- Relocating Agency: Modernity and African Letters
Theoretical texts on African literature or African topics generally are rare. Indeed, it is never easy to develop cogent theoretical positions on any given topic or discipline for that matter. In the case of African studies this problem is particularly acute. Olakunle George's first book boldly tackles this problem and succeeds where so many other similar texts have failed. Also, George's text can be read as a bridge between the corpus of earlier critics of African literature and the practitioners of contemporary critical theory in a global frame. If Abiola Irele's book, The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (2001) can be read as a text that strives to maintain a tenuous balance between a less theoretically-minded generation of scholars of African literature and an emergent generation of academics profoundly inflected by the myriad tendencies of poststructuralist thought, then George's text goes even further along those lines by affirming the centrality of theory in both the conventional and avant-garde domains of academic discourse.
George writes, "this book seeks to develop and exemplify a critical vocabulary that can make a genuine interaction between Anglo-American postcolonial theory and African literary criticism possible and productive" (p. 7).
To set the critical and theoretical tone of the text, George, in the opening chapter, discusses theorists such as Althusser, Gramsci, Adorno and Habermas. His discussions of the work of these various theorists cannot be said to be brief and at several instances one wonders about the relevance of [End Page 100] these discussions to the eventual preoccupations of his book. His fondness for Althusser is quite apparent but this is not transcended for even more profitable insights. For instance, John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff have useful insights on Gramsci and the nature of hegemony generally (see Of Revelation and Revolution 1, 1991) that can be employed by the broad range of disciplines that constitute African studies. There are some structural infelicities about the way he proceeds from his discussion of Althusser and other theorists of hegemony to his main concern, African letters.
However, once he makes African letters his central preoccupation there is much he says that is very useful. First of all, he reminds us, "from its beginnings, African literature has always been seen as a function of the history of colonialism. The writer's vocation has always been formulated as that of enabling the decolonization of Africa, and authors have been evaluated on the basis of how well they achieve this task" (89). Decolonization can be regarded as a continually evolving condition to be found in most previously colonized milieus, one that is often uneven and one that assumes a wide range of meanings and implications. The often problematic nature of perceptions of decolonization becomes clearer when George points out that epistemological decolonization is often conflated with purely theoretical-discursive concerns.
To highlight how the 'scramble' for postcolonial theory reflects on and compounds the problematics of decolonization, George critiques the work of two of the most prominent figures of postcolonial theory: Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. On Bhabha, he concludes, "Bhabha's work on colonialism and its discursive ramifications is accompanied by significant contradictions. The theory usefully exhorts us to face up to a bitter truth that the ideology of dialectic transcendence is ultimately a seductive hope, that culture subsists only on the condition of conflict. But he gives short shrift to determinate sites of conflict and the discursive problematics they generate—in this case, that of Fanon" (62). His point becomes even clearer when argues that "categories like mimicry, hybridity, or sly civility are elegantly protean. But, unwilling to historicize them within particular discursive fields—indeed, skeptical of the desire to do so—Bhabha often takes refuge in lyricism" (70). As for Spivak, he merely notes "if there is anything consistent about her work, it lies in her deliberate, self-assigned role of being the gadfly of discursive fields, interrupting and "bringing to crises" the uncritical edges of...