Some Recurrent Themes on the Challenges of an African Cultural Modernity
I start with the contention that if we are to derive much-needed illumination from the literature and critical thought of Africa of the last half a century with regard to the profound crises engendered by arrested decolonization in the postindependence period, three recurrent, closely related themes on the problem of modernization and modernity in the continent ought to engage our serious attention. I wish to frame my reflections here around a synoptic review of these three themes.
The first theme involves a deep sense of perplexity with regard to all available cognitive or explanatory models and paradigms, precolonial, colonial and postcolonial. Indeed, this perplexity is so deep, so profound that it amounts to nothing less than an epistemic impasse. Sometimes, this theme is rendered in literary criticism of the conventional kind in the simplistic and distortive framework of a culture clash between Africa and the West, tradition and modernity, the old and the new, the indigenous and the alien. Soyinka, among others, has confronted this critical reductionism with one of its most devastating rebuttals.1 A much more resonant articulation of this theme of epistemic impasse is suggested by both the title and the narrative of Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, especially in its exploration in depth of the forcible transition of Umuofia, standing metonymically for all of precolonial Africa, into a historical space which seems to make invalid all pre-existing cognitive systems, all paradigms for making confounding or traumatic experiences comprehensible or negotiable.
This theme is often apprehended in the larger imaginative topography of anomie, spiritual or psychological. However, what I am emphasizing here are the specifically epistemic dimensions of the theme. Thus the narration of the collapse of all the identity-forming and socially cementing institutions of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart is underscored by the simultaneous telescoping and fragmenting of vast temporalities and synchronicities of precolonial experience. It is this particular form of the disintegration of the institutional matrices which organise and shape cognition which is conveyed by the Yeatsian/Achebean image of the center which can no longer hold. In other words, beside the collapse of ordered practices and values of kinship, identity and community, it is the terror of losing one’s cognitive moorings and having little to shape the fashioning of new and viable markers or paradigms to make experience meaningful that leads to the deep historical melancholia at the end of the novel.
Of the many texts in the corpus of modern African writing which have given a compelling, mature exploration of this theme of epistemic impasse or terminus, we may point to the exemplary cases of Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Fragments, Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, Bessie Head’s A Question of Power, and Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger and Black Sunlight. In these texts we encounter protagonists, characters and imaginative lifeworlds in which “old,” hitherto stable meanings, codes, inscriptions and significations no longer suffice to make experience easily or reassuringly cognizable, at the same time that “new” syntheses can only very dimly be perceived if at all.
It is important, I believe, to draw attention to one often ignored but crucial aspect of this theme of epistemic, cognitive crisis and its corresponding historical melancholia: its initial articulation literally preceded the attainment of formal independence, indeed coincided with the inception of the movement toward decolonization. Moreover, in many notable cases, the imaginative landscape of the literary expression of this theme involves a retrospective projection into both pre-colonial, pre-capitalist African social formations and the forcibly imposed disarticulations of colonial capitalism. I believe it is important to recall this point if only to underscore the fact that this theme of epistemic impasse did not emerge, as many critics seem to think, with “postcolonial disillusionment.”2
The second theme -– which I designate radical alterity and hegemony -– is perhaps more overtly political; it entails two distinct but closely interlocking ideas. On one side is the idea that in the modern world and more specifically the global order of late capitalism, very powerful, almost insuperable external forces and interests are ranged against Africa and African peoples and societies; on the other side is the idea that these mostly Western foreign interests and forces are so alien to our cultures and societies as to constitute, compositely, a difference that is radically incommensurable to Africa. It is on the basis of the convergence of these two ideas that we should look for a deeper resonance of this theme of radical alterity and hegemony beyond its normative inscription in our critical discourse as economic and political imperialism against Africa. In the deeper articulations of this theme in African literature and critical discourse, the putative difference between the cultural and civilizational ensembles of Africa and the West are reified in the form of difference made so incommensurable as to be endlessly inimical and threatening.
