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  • Calibrations:Literary Reference and the Ethics of Reading

What is the nature of the relationship between literature and the social domain? How, precisely, does writing refer to nonliterary phenomena? How do (or should), and from what vantage point, does the critic grasp reality as it is inscribed in literature? How should critics conceive of the real to which literature refers if, contrary to the linguistic imperative, they believe that both critic and text are, as Edward W. Said puts it, "enmeshed" in worldly contingency (35)?

That I cite Said here indicates not only that such questions animated critical theory andliterary criticism in the past, but also that, as Ato Quayson's Calibrations: Reading for the Social (2003) attests, they continue to do so even today. One might say that these questions are perennial, insofar as changes in our understanding or conceptualization of speech, writing, language, text, identity, subjectivity, reality, interpretation, and so forth must inevitably prompt scholars to advance alternative answers. One need only recall the impact of structuralist linguistics on our notion of the literary text to grasp this point. But as a cursory review of literature would show, even in that recent past the impulse that drove the discussions of these questions often coincided, in a rather curious way, with differing needs or desires that seem related to or, in some cases, arose directly from historical circumstances and geopolitical considerations. In nation-states emerging from decades of colonization, for example, such questions were often posed with a sense of urgency owing to nationalism, nativism, and other ideological formations. Perhaps both the framing of this issue within the contexts of nation building, and national identity and the sense of urgency criticism brought to bear upon its investigations of the nexus between African literature and quotidian projects such as these were unavoidable. After all, as John and Jean Comaroff have pointed out, in the early twentieth century, language, especially the notion that there is a continuity between "word and action, cause and effect," bore the brunt of missionary assaults upon African (or, to be more precise, Tswana) symbolic practices since it not only differed from "European conceptions" but "violated the empiricist epistemology inherent in the sekgoa of the nineteenth century, for which positive knowledge lay in the definitive separation of the construct from the concrete, the word from the thing or the act" (Comaroff and Comaroff 505). It is, therefore, hardly surprising that in its attempts to address this issue, African literary criticism could not avoid relying upon an empiricist epistemology with which its educated elite was most familiar and to which, as intellectuals, they were invested if [End Page 112] not committed. Generally, within this context the perception that nation building, self-affirmation, and social reconstruction were the sole and proper referential horizons for literature was an unquestioned presupposition. In African literary theory and criticism, Emmanuel N. Obiechina's Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel (1975), Emmanuel Ngara's Art and Ideology in the African Novel (1985), and Chidi Amuta's The Theory of African Literature (1989) were exemplary in this regard. Later, of course, African literary criticism would merrily confine itself to elaborating theories of "difference," the latter being understood as that whose specification would establish, finally and to everyone's satisfaction, an internally coherent account of an autonomous African aesthetics. Needless to say, such theoretical balkanization had profound consequences for African literary criticism, one of which was the displacement of theoretical issues pertaining to referentiality by the sociological categories of nation, ethnicity, gender, or class.

In metropolitan states of Empire, on the other hand, until the late twentieth century much of the debate in critical theory centered on the problem of literary reference—what Vincent Descombes calls "the referential function of language"—albeit for a different reason (51). Here the reason, as we all know, is the shift now called "the linguistic turn," that is, the shift from philosophy to linguistic theory as the disciplinary site for seeking an explanation of the mechanism by which we can know and represent an object with symbols. Among the figures who intervened in this discussion, Pierre Macherey, Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Paul de...


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