz, and Fredric Jameson.
I find in all three authors—Quayson, Mbembe, and George—and their texts a tendency towards the proverb that says, "Wherever you are, there you are." For Mbembe, the African state visits literal death on its citizens probably because the career of being in the African postcolony consists of little that can claim to be genuine. Regarding African history, Achille Mbembe says, "[F]rom the fifteenth century, there is no longer a 'distinctive historicity' of these societies, one not embedded in times and rhythms heavily conditioned by European domination" (9). One mark of Africa's irreversible assimilation into the course of history charted by Europe is to be found in the way Africans and the rest of the world live a "contingent, dispersed, and powerless existence" (13). In Africa, these ontological givens manifest "in the guise of arbitrariness and the absolute power to give death any time, anywhere, by any means, and for any reason" (13). The rule of death is inevitable because the history of the most recent three centuries have initiated Africa into a form of inescapable slavery. Although Mbembe's ballooned rhetoric of inevitability is not noticeable in Olakunle George's studies of the textual figurations of modernity in Africa, he too argues for an analytical outlook that heeds the conditions on the African ground. George proposes that the essence of modernity in Africa does not lie somewhere "out there" in excess of the "modern" practices of African intellectuals. George, like Mbembe, is catholic in his approach to theories of the present: "To undervalue (let alone reject) Anglo-American theory because it is a first world preoccupation is to misconceive a lot that is [End Page 104] of value in it" (7). Like Mbembe and George, Ato Quayson finds contemporary theory unavoidable and argues for the repression of "the desire to seek contextual relevance only from texts that refract specific contexts" (98). (For the sake of full disclosure, it is right that I should implicate myself in this summary because I too have written that the African literary critic cannot validly invalidate "a body of theory" simply on the basis of the author's nationality [130-31].) That we have to justify our choice of theoretical paradigms in the way summarized above indicates, on the one hand, that we have found comfortable homes in the intellectual and physical locations we occupy today. Because Mbembe, for example, lives in various parts of Africa most of the time, these locations are not just Europe and the US. On the other hand, the obligations to Africa that we acknowledge underhandedly in our theoretical avowals betray a nagging anxiety regarding our politics, if not our intellectual preferences. Although this is not the occasion to discuss the comparative merits of these three books, it will not be entirely out of place to observe in passing that their publication may be heralding new ways of thinking about Africa.
But this occasion is for Quayson's book and we should go into it without further delay. Quayson proposes "a form of close reading of literature with what lies beyond it" (xi). To my mind, reading beyond the text is not in...