Among the literary works which have explored this theme at some length and with imaginative force are Achebe’s Arrow of God, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons, and Yambo Ouloguem’s Bound to Violence. It might be useful to remark here that Negritude was, in its classical phase, indeed initially an ideological, perhaps doctrinal codification of this theme of the radically incommensurable alterity of the West to Africa.3 Furthermore, most of the varieties of the vigorously revisionary “nativism” of recent critical discourse, as in the notable cases of Chinweizu and Armah, correspond to a sort of post-Negritude consolidation of this theme.4 I would thus argue that this theme, conceived as a set of dispersed tropes or “idiologemes” in contemporary African critical discourse, occupies a deep structure of the political unconscious of the modern African nationalist or Pan-Africanist literary-cultural imagination.5
The third theme of our review of contemporary African thought derives dialectically from the second and is indeed a refinement or sublation of it.6 This theme I identify as that of culturalism. It essentially entails the view that given the vastly unequal technological, military and economic dimensions of the encounter of colonized Africa with the colonizing West -– indeed on account of this very factor of a massively disproportionate distribution of power and advantage –- “culture” constitutes the only real bulwark, the last redoubt, the kernel of both effective resistance to the West and neutralization of Africa’s enormous disadvantage. In all the varied formulations of this view, “culture” is recognized as being the target of a massive Western onslaught; however, “culture” is at the same time seen not only as the most resistant “front” but as the very ground of resistance on all other “fronts,” economic, political, military, ideological. Thus, if this theme, as we have noted, is a dialectical response to the reification of the presumed incommensurable and inimical alterity of the West to Africa, it is a response by way of a counter-reification: African “culture” is saved by the very fact of its presumed absolute difference from the West. In varying formalistic and thematic expressions, with their divergent ideological inflections, this idea animates such diverse literary texts as Kobina Sekyi’s The Blinkards, Hampate Ba’s The Fortunes of Wangrin, Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, Armah’s The Healers and, again, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman.
A Changed Historical Ground
It is important to recall these central themes of the literary-critical discourse on cultural modernity and African societies because, since the 1980s at least, a changed historical ground has given them a new pertinence, a fresh lease of discursive life. In other words, these themes are being discursively reinscribed, albeit in greatly altered forms. We shall engage some of these at the end of this essay, but first, a word on the changed historical ground. Since the terms which define this have been extensively delineated and analysed, only its barest outline will be given here, not in any particular order, but as a composite profile.7
Perhaps the most important feature of this altered historical terrain is the polarization of the global economic order into two warring camps of “creditor nations” and “debtor nations.” Expressed differently, the old polarization between colonizers and colonized, between empire and colony, has been transmuted into the far more rarified and finessed antagonism between, as some now put it, nations that “restructure” and those that “adjust.” Africa is solidly and almostly completely mired among the most desperately indebted; other things follow, and ramify from this central factor:
— Effective control and initiative for the present and future direction of the continent now lie with the creditor nations, acting through institutional proxies like the IMF and the World Bank. This spells virtual recolonization of the continent;
— As most of the African states enter a kind of collective debt peonage in which a laissez-faire market economy is imposed on them, there is a much-touted view that both socialism and capitalism, as paradigms of mobilization for economic and social progress, have failed in the continent;
— Given these factors which have reduced Africa’s growth rate to virtual nullity, or even stagnation and real decline, Africa is effectively excluded from the current explosion of knowledge by the technologization and computerization of information data and new knowledges and techniques;
— Given the massive reduction of social expenditure on the public sectors of the African economies, there is now a virtual collapse of higher education and high-level manpower training, with a corresponding demoralization of educational personnel and other professional groups;
— With the enormous shrinkage of credit and investment capital which accompany these interlocking developments, there is a monumental reduction of the cost of reproduction of labor power and general productive capacities; consequently there is every possibility that competencies and capacities of the present generation, already almost fatally depressed, will further deteriorate in the next generation;
— The greatest human cost is imposed: the immiseration and pauperization of virtually all urban and rural producers and toilers, especially women and children;
— There occurs a perceivable weakening, or even implosion, of the postcolonial state, given the disappearance of the extractable surplus on which its apparatus, as well as its legitimacy, rests; consequently, there seems to be an intensification of more primordial bases of community, allegiance and sociality.
