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Wealth in Fiction: Capitalism, Animism, and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road Trilogy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 July 2018


This article proposes the concept of noncapitalist wealth as a line of inquiry into the relations among capitalism, animism, and literary production. I begin by discussing the methodological implications of Harry Garuba’s influential essay on “animist materialism” and suggest that Garuba’s operating theory of capital means that his method ultimately leads to a mode of reading that understands animism as bearing primarily upon representation rather than on literary production. The result is a mode of reading that lacks sensitivity to the implications of the influence of specific animisms on individual texts. Eschewing an encompassing theory of animism’s relation to literary production, I propose the concept of noncapitalist wealth, derived in part from Karl Marx and anthropologists such as Jane I. Guyer, as a potential avenue of inquiry within the debate around literary animisms. I offer a reading of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road trilogy (1990–1998) to demonstrate the ways in which an operating concept of wealth, combined with a sensitivity to contemporary forms of capitalism, can help to reveal the political dimension of some literary texts.

© Cambridge University Press 2018 

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1 Taussig, Michael T., The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John L., “Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony,” American Ethnologist 26.2 (1999): 279303 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Okri, Ben, The Famished Road, reprint edition (New York: Anchor, 1993)Google Scholar; Okri, Ben, Songs of Enchantment, first paperback edition (London: Vintage, 1994)Google Scholar; Okri, Ben, Infinite Riches (London: Vintage, 2009)Google Scholar.

3 Garuba, Harry, “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society,” Public Culture 15.2 (2003): 261285 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Garuba was not the first critic to consider the question of the relation between animism and literature. Wole Soyinka, upon whose work Garuba draws, had already explored the relations between African literature and the “African worldview” in Soyinka, Wole, Myth Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

4 Garuba, “Explorations in Animist Materialism,” 265.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 267.

7 Ibid., 265–66.

8 Ibid., 268.

9 Ibid., 269.

10 Ibid., 281. Garuba’s precise take-away from Chakrabarty is phrased thus: “Here Chakrabarty highlights a problem in dealing with subaltern pasts. The issue, which also arises in studies of postcolonial African societies, is how to construct a rationally defensible principle in terms of modern public life that accounts for that other principle not based on a ‘disenchantment of the world’ by which these societies are ‘worlded.’ ”

11 Chibber, Vivek, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verso, 2013)Google Scholar.

12 For a critique of the “alternative modernities” thesis, see The Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 14 Google Scholar.

13 Garuba, “Explorations in Animist Materialism,” 281.

14 Ibid., 272, 274–75.

15 Ibid., 274.

16 Ato Quayson raises a different, but related concern: “Even if magical realist writers subscribe to the idea of the inherent animism of the objective world it may be argued that magical realist texts are not all united in articulating this sense of things, at least not in terms exclusively or indeed predominantly of the materialization of metaphor, which is how Garuba explains the matter.” See Quayson, Ato, “Magical Realism and the African Novel,” in The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel, ed. F. Abiola Irele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 159176 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 161.

17 Garuba, “Explorations in Animist Materialism,” 271.

18 Malloy, Sylvia, “Postcolonial Latin America and the Magic Realist Imperative: A Report to an Academy,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, eds. Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 375 Google Scholar.

19 In referring to a global crisis of capitalism, I am here following a number of political economists who have argued that since the late 1970s and certainly since the 1980s, the capitalist world system has been undergoing a crisis. The precise nature of this crisis varies among scholars, but important accounts include: Arrighi, Giovanni, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (London; New York: Verso, 2010), 309335 Google Scholar; Harvey, David, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)Google Scholar. For an account that understands the crisis in terms of capital’s increasing failure to produce value (the preferred definition for this essay) see Kurz, Robert, “The Crisis of Exchange Value: Science as Productivity, Productive Labor, and Capitalist Reproduction,” in Marxism and the Critique of Value, eds. Neil Larsen, Mathias Nilges, Josh Robinson, and Nicholas Brown (Chicago, IL: Mediations, 2014), 1775 Google Scholar.

20 See Harlow, Barbara, Resistance Literature (New York: Routledge, 1987), 2 Google Scholar. It is not my intention here to suggest that resistance no longer occurs under conditions of crisis. Rather, it is my claim that we might be attentive to a broader range of oppositional politics.

21 Apter, Andrew, The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 226236 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Moore, Henrietta L. and Sanders, Todd, eds., Magical Interpretations, Material Realities: Modernity, Witchcraft and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (London; New York: Routledge, 2002), 15 Google Scholar.

23 Ibid., 15.

24 For important studies of turns to ritual, the occult, and witchcraft in contemporary Africa that portray them as symptoms of globalization, see, for example, the essays in Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John L., eds., Modernity and Its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Geschiere, Peter, The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1997)Google Scholar; and Moore and Sanders, Magical Interpretations.

25 Marx, Karl, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus, Reprint edition (Harmondsworth, England; Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1993), 488 Google Scholar.

