- Utopian Generations: The Political Horizons of Twentienth-century Literature
Utopian Generations is an ambitious book. It wears this ambition in its eloquent language, its global generalizations, and its continuous attempt to disregard or repress any theoretical claims that come before it. The ambition is apparent in the very first sentence of the book: the goal of this project, notes Brown, is to establish "the interpretative horizon of twentieth-century literature at capitalism's internal limit" (1). The book starts with a sophisticated discussion of the rift between capital and labor, insists on the connection between English and African modernism, and then goes on to provide an elaborate discussion of canonical modernists texts ranging from Joyce's Ulysses to Ngugi's drama. Most of these readings are compelling; but they are also rehearsals of older arguments, recast in a new grammar of reading. Brown's claim to newness is achieved by his tendency to go about the business of reading some of the most canonical works of British and African modernism as if nothing about them has been written before. The totalizing tone of the book ends up distracting what is good about it, namely its intelligent and original conceptualization of the centrality of modernism in the making of African letters and its comparative reading of British modernists in a contrapuntal relation to their postcolonial others. Brown's claim that African writers were attracted to modernism because of its institutional prestige is not entirely accurate (modernism did not enter the colonial canon until the last days of empire), but he is right to argue that the modernist ideology opened up the space in which colonial subjects could inscribe their narratives outside the shadow of the "Great Tradition."
This is a brilliant book with some serious flaws. The brilliance is evident in Brown's capacity to reconstellate old accounts about modernism and African literature, to dislocate both from familiar interpretative frames. Reading Ulysses and Ambiguous Adventure in the same register is a model of the kind of comparative literature yet to come. The flaws fall into three basic categories: First, the informing premise of this book—that modernism arises out of the rift between capital and labor—is an old one. Cultural production in Africa cannot be understood out of the enforced narrative of capital and its transformation of society under the tutelage of colonialism. This has been the subject of books that Brown confines to the first footnote of his project and others. A more interesting question would have been whether African literature ever came to transform the category of capital itself. [End Page 201]
Second, there is the total disregard of the archive and context of African literature and the critical mass that has enabled it. There are interesting gestures toward the historicity of the selected texts, and Brown is most effective when he provides readings of novels, such as Ambiguous Adventure, where there is a concordance of his theoretical preferences and African writing; but when he turns to texts such as Ngugi's The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and Ngaahika Ndeenda, plays where local resources might have enabled historicization, he falters and provides impoverished accounts.
Third, this book relies on a literary history of Africa, indeed a view of the historiography of cultural forms on the continent that seems to be imposed from above. The ecumenical voice that drives Brown's discussion is achieved at the expense of its objects of analysis. Simply put, in its moment of being analyzed—almost overanalyzed—the category Africa is emptied from the texts that are supposed to signify it. Theoretical sophistication is thus achieved at the expense of the signs it was supposed to read. Brown is one of the few scholars of his generation with an intimate knowledge of the African archive and his work on Swahili poetics serves as a model of the possibilities of philology of postcolonialism. Why this sense of the conditions of production of African literature is missing in a book that insists on an understanding of the rift...