Given the fact that these patterns and developments are to be found in virtually all the African states, with perhaps only South Africa as a historic exception, the total import lies not in particular, differentiated expressions in each African country, but rather in the way in which these developments combine to homogenize, objectify and reify the continent, the “race,” as a weak, stagnating, dependent and tragic zone of humanity. Given this factor, racial or continental awareness becomes a sort of community of consciousness of unassuageable suffering desperately in search of, in Walter Benjamin’s famous construct, messianic time.8
This condition is a fertile ground for a special kind of reification, a special kind of hypostasis which generates and naturalizes “racial explanations” in place of scrupulous attention to the historically contingent crystallization and intensification of unequal relationships between and within nations and peoples. In its most extreme negative expression, this reification of “race” as the ground of all explanatory or analytical paradigms indeed engenders what I would describe as the mythicization and annulment of history. Thus again today we confront the increasing racialization of thought and culture about which Fanon had given insightful warnings. In the cloudy light of this re-racialization of thought, historical experience and social phenomena assume the extremely mystifying appearance of new phantasms of the “white man” or the “Black race.”9
In such conditions, a truly radical African critical discourse calls for intellectual vigilance, for sustained, unyielding and rigorous acts of theoretical demythologization. Our reflections on Achebe, Fanon and Cabral and the philosophy of decolonization thus hope to establish a line of departure from the tendency toward the reification and obfuscation which the current historical melancholia all too easily engenders. What links these three writers indeed is their efforts to demystify reification, not by ignoring it, but by engaging it directly in both lucid and complex ways. In this regard, it becomes important to uncover how, on the one hand, each of the writers engages our three central themes and, on the other, how we might read each of these engagements –- Achebe’s, Fanon’s and Cabral’s -– against one another, and against the more generalized philosophy of decolonization which we deem a fundamental aspect of contemporary intellectual culture.
Achebe: Telos, Progressivism and De-mythologization
To read Achebe’s ideas on the genealogy and evolution of an African cultural modernity, on the one hand, in his imaginative works and, on the other, in his non-fictional essays, is to become acutely conscious of the need for very discriminating, hermeneutically flexible and open reading strategies. For scattered throughout Achebe’s fictional and non-fictional prose works are ideas which, at one level might seem inconsistent and contradictory, but at another level reveal deep structural, dialectical regularities and unities (if it is remembered that the “unity” of the dialectic not only admits, but consists of contradiction and tension).10 This calls for careful elaboration.
Even a cursory reading of many of Achebe’s fictional and non-fictional prose works shows immediately that the themes of a radical incommensurability of “Africa” and “Europe” and of the great disproportion in power and historic advantage between them, are explored extensively by him, and in quite unique representational terms. Consider the sort of inscription of these themes that we find in Achebe’s novelistic masterpiece, Arrow of God,11 in the account given by Winterbottom (the colonial District Officer) of a particular episode in the military “pacification” of Umuaro:
I think I can say with all modesty that this change came after I had gathered and publicly destroyed all firearms, except of course, this collection here. You will be going there frequently on tour. If you hear anyone talking about Otiji-Egbe, you know that they are talking about me. Otiji-Egbe means “Breaker of Guns.” I am even told that all children born in that year belong to a new age-grade of the Breaking of the Guns. [36-7]
The triumphalism of this account, which savours and re-enacts the psychic violence it narrates, is all the more interesting in that it seems to find complicity in the way in which the colonized have ritualized and encoded the event in collective memory. Clearly, Winterbottom intends a ritualization of the colonizer’s military superiority or invincibility in the ceremonial, pubic enactment of the event. As some scholars have noted, this reveals the European colonizers’ consumate love of spectacle -– of ceremonial display of power and majesty –- that played a crucial role in the consolidation and stabilization of colonial rule in Africa and Asia.12 Thus, if this is a recognizable part of the culture of colonialism, what is extraordinary in Achebe’s depiction is the seeming complicity, even acquiescence, of the colonized in the ritualization of the colonizer’s military superiority. This seems to be even more pointed in the following account of Ezeulu’s ruminations on “book” and writing as indices of a vast chasm in cultural achievement and advantage between the “white man” and the “black man”:
The messenger pointed in his direction and the other man followed with his eye and saw Ezeulu. But he only nodded and continued to write in his big book. When he finished what he was writing he opened a connecting door and disappeared into another room. He did not stay long there; when he came out again be beckoned at Ezeulu, and showed him into the white man’s presence. He too was writing, but with his left hand. The first thought that came to Ezeulu on seeing him was to wonder whether any black man ould ever achieve the same mastery over book as to write it with the left hand. 