26 Guyer, Jane I., “Introduction: Wealth in People, Wealth in Things,” The Journal of African History 36.1 (1995): 89 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Clough, Paul, Morality and Economic Growth in Rural West Africa: Indigenous Accumulation in Hausaland (New York: Berghahn, 2014), 64 Google Scholar.

28 Ibid.

29 Guyer, Jane I. and Eno Belinga, Samuel M., “Wealth in People as Wealth in Knowledge: Accumulation and Composition in Equatorial Africa,” The Journal of African History 36.1 (1995): 92 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Ibid., 108.

31 Ibid., 112.

32 Ibid.

33 Comaroff and Comaroff, “Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction,” 284.

34 For discussions of Okri’s work in relation to “magical realism” see Aizenberg, Edna, “The Famished Road: Magical Realism and the Search for Social Equity,” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 43 (1995): 2530 Google Scholar; Cooper, Brenda, Seeing with a Third Eye: Magical Realism in West African Fiction (London; New York: Routledge, 2004)Google Scholar; Deandrea, Pietro, Fertile Crossings: Metamorphoses of Genre in Anglophone West African Literature (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002)Google Scholar; Quayson, Ato, “Magical Realism and the African Novel”; K. Sasser, Magical Realism and Cosmopolitanism: Strategizing Belonging (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)Google Scholar; and Warnes, Christopher, Magical Realism and the Postcolonial Novel: Between Faith and Irreverence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)Google Scholar.

35 Quoted in Fulford, Sarah, “Ben Okri, the Aesthetic, and the Problem with Theory,” Comparative Literature Studies 46.2 (2009): 233 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Wilkinson, Jane, Talking with African Writers: Interviews with African Poets, Playwrights and Novelists (London: Portsmouth, NH James Currey, 1992), 87 Google Scholar. Emphasis added.

37 Apter, The Pan-African Nation, 226.

38 Here I echo Norbert Trenkle’s reference to the “process of capital accumulation without capital valorization” of fictitious capital in Norbert Trenkle, “Labour in the Era of Fictitious Capital,” Krisis (blog). February 22, 2017.

39 See Guyer, Jane I., Denzer, Laray, and Agbaje, Adigun, “Introduction: The Nigerian Popular Economy—Strategies Toward a Study,” in Money Struggles and City Life: Devaluation in Ibadan and Other Urban Centers in Southern Nigeria, 1986–1996, eds. Jane I. Guyer, Laray Denzer, and Adigun Agbaje (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann), xviixlv Google Scholar.

40 Apter, The Pan-African Nation, 226.

41 Quayson, Ato, Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri (Oxford; Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 153 Google Scholar.

42 Davis, Mike, Planet of Slums (London; New York: Verso, 2007), 23 Google Scholar.

43 Okri, The Famished Road, 33.

44 Ibid., 113.

45 Okri, Songs of Enchantment, 68.

46 Okri, Infinite Riches, 94

47 Ibid., 16

48 Ibid., 143.

49 McCabe, Douglas, “Histories of Errancy: Oral Yoruba Àbíkú Texts and Soyinka’s ‘Abiku,’Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002): 46 Google Scholar. McCabe goes on to offer a nuanced history of the àbíkú with reference to Yoruba oral texts and the works of Wole Soyinka.

50 Okri, The Famished Road, 5.

51 See, for example, Okri, The Famished Road, 178; Okri, Songs of Enchantment, 4, 176, 295; Okri, Infinite Riches, 15, 250.

52 Okri, The Famished Road, 279–80.

53 Capital’s cyclical logic has been identified in at least one other “magical realist” text, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. See Beckman, Ericka, “An Oil Well Named Macondo: Latin American Literature in the Time of Global Capital,” PMLA 127.1 (2012): 145151 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Marx, Grundrisse, 750.

55 A recent book by Michael Roberts provides a valuable overview of Marx’s thought on the subject. See Roberts, Michael, The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism (Haymarket, 2016), 219221 Google Scholar.

56 Wilkinson, Talking with African Writers, 87.

57 Okri, The Famished Road, 70.

58 Ibid., 446.

59 Okri, Songs of Enchantment, 155.

60 Okri, The Famished Road, 338.

61 Ibid., 280.

62 Ibid., 281.

63 Ibid., 277–78.

64 Ibid., 281.

65 Okri, Infinite Riches, 83.

66 Okri, Songs of Enchantment, 279, 280.

67 Ibid., 280.

68 I distinguish the “wealth in people” that I am highlighting from the “vernacular humanism” that Kim Sasser identifies in The Famished Road. Although Sasser correctly identifies elements of an alternative politics, to understand these elements as part of a humanist philosophy on Okri’s part is to minimize their importance vis-à-vis capitalism and to miss their nonhuman potential. See Sasser, Magical Realism and Cosmopolitanism, 71–106.

69 Okri, Infinite Riches, 394

70 Quoted in Fulford, “Ben Okri, the Aesthetic, and the Problem with Theory,” 233.