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African Literature in the Post-Global Age: Provocations on Field Commonsense

  • Tejumola Olaniyan


An exploration of African literary studies and what might be its most salient and informed tools of self-constitution and self-understanding in the contemporary moment. More than half a century after formal literary studies emerged in Africa, much of the field is still fixated with a deep suspicion of the true provenance of its own production. The paper theoretically distills some of the expressed or implied evaluative canons of belonging, explores their methods of application, and critically assesses their contemporary relevance—or even resonance. The goal is to arrive at what might be a most enabling conception of African letters for an age I conceive as “post-global.”



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1 This is a revised version of a paper first presented at the African Literature Association in Bayreuth, Germany, in June 2015. My gratitude to Kwaku Korang, ALA Executive Council member, for organizing this panel on behalf of the ALA. His brief charge written to the panelists was weighty and thought-provoking. A note on “post-global” with a hyphen. I employ this to polemically call attention to chronological supersession, with its potential to engender energetic debate. I have, however, in my elaborations strongly privileged a historico-conceptual understanding now more conventionally represented without a hyphen.

2 I have historicized aspects of the problematic and the transformation in an essay, “African Cultural Studies: Of Travels, Accents, and Epistemologies,” Rethinking African Cultural Production, eds. Ken Harrow and Frieda Ekotto (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 94–108. See also my presidential address at the African Literature Association annual meeting at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, “African Literature Is Doing Well, Thank You. But Is African Literary Studies?African Literature Association Newsletter 1.1 (2014): 16 .

3 Now older pieces better capture the energy of the moment. See my “On ‘Post-Colonial Discourse’: An Introduction,” On “Post-Colonial Discourse”: A Special Issue: Callaloo 16.4 (Fall 1993): 743–49; and “Postmodernity, Postcoloniality, and African Studies,” Postmodernism, Postcoloniality, and African Studies, ed. Zine Magubane (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003), 39–60.

4 Deaglio, Mario, Postglobal (Roma: Editori Laterza, 2004; no English translation). See the useful review of Deaglio by Lucia Re in Jura Gentium: Rivista di filosofia del diritto internazionale e della politica globale 2005.

5 Lopez, Alfred J., “’Everybody else Just Living Their Lives’: 9/11, Race and the New Postglobal Literature,” Patterns of Prejudice 42.4–5 (2008): 509529 , at 509.

6 “In my view, the United States and the Soviet Union form the first world. Japan, Europe and Canada, the middle section, belong to the second world. We are the third world. . . . With the exception of Japan, Asia belongs to the third world. The whole of Africa belongs to the third world, and Latin America too.” Zedong, Mao, “Chairman Mao’s Theory of the Differentiation of the Three Worlds Is a Major Contribution to Marxism-Leninism,” Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), November 1, 1977 . Reprinted in pamphlet form in English by Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1977.

Worsley’s, Peter The Three Worlds: Culture and Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) is a contextually thoughtful sociological study of the idea of the tripartite division of the world reigning then.

7 Two excellent studies of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) formed in Belgrade in 1961 are Mohammed, Bala, Africa and Nonalignment: A Study in the Foreign Relations of New Nations (Kano: Triumph, 1978); and Willetts, Peter, The Non-Aligned Movement: The Origins of a Third World Alliance (New York: Nichols, 1978).

8 The sociologist Martin Albrow tried admirably to underscore the global dependence on the assumption of a decentered nation-state. See his The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996). On studies of sovereignty in Africa and generally, see Englebert, Pierre, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty, and Sorrow (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009); Kalmo, Hent and Skinner, Quentin, Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Grimm, Dieter, Sovereignty: The Origin and Future of a Political and Legal Concept, trans. Belinda Cooper (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

9 See the useful volumes, Cohen, Tom, ed., Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1 (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), and Sussman, Henry, ed., Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 2. (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012).

10 My gratitude to the thoughtful peer reviewers of this article.

11 There are so many useful historical studies out there. I have benefitted from Hunt, Lynn, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2008) and Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice 3e (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). See also Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

12 On the state in Africa and generally, see these summative and cogent studies: Young, Crawford M., The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960–2010 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012); Davidson, Basil, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State, (New York: Random House, 1992); Mbembe, Achille, On The Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); and Bourdieu, Pierre, On the State (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015).

13 See Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: Heinemann, 1986).

14 See Barkan, Sandra, “Emerging Definitions of African Literature,” African Literature Studies: The Present State/L’Etat Present, ed. S. Arnold (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985), 2646 .

15 This is the ground invented by and on which African Marxist criticism of African literature stood. Any reading, of course, is “ideological,” but it was Marxist criticism that became synonymous with “ideological” criticism beginning from the 1970s. See, for instance, Thiong’o’s, Ngugi wa Writers in Politics: Essays (London: Heinemann, 1981) and Jeyifo’s, Biodun The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama (London: New Beacon Books, 1985). The classic magisterial text, however, is Omafume Onoge’s “The Crisis of Consciousness in Modern African Literature,” Marxism and African Literature, ed. Georg Gugelberger (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1985 [article written in 1974]), 21–49. The lasting advantage of this “ideological” criticism is now evident in the generalized awareness of the partiality of every point of view and the questioning of the position from which every view is uttered. Feminist criticism of African literature benefitted richly from it. See, for instance, Ogundipe-Leslie, Molara, Recreating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994), and Davis, Carole Boyce and Graves, Anne Adams, Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986). The effectiveness of the deployment of ideological awareness or critique today does not depend on knowing much about its conceptual subtleties in Marxist criticism whether generally or in African literary studies in particular.


African Literature in the Post-Global Age: Provocations on Field Commonsense

  • Tejumola Olaniyan


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