Since this is Ezeulu the proud priest who refuses to be the “white man’s warrant chief,” it behoves us not to read this pasage in isolation from other kinds, or orders, of narrative and representation in the novel. For Ezeulu is not like the benighted fireman on the riverboat in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness who, thanks to Conrad’s totalizing and totalitarian exclusion of “native” versions of “reality” other than his own narcissitically “European” point of view,13 cannot have any conception of the riverboat’s engine-room boiler or furnace other than as a malevolent, fiery spirit who must be constantly and endlessly appeased. Thus, even though Ezeulu, from the conditioned gaze of an analphabetic, non-literate culture, mystifies “book” and writing, in many other respects, especially on the level of ethical and spiritual reflectiveness and acceptance of moral responsibilitity, Ezeulu considers himself, and aspects of his culture, superior to the culture and values of the “white man.” This is definitely the spirit of his testimony against his own community of Umuaro in the “white man’s” court in which he makes a deposition against what he sees as a “war of blame” by his own people against Okperi, a neighboring community. In making that deposition, Ezeulu stands completely alone, distanced as much from the land-grabbing, aggressive opportunism of his own community as from the manipulative, divide-and-dominate politicking of the white colonial administration. But significantly, Ezeulu invokes ethical imperatives from his culture in maintaining his lonely unpopular stand.
This line of interpretation allows us to see that the structure of Achebe’s representations and narratives on the historic encounter of Europe and Africa is intricately dialectical and is shaped by ambiguity and irony. At the very least, I identify three levels of narratological, representational or ideological matrices, all deeply interconnected. Here, I will attempt only a brief unravelling of these matrices.
At one level, the superb realist logic of Achebe’s narrative art shows a deep intuitive grasp of objective, impersonal mediations and determinations on the encounter of the colonizer and the colonized. Moreover, this is matched by a rigorous fidelity to the exploration of these processes and determinations in their own right and at that level at which they are not only ultimately beyond the control of either side, but cannot even be adequately perceived, let alone understood and mastered. The most widely discussed of these is the case of Oduche, Ezeulu’s son who, at his father’s behest, goes to the “white man’s” church and school in order to be his father’s “eyes and ears”; however, Oduche disappoints his father and culture by the way that his formation as a newly colonized subject, an unintended “évolué,” exceeds his father’s plans. This is the level of the external, objective operation of the dialectic of history and subjectivity, and Achebe’s realist art is superbly attentive to it.
At another level, that of interiority and personal volition, Achebe does not cede individuals, their passions, anxieties, eccentricities, strengths and weaknesses to total control and determination by abstract, impersonal forces and processes. This is perhaps a product both of his version of realism and his deep strain of humanist sympathies. Thus, it should be remarked that Achebe extends his understanding, and his solicitude and compassion, to both the colonizer and the colonized, both the victims and the perpetrators of reification. One instantiation of this is the total portrait of Winterbottom, “the Breaker of Guns”: even at the very moment of glorying in his triumph as “Otiji-Ogbe,” Breaker of Guns, the vulnerable, wasting man behind the mythic lionization is deftly shown to be succumbing to that classic of the wages or nemesis of colonial “sin” -– tropical fever -– and the relentless human vitiation lodged within the natural cycle of aging.
The most intricate, daunting level of these matrices of Achebe’s representations of historical experience concerns his infusion into his characteristic realist detachment and irony passionate espousals of particular causes and somewhat more limited communal, national and even “racial” interests. Some of these are: the human worth and fundamental dignity of the African precolonial past, with all its imperfections and limitations;14 the cause of women and all marginalized groups and classes;15 the vocation of writing in particular and art in general in an increasingly philistine, vulgarly materialistic African postcoloniality;16 the cause of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war and of the Igbo people in the skewed, explosively antagonistic “peace” of post-civil war Nigeria;17 and the Pan-Africanist internationalism of an African humanity which embraces the continent and the diaspora.18 This is perhaps the greatest challenge to interpretation posed by Achebe’s fictional and non-fictional works: the intersection and convergence in these works of realist detachment and objectivity, intuitive grasp of the inner movement of complex mediations and determinations, a broad, catholic humanist sympathy, and the espousal of particularist causes.
It is against this complex tapestry of Achebe’s narrative art, broad moral and philosophical temper, and passionate political and ideological enthusiams that one must, I believe, read what comes across in his writings as the most recurrent, the most insistent, and the most problematic theme on modernity and modernization: a much too linear and teleological view of historical change, a much too schematic division between “backwardness” and “progressiveness,” between cultural immobilism and dynamism. I would like to examine this issue briefly by juxtaposing three passages from different fictional and non-fictional works of the Nigerian author.
