restricted access Relocating Agency: Modernity and African Letters (review)
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Relocating Agency: Modernity and African Letters By Olakunle George Albany: SUNY Press, 2003. xx + 225 pp. ISBN 0-7914-55442-4 paper.

The preface to Locating Agency lists the book's four main propositions: a) that "'modernity' is at the heart of contemporary Anglo-American literary theory, and has unwittingly drawn attention to Europe's colonial past and its consequent imbrication, materially and epistemologically, with the third world" (ix); b) that postcolonial theory for the most part, does not offer an adequate conceptual space within which peculiar inflections of modernity contained in African letters can be fully appreciated; c) that "positive agency can result from discursive or political acts that are otherwise conceptually limited" (x ff.); and d) that the "metacritical, self-reflexive understanding of the place of the Africanist writing in modernity" elaborated in the final chapters "will prompt further studies" to "modify [the [End Page 205] book's] assumptions or contest [its] conclusions (xv). George sees "modernity"—a word for which modernism, postmodernism, and especially modernization are severally substituted in the book—as a kind of "teleological movement of society from a 'primitive' state to a 'civilized,' secular-scientific one" (xi). For reasons that are not evident in the exposition, George regards this movement as at the heart of the First/Third World divide. Modernity is thus represented as a process that has enabled humanity develop the "capacity to know (or transform) itself as well as its environment and productive abilities. Modernity becomes the engine of modernization, and Agency its inevitable end-result: the mind's ability/capacity "to understand itself and—perhaps based on the rigor and lucidity of that understanding—to change its circumstances [. . .]" (ix).

The chapters, with their own challenging titles, problematize these summary positions. Chapter one ("On Knowledge as Limit") is an engaged survey (the preface refers to its "illustrative instantiations" [xi]) of modernist, postmodernist, and poststructural debates as they, impliedly, relate to epistemology and thence agency. George devotes time to Althusser's account of ideology and interpellation, that is, "how ideology constitutes individuals into subjects" (21). Unfortunately, rehearsing these "influential debates and perspectives" (4) does little to resolve the issues at hand, and may justifiably be seen as misreadings of the evidence, as for example, in treating ideology as "a representational category," and as "objectification through practices, norms, etc. of the specific network of social configurations" in Gramsci and Althusser (19). The "limit" invoked in the chapter title is established via Althusser through whom we "open a space where knowledge becomes historicizable as achievement and lack, agency and limit" (27).

We could actually have afforded to skip chapter two ("Contemporary Theory and the Demand for Agency") and the discussion of Habermas and Lyotard but for the understanding of George's take on "Agency" itself. Although this chapter begins with remarks that suggest otherwise, the argument seems to be that the West, in its persistent "impulse" to reassess the "status of the subject," is creating the basis for the constitution of racial groups on an analogy with individual persons who, in this version of things, have the "individual consciousness that thinks and, in thinking, fashions or contributes to collective living and knowing," otherwise, agency (29), since it is Habermas (not Lyotard) and his "technical, primarily sociological" view of modernization that finally guides the book's conception of agency.

Chapter three ("The Logic of Agency in African Literary Criticism") is the heart of this book. The preface defined its goal as that of showing "the totality of the African 'literature' and 'criticism'" as a contestation of the "objectification of the non-European world in Western critical discourses" (xii). George devotes much of his coverage to the earlier part of the 1950–1980 period of that literature, a period which the preface quite summarily dismisses as "methodologically tied to the reflectionist view of literature, a flawed understanding of things which somehow still manages to provide the base for a "discursive intervention" (xiii). What this chapter does is argue that both the creative and critical work of the period, flawed as it is, nevertheless facilitates and witnesses (George's words) "the forms, contents, and tensions" of a "forced march toward modernity...