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Smoke of the Savannah:
Traveling Modernity in Sembène Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood
Although modernity was imposed upon certain communities in the non-Western world, critic Mary Louise Pratt noted in a talk entitled, "Postcoloniality: An Incomplete Project or an Irrelevant One?" that it had to travel through those communities to be realized. This "traveling through," I would suggest, took place in different sites within these communities, one of which was the material spaces of technology, including the body of the worker. In his landmark novel God's Bits of Wood (Les bouts de bois de Dieu), Senegalese author and filmmaker Sembène Ousmane explores the concept of modernity by representing the way two generations inhabit, resist, and remake spaces in and around the railway. Portraying the events leading up to a railway strike, a reference to the key period of the 1940s in West African struggles for decolonization, Ousmane depicts a paradigmatic moment in the construction of modern subjectivity within the colonized space. He marks a period when the colonized begin to negotiate their identities through materials previously associated with the colonizers; they become, in short, machine subjects, even as they transform that technology, imbuing it with new meaning in the context of an anticolonial struggle. Ousmane's work illustrates how the very meaning of the modern was reconstituted in the hands of [End Page 284] anticolonial movements at the same time his depiction as a whole raises pertinent questions about possibilities for emancipation within this inhabited modernity.
The cities of Bamako, Thiès, and Dakar, a series of communities linked by the lines of the railway and involved in a strike, serve as the settings for Ousmane's novel. The action takes place well into the colonial period, and although the date is never explicitly given, the events portrayed most probably occur in 1947, when the longest and most widespread railway strike constrained colonial West Africa (Cooper 241). God's Bits of Wood is remarkable for its portrayal of the mobilization of social networks, particularly among women, in the service of a burgeoning anticolonial movement, a representation that emphasizes the grassroots nature of the labor movement. Ousmane published his novel in 1960, when Senegal, along with other French West African colonies, was moving toward official national independence; as James A. Jones points out, "the story of an African victory over French administrators resonated during a year in which eight French West African colonies became independent" (118). This period of de-colonization was also one in which, under the leadership of Leopold Senghor, Senegal confronted questions of economic and technological development that would shape the political terrain of postcolonial Africa. In fact, the issue of independence was fundamentally imbricated with the question of being modern. Thus the political commentary of the novel extends beyond questions of anticolonialism to related issues of modernization; Ousmane's retrospective look at the 1940s interposed in contemporary debates on nationalism and modernization.
The changes represented in Ousmane's novel include both the material developments of modernization and a transformation of "a broad mesh of sensibilities that reflects the specific and changing means of the most basic and formative dimensions of human existence: space, time, and being" (Soja 25). Edward Soja's description of modernity referenced here is particularly apt, for he follows the numerous philosophical strands that interweave through any discussion of modernity, among them subjectivity, materiality, spatiality, temporality, and ontology. Here I will pick up these strands at different points, as I focus on two distinct but related processes that appear in Ousmane's novel. The first process involves changes taking place within the depicted community, mutations that reflect the member's shifting relationship to the technology of the railway. In looking at these changes, God's Bits of Wood represents a paradigmatic moment of modernity, a point of rupture between two generations' understandings of the technology brought by the Europeans. My discussion will explore this rupture by characterizing the rhetoric [End...