The first passage, the earliest of our three examples, comes from some fragmentary, non-fictional notes titled “Tourist Sketches” published in 1962 which bore the subtitle “being part of an unwritten travel book”:
The Wachagga who inhabit the slopes of Kilimanjaro are today a very progressive people. They are comparatively wealthy because they grow coffee on the most modern cooperative lines. I am told that the Wachagga used not to be very popular with the British administration, especially with one particular Governor who did not fancy natives in lounge suits.
The Masai their neighbours took one look at western civilization and turned their back on it; the Wachagga plunged in without taking a look. They are always trying out new things. In the fifties they decided to unite their 300,000 people under a paramount chief, and chose as their first ruler Tom Marealle who was educated at the London School of Economics. In 1960 they found him too ambitious and replaced him with an elected President, Solomon Eliufo who had been educated at Makerere and the United States and was one of Mr. Nyerere’s brightest ministers…
Personally I think New Africa belongs to those who, like the Wachagga, are ready to take in new ideas. Like all those with open minds they will take in a lot of rubbish. They will certainly not be a tourist attraction. But in the end life will favour those who come to terms with it and not those who run away.19
Our second passage takes us back to Arrow of God in Winterbottom’s speech on the “breaking of guns.” The echoes of the earlier text on “Massais” and “Wachaggas” are unmistakable:
Those guns have a long and interesting history. The people of Okperi and their neighbours Umuaro are great enemies. Or they were before I came into the story. A big savage war had broken out between them over a piece of land. This feud was made worse by the fact that Okperi welcomed missionaries and government while Umuaro, on the other hand, has remained backward. It was only in the last four or five years that any kind of impression has been made there. 
Finally, a passage from Achebe’s book of trenchant social criticism, The Trouble with Nigeria, published in 1983. The quote is from an essay titled “The Igbo Problem”:
The origin of the national resentment of the Igbo is as old as Nigeria and quite as complicated. But it can be summarized thus: The Igbo culture being receptive to change, individualistic and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion and unlike the Yoruba unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing nor God nor man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities, such as they were, of the white man’s dispensation. And the Igbo did so with both hands. Although the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head-start the Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950.20
The implicit teleological, progressivist, quasi-Darwinian view in these quotes on the topic of modernization and modernity is, as is now very well known, a major aspect of the hegemonist ideology of empire-building Europe in its global reach over the course of four hundred years.21 It achieves one of its most “scientific” expressions in W.W. Rostow’s famous key text of 1960s bourgeois sociology of development, Stages of Economic Growth.22 And as Byran Turner has demonstrated in his important book, Marx and the End of Orientalism, when applied to the so-called developing world, this teleological, progressivist view of modernity fastens almost exclusively on “internalist” or “culturalist” obstacles to modernization and development.23 Thus this teleological progressivism marks a point of theoretical and ideological weakness in Achebe’s ideas on culture and development, even though, as we have seen, his works constitute a powerful critique of reification and abstraction of “culture” from historical processes and the competitive struggles between social groups, nations, peoples. Alongside Achebe’s teleological formulations, there has thus always been something of an internal critique of them in his writings, and some of his recent essays and fictional works have indeed deepened and expanded on the more muted articulation of this critique in his earlier writings.24 This is particularly true of the novel Anthills of the Savannah25 and the collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments. In these works we encounter a much more complex view of “culture” as the kernel of resistance to both local and foreign domination and as a germ of renewal and transformation. In other words, we find a transcendence of the schematic, binary division of history and experience in the teleological, progressivist formulation of a radical separation and antagonism between “stronger” and “weaker” peoples and social groups, more “dynamic” and “static” cultures, the precolonial, precapitalist past and the varied capitalisms of the present. In Anthills of the Savannah, this exemplary transcendence of cultural or experiential binarisms is symbolized by the novel’s extraordinary closing narrative and representational tropes: Elewa’s new baby girl is given a boy’s name and during this emblematic enactment the men, as traditional embodiments of “strength,” initiative and decisiveness, are noticeably in the background. And consider the radical critique of, even the break with, teleological thought in the following passage from the eloquent essay on culture and development, “What Has Literature Got to Do with It”:
