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  • Of Irony and Empire: Islam, the West, and the Transcultural Invention of Africa
  • Philip S. Zachernuk
Of Irony and Empire: Islam, the West, and the Transcultural Invention of Africa Laura Rice Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007ix + 240 pp., $70.00 (cloth), $21.95 (paper)

How are we to arrive at a fully postcolonial world? This would be a world in which the legacies of nineteenth-century European empire—racism, orientalism, the myth of the West as the vanguard of History—are disabled. It would be a world able to overcome barriers to mutual recognition across cultures, where ideologues justifying imperial aggression would not get away with denying their victims' humanity. More positively, we would have the means to appreciate how we are all products of transcultural invention, reflected and defined by our relations with one another. Perhaps we will never arrive, but Laura Rice suggests that we can move toward this state through awareness of how irony marks and makes our age.

Other historical periods have been called ironic. But Rice posits that Europe's imperial nineteenth century was an age of "stable irony," in which relations between cultures were marked by "disdain, superiority, and detachment rather than empathy" (17). The First World War violently shook this stability, opening gaps between pronouncement and practice further shaken by the long crumbling of European empires. Our irony emerged from the incongruities of our global and contradictory age: from the tensions between modern progress and malaise, from observing the dehumanizing effects of the civilizing mission. It thrives because the multiple alternative modernities that have been built outside the West both universalize and provincialize the West, a situation that an ironic sensibility engages as familiar certainties collapse. "The formula in stable irony, moving from false to true, from rotten to solid, becomes dialectical in unstable irony, a movement from same to other and back" (9). Unstable irony, then, "is able to translate the relativity of our epistemologies, and by that very fact, opens the way to new understandings" (2). [End Page 345] Indeed, this sensibility was even theorized across boundaries. In treating the familiar array of relevant theorists, Rice highlights how many had colonial and postcolonial connections that shaped their thinking—not least with Muslim Africa, which is the focus of her concern. Thus she draws not only on the likes of Richard Rorty and Kenneth Burke, not only on Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida, but also on Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and, of course, Frantz Fanon.

Against a familiar view that thinks unstable irony is disabling—because its dialectic is unable to support final positions—Rice asserts with Fanon, Edward Said, and others that it in fact pushes us toward effective activism, toward "revolution and transformation." "It is affirmation through denial. It demystifies. Through mockery, it unmasks petty error and encourages analysis of the scheme of things. Yet through paradox and reconciliation, irony at its best affirms by opening our structuring of the world to transformation" (4). With this multi-layered definition of irony in hand, Rice offers a collection of essays exploring the "transcultural invention" of Muslim Africa, from Senegal to Sudan.

Cheikh Hamidou Kane's well-known novel Ambiguous Adventure provides material to build a very solid section of her case. In the standard reading, Samba Diallo's journey to the West and back ends in inevitable failure. The premise that the West is modern, and that Islam and Africa are not, means the two cannot coexist—Samba therefore dies of the inherent contradiction upon his return home. But Samba's life interweaves two cogent narratives—his movement to Paris and back and his Sufi spiritual quest. "Western narrative conventions . . . do not suffice to explain an experience that involves religious struggle rather than progress, community rather than individuation, and revelation rather than development through time" (100). The first ends in death, but the second, in the often-neglected final chapter, marks Samba's spiritual transcendence. Kane's "effort is at once apotropaic—he seeks to protect his own culture, and therapeutic—he seeks to protect Western culture from itself " and the self-deception that its material power entails moral superiority (85). This suggests a new...


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pp. 345-347
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