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  • Consuming Subjects:Theorizing New Models of Agency for Literary Criticism in African Studies
  • Wendy Laura Belcher (bio)

Perhaps the most vexed question in the humanities regards the agency of the other. In the cultural encounter, who acts, resists, speaks, or represents? Twentieth-century poststructuralists Althusser, Lacan, and Foucault asserted that all human subjects are constructed and that human action is necessarily a symptom of ideology, language, or discourse. In the 1980s, postcolonialists who focused on the implications of this assertion for colonized subjects (living in ideological, linguistic, and discursive environments increasingly shaped by Europeans) often concluded that colonized subjects had little agency. Edward Said began his book Orientalism with Marx's ominous declaration "they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented."1 Gayatri Spivak finished her essay titled "Can the Subaltern Speak?" with the melancholy answer "no."2 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o asserted that colonial languages were so powerful that they vitiated African authorial intentions and "held the soul prisoner."3

In the twenty years since, postcolonial studies has travelled some distance from such positions and yet literary studies remains a field in which "agency" is oft heard of and seldom theorized. Perhaps this is because our models for conceptualizing the agency of colonized subjects rise largely from the social sciences, in particular anthropology. Literary critics in African studies are well served, then, by a review of the dominant models for conceptualizing the agency of the colonized subject in the encounter with the colonizer. A review allows us to see more clearly how such social science models have been limited by a discomfort with the power of the colonized subject to affect the colonizer. More recently, however, a new model of agency is emerging in the social sciences, which I call the reciprocal enculturation model. In this [End Page 213] model, Africans, for instance, are consuming subjects (active subjects who consume) and not just consumed objects (passive things that are consumed); they are not simply influenced but influence. A parallel move is happening in literary studies, as some scholars study how non-Western thought has shaped some Western texts. If the social science reciprocal enculturation model imagines both sides of an unequal encounter as impacting the other, a literary studies reciprocal intertextuality model imagines the same for texts—that they can be enculturated by the other. In the social science and literary models, Europeans and European texts have what Mary Keller calls "instrumental agency," sometimes being more deployed than deploying.4

But how is it possible for a Western text to be enculturated by non-Westerners? Scholars have tended to view representation as only textual, and therefore as produced only by those writing print texts, primarily European authors. Yet all individuals are engaged in producing representations in particular discursive milieus. Intertextuality, then, is about more than written texts, and studying intertextuality is certainly about more than studying the influence of the European canon.5 Any print text is a product not just of an individual author's mind, but also of the oral and published statements that the author has encountered. Thus, when examining European travel texts, for instance, one must remember that the European traveler moved through a riotous environment of representations abroad—overheard conversations, gossip, the mannerisms of a passerby on the street, the insults of a shopkeeper, the tale of a traveler, the false compliance of servants, and so on. These self-representations participated in shaping the European author's subsequent representations of that other, however distorted. European texts include the European author's representation of other human beings' self-representations, an interpretation of another culture's interpretations, a personification of others' created personae. European authors encountered thousands of individuals' self-representations and created texts that must be seen as emerging partly from the original representers' alterity. That non-European alterity participated in creating the European text.

My questioning of literary models of agency was inspired by Simon Gikandi's call for a different kind of research in his Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism.6 In 1996, Gikandi expressed puzzlement that more was not written about African agency vis-à-vis European agency; that is, about the impact of Europe's others...


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