In one sense [there is] a travelling away from [an] old self towards a cosmopolitan, modern identity, while in another sense [there is a] journeying back to regain a threatened past and selfhood. To comprehend the dimensions of this gigantic paradox and coax from it such unparalleled inventiveness requires not mere technical flair but the archaic energy, the perspective, the temperament of creation myths and symbolism. It is in the very nature of creativity, in its prodigious complexity and richness, that it will accommodate paradoxes and ambiguities. But this, it seems, will always elude and pose a problem for the uncreative, literal mind. The literal mind is the one-track mind, the simplistic mind, the mind that cannot comprehend that where one thing stands, another will stand beside it –- the mind (finally and alas!) which appears to dominate our current thinking on Nigeria’s need for technology.26
Fanon and Cabral: Materialist Hermeneutics and Cultural Theory
In approaching the immensely crucial works of Fanon and Cabral, it is perhaps useful to recall the extraordinary idea that we extrapolated above from Achebe’s essay, “What Has Literature Got to Do With It?” which states that the problematic of modernization and modernity for non-Western societies involves a janus-faced embrace of the past and the future: a moving outward and forward toward technological mastery and cosmopolitan identity as well as a moving inward and backward in time to repossess an archaic cultural energy and creativity lodged in residual sediments derived from the preindustrial, precapitalist and precolonial cultures. This notion flies in the face of the dominant discourses on development and modernity in African and Third World societies, which are all mostly based on teleologically progressivist and evolutionist theories. Sometimes, as in the case of a W.W. Rostow, these theories are quite explicit in affirming that there are definite, sequential stages to necessarily and progressively pass through in the forward march to modernization, affirming in effect that one cannot skip intermediate stages with impunity in order to arrive at real modernity. Mostly, however, these theoretical suppositions on stagist evolutionism are muted, implicit; nonetheless they run deep.
Most theorists and popularizing pundits of this school, Africans and non-Africans alike, locate Africa at the earlier phases of this teleological-evolutionist schema, thereby implying that the problems and challenges of modernization and modernity in Africa are almost insuperable on account of the presumed cultural provenance of backwardness. If Achebe’s formulation of the engine of modernity facing forward and looking back at the same time is a powerful metaphoric rebuttal of this telos, the writings of Fanon and Cabral constitute important theoretical validation of this rebuttal.
Since most of Fanon’s mature writings on cultural theory are in his last three books, The Wretched of the Earth, A Dying Colonialism and Toward The African Revolution, it may be useful to raise the question of how his first book, Black Skins, White Masks, a more youthful, passionate, tortured self-analysis, relates to the later works. The title is pertinent here: masks and phantoms of a black subjectivity overdetermined by deep complexes of alienation and self-hatred. In other words, the book was a courageous, unflinching, brilliant look at the sources which generate, and the forms/shades which express the “black man” as the absolute Other, the incarnation of negativity and inferiority. Beyond this, the book also explored how this phantasm became internalized, lived and acted out in elaborate forms of schizophrenia (e.g. linguistic and psychosexual) and how it could and should be terminated. What Fanon was thus later able to do in his mature works came by way of deepening and generalizing these insights of Black Skins, White Masks to wider historical, political and ideological contexts implied, for instance, in the title The Wretched of the Earth.
Indeed one can, I believe, plot a sort of movement in Fanon’s thought in general, and on cultural theory in particular, in the ideas and achievements of these four titles: from the most concrete, personal and confessional descent into subjetivity in Black Skins, White Masks, through a more muted form of the searing, poetic prose of the earlier book as he articulates a sort of manifesto and primer of revolt (in the context of historic decolonization) in A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth, to the essays of Toward the African Revolution which, in a visionary, proleptic register, look ahead beyond formal decolonization to the consolidation of the momentum of emancipation. Thus in Fanon’s work we find an internal dynamic which is rare not only in intellectual history in general but also among revolutionary intellectuals: a trajectory which progresses from the most intimate, personal, concrete and particular expression of suffering and thwarted desire, to its generalization and universalisation to encompass the truths of collective class, national and racial oppressions of the most marginalized of a world order under colonial and imperial domination. This is perhaps what has, in the decades since his death, turned Fanon into the leading theorist of national liberation as vehicle of revolutionary transcendence of many forms of oppression in the developing world: psycho-social and psyco-sexual alienation; economic and political domination and marginalization; the usurpation of the right to self-representation.
