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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 154-160

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Ethics and Difference: A Response to Simon Gikandi's "Theory, Literature, and Moral Considerations"

Kenneth W. Harrow

We have to credit Simon Gikandi with the effort to return us to the ethical issues surrounding notions of difference, argued in a his recent article in RAL 32.4 (2001): 1-18, based on a plenary presentation at the 2000 African Literature Association conference. Gikandi elaborates a position that I find ultimately problematic, though the issues discussed en route focus us on the one critical question with which I am concerned, that is, what relationship is there between the notion of difference and ethics. Gikandi opposes a European-centered ideology of difference that concerns itself with nonmainstream, marginalized groups against an Africanized concept, one associated with the history of the construction of African peoples according the European notions of otherness. In the former we have a postmodern attempt to deconstruct Eurocentered notions of universal values and concomitant mechanisms of cultural domination to which modernism was given. In that context, understandings of difference function in favor of the dispossessed, those barred from sharing in the regimens of power and authority. In Africa, European racialist ideologies, such as those adopted by the Belgians and Germans in Rwanda, and elsewhere, were put to deadly, conflictual purposes, marking difference, as understood from the elaborations of Negritude to Hutu Power, as the excuse to avoid ethical imperatives. In the case of the European deconstructionist move, the ethical imperative was devalued along with the universalist claims of Enlightenment humanism. The corresponding devaluation of Eurocentric ideologies would account for the "ethnic excuse," examples of which are the sacrifices in Things Fall Apart (1958) or Death and the King's Horseman (1975). Gikandi does not mention the sacrifices in Mudimbe's novels since it is there that the ethnic excuse is reduced by parodic distance to the very sort of statement towards which Gikandi is reaching, that is, the need to maintain the ethic imperative in the face of the ethnic claims of difference.

Thus Gikandi works out a frame in which difference can be first associated with modernist notions of otherness, corresponding to the colonial period in which European notions were read onto African identities. This "difference" corresponds to Otherness, at its most radical, and attests to the arrogant nature of a modernism that assumed its primacy and inevitability. The refutation of modernism's universalist claims, and its corresponding humanist dependency on Enlightenment thinking, emerges with the second notion of difference as multiplicity, or, inevitably, diversity. Gikandi writes, in reference to his attempts to utilize these arguments to counter his students' adverse reactions to the above-mentioned sacrifices in Things Fall Apart or Death and the King's Horseman, that his response was "to call attention to the multiplicity—and differance—of these texts and [End Page 154] thus seek counterexamples that might displace the moral predicament" (5). However, although he writes "multiplicity—and differance," as though the two were not the same, he treats both terms as though they were identical in the article. Thus, for example, when he evokes Joys of Motherhood (1979), to demonstrate alternative visions of African culture, and to show the views of a woman author, he states, "I was invoking the authority of difference to question the assumed unanimity of African cultures and the typology of its literature" (5). More specifically he adds that "theories of good difference (read diversity) seemed to reinforce the logic of African alterity" (6). Thus he concludes that difference, so constituted, merely reinforced European modernist prejudices.

Christopher Miller, in Theories of Africans (1990), evoked difference in this sense, and argued that ethical understandings required appreciation of ethnic difference. He argued in favor of maintaining an appreciation of difference, not so as to come to the position that all truths are relative to one's particular ethnic stance, but because truths, being discursive statements, cannot rise above ethnic difference. Further, there are no ethical questions, he argues, without the ethnic relationship to...


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