From the perspective of our own present reflections, perhaps the most important lesson of Fanon’s life and work is that, starting from the most personal experience of racial negation, he made so thorough a theoretical investigation of it as to link it with virtually every other form and site of negation and oppression. And he turned his searing demystification both on the oppressor and the oppressed, both on arrogant, triumphalist Europe in its imperial project and on Africa beaten down, exploited, inferiorized, condemned to backwardness. By totally absorbing the insights of the major Western intellectual currents of his day -– structuralism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, linguistics and revolutionary socialist theory –- and by engaging thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Sorrel, Adler and Lacan, he was extraordinarily penetrating on the contradictions and hypocrisies at the heart of Europe’s finest ideas and institutions -– humanism, democracy, the secular, rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment. Conversely, while he was deeply sympathetic to the racialized, nationalist or culturalist turning way from Europe, he was penetrating in his account of its dangers, pitfalls, delusions and, ultimately, self-reification. In this particular respect, the penetrating reach of his critique of Negritude is perhaps still to be matched.
Above all else, Fanon demonstrated that successful, emancipatory resistance is possible for oppressed “races,” peoples, nations and classes at whatever level of economic, psychological and historic disadvantage and devastation by cultural imperialism; but he insisted that this was possible only on the basis of avoiding the reification both of the “racial” or “nationalist” self as incarnation of virtue, and of the colonizing Other as the embodiment of evil. This was the crux of Fanon’s exposé on the dangers of freezing the initial manicheanism of the culture of colonialism into a permanent binarism; regrettably, this insight has been widely ignored or misunderstood. Finally, Fanon cautioned the middle-class African intellectual or writer to be aware of seductions and inducements to moral vaccilations and ideological compromises which are inherent in his or her being part of the colonized elite, part of the pseudo-bourgeoisie whose role, according to Fanon, would in all probability, be to betray the promise of independence, to arrest or set back the forward motion of historical decolonization.
With the possible exception of the descent into a personal, intensely subjective experience of racial alienation and its theoretical generalization into a collective psychohistory of racial disalienation, most of these themes of Fanon’s mature writings are present in Cabral’s work. The important differences between the two revolutionary thinkers pertain to points of emphasis and contexts of theoretical reflections. Thus, in general, Cabral’s writings are less personal, less “confessional” than Fanon’s; they are more grounded in close, extensive and exacting analyses of African societies and cultures in the context of what was perhaps the best organized, most ideologically developed anti-colonial, anti-imperialist national liberation struggle in Africa, namely that of the former Portuguese colonies. And since Cabral was arguably the greatest theoretician of that extraordinary anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movement, what we have in his work by way of the philosophy of decolonization, especially in the domain of cultural theory, marks perhaps the highest point of theoretical elaboration prior to the consolidation of recolonization in its present stage.
Given the many points of convergence between Fanon and Cabral, we can only in the present context indicate, in summary fashion, the main ideas of Cabral. Three closely connected ideas seem to be of exceptional significance.
First, there is the notion that whatever the level of economic development, whatever the material conditions of a particular society, it is a bearer and creator of culture and thus capable of self-regeneration and self-renewal, capable of mastery of techniques and processes necessary for survival and social reproduction relative to that society’s level of development. We can see that this point directly addresses the themes of the radical incommensurability between Africa and the West and the great disproportion in initiative, power and advantage between them. Secondly, there is Cabral’s thesis that, “without underestimating the importance of positive contributions from the oppressor’s culture and other cultures,” emancipation, progress, transformation will come to Africa and other Third World societies only if they return to the upward paths of the liberation of their productive capacities, distorted or paralysed by colonialism’s devaluation of the culture of the colonized. Without the liberation of these productive capacities, Cabral insists that no progress is possible. Finally, there is Cabral’s thesis on the multiform, complex, asymetrical and contradictory nature of culture, especially in Africa with regard to the historical heterogeneity of its peoples and societies, and their violent disaggregation by colonial capitalism. Indeed, it is perhaps best to bring our observations and reflections in this essay to a close by quoting directly from Cabral on this point:
In the specific conditions of our country –- and we should say of Africa -– the horizontal and vertical distribution of levels of culture is somewhat complex. In fact, from the villages to the towns, from one ethnic group to another, from the peasant to the artisan or to the more or less assimilated indigenous intellectual, from one social class to another, and even as we have said from individual to individual within the same social category, there are significant variations in the quantitative and qualitative levels of culture…. For culture to play the important role which falls to it in the framework of development of the liberation movement, the movement must be able to conserve the positive cultural values of every well-defined social group, of every category, and to achieve the confluence of these values into the stream of struggle, giving them a new dimension -– the national dimension.27
1. This is contained in Soyinka’s prefatory note to his play, Death and the King’s Horseman, London: Methuen, 1975. I should add that in the context of this essay I will be using the terms “modernization” and “modernity” interchangeably, even though they mean quite different things and historical, cultural processes; “modernity,” for instance, indicates a more complex, contradictory and elusive concept than “modernization.”
2. See Timothy Brennan, Salman Rushdie and the Third World, London: Macmillan, 1989.
3. I define as “classical” Negritude most of Senghor’s definitions and elaborations on the subject up to the end of the 1950s. In this phase, Negritude is defined primarily in its particularity, in its difference and opposition to Europe. In the 1960s, and after formal independence and the institutionalization of Negritude as a sort of official ideology or cultural doctrine, we have what I call a “revisionist” Negritude which underplays particularism as Senghor increasingly talks of the contribution of Negritude to the “civilisation of the universal.” See my “Negritude and Its Discontents,” forthcoming.
4. There are important differences between the “nativisms” of these two writers. Armah tends to be far more erudite, more philosophically grounded, while Chinweizu is more the polemicist and gadfly to Eurocentrism. See Armah, “Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis,” Présence Africaine, 3rd Quarter, 1984, and Chinweizu, the introduction titled “Redrawing the Map of African Literature” to his Voices from 20th Century Africa, London: Faber & Faber, 1988.
5. See, for the full-scale theoretical exposition of “idiologeme,” Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
6. Sublation is the act of canceling but also preserving in an elevated and transformed manner as a moment in a dialectical process.
7. See, among other numerous titles on this subject, Ben Turok, Africa: What Can Be Done? London: Zed Press, 1987; Kofi Buenor Hadjor, Africa in an Era of Crisis, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990; and Samir Amin, Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World, London: Zed Press, 1985.
8. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken Books, 1968, especially the chapter, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
9. The phrase “racialization of thought” was initially coined by Frantz Fanon, in the chapter “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” in The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press, 1963.
10. On the concept of “contradiction” see, among others, Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic, Materialism and Human Emancipation, London: New Left Books, 1983, and Lucio Colletti, “Marxism and the Dialectic,” New Left Review No. 93, 1975.
11. Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God, New York: Doubleday, 1969. All page references are to this edition and are indicated in parentheses in the text of the essay.
12. See Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
13. For a brilliant discussion of this point, see Edward Said, “Intellectuals in the Postcolonial World,” Salmagundi, No. 70-71, Spring-Summer 1986.
14. See Chinua Achebe, “The Novelist as Teacher,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day, London: Heinemann, 1975.
15. I have explored this theme in Achebe’s writings in two different essays: “For Chinua Achebe: The Resilience and the Predicament of Obierika,” in Kunapipi, Special Issue in Celebration of Chinua Achebe, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, and “Okonkwo and his Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse,” in Callaloo, A Journal of Afro-American and African Arts and Letters, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1993.
16. See Chinua Achebe, “The Truth of Fiction” in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987, London: Heinemann, 1987.
17. See, among other statements and writings of Achebe on this subject, “The African Writer and the Biafran Cause,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day (note 14), and “The Igbo Problem,” in The Trouble with Nigeria, Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1983.
18. On this subject, perhaps the most eloquent illustrations are Achebe’s famous encounters with James Baldwin, and his founding of the journal African Commentary whose coverage encompassed both the continent and the African diaspora.
19. Chinua Achebe, “Tourist Sketches,” in Frances Ademola, ed., Reflections: Nigerian Prose and Verse, Lagos: African Universities Press, 1962.
20. The Trouble with Nigeria, 46.
21. See Samir Amin, Eurocentrism, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989.
22. W.W. Rostow, Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, London: Cambridge University Press, 1960.
23. Bryan S. Turner, Marx and the End of Orientalism, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978.
24. I have explored this in an essay, “Things Fall Apart: One Marxist Exegesis,” in Bernth Lindfors, ed., Approaches to Teaching Things Fall Apart, MLA [Modern Languages Association], 1991.
25. Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, London: Heinemann, 1988.
26. Hopes and Impediments, 110.
27. Amilcar Cabral, Unity and Struggle, London: Heinemann, 1980